The voices coming from the brilliantly colored hillside were as clear and vibrant as the crisp autumn weather that held Ponyland in the change of season that can be so poignant in the loss of heady summer days and the anticipation of bracing winter delights. Two of the voices that drifted on the air- along with the red and yellow leaves- were quite young, one being the lilting speech of an indigo blue filly whose yellow curls rivaled the tinctures of Mother Nature herself, the other a budding colt whose grey tint of both hair and body became a shadow in the extravagant shades of the landscape. These two, Tasha and Freckles, were involved in collecting the bounty of the season for their mother’s artistic pursuits and were loading baskets with the fiery orange berries of bittersweet, the golden pods of milkweed, and the tangled webs of grapevine.
Further up the hill amidst an outcropping of rocks that was shaded with a clumping of evergreens of various sizes sat two somewhat older ponies. The mare of crimson was leaning against a weathered rock of comfortable dimension; enfolded in her forelegs was a sleeping foal whose energy had been spent frolicking back and forth between his siblings and the ponies who watched over them. To her right and slightly behind her, a rose-red stallion sat as sentinel while basking in the afternoon sunlight. Neither of the ponies was talking, both simply enjoying the peaceful break in their busy agenda as they allowed the warmth and the beauty of this splendid day to sooth and mellow them as they listened with one ear to the prattling of the youngsters so busily engaged below them.
The mare, her head resting gently against that of the foal, allowed her thoughts to meander back down the years to when she was a filly Tasha’s age; and a frown marred her lovely face, for those memories contained none of the magic that permeated this halcyon autumn day; quite the opposite, she mused, thinking of the often lonely days she endured as the youngest in a family of ponies who prided themselves on their autonomous existence, superciliously shrugging off the ties that would bind them into a kindred unit.
She breathed deeply, taking in the clean, fresh scent of the foal; she touched the tip of his nose with a soft kiss that caused the babe to quaver and then snuggle more deeply into her side. A soft smile kindled on the mare’s face then as she delighted in the nearness of this trusting foal who recognized that he was safe in her loving care.
From his position, the stallion caught the beatific smile of the mare in profile, and his heart thudded. She was beautiful, compassionate, bright, and at this moment, completely desirable. He drank in her face and form, recalling the sound of her voice and the music of her laughter, the feel of her hoof in his, the enchanting way she often looked at him. He shivered now as her gaze swept back to encompass him, and he grinned.
“Palette has it made,” he noted, letting her understand with a sweep of his eyes that he was referring to the foal’s close proximity to her.
Garnet’s eyes twinkled in return. “You, Wishbone, are incorrigible.”
“No, my position six feet from you would make me painstakingly trustworthy.”
“That’s one of the things I like about you, ya’ know.”
“Then I’ll take pains to maintain your confidence.”
Their attention, fixed on one another as it was, was distracted as the voices of the two scavengers drew closer. Freckles, fighting the loaded baskets he was carrying, and Tasha, her forelegs full of a surplus of nature’s bounty, were arguing.
“Mom said to only get enough to fill the two baskets; you’ve collected enough to fill the house,” Freckles reprimanded his sister.
“But they’re all so pretty!” countered Tasha. “Mom can chose the ones she likes best.”
“She only wanted enough to finish her projects for Saturday’s flea market,” complained the colt.
Arriving at the rocks whereupon Garnet and Wishbone sat, Tasha slumped to the ground, dropping her load of leaves, branches, and berries, and pushed her mane back off her sweating forehead. “My brother’s lazy,” she informed the two.
“Am not!” retorted Freckles, settling the baskets carefully. “I listen to my mother... and she said two baskets full, not the whole woodland.” He threw out his foreleg to include the entire area.
“You two have found a lot of pretty things,” Garnet soothed. “I’m sure your mother’ll be pleased to have a choice on what she wants to use.”
“As long as us guys are the ones who have to struggle to get it all home,” Wishbone said, winking at Freckles.
“I can carry it,” bravely volunteered Tasha. “I want Mama to have the best.” She bestowed a condescending frown on her brother.
Freckles rolled his eyes and threw himself down at Wishbone’s hooves. “Girls!” he said under his breath, causing Wishbone to let out a hoot of laughter.
“You’ll learn to appreciate them,” the stallion advised the colt. Leaning over conspiratorially, he added, “They have their uses.”
Garnet, clearing her throat, glowered at Wishbone while a smile surreptitiously quivered on her lips. “And what uses might those be?” she dared.
“Daddy says they’re fun to have around sometimes,” Freckles interjected.
“Your father said that?” gasped Garnet, mentally promising to take Pepper to task as soon as possible.
“Mama said the same is true about stallions,” offered Tasha.
“How correct,” commented the mare drolly.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I couldn’t get along without them,” chivalrously responded Wishbone.
“So when are you going to marry Garnet?” the wisdom of youth- namely, Tasha- asked.
Garnet’s eyes grew round, and she dropped her gaze to the ground. Wishbone chuckled. It was not a bad question. All of their friends teased them often enough about the familiarity that was settling between the two of them- how they could anticipate each other’s wishes and bow to one another’s moods and accommodate any need. Tousling Tasha’s mane, he asked, “Do you think I should marry Garnet?”
Thinking only for a brief moment, Tasha answered, “Yes.”
Wishbone turned to Garnet who was very busily trying to look as if she was hearing none of this conversation by concentrating on brushing her hoof through Palette’s mane. As the mare continued to ignore him, Wishbone resumed his conversation with the foals. “Why?”
It was Freckles who provided a reason. “‘Cause she’s pretty.”
“She is, isn’t she?” Wishbone responded, and he was pleased to see the deepening of the color in Garnet’s cheeks- although she would not look his way. “Very pretty.”
“And you love her, don’t ya’?” queried Tasha. “Mama says that’s why ponies get married.”
His gaze so intense that Garnet could not ignore it any longer, Wishbone answered, “Yes, I do.”
“Then you should marry her,” reasoned Freckles.
All three ponies now looked at Garnet expectantly, but she had resumed her detached manner and was wafting her hoof toward a bee that was bothering her and Palette.
“What if she doesn’t want to marry me?” next pondered Wishbone.
“Have you asked her?”
“No. I’ve never proposed to anyone- I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Tasha shook back her curls and rolled her eyes expressively. “It’s easy... just ask her.”
“That doesn’t seem very romantic.”
“Oh! You need a ring!” the filly realized. “I’ll make you one.” She quickly retrieved some grasses from her load of natural pickings and began to braid them, after which she formed them into a circle.
“Very original,” Wishbone said, accepting the token. “If she accepts it, I’ll have you to thank.” He paused. “Is this all I need?”
“Yup,” chorused the two foals.
Freckles clarified, “Hold her hoof and look at her with puppy-dog eyes.” At Wishbone’s look of puzzlement, the colt added, “You know... like Daddy looks at Mama sometimes.”
A chuckle from Garnet encouraged Wishbone; uncurling from his comfortable perch, he brushed the leaves from his body and went to Garnet. Taking the sleeping foal from her forelegs, he settled the creamy yellow toddler in a nest of leaves at the base of a nearby rock. He returned to Garnet, and sat down beside her.
Wishbone took Garnet’s hoof in his and stared deeply into her eyes, quite conscious of Freckles and Tasha standing over his shoulder in rapt attention. But as he lost himself in Garnet’s violet eyes, he quite forgot about his audience; and even Freckles was satisfied with the ardent look in the stallion’s eyes.
If Garnet had thought that Wishbone was putting on an act for the sake of the foals, she was soon set straight on that account. The glowing look of warmth that radiated upon her from the stallion was undeniably real; she could read his heart in the flames. There was no doubt that he was serious.
“I do love you, Garnet; and I think we’ve been through enough together to know the best- and the worst- of each other. I find you the most fascinating mare I’ve ever met, and I’m coming to realize that I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He paused, almost fearful to continue. “Garnet, will you marry me?”
Without breaking the gaze that seemed to bind them, Garnet lifted her free hoof and softly caressed Wishbone’s face. Right now she could only remember the best of their friendship; and anyway, together they would be strong enough to conquer the worst. “I will marry you, Wishbone,” she breathed, meeting him for the kiss that would seal their mutual destiny.
“The ring!” prompted Tasha, nudging the stallion in the side.
“Wear this as a sign of my love,” Wishbone said, slipping the makeshift engagement ring on her left foreleg.
“You are so sweet!” Garnet responded, hugging the stallion to her. “I love you so much.”
“Excuse me!” said a female voice coming on the scene. “Just what’s going on here?” The brusqueness of the statement was negated by the chuckle from the stallion at the mare’s side.
“Mama! Daddy!” Tasha cried, running to welcome her parents. “Wishbone and Garnet are going to get married!”
Garnet’s and Wishbone’s naturally bright cheeks suddenly darkened several shades as they stumbled to their hooves, but the joy in their newfound commitment could not be diminished. “Pepper, Rainbow Star, I’ve asked Garnet to marry me, and she’s accepted my proposal,” Wishbone informed the smiling couple.
“Well, it’s about time!” declared Pepper, coming forward to shake the stallion’s hoof and to kiss the mare’s cheek. “You’re a lucky guy, Wishbone; and, well, Garnet, you could have done worse... I suppose.”
Laughing, Garnet leaned into Wishbone. “I’m perfectly satisfied.”
“I’m so happy for you!” Rainbow Star beamed, hugging both in turn. “When’s the wedding?”
“There are a few details to work out yet,” Wishbone admitted with a grin. “Tasha was kind enough to supply a ring.”
As Pepper congratulated his daughter on her quick thinking, Rainbow Star asked, “Where’s Palette?” She looked around for her youngest foal.
“He was asleep,” Wishbone explained, “and we put him down over...” As his gaze went to the nest of leaves that had served as the foal’s bower, he stopped suddenly, a look of distress crossing his face. Garnet, at his side, mirrored the look; she followed Wishbone as he crossed the distance to the now empty cache of leaves.
“He was right here,” Garnet whispered, whipping around to scan the hillside and beyond.
“How long ago was this?” asked Pepper, holding his wife in a firm grip.
“Just... just a few minutes ago...” Wishbone admitted, “before I proposed.”
“He can’t have gone far. We’ll spread out from this point and cover the area.”
Rainbow Star gulped. “What... what if he headed for the river?”
“We’ll head that way first,” he said, trying to sound confident. “Freckles, you stay near Garnet; Tasha, you help Wishbone. Fan out so we don’t miss anything. Yell if you see him.” With that, he sprinted down the hill after his already running wife.
“Wishbone, this is the worst!” moaned Garnet. “We’ve lost Palette!”
“And now we’re going to find him,” declared Wishbone, sending them all into concerted action.
* * *
The sudden change from a cozy cuddle in Garnet’s forelegs to the rough, dry leaves on the ground hindered Palette’s snug slumber; the crackling of the leaves broke into his sweet dreams, and he opened his eyes to gaze upon the colorful leaves swaying overhead against the backdrop of the blue sky. Sitting up, the foal looked first to locate his guardians; seeing that they were nearby but otherwise occupied, he settled back to observe his surroundings more closely.
Much to Palette’s delight, he saw a brown rabbit sitting under the evergreen that spread its branches nearly to the edge of the rock that jutted behind him. A grin crossed the foal’s face as he gazed at the lagomorph’s steady gaze and twitching nose. Attempting to mimic that motion, Palette found his eyes crossing instead; this caused him to giggle, and that tinkling sound sent the rabbit scurrying away. Palette had no recourse but to follow.
* * *
“Palette!” Garnet called. “Palette! Where are you?” Her voice was echoed by Freckles’ shout, but no response came.
Palette, however, could hear his brother’s voice calling him from a point beyond the evergreens. “‘ide-and-‘eek,” the foal gurgled happily. He immediately sought shelter behind a cascade of colorful creeper vines that made a perfect hiding place, and he became all but invisible.
Keeping quiet and still, the small colt bided his time by examining the cool haven he had chosen for his sanctuary; and he was happy to note that, even though he had lost sight of the rabbit that had led him on a merry chase, he had now stumbled upon a reddish-brown and black caterpillar with whom he was sharing space. “‘att-a-illar,” he voiced, watching the furry beast amble across the curtain of leaves which shielded Palette from the world. It was a fascinating way to pass the time until Freckles would come upon him- which, from past experience, Palette knew he would- but the minutes dragged by; and Palette became impatient, especially after he touched the caterpillar which caused the slinky critter to roll itself into a tight circle and drop to the ground. Palette lost interest and crawled from his hiding place, fully expecting to see his brother; but no one was in sight.
* * *
No one had spotted the foal, and the searchers came together to reformulate their plans, “There’s no way he could have made it all the way to the river,” Pepper assured his wife. “We would have intercepted him if he was headed that way. He must be on the hillside somewhere.”
“Someone has to watch to make sure he doesn’t get past us and still manage to make it to the river, though,” Rainbow Star reasoned. “I’ll stay near the bottom of the hill and watch for him there.”
“The rest of you,” Pepper ordered, “will backtrack the area you’ve already covered. He’s got to be here somewhere.”
“Maybe he fell asleep again,” suggested Tasha.
“That’s possible.” Garnet grabbed on to that hope. “If he did, he might be hidden from view in a hollow or under a tree or somewhere difficult to spot him.”
“Okay, then. This time we’ll all have to check things more closely,” Wishbone agreed.
* * *
Having crested the hill, Palette found that the downhill side went much faster- so much so that by the time he was nearing the base, he lost control of his momentum and tumbled into a heap on the path that wound its way through the valley. Fortunately, he ended up at a point devoid of trees, while a slight list to the right or left would have found him tangled in the scratchy branches of one of several pine trees. However, the resultant scrapes on his forelegs stung badly enough, causing tears to well up in the foal’s eyes as he surveyed the damage to his own skin.
“You took the slope a bit too fast, urchin,” an unknown voice said from the path.
Looking up to see from whom the words came, Palette found himself facing a deep grey-toned stallion with a black mane. Too proud to let a stranger see his tears, the little colt rubbed his hooves against his cheeks and with a sniffle said, “Me faw.”
“I noticed,” the stallion replied, a hint of amusement in his deep voice. As an afterthought, he asked, “Are you hurt?” His gaze followed the foal’s down to the bloodied patches on his legs that had received the brunt of the fall.
“A lid-dle,” Palette admitted bravely.
“Can you stand up?”
“Me tink so.”
“Well, try it,” urged the stallion impatiently.
Struggling to his hooves, Palette could not hold back a big, wet tear that slipped out as the irritated skin on his leg stretched. The stallion reached out and stabilized the colt. “Steady, urchin. Do you think you can walk?”
This question, asked of someone who had only recently mastered that fine art, brought a stubborn set to Palette’s face. “I wauk.” He took several foal-sized steps to prove his proficiency.
“Why don’t you run along home then? Your mother can fix those scrapes right up,” the stallion said, waving his hoof in an effort to shoo the foal on his way and turning so that he himself could continue his journey.
He didn’t turn quickly enough, however, for he caught the emergence of yet another tear that trickled down the foal’s cheek and plopped into the dry soil at his hooves. Almost against his will, the stallion halted his progress. “So what’s the matter now?”
For the first time, the stallion looked closely at the colt. What he saw was a pale yellow foal with fine-textured rainbow mane and tail and, at the moment, rather watery blue eyes. Even without much experience with the younger set, he realized that this particular pony was quite young and probably correct in his assumption that he was truly lost. “Which way is your home?” the stallion asked.
Palette was young, but that question was so blatantly stupid under the circumstances that he looked up at the stallion with what could only be called disgust. The stallion laughed. “Okay, my mistake; if you knew the answer to that question, you wouldn’t be lost.” Palette responded with a grin of his own, and the two stood on the path in perfect camaraderie.
Their newfound rapport was shattered post haste as a voice rang out from the top of the hill. “Palette! Thank God!”
More words were said that did not carry the distance to the bottom of the hill- obviously some communication with others out searching for the missing foal, the stallion calculated. “Well, urchin, “he grinned at Palette, “it looks like you’ve been found. Your mother will be here in no time.” He stepped back to distance himself from the foal; but both of them stood looking up the hillside, catching only glimpses of the red body dashing its way through the trees until finally Garnet came fully into view and dropped to Palette’s side.
“Sweetheart!” she breathed, hugging him first, then holding him at foreleg’s length to assess the damage. “You poor little thing!” She hugged him again.
“So this is your brat?” a voice asked.
That voice... the sound of it set her heart pounding as unpleasant memories washed over her. Stunned, Garnet whirled around, effectively shielding Palette from the stallion as she did so. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a public lane,” he drawled, his own look of surprise shuttering behind a facade of indifference.
“Get away from here!” Garnet’s voice hissed.
At that moment, the stallion looked up the hillside to see through the opening between some trees another body- a rose-red stallion- and recognition along with comprehension hit him. He grinned at Garnet. “Oh, I see. You’ve found an easy mark. I won’t interfere.”
Thinking fast as she had been trained to do early in life as a matter of survival, Garnet assimilated all the possible repercussions that could come out of this unexpected meeting with a stallion she had no desire to resume even a casual acquaintance with. Reaching her decision, she flashed him a wink, then dismissed him by turning her attention back to Palette.
Shying away to be swallowed up in the shadowy branches of the evergreen, the stallion stood motionless for a moment to watch unseen as the other stallion whom he had met several years ago while sojourning in Dream Valley came up to Garnet and Palette, lifting the foal into his left foreleg and gathering Garnet- who know succumbed to gratifying tears- to his side with the right.
She’s good at this, the grey stallion thought to himself with a muted snicker. I didn’t think my little sister had it in her. Fully confident in Garnet’s success, he resumed his journey south.
The arrival of the rest of Palette’s family temporarily separated Wishbone from Garnet; but once the joyful reunion was under control and the entire troupe set off toward the homey domicile on the other side of the hill, Garnet held Wishbone back for a private conversation.
“When I got to Palette, he wasn’t alone,” she revealed.
Wishbone frowned. “Who else was around?” His gaze flicked up and down the path.
“It was... S... Sable,” she stuttered.
“Sable? Your brother was here?” Wishbone asked in astonishment, remembering his misplaced trust in the stallion when Sable had also been a student at Pony Pride one trying semester. “Where is he now?” He turned as if he was prepared to look under every rock to find him.
“He’s gone, Wishbone, and good riddance.”
“You don’t expect he’ll be back? I’d hate to think he might cause problems for Pepper.”
“No, he won’t. I know my brother. He assumed I was up to no good with you already, and it’s an unspoken rule in our family that one doesn’t interfere with another’s scam.”
“He saw me, too, then?”
“He got the mistaken impression that you were the latest victim in one of my ruses, and I thought it best for him- and us- that he continue under that suspicion. It was the only guarantee I had that he’d move out of our lives quickly.”
“Thank goodness that he did just that.” Wishbone paused. “But, he was right about one thing,” he admitted as they began walking after the others.
“What was that?”
“I am your victim.”
Garnet grinned, then looked down at the braided ring that marked their troth; it had surprisingly survived the rigorous search for the lost foal. “A victim, hmm?” she asked, coyly looking up into his face. “Does that mean you’re having second thoughts?”
“Second... and third... and fourth...” He leaned closer to the mare. “... and they all revolve around...”
“Garnet!” Tasha called as she hurried back to prod the two lovebirds on.
“Wishbone!” Freckles enjoined, arriving in a swirl of kicked-up leaves. “We’re going to have a party to celebrate finding Palette- and your ‘gagement. Mama says she’s going to fix a special meal, Palette’s favorite... pancakes.”
“And ‘cause she hasn’t had time to make a cake, we get to open a bag of chocolate kisses for dessert,” added Tasha.
“Kisses... my favorite,” admitted Wishbone, planting one on Garnet’s cheek.