My Little Pony Monthly Issue 53 (August 1, 2001)

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Issue 53
August 2001

Index of this issue–

1. In Which Starre Meets Someone Who She Isn't Supposed To (by Starre)

2. Unhappy Birthday (by Sugarberry)

3. Tabby's Monthly Updates (by Tabby)

4. A Christmas Carol, Pony Style (not to mention in August) (by Starre)

5. Doctor's Orders (by Sugarberry and Tabby)


In Which Starre Meets Someone Who She Isn’t Supposed To
by Starre (

The next morning Starre awoke early and got ready for her day out. Pausing at the window for a moment she surveyed her view. The store was at the top of a really large hill which overlooked much of the city. It must be beautiful at night! she thought to herself.

Opal Dreams peeked in the room. “Like the view? Go up to the roof this evening. The sunset’s spectacular!”

After throwing together a breakfast for herself and Opal– who she found to be quite incapable when it came to food– Starre set out for her exploration of the city. As she opened the door, a flash of fur slid by her forelegs and headed towards the railroad a few yards away from the sheet music store. Starre found herself paralyzed in fear as a train whistle sounded and grew closer. Time seemed to slow down to a deadening pace as the mare watched her furry friend race to the track. She covered her eyes and only dared to open them once the train had passed. A lump formed in her throat as she slowly turned towards the railroad.

However, she did not see what she had expected. Instead, she saw a stallion walking towards her... with the cat she had thought was lost to this earthly world! Time resumed its original speed and Starre gratefully took the cat from the stallion.

“T-thank you, sir... how did you manage to save her?” she said in awe to the brave but nameless stallion.

“Never mind.” He blushed at the mare’s awe. “It was nothing, really... next time keep your cat inside,” he said gruffly and headed down the road.

Starre put her cat back inside and hurriedly went down the road in a different direction from the stallion. She was out all day exploring the city; she saw many places she might apply to but, surprisingly, Dream Valley didn’t have many high quality counseling organizations. After a long day of exploring, Starre headed back to the sheet music store where she was greeted by Opal Dreams.

“So how was your day out?” Opal said opening the door.

“Not that great... I haven’t found much of interest,” Starre said, plopping down wearily by the counter.

“Somehow that’s what I thought would happen,” Opal said knowingly. “I didn’t think Dream Valley would compare well to your Whinnyberg. I’ll get you some coffee... without the power going out this time.” She smiled.

“I guess I knew that I wouldn’t have much luck as well,” Starre returned the smile.

“Oh! I almost forgot!” Opal Dreams set the coffee down on the table. “This afternoon a package came for you.”

“For me? I haven’t been here long enough to meet anyone! In fact, you are the only pony I know!” Starre looked puzzled as Opal Dreams went into the back room to retrieve a rectangular box. She opened the parcel and dropped it on the floor as if it was on fire. Inside the box was a bunch of red roses with a card.

Opal Dreams’ eyebrows rose quizzically as she spat out her coffee. “You sure you don’t know anybody?” Opal recovered her composure and picked up the roses for Starre.

Starre numbly picked up the card and read it aloud:

Though your identity remains a mystery, you have left me spellbound with your beauty.


The Stallion who saved your cat

“Oh, my goodness!” Starre exclaimed and sat down again. To Opal she said, “Is there something wrong with me?”

“Nothing but a set of nice looks. Though I wonder if this stallion isn’t one card short of a deck... seeing you once in the street and then sending you love notes.” Opal shook her head sadly. “If only I had your luck!”

After getting a vase for the flowers, Opal changed the subject. “How about instead of getting a job somewhere else you work with me. I’m not a very good salesmare; you could really improve my selling rate.”

Starre consented. “Fine, but only temporarily. I’ll need to step out on my own eventually.”

“Hey,” Opal came to a realization. “I’ve never had a day off! Would you mind terribly if I left you in charge tomorrow?” That wasn’t her real reason for wanting to go out tomorrow, though...

* * *
(Author’s Note: This next part of my story deals with some characters from my previous attempt of writing. If you didn’t read The Evil Dragon, then you most likely will not understand many of my future chapters. At the end of this chapter, I will include a full review of everything you should know about the characters and their world. Therefore, if you know nothing of the tunnels, you should travel to my summary before continuing. You may wish to check the summary, anyhow; I have made some slight changes that would be useful to know.)

“Vincent,” Opal Dreams tapped on the pipeline communication system of the tunnels. “Come to the north entrance... Opal Dreams.”

On the receiving end of the pipe was Pascal, the main pipe monitor. Putting his ear to the pipe, the small man listened intently and quickly sent a child running down to Vincent’s chamber. Upon arriving there, he found Vincent sitting at his desk with Father across from him and a game of chess between them.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the child said. “Opal Dreams is waiting for you at the north entrance, Vincent.”

Father raised one eyebrow quizzically. “A surprise visit.”

“Tell her that I’m on my way.” Vincent rose and started towards the chamber door and the child scurried back to the pipe chamber to deliver the reply.

Meanwhile, Opal sat on the ground outside the tunnel entrance at Mane Street Park, which was concealed in case of intruders. The entrance was easy to find if one knew where to look. All one had to do was go behind the old merry_go_round and there was a large drainage pipe large enough to walk upright in, and it was dry besides. It had been dry, old, and boring for as long as any of the residents of Dream Valley could remember. If one walked in the pipe about ten feet it would sharply turn right and one would stop at an iron gate that looked as if it was forged by eternity at around the time that anything began its history and had been set to guard the mysterious society that lay within. That was where Opal sat waiting for Vincent

All of a sudden, the gate swung forward and out from the shadows stepped Vincent. Standing up and dusting herself off, the mare quickly explained her presence. “Vincent, I have made a new friend. Her name is Starre and I’m renting a room to her; I don’t think it’s possible for me to keep the tunnels a secret from her.” She took a deep breath and Vincent looked at her.

“You are asking to make her a helper?”

Opal Dreams nodded. “Yes, Vincent... I wouldn’t even be asking you this if I thought she wasn’t trustworthy, and if anyone deserves to know of you it is her. You once said the tunnels are a place for the ones whose talents aren’t recognized, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones who have lost their place in the world. Believe me, that fits her. She is brilliant. She could become a psychiatrist if she wanted to. She plays the piano very well. She has run a way from a smothering life in Whinnyberg and came here on the stormiest of nights. She is nice, mild_mannered, and somewhat shy. She would keep your secret; I’m sure of it.”

Vincent had been listening intently. “Well, if you really think so much of her, I suppose Father could meet with her. She seems to have quite a story that could equal or surpass many of those down here. I will tell him about this Starre you speak of... is there anything else?”

“Yes, could you give this to Mouse for me?” She produced a little box of brand new tools from her bag. “It’s a birthday present.”

“We don’t know when Mouse’s birthday is,” Vincent said, puzzled. “I found him when he was going on nine. He didn’t know anything of his past. He couldn’t even talk!”

“Who knows, then,” Opal replied. “Maybe it’s right on time! You will give it to him?”

Vincent gave Opal one of his rare smiles. “I will. When Father decides what to do about this new pony, I will meet you on the roof. Be well.”

Opal Dreams smiled. “Thank you.” And she went to spend the rest of her day off.

* * *
Later that evening, Opal Dreams returned home, her hooves filled with paint and other various things she thought would come in handy while fixing up the appearance of her shop. Just as she reached the door, a stallion came rushing out.

“Please, do stay out!” Starre could be heard shouting at him, for what Opal Dreams guessed to be the radius of a few miles.

Opal Dreams continued inside. “Let me guess,” she smiled. “Lover-colt?”

“Yes, for about the twenty-seventh time today! He leaves and then ten minutes later comes back! I told him if he isn’t going to buy any sheet music he should stay out. That worked for awhile,” Starre smiled mournfully. “He better like sheet music! He came back and bought half a box!”

“See! I told you you’d improve my selling rate!” Opal Dreams joked, but then became serious. “Really, if he comes back again, we should call the police. He might have escaped from a nuthouse! With the way he’s been bothering you, he would probably get arrested and questioned anyhow. Why don’t you go up to the roof. I’ll keep him away,” Opal assured her. Father couldn’t have made up his mind that quickly, anyhow. Vincent wouldn’t be there.

* * *
Up on the roof, Starre stared dreamily at the sun. Dipping down behind the clouds it looked as if the sight would last forever, leaving a beauty to shadow the world into oblivion. Suddenly she was startled out of her dreams.

“Opal Dreams, Father has decided,” Vincent said as he swung himself over the railing of the rooftop and gazed at Starre’s silhouette.

Starre spun around. “Who are you?!” she trembled. Opal never let any customers up here. That meant that the only way this stallion could have come up was by scaling the wall. The sun shown into Vincent’s face as he almost fell back over the side of the wall in surprise. Starre caught a glimpse of his face. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. This wasn’t a stallion, or anything near it. It looked like a lion in a way, but he was clad in a dark cloak and a medieval-looking outfit– some sort of either a devil or an angel! He wasn’t ugly or horrible, though... he was strangely beautiful!

“I’m sorry; I mistook you for someone else.” Vincent closed his cloak around his face, hoping the mare hadn’t seen him. “I– I’ll leave.”

Starre stared after him as he swung back over the wall. Perhaps this psychiatrist needed a psychiatrist herself! she thought. Rushing back inside, she decided against telling Opal of what she had seen. After all, Starre could have imagined it... nah, not even her imagination could create such a being as she had seen.

* * *
Vincent raced back to the tunnels. Catching his breath, he went into Father’s chamber.

“You told Opal Dreams in such short a time?” Father joked in disbelief. “Usually you two sit up there for hours!”

“Well, not exactly. There was a different mare on the roof,” Vincent said.

Father was horrified. “Did she see you?”

“Perhaps a glimpse,” Vincent admitted.

“A glimpse! And suppose she thinks about what she saw! Then what? Hmm?”

“She won’t tell, Father, I’m sure of it!” Vincent exclaimed, sitting down in the wooden chair across from Father’s chessboard.

“And how, may I ask, can you be sure of that?!”

“I don’t know! It’s strange, but I thought I could hear her thoughts! Feel what she was feeling!” Vincent protested.

“Now, Vincent, I know your empathic senses are quite incredible; it’s your gift. But really! Glimpsing the silhouette of a mare and believing you are psychically connected? It is absurd–“ Father was interrupted when four humans entered his chamber.

The first one was Mouse, a young man of perhaps seventeen. He had messy blond hair and roguishly sparkling eyes. He was wearing a gray sweater and corduroy pants with light brown boots. Following him was a short, fat, balding man wearing a leather vest over a purple dress shirt. He had dark hair with streaks of gray, and large glasses were propped on his nose. The third in the procession was a tall man with long, wavy, blond hair and horn_rim glasses. He was wearing a rock star t-shirt. Last but not least was a man of medium height with dark hair and blue eyes. He was wearing a suit.

“So what’s the problem?” the short man said.

“Not now, Melvin! We are busy and Mouse can explain it as well as me, if not better!” Father sulked.

“Mouse?” the tall one said. “We could finish it faster without brain boy’s help!” The medium-sized man nudged him and shook his head.

Mouse scowled at them. “Don’t need help!” he protested. “Finish it by myself! They slow it down!”

This time Vincent was the reprimander. “Mouse, it is a very large job. It will be easier with more people. Show them where the problem is.” Still scowling, Mouse stalked off with the trio behind him.

Once they were out of hearing range, Vincent said, “You know, Father, Mouse could do it on his own. It doesn’t take four people just to fix the wiring for that new sliding door we installed.”

“I know,” Father answered. “But if we got them mad, there is a chance that they would publish an article about us in their silly little newspaper... what is it called again? The Lone Gunmen?”

Vincent nodded. “You do have a point, but Langly is quite critical of Mouse. He never stops picking at him! Frohike and Byers understand his talent, though.”

Father shrugged it aside, as there was no other choice. “About that mare, Vincent. What exactly do you think she thought?”

“Well, I sensed fear at first, then it melted into awe. As I climbed back over the side... I thought... I thought I heard her think that I was beautiful!” Vincent said, still in disbelief.

“Ah well,” Father relented. “There is nothing we can do now. She would tell Opal Dreams first and I think she could keep Starre quiet. All the same, I think we better send a Helper to warn her of what has happened.” Father sat back in his chair. “How about a game of chess to calm our nerves?”

* * *
The next morning, Opal had her suspicions confirmed about the odd stallion that was infatuated with Starre. As she picked up the newspaper on the step outside she read the headline: “Escaped Lunatic Taunts Mares”. Then she saw a note tucked inside the fold of the paper:

Opal Dreams,

Last night I believe Starre saw me. Please explain it to her.


Sitting down at the breakfast table, Opal looked at Starre. “Well, what did I tell you, Starre? Oh well, he won’t be bothering you any more. It says they took him back to the Dream Valley Mental Institution down on April Street,” Opal Dreams said as she fiddled with her fork at the table in the back room.

“That’s good... a mental institution on April Street? I must have walked down that street a hundred times when I was out exploring. Funny, I never saw that place. Suppose they need any good shrinks down there?” Starre said as she tried to adopt some of Opal’s vocabulary, knowing she sounded strange talking so high class. Sadly, she only succeeded in sounding silly.

“Maybe...” Opal didn’t wish to hint at anything for she rather liked the young mare’s company and would be more then happy if Starre would stay and help with the small sheet music business full time.

“Perhaps I will go and look into this institute,” Starre pondered aloud, returning to her old speech style. “If they have an opening I’m sure it would pay well, and I’d like to reform that stallion. He can’t be all crazy; he saved my cat,” Starre said, as if that could make anyone a brilliant and sympathetic friend.

“You might as well go today,” said Opal with a melancholy air of one being deserted. “ ‘Tis either that, or tomorrow,” she imitated Starre, whom she thought sounded very sophisticated. However, she failed as miserably as Starre had in her imitation.

Starre smiled at Opal and her feeble attempt of sophistication. “I’ll be back for dinner, but for lunch you’re fending for yourself!” She stood up, ready to leave.

“Before you go... did you see anything unusual last night?” Opal brought up the subject of Vincent.

“Wha– how did you know?” Starre gasped and sat back down.

“Well, it is a long story and I must explain it to you. I know him. His name is Vincent. He lives underground with a bunch of other people and ponies–“

”Wait,” Starre cut her off. “Did you say people? As in My Little People?!”

“Yes, that children’s toy is based on reality,” Opal Dreams went on. “And I hear that there are My Little Pony toys in the human world. Anyway, the tunnels act as a gateway to many different worlds... Starre, you must keep Vincent and the tunnels a secret. If anyone were to find out, many lives would be ruined. Can you imagine what would happen to Vincent if someone found him? They’d run tests on him and keep him in a cage. Maybe even murder him!”

Starre faltered. “An underground world? A secret underground world! I’m not sure if I believe you.”

“Where else could Vincent survive?” Opal said.

Starre nodded. “Well, I guess you have a point. Will I ever get to see this place?”

“Maybe. After all, I guess this means you’re a Helper. Can I trust you?” Opal asked.

“Yes! Of course! I wish to get to know this Vincent better. By the way, what is a Helper?”

“The tunnel dwellers need ponies and people up top to get them food and other things. You’re a part of the family now,” Opal smiled.

“Well, okay. See you tonight.” Starre left in a daze.

Opal waved and picked up Sapphire so the train accident wouldn’t repeat itself when no hero was around to tempt fate. As the door slammed shut, Opal Dreams smiled. She knew Starre wouldn’t tell.

PLEASE! Send your criticism, compliments, comments, or suggestions to me! E_mail me at or

And now for the promised summary of the tunnels:

Father: The patriarch of the tunnels. He founded the tunnels with the help of a friend. His appearance is the typical appearance of a father– dark hair with refined grays, blue_gray eyes, and occasionally glasses are propped on his nose.

Vincent: Father found him outside of the St. Vincent Hospital in the human world. Vincent looks somewhat like a lion that stands upright. He has high cheekbones, sensitive blue eyes, and a kind-of messy blond mane. He usually wears a sweater vest over a white sweater (after all, they live underground, it’s kinda cold). His pants are corduroy and he wears knee boots that have rags tied around them for extra warmth. Sorry, no tail. Father brought him up to be refined, kind, and gentle.

Mary: The Tunnel mother. Mary looks after all the homeless children that take their refuge in the tunnels. She has a good word for everyone. Her mouse brown hair is tied up in a bun and she always wears a dress with a wool shawl over it.

Mouse: In this story I think I described him pretty well... if you didn’t catch it, he is mentally deficient. Vincent found him around eight or nine years old and taught him to speak. That explains his odd talking. He is a genius when it comes to science.

Winslow: A large black man that lives in the tunnels. Nothing much more then that.

Pascal: Pipe monitor. Pascal’s father was one of the inspirations behind the idea of communicating on the pipes. The legacy has been passed to Pascal. He has a pointed chin and rather large ears. He is balding and has a fringe of brown hair around his head.

Jamie: A teenager in the tunnels. She has nut brown hair that is usually tied in a ponytail. She has spunk and is a bit of a tomboy.

Places: Well, suffice it to say, I’m going to be rearranging some of the chambers and bringing in new ones. Oh, and about Tornado Dragon and those other criminals in The Evil Dragon... they never existed. Forget about them. They were pathetic, and if you didn’t read my first story... be happy.


Unhappy Birthday
by Sugarberry (

“Dumb weeds,” grumbled Huckleberry as he pulled yet another smartweed from the soil. So far he had encountered ragweed, dandelion, plantain, pigweed, and sow thistle– and he was only in the first row of pickles. His dad had assigned him the chore of pulling the weeds from the family garden, and Huckleberry was not a happy colt. The hot, humid days of summer were upon Ponyland, and there were a million places that he would rather be than in the middle of the itchy and dusty garden.

Tugging at a particularly big burdock, Huckleberry heard a cheery whistling coming towards him from the lane, and his face brightened. He was quite familiar with the sound as it was the announcement of the approach of his best and dearest friend, Scottie; they had their own system of signals and warnings that they had developed in their lifetime of being neighbors.

Brushing his dirty hooves off, Huckleberry turned towards the garden gate just in time to hail his friend to his location. “Scottie! I thought you were going shopping with your mom today,” he called as he ran to the gate to meet his friend.

“Nope,” grinned Scottie, his blue eyes twinkling. “I told her to surprise me with her gift; that way I don’t have to spend the whole day following her around every store in town while she’s picking up the party supplies.” He set a fishing pole and a bucket of worms on the ground.

“What kind of birthday cake are you going to have?” Scottie was turning eight years old the next day, and his parents were throwing a splendid party to celebrate. As Scottie’s best friend, Huckleberry was nearly as excited about it as Scottie.

“Chocolate with chocolate frosting,” Scottie said. “And she’s going to get chocolate chip ice cream, too.”

“Oh! I can hardly wait!” Huckleberry nearly pranced with the expectation of the fun they would have.

“Me neither,” admitted Scottie. “That’s why I’m going down to the creek to do some fishin’. Want to come along?”

Huckleberry frowned. “I can’t. Dad says I have to have the garden finished by supper time.”

“We’ll be home in plenty of time for you to finish,” Scottie assured the colt. “Get your pole so we get there before the fish stop biting.”

Taking one look back at the rows of vegetables that seemed to go on forever, Huckleberry made up his mind. “Okay. But after I catch three fish, I’m going to have to come back to finish this.” The colt took off for the shed that housed his fishing gear, and in the process he passed his sisters who were responsible for cleaning the flower beds that were scattered across the lawn.

“Where are you going?” asked the inquisitive Wineberry while Baby Gooseberry pulled out yet another viola plant.

“Fishin’ with Scottie.”

The words were said on the run, but Wineberry caught them and stood up from her position on the ground and put on an expression that rivaled her mother’s sternest countenance. She was ready for Huckleberry when he rushed out of the shed with the pole in hoof. “Dad said you had to have the garden done by supper time,” she reminded him.

“I know!” scowled Huckleberry. “And I’ll be back in plenty of time to finish it.”

“You’d better be, or you’ll be in big...”

Huckleberry did not wait around to hear a lecture from his sister. He knew full well that his father expected him to do the job allotted to him and to do it well. “I’ll get it done,” he muttered under his breath as he came up to Scottie who was still waiting at the garden gate, only now with a hoof full of green beans. “At least you could have pulled some weeds while you were waitin’.” Huckleberry admonished him.

“There aren’t that many weeds in there; you should see our garden!” observed Scottie. “You’ll finish in no time.”

A twinge of conscience struck Huckleberry, and he offered a suggestion. “Why don’t you help me with the garden now, and then we can go fishin’ without having to worry about it.”

“Who’s worryin’?” chortled Scottie. “I’m goin’ to have some fun!” He set off across the meadow in the direction of the stream.

Shaking his head, Huckleberry hesitated only a moment before following his friend. The day which had seemed so uncomfortably hot and miserable when he had been confined to the garden suddenly seemed bright and beautiful with the potential of catching some good-sized fish from the colts’ favorite fishing hole just below the riffles where the water dropped gradually down across a spread of large rocks, emptying into a cold, clear pool.

As the two arrived at the grove of box elder and elm that converged near the water at this point, Huckleberry breathed deeply of the sun-drenched smells that met his nose. Clusters of bergamot gave off a rich, minty fragrance and the carrot-like smell of the Queen Anne’s lace was vibrant in the air. Over it all reigned the fresh smell of the tumbling stream as it skipped over the rocks in its path before sliding into the rounded pool of slower moving water. Here was the place where the biggest fish fed and slept in the deepest, darkest reservoir under the shelter of the bank.

Throwing down their gear, both colts hurriedly baited their hooks and threw the lines out into the peaceful water. The colorful red and white bobbers floated lazily on the water’s surface while Huckleberry and Scottie made themselves comfortable on an old fallen log that served them well as a convenient perch.

“What did you get me for my birthday?” asked Scottie as he pulled a long stalk of grass free from its outer sheathing and put the green, tender stem into his mouth.

Shooting him a secretive glance, Huckleberry replied enigmatically. “It’s something you’ve wanted for a long time.”

“I have a lot of wants, so that really doesn’t tell me much.”

“That’s the idea.”

“What if it is the same thing that Mom decides to get me?”

“My mom saved the receipt, so you can take it back if that happens.

“How much did it cost?”

“More than Mom wanted to pay; I had to chip in two weeks allowance.”

“You parted with some of your own money?”

“Your bobber!” Huckleberry yelled. “You’ve got a bite!”

The colts’ attention was drawn to the action in the water; Scottie landed a big one and Huckleberry soon had a keeper of his own. For awhile, they were kept busy minding their lines; they were proud of the catch, which would make a great supper. Their mothers were always happy to fix the fish their sons brought home.

“We can go home now,” Huckleberry said, looking proudly at the catch. “I’ll have to get back to the weeds.”

“Let’s walk down river and cut across through the sylvan glen,” suggested Scottie. “We can take a break there.”

The thought of the quiet and peaceful spot where Scottie and Huck did a lot of their dreaming and scheming proved irresistible for Huck; the grouping of old, towering trees was his favorite place on his father’s acreage, and the colts often disappeared to its solitary tranquility when they wanted to be alone. Although only a small grouping of trees, the place seemed steeped in antiquity which gave it an otherwordly feeling that appealed to their sensitivities.

Following a nearly indiscernible path through the thicket of the outlying wild berry brambles and gooseberry bushes with their prickly spines, the two young ponies were soon in the midst of the towering, moss-covered tree trunks; the canopy overhead filtered out the hottest of the sun’s rays, making the coppice a pleasant hideaway on a summer day. Toward the center of the cluster of trees was a more open area where wildflowers grew amidst scattered rocks big enough for a pony to sit on and breathe in the fragrant smells of nature undisturbed.

Huckleberry remembered the time he had brought Aunt Sugarberry to this spot; she had grimaced and complained when they had worked their way through the prickly defense of berry bushes, but once inside the heart of the wooded haven, she had been as enthralled by the beauty of the place as Huck himself. “If I had such a place as this to guide my thoughts,” she had told him, “I would have written a great novel by now.”

The two boys situated themselves in their favorite spots; Scottie always climbed up into a low branch of a gnarled old cedar tree where he was even more isolated by the protecting branches. Huckleberry, however, preferred a weathered rock that had a worn smooth surface that made a comfortable resting place. As he soaked up the refreshing vibes of this magical place, he pondered the idea of writing his own epic novel; someday he would have to come here alone with a notebook and try his talent in that regard. The next time he saw Aunt Sugarberry, he could impress her with the ideas that had flowed through him from this treasured place.

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” Huckleberry asked Scottie. It was a question they often asked of each other; and the answer was always different, depending on the current circumstances governing their lives.

The answer was so slow in coming that Huck thought his buddy had fallen asleep, but finally a well thought-out reply came from the hidden depths of the tree. “I’m going to own a fish farm,” was today’s answer. “What about you?”

“Maybe I’ll be a writer.”

A challenging guffaw sounded from the tree. “You’d better learn to use commas and periods before you start.” It was true; Huckleberry found that he could not be bothered with details like punctuation when he was putting his thoughts on paper. His teachers had so far worked in vain to impress upon him the utter necessity of proper punctuation. Huck himself preferred working with numbers; you knew where you stood with numbers, unlike words with their multitude of meanings and innuendoes.

“Maybe I’ll be a math teacher like Uncle Vanguard,” he revised his answer.

“Why don’t you want to work with your dad on the vineyard?” queried Scottie, his voice sounding far away and rather sleepy.

Huckleberry contemplated his feelings on that matter. He loved the outdoor existence that tending the grapes involved, but the routine was boring and uneventful. He dreamed of a future with no steady obligations to interfere with his ability to run off to the river and fish when he so desired, to hike across the snow-covered land in the winter, to search out the first signs of spring, and to enjoy the crisp autumn days unencumbered. His dad worked in the company of the land, but never had a chance to really enjoy it– or so it seemed to Huckleberry. As his thoughts progressed along these lines, it occurred to him that a teacher would be no better off; and come to think of it, maybe there was no occupation that was not confining in some respect. So his answer to Scottie was evasive. “I don’t know.”

No more questions came from the source of the tree, so Huckleberry allowed his thoughts to take him where they would. As he sat in silent reverie, a nimble little chipmunk came out from behind the rock and proceeded to eat seeds from the grasses that lifted their seed-heads skyward. The creature kept his bright eyes on the motionless pony that had entered his domain, but the chipmunk apparently deemed him harmless and continued with his snack. All was quiet.

When Huckleberry lifted his head some time later, the chipmunk was gone. Subconsciously he knew that a block of time had passed, and he realized that he had fallen asleep. The sun was lower in the sky than Huckleberry would have hoped it to be; an uneasy feeling ate at his guts. Suddenly, he remembered what was haunting him– he was supposed to have the garden in tip-top shape by supper time. He sat up abruptly and called for Scottie. A rustle of branches announced that his friend was still in the tree, and soon a sleepy-eyed colt dropped from the lowest branch. Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. “Must have fallen asleep.”

Huckleberry was in a panic. “I’ve got to get home quick; Dad will be comin’ home from the vineyard soon!” Without waiting for the other pony, he grabbed his fishing apparatus and took off among the tree trunks, through the bordering ring of bushes, and headed pell-mell across the meadow towards home. Never before had it taken so long to cover the ground between the glen and home before; Huckleberry felt as if he was in a dream, and could accomplish no forward progress. Panting and sweating, he finally rounded the toolshed and came head to head with his father.

“Hi, Huckleberry!” Grapevine said as he put away the shears and spray can that he had been using that day. “Looks like you’ve been fishing.”

So far, so good, thought Huckleberry. Maybe Dad forgot about the chores I was supposed to do. “Me and Scottie went down to the river and I caught these,” he said, holding up the string of fish.

“Your mother will be happy to see those,” Grapevine said as he tousled his son’s mane. “Now, why don’t you show me the good job you did on the garden.”

Huckleberry’s heart sank. He should have known that his father would not forget. With lowered head, he turned to walk to the garden.

Grapevine, oblivious to his son’s despondent demeanor, told him of the progress he had made on the vines and how plentiful the crop would be this year. Huckleberry could not find voice to respond, and by this time they had reached the garden gate anyway; words were not needed.

“The pickles look good,” Grapevine said approvingly, and Huckleberry allowed himself to raise his head enough to look over the one row he had finished before Scottie and he had taken off for the river.

As Grapevine’s line of sight moved on the next row, the tomatoes, he frowned. “You missed a few, son,” he stated. As he moved on to the cabbages, his frown deepened; and a quick perusal of the rest of the garden did nothing to improve the look of disapproval that darkened his face. “You were to finish the garden, Huck, not do just one row.”

Huckleberry scuffed his hoof through the soil. He could not find the words to say to defend himself, for he knew there were none. He looked forlornly down at the ground and remained silent.

“Huck, I’m waiting for an explanation.”

Unable to take the static silence any longer, Huck raised his head to look at his father. “We were only going to be gone for a little while.”

“You left before you had finished your job?”

“It was so hot and sticky and going to the river sounded like so much fun.” Huckleberry’s eyes begged understanding from his father.

“And now the garden work isn’t finished.” Grapevine’s disappointment in his son was apparent, and Huckleberry was devastated.

“I meant to finish it, but we went to the glen and... I fell asleep.” It was demeaning to admit such a foalish action.

The set of Grapevine’s mouth told Huckleberry more than words could have expressed; he knew his father was holding back from a tongue-lashing. “We’ll talk about this later,” he finally said, turning to go to the house, leaving Huckleberry standing alone and forlorn.

By the time Huckleberry had gotten the nerve to return to the house himself, his dad had washed up and was sitting at the kitchen table as Gooseberry finished preparing the evening meal. No one made any reference to his misdemeanor, but Huckleberry knew that it had been the only topic of conversation before his entrance; he could feel the tension in the air.

Trying to act as if nothing had happened, Huckleberry placed the fish in the sink and ran cold water over them. He got out the knife for cleaning the fish, hoping that if he showed the initiative to take care of this messy job, his parents would look more kindly upon his previous actions. But his mother stopped him. “Tonight’s supper is almost on the table; go clean up and we’ll be ready to eat.”

As he left the kitchen, Huckleberry cast a glance at his sister; Wineberry was setting the forks and knives at each place, and he noticed that she was being extraordinarily neat about her placement of each utensil; it aggravated him to see it. Whenever he got in trouble, Wineberry would go into her perfect daughter routine which only served to infuriate Huckleberry. She never did anything wrong herself; this only accentuated the severity of the minor offenses that often befell Huckleberry himself.

The atmosphere of the supper hour was strained, and Huckleberry was glad when the dessert had been served and he could make his escape. No one had spoken throughout the meal beyond asking for the potatoes or a slice of bread. Huckleberry was itching to get some time to himself and allow the displeasure of his parents to abate. He was not to be granted that privilege, however.

As Huckleberry prepared to leave the table, his father stopped him. “Not so fast, Huckleberry. We’ve got some things to discuss. Wineberry, you get Baby Gooseberry washed up and go outside to play.”

Nothing more was said until the two sisters had left the room. Huckleberry was frowning in the forced silence once more, but he was to get no rescue from the sentence he received. He stared at his father as Grapevine delivered the punishment.

“It’s supposed to rain tonight and tomorrow, and we need to get those weeds out of the garden before the ground gets too wet to work in. Those weeds will grow faster than the vegetable; you know that.”

Of course, I know that, Huck griped to himself. A weed will grow anywhere, anytime while a vegetable will fall over and wilt if one so much as looks at it.

“I will help you finish the garden tonight so that the weeds won’t get ahead of the good stuff; we’ll go out and get started right now.” His father pushed his chair back and stood up.

Huckleberry looked to his mother for help, but she only shook her head. “You disobeyed your father and I by running off to the river before your task was finished. You have to pay for your lack of reliability by working this evening and...” Gooseberry looked at her husband as if she could not bring herself to say what still needed to be said.

“You also are grounded for Scottie’s birthday party tomorrow. You will spend the afternoon in your room alone.” Grapevine said the words, and Huckleberry’s face exploded in astonishment.

“No! You can’t do that!” He looked from one to the other of his parents, his eyes beseeching them to please not lay down such an unfair judgement.

“You disobeyed us, Huckleberry, and now your father has to finish the work that you were supposed to take care of,” Gooseberry said.

“You’ve got to learn to stick with a chore until it is completed,” his father added. “You could have finished the garden with plenty of time to go to the river. This is a good time to learn to set your priorities.”

“But Scottie and I have been planning for this party for months, Dad... Mom. I can’t miss it!” He wailed out those last words in an agony of spirit.

“There will be no discussion,” Grapevine stated. “You and I will go start on the garden right now.”

Huckleberry shut his mouth, but his feelings were screaming inside of him. He had no choice but to follow his father from the house and return to the imprisoning garden; his steps were not quick, however, and he fell far behind his father. Wineberry saw her chance. “I told you so!” she said softly enough so that her father would not hear as her brother passed.

Her reproachful smile infuriated Huckleberry even more and he snarled a reply. “Keep your snoopy nose out of it!”

Grapevine heard Huckleberry’s angry voice. “Don’t be rude to your sister,” he admonished.

Huckleberry flashed a hostile glance at Wineberry who only smugly smiled at him in return. Her work had been done, and done properly. If Huckleberry had taken the time to notice, every flowerbed in the yard was perfectly cleaned of any of the menacing weeds that still haunted the garden.

* * *
A thunderstorm drenched the vineyards and garden during the night, and Huckleberry tossed and turned in his bed to have his father’s prediction come true. But the next morning dawned bright and sunny; Huckleberry crawled from bed, hoping that his labor the evening before and the absence of more rain today, would soften his parents’ chastisement of him.

He picked up the wrapped gift that had been waiting for this day since last weekend when he and his mom had purchased the latest version of Scottie’s favorite computer game. The wrapping paper was as bright and cheerful as the morning, and it gave Huckleberry renewed hope.

After washing up and brushing his teeth, Huckleberry grabbed the package and hurried down to the kitchen for breakfast. His dad was just finishing up; he said a curt good morning to Huckleberry, then kissed his wife and daughters before setting off for the endless chores of the vineyard. Baby Gooseberry was playing with the cat, and Wineberry was dawdling over her cereal. She had apparently tired of lording her perfection over her brother and was eager to enjoy his company. “Let’s go over to Grandma Berry’s house after chores and play in the tree house Grandpa built.”

It was Friday, and that meant that he and Wineberry were responsible for dusting all the furniture and all the assorted frills around the house; Gooseberry wanted the house to look nice for the weekend when company would be in and out. Allotting an hour to complete the necessary dusting, Wineberry and Huckleberry should have plenty of time to spend the rest of the morning in carefree abandon; if they were lucky, Grandma would invite them to stay for dinner and an afternoon of taste-testing the assorted pastries, cakes, and cookies that she and Aunt Raspberry would be busy baking, or possibly they would be allowed to help in the attached shop. Gooseberry would do her baking in her own home once Baby Gooseberry was down for her nap.

Huckleberry considered himself fortunate to have his grandparents living next door to the vineyard; he often spent his days roaming through the orchard and berry patches that Gooseberry’s father kept. In the other direction down the road, somewhat farther away but still quite accessible, lived Grapevine’s parents; their close association provided a limitless amount of fun stuff to do. But this afternoon was Scottie’s birthday party, and that was the only place he wanted to be on this special day.

“Mom,” he took the opportunity to ask, “the garden is finished and there is no more rain today, so can I go to Scottie’s party?” His hoof caressed the wrapped package that he had brought down with him.

Gooseberry turned to him from the laundry she was organizing. “You haven’t forgotten what your father and I told you last night, have you? You are not to attend Scottie’s party as punishment for running away from your responsibilities yesterday.”

“But Scottie is expecting me!” Huckleberry’s voice rose in anguish. “I can’t miss his birthday.”

His mother sighed. “When you and Wineberry are finished with your chores, you can take the present over to Scottie; but I’ll expect you back within half an hour.”

Huckleberry stared unbelievingly. “You can’t mean that!” he cried.

“I do mean it, Huckleberry, and you know why. You made a wrong decision yesterday when you went with Scottie before the garden work was done.”

“I won’t do it again; I promise! Just let me go to Scottie’s party!” He looked at her with pleading eyes. “Please, Mom?”

“You and Wineberry get busy on the dusting; then come back here to get Scottie’s present.” She lifted the gift from the table and put it out of reach on the refrigerator as if expecting him to bolt out the door with it.

With a wrathful glance at his mother, Huckleberry muttered, “Yeah, for half an hour.”

“Come on, Huck,” Wineberry urged. “We can get done really quick and you can see Scottie.” Even she was feeling sorry for the severity of the discipline.

Huckleberry trudged out of the room to the supply cupboard, and he and his sister loaded themselves with furniture polish and cleaning rags. Wineberry kept up a constant chatter while the two worked their way through the rooms, but Huckleberry was poor company. He thought about Scottie’s party and all the fun that would go on at his house today; he was in no mood to be cheerful if he was barred from attending the festivities.

When they were finished with their work, Huckleberry reported back to his mother. “I can take the package to Scottie now,” he said despondently.

She fetched the gift and handed it to her son. “Half an hour now, you hear?” She sounded anxious, but she smiled at him as he took the present.

“Half an hour,” he repeated, but he could not smile.

* * *
After lunch, Gooseberry reminded her son that he was expected to spend the afternoon in the privacy of his own room, the final awful result of his lack of responsibility yesterday. He opened his mouth to try one more time for a reversal of his parents’ decision, but thought better of it when he saw the determination in his mother’s face. Without a word, he left the kitchen for his bedroom.

The house was very quiet. Wineberry was off to Grandma’s house, and Mother had Baby Gooseberry outside playing in the sandbox so that she would be ready for her nap later. Huckleberry threw himself down on his bed and for the first time since this fiasco had started, he let the tears fall unrestrainedly down his cheeks.

His mom and dad knew how important he and Scottie’s friendship was; they were as close as real brothers and they shared all their deepest secrets as well as their most important milestones. And this was one of those occasions. He remembered Scottie’s disbelief when he had told him this morning that he was not allowed to come to the party as they had planned. “They can’t do that!” Scottie had reacted much as Huckleberry himself had done. “The party won’t be any fun without you here!” That was the only thing that gave Huckleberry any reassurance– he would be missed.

A sudden idea came into his mind with that thought... If Scottie would miss him at the party, what would happen if his own family had to do without him? The seed of a plan began to sprout in Huckleberry’s mind. At first he fought the idea, because he knew in his inherent knowledge that it would hurt his parents even more than his irresponsibility yesterday. But he was angry at them both for denying him this special day with Scottie; the more he thought, the more strongly he desired to hurt them for the way they had treated him. As the minutes passed, Huckleberry made his decision. He would run away.

Sliding off his bed, Huckleberry went to the window and looked out over the backyard. His mother and baby sister were still at the sandbox, but he knew that it was almost time for Baby Gooseberry to take her nap; once the baby was asleep, Gooseberry would get busy baking for the country store that was connected to Grandma and Grandpa’s orchard; she would be busy the entire afternoon. His dad would also be away in the vineyards until supper. All Huckleberry had to do was to sneak away and no one would miss him at least until his mom called him down for supper. “If they allow me any supper,” he muttered under his breath. “Maybe they won’t miss me until morning.” That thought both elated and depressed him.

Huckleberry busily set to work loading his backpack with his most important and necessary belongings. He packed his toothbrush and the prayer book Grandma had given him; he added his notebook and a pencil and his favorite plush animal– a marmalade-colored cat with jointed legs that hugged like a teddy bear. Aunt Raspberry had given it to him on his third birthday, and it had become the guardian of his life; he could not leave Whiskers behind.

“Food would be good,” Huckleberry suddenly realized. A quick check out of the window revealed that his mother and sister were still outside, so he hastily but quietly went to the kitchen to retrieve an apple from the fruit bowl and a hoof full of cookies from the cookie jar. He had just started up the stairs when he heard the door open; he had to scoot back to his room in a jiffy to avoid being seen.

Loading the food in with the other articles for the journey, Huckleberry grabbed the satchel and slowly opened the door of his room. No one was in sight, and he could hear cookie sheets being removed from the kitchen cupboard. This was his chance.

Looking back at the room he was about to quit almost ended the trip before it could be started; this was his own space, and he was not happy to think of never seeing it again. He hardened his resolve, took a step out of the room, and softly closed the door.

The kitchen was at the back of the house, so it was no problem creeping down the staircase and easing open the front door; Spot, the house cat, almost spoiled his exit by running over to beg for some attention, but Huckleberry ignored him, although it cost him nearly all the willpower he had left. He went through the door and closed it in Spot’s face.

By the time Huckleberry had stolen around the corner of the house and gained the cover of the shed, he was beginning to enjoy the adventure; he only wished that Scottie could be with him. Having freed himself from the house, he had also left behind some of the apprehension that had begun to gnaw on him. For the first time, he saw the chance for success.

To avoid using the lane which would take him by a grandparents’ house in either direction, Huckleberry set off across the meadow on the same path that he had returned home yesterday. When he came to the sylvan glen that meant so much to him, he almost allowed himself to be drawn into its welcoming embrace; but once more he steeled himself to go on. If his parents could stop loving him over a few weeds, he wanted no part of them either.

It was only after he got to the river that Huckleberry realized something– Where was he going to spend the rest of his life? He could not cross the river here; he had to go right or left. Pondering the situation, Huckleberry broke out in a smile. Of course! He knew where he could go! He turned to the left and set his course for Dream Valley.

By following the stream, Huckleberry knew that he would come across the road that would take him to his desired destination. He enjoyed the day as he walked along; the rain the night before had lowered the temperature so that it was not too hot; the sun felt good on his body. The river flowed happily beside him and the chirping of insects kept him company. Before he knew it, he had reached the road.

He paused for a moment under the bridge; it was as if a voice in his head had urged him to turn back to his home. But the colt remembered the cold, seemingly uncaring faces of his mom and dad as they denied him the right to attend Scottie’s party, and he boosted himself up over the bank and stood determinedly on the lane. He could see no one coming from the direction of his home or no one going in the direction that he intended to take; that was to his advantage. He did not want to be found out now. He took a deep breath, and turned his face toward Dream Valley. Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard would be happy to see him, of that he had no doubt. His journey had seriously begun.

* * *
When he traveled with his parents, Huckleberry’s mom always knew when he was hungry; and his dad would slow the pace when he saw the foals were lagging behind; on his own, Huckleberry could go at his own speed; but he did not know how fast or slow he was going. He was getting hungry and was glad that he had packed some food, but where should he stop to eat? He was afraid of being seen even though he was getting farther and farther away from home, and he waited to take a break until he had entered the cover of a woods that lined the lane on both sides.

He searched until he came upon a little brook that offered some refreshing water; he chose an out of the way hollow to eat one of the cookies and found ripe berries on the bushes to eat. His legs wanted him to allow some time to rest, but he was worried that he would fall asleep and miss the daylight hours for travel; he was a brave colt, but he did not look forward to spending a night alone in the forest. Soon he was on the trail again.

The woods had always been an exciting place when he had been in the company of his family, but today Huckleberry found the close-packed trees to be rather intimidating. His imagination began to play tricks on him, and he often thought that he was being followed; twigs cracked and leaves rustled. Rodents, surprised by the colt, would suddenly scurry across his path. Crows cawed at him from their lofty perches; and the canopy over his head blocked the sunlight that would help to lighten his spirit. Huckleberry found himself jumping at every unexpected sound or sight that met him.

The lane was now following the curvature of a knoll that rose upward swathed in a mantle of trees, bushes, and vines. There were also a number of boulders sprinkled here and there; Huckleberry remembered his dad telling him and Wineberry and Baby Gooseberry a tale about a troll that had lived beneath a big rock, and Huckleberry could not help thinking that someone– or something– was watching him. He shivered as the sun went under a cloud, and the woods became even darker than before.

It was then that he heard the snap of a branch; it was not the brief cracking sound of a twig being broken in the breeze, but a hard, oppressive sound as if a heavy foot had been placed unknowingly on a branch on the ground. Glancing in the direction of the sound, Huckleberry thought he saw something disappear behind one of the boulders.

Huckleberry gulped. He was alone in the middle of a big woods and something unidentified was following him; he felt very small and helpless. The trip that had always seemed like a pleasant trek was now beginning to oppress him; and he had no idea where he was or how far he still had to go. He managed to control his rising fear, however, and forced himself to continue to his goal.

Every sense was tuned now to the sounds around him; Huckleberry was sure that there was indeed a footfall mimicking his own. If he stopped, the sound stopped; when he started up again, so did the tread of another’s feet. He tried to maintain his composure, but his nerves were strung to the breaking point. He did not allow himself to look toward the sound but to continue putting one hoof in front of the other, hoping he would soon see something safe and familiar.

It appeared to the struggling colt that the trees were thinning out; if that were the case, whatever was following him would have nothing to hide behind eventually and would give up his quest. That truth was consoling until Huckleberry realized the other side of the situation; with nothing to hide behind, whatever was following him would have to make his move soon. The colt had just grasped that fact when he heard a rustle that could not be ignored.

Spinning around to face his attacker, Huckleberry prepared himself to meet a relentless and fearsome pursuer; but what met his gaze was so comical that the colt laughed. A raccoon was staring at him from the top of a large rock; he was posed on his hind legs, his front paws hanging in front of him, his thick fur surrounding him, and with a look of genuine curiosity lighting his masked features.

The raccoon watched Huckleberry, and Huckleberry watched the raccoon; eventually, the coon lost interest and went his way. Huckleberry, too, continued his journey. He wondered what the ponies at Scottie’s party were doing by now. Had Scottie really missed him? Everyone from their class would have been there, and Huckleberry knew that Scottie would have been too busy to give him a second thought. Maybe the party was already over in which case someone might stop by the house to ask about him and his mom would find him missing. Thinking of that, Huckleberry quickened his steps.

It occurred to Huckleberry that although the trees were definitely thinning out and the woods would soon end, the gloom of the forest still hung over the land. Looking up, he saw that dark clouds had covered the sky; he hoped it would not rain. But he had no sooner cleared the trees which could have offered him some shelter that a shower pelted him with large raindrops that soon had him soaking wet and miserable. It lasted only for several minutes before moving on, but Huckleberry felt like a drowned rat.

As the clouds cleared, the air heated up in the aftermath of the front that had moved through. The sun coming out from behind the clouds was now a scorching heat that only added to Huckleberry’s misery. His hair dried, but the humidity following the rain was stifling; he yearned for a glass of cold milk; the cookies still in his backpack held no appeal without something refreshing to wash them down; and the colt still had no idea how far he yet had to go.

After plodding along for another mile or two, Huckleberry was pleased to recognize features of the landscape that let him know that Dream Valley and friendly relatives were not far away. With a renewed burst of energy, he was making good time down the road when he became aware of a shadow passing over him; looking up, he gasped. Swooping through the sky above him was the largest bird Huckleberry had ever seen.

Huckleberry watched the black bird as it stopped its downward momentum and soared higher into the sky; he knew enough about birds to know that this one was a carnivore; he had seen the sharp, curved talons and the hooked bill as the bird had lifted up. He felt compassion for the little meadow creatures who had to be on the alert at all times for just such a predator.

Resuming his path, Huckleberry forgot about the bird until he felt the chilling pass of its shadow once more; he realized that the bird had not left but had simply circled to come in on him once again. He looked up to see the bird pass over him so closely that he could make out the individual wing feathers; he saw the glint of light in the bird’s eyes and the ugly featherless red head of the hunter. It was then that he recalled Aunt Sugarberry’s stories of the turkey vultures that frequented the meadows around Dream Valley, sometimes in flocks of eight or more; she had described them as majestic, powerful creatures; but Huckleberry could not, at this time, see anything good about them. To his horror, he saw that the bird was circling again and this time coming in much lower yet.

The black feathers seemed to streak toward Huckleberry with unbelievable speed, and the colt was filled with dread. Like an ebony arrow, it was heading straight for the vulnerable pony. Huckleberry felt frozen in his fear, but as the ugly head of the bird approached him, he found the presence of mind to drop flat on the ground and cover his head with his forelegs; he dared not look up, but he knew when the bird passed over him by the rush of wind from the wings as it lifted once more into the sky.

Huckleberry was petrified. What if the bird made another attack? There was no way he could fight this creature off. He remained motionless where he was and held his breath, waiting for the next onslaught.

* * *
Sugarberry and Vanguard’s house was alive with activity as an after work supper was being prepared for a number of ponies: Tabby, Thomas, and Faline were there as well as Wigwam; Chocolate Chip and Wishbone were home for the evening, too. Everyone was assembled in the kitchen, and Sugarberry admonished, “The spaghetti will be done in five minutes; and if the table isn’t set soon, it will get all soggy by the time we sit down to eat.”

“And what does the table getting soggy have to do with anything?” queried Wigwam.

“‘It’ refers to the spaghetti, not to the table,” clarified the mare.

“Face it, Sug; you used bad grammar.” Wigwam was relentless.

“You don’t seem to have a problem with my grammar when you have a box full of notes for me to check,” she countered.

“Apologize,” advised Thomas as he and Tabby put the dinnerware on the table, “or you will be doing your next book without any professional assistance.”

“Which would suit me just fine,” added Vanguard. “It would leave her with more time for... other things.”

“Like what, for instance?” asked Wishbone with a smile on his face.

“The spaghetti is done,” announced Chocolate Chip as she tested one of the wiggly pastas, putting an end to the current conversation as everyone bustled to get the finishing touches added to the table setting. Faline cooed from her baby seat at the edge of the room, happily interacting with Fluffy-- who was just as happily receiving her wet caresses-- and Raptor– who sat watching her antics as if wondering what kind of creature this tiny pink beauty was.

The back door opened to reveal Agatha and Hubert, and Agatha was scowling at her husband. “I told Hubert we would be late, but he couldn’t leave poring over some ancient maps that Clever Clover brought over for him to study.” That having been said, she set a salad on the table and went straight to Faline with only a peremptory greeting to the congregated ponies. Gathering up the foal, Agatha was lost to the never-ending thrill of having her first grandchild.

“We’re just sitting down now,” Sugarberry assured her guests and directed everyone to their places, although the group was together often enough to know by now where they were expected to sit.

“But it is a good thing you got here when you did; Sugarberry was afraid the spaghetti would be soggy,” volunteered Wigwam.

“Soggy spaghetti is horrid,” Tabby shuddered.

“I like soggy spaghetti,” Hubert revealed. “It reminds me of a rather enticing dish they served at the Tibetan monastery which was made, of course, from...”

“Hubert!” his wife interrupted him as she carried Faline to the sink.

“Please sit down and eat, Agatha,” Hubert entreated his wife. “After Sugarberry went to all this work, you shouldn’t stay away from the table.”

“This foal is covered in cat fur,” Agatha frowned. “Orange cat fur,” she added with a particularly disgusted look at Fluffy who slunk from the kitchen, properly chastised.

“What are Clever Clover’s maps of, Hubert?” Vanguard asked, passing the garlic bread around the table.

“Well, when I first saw them, I thought they represented the early days of Angmoor, but the more I examine them, the more I think they may be of Ing-Man-Too instead. I wish I could discuss this with Lord Cobblestone; ol’ Rocky Road would know what they were. Of course, Clever Clover was hoping they would shed some light on the beginnings of Ponyland, but I highly doubt that... unless, of course, ...” Hubert mentally drifted off, considering yet another possibility in the mystery of the maps.

“The bread smells delicious,” commented Agatha, joining them with Faline in her forelegs.

“That was my contribution to the supper,” Wishbone admitted. “It’s an old family recipe.”

“Sure, it is,” smirked Chocolate Chip, holding up the wrapper from Oakley’s Grocery behind Wishbone’s back for all to see.

“How’s your long-distance friendship with Petal coming, Wishbone?” asked Tabby. She may have missed the wedding, but she had been filled in on every detail.

Wishbone’s color camouflaged the blush, but his cheeks darkened nonetheless. “We’ve been in touch a time or two,” he conceded.

“A time or two a day,” enlightened Vanguard with a grin.

“She’s coming to school here this fall,” revealed Wishbone. “She had previously been accepted at Binks because she was too afraid of having Van for a teacher to think of coming to Pony Pride.”

“Your reputation is that bad, Vanguard?” winked Agatha.

Wishbone clarified the facts. “Petal doesn’t think she’s that good at math, and she was afraid she’d be an embarrassment.”

“Are you going to take in another boarder?” wondered Thomas. “You might need those spare rooms for something else some day.” His glance fell on Faline who had fallen asleep in Grandma’s forelegs, and the pride in his daughter shone from his eyes.

“One of Petal’s classmates is coming to Pony Pride, too, and they will be sharing a dorm room,” stated Sugarberry as the phone rang.

“Maybe that’s Petal now!” said Wishbone as he jumped up from the table and rushed to the phone.

“Hello? Sure, she’s here. I’ll get her.” He held the receiver toward Sugarberry. “It’s Gooseberry,” he said, “and she sounds upset.” Sugarberry hurried to the phone, worry already lining her brow. Wishbone went to stand behind his sister, not now feeling in the mood to continue with his meal. “She sounded really upset,” he confided to the other diners, his own face marred with uneasiness as well.

“Gooseberry, what is it?” Sugarberry asked, and the answer she received caused her to tremble. “Run away? Are you sure?” She looked at Vanguard in anguish. “Huckleberry ran away from home,” she advised him.

No one could eat any more as they sat and listened to the one-sided conversation, each of them commiserating with the distraught mother and father. From what Sugarberry repeated, they had a fairly full story of the events of the last day and a half; when Sugarberry hung up, they were all prepared to help in the search.

“They think he might have headed to us here in Dream Valley,” sniffed Sugarberry as she filled them in on the missing details. “They’ve called everyone they can think of where he might have gone and checked all his haunts, but no one has seen him since lunchtime. And his toothbrush and bedtime animal are missing.”

“Why would he run away?” asked Wigwam. “That family seems to have it all together.”

“He’s angry over a punishment he received,” admitted Sugarberry. “He was relegated to his room until supper time; that’s when they realized he was gone.”

“There’s only one road for him to take to get to Dream Valley,” speculated Vanguard, “but once within the city he could have taken any number of paths. We should spread out and cover as many possibilities as we can.”

A knock sounded on the back door, and Driftwood was admitted. “Raspberry called me and I came straight here to check on your strategy,” he said. “We’ve got to find Huck before it gets dark, or his mother will be wild.”

Tabby looked at her mother who hugged Faline closer to her. “Yes, we’ve got to find him,” the pink unicorn said. “Thomas and I will take one route.”

The others settled on their circuits with Agatha opting to stay at the house with Faline; they soon were on their way to intercept the young stallion who had taken a drastic step to solve his unhappiness. Vanguard and Sugarberry walked swiftly across town, meeting up with the others at the city limits where the road to Berryville began. No one had seen Huckleberry, and all of them were distraught.

“We’ll continue on from here,” Vanguard stated, “but if any of you have other responsibilities to attend to, you’re free to go.” No one left the group; they were all too involved now to leave the hunt until Huckleberry was safely located. Vanguard remembered the utter desolation that had engulfed him when Sugarberry had disappeared in Vulcanopolis, and he was determined to find Huckleberry as soon as possible to spare Gooseberry and Grapevine that torture of soul.

They had just topped a small hill and were half-heartedly admiring the majestic flight of a large, black vulture when Wishbone called out, “Over there, along the path! There’s something white!”

All eyes focused on the spot that Wishbone indicated, and Sugarberry cried, “That’s him!” They took off at breakneck speed, and the white spot grew bigger and the green vine design became apparent as Huckleberry, who had spotted them from his precarious position on the ground, ran toward them as fast as his little legs could carry him.

If Huckleberry was surprised by the size of the welcoming party that met him, it was covered by his obvious relief to find Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Driftwood in their midst. “Aunt Sugarberry!” he called while still some distance away. “Uncle Vanguard! Uncle Driftwood!”

“Huckleberry!” Sugarberry hugged him to her when they finally reached each other. “Oh, Huckleberry, we were all so worried about you!” Her tears ran down into his mane, but Huckleberry did not mind as it felt too good to be safe again.

“That big bird tried to eat me!” Huckleberry informed them, pointing to the black speck in the sky that was rapidly disappearing. “I felt his feathers on my back.” He slipped out of his aunt’s embrace and turned to Vanguard. “Could he have eaten me?”

“No; you’re too big for him; but he must have been awfully curious as to why a little colt like you was out in the big world all by yourself,” Vanguard responded, giving the colt a heartfelt hug.

Driftwood in the meantime had used his cell phone to call Berryville and notify the anxious parents that Huckleberry was located and in fine shape. He handed the phone to Huckleberry. “Your mother wants to talk to you,” he grinned.

“Will she yell at me?” Huckleberry asked, taking a step backward.

“I highly doubt it,” Driftwood assured him. “She just wants to know for herself that you are okay.”

Huckleberry took the phone and said, “I’m okay, Mom,” rather sheepishly. He listened to his mother briefly, then handed the phone to Sugarberry. “She’s cryin’,” he explained and went to stand beside Vanguard as if to gain his protection.

Vanguard, Huckleberry, and the group moved some distance away from Sugarberry so that she could talk to Gooseberry privately, and so that they could discover some of the interesting facts that only Huckleberry was privy to concerning his departure from home. They laughed with him over the adventure with the raccoon, and Chocolate Chip cried with him when he relived his experience with the vulture. Tabby shuddered and moved closer to Thomas and Hubert. “I never ran away from home,” she whispered to her father, who was absent from her life until only within the last several years.

“Thank goodness for that,” he whispered back to her. “Your mother would not have stood up to that very well.”

“I ran away once,” Wigwam admitted. “I stopped at my best friend’s house to say goodbye, but I never got the chance. His family was just sitting down to eat and his mom invited me to stay for supper. So I did, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to run away on a full stomach. After supper, Sprinter asked me to help him with chores and by the time we finished with that, it was getting dark and running away didn’t seem so smart after all. Sprinter’s mom called my folks and told them I was spending the night, and the next morning I walked myself back home; I never attempted to run away again.”

“Why did you run away?” asked Huckleberry with a yawn; the exercise of the day was catching up to him, and he leaned against Vanguard for support.

“I had made a diorama of a Native Pony village, putting a lot of work into all the details, and I had a lot of fun setting up realistic scenes with little figures I’d found in the attic. One day when I had been playing with it, Splinter came by in the evening to catch lightning bugs. We ran out and by the time we had gotten bored with the bugs, it was time to go to bed. I forgot completely about the diorama still set up on the living room floor.

“That was an accident waiting to happen,” observed Wishbone.

“Now you tell me. Anyway, my older brother came home later and walked through the living room in the dark and tripped over my village and fell down, squashing almost everything. I was so mad when I got up and found it destroyed that I went to Mom and Dad and asked them to punish Teepee for what he had done. They reminded me of the house rule– no toys were to be left out after bedtime. As I had disobeyed the rule, the blame for my ruined diorama fell entirely on my shoulders. I knew Mom and Dad were right, but that didn’t help me feel any better.”

“So you tried to run away?” asked Huckleberry.

“Yes, but I was fortunate enough that my parents never found out about my failed attempt, not even to this day.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chocolate Chip grinned, filing the tidbit of information in her memory for future use.

Finishing her conference with Gooseberry, Sugarberry rejoined the group, handing over the phone to Driftwood. “We decided that it would be best to keep you here tonight, Huckleberry; it seems that Uncle Driftwood is planning a trip to Berryville tomorrow anyway, so he will accompany you home.”

“Great!” said Driftwood. “Then I won’t have to face the raccoon and the vulture by myself.”

Hubert called back to Agatha to let her know the good news, and Sugarberry invited everyone back to the house to have dessert, at least. “Raptor will have cleaned all the food off the table by this time,” she sighed.

As the crew started the return trek to the house, Vanguard and Sugarberry fell back with Huckleberry. “Why did you run away from home, Huckleberry?” Sugarberry asked.

“‘Cause Mommy and Daddy don’t love me anymore.” He made the statement as if it was an irrefutable fact.

Sugarberry was horrified. “Huckleberry, you know that is not true! Your parents love you very much! They’ve been worried sick...”

Vanguard quieted his wife’s outburst with a glance. “Why do you think your folks don’t love you?” he asked of Huckleberry.

“They didn’t let me go to Scottie’s birthday party, and they know Scottie and I are best friends.”

“Did they give you a reason why you couldn’t go?”

Huckleberry darted a quick glance at Vanguard, then hung his head. “I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.”

“And what was that?” Vanguard asked gently. The ensuing explanation lasted until they had reached the house once more, and the band of rescuers were met by Agatha who had been busy watching Faline and cleaning up the kitchen. “Raptor certainly helped,” she commented.

The strawberry shortcake that Chocolate Chip had made for dessert was now brought forth, and everyone feasted and rehashed Huckleberry’s adventure with additional details being added by Huckleberry as he remembered them. Relating his lunch of a cookie and wild berries, Sugarberry once more became distraught. “They could have been poisonous berries, Huckleberry!”

“I know my berries, Aunt Sugarberry!” the colt had replied with a roll of his eyes.

When the youngster could not hold his eyes open any longer, Sugarberry took him off to run a bath for him and show him which room would be his for the night. That accomplished, she returned to her guests and verified with the departing Driftwood that he would be back for breakfast in the morning, after which he and Huckleberry would proceed to Berryville. Hubert and Agatha returned to their home, and Tabby and Thomas and Faline were soon to follow. Wigwam said goodnight to Chocolate Chip, and Wishbone disappeared to make a call to Petal.

“We’d better go check on Huckleberry,” Vanguard said to his wife when they were alone. “He’s tired, but he might have too much on his mind to sleep.”

“He asked if he could talk to you,” Sugarberry smiled. “I think he has some serious thoughts running through his head. I’ll leave it to you to temper his worries.”

“Thanks,” grimaced Vanguard. “What am I supposed to tell him?”

“You’ll think of something.” Sugarberry gave him a quick kiss. “I’ll take care of the kitty chores for the night.”

Vanguard knocked softly on the bedroom door before going in to find Huckleberry sitting up in the bed, hugging Whiskers to his chest. “How are you doing?” he asked of the colt.

“It feels good to be clean, and I’m awfully tired; but I can’t sleep.”

“Maybe there’s something you need to talk about.” Vanguard sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you worried about something?”

Huckleberry looked at him with dark, pensive eyes. “If Mom and Dad kept me away from Scottie’s party just because of those stupid weeds, what will they do to punish me for running away?”

“Whatever they decide, I’m sure they will be fair about it.”

“Why don’t they love me anymore?”

“They love you, Huckleberry. They punished you to help you see the seriousness of living up to your responsibilities.”

“They could have kept me home from Grandma’s or from going fishing again; why did they have to take the fun of the party away from me?”

Vanguard looked at the forlorn colt and shook his head. “I don’t know. But think about it... will you leave your garden work the next time your mom or dad tells you to do it?”

“No way!”

“Then maybe that’s your answer; they gave you a punishment that would really make you think. And if you’ve learned from it, I think it was worth it.”

“Will they love me again?”

Smiling, Vanguard replied, “They’ve never stopped loving you; sometimes parents have to be tough– believe me, it probably hurt them as much as it hurt you.”

Huckleberry grew thoughtful. “When Dad helped me finish the garden, he looked really sad; I thought it was because I had been bad and made him do extra work; maybe it was because he knew how much I wanted to be with Scottie on his birthday.”

“Your parents want you to be happy, but even happiness has its price.”

“You really think that Mom and Dad will be glad to see me tomorrow?”

“They would have liked to see you tonight, but your mom as all worn out from worrying about you.”

“I hurt her, didn’t I?” Huckleberry frowned and sat in silence. Suddenly brightening, he asked, “Would you let me call her right now?”

Standing up and offering Huckleberry his hoof, Vanguard grinned. “I think that is an excellent idea.” He took him to the phone in the master bedroom where Sugarberry sat with paper and pencil, but no words appeared on the lines. Her eyes questioned Vanguard as he and the colt came in, and he apprized her of the situation.

Dialing the number, Huckleberry pulled himself up into the armchair opposite Sugarberry; Whiskers was still clutched in his left foreleg. When the ring was answered, a smile lit his face. “Hi, Dad. It’s me, Huckleberry.” After listening to his father’s greeting, he stated, “I’m sorry that I made you and Mom worry.” What followed brought tears to his eyes. “I love you too, Daddy,” he whispered.

His mother obviously came on the line. “Yes, Mommy, it’s me. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry I ran away, and that I love you very much.” He listened with intent concentration while nodding his head in agreement with what was being said and then responded, “I won’t be any trouble for Aunt Sugarberry and Uncle Vanguard at all; goodnight, Mommy.”

Setting the receiver down, Huckleberry pushed himself out of the chair. “Mommy said to remember to thank you for taking care of me.” He looked shyly at his aunt, who drew him to her for a suffocating hug sprinkled with tears.

“We’re happy to have you with us, Huckleberry; you and Aunt Raspberry will have to come and spend the weekend before school starts.” Sugarberry held him at forelegs length and smiled. “We can walk out to the Native Pony cave and have a picnic lunch.”

“Could we really do that?” Huckleberry asked eagerly.

“If your parents say it’s okay,” she said, hugging him once more.

“I’m tired,” yawned Huckleberry. “I think I can get to sleep now.” He held out a hoof to Vanguard, indicating that he intended to be tucked in. Vanguard winked at Sugarberry and went with the colt back to his bedroom where he was soon nestled in under the covers with Whiskers cradled in his forelegs. His eyes were drooping, but he managed to say to Vanguard, “When I grow up, I want to be a teacher just like you.”

Vanguard brushed a forelock of hair out of the colt’s eyes and admitted, “When Aunt Sugarberry and I have a colt of our own, I hope he’s just like you.”

Huckleberry came further awake for a moment. “Except that he won’t ever run away from home; I’ll explain to him why he never should.”

“Aunt Sugarberry and I would both appreciate that,” Vanguard said, patting the colt appreciatively. “Good night, now, Huckleberry.”

Vanguard smiled, for Huckleberry was already fast asleep.


Tabby’s Monthly Updates
to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening
to the characters you know and love (yeah right)
without having to read a twenty-page story!
by Tabby (

Update #1: Will Tamara finally get a guy?

Tamara (Tabby’s identical cousin if you don’t recall) has already been through with Tex (who dumped her for his old sweetheart, Mimic) and Romance (a French stallion who soon left the Dream Valley area to pursue his life elsewhere). After both of these difficult relationships-gone-sour, Tamara is losing hope. Is there a stallion for her after all, or is she doomed to the life of an old maid? She ponders these exact things as she stays up late nursing a cup of tea at the Café Carousel’s counter.

Seated not far away from her and also pondering deep things is the handsome and charming and incredibly famous rock star, PHILIPPE! Tamara, though, is not really into rock/pop/whatever, so she does not recognize him as anyone even though the entire town has been buzzing with excitement over the stop in Dream Valley this star would make during his tour of Ponyland! Anyway, Philippe is also considering how his life is going– sure, he’s got tons of fans and is ultra-popular and any mare would swoon over him, but could any of them truly know and understand him past his fortune and fame? Was there any mare out there he could truly share his life with??????

Okay, so somehow he and Tamara start talking. They find a lot to converse over and are each intrigued by the other. When Tamara obviously doesn’t recognize him as a music star, Philippe is unsure he should tell her what he’s really doing in Dream Valley for fear that her attitude and outlook towards him would change. However, he doesn’t want to keep secrets and senses something special about Tamara. When he tells her exactly who she is, Tamara recalls all the talk about the concert and realizes that this must be the stallion. She takes it calmly, though, and doesn’t treat him any differently because of his profession. They chat a long time until the café closes and Flower Bouquet kicks them out; then Philippe walks Tamara home and they make plans to meet each other the next day. (Philippe has already given his concert but he has a few more days in the city before moving on. It is currently Wednesday; he leaves town Friday night.)

So, they spend alllllll of Thursday together visiting and touring various places in Dream Valley, and all the time growing closer and closer to each other. (*swoon* VERY ROMANTIC!) When they finally part from each other, Philippe promises Tamara that she’ll hear from him again tomorrow, his last day. Tamara looks forward to it, but is also sad because this stallion she is growing increasingly fond of will be leaving her very shortly.

Early the next morning, Philippe goes to the flower shop (owned and operated by the Mysterious Cloaked Flower Deliverers, OF COURSE!) And orders a very special bouquet of flowers– the arrangement of which was personally chosen and approved by Philippe– to be sent to Tamara. He also includes a note saying to call him so they could arrange to meet at least one more time. He has some business to take care of that morning, but patiently waits for word from Tamara.

Now, to understand what happens you must first understand the language of flowers! It’s simple, really; in the past, different flowers were given different meanings, and if grouped together they will present a certain message to the receiver. However, some flowers have multiple– and very contradictory– meanings, depending on what source you use. For example: basil can mean “best wishes” or “hate”; a white carnation “sweet and lovely” or “disdain”; a geranium, “gentility and elegance” or “stupidity”; an orange lily, “graceful and elegant” or “hatred”; and a yellow rose, “true love” or “jealousy”.

Anyway, Philippe picked out flowers for Tamara’s bouquet that– according to what he knew– had highly complimentary meanings. However, Tamara was more familiar with their alternate meanings, so when she received the flowers she was highly offended and thought that Philippe had just been playing with her heart all along and now dismissed her in this very insulting way! Tamara is heartbroken because she thought Philippe really cared for her. She tosses the bouquet away without even reading the note– not that she would have called him back anyway at this point!

Poor Tamara and Philippe. Philippe waits and waits for Tamara to call but none comes through. He now has similar thoughts to Tamara’s: that she had simply been toying with him all along for the prime purpose of simply ignoring him in the end. SO SAD.

They both wallow in misery for the rest of the day. Late night, Philippe has to head to the airport and leave Dream Valley behind him– and Tamara. Still very saddened by the whole affair, he simply stops outside Tamara’s house on his way and wishes it could have turned out differently. Tamara is thinking the same thing as she strolls through her garden in the evening light. They notice each other and at first (of course) react bitterly to the other, but gradually the truth comes out and all is reconciled. Philippe picks a red rose from a nearby bush and presents it to Tamara– because the meaning of a red rose, love, can never be misinterpreted! They kiss in the moonlight (aww... how romantic!) and the scene fades out.

In conclusion, Philippe and Tamara are both madly in love with each other and are married within a few days (it’s Ponyland, so couples can get married in very short notice with no problems). Tamara for the moment travels around with Philippe, her new husband, and they live happily ever after. At least for now.

End of Update #1.


A Christmas Carol, Pony Style (not to mention in August)
by Starre (

(Author’s note: We all need a little Christmas spirit, even in mid-summer. Anyway, who wants Christmas in July when you can have it in August? ;) Here, I am retelling Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Enjoy!)

There was an old, wrinkled pony sitting at a desk– Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge was one of the meanest ponies in all of Ponyland; there was no doubt about that! No beggars approached him on the street for money, no ponies stopped him in the road to strike up a lively conversation. No one even dared to wish Scrooge a Merry Christmas!

As I said, Scrooge was sitting at his desk. It was Christmas Eve, and also the coldest day Dream Valley had seen that year. A dense fog shrouded the valley and ponies walked by on the street hurrying to whatever their destination was, teeth chattering and snow being kicked up.

In his counting house, Scrooge had a small fire. It was not nearly enough to warm the whole building; it scarcely warmed that one room. In comparison, though, you might as well have called Scrooge’s clerk’s fire a coal. At his desk, Bob Cratchit, the clerk, also sat. Shivering, he pulled his cloak tighter and continued his work.

“Merry Christmas, Uncle!” a cherry voice interrupted as the door of the counting house swung inward with a gust of wind.

“Bah, humbug!” Scrooge scowled.

“Christmas, a humbug? Surely you don’t mean that, dear uncle!” Scrooge’s nephew said enthusiastically.

“What right have you to be merry, anyhow? Poor as you are!” Scrooge retorted.

“Oh? And what right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough!” returned the nephew.

“Bah!” Scrooge said again; and as an afterthought added, “Humbug!”

“How can you be so gloomy at a time like this! Christmas is a time to be merry!”

“Why be merry when you find yourself a year older, a year poorer, and a year more of paying bills of which you cannot afford! Anyone who goes around saying Christmas is merry should be cooked in their Christmas dinner with a stick of holly!” Scrooge said decidedly.

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Keep Christmas your own way and let me keep mine as I please!” Scrooge said sternly.

“Uncle, you don’t keep Christmas!”

“Then let me ignore it!” Scrooge returned to his work.

“Won’t you come to our house tomorrow to share dinner?” Scrooge’s nephew tried one last time.

“Good afternoon,” Scrooge said resolutely.

“Please! I have never shared a part in a quarrel with you. You must come, if only for my sake!”

“Good afternoon,” Scrooge bid again.

“Very well then, Uncle. I will keep my Christmas spirit to the very last: Merry Christmas!”

“Good afternoon!” Scrooge growled.

“And a happy New Year!” his nephew returned as he closed the door behind him and went back to his home.

As soon as he left, two other stallions came in. “Excuse me, sir. Are you the owner of this establishment?” asked one.

“Yes, Mr. Marley died seven years ago tonight,” Scrooge growled.

“We would like to ask a donation from you, sir. There are many families who, this year, cannot afford Christmas dinner. We would appreciate it if you would help us help them celebrate.”

Continued the other, “How much may we put you down for?”

“None!” Scrooge exclaimed, feeling less of the Christmas spirit every moment.

“Then you wish to remain anonymous?” asked the other.

“No! I wish you to leave me alone! I, myself, don’t make merry at Christmas. I can’t afford to make other’s merry, either!” Scrooge barked.

Knowing it was useless to pursue any further, the two stallions resumed their endeavors elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the fog had thickened and the temperatures had dropped even further. Bob Cratchit approached Scrooge’s desk with caution.

“You’ll be wanting all day tomorrow off, I suppose?” Scrooge accused.

Bob gave a weak smile and nodded.

“A poor excuse to pick a stallion’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” Scrooge scowled. “You can have the day if you will arrive earlier the next day.”

“Thank you, sir!” Bob said enthusiastically and left the counting house.

Scowling all the more, Scrooge left for his own house. It was a gloomy old house that was even more foreboding then usual with the fog hanging in ghastly plumes around the gate. Even Scrooge, who knew the yard’s every stone, was forced to maneuver towards the door clumsily. Stalking up the steps he thrust the key into the keyhole. Suddenly, the doorknocker changed. It was Marley’s face, Scrooge’s old business associate. His mane stuck out oddly and it seemed to shine, though all the yard was in shadows. Scrooge drew back. What made this all the more frightening was the tone of the old stallion’s ghost’s face. It seemed almost alive as the knocker stared at Scrooge.

As Scrooge stared at this phenomenon, it turned to a knocker again. To say Scrooge was not disturbed by this would be a lie. He thrust the key into the keyhole again and this time proceeded into his house. Pausing, he looked behind the door again, just to make sure the rest of Marley wasn’t sticking through the other side.

Scrooge was a stallion not easily frightened, so he shrugged the happening off and proceeded to eat his soup by the odd old fireplace in his bedroom. Scrooge gazed dreamily at the fire and soon he had finished his dinner. For no reason, Scrooge’s gaze fell upon an old bell hanging in a corner. It started to sway, slowly at first, not making a sound. It gradually sped up until the whole room was reverberating with the sound.

“Bah!” Scrooge said to himself. “I won’t believe it!” Just then, a being passed through the door and into the room. Scrooge recognized him immediately: Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner that had passed away!

“Scrooge!” it moaned, shaking chains that were bound about the specter.

“Marley?” Scrooge answered.

“I have come to warn you of what is to come! If you do not change your ways, you will be bound with chains you forged in life, as I am now!”

Scrooge looked down, half expecting to see chains wound around him in a similar manner. He did not. “Silly apparition!” Scrooge ventured. “You are no more real then the odd thing I saw in place of my door knocker!”

“Am I not?” the ghost of Marley said.

“No! You are something I ate!” Scrooge decided. “Perhaps a rotten fruit, or an underdone potato.”

“Very well, but you will be visited by three other apparitions tonight.” The spirit crossed over to the window and beckoned Scrooge follow. “Look!” it said.

Scrooge looked, and was quite puzzled; outside he saw transparent pony beings similar to Marley. All, he had known in their lives. All were now wrapped in chains.

As suddenly as Marley had appeared he disappeared, leaving Scrooge to his own thoughts once more. His head still spinning, Scrooge decided to go to bed. A few short hours later Scrooge awoke to find his room teeming with light. A small, delicate hoof reached up and drew away Scrooge’s bed curtains.

An odd apparition this was indeed! It looked like an old stallion with faded white hair, but it was as small as a foal! It held a sprig of holly, and draped around his white cloak were summer flowers. Out of its head shone a light!

“Are you the spirit whose arrival was foretold to me?” Scrooge guessed.

“I am!” The voice was soft and gentle.

“Spirit of what?” Scrooge asked.

“I am the Spirit of Christmas Past,” it answered.

“Long past?”

“No, your past.” With this, the spirit whisked Scrooge off into the night. They stopped at an old school house.

“Do you remember it?” the spirit asked.

“Remember it? I could give you a tour of the school blindfolded!” Scrooge exclaimed as a troop of young colts who Scrooge recognized as his foalhood friends tramped by in the snow.

“Then you remember the foal who was left forgotten by his friends here for Christmas, too,” the spirit stated

Poor Scrooge nodded, a tear trickled down his cheek. “Yes, I do.”

The spirit lead Scrooge into the schoolhouse. “You know this colt,” the spirit said, pointing a hoof to a small foal reading a book by the fire.

“Yes, it is I! Nobody cared to have me home for Christmas. I stayed at the school,” Scrooge said tearfully. “I should have given that foal something to eat!” he exclaimed wistfully, remembering a colt that had been so bold as to sing Christmas carols at his door the previous day.

The spirit smiled as the colt reading in the corner disappeared and another larger one appeared. “Why, that is the year that little Fan, my sister, came to bring me home for Christmas!” Scrooge exclaimed as he saw a small filly enter the schoolhouse and led Scrooge’s young self out.

“Didn’t she grow up to have foals of her own?” the spirit asked.

“Yes, one.”

“Your nephew,” the spirit said.

“Yes,” Scrooge said uncomfortably. Next was shown Scrooge’s apprenticeship, and Scrooge mumbled something to himself.

“What was that?” the spirit asked.

“I wish I could say something to my clerk,” Scrooge mumbled again as he remembered his small wages in his past.

“My time grows short,” the spirit said as one last scene appeared. “You remember this Christmas well?”

“Yes,” Scrooge cried as pictures flew about. “Belle abandoned me. I grew greedy and loved my money more then I did her!” Scrooge sobbed as he wished that he could have gone back and changed the past. “Take me away, Spirit!” Scrooge pleaded. “I don’t want to see anymore.”

“I can’t do that,” the spirit said as another scene appeared. Belle and her husband sat at their dinner table.

“Guess who I saw today?” the handsome stallion across from Belle said.

“Who?” Belle laughed.

“Scrooge! His friend Marley is on his deathbed and all Scrooge does is sit and attend his work! He is quite alone in the world now.”

At this Scrooge could bear no more. “Please, spirit! Leave me be!”

“That I will,” the spirit said as he left Scrooge back in his own bed. Scrooge sat for awhile until he saw a light coming from the other side of his door. Peeking around the door, he saw a large stallion in Christmas attire. He was sitting and having a wonderful feast.

“Come in! Know me better!” the spirit said. Scrooge did as he was told and hung his head in front of the spirit, wondering what shadows this spirit would show him.

“Look upon me! I am the spirit of Christmas present!” the specter said. Scrooge did as he was told and the spirit held out a hoof. “Come!”

All of a sudden, Scrooge found himself in a crowded marketplace. “Merry Christmas!” was the main vocabulary of the day. Everyone was merry and exchanging warm greetings that not even the coldest wind could chill.

“This is this Christmas day,” the spirit said as he led Scrooge around. “However, not all the ponies have so much...” Instantly, Scrooge found himself by the Cratchit’s window. Mrs. Cratchit was preparing a meager dinner for the family as they danced around in glee.

“This is the best goose we’ve ever had!” shouted one foal as he looked at the small bony goose Mrs. Cratchit was preparing.

“Your father has worked very hard for it,” Mrs. Cratchit smiled.

A few hours later, Bob Cratchit and one of his colts, Tiny Tim, came through the door. “Oh, mum! This is the best dinner you’ve ever made!” Tiny Tim exclaimed as he propped himself up on his crutches. Mrs. Cratchit set the table, and the foals helped to carry some of the food out. The poor Cratchit family dined happily on what little they had, and Tiny Tim summed it up the best. “God bless us, everyone!” he exclaimed.

“Ghost, tell me. Will Tiny Tim live?” Scrooge said with a newfound interest in the well-being of others.

“I see a vacant seat,” the ghost said, “and an abandoned set of crutches if things do not change.”

Suddenly, Scrooge found himself alone in a graveyard. Out of the mists rose a darkly cloaked pony. “Am I to presume you’re are the spirit of things yet to come?” asked Scrooge.

The spirit pointed onward with a shriveled hoof. Scrooge glanced over in that direction. “You wish me to look that gravestone?” The spirit nodded.

“Who is it, spirit? Certainly not Tiny Tim!” Scrooge said in earnest. The spirit did not answer, so Scrooge plucked up the courage to look. He knelt over the old gravestone and blew away some dirt. It read: EBENEZER SCROOGE.

Scrooge looked at the specter in horror. “Spirit! I am not the stallion that I once was! I have learned my lesson tonight! I will honor Christmas in my heart from now on.” Scrooge trembled as he gripped the spirit. “There is time for me to change or it would have been pointless to show me all this! I can change! I can change!” Scrooge wept as the spirit shrunk in size until it was his bed post that he gripped.

Scrooge glanced about him; it was his bed, in his room, in his house. He was saved. Quickly he flung himself out of his bed and to the window. Opening it, he shivered.

“Young colt!” Scrooge shouted to a foal who was walking down the street amiably. “What is the day?”

The foal looked at him, puzzled. “Why, it is the twenty-fifth of December, sir! Christmas day!”

“It isn’t too late!” Scrooge said gleefully to himself. To the foal he continued, “Do you know the shop down the street? The one with the large turkey in the window?” The foal nodded. “Would you go down there for me and purchase it?” Scrooge threw down some jangles. “Save five for yourself! Tell the manager to send the turkey to Bob Cratchit’s house.”

“Yes, sir!” the foal replied and ran down the street.

Throwing a coat over his shoulders, Scrooge ran outside bidding a Merry Christmas to anyone he met. On his way to his nephew’s house, he met the two stallions who had requested money of him yesterday.

“Say, put me down for five-hundred jangles,” Scrooge said merrily.

“Mr. Scrooge? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure! Merry Christmas!” Scrooge took off down the street again. Soon he was at Fred’s, his nephew’s, house. Cautiously, he knocked at the door. Fred opened it.

“Why, Uncle! What a pleasant surprise! What are you doing here?”

“I came to wish you a Merry Christmas, Fred. May I come in?”

“Why, of course!” Fred smiled.

Scrooge spent the rest of the day with his family and early the next morning set off for the old counting house. Putting a large fire in the fireplace he smiled; Bob wasn’t there yet. Scrooge waited. It was a full twenty minutes before Bob opened the door and sidled into his desk.

“Mr. Cratchit!” Scrooge growled in his accustomed voice, or as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by arriving at this time of day!”

“I’m sorry, sir; I know I’m late,” Cratchit trembled.

“I simply cannot stand this any longer! And therefore,” he sprang out of his chair, “and therefore, I am going to give you a raise!”

“E-excuse me, sir?” Bob Cratchit looked ready to grab a ruler and pin the old stallion to the floor until help would arrive to take him to an asylum.

“A merry Christmas to you, Bob!” Scrooge clapped him on the back. “Build up the fire, and before you dot another eye, we will talk of how I can assist your family!”

Scrooge did all this and more. To Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he became a second father. The city came to know him as a kind old pony. The spirits did not have to bother Scrooge anymore, as he did a very good job of keeping the Christmas spirit. And so, as Tiny Tim observed: God bless us, everyone!

Send your comments to or I would like to know if you’d like me to re-tell other classics :)


Doctor’s Orders
by Sugarberry and Tabby ( and

“This is so nice to be together again, Toby,” said the rosy mauve mare, her pale plum hair carefully coifed and perfectly in place even with the hot, humid weather that had descended on Dream Valley. She cast a quick glance at the purple stallion at her side.

“It was quite a surprise to get your phone call,” Toby replied. And it had been. This new mare in town, the daughter of a friend of his father and only acquainted with Toby back when the two of them were quite young and their families had vacationed at the same picturesque lake during the summer, had called unexpectedly after she had accepted a position at the bank as its investment representative. By the tone of the call, one would have thought that she and Toby had been close friends of some duration. She had come on strong and weaseled her way into Toby’s life whether he liked it or not... and he did not.

Miranda took Toby’s silence for acquiescence and slipped her hoof into his; the two of them had just finished a Sunday brunch at the Estate Manor and were now walking through the city park on their way home. Miranda had taken an apartment temporarily until she decided on what kind of house she wanted, and it was uncomfortably close to Toby’s.

“I still remember that last summer at Lake Limestone; you kissed me for the very first time.”

And the last, silently remembered Toby. Miranda had always been an overbearing, single_minded pony who put herself first in all circumstances. He had found her unsettling when they were young, and he found now that nothing had changed. But he said, “A lot has happened since those days, Miranda.”

“I often wondered what became of you after our idyllic summers together. I was busy with school and getting settled in my career, of course.”

“Uh_huh.” Just because their fathers had been college buddies did not mean that the resultant offspring had to be companionable, too, Toby rationalized to himself.

“It is unbelievable that I would end up in the same city with you, isn’t it? I was so surprised to hear from Daddy after I accepted the job at the bank that Dream Valley is where you had settled in practice.”

“Unbelievable...” muttered Toby, his mind only half on what Miranda was saying; yet he sensed that she expected more input from him that she was getting. “This hot weather has been intense for over a week now; I hope it breaks soon,” he commented in an effort to get the conversation on a generic topic rather than on their personal lives. The park was unnaturally quiet in the heat as even the foals avoided any physical exertion. Toby would be glad to get home to his air_conditioned haven and away from Miranda.

“It’s not as bad as in New Pony,” Miranda said. “Daddy says it’s been in the nineties all week. The air_conditioning broke down at his office and the repair pony said it would be next week before he would have time to fix it; but you know Daddy! He told the repair pony in no uncertain terms...”

Toby’s attention was no longer even politely on the mauve mare; it was focused ahead to the fountain that shot its delicate streams of water into the already moisture_laden air; a patch of green and blue littered the sidewalk that circled the fountain, and that patch of color was a pony. “Someone’s in trouble!” Toby exclaimed, dropping Miranda’s hoof and dashing to the scene.

Miranda followed, but at a slower pace. “Who is it?” she asked, peering down at the pony on the cement.

Finishing a quick examination of the languid body, Toby barked an order. “Give me your ribbon!”

“What?” asked Miranda, taking a step backward, touching the yellow bow in her mane. “Why, for Pete’s sake?”

Standing up impatiently, Toby took the liberty of untying the bow himself. With a look of disgust, he turned from Miranda and dipped the ribbon into the water of the fountain. “Do you know how much that cost me?” Miranda gasped as Toby bathed the unconscious pony’s face with the cooling substance. While tending to this most serious duty, he paused long enough to hand Miranda the cell phone he carried with him and instructed her to alert the hospital of the need for the paramedics. Miranda did as she was told, but the expression on her face was not that of a helpful assistant; she looked quite displeased with this interruption in her well_ordered Sunday plans.

“Tell them it appears to be a case of sunstroke and a bump on the head,” Toby recited.

As Miranda relayed the information and the location, she watched Toby as he ministered to the young pony, and she gradually came to realize that he was a very efficient doctor. “She’s just a filly,” she observed, moving to the edge of the fountain and sitting down. She noticed that the pony was also terribly thin... too thin; and her hair was tangled and dirty like it had not been combed in days.

“A filly who has become dehydrated to the point that she is in serious trouble,” Toby clarified. He continued to apply cool water to her dry but flushed skin. “The blood supply to the skin is decreased and perspiration is diminished, causing the body temperature to skyrocket.” He stopped to inspect a bloody bump on her forehead. “She either fainted or fell from dizziness and hit her head against the fountain.”

The water eventually had its effect, and the filly slowly moved her head from side to side “Open your eyes, girl,” Toby said, renewing his application of water. The eyelids fought to rise; and when they did, Toby was staring into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. “That’s the spirit,” he smiled. For a moment he was frozen in his stance as he gazed down upon her and only moved because the paramedics arrived.

It was not long before they were preparing to transport the filly to the hospital, and it was then that Miranda pressed herself back into the scene. “Well, Toby, it looks like we can get back to enjoying our time together.” There was strong emphasis on “our”.

“That’s not possible,” Toby frowned. “I’ve got to take care of my patient.” He watched the paramedics closely to make sure they handled their responsibilities carefully, one hoof placed protectively on the filly’s shoulder.

“You’re not on duty__ let someone else see to her.”

Toby faced Miranda. “It is my duty to follow this through.” The paramedics raised the litter and set off; with one final dismissive glance at Miranda, Toby followed.

* * *
After getting the filly settled at the hospital, Toby retired to his office and sat at his desk to think, pondering why this young mare had such an effect on him. For some reason, he found himself strongly attracted to her__ Fern, she had told him her name was. Fern... Toby closed his eyes and envisioned what she would look like once she had recovered from the distress of the sunstroke; he recalled the intense blue of her eyes, the soft blue hair, the green body.

Fern... She had shared that much with him, but other questions were ignored. He had learned nothing about her except her name. “Where is she from and how did she end up here in the condition she’s in?” Toby muttered to himself.

Unexpectedly, the office door opened and Snuzzle appeared with some paperwork in her hoof. “Dr. Toby! Why are you sitting in here on a Sunday afternoon? I thought you went home!” She approached the desk and set the papers down.

Toby stretched. “My luncheon with Miranda didn’t go over very well; I’m hiding,” he grinned.

“You should be safe here,” Snuzzle agreed; she had met Miranda several times and had not formed a favorable impression of her.

Becoming serious, Toby asked, “What do you think of our new patient, Snuzzle? Any conjecture on what brought her to the shape she’s in?”

“Running away from something, maybe,” Snuzzle suggested. “She hasn’t said a thing__ just shakes her head and closes her eyes when she’s asked anything.”

“I’m curious to know her background; let me know what you find out when she feels safe enough to open up.”

“Do you really think that will happen?”

Toby chuckled. “With you, Snuzzle, anyone would confide their deepest, darkest secrets eventually.” He lifted a file from those on his desk. “I may as well get some work done while I’m here.”

Snuzzle knew a dismissal when she heard one, and she left Toby to his solitude.

* * *
It was evening before Toby ventured forth from his office, and he went directly to Fern’s room. He knocked softly before entering and found Nurse Nightingale with the patient. “How’s she doing?”

Nightingale, handing him the chart she had just updated, smiled. “She’s steadily improving. We won’t have her company too long.”

Toby perused the chart and handed it back to Nightingale. “It looks good.” His gaze finally centered on Fern herself, and he found her watching him with wide, almost frightened, eyes. “Feeling better?” he asked as he went to her bedside and touched her forehead. He was relieved to find that her temperature felt normal.

“I have no jangles,” she said, barely above a whisper

“Has that been bothering you? Well, rest your mind. We won’t throw you out, will we, Nurse Nightingale?”

“Never had to resort to that yet,” smiled Nightingale. “The hospital will accommodate anyone who needs help, Fern, so don’t worry.”

Checking her pulse, Toby was reluctant to release his hold on her__ her foreleg felt so small and helpless in his hoof__ but Nightingale was waiting for him to finish, so he gently set her foreleg on the covers. “I’ll see you on rounds tomorrow,” he said to Fern. “Get a good night’s sleep, doctor’s orders.”

He turned to leave, and was at the door when he heard Fern’s fragile voice. “Dr. Toby...” He looked back, and Fern blushed self_consciously. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

Toby smiled, elated to have elicited that much from her. “That’s what we’re here for, Fern.” He smiled. “Good night.”

* * *
Toby had been right; Fern had soon divulged her background to Snuzzle: that her full name was Fern Feather; how she had been cared for by her grandmother in a large, distinguished house in the country on ten acres of land since she was only a foal; how they had lived a quiet, sheltered life alone in the house; how Fern had attended school in nearby Bushley; how her life had centered around her grandmother and the house; how her quiet shyness did not help in making friends. “But I was happy and content,” she confessed.

The story continued. Shortly after Fern graduated from high school, her grandmother had passed on, and Fern was faced with uncertainty. Her grandmother had always assured her that she would inherit the house and land, but now there was no copy of the will to be found. Fern’s grandmother had distrusted lawyers along with most modern progress, but Fern was sure that she had legally provided for her__ if only the papers could be located.

Time had passed while Fern lived on in a sort of limbo at the house until one day an uncle by marriage had appeared at her door with a lawyer; this uncle had not been approved of by Fern’s grandmother; she had gone so far as to break all contact with her sister over this stallion who was unacceptable in Granny’s eyes. The stallion, Troubadour, had not learned of his sister_in_law’s death until quite recently; and he had come forth with Granny’s will which she had given her sister for safe_keeping.

Fern had questioned his validity, knowing how her grandmother had refused all correspondence and civility from both her sister and her husband, but the lawyer showed her the will and Granny’s signature__ that even Fern could not deny.

The terms of the will had set Fern’s world upside_down; all Granny’s possessions including the house and grounds were to go to her sister, Maisie; Fern was not even mentioned. Troubadour had quickly evicted Fern from the house; and with only her personal belongings on her back, she had left the security and protection of her grandmother’s house.

The next year had been a nightmare of simply getting along as she worked her way from place to place, never quite capable of making a success of the meager jobs she held. She had trusted no one and had shut herself off from any attempts of friendliness that an occasional pony had offered her; she was alone in the world, alone and unprepared.

That was what had preceded her collapse at the fountain in Dream Valley.

* * *
“Snuzzle, could I speak with you?”

“You’re the boss, Dr. Toby.”

Toby held his office door and waved Snuzzle to a chair. When they were both comfortably seated, Toby began. “Miss Feather is well enough to be released from the hospital, but I’m concerned about her welfare when she leaves here.”

“That’s an honest concern; the poor thing doesn’t have much going for her just now.”

Toby leaned back in his chair and tapped his hooves together. “I’m anxious for that reason; I think we should help her find an apartment so she has some place to go.”

Snuzzle looked at Toby curiously. “She may have her own plans, Toby.”

Toby waved a hoof in the air. “That may be, but she will at least need temporary lodging until I’m sure that she is fully recovered.” He pinned Snuzzle with a telling glance.

“My spare room is empty,” sighed Snuzzle in mock annoyance; then she grinned. “It would actually be to my advantage to have a helping hoof around the house what with all the planning for the ball. You haven’t forgotten our fundraiser, have you, Dr. Toby?”

It was Toby’s turn to sigh in irritation. “How can I forget when that’s all I hear about; you’d think Dream Valley never had a charity ball before.”

“It’s the hats,” Snuzzle smugly replied. “All the mares are delighted with the stipulated dress code__ everyone, mares and stallions, must come attired in a hat or headpiece of some sort...”

“How about...”

“...worthy of a formal ball.” Snuzzle shook her head. “You stallions.”

“But I’ve never been comfortable in a hat, Snuzzle.”

“It’s only for one evening and it’s to raise money for the new maternity wing. Just be sure to get to the mall before all the choice hats are taken.” She winked wickedly.

Toby changed the subject as he knew he could not win this argument. “Will you discuss your invitation to Fern to stay with you for a couple of weeks?”

“I can do that right now.”

“When would it be convenient for you to have her move in?”

“Tonight... Tomorrow... when do you want to sign the release papers?”

“Aim for tomorrow; one more night under Nightingale’s care won’t hurt her.”

“And if she declines to stay with me? What then?”

Toby rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Then I’ll have to think of something else.”

On her way to Fern Feather’s room, Snuzzle smiled. “Dr. Toby has it bad over this one.” Then, her smile turned downwards. “I only hope things work out better than they did with the others!” She grimaced at the thought of Tiffany, sighed over Elaine, and shuddered over Miranda. “Fern Feather, I hope you’re seeing the same thing in Toby that he sees in you,” she whispered as she knocked on Fern’s door and prepared to make her best pitch ever.

* * *
Snuzzle found a bonus in having Fern as a houseguest. Not only did the filly handle phone calls for her, but Snuzzle also found that Toby, who ordinarily kept a hooves_off approach to her volunteer duties, now became a willing participant if she only said the magic words, “We’ll meet at my house.” Last minute complications concerning the charity ball could be handled quite painlessly when discussed over coffee and cookies__ and in the company of Fern Feather.

If Toby had eyes for no one but Fern while he was discussing musicians, seating, flowers, and other such details, Snuzzle was the only one who noticed. Other committee members commented on how nice it was that Toby was throwing himself into the preparations; they did not realize that Fern was the draw.

For her part, Fern had never been happier. She was under doctor’s orders not to exert herself, but there were numerous duties she could attend to for the ball without harm, and she threw herself into it wholeheartedly; and although she was never outspoken, the ideas that she did put forth were always thoughtfully presented and showed great insight.

Toby became more enamored of Fern with each passing day; in every word she spoke, every move she made, every smile she gave him, he saw the mare of his dreams. He hoped that those blue eyes that often rested on him from across the table were finding him pleasing, too.

* * *
Toby’s heart sank when he rounded the corner into Lemon Treats’ Boutique; he had chosen a quiet mid_week morning to face the painful chore of picking out a hat for the charity ball thinking that no one else would be shopping at that time, but there before him at the mirror were Tabby, Sugarberry, and Chocolate Chip. For a fleeting moment, he considered ducking back out; but Lemon Treats caught sight of him. “Toby! I thought you’d never show up!”

“Hi, Lemon Treats. Snuzzle laid down an ultimatum; either I get my hat or she will”__ here he looked cautiously to the right and left before continuing __ “line me up with Miranda for the ball.”

Lemon Treats giggled, and the three mares who were also hat shopping surrounded Toby. “Who are you taking to the ball?” asked Sugarberry.

“I haven’t asked anyone,” Toby answered truthfully.

“But you have to have a date!” exclaimed Chocolate Chip.

Toby raised an eyebrow. “I have to?”

“That’ll be the day,” interjected Tabby.

“Well, you should,” Chocolate Chip backed off.

Toby grinned. “I’m still trying to decide; Dream Valley has way too many beautiful mares; speaking of which, I suppose the four of you are spoken for?”

“For a lifetime,” smiled Lemon Treats.

“What kind of hat are you going to get, Toby?” queried Sugarberry who was sporting a black chapeau with a gold chain trim.

“We’ll help you decide,” offered Chocolate Chip. She was trying on a frilly straw hat with flowers.

“Just wear that odd little cap you put on when operating,” advised Tabby, adjusting the purple picture hat she had on.

“This is going to be more difficult than I thought,” said Toby as he saw the variety of stallion’s hats available.

“Not at all difficult, Toby,” assured Lemon Treats. “Clare shipped over a special hat just for you.” She pulled a box out from behind the counter and removed the lid, withdrawing a stylish top hat in a distinctive pattern. “Isn’t it elegant?” She handed it to Toby who accepted it gingerly as if it might bite him.

“A top hat,” he repeated, staring at it as if he did not know what to do with it. Chocolate Chip came to his rescue.

“Come over here, Toby, and try it on!” She pulled him across to the triple mirror and, taking the hat from his hoof, she placed it on his head. Standing back, she looked at him critically. “What do you think, girls?”

“Dapper !” Sugarberry exclaimed.

“Smart and very refined,” agreed Lemon Treats.

“It’s perfect,” declared Chocolate Chip.

“Weird,” Tabby said, staring blankly.

“And here’s a matching tie,” LemonTreats informed the stallion. “You’ll be the talk of the town.”

“And that’s supposed to be a good thing?” asked Toby, frowning at the tie.

“Just be glad you had it so easy,” scoffed Tabby as she traded in the hat for a tiara. “What do you think of this?”

“I like it!” Chocolate Chip said as she, too, tried on another style.

Sugarberry eyed a fancy, if not gaudy, Victorian_styled hat. “Could I try that one on, Lemon Treats? It’s so pretty, but it looks so fragile.”

“Try it on, Sug,” urged Tabby. “It’s like your writing, all flowery and frilly.”

Sugarberry lifted the pink and grey hat from its perch and set it on her head. Looking in the mirror, she envisioned another era and wished she could have been part of it. At the same time, Lemon Treats put the tie around Toby’s neck, and the stallion caught Sugarberry’s eye in the mirror. “May I have this dance, Sugarberry?” he asked.

For a moment they were swept back in time to a gentler society of garden parties and afternoon teas. The music playing softly in the background supplied the needed ambiance. After several times around the shop, Toby bowed to Sugarberry who smiled demurely.

“I’d get that hat if I were you,” Toby grinned. “Vanguard will love it.”

By this time, Tabby was trying a jaunty black hat with a red feather while Chocolate Chip put on a pillbox with a veil. Both ponies surveyed themselves in the mirror. “I wish Thomas was here,” sighed Tabby. “I don’t know which one to get.”

“That’s because they all look wonderful on you, Tabby,” said Chocolate Chip. “I don’t see why you don’t wear a hat more often.”

“I hate hats,” growled Tabby.

Toby looked at her admiringly. “Tabby, I’m impressed.”

Tabby rolled her eyes and abandoned the hats. “Faline has been fussy the last few days; do you think I should bring her in for a check_up?”

“Is she running a temperature?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“She could be teething early,” suggested Toby. “Keep an eye on her temperature and watch for any eruptions on her gums. If she gets really cranky, bring her in.”

“Who is watching your little angel this morning?” asked Lemon Treats of Tabby.

“Her grandma and grandpa. Mom will show her all the latest fashions and Dad will train her in map reading. I figure she’ll be the best_dressed explorer Ponyland has ever seen by the time she’s three.”

Toby laughed. “Does this mean she won’t grow up to be a veterinarian like her mom and dad?”

“Maybe that too,” grinned Tabby.

While Lemon Treats rang up Toby’s purchase, Sugarberry told him about the previous evening. “I took Fern along to the writers’ meeting last night; she shared a poem that was very touching. She seems to have a natural talent.”

Chocolate Chip, who had befriended Fern as soon as she had learned of her experience on the road alone, agreed. “She has a way with words; she’s showed me some of the things she’s written, and they’re really poignant.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Toby said, finishing his business. “You’ll have to encourage her to do something with that talent; maybe she could sign up for classes at Pony Pride.”

“Don’t worry; I’ve been harping on her,” said the chocolate_colored pony. “And Vanguard got on her case the other evening, too.”

Toby was elated; with everyone leading her to the same goal, she would surely be happy to settle down in Dream Valley just as he hoped she would. “It sounds like she has found some good friends,” he said, picking up his package. With a smile, he added, “See you at the ball, girls.”

* * *
Tabby, Chocolate Chip, and Sugarberry had been unsuccessful in deciding on which of the headpieces would work best for them, so they had commandeered their partners for a second trip to Lemon Treats’ boutique; Baby Faline had been left in the loving care of Elaine for the evening and the three couples had free reign over their shopping expedition.

“This ball is going to be such fun!” commented Sugarberry for the zillionth time as they walked to the mall.

“It’ll probably be boring,” countered Tabby with a frown.

“You’re going to enjoy it as much as I will,” Sugarberry disagreed.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Thomas said. “Tabby and I haven’t been dancing in ages.”

“The last time we danced,” recollected Wigwam with a smile at Chocolate Chip, “was at Sugarberry and Van’s wedding.”

“We kind of missed that one,” Thomas grinned.

Vanguard had been silent until now. “You girls are going to make us stallions try hats on, too, aren’t you?”

“Why not?” chirped Tabby. “Everyone has to wear a hat, according to Snuzzle.”

“I never liked wearing a hat, even as a foal,” admitted Vanguard.

Sugarberry grabbed her husband’s hoof. “You’ll look so handsome in a hat...”

The others giggled and guffawed. “That means she doesn’t think you’re handsome without a hat, Van,” Wigwam chuckled.

Sugarberry shot Wigwam a threatening glance. “You know that’s not what I meant at all. Toby was in this morning while we were at the shop and he looked ever so dashing in the top hat Lemon Treats had for him.”

“And he danced with Sugarberry,” Tabby admitted offhoof.

“He danced with you?” Vanguard asked, one eyebrow raised. “At the shop?”

“Yes, he did. It was the spell of the hats. He had on his elegant top hat, and I was trying on a lovely Victorian one, and the time was right to dance.” Sugarberry was assured in her answer but a blush crossed her cheeks. Thomas came to her rescue.

“I wonder who Toby is seeing these days; I had hoped that he and Elaine would hit it off, but Elaine wasn’t comfortable around him.”

“Toby has that effect on mares,” Tabby explained. “Personally, I can’t blame Elaine.”

“He said he hadn’t decided on a date yet,” Chocolate Chip recalled.

Reaching the boutique, the party went on in, and Lemon Treats abandoned her current customer to welcome them. “So you’re back and with new recruits!” she grinned. “Thomas, Vanguard, Wigwam, enjoy your shopping experience!” She winked as she returned to Dancing Butterflies who had made up her mind on her purchase.

“Be afraid,” intoned Thomas.

“Be very afraid,” seconded Wigwam.

“You guys are going to be impossible, aren’t you?” questioned Chocolate Chip.

“You try on a hat,” scowled Wigwam. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“Maybe I should go home and see if Faline is okay,” commented Thomas, turning toward the door.

Tabby caught hold of him. “As if! Besides, if you leave, I’ll have to pay with my own money.”

Sugarberry, remembering Vanguard’s look of misgiving when he had heard of her impromptu dance with Toby, was not a happy mare; she wished that she had ignored Toby’s invitation to dance, but it was too late now. Vanguard knew what she had done, and he was not pleased with her for it; she had seen it in his eyes. She stood uncomfortably in the center of the shop worrying, unaware that Vanguard had gone off to try on a hat or two by himself.

Lemon Treats, however, had seen the stallion and, feeling good about the way sales had been recently, she went to offer her assistance; when he turned to her at her approach, Lemon Treats’ favorite dance tune sounded through the shop, and she was caught up in the dance. “Dance with me?” she asked of Vanguard, extending her hoof, and the stallion responded by putting a foreleg around her and whisking her across the floor.

Coming out of her musing, Sugarberry giggled to see that Vanguard, too, could get caught up in the spell of the moment. Vanguard led his dance partner near to Sugarberry and politely ended the interlude, bowing to Lemon Treats’ curtsey with a smile which he next turned on Sugarberry. “This place does exert a spell, doesn’t it?” he said, his eyes searching his wife’s and finding there not only merriment but also understanding.

Sugarberry smiled sweetly. “I’m glad you perceived that.”

Lemon Treats eyed them closely and caught a glimmer of what was going on between them, so she left them to themselves as she turned her attention to Wigwam. “No war bonnet for you?” she asked, dubiously eyeing the western hat he had donned. “Why don’t you try something a tad more refined?” She choose a trilby from among those on the stands and offered it to him.

“No thanks,” he responded after trying it on.

Chocolate Chip came to him with a light, filmy style on her head. “What do you think of this?”

“It’s cute,” he said, “but you can do better.” Chocolate Chip scowled at him. “Hey!” he responded. “You brought me along for my opinion, didn’t you?”

“Try this,” suggested Lemon Treats, still working on the stallion. She had a black top hat in her hooves.

At the sight of the gentlemanly hat, Wigwam waved his hooves adamantly. “No way; no top hat for me.”

Chocolate Chip, however, was enthralled with the idea. “Let’s see how it would look, Wigwam,” she pleaded. She took the hat from Lemon Treats and placed it on the stallion. “Oh! You look so aristocratic. Tabby! Sugarberry! What do you think? Is this the hat for Wigwam or not?”

The two mares came and gave the stallion a thorough once over before commenting. “That’s definitely you, Wigwam,” Sugarberry purred. “You’ve been hiding your refinement from us all these years. I love it!”

“I think it clashes,” Tabby said critically.

“Tabby, it’s black,” Sugarberry rolled her eyes. “Black goes with anything.”

Wigwam glowered. “You’re going to regret this, all of you.”

“Ah, but they’re right, Wigwam,” Vanguard backed up the mares. “The hat does look appropriate for you; you should start wearing it at the casino.”

“Better you than me,” kidded Thomas, adding, “If Chocolate Chip likes that one best, I think you’d better go with it.”

“Thanks for nothing,” Wigwam shot at Thomas, but he gave himself a discerning look in the mirror and slowly began to warm to the idea of being a dandy for the night of the ball. Finally, he said to Lemon Treats, “Okay, I’ll take it.” Chocolate Chip gave him a little hug and led him away to judge a style for her.

Tabby, in the meantime, had placed a black hat on Thomas’ head and looked at him pensively. “That’ll do,” she stated with authority. Then, leading him to the mare’s hats, she placed a turquoise picture hat coquettishly atop her head. “Tell me it’s not right,” she advised.

“I think it’s cute,” he grinned, “but I take it you don’t like it; so show me an alternative.” After watching a procession of head_coverings, Thomas admitted, “They all look good on you, Tabby; but for some reason they just don’t seem right.”

Lemon Treats intervened. “Tabby prefers the tiaras, don’t you, Tabby?” It was not long after moving to those ornaments that both Tabby and Thomas had found what pleased them both__ a golden tiara with a warm, pink stone that glowed softly under the lights. “My queen of Atlantis,” Thomas whispered to his wife as they both looked into the reflective glass.

“This one,” Wigwam said to Chocolate Chip as he picked up a brocade pill box with a cascade of bejeweled veiling. He set it in place and arranged the veil over her face. “Maybe this will start you thinking of a wedding veil,” he said tenderly. It was Chocolate Chip’s turn to blush, and she turned to the mirror to hide it.

“Do you really like this one?” she asked shyly.

“Yes, I do,” replied Wigwam.

Lemon Treats agreed. “You look lovely, Chocolate Chip. Is that the one for you?”

“Yes, it is,” Chocolate Chip replied, grateful to have the choice made. “I’ll take it.”

Sugarberry had fallen for a grey trilby for Vanguard. “The feather matches your mane perfectly,” she grinned. “It was made for you!” Vanguard felt that he had weathered the shopping rather well, having been fearful that he would be the bearer of the top hat.

“I’m set; now let’s see about you,” Vanguard confirmed. “What about this one?” He had chosen a flamboyant hot pink hat with a bouquet of flowers adorning it.

“Well?” she asked, turning to him with the vibrant chapeau perched jauntily atop her head.

“It’s pretty, but it’s a little too wild for you, possibly.”

After giving up the pink hat, Sugarberry picked a basic black cloche with gold trim. “I like this one,” she admitted.

Vanguard, however, had caught sight of the hat of hats, in his estimation. “This one, Sugarberry; this one if for you.” He lifted the heavily_decorated Victorian masterpiece off its stand and held it out to her. Hesitating, Sugarberry was torn between her own personal fondness for that particular hat and the fact that it was the one that had prompted Toby to dance with her. Her hesitation caused Vanguard to ask, “What, you don’t like it?”

“It’s the one I was wearing when Toby asked me to dance,” she admitted.

“Well, it proves that Toby has good taste.” Vanguard took it upon himself to place the splendorous headpiece on his wife’s head. He stepped back to survey the results. “You are beautiful,” he stated lovingly.

“Woah!” exclaimed Wigwam, coming to openly admire the mare and her finery. “That’s gorgeous.”

“You never said that about me!” teased Chocolate Chip as she joined the group.

“I knew you’d end up with that one,” added Tabby, coming across the shop with Thomas.

“It suits you, Sugarberry,” Thomas agreed.

“It’s settled then,” Vanguard decided, turning to Lemon Treats. “We’ll take it.”

“There’s a matching purse and even a parasol,” said the salespony, gathering those items in her hooves to entice a larger sale.

“Sold,” said Vanguard.

Wigwam could not resist the opportunity. “For once, Sugarberry, you’ll be coordinated!”

It was definitely time for the evening to end. As the stallions gallantly paid for the purchases, Chocolate Chip, Tabby, and Sugarberry waited at the entrance to the store. Sugarberry, looking down toward center court, caught her breath. “Who’re they?” she choked.

Chocolate Chip and Tabby followed her gaze; Chocolate Chip gasped while Tabby just stared. They were soon approached by the cause of their bewilderment: Friendly, the Bushwoolie, and two new friends of his.

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Yeah!” the Bushwoolie greeted the mares.

“What’s up, Friendly?” Tabby was the only one of the three to find her voice. “Hey, guys.” She waved to the other two.

“Hats! Yeah! Yeah!” Friendly smiled. “Need hat for ball!”

“And these are...?” She raised her eyes to the two tall creatures with him.

“Yeah! They need hats, too.” As if that had explained it all, Friendly accompanied his two pals into the shop.

Thomas, Vanguard, and Wigwam joined the mares, their purchases complete, finding them staring after Friendly and crew.

“It’s not polite to stare,” advised Vanguard, guiding Sugarberry away.

“But, but... who are they?” asked Chocolate Chip in awe.

“Friends of Friendly, obviously,” determined Wigwam without another glance.

Of the mares, only Tabby was unscathed. “He probably picked them up in the Dark Forest. I wonder how many of the Bushwoolies will be at the ball?”

“Why don’t we all go over to our house and see how Elaine and Faline are doing?” suggested Thomas.

Chocolate Chip and Sugarberry made one more cautious glance over their shoulders, then shrugged off their perplexity. “Sounds good,” they chorused and set off unhindered in the company of their friends.

* * *
Snuzzle was at the dance hall, of that Toby was sure. Chocolate Chip had not mentioned any plans for her and Fern, so Toby was taking a chance at finding Fern at home alone. Running into the mares at the boutique that morning had given Toby an idea, and he was intent on seeing how it played out.

The ringing of the doorbell echoed through the house and the sound of hoofsteps grew nearer. When the door opened, it was Fern’s face that Toby saw. “Hi,” he said, suddenly speechless.

“Hi, Dr. Toby.” Fern smiled and her blue eyes danced. “I’m sorry, but Snuzzle isn’t home right now.”

Toby found his tongue. “Actually, it was you I wanted to see. May I come in?”

“S... sure,” stuttered Fern, stepping aside to admit the stallion. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong, except that maybe you’re developing Sugarberry’s worry complex.”

“I went to the writer’s meeting with Sugarberry last night.”

“So I heard. And you dazzled them with your poetic skills.”

Fern brushed off the comment. “Everyone is talking about the ball,” she related. “The mares are all excited about it; it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“I’m sure it will be,” said Toby as he sat down in the chair that Fern offered him.

“Snuzzle says that I can serve punch; can you imagine all the splendor and pageantry that I’ll see?” Her eyes sparkled at the thought of it.

But Toby frowned. Looking very serious, he said to her, “I’m your physician, Fern, and I can’t allow you to over_exert yourself just yet; I’m afraid that you won’t be able to serve punch at Snuzzle’s gala.”

Fern’s happiness faded; in a downcast voice, she pleaded, “But Snuzzle says I can sit down whenever I get the chance.”

“And how much of a chance is there going to be for that with all the ponies that will be there? No, you definitely can’t serve punch at the ball.”

“But Dr. Toby! I can manage; I feel so much better than I did the day you... found me.”

Toby looked at her with a sober face as if reconsidering his decision. “I’ll tell you what,” he finally spoke. “If you want to go to the ball, come with me; that way, I can keep an eye on you.”

Fern’s eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. When she regained her composure, she said, “You shouldn’t tease me that way.”

“Who said I was teasing?” Toby stared across the space between them, and Fern’s heart skipped a beat. Toby continued. “I’m asking you to accompany me to the benefit dance as my date.”

Fern could not speak, so she simply returned his searching gaze. When the silence became too long, Toby asked again, “Will you allow me to escort you to the ball?”

“Surely you know other mares who would be more suited,” she finally was able to say, but not very convincingly.

“I want to have the pleasure of your company.”

Fern felt her cheeks burning. “All the ponies are going to be decked out in their finery; I don’t have a thing.”

“Neither did I,” admitted Toby. “That’s what stores are for.”

“You have jangles,” she smiled forlornly.

“And you don’t. We can solve that quite easily. I have an account at Lemon Treats’ Boutique at the mall; I’ll tell her you have carte blanche over it.”

“No. I can’t accept your charity.”

“Look at it this way__ you’ll be helping Lemon Treats out by getting her another sale.”

The thought of attending the ball was too enticing and Fern began to waver. A smile began to form once more. “Only if we call it a loan; someday, I’ll pay you back.”

“We’ll call it a gift,” Toby said with finality. “Now, just say yes to my invitation.”

Her face alight with pleasure, Fern acquiesced. “Okay, Dr. Toby. I accept.”

“Great!” Toby beamed. “And, please, just call me Toby.”

“I’ll try to remember... Toby.”

“I’ll give Lemon Treats a call when I get home, and you can go shopping whenever you want.” He walked to the door to leave, and Fern followed.

“This is going to be such fun! Thanks, Dr. Toby!” She effusively gave him a brief hug before he was out the door, and the doctor walked on cloud nine all the way home.

* * *
Lemon Treats put in an emergency call to Clare’s Creations in Vulcanopolis. “The hats are going like crazy; Toby even picked up his top hat today, and he and Sugarberry danced right here in the shop; this whole charity ball is becoming addictive.”

“Where was Van while this was going on?” quizzed Clare.

“Sugarberry was with Tabby and Chocolate Chip at the time; the three of them succeeded in putting Toby on the spot concerning his hat purchase. The mares came back with their stallions tonight, and I ended up dancing with Vanguard!”

Clare giggled. “I’d have liked to see Sugarberry’s face about that time.”

“There were even some strangers in the shop tonight... and they bought hats, too. Which brings me to the point of my call; can you get an express shipment out to me?”

Clare considered the request thoughtfully. “On one condition, Lemon Treats. Can you get me two tickets for this charity ball?”

“No problem. I’ll send them out tomorrow.”

“I’ll reimburse you, of course.”

“Just send me a special hat,” bargained Lemon Treats.

“It’s a deal.”

* * *
“Giorgio, we haven’t been out of town for months; I’m bored with Vulcanopolis,” Clare said. The two were having dinner at their favorite restaurant.

“You’ve been working too hard; let Pacificus run the company for a few days... but you know that I can’t leave right now.”

Clare’s face showed her displeasure. “Not even for the weekend?”

“What do you have in mind?” He knew Clare well enough to realize that she had already made plans.

“The hospital in Dream Valley is having a fund_raiser on Saturday night; it’s for a very good cause, and I was thinking...”

“That we can just pick up and fly over?”

“Well... yes.”

Giorgio looked at her closely. “You’ve got an ulterior motive you’re not telling me.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked nervously.

“Look me in the eye and say that you don’t have some secret agenda.”

Clare frowned. She tried to hold Giorgio’s gaze but failed. She fumbled with the napkin instead.

“What is it, Clare? You can tell me... can’t you?” He searched her face for some clue as to what was going on in her mind.

“I promised to keep it a secret,” she finally admitted without looking at him.

“Who did you promise?”

“Your mother.”

There was a pause, then: “My mother? What are you talking about?”

Clare hesitated; with a sigh, she made up her mind. “Giorgio, Enrica has dreams of her own that she’s afraid to share with you and your father.”

Giorgio pulled back. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked, almost angrily.

“She wants to be able to walk again.”

“We would all like to see that, but it doesn’t mean it’s possible.”

“Do we know that for sure?”

“I’m no doctor, but those who are say that there is nothing that can be done that wouldn’t make matters worse than they already are.” Giorgio was definitely angry now.

“There are other doctors, Giorgio.”

Giorgio stared at her. “You have someone in mind.”

“Toby, in Dream Valley.”

He looked at her blankly. “What can Toby do that our own doctors can’t?”

“Maybe nothing,” admitted Clare. “But Enrica saw something in him that she is ready to trust.”

“It’s a false hope,” Giorgio grunted. “You should not encourage her.”

Clare’s face grew stubborn. “I would think you’d want to do everything possible for your mother.”

Giorgio’s face mirrored hers. “Don’t you think everything was done already? Of that, I could never fault my father.”

“Sugarberry said...”

“What’s Sugarberry got to do with this?” Giorgio looked bewildered.

“Toby expressed an interest in Enrica’s condition at the wedding, and he wondered if maybe there was more that could be done for her.”

Giorgio waited for more, but nothing was forthcoming. “That’s it?” he finally said. “A passing comment at a wedding reception?”

“It was a catalyst to get Enrica talking, Giorgio.” Clare glared at her fiancee. “She has been experiencing... feelings... that she had been keeping to herself.”


“She says that there are times when she feels as if she should be able to walk.”

“Has she tried?” Giorgio asked with a hint of excitement in his voice.

“N... no,” Clare admitted. “She says it is more of a... a voice inside of her urging her to get help.”

Shaking his head, Giorgio frowned. “She told you this?”

“She told Hydrangea and me.”

“So the three of you are in this together.”

“You could make it four.”

“What about my father?”

“You know he wouldn’t approve of getting Enrica’s hopes up with no guarantee of success.”

“I have to admit that I feel the same way.”

“And what of Enrica? She wants to talk with Toby; are you going to stand in her way?”

Taking the time to consider all possibilities, Giorgio finally answered. “If this is what Mother seriously wants, I’ll go along with you.”

“Great! The first thing to do is talk to Toby while we’re in Dream Valley; Enrica wants to see him as soon as possible; she’ll cover all his expenses.”

“Father isn’t going to like this.”

Clare smiled. “Don’t worry; it will all work out for the best.”

* * *
Going early the next morning to Lemon Treats’ Boutique, Fern arrived even before the store was open; she paced outside the grillwork, waiting impatiently, and breathed a sigh of relief when the grill finally creaked open. Lemon Treats smiled. “Toby told me to expect you; come on in.”

“I’m looking for something to wear to the ball,” Fern said shyly. “I’m not really sure what exactly that would be.”

“Take your time and see what is available,” Lemon Treats offered. She waved her hoof through the air. “The hats are over there and the jewelry is in the case by the counter. I have a few shawls and boas, but the department store has more variety in that line than I do. Hats are my specialty.”

Bombarded with so many choices, Fern wandered amongst the available hats, touching the ones that appealed to her, but trying none on. “None you like?” asked Lemon Treats.

“Oh, no; it’s nothing like that; they are all beautiful. It’s just that Granny always wore a hat,” she confided, “and I’m not ready for that yet.”

Smiling, Lemon Treats directed her to another section of the shop where the tiaras were set out. Fern immediately targeted in on a sparkling one, her face lighting up so that her eyes rivaled the gems. “That’s what I’d really like!”

“It’s a beautiful piece,” Lemon Treats said slowly, knowing that it was one of the most expensive items on the floor.

Fern shook her head as if coming back to reality. “No, that must cost a fortune. Do you have anything similar but not so costly?”

Making up her mind in an instant, Lemon Treats lifted the tiara from its stand, deftly removing the price tag as she did so. “This looks more expensive than it really is; the stones aren’t real diamonds, of course, or it wouldn’t be sitting here unguarded.” She slipped the tiara on Fern’s head. “The beauty of this tiara is actually in the craftsmanship of the metal; it accentuates the brilliance of the stones.”

Fern could not take her eyes off her reflection in the mirror. “It’s the grandest thing I’ve ever seen,” she breathed,” but I’m sure it’s more than Dr. Toby expected to pay. He’s been so kind to me already.”

“It’s right on budget with what he suggested. He’ll be very pleased.” She doesn’t need to know that Toby never mentioned a price; and if I forego part of my profit, a successful doctor like Toby shouldn’t flinch too much when he sees my bill. “Shall we get it wrapped?” Lemon Treats asked the filly.

“Yes!” decided Fern, removing the tiara from her head. “Toby will be pleased, as you said.” She caught the speculative look in Lemon Treats’ eyes and blushed. “He’s too kind, really.”

“I’ve never met a stallion yet who doesn’t have a motive behind his kindness,” Lemon Treats advised the filly as she handed her the packaged tiara. “Here you go, Fern. I’ll look forward to seeing you and Toby at the dance.”

“Thanks, Lemon Treats. We’ll see you.”

* * *
The night of the charity ball arrived; Snuzzle had planned well__ even the weather was perfect for a night out. The band played wonderful dance music, the food was great, and the ponies were fantastically arrayed in their formal finery. Fern Feather, arriving on Toby’s foreleg with her one_of_a_kind tiara sparkling on her head, imagined that this was how Cinderella had felt when she arrived at the ball. She glanced at her handsome escort with his top hat and tie and believed herself to be the most fortunate mare there.

When Toby led her to the dance floor, her happiness was complete. She truly felt like a princess as they floated among the other dancers; she caught brief glimpses of other ponies, but she could not take her eyes off Toby, and it was a mutual malady. The two ponies were lost in each other; but the music had to end sometime, and Toby had responsibilities to mingle with the crowd.

Anyone who had not been aware of Toby’s infatuation clearly recognized it on this special night; and most were delighted for the doctor. Only Miranda saw it as a menace, and she bided her time.

Fern danced with the stallions who had become part of her life__Vanguard, Thomas, and Wigwam__ when Toby shared dances with their mates. She was introduced to an awesome array of citizens of Dream Valley by Toby, and Toby was impressed by how she handled every new acquaintance with an appropriate comment and a winning smile. He found himself thinking for the first time in his life that here was a mare who would make a perfect doctor’s wife.

Toby was surprised to see Clare and Giorgio in attendance, and it was only when Giorgio had swept Fern away for a dance that Toby found out why they were present. “Enrica wants to see you,” Clare had stated simply. Toby was watching Fern at the time, but there was something in Clare’s voice that caused him to abandon that pastime.

“Has something happened?” he asked urgently.

“She wants your opinion on her present condition... and what you think the future holds for her.”

“She has her own doctors...”

“I don’t want to hear that line ever again, Toby. She wants new blood, a fresh opinion. You will be compensated well; she needs to resolve some doubts and explore some hopes. Will you come to Vulcanopolis to see her?”

“Clare, I can’t be sure that I can help her.”

“Will you come?” she repeated sternly.

Toby thought back to the June wedding at which he had seen Enrica, and the feeling he had gotten then that this mare was needlessly confined to her wheelchair haunted him__ it had been not so much a professional opinion as an unconscious discernment. It was that memory that settled the question. “Yes, I’ll come. But it may be several weeks before I can get away.”

“We’ll wait, Toby,” Clare smiled. “Enrica has the patience of a saint.”

“Tell her then that I will look forward to seeing her.”

Rejoining them, Giorgio was alone. “A mare needed Fern’s advice for some problem at the buffet table,” he told Toby.

“Snuzzle will have her serving punch yet,” Toby chuckled.

Giorgio exchanged a glance with Clare, then asked the doctor, “You are willing to come to see my mother?”

“Yes. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to consult my father on her case. Could you send her records so that we will know where we stand?”

“We have them with us,” Clare admitted. “We’ll direct them to your office.”

“Great. I’ll be in touch once I get my schedule figured out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must find Fern.”

On his way across the room, Toby tipped his hat to several mares and exchanged civilities with them before he was close enough to the buffet table to pick out Fern from the conglomeration of ponies. When he did, he quickened his pace. The mare that had hijacked her was not Snuzzle__ it was Miranda.

Toby was almost to the two mares when Fern turned and collided with him; her face was distraught and tears were rolling silently down her cheeks. Toby steadied her, but Fern shook his touch off; she grabbed the tiara from her head and thrust it into his hoof. “Keep your tiara and your misguided intentions,” she cried, pushing past him and running for the open door.

Toby turned on Miranda. “What did you say to her?” His voice was calm, but his eyes were ominous; Miranda suddenly realized she was playing with fire. “Tell me what you said,” Toby repeated a bit more forcefully.

Miranda shifted uneasily, her eyes searching for someone to defend her motives, but no one stepped to her aid. She turned her attention back to Toby and smiled, albeit a rather strained one. “I merely told her she was making a fool of herself, prancing around at your side as if... as if she meant something to you.”

“What gave you the right...”

“Someone had to look out for you.” She smiled stiffly. “I let her know that it was your sympathy she was seeing, not your affection. You deserve someone better than that, Toby. She’s nothing but a little tramp out to get some respectability by latching on to you.”

If Toby had appeared angry before, he was fuming now; but his voice sank to a rumbling sound of thunder. “A tramp, you say? Leave it to you, Miranda, not to recognize an angel.” His gaze bit into her like a cold, steel dart; then he was gone, after his angel.

* * *
Toby found her at the fountain. Fern was sitting on the edge near the spot he had first seen her. Lights played over the shooting water like the faux diamonds in the tiara. “I’m sorry,” he said, standing at a respectful distance for fear of frightening her.

She did not face him. “I’m sorry, too.” Then she swung her head around, her cheeks stained with tears. “Go away and leave me alone.” Her eyes met his, but she could not bear the look on his face. She turned back to the fountain. “Just go away.”

“You can’t mean that.” He took a step nearer, but stopped when she stood up as if she would bolt again. “I can’t leave you, not willingly anyway.”

The sentiment in his voice made her stop where she stood. She stared at him, trying to read his heart. “N...not w...willingly?” she stuttered, her chin beginning to tremble from the gauntlet of emotions she was going through. “M... Miranda said that you...” She could not go on.

“Forget what Miranda said.” Toby held her with his eyes. “I love you.”

Never having had an easy time with the mares, Toby was not too surprised to see Fern’s face crumple in tears. She sat down and covered her face with her hooves; when her crying was finally under control, she opened her eyes to find Toby sitting next to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, handing her a handkerchief. “That wasn’t very professional of me.”

Dabbing at her eyes and nose, Fern sniffed. “Why did you say it?”

“Because...” Toby fiddled with the tiara he was still carrying. “Because I have thought of no one but you since I found you here. I can’t wait to hear your voice or see your smile or... dry your tears.” He softly brushed his hoof across her still damp cheek. “I thought maybe that was love.”

“I wouldn’t know,” she whispered, her eyes locked with his. “But I feel it, too.”

Toby smiled. “Then how about we give it some time and find out if it’s the real thing?”

Fern grimaced in return. “And face all your friends’ ridicule about the little tramp who is after your money?”

“None of my friends will say a word against you; as a matter of fact, they all think you are adorable. You will find that Dream Valley is filled with wonderful ponies.” Here, Toby frowned. “Miranda is the exception.”

“I can vouch for one very wonderful stallion for sure,” Fern smiled.

“In the days ahead, we’ll find you a place of your own and a job so you can be self_sufficient and maybe get you registered at Pony Pride for the fall semester,” Toby planned.

“It sounds like you have my life mapped out.”

“I told you I’ve thought of nothing but you since the day I met you.” He stood up, tipped his hat, and offered her his hoof. “May I walk you home?”

She accepted readily, then stopped, her blue eyes twinkling. “Would it be okay if we strolled through the park first, if the doctor has no objection?”

Toby slipped the tiara back on her head. “I’d say it’s just what the doctor ordered.”


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