Turning swiftly toward the ominous sounding rumble, Hood found himself face-to-face with the elusive stallion who had been creating havoc and mayhem across the countryside for the past months. Hood was revolted by the villainous stare that met his wondering gaze, and instinctively stepped back away from the aura of impending doom. In that instant, the creaky floor gave way beneath his hooves, and Hood plummeted into the bowels of the rickety building.
Hood lay unmoving in a tumbled pile of boards, nails, and dirt. He dimly sensed pain throbbing through his left hip and a blanket of dust settling on his body. Dare I open my eyes? he wondered groggily. It would be easier to just drift off again...
Slowly, Hood became aware of sounds and movement around him. Flinching as a hoof touched his shoulder, he forced his eyes open to behold an unexpected sight. At his side knelt the most beautiful pony he had ever seen.
Forgetting his pain, Hood drank in the vision of this yellow pony, her lavender mane curling softly about her blue eyes. "Are you an angel?" he croaked weakly.
A melodious giggle and a disarming smile countered his question. "No. I'm quite mortal, just as you are. Are you hurt badly?"
Hood flexed his legs and gingerly attempted to stand. The mare steadied him as he straightened up, and Hood felt a searing pain shoot through his hip. Looking back along his body, he could see the torn skin and bloodied hair matted with dust and dirt and splinters. "It hurts, but it's not serious," he informed the stranger.
"I'm happy to hear that," she responded compassionately. "Here, let me help you out of this rubble; there's a safe corner over here."
Hood accepted her gentle assistance in extracting himself from the tangled heap of broken lumber, exposed nails, and rotten flooring. "Serves me right for trespassing on someone's private property," he joked weakly as he hobbled to a wooden bench propped against the stone basement wall. He groaned slightly as he lowered his battered body onto the antique seat. "Ah, that feels better," he confided as he adjusted his posture to accommodate his wound.
"Are you new around here?" questioned Hood as his companion opened a first-aid kit that she obviously had stashed in a niche in the rock wall.
"You might say that," she replied briefly.
"My name is Hood," offered the turquoise stallion. "I run the local ice cream parlor."
His patron remained silent as she expertly cleaned Hood's wound; Hood flinched as the antiseptic seeped into the raw abrasion. "How's that?" the filly asked as she finished applying the medicated ointment to the injury and covered it with a sterile gauze pad.
"Better. Much better," admitted Hood as he leaned back comfortably against the stonework that formed the foundation of this once solid edifice. Disintegrating mortar skipped down the uneven surface as he shifted his position.
Watching as his silent comrade restored the medical kit to its cranny, Hood prompted, "You have a name?"
The simple question seemed to shake the pony from a personal reverie. She turned to face Hood and after a short pause, she came to a decision. "My name is Shasta."
"Shasta," repeated Hood. "I always wondered what my guardian angel's name was. Now I know."
"I told you I'm not an angel," she retorted. "If you must know, I'm a herbalist."
"A herb doctor? Then what are you doing in this decrepit cellar?"
Seating herself next to Hood, Shasta explained her endeavor. "I'm just using this as a shelter while I'm checking out the area for various herbs I need in my work."
Hood looked puzzled.
"You know-- ginseng, catnip, tansy-- that kind of stuff. They grow wild." Shasta paused as a tiny gray mouse darted out from under the bench and scampered into a hole in the opposite wall. "This old house was fairly comfortable until you came crashing in." She frowned slightly as she peered in the direction of the gaping hole. Dust still danced in a narrow sliver of sunbeam that cut through from above.
Hood shuddered as he remembered the feeling of helplessness as the floor collapsed under him. His forehead wrinkled in thought as something tormented his mind. His head ached, but it was more than that. What was he missing?
Coming out of his thoughts, Hood looked Shasta directly in the eyes. "Your eyes were blue before, but in this dark corner they appear more black... like..."
Suddenly, Hood sat up straight. He remembered now what had been eluding him. Just before his fall, he had looked into eyes black as coal-- hurtful eyes.
"That stallion! Surely you saw him?" he challenged Shasta.
Dropping her gaze for an instant, Shasta recovered quickly. "Someone in this house? There's no one around here for miles."
"There was someone up there with me... someone who has been harassing ponies around here for some time now... a dark green stallion with purple mane."
"Surely you are mistaken," Shasta spoke soothingly. "If there was another pony around, I certainly would have seen him." She placed her hoof on Hood's foreleg as if to reassure him. In that instant, Hood heard the hoofsteps coming his way.
As Hood struggled to rise, Shasta restrained him on the bench with her forehooves pressed into his chest. "What gives?' he queried in a steady voice.
Shasta grinned briefly. "I told you I was no angel."
Turning her head to Hood's right, she casually remarked, "Did you find us some food?"
Hood followed her gaze. In the shadows stood a lightly-built stallion holding something at his side. As the mysterious figure stepped closer, the sunlight struck his face, and Hood recognized him as the rogue from earlier; the scoundrel's eyes flashed evilly as in their first encounter.
"Friend of yours?" Hood asked Shasta wonderingly.
"You could say that," she responded. To the new arrival, she joked, "Look who dropped in, brother dear."
"Yes, we've met, but only for a moment. Sorry I didn't catch your name," said the stallion.
"They call me Hood."
The stallion remained silent; Shasta removed her hooves from Hood and confided to her brother, "I've already told him my name; you might as well do the same."
Looking furtively around him as if expecting an eavesdropper to be standing by, the vagabond finally revealed his identity. "The name's Bilberry."
So that's the name of Sassafras' son, Hood contemplated. He got the impression that Bilberry expected him to recognize the name. That meant that he and his sister were aware that the law was closing in on them.
Hood studied the two ponies who stood over him. They were of equal height, but whereas Shasta's yellow body radiated a semblance of light, Bilberry's forest green body emanated an aura of gloom. Bilberry's purple mane only accented the overall impression of danger. It was in the siblings' eyes that Hood could detect their relationship; both sets of glistening orbs were unfathomable, like bottomless wells of obscurity. And now Hood had time to notice the purple butterfly that marked the stallion as the one that Checker was after.
Shasta broke the silence. "You haven't shown me what you found to eat, Bil-Boy." She teasingly ruffled his mane, and Hood mentally noted that Shasta was obviously the older of the two, and she still exerted a big sister's influence on her brother.
Bilberry handed the woven basket that he had held at his side over to Shasta. She squealed in delight at the offering: sweet, succulent grapes; red ripe apples; and crisp lettuce leaves. "Not bad fare for living off the land. And, Hood, to show that we mean no hard feelings, why don't you join us for supper?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Bilberry pulled up two dilapidated stools and Shasta set the basket on an upturned bucket between them. "Isn't this a cozy setting?" she remarked smartly.
Bilberry ignored her, but Hood played along. Maybe he could learn something of value while he had the chance. "So Bilberry, are you in the herb business with your sister?" he prodded.
Bilberry glared at Shasta. "What have you been telling him?"
"Only the truth," Shasta pouted. Turning to Hood, she explained, "Bilberry and I were born in this house, and spent our early years here."
Hood nibbled on some grapes as he seemingly pondered this information. "I only moved here a year ago, so that was before my time. Why did you leave?"
"Our dad got a job in Shore Town, so we moved. Bilberry and I finished school there, but we always dreamed of coming back here and..."
"That's enough!" barked Bilberry, assuming control of the situation. "Let's get this intruder out of here." He jumped to his hooves.
Shasta opened her mouth to complain, but thought better of it. She stood up and motioned for Hood to do the same. "Follow Bilberry," she ordered.
"After you." He bowed slightly.
"I think not," Shasta responded, but a hint of a smile flashed across her face. She prodded him into following her brother to the far corner of the basement where a rickety stairway rose upward. The three picked their way cautiously up the shaky treads.
The steps took them directly outside, and Hood was surprised to see the sun sinking low in the sky. "Time flies when you're having fun," he quipped, reassured by the sound of his own voice.
Shasta chuckled but made no comment.
Bilberry led on until they came to an abandoned storage shed; it was newer that the house, and although the paint was in rough shape and the roof sagged slightly, the door looked solid. Bilberry opened the door and Shasta shoved Hood through the opening so that before he knew it, he was inside the shed and the door was closing behind him. He vaguely heard Shasta's voice say, "Not quite an angel, Hood." And then he heard the click of a key in the lock.