Dark Forest Distress
written by Sugarberry

"What's on your mind, Dreamcatcher?"

The unicorn mare and Fetish sat on the riverbank, Fetish with a fishing line in the water, Dreamcatcher with a basket half finished at her side. The mare continued to gaze into the depths of the sparkling water as if she was searching for the answer to her husband's question there.

Fetish went on. "I've heard your middle of the night treks out of the tepee; what's bothering you?" He set his pole on the ground and went to sit by his wife.

Without taking her eyes off the rippling water, Dreamcatcher finally answered him. "We're going to have a foal."

Fetish lost his worried expression and grinned. "That's good news... isn't it?"

Dreamcatcher looked neither happy nor sad, almost indifferent, but she turned her head and smiled. "Of course, it's good news; the foal should be born in May."

"The time of new birth," Fetish mused.

Dreamcatcher went back to her study of the constantly moving stream while Fetish studied

her profile. "Dreamcatcher, I'd like you to consider getting medical care from one of the Dream Valley physicians while you are pregnant. I know you don't like to compromise your Native Pony traditions, but..."


"But your health and the foal's shouldn't be ignored. The doctors could make sure that nothing goes wrong."

"You know that I... see things sometimes."

"Yes," the stallion grinned. "I haven't been able to keep a secret from you yet."

Dreamcatcher ignored his teasing remark. "My restless nights have been due to a recurring dream." She stopped, the vision so vivid that it overwhelmed her. "It is late spring, but a snowstorm has dumped heavy snow; but as with such a late season storm, the sun comes out to dazzle the countryside; the snow soon begins to melt." She closed her eyes, reliving the dream. "I was dying, Fetish, not in the embrace of nature but surrounded by the sterile, cold surroundings of a hospital delivery room. No, I won't risk my life or my foal's; your cousin, Jalap, will be able to help me through."

Fetish saw the set of his wife's jaw and knew her unbending temperament. He sighed and bargained for a middle ground. "Promise me that if Jalap or you suspect any problem at any time, you'll let the doctors help you."

"There will be no problems," Dreamcatcher smiled reassuringly. "And there will be no more disturbing dreams."

* * *

It was that same night that Fetish awoke, sensing that Dreamcatcher was restless at his side. "More dreams?" he asked, coming out of his sleep.

Dreamcatcher shushed him. In the shadowy darkness, he could just make out her alert posture as if she was listening to something; Fetish listened, too, and could hear a slight rustling outside the tepee. The sound gradually moved around the perimeter of the abode; then, all was quiet again.

"It was bigger than a raccoon or a fox," Dreamcatcher asserted now that the creature was gone. "I wonder..."

Fetish's mind was following the same course. "It's too early for Manitou to be back," the stallion said, remembering fondly the grey wolf that had shared the forest with them until moving on to more isolated grounds with his family early in the summer.

"Too early, yes, but that animal was a wolf."

The two ponies settled down again, yet Fetish did not fall asleep immediately. He could not help wondering about the sensibility of the two of them remaining in this remote and primitive home now that there was a foal to consider; he would feel much better if his wife was under the care of a doctor and living in a comfortable dwelling nearer to the other ponies of Dream Valley.

And now the presence of a wolf, a wolf that might not be as friendly and protective as Manitou, only doubled his worries. He would have to convince Dreamcatcher somehow that a change of location would not be a total abandonment of their Native Pony ancestors.

* * *

A perusal of the grounds the next morning gave no positive clue as to the identity of the midnight caller; and by the light of day, even Fetish was not overly concerned about the presence of another creature in the Dark Forest. He and Dreamcatcher had the recurring chore of gathering firewood to tend to, and they set off to accomplish that task.

"You are happy here, Dreamcatcher?" Fetish asked as they walked to a likely area of the forest for their scavenging efforts.

A small rabbit bounded away from their hooves, disappearing into the underbrush. "Why do you ask that?" the mare countered.

"It's a long way from our families here; we could be living among all our friends and relatives instead of alone in this cumbersome forest."

"You are not happy here?"

"I didn't say that. I just wonder if we made the right decision to come to this place."

Dreamcatcher laughed. "I made the decision; you did not have to follow me here."

"No, I didn't. But you accepted my proposal when I got here, so I think that you were glad that I did come after you."

"You know why I left; too many of the descendants of the Native Ponies are giving up the old ways. I want to preserve what has been handed down through so many generations before it is all lost."

"There are still plenty of ponies back home who live the old ways; and they do it right next door to those who have adopted the new ways."

"Just watch, Fetish. Those ponies will adopt the new ways one by one and not even notice the change until they are as modern as everyone. And then who will there be to keep our Native Pony traditions? I have taken a big enough concession to work among the ponies of Dream Valley; I will not give up the day to day ways that have sustained our kind for centuries."

They had arrived at a tract of the forest that they had not yet covered; there was plenty of dry wood on the forest floor and the two ponies went their way gathering the pieces and laying them out on a travois that Fetish had pulled along. Their conversation was at a minimum as they rooted through the underbrush and scattered growth that dotted the ground.

"Ouch!" exclaimed Dreamcatcher as she took a step forward, her hoof landing on something sharp.

"What is it?" Fetish was at her side immediately.

"Something on the ground; something sharp and pointy."

Fetish searched the area and came up with the probable cause-- a piece of stone partially buried in the soil. Upon closer inspection, the stallion looked at Dreamcatcher with surprise. "This is some kind of stone carving."

Dreamcatcher, rubbing her sore hoof, looked at the object in her husband's hoof. "What's it a carving of?"

"A pony, I guess." He handed the object to her.

Scraping off the dirt that encased part of the rock-hard statue, Dreamcatcher peered at it closely. "It does look like a pony," she agreed, "but what is this frill around its head?" She pointed out a circle of stone that rested above the ponies carved eyes.

The sunlight filtering through the trees of the Dark Forest struck the figure in such a way that Fetish was enlightened. "It's a crown!" he cried. "This could be a representation of one of the early rulers of Ponyland... although I've never run into anything of its kind before." Fetish was involved with cataloguing artifacts at the still pending Dream Valley Historical Museum. He studied the carving more intently than ever. "Look!" There's a scepter in its hoof, too."

"Clever Clover will want to see this! Let's mark the spot where we found it so we can show him the exact location."

"Right." Fetish found a sturdy limb that he was able to jab into the ground and the two ponies finished loading their firewood with restored energy and were soon on their way home.

* * *

The purple stallion examined the find silently while Dreamcatcher and Fetish looked on with expectation. "Very interesting," Clever Clover finally said.

"Well, what do you think?" asked Fetish.

"It's quite unusual in its form and method of carving."


"I'd have to see where you found it before I make any more determinations about it." Clever Clover turned to Spike, the dragon, and Friendly, the Bushwoolie, who had accompanied him to the Dark Forest this day, and gave an order. "Grab the shovels and backpacks." Then, to Dreamcatcher and Fetish, "You can lead us there, I presume."

"Sure," remarked Fetish. "We'll be glad to."

The safari of sorts headed into the forest, following the path that the Native Ponies had taken that morning. An early afternoon hush lay over the woodland, and the autumn sunshine was just beginning to penetrate through the still leafy canopy overhead. The three ponies trod soundlessly while the dragon and the Bushwoolie marched along kicking up rustling leaves and keeping up a constant chatter of perfectly useless information.

Soon, the explorers had reached the spot where Dreamcatcher had unexpectedly discovered the carving. "It was right here where the stick is," said Fetish, pointing to the place on the ground where he had placed the marker, only now there was no stick standing up to proclaim the location; all that was left were some chewed up bits and pieces of the once sturdy limb. "Strange," the stallion said, examining the pieces. "What would have destroyed the marker, and why?"

"Yeah, yeah." Friendly eyed the destroyed stick cautiously, then stepped back. "Look! Look!"

The Bushwoolie pointed to a print in the dirt near the place where Fetish had placed the marker. The print was not the crisp rounded outline of a pony's hoof but the soft, fluted impression of a paw... and a big paw at that.

Everyone looked from the print on the ground to the surrounding trees and bushes that encircled them; Friendly moved into the protective cover of the ponies while Spike tested his fire in case of dire need. Dreamcatcher finally spoke. "It was a wolf."

"I thought Manitou was gone from here," Clever Clover noted.

"He has been; I don't think this is Manitou, though."

Fetish picked up pieces of the shredded stick. "Maybe it is Manitou, and he is just messing with us."

"Yeah! Kiddin' around," optimistically agreed Friendly. "Yeah, yeah."

"The pups, maybe," tentatively pondered Dreamcatcher. "I suppose they could have roamed into their old territory."

Spike sniffed the air. "That could be it; there are more than one of them."

Looking over his shoulder, Clever Clover grimaced. "I feel like we're being watched."

"We very well may be," asserted Dreamcatcher. "They could be anywhere and we'd never see them."

"If they are Manitou's pups, we aren't in any danger; they would remember us," Fetish reminded his friends. It was therefore decided to continue with their business; Clever Clover scrutinized the area looking for any signs of further artifacts, then dug an exploratory hole near where the carved pony had surfaced. His shovel test unearthed several partial shards from a larger carving which indicated that further searching would be in order. After several more holes had been excavated, Clever Clover was in good spirits.

"You may have stumbled on a great historical discovery here, Dreamcatcher. What we've uncovered so far is completely non-Native Pony in composition. If I had to hazard a guess at this point, I'd say they're much more Greek in style... but to our knowledge there has never been a Greek settlement in this area and no evidence that the Native Ponies would have been trading with the Greek ponies."

"I agree, they definitely aren't Native Pony like what has been excavated in the surrounding areas," concurred Fetish. "There has been no evidence of a Greek influence before now."

Clever Clover drew the original crowned pony carving from his backpack and studied it earnestly. "There is a legend..." he said almost unwillingly. "I've read about it in some ancient texts. They mention that during the rise of Atlantis, there was another Grecian city flourishing on the shore of Ponyland. Nothing of the city was ever discovered, though, so it became just a legend..."

"Was it mentioned what became of this city?" Fetish asked excitedly.

"No details were given in anything I've read; just that a disaster of sorts befell it, and its inhabitants were scattered across Ponyland."

"If this city really did exist, do you think it's possible we may have discovered it?"

"The Dark Forest always has been a mysterious place; a legendary city could have been swallowed up by it over time," Clever Clover admitted. "If it was abandoned and then forgotten about except in legend..."

"But how did the Native Ponies fit into this Greek city?" Fetish queried.

"It's impossible to say at this point, but I suppose it's feasible that they moved into the area after the fall of that city, if that's what we have found. It is known as fact that the oldest Native Pony cities and settlements were located much further south of here, and it was later in their history that they spread out further over the country."

"When can we get to work on it?" Fetish was already geared up and ready to go.

"I'll have to do some surveying and brush clearing before I begin serious digging, not to mention that I'm in the middle of another project outside of Friendship Gardens. But this venture looks so promising that I might close up that site for the time being." He looked at his Native Pony friends. "This is going to be so much fun!"

* * *

Coming home from a day at her shop at the mall, Native Dreams, which carried only hoof-crafted items made by Native Ponies, Dreamcatcher came across her husband having a conversation with their nearest neighbor, Butch.

"... and if Quackers hadn't been in such a sturdy pen, he wouldn't be quacking any more," Butch finished.

Fetish greeted his wife, then informed her of the reason for Butch's visit. "There is a wolf in the area, and it definitely isn't Manitou."

"That's right, Dreamcatcher. He's big and he isn't friendly; he tried to have Quackers for a midnight snack last night."

"You're sure it wasn't Manitou?"

"I got a glimpse of him when I went out with my lantern to see what the ruckus was about; he looked straight at me; and even though he is the same color as Manitou overall, he has a white streak running down the left side of his face. It gives him an evil sort of look; I don't trust that animal."

"Quackers is okay?"

"Sure. He quacked louder than I ever heard him quack before. He was one scared little duck." The feathered friend had been Butch's comrade since Tabby had become annoyed with the duck who for some unknown reason had singled Tabby out as a target for his incessant rampages (as Tabby saw them); and Tabby had conned Sundance to take the rebel duck to her brother in the Dark Forest.

"Why don't you stay for supper, Butch. We can tell you about our experience with this wolf."

"I'd like that but I'm expected in town tonight; me and Sparkler are eating fancy tonight; but I do have time to hear what's been going on."

As Fetish explained about the episode with the destroyed marker at the site of the possible site, Dreamcatcher got a fire burning for the preparation of the evening meal. Both ponies walked a short distance with Butch when he set off for Dream Valley, parting with him at the edge of the forest. "You two keep your eyes open," he advised as he prepared to go on his way. "I wouldn't go too far from home after dark if I were you."

Fetish raised an eyebrow. "The evenings are getting short this time of year; how do you propose to get home before dark?"

"I've got Quackers penned up for the night, and Wigwam lets me crash at the casino office when I need to. Don't worry about me," he grinned.

As Fetish and Dreamcatcher watched Butch go off down the path, Fetish reinforced his words. "No night-wandering, you hear, Dreamcatcher? We're taking no chances."

The pale orange unicorn smiled. "I've no desire to meet this creature under any circumstances."

* * *

"Ugh," groaned Dreamcatcher early one morning. "This must be what Lemon Treats has been complaining of." She rushed out of the tepee and disappeared down the path to the river.

Fetish grinned and, grabbing the water bucket, soon followed; he found his wife near the water's edge. "You okay?"

"Feeling... yucky," she croaked, then curled up in the still green grass. "I don't feel like going to work."

Fetish dropped down at her side. "Just sit till for awhile; maybe you'll feel better." They sat silently, enjoying the early morning freshness of the day, and Dreamcatcher did begin to feel more like herself. Neither pony was anxious to leave the peaceful setting and begin the day, but they had obligations to face; Dreamcatcher was the first to stand up; and when she did, she stood riveted.

"Fetish! Across the river!"

The stallion followed her gaze; there, peering through the branches of a currant bush, was the face that Butch had described to them: a massive grey head with a white stripe down the side and piercing yellow eyes that glared at them unblinkingly.

"He looks as if he is wearing war paint," Dreamcatcher whispered, referring to the white mark on his face.

"And looks like he is on the war path," observed Fetish, moving closer to his wife. The movement caused the wolf to abandon his position, and he melted into the underbrush without a sound. Fetish went to the river's edge to get the bucket filled with water; then he and Dreamcatcher returned to their tepee. "Are you up to going in to Native Dreams?" he asked as they walked side by side.

"Sure; I feel fine now."

"Good. I'd hate to leave you here alone until we know more about this new occupant of the forest."

* * *

It was several weeks before Clever Clover had the preliminary work done to begin some excavating of the area that portended to be an educational treasure of an early culture. He reported that he had not seen the wolf while he was surveying and marking out the dig site. Nor had Butch and Quackers had any further trouble from the animal; Dreamcatcher and Fetish, other than their early morning glimpse, had also seen no sign of him. Everyone hoped that the intruder had been dissatisfied with the area, moving on to some other more distant hunting ground, and breathed a sigh of relief to have this potential complication resolved so readily.

Planning on his first full day of digging on Saturday, Clever Clover had invited Dreamcatcher and Fetish to come to the site to see firsthoof what was uncovered; both ponies gladly accepted. Fetish had some business at the museum to see to before he could take off, but Clever Clover planned to stop by the tepee to pick up Dreamcatcher on his way to the site.

While waiting for Clever Clover, Dreamcatcher tidied up the tepee and went through some paperwork in connection with her shop; by then, she was becoming impatient. It appeared as if Clever Clover had forgotten to stop; he was rather forgetful sometimes. The day was a gorgeous one to be out in the forest, so Dreamcatcher finally decided to walk to the site alone; Clever Clover would surely be there already, and Fetish would soon be coming, too. The perfect day begged to be enjoyed, and Dreamcatcher could not deny the summons.

The air was pleasant and dry; a slight breeze rustled the leaves in the trees; glimpses of blue sky peaked through the treetops from time to time. Dreamcatcher found it refreshing to be alone with the touch of nature; a day away from her shop at the mall was always a delight to her and her Native Pony instincts. She put all cares and concerns aside; nothing could spoil these hours for her. She enjoyed every step of her walk and was surprised to reach the site so quickly.

Finding much changed as the archeological stallion had been busy, she surveyed the plots that Clever Clover had marked off with ropes; the one she was most interested in blocked off the spot where she had originally stepped on the carved statue. Maybe Clever Clover would let her dig in this section.

Where was Clever Clover? The mare could not believe that he would have forgotten his work here. Of course, she realized, if something had come up, he could not very well telephone; even Butch had not yet taken the step to get hooked up with the Dream Valley Phone Company. At any rate, she would wait here until Fetish showed up; she was sure that he would not be detained.

The mare moved across the area that encompassed Clever Clover's work and began searching the perimeter for any signs of artifacts that may have been missed. A section of the forest floor was littered with stones and larger rocks that appeared to Dreamcatcher as a likely place to spot something of interest. She meandered across the littered surface, stopping often to more closely examine anything out of the ordinary.

One such study caused Dreamcatcher to drop to the ground to begin scratching away soil in earnest. What had caught her eye simply because of the pretty colors turned out to be something spectacular– an ornament of some kind with dirty but still visible precious stones imbedded in it. Caught up in the thrill of uncovering the ancient decoration, she was unconscious of anything around her. Her efforts paid off; she soon had the artifact free of the confining soil.

As Dreamcatcher lifted the piece from the dirt, a shiver went down her spine; she realized in that instant that someone was watching her. She stood and swung her head around to see behind her and felt her spirit drain out of her. She was no longer alone, and the newest visitor was neither Clever Clover nor Fetish.

Near her, no farther than a room's length away, stood the wolf, his yellow eyes focused on her in cold, calculating interest. At her movement, the wolf announced his intent with a throaty growl and a baring of his teeth; the mare froze.

As the two stared at each other, Dreamcatcher regained her senses and realized that the wolf before her, even though it was the same creature with the white stripe down one side of his face, was not exactly as he had been. When she and Fetish had seen him across the river, his eyes had been bright and clear; now they were clouded and dim. He was still an impressive size, but his once shiny coat hung on him in matted disarray. The muscular build had become thin, almost grotesque; this more than anything made Dreamcatcher shudder, for only a sick wolf would be desperate enough to attack her. She felt fear wash over her body, rendering her helpless; she took a step backward.

Sensing her fear, the wolf followed, stopping only when he was within several yards of her; the low, threatening growls continued. He was close enough now that Dreamcatcher could see the reason for his decline-- several ragged wounds crisscrossed his heaving sides, and they were deeply infected. In her danger, Dreamcatcher could still feel compassion; she knew that under her care, the decrepit animal would have a chance, at least, at life. As it was, Dreamcatcher was in no position to offer her help; the wolf was sick and hungry; even a Little Pony looked like fair game to him.

Dreamcatcher also noticed something else-- there was a second wolf. Standing under the protecting branches of a small tree, this wolf was intently watching the proceedings with a wary eye. Dreamcatcher discerned that this was a she wolf, probably the injured animal's mate. Without the steady reflexes of her mate to insure a successful hunt, she was probably near starvation herself. She slowly began to circle around behind Dreamcatcher.

The unicorn realized that if she was going to escape this stalking pair, she would have to do something quickly. From what she remembered, there were several larger boulders behind her a short distance; with them at her back, she at least might be able to buy some time. Time... where were Clever Clover and Fetish? This was no time for them to desert her. And why hadn't her unicorn magic of seeing into the future warned her of this confrontation? A pony could not depend on anything.

Taking one slow step backwards, then another, Dreamcatcher made a drastic error; her back hoof became entangled in a curling, tangled grapevine, throwing her off balance. The pony fell onto her side; as she went down, she was aware of only two things: the voice of Fetish calling her name and the lunge of the injured wolf toward her through the air.

Making a last desperate scuffle toward the boulders, Dreamcatcher heard a vicious growl and swung her head around, expecting to see her adversary coming down on her. But, instead, she saw that a large, healthy wolf had come out of nowhere to bring down the attacking animal.

At the same moment, Fetish appeared at her side and she felt his forelegs come protectively around her; yet she could not take her eyes off the battle going on before her. She gasped at the ferocity that the new entrant went at the injured one; and even though so worn out and hungry, the original wolf was not giving in willingly.

But the wolf with the white streak on his face was no match for the superior strength and virility of the newcomer; he realized the futility of his efforts and assumed a crouching position, his ears laid back and his tail tucked between his legs before the conquering animal who now stood over him, accepting this victory with his noble head up and his tail pointing skyward.

Only now could the unicorn think clearly again, and she realized in a rush of relief that the wolf who had taken down the maverick was Manitou. "There was still another wolf," she looked at Fetish with renewed anxiety.

"Don't worry," Fetish reassured her. "Halona has her under control." Dreamcatcher looked around her husband to see that the female wolf was being guarded by Manitou's mate, then turned back to Manitou. "You're the greatest!" she smiled, and the wolf responded with a wagging of its tail. "How did Manitou and Halona know they were needed here?" she asked of her companions.

"I don't know how," responded Clever Clover, coming across the clearing, "but I'm sure grateful that they did. Did you see how Manitou knocked that scoundrel out of mid-air with his strike? That was awesome!"

"We didn't even see him until he was leaping like a blur toward the other wolf," added Fetish. "We had heard the growling as we came along the path and ran to make sure you were..." The emotion of the situation got the better of the stallion, and he drew Dreamcatcher to him and buried his face in her mane.

"I got a late start because of a visitor from the Flatlands," Clever Clover continued for the distraught Fetish. "I ended up meeting Fetish, and we came on together. He knew you were no longer at the tepee and assumed that you and I were both here, so when he saw me alone he was anxious, to say the least." He grinned at the stallion.

"Someday you'll understand," Fetish confided. "Wait until you have a wife-- and a foal on the way-- and see how edgy you get." He looked at his wife. "You are okay, aren't you?"

"Thanks to Manitou, yes." The pair walked to Manitou's side and Dreamcatcher placed a hoof on his shoulder. "Thank you, Manitou. And you too, Halona." The she wolf had joined the ponies who stood by her mate.

Fetish seconded his wife's sentiments. "I owe you an unpayable debt." He threw a foreleg around Manitou's shoulder and patted Halona on the head.

It was only then that Dreamcatcher noticed that Clever Clover was standing over the injured wolf. She quickly walked to his side. "He doesn't look too good," Clever Clover said sadly.

Dreamcatcher looked down at the battered body of the wolf as he lay on his side; the hit he had taken from Manitou's flying defense had opened his festered wounds and they drained heavily, plus several new scratches were fiery red. The wolf's eyes were now heavily clouded as if he no longer had the will to live. He showed no response as Dreamcatcher knelt beside him. "I'm going to need my medicine bag."

"I can run fetch it," volunteered Clever Clover.

"Fetish knows what I need; he can get it faster." Fetish was gone in a flash once he had sent a silent message to Clever Clover to protect Dreamcatcher with his life. Dreamcatcher examined the damage to the wolf, then said, "There is a white pine tree close by; I will need some of the inner bark from it." Clever Clover asked no questions, but started for the tree. Dreamcatcher stopped him. "And some cleaverwort." She looked at the purple stallion questioningly. "You know what that is?"

"I... I think so," Clever Clover stuttered. "Only Mom called it bedstraw. It would always stick to her when she was working..."

"Just get some," Dreamcatcher stopped his babbling.

Working as fast as he could, Clever Clover was soon back with some strips of white pine bark and a hoof full of prickly stems of cleaverwort, their rough leaves circling the stalks. As he returned, he noticed that Manitou and Halona's pups were now with their parents; they had lost their puppy fat and were sleek miniatures of their parents, but were still too young to provide effectively for themselves. The four juveniles sat in an inquisitive row, watching the movements of the ponies.

Clever Clover set the supplies next to Dreamcatcher. "What can I do to help?"

"Strip the leaves off the cleaverwort; they'll help to stop the bleeding."

"And the white pine?"

"It will serve as a poultice for the wounds. Until Fetish returns, it is the best that we can do."

Finishing his task of removing the leaves from the cleaverwort stems, Clever Clover left the unicorn to her work and watched the wolf pups as they scrutinized Dreamcatcher; their quick eyes caught every motion and their sensitive noses sniffed every smell. The desolate she-wolf had skulked around to the far side of Manitou's family and rested nervously, also keeping tabs of all that Dreamcatcher administered to the once strong body of her mate.

Manitou and Halona had positioned themselves close to the Native Pony, one on each side, a pair of protective sphinxes. Clever Clover breathed easier, as he knew that either one of them would be far better equipped than he to defend Dreamcatcher if the need arose.

The heads of the pups turned to the path in synchronized motion long before Fetish himself appeared through the trees with the precious medicine bag and a pouch of water. Without a word, he set the supplies within Dreamcatcher's reach and waited for her orders.

Working deftly with the washes and ointments now available to her, the pony cleaned and medicated the wounds that were exposed. When she had finished to her satisfaction, she stated her command. "Turn the wolf over."

Fetish bleached and looked at Clever Clover; the purple stallion's face had paled considerably, too. "Turn him over?" he asked.

The unicorn looked at the two stallions witheringly. "I must assume that he has wounds on the other side, too."

Fetish shrugged his shoulders; if Dreamcatcher wanted it done, then it had to be done. He and Clever Clover approached the wolf; in as gentle a manner as they could muster under the circumstances, they rolled the wolf onto his second side where more damage was painfully obvious.

Dreamcatcher set to work again, and the stallions stayed close in case they were needed. When the unicorn was satisfied with her efforts, she leaned back. "That should fix him up, if he has any strength left to fight for himself now." She ran a hoof over the white stripe that marked his face; the eyes of the animal remained closed and lifeless, yet his sides pulsed lightly to the rhythm of his shallow breathing.

Looking to where the she-wolf still kept her vigil, Dreamcatcher commented, "Maybe we should give her a chance to assure herself that her mate is safe." The mare stood and moved away from the beast; the stallions followed, and even Manitou and Halana backed off.

The she-wolf, seeing that her mate was now alone, slowly crept nearer until she was nose-to-nose with him. She sniffed him and, with renewed hope, began licking his face. The more she licked, the more animated she became; she softly whined in between the caresses, and after some time, the wolf opened his eyes; they stared unseeing, then dropped closed again. But the she-wolf was renewed; she stood, turning to the ponies and the other wolves, and growled a warning. Then, satisfied that she had been understood, she placed her body next to her bandaged mate and rested her head on his shoulder.

"What's the story behind all of this?" queried Clever Clover as the ponies went to sit on some nearby rocks. "What brought all of us together in this scenario that played out in the last few hours?"

"I'm in the dark," admitted Fetish.

"I have an idea," Dreamcatcher said.

"We're listening."

"I saw both sets of wounds on the wolf, the old ones and the ones added today by Manitou. I'd say that the first ones were put there by Manitou as well."

"So Manitou has been back in the Dark Forest all along?"

"I don't think so. I think the new wolves wandered into Manitou's summer grounds and found out that they were not welcome. I believe the male sustained his wounds in a battle with Manitou at that time."

"But he wasn't hurt when we saw him by the river," Fetish argued.

"We only saw his face and so did Butch. The wounds were probably festering and painful which is why he was so brazen in coming near our homes. We haven't had a sighting of him in weeks; he's been losing ground in all that time. And today he saw his chance to bring down something he could handle." Dreamcatcher shivered.

"But that doesn't explain why Manitou was on the spot."

"I'm grasping here, but I think that it was just coincidence that Manitou and his family were moving back in anticipation of the winter months. He arrived and found that the interloper had been marking over all his olfactory fences; I doubt that he was pleased."

The ponies looked at Manitou, and the wolf returned their gaze with an almost visible smirk on his face.

"Wait until Wigwam hears that Manitou saved your life," Clever Clover grinned at Dreamcatcher.

"Actually, Wigwam and I have reached an understanding since he and Chocolate Chip are at peace again; I wasn't about to lose her friendship. He avoids mentioning his casino and I avoid discussing Native Pony traditions when we are in each other's company; and the wolves are neutral ground." Dreamcatcher suddenly sat up. "I just remembered-- before the wolf showed up, I had unearthed a rather intriguing object; in the ensuing events, I must have dropped it." She began a systematic perusal of the area with the stallions helping her.

At that moment, every wolf head swung to look along the path, and the ponies strained to hear what had caught their attention.

"Yeah, yeah."

Clever Clover laughed. "It's Friendly and Spike with lunch; they're delivering a bunch of wooliecakes and other goodies."

The dragon and the Bushwoolie entered the clearing where the ponies and wolves were situated; they looked first at the ponies, then at Manitou's family, then at the alien pair.

His eyes wide with wonder, Spike asked, "What did we miss?"

"Yeah... yeah!"

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