"Are you responsible for this lovely day?" Sugarberry asked of Fr. Isaac as the guests at Bittersweet and Teepee's sylvan wedding mingled on the river bank in the Dark Forest. The knot having been tied, the bride and groom were smilingly accepting congratulations and best wishes from their friends.
Fr. Isaac chuckled. "I'd like to think it was my prayers that brought this delightful weather; but Jalap would disagree, I'm sure." He nodded toward the imposing shaman who stood solemnly at the edge of the gathering like a spirit-being, his grass-green color blending in against the fresh foliage of the trees and shrubs behind him.
"Clever Clover mentioned that this was part of the ancient Dream Vallian civilization."
"Yes, he explained to me, too, several possible explanations of the pavilion's existence; and I do sense a pervading peacefulness."
The peace was rippled as Banderol scampered up to Sugarberry, accompanied by Tamarack, with Vanguard, Dreamcatcher, and Fetish trailing behind.
"Hi, sweetie." Sugarberry grinned at her son and tousled his mane. "Are you and Tamarack having a good time?"
"Me and Bandy hungry," Tamarack relayed for the two foals. Turning to his own mother, he asked, "When eat?"
Glancing further down the meandering stream to a clearing where the wedding dinner was being organized, then to the lagging progress of the bride and groom talking with the wedding guests, Dreamcatcher smiled. "Be patient, little one; your Aunt Bittersweet and your new Uncle Teepee still have many friends to acknowledge."
Pouting, Tamarack reasoned, "Can talk later... while we're eatin'!"
"I suppose they could," Fetish placated. "But this is their special day, so we won't make them hurry."
The look Fetish sent his son served to quiet the plucky colt who now plopped down on the grassy riverbank to "find bug". Banderol immediately joined him, causing Sugarberry to roll her eyes.
"I hope they don't have plans to eat any."
* * *
For a wedding in the Dark Forest, the celebration lacked none of the amenities. White-clothed tables, heavily laden with food and drink, had been set up in a blossoming glade where spring beauties sprinkled the fresh grass with their tiny pink blossoms. The newly-budded trees that ringed the clearing filtered the warm springtime sunshine, casting dappled shadows over the space without inhibiting the light. It was indeed a lovely day.
Bittersweet and Teepee had finally reached the wedding feast and had taken their places.
at the table, much to the joy of Banderol and Tamarack. The trek to the forest and the surfeit of fresh air had given the colts a hearty appetite; but, once sated, the two were ready for more adventure. To allow Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher an opportunity to relax among their friends, Licorice volunteered to take the foals on an exploratory walk more deeply into the forest. Licorice's college classmate and best buddy, Snapper, accompanied them.
"Listen to what Licorice tells you," Sugarberry admonished her son, "and stay close to him so you don't get lost." She planted a tender kiss on the foal and turned him over to the care of the young stallions.
"We won't go far," Licorice assured Sugarberry with a grin. "Come on, brats."
* * *
The four explorers had gotten no further than the edge of the clearing when Snapper groaned. "Here comes Boxey." A vivacious creamy-yellow filly with an avalanche of lavender hair was definitely headed in their direction.
"I know she's your sister and all, Snapper, but Bandy and Tam are better behaved than she is." He grabbed a hoof of each of the youngsters and headed under cover in an obvious ploy to lose the approaching filly. Snapper was close on his heals.
"You're telling me? I'm the one who's had to live under the same roof with her for sixteen years."
Three years younger than Snapper and the baby of the family, Boxey was a hoyden. Unfettered by any preconceived conventions, she was often the instigator of activities that had landed Boxey and her older brother in serious scrapes with their parents. Snapper, now in college, tried to distance his sixteen-year-old sibling. Boxey, however, was not ready yet to relinquish a perfectly satisfactory relationship (from her point of view) with her brother; and her teasing, her goading, her scheming, and her laughter often trailed the stallion... and by association, Licorice.
"Wait up!" she called, waving her hoof in the air. "Where ya' goin'?" She arrived at their sides in a rush.
"We're taking the colts for a walk. What're you doing?" Snapper returned.
"Why, comin' with you, of course," the filly replied, flipping her mane over her shoulder and latching it into a ponytail with an elastic band that she had worn on her foreleg. "I don't know anyone here, and I need to do somethin' or I'll die of boredom. Let's go this way."
With a toss of her tail, Boxey took off into the forest, the colts scampering after her and Snapper and Licorice sharing a silent glance; then, with a shrug of their shoulders, they followed.
* * *
"This place was built and abandoned long before the Native Ponies moved into the area," Boxey lectured, her eyes sparkling as she surveyed the weathered stone-tiled pavilion where the wedding had taken place. Encroaching weeds had been removed to refine the space where the bride and groom had exchanged their wedding vows; but beyond that, the forest had been left untouched and natural. The trees that circled the pavilion were tall and protective.
"Why didn't Bittersweet and Teepee get married out at the Native Pony site in the hills?" Snapper wanted to know.
"It would have interfered too much with the work still being done there," Licorice noted. "And, besides, they figured it was too far from town. Bittersweet thought this place was terribly romantic," he added as an afterthought.
"Romantic!" scoffed Boxey with a grimace. "It's exciting!" She twirled across the uneven stonework. "Imagine the ponies who built this place and who lived and planned and fought and..."
Boxey was interrupted by a yelp from Licorice as he dashed across the stone tiles to rescue Tamarack who had begun to climb the wall that framed the courtyard. The black stallion grabbed the colt just as one of the rocks crumbled loose and dropped to the ground.
"This wall isn't safe," he explained to Tamarack and Banderol. "Let's move on."
"Me want 'nake," Tamarack pouted, pointing to the wall.
"You saw a snake?" Boxey exclaimed, rushing to investigate. "Where'd he go?"
Snapper, not sharing his sister's love of snakes, stepped back and searched the area around him cautiously. "I don't think..."
But Boxey had already uncovered the reptile, hiding under a tree branch that overhung the wall. "Look, guys! It's a bull snake!" The filly gently grasped the willowy specimen and held it up for all to see.
Both Tamarack and Banderol were mesmerized by the slithering creature whose red underside flashed brightly even in the shadowy forest, his chocolate brown top blending in well with the woodsy surroundings. As Tamarack reached out softly to experience the feel of the snake, the creature slowly transferred to the colt's foreleg, much to the fascination of both foals.
"Now, that's a fashion statement," Boxey laughed as the snake coiled itself bracelet-like around Tamarack's leg.
"Me, 'nake! Me, 'nake!" Banderol piped, patting his own foreleg.
"Hold your foreleg close to Tam's," instructed Licorice, "and let the snake make up his own mind."
At first, the snake's tongue was the only thing that moved as he checked out this new pony; then, slowly, he inched forward, transferring himself to Banderol's country-blue leg. The foal smiled widely with pleasure. "Me like 'nake," he said.
"And the snake likes you, too, as long as you never try to hurt him," Boxey instructed both the foals. "Now, though, I think it's time we let him get back to his own life." She returned the reptile back to the stone wall, and they all watched as he slithered more deeply under the protective tree branch where he was swallowed up in the shadows.
Licorice, Snapper, and Boxey laughed as the two baby ponies tried to mimic the snake's tongue action, and soon the colts had collapsed in giggles as well.
"Are you ready to go back to your mother's?" Licorice asked of them when they had settled down.
"No!" Boxey was the one to exclaim the loudest, with Banderol and Tamarack backing her. "They'll just be sittin' around talkin'. Let's explore some more." Without waiting for a response, she headed off with the two foals following her.
Heaving a deep sigh, Licorice fell in behind them. Glancing back at Snapper, he found that the stallion was not moving.
"I hate snakes," Snapper shuddered.
"Just walk loud," Licorice grinned. "You'll scare them away."
Looking doubtful, Snapper filed after the others.
* * *
It was a slow and meandering trail that the ponies took as Boxey found it necessary to follow every bounding bunny, examine every unfamiliar flower, identify every brilliant bird, and scale every twigged tree. Before her energy was even beginning to wane, Banderol and Tamarack were having a hard time putting one hoof in front of the other. Snapper and Licorice, who themselves longed for some of the leftovers from the dinner tables and a cool drink, took pity on the foals and hoisted them up on their shoulders.
With an unexpected show of authority, Snapper called to his sister who was already nearly out of sight ahead of them. "Boxey, we've got to go back! Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher will be worried about the foals."
Acknowledging that she had heard, Boxey turned and waved a hoof, although she did not stop or change her direction, and soon disappeared into the thickening forest. Snapper let out a growl of disapproval. "That little imp will get herself lost yet."
"If we all aren't lost already," muttered Licorice, looking back in the direction in which they had come. "Boxey!" He raised his voice so that it echoed through the trees. "We're leaving for the clearing in two minutes!"
The two stallions and the sleepy foals listened intently for any response from the filly, but none was forthcoming. "Boxey!" Snapper called again, but there was no sound from the forest, not even the rustling of a squirrel or the chirping of a bird. The Dark Forest had assumed a closed, intimidating atmosphere.
"This is pathetic," Licorice ground out. "That silly chit hasn't got a brain in her head!" He met Snapper's glance. "We've got to get Tam and Bandy back to their mothers, or we'll never hear the end of it. I'm assuming Boxey can take care of herself?" he queried.
"She always does," Snapper grimaced. "And it's not like we didn't warn her."
The explorers, minus one, turned and headed back toward the wedding party.
* * *
"Tamarack's birthday is in three days," Dreamcatcher mentioned to Sugarberry. "I hope you still plan to attend his party."
"Oh my gosh, yes," Sugarberry grinned. "Banderol wouldn't miss it for the world." Suddenly, she frowned and turned to gaze into the Dark Forest. "I wonder where our little troopers are? They've been gone a long time."
"They've probably lost track of the time," Dreamcatcher reassured the mare. "It's easy to do... the forest is so beautiful."
Sugarberry shivered, remembering some of the less than pleasant tales she had heard which involved the Dark Forest. Tabby's experience with the skeleton king and Dreamcatcher's own close call with the hungry wolves came to mind. As she stared at the march of trees, a small cloud passed in front of the sun, casting a dismal aspect on the forest; and she jumped when Vanguard placed a hoof on her shoulder.
Knowing her thoughts, Vanguard gave her a bracing smile. "Snapper and Licorice are coming this way along the river." He glanced at Dreamcatcher. "It appears that both foals succumbed to their afternoon naps. Fetish and I are going to meet them."
* * *
As Vanguard and Fetish approached the younger stallions, they became aware of the harried attitude of Snapper and Licorice. "Are the foals okay?" Fetish asked as they met.
"Bandy and Tam are fine," Licorice said as he relayed Banderol over to the colt's father. "It's the third foal we have to worry about, if she's not back with you guys."
Both Vanguard and Fetish raised a questioning brow. "It's m'sister," Snapper hastily explained. "We got separated. Have you seen her back here?"
"Boxey?" Vanguard queried, trying to remember any sign of the teenaged filly and coming up empty.
"She was dousing Bittersweet and Teepee with bird seed after the wedding," Fetish noted.
"She tagged along with us when we left with the foals," Licorice explained as they walked back to the reception area. "We went a lot farther than we'd planned on, and Boxey just kept going. The foals were tired, so Snapper and I turned back."
"You left her out there all alone?"
"We tried to get her to come back with us," Snapper quickly supplied, "but she wouldn't listen. She just waved goodbye and disappeared."
"We thought it'd be best to get the foals back to their mothers and then go back for Boxey," Licorice added.
"Check with your parents, Snapper, and make sure she's not here somewhere," suggested Fetish. "If not, we'll round up some volunteers to look for her."
* * *
"She's not even going to realize she's caused a problem," Licorice muttered as he and Vanguard, along with Wigwam and Whispering Birch retraced the route along the river by which the stallions had returned while Snapper led Remuda, Jalap, Fetish, and Dreamcatcher on the original path the ponies had taken into the forest. Other wedding guests had fanned out, calling Boxey's name, in an effort to direct the filly back in the right direction.
* * *
Meanwhile, Boxey, so intent on tracing down the flash of grayish-brown fur she had seen, was oblivious to the stallions' departure. Even though she had heard their threat of leaving, she did not respond because she did not want to frighten off whatever sort of animal she was tracking- although its coloring was close to that of the rabbits she had seen, it did not move with the hip-hopping motion of a lagomorph. Her wave of hoof to keep her brother and Licorice quiet had succeeded in silencing them more effectively than she could have hoped.
Now, however, the filly found herself in a predicament.
In front of her on a hillside sloping down to the sparkling river that curved in a loop around the spit of land, the small, furry body she had been following through the underbrush had disappeared. It was not until Boxey had crawled through a particularly spiky hedge of thornbush into an area of trampled ground that she realized that her prey had taken shelter in a den dug in the hillside.
As she stood and brushed the twigs and leaves off her body, Boxey took stock of her surroundings more carefully; it was then that she noticed a much larger furry shape than she had been following standing at the entrance to the hole which caused Boxey to cease all motion to the extent that even her breathing was arrested.
For the animal was a wolf... and not a particularly welcoming individual of that species. It's fur was bristling in hostility and its fangs were bared and its yellow eyes harbored deep resentment toward the intruder. It was a she-wolf protecting her pups. Boxey knew she had met her match.
In the next instant, her heart constricted even more tightly, for a deep, masculine growl came from the bushes behind her as well.
* * *
"Here's the spot," Licorice revealed to the rest of his cohorts as they came to the point where he and Snapper had emerged from the forest and began following the river. "W'd hiked for about twenty minutes due west from the place where Boxey disappeared."
"I suggest that we split up," Wigwam suggested. He looked at his sister. "Whispering Birch, you accompany Licorice back into the forest; he'll be able to get you back where they were. Van, you and I will follow the river north. If Boxey has any sense, she'll head for the river, too, knowing that she can follow it back to her parents."
Licorice grumbled. "If Boxey had any sense, she wouldn't be lost." His tone was derogatory, but the sobriquet, dumb girl, was left unspoken.
"The Dark Forest has never been easy to navigate," Whispering Birch defended. "Even growing up near here and traipsing through these shadowy depths time and time again, my siblings and I got turned around any number of times." She grinned at Wigwam as memories of several rather frightening episodes involving the two of them plus Teepee and their neighboring friends flitted through their minds.
Not convinced, Licorice made no response. He was only aware that Boxey had flaunted his and Snapper's advice on turning back; if she had listened to them, no one would have to be out scouring the forest for her now.
"Don't stay out longer than an hour," Wigwam warned. "If we haven't found her by then, we'll have to regroup and widen the search."
"Come on, Licorice. Lead the way," Whispering Birch ordered.BR>
Licorice had the sinking feeling that he was being put to the test.
* * *
During the first part of their trek northward, Vanguard and Wigwam were accompanied by the shouts of Boxey from Whispering Birch and Licorice which echoed their own calls; but soon they were separated by distance and the wall of trees so that only the natural sounds of the forest were heard.
"I've never been in this part of the forest," Vanguard noted, quickly surveying the surroundings as he and Wigwam followed the river's course. "I'd like to come back when its not an emergency situation. Are you familiar with every corner of this place?"
"This woods is expansive, which is part of the reason it has a bad reputation. Once a pony is off the marked paths, it's a simple thing to get lost. I'm not sure anyone has covered every part of the Dark Forest and all its terrains, Van. Some places are so thick with undergrowth that it's nearly impossible to get through; some areas are steep and dangerous. Most ponies look for an easier trail rather than tempt fate. The river, however, has always been a main thoroughfare, so to speak, through the forest; for those of us who grew up close to the land, it was a well-known route, although most today are more likely to take the smoother, safer paths."
Both of the stallions ceased the conversation as they marched onward, once again calling Boxey's name and listening for a response and watching for any signs of recent passage. So intent was Vanguard on his quest that he did not notice that Wigwam had halted until he heard the stallion's low-voiced command to stop. Vanguard looked at his companion to find that Wigwam was surveying the area where the river curved abruptly to the left to avoid a hillside, a frown marring his face.
Vanguard moved closer to him. "What is it?" he whispered.
Shaking his head, Wigwam said, "Nothing, really. It's just that... well, I've seen signs that Manitou and Halona are in this area. Even I'm not privy to where their den is located; but if Boxey stumbles on to it, I'm not sure how Manitou and Halona will react." He was thinking of the wolf who had been his companion for several years until Manitou had found a mate, Halona. Both wolves were frequent visitors to Wigwam's home under normal circumstances; but at this time of the year, they were in imposed isolation with their new family.
"You're saying that they will be more aggressive with their pups' welfare at stake?"
"It's a strong possibility," Wigwam admitted. He then began the ascent of the wooded slope before them.
The two stallions had not gone far before they heard ahead of them a choked scream followed by what sounded like a scuffle.
* * *
When Vanguard and Wigwam burst through the wall of bushes that encircled the den entrance, they faced their worst expectations. Boxey, laid out on her side, was under siege by two swarming, furry bodies, both of which seemed intent on...
The stallions came up short. Wigwam chuckled while Vanguard watched in amazement.
Giggling hysterically, Boxey's face was being licked voraciously by two wolf pups, one a deep grey, the other flecked with silver, while the two adult wolves sat off to the side with what could only be described as satisfied grins on their faces.
It would seem that the daring filly had overcome any objections of the parent wolves on her breaking into their sanctuary, and the two pups were ecstatic to meet a new friend.
Wigwam circled the tumbling bodies to reach Manitou and Halona, and placed a hoof convivially on both parents. "A fine pair of young ones... I congratulate the two of you." Halona responded by nuzzling Wigwam's hoof, and Manitou pointed his ears up with pride.
Boxey managed to extricate herself temporarily from the pups' sloppy kisses and sit up. "These guys are the cutest!" she said, a look of rapture on her face. Then, she was once more toppled by a joint charge from the two exuberant playmates.
* * *
Everyone was happy when the rescuers came back with Boxey in their midst, and the filly was soon surrounded by ponies curious to learn of her adventure with the wolves. She admitted to the fear she had first felt when she had found herself under close scrutiny by the adult wolves and her relief when they had sensed that she was harmless and that she had no nefarious motives for being so near their den.
At the edge of the clearing sat Licorice, purposelessly separating himself from the crowd around Boxey by offering to watch over the sleeping Banderol. Even the bride and groom were listening to the story with no regard for the disturbance Boxey's disappearance and subsequent recovery had caused in their wedding festivities while Licorice brooded.
It was bad enough that Boxey had invited herself to accompany the stallions, but then to get lost while under their protection... It was mortifying for Licorice. It also did not help to have been under Whispering Birch's eagle eyes and having her point out to him his earlier path through the forest. She had deliberately bated him time and time again, he was sure.
Snapper came to join his friend.
"What? You're missing your sister's performance?" Licorice growled.
Chuckling, Snapper sat down. "I'll hear the story any number of times as she yaps of it to her friends." He cast a sideways glance at Licorice. "What's up with you?"
"I'm keeping an eye on Banderol," the young stallion responded, nodding toward the sleeping foal nestled against his side.
"I can see that," Snapper snapped. "What I mean is, why do you look like a storm cloud over the horizon?"
"Why? Because your little sister is a bratling, in the truest sense of the word. She runs off into the Dark Forest by herself, not heeding our warning to the contrary, and yet she gets the royal treatment now that she's back while ponies look at us as if we were too bird-witted to keep track of her. If you ask me, she should be grounded for a month for causing such a fuss."
"I know what you mean, pal. But it's obvious that you don't have any sisters of your own, or you'd understand that the female of the species can get away with a lot more than the male."
"If that's the case, I'm glad I never had a sister," muttered Licorice, thanking the Lord for two older brothers instead. Putting a protective foreleg around the foal so peacefully asleep, he added, "And I hope, for your sake, Bandy, that your folks have a long string of boys."