The Trials of Hood
written by Sugarberry

Turning swiftly toward the ominous-sounding crash, Hood found himself face-to face with the elusive stallion who had been creating havoc and mayhem across the countryside for the past few weeks. 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 bowls of the rickety building.

Sugarberry was abruptly brought back to reality as an ear-splitting crash sounded from the kitchen. She jumped up from her computer and dashed into the room just as Fluff streaked past her through the doorway in the opposite direction.

"What a mess," wailed Sugarberry as she surveyed the current disaster. What had been a gorgeous bouquet of springtime daffodils and tulips now lay sprawled across the tile floor like the aftermath of a tornado: a maze of mangled petals and stems, broken glass, and a spreading puddle of water inching into ever-lengthening rivulets.

"Fluff, you are a bad cat!" Sugarberry shouted mercilessly as she stepped across the tangled mess. Her back hoof slid through the wet terrain, and Sugarberry herself crashed to the floor.

As she lay sprawled across the debris, she closed her eyes and murmured, "Why do I keep a cat in this house, anyway?" Just then, a cold, wet nose brushed across her cheek, and she opened her eyes to see the huge round golden eyes of Fluff. He licked her face, and purred consolingly.

"Oh, Fluffy," she cooed as she hugged his fat, fluffy body to her. "How can I stay angry at such a handsome fellow as you?"

Fluff kneaded his paws against Sugarberry's shoulder and purred even louder. He slowly blinked his eyes, and his purr swelled into a gentle roar.

"The least you can do is get off of me so I can get up," Sugarberry complained teasingly. She gently pushed Fluff aside and gingerly pulled herself up off the floor. "Oh, I'm going to have a nasty bruise." She rubbed the spot on her hip where she'd landed.

"You can help me clean this mess up," Sugarberry instructed Fluff as she began to sort through the jumble and sop up the water. Fluff sniffed out a daffodil and nibbled on a bright yellow petal. "Figures," giggled Sugarberry.

After sweeping up the flowers and glass, Sugarberry mopped up the floor and sighed in relief. "Finally, I can get back to my writing. It's my Saturday off, and I need to get caught up."

She hurried back to her computer where a screen-saver of dainty cats danced across the screen. As she dropped into the chair, she grimaced as her bruised hip pressed into the seat.

Sugarberry clicked the mouse and her mystery novel in progress appeared. Slumping into a more comfortable posture, Sugarberry resumed her train of thought.

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'd 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.

Ding-dong! The musical sound of the doorbell went unnoticed as Sugarberry concentrated on her story line, but the knocking of an insistent hoof on the front door succeeded in jarring Sugarberry out of her concentration. Testily, she stood up and limped across the room and pulled open the door.

Standing on Sugarberry's front porch was an attractive and vivacious pony, holding an array of tubes and bottles. "Yes?" Sugarberry tartly inquired.

"Good morning!" My name is Willow, and I'd like to show you my line of natural healing herbs. I'll just step in for a few minutes," the pony prattled as she brushed past Sugarberry into the house.

"This isn't a good..." Sugarberry began, but Willow was already seated on the couch and arranging her product display on the coffee table.

"I represent the Healing Helpers line of all natural formulas for better health. I carry all of the latest supplements for..."

Tiring of this tirade, Sugarberry interrupted tersely, "I need something that will help me get my work done."

"Oh, I have just the thing for you!" The fluent salespony didn't miss a beat. She held up one of the plastic bottles from the table. "Ginseng is what you need! It's a safe way to support your endurance. And remember, it's all natural and brought to you from Healing Helpers. Fully guaranteed and..."

"The cost?" asked Sugarberry curtly.

Flashing a saccharine smile, Willow continued, "...our products are of the highest quality and meet the most stringent qualifications..."

Sugarberry mentally calculated an addition five jangles on to her estimated cost of the product.

" this bottle of fifty capsules will be twenty jangles." Willow stopped for breath and Sugarberry quickly grabbed twenty jangles off her desk.

"Of course there is an additional two jangles handing charge and one jangle tax making your total bill..."

Sugarberry rolled her eyes as she retrieved three more jangles from her stash while Willow entered the figured on her calculator.

"...will come to twenty-three jangles!"

Handing Willow the jangles, Sugarberry waited impatiently for her to gather together her merchandise, and hastened to the door to see her out.

"I'm sure you'll be perfectly delighted with the performance of our product. If you are interested in any other items, give me a call at..."

Sugarberry swiftly closed the door behind the garrulous peddler, and leaned against it. Rubbing her hoof across her forehead, she muttered, "And now I have a headache." One thought brought her a moment's relief-- Willow's next customer would be Tabby, Sugarberry's next-door neighbor. "I'd like to see that confrontation!" she mused.

Sugarberry was about to return to the computer when a starving "meow" reached her ears. "Hungry, Fluff?" Sugarberry looked at the clock over her desk. "Oh, dear. It is noon already. Where did the morning go?"

Fluff rubbed his orange fur against Sugarberry's legs and purred reassuringly. "Yes, I'll take time for us to eat. But first, I need an aspirin." One hoof pushed into her throbbing head, the other into her aching hip. "Or maybe two." With a backward glance at the bottle of ginseng on the coffee table, she sighed. "And ginseng, too." She reached down and tickled Fluff under his chin. "I'll get back to work after lunch."

* * *

"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 mare 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 elegant edifice. Disinigrating mortar skipped down the uneven surface as he shifted his position.

Watching as his silent comrade restored the first-aid 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 had 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?

"Hood?" questioned Shasta worriedly. "Is something wrong?"

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'd looking 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."

"Surely you are mistaken," Shasta spoke soothingly. "If there was someone 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.

Sugarberry nearly hit the ceiling as a hoofstep sounded from behind. "Eeek!" she screamed loudly as she turned, rising, to face the intruder; her hooves were raised and ready.

"Whoa! It's only me!" Quarterback admitted as he jumped back to avoid getting trounced. "Remember? I'm supposed to fix your printer this afternoon."

"Oh, Quarterback, you scared me nearly to death! I was so absorbed in my writing that I didn't hear you come in." Sugarberry dropped back into the chair, her heart pounding.

"Sorry about that, but you did leave your back door unlocked in case you had to go out before I came," Quarterback reminded her.

"I completely forgot," Sugarberry responded apologetically. "I was wrapped-up in my work."

"You can keep at it. I'll check-out the printhead; maybe it is just dirty." With that, Quarterback began inspecting the printer.

Sugarberry stared at the computer screen and tried to regain her thoughts. She had re-read the last line a dozen times before an idea began to emerge, when...

"I think I've found your problem, Sugarberry." Quarterback was grinning mischievously. "This was in your printer." He held up a matted wad of cat fur.

"A hair ball?" Sugarberry groaned. "That cat! He's not supposed to get on my computer desk."

"He probably sleeps here every night," teased Quarterback. "There are a lot of loose cat hairs flying around inside this thing." Quarterback proceeded to clean the printer, and closed it back up.

"Will it work now?" asked Sugarberry hopefully, as she was anxious to be left alone to finish her story.

"Good as new," promised Quarterback. "But try to keep that overgrown longhair off your printer in the future."

Sugarberry walked Quarterback to the door as he filled her in on all the latest news from the sports world. She was grateful that he didn't notice her limp, as he'd have one more reason to dislike Fluff.

"Will I see you at the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe tonight?" he questioned expectantly.

"I'd love to be there," admitted Sugarberry, "but I've got a deadline to meet. I promised myself I'd get this finished today."

Quarterback looked downcast for a second, but brightened as he considered his options. "Steamer was setting-up a poker game for tonight; I'll just look in on that. Don't work too hard, Sugarberry! See ya."

Sugarberry sighed as Quarterback trotted off; she locked the door, refilled Fluff's food dish, grabbed a bunch of green grapes for herself, and returned to the computer. She popped a grape into her mouth, and hit the keys.

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?" he asked Shasta wonderingly.

"You could say that," she responded to Hood. 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."

The name drew a blank with Hood although he got the impression that Bilberry expected him to recognize it. Hood studied the two ponies who stood over him. The two were of equal height, but whereas Shasta's yellow body radiated a semblance of light, Bilberry's forest green body eminated 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.

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'd held at his side over to Shasta. She squealed in delight at the offering: sweet, succulent grapes; red ripe apples; and 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 lunch?"

"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 his sister. "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 childhood here."

Hood nibbled on some grapes as he 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 attended school there, but we always dreamed of coming back here and..."

"That's enough!" barked Bilberry. "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 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 than the house, and although the paint was pealing and the roof sagged slightly, the door looked solid. Bilberry opened the door and Shasta shoved Hood from behind so that before he knew it, he was inside the shed and the door closed 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.

"Click." It was a barely perceptible sound but it cut through Sugarberry's subconscious like a thunder-blast. Her eyes widened as she stared at the door; her heartbeat felt like a hammer in her chest. The door slowly began to open.

"Hi, ho, Sugarberry!" called Chocolate Chip as she let herself into the house. Chocolate Chip was Sugarberry's boarder while she attended Pony Pride University. Following closely behind was Tabby, Sugarberry's unicorn friend from next door.

"Hey, Sug! Saturday night! Time to get together with the gang!" Tabby called out merrily.

Sugarberry's heart continued to thump as she grimaced at her cheerful friends. "You two were practically the death of me," she chided.

"Who? Us?" asked Chocolate Chip. "How can you say that when we came to rescue you from carpal tunnel syndrome?"

"Yeah, Sugarberry. It's time to get away from that computer," added Tabby.

Sugarberry shook her head. "I've got to finish this!"

Chocolate Chip and Tabby came up to the desk. Tabby saved and closed-down the unit in exactly one and two tenths seconds while Chocolate Chip pulled Sugarberry out of her chair.

"All work and no play makes Sugarberry a dull pony," joked Chocolate Chip playfully.

Sugarberry looked back at the now blank screen as the two tugged her toward the door. "I've got to rescue Hood," she pleaded with them.

"Sugarberry," Tabby said in exasperation, "it's a perfect spring day out. There's no need for a hood."

As the door closed behind her and the fresh spring breeze hit her face, Sugarberry realized she was starving. "Could we go to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe?" she queried.

"Where else is there?" Chocolate Chip shot back, and they left Hood to his problems as they went off to enjoy Dream Valley's premier hang-out. Hood would have to wait for another day.

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