My Little Pony Monthly Issue 47 (February 1, 2001)


My Little Pony Monthly
Established June 1997
This Newsletter is Safe for All Ages

If you would like to be removed from the My Little Pony Monthly mailing list, simply send a blank e-mail to [email protected]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Issue 47
February 2001
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Index of this issue–



1. The Lost Prince Chapters 1 & 2 (by Moonjumper and Prism)

2. Ginseng and Sassafras Tea Chapters 21 & 22 (by Sugarberry)

3. The Trip Back to England (by Baby Steamer)

4. Destiny (by Sugarberry)

5. Determined Dreams (by Shining)

6. Lamplight Legacy (by Sugarberry)

7. Dungeons & Ponies (by Clever Clover)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Lost Prince
by Moonjumper and Prism ([email protected] and [email protected])


Dear VALUED READERS:



It has come to our attention that you were not pleased with the last installment of Lost Prince© and that there have been no more monthly installments since October of last year. We at LEGENDS INC. express our deepest apologies and offer you this FREE GIFT. But you must act quickly, before February first, or this FREE GIFT will expire.



Go here to receive your FREE LEGENDS INC. GIFT: http://www.notawebsite.com



We at LEGENDS INC. also would like to notify you that Lost Prince© has been brought back for your reading pleasure, fully revised to the polls' and Kritiks' opinions. It will be released every month in two chapters for the first six chapters; then the installments will return to once a month. Again, we urge you to take our FREE GIFT.



After the last installment of Lost Prince©, LEGENDS INC. will be releasing the LEGEND that started it all, Minty's Journey©. Minty's Journey© release date is currently unconfirmed, but we at LEGENDS INC. will notify our VALUED READERS when the date is settled on.



Once again we express our deepest apologies and regrets, especially to Henry Horner's family. We at LEGENDS INC. do not wish to show favoritism, but we gave the Horner family two of our FREE GIFTS. Adieu, VALUED READERS.



The *hard* working author who is the *head* LEGENDS INC.,



MarenchE VILA DY



Chapter 1


The old tower was covered with vines, and the once white stone had turned a weathered gray. The marvelous stained-glass windows had long been hidden by centuries of grime. In the moonlight it gave off an eerie, mystical feeling.

A cloaked figure crept to the tower. Rustling leaves made the being fall to the forest floor, and it looked around cautiously. When it was clear no one else was about, the figure relaxed visibly. He pressed in one of the tower's stones and a small section of the wall swung in silently, revealing a dark room lit by a small candle. He rushed in as the wall closed with a soft whoosh.

Inside, the figure pulled out a second candle from within its cloak and lit it. After placing it next to the first, he removed his cloak. A regal-looking white tiger was revealed and he stood, searching the darkness intently.

"My Queen?" he asked the darkness.

"I am here, Blaze," a soft voice replied.

The white tiger, addressed as Blaze, knelt on the cold stone floor.

"Rise, faithful servant." The Queen stepped closer and a flash of a rainbow lock of hair was lit momentarily by the dim light.

Blaze rose. "I bring news of the princes," he started.

"Are they well?" the Queen broke in anxiously.

Blaze nodded. "And safe. You chose the perfect place to protect them from this night, and the perfect ones to find and protect them."

The Queen sighed. I do wish I had never trusted that witch... then I would still have my sons. But no, Flicker, I could not see... and then, the Prophecy wouldn't come true...

"My Queen?" Blaze broke tentatively into her thoughts.

"Yes?"

"What about Majesty?"

"She and the rest are safe for now. They cannot be affected tonight. You and I are the only ones; Dorin made sure of that."

Blaze looked troubled. "But what if I do not awake; who will guide..."

"You will," the Queen said sharply, knowing well what the rest of his question was. Then, in a very tired voice, she added, "And the message is awaiting its time, carefully locked in the Crystal."

Blaze nodded. "I will go now..."

The Queen walked over to Blaze and gave him a grateful hug. "You will never know how invaluable you are to me..." A tear slipped down her delicate face.

Blaze took a deep breath. "And the others will never know the price their deliverer had to pay."

Another tear then another glided down and the Queen was about to speak, but decided to just smile.

Blaze gazed at his queen one last time before slipping into the night. How she is able to carry a load such as this, he shook his head. He listened carefully to the forest sounds, knowing the danger of being found by Marenche's spies.

In the tower, the Queen cried. Crystal tears fell as she remembered the last son she had hidden, the one that had hurt so terribly...

* * *
"Mommy?"

"Yes, Silver?" My precious son...

"Will I see you again?" Silver's voice trembles. Oh Silver...

My heart breaks upon hearing those words. Why must I place such a terrible fate upon my precious son? Because of an old vow. "Yes, someday..." I try to sound reassuring, but I know my eyes betray the truth.

* * *
The Queen closed her eyes. She had prepared herself for this, ever since Dorin had warned her. But she did not want to give up her third son... his destiny would be impossible. The three others, yes, but not her precious Silver.

I will try one last time...

The room suddenly burst into a blinding, pure light. Wind rushed through, extinguishing the candles. A delicate silver unicorn knelt on the floor, begging silently to free her son from his destiny. "Please, Flicker! Another way!"

The light vanished. The Queen's plea had been denied. There was no stopping; the path of the future was set.

Slowly, the Queen rose and, looking to the sky above, became as a statue, a solitary tear gracing her muzzle.

* * *
Miles away, in a volcanic cave, a slim figure watched a silver crystal with nervous anticipation. It flickered black once, then darkened forever. A wicked laugh echoed into the night.

"The Valley is mine!!!" More laughter ensued.

"But Marenche, what of the wizard?" a slender, trollish looking creature with pointed ears asked.

Marenche turned with an evil smirk. "He is gone as well!! No one could withstand the talisman's power from out there, Trixie!" Marenche flipped her waist-length black hair back, looking out into the night with an evil, pleased smirk.

"There you are wrong," a voice came from above, from the shadows.

Marenche whirled around, her face deathly pale. Silence descended, thick enough to be cut with a knife.

"Remember... I remember that..." Trixie swallowed, a cold band squeezing her left arm. Something dark settled about her and caused her body to convulse. But it was all over in a second, and Trixie wore the same pale face as her mistress.

"No... it... it can't be!" Marenche gripped her glowing pendant, fingers white.

A cloak fell to the floor.

"It is! It is!!" Trixie squealed shrilly, becoming excited.

Marenche frowned hard at the small troll. Trixie instantly cowered. Stupid slave. But the trick band works well... "Dorin, what a PLEASANT surprise," she said through clenched teeth.

Dorin appeared, and his cloak rose up and rested on his shoulders. "As always, the same to you, madam."

Marenche fumed, seeing her plan to destroy Dorin had failed. "You still cannot bring them back; they are GONE!!" she smiled shrewdly.

Dorin chuckled. "Really? I believe," he paused, enjoying the look on Marenche's face, "they never left. Never."

Marenche's eyes widened as she realized his implication. "You, you, you," she spluttered, not bothering to hide her hatred.

Dorin smiled sardonically. "Not all plans work perfectly," he said as he disappeared with a wave of his cloak. "Not even mine, forgive me, sons of dawn..."

Marenche's cry of rage thundered through the still valley and Trixie hid, afraid of her mistress' voice and swift, strong hand.

"This, this cannot be... I cannot fail... this MUST not be..." Marenche swallowed, her confidence shattered. She turned to a dark crystal ball supported by a rock hand. It was becoming a mixture of gold and white flames.

"Nooooooo!!!!!" Marenche smashed it and all went dark...



Chapter 2


~* Several years later *~


"And no one has ever seen Dorin since that fateful night..." Paradise finished with a mysterious air.

The banquet hall converged into thunderous applause.

Majesty grinned. So far so good, she said telepathically across the room to her good friend, Twilight.

Twilight nodded, but still shifted uneasily. The Summer Solstice Festival was her responsibility– she couldn't let anything go wrong...

"Paradise, a wonderful fairy tale, as usual!" a light pink male pony with sparkly dark blue hair stood and congratulated the pegasus. He had the royal mark: a silver gem adorned his neck.

Majesty frowned. "That's no fairy..."

Paradise bristled. "That, Prince Sapphire, was NOT a ‘fairy tale'. Every word of it truly happened." She came close to glaring at him, but caught herself and smiled politely.

Prince Sapphire nervously tried to back up. "Well, I... I..." he looked very contrite.

Majesty's frown disappeared and she shook her head slightly. Disbelief in that particular legend was out of the question– it was all they had of their past that they could remember, and the background of his very own birth?

Twilight saw that everyone's attention was centered on the prince. This will never do, the heir of the Crystal Castle... I can't let that happen, even if... She stood, calling the ponies' attention to herself and allowing Paradise and Prince Sapphire a chance to sit down. "Paradise's beautifully told story could only be complimented by Medley's voice talent. Medley?" Twilight dipped her head in Medley's direction.

Medley rose and nodded. She loved to sing, even when impromptu. After Medley's song, clowns came out, much to the delight of the baby ponies, and the rest of the evening passed rather quickly, without any more mishaps, much to Twilight's relief.

* * *
"Shhh!! Jinx! You want to wake everyone?" a lone pony with a dark brown hawk slipped out of Dream Castle. He hid in the shadows and waited to make sure no one had heard his bird's calls.

"You have to be more quiet," the pony stroked the hawk's feathers gently. He placed the bird on his back where it promptly climbed up to sit between his ears. "You'll fall off," the pony warned as he started out for the other side of Dream Valley, the volcanic side. A beam of pale moonlight showed a covered pony with sparkly dark pink hair.

The journey was rough; no path was carved out of the rocky mountainous sides of the valley. Many times he stopped to rest. It seemed as if he'd been traveling for years when he reached his destination– Talen's Cave.

"Well," he set Jinx down. "We made it. Now, where's the treasure Barnacle spoke of?" The pony lit a torch and walked in.

The walls were strangely light tan, and he touched one to find that they were really golden in color, just covered with dirt and grim. He wandered along the cave walls, unknowing that it was a wide rectangle in shape.

Jinx cried out suddenly and disappeared; the wind made by his wings blew the torch out, leaving his companion in the dark.

"JINX!!!" the pony called after him. "Agrrr... thanks. Now what?" he wondered. He brushed against the wall and jumped back with a cry of surprise. Something was there. Tentatively he reached out but drew his hoof back.

"Unnnhhhh...."

A light came from the wall and blinded the pony. Hearing a grating sound, he tried to back up more, but found he was stuck. "What's going on???" His heartbeat sped. "Barnacle... this must be some sort of joke they play on roya–"

"You have awoken me!!! I am free!!" a voice crashed into his mind.

The light dimmed and he saw a silhouette of a person. His eyes widened in horror when he saw the face; and her claws grabbed at him, tearing away his covering.

"What's this? The mark of HER?!!!" A long thin finger reached out and touched his neck, right where a silver gem shone brightly.

Jinx rushed at the person, loyally trying to save his master. But there was a large crash and the bird became still.

The person shrieked (partly because of anger, the other part of success) and the cave went dark, just as the sun began to rise on the eastern side of Dream Valley.

* * *
Majesty entered the darkened throne room sleepily. "Where is Twilight... I thought she'd be back from showing our guests their rooms by now. I need to talk...so tired..." The unicorn yawned as she sat down on her throne, blinking and trying to not fall asleep.

"Majesty?" Twilight crept into the throne room to see her queen and friend asleep on the throne. Just like her, Twilight thought as she laughed softly. She stood there for a moment, pondering whether she should wake her friend or just let her sleep. It had been a tiring day, but... She'll get uncomfortable soon, I guess I should wake her...

But Twilight had no chance to wake her, for, as she was about to shake her gently, Majesty bolted upright with a look of shock on her face.

"No..." the queen said hoarsely; a dark image burned into her mind, one from a nightmare of all nightmares.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ginseng and Sassafras Tea
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


Chapter 21


It was turning into a long night. Hood sat in the quiet cafeteria clutching a cup of strong black coffee. The fact that it tasted terrible didn't seem to register with him as he continued to gulp the hot brew.

After Bilberry had been turned over to the medical personnel at the hospital for attention, Checker had taken Hood quietly into the maternity ward to look briefly on his niece. With a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye, Hood looked with wonder at the delicate creature, her tiny hooves resting lightly on the blanket. "She's gorgeous!" he whispered to Checker, who grinned widely and nodded in agreement.

Checker had returned to his duties while Hood collapsed in the lunchroom looking back over the events of the day. He shook his head in contemplation. How had such an ordinary day turned into the adventure that ensued?

The sound of hoofsteps caused him to come alert as a nurse guided Shasta into the room. Hood stood up and pulled a chair out for the weary filly. Shasta hesitated, but finally sat down. The nurse, a white and blue earth pony, brought a mug for her and set the carafe on the table. "Enjoy," she said in a soft, pleasant voice; and for the first time, Hood noticed her name tag: Angel. He looked quickly at Shasta who met his eyes briefly, then turned away.

"I'll let you know when your brother is settled in his room," Angel told Shasta before leaving. Her voice had a musical quality that helped sooth Hood's tired psyche.

When they were alone, Hood studied Shasta's face as she absently stirred her coffee. What was she thinking? he wondered, yet he hated to disturb her any further by asking pointless questions. He refilled his cup, and compared the exhausted, worried filly before him with the vivacious, confident pony he had first met earlier in the evening as his benefactor in the heap of rubble at the old farmhouse.

His train of thought reminded him of his battered hip; he finally broke the silence between them. "I never thanked you for your medical attention after my fall. You have a natural knack for easing pain."

"I learned that from my mother when I was just a foal," she said quietly without raising her gaze from the coffee.

And from his time in the meadow where Sassafras now lay, Hood knew that the mare had been a very special pony; her legacy of healing now rested with her daughter's talent. He was sure that Shasta would prove herself to be an exemplary care giver.

Hood was about to question Shasta concerning her family when Checker and Searcher came through the doorway. Checker lost no time in stating his business. "Shasta, you'll have to come down to headquarters for some questioning."

Hood began to complain, but Checker raised his hoof for silence. "We just need a few gaps in the story filled in."

"I'd hoped to stay here to be with Bilberry when the doctor is through with him," Shasta pleaded with the police chief as she stood to face him. Hood quickly went to her side to lend his support.

"Couldn't this wait until morning, Checker?" Hood asked.

"Hey!" Checker responded. "I'm the good guy, remember? But there are a few questions that need answers yet, and the sooner the better." He nodded to Searcher, who guided Shasta from the room.

Setting his hoof on Hood's foreleg, Checker softened. "She'll be back soon to see her brother, Hood. I'm not going to lock her up." He turned to leave, then looked back. "If I were you, I'd go home and get some sleep. You look awful."

Realizing that Checker was probably right, Hood headed for the exit, only to be met by Dreamy coming in.

"You look awful!" she smilingly informed him. Catching sight of his bandaged hip, she suddenly grew serious. "You've been hurt!"

"Just a scratch," Hood disclosed.

"You never showed up for our date," she reproved.

"I got a little caught up in other things."

"Do I get the story?" she queried as she held up her tape recorder. "I hear that you were instrumental in catching the villain."

Hood shook his head. "Always the reporter, right, Dreamy?" He started around her for the door.

"Can't blame a mare for trying," she grinned. "At least you can give me a few facts." But Hood was already out the door, and on his way home.

* * *
Hood thought he would sleep until noon when he had crawled into his bed after a quick shower, but he came suddenly awake at seven and jumped out of bed. His last thought before falling asleep had been Shasta; she had looked so forlorn and friendless when he had last seen her, and now his first thought was of her. He had to get to the hospital to see how she-- and Bilberry-- were doing.

After grabbing a stale donut and a glass of milk-- no time for coffee!-- he set off for the hospital at a brisk pace. As he walked, he realized that he would have to buy a gift for Moonglow and the new foal, and he looked forward to holding the little filly for the first time. But his concern for Shasta and her brother overwhelmed his thoughts, and he began formulating plans to help the siblings in whatever way he could.

Arriving at the hospital, he was pleased to see that Checker was there, too, using the phone in the main lobby. The chief motioned Hood to wait for him as he finished the call. "Come say good morning to your sister, Hood. She can't wait to see you." As they walked down the hall, Checker cast a sideways glance at the stallion. "Well, you look cleaner this morning, at least."

They found Moonglow just finishing breakfast; the foal was awake, entranced by the sunbeam flowing through the window. After a hug for his sister and the explanation of his escapade at the farmstead, Hood went to the bassinet; he picked up the foal gingerly and reveled in the beauty of the precious newborn.

Suddenly, something came to him. "What's her name?" he asked, realizing he had been too distraught during the night to even wonder what the foal would be christened.

"Rosebud!" both parents said in unison.

"Perfect," Hood endorsed their decision. The dainty foal in his forelegs was a soft pink color, with darker pink mane and tail. Her symbol was a pure white rose, just beginning to open, with a lone dewdrop glittering on the petals.

A soft knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Candystripe who worked at the hospital. She took the food tray from Moonglow and advised the two stallions that Dr. Verve was coming in soon, and possibly the visitor should leave the room-- this said with eyes on Hood who handed Rosebud to her mother and held the door for Candystripe as she left, and asked her a question once they were in the hallway. "Can I visit the patient admitted last night-- Bilberry?"

But Checker had followed him from the room. "I knew you wouldn't be able to wait to get the latest news," he grinned. "Wait for me in the coffee shop, and I'll give you all the details."

Hood followed the corridor until he located the cafeteria where he had sat with Shasta during the night. He picked up a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee and chose a table in the back corner. As he ate, he surveyed the other ponies scattered about the room: Some were nurses on break; one mare with a worried expression on her face was probably awaiting uncertain news about a loved one; a young stallion with a circle of relatives around him was celebrating the birth of his first foal. Hood was so absorbed in his pastime that he didn't see the stallion approaching his table until Sparky stood in front of him.

"Waiting for the chief?" the deputy asked as he set his pancake breakfast on the table and seated himself.

"Yes, I am," Hood replied briefly.

"What a night!" Sparky continued. "You got yourself caught in the middle of a sticky situation. How are you doing? You look kind of haggard."

"You don't look so hot yourself."

Sparky shoveled another forkful of syrup-laden pancake into his mouth. "Haven't slept yet. Waitin' to report to the chief."

Seeing his brother-in-law getting his coffee, Hood said, "He's on his way."

The electric blue stallion dropped heavily into a chair. "I'm bushed!" He took a hefty swallow of coffee, then asked Sparky, "What did you find out?"

"It's just like you figured. The ginseng farmer over in Trevor admitted that he'd dug-up a big bed of ginseng in that area several years ago and transplanted it onto his own farm."

"He's the biggest producer of ginseng in the area," Checker added. "That explains how he got his monopoly on the market."

"So what's with this talk of ginseng?" asked a confused Hood, looking from one to the other.

"Shasta told us her dad had planted ginseng on his place before he left. He planned on it maturing-- it takes four years before the roots can be harvested-- and thought he and the youngsters would be back by then to reap the profits."

Sparky picked up the story at this point. "Things didn't work out as well as they'd hoped when they got settled in Shore Town, and the dad had to stay longer at his job there."

"So you're saying someone stole the ginseng while they were gone?" Hood interjected.

"The chief sent me over to Trevor early this morning on the hunch that the biggest ginseng grower in these parts might know something about the matter." Sparky finished off the last of the pancake. "Golden Prairie says he always added to his ginseng beds with wild plants that grew naturally in the woods around here."

Checker raised an eyebrow. "He didn't stop to consider that this particular ginseng was planted in orderly fields?"

Sparky nodded in agreement. "I thought that, too. But he says that the fields had grown up so in the years during which no one was there to tend them that he thought he'd walked into the mother lode of wild ginseng."

"So why is this ginseng so important all of a sudden?" Hood wondered out loud.

"Bilberry and Shasta moved back to the home place after Bilberry finished high school this spring. Their dad had died the autumn before. The two thought the ginseng would be there waiting for them-- get them financially started in their own plans for raising a variety of medicinal herbs on the farm," Checker filled him in on the details.

"Shasta says her brother took it real bad that his dad's investment in the future for the two of them had been pilfered, so he began lifting produce from the residents of Woodlawn to try to make up some of the loss," Sparky added.

Checker looked at his deputy's empty plate, and his tired eyes. "Don't you think you should go turn in for a couple hours, Sparky?"

Grinning, Sparky acknowledged that would be a good idea; he pushed back his chair and wished the other two a good day.

"So tell me the rest of the story," Hood prompted when they were alone.

"Bilberry would come into Woodlawn..."

"Why Woodlawn?" Hood questioned. "Why not Trevor?"

Checker enlightened him. "The farm is closer to Woodlawn than to Trevor, so he placed the blame on the residents of Woodlawn. Plus, the hiking trails that crisscross the farm now are frequented most often by our folks. He made a logical assumption that someone from our fair town had dug up or otherwise destroyed the inheritance left by his dad."

"So he declared himself the bearer of justice by exacting an equal value of produce from the ponies he saw as guilty?" Hood questioned. "How'd he unload the stuff?"

"That's where Shasta came in. She took the goods he swiped over to Trevor's farmers' market; that's why no one ever saw Bilberry. His sister says he grew up with the animals of the woods and learned their ways of stealth and cunning."

"So why the job with the lawn service?" inquired Hood. "Why did he take the chance to go public, so to speak?"

"I need more coffee, Hood," Checker interrupted. "Let me grab you a refill, too, even if it isn't as good as the brew you sell."

When the two stallions were again comfortably ensconced with their coffee, Checker went on.

"Summer was winding down, and Bilberry realized that he and Shasta were ill-prepared to face a winter at the farmstead. Their sales hadn't brought in the jangles as quickly as he'd hoped. So he figured that a salary from the mowing job would be beneficial, and he could still collect on his vendetta at the same time."

"I guess it would have worked if Rosy Bells and Laser hadn't noticed some discrepancies that day at your place," Hood surmised. He sat in contemplation for awhile before asking, "And how's Shasta doing?"

"After our questioning, she wanted to come straight back to her brother. She sat up with him all night, even though he was resting comfortably. The doctor says his leg will heal with no lasting effects."

"Can I go see them?" Hood spoke up.

"Sure. Why not? You're the closest thing to a friend they've got right now."



Chapter 22


"So this is where the victor ends up," commented Hood as he approached the hospital bed where Bilberry-- battered, bruised, and broken-- lay. His thigh was covered in bandages, his head sported several purplish lumps, and his leg was in a cast.

The dark and hateful eyes glared at Hood, showing no sorrow for past crimes. "I was the victor-- until those rotten stairs gave out beneath me." His stare, however, faltered under Hood's steady gaze.

Shasta, keeping vigil at his bedside, placed a hoof protectively on Bilberry's foreleg but kept silent. Glancing in her direction, Hood asked, "Are you okay, Shasta?" The young mare simply nodded her head.

"Your sister has told us of your plan," Hood remarked. "The house and land still belong to your family. Was there really a need for subterfuge?"

Bilberry turned away from Hood. He would have rather had faced Hood's anger, not this calm and seemingly concerned questioning. "My dad's ginseng patch was gone." He turned back to face Hood once more, his anger flaring. "You ponies of Woodlawn destroyed it for us." He cast a quick glance at Shasta, searching for her support against the perceived enemy.

"The police chief has been checking that out." Hood, too, glanced at Shasta to include her in the exchange of information. "It appears that the ginseng was dug up by a family in Trevor."

"What right did they have to it?" Bilberry spat.

"None, apparently," answered Hood honestly. "They hunted ginseng in the woods between Woodlawn and Trevor. Finding the unattended field of it, they assumed it was fair game."

"They assumed wrong!" Bilberry tried to sit up, but the pain forced him to lie back quickly.

"We were gone for six years, Bil-Boy," Shasta rationalized in a hushed voice.

"We had to go where Dad could make more jangles," Bilberry deemed it necessary to explain. "He planned on the ginseng maturing on its own, to be there for Shasta and I."

"He knew how much we loved the farm," Shasta recalled. "It had been his world since he was a foal; he grew up there and brought Mom there when they were married. He wanted so much to return someday."

"Why didn't he?" softly prompted Hood, fully knowing the answer but sensing the need for the two ponies to express their feelings to someone who would listen.

Bilberry could no longer bear up under the events of the last twenty-four hours, and silent tears rolled down his face. Almost unheard by Hood, he whispered, "He was lost at sea."

"I'm sorry," was all Hood could think of to say.

Shasta explained further, her attention focused on a memory. "When we moved to Shore Town, Dad worked on the waterfront. He got interested in boats and loved to go out on the water. He said it made him feel free." She sat in silence for a minute, and Hood respected her grieving. When she could continue, she went on with her story. "One day in late autumn, he went out by himself just to get away from the city for awhile."

"He asked me to join him," Bilberry said quietly, "but I told him I wanted to catch a movie that afternoon."

Shasta reached for Bilberry's nearest hoof, and cradled it in her own. "A freak storm came up while he was out on the water-- the temperature plummeted and the wind blew viciously and snow fell-- it was like a tempest out of place and out of time," she recalled.
"Dad never came back," ended Bilberry. "He never had a chance."

The three ponies in the room sat in silence. Hood's heart went out to this brother and sister who had suffered such sadness; and when trying to pick up the pieces, they had found their world shattered even further. He searched for the right words to say. He knew they were too proud for charity, but the pair definitely needed help. "I'm sorry about your dad and losing your mother, too; and that your homecoming to the farm wasn't what you expected. But don't lose hope. We'll work together to figure something out."

Shasta raised her tired eyes to his. "Will Bilberry be put in jail?" she asked.

"I can't answer that, but I do know that Chief Checker will do all he can to straighten things out."

Bilberry's voice was the next one heard. "Hood," he said almost unwillingly. He took a deep breath and gulped. "Hood... make sure Shasta's looked out for... okay?"

Hood walked closer to his bedside, and laid a hoof on his shoulder. "I'll make sure you are both looked out for," he promised. He smiled at Shasta and turned and left the room.

He met Checker as he exited the hospital, the police chief returning to his office after one more look in on his wife and daughter. "Checker," Hood began," if Bilberry or Shasta need any kind of help, I'm here for them. Keep me informed on any new developments."

"The main concern at this point is a place for Shasta to stay-- Bilberry, too, after a couple days in the hospital," Checker observed.

Hood flashed a quick glance at him. "You mean it? Shasta will be glad to hear that; she's worried that you are going to lock him up away from her."

"It appears to me that those two just need someone to help get their lives on track."

"I'm going over to talk to Stardrift. Maybe she could put up Shasta for a few days anyway. Bilberry could stay with me."

Checker grinned. "Looks like you got it all figured out."

"Maybe not all, but I'm working on it," Hood admitted.

"If it helps any," Checker confided, "I'm going to suggest to Golden Prairie that he make full reparation for the amount of ginseng he helped himself to off Meadow Minder's land-- if he replaces the ginseng beds, Bilberry and Shasta will at least have come back to their starting point."

"And a share of the profits he's made off that ginseng would be appropriate, too," Hood recommended.

"I'll keep that in mind," assured Checker. "I've got to be off now; tell Stardrift to keep those foals of mine in line." With a wave of his hoof, he parted from Hood.

* * *
It was several weeks later at Hood's Place. William was at the counter with his sassafras tea, debating Hood on the merits of the newly automated library system. Drumstick's replacement, a forest green stallion with a purple butterfly symbol and a cast on his right back leg, was waiting on a table at which Dreamy and Marquee sat. All eyes went to the door as Shasta and Angel came in like a breath of fresh air and approached the counter, each slipping onto a stool on either side of William.

"How's your work at the hospital going?" William asked of Shasta. He had immediately adopted Shasta and Bilberry as his honorary grandchildren when he had heard their story from Hood.

Angel replied for Shasta. "She's a true ‘Angel of Mercy'; every patient in the hospital wants her for their nurse."

Bilberry came behind the counter to prepare the lunches Dreamy and Marquee had ordered. "Hi, sis!" he brandished a brotherly smile at Shasta. "Hi, Angel." This last salutation was accompanied by a shy grin.

Hood stood back as the young ponies bantered with William and each other. It's amazing how things work out over time, he contemplated silently. Feeling content and pleased with his life, he looked out over his domain; what more could he want to make his world complete?

His eyes inadvertently rested on Dreamy; for a moment, their eyes locked. And with one simple wink from her, Hood realized that life could never be uncomplicated. And would he really want it completely devoid of problems to solve and bridges to build?

That thought needed only a moment's deliberation; some things were worth striving for. With his most enticing smile, Hood winked back.



The End
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Adventures of Baby North Star and Baby Brother Bright Bouquet
Chapter 6: The Trip Back to England
by Baby Steamer ([email protected])


One evening after dinner, Steamer got up to speak. "Baby North Star," he started, "do you remember the trip we took to England?"

"Yes!" exclaimed Baby North Star. "It was fun."

"Well, Mommy and I don't think we did enough there, so we have decided to go back for a couple of weeks." A loud cheer from Baby North Star met this. Steamer turned to his wife who was sitting across from Baby North Star. "I don't think she wants to go," he said, chuckling.

North Star laughed. "No, I don't think she wants to, either," she said.

Baby North Star then asked, "Can I invite Baby Brother Bright Bouquet?"

"It's okay with me," said Steamer, looking at his wife, who nodded. "One of us will probably have to talk to Mama or Daddy Bright Bouquet, though."

"When are we going?" asked Baby North Star.

"We're thinking of leaving Sunday night," said North Star.

"May I go call Baby Brother Bright Bouquet?" asked Baby North Star.

"Sure, I'll come with you," said North Star.

While they did that, Steamer went to the family computer to see if Taffeta was online, and if so, see if they could meet up again and maybe do some more touring. Taffeta wasn't online, so Steamer e-mailed her and told her that they were planning another trip to England, and said when they were leaving and when he thought they'd like to meet up.

By the time he was done, North Star and Baby North Star had talked to Mama and Daddy Bright Bouquet, and Baby North Star returned smiling. "Hmmm, something tells me Baby Brother Bright Bouquet is coming with us," said Steamer.

"Oh, Daddy, you're so silly," said Baby North Star, giggling.

Baby North Star could hardly wait until Sunday; it was like she was waiting for Christmas or her birthday. It seemed to take forever to arrive, but finally it did. The family picked up Baby Brother Bright Bouquet on the way to the airport. When they got to the airport, they found that their flight was leaving on time. They gave their tickets to the agent, and waited while they were processed and received their gate info. Soon they were at the gate waiting for the plane to start loading.

When they presented their tickets to the gate agent, the pony gave Baby North Star and her sister Sparkle Baby Firefly their very own wings. They thanked her and went with their parents to the plane. It was a long flight and everyone slept most of the way. When they got to England, they went to their hotel and slept for a few hours.

When they awoke, Steamer said, "Okay, as you know, we're staying here two weeks, and we'll be seeing Taffeta twice, so hopefully we'll all see what we want to see." After that, they had lunch in the hotel restaurant. After lunch they all went back up to their room.

Baby North Star, Baby Brother Bright Bouquet, and Sparkle Baby Firefly watched TV while the adults discussed what they wanted to do while there. North Star said, "I hear they have castles here; I'd like to see some of them."

"And I'd like to go to Wales and see the little trains they have there," said Steamer.

"Okay, why don't we do this– one day we'll see what we want to see; the next we'll see what the children want to see?" suggested North Star.

"That's a good idea," said Steamer. "That way we can all see what we want."

That night, at dinner, Steamer and North Star told the children what the plan was; they, too, thought it was a good idea. Taffeta was coming to the hotel on Wednesday, so Steamer and his family spent the time beforehand getting accustomed to the five-hour time change.

Taffeta came over about ten o'clock on Wednesday morning, and Steamer told her what the plan was and what he and North Star wanted to do that day. Taffeta took them up to Wales first so that Steamer could see the little railways; he especially liked the steam engines. After that they went to see some castles. North Star loved how they had been restored to look like they had traveled back to the turn of the century. The baby ponies loved firing off the air guns at some of them.

At one of the castles they saw a gentleman outside painting portraits of people with the castle in the background. Steamer paid him some money and they all posed, and tried to hold still so the man could paint them. When the painting was done, Steamer liked it so much he asked the man if he could copy it, which he could! Steamer gave one of the paintings to Taffeta, and they would take the other one home.

Soon it was time to go back to the hotel and for Taffeta to go home. They had dinner in their room and turned in early. The next morning they had a breakfast of eggs, tomato, and fried toast and spent the day sightseeing on their own. They had lunch at a nice little restaurant around the corner from their hotel, and spent the rest of the day doing some more sightseeing.

"When Taffeta takes us sightseeing again, what do you three want to see?" Steamer asked the babies.

"I don't know," said Baby North Star.

"Okay, we'll ask Taffeta what there is that you kids might like."

"Okay, Daddy," said Baby North Star.

The next day Taffeta came over again. "Today we'd like to do what the babies want to do, but we don't really know what there is that they might like. Do you have any suggestions?" Steamer asked her when she arrived.

"Well, there's a funpark with lots of rides and such up by where the trains that I took you to the other day are. There's also a teddy bear museum," said Taffeta.

When Taffeta mentioned teddy bears, Baby North Star jumped up and down. "Goody, goody," she said. "I love teddy bears."

"Then teddy bears it is," said Steamer. "Then later we can go to the funpark."

So Taffeta took them to the teddy bear museum, and pointed into another section. "If you two want you can see a Shakespeare play in there; I'd be happy to stay with the kids."

"That would be great," said North Star. So she and Steamer went to see the play, and Taffeta and the baby ponies went around the museum. Then they spent the rest of the day at the funpark, where Baby North Star won a plush Pikachu which she gave to Taffeta, knowing she loved Pokemon; but soon it was time for them to go back to the hotel, and Taffeta to go home again.

The rest of the trip went by pretty quickly and soon they were packing up for their trip back to the States. "I will definitely remember this trip," said Baby North Star.

"Yes, I think the rest of us will, too," said Steamer. And with that they finished packing and went to bed early.



The author would like to thank his friend, Taffeta for the idea for this story.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Destiny
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


"I'm having second thoughts about this," muttered Vanguard as he and Wigwam prepared to go on a winter trek into the Dark Forest.

"Come on; you'll be glad you did."

Vanguard frowned down at the snowshoes he was fastening to his hooves. "I've only been on these things once before," he complained. "And now you expect me to hike all the way to Butch's cabin?"

"Manitou needs the exercise. Besides, with all the snow we've been getting, it's a perfect time to do this." Wigwam stood up, snowshoes in place, and called for Manitou. The big grey wolf came bounding across the snowy landscape, stopping at Wigwam's side and raising a shower of the newest snowflakes that had fallen overnight.

Admiring the striking animal, Vanguard smiled. "He's a beauty. Sugarberry says he's always on his best behavior when he comes into the vet clinic."

"I suppose she wouldn't say that about me."

Vanguard grinned. "I believe she said Elaine feels safer turning her back to Manitou than to you."

"Ha!" Wigwam scoffed. "Elaine doesn't trust any stallion! And besides, she has nothing to fear from me... I'm not getting involved with any mares after getting dumped by Chocolate Chip."

"I'm sorry that happened."

"Not nearly as sorry as I am." Wigwam glanced at Vanguard. "Are you all set?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," Vanguard stated uncertainly, trying to keep himself balanced as he took the first few steps. He was concentrating so hard on getting the feel of the unaccustomed hoofwear that he didn't notice Manitou playfully loping toward him; when the wolf was nearly upon him, Vanguard looked up to see the wild furry beast headed straight for him and tried to sidestep him which caused the stallion to topple over in a jumbled mix of hooves and snowshoes. Manitou swerved at the last second, always in full control of his movements. He stopped several yards from Vanguard and looked at the downed pony with a gleeful expression on his face.

Laughing, Wigwam came to lend his friend a helping hoof. "Come on, Van. This is no time to be sittin' around!"

Once righted and with his shoed hooves firmly planted on the sparkling snow, Vanguard was finally ready to follow Wigwam away from the city across the covered land; large amounts of snow had fallen this winter-- more than normal-- and the white flakes had piled themselves into undulating drifts of brightness that spread as far as one could see until they met the barrier of trees that signaled the start of the Dark Forest.

The two stallions crossed the pristine miles with Manitou bounding like a playful pup, taking himself in carefree abandon wherever his whim directed him. Sometimes he would circle his traveling companions; other times he would run away so far that he would become only a dark spot against the never-ending whiteness, only to turn and come charging back to touch base with his equine comrades.

Breathing deeply of the cold, fresh air, Wigwam pointed to an opening at the fringe of the forest. "Butch's place is just beyond those tall evergreens; think you can make it?"

"I've got the hang of it now," Vanguard replied. "No problem." They soon covered the distance and entered the relatively sheltered forest. Here the snow had been held back by the spreading branches of majestic evergreens and the bare shoots of innumerable lower-growing bushes of various kinds.

They found Butch hard at work splitting firewood; he stopped when he saw his visitors and came forward to greet them. "Just what I need... wood haulers."

Vanguard took note of the stack of neatly placed firewood already looming next to the cabin. "How much of this stuff do you go through anyway?"

"Lots, when the winter is as cold and blustery as this one," Butch replied.

Just then, all three stallions stopped to watch a confrontation between Manitou and Butch's high-strung pet duck, the mallard-like rouen named Quackers. The drake had taken offence at the appearance of the wolf, and had lowered his feathered head in its drab winter plumage aggressively while quacking loudly.

Manitou, enjoying the challenge from the feisty little creature, dropped his front end low to the ground as if mimicking the duck, his nose resting in the snow between his huge paws, his tail waving high in the air.

The posture only seemed to infuriate the duck, who charged the wolf. This made the episode more entertaining than ever for Manitou; he jumped to a new position, his tail verifying his amusement.

"Doesn't that duck realize that Manitou could swallow him whole?" Wigwam asked in disbelief.

"That duck is spunky," Butch admitted. "There's nothing he won't take on."

Quackers, either realizing the futility of his endeavor or growing tired of the energetic wolf, waddled his webbed way over to where the ponies stood and began shuffling his bill through the snow searching for something to eat; bits of wood chips seemed to please him, and he lost all interest in Manitou who, in turn, went on to explore the sights and smells of Butch's homestead.

"You guys help me stack what I've got cut, and I'll warm up some apple cider for ya'." Butch bargained.

"It's a deal," Vanguard replied, looking forward to a chance to sit down for awhile.

After the wood stacking, all three ponies were ready for a break. The interior of Butch's cabin was simple, but warm and snug. Butch heated the spicy cider over his log fire, and offered them some applesauce bars topped with creamy frosting.

"You're becoming quite a baker, Butch. I thought you stuck to the bare essentials," Wigwam observed.

"Sparkler made these," Butch admitted. "She seems to think I'd starve out here without her donations."

"Sounds like Sugarberry," Vanguard and Wigwam stated simultaneously.

"She's always sending care packages home with us," Wigwam clarified.

"Didn't I hear that you're going to tie the knot?" Butch asked of Vanguard.

"Yup! Come June, Sugarberry and I will be married," Vanguard verified.

"Where are you going to live?"

"We'll stay with Sugarberry's house at first; my brother is an architect and wants to design our dream house for us eventually."

"I've been thinking about updating this place soon," Butch confided. "Make it bigger, more modern."

Vanguard and Wigwam grinned at each other. "Your plans wouldn't involve feminizing the place a bit, would they?" teased Wigwam.

"Well, things have been going good at the casino and if they keep up, I should see about improving my lifestyle, don't you think?" defended the stallion.

Vanguard looked around the cozy cabin. "The rustic decor appeals to us guys, Butch, but a city-bred mare might like some of the conveniences of life-- like indoor plumbing."

"Electricity would be appreciated, too."

"And a telephone would be a nice touch."

Butch glowered at them. "I'm not stupid. I know there's improvements need to be made. That's why I've been planning."

"Have you asked Sparkler what she'd like?" Wigwam queried, noticing a stack of home improvement magazines on a table in the corner.

But Butch changed the subject. "I heard a wolf howl in the night; would that have been Manitou out roaming?"

"He was curled up at the foot of my bed all night," Wigwam responded. "I didn't think there were any other wolves in the area, though."

"That's going to change," Butch predicted. "The rabbit population in these here woods has skyrocketed; the predators are sure to follow."

"What caused the rabbits to multiply?" Vanguard wondered. "More so than normal, I mean," he added as the other two gave him a "duh" look.

"It's weird," Butch admitted. "With the winter as harsh as it has been, they just seem to be coming out of nowhere, as if by magic."

"That's it!" Vanguard realized. "Baby Noddins has found her magic power-- she can summon up bunches of rabbits. From what I hear, they go off into the forest when she's through with them."

Butch shook his head. "Foals now-a-days..."

"You're right about the predators-- a good food source will bring them in for easy hunting," Wigwam stated with a glance at the clock. "And as much fun as this has been, Van and I better get moving."

"You're right," Vanguard agreed. "If I sit here too long, I'll never move again." He grimaced as his muscles fought against activity.
Traveling onward-- yet staying within the confines of the great forest for some distance to enjoy the winter scenery-- the stallions caught sight of a coil of smoke rising above the trees off to their left. "Must be Dreamcatcher's homesite," observed Wigwam.

"Want to see if she's home?"

"Just to get berated by that sharp tongue? I think not."

They had left the woods behind and were crossing the snow-covered meadows once again when Manitou, who had been exploring every interesting inch of the great outdoors, suddenly came to a stop and, with raised head and alert ears, sniffed the air curiously. What he discovered with his keen senses seemed to intrigue him, and he began a steady march toward an isolated evergreen that sat apart from its comrades like a green island in the vast sea of white.

"He's found something interesting," Wigwam commented as he watched the majestic animal. "Let's follow him."

Manitou now stood near the conifer, his every fiber of being honed in on something sheltered in the copse. As Vanguard and Wigwam reached the wolf, they could see that numerous dogwood bushes had spread their red branches in a cluster around the cover of the spruce, creating a miniature woods-like expanse around the tree. Manitou, his sight focused on an area under the spreading branches of the evergreen, slowly moved forward until he was directly under the tree. There, he stood stock-still for a long moment, then dropped to the snowy ground and began whimpering.

Wigwam looked at Vanguard with a puzzled expression. "I've never seen him react this way to anything. Let's check it out!"

Approaching the wolf cautiously, they soon found what was affecting Manitou in this unusual manner. On a blanket of needles under the protecting branches of the spruce lay another creature, the mirror image of Manitou except that this wolf was lying on its side as if very soundly asleep.

But at the arrival of the ponies, the eyelids flickered and opened for a second, fear shining forth; the creature tried to pull away but found the effort too great and merely slumped again into an inert furry heap.

Manitou moved closer to the injured wolf, resting his body next to it; he licked the passive face and emitted worried whines as if encouraging the animal to fight for its life.

Wigwam cautiously dropped to the ground to get a better look, and Vanguard moved in to the opposite side. They could see by the matted coat and hear by the rasping breathes of the wolf that it had been in trouble for some time. Wigwam ran a gentle hoof over the sickly body; Manitou watched his every move.

"The front leg may be broken, and the paw is cut badly," Wigwam determined. "It looks like she's got a bad infection." He rested his hoof lightly on the wolf's fur. "She's burning up with fever." His eyes met Vanguard's.

"So what do we do?" Vanguard asked.

"She's in bad shape; Thomas needs to see her."

"Do you want me to go into town to get him?" Vanguard asked, standing and preparing to leave.

"No offense, Van, but I think I can make better time than you. I'll get Thomas." He looked down at Manitou. "It appears that Manitou will guard his new friend; you can wait with him." But after taking several steps away, Wigwam turned back. "Maybe you should go back to the forest and look-up Dreamcatcher. If she's as good as she thinks she is, she might be able to do something with her Native Pony medicines."

Vanguard looked back toward the Dark Forest where the ribbon of smoke still marked the location of the tepee hidden in the trees. "I'll give it a try."

Going their separate ways, the two stallions hurried to fulfill their respective missions. Having the shortest distance to travel to his destination, Vanguard tried to hurry but only ended up tripping over the snowshoes. He determined that a slow and steady pace would pay off in the long run.

Gaining the cover of the forest, Vanguard found that the trees blocked his vision of the smoke which was acting as his guide; but he remembered hearing that Dreamcatcher's tepee was near the river, so he set his steps in the general direction of the stream. Coming upon the frozen estuary, he turned to his right and followed the winding course until he came to a clearing that opened out into a protected glade; standing off at a distance from the water on a slight rise was the tepee.

Vanguard approached the dwelling in wonder. The size of the structure was striking on its own; he had not envisioned it to be so large. On the side of the skins that covered the frame was painted a glorious eagle in flight, a mountain peak stretching up behind the bird. The feathers were so intricately painted that they looked real.

Following the path that led to the closure of the tepee, Vanguard smiled wryly. "How does one announce his presence in the absence of a doorbell-- or even a door, per se?" he said out loud. But he found his concern misplaced, for a leather cord from which dangled cone-shaped silver bells was hanging on the flap that covered the entrance to the tepee. He picked up the length of cord, and the bells emitted a clear tinkling sound.

There was no response from the tepee, however, and Vanguard reverted to calling out Dreamcatcher's name several times before accepting the fact that she was not at home. He walked back down the path towards the river and noticed that a set of hoofprints in the fresh snow went off across the clearing and into the woods; if Dreamcatcher was just out fetching food or water, he might be able to overtake her. He set off following the trail she had made.

The track at first seemed to be meandering as if the mare was just out to enjoy the pleasures of the winter day; Vanguard realized that he was deeper in the forest that he had ever been before all alone and felt a quiver of apprehension. But he came upon a spot in the tracks where it appeared that the unicorn had changed her mind-- and her direction-- for the trail abruptly made a sharp turn and headed to the edge of the forest.

Breaking through the cover of trees and brush, Vanguard found himself some distance beyond where he had originally entered the forest in the search for the tepee; but as he looked down the line of tracks that stretched out into the frosty meadowland, he realized that they were leading directly to the lone pine that harbored the wounded wolf. Apparently Dreamcatcher had somehow or other found out about the situation already and had gone on to lend a helping hoof. Vanguard shrugged and followed the direct line of prints to the evergreen.

He found Dreamcatcher kneeling next to Manitou and the injured wolf, her hoof resting softly on the lame animal's shoulder. She looked up at Vanguard as if she had expected him to come. "Go back to the tepee and fetch my medicine bag and water bottle; you'll find them both hanging to the right of the entrance."

The she-wolf opened her eyes at the sound of the voice, and Vanguard noticed that the fear was no longer present in those eyes; it had been replaced by what he could only fathom as confidence in the mare who hovered over the listless body. Manitou, too, seemed to have placed his trust in the Native Pony.

"I'll do that," Vanguard found himself saying. As an afterthought, he added, "Thomas will be coming."

Without looking his way, Dreamcatcher responded, "I know."

Vanguard retraced his original path to the tepee as quickly as he could; he was somewhat in awe of the Native Pony, having heard Wigwam's tales of her high expectations. He envisioned being reprimanded for his slow showing when he returned, but he knew that he had done his best. Upon arriving at the tepee, he found the items that Dreamcatcher had requested; grabbing them off the hook upon which they were hanging, he only briefly noted the interior of the tepee and its primitive yet homey style. He grinned as he realized that Butch's home, although not up to Sparkler's standards, would be too upscale for this mare.

Feeling as if he was traveling in slow motion, Vanguard was encouraged to finally find himself approaching the thicket of dogwood bushes once more. Remarkably, Wigwam was just arriving, too, from the other side. Vanguard heard the voices before he saw the ponies.

"I should have known you would be involved with this," Dreamcatcher stated, her voice cold and unforgiving.

Wigwam's temper was short after the events of the day. "It wasn't one of my traps that this animal got her paw into, was it?!"

Thomas' voice intervened. "Let's check the patient, Elaine." He pulled the pack off his back, and got down to work.

Dreamcatcher moved aside to allow the two veterinarians to do their job, but she reached for the items Vanguard brought and delved into the contents of the medicine bag for the potions that she considered necessary. Vanguard was aware that she was condescending to Thomas and Elaine, allowing them to use their modern medicine; but he felt sure that when they were finished and she had the chance, Dreamcatcher would wield her natural remedies on the wolf... and who would ever know whose methods had worked?

Vanguard went to stand at Wigwam's side. The stallion had not said a word since his exchange with Dreamcatcher; he stood now in an attitude of defiance. Sugarberry had told Vanguard of the bitterness that had marked the acquaintance of Wigwam and Dreamcatcher from the start, but Vanguard was still surprised to see the continued animosity between the two who shared common roots.

Thomas and Elaine worked quietly and efficiently; the few words they spoke to each other were deftly responded to as they worked succinctly as a team. The onlookers, too, were silent; but everyone watched closely as the wolf's paw was cleaned, cauterized, and stitched and the leg bone set. While Elaine administered an antibiotic, Thomas talked to Wigwam.

"She's going to be okay, but it will be awhile before she can take care of herself again. Plus, she's going to need to be monitored for the next few days, so we'll have to get her back to the clinic."

Before Wigwam could respond, Dreamcatcher spoke. "We will take her back to my tepee."

Thomas looked at the mare, considering her suggestion. Then he turned back to Wigwam. "That might be a good idea; the wolf won't be as traumatized to be cared for in an environment that she's more familiar with, and I'm sure Dreamcatcher is capable of continuing treatment."

Wigwam scowled at the Native Pony for a moment, but grudgingly acceded to the plan. "If that's what you think is best for the wolf, then let's do it."

The ponies soon had the lethargic animal loaded onto a stretcher; and with Wigwam, Vanguard, Thomas, and Dreamcatcher bearing the burden and Elaine and Manitou hovering nearby to guarantee the she-wolf's comfort and safety, the entourage threaded its way slowly back toward the Dark Forest and the shelter of the tepee.

The day was winding down, and a bank of grey clouds hung over the west causing the absence of the sunlight to drape the floor of the forest in a gloomy half-light. No one spoke as they carted the load; the forest seemed eerily quiet except for the sound of their movement over the snow.

It was with relief that they finally reached the tepee and could set down their load. Dreamcatcher opened the tepee to allow Wigwam to carry the wolf into her domain and quickly spread a woven mat on the floor at a safe distance from the fire as a bed for the dormant form. Manitou stayed alert to the proceedings. He watched as Elaine once more listened to the wolf's heartbeat; and when his charge had been comfortably situated, he took up his place at her side. Assuring himself that she was at ease, he rested his head on his paws, keeping his ears alert to any sound.

"Well, that's all we can do for now," Thomas stated. "I'll come out again tomorrow to see how she's doing."

"She'll be fine," Dreamcatcher murmured, dropping to the floor next to the two wolves and resting a hoof on both of them. "We'll see to that, won't we, Manitou?" Manitou lifted his head for a moment and his golden eyes looked upon Dreamcatcher intensely; then he settled down once again, burying his nose in the fur of the companion at his side.

Vanguard glanced at Wigwam and saw the look of sadness as the stallion realized that Manitou had lost all interest in him and had moved his affection and trust to Dreamcatcher. Wigwam stared at the intimate trio by the fireside, then turned and left the tepee. Vanguard followed him out, and Elaine was not far behind.

"It's a good thing you found her when you did," Elaine softly directed to Wigwam. "You saved her life."

Wigwam looked at her as if just now noticing her part in all this. "No. You and Thomas saved her life." He realized that she had shown no hesitation in coming to the rescue of the injured creature and had acted professionally even in difficult circumstances. Maybe he had underestimated her courage.

Thomas came out alone, and the tired foursome headed back to Dream Valley. Now that the crisis had been resolved, conversation flowed.

"Vanguard, I sent Tabby over to spend the afternoon with Sugarberry. Tabby wanted to come out here, but I thought it would be better for her to stay safely back in Dream Valley."

"Has she been feeling okay?" The news of the impending birth had been joyously received by all who knew the unicorn couple.

"She's fine," Elaine giggled. "It's Thomas we have to worry about."

"It's a huge responsibility to be a parent!" Thomas justified.

Wigwam brought the group back to the events of the day. "What do you think caused the wolf's wounds?"

"We'll probably never know for sure, but it appears that something hard and heavy crushed her leg," Elaine responded.

"Like a trap?"

"No. The flesh wound wasn't caused by anything as sharp as a steel trap. It was more ragged, like... well... like as if she got caught in a rock slide or something," Thomas elaborated.

"She would have had to been in the hills for that to happen," mused Wigwam. "At that rate, she's traveled a ways."

"By the amount of infection in the paw, she has been in a weakened condition for some days now," Elaine verified.

"I can't thank you guys enough for what you did for her," Wigwam affirmed.

"See if you can still say that after the bill comes!" Thomas laughed.

Snowflakes had begun to fall by the time the city came into sight, and the talk moved on to other things. Vanguard noticed that Wigwam often looked behind him as if expecting to see Manitou come romping up; but there was no sign of the furry beast anywhere. As they neared Sugarberry's house, the stallion was noticeably depressed.

Gratefully stepping out of the snowshoes outside the backdoor, Vanguard grinned as Sugarberry appeared with Tabby close behind her. "How did it go?" they both wanted to know.

"Mission accomplished," Thomas stated as he took Tabby into his embrace. "And how are you?"

"Same as the last two million times you've asked me that in the course of the week," she answered.

"You can tell us all about your adventure over supper; I plan on all of you staying-- I made enough to feed an army," Sugarberry informed the crew. "And then Chocolate Chip called to say that she and Wishbone won't be home because they got invited to a skating party."

"What a perfect night for a skating party!" exclaimed Elaine, watching the snowflakes from the window.

"I invited Agatha and Hubert to join us, too, to make up the difference."

Wigwam shied away from the talkative bunch of ponies and found himself staring at an assortment of magazines on the counter: Today's Bride, Ponyland Baby, Wedding Bells, and Foal Facts. Sugarberry and Tabby had been busy making plans. Wigwam's life felt very empty as he saw the smiling faces of perfection taunting him from the glossy pages.

Sugarberry and Vanguard had just crossed the room to talk to Wigwam when Tabby's parents came in the back door. "I saw the arrival of a gang of ponies and thought you might need help getting the food ready," Agatha laughed, seeing the crowd in the kitchen; she carried several enticing dishes of her own.

"It's just like a party," commented Hubert while searching out Tabby's face. "How are you feeling?"

Tabby rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Dad; really I am."

Amidst the new chorus of cheerful greetings, Wigwam found the congenial surroundings too much to take. "I'm outta here," he stated as Sugarberry smiled at him. He turned and left the kitchen, headed for the less-crowded front entrance.

Sugarberry looked questioningly at Vanguard. "Go talk to him," Vanguard advised, motioning her to follow the stallion. She caught up to him just as he was opening the door. "Wigwam! Wait!"

"For what!"

"What is wrong?"

"The question, ‘What is right,' would take less time to answer." He opened the door wider, but Sugarberry pushed it closed again and stood in front of it.

"What has gotten you so upset?"

"It's none of your business, Sugarberry!" he muttered angrily, then immediately regretted his words. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for." He slumped his way to the couch and sat down as if thoroughly defeated.

"Would it help to talk about it?" Sugarberry asked softly as she sat next to him.

"Don't be so nice; you're making me feel like a naughty colt who just threw a tantrum."

"If the wolf is going to be okay, why are you so down?"

"Because Manitou stayed behind with Dreamcatcher."

"Oh." Sugarberry could well imagine that would not set well with Wigwam, but she could not believe that it would throw him into this dark mood. "Is that the only thing?"

"... the only thing?" Wigwam jumped up and began pacing. "I'd raised him from a pup, Sugarberry. For two years we've been soulmates of a sort." He sat down again and leaned back, covering his face with his hooves. Sugarberry remained silent, waiting for him to collect himself.

"It all goes back to Chocolate Chip, you know," he finally admitted. "I thought we were soulmates, too." He uncovered his face, and grimaced. "It's not easy to stop loving someone when you don't want to."

"She may change her mind."

Wigwam looked at her skeptically. "She's with Prime constantly; I don't foresee any big breakup looming in the future."

"She's not with him constantly; she still works and studies just as hard as ever."

"Well, you get my meaning. She's hung up on the guy. And then there's..."

"There's what?"

"There's you and Vanguard with all your wedding plans, and Thomas and Tabby with their baby on the way... even Butch has stars in his eyes over Sparkler!"

"So you feel left out?"

"More than left out. Stepped on is more like it. And let's not forget Giorgio, who-- you may recall-- precipitated my breakup with Chocolate Chip; he got a mare when all was said and done. At that rate, I might as well throw law and decency to the wind." He tossed his mane in exasperation.

"Are you through?"

"Now that you've asked, no. I could bring up the problem of Dreamcatcher who appointed herself as judge, jury, and executioner in my case. Talk about feeling downtrodden! And then my own pet deserts me for the enemy." He glanced at Sugarberry pensively. "Now I'm through."

"I was hoping you'd go on because at this point I have no idea what to say to you."

Wigwam looked at her worried face and broke out in a grin. "You know, this reminds me of the night I delivered your Christmas present."

Sugarberry smiled in turn. "You were in good spirits then, weren't you?"

"Yeah," he pondered. "Maybe I thought there was still a chance that Van wouldn't propose to you himself."

"So what am I to believe... that you love Chocolate Chip, or that you are pining away for me?"

The stallion grew serious again. "I was building up an entire lifetime of dreams with Chocolate Chip by my side. I don't want to believe that none of them will ever come true."

Sugarberry sighed. "I don't understand the filly. I know she thought the world and all of you, and I'm equally sure that she doesn't feel the same way about Prime even if she is with him const... a lot."

"I'd like to believe that, but every chance I've had to try to smooth things over has ended in just another put-down. I think she's been influenced by Dreamcatcher."

"Chocolate Chip has lunch with her every Friday, so you might be right," Sugarberry giggled.

"Half of me wants to keep trying to make things up to her, and the other half says to put it all behind me and move on; it's tearing me up."

"Give it more time," Sugarberry advised. "Concentrate on your work; as long as you don't meet someone else, what have you got to lose?"

Agatha peered in from the kitchen. "Food's on and everyone is hungry, so don't dally too long."

"We'll be right there," Sugarberry laughed, accepting a helping hoof from Wigwam. "Are you feeling better?" she asked of the stallion.

"Yes. It helped to talk about all this stuff."

"Then smile!"

When the two re-entered the kitchen, the other ponies were already seated except for Agatha who had taken over as hostess. She authoritatively directed Sugarberry to be seated when the strawberry-patterned mare tried to help with the last minute details, and Sugarberry obeyed, slipping into the vacant chair next to Vanguard; she squeezed his hoof to acknowledge that everything was all right, and winked at Wigwam across the table where Agatha had positioned him next to Elaine.

Sugarberry was grateful that no one had questioned their private tete-a-tete and that the flow of conversation went on uninterrupted. The talk centered on the wolves and on Dreamcatcher's isolated existence in the Dark Forest.

"And you, Wigwam, how did you ever end up with a wolf anyway?" Hubert wanted to know.

Wigwam didn't answer immediately; a faraway look crossed his face, and he appeared to be lost in thought. "He was just there," he finally voiced as his friends around the table watched him in various degrees of concern and curiosity. The stallion came back to the present, and grinned sheepishly. "I'm sorry. It's been a long day."

"Tell us your story," Elaine stated softly.

Everyone waited to see if Wigwam would comply; he appeared hesitant until he caught Sugarberry's supportive smile. Maybe it is time to talk about this, he reasoned silently. He then began his own personal tale.

"Several years back, I was feeling kind of restless about my life and the direction it was taking; I'd always been fascinated by the Native Pony dream quests, but had never had the desire to go through one myself. But I figured it couldn't do any harm, so I went up into the hills to face my destiny."

"From my readings on the subject," offered Hubert, "plenty of harm could have come to you if you followed some of the more extreme methods of inducing a dreamlike state. Some ponies went so far as to..."

"Hubert!" Agatha cautioned. "We're eating here." Rebuked, Hubert shut his mouth.

Wigwam continued. "Don't worry. I wasn't up to any body torture or anything of that kind. I simply fasted from food and water for four days, sleeping out on the open ground. It was out near where the Native Pony cave is." He directed the last part of that information to Sugarberry who had accompanied him along with Baby Noddins and a group of college ponies including Chocolate Chip on a venture into the past on a gorgeous day last summer.

"Did anyone know where you were... in case something happened?" questioned Elaine.

"I told my dad where I'd be and what I was up to."

"Sounds boring to me," yawned Tabby. "What did you do for those all those days away from electricity?"

"Thought a lot," admitted Wigwam. "There was plenty of time to meditate on things surrounded by the peace and quiet of nature. And as the days went by, it was very easy to imagine the spirits of all those ponies who had lived their lives there keeping me company."

"And did you have your dream?" queried Thomas.

"Every night, I dreamt of wolves. At first, the dreams were very elusive; I'd know in the morning that I had dreamed, but I couldn't remember anything."

"Don't you just hate that?" interjected Tabby.

"But each night, the dream became more real and went into more detail. By the fourth night, it was as if I was actually living the dream."

"It must have been very powerful," Agatha gently prompted as the stallion relived the events in his mind.

"It was," he stated simply. When he continued, it was as if the scene was playing out before his eyes once more. "I was surrounded by a pack of wolves; at first, they were healthy and aggressive-- nothing could intimidate them. They were beautiful animals with their thick coats in shades of gray with some of them almost black. Their eyes were like intense yellow lights that could stare on forever. But slowly I began to notice that there were fewer and fewer of the wolves, and those that were left seemed weak and distressed. Their coats had become shaggy and they paced as if there was danger surrounding them, but I couldn't see what was causing them to be so disturbed. Soon there was only one wolf left, an old she-wolf. But she died, too."

"Oh! How sad," Sugarberry empathized.

"Was that the end of the dream?" Vanguard asked.

"No... no it wasn't." He halted, looking at the group around the table. "The she-wolf vanished, and in her place was a chocolate brown filly who came to me in the dream with food and water; her mane was braided with feathers entwined with her hair. I reached out to take the items she offered me, but she disappeared; and I woke up."

Sugarberry gasped, her eyes wide. "You didn't know Chocolate Chip yet then."

"Fascinating," Hubert sighed. "But where does Manitou fit into all of this?"

"When I woke up, it was just at dawn; the morning light was dim yet, but I became aware of something by my side. And there he was, curled up against me as if seeking some warmth after the coolness of the night hours."

"You mean that Manitou came while you were sleeping and never left?"

"That's right. There was only him. I couldn't find a trace of his parents or any other wolves in the area; I stayed out there an extra two nights after my dad had brought me some food hoping that the pup's pack would come back to claim him. But they never did."

"So the two of you stayed together," stated Vanguard.

"Yup. He followed me wherever I went; and by the time I came back home, he had adopted me as his family."

"That was almost as good as catching a Pokemon," determined Tabby.

"No wonder you regretted leaving him behind today," Elaine offered. "But why now is he ready to part from you?"

"One of Dreamcatcher's spells, I suppose," muttered Wigwam.

Thomas grinned. "I think it's more down to earth than that. Manitou is grown-up now in wolf years, and he met his first female wolf-- one that needs protecting, at that. I would imagine he knows what to do from here."

"You think they'll start a pack of their own?" wondered Wigwam.

"Manitou will watch over the she-wolf until she's healthy again; at that point, I would imagine they will go off to start a life together."

"Can I go out with you when you check her tomorrow, Thomas?" asked Tabby. "I'd like to see her."

Thomas deliberated before answering. "If you get a good night's sleep and promise to rest once you're back home."

"What's the fun in that?"

"The fun in that, young lady, is that you will have a healthy foal," Agatha reminded her daughter.

"Oh, yeah," Tabby grinned. "I was just kidding, Mom."

"Thanks for sharing your fasting dream with us, Wigwam," remarked Elaine.

"It's the first time I've ever talked to anyone about it besides my dad. It always seemed too unbelievable. And now with Manitou gone, it all really is just a dream."

"But how many ponies have had the experience you did, to share these last couple of years with Manitou?" reminded Hubert. "You brought him to this point where he can continue on with his part of this scenario-- to re-introduce wolves into this area."

Wigwam thought a moment; then his face brightened. "You're right! I've been so caught up in worrying about my losing Manitou that I lost sight of the full picture; this was Manitou's destiny from the beginning!"

"Does anyone want dessert?" asked Agatha as she cleared dirty plates off the table. "It's that sugary cherry concoction that Tabby likes so well."

When the cherry cobbler had been polished off to the last crumb, the ponies cleared the table and made short work of the clean-up. From the window, the gently falling snow looked so inviting that Agatha suggested a plan. "Why don't we all go over to the skating rink and watch the youngsters?"

"Yes, let's!" agreed Elaine. "Although I'd rather skate than just sit back and watch!"

Everyone responded positively to the idea, and they were soon on their way. Elaine and Vanguard had become engrossed in discussing educational opportunities in Ponyland, so Sugarberry took the opportunity to drop back to talk with Wigwam.

"If Dreamcatcher knew about your vision quest, she wouldn't be so hostile," she teased.

Wigwam scoffed. "I highly doubt that; I didn't cut slits in my chest."

Sugarberry shuddered. "Thank goodness you didn't. I think your quest succeeded quite well without the brutality." They both became lost in thought until Sugarberry broached the subject of the brown filly. "How do you read Chocolate Chip's appearance in your dream?"

Wigwam sighed. "There was a time when I saw her bringing me sustenance as a sign that we were meant to be together for life. But she disappeared, didn't she, just like in the dream?"

"She's not gone, just out of reach. For all you know, her coming to you is still in the future."

"Well, I can wait and see. My life's going nowhere anyway," the stallion observed wryly.

"Just don't expect too much too soon. You've got to be patient."

The sounds of music and laughter met their ears as the group neared the skating rink. The accumulated snow from the previous storms ringed the perimeter of the ice. The shelter was brightly lit and the smell of hot chocolate enticed many of the skaters to take a break and enjoy the warmth. Among those so occupied were Chocolate Chip and Prime.

Sugarberry and Vanguard went immediately to the college ponies. "Hi, guys," Sugarberry called, surprising Chocolate Chip enough that she spilled her hot drink down her hoof.

"I never expected to see you here," the filly explained to the newcomers while allowing Prime to fetch her a napkin.

"Good think this stuff blends right in with your color," Prime commented.

"Sugarberry! Come skate with me!" grinned Wishbone, grabbing the mare's hoof.

"I'd best put some skates on first," she laughed, going to the bench to take care of that detail. Elaine was already tying up her skates when Wigwam invited her to join him on the ice.

As they moved off together, Wishbone taunted the Native Pony good-naturedly. "It's one thing to stay on your hooves with a mare beside you, but how good are you at racing?"

"Better than you," Wigwam flung back with a cocky grin.

"We'll find out before the evening is over," smirked Wishbone as he helped Sugarberry to her hooves. It was a pleasure to skim over the ice, and Sugarberry thoroughly enjoyed the exercise. Wishbone was for more agile than she was, but he accommodated his movements to hers while keeping up an incessant barrage of talk that kept her giggling throughout their time on the ice.

They had no sooner returned to the shelter when Wishbone took off with Frilly Flower; Sugarberry found Vanguard still talking with Chocolate Chip. Prime, for once, was nowhere to be seen until Sugarberry searched the rink to find him skating with another of the Sweetheart Sisters.

Tabby and Thomas were just moving out to the ice while Wigwam and Elaine continued to circle the rink; Sugarberry smiled to herself as she observed Chocolate Chip watching them, too. Only Agatha and Hubert sat at the edge of the crowd, and Sugarberry pulled Vanguard along with her to see how they were faring. "Come out on the ice!" invited Sugarberry.

Hubert looked at Agatha. "Yes, dear. Give it a try."

"I haven't skated in years," Agatha fretted. "I'd probably break a leg. Oh, I do hope Tabby's being careful!"

All eyes swung out to locate the pink unicorn, and Vanguard laughed. "I don't think you need to worry about that." Thomas kept Tabby close with a foreleg protectively surrounding her. "In fact," Vanguard added, "I like his style." He soon had Sugarberry similarly encircled as they took their turn on the ice.

"Look over there," Sugarberry directed some time later as she spotted a new couple enjoying the ice; Hubert had convinced his wife to brave the sport, and the two of them now were circling slowly but happily, the younger crowd zipping around them.

"I didn't know you liked to skate so much," Chocolate Chip commented when Sugarberry and Vanguard returned to the shelter for a break.

"Sure I like to skate; it's the cold weather I don't like. But tonight's not so bad."

"Take a turn with me, Sugarberry?" Prime asked, coming up to the ponies. "If that's okay with you, Vanguard."

"Only if Chocolate Chip will join me."

"Delighted!" the filly responded readily.

Prime was quiet until he had put some distance between himself and Chocolate Chip. "Is Chocolate Chip worried about anything that you're aware of?"

"Worried? No more than usual about keeping her grades up. Why do you ask?"

"She's just seemed kind of distant, especially since Wigwam showed up."

"Oh."

"So what gives with those two? Chocolate Chip assured me that they were through, but sometimes I'm not so sure."

"Maybe she's not so sure herself, Prime."

"So where does that put me?"

"As her very good friend who won't expect more from her than that."

Prime grinned. "I guess that's not asking too much." They were coming toward Vanguard and Chocolate Chip at that moment, and Prime very neatly stole the filly away while handing Sugarberry over to Vanguard.

"Welcome back," the country blue stallion smiled and kissed her cheek.

"Did Chocolate Chip say anything?" the mare asked.

"No. Nothing special. Why?"

"Prime thinks she's worried about something... or someone."

Vanguard watched as the younger ponies shot by. "She looks fine now." And the chocolate brown pony did seem to be enjoying herself at the moment, laughing and twirling with Prime.

The entire group from supper ended up at the shelter at the same time, and opted to sit out awhile over some hot cocoa. Hubert had just finished a story from his long sojourn in the Himalayas when Wishbone appeared on the scene.

"Ready for a race, Wigwam? The ice is nearly deserted."

"You ready to eat my ice chips?" Wigwam responded smugly.

"I'm ready to beat you," Wishbone grinned. "But to keep this honest, we could use some line judges at key spots along the track."

By this time, interest in the race had generated a crowd around the contenders. Vanguard, Thomas, and Hubert consented to position themselves to monitor the track and insure that the racers stayed in line.

When Wigwam and Wishbone lined up for the start, excitement was high. Agatha was given the honor of signaling the start of the race. As the white handkerchief dropped, the two stallions started off in synchronized movement; after passing Vanguard's post, Wishbone began to gain distance, but while making the farthest curve past Thomas he swung too wide; and Wigwam cut the space somewhat. By the time they flew past Hubert, the two were neck and neck; but the Native Pony pulled ahead in the homestretch and crossed the finish line first.

Wishbone wasn't subdued; he had enjoyed the challenge. After honorably congratulating the winner, he dared Prime and Chip to race. This led to a series of contests putting stallion against stallion, filly against filly, and stallion against filly.

The last race became a competition between Prime and Chocolate Chip; Prime had made the comment that even though he had already run several races, he could still beat any of the fillies. This goaded Chocolate Chip enough that she took up his challenge, and the two ran a tough match.

But Prime came in ahead; and Chocolate Chip, crossing the finish line at full speed suddenly lost her balance and began to fall. In an instant Wigwam was at her side and caught her up. "Steady, girl."

He held her, and time stopped as they looked into each other's eyes. For that moment, all who knew their past looked on to see the outcome; but it ended as quickly as it began. Chocolate Chip pulled herself away and went on to where Prime had stopped. "I let you win," she informed him.

Vanguard, coming in off the ice, raised an eyebrow. "What was that all about?"

Sugarberry said softly, "She loves him, Vanguard. She still loves him. She just won't allow herself to admit it. But Wigwam knows now, too, if he had eyes to see." She made a point to sit by the orange stallion as she removed her skates. "So how are you faring by now?" she prodded.

"There was an instant when Chocolate Chip forgot her grudge against me, Sugarberry. I saw again something of her true feelings. I'll wait for her forever if that's what it takes!"

Tabby, Thomas, and Elaine came by to say goodnight. "We're going home. What time do you want to head out to see the wolves tomorrow, Wigwam?"

With those arrangements being made satisfactorily, the Fairfaxes left, and Wigwam soon followed. Agatha and Hubert offered to spare Vanguard the walk across town by making sure Sugarberry got home safely themselves, but the stallion turned them down. "There were too many times in Vulcanopolis that I could only dream of walking Sugarberry home; I'm not going to miss out on the reality of it now. My dream quest has been fulfilled." The look that passed between him and the mare verified that the sentiment was mutual.

Agatha looked on approvingly. "That was beautifully stated, Vanguard. And now, the two of you can fill Hubert and I in on how your wedding plans are shaping up." The two couples left with a final wave at Chocolate Chip, Wishbone, and the others.

Meanwhile, across the city blocks, Wigwam stood outside his abode contemplating all that had transpired in the course of the day. He had not expected the ordinary morning to have blossomed into such a meaningful cache of hours. He still lamented the forfeit of the wolf, but it was tempered by the promise of the brown filly.

As he was about to go in for the night, he heard a distant sound from the direction of the Dark Forest. It was the howl of a wolf. Wigwam smiled, for it wasn't a melancholy call; it was a call of confidence in the future.

"Thanks, Manitou," the Native Pony whispered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Determined Dreams
Shining Series #15
by Shining ([email protected])


Author's Note: Well, I have good news and I have bad news. I'm not really sure which is which. The (insert good/bad here) news is that I got 100% YES on the poll. Ironically, however, only one person voted. Go figure. So, the (insert good/bad here) news is that here I am again, story in hand. I actually started this one long before the poll, but never got around to finishing it. Well, I guess I did eventually. Anyway, I still have ideas spouting out my nose for new adventures, but I'd love your feedback. Do you think I should throw in the towel? Say "uncle!" Feedback is delicious. Mmmm...



Expect A Miracle breathed in deeply the scent of autumn as she jogged down the beaten trail at Whitebrook Farm. The gray filly smiled and tossed her head, eyeing the chocolate colt at her side. "Want to gallop, Fly?" she challenged with her bouncy British accent.

The long-legged colt chuckled. "I thought that we were relaxing, Mira. This trail ride was supposed to help you unwind." He bumped into her playfully.

"I am relaxed," Mira insisted, throwing her weight against him in return.

Fly snorted. "Mira," he said patiently, "you haven't been relaxed since you started training for your first race. That was months ago."

The filly shrugged. "I've raced since then. I had to keep training. I have a race in two weeks," she justified.

The dark brown colt sighed, slowing his pace. "You're one of the fastest two-year-olds this sport has seen in a long time," he reminded her. Mira opened her mouth to protest, but Fly held up a hoof to silence her. "You know it's true," he insisted. "You can afford to slow down a bit." The colt gave her a lopsided grin.

Mira glanced at her friend. "Crash isn't slowing down," she objected. Crash was a handsome black two-year-old who was also training at Whitebrook. Mira and Crash had never gotten along and were arch-enemies of sorts.

Fly slung a long leg over Mira's shoulder, halting her. He turned to peer into her dark eyes. "Forget about Crash," he chided gently. He kissed her cheek. "Just relax."

The gray filly smiled. "Okay," she agreed, patting his dark cheek. "But first, you have to race me back to the barn!" Mira tore away laughing and bolted down the lane.

Fly chuckled and shook his head. With a sigh, he picked up a gallop and chased after the pretty silver filly. "This is not relaxing, Mira!" he called. As they approached Whitebrook's large training oval, Fly increased his speed and grabbed Mira, pulling her into a hug. The filly squealed and laughed, pulling up.

The pair froze as a throat was cleared. Mira looked up to see her trainer, Jazzman, and her fellow two-year-olds staring at them. Mira blushed. "How nice of you to join us," Jazzman said dryly.

Undeterred, Fly saluted, grinning broadly. "It's always a pleasure, sir," he said cheerfully. Mira snorted and covered her finely-chiseled muzzle with a hoof.

Jazzman shot the two young horses a look before continuing. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I have decided to split you up into groups according to skill levels so that you'll be able to get more instruction."

Mira looked up quickly, feeling a pit in her stomach. She was sure to be separated from Fly and even more sure to be grouped with Crash. She searched the crowd and found Crash glaring at her, obviously not pleased about the new arrangements either.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Fly raising his hoof. "Jazzman?" he inquired. "Do you think that you might consider rearranging some of the groups? I know that some of us don't get along with others..."

Jazzman shook his head decisively. "You'll just have to get along," he said. "Now, Group I will be Crash and Mira, Group II will be Daisy, Fly, and Skip..."

Mira turned to Fly. He gave her an apologetic look, but Mira shrugged. It wasn't his fault that she was stuck with Crash. With a sigh, the gray filly turned and headed for the track; she and Crash would be running first. As she turned, she felt a hoof rest on her shoulder. "Don't let him get to you," Fly murmured in her ear. "Good luck." He kissed her cheek lightly.

The filly flashed Fly a grateful smile. "You too, Fly," Mira whispered. Bravely, Mira squared her shoulders and walked toward Whitebrook's racetrack.

"So, Dewdrop," a voice said snidely. Mira shuddered as a black foreleg was draped over her shoulder.

"Crash," Mira said with false sweetness, turning to face him, "you know that I don't like that name, and I prefer to be called Mira." Crash's foreleg dropped as she shifted her shoulders.

"Sure thing, Sugar," Crash taunted. When Mira ignored his jibe, Crash tried a different approach. "Do you really think that you'll amount to anything, Dewdrop? You'll burn out, just wait."

Mira clenched her teeth, but refused to give in to his baiting. With measured steps, she continued walking toward the track.

"You'll be a nothing, Dewdrop. Just like your father," Crash sneered cruelly.

That stopped Mira cold. She could feel anger bubbling through her, even though she knew Crash was merely trying to push her buttons and didn't know the real story.

Mira's father, Noble Caesar, had been one of the best show horses on the circuit. He and Mira's mother, On My Honor, had been a stunning pair in the show ring. But a reckless car had ended Caesar's life, and Mira had never known him; he had died before she was born.

Mira slowly turned to gaze intensely at Crash. She knew that her dark eyes made him ill at ease. "My father was one of the greatest horses to grace the spotlight," she told him in a low voice, shaky with anger.

Crash smirked. "Oh yeah?" he challenged. "How come I've never heard of him? Who is he, Dewdrop? Some second-rate mule?"

Angrily, Mira blinked back tears. She would not let Crash see her cry. "Noble Caesar was my father," she said softly. "He's dead."

In an instant, Crash's face went from cruel skepticism to surprise and remorse. Mira turned on her heel and marched to the track. The silver filly could hear Crash following her, trying to catch up. "Dewdrop–" he caught himself. "Mira, I'm sorry," he called, reaching a foreleg out to her. "I didn't know."

Brusquely, Mira brushed his hoof away. "I'm running first," she announced as she reached the rail. Without looking at Jazzman, Mira walked through the gap and onto the track. Feeling the gritty sand beneath her hooves, Mira could feel her anger ebb away. With a snort, she stepped into the starting box and waited for them to swing open.

A split second later, Mira burst through onto the track as the doors were flung open. Snorting and shaking her head, Mira ran her anger away in bursts of incredible speed. She knew she was supposed to only do a gentle gallop today, but she couldn't help it. Mira loved to run. She needed to feel the stinging as her silky mane whipped awry with each bob of her head. She needed to let her dark eyes water as the wind tore tears from them. She needed to feel the jarring impact as her hooves drummed the ground. She needed this.

Mira had no idea how long she had been running. She flicked her ears back as she realized that Jazzman was chasing after her and slowed down. She noted that he was very angry. As the gray filly slowed to a trot, she squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she could just run and run and everything else would disappear into nothingness.

Mira halted and turned to face Jazzman, whose face was like a stormcloud. "What were you thinking, Mira?" he hollered. "You have a race in two weeks! You can't burn yourself out like that!"

"I'm sorry," Mira said in a small voice. She studied the harrowed pattern in the soft dirt intently.

Jazzman blew air out of his nostrils in irritation. She could tell that he was silently counting to ten. "What happened?" he asked in a controlled voice.

Mira shook her head. "I got angry--"

"You need to figure out how to control your anger, Mira," Jazzman cut in. "This rivalry with Crash has gone on long enough." He emphasized his point by slicing his hoof through the air.

"Yes, sir," Mira said meekly.

The black stallion sighed. "I'm going to have to ground you from the track, Mira," he said resignedly. "It's for your own good."

The silver filly's head shot up. "You can't do that," she protested.

Jazzman crossed his forelegs across his broad chest. He would not be moved. "I'll expect to see you here every morning for practices, but you will not be allowed to run for one week. Understood?"

Mira could feel her anger rising again but checked it and silently nodded. Without another word, Mira walked to the gap. Crash was standing by the rail but would not meet her gaze. The filly wanted to pin this tragedy on the black colt, but honesty would not let her. This was her fault. She should not have let him get to her.

And for the first time since she had come to Whitebrook, Mira felt homesick. She missed her mother, who loved to dance; and her uncle, In A Moment, an artist, who always made her laugh. She missed the piney smell of her stall back at Mended Hearts Farm in England. She missed the love and support her family always gave her, no matter what she pursued.

With a lump in her throat, Mira walked steadily to her stall and laid down in the fresh shavings, not bothering to wipe away the tears that fell down her soft cheek. "I want to go home," the filly whispered.

* * *
The next morning, Mira was awakened by an insistent rapping on her stall door. "Rise and shine!" a syrupy Southern accent called.

The gray filly groaned and rolled over. "Mattie, it's too early," Mira mumbled, still half-asleep.

"Darlin', practice starts in fifteen minutes," the voice called through the door.

Mira blinked and let her eyes slide shut again. "That's fourteen more minutes of sleep that I can–" Mira raised her head. "Mattie?" she called in disbelief. She could hear a girlish giggle on the other side of the wooden door.

In a flash, the gray filly was up, tearing open the door. There stood a pretty chestnut filly with a heart-shaped star. "Miss me?" the chestnut asked innocently.

Mira barked out a laugh and embraced the filly. "Mattie! Of course I missed you!" she cried. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming back?"

Mattie winked. "I wanted to surprise you!"

Mira stood back to look her friend over. "And you're healthy?" she asked incredulously. Mattie had suffered a severe sprain earlier in the season that had forced her to go back home to recuperate.

The chestnut jumped into the air and clicked her hooves together. "Perfectly sound," she assured.

Mira nodded her head in approval. "Good."

Mattie's face sobered. "I heard what happened yesterday at practice," she said sympathetically.

Mira tensed and then let her shoulders roll down. She shrugged. "I shouldn't have let him get to me," she admitted. "I was just blowing off steam."

Mattie gave her friend a quick hug. "Don't worry," she comforted. "You'll just be really fresh for you next race."

Mira laughed. "That was a pretty lame consolation," she joked.

Mattie wrinkled her nose. "Well, I tried," she shrugged. "C'mon, or I'll be late for practice."

Together, the fillies wandered down to the track. "What group are you in?" Mira asked Mattie.

"Group II," Mattie replied. "With Fly."

Mira felt her heart sink. Her two best friends would be training together while she was stuck on the sidelines. "No fair," the filly muttered under her breath.

Mattie glanced at her friend. "What was that?" she asked with a cock of her head.

The gray filly dismissed it with a shake of her head. "I'll bet Fly will be thrilled to see you," Mira said, changing the subject.

Mattie grinned. "I can't wait to see him," she said excitedly. "He's really cute, Mira." The chestnut filly elbowed Mira.

Mira rolled her eyes. "I am well aware of that fact, Mattie," she said calmly. "But Fly and I decided that a relationship is too confining right now."

Mattie huffed. "Oh, fine."

The gray filly shook her head in good humor. "You're still as colt-crazy as ever," she chuckled.

Mattie shrugged and held her hooves up in defense. "I can't help it if all the colts here are extremely good looking."

Mira nodded. "And I suppose it doesn't hurt that they're always valiantly galloping around the track, and they're always in shape," she teased.

The chestnut winked. "Darlin', that's why I joined this sport!"

The fillies arrived at the track just as Jazzman was beginning his instruction. He turned to peer at them. "Thank you for being so punctual, ladies," he said with the raise of an eyebrow.

Mira brought her hoof to her forehead in salute. "Reporting in for duty, sir," greeted the filly.

Jazzman rolled his eyes. "Enough," he said. "Do you have any questions?" Mira shook her head. "Then you're free to go," he dismissed her.

Mattie looked at her sadly. "Be good," she admonished.

The gray filly smiled. "Tell Fly that I'll meet him for lunch." Mattie nodded in acknowledgment. With a sigh, Mira wandered away from the track. For the first hour, Mira amused herself by tidying up her roomy box stall. She hummed to herself as she straightened her piles of tack. As she was rummaging through a pile of photographs, she paused. "I miss home," she said aloud.

Spontaneously, Mira walked out of her stall and down the aisle to the barn office. She sat herself down at Jazzman and Wonder's dusty desk and picked up the phone. Quickly she dialed, and bit the edge of her hoof as the phone on the other end rang.

A soft voice answered, "Glorified Acres."

"Mom?" Mira said, whooshing out a breath.

The filly could hear her mother smile on the other end. "Mira! We've been so busy here!" she exclaimed.

Mira blinked. "What? What's going on?" she inquired, forgetting her homesickness for a moment.

"We're moving back home," her mother told her.

Honor, Mira's mother, had moved to England after Caesar died and had constructed her own school in Harrogate, England, called Mended Hearts Farm. But merely months ago, a vengeful student had set the barn on fire. Honor and Mira had moved back to Dream Valley to live on Honor's parents' farm, the world renowned Glorified Acres.

The news brought Mira's homesickness back in full force. She squeezed her dark eyes shut, but a tear managed to escape. "That's great," Mira said weakly.

"Oh, Mira," Honor sighed, "what's wrong?"

Mira hiccoughed. "I miss home," she wailed. Impatiently, she swiped at her tears.

Mira could hear her mother breathing on the other line. She felt comforted. "Mira, what happened?" Honor asked gently.

And then the whole story came pouring out. Honor listened sympathetically as Mira lamented. "And I just want to give up and go home," Mira finished.

Honor chucked lightly. "Mira, you don't mean that. You have a race in two weeks. You're just a little lonely right now."

Mira sighed. "But it's just so hard," she complained.

"I know," Honor soothed. "But I have a surprise that should cheer you up."

The filly's ears perked. "What?"

"Well..." Honor paused dramatically.

"Mom!" Mira cried impatiently.

Honor laughed. "Okay, okay, Spook is flying in from England to stay at Glorified Acres until we move back.."

Mira let out a squeal. "Spook? Coming here? Are you sure? When? Why?"

"Yes, yes," Honor assured the filly. "He's coming to help us pack up. He's flying in tomorrow night."

Spook was Mira's best friend from England. The two had grown up together, and the colt had taken lessons from Mira's mother. He had stayed behind in Harrogate, however, because he had close family nearby.

"Send him over-send him over!" Mira exclaimed.

"I promise," Honor vowed. "Happier now?"

Mira nodded. "Yes. I should go."

"Okay, I'll talk to you soon," Honor said.

"I love you," the filly stated.

"Love you too. Good bye." Honor hung up.

Mira replaced the receiver back in the cradle and stood up. Spook was coming. He would make things happy again.

Blissfully, the filly wandered around Whitebrook's expansive property. But she soon grew bored with mere meandering. Wasn't there something she could do?

"Arch your neck more!" a voice cried.

Mira looked up startled. She found herself facing Whitebrook's large training arena. She rarely visited the showhorses' area. A deep bay was trotting evenly around the rail while a gray Thoroughbred mare shouted out instructions from the center of the arena.

Tentatively, Mira walked forward and leaned against the rail. The morning was sunny, and the worn wood felt warm against Mira's skin. She smiled wryly as the bay shook his head in frustration. She knew that feeling. Without realizing what she was doing, Mira walked through the gate's partition to stand along the inside rail of the arena. The next time the colt swung around the turn, Mira beckoned to him.

Out of the corner of his eye, the colt caught Mira's movement. He glanced at her with a quizzical look.

"Relax your neck and you'll be able to arch more easily," Mira said under her breath as he sailed by. The bay snorted, but under Mira's critical eye, she could see him bring his nose in closer to his chest.

"And who is this?" the gray's voice rang out.

Mira looked up guiltily. "I– uh– didn't mean..." she trailed off.

The mare shrugged. "I've been trying to get him to loosen up for the last half-hour. Congratulations." The bay had halted a few yards away and bobbed his head appreciatively.

Mira smiled nervously. "It's a trick I learned from my granddam," she said quietly.

The gray mare cocked her head to the side. "And who would your granddam be?" she asked incredulously. The bay stepped up to stand beside her.

Mira paused. She hated it when adults were condescending. "Shining," she said in a low voice.

Mira watched as the mare's eyes lit up. "The Shining?" she asked, breathless.

"Well, yes," Mira said carefully. She took a slight step backward.

The bay colt chuckled. "You're scaring her, Magic."

The mare blinked and started. "I'm sorry!" she cried. "I just– my name is Magic. Shining is one of my biggest role models," she explained hastily.

Mira laughed. "I'm Mira. I didn't mean to disrupt your lesson. I was just wandering around and found myself here."

Magic shrugged. "Make yourself at home. I was going to go look over Hope's new eventing course." With a disbelieving shake of her head, Magic smiled and departed.

Mira remained, staring awkwardly at the bay colt Magic had left behind. He graced her with a warm smile. "Don't mind Magic. She's been away in Germany for the past couple of years and just got back. My name's Poe, by the way. Short for Poetry In Motion."

Mira grinned. "Nice to meet you, Poe. Do you compete?" she asked curiously.

Poe shook his head ruefully. "No, I just started last year."

Mira raised her eyebrows. "You've got some good raw talent then, Poe," she complimented.

Poe shrugged. "Care to give me any other pointers? I've got a new routine I'm supposed to be working on."

The filly's eyes lit up. "Sure! I haven't done anything but racing for the past year. I miss dancing."

For the next two hours, Mira and Poe worked diligently on pirouettes, extensions, and pasades. Mira was so engrossed in the activities that she completely forgot her banned status.

"That was great, Mira!" Poe called encouragingly as the filly executed a near-perfect capriole.

Mira, slightly winded trotted over to join Poe in the center of the ring. "Thanks," she grinned. "I haven't done this in forever. It feels great!"

Poe tousled Mira's silky mane. "Care to join me again tomorrow?" he offered.

"I can't, I have to–" Mira caught herself. No, she wouldn't be running. Not for a week. "I'd love to."

Poe cocked his head to the side. "Great, I'll see you tomorrow then." With a wave, Poe sauntered off, leaving Mira to her own devices.

Mira sighed. "I suppose I should go find Fly and Mattie," she said aloud. The filly picked up a slow jog and headed for the racing barn.

Mattie met Mira halfway there. "Mira, darlin'! I've been looking for you everywhere!"

Mira smiled at the chestnut filly. "How was practice?" she asked.

Mattie skipped along beside Mira. "Practice was great! It feels so good to be out on the track again."

The gray bobbed her head. "I know what you mean."

The two friends trotted along in companionable silence for a moment before Mattie spoke up again. "So, what's the story with you and Fly?" she asked slyly.

Mira snorted. "We're friends. That's it."

Mattie bumped up against Mira. "Just friends?"

The gray filly nodded her head. "We tried to have a ‘more meaningful relationship', but we figured out we got along better as best friends. Didn't we go over this before?"

"Well yes, but– he's handsome, Mira," Mattie pointed out.

Mira rolled her eyes. "I know, Mattie," she said patiently.

"He's really sweet, too," Mattie said dreamily.

Mira turned to peer at her friend. "You like him," she accused.

The chestnut filly blushed deeply and watched her feet. "I'm just saying–"

Mira halted and turned to look at her friend. "Mattie, Fly and I are best friends. That's all. I think that you two would make a perfect couple. I know he missed you," she assured Mattie.

Mattie stared at Mira with a creased brow. "Are you sure?" she asked in a whisper. Mira nodded, and Mattie swept Mira up into a hug. "Mira, you're the greatest!"

Mira laughed and patted the chestnut on the back. "You're squishing me!" she squealed.

Mattie let go abruptly. "I'll race you to the barn," she offered. In a burst of speed, Mira galloped toward Whitebrook's barn, laughing as Mattie protested a few paces behind.

* * *
That evening, as Mira was getting ready for bed, a soft knock sounded on her stall door. "Who is it?" she asked, surprised.

"Let me in!" a voice insisted in a British accent.

"Spook!" Mira cried, flinging the wooden door open. Before her stood a leggy black colt with an impish grin.

"Hello love," he greeted her.

"I didn't think you'd be getting in until tomorrow night!" she exclaimed, pulling him into a tight hug.

"I got an earlier flight," Spook explained, returning the filly's embrace.

Mira stepped back to eye her friend. "I've missed you," she stated. "You grew almost a whole hand!"

Spook grinned. "Yeah, I went through a growth spurt a couple of months ago. I'm taller than Adagio now."

Mira's ears perked. Adagio was a former student of Honor's and was like an older brother to Mira. He had stayed behind in England with his mate, Arrow, and had taken over Honor's students while she was away. "How is Adagio? I haven't heard from him in forever!"

"Arrow's pregnant!" Spook crowed. "Adagio's so excited."

The filly jumped up and down. "Oh, me too! I can't wait!" Impulsively, Mira hugged the colt again. "It's so good to see you."

"Likewise," Spook replied with a bob of his head. "So Honor told me about your little ‘incident'." Spook tilted his head to the side, his eyes shining with mirth.

Mira let out a huff. "You know how I am with my temper."

Spook nodded wryly. "From experience."

The gray filly rolled her eyes. "So I won't be able to practice for a whole week." She frowned slightly.

Spook grinned at her slyly. "Why not practice now?" he suggested.

"Now?" Mira asked incredulously.

The black colt shrugged. "Sure. Why not? No one's going to see you out there this late at night."

"Well..."

"C'mon!" Spook encouraged, dragging her out of the barn by her hoof.

"Spook, what if someone sees us?" Mira whispered frantically.

Spook shook his dark head. "You worry too much." Arriving at the track, Spook let go of Mira's hoof and gave her a gentle shove toward the track gap. "Go on, track star."

Nervously glancing back and forth, Mira stepped gingerly onto the track. Whooshing out a breath of air, Mira jogged lightly down the rail, swiveling her ears, in case anyone had caught her.

After a few minutes of warming up, Mira relaxed and moved fluidly. She picked up a rolling gallop and blew snorting breaths out through her delicate nostrils. She smiled and felt the tension roll off her neck and shoulders as she ran through the night like a shooting star, her dapples gleaming softly in the moonlight.

As she approached the gap again, Mira slowed and grinned at Spook. "Beautiful," the colt stated.

"Wow, I feel so much better," Mira said, joining Spook at the rail.

"See? What did I tell you?" Spook teased, poking Mira in the ribs.

Mira nodded her head concedingly. "You were right, Spook. But I'm sleepy now. I'll find an open stall for you, and then I'm going to bed."

* * *
The next morning, Mira awoke with a smile and bounded down to the track. Spook followed close behind, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"Morning, Jazzman," she greeted her trainer. "Morning, Crash."

"Well, aren't we cheerful this morning," Jazzman commented.

"Who's the colt?" Crash asked, sizing Spook up.

Mira slung a long leg over Spook's shoulder. "This is my friend, Spook. He's from England, like me," she introduced.

"Spook?" Crash asked incredulously.

"I was born on Halloween," Spook explained. "My real name is About Time."

Crash shrugged noncommittally. "Do you want me to breeze today, Jazzman?"

As Crash and Jazzman discussed the workout plan, Mira and Spook slipped away. "I'm supposed to practice a jump course with my friend Poe today. I figured that would be right up your alley."

Slinging his foreleg through hers, Spook bowed. "Lead the way, Princess."

Mira batted him playfully. "You know I hate pet names."

"Yes," Spook challenged.

Mira rolled her dark eyes. "I let you get away with so much."

"I know," Spook snickered. "Sweetie-Pie." He batted his eyelashes.

Mira ignored Spook's tauntings and waved as she caught sight of Poe waiting at the arena. "Hi Poe!" she called.

The bay colt waved back. "This jump course is so confusing!" he lamented.

"Don't worry!" Mira assured him. "Spook's an expert." Mira sighed as she leaned up against the wooden arena rail. She glanced at Spook, and saw that he was already deep in thought, deciphering the tricky jump course. Impishly, she blew in his perked ear, causing him to jump.

"Not funny!" the black colt cried as he jerked backwards. Mira and Poe dissolved into giggles. "I was thinking!"

Mira tried to keep a straight face as Spook glared at her. "Sorry, Spook. But you had it coming."

Spook shrugged. "So this jump course," he said, changing the subject. "You've got to make sure you turn your corners perfectly, or you'll be off for the next jump."

Poe nodded as he studied the course. "I tried to go through it once before you got here, and I picked up an extra stride on the fourth jump."

Mira hopped up and down impatiently. "Well, let's go then," she insisted. She tossed her silvery mane out of her eyes. Eagerly, she trotted through the arena entrance. "I want to go first."

"Be my guest," Poe offered.

Mira snorted as she picked up a canter. She circled the arena before heading for the first jump. "Don't laugh," she admonished. "I haven't done this in a long time."

The gray filly jumped over the first obstacle with ease. Making a sharp left turn, she headed for the brush fence. After sailing over the jump, Mira did a quick flying lead change before circling and jumping over an oxer.

As she ran though the course, Mira could feel her confidence rising. She remembered how easy jumping was, how fluid and graceful it could be. By the last jump, Mira was grinning. "Whew! That was impressive!" she exclaimed as she popped over the final vertical.

"Not bad!" Spook complimented. Poe clapped his hooves together in applause.

Laughing, Mira curtsied elegantly. "Thank you, thank you."

The three young horses passed the day away leaping and jumping and laughing together. It was nearing late afternoon when Crash meandered over to stand next to Mira on the rail as Poe and Spook did a final run through. Mira was in such high spirits that she didn't move away, but greeted the handsome black colt with a smile. "Hi, Crash," she said socially. "How was practice?"

Crash snorted. "Fine."

The gray filly glanced at her companion and shrugged, turning her attention back to the arena. The two horses stood together in silence.

"So," Crash said loudly, startling Mira. "Spook's a jumper."

Mira nodded. "He was a student of my mom's. We grew up together in England," she explained, scratching a long ear absentmindedly.

"Oh." Crash cleared his throat. "So are you two like a couple...?" he let his voice trail off.

Mira turned to stare at Crash, her eyes wide in surprise. "No," she said cautiously. "Just friends." The black colt nodded, keeping his eyes focused forward on the arena.

The filly grinned. Was Crash trying to be civil? "So what about you and Dinah?" she teased. "Everlasting love?"

The big black colt snorted and shook his head. "All those fillies follow me around–"

"Oh, please," Mira scoffed. "Tell me that you don't enjoy it. I'll bet it's a huge ego trip."

Crash shrugged and smiled. "Hey, if the shoe fits..." He ran a hoof through his thick black forelock, revealing his handsome face.

Mira rolled her eyes. "Well, at least I've never swooned over you."

"And why not?" Crash asked with a teasing grin.

"Because I'm too good for you," Mira retorted.

"Hey–" Crash began indignantly.

Mira smiled reassuringly and patted his shoulder. "I was just kidding, Crash."

"Oh." Crash grinned sheepishly. "Well, I should head back to the barn. I'll see you later, Dewdrop."

Mira wrinkled her nose. "Would it really hurt you that much to call me Mira?" she asked as Crash walked away.

Crash winked over his shoulder. "Yes."

Mira sighed and turned back to the arena. Poe and Spook had finished while she had been talking with Crash, and now walked up to her. "Crash giving you trouble?" Spook asked with concern.

The filly shook her head. "No, actually he was quite civil."

Spook raised his eyebrows in surprise but dismissed the the incident immediately. "Ready to head up to the barn?" he asked her.

"Sure thing," Mira replied.

"I'll see you two later," Poe said, turning in the other direction. "I'm going to hit the trails and cool off."

Mira and Spook waved as the bay colt walked away. In silent agreement, the two began making their way back to the barn. "Will you move back to England?" Spook asked suddenly.

Mira looked up in surprise. "I hadn't even thought about it," she admitted.

"Come back with me," Spook pleaded. "I've missed you. You could still do your racing in England. Mended Hearts won't be the same without you."

"I don't know," Mira said slowly, letting the syllables roll off her tongue. "I was planning on staying at Whitebrook for at least another year." Mira felt torn. The pang of homesickness was still acute.

"Think about it," Spook said, putting a foreleg around her shoulder. Mira nodded mutely. This was a decision she could not come to lightly.

* * *
For the next few days, Mira worked hard with Spook and Poe. Together, they practiced jumping, dressage, and even ran the cross country course. Mira continued her midnight gallops with Spook's help.

And through all of her activities, Mira couldn't shake Spook's invitation from her mind. She thought about confiding in Fly and Mattie, but she knew that her two friends would be biased. She needed to talk to someone who didn't have an opinion, but rather, a solution.

Late one evening, Mira decided that she needed to consult the stars. She quietly exited the barn and walked slowly through Whitebrook's bridle paths. With a small smile, she gazed up at the clear sky. Stargazing always reminded her of her mother. After Mira's father had died, Honor had taken consolation from the stars and often went on midnight walks to ease her state of mind.

As Mira rounded a bend, her eye caught a flash of movement beyond a thicket of trees. Squinting, the filly made out the shape of a gray stallion. Although she had been quiet, the stallion craned his head in her direction. "Hello, Mira," he said gently.

"Oh!" Mira said, startled. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to interrupt you." She ducked her head down.

Orion beckoned for her. "It's okay," he assured her. "I was just painting the night sky. I thought it was a pretty moon this evening."

Mira stepped forward lightly and peered at the canvas. "It's beautiful," she breathed.

"Thank you," Orion said modestly. A moment passed, and Orion spoke again. "Something bothering you, Mira?"

The filly glanced at the gray stallion with a guarded expression. "I was just thinking."

"Hmm..." Orion murmured, adding brilliant stars to his painted sky. "Care to talk about it?"

With a deep sigh, Mira sat beside the painter. "My friend, Spook, wants me to move back to England," she said in a rush. Her jaw snapped shut.

But Orion merely nodded his head with calm patience. "Do you want to?" he asked her gently.

Again, the silver filly sighed. "I don't know," she admitted. "Lately I've been–"

Mira hesitated, and Orion looked up at her from his painting. He looked deep into her dark eyes. "You can trust me, Mira," he whispered.

Mira felt her suspicions melt away. "I've been so homesick," she said softly. "But if I go back to England, I'm afraid I'll lose my dream."

"Of racing?" Orion turned back to his canvas, choosing a deep indigo from his palette. The filly nodded. "Well, Whitebrook is an excellent facility, but you have a training track at Mended Hearts, don't you?"

"Yes," Mira replied.

"But not the knowledge," Orion mused out loud. With a swirl of his brush, the stallion mixed black and white together into various shades of gray. He turned his attention to his artwork again. Mira watched quietly. It reminded her of late nights spent in her uncle's studio when she was small. "Well, is it really fair to give up a dream to watch someone else's unfold?" he asked her.

"Well," Mira paused. "I'm not sure."

"I think that when you figure that out, you'll know what to do," the stallion said wisely.

Mira nodded, her mind whirling with activity. She watched as Orion painted a gray stallion leaping into the night sky. "That horse looks familiar," Mira said softly.

Orion looked at her sharply. "It's just a horse I knew once," he said quickly.

The filly lifted herself from the grass. "I should go in before someone starts to worry," she told the stallion. She brushed a stray leaf from her silky tail.

"Goodnight, Mira," Orion bade her farewell.

Slowly, Mira walked back to her stall, contemplating her discussion with Orion. Darkness invaded every corner of the barn, making her decision seem even more foreboding. Silently, the filly stepped back into her stall to wait for dawn.

* * *
Mira was awakened by a rapping on her door. "Mira, wake up! Your ban is over today! You get to run!" Spook called through the door.

The gray filly sat bolt upright and leapt to the door. "Spook!" she cried. "I need to talk to you. I can't go to England with you. I just can't. I need to stay here at Whitebrook because I need to run. I love to run. And if I go back to England, I won't be able to run like I can here. So I can't." Mira's words tumbled out in a rush, her eyes wide, and her mind still a bit fogged with sleep.

"Whoa, easy Mira," Spook said, laying a hoof gently on her shoulder. "I was just waking you up to practice." He avoided her gaze, but Mira could sense the disappointment.

The filly's eyes filled with tears. "Spook, please," she whispered. "Please understand. I love to run. It's my calling."

Spook met her eyes with a sad expression. "I know, love," he said softly. "I'll miss you. But I know."

With a grateful but teary smile, Mira pulled the black colt into a hug. "Thank you, Spook."

"You're cutting off my breathing," Spook said gruffly. "Go on, you'll miss your practice."

Leaving Spook with a chaste kiss on his cheek, the silver filly dashed off to the track. She arrived just as Crash was walking out to the starting gate.

Jazzman turned to nod at her. "Welcome back, Mira," he greeted. Mira smiled. "Think you can manage to take it slow today?"

Mira nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good," the bay stallion said in approval. "Head out as soon as Crash is finished."

Mira watched as Crash broke cleanly from the starting gate and galloped down the rail, his hooves drumming the dirt beneath him. As he slowed, Mira jumped into action, trotting briskly out onto the track.

The filly began at a slow, easy gallop, closing her eyes and letting the wind whistle around her. As she began speeding up, she remembered Jazzman's warning and checked herself. She met the bay stallion back at the gap.

"Not bad, Mira," Jazzman told her. "Looks like the week away didn't slow you down any."

Mira blushed and looked down at the dirt. "No, sir," she said.

"You'll be ready for your race," Jazzman said confidently.

The week flew for Mira, preparing for her race. With the weight of the decision to stay at Whitebrook off her shoulders, Mira was able to focus all her attention to the task ahead. And before she knew it, the day of the race had arrived.

Mira paced her holding stall nervously. Spook lounged in the corner.

"Relax, love," he chided her. "You're ready for this. You'll do fine."

The gray filly turned to glare at Spook. "How do you know?" she asked in irritation.

Spook stood up from his corner and hugged Mira, gently rubbing her back. "Because you're the fastest filly I've ever seen," he said gently.

As her friend stroked her back, Mira felt her tension melt away. She breathed deeply. The announcer's voice boomed on the loudspeaker, calling the horses to the track. Mira's head bobbed up, her face a look of alarm. "Spook..."

Spook gave Mira a peck on her cheek and sent her out the door. "Good luck, Mira!" he called.

The post parade was a blur for the gray filly. Faces and colors melded together, as Mira was deep in thought. The past two weeks had been a period of second-thoughts. It wasn't that this race was extremely important to her career. It was that this race would determine which dream was right for her, whether she had chosen the right one. She could prove to herself that she was worthy of the title "racehorse". It would prove that she hadn't thrown her everything into this game for folly. It would prove that she couldn't give up.

Mira stepped into the starting gate and took a deep breath as the mesh gate swung shut behind her. She turned to her left and nodded politely to the bay filly beside her. "Good luck," she said with a small smile.

There was a tense moment of silence, and then the gates swung open and the bells clanged. Mira exploded from her stall and surged to the lead, fueled by her pent-up nervous energy. She knew that she should pace herself, but she didn't have the will to force herself to slow.

Rounding the first curve, Mira was still running steadily. She took a quick glance over her shoulder and found that she had a solid lead. The rhythmic beat of her hooves was mesmerizing, and she concentrated on the fast three-beat tempo. The wind whipped Mira's silver mane, stinging her neck, and her breath came in even snorts.

Mira reached the backstretch and changed leads, digging in. She forced her three-beat tempo to increase and closed her eyes, letting the percussive music carry her. All she was aware of was the sound of her hooves pounding into the track.

The roar of the crowd finally forced her to open her eyes, and she realized that she had run nearly an eighth of a mile past the finish line. Mira turned her head from side to side, looking frantically for the other horses. A soft-eyed palomino lead pony chased after Mira to make sure she was all right. "Congratulations!" the gelding praised, loping up alongside the filly. "That was quite a race!"

A grin broke out on the gray filly's face. She had won. "This was right!" she cried happily, much to the surprise of the lead pony. Mira's dreams were not simply folly, but reality. Mira turned to the palomino with a mirthful expression. "It was quite a race, wasn't it?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lamplight Legacy
by Sugarberry ([email protected])


Tramples finished up the chores in the barn, pausing before leaving to scratch behind the ears of the cat that circled his legs. "Good night, Stripe. Take good care of the others now, you hear?" The rest of the felines-- a golden longhair, an orange and white shorthair, and several that looked like the dark striped tom cat-- lay curled in the tawny straw spread in a sheltered corner especially for them. Tramples took one more look over the creatures of the barn, fed and bedded for the night, before shutting off the light and closing the door up tightly.

Once outside, he found the cold night air seeping through his body; the squeaky crunch of the snow bore out the low temperature. A white moon sat in the dark sky shedding its light that gave no warmth to the frigid land. However, the yellow glow coming from the windows of the Victorian farmhouse promised warmth and companionship. Tramples hurried his steps.

Once inside the back room, the young stallion washed the smells and stains of the barn off his shivering body until he was acceptably clean for his mother's strict expectations. Checking the mirror, he pulled a stray piece of elusive straw from his yellow mane, then proceeded into the adjoining kitchen where, if he was in luck, his mom would be baking brownies or popping corn. But he found the room deserted; the activity seemed to be coming from the front room, so he followed the sound of the voices across the house.

"Buck!" he cried out as he came upon the rest of the family clustered around the oldest of the three brothers. "What are you doing here?"

Laughing, Buck replied, "I still live here, don't I?"

"Yeah, but you're supposed to be back at school." Buck attended Binks University, majoring in history, but he still helped his parents and brothers at Birdsong whenever he was free to come home. He had been with his family over the Christmas holidays and the semester break from classes and had only returned to Binks several weeks earlier.

"I got homesick, okay?" the green stallion responded. "And, Mom, I'm awfully hungry."

Not needing to hear more, Lilac bustled off to the kitchen to prepare her son some food. Licorice followed her to help; Trendy and the other two young stallions came along behind at a more leisurely pace. "So how are things at the university?" Trendy asked with a sidelong glance at his son.

"Same old," Buck replied. "I wasn't scheduled to work at the museum this weekend, so I decided to come home."

The guys plopped into their usual places at the kitchen table, and Licorice began to badger his oldest brother. "Beings your home, you can get up early in this icy weather and do my chores in the morning."

Buck responded with a good-natured punch at his brother while Tramples revealed, "Licorice, you oversleep every morning as it is!"

"Hey! I stay up late to study hard to keep my grades up. You don't have to worry about that," Licorice defended himself.

That led Buck to ask of Tramples, "When are you coming to college?"

Tramples had graduated from high school, but had not yet decided on what to do beyond helping his parents at Birdsong. But Tramples ignored the question, asking his own. "Did Dad tell you that a flying squirrel got trapped in the basement?" This was followed by the story of the little animal who had entered through the chimney and then could not find his way out.

"Tramples was able to lure it back outside with a hoof full of corn," divulged Lilac. "It was a cute little critter." Later, over popcorn, she remembered to tell Buck the good news they had received from Dream Valley: Sugarberry and Vanguard were being married in June and were spending their honeymoon at Birdsong where they had first met.

The family enjoyed a companionable evening, and it was late when the lights of Birdsong were finally turned off. There were only two guests staying at the house during this wintry weekend, and they had retired to their room early in the evening. "If all our visitors were this easy to care for," Lilac had admitted, "running a bed-and-breakfast would be no trouble at all.

The bedrooms for the family were in the wing of the house that had once been the servants' quarters. This allowed the main rooms to be used for those who ventured to Birdsong to experience the rural atmosphere of this popular establishment. Each of the boys had a room of his own, but this night with the unexpected appearance of Buck, the three congregated in Licorice's disorganized room to talk.

Buck picked up a fantasy adventure book off the floor and flipped through it pages. A quick scan of the room revealed that there were a fair number of such books scattered across the room. Buck arched an eyebrow. "Is this what you call studying?"

Licorice grinned. "You know Mom's rule... no reading for fun until the schoolwork's done."

It was Tramples who gave the true answer. "This colt is so smart that he doesn't have to study." He said it with a mixture of pride and envy, as education had always been difficult for the middle brother.

"You're in high school now, right?" Buck questioned the colt.

"Yeah. My first year. Boring."

"And what have your grades been like?"

"Straight A's." The youngster grinned.

Buck and Tramples exchanged a glance, then they both grabbed pillows off the bed to pitch at their brother; this invariably led to a full-scale pillow fight which ended only when a brief knock sounded on the door. "Lights out!"

Laughing, Buck opened the door to reveal Lilac standing in the hallway, her front hoof tapping the floor. But she could not contain a smile as all three ponies began pleading to her as they had so often done when they were younger, "Please, Mom! Just a little while longer!"

"You would think the three of you were old enough to behave yourselves," she said.

"It was Licorice's fault," Buck grinned, releasing the last pillow on a trajectory that led straight to the darkly-colored colt.

"See what I have to put up with, Mom?" Licorice playfully griped. "It was all their fault."

Lilac rolled her eyes. "Just don't tear the place down, okay?" She accepted another goodnight kiss from each of them and then disappeared down the hall.

"Oh, Buck, there was a fox snooping around last night." Tramples, who loved animals both tame and wild, thought of little else. His work around the farm involved caring for the domesticated ones, and his free time was often spent quietly in the woods to see what wildlife he could spot.

"Red or gray?"

"Gray. Well fed by the looks of it. He had peculiar black markings around his eyes which made him look almost ominous."

"Wish I could have seen him."

Licorice by this time had lost interest in the conversation and had buried himself behind a book; Buck and Tramples took the hint and left him to his adventures. After a few more shared facts, they retired to their own rooms for the night.

Turning out the light and crawling into bed, Buck lay with open eyes and no chance at sleep. His mind was too busy playing back scenes from the last several months; and try as he might, he could not resolve the problem that haunted him.

He lay quietly until he was sure that the rest of his family was asleep, then he stealthily crept down the hallway to the back stairs that led to the kitchen. Here he could pace off some of his restlessness without disturbing anyone else.

His nervous energy eventually led him to the window and he stood in the darkness looking out over the back yard. The moon glow spread a ghostly sheen over the white snow, throwing blue shadows that seemed to move with a life of their own even though there was no wind to disturb the brittle air. He was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he did not hear the approach of someone behind him until a floorboard creaked.

"Dad, is that you?" Buck queried of the shadowy figure.

"Yes, son. I thought I'd heard one of you come down the stairs and wondered if there was a problem."

"I couldn't sleep," Buck said, finding a chair in the darkness and sitting down. He wondered about his father's uncanny knack of sensing another's needs; this was not the first time a hurting heart was poured out in the middle of the night to Trendy over a glass of warm milk.

"Let me get a light on and heat up some milk," Trendy stated, causing a smile to cross Buck's face. He wondered if his dad had installed the muted light for just such nighttime talks.

No more was said until Trendy brought the two mugs to the table and sat down opposite his son. "Something is bothering you."

Buck ran a hoof through his sky blue mane. "Remember how I told you at Christmas break how jangles were disappearing from the gift shop at the museum?"

"Yes."

"Well, it happened again last week-- and also a piece out of a jewelry collection."

"Sounds like a real problem. What's Sundial doing about it?"

"What can he do but question everyone who works there; no one has seen anybody take the stuff, but..." The young stallion stopped to reconsider.

"You have your suspicions." Trendy made it a statement, not a question.

Buck sighed. "Yeah. And unfounded suspicions at that. That's why I haven't said anything, but it's driving me crazy."

"Let's talk about it. Maybe it will make more sense to put your hunches into words."

Searching for where to begin, Buck finally gave up and blurted out the blunt facts. "There's a filly who started helping out last fall; she's been on duty whenever there has been a theft. But, Dad, she's one of those annoying types who can wheedle her way into a position of authority without really deserving it."

"So Sundial has promoted this filly over you?" Trendy read between the lines.

"Not just me; there are a lot of us who have been there longer than Garnet and who know more than she does, and we were all upset when Sundial began treating her like his right-hoof assistant."

Trendy pondered this awhile before asking, "Has she done anything to indicate that she stole the missing items?"

"No. But she's the only one who was working every time something disappeared; Sundial gives her more hours as it is, so it could just be coincidence. But it looks fishy to me."

"Were you ever on duty when something was taken?"

"Yes. Once. I was helping in the gift shop with Garnet, and I never saw anything to make me suspect her. But Sundial has put her in charge of the gift shop, so she tallies the jangles at the end of the day and locks the place up. She had plenty of opportunity."

"Do you suspect her simply because you are jealous of her?" Trendy did not mince words.

Buck began to deny the implication, but stopped short. "I... I don't know."

"Is anyone else in a position to have taken the things?"

"I suppose... but it would be easier for Garnet because of her control over the jangles."

"And for the same reason, she surely would know that she would be the first pony suspected. That would make it a dangerous game for her."

"But she has Sundial's unconditional support; he would never suspect her, even if she was caught red-hooved."

"It sounds to me like there is no way to solve this mystery until someone is caught in the act of taking something."

"I know. I thought if I got away from the museum for the weekend that I would be able to see things more clearly. But I guess not."

"I'm sorry I couldn't be a bigger help. But it's getting awfully late for us early risers. Let's call it a night."

"Yeah. And thanks for listening, Dad."

"Anytime."

Once again alone in his own room, Buck stood in the darkness and took one last look out of his window; the light of the moon seemed to be even brighter than before. It was almost eerie to see things in the middle of the night with such detail.

He was just turning away from the scene when a movement caught his attention, and he stared out the window to see what lurked in the cold night. He drew in his breath as the fox stepped from the shadow of the blue spruce that towered over the expanse of lawn that sloped gently down to the barn. He looked no more than a shadow himself as he stopped to sniff the air. Buck hoped that all the small critters were tucked away safely in their burrows while at the same time admiring the attentive stance of the cunning fox.

Although the stallion was standing perfectly still in the window, the fox somehow knew he was there; lifting his head, he stared directly at Buck. The illumination of the moon clearly showed the black mask-like coloration around the creature's eyes. The two scrutinized one another for several seconds before the fox dropped his gaze and trotted off out of sight.

Always something to disturb the peace, pondered Buck as he watched the animal. The encounter had somehow melded in his mind with his problems at the museum. His thoughts turned inward. His college years had gone well at Binks; he had only to finish the semester to complete his undergraduate studies. Everything had gone peacefully along just like the view from his window on this cold night... until the fox had appeared.

In his mind, Buck associated the fox with Garnet. She had crept into familiar territory and made it her own. Tramples had said the fox looked ominous; that paralleled the feelings Buck experienced whenever he was faced with the affair concerning the filly. I've got a bad feeling about this.

The stallion shivered as he finally slipped into bed, and it wasn't the temperature that caused it.

* * *
It wasn't until the next afternoon that Buck met the two elderly mares staying at the bed-and-breakfast retreat. Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl were comfortably ensconced in the turret corner of the parlor with their quilting supplies near at hoof when Buck, passing the doorway on an errand for his mother, heard a voice call-- "You must be the third brother."

He stopped and peered into the room. The two mares blended in with their surroundings so well that it took Buck a second to focus in on them. But once catching sight of their bright-eyed faces, he grinned and crossed over to stand before them.

"Hi! I'm Buck, the oldest of the three brothers. I didn't mean to disturb you."

Both mares had set their quilting down and were assessing the young stallion before them making Buck feel uncomfortable, like a museum piece on display. But Blue Pearl smiled at him. "You're like a breath of fresh air; our tired eyes need a break."

The second mare concurred. "She's right. My name is Burgundy Lace." She held out a hoof to Buck. "And this is my sister, Blue Pearl."

"It's nice to meet you both."

"Your mother tells us that you go to school and work at a museum."

"I do," responded Buck; foreseeing a lengthy visit in store for him, he pulled a chair up to face them and made himself comfortable. The mares questioned him on his classes, his friends, and his museum responsibilities.

He was still in their company when Lilac brought in a tray of coffee and cookies. At the insistence of Blue Pearl and Burgundy Lace, both Buck and Lilac stayed to share the snack.

"You're mother spoils us dreadfully," Blue Pearl confided to Buck.

"That's why we plan on coming here often," Burgundy Lace added. "It reminds us of our early days in a home much like this."

"Neither of us ever married, and we had a younger brother who wanted the house for his own when he married."

"We didn't approve of his new bride, and she didn't approve of us." Burgundy Lace frowned at unpleasant memories. "So my sister and I moved out of that grand Victorian home place and into an apartment."

"Burgundy Lace was a librarian for many years and I was a school teacher. Our brother eventually lost the house; he got into some kind of trouble, we heard. And it was sold to strangers before we even knew it."

"How sad!" sympathized Lilac. "I was born here at Birdsong; I know how awful it would be to lose it."

"We've never been back to the house; it would just be too painful," said Blue Pearl, her eyes filling with tears.

"Nor have we seen our brother in all these years," admitted Burgundy Lace.

Lilac refilled the coffee cups and passed the cookies around once more. "Where was your ancestral home located?" asked Buck, his love of historical places showing.

"In the little town of Bubbling Springs."

"That's not far from Binksville," Buck stated. "Maybe I could go over and check it out some day and let you know how it is faring."

"Oh, no," both sisters said at once.

"We want to remember it as it was," Blue Pearl stated decisively.

The talk turned to less volatile subjects and soon Lilac excused herself. "If any of us want anything to eat tonight, I'd better go and see about things in the kitchen."

"We'd love to help you, dear," Burgundy Lace offered.

"No, no. You are guests here at Birdsong. That means you take it easy." Lilac smiled at the two and went on her way.

"I have some chores to do as well," Buck said, glad for a chance to get away. As he stood to go, he noticed the quilt that Blue Pearl had taken up again. "That's beautiful!" he said in all sincerity. "I've never seen one quite like that before."

"Oh, this is what they call a crazy quilt," Blue Pearl enthusiastically informed him. "See how all the pieces are in random shapes and sizes and patterns? It looks like the seamstress cutting the material was crazy!" She and her sister giggled.

"What are you doing with it now?" Buck asked as the mare took needle and thread and began adding intricate stitches to the quilt.

"We're putting on the decorative stitches along all the seam lines," Burgundy Rose joined in. "See? Some are zig-zags and some are all frilly like this one." She pointed out a complicated row of lazy daisy stitches intermingled with French knots and buttonhole stitches.

"Wow!" Buck was impressed. "That is true art!"

The sisters showed him the variety of stitches they had already completed, leaving his mind a jumble of names: chevron, herringbone, straight, cretan, stem, featherstitch, and rolling chain. "The two of you are very talented," Buck remarked after his impromptu lesson.

"We've been doing this all our lives," Burgundy Lace said. "Our dear father always told us that if we could make neat, solid stitches, we would always be assured of our living."

"Remember, Blue Pearl, his story about his uncle who sewed all his jangles into his mattress for safekeeping?" She looked at Buck. "His stitches were so poor that all the jangles would fall out during the night; so he eventually learned how to make a proper stitch."

"And by the time he was through, he not only had his mattress full of jangles; but he'd also made a crazy quilt with jangles sewed up in it. That stallion really loved his jangles."

"Interesting idea," Buck noted, finally making his escape from the room.

* * *
"Hurry up! The movie starts at eight!" Licorice was trying to get his brothers moving.

"Some of us had to stay in the barn until all the work was done!" retorted Tramples, flicking some water at the ebony colt before finishing combing his hair.

"Which reminds me," Buck said. "Mom wanted me to get some more firewood in." He left the two to their arguing. He had just finished filling the wood hopper when someone cleared her throat behind him. He swung around to find Blue Pearl standing there.

"I didn't mean to startle you," she apologized. "It's just that... well... I wanted to talk with you alone, without my sister." She stopped, not knowing how to go on.

"Is there something I can do for you?" Buck prompted.

"Yes, Buck, there is. Earlier you volunteered to find out what you could about our house in Bubbling Springs. I've been giving it some thought, and I think if I knew it was in good hooves and well-cared for, I could let go of it once and for all."

"I'd be happy to do that for you. And it wouldn't be any trouble at all, so don't worry about it."

"Just don't tell my sister that I asked you to do this; we've always maintained that we wouldn't go back, and I feel like I'm letting her down somehow."

"No problem. I'm sure Mom has your number. I can call you when I've had a chance to get there." He was about to rejoin his brothers when he realized something. "How will I know which house it is?"

"There's a river that runs through town, and our house sat on the highest hill along that river. It only had one turret unlike Birdsong's two, but it was a big, beautiful house. There was even a private boat landing where our property sloped down to the river. Mother felt terrible the year a horrible flood took out a pavilion where we used to entertain."

"Okay. I should be able to find it. Is there anything else you need?"

"No. I've put you out enough. And I heard that you and your brothers have plans for tonight, so I won't keep you."

Buck left her standing there and turned back from the doorway to see her staring off into space, her thoughts assuredly back many years past at a party in the pavilion along the river of her parents' home.

* * *
"You didn't have to laugh out loud when Godzilla stuck his head in the open mouth of the other monster," Buck complained to Licorice as the three brothers left the movie theater.

"Well, you have to admit it looked pretty corny," Licorice defended himself.

"That may be true from our point of view," Tramples agreed, "but I don't think anyone else saw it that way."

"Hey! Buck!" a voice rang out. "Wait up!"

"Oh, hi, Columbine," Buck responded as he turned to see the pale yellow filly coming his way. "How's it going?"

The filly crinkled her nose. "Not bad if you like spending your days in a back room unloading boxes of merchandise." Columbine worked at the local Pony-Mart.

"Any plans for college?" the stallion asked the question he always hit her with.

"No, but I did apply at the vocational school. I'm thinking about data processing."

Buck smiled. Columbine had been his classmate since kindergarten, and she had always found excuses for not excelling in any of her subjects. Since graduation, she had been slipping from one job to another, always in search of something more fulfilling but never quite finding it. Yet she was still the most upbeat pony he knew.

"Are you guys going to the soda shop?"

Looking at the others, he asked, "How about it?"

"Sure," Licorice grinned. "Who's buying?"

"I'll treat all three of you," stated Columbine. "I got paid yesterday."

"Well, let's go then!" Licorice started out ahead of the others. When they arrived at the popular hangout, they found one booth open; Tramples sat in it immediately to insure the spot. The others went to the counter to order and soon returned with enough soda, hamburgers, and fries for everyone.

Columbine slid into the booth, pulling Buck down beside her. "So what's new at your school? I didn't expect to see you around so soon after break," she said, nibbling on a fry.

"Nothing new. Just a lot of work to get done before I graduate."

"Are you coming back here after that?"

"The high school has offered me a position starting in the fall."

Columbine's eyes grew round. "You really mean it, Buck? You'll be back in town?"

Licorice nudged Tramples conspiratorially. Everyone in town assumed that these two would someday marry and settle down... everyone except Buck. He had often told his brothers that he was quite capable of managing his own life; he didn't need a filly-- especially one like Columbine-- to clutter it up.

"I'll be living at Birdsong, but I'll be busy teaching and working with the new museum that's opening this summer."

"Oh, that's so cool! We'll be able to hang out together just like old times!" She got a dreamy look on her face. "Your mom doesn't need help with that bed-and-breakfast of hers, does she?"

Buck gave Licorice a sharp rap under the table before the colt could squeal that his mom had just been discussing the need for some part-time help beginning in the spring. "Mom's always taken care of Birdsong by herself," was all he said.

Columbine grew quiet as she mentally made plans for the time when Buck would be back from college. Other patrons of the shop who knew the Birdsong family stopped to visit, share plans, and compare experiences. Before they knew it, the shop was closing.

Going out into the night, Buck, Licorice, and Tramples, still accompanied by Columbine, found that large snowflakes were lazily falling. "Isn't this lovely?" the filly cooed, holding up a hoof to catch one of the intricate wonders.

"Here. Have some more," Licorice called, dumping hooves full of fresh powder on her, starting a snow battle. It wasn't wet enough to mold, but there was enough of it to effectively shower each other quite substantially. They laughed and pelted each other until they arrived outside of Columbine's house.

"It was great running into you guys tonight," she said, brushing snowflakes out of her blue hair. "Let me know the next time you're home, Buck."

"Depending on the work load, that may not be until after I graduate," explained the stallion.

"Then write me a letter some time. I never hear back from you when I write."

Buck guiltily thought of the letters he had received and dumped after a quick perusal; but he was not contrite enough to commit to writing back. "Goodnight, Columbine."

As the brothers moved on down the street and out into the country towards Birdsong with the flakes continuing to fall, Licorice began badgering Buck. "She thinks that you and she have a future together."

"Then she is sorely mistaken."

"Are you sure? She's the only filly you've ever dated as far as I can remember."

"I made a mistake the first day of kindergarten; she made me promise I'd always be her friend, and she's never let me forget it."

"Tramples has a special filly in his life."

"And who might that be?"

"Hollyhock."

Buck turned to Tramples in surprise. "That skinny little freckle-faced filly that lives on the next farm over?"

The snow clouds that hid the moon's light also covered the blush that crossed Tramples' face. "You haven't seen her since you left for college."

"Yeah," Licorice added. "She's really pretty.

"She'll graduate from high school this spring," Tramples continued.

"So how come I never heard about this before?"

Licorice took it upon himself to answer for Tramples. "Because he's too shy to ask her out on a date."

"Is that true, Tramples?"

"So what if it is? She wouldn't go out with me anyway."

"You won't know that for sure unless you try. And if you don't try, you might end up regretting it."

"I hear that she's going on to school."

"So why don't you do the same?"

"Because I'm not smart enough, Buck, and you know it."

His words hung on the air like tangible darts of dissention. Buck didn't know what to say but couldn't let the statement go unanswered. "I realize that I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but you won't know unless you try. Sign up for a semester and see how it goes."

"No. I'd rather work on the farm anyway."

The three brothers fell silent, each traveling a divergent path of thoughts even as they stayed on the same path that led them back to Birdsong. As they entered the farmyard where the yardlight stood as beacon to welcome them home, Tramples suddenly left the path to a spot near a spreading yew. He got down on his knees as if looking for something, then peered up at his brothers who had followed him over.

"The fox got what he was after," he commented, pointing to tufts of rabbit fur and drops of dark red blood in the new snow. "He'll move on now."

A foreboding chill ran through Buck. Somehow, there was a message here for him. But what was it? He followed his brothers to the house and was relieved to gain its warmth and protection.

* * *
Back at Binksville, Buck settled into the routine of classes and work; and as no more thefts occurred, he began to let go of the doubts he had harbored about Garnet. The filly had seemed to soften a bit; Buck thought it was his imagination until Willy, another stallion that worked at the museum and with whom he roomed, mentioned it, too. She no longer harped on the other workers and actually seemed interested in learning everything about museum techniques that she could.

When an opportunity to visit Bubbling Springs came, Buck invited Willy to accompany him to the town north of Binksville. The two set out early one afternoon when their schedules meshed for the outing. When they arrived at the small town, they had no trouble in finding the house in question. It commandeered the village from its elevated stance on the hill next to the river.

It was easy to see why Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl had hated to leave their home. It was a spectacular example of Victorian architecture, and the corner turret that rose with the house was the most substantial one Buck had ever seen. "Would you look at that?" he said to his companion. "Can you imagine what it was like in its day?"

Willy whistled. "Can you imagine what it would cost to fix it up again?"

"Yeah. You're right about that." Buck had been so impressed with the structure that he had forgotten his reason for coming. "How can I tell those two wonderful mares that their home is abandoned and in disrepair?" The paint was pealing, many of the shingles were missing, and trim around the windows was hanging loose.

He recalled the secret conversation he had with Blue Pearl, and the nearly identical one with Burgundy Lace before he had left Birdsong to return to college. Buck didn't reveal that Blue Pearl had already talked with him, but he did suggest to Burgundy Lace that maybe it would be a good idea for the two to sit down and talk out their feelings about their birthplace; but he had not foreseen the news he would have to deliver, and he wondered what impact his information would have on the mares.

Some foals were coming down the path near Buck and Willy, so Buck intercepted them to ask about the house. "Doesn't anyone live here?" he asked.

The eldest of the foals shook his head. "No one wants to live there; that house brings bad luck."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because it does," the foal responded, then darted on down the path with the others following him.

The black wrought-iron fence surrounding the property had collapsed in several areas, so the two stallions made their way through one of the apertures and walked across the snowy lawn to the front steps. Up close, the damage to the house caused by lack of care was more inclusive than had appeared from a distance. "Look at the windows off to your left; they've been broken recently."

Several small windows had indeed been shattered and probably entrance gained. Buck looked at Willy, and the two went up the steps and tried the front door. It creaked open at their touch, and they stepped into the once gracious home. "Oh, wow, this is bigger than Birdsong!" Buck breathed, enchanted with the foyer they found themselves in. "Would Mom love that staircase!" A gracefully curving stairway wound its way to the upper floor.

"Are we trespassing?" Willy asked while at the same time moving through the room toward a doorway off to the left. This room containing the broken windows had once been a library, its empty shelves seeming to plead for attention once more. The stallions worked their way around the main floor and then mounted the back stairs to the second floor. Everywhere were signs of affluence in its construction; quality wood had been used by a master craftsman. Both Buck and Willy mourned for the old edifice.

When they had covered every room on every level, the two stallions left the house and roamed across the property connected to it. The wharf that had been at the river's edge was gone now with barely a sign of its former location unless those remainders were buried under the ice and snow.

Standing once more at the front of the house, Buck noticed a sign that had fallen from the trunk of a tree that dominated the entrance. Picking it up, he was able to make out the name of a real estate agency in the town; but the address had disintegrated. "It shouldn't be too difficult to locate," observed Willy, looking down the hill onto the town's sparse buildings.

The two ended up stopping at the local ice cream shop to not only get a snack but to also inquire of the whereabouts of the Pony Promenade Real Estate Agency. The filly behind the counter served their orders and also gave them the directions they needed. As the shop was relatively empty and the waitress seemed ready to talk, Buck asked her about the house on the hill.

"That's the old Lamplight mansion," the filly responded. "It's been sitting there for years so it's going to pot, but from what I hear it used to be the most elegant house for miles around."

"Why doesn't someone move in and fix the place up?" questioned Buck.

"There were a string of owners over the years, but every one of them ended up on hard times. Folks around here think the house itself is bad luck, so nobody will touch it."

Willy was curious. "What kind of bad luck are we talking about here?"

"Different things," the filly, whose nametag read Honeybee, answered. "It all started way back when the original family had a falling out of sorts, and the black sheep of the family got his hooves on it."

"That must be Blue Pearl and Burgundy Lace's brother!" exclaimed Buck with a side glance at Willy.

"He and his wife were not the most law-abiding citizens of Ponyland if you know what I mean and the law finally caught up to them; and they lost the house. It was sold to some rich stallion out of Binksville, but he'd only lived there a year or two when one of his daughters drowned in the river."

"That could happen anywhere," Buck stated. "It doesn't mean the house caused it."

"Well, other things had happened before that. Another daughter had broken her leg while running down the hill with some of her friends, and a young son had gotten locked in the basement and was nearly delirious by the time he was found."

"Weird," Willy offered.

"One family stayed many years; the stallion scoffed at the reputation for bad luck. He was very wealthy and invested his money in all the right ventures. Some ponies thought he was too proud of his wealth, and they goaded him into taking some risks with his money. He lost everything, and the house was sold again. But no one ever stayed long. And now no one wants to take the chance."

"That was all very interesting, Honeybee; thanks for sharing the story of Lamplight," said Buck; he looked at Willy. "And now we'd better get going."

Willy appeared to be quite satisfied where he was, but he reluctantly slid off the stool and said goodbye. Honeybee smiled. "Come back again anytime."

The stallions soon found the real estate office and waited in the outer office expecting an acknowledgment of their arrival. But when no one appeared, Buck went to the doorway and peered inside the back room. He grinned and motioned Willy to his side.

At the desk was a stallion, his head leaning against his foreleg, his eyes closed, and a slight snore rustling through his nose. Buck and Willy exchanged a glance, then went back to the front door, opened it, and banged it shut as loudly as possible. A snort from the stallion verified that their scheme had worked and shortly the bleary-eyed stallion came through the doorway.

"Welcome! Welcome!" he voiced rather raspily. "How may I help you?"

"We have some questions about some property in Bubbling Springs."

"You've come to the right place. Step into my office. You'll have to excuse the mess," he explained as he shuffled a clutter of papers on his desk. "My secretary has been sick with the flu. Now, what are you looking for?" Before Buck could comment, the stallion continued. "I have a nice little place just down the street that would make a good starter home. Which of you is the fortunate fellow getting married?"

At least the stallion waited for an answer, giving Buck the chance to state his business. "I'm looking for information on the Victorian house known as Lamplight."

The agent lost his "I'm here to serve you" demeanor. "You wouldn't be able to afford it. It's in sorry shape; and it needs a major overhaul, not to mention back taxes need paying. It would take a pony with a lot more money than either of you have." He looked as if he was ready to throw the two of them out.

"But the house is for sale then?"

"Well, sort of..."

"Look, Mr..."

"Fiddler."

"...Mr. Fiddler, the house is either for sale or it isn't."

"The truth of the matter is that the city fathers of Bubbling Springs are getting tired of the monstrosity sitting there as an eyesore for our lovely town; there are various ideas being debated, of course, but no decision has been made yet."

"What plans are being considered?"

"Some folks think the town should buy it and restore it and run it as a museum." Buck nodded his head supportivley. "But there are others who think it should be razed and the land turned into a park."

"Razed?!" both Willy and Buck exclaimed.

"You can't destroy a grand piece of architecture like that; it's irreplaceable!" Willy cried.

Fiddler waved his hoof in dismissal of their outburst. "I personally believe that the land could be put to better use if the big house was gone, and smaller units erected on the entire acreage."

Buck looked at Willy. "And sold through Pony Promenade Real Estate Agency," he muttered under his breath. To Fiddler, he said, "If your town council would purchase Lamplight and refurbish it in its original style, it would become a great benefit to Bubbling Springs."

"It would generate revenue that would make it the best source of income this town has ever seen!" Willy added.

"Your talk is all well and good, but the decision will be made a week from today at the monthly council meeting."

"One week?" Buck jumped up. "And the decision will be final?"

"That's right. I'd like to see the house out of there by spring... don't want to miss the good construction months."

Buck started to say something, but his conscience chided him to remember his manners. He took a deep breath and asked as civilly as possible. "Where could I find the city manager?"

"That would be Bramble."

"Where can we find him?" queried Willy once more.

"When he's not making town policy, he's at the grocery store. That's his day job."

Willy and Buck rushed out the door. "I saw the grocery store a couple of streets over," Buck stated. "We came by it on the way over here." The two raced to the market, feeling as if their time was in short supply. When they reached the store, Buck stopped and put a foreleg out to halt Willy's forward progress.

"We gotta catch our breath, or Bramble will think we are a couple of senseless foals." When the two felt presentable, they entered the establishment and looked for the proprietor. The only stallion in sight was at the jangle register, seemingly having a pleasant conversation with several mares who apparently were doing their shopping but at so leisurely a pace that time was of no concern.

Buck and Willy held back, listening to the discussion of the latest basketball scores, the weather, the revelation that no less than three mares had recently announced the impending birth of foals, and that Zither's oldest son had been accepted into the vocational school at Shifting Sands.

The stallions were only saved when one of the mares noticed the time. "School will be out in a few minutes!" The store emptied in short order. Bramble turned and, noticing the two stallions, asked if he could help them.

Once Buck explained their quest, Bramble was interested in talking with them; but, he explained, "The mothers that didn't do their shopping before school let out will be doing it now, so things are going to get busy." His words were prophetic as the door opened and a mare and her two foals came in followed by a group of four and then several students from the local high school.

"Tell you what," Bramble proposed. "You two go on over to the ice cream shop and get something to eat. I'll join you as soon as the wife comes in."

Having no choice, Buck and Willy retraced their earlier steps to the sweet shop and found Honeybee busy with the after school crowd, too. Willy was noticeably disappointed, but he cheered up when the waitress flashed a wink in his direction. At her first opportunity, she came to the table where the stallions sat. "What can I get you this time?"

"A burger, fries and a soda," Willy said, and Buck concurred. They were nearly finished eating when Bramble came through the door. "The usual," he called as he waved at Honeybee. He came straight to Buck's table and sat down. "So, you boys are interested in Lamplight?"

Buck went into greater detail on his mission for Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl and was surprised as Bramble hit his hoof down on the table so hard the dishes rattled. "You're here because those two mares want to know how their old home is faring?" he asked incredulously.

"Y... yes," Buck stuttered, wondering at this response from the city manager.

"Well, I'll be..." Bramble shook his head and laughed. "I guess it takes a young stallion like you to get through to those proud souls."

"What do you mean?" asked Willy.

"Well, let me tell you. Some years back when the house had sat empty a spell, I tracked those two down to see if they'd be interested in the place."

"You did? What did they say?"

"As soon as the words were out, their sweet hospitable dispositions were replaced by a not so pleasant side I'd never seen before. Burgundy Lace stood up and told me in no uncertain terms that as far as she and Blue Pearl were concerned, they wanted no part in Lamplight. She showed me to the door so fast that I barely escaped before she closed it on me." He grinned. "Lost some of my tail hairs there that day."

"Why would they turn down a chance to reclaim it?"

"They were hurt bad when the feud began. Blackcap treated them like dirt, and they washed their hooves of him and that wife of his."

"Blackcap was their brother?"

"Yes. Where he got his bad streak is a mystery to everyone. His folks were the most genteel and honorable ponies you'd hope to find anywhere. Blackcap was the exact opposite, rough and as dishonest as the day is long. Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl were as cultured as their parents and would have inherited Lamplight. But the folks died in a smallpox epidemic. Blackcap married a filly from someplace away from here and brought her home as the mistress of Lamplight."

"They admitted that there were hard feelings on both sides."

"They were too polite to say it like it was. Sassy was her name, and sassy she was. She wouldn't take anything from anybody. She was a rough, unschooled mare, and her ways didn't belong in a mansion like Lamplight-- not even as a maid let alone the mistress of the house. Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl tried to teach her some manners and refinement, but she just taunted them with even more contemptible ways. Then Blackcap came up with some legal papers that made him sole heir of Lamplight. That's when the two left; they knew he'd kick ‘em out sooner or later anyway."

"Legal papers? You mean the parents had left Blackcap the place in lieu of his sisters?"

"That's what the papers said, and they were all signed and sealed proper like. No one in their right mind believed them to be legitimate; but the court couldn't break ‘em, so Blackcap got everything."

Buck accepted a refill of soda from Honeybee, then asked Bramble, "What became of Blackcap?"

"He and Sassy stayed on at Lamplight for several years, living high on his folks jangles. When that began to run dry, he began doing shady stuff that kept him afloat for awhile; but eventually the law caught up with him and his wife and they were faced with enough charges to keep them out of commission for some time. But they disappeared before the cops got to them."

"What a story!"

"And now it may be too late for the mares to make a claim on the place," Bramble mumbled.

Buck had been thinking. "What are the chances that the decision of the council will be to renovate the house?" he asked of Bramble.

"It's anybody's guess. Some of the members won't make up their minds until the night of the vote."

"If Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl were to address the council before the vote, do you think they could sway some support for Lamplight?"

Bramble looked at Buck sharply. "I'm not sure that'd even be above board." But he leaned forward with a bright gleam in his eye.

"Well, from all I've heard, Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl got the raw end of this entire affair. They lost an inheritance that was rightfully theirs and had to forfeit their home and entire style of living. It seems to me that the town could help them regain some of their birthright while at the same time procuring the services of two intelligent, creative, refined individuals."

"Go on," Bramble urged when Buck paused to regroup his ideas.

"What if the city decided to purchase the house and property? Who better to oversee restoration than two ponies who experienced the heyday of Lamplight firsthoof?"

"Do you really think they would consent to that... assuming we get the vote to make a showcase of the place?"

"I think they might if part of the deal was to grant them living space in the refurbished home in return for supervising the day-to-day operation of the museum."

Bramble slammed his hoof into the table again. "I like it!" he declared.

Willy finally put in his two jangles worth. "From what I've heard from you is that these two mares have only recently resolved years of intense hard feelings concerning their lose of Lamplight. Will they be ready to jump on the band wagon to save the house so quickly?"

"We won't know until we ask. What about it, Bramble? Will you allow them to appear before the council? And include their services in the vote to purchase the house?"

Bramble sat in deep thought, his responsibility to the town fighting his compassion for the mares. When his decision was made, he stated it bluntly. "Get them here; I'll let them talk."

Buck and Willy shared a high-hoof in jubilation and shook Bramble's hoof in thanks. But the town manager held up a warning hoof. "This could backfire on you, you know. The townsponies may not take these two to heart as you seem to have done."

"They'll love ‘em," Buck declared, a confident grin on his face. "They have to!"

* * *
Buck couldn't wait to talk to Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl about the situation with Lamplight, but he wanted to see them face-to-face when he told them the news. It was Saturday before he could get away, and then only by trading work hours with one of the other museum aides.

He traveled alone this trip; he didn't want anything to unduly upset the two sisters and thought Willy's presence might hold them in reserve. He wanted them to feel comfortable with his ideas, and take time to think them through rationally.

It was early afternoon by the time he arrived in Frostmont and found the house number that he was looking for. He grimaced as he saw the small home that now sheltered the two mares, more daunting when one considered that their apartment consisted only of the few rooms on the first floor.

Ringing the doorbell, he wiped his hooves on the doormat; the winter weather had taken a hit by warmer temperatures, turning the snowy lanes into mushy, muddy quagmires. He was checking the bottoms of his hooves for cleanliness when the door opened. "Why, Buck, what a pleasant surprise! Blue Pearl, it's Buck from Birdsong!"

Blue Pearl came dashing from a corner of the room, and a quick glance showed Buck that she had been working on yet another quilt. Both sisters were delighted to welcome the young stallion into their home, as humble as it was.

"Coffee, dear?" Burgundy Lace asked, already bustling to the kitchen to prepare a tray. Blue Pearl cleared quilting pieces off the table and chairs before offering Buck a seat.

When Burgundy Lace brought in the steaming cups of coffee and golden peanut butter cookies and had placed them on the table, both sisters looked at Buck with such curiosity that he knew without asking that they had discussed their mutual longing to make contact once more with their foalhood home. Neither said a word; they merely waited, every nerve on edge.

"I saw Lamplight," Buck began. "It's an impressive building."

"And is it well cared for?" Burgundy Lace asked.

"It's been unoccupied for some time now."

"You mean it has fallen into disrepair?" Blue Pearl looked as forsaken herself as the house did.

"It needs a new coat of paint and some cosmetic repairs," Buck tried to soften the news.

"Were you inside? Was any of the furniture still there?"

It dawned on Buck that he had been so caught-up in the structural details of the house that he had not given a thought to the furnishings. "No, I'm sorry to say. The house was empty."

Silent tears rolled down Blue Pearl's cheeks and Burgundy Lace coughed into a lace-trimmed hanky. Buck began talking of all he had seen: the graceful stairway, the ornate cornices, the hardwood floors, the massive fireplace. The two listened to his soothing voice and were eventually in control of their emotions.

They asked him question after question about various rooms, and he knew that their mental pictures of those rooms were much more lavish than the reality he had seen. But he answered their queries in the kindest words he could find within him. When their curiousity had been satisfied, Buck allowed them ample time to reminisce before broaching the thrust of his journey.

"Bubbling Springs is thinking about restoring Lamplight to its former dignity."

"For what purpose?" Blue Pearl asked, suddenly on the defensive.

"They realize that as a period museum, it would be a lucrative addition to the town."

"A museum?" worried Burgundy Lace. "Having strange ponies tromping through Lamplight like some kind of side show?"

"Think of the education it would provide for countless ponies who have never experienced the rich heritage of homes such as Lamplight. You had the misfortune of losing that grand edifice, but think how many have never even seen the inside of such a showplace even for a few hours."

Letting his words sink in, Buck remained silent until Burgundy Lace asked sadly, "But who could ever duplicate the splendor that was Lamplight?"

Buck leaned forward and took a hoof of each of the sisters in his forehooves. "You two could."

They stared at him with such bewildered looks that Buck nearly laughed out loud. As it was, he simply said, "If Bubbling Springs purchases the house and property, they'd like the two of you to oversee the restoration."

Burgundy Lace was sharp, and the word if hadn't escaped her. "You mean that nothing is definite?"

"Not yet," Buck admitted. "And that's what I'm here to tell you. It's imperative that you appear before the town council next Thursday evening to convince the members that it would be in the best interests of Bubbling Springs to embrace this project financially and historically."

He waited as they digested this new information. Buck watched their faces, but he could not read their thoughts on the matter. Blue Pearl spoke first. "I want to go and speak for Lamplight."

Burgundy Lace looked at her sister in surprise. "I'm proud of you, Blue Pearl. I didn't think you'd have the guts for this!"

Buck was so happy that he got up and went round the table to hug both mares. "You've got to make this work," he grinned, " ‘cause if the vote comes through in your favor, you'll be living in Lamplight again!"

Both mares stared at Buck in open amazement; he realized too late that he should have controlled his exuberance. But as it was, he could only talk them back to their senses. "Bramble says that after the refurbishing work is done, you two will become the managers of the museum with a suite of rooms at your disposal."

Blue Pearl was crying again, but this time from happiness. Both mares now hugged Buck before settling down to lay out battle plans to win the Bubbling Springs' council to the defense of Lamplight.

It was dark before Buck was finally able to break away from the excitement that now transported the sisters on a cloud of hope, carrying them back over the years they had missed at Lamplight.

When Buck was away from the house, he looked back for a last glimpse of the little house. Both sisters still stood on the porch, and they waved when they saw his glance. In that instant, the responsibility of this enterprise hit the stallion. If they won, Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl would have Lamplight back; if they lost...

Buck returned a last wave, but his heart was suddenly heavy. What if the vote went against them and Lamplight was leveled? "Dear God," he whispered. "Please grant this favor for these two dear ponies." He looked up into the starry night, and felt God's answer. His step was light as he continued back to Binksville.

* * *
The following days seemed endless to Buck as he worked and studied; he called Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl several times to insure that their resolve was not wavering and was heartened to hear that they were becoming more excited about the project as the day for the determining meeting drew near.

Scheduled at the museum every spare minute to make up for his lost hours on the day he had visited Frostmont, Buck found that keeping busy helped the time to pass more quickly. All the museum employees were excited about a new donation of household items from the past including dinnerware, quilts, baking tins, garden tools, and jewelry. Buck was put in charge of cleaning the gardening instruments, Willy was preparing a display area to accommodate some of the new items, Garnet was to evaluate the quilts and other linens, and Sundial himself was appraising the jewelry.

Buck came across the filly in the workroom one day busy with the boxes of donated goods. She was so engrossed in her scrutiny of the pieces that she didn't hear Buck's hoofsteps, and she jumped when he said hi, looking up with an agitated expression which brightened to a smile. "Hi, Buck."

"It looks as though you have enough quilts here to change the display weekly," he observed.

"And what you see is only half of them. There's another group in that old trunk." She pointed to a large, curved-top trunk behind her. "And there's a beauty in there." She opened the lid and drew out a quilt that Buck recognized immediately. "It's a crazy quilt!"

"Very good, Buck. Crazy quilts are my favorite. Unfortunately, this one is going to another facility. But Sundial has given me the job of doing some repair work on it."

"Don't we usually leave the wear and tear so that the work is entirely authentic?"

"Normally, yes. But this one is to be in a special exhibit, and the promoters want it repaired."

"And you know how to do that?" Buck asked with a bit of disbelief in his voice.

"You don't think I'm capable? For your information, I can duplicate any of the stitches on this quilt so that you or anyone else will never know that any repair was ever done."

"What about the color of the thread? There are any number of colors used here." He ran a hoof over the variegated hodgepodge of patches and stitches.

"That would be a problem except that the quilting supplies used by this particular family were included in the donation. I can match them exactly."

"I'm impressed," Buck remarked in all sincerity.

Garnet grinned at him. "Are you busy right now?"

"I'm just checking on some cleaning solvent. Why? What do you need?"

"Some company for lunch."

Buck was taken completely off guard. "Lu... lunch?" he stammered.

"You know... food." She held up a soft-side lunch box.

"I didn't bring a lunch today; I ate a late breakfast after classes.

"No problem. I've got plenty. We'll share." She grabbed his hoof and pulled him along with her to the break room which at this post-lunch hour was deserted. She gave Buck half her sandwich and they split a soda. Carrot sticks and chocolate chip cookies completed the fare.

Garnet asked about his future plans and about his family. When she learned of Birdsong, she listened to the description of the house with rapt attention. Buck wished he could tell her about Lamplight, but he had not confided his attempts to reunite the mares with their home to anyone other than Willy, and he felt it best to keep that information secret until after the vote on Thursday night.

The turrets of Birdsong intrigued the filly. "I've always dreamed of having a tower room," she confided, a far-away look coming into her violet eyes. "I'd feel like a princess peering out from the highest level watching for her knight."

She was quiet for awhile, and Buck didn't interrupt her thoughts. He was contemplating how much prettier she seemed now that she wasn't so uppity and detached. He noticed how her hair cascaded over her neck and how one dark ringlet fell across her forehead. It reminded him of the rhyme his mother used to recite:



There was a little girl

Who had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good

She was very good

When she was bad

She was horrid.


He smiled to think how appropriate it seemed when applied to Garnet.

"I remember once when I was just a little foal my dad took me with him on one of his business trips to a neighboring town; I don't remember where it was-- we moved around a lot. But he stopped in front of this grand old house with a turret that made it look like a castle, at least to an itty bitty little thing like I was. He stood and stared at it for what seemed like forever, and he had the saddest look on his face. I thought he probably wanted a turret room, too. But he never said a word." She shook her head, and grinned apologetically. "Sorry about that; I didn't mean to space out that way. And I suppose we should get back to work."

Cleaning up the table, she asked, "Why don't you take the rest of these cookies home with you; you seemed to enjoy them."

Buck grinned. "Chocolate chip cookies are my favorite. Thanks."

"You throw out the garbage and I'll slip these into your backpack. Which one is it? The black one?" She eyed the satchels thrown in a jumbled pile next to the hat rack.

"Yeah. The nearly worn out one; its only got to last through this semester." He shucked the napkins and paper cups in the proper receptacle. "Put them in the side pocket; they'll be safer there."

Garnet did as he asked, and the two parted company to continue their respective duties. Buck's attention wasn't on his work, and Willy had to point out several items that hadn't been properly cleaned. "Are you worried about the Lamplight vote?" he asked, assuming that was the reason for his friend's broken concentration.

"Yeah... Lamplight," Buck mumbled. But his thoughts were far from Bubbling Springs and the jewel of a house waiting for its sentence. They centered instead on the dark-red filly who had shared her lunch with him. When she was good, she was very good ran through his mind as he pictured her sitting next to him laughing and talking. When she was bad, she was horrid was a forgotten memory.

* * *
Arriving in Binksville on Thursday, Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl met Buck and Willy and together the foursome set off for Bubbling Springs. The two mares, gone so long from these once familiar surroundings, were delighted to see landmarks and recall incidents associated with them.

It was not until they came upon their first view of Lamplight that the importance of their mission hit them. When they had left Bubbling Springs so many years previously, they had left a still vibrant and well-cared for habitation. Now, caught in the throes of the winter thaw with melting snow and bare brown earth, the house appeared even more decrepit and abandoned than ever. But the memories of the past when life had still been good carried them on.

The four ponies entered the empty structure, and Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl walked with wonder the floors that had carried their first steps, their first dances, their first plodding defeat at the hooves of a brother who had usurped their inheritance. They told stories of each room; they giggled over remembered escapades, they mourned again their parents' untimely deaths.

Buck watched the time for he wanted the two sisters to eat before facing the town council. "I think we should go now," he gently advised.

"I suppose we must," sighed Blue Pearl. "I wonder if we'll ever get to come back?"

"It won't be long now and we'll know one way or the other," responded Burgundy Lace.

The walk downtown was a series of observances: There's the old Miller place; What happened to Sunny Skies house? I wonder if the rose bushes are still so pretty around the churchyard?

As they walked, Buck realized that the only eating establishment that he was familiar with was the ice cream shop, but he knew the food was good. "Oh! I wonder if it's the same shop we used to frequent?" wondered Blue Pearl.

However, they found that the location of the hangout they had known was now a newspaper office, yet they were eager to try the modern replacement. Buck ushered Burgundy Lace while Willy escorted Blue Pearl to a corner table and got them seated. "Order whatever you want," Burgundy Lace magnanimously stated. "I'll pay."

Noticing that Honeybee had her hooves full at the counter, Willy went up to wait his turn to order for the group. When she had served the last order, she turned to him with a grin. "Out with your mother today, sugar?"

"What?" Willy looked back at his companions. "Oh, no, they're just friends."

The waitress raised her eyebrows, but took the order. Willy was disappointed that Honeybee was too busy to talk and returned to his table to listen in on the conversation of Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl which was becoming increasingly tense as the time for their appeal to the town council grew nearer.

By the time they had finished eating, it was close enough to meeting time that they set out for the community building near the center of town. Bramble was waiting for their arrival and drew the two sisters aside to brief them on what to expect. His wife, Cloud Wisp, set the mares at ease with her gentle and attentive ways. Council members and spectators were filling the hall, and soon the gavel sounded announcing the beginning of the meeting.

The preliminary business out of the way, Bramble announced the main reason for the gathering: whether or not the city of Bubbling Springs should purchase for renovation the property known as Lamplight and the related issue concerning who would be put in charge of the task of bringing the property back to its historical authenticity. Everyone listened attentively as he made the opening comments; then he introduced the two guests who were in attendance and turned the podium over to Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl.

A commotion in the audience revealed the presence of Fiddler, the real estate agent. "I object! These mares don't even live here; what right have they to influence tonight's vote?" Several other voices agreed.

Bramble returned to center stage and looked out over the accumulated citizens of Bubbling Springs. "Anyone who is familiar with the history of our fair town knows that Edwin Lamplight was one of the founding fathers of this community. It was through his personal financial help that the first school buildings were built, the first hospital erected, even the forerunner of this community building constructed. And as president of the local bank, he issued loans to your fathers and grandfathers to get them started in the businesses that allowed the original cluster of ponies to improve life for everyone in the area. Edwin's wife, Cora, complemented her husband's financial help with her philanthropic efforts to improve the living conditions for each and every pony for miles around. It is our obligation to at least listen to the words of Edwin and Cora's two daughters in regard to the future of Lamplight." He turned to Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl once again. "Tell us what you have to say," he invited.

It was Burgundy Lace who delivered the speech. Buck and Willy stood at the back of the room, and Buck was impressed with the mare's well thought out presentation. She dwelt on the qualifications both sisters had for the task at hoof rather than on sentimental considerations. When she had finished, the assembled townsponies applauded her effort.

Only then did Blue Pearl step forward to share a few words. "Whatever decision you make here tonight, you have given us a chance to lay the past to rest. For that we will be forever grateful."

Bramble came forward and helped the mares off to the side where Cloud Wisp attended to them, getting them comfortably seated out of the spotlight. Several other ponies supported the razing of the building to accommodate a park and playground area for the foals and Fiddler, spoke on the advantage-- which translated to more earning potential for himself-- of clearing the land for future development. Yet Buck, watching the spectators, believed that the majority of those present were on the side of Lamplight.

While the vote was tallied, the room was deadly silent. But once the official count was announced, the ponies in the room broke out in excited chatter. For Lamplight was given a new lease on life, and Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl were approved for the forthcoming responsibilities of managing not only the restoration but also the day-to-day operation of the museum once it was finished.

Willy and Buck stood back and let the Lamplight sisters relish the victory; many of the ponies who had supported the purchase of the old house clustered around the two with their congratulations and their input. Burgundy Lace received every suggestion with poise and thoughtful consideration while Blue Pearl simply nodded and smiled. Buck knew that her emotions were in turmoil within her and that she would need time to fully grasp the changes that this would bring to her and Burgundy Lace's lives; once she had absorbed the certainty of the vote, she would quietly and effectively carry her weight in the planning and decisions that would be needed in the months ahead.

As the crowd began to thin out, the mares sought out Buck and Willy and thanked them profusely for all they had done to make this a reality. Bramble and Cloud Wisp invited them to go over to the ice cream shop for a celebration sundae, and no one was against the idea. So once again they ended up under the care of Honeybee.

"You seem awfully upbeat," she said as Willy stopped at the counter to order six chocolate fudge sundaes, complete with nuts.

"Haven't you heard?" Willy grinned. "Lamplight's been saved!"

Honeybee nodded. "That's nice."

"You don't understand!" Willy explained, not grasping why anyone would not be instantly elated to learn the news. He drew Honeybee out from behind the counter and took her to the table where the rest of the group had situated themselves. Putting a hoof on each of the sisters, he introduced them. "Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl, this is Honeybee, waitress extraordinare." He paused as Honeybee smiled and dipped a slight curtsy. "And Honeybee, these two distinguished mares are the Lamplight sisters."

A glimmer of understanding finally lit Honeybee's eyes, and she reached out a hoof to each of the mares. "You're the two who used to live in the big house! I'm delighted to meet you."

"And," added Buck, "they are now officially managing efforts to bring Lamplight back to its well-deserved designation as the jewel of Bubbling Springs."

"That's super!" exclaimed Honeybee; but she suddenly remembered her duties and ran off to prepare those six sundaes. In the meantime, Bramble discussed plans with Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl concerning their availability to move back to the town and any problems that might arise in connection with the changes that would now turn their lives upside-down.

By the time the sundaes had been delivered and consumed, the excitement of the evening was being replaced with exhaustion for the two mares. "We'd better start back, Blue Pearl," Burgundy Lace stated. "We've got a long walk ahead of us."

"You can't even think about starting out for home tonight," Cloud Wisp was quick to interject. "You two are staying with Bramble and I; we've got a spare bedroom. And Buck and Willy can stay, too, if they don't mind sleeping on the floor."

But Buck and Willy were still flying too high, and they determined that they would return to Binksville even if the hour was late. "We do have to be up in time for classes tomorrow anyway," Buck rationalized when Cloud Wisp tried to change their minds.

Once on the road back to Binksville, Buck had plenty of time to think. Willy was floating on cloud nine because Honeybee's parting words to him had been, "I'll see you again, won't I?" And Buck was caught up in the myriad details of moving Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl to new quarters in Bubbling Springs as soon as could be arranged. He felt responsible for them knowing that it had been his initial inquiries that had set the wheels in motion for them to once more come home to Lamplight.

Things were going to work out for Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl. That was the bottom line, and Buck was grateful that the vote had been successful from their point of view. He looked up into the heavens, half of which were covered in dense cloud cover. But the sky to the east was still open to the stars. "Thanks, God," he breathed. "Thanks for setting things right for the Lamplight sisters."

Buck had never felt so at peace with his world as he did that night. He knew that nothing now could break the forward momentum of his life spiraling to graduation in the spring. Life was good, and he intended for it to stay that way.

* * *
The following Monday morning was a busy one at the museum where Buck worked even though the facility wasn't open to visitors. Monday was the day that cleaning, changing displays, restocking supplies, and all the miscellaneous duties that needed attending to were accomplished.

Buck had seen little of Garnet since their tete-a-tete in the lunchroom as she had been working every minute since then to finish the reconditioning of the crazy quilt; it was scheduled to be shipped out via the Ponyland Parcel Service early on this day. Sundial had finished evaluating the jewelry pieces and was anxious to begin an expansive display showing the exquisite adornments to their fullest advantage, but the curator had assisted Garnet with the packaging of the crazy quilt and several smaller pieces that were going out in the same shipment before starting his ambitious layout.

Willy and Buck were in the storage shed behind the museum putting away the snow shovels they had used to clear the lane. "We finished just in time," he commented as the PPS cart arrived to pick up the package.

"I hope this was the last snow of the season," griped Willy. "I've shoveled more snow this year than I'd ever hoped to see in a lifetime."

Buck grinned. "Don't get your hopes up, buddy. Those clouds look like they have plenty more snow in them, and they're moving our way."

Groaning, Willy turned to trudge back to the museum. Buck followed, and the two waved at the parcel service delivery pony as he loaded the packages and prepared to continue on his route. Gaining entrance to the break room, the two stallions sat down to enjoy a mug of hot chocolate before beginning their inside work for the day when a bellow erupted from the direction of the workroom.

Garnet came rushing from the main office as Buck and Willy and the other three ponies on duty for the day headed toward the workroom. They no sooner reached the door when it burst open and a flushed-faced Sundial emerged. Buck had never seen anyone as angry as this stallion appeared to be. "What's the prob...," Buck started to ask, but Sundial didn't wait for him to finish.

"Who moved the jewelry collection?" he roared.

A chorus of "Not me," "I never touched it," "Why do you ask?" and the accompanying negative shake of their heads was not reassuring to the aggravated Sundial.

"I left them in the same wooden box in which they were delivered here when we first got them. The box is still on the shelf in the workroom, but the jewelry is not inside of it." He glared at each of the ponies facing him as if he could read their guilt.

"When is the last time you actually looked at the jewelry?" asked Buck, trying to make sense of the situation.

"I finished up with my work on it late Saturday. After I put it away, I didn't look at it again until just now when I went to get it to start planning out the exhibit. And it wasn't there!" His answer had started on a nearly normal scale, but by the time he finished his voice was once more nearly screaming.

"Maybe we should all look through everything and see where it went," Garnet suggested. "Someone probably put it where they thought it would be safer. Several of the aides were in on Sunday that aren't here now."

Her words seemed to calm Sundial somewhat. "You're right. I'm sorry for blowing up at you all like I did. We'll start by searching the workroom." He had just turned to reenter the room when he had an idea. "Heather," he directed toward the filly nearest him, "check the records on who was in yesterday, and call them to see if they know who moved the stuff."

The others began a systematic search of all the boxes that lined the walls of the room; it was slow going as there were numerous containers to go through. Buck noted that Garnet was searching through the boxes of quilts; she appeared to be entirely focused on finding the lost jewelry and spared no time for idle chatter.

Willy and Fancy, on the other hoof, kept up a constant flow of comments concerning the items they were finding in the boxes they searched. Sundial finally could take it no longer. "One more ‘Look what I found!' out of either of you, and you're both fired!" The two looked appropriately culpable until Sundial returned to the search at which point they giggled silectly behind their hooves.

For all the time the ponies spent on their endeavor, they came up empty-hooved; and now even Willy and Fancy were at a loss for words.

"Could someone have..." began Warren before realizing the futileness of his idea.

Heather came back into the room. "I was able to get ahold of all but one of yesterday's workers, but they didn't know anymore about it than we do."

Sundial stood considering his options. "Everybody spread out and search through the entire museum. If someone is playing a stupid joke by putting those pieces out in one of the displays prematurely, I'll have their hide!"

Hope gradually faded as they all looked in every possible place for the missing jewelry. At one point, Buck came upon Garnet as she was leaving the break room. "What are the chances we'll find the stuff?" he asked as he studied her absorbed expression.

She looked at him with violet eyes bright with intrigue. "We'd better find it, or someone's going to be in big trouble. Come on. Let's keep looking!" The two covered the gift shop, checking the storage cupboard and every cubbyhole in the room. When they finished, they joined the group of dejected ponies gathering back at the workroom.

Sundial was the last one to show up. His anger was more contained, but his face was flushed with agitation. "No one found anything?" The shaking of heads was the only answer he got. The truth of the situation was beginning to sink in, and it was not pleasant. Already they were eying one another suspiciously.

"I'm calling the police," Sundial said in a hollow voice. "I want you all to stay right here. Garnet, keep an eye on things." He disappeared into his office, closing the door behind him.

Willy sighed audibly. "And here I had hoped to get done early today."

"Yeah, me too," Heather said. "I've got a chemistry test I need to study for. Could I get the book out of my backpack, Garnet?"

"Sundial said to stay here," Garnet replied sharply, her voice returning to its former haughty manner. "I expect there would be no exceptions."

"I've got a deck of cards," offered Warren. "We can at least spend the time doing something to keep our minds off this theft." It was the first time any of them had used that word to describe this incident, and the sound of it now charged the atmosphere.

"None of us would have taken that jewelry," declared Fancy defensively. "It must have been someone who visited the museum yesterday."

"Who of us worked yesterday?" Buck asked.

"I did," meekly admitted Heather.

"I did too," Warren added.

Buck knew he and Willy had the day off, and he had seen Fancy at the student center. All eyes rested on Garnet. "You were in yesterday, weren't you Garnet? Were you working on the quilt in here?"

She stared back at Buck with the look of polished daggers. "I was here, but I didn't see anything. And I left early."

"She did," Heather concurred. "I came in to get some wood cleaner, and no one was here." As she uttered the words, she put a hoof to her mouth. "But I didn't take the jewelry... honest I didn't!"

"No one has accused you," Garnet responded coldly as Sundial rejoined the group.

"The police will be here shortly," he informed them. "I suggest that everyone keep quiet until the cops start asking their questions." He began pacing the floor, his nerves strung to the breaking point.

Silence reigned as the fillies and stallions waited for the police to arrive. Buck kept a close watch on Garnet-- not that he suspected her like he had when he had run home to Birdsong to sort out the mystery of the previous thefts, but because he did not like this imperturbable, distant facade she had returned to. He much more liked the warm, friendly side of her. She's just upset, he rationalized to himself. Once we know what is going on, she will be herself again.

It was not long before the police chief and two deputies arrived. Sundial explained again the disappearance of an entire collection of jewelry from a box which Sundial presented to Bastion as proof of the crime. Sundial also had the photos of the individual pieces ready to show the officers. Chief Bastion sent the two deputies to scour the premises while he interrogated the workers.

Garnet whispered something to Sundial who in turn asked of the chief, "Would it be okay to move everyone to the break room? It would be more comfortable there."

"I see no problem with that," Chief Bastion replied, glancing at the break room door. "Just make sure no one leaves."

Buck hoped to get a seat next to Garnet, but she stayed standing as if to be at the disposal of Sundial or Bastian if they required anything. When everyone was settled with a soda, Bastion began asking general questions of the entire group which proved fruitless as no one had seen anything suspicious or knew of anyone who would benefit from stealing the jewelry.

"It wasn't that valuable on its own merit," Sundial explained. "But to a private collector, it would be a prize worth paying for."

As the questioning proceeded from names to whereabouts to any peculiar events, the deputies returned with no success. "The jewelry isn't on the premises," the one named Todd informed his superior.

The other deputy had moved around the room and, spotting the heap of backpacks on the floor, called to his partner, "We'd better check these out before you make any general statements like that."

Willy nudged Buck in the side whispering, "I've got two months of candy wrappers and one rotten tuna sandwich in my bag."

Buck grinned at his friend. Looking up, however, he caught the violet eyes of Garnet focused on him. The smile on his face disappeared as he had a flashback to a previous time his eyes had locked on another creatures'. That was the occasion back at Birdsong when he had surprised the fox on its nightly prowl; he remembered the cold, detached look well... a look that was heartless and self-preserving.

Buck's own heart nearly stopped beating for an instant as he saw that same look now in Garnet's eyes and a shudder passed through his body. He had a sinking feeling that when he had met Garnet coming out of the break room, she had not been searching for the stolen jewelry but planting it.

He thought back to that pleasant lunch which ended with the chocolate chip cookies. I'll slip these into your backpack. Which one is it? And his totally open and naive suggestion to her, Put them in the side pocket. He would have bet his life at this moment that the deputies would indeed find at least one piece of the missing jewelry collection in the side pocket of his worn and grubby backpack.

"You'd better look at this, chief." Todd had Buck's satchel in hoof as he approached the table around which the assembled ponies sat. He pointed to the side pocket, and Chief Bastion looked inside.

In short order, he was holding a delicate gold chain with a crystal heart attached. He asked of Sundial, "Do you recognize this?" At the same time, he was rifling through the photos Sundial had given him earlier.

"Of course I do! It's one of the missing pieces!" He sent a glowering glance around the table, not knowing to whom that particular backpack belonged.

"Look for some identification in the bag," Bastion directed Todd.

Buck, however, spoke up. "That backpack belongs to me." Bastion looked up and gave a discerning study of the aqua stallion, then looked to his deputy for confirmation.

"Buck Birdsong," read Deputy Todd from a crumpled class schedule that he had found.

"That's me," reiterated Buck.

"How did this necklace end up in your backpack?" Chief Bastion asked.

"I have no idea, sir." He glanced at Garnet, but she looked away.

"You didn't take it from the box in the workroom?"

"No, I did not."

Chief Bastion stared at Buck for some time before he swept a glance over the others. "We have your addresses and phone numbers; you are all free to go about your business, although we may need to talk to you again so stay in Binksville." His attention again rested on Buck. "You and I will talk further down at the station."

No one made a move to leave. Sundial seemed stunned; for all his accusations, he could not easily believe Buck to be guilty of theft. Standing by her boss, Garnet had assumed a dismissive attitude as if she was no longer interested in these proceedings.

Willy, Heather, Warren, and Fancy looked at one another, and Willy spoke what was on their minds. "Chief Bastion, we know Buck. He'd never steal from the museum; he wouldn't steal nothing from nobody."

"That's right," the others agreed, their heads nodding in unison.

"Be that as it may, an article of stolen goods was found in his backpack. We'll have to investigate starting with that piece of evidence." The chief stood up and directed Buck to get to his hooves as well.

Buck looked back from the doorway to glance over the glum faces. "Truth will win out," he promised. "I'll see you all later." His gaze came to rest on Garnet's face; for a brief moment, he saw a flash of regret that was almost instantly smothered in a recurrence of the frosty stare as cold as marble. Buck dropped his gaze and followed Bastion from the room.

* * *
Sitting in the chief's office, Buck had plenty of time to think while he waited for the wheels of justice to slowly turn. He thought back over the events that culminated in his being held on suspicion of robbery, going back to the earlier minor thefts that he had suspected of Garnet. His mind went over his trip back to Birdsong and to his meeting of Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl. He grinned as he remembered their first encounter with the two of them quizzing him amidst their quilting supplies.

Jumping ahead, he remembered coming across Garnet in the workroom at the museum surrounded by quilts and her delight in the scraps of cloth and stitches that matched the elderly Lamplight sisters. It's strange that they all liked the crazy quilts best of all, Buck pondered, wondering why that iota of information seemed to gnaw at his mind. But he couldn't capture any insight, so his thoughts moved on again.

If Garnet was indeed the thief, she would have had plenty of opportunity as she did most of her quilt repair in the same room where Sundial kept the jewelry collection in its wooden box. The one fact that needed clarification was whether she carried a satchel of some kind when she left the museum early on Sunday. Thinking back, Buck realized he had never seen her carry anything but her lunch box. That would not hold all the jewelry, Buck was sure.

When Chief Bastion returned to further question Buck, the policepony soon learned that Buck was not about to change his story. Nothing Bastian asked, whether directly related to the case or some random question meant to trip up the stallion, received any answer but the simple honest response of this country stallion who had been raised to value truth and righteousness.

However, the chief had a task to complete and the facts to date pointed to Buck as the culprit he sought. "I'm keeping you here overnight," he informed Buck while looking out the window where dark snow clouds sat heavy in the west. "Maybe by tomorrow we'll have found some lead to point us in the right direction."

At least, speculated Buck as he was led to his confinement, he sounds like he doesn't believe that I committed this crime. He added that reflection to his points to consider in the long hours ahead as he once more began mulling over the facts, searching for a clue.

* * *
It was late that evening when Sundial answered the persistent ringing of his telephone and met the avalanche of words that awaited him.

"Sundial! It's me, Garnet. My dad just called from New Pony and Mom's in the hospital. The doctor thinks I should be there because it doesn't look good. I've got a seat on a flight that leaves tonight." She stopped to take a breath.

"I'm sorry to hear the news about your mother, Garnet. Is there anything I can do?"

"Just keep us all in your prayers," she responded with a break in her voice.

"Things may not be as bad when you get there. I'll hope for that." Sundial wished he could do more; Garnet had made a favorable impression on the museum curator from the first moment he had met her at her original interview, and he was looking forward to working with her in the future. But his musing was cut short as he realized that Chief Bastion might have need to question Garnet further concerning the theft of the jewelry. "What address and phone number will you be at in case we need to contact you?"

Garnet gave him the information and with a last forlorn sigh said goodbye. Sundial set down the receiver slowly, hating to relinquish his tenuous hold on the filly, and echoed the sigh.

* * *
Bastion was not a happy police chief the following morning when he learned of Garnet's departure. Sundial tried to save face for himself by producing her address and number in New Pony, but the information did not appease Bastion. "That filly is a sharp one," he muttered as he dialed the number Sundial had given him, and he grimaced as he heard the recording grate on his ear. "We are sorry, but the number you dialed is no longer in service." He flung the receiver into its cradle and snarled, "The address will be some vacant lot full of garbage."

"But why would she give me the wrong information?" Sundial bewailed, slow to imagine any fault with his prized assistant.

Stifling his temper, Bastian attempted to enlighten the stallion. "Of all the workers at the museum, this Garnet had the best opportunity to take the items in question."

"So why didn't you take her in yesterday instead of Buck?"

"Because the evidence was found in Buck's possession. We needed something concrete to go on, not just educated guesses."

"But just because Garnet worked in the same room that the jewelry was stored in doesn't mean she took it," Sundial defended.

"No, but if you look back over the other thefts that have occurred at the museum, they all started after Garnet began working there."

"That still doesn't mean she did it!"

"Well, that's my job now, isn't it?" Bastion got to his hooves and called a deputy to him. "Check the airport and find out if a filly matching Garnet's description boarded last night's flight. I'm on my way to her apartment to see if she left any trace."

Sundial stood in utter disbelief. Of course she was on the flight last night, and her apartment would stand as always except for the absence of the pony herself, he wanted to scream at Bastion. But the chief was already gone; and, with him, Sundial's hope.

* * *
Buck had slept fitfully on the hard bed provided for him in the cold and drafty cell. Most of the night hours had been spent thinking back and thinking ahead: back to the never changing facts and ahead to the unpredictable future. Two things haunted him: What would this do to his parents if Garnet's ploy worked and he was formally charged with the theft, and what effect would this have on his plans for graduation in the spring and the job that waited him back home?

It was nearly dawn when he finally fell into a roiled slumber that bombarded him with dreams bordering on nightmares. He was hopelessly shut away behind bars while Garnet laughed at him, her voice telescoping into ever higher crescendos of torment. In his dream, Buck lifted a crazy quilt that lay on the lumpy cot in his cell and threw it over his head to block the sound of the incessant, taunting laughter only to find himself showered in a cascade of jangles that turned to golden chains and sparkling jewels as he watched. The clinking of their landing stopped the laughter of Garnet, and in the ensuing silence Buck came to his senses and sat upright in bed.

That's the piece I couldn't put into perspective. Without a doubt, he know knew what had become of the missing jewelry.

A grinning deputy stood outside the cell. "You woke up right on schedule," he said to Buck as he pushed open the door, the keys still jingling in his hoof. "The chief wants to talk with you."

"And I to him," mumbled Buck under his breath as he jumped up to follow the deputy whom he recognized as Todd.

Escorting Buck to the chief's office after a chance to use the facilities, Todd left him in the care of Bastion. The chief, who looked as if his morning had not started well, motioned for Buck to be seated. Drops of moisture dripped from Bastion's mane and ran down his shoulders to disappear into the cushion of his chair. It was the first chance Buck had to see outside through the window in the office; the snow had arrived in force during the night and still continued to pile up deep drifts of the white powder.

Bastion finished up some paperwork before throwing his pen down; he leaned back in his chair and fixed his gaze on Buck. "Tell me what you know about Garnet."

"Fact or suspicion?" Buck countered.

"Let's start with facts."

Buck took a deep breath. "She could be a real pain if she wanted to be-- she tended to weasel her way into Sundial's good graces irregardless of her talents."

"Do you mean she wasn't suited for the job?"

"Not at first, but she was a quick learner and Sundial was willing to teach her. She eventually was pulling her own weight quite well. She worked on a quilt project recently that proved her skill in that department."

"Go on," prompted Bastian as Buck deliberated.

No sense telling Bastian that Garnet was quite adept at instilling a schoolboy crush on a stallion who was old enough to know better. Instead, he said, "The rest are suspicions."

"I'm listening."

"Before I say anything, could you tell me if you've learned whether or not Garnet was carrying a backpack or package of any kind when she left the museum early on Sunday?"

"We checked that, and no, she wasn't."

"Then I think the jewelry went out in the package Ponyland Parcel Service picked up Monday morning."

Bastion raised arched brows. "Sundial helped on that, I was told."

"What if the jewelry was hidden inside the quilt? Sundial would know nothing of it, of course, but because of his blind trust in Garnet, he might have overlooked hints that something wasn't quite right like the quilt being heavier than it should have been."

"You're saying she stuffed the jewelry inside the quilt?"

"It's possible. She had been working on repairing the quilt, spending all her time on it. What if she actually was opening sections of the quilt to be ready for the time when Sundial moved the jewelry collection out of his office where he had been documenting it and back to the workroom? All she had to do then is move the jewelry into the cotton batting of the quilt and close off the openings."

"Wouldn't Sundial have checked her progress with the quilt?"

"She could still have kept up with the fancy stitches on the quilt top that Sundial would have been interested in."

Thinking for a moment, Bastion called to Todd in the next room. "Call the PPS to find out the status of a shipment from the museum here to... where was it going?" He looked to Buck for the answer.

"The Crestview Art Center."

"Got that?" Bastian asked of the deputy. "Tell them to hold the package at the nearest town and inform us so we can pick it up."

"Right away, sir."

Bastion sat pondering the situation until Todd returned. "The delivery cart has left Fargo already; it should be reaching Pine Acres any time now; that's the only stop before Crestview. They'll leave a message at Pine Acres for the delivery pony to wait."

"I'll notify Pine Acres and Crestview police to be on the lookout for this Garnet. You and Cory head out to Pine Acres immediately." The chief looked out onto the blowing snow. "It will be a rough trip, but if PPS could make it, so can you. Just hurry; I want that box back here as soon as possible."

The two deputies were soon on their way, and Buck wondered what was in store for himself; he got the feeling that Bastion had forgotten he was there. After his calls were made, however, he suddenly looked up at him. "Buck, you can go home; but I want you to stay away from the museum until this mess is cleared up, which should be by this afternoon."

"Thanks, chief," Buck said as he hastily headed for the door; he lowered his head into the wind, letting the force of the driven snow purge him of his night in jail. One thought ate through his joy of being free: Where was Garnet?

What was it Tramples had said of the fox? It got what it was after; it'll move on now. Buck shook his head to erase the memory of those violet eyes that still stared at him in the dark recesses of his mind.

* * *
The Ponyland Parcel Service pony was trudging through the snow with his cart-- happy to see that the snow was letting up although the wind was not, and that he was getting close to Pine Acres-- when he saw a dark red figure on the path ahead. The pony was obviously traveling slowly as he was gaining on the form; and as he drew nearer, he could see that the pony was limping painfully.

When he had drawn close enough to make voice contact, the delivery pony called out, "Excuse me, but do you need some assistance there?"

The pony turned, her hooded eyes covering her pain. "Oh, finally! Another pony! I thought I'd never see anyone until I got to Pine Acres!" She slumped to the snowy ground and waited for him to come alongside her.

Abandoning his cart to help the filly, the stallion asked, "How did you injure yourself?"

"I got off the path just after I left Fargo and turned my ankle. It's been throbbing like crazy, but I had to keep going. I had no idea the snow would be this bad." She lifted her eyes to the stallions, and their violet depths sparkled like the snow.

"I'm not allowed to take passengers in the cart, but you can walk with me and lean on me for support," the stallion offered. "We can't be more than a mile from Pine Acres now."

"Oh! That would be so thoughtful of you!" The filly smiled gratefully, and the violet eyes seemed to soften in color and radiate pure light.

"Can you stand up?" the stallion asked, lending her a helping hoof which the filly accepted. She flinched visibly as she stood, but bravely took a tentative step.

"I'll be okay," she assured the delivery pony, allowing him to reclaim his hold on the cart while steading her at the same time. They set off down the path at a slow but steady pace, the snowflakes nearly ended.

"I really must thank you..." she waited for his name.

"Rusty," the stallion smiled.

"Thanks, Rusty. I don't know if I could have kept on without your help. My mother is ailing, and I must get to her soon."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"She has these spells every so often, and it seems to help to have me at her side." She faded into a contemplative silence.

"What's your name?" the stallion inquired with a sidelong glance at the young mare who looked lovely even with her hair covered with snow.

"I'm Garnet," the filly responded, shaking some of the clinging moisture out of her mane. "I'm on my way to Hayton."

"That's a long trip. You'll never make it with your ankle this way. Maybe you can have it looked at in Pine Acres."

"That's so sweet of you to be worried about me!" Garnet exclaimed, her face lighting Rusty's world like a beacon. "Where do you come from?"

"I work out of Binksville, but my home is in Millville."

"Millville? I've heard of that town before. Isn't there an art school there?"

"Why, yes, there is. It has quite a good reputation."

"I dabble in art myself. I'd like to visit the school sometime. Is it hard to find?" She looked at him with an open, interested expression.

"You can find anything easily in Millville," Rusty grinned. "But if it's my time off, I'd be glad to show you around."

"That would be delightful, Rusty!" She remained quiet for awhile, and Rusty didn't infringe on her thoughts. The first buildings of Pine Acres were now in view and the two ponies hurried their steps ever so slightly.

Suddenly, however, Garnet's sore hoof missed a step, and she fell heavily into the accumulated snow with a groan of pain.

"Garnet! Are you all right?" Rusty dropped to his knees to assure himself that the filly had not further injured herself.

"Oh, my! Clumsy me. I seem to have twisted it worse this time." She looked up with several stray tears trickling from her eyes.

"Dare you try to use it again?" Rusty asked in concern. "Maybe I should go into town and get medical help."

"No, no. I can make it from here. If I can just get to that little restaurant at the edge of town, I can rest there." She spunkily got to her hooves with Rusty's help, but the first step she tried to take plunged her right back into the snow; and this time she hit her hip on the cart causing more pain.

"Oh, Rusty. What am I going to do?" The tears fell freely now.

"Garnet, everything will be all right. You stay here by the cart, and I'll run into town to get help. I promise I'll hurry as fast as I can; I'll be back before you know it!" Quickly unfastening the canvas sheeting that covered the load of packages, he draped it over the filly for warmth and protection from the wind. Several tears dropped to his hooves as he tucked the cover around her; he felt their warmth and was inspired to make his best possible time getting help for the injured filly.

"I won't be long," he said as he stood to leave. "We'll have you safe and warm in no time." He flashed her a parting grin and sped off toward town.

"Hurry up, Rusty!" Garnet breathed as she watched him reach the outskirts of Pine Acres. And a second later, "Get out of my sight!"

As the stallion was swallowed up within the buildings, Garnet threw off the canvas and got to her hooves in a fluid motion unencumbered by any injuries. She rearranged the tarp where it had been covering her so that it looked authentically placed, then grabbed a familiar package from the cart and darted back down the path in the direction in which she had come in the company of Rusty.

Once she had gained the cover of a grove of trees, she turned to her right, deserting the path for a trail known only to her. The wind followed her steps, blowing eddies of white flakes like glittering quicksand into the impressions of her hooves, obliterating them completely.

* * *
"The box is gone?" roared Bastian as the report came in from Pine Acres. "How can you explain that?"

He listened, his nerves tense, his hoof tapping out his annoyance as Todd explained matters to him. When he had heard all he needed to know, he hung up the phone and sat back in his chair to think things over. "Garnet." He said the name out loud. A slick operator, they had discovered, for one so young. And brazen enough to use her real name even knowing that the law would be on her trail.

The filly had succeeded in duping the Ponyland Parcel Service delivery stallion into believing her story of an injured ankle so that he unwittingly left the poor, helpless thing alone with his cart of packages. Once the stallion was out of sight, the filly and the museum parcel had disappeared. Medical personnel accompanied by the PPS stallion had found a canvas tarp, but no pony. And the unguarded cart was intact except for the one package in question.

He opened up the file on his desk. Garnet's parents were Blackcap and Sassy Lamplight; he was well aware of the records of both of them. He rubbed his hoof through his mane in a frustrated gesture. They had passed their lawless legacy on to their offspring. "The worst part," muttered the chief to the empty office, "is that the entire family is good at what they do."

* * *
Willy, Warren, Heather, Fancy, and Buck sat around the table at the museum discussing the outcome of the "quilt escapade" as they now referred to it. "I'm glad she's gone," Fancy admitted. "She always looked at me like I couldn't handle the projects I worked on. She made me nervous."

Warren laughed. "You're always nervous, Fancy, no matter what!" The filly frowned and refused to respond.

"What I'd like to know is what she's going to do with the jewelry," Heather stated.

"Sell it for enough jangles to see her through until her next heist," Willy volunteered.

"Maybe she works with her parents," Warren suggested. "I hear they know all the tricks to scam ponies out of their hard-earned jangles."

Willy glanced at Buck. The two of them were the only ponies in this group who knew about Blackcap's connection to Lamplight, but Willy would not say anything unless Buck brought it up.

Buck was uncomfortable discussing Garnet; he found himself wanting to defend her irregardless of the fact that she had used him as her scapegoat. The reason was simply because she had-- for that one short lunch break-- showed him a facet of her character that had intrigued him. He wished that she would have spared him her deceptive charm; it would have been easier to dismiss her memory if she had only been an aggravation to him. So he changed the subject to the positive side of Lamplight and its chance at rebirth. Everyone was ready to visit the house whenever they could all get a day off together.

It was only after they had dispersed to their own work that Buck discussed another of his dilemmas with Willy. "Garnet is Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl's niece; do you think they've read about her in the paper? And if they haven't, should I tell them? I don't know what to do."

Willy shrugged his shoulders. "You're asking the wrong pony for advice on this one."

"I guess I'll just have to wait and see. You're still planning on going along on their big moving day, aren't you?"

"You bet! And Warren would like to come, too, if you don't mind."

"Great! The more help we have, the easier it will be. As it is, Bubbling Springs has already moved all the large furniture for them. And guess what? They'll be staying in that starter home that Fiddler tried to interest us in until Lamplight is ready for them."

"I'm looking forward to seeing Lamplight again; there are some structural details I'd like to study," Willy admitted, "but I sure hope Honeybee is on duty at the ice cream shop."

"You'll have to keep a close eye on Warren. He will be drawn to your sweet little Honeybee, too," Buck tormented his friend.

Growing serious, Willy confided, "With graduation coming up, I won't be anywhere near Bubbling Springs. I'll be on the other side of Ponyland if I accept that job offer."

"Hmm," though Buck. "If you impress Burgundy Lace and Blue Pearl with your efficiency, intelligence, and magnetism, maybe they'll consider hiring you to help with Lamplight."

"Do you really think so?"

"I don't know what their plans are, but if you are sincere in your feelings for Honeybee, I'd broach the subject with them."

"Aren't you interested in working at Lamplight?"

"I've got a job lined up back home, remember?"

"And a filly, too? I've seen those letters you get."

"That would be Columbine, but it's nothing serious. We've been buddies since kindergarten."

"Buddies?"

"Yes, buddies. At least as far as I'm concerned."

"Something tells me you're going to be in for a big surprise."

"No way, Willy. She and I have an understanding-- we're friends. That's all."

"Sure, Buck. Whatever you say." Grinning, Willy let the subject drop, but he did not believe a word of his friend's denial. I wonder what Columbine would have to say about this? he speculated to himself. Something tells me that she sees things a whole lot different.

* * *
His brush with the law made the phone call home difficult for Buck, and it was with relief that he heard his dad's voice answer rather than his mom's. He told the story of his being in jail for a night and the subsequent playing out of Garnet's well thought-out plan. When Trendy had heard all the details and passed them on to his wife, giving her time to absorb them, he put Lilac on the phone.

"Buck, it sounds like you've had some trying times in your life recently. Are you sure everything is okay now?"

"Don't worry about a thing! Life should be uneventful until graduation, except for classes, that is."

"Buck..."

"Yes, Mom?"

"Columbine came out yesterday."

"And how is Columbine?"

"She's doing well, but she's tired of her job at Pony Mart. She was wondering if I could use some help with Birdsong, and you know I was thinking of hiring someone."

"Licorice set this up," muttered Buck, mentally calculating pay back.

"She's a good worker, and I think she and I would get along well together."

"Are you asking my permission to hire her, Mom?"

"Well, yes, I guess I am. I know you feel she crowds you sometimes."

"If you think Columbine is the helper you have been looking for, don't be influenced by my feelings. After all these years with nothing but us guys around, you deserve to have the presence of a filly about the house."

Buck's good will evaporated with the end of the phone visit, for he knew Columbine well enough to realize that she would definitely find ways to complicate his life once he was back at Birdsong. Even as he frowned over that, however, further rumination provided a more satisfactory rendering. Columbine's never stayed with one job more than a few months. By the time I graduate, she'll have moved on to something else!

Having tied up that loose end, Buck was satisfied that all his problems to date were neatly solved and sorted away. Ahh! The sweet bliss of an unsuspecting mind!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dungeons & Ponies
by Clever Clover ([email protected])


Greatsword, the warrior pony, cut away the last of the brush concealing the ancient stone gate. "It is as the legends said! Within this dungeon lies the greatest treasure in the world!"

"So open it already," said Toad, the thief, impatiently.

"Be patient," said the unicorn enchantress, Wand. "We do not know what lies beyond the stone. Perhaps we should take a moment to prepare."

Skystar, the pegasus, nodded in agreement. "We don't want to be caught with our guard down. Besides, I'm in no hurry to be cooped up in some cramped dungeon."

"Toad, check the door for traps," Greatsword commanded. "Wand, prepare to cast a spell of protection; Skystar, draw your sword!" The unicorn began to chant her spell while Skystar drew his slender rapier. Greatsword unsheathed his mighty two-handed sword.

Toad began to carefully probe the perimeter of the massive stone gate with his dagger. After several minutes, he announced, "Well, there're no physical traps; do you sense any magic, Wand?"

The sorceress waved her hoof over the door while chanting a spell. "It is locked with magic, but I detect no traps." She chanted another spell and the massive gates ground slowly open. A wave of damp, stale air washed over the foursome. A dark passage stretched before them.

"Light the torches and follow me in!" bellowed Greatsword, whose magical helm allowed him to see in the dark, as he stepped toward the opening. Toad followed with a lit torch; next came Wand, whose horn glowed with magical light. Skystar brought up the rear, holding a lantern.

The cohort made their way slowly through the dark dungeon passage, keeping alert for signs of traps or wandering monsters. There were no turns or intersections for more than one hundred feet as the passage continually sloped gradually downward, taking the intrepid ponies deep beneath the hills. Finally they came to a side passage on the right; across the main passage from it was a wooden door. Toad stepped up to the door. He pressed his ear to the wood and listened for a moment, then took his dagger and checked for traps as he had at the stone gate. Once he was satisfied that it was safe, he slowly swung the door open.

Greatsword and Toad cautiously entered the room; Skystar and Wand remained in the passage to keep watch. In the room was a crude stool and table. In one corner, behind the table, was a small chest. "Well, what have we here?" said Toad as lifted the chest onto the table.

"Can you open it?" asked Greatsword.

Toad grinned. "Sure, but first I'll have to disarm the trap." The nimble pony set about tinkering with the trapped lock of the chest with a piece of wire and the point of his dagger. Before long there was a sharp click and he lifted the lid. Inside was an aged scroll.

"Be careful," Greatsword whispered as Toad reached into the chest.

"Don't worry; ‘Careful' is my middle name," Toad said as he lifted the brittle paper from its resting place. He set it on the table and carefully unrolled it. To the ponies' surprise, the paper was blank, but it had concealed a heavy iron key. "This could come in handy," said Toad as he slipped the key into his belt pouch.

As the two ponies headed for the door, Greatsword asked, "If ‘Careful' is you middle name, what is your last name?"

"Toad," the smaller pony replied simply.

"Oh."

"What did you find?" asked Skystar.

"Not much," said Toad. "Anything interesting happen out here?"

Wand nodded. "I have used my magic to scout the two passages. The side passage apparently leads to a residential structure. The main passage leads to some sort of guard post and a large gate."

"Guard post, huh?" Greatsword grunted. "Sounds promising. Okay, ponies, let's move." The foursome of ponies resumed their march into the darkness. It took nearly half an hour to reach the guard post. Before the passage opened out into the gate chamber, there were narrow openings in the walls, arrow-slits, three on each side of the passage. The ponies approached with caution, not knowing what manner of danger lurked behind the walls.

"Wand," Greatsword whispered, "are you ready?"

The unicorn nodded, "Yes, look away everyone." Wand waved her hooves and lowered her horn. A sudden explosion of light flooded the passage between the arrow-slits. "Go!" the sorceress yelled. The foursome rushed forward into the gate chamber, their weapons ready.

The chamber was empty. The entire end of the chamber opposite the passage was composed of two massive iron-bound gates. There was a small wooden door set in one of the side walls. Greatsword and Skystar stood before the door with their swords held ready; Wand began chanting a spell of protection. Toad took out the key from his pouch and headed for the gate.

"Uh, guys," said Toad after examining the gate.

"What is it, Toad!" Greatsword bellowed. "We don't know how long we have."

Toad hung his head. "There's no key hole."

"I'll see if my magic can open it," said Wand. She chanted and waved her hooves, then shook her head. "We'll have to find another way."

"Okay, Toad, check out this door," said Greatsword.

Toad approached the door as before. He put his ear to it. "Oh, shoot," he mumbled.

"What is it?" asked Skystar.

"Somethin's coming," said Toad as he stepped away from the door with his dagger held ready.

Now all the ponies could hear the scratching, clattering sound getting closer and closer. They stood ready to face whatever came out from behind the door. "Wand, blast it!" Greatsword yelled. The unicorn sorceress nodded and hurled a massive fireball at the door, shattering it into a shower of singed splinters. When the smoke cleared, the ponies caught their first sight of their adversaries as a hord of skeletal Bushwoolies poured out of the opening where the door had been.

Greatsword and Skystar swung their swords, cleaving through skeketons like stalks of wheat. Toad darted about striking out with his dagger but doing little damage. Wand's fireballs tore through the advancing horde as if they were made of paper. But still they came, wave after wave of shrambling undead horrors.

"Stand back!" Greatsword bellowed. "I'm going to use my special fighting move!"



"You can't do dat!" Baby Racer complained.

"Yes, I can," Baby Leaper replied.

"No, you can't. Warriows don't lewn Specal Fighting Moves ‘till tents level," Baby Racer informed him.

"Yeah, Gweatsword got tents level wen dey stold the witch's twesure," Baby Leaper stated.

"No, he didn't," said Baby Racer as he shook his head. "He was asweep durin' the fight wit' the golum so he didn't get any expewience."

"He still got tents level."

"Unca' Bwiteblade," Baby Racer called out, "Baby Leaper's cheating again."

"I wana cast a spell," Baby Noddins whined.

"An who evew hewd of ‘skeletal Bushwoolies'; dat's stoopid," complained Baby Leaper.

"I thought they were cool," said Baby Clipper.

Baby Drummer rolled a die. "I got a twenty," he said.

"I wana cast a spell," Baby Noddins whined again.

Brightblade knocked his head on the counter of his antique store. "Why do I let those kids play in my back room?" he mumbled.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

**My Little Pony Monthly Policy Statement**


This e-mail newsletter is meant to be read by all ages, and I shall reject any submissions if they contain profanity of any sort. If you have a piece you think would add to the quality of My Little Pony Monthly, feel free to e-mail it to me at [email protected] And, remember, it doesn't have to be a story to be accepted! My Little Pony-related games, contests (please be willing to notify me of the results so I can post them in the next issue), Invento Ponies, and everything else are great as well! However, submissions must be received at least three days prior to the first of the month to be ensured to be posted in that issue. Submissions are subject to being edited by our proofreaders.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My Little Pony Monthly is a publication of Nematoid (Electronic) Publishing.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To view our past issues online, simply go to:

http://www.crosswinds.net/~tabbymlp/Monthly.htm
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Our next issue will be sent March first.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Go Back to My Little Pony Monthly Index
Go Back to Tabby's Dream Valley