Sleep was the last thing on Dorian’s mind when he was finally alone in his apartment. There were too many loose ends floating through his tangled thoughts as he tried to resolve Brietta’s knowledge of Hazard’s scheme with this morning’s confrontation with that stallion. It was one thing for Dorian to thwart Hazard’s plans with some blackmail of his own, but quite another to hold things together with Brietta, Sloan, Conrad, and Aiden all possessing knowledge concerning Hazard’s less than ethical plans for the future of Whitehall Place. Any action the law firm took to stabilize the family’s property would be a clear indication to Hazard that Dorian had not kept his end of the bargain.
A distinctive click from the front door garnered all of Dorian’s attention. He knew it was the sound of the lock being released, and he anticipated who he would see when the door swung open. The red stallion with black mane and a garish scar stood in the aperture like an avenging angel- or, more correctly, devil- with a menacing look on his face that did not bode well for the occupant, yet Dorian met that gaze with one equally persistent stare.
“I’ve had some further concerns, Dorian, since our conversation this morning,” the evil stallion intoned with false camaraderie. “I feel we should talk more.” His intent was backed up by the entrance into the room of two shifty stallions with steel rods who silently took their positions to either side of Dorian.
“What, Hazard? You doubt my integrity?” asked Dorian openly while inwardly hoping that, whatever happened, Brietta’s name would stay out of this.
That hope was soon dashed.
“Your pretty lawyer friend stopped by, I noticed,” Hazard said smoothly, indicating that he had been watching Dorian’s apartment. “How much did you tell her?”
“You think I’d let her in on your plans, Hazard? I told you this morning that I won’t tell anyone about your foolish layout as long as you set your sites on some property other than Whitehall Place.”
Prowling the room, Hazard chuckled. “You’re losing your touch, Dorian. I noticed as I followed you from Capital City that you looked over your shoulder now and then.”
“I knew someone was there,” admitted Dorian.
“But you never saw me- I never let you see me. You’ve been away from the streets too long. You’ve forgotten to watch your back.”
Dorian stiffened. He had underestimated Hazard and the oaf’s overwhelming desire to make something of himself, regardless of who he hurt in the process. In his own involvement with the shadier aspects of life, Dorian had never considered anything so unethical that it would cause physical pain or suffering. With blinding clarity, he now realized that Hazard was not adverse to using any means at his disposal to get what he wanted.
That insight did nothing to alleviate Dorian’s concern for Brietta’s welfare. Regardless of what Hazard intended for him- and the two goons with those metal rods were not conducive to pleasant expectations- Dorian could only pray that Hazard would not extend his revenge to the mare. Whatever happened, Dorian had to deflect Hazard’s attention away from Brietta. The knowledge that his involvement with Hazard all those years ago could now endanger the mare he loved caused Dorian a more excruciating anxiety than the two thugs could ever produce. But what exactly was Hazard’s devious strategy?
Finding Dorian’s silence provoking, Hazard nodded to the stallion to the right of Dorian; that stallion responded with a sudden and powerful lunge with his weapon that caught Dorian unaware across his mid-section; Dorian was knocked against a table from the force of the impact, but righted himself, his eyes blazing. “What do you mean by this? I haven’t told anyone what your intentions are for Whitehall Place per our deal this morning.”
“You’re working under a misconception; you talked about a deal... I never agreed to it.”
“We’re at a standoff, Hazard; we both know something about the other that we want kept quiet. I’ll uphold my end of the bargain.” Anything for Brietta, Dorian mused. She can never be drawn into this infernal web, not with this mad stallion on the prowl.
Running a hoof over the spines of the books on a library shelf, Hazard chuckled. “I can’t believe you
didn’t unburden your secrets to your fiancee... it is her mansion, after all.” He glared at Dorian. “I think you’re lying; I think you intend to stab me in the back.”
“I’m not a dolt, Hazard.” Dorian said the words with the implication that Hazard was. That brought him another blow from one of the stallions. Shaking his head after the shock of the hit, Dorian managed to say, “Brie would drop me like a hot potato if she even suspected that I was aware of such a proposal as you have in mind.”
“I don’t know, Dorian...”
“Look in the drawer over there, top right. You’ll find all the papers you gave me. I didn’t share them with anyone, and you’re more than welcome to have them back. I wanted no part in this from the beginning as you should well remember.”
Pulling open the indicated drawer, Hazard withdrew the file and briefly perused the pages of information it contained. Seemingly satisfied, he closed the file and looked at Dorian. “I’m glad to have this back.”
Dorian began to breath easier, thinking that Hazard would take what he had come for and get on his way. But Hazard nodded once more toward the weaponed stallions; and rather than take their leave, the two pounded Dorian simultaneously on the back, sending the stallion to the floor.
“Hold it!” Hazard thundered. “I don’t want him hurt.” He smiled across the room at the traumatized stallion. “I want him to walk to his fate.” He stepped across the floor to stand by Dorian’s side, and prodded him with a hoof. “Get up, fool. You’ll soon learn why I’ve grown stronger over the years, and you’ve become soft.”
Breathing heavily, blood oozing from the welting sores on his back, Dorian painfully lifted himself to his hooves. Whatever happens, Brie has to be left out of this, he agonized within his tortured thoughts. I never would have gone near her if I had ever expected this reprobate to come into her life. Oh, God, whatever it takes, please, please, keep Brie safe!
* * *
Dorian found it hard to concentrate as he was forced to follow Hazard, the two wastrels ungently prodding him to keep to the path that he could barely discern through his sweat-washed eyes. The evening was cool, and the breeze was the only comfort his heated body had; the moon was bleak, making his faltering steps even more vulnerable to the stones that often tripped him. He was aware enough of his surroundings to know the direction they were headed; their path was leading them to the west. What was west of Whitehall? Dorian wondered, his mind still reeling from the hits he had taken. Where was Hazard taking him?
Part of his mind hoped they would never arrive at the destination point; as long as he was walking, his captors would want him to live. But once they arrived at the spot they were headed for, then what? Dorian could not think about it. Instead, he tried to marshal his thoughts to dwell on happier times with Brietta; oh, how he loved her! But to protect her, he would willingly give her up; her life, her safety, was worth more to him than the joy her companionship gave him. He would suffer- he was suffering- but she must never know the horror of being in the control of this miscreant. He would give his life to see her safe.
It was Hazard’s coarse laughter that alerted Dorian to their arrival at... where were they? Suddenly, a lantern beamed into life; the area looked familiar somehow; yet, Dorian could not quite place where it was. His back and sides were throbbing unmercifully; and now that he no longer had to put one leg ahead of the other, he found it nearly impossible to keep on his hooves.
He tried to focus on the light of the lantern as it swept the surroundings; and as he did, it struck him as to where they were... it was the ledge, the high point west of the city from which the rough and ragged land dropped vertically to the plain below. Inconsequently, Dorian thought of the town of Porter that lay further west on the flat prairie and forced himself to look out into the gloomy darkness to see the pinpoints of light that marked the city’s location.
“Well, Dorian,” Hazard’s voice cut through the night, “this is the point where I bid you farewell. My only regret is that you could have been a boon to me if you had only thrown your loyalty to my interests. But you didn’t, so it comes to this.” Hazard swung the lantern’s beam to rest directly on Dorian, causing the stallion to avert his eyes. “You’re to have an accident, Dorian... a terrible accident, I’m afraid. This ledge can be a dangerous place on a dark night, especially if a pony isn’t too familiar with its idiosyncracies. By morning, all that Miss Manning will find is your cold body.”
At those words, Dorian lifted his head, his mind raging. Not Brie! No! She cannot be pulled into this!
He barely saw the flash of steel off the lantern’s light as a rod came crashing down and his mind splintered into fiery bursts of shooting stars followed by unconscious blackness. It was all for the best; he never felt the jabs of the many rocks and outcroppings that tore at his body as it jostled its way down the perilous wall of the ledge to land in sprawling, disjoined array at the bleak, torturous base.
* * *
Dawn was just beginning to send pink fingers over the eastern horizon when the private phone at Brietta’s bedside jangled brazenly in her ear. A lazy lavender foreleg reached for it and a sleepy voice croaked a shaky good morning.
“Brietta, I’ve got to talk to you!” a familiar and excited voice said. “Meet me at the ledge in twenty minutes!”
Her eyes popping open at the urgency in the voice, Brietta sat up. “What about breakfast?”
“The ledge... twenty minutes.” The phone line went dead.
Brietta allowed herself several more moments cradled in her soft bedding; she closed her eyes and gave a contented sigh as her body nestled itself into the contours of the mattress. But, no, she said to herself. Dorian, for some odd reason, expected her to be at the ledge. She forced herself to sit up and swing her legs over the edge and sit, shaking the last of the cobwebs from her sleep-logged mind. She had been dreaming of Dorian, and those dreams had been pleasant. She smiled foolishly.
Dorian had sounded strange, Brietta noted as she though back to the hurried call she had just received. She wished she had been more awake so that she could have asked some intelligent questions. What had prompted him to change his plans for this morning? Something must have jogged his memory with some critical information that he wanted to discuss with her before he faced Aiden and Conrad.
Suddenly, Brietta’s head began to throb. What would be her family’s reaction when they heard of Dorian’s involvement, no matter how unintentional, in this wild scheme to usurp Whitehall Place?
As Brietta splashed the cold water on her face, her senses finally shed their lethargy; with her teeth brushed and her hair combed, she was soon ready to depart. Stepping quietly down the stairs to avoid waking her parents, Brietta went to the rear of the house to leave by the back door. She found Clarence sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of steaming coffee and Anna busy at the stove.
“Do you two never sleep?” Brietta asked, knowing they had been up and about yet when Sloan had seen her inside in that primordial hour after midnight.
“And what about you, missy? What’s got you up and about so early after that late night? It’s hardly daylight!” Anna fussed.
Brietta rolled her eyes. “Dorian called and wants me to meet him at the ledge. I doubt he got much sleep last night; his brain must be addled.”
“At least have some coffee first.”
“No. Can’t. He said twenty minutes. We’ll both be back for breakfast, though... count on that.” With a flippant wave that revealed none of her inner anxiety, Brietta was gone.
Anna continued her mutterings. “I know the ledge is a good place to watch the sunset, but sunrise?”
Clarence chuckled. “The buck’s in love, Anna. He don’t need no reason.”
“He’s not the only one, either,” Anna growled. “I’d swear Sloan’s still as much in love with the gal as ever, if that glow in his eyes last night when he brought her in meant anything.”
* * *
At about the same time Brietta left Whitehall Place for the ledge, a red bodied, black-maned stallion with a manila file in his hoof skulked out of Dorian’s apartment and took a cautious look around before slipping out onto the path and melting into the still grey morning in the direction of Capital City.
* * *
From a distance, the ledge was deserted. Brietta felt a twinge of resentment that Dorian had gotten her up
from a numbing slumber to arrange this rendezvous on a morning already fraught with serious business, but he himself had not made an effort to arrive in the allotted time. But the morning was beautiful, and Brietta allowed herself to set aside her problems and worries and to be indulged with the caresses of the birthing sunbeams and the pleasantly mild breezes that stroked her cheeks and ran through her mane.
Overhead, the blue sky was a never-ending expanse of beauty, broken only by a soaring vulture that watched the terrain for a carcass to consume. Brietta shivered. The magnificence of the black-feathered bird was awesome, but she could not pleasurably consider the variety of food with which the creature engorged himself.
The top of the ledge was enlightened with the easterly sunshine, and the plain to the far west was alight as well; Brietta made out the buildings of Porter where they sprang up out of the landscape like foal’s building blocks lined up in neat rows interspersed with riotous foliage of numerous trees. The freedom that the view exemplified was exhilarating, and Brietta found herself enjoying her solitary morning.
Taking a look back toward the town of Whitehall, Brietta observed that the path from that direction was still empty. Where was the stallion that had been so determined to meet her here in twenty minutes? She would have to remember on his birthday to get him a new watch.
Her attention tiring of the distant views, Brietta began to focus on the rugged terrain at her hooves. Large boulders marked the edge of the cliff that fell away so abruptly; looking down, Brietta noted that the angle of the sun could not yet penetrate the drop-off, leaving it in dismal shadows. The large rocks and jagged outcroppings were dark smudges, the gloom disguising their rough and dangerous edges. As Brietta peered over the ledge into the darker regions, she felt a moving shadow pass over her; looking up, she shuddered.
The vulture who had been circling slowly through the sky like a soaring kite had been joined by two- no, three- of its compatriots; and all of the birds had dropped much lower in the sky so that one of them was actually at Brietta’s height as it swept the empty space beyond the ledge.
“Dorian, you’d better get her quickly!” she griped out loud, finding some solace in the sound of her voice. “What are you after?” she called to the ebony birds that swept closer and closer. They seemed to be honing in on a spot near the base of the cliff.
Searching the rocks below her more closely from her lofty position, Brietta tried to locate the source of the vultures’ hunt. Other than rocks and tufts of hardy grasses, there wasn’t much to see on the side of the ledge; at the base, there was a cluttered accumulation of rocks that had over the years abandoned their hold on the cliff side and plunged down to rest at the base. Making out clumps of weeds that had braved the forlorn setting, Brietta could see nothing of interest except... were those flowers?... the dreaded burdocks that produced the clinging cockleburs?... that violet patch of color spilling over the boulder just below her?...the same color as...
The rising sun spilled over the ledge.
“Oh, my God!” Brietta screamed, realizing that the violet display that she was viewing was connected to the light grey body of Dorian which until this moment she had mistaken for a rock. Horrified, she could only gasp for breath after the heart-rending scream she had emitted.
“Oh, my God! He’s fallen! And he’s not moving!”
Standing with her hooves pressed against her mouth, Brietta forced herself to take several deep breaths to calm her stampeding nerves so that she could make some sane decisions. She wanted to get down to the spot where Dorian lay, but the cliff here was nearly vertical; she would have to retrace her steps and come in at a different angle where the ledge was less pronounced. And that would take time, time that Dorian might not have.
She needed help. Even if she could reach Dorian, there was nothing she could do for him. Someone had to call the paramedics; and as there was no one else for the job, she would have to run back to Whitehall Place to do that before she could attend to Dorian. With one final glance at the unmoving body of her fiancé lying haphazardly at the base of the cliff, she took off at a run in the direction of home.
Bursting through a small grove of trees along the path, Brietta nearly collided with a colt coming out of the bushes; putting out her hooves in a beseeching gesture, she half gasped, half sobbed, “Someone’s been hurt... fallen over the ledge... unconscious at the foot of the cliff... call paramedics.”
The colt, whom Brietta now recognized as the son of one of the neighboring families, stared at Brietta wide-eyed. “Gone over the cliff, you say?”
Brietta shook the thick-headed creature. “Go to Whitehall Place and tell them to call the paramedics to the ledge; Dorian’s been hurt,” she said as clearly as she could manage. “And hurry! Please!”
As she watched the youngster finally realize the seriousness of the situation and turn to scamper toward Brietta’s home, she called after him. “I’m going to go back to him! Tell my father to meet me at the base of the ledge!” She then returned to the side of the hill where the incline was more gradual and began to work her way down the embankment and from there to follow the course of the land back to the foot of the cliff.
Tearing her skin when pushing through brambles and picking up seed pods that clung to her mane and tail, Brietta was unaware of anything except Dorian lying alone and wounded in the nest of rocks; she gasped in outrage as a vulture passed low over her head, realizing now what the birds were interested in obtaining. “Get away from here!” she screamed, flailing her forelegs in the air like a windmill gone mad. She stumbled over a rock and fell to the ground, only to pick herself up and, ignoring the scrape she had received, continue her trek.
When she finally clambered over the last rock in her path, Brietta sank to the ground at Dorian’s side and groaned at the dreadful sight that met her eyes; the stallion’s body was bruised at all angles with long, angry welts crisscrossing his side and a jagged tear down the side of his neck. One foreleg was bent at an impossible angle. A point of impact on his head was open and still trickling blood. Brietta felt herself turn cold as she noted the lifelessness of this battered and beloved friend.
Whispering an unending volley of prayers, Brietta felt for the stallion’s pulse; finding none, she let out a cry of anguish and dropped her head onto Dorian’s chest, hugging him as if she could relay her own life into him. It was only when her wracking sobs had begun to lessen that a low, thudding sensation began to pierce her brain; with a start, she realized that her senses were picking up the coursing sound of a heartbeat, weak but steady. “Dorian!” she implored. “Dorian, it’s Brie. I’m here for you, my darling.” The lack of response from the stallion nearly destroyed her.
As she ran a hoof through his tangled mane, she came up against the rough, scratchy feel of a clump of cockleburs, and she found herself feeling such a surge of anger over the senselessness of this tragic situation that she tore the unrelenting seedpods from their hold of the stallion, directing all of her anger against the one thing she could defeat. As she held the stiff, unyielding cluster in her hoof, she remembered the garden party and Dorian’s tormenting her about the cockleburs stuck in her tail; and she shuddered at her plans to pay him back with some cockleburs of his own.
“No!” She broke into tears, thrusting the offensive seeds away with a violence that would have surprised the stallion if he could have understood what was going on around him. “Please, Dorian, look at me!” She stroked the violet flow of his mane and caressed his cheek, willing him to hear her and to respond.
The helplessness of her predicament was overwhelming; Brietta could do nothing but speak Dorian’s name and whisper words of encouragement to the fallen stallion while she waited for professional help to come. She had not even put a ribbon in her hair in her hurry to leave the house and meet him; she could have used it to clean the bright red rivulets from his face and his sides and the awful wound on his neck.
Using what was available, she tore off some of the leaves from the hateful burdock plants that prospered here amidst the rocky landscape, using their dewy wetness to bathe away the worst of the blood. Her touch on his face was soft and gentle as she accompanied her provision with gentle murmurings of all the things that she wanted him to know and remember- all of her feelings, all of the plans they shared, all of the promise for a rainbow future.
She was silently resenting the slowness of the arrival of help when she heard her name called and realized that her father was somewhere near; but the pony that knelt at her side was not Aiden but Sloan.
“Oh, Sloan,” she wailed, “he’s been hurt so badly!”
“I can see that,” Sloan said, shaken to find his friend in such sorry shape. “What happened anyway?”
“I found him here; he must have fallen.”
“Clarence said you were to meet him; why the change of plans? What brought you two here?”
“I don’t now,” Brietta wailed. “He called early and said to meet him in twenty minutes. I jumped out of bed and came straight here... to this.” She covered her face with her hooves and slowly began rocking back and forth.
“The paramedics will be here soon, Brietta; they’ll be able to help him.” Sloan wished he believed what he said. “What you’ve got to do is calm down so that you can give them any information they need once they arrive.”
Sloan wiped uselessly at the tears that silently streamed down her face, but she shrugged him away so that she could return to her administrations of what soothing care she could give. “How did you get here so fast?” puzzled Brietta.
“I’d just arrived at Whitehall Place for our breakfast meeting when Aiden came out the door; Lena and Conrad are going to meet us at the hospital.”
“Oh! Where are the paramedics?” Brietta complained, finding it nearly impossible to wait. When her father clambered over the rocks, she jumped to her hooves.
“Daddy,” she pleaded, reverting to the term of endearment that she had forsaken years ago, “please do something for him!”
His heart feeling as if it was being ripped from him, Aiden could only pull Brietta into his forelegs and offer what little comfort he was able; but under his gentle ministrations, her tears gradually stopped and her agitated mind slowly settled into its more precise bearing.
“Father,” she said, brushing the last of the tears away, “how could this have happened?” She once more turned her attention to Dorian. “Dorian, Dorian,” she whispered, taking the unharmed hoof into hers and holding it close. “Can you hear me?”
Not expecting a reply, Brietta was heartened to see the stallion’s eyelids flutter slightly, then relax again as if the effort was too much. It strengthened her, however, to see that small response in the one she loved so dearly. She looked up into Sloan’s eyes and smiled tremulously.
“He’s going to be all right.” One last tear slid down her cheek. “He has to be.”
Sloan looked at the injuries Dorian had sustained, then turned his attention up the side of the cliff to the top of the ledge from which Dorian had obviously tumbled. Anyone coming down that rough and rocky terrain would have been treated to a veritable gauntlet of unyielding protrusions of rock. It was obvious that Dorian had sustained a multitude of external cuts and abrasions; but what of internal damage?
Another question churned through Sloan’s thoughts. If Dorian’s fall had occurred such a short time ago- for it should have taken him no longer to reach the ledge from Whitehall than it did for Brietta to arrive from her home, especially as he was up and all ready to go, one would presume- then why were many of the abrasions already crusted with dried blood? Only the gash on his head appeared to be exuding anything now.
“The paramedics,” Sloan said, a feeling of gratitude for their arrival washing over him. “Come, Brietta; we’ve got to give them room.” He and Aiden drew the mare off to the side where she watched with wide-eyed dread while the medical ponies examined the stallion and began their ministrations.