• Published 19th Nov 2023
  • 1,091 Views, 42 Comments

Little Donkey - 8_Bit



A lone equine wanders into a new village, ultimately hoping to scout out a quiet place to eventually settle down in and call home. Unfortunately for her, the one she stumbled upon is Ponyville.

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Chapter I - On The Dusty Road

Those fucking birds, I swear.

It's five in the morning, the sun won't be up for hours. So, why the bloody heck are they chirping their little hearts out like it's the Royal Variety Hour? What exactly is it that they've got to be up so early for? I mean, they wouldn't like it if I snuck up to their nest at stupid-o-clock in the morning with a male voice choir. Would they? Three choruses of Beethoofen's Ninth Symphony would have them laughing out the other side of their beaks. A jenny can dream, though. In a stubborn manner my kind are somewhat famed for, I grab one of my pillows and slam it hard over my head. A vain attempt to muffle out the birdsong.

For a brief moment, I do ponder if it would be easier to smother myself and be done with it. They wouldn't even need to let a priest in, I'd be content with them shouting last rites through the window. Something to get the neighbours chatting, make the local newsletters. Anycreature who says they don't like drama? They are talking out of their arse. The moment anything interesting happens, you can bet they'll be there snooping. There was this one B&B I stayed in somewhere outside Sydneigh, where the ponies in the room next door got into a loud argument around midnight. Lucky me, laid out half-asleep and being treated to my own little radio soap opera. And when they spilled out of their room into the street below, all I had to do was sit up in bed and glance out the window. Thus, my radio show was upgraded to a theatrical performance with box seating. I felt like Trotler and Whindorf.

'Wake up you old fool, you slept through the show'.

'Who's a fool? You watched it.'

Ahem. Regardless, the pillow muffling must have worked and the smothering must have failed to work. The next thing I know my alarm clock is ringing, the sun is shining in through the window, and I am still breathing. I slam my hoof down and stop the incessant beeping that is making big owies on my primitive early-morning brain. Hauling myself up into a sitting position, I pull the duvet tighter around me. My neck makes some grotesque clicks as I twist my head around to work out the stiffness. All my own fault, by habit I tend to sleep with two pillows, and technically I just did. However, given one of those pillows had been on top of my head and not supporting it, now my neck is going to be achey all morning. Oh, terrific.

Batting aside an awkward droopy ear that lops down in front of one eye, I reach for my glasses. They're a little steamed up with morning dew in the cold room. Pretty much on par with my standard level of luck, finding the one inn without decent heating. I slide them up the bridge of my muzzle nonetheless. A little wipe with a fetlock clears them up well enough, even if leaving them a little smudgy. I roll out of bed, dragging my duvet with me and wrapping myself up in it as I walk to the window.

Hoofington. Hardly anywhere to get excited about. My first and only thought when I'd arrived during dusk yesterday, was how much inbreeding must go on here. It's not a huge town, but nor is it small, and it definitely lacks in any kind of culture. One bloodline occupying a single postal code, that's more or less the impression I got as I walked through it. Still, folks around here seemed friendly. And by friendly, I mean they only looked at me with distaste. As opposed to looking at me with distaste as they reached for their nearest firearm. When you're a wanderer, you've got to take the little victories. For example, the stallions here probably only have eyes for mares that are a second cousin or closer to them. So they'll likely let me pass by and, at most, expend the energy to shoot me an icy glare.

Now with proper daylight, I realise there is another elephant in the room that I had completely missed yesterday. Dense cloud banks sit motionless above the hamlet. I can make out brutal colonnades, rising towers and sprawling bridges all built out of the good old white fluffy stuff. Rainbow waterfalls cascade down all around, provoking imagery that would make a right-wing nutcase spout nonsense about poor influences on their children. This hick town literally sits in the shadow of Cloudsdale. Now say all you want about donkey stubbornness, but it is in fact earth ponies who live here. In a town that, I assume, is subjected to regular bouts of yellow showers and brown hail from the pegasus city above. I like to think us donkeys are quite rational by comparison, because all I can think of to that idea is 'bollocks to that'. Still, it's another excuse to leave, even if I wasn't exactly fishing for one.

Keeping my duvet wrapped up around me, I set myself to work repacking my saddlebag. Granted, I didn't exactly unpack a great deal of stuff last night, but I do a lot of travelling. I've seen some shit. Let me never speak of the youth hostels in Prance. So I hope it goes without saying, that on a regular basis I will double-triple-quadruple check I've got all my gear with me. Water, dry rations, a towel (never leave home without one, trust me), in addition to a small tent and sleeping bag for emergency use. Plus, a little pouch full of bits. Far be it from me not to lubricate the wheels of capitalism, in exchange for food and shelter whenever possible.

When I'm content that my saddlebag is packed nice and proper, I take a rapid series of steeling breaths before I fling the duvet off me. Even with my pelt, the cold air stings at my body. How the bloody hell does the landlord of this inn think this is a suitable ambient temperature? With teeth chattering, I haul my saddlebag loosely onto my back. I go to strap it into place, but since I'm only going downstairs, I decide it's not worth the effort. Making my way out of the small bedroom, I listen to the door lock click behind me and then head towards the stairs. Breakfast time.

After giving the room key back to the pony running the front desk, a greasy-faced teenager who doesn't seem able to tear his eyes away from his comic, I head towards the restaurant area. Passing through a wooden door paned with frosty glass, the warmth of the room brings instant bliss. I don't bother restraining myself from letting out a quiet sigh. Oh, sweet cosy warmth, what a relief. The room is loud and bustling though, lots of rowdy ponies sat eating and drinking as waiting staff veer through narrow gaps between seats. With nocreature there guiding clientele to their tables, I guess that it's a case of 'find your own'. And because I have a habit of trying not to make too much of an inconvenience of myself, I head for the only table in the room that is set for one occupant.

Unfortunately for me, it's a high table with a barstool. And though I'm only a little below the average height for jennies, this translates to being very below the average height for mares. So I make a complete twat of myself, trying to climb up into the seat. I've no doubt that this town is likely full of big, strong stallions keen to help a jenny in need. Prove that chivalry isn't dead, y'know? To my misfortune, at this moment they must all be out buying lager and cigarettes, because not one sodding horse in the restaurant offers me a helping hoof. So I have to resort to putting my saddlebag on the floor, and using that as a step-up to get myself settled on the stool.

I start rifling through the menus, but I can't seem to find a breakfast one. It's not even half eight yet, they must still be serving breakfast, surely to goodness. It takes a few minutes, and several instances of 'oh-I-just-waved-at-the-waitress-but-she-kept-on-walking-right-past-me-like-I'm-a-bloody-chameleon''. But finally, an earth pony mare with a pale green coat and brown mane stops at my table. She looks me up and down as she pulls out a pen and notepad from her apron, but she seems reluctant to initiate any kind of conversation. So, I venture to speak first.

"Good morning."

Whatever opinions I may hold regarding the average IQ in this town, I still have a deep-rooted inability to give waiting staff anything less than the very best manners I can muster. I'm not sure if it's cultural or generational, but I feel like asking to speak to a manager would be akin to committing seppuku.

"What'll it be?" she drawls back at me.

"Umm, yes, hello. I... errr... well, I can't seem to find the breakfast menu, could you get one for me please?"

One of her eyebrows lifts up as her tail flicks. "You ain't got one there?"

I glance back at the little wooden rack where the other menus sit. "Daytime menu, Sunday menu, specials menu, drinks menu, I've got all of those here. But the breakfast menu? No sign of one, I'm afraid."

"Just tell me what you want, we'll fix you up," she replies. Her eyes roll back, and I get the distinct impression that she'd rather be licking hot coals in Tartaurus than here taking my order.

"Umm... do you guys serve a Full Trot?"

"A what?"

I cough, starting to feel very awkward. "A Full Trottingham breakfast? A fry-up? Veggie sausages, hay bacon, tofu scramble, fried tomatoes, hash browns, mushrooms and toast? Most places offer it with baked beans, but I don't really like them so I go without."

You ever find yourself halfway through a sentence, realise that said sentence is going on for too long, but find yourself unable to stop talking so you just kind of... trudge the rest of the way? Yep, that was me just then. And when I'm done, all I can do is answer her withering glare with a sheepish grin.

"So, you want a regular breakfast?" she asks. "We can do a regular breakfast, no need to break it down for me again. But I'm guessing from that there fancy accent of yours that you'll be wanting a cup of tea with it?"

My stomach churns. "Umm, actually I'll pass, thanks. I'm not always good at adhering to those stereotypes, in fact I don't really like tea at all. Do you guys do energy drinks here?"

She tilts her head towards the bar. Behind the beer taps, I see a large fridge with a transparent door. Inside are rows of bright-coloured cans, stacked in neat rows for the world to see. My mouth salivates on cue. Doctor Pavtrot may have been famous for studying dogs, but I could make a convincing argument that his research can be applied to most sentient quadrupeds. If only to make myself feel less guilty for going weak at the knees at the prospect of a good hit of chilled, fruity caffeine.

"One can of Crazy Lychee, please."

"Crazy Lychee, right away," she mumbles.

The mare returns the notepad and pen to her apron pocket. Then she turns on her hooves, and heads toward the bar with an air of indifference that seemed almost palpable. And, to be frank, a little bit insulting. By all means, come back and smack me in the face if you wish to punish me for the cheek of existing. Oh, and should you so desire, let me splay myself across the table. Then you may deliver ten lashings across my back, lest I dare ponder the possibility of insulting you once more by expecting to be fed at your restaurant.

Pre-caffeine, my mind goes to some weird places.

As my thoughts wander, I tuck my tail under myself and feel a light strain on my neck as my ears wiggle around above me. Something that ponies with their teeny tiny ears don't have to worry about? How the weight balance on your head can shift around, when larger ears subconsciously start picking up on different conversations around a crowded room. One time, I think in Whinnyapolis, I was minding my own business in a little café when some mares at a table next to me started discussing their coltfriends. Specifically, and with little care about the possibility of being overheard by creatures around them, their coltfriends' 'dimensions'. Almost gave myself whiplash with that one.

It's awkward as well. Imagine you're the one having a conversation, and then you look around. Even if I'm not looking at you, my ear is. Well, not looking at you per se, although I did freak out some stallion in a Chineighse restaurant by putting pairs of googly eyes on each eartip. In my defense, I was very drunk on baijiu at the time. But like, when I'm facing forward and my whole ear is facing you. Like it's leaning in to ask for an interview. Folks tend to notice that. Every single one of those ponies must know what it's like to deal with selective hearing, but without big ears like mine they at least can hide it. I don't get the benefit of subtlety.

Today, my ears are more awake than I am. There's a lot of noise here. Clinking cutlery, rowdy fillies and colts, conversations of varying topic and volume, and at one point there's a loud smashing as a plate falls to the floor. At that last one in particular, I have to remember where I am and suppress the urge to cheer and erupt into raucous applause. Don't ask. All the while, my ears dance around above me, without any conscious input on my part, as they pick up on different sounds. I know from experience that while the straining on my neck makes it feels like the movements are big and exaggerated, an outside observer would only see subtle shifts in angle and orientation. No matter how much I tell myself this, my ear movements always make me feel self-conscious.

Reaching up with a hoof, I push my glasses back into place on the bridge of my muzzle as a light huff escapes my nostrils. A roaring fireplace against one wall accounts for the cosy warmth of the room. But I can't wrap my head around how the bedrooms above can be so cold, when there's such a strong source of heat right below them. Whoever built this place probably didn't know the first thing about thermal insulation. To be fair though, I don't know the first thing about thermal insulation either.

Gotta love having a mind that wanders easily. As my eyes drift upwards to the ceiling, a loud thud hits the table in front of me. I near-enough fall out of my seat in surprise. Looking down, I see the waitress has plonked down a colourful can right between my front hooves. And done so with pretty much all the love, care and affection I've come to expect from the ponies in this town. I give a nod of appreciation, as she turns to walk away without a word.

"Alright, good talk," I whisper to myself.

The can pops open with a musical hiss that grabs the attention of both my ears. Easy, girls, give me a bloody chance. Talking of whiplash. When the first droplets of fruity fizzy liquid run down my throat, my senses come alive with a small wave of energy that rushes up through me. I raise the can higher, gulping down mouthful after mouthful of lychee-flavoured caffeine until my lungs begin to protest. Returning the now half-empty can back to the table, I smack my lips in satisfaction as my nostrils flare with heavy breaths.

"Ahh..." I murmur, feeling a goofy smirk spread across my face. "Normal again."

Before too long, the cheerful waitress graces me with her presence again, this time carrying a tray on her back. Deftly reaching around with a hoof, she transfers a steaming plate from the tray to the table in front of me. Cutlery, wrapped in a neat little napkin, follows suit, as does a mug of steaming brown liquid.

"Regular breakfast," she announces in a monotonous tone, as if reciting a script. "Comes with a coffee. Enjoy."

One of my eyebrows rises of its own accord as I watch her walk away. Now, don't get me wrong, food service must be a thankless job. Wait, what am I saying, 'must be'? I bloody well know it's a downright awful job, I've done it a few times in a few cities. Just, you know, times on my travels where I've needed a few extra bits. And if she was serving a customer with attitude, fair enough, but I've at least tried to be polite to her. Unless she can read my mind and see exactly what I think about this town, there's nothing I've done that would call for this kind of treatment.

Wait. Earth ponies can't read minds, can they?

A grumble from my tummy draws my attention downwards, and my eyes fall upon the plate. Okay, attitude problems with the front-of-house staff aside, this breakfast looks amazing. Hay bacon curls around the edges of the plate, framing the veggie sausages that bear some fine looking grill marks. A large mound of scrambled tofu, with some textbook hues of golden brown, nestles itself between hash browns, slices of mushrooms sautéed to perfection, and toasted bread positively dripping with melted butter. I reach for the ketchup.

In a flurry of movement, and an orchestra of ringing fork tines and knife scraping, the breakfast disappears. I'm not sure it even touches the sides of my throat. And come to think of it, I'm not even one hundred percent certain if I stop to breathe at any point. The bacon is the right balance of fatty and crunchy, the sausages just as tasty inside as they look outside, the hash browns are crispy, and the mushrooms balance it all out with earthy tasting goodness. And the whole lot gets washed down with further glugs of Crazy Lychee. A bit of sweetness on top of the savoury never hurt anycreature, right?

The coffee goes cold though. To be fair, I never exactly asked for it, and I don't particularly like it. If other (and better tasting) sources of caffeine are available, coffee will always be sidelined. That being said, I'm not above drinking it if I need the pick-me-up. This jenny has standards. They aren't high, but I've got them.

By the time I finish, leaning back in my chair and suppressing a belch, the breakfast rush must have passed its peak. The room seems a little quieter than it had been before. The bustle has ebbed, or at least it appears that way. A few less tables are occupied now, and those that still have ponies sat at them are engaging in conversation that is a bit more subdued. Less din to have to shout over, methinks. Funny how that works. One stallion in a booth, sat reading a newspaper, casts a glance in my direction as I push my empty plate aside. Our eyes meet for a fraction of a second before we both look away. I hate when that happens. Now I have to not look at that side of the room at all, or else I risk looking like a maniac.

The rest of my time in the restaurant area passes by pretty much on par with how it had gone so far. Stoic waitress brings me the bill. I spend an awkward thirty seconds trying to hook onto my saddlebag with a hind hoof. Realise it's in vain and I'll have to get down off the lofty stool to reach my bag of bits. Stubbornly try again anyway, straining at full stretch to hook a leg around a loop of my bag. Still can't manage it. Try to lower myself off the stool without making a complete twat of myself. Fall off the stool, indisputably making a complete twat of myself. Place a small pile of bits on the table. Don my saddlebag, pulling the straps into place. Leave, ears folded backwards against my shoulders and probably looking as red as a beetroot.

Yep, I'm a classy gal.

The cool morning air bites at my pelt as I step outside. I imagine that somewhere, in a place that isn't Hoofington, it's quite a warm and pleasant day. However, and to my best guess as a result of being literally in the perpetual shadow of Cloudsdale, it's fucking freezing here. No sense in waiting around then. The clatter of my hooves echoes around the narrow streets as I set off at a brisk walk. They join a chorus of other hoofsteps from the citizens of the little township. Noises that are largely drowned out by the sound of my own teeth chattering. The ebbing bustle from the restaurant appears to have merely migrated outside. All around me, quaint little shops have sprung open their doors and extended colourful awnings that had been shut when I'd first arrived.

Maybe I'd been a bit harsh in my judgements last night, regarding the town and its inhabitants. It actually seems alright in the light of day. As they do so enjoy doing, my ears perk this way and that above me. Snippets of jovial conversation from shopfronts and ponies passing by catch their attention. Given that donkeys aren't the most common sight when travelling around Equestria, I draw a fair few eyes as I pass by. Not that I'm going to judge them, I'm used to it at this point. Though as I'd learned in my early days of travel, it isn't the big ears that they notice. Nor is it the long, tasselled tail that you might more often associate with lions and griffons. It isn't even the large cross-shaped pattern on my back and shoulders. No, it's my lack of a cutie mark.

In short: not having my arse tattooed is something that marks me as an unusual sight. Such is life.

Following the signs that lead out of town, eventually the buildings become spaced further apart. Cobbled roads widen, and soon I find myself passing large gardens and grassy parks. Finally, the hick town gives way to open countryside, and in the distance in front of me I can see the long, low roofline of a train station. Cloudsdale Junction, as it is formally known, even though it links both towns. Its primary function is to serve the pegasi that need to travel long distance, but don't really like flying long distance. Which, judging from the steady stream of winged bodies descending from the sky, is a lot of them. A line of chariot taxis also sits out the front, and I see one lift off in the direction of the cloud city. Non-pegasi I guess? Or lazy pegasi. If it's the former, I hope they know cloud-walking magic. Otherwise the town below might be treated to some unexpected packages dropping from above.

More or less as I expected, when I step out from Cloudsdale's shadow into direct sunlight, the air temperature rises. I'm able to both slow my gait and bring my chattering teeth under control. By the time I cross the open, clear stretch of pathway between Hoofington and the station, I'm no longer cold. In fact, a bead of sweat trickles down my forehead. It's uncharacteristically warm for an autumn day. What the bloody hell are the pegasi up to? Awfully convenient little coincidence there. The one race that bears the most capability in dictating weather patterns? It somehow manages to have perfect weather around their main city hub.

My glasses fog up again as I step into the shaded canopy outside the front of the station. Not enough to blind me. Just annoying enough that the little voice in the back of my mind won't shut up until I do something about it, though. With both ears twitching in irritation, I reach up and wipe at the lenses with a fetlock. A dusty fetlock, as it turns out, as it leaves behind a grim looking splat of dirt and grime.

"Oh for fucks sake," I groan, reaching up and pulling the glasses off of my muzzle.

I am now, for all intents and purposes, blind. The world around me is a blurry mass, resembling a vague oil painting. So I make to step up against a nearby wall, out of the way of any passers-by. And it is at this point that a blurry purple mass steps past, giving a disapproving 'hmph' noise in the process. For a split-second, I'm confused as to why the distasteful attitude. That is, until she (I'm just assuming a she by the sound of her voice) is followed by two equally purple but much smaller purple masses. Ah. Swearing in front of foals, my bad. Here's hoping they're getting a different train out of here.

I fumble around for a few seconds in one of the outer pockets of my saddlebag. Retrieving a microfibre cloth that I keep accessible for emergencies such as this, I set to work. It takes a little while. Alternating between rubs with the cloth and holding the lenses up to the light to inspect yields little in the way of cleaning. I have to resort to also pulling out a little spray bottle of cleaning fluid, which finally does the trick. Though I frown when, after putting the cloth and spray away and returning my glasses back onto my muzzle, one lens is sharper and clearer than the other. I resolve to clean the other, once I'm on my train.

With a brief consultation of the schedule framed on the outside of the station building, I find the long distance service I'm looking for. Terminal station at Canterlot, with stops along the way at Feathernest and Ponyville. Checking the timetable and looking at the large clock hanging by the main doorway, I can see I only have a short fifteen minute wait before the next train arrives. Plenty of time to buy a ticket and have a sit down at my platform. I head inside and make for the ticket office.

Despite travelling for a few years now, I've never actually been to Canterlot. A city famed for prestige, with elegant architecture and a level of sophistication that, to be honest, I have no place in. But it's somewhere I've always at least wanted to visit. If for no other reason than to cross it off the bucket list of places I've seen. And you know, for a giggle, know that my being there knocks the average net-worth of creatures inside the city down by a significant margin. I'm often among the poorest creatures in any place I've been, but I've never been the poorest. New experience, sounds like a laugh. But then I can say I've done it, and move along to the next thing.

The station building is a curious blend of rustic and modern aesthetic. A middle ground between the quaint, old-worldy charm of Hoofington and the striking brutality of Cloudsdale. It makes for quite a nice place to wait for a train. Though not to knock the hard work and effort of the architects, the only thing that concerns me about train stations is whether the toilet facilities are sanitary. With my lips pursed as I exited, shaking a short length of toilet paper off of a back hoof, I rate it at a three out of a possible ten on the cleanliness scale. I resolve to get on with my day.

Descending into the tunnels between platforms as a non-stopping express raced through the station, I can't help but allow a bubble of excitement to build up inside me. Canterlot, oh my days, I'm finally going there. Sure, I won't be able to afford so much as an entrée in even the most financially accessible restaurants to outsiders. And I will probably end up having to put my tent up somewhere I can get away with stealth camping. But to finally be able to see the crown jewel of Equestrian cities will make it all worth it. Like, literally the crown jewel, it's where the Royal Castle is. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that you can take tours on certain days, but I'm kinda happy to rock up and find out for myself. The allure of the unknown, and all that rubbish.

I emerge out onto a semi-crowded platform. Expectant ponies stand up along the 'Don't Cross This Line' line in anticipation of an imminent train. Among the crowd I see a purple mare travelling with a filly and a colt, both of whom possess a similar purple colouring to their mother. On spotting this, I turn tail and head for the opposite, but also crowded, end of the platform. All the benches are occupied, standing room only. Lovely. However, luck turns in my favour as a train whistle sounds in the distance, rousing the crowd of ponies on this platform even further. Less than two minutes after stepping hoof on this platform, my train is pulling in. Very well timed, if I do say so myself.

It's quite a long train with plenty of carriages, so I'm able to find an unoccupied window seat pretty much straight away. I pull the straps off of my saddlebag, retrieving the microfibre cloth and cleaning spray before tucking it under the seat and settling down. By the time I've cleaned both of the lenses on my glasses to a sharp, high fidelity level, the train has given a gentle rumble as it pulls out of the station. Re-donning the glasses, I'm able to watch as the distant monolith of Cloudsdale passes by, stationary and hovering over the dark shapes of Hoofington. Jeez, I really hope the cloud city diverts sewage away to anywhere besides straight down. And then an awful thought occurs to me: what is in those rainbow waterfalls?

Sadly, this dreadful contemplation is interrupted by something worse. Like, much worse. In this half empty carriage, full of many empty pairs of seats, a bulky stallion decides that the one next to me is his best option. I am outraged by this indignity, so I do the only thing a jenny in my situation could do: awkwardly shuffle closer to the window without saying a word. And as I lean down to put the cloth and spray back in my saddlebag, the worst happens. The stallion notices me.

"Well hey there," he coos, giving me a wry smirk. "Where's a pretty filly like yourself heading today?"

I scoff, and turn away from him.

"Hey hey, no need to be so hostile, I'm just trying to make conversation."

"Conversation?" I laugh, staring at his reflection the glass as his front hooves rise in a placating gesture. "Well then let me start by correcting you. It's jenny, not filly. I'm a donkey, you see the ears?"

He clears his throat. "Well I beg your pardon, it's a pleasure to meet you, Jenny. And what a lovely name that is, might I add."

A distinctive twitch in my ears pulls the weight of my head around as my eyes roll upwards. "No, no, that's not my name. Jenny is the word for a female donkey, in the same way you might call a female pony by the word mare."

"Alright then, little jenny, what is your name?"

I turn to face him, taking in his hulking frame, bristled face, and mane full of grey hairs. And grimacing at his stale breath. "None of your bloody business, that's what my name is. And I feel like I should probably add: it's super creepy for a stallion of your age to be going around, introducing yourself to a stranger and calling them a 'pretty filly'."

The stallion chuckled, a low rumble that echoed in the quiet carriage in a way that only doubled down on the creep factor. "Touché, little miss. Sorry for the misunderstanding there. Just thought I'd strike up a friendly chat, you know?"

I narrow my eyes, not buying into his attempt at charm at all. "Friendly chat, huh? Doesn't seem all that friendly to me, invading a stranger's space."

"Fair point. My apologies for barging in. Was hoping to pass the time on this long ride, and that accent of yours is too darn adorable to resist. But if you'd rather have some peace and quiet, I can respect that."

"Well first, it's not that long of a ride. And second, as a matter of fact, I would much rather have peace and quiet."

He nods. "Got it. No more chatter from me."

For a few awkward minutes, there is silence between us. The train accelerates faster and faster, leaving Cloudsdale junction far behind us. Rhythmic clitter-clacking of metal wheels against the tracks grows in speed and intensity. The landscape passes by with great haste, rolling hills in the distance traversing slowly as trees by the side of the rails whizz by in a green blur. I actually dare to relax. No stranger to creeps, I've found they rarely sit in quiet acceptance after being put in their place. All they have to do is sit there, keep their hooves to themselves and their mouths shut. But that's often too much to ask. With my gaze still fixated out the window, I begin to reach down towards my saddlebag with a slow hoof. My eyes watch the passing terrain as I make for the travel journal I keep in one pocket of the bag. Sadly, the stallion's mouth opens again.

"Say, little jenny," he begins, his tone shifting towards faux-apologetic. "I couldn't help but notice your gear. Traveling alone?"

My eyes clench shut as a colourful assortment of curse words flash through my mind. "Yeah, I am. And I prefer it that way."

The words were out, before I could process what an idiotic thing it was for me to say. I don't know this dude. I sure as heck know better than to blurt out the fact I'm a lone traveller to strange stallions taking a keen, disturbing interest in me. Why the fuck do I always speak before I think?

"But I... err... I'm meeting with some friends when I get off the train," I say, hoping the obvious lie is only obvious to people with more brain cells than him.

"Oh is that a fact? You going far then?"

"What's it to you?"

"Making conversation."

"And I'd like to end that conversation, please."

He holds up his hooves again. "Fine, fine, no offence intended."

I cross my hooves and turn to face the window again.

"Canterlot's a fine city, if that's where you're heading."

Hoping he'll take the hint, I don't reply.

"Well, if you're ever looking for a guide or some company, I know Canterlot like the back of my hoof. Been there more times than I can count. Happy to help out a pretty little jenny such as yourself," he says, failing to take the hint.

"Thanks, but I'll manage fine."

"You sure? I've been told I'm a pretty swell guide."

"Adamant. No thank you."

"I'm especially good at guided tours of what's between my legs."

Nope. "Right, I've had enough of this," I declare, rising to my hooves. "Creepy old perverts like you make me sick, and I'm out of here. Don't follow me, or I'll have to guide a potted cactus between your legs, and if you don't take the hint I'll do so without lube. Got it?"

The ferocity of my outburst takes him by surprise. He sits bolt upright in his seat with a horrified expression as I barge my way past. Pausing, I lean back across the seats, grabbing my saddlebag from under the chair. I make to walk away, but halt myself a second time. One more thing.

"Oh, and by the way, learn what a fucking toothbrush is. Honestly, your breath smells like Discord's nutsack."

I twirl on the spot, my saddlebag splaying outwards with the momentum and smacking him hard against his muzzle. Judging my the metallic clatter my bag makes, I think I nailed him with my coin pouch. I don't look back. I march forward, satisfied by the crashing sound of his skull against the window. His moans of pain follow, as several of the other passengers in this carriage shoot me looks of sympathy.

"Oh don't look sorry for me," I chastise. "None of you were very quick to jump to my rescue now, were you?"

Judging by the pained looks of guilt and shame, especially on the various stallions, that struck the right nerve. I made my way downtrain, leaving the carriage behind and passing through a dining car, before I reach another passenger carriage. This one is much emptier, with only a pair of chatting unicorns and a lone pegasus engrossed in a book. I grimace as I recognise the infamous cover, 'Fifty Shades of Hay'. Well, if it keeps his attention, then it could be the bloody Kama Hoofta for all I care. Finding another empty window seat, I make a second attempt to settle down for the journey ahead.

The next hour passes in comparative ease. When the train stops in Feathernest, only a few ponies enter the carriage. Thankfully all of them see the common sense in finding vacant pairs of seats, leaving me in peace. After we set off again, I take some time to flick through my travel journal, scribbling down some notes and observations about Hoofington. And actually, if I can figure out who to talk to about cloud-walking magic, I would quite like to come see Cloudsdale for an proper visit. Up close. Not just my view from the morning, being subjected to the sight of its taint from below.

I'm in the process of smirking to myself at my own brevity, when a sudden jolt rocks the entire carriage. Deafening, metallic screeches reverberate through my skull, and my hooves race to my ears to cover them. Dropping my journal in the process. As the momentum of the slowing train thrusts me forward, my head collides with the back of the seat in front of me. To put it in simple terms: ouch.

As the the screeching noise abates, I glance out the window to see the train has drawn to a complete stop, the passing scenery frozen in place. We're currently somewhere in a dense forest. Tentatively, I inch one hoof away from an ear, and am relieved to find that no more screeching noises can be heard. Yeah, ponies don't seem to appreciate how much more sensitive big ears like mine can be to high pitched noises. The screeching brakes just now? That hurt my eardrums about as much as the tray table hurt my cranium. Thank fuck it was stowed away, if I'd had it flat and unfolded, I'd have bust a rib as I crashed into it.

The carriage, previously a din of conversation, rattling and rumbling, is eerie in the silence that follows. My fellow passengers murmur and mumble among themselves, posing questions and theories about our predicament to each other. In the distance, I hear a loud steamy hiss. From the engine, I assume.

My assumption is confirmed a few minutes later when a conductor proceeds through our carriage. He announces a mechanical issue with the locomotive, one that needs a bit of time to try to rectify. I let out a resigned sigh, and rise to my hooves.

"Excuse me, mate," I call out to the conductor, causing him to stop in the doorway leading to the next carriage behind us.

"As I've explained, Miss, we're sorry about the delay," he reiterates, turning back to me. "We'll be back under way as soon as we can."

I nod. "Yeah, yeah, that's fine and all. I was just wondering where we are? Like, how far from the next stop."

The conductor straightens up, letting the door close behind him as he turns to address me. "Well according to the driver, we've stopped just before the three-mile marker on the approach to Ponyville."

"Three miles, huh?" I muse aloud, my gaze drifting to the distant horizon as I mull over the distance. "That's closer than I thought."

"Yes, Miss," he confirms, his tone maintaining a gentle patience that I can recognise as being well-rehearsed.

"So what if I wanted to walk the rest of the way?"

His measured façade slips for a moment; there is a subtle widening of his eyes, and a momentary pause, before he composes himself to respond. "Umm... well, I guess if you wanted to, there's a road alongside this section of track that leads straight into town. But, I'm sure we'll be moving again any minute now, if you'd rather ride the rest of the way."

I tilt my head, letting my ears loll to one side as I mull over the options laid before me. "Nah, I'm good," I reply with a casual wave of a hoof. "I'll sort myself out, it's still a nice day outside. Walking will be nicer. A bit of fresh air, it'll do me some good I reckon."

It elicits some strange looks as I grab my saddlebag and move to the door. To be honest, I'm surprised none of the pegasi join me. First, it's only a few miles outside town, not exactly a marathon distance. And it's not like they’d get lost on the way, all you have to do is follow the tracks and you're there. Second, I've done more than my fair share of cross-country rail travel. I happen to know that 'any minute now' is industry slang, roughly translating to 'an undetermined period of time ranging from several hours to ten working days'. Sit around waiting? Bollocks to that. If I'm gonna be stuck waiting anywhere, and the options are either a train in the middle of nowhere, or a town with a pub? Well, it's an easy decision.

I stick my head out of the door, breathing in the forest air. A moist, earthy scent intermixed with the distinct aroma of pine needles. Tossing my saddlebag to the ground, I turn around and descend the short ladder built into the side of the train car. My hooves touch damp grass. Huh, it's bright and sunny out, so we must have missed a rain front. Some pegasi weather scheduling in my favour might well have saved me from getting soaked on this walk.

Hauling my saddlebag into place on my back, I tighten the straps and make my way to the small gravel road besides the rails. My hooves cause it to crunch as I take my first steps on it. Well, if the train was heading towards town, the locomotive end will be pointing in the right direction. I set off, counting carriages as I go past them. From inside, many curious faces gaze out at me. By the time I pass carriage number seven, the sounds of gravel underhoof become interspersed with a distant, consistent clinking of metal against metal from somewhere up ahead.

Squinting in the mid-morning sunlight, I see the locomotive with smoke still pouring out of the funnel and steam gushing from pipes all along the length of it. Atop it, several engineers clad in blue overalls huddle around some kind of inspection hatch. They seem engaged in what looks to be a meticulous inspection. One of them is leaning into the hatch, half of his body venturing into the bowels of the locomotive while only his hind legs stick out. The others confer with each other in low tones, likely discussing the issue at hoof. At least, I hope they are. When one of them is halfway inside a boiling death machine, it's not exactly the best time to start discussing hoofball results, is it?

Still, I walk with caution as the path draws near the engine. Luckily I can confirm that I've never been in the vicinity of one of these metal goliaths going kaboom, but I've seen pictures of the aftermath. It ain't pretty. So when I get closer and see metal hatches open along the side, bearing its innards to the outside world, I can't help but walk with a smidge more hesitation. A whoosh of steam erupts from a valve, causing me to stumble and let out a yelp.

"It's alright, ma'am," one of the engineers calls out. "It normally looks worse than it is. You walking into town then?"

"Yeah, didn't fancy waiting," I shout back. "Should I go to the station when I get there, see if they want to send anycreature to help out?"

The engineer laughs. "Well I hope it doesn't come to that, but if you beat us there, we'd appreciate it for sure!"

I can't help but marvel at his nonchalance, but I guess it's his day job. This probably isn't an unusual situation for him. Not wanting to interrupt their work any further, I set off at a brisk walk down the road, heading for town. The sounds of tools against metalwork and the discussions between engineers fade into the distance behind me as I walk onwards. With the sun on my back, a cool breeze rolling across me, and the foresty scents tickling at my nose, all in all it makes for a rather pleasant atmosphere. A lovely day for a stroll in the woods.

"Welp, Ponyville here I come, I guess."