• 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 II - Keep Plodding Onwards

'Three miles' my arse.

According to the Ogres & Oubliettes Players Handbook (Fifth Edition), a 'Normal' walking speed assumes your distance travelled in an hour to be roughly three miles. Or two miles if you want to travel slow and stealthy, and four miles if you're in a hurry and want to rush. But if you do rush, you take a minus five penalty to Perception rolls. Luckily, donkeys get the benefit of the Auditory Alertness racial feature. This makes us immune to such penalties, and also grants us advantage on any Perception checks that rely upon hearing. Git dem ears, scrub.

Why yes, I was a total dork as a teenager. However did you guess?

What's even more embarrassing, though, is how long it takes me to clock onto the fact that something is wrong. I don't help myself, really. Even though I only had breakfast a few hours ago, I feel peckish again already. I figure I can walk at a brisk pace. That way I can get to Ponyville in under an hour, then find a café and have a sandwich or something until I can figure out a Plan B to the current train situation. Maybe the speedy semi-trot and my culinary desires skew my sense of time? It's made worse by the fact I don't even own a watch, so the only measure of time I actually have is the sun's position in the sky.

Yep, it sure is up there.

It shines down with an air of smugness as I walk quickly. Golden rays that dance through the leaves of the trees around me, and reflect off of the railway tracks in a rather painful manner. Aggressive, piercing light that forces me to squint as I walk. So I breathe a sigh of relief as the path I'm walking on diverges away from the rails. For a moment, this concerns me. Being led away from the one directional reference I have, across meandering terrain. Soon however, the trail reaches a signposted crossroads. And sure enough, the sign pointing the way I came from reads 'Feathernest'. The sign marked 'Ponyville' points to my right, and I set off again in that direction.

The path twists, turns, rises and falls. Dense woodland occasionally gives way to sprawling fields. Birds chirp in relentless melodies overhead, which normally I would appreciate. But today it only serves to irritate me after my unrequested early-morning wake-up call. It being the earliest throes of autumn, the leaves still cling to the trees, but there's a distinct discolouration to the vibrant greens that should be present. And there are a few early risers... or should that be 'fallers'... dotted around the roots of some of the largest trees. Wait, is that why some creatures call it Fall instead of Autumn? A few of the leaves skitter across the path in the gentle breeze. If I'd done this walk in the middle of summer, I'd be driven to paralysis by hay fever right about now, so days like this I can actually appreciate the scenery.

Yes, I suffer from hay fever. Like, really bad hay fever. It's worst between May and August, and I can't begin to describe how nightmarish it can be. Anycreature who has the cheek to make a molehill out of a mountain by calling it 'the sniffles' can fuck right off. Come talk to me when you sneeze yourself into rigor mortis. You'll probably find me hiding in a dark room, plugging my nostrils with wet wipes.

It's around the point I'm thinking about this annual botanical bukkake, that my mind starts to consider two options. Either an hour is a lot longer than I expected, or three miles is a lot further than I remember. Maybe it feels longer and further because of unfamiliar terrain? Yeah, the chirping of crickets is soothing and all. And when I pass by the weir of a small stream, the gurgling of water makes a calming backdrop for me, to sit and have a few refreshing sips from my drinking bottle. But honestly, by this point I must have been walking for at least an hour, and I can't see any sign of Ponyville. The path hasn't diverged since the crossroads. No side roads or offshoots I could have taken a wrong turn at. How much further can this bloody town be?

Not long after I set off again, the terrain becomes even more hilly. And lucky me, the path heads straight upwards at a steep grade. So, logic dictates that I will crest this hill, and at last the town of Ponyville should come into view right in front of me. Right?

Oh look, there goes another flock of flying pigs.

When I reach the top of the hill, and Ponyville stubbornly fails to reveal itself, I feel my ears fall level with the side of my head as I stamp a front hoof. Ahead of me: more fucking hills. The path stretches out, following the peaks and dips of the terrain like Equestria's shittest rollercoaster. Country roads, take me to the nearest pub already. Seriously, I could use something cold and alcoholic right now. Then my ears perk up again as a shrill whistle sounds across the sprawling countryside. A very familiar sounding whistle. Looks like the engineers won't need me to send them a rescue party after all.

"Oh goody goody gumdrops," I mutter to the winds. "Should have stayed on the fucking train, shouldn't I?"

The next few hours pass by in an imperceptible haze. While I had been able to maintain the swift pace for a while, the precipitous terrain and the prolonged journey has sapped a good chunk of my energy. And even with my lacklustre meteorological judgement, I can quite clearly see that the sun sits much lower in the sky than it had when I'd disembarked the train. Fuck everything, Canterlot can wait for all I care, just get me to any form of civilisation already. I don't mind being out in nature if I'm at least prepared for it, but this wasn't the plan at all. Each step gets heavier than the last. My saddlebag becomes a dull weight on my back. I stop several times for water, and even pull out a small bag of trail mix when I feel my energy levels are starting to struggle. Just bringing hooffuls of the dried fruits to my mouth becomes an arduous task.

Mercifully, after what I can only describe as a 'slighty fuzzy' length of time, I arrive. Clambering to the top of one more hill, a picturesque little township finally has the decency to show itself through a parting in the trees below. Where was it several hours ago? The absolute cheek, turning up on the road this late and expecting things to be copacetic between the two of us. It better have somewhere with decent food and some strong liquor, or I might have to rethink whether or not it's even a place I want to be.

I may have gone a teeny bit loopy in my agitation.

That being said, the sight of the town on the horizon does rejuvenate me. I draw closer and details become clearer, as colourful rooftops become distinct from each other. Landmarks become visible too, such as a rounded rooftop that rises high above surrounding cottages. The town hall I guess? I start to see individual shapes of town-goers as well, small blobs among the distant buildings, going about their lives in the warm late-afternoon sun. My fatigue begins to ease off, overshadowed by the prospect of finding an establishment capable of pouring me a cold pint. My stomach rumbles too at the thought, and I make a mental note that nourishment should also join intoxication on my list of personal priorities. This jenny needs nutrients.

Though my ongoing travel plans also linger in the forefront of my mind. And as if to illustrate this, guess what else comes into view? Canterlot. I knew from my readings that the whole city perches on the side of a cliff, but I had no idea that you can actually see it from Ponyville. The whole-ass mountain sits right behind the little town, like a daunting sentinel. And there, clear as daylight hanging off of one side like a dingleberry of white marble, is the capital of Equestia. Taunting me with its inaccessible proximity. So close but yet so far. I really need a pint of something strong now.

One thing at a time. When I finally arrive at the edge of the town, I spot railway tracks again. My gaze follows them off to one side, and just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away I can see a small building with a single platform. I still need food and booze before I'm ready to move on from this place. But, with the station literally a stone's throw away right now, I figure I may as well go get the low-down on my onward travel options first. Though I get closer, and there's nocreature in sight.

"Hello?" I call out as I step up onto the platform.

A stallion in a blue uniform pokes his head out the window of a small booth, shooting me a polite smile. "Why hello there! Anything I can help with, ma'am?"

"Yeah, uhh... I think a train came through here a while ago, heading to Canterlot from Cloudsdale Junction?"

"It certainly did," the stallion nods. "Well, from that route, we've had several come through today."

That is... not helpful. I bite my lip as I try to formulate a suitable follow-up question.

"Wait a sec," the stallion continues, narrowing his eyes at me. "You don't mean the train that broke down for a while, do you?"

"Yeah, that's the badger."

He blinks, inclining his head. "Badger? What badger?"

Oh yeah, different lingo around here. "Sorry, it's just an expression from back home. What I mean to say is: yes, that's the train I'm referring to."

"Ah, I see," he says, letting a chuckle of awkwardness slip out before he clears his throat. "Yes, that train passed through around two hours ago."

Two hours?! Fuck me sideways. My shoulders sag and my ears droop to full slump, flopping against either side of my head.

"Come to think of it, the engineer did mention a donkey who had decided to walk the rest of the way after the breakdown. He asked me to send his apologies."

"Meh, I gambled on them not getting it fixed before I made it here, and I lost. Shit happens."

"Yes, well, err... that's not what he asked me to apologise for. He said that he told the conductor that the train had been forced to stop three miles outside town, but then it turned out that he misread the mile marker sign."

Eh? "...what do you mean, he misread the sign?"

"Apparently it was actually mile marker number thirteen."

My back legs give out and I fall to my haunches as the words hit me. "Are you... are you saying that I just walked thirteen miles to get here?"

"Yes ma'am."

Well, at least there's a legitimate explanation to why that took so long. It wasn't my perception of time, nor was it my judgement of distance. No, the engineer misread the sign, causing the conductor to pass bad information on to me. If I'd known that the actual walk was three and a bit times further than had been promised, I would have stayed on the damn train. For fucks sake. No point shouting and screaming about it, though, not when I could be drowning my frustrations. Methinks my plans for quantities of alcohol need to be doubled down on.

"Well," I say, maintaining a calm composure in my voice. "What's done is done, I suppose. Did they say what the problem was anyway?”

“Apparently the driver dropped his pocket watch and it slipped through a grate in the floor. They had to stop so suddenly because it might have caused some serious damage if it got pinched into the wrong place.”

I frown. “Right. Of course they did." Clumsy wankers. "So, when's the next train to Canterlot?"

"Not until tomorrow morning, I'm afraid. But your ticket should still be valid."

"Ah. Wonderful." Oh bugger.

"Oh! And I just remembered. The conductor left this here, he said he believes it belongs to you, ma'am."

The stallion's head disappears back into his booth. It emerges a few moments later, followed by his hoof. Held aloft in it is... my travel journal? How the fuck did that get... oh, wait. I dropped it, didn't I? When the train screeched to a halt. I had to cover my ears to block out the sound of the braking, but in my haste to get off the train and start walking into town, I'd completely forgotten to pick it up again. Damn, the last few years of my life are detailed in that thing, and I hadn't even realised I'd lost it. Pretty decent of the conductor to make sure it got back to me.

"Thanks," I say, taking the journal back. "So, what time's the first train tomorrow?"

"To Canterlot? Nine in the morning, Miss. It's only a small town here you see, services aren't that frequent, but there'll be a few others during the day if you miss the first one."

I nod. "Well, I'm pretty hungry after that walk. Don't suppose you have any recommendations for places to eat?"

"If you've got a sweet tooth, make a beeline for Sugarcube Corner. You won't regret it."

He gives me directions to what he describes as 'the best bakery this side of the Everfree' and wishes me a good afternoon. Apparently it's a very distinct building that is impossible to miss, whatever that's supposed to mean. Following the frustrating revelations regarding the local rail network, I figure that ambling through the new town will be a welcome distraction. I'm pretty surprised, as I go to leave the station, to see the time on a clock hanging from the wall. Half past five in the afternoon. Jeez, where did the day go?

It's only a short trudge from the station, and it takes me through a market square. Dozens upon dozens of ponies wander the cobbled streets, going about their business. Market stalls sit in neat rows, though it being near the end of the business day, their stock levels are all running on the low side. Even with the market winding down, the energy is still palpable. Ponies roam about, some haggling for the last of the day's produce as others appear to simply be enjoying the last hour of sunshine for the day. A few vendors pack up their stalls, giving me friendly 'good afternoon's as I pass by. It's a lively atmosphere for such a quaint little town.

More often than not, I can get a good feel for the vibes of a town within the first few minutes. As is the same with most places I go where us donkeys are a rare sight, I draw some attention. But it's less a 'squeal, jenny, squeal' kind of vibe, and more of a polite curiosity. It's hard to put my hoof on, but... I dunno, I just get a good feeling about this place. Making my way through twee streets, there's an undeniable warmth in the air. And I don't mean from body odour, though that's probably my bad. It's not just the gentle rays of the setting sun, but a feeling that permeates the very essence of the sleepy little town.

Passersby offer genuine smiles, and a few even nod in greeting, their gestures a silent but reassuring welcome. I catch snippets of conversations as I walk by: two mares discussing their latest gardening projects, a group of fillies eagerly planning a weekend adventure to try to earn their cutie marks, and even some stallions loudly debating the best pie recipes. It's a symphony of everyday life, and my ears jerk this way and that as they pick up on every detail of it. I find I don't even notice the aching in my legs. In fact, I'm pleasantly surprised for the turn of events that excreted me into this little slice of nowhere-in-particular.

I've experienced opposite ends of the spectrum, when it comes to arriving in a new place. Small tribal villages in Indoneighsia that treat every new arrival like royalty, adorning you with trinkets, praise, and honestly some of the best food I've ever had in my life. It's classy treatment, yeah, but it feels... ostensible? Conversely, there's pretty much any tumbleweed town in the Buffalo Lands. Know that cliché of walking through a saloon door, and everycreature inside turns silent and shoots you a death glare? Yeah, you can call it a cliché all you want, but trust me. It isn't fun having a room full of buffalo, at varying levels of inebriation, look at you like you'd be good target practice for their shiny new twenty-two calibre.

Ponyville? It's like the happy middle ground between the two extremes. Nocreature is thrusting uncomfortable praise upon me, but nor are they eyeing me up like a saucy little rump steak. To most of the residents here, I'm just another in a sea of faces. Those that do notice me, just offer me the same courtesy they would anycreature else. The town seems to embrace its visitors, inviting them to be part of the tapestry of its daily happenings, if only for a moment. It lifts my spirits, walking through the harmonious bustle without feeling like an outsider. You'd be surprised how few towns manage that.

Then the unmistakable scent of freshly baked goods wafts through the air. I bring myself up onto the tips of my hooves, craning my neck to try and look over the crowd of heads. Bollocks, I'm too short to see much. But it's not a completely wasted effort. Now I can see exactly what the stallion at the train station meant, when he said Sugarcube Corner is impossible to miss.

The entire roof is designed to look like that of a gingerbread house. White frosting frames all the edges, and above the main structure, a circular tower rises even higher, topped with a multi-tiered dome that looks like a pink iced cupcake. Three giant artificial (I hope) candles are the cherry on the lofty cake. As I weave through the crowd and get closer, I see that even the detailing on the ground floor is straight out of a dentist's worst nightmare. Shocking, candyfloss-pink windows framed by candy cane support pillars add to the saccharine aesthetic. I can only imagine the architect had a nervous breakdown during construction. But the smells coming from inside are amazing, and some particularly aggressive noises from my tummy are enough to draw my thoughts back to the matters at hoof. Time for noms.

I push through the doors, a jingle of bells announcing my arrival as I step into the large room. Display counters in front of me bear a vibrant selection of cakes and pastries of all shapes and sizes, gazing out invitingly through a layer of glass. My mouth waters as the irresistible aroma begins to overpower my senses. My stomach grumbles again as I take in the sheer variety on display. There is significant risk of leaving here in a food coma. Worth it.

Off to one side, an large archway leads into another room full of tables for the customers. It’s busy in here, enough so that my ears actually turn to face away from the rowdy dining area. The cheerful ambience from the assortment of ponies is infectious though. Laughter and chatter rolls through the little café as its clientele dine down on sugary indulgences. I turn my attention back to the counter, spotting a currently-unmanned cash register. So I lean in closer, my eyes scanning the delectable selection of treats behind the glass display as I try to decide what I’m in the mood for.

*whoosh*

My ears pick up on the faintest of noises in front of me, and I straighten up. I could have sworn that, in the background behind the display case, I saw something move. Weirdest part though, it had been almost unnaturally quick. A blur that was, get this, bright pink. If it wasn’t for the distinct little whip of air that my ears had registered, I might not have even noticed it. My eyes seem to lag a fraction of a second behind, and it’s only after I stand straight up that my mind connects the dots between noise and movement.

I glance around, leaning slightly over the counter to scan the floor on the other side, trying to locate the source of the disturbance. Nothing. So I lean back again, my ears folding themselves down low as a frown crosses my face. What in Equestria was going on here? This bakery doesn't have pests, does it? None of the ponies in the dining area seemed to notice, as their conversations continue unabated.

Time appears to slow down as a chill runs down my spine, causing my tail to quiver and my ears to twitch. Did I just feel a gust of wind against my cheek? And why is one side of my glasses fogging up? I dart my eyes to that side, and am greeted with the sight of a mare’s face hovering inches from my own. She occupies my entire field of vision to one side, with bright pink fur, a poofy mane of a slightly darker shade of pink, and inquisitive blue eyes the size of dinner plates that pierce my very soul.

“Hi there!” she squeals.

”Haawwww!” is the noise I make in reply.

Ahh fuck, that’s embarrassing. Contrary to what ponies seem to think, we donkeys don’t actually bray that often. We prefer to use our words. But in moments of shock or surprise, sometimes the odd noise slips out. And since it’s a pretty goofy noise, most of us get a little self-conscious about it. To a lesser extent when we’re largely in the company of other donkeys, but much much much more so when, oh I dunno, we’re in a new town full of ponies and suddenly a room full of them has fallen silent and turned to stare at us.

But through awkward silence, the mare continues, talking at a few thousand miles per hour. “Well ‘haawwww’ right back at’cha, new frienderino! Welcome to Sugarcube Corner, my name is Pinkie Pie, and today I will be performing the dual role of serving you anything you’d like from our selection of baked goods, and of being your new friend!”

“Err… hi there.” Oh please, don't tell me I've bumped into the village idiot already. My luck isn't that bad, is it?

“I’d normally roll out my welcome wagon, but I had to take it in for some repairs after my triple-twisted caramel velvet cake got jammed up in the gears and a whole load of parts got all broken and smooshed up with fondant. So, I’ll just have to improvise. First order of business, new friend. What’s your name, huh?”

The conversations in the next room have all resumed. I guess that this mental case accosting newcomers isn’t a rare or unusual occurrence. Before I can even open my mouth in reply though, a pink hoof rushes to cover it.

”Wait!” she orders. “Let me guess.”

My ears twitch and I raise an eyebrow, but she doesn’t seem to take the hint. She wants to guess my name? Alright, you’re on, almighty sugar-fuelled pink hurricane. Gaze into the aether and deduce what name I go by, if you think you’re up to the task.

“Is it..” she thinks for a few seconds. “Grumpy Doodle Donkey?”

The fuck? “I… whuh… did you just call me Grumpy?”

“Moody Doodle Donkey?”

Excuse me?”

”Angsty Doodle Donkey?”

”Where are you getting the name ‘Doodle’ from?!”

“Stroppy Dingle Donkey?”

”That’s even worse!”

“Pouty Dimple Donkey?”

"I don't even have dimples!"

"Snippy Dastardly Donkey?"

"Dastardly?! Do I look like a Saturday morning cartoon villain?"

"Crabby Disingenuous Donkey?"

”It’s Tara!”

I don’t exactly intend on the half-shout that escapes my mouth. But fuck almighty, that was starting to get downright insulting. Starting? The whole fucking lot of name ideas was just a quickfire series of one insult after another. Note to self, if a hyperactive pink pony ever gets in my face again and asks to try and figure out my name, don’t indulge them in their guessing games.

To make this situation even more fun, the whole dining side of the room has fallen silent again, and stopped to stare at me again. I gaze out over the room, taking in the looks of surprise and confusion. Then I turn my attention back to the pink nuisance.

”My name is Tara,” I reiterate, at a more conversational volume. “Not Tara Doodle Donkey. Not Tara Dingle Donkey. In fact, not any sequence of randomly chosen, mildly-insulting words starting with D for a middle name, bookended with the word Donkey. It’s just Tara.”

She inclines her head. "Huh, Tara? That's a pretty name, though it's kind of a weird one too."

"No wait, silly me, I forgot. Sometimes when I'm among ponies, I go by the name of Thundertwonk the Four-Legged Twat Crumpet. Much more sensible, wouldn't you say?"

"Alrighty then," she says, scratching her chin. "Well, it's very nice to meet you, Thundertwonk."

Oh give me strength. "No... no, that was a joke. Your sarcasm detector isn't really up to snuff, huh?"

"Dunno, never had one."

"I can tell."

"So, you're saying I shouldn't call you Thundertw..."

"No," I cut in. "Please, just call me Tara."

"Okey dokey lokey Tara, welcome to Ponyville! You know come to think of it, I'm pretty sure my friend Twilight knows a Tara, but she's never mentioned if her Tara was a donkey or not."

"Hasn't she? Well since I don't recall ever meeting anycreature named Twilight, we'll have to conclude that hers is a different Tara," I say with a shrug.

"Yeah, it must be! Say, I love your accent, you talk a lot like my friend Octavia. She's this amazing cello player, and she lives right here in town with her marefriend. Ooh, do you know her?"

"Yes I do, now that you mention it. Everycreature with a Trottingham accent knows each other, we're all part of the same collective hive mind. We meet up for tea and sandwiches every other Tuesday at the Vicar's house."

Her eyes go wide. "You... you do?"

Okay, I'll admit, this one was my bad. The problem with having a sense of humour that defaults to sarcasm or dry wit? When you encounter creatures that don't understand when you're not being serious, it tends to drag out conversations.

"No, sorry, once again that was just a joke," I explain, starting to get a little flustered. My stomach growls once again, this time drawing her attention downwards.

"Oh dear, that's a super loud grumbly tumbly you got there," she giggles.

"Yes, it is," I reply pointedly. "If only there was somecreature who works here that could allow me to proceed with some kind of transaction and help me quell my hunger, eh?"

She blinks twice. "Oh! Oh-oh-oh! I work here!"

"Well lucky me! Please, Miss... err... sorry, I'm pretty sure you did say your name, but I have to admit that I've forgotten it."

"Oh, that's okay! My name is Pinkie Pie, and it's super duper good and great to make your acquaintance, Tara!"

"Right, Pinkie Pie, of course that's your name. Well, Pinkie Pie, would you be so kind as to take a food order for me?"

To be honest, I mentally check out for the next few minutes. I don't believe for one moment that Pinkie Pie has an ounce of malicious intent in her heart. But sweet haystacks and heehaws, her energy levels are off the fucking charts. If it wasn't for the simple misunderstanding over signs and distances earlier, I might have had the energy to appreciate her novel personality. Cynical as I can be from time to time, I can't deny there's something endearing about her. There's a boundless positivity, and her xenial nature seems to balance her curiosities with attentiveness to her customers.

In fact, as she starts preparing my grilled cheese, she spots a small table in the next room being vacated. I barely have a chance to blink. Then she's already cleared the empty cups and plates, given the surface a wipe with an antibacterial cloth, and ushered me into one of the two chairs. I don't recall unstrapping my saddlebag, but somehow it appears under the table. Not even a minute after that, and she's back again carrying a tray. She delivers a grilled cheese sandwich cut into triangles, a gigantic cinnamon roll that is completely lathered in frosted icing, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate supporting a small mountain of whipped cream. With a nod, Pinkie Pie vanishes back into the the other room, leaving me to my food and my thoughts.

I begin with taking a huge bite out of the grilled cheese. The bread is crispy and warm, and the cheese is creamy and bursting with flavour. As was the case with my breakfast, which now feels like an eternity ago, the entire sandwich disappears in a matter of moments. The sweet, chewy nature of the cinnamon roll forces me to slow down, but this lets me savour it for a bit longer. And oh my days, it's good. The flavour balance is just the right side of sweet to spicy, and the frosting is just the... well, the icing on the cake, I guess you could say. Even being forced to slow down, the roll is soon reduced to crumbs. It's gone so quick, the whipped cream on my hot chocolate hasn't even had a chance to melt.

Cradling the mug in my hooves, I bask in the warmth that rises through my aching limbs. Oh, I definitely pushed too hard on the walk today. Still, it means I can enjoy some indulgent treats and not have to worry about feeling guilty for them. Then, all of a sudden, I become aware of a figure standing in my periphery. As she clears her throat, I quietly wonder if I'm about to be subjected to a further dose of saccharine Pinkie Pie hyperactivity.

"Excuse me," a mare says, her voice distinctly not Pinkie Pie's. "I was wondering if anypony was sitting here? It's just, all the other tables are full."

Turning to face the newcomer, I am greeted by the sight of a lavender-coated unicorn. A two-toned purple mane hangs to her shoulders, and she's looking at me with a hopeful smile. Held aloft in her magic is a mug, with a small teaspoon swirling the mixture inside. The motion sends the sharp aroma of roasted coffee towards me. I'm not feeling especially social after the big walk, the news about my train, and having dealt with Pinkie Pie. But I've been in this same situation, with roles reversed, plenty of times.

"Please," I say, gesturing to the empty seat. "Help yourself."

She pulls out the chair opposite me, settling down with a contented sigh. "Thanks so much! It's been a busy day at the market, just finding an open spot was tougher than wrangling hyperactive foals."

I nod, offering a polite smile. "You run a stall, then?"

"Oh yes!" she beams, pausing to gently blow at her coffee before taking a sip. "I sell hoof-made jewellery. It's kinda my speciality, one day I'd like to open a shop of my own. But for now, the market stall helps keep the bills paid."

"Well if the crowds are normally as bustling as they were today, I bet you do good business."

"Absolutely," she agrees, taking another sip. "It's always lively around here. So, are you new in town? We don't get many donkeys, and I've definitely never seen you around before."

"Just passing through," I say with a small chuckle. "I had a bit of a train mishap and ended up hoofing it here. Name's Tara, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Tara! I'm Amethyst." She extends a hoof across the table, and I reach over to shake it. "I love your accent, by the way."

"Why thank you, I made it myself," I reply with a grin, a quip that earns me a giggle in return. "What about you, are you a local?"

"Yep, born and raised Ponyville native, that's me!" Amethyst nods, her smile widening. "It's a great town, even if it does tend to attract more than its fair share of drama. But, best sweet treats anywhere in Equestria right here."

I nod down towards my now-empty plate. "Oh, absolutely. That cinnamon roll was so good."

"It's one of my favourites," she agrees. "So, what brings you to Ponyville, even if it's just passing through?"

"Well," I begin, leaning back in my chair. "I was actually on my way to Canterlot, but, as luck would have it, my train decided it needed an extended stop that was supposedly three miles away from here."

Amethyst's eyebrows rise in surprise. "Three miles, huh? That's quite a trek!"

A wry chuckle escapes my lips. "Funny thing, turns out it was actually thirteen miles. A slight balls-up in communication from the train's crew, you could say."

"Thirteen miles?! That's... that's a lot further. Must've been a doozy of an adventure."

"You could say that," I agree with a grin as I stifle a yawn, my hoof lifting my mug of hot chocolate to my mouth. "I daresay that said adventure wore me out more than I think I realized though."

My fatigue must be clear as day, as a look of concern flickers across Amethyst's face. "You sure look like you could use some rest. Are you planning to stay the night in Ponyville?"

I nod, rubbing my eyes. "Definitely. I hadn't really thought that far ahead, but I think a good night's sleep might be just what I need."

"You should check out the Hoof & Hearth Inn then. It's a cute little place, and they make the best pancakes in the morning," Amethyst suggests with a smile. "It's just a short trot from here."

"That sounds perfect, actually." My outlook brightens at the mention of pancakes. "I could use a comfy bed and a good breakfast."

"You'll love it there. Merry and Holly run the place, and they're just the sweetest couple. They'll make sure you feel right at home."

"Well, I think I'll finish this and head on over," I say, nodding down to my mug.

Amethyst thinks for a few moments. "Well how about this. I'll finish my coffee, and then I can walk you there? Show you some of the sights along the way, tell you a bit more about Ponyville."

My smile widens. "Yeah. That sounds great, thank you!"

Our drinks recede at a steady pace as we talk. Amethyst shares tidbits of the towns history with me, including recent goings-on. She claims that Discord, the lord of chaos himself, only recently broke out of a statue he'd been sealed in for the last however-many-years. What followed was the transformation of this sleepy town into his own eldritch playground of oddities, to put it in Amethyst’s words. I'm impressed by her imagination, to be honest, but it's a long-winded tale. It's a nice town, and I can appreciate it just fine without her needing to come up with wild stories to entertain me. Still, there's a pleasant energy that radiates from her as she describes more and more recent events, some plausible but most clearly also fabricated. A giant dragon raiding the town, then regressing to infancy by recognising a pony he's got a crush on? I think she got that straight out of an O&O module.

And apparently, Pinkie Pie's bizarre guesses at my name? She based them on another donkey who arrived in town not that long ago. A donkey named, and I nearly spit my drink out when Amethyst tells me, Cranky. I mean, right off the bat, you can tell that his parents didn't like him that much if that's the name they burdened him with. Though apparently his temperament improved when Pinkie reunited him with his long-lost love, Matilda. Another donkey who lives in Ponyville. Gosh, it's a population explosion. Amethyst explains they're currently celebrating their reunion with a sunny trip to Portucolt. I nod in approval at that, there's some damn nice beaches around there where you can relax without seeing another soul for miles around.

This little tale also cements my initial impression of Pinkie Pie: well-meaning, with a good heart, but no control over her energy levels, and definitely no filter. I bet you any amount of bits that she's the type of creature who can be wide awake at the crack of dawn and not need caffeine. Insufferably alert. Though I shudder at the prospect of anycreature like Pinkie Pie having access to energy drinks. My initial dismay at her antics wanes as I see her zipping between tables, attentively keeping all the ponies smiling, fed and hydrated.

In return for Amethyst, I delve into some stories from my years of travel. Places I've been, creatures I've met, excursions I've taken to see landmarks big and small. She listens to every detail, hanging on my every word. Occasionally she pauses me to ask a question, for me to elaborate on a point or explain something she doesn't understand. But otherwise, she seems to revel in my recounts of the nomadic life I've been living for the past few years.

Time races by as I engage her in lively conversation. It only feels like a few minutes have passed by when I glance out a window and see that the orange sky is gone. The deep blue shades of dusk replaces it, with flickering streetlights illuminating one by one as darkness begins to envelop the little town. We take this as our cue to leave, thanking Pinkie Pie and bidding her a good evening as we go. Though I have to stifle another yawn, I can't help but feel a tug of curiosity in my gut when Amethyst offers to lead me to the inn on an indirect route. One that shows off a bit more of the town than we'd otherwise see if we walked straight there. Based on her wild stories about the place, my curiosity is indeed piqued.

Once outside, the cool early-evening air bites at me, but after the warm day it feels pleasant and rousing. All the 'sights' that Amethyst shows me fall somewhat in the realms of mundanity. But her excitement and energy about her home town is palpable, and she does manage to keep my attention. There's an elegant looking building, decorated with merry-go-round horses, that Amethyst identifies as Carousel Boutique. She says it's ran by a fashionista who is allegedly the very pony that stopped the dragon rampage. Pfft, yeah sure. Then there's the Town Hall, pretty standard, one of the towering buildings I'd spotted as I'd approached the town. And then we pass a shop called Quills & Sofas, which sells... wait, can you guess? Well not to spoil the surprise, but it sells sofas. And quills. Who'd have guessed?

After a hefty bunch of small shops that you can find in most every town, almost all of which come with accompanying anecdotes, I once again find myself struggling to suppress yawns. Amethyst gives me a polite chuckle, says she won't keep me from a warm bed any longer, and bids me to follow her. She sets off at a march, and as I am blessed with being petite, my little legs have to move twice as fast to keep up. Luckily, small town, we get there quick.

She leads me towards, to my surprise, a tree. Actually, correction, a building carved from the insides of a tree. Like somecreature found an old oak tree, slapped a door and windows in haphazard looking locations all over it, threw a balcony on one or two branches for a dash of whimsy, and called it a day. It looks like something straight out of a story book, and honestly, I can't help but be in awe at the sight of it.

"This... this is the inn?" I gasp. "The inn is an oak tree?"

"Hmm? Oh no, no no no," she says with a laugh. "This is the library, see? The Hoof & Hearth is just around the back of it."

As we get closer, lo and behold, a sign above the doorway becomes close enough to read. In swirling letters, I can make out the words 'Golden Oak Library - Where Magic Meets Knowledge' in the glow of firefly lanterns. Amethyst walks right past the door and leads me around the side of the tree... library... treebrary?

"It's funny, actually," Amethyst says as she leads me around. "Most of the crazy stuff in this town didn't start until we got our new librarian. Twilight Sparkle, she's one of Princess Celestia's students you know? She ended up staying here and studying friendship magic."

"Oh, is that right?" I mutter politely.

Their librarian is the student of a literal alicorn goddess? Now I've heard everything. Although I do wonder to myself if this is the same Twilight that Pinkie Pie had mentioned to me earlier. 'Friendship magic' though? I've definitely stumbled into some kind of story book.

"Ah, here we are," Amethyst declares.

I round a particularly gnarled looking root that sits exactly at the right height to be a serious trip hazard, and draw up alongside Amethyst. Sure enough, pretty much directly behind the library is a cosy-looking tavern. If you were to look up the word 'pub' in any dictionary, and it had an accompanying picture? That picture would look exactly like this. A small, two-storey brick building with a haybale roof. To one side, a chimney emits a steady plume of smoke as the windows pulse in a pleasant, orange glow. A little sign hanging above the door reads 'The Hoof & Hearth Inn'.

"Well, I guess you're all good from here, then," Amethyst says, turning to smile at me. "It was nice meeting you, Tara. Come find me if you're ever back in Ponyville, okay? I bet you've got loads more stories to tell from your adventures, and I'd love to hear them."

I laugh. "Okay, deal. Thanks for showing me around, it's a really nice town you've got here. I think I might even be a little bit sad to head off tomorrow, but Canterlot's been calling me for years now. I've put it off for long enough."

"Safe travels then! Bye, Tara."

"Bye, Amethyst."

She pulls me in for a tight hug. As a result of our height difference, my face is pressed into her sternum. And it feels like my eartips bat her in the face. I blush, but if she feels awkward about this, she doesn't let on about it. When she lets me go, she turns around, and strolls off into the night. Something tugs at my heartstrings as I watch her silhouette become one with the darkness. With a sigh, I turn on the spot and make my way over to the inn.

By this point, the days exertions are well and truly starting to catch up on me. As I step through the door, a butter-yellow unicorn greets me from a small desk. It's a quiet time of year for the B&B aspect of their business, so I have no problem getting a room even at such late notice. And they quote me a reasonable rate for the night, cheaper than most places. The unicorn, who introduces herself as Merry, passes me the key for room number three. She gives me directions to it, and bids me goodnight.

Although, I did make a promise to myself earlier today. And I do like sampling local drinks, when I can. But I'm too tired to get completely sloshed, so just one drink won't hurt. Right?

I nip up the stairs, removing my saddlebag and dropping it just inside the door of my room. I also have a quick shower, relishing the chance to de-stankify myself, then head back down to find the bar. Thankfully, it's quieter here than the dining room of the tavern in Hoofington was this morning. I manage to scoot along the bench of a small booth, one I have all to myself. The crackling fireplace in the corner makes for a very relaxed atmosphere, its warmth tickling at my damp mane.

Having a quick peruse of the menu, I see a plethora of ciders, all apparently sourced from a local farm. Too many to sample in one night, not with a train journey in the morning. So I settle on just one. How do I decide which one? Highest alcohol content, naturally. A frosty white pegasus, one named Holly, takes my order. She also recommends the vegetable stew, if I fancy anything to eat. The grilled cheese and the cinnamon roll didn't quite fill me up earlier, so I shrug and ask for a bowl.

It's good, hearty, homecooked stuff, with a bread roll that is still oven warm, and it fills me up good and proper. Oh, and the cider? Phenomenal. Absolutely delicious. I find my preference for ciders, fruity or dry, tends to alternate. This dry cider goes down so smooth, it's almost easy to forget that it is, in fact, alcoholic. It's only when I stand up to go pay my bill, tummy full and head spinning, that the strength of the cider truly hits home.

Soon after, I'm splayed out on the bed in my room. The very comfortable bed, I must say. And the room is pleasantly warm. A bit on the small side, but it's adequate for the night. I turn out the lights, and as I go to remove my glasses, I look out the window. There, framed on the distant horizon, Canterlot sits like a glowing jewel on the side of the mountain.

"Tomorrow," I whisper. "I'm almost there."

My glasses chink as I set them down on the bedside table, and I sigh contentedly as I flomp my head down on my pillow and burrito myself into the blankets. Yeah, this town is nice. Welcoming, rustic, picturesque, and everycreature who lives here seems happy. Pinkie Pie, overbearing as she may be, did eventually put a smile on my face. A bemused smile, yes, but a smile nonetheless. And Amethyst, she takes so much pride in being able to say she lives here, and even took the time out of her day to share her love for the place with me.

But, I'm leaving tomorrow. That's all there is to it, it's decided. Though I do think I'm not going to bother setting an alarm, after the unpleasant awakening this morning. If I miss the train, big whoop, I'll catch the next one. But no matter what the irksome tug in my gut says, about how I feel more accustomed to Ponyville than I’ve been anywhere since I left home, my mind isn't changing. And as I drift off to sleep, my ears give some gentle twitches as I resolve to commit myself to the journey ahead.