Chapter Seventy-Four: An Unforeseen Attack
Half a night of traveling came to an end and the wagon ceased in the middle of the road. The equine brothers stole a cursory glance at their surroundings, searching for any signs of life.
They were all alone…
Unhitching themselves from the harness, they approached the sides of the cart near the front and reared up on their hind legs to dig into the pile of firewood while the mares watched in confusion. That confusion soon shifted into bewilderment as they drew out daggers and clenched them between their teeth.
“All right! Dump all of your valuables!” the chestnut demanded, his, and his brother’s, visages tightening into serious and intimidating scowls as they brandished their weapons, the sharp blades glinting in the glow of the moonbeams.
The six mares jumped, having not expected to be suddenly turned on by two ponies who had seemed friendly. Fluttershy gasped, pulling herself behind the protection of Rainbow Dash. Rarity and Pinkie Pie wore shock upon their faces while Applejack and the prism-maned pegasus adopted outrage.
Twilight Sparkle, however, merely held a look of annoyance and exasperation.
“You’re kidding,” she deadpanned as she raised a hoof to her chest and arched an eyebrow. Didn’t they realize who they were? “You’re kidding, right?”
“Yeah, you don’t wanna mess with us, buddy!” Rainbow Dash snorted angrily.
While the palomino stallion dropped his expression to chuckle calmly, his eyes followed his brother, who transferred his dagger to his hoof. A long and shrill whistled leaped from his lips, and in less than thirty seconds, an entire band of ponies emerged from the trees adjacent to the road to swarm and surround the carriage.
Twilight Sparkle sighed as the wagon was surrounded. A quick count revealed that there were at least a dozen ponies, easily outnumbering them two to one. She wasn’t worried though. They had faced and overcame overwhelming odds before.
“You’re serious,” she said. “Very well, if you want to do this the hard way, we’ll do this the hard way!”
“Oh, and to think I just had a hooficure done, too…” Rarity groaned.
“Enough about your hooficure, Rarity! It’s time to kick some flank!”
Without missing a beat, Rainbow Dash was the first to tackle a dagger-wielding pony, disarming him. Applejack was also one of the first to launch herself at a nearby stallion, swerving on the spot to buck him right in the chest and send him flying clear across the field. Rarity, grumbling something about how she’ll need another afternoon at the spa, practically flew at one of their foes with an amazing kung fu kick. Pinkie Pie whipped out her party cannon seemingly out of nowhere and blasted another with it while Twilight Sparkle fired up her horn.
Fluttershy remained in the carriage, squealing with fear.
“Ya ladies put up a good fight!” said the chestnut stallion, clamping his dagger back between his teeth and lunged at Twilight Sparkle.
The mare narrowed her eyes. While she normally preferred to negotiate matters through diplomatic methods, the fact that weapons had been drawn and Rainbow Dash and Applejack’s attack meant there would be no way they could resolve this peacefully now. To this end, she resolved to let her magic do the talking, and she proceeded to counter the stallion’s dagger with the business end of her horn, firing a spell at him point blank.
A bulky stallion climbed into the carriage, eyes pinned to Fluttershy. Before he could even do anything, he found himself yanked out of the cart by his tail and was elbow dropped in the back by the rainbow-haired mare. Huddling into a ball, Fluttershy folded her forelegs over her head. She did not like fighting--didn’t like violence.
Horn blazing with magic, Twilight Sparkle blasted another pony nearby and turned around to kick another within striking distance of her hooves. Wings unfurling, they pushed her saddlebacks out of the way and slid off her back as she joined Rainbow Dash in the air--looping up to dive bomb another. The cyan pegasus belted out a battle cry as she swooped at another equine. Before too long, the entire group of bandits were sprawled out on the ground, collectively groaning in defeat.
“All right…” the chestnut stallion breathed, slowly rising to his hooves. “You win…”
Huffing and heaving, Twilight Sparkle turned to examine her friends--sans Fluttershy, who was still cowering in the wagon. Aside from scuffs and scrapes, they were mainly unhurt. Still, she thought it was wise to verify this.
“You girls all right?” she questioned. When she received the verification everyone was fine, she turned to Applejack. “Applejack, how much rope do you have?”
“Not nearly enough to tie up all these varmints,” she snorted.
“Not a problem,” the alicorn proclaimed. Pointing her horn at a group of rocks on the side of the road, she focused her magic and transfigured them into coils of rope. Getting to work, each of them fashioned lassos and looped them around the stallions’ necks, then tied the ends together to form a chain of ponies.
“Right. Let’s get them loaded up into the carriage.”
“What?” Applejack spoke up. “Why can’t we jus’ leave ‘em here?”
“To starve? In the middle of nowhere? No. We take them to Las Pegasus and let the local authorities deal with them.”
“Um… not to be arguin’ with ya, Princess,” the farmer began. “But yer a princess. Yew ARE the local authority!”
“Yeah! You got every right to decide their punishment as much as any officer does!” said Rainbow Dash as she tightened the last lasso around the final stallion’s neck… unintentionally a little too tightly. With her attention on her friend, she was oblivious to the fact that the poor male’s face was slowly turning blue from the lack of oxygen. The issue was soon rectified when he lifted a hoof to tug on the rope secured around his neck.
Twilight Sparkle took a moment to contemplate. This situation reminded her of when she faced Snips and Snails when they had unwittingly unleashed the Ursa Minor on Ponyville. It had endangered many ponies and caused quite a bit of property damage, but in the end, they were only young colts who hadn’t quite known any better… even though they should have.
These stallions, on the other hand, were fully grown and their malicious intent to harm was very much deliberate.
“Well now,” she finally said, narrowing her eyes. “Hmph. I’d suppose some time in jail would do them some good--but seeing as how we’re out in the middle of nowhere, that’s not exactly feasible. Let’s load them into the carriage and take them with us until we get to Las Pegasus or some other town. We can take turns in pairs pulling it.”
“Excuse me, darling,” Rarity piped up. “But I think I might have a better plan. It would serve as punishment and a method of transport all at once.”
“Keep talkin’,” said Rainbow Dash as she leaned in to listen intently to what the unicorn may have in mind.
“Why, we hitch them all up and force them to pull--or, better yet, carry the carriage with all of us.”
Twilight Sparkle sighed.
“Rarity, wasn’t that what Trixie forced Snips and Snails to do?”
“Trixie,” countered the alabaster unicorn. “Was under the influence of the Alicorn Amulet and not in her right mind. Also, her carriage never had wheels. ALSO, those poor colts were innocent bystanders.”
The stallion looked among each other nervously. Clearly, they didn’t like idea one bit.
“Oh, come on!” a red stallion complained. “We only did this so we could feed our families!”
“Yeh, well, maybe y’all should’ve thought of potential consequences when y’all tried to rob us! Rob a princess of Equestria!” Applejack growled, as Twilight Sparkle stepped forward to flare her wings out--the full moon casting a sparkling, illuminating light upon them and her horn.
The alicorn stepped forward, her brow furrowed with an imposing expression.
“Normally, I would think to have you all imprisoned for this. Attacking a royal is considered a felony…” She paused and allowed a smile to form on her face. “… But I’m feeling… lenient today.” She turned to the red stallion. “You… said you were doing this to feed your families? … How many of you are out here?”
It was then the stallions finally analyzed the mare and acknowledged that she was a princess. Before, her saddlebags had been obscuring her wings and they had been so absorbed with the battle that they failed to notice before.
“Forty-two of us!” another stallion replied. “And some of our wives are pregnant!”
Twilight Sparkle lowered her head a small degree and tapped her chin.
“I see… And how long have you all been in the Everfree Forest?”
“We have been here for years,” said the chestnut stallion. “For the entirety of that time, more and more have joined us when we were small. Now, we’re sort of a family.”
“Years, huh?” A smile tipped her lips. “I think… I might have an idea.”
The others were confused as she approached the chestnut.
“Haven’t you ever considered growing your own food? Or searching for wild sustenance? Isn’t there a river nearby?”
“We don’t know where to get enough seeds. Besides, we wouldn’t be able to grow enough to keep us fed. The produce would run out.”
“I could help you with that. Proper irrigation, supplying seeds…” Twilight Sparkle offered.
“Excuse me, Twi,” Applejack cut in. “Ah’m sure you probably got somethin’ in mind here, but, where exactly are you goin’ with this?”
“Wait, I know,” Fluttershy gasped, sliding out of the carriage. “A small population that’s just right for a small village in the middle of a dangerous forest that’s teeming with wild animals and peppered with precarious perils… and we have a line that’s otherwise a direct shot between Ponyville and Las Pegasus that could be potentially traveled by hoof instead of having to fly over the woods or take the long way around. If we could get food and supplies here. A road and provide protection to passengers… we could possibly build a settlement here.”
She turned to Twilight Sparkle.
“Unless… I’m mistaken.”
The alicorn looked surprised.
“Got it in one ‘Shy.”
“I suppose…” said the chestnut. “But still--where are we going to get enough seeds to feed everypony?”
“Back at home in Ponyville,” Twilight Sparkle responded, her attention shifting to Applejack. “You, Carrot Top, all the farmers--I’m sure you’ve got seeds to spare. If we can also maybe get some horsepower out here to help with the irrigation--”
“We might even get some more ponies to help build a population. We might just be able to tame the Everfree Forest after all!” Applejack finished.
“Well,” the princess chuckled. “I wouldn’t go that far just yet.”
“The Everfree is pretty dangerous…” The stallion stole a glance back towards the dense trees. “But it’s the best place to hide.”
“True… but with your help, we can make it a safer place. What do you say? You take us to Las Pegasus, keep us safe, and we’ll help you in return.”
“It’s a deal.” The stallion smiled before turning back to his comrades. “Two of us will pull and the rest of you will surround the cart in case anything comes after us.”
Not a single stallion disagreed with him. Not wanting to waste time, they all fell into position after they were relieved of their lassos.
Smiling and nodding in a satisfied manner, the mares climbed back aboard the carriage.
“Are y’all sure this is really wise?” Applejack whispered.
“They don’t really have much of a choice, do they?” Fluttershy whispered back. “Besides, they’re not… bad ponies. Just a bit misguided. I think we’re doing the right thing.”
“By the way, my name is Sharpshooter,” said the chestnut as he and the palomino hitched themselves back up into the harness. He then nodded to his twin next to him. “This here, is Starshooter.”
“Sharpshooter, eh?” Applejack let out a chuckle as she shifted on her haunches. “What were ya doin’ with a dagger, then?”
“Eh… I left my crossbow,” Sharpshooter responded with belying currents of embarrassment.
Twilight Sparkle shook her head with a soft smile.
“It’s… erm… nice to meet you. I’m Twilight Sparkle.”
“Princess Twilight Sparkle!” Pinkie Pie interjected.
“Yes. Princess Twilight Sparkle,” the alicorn amended. “I’m… still sort of getting used to being royalty. Never thought I’d actually become a princess.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Princess Twilight Sparkle!” Starshooter stated with a bow of his head.
“It could’ve been under better circumstances.” Rarity gave a roll of her eyes. “I mean, really.”
“We can let bygones be bygones,” the young alicorn said.
“Okay. Let’s get a move-on!” said Rainbow Dash, turning her attention to the road ahead.
The twins nodded and they were off.
“So, what does this Smokey fella look like?” Starshooter inquired.
“Oh!” Twilight Sparkle shared an awkward glance with her friends. She hadn’t quite expected this question to arise now. How were they going to explain this? “He’s… um… big.”
“He’s red,” Applejack quickly added.
“With the most impressive wings!” Rarity followed.
“And he’s kind of a dragon,” Pinkie Pie stated.
Twilight Sparkle slapped a hoof to her face.
“Piiinkiiie…” she groaned.
A darker shade of pink than her fur bled upon the party mare’s cheeks.
The carriage jerked to a halt, the stallions maintaining it and surrounding it adopting expressions of fear and concern.
“A DRAGON?!” both twins exclaimed in unison.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable being around a dragon,” said Sharpshooter, similar murmurs emanating from the rest of the band.
Twilight Sparkle exhaled a sigh.
“We’re not asking you to get near a dragon. All we’re asking you is to take us to the edges of Las Pegasus. We’ll handle the rest once we’re there.”
The stallions appeared immensely relieved and the carriage started up again.
“Good.” Starshooter sighed. “I suppose we’ll meet you near the edges of Ponyville after this is all done.”
Smile returning to Twilight Sparkle’s face, she nodded in affirmation. Fluttershy’s attention was fixated on the horizon with a smile playing at her lips as they traveled, feeling a degree of anticipation. At this rate, they would reach the city in no time at all!
‘Hang on, Smokey,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’m coming…’