A Hero's Ballad
A Hero’s Ballad: Etude
The Shady Sepulcher offered little in the way of luxury. It contained a dining room with five sturdy oaken tables flanked by long benches, and three small round tables that sat close to the windows. Napkins and condiments peppered the center of each table while a small pitcher with a single black rose sat on the soda bar stand. Dim light poured through the windows as lanterns furnished the room. In the corner, the tavernkeeper kept a wide variety of soda ranging from Haunted Berry to Blood Orange. A number of travellers nosily gabbed about their adventures, family, or whatever else was on their minds. After Rohane stepped in, a few of the patrons stopped talking, others pointed and stared. One silver Ixi in the background loudly exclaimed: “I hope they ain’t sleeping next to my room tonight!”
To be fair, Rohane was particularly worse for the wear, with sludge practically dripping from his armour onto the floor. Some of it was caked on his face and hands. Mipsy and Velm were both mucus-covered, and their shoes stuck to the floor like used gum. Even Talinia, with goo in her mane and hands that matched her fur colour, looked a bit scummy.
“We have some special guests here tonight,” said the innkeeper in a cheery tone, motioning to them as if they won a contest, “these four are Meridell heroes who have slain some of the dangerous creatures in the Woods.”
“We’re not all from—” started Velm, but Talinia elbowed him.
“It turns out that two of them are musicians, and they’ve come to entertain you all tonight.”
Velm removed his lute from the bag and strummed her a few times, being careful not to get any gunk on the neck. All of the patrons looked on with varying degrees of interest, except for a rather shady-looking pair too intent on dice games to notice.
Using his best showman voice, Velm took a bow. “Good day to you, Haunties! My friend and I”—He took Rohane’s cold and clammy paw and raised it to the air—"are going to bring you all some joy on this somewhat dark and gloomy night. Are you ready for some entertainment?”
A few of the patrons hollered. One raised his glass of soda to the sky, spilling a portion of it onto the ground.
“Hey! Don’t be sticking up my floor with sugar now.” The innkeeper clicked her tongue before scurrying to a closet to grab a bucket and mop.
Meanwhile, Velm turned towards Rohane, who looked like he was hit by a maximum level mesmerization spell. “H-hey, boss. What song do you want to sing?”
Rohane turned towards him, his eyes round with terror. His voice, usually calm and confident, was hardly a whisper. “You choose. Anything.”
“How about we do that ‘Green Hills’ one you liked so much? The one your dad sang?”
“My Dad. Right. Yeah.” The white Blumaroo was starting to sway as the colour drained from his face. Velm whispered a direct healing spell and placed his paw on Rohane’s back. This at least stabilized him, but his knees were obviously quaking.
“I’ve never seen Rohane so scared of anything in his life,” whispered Mipsy to Talinia. “And here I thought he wasn’t afraid of, well, anything.”
The Eyrie’s wings drooped. “We need to help him. This isn’t right.”
“But wouldn’t he get upset at us? He wanted to conquer his fear of singing…” she sounded less and less confident as the words tumbled from her mouth. Both of them held their Captain in high regard, he was the glue that kept the team together, even in the direst times. But he had a prideful streak, a stubbornness that they knew all too well.
“We’ll wait on stand-by.” Talinia tensed up when she saw Velm cast his healing spell. “He knows we have his back when he needs it.”
Velm began to gently play his lute. Rich, melodic tones filled the inn as the patrons hummed along.
Alas, my friend, you do me wrong,
To cast me out so thoughtlessly.
For I have known you for so long,
Delighting in your company.
When Rohane did not join in the first verse, Velm sang louder. Mercifully, it looked as if the majority of the room knew the song and a few joined in the merriment. As the innkeeper cleaned the floor, she glanced up and grimaced. Rohane still wasn’t singing and she knew it.
The swordsman’s eyes were shut. He looked to be muttering something, but what it was Velm could not tell. After gently nudging his arm, Rohane’s eyes fluttered. His ears flopped down and his posture defeated. He took a shuddered breath:
Green Hills was all my joy,
Green Hills was my delight.
“I got you, Captain!”
It happened in a blur. Her wings tucked in, Talinia dove forward like a lightning bolt. Candles from the lanterns flickered from her dive as her knees scraped the floor. Splinters flew everywhere and littered the floor. Before the patrons could react, Velm had his hands on Rohane’s chest, now cradled in Talinia’s lap. His lute lay precariously against a chair behind him.
“Panacea!” The healing pulse spread through the room like a wave as the patrons, seconds behind reacting to Rohane’s crew, started to make out the forms of the veteran adventures. A few of them screamed when they saw the scene.
“What in Neopia just happened?” The innkeeper’s paws covered her mouth. She paused momentarily before running behind Talinia. Most of the patrons stood like frozen statues, staring like fish out of water. “Is he okay?”
The team all circled around him, breathing heavily and looking down at their now unconscious friend.
“Is he okay?” Echoed a patron.
“He’s breathing,” said Velm, wiping the beads of sweat from his forehead. His heart pounded into his chest. “I’m going to have to remember to… to breathe as well.”
Mipsy tore through the potions in her pack, pushing all but one out of the way. “Renewal potion. We have two of them. Do we need one or are healing potions enough?”
Rohane coughed a few times. His breathing started rapid and shallow, then calmed as time progressed, his features relaxing.
“He seems to be conscious now, so healing potions will be enough,” said Velm, his brow knit in focused concentration. “Get me the best one we have.”
“I’ll make sure he drinks it slowly,” asserted Talinia. Despite her calm demeanour, her tail twitched like a fidgety petpet.
Barring the innkeeper, who hovered above the crew, the rest of the room remained transfixed on the scene, occasionally uttering things like, “we should we do?” “Is he okay?” “what happened?” The Whoot from the roof zipped inside the inn from an open window and landed on a nearby table. It cooed a few times before hopping next to its owner, the Lupe.
Biting at her paw, the innkeeper finally spoke. “I’ll prepare a tub for your friend here to wash off all the gunk. Then y’all can remove some of his heavy armour. And uhh, you”—she pointed at Mipsy—”can you help draw the water from the well? I’ll go grab the tub.”
The Acara was the process of handing Talinia a vitality potion. It shimmered in the low light with a bright, aquamarine blue. As Talinia slowly poured it into Rohane’s mouth, Mipsy sprung up. “Let’s go.”
While Mipsy ran out with the innkeeper, the white Blumaroo began to mutter out loud as if sleep talking.
“What happened?” Rohane gazed up at the hazy room and blinked idly at his worried colleagues. He felt a wash of dizziness and fought every urge to empty his stomach. “Why is the room spinning?”
“You passed out, Rohane,” said Velm. A patron brought over a wet rag and nervously handed it to them. Velm laid it on Rohane where it sat for a few seconds.
“Ugh. I made a fine mess for us to clean up.” He massaged his temples and groaned from a splitting headache.
“As long as it’s a mess we can clean up together, all is well, Captain,” said Talinia, who continued to cradle him as a patron brought a glass of water. The Blumaroo picked it up with shaky paws as he rose to an unsteady sitting position. “I think you’re dehydrated.”
He licked his dry and cracked lips and let out a cough. “I think you’re right.” He took a sip of the water, which turned into greedy gulps. Within seconds, barring a few coughs, the water was gone. A well-meaning patron ran the cup to a spigot, filled it, and brought it back. “Thanks for that,” he said to them. They bowed nervously before sitting back down.
Bolting through the door, Mipsy barreled through a crowd of Neopians. “I HAVE THE WATER READY! Is he awake? Is he okay? Is he—”
“Getting an even worse headache from your shouting? Yes. Yes, he is.”
“Oh. OH! Rohane! You’re okay! I’m… I’m so glad.”
Velm smiled wearily, his hands visibly shaking as he wiped away a tear. “We all are, boss. You gave us quite a shock.”
“I gathered, yeah.” He looked down at the glass and spun it around with one paw. “Thank you, all of you. You’re the best crew a Neopian could ask for.”
Mipsy gave Rohane a strong hug, causing him to wheeze. “I don’t even care that you’re covered in goop. I just had to give you a hug. I’m just so glad…” her eyes glistened with tears. “So glad you’re okay.”
He patted her on the head. “Alright, Mipsy. Time to let go.”
“Nope. I will hold on until I am ready.”
Rohane rolled his eyes while the rest of the room lightly chuckled.
“But more importantly,” said Rohane, as he struggled to prop himself up; he systemically shifted gazes between his colleagues, “how are you doing, Talinia? Mipsy? Velm?”
Talinia raised a brow. “A little bit of rug burn, but otherwise fine. Velm’s still jittery from the whole thing and Mipsy… Well, she hasn’t let you go, so that should answer that.”
Rohane struggled to his feet, Mipsy still clinging on like a barnacle.
Mipsy spoke against her goop-covered leader, “we drew a bath for you to de-skunk. After that, you’re going to bed, team decision.”
He almost toppled over but balanced himself in time. “It’s fine, really—”
Velm cut him off and offered his shoulder. “No, it’s not fine, Rohane. I’m a cleric. You’re severely dehydrated, sleep-deprived and overstressed. Is everyone really going to gloss over the fact that he passed out while singing? We could’ve… this could’ve been…” his voice cracked as he spoke before he took a deep breath and continued, “but no. This time was different. Thank Coltzan, it was.”
Talinia shot him a worried look, which he dismissed with a wave.
Noticing how quiet the room had become, Velm spun around to the Neopians said in a sing-song voice, “Don’t worry, adoring fans, I’ll regale us with some merry tunes once my brave leader is settled. Look forward to it!”
A few of the patrons gave a weak exclamation of excitement. Most of them were still nervously fidgeting in their seats.
Rohane’s face blanched. “Singing. Right. I did that, didn’t I?”
“Don’t you go fainting on me again, Rohane,” said Velm. Noting how wobbly Rohane was, he offered to bear his friend’s weight. “We need you awake, friend.”
The swordsman held out his arms to keep his balance, nearly fell again, and finally conceded. “Right, fine.”
Velm and Talinia helped to usher him out to the bath where they systemically removed the layers of gunk from his armour. He continued to assure them that he was fine before stumbling back into their arms.
“More water, Rohane,” goaded Velm, shoving it in his face. “You really haven’t been drinking at all lately, have you?”
Rohane grunted before chugging down a fifth cup of water.
“It doesn’t help that those Kau goop monsters suck up your life force,” said one of the shady Neopians who played dice rather than listen to their earlier performance: a grey Krawk with an eye patch, loose-fitting clothes and a cane. “Lucky you lot got to him when we did.”
This caught everyone’s attention. “And how do you know that, Sir?” Velm continued to scrub Rohane’s armour. The Blumaroo at first rejected the idea but after enough coaxing (and Mipsy offering to let go) he relented. Now he sat on the grass, pouting.
“You all think you’re the only adventurers out here?” The old Krawk let out a loud, wheezy laugh. “It’s rare to find them as old as us coots, especially here in the Woods. It’s not a safe place to wander, I’ll tell you that.”
“I take it you’ve fought them before,” said Velm. Rohane’s armour shimmered in the moonlight, thanks to all of their scrubbing. Velm gave a contented nod with his handiwork. Talinia was drying Rohane’s tunic and bracers.
“Yeah, the three of us have.” He motioned to his companion.
“Three? But I only see two.”
“Well, there’s your answer, then.”
Velm lowered his gaze to the ground as his heart sank. “I’m so sorry.”
The Krawk gave a pained look, leaning deeper into his cane. “Don’t be. She lived an adventurous life and loved every minute of it. She wouldn’t have wanted Neopians to feel sad for her.” Velm continued to scrub in silence, nodding a response.
Mipsy scurried to and fro, ferrying the remainders of their equipment and items into their room, then eagerly jumped into the shower to de-snot. Meanwhile, Talinia and Velm finished cleaning Rohane’s armour and urged him to drink another two cups of water. The innkeeper came by with some sticky buns and shoved one into his mouth.
“You’re gonna eat this, hun. No one’s allowed to die at the Sepulcher. There’s plenty of ghosts here, but I don’t want any new ones haunting the inn.”
“Mmf!” Rohane flailed his arms around and removed the bun from his mouth. “What has gotten into you all? You act like I almost expired or something!”
“You did,” said Velm and the Krawk in unison.
“Oh.” Rohane went quiet. “Oh. Fine. Carry on, then.”
“We will,” said Talinia with a sad smirk, “but you should rest. Do you want help getting back to the room?”
A flush of red crept onto Rohane’s face as he wobbled up to a standing position. “I can’t take much more of this. I’m going to head to bed—on my own. Thank you, all of you, for all of this.”
Rohane shambled back into the inn where countless strangers bombarded him with questions about his health and well-being. He gave them all short, polite answers before hopping into an empty shower, rinsing off the filth of the day, and crawling into their little room.
It was about the size of a closet, with two sets of bunk beds built-in. Mipsy put a hand-drawn sign on the bed diagonal to his that said “dibs.” Directly below sat Velm’s bed, evident from the way he tucked in his lute’s case under the sheets. Rohane shook his head in amusement and crawled onto the bed on the bottom right. Shortly after, he sat up against the wall and thought about the day.
I sang, huh? he thought airily. I wonder if Father would have been proud. He loved bringing me along to those run-down taverns to meet all of his friends... He wiped away the tiredness from his eyes as his mind drifted to vivid memories of “The Hill Tavern,” “The Castle Wall,” “Marrow Meadows,” more places than his brain could possibly recount.
A gentle knock came at the door.
“It’s just me, Rohane.” Talinia poked her green, feathery head in. “Are you feeling okay?”
He paused for a few seconds, formulating an answer. “I’m… I’m thinking about things.”
“What kind of things?”
“A lot of things,” he said with a shrug.
“That’s about as specific as I can expect from you, I guess.” She sat down on the floor across from his bed. “But I need to hear this from you—honestly this time. No avoiding the question. Are you okay?”
He looked down at the floor, then twisted his mouth as if tasting a sour fruit. “I don’t know.”
Her arms crossed. “That’s not exactly comforting.”
“I know. I was just… thinking about my father. How he loved to sing, how it brought Neopians of all social standings together to enjoy something, even in times of war.” His voice grew quiet. “How happy he was to bring Reuben, Mother, and I around to meet his friends.”
“He was a great Neopian.”
“He really was.” There was a long pause. “Part of the reason why I hate singing so much is because it reminds me that I’ll never be him, no matter how hard I try.”
He flicked his eyes up in disbelief. “Here’s the part where you say something comforting.”
“I meant that as you aren’t him. You’re Rohane, son of Sir Reynold, leader of our merry band of crazies, saviour of Meridell, The Lost Desert, Terror Mountain, and soon to be the Haunted Woods. Who knows, maybe even the whole world. You are your own Neopian. You can’t ever be someone else, so be the best version of yourself.”
“… You always know what to say.”
She shrugged. “It helps when you have ten younger siblings. Everyone thinks you have all the answers.”
“I bet. One brother was enough for me, I can’t imagine nine of him.” There came a silence between the two before Rohane took a deep breath. He shut his eyes and leaned against the wall.
Nolan, Nolan, King Leon’s sister’s son,
Renowned through all of Meridell for battles you have won.
In Council hear you carry on and plea to go to war,
And aid his ailing homeland against its rebel lords.
Nolan, Nolan, sound out your mighty horn.
Try to call the troops back that rode out yestermorn.
The king has heard you call afar, resources they say nay,
‘Tis only our young Nolan, out here to save the day.
Nolan, Nolan your name will live in song.
Whenever brave Neopians take arms to fight what’s wrong.
The fairest flower of chivalry to bloom in o’er the land,
The noblest of all the knights of our fair Meridell.
There came a thunderous applause from the other side of the door, to which Rohane sprung up from the bed, smacking his head on the top bunk.
“Rohane! That was so beautiful. But also, are you okay? That looked painful.”
He massaged his head before slinking down onto the pillow. “I guess the walls are thin here.”
“I… I guess they are.”
“I’m just going to pretend they didn’t hear that. That applause was imaginary.”
Mipsy barged into the room. “Was that you, Rohane?”
Rohane squeezed his eyes shut and tightly closed his mouth.
“I mean, it had to be you. But wow, actually wow. I heard you all the way down the hallway! Everyone’s talking about how great you sounded! Even Velm, he’s back to singing and playing for the tavern. Oh, also, that bunk is mine. I have dibs.”
Not waiting for a reply, she dashed out, slamming the door as she went.
Rohane covered himself with a blanket. “If anyone asks, I’ve ceased to be.”
To be continued…