Tsewil and the Hero's Path
Rambling along the country lane that traversed his farm, Tsewil the Asparagus Chia shielded his eyes as he scanned the fields. The day was nearly half over, and still no sign of his friends. Out here in the Meridell countryside, company was a rare and highly anticipated pleasure, and he was determined to show his guests the best hospitality his farm could offer. That included a meal made with only the freshest ingredients, which his experienced nose could tell were on the verge of wilting in the summer heat. With a practiced hand he trimmed a tiny slice of turnip and placed it on the tip of his tongue with an appraising smile. Still perfect. For the nonce.
Then came a stirring of dust, along with the unmistakable squeak of a regulation Meridell wagon, heralding his guests' arrival well before they rounded the final dells leading to the farmstead. A two-headed Mutant Hissi pulled the wagon like a rickshaw, while his two passengers, a Ruki and another Hissi, chatted amiably. Tsewil rushed out to meet them.
The Royal Ruki giggled to herself at the Chia's approach, watching his little Chia feet race, as the two Hissies helped her down. "Tsewil, you little cutie, it's been far too long."
Tsewil's eyes widened – by Chia standards, anyway – and bowed deeply. "Too true... Your Highness? Your Grace? M'lady? I see you've joined the upper class since the last time you graced my humble acres."
" 'Anneslace' will do just fine," she laughed, tousling his tips. "It's a long story."
"Besides," interjected the Mutant Hissi as he kicked off the dust of the trail with a hearty slap of his tail, "last I checked, crowns are more common among asparagus than among royalty." He stuck out both tongues playfully.
The Faerie Hissi rolled his eyes at the Mutant. "Yes, Pystry, very clever. But please don't pretend you know more about vegetables than Tsewil here. You'll just embarrass yourself."
Tsewil chuckled. "Anneslace, Pystry, Abharī, come on in and wash up. You must be hungry after your trip, and lunch is waiting."
"I can hardly believe what you all have been up to," said Tsewil, as he refilled their Cups of Water. "Pystry, I see you've taken your Strength training as seriously as your studies. I've hauled my share of wagons. You must be putting on some muscle to carry passengers as well."
Pystry shrugged shyly, then narrowed his eyes with pleasure as he took simultaneous bites of Tsewil's Tasty Turnip Tartar. Tsewil knew how to steam a turnip to perfection.
"But to hear that the Techo Master himself sent you on a Master Quest!" continued the Chia. "Such an honour."
"It's been an amazing experience," admitted Pystry. "Traveling to new lands, meeting all sorts of new people, and learning so much in the process. But I've hit a snag."
"Anything we can help with?" asked the Chia.
"I wish." "I don't know," Pystry's two heads debated. "Maybe. The Techo Master sent me on the quest because he said I lacked hands-on experience with the combat elements we use in the Battledome. I left the dojo, got my hands dirty in the real world, and thought I'd completed my quest. But the Techo Master says I still need to understand the physical component of battle. He wants me to prove I understand the combat elements in a physical form. It's a test, a final test, and he hasn't approved of any of my answers yet. And they were so well researched, they really were..." Pystry trailed off dejectedly.
Abharī cupped an iridescent Faerie wing around his Mutant friend's shoulders. "I've never known a puzzle you couldn't solve, Pystry. Just give it some time."
"And our sweet Anneslace, captured by pirates, and now running a pirate ship. I'd never believe it if I didn't know an honest face when I see it."
"I'd hardly call the ferry a pirate ship," the Ruki demurred, helping herself to a third Vegetarian Stuffed Courgette. "But I am surprised how much I've come to love a life at sea. It's a lot of work keeping the schooner stocked with all the provisions we need."
"I'm glad I can help," smiled Tsewil. "Both to help out a friend, and because I can really use the business. Skarl's latest Marrow Tax bit a little more deeply than I was prepared for."
"Tell me about it," groused Abharī. "I had no idea I'd have to pay an extra licensing fee for the wagon. I'd have had to pay a livery tax on top of that if Pystry hadn't volunteered to do the heavy lifting."
"King Skarl is taxing transportation on medical supplies now?" Tsewil's brow furrowed.
"Until they arrive at the clinic, the government considers your herbs and berries as taxable produce, regardless of their medicinal use," Abharī replied sadly.
Tsewil felt a cool breeze from the kitchen window, and glanced at the deepening blue sky. "Speaking of arriving at the clinic, we'd best be getting a move on. I don't want your supplies spoiling in the heat, and I'll feel better if you can make it back to the village before dark."
Tsewil led his three guests along a rambling country path to a cottage on the edge of his property. A light breeze set the branches of a ripening Chestnut Tree swaying, causing the filtered afternoon sunlight to dance in the tree's shadow. Tsewil looked over his bundled goods with pride.
"I have a fresh supply of medicinal herbs for you, Abharī. Sage and rosemary, dandelion and fresh burdock. Here are your Voidberries so you can make fresh Voidberry Extract, Unguberries for health, and Blockberries for nutrition. Put them in a cool pantry as soon as you can."
"Were you able to get any Mortogberries yet? I want to test that cure for warts Pystry found in the medical library."
"Sorry, Abharī. It's been too dry for Mortogberries."
Abharī shook his head with exaggerated slowness. "Guess I'll just have to make another trip soon, then."
The Chia laughed. "You do that. Now, for you, Anneslace, you asked for durable vegetables with vitamin C, and for something like creosote that could be made into a sticky pitch to repair your ship after bad weather."
Pystry gave a double grin. "I've never known a 'pet who loves hard work as much as you, Anneslace. Are you sure you're Royal?" The Ruki glanced sharply in reply, but her smile belied her amusement.
Tsewil removed a burlap cover from atop a crate. "These Lemon Squash should keep the scurvy at bay, and this pallet of Durbage... I think you're going to love this. It's part cabbage and part hay. You can cook it up as food, or pulp it into a perfect creosote substitute."
The Ruki touched her hands to her lips; her eyes focused into the distance as she considered the possibilities. "This... this is perfect, Tsewil. Thank you so much."
Tsewil favoured her with an inscrutable smile. "And once more surprise for you. Please give this to Captain Phidianne, with my compliments." He reached behind a strategically placed bale of hay and withdrew a small leather canteen. "I hear your captain is an expert with Mystery Island's tropical fruits. Here's a Fruit Juice Sack, made from the best Meridell berries."
Anneslace's eyes widened. "A gourmet food like that is really far too generous, Tsewil."
"Nonsense." The Chia pressed the canteen into the Ruki's protesting hands. "She can return the favour by visiting sometime you're in port."
Anneslace pulled Tsewil into a great Bearog hug, lifting the diminutive Chia a good ten centimetres off the ground, as the two Hissies loaded the crates onto the wagon. Just as Pystry finished, he gave an involuntary yelp as an errant potato flew over a nearby brent and clobbered him on one head.
"I am so sorry," muttered Tsewil, as he grabbed the tumescent tuber and hurled it back over the hill. "Flying potatoes are sort of an occupational hazard out here in Meridell's farmland. They're always so much better behaved when they're still safely nestled in the darkness and the soil, soaking up the sunlight and water."
Despite the thump to one of his noggins, Pystry's eyes flashed with realization. "Tsewil, say that again. Potatoes need sunlight and darkness to grow? And water and light, like all plants... what about air?"
Tsewil chewed thoughtfully on a piece of straw. "Potatoes grow best in sandy soil, soil that's been aerated. Sure, you could say potatoes need air."
Pystry hardly dared to breathe. "How about fire?"
"Aside from sunlight? No, potatoes don't need fire to grow."
Anneslace raised a pincer. "But you do have to cook them before you eat them. I know King Skarl likes to reward people with Raw Potatoes, but they're mildly poisonous."
Pystry beamed. "This is perfect, Tsewil. Don't you see? This is the answer I can give the Techo Master to complete my quest. The humble potato, the perfect food – well, second only to omelettes and jelly – and it exists as the physical manifestation of all six combat elements." The Mutant was practically gloating with excitement.
Abharī smiled. "Now aren't you glad I drafted you into manual labour?"
Tsewil selected a particularly fine potato from a nearby bin. "Very well, then. For the Techo Master, with my compliments." The Chia seemed suddenly, unexpectedly glum.
"What's wrong, Tsewil?"
The Chia kicked at the ground with his toe. "I dunno... I love what I do, really I do. But it seems like all my friends are having these grand adventures." He turned to each 'pet in turn. "Fighting off pirates, saving lives, going on Master Quests... It all seems so heroic. I guess I feel a little left out."
Anneslace hugged him again, lifting him even higher off the ground. "Tsewil, don't you dare say that. You're a hero to me."
Pystry's right head nodded emphatically. His left head, though, was deep in thought.
"When you have two heads, you get good at seeing different sides of things," he began. "It seems to me there are two ways of being a hero. One way is for everyone to call you a hero, to be part of a legend. It doesn't even matter if the legend is true, or whether the hero lives up to the legend. Good King Skarl is in the Gallery of Heroes, and mostly he spends his time eating, auditioning court jesters, and inventing new taxes. Lord Darigan is in the Gallery of Evil, and for what? Saving his people from famine and poverty after King Skarl stole his orb?"
"Don't get me wrong," Pystry added hastily. "I mean no disrespect. But there's another kind of hero, one whose exploits aren't sung far and wide. Some heroes do the right thing, in little, unnoticed ways. Anneslace isn't a hero because she survived capture by pirates; she's a hero because she always makes sure everyone on board's needs are met and unfailingly stops problems from happening in the first place."
If a Royal Ruki could blush through her lavender exoskeleton, Anneslace would have.
"Abharī is a hero not because he saves lives, but because he cares. If my Master Quest is heroic – and I don't know that I'd ever call it that – I've only succeeded because of my many friends who have helped me along the way, including you."
"I guess my berries and vegetables are going to keep people safe and well," replied the Chia, without conviction.
Abharī cocked his head. "Tsewil, can I ask why you had us walk all the way out here? You've got so far out of your way to make everything else so convenient for us on this visit."
Tsewil looked down with embarrassment. "Honestly? This path is a public right of way. If I don't document that Neopets are using it, King Skarl can revoke its protected status, and levy a toll on the road. I'm usually the only one out here, so I make a point of walking the entire length, every day, even during harvest."
Pystry gave a double smile. "And that, my friend, is why you are a hero."