A Hero's Ballad: The Marrow
”I can’t live like this anymore…”
The words escaped Rohane’s lips as he sat sulking in the courtyard garden, face buried into his hands. An amber sky slowly shifted to eventide as his stomach grumbled in defiance. When he heard that the kitchen staff would be making meatloaf for the fifth time this week, he voluntarily chose to pick up his own groceries and cook a simple meal. That was the plan, at least. Now he wished that there was a morsel of leftovers in the mess hall, a sliver of meat loaf or a helping of creamed corn. Just the thought of any sort of food made his mouth water. But only a single roll remained, one he polished off in five seconds flat.
“You should’ve asked earlier,” the head chef said, pausing briefly from his cleanup while his staff wiped down tables and swept the floors. The sweaty green Moehog had thinning brown hair lost in part from the frequent shenanigans of the Order. “The marketplace has good grub—lots of great taverns and the like in central city. ”
“I was just there,” lamented Rohane as his ears drooped, “but I—”
“Sorry, Sir Rohane.” The Moehog crossed his arms, letting the cleaning rag in his hoof sling over his arm. “Kitchen’s closed. My staff and I want to head home for the night.”
The knight’s stomach disagreed loudly with the chef’s declaration, angrily voicing its discontentment. Rohane held an arm over it, hoping to quiet it down, and smiled sheepishly when it did not. One of the table cleaners spared a curious glance in his direction, but hid it as soon as their eyes locked. They then scrubbed the nearest long table even harder before scampering to the next, all while whistling conspicuously.
“Sorry if that sounded rude, Sir,” he continued, “but we’re out before dawn and work long days.” Realizing this may have been too harsh towards a member of the knightly Order, the chef took a deep breath, his voice now softer. “Maybe one of your friends has something in their cupboard? You’re a popular guy, right?”
“A bit too popular,” the knight muttered under his breath. “That’s part of the problem.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll have a pantry full of volunteers.” Upon hearing plates shatter, the Moehog whipped around and barked orders at the offending maid. Rohane flinched from the loud sound, his ears continuing to serve as a barometer for excessive noise. “What did I tell you all? Don’t carry more than 10 plates at a time!” He clicked his tongue. “No, wait, wait. I’ll be right over to help. We don’t want anyone getting cut.” He gave a brief nod to Rohane. “I must be off. Good night, Sir.”
Not wanting to stay overstay his welcome, he made his way to the courtyard garden to think. Sure, he had plenty of acquaintances in the city; many of them held him in high regard. But few were there who he could call a friend. His closest friends were scattered across Neopia; Velm and Mipsy were both out adventuring in Mystery Island (although Rohane surmised it was more of a vacation than anything else). And Talinia had returned to Terror Mountain to help take care of her family.
As time passed, the bench grew cold and a light breeze made him shiver. He thought about asking Jeran, but given their occasional—well, more than occasional—disagreements, the knight would surely use it as leverage in the future. And Serian, the Darigan Eyrie dignitary, crossed his mind, but he didn’t want to impose so suddenly. Besides, the Eyrie was sure to accompany that with a sparring request, one that the tired knight had no interest in returning.
He stood up, deciding then that tomorrow morning would be better. Maybe then he could see a baker at sunrise before throngs of Neopians filled the square. During his adventuring days, there were times when food was scarce; he had grown too accustomed to the luxury of three-square meals a day. Surely one—
Rohane’s ears perked up. Jeran’s and Danner’s voices sounded in the courtyard, both of them in hushed, harsh whispers. After his stomach roared once again, he ignored his previous train of thought. Perhaps they would have something small that could munch on—something to take the edge off.
When he approached, the two of them jumped back in alarm. It was nearing dark, he realized, and he surely seemed a suspicious figure.
“It’s just me,” said Rohane, as Jeran visibly relaxed his sword hand, which had been resting on the hilt of a shortsword. Upon a quick glance, neither were in their normal garb. Instead, they wore casual tunics, trousers, and had long travelling hoods that covered their faces. Only Jeran’s blue snout and tail illuminated in the rising moonlight. His companion, a blue Wocky, was all but hidden in the darkness. Rohane studied them. “Off somewhere?”
Jeran hesitated. “Nowhere in particular,” he said, as the top of his hood ruffled. Sometimes, when the blue Lupe played cards and lied about his hand, his ear would twitch.
Rohane glowered, unimpressed by the obvious lie. “Is that so?”
Danner gently elbowed the Captain of the Order. “Hey, Jeran. Maybe he can come with? It’s not like we’re doing anything unscrupulous.”
“They won’t recognize him if he’s in a cloak.”
“No thanks.” The Blumaroo rose a hand, shaking his head as he did. “I want no part in whatever it is you’re doing. Something tells me I don’t want to know.”
“We’re not—That’s not—” Jeran bit his lip. “Fine.” He flipped back the hood, revealing a scowl. “Danner and I go to a little tavern every Tuesday night to unwind. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s—”
“Wait.” The Blumaroo’s eyebrows rose in interest as his mouth instantly watered. He could practically taste the fried food now. “You’re going to a tavern together? Incognito?”
“Yeah?” Danner shifted uncomfortably. “Now you’re the one who’s sounding shady.”
The Blumaroo took a step forward. “I want in. You have an extra cloak?”
The two knights traded a glance. “I’m sure we could find something,” Danner said.
“Great.” The Blumaroo rubbed his rumbling stomach. “I’m starving, let’s get something to eat.”
The three of them manoeuvred the city streets with haste; Rohane wore a loose cloak that was a few sizes too large, and it took every effort to keep the hood from slipping back while he walked. Torches lined street corners, giving the normally jovial marketplace a sort of eerie feel. Neopians bustled about to their destinations, speaking in low voices to their companions. Not a single Neopian looked at Rohane with interest. No pointing fingers or prolonged stares, just the casual glances of Neopians acknowledging their presence. It felt so normal, so mundane.
Rohane relished every moment of it.
That is, until they turned down a back alley. A Meowclops hissed as they approached before dashing away, snatching a piece of garbage in its mouth. Rohane quickly plugged his snout as the stench of untreated sewage filled his nostrils.
“Shh,” warned Jeran, bringing a finger to his mouth, “we’re almost there.”
Rohane’s shoulders tensed as fought the urge to speak up solely because he was hushed, but he thought better of it.
At the end of the dark alleyway was a ramshackle building. One of the windows had a crack in it as if purposely struck with a rock. A rusty sign hung from an old post and swung haphazardly in the breeze. Written in chipping red paint were three words, all barely legible with age: The Mangled Marrow.
Rohane clapped a hand on Jeran’s shoulder, causing the older knight to turn around in confusion. The Blumaroo wordlessly pointed to the sign, then gestured with visible concern. “What?” he mouthed. “What?”
Jeran bent over to his companion’s ear, his whispering voice full of confidence. “Trust me, Rohane, we’ll be fine.”
Although Jeran didn’t notice—or perhaps pretended not to—Rohane’s mouth was a line as he squinted. In his mind, Rohane called his superior officer a “meathead,” knowing full well that Jeran would hate it if it was said aloud—tempting as it was. Very tempting. But then he might not get a peaceful dinner.
“Just follow our lead,” the Lupe added with a slight swagger, “we’re regulars here. No one will bat an eye at us.”
Rohane shook his head in disbelief before gesturing for the Lupe and Wocky to go forward. In the back of his mind, he started wondering if it was better to turn back—to shop at the market before crowds gathered around him like flies to rancid meat. But a pang of hunger made the decision for him: he was going in.
Jeran gave the rusted doorknob a solid tug. The door pivoted with a screech, announcing their presence with all the subtlety of a mewling petpet. A hushed silence fell across the dining room as the duo made their way inside. Rohane followed a few steps behind, instinctively pulling his hood closer to further hide his face and ears. As soon as the Blumaroo stepped through the door, a wave of eyes flicked upon him, instantly branding him as an outsider. The Blumaroo couldn’t help but gulp.
Waning candlelight on each long table illuminated the unkempt, rugged faces of the patrons from below, making them appear menacing. Cobwebs hung from the dimly lit wooden beams, casting rhomboid shadows upon the wall.
Sure, Rohane and his friends had been to some less-than-ideal inns over the years, but this place made even the most ramshackle rooms look like a luxury hotel. Before he could ruminate on such thoughts, there came a bellowed greeting from a middle-aged green Skeith with a shock of brown hair and sideburns.
“Tail! Blue!” He gave a toothy grin with what teeth he had left. There were more gaps in his smile than actual teeth, and more than a few of these teeth were gold. “Good to see ya!”
Meanwhile, Rohane twisted his mouth in confusion.
“Hey, Arv,” said Jeran in a deep voice far removed from his normal timbre, “how’s it going?”
“Oh, it goes,” and while he said this, the innkeeper filled a frosted mug with bloodred, sparkling juice. Rohane crinkled his nose at the concoction as a serving wench picked up the full glass with one hand and placed it on a tray. As he filled up yet another mug with soda, Arv rested his gaze on Rohane and pointed at him with his free, gangly hand. “Friend of yours?”
“Yeah, he’s a buddy of ours,” replied Danner, who also spoke in a gravelly voice. “Wanted to see what the fuss was about.”
“Is that so?” The Skeith rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Ay, you,” said Arv, as he accidentally sloshed soda to the ground. Biting his tongue through his gapped teeth he continued, “what’s your name, buddy?”
The Blumaroo hesitated. It wasn’t like he wanted to use his actual name. “It’s um… um…”
“Ears?” Both the Blumaroo and Arv questioned it in synchrony. When Rohane bristled, Danner gave an exaggerated shrug and mouthed the word “sorry.”
“It’s his code name.” Jeran doubled-down on the lie. “He’s living off-the-grid.”
It took every ounce of the Blumaroo’s self-control not to shake his commanding officer right then and there and ask him “what are you doing?!” Instead, he chuckled nervously and said, “that’s me,” hoping that it was gruff enough to keep anyone from recognizing him.
Whistling, the innkeep poured a small cup of liquid and slid it in the Blumaroo’s direction. Realizing that the gesture was meant for him, Rohane picked up the glass and spun it lightly in his hand. It had an acrid smell. He took a polite sip and was surprised by how sweet it tasted.
“Blood orange soda, our best batch yet – for the new guy with the checkered past. Not poisoned, I swear.” Arv made a sweeping motion of his big, meaty arms. “Find a table and park yourself wherever ya want. And don’t worry, Ears, we don’t bite much.”
“Much,” confirmed the Skeith.
The three of them found a round table in the corner of the room and took a seat. A small stack of newspapers wedged under the table leg to keep it steady.
When the serving wench, a muscular purple Zafara with an I *heart* Mom tattoo on her neck, made her way over, she tapped her quill against Rohane’s arm, causing him to flinch. “When I’m on break, you and me are gonna arm wrestle, tough guy.” Before Rohane could process what happened, she jumped into customer service mode. “So, hun, what do y’all want?”
“Arm wrestle?” Rohane rose an eyebrow. It wasn’t like he would turn such a thing down—it was a good way to pass the time and something he actually enjoyed doing.
“Yeah, hun.” She flexed her biceps. “But for now, they aren’t on the menu.”
Rohane opened his mouth to say something, but instead let out a thoughtful hum.
“We’ll have fried marrow strips for the table, ma’am,” interjected Danner, hoping to break up the awkwardness, “and an extra order for my friend here—put it on my tab.”
Rohane rose his head from the table, suddenly alert. “You’re treating?” When the Wocky nodded, he added, “thanks for that, Dan—"
“D-don’t mention it, Ears.” He lingered on the word while fidgeting with a cloth napkin.
“Make that a double order, Bess,” added Jeran nonchalantly, before taking a strong whiff of the fried food around him, “and throw in a Marrow burger, too. Haven’t had one in eons.” Seeing as he picked the chair closest to the wall, the Lupe sprawled out comfortably, making full use of his extra leg room.
While the three of them spoke, Bess scribbled a mile a minute on a dirty notepad. She flipped to the next page, circling a few words as she went along.
“Alright, huns. I’ll be right back.”
And back she was—in record time. The second the marrow strips hit the table, Rohane dug both hands into the bowl and grabbed two fistfuls. Forgetting his manners, he shoved three into his mouth at once and savored the amazing flavor.
“Slow down, you Snorkle.” Jeran made a few imitations of the oinking petpet. “These are for all of us.”
“Save some for the rest of us, man,” agreed Danner as he slid his fingers under Rohane’s hands and unearthed a particularly long, well-done marrow strip. Humming, he popped it into his mouth and gave it a satisfying crunch. “Worth every Neopoint.”
“I will.” Rohane made a decisive crunch. “Hungry.”
Danner and Jeran ate their portions slowly as they watched their companion’s food disappear at an alarming rate. Before long, Rohane had eaten a bowl full of marrow strips and proceeded to order a second, then a third, then a fourth before finally melting into the seat, satisfied. After the first plate, Rohane had offered to pay, much to Danner’s relief.
“That’s better.” Rohane let out a contented burp. “Best marrow strips I’ve had in years.”
Jeran took a bite out of his burger, chewed it a few times with his mouth open until Danner gave him a pointed glare. He hurriedly swallowed before speaking again. “Yeah, this place is great.”
Rohane took a long breath, breathing in the greasy, dusty room with a look of serenity. “No one hassles you here.”
“Yeah,” confirmed Jeran as he paused to sip his soda, “no one treats you like an icon, like a hero.”
Danner cupped his arms around his neck. “We’re just regular guys at the Marrow.”
“This is exactly what I needed,” added Rohane, who found just enough appetite to reach for another fried marrow strip. Jeran swatted at him when his hand approached. “Hey!”
“I need some, too,” said Jeran with a grunt, “you ate half the ones Blue bought.”
Rohane squinted. “I thought those were for everyone. Besides, I bought these.”
While they bickered, they hardly noticed a hulking yellow Mynci in a torn leather jacket, ripped trousers, and a black bandana lumbering behind them. His left hand was balled into a fist.
“Hey, new guy,” he started, jolting Rohane out of his moment of relaxation. “I got something to show ya.”
The moment he saw the Mynci’s fist in the corner of his eye, the Blumaroo took mental note of every way he could disarm or disable him. A headlock seemed his best option, but only if it was necessary.
Plowing his fist into the table, the Mynci shook a few of the plates, but nothing fell. Neither of the other two knights seemed particularly concerned and continued their dinner. Danner scarcely offered a short “hey, Frank,” to him. The Mynci opened his palm and there was… Rohane squinted at it. A doll? A burlap doll with arched eyebrows, a smug smile, and a simple red dress with skull designs lovingly stitched into the hem.
“This,” the Mynci, whose name was apparently Frank, announced proudly, “is Princess Skullcrusher—made her myself. She’s rough and tough.” He puffed out his chest for good measure.
Rohane blinked a few times, trying to process what had just happened.
“New dress?” asked Danner, feeling the fabric in his fingers.
“Yeah. This one’s got even more skulls than the last one.”
“She’s looking sharp—I like the pointy teeth.”
Frank punched Danner playfully. “Thanks, Blue. Means a lot that you’d notice.”
The Wocky rubbed at his sore shoulder. “Sure, man. Any time.”
Just as Frank was about to show off the intricacies of his stitchwork, another Neopian, a silver Krawk with meaty arms and a scar across his eye, pushed his way through. “New guy,” he started roughly, a scowl on his face, “got something for ya.”
Rohane sighed under his breath, wishing that they could enjoy their meal in peace. “Yeah?”
With a forceful motion, the Krawk thrust an aluminum tray down onto the center of the table. “Go on, new guy. Try ‘em—made ‘em myself.” There was a half dozen neatly decorated cupcakes with red buttercream icing and giant skulls designs. Two of the skulls were missing teeth and another had a bright red bow. “They’re to die for.”
The Blumaroo grimaced, studying the collection of baked goods with concern. “To die for?” When Jeran and Danner gave approving nods, Rohane removed a cupcake from the tin and took a cautious bite. The moist red velvet was surprisingly rich, as was the bloodred, cherry-flavored frosting and handmade decorations.
Detecting Rohane’s approval, the Krawk smiled contently. “See? I make good grub. Grab some more!”
Swallowing his last bite, Rohane said, “they’re great, thanks,” before taking another from the tin. Frank looked on at the interaction with a jealous pout.
“All the newbies get them,” declared the Krawk, before looking Frank dead in the eyes with a smirk. “Princess Skullcrusher’s got nothin’ on these bad boys.”
Frank tightly hugged his beloved doll before snarling at the offending Krawk. “You insult Princess Skullcrusher, you insult me, Jim.”
Jim threw a piece of cupcake into his mouth and chewed with his mouth open, revealing a set of blackened, cavity-covered teeth. “Ain’t an insult. It’s the truth.”
“Oh yeah, Jim?” Frank balled his hands into fists. “Well, your buttercream icing is dry and tasteless.”
At the front of the Mangled Marrow, Arv hid a few frosted mugs behind the counter. The serving wench looked ready to use her tray as a shield.
“That’s my maw’s recipe.” The Krawk ground his teeth together and took a storming step forward. “You insulted my maw’s icing.”
“Ain’t an insult,” the Mynci sneered, “it’s the truth.”
The patrons followed their banter as if watching a tennis match, their eyes shifting between each Neopian like a heated volley.
“You know what else is the truth?” Jim took a deep breath and shouted his next words. “Your stitchwork is sloppy!”
There came a startling silence from the room. A few of the patrons gasped. Even Jeran and Danner exchanged a concerned glance. Meanwhile, Rohane had slipped off of the wobbly bench where he was seated and eyed both Neopians warily. For a few moments, nobody moved.
It was Frank who threw the first punch—with Rohane in the crossfire—and Jim shortly after. In an instant, Rohane grabbed each of their wrists and yanked them both down, smashing their heads into each other. Frank stumbled and fell on his curly Mynci tail while Jim crumbled to the ground in a heap.
“Ow…” they said in unison.
The next sound Rohane heard was Jeran slapping his face while his right hand pointed at Rohane’s exposed ears. And face. “Great job,” the Lupe muttered. Realizing the hood had slipped, Rohane pulled it up in a panic, but it was too late. Whispers already filled the room.
“Ears is that guy?!”
“It was good while it lasted,” thought Rohane glumly, ready to pay for his meal and rush back to his quarters without another word, apologizing to Jeran and Danner later. But when nobody hovered around begging for an autograph or a recitation of his famous lines, he was taken aback. Everyone looked on with fleeting interest before returning to their conversations as if nothing happened.
Jim and Frank rose to their feet, the latter of whom was rubbing his hand against his arm in embarrassment.
“Ya mean we got dunked on by some famous guy?” asked Frank, shaking his head in disbelief before wincing. “Yikes.”
“Jeez, that hurt, Ears,” added Jim. “Your muscles are no joke.”
“I imagine you’ll tell everyone you know about this,” Rohane’s shoulders slumped as he fought off a growing headache.
Both of the burly Neopians crinkled their noses.
“Nah,” said Jim.
“We ain’t squealers,” echoed Frank, before sweeping his finger around the room. “None of us are. You came here to escape, yeah? All three of ya.”
Meanwhile, both Danner and Jeran visibly relaxed, nodding in agreement.
“Then yeah. No squealing here, Ears.” Frank moved Princess Skullcrusher towards Rohane’s face and threw his octave-higher voice towards the now teetering doll. “We don’t take kindly to them here. They squeal, I beat ‘em up quick.”
Rohane laughed uncomfortably. “Good to know.”
“Your secret’s safe with us, hun,” said the serving wench, who had since rolled up her right sleeve and laid her arm on the table. “But now we gotta arm wrestle. You and me.”
“And me,” came at least five voices from across the room.
“After he signs my lucky napkin,” interjected Arv with a quill in hand. He smoothed it out the best he could, avoiding the wet spots on the table. “We had Chet Flash’s signature, but it up and disappeared.” Before Rohane could protest, he added, “if anyone asks, you came here once. No finger pointing, just good luck for the Marrow. And we could use some luck here.”
Rohane signed it reluctantly in neat, cursive ink. The barkeep handled the napkin as if it were made of gold before returning to the front of the restaurant to search for a frame.
While Rohane settled back onto his shaky stool, a few Neopians lined up, rolling up their sleeves for an arm-wrestling match.
“Us too, Ears,” said one with visible glee.
Danner bent over to Rohane’s ear, whispering with his hand cupped over his mouth. “Sorry, this didn’t go as you planned. I’d understand if you don’t want to come back.”
The Blumaroo thought for a second, tilting his chin to the ceiling as he slammed the serving wench’s arm to the table. She whooped with excitement and immediately asked for a rematch. “Actually… can I join you guys next week?”
The Wocky grinned from beneath his hood. “Of course.”
“Same time next week?”
“Same time next week.”