“Hard to believe that so many of the beast-kin could be pushed out of their home. If they'd united, the entire city would have crumbled under their feet.” Rosewood observed wryly.
“And then there wouldn't have been a city to in which to live.” Robert said.
The two continued to make a large circle around their makeshift refugee camp. It was a patrol and tour rolled into one. The bowman wanted to make certain that everything was secure; in the process he pointed out different wagons of interest to the bear. Rosewood studied everything with an expert eye. The more she saw the less her good humor remained.
“Morgard's been heading down this path for a long time.” Robert continued. “King Allan died young, leaving his young prince the throne. You can't have a ten-year-old as ruler so a few regents were appointed to keep the peace of the interim.”
“And I'm guessing that worked out really well.” Rosewood's voice dripped of sarcasm.
“Unfortunately. The regents were appointed and removed at the whims of the Council's bickering. Over the years, corruption and greed became the normal state of affairs and the beast-kin were easy targets for those seeking a scapegoat. Some of us tried to stop the collapse of our culture and morality. We, obviously, failed. Now all we can do is get these persecuted people away from Morgard and to a better life somewhere else.”
“Is that a hint?” The bear chuckled. “You tryin' to tell me to give up on Morgard?”
“Frankly,” The bowman admitted dryly. “After seeing the devastation brought on your kind, I'm surprised that you persist on this endeavor.”
'Devastation' was about the right word for it. Everywhere she looked, misery and pain were on full display. A member of the fox clan had been hideously burned at the hands of a rioting mob. A pack of angry humans had reduced two bulls' blacksmith shop to ruin. Several others had lost life or limb.
But not every human was so heartless and cruel as to cause such pain and suffering. Robert and his fine band of mercenaries proved as much.
“Like I said, if this is the state of those able to escape such persecution, then those still facing it are going to need someone to crack heads together and make people listen. I like cracking heads together.”
The thought brought a smile to her lips. Her fingers moved to trace the hilt of the sword secured to her hip. It had been far too long since she'd had a good brawl in which to use it. Ah well, good things would come in time.
The sharp crack of a twig snatched their attention and focused it on the nearby woods. The bow leaped to Robert's hands while Rosewood ripped her sword from her sheath. Rosewood's eyes narrowed; she studied the area intently, looking for anything that didn't belong in that pristine display of natural beauty.
A shadow moved where it shouldn't. Her mouth twitched into a thin smile. Whoever was out there was trying to be stealthy, but was far from able to meet the task. Their location was as plain as the nose on Robert's face.
Throwing caution to the winds, Rosewood charged. Her massive bulk became a blur of speed as she sped forward to meet this new adversary. Her free hand ripped foliage and branch from her path. Her right remained ready to use her favored blade at an instant's notice.
Robert's warning cry managed to cut off her run. She pulled up short, sliding to a stop next to a tall oak tree. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the mercenary, who was frantically trying to wave her off of her mad pursuit. Rosewood frowned at him. Then she turned back around to immediately see what had the archer so concerned. A young frog-boy stood, quaking in his boots, before her. His eyes seemed even larger than normal and his mouth slack-jawed.
He was looking at her in complete bewildered terror, she realized.
“Don't worry, froggy, I'm not going to hurt you.” Rosewood promised. She placed her blade back in its sheath.
A sullen stare was her only answer. It was the look of someone who was trying to be brave and unconcerned despite the fact they were about ready to faint from fright. The boy had some moxie. Rosewood liked that.
“My name's Rosewood.” She said in an attempt at civility. “What's yours?”
“You don't seem too glib, Glibtongue.” Rosewood noted. “Is something bothering you?”
“If there is, it's none of your business.” The frog said.
With that final pronouncement, the young amphibian stood up on his spindly legs. He glared at the bear, pushed past her, and marched back off to camp. His flat feet slapped into the ground in what Rosewood assumed to be an effort to stomp off in indignation. As things stood, it just made the young frog look painfully and woefully silly.
The bear followed after the frog at a safe distance. She watched the frog exchange a few words with Robert and then vanish off into the depths of the inner camp.
“Such a nice boy.” Rosewood said upon returning to her post.
Robert was quick to explain: “He's been through a lot. His parents were killed by humans. We're taking him to his uncle in Westbury.”
“Ah. Poor boy.”
She stared off after the frog, lost in her own swirling thoughts. While she knew that prejudice always existed among those who looked different from others, never before had she been exposed to the horrors of what such prejudice could do. She had faced some discrimination before now; but this magnitude of suffering and evil was an entirely new concept to her.
It made her want to punch something, but there was nothing around which to punch. Well, there was Robert. But he was undeserving of her scorn.
Finally, she spoke: “I'm half tempted to leave your little train and try to make a few more miles before dark. There's got to be at least another hour of daylight left; those Morgard people need someone to knock some sense into them. The quicker the better.”
“You're free to go whenever you please.” Robert said with a shrug. “Your business is your own. But it'd take a strange one to spurn offered shelter for the comfort of a roadside ditch.”
“Not to mention rude besides.”
The exchange was interrupted by the approach of a heavy, thick little man. He had the look of one who enjoyed one meal too many, for he was nearly as wide as he was tall. The man wore a cooking smock, that was splattered with many multi-colored stains. He held a large, thick mug in each of his meaty hands.
“Hello, George.” Robert greeted the newcomer.
“Hello, Sir Robert.” The cook responded in kind.
“George, this is Rosewood. Rosewood, this is George. He's our cook.” The bowman helpfully supplied the information.
“Pleasure's all mind. I'd offer to shake hands, but yours look a little full.” Rosewood said.
“That's alright. No offense taken. These,” George paused to shake the mugs carefully. “are why I'm here, actually. I thought that the two of you might want a drink.”
“Thank you. That would be nice.” Robert accepted one of the mugs.
“Sure. I'll never turn down a free meal.” Rosewood agreed.
She took the mug from the little man and downed it with one long drought. As she gulped the drink Rosewood peered around the edge of her mug at her companions. She almost snorted as she caught the cook trying to give her a discreet visual once-over.
Rosewood was far removed from any sense of petty attractiveness that would be flattered at such leering. Her figure was fine, of course, but not the sort of thing over which she bothered worrying. She turned her attention to the liquid traveling down her throat. It was some sort of spicy tea. There was a melancholy of subdued flavors and then something else underneath that concoction that gave it some bite. It was pleasant, she decided.
She swallowed the last gulp, dropped the mug into the surprised cook's hand, and then let loose a loud sigh.
“That was pretty good, actually.” She announced. “What do you call it?”
“It's a secret family recipe. We call it all-spice tea.” George said. “Would you like some more?”
“Maybe later. Right now I've got a watch to watch.”
“Whatever you say. If you decide otherwise, you know where to find me.”
With that, the cook picked up Robert's now empty mug and scuttled off into the camp. Rosewood watched him go and then allowed herself a small chuckle. The poor guy. She knew the type. He was the sort who couldn't get a woman to look at him and was too desperate not to try. Maybe she'd take pity on him later and crack his head against a table.
Wait... Rosewood squinted and frowned. That wasn't right. She didn't want to hurt the little man, just let him off the cliff easy.
That also wasn't the right answer to the penguin's problem.
Rosewood's hand slapped against her cheek-- hard. The sharp stinging pain focused her drifting thoughts for one crucial moment. Something was wrong. Her thoughts were all jumbling together like broken eggs on a kicking mule.
The world grew an attitude and began quacking. Rosewood bit her tongue. Nothing helped the lion find the unicorn. Her knee cracked against the earth. Was this what madness looked like without make-up? No order. No stop to the slurry of images. Her sides convulsed. Something was wrong. Swords are shiny in the moonlight. She was drowning in her own thoughts... and could not stop it.