-=-Outside Szazah's Tent-=-
As Phinuphus plodded wordlessly back out of Szazah's tentflap on all fours. He knelt his his forelimbs without really looking, knowing Cheed would be nearby. The boy had given himself a good fifteen feet for a flying leap onto the Capybkin's back, shouting with excitement. His landing elicited only a small grunt from Phinuphus as he rose back up and surveyed his surroundings, ponderous. Indeed, instead of heading forward he sat back on his haunches to think. He was already prepared to leave save for his goodbyes with the healers and setting Cheed up with Franksodi's two other apprentices.
Cheed climbed up to sit on Phinuphus shoulders, watching the rest of Phinuphus' party leave into camp while his master sat in thought.
"I've never seen a Raksha before." Cheed murmured, scritching absent-mindedly behind one of Phinuphus' ears. "How many different sorts'a beast-kind are there, Master Tankin?"
"Mmm... there are stories for each of our bloodlines. They are as true as they are false; lots of 'first came these,' and 'badly came they,' and more human muddlings of our shared history." Phinuphus rummaged beneath his cloak as he spoke, pulling out a long wooden pipe and some hoarmint. He lit it deftly with the practice of decades and took a long puff before continuing, huffing gouts of white mist as thick as wool from his snout. "The one that rings most true is a story my mother told me before I had enough balance to stand on two legs. When the world was young and Anomandaris still played amongst the gods as a pet, some of the gods took to abusing them in moments of weakness and cruelty, when infighting amongst two-legs could not sate their baser needs to compete and strive."
Cheed frowned. "Like how Franksott beats his mule."
"I will make a true mouse of you yet," Phinuphus smiled, waggling his eat in Cheed's hand faintly. "Yes, you can see shadows of the tale to this day. A boy chasing chickens, a maid kicking her dog, a carter driving his horse past exhaustion. Each, innocent or otherwise, is a part of the first story. All two-legs drive one another and when they're too afraid to do that, they press everything else around them. Knead the life out of things like overworking dough 'til it won't hold any shape you'd want to eat. Such and worse was done to Our Lion when their every shape was some manner of cub. And as you see soft-skins like yourself today, so it was in the old times amongst the gods."
"Which gods?" Cheed asked as Phinuphus took another long puff of hoarmint, exhaling it in dense, billowing clouds.
It was a story Phinuphus knew well, with questions any child might ask. And the telling gave him time to think on the state of his soon-to-be companions. Each seemed a queer addition, with the Raksha heretic promising the most interesting tale. Phinuphus knew full well it was unfair of him to judge her for a life Anomandaris had given to live as she chose. Indeed, Micheal was loved best among all of Anomandaris' peers. Still, for a beastkin to not know Their Lion's grace seemed an affront as great as Phinuphus' people's continued isolation from the world and the blight of the Apotheosis.
"Each will blame the other, and to some extent each shares blame," Phinuphus continued, his booming voice distorted by the cloud of hoarmint thickening around him. "It comes to the same end. Our Lion grew large and was no longer as pliant as they were in youth. But while the gods came to respect Anomandaris as they proved themselves just as worthy of worship as any two-legged god, manlings and elves and stouties and our hot-blooded Dragonkin did not treat animals with the same respect. For generations, Anomandaris seethed, and then cast a seeding upon the world no less potent than any other god's."
"In truth the world is too wide for us to know just how many there might be," Phinuphus nodded to Szazah as he emerged from his tent last, and rose to all-fours to follow behind the man. "It is known our bloodlines can intermingle as often as our usually disparate temperaments. Shajala Six-Lives was born to a Laqugine and a Raksha, with all the latter's grace and the former's powerful hind-legs and... ah... prodigitude."
Szazah barked a laugh at that. Phinuphus had told quite the tale about Shajala at the ale tent a couple of months back when he was deep in his cups.
"What we remember is that it is our place to remind our softer and harder brothers and sisters that every creature has a soul, just as free as their own. Thrice over and more free, to hear Minotaurs tell it." That elicited another chuckle from Szazah. It was perhaps the only way Phinuphus could interact with Szazah that did not put him on edge. Indeed, he liked that he could make Szazah laugh when the man wasn't pissing drunk. For all Phinuphus knew, it was the only real reason Szazah wanted him on their mission.
Presently, they broke off from Szazah, making for the medicine tents. Cheed's face fell. Not even the sweet funk of Phinuphus' pipe could prepare him for what was coming next.
It wasn't fair.
-=-Afternoon, Medical Tents-=-
"HUUUUOOoow can you say that?" Phinuphus bellowed, arms spread wide in a pleading gesture. "The boy's not yet ten! You have two in your charge and you mind them well. Cheed's the best behaved human I have ever met for his age!"
"It's our food, Phin. I can't take the boy. I can barely take my bloody bastard and Saemine."
Franksodi Carson snapped, glaring up at Phinuphus with his fists at his hips and a vein above his left ear. The bald, portly young doctor was six feet and some of lard and flour and fire, like a kebab of onions roasted too long and dressed up in too-tight wool. Franksodi was sopping with rain from the day and sweat from the moment, his brown beaver's pelt of a mustache quivering as he huffed for breath.
"We move again in two days. Since you asked, Aliyah and I have found nine more cases of Boneblack. She's certain we'll find more." Franks started pacing again, thumping up and down the tent's western side with his heavy boots and gesticulating with all the power of a blacksmith. "Dismas is stubborn but he knows believe us, so we're raising rations throughout the camp 'til we're sure we've cleared the mold-line. But our stores are low and poorly timed for the coming months. We need to lose every mouth to feed we can to ride the winter well, and that means Cheed if we can stand to lose him."
Phinuphus just stared, trembling visibly with sullen rage. He slammed a balled fist onto the table beside him, Barking again in irritation, like his capybara ancestors. Striking the table was the outlet he needed to becalm, Franksodi rounding on him only to find Phinuphus sitting back on his haunches and pressing his hands into the earth beneath him, eyes closed. Franks gaped, speechless at the change. Then Aliyah charged through the tentflaps to glower pointedly between the two.
"Tahnqin," she hissed, turning to face him. "This is the second time inside of a week you've lost your damndable temper in my sick tent."
The main sick tent was long and well lit, able to bed twenty. Over half of the beds were occupied now, and in the swelling silence each patient watched the three healers at the front of the tent, once glum expressions each now tinged with alarm.
"I am sorry, Miss Aliyah. Mister Franksodi." Phinuphus opened his eyes, staring down at his bunched hands. Aliyah walked over to face him directly, lifting her hands to rest them in his shoulders.
"Phinuphus," Aliyah spoke softly. "The boy is yours. Has been since his pa died in our beds. The camp's no place for a child what doesn't let himself be minded. You're the only one he likes..." Aliyah paused, a comical bitterness entering her tone as she smiled. "...you're the only one he bloody well says more'n a word a day to, and that's a truth from your lion's own tits."
Phinuphus chittered at the woman's words in spite of himself. It made Franksodi cock his head in wonder that such a deep voice could come so high. Beastkin were passing queer sometimes.
"It is a truth." Phinuphus looked up, his snout inches from her face, his expression unreadable to her, but his voice warming. "I... have some kind of way with the child. Or perhaps he with me. But Szazah means for us to travel north. It will be hard." Phinuphus trailed off and Aliyah tutted sourly at him.
"You do not have to go with him. It's written in his days how badly the man is broken."
"That's not fair." Phinuphus retorted.
"Nor are the Apotheosis. You're as generous and dense as an apple tree." Aliyah ranted, hurrying over to a mortar and pestle sitting on a table. She worked it fiercely as she rejoined them, scowling at everything.
"That's not fair either!" Phinuphus huffed, flustered. "Our lio-"
"I don't care what our lion has to say about a jumped up lordling what's surrounded by a pack of other lords no less hot-hearted, and with a good deal more sense and less drink in them." Aliyah said. Franksodi grunted in agreement as she continued. "Take your visions and leave... and take the boy. Care until it bursts your ratty skull, but care elsewhere. You've spoke of nothing but travel since Szazah put the first yarn through your ears."
Phinuphus almost spoke, but his voice caught in his throat and it came out as a high-pitched warble of worry.
"As I thought. You'll tell us goodbye then, while there's any warmth left in you about the matter, and you'll bloody well leave once we're done." She set the mortar'n pestle down on a closer table, and joined the two men again.
Phinuphus sighed, and pulled both Franksodi and Aliyah into a forceful hug. Franksodi spluttered with protest, but then joined Aliyah in the return, each squeezing the other tightly.
"And take the boy," Aliyah said one last time, giving Phinuphus a peck on the cheek before pulling away and returning to her work. Franksodi pulled away too... just watching Phinuphus with a forlorn glare.
The capybkin rose on all fours, looking between the two of them as Franksodi finally moved to sit down in front of a wooden trunk and opened it, searching for something. It was truly done.
"Th-... thank you, both of you, for making me feel welcome." They pointedly ignored him. "...and..." Phinuphus choked, turning toward the door. "...and may our lion's grace never leave either of you."
As Phinuphus plodded out of the main sick tent, he heard a sob, followed by a hacking cough. Franksodi, crying. The very idea!
As Phinuphus came out, he turned his head to see Cheed beaming up at him in triumph. Between that and his surprise at Franksodi's feelings, his mood snapped to joy. He butted his head into Cheed's chest, knocking him giggling to the ground and nuzzling into his face affectionately.
Family, Phinuphus had joked. It was funnier now. Stranger. A truth from his lion's tits indeed.
After a few moments, Cheed and Phinuphus set out toward the makeshift gates of the camp to wait the last hour before it was time to leave under cover of night. There was no one else Phinuphus wanted to see, least of all Meekminnow in all his fishy foulness now that Szazah's plan was underway. And Cheed was too happy to care what anyone else had to say.
-=-Early Evening, half an hour before the party is to leave-=-
Phinuphus sat on his haunches waiting patiently, Cheed again perched upon his neck. It promised to be a blessedly dry evening for their first night. The rain had stopped almost an hour ago and the skies were finally beginning to clear somewhat. The two of them had passed the time with walnuts, and presently Phinuphus was testing the boy at sums.Summary:
"So now she has ten dozen eggs, eight heaps of flour, and how many kegs of wine?" Phinuphus asked, eyes closed.
"Fifteen. But what about the cobbler? He's still foisted in the bargain isn't he?" Cheed prompted.
As they continued with Phinuphus scenario, the guards on duty listened intently. Neither had been interested at first, but one couldn't help but just listen to the way Phinuphus spoke after a while. They were wrapped in attention, too captivated to be sullen that the boy was keeping up with the sums faster than either of them could by a wide margin.
They waited, happy as a father and son could be.
Phinuphus tells a story. Aliyah insists on a goodbye. Cheed praises the sky for stopping the rain. Presumably, Rripp's mood sours even more.