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"But I don't understand - why do we have to leave the river? It was so comfortable to ride on the river! Riding through the woods is going to be all bumpy and uncomfortable again!" Tinker complained.

Xaa looked up from where he sat, pausing in lacing his boots back on, and rested his back against the tree. Xaa growled for nearly half a minute, gesturing with his paw, then resumed lacing his boots.

"Tinker, Xaa says we're in the lands of the T'Chang Clan. They're the same clan of cats that saw his trail going through their lands to the Wild Woods, and tracked them all the way through the foothills, over the mountains, across the plains of the Unknown Lands, and right up to the edge of the Wild Woods just to kill them. He says they are very dangerous, and they patrol their lands regularly. He also says that if we spend a week walking through their lands on foot, we're going to get found and killed. He thinks our best chance is for him to ambush and kill one of their patrols, steal their birds, and use them to get us out of here and into the lands of his friends before the cats can catch us," Merle translated.

"Well, how is he going to ambush them?" Tinker asked, his white-sheathed tail trembling in fear.

"I have no damn idea," Xaa growled in disgust. Merle looked at him. Xaa looked very tired. She turned back to Tinker, and smiled.

"He says he has a very well thought-out plan, and that you shouldn't worry. Everything will be just fine. Hasn't he taken good care of us so far?" Merle lied sweetly.

"Oh, okay," Tinker said, sighing with relief.

"Hrm?" Xaa said, raising an eyebrow.

Merle looked at Xaa for a moment, then back to Tinker. "He says the first part of the plan is to hide you and the toboggan. Can you get out your saw and cut some of the lower branches of these pines and make a blind to hide yourself and the toboggan in?"

"He said all that in one syllable?" Tinker asked, blinking.

"It's a very expressive language," Merle replied, and smiled innocently. "Now, can you get everything hid like that?"

"Sure - that's easy. I can have that done in a few minutes," Tinker replied, jumping to his feet and puffing out his chest.

"Well, get to it, because that's all the time we really have. We'll have to toss some snow on it after you're inside it."

"Alright, Merle, what are you doing?" Xaa rumbled.

Merle waited until Tinker was busy sawing away some branches before she walked over to Xaa and whispered in his ear. "Well, I couldn't tell him what you said, he'd have died of fright. I saw you were tired, and needed a moment to think. So, I thought 'Well, what would Byarl do if he was here now?' I realized he'd make sure Tinker and all our supplies were safe, since whatever plan you came up with wasn't going to involve dragging him around the forest. So, that's what I'm doing."

Xaa grinned. "Thank you, Merle. You just might make a good mate after all - in a few years."

Merle smiled sweetly in reply, saying nothing. 'And that's the other thing I realized yesterday after you agreed to be my mate in four years. My momma always said that a good wife works with her husband as a partner, she doesn't just rely on him to do everything. And I plan on showing you that I will make a good mate, so you never forget me in four years, no matter what happens,' she thought.

After half an hour, Tinker had himself and the toboggan covered in a blind, and Merle was quietly sweeping the snow with a branch to hide their tracks, letting Xaa rest and think. After she had finished and swept some snow onto the blind to make it look good from a distance, she came back up to Xaa and whispered to him. "Have you thought of anything yet?"

"My best idea is to simply search for the tracks of their usual patrol routes, hide behind a tree, then try to shoot them when they pass by," Xaa growled in reply.

"So what's wrong with that?"

"If there's only two of them, nothing. I can probably take them. If there's three or four, they'll be able to shoot back before I can kill them all, and they may kill me instead. That would leave the two of you alone to die."

Merle thought furiously. "Okay, how about this: I stand out in the path to distract them. They see me, stop because they have no idea what I am since they've never seen a mustie before, and you shoot them while they are distracted?"

"Absolutely not. As soon as I started shooting, they'd realize it was a trap and kill you. Also, I don't know if they've never seen a mustie before - I only know that we mus haven't. For all I know, the cats may have them by the cartload back in their homelands in the west, and use their furs to carpet their floors."

Merle shuddered. "Are they really that terrible?" she asked, still whispering.

"Yes," Xaa replied.

"Alright, we'll just stick with your plan, since it's the best we have," Merle said.

Xaa nodded, and stood, picking up his bowcase. After he had strung his bow and extracted a pawful of arrows, he turned and walked off. Merle stared after him for a moment, then started to follow.

"Merle?! Where are you going?!" Tinker called from the blind.

"Xaa needs my help, Tinker. Don't worry, everything will be just fine," Merle called back over her shoulder, and kept walking.

Xaa stopped, and let Merle catch up. "Would you mind explaining that one to me?" he rumbled.

Merle looked up to Xaa as he towered over her, and hissed quietly so Tinker wouldn't hear. "If you think I am just going to let you walk off and get yourself killed all alone, you got another think coming. I am coming along to help you, and that is final," Merle said, pulling out her sling. She fumbled about in her ammo pouch until she felt Seeker's familiar shape in her fingers, then pulled it out and slipped it into the pouch.

"But you might get killed yourself!" Xaa growled.

"Better than living without you. Besides - we can't make it back over the mountains without your help, anyway, so we're doomed if you don't make it through this alive. You'll need all the help you can get to pull off this ambush. That, I do know. We musties ambush bears and kill them. We're experts at ambush," Merle replied grimly.

Xaa stared at Merle for a long while before he replied. "Alright. Let's go," he rumbled. Merle grinned broadly at his back, following along.

Two hours later, Merle and Xaa were hidden behind a short pine tree, waiting and listening. They'd found bird-tracks, the same type of enormous footprints that Merle had spotted almost a year ago when she first found Xaa unconscious near the edge of the Wild Woods. The thought that she would, in all likelihood, see creatures that made tracks like that both thrilled and frightened her enormously. The tracks in the snow were fresh - the most recent impressions were perhaps only a day old. They knew it wouldn't be long, now.

Xaa nudged Merle, and she nodded - she could hear it too. The sounds of something trotting through the snow. Three different sets of feet, by the sound of it. Merle held up three fingers to Xaa. Xaa nodded, and they waited. After a few seconds, the sounds got closer and closer until they seemed to be almost on top of them, then began to recede. Xaa stood, raising the bow, and stepped out into the path to get a clear shot. Merle zipped behind him, her sling ready, and began to spin it over her head in preparation for a shot.

Merle had never seen creatures like this before, but she was too frightened to stop. They were cats, alright - their long, furry tails flapped in the breeze of their ride, and Merle could see the backs of their furry heads, including their pointed, furry ears. Each had differently colored fur - one was tabby-colored, another was a plain tan, and a third was black as night. There were three of them, each carrying a bow with a quiver of arrows on their backs and wearing a metal cuirass for armor. They were all of Merle's childhood legends come to life - and there was more. The birds they were riding were enormous. One had black feathers (and was being ridden by the black cat), the other two had brown feathers. The tops of their backs easily were at Xaa's shoulder, and they ran through the snow with a terrifying grace.

Xaa's bow thrummed as he released his first arrow and nocked the second in one smooth motion. The arrow flew straight and true, sinking itself into the back of the rider on the left, piercing his metal cuirass with a loud -tank!- sound. The rider shrieked in pain, and drew back on his reins so hard his bird reared and nearly threw him. The other two looked back, reigning their birds to a halt and getting them to turn in a spray of snow. They saw Xaa standing there, and reached for their quivers. Xaa's second arrow caught the rider in the middle cleanly in the throat. He clutched at the wound, blood pouring from between his fingers, and slipped backwards off his bird to land thrashing in the snow.

The black cat was just starting to draw his bow when Merle snapped her paw down. 'Seeker - fly true!' she thought. The black cat roared in agony and slapped his paw to his face, his arrow zinging off harmlessly to the side.

The first rider was just starting to recover and draw an arrow when Xaa's third shot caught in the center of the chest, just to the left, piercing his armor with another loud tank! The cat groaned, trying to nock his arrow, but his pierced heart wasn't pumping blood anymore, it was simply fluttering in his chest uselessly. He gasped, his life ebbing, and slipped from the saddle to land heavily on the ground.

The black cat roared, pulling his paw away from his face, blood pouring from his ruined left eye. He snarled something to Xaa, tossing his bow aside and dismounting. Merle was already reaching for another sling stone when she saw Xaa toss his bow and arrows aside, draw the longer of his two swords and grip it firmly in his paws.

"What are you doing?!" Merle yelped.

"He wants a fair fight. He can't see to shoot, but he can see to fight. He's challenging me," Xaa growled, and took three steps forward, then stood still, his left foot and left side of his body foremost.

The cat reached to his side, drawing his sword and holding it in his left paw. Merle saw it wasn't the same as Xaa's. Where Xaa's weapon was slightly curved, had a single edge and a thrusting tip, the cat's weapon was straight, broad, and double edged.

The cat slowly advanced, blood still pouring from his ruined left eye, his head turning as he tried to watch Xaa with his right eye. 'He's left pawed,' Merle thought giddily. The cat snarled, edging closer, on guard. Xaa simply stood there, silently, and shifted his blade. His paws he drew up next to his head, the tip of the blade pointed at the ground between him and the cat, the edge of the blade towards his enemy. The fingers of Xaa's right paw relaxed, opening, resting the hilt lightly between thumb and forefinger. His left paw gripped the hilt tightly. To Merle, it all seemed surreal - like it wasn't really happening.

The cat snarled something to Xaa, just two paces outside of sword range, several words Merle didn't recognize. Xaa growled back. "And I am Xaa, of the Clan Xaa. Come, D'Sparil, of the Clan T'Chang. It is a good day to die."

D'Sparil roared his battle cry and leapt in, slashing. He swung furiously, and Xaa simply parried. He did not counter-attack. Merle watched, her eyes wide - she'd never seen anything like it. D'Sparil seemed to beat at Xaa furiously with his sword, but Xaa simply stood there and parried calmly. Their blades flashed in the sunlight as they clashed, and Merle found she was both frightened and awed.

After a few seconds, D'Sparil leapt back out of range, then snarled something at Xaa. Xaa nodded, never taking his eyes of his opponent. "Of course. It wouldn't be fitting to simply kill you out of paw. You should be allowed to die feeling that you did your best," Xaa rumbled, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

D'Sparil's blood-smeared face took on a look of utter fury. Roaring, he charged in, thrusting for Xaa's heart in a mighty fleche' attack. Xaa parried, stepping to his left and guiding his opponent's sword past his body. In the same, smooth motion, as his opponent passed him, Xaa whipped his paws over and behind his head, then slashed, his blade making a lethal wheep sound as it cut the air. There was a sudden, meaty CHOP sound, and D'Sparil's head flew free of his body, which fell thrashing to the ground, spraying blood from the stump of his neck.

Xaa paused for a moment, wiping the blade of his sword on his sash, then sheathing it on one smooth motion. He then turned to Merle. "Come on, Merle. Grab my bow and the arrows laying over there - ignore the rest, I'll get it in a moment. For now, I need to get the birds."

Merle nodded, still in shock, and slipped her sling into her pocket as she dashed over to pick up the bow and arrows Xaa had discarded. She heard a soft whistle, and looked up.

Xaa was calmly approaching the three birds, his paws open. "It's alright. It's all over. Come here, now. Be good," Xaa rumbled. Xaa managed to put his paws on the reins for the black bird and one of the brown ones, but the other brown-feathered bird shied away. Xaa ignored it, and gently led the other two birds back over to Merle. Merle trembled in fear as she looked at them.

"What do they eat?" she asked, nervously.

"Pretty much anything that doesn't eat them first, Merle. They mainly eat grasses, grains, almost any kind of leaf, nearly any kind of berry, and any kinds of seeds. They have been known, however, to eat insects, small animals, eggs, small birds, pretty much anything," Xaa replied.

"Do they eat musties?" Merle asked fearfully.

"No, you're a little big. If they were really hungry, though, they'd try to peck you to death so they could eat you. You have to watch them around small children. Fortunately, these two are bridled and muzzled, so that won't be a problem - they can't hurt you, they know it, so they won't try. I guess the cats don't like their Djuducu-birds trying to peck their ears when they get hungry," Xaa chuckled.

Merle's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, NO!" she cried, and shoved the bow and arrows into Xaa's paws. She then began frantically searching about in the snow.

"What is it?" Xaa asked.

"I lost Seeker! That was my best stone ever!" Merle wailed.

Xaa glanced around, slipping his bow over his shoulder and snatching up a discarded quiver to tuck his arrows into. He then tied the reins for the two birds to a nearby tree branch and walked off into the snow to the side of the path. After a few moments, he straightened up from the snow, D'Sparil's head in his paws. Pulling out his knife, he pried out D'Sparil's left eye. "Here it is. It was stuck in the cat's eye-socket. I saw it when I was fighting him," Xaa called. Merle dashed over, taking the bloody stone from Xaa's paw as he tossed the head aside. Merle wiped off the blood, then admired the stone. "Good shot, by the way. Right in the eye. He felt it with his fingers and thought it was his own eye, not a stone. Perhaps he was thinking that if he beat me and killed you, he could then ride back and get healed."

Merle looked at the stone again, and suddenly felt sick. "I-I've just helped kill someone. Not an animal, like a bear, but a person. Someone with a name," Merle said, choking.

Xaa knelt by Merle, and hugged her gently. "It's alright, Merle. If you hadn't done it, he'd have shot. Maybe even killed me. Then, he'd have killed you. You had to do it, and I am proud of you. You were very brave." Xaa took the stone from her trembling fingers, slipping it back into her ammo pouch.

Musties didn't vomit - like the mice, they didn't have a vomit reflex. Even so, Merle felt very ill. Xaa held her close and groomed the fur of her head and neck, calming her. Merle felt Xaa gently nibbling and lapping at her fur, and a flood of emotions burst forth. Suddenly, she was sobbing in his arms. Xaa hugged Merle quietly, continuing to groom her, until her sobs finally died down into sniffles, then sighs.

"We've got to go. These three will be missed soon, and we need to be long gone from here," Xaa rumbled. Merle hugged Xaa again, and tried to control her emotions as she watched Xaa snatch the other two quivers off their former owner's corpses and sling them over his shoulder. He then untied the reins for the two birds, stepped into the left stirrup, mounted the black bird, and held out his paw to her. Merle grabbed Xaa's paw, and he swung her into the saddle in front of him, then tapped the bird lightly with his feet as he tugged the reins to the side. The bird squawked, then turned and began walking around the trees.

"Hup!" Xaa called, flicking the reins. The bird then broke into a trot, and Xaa began leading it back towards the spot they'd left Tinker, following their tracks in the snow.


At first, Tinker hated riding the Djuducu-birds. They were frighteningly huge, plainly the birds of legend that ate little mice like him, they smelled funny, they made strange noises, and the ride was incredibly bumpy. Xaa tried placing him behind himself, and in front, but it was no use - he simply hated it, and wasn't shy about his complaints. Finally, in frustration, Xaa plopped him on the brown-plumed bird, tied a rope about his waist to hold him to the supplies strapped on the bird's back, and simply left him there. The second bird's reins had been securely tied to a rope, and that rope was tied to a small ring in the back of Xaa's saddle. Tinker felt alone, frightened, helpless, and ready to fall off at any instant, so he clung to the bird's neck for dear life.

Finally, at his lowest emotional point in months, he broke down and started crying.

Tinker hugged the bird's neck as he wept, his muzzle pressed tight into its feathers. The bird at first squawked in protest. After awhile, though, it quieted down, and concentrated on the business of running. Xaa was setting a hard pace, and in the bird's tiny mind, it finally realized that if they were running this hard and this fast, there must be big danger behind them. The little creature clinging to its back was obviously upset, even to a bird's perceptions, and this only reinforced the notion.

Tinker, meanwhile, eventually cried himself out. He blinked, sniffling, and realized that the bird no longer was squawking at him. Instead, it was simply breathing hard and running. Tinker suddenly hugged the bird's neck again. "You like me!" he squeaked, illogically.

Tinker looked up at the sound of Merle's laughter, and realized that she was holding out her arms in the air as she rode in front of Xaa. "I'm flying! I'm flying!" she squealed.

Tinker tried it. He was tied on, and suddenly realized he wasn't in any danger of falling onto the snow that rushed beneath him. Holding out his arms, he found the sensation exhilarating. "Me too!" Tinker shouted, looking around at the snow-covered trees whipping by.

Xaa looked back over his shoulder for a moment, then looked forward and laughed, shouting something in his language (which Tinker hated, because it sounded like the growling and snarling of a predator). "He says 'I knew we'd make a Rider of you yet, boy!" Merle shouted back.

Tinker looked forward again, and wrapped his arms back around the bird's neck as they broke out of the forest and into some hilly plains. Tinker glared at Xaa's back. He felt humiliated. Here Merle was enjoying herself immensely, and he'd spent most of this ride so far upset, afraid and crying. "Why, if he'd given me just a few minutes to get used to this at slower speeds, maybe I wouldn't have been so scared," he muttered. It didn't dawn on Tinker that Xaa couldn't possibly have done that - they needed to put as much distance between themselves and spot where those three dead cats lay as they could before resting the birds. "I'm not a boy, I'm fourteen, and I'm an adult!" he shouted.

Xaa growled something over his shoulder, and Merle yelled "He says 'Sorry!'" Merle called back.

Tinker looked at Xaa, and suddenly saw everything that Merle saw in him. He was big, he was powerful, and he was brave - perhaps even fearless. He was also immensely competent. It seemed he could do anything. Unlike Merle, though, these qualities didn't make Tinker happy to know him. No, Tinker became angry. 'So, that's what you want, is it? Well, by all the gods and spirits which watch over my people, that's what you'll get. I can see he wants you, Merle, but I won't let him take you from me. I'm going to beat him, and I am going to be your mate, or die trying. I may not be bigger or stronger than he is, but by all that's sacred I am smarter than he is, and I can use my brains to solve the same problems he uses his stupid muscles for."

Tinker looked at the huge bird he was sitting on, and watched Xaa closely, and thought carefully about everything he'd seen him do in the several times he'd seen the birds stop and start while Xaa moved him around. After a few moments, he figured out the basic commands. Go, Go Faster, Go Real Fast, Turn Right, Turn Left, Slow Down, Stop, Back Up. 'The rest I can figure out as I go along - assuming there's anything more than that,' he thought to himself.

Tinker then wracked his brain for everything he had ever learned about birds from his parents and the village schoolmaster, everything Xaa and Merle had said about these birds, and began thinking about how all this fit together. 'Why, I'll bet this bird only bites because it doesn't know any better. It's just testing everything it sees to see if it's edible, and it's so big that its pecks cause serious injury. It's very large, and so has a big brain. It's probably a genius, as far as birds are concerned, but most of its thinking is normally tied up in trying to find food for this enormous body. It's obvious it can be trained. I'll bet I can train it to do even more than just run around with me on its back,' Tinker realized, and grinned.

Tinker looked at Xaa's back, glaring at him as he rode along. 'Oh, yes, you big lummox. I'm going to start with this bird you've tied me to, and master this part of your world. Once I have it, I'm going to move on to the rest of your world, piece by piece, and master each part. Then, one day, Merle will look at me and see that I am the better mate. Then, I will have the last laugh on YOU!' he thought.


"What's he doing, Xaa?" Merle asked.

Xaa yawned and looked over across the campfire at Tinker, who was working carefully with his bird. "I think he's preening it - though I've no idea why. I think he's trying to train that bird, but he's not doing it anything like I'm used to," Xaa rumbled. Xaa yawned again, sitting up from his nap after the day's travel.

If Tinker heard them, he made no sign of it. He continued stroking and smoothing his bird's feathers with his fingertips, parting the feathers to scratch beneath and around each shaft, then smoothing the feathers down. The bird was sitting, resting for the night, its chest on the ground and the feed bag over its muzzle. It was the third week he'd been doing it. The first two nights, the attention seemed to agitate the bird. By now, though, it apparently had learned to enjoy it. The bird simply sat there, nibbling at what little was in the feed bag, and making quiet grackle-grackle sounds. Finally, Tinker stopped, reached into one of his many little pockets on his vest, and slipped out one of his dried gooseberries. Tinker chirruped at the bird, and it brought its head over, eagerness flashing in its eyes. Tinker slipped the gooseberry into the top of the feedbag, and the bird made satisfied clucking sounds as it ate the berry. When it was done eating, Tinker removed the bag, then stepped away from the bird, keeping his tail close to his leg nervously.

"Tinker, why are you doing that?" Merle asked.

"To get Brownie used to me," Tinker replied, sitting down across the fire from them and flicking his tail into his lap. His eyes sparkled, but his face was unreadable.

Merle was surprised - she'd never seen Tinker like this before. "You call it Brownie?" Merle asked.

"Yes. It seemed to need a name. Xaa, how do you train one of these things to not bite your tail?" Tinker asked suddenly, looking at Xaa.

"Tell him when they're young, barely up to my shin, we walk around with a tail-colored whip dangling behind our back and our tails tucked firmly into our pants, waiting for the little birds to bite the whip. When they do, we snatch the whip from behind us and beat the biter with it. After a few weeks of this, they've all learned not to bite tails anymore. I assume the cats must do the same thing, or something very similar, since all the birds we capture from them are afraid to bite our tails, too. As long as they're fed, pecking isn't a problem. When they're hungry, though, you should muzzle them or slip on a feed bag," Xaa replied.

"That sounds very cruel," Merle observed.

"Maybe - but if you don't, they'll snip your tail right off and swallow it."

Merle nodded, and translated Xaa's answer. Tinker sat quietly for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. He looked over his shoulder, and quietly lay his tail behind him, watching the bird carefully. Brownie didn't even glance at it. "I see," Tinker said finally, then reached over to the supplies, pulling out a blanket and the large wooly sheepskin that the birds used as a saddle blanket. Laying the sheepskin on the ground next to the bird, Tinker wrapped himself up in the blanket. He then reached out and tapped the bird's wing, and it obediently covered Tinker in the large appendage, hiding him from view.

Xaa looked at Tinker, then chuckled. "I see we've made a real Rider out of him. His parents would be proud, Merle - he's a fine boy," Merle simply nodded, amazed.

The bird, Brownie, simply sat there as Tinker snuggled up against it. She had learned that the little creature who rode her was not food, but in fact a rather nice companion. It preened very nicely, and scratched itchy spots very well. It also liked to share warmth at night, which was also very nice since the evenings were still rather cold. When they stopped to graze, it helped by taking out a tool and swiftly digging through the snow down to the grasses below. Brownie could scratch through the snow with her claws just as fast, but the assistance was appreciated. Unlike the other furry creatures, it also ate the green grasses that were there. When Brownie did something the little creature wanted, it rewarded this with sweet things that were very tasty. Being raised by cats as a riding animal, Brownie had never experienced anything like this before. It was completely new. Brownie decided that she liked the little creature.

As it lay there beneath her wing, she had a flash of dim memory - a remembrance of several chicks beneath her wings, huddling for warmth. Chicks the cats had taken away. She didn't know they had been taken to be raised as other riding animals, she only knew they had been taken. Brownie spread the fluffy feathers of her flightless wing across the little creature, and was somehow content.

Xaa smiled down at Merle. "You get some rest, Merle. I'll take the first watch," he rumbled.

"But how? I don't think there's room with Tinker beneath that wing."

"The bird probably wouldn't like it anyway. I've never seen a bird do that. Of course, I've never seen one of the Little Ones with them, either. Maybe they have a special affinity for them, I don't know."

"So where will I sleep?" Merle asked. 'Please say with you! Please say with you!' Merle thought rapidly.

Xaa saw the look on Merle's face, and simply chuckled. He threw a blanket over his back and shoulders, then pulled her into his lap. Merle giggled as he wrapped another blanket around her, then tucked her head into his shoulder. "Right here," he rumbled quietly.

Merle trembled with happiness as she felt Xaa's strong arms around her. "But what about you?" she asked.

"I already had a nap. Someone needs to keep watch. The birds have sharp senses, but they were trained by cats. They might not be alarmed if they smelled the cats before they saw or heard them. And they are out there, Merle. We killed three of the T'Chang Clan, Merle. They're not going to just let us get away with that - they'll send two or three dozen riders to chase us down and kill us in revenge. They're probably gaining on us, as well, so it's time for us to be crafty. Since I know where we're going and they don't, I intend to take off again after we've had a few hours of rest. If I'm guessing right, they probably realized something was wrong that evening, when their patrol didn't report back in. That means they started off after us with the dawn of the next day, and have been chasing us as hard and fast as they can since then. By now, they should be twenty leagues behind us, and should be able to see our campfire. Knowing their tactics, they'll dismount, and try to sneak up on us during the night and surprise us while we sleep. They won't ride the birds, because the birds might make a noise I might hear. I figure they should be here an hour or two before sunrise. I intend for them to get here and find a deserted camp, with a fire burning bright. Then they'll have to run back to their birds, mount up fast, and start chasing us again. This will give us a bit of a lead again, maybe one long enough to last until we get to W'mefa's castle tomorrow afternoon. Maybe. Assuming his castle still stands."

"What if it isn't standing anymore?" Merle asked nervously.

"In that case, W'mefa is dead, his son is dead, my daughter is dead, and so are we. We'd be riding into more lands of the T'Chang or lands taken by their allies, the T'Mrr, and most likely we'll ride straight into the claws of one of their patrols, since we're heading for the castle. It's likely we'd all be killed."

Merle shuddered, and Xaa hugged her gently. "It's alright. W'mefa has many good and powerful allies, and his castle isn't considered strategically important by the cats. There's a good chance it's still there."

Merle nodded, then a thought occurred to her. "Where's your castle, Xaa? Where are your lands?"

"Well, if we'd followed that patrol instead of killing them, and if we had birds of our own to do it, we would eventually have ended up at my castle by sunset. It belongs to the T'Chang, now. As for my lands..." Xaa gestured expansively with a paw. "These are my lands, or were, once."

"Really?" Merle asked, surprised.

Xaa nodded. "Yes. I know every hill, every river, every creek and stream. That's why I've been able to stay ahead of the cats chasing us this long. I've led them on a merry little zig-zagging chase, looking like I was going to go into one of the villages that used to be here, then turning just before it came into sight. All these lands either belonged to me or to my vassals. They're all dead, now. I and my daughter are the last of our clan, and my lands are now in the paws of my enemies."

Merle hugged Xaa's neck. "I'm sorry."

"It's alright. Hush, now. Get some sleep - you'll need it," Xaa rumbled, stroking her back gently.

Merle snuggled into Xaa's shoulder again, inhaling his scent deeply. "How is it you know their language?" Merle asked, yawning. "When you fought that cat, you understood everything he said, but I couldn't understand a word."

"From old, blind Yarro. He was captured by the cats along with several other mus years ago. They wanted to learn our language so they could interrogate prisoners, and in the process, these prisoners had to learn theirs. I freed him and nine others two years ago, when I led a raid into their lands. Those ten have spread the knowledge as far and wide among our people as they can. Yarro stayed with W'mefa, of course, since he is a family retainer, and I learned the language from him. If everything goes well, you'll meet him tomorrow evening, and you can learn it, too. Now get some sleep," Xaa rumbled quietly.

"Mmmkay..." Merle muttered sleepily, nuzzling Xaa's neck. Soon, she was breathing deeply, fast asleep.

Xaa looked around to the hilly plains that surrounded them, the blanket of snow that covered them lending them a quiet glow by the moonlight. He didn't tell Merle his biggest fear was the cats realizing that it was Xaa they were chasing. Then they wouldn't bother to follow him - they'd already know where he was going. Xaa had raided these lands often enough, and led raiding parties into here. The T'Chang knew their enemies well. If they realized they were chasing Xaa, they'd know where he was heading immediately, and simply make straight for his goal to cut him off. And the first he'd probably know about it was a volley of arrows and bullets from ambush.

Xaa glanced over to where Tinker slept, beneath his bird's wing. Tinker no longer needed to be tied on, and probably no longer needed his bird led. Even so, Xaa still kept him tied on, and still led his bird. He'd traveled hundreds of leagues to find the legendary 'Little Ones', following a hope and a hunch and an old, old story passed down for eight centuries. He'd found them, but he'd only managed to bring back one of them. Xaa wasn't about to lose that one less than a day from his goal. Eleven mus had died to get him here, chasing this impossible dream. Three were W'mefa's vassals, and all were Xaa's friends. In the mind and fingers of that boy lay the hopes of survival for the Mus. Xaa only prayed that Tinker would be up to it.

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