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"They're gaining on us!" Tinker yelled, looking back.

Xaa glanced back, and swore. There were forty, perhaps fifty cats, riding after them hell bent for leather. More cats than he had expected, and they were more determined to catch him than he had guessed. The time for dodging and trickery was over. It was now a flat-out run. Merle clung tight to Xaa, sitting behind him. She looked back, and her heart beat faster in her chest. "What are we going to do?!" Merle yelled.

"We're going to run like hell!" Xaa roared back, and smacked his feet hard into the bird's sides. The bird surged forward, running at top speed. Xaa could see the castle of his friend and ally, W'mefa, straight ahead, perhaps only a ten minute ride at this speed. The birds wouldn't survive a flat out run for ten minutes, though. He could only hope that W'mefa's warriors had seen them coming for the last half hour, and sent out help.

On and on they rode, until finally, just as their mounts were starting to reach the limits of their endurance, Xaa crested a rise and saw thirty of W'mefa's warriors standing on the opposite hill crest, their bows ready, their armor gleaming in the sun. "It is I, Xaa!" he roared.

"It is I, O'dmemet!" a mus in the center roared back, the only one without a bow. Instead, he had his sword in his paw. "Come straight for me, and lead your enemies into our welcoming arms!" He then barked out commands to the mus beside him, gesturing sharply with his sword. They stepped aside, leaving a large hole in their ranks. Xaa rode on through, slowing his mount as he did, and the mus closed ranks behind Tinker's bird.

"Merle! Stay on the bird, and watch out for Tinker! Keep him safe!" Xaa roared back, tugging Merle's arms from around him as he slipped from the saddle to land lightly on the ground. Merle grabbed the reins and tugged to the left, turning the bird back to bring it over to Tinker, hoping the bird would obey her as easily as it had Xaa. It did, and Merle checked on Tinker while Xaa snatched his bowcase off the back of Tinker's bird.

"Merle! What are they going to do?!" Tinker squeaked nervously.

"They're going to fight," Merle replied grimly, drawing her knife to cut the rope that held Tinker tied to the bird. "Come on - I think I can control this bird. We may need to keep running. Give me your paw and I'll pull you behind me."

"No! I can ride Brownie, I know how. Cut loose the reins and give them to me. If we have to run, I'll follow, but I'm not going to be baggage anymore!" Tinker objected.

For a split second, Merle wanted to scream 'This isn't the time to argue with me!', but she controlled herself - this wasn't the time to argue with him, either, and he did seem to have a familiarity with the bird. Perhaps Xaa was right - perhaps the mice did have an innate talent for controlling these enormous creatures. She didn't know - but now seemed as good a time as any to find out. Grabbing the rope behind her saddle, she sliced through it with her knife. With a second cut, the reins were free, and Tinker grabbed them. Tinker tugged the reins to the right, and for a frozen moment of time, Merle was afraid he'd lose control or ride off. Instead, he simply turned the bird to face the line of mus behind him, and Merle moved up alongside him. Merle opened her mouth to say something to Xaa, who had just finished stringing his bow and grabbing a pawful of arrows, when the cats crested the opposite rise.

"Ready!" O'dmemet roared, raising his sword above his head. Xaa and thirty other mus nocked and drew their arrows, raising their bows. The cats, seeing this, reigned in their frantic charge, trying to stop and turn. O'dmemet's head looked left and right to see that all of his warriors were ready to fire.

"Now!" O'dmemet roared, slashing his sword down. Thirty bowstrings thrummed in reply, and Merle was shocked to hear the hissss of the arrows as they split the air, the small sound multiplied by the number. Even more shocking was the howls of agony as they found their mark. At least a quarter of the cats went down, and two birds, as well. Their leader snarled orders, waving his sword, and his warriors dismounted to stand behind their rearing birds, readying their weapons frantically.

"Ready!" O'dmemet roared again, raising his sword. The warriors to his sides again nocked and drew their arrows. "Now!" Again the thrum of thirty bowstrings, again the howls of agony and the shrieking cries of dying birds - though this time, far more birds were hit than cats.

Again O'dmemet roared "Ready!", but this time he was answered by a ragged volley of arrows from the cats. Four mus staggered back, clutching at wounds to their arms or legs, and another fell thrashing to the ground clutching at an arrow through his neck. The remaining mus didn't react to the arrows whizzing by them. They simply stood there, calmly knocked their arrows, and drew them back, raising their bows again.

Merle glanced over at Tinker, and saw he was huddled down behind his bird's neck. An arrow was stuck in the bags tied to the bird's back behind him, and Merle couldn't tell whether he was too frightened to even try to run, or just hiding and hoping it would end soon. Their birds stood impassively - either they didn't understand what the danger was, or they were trained to be immensely brave. Merle suspected the former. At O'dmemet's roar of "Now!", Merle looked out from behind the bird's neck.

Again the bowstrings of the mus thrummed in unison, and again more cats thrashed in their death-throes as the arrows found their mark. Merle was startled by a ragged roll of thunder from the ranks of the cats - four small puffs of smoke appeared over the backs of four downed birds, and two mus staggered back, clutching wounds that had no arrows sticking from them while a sound like a bumble-bee zipped by Merle's ear. "Ignore the muskets! They won't be able to fire back yet! Concentrate on the others! Xaa! Kill the leader! Ready!" O'dmemet roared, and the remaining twenty-three mus raised their bows again. "Now!"

The bowstrings of the mus thrummed once again, and Merle saw that Xaa's arrow had found its mark. The leader of the cats staggered back, clutching at an arrow that had pierced his metal cuirass, just left of center, then falling heavily to the ground. At that, the cats seemed to panic. Those that were still left, perhaps a dozen, dropped their weapons, leapt to their feet to grab the nearest bird that wasn't already prone and dying, and tried to mount. "Ready!" O'dmemet roared again, and again the mus raised their bows.

Merle was awed, and frightened. She had never seen killing like this. It was machine-like, precise and deadly. 'This is war,' she thought to herself. 'This is what Xaa really meant when he was talking about war. Highly organized, mass slaughter.' The mus fought as a team, like the musties did when hunting bears, but this went far beyond that. One of the mus who had been shot in the leg staggered to his feet, snatching up his bow and two arrows again, and limped over to the line of his fellow warriors to draw his bow. Merle stared at him, watching the blood run down his leg and over the armored boots he wore. The lashing of his tail showed he was in great pain, but he still stood to fight. The others had calmly ignored arrows flying by them, where Merle had wanted to dig a very deep hole and hide. Merle looked at that bravery, that precision, and in a sudden flash of insight, she realized that they had to fight like that. It was their precision, their ability to ignore the danger and simply stand there and shoot, which was allowing them to win this battle. If they had split up and tried to surround the cats, firing at will, the cat's superior numbers would have won the day.

"Now!" O'dmemet roared again, slashing down with his sword. The bows of the mus thrummed a final time, and the last of the cats pitched from their birds to thrash out their lives in the snow, each pierced with multiple arrows. "Steel!" O'dmemet roared, and the mus dropped their bows and drew their swords in unison. O'dmemet glanced over, and saw the wounded mus standing in the line. "Hrasha! Stay behind and tend to the wounded - yourself included! Zhebo, N'chasu, help him!" he shouted, gesturing with his sword. The three mus sheathed their swords, and then the two to the sides reached over to grab their wounded companion and throw his arms over their shoulders. "The rest of you, follow me! I want ONE prisoner - kill the rest! Kill the wounded birds, catch the others!" O'dmemet shouted, then charged forward, and the rest of the mus charged after him.

What followed left Merle physically ill, though Tinker wasn't affected, since he had by then simply squeezed his eyes shut tight. The mus ran over to where the cats were, then Xaa batted a sword out of the paw of one of the cats who was struggling to rise despite an arrow through their leg, kicking them in the head with his steel-toed boot to render them unconscious.

"One prisoner taken!" he roared.

"Right, then! Kill the rest!" O'dmemet roared in reply.

Then, ignoring the one or two cats who tried to raise a paw and beg for mercy, the mus went among the wounded cats and slaughtered them all, their swords rising and falling in a ghastly harvest of death.

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Chapter One<<<<