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After the mus had finished executing the feline survivors of the battle, they turned their attention to their wounded companions. For the ones who had arrows in an arm or leg, the mus pulled out a strange knife and began to work on them. It was dull (Xaa let her feel one of them later), and it's blade was rounded, widening slowly from the tip. It also was curved, making it hollow along the centerline of the blade, and had a deep groove along the hilt. The mus slipped this strange knife into the wounds of their companions, tucking the shaft of the arrow into the groove in the hilt, and gently sliding it into their flesh. "The arrows are barbed, Merle. This opens the wound gently, so the arrow can be withdrawn without further damage," Xaa explained as he worked on one of the wounded. And sure enough, the arrow he was carefully extracting came free of the wound when he tugged on it gently, sliding it up a bit, then pulling it out with the knife. The mus he was working on was in great pain, but once the arrow and the knife were out of him, he seemed to relax.
"Thank you, Xaa. I couldn't get it out of Hrasa's leg," one of the other mus had said, bowing.
"The tip was stuck in the bone, N'chasu. Takes a little wiggling - you did fine. You kept the bleeding down, at any rate," Xaa had replied, and bowed in return.
Even the mus who was shot in the throat had survived - though only barely. They had left the arrow in him - Xaa said this was in case the great vessels in the neck had been cut - and they made a deep puncture with a knife into the front of his throat between the two great bands of muscle that protected the windpipe, then slipped in a thin metal tube. Merle had been very surprised to hear air whistling in and out of the tube, and after a few moments, the mus opened his eyes. O'dmemet then ordered two of his warriors to ride back to the castle at top speed, fetch the Master Healer, and ride back as fast as the wind. One of the other mus held the tube there gently with his fingertips, and the others stroked their companion's paws and headfur to keep him calm, slipping saddle blankets around and beneath him to keep him warm.
Those who had been shot with bullets, the mus simply bandaged - Xaa explained that pulling out the bullets would have to be done later, by the healers. At Tinker's request (translated by Xaa), the strange weapons which had made these wounds were gathered and tied to the back of his bird, along with all the possessions of the cats who had used them. Then, everyone mounted up (the wounded had to be helped into their saddles) and rode off at a slow walk, leaving only the mus who had been shot in the throat and those who were attending him behind. Merle realized they were probably only going slow so as not to aggravate the injuries of the wounded mus, but the slowness of the trip gave her time to appreciate the castle as they approached it.
It was a gigantic stone edifice, the size of a large hill. Merle could see red-tiled roofs peeking out beneath a dusting of snow, and it's lines were graceful and artistic. The cornerstones were elegantly engraved, and the edges and corners of the roofs arced up to the sky, as if in supplication. Surrounding it was an enormous stone wall, and around that, a wide moat. Merle was awestruck. Each of the stones in that wall was wider and taller than the full length of her body. 'They must weigh an enormous amount! How did they move them all?' she had wondered. Before they were even half-way there, though, the two riders O'dmemet had sent came riding back in the opposite direction, carrying a third mus behind one of them. 'Help for the poor wounded one that got left behind,' Merle realized.
Entering the courtyard of the castle, which was large enough to easily fit both her village and the village of the mice into, she saw a bustle of activity. There were mus of every possible color, size and description swarming around them, and they all were astounded at Tinker. All of them bowed to him, and some even wept. Tinker, for his part, had to be prodded by Merle before he bowed back - the experience was a bit overwhelming for him.
Merle found after a moment that it was fairly easy to identify the female Mus - they were slimmer, far less bulky than the males, and had a softer, more rounded appearance. In many ways, they were the perfect counterpoint to the males - lean, graceful, and almost delicate in appearance. They also wore long, robe-like garments instead of armor - though many of the males were dressed in the same type of loose garments Xaa wore under his armor, apparently having come out into the courtyard from inside the castle. Their feet were covered in small, woven shoes that just covered the pads on the bottom of their feet and concealed their claws. 'Maybe that's how they keep from snagging their claws on the carpeting inside,' Merle thought. Xaa had always been doing that in her little burrow, and he'd had to learn to move very carefully to prevent it.
Xaa slipped off his bird and stepped over to one of the males, bowing. "I have brought back one of the Little Ones, W'mefa. That is all that would come. His name is Tinker. They fear us, still, and have new Defenders now. The little female on the back of my mount is called Merle, and is one of these new Defenders - they call themselves musties, and Merle is as big as they ever get. Though they are small of stature, they are big of heart, and I find them to be a very brave and noble people."
W'mefa bowed back, then clapped Xaa on the shoulder. "It is good to see you return safely. What of the others?"
"Killed by the T'Chang. They tracked us the first time we went to their lands, and caught up with us just before we reached the lands of the Little Ones. All were killed save me, and I was rendered unconscious by a blow from a mace. My arm was broken in the fall from my mount, as well. After chasing us for a month or so, I believe the cats were in a bit of a hurry to get home, as they didn't bother to check and see I was still alive. I was found by Merle, and she nursed me back to health and taught me her language, which is also that of the Little Ones," Xaa replied, then shook his head ruefully. "It is a hard tongue, W'mefa. They use many sounds I cannot even begin to make."
"Ah - so this little female, Merle, came back to be our translator for the Little One called Tinker?" W'mefa asked.
"No, though she will be doing that for us. She came because she had grown to care for me in the half a year I was there, and she decided to accompany me home and see if she could help us. The Little Ones turned us down flat, my friend. They fear us still, even after eight centuries, and their numbers are very few. Merle decided her skills might be of some use, since she shares some of the Little One's talent for making things. Tinker decided to come along because he is in love with Merle, and hopes that someday she will accept him as her mate," Xaa explained.
"Ah, I see. Well, let us get inside. The healers have been sent to take care of Gnatchok, though from what my son says, it seems likely they will be able to save his life and bring him back to the castle to continue healing him before sunset. Come - let us take these two to the guest quarters, allow them to clean themselves from their hard journey, and then we can eat. After we get some food in these two, we can begin discussing how Tinker can help us - if he can."
Xaa nodded, turning to pick Merle up off the back of his steed and place her on the ground. When he turned to Tinker, though, Tinker held out his paw. "No, I can do it myself," he said. He then chirruped at the bird, and it obediently sat on the ground. Tinker easily slipped off, then pulled a dried gooseberry out of his pocket. The bird reached out for it, and for a frightening moment, Merle thought it would snap off one of Tinker's fingers to get the treat despite his wearing two sets of rabbitskin mittens. It didn't, though. It just gently took the berry from Tinker's fingers and mashed it in it's beak for a few moments before swallowing it, making pleased clucking sounds as it did so. Tinker turned around, and when he saw the amazed looks of everyone around him, he puffed out his chest with pride.
"Astounding. I've never seen a bird trained to do that. Did he raise it?" W'mefa asked.
"No, I stole it from a patrol of cats. This is what he's taught it in about three weeks or so. I think the Little Ones have some sort of special affinity for them, I don't know," Xaa replied, equally impressed.
The other mus began gathering the reins of all the birds and leading them off. "Take good care of Brownie, now. That's my bird," Tinker said, his tail flicking importantly. Xaa translated what Tinker had said, and W'mefa relayed it as an order.
"See that the Little One's mount gets the best of feed and the warmest stall, right next to my own birds. Take the packs and weapons from it's back and put them in the guest chambers in the west wing. Prepare a bath for the Little One and his Defender, and for Xaa, as well. Take the prisoner that's tied to the back of that bird there and put it in the dungeon, for now. Tell N'Char I'll have his hide if it dies before we can question it - he's to have the healers work on it's wounds, but also to guard the healers from harm in case it attempts to escape," W'mefa ordered, gesturing with a paw, and the other Mus hastened to obey. He then turned to O'dmemet and hugged him, then bowed. "Good work, my son. You helped bring Xaa back to us, and he has in turn brought a Little One to us. You'll have to tell me of the battle over dinner - I've heard only bits and pieces of it from your warriors."
"I shall, Father," O'dmemet replied, beaming with pride.
Merle took Tinker's paw, then reached out and took Xaa's paw as he walked into the castle. W'mefa was still rumbling, and Merle continued listening. "So, Xaa. You've told us of Merle's people - the musties, you said they were called? I'm glad to hear they are a brave and noble people, but what of the Little Ones? What are they truly like?"
Xaa glanced down to Tinker before replying. "They are everything our legends said they were, old friend."
"I see," W'mefa replied
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