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Merle looked out the window to the soft white blanket of snow that lay over the village. "It snowed last night, Xaa. The first snow has come. Do you think you're ready?"
"Yes, I believe so," Xaa rumbled in reply.
Merle smiled. In the seven months Xaa had been with Merle, he learned enough of her language to be understood, more or less, though his pronunciation was atrocious. Merle, for her part, had learned enough of his language to understand him easily. She found it was actually much simpler than her own, and very easy to learn, but she couldn't really pronounce any of it. Both their languages used sounds that simply didn't exist in the other's. Byarl, who had been keeping tabs on Merle's progress, mentioned that he thought the real problem was that Xaa was simply built to make different sounds in the first place. Merle had to agree - the deep rumble he made when pleased, for example, was something she couldn't even attempt to duplicate. It was a powerful thrumming that began somewhere deep in his chest, and musties apparently didn't have the same internal arrangement as the mus. So, after seven months, Merle had fallen quite naturally into the role of Xaa's translator. Two weeks ago, Byarl had seem Merle translating for Xaa to one of the mice who had come to trade before the winter set in, and he ruled that when the first snow came, it was time for Xaa to tell his story. Now, the first snow had come. It was time.
Merle had enjoyed the last few months with Xaa. He was kind, gentle, and sweet. She also found he was an excellent hunter - that strange wooden case he had stored next to his armor contained something Xaa called a "bow", and it shot something called "arrows" - little sticks with sharp bits of metal at the end. The range he had with it was phenomenal - far greater than that of her sling - and he was deadly accurate with it. It made hunting much easier. Merle simply used her skills to bring the two of them downwind of a small group of rabbits, and before they knew what happened, Xaa would have at least three, sometimes four of them thrashing out their lives, each impaled by an arrow. Merle noticed Xaa was as careful with his arrows as she was with her sling stones, always retrieving each one after each shot, but he didn't bother to name them. Merle giggled as she explained that she was the only mustie she knew who bothered to name her sling stones - it was just something fun she did, really.
There was a sudden ripping sound, and Xaa snarled in frustration. Merle turned back to him and looked. The huge shirt the mice had made for him to replace his original clothes (which had grown a bit threadbare in seven months) had torn down the back. Xaa's powerful frame was something the mice had never even attempted to cover before, and even the skills of Tinker's mother, the best seamstress of all the mice, apparently weren't up to the task. "Aww! Now what are we going to do?" Merle asked.
"To the hellfires with it," Xaa growled in reply. "I'll wear my old tunic over this, and my armor over that. It's a cold day, anyway."
"I think you'd best wear your old tunic under the new, not the other way around. It's rather worn out, and might fall apart rubbing against that armor," Merle replied.
Merle helped Xaa take the damaged tunic off, since it threatened to tear all the way at a moment's notice. As she did so, she paused to admire his broad back, the fur marred here and there by various small scars. After living with him for over half a year, Merle had noticed that Xaa had many scars. His arms, legs, back and chest had all taken wounds of one sort or another. Each time when she spotted a new one and asked about it, the answer was always the same: "Cats." Merle ran her finger over a new one she hadn't seen before - a small one on the large expanse of muscle between his neck and shoulder. "Where did this one come from? Cats, again?" she asked, giggling.
"No. That one was from my wife, T'lixca," he rumbled quietly.
'You-you're married?!" Merle asked in surprise.
'Well, at least that explains why he didn't touch me during my first heat. He already has a mate,' Merle thought. Merle didn't know whether to be happy or sad about that, however. Fortunately for Merle, Nona caught a whiff of her scent the day after Xaa jumped into the river, and put two and two together. She gave Merle the 'facts of life' lesson that her Merle's mother hadn't been able to. Knowing what was happening, Merle was able to avoid enticing Xaa any further, and their friendship had survived until Merle's first heat had passed without anything developing. "Where is she now?" Merle asked.
"Dead," Xaa replied, his voice very soft.
"Dead? What happened?" Merle asked, shocked.
Xaa sighed. Merle sat behind him quietly while he gently pulled on his threadbare tunic, then helped him slip on the new, but damaged tunic. Afterwards, he sat quietly for a moment before he began speaking again.
"It was three years ago. My wife and I had been married twelve years. We were very, very happy, and looking forward to our second child. Then, from the west, my peasants reported Djuducu-Riders approaching. Those are the big walking-birds I told you about. We ride them in peace and in war, and use them as draft animals, as well," Xaa said, and Merle nodded as he continued.
"The war with the cats had been going on since the fifth year of our marriage, but it was still merely forays into each other's lands. This attack, in such numbers, was something new. There were hundreds and hundreds of riders, all armed and armored, their Djuducu-birds armored for war. I summoned by vassals, armored myself, called my peasants into the protection of the castle, and my vassals and I arrayed ourselves in the village to meet their first charge."
Xaa slipped his boots on as he continued the story, lacing them up tight. "The battle was long, and we thought we would win, when their reinforcements arrived. Soon, we were facing almost a thousand riders. We withdrew, fighting all the way, and sealed the castle gates against them." Xaa began to slip his armor on, and Merle quietly assisted him as best she could, listening as he continued his story.
"After stripping it of everything useful and taking our livestock, they set fire to the village, of course. Then, they lay siege to the castle. We held out for three months. We knew that sooner or later, my allies would have gathered their armies and rescued us. Apparently, the cats knew this, as well. So, they poisoned the water supply. I do not know what it was they used. It didn't seem to hurt them at all, but to us, it was deadly. Half my people inside the castle went insane, and died in screaming, frothing fits. That was what happened to my wife. I held her in her last moments, and she bit me in her madness, here," he said, and ran a finger over the scar. "The child inside her died with her. Those that survived, like my daughter, were rendered mindless, their brains destroyed somehow," Xaa growled, and Merle blanched in horror.
"I didn't drink. I ordered what little untainted water we had be rationed, but there was damn little to go around. After nearly two weeks, however, it was gone, and I was dying. The cats offered us terms of surrender - come out, and we wouldn't be harmed, and would receive fresh water. Some of my people, in desperation, asked to go. I let them. The cats laughed, and took the ones who surrendered and tortured them to death where we could see it, among the burned ruins of the village. We were nothing to them, and they laughed at our thirst-weakened howls of outrage. The next day, my ally, W'mefa, arrived with his army of two thousand warriors, and the cats withdrew. My lands were ruined, the livestock all dead, the people nearly so, and the water poisoned by something we knew not of. W'mefa apologized, saying his own lands had been under attack, and I forgave him, but the damage had been done. And this was only the beginning, for us. Since then, they have used other poisons and weapons we do not understand, and cannot match. I have fought in over a hundred battles against them. At first, their weapons were little better than ours. As time has passed, however, they have introduced more and more of their strange new weapons, and driven our people back to the sea. They intend to exterminate us, and they attack in enormous numbers. And they are slowly winning. Each year our lands are smaller and smaller, our people fewer and fewer. Our legends say that the Little Ones once built flying machines and enormous sailing ships with our help. The legends of our two people's achievements may have grown in the telling over the centuries, but we knew that our only hope was to beg the Little Ones for help. I and eleven others who were landless and without family set out to find them, following the ancient tales. I selected each for his skills; a translator, a historian, a healer, and eight skilled warriors. We were set upon by the cats as we neared your lands. They wore the colors of the T'Chang clan, they must have tracked us for weeks from where our journey started - there are no cats this far south. I was rendered unconscious during the battle, and the rest of my company killed. You found me later that evening. The rest of my tale you already know," Xaa said, and his quiet rumblings finally ceased as he tied the last lace on his armor.
Merle hugged the enormous mouse before her, pressing herself against his armored back. "I'm so, so terribly sorry, Xaa," she sniffled.
Xaa turned, and pulled Merle into his lap, hugging her gently. "It's alright. It's not your fault," he rumbled.
"No, I mean I just feel sorry that had to happen to you," Merle sniffled, wiping her eyes. "What happened to your daughter? You mentioned the poison had made her... mindless? Whatever happened to her?"
"She was engaged to be married to O'dmemet, W'mefa's oldest son, when she reached her majority at age sixteen. He is twenty-six, incidentally. This agreement was arrived at by our laws back when she was nine. It's a bond-marriage, to seal W'mefa's clan and mine into one. What the cats did doesn't change this. When I left to find the Little Ones, I left her with W'Mefa for safekeeping. She is all I have left, now. All the rest of my clan - my family, my kinsman, my vassals - all are dead. He swore on his tail he would guard her with his life. If his castle still stands, she is safe. If not, she is probably dead. She would be about your age, Merle. She has the snow-white fur of her mother, and is very beautiful," Xaa replied quietly.
Merle opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a shriek from outside. Merle dashed to the window, and saw Tinker outside, struggling to get through snow up beyond his knees. "Please help, there's a bear in the village!" He screamed. Merle rushed to the door and tried to push it open, but it wouldn't budge.
"Xaa! The door is stuck! The snow on top of it - I can't open the door!" Merle yelled.
Xaa reached over, and pushed open the door with ease. As he paused to turn back into the burrow, Merle darted outside and nearly fell on her face in the deep snow. She could see by the movement of snow around the village that the other musties were having the same problem - a foot of snow had trapped them, for the moment. Merle staggered over to Tinker, and as he spotted her, he shouted. "Merle! PLEASE! DO SOMETHING!"
Heedless of the danger, Merle hopped into the path Tinker had cleared out with his own efforts to get here, and quickly began to retrace his steps back to the village of the mice. Using his footprints made it easier, but it still took several minutes of hard, fast running. Her blood pounded in her ears and her breath came in ragged gasps, grey puffs trailing behind her in the chill winter air as she ran. Finally, she was there. Merle staggered to a halt in the snow, staring in shock as she gasped for breath.
A large black bear was busily growling and digging at one of the mice-burrows, his claws turned aside by the oak planks of its walls - but not for long. He'd already tunneled down to it, and the wood was splintering under the assault. The shrieking of the mice inside only spurred it on to renewed attempts, and it looked like soon it would be in the burrow. Merle drew her knife, then looked down at it, and at the bear. It was impossible. She was just one lone mustie - there was no way she could kill this bear alone. It was enormous - it would take at least eight adult male musties to manage it, and probably one or two would be killed in the fight.
Suddenly, from behind, there came an enormous roar, and Merle nearly shrieked when she thought there might be another bear behind her. Spinning, she saw Xaa standing behind her, roaring out a challenge, taking his two swords and his knife from his sash and tossing them to the snow beside him. He then spread his arms wide, and roared again. Xaa's shout had no meaning, not even in his guttural, growling language - it was the raw, wordless challenge of one carnivore to another. The bear looked up, snarled, then stood on its hind legs and roared back.
"What are you going to do-oof!" Merle exclaimed as Xaa knocked her down in his rush, charging the bear. Merle looked up in time to see the two of them smash together, and simply stared in shock as they went down together.
"Noooo!" Merle shrieked, and staggered through the snow to get to the two of them. The bear and Xaa rolled around, the sounds of their battle echoing in the winter stillness. A blinding flurry of snow mixed with spatters of blood flew from the two titans, and Merle was deathly afraid Xaa would be killed. She tried to get near to help, but they were rolling around too much. Blood stained the snow wherever the two rolled away - a lot of blood. 'Too much blood! Oh, Spirits of the Forest, hear my prayer! Protect him!' Merle thought, clutching her knife uselessly.
Finally, Merle noticed that one of the two's sounds had changed. From a roar of battle and rage, it had become a shriek of pain and fright. The bear was struggling to escape. Xaa had his arms wrapped around the bear, pinning its arms to its sides. It tried to claw at him, but his steel armor turned aside its claws. The bear's legs flailed uselessly, knees bumping Xaa's left thigh and hip as it tried to get some leverage, but Xaa just continued to push it around in the snow in a circle, not letting up. Xaa's muzzle was wrapped around the bear's neck, his fangs buried deep, and he was still roaring and growling, his voice muffled by fur, snow and blood.
Finally, the bear made an enormous effort, throwing Xaa off. Xaa's fangs came free with a sickening, ripping sound. The bear rolled to its feet, blood gysering from the ragged wound in its neck, and howled in agony, blood bubbling from its muzzle as it started to back away. Xaa rolled to his knees, then roared again in his own language. "Oh, it's mercy you want now, is it?! Well, HERE is MY mercy! The mercy of the Mus!" he roared, his eyes feral, the bear's blood spraying from his muzzle. He then leaped on the bear again, tackling it and driving it to the snow. The bear's howling was suddenly cut off as Xaa sunk his fangs into its neck again. Merle shuddered. Was this the gentle, cultured mouse she had sheltered in her quiet burrow for over half a year?
The bear struggled for a few seconds more, then slowly its struggles became less and less as Xaa thrashed his head back and forth, sawing a deeper wound into the bear's neck. Finally, it shuddered, and lay still. Xaa stopped, then slowly released the bear. He stood, gasping for breath, then suddenly spat a mouthful of blood and gore on the carcass. "There! Would that you were a CAT instead of a stupid bear!" he roared at it, then turned and walked back to pick up his swords.
Merle simply stood there, staring in shock. Behind her she heard running feet - the male musties of her village come to the rescue, too late. She walked over to the bear as the mice began to open their doors. It was well and truly dead - Xaa had literally torn most of its throat out. Blood was everywhere, and the snow was stained with streaks of red or pink for a dozen paces around.
Nito and his four brothers were the first of the male musties to reach the dead bear. "Woo-hoo! Look at that! Did Xaa do that?" he shouted, grinning.
"Yes." Merle replied, shuddering. "With his teeth."
All the males began jabbering at once, until Byarl shouted for silence. Once he had their attention, Byarl pointed at the carcass. "Alright, all of you lend a paw and drag this bear away from here. I think our friends the mice have seen enough blood and death for one day. Nito, you and your brothers skin it, gut it, and process it for food. Make sure Xaa gets a share of the meat - he killed it. Place his share by Merle's burrow - it should be cold enough to keep until later. The rest of you then come back and help Mason and his family fix their burrow - the bear appears to have dug all the way to the walls and knocked a plank loose before Xaa managed to stop it. They'll need all the help they can get to fix it before the sun sets and it gets truly cold. Let the rest of the mice tell you what to do to help - they know best about fixing things. Merle, ask one of the mice for two towels, give one to Xaa and use the other to help him clean up. He's covered in blood, none of it apparently his, and he's supposed to be meeting Cooper and I at noon to tell his story. As for me, I'm going to try to clean up this mess, here. Alright, you all know what to do - let's get to work." The rest of the musties all nodded their agreement and started to drag off the bear's carcass. Byarl walked over to politely ask one of the mice who timidly came out of their burrow if he could borrow a shovel.
A few minutes later, the bear had been removed, and Byarl was quietly carrying shovel-fulls of the bloody snow off to toss behind the trees while the mice all gathered around the burrow of Mason mouse and his family, hugging them. Xaa finished wiping his face and the front of his armor, and Merle was nearly done cleaning the blood from his back as he sat on a tree stump. "They are all just going to hug and talk?" Xaa asked in his own language.
"They're all still pretty frightened. Once Byarl has the blood cleared away, they'll probably feel comfortable enough to start getting to work on making a new plank for Mason's wall," Merle replied, glancing at the mice.
Xaa turned, and looked at Merle. "You were frightened, too. I could see it on your face."
"Well, of course, silly! That was a big bear!" Merle giggled.
Xaa shook his head. "Not of the bear. Of me. You were frightened of me."
Merle hung her head for a moment, then raised it and looked Xaa in the eyes. "Yes, I was, and I'm sorry. I'd never seen anything like that before. The males usually hunt the bears, not we females. My mother was one of the few exceptions. She always went along with my father when he and the others went to hunt a bear. And a bear killed them both - a bear that was hunting mice who went out to gather food. My parents were part of a group of nine musties who hunted that bear down and killed it - and it killed them before it died. At first, I was frightened you might be killed, and I prayed you would be alright. Then, when I saw how easily you were killing it, and how...violent you could really be, it frightened me."
"Easily? Not by half. That bear was the toughest fight I've had in years," Xaa replied with a snort.
"Well, then why did you drop your swords?" Merle asked.
Xaa chuckled deeply. "You don't fight bears with swords. When bears fight, they want to grapple, bite, claw and roll with you. Swords are useless in a fight like that - you need knives. For a Mus, our fangs are better in a grappling fight than a knife is, anyway. I'd have used my bow, but I didn't have the time to string it," Xaa rumbled.
"Well, why didn't you have time?" Merle asked.
Xaa looked at Merle, his face quiet. "Because I only had a moment to realize you were running off alone to face a bear, something that would almost certainly get you killed, and I didn't want to take the time to string my bow before following you. I was afraid if I hesitated for even a moment..." Xaa rumbled, his voice trailing off into silence.
Merle looked up to Xaa in understanding, and he reached out to take her little paw in his enormous, callused one. "Merle, I... I find I have to admit it. I've fought against it for months, but now I know what I have refused to admit in my mind is true deep in my heart, no matter how much I tried to deny it. I have searched my feelings on this carefully, Merle, and I now know that I-" Xaa began, when suddenly Tinker bounded up and grabbed Merle, hugging her tight.
"Oh, Merle! You did it! You stopped the bear! I was so frightened, I couldn't even come back until after the other musties said it was okay!" Tinker squeaked.
Merle, surprised that Tinker would hug her so easily, hugged back with a giggle. "It's okay, Tinker - the bear is dead, and everything will be just fine. You were very brave to run all the way to our village by yourself. Why, the bear might have noticed you running away and chased you!"
"Oh, yes! I was SO frightened that he just might do that, I ran as hard and as fast as I could! I guess he didn't see me leave, though, so it all turned out alright! You killed the bear, and all by yourself, too!" Tinker squeaked in amazement.
"Well, no, I didn't. I didn't even touch him. It was all Xaa, here," Merle said when Tinker had finally let go of her, gesturing with a paw.
"Huh?" Tinker said, looking where Merle was indicating.
Merle looked. Xaa was gone. Merle glanced back, and saw Xaa's enormous form disappear behind the nearby trees. "Tinker, I have to go. Xaa-" she began, but Tinker cut her off.
"No, Merle, please! Stay here with me, please!" he begged, his whiskers trembling.
"But why, Tinker? Everything is alright, now. You don't need me here."
"Yes, but I want you here, please! Please? You can see him anytime. Please stay here with me for a little while."
"But..." Merle began.
Byarl looked up from where he was shoveling bloody snow a few paces away. "Merle, it's our way never to refuse an invitation from our friends and allies, the mice. Stay with Tinker, for now. He's had a hard time, too," he said, and gave her a look that meant 'I mean business'.
"Yes, Chief," Merle replied with a sigh. She turned to look at Tinker, and was surprised. Tinker smoothed his expression and smiled at Merle, hugging her again, but Merle had seen the look he was giving the direction Xaa had walked off in. It was a look she'd rarely seen on the face of any mouse.
It was a look of hostility.
"Alright, Merle - we have a little while before Mayor Cooper and the others show up. What is it you wanted to ask me?" Byarl asked.
Merle fidgeted in the chair Byarl's mate, Ellie, had provided. Her eyes glanced about the snug little burrow of her chief, and she was terribly nervous. They were alone now as Ellie had shooed the children into another room. "Well..."
"It's alright, Merle. Out with it. The sooner you tell me what the problem is, the sooner we can see what to do about it," Byarl said, patting Merle's paw after shifting his chair closer.
"Well... I think Tinker is in love with me, Chief, and wants to be my mate," Merle said at last.
Byarl nodded. "Understandable. You're both above the age of majority, and you get along better with him than you to the male musties, in many ways. You both have shared interests - your inventions. You're a bit of an 'outsider' here with the musties, as you like to think with your mind more than you like to play. For you, thinking, asking questions and inventing new things is play."
Merle looked up, surprised at the chief's incisive look into her behavior, and Byarl just smiled. "What, you think I don't notice these things? It's always wise for a chief to know as much as he can about his people, so that one day he can name a successor. My sons are good boys, but they aren't really what our people need in a leader, nor are they really interested in being the leader, anyway. You, on the other paw, are much like I was when I was your age. Barring something unforseen, I'd intended to name you as my successor."
Merle simply stared in shock.
Byarl smiled again. "Don't be so surprised. You'd make a perfect leader - once you're a little older, of course. Your mind is your greatest toy, as mine was when I was your age - and still is, today. I think your parents would be very proud of you."
"But - but what about Tinker?" Merle stammered.
"Tinker sees in you the same things I do, and this attracts him to you, because these are qualities possessed by all mice and few musties. He also has been your friend for years, and his friendship with you makes him a bit of an "outsider" among the mice. It's only natural he would see you as a potential mate."
"But - but we aren't even the same species!" Merle yelped.
"True, you're a mustie and he's a mouse, and no children would ever come of such a union, but love has nothing to do with that. You're both sentient beings, and that's all that your hearts require. If your question is 'Would it be alright for me to marry Tinker?', then the answer is 'yes'. Such a bond would also join our two people even closer in the future than they have been in the past, and would be good for all of us."
"But - but I don't WANT to marry him! I'm not even sure if I love him!" Merle objected.
"Oh?" Byarl said raising an eyebrow.
"Yes. It's just that... Well... Xaa was trying to tell me back in Mousie-Village... I think he was trying to say he loves me, but Tinker interrupted him and he walked off. Now, he's hardly said a word to me since, and Tinker acted like he was jealous of Xaa, and I... I..."
"Do you love him?" Byarl asked, pointedly.
"I... I don't know!" Merle replied, and began sniffling.
Byarl drew his chair next to Merle's and hugged her. "There, there, it's alright. In a few hours, it will all be over, anyway," Byarl said, trying to soothe her.
"How do you mean?" Merle asked, surprised.
"Well, I've been giving this a lot of thought. I think that the only reason he is here is because the war between his people and the cats is going badly for his people. He is hoping that he can convince the mice to help his people, and make the flying machines and great sailing ships and other marvelous things they once made ages ago, and hopefully this will allow them to win. And I can see by your expression I'm not far off, am I?" Byarl asked, letting her go and steepling his fingers against his chin.
"No, you're not! That's almost exactly what he's told me already!" Merle replied, surprised.
"Ah, good. Well, when the mice turn him down, he'll simply leave. He probably has family or friends he hasn't seen in over half a year. He'll be worried about them, and he'll want to see them again. He may come back again to try to convince them with gifts or something similar, but I doubt it. Most likely he'll be found as he wanders back to his lands by the cats, and killed. Afterwards, the cats will probably go on to win the war, crush his people, and that will be that. If he's desperate enough to try following ancient legends to save his people, then the situation for them is pretty bad, and it doesn't seem likely they are going to survive, to me. We won't have much to worry about, since the cats don't know we exist. And, since they apparently have no interest in exploring this far south, it's unlikely they'll ever learn of us, either. After all, if they did, they'd already have found us ages ago," Byarl finished with a casual wave of dismissal.
Merle was flabbergasted. She sputtered for several seconds before she finally managed to speak. "Turn him down?! Why?!"
Byarl steepled his fingers again. "Simple, Merle. The mice already have everything they need in us, we are their size, and we're not terribly threatening to them. They are careful to treat us as being equals, but really they think we're all dolts because our instincts are to play and build our bodies, while their instincts are to work and build their minds. It's taken us eight centuries, but the population of bears in the Wild Woods is finally beginning to drop, and the numbers of their people and ours are finally beginning to boom. In another two generations, perhaps three, our lives will have completely changed, I think. Our numbers will rise beyond what the population of rabbits in the immediate area can support, and their numbers will have risen beyond what simple gathering and gardening can support. Most likely, they'll teach us how to domesticate the rabbits for our food, and build very large fields to grow their own food in - perhaps using that concept Cooper mentioned in passing a few months ago called "irrigated agriculture", whatever that is. Yes, in us, they have the perfect companions - we're strong where they are weak, and they can comfort themselves with the false belief that they are smarter than we. On the other paw, Xaa's people are huge, and very intimidating to them because of their size and because of their ancient legends of murder and death. After today's demonstration, right in the middle of their village, it's unlikely any of the mice will want to have anything to do with Xaa's people, the Mus, ever again. They are simply too frightening. So, they will turn him down, and he will leave, and probably never return. Problem solved - Tinker and you can be mated, and live happily ever after," Byarl said, watching her closely.
"But-but-!" Merle stammered.
"Yes?" Byarl asked.
"But I don't want to marry Tinker! Well, at least, I don't think I want to!" Merle wailed.
"Then what do you want? Who do you want to be mated to?" Byarl asked quietly.
"I... I don't know. I think... I think I want Xaa, but I'm not sure. I'm so confused right now," Merle sobbed. Byarl hugged her again, and held her in his arms for several minutes before he spoke again.
"And what does he think about this? Does he want to be mated to you?" Byarl asked.
"I - I don't know. I thought he was going to tell me he loved me, but now... Now he's hardly speaking to me at all," Merle sniffled.
"Probably because he's embarrassed and upset," Byarl commented.
"Huh?" Merle asked, surprised.
"Think, Merle. All musties know that big things grow slowly - whether it's the mighty oaks or the bears, they all grow slowly. I'd be willing to bet that his people mature slower than ours do - and possibly live longer, since there isn't much that eats them. I'd bet that for his people, the "age of majority" is several years after ours is."
"Well, yes, it is. He mentioned that when he was talking about his daughter. They come of age two years later than we do."
"Oh, so he already has a mate?"
"Yes, but she's dead," Merle replied quietly.
"Ah, I see. Well, either way, the end result is this: I'm willing to bet his people probably look at older ones marrying the young just like the mice do - it's not normally done. As such, his feelings for you probably have him embarrassed and upset. Yet another reason for him to simply leave when the mice turn him down. To our people, you are an adult. Certainly, you're young and inexperienced, but we still look at you as an adult. To his people, you're already very young, below what his people consider the 'age of majority' by two years, and we're so small compared to him that he probably looks at all of us as being like children - even me, and I'm probably about his age. So, he's probably sitting in your burrow right now, thinking what a terrible, horrible person he is for having feelings for a child."
"But he's not a terrible person! He's a wonderful, gentle mouse! And I'm not a child! I'm grown, and an adult, and I can make my own decisions!" Merle yelped.
"I agree - as I said, by the standards of our people, you are an adult. However, I'm not the one you have to convince of that, Merle, he is. And simply saying it isn't enough. You'll have to prove it with your actions, over time. And that, Merle, is the one thing that you simply don't have enough of - time. The mice will turn him down, and he will leave. Mark my words," Byarl replied, steepling his fingers again.
"I do, Chief. I always listen to you. You're almost always right - we all know that, that's why you're the Chief. If you say it will happen, then it probably will happen," Merle said grimly.
"Then what do you plan on doing about it?" Byarl asked pointedly.
"I don't know yet," Merle replied, standing. "But I'll think of something. May I be excused?" she asked.
"Certainly, Merle. Don't be late, however - it's almost noon, and you'll be needed to translate for Xaa," Byarl replied, standing and opening the door to the burrow.
"I won't be late. Thank you, Chief," she said, and started to turn to leave. Suddenly, she stopped, then turned and hugged Byarl as hard as she could. "Thank you, Byarl. Thank you for everything you've told me," she said, and ran off, giggling.
Byarl smiled at her retreating form, then spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. "You're welcome, Merle. And you'd thank me even more if you knew everything I didn't tell you," he said quietly, and closed the door.
It was high noon, and most of the snow had been scraped away from the center of the village, revealing a few blades of green grass beneath. Already the fire used for the communal cookpot was lit, and burning brightly. Only now, it wasn't being used to heat food, but to heat two dozen mice who were huddled nearby it, shivering in the winter chill despite their having bundled up warmly. This was the time of year when the mice usually locked themselves indoors for the winter, sharing each other's company, working on their inventions, and making babies in the quiet evening firelight of their burrows. The musties, for their part, dressed as they always did and didn't shiver at all as they made another ring around the center of the village. Being outside playing and hunting all through the fall had allowed them to build a nice, warm winter coat of fur. For them, this was the time of year when their forays for game had to range farther and farther afield, and they worked closely together in tightly-knit groups so that winter's chill touch would claim none of them. When Cooper commented on the cold, Byarl simply brought out extra blankets, and wrapped them around Cooper and over his shoulders to keep him warm. Byarl then stood with the musties, and waited for Merle and Xaa to come out.
After a moment, the door to Merle's burrow opened, and Xaa's enormous bulk crawled out, to stand beside the doorway while he waited for Merle. Byarl noticed Xaa was wearing his wooden bowcase, and he nodded inwardly to himself. He could see he'd been right - if the mice turned Xaa down, Xaa was intending on leaving. And they would turn him down. Of that, Byarl was certain. Byarl adjusted himself on the leather bag he sat on, getting comfortable. It would probably be an hour before the bag was needed, but he already knew it would be.
Once Merle had joined him, Xaa strode over to the center of the village, the ring of musties parting to let the towering giant in. He looked regal, powerful, his armor gleaming in the sunlight. He stood before the shivering, bundled-up form of Cooper, and bowed. Cooper nodded in return, and Byarl's whiskers twitched slightly before he controlled himself. 'They must never know I know what I know,' he thought to himself.
Xaa knelt in the snow before Cooper, bringing his head down to almost his level, and Merle stepped up to stand beside him. He then began to speak.
Byarl listened, as did everyone else, but they could only make out a few words and phrases they'd learned from Xaa over the last seven months. Only Merle fully understood his language, and she was concentrating, listening to everything he said so she could translate it properly. Xaa's voice rumbled on for several moments, then he stopped. Merle then spoke up, her voice clear and deliberate.
"Oh Mighty Lord of the Little Ones, I am Xaa'ap'Gasha, of the Clan Xaa. I have come to tell you my tale, and beg you to help us," Merle translated. Xaa began rumbling again, and Merle listened. When he had stopped, she spoke again. In this way, Merle translated what Xaa said, bit by bit.
"I was born thirty-six winters past, in my father's castle, far to the northeast of here. I was born into the noble caste, destined to rule our family's lands by right of birth. I was my father's only son, in fact, his only child, so upon his death five years ago, the lands and the clan itself fell to my possession. For many years before this time, we lived in peace with our neighbors. Certainly, we had the occasional fight, but no major wars have happened among our people since before I was born. One day, the cats you know of in your legends returned, in small numbers. They harried the lands of those nearest our borders for several years, but we did not consider it serious. Their numbers were few, their attacks trivial, and they were easily driven off."
"I was married at the age of twenty-one, and my wife and I lived a lovely existence for twelve years. Yes, the cats were a nuisance, but nothing more than that. We raised a daughter, and looked forward to another child. Then, from the west, my peasants reported riders approaching. Hundreds and hundreds of riders. I prepared my people for battle, not knowing what was in store for us."
"The battle was long, and we thought we would win, but then their reinforcements arrived. Soon, we were facing almost a thousand riders. We withdrew, fighting all the way, and sealed the castle gates against them. Shortly, we found we were under siege. We held out for three months. We knew that sooner or later, my allies would have gathered their armies and rescued us. Apparently, the cats knew this, as well. So, they poisoned the water supply. My wife, the child inside her, and half my people died that day."
"After nearly two weeks, what little water we had was gone, and I was dying. The cats offered us terms of surrender - come out, and we wouldn't be harmed, and would receive fresh water. Some of my people, in desperation, asked to go, and I let them. The cats laughed, and took the ones who surrendered and tortured them to death. We were nothing to them. The next day, my ally arrived with his army of two thousand warriors, and the cats withdrew. My lands were ruined, the livestock all dead, the people nearly so, and the water poisoned by something we knew not of."
"This was only the beginning, for us. Since then, they have used other poisons and weapons we do not understand, and cannot match. Weapons that spit fire and death have begun to appear more and more often in their ranks. Entire villages have been found dead, their occupants looking like they were sleeping, but they are not. It is as though some evil sorcery crept in during the night, stealing their life's breath."
"I have fought in over a hundred battles against them. At first, their weapons were little better than ours. As time has passed, however, they have introduced more and more of their strange new weapons, and driven our people back to the sea. They intend to exterminate us, and now they attack in enormous numbers. And they are slowly winning. Each year our lands are smaller and smaller, our people fewer and fewer. Our legends say that the Little Ones once built flying machines and enormous sailing ships with our help. The legends of our two people's achievements may have grown in the telling over the centuries, but I hoped that they had not. I and eleven others who were landless and without family set out to find you, following the ancient tales. I selected each for his skills; a translator, healer, a historian, and eight skilled warriors. We were set upon by the cats as we neared your lands. They wore the colors of the T'Chang clan, so they must have tracked us for weeks from where our journey started - there are no cats this far south. I was rendered unconscious during the battle, and the rest of my company killed. Merle found me later that evening."
"We need your help, Little Ones. We forgive you the wrongs your ancestors did to us long ago, and we hope you forgive us the wrongs our ancestors did to you. Please, come back with me, and help us. Help us to build the flying machines and other wonderful things we once built together. Help us to defeat our enemies, and to survive. In exchange, we will see that you once again live a life of comfort, never to fear bears or other evil beings again," Merle finished, and Xaa nodded, satisfied with her translation.
Byarl held his breath. He already knew what the mice would probably decide, but nothing in life is certain. If everything went as he thought, then the safety of his people's future would be assured. If things did not go as he thought... Byarl suppressed a shudder. The thought of his people struggling to survive without steel knives and tools, the thought of a bleak future for them without the mice was not a pleasant one.
Cooper shivered, his breath coming in little puffs of grey fog as he spoke into the chill air. "No. We will not abandon our allies and friends, the musties. Aside from that, we are few in number. The great wonders you speak of were not the efforts of a few dozen adult mice, but of tens of thousands. Yes, your people cut and shaped the wood to make the mighty sailing ships. But each nail that held those ships together, each rope, each pin, each drop of paint and varnish, each foot of canvas, represented the work of perhaps a hundred different mice in manufacture, shipping, sales, and assembly. You ask us to step in, and resume the infrastructure that your ancestors once enjoyed under our rule. We cannot. We are too few. Nor can we teach your people to take our place, and build the wonders themselves - the knowledge you would need is too much to be absorbed in a few weeks or months. It would take years of training and study, such as our people do, to begin to comprehend. We also have plans for our people here in the Wild Wood - plans which include the musties as our partners and protectors from now until the end of time, but do not include you. And, finally, we saw how you killed the bear. We watched in fear. You are not the peaceful people you pretend to be. Your people are just as vicious and dangerous as the legends say they were. Once you had that which you want, once your enemies were dead, you would remember the old ways, the old legends, and kill us to protect yourselves. No. I'm sorry, but, no."
Merle expected Xaa to object, to interrupt, to say something to convince them, but he simply knelt there, listening to it all. When Cooper finally finished his reply, Xaa was silent for a long while. At last, he spoke, rumbling in his own language. Merle listened, then translated.
"He says, 'Is there nothing I can say or do that would change your mind? No show of some kind I can make that would let you know how much we need you, and how much we would care for you?'" Merle said.
"No," Cooper replied, and walked over to Byarl. Pulling off the blankets, he returned them to Byarl. "Thank you, Byarl," he said, then turned and walked away, shivering in the cold. Byarl simply nodded at Cooper's back, and began to quietly fold the blankets up.
Tottie, who was standing with the other musties, couldn't restrain himself any longer. "How rude! He didn't even say goodbye!" he yelped, and Nona shushed him. There were mutters from the ring of musties, and many of the adults simply stood there and shook their heads. The other mice huddled about the fire in the center began to quietly slip away, one by one. Finally, only Merle, Xaa and Tinker were left in the center of the ring of musties. Xaa still knelt quietly in the snow, motionless, only the small puffs of fog from his muzzle betraying that he was still alive. 'And I'm not so sure he really is alive,' Merle thought to herself. 'He looks like a part of him has died.' After a moment, Merle realized she was right - a part of Xaa had died. His hope.
Finally, Xaa pushed himself to his feet, and walked over to Byarl. Merle followed, and Tinker slunk along behind quietly. He bowed to Byarl, and rumbled at him for several moments. Byarl bowed in reply as he listened to Merle's translation.
"Umm... He says 'I will be leaving, now. I thank you, the Companions of the Little Ones, for helping me when I was injured, and for helping me to state my case to the Little Ones as best as I could. Farewell.'" Merle translated.
"You mean he's leaving?" Tinker squeaked, his whiskers trembling as he struggled to repress his joy. He stepped up to Merle and smiled, and Merle looked back at him coldly.
"Yes, he is. And I'm going with him."
"What?!" Tinker squeaked, in chorus with several musties.
"Hrm?" Xaa rumbled, looking down at Merle.
Merle craned her neck to look back up at Xaa. "I'm going with you. No arguments. Maybe the mice won't help you, but I will. I make inventions, too, you know. Maybe something I can build will help you. I don't know, but I'm not letting you just walk out of my life. I'm going to see this through to the end, whatever that may be," she said firmly, and ran off to her burrow. Tinker followed, darting inside just behind her.
"Well, Xaa, before you leave, I'd like to make a trade with you," Byarl said, standing.
Xaa was sputtering, trying to say something to Merle, and then stopped, turning back to Byarl. "Whaht Hyouh t'rah'd?" he asked, bowing.
"Well, I have here a pack I put together on the off chance it might be needed. I had a feeling the mice would turn you down, you see. In it are two large skins of water and 20 pounds of jerked meat. I'd like to trade this for the 20 pounds of bear meat that was your share of the kill."
Xaa raised an eyebrow, and several other musties stared in amazement. 20 pounds of meat only made 5 pounds of jerkey - what Byarl was offering was an entire winter's store of meat.
"Whah hyouh doo?" Xaa asked.
"Because I want you to come back. I don't know what will happen with your war. Maybe you'll win, maybe you'll lose. If you do lose, I want you to know that you have a place to go. Right here, with us. This should be enough food to make it all the way back to your lands - if you're careful. Just because the mice don't want to help you doesn't mean the musties agree. We have seen your strength, your power, as the mice have, but we are not afraid, as they are, for we have also seen your gentleness, and your honor. We like you, and we want you to return to us someday" Byarl replied, and there were murmurs of agreement from the musties gathered around.
Xaa walked over to Merle's burrow for a moment, then came back, bearing the frozen meat wrapped up in a piece of the bear's hide. He knelt, laying it before Byarl, then shouldered the bag, noticing that Byarl had thoughtfully provided two very long straps so it would easily go on his back. Xaa peered down at Byarl, and Byarl looked back unflinchingly. "Thehr izz mohr tooh thiss thahn hyouh sahd."
Byarl nodded. "Yes, quite a bit more than I said. The most important thing: I want you to keep Merle safe. I want her to return to us, too. Her most of all," Byarl replied carefully.
Xaa bowed deeply. "Hyes," he rumbled.
Tinker ran out of Merle's burrow at that point, sprinting away and back towards the village of the mice like his tail was on fire. Merle stepped out, a grim look of determination on her face and her pack on her back, and locked the door to her burrow. She then walked over to Byarl and Xaa, tucking the key in her pocket. "I'm ready," she said, simply.
The rest of the musties all hugged Merle, one at a time, and wished her luck. It took quite awhile, and several of the musties wept openly. Finally, Byarl hugged her, then gave her the blankets he'd used to warm Cooper. "May the Spirits of the Forest watch over you, Merle, and guide you safely home to us, someday," he said.
Merle looked down for a moment. "Thank you, Byarl," she replied quietly.
"Let us go, Merle," Xaa
rumbled after Merle had finished rolling the blankets and tying
them to the top and sides of her pack. Merle shouldered her pack
again, fought back her tears, reached up to take Xaa's enormous
paw in her own little one, and led him out of the village just as
she had led him into it seven months before. She tried to shut
her ears to the sounds of weeping behind her, when she realized
she was listening to her own sobs as well.
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