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Merle pointed at the eleven snow covered mounds which surrounded them. The vast plains of the Unknown Lands stretched before them, and the familiar comfort of the Wild Woods lay behind. "Those are the rock piles that cover the graves of your friends. This is where you and I first met. Do you know your way from here?" Merle asked, panting. Trudging through foot deep snow was nothing for him, but for Merle, the snow was above her knees, and hard work to get through.
Xaa jammed his walking-staff into the snow, then looked off into the bleak, white horizon. The staff he'd made by simply snapping off a sapling while he and Merle walked through the forest, then trimming it with his teeth. "Yes. See that mountain?" he rumbled, pointing to the northeast.
"No, not from here, sorry," Merle replied.
Xaa chuckled, slipped off his bowcase and set it down, then reached down and picked Merle up. "Hey! What are you doing?!" Merle yelped. Xaa simply placed her on his shoulder, then pointed again.
"That mountain there," he rumbled, chuckling.
At first, Merle was petrified. After a few moments, though, she realized she wasn't going to fall. Xaa's gentle grip at her waist prevented her from losing her balance. She looked in the direction Xaa was pointing, and saw a gray shape silhouetted against the horizon. "Okay, I see it - but what is it?"
"Our first landmark. That mountain is to the northeast, in the direction I came from. We head for it until I see the next landmark."
Merle looked down, spying the small pack hanging low on Xaa's back, and inspiration struck. Brushing away Xaa's paw, she placed her paws on his shoulders and slipped down on top of the pack, wrapping her legs around his armored chest and her arms around his neck. "Is it okay if I ride here? The snow is very deep for me, and I'm exhausted," she asked.
"Hmmm... Take those blankets the chief gave you, and place one of them around my back. Otherwise, your legs will chill pressed against my armor in this weather."
It took some doing, and Merle had to get off while Xaa knelt and helped her, but eventually Merle had one of the blankets across his back and beneath the pack he wore, the top of it tucked into the neck-opening of his armor and draped across his shoulders. Climbing back on, she slipped her legs beneath the shoulder straps of the pack and around his chest again. Wrapping her arms around his warm neck, she nuzzled his large, pale ears. "Mmm... Comfy," she said, and giggled. Xaa grinned as he picked up his bowcase, carrying it in one paw, snatched up his staff, and began walking towards the mountain in the distance.
"Wait! Waaaaaaaait!" came a shrill little wail from behind them. Xaa stopped and turned.
"It's Tinker!" Merle exclaimed in surprise, spotting the little mouse struggling against the deep snow to catch up. He was wearing an absolutely enormous pack, over which was strapped a large wooden toboggan.
"Great," Xaa growled.
Xaa stood and waited for Tinker to catch up, and once he had, Merle slipped off his back and dropped to the snow, bounding over to meet him and give him a big hug - which he didn't shy away from, but instead returned warmly. "Oh, Tinker! What are you doing here?" Merle yelped.
"My question exactly," Xaa growled in his own language, and Merle turned to make a moue' at him for a moment before turning back to listen to Tinker's explanation.
"I followed your tracks from your village, Merle! I know you told me in your burrow that you were going to go and that was that, but I didn't want you to go alone. So, I decided I would go with you. I went home to pack, and of course, my parents were totally against it. Well, I told them that someone had to go with you - you were one of the musties, and we mousies and you musties are partners forever. Well, my parents didn't like that, so they called in Mayor Cooper to see if I was interpreting the Law of the Mice correctly. Well, Mayor Cooper said I was, but I was really stretching it since you volunteered to go all by yourself and didn't ask for anyone to come along. I argued with the mayor and my parents and even my sister for quite awhile, then guess who showed up?!"
"I've no idea! Who?" Mere replied excitedly.
"Byarl!" Tinker squeaked.
"Byarl?! Why?" Merle asked.
"Why did I know that was going to be the answer?" Xaa muttered sarcastically, but neither Merle nor Tinker heard him.
"That's the same question Mayor Cooper had, Merle! Well, Byarl explained that he was here to ask Cooper if one of the mice could go along and keep you company and help you. He said that you might get into some tight spots, and only the wisdom of the mice would be able to save the day!" Tinker said, beaming, and Xaa suppressed a snort. "Well, since I was already packed and ready and willing to go, Mayor Cooper agreed I should be allowed to go. I'm fourteen, by our laws an adult, and I can make my own decisions," Tinker said, puffing his chest out and beaming with pride.
"That's great, Tinker! But why did you bring your daddy's toboggan?" Merle asked, pointing. Adult mice used toboggans to move heavy things around in the winter, and young mice sometimes helped with them. It was made of a broad, flat plank of oak as thick as a finger, had several little cleats around its side edges to tie ropes to, and its front end was curved and reinforced to slide easily over the snow. To a mustie, though, a toboggan wasn't a tool, it was a fun winter toy to be used for sliding around on.
"Well, we can pack all of our things to it and tie them down, then sit on them, and then Xaa can drag it behind him across the snow! That will be much easier than walking, and you and I can chat with each other while we travel. How does that sound?" Tinker asked excitedly as he slipped his pack off and untied the toboggan.
"That sounds wonderful, Tinker! What a marvelous idea!" Merle replied, giggling.
A few moments later, Merle and Tinker had their packs secured to the toboggan, and they were sitting atop it. Merl's pack made a comfy cushion, while Tinker's enormous pack made a nice backrest. Xaa looked at the two of them, who looked back at him expectantly. "Did you bring a yoke?" he growled.
Merle, surprised at Xaa's iciness, was silent for a moment before she translated for Tinker. "He wants to know if you have something he can pull it with."
"Oh, don't worry, I thought ahead. The rope at the front is long enough for him to throw it over one shoulder and under the other, then pull us along just by walking," Tinker replied smugly.
Xaa growled wordlessly, yanking the blanket off his back. Stepping over to Merle, he gently wrapped her up in it. Then he shouldered his bowcase, picked up his staff, and put the rope over his right shoulder and under his left. He looked back, only to see Merle wrapping Tinker in the blanket Xaa had tucked around her. "He'll need it more than I will, Xaa, his fur is thinner and he'll get colder sooner. I have plenty of others if I get cold," Merle commented.
Xaa nodded, then turned and began walking towards the mountain again, his tail lashing behind him. Tinker noticed, and whispered quietly in Merle's ear. "He seems angry about something. Do you know what's the matter?" Tinker asked.
"No," Merle whispered back. "I thought he'd be happy. After all, bringing back one mouse is better than bringing back none."
Tinker giggled, and they spent the rest of the day enjoying the ride, chatting quietly between themselves.
"Tell the fat one to ration his food, or he'll never make it to my homelands alive," Xaa growled.
Merle glared at Xaa, and hissed back at him quietly. "He is not fat. All the mice put on a little weight for the winter - it's normal for them. By the spring, he'll be lean and sleek again. You just wait and see."
"He'll never make it to the spring," Xaa said, gesturing across their cold, snow-covered camp under the crystal-clear starlit sky. There was no wood for a fire out on the plains, and the mountains were still a good two weeks walk away. "At the rate he's eating those dried berries he packed, he'll be out of food long before then. Then what will we feed him? Our own food? No. He sits and rides in comfort all day, and I do all the work. He can survive on less food - and he better, because there isn't going to be anything for him to eat until well after the mountains, I think."
Merle looked to Tinker, who was shivering while he munched a pawful of the dried berries he'd brought. Merle sighed, and had to agree with Xaa. For her part, Merle limited herself to half a piece of jerky a day, which was a small portion that just barely covered the palm of her tiny paw. She wasn't moving about or running or anything, so although she was hungry, she knew she'd be alright. Xaa ate two full pieces a day. Merle wondered how he could survive on that, since he was so much bigger and was pulling Tinker and Merle along behind him all day long. Merle noticed Xaa had been nibbling on his walking-staff. 'Perhaps he gets some food value out of it?' she wondered. "Alright, I'll talk to him," Merle said with a sigh.
Merle shuffled over to Tinker, who was just putting away his berries and wrapping himself up tight in the blanket. "Tinker, you really need to cut down on what you eat. What you have has to last until we find more food, and that might not be until spring."
Tinker shivered, his teeth chattering as he replied. "It's alright, Merle. If I run out, I can just eat what you have."
"No, you can't. All we have is dried meat. I have about a pound, and Xaa has a little less than 20 pounds. Can you eat that?"
"Dried meat?! Ewww, yuck!"
"I didn't think so. So, you'll have to try to cut back on what you eat to no more than a small pawful a day. I know you'll be very hungry, but since neither of us is walking or anything, we'll be alright."
"But Merle! I'm already hungry! I'm hungry all the time! And cold, too! Why doesn't Xaa find us some firewood and build a fire?!"
"Tell that little dung-head that the only wood around here is the slab of lumber I've been dragging his lazy buttocks around on for two weeks, and I'll be damn glad to set that thing ablaze to keep his chubby tail warm!" Xaa snarled.
Tinker jumped at the hostility in Xaa's voice, even though he didn't understand the words, and Merle gave Xaa a stern look before she turned back to Tinker. "Tinker, Xaa says the only wood around here is the toboggan. We can't burn it, we need it. I'll snuggle up next to you to keep you warm, okay?" she asked, slipping up next to him as she wrapped the two of them up in a blanket.
"Well, what about that stick he's carrying? That would do! And that box there is wood, it would burn, too!"
"Yes, I'm sure you'd love that, you little pig. Burn my walking-staff to keep you warm, then trip in the snow, break an ankle, and die out here. Burn my bow to keep you warm, so that the first cat we run across slaughters us with ease with his own bow from a distance. Next you'll be asking me to burn my swords, then my knife, then my clothes, THEN MY FUR!" Xaa roared.
"Eep!" Tinker replied.
Tinker cowered, and Merle hugged him while she gave Xaa a very stern look. "Umm... He says 'no', Tinker," Merle translated.
"All that means 'no'?" Tinker asked, timidly.
"Well, he says he needs the staff so he doesn't trip - we're a long way from any help, and if he gets hurt out here, we may all die. He says the case is for his bow. It's a weapon, like my sling, and he might need it if we run across any cats. He's cold and hungry, too, Tinker, but there isn't any firewood, and he and I are both rationing our food so we can make it until we find some more. You need to do the same, or you'll never make it," Merle explained.
"Alright, Merle. I acknowledge that what you say makes sense, and that you, as a mustie, are my protector and know more about these things than I will."
Merle grinned and hugged
Tinker, snuggling tight under the blankets. Xaa looked at the two
of them, grumbled wordlessly, then slipped his tail under his
armor and covered the top of his head and his ears with a blanket
to keep himself warm. After using another blanket and his walking
staff to make a simple windbreak to protect Merle and Tinker, Xaa
sat on his pack, wrapping the rest of his blanket tight about
himself and shivering slightly. Merle watched Xaa sleepily for a
moment before she dozed off, and although she noticed him slip
his tail beneath his armor, it didn't occur to her that Xaa's
armor used to fit snugly.
"Look, Merle! Trees!" Tinker squeaked, pointing. Sure enough, ahead in the distance, the hills were covered in trees. Four weeks had passed, and they had finally crossed the plains and entered the foothills of the mountain Xaa had been heading towards. "Now we can have a warm campfire and everything!"
Xaa staggered to a stop, staring ahead. Slowly, he slipped off the rope from his shoulder, and let it fall to the ground, stepping out of it while he slipped his bowcase into his paws.
"Why is he stopping, Merle? The trees are only a few hours away! We need to go on!" Tinker objected petulantly.
"Xaa?" Merle called.
"Rabbit. Hush," Xaa hissed back, slowly taking his bow out and struggling to string it. Four weeks of a reduced diet and constant labor had left him weakened, and it was several moments before he had it.
"Merle? What's the problem?" Tinker asked.
"Shush, Tinker. Not now," Merle hissed.
"I demand to know what the problem is! Why aren't we going on?" Tinker yelped.
"Tell the little piglet I'm starving, and if he doesn't shut his pie-hole and ends up scaring off the first game I've seen in four weeks, I'll slit his belly and eat his liver," Xaa growled quietly.
Merle didn't bother to say that, much as she agreed with it. Her own tummy was growling loudly with hunger, and over the last couple of weeks, Tinker's constant whining about the cold and his own hunger pangs had become an annoyance. Merle simply reached out and wrapped her paws around Tinker's muzzle, then hissed in his ear. "Shush."
Merle watched Xaa, straining to see what he was looking at, but not seeing anything. Of course, he had a better vantage point, being as he was so much taller. The rabbits were also wearing their white winter coats, so they'd be terribly difficult to see at range, anyway. Xaa withdrew five arrows, holding then in his fist with the bow, then drew one for his first shot.
The bow thrummed quietly as Xaa released his first arrow, then smoothly nocked another. In rapid succession, the bow thrummed four more times. After a moment, Xaa smiled. "My father would be proud," he rumbled.
"Yes!" Merle chittered, and leapt up, dashing off in the direction the arrows had flown. Xaa slipped his bowcase on his shoulder, then followed, his long strides easily keeping pace with her. In a few seconds, Merle spotted the red splashes of blood on the snow from five rabbits, each impaled on an arrow. Merle zipped up to the ones that were still struggling first, slicing the heads off with her knife, then going to deal with the ones that were still. Xaa carefully removed each arrow, cleaned it gently with his sash, then slipped each back into the case.
"Slit open their stomachs when you gut them, and save the contents in one of their skins. They've been digging through the snow for grass and roots. After a month of jerky, we'll need to eat that along with their organs, or we're risking scurvy," Xaa rumbled, and Merle nodded as Xaa popped one of the rabbit's heads into his maw, crunching down while he un-strung the bow to put it back in the case.
"I wish I could do that," Merle commented, popping one of the rabbit's bloody livers into her mouth and swallowing hungrily.
"Mmm. You need to, as well. Can't waste any of this, we've gone without good organ meat for too long. Hang on," Xaa mumbled around a mouthful of bone and gore, setting the bowcase aside gently. He then pulled out his knife and picked up another head. With an expert flick of the wrist, he popped out both eyes, then cracked the skull with the butt of the knife and pried open the brainpan, scraping its contents onto a bloody skin Merle laid out. "There you are," Xaa said, waving the bloody knife.
"Ooo! Lovely! Thank you," Merle said, and gobbled the eyes and brain with relish.
"Oh, GROSS!" a voice from behind then shrieked.
"Ah, there you are, Little One. Not much for you here, but you can share the stomach contents with us until we get to the forest. There we might find some roots for you or something," Xaa called over his shoulder, grinning.
'Ooops,' Merle thought.
"What is he saying, Merle?"
"Umm... He says you can have the roots and grasses that were in their tummies. That will tide you over until we make it to the forest ahead, where we might find some roots or something," Merle said sheepishly.
"Is he INSANE?! NOBODY would eat that! That's disgusting!" Tinker shrieked.
Merle jumped to her feet and glared at Tinker. "No, he's not insane, he's a carnivore, and SO AM I!" she screamed at him. "I never complained about the icky things you eat, things that grow in the dirt and the filth like mushrooms and roots and nasty things like that, stuff that you grow in your gardens and actually spread your poop over to make it grow better, or that icky stuff you started making last year that you call cheese which is nothing but rotten goat's milk, so if you don't like it you can just go right back to that toboggan, sit down and wait until we're done eating because we're starving!" Merle shrieked.
Tinker stormed off in a huff, and Xaa roared with laughter. Merle plopped herself down in the snow and tried to give him a very stern look, but found she couldn't. After a few moments, she was giggling, then roaring with laughter herself.
An hour later, Merle and Xaa returned to the toboggan, where Tinker sat huddled in several blankets. Xaa picked up the rope and slung it over his shoulder with a grin, and when Merle was in her seat, began to walk for the forest ahead of them. Tinker was silent for a long while. Then, as the forest neared, he finally spoke.
"I'm sorry, Merle, I didn't mean to make you angry. You were right, and I was wrong. I had no right passing judgement on what you eat. The Lore of the Mice says that the Creator made us all different, in the hopes that we at least wouldn't fight over food, but the Defiler had his say in this, as he did in all parts of creation, and made each species dislike the other for the food they ate, if nothing else. The Lore of the Mice says that we must not fall into the Defiler's trap, but must always stay true to the Creator's intent, and share what we have with others, especially when what we have is inedible to us but delicious to them. I should have sat there beside you, shared what little of your meal was edible to me, and thanked you for offering it - just like you did when you came to visit my parent's home last year. I was wrong, and I'm sorry," Tinker said.
Merle looked over, and could only see Tinker's muzzle and whiskers poking out of the cocoon of blankets he'd wrapped himself in. The sight made her giggle. "It's alright, Tinker. Xaa and I were just very, very hungry. He was even more hungry than me - he's shorted himself on rations even more than he should have, because he wanted to make sure I'd have enough. It was very sweet of him, but the hunger and the tiredness was making him quite cross. Soon, we'll be in the forest, and we can help you look for roots and things that would be good for you to eat - though you'll have to tell us how, since we don't know where to even begin looking. Then you can have a full tummy like us, and feel all better. It's okay, Tinker. I forgive you," Merle replied, and hugged him. Tinker returned the hug, and sighed.
glanced back over his shoulder and saw the two hugging, then
turned forward again with a quiet grumble.
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