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"There it is! Hang on, we're nearly there!" Xaa roared over the blizzard's howling winds, pointing ahead of him. Merle looked, and could see a shadowy shape against the white of the driving snow, but that was all.

"Hold on, Tinker! Xaa says we're nearly there!" Merle called, hugging Tinker tight. Tinker didn't reply - he simply sat on the toboggan and hugged Merle tight, his teeth chattering. Xaa had tied the blankets tight around them to keep them warm when the blizzard first started, and Merle was glad he did - the way she was shivering, she didn't think she could hold onto them in this wind. The heavy load of wood Xaa had put on toboggan helped keep it from tipping over in the wind, and Tinker and Merle being securely tied down to it helped keep them from getting blown off. Even so, Merle was still deathly afraid the rope Xaa used to pull it might snap, sending them careening down the mountain to be lost forever. It didn't dawn on her that Xaa had wrapped the rope around his right arm and was gripping it tightly in his paw against just such a possibility.

Merle looked at Xaa, striding ahead of them, pulling them along. He didn't even seem alive - he seemed like some gigantic machine made by the mice of Tinker's village, his legs pistoning, his left arm tugging his walking staff out of the snow to stab it in again a pace ahead, pulling them along a step at a time relentlessly through the blizzard. She was frightened, she was chilled to the bone, but she was awed by his power again, as she had been the day he killed the bear.

Now she could see it more clearly through the driving snow - the cave opening Xaa had said he was heading for. Merle tried to control her excitement, and just hold Tinker tight. Xaa kept going, and after a minute, he had dragged the toboggan into the cave entrance. Without pause, he took a step back, letting the rope fall, setting his staff down, and turning to Tinker and Merle to untie them from the toboggan. Merle started to open her muzzle to shout with joy, but Xaa snapped his paw around it to silence her. "Hush. We may not be alone," he hissed into her ear. Merle nodded silently, her eyes wide.

Xaa then stood, sniffing the air carefully as he stretched and flexed his right arm. After a moment, he drew the longer of his two swords silently, and crept ahead into the darkness. Merle strained to hear what might be happening, but couldn't hear anything over the howling of the wind outside the cave. She knew that if he ran across a hibernating bear, it would be simple work for him to cut off its head, but she was still worried.

After bit, she saw a looming shape walking back out into the light near the entrance. Merle gasped, thinking it was a bear for a moment, but then signed with relief when she saw it was just Xaa. Xaa grinned at Merle, his sword already sheathed. "Good news, Merle. No bears - we've got the cave to ourselves, and the wood my friends and I stockpiled in here for our return journey is still here," Xaa called.

"Yay!" Merle replied.

"I'm f-f-f-frozen!" Tinker squeaked.

"It's alright, Tinker - we'll get a fire started real soon. We're all cold," Merle replied. "Come on - let's help Xaa by dragging the toboggan deeper in," Merle said, jumping up and grabbing the rope.

Tinker nodded, his teeth still chattering, and also stood to grab the rope. Try as they might, though, they couldn't budge the toboggan an inch. It was just too heavy, what with the wood and all their supplies. Xaa simply chuckled, grabbed the rope with his left paw, and began dragging the toboggan again.

Half an hour later, Tinker and Merle were huddled together beside a fire in the back of the cave that Xaa had built, and he was carefully unpacking the toboggan. "Merle, ask Tinker how he is. Make sure his fingers, toes, nose and tailtip aren't numb. Same goes for you," Xaa rumbled.

"Tinker, Xaa wants to know if your fingers, toes, nose and tailtip are okay, or if they're numb," Merle said, feeling her fingers and toes carefully, then reaching beneath her dress to feel her tail.

"My tail and toes are okay, but my nose and my fingers are frozen," Tinker replied, and sneezed.

"Tell him to take off his mittens," Xaa said, kneeling by Tinker, and Merle did so. After Tinker had complied, Xaa took his tiny little paws into his enormous ones and stroked the fingertips gently. "Hyouh fhehl this?" he asked, his accent still atrocious.

"Yes, I can feel it, but my fingers are so cold they hurt," Tinker replied, sniffling.

"Goohd," Xaa replied, and ran his fingertip gently over Tinker's nose. "Hyouh fhehl this?" he asked.

"Yes, but it hurts!" Tinker squeaked.

"Borderline frostbite. He'll be okay, but no more cold for him for at least a few days - maybe a week, to be on the safe side. He stays right here where it's warm. Tell him that," Xaa rumbled, and then took Merle's little paws in his and removed her booties. "Can you feel this?" he asked, running his fingers across her toes.

Merle giggled. "Yes, Xaa, I can feel that and it tickles! Stop it!" Xaa grinned, and removed her mittens while Merle spoke to Tinker. "Tinker, Xaa says you'll be okay, but we'll have to keep you out of the cold for a few days, maybe a week. He says we stay right here where it's nice and warm," Merle translated.

"Yay!" Tinker squeaked, then sneezed loudly.

"Sounds like he's caught a chill, too. Definitely a good time to take a break," Xaa rumbled, gently stroking Merle's fingers. "Can you feel this?" he asked.

"Yes, Xaa, I'm fine. My nose got very cold, but it doesn't hurt or anything, and it's not numb - just really cold," Merle replied, smiling at Xaa's gentle touch.

"I'm glad," Xaa rumbled warmly, and smiled back, gently squeezing Merle's paws in his large ones. "You and Tinker just relax. I'll get you both some food. When my companions and I came through here last, we didn't know what supplies we might need on the trip back - maybe nothing, maybe everything. We all set aside a portion of what we had against any possibility. Damn good thing we did, too," Xaa rumbled, grinning, and stepped to the back of the cave.

Merle wrapped herself and Tinker up in a blanket, and they snuggled together, relaxing and watching the fire. Tinker sneezed a couple more times, then simply sat there quietly. After a few minutes, Merle realized he was asleep. "The poor dear! He must have been exhausted!' Merle thought. After a few minutes, Xaa came back out with a metal pot, two-thirds full with a mixture of water and little flakes. "He's asleep," Merle whispered.

Xaa nodded, then hissed back "Don't wake him - let him rest. This will wake him up when it's done cooking."

"What is it?" Merle whispered.

"Rolled oats. We saved a sack in case we came back in the winter and there wasn't any forage for the Djuducus."

"That still doesn't tell me what it is."

Xaa grinned. "Don't worry. He'll like it. I'll get some jerky for you and I, you just stay put and keep him warm."

An hour later, the pot was bubbling, and most of the water was gone. A strange smell filled the little cave, and Merle wrinkled her nose. It did not smell edible at all. Xaa had given her four pieces of jerky, and insisted she eat all of it. After Merle had drunk some warm water from the waterskin she kept beneath her blankets, she found her tummy was almost satisfied. She was thinking about asking for more, but she noticed that Xaa only ate four pieces himself. She decided that it would be a little rude of her to ask for more than he was eating, especially since he was so much larger and was doing all the hard work. Xaa pulled out a wooden spoon from the back of the cave, and used it to hook the handle of the pot and lift it from the fire, setting it on the stone floor of the cave when he saw Tinker's whiskers twitch.

"Momma?" Tinker muttered in his sleep, sniffing the air. He opened his eyes, looking around, and realized where he was. His lower lip trembled, and a big mousie-tear rolled down his cheek. Suddenly, he burst into sobs.

"It's okay, Tinker," Merle said, hugging him.

"Oh, m-m-Merle! I s-s-smelled the food a-and I thought I was back home and my momma was making b-breakfast for me!"

"No, Tinker. It's some supplies that Xaa's friends left here for when they came back. They didn't know what they might need, so they tried to leave a little of everything," Merle replied quietly.

"Oh, Merle! I m-miss my momma so m-m-much! Daddy was right! Adventures are n-nasty, s-s-scary, uncomfortable things that m-make you late for dinner, and m-maybe make you n-never come home at all!" Tinker sobbed. "I only c-came along b-because I love you so much, Merle, and I w-was afraid that if I didn't g-go with you, I might never, ever see you again!" Tinker sobbed, and then just hugged Merle and cried.

"Oh, Tinker, I love you, too," Merle said, sniffling, and hugged him back tightly. Tucking his head against her shoulder, she quietly groomed the hair of his head and neck. His sobs slowly subsided into sniffles, then into sighs, then into quiet churrs of pleasure and happiness.

Merle looked up, and was startled to see Xaa looking at her with a very strange expression on his face. When he saw she was looking at him, he spoke. "Tell him to eat while the food is warm. It'll do him good," he rumbled, his voice barely audible against the sounds of the blizzard outside the cave. Xaa then turned, pulled his swords out of his sash, and lay down with his back to the fire and to Merle and Tinker, tucking his arm beneath his head like a pillow. He didn't speak again.

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