The Real Adventure This Time
Many protested us going, when it was so dangerous, and we were so needed to the cause, but Nemo and the inner circle knew we must go. Scratchy absolutely threw a fit that he wasn't allowed to go with me. He spazzed out completely. He argued in violent hand gestures and body language that it was a squire's job - their right - to guard their knight - and wasn't that why I was going with my master? Was he so worthless that he didn't deserve to go? I nodded at him to shut him up, and he broke into tears. My master kicked me and I growled an apology at the mini mouse. Scratchy went over to stand by BJ, who at least was cordial to him.
He just wasn't goin'! This was our quest, my master and I. Ours. He wasn't goin, troops weren't goin, and that was that. Weirdo couldn't even walk straight - he'd be doing circles the entire time and get us killed. Don't ask me why I still didn't like him. You can take Nemo's theory that he was just like me, (and I don't care), or you can take my theory of I don't know, okay? and just let it drop. I had good days and bad days. Hey, I'd made him a squire, okay? He outta have been happy with that. No way was he getting knighted. Besides, he was way too easily disappointed.
"Does the fabled blade even truly exist?" BJ asked when we were packed and ready to depart.
"Squibble says it does," my master said. "And I have faith in him."
"But that was a dream!" Ghost said.
"All of his other dreams have pretty much come true," my master said. Nemo nodded. "We have to do this, or the darker dreams might also come true."
"Where are you going, then?" asked Stompy. "Do you even know?"
"Michael cast his sword into the lake," my master said. "Squibble and I know right where it is."
"So do I," BJ said. "It is many days from here. Weeks, in this weather. A most dangerous trek for two mice in the cold, alone."
"We did it before," I chirped.
"And with much worse circumstances," my master added. This time we are equipped, experienced, and ready for almost anything. Besides," he ruffled my fur. I purred. "This is a holy quest, my liege. We cannot fail."
"The enemy is everywhere," Stompy said.
"None of our scouts have come back alive, not even mounted cavalry," Squibette added.
"What can this holy avenger do that is so important?" BJ asked. "To risk both your priceless lives?"
My master looked out toward the horizon.
"It was supposed to set the land right," he said. "In the stories, the sword was meant for the King, and the King was meant to unify the land. All the people of that land. All rodents. Maybe everyone, period."
I felt a tingle of excitement at his words that I could not explain.
"Who will wield the sword then?" BJ asked. "I have a feeling that it is not my duty."
"Whoever is meant to, shall," my master answered. He moved out onto the deck. The kind human came, thundering from the bedroom to the front of the house in just several long strides.
My master and I were picked up and kissed.
"You both be careful," he said. "I don't want to lose you."
"Yeah, ditto," said Stompy. "It's crazy going alone."
"Not so much," my master said as he was put back down. "An army might attract attention, and we don't know whether or not the enemy knows about the sword. He might not! If he doesn't, this is our ace in the hole. Two lone mice might sneak through where entire armies would fail. It's a long shot, but this is the best way."
BJ smiled. "I recall a similar tactic taken by two hobbits," he said.
My master grinned. "Yeah. I hadn't thought of that. Yeah. It's like that."
"The enemy once had the lake surrounded," BJ said. "You must assume he knows about the sword, though he may have surrounded the lake to cut off water to the field mice."
My master just nodded. "Nonetheless, we must go."
He shouldered his pack and put on his dark green cloak. I put on mine of dark blue. We gathered our weapons - swords and spears, bows, arrows, and of course, my slingshot.
"Farewell, faithful warriors," BJ called as we crawled down the ramp to the ground. "We shall all pray for your success! May the Mousegod bless your holy quest!"
"He better," I muttered. "This is all his fault."
Within a few hours we had lost sight of the house. My master stopped for a breather. The night was frigid and dry. We were bundled in every sort of clothing that might go on a mouse. We had several layers of undergarments, followed by a tunic, then the armor and then a heavy cloak that was waterproof. Just in case, perchance, the curse might lift and it should rain. All of our equipment was grayed-down, camouflage colors. Mine mostly blue, his mostly green. Everything was designed to keep us from being food.
The clear night sky was adamant that there would be no rain.
I guessed the temperature at near freezing or below. Normally domestic mice can't handle temperatures below 65°, but we had the aid of technology and knowledge this time. We weren't just some young mice on a harebrain quest (sorry, master). We knew what we were doing this time. What saves most mice from freezing to death is their nests. By instinct alone, mice can build the most amazing nests. Heat holding, cold resistant, sometimes waterproof, comfy, and hidden. We brought our nests with us. Shiva and Thor had looked up the designs for sleeping bags made for humans that went into the deep negative degree temperatures, and they built us a pair with the same technology. It's not as if the materials were expensive. I could see the human now, "Can I get half a foot of this fabric and three inches of that?" Anyway, they built us portable nests. While only a few hours from the house, my genius master decided to pull them out and test them.
We had a mini tent to share, and two sleeping bags, both big enough for both of us, if we should need to curl up together like mice do to stay warm. My master pulled his out. Packed away, it was compressed into a tiny size, easy to carry - but when it came out, it was huge. He wrapped it around himself and stuck his nose out at me, smiling.
"Warm?" I asked him. He nodded happily.
I pulled out mine and climbed in. Very warm. Very cozy. Portable mouse nest.
We warmed up and then, reluctantly, packed away our nests and drank some water. Then we moved on.
I had forgotten what long treks were like. The quest to go get the black mouse seemed like such a long time ago, and my pilgrimage to the city was a whole different lifetime. This, I considered, was an entirely new one. Maybe every day is a new lifetime. I looked over at my master. He was getting along well. He seemed to have strength. It encouraged me.
We buried our waste when we had to go, for such things were visible in the ultraviolet spectrum to hawks and owls. Our pee glowed to them, like a light in the night that says "I'm nearby - eat me!" Even regular mice know this somewhat, out of sheer instinct.
Master had a compass. We used it to lead us to the lake, which was about three weeks away. Maybe two, if we made good time. Mice on wheels have been known to run six miles a day sometimes, but put those mice on cold, uneven and unfamiliar terrain, give them 25 grams of stuff to carry, and make them sneak so they don't attract predators. A mile a day if lucky. If really lucky.
So a mile a day it was, my master and I. The first evening, we spent under the lee of a rock, doing our chi gung and eating some of the millet we brought. My master unpacked a tiny chess game and its wooden pieces.
"Master!" I said. "The weight of it..."
"I think I'd go crazy without something brain related to do, Squib," he said. "And you always wanted to learn how to play better."
"At least let me carry it, master," I begged.
"Okay," he replied, setting up the pieces. "But don't lose it. It's like my encyclopedias. I would miss it terribly if it was lost."
"If I lose it I will make you a new one," I said. He glared at me. "But I won't lose it, master!" I added. He smiled.
"I know you won't. Now...who has to be black?!" He grinned.
"Notit!" I chirped. He grinned wider.
"Okay," he said. "You can be white. White goes first."
"Yeah. I wish," I said.
"Now, Squibble," he eyed me. "Don't be bitter. We'll get our chance."
I moved a piece and looked at him. "How do I not be bitter?" I asked. "After all I've gone through? After all you've gone through?"
He lowered his head, thinking. He moved a pawn.
"I think you just decide...to let it go, Squib. Like yesterday's wind. Like a beautiful sunset you'll never see again. Like river water, moving slowly by, only once do we see it, and then it's gone."
I stared at him blank faced.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"No," I whispered. "Nope."
"Your move, whitey."
"I'm not the white mouse here, pal," I said, and moved a knight.
"OOoOOoOo," he OOed, "Big guns. Scary scary." He moved one of his knights.
I gathered my wits together while I lit a concealed fire under a bunch of stones, in a ditch. I made hot tea for my master, to help his breathing, for I could hear it rasping.
When I came back, he was studying the board.
"What were you doin?" I asked playfully. "Cheatin?"
"Cheating!" He exclaimed, and put an offended hand on his breastplate. He made an astounded face. "Cheating?! Oh, I've never!"
"Well maybe you shoulda been!" I gleefully chirped. We both laughed.
"Hey Squib," he said, "What are you up to?" When I didn't answer, he said, "About two or three inches?" We busted up laughing again. We wrapped ourselves in our nests.
"What are you up to master?" I asked back.
"Cheatin!" he said. More laughter.
"No really..." I said, giggling.
"Oh, chess is a game of intense thought, my young squire Squibble," he said, moving a piece. "You must think seven steps ahead of your enemy, at least, or surely lose."
"Oh," I said. "In that case I'll just use prescience to see what you're gonna do, and be so way ahead of you that you'll think I was reading your mind."
He laughed. "Now that's cheating!" He stopped while I considered my move and gave me a serious look. When I looked up from my move, he asked, "Can you really do that?"
"Read your mind, or see the future?" I asked.
"Either," he said.
"Nemo says I can do both, but...No. Nope. I don't think so."
"Maybe you don't believe in yourself enough yet," he said. He made his move on the board and looked back up at me. His face lit up in a wonderful smile. "You've come so far, Squibble. I'm so proud of you. Your mom would have been too."
I blushed. To tell you the truth, the feeling I had in that perfect moment stuck with me forever. It was like being on that magical pier on the river, so long ago. It was a piece of Heaven. I think Heaven is whatever feels best to us in life, and for me, that was it. Knowing he loved me, and hearing his praise.
"Nemo says I have a long way to go, master," I said, moving my queen. "I want to do it, but it keeps getting harder and harder. It's just stunning how hard it is now."
"Is it really hard right now?" he asked, smiling.
I looked around. A clear, frosty night in winter, a fire, hot tea, good food, and both of us warm. Most of all, my best friend and master in the whole world by my side...on a real holy quest. Adventuring. It just couldn't get any better.
"No," I admitted. "Nope."
"It's always hardest just before you get it, Squib."
Without moving my face from the board, I looked up at him.
"I think you've gotten it," he said.
"Ah, you're biased," I said, shuffling about a little.
He nodded. Moved a piece. "You know what I want to do someday?" he asked me.
I scooched forward (if it ain't a word, it are now!) and perked my ears. "No, master...what?"
He looked up, puffy cheeks behind his pointy little nose, and said, "I want to play a human at chess."
I grinned. "The kind human won't play?"
"I've never asked him, honestly. I don't even know if he has a chess board. It's something I should do. Somehow I don't think I'm going to, though."
"Howcome?" I asked.
He looked up at the sky. "I don't know, Squib. I'm what...a year and a half? Past that, now. I'm an old mouse."
"Not even!" I said. "Mice have been known to live to three - even more! The world record was seven!"
"Seven years!" he made a shocked face. "I don't know if I'd want to live that long. What would the quality of life be? I doubt I'd be able to run on my big blue wheel at that age. That would be like a human living to 350!" He chuckled. "I don't think so. I've done most of what I came here to do."
"Not even," I said, feeling anxiety in my chest. I moved a piece.
"You're right there, Squib," he said. I cheered up. "I think I have one more thing to do."
I peered up at him from the chessboard.
"I hope it takes a long time," I said.
He smiled at me again, filling me with light and warmth more than any nest could.
"I'll try," he said.
Each night we woke from our concealed hideout and packed up, did our chi gung, and set out on the trek. Night was cold always...frozen on many evenings. We were well equipped for it, though, and we even had little boots for our feet. Socks for the boots. The whole thing. We wrapped our faces to keep our breath from showing and to keep the air that we took in warmer. We skulked from place to place, and ran across open areas, weapons ready. We covered our shiny metal bottlecap shields with dull leather and drew funny pictures on the covers. I drew a picture of myself holding the black mouse from behind while Percival chopped off his head. While we giggled about that he drew a picture of himself playing chess with a human (and winning, of course). We called ourselves the Knights of So WHAT! And when it was cold, we'd say "So what!" When there wasn't much food, we'd say "So what!" When we had to trudge uphill for many hours, rest constantly, and our water was frozen, we said... yep you guessed it..."So what!" We had a wonderful time, and no enemy accosted us whatsoever, which was strange, but...so what?
We avoided a few owls and such things, but our daytime hideaways were always fine defensible spots, even if we had to work at it with shovels, and not a single creature in that winter landscape did we encounter otherwise.
Each morning before we packed and resumed our trek we would play chess, do chi gung, and fill our water bags after licking our fill of dew from the grass and leaves. In summer that dew hadn't been there. Now, it was. Throughout our entire journey, we did not go thirsty once. It was wonderful.
We spoke of many things. Of most everything, actually, both being longwinded and liking conversation (like you can't guess that after page 500?). We talked about battle, about stories, about dreams, about my training and my art, about writing and getting published (which my master thought was a grand idea), and about spiritual things. I found it easy to talk to him. Effortless. And no subject was taboo. We flowed from one topic into another, and there were no boundaries. When he asked me about my pilgrimage, I told him everything. Every detail. I asked him after it was over if he'd met Fred at the safe house when she came. He said he had, and a fine woman she was. He asked me if I wanted to settle down with her.
"Noway," I said.
"Don't you get lonely?" he said. "Is it because of Favorite?"
"Yeah, and yeah," I said. "How about you? Losing my momma must have sucked."
"It did," he said. "Oh, it did, worse than anything. I felt as if a piece of my soul were torn away. The kind human tried to put other females into my cage for me, but they just couldn't measure up to her." He looked far away. I knew he was remembering my momma. I joined him. In my memory, she was smiling and licking me. "She was so wonderful," he sighed. "I miss her every day."
"Yeah," I said. "No one can replace her. I understand."
One night we came across a field mouse village. It was deserted. Spooky, too. They hadn't taken any of their winter reserves, not that there was much, so we took some and filled our bags. As we did so we looked around, feeling like thieves. It was as if they had just vanished into thin air. Run off at a moment's notice. It gave us the creeps. My master drew his weapon. I pulled out my slingshot and loaded it. Creeping through that husk of a village, we found not one mouse. No recent sign, nothing. We finally went on, the mystery unsolved. Of course, we both knew it was probably the enemy, but we didn't want to think of that. The field mice were innocent. They shouldn't have been dragged into this.
But then, weren't we all innocent? I mean, who would want this? I wondered why we were being tested so, and said as much to my master. He said that no beings were tested by the gods unless some great treasure was to be had. I remembered Orpheus.
"The treasure better be damn good," I said.
He snickered. "Yeah. I agree."
"What could possibly be worth that much?" I said. "What could make the Devil that mad - to use his gnarly powers on mice?"
"I don't know, Squib," he said as we left the haunted village behind us, "but if it's something we have yet to do, we better make sure we do it."
"Yeah," I snarled. "In his face!"
"In his face!" my master raised a fist and growled with me.
We chanted "In his face!" all the way up the hill.
When we stopped that morning, I built the fire and my master rummaged through his sack to the very bottom, through all the food we had salvaged from the ghost town. By the time I had the fire going and covered, he had the chess game set up. He smiled at me with a big cheeky grin.
I squinted one eye at him. "Whassup?"
"This is up," he said, and from behind his back he pulled a piece of honeycomb.
My eyes bugged out. I almost cried. I inched up to it as if it might suddenly vanish, or be demolished by bullies.
But he held it out to me.
"I was saving it for a special time," he said. "Now seems right."
So we had honeycomb for dinner with our grain, and played chess, and laughed with each other until we went to bed, warm and full. It was perfect. It was golden. Heaven.
The original food lasted a long time before we had run out, and the food we took from the wild mouse village lasted just as long. Our supplies had been perfectly thought out, for we knew we'd need to refill somewhere along the way, and just trusted fate that food would be there, for no mouse can carry three weeks worth of food. But the food had been there when we needed it, and everything had gone well so far. Every morning just before dawn as we made camp and did our chi gung, we were comfortable, despite the cold. I kept waiting for the hammer to fall, for something to go horribly wrong. After two weeks of good travel, I was a seriously paranoid mouse. I just knew that something was going to attack us, or injure us, or cripple one of us, and we were gonna have to crawl back to the safe house on our lips, barely alive. And frankly, I was sick of that crap.
But it never happened. Our trip was magnificent and flawless - like a wonderful dream one wishes never to awake from. On the morning of the eighteenth day, we reached the lake just before dawn.