Chapter 9: The End of the Quest
A car door closed sharply against the silent country. Boots trudged to steps leading up to the deck. The boots stepped blindly where they had a thousand times, heading for the front door, shaking footboards on their way.
Suddenly, a voice belonging to the boots exclaimed in shock and fury, "OOWW!! What the heck!" A hand came down to swat away the bee that had stung his knee. And, having done that, the human looked down.
At first he swore that the two tiny bodies were dead. They were half covered in snow and one was lying on its side. But the one covering him was shivering.
Immediately the human bent down and scooped up the poor animals.
"If it hadn't been for that bee I would have stepped on you, little ones!" He exclaimed. "Oh my. You don't look good at all. And a white mouse... such a small one... way out here... ." Quickly opening the door he stepped inside the heated house. Closing the door he noticed the bees circling over his roof. "A little late in the season for you, isn't it?" he said to them.
He didn't see it, but when the door closed, the bees went away.
Inside Squibble saw - through frozen eyes covered with a thin layer of ice - many cages. Many animals. Mice. Rats. And a sapphire blue chinchilla staring at him through the wire of an enormously luxurious cage with an open door.
"Welcome," the chinchilla said. "You did it."
Then Squibble passed out again.
He awoke in a very white place, with lights and strange smells and sounds. A man was prodding him. Poking and prodding. He didn't like it. He tried to bite the man, but the man seemed ready for it, and Squibble really didn't have the strength anyway. He awoke fully for a moment, in panic, searching desperately for the Mouse Knight.
He was there, next to him, wrapped in a tiny blanket of soft tissues. He was still breathing, though it was labored and frighteningly noisy. Squibble scooted up to his master, looking at the two humans who had them on some kind of table.
"Well, the smaller one is okay. Normal medication for ten days. But the other one is so close to death I can't believe he isn't dead. That is one fighter of a mouse you have. Any other mouse would have given up the ghost by now. He needs shots and heavy medication, and even with that and the nebulizer treatments, I wouldn't be shocked if he dies. He's been through Hell. On the very slim chance he lives, he'll probably have scarring of the lungs."
The other human looked down at Squibble and the Mouse Knight with caring compassion... . Compassion! "I'll do whatever it takes, doctor. Money is no object. Look at them. That little one hasn't left his side since I found them. I've never even seen a white mouse anywhere in the wild. I think they came from the city."
"Well, that's impossible," said the vet. "No mouse could make a journey like that. Not even a healthy one with a lot of help."
"Look at them, Doc. Nothing's impossible."
In the days that followed, Squibble was poked, prodded, held up by the scruff of his neck, and forced to drink nasty liquids. If this is the Master's Heaven, he thought, there must be some mistake.
But he got lots and lots of food, and plenty of water. He had a very warm bed, which was comfy. Very comfy. He shared a cage with the Mouse Knight, who remained very weak. The Mouse Knight was taken out twice a day, given medicine, stuck in a smaller cage and covered in weird tasting mist for a long time. Every time the hand came in to take him, Squibble tried to bite it, to not let the human take his master. But the human would laugh, pick Squibble up, pet him, and put him back with great gentleness. And the master would always come back unharmed, if a bit miffed.
Unknown to Squibble, the Mouse Knight recognized the human instantly. It was the very same one he had met in the park so long ago. The one who hadn't squished him when threatened. The one who had tried to protect him against Mike. The very same long hair and soft eyes. He wasn't surprised when the human recognized him, too. It made a strange kind of sense to the sick mouse. That this might be his kind human. And always had been.
Then one day the Mouse Knight could talk.
"Squib." he said, eyes shut.
Squibble was at his side in an instant. "Master!" he chirped.
"Did we... did we do it, Squib?" he asked weakly.
"I... I don't know, Master," said Squibble, looking suspiciously side to side. "We are treated well, but I get poked and prodded and held up by my neck. And the human seems nice, but he takes you away... . And there was this guy in a white coat..."
"Ha ha ha..." Mouseknight croaked. "He's just trying to help us, Squibble. It's medicine. Without it, we'd die."
"I thought we were so dead, Master."
"We were," he answered. "What saved us?"
"Bigfat is the Mousegod!" Squibble squeaked.
"Whaat?" Mouseknight opened one eye.
"Bigfat came and saved us with the bees, Master - he's the Mousegod! He's probably been the Mousegod the whole time and it was all just an act!"
"Squibble, you've lost it," said the knight.
But from that day forward, Squibble could see things others couldn't. Perhaps he had lost it; maybe he was a bit crazy. Mayhap he snapped under the stress of that terrible trial he endured. But the Mouse Knight never thought such things. He just assumed that Squibble had been given a gift. So, whenever he talked about seeing Bigfat again, or talking to his mom in dreams, or seeing strange, bright humans with wings walking amongst the other animals and keeping them company or talking to them, he never questioned it.
So Squibble and Bigfat talked sometimes. And Squibble described the bright humans to Mouseknight, who told him they were angels. In his dreams he visited the other animals and talked to them. They were all happy, he said; they seemed to love the human very much. And the sapphire chinchilla was Nemo.
"What!" Mouseknight declared.
"Yeah... that's Nemo," said Squibble matter-of-factly. "The hawk wounded him badly, but he found his way back to the house. It wasn't that long ago - he was really young. The human fixed him. Nemo says he knows you. In a dream he was an old mouse who you met briefly before he was fed to a snake."
The Mouse Knight's eyes turned into great circles. Nemo couldn't have known about that! He had never told anyone, not even Squibble.
"Nemo is very wise," said the Mouse Knight. "We should listen to him, if we can talk to him. How did he get out?"
"The human let him out," Squibble said.
"What!" exclaimed Mouseknight.
"The human doesn't cage anyone against their wills," Squibble said. "Everyone stays or goes if they want. Nemo asked to be let out, to explore the country - to see what it was like. He said the experience was good for his soul, or something like that. Even though it was dangerous, he had to know, so he went."
The Mouse Knight was finally satisfied. This was it. The one human who would love him for the rest of his life. The Kind Human.
"So we can leave when we want," said Mouseknight.
"Yeah, I guess. When we're better."
"Good. Because we need to go back," said the knight, and he fell asleep.
Weeks passed. Outside it was winter. Inside, Mouseknight met the other animals. He was let out of his cage for lengths of time until he was visibly tired, then put back. He never wanted to go back, but back he went. He understood, showing the kind human he did by licking him.
He met Nemo. The chinchilla was respected as a guru and spiritual guide among all the animals there. He was old, but chinchillas live a long time. Several times the span of a mouse. Everyone went to him for advice, or to learn.
Because Nemo knew how to read.
"So I'm not the only one!" Mouseknight said happily.
"No, not at all," said Nemo. They sat together on the floor and ate Cereal. (Oh, how the Mouse Knight and Squibble loved Cheerios!) "Once in every thousand generations of an animal species, one is born who is special. The Great Spirit's gift to that race. They have the chance to change things. They have the power, small as it may appear, to change things. To change everything if people let them."
"Every race?" asked Mouseknight. "Then the humans had one too?"
"Oh yes. We are all reflections of the same spirit."
"What happened?" asked the Mouse Knight.
Nemo looked sad. "They killed him."
Mouseknight dropped his Cheerio. "They almost killed me too!"
Nemo nodded. "They have a long way to go. They are afraid and confused, just as we often are."
"Is that why they hurt us and treat us so poorly?" said Mouseknight.
"Yes. They are afraid and confused. You should see what they do to each other! It's not really their fault. Someday they will learn. There's hope as long as there are kind humans about."
"There's more than one!?" Mouseknight exclaimed, amazed.
"Oh yes. Like us, there are hundreds. Thousands," said Nemo.
"That makes me feel so much better!" the Mouse Knight breathed.
"Yes. There's always hope," said Nemo, looking at Squibble.
They talked every night. Mouseknight met the other animals and found all of them had names. There were lots of girl mice, and some other men. There were many more. Rats, mice, chinchillas and some wild animals who were released once they were better. There were wild mice who had taken part in the battle against the hawk. When they got released, they took news of the Knight's success back to the fields. There was a great celebration, but Squibble and his master missed it all. They were more than comfortable in their new place, learning, playing and healing from their wounds. Meanwhile, the kind human noticed ants, bees, and mice converging on his house in great numbers. Many would have become alarmed - tried to exterminate the pests - but he observed the mice talking to the ants, and the ants to the bees, and thought better of it. Instead, he put out food and water every day. And tried not to disturb them when he found them living in his basement. He even left heat on in the unused chamber, and did not plaster up cracks in the foundation where the insects and mice came and went. In fact, he was rather happy and honored about it all; that they would choose his place of any they could have had.
Eventually the day came when the Mouse Knight was better. He never again breathed as strongly or smoothly as he had when young, but he survived. And he lacked no strength. Enough time had passed. Terribly tempted to stay, he knew he could not. The idea of journeying back through the winter was crazy and frightening, but if he didn't, many of the mice he once knew would be dead of age alone, much less the cold of the city - or sickness - or predators. He had to get back to keep his promise to Tree. If she still waited. Each night he silently thanked his friends who had given their lives to make the whole dream possible. And Squibble claimed Bigfat said, "Well, he better be grateful!" Mouseknight laughed. That was surely Bigfat speaking. He had asked Squibble if he ever saw Mike, but the little mouse just shook his head sadly.
So he packed his things (and some Cheerios), and found that the human was true to his word. He had left the cage lid off. He hopped up onto the lip of the top. Squibble awoke and chirped at him from the bottom of the cage.
"Master! Where are you going!?"
"I'm going back, Squib. I have to. I have to get your mom, and the others - or this whole journey would have been selfish and meaningless," said the knight.
"I'm coming too!" Squib said, beginning to gather food.
"No, you're not, Squibble," ordered the Mouse Knight.
Squibble looked up at him in the dark.
"You've done enough," the knight told him. "Rest now, faithful Squire. You've earned this. You cannot come with me this time."
"Master," Squibble pleaded. "This is stupid! You'll get sick again. You won't make it in winter!"
"I have to, Squib," said the Mouse Knight. "Honor leaves me no choice. If I perish in the attempt, well, there are worse ways to go. And I know that I finished my quest. You will always be proof of that."
"Master, please. Please don't go."
But the mouse turned to leave.
And saw Nemo, sitting there preening his whiskers.
Nemo smiled. One of those I-know-everything smiles that people paint onto saints in old pictures.
"There's an easier way," Nemo said. The Mouse Knight and Squibble leaned forward, their ears open.
The sleeping human felt whiskers gently brush against his face. He scratched and rolled over.
Nemo turned to the Mouse Knight. "He's dense sometimes."
So Nemo jumped on his face.
"AHHH!" yelled the human, sitting straight up in bed. He looked down eventually and saw Nemo and the Mouse Knight on the bed sheets. "Jeeze, Nemo! What is it at this hour?"
Nemo leapt off the bed and ran to the front door. Mouseknight followed as best he could. He wasn't nearly as fast or as agile as the chinchilla.
Nemo pawed at the door and then looked at the human who stood in the doorway unbelieving.
"Didn't you learn the first time!?" the human said. "And at this hour? What could be so important??"
Nemo glanced at the Mouse Knight and Squibble, then at the door, then at the human.
"The mouse wants out?" the human sounded amazed, but not surprised.
Nemo jumped up to a table and put his paw on one book of several that lay there randomly.
"Okay, okay," the human said, and sat down. The mice crawled up the human's leg, onto his shoulder. Then the human flipped to a random page in the book. Nemo studied the book then pawed one word.
"Must," the human repeated. The Mouse Knight gasped when he realized what was happening.
Nemo studied the page again and pawed.
"Go," the human sounded tired. He wasn't surprised. Nemo had learned to talk to the human in this way! Mouseknight's ears were perked, his eyes big. He looked down at the cages. All the animals were watching. Next to him, Squibble was staring with bugged-out eyes, mouth open.
Nemo flipped the page with his feet and found the next word. And the next, and the next.
"Must go back for family," the human said. Then his face changed to shock. "The mouse wants to go back and get his family!" He exclaimed.
Mouseknight ran down the human's arm and ran onto the book. He pawed a word.
The human smiled. "Please." He shook his head. "I knew you were special, little one. I knew it." He got up and went back to the bedroom. He came out dressed with car keys.
"Okay. Let's go get your family, brave mouse."
"Oh, thank you! Thank you, Sir!" cried Mouseknight.
Of course, all the human heard was "Chirp Chirp."
It seemed good enough.