I felt the wind as the katana sliced at my throat. Ha, I thought. Missed me! And then I felt the pulse of blood flowing out.
I did the only thing I could. I straightened my tail out, stiff like a plank and fell over backwards. If the thief thought that I was dead, I may have a chance to heal myself before doom fell. I heard a cry, whether from Nya, Gami or Mir’Itus, I could not tell.
I slowed my breathing. Willing my heart to stop its flutter. I didn’t want to move, not just yet. Then I felt a hand on me. I carefully cracked an eye. Hekari was kneeling beside me. In my mind’s eye I saw flowing water and the golden light of a summer morning and I gathered the two into a ball and imagined swallowing it. I heard Hekari gasp. I squeezed her hand.
A moment later, I felt a breeze as the thief’s body hit the floor near me. I sat up, slowly because I still felt lightheaded. I saw surprise and then anger on Nya’s face. Gami-Gami dropped her weapon and Mir’Itus shook his head in wonder.
“I being OK. No dead. Just play the dead to not be dead, yes?” Nya turned away without a word. Gami bent slowly, as thought she were ancient, and picked up her blade.
“What?” I asked Mir’itus. “What’s the problem here?”
“We thought you were dead.” I raised my whiskers. “Yes, and….?”
“If you died, think about it Te’Ka, if you died, Gami-Gami would have to follow you. She swore an oath to protect you.” His words meant less to me than the fact that he used my name. I cannot remember the last time he called me Te’Ka. I bowed to him. “Thank you for my life, honored Mir’Itus.”
I approached Gami-Gami, who was slowly cleaning the double blades of her weapon. “The thanks of a humble rat go to you, great warrior Gami-Gami! Count the stars in the sky to number the blessings of being your companion.” I bowed low and held my bow for several seconds. When I finally met her eyes, she said “Aye.” And no more, but she seemed satisfied with my thanks.
One more apology — Nya. I found her in the larger chamber. She’d climbed on her horse, as though to leave. I looked down at my robes, the blood heavy at the collar. I pulled them straight and adjusted my belt. Deep breath and then I spoke:
“I am forever in your debt, for my life. Thank you, great warrior, for protecting me in my time of need. I am… not worthy.” And I bowed low. The only sound was the hooves of her horse as he moved nervously. I vowed to hold the bow until she spoke.
Finally she said, “Don’t mention it. Ever.” As I raised up, I caught a glint as though she’d been crying. And then she was gone.
We met with some difficulties through the caverns, to be sure. They were not as safe as the army commander had said. We were able to help some of my fellow Nezumi — treasure hunters of the Grasping Paw tribe — who were under attack.
I was pleased to lend them a hand. Aside from the obligations of tribe and station, I thought they might have information to share. To bind them to us, after the battle, we ate heartily of the creatures’ meat.
The humans kept away from the fire — all except Neiki. She, being SpiritFolk is in between the human and the non human ways. Her suggestions for spicing the meat were well made. It was tasty and filling.
As we ate, I talked with the elder of the group. He was taking his sons and nephews through the caverns on their first expedition. Like us, they had assumed that the army had cleared the caverns of all deadly creatures. “What were you doing when the creatures attacked?” Neiki bowed to the uncle. He hastily rubbed his paws over his whiskers. “Nothing, dear-dear human lady. Simply knock-knocking on the cavern walls, look for to find the hallow sounds.” She raised an eyebrow and a hint of a smile played across her face. “Indeed?”
I was feeling peevish and spoke too soon. “You have the paper history of the humans people, yes? We trade.” I spoke in English to the fellow Nezumi, in deference to Neiki. I did not want her to feel excluded. The uncle turned his bright eyes to me and one of the nephews shifted behind me. “Paper history? Oh, sure-sure. Very old, very costy.” And he went back to eating. Ah, damn. That was not smart. I thought. I will pay too much for some book I already read. But it can’t be helped. I began to calculate the price I’d pay when the gods smiled on me, or maybe it was Grandpa.
I felt the slightest breeze and made a grab. The smaller of the nephews was wriggling in my grasp. He held a silver comb in his paw. “Hah. I save and heal you, I keep you from the creature’s belly and this is the repayment of that debt? This is most ill done, young one. Do you not yet know who I am? I am Te’Ka’Mok of Third Whisker! I have not suffered all this to be lifted by a pup! Go. I will speak with your elder.”
The uncle looked at me warily. “Eh, young ones, yes? What to do?” I nodded. “Yes-yes. The young. We all out grow. If we survive the trials of the world.” After a few minutes of verbal dancing, I had my books and the uncle had thrown in the chance to copy their map. It was a good Nezumi map, filled with smells and special glyphs. Old Mir’Itus could not contain his excitement at the map.
Perhaps it was the ancestors smiling upon us. Whatever the reason, the map allowed us to arrive at the fertility temple early the next day.
It was very ornate. The walls were covered with drawings like I’d seen in some books. Men and women, humans, naked and dancing, singing, mating. I brought my paws to my face — the pictures, some of them, were very life like and appeared to be lovingly rendered. To hide my embarrassment, I focused on a frog statue up on the steps leading to the entrance.
Mir’Itus said “Where are you going? Let the Princess go first!” I shook my head. “Frog statue interesting. Great history valued, yes? I will look. You scared then you stay down. Like scared old granny.” The insults were almost automatic. The statue was very life-like and I was impressed by the craftsmanship. As I was studying it, I heard Mir’Itus footsteps beside me. Again, maybe Grandpa was guiding me because I was moving to the side before the frog belched out a huge fireball. My whiskers on my left side curled from the heat. The others gasped.
“I OK. No problem. Me and old Mir’Itus, we fine.” I waved my paws. I heard Shasuki cough slightly. “This one would speak, Princess.” The Princess turned away from the spectacle of my singed whiskers to look at her maid. “We go one at a time. Like a baby. Into the temple, proper.” She paused, seeming reluctant to continue until the Princess nodded. “That is why the Nezumi, they are burned. Two cannot go where only one must.” She bowed low.
The Princess thanked her and turned to Tatsuoh. “Honored captain, perhaps, since this is a maiden’s temple, you would care to stay with the horses? I will have Nya and the others …..” Before she could finish, he bowed low and crisply turned to move her horse off the path.
Once we had all passed through the doorway, we were greeted by a priestess in flowing white robes. I did not notice anything strange about her, but later Nya told me about the bruises and the broken necklace. Too many late nights reading, maybe, but my eyes don’t always see. Within the hour, however, I would have a chance to see the priestess’s bruises close up for myself.
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