(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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"I'm sorry, I don't have many toys. I brought a top, and I brought Stonecatcher - but Stonecatcher isn't really a toy, I guess. I filled my pack with some of my inventions and some things I thought we might need on the trip here," Merle explained when they'd reached her quarters. Merle helped Johm'rouh sit, as she was still very unsteady on her feet, and then sat next to her. "Umm... Well, I've added four of the little lead balls the guns shoot to my bag of slingstones - I know a game we could play that only needs sixteen stones. Would you like to try it?"
"Alright," Johm'rouh replied, smiling.
Merle pulled out Stonecatcher, and made sixteen dents in the top to keep the stones from rolling off by quickly whacking it with the butt of her knife. She then set her slingstones so each sat in one of the small dents, and began. "This game is called 'Nim'. Byarl taught it to me ages ago. There are four rows. The first row has one object, the second has three, the third has five, and the fourth has seven. On each person's turn, you can pick any one of the four rows that still has at least one object left. You can remove one, more than one, or even all of them from the row, but you can only change one row on your turn. Then, the next player tries. The object is to make the other person take the last piece. Understand?" Merle asked, and Johm'rouh nodded, reaching out and picking up the single lead bullet that sat in the first row. "Okay, my turn," Merle replied, and picked up a round stone from the fourth row, leaving six.
Johm'rouh studied the board carefully, and finally picked up two from the second row, leaving only one. Merle looked, then picked up two from the fourth row, leaving only four, then grinned.
"What's so funny?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Nothing, go on," Merle replied, grinning wickedly.
Johm'rouh shrugged, then picked up the one remaining stone from the second row. Merle reached out and picked up one from the third row, leaving both the third and fourth rows with four apiece. The other two rows stood empty. Johm'rouh studied the board carefully, then took three from the fourth row, leaving one. Merle grinned and picked up four from the third row, leaving the lone stone in the fourth row. "I win. Good game," she said, and grinned.
Johm'rouh blinked, grinned, then said "Waaait a minute. Let's try that again."
"Okay!" Merle replied, and set up the board again.
Johm'rouh pondered each move carefully, studying the board closely, but Merle still won again. In fact, Merle was grinning by the second move. "Oh, I see - the person who moves first loses?" Johm'rouh asked.
"No, it depends on if the person who moves second makes any mistakes. Here, I'll move first this time," Merle replied, and after setting up the board again, she took picked up the lone piece in the first row.
"Oho! I remember this!" Johm'rouh said, and snatched up a stone from the fourth row, leaving six.
Merle nodded, smiling, and picked up one from the second row, leaving two. Johm'rouh studied the board carefully, and picked up one piece from the fourth row, leaving five. Merle grinned and picked up the two pieces from the second row, emptying it.
Johm'rouh eyed Merle's grin suspiciously, then studied the board carefully. After a minute or two she stuck her tongue out. "You win again."
"Yes, but you're very good to see that after only playing such a short time," Merle replied, putting the stones back.
"Okay, there must be a trick, yes?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Well, Tinker thinks so - I beat him at this game all the time. But there isn't a trick - it's just how we musties see numbers. Shall I explain?" Merle asked.
"Yes, please," Johm'rouh replied, interested.
Merle set the board up again, then went to get some paper, ink and a brush. After setting it down on the table next to Stonecatcher, she gave the brush to Johm'rouh. "Okay - write down the numbers for all the stones in each row," Merle said.
Johm'rouh nodded, and wrote the numbers 1,3,5 and 7 in a column.
"Right there. You use the same numbers the mice use - not the same symbols, but you think about numbers the same way they do. We learned those numbers from them, but that's not how we count. We count like this:" Merle said, and held out her paw. Johm'rouh gave the brush to Merle, and Merle wrote her numbers beside Johm'rouh's numbers: a slash, then two slashes, then slash-dot-slash, then three slashes.
Johm'rouh blinked. "I don't understand."
"Well, it's like this: One single. One pair and one single. One quartet and one single. One quartet, one pair, and one single. See?" Merle asked, and Johm'rouh nodded while Merle continued. "You think about numbers in groups of ten. None, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine, then ten-and-none, ten-and-one, and so on. Tens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-thousands, and so on. With us, it's twos. None, single, pair-and-none, pair-and-single, quartet-and-none-and-none, quartet-and-none-and-single, and so on. Single, pair, quartet, octet, hextet, and so on. We've always counted like that, though before Tinker's people taught us to use written numbers, we counted on our fingers."
"On your fingers?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Yes! It's easy - and we can count higher that way. When you count on your fingers, you can count to ten. When we count on our fingers, we can count to one thousand and twenty-three. See? Up means one, down means none. Simple."
Johm'rouh studied the paper, then the stones on the game board. "Umm... Okay, I think I understand that. Now, how does this relate to the game? What's the secret?"
Merle grinned, and told her.
Johm'rouh blinked. "It's that simple?!" she yelped.
Merle nodded. "Yep! It's that simple. Well, for us musties, anyway. Try it."
Merle and Johm'rouh played several more games. This time, Johm'rouh carefully studied the board after each move, thinking about the numbers in Merle's terms. At first, it was very hard - she had to struggle to think with different numbers. After an hour, it became easier. When she had managed to win four games in a row, she grinned. "I got it!" she yelped.
"Great! Now you're ready for more rows!" Merle replied.
"More rows?!" Johm'rouh yelped.
"Yes - the same system works no matter how many rows there are, or now many objects are in each row. Byarl says that Prime Numbers are the best, because it makes the game more fair, and teaches us to try to think about numbers the way the mice do. One, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-nine, and so on."
Johm'rouh boggled. "Ack! I don't think I could keep all that in my head!"
Merle grinned. "Sure you can - you just remember what the number is to a mustie. We just look and see the amount of stones, and we know the number, just like you do - we just use different numbers than you."
"Maybe - but I think that you musties must be very, very smart! Tinker's people must be very amazed at how you do this," Johm'rouh replied, grinning.
Merle frowned. "Well, actually, no. They think we are very, very dumb when it comes to numbers. You know how hard it was for you to think of the four rows as numbers the way a mustie does? Well, it's that hard for us to think about the rows as numbers like you do," Merle replied.
"You're kidding!" Johm'rouh said, surprised.
"No. They think we are really dumb. They don't say it to our face, of course, because they need us to protect them from bears and things, but they do. They think your people are dumb, too. Tinker thinks it was very dumb for you to be sick for four years, and that they should have known to use blackroot to cure you."
"We are not dumb, we just don't eat plants! The only plants we ever eat are spice-plants which make meats taste really nice and tea which makes water taste nice and things like that, and the only healing plant we ever use is bloodmoss, which is a nasty poison but if you prepare it right and make it into an unguent it heals wounds very nicely! It never occurred to us that there might be lots of plants that would make you better, we make sick people better by keeping them warm and cuddling them and giving them all the right meats and organs to eat and by sometimes operating to fix things when the cause is an injury. We have alcohol to clean wounds and we have ether to make people fall asleep when we need to do surgery on them and we have bloodmoss and I'll bet the Little Ones don't have any of that, do they?" Johm'rouh said, making a face.
"No, they don't," Merle replied, grinning.
"Well, I think that Tinker and the Little Ones are rude and not as smart as they think," Johm'rouh said, and giggled.
"I think so, too," Merle replied, giggling.
"I also think that if your people knew what his people know, you'd be a bigger help than a hundred thousand Little Ones!"
Merle grinned. "Thank you," Merle then looked at Johm'rouh nervously. "Umm..." she said, biting her lip.
"What, Merle?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Would you like to see my inventions? The ones I brought along, I mean - I didn't know which ones would be helpful on the trip, so I tried to bring ones that would be useful, maybe. And a couple that were my favorites I just couldn't leave behind," Merle said, nervously.
"Sure!" Johm'rouh replied, grinning.
Merle over to the cabinet in her quarters, and opened it. Johm'rouh waited patiently, and eventually Merle came back holding a small wooden wheel attached to a hook. "I call this one Lifter. It took me forever to carve the wheel. It's made of oak. The metal hook comes from a big tapestry hook and a little clothes hook. I bent the big one like this, see? I whacked it with a hammer against a rock. Then, I took the little hook and some pliers and some more whacks with a hammer and that makes the other part here on the other side of the wheel that connects to the big part."
"What does it do?" Johm'rouh asked.
"Well, you push a rope over the wheel, and then you hook the big hook over a tree branch, and then you tie the rope to whatever you want to pick up, and it's lots easier," Merle replied.
"Oh! It's a pulley. I've seen those," Johm'rouh said.
"Oh. Okay. Well, here's another thing I made," Merle said, and put the pulley back, producing a small, three-tined hook. "I call this one Tree-Climb-Helper. You tie a rope here, then you whirl it like a sling, then you toss it over a branch and pull it until it catches, then you can pull yourself up the tree really easy. I made it out of a tool the mice made for us to use in catching fish - it originally went on the end of a long stick, and you stabbed the fish when they swim near. Well, I bent the curves into it by whacking it with a hammer over a tree branch, see? It still has the barbs. The loop here was the hardest part. That part goes inside the shaft of the tool... Umm, I think you would call it a "fishing spear". Anyway, I whacked this curve into it against a rock with my hammer, then folded it over around a small branch. That was hard. It took me forever to get the branch back out of it, and I even broke the handle of my hammer making the fold - I had to get a new hammer from the mice."
"Umm... That's a grapnel. I've seen them before, too. I've never seen one so small, though," Johm'rouh said.
"Oh," Merle replied, crestfallen. "Well, there's Stonecatcher, but that's basically just a re-usable target that catches my slingstones so I don't lose any of them. It's not all that exciting," Merle said, and after she put her slingstones away, she flipped Stonecatcher over. "See? The rock comes in here, hits this board, bounces down here, and hits the rabbitskin pad on the bottom - beneath the pad is grass I wove together to make a mat. This board here keeps it from bouncing out again, and the pad keeps the stone from breaking when it hits Stonecatcher. I put those other two inventions inside Stonecatcher when I came, because I didn't want them to poke a hole in the skin of water I had in my pack. Of course, even if they did, I still had my Time-eater full of water, so I think I would have been alright."
"Your what?" Johm'rouh asked.
"My Time-eater. Here, I'll show you" Merle said, and went back to the cabinet, pulling out a strange, cylindrical pot with a bell attached to one end and a large wooden stopper in the middle. "I got the idea from the steam engine I saw at Tinker's house one day. I watched how it worked very carefully, but I couldn't ever figure out how to do it without working in metal. So, I tried using pottery and wood. I shaped it and glazed it really carefully. I couldn't make what Tinker's daddy called a "Safety Valve", but my stopper will pop out if there's too much steam inside, so I don't think that's a problem. It's tied to this rope here, see, and the other end of the rope is tied to this loop on the side so I don't lose it," Merle explained, and pointed as she continued.
"Now, see the tube on the top with the wooden plug and the piece of wood sticking out? Well, there's a little pottery piece in there that slides back and forth. There's two holes inside the tube, and the pottery piece can cover one or the other. There's a hole in the top, too, so when it's over to one side or the other, the steam builds up on the opposite side while the steam in the other side gets out the hole in the top, and pushes the middle part over to the other side. The pottery piece is attached to this stick, and as it moves back and forth, it whacks this little iron bell, here, and makes it ring. I didn't make the bell - Tinker gave it to me two years ago as a present. Anyway, there's also a little piece of leather on the piece of wood, and when the wood is all the way over here and whacks the bell, it covers the hole. That lets the steam build up on this side and push the pottery piece in the middle back to the other side in case the bell falls off - which happens sometimes. It's not perfect, though - after awhile, the wood gets soaked with steam and swells and it all stops, and eventually the steam builds up inside the pot to more than what can get out through the little hole here, and POP! The plug in the top comes out and steam and water shoots everywhere! It's funny!"
Johm'rouh laughed. "Alright, but why do you call it a Time-eater?"
"Because on long winter nights, I find I miss my momma and daddy. They're dead. Well, Time-eater takes about an hour to set up, another hour to finish and pop, and sometimes just as long after it's popped to clean up the mess and wait for it to cool down. That eats up a lot of time, and I don't think about how much I miss my momma and daddy when I am playing with it. It doesn't really do anything else, though. I was hoping I could make it work like the steam engine Tinker's daddy made, but it doesn't."
"Let's try it! It sounds like fun!" Johm'rouh said, grinning.
"Well, you're supposed to put burning sticks and stuff into this big tube I made in the bottom - the legs hold it up off the ground, see? But we don't have anything to put in it."
"How about candles?" Johm'rouh asked.
"That might work. Let's try it!"
Merle replied, grinning.
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