(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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"But they can't build one! It's not allowed! It's one of our secrets!" Tinker protested in an outraged squeak.
Merle turned to look at Tinker. Despite Tinker's protests, Var was busily hammering out an exact copy of Merle's Time-eater in tin. Var had felt it would be better to make a fully operational copy before trying to modify it to do more than just ring a bell, and in the meantime, Merle was learning the basics of metalworking. That didn't make Tinker happy, either. Merle often wondered just how unhappy Tinker would be if he knew that a few leagues down the road, over a hundred smiths were working on duplicating the gun Tinker had made. They came not just from W'mefa's allies, but from allies of his allies, and even rulers who had only heard of the success had sent a few smiths to help. All received a share of the guns produced - and since the mus now knew what the mysterious component was they were missing, they were able to manufacture their own powder for the guns, as well.
"Tinker, this isn't one of your secrets, it's mine. I made the Time-eater, not you. It's my invention, not yours, and I can share it with them if I want," Merle replied coldly.
"But-but you never would have invented it if you hadn't seen my father's steam engine and poked around and asked questions! That makes it one of our secrets!"
"I might have! I made Lifter and I'd never seen a pulley, and I made Tree-Climbing-Helper and I'd never seen a grapnel, and I made Stonecatcher and Click-Click and lots of other things like that without any help from anyone and without seeing any of your inventions that looked anything like them!" Merle snapped.
"They're not the same thing! Those are simple things - they're nothing! Anybody could make them! We mice have worked very, very hard to preserve the secrets of our ancestors! I studied since I was six years old just to master what I've learned now, and I still don't know everything! These are our lives, our hearts, our souls! There aren't like the little toys you make, these are secrets we have preserved for eight hundred years!"
"TOYS?!" Merle shrieked in anger.
"Yes, toys! Useless little toys! But that," Tinker yelled, pointing at Merle's Time-eater sitting on a nearby table, "is a copy of one of our secrets! None of our secrets must ever get out!" Tinker shrieked, and before Merle could say anything or do anything to stop him, he snatched his hammer from his tool-belt and smashed the Time-eater into fragments.
Merle just stared in shock, too stunned to move or speak. Even Var was startled into immobility.
Tinker spun back around, his tail lashing with rage. "I have mastered their birds, I have seen all their technology and it is nothing compared to what we know! I have mastered everything in their world, and still you don't see that I am the better choice for a mate than that big lummox, Xaa! I am even now mastering that cat of theirs! She speaks our language passably well, and she fawns over me like a lovesick sparrow! I'm beginning the flight tests for the model airship soon! After that, I'll work on the full scale version, and when I have it completed, and I'll leave these lands and go home! You can either come with me, as my mate, or you can stay here in the Land of the Stupid Giants and rot!" Tinker yelled, and stormed out of the smithy.
Merle slowly walked over to the table, and picked up one of the fragments of Time-eater. Never again would she hear it's happy little ringing, it's whistling buildup, and the POP as the stopper blew out. Perhaps it was merely a failed attempt at making a copy of the mice's steam engine, but it had been a comfort on many a cold, quiet winter night when she was alone and missing her mother and father. It was more than a failed experiment, more than an invention, and more than a toy. It was a friend.
Merle heard Var saying something behind her as she quietly picked up the pieces of her destroyed invention, but she didn't listen. His gentle paw on her shoulder she shook off, his words of comfort went unheard. She could only pick up the pieces of her dead friend that had scattered to the floor, and place them on the table. Her tears flowed quietly as she worked.
A familiar rumble came from behind her. "Merle."
Merle picked up the last piece, and set it quietly on the table.
A pair of strong paws took her shoulders, and turned her around gently. It was Xaa, his yellow-gold eyes gazing at her with sorrow and sympathy as he knelt before her. Behind him, Var stood at the doorway to the smithy, his face showing deep concern. Xaa wrapped his arms around her gently, and hugged her, tucking her head into his strong shoulder.
Merle sobbed, and hugged him back. "Oh, Xaa! He killed my friend!" she said, knowing how illogical it sounded. It was what she felt, even though she knew it had only been a thing, an invention she made, not alive at all. Still, she felt as though an old friend of hers, a friend who had the ability to make her laugh and not feel lonely, was dead.
"I know," Xaa rumbled quietly, gently lapping the fur at the back of her neck, grooming her quietly while he hugged her.
Merle closed her eyes and sobbed
uncontrollably, and finally Xaa simply scooped her up in his
arms, cradling her to his chest, and walked out of the smithy.
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