(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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It was well after midnight, so once Tlahn had some extra candles lit to provide adequate light in Xaa's quarters, Merle began to carefully look over the model Xaa had brought back. The silk was torn on one side where it had snagged in a tree, but it was otherwise intact. It had taken all day for Xaa to chase the little model down, but finally it had come to rest in a tree, almost five leagues away. By the time he got back, night had fallen and Tinker had long since gone to sleep.
"What's this part here, Lady Merle?" O'dmemet asked.
"A miniature steam engine - it seems to turn these two little wooden blades here that stick out on these two arms from the sides of the model through a series of gears. Knowing Tinker's insistence on perfection, I'll bet that it's a fully functional steam engine, too," Merle replied, tilting the model to peer at it from different angles. "Yes - look here. Here is where the little candle went to heat the water. On top here is where the other, larger candle went to heat the air in the bag on top. No wonder it took him so long to complete the test model!"
"I see. But how does it work?"
"I don't know. I'm only guessing, but I think that warmer air rises above colder air, and this bag traps the air warmed by the candle. We can find out fairly fast, I think," Merle said, and then turned to Xaa. "Pick me up, and hold me up in the air right next to the ceiling," Merle said. Xaa nodded, placing his paws gently about Merle's waist, then lifting her above his head, his arms straight. Merle whooped and giggled for a moment, then grinned. "Okay, put me down." Xaa complied, and Merle lay on the mat that covered the floor. "The air did seem warmer towards the ceiling than the floor."
"Well, of course, Lady Merle. The floor is cold - that's why we cover it with mats," W'mefa said, smiling.
"Ah - but why is the floor colder?" Merle replied, grinning.
W'mefa thought about it, then grinned. "Because you are right. Warm air must rise. I think also that means cold air must fall. How very interesting. It does explain why the rooms on upper floors here in the castle are more comfortable in the winter, while ones on the lower floors are more comfortable in the summer."
"That's also why my burrow was always nice and warm with Xaa and I in it - the ceiling and the floor were not that far apart, and a small fire added just enough warmth to what our bodies produced to keep it cozy," Merle replied, grinning.
"Perhaps, Merle, but after seven months of living in your tiny burrow, I was beginning to become claustrophobic," Xaa replied, chuckling, and Merle giggled.
"What do the little blades on the sides do when the engine is working, Lady Merle?" O'dmemet asked.
"I don't know. All I can tell you is they are made of wood, and to scale, each blade would be longer than I am tall. Let's scrape out what's left of this candle, slip in another, fill it with water and find out. We'll cut the strings and remove the bag to make it easier - I don't think it will work with that tear in it, anyway."
Half an hour later, Merle flipped the two little levers she saw on the back of the steam engine. As she did so, each one of the little blades began to spin. Merle carefully lifted the model by it's ends (the spinning blades looked like they might hurt a finger), and turned it around. As she turned it away from her face, she felt a small breeze from the blades. Curious, she gripped it carefully by the bow, and toyed with the levers. She discovered that she could make the blades go faster or slower, and even run backwards, producing a small breeze in either direction. Stopping the blades, she picked up the model by it's loose strings, then held it there, flipping the little levers so that one blade blew a breeze backwards, and one blew a breeze forwards. Immediately, the model began to slowly turn. She slipped her finger between the strings and flipped the blades to their 'stop' position, then pulled a little lever at the top. A tiny whistle sounded, and Merle giggled. With a puff, she blew out the candle that heated the boiler. She examined the rest of the model carefully for several minutes, then finally spoke.
"Apparently, the little blades help push it through the air. By adjusting the speed and direction of the blades, you can control where you want the airship to go - though I would imagine that a strong wind might have a lot more to say about where you are going than these two little blades. He also has several tiny little bags here, and they appear to be full of sand. I'm guessing, but I'll bet that you would drop them if you needed the airship to rise in a hurry. At the top of the air bag, there appears to be a little flap held shut with a spring, and a tiny little thread that runs down the inside. I think that would be to let out some of the air if you needed it to go down in a hurry," Merle said, pointing at the various parts of the model.
"Ah, I see. An ingenious little device," O'dmemet said.
"Indeed. It's no ornithopter, but it apparently does fly," W'mefa agreed, nodding.
Xaa looked at Merle, then placed his paw on her shoulder. "What is it, Merle? You're frowning. Is something wrong?"
Merle nodded. "I can't put my finger on it, but somehow something seems wrong with this model."
W'mefa raised an eyebrow. "What could be wrong?"
Merle shrugged. "I don't know. I guess we'll have to see the full scale version to know for sure. For now, I think we should take this little boiler down to Var - I'll bet there's a lot he can learn from it."
"But, Lady Merle, he would have to disassemble the model to find out how it works! Then the model would be useless," O'dmemet objected.
Merle giggled. "Lord O'dmemet, it already is useless - who could possibly fly it? I may be tiny, but I'm not THAT tiny!" Merle replied, and they all shared a laugh. "Anyway, what we really need isn't this - it's his design notes. We've already seen how he takes very, very careful notes. We have to get hold of them, somehow. When Var is done examining it, he can put it back together for us. Then, with Tinker's design notes and Var's observations, we can build our own version of this."
W'mefa nodded. "But how to get them? The spy we placed at the peephole we made in the back of his shed reports that he takes his design notes with him when he leaves each night. What he has described as being in the shed matches this model in every detail, save that it doesn't have an air-bag at the top, and the large version has small wheels on the bottom, apparently to move it out of the shed when it is finished. Other than that, we've learned almost nothing about his airship."
"Well, we've learned how it works, and we've learned what the final form will be like. We've also learned it can travel at least five leagues - not useful for him in getting home, but quite useful in a battle. Perhaps the larger version will travel farther? I don't know. There are just too many questions right now, and not enough answers. We'll just have to wait and see. I do know that building the bag in full-scale is going to take more than just Tinker to do. Look - full size, the bag inflated, it would be as tall as the castle walls - taller, perhaps. That means that soon, he is going to have to ask for help," Xaa said.
W'mefa, O'dmemet and Merle nodded, then O'dmemet spoke up. "He'll have us hopping through hoops to build what he wants in such a way that he thinks we won't find out what it is we are building, father. And this thing will be so huge, he may make some outrageous demands on us to hide his secrets before we are done."
"I agree, son. Unfortunately, we'll have to do it. Whatever he asks for, whatever he demands, we'll have to do. If we're going to have a chance of getting the last of what he will build before he plans on leaving, then we'll have to do whatever he wants," W'mefa replied.
"Worse than that - he hasn't publicly announced he plans on leaving. He's only told Merle. That means that he may plan on building this thing, telling us it will be for us, and then when it is finished, hopping in and flying away," Xaa growled.
"That's about his style, alright," Merle replied, sticking out her tongue.
"Then we'll have to stop him," W'mefa said.
Xaa nodded. "I can do it. One arrow would stop him."
W'mefa nodded. "Alright, I leave it to you, Xaa. If he tries to flee, stop him any way you can."
Merle gasped. She knew if Xaa drew bow or gun or blade on her little friend Tinker, then Tinker would die. "NO! Please, Xaa, please! No matter what happens, promise me you won't hurt him, please!" Merle begged, grabbing Xaa's enormous, callused paw in her tiny paws and squeezing it tight.
"But, Merle..," Xaa began, but Merle interrupted him.
Merle burst into tears. "Please! Please don't hurt him! I know he's rude and he's selfish and petty and all that, but he's my best friend! I've known him since I was very little, and even though I hate him now sometimes, I still remember what he was like back in the Wild Woods, before all this happened - he was my best friend growing up, Xaa! He was sweet and kind and timid and gentle and loving and I know that deep down inside, he's still the same person. He's just in a different environment, and it's bringing out the worst in him, now. Xaa, you remember what he was like when you were living with me. He wasn't mean or cruel or evil, he was a quiet, timid, shy, sweet little mouse. I know he still is, and I still love the person that I once knew, back then. Please, Xaa! Please promise me you won't hurt him!"
Xaa was silent for a long while, looking at Merle. He then turned to W'mefa, and spoke. "She asks that I swear to not hurt the Little One if or when I stop him from fleeing with the airship, for he is an old friend of hers, and they once shared pleasant times and happy memories as children together. She says that deep in his heart, he is still a good person. Unfortunately, he is a small soul caught in a large situation, and this is drawing out the worst in him," Xaa explained, and W'mefa and O'dmemet nodded. Xaa then turned to Merle, flicking his tail from behind him to loop about his right wrist, his tailtip resting in his paw. "I swear by my tail that I shall not harm Tinker when or if I have to stop him from fleeing with the airship, Merle," Xaa said, then flicked his tail behind him. "But if he does try, I will stop him, Merle. No matter what the cost."
"Thank you, Xaa," Merle sniffled.
Xaa said nothing in reply, he simply closed his other paw over Merle's little paws, and squeezed gently.
O'dmemet rose and bowed. "Father, I believe I shall get some rest. In the morning, I'll pass the word that whatever the little one wants, he is to get - no matter how outlandish."
"I believe I'll join you, son. I have a feeling we shall be in for a long, long day tomorrow," W'mefa replied, and bowed to Xaa and Merle. They bowed back, and W'mefa and O'dmemet left the room.
Merle sat quietly with Xaa for a long while
afterwards, just watching the candlelight flickering in his
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