(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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T'Vril's eyes flashed open at a small sound. She lay there in the darkness, listening carefully. Quiet sounds might mean danger, her instincts told her. T'Vril slitted her eyes, and tried to keep her breathing regular and deep, as though she was still asleep, turning her head imperceptibly on the pillow to cast her sharp eyes subtly about the room. If it was someone sneaking about, it wouldn't do to have them know she was awake. Even with her cat-eyes, she didn't see anyone. T'Vril held still and continued to listen, however.
Tinker stirred quietly on top of her, nuzzling her left breast. T'Vril glanced down at him, but he was still deeply asleep. She suppressed a mental snort of derision. It had taken her hours of delicate, skillful lovemaking to re-build the ego that had been so thoroughly shattered by his failure earlier today, ending in her gazing into his exhausted, grinning muzzle and telling him to simply sleep where he was, mounted upon her, his tail wrapped around hers, and use her breasts as a pillow. 'It is where you belong, my Master' she had purred at him - though the words nearly stuck in her throat. His weakness disgusted her at times, but if she was ever to get his secrets to her people, she couldn't have him whimpering and moping about with a crushed ego. He had to be strong - 'Or at least, as strong as a Little One can be,' she thought.
Sleeping like this was believed in the traditions of T'Vril's people to give a young male his true virility, and was a part of his rites of adulthood. By sleeping while topping an adult female, it was believed the young male received a small portion of her mature spirit, and gained his true adulthood - only females could truly mature on their own, males had to be given maturity by a female, or they forever remained immature. Any children which resulted from this were considered 'lucky', specially blessed by the spirits of their ancestors. 'Maybe the little twit will wake up a warrior, as with we cats. That would be interesting,' T'Vril thought idly.
A wickedly-curved blade was suddenly held before her eyes, gleaming in the dim moonlight that came in through the open doorway leading onto the balcony. A little paw clapped over her muzzle, and a small voice hissed in her ear. "One word, one little sound, and I swear by all the spirits of the forest I will slit your throat, T'Vril."
T'Vril nodded quietly, kicking herself mentally for not looking lower to the floor. The little mustie-girl had obviously crawled into the room, and gotten to the head of the bed. T'Vril realized she had underestimated her - she should have listened to Tinker's stories of the little forest-people more closely. The musties hadn't survived countless centuries in the place he called "The Wild Wood" by being large and strong, but by being stealthy and deadly. The blade gently lowered to T'Vril's throat, and held still. T'Vril held equally still, hardly daring to breathe. The little mustie-girl made some kind of sign with her other paw, and a large, dark shape moved into T'Vril's line of view, heading for the table. T'Vril trembled when the huge form turned to her, and she caught a gleam of yellow-gold eyes.
Xaa quietly picked up the papers spread across the table, then nodded to Merle. Merle pressed her muzzle to T'Vril's ear, and quietly whispered again. "Is that all of them?"
T'Vril slowly nodded, and Merle signaled Xaa with her other paw. Xaa nodded again, then stepped over to the shadowy doorway and disappeared. "In the morning, you will be given a bird, food and water. You're to tell Tinker nothing. Just leave here, and never return. Tinker will be taken home by armed escort, without you. Your little plans for him are over. The door is guarded, so don't bother trying to escape. Oh - and if you're thinking about hurting Tinker before you leave, try to remember that Xaa still wants an excuse to spend a few moments chatting with you about how kindly and sweetly your people have treated him and his family."
The knife's edge was lifted from T'Vril's throat, and T'Vril heard Merle move away quietly. T'Vril remained perfectly still, waiting, and eventually heard what she was expecting - the quiet creak of the door being carefully slosed, and the click of the latch catching. T'Vril forced herself to wait for a hundred heartbeats. Then another hundred. Then another. When she was finally convinced that they were well and truly gone, she let out a sigh of relief.
T'Vril then thought furiously. There was no way she could allow their plan to come to fruition. Tinker represented a vast resource, and she wouldn't let everything she had suffered so far go to waste. They had a guard stationed outside the door. She would have to be quiet. With a gentle touch, she wrapped her paw around Tinker's muzzle, then patted his back to wake him.
"Mrfnrgle?" Tinker asked, his eyes flying open when he realized T'Vril was holding his muzzle shut tight.
"Shhh..." T'Vril replied, gently pulling Tinker up her body so she could whisper into his ear. "Mrr... Master, we are betrayed, as I feared we would be. Say nothing, just listen, and be very quiet," T'Vril whispered, and Tinker nodded.
"Mrr... Master, your papers about the airship have been stolen. The evil Xaa plans on separating us. I will be given a bird and supplies, and driven from their lands come the dawn. You will be escorted back to your lands afterwards, never to see me again," T'Vril whispered.
Tinker's head jerked back, his eyes flew open wide, and T'Vril clamped her paw about his muzzle before he shouted in outrage. When he had calmed himself, T'Vril released him. "Mrr... Quietly, Master," she whispered. "They have a guard outside the door - perhaps several."
"My papers are stolen?" he whispered.
T'Vril nodded silently.
"Fat lot of good it will do them. Thanks to you, I calmed down enough to sleep, and having slept on the problem - and you," he said, grinning, "I now know why the airship didn't fly. It wasn't sabotage - I made a mistake in mathematics. I was only beginning to learn the principles of flight when I came here - it's not surprising I would make a mistake. Those papers will be useless to them," Tinker hissed in derision.
T'Vril smiled quietly. "Purr... You are so wise, Master. I am glad I could help you," she whispered.
"Yes. You have been the one, true friend and companion I have here, and now they intend to take you from me. Damn these mus! I wish they never had existed! If they had never come to the Wild Wood, my life would be so much happier, now!" Tinker hissed in the darkness.
"Mrr... Spilt milk, Master. We must escape from here. If you can hang onto my back, I can climb down the walls with us. They will regret their decision not to de-claw me. Once in the courtyard below, we can steal two birds and slip away."
"No, I have a rope in my pack. We can tie it off in here, and lower ourselves to the ground. Much safer. Besides, you might dull your claws clinging to the bricks and mortar. They're the only weapons we have other than your teeth and my tools," Tinker whispered, his eyes blazing with fury.
T'Vril nodded, smiling. 'So, he did wake up a warrior, after all,' she thought to herself. "Purr... This is good, Master. You're right. And it's just occurred to me I'll probably need a weapon - the gate will almost certainly be guarded. Once we're outside, we can head towards the lands of the cats. With luck, we'll make it to my clan's homelands, about two month's ride west."
Tinker then suddenly looked into T'Vril's eyes. "No."
"Mrr? Then where should we go, Master? Home to your people?" T'Vril asked, her hope rising. Knowing the location of the Little Ones would be an invaluable secret, one that would immortalize her name forever - perhaps even allow her to gather enough warriors under her claw to make a strike for the crown, and become the Shazadi of all the clans.
"No. I was thinking and wishing the mus had never existed, and I remembered something you said awhile ago. You once said 'that which made them large might one day make them small, in the paws of one as wise as you'. Well, I think that's what we should do. Find whatever it was that made them large, and see if we can't use it to make them small again - or maybe even make them cease to exist," Tinker hissed venemously.
T'Vril thought about it. She opened her mouth to protest, to say it was a fool's errand, then closed it again. If someone had told her that Lord Xaa, known to her people as "The Slayer", had ran off to find the homeland of the Little Ones and bring one of them back to help his people win the war, she'd have said they'd been smoking too much catnip - or simply told them they were insane. Now, she had a Little One before her, and he'd spent the last several hours between her legs. They were real, not merely legends. And the result of Xaa choosing to chase that legend had been that her people were losing the war, and being driven back. T'Vril looked down into Tinker's eyes. If anyone could do the impossible, if anyone could find a way to destroy the mus, it would have to be him - an impossible being of legend. As Tinker looked back at her, waiting for her answer, T'Vril felt a little thrill creep down her spine. T'Vril smiled.
"Purr... Yes, Master," she replied, and licked his muzzle. Tinker grinned, and licked her right back.
"I can't find the error. I know it must be here," Merle said, running her finger down the calculations.
"Well, what did you think it was? You said something about the square of pair is octet, not quartet?" W'mefa asked, scratching his head.
Merle reached behind her as she replied. "Here - I brought these in to show what I meant," Merle said, and dumped out the contents of a cloth sack onto the table before W'mefa, O'dmemet and Xaa.
O'dmemet blinked. "Children's blocks?" he asked, looking at the wooden blocks scattered on the table. Xaa simply chuckled.
"Yes, I borrowed them from one of the children of the families here in the castle. I have to bring them back in the morning, too," Merle explained as she set up a scale. Merle then placed one block on one side of the scale, and placed the measuring weights on the other side until it balanced. "There - one block weighs this much."
"Well, yes, I can see that. But I still don't understand what you're getting at," W'mefa said.
"Alright - now we double the height and width and length of the block," Merle said, quickly scooping up more blocks in her paws and setting them into a cube on the scale. First she set one on top of the first block. "Now it's twice as tall." She then set two more behind these two, stacked atop each other and touching the first stack. "Now it's twice as long." Then she set four more against the side of the four blocks. "And now it's twice as thick. Doubling the size of the cube increases the weight by eight times, not four. The square from pair is octet, not quartet."
W'mefa's eyes widened. "Ah, I see! The ship was too heavy!"
"Wait, Merle, I see a flaw," Xaa rumbled. "So far as we can tell, the full-scale version was identical to this. Wouldn't that mean he also had eight times the hot air to lift the ship?"
"Umm..." Merle replied.
"You mean when you stopped Xaa, thinking that Tinker had under-guessed the weight of the ship and thus the size of the air-bag he would need, you were wrong?" O'dmemet asked, gaping.
Xaa burst out into laughter, and shortly W'mefa and O'dmemet were laughing too. Merle pouted. "I don't see what's funny about that at all," she said, sticking out her tongue.
"Fate, Merle. It was fate that you would stop me. Still, you were right - the ship did not fly. The question is 'why not?' Why didn't the ship fly?" Xaa chuckled.
Merle sat down, plopped her chin into her paws, and began thinking. W'mefa scratched his head again, O'dmemet scratched his chin, and Xaa stroked his whiskers. Merle glanced around and the various 'I am thinking' poses around her, and had to struggle to not giggle. She took a moment to clear the table, then set the model before her and studied it closely. "Ah! I have it!" she said suddenly.
"What?" Xaa, W'mefa and O'dmemet asked in chorus, and Merle giggled.
"Look - the model is made of pine for the boat-part, tin and brass for the boiler, and pine for the frame that the silk is stretched across," Merle said.
"So?" W'mefa asked.
"Ah, I see. In the final version, those weren't the materials used. He made the frame out of willow wood, the ship out of oak, the boiler out of iron, and so on. There was also the two tanks for the alcohol burner, and the two passengers, and his supplies. He also tarred the seams of the boat, and varnished it, and made several other changes. We only assumed the model was identical - it wasn't," Xaa said.
O'dmemet looked over the calculations again, concentrating as he translated Tinker's numeric symbols to his own. "Look, Lady Merle. He assumed here that the difference in weight wouldn't be enough to affect the flight. He didn't account for it at all. He simply multiplied the mass of the model by the cube of the difference in scale between the model and the airship."
"We know he superheated the air in the air-bag. Yet he still lacked enough lift to take off. How far was he off, I wonder?" Xaa said.
"Well, we have his formulas for the lifting force right here - let's find out," Merle said, passing out paper, ink and brush from the stand nearby.
Lord W'mefa and O'dmemet finished almost at the same time, and had the same answer - about a ton too heavy. Xaa spent more time trying to guess the difference between the weights, and came up with about half a ton. Merle, working in her binary numbers, came up with an answer with startled her. "Ack!" she yelped.
"What is it, Merle?" Xaa asked, looking at her binary digits but not understanding them.
"How much would you say T'Vril weighs?" she asked.
"About eight stone, by our system of measurement," W'mefa replied, and Xaa and O'dmemet nodded.
"Well, I'm assuming by superheating the air, he greatly increased the lift capacity, as he shows here," Merle said, pointing at one of Tinker's calculations. "Even assuming he was about half a ton off, like you think, He still should have been able to take off - but he was about eight stone too heavy after dumping all his fuel," Merle said, pointing at her final figure - a slash followed by three dots.
Xaa, W'mefa and O'dmemet burst into laughter. "That is fate, Merle!" Xaa replied, laughing. After a few moments, Merle was laughing, as well.
After they had all calmed down again, W'mefa tapped the papers. "Well, knowing what we now know, how can we make the airship fly for us?"
"Well, the easiest way would be to simply re-build the wooden boat in some lighter material," Merle replied.
"Rattan. It's very strong, and very light compared to oak he used. We can make a basic frame from it, then warp the rest of the rattan around it in a few hours," O'dmemet suggested.
"Do we have enough of it?" Xaa asked.
"We should. He made his watertight, apparently in case he was forced down over water. If we forgo that, we could have the new boat-section finished by tomorrow afternoon. With luck, we could have his boiler and alcohol-fuel system installed by noon the next day. We might even have more alcohol in by then - we requested more from our allies as soon as it became apparent that the Little One was using a lot of it," O'dmemet replied.
"How much weight would that save?" Merle asked.
"About a ton - more, if we use rattan about a finger-width wide for the sides. It seems unnecessary to duplicate his thick oak sides when all we really need is something that will keep small things you drop from falling out. Later on, we can work on refining the design for use in war, carrying more warriors, and so on," O'dmemet replied, grinning.
"That's enough to make it fly - especially if you can save us more than a ton of weight. Those are the two larger figures you two arrived at. If we could save a ton and a half, or even two tons, we'd have an airship that could go quite a long ways. It would take less hot air to lift it - that means less fuel. You could stay in the air longer," Merle said, grinning just as widely.
"Alright, we'll get started on all this in the morning, and-" W'mefa began, only to be interrupted by a warrior running into the room.
"My lord! Treachery!" he gasped.
Xaa, O'dmemet and W'mefa sprang to their feet, their paws on their swordhilts. "What happened, Hrasha?!" W'mefa growled.
"All the birds in the stable are dead, save for two, which are missing - the Little One's bird, and your own, my lord! Zhebo, who was on guard at the gate, lies in the infirmary, unconscious from a blow to the head! The Little One and the cat are gone - a rope is tied to the edge of their balcony and lowered to the courtyard!"
"Damn! I should have thought he might have a rope in that pack," Xaa growled.
"Alright - we can't chase then without birds. We still have a few birds in the paws of those who were assigned to watch Xaa's castle this month. They should return in five days. Their replacements already are sent out, so we can recall them by sending one of those riders back. Our allies may be able to provide us a dozen more birds within a week or two, and perhaps another fifty or so in a month, but we'll probably just have to borrow a few laying hens, match them with a cock, and just let nature take it's course. Tell the guards not to wander too far around outside the castle - we'll need to spot the tracks of the stolen birds and try to determine which way they went come dawn. Have the healers check all the birds very carefully - we might get lucky and have one or two that we may be able to save," W'mefa ordered.
"But father, that means it will be at least five days before we can chase them down!" O'dmemet growled.
"I know, son, but what else can we do? We can't catch them on foot."
"No, but we can catch them by air," Merle interjected.
W'mefa nodded. "True, we may be able to use the airship to catch them, and we might be able to have it ready in a day or so - assuming it will fly, and can fly at something approaching a reasonable speed. But who will fly it?"
"Me, Lord W'mefa. Who else is qualified?" Merle replied with a grin.
W'mefa nodded again. "Alright, but you might not be able to stop the cat by yourself."
"She won't be by herself. I'll be
going with her," Xaa rumbled, looking to W'mefa. "T'vril
knew the penalty for breaking our hospitality. Now, she belongs
to me," Xaa growled.
At least one new chapter will be posted every week - check back regularly.