(Book I of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 1999 BY
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The blades of the airship finally came to a stop - they'd been turning slower and slower for an hour, and Merle doubted they'd really been adding much to their speed for the last two hours. Merle turned the levers to their stop position, then looked up to the bow of the ship as she turned the valve to vent what little steam remained. "That's it. That's all the boiler can give us. Are we near it yet?"
"Yes. Look," Xaa replied, pointing. Merle shut off the alcohol to the boiler's fire chamber, closed the vents to snuff out the last of the fire, then stepped over to take a look.
Below them, in the distance, the shore of the ocean gleamed in the bright sunlight. A few fishing boats could be seen scattered hither and yon, and Merle could see tiny forms which she realized were probably some pretty amazed mus, most likely staring up into the sky and pointing. The object Xaa was pointing at, however, was far more amazing to her.
Below, on the beach was a slim spire, a tower constructed ages ago. It was white, and gleamed in the sunlight like ivory. "That tower marks the spot where according to legend our people arrived in the ships the god of the Forbidden Island made. Those ships were eventually dismantled by the Little Ones, as they were made mostly of iron, and the Little Ones found the metal useful for their own projects. Forbidden Island is, according to legend, somewhere between two hundred and three hundred leagues directly east across the ocean from the point where we landed," Xaa said.
"Has anyone been there to find out if it really is out there, that far in that direction?" Merle asked.
"No - we're not that good at making sailing ships, and our ships don't dare sail too far out of sight of land, or they'll be capsized in a storm. That's one of the things we were hoping to learn from the Little Ones - how to make ships that can sail far from land without fear of drowning in storms," Xaa replied.
"Well, let's get started, then," Merle said, pulling out a pair of pliers from her pack and attacking the bolts that held the axle for the blades to the boiler.
"Are you sure about this?" Xaa asked.
"Yes. We're just below a nice bit of warm air that is heading due east - I've let us slowly drift to the bottom of it while we use up all the steam we had getting as far as we could, as quickly as we could. If we dump the blades and the boiler, we'll rise right back up into it. It seems to be moving us at about the speed of a djuducu-bird's run. That means we should cover that distance in about ten hours. Landing, on the other paw, is going to be a problem. It'll be dark by the time we get there."
"Well, we'll just have to burn that bridge when we cross it," Xaa replied, chuckling, and Merle giggled.
A few minutes later, Merle looked down over the edge of the basket and nodded. "We're over the ocean - nobody will be hit by anything," she called, then sat down on the deck of the basket in case it pitched.
Xaa nodded, then pulled the last pin that held the shaft to the right blade on. Immediately, it flopped down, and began to slowly spin. Xaa reached under the cover for the axle, grabbing it, and shoved hard. The blade slid away from the basket, flopped down, and dropped out of sight. Immediately, the airship began to rise, and tilted to the left. Without hesitating, Xaa pulled the pin to the other blade. It slid out on it's own, and the basket righted itself. Xaa then lifted the boiler Merle had loosened from it's mountings, leaving only the chimney and the fire chamber behind, and carefully stepped over to the side of the basket, sliding it between the ropes by the attached wings. The boiler got stuck between the ropes, and Xaa struggled with it, trying to twist it to get it to slide through, the right wing over his shoulder. Suddenly, it popped between the ropes, and Xaa lost his grip on it. The boiler dropped away, the right wing smashing him in the head as it flipped by. Xaa staggered, then slipped between the ropes.
"NO!" Merle screamed, leaping across to grab the sash about Xaa's waist. Merle pulled back with all the strength in her body, but couldn't get him back into the basket. Too much of him was hanging outside it.
Merle strained, gritting her teeth. 'Spirits of the forest, help me!'
Seconds went by.
Merle could feel her heart pounding, her breath becoming ragged. She kept on straining, trying to keep Xaa from falling out of the basket. The rattan creaked beneath her feet under the strain. "Wake up! Please! Wake up! WAKE UP! I CAN'T HOLD ON MUCH LONGER!"
Suddenly, she felt a firm grip on her arm - she looked, and saw Xaa had wrapped his tail around the full length of her left arm. She almost cried with relief, her muscles were aching so, but she didn't dare let up.
Xaa flailed about groggily behind him, his fingers finally catching one of the ropes. After a second, he had both his paws on the ropes, and pulled himself in. Reflexively, he tucked his swords back, as they'd come partway-out of their sheaths. Afterwards, Xaa simply sat on the deck of the basket, gathering his wits. Merle sat next to him, gasping. For awhile, neither of them could say anything. Finally, Xaa shook his head, then reached up to feel the growing goose-egg on the side of his skull.
"Ow," he said.
Merle looked at Xaa, then burst out laughing. "That's all you can say? No 'thanks for saving my life, Merle, it was rather sweet of you'?" she said, giggling.
"Actually, I wasn't in any danger of falling out. Though yes, I do appreciate you helping me get back in, love."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"The hilts of my swords caught on the rope - that's why I didn't just tumble right out after the boiler," Xaa replied, slipping his swords out of his sash to set them beside him, then re-tying his sash.
"Oh, you!" Merle yelped, smacking Xaa in the shoulder. Merle grinned, then pounced on Xaa, shoving him to the deck and sitting astride his chest, playfully pummeling his chest with her little paws. "You had me so scared! Don't do that again, you big ninny!"
Xaa flicked his tail up, looping it around his right wrist and resting the tailtip in his paw. "I formally swear to you, love, that I will make every effort in the future to not fall out of an airship I am in the process of dis-assembling mid-flight," Xaa said, then flicked his tail to his side. "In fact, once this adventure is behind us, I plan on always keeping my feet firmly on the ground and never stepping aboard one of these insane contraptions ever again," Xaa finished, and chuckled for a moment. "Ow," Xaa said, rubbing his head. "No laughing for a bit - my head is throbbing."
"Oh, you!" Merle giggled, then hugged Xaa's neck tight. After a few moments, Xaa noticed Merle was crying.
"What's the matter, love?" Xaa asked, gently stroking her back.
"You are everything to me, and for a moment there, I thought I'd lost you. I'm okay, it's just a little scary, that's all," Merle replied, hugging Xaa tight again.
After awhile, Merle bit her lip.
"What is it?" Xaa rumbled, seeing her face.
Merle hesitated, then finally spoke. "Three more years?"
"Three more years."
Merle stuck out her tongue. "I'll be an old maid by then!" she said, sitting up and playfully swatting Xaa's broad chest.
"Good - we'll be ideal mates, then, and you can visit me in my toothless senility and help feed me my pap," Xaa replied, grinning.
"Oh, you!" Merle said, swatting Xaa's chest a final time and getting up off of him.
Xaa grinned again, sitting up, and after slipping his swords back into his sash, he carefully moved back over to his seat. Merle once again was glad Tinker had made a large seat for T'Vril - Xaa literally wouldn't fit on the tiny stool Tinker had provided for himself. "Are we heading the right direction?" Merle asked.
Xaa checked the sun, then nodded. "Yes, it appears so. Your plan worked perfectly, and with less weight, we should be able to get by with less fuel. We might just make it after all," Xaa replied.
Merle slipped the cover from beneath the fire-chamber, fitting it in place over the box, then spent a few moments opening one of the vents and lighting the fire again.
"Why are you doing that?" Xaa asked.
"The airship was designed so it needs a constant flow of warm air - the excess heat from the boiler goes up the chimney and helps keep the air warm. Even with the boiler gone, we still have to have the fire going to keep us at the same height from the ground. Tinker apparently made this cover so that he could seal off the heat from the boiler and conserve steam when he didn't need it, and yet still keep some heat going up into the air-bag from the coals. We also still have to flare the burner a few times an hour," Merle replied, standing and slowly pulling the chain to do just that.
"Ah," Xaa replied, looking out over the ocean. "I don't see any storms ahead of us, though there appears to be some clouds behind. We should arrive there with full moonlight. I think we'll need it. The island is supposed to be about fifty leagues wide and several hundred leagues long, but we'll still need to keep a sharp eye out for it. Don't forget to close your eyes when you fire the burner after dark - we'll need our night-vision."
"I won't," Merle replied, watching the glimmering sea spreading as far as the eye could see before her.
It was silent after that. Merle found the only thing unnerving about flying in the airship was the silence. Far above the ground, it was very quiet. The steam-engine, small though it may have been, was a comfort - it broke the silence. Now, it was gone.
They were taking an awful risk, and they both
knew it. Tinker's airship had never been intended to fly this
far. The winds could change, leaving them drifting far off-course
over open ocean, to drown when the fuel finally ran out. The bag
could tear from strain - Tinker had super-heated the air-bag in
his attempt at flight, and the silk may have been damaged. A
million things could go wrong, and leave them doomed to die. Even
if they did make it, they had no way of getting back. The
airship's balloon couldn't be inflated without the frame to hold
it up. Once they landed, wherever they landed, they wouldn't be
taking off again. Xaa would never see his daughter again, and
Merle would never be able to go home again. Merle went back over
and sat by Xaa, then hugged him. Xaa wrapped an arm around her
shoulders, and hugged her back.
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