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The Spark: Chapter One

       Last updated: Tuesday, August 8, 2017 20:23 EDT



CHAPTER 1: Arriving at Dun Add

    Neither my dog Buck nor me had ever been more than a day’s hike from Beune before, so I didn’t realize we were approaching Dun Add. There was a group of about a dozen of us by now, folks coming together on the Road as we got closer to the capital, and some of the others had been here before.

    Dame Carole lived in Dun Add, as a matter of fact. She was in her fifties and had been making a pilgrimage to religious sites with six people; six servants, I suppose, though one was a priest and Duncan was a man at arms. A rich woman might want protection anywhere on the Road, but from what Duncan had said to me they hadn’t gone far enough out from Dun Add that trouble was likely.

    Duncan pointed to the trees on the right side of the Road and said, “See how the Waste changes? It’s gotten reddish, you see? We’re near Dun Add.”

    “I see something,” I said. I didn’t see red–it was all sort of gray/green/brown. What to me had been medium-sized broadleafed trees for at least the past ten days, however, was now brush that mostly wasn’t as tall as I was. “I wouldn’t have known what it meant, though.”

    Folks didn’t see the Waste the same way, probably because there was nothing really there. Everything you see on the Road–and the Road itself, I guess–is in your mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t real, but everybody has a different reality.

    Buck whined. He was feeling something different too. It made him jumpy, or maybe he was feeling me be jumpy.

    I was going to Dun Add to join Jon’s Company of Champions. Beune is a nice place but it’s a long way from most everything–except for Not-Here, which in long past times spread over Beune too. Not-Here still wasn’t very far away.

    If you haven’t been anywhere but Beune, then you know you’re going to be over your head in any real town. I sure did, anyway. Going to the Dun Add, the Leader’s capital, couldn’t make me any more lost than I’d have been in someplace smaller, and this where I had to be to become a Champion.

    George was a farmer on a place called Wimberly. He must’ve been doing well because he was travelling to Dun Add just to see the place. He’d brought his daughter Mercy along, calling her Mike and dressing her in boy’s clothes. Mercy was fourteen and, well, well-grown. Despite the loose clothing.

    I guess George was afraid of what the men they met on the Road might do to his daughter, but the truth is that Mercy was way ready to be done to. I don’t figure it had been any different when she was back on Wimberly. For myself, I called her Mike in public, and after the first time I saw to it that she never got me alone again.

    It seemed to me that Dame Carole knew that Mike was a girl too and that she was a lot more interested in Mercy than I was. I didn’t like to think about that–Carole was so old, for one thing!–but it was none of my business.

    On Beune we keep ourselves pretty much to ourselves. Besides being the way I’d been raised, it seemed like a good way to be.



    You don’t need an animal to walk the Road, you can wear polarized filters. I’ve seen good ones of mica, though a Maker of any skill can build better ones out of raw sand. Seeing through an animal’s eyes works a lot better, though, and most people can manage the trick even if they don’t know the animal real well.

    Carole had a fluffy white cat. Cats are supposed to be great, slipping along instead of ramming through rough patches the way dogs do, but they’re no good in a fight. You can’t control what they’re going to do, and if you’ve got to fight your beast as well as your opponent, you’re probably going to get the blazes knocked out of you.

    Heyman, one of two merchants on the way to Dun Add, had a sleek gazehound that his pair of bearers used also. Heyman traded in textiles. He didn’t talk much, not with the likes of me anyway, but his bearers said that some of his fabric had been woven in Not Here.

    Rilk, the other merchant, carried a pack heavier than I’d have wanted to heft on a long trek. It was pottery that he’d turned and fired himself. Nothing fancy, just undecorated earthenware, but I liked the shape of some of his mugs. If we’d been back on Beune, I’d have bought a couple.

    Rilk had a mongrel named Sachem. There wasn’t a lot to choose between him and Buck, though Sachem was a good few years older.

    I never saw the point of fancy breeds, but maybe that was sour grapes. You weren’t going to get hounds like Heyman’s on Beune; and if you had, I wouldn’t have been able to afford one. I’d sold the farm to a neighbor to get enough money to buy food for me and Buck on the way to Dun Add.

    “Oh Pal…?” Mercy called, walking over close to me. “Is it true that we’re getting close to Dun Add, the way Carole says?”

    “She ought to know, Mike,” I said, nodding toward Dame Carole. She glared back like she wanted to slip a dagger in me, though she must see that I wasn’t doing anything to encourage Mercy. “Duncan here tells me the same.”

    Mercy looked like she wanted to come closer yet, but I clicked my tongue to Buck and we stepped out a little quicker. Seeing through Buck’s eyes, the Road was a stretch of poles laid edge to edge on the ground; in grays and browns, of course. We’d been pacing along comfortably; speeding up was clumsy and more tiring, so I backed off after I’d put the girl a step or two behind us.

    “Pal, I wonder if we’ll see each other in the city?” Mercy called. “You know, it’s all new to me and I’d like to see it with a friend.”

    “I guess you and your dad can hire a guide, Mike,” I said. “For myself, I don’t know anything about the place. I’m going to be real busy besides.”

    Duncan stayed quiet until Mercy had taken her disappointment back to her father. Then he chuckled and said, “She thinks she’s old enough, lad.”

    “That’s between her and God,” I said. I grimaced because I sounded like a right little god-bothering prig, which I’m not. But you shouldn’t be trifling with fourteen-year-old girls unless, I suppose, you’re fourteen yourself and you’re inclined that way. I hadn’t been inclined, and now I was twenty.

    “Your choice, lad,” Duncan said, shrugging. “Carole settles as soon as we step onto the landing place, and I’ll pay you back right off.”

    He grimaced much the way I just had. “I have to do it then,” he muttered, “because like as not I won’t have it in a couple days. I used’a tell myself it’d be different this time, but by now I don’t guess it will be.”

    Duncan wasn’t a bad fellow. He’d helped me a lot when we stopped at way stations.

    It was my first time any distance on the Road. Before I met Duncan–and the rest of Dame Carole’s crew–I’d been sleeping rough. I knew the innkeepers weren’t giving me fair quotes, but I didn’t know what was fair, so I couldn’t beat them down. Duncan got me in at better rates than any lone traveler was going to get, because he made it sound like I was another of Carole’s guards.

    The lie bothered me a bit, but Duncan said that if we were attacked he bloody well expected I’d fight too–which I surely would. I guess it was all right.

    Duncan had gotten an advance on his wages before they set off, but by the time I fell in with Dame Carole he was stony broke. I loaned him money for ale or whatever the waystations had; but not too much. He’d say things when I cut him off, but I think in his heart he was just as glad I was doing it. Like I say, Duncan wasn’t a bad fellow.

    A couple more branches of the Road had joined ours since Duncan said we were getting close, but nobody was on them. I wondered where they went… and wondered if I’d be sent along those ways after I’d joined the Company of Champions.

    Two of Dame Carole’s attendants had gone a bit ahead. The younger one turned and waved his hands. “We’re here, milady!” he called. “We’ve arrived!”

    “I forget how many times I’ve come back this way,” Duncan said with a sigh. “It stopped being exciting a long time ago.”

    “It’s exciting to me,” I said. “I guess I’m afraid too. A little afraid.”

    It was more than a little and Duncan probably knew it; but I’d come to Dun Add because it was the only place where I could become part of making the universe safe for human beings. Making it the way things had been thousands of years ago, before the great collapse. Jon and his Champions were doing that, putting down bandits and monsters from their capital in Dun Add.

    People talked about Jon’s dream even as far off as Beune. The more I thought about it, the surer I was that until it had been done, it was the only real job for a man.

    There was nothing holding me on Beune after mom died; dad had been dead these past ten years. I sold the steading to Gervaise, my neighbor to the south, and spent three months preparing. When I decided I’d done everything I could to get ready, Buck and I set off for Dun Add.

    And here I was. I took a deep breath and walked from the Road onto Dun Add, the capital of the human universe–

    If there was going to be a human universe again.



    The first thing I did on the other side of the foggy curtain was sneeze. Bright light does that to me, and it was cloudless noon on the meadow outside the landing place of Dun Add where the Road entered.

    Buck always likes to come back to Here, though he never balks when I tell him it’s time to get onto the Road again. Now he started wagging at the new sights, and there were surely plenty of them.

    The first thing I saw was the castle up the hill straight ahead. It took me a moment to realize that it was a building, not just a higher part of the hill. I’d seen pictures, sure, but I hadn’t really appreciated what it would be like to be close to something that big, something human beings had made.

    “God save me,” I muttered. I suppose I looked like a hick from the back of beyond as I stood gaping at the castle, but in all truth that’s what I was.

    “I was in the Commonwealth army for a couple years,” Duncan said. “Even though I’ve lived here, it hits me still every time I see it. There’d been a small fort on the hill for I dunno how long, but Jon built it to what you see now. It’s because so many branches of the Road come together here. The hinterland’s more than big enough to support the court too.”



    He’d stayed beside me, probably figuring how Dun Add was going to strike me. I’d been luckier than I knew to have met Duncan on the Road.

    “You were one of Jon’s Champions?” I said.

    Right away I was sorry that I’d sounded so disbelieving, but I really was. It was like Duncan had told me that he could flap his arms and fly like a bird.

    He gave me a wry smile and said, “A Champion? No, lad, that’s not for the likes of you and me. But Jon needs regular men at arms too, and I was one of those. There’s only a hundred and fifty Champions all told, and that’s if the Company was at full strength–which I don’t know that it ever has been.”

    I cleared my throat and said, “Ah, Duncan? You say the Champions aren’t for you and me. Why is that, exactly? Back where I come from, Beune, I’d heard that the Leader takes warriors from all over to fill his Company.”

    “Oh, Jon takes warriors from anywhere, you bet,” Duncan said with a snort. “What he doesn’t take is any body. You have to have great equipment even to try. My stuff is good enough to see off a couple bandits on the Road.”

    He waggled his weapon and shield, a modular unit. It didn’t impress me, but I hadn’t seen it in use. And I hadn’t been into it in a Maker’s trance, either, which I thought might show me more.

    “For the Companions, though,” Duncan continued, “you need the best there is and that costs money. If you’re the lord of a big place like Mar or maybe the son of the top merchant on Castorman, you can afford it. I couldn’t, and I don’t guess Beune runs to that kind of money either.”

    He frowned, staring at my equipment. “Now that I come to it,” he said, “where did you come up with this hardware, lad? I’ve never in my life seen anything looking like that.”

    “Well…,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I knew it looked rough. “I made it myself, on Beune. I’ve used it, and it works.”

    That was true, but I’d have to admit that neither trial had been much of a test. A half a dozen bullies had arrived from Kleruch, that’s the node with the most people in our neighborhood. They tried to shake down Gammer Kleinze, who keeps what passes for a shop and tavern on Beune. I ran them off, but none of them had a shield and only two had real weapons. I kept my weapon at 20% power so I didn’t have to recharge.

    The other time was when something from Not-Here landed in a patch of scrubland near the boundary with the Waste in the north side. Jimsey, who had the nearest farm to it, called me over.

    The thing, whatever it was, didn’t have a real shape but it was the size of a barn. I jabbed it a couple times, then hit it full power. That punched a hole clear through and into the Waste beyond, but I had my heart in my mouth when I did it. If the thing had come for me, it’d have been all over. My weapon takes about five minutes to recharge because I’d rebuilt it from a miner’s rock drill.

    The thing turned and oozed back into the Waste. None the worse for wear, as best I could tell, but it must not’ve liked the jolt I gave it. I’m not sure it ever knew I was there; if it had eyes or anything like that, I didn’t see them. Where it’d been browsing, not only the plants were gone but all the soil too, and a layer of the limestone bedrock had crumbled to a calcium dust.

    “What do you mean you made it, hey?” Duncan said, a little sharper than I’d heard him speak before. “Are you saying you’re a Maker, then? Or are you just playing silly buggers with old Duncan, hey?”

    I spread my boots a little farther apart and straightened my back. “Sir!” I said. “I’m a Maker, yes. I’m pretty much self-taught, but out on Beune we learn to make do. My neighbors have been bloody glad to have me around, and I’ve made stuff that peddlers have taken away to sell on too.”

    “Well I’ll be,” Duncan said, relaxing again. Our dogs relaxed too. They’d picked up the smell of trouble when Duncan thought I was mocking him. They were both ready to mix it if that was the next thing that happened. “Sorry, lad. I’d taken you for a warrior.”

    “I am a warrior,” I said, “or anyway that’s what I’ve come to Dun Add to be. There’s no law against being both, you know.”

    “Maybe not,” said Duncan, “but I never heard of it happening.”

    “Well, I don’t know that I have either,” I said. Duncan was the closest thing to a friend I had nearer than Beune. Even if I never saw him again, I didn’t want us to have parted on bad terms. “It’s two different ways of looking at the things that the Ancients left. Not everybody’s a warrior, and I guess there’s fewer still that’re Makers.”

    I coughed and added, “I don’t claim to be any great shakes. But I’m good for Beune.”

    “Just remember you’re not on Beune now, Pal,” Duncan said. “You’re a good lad, but Dun Add is a big place.”

    He sighed and said, “I’ll get your money, now, and be right back with it. Bless you for your kindness to an old man who hasn’t always been a good friend to himself.”

    Duncan walked over to Dame Carole. There was a line of people waiting from before we arrived, being checked in by a clerk. I guess a place like Dun Add has to have a notion of who’s come in, though it’s not something that you think about in Beune. Nobody much does come to Beune, of course.

    It seemed to me that the clerk was doing just fine, but he had an overseer with a plush hat, puffed sleeves, and a pair of bright red galluses holding up his tights. The overseer waited till the clerk had gotten the particulars into a notebook, then snarled at both the clerk and the traveler and snatched the notebook away. The overseer made more marks, then slapped the notebook back into the clerk’s hands.

    There was no chance I was going to forget that I wasn’t on Beune anymore. Every moment I stood looking at Dun Add, I more and more regretted leaving home. Buck whined like he was wondering why we’d left too. I rubbed him behind the ears.

    The landing place was grassy, though it’d been tramped pretty bare except around the edges between the kiosks. I thought those might be something to do with the government like the clerk and his boss, but when I looked closer they were all selling something or trying to.

    Some hawked clothing–“Town clothes! Don’t look like a rube on the streets of Dun Add!” and some were jewelry booths–“Show her that you care, bucko, and she’ll show you that she cares!”

    But the most of them, twenty or more, were dram shops. Some fancier than others, but at a glance I wouldn’t expect anything better to drink than the cheap-jack clothes and the trashy baubles from the neighboring hawkers.

    I didn’t mind being taken for a rube. I was one, right enough. I wasn’t a bloody fool as to spend my money on the shoddy I saw here, though.

    A river, bigger than I’d ever imagined, lay to the left. More of Dun Add stretched along the shore than was down here by the landing place, though that may have been because of rules. The first hundred yards from here toward the castle was by paths through the woods.



    Beune isn’t very big, and the streams back home wouldn’t float anything more than a rowboat. Some of the ships on the Dun Add waterfront had sails on two masts for going back upstream against the current. I’d heard of ships that big, but seeing them made me blink.

    The rafts were what really interested me. They were made by pinning together the trunks of full-sized trees, all softwoods that I could see. Some were still loaded with the bales and casks they’d carried from the interior, but others were empty and had been winched to an island in midstream.

    I couldn’t tell whether the island was natural or if it’d been built on pilings, but I could hear the scream of a circle saw driven by a wheel out in the current. The rafts were being turned into boards and timbers to build Dun Add even bigger than it was already.

    At least they’ll have room for me, I thought. I smiled, but there wasn’t a lot of laughter in my mind.

    Duncan joined me again. Dame Carole was still well back in the line, and not looking best pleased about it, either.

    “Here you go, lad,” Duncan said, counting five silver pieces into my palm one at a time. They had the face of Jon the Leader on one side and on the other a dragon with its tail knotted to fit in the space.

    “They’re fresh from the mint here,” he said, which I could tell by looking at the coins. “And this–”

    He added a brass piece, a little larger than the silver.

    “–is from Castorman. In Dun Add it passes at about three to one against the dragons. We can have it weighed out in a jeweler’s booth, if you like?”

    “No, I trust you,” I said, putting the coins into the suede pouch I hang inside my waistband in the front. I still had enough of the small change that I’d brought onto the Road that I wouldn’t have to break a silver piece right away.

    We don’t use money a lot on Beune. Mostly it’s barter or what amounts to the same as barter: doing a favor for a neighbor because he’s done a favor for you, or he will do when you need one.

    I needed minted money to go on the Road. Gervaise had to really scrape to come up with what my farm was worth, or something close to it. I think in the end he was getting money from folks who knew me and were doing me a favor. They didn’t want me to leave Beune, but if they had cash they helped me with my dream by paying Gervaise for a cask of next year’s cider or a sheep in the fall, to slaughter or to raise.

    To the right of the landing place was a plain that was even bigger but with only a dozen or so people on it. They were too far away for me to catch details beyond seeing that most of them were men, but I suddenly realized from the shimmer that some of them were warriors fighting. I started walking in that direction, barely murmuring goodbye when Duncan headed back to his employer.

    This was what I had come to Dun Add for: to be a Champion of Mankind, to fight other warriors not for my own sake or even for the Leader’s sake. I would fight so that scattered humanity could unite instead of being ground to dust piecemeal.

    Buck caught my mood and growled at the back of his throat. The black bristles along his spine had risen, though he didn’t know what it was that’d made me feel this way.

    “Mind how you go, buddy!” a voice said closer to me than my thoughts were. “Nobody gets off the landing place until they’re checked in with the Herald of the Gate.”

    Called back to today, I blinked at the pair of stewards. They wore blue tunics with a dragon embroidered on the left breast; they carried wooden staves. One of them had set his staff crossways in front of me, but it was the other who’d spoken.

    “Oh!” I said and backed a step. “Sorry, I was looking at the Champions instead of paying attention to where I was going.”

    The fellow with the outstretched staff butted it and laughed. “You are new if you think those’re Champions,” he said.

    “All right, I’m new,” I said. Being new didn’t give a fat man with a bad shave the right to sneer at me, and I was just about in a mood to remind him that I was armed and he wasn’t.

    “If you don’t watch your tongue, Platt,” said the other steward in a weary voice, “somebody’s going to feed you your teeth. It might even be me.”

    He looked at me, met my eyes and said, “Two of those fighting are Aspirants, kid. One’s named Newell and he’s been here a few years. The other fellow arrived in the past couple months, but I didn’t catch his name. They’re training for seats in the Champion’s Hall, but they haven’t passed the test yet. The other two, the nearer pair, they’re just a couple warriors from the army, getting in a little exercise.”

    “I figured there’d be testing,” I said. That was true, but if Newell had been an aspirant for years it sounded like the testing was more formal than I’d expected.

    What looked like shimmering around the fighters was the way they slipped out of Here when their shields went on. It was like being on the Road, only it was just you and you could engage it anywhere.

    I guess it sounds funny, but I’d never seen what a warrior looked like with his shield on. I was the only person on Beune who had a shield, and I was inside when I engaged it. All I knew was what my neighbors told me they saw.

    From what I’ve heard, different warriors control their shields in various ways. With me I take the grip in my left hand and switch it on with my thumb. I tighten my fingers to narrow the shielded segment or spread them for wider coverage.

    The real problem is that I built the shield from what was basically an umbrella, which I beefed up really a lot. It’ll stop a weapon stroke–the two thugs I ran off Beune both hit me square before I knocked them down#8211;but moving with it on is really hard. I figure it’s got a lot more inertia than a shield that was meant for fighting, though I haven’t tried one to be sure.

    I could’ve asked Duncan to let me handle his unit. I guess I was embarrassed to, because he’d want to try mine. I know my shield and weapon–I made them, after all–and I know they’ve got quirks. Somebody who wasn’t used to those quirks, well, he’d laugh at me. Duncan wouldn’t have laughed out loud, but I’d have known what he was thinking.

    I watched the warriors spar a little longer, then looked back at the line. It’d gotten down pretty short; Dame Carole and her crew were through, Duncan among them. I suppose he was off to a tavern, which made me a little sad. I had no right to feel responsible for a man who was older than my father had been when he died.

    I nodded to the steward who’d been polite to me and headed back to clerk and his overseer. Dun Add was waiting for me, but I had to get through the official before I saw any of it.

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