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The Spark: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, August 14, 2017 20:20 EDT



Finding My Place

    I reached the line just as the clerk processed Rilk, the last person from the group I’d arrived with. The old potter hadn’t set his pack down while he waited, I guess because he struggled so hard to lift it again.

    I’d helped him mornings on the Road and I’d have helped him again here, but I’d been off watching the warriors. I felt a little bad about that, but Rilk wasn’t my business either except because I tried to be courteous to other people.

    The clerk looked about as beat down as Rilk did, but in case it was the weight of overseer on his back, the Herald the Gate as the steward called him. “Name and business,” he said. He didn’t raise his eyes, which meant he could see my trousers and sheepskin boots; and maybe the wooden closure of my belt that Jimsey had given me after I chased the creature back into the Waste. I’d just knotted the leather before then.

    “I’m Pal of Beune,” I said, standing straight. “I’ve come to Dun Add to join the Company of Champions.”

    The clerk looked up then, his eyes opening wider. He was young, not much older than me, but I could see the strain at the edges of his eyes.

    I don’t know what he might’ve said next, but he didn’t have time to. The overseer jumped like I’d goosed him and shouted, “Are you mocking me, hobby? Do you think I’m just another yokel that you can jape? I’m the Herald of the Gate, and if you think you’re so funny you can just take yourself back into the Waste!”

    “Sir, I’m not mocking you,” I said, keeping my voice as calm as I could. Right now I was bubbling with anger and fear too. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong, but it sounded like I might not even get into Dun Add. “I’m not the kind that does that sort of thing.”

    For a moment it looked like the Herald was going to bust. I guess he didn’t know how to take me. That could happen even back home where most folks knew me or at any rate had heard about me. It’s too bad when people figure there’s got to be something underneath the words when I just tell the truth, but it’s happened enough that it doesn’t surprise me any more.

    That was when the boat appeared right in the middle of the landing place. It quivered back and forth a couple times, coming into balance with Here and shifting a hair to get above the short grass.

    “Oh!” the Herald said. “That’s Lord Mofflin’s boat, surely it is.”

    He went bustling off toward the boat, a cylinder thirty feet long, lying on its side. “Sir?” I called after him.

    The clerk grinned at me and made a mark on his notebook. He thumbed me toward the castle and said, “Good luck to you, buddy. Whatever that means for you.” Then he followed his boss, walking a little straighter than he had a moment ago.

    I headed for the path that seemed to lead straightest toward the castle above. It may seem funny, but as rare as I knew boats were, I’d nonetheless seen two of them in the past.

    Beune isn’t close to much of anything by the Road, but if you travel by boat it turns out to be on the way to a lot of places. That isn’t a reason to stop, of course, unless your boat needs repairs or restocking. Which at least the two I saw did; repairs and restocking, I suspect, but restocking for sure.

    The first boat landed when I was only six. I’d started fiddling with the bits of Ancient artifacts that had drifted to Beune. I’d go into a trance and enter the piece, and after a while I started to fill the places with what it seemed to me that it needed. I didn’t talk to anybody about what I was doing, and I don’t know that I’d heard the word Maker.

    The boatman wore black leather and had a full red beard. I thought he was God Almighty come down to Beune. It was just him and his client alone in the boat, and I know now that the client must’ve been rich enough to buy all of Beune. That was nothing to me when I was six; and tell the truth, it isn’t much to me now.

    I’d have sold my soul to be the boatman, though. He superintended my neighbors as they loaded the boat’s hoppers with all sorts of things, rock and wood and corn and twenty products besides.

    Now that means to me the fellow didn’t have a clue as to what was missing and was hoping the boat’s automatic systems would find enough in the hoppers to let them limp to wherever they were going–or at least to a node with different selections where they could try again. Then to me it was all wonder and wonderful, though.

    I was fourteen the second time a boat landed, though, and by then I think I could’ve done them some good if they’d let me. They didn’t, of course; I was a kid and a hick, and they–a fine lady with her maid and her fancy boy; their boatman was less impressive than the first one I’d seen–had me chased away. I think the gigolo would’ve clouted me if the maid hadn’t grabbed his arm.

    They loaded up with wood after tossing out the decomposed wood that’d gotten them this far. Though they wouldn’t let me aboard the boat, it was easy to get hold of some of the waste and check it in a trance. The boat had drawn out the carbon.

    Well, the wood the strangers bought would give them that; father and some of our neighbors made nice money by selling brush that was too small to build with and too prickly to be anything but bedding at the bottom of a haystack to let the fodder breathe. Thing is, we’ve got a thick seam of coal on Beune, and that would’ve provided the carbon in a load that would’ve packed might tighter.

    I was willing to bet that I could’ve done something about the processor that was making the boat go through carbon so fast too, but the only one I’d have given the time of day to was the maid. I wasn’t sure who owned the boat, the lady or the boatman himself just hiring it to her, but it sure wasn’t the maid.

    As I looked at the choice of paths now, I heard a woman with a pleasant voice call, “I’m back, George,” behind me as I neared the trees. I turned. A really pretty girl with pale blond hair had come in from the Road. She had a three-colored cat in the crook of her left arm and a basket of tulips in that hand. She was waving her right arm to the Herald and his clerk.

    “We’ve got you, Miss May,” the clerk called back, and the Herald himself even turned and swept off his puffy hat with a bow. I wondered which one of them was named George.

    I paused for a moment, because she was coming my way. I waited till she looked around and noticed me. “Ma’am,” I said. “I’m new here. Can you tell me which of these paths best leads to the castle?”

    “You can follow me, I suppose,” she said, and her tone wasn’t much more friendly that the set look on her face. I guess a girl so pretty must have a lot of men pestering her.

    I didn’t let it bother me, just said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and followed as she swept past me. Buck looked up at her cat and it was giving him the eye, but Buck’s well behaved.

    Miss May’s dress was the same as girls on Beune wear in weather this warm: a knee length skirt and short sleeves. The waist was pinched just a bit by a fabric belt, enough to give it shape without being a couple layers of cloth tight against the skin. Thing is, back home the dresses were wool, maybe with a little embroidery on the sleeves or neckline. May wore silk, and I couldn’t tell if the light peach color was dyed or the silk came that way from the worm.

    The trees were nice, horse chestnuts about thirty feet tall. They were in flower, too. May took me along a path that forked twice, first to the left and the second time to the right. I didn’t know where the other branches would’ve led me–I couldn’t really get lost in a belt a hundred yards thick–but I was glad to have a guide.

    I stayed a pace behind her, keeping a bit off to the left. There was plenty of room for us to walk side by side, but she pretty clearly didn’t want that to happen and I’m not one to push in where I’m not wanted.



    Neither of us spoke until I could see flashes of the white walls of houses through the trees ahead of us. Then I said what I’d been thinking as I walked along behind her: “I like your tulips. My mom planted them in front of the house, and I always forget about them until they come up again in the spring. This year they hadn’t come up before I left home, though.”

    “That’s nice,̶#8221; May said without looking back at me.

    I bent and stroked the back of Buck’s neck. I couldn’t complain. I try to be friendlier to strangers than May was being, but we don’t get many strangers on Beune. Anyway, not everybody has to be like me.

    The houses at this end of Dun Add were two or three stories high. The shops on the ground floor generally spilled out onto the street. There were grocers along with a general line of the same goods as I’d seen on the fringe of the landing place; maybe a little better quality.

    I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to browse much, as May strode along more briskly on the cobblestones than she had through the woods. She hadn’t been dawdling there, either.

    The street was steep enough that sometimes it had steps in it, two or three and once as many as a dozen. My pack hadn’t been heavy even when I left Beune. Now that I’d eaten all the bread and cheese it was lighter still, but I’d walked a long way during the past three weeks. Besides which my weapon and shield were heavy enough that the belt I hung them from was chafing my hip bones. Well, I was almost there.

    The houses were built around courtyards–occasionally a large gate was open and I could see inside. There were a few people outside. Sometimes they bowed or curtseyed to May and even nodded to me. I guess they thought I was her attendant instead of just being somebody she was giving directions to.

    The girl stopped. We’d reached a terrace beyond the houses farthest up the slope. Ahead of her, ahead of us, was the castle.

    The first thing I noticed was that though it was all stone, it wasn’t all the same kind of masonry. The center part was big, roughly dressed blocks, while the wings had more finish and were built with smaller stones.

    The second thing I noticed was that there were eight doors just on this side, and a paved path running all the way the length of the front. In the middle of the old part was a double gate twenty feet high. It was closed, and though the leaves were wood, they were strapped with steel. There was a dusting of rust on the higher parts of the metal. Set into the right gate-leaf was a regular door covered with either polished brass or gold.

    May turned her head toward me and said, “There’s the castle.” Then she started down the path to the right.

    “Thank you, ma’am,” I said. Then I swallowed and said, “Ma’am? Which door do I go in to be a Champion, please?”

    “Champions use the gold door,” she said without looking back again.

    “Come along, Buck,” I said. I took a deep breath and walked toward the metal-plated door. I wasn’t sure that I was supposed to take Buck in that way, but I guessed there was only one way to learn.

    I’d just about reached it–I was close enough to tell that it was gilded bronze–when the girl called, “Stop!”

    I stopped with my hand just short of the latch. She was about where she’d been when she’d told me to use the gold door; she must’ve turned a moment after she’d tossed her directions over her shoulder.

    “Ma’am?” I said. “I know I’m not a Champion, but I want to be one.”

    She started toward me, then stopped with a grimace and said, “Oh, come here. I’ll show you where to go in. You didn’t seem feeble minded.”

    “Ma’am, I’m not,” I said as I clucked to Buck to come toward her with me. It was an insult, but I had the feeling that she was embarrassed at her own behavior instead of looking for a chance to jab me. “I’m just arrived at Dun Add, though, and it’s really different from home.”

    “What’s your name, then?” she asked. “I’m May.”

    She turned when I came alongside her and we continued walking down the right front of the castle. There were people on the parapet above us and I think I heard somebody call May’s name, but she didn’t look up at them.

    “I’m Pal,” I said. “I’m from Beune. And this is Buck.”

    “Look, I don&##8217;t know what you’ve heard on Beune,” she said, giving me a serious look, “but it’s not easy to become a Champion. There’s testing by machines and then if you pass that, you have to fight for a place in the Hall. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “The Leader’s raised the Champions to bring justice to all of Here. Bring it back. I want to be part of that.”

    May grimaced again. Her eyes sharpened and she said, “Say, have you eaten?”

    “Not in a while,” I said. “I was planning to find a place in the town after I’d gotten started with the business of joining the Company. I figured that was going to be complicated, so I started here.”

    Then I said, “Ah–I have money. I’m not a beggar.”

    I had a fair amount of money, thanks to Duncan paying me back. I hadn’t seen prices in Dun Add, but I figured they wouldn’t be much worse than at inns along the Road. Which were bad enough, in all conscience.

    “Well, you’re here on the Jon’s business for now,” May said, “so you ought to have one meal on him at least.”

    “Ma’am?” I said. “And Buck?”

    She looked down. Buck waggled his tail.

    “We’ll take care of him first in the stables,” she said. “And call me May, will you. ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel like I’m forty years old.”

    “Thank you, May,” I said.

    May led us to a door that stood ajar. An attendant sat on a stool just far enough down the passage beyond that his feet were out of the sunlight. He had a weapon but no shield. From the stiff way his left leg stuck out, I figured he was injured. Maybe he’d been a man at arms when he was younger and healthier.

    He tried to get up when May came through the doorway. “No need, Carl,” she said with a breezy wave.

    “Thanks, mum,” he said, settling back down. He eyed me as I followed her past, but he seemed about as interested in Buck as he was in me.

    The passage was thirty feet long. There was no lighting except what came through the doorways at the ends.

    They called Dun Add a castle, but I’d been thinking that it wasn’t really built to be defended. There were slots in the stone roof of this passage, though. I wouldn’t want to try forcing my way in here if there was somebody in the room above who didn’t want me to.

    There was a second gate at the far end, but it’d been propped back against the courtyard wall for so long that the hinges were rusty red lumps. We walked through into a park. There were ornamental trees planted at the west end, but for the most part the open area was sod&##8211;or dirt, where it’d gotten too much wear even for grass. I saw two ball games, one of kids of both sexes and the other of solid-looking men.

    “The stables are straight across,” May said, continuing to lead.

    She wasn’t acting like she’d like to toss me into a glacier any more, but neither was she being the chatty/friendly sort. I appreciated what she was doing, so I let her make the rules.

    The park wasn’t so crowded that we were pushing through people, but often enough we’d walk around a blanket or even a tarp raised for a sunshade. Folks called or nodded to May if they noticed her, and I got a few long looks myself. Not for anything about me or Buck, I was pretty sure.

    There were six archways in the middle of the north side of the courtyard, and the wall above the arches was pierced for gratings up to within a couple feet of the top. The noise was loud even before we got to the openings, yaps and yelps and howling. No snarling fights, though.



    Buck had never been in a place like this; he sure didn’t want to go in. I didn’t either, to tell the truth, but I didn’t see another choice. I took the length of cord turned three times around my waist, tied a good-sized loop in one end with a square knot, and laid it over Buck’s head. He was trembling, but he didn’t fight me.

    The leash wasn’t to hold him#8211;it wasn’t tight and it wouldn’t tighten. It just meant that I was serious and he had to obey.

    “It’s okay, boy,” I whispered. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

    We walked to where May waited for us by a counter just inside the doorway. She turned to the ostler and said, “Here he is, Taney. Give him a kennel for a week, will you? Though I don’t know how long it’s really going to be.”

    She knows everybody in Dun Add, I thought. I wondered who she really was. None of the women I’d seen in the park wore clothes as nice as May did, as simple as her dress looked.

    “What’s his number?” said Taney, taking a square of paper from a spike and lifting a brush from his ink well. He was way heavier than he ought to be, but there were real muscles in his scarred arms.

    “He doesn’t have one yet,” said May.

    “Aw, Miss May!” Taney said wearily. “You know I’m not supposed to stable animals until there’s a number to charge ’em to.”

    I brought my purse out from under my trousers. Before I could make an offer, May said, “Oh, come on, Taney. If you won’t do it for the Consort, do it for me. All right?”

    “All right, all right,” muttered Taney. “But you know I shouldn&##8217;t.”

    He wrote 413 down on the chit and slid it to me. May leaned over the counter and kissed his grizzled cheek. Taney turned his head away and said, “Aw, May,” again but in a soft tone this time.

    “Do I…?” I said, but a boy wearing a leathern apron came down an aisle between the ranked kennels and took the leash.

    “Where’s your chit?” the boy said. He turned his head sideways to read my slip of paper right-way-up and said, “Okay, four thirteen. Four Level is being fed right now. That okay for him?”

    “Yes, that’s good,” I said. I turned my back so that I didn’t have to watch Buck being led up a winding ramp. He didn’t even whine.

    I wanted to whine myself, though. I felt more alone than I’d ever been in my life.

    “Now, let’s get you fed too,” May said. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.

    “I’m all right,” I said. I hoped that was true.

    We turned to the right as we left the stables and walked along the pavement. I’d blinked my eyes clear by the time we turned into another high doorway, thirty feet along the way. This was like the common room of an inn. The forty odd men–they were all men–eating at the tables weren’t a tenth of what the hall could have held.

    “What’s on offer today, Yoko?” May asked one of the men at the serving counter. “Oh, and will you give me a pitcher of water to put these in?” She gestured with the tulips in her right hand. “I meant to have them up in Jolene’s suite by now.”

    “Stewed pork and collards,” the server said. He reached behind him for a pitcher, which he scooped into a tub of water. He raised his eyebrow at me and said, “Two bowls?”

    “Please,” said May, taking the pitcher.

    “I’ll get ’em,” I said as the server ladled two ironstone bowls full. He offered two horn spoons also, which I gripped between my left ring and little fingers.

    I followed to the table where May was sitting. I’d have sat opposite but she scooted over on the bench and patted the end beside her. I set the bowls and spoons on the table, shrugged off my pack and stowed it under the bench, and finally sat down myself.

    From the way people were staring, May didn’t usually eat on these scarred tables; which I could well believe. She lifted her spoon but paused when I took half the tulips from the pitcher she’d set in front of us. I retrimmed the stems at a slant, then traded and fixed the other half as well.

    I put my knife back in the sheath under my waist band and tucked into the pork. It was wonderful. Granted that the cook knew his business–there were spices beyond pepper, and the pot hadn’t been stewed to mush as I’d expected–it made me realize how hungry I was. I was glad Buck was eating by now, too.

    May was looking at me in amazement. “Ah…?” I said. “I figured the ends had dried out while you’ve been guiding me around. They’ll take up water better now. Besides, you’d used scissors to cut them and that pinches. A knife’s better if you’re putting the stems in water.”

    “Yes, I suppose it is,” May said. She took a little sip of the pork, then said, “What decided you to leave your home, Pal? I suppose Beune bored you?”

    “No ma’am,” I said. “There’s plenty going on in Beune. We’re pretty close to Not-Here, you see, and you can never tell what’s going to drift across. Besides, I’m sort of a Maker and there’s always something new to learn, you know?”

    May finished her big spoonful and then took more. I suspect she was finding she liked the pork better than she’d expected to.

    “No, I didn’t know that,” she said. “I certainly didn’t know you were a Maker. Didn’t you say you wanted to be a Champion?”

    “Ma’am–May, I’m sorry, I’m a Maker for fun,” I said. “I really like to learn things. But it’s the Champions who’re going to bring safety and justice back to Mankind. I can’t be a Champion on Beune.”

    “I see,” May said, but she said it a way that made me pretty sure that she didn’t. She took another spoonful.

    “May, if I can ask?” I said.

    She looked sideways at me. After a moment, she gave me a tiny nod.

    “You mentioned ‘the Consort,’ and then you said, you were bringing the flowers for Jolene?” I said. “Is that–”

    “I mean Lady Jolene, the Leader’s Consort,” May said, turning to face me. “I’m one of her attendants.”

    “Um,” I said. I’d pretty near finished my stew, but I managed to scoop a little more juice onto my spoon so that I wasn’t staring at May. “I guess that explains why everybody’s so respectful to you.”

    That might sound wrong. “Not that they shouldn’t be, I mean,” I added. “It’s just that folks aren’t always as polite as they ought to be. On Beune, anyway.”

    A man came up behind me. I didn’t think anything of it for a moment, but I turned when I realized he wasn’t walking on.

    He was older than me but not old, thirty maybe, and starting to get a paunch. His clothes were good, with velvet piping on the jacket and down the legs of his trousers. I said, “Sir?”

    “I thought you didn’t like men, little lady,” he said to May. He wasn’t shouting, but his voice was louder than it had to be. The cat jumped from May’s lap and vanished under the table.

    I got up. I couldn’t get between the stranger and May, but I was right beside him. I was taller by a few inches, but he could give me more weight than just the fat he was carrying.

    With me standing, May could push the bench back enough she could get up too.

    She said, “I have nothing against men, Easton. I don’t like you, is all.”

    “Look, you slut–” Easton snarled.

    “Sir!” I said in his ear. “You’re speaking to a lady!”

    “Shut up, kid,” Easton said without turning. “If you’re good, I’ll give you seconds after May services me.”

    May slapped him, hard enough to spin his head sideways. People jumped up from their meals, and a couple benches fell over.

    Easton’s left hand caught May by the shoulder; his right arm cocked back. It kept coming back because I’d grabbed his wrist. There were men like him on Beune, so I’d known what to expect. When Easton tried to grab me by the hair, I kneed him in the crotch and stepped back.

    He didn’t go down, but he backed against the bench and banged it over. May had gotten clear and was in the aisle.

    “All right, hobby,” Easton said in a raspy voice. He was bending over a bit still. “You’re wearing arms, so you’ll meet me on the field in an hour. Or I’ll have you whipped out of the city, whipped so you’ll be lucky to be able to walk!”

    “I’ll meet you on the field,” I said.

    It was funny, but now I felt better than I had since I got to Dun Add. This sort of business hadn’t been new to me since I was about five years old.

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