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The Spark: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, August 18, 2017 13:15 EDT



Being Put in My Place

    Easton walked out of the hall, straightening as he moved. I kept watching. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d turned and belted me if I gave him a chance to do that.

    “Come on, let’s get out of here,” May said. She started for the door, then paused and bent, making a basket of her left arm. The three-colored cat leaped up; she hadn’t as much as mewed since I first saw her, even when May carried her into the stables.

    I grabbed my pack in my left hand and the pitcher of flowers in my right. I just left the bowls on the table because I didn’t know what else to do.

    “That bloody man!” May said. “That bloody man.”

    “Ah, May, should I get Buck?” I asked as she started off across the courtyard.

    “It’s not normal for sparring,” May said. She looked over at me and said, snarled really, “You could’ve kept out of this, you know! There was no reason for you to get involved!”

    “Ma’am,” I said, as calm as I could. “I did have to get involved. He was going to hit you. And anyway, I didn’t like listening to him.”

    “That bloody man,” May repeated, but this time she just seemed tired. She forced a smile and said, “And you brought the flowers. My God, what am I going to do with you?”

    “Well, if you can tell me how fights are run on Dun Add, I’d appreciate it,” I said. We were going back through the passage we’d entered the castle by, so I figured we were heading for the jousting ground that I’d seen when I arrived. “I think the rest is on me, now.”

    “I’ll find somebody to take you in hand at the grounds,” May said. She looked at me hard again. I thought she was angry.

    “Now you listen to me!” she said. “Sparring’s usually done at 20% power. There’s no reason for a squabble like this to be any more than that. Do you understand? Insist on 20% power!”

    We were heading down the slope again. I didn’t even remember seeing the doorman.

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But ma’am? I’m not afraid. If Easton beats me, then that’s something I needed to learn.”

    “Pal, listen to me,” May said. “Easton’s father was one of the Champions. Easton didn’t apply for a seat in the hall, he’s in the purser’s office; but he’s got top equipment. It’s not if he beats you, it’s how badly you’ll be hurt when he beats you.”

    I figured that if Easton hadn’t tried to join the Company of Champions, he didn’t have the balls to take a knocking around. It was just a matter of sticking with the job until he decided he’d had enough.

    I felt my lips smiling, though they were sure dry. I was due for a bad morning, like enough, but I ought to have a better chance than May was saying.

    “He wouldn’t really have hit me, you know,” she said. “He wouldn’t dare! There’s a dozen Champions who would challenge him if he did.”

    I took a deep breath of air scented by the flowering trees. There was a lot to like about Dun Add, more than I’d been afraid when I left Beune for the capital.

    “Ma’am,” I said, “I think you’re wrong there. Easton was awful mad. I don’t doubt he’d have regretted it afterwards, but he was really going to hit you.”

    I knew Easton was going to hit her. I’d been hauling back on his back on his arm, and his fist was clenched. He was a nasty fellow, no mistake, and he might well be a coward; but his temper had got away from him this time. I guessed there was a history there that I didn’t know.

    May had taken me by a different path through the woods than before. We came out onto the jousting ground, not the landing place. I could see a broad, straight path that led down from the far wing of the castle.

    A dozen pairs of warriors were sparring, including three who were globes of shattered light. Those pairs were with their dogs. They’d gone higher out of Here than you could follow without polarized lenses.

    Besides the fighters, there were thirty or forty spectators. Several were women, but I guessed most were the attendants of those on the field. One old man didn’t fit in either category. He wore a gray tunic and full-length trousers.

    May strode down the sidelines, pausing beside a group of attendants who chatted as they watched their principals. “Rikard, isn’t it?” she said. “Is that Lord Morseth out there?”

    “Yes, mum,” said the man she’d spoken to. “He’s out with Lord Reaves. They’re just getting some exercise.”

    Another of the attendants nodded enthusiastically. I figured he was Reaves’ man.

    “Can you call him in?” May said. “No, don’t bother. They’re breaking up now.”

    The nearest two warriors were trudging together off the field. They were big men in their early thirties. One was as tall as I am, and they both were a lot huskier.

    “Hey, May!” the taller one called. “What brings you out here? I thought you were too soft-hearted for all this.”

    “If it’s soft-hearted not to like watching men beat each other bloody, then that’s me,” May said sharply. “I’m here because I want a favor, Morseth.”

    “You got it, May,” Morseth said, his voice suddenly grimmer. He’d caught the undertone in her voice.

    “That goes for me too, May,” said the warrior who must be Reaves. “What d’ ye need?”

    “My friend Pal here is on his first visit to Dun Add,” May said, nodding toward me. I felt my lips tighten and I hoped I wasn’t blushing. “He’s gotten challenged by Easton, who was being a prick.”

    “When is Easton not a prick?” Morseth said.

    “I want one of you to attend Pal,” May said. “I told him that it has to be fought at 20%. Can you make that stick with Easton?”

    “I guess we can,” said Reaves. He was smiling in a way that was scary where bluster wouldn’t have been.

    “Well, do it for me, then,” said May. “Easton was more of a prick than usual, and Pal got into it because he’s a good kid. All right?”

    The two warriors looked me up and down. I realized I was holding a pitcher of tulips. I started to put them down, then froze because I didn’t want to look like I didn’t care if they got knocked over.

    May took the pitcher from me. “Morseth, Reaves?” she said. “Do what you can, all right?”

    She turned to me and said, “Pal, I’m sorry you got into this and I’m really sorry you got into it for me. These boys will keep things straight. Just do what they tell you.”

    She swallowed and said, “I’m going back to the Consort’s suite now. Jolene is probably worried about how long I’ve been gone. And I really don’t have a taste–”

    May turned quickly and trotted off by the broad path. I could just hear her final words: “–for this sort of thing.”

    “Quite a lady, May is,” Morseth said musingly as he watched her go. He eyed me: “Known her long?”

    “No sir,” I said, standing straight. “I just met her today and she was showing me around. Easton started hassling her and, well, I asked him to stop.”

    Morseth’s smile was very slight, but I thought there was a little warmth in it for the first time. “Did you?” he said mildly.

    “Let’s see your hardware,” said Reaves.

    I unhooked my weapon and shield and handed them over, one to either man. They turned them over, then traded and repeated the process. Their faces had gotten as blank as stone walls.

    “I made them myself on Beune,” I said. The silence was weighing on me.

    They handed back my shield and weapon. “I guess he knows his own mind,” Reaves said to Morseth.

    “There comes Easton,” Morseth said. He turned to me and added, “We’ll do the best we can for you, kid.”

    “Yeah,” said Reaves over his shoulder. “But with Easton, don’t hold your breath.”

    They sauntered toward Easton, who’d come with three attendants. He’d changed into a red outfit with reflective stripes up and down both tunic and breeches, and his modular shield and weapon had gilded highlights. Somebody’d spent time on the case, and that probably meant they hadn’t skimped on the insides either.

    For all that, Easton looked like somebody’s lap dog facing a pair of Rottweilers as Morseth and Reaves approached him. He wouldn’t be fighting Morseth and Reaves, though.

    I wasn’t afraid, really: I’ve gotten thumped in the past, especially before I got my full growth. Odds were I was going to get thumped again, is all.



    “Young man?” said a voice behind me. “Might I look at your equipment, please?”

    I turned fast and felt embarrassed when I saw it was just the man in gray. He was even older than he’d seemed at a glance–really old. His tunic and trousers were loose enough to suggest bulk, but his face was as thin as a stork’s.

    “Ah…,” I said. I looked toward Easton and my friends–May’s friends anyway, and they were sure acting as friends to me–and didn’t see need to rush.

    “Sure,” I said, and unhooked them. “My name’s Pal,” I said, giving him first the shield.

    Instead of replying, the old man stared silently at the shield he held in both hands. I opened my mouth to say something more, then realized that he was in a trance.

    He blinked and looked up. He smiled brightly at me; it made him look a lot younger. “This is quite remarkable, Pal,” he said as he returned the shield to me.

    “You’re a Maker, sir?” I said. I rehooked the shield and gave him my weapon.

    Instead of entering it in a trance as he had the shield, the old man said, “I’m sorry, I was impolite. It happens too often, I’m afraid. My name’s Guntram and yes, I’m a Maker, but I’m really retired now.”

    Only then did he look down at–and into, I now knew–my weapon. When he raised his eyes to me again and handed back the weapon, he said, “This was originally a drill, was it not? How quickly does it recover?”

    “A rock drill, yes,” I said. “Mining equipment. I found some memories of previous use when I was working on it.”

    I made a face because I didn’t like to admit this, but I was going to say it: “Recovery time from a full discharge is five minutes or next thing to it. It’s designed it for setting charges in hard rock, and the Ancients weren’t much concerned about recovery time. I was able to trim a little off the original, but only a minute or two.”

    “Rocks usually stay where they are for as long as you need, in my experience,” Guntram said. “A clever repurposing, though. But what really amazes me is the way you’ve turned an umbrella into a shield. What gave you that idea?”

    I laughed. I’d been embarrassed to talk to another Maker, but Guntram put me at ease. “Necessity, I guess,” I said. “Beune is way out on the marches. I used what I could find myself. It must’ve been a pretty quiet place in the time of the Ancients, because there’s no weapons that I’ve been able to find and no real shields either. It struck me that this weather shield had the right concept, if I could just beef it up to repel more than raindrops.”

    I shrugged. “I wasn’t sure it’d handle the extra power,” I said, “but it turned out that was no problem. Thing is, it has a lot of inertia at full power. That makes it hard to change position in a hurry.”

    “Yes, it would,” said Guntram, frowning as he focused on things inside his own mind. “I wonder….”

    Then he broke off and smiled again. “Who was your teacher, if I may ask, Pal?”

    “Sir, I didn’t have one,” I said, embarrassed again. “Weapons aren’t the only thing that’s hard to find around Beune. There’s plenty of Ancient hardware, though much of it’s been ground pretty smooth. But I’m the only person I know who’s trying to rebuild it.”

    Reaves came walking back along with one of Easton’s attendants, a fellow my age with a really white complexion and short blond hair. “We’ve got Easton’s weapon set on 20%,” Reaves said, “and Morseth’s staying with him to make sure that doesn’t change. Time to set yours, laddie.”

    I had already turned the power setting to what I guessed was about 20%. I hadn’t bothered to fit the dial with detents, and I honestly didn’t have a way to calibrate it precisely anyway. I guessed I’d accept whatever the others thought was fair.

    “What in hell is this?” said the servant, taking the weapon from me.

    “I made it myself,” I said. I was getting tired of explaining that. “I think it’s set right, but I can’t swear to it.”

    The servant looked hard at me, then turned to Reaves and said, “How does this hobby come to have a pair of Champions for seconds, hey?”#8221;

    “That’s something your master might’ve asked himself before he started this business,” Reaves said. He took the pea-sized ball of something he’d been warming in his palm and squeezed it onto the edge of the power dial. Wax, I’d thought, but it had a slightly pine smell so it must’ve been resin. “Here you go, Pal.”

    I hung the weapon back on my belt. I hadn’t realized he and Morseth were Champions. I hoped I wouldn’t make them look bad.

    “We’re ready here!” Reaves called. Morseth waved back. The servant who’d handled my weapon looked at Reaves, then started back toward his fellows.

    “Any time you want, boy,” Reaves said quietly to me. He gestured toward the field. “And good luck to you.”

    “Thank you, sir,” I said. “And please thank Morseth if, if you see him before I do.”

    I strode out into the field and switched on first my shield, then my weapon. The light changed. Instead of coming from the sun overhead, it was soft and even from all directions. I could see other pairs sparring on the field.

    I could see the spectators, too, but for the most part they were blurred like I was looking through thick glass. Morseth and Reaves were exceptions because they’d turned their shields on so that they could watch the details of what was happening on the field.

    I was really lucky to have met May. Of course if I hadn’t, I might not be here now.

    The thing is, there’s always going to be a bully who wants to chivvy the new guy, and I was new in Dun Add. This was a better reason to be fighting than because some oik turned my bowl of stew over in my lap. That might even have been Easton….

    He was coming toward me now. I decided to walk well out into the field so that none of the spectators would get hurt. I glanced at the sidelines again to make sure of that. To my surprise, the old Maker, Guntram showed up just as sharply as the men with weapons did; he was on the same plane. If I got a chance, I’d like to chat with him.

    Easton was feinting with his weapon, the bright line of it quivering above his right hand. I cocked mine to slant across his stroke if he made one.

    He sidled right. I turned with him, but my shield was cranked full on: it was like lifting an anvil with my left hand and pivoting. I moved my thumb to reduce power on the vernier control, but Easton came in fast and slashed at my left elbow through the edge of the shield.

    It was like running full-tilt in the dark and hitting the edge of an open door. My left forearm went numb, which was the last thing I needed right then. I was wondering if I ought to throw the shield down so I could move, but he got behind me and slammed my left knee from the back. It buckled and I went down.

    I had no real choice but to drop my shield then: the way I’d fallen, it didn’t protect me against anything but the earthworms. I tried to roll over, but Easton cut at my right forearm and my weapon dropped also.

    He jabbed me in the ribs. 20% power wasn’t enough to penetrate, but chances were he’d broken one or two ribs. It was like a really hard kick

    I reached for my weapon with my left hand. I could at least close the fingers on that side into a grip. Easton whacked me across the temple and things went gray. You’d think I’d have hurt less, but instead it felt like my whole skin was wrapped in buzzing white fire.

    I could hear people shouting, but I was far away from everything. I suppose they were calling on Easton to stop the fight. If he heard the cries, he ignored them: another blow caught me in the middle of the back.

    Everything went black. That was no surprise, but I didn’t seem to be unconscious. The great God knows I felt every one of the strokes that had hit me, but the darkness fell on me like a blanket and there were no more blows.

    I just lay there, feeling the grass tickle my nose and wondering if I was going to throw up. That lasted what seemed a long time.

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