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The Spark: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, September 3, 2017 09:47 EDT



Making Everything Official

    I was hearing blurred voices; I’d been hearing them since it went dark. I was pretty sure that I could understand the words if I concentrated on them, but I didn’t have the energy to do that. I just wanted to lie where I was.

    I wondered if Easton had destroyed my eyes. I didn’t remember being hit again after the one that got me in the back, but maybe I wouldn’t.

    The blackness vanished. I was lying same as I had been when Easton first knocked me down. Boots were standing around me.

    “Don’t move, kid,” Morseth said. He gripped my forehead with his left hand to keep me from jerking away when he probed my scalp with his right thumb and forefinger.

    “If you want to know if it hurts,” I said, “I can tell you: it hurts.”

    “Yeah, but he didn’t break the bone,” Morseth said, straightening. “You’ll be okay. At 20% there’s no burns.”

    My hearing was coming back. My ears rang a bit, but I figured that’d go away. I hoped so, anyhow.

    I put both palms on the ground and raised my torso very slowly. I was going to have bad bruises on both arms, but nothing was broken. I wasn’t as sure about my ribs after the jab they’d taken, but at least I wasn’t coughing blood.

    “What happened?” I said, staring at the ground as I got myself ready to put my knees under me. “I mean, it seemed to me that everything went black.”

    I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know what’d happened in the fight. Easton had well and truly whipped me.

    “The fight was over,” said Guntram. The two Champions and their attendants were standing close around me, but the old Maker was a little farther back. “I called on Easton to stop, but he continued beating you. I therefore caused the light at the place you were fighting to be refracted. When Easton stumbled out of the zone, your seconds directed him away.”

    “By all the saints,” muttered Rikard and turned his head. Morseth and Reaves had stiffened also. They were used to shields and weapons, but an Ancient device of unusual kind disturbed them.

    There were people back home who thought that anything unfamiliar came from Not-Here and was made by the Adversary. I didn’t understand that, but I’d learned that it was a waste of time to argue with them.

    “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you all.”

    I eased myself back to where I was kneeling with my body upright. Easton and his crew were walking up the broad path toward the castle. I hadn’t touched him, hadn’t even had a chance to try. Other than bruises front and back, my torso seemed to have come through pretty well.

    “I left you concealed until Easton had gone well away,” Guntram said apologetically. “I was afraid that if he saw you within reach, he would have hit you again.”

    “He’d have wished he hadn’t,” Morseth growled.

    Which was likely true, but I’d seen how Easton behaved when he was angry. Another whack on the wrong place might’ve been all she wrote for me.

    Aloud I said, “I was glad just to lie there a little longer. Now, I’m going to try to stand up.”

    I said that last thing because somebody might have to grab me suddenly if I’d misjudged how ready my left leg was to hold me. I felt sick to my stomach for a moment, but I didn’t bring up my pork and collards. After that first wash of dizzy sickness, I was all right.

    “You going to be all right now?” Morseth said. “I can leave Rikard to help you get to your room if you think you might need a hand.”

    I bent over and picked up first my weapon, then my shield. By holding my torso stiff I was able to do that without screaming, but I stood with my eyes shut for a moment after hooking them onto my belt.

    “I’ll be all right,” I said, working at a smile. “I could use a guide to wherever I go to apply to join the Company of Champions, though.”

    Morseth and Reaves went blank-faced. Rikard smiled, then got a horrified look and turned away again.

    Very carefully, Morseth said, “You sure you want to do that right now, fellow?”

    “I’m sure,” I said, a bit too loud. I heard what wasn’t in his words too. I probably wouldn’t have felt so angry if I didn’t pretty much agree with Morseth. “That’s what I came to Dun Add to do, the only reason I came here, and I’m going to do it.”

    “He knows his own mind,” Reaves said. He was repeating the comment he’d made when he saw the equipment I was taking against Easton.

    “Sure, Rikard’ll guide you,” Morseth said with a shrug.

    “If you don’t mind, Morseth?” Guntram said. “My quarters are directly above the Aspirants’ Hall, so I can take Pal there on my way back.”

    “Well, if you’re willing to do that, sir,” the Champion said. “Though I’m happy to loan Rikard out for an hour, too.”

    “I have some things I’d like to discuss with Master Guntram,” I said. “I’d be pleased to have his company.”

    “Well, the two of you have a good time, then,” said Reaves. The Champions with their servants set off briskly toward the castle.

    “Everyone is very respectful to me,” Guntram said quietly as he watched their backs. “They don’t like to be reminded that I’m a Maker, though, and using the Sphere of Darkness did that.”

    “I get along fine with my neighbors on Beune,” I said. “But they don’t like to walk in on me when I’m trying to fix something. I’ve seen them standing at the end of my lane, waiting till I come out of the house, rather than take the risk that I’ll be in a trance.”

    Guntram laughed. “I tell them that it’s no different from fighting,” he said. “Both involve merging your mind with the structure of Ancient equipment. What we Makers do it more subtle, perhaps, but it isn’t different.”

    He met my eyes. “Speaking of equipment,” he added, “would you mind if I carried yours?”

    “Your help would be a godsend,” I said, unbuckling the belt and handing it over. My pack didn’t weigh anything by now, but the hardware did. Besides, the stroke I’d taken across the back was already burning from the strain of the belt pulling down on my torso.

    We started up the paved path. Guntram let me set the pace, but I found that if I gritted my teeth I could do pretty well. It was probably good for me, not to let the bruised muscles stiffen up.

    I didn’t talk much on the way up, though. Breathing was hard, and I kept feeling where Easton had jabbed me in the ribs. Maybe I’d been wrong about nothing being broken.

    When we reached another of the doors on this side of the building, Guntram took off the belt and returned it to me. “Here’s where you go in,” he said, “I’ll hold your pack. And if you don’t mind, I’ll come in also.”

    “I’d be honored, sir,” I said. I took a deep breath. I didn’t expect this was going to be a pleasant interview, given the rest of what had happened since I reached Dun Add, but it had to be done. I opened the door and entered a large room.

    The light came through panels about six feet in each direction on the wall facing me. Windows, I thought, but they showed a sparse woodland instead of the courtyard and the part of the castle across from it. The light came from the panels, not through them.

    A woman wearing a turban of bright magenta stood behind the counter to the right. The rest of the room was a narrow lobby reaching to the outside door in the far wall. There were sturdy wooden benches and doors in both sidewalls.

    The half-dozen loungers didn’t notice us, but the woman got a look of amazement and dipped into a curtsey. “Yes, Master?” she said.

    She was talking to Guntram, behind me. “I’m just passing through, thank you,” he said. This gentleman has business with you, however.”

    I walked carefully to the counter. My left leg was going to throw me if I didn’t concentrate on what I was doing.



    The woman had brought everybody’s attention to me. One lounger got up and walked out through the door to the courtyard, and the pairs that had been chattering now watched silently.

    “I want to apply to the Company of Champions,” I said. My voice was firm and clear; I’d been afraid that I was going to squeak.

    She looked at me. She was probably about fifty, but she could’ve been anywhere from thirty to sixty; not pretty, never pretty, but with a calm assurance that I found comforting. It reminded me of my mother’s.

    “Master Guntram?” she called past me. “Are you his sponsor?”

    “No he’s not!” I said. “My name’s Pal, I’m from Beune and I’m here on my own.”

    “All right,” said the woman. “Lay your equipment on the counter.”

    I put my shield before her, then found I had to use both hands with the weapon: my right hand alone didn’t quite lift it off the belt hook. That was good, because otherwise it would’ve fallen to the floor. I hoped my right arm would be all right in the morning, but it sure wasn’t now.

    “Are you sick?” the woman said, her hands on the shield.

    “Just banged up a little,” I said. “Nothing a night’s sleep won’t cure.”

    It’d take more than a night, but nothing was broken. The woman reminded me of mom again; she’d have asked with just that tone. I put the weapon beside the shield and said, “I built them myself. I’m going to work more on them before the next time I go out in the field, I hope.”

    The woman turned to the blank wall to her left–and switched on the weapon, moving it from minimum to its sparkling, spitting maximum. She shut down and laid it on the counter where the discharge point burned another scar on the wood.

    She picked up the shield, again using her right hand. I was amazed. I’d heard there were women who could operate weapons, but I’d never seen it done before. Well, most people hadn’t seen a Maker who could handle weapons either.

    She switched on the shield and brought it up gradually to full power. Her face, impassive when she tried the weapon, lost its stern lines for a moment.

    Then she tried to swing the shield around to face me. For an instant she looked incredulous; then she shut down and put the shield back on the counter.

    “That’s the problem I have to work on,” I said to her stony silence. “The inertia. Well, the main problem.”

    “Be that as it may…,” the woman said. “Your application is rejected.”

    “Ma’am!” I said. I didn’t know how I was going to go on, so I stopped.

    “There’s no appeal from my decisions,” the woman said. “If you want to go two doors west–” she pointed to her right “–there’s an enlistment office for the army, though the barracks aren’t here in the castle. I don’t give you much chance there either, to be honest, but that’s none of my business.”

    “I don’t want the bloody army!” I said, hanging my equipment back on my belt. The weapon wasn’t hot enough to really burn me, though the point against my thigh reminded me that it’d been run at maximum recently.

    “Since you’re a Maker…,” she said, not quite so harshly this time. “The Commonwealth has much work for your skills. I can direct you, or perhaps Master Guntram would introduce you to Louis himself?”

    I felt my lips work and wished that I’d turned away. “Ma’am,” I said, “I came to Dun Add to be a Champion. If I can’t be a Champion, then I’ll go back to Beune. I can be a Maker there, just like I have been these twenty years–”

    More like ten that I’d really been a Maker.

    “–and I can live with folks I like and who like me. But thank you for your time.”

    I turned and started out. At least the gush of anger had swathed my aches and pains. They’d be back with a vengeance after I cooled down, but at least it’d get me out of the building and heading with Buck down to the landing place.

    “Pal?” said a voice beside me, and I remembered that Guntram was holding my pack. I’d been blind with my thoughts and the hint of tears behind them.

    “Sorry, sir,” I said, standing straight and meeting the old man’s eyes. I reached for the pack.

    He swung it aside. “I told you my quarters are above this hall,” he said. “I’d be pleased to have your company overnight. I have a device which might help your bruises as well.”

    I was going to refuse and go on out the door, but another wave of dizziness hit me. I closed my eyes, then opened them fast. I was going to topple onto the stone floor if I wasn’t careful. My sense of balance was fouled up; just for a day or two, I hoped.

    “That’s very good of you,” I said. I wondered if it was the old man’s kindness that had brought on the dizzy spell. I hadn’t earned it, that I knew.” I guess it’d be best if I didn’t go back on the Road today like I’d figured to do. And if you can do something about the bruises, that would be really good.”

    “This way,” Guntram said and led me through a side door that turned out to be a staircase.

    I worried a bit about Buck, but he wasn’t a pampered lapdog. He’d been hard places before–if that thing from Not-Here had come for me instead of flowing back into the Waste, Buck would’ve joined me and the sixty square yards of Jimsey’s brush in the creature’s gut.

    Right now, my biggest problem was climbing three flights of stairs. Which I managed, thank God.



    “I’m sorry it’s such a climb,” Guntram said, “but I wanted to be out of the way. Sometimes I make noises or lights that would disturb people.”

    “Nobody lives very close on Beune,” I said, trying not to gasp as I spoke. “Except family, you know. I didn’t start really working with things till after dad had died. As a Maker, I mean. Mom and I never talked about it. I think she was sort of proud, but she walked away whenever she found me in a trance.”

    Once I’d come out of working with a piece I never did get to do anything and found a pasty and a mug of ale on the floor beside where I was lying. From the slant of the sunlight, I’d been three or four hours at it. Mom must’ve tip-toed in and left the food for whenever I was ready to eat it.

    I smiled at the memory. Guntram was looking back at me from the top of the stairs. He’d stopped at a door.

    “You’re feeling better?” he said as he pulled the latch and pushed the door open.

    “I am,” I said. Just chatting with somebody about being a Maker was a wonderful thing, the first time in my life that I’d done it. “But what I was thinking about was a piece that I’m sure is something but I could never get it to do anything. I added every element I could think of–it took a lot of carbon and some silica, but not even a whiff of iron. It never even hinted at coming live. If it had, I could maybe have figured out what was missing.”

    “Do you still have it?” Guntram said, leading me in. He moved his left hand; panels of light bloomed in the walls, just like downstairs in the lobby. Here I was looking out over a huge forest with the top of a stone building rising through the green like an upturned thumb. Our viewpoint might be from a building like that one or just a very high tree.

    “It’s somewhere back at the house in Beune,” I said. “In the barn, I guess. Unless Gervaise’s done something with it, but I don’t figure he would.”

    I’d be living there again shortly, working for Gervaise, I guess. He’d let me live there anyhow–he didn’t need the house, it just came with the land. Besides, he and his family were friends.

    “Ah, sir?” I said. “I wonder…?”

    “Call me Guntram,” he said firmly. “Yes, what do you wonder about?”



    I laughed. I half wished I hadn’t, then, because of the jab in my ribs, but talking to Guntram was relaxing me.

    “Well, really a lot of things,” I said, gesturing with my left hand in a broad arc. “But what I was going to say was the windows.”

    I pointed. “I thought they might be paintings, but then I saw a bird fly across.”

    “They’re windows onto nodes where the sun is up when it’s night here,” Guntram said. “There are eleven of them in the castle, and I don’t know of any that exist elsewhere.”

    He smiled. “I suspect that if there were more of them known, Jon would have brought them here. They show different locations at different times of day, but I’ve never heard anyone identify the image as something he saw in real life along the Road.”

    “They’re bigger than any Ancient pieces in Beune,” I said. “A lot bigger.”

    Guntram smiled. “That one,” he said, pointing to the window on the left, “was the size of my palm when it was brought to Dun Add. The other one–”

    He pointed again.

    “–was about half that size. I spent months in growing them, months. But a lot of that was in coming to understand the structure.”

    “Sir!” I said. Then I said, “Guntram, can you teach me to do that?”

    “Yes, I could,” he said. He wasn’t a boastful man, but I could tell it pleased him that I understood just how amazing the thing was that he’d told me. “But we’d have to find the seed piece first. If you find one, bring it here and we’ll explore it together.”

    For a moment my mind was lost in thinking about the many bits and pieces of Ancient artifacts that I’d amassed over the years but hadn’t repaired. Mostly I’d decided they were too fragmentary to be worth the effort, but with a few I just hadn’t been able to figure out the purpose. Would I have been able to recognize a chip from a window like those above me?

    Guntram was looking at me, waiting for me to speak. I blushed. “I’ll do that,” I said. “I surely will.”

    To the right of the door was a piece that looked like a shiny blue mirror. It vanished, then reappeared, time after time. It seemed to cycle about every five seconds.

    I stepped closer and entered it with my mind. It was slipping between Here and Not-Here. I couldn’t tell where it had been manufactured, and I didn’t have any notion what it was really meant to do.

    I guess it was discourteous to slip into a trance that way, but come to think–that was what Guntram had done when we first met, checking out my shield. At any rate, he was still smiling when I looked up.

    “You have a lot of things from Not-Here,” I said, looking at the egg-crate shelves on that wall. I was pretty sure that most of the artifacts there were partial, but it’s hard to be sure of that–especially when they’re from Not-Here–without actually going into them. Even if I’d been willing to do that, there were just too many things to get into in less than a week.

    “You recognize them,” Guntram said. He sounded approving. “Do you find them in Beune?”

    “In the neighborhood,” I said. “Not very much shows up in Beune itself, but there’s places not very far out in the Waste where I prospect for things. A couple places throw up mostly Not-Here artifacts. I usually can’t do anything with them, but I found a ball that I could make come back to my hand after I threw it.”

    “Really?” said Guntram. “You didn’t chance to bring it with you, did you, Pal?”

    “I’m sorry, Guntram, that was three years ago. I traded it to a peddler who had a bolt of blue cloth that I gave to mom for a dress. She made a really nice dress out of it.”

    We’d buried her in that dress. I sucked my lips in, thinking how much I missed her.

    Turning my head a little, I said, “Trade is what I do mostly with stuff from Not-Here. There’s a place not far up the Road toward Gunnison. I lay pieces out there and come back in a week or two. Sometimes they’ll be gone and there’s artifacts from Here instead. And once–”

    I fished out the coin I wore around my neck on a thong and handed it to Guntram.

    “–there were three of these where I’d left a plate that didn’t seem to do anything. They were gold and silver mixed. I kept the one for a lucky piece.”

    Guntram handled it and looked up at me. “Do you have any idea what the markings are?” he said.

    “No,” I said. “It seems to be a cross on one side and a star with a lot of points on the other, but it’s so worn that’s just a guess.”

    Guntram carried the coin over to a littered table, then squatted to look for something on a shelf. He came up with a round, flat object and wiped the dust off on the sleeve of his robe.

    When he set the coin on top of the flat thing, an image in bright green light appeared above the metal. It was not only bigger than the coin, the image was as sharp as if it had just been struck. It was a woman’s face, straight on. She was sticking her tongue out, and instead of hair she had snakes writhing from her head.

    “I don’t recognize it either,” said Guntram. He looked up toward one of the windows he’d created, but it seemed to me he was thinking about things more distant than the rolling waves of treetops.

    Guntram cleared his throat and said, “I offered to help with your injuries, Pal. If you’ll come here, please, and lie down?”

    He walked to the end of the big room and moved a pile of fabric off what turned out to be a broad couch and set it on the floor. I’d thought the fabric was bedding, but it shimmered when it moved and I wasn’t sure that all of it was Here.

    “Am I taking your bed?” I said. “Because I slept worse places on the Road than your floor here. I don’t mind doing it again.”

    “No, no, you’re helping me test this,” Guntram said. “Just lie down and I’ll move the cover piece over you. I won’t put it over your head, though I think that would be all right.”

    I leaned my pack against the side of the couch and lay down on my stomach. The surface had a little give, like a pile of fresh hides.

    “Now just hold where you are…,” Guntram said and did something at the end of the couch. He brought a clear sheet out of the mechanism and drew it up till it covered my shoulders. I expected it to snap back when he let go, but it just lay over me. My skin felt a little warm, like I’d been in the sun too long.

    “How does this feel?” he asked.

    “Well, not bad,” I said. The muscles in my back stopped aching, and my forearms were relaxing too. I moved my arms slightly; the pain was a lot less.

    “It’s good,” I said. “This really does help.”

    “I assembled this couch from three partial units,” Guntram said. “Joining the parts took me as many hours as I spent on both those windows together, so I’m very pleased to have finally be able to test it. Thank you, Pal.”

    I stretched my legs and feet out as straight as they’d go. That meant scooting up the couch a little or my toes would’ve pushed the cover sheet down.

    “Guntram?” I said, wriggling my torso a little in pleasure at not being in pain. “Granted my shield didn’t work and I got banged up a lot worse than most warriors would, if they’re really sparring out there they’re going to get bruised. Even at 20%. Why didn’t you ask one of Jon’s warriors to test your bed?”

    “I don’t know whether they don’t trust me…,” Guntram said. “Or if they don’t trust the Ancients. I offered the use of the couch as soon as I’d completed it, but nobody was willing to try. Eventually I almost forgot I had it.”



    “More fools them,” I said. I took a deep breath and rolled onto my back. No jolt of pain grabbed me. When I rubbed my ribs where Easton had jabbed I could feel a bit of discomfort, but nothing more than I’d have gotten if I’d walked into the corner of a bench in my workshop.

    “I tried it myself, of course,” Guntram said. “It doesn’t seem to have any effect on old age.”

    I looked at him hard because of what I heard in his voice, but his face was in shadow from the windows. I wondered how old he really was.

    “Shall I get up now, sir?” I said. “I mean, is it all right if I look around at your things now?”

    “I have no more information than you do, Pal,” Guntram said, “but I can’t see that it would harm you.”

    He cleared his throat and added, “Speaking personally, I’m pleased to have someone to show my collection to. My gleanings, rather. I’m glad to be alone most of the time, but I occasionally find myself regretting that I’m alone all the time.”

    I rose and looked at what appeared to be a stuffed lizard some three feet long, which hung nearby by wires from the ceiling. It seemed out of place among the shelves of Ancient technology.

    I probed it with my mind and found nothing. Not corn husks, not cotton batting, not dried peas: nothing. I looked at Guntram.

    “It’s a machine, as you suppose,” he said. “It snaps at flies. I suppose I should have warned you not to wave your finger in its face.”

    “People who do that deserve to lose their fingers,” I said. “But I don’t see the mechanism. Or anything.”

    “The mechanism is in Not-Here,” Guntram said. “I don’t know how or why the Ancients created a perfect linkage between Here and Not-Here. I don’t even know if the Ancients were from Here or were not. It seems rather a pointless toy, though an amazing one.”

    I looked at Guntram. “There’s other Makers in Dun Add,” I said. “The clerk at the enlistment counter said there were. Why are you alone?”

    “There are at least twenty Makers working in Dun Add,” Guntram said, nodding. “They’re under Louis, who is by far the best Maker I’ve ever met. The best I can imagine ever being born. I trained him, so I should know.”

    “But if there’s so many,” I said, “then–did you fight with Louis?”

    “Nothing so dire,” said Guntram. He picked up a small cylinder from a shelf, then put it back.

    “A communicator,” he said idly. “If I could find another one, I believe we could accomplish amazing things. Speak all the way across the universe, even.”

    I didn’t speak. Whatever had cut Guntram off from the general society of Dun Add was none of my business. I was sorry I’d asked.

    He looked at me. “Jon believes in unifying Mankind in order and justice,” he said. “Louis believes in that goal as strongly as Jon does, perhaps more so. They met when they were quite young and rose together to where they are now. They believe.”

    “Yes sir,” I said. I was standing straighter without being aware of it. “I believe that too. That’s why I came to Dun Add.”

    “Yes, I recall you saying that,” Guntram said. He looked to the side. There was a sort of smile on his face, but it seemed sad.

    “Guntram?” I said. “Don’t you believe that?”

    He met my eyes. “What I believe, Pal,” he said, “is that things were and things are and things will be. That’s all that I feel sure of.”

    I nodded to show that I’d heard him. There wasn’t anything I was willing to say.

    “Pal?” Guntram said. “Do you ever wonder who built the Road?”

    “Built the Road?” I said. That was like asking me who built dirt. “Sir, I don’t–I didn’t, think anyone built it. God built it. Didn’t he?”

    Who could build the Road? Who…?

    “Have you ever examined the structure of the Road as you would–”

    Guntram picked up a device from the table beside him. It was a block the size of a walnut in its husk. Tubes came out in three directions.

    “–this color projector, for example?”

    “I tried,” I said. Of course I had. When I first realized I was a Maker, before I even knew the word Maker, I’d looked at the structure of everything around me. The Waste had a grain, so to speak, a direction; but the Road had nothing at all. The Road just was. “I wasn’t able to.”

    “And yet the Road exists,” Guntram said. “It joins all the portions of the universe, Here and I believe Not-Here.”

    “Sure the Road is Not-Here,” I said. “Beune used to be Not-Here a long time ago. There’s a layer deep down in mines where I can feel rock that had been Not-Here once. And I think that in the Waste, there are places that used to be Here but aren’t any more.”

    “I’ve never travelled to the Marches,” Guntram said. “Perhaps I should, but there’s so much here to occupy me.”

    His fingers drifted idly across the shelves before him. “People bring me artifacts,” he said. “Bring them to Jon or Louis and they pass them on to me if they don’t see any use or aren’t interested in the use. They keep the weapons, of course. But there may be things out there which wouldn’t interest anyone but me.”

    I sniffed in self-disgust. “I was a fool to think that my weapons would be of any use in Dun Add,” I said. “I see why everybody thought I was crazy.”

    “Umm…,” Guntram said. “No, not crazy, but certainly ignorant. You’d never fought anyone before?”

    “Not really,” I said.

    “And you didn’t have a practice machine which would have allowed you to practice without a human partner,” Guntram went on. “They’re fairly common. There’s over a hundred in Dun Add, and there are others elsewhere. But not on Beune, I gather.”

    “No,” I said. “I’ve heard of them, but I don’t know where the nearest to Beune would be.”

    “If you’d had any practice,” Guntram said, “you’d have realized that with your shield at full power, it was unable to protect you at an opponent who was able to move. In a line of men at arms, you might have been all right. If you wanted to join the regular army…?”

    He raised an eyebrow.

    “I don’t,” I said firmly. “I want to go home.”

    “As you wish, of course,” said Guntram, nodding. “In single combat, though, your only chance would be to land a blow. That would mean with your shield off or at very low level. Even in a sparring match, that would mean taking a bad drubbing before you were able to strike.”

    I snorted. “I got the drubbing anyway, didn’t I?” I said. “And didn’t land a blow.”

    “Yes, that’s true,” Guntram said. He walked over to my shield and touched it with his fingertips. “This is a wonderful piece of work, though. And even more wonderful as a work of imagination.”

    “It’s crap for fighting, though, which is what I needed it for,” I said. I was shocked at how angry I sounded. For as far back as I could remember–for as long as I’d been aware of more of the world than the sides of my cradle–I’d dreamed of being a Champion. Of being a Hero of Mankind.

    “Sorry,” I muttered. “I’m a bigger fool than anybody I met realized. Even bigger.”

    “Can I offer you something to eat, Pal?” Guntram said, obviously embarrassed. He took his hands away from my shield.

    “No sir,” I said. “But if you could give me a place to sleep for the night, I’ll get out of your life the first thing in the morning. A patch of floor is good enough.”

    “I can do better than that,” Guntram said, leading me to the opposite end of the room. “Though you’ll have to help me clear away the things lying on top of the bedding.”

    We cleared a proper bed. Guntram’s couch had healed my aches and pains, but it had left me feeling as tired as if I’d spent all day climbing a mountain. I was asleep almost the instant my head hit the rolled pack I was using as a pillow.

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