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The Spark: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, October 16, 2017 21:14 EDT



An Unnamed Place, to Begin With

    Baga called, “We’re here!” and took his hands off the panel he leaned against while he was controlling the boat. I was already up and alert because the boat had warned me we were about to arrive.

    Baga walked over to the door, which he said I ought to call a hatch. He looked at me and said, “You’d better be ready, Pal. We don’t know what there’s going to be out there waiting for us.”

    “I’m ready,” I said. I held up my shield and weapon.

    In fact I did know what was outside, because the boat had showed me: three big maple trees; brush and saplings; and two long rectangles laid end to end which I supposed were the pods dropped by the other boat. They did look pretty much like the rooms on both sides of our boat’s central aisle. One was open and empty; the other was closed.

    I didn’t tell Baga and Frances that the boat showed me things. They’d ask questions about how I did it, which I couldn’t answer. I suppose it was because I was a Maker, but I don’t know that; I sure couldn’t tell them how I did it. I don’t like to chatter when there’s no point in it, but I’ve learned that an awful lot of people don’t feel the same way as I do.

    Baga pushed the hatch open. Buck jumped out, waggling his tail, and I followed behind with my arms lifted as if I was ready to switch my equipment on and fight.

    Well, I was ready. But I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to.

    The air was so wet that I thought it must be raining, but it was just a mist so thick that water beaded on my face as I walked out into it. The trees were dripping, and the limbs and trunks were shaggy with moss and ferns.

    “Those are the pods!” Frances shouted from behind me. “Eloise! Where are you?”

    “Stop!” I shouted. I’d been walking toward the pods myself, and I’d gotten close enough to identify the thing Buck was sniffing at: a short boot.

    The two bones of a lower leg still stuck up from the boot-top. They’d been sheared through and the meat stripped off.

    Frances did stop, but at her shout the door of the closed pod lifted slightly. A woman called, “Frances, is that you? Is it safe?”

    At that Frances scampered past me, calling, “Oh, Eloise! Are you all right?”

    I was trying to look in all directions. I didn’t see anything to worry about.

    A big drop water slipped off a maple leaf and whacked me in the middle of the forehead when I looked up. That was a lot better than seeing a panther ready to jump down from a branch, but it sure startled me.

    The pod popped completely open. The woman who crawled out was draggled, but she still was beautiful when she lifted her face and saw Frances. She was pretty like the best kind of spring day. Lady Hellea was beautiful, but her beauty was like the patterns the sun draws on a frozen creek.

    Frances ran to her. Eloise stood up, but she’d have fallen back if her sister wasn’t hugging and holding her.

    It was gloomy in the mist, but I could see the sun up there at mid-sky–a fuzzy ball through the maple branches. It wasn’t really cold either, though the beads of water on my skin made it feel that way.

    “Oh, Frances!” Eloise said. “It’s been so awful! The most terrible things have happened!”

    “Ma’am?” I said. “What did happen? Is that–” I gestured with my right toe “–the guard who was with you?”

    “Ooh, I hate that!” Eloise said with a glance at the boot and a theatrical shudder. “Well, we woke up in the morning, I woke up, and Jeffries was shouting and banging on my door. I was afraid to open it but I finally did, and we weren’t in the boat!”

    I was coming to think that Eloise didn’t so much act theatrical as she was theatrical. It wasn’t something she put on, it was like her blond hair and pretty face. I’ve known men who found that breathless enthusiasm just as appealing as they would the face and hair, too.

    “Why did they do that, Pal?” Frances said. “Leave the pods behind instead of killing the guard and then, well, whatever they wanted with my sister?”

    I shrugged. “Camm may not have thought he could handle the guard,” I said. “Or anyway, he wasn’t willing to take the chance. This was simple, and if the boat couldn’t carry more than three nowadays, then leaving off two of the eight pods didn’t make much difference.”

    I didn’t say that however Camm himself felt about it, Lady Hellea sure didn’t want Eloise to get to Marielles. If something went wrong and Philip got a sight of Eloise, Hellea would’ve been out of luck. What would’ve happen to Camm would start at nasty and get worse.

    “What killed that guy?” said Baga, who’d come out but was staying close to the hatch. “If Camm didn’t do it, I mean?”

    “Oh, it was terrible!” Eloise said, stepping away from her sister so that she could give all her attention to the boatman, her new audience. “Everything was fine except, you know, there wasn’t anybody here. We had food from the rooms; it wasn’t very good, but it was as good as it’d been on the way here. Then the day after we got here, Jeffries was making a shelter from his room’s ceiling liner so that we didn’t have to be inside all the time it was raining, and it’s always raining or going to rain. Like it is now! Oh, Frances, its been awful!”

    “Yes, but what happened to Jeffries?” I said. I guess I sounded peevish, though that wasn’t half of what I felt. Eloise cringed back and put the knuckles of both hands to her mouth.

    “Ma’am, I’m truly sorry,” I said as gently as I could. “I’m just worried about keeping you safe. I need to know what danger is if I’m going to do that.”

    “Oh, I forgive you,” Eloise said with a coy smile. “I can never stay mad at anybody.”

    I forced a smile. It was about as fake as the sun at midnight, but it was good enough for the job.

    “Well, it was huge,” Eloise said, spreading her arms wide. “And it came right out of the sky! And Jeffries shouted run for my room and he took his cutter out even though he was wrapped in the liner kind-of. And I ran like he said and closed the room up and it was awful! There was screaming and the room banged and I was afraid it was going to tear open but it didn’t.”

    “What did you do then, Eloise?” Frances said, taking her sister’s hands in her own.

    “Well, Frances, I couldn’t do anything, could I?” Eloise said. “I stayed in my room and waited for Jeffries to tell me to come out. And he never did! He just left me there!”

    I thought about the guard. I’d never met him, but I’d met Duncan and I don’t guess there’d have been a lot to choose between him and Jeffries. I hoped when my time came that I’d behave as well as Jeffries had, buying time for the clueless girl he’d been hired to protect.



    “Look, I think we’d best get out of here,” I said. “We can talk this over in some safer place or we can–”

    Buck started barking as loud as I’ve ever heard him. I looked up and shouted, “Get in the boat now!”

    I was switching on my shield and weapon, so my last words may’ve been blurred as I left Here. I figured Baga and Frances had sense enough to see the situation. Frances would drag her sister along with them.

    The creature must’ve been coming out of the Waste, since there wasn’t enough sky over this little node for it to live in. You could tell that the Road had used to come here but it’d withered away from the lack of traffic. The thing dropping down on me was probably the reason for that. It was either a dragon or what people meant when they talked about a dragon.

    I don’t know if the dragon had wings or just things that looked like wings but were for something else in the Waste. Its head was scaly but shaped like a dog’s, and the teeth along the sides of its open mouth were made to shear instead of just punch holes. I guess what I was seeing now was the last thing Jeffries saw.

    It was huge, all right. Eloise had been right about that. Either of the leathery wings was the size of the biggest marquee in Beune, the one Elder Trainor hired out for weddings in bad weather, and the body was twice the size of a bull’s.

    I clucked to Buck and we shifted around to the right, keeping close to the dragon. I thought its rush would carry it past us, but I forgot its head was on a long, snaky neck. That snapped around to take me but met my shield instead.

    The shock knocked me backward, but I didn’t lose my footing. I didn’t swing at the dragon while I was off balance, but when I was solid again Buck and I went in from the dragon’s quarter. I cut at the base of its left wing, but my weapon slashed the rippling hide back of where I’d meant to. The dragon was moving faster than I’d judged. Buck and I dodged back out and started to circle.

    Quickness was the big advantage of fighting with a dog. Dogs sense their surroundings a lot better than people do, so you move faster in a fight.

    The dragon twisted and came at me again, but this time before it hit it spread its wings and drove both clawed feet out in front like a hawk striking. I blocked the right with my shield. Because I was ready this time, my counterstroke cut two talons off the other foot and left a third dangling. It slammed me back, sure, but I wasn’t off balance.

    The dragon jerked away. I was breathing hard but I wheezed, “C’mon, Buck,” and we went straight at it.

    The dragon lifted above us. I thought it was going to swoop down again and maybe at first it meant to, but when it saw I was coming toward it with my shield raised, it kept on lifting and shrank into the Waste.

    I started to go after it, but then I remembered why I was here. I called to Buck and circled around to where the boat was.

    I shut off my weapon and shield, then knelt on one knee and took deep breaths. I expected my equipment to be hot because I’d been using it hard, but it hadn’t heated up a bit. The wet air didn’t condense on the weapon, but it wasn’t sizzling off the metal either. The shield wasn’t any harder to shift around than a short length of broomstick would’ve been, but it’d blocked the dragon’s charge.

    I leaned forward and worked on getting my breath under control. “Master Pal.” said Frances from behind me. “Are we safe now?”

    “I guess,” I said. I tried to concentrate on the question.

    Buck was bouncing around making little yips. He was still keyed up from the fight, no mistake, but I was sure he’d give warning if the dragon came back or if its mate did.

    I hadn’t hurt the dragon too bad, but I once scraped along my ribs by falling out of a tree. I’d cut the dragon deeper than I’d torn myself then, and believe me! I wasn’t moving fast for a couple weeks after my scrape.

    I got to my feet and put the shield and weapon back in my pockets. I looked at the others for the first time since the dragon swooped down.

    Eloise suddenly bleated something and threw herself into my arms. “Oh, Lord Pal!” she said. “I was so afraid! And you killed the monster!”

    “Careful, ma’am,” I said, holding her where she was by the shoulders and stepping back. “I’m still a bit wobbly.”

    “And you, Eloise dear,” said Frances in a voice like a bite of green apple, “have a prince waiting for you. I don’t think he’d approve. That is, if you still want to go through with marrying Prince Philip?”

    Eloise looked at her sister wide-eyed. “Why of course I’m going to marry Prince Philip!” she said. “Why wouldn’t I marry him?”

    I could come up with plenty of answers to that question myself, but I don’t suppose any of them would matter to Eloise. In truth I didn’t know of anything against Philip himself except that he was weak and not over smart. Except for the people Philip had around him, he and Eloise were pretty well suited.

    I grinned at Frances and said, “You know, I think they’ll be about the handsomest couple anybody ever saw.”

    “Yes,” said Frances. She didn’t smile, but maybe I wouldn’t have been grinning either if it’d been my sister in the mess.

    “Look, we’ve still got a problem,” I said. “We can get back to Marielles and have the wedding sure enough, but what then? Unless Philip has gotten a lot smarter since we left there, he’s not going to believe Hellea was behind this business–”

    I waved at the pods, both of them open now. It struck me that I wanted to bury Jeffries’ foot, or his boot anyway. It was all I could do unless I wanted to chase the dragon down and finish it off for a real monument.

    “–and I don’t guess Lady Hellea’s going to retire just because she lost this round. I’d suggest you both go back to Holheim and think about this for a while.”

    “No!” cried Eloise with a horrified expression.

    Just then Buck started barking again. I looked up but it wasn’t the dragon coming back, it was another boat coming out of the Waste to settle on the other side of ours. I didn’t need the pieces missing from its near side where the pods had been to know that Camm had come back.

    I took out my weapon and shield. “Baga,” I said, “you and the women get aboard your boat. If things don’t work out the way they should, you take ’em wherever Frances says. My choice’d be Holheim, but I’ll be past making choices by then.”

    I met Frances’ eyes. “Lady Frances,” I said. “I’d appreciate if the boat stuck around as long as I’m standing. I guess you can convince the boatman to do that?”

    “Yes,” she said. She reached under a fold of her skirt and came out with the little knife.



    “I’m staying here for the view,” Baga said. “And I don’t need a woman to keep me from running out on a mate. You women can get in the boat.”

    I didn’t have time to see how that would play out. I switched on my equipment and stepped toward the other boat just as its hatch started to open.



    The first thing out through the hatch was a dog: stocky, furry, black and tan. It was a chow or a chow mix.

    I’ll admit that my first thought was to take its head off before the warrior was out of the boat to protect it. That would’ve been my safest move, but if I had to kill a dog that way to stay alive, well… I didn’t want to wake up every morning with the guy who’d done that thing.

    I wasn’t going to cut my own arm off to be fair, though. The tall warrior I’d seen with Camm on Marielles stepped through the hatchway, and I went straight for him.

    I knew that Baga hadn’t been able to see outside the boat until he’d opened the hatch, so I was pretty sure that Camm couldn’t either. The warrior was ready for trouble, sure, but he wasn’t expecting it. He sure wasn’t expecting me to come at him before his foot hit the ground outside.

    He got his shield up and took my first cut, but the shower of sparks at the contact meant that circuits in the shield were burning out. He jumped left, getting clear of the hatch and giving whoever was inside a chance to join him.

    I had to ignore the reinforcements for now. This guy was the most dangerous man I’d seen on Marielles. If I didn’t take him out quick, I might as well hand Lady Eloise over to Camm right now.

    I tried to get on his right, but he turned inside me and thrust for my chest. I think my new shield would’ve stopped it, but I reacted the way I’d trained on Guntram’s machine and slid his stroke to the side with my own weapon.

    What Guntram said was true: I could use Buck’s mind to predict the warrior’s movement the same as I had with the machine images. I didn’t think about it, it just happened the way I’d practiced every day for a month.

    Camm came out of the hatch, his shield and weapon live but without a dog of his own. He could use the chow, but it wouldn’t react to him the way it did its own master.

    But the chow’s master was the present problem. Camm wasn’t rushing straight in the way he should have.

    The warrior thrust again, this time at my head. I ducked behind my shield and slashed at his leading leg. His weapon glanced off; mine sheared through the lower edge of his shield and deep into his leg bones.

    The warrior toppled forward. I turned to Camm. I was breathing hard and wondering how good he was. He screamed and ran at me, holding his weapon high. I thrust, bursting his shield and tearing a hole in his chest.

    I faced the hatch. “Come on out!” I shouted. I didn’t know what was inside. The boat’s structure was a black silhouette cut from the view through my weapon. “Come out or I’ll come in for you and you won’t have a chance to give up if I do!”

    Buck was ready to charge in with me, but we’d be taking a chance. I’d have to shut down my shield, and that’d leave me open to anybody waiting inside with a bow. I was about to do it anyway–my blood was up–when Frances walked in front of me and stepped into Camm’s boat.

    After a moment Frances came back. She stood in the doorway and raised her hands straight up in the air. I probably could’ve heard her if she’d shouted, but I read her as the sort of person who didn’t raise her voice except when she was really angry. I’d seen that–heard it–when she was talking to Lady Hellea.

    I shut off my shield and weapon, then kneeled down. Frances walked over close enough that I could see her feet without raising my head. She said, “I opened the pods that were closed. There’s no one in the boat.”

    “Thanks,” I said. I kept filling my lungs and breathing out. In a bit I’d stand up, but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. “That was a crazy risk, though.”

    “Walters said it was just him and Camm in the boat,” Frances said. “And Ajax, his dog. I wasn’t sure the dog was going to let me put a tourniquet on Walters’ leg, but Walters calmed him down and I did before he bled out completely. We should get him to a surgeon. Unless you plan to leave him here.”

    I lurched to my feet and put my weapon and shield away. Boy, I sure hoped the dragon didn’t decide this’d be a good time to come back, because it truly would be–from the dragon’s point of view.

    “We’ll get him to a surgeon,” I said. “On Marielles, I guess, unless you’ve changed your mind?”

    “Eloise hasn’t,” Frances said. “I think this–”

    She gestured in the direction of Camm’s body without taking her eyes off mine.

    “–makes our job easier, mine at least.”

    She cleared her throat and went on, “Master Pal, I was angry when Master Guntram fobbed me off with you instead of a real Champion. I was wrong and I apologize.”

    “Thank you, ma’am,” I said. I was feeling dizzy. I wanted to sit down, but I didn’t want to do that until we were away from here. “And it’s both our job, getting Eloise safe to Marielles. That’s what I signed on for.”

    I looked around. The others were all watching me, except for Walters who seemed to be unconscious. The chow lay down beside Walters, then got up and walked in a circle around him before lying down again.

    “Load up our boat and we’ll leave for Marielles as quick as we can,” I said. “We’ll talk on the way about how we handle things there.”

    “That mean the dog too?” Baga said. “That guy’s dog, I mean?”

    “Yeah, our boat’ll handle the load fine,” I said. I expected more discussion, but everybody just nodded and got on with the job. Even Eloise.

    I walked over to the other boat and put my hand on the hull. “Boat,” I said, “I’ll be back and fix you up. If I can, I mean. Things may get tricky at Marielles, but I figure they’ll work out.”

    The boat said, “Your boat told me that you would. Your boat says that in a hundred thousand years, it never had such a master as you.”

    That made me feel funny, to be honest. I’d been decent to the boat, sure, but no more than I’d been to Buck or my neighbors. If that made me special, then the world was a worse place than it ought to ‘ve been.

    “Well, wish me luck,” I said.

    I also wondered about that “hundred thousand years.” I knew the Ancients were, well, ancient… But a hundred thousand years?

    I went back to the others and helped Baga lift Walters into the boat. Ajax walked along with us stiff-legged and growling, but he curled up beside Walters in the room where we laid him down.

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