The Spark – Snippet 04

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–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.