The Spark – Snippet 06

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,” 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’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–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.