The Spark – Snippet 09

“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?”

“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.