The Spark – Snippet 15

“Guntram seemed to be sort of, well, outside things,” I said. “Not really close to Jon, I mean. Is he really important, then?”

“Yes, he’s important,” May said. She led the way into the passage. Turning her head after a few steps, she said, “A lot of people are afraid of him. They think he deals with things from Not-Here. I’ve heard people say that he’s really from Not-Here.”

I laughed at that. The echoes made it sound bitter, but it wasn’t.

“Guntram isn’t from Not-Here,” I said.

We were getting near the far end of the passage. I stopped talking for the moment, not because I wasn’t willing to talk about it but because May seemed to want to keep the subject private. She was the one who had to live here.

She nodded to the attendant; he muttered, “Mum,” in reply. We passed out into the sunlight above the town.

“I don’t think he trades with Not-Here either, not from what he said to me,” I resumed. “Maybe he did when he was younger, I don’t know. But I do. Trade with Not-Here, I mean.”

May missed a step, the first time I’d seen her lose her air of friendly self-possession. She said, “I see.” Then she said, “But you said you came to Dun Add to fight for Mankind?”

“For Mankind,” I said. “But that’s not the same as ‘against Not-Here and the things from Not-Here.'”

“But they’re our enemies!” May said. “They want to kill us!”

I shrugged. “Some do, I guess,” I said. “There’s plenty of stories about people getting slaughtered on the Road when they meet a Beast, and some of what comes in from the Waste may be out of Not-Here too. But there’s plenty of stories about people meeting a Beast and killing it, too. Maybe they were just lucky, and maybe they’re the reason Beasts are likely to go for the first punch when they meet people.”

We’d gotten through the town by now. There’d been people who spoke to us and May had nodded back, but I hadn’t paid much attention. I’d dreamed of Dun Add for as long as I could remember, but now all I really cared about was getting home and forgetting about it.

Forgetting about all my dreams, I guess. It seemed that I’d be better off that way.

“Anyway,” I said, “I trade by leaving stuff out where they’ll find it and they leave stuff out for me. I don’t know what the things I put out is really worth, and I don’t guess they know any more about theirs. I’ve never been able to make anything from Not-Here work, so it’s not worth anything to me. But I think we’re both being honest. Both sides, I mean.”

“I’d never heard of trading with the Beasts,” May said, not looking at me. She hadn’t drawn away–we were all through walking abreast on the path, with Buck in the middle–but I could tell I’d shocked her.

“I don’t know who I’m trading with,” I said. “I’ve never seen them. But they’re from Not-Here, that I’m sure of. And neither of us gives the other any problems.”

We were back to the landing place again. One of the nearer jewelry sellers waved a gewgaw and called, “Buy a pretty for your pretty, squire!”

He either hadn’t taken a good look at May, or he rated me a lot higher than I did. I chuckled and said, “That’s twice this morning that somebody’s called me squire. I’d better get back home soon or I’ll be getting a big head.”

There seemed to be about fifty people on the landing place this morning. A group of twenty-odd had come in under a guide with a couple attendants. They looked pretty prosperous, but they didn’t seem to be merchants. They weren’t travelling with the kind of baggage that merchants did, anyway.

Across the way, a few warriors were sparring on the jousting ground. I saw the stewards shoo back a couple boys–ten or twelve years old, no more than that–who’d rushed over to see the sparring. I knew how they felt.

“Will you be coming back, Pal?” May asked.

“No, I don’t guess I will,” I said. “I’d thought I had something to offer Mankind, but Dun Add didn’t agree with me.”

I settled my pack a little straighter. “Say,” I said. “Do I have to settle with the herald going in this direction too?”

“No, you just go back on the Road,” May said. She looked at me and said, “I hope you have a safe trip, Pal, and that you have a better time at home than you seem to have had here.”

That won’t be hard, I thought, but I didn’t say that because May had been nice to me. Actually, the only person I’d met here who hadn’t been nice was Easton, and there were bastards at home in Beune too.

Like I’d called the Adversary and he popped up out of the ground, there was Easton. He was wearing blue and orange stripes this morning, and his glittering weapon/shield combination was in the middle of his chest. The control wands withdrew into the module between uses.

One of the attendants who’d been with him when we’d sparred was here again. I remembered seeing the fellow in the castle courtyard when I’d walked across to the stables.

I didn’t have anything to say to Easton, so I looked away. I was trying to figure out whether to speak to May or just to get back on the Road with a nod, when Easton walked up and said, “So, you’re heading back to South Bumfuck, are you, hobby? I guess you’re afraid that I’ll beat you bloody again, hey?”

He didn’t have a dog with him, but he’d come here for a fight….

I got cold. I’d felt a lot of things since I got to Dun Add, most of them bad, but right now I didn’t have any feelings at all. I just wanted to kill this bastard.

“It’s Beune,” I said. I heard my voice trembling, but it wasn’t fear. “And I’m in a hurry to get back there, but I don’t guess I’ll ever be in too much hurry for a fight.”

“Well, that’s a nice surprise!” Easton said. “You want to try it at 40% then? But maybe not, you don’t have Champions to hide behind today!”

I dumped my pack on the ground behind me. “I don’t trust you,” I said, my voice ragged. “We’ll fight full power so you can’t cheat. All right!”

“This is your last fight, hobby!” Easton shouted. “You all heard him! He challenged me at full power!”

“Hey!” shouted someone, probably the herald, but all I could see right now was Easton facing me ten feet away. “You can’t fight here! Take it to the jousting ground!”

“May, hold Buck,” I said. I could barely understand my own voice. Well, May was a smart girl, she’d probably figure out to give Buck to Riki. I couldn’t deal with that now.

I switched my shield on, but just enough to give me a view of the planes we were fighting on. I strode toward Easton.

He shifted right like he had the day before and sent a shimmering cut at my shoulder. There was a little sparkling where his weapon cut my shield but not much because I had the shield at such low power. If anything saved me it was that I was closer than he’d expected when he started his swing.

The blow was like I’d jumped from the castle and landed on the point of my shoulder. Everything went white.

I thrust at the center of mass.

I guess Easton’s shield was pretty good; the Lord knew his weapon was. The module on his chest blew up, not from overload but from taking a stroke meant to drill five feet deep into granite.

I flew backward and landed on the ground. I couldn’t hear anything; I don’t know if it was the explosion making me deaf or where Easton had hit me. I couldn’t feel anything on my left side.

I couldn’t see Easton, but his attendant was still standing close by. His mouth was open in a scream I couldn’t hear and he was wiping at his face. He’d changed his clothes from stripes like his master wore to solid red.

He was wearing his master’s torso. Easton’s legs and head lay on the ground beside the attendant.

The pain was too bad to think, I could just go on with what I’d planned to do. I rolled to my left and stood up. The leg held me but I couldn’t move my left arm.

I dropped the weapon to pick up my shield and hook it. I staggered to my pack and grabbed it. I couldn’t put it on so I dragged it back and picked the weapon up to hook it also. I had a thick leather pad over my right thigh, but I knew I’d have a blister even if the glowing tip didn’t char clear through the leather.

“Come on, Buck,” I said, and he understood at least. I could lift the pack off the ground with my right arm though I didn’t know how long I’d be able to hold it up.

I didn’t see people, just movement. They were running out of my way and I began to hear screams. I wasn’t deaf, then.

People didn’t have any reason to be afraid. I didn’t want to hurt any body, I just wanted to go home. And anyway, my weapon wouldn’t recharge for minutes yet.

Buck and I reached the Road. “We’re going home, boy,” I said but I don’t know if I really got the words out. Buck didn’t need to be told, though.

I don’t know how far we got up the gray blur of Buck’s vision, but it can’t have been far before I knelt and threw up. I got up then and staggered a little farther, just because if I didn’t I’d lie where I was and die.

We didn’t get far, though, certainly not up to the closest inn. I slept on the Road, and if anybody came past they left me alone.

After I woke up, whenever that was, we went on.