The Spark – Snippet 22

CHAPTER 8: The Boat

It’d been a short day up the Road and into the Waste, the same place I’d taken Guntram the first time we’d gone out. Today, though, I figured he’d had enough experience to go out alone with his hedgehog. Worst case, Buck and I could find him if he didn’t wander far. Anyway I hoped we could.

There wasn’t any need. I won’t say, “I shouldn’t have worried,” because nothing’s certain till it’s happened, but Guntram came back in a couple minutes as pleased as punch, his hedgehog wriggling its nose and him waving the artifact he’d found. It was flat and about as big as my thumbnail.

On the way back to Beune we probed the piece and talked. Guntram chattered like I’d never heard him before. I realized that in sixty-odd years working with things that had survived from the Ancients, this was the first time he’d collected one himself.

“Mostly what’s brought in to Dun Add comes from professional prospectors,” Guntram said. “And generally from quite a distance away. Of course we are quite a distance away now.”

“From Dun Add we are,” I said. I was a lifetime away from Dun Add, though Guntram could be back there in a few weeks. I’d say “back where he belonged,” but in truth he seemed fine on Beune and Beune was sure fine with him.

We stepped off the Road. The chip Guntram found didn’t seem much, but we’d take a good look at it this evening. For now I was thinking about bacon and biscuits, washed down with some of Sandoz’ good ale.

The first thing I noticed in the afternoon sunshine was the boat. The second thing was that there was about fifty people around it. I hadn’t seen as many of my neighbors all together since the boat landed when I was fourteen.

Gervaise’ two oldest saw me and Guntram before anybody else did. They started calling, “Pal! Pal! They need you here to fix the boat!”

I turned toward the crowd. Guntram came along with me. We exchanged glances but there wasn’t much to talk about.

Buck doesn’t like crowds. When he whined, I patted him on the ribs and said, “Go on home, boy. Go home!”

Not everybody around the boat knew me, but enough folks did that they cleared a path for me and Guntram up to the front. I said to him, “I guess you’d better handle this, sir.”

“No, Pal,” Guntram said. “I’m a stranger here and I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. I’ll watch you, if you please.”

He smiled–sort of–and added, “You can think of it as a further test, if you like.”

I thought about ways to argue, but I wasn’t going to. Guntram was my guest and he’d expressed his preference clearly. What I’d prefer–letting somebody else handle the business–didn’t matter.

“Sir!” said Gervaise at the front near the boat’s open hatch. “Sir! This is Pal, our Maker!”

The fellow he was talking to had a beaked cap so I figured he was the boatman. He wasn’t near as tall as me, but he was close-coupled and we were about of a weight. He was in his thirties, with red-brown hair and a short beard that was darker brown.

He looked angry and frustrated, which I could understand, but that didn’t justify him looking at me and snarling, “What the hell is this? I need a real Maker, not some hick kid!”

I thought of Easton baiting me; and I thought of my last sight of Easton. I smiled at the boatman and said, “If you weren’t completely ignorant of what a real Maker is, you wouldn’t need one, would you? Why don’t you explain the problem and let me take a look at things. Though if you’d rather bluster like a fool, you’re welcome to do so while I go home and get outside a mug of ale.”

A woman stood in the doorway behind the boatman. She wore a purple dress with puffed sleeves and lots of gilt embroidery around the cuffs and the high waist. In a voice as sneering as her expression she snapped, “Baga! We’re in the Marches, so all we’re going to find is hicks. Since you can’t fix the problem, we’ll see if this fellow can at least get us to somewhere that we can find proper help.”

From the woman’s tone, I was willing to bet that at least some of Baga’s frustration came from being close quarters with her when things were going wrong. I felt a flash of sympathy, which I hadn’t felt for him earlier.

“Baga, get out of the way and let me see him,” the woman said. When the boatman hopped aside, she glared at me and said, “Step closer so that I can get a proper look at you.”

I was about five feet away, as close as I liked to be. She was standing on the boat’s floor, three steps up, so she’d have been looking right down at me if I did like she said. Looking right down her nose, in fact.

“Ma’am,” I said. “My name’s Pal. Coming on like a great lady doesn’t seem to have scared your boat into working right, and I don’t think it’s going to help with me either. Now, if you want to act like a proper person, we’ll see what we can do for you.”

In Dun Add I’d been bossed around by people who gave me little thought and no courtesy. I’d been uncomfortable from the moment I arrived, and their contempt made me feel lower than a snake.

This woman in the boat was more of the same, only here we were on Beune and I was home. I had my neighbors to back me, but I didn’t need backing against a lone woman.

She flared her nostrils at my words. Her nose was long and already bigger than fitted in her pinched face, so that didn’t help her looks. She wasn’t but a little older than me, I guess, but being so sour added twenty years to what I’d thought at first glance.

Now she swallowed whatever was going through her mind. “Master Pal,” she said, “I am Lady Frances of Holheim. If you’ll come aboard this boat, we can discuss your offer of assistance more easily.”

I looked over my shoulder. “Guntram?” I said.

“You appear to have matters under control,” Guntram said. “I’ll look around the outside to see if anything strikes me.”

“All right, Lady,” I said, walking forward. She backed inside ahead of me.

Baga came last and closed the hatch. I hadn’t been expecting that, but after the first little twinge it didn’t matter. I guessed I could handle Baga without the weapon in my pocket–but it was in my pocket.

I’d never been in a boat before. It was like all the best days of my life rolled into one.

We’ve found a lot of artifacts from the Ancients, and more–more than I could even hope to guess–must still be lying in the Waste, waiting to drift to a node or to be pulled out by those of us who look for them. All are in bits and pieces, parts of what they were in the time of the Ancients.

Boats are complete. Oh, they’re worn and they don’t work like they ought to, but they’re at least the bones of what the Ancients meant them to be. I’d always wanted to examine one, and now I wasn’t just being allowed, I was being asked to do just that.