The Spark – Snippet 43
CHAPTER 19: The Tournament
They’d rung a gong at six in the morning, but by then all the seventy of us qualified Aspirants were in the refectory eating whatever we each thought was a good idea. I had a plate of scrambled eggs, but I left the bacon in the serving tray.
I got Buck and straggled down to the jousting ground. I knew some of the guys around me, but nobody talked much. I just wanted it to be over. I’d been right to eat something, but the eggs were bouncing around in my stomach. Buck was edgy too, but he was probably getting it from me.
A big tent was set up at each corner of the jousting ground. A pair of Champions–not clerks, as I’d expected–were handing out colored wooden chits with numbers on them as Aspirants came down the path from the castle. I got a green one with a 4 on it. Others got white, blue, and red.
“Green’s the far side of the field, to the right,” said the man who handed me the chit. He took the next one off the table behind him. I trudged toward the distant tent, feeling very alone. Reaching down, I rubbed Buck behind the ears.
There were already three Aspirants in the tent. There were chairs and a table with pitchers of water.
Another Champion was in charge–this time somebody I knew, Morseth, who’d backed me in my first fight with Easton. I didn’t figure he’d remember me, but when I walked in he smiled and said, “Good to see you again, kid. I hear you’ve got better hardware this time.”
“Yes sir,” I said, “but that wouldn’t be hard, would it?”
I took out my gear and handed first the shield, then the weapon, to Morseth to look at while the others in the tent watched us bitterly. To them, I was one of the Elect. In my own head, I was the kid from Beune about to face warriors from more sophisticated parts of Here. Just about everywhere was more sophisticated than Beune.
I suppose both sides were right. In a few minutes, though, it wouldn’t matter who you knew or where you were from. The jousts were one on one.
A bell rang from some distance away. Morseth stepped to the door in the front side of the tent and looked out. The bell rang again and Morseth waved his right hand high overhead, then turned back to us. About ten of us were gathered in the tent now, each clutching a numbered chit.
“Okay,” Morseth said. “We’re getting started a little early today since there’s people ready in each tent.”
“But we’re not supposed to start until the seven o’clock gong!” said the fellow with holding Number 1. I’d seen him around but I didn’t know his name.
“Yeah, we’re starting early, I said,” Morseth said with a frown. “This way–”
“I’ll go,” I said, loud enough that it surprised me. I held out my chit.
“Suits me, kid,” said Morseth, taking Number 4 from me and jotting something down on the writing pad which hung from the side pole near the door. “You fight the guy from the white tent, that’s straight back toward the castle. Reaves is standing where you’ll meet.”
“Right,” I said. I slipped out as quick as I could. I wanted so bad to get this over! I was afraid that Number 1 was going to change his mind and try to replace me, although I doubt Morseth would’ve let him if he did.
Buck hopped out in front. When I called him he made a quick circle around me before he came back to my side. He’d been jumpy in the tent with many other dogs and nervous men, but now he was excited.
My opponent was trudging toward me, wearing blue and accompanied by a black hound with white paws. When fighters’ shields are on, the other fellow’s features are too blurred to identify
I was in green today. I hadn’t seen many of the Aspirants in green, though I don’t suppose it mattered if I got confused with the fellow I was fighting. At the end out the bout, there wouldn’t be any doubt.
Reaves nodded to me and backed away; I was a little ahead of my opponent. The circled chalked in the grass wasn’t a ring that you lost points if you stepped out of. It was just so you knew where to start.
I stepped over the line and switched on my gear. When blue stepped into the circle, I went straight for him.
Blue circled to his right. I went left and met him square. He cut at me from the side. I couldn’t get my weapon around to block the stroke but I took it in the center of my shield and didn’t feel much of a shock. I cut overhand at him. Circuits blew in his shield but it didn’t fail completely; he back-pedaled.
I followed him fast. He paused and raised his weapon, but I got my own stroke in first. He’d dipped his shield a bit not to interfere with his swing. I brushed his weapon aside and landed pretty solid on his right shoulder. Even at 20% that was a hard crack. Blue dropped his weapon.
I backed away to let him pick the weapon up again. He bent and tried, but the fingers of his right hand wouldn’t close. He tossed his shield down and backed, raising his left arm high. His right dangled.
I shut my shield off.
“Loser, to the Green tent!” Reaves said. “Winner, to the south side, you’ll be reassigned.”
Buck and I walked to the sideline where another champion and a number of spectators waited. I wasn’t nervous any more, but I was very tired; and there were three more of these to go through.
“Let’s see your weapon,” the Champion on the sidelines said. I took mine out and handed it to him. The power dial had a dot of color which would smear if I changed it from 20%. It had rubbed some in my pocket–I hadn’t even thought of that after the bout–but the inspector just handed it back without comment.
“What’s your number?” he asked. I didn’t recognize him.
“Green 4,” I said. Then I said, “I hope I didn’t break his collarbone.”
“Not your problem or mine,” the Champion said. “You’re in White group now.” He pointed to the tent my opponent had come out of. “You’ll be matched from Red next time.”
The next bout was already under way. I didn’t bother to watch it as we walked around the grounds to enter White tent from the back. The Aspirants inside clutching their first-round chits within stared at me, but I ignored them except to nod to Garrett, who was waiting his bout. I drank water–it was that or wine; I’d have preferred ale if there’d been any, but wine wasn’t a possible for me here.
The Champion in charge gave me a triangular white chit marked 1. That seemed kind of silly because I’d just hand it back to him when I went out to fight, but nobody was asking what I thought
This wasn’t an elimination tournament. Somebody who lost his first bout but won the next three could still qualify for an Admissions Bout against a Champion. The tournament allowed for the fact that any warrior could catch a bad break.
I’d done fine. I wasn’t nervous any more, but I was a little sick to my stomach. I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted to be doing with my life. The romance that I’d dreamed of from books was fine, but the reality was pain and hurting other people. Garrett’s dream of having any woman he wanted was at least something real.
I thought of May and felt even sicker.
I hadn’t been paying attention to the fellows going out to fight or the ones coming in the back after their bouts. When I did, I realized that not everybody who’d been with me in the Green tent was now here in White. The original Number 1 wasn’t here, to begin with.
There’s injuries. Of course.
My first opponent, even if I hadn’t broken his collarbone, wasn’t in shape for another round. There’d be concussions and joint injuries, even at 20%.
A gong rang across the jousting ground. Everybody looked at the Champion in the tent with us.
He grinned back. “Second round,” he said. “Who’s Number 1”
I patted Buck to rouse him and got up. “Where do I go?” I asked as I handed over my chit.
“Slant right instead of going straight ahead,” the Champion said. “You’ve got the longer hike this time, but in the third round it’ll be short.”
“I don’t mind the walk,” I said. Buck and I headed toward the fellow coming from the Red tent. The man standing two-thirds of the way down was presumably the Champion who marked the chalked circle.
All I knew about my second opponent is that he hadn’t been crippled in the first round. His tunic was red slashed over blue from the left shoulder to the right hip. From the way he came at me, it was long odds that he’d won his bout, though.
I met his rush shield to shield. He swung overhand. I blocked the blow with my weapon, but I was glad that we were so close. If he’d been able to take a longer swing, the shock would’ve been even worse than what I got–and that was bad enough.
He danced back and I cut at his ankles. He dodged back again, but lifted his weapon for another overhand swing. I didn’t want that to happen–his weapon was bloody powerful–so I rushed him, thrusting for his face.
I didn’t want to hurt Red-and-Blue which I certainly would if the thrust got home, but I was in a fight. I wouldn’t cheat, but I meant to win.
He got his shield up in plenty of time, but sparks flew when my weapon hit it. He backed again but I kept coming, swinging this time at his shield. It wasn’t nearly in a class with his excellent weapon.
Red and Blue was off-balance when he cut again for my head, and the dazzle of sparks as shield circuits failed had him on the edge of panic as well. His blow wasn’t a patch on what I knew he could do, and he didn’t react in time to block my chop at his left ankle.
He went down. His dog, a standard poodle, stood splay-legged between me and his master, barking furiously. I shut down and backed away.
“Winner to the sideline,” said the Champion acting as referee. “Loser to the–say, can you get up, buddy?”
“I don’t know,” my opponent said. He was named Krause. I saw his face now that our shields were down. “I’ll try.”
He got onto all fours as I set off for the sideline, but when he tried to stand he couldn’t put any weight on his left leg. He wobbled for a moment; then two attendants ran past me from the group at the sidelines and put his arms over their shoulders.
I’d put both my opponents out of the tournament. I hadn’t meant to or wanted to, and Krause at least had had a real chance.
But then, so did I and Krause’s initial cut at my head would’ve put me down for the count–or worse. We were expected to do our best, and anybody who didn’t was unfit to represent the Commonwealth.
“What was your number this time?” the Champion asked.
I grabbed a cup in my left hand, then put it down to fill it on the table from the water pitcher in my right. I’d been gripping my shield so hard that the muscles in the palm of my hand were threatening to cramp.