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Ash Wednesday

By Firerose
Page 2 of 14

The low-roofed hexagonal stone building that nestled into the hillside in the grey twilight was typical of any isolated hill farm in the region. Not that she had been inside that many before. Somehow, though, it exuded a subtle air of neglect, disuse, which blended uneasily with the air of smoothness assumed by the man who was now loosening her hands. Inside, the neglect was less subtle. Nothing obviously out of place, but the huge shadowy space that swallowed most of the floor area was bare and impersonal. Few signs of current habitation. No other inhabitants?

Her eager inspection was curtailed when Malar threw back his fur-lined hood. An outlander then? But the smooth-shaven pale face with its compelling brown eyes was unlike any trader she remembered selling trinkets at her father's court. He grasped her chin, forcing her to stand straight and hold her head up. 'Let me look at you then,' he said, minutely scrutinising her features by the light of a candle he was holding unpleasantly close to her face. She flinched away from the concentrated heat on her cheek. He jerked her back, muttering 'Hold still.' In return she sent the first tendrils into his mind, delicately probing before withdrawing abruptly, disoriented by the unexpected images she found and by his rapid awareness of her touch. Few not gifted could sense so acutely. But he made no mention of it, turning away with an odd air of satisfaction.

'Welcome, Tora.' Even with the heavy overlay of sarcasm it seemed a strange thing to say to a slave just purchased for two hundred credits. He stoked up the soot-blackened central stove, its great stone chimney rising straight up to meet the slopes of the roof where the massive beams criss-crossed far above their heads. Then lit the rest of the candles while she sat, frozen with confusion, following him with her eyes.

How could he know her face already? And her true name and house?

Putting aside those questions as inexplicable for the moment, she pondered why he too had lied about his name. Avon. It seemed to suit the arrogant stranger, with his pale subtle face. She had sensed a thinly concealed violence in his mind. Violence but also buried sorrow, fierce as her own grief. A life of fear and running, loss and death.

Avon stood before her with a dish of what the local peasants would no doubt have recognised as food. He had no doubt now that it was as strange to her as to him. Zenia woke with a start and waved the food away wordlessly. But she did not refuse the proffered water, and when she had drunk deeply she poured from the jug and half turned away to rinse her fingers and face. Strangely intimate to watch someone else washing. A woman.

He had not spoken to a woman for ... how long? Even the peasant women on Encatrin were hidden away from strangers' eyes. It was men who tilled the fields, tended the cattle. Even men who haggled over the paltry merchandise at the marketplace. And an offworlder would never get the chance to say a second word to a woman of Zenia's class.

His mind jumped unbidden to the falling bodies he no longer cared to name. He quickly forced the memories away. If he did not get off this planet soon, then he stood little chance of maintaining the luck that had led him to be the only human survivor of Scorpio. And, at least according to Orac, this girl might be his best remaining chance for escape.

Turning back to her, he surprised her picking delicately at the dish of stew. 'Perhaps you'd like to tell me now how you came to be taken by the Federation? In return for the food.'

A long pause followed, before she seemed to decide that saying anything would be less suspicious than silence. 'I was with my mistress.'

'And your mistress's name?'

With a flash of anger she could not hide, she hissed, 'Is not something I'd speak in front of you!' Then, recovering her composure, 'We were sheltering in the hills with all the village that had not ridden out on the raid against the Federation.'

'Go on.'

'We were betrayed. Surrounded. Scores of Federation soldiers flooding in. They killed all the men. Then herded the women across the plateau. Like animals. To the town.' He thought he could guess the reason for her abrupt descent into silence.

No doubt it was an approximation to the truth -- as far as it went. What she had not added was that not one of the raiding party ever came back.

If she was going to persist in the attempt to delude him into considering her simply a serving girl caught up in a war she did not understand this escapade might come to have its amusing side. Her clumsy attempts at the local patois must have convinced the Federation guards, otherwise she would presumably be as dead as the rest of her family. But they did not come close to fooling him. The cultural divisions embodied in shared language had always been an area of fascination. Even more tellingly, perhaps, she clearly had little idea how peasants ate.

He proved to be correct about the amusement value of the situation. Later, as he came out of the bathroom, she fell on her knees at his feet, clutching at the edge of his robe.

'Malar', she said, 'please make it quick.'

The thought that he might want to touch her in her odorous and ragged state seemed ludicrous. 'Understand now -- I'm not interested in that,' he said, pushing her roughly away. She did not turn quickly enough to hide her swift blush.

'What do you want from me?'

'You'll find out. For now, just do as you're told.'

After a while he took pity on her. 'I suppose you could start by having a wash.' He handed her a clean robe, a towel and some of the brown ointment that served as soap. Pushed her into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind her.

 

Safely hidden from the stranger's view, Zenia collapsed on the cold floor, sobbed out tears of mingled anger, shame and confusion. The murder of everyone she had cared about... the way the guards had pawed at her... this morning's humiliation -- these were the images that filled her mind at first. But the way Avon had shuddered with disgust as he pushed her away kept coming back to take their place. What did he want from her?

Eventually no more tears were left. She splashed cold water on her face. Refreshing. Let it cascade down her body, soaking the remnants of her clothes, pooling around her feet. Then stripped, covered as much of her body as she could reach with the harsh soap, scrubbed and scrubbed until her reddening skin forgot the feel of unwanted hands and her mind began to feel cleansed. Slipping on the soft robe continued the soothing process and before she emerged, she took considerable care in drying and braiding her hair in an approximation to the fashion that Tora herself would have worn. If Tora were still alive.

She was rewarded by another long appraising gaze from Avon. And this time it did not stop at her face.

Two

The physical exertion of this new existence was a welcome distraction from those recurrent images that filled her night-time hours and stole her sleep. Avon had set her to cooking and cleaning the farmstead, probably to give her a chance to live up to the 'maid-servant' background. Although he gave little outward sign of suspicion of her story, Zenia did not need to exercise any telepathic powers to realise he was playing with her, waiting for her to make a mistake. Another mistake.

However, since her humiliation that first evening, he had been patient and asked no awkward questions. There were even a few gestures that might have been an apology. First a handful of pins for her hair, then he came back the next evening with a long deep-brown shift dress, nicely cut in a heavy fabric and pinned with a simple white-metal brooch. More the dress of a wife than a servant.

Avon clearly did not lack credits, but he certainly did not earn them by selling produce from his farm. He was no more a farmer than she was a maid-servant, that she was sure. His soft dextrous hands had seen little physical labour, his pale face had avoided the sun. But his true background eluded her. She had lots of fragments but no pattern emerged when she tried to assemble them. Her tentative entries into his mind were met with an overwhelming interest in his supper or the state of his boots. Only one snatch of a greyed image. A kneeling man, face deep scarred, eyes glazed, clutching at Avon's forearms. But the image seemed to carry no emotions. She dared not probe more deeply.

Disturbingly, she had come no closer to understanding what he wanted from her. However he knew her name, this could be no chance purchase -- perhaps he intended to ransom her? Raznan might still be interested in her safety. She shivered. That would just be another kind of slavery.

The clatter of the ladle catching the side of the metal stove before hitting the floor awoke her abruptly from her musings. As she reached down, she noticed that the ladle's fall had unseated one of the wooden blocks of the floor. Glancing quickly around her, some instinct made her prise the loose block up.

From underneath she retrieved a rectangular object, just small enough to lie comfortably in one palm. She turned it over in her hands several times. Oily smooth, more transparent than any crystal, yet oddly warm to the touch. Sharp-edged like a metal implement, but much lighter than a piece of metal of the same size. Her nails made no impression on the hard surface.

'Plastic,' she said wonderingly, recognition coming eventually. She could not recall ever holding any quite like this before. A piece that weight would be very valuable, no doubt Avon's reason for concealing it. Yet, though it had an intrinsic beauty, it did not seem to be designed for personal ornament. What could its function be? If she could figure out a way to escape from the farm in one of Avon's occasional absences, it would serve to buy her food and shelter for several months. But the inner living-area door was solid and always bolted from the outside with two heavy bolts. All she had seen of Avon suggested him to be careful and methodical, so the outer farm door would presumably also be secured. High up in the roof space, far out of reach, the small triangular windows cast their shafts of light in which the dust motes played, mocking her.

Thoughts of escape at present were impractical, anyway. Avon was only just outside, probably drawing water or chopping wood, the thick stone walls carried little sound. Even if she could escape the farm, where could she go? She could only escape those memories in death. Sighing her regret, she replaced the object in its hiding place, kicked over the dust on the floor and got on with her preparations for supper.

***


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