Seeing Avilon’s eyes open, the old woman smiled at him showing off a single, broken tooth. She said some words which he could not understand, at the same time raising the spoon towards his lips. For one jarringly irrational moment, Avilon wondered if the blow to his head had caused left-brain damage, affecting his ability to understand speech. But as she continued in the same reassuring tones, he realised that she was just speaking in a language he did not know.
And that was strange.
More than strange.
Coalition Standard was the common tongue from the most highly advanced planets of Central to the most far-flung, under-developed and over-exploited worlds of the Periphery. As far as Avilon was aware there were only a handful of places which had, by chance – or choice of their colonists in centuries past – developed or adopted a separate separate language, taking Standard as a second tongue. The few such he had ever heard of were outposts in the Periphery, so it was not entirely bad news. At least that meant he was likely to be somewhere his enemies were not going to find him quickly.
The old woman smiled again and clucked encouragingly as if she were trying to feed an infant, pushing the spoon against the barrier of his teeth. He turned his head away and struggled to sit up, his body feeling strangely unwieldy and reluctant to obey. The effort induced a wave of vertigo. He fought down a renewed surge of nausea and forced himself up, freeing his arms from the restrictive blankets.
Avilon had wanted the words to sound assertive, but all that came out was an indistinct rasping sound.
Still holding the spoon in one hand, the old woman tried to press him back down on the pallet, chattering excitedly in a loud whisper as though she did not wish to be overheard. He raised a hand meaning to push her arm away, but the movement was sloppy and ill-coordinated, catching her shoulder with more force than he had intended and sending her toppling over backwards. She started to scream then, calling out in a high pitched wail of fear as she wriggled out of his reach to cower on the far side of the shelter.
Almost instantly a flap of cloth was flung back at the other end of the tent and a young man burst in – more child than man, perhaps in his mid-teens. His head was shaved and he was wearing a strange looking outfit, with a band of small wooden boxes slung over the one shoulder, some kind of projectile firing pistol jammed into his belt and a whip held in one hand. His eyes fixed on Avilon with a contemptuous look and he snapped some words at the old woman. She promptly stopped wailing and started to crawl towards him, speaking all the time in an ingratiating sing-song whine.
Avilon kept very still. Under normal conditions, he could have easily dealt with the boy and disarmed him, but he was still half-drugged and his body was both weak and dangerously slow. Besides, he had no idea of where he was, who these people were or what was going on. He tried again to speak, but the words came out as a meaningless harsh croak. The youngster ignored him, silenced the old woman with a word and gestured for her to retrieve the bowl and spoon. As she did so, he looped the whip back at his belt and strode over to the pallet, making a grab for Avilon’s wrists, presumably intending to restrain him whilst the old woman forced fed him with the drugged slop.
Summoning what little of strength and agility he could muster, Avilon rolled himself aside and drove a fist up to meet the young man’s throat as he leant forward. It was much too slow to make effective contact, but the youngster jerked back in surprise, breath hissing between his teeth. Using this brief advantage, Avilon kicked out, hampered by the blankets, but pushing the boy off balance and bringing him down. The old woman had started to scream again, but there was nothing he could do about that.
Ignoring the light-headed giddiness that threatened from the borders of his mind, Avilon worked free of the blankets, diving into a forward roll, coming to his feet, breathing hard, already feeling what little strength he had was gone. The young man was up in the same moment. Unbelievably, his eyes now held the cold focus of someone looking to destroy and a knife flashed in his hand. Avilon had to let him come close and as the knife hand moved to strike, he was neither fast nor agile, only just succeeding in deflecting the blade, turning his body as he did so. But the counter strike went home and the youngster gasped once then collapsed heavily, temporarily immobilised.
Dizzy now, Avilon was reaching for the pistol, his reactions slow and perceptions distorting. He had barely started to turn towards the new threat he heard from behind, when fresh black stars of agony exploded in his brain. The pistol slipped from his suddenly limp fingers and he felt the floor catch him as he fell. For a moment he was sure he was going to pass out but somehow he remained vaguely conscious, if incapable, as he was dragged back onto the pallet.
This time he was unable to resist as his mouth was forced open and the foul tasting liquid was spooned in. Someone held his nose forcing him to swallow it, then they released him. He was dimly aware of the arrival of a third man and of an angry exchange taking place, but he could not understand what was said. Gradually, the drug began to numb his senses and he felt himself drifting into unconsciousness once more.
From The Fated Sky part one of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook
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