Linda stood on the edge of the cliff, wind whipping her auburn hair across her face, and wrapping her dark green cloak tightly around her legs. Smoke rose from a village nestled against a stand of trees below her vantage point and she could see people dashing around the flaming ruins. She swept her gaze across the landscape, searching for any sign of the marauders other than the destruction they’d left behind.
Nothing. The village burst into brighter flames and the echoing sounds of an explosion bounced from the cliff. Tiny figures too close to the source of the conflagration fell and did not rise again.
Linda turned her head and spat in disgust. “Your crew will pay when I get my hands on them.” Her voice was icy. She twisted around and looked over her right shoulder.
A raven-haired man kneeling in the dirt beside her horse, his hands bound behind his back, raised his head and met her eyes. “I told you. They’re not from my ship. I had nothing to do with this.”
“And you’ll keep telling me I assume, rather than face what you deserve.” She pivoted on her heel and walked to where he knelt, stopping beside him. He bent sideways and tried to look up at her.
“I’ve done nothing. Keeping me prisoner isn’t...”
She raised a hand and narrowed her eyes. He clamped his mouth shut and turned his face away, a recent bruise visible across his cheek. “You’re here Greg. They’re here. You know this planet’s off limits to your pirates.”
He sighed wearily. “I know they’re here. I told you I was trying to stop... never mind. I’m tired of trying to explain something you won’t believe. Where’s your ship?” He twisted his head around and looked up at her once more. “If I’m under arrest, at least have the decency to toss me in the brig instead of keeping me tied up and trudging on foot over this forsaken wilderness!”
“Why? I’m of no use like this! Except to slow you down and get both of us killed if we’re ambushed by something.”
“Because.” She walked past him without further explanation, swung onto her horse and yanked the rope tied tightly around his chest.
He struggled to his feet, his eyes smoldering. “You could say something.”
“I could. I could leave you here and let you starve to death too.”
He glared back at her and refused to answer.
“Cussing me out isn’t making you any points, Greg.”
“I didn’t say anything!” he growled, his eyes flashing. “Don’t I have the right to private thought?”
“You know better. Would you give me that right if our positions were reversed?”
Greg glowered at Linda’s horse and avoided her gaze.
“Besides. If you’re going to scream thoughts at me, they’re hardly private.” She reined the horse around and kicked it into motion.
Greg lurched forward as the tether tightened and ran to keep up. “Slow down!” He tripped, and fought to regain his balance. “Linda, come on! I can’t run as fast as that horse! At least let me ride if you won’t let me walk.”
She ignored him and urged the horse to a slightly faster pace.
Greg stumbled again and concentrated on watching for rocks, struggling to keep pace with the horse and tiring rapidly. “Alright!” he gasped, his lungs beginning to burn. “I’m sorry. Come on, slow down! Please!”
Linda reined the horse to a halt and allowed him to collapse panting to the ground. “You should try surviving a trip in the slave hold of your ship, Greg. Taking a little jog with my horse is nothing compared to that. Or did you think maybe I wouldn’t remember?”
Greg shook his head and tried to work enough moisture into his mouth for a swallow. “That was a long time ago.”
“So...” he licked his lips and inhaled a shuddering breath and looked up. “I thought Fleet personnel didn’t hold grudges.”
Linda returned his gaze. “As head captain of Inter-Galactic Patrol, I haven’t got a grudge against you, or your pirates. As one of your former captives however, the score’s a little more personal. You shouldn’t have given me the chance to settle it.”
“So you’re going to pay me back by making me run across this planet?”
“No.” She narrowed her eyes and Greg drew back. “I’m going to treat you the same way you treated me.” She paused and gave him a few seconds to think. “However, I’ll spare you the indignity of standing naked on an auction block once I’m tired of slapping you around.” She waited a few more seconds then tugged on the tether again. “I have no intention of releasing you.”
Greg forced himself to his feet once more. “Can I please ride? I swear I’ll just sit there and do nothing. I can’t take much more of this.”
“You’re out of shape.”
“Yes, probably. Please.”
Linda watched the expressions flickering across Greg’s face and waited. He looked up at her and reluctantly remembered.
“Would you have let me ride?”
Greg shook his head and stared down at the ground in defeat. “No, but...” he raised his head again. “You’re not me.”
“And that means what?”
“Please Linda...” he tossed pride away and dropped to his knees. “You’ve had me running for almost an hour.”
“I’ve given you breaks and you haven’t done much running. You’ve spent most of the time walking.”
She watched him swallow and tugged him to his feet again then turned her horse and kicked it into motion.
Greg forced himself to keep pace and tried not to think about anything but staying on his feet.
* * *
Night time. Dense darkness, the sound of insects calling for a mate and the scent of the forest.
Linda sat cross-legged on the ground breaking bits from a cracker and sucking on them, her eyes staring into the flickering flames of a campfire. Greg sat opposite her, unbound and silent, his attention centered on a smaller piece of cracker.
“Do you honestly wish to spend tomorrow on the end of the lead, Greg?”
“No.” He refused to look up, staring hard at the cracker as he broke bits from its edge and allowed them to dissolve in his mouth.
“Then answer my question.”
“I don’t know where they are.” He looked across the fire but avoided Linda’s gaze. “I can’t give you an answer I don’t have.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He heaved a sigh of frustration mingled with exhaustion and turned back to the cracker. “You’ve got my powers blocked. I can’t hide from you. Read my mind if you don’t believe me.”
“I don’t want to. I don’t feel like a jaunt through the sewer.”
Greg jerked his head around, his eyes flashing with anger. “My mind isn’t the sewer!”
Linda met his gaze across the campfire. “No, it’s not. It’s worse. Your imagination disgusts me.”
The flames flickered between them and silence stretched thin. Greg broke it first. “So don’t go down there.”
“I don’t intend to. You can tell me what I want to know, or you can spend tomorrow running behind my horse. Your choice.”
“I don’t know where they are!” The words exploded out of him and Linda’s face darkened. Greg slapped a hand over his mouth, his eyes widening in fear, and shook his head then cried out and curled into a ball on the ground.
Linda counted to twenty and relaxed.
Greg gasped for breath and lay panting for almost a minute, then pushed himself up and sat staring at his hands and trying not to think about anything.
Linda broke the silence a short time later. “I’m waiting.”
“I’m sorry.” Greg’s answer was immediate. “Forgive me. Please.”
“Tell me where they are and I’ll consider it.”
Greg shivered and rubbed the back of his neck. “North.” He looked across the fire and forced himself to meet her gaze. “They should be north.”
She sat stone-faced and emotionless, staring back at him. Greg shuddered and shook his head. “No. Linda, please... no.”
“Then tell me the truth.”
“I...” His emotions shattered under her relentless attack and he slumped. “There are two more villages south. They were to take them and return to base. They should have reached the first earlier today. They’ll reach the second tomorrow.” He spoke to the ground, his voice barely above a whisper.
“You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble by telling me this hours ago.”
He raised his head, his face creased with exhaustion and fear. “Would you have done any different?”
“No.” She broke another bit off her cracker and swallowed it.
“You’ve forced me to betray my men.”
“You told me they weren’t yours.”
“I know. I suggest you get over that addiction unless you enjoy pain.”
* * *
Evening. The red light of the setting sun washing over dry, cracked ground. A village, bustling with life, oblivious to a doom narrowly avoided.
Linda stood under a tree not far from the village gates, her hair drifting in a gentle breeze that stirred the leaves above her, watching. Greg sat cross-legged on the ground, rubbing rope burns on his wrists and picking at the grass.
“Do you intend to fight me until you bleed to death?”
“No.” Greg pulled a blade of grass and tossed it away. “I’ve had enough. This afternoon wasn’t necessary.”
“You made it necessary.”
He pulled another blade of grass and dropped it and stared at his hands. “You expected me to do nothing?”
“I expected you to do exactly what you did.”
He turned his head and looked up at her. “And you fault me for that?”
Linda looked down at him and shook her head. “No. At least you’re loyal to something. But trying to warn them, when you know I can hear your thoughts, wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
Greg glowered at the grass. “Waste of time anyway.”
“It’s not like your men will be spending the rest of their lives incarcerated, Greg. Just a few years. You shouldn’t have brought them here to kidnap slaves.”
“You still didn’t have to tie me to a tree that was crawling with ants!”
“It kept you busy.”
“You don’t plan on making my life easy, do you?”
Linda gazed down at her captive then gestured across the open ground at the village. “Would their lives have been easy had I not been able to stop your men from getting here?”
Greg glanced at the village then picked more grass, refusing to answer.
“Is a slave’s life ever easy, Greg?”
“Depends on the master.” He tossed the grass away. “I said I’d obey you.”
“Once you start doing that without being forced, I’ll believe you. One day, there will be a space port here. Then, if your men want to play games with the population, I won’t care. But I won’t allow that to happen while the people are young and can’t take care of themselves... while they’re under my protection.” She watched Greg ignore her and poke holes in the ground for several minutes then turned away and started for her horse.
Greg pushed himself up from the ground, dusted grass from his pants and followed. “Can I at least ride now? Please?”
Linda swung up onto the horse then considered the man standing beside her with his hand resting on her thigh, his pale green eyes pleading for mercy. “Alright, but don’t let it go to your head.” She reached a hand down and helped him swing up behind her saddle, then headed her horse away from the village and into the next leg of her planetary patrol.
Copyright © 2007 by Crystalwizard