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«Flight in Yiktor», Andre Norton

Chapter 1.

Void, cold. Fold in the legs—do not move.

Cold – pain – the big one was using the prod again – pain.

Stand – jump – but it is cold – so – cold.

The small body edged between the two large woven baskets uttered a mewing cry. Then one claw hand flew to provide a gag against any more sound. But shivers continued to shake the too thin body.

Cold – where is cold – where is pain?

The curled body jerked as if a tormenting lash had been applied to the wrinkled greenish skin only too visible through the tatters which were not true clothing. No one had shouted those words. Yet they had come as clear and loud as if Russtif his ugly self were standing over the hider. In the head—not in the ear. Talking in the head! The small one tried to wedge even more out of sight, and now the shudders of fear were worse.

Where is cold? Where is pain?

The demand came again, imperative – to be obeyed. Wrinkled hands covered ears, but that did not keep the questions from opening like dry and curled leaves under the touch of water – an opening in the head. Once more the body jerked—

Pain – Russtif was using the prod on the other side of the tent wall, using it with the skill of a trained showman to stir up a sulky or frightened beast. And, like the words out of the air, the pain reached the lurker with a hot burst that brought a second whimper.

"Here!"

There were legs beyond the crack where the small one crouched – two pairs of them in space boots. "No harm – there is nothing to fear."

A pallid tongue licked cracked lips. But there was something that made the fear less, lulled it a little. Beyond the wall Russtif growled and spat threats. His anger and love of tormenting that which could not fight back was like a spurt of fire.

"Nothing to fear." Again the words spun into a mind that had to listen even if the ears were stoppered against sound. Nor did either pair of boots move toward or away from the lurker. Crouch, wait for a hand to reach down and jerk out the small body, perhaps cuff hard for being there – for existing at all.

But this was not Russtif and the boots did not move. Slowly the head, covered with dry tangles of thick hair, came up, drawn against all will by the new note – the very strange note – in that mind voice. Large eyes looked up and out.

Very far from Russtif these two. There were always strangers about, some of them as odd in their way as Russtif's imprisoned performers. So it was not their difference, rather the way they stood shoulder to shoulder looking down. Not with disgust nor cruel curiosity but in another way the lurker could not understand.

"Do not be afraid." It was the male who spoke now, uttering words in the trade lingo that was common speech all through this quarter which catered to the entertainment of ship people.

He was very fair of skin and his hair was white – though he was not an old man. Those eyebrows so pale even against his skin ran up at the temples to join the hairline, and his eyes were green, luminous as if there were tiny fires behind each.

"There is nothing to fear." That was the other one, the female, who spoke now. Beside the fairness of her companion she was a fire glowing – hair as red as one of Russtifs oil lamps was braided and looped about her head to look like a heavy crown. She was – The small body uncoiled. Claw hands went out to the big basket and drew the hunched body up as far as nature would let it. For it was a very crooked body, hunched forward by a misshapen burden at shoulder level, so that the head had to be raised to an uncomfortable angle to see the other two at all.

Arms and legs were thin, their greenish skin encrusted with dirt. The mass of uncombed hair was black, gray with dust at places, but black underneath.

"A child." It was the spaceman who said that aloud. "What—" The woman made a gesture with one hand. There was a listening look about her. Could she hear Toggor, too?

"This one, yes," she said. "But also another. Is that not so, little one?"

The answer was pulled out by the intent gaze of her eyes – coming before thought muffled it with caution.

"He – Russtif – he would make Toggor play. It is cold – too cold. Toggor hurts from the cold – from the pain whip."

"So?"

She stooped to set a hand beneath the chin of the small, bent and maimed figure. From her touch, from the tips of her fingers, something warm and good flooded right into the shaking body.

"Toggor is what?"

"My—my friend." That was not quite the way of it either, but they were the closest words could be found.


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