‘Mother,’ a younger copy attempted to hush the outspoken family member. Taking the older woman’s arm, she tried to move her on. To the child’s credit, she stood her ground, watching the byplay as though fascinated or unable to understand the language they spoke. ‘Age does not give you the right to judge another. It is against all we believe.’
‘Age gives me few pleasures in this war torn world,’ the Mother didn’t lower her voice or tone at the plea. She did however turn her attention to the daughter at her side. ‘You’re lucky it allows me to chaperone my daughters in public.’
‘I am forever appreciative of the attentions and courtesy you pay us, Mother,’ the Daughter stated in a calming voice. Yet it carried an edge of disdain aimed at her kinswoman. ‘Please leave the child alone. She can’t be more than seventeen. The green eyes and black hair give away her heritage. Look at the style of her clothing and untidy appearance. It’s obvious the poor thing comes from the hills. If she can understand us, I’m sure she’s as ignorant of our customs as the use of High Spectran. The Hill Tribes use a dialect so far removed from normal language, it is indecipherable to our clan.’
‘That doesn’t make it right. Those Hill Tribes, savages, the lot of them.’ Returning her wrath to the young girl, the violet eyes locked with green. ‘Didn’t your mother teach you the old ways? Don’t you know anything Girl? Why is your hair uncovered on a public street? Where is your brother or chaperone?’
Stunned at the sudden and unexpected attack, the young girl seemed to shrink in on herself. Looking up and down the street, she couldn’t spy an escape route. A tear formed in the corner of one eye. It seemed to soften the older woman’s attitude.
‘I hear,’ the Mother looked the child over. Her daughter had been right, if she’d reached her majority, it occurred recently. She looked strong and resilient, the wiry type who’d survive anything. A gleam entered her eye. ‘They marry early in the Glashin Hills but you still need to dress appropriately and have a male or elder to escort you out in public when you come to the flat lands. Do you understand me, Child?’
‘I understand you.’ Princess offered in a meek tone, wondering what she gotten herself into.
Thirsty beyond belief, she’d come into this small town to scout for food and water. Since crashlanding four days ago while on a recognisance mission, the Swan survived on a single ration bar and her wits. Approaching the village as a last resort, Princess noticed all the women wore head coverings and long, flowing robes to their feet. They could have been practitioners of Islam or Catholic Nuns if they lived on Earth. The gowns, coloured brightly displayed only the women’s faces. She assumed the more gaudily decorated with sparkling jewellery, the higher the woman’s standing in the community. It meant the Mother and Daughter before her were from the wealthiest family in the region.
‘Then answer me girl,’ demanded the Mother.
Somehow, intelligence had it all wrong. They’d been sent to an area fighting a civil war with terrorist tactics, not an ammunitions factory. Unexpectedly shot down by the Hill Tribes, Princess survived the crash landing and evaded her pursuers. She seen firsthand the way they lived and treated interlopers. Well prepared for invasion and even better armed, the Hill Clans weren’t as barbaric at these women suggested. They were worse because they wanted to be left in isolation, away from the influence of Zoltar and his goons. On reaching the flat lands, she’d been left alone to wait for rescue.
Biding her time with an open display of tears, Princess analysed her immediate surroundings. She’d chosen this village because of its remoteness to a major highway, lack of authority and quiet nature. Needing to get in, locate the supplies of food, water and medicines, the Swan hoped to get out undetected. That obviously wouldn’t happen.
‘Mark,’ she let out a sob. Only half acted, her commander lay in a coma three miles away. Desperation drove her to desperate measures. The Eagles cerabonically enhanced healing should have kicked in by now. After all, Princess’s cuts, abrasions and one broken bone healed within a day while on the run.
Mother and Daughter looked at each other. The name drew a sharp inhalation of breath. ‘Marc,’ the older woman looked anxiously at the child for conformation, ‘your young man.’
‘Yes,’ Princess didn’t quite know what she’d implied but knew it changed the attitude of the older woman. The rest of G-force and the ISO should be looking for them. If only she could hold out a day or two more, they’d be on their way back to Earth.
‘Quickly,’ the Daughter waved to a building, ‘follow us. You cannot be seen in this state. The militia will, well it is not polite to say in public what they would do to a young woman who refuses to cover her hair at the very least. Only the untouchable allow their hair to show. We must find you an Ebque and then go to your Marc. He leaves you in much danger, allowing you to be in public
Allowing the two women to grab her, Princess entered a small shop a hundred metres up the street. From the look of the fabrics, it supplied the flowing gowns her companions wore. On the counter, a bowl of what looked like fruit stood beside a pitcher of water. Licking her dry lips, the daughter watched the movement.
‘How long since you’ve eaten child?’ the woman behind the counter asked while pouring a drink. She shared a look with the other two.
‘Two days,’ Princess acted shy, accepting the glass and trying to sip its contents. It soothed her parched throat. She’d been rationing the water, allowing herself five small mouthfuls a day and no food as it would dehydrate her further. The rest she forced into Mark’s body in the hope he’d heal himself before falling into unconsciousness. It hadn’t worked.
‘Sharna,’ the Mother called to the woman, ‘our guest requires hospitality.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ the woman called Sharna rushed out of the room.
‘I am Seratara,’ the older woman offered. ‘Most call me Mother. My Daughter is Tanora. I can see from the look in your eye you don’t understand the significance. I ask again, what did your Mother teach you of the old ways?’
‘My mother died,’ Princess stuck to the truth as closely as possible, ‘before I knew her. I have only,’ pausing she hoped this would be the right guess, ‘my brothers. They are my only family.’
Once again, Mother and Daughter shared a knowing glance. ‘I see,’ Mother took the bowl of fruit, offering Princess a choice of the contents. Nothing resembled Terran produce. Luckily, she’d been trained in the basics of Spectran society. Only the purple fruit in the basket would harm her.
‘Thank you,’ Princess took a small green triangle. It tasted something like an apple.
Unhappy with the limited information, Mother demanded, ‘and your father?’
‘My father,’ she waited until swallowing the mouthful, ‘died in the war before my birth.’
‘Your clan,’ Mother continued her interrogation, ‘did not the clan Mother take you into her house, instruct you?’
‘I have only my brothers,’ Princess suddenly understood the significance of the woman’s position. The Matriarch of this village, Mother held both power and influence over the inhabitants. If anyone could help Mark, it would be this woman, but dare she trust her.
‘So that is why,’ Mother guessed, ‘you have married so young. It must have been difficult for your brother’s to raise a girl, alone. You should have been given up to the Clan Mother, even if you’re a foundling. Still it is natural they would have wanted you off their hands as soon as possible. It is a miracle they managed to find a man willing to marry you without a dowry. Your Marc must be quite a man.’
Lowering her eyes, Princess whispered, ‘yes.’ Wondering why the woman though her married, she played along. Just what Mark would think, it didn’t matter if he never recovered. If he did, they’d cross that bridge when they had too.
‘Is,’ Sharna asked quietly as she re-entered the room. Laying a silver tray with four glasses before Mother, the older woman handed around the Spectran equitant of tea, ‘this why you have no Ebque?’
Unsure how to answer the questions, Princess mentally cursed the intelligence agency. The position she found herself in now proved their research to be cursory at best, incompetent at worst. Nothing in the briefings prepared her for this level of knowledge about the daily lives of the Spectran people. Depending on her answers, she could wind up without a potential ally. Left alone Mark would surely die. Captured, she’d be at the mercy of the Spectran Military which sounded like a fate worse than death.
‘Mark,’ she once again squeezed a tear. Remembering Mother thought them to be married and this formed her only protection, Princess looked up into the woman’s violet eyes. ‘My Mark is hurt. He is all I have in this world. It’s the reason I came to this town. We are trying to find somewhere that will accept two foundlings, allow us to live peacefully. But he has been hurt.’
‘Child,’ Mother looked to Tanora, ‘how old are you? It is against the law to marry too young.’
‘I have eighteen seasons,’ Princess at least knew this much about Spectran society. ‘Mark is one year old than me.’
‘So your union is legal,’ Mother nodded. ‘Sharna will provide an Ebque but you will need to work for its value.’ Facing the shop owner, she stated, ‘something simple but not too plain. She must not draw the wrong kind of attention. Zoltar has sent in the Militia into this region for some unknown reason. Perhaps it is why the Hill Tribes have been so quiet lately. Women of the lowest classes will be harassed. I think this child has seen enough sadness in her life.’
‘Then we are to offer hospitality?’ Tanora asked.
‘For the time being,’ Mother nodded. ‘The child is young and must be given a chance to prove herself. Even now she might provide a daughter for our house. Once you are dressed, we will take the speeder and collect your Marc. It is usual,’ the older woman berated, ‘that you tell us your name before we take you into our household and offer protection.’
A shiver ran the length of Princess’s spine. Afraid the simple conversation meant more than she understood, the Swan watched the interaction between the three women under her long lashes. Only her fear for Mark kept her here. They needed somewhere safe and warm before she could begin treat his wounds.
‘June,’ Princess offered her real name. ‘No one has called me that in many seasons.’
‘Then let this be a new beginning for you. From this day, while you stay in our house, you will be known by the Flatlands Clan name, Juna,’ Mother stated in the tone of a woman who’d made her mind up. ‘What do you have in green, Sharna. It will bring out the colour of Juna’s eyes so that when her Marc sees her, he will know her instantly.’
Princess didn’t like the speculation lighting Mother’s tone or expression. She’d definitely missed the subtle meaning as the other women tried to hide a smirk. Determined to keep her ears open, the Swan bowed her head and decided to let the women talk around her. In the past it proved the best way to gather intelligence.