Part I—The Ordeal
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Rating: R, for violence
Summary: When Serenity lands in a small Rim world settlement, they run into an unsettling situation.
She drew in a shallow, labored breath. Part of her mind, strangely detached from the rest of her tortured body, thought it odd that she should be drenched with sweat in such a cold wind. She shivered, the slight movement jarring her ravaged back and causing a starburst of bright white light to dance behind her eyelids sickeningly.
Dimly aware of the whistle of the lash behind her, she tried not to yank at the ropes that bound her wrists to the post. She had learned that such pathetic movements caused a low murmur from the crowd and a chuckle from the man standing a few feet away from the post. The murmur had twisted her heart with humiliation and the chuckle had robbed her of her last hope for mercy.
The thin sliver of leather connected with her bare back in a devastatingly solid line of fire. She bit her lip, the blood welling to the surface matching the slick blood that bathed her arms and back. Before she could regain her breath, another blow fell, relentless and brutally efficient.
"Slow down," the man standing close by said, thin irritation in his tone.
"It'll not be a kindness to slow down, sir," the man wielding the whip said quietly. "I can carry the sentence out without stretchin' it out none. If I linger, forty lashes is enough to kill a grown man, much less a little slip of a woman such as your missus."
The man hissed at the title. "She's hardly mine now. And as I recall, I was awarded the judgment of how the punishment would proceed. Slow down."
She was vaguely aware of the man behind her sighing with the order. Somehow the thought that he had tried to extend what little mercy he could made everything that much harder to bear. She wondered, with what was left of rational thought, how many strokes she had already received. The first five had fallen fast and hard, splitting the skin pulled taut across her back by the restraints like the sharpest of scalpels. The next blows had been exquisitely placed, seeking out the screaming nerves exposed by the first five.
She'd lost consciousness somewhere along the way and had been abruptly revived with some noxious scent being held to her nose. It was then that she had realized that there would be no relief in unconsciousness, no blessed oblivion to meet her when she fled from the blows that rained steadily now across her body.
She thought for a moment that she needed to know how many more lashes would fall so cruelly before her ordeal was over, but she was not certain she would be able to endure it if she did know. Her hands clinched into weak fists as another blow fell, the force of it pushing her body forward into the wood of the post. The small prick of sharp splinters against her bare breasts was drowned in the agony of the battered strips of flesh covering her back.
She clenched her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut against the sweat that trickled down from her hairline. But as the blows continued in unending torment, she was forced to open her mouth, gasping for what breath she could catch in the blinding punishment of the lash. Heedless now of the crowd watching, and even of the man to whom she had been married for three dismal years standing by so arrogantly, she stopped fighting to hold in the low groans that had been hovering right behind her cracked lips. Time, fluid in the best of circumstances, stretched treacherously out before her, promising nothing but additional pain.
Her mind cast about wildly, seeking something, anything to relieve some of the horror she was enduring. She thought of her ill-fated lover, so kind and gentle of heart and hand, the one who had won her, pulling her inexorably to this moment. He could not have known, could not have envisioned the sheer cruelty of it, the pitiless justice that would be meted out to them both. She squeezed her eyes shut again, knowing that remembering his earlier fate at the hands of the settlement's judge would bring nothing to her but the worst pain of all. She felt salty tears slip down her cheeks, the only thing she could offer to mourn her lover now.
Her knees buckled beneath her, and still the blows fell, the distance between twenty and forty like a chasm impossible to span. Blood pounded in her ears and she felt the darkness coming. Welcoming it like the gifts of the gods, she hung by her wrists, suddenly boneless in the wake of the continuing onslaught.
Jesse Starks silently cursed the man giving the cruel orders. He wielded the whip, counting the strokes as they fell across the poor woman's back, wishing he could avoid the last ten, but well aware that every eye in the crowd was keeping a breathless count. Most times, he was glad enough to do his job, figuring that whatever piece of human detritus got tied to his post deserved what was coming. But he'd made the mistake of going to the judicial proceeding for this little woman. It had been the talk of the settlement for some time, and out of more than a little curiosity, he had gone to hear the salacious details in court.
But now, he remembered all too well why he generally avoided such knowledge like the plague. The woman had stood with her lover, condemned for all the world to see. But Starks could not shake the thought that he'd had as he watched them face their sentences, the thought that they were more dignified than they'd a right to be, given that they were sinners of the worst kind. They seemed, he hated to think, almost decent-like, almost respectable in some strange way.
And when the man had died under the harsh sentence of the judge, Starks had been left with a bitter taste in his own mouth, and the uneasy feeling that he had not seen true justice done.
And now to be the one carrying out the sentence against the helpless woman was a difficult pill to swallow. He winced as he saw her knees buckle, swinging the whip until his own shoulders ached with the monotony of it.
"What do you mean, he ain't here?" Mal asked, already more than a little irritated at the turn of events.
"I mean he ain't here," the old man replied steadily. "Ain't nobody here but me, and I got no authorization to pay you."
A small vein pulsed in Mal's temple. "When will he be back?"
The old man shrugged. "'Spect it'll be awhile. He's down to the town square, watchin' the goin's-on. That's where everybody is."
"There a carnival or somethin'?" Mal asked, pinching the bridge of his nose distractedly.
"Somethin' like that," the old man replied noncommittally.
"Then why ain't you there?" Jayne asked, fighting the urge to use his gun.
"Seen all the go se like that I need to see," the old man replied, running his fingertips lightly along his moustache.
Mal sighed, counting to ten and holding back his anger. Glancing at Zoe, he said, "If we gotta go to town to find Mason anyway, we could maybehaps go back to Serenity and get Simon. Might as well kill two birds with one stone."
Zoe nodded. "Unless the doctor of the settlement is at the carnival as well."
"Doc won't be there," the old man said, certain of the fact. "He don't much cotton to that kinda' thing."
A vague trickle of unease skittered along Mal's spine. Thinking that he was not likely to enjoy whatever was happening in the town square, he briefly considered having Simon just write a list of instructions for the doctor of the settlement. But he knew that Simon would balk at such an idea, believing it best to give the man instructions as to the use of the newer drugs himself. Professional courtesy or some such, as it had been explained to Mal repeatedly by his medic and brother-in-law. Turning back to the old man, Mal sighed. "How will I recognize Mason?"
The old man grinned, revealing teeth stained yellow with time. "He'll be in the front, you can bet, cheering on old Starks as he goes about it. Never does get enough of it to suit him."
"Anything else?" Mal asked as patiently as his annoyance would allow.
The old man frowned. "Think he was wearing a tan shirt this mornin'. And those durn pointy boots as he favors. Useless if you ask me, with your toes all jammed into 'em so's you can't hardly wiggle 'em."
Having officially heard enough trivia for one day, Mal nodded. "Thanks for the tip. I'll be sure to look to those boots."
The old man grinned, shaking his head at the impulsiveness of young men.
Simon hefted the large box onto his hip, pointing Jayne towards its companion.
"You sure this small settlement needs all this?" Mal asked.
"The doctor was quite specific," Simon replied, a little annoyed to be questioned about the issue again. "They haven't received any of their Alliance shipments in several months. And there are things here that he's never had to begin with. Drugs that should help with some of the problems peculiar to this planet."
"And we can spare all this?" Mal asked, fingering Simon's box.
Simon nodded. "We can, at least until we can get back closer to the Core. And they are, for the most part, inexpensive to replace. Common enough on any Core world, but sadly lacking on the Rim."
"Sounds a mite too familiar," Mal muttered. Straightening his shoulders, he said, "Well, best we be gettin' to it, then. I gotta have time to find that hundan Mason, before he decides he might not be in a payin' frame of mind."
Simon followed Mal through the dust of the settlement, thinking that the chill in the air was reminiscent of late fall on Osiris. They walked along quietly, the silence broken only by the occasional grumbling of Jayne as he readjusted the weight of the box on his shoulder.
As they approached the village, Mal slowed and finally stood still.
"What is it?" Simon asked, peering over his shoulder to look.
"Ain't a carnival," Mal replied grimly, making out the situation in bits and pieces as people moved around. "Looks like an execution, more like."
Jayne squinted into the crowd. "It's a woman," he said, surprise in his tone.
Mal nodded, his jaw set in a thin line.
"I don't understand," Simon began. But his words trailed off as the crowd shifted enough for him to get a good look at the scene before him. "Oh my god," he breathed out.
"God ain't got nothin' to do with this," Mal replied, walking forward purposefully again. Seeing Simon still standing in the same position, he added, "And neither do we. Keep walkin', doc."
Simon blinked rapidly several times. "You're just going to leave her hanging there? Just let that happen?"
Mal scowled at him. "Ain't any of our concern, Simon. And we don't know the circumstances."
Simon put his box carefully on the ground and crossed his arms over his chest. "We know one thing. If that man keeps that up, she will die."
Mal swallowed thickly. "We don't know any such thing. She might wish she was dead, but…" The sound of the lash abruptly stopped and the crowd began to talk all at once. "See there," Mal said, glancing over at the proceedings. "It's over. And I conjure someone will come forward in a minute to cut her down and see to her. Problem solved."
"She needs medical attention," Simon persisted.
"And by your own word, they got a doctor," Mal said, the last of his patience wearing threadbare. "This is trouble we don't need, Simon. We got folk on the boat to be worried on. Don't need anybody else to take care of. Now pick up your little box, and move along. Dong ma?"
Simon nodded, bending to pick up his box. Unbidden, his eyes darted back to the woman hanging unconscious on the pole. "No one's coming to her aid," he said stubbornly.
"Might take 'em a few minutes," Mal said, studiously not looking toward the awful scene. "Could be they want the crowd to leave 'fore they claim her. Speakin' of which, I got to find this Mason guy before everybody gets gone. You know your way to the doctor's place?"
Simon looked down the street. "The sign that says 'Doctor" is a fairly good give away," he said dryly.
Mal nodded, choosing to ignore Simon's tone for now. "You and Jayne go on to the doctor's then, and I'll see to finding Mason."
And turning on his heel, he set out to find his reluctant employer.
To be continued