Sola leaned heavily against the tall pole. She didn't have much room for movement; her arms and legs were chained to it. She knew from experience that sleep in this position was impossible. She stared out into the night, its blackness broken only by the distant, pale light of stars and Barsoom's two moons; one much brighter than the other.
The darkness of night would soon give way to bright day, the hard sunlight bouncing off the red and dusty hills. And with the dawn would come the brand.
The first time she had been branded, it had been unbearable. The searing pain drawing her deep inside her own body as light exploded behind her eyes, then came the smell of scorched flesh, the knowledge that it was her own back that was on fire. The burning did not stop even when the metal had been lifted - it had to cool on its own time. Then came the healing; dry cloths placed on the wound, then ripped off once the fluids had crusted, over and over so the skin might heal but be permanently scarred. The other women had treated her, but it was done with a kind of sullen grudge Sola had tried to ignore for years. Tried and failed.
The first offense was the one best remembered. Years ago, a ship had fallen from the sky into the lap of the horde. Several red men families had been aboard. (Why couldn't they understand how dangerous it was to fly?)
Sola had been very young, but she remembered. She especially remembered a male reaching desperately for a child who had been hanging precariously off a handhold - to no avail. The child had tumbled from the ship and fell down the long distance to the ground. Later, she had found the small body, wrapped it in a scrap of fur and delivered it to the surviving male, now a ransomed prisoner of her people. He had clutched it to himself, sobbing drily, as if he had not tears enough for his loss.
She had tried to be stealthy, but every move is noticed in a horde. Others had seen and had reported her. She knew that her actions were wasteful, unnecessary. It is the strong, the unfeeling, who survive. The weak, the needlessly merciful must be taught a lesson, or else culled. She had known this even as she did these things. Yet, somehow, not finding the child had seemed not right to her. But it was wrong enough to require correction. She had offended her people and her jeddak.
By the time she had been able to walk, the red male had disappeared.
There followed many other offenses.
Never again, she would swear on the pain that drove her to her knees, screaming, the pain that seared itself down to her bones. Never again. Each time, "Never again." "Never again" would somehow turn into "this time won't matter" or "this time I won't get caught."
She knew what people thought. It was bad enough to be branded once. What was worse, it seemed impossible for her to stop. She had not learned, might not ever learn, even though the stakes were higher than ever now. There would be very little room on her back after this scar developed. One more offense and she would be permanently banished to the wastes of Barsoom, where the animals and the Warhoon would exact their prices.
The first rays of sunlight were already peeking over the distant hills. Laconic voices and the clatter of early morning activity drifted to her ears. The fires were being stirred to life.
She gathered her strength. She had but two things to cling to; the pole in front of her and the dream of someone who might feel mercy, sympathy, even love, reaching out to her like a father does his child.