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Tidings of Comfort by Anniew

Tidings of Comfort
by Anniew


The Day of the Dead had passed. The weather, sullen and dank, closed in around the settlement, but there were signs of preparation everywhere - busy planning for the feasts and celebrations that would greet the onset of Winter. Unfamiliar smells now wafted from each house, so rich and enticing they made Avon unbearably aware of his hunger. He shuttered the windows against them and avoided leaving the shack as much as he could, but thirst eventually drove him out to the well where the appetising aromas painfully assaulted his senses again.

At least water was plentiful; he was thankful for that. Food was another matter, though. He was kept this side of starvation, but was always pathetically relieved when a new box of supplies appeared on his doorstep. Packets of mush to be reconstituted, a few protein cubes and vitamin pills – unappealing, but sufficient to keep him going if he rationed them carefully. Not so bad in summer, when there were leaves and roots and later, berries, to supplement them. He'd stalked some of the villagers out foraging and noted carefully what they harvested to avoid poisoning himself. But on days like this, when the food had run out, he was tempted to pick and consume a plateful of the deadly fungi that clung in abundance to the walls outside and to finish it once and for all.

"None of that!" The Voice from the shadows was stern. He was startled and irritated to hear it again. "You do not have my permission to end your life, Avon, however wretched you might feel."

“I don't need your permission! And what the hell are you still doing here, anyway?" he snapped back, finding the energy from his irritation to mask his disquiet. "Souls' day has passed, in case you've forgotten. I don't remember inviting you to stay."

The darkness shivered and now there was humour as well as reproach in the Voice. "You didn't tell me to go, either. You know the ritual. Or you should do, by now."

Avon cast his mind back. Surely he had done all that was needed? He had lit the fire, called the name and donated the last of his protein cubes to the ashes. Literally giving all he had, he reflected grimly. When the soul rose out of the flame, he had gazed at it without flinching, taking in the three bloody holes in the belly and hearing again the three shots that had caused them. Then a sudden squall had risen, and... of course. Although he had thrown the Guam leaves into the embers, they were wet and it was unlikely that they had been fully consumed.

"I was tired," he excused himself. "I made a mistake. Stop reading my mind and take yourself off, will you?" He hated the fragile quality that had crept into his tone and which he was too weak to control.

Another shiver of the darkness and the humour in the Voice became more overt. "Why would I want to do that, Avon? Your mind is fascinating."

Irritation again stung him out of his lethargy. "You're enjoying my humiliation," he accused. "I never expected you to be that petty."

"I'm sure if you think about it you'll come up with an explanation."

Although Avon couldn't see the expression that accompanied the words, he knew it intimately: quizzical, uncompromising, just. He turned away, closing his eyes when the Shadow seemed to brush against his shoulders.

"Why see it as humiliation?" the Voice continued implacably. "You're just adapting, like any intelligent man."

Avon winced slightly as he remembered his boast all those years ago and, as if in response, the challenge in the Voice became overlaid by a faint compassion. "Avon, you have no choice about the vidcasts. No reason to reproach yourself."

"No... not if I'm to keep the others alive. But I betray the rebellion every time I do one. I betray..."

A scrape at the door brought him alert, leaving the word unsaid. Despite his famished state, Avon was there in a stride. The sight of a young boy standing on the step grasping a cloth-covered bowl was so surprising that he overbalanced momentarily and might have fallen if he hadn't felt the Shadow steady him.

"Well?" He bit out the question as forbiddingly as he could, while trying to suppress the shudder of his body's reaction to the damp air. The boy, he noted, was remarkably dirty, his clothes slightly too big for him. His hapless expression reminded Avon of Vila at his most hangdog.

Swallowing the bitter saliva that flooded his mouth, Avon repeated, "Well?" this time accompanying the question with a ferocious glare. Clearly unsettled, the boy nevertheless drew himself up and launched into what was probably a learned recitation.

"Greetings, Stranger. I bring you a gift to mark the start of the Servalana," he stuttered in a formal monotone, clearly trying to recall the exact wording. "So… so… so... So you may partake in her bounty at your time of need," he finished with a rush.

"What?" Hearing Servalan's name filled Avon with a wash of murderous fury. His hands clenched involuntarily into fists, but he had enough on his conscience without adding the slaughter of a small village idiot to the list. Besides, this might be one of her tricks. More calmly than he felt, he asked, "And why would you do that? What's in it for you?"

The boy had taken a step backwards in the face of Avon's aggression, but now seemed mutinously aggrieved by the suggestion that he might have an ulterior motive.

"There's no need to be nasty, I just brought you a gift," he said in a soft, protesting whine. "I knew you'd be horrible." Then, in a burst of confession, "But they said She wouldn't bring me presents unless I come here every day for a whole week. Do you think that's fair? 'Cos I don't."

"Probably not. But life is seldom fair. By 'She', I take it you mean Servalan? You're claiming that Servalan encourages people to take gifts to the needy? And rewards them when they do? If you expect me to believe that, then you must take me for a fool." Avon's mouth twisted in a grimace that showed his teeth. "And that is not wise," he snarled.

The boy gaped at him, rapidly making a one-handed gesture which Avon recognised as a local sign for protection against evil. He seemed to be struggling for words, but finally blurted out, "You can't talk about the Mistress like that - it's not respectful. You'll make her angry, and it's very bad luck to make her angry."

Avon bared his teeth again. "Oh, I beg your pardon," he apologised acidly. "I had forgotten I was living amongst Barbarians. I was, of course, referring to Our Lady Servalan, Supreme Commander of the Universe, Defender of Planets. Womb of the World." He rolled the titles around his tongue derisively but the boy seemed oblivious to his sarcasm. "I suspect you are unaware," Avon added, "that I knew Servalan before her apotheosis..." He raised an warning hand as the boy opened his mouth to protest again. "And whatever qualities she might have possessed," he went on, "I can assure you that generosity was not one of them. So you see, it was a mistake to choose me as your victim. Your self-interest is admirable, but I have no inclination to participate in this… fiction... any further. For all I know, that bowl may contain poison. Remove it and your sorry self immediately, or I may do something we will both regret."

He made to shut the door, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the pulling pain in his stomach induced by the appetising smells from the bowl.

"What are you on about? Poison!" the youth stuck a stubborn foot inside the door to prevent it from closing. "Are you daft? As if I'd poison good stuff like this! You never knew the Blessed Lady, anyway. She wouldn't waste her time on a tramp like you. And who are you to call me a barbarian? Everyone says you’re a raving loony. I reckon they’re right."

"Oh, do you?" Avon took a threatening step forward, hand raised. It would be days before he got new supplies. It was enough of a struggle to resist the temptation to snatch the food from the brat, without having to put up with his gratuitous insults. And the 'tramp' accusation had stung. From behind him came a disapproving sigh which he ignored.

The boy still stood his ground, apparently unafraid. "You ain't so clever," he taunted, "and you don't know nothing about the Servalana. It's not just about giving things. The Blessed Lady's not interested in that. It's a dare, see? If you want to please her, you have to give something to a stranger, someone really scary. That's how you get rewards on Servalan's Day - because you made yourself do something you didn't want to, just for her. The more dangerous it is, the better the gift she leaves you. I've asked her for a hunting knife."

So that was his value, a hunting knife! Avon dropped his hand, reluctantly appreciating the irony of the situation. "And what led you to choose me as the unlucky object of your attentions?"

"Them others. They said you were the scariest thing around these parts and that you hate charity, so you'd go crazy mad if we knocked on your door and brought you food. They said you would probably kill whoever did it, and then the rest would get loads of stuff. We drew straws and I got the shortest. I always get the shortest." He sniffed self-pityingly, recalling the incident. "I stole this from home to bring to you," he continued resentfully, holding up the covered bowl. "Here."

He thrust it at Avon who grabbed it to prevent it falling. "Well, you've delivered it," he said, suddenly wanting the conversation over. "Now I am going to shut this door, so I suggest you remove your foot if you want to keep it."

His patience was exhausted and the boy seemed to realise this, because he backed away at once, spinning on his heels. "See you tomorrow!" he shouted over his shoulder as he fled. "And I'll need the bowl back, or Mum'll skin me!"

As the boy made his escape, the darkness behind Avon heaved convulsively, the Voice richly amused. "That was all highly entertaining. The scariest thing around, eh? You should be flattered, Avon. And you've got something to look forward to, if you haven't frightened him off. When did that tradition start, I wonder? And when did Vila sire a son?"

"He did look like Vila, didn't he?" Avon conceded wryly. "Well, I am gratified that this charade has provided you with amusement. Sleer's doing, of course. The new President bolstering her popularity. First she canonises her predecessor, who just happens to be herself, and then devises 'bread and circus' diversions for the population. Genius. As diabolically clever as keeping me alive and dragging me out to denounce you and the revolution every year. She's effectively killed off the rebellion and created a most efficient humiliation for me at a stroke."

"So you said. But rebellion is harder to kill than you think, Avon. And anyway, it's only your pride that's hurt. Your humiliation, as you call it, keeps them safe, doesn't it? You owe them that."

"Oh, yes. You never fail to remind me what I owe!"

The boy's impressive turn of speed had taken him out of sight, and Avon pushed the door to with his foot, closing out the world once more. A wave of depression swept through him. Absurd as it had been, the encounter had proved a welcome distraction from his hunger. Wearily, he turned from the door towards his primitive latrine, bowl still in hand. Although every fibre of his being was clamouring for him to eat, he knew that he had to dump the food; that dumping it was a required down-payment for his debts. A payment, he realised hollowly, he would have to repeat every day for the next week if the boy made good his promise to return.

The sensation of a hand on his arm, surprising in its strength, halted his progress and the Shade spoke gently:

"It was a gift, Avon. Accept it. I want you to. In fact, I demand it. Come. Sit down and eat."

The affection in the Voice nearly upset his composure, but he obeyed it. Seating himself at the table, he picked up a spoon.

With each swallow, he sensed the Shadow behind him was thinning, resolving to a mist. But he didn't – he couldn't - turn around.

All too soon, the bowl was empty, his hunger held at bay, rather than satisfied. Yet for the first time in years, Avon felt at peace and no longer quite so alone.

***


All original fan fiction hosted on Horizon is copyright to the individual authors. No attempt is being made to supersede any copyright held by the estate of Terry Nation, the BBC, B7 Media, Big Finish or any other licensees or holders of copyright on Blake's 7 material.

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