LITTLE BIRD AND THE HAWK

Chapter 3 - Knights and Nightmares

Juliana spent the morning in the wagon. Her head throbbed; in fact, all of her throbbed. Her back was so painful she couldn’t lay on it and indeed all she longed to do was to go back to the snow. It cooled her, and she had found that death beckoned; a welcome relief from all this suffering.

A face appeared at the wagon; she sat up, awkwardly trying to move to the back; Dagonet looked in slowly “Greetings, Juliana….” He said quietly, trying to make sure he did not scare her; the initial terror in her eyes tore at his heart.

She sagged slightly with relief, holding up a hand in greeting – but still maintaining her position.

He put his hands up in submission to show he was safe, he realised with a lurch that he would approach a beaten dog the same way ”I’m just coming to check on you, agreed?”

She nodded and shuffled slowly forward. He could see she was in a lot of pain, as he came in and checked her over, “Shall I check any other wounds?” he pointed to her front. She blushed bright red, shaking her head as she looked at the floor of the wagon.

Dagonet ached to hold her, tell her she was among friends and they would die before they would let anything like this happen again; but he knew that would the worst thing he could do.

“Your back is already healing; the wounds are beginning to seal. They will scar though - most of your wounds will…” he changed the subject making himself keep his voice even, despite his dismay at what he was looking at.

She shrugged as she picked up her tablet -

I have others. More will make no difference.

But I have always healed quickly.

“Like Tristan.”

He is nice – he is kind to me.

“He’s a good man, Juliana; but very quiet.”

I like that - I like him.

“Why do you like him?”

He calms me.

Dagonet understood. “Do you feel up to meeting the other knights? I will be with you…”

She froze, but then forced herself to smile slightly -

I will scare them Dagonet.

She pointed to her swollen face.

“Nay, but you won’t; they would like to meet you” he hesitated before continuing “we will look after you Juliana, you are among friends now. Please?”

The stylus hovered over the tablet; before finally scratching a hesitant reply -

Aye, as you wish.

++++++++++++++++

After he had finished treating her wounds he helped her dress again, and then got her down from the wagon. She walked stiffly and held her back straight; trying not to knock or rub it, even with the cotton shirt and jerkin.

All the knights came over as one; she moved behind Dagonet, clutching the tablet and stylus until her knuckles were white, her eyes wide with fright. He chuffed at them good naturedly “come Knights, give our lady some room; you can’t all meet her at once. So line up and give the girl a chance.”

Smiling they formed an orderly line. Arthur, watching from a safe distance, smiled with them; they were so keen to help, almost in a boyish way.

Dagonet took her along the line. “This is Lancelot, he fights with two swords.”

So do I.

“Really?” Lancelot was surprised.

Aye…back in Sarmatia - my father taught me.

“Mayhap I could teach you now”.

Mayhap.

“This is Gawain”

Greetings Gawain.

The young knight smiled “Hello Juliana; we will be nice I promise”.

Are all you knights friends?

“Aye, Galahad and I both are, Bors and Dagonet tend to stick together, as do Arthur and Lancelot….”

What of Tristan?

“He likes his own company.” He smiled. “But we are all brothers really – we would die for each other if the call came.”

I see.

“This is Galahad. He’s the youngest.”

“Shut up Dagonet, you make me sound like a bloody babe in arms!" Galahad glared at Dag, but smiled at the girl. Giving a deep bow, he offered his own welcome "greetings Juliana; we are here to help you and protect you.”

Thank you.

“This here is Bors. He lives with his lover, Vanora and has eleven bastard children.”

“That’s right; and they’re lovely!” He grinned as he stepped forward to hug her, his soft heart going out to the battered girl. She involuntarily stepped backward.

“Pax, girl, pax…” he shook his head at himself.

My fault - my fault. It is nice to meet you Bors.

Arthur walked slowly towards her. Her eyes widened in fear, he looked down and realised he had his armour on. “It is all well Juliana, tis only the only way to stop me getting killed…” he smiled ruefully.

“Oi, what are we - fish stew?” butted in Lancelot in mock incredulity “I suppose we just ride around you looking pretty?!”

“Oi? Who are you calling pretty? I ain’t bloody ‘pretty’, I’m a warrior!” Bors said.

Lancelot looked at Juliana and winked “He is so easy to tease – almost as easy as Galahad!” The younger knight snorted.

Juliana almost smiled at the friendly banter, and dipped her head at Lancelot. Arthur realised what his best friend was doing; mayhap that humour of his wasn’t so bad.

“I am Arthur. I am the commander of this band of merry men; but do not let them frighten you, a forceful woman like you will soon tame them.” He smiled, pretending not to see her shake. She would not even look up at him, let alone make eye contact. She wrote again -

That Juliana is dead. She died under the snow.

The knights all went to step forward to comfort her – but Dagonet gestured them back; even so, she had not missed it -

You are good and kind men, I thank you.

- Then -

I am sorry I am so - cowardly.

There were protests that she was alright and nothing of the sort. But still their hearts went out to her….she looked so deeply ashamed.

She pushed her broken face into what would normally be considered a smile and walked stiffly to the fire.

They stood behind her, unsure of what to do next. Lancelot took the initiative first and walked over so he sat opposite her; showing her he wouldn’t crowd her, immediately the others all followed.

It ended with her on one side and all the others crowded round the other. If the reason behind it hadn’t been so pitiful, Arthur would have laughed at the sight of five large and fully grown men all trying to perch on one log.

She once more picked up the stylus and tablet -

Why do you fight for Rome?

“We have to. We were taken from our villages and put into the Sarmatian cavalry as knights, Arthur was made our commander.” Lancelot answered.

How old are you all?

“Let’s see: Galahad is twenty-four, Gawain is twenty-six, I am thirty-two, Tristan is thirty-four, Arthur, Dagonet and Bors are all thirty-six. They took us at different ages, because they took only the boys with the best skills to be knights. Age was irrelevant to them. How old are you?”

I am not sure; I think I am twenty-eight summers.

Everything is irrelevant to Rome, except its own way and its own….pleasure.

How long have you been fighting?

The words were painstakingly written, but the bitterness shone through. Lancelot resisted the urge to ask her again what had happened.

“Three months short of fifteen years. When we reach that time we will gain our freedom.”

So you are slaves like me? What will you do?

Lancelot tried not to retort to what she was saying, she was only trying to make sense of things – but it still hurt him to see what they’d tried to ignore for years in harsh letters before them.

“We do not consider ourselves slaves; but you might be right” he sighed. “We will return home. Go back to Sarmatia. You are free now, what of you?”

Nay, of course you do not - you are fighters, warriors. I offer apologies.

You have a home to go to?

The look on her face showed she seemed surprised.

“It is no matter. But aye, we have tribes to go back to; though none of us are sure as to what kinfolk we return to – fifteen years is a long time, they may have all perished. What of you? You are free now, what will you do?” he reiterated the point.

I am glad. I am glad you have kinfolk to return to.

I have no one to return to. They died.

I will never return - I will never be free. - She shrugged.

It struck Gawain how like Tristan her way of speaking was because of using the tablet; short and to the point. He wondered if she would speak more with a voice.

“Why won’t you be free?” Bors spoke “We would never let them harm you little bird. Especially your hawk….”

Little bird? Hawk? - She looked confused at them.

Dagonet stifled a smirk as he watched his brother in arms, the bruiser that was Bors, actually blush “Hawk is what we sometimes call Tristan. Little bird is what we nicknamed you, before we knew your name; our apologies….”

Nay – Nay! I like it - it is nice that someone would bother. You are all nice.

Hawk suits Tristan too.

They smiled. She stopped writing and looked at the floor -

I will not be free because they killed me in here. - She pointed to her heart.

It is a dead thing, and they haunt me in here. - She pointed to her head.

Her face became even more desolate at remembered horrors. She shut her eyes; they thought she might weep, but she did not.

Bors rubbed a hand over his face, what had they done to her? It went far and beyond what they were seeing here; but he knew better than to ask more of her by now.

“I see. Well, we will have to try and bring you back to life.” He nodded encouragingly at her.

She smiled back, quite obviously trying to put these large men at ease; but it did not reach her eyes.

The knights watched the broken woman before them trying so hard to be comfortable in their company, trying so hard to befriend them, and it broke their hearts anew.

Arthur feared for the roman soldiers back at the fort, these knights would be spoiling for a fight on their return; there was little love lost between his Sarmatians and the Romans anyway, this would just be adding oil to an already dangerous fire….

What of Juliana? What would become of their little bird – and she was theirs now, they would not let her go; he could see it in all their faces – what would she make of a fort full of the very type of man that had done this evil to her?

++++++++++++++++++++++++

That was how Tristan found her when he returned. He was pleased to see her sitting on the log, the knights had spread out a little more – but still gave her plenty of space.

Normally he would merely walk up, but he knew a sudden appearance would frighten her “Juliana?” he spoke softly.

She turned painfully towards him; he did not recoil in shock she was gladdened to note. But little did she know the way his insides somersaulted on seeing her injuries so vividly again.

They were getting worse if anything, her eyes were still just bruised and swollen slits but the other bruises were going vivid purples. Her whole face was still very swollen.

He looked to Dagonet as she walked over “She has done well my friend, she even stayed her ground with Arthur. But it cost her dear……….she was shaking like a leaf” he whispered the last.

Tristan nodded and covered the short distance between them. “How fare you?”

I am well. This is a boon. - She indicated the tablet.

“Aye, at least we can communicate with you. Who taught you to write?”

My owner.

“Why?”

He thought it amusing entertainment to have a slave who could write about the things he did to her. He would like to read them later, afterwards, they - excited him.

She stopped and closed her eyes before patting down the wax and anxiously writing -

PLEASE Tristan, ask me no more.

“I see.” He knew what she was talking about, and it sickened him to his stomach “I am sorry. Have you had a good day with my brother knights?” he asked, changing the subject.

But he knew that with gently prodding like this, they would garner as much information long term as with much distressing questioning now. It would take time to find out everything, but he had patience.

Aye, they are very kind to me.

“Glad I am to hear it, otherwise I would have had to kill them.”

“Well you could bloody try, Tris!” Laughed Lancelot.

“Aye, and I would succeed.” came the quietly matter of fact reply.

All the knights laughed, but looked happy at the way he stood protectively near Juliana; she clutching his arm. At least there was one man she did not shy from.

They couldn’t explain why, but they liked this woman – their little bird was one of them now, and she had her own hawk to watch over her.

+++++++++++++++++++++

It was later that night the nightmares started, and the knights realised that Juliana did indeed have a voice.

It was the screams that woke them; then – and Arthur would later hate to remember what she’d screamed - “MY BABY – PLEASE I BEG YOU, DO NOT KILL ANOTHER CHILD OF MINE!!”

Then: “YOU BASTARD, WHY DO YOU LAUGH AS YOU MAKE ME WATCH?!! IT IS YOUR CHILD TOO!”

Tristan managed to wake her; she crawled away, sitting in a corner rocking back and forth, oblivious to those around her. Some of the wounds had re-opened and blood was seeping into the shirt.

He realised she would not let even him near her for now; his only other option was to head the others off.

The knights all came tearing to the wagon. “Dear Goddess!” cried Dagonet “did she scream what I thought I heard?!”

“Right…..That’s it!! I say we hunt the bastards down, cut off their sorry heads and shit down their necks!!!!!” Bors was almost incomprehensible with rage.

The others were all coming up with ways they too could inflict great pain and suffering on whoever did this to her.

“It would serve no purpose” Tristan said calmly; the others began to protest, but he held up a hand “I doubt it was a roman soldier who did this…..thing to her. More like her owner, and unless she tells us who it is and where, there is little we can do.” They all muttered angry epithets, but agreed he had a point.

“But if I ever find out who did this, I will track him and kill him myself; and it will not be an easy death…” his eyes glittering dangerously, his voice almost a whisper, he ducked back into the wagon.

Arthur stood to one side, as Lancelot walked past him. “Do you still love your precious Rome now, Arturious?” he spat bitterly as he passed, using Arthur’s roman name almost as an insult.

Arthur sighed, he could understand their bitterness – God knows he felt bitter about this and he considered himself a Roman.

The other knights all stalked past silently; except for Gawain. “We do not blame you Arthur, but we do blame what you stand for” he said before walking away.

+++++++++++++

Back in the wagon, Tristan was trying to approach Juliana. She was almost in another place, another time; where some long past horror was tormenting her.

“Juliana? Juliana it is Tristan; won’t you let me help you?” he continued speaking slowly, but didn’t appear to be making much headway…..

“Call her little bird. Bors let it slip to her that is what we call her and that you are the hawk that watches over her…….she seemed to like it.” It was Arthur’s voice. “Tristan? I…I am so…” his voice caught.

“I know…I know…”

He heard Arthur walk slowly away.

He turned back to Juliana “little bird? Little bird won’t you let your hawk help you?”

All of a sudden the black/brown eyes snapped open; it was like she was finally coming back to reality from the horrors in her mind. She began to crawl to him “how fare you?” She opened her mouth to speak……but now nothing came – she nodded.

She moved to him almost blindly, once again folding herself into him; almost trying to become one with him, trying to escape the demons that tormented her. She buried her battered face in his neck.

He put his arms around her, held her as tight as he could without paining her. But she clung to him still; and he realised that she cared naught for the pain; she just wanted him with her, wanted to know he would never let her go.

He hugged her tighter then, knowing it was hurting her now, but trying to show her she was not alone – never would be again, none of them would let hurt befall her from this time forward.

Huddled tightly together like that he murmured nothings in her ear, trying to console her – his voice calm and soothing as gradually her trembling stopped; his face it’s usual passive mask. But his eyes, staring into the darkness above her head, glittered with barely suppressed rage.


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