LITTLE BIRD AND THE HAWK

Chapter 6 - The Fort

Tristan rocked her himself and gradually she began to realise where she was, though she still clung to him like a drowning man to a rock.

As her trembling subsided, he asked her “Can you speak?”

She opened her mouth but no words came; her face contorted in frustration, he rocked her again “hush, hush; tis well, all is well and naught to worry for; one day, you will speak one day yet.”

They sat like this for some time; eventually he heard a cough from outside “She is faring better now Arthur; but I think it best I be with her.”

“Aye, I will tell the others.” There was a pause “it is bad, is it not Tristan?”

“Aye, it is bad Arthur.”

The scout heard a sigh “Goodnight Tristan.”

“Goodnight.” He turned to Jules “There, they are all to bed now. We are the only ones awake. Will you not tell me what happened that you go through Hades each and every night?”

She mutely shook her head, closing her eyes and burying her head in his shoulder. “Fine, fine; I’ll not push.”

He laid her down on the furs, pulling one up over her. He went to move away, but she would not release his hand. “If we lay like this I will press your back and it will pain you, so let loose my hand.” He tugged gently, but she tightened her grip.

He sighed “So be it.” He lay down, pulling the pelt over them both. She did not flinch; in fact she pushed back towards him and pulled his arm round her further. She pulled it to her face and rubbed the back of his hand against her cheek, like a beaten dog seeking comfort.

Tristan’s heart lurched at the thought, but he would not give into sentimentality. He liked her, of course he did. But she would need to be with one like Lancelot, passionate; not him - he was indifferent to all save his brother knights.

But she stirred something in him he thought long dead. He could not think about it, for down that road lay madness; he was angry enough about all she had suffered, to care more for her ….…….. She sighed and snuggled against him, breaking his train of thought.

Still, she was a pathetic little creature; and yet he knew her tribe were strong within her. One day she would fight back, and on that day there would come a reckoning. That day they would ride with her, there would finally be retribution; and on that day he would take a deep pleasure in the kill.

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

The next morning they went through the same ritual as they had before. But she calmed down faster and seemed to register her surroundings more quickly; he was pleased that they seemed to be making at least a little headway.

She refused to travel in the wagon; she would not be a burden. She got stiffly onto the horse once more; Lancelot rode up as Tristan looked at her. She nodded at him and he rode off. “You like him?”

Out came the trusty tablet and stylus -

Aye, there is naught not to like.

“He is so silent, and loves his own company. Never bothers with anyone but us.”

She nodded -

Mayhap.

But he is a good man.

“And your favourite among us.”

She never replied, but she did blush.

Lancelot looked closely at her, the swelling on her face was going down; her eyes were now only a little swollen, though still very black. He knew her other injuries were healing also; he could see she would be a pretty woman when she was fully healed.

He smiled at her; she would fit the scout well. He started thinking…..

“What are you up to Lancelot?” Asked Gawain, riding past.

“Naught, not as yet anyhow; I will help when needed.”

“As will we all!” replied Gawain forcefully, thinking he was talking of revenge on Jules’ tormentor.

They rode through the day; only stopping for food and Tristan then returned briefly. All the knights exchanged looks as he arrived; he never usually ate with them if he was on the trail.

He stopped to speak with Arthur and then came straight to Jules. Her face lit up as it always did when she saw him now. As he sat, she patted his arm with glee.

“How fare you?” he smiled a little; genuinely touched at her happiness at seeing him.

Well.

You?

“I am well.”

They sat in companionable silence, whilst they ate.

“I see you can eat a little.”

My mouth is not so sore.

- She tried to smile.

“Not very chatty are they?” commented Bors with a grin.

“They are happy like that.” shrugged Dagonet.

After they had eaten, Tristan left again to continue scouting ahead.

Will we be there soon?

“Where?” he said as he mounted, glancing at the tablet.

The fort.

“Aye.”

She looked down at the ground; he leant low in his saddle and lifted her chin, so she had to look at him. “I will return before then, and you will enter with all of us by your side Jules. You will have no cause to be afeared.”

She nodded; smiling gratefully at him, she grasped his hand, rubbing it against her cheek. This was the way she showed her affection for him, and only him, he realised. He felt his heart lurch again, but ignored it.

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

They rode on through the afternoon. She wrote less and became more detached the closer they got to the fort.

Tristan returned a few hours before they reached the wall; they were in familiar territory now and no longer needed him to scout ahead. He rode alongside Jules, studying her closely.

Lancelot rode up, and murmured “Is she well? She has been like this all afternoon.”

“Like what?”

“Completely detached –like she is not even here.”

Tristan looked at Jules again; then shook his head “nay, she is not here.”

“What?”

“Look at her eyes; she is gone amongst the trees in her mind's eye, and is in any place but here with us. It is her way of coping.”

“I do not understand….” The dark knight was confused.

“Remember when you used to daydream in training?”

“Aye, too well" Lancelot smiled ruefully. "Though mayhap more the beatings I gained for doing so.”

“Well, it is like that; only she has obviously been doing it for other reasons and for longer. It would like you doing it to not remember the beatings themselves."

Before Lancelot could reply the tablet waved in their faces -

I am mute, not deaf.

But Tristan is right.

My mind was one escape they could not halt.

Lancelot rubbed a hand over his eyes; every time she wrote, she unwittingly revealed a fresh reason for your heart to break for her.

“What she write?” asked Bors. Lancelot read it. “Aww Birdie! We knows you are not deaf – he is just an idiot.”

He tried joking with her, and for the first time she didn’t flinch at the larger than life knight when he rode alongside. He beamed at the others “I do think she likes me now!”

Aye.

You are nice.

Big, VERY loud, but nice.

She quickly gave his arm a single pat again.

“You do not pat my arm!” cried Lancelot in mock indignation “I feel hurt now, slighted even!”

“Why would she pat your arm? I am nice, she has not said that about you!” Gloated Bors with a grin.

She suddenly looked worried; Tristan shook his head and leant to her ear “They are jesting only.”

She relaxed -

I see.

Are they always like this?

“Aye, tonight at the tavern they will be worse.”

She stiffened so suddenly that all saw it-

A tavern?

“Aye, what of it?”

“What is she saying?” asked Bors.

So Lancelot began to read it out "Roman soldiers and a tavern."

The stylus tapped the edge of the tablet nervously for a few moments -

I see. A tavern and roman soldiers - I see.

- it was clear she was trying to remain calm -

Where will I hide?

“You will not have to, why would you?”

They will be drunk.

“Probably; so will this lot.”

She stopped writing, and started staring into space again; but they could see she was shaking like a leaf.

“I do not like this Tristan.” said Lancelot, shaking his head.

“Well, at least it is yet another piece in her puzzle.”

“How so?”

“Obviously they did more damage to her when they were drunk, than sober.”

“Oh….” The dark knight paused for a moment “mayhap I will give the tavern a miss tonight.”

“I will stay with her; she will be safe.”

“Aye, I know; but she is only just accepting us, I do not want to frighten her by getting drunk.”

The others agreed; Arthur looked round at his men.......his brothers, for that was what they were to him; and could not have been more proud.

He knew what their entertainment at the tavern meant to them after a long mission such as this one. He grinned at them “Then the tavern will be out of business by tomorrow!”

Laughter rang round them as the knights jeered him – except one; Tristan’s eyes were fixed on Jules.

She did not see - her mind had once again taken her away from the terrors that haunted her; into the trees, along the trails, anywhere but heading to a fort full of drunken Roman soldiers.

Tristan wondered again at the brutality that had helped her hone this skill; to run away in her mind from what her body was suffering.

The fort soon loomed into view. She was still staring vacantly around her; but as the wall loomed large ahead of them, she could no longer ignore it. She was now trembling severely and was gripping the reins and her tablet so tightly her knuckles were white.

Arthur gave the signal as they rode up to open the gates. The men on the tower looked perplexed at the commander bringing in a battered woman with him; but, on seeing the glares from his knights, they knew better than to comment.

Jules was now in paroxysms of terror; she was starting to have trouble breathing, everywhere she looked there were Romans, and they had not yet even reached the fort.

Tristan could stand it no longer; he brought his horse level to hers, took her by the waist and hauled her onto his horse in front of him, wrapping his arms tightly about her. He knew from her nightmares she would ignore any pain his actions would cause.

“You will be safe with your hawk, my little bird.” He whispered in her ear. She sagged against him; dipping her head to the side to rest on his shoulder and pulling his cloak over her to cover her face and, he felt, to hide.

Gawain rode up and took her horse. “Is she alright?” he asked concerned.

Tristan shook his head “Nay, as far from it as night is from day.”

All the knights exchanged looks and changed formation. Instead of riding in twos as usual, they moved Tristan and Jules to the middle and basically surrounded them with Arthur at point.

“We will take care of our Birdie” whispered Bors, leaning over to the terrified girl.

She moved her head slightly in thanks. The tablet still gripped in white knuckled hands, causing the knights’ hearts to break anew.

It was when they went through the fort’s gate that the duty soldiers made a fundamental error; on so many levels.

“Coo, Tristan you got a nice bit of flesh there! Let us have a go when you are finished? I could do with a good bit of rump to keep my lap warm!” One roared turning to his friend; only to find himself instead face to face with a furious Lancelot on his horse, and both his swords at the ready to take his head.

Tristan felt her flinch at the man’s words, and begin to tremble even more; he glared at the soldier – his hand fingering the dagger in his boot.

Arthur looked round and saw everything unravelling; the other knights, with the exception of Tristan, were moving forward to aid Lancelot. But he knew the scout could kill the man with a dagger throw from three times the distance he was at now. Three days of pent up anger and hatred of all things roman were finally being given an outlet.

“If you ever speak about her like that again I will cut you down where you stand, you bastard piece of roman crap!Lancelot hissed at the terrified man.

“Let us practice my ideas on him.” leered Bors.

Even the usually calm Dagonet had nudged his horse forward giving a few practice swings of his axe; Gawain and Galahad were also glaring and brandishing their weapons.

Before Arthur could do or say anything the tablet was thrust in his face. “She says - Do NOT…”

“What?” All heads turned to her, allowing the man to try to escape only to be grabbed by Bors.

They saw her shaking her head under Tristan’s cloak. She wrote again -

I fare well. Very well.

PLEASE.

They could see her taking big breaths to stay calm…..”You are not ‘very well’!” ground out Lancelot, after Arthur read it.

A hand reached out and patted his arm trying to calm him, but he could see it shaking and was not reassured.

“You are on report.” Arthur said to the soldier. “You will be docked a week’s pay. Hopefully that will cool your ardour.”

The man was only happy to be alive, he knew what vicious fighters the Sarmatian knights were; he ran off without a backward glance as Bors reluctantly let him go.

“Come knights!” They regrouped around Tristan again and went directly to their stables, Jols opened the doors and they rode straight in. He was a little surprised, especially to see Tristan with a battered woman clinging to him as if her very life depended on it, but said nothing.

Tristan helped her down as Arthur explained all to Jols. Like the knights, the steward’s heart went out to the young woman.

Tristan turned to Arthur “She cannot stay here – I will take her to my room. It is on the second floor, so no easy access.”

His commander and friend nodded “Go.”

The scout swept her up into his arms and strode away with her.

Arthur watched them leave. He turned to the other men; “Look, I know this is going to be hard. But do you honestly think it is going to help her if you kill or get into a brawl with every Roman soldier that even takes a deep breath near her?”

“He did more than take a bloody deep breath!” exclaimed Lancelot angrily.

“I know, I know. But we must try and get control; I want the one responsible for this, the soldiers got away – and those here may be like them, but they are not them. I do not want the one who owned her to be forgotten because we are too busy settling scores with this scum on the side. Agreed?”

The others nodded reluctantly. Arthur sighed “Good. Because that bastard is the one I want…..”

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

Tristan brought her to his room; kicking open the door as he strode in. He sat her on the bed, pulling his cloak from her face as he did so.

He crouched in front of her “Better? It is over now, they are gone.”

She nodded. He had to peel her hands away from the tablet. Her fingers bent to hold the board so tightly they were almost seized. She had wrecked it; the wax was not so good from over use anyway, but her fingers were almost buried in it now.

Though they would at least be able to keep her supplied with new ones in future; along with ink and parchment should she wish it.

She looked at him earnestly and then wrote -

I am sorry to be such a burden.

To cause so much concern.

“It was not your doing he was there. I will get you another tablet; a new one.” He went to leave. She grabbed his hand, eyes wide and frightened, shaking her head as she looked up at him.

“I will return; it will be but a moment.”

She sat there after he had gone. She looked round the room and saw a chair in the corner; taking it she wedged it under the handle with shaking hands. Before going back to the bed and lying down; wide terrified eyes fixed on the door……...


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