Power Play pt.2
Lady Marian of Knighton did not make a habit of having sobbing Saracens dragged into her castle bedchambers – not even as an amusing distraction on those long, boring, afternoons in.
She did, however, make a habit of rescuing the children that the Sheriff was threatening to hang, particularly when they came in with large groups of others who were likely to hang with them. The Sheriff tended not to notice one or two small bodies missing from the larger crowd, and when he did, he seemed generally uninterested in actually tacking them down, and more in punishing their rescuers. And nobody ever suspected her, meek, mild-mannered gentlewoman of the court that she was, who must have learned her lesson about stepping out of place when her hair was shorn the month before.
She stepped over the trembling, weeping form of the little grubby boy who now lay upon her bedchamber floor (she’d seen worse reactions in her time) and handed Shep his money poach.
“Don’t spend it all at once.”
“Yes, m’lady,” the guard was most definitely grinning behind that chain mail of his. Marian suspected that he had taken just a little too much pleasure in his task, but she waved him away, trying not to show her distaste.
The boy was barely more than a bundle of skin and bone and filthy rags, topped off by a thatch of short black curls, hacked off around his ears and neck. He could not, Marian decided, be more than about thirteen years old – certainly not old enough for his voice to have broken, if the pitch of those sobs was anything to go by.
He was face down on the floor, in exactly the same position as he had landed in when he had, so triumphantly, been deposited there by Shep a few minutes previously. Marian kept a wary distance. Even little boys could be very, very dangerous indeed when they were that terrified.
Then, when she could stand no more of that pitiful sound, she stepped onto the rug beside him and knelt down next to his head, to place a hand onto those short, matted locks of hair.
“Shh,” she spoke tenderly, “come now – hush. You are quite safe.”
The boy had gone absolutely rigid the moment she made any kind of physical contact. Marian could see every muscle in his body coiling taught, ready, not to spring, but to take the first sting of whatever terrible torment was next.
Feeling her heart break for the poor child, Marian leant over his ragged form and put her arm over his shoulders, in as near to an embrace as could be managed given that he was still face down on the floor.
The boy shuddered, violently, continuing to sob. It was evident that he was trying not to, taking deep, shredded breaths, coughing and wheezing and trembling – but he couldn’t stop. Like a damn had been broken. Marian wondered how long the little boy had been brave, been strong, been more noble than he ought to be.
“There there, little one,” Marian murmured, “it’s alright. It’s over now. It’s all over. You’re safe here. I’ll protect you. Hush now – hush, little one. Hush. You poor little thing – God, what did they do to you?”
She had no idea whether or not the boy could understand her. He was a Saracen, after all, from a very far away land indeed. But she kept speaking none the less, a continuous, comforting murmur, stroking his hair until finally, the sobbing stopped, and he was still for a moment, sniffing and drawing deep, shuddering breaths. He lifted a hand, and rubbed his eyes, turning his cheek to the rug, chewing his lip.
Marian had never seen a more miserable looking specimen in all of her life.
She lowered her head to the rug next to his, so that she could meat his gaze.
“Alright, little one?”
The boy stared at her blankly, for only a moment. His eyes were a deeper, darker, warmer shade of brown than she had ever seen before, the whites pink and pearly with tears, the lashes matted with salt. Then he twisted, quite suddenly, and Marian barely had time to breath before she felt the cold prick of a knife at her neck.
What Djaq had not reckoned on, of course, was a pale-faced noble woman who knew how to handle an attacker.
She was on her back and shrieking in pain, with the noblewoman straddling her waist and forcing the blade from her fist before she’d had time to even think about what she would do once she had slit this latest captor’s throat.
A pair of blue eyes fixed with her own, gazing down with unnerving calm, firmly clamping one hand over her mouth.
“Do you want to get dragged back to the Sheriff’s dungeon?” Her voice was a hiss, “hush, for goodness sake! Hold your tongue or half the guards in the castle will be in here!”
Djaq held her tongue, taking a few deep, shaky breaths. The pain felt like ice-fire raging up her back, a thousand tiny pin-pricks of sensation each screaming in protest at the sudden pressure being placed upon the wounded skin.
“You do understand me, then,” the noblewoman spoke softly. Her accent was clear and sharp, like glass, and her hair hung down over her shoulders in dark, rippling waves.
Djaq swallowed, and then nodded, reluctantly.
“Alright then, I want you to listen to me,” she spoke firmly, keeping one hand on Djaq’s mouth, the other holding the Saracen’s wrists over her head. “You are safe here, do you understand? I’m going to get you out of here, to a safe place. You will not hang, you will not be tortured, you are safe. I am saving you. Now – I’m going to let your hands go, and then I’m going to get off you and you’ll be able to sit up. Are you going to try anything else?”
Djaq slowly shook her head. She felt the other woman gently loosen her grip on her wrists, then let go. Cautiously, Djaq uncrossed her arms but kept them over her head, the palms upraised, fingers splayed. If there was one thing that the last six months had taught her, it was how to show submission to a significantly better armed attacker.
But suddenly, she had a much bigger problem, because the noblewoman had placed a hand on her chest, and stopped.
“You’re not a boy,” her eyebrows shot up, suddenly, and then she grinned, “oh – you are not a boy.”
Djaq closed her eyes.
She supposed she ought to have been grateful to have gotten this far without discovery. The whip had taken the binding off her breasts some hours earlier, but it had been too dark in the dungeon, the torturer to intent on the task rather than her, for anyone to notice her chest. And she had been face down most of the time, anyway. She had managed to cover herself with the rags of her shirt once it was given back to her – glad that her breasts were small (barely a handful each) – and after that she had supposed the discovery of her sex was the least of her problems.
The noblewoman was shaking her head in disbelief.
“Oh, you clever, clever little thing,” she was licking her lips, and there was a spark in her eye, a glint – a look that made Djaq suddenly uneasy. “My name’s Marian; what do they call you?”
“Djaq,” managed Djaq, twisting uncomfortable, “please – let me up. My back. You’re hurting me. Let me up.”
“Djaq’s a boy’s name,” Marian remarked, not getting up. “That’s not the name your mother gave you, surely?”
“I am Djaq,” Djaq insisted, “let me up, please.”
“What’s your real name?” Marian asked, ignoring her.
Djaq groaned, arching her back in a vain attempt to escape her own torment, “please!”
Marian pursed her lips, but got off her, allowing the Saracen to sit up (which she promptly did, shuffling backwards away from the noblewoman as quickly as she could, protectively drawing her knees up to her chest).
Marian had picked up Djaq’s knife, and was twirling it with a disturbing amount of skill, manipulating the blade as if she did so every day. Djaq watched her, unsure whether to be frightened or intrigued. The exhaustion and confusion was threatening to overwhelm her, her shoulders shaking, the flesh on her back on fire.
“What are you going to do with me?” Djaq managed, after a moment of unbearable silence.
“I don’t know,” Marian shrugged. She was sitting at the foot of the bed, her back against a leg.
“Are you…” Djaq licked her lips, trying desperately to stop her hands shaking, “…are you going to send me back? To the dungeon?”
Marian almost laughed, “of course not.”
Djaq nodded, slowly twisting her knuckles.
“Then – what are you… going to do with me?”
The noblewoman tipped her head at her, then shrugged, “well… we’ll have to get you washed and dried and fed and rested… then I’ll find you a way out of here… I know people who know people.”
“Oh.” Djaq had absolutely no idea what to say to that. This sudden, totally unexpected act of mercy felt too good to be true.
And yet, here she was. In somebody’s bedchamber, where it was warm and smelled pleasant, in relatively less pain than she had been in over twenty four hours, in the company of a strange, young, absurdly attractive noblewoman, who was promising her freedom.
She shuddered, and realised that what she really wanted to do was cry again. She wanted to lie down on the floor and beg Allah’s forgiveness for whatever she was meant to have done and plead for mercy, plead for this to be real, for her luck to be turning, for her life to be spared, for her pain to be ended.
She covered her face with her trembling hands and took several deep breaths, desperately trying to regain her composure. Her dignity, she knew, was long gone – ripped from her repeatedly for months now. It was as if she had been knocked out of herself days ago, and finding her sense of self, her identity, her well-being and normalcy… arguably, that had evaporated the day her brother had been killed. She didn’t know where to start. She didn’t know who she was any more.
But she was not a whimpering slave who lay down and wept with gratitude at the first sign of mercy.
“What did they do to you, you poor little thing?” Marian’s voice was as curious as it was sympathetic, but Djaq only wiped the last of her tears away on her hands and shook her head.
“Nothing that will not mend.”
“Physically, at least,” Marian quirked her head again, her gaze thoughtful and searching, “I don’t normally get the women out, you see. I can’t. I can’t get away with it. No one notices when the little ones go missing from larger groups, but when adults do, the Sheriff always knows, and you’re much harder to hide from him.” She paused, then added, hesitantly, “they didn’t… you weren’t…?”
“They didn’t now I was a girl,” Djaq looked down at her filthy, blistered hands and felt a thrill of disgust. She hadn’t been so dirty in months and the stink of the dungeon was suddenly unbearably close to her skin.
“One good thing, at least,” Marian remarked.
Djaq continued to inspect her hands. Her old battle instincts, honed by years of war, were kicking in, and she was assessing her own damage almost automatically. Her back was the most obvious of the problems but, now she began to truly examine herself, she could feel other, more worrying twinges igniting all over her body. A sharp needle in her chest every time she inhaled too deeply. A dull throbbing in her left leg beneath the knee. A buzzing, dizzying sensation behind her eyes.
“Come,” Marian crept over to her, holding out a hand, “you need to wash.”