Coffee Break Read – First Sight

From 'When Julia Met Edbert' in Dying to be Friends by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago

Three hours later, Julia peeled off from her escort outside a small hut that commanded a view of three tracks through the forest.

“You stick around the hut, girl. And if anybody wants to pass, you just salute and let them through. I dunno what is going on. But I don’t much care for guards being set up. Even pocket-sized moechas like you.”

Julia snapped him a salute, and he grinned showing a set of distressingly yellow teeth.

“I’m tempted to leave somebody with you, but we are so short handed I dare not. You just be careful missy.”

Then he and his detachment were gone.

Julia went into the hut and unloaded her food bag, before setting up the hut’s unreliably shielded coms link, thus making sure the place looked inhabited to a casual eye. She carried the rest of her belongings to a broad-trucked oak tree where she dropped the bag on the ground. Several trips, and a good deal of climbing, later she was satisfied with her arboreal nest. She sat in an accommodating fork right at the centre of the crown of the tree. She was barefoot, with two gel mattresses under her and a carefully woven twiggy roof over her head. She opened a self-heating food pouch with a momentary longing for the thick, tasty stew she had abandoned below. But, then again, stew laced with sleeping drugs…

Thanking her lucky stars that it was Augustus not December, she leaned against the rough tree trunk and closed her eyes. She must have drifted off to sleep because she was startled into wakefulness by the sound of coarse masculine voices speaking in a language that was definitely not Latin.

“Well, here’s the hut. Where’s the woman?”

“She can’t be far. Her stuff’s here.”

“It is indeed. So we wait. Khulan. You and the boy tether the northman and the hounds.”

At the sound of the coarse male voice speaking the Mongol tongue, Julia felt herself regressing to a twelve-year-old girl. A girl taken prisoner by Mongols and beaten half to death for disobedience before they tied her to a wooden bar and took turns raping her. She had been sure they were going to kill her, and they may well have done so had not a half a century of Legionaries arrived in the nick of time. She didn’t like to admit it, even to herself, but she still had nightmares – particularly about one Chingis, who had been amusing himself with a ligature about her throat in the moments before he met his demise.

She dragged her mind back to the here and now and peered cautiously around a branch. Right below her, a small flat-faced man was tying a blond giant to the very tree on which she sat. The blond had his hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck by which he was being secured to the huge trunk. Additionally, another man was tying two thin grey dogs to another tree, cruelly tightly. When they had done that, they picketed half a dozen sturdy short legged ponies, carefully choosing the less rich grass at the forest edge.

Julia held her breath, not moving a muscle, until a loud voice called from inside the hut.

“There’s a big pot of bantan here, and the woman won’t have any use for it. I’ve heated it. We may as well eat.”

The two braided Mongols cantered back towards the hut and Julia let out a careful breath. It seemed like she might be about to have a stroke of luck.

She dropped an acorn on the head of the man tied beneath her. He looked up incuriously, but his eyes widened when he realised there was a woman in the tree. Julia put a finger to her lips and smiled down. The big man nodded then allowed his head to drop back onto his chest.

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