01. Feud

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Lady Ayla stared down at the gauntlet. Such a simple piece of clothing: five-fingered, made of leather, without any embellishment or embroidery. A glove. Such a simple thing. Just a glove. It meant the end of the world for her.

She looked up at the herald who had brought the gauntlet and managed a sarcastic smile.

"So nice of the Margrave to be concerned about my well-being. But please tell him from me that the castle is well-heated, and if I need to put on a glove, I have dozens of my own. Oh yes, and tell him next time he wishes to send me a gift, to send a pair of gloves. Gives a much better impression."

The herald more than matched her smile. And why not? He had all the reasons in the world to smile—while she most certainly had none.

"You know very well that this is not a gift, Lady Ayla," he said, his voice sounding superior and insolent. "The gauntlet is not for you. It is for your father, Count Thomas. The Margrave von Falkenstein hereby throws down the gauntlet and declares a feud against him and all those he harbors within his walls."

Lady Ayla stood up. Sitting, she had been on about equal level with the narrow eyes of the little man who had come to declare the end of what had hitherto been her life. Now, standing on the raised platform at the end of the great hall where her father's chair stood, she towered over him. It made her feel slightly better, but only slightly, because she knew it was all a pretense. The man was in control here. Though he was alone, and they were in her home, her father's castle, surrounded by her father's servants, he was in control. Or rather, his master was.

"Will you be so good as to have your father fetched, Milady?" the herald asked. "So that he can pick up the gauntlet, as is the custom?"

"You know very well," Ayla said in a dangerously steady voice, "that my father is a sick old man who cannot even walk on his own legs anymore, let alone fight battles."

The herald sighed. "Oh, very well. It is just a formality, after all. Here is the legally binding document."

He held up a roll of parchment. At one end, Ayla could see the Margrave's seal in shining red wax. She knew what it was immediately: the letter of feud declaration. The herald thrust the parchment at one of her servants, who caught it with a yelp and stumbled back.

Ayla didn't give it a second glance. It would contain many pretty words, but they would not be enough to conceal the real content, the same ugly message sent by the gauntlet on the stone floor in front of her: I want what is yours, and I will take it by force.

"On what grounds does your master declare this feud?" she demanded, her voice trembling now. With rage? Fear? She wasn't quite sure herself. "What ill have we ever done him? What justification does he have for his actions?"

"Justification?" Hiding a smirk, the herald shrugged. "I'm sure one can be found—after he has burned your castle to the ground and made your lands his own. He is in no hurry."

That dastardly comment would have left Lady Ayla speechless, or more likely disbelieving, had she not known the man behind the words. Falkenstein was not a man to make idle threats; he enjoyed making real ones far too much.

"But," the herald continued, "there might be a way to avoid unpleasantness and spare your people the hardships of the feud to come."

Ayla frowned. "Is the Margrave von Falkenstein getting soft in his old days? He has declared five feuds over the last three years, and in none of those cases did he have a shred of mercy for his victims."

"Ah, yes," the herald concurred merrily. "But, you see, in none of those cases did his adversary have a fair maiden for a daughter who is renowned for her beauty far beyond the borders of her father's lands."

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