02. Her Plan

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"You will regret this. The Margrave has ways of persuading people. The first of his men will be arriving in a few days. More will follow. Then you will see what you have done!"

Those had been the herald's last words before he had departed. And, indeed, Ayla was already regretting her choice. Not for herself, no. Never for herself. She would rather have died than become the wife of a man like Falkenstein.

Most women would have jumped at the chance to marry the Margrave: by all accounts, he was young, quite handsome, and the best jouster between Cologne and Magdeburg. But he was also power-hungry, fanatical, and cruel, continuously extending his dominion by waging war on his neighbors.

As he now planned to wage war on her.

No, if it was only herself she had to think about, the herald's words wouldn't have given her a moment's concern. But she had to think of much more.

Slowly, Ayla walked to the window and thrust it open. From the main hall of Luntberg Castle, one had a wonderful view over the Lunt Valley: a peaceful dale, divided by a river spanned by a single picturesque bridge. The water glittered in the morning sunlight, and even up here, high up on the Luntberg, she thought she could hear the birds singing in the trees.

Soon, the sight from up here would not be so peaceful anymore. Soon, there would be soldiers marching up the valley, burning and looting as they went. All because she, in a moment of anger, had put her own needs over those of her people.

If she agreed to marry the Margrave von Falkenstein, however, maybe things would be different. Maybe she could...

Ayla felt something wet on her cheek. When she reached up and touched it, she realized that it was a tear.

"Milady?"

Quickly, she wiped the tears away with her sleeve and turned to see Burchard, her father's old steward, who had been waiting at the door during her talk with the herald and had just now entered the hall. When he saw her expression, his own darkened, and he was in front of her with five quick steps. "Milady, you aren't honestly thinking of giving in to that blaggard?"

"But what will happen if I don't?" she said, and was angry at herself because her voice sounded like a sniffle. "The Margrave will wage war on us, and the people will have to suffer for my selfishness."

"Stop trying to be a martyr," Burchard growled, knitting his eyebrows as only Burchard could. He had very impressive bushy, black eyebrows, just perfect for knitting. "Use your head for just one minute, will you? If you think the people will suffer at the hands of the Margrave von Falkenstein because of a few weeks of feuding, how much more do you think they'll suffer from a few decades of his rule? Do you really want to subject your people to that? Are you such a coward, little girl?"

Ayla immediately stopped crying and turned red with anger—which was, as she later admitted to herself, probably exactly what the old steward had been aiming to achieve. It was a terrible affliction, having someone as a servant who had known you right from the cradle.

"I'm not a little girl," she snapped.

"Aren't you?" Burchard raised one of his eyebrows. When he raised his eyebrows, it was just as impressive as when he knit them. His wrinkled forehead and big, black beard complemented the effect. "At the moment, you seem to be acting like one. On the other hand, I saw a young woman in here a couple of minutes ago. A young woman who wasn't afraid to stand up for herself and her people to the impudent demands of a man twice her age with a reputation that would make a battle-hardened warrior blanch. Maybe she's still around."

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