03. Sir Reuben and the Doll

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Sir Reuben sat on his horse counting money. It was one of his favorite activities—the counting of money, not the sitting on the back of a horse. Not that he didn't like to ride. There was just the fact that if you did it long enough, it gave you a sore ass, which never happened from counting money.

“...twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two.”

He closed the purse contentedly and let it hang loosely from his hand. There was nothing better than the tinkling of gold, except of course the tinkling of stolen gold.

Reuben smiled to himself.

The merchant had really been an amusing fellow. He honestly believed he had a right to keep the money he had earned. Well, maybe he had, in a strictly judicial sense. But Reuben's sword tickling his chubby cheeks had soon convinced him otherwise.

The knight was so lost in his happy reminiscences that he almost missed the hoof prints. Almost, for he was Sir Reuben Rachwild. While one eye always looked at what he wanted to see, the other kept a close look on what he needed to see. It was a talent that had kept him alive these past six years.

The hoof prints were not deep. They were also very far apart, which indicated speed. A light, nimble animal whose rider was in a great hurry. It had to be a Palfrey or a Jennet. Knights’ chargers, carthorses, and plowhorses were big, heavy animals that didn't move fast and whose hoofs left deep impressions in the dirt. Palfreys and Jennets were the only kinds of light horses. He would have given the matter no further thought, had he not suddenly reached a fork in the forest path he was riding on.

The hoof prints led down to the left.

Sir Reuben stopped his horse.

He had seen what was down there earlier, when he had come riding into this valley: nothing but a few farms and a lot of forest. It was a dead end. What would any rider be doing down there? Especially someone who rode such a light, nimble, and surely expensive horse?

Maybe it was a priest visiting his parishioners?

But then Reuben noticed a strange mark left in the dirt, inside the hoof print. Swiftly, he jumped to the ground and examined the dirt more closely. As part of the hoof print, there was the tiny print of a symbol left in the mud: a crest such as only nobles used to mark their precious horses.

Hm... no knight on his charger, that much had already been established. So it had to be a noblewoman. And for some reason she was riding to these farms, and from what he knew of noblewomen, probably not to spend the night there. She would come back soon, eager to return to her warm chamber and comfortable bed...

A grin spread over Sir Reuben's face.

This day just kept getting better and better. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than robbing people, it was robbing stuck-up, stinking rich noble people!

*~*~**~*~*

To say that Gelther the peasant was surprised when his mistress rode up to his house in full gallop would be something of an understatement. He actually dropped the ax he was holding, and it was only sheer luck that he didn't slice off his toes.

“L-lady Ayla,” he stammered, rushing forward to bow. “We are honored by your presence. Please, let me help you down.”

But Ayla had already slid off Eleanor's back. She saw Gelther's wife peering out of the farmhouse door and swallowed. This was not going to be easy.

“We don't have time for pleasantries, Gelther,” she said, her tone much more gentle than her words. “I come bearing black tidings.”

She explained how Falkenstein had declared a feud, omitting only the marriage option. She was not sure how they would take the news that she had essentially refused peace. Although she knew Burchard was right and a feud against Falkenstein was infinitely preferable to peace united with him, she could not totally silence the small voice in the back of her mind that told her she had not done her duty to her people.

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