03. A Lesson of Blood

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At first, Ayla didn't realize what was going on. She was utterly fixated on Reuben, facing away from the gate of the inner wall—so at first, she didn't have a chance to see the two soldiers with the struggling bundle in between. Even when she did, she couldn't believe what she saw. That couldn't be a child they were carrying, could it? An innocent young boy? And Reuben couldn't have said what she thought he had just said, could he? He loved her. No man capable of love would contemplate killing an innocent, young...

No! It wasn't possible!

But then he strode off towards the child, sword raised. Fear gripped Ayla, binding her in chains of terror. She couldn't move an inch or make a sound. She was paralyzed.

"Sir Reuben!" Volvrad, the father of the boy, was pale as death, and his voice was hardly more than a hoarse whisper. "Surely you don't mean..."

"I mean exactly what I say, peasant," Reuben told him without faltering in his step. "Now be silent!"

"Sir Reuben! Tell your men to let my boy go!"

"Since when do serfs give orders to their masters, peasant? Be silent and watch a true knight dispense mercy!"

"Sir Reuben... please... Please, Milord..." Volrad's voice was hardly audible now. Out of the corner of her eye, Ayla could see he was shaking badly and couldn't take his eyes off his boy up at the gate.

"That's better," Reuben grunted. "Begging befits a maggot like you. Get down on your knees and grovel! Now!"

Obediently, Volrad sank down on his knees. It didn't look like his legs could have supported him for much longer, in any case. "Please, Milord! Please, I beg you. Spare my boy!"

"Oh, I will." Reuben made a sign to the soldiers, and one of them let go of the boy's arms and instead gripped his legs, lifting him so that he was suspended in the air and totally helpless. "I already told you. I will grant him the mercy of a quick death. It will spare him a great deal of suffering."

"No! Please, Milord! Please, I beg you..."

But Volrad didn't get out another word. At that very moment, a figure pushed him to the side and darted up the hill: a small woman with mousy brown hair. His wife! Ayla watched, spellbound, as she ran up the hill faster than a hare and threw herself onto Reuben, grabbing his swordarm. Her face was contorted in fear bordering on madness.

"Please! Milord, please! Don't hurt my boy! He's all I've got in the world. Please! I'll do anything! Anything! Just don't..."

"Men!" Reuben bellowed. A few soldiers sprang forward. They grabbed the woman by the arms and started dragging her away, ignoring her pleas and desperate attempts to free herself. Some dispassionate part of Ayla's mind noted that these weren't Luntberg men-at-arms she had known since she was little: they were former members of the mercenary army that had attacked Luntberg, men to whom Reuben had granted quarter. So, incidentally, were the soldiers holding young Peyr, son of Volrad, up at the gate. Reuben must have known that they would be prepared to do anything he commanded.

They are the only soldiers who would always take his commands over mine. He has planned this well in advance and thought it through thoroughly.

Suddenly, a high scream pierced the morning air. Ayla's eyes flicked up and saw that up at the gate, the little boy had managed to spit the gag out of his mouth. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, begging for help. Reality came rushing back in a tidal wave. What was she doing, still standing here? She couldn't let this happen! Hot, angry moisture threatened at the corners of her eyes, her gaze flitting between the little boy and Reuben. What madness had seized him? She knew he'd been an evil once, but she had thought that...

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