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06. Listening in

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The sounds of battle slowly subsided as Ayla hurried towards their origin. One blade after another went silent and spoke no more. She knew why: its wielder had met with an untimely end, had met with a faster blade. One side seemed to be winning the combat. She hoped against hope that it was not Falkenstein.

With ruffled skirts, Ayla ran from tree to tree, always keeping behind cover and watching the path before her closely. Despite what Burchard might think, she was not an irresponsible girl taking every opportunity to stick her nose into trouble. She was a responsible woman taking every opportunity to stick her nose into trouble—if by so doing she could help others. Whoever was fighting up there was fighting against the Margrave Markus von Falkenstein, fighting valiantly by the sound of it. That was more than enough reason for her to risk her neck.

As she neared the place of the fight, she slipped from the path into the trees. Ayla knew this forest well; as a little girl she had gone riding out here often. She recognized the place in front of her. Not twenty yards away was a clearing where pilgrims and other travelers often stopped on their way to the castle. Now, it seemed, the clearing was much less peaceful.

The sound of the furious blows intensified as Ayla crept nearer. And then, suddenly, there were the cries of men:

“That's the devil! Run! He's not human!”

And another voice, trying to be commanding, but quivering with fear: “Stand and fight, you cowards! Fight or the Margrave will have your heads!”

Ayla tried to catch a glimpse of what was going on, but the foliage was too dense; it blocked her view.

And then, a second later, she was almost glad for it. From the center of the clearing came a truly frightening sound, an animalistic growl that seemed to reverberate around the entire forest and make even the trees shudder with fear. A hailstorm of blows followed, and a cacophony of cries of human pain.

“Stand and fight, or the Margrave...”

“Dammit, I don't care about the Margrave! Run!”

“Run for your lives!”

“Stand and fight, I say! You have sworn an oaaaarrr...!”

The cry ceased abruptly.

“Captain! Captain!”

But the captain did not answer.

Instead, another sound reverberated around the clearing, a sound even more frightening than the growl: a devilish laughter, seeming to glory in the violence and gore.

“Damn you! I'll kill you for that, I'll kill y—”

But apparently, this man was not any more successful than his commander and dozens of other men had been. The unknown force that had growled and laughed like the devil cut him short in mid-sentence.

“He's not human, I tell you! Run!”


The cry was picked up by many a fearful man. Then, suddenly, another terrified voice shouted:

“Conrad! Get him from behind! The others, get out of the way, now!”

There was a zitt-noise, a thump, and then, suddenly, there was silence.

Utter silence.

Ayla was just about to peek around a tree and risk a glance into the clearing, when a man's hand grabbed her from behind. A scream raced up her throat, but before it could escape her mouth, a gloved hand clamped down over her lips.

“Are you totally insane?” Burchard hissed into her ear and dragged her back. “-Milady?” he added as a polite afterthought.

She shook her head.

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