07. A Stranger among the Carrion

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A terrible and strange sight met their eyes. Dozens of dead bodies littered the ground: bloody, mangled, their faces contorted into masks of terror frozen in death. What was strange, however, was not the enormity of the carnage, but the fact that of all the men lying in the clearing, only one did not bear the crest of the Falkensteins: a black-haired man in bloody linen clothes, lying on his face, with three arrows jutting out of his back. He lay at the center of a circle of enemy soldiers surrounding him.

Ayla tried to swallow but could not. Her eyes wandered over the dozens of Falkenstein's soldiers that lay slain. A grizzly sight, yes, but also one that gave her a strange, fierce kind of hope.

It can be done! The thought shot through her head. He is not invincible!

“Where... where are all the men who did this?” she asked out loud. She tried to keep her voice steady, yet didn't quite manage it. Somehow, she felt queasy. What was wrong with her? Had she eaten something bad this morning? It couldn't be because of this, could it? These were her enemies!

She tried to avert her eyes from the slaughter but could not. “It had to have been a considerable force. Where could they have gone?”

“They probably fled,” Burchard grunted.

Ayla threw him a sideways glance and was surprised to see that his face had turned pale. Did she, too, look like that?

“Except for this poor fellow.” The steward pointed towards the fallen man with the arrows in his back.

The fallen man whose fingers twitched just at that moment.

Ayla gasped and started to run forward, jumping over dead bodies and bloody blades.

“Milady!” she heard Burchard shout behind her. Ignoring him, she rushed to the man on the ground and knelt by his side.

“Milady, what is it?” demanded the old steward, appearing beside her.

“He moved, Burchard! I swear! I think he isn't dead. Help me turn him over.”

“Milady, I don't think...”

“Help me turn him over!”

Sighing, Burchard did as she asked. Together, they gripped the man's shoulder and pulled. Ayla could feel his hard muscles under her slender fingers. However, her attention was more focused on another thing her fingers felt: copious amounts of half-dried blood. How could the man still be alive? It was unbelievable. Aided by Burchard, she pulled and pulled. The man was heavier than he looked.

“We aren't going to manage it, Milady,” Burchard said. “Maybe the arrows pinned him to the ground or something.” He raised his arm and wiped the sweat from his face.

Ayla tugged once more—and suddenly, the man rolled onto his side, his head lolling from left to right. She gasped.

“What is it?” In a second, Burchard's arm was away from his face and he was staring down at the stranger. Then he turned to Ayla, a frown on his face. “What's the matter? He looks perfectly normal. He hasn't even got a scratch on his face.”

True, Ayla had to admit. Only the reason for her surprise had nothing whatsoever to do with the young stranger lying before her having some grizzly injury across his face. She was not, however, about to divulge the true reason for her surprised gasp to Burchard—namely that with his long midnight-black hair, prominent chin, and high cheekbones, the young man was without doubt the most handsome man she had ever seen in her life. No, she definitely didn't feel like explaining this to Burchard.

Deprecatingly, she waved a hand, unable to form a coherent sentence.

The only thing that could be said to mar the young man's truly perfect face was a curved scar, like a scimitar, on the left side of his forehead. However, this only served to give him a dangerous look which increased the allure of his features.

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