18. The Tree of the Knowledge of Only Evil

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Reuben reined in his horse. In front of him stretched the slopes of gentle hills, slowly flattening into a meadow which, just a short time ago, had been covered with clover, daisies and marguerites. Now it was covered with Reuben's favorite kind of flowers: broken spears and spatters of blood. Beyond the meadow, the rush of the river surged up out of the darkness, demarcating the thin line between Luntberg lands and enemy territory. The entire scene was cast into shades of black by the uncertain light of stars that hid their faces behind the clouds half of the time.

If Reuben had had anyone to pray to, he would have prayed the clouds stayed where they were. Since he didn't give a rat's ass for any deity, he simply raised his face to the heavens, sending up a threatening glare.

"Stay!" he hissed. "Or I'll climb up there and nail you to the firmament!"

Maybe it was just his imagination, but the clouds seemed to move a little slower after that. He smiled.

"Sir? Sir, where are you?" he heard a voice from behind him, accompanied by the soft thud of hooves.

"Here, men!"

His troop of guards, which he had left considerably behind on his ride down from the castle, appeared out of the darkness and gathered round.

"Shouldn't we have lit torches, Sir?" one of them muttered, looking around, anxiously. "We might lose each other in the dark."

Reuben gave the man a scathing look. He was one of the new peasant recruits, but really, even peasants should be able to string two thoughts together.

"And announce our presence to every single enemy scout on the opposite bank?" he asked, coldly. "Yes, that's a brilliant idea. Why didn't I think of that?"

The peasant changed color. It was too dark to really see whether he reddened or paled, but Reuben didn't care about some villain's coloring.

Turning, he looked back up at the castle, which from here was visible as nothing more than a mass of black, blocking out the faint stars.

Somewhere up there she's waiting, relying on you to save her all by yourself.

Admittedly, she had not shown a great willingness to let him save her, but what did he care for other people's opinions? He was going to damn well save her, whether she wanted to or not!

"Come on," he growled, turning his horse and motioning to his soldiers to follow him. "Let's get down to the river."

He had to get out of sight of the castle. The sight of those walls alone was enough to make him think of nothing but Ayla, and now that he had a job to do, he had to get her out of his head as quickly as possible.

But how could he? How could anyone stop thinking about someone so incomprehensible, someone that maddening, with eyes that beautiful? Although at the moment, the former two attributes of his lady were taking up a greater part of Reuben's attention than her sapphire eyes.

He only wished he understood what was the matter with her! Things had happened over the last few days that were beyond his comprehension, and he wasn't even talking about her not letting him torture her enemies to death. No, he was talking about that look on her face. That look. The wistful one, when her eyes turned so big and soulful that it made his heart ache the way it had never done before. She only ever turned that look on him.

It was clear that she wanted something from him. Of course she did—she wanted him, and he wanted her. But whenever he tried to seduce her, she got that look in her eyes, gazing up at him hopefully, as if she were expecting...what?

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