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13. Sewing Survival Tactics

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Ayla stood on the bridge looking after the three riders who were galloping off in different directions, but all of them generally westwards, all of them going in search of one of her vassals. She hoped to God the three knights would be at home and not out hunting or something similar. The defenders of Luntberg couldn't afford to lose any more time than they already had.

Looking to the west, Ayla noticed for the first time that the sun had begun to sink towards the horizon. She had been so busy trying to save the ungrateful hide of that villain up in the castle that she hadn't realized how much time had elapsed. The day was almost over. Worried, she turned towards the east and searched the landscape for approaching figures. The setting sun tinged the forests crimson, as though it were autumn and not summer—or as though blood had painted the leaves of the forest red.

Where were the peasants from the eastern farms? They should be here by now.

“Milady?” Burchard stepped onto the bridge beside her, accompanied by a few villagers. “Do you have any other commands?”

Ayla shook her head. She couldn't waste time worrying about those seven families now. There were dozens of families in her care. So many. Too many. And they all depended on her, a seventeen-year-old girl, to guide them through the approaching darkness. For a moment, she was near tears. Then, taking a deep breath, she raised her chin defiantly, facing the sea of blood-red light which was flooding her eastern lands.

She was a Luntberg. She was her father's daughter, and she was not going to give up.

“Indeed, I have,” she said, turning sideways to face the waiting people. “Burchard!”

The steward abruptly stood straighter, hearing the unusually commanding tone of her voice. „Yes, Milady!”

“Organize the best castle guards into a watch. They are to guard this bridge at all times. Always, at least six men are to be present: one stationed on the eastern side and one on the western side, each equipped with a torch during the night.”

“And what of the remaining four, Milady?”

Ayla smiled. “Three are to be spread on the eastern bank as lookouts, one is to stay with a horse on the western bank. None of them are to have torches, and they are to keep themselves concealed at all times, so when the enemy approaches, Falkenstein's men won't be able to kill them from afar with bows and arrows. It will be the job of the three men on the eastern bank to defend the bridge until the rider has had time to fetch reinforcements.”

Burchard bowed, a proud gleam in his eyes. “Yes, Milady.”

“Oh, and one more thing.” A hard glint entered Ayla's eyes. “If, by any chance, a knight in red armor should pass this way, seize him, clap him in irons, and bring him to me.”

“Yes, Milady!”

“You.” Ayla pointed to a peasant, who took a step backwards.

“Me, Milady?”

“Yes, you. I want you to gather all the wagons and handbarrows you can find, and some trustworthy men, and bring everything edible from the village into the castle.”

Surprise and anger flitted across the man's face, before he could suppress the emotions. One could see his jaw working, as he knelt, and said: “As you wish, Milady.”

He rose and began to turn, but Ayla said: “Stop.”

The man turned back, looking even more resentful. Ayla could feel the stares of the other villagers on her. They didn't seem much happier about her order.

“Do you understand why I am giving you this order?” she asked in a soft voice.

“I think I do, Milady.”

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