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15. Stolen Youth and Black-pudding

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Ayla entered the familiar circular tower chamber with its bright tapestries and broad, horn-pane windows. She had always loved those windows, as had her father. This high up in the castle, far above the reach of any arrows, the builder had judged it safe to install really broad windows, not just broader versions of arrowslits, and they granted an even more impressive view of the valley than the narrow windows in the main hall or the guest rooms did.

Beside the largest of the windows stood a bed, and on the bed lay a frail figure.

“Ayla? Come closer so I can see you.”

Hesitantly, Ayla stepped closer and knelt before the fragile old man. She was shocked by what she saw, and for a moment wondered why. After all, she had got used to how small and weak her father had become over the years. Yet, she realized, seeing another figure lying on another bedstead today, a figure in the prime of his youth and as tall and strong as the Count had once been, had brought the decline of old age into sharper focus.

Careful to keep the shock from her face, she raised her hand and stroked Count Thomas' white beard.

“Hello, Father,” she said in a low voice, hardly able to keep herself from choking. Now she would have to tell him. She would have to destroy what little peace he still had. She couldn't bear it! But she had to tell him about the feud; it was her duty.

“Sorry I haven't come to see you all day. It's just... something has happened. I... um...”

“He has declared a feud, hasn't he?” The Count sighed. “I wonder what took him so long.”

Ayla's mouth dropped open. “He? What do you mean he has declared...? How do you know? Which he?”

“The Margrave von Falkenstein, of course,” Count Thomas said. “We are talking about the Margrave, aren't we? Don't say another power-hungry noble has beaten him to it?”

“It is the Margrave! What I want to know is how you knew already. He only sent me the gauntlet today!”

The Count sighed. “Oh, Ayla. I’ve known for a very long time that something like this was going to happen. For years and years I watched Falkenstein declare one feud after another, swallowing up every fiefdom in the neighborhood. His power has been growing constantly, and with his power his hunger for more. I tried to warn the other nobles, but nobody would listen to me.”

“How come I didn't know anything about that?” Ayla demanded, anger replacing her shame. “How come you didn't tell me?”

“You were still a little girl, Ayla. Falkenstein has been playing this game for years, and he's a careful player, always sending out generous gifts to every noble around him, promising he is their friend, their ally—until his troops stand at the border and it is too late for them to realize his true nature.” The Count's eyes became sad. “I'm sorry, Ayla. I should have taken action long ago, should have faced him in battle before he became as powerful as he is today. But I hesitated. To draw the bloody sword of war is a terrible thing. I hesitated too long. My sickness struck, and it was too late. Too late... Now I could not draw a sword even if I wanted to. Now you will have to face him. My little girl.”

He held open his frail arms and Ayla rushed into his embrace, hugging him back with probably a little bit too much force. She quietly sobbed into his shoulder.

“Shh.” The Count's voice was a raspy whisper. “It's all right. Everything is going to be all right, honey.”

“No it's not, and you know that!”

“Yes, I do. I'm so sorry, Ayla.”

“For what?”

“For you having to face the result of my negligence as a liege lord.”

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