16. Sir Isenbard

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I was only checking on his health. That's all. I was only checking on his health. My hand slipped from his forehead by pure accident. That became Ayla's mantra the next morning, directly after waking up. She was more than a little disturbed by what she had done, what she had felt, when she had suddenly been so close to Reuben, and alone with him in the dark. That her dreams that night had reflected those feelings hadn't helped matters much. Just to think of them made Ayla blush.

She couldn't allow herself to think of him in that way. For God's sake, the man was a commoner, and an arrogant piece of horse manure to boot!

“Milady?”

Ayla's head jerked up. Dilli was standing in front of her, a steaming bowl of soup in her hands.

“Oh, Dilli, it's you. Why didn't you knock?”

“I did, Milady. Three times, in fact. You seemed to be... preoccupied.”

“Sorry, Dilli. I was just thinking... about the siege. Yes, that's what I was thinking about.” She eyed the bowl in Dilli's hand suspiciously. “What's that?”

“You had a tiring day, yesterday. I thought you might appreciate breakfast in bed.”

“Thanks, Dilli. That's so nice of you.”

With a smile, Ayla took the bowl from the maid and began to spoon the soup into her mouth. It was so hot that it almost burned her throat, but it helped to revive her and get her thoughts back to where they were supposed to be.

“How are things with the castle servants, Dilli?” she asked. “What do they think about this business?”

Dilli gnawed on her lower lip. “Well, everybody is anxious of course, and there's been a bit of rumbling about the rationing, when no one has even seen so much as one of Falkenstein's banners yet. But nothing serious.”

“So they...” Ayla hesitated, then plowed on in a rush: “So they don't think I'm an incompetent little girl who is dooming them all to death and destruction?”

Dilli looked truly shocked. “No, of course not, Milady! Whoever could think such a thing?”

“Err... well, never mind,” Ayla muttered and returned her attention to her soup, her face reddening.

Dilli didn't leave, eying her mistress with concern.

“Dilli?”

“Yes?”

“Did you wander through the castle last night?”

“During the night? No, Milady.”

“And any of the other maids or servants?”

“Not to my knowledge, Milady.”

“Thanks, Dilli.”

Ayla fell into silence again and continued eating. She had almost finished her meal when, from outside the castle, there came a faint sound, long and deep.

Ayla's hand froze halfway to her mouth. “Did you hear that?”

“What, Milady?”

Again, the sound rang out, louder this time, unmistakable.

“That!” Ayla shouted and sprang up, delight shining on her face.

When she looked at Dilli, the maid's features were similarly glowing with relief and happiness. Of course! Everybody in the castle knew that sound, had known it ever since they were little: the horn of Sir Isenbard.

“He has come!” Ayla cried. “Dilli, he has come! My things, quickly! I have to get down there! We haven't got a moment to lose!”

“Sir Isenbard is here,” Dilli sighed, as she helped her mistress into her clothing. “Now we are safe.”

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