18. The Enemy

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Tired but satisfied, Ayla left Reuben's quarters an hour later. She was fairly sure she had prevented any festering. Just before she left, she had drilled it into him again to move as little as possible. But she knew he wouldn't be able to anyway. Any movement would still cause enough pain to have him writhing on the floor. He would have to stay where he was, and he would get better.

The question was: Why did that knowledge fill her with such overwhelming relief?

Shaking her head, she pushed Reuben to the back of her mind, where he belonged. Crossing the entry hall, she stepped out of the keep and saw Isenbard already waiting at the gates of the inner wall ring, his stallion beside him.

He nodded to her and pointed down towards the bridge, raising an eyebrow a fraction of an inch. This had always been his way: never waste a word you might need later.

“Yes, we're going,” she said.

He climbed his horse. Ayla didn't waste time calling for another horse to be saddled. She felt too sad about the loss of Eleanor to be riding herself anyway. “Could you give me a lift, Uncle?”

He held out a gauntleted hand. She took it and swung herself into the saddle in front of him. He spurred his horse and they galloped out of the gate and down the mountain path. Ayla held on tightly to the arms clasped around her waist so as not to fall off the gigantic animal. She wasn't used to riding a horse this big and powerful.

“Are your men settled in?” she asked, breathlessly.

“Yes.”

“And Burchard told you everything?”

“Everything about the feud, Milady.”

You always had to listen very closely to Isenbard. There was always more to his short sentences than was apparent at first.

“So what didn't he tell you?”

“He wasn't very specific about this robber knight, Milady.”

“Does he matter? He's somewhere on the other side on the river, and he's just one man.”

“Every enemy matters. Tell me.”

Ayla knew it was useless to argue with Isenbard. You could just as well try and persuade a mountain to move. So she told him about the robbery—except the details about where the knight had grabbed her to get her off her horse. No way was she going to admit that to her Uncle Ironbeard! He listened with the intensity of a man who knew how to be silent. However, while paying close attention, he didn't seem very interested in the story—not until she mentioned the knight's red attire.

Immediately, she could feel him stiffen behind her.

“Red?” he asked sharply. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, absolutely. Blood-red. Why do you ask?”

“Not that one,” she heard him mutter under his breath. “Lord, let it be someone else.”

“Uncle?” She tried to twist around to look at his face.

“Sit still, girl! We're galloping down a mountain! Do you want to fall off and break your neck?”

“Sorry!” she whispered, turning to face the path again. “Uncle, what's the matter?”

He sighed. “I guess you wouldn't know, you've never been to a tournament. Red isn't a color that is used in coats of arms within the Holy Roman Empire, generally. It's only used abroad, for example in England. Did the knight sound foreign to you?”

“I don't think so.” Ayla's reply was hesitant. “But then, I've never met an Englishman. He didn't sound foreign to me.”

Isenbard was silent.

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