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21. Welcome Weakness

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Three seconds later, Isenbard came storming into the entrance hall, sword in hand and a ferocious glint in his icy eyes. Ayla's scream had sounded as if a dozen enemies had invaded the castle, but inside, the knight could see nobody but his mistress.

“Ayla?” In a blink he was at her side. “Are you hurt? What's the matter?”

He gripped Ayla, who was kneeling on the floor, roughly by the shoulders, turned her, and inspected her. Only when he was finished with his inspection did he notice the man on the floor beside his lord's daughter—and the tears on her face.

“Who is that?” he demanded.

Ayla tried to speak, but apparently couldn't. The sight of the man lying there in a tangled heap had knocked the breath out of her.

“Who is he?” Isenbard repeated with mounting concern.

“He... he...” Ayla swallowed and tried again. “That's... Reuben.”

“Reuben? The fellow you were taking care of?”

Ayla nodded. Isenbard's eyes wandered between the man on the floor and Ayla's tears, reassessing the situation.

“Well,” he said gruffly, “let's get him upstairs.”

“He isn't... isn't... d-dea—”

The old knight knelt and checked the man's heartbeat. “He's alive.”

Ayla sank against the wall. “Thank God.”

“Hey, you!” Isenbard called to two guards who were passing the keep outside. “Come here!”

The two men hurried inside, and at a gesture from Isenbard, picked up the unconscious fellow on the floor without asking questions. The old knight pointed towards the staircase and the guards started upstairs, needing no further instruction.

Isenbard's mind was hard at work trying to figure out Ayla's response to seeing this fellow Reuben being hurt. It was natural enough, he supposed. She had been through a lot today, seen death and destruction. Having it follow her to her own home had probably been too much. Yes, that had to be it.

Isenbard didn't want to consider the alternative explanation—that her distress had nothing to do with finding a badly-wounded man, but rather with the fact that it was this particular man. That look in Ayla's eyes...

He pushed away the thought. He had other things to worry about at the moment. Anyway, maybe Ayla's surprising behavior didn't need any logical explanation. After all, although mildly sensible, she was a girl.

The surprises of the day weren't over yet. Two castle guards carried the fellow called Reuben up the stairs while Isenbard, supporting Ayla, brought up the rear. Halfway up the stairs, one of the guards almost stumbled over a half-eaten black pudding and chicken leg which lay on the steps. When Ayla saw them, first a smile flickered on her tearful face, then she moaned, “That cheater! That scoundrel of a cheater!” and broke into another fit of tears. Not knowing what else to do with a crying female, Isenbard tried to maneuver her, as gently as possible, into her room.

However, in spite of all the tears blocking her sight, Ayla's eyes still seemed to work fine. She caught on to the fact that she wasn't going the same way as the two guards and wouldn't move another step. So Isenbard just shoved her in after them, into the room where they had put the fellow, and then went in search of some female able to cope with this situation.


When Reuben opened his eyes, everything was fuzzy for a moment. Once his sight became a bit clearer, he saw a by now very familiar stone ceiling. Slowly, he began to turn his head sideways—an action which took a lot more effort than usual—and he spotted a slender figure in a brown dress with brown hair sitting beside him, her face in her hands, turned away from him.

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