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24. Opposing Forces

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When Ayla left the room a little later, having changed Reuben's cataplasms while trying not to think about what parts of him she was seeing and touching, she had a little smile on her face. In the corridor, she met Isenbard.

“He's better, isn't he?” the knight asked, studying her face.

“How did you know?” Ayla inquired, perplexed.

Isenbard shrugged. “Just guessed.” He raised his hand to scratch his beard—on the back of his armored glove, Ayla could see dried smears of blood. Guilt welled up in her, and fearful of what might be hidden behind the usual stoic expression of the old knight, she rushed towards him.

“Oh God, Isenbard, I... I'm so sorry. I totally forgot about Falkenstein's approach! Has there been another battle? There has, hasn't there...? Oh, I'm so terribly sorry. It's just, if I hadn't been there all night, I'm sure he would have died, and I couldn’t...”

He interrupted her with a wave of his hand. “No.”

“No? What do you mean, no?”

“There's been no battle. I just don't clean my mail very often.”

Ayla let out a sigh of relief—but the relief was short-lived. As she pondered Isenbard’s words, a frown spread over her face. “But why haven't they attacked? They're all here by now, surely? What are they waiting for?”

“Their commander.” Isenbard's face darkened. Not that any of his features actually moved, no. Rather, the shadows in his wrinkles seemed to get more distinct. “He's a careful one. Waits until all is secure. His soldiers are searching the forest as we speak.”

“Searching the forest? For what?”

“Traps. Ambushes. Mercenaries expect everybody to fight as dirty as they do.”

The words carried the unspoken message that he would never act in such a dastardly way. Ayla thought that was rather silly. If she had thought of an ambush and it could help her people, she would have tried it immediately. But since she also thought it rather sweet, and couldn't imagine Isenbard without his unimpeachable sense of honor, she said nothing.

That moment, a terrible thought came to her.

“Isenbard,” she asked, her voice trembling, “the commander... it's not going to be Falkenstein, is it? Please, tell me it won't be him.”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. Falkenstein has hounds to do his hunting for him.”

Relief flooded through Ayla like sweet nectar. She had been terrified of having to face the man who had so callously demanded her surrender ever since that day the herald had presented that golden ring to her. It wouldn't be so bad if the Margrave desired only her lands, as he had done with all the other nobles whom he had fought. But this was different. The herald had made it quite clear that the Margrave didn't only want land. He wanted her—body, mind, and soul.

Well, probably mostly body.

As if this awarded her any protection, she crossed her arms in front of her. The thought alone of that man looking at her, leering at her, was enough to make her blood run cold.

“Ayla? Did you hear what I said?”

She blinked at Isenbard. “What?”

“Something wrong? You looked worried.”

If Isenbard of all people had noticed, she must have looked scared out of her wits. Ayla made a mental note not to show her feelings on this matter to anyone. She was the mistress of the castle. She needed to be strong. For everyone.

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