27. Know thy Enemy

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Out from the sea of tents he rode: a knight in blood-red armor on a gigantic stallion as black as midnight, a spear held aloft in his gauntleted fist, a double-bladed ax strapped to his back.

Out from the sea of tents he rode, the figure that had haunted her, that she had hated, ever since that day in the forest when he had held a sword to her throat and taken her Eleanor away from her.

The red robber knight.

Ayla had asked herself ever since that day in the forest why he had left her alive. Why not simply take her honor as he had taken her horse and then slit her throat, like any other cutthroat would have done?

Now she knew.

He was no ordinary villain.

He was her greatest enemy, and evil to the core. He had wanted to humiliate her first, bring her to the cusp between life and death, only to return now, when she thought herself safe within her own lands, and show her she was safe nowhere. Not from him. Not with such a force behind him.

“Look at me,” he seemed to be saying. “I held your life in my hands before—now I do so again. I can destroy you anywhere, at any moment of my choosing. You had better surrender now and put that ring on your finger, while you still have fingers.”

The red knight rode up to the barricade and stopped only a few yards away from Ayla. Although she stood higher than he, the crimson fiend seemed to be towering over her.

He raised a hand. “Greetings, Milady,” he said in a low and subtly menacing sing-song. “I am Sir Luca DeLombardi, commander of all the forces of his Grace, the mighty Margrave von Falkenstein.”

Ayla frowned. His voice was different from how she remembered it. This lilting accent hadn't been there the last time she had met him, had it? She shook the thought off. It was unimportant.

“So glad you could join us, Sir Luca,” she said, managing to keep her voice from trembling. “And may I ask why the mighty Margrave himself does not honor us with his presence? Is he too afraid to face an honest woman? Does he think I might best him on the field of battle, and is he cowering in a corner somewhere?”

Sir Luca laughed. The movement rattled his red armor. “The Margrave doesn't waste his valuable time on the likes of you! You're far too unimportant for him to be bothered with.”

“And yet he must think me to be of considerable importance, seeing as he wants me as his wife,” Ayla countered, her face reddening.

The red knight snorted. “If you consider it a sign of special importance to be the only one of his whores with a golden ring on her finger, then please go ahead and flatter yourself.”

From red, Ayla's face abruptly went to white. This wasn't just banter. The man meant every word he said.

“Enough of this,” he commanded. “I have not come hither to bandy words with an ignorant wench. I am here to dictate the terms of your surrender.”

Ayla swallowed. This was the moment she had been gathering courage for. Licking her lips, she opened her mouth and said:

“No.”

The single word sounded weak and foolish, spoken to the giant warrior on his black horse.

“Excuse me?” he said, his voice still a deceptively sweet sing-song.

Ayla gritted her teeth. “I said no,” she repeated, putting more strength and conviction into her voice. “I will never surrender. Never!”

Turning his head from left to right, the red knight observed the barricade she was standing on. “Yes, I surmised as much when I saw this pitiful obstacle. And you really think that will hold me back? You, wench, are going to try and stop me and my army?”

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