28. Red Dawn

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Her father's hand closed tightly around hers as he heard the horns call men to arms. He looked at her imploringly. “Stay here with me, will you?” Count Thomas asked.

Ayla shook her head, sadly. “I can't. I have to go downstairs and prepare. You know that. I'm the only one with any decent training in healing around here. I have to take care of the wounded.”

Taking a deep, rattling breath, the Count nodded his ancient white head. “Yes, I know. Still, I'd rather you stay here with me. But I know you have to go. Just promise me...”

“What?”

“Promise me that you won't go out there, outside the castle. Let the wounded be brought to you, into the castle. And for God's sake, don't go anywhere near the battle.”

Ayla hesitated.

The grip of her father's wrinkled fingers around her own small hand tightened even more, and he said, in a commanding tone he almost never used anymore: “Ayla! It is far too dangerous for you to set foot outside the castle. Promise me!”

Slowly, she nodded. “I promise.”

The Count relaxed back into his pillows. “Good.”

They heard the horn sound again. “Now go. I know you need to.”

Ayla jumped up and rushed to the door.

Outside, Isenbard waited for her. “What did you tell him?” he asked her, eying the oak door behind her.

“A lie he needed to hear,” was her only reply. “Follow me, Sir Isenbard. We have work to do.”

Ayla rode on a horse of her own this time, as the two of them left the castle and approached the bridge. Every step of the way hurt her heart. She felt as though she were betraying her faithful mare by riding another horse. But this was no time to be sentimental. It was quicker this way, and Sir Isenbard's horse might need all its strength in the approaching fight.

To Ayla's surprise, a few tents had been erected on their side of the bridge, on a small meadow. She inquired what these might be.

“Our tents,” the knight replied, urging his horse forward to keep up with her.

“What do you mean, 'our tents'?” she persisted, glancing at the knight riding beside her with slight disapproval. This was no time for Isenbard's usual terseness.

“I made the men put them up. One for me, one for you, and one command tent.”

“A tent for me? Do you think I intend on sleeping out here, then?”

“It's not for sleeping. It's for treating the wounded.”

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “Didn't you hear me promise the Count that I would steer clear of the battlefield?”

“I also heard that in the Orient, fish can fly and men can breathe fire. Doesn't mean I believe it.”

“Ha!”

Only a few yards away from the tents, Ayla brought her horse to a halt and slid off its back, glad to be on her own two feet again. “And what do you need a tent for?”

“I need some place to put on my armor.”

The lady of Luntberg appraised her knight as he dismounted. From head to toe he was covered in glittering metal. “Don't you have armor on now?”

Isenbard shook his head.

“Then what is that you're wearing?”

“Chain mail.”

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