31. Brave Defender of the Dirt Pile

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The proud, stupid old fool! In horror, Ayla stared at the big, gradually darkening bruise on the side of Isenbard's head. How he had managed to keep himself upright at all with that injury was a complete mystery to her. Still more astonishingly, he had managed to keep from falling unconscious through almost half of the battle. Ayla was sure that he had received that bruise from the blow to the head she had witnessed. And still he had fought on and on and on.

Now, however, the rest of his body had certainly caught up with his head.

“Don't die on me, do you hear me?” she whispered, tears streaming down her face. “You stubborn, old stone-face, don't you die on me!”

“But Milady,” Dilli dared to whisper, “he's just got a bruise. He's not even wounded. Why do you think he would die?”

Ayla simply shook her head in despair. She didn't feel like explaining right now. But she knew. She knew all too well that from such a blow as Isenbard had received, a man could slip into a deep sleep from which he would never wake again. There would be no blood, no screams—only an endless, terrible silence, and then death.

Isenbard was in a dark hell of his own mind now, and only the Lord's grace could release him from that prison.

“Milady?”

Abruptly, Ayla looked up from the stretcher on which Isenbard was lying. She hadn't realized how far they had come. Their little party—she, Dilli, and two villagers who were carrying the stretcher—had reached the outer castle gates, and the guard was looking at her in concern.

“Milady? Shall I open the gates?”

“Of course! Can't you see who this is? We need to get into the keep, now!”

The guard's eyes strayed to the face of the man on the stretcher and he blanched. “God have mercy on us,” he muttered and quickly unlocked the side gate. “Through here, Milady, that's quicker.”

Ayla nodded thankfully at the man and stepped first through the side gate.

It seemed to take them forever to reach the second gate. On their way up, people crowded around them and blocked their way, badgering Ayla with questions. Women were wailing at the sight of Sir Isenbard on the stretcher, and the men looked grimmer than Ayla had ever seen them.

He was their hope, she realized with dismay. And now he's fading away. She guessed she had known it all along, but it was hard to accept nevertheless. Without her only real knight, she was lost.

Don't give up, she chastised herself. He won a great victory today. He might wake up at any moment. Don't make your life more sinister than it is.

It was sinister enough already.

Ayla tried to be patient with the people who surrounded her, tried to assuage their fears and give them confidence. Inside though, she was screaming for them to get out of the way.

Finally, she reached the second gate.

“Don't let anybody into the keep who has no business there,” she ordered the guard. “I'll be busy enough the next few hours.”

He bowed respectfully. “As you wish, Milady.”

At the door to the keep, she met Burchard. His dark frown would have robbed her of her last bit of confidence if she hadn't known that he always looked like this.

“How is he?” the steward asked without bothering with social niceties.

“Not good,” she answered, and he nodded.

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