35. Hypothetical Arrows

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Once more, the enemy's horn sounded. Then there came the defenders' horn, echoing the other one, sounding the alarm. Ayla's hand, only inches away from Reuben's face, suddenly froze—as did her heart. Frantically, she looked over at Isenbard. But time had run out. The enemy was coming, and Isenbard lay just as motionless as he had yesterday or the day before. There was nobody to help her.

She felt a strong hand grip her own and looked down to see Reuben grasping her fingers. All his weariness seemed to have vanished, and there was a fire smoldering in his gray eyes. It made a shiver run down her back.

“Help me up,” he rasped.

“What? Reuben, have you totally lost your mind?”

“Help me up! I need to get down there!”

“I think you have that slightly confused. I need to get down there. You need to stay here.”

She tugged her hand from his and it went easily, his momentary strength vanishing as he broke into a sweat and tremors shook his body.

“Stay where you are,” she yelled, jumping up and running to the door. “Don't you dare follow me down there, Reuben, or I'll swear I'll put you into the stocks for a day!”

For some insane reason, that made him laugh. “Oh please!” he gasped. “Can't you think up a worse punishment? You're not at your best today.”

“I'll think of something if you don't stay here, I promise you!”

“I couldn't get down there anyway,” he spit out between clenched teeth, all humor suddenly disappearing from his face again. “I... don't have the strength.”

“Good!” She threw open the door. Just as she was about to hurry out, she heard her name called behind her.

“Ayla!”

One final time, she turned and looked at Reuben. The intensity of his gaze nearly took her breath away.

“Survive,” he whispered.

She nodded, mutely. Then she dashed down the corridor, down the stairs, and out into the courtyard as quickly as her long dress would allow. Thanking God she’d had the foresight to order a horse to be ready and waiting for her at all times, she swung herself onto the animal's back and spurred it on.

Arriving at the bridge only two minutes later on a totally exhausted horse, she was aghast to find only two guards atop the barricade. Two! She had ordered twenty to be there at all times, and when an actual attack came, even more were supposed to rush to the defense! And now there were only two, and these two weren't even looking in the right direction. They were staring off to the side, totally oblivious to whatever enemy was crossing the bridge.

Quickly sliding off her horse, she climbed the barricade and grabbed the arm of one of the soldiers. “What's the matter with you, man? The enemy is ther—”

The words stuck in her throat.

From atop the barricade, she could see what had previously been out of her field of vision. She could see the meadow across the river, she could see the forest beyond, and she could see the bridge. There were no mercenaries on it. Not a single one.

“What's the matter with you?” she asked the soldier, breathless. “What possessed you to sound the alarm? There's nobody here!”

Wordlessly, the man raised an arm, pointing in the direction he had been staring the whole time, off towards the left, to the river. Annoyed, Ayla turned her head. What could possibly be on the river that could be of any interest?

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