36. Flaming Arrows

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When Ayla's horse, half-dead from exhaustion, crashed to the ground before the bridge, dozens of soldiers cried out in alarm and hastened to aid her. Yet she jumped up and held out her hands, directing them back to their posts. Her ribs hurt terribly from the fall, but now was not the time to show weakness.

“I'm fine! Eyes on the enemy, men!”

She had ridden like a demon to get back to the bridge in time and seemed to have managed it. The enemy had just about covered half the distance. Her horse, however, might not survive the experience.

So what? a tiny part of her thought. We are all going to die anyway.

All emotion had drained out of her. She had cried all she could up at the castle. Now, all that was left was a blazing determination to carry out this insane plan of a silly merchant who had delusions of grandeur and fancied himself a military commander. Why not? It was no worse end than any other. At least she would go down fighting.

“Have you lost your mind?”

Someone grabbed her from behind. As she was turned around, she could see that it was Burchard. “Riding down the mountain like that—you could have broken your neck! What game do you think you're playing?”

“War,” she replied curtly. “Bring me three barrels of lard, and tell the archers to wrap rags around their arrows.”

“What? You haven't...”

That was an order.”

He studied her for a second, then bowed his head and ran off as fast as his stout legs would carry him. Ayla looked over to the archers who were supposed to be arrayed along the bank of the river in a watchful line. Now they stood in a loose group halfway between the water and her panting, fallen horse. They were all eying her warily.

“Eyes on the enemy, I said,” she yelled, and marched towards them. “Someone bring me something that burns, anything! The rest of you, form a line facing the water!”

They looked uncertainly between Sir Waldar and her. None of them was used to taking direct commands in battle from a woman, especially one as young as her.

“You are sworn to obey me! Move!”

None of them moved. They still looked uncertain.

“And I'm sworn to protect you,” she added, in a softer voice. “Now, for the last time: move.”

They unfroze and hurriedly formed a line at the edge of the water.

“What are we going to do, Milady?” Captain Linhart asked, undisguised fear in his eyes as he watched the boats of the mercenaries draw closer. “They will crush us.”

“They will never reach the shore,” Ayla replied with a conviction she didn't know she had. She most certainly didn't know where it was coming from. This entire inane plan was based on the ideas of a fever-stricken merchant, for heaven's sake!

A fever-stricken merchant who knows how a feudal army is structured and commanded.

“We cannot stop them, Milady,” the captain said in a soft voice. “Our arrows won't harm them. We already tried that.”

Ayla fixed him with her most lady-of-the-castle-like stare. “I wasn't suggesting to try that again. We have no time for arguments. You will just have to be silent and do as you're told. Can you do that, Captain?”

Linhart hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, Milady.” And by the resigned tone of his voice, Ayla knew he had said it because it didn't much signify to him how he was going to spend the last minutes of his life.

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