37. Misused Candlesticks

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Though her horse had collapsed on the ride down to the bridge and had by no means recovered yet, Ayla had no problem getting back to the castle: she was carried up there on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. It was sweet, and wonderful, and so terribly embarrassing! She longed to tell the people that it hadn't been her idea, that somebody else deserved the credit for saving their lives, but she couldn't. If she told them that they owed their lives to the crazy ideas of a feverish merchant instead of the wisdom of their mistress, they would lose their morale, and very rightly so. Ayla herself felt like losing her morale, and her mind and temper along with it.

What drove her nearly crazy was the question: How on earth had he known? How had Reuben, the merchant, managed to come up with a functioning battle plan revealing a knowledge of tactics and weaponry possibly surpassing even that of Sir Isenbard? It was infuriating!

Yes, he had, of course, saved her life in a way, but that was no reason why she couldn't be angry with him, was it? She was going to get the truth out of him if it was the last thing she did!

It took her quite a while to get away from the crowd and into the keep, mostly because people wouldn't stop bowing and cheering.

Finally, she managed to slip up the stairs of the keep and shut the doors behind her. With a sigh, she leaned against the old wood, closing her eyes in relief. Outside, people were still chanting her name.

How could they cheer her for this? For something that hadn't even been her idea? And worse still, for something that should not be cause for cheers? To kill the mercenaries had been no glorious or great deed—it had been necessary, but that was all. Behind her closed eyelids, she could still see the boats burning, hear the screams of the dying men. These were things she knew would haunt her unto her dying day.

And it hadn't even been her idea. It had been his.

After a brief respite, she opened her eyes again and proceeded up the stairs. Reuben was going to tell her everything!

*~*~**~*~*

When the cheering started, Reuben knew that all was well. Not because of the cheering itself—all soldiers cheered after a victory, whether friend or enemy. No, it was because of what they were shouting. Whom they were cheering.

“Lady Ayla! Long live Lady Ayla!”

“Huzzah! Huzzah!”

“Three cheers for the Lady of Luntberg!”

They were cheering Ayla. They were cheering their victorious lady. Reuben felt his entire body relax. Sir Luca had lost. She had triumphed over that bootless beetle-headed haggard! Abruptly, he felt a swelling of pride in his chest. He tried to suppress it. Why should he be proud of her? She had nothing to do with him. She was just some girl.

No, she isn't. Not to you, he thought, shaking his head. And you know that perfectly well.

He was proud of her. His beautiful girl had done the impossible and beaten an experienced commander in battle. She had to be a witch, in a way, to accomplish that. She didn't just put him under her spell, but everybody.

Yet the fact that she had won this time didn't mean that he was ever going to let her do something as dangerous as this again. Oh no, as soon as he was back on his feet she would stay nicely at home in her big castle with its solid walls and he would take care of that puking malt-worm Sir Luca who had dared to steal his armor. He would take care of every danger for her.

Carefully, Reuben flexed his muscles. He wasn't strong enough yet, but he soon would be. All of his rage and determination—and he had plenty of both—were focused on burning the illness out of his body. Even if at the moment he still had to lie here, that didn't mean he had to stay idle. He could practice. It would do him good, take his mind off things.

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