39. Rising Darkness

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Quiet returned to the castle. Over the next few days, everything was peaceful. The enemy did not make a single move—and it nearly drove Ayla insane with worry. The last time the red robber knight hadn't shown his forces or himself for days, he had been hatching an evil plan that had nearly destroyed them all. And back then, there at least had been the sound of axes to give her a clue as to what the enemy was doing, even if she hadn't realized it in time. Now, there was nothing. The many-headed monster of the enemy army just sat across the river, waiting.

Isenbard's condition wasn't doing anything for Ayla's peace of mind, either. His bruise had faded to a yellowish color by now, but he was still completely unresponsive. No matter what Ayla tried, he remained in his too-deep sleep, and Ayla had no idea how to help him. She had already tried everything the nuns at the convent had taught her. Once, when Reuben was asleep and couldn't see what she was doing, she had even tried emptying a bucket of ice-cold water into the old knight's face. When that didn't work, she tried holding a piece of dung under his nose.

The only result was that she’d had to wash her hands six times until she got rid of the smell.

So, all in all, things weren't going too well within Luntberg Castle. And the silence, the silence from outside—it was slowly driving Ayla to distraction. She believed she really would have gone insane if it hadn't been for Reuben.

He held her when she cried, joked with her when her spirits were low, and threatened to cut off Falkenstein's head whenever she was frightened. He had even once or twice suggested cutting off other parts of the Margrave's anatomy which weren't as suitable for polite conversation, but had stopped for her sake.

The weird thing about his threats against the Margrave was that, sometimes, Ayla actually believed he wanted and could do it—which made her feel safe while he was talking about severed heads, and turn scarlet when he slipped and mentioned some particular part of the male anatomy.

She chided herself for these feelings of safety. It was an illusion. Reuben was just a lowly merchant and couldn't protect her from anything, let alone a lord and warrior as powerful and accomplished as the Margrave von Falkenstein. Yet when Reuben's strong arms were around her, it was all too easy to indulge in this illusion of safety.

Besides, Reuben's moral support wasn't the only thing about him that improved Ayla's spirits. As opposed to Isenbard's, Reuben's recovery was progressing at an amazing rate. Just two days after the attack over the river, he was able to sit up without help, and three days later he managed, with the help of a servant supporting him, to get up and make his first few clumsy steps around the room.

He protested continuously that he didn't need the servant's help and tried to push the poor man away, until Ayla got tired of his tantrums and relieved the relieved servant of his duty. From then on, she supported Reuben herself with an arm around his waist, her body pressed tightly against his. He didn't seem to mind that for some reason.

Two or three more times, when Ayla came into his room to check on him, she caught him lying on his back, stabbing at the air with a candlestick. Yet, regardless of how closely she looked, she could never see the fly he claimed to be chasing away.

Since his fever had mostly retreated, she wasn't afraid anymore that this might be some febrile delirium, and she just accepted it as part of the puzzling person that was Reuben. The puzzling, warm, ferocious, wildly handsome person she held dearer with every passing day.

Simply sitting quietly beside him was such a joy that it never seemed to be the right time to question him about his curiously comprehensive military knowledge. When she was with him, all she really wanted to do was smile, and hold his hand, and stare into his deep, stormy gray eyes.

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