40. Enemy Ascending

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“Milady!” Someone started hammering against her door. “Milady, come quickly! The enemy is approaching!”

Ayla scrambled out of her bed and reached for her dress.

“Milady!” Again, the fist hit the door. “We need you!”

No time! Grabbing a cloak that hung over the armrest of a chair, she threw it over her thin nightgown and rushed out of the room. Outside, a soldier was waiting, carrying a torch in his hand. The acrid stench of the torch bit into Ayla's nose and she almost choked from the smoke, but she didn't say a word about it. The expression on the soldier's face told her that just now, there were much more important matters to attend to.

“They are coming?” she demanded.

“Yes, Milady.”

“Lead the way.”

Without another word, the soldier hurried ahead, lighting her way through the pitch-black castle. The moon wasn't shining this night. It was hiding behind a thick clump of clouds. If not for the flickering red light of the flame, Ayla would have been lost in her own castle.

“Where are they attacking?” she asked while they hurried down a flight of stairs. “How many are there?”

“I do not know, Milady. I was sent up here as soon as our guards spotted the enemy. Captain Linhart thought it best to inform you at once and not waste any time counting the approaching forces.”

“That was the right decision. How long did it take you to come up here?”

“Only a few minutes, Milady. I used our fastest horse. And we should be able to return in about the same time. When I arrived, I gave orders to the stable boy to bring out two horses for us.”

“Well done, soldier.”

“Thank you, Milady. Here's the door.”

Holding up the torch, the soldier pushed the keep door open for her. She stumbled out into the front yard and looked upon a foreign world:

Apart from flickering red dots here and there, Luntberg Castle was in utter darkness. The walls rose up on all sides, a deeper, more menacing black, competing with the stormy gloom of the sky above. Men were running around, shouting and cursing, all carrying some small light, like fireflies about to be swallowed up by a giant predator. As the soldier emerged from the keep behind her and the light of his torch shone a little more brightly, Ayla could just make out the forms of two horses in the yard. In the dim light, she thought their large eyes glinted fearfully. Or maybe that was just the reflection of what was in her own eyes at that very moment.

She jumped into the saddle and didn't wait for the soldier to do the same before she pressed her legs against the horse's sides and urged it forward, towards the first gate. The stable boy who had been holding the horse's reins jumped back with a startled yelp, and horse and rider dashed off into the darkness.

Ayla's vision narrowed, until all she could see were the two small flames burning on either side of the inner castle gate. Behind her, she could hear the clatter of the other horse's hoofs on the cobblestones, and she urged her ride to go even faster. This was a race against time, and she was losing. Ayla was an experienced rider, but she wasn't used to the big horses that made up the majority of Luntberg's stable. Instead, she was used to small, agile animals. To one animal in particular...

Furiously, she shook her head. No, she couldn't allow her mind to dwell on Eleanor now. She had a task before her.

Somewhere on the mountain path down into the valley, the soldier caught up with her. He was obviously an excellent rider, and perfectly capable of handling large animals, which was probably the reason why he had been chosen as courier. Ayla was angry because it meant he was faster than she, but she was also grateful. There were things she needed to know.

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