42. High Road up

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Reuben stared at the door Ayla had left open, listening to her receding footsteps, completely dumbfounded.

Thanks?

What the hell was that supposed to mean? Reuben had extensive experience in romance, garnered in his time at the Imperial Court where his charming smile had been the talk of all the ladies. He knew his business. When you told somebody you loved them, you expected an answer like “I love you too” or “Well, too bad” or maybe “Go fornicate with yourself!”

But “Thanks”? What was he supposed to make of that? It was no way to answer a man who had just opened his heart to you!

All right, maybe he hadn't chosen quite the best time for his confession. She had been in a bit of a hurry to save her people from sudden and violent death. But she could have stayed for a quick “I love you too.” It would only have meant two dead peasants, at most.

Or, an unwelcome thought intruded, maybe she would not have said that, even if she'd had all the time in the world...?

Reuben shook his head.

No. She had said thanks. That had to mean she wanted this, wanted him—didn't it? No woman had ever been able to resist his charms before, and neither would Ayla.

Probably.

His gaze returned to the open door. Her footsteps were almost inaudible now. So faint, then even fainter, then... gone.

His hands clenched into fists.

Oh, how he burned with the wish to go with her. And yet, he had held his tongue, had stayed where he was, knowing all too well why.

He was only one man—out there were hundreds. He was still sick—they were fit and strong. As much as Reuben hated to admit it, he couldn't protect Ayla from the Margrave's men all by himself. Not yet.

Worse than not being able to protect her, he would have hindered her. He might be recovering, but he still was not fit to ride at full gallop. The damned weakness was still in his bones, by Satan's warty prick and all the pricks of his little demons! If he had ridden with her, and then had fallen off his horse, she would have stopped and he would have been her doom. She needed to be fast now, faster than she had ever been.

No, he could not save her from the enemy tonight. Only the hoofs of a fast horse could.

Turning away from the door and over to the window, he stared into the darkness of the night outside. Far, far below, down on the path into the valley, he thought he saw for a moment a flash of white and gold.

But maybe it was simply his imagination.

In his head, he saw again Ayla's face as she clasped her arms around his neck and whispered into his ear: Thanks!

With an angry growl, he punched the wall, so hard his knuckles started to bleed. Curse the girl! She damned well ought to have stayed a minute longer. What were two dead peasants, or maybe three, compared to his agony?

*~*~**~*~*

Ayla brought the horse to a halt at the point where the path into the valley forked. One way led directly to the village, the other to the bridge, where the soldiers were. If she hadn't been as well-bred as she was, she would have cursed. She should have thought of this before! Where to go first? Whom to warn first—the soldiers or the villagers? Whose life to put at risk?

Strategically, it made more sense to ride to the bridge. The soldiers there would be an invaluable part of the castle's defense in the coming days. Any coolly calculating general would put the safe return of the soldiers over the lives of villagers who would just be a nuisance in any real battle.

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