43. Hard Fall down

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The march up the mountain was one of the most terrifying journeys in Ayla's life. The riders behind them could hardly be made out as the night grew ever darker. She felt as if invisible devils were hunting all around and could strike out of the blackness at her at any moment. What if her soldiers didn't reach the narrows in time? What if the riders caught up with them?

Or worse yet—what if the riders caught up with the villagers?

The crowd of tired and frightened people, laden with possessions and including the young and old, didn't move half as fast as the two lances of disciplined soldiers under Linhart's command. Soon, Ayla and her escort had caught up with them—and then could do nothing but slow down their own tempo and march behind them. They were not here to save their own lives, but to save these people.

Ayla was terrified to see how slow the soldiers, hampered by the villagers, were now advancing up the mountain. It seemed that a snail could have moved faster than them. And the riders were coming ever closer.

“Faster! You have to move faster” she yelled, trying to encourage the villagers. Then she realized that from a woman riding on a horse, such words were hardly encouraging.

“Here!” Jumping down from her steed next to an old man with a gray beard who barely managed to keep up, she pointed at the saddle. “Get up there.”

“Milady, I'll be fine! I...”

“Someone help me to get him up there!” Ayla shouted, and the old man found himself being hoisted into the air by the strong arms of two woodcutters and deposited on the horse's back, protesting all the while.

Ayla went through the crowd, searching, and only when she had put two little children on the horse's back behind the old man and the animal couldn't take any more did she stop and look over her shoulder again.

The shadowy riders were almost upon them!

“Faster!” she yelled. “In the name of the Virgin Mary, move! You'll all be slaughtered!”

Hearing her words, the villagers fell into a run. The narrows wasn't far ahead. If they could just make it, just make it there...

All around her, Ayla could hear the labored breathing of people running uphill, running with her. She prayed to God no one would stumble. They couldn't stop to help; they just couldn't afford it. And yet she knew, if it happened, she would. She couldn't bear to see someone, anyone, in the hands of the villains who were chasing them. She would rather that it was herself.

Behind her, Ayla could hear the panting of horses, the pounding of hoofs.

“There they are,” a rough voice called out. “After them!” And then: “It's her! Lady Ayla! Get her!”

They knew her! They were after her, specifically!

Then why not stop? a small, weary voice said in the back of her mind. Why not give them what they want? It's not like we have any hope of winning, anyway. We might as well give up now.

No! Only a few more yards. The narrows was near, only a few more yards.

And then, suddenly, they were no longer on smooth ground. Rocky cliffs fell off to their left and right, forming a narrow path.

“Stand and turn!” she shouted. “Stand and turn, men!”

The soldiers immediately did as she commanded, forming a tight line all across the path. Spears appeared in their hands, and swiveled down to point directly at the enemy. Hurriedly, Ayla slipped between two of the soldiers, and the gap closed behind her. Safe! She was safe. The villagers were safe. She was behind the soldiers and they—

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