44. Friend and Foe

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“I can't say I feel the same,” Ayla replied. She wondered how she managed to keep her voice as calm as it was. Inside, she felt like boiling. Or exploding. Or...

“Before you get any ideas,” Sir Luca said, “you should know that I come under a flag of truce.” He held up a white linen handkerchief. “Here, you see?”

“You call that a flag of truce?”

“Well, it's not very big, I admit, but it's white enough. I think it works.”

Ayla gritted her teeth. “I wasn't referring to the size of your flag, but rather to the fact that while we speak, your soldiers are setting my village ablaze!”

“Ah, but it is your village no longer, Milady. By right of conquest it belongs to the Margrave now. So my men can do whatever they damn well please.”

Ayla sucked in a breath. She was sorely tempted to call one of her archers and have him shoot this man. But she knew she wouldn't do it. She didn't have it in her to be dishonorable. And anyway, the Margrave would just send someone worse to replace him—though he would probably have to search for quite a while to find such an individual, if indeed one existed.

“Since you come here under a flag of truce,” she said, speaking the words with all the disgust she could muster, “what is it that you wish to discuss?”

“You have to ask? I thought it would be obvious.”

“Just pretend I'm very dumb.”

The red knight nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I think I could do that.”

She heard his suppressed laughter and again had to fight an urge to call for her soldiers. No, she wouldn't call them. She had to fight this battle on her own. It might not do for the men to hear what he had to say, or what she had to say to him in return.

“State your business, Sir Knight, or begone. What is it you want?”

“What I want? Why, to dictate the terms of your surrender, of course.”

What?”Ayla stared at the metal-clad man in utter amazement. He, through the slits of his visor, stared just as fixedly back at her. “We have fought four battles so far,” she pointed out. “What makes you think that I would suddenly give up now?”

“Well, let me think...” He scratched the side of his helmet in mock preoccupation. “There's the fact that you've lost a major battle, that you are surrounded and cut off from any supply chains, that we still outnumber you ten to one, and that generally speaking, your situation has become completely hopeless. How about that?”

“You can take that and stuff it up the devil's derriere!” Ayla growled, her hands balled into fists. He was right. And the fact burned her from the inside. She would rather have died than admitted it.

Dio mio, Milady is getting feisty. Well, perhaps this will persuade you: in his heavenly mercy, the Margrave Markus von Falkenstein has decreed that, in spite of your resistance, if you are willing to surrender, he will spare the miserable peasants who infest your castle at this very moment. If, however, you do not surrender and we are victorious, as we surely shall be, he will decimate them, as the ancient Romans used to do to their rebels.”

“Decimate?” Ayla's voice was hardly more than a whisper. But somehow the red robber knight heard it.

“Kill one in ten men.” Sir Luca shrugged. “A harsh but just punishment, don't you think?”

“And what guarantee do I have,” asked Ayla, her voice not as steady as it had been before, “that the Margrave will not inflict this 'just punishment' in any case?”

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