11. To Shoot or not to Shoot

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Ayla had never been a great runner. Riding? Yes, she had enjoyed riding since her childhood. But running had never been her thing.

Now however, not even the famed runner Thersippus, who, according to Plutarch ran an entire day without stopping to deliver the news of Athens' victory over the Persians and collapsed dead after delivering his message, could compare to her speed. Fortunately, though, she didn't drop dead on reaching her destination.

Gasping, she stumbled up the last few steps of the tower stairs and out into the cold night air, just as Captain Linhart raised his arm.

“Ready your bows!” he shouted to the archers arrayed on the wall. “Nock your arrows!”

Then he noticed Ayla stumbling towards him and clutching the battlements for support, wheezing like an old pair of bellows.

“Ah, Milady. You're just in time to see us dispatch that rump-fed moldwarp.” He pointed over the battlements to a massive figure in red armor, driving a black stallion uphill so fiercely you might have believed the devil was behind him. The knight’s fist tightly gripped a rope leading another horse—a horse that Ayla recognized immediately. Behind the two animals followed not the devil, but a gaggle of soldiers, yelling terrible insults and curses. “He must have lost his mind, trying to attack a castle on horseback, without a single siege weapon,” Linhart snorted derisively. “But all the better for us. A mad enemy is killed quickly. He will soon be no more.”

He turned to his men.

“Mark! Draw!”

Twenty bowstrings were pulled back.

“Hold! Hold until he is in range.”

Behind him, knees wobbling from exhaustion and hardly able to get out a syllable, Ayla waved frantically in the attempt to get Linhart’s attention.

“Ssst… Nnnn dnn,” she gasped, but was too breathless to pronounce any real words.

“What was that, Milady?” Linhart half turned back to her. “I'll attend to you in a moment, just as soon as we have sent this demon to join his master down below. A few seconds more and he will be in range. Hold... Hold...”

“Stop!”

The word that burst from Ayla’s lips was quiet and breathless, but nevertheless perfectly understandable to everyone in the vicinity. Still, Captain Linhart and all the twenty bowman with bows still drawn gaped at her as though she had suddenly started spouting speeches in some heathen tongue.

“Excuse me, Milady?” said Linhart after a few seconds.

“Stop... I said... stop. I don't...” Ayla gasped for breath again, still leaning heavily on the battlements. “I don't want you to shoot.”

The eyes of the captain and his men wandered from the red knight to Ayla, and back.

“You don't want us to shoot him?”

“No.”

“Just to be absolutely sure, Milady, you do not want us to shoot that rider in the red armor advancing towards the castle right now?”

“No.” Ayla shook her head, let go of the battlements and stood erect. “I want you to open the gates for him.”

“What?”

“Don't worry Captain,” she said as forcefully as she could. “I know the man who is riding up that hill.”

“Err... forgive me for saying so, Milady,” the captain dared to object, “but I know him too. He has beleaguered us for the last few weeks, remember?”

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