The sentry never saw the dark-clad figure ghosting through the night toward Castle Araluen.
Merging with the prevailing patterns of light and shade thrown by the half-moon, the interloper seemed to blend into the fabric of the night, matching the rhythm of the trees and cloud shadows as they moved with the moderate wind.
The sentry's post was in the outer cordon, outside the walls of the massive castle, by the southeastern tower. The moat rippled gently behind him, its surface stirred by the wind so that the reflections of the stars in the dark water were set shimmering in a thousand tiny points of light. Before him stretched the massive parkland that surrounded the castle, carefully tended, immaculately mown and dotted with fruit and shade trees.
The ground sloped gently away from the castle. There were trees and small shady dells where couples or individuals could sit and relax and picnic in relative privacy, sheltered from the sun. But the trees were small and they were well spaced out, with plenty of open ground between them so that concealment would be denied to any large attacking force. It was a well-ordered compromise between the provision of privacy and relaxation and the need for security in an age when an attack could conceivably happen at any time.
Thirty meters to the left of where the sentry stood, a picnic table had been fashioned by attaching an old cart wheel to the sawn-off stump of what had been a larger tree. Several rustic benches were placed around the table and a smaller tree had been planted to one side to shade it at noon. It was a favorite spot for the knights and their ladies, affording a good overview of the green, pleasant parklands that sloped away to the distant dark line of a forest.
The intruder was heading toward this table.
He slipped into the shadows of a small grove forty meters from the bench, then dropped belly-down to the ground. Taking one last look to get a bearing, the dark figure snaked out of the shadows, facedown, heading for the shelter of the table.
Progress was painstakingly slow. This was a trained stalker who knew that any rapid movement would register with the sentry's pe-ripheral vision. As shadows of clouds passed over the park, the crawling figure would move with them, rippling unobtrusively across the short grass, seeming to be just one more moving shadow. The dark green clothing aided concealment. Black would have been too dark and would have created too deep a shadow.
It took ten minutes to cover the distance to the table. A few meters short of the objective, the figure froze as the guard suddenly stiffened, as if alerted by some sound or slight movement--or perhaps just an intuitive sense that all was not quite right. He turned and peered in the general direction of the table, not even registering the dark, unmoving shape a few meters from it.
Eventually satisfied that there was no danger, the sentry shook his head, stamped his feet, marched a few paces to the right then back to the left, then shifted his spear to his left hand and rubbed his eyes with his right.
He yawned, then settled into a slump, his weight resting more on one foot than the other. He sniffed wryly. He'd never get away with that relaxed posture on daylight sentry duty. But it was after midnight now and the sergeant of the guard was unlikely to come and check on him in the next hour.
As the sentry relaxed again, the dark figure slid the last few meters to the shelter of the table. Rising slowly to a crouching position, he studied the situation. The sentry, after his shuffling and stamping, had moved a few meters farther away from the table, but not enough to cause a problem.
There was a long leather thong knotted around the intruder's waist. Now, untied, it could be seen to be a sling, with a soft leather pouch at its center. A smooth, heavy stone went into the pouch and the figure rose a little, beginning to swing the simple weapon in a wide slow circle, using a minimal wrist movement and gradually building up speed.
The sentry became aware of a foreign sound in the night. It began as a deep-throated, almost inaudible hum, and slowly grew higher in pitch. The change was so gradual that he wasn't sure at what point he became aware of it. It sounded like an insect of some sort . . . a giant bee, perhaps. It was difficult to detect the direction the sound was coming from. Then a memory stirred. One of the other sentries had mentioned a similar sound some days previously. He'd said it was . . .
An unseen missile smashed into the head of his spear. The force of the impact snatched the weapon from his loose grasp, sending it cartwheeling away from him. His hand dropped instinctively to the hilt of his sword and he had it half drawn when a slim figure rose from behind the table to his left.
The cry of alarm froze in his throat as the intruder pushed back the dark cowl that had concealed a mass of blond hair.
"Relax! It's only me," she said, the amusement obvious in her voice. Even in the dark, even at thirty meters' distance, the laughing voice and the distinctive blond hair marked her as Cassandra, Crown Princess of Araluen.
"It must stop, Cassandra," Duncan said. He was angry. She could see that. If it hadn't been obvious from the way he paced behind the table in his office, she would have known it from the fact that he called her Cassandra. His usual name for her was Cass or Cassie.
And today, he was thoroughly annoyed with her. He had a full morning's work ahead of him. His desk was littered with petitions and judgments, there was a trade delegation from Teutlandt clamoring for his attention and now he had to take time out to deal with a complaint about his daughter's behavior.
She spread her hands palm-out before her--a gesture that mixed frustration and explanation in equal parts.
"Dad, I was just--"
"You were just skulking around the countryside after midnight, stalking an innocent sentry and then frightening the devil out of him with that damn sling of yours! What if you'd hit him, instead of the spear?"
"I didn't," she said simply. "I hit what I aim at. I aimed at the spearhead."
He glared at her and held out his hand.
"Let me have it," he said, and when she cocked her head, not understanding, he added, "The sling. Let me have it."
He saw the determined set to her jaw before she spoke.
"No," she said.
His eyebrows shot up. "Are you defying me? I am the King, after all."
"I'm not defying you. I'm just not giving you that sling. I made it. It took me a week to get it just right. I've practiced with it for months so that I don't miss what I aim at. I'm not handing it over so you can destroy it. Sorry." She added the last word after a pause.
"I'm also your father," he pointed out.
She nodded acceptance of the fact. "I respect that. But you're angry. And if I hand over my sling to you now, you'll cut it up -without thinking, won't you?"
He shook his head in frustration and turned away to the window. They were in his study, a large, airy and well-lit room that overlooked the park.
"I cannot have you stalking around in the dark surprising the sentries," he said. He could see they had reached an impasse over the matter of the sling and he thought it best to change his point of attack. He knew how stubborn his daughter could be.
"It's not fair to the men," he continued. "This is the third time it's happened and they're getting tired of your silly games. The sergeant of the guard has asked to see me later today and I know what that's going to be about." He turned back to face her. "You've put me in a very difficult situation. I'm going to have to apologize to a sergeant. Do you understand how embarrassing that will be?"
He saw the anger in her face fade a little. "I'm sorry, Father," she said. She was matching his formality. Normally, she called him Dad. Today it was Cassandra and Father. "But it's not a silly game, believe me. It's something I need to do."
"Why?" he demanded, with some heat. "You're the Crown Princess, not some silly peasant girl, for pity's sake! You live in a castle with hundreds of troops to protect you! Why do you need to learn how to sneak around in the dark and use a poacher's weapon?"
"Dad," she said, forgetting the formality, "think about my life so far. I've been pursued by Wargals in Celtica. My escorts were killed and I barely escaped with my life. Then I was captured by Morgarath's army. I was dragged off to Skandia, where I had to survive in the mountains. I could have starved there. After that, I was involved in a full-scale battle. Those hundreds of guards didn't exactly keep me safe then, did they?"
Duncan made an irritated gesture. "Well, perhaps not. But--"
"Let's face it," Cassandra went on, "it's a dangerous world and, as Crown Princess, I'm a target for our enemies. I want to be able to defend myself. I don't want to have to rely on other people. Besides . . ." She hesitated and he studied her more closely.
"Besides?" he queried.
Cassandra seemed to consider whether she should say more. Then she took a deep breath, and plunged in.
"As your daughter, there's going to come a time when I should be able to help you--to share some of your load."
"But you do that! The banquet last week was a triumph . . ."
She made a dismissive gesture with her hands. ?"I don't mean banquets and state occasions and picnics in the park. I mean the important things--going on diplomatic missions in your name, acting as your representative when there are disputes to be settled. The sort of things you'd expect a son to do for you."
"But you're not my son," Duncan said, a little too softly.
Cassandra smiled sadly. She knew her father loved her. But she also knew that a king, any king, hoped for a son to carry on his work.
"Dad, one day I'll be Queen. Not too soon, I hope," she added hastily and Duncan smiled his agreement with the sentiment. "But when I am, I'll have to do these things and it'll be a little late to start learning at that point."
Duncan studied her for a long moment. Cassandra was strong willed, he knew. She was brave and capable and intelligent. There was no way she would be content to be a figurehead ruler, letting others make the decisions and do the hard work. He sighed.
"You're right, I suppose," he said. "You should learn to look after yourself. But Sir Richard has been teaching you the saber. Why bother with the sling--and why learn to sneak around unseen?"
It wasn't uncommon for highborn young ladies to study swordsmanship. Cassandra had been taking lessons from the Assistant Battlemaster for some months, using a lightweight saber specially made for her. She turned a pained expression on her father.
"I'm all right with the saber," she admitted. "But I'll never really be an expert and that's what I'd need to be to hold my own against a man with a heavy weapon. It's the same with a bow. It takes years of practice to learn to use one properly and I just don't have the time.
"The sling is a weapon I already know. I learned to use it as a child. It kept me alive in Skandia. I decided it would be my weapon of choice and I'd develop my basic skills until I was really expert."
"You could do that on a target range. You don't need to terrorize my sentries," Duncan said.
She smiled apologetically. "I admit I haven't been fair to them. But Geldon said the best way to practice was to make the situation as real as possible."
"Geldon?" Duncan's eyebrows slid together in a frown. Geldon was a retired Ranger who had an apartment of rooms in Castle Araluen. Occasionally, he acted as an adviser to Crowley, the Ranger Corps Commandant. Cassandra flushed as she realized she'd given away more than she intended.
"I asked him for a few pointers on unseen movement," she confessed, then added hurriedly, "but he didn't know about the sling, I promise."
"I'll speak to him later," Duncan said, although he had no doubt she was telling the truth. Geldon wouldn't be fool enough to encourage her in the irresponsible practice sessions she'd devised.
He sat down, breathing deeply for a few seconds to let his anger subside. Then he said in a more reasonable tone, "Cass, think about it. Your practice sessions could conceivably put you, or the castle itself, in danger."
She cocked her head to one side, not understanding.
"Now that the sentries know what you're up to, they might just ignore the occasional noise or sign of movement outside the walls. If they were to see some dark figure creeping through the night, they'd assume it's you. And they might be wrong. What if an enemy agent was trying to infiltrate the castle? That could result in a dead sentry. Would you want that on your conscience?"
Cassandra hung her head as she considered what he had said. She realized he was right.
"No," she said, in a small voice.
"Or the opposite might happen. One of these nights, a sentry might see someone stalking him and not realize it's only the Crown Princess. You could get killed yourself."
She opened her mouth to protest but he stopped her with a raised hand.
"I know you think you're too skilled for that. But think about it. What would happen to the man who killed you? Would you want him to live with that on his conscience?"
"I suppose not," she said glumly, and he nodded, seeing that the lesson had been learned.
"Then I want you to stop these dangerous games of yours. If you must practice, let Geldon work out a proper plan for you. I'm sure he'd be willing to help, and it might be harder to slip by him than a few sleepy sentries."
Cassandra's face widened in a smile as she realized that, far from confiscating her sling, her father had just given his permission for her to continue her weapons practice.
"Thanks, Dad," she said, the eagerness obvious in her voice. "I'll get started with him later today."
But Duncan was already shaking his head.
"There's time for that later. Today I need your help planning a trip--an official trip. I want you to decide who should accompany us. And you'll probably need to have new clothes made as well--proper traveling outfits and formal gowns, not that tunic and tights you're wearing. You say you want to help, so here's your chance. You organize everything."
She nodded, frowning slightly as she thought over the preparations she'd have to make, the details she'd have to arrange. An official royal trip took a lot of planning and involved a lot of people. She was in for a busy couple of weeks, she realized. But she was glad that his attention had been diverted from his earlier annoyance.
"When are we going?" she asked. "And where to?" She'd need to know how far they were traveling so she could organize their overnight stops along the way.
"In three weeks' time," the King told her. "We've been invited to a wedding at Castle Redmont on the fourteenth of next month."
"Redmont?" she repeated, her interest obviously piqued by the name. "Who's getting married at Redmont?"