John Flanagan: Erak_s ransom

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John Flanagan Erak_s ransom
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    Erak_s ransom
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Erak_s ransom

John Flanagan


Chapter 1

The sentry never saw the dark-clad figure ghosting through the night towards 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 south-eastern 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 metres to the left of where the sentry stood, a picnic table had been fashioned by attaching an old cartwheel 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 favourite picnic spot for the knights and their ladies. It afforded a good overview of the green, pleasant parklands that sloped away to the distant dark line of a forest. And it was placed so that it would enjoy sunshine all year round – so long as the sun was shining.

The intruder was heading towards this table.

The dark figure slipped into the shadows of a small grove forty metres from the bench, then dropped belly down to the ground. Taking one last look to get a bearing, the intruder snaked out of the shadows, face down, heading for the shelter of the table.

Progress was painstakingly slow. This was obviously a trained stalker who knew that any rapid movement would register with the sentry's peripheral 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.

Dark green merged perfectly with the tone of the grass itself.

It took ten minutes to cover the distance to the table. A few metres 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 metres 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 tired eyes with his right. He was bored and tired and, he told himself, it was when you got that way that you started imagining things.

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 metres to the shelter of the table. Rising slowly to a crouching position, the intruder studied the situation. The sentry, after his shuffling and stamping, had moved a few metres further 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 centre. 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, he thought… 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…

CLANG!

An unseen missile smashed into the head of his spear. The force of the impact snatched the weapon from his loose grasp, sending it cart-wheeling 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 blonde hair.

'Relax! It's only me,' she said, the amusement obvious in her voice.

Even in the dark, even at thirty metres distance, the laughing voice and the distinctive blonde hair marked her as Cassandra, Crown Princess of Araluen.

Chapter 2

'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. It was only when he was thoroughly annoyed with her that he used the long form of her name.

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 judgements, there was a trade delegation from Teutlandt clamouring for his attention and he had to take time out to deal with a complaint about his daughter's behaviour.

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 practised 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.

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