“Do you think Chalmeth posted so many sentries to keep undesirables out, or to keep his guests from leaving?” joked Harth, his First Ranger, who guarded the foot of the tree. Shrouded by his light gray cloak, Harth was nearly invisible from above. There was no danger of being overheard. The branches muffled their voices and a wide sweep of meadow still remained between them and the wall.
“To keep us at a distance,” Faldur replied. “I wish I could be a cat in the corner tonight.”
He surveyed the building critically. It was made of grey stone from the surrounding mountains, protected by a thick, battlemented wall which was starting to crumble in places, along the top of which the sentries could be clearly seen moving back and forth. A carved gryphon over the main entrance had lost half a wing, and the elaborately painted stucco on the sides of the buildings was faded and flaking off. But there was no getting in tonight.
“There’s a cat for you,” said Harth, interrupting his thoughts. A black mountain lion was loping towards them across the meadow. Faldur stiffened. It was a young female. There was no wind, so with luck she wouldn’t scent them. Harth pushed back his hood and reached for his bow, then drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and strung it in one quick movement. He sighted along the shaft, pushing aside the branches of the fir tree just slightly so as to have a clear shot. About fifty yards from them, the lion turned aside, heading for the castle.
A beam of light drew Faldur’s gaze from the lion to the courtyard. A side door had been opened and a tall figure stood framed in the doorway. He couldn’t see the person’s face, for the light was behind him, but he was exceptionally tall for an Hanorja, stooping to looked out through the opening. He (or possibly she) had to be about six feet tall. That meant that he was an elevja, a member of the royal family. But whom? Faldur knew of no one with royal blood collaborating with the Restorationists. He narrowed his eyes, thinking hard, willing the figure to step out of the shadows so he could get a better look.
The lion padded lightly through the snow along the outside of the wall, although it appeared to be buried up to its stomach. A path must have been cleared there. Then it nosed its way into some bushes, exactly where Faldur knew a small door was concealed, and disappeared inside the wall. There was no cry from the sentries, no sign at all that it had been noticed. Was it waiting in the shadows to spring on them?
“Gryphon feathers!” muttered Harth.
“Why was that door left open?”
The lion reappeared moments later, trotting towards the opened doorway. It sidled inside and the mysterious person closed the door behind it, cutting off the light. Faldur scanned all of the lit windows on that side of the building, watching for the person to appear, but there was no one. He swore softly.
“What is it?” Harth asked. Faldur told him, leaving out the fact that the guest was an elevja. He wanted to consult the Prince first. Melbinor would know if any of his relatives had developed a fondness for lions.
“Do you suppose it’s tame? Chalmeth isn’t breeding nightstalkers, is he?” There was a note of horror in Harth’s voice.
“No,” said Faldur. “Chalmeth is cunning, but he is too much of a coward for that.”
They fell silent again, waiting for more arrivals, but no one else came. Faint strains of music reached them; the dancing had begun. Faldur climbed down from his perch, being careful not to disturb the branches too much and send down a shower of snow that would alert the sentries to their position. He stood next to Harth, rubbing his hands together to warm them and massaging his backside. He was small of stature, even for an hanor, and had to look up slightly at Harth. “Next time, you may have tree duty.”
Harth chuckled. “Oh no, Captain, your sight is much more excellent than mine. I am only fit to stand guard beneath your tree.”
Faldur shot him a dry look, then adjusted his gloves. Harth privately ribbed Faldur about his recent promotion at every opportunity. Every leader needs a foil to keep him humble, thought Faldur philosophically.