The sickle moon had just slipped below the western horizon when the file of mounted men emerged from the trees. There were ten of them in all and they pushed forward a few paces until they crested the ridge looking down to Castle Araluen. The rider at the centre of the line held one hand in the air in the universal sign to halt, and the line of riders drew rein, watching the castle.
The horses snuffled impatiently. They sensed that the massive building meant shelter and water and feed, and they were impatient for all three. The rider to the right of the man who had signalled leaned forward attentively in his saddle, studying the open ground before them. It sloped down initially from the ridge, then began to rise again towards the castle, dotted here and there with clumps of trees and shady arbours. For the most part, the ground was open and a rider crossing it would be within full view, if anyone were watching.
And the likelihood was that someone was always watching. But now the open parkland looked deserted. Any potential watchers would be within the castle itself, and that was where the small party of armed and mail-clad riders were expected.
Most of the castle’s windows were in darkness – as would be usual at this late hour. There were beacon fires in braziers set at regular intervals along the walls, and two torches flickered at either side of the gate, which was now closed and locked against intruders…