King Duncan and Princess Cassandra are trapped in the south tower of Castle Araluen and under near-constant attack from the Red Fox Clan. Sir Horace and Ranger Commandant Gilan are holed up in an old hill fort, surrounded by the enemy. And Ranger's apprentice Maddie is the only one who can save them all.
With the help of Hal, Thorn, and the rest of the Heron brotherband, Maddie will have to break her father and his men out of the hill fort, but will they reach Castle Araluen in time?
Internationally bestselling author of the Ranger's Apprentice and Brotherband series, John Flanagan returns in the captivating next installment of the Royal Ranger series: The Royal Ranger: Duel at Araluen.
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Dimon, former commander of the palace guard and now the leader of the rebellious Red Fox Clan, leaned on a windowsill, looked upward, and scowled. He was in a room on the top floor of the Castle Araluen keep. The south tower loomed above him, several floors higher.
He came here regularly, to stare up at the ninth floor of the south tower, where Princess Cassandra, King Duncan and their men had taken refuge. Occasionally, Dimon would see movement on the balcony that surrounded the ninth floor and once he had recognized Cassandra herself peering over into the courtyard below.
He cursed bitterly when he saw her, but she was unaware of his presence. The people on the balcony rarely seemed to look in his direction. They were more interested in the courtyard, and Cassandra’s archers had already taken a savage toll on anyone who moved incautiously down there, straying too far from the shelter of the keep walls.
Under Dimon’s leadership, the castle had been taken by soldiers of the Red Fox Clan. He had chanced upon the Red Fox Clan some years before. They were a disorganized, poorly motivated group of malcontents who protested against the law that allowed a woman to succeed to the throne. The law had been put in place by Cassandra’s grandfather, and it meant that Cassandra would eventually become Queen of Araluen in her own right. The Red Fox Clan clung stubbornly to the old tradition that only a male heir could succeed to the throne—a position Dimon heartily endorsed, as he was distantly related to Cassandra and, so far as he knew, the only possible male heir.
Under a false name, he had joined the Clan and quietly worked his way to the top echelons of power within it. The Clan was big on angry talk and short on action. Dimon, on the other hand, was an expert orator, capable of rousing the passions of an audience and swaying them to his point of view. He had a powerful and charismatic personality and an inborn ability to make people like and respect him. He rose rapidly in the Clan, until he was appointed as their overall leader. He organized them and motivated them until they had become a potent and efficient secret army. He pandered to their beliefs and, most important, he gave them an agenda and a goal—rebellion against the Crown. His cause was aided by the fact that King Duncan had been an invalid for some time and Cassandra, his daughter, was acting as Regent in his place, providing an obvious example of the result of the law change.
Dimon used the Red Fox Clan as a tool to further his own ends. He planned to usurp the throne and have himself crowned king. He saw the Red Fox Clan as the vehicle by which he would achieve this ambition.
His chief obstacle, he believed, was Cassandra’s husband, Sir Horace—the paramount knight of Araluen and the commander of the army. Horace was a highly skilled warrior and an expert strategist and tactician. He was assisted in his leadership role by the Ranger Gilan, Commandant of the redoubtable Ranger Corps and Horace’s longtime friend. For Dimon to succeed, these two had to be lured away from Castle Araluen and, preferably, killed. Accordingly, he had devised a plan whereby Horace and Gilan set out to the north to quell a rebellion raised by a small force of the Red Fox Clan, taking most of the castle’s garrison with them. They were intercepted along the way by a much larger force of Sonderland mercenaries and Red Fox Clan members. Outnumbered three or four to one, Horace’s men had staged a fighting retreat to an ancient hill fort. Although they were currently besieged there by their ambushers, Dimon knew that a leader of Horace’s ability wouldn’t stay contained for long. It was vital that Dimon should act quickly to seize the throne.
Initially, all had gone well. Dimon had tricked his way past Castle Araluen’s impregnable walls and massive drawbridge with a force of Red Fox Clan troops and came within an inch of capturing Cassandra and her father.
But then Maikeru, Cassandra’s Nihon-Jan master swordsman, had interfered, holding Dimon and his men at bay long enough for Cassandra and Duncan to retreat to the upper levels of the south tower with a small force of loyal palace guards and archers.
The eighth and ninth floors of the south tower had been built as a last refuge in the event that the castle was captured. A section of the spiral stairway, just below the eighth floor, could be removed, leaving attackers with no access to the upper two floors—while the defenders could move between the eighth and ninth floors via an internal flight of timber stairs. The refuge was stocked with food and weapons, and large rainwater cisterns in the roof above the ninth floor provided water for the defenders.
So far, Cassandra had resisted his attempts to force his way into the eighth floor of the tower. But now, he had an idea that might just prove to be her undoing.
He turned as he heard a tentative knock at the door.
“Lord Dimon? Are you there?”
He recognized the voice. It was Ronald, the leader of his small force of engineers and siege specialists. “Come in,” Dimon called.
The door opened to admit the engineer. Like many of his kind, he was an older man, his gray hair denoting years of experience in his craft. He hesitated, deferentially. All of Dimon’s men knew that their leader was in a foul mood since the Nihon-Jan swordsman had foiled his plan for a quick result.
“What is it?” Dimon said testily, unreasonably annoyed by the man’s nervousness.
“The materials have arrived for your device, my lord,” the engineer told him. “We can begin building it immediately.”
For the first time in several days, a smile crossed Dimon’s face. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Excellent,” he said. “Now we can make things extremely unpleasant for my cousin Cassandra. Extremely unpleasant.”