Chapter One

The moonlight spilled onto the forest floor, being broken only by the leaves that hung limply from the trees. A warm night breeze blew through the trees and Cassandra knew morning would be upon her soon. Wanting to savour every moment until the sun rose, Cassandra unhooked her bow from her shoulder and looked around for her next target.

A loose twig cracked on the floor a few meters from where she was stood and Cassandra immediately drew the string and let loose an arrow. She did not hesitate or even look too long at where she was firing. The arrow flew through the air, cutting down some leaves as it soared, and lodged itself into the hind of a fleeing deer.

Cassandra removed the arrow and took a knife from her boot, using it to remove what meat she could from the dying animal. She didn’t much like the land of Dolor, but she was thankful for the thin branched trees that populated the forests. Back in Araston she would have needed more time, she would have aimed her shot so it would not have been slowed down by the large foliage, but in Dolor that was never a problem.

It had become routine for Cassandra, every night for the last week at least, for her to sneak out into the forest and hunt under the moonlight. That was another thing she missed about Araston. In her Kingdom she would have been able to hunt any time she wished, but here in Dolor she had to keep up appearances during the day. A lady could not be seen to hunt, it was so unladylike.

That was how Cassandra found herself strapping on a pair of her father’s old boots, and some brown trousers that she had acquired from the help, and venturing off into the woods to be as she wanted to be.

She finished cleaning the deer’s blood from her knife before slipping it back into her boot. She took her bow up off of the ground and removed the arrow from the side of the fallen animal. The arrow was useless, having splintered upon removal, but Cassandra still found it better than leaving the creature with an arrow in its side. She often wondered if men had the same fate. If a man fell in battle from an archer’s fire, would the arrow have been removed before the man were sent home? It was a question she could never have answered for it would be unladylike to ask such a thing. Battlegrounds and blood sports were no place for a lady.

Cassandra heard another twig snap and immediately her bow was drawn and an arrow poised ready to fire. But this time Cassandra held her shot. The crunching of the twig had been heavy, too heavy for a deer. But there was no sign of anything around. Cassandra considered lowering her bow but was alerted once more by some leaves rustling nearby. Cassandra’s arm whipped around, quicker than she could blink, and she was now facing the direction of the rustling.

“Does the King know of your whereabouts?” The voice seemed to come from behind her but, upon examination, there was noone.

“My whereabouts is none of the King’s concern.” Cassandra looked above her just in time to see a shadowy figure jump down from a tree and land beside her. The man was wearing a dark green hooded robe and Cassandra knew his face the moment he removed the hood.

“I believe he would disagree.”

“It is a rarity if the King and I ever agree.” Cassandra lowered her bow and hooked it back over her shoulder, knowing the man was no threat.

“Your escorts will surely be looking for you come morning.”

“Then let them find me, come morning.” She placed the arrow back into her quiver. “Tell me, Spencer, how were you able to leave the castle without being followed?”

“The question is, how were you? A Page is surely less watched than a Princess.” A smile crept across Cassandra’s face as they walked through the forest.

Spencer had served Cassandra since they were both children. He had been her first appointed official, being told that every lady needs a Page. Whilst her Father had protested that a young girl should be appointed a female page, Cassandra had stood firm that she desired Spencer to be her page.

“By now you should realise, I cannot be stopped from something I wish to do.” It was all too true of a statement and Spencer knew it better than anyone. “And you come armed? Should a Page be allowed that?” Cassandra indicated to the sword that was hanging at his side.

“If I did not have it then how would I save you? Should you be in trouble of course.” Cassandra reached forward and took the sword. She slid it slowly out of its sheathe and admired the fine craftsmanship on it. It was an Arastonian blade and she felt a twinge of guilt at holding it. Immediately she handed the sword back as if had just burned her fingers and she wished to be rid of it as soon as possible.

“I admire your assumptions.”

Spencer’s eyebrows furrowed. “And what would that be?”

“To begin with you assume you would be able to save me.” There had been a reason why Spencer was a Page and not a Knight. His arms were thin and scrawny, much more served for writing than fighting, and his features were so delicate that they appeared to just rest gently on his face with no severity at all. “And then you assume I would ever get into trouble.” Had her hair been loose then Cassandra would have surely flicked it for emphasis, but loose hair was not appropriate for hunting.

“There is not a day that has passed that you have no found yourself in trouble.” Cassandra seemed oddly proud of this suggestion, and it was one she did not argue with. “But the former assumption can only be proven in one way.”

“Like old times?” Spencer’s hand tightened around his sword but he felt his grip release when he noticed Cassandra was unarmed.

“I should not fight you anyway, but I could not fight you whilst you do not have a weapon.” Cassandra unhooked the bow from her shoulder and held it directly in front of her.

“I have a weapon.”

“I cannot.” Cassandra knew how the back and forth would go. Instead of indulging him, she leaned back and swung the bow in an arch towards Spencer. As if expecting it, Spencer blocked it with his sword and the woods echoed with the thud of wood hitting steel. Their eyes met momentarily and they could only watch as the other one formed the same wry smile that they had. Cassandra reared back again and swung, this time with more power. It was blocked again but Spencer wasted no time in bringing the sword back for an overhead swing. Cassandra sidestepped the swing but had to let go of her bow to avoid losing her hand. The bow fell to the floor and Cassandra found herself dodging some wayward swings from the blade.

“I see you would fight an unarmed woman.” Spencer swung again.

“You are unarmed of your own foolishness, for that I am not to blame.” When Spencer hit the tree, Cassandra ducked under the blade and rolled through the fallen leaves to grab her bow again. She reached back into her quiver but found it empty. Her arrows were strewn over the floor as a result of the roll. Spencer was back to her position and the familiar thud of wood and steel could be heard time and time again. It was like a choreographed dance for the two of them, a dance they had been doing for years now.

“I would rather you had a sword for this fight.” Spencer struck the bow again and he could see every mark he was making when his sword connected. Had the bow not been made by the royal blacksmith then it surely would have splintered and broken by now.

“If I had a sword then this fight would not still continue.” Cassandra ducked a sword swing and managed to grab an arrow from amidst a pile of fallen leaves. Before Spencer could swing again, Cassandra had the arrow hooked and the bow drawn. “I sometimes find a bow works better.”

“But you waste time with it.” Spencer lunged forward and Cassandra was forced to stumble backwards and, in the haste, dropped her arrow. Avoiding another swing, Cassandra found herself lying on her back on the dirty, muddy floor. Spencer stepped over her and held the sword down at her chest. “It appears that I win.”

“Appearances are not always what we believe.” Spencer looked down when he felt a sharp pain in his ribs and noticed that Cassandra had a knife that she could easily bury under his ribcage. He withdrew his sword and sheathed it again before offering a hand to Cassandra who was still lying on the floor. Spencer helped her up and thought no Princess had ever looked so messy.

Cassandra’s hair was coming out of its braid, forming some sort of auburn tangled mess, and her clothes were muddy and dirty with dried leaves having on every bit of loose fabric.

“Where was the knife?” Cassandra had finished dusting herself down and tapped her left boot.

Both Princess and Page noticed when the sun began to creep over the horizon. They both shared an expressionless glance that somehow they both understood.

“I should get you back.” As they walked through the forest Spencer could not help but ask the one question that was on his mind. “Where did you learn to keep a knife there?”

“A lady must not be seen armed. In these clothes there are few places to keep a knife. If I were dressed normally then you would not be able to find the knife even if you tried.” The brown trousers and boots were a far cry from what the Princess would normally wear. Normally brown would not be an option, brown was for men or for the lower classes. As a Princess she would have been dressed in lavish dresses in a variety of colours, although the usual was purple, pink or blue.

As they reached the edge of the woods they could hear the panic that had set in amongst the royal escorts. There must have been a dozen people rushing around calling out Cassandra’s name. Each of them was red faced and flushed with excitement, or maybe nerves. Upon seeing her they all seemed to exclaim the same thing; “We were so worried!”

“We must get you ready as quickly as possible.” One of the escorts, an older woman, quickly swept Cassandra away and up the stone pathway that led to the castle. Cassandra glanced back to see Spencer being reprimanded by one of the elder escorts, but there was nothing she could do about it at the time. Had she had the time then she would have explained that Spencer was out there of his own volition and not because of her, the idea that they met was merely chance.

Dolor Castle had been made primarily for wars. It had only been recently that King Marcus had decided to occupy the castle and had made it his permanent home. In Araston Cassandra had lived in Pentheus Palace which had been purpose built for a life of luxury, living in a castle was proving to be something altogether different. Whilst she was used to living in a walled city, Araston’s capital of Pentheus had been walled for as long as she could remember, the idea of living in a castle seemed somewhat barbaric. A castle was a place of fighting and murder, not a place to govern from or conduct politics out of. A person’s choice of residence definitely reflected on who they were. Cassandra did not want to think too much about what kind of a person King Marcus of Dolor was for choosing to spend his life in a fortified castle.

Cassandra was taken to her room and immediately stripped out of her clothes and her hair unbraided by her awaiting maids. Her boots and trousers were cast to one side and one of them quickly began brushing her hair. The process, while intended to make Cassandra look as perfect as possible, was hardly pain free. The wire brush tugged at her hair and scratched at her scalp, but it was necessary to remove any tangles or knots that were included. The woman squealed when a dead leaf fell from Cassandra’s hair and crumpled on the floor. The woman stamped on it just to make sure it was dead.

This routine was nothing new, only this time it had to be extra special. Once her hair was brushed it had to be washed. Cassandra always found this a futile exercise and wondered why her hair could not just be brushed once after washing. But this was not her time to talk. The talking would go on around her, with the maids chattering about how best to improve her look, but none of it was addressed to her.

“Should she wear her hair up or down?” One of the maids asked as Cassandra’s head was held down and a bucket of water poured over it. This was the less elegant side of being a Princess. It was a routine most people had to go through, but for a Princess it was even more rigorous because her appearance meant everything, especially today.

“It should be down. She will look far more elegant with her hair down.”

“But up would suggest to people that she is practical.” This idea was shot down immediately as the woman was reminded that it is not a Princesses job to be practical. A Princesses job is to look like a Princess and appear, at all times, like royalty. This had been part of the reason she had been swept inside so quickly. No one could see her with her hair tied up in a raggedy auburn braid with dirt across her face. Her hair had to flow like water and her skin had to glow with a radiance that rivalled the sun. Cassandra could never understand why the women debated so often on whether she should wear her hair up or down, they always settled on down.

Cassandra’s attention was grabbed by some commotion at the door. One of the maids seemed to be arguing with someone on the other side. She kept repeating the words “No man is allowed in the Princesses quarters.” After a few times of hearing this Cassandra grew tired and realised that neither man nor Lady was going to back down.

“Who is at the door?” Her voice startled several of the maids that were drying her hair and cleansing her skin. The woman at the door turned and looked nervously as if the wrong answer might result in her death being ordered.

“A man.”

“And what, may I ask, is his name?” The question was sharp and bitter as a result of Cassandra’s patience being tested.

“Brooks. A Mr Spencer Brooks.” Cassandra’s demeanour suddenly lightened and she told the woman to let him inside. Slightly sceptical about doing so, the woman stepped aside anyway and let Spencer enter. “Princess, this is neither the time nor the place for a gentleman caller.” The woman did not seem to understand why Cassandra started to laugh.

“Spencer is no gentleman, he is my Page.” A few of the other women seemed a bit startled at this. Hushed voices could be heard of them exchanging questions as to whether a Princess was allowed a male Page. Cassandra pushed a wooden chair across the floor with her foot, making sure not to move her head for fear of having a clump of hair torn out. “Do have a seat.”

“You are looking lovely as always, Princess.”

“I find it difficult for any man to question a woman’s beauty when he finds himself sat opposite a bare chest.” She did not have time to sit and talk with him, as she would have liked, because she was soon encouraged to her feet to be dressed. “Do you have news of my Father?”

“There is word that one of his ships has been seen arriving at the harbour.” Cassandra was helped into a dress that clung to her shoulders and then billowed out beneath her. It was not the shape or the fit of the dress that took most people by surprise though, it was the colour. The dress was the clearest white a person could imagine, the kind of colour that only the heavens could create and put aside just for the purest moments of life. On an ordinary day a white dress would never have been seen. She had worn dresses that had sections and areas of white before, usually just the sleeves or the chest, but this dress was entirely white. Once in the dress, Cassandra was fitted with thin laurel of tiny white, glittering flowers that lay elegantly around her forehead.

“I do not wish to speak out of turn, but are you sure you want to go through with this?” A few of the maids froze in their tracks at the suggestion from Spencer. Cassandra urged them to carry on and to ignore what he had said for the question was not aimed at them.

“My Father chose for me to marry King Marcus, I do not have a choice.”

“And once you are married? What then?”

“Please, Spencer, whilst I appreciate your concern I believe you have been misled somewhere.” Cassandra crossed the room and sat in the chair opposite him. She looked down at the beautiful white dress beneath her and caught sight of herself in the reflection of a mirror on a wall across the room. Everything about the scene should have made her happy, but she could not even force a smile. “This is not a marriage of love, this is one of politics. I am not marrying Marcus for myself, I am doing it for my Father. Now, please, go and see if my Father has arrived yet.” Spencer did not say anything further, he simply nodded and exited the room.

When Cassandra was alone she walked over the mirror and could not help but admire the work that the maids had done. It had taken them some hours and it would only last a further few hours, but for that time she could appreciate how beautiful she looked on that day. She was glad her Father had travelled for the wedding. Whilst she hated being in Dolor, and being away from home, having her Father there during the wedding would make the whole ordeal more bearable. Whilst admiring her appearance, and relishing the opportunity to see her father again, she heard a soft rapping on the wooden door.

“Miss Cassandra, the ceremony is about to begin.” The voice was faint on the other side of the door but Cassandra could have recognised it from any distance.

“It is okay Peter, I am presentable.” The door opened with trepidation and an older man entered the room.

“The King is truly a lucky man.” The compliment made Cassandra smile although she was not entirely sure whether she had wanted to or not.

Peter was Duke of Bantham and had served as Royal Adviser to King Robert, Cassandra’s father, for as long as she could remember. He was a serious man with heavy set eyes and a mouth that was hidden by a tidy grey beard. For most people, having Peter around would have set them on edge, but Cassandra had grown up with the man and so felt something comforting and familiar in his presence.

“Shall I escort you down?” Cassandra took a deep breath and exited her room. Her maids had lined the corridor and followed behind her and keep her dress from dragging on the floor. Peter quickened his pace and fell into step beside her.

“How is my father?” The Duke seemed surprised to hear Cassandra mention her father. He had expected her mind to be elsewhere, for her to have forgotten herself and to falter in her step as she walked; that was, after all, how most ladies behaved before their wedding.

“The last I spoke to him he spoke of how excited he was to witness his daughter finally wed.” Cassandra wanted to smile at the comment for there was something innately funny about it, but instead she just felt saddened by the thought of it.

“I am barely twenty years, I do not understand his haste to marry me.” She hesitated for a moment but only in her speech, her footwork remained faultless. “Of course I know why he wishes it. The Kingdom knows Dolor would be a valuable ally should any situation arise.”

“Your father is a wise man, he only does what is best for Araston.” They had reached the church and Cassandra sighed loudly. The sigh was a combination of Peter’s words and the image of the church. It loomed over her, large and unnerving, almost daring her to enter. The stained glass windows were the only things that helped settled Cassandra’s nerves, they were like a ray of light set against a dull, grey-brick monster. She stood for a few seconds, trying to catch her breath and work up the courage to open the large wooden doors. She had not needed to though for two royal guards opened the doors and revealed the congregation inside.

As Cassandra entered, to the sound of organ music reverberating against the stone walls, she couldn’t help but notice the man stood at the end of the aisle. King Marcus stood, regal and proud, with his chest puffed out and his stomach tucked in. Cassandra noticed this was not his usual stance. The few times she had seen him previously he had been hunched and his stomach stuck hung over his trousers. In this light he looked passable for a King, a man of grace and polish, but Cassandra knew this was just a façade put on for the hundreds of people in attendance. As Cassandra got further to the front of the church she was trying to calmly look around for any sign of her father. They reached the front of the church and, rather than looking directly at King Marcus, Cassandra quickly scanned the occupants of the front row.

“Where is my father?” Cassandra leaned over and whispered into Peter’s ear; to the congregation however this came off as merely a hug between the Princess and her father’s royal adviser.

“His boat was in the harbour, I am sure he is just running late.” Unfortunately the embrace finished and Cassandra was forced to turn and look at the man she was about to marry. His royal blue uniform was stretched against his stomach and the buttons, shiny and polished, threatened to break loose at any moment. If Cassandra had been able to choose who was standing opposite her, King Marcus may have been the very last person on the list.

The Minister began his speech to the congregation but Cassandra found herself only dipping in and out for parts of it. She was too occupied trying to find her father and keep the regal smile on her face. She wished that she had been allowed a veil for at least then she would have been able to cover her face and save her cheeks the agony of forcing a smile. As the Minister asked for any objections Cassandra looked out over the people gathered there. She knew but only a handful of them and even those were merely friends or staff of her father. It was not until now that she noticed Spencer was absent. Had he even been invited? The whole affair had seemed so rushed, although she had spent more than a month living in Dolor and planning the wedding, so it was entirely possible he had been overlooked. She had to push this thought out of her mind because she would not have allowed it. Had someone suggested Spencer not be allowed, or even forgotten to invite him, then Cassandra surely would have protested such a decision. But still there was no sign of him.

“We are here today – before God – because marriage is one of His most sacred wishes – to witness the joining in marriage of King Marcus of Dolor and Princess Cassandra of Araston. This occasion marks the celebration of love and commitment with which this man and this woman begin their life together. And now – through me – He joins you together in one of the holiest bonds. Who gives this woman in marriage to this man?” Cassandra looked over and saw Peter stand almost immediately. His mouth opened to speak but the only sound heard was the banging of the large wooden door being thrown open. Everyone turned their attention to who would barge in on such a ceremony and interrupt the Duke from speaking. Cassandra turned, hoping to see her father performing such a bold move. But something inside her knew it was not going to be, it was not like her father to create such a spectacle of himself.

“I am sorry.” Spencer stood in the doorway with his blond curls bouncing frantically as he tried to catch his breath. King Marcus’ face suddenly turned a deep crimson and his eyes narrowed in on the blond Page-boy who had interrupted the ceremony.

“Guards!” A few men rose from their seats and grabbed Spencer by his arms, already beginning to drag him out before anyone could react.

“Let him go!” Cassandra was not sure if she had intended to speak and she knew that it would not sit well with the King, but she also knew if she did not do something then Spencer would be dead before the ceremony was over. “This man is my Page and would not perform such an act had he no reason to. I demand you let him explain his actions before you drag him to the gallows.” It was a bold move for anyone to speak out against the King’s orders but even more so for a woman to undermine him on their wedding day. The guards looked over at the King and he just nodded gently, without any real emotion. The men let go of Spencer and he quickly hurried his way to the front of the church.

“I come from the harbour. I have news of your father.” Cassandra was immediately thankful for his interruption and to herself for speaking out against the King.

“I am not marrying King Robert, his presence is of no concern to me.”

“I apologise for my words but I aimed this news for Cassandra.” Spencer regretted his words immediately but King Marcus looked across to Cassandra and decided against having him thrown out. “Princess, your father was not on the boat that docked at the harbour. A message was sent instead.”

“Do hurry up, can you not see you have interrupted a royal wedding for such a trivial matter.”

“The message I bring is not trivial, at least not to King Robert’s daughter.” Cassandra made a mental note to later commend Spencer for his bravery, there were not a lot of men in the world who would interrupt a wedding on her behalf. “Princess, I am afraid your father is dead.”

Cassandra swallowed hard and took a deep breath. She closed her eyes and wondered if she could cry with her eyes closed. She managed to stave off the tears long enough to figure out what she needed to say. “Thank you.” She turned back to King Marcus. “I am sorry but I cannot go through with this marriage after such news.” She did not wait to see how King Marcus would react. “Spencer, please arrange travel plans for Araston. I wish to be home to see my father as quickly as possible.” The two of them were already halfway out of the church when Duke Peter stood from his row and followed them. The last thing Cassandra remembered hearing was the slamming of the church doors as she felt the breeze on her face. What struck her most was, despite the dreadful news, she was somewhat relieved.