Chapter 26
Master and Apprentice

The Sanctuary, The Grey Plains, Pendragon

Shortly after Thames accepted the post of Lord Commander of the Sanctuary, he recommended the construction of an inner wall to serve as a second line of defense, preferably two inner walls so that they could afford one more withdrawal before being forced to make their last stand. That recommendation, along with many of his other proposals to make the Sanctuary more defensible, were rejected. It was one thing to have a wall without, but walls within would destroy the spirit of communal fellowship. Their true bulwark was the Lord Almighty, far surer than any heap of stones. Such were the reasons given.
A community of clerics and layfolk seeking to escape the world did not yield many people of a martial character. Thames' Lesser Templars were few in numbers and even with a levy of able-bodied men to patrol the Wall, it was no army to repel any great force of invaders. When men with a heart for peace were faced wit men with a heart for war, God alone could save them.
Thames had gone the full circuit of the Wall and some three thousand men were besieging the Sanctuary. They were spread thin, but that was because they knew the Sanctuary's defenses were even thinner. They stayed just out of range of the average archer, though there had been a few wounded and dead on both sides from arrows loosed to harry each other. No doubt they were crafting ladders and would attempt to storm the Wall all at once. When that happened, the Sanctuary's defenses would not hold.
There may not have been a wall, but the interior of the Sanctuary could still be divided into lines of defense for strategic purposes. Thames evacuated the families from the outermost houses and had their neighbors take them in. They were still permitted to work their fields, gardens and orchards during the day, but at night--when an attack was most likely--they would be closer to the center and easier to evacuate. The Basilica would be their final refuge. If it came to that, though, they would not last long.
At first, their hope was to hold the line until the King's men arrived from Emryscaster, but as the days wore on, it seemed less and less likely that anyone would be coming. Thames returned to the gatehouse to confirm what he already feared to be true.
When the enemy first appeared, a group of men tried to seize the gate under the pretense they were a delegation seeking to petition the Bishop. Though unarmed, they succeeded in killing four men before they were subdued. Poor Sir Junias would still be alive if he had not made the error of thinking that a violent man was no longer a threat when you take away his arms.
Thames had been avoiding this, but it needed to be done. He had to question the prisoners, even if it meant facing his old apprentice. In twelve years, they had not spoken man-to-man once. Yes, they would both attend the Tripartite Councils, but that was not the same thing. If anything, they would speak past each other in the presence of the King, but now it would be just the two of them with nothing and no one to get between them. He would have to face the old wounds that never healed and if the lives of thousands did not hang in the balance, he would not face those old wounds again.
Though his Templars were few, it was worth having one to guard the door to the storeroom where the prisoners were held. If he saw an opportunity to escape and wreak further havoc, Gareth would take it and no ill-trained volunteer would be able to stop him.
Sir Philius saluted when he saw Thames come up the stairs.
"My lord."
"I would speak to the prisoners," Thames said.
"Of course, my lord."
Sir Philius took the key from his belt and unlocked the storeroom. Inside were Gareth and five of his men who survived the brawl at the gate. The stench was terrible as you would imagine for six men being confined in such close quarters for nine days.
Glaring at Thames, Gareth said, "Well, if it isn't the sainted Lord Commander himself."
"Leave us," Thames told Sir Philius.
"But, my lord..."
"I will tell you when to open the door again. Do not fail to lock the door behind you."
"My lord, I--"
"You have your orders."
"Yes, my lord."
Sir Philius closed the door and locked it as directed. Gareth sniffed derisively and said, "Got your dog well tamed, I see. I almost thought you'd send one of those catamites to slit my throat so you wouldn't have to face me. Don't have a window in here, but how many days has it been? Six, seven?"
Thames did not answer his question lest there was some plot that depended on the time to be carried out. It was important to rob a prisoner of his sense of time. He had given instructions to the guards to vary their schedules, to never feed the prisoners or relieve each other at the same time and so on. Gareth was too dangerous to be given anything that might be used against you.
"I see that you once again have esteemed your oaths lightly," Thames said. "I warned the King that you were faithless, that you could not be trusted, yet he honored you with a chance for redemption and you have betrayed him."
"If Cain was marching on Caer Pendragon or the High City, I would've gladly died fighting him," Gareth replied. "Maybe I could've even brought his head to the King as a souvenir, but instead he came here and so here I am."
"You would threaten the lives of thousands of innocents for the sake of your petty revenge?"
"Petty revenge!?" Gareth fumed. "You took everything from me! If these people die, it's your fault! It's because you're here!"
Thames sighed.
"All these years and you have learned nothing. Still you blame others for your own sins. I thought I taught you better than that."
"It's your fault! You betrayed me! You took my hand! It's because of you that she's dead!"
"Do you think what you are doing would make her happy?"
"It doesn't matter," Gareth said bitterly. "She's dead."
"Death is not the end, Gareth. You should know that."
"Then you and a lot of other people here are about to not meet their end."
Changing the subject, Thames asked him, "When did you fall in with Prince Cain? Was it during a patrol or were you at Emryscaster?"
Gareth gave him a grin full of malice.
"Oh, so that's what this is about. You're hoping for the garrison to come save you. Well, I hate to disappoint you, master, but they won't be saving anybody."
Thames feared as much, but that did not make the news any less shocking.
"The entire garrison..."
Seeing his old master so shaken filled Gareth with cruel delight, so he took it further.
"They burned Uwncaster to the ground too," he said. "A full third of the King's men gone. Even if the King risks the First Regiment coming here, they'll never make it in time. I'm sure Cain's men have been busy building ladders and siegeworks. It won't be long now. I'd say surrender now, but I don't think he plans on sparing any of you in any case. I wonder if you and your priests will still be preaching about God's mercy then."
Thames shook his head.
"It saddens me to see you fallen so far. That my pupil would become such a twisted wretch pains my heart. I told you this before all those years ago and I tell you again. I see your fall as a personal failure on my part and I am sorry for it."
Gareth scowled at him and said, "You'll be atoning for it soon enough."
Thames should have taken his head then and there. Gareth was too dangerous to be left alive, but they had their laws and the Bishop would never consent to a summary execution. Indeed, he would be loath to permit any execution at all. And so Thames stayed his hand.
Without another word for his former apprentice, he knocked on the door so that Sir Philius would let him out. Before he could exit, though, Gareth had to loose a parting shot.
"Say your prayers and get your confessions taken care of, because you;ll be facing the Judgment Seat soon."
Though it would have been wiser to say nothing, Thames nevertheless found himself replying, "Not before you."
As the door closed, Thames thought that if the should meet again, it would be for the last time and no matter how that encounter would end, his failure would be complete.

* * *

Gareth had been waiting for this very opportunity. Nine days of sitting in this hole and only now did his old master make an appearance. He may not have made it obvious, but Gareth could tell his desperation. Prince Cain was in no great hurry to press forward, but that only served to wear on the nerves of the defenders. It was time to move things along, but first he had to satisfy his thirst for revenge.
He allowed himself to be taken alive and bided his time in captivity for this moment when his old master would be close. He was starting to wonder if the old fool would have the courage to face him at all, but now that he had, they could finally end things. Compared to the past twelve years, these nine days were nothing.
"Hard te believe th' Cap'n an' ol' High-an'-Mighty had a women 'tween 'em," Thurwald, one of his men and fellow prisoners, said.
"Shut your mouth," Gareth growled, "or I leave you here."
"Leave me here?" Thurwald asked. "Where're ye goin', sir?"
"I'm going to kill ol' High-and-Mighty."
It was fitting that the main reason Gareth's plan would succeed was because of what Thames did to him. When you do not have a hand, being bound by the wrists is no real impediment. With little effort, he freed his right arm, which made it easier to get his left arm in front of him so he could work on the knot at his wrist with his teeth and then use his newly freed left hand to undo the knots at his ankles.
Once he was untied, he went to the door. Though the door was locked, the storeroom was built to prevent people from the outside getting in, not people from the inside getting out. The hinges were exposed, so all he had to do was pull the pins out. Once they were out, the lock counted for little.
His joints were stiff from the days of captivity, but he could not let that slow him down. Ignoring his discomfort, he took a deep breath to prepare himself for what came next. He kicked the door open and burst out. Before the Templar on guard outside could do anything, Gareth seized him by the face and bashed his head into the wall twice, then drew the dagger hanging off the Templar's belt and plunged the point into his neck. Try as he might to raise the alarm, all the Templar could do was choke on his own blood.
With the Templar dead, Gareth went back into the storeroom, cut Iago loose and handed him the Templar's dagger.
"Cut the others loose," he said. "Get the body out of sight and put the door back on its hinges. We can't hide it too well, but we can at least make them look twice."
He then went back to take the Templar's sword, the hilt still held in its owner's grip.
"What're we gonna do, sir?" Iago asked. "We ain't exactly armed for a fight."
"Neither are they," Gareth replied testing the weight and balance of the sword, "not in their hearts and that's where it counts. I'm going after the Lord Commander. You lot can keep anyone else from interfering or you can go off wherever your heart desires. It doesn't matter to me."
"We come this far with ye, sir," Iago said. "Ain't no point in going off elsewhere now. Besides, if ye kill the Lord Commander an' we take the Gate, maybe Prince Cain'll forget we got ourselves caught."
"Then follow me."
Even though Gareth's first and most argent thought was to hunt down and kill Thames, he was not blind to everything else. Only two of them were armed and while they had not been treated with any excessive cruelty, being locked up in a storeroom for days with nothing but a bowl or to of gruel each day left them considerably weakened. Though the defenders would likely be spread thin, they would be at their strongest here at the gate.
Where would Thames be? There was scarcely another person who knew him as well as Gareth. What would he be doing? He came to Gareth for information, to assess the chances of reinforcements coming. With that pretty well condemned to a lost hope, he would be double-checking their defenses, trying to raise the morale of the ill-trained and ill-equipped peasants on the Wall. The ramparts. That was where he would be.
"I'll go up top and create a diversion," he told the others. "Try to get the gate open."
"No, sir," Iago said. "If it's a diversion, send one of us."
"You have your orders," Gareth said. "Now go."
Iago did not try to press the issue any further.
"Don't go an' get yerself killed, sir."
"The same to you."
His men left, unaware that they would in fact be the ones playing the diversion. It was a cruel thing to throw away his men's lives like that, but nothing mattered except his revenge. If they were lucky and managed to survive to open the gate, well and good.
He looked down at his worthless stump. Back in his prime, when he still had his good hand, he would have been unstoppable. Almost unstoppable, at least. Thames was his only rival with a sword, but now he was an old man and out of practice from years of soft living here in the Sanctuary. Even a half-starved cripple stood a chance against him now.
He heard someone coming down the stairs. There was no place to hide, so his only hope was to charge ahead full-tilt and strike before the person could react. It was one of the peasant levies. He must have just been relieved from his post because he did not even have a weapon. Even with makeshift spears, there were not enough to go around. Gareth drove his sword into the peasant's belly, then punched him in the throat to make him choke on his scream. He forced the peasant down, pressing his arm down on the man's neck to keep him from crying out. Gareth held him there until his eyes rolled back in his head.
"Ephraim?" a voice called down from the top of the stairs. "Ephraim, was that you? Are you all right?"
There was no time to lose. Once again, he changed forward up the stairs. The hapless peasant at the top did not realize what was happening until it was too late. Gareth ran him through, then drove him off the ramparts, sending him screaming to his death down below. Some of Cain's men holding the siege line saw this and raised a cheer. Though it was entirely unnecessary, he held his bloodied sword aloft to elicit another round of cheers.
"The enemy!" a voice cried. "The enemy on the Wall!"
Another peasant levy, but beyond him Gareth could see the white cape emblazoned with the Scarlet Chi-Rho. Thames.
With his prey in sight, nothing could stand in his way. This peasant was a bowman, but like all the others, he was not accustomed to war. He nocked an arrow with his quaking hand, but when he loosed it, Gareth hardly needed to dodge. A skilled archer would have loosed a second arrow in the time it took to close the distance, but this peasant was too slow. Gareth's swing did not quite have the strength to take off his head cleanly and he had to twist the blade loose from the man's neck before he could continue onward.
There was yet a spearman between Gareth and Thames. Gareth dodged the spearman's thrust, then swung down to cleave the spear in twain, following with a backhanded swing that slashed open the spearman's face. He then pushed the man aside, off the Wall, before going forward.
Thames had one of his Templars with him, who drew his sword and put himself in Gareth's path.
"Stand back, my lord!" the Templar shouted. "Leave this devil to me!"
Gareth would have been more than happy to send another of Thames' false Templars to the Judgment Seat, but before the two of them could cross swords, an arrow from the siege line struck him in the ribs. Staggered, he lost his footing and tumbled over the ramparts. Thames rushed to his aid, but he was too late, his hand reaching out vainly into the empty air.
The old Templar struck the merlon with his fist, then turned and glared at Gareth.
"How many more must die before you are satisfied?"
"Just one more."
Thames unhooked his cape and cast it aside, then drew his sword.
"Are you ready to finish this?" he asked.
Gareth waved his sword and shouted down to the siege line, "Hold arrows! This one's mine!"
He would not have some archer take from him what was his. As he squared off against his old master, he could not help but remember the last time they crossed swords like this. Desperate though he was, he could not bring himself to kill the man who was more a father to him than the one who actually sired him. He held back. He did not fight at his full potential and so he was beaten. He lost everything. Rank, honor, the fellowship of his brother Templars, his prized swordhand, and most of all, the woman he loved more than life itself, more than his immortal soul.
For twelve long, bitter years, the hate festered within him. There would be no holding back this time. The love of an apprentice for his master--no, a son for his father--would not stay him. He would have his revenge and bring Thames' head with him to Hell as a souvenir for his love.
So far neither of them had moved. Thames would not take the first step. The sword of a Templar is never drawn in anger nor wielded with aggression. A Templar is to be as solid as the mountain, his passions cool as the winter air. He is only to burn with zeal for the Lord his God. He who is swept away by Man's base emotions strays from the path of righteousness. All the trite words Gareth thought he had abandoned came back to him.
If Thames would not come to him, he would go to Thames. It played right into his old master's hands, but they could not keep standing there forever. Only the point of his sword could pierce Thames' mail, but a thrust would be more difficult to recover from if it failed to connect. He went for a simple slash to test Thames' strength and defenses. Thames blocked it easily and because he was using both hands, he could put more strength into his swing. Rather than respond with a swing of his own, Thames got in close and punched Gareth in the gut. Even for an old man, the blow hit hard. Gareth raised his sword to attack, but Thames struck him in the ribs with the pommel of his sword and followed it with another gut punch to keep him staggered, then hit him in the face to throw him completely off balance. Gareth made a blind swing just to ward him off and managed to hit him in the sides. This barely even slowed him down, though, as he brought the pommel of his sword down on Gareth's collarbone, dropping him to his knees. Thames then kicked him to lay him out flat.
Gareth had sorely underestimated his old master. He had not even used his blade against the fallen knight. He did not need to. But Gareth would not suffer being taken alive again.
"I don't need your pity, damn you," he growled. "Come at me like you mean to kill me, because I surely mean to kill you!"
There was no anger in Thames' eyes. Only sadness, the very pity Gareth said he did not want. It was the same look he had twelve years ago when he dealt the blow that cost Gareth his hand.
"So this is how it must end, my old apprentice... May God have mercy on your soul, Gareth."
As Thames drove the point of his sword into Gareth's heart, Gareth made one last thrust with all his strength. And so the two of them were held pierced on each other's swords. Gareth could not see where he had struck, but surely it had to be a deathblow.
He wanted to say something, to deliver one last parting taunt with his dying breath to ring in Thames' ears on his way to Hell, but when he tried opening his mouth, he found that he could not say anything. No matter. The deed was done. His vengeance was satisfied and he could face an eternity of torment at the hands of a legion of devils without regret.