Chapter 30
Hunter and Hunter

The Sanctuary, The Grey Plains, Pendragon

When Cain was spirited away, it did not take long for order to break down in the ranks of his men. It was not his strength as a leader that held them together but the promise of payment. Without him to pay them, there was little reason for his mercenaries to continue fighting against Seth and his knights, especially with the threat of more troops on the way. Some simply fled in ones or twos, but the greater part of their number withdrew en masse.
If Seth listened to the call of his blood, he would have immediately pursued them, but cool reason won out. His numbers were too few. Little more than half of the men who rode out with him were still alive and many of the survivors were wounded. They were in no condition to be hunting down the remnant of Cain's brigands, which still numbered over a thousand strong.
There were so many dead to bury. Actually, the soil was too thin to bury the dead. The denizens of the Sanctuary were taken to the catacombs beneath the Basilica and by Seth's order, his fallen knights and their bannermen were granted a place alongside the brethren, regardless of whether they were known to be counted among the faithful or not. For Cain's men and the Goblins who fought with them, however, they were laid up on a pyre made from the timbers of the homes they destroyed and burned, then their bones were carried beyond the Wall. Tempting as it was to leave them to the crows, it was an accursed thing to leave the dead abandoned in the field. It invited the spreading death and the brethren would not see the Sanctuary further desecrated.
It was wearying work. Seth personally joined the Templars who served as Abel's pallbearers and there were many others to follow whom he carried to their final resting place in the catacombs. Men, women, children, the aged. Many suffering the cruelest of indignities in their deaths. Cain's men should have considered themselves fortunate to be given over to the flames. There would have been no dishonor in death too great for them, but what would it have served? They were all equal in death, the good and the wicked alike.
During a lull in the work, Seth went off to sit by himself and rest, or as close to being alone as he could manage with at least a dozen knights acting as bodyguards keeping him within eyeshot at all times. It was not long before he felt the creeping presence of Umbriel near him. Though he gripped Excalibur's hilt, he did not think he had the energy to put up much of a fight if the sicarius had decided his time had come.
"A king who lays to rest the dead of his people with his own hands, with no respect for great and lowly."
"Do you mean to praise me or mock me, sicarius?" Seth asked wearily.
"The deed is praiseworthy," Umbriel said, "perhaps even the heart behind it if it be true."
"I didn't do it for your benefit if that's what you're implying."
"No man who throws himself into battle as you have thinks his life so precious, and perhaps that is your weakness."
"What do you mean?"
"When a king esteems his life so little, what does he leave behind?"
Seth had always been the sort to favor action over deliberation. He tried to be more thoughtful and spend more time weighing his decisions ever since he became King, but in his haste to confront Cain, he had made a grave error. If he were to fall in battle, Cain was next in line to the throne. Aurelia could not rule in her own name, which was why he had to turn a deaf ear to her complaints about the search for an appropriate match for her. If she had a suitable husband, he would be able to inherit the throne ahead of Cain. For that matter, Seth could have ignored the bonds of blood entirely and named any trustworthy man his heir. True, there would be some dispute that Cain's was the stronger claim, but without any designated heir to stand in the way, the aim of his rebellion would be accomplished with a single stroke.
It was as much to satisfy a petty grudge as it was shrewd calculation to eliminate Abel. Though Abel had renounced any claim to the throne, there would be many who would acclaim him King over Cain and by killing him first, he could not be made into a rival for the throne. Cain would then be free to focus on ousting Seth, at ease in the knowledge that his victory would be complete if he should win it.
Did the sicarius actually know all this or did he simply know how to prompt Seth to consider such things?
"I don't regret what I did," Seth said. "A king must lead from the front."
"The epitaph of many a brave and foolhardy king," Umbriel replied, "not that you would have a grave for an epitaph if you had fallen here."
"I can't believe I'm being lectured by my father's murderer," Seth muttered to himself. He then asked Umbriel, "Well? What do you intend to do now? Have you had enough?"
"Your war is not over," Umbriel replied, "and neither is the test."
Seth could feel his head starting to ache.
"Do what you will," he said. "It's what you're going to do anyway."
"And what will you do, King of Pendragon? Your brother was taken by that Orc one way and his men have fled another."
"Cain is dead by now surely if what you say is true. It's his men that are a threat to this kingdom. If they haven't scattered to the four winds, we'll hunt them down once Lord Seisyll arrives. I don't like giving them so much of a head start, but we're in no condition to go after them now and there's a chance some of them might come back if they think the place is undefended."
"You have grown much from the boy who confronted me twenty years ago," Umbriel said. "Strange that a man who was so lacking in virtue would show so much wisdom in his choice of an heir."
"If you dare to say you did this kingdom a service by killing my father, I'll have you answer for it."
Umbriel gave a low chuckle and said, "I will not provoke you needlessly, King of Pendragon. You are weary and there would be no sport in it."
"I would hate to deprive you of your sport, sicarius."
"Rest for now, King of Pendragon," Umbriel said. "Recover your strength. You will have need of it soon."
Umbriel walked off and Seth could not help laughing to himself of the absurdity of it all. Would the casual observer believe that this was the man who meant to take his life, the murderer of his father and countless others? What was he thinking? Perhaps his mind was beyond the workings of mortal ken. It was certainly more than Seth wanted to think about at the moment. Bizarre as it was to take up a killer on his invitation to sleep, Seth thought that he might just do exactly that.

* * *

It had been four days since Cain's men retreated from the Sanctuary. Most of the Lesser Templars and able-bodied men of the layfolk were dead, but Seth did what he could with the survivors to keep the Wall manned and on the lookout for any trouble. He would send teams beyond the Wall to destroy the siegeworks that had been left behind lest some enterprising remnant decided to return and make use of them.
Fortunately, Seth's concerns about Cain's men returning proved to be unfounded. The threat of reinforcements arriving outweighed the vulnerability of the survivors in their reckoning. By this point, though, if they had not retreated, probably none of the defenders would be left alive. The fact that those brigands valued their own skins so much saved hundreds of lives, thousands perhaps.
Seth devised a system of post stations based on the defensive lines of the Sanctuary grounds to simplify the tasks of patrolling and relaying information. He insisted on personally riding patrols to oversee the Sanctuary's defenses. It was good for morale and Seth needed to stay occupied. Whatever his differences with them, he had lost both his brothers and the threat to the kingdom had not been put down yet. It would take many years to undo the damage of Cain's revolt, but first peace had to be restored to the kingdom.
A rider approached his patrol, saluted and said, "Your Majesty, the First Regiment has arrived."
"Have them meet me at the Basilica," Seth said.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
They rode back to the Basilica and not long thereafter, the First Regiment appeared, or rather what looked more like half the regiment, headed by Lord Osric the vice commander. Lord Osric and the riders around him dismounted and saluted the King.
"Hail Pendragon!" Lord Osric shouted.
Seth returned the salute, then said, "Lord Osric, where is Lord Seisyll and the rest of the regiment?"
"While en route to the Sanctuary, Your Majesty, our scouts caught sight of a large group heading southward, so Lord Seisyll elected to divide our number, sending me here in accordance with our orders while he led the pursuit."
"Then there's no time to lose," Seth replied. "They're broken and on the run, but we can't afford to take any chances. Rest your men and your horses, Lord Osric, while we make preparations to set out."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Seth then told the cornicen, "Sound the horn. Call the men back."
"It shall be done, Your Majesty."
The cornicen sounded his horn to rally the men out on patrol. While Seth was waiting for them to return, he was approached by three of the remaining Templars along with their retinues.
"Your Majesty, we request to accompany you," the apparent leader of the Templars said. "We are but three lances, but our swords are at your service."
"Your place is here," Seth said, "defending the Sanctuary."
"We have divided our number, Your Majesty. Half will stay and, by your leave, half will go."
"And what do you seek, revenge? '"Vengeance is Mine; I will repay," saith the Lord.' Is that not your teaching?"
Though take off guard for a moment, the Templar replied, "Your Majesty, there is nothing we could do to the men responsible to avenge what has been done here. We only ask for the opportunity to aid you in bringing them to the King's justice."
"What has Lord Thames to say about this?"
"The Lord Captain has become insensate from his wounds. We cannot wait for him to be revived. We know you mean to set out right away."
"You may wish you had remained."
"Then you will grant our request, Your Majesty?" the Templar asked hopefully.
"Someone from the Sanctuary should bear witness to justice being done," Seth said. "I'll not deny you this. Make ready. We'll be leaving soon."
The Templars and their retinues all bowed to him as their leader said, "Yes, Your Majesty."
Seth then summoned Lord Osric and when he presented himself to the King, Seth told him, "Select two hundred men, preferably men of the Faith, to help defend the Sanctuary. The others can rest for another hour and then I want them to make ready to set out again."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Lord Osric replied. "Will that be all, Your Majesty?"
"Yes, that is all."
As Lord Osric withdrew, Umbriel made an appearance to once again comment on Seth's decisions.
"You weaken your hand to defend these ruins."
"There is more here than ruins, sicarius," Seth said. "There's still thousands of my people here to defend. If anything, I'm leaving too few behind."
"Such are the weighty decisions that yoke those who wear the crown."
"I take it you intend to continue acting as my shadow."
"I have said it before. Your war has not concluded, so neither has my test. I will see this through to the end, no matter what form it may take."