Chapter 13
The Shadow of God

Pendragon Tower, Norland, Pendragon

The mercenaries in the service of Prince Cain were well-known to be little better than common bandits. Indeed, the only real difference was that they served the lord of the land. They were brutal and thuggish, none of them creatures of much intellect, but Nature had a way of providing for such creatures. Whatever they lacked in intellect was counterbalanced by a sort of animal instinct. So when the strange grey-haired wanderer in a tattered cloak walked through their camp outside the Tower, none dared to molest him.
The guards at the door were expecting him, so the wanderer did not need to say anything, nor did they, not that they had the courage to speak to him. They simply opened the doors and were glad for him to pass by and be gone.
Once inside, the wanderer made his way up to the audience chamber. Anyone he came across did not have to know who he was to yield the way to him. No matter how large, drunk and boisterous a man was, he would immediately go quiet and meekly step aside.
The door to the audience chamber lay open and the guards were stiff as boards as the wanderer passed them by. Though it was not mealtime, about twenty of the Lord Steward's choicest mercenaries were gathered at the tables on either side of the chamber. A hush fell over them as the wanderer entered.
"Leave us," Prince Cain told the mercenaries.
Awkwardly, the mercenaries got up from their chairs and filed out of the chamber. The wanderer paid the dozen guard who remained but a passing glance.
"You as well," the Lord Steward told the guards.
After all, Prince Cain knew that no dozen men would suffice and their business was secret besides. Once the guards had withdrawn to the postchamber behind the Prince's throne, Cain spoke to the wanderer.
"You are not an easy man to find," he said.
"I do not mean to be easy to find," the wanderer replied.
"I was wondering when you might come."
"A man's sins have a way of coming back to haunt him."
"If I want to hear preaching about sin, I'll go listen to one of my brother's sermons," the Prince said irately. "I have a job for you, even though you failed the last one."
"I did not fail," the wanderer said. "Your father is dead. That was the deal, was it not?"
Cain angrily pounded the arms of the throne with his meaty fists, shouting, "But I'm not on the throne! That was the whole point!"
The wanderer shrugged.
"Your point, perhaps, but mine is to put men to the test and render the judgment they deserve. Not all men receive as they deserve. Look at you. Seventeen kingdoms under your thumb and still it is not enough."
The Prince struck the arms of his throne again, howling, "The throne is mine! All these years you keep me waiting and only now do you show yourself!? I'll not bow my head to that whelp a moment longer!"
The wanderer was unmoved by the display of anger.
"You have an army," he said. "What keeps you from taking what you say is yours?"
Prince Cain balked at the very idea.
"An army of savages against the true fighting men of our homeland? Even though they have been mongrelized, a drop of British blood is worth more than a bucket of the Norlanders'. So long as he wears the crown, they will fight for him no matter his worth."
"What then is to be made of your worth or the worth of your people when a mere ornament for the head is all that makes a king?"
The Prince scowled at him and said, "You know what I would have of you. Will you do it or not?"
The wanderer did not answer him and the Prince could not bear the silence for long.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "However much it is, I will pay it."
The wanderer gave him a scornful look.
"Have you forgotten in all these years? I care nothing for gold or silver or land or titles. Justice is my payment, the judgment of the proud and the cruel." He paused for a moment and then made his decision. "I will test him, as I tested his father, and he will be judged according to his deserts. If he is unworthy to remain among th living, then he will die."
This was not good enough for the Prince, though.
"No tests! No games! Just kill him!"
However, he would have done just as well to say nothing at all for all the effect his screaming had on the wanderer.
"If you are so particular about the method," the wanderer said, "muster the courage to do the job yourself."
"I want him dead," the Prince insisted.
"That will be for him to decide."
And with that, their business was concluded. The wanderer turned and left. Whatever else Prince Cain had to say fell upon deaf ears. His own measure had already been taken and one day he too would face judgment.

* * *

The cruel men of the land had stables for their women just as they did for their horses. Lucia lay on a bed of rotting straw, her leg shackled to the wall. She did not expect the world to be so steeped in evil before the Archon of Void's plan was put into motion. Now she wondered if it even made any difference whether she succeeded or failed in her mission.
Between the iron that bound her and wicked hearts of the men brimming with darkness, her power could not avail her and she was made to know just how frail her body was. Broken both in spirit and in flesh, it would be a mercy to die and consign the world to its rightful damnation.
A sudden chill overcame her, gripping deep into her bones. It was no natural cold but the presence of dark energies, far greater than the darkness that resides in the hearts of men. Yet when she opened her eyes, it was a man who stood over her. He appeared mortal, but the dark power within him was unlike anything a human would possess.
She of course expected nothing but further evil to befall her and braced herself for this new torment. The dark man knelt down and took hold of her shackled leg. He drew out a knife, causing her her heart to leap. Though she thought she was ready for death, she feared the pain and surely the dark man had no other intention for her but slow torture that might not even end in the release of death.
Much to her surprise, though, rather than carving into her flesh, the dark man used his knife to break the shackle on her leg and the iron collar around her neck. Freed of the iron, she immediately felt a surge of power course through her, but she was still too weak to fend off the dark man if he had some evil intent for her. But did he? For what end would he free her from her chains?
"Why?" she asked him.
"Your kind does not belong here," the dark man replied. "How is it that you fell into these people's hands?"
"What will you do if I tell you?"
"Nothing," he said. "Just as I will do nothing if you do not tell me. It matters not."
Though she did not expect an honest answer, she nevertheless asked him, "Do you serve the Archon of Void... or the power that reigns in the City of the Dead?"
"I serve only two masters," the dark man said. "Justice and Vengeance."
Though the dark man frightened her, she was so desperate for anything to cling to that she found herself drawn to him. Contrary to his words, he could in fact be a servant of the very enemies she sought to overthrow, yet she could not help confiding in him about he mission.
"I have come to this land to forge an alliance with the humans to overthrow the Archon of Void before he can give power to the great evil that lurks in the City of the Dead. Should he succeed, all the land will be covered in darkness."
The dark man showed no particular concern, but why should he?
"I suppose it does not concern a child of the Darkness," she said glumly.
"It does not," the dark man replied, "but you assume I am a child of the Darkness."
"Are you not?"
"Not by birth, at least. By adoption, perhaps. The Darkness claimed me and I claimed it."
"Then you would stand against me?" Lucia asked warily.
"I will not stand against you," the dark man said, "nor will I stand for you."
"Then why did you free me?"
"It is as I said. You do not belong here."
Lucia looked around at the others in the pens around her and asked the dark man, "What about the other women here?"
"They are already broken," the dark man said. "I could take away their chains, but they would not have the will to escape. Even if I would carry them to some safe haven on my own back, it would make no difference. The spark of life has left them." He held up his knife and added, "Even if I gave them the mercy of death, others would be taken in their place. Shall I end their suffering so that others may suffer instead?"
"No!" Lucia exclaimed, seizing the dark man's wrist.
The dark man's only response was to effortlessly toss his knife from one hand to the next, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that there was little Lucia could hope to do to stop him. However, true to whatever inscrutable whims drove him, he sheathed the knife, gently twisted his wrist free and turned away.
"Do what you will," he told her. "Do what you think is right. But take care that the living tree is not felled because you stop to pick up a dry twig."
With that said, the dark man walked away without looking back. Lucia was left alone in that filthy stable with all the near lifeless husks of what had once been women. No, he was wrong. They were still living, breathing humans, lives that were worth saving. How could she claim to save all the land if she were to abandon those in need right before her eyes?
She would show the dark man how wrong he was. These were not dry branches cast off to be trampled underfoot. She would save the piece and save the whole. Leaf, branch, tree, forest all.