Chapter 22
The Stranger Returns

Caer Pendragon, Pendragon

Two weeks had passed since Seth received word about the attack on Uwncaster. It was a cruel thing, but he was not at all surprised. He knew this day was bound to come, but he had tried to avoid it all the same. Why else would he have given a third of his kingdom to a man like his brother with no more professional soldiers at his command than an honor guard of a hundred men? He did not expect Cain's army of mercenaries to pose much of a threat, but clearly he had underestimated them.
Lest he make another miscalculation, he proceeded more cautiously after that. He had scouts sent on ahead to assess the losses at Uwncaster, but the garrison at Lothcaster, was only sent as far as the Aska Crossroads. Wherever Cain's forces were, the First Regiment could be quickly deployed to meet them. If the defenders of Uwncaster had been routed, the High City was the most likely target, but what if they went around to strike Emryscaster first? Because there was no direct southern route, it would take weeks for reinforcements from Uthcaster to arrive, meaning that Cain would only have to fight on a single front. Was he that clever, though, and were his men loyal and dedicated enough to bear a forced march through the forest? This he did not know and that was why the First Regiment waited at the crossroads. North, west, east or south, wherever Cain and his men appeared again, they would be ready.
As much as Seth wanted to personally leap into action and throttle Cain with his own two hands, he could not afford to be careless. He had to wait until Cain's strategy became clear and then act accordingly to counter it. That required patience. It was not his strong suit, but as King it was his duty to put personal feelings aside and act in the best interests of the kingdom.
Besides having the First Regiment at the ready, he had riders sent out to the High City, Emryscaster, Uthcaster, the Sanctuary, and the entire circuit of watchtowers to have them prepare for Cain's next move, wherever it might be. Also, even in the face of this crisis, there was still all the mundane day-to-day chores of running the kingdom and that was what he busied himself with even as he longed for some word that might allow him to move forward in putting down Cain's revolt.
Seth made a point to set aside a few hours every day if possible to hear petitions from his subjects. It did not matter if the petitioner was one of the great lords of the land or the lowliest peasant. His father had done the same, but in his case it was more theater than anything else. Though Seth tried to ensure the petitioners had freer access, he knew better than to think he was getting an unfiltered view of his people and their needs.
He was hearing the complaint of a merchant whose convoy was waylaid by bandits near the Brodheim Crossroads when there was a loud crack and a cloud of smoke rose up to fill the throne room in a thin haze. Through that haze, a shadowy figure took shape. The nightmare from twenty years ago had returned.
Seth gripped the arms of the throne. His every instinct was to spring forward and draw Excalibur to cut down the figure where it stood, but he checked himself. The guards readied their spears, but Seth stretched out his hand, telling them, "Hold."
The guards obeyed and as the haze dissipated, the stranger spoke.
"I am Umbriel, the shadow of God. Twenty years ago, the man who sat on that throne was tested and he was judged. A new king has risen in his place and now a new test. The conditions are the same. I have come here to kill you, but you have three days to convince me otherwise. Fail and you will not see the sun rise on the fourth day."
"Fiend!" one of the more zealous guards shouted.
Seth held up his hand again.
"I said hold. Killing you would be nothing to him, even if age has slowed him down."
The stranger fixed his gaze on Seth, studying him intently with his pale steely grey eyes.
"A sicarius stands before you and has threatened you with death, yet you are more concerned for the life a single guard." He nodded. "Good. You pass the first test."
Seth gritted his teeth. It took every ounce of his will to remain seated.
"I'm not interested in your tests," he said, "but I'm not going to try to stop you either." He then raised his voice for the benefit of all those assembled in the throne room. "Let my order be known. The sicarius Umbriel is to have free rein of the castle grounds. Under no circumstance is anyone to molest him in any way. If this order is broken, you will have no fear of punishment from me because you will already be dead. Am I understood?"
"As you wish, sire," the chamberlain said, who was the nearest person of any rank to respond to the King's order.
"I wonder if your mind works with the same cunning as your father," the stranger mused.
"You're here for me," Seth said. "I'm not going to sacrifice anyone else. Play your game, sicarius, and when those three days are up, if you want my life, try and take it like a man if you have any honor. I'll gladly cross blades with you again. I'd do so this very moment--indeed my blood cries out for vengeance--, but I have a kingdom to rule."
"So you put your duty as King above your duty as a son and your pride as a man. You pass the second test. It would seem that in the light you are worthy of living, but what sort of man are you in the shadows?"
"No doubt you'll see for yourself."
"Indeed so."
Rather than exit with the same dramatic flourish as he made his appearance, the stranger instead walked over to the wall and propped himself up against it. Whether intended to or not, all eyes were on him in the uneasy silence that followed. The King did not allow himself to be frozen by the viper's gaze, however.
"Let him watch," he said. "And let us return to the business at hand. Bring in the next petitioner."
"Y-yes, sire," the chamberlain replied.

* * *

There was nothing to stop the stranger from going wherever he pleased. The King's order simply spared anyone foolish enough to test him on this.
It did not take long for word to spread. Some were old enough to remember his last visit. Guards would nervously hold to their posts and servants would pretend not to see him as they scurried away. However, there was one who was not so afraid.
"So you've come to kill my father?" a girl's voice asked.
The stranger turned. Though slight of build, the girl carried herself as a warrior. Blood will tell, as they say.
"I won't let you do it," she said.
The stranger's mask hid the hint of a grin.
"You are indeed his daughter," the stranger replied. He tilted his head as he observed her, saying, "Strange... I expected you to be Alf-blooded."
The girl was unsettled by this, prompting the stranger to continue, "Her touch is about you, though, so much that I almost mistook you for her."
"What do you know of it?"
The stranger moved in close, so suddenly that it startled the girl, shaking her out of the strong front she meant to present. She tried to back away, to put some distance between them, but he kept pace with her, advancing for every inch she retreated.
"I can see it in you," he told her, "I can smell it, feel it in my bones. I know the Alf touch all too well."
Realizing that she gained nothing by giving ground, the girl steeled herself and planted her feet in place.
"I don't know what you think you know, murderer," she growled, "and I don't care. I'm going to stop you."
"Do you have so little faith in your father, girl?" the stranger asked. "If he worthy of life, he will not taste death by my blade, but there are others who seek his life who care nothing of its worth. Perhaps you would do better to seek out the true enemy."
"The true enemy?"
The stranger paused. Even his stony facade yielded for but an instant.
"Perhaps we are not so different, you and I," he said. "There is more than the Alf's touch to you. The Darkness dwells in you. Will you master it or will it master you, I wonder."
"What are you talking about?"
The stranger stepped back, turned and started to walk away, but not before leaving some parting words.
"It may be that you are the enemy..."
As the stranger walked away, the girl fell to her knees, overcome with confusion and the dread that he may be right.