Chapter 24
The Brothers' War

Caer Pendragon, Pendragon

As if the reports from Uwncaster were not enough to put everyone in the castle on edge, the return of the stranger was like a gust of wintery air sending a chill through the halls. Much unlike twenty years ago, however, no one made a move against the stranger and in turn he did not make a move against anyone else. Whether lurking in the shadows or standing out in the open, he was always somewhere, always watching. It was the second day now and no one had died. If he was true to his word--which Seth doubted, for who can trust the word of a killer?--, the King and his subjects might emerge from the trial unscathed. King did not neglect his sword drills, however, in the full expectation he would be needing his skills at their sharpest.
In fact, Seth was sparring with Captain Eldridge in the training hall while the stranger watched on when a herald entered and knelt before the King.
"Your Majesty, I beg pardon for the the intrusion, but I have an urgent message."
Eldridge had already lowered his sword, so Seth did the same and turned to the herald, asking him, "What news?"
"It is Emryscaster, Your Majesty. It has been overrun."
Seth was still waiting to hear word from the scouting party dispatched to Uwncaster, but if Emryscaster had been attacked, he could not afford to wait any longer. The only question was where Cain intended to strike next. The High City would give him the biggest strategic advantage, but for the sake of his pride, he might march on Caer Pendragon now that he no longer hand to worry about being flanked by the garrisons of Uwncaster and Emryscaster. Unless he had already attacked Uthcaster, he would not go back for it as it would take weeks for orders to reach the garrison and for them to march wherever they were needed. That left the Sanctuary, which had little strategic value, but it would be easy to overcome in spite of its wall and the plunder would keep Cain's mercenaries sated before they challenged Caer Pendragon or the High City.
"Eldridge, how many knights do we have here?" Seth asked.
"Of the 173 lances on the rolls, twoscore and five reside here at the castle and six and thirty in Lothcaster, Your Majesty," Eldridge replied.
"I want all of them ready to ride at once. We'll take the border road down to the Sanctuary. Send word to Lord Seisyll to march to the High City. If the enemy isn't there, he's to continue on to the Sanctuary."
"But, Your Majesty," Eldridge said hesitantly, "that would leave the castle virtually defenseless."
Seth was all too aware of this, but the soldiers of the kingdom served to defend the kingdom, not the castle alone. The castle could take care of itself.
"They will raise the bridge as soon as we leave," he said. "Call Cerdic. I want to know how the stores are faring in case of a siege."
"Pardon, Your Majesty, but when 'we' leave?"
"You didn't think I was going to hide here with the women and children in my kingdom's hour of need, did you?"
"Your Majesty, it is too reckless. If you were to fall in battle--"
"Then I could be avenged instead of wait for the enemy to come for my head or invite future rebellion because I was shown to be a craven."
"Your Majesty, I--"
"I won't hear another word on it," Seth interrupted. "If the bridge is up, the only way to reach the castle is by sea. I don't imagine Cain has any ships, but send word to Captain Yang to seal off the Narrows as best he can."
Eldridge just stood there, apparently struggling to find a way to give voice to his objections in a way that would actually be heeded. Seth did not give him the chance. Sheathing his sword, he then clapped his hands loudly and shouted, "Come on! We have a lot to do and no time to do it."
Unable to argue with the King, Eldridge straightened himself up and saluted with his sword.
"Yes, Your Majesty."

* * *

Although it was the custom of the highborn to have an armor bearer put on their armor for them, Seth insisted on doing it himself and only permitted the armor bearer to check and ensure all the straps and cords were secure. After the conquest of the High City, his father took to wearing a gilded hauberk, but Seth only wore it for his coronation. He preferred simple, practical iron. His surcoat and Excalibur were the only badges of his rank that he bore.
While his armor bearer was double-checking his greaves, the chamberlain entered and said, "Lord Cerdic, Your Majesty."
"Have him enter," Seth said, tightening one of his vambraces.
Cerdic stepped in and bowed, saying, "Your Majesty, I have appraised the stores as you have commanded. Having just come out of winter, we do not have so much in reserve, enough for two months, three with strict rationing."
"It'll be enough," Seth said. "And the cisterns?"
"With last week's rain, we will not be wanting for water. Wine, on the other hand..."
Seth laughed.
"Let them drink beer then."
"Our stocks are low there as well, Your Majesty. And the mead."
"It would seem we drink too much then. Well, man can live on water if he must."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Remember, Cerdic, the bridge stays up until I return."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"You are ready, Your Majesty," his armor bearer said.
"Then let's go."
Eldridge was waiting for the King in the antechamber. He saluted and said, "Your Majesty, the knights and their lances have been assembled in the forecourt. We will join up with the lances from Lothcaster on the road."
Seth nodded.
"Your Majesty, if Prince Cain's next target is indeed the Sanctuary, we will be sorely outnumbered if the estimates of his forces are correct."
"We're not going there to wipe them out, Eldridge," Seth said. "At best, we deal such a blow that he loses his nerve and withdraws. At very least, we buy time until the main force arrives."
"That will be days away, Your Majesty. We will not survive a protracted battle toe-to-toe."
"Then we don't fight toe-to-toe," the King replied. "Our mobility is our greatest asset. We use it."
"I fear this is folly, Your Majesty."
"Then greater folly is standing idly by while my people suffer and die at the hands of Cain and his men. There is nothing left to discuss, Eldridge. We're going."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Eldridge replied stiffly.
As they proceeded to the forecourt, courtiers and servants lined the halls to see the King off. There was all manner of cheers, prayers and well wishes, but of all the dozens of people he passed, only one voice had his ear.
He stopped and turned to see his daughter with Linhua at her side.
"You're going, aren't you?"
It went without saying, but Seth replied all the same.
"A King must lead by example, Aurelia."
"Don't go," she said. "I have a terrible feeling about this."
Seth knew his daughter had a share of mystical powers, so he did not dismiss her fears out of hand, but they would not sway his resolve either.
"I must go," he said. "It's my duty as King."
"Then take me with you! I could help! With my magic I--"
Seth gently took hold of her by the shoulders to stop her before she could go any further.
"Aurelia, your place is here. The people here will be looking to you as an example in my absence. You must be strong for them. Dyfnwal will take care of the castle's defenses and Cerdic will handle everything else. I pray they don't come here, but if they do, don't give in to them no matter what."
"But, Father, I--"
The rebuke stunned her. Seth knew the look in her eyes, being young and uncertain, wanting to do more than you are capable of doing. He knew it all too well.
Softening his voice, he told her, "Aurelia, I'm counting on you."
Aurelia closed her eyes and nodded feebly. Seth drew her in close and embraced her.
"I love you, my daughter," he whispered to her. "Be well, be safe. Make me proud."
"I pray for your victory, Father."
Although he was reluctant to let go, as if he would never have the chance to hold her again, Seth knew he had to go. He let go of his daughter and looked to Linhua, saying, "If the worst should come, you know what to do."
Linhua dropped to one knee and replied, "I will defend the Princess with my life, Your Majesty. Good fortune go with you and bring you triumph."
Seth nodded, then turned and continued on his way. He thought he heard Aurelia call out to him again, but there was no time for turning back.
In the forecourt, forty-five knights and the men of their lances were assembled. When they saw the King, they saluted and shouted in one voice, "Hail Pendragon!"
Seth drew Excalibur and returned the salute, saying, "Hail, Knights of the Round Table. As you have surely heard, my brother Prince Cain has betrayed this kingdom. He has slain many of our brothers in arms at Uwncaster and at Emryscaster, and he will not stop until he sits on the throne or he is dead. I would see the latter."
There was a chorus of ayes and one who called "Death to the traitor!", which was echoed by several others.
"We ride for the Sanctuary," Seth continued. "I believe Cain means to go there. One less rival for the throne and easy spoil for his gang of mercenaries and bandits. We ride hard, resting as little as man and beast can bear. And when we arrive, should we meet the enemy there as I expect, we will be outnumbered at least ten to one. Help will be three days away at best.
"But take heart, men. Each of you is at least worth ten of those dogs. We will strike with speed and fury and unless they're made of sterner stuff than I reckon, we will put them to flight."
He held Excalibur aloft and shouted, "We are the avenging blade! For Uwncaster! For Emryscaster! For Pendragon!"
The knights and their men-at-arms raised their weapons and repeated the cry.
"For Uwncaster! For Emryscaster! For Pendragon!"
"Mount up! We ride!"
"Hail Pendragon! Long live the King! Long live the King!"
With their blood boiling, the men took to their mounts. Seth's own horse Eternus was brought to him and he mounted as well. As soon as he was in the saddle, the stranger appeared a few paces away.
"Three days were given, one yet remains," he said.
"I don't have time for your games," Seth said.
"The test must be completed."
"Haven't you seen enough?"
"I will see how the young lion makes war," the stranger said. "It will be the final test."
"There are no horses for you. If you mean to follow, you'll have to find your own way."
"That is not a concern."
"Do as you will then," Seth said, "but if you try to interfere, I will cut you down."
"If the time should come, you are welcome to try, King of Pendragon."
Seth would waste no further time on him. He spurred his horse and made his way to the front gate. This could well be his last time to see the castle, but he could not think about such things. The road ahead was long and time was short. All he could afford to think about was going forward.