Mayve was a rolling land of scattered forests and grassy knolls. Commander Sidrahkir explained that this was the only place that he knew of where the horses grew wild. When horses became scarce in other lands, merchants and sailors would come to Mayve for more.
“Were there ever large amounts of horses used in battle by other countries?” King Belgrave asked on their second day crossing Mayve.
“History records a few kings who used horsemen,” the Commander explained, “but they were mostly during the times of relative peace when kingdoms ended up turning on each other.”
“There were horsemen in the history of the Red Exemplars,” Captain Haloz interrupted.
King Belgrave laughed. “I find it fascinating that the entire world seems to forget the most of the past and concentrates only on the future and the fulfillment of the prophecies.”
“Most of the historical records were lost in the destruction of Atalan,” the Captain explained. “Other than a few random documents obscurely scattered in deep vaults throughout the other nations, there is little left for the world to know what has happened.”
“If that’s the case, then how do the Red Exemplars know so much more than everyone else?” Commander Sidrahkir asked.
Captain Haloz tapped the side of his head. “Our history is passed on to all Red Exemplars.”
“What happens when all the Red Exemplars are lost?” Naiya’Nal asked. “I know the unit has always been reborn, but wouldn’t they have lost all their previous history?”
“Fortunately, that does not happen very often,” Captain Haloz laughed. “On the few occasions that did happen in the past, there were still records in the library of Atalan with our history. Now those records are lost and we will lose our entire heritage if we are defeated.”
“I still want to hear about the Red Exemplar horsemen,” King Belgrave said.
“It’s an interesting tale about what I believe is among the greatest battles of our entire history,” the Captain began. “The Great King at the time was leading the world in a massive attack against the dark stronghold of Nazada at the frozen bottom of the world. Of course, the Red Exemplars were also present, but the Great King knew that his armies would not be able to overcome even the defenses surrounding Nazada, and that the Red Exemplars, despite their best efforts, would also fail. After much debate, it is rumored that there were Lunari involved, it was decided that the Red Exemplars could successfully penetrate the defenses, but only if their ranks were a thousand times greater. The Red Exemplars reluctantly agreed that each of them would lead one thousand horsemen in a great charge to clear a path for the armies behind them.”
“I thought the Red Exemplars didn’t fight for kings, no matter how great they are,” King Belgrave interrupted.
“We fight for you,” Captain Haloz countered. “Exceptions are rare, but they do happen.”
“I see your point,” King Belgrave said. “Go on with the story.”
The Captain continued. “With the Red Exemplars divided, it would normally be expected that they would be weakened. However they were actually strengthened in a way that can only be attributed to prophecy. Their ranks swelled from fifty to fifty thousand.”
“Fifty thousand Red Exemplars! I have never even seen that many soldiers on a single field!” Commander Sidrahkir stammered.
“I know how you feel,” the Captain replied. “You would need to gather the entire army of Tanarad or Nerak in one location to see that many soldiers at one place, something that has never been done in our lifetime. Anyway, that day saw the single greatest charge in the history of this world. None of the Red Exemplars survived the charge, but they did forge a path through the enemy defenses and the rest of the army followed them to victory. Unfortunately, many of the soldiers who survived the battle were later killed by the white plague.”
“White plague?” King Belgrave questioned.
“It spread across the land of Etnyben after the destruction of Nazada,” Naiya’Nal explained. “Anyone who got the sickness would break out with patches of white skin that would spread until it covered their entire body and killed them. I have heard that Etnyben had been well populated before then, but afterwards no one could live there for thousands of years.”
“There were a few that survived the white plague,” Captain Haloz said. “According to Nidiz, the only survivor of the first battle against the Dark Magicians, there were a few small towns in remote places.”
“I never heard that story,” Naiya’Nal replied. “I know how Josloy defeated them, but I never knew anything leading up to the victory.”
“I’ll save that story for another day,” the Captain said with a smile. “We should try to get some horses for ourselves while we are here.”
“That may be harder than you expected,” King Belgrave said as he stopped at the top of the hill. “It looks as if someone beat us here!”
There was a large sign partway down the other side of the hill. “Dezhothokh’s Horse Farm,” Naiya’Nal read. A large arrow on the sign pointed to the northwest.
“What kind of a name is that!?” Commander Sidrahkir asked.
“I actually don’t know,” Naiya’Nal remarked. “I know it is not human or Barbidon, and from our brief encounters, I highly doubt that it is a Canari or Awa name.”
“Are there any other races besides the three and the Awa?” Captain Haloz asked.
“I can only think of the Huvudets,” Naiya’Nal said, “but I thought they went extinct about the same time Voth rose to power.”
“Perhaps we should just go and find out,” the Captain suggested.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” King Belgrave said. “If only merchant sailors have been to this land in many years, how do we know this Dezhothokh can be trusted?”
“He could be a single man,” Commander Sidrahkir suggested.
“I don’t like the idea of walking across an unknown person’s land while armed for battle,” King Belgrave objected. “One man would not be an issue, but if he commands enough soldiers to control this land, then we could be greatly outnumbered.”
“We still need to cross this land,” the Commander argued. “It should be no different than when we stumbled upon the fish-men. Prophecy will be our protection.”
“I can have my men spread out far enough to give us an early warning if anyone comes against us,” Captain Haloz suggested.
“Do it,” King Belgrave ordered. “Regardless of how I feel, we still need to search this land for the second ring.”
Captain Haloz gave the order and his men spread off in all directions. They then continued their march across the land.
“King Belgrave, I have a question for you,” Commander Sidrahkir said once they had crossed a few more hills. “Captain Haloz tends to rush into things while I like to take my time. Which do you think is better?”
Captain Haloz rolled his eyes. “Not this again!”
King Belgrave laughed. “I think you’re both wrong.”
They both looked at him. “You need to explain that,” said the Commander.
“You are asking me if it is better to rush or to wait. I personally don’t think it matters as long as you do it right the first time.”
He paused and looked at the land in front of them. “I want us to set up a camp on the next hill. Tomorrow we’ll move closer to Dezhothokh’s horse farm.”
Belgrave heard the warning whistle before he woke up. There was the whistle and then a rumble in his dream. He finally awoke to find Naiya’Nal shaking him.
“Stay quiet,” she warned. “Put on your armor.”
He looked around. It was dark and the two moons were still high in the sky. He quickly put on his armor and grabbed his sword. Commander Sidrahkir approached him in the darkness.
“The Red Exemplars saw horsemen in the distance,” the Commander whispered. “The lookouts have returned to camp since they think the horsemen know we are here.”
“How many horsemen are there?” King Belgrave asked.
“Several hundred at least,” the Commander replied.
“I want every soldier to form as tight a perimeter as we can,” King Belgrave ordered. “They can attack us if they want, but they will find a wall of spears in their way.” Commander Sidrahkir ran into the darkness and began to pull the soldiers closer together. By now, King Belgrave could distinctly hear the thundering of hooves in the valley and ran to the side of the camp to get a look at the horsemen.
King Belgrave watched the horsemen in the valley. He could see the dark silhouettes as they moved around. Suddenly they slowed down and changed formation. Now they formed a wide front facing the hill. “Stay low and brace your spears against the ground,” he said to the soldiers standing around him.
Captain Haloz came up from behind King Belgrave. “I have spread out my soldiers among yours and instructed them to use arrows as the horsemen draw near.”
“That will surprise them,” Naiya’Nal said, “but it will not slow them down.”
A banner unfurled above the horsemen. The top half was light, the bottom half was dark, and there was a sideways chevron that stretched the full length of the flag. They could not make out any other symbols on it. “Do they know we are expecting them?” King Belgrave asked.
“They probably will not be able to see the spears until they are upon them,” Commander Sidrahkir replied.
The horses began to advance. They started at a walking speed and quickly sped up. “Here they come. Stand tight,” King Belgrave warned. “We may have the advantage now, but we need to keep it.”
Several horses and riders fell from the arrows shot by the Red Exemplars, but the horsemen rushed up the hill oblivious to their losses. The horses stopped at the sharp points of the spears, but men on both sides were killed by the sudden clash. More horsemen swept past the sides of the defensive ring and circled around only to find a well-guarded rear. However, the defensive ring crumbled as combatants began to mingle and Commander Sidrahkir ordered his soldiers to use their swords.
The glow of Belgrave’s sword was bright as it swung through the darkness and the enemy soldiers feared to attack him. Naiya’Nal was using her own sword as well as the Lunari dagger that she had. Soon the hilltop was a mass of men, horses, and bodies of the fallen. As suddenly as the battle had begun, the horsemen withdrew back down the hill.
“Help the wounded,” King Belgrave yelled, walking across the hilltop and surveying the scene before him.
“Do you want the Red Exemplars to pursue them?” Captain Haloz asked. Four fresh cuts bled freely on his forearm.
“Leave them be,” King Belgrave ordered. He looked over at Naiya’Nal. She was standing among a large pile of corpses and cleaning off her sword. “From the looks of things, they suffered as badly as we did.”
“I lost four,” the Captain announced, trying to hold back his emotions as a tear fell from his eye. “This has been our worst loss since I became a Red Exemplar!”
King Belgrave placed his hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “I understand that the bonds between the Red Exemplars are stronger than those of other soldiers,” he said. “Your men died honorably defending what they believed in.”
Captain Haloz brushed away the tear and bowed. “Others died beside us for the same cause. We will assist in burying them.”
“Pile the enemy dead on the hillside,” King Belgrave ordered. “Perhaps the size of the pile will persuade them not to attack a second time.”
“We wouldn’t last through a second attack,” Commander Sidrahkir warned King Belgrave. “I only have thirty-four soldiers left.”
King Belgrave’s eyes opened wide as he turned to face the Commander. “We lost over two entire companies!?”
“We were badly outnumbered,” the Commander admitted. “I suggest we bury half our dead and burn the rest. That way the enemy will not be able to determine the extent of our casualties.”
King Belgrave lowered his head. “Burn only a few of our dead. Bury the rest in a mass grave. Dezhothokh is going to pay for this unprovoked slaughter.”
They stayed awake the rest of the night. The soldiers buried most of their fallen comrades with their armor and built a large pyre on top of the mass grave and burned eleven more. They tossed the enemy dead into a pile on the hillside after Naiya’Nal and Captain Haloz searched them for items of value. The soldiers continued to watch the perimeter of the camp, but had to stand at wider intervals than before. King Belgrave spent the rest of the night standing alone and glaring down at the horsemen down in the valley.
In the morning, they counted seventy-nine horsemen. “We’re evenly matched. I think we could take them,” Commander Sidrahkir suggested.
King Belgrave shook his head. “Enough of us have died already. I’d much rather give them a chance to explain their reason for attacking us.”
“I think they also want to talk,” the Commander replied as one of the horsemen began to signal with a flag. “I will go down with you.”
“Bring Captain Haloz as well,” King Belgrave said. “He now commands more of our soldiers than you do.”
The Commander went and brought the Captain. Naiya’Nal raised King Belgrave’s flag on the hill as they left the camp to walk down the hill. The enemy leaders also came forward to meet them.
“I am Hurem,” the horsemen leader claimed. “I lead the forces of Dezhothokh against all foes that enter our lands. Who do I have the task of addressing?”
“I am Belgrave, King of Tanarad, and I did not come to this land to incite a conflict,” King Belgrave replied. “My soldiers died from your unprovoked attack and someone will pay for this slaughter.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Hurem replied. “I also lost many men as we carried out our orders to remove your army from this land.”
King Belgrave frowned. “If you are unwilling to accept responsibility for the deaths of my men, then I want to speak to the one who ordered it.”
“We can take you to Dezhothokh,” Hurem said, “but you will have to disarm yourselves.”
King Belgrave pulled out his sword and pointed it at the horseman. “Tell me, Hurem, do you enjoy provoking conflict? I have the greatest soldiers in the world under my command and they are enraged by your actions. You will lead us to Dezhothokh or many more of your men will die before this day is over.”
The horseman breathed in sharply. “That is a harsh ultimatum, but we will lead you as long as you maintain your distance from our forces. If you draw near, we will view it as an act of hostility.”
“We are ready to move as soon as you are,” King Belgrave replied.
Hurem quickly nodded and returned to his troops. “King Belgrave, what are you planning?” Commander Sidrahkir asked.
“I will avenge our loss,” King Belgrave replied. He turned and walked back up the hill.
They were soon following the horsemen through the valley. A little more than an hour later, they arrived at Dezhothokh’s Horse Farm. It was a cluster of barns and small buildings surrounding a large house. The sky to the west was darkening and Naiya’Nal warned that it would soon begin to storm.
Hurem left his troops and told King Belgrave that he would find Dezhothokh at the main house. They walked closer and King Belgrave could see what looked like a very faint cloud in the shape of a man standing on the porch, just outside the front door.
“Welcome to Dezhothokh’s Horse Farm,” the figure greeted them. “Have you come to inquire about purchasing some horses?”
“I have come to demand restitution for the soldiers who were killed in an unprovoked attack by your men,” King Belgrave answered, glaring at the figure.
Dezhothokh laughed and his figure slightly darkened. “I do not give in to the demands of mortal men.”
“Perhaps you can be convinced by this,” King Belgrave said, pulling out his Lunari dagger. He took a few steps closer.
“Brandishing an ancient weapon is hardly a threat to me,” Dezhothokh scoffed. “I have survived greater wars than you ever will. Feel free to make demands of an unarmed Lunari. You will find that not only will I not give in to your demands, but I will have no problem defeating you and your soldiers by myself.”
Naiya’Nal grabbed Belgrave’s arm. “He speaks the truth,” she warned.
He brushed her away. “Dezhothokh, I will kill you,” King Belgrave coldly replied. “You are a hindrance to the fulfillment of prophecy.”
Dezhothokh laughed even harder. “I am neutral in the affairs of this world. I am unconcerned with your petty prophecies.”
King Belgrave pointed his Lunari dagger at Dezhothokh. “You are lying,” he accused. “Every Lunari in this world is concerned with prophecy and you are no exception.” He took another step closer to the porch.
“Do it,” Dezhothokh dared. “Try to kill me and fulfill your prophecy.” He held his arms out to either side to leave his chest vulnerable. “I promise that you will not have seen the last of me!” Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“You look a bit dark,” King Belgrave growled, stepping on to the porch. “Perhaps you need more light.” He plunged the Lunari dagger into Dezhothokh’s figure. The Lunari screamed and writhed as the weapon penetrated its body and everyone watched as the light quickly spread from the blade and passed through its veins. Within seconds, the intensity of the light increased and the figure and the dagger dissipated into an explosion of light.
Hurem went to King Belgrave, dropped to his knees, and bowed. “Never have I seen such a feat. I offer you my service and that of my men.”
King Belgrave looked down at the man with contempt. “Get up,” he ordered. “Go tell your men to disband. Come back when you are done.”
“But, my king...” the man stammered.
“Go,” King Belgrave demanded.
The man stood up and returned to his troops. Within moments, they were scattering in different directions and Hurem returned. “How else may I serve you, my king?”
Captain Haloz stepped forward and held out his arm for King Belgrave to see. “Are these stripes in vain?” he asked.
King Belgrave looked at the Captain’s forearm and then back down at the leader of the horsemen. “Do what you want with him.” The Captain grabbed Hurem by the collar and dragged the protesting man away. The rest of the Red Exemplars followed behind their captain.
King Belgrave turned back toward the rest of the soldiers. “Even those who claim neutrality can assist the enemy. Burn everything!”
The soldiers ran to carry out King Belgrave’s orders, but Commander Sidrahkir and Naiya’Nal stayed.
“That was nothing short of murder,” the Commander accused. “What kind of leader can stand in front of his soldiers and kill without mercy?” he asked.
Fire began to consume the house behind King Belgrave as the clouds in the sky thickened. “It may have looked like murder to you,” he answered, “but there is a hilltop with the remains of one hundred twenty soldiers. Ask if this was murder and they will say it was justice.”
Naiya’Nal stepped forward. “The Awa were merciful to me after I killed many of their kind. Why could you not be merciful to the man that you just handed over to be tortured and killed by the Red Exemplars?”
“Where is the king I used to serve?” Commander Sidrahkir added as the first raindrops began to fall.
King Belgrave frowned. “This did not turn out how I had intended,” he said softly. Lightning flashed across the sky as he turned and walked away.
“Belgrave, come back!” Naiya’Nal begged. Belgrave ignored her and kept walking. The rain began to fall harder. They watched as he threw his shield at a fence and kicked away his helmet. Naiya’Nal tried to run after him, but the Commander held her back.
“Let him go,” the Commander said. “He needs some time alone.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Naiya’Nal muttered as Belgrave disappeared into the distance. A tear ran down her face, but it remained concealed among the raindrops. “You don’t love him the way I do.”
She sat down in the wet dirt and buried her face in her hands to hide her sorrow. Commander Sidrahkir sat down beside her and lowered his head. They would look for Belgrave later.
With four cuts avenged, Captain Haloz walked through the smoldering farm. The rain had extinguished some of the fires, but some of the buildings still burned fiercely. He watched as one of the structures collapsed and part of the ruins fell into a hole. The hole looked peculiar and the Captain walked closer to investigate. The hole went no more than a spear’s length into the ground before it widened into something completely unbelievable. The Captain was looking down into the sky!
He picked up a charred piece of debris and dropped it straight down into the hole. It fell, but once it entered the other side, it fell back up at him. He gasped as he caught the object. Either the world was flat and he was looking at the other side, or this was something completely different. Captain Haloz slowly lowered himself into the hole and looked around. The entire area was illuminated by a small point of light and the Captain knew this would be where King Belgrave would find the second ring.
Captain Haloz climbed out of the hole and sprinted toward the ruins of the large house to find King Belgrave. The downpour had stopped, but the clouds were still overhead. He found Naiya’Nal and Commander Sidrahkir sitting against a fence. They had King Belgrave’s helmet and shield with them. “Where is King Belgrave?” he asked.
“Is the dirt on your hands from burying that man alive?” the Commander asked.
Captain Haloz glanced down at his hands. “I assure you, the man had a swift death,” he answered, wiping his hands on his thighs. “Where is King Belgrave? I know where he will find the second ring!”
Naiya’Nal raised her head. “Where is it?” she asked.
“I found a hole that leads to it,” the Captain explained. “It was hidden inside one of these buildings.”
Commander Sidrahkir nudged Naiya’Nal. “You should probably go look for him then,” he said. “Let him know that I’m sorry for what I said.”
Naiya’Nal stood up. “I’ll tell him. We’ll be back when he feels like it.” She walked down the path that Belgrave had taken.
“Where did King Belgrave go?” Captain Haloz asked the Commander after Naiya’Nal had left.
“He became frustrated after Naiya’Nal and I accused him of murdering Dezhothokh and Hurem,” the Commander explained. “I said a few other things as well, but the last thing King Belgrave said before he left was that things did not turn out as he had intended.”
The Captain leaned against the fence and sighed. “I do not consider the killing of Dezhothokh to be murder, but Hurem is a different matter.”
“At least you were kind enough not to throw live prey to ravenous dogs,” the Commander muttered. “I’m curious; what will they do with the body?”
Captain Haloz looked at his arm and shook his head. “You really do not want to know.”
“You’re probably right about that,” the Commander acknowledged.
Naiya’Nal could not find Belgrave. The heavy rain had washed away all the tracks that she could have used to see if he had left the road. She wandered for a while before she decided that she would not be able to catch up without a change of pace.
Two white horses suddenly trotted out of a thicket and started running across a field. “Venzorbijnor horses...” Her voice trailed off as she remembered that she did not want to inadvertently call a dragon as she attempted to use the Voth’s dragon language on a creature other than dragons. The horses slowly stopped and looked at her. She laughed as she realized the language had worked. She doubted that even Voth knew his language would work on animals other than dragons.
One horse shook its head and began to walk away while the other trotted toward her. The second horse soon followed. She placed her hand on the first horse. “Vegrijses Eleuthera,” she said. The horse nodded as if it understood. She turned to the second horse. “And vegrijses Axios.”
She patted the horses for a few moments before she mounted the first horse. “Kizvey Eleuthera yarkrig Great King Belgrave.” The horse seemed to know exactly whom she was talking about and began to gallop with Naiya’Nal on its back. The other horse followed.
They crossed the field and passed through a forest. Finally, Naiya’Nal saw Belgrave sitting on a large rock at the top of a hill. He held a small stick in his hand. The horses stopped at the bottom of the hill to let he dismount and she began to walk up to Belgrave.
The storm clouds were beginning to lighten as she neared Belgrave and she could see the sun beginning to shine through to the west. He ignored her as she sat down next to him. “Hurem was not tortured,” she finally said. “Captain Haloz gave him a swift death.”
“I still allowed his murder,” Belgrave replied. “And Commander Sidrahkir was right; I should not have done what I did in front of the soldiers.”
She put her arm around his shoulders. “We all make mistakes,” she said, “and some of us have made more than others.”
Belgrave tossed away the stick he had been holding. “It’s worse when the entire world is relying on you to save them. I don’t even belong in this world.”
“You do belong here,” she replied. “Prophecy brought you to our world. Prophecy made you king. Prophecy brought the two of us together. Have you ever wondered why I even listened to Jun Joon and his ideas about the two dragons?”
Belgrave looked at her. “No. Why?”
“I would have died a year ago if prophecy had not kept me alive,” Naiya’Nal explained. “It was prophecy that showed me your face over a month before you entered our world. It was prophecy that told me to find you, not the words of Jun Joon.”
“Blaming prophecy for my actions does not excuse them,” Belgrave said, looking away into the distance. “I wanted to avenge my soldiers, not murder people in cold blood. I let myself lose control of the situation.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Naiya’Nal replied. “I’ve done much worse than you, and while I’m not at all proud of some of my actions, I’ve learned to live with them and move on.”
“You did not know better,” Belgrave replied. “I knew better, and since I’m the king, I should be setting an example for everyone under me.”
“Things aren’t as bad as you think,” she said. “Commander Sidrahkir is sorry for what he said to you earlier. We know you try to do your best, so one mistake does not make it worth giving up.” The sun broke through the clouds and shined down on them. “Think about it, Belgrave,” she said. “When you come back, Captain Haloz found something that will interest you.”
“What do you mean?” Belgrave asked. He turned as Naiya’Nal jumped off the rock and ran down the hill. “Hey, where did you get the horses?”
Naiya’Nal jumped onto Eleuthera. “The moon needs a sun!” she yelled, turning the horse to ride back to the horse farm.
“What?” he yelled after her. He slid off the rock and ran down to the second horse. It stepped away from him. “Wait, you need to take me to her!” he protested. The horse whinnied and allowed him to mount it. He held tight to the mane as the horse started to walk.
Commander Sidrahkir and Captain Haloz stood up when they saw Naiya’Nal riding a horse toward them. “Where is King Belgrave?” the Commander asked as she dismounted.
He’ll be coming soon,” she explained. “Haloz, you may want to make sure your men aren’t spattered with blood. He wasn’t too happy about having let you have your way with Hurem, even after I mentioned the quick death.”
The Captain’s face grew pale. “They will be clean,” he yelled. He turned and sprinted back across the farm.