King Belgrave stopped and looked back when they reached the walls of the Fortress of Nasad. The Dark Wizard and his dragon had stayed where they landed. “What are they doing?” he asked as King Anou and Captain Haloz arrived. Several enemy soldiers had joined the Dark Wizard and were busy doing something with the five brothers.
Commander Sidrahkir frowned. “It is probably not something we want to know about, but I fear we will soon find out. Come, we must prepare the fortress for our final stand. Leave the five brothers to the fate they chose.”
They slowly walked through the large crowd of soldiers and into the fortress. “There are more soldiers than can fit in the fortress,” King Belgrave observed.
“We can send many into the tunnel,” King Anou suggested. “There they will be useful tending to the wounded as we carry them from the battle.”
“The evacuation of the wounded can be swift and easy,” Captain Haloz said. Two large dogs stepped in front of them and bowed.
King Belgrave returned the bow. “Queen Vaersheena, King Rexorg,” he greeted. “The presence of the Canari at Nasad is as astonishing as unexpected. I cannot even begin to imagine how you traveled across the sea.”
“It helps to have the Awa as our neighbors,” the Queen explained. “They ferried us on several na’karden to the western shore of Panei. I expect they are currently travelling through the Strait of Korut and will be arriving behind the Dark Wizard’s fleet in a day or two.”
“If men, Canari, and Awa have come to this battle, then did the Barbidons also come?” King Belgrave asked.
“We met the Barbidons shortly before we arrived,” Queen Vaersheena answered. “They are commanded by Viglish and were sent by Lugar. They say you knew Lugar.”
King Belgrave looked at Commander Sidrahkir. “Could this be the Za’Lugar we sent back to Sarda in the spring?”
“It would be the same,” the Commander nodded. “Za is the title the Dark Wizard has for his Barbidon Commanders. He would have dropped the title since he no longer serves the Dark Wizard.”
“Where are the Barbidons now?” King Belgrave asked.
“They are currently standing guard just outside the northern entrance to the fortress,” Queen Vaersheena answered. “They plan on being the first line of defense when the enemy attacks. I do not know if you will have a chance to meet them.”
“What a shame,” King Belgrave replied. “I would like to meet with their leader, Viglish, even if just to thank him for standing beside us in battle. Perhaps we may meet after the battle.” He looked out from the battlements and surveyed the land in front of them. “I want as many archers as possible along this wall,” he ordered. “Infantry will defend the two entrances to the fortress. Behind the archers I want more infantry ready to move forward should the enemy attempt to scale the wall.”
King Anou laughed. “This fortress has never been defeated. While the enemy greatly outnumbers us, I doubt that they brought too many ladders for us to handle. Not to mention, with so many archers lining the wall, they would never be able to come close enough to try!”
“I applaud your confidence, King Anou,” King Hevman said as he made his way through the crowd of soldiers to join them, “but I would expect a king of your experience to avoid becoming overconfident. Today we have witnessed the loss of at least half of our armies at the hands of a determined and relentless enemy. Who knows what horrific events will occur tomorrow?”
“Perhaps tomorrow’s events would not happen if I had been allowed the chance to face the Dark Wizard,” King Anou replied, coldly glaring at Captain Haloz.
King Belgrave rolled his eyes. “King Anou, the five brothers did not meet with success and I believe that you would have joined them if you had been permitted to stay. The dead do not need a king, but those still living do need a king. Live to lead the people of Nerak and do not test fate with unnecessary risks.”
For a moment, there was an awkward silence from those standing around as the older king silently contemplated the chastisement from the younger king. At first, King Anou looked offended, but then his face softened and he smiled. “You have definitely changed since we first met in the spring after you sent the Barbidons from our lands,” he announced. “In a few short months you have gained more determination and confidence than most kings would gain in years. I will do as you ask and lead my soldiers and Nerak until fate decides otherwise.”
“Then let us prepare this fortress for battle and wait for the next move of our enemy,” King Belgrave ordered. “I must check on Naiya’Nal.” The other kings bowed and left to make their preparations.
Captain Haloz led King Belgrave across the fortress to a place where a number of tents were set up for the doctors. There were more wounded soldiers than King Belgrave had ever seen before lying on mats outside the tents. They were the ones lucky enough to be helped from the beach before the armies had retreated. As he walked among them, he noticed that some of them smiled and tried to reach out and touch him as he passed. “Hail, Great King Belgrave,” one of them weakly groaned. Others cheered his presence if they were able. A tear came to his eye. Their lives were ruined and there was little hope of surviving their wounds, but they were still inspired by the king that had come from another world to save their world. King Belgrave knew he could not let these men down. He would not forget their sacrifices.
King Belgrave stepped inside the tent that Captain Haloz pointed out to him. A number of candles were mounted to the tent poles and provided enough light to see, but their tiny lights did not brighten the solemn dimness. Several high-ranking soldiers of Vernon were standing quietly just inside and holding their helmets in their hands. Looking around, King Belgrave was briefly excited to see Naiya’Nal awake and looking at him, but his mood fell as he noticed the other occupants of the tent. Naiya’Nal sat comforting a weeping woman whom King Belgrave recognized as Desi’Rel, the Queen of Vernon. Beside them upon the bloodstained flag of Vernon was the body of King Vircto.
King Belgrave stepped forward and knelt beside the dead king. “When the head of one nation falls, all nations feels the loss,” he mourned.
Queen Desi’Rel raised her head from Naiya’Nal’s shoulder and looked at him as King Belgrave began to wrap the yellow and orange flag around the king as best he could.
“For this man, the leader of a great nation, to give his life for my sake is an honor that I feel ashamed to accept,” King Belgrave said, “for I watched during the battle as the colors of Vernon fell and I thought nothing of their loss.” He bowed his head. “Even I am beginning to feel the spreading chill as the warmth of hope fades away.”
“Even the coldest of nights is tolerated with the promise of the coming sunrise,” Queen Desi’Rel replied. “This may be the coldest night that our world will ever endure, but there is a small candle in the darkness that continues to spread its warmth.”
King Belgrave looked at her and shook his head. “There will be no victory for us in this battle. Tomorrow we will once again stand against impossible odds and tomorrow we may once again escape total annihilation, but what then?” He looked back down at King Vircto. “Do we then wait inside the tunnel for the Dark Wizard to batter down the doors? Will we keep fighting and retreating in a constant cycle until the enemy wears down our armies to the final soldier? I fear that this may be a long evening and a sudden breeze may come and blow out your candle, for not even I can see a way to defeat the Dark Wizard.”
“My husband died to protect that candle,” Queen Desi’Rel replied after a moment of silence. “It is not our fear of losing its light to a sudden breeze that drives us to protect it, but our knowledge that the wind can also fan the tiniest ember into an unstoppable fire. You must remain steadfast against the cold and do as prophecy leads.”
“Prophecy,” King Belgrave muttered, standing up. “I will do as I have determined, but it is up to prophecy to determine what becomes of my efforts. We will fight tomorrow and see what fortunes come our way.” He looked at his wife. “Naiya’Nal, will you be able to stand beside me?”
She smiled and picked up the double-bladed sword that she had taken from the Huvudets at Amehtana. “Fortunately, the fatigue of magic is only temporary.”
“She had a very good nap and slept sounder than I have in years,” Queen Desi’Rel explained. “She is quite rested from her activities earlier.”
“Then there will be a king and a queen standing before the entire world,” King Belgrave said, “but what of Vernon? Who will lead them now that their king is gone?”
Queen Desi’Rel knelt beside her husband and picked up his sword. “When a king falls, a queen is there to fill the void. I will lead my country.” She stood back up and faced King Belgrave. “Let us hope that tomorrow treats us better than today.”
King Belgrave bowed and left the tent with Naiya’Nal.
They walked back to the center of the wall where Commander Sidrahkir and Captain Haloz had stationed themselves. The sky was black and the many torches burning in the fortress provided the only light to illuminate the white flag with the two red dragons that fluttered above them. Looking toward the beach, King Belgrave could see that the enemy army had moved closer, but it was still too far away for bombardment.
They could not tell what time of day or night it was when a cacophony of loud jeers suddenly rang out from among the enemy and a ring of fire with one entrance appeared on the ground in front of them. Five bedraggled men were forcibly marched into the ring and King Belgrave gasped as he recognized them. He watched as the enemy stripped naked the five brothers and bound them so they were each suspended spread-eagled between two poles. The five brothers had gags in their mouths and blindfolds tied around their eyes.
“No one should have to experience such humiliation,” King Belgrave said. “This is meant to drive our army to despair. Captain Haloz, go and spread the word that no one is to attempt a rescue or seek to avenge this act of hatred. I do not want to lose anyone to such foolish endeavors.” The Captain bowed and went spread the orders.
As the soldiers in the fortress watched, the Dark Wizard entered the circle of fire. Several of the enemy soldiers began to jab the five men with their swords until blood flowed freely from a myriad of new wounds. Two more enemy soldiers entered the circle with whips. One by one, they gave the five brothers the strongest lashes they could give, one from the front and one from the rear. When they had finished with the last brother, the loud jeering stopped and the Dark Wizard held his sword in the air.
The Dark Wizard faced the fortress and removed his hood. His head was white, but they were too far away to make out any features. He spoke with a loud voice that echoed across the valley to the fortress. “Nasad, send forth your dragon and your lives will be saved. Send him not and desolation will cover your land.”
“A fool’s ultimatum!” Commander Sidrahkir yelled.
“If the Dark Wizard wants only me, then I will go face him with prophecy on my side,” King Belgrave said softly.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” the Commander said, holding him against the wall. “There is nothing you could do against an army of that size and I will not allow the fulfillment of prophecy to be wasted.” He looked over his shoulder. “Bring me the Dark Wizard’s banner,” he called.
King Belgrave watched as two soldiers brought out the flag that they had taken from the beach earlier. Under the Commander’s instructions, they dipped it in oil and hung it upside down on the outside of the wall.
“Let us tell this fool that no one in this fortress will do as he asks,” the Commander said. He took a torch and touched it to the large flag. The flames rapidly spread to consume the black banner and it soon fell into a smoldering heap on the ground before the wall.
Seeing no response other than the burning of his banner, the Dark Wizard stepped up to the closest of the brothers and ran his sword through the body. King Belgrave lowered his head as the man’s body stiffened in a final struggle against the unforgiving restraints and slowly went limp. When the Dark Wizard had executed the last of the five brothers, he and his soldiers departed from the circle of fire, leaving the five bodies hanging as a sign that he would not spare anyone from his wrath.
King Belgrave sank down with his back against the wall and held his head in his hands. Naiya’Nal sat down beside him and put her arm around his shoulders. “We all endure these hardships together,” she said.
“I was once told that my experiences were preparing me for the future,” he said, “but this has gone beyond anything I could imagine. How much worse can it get?”
She pulled him closer and down onto her lap and cradled his head with her arm. “I have been here before,” she said, looking up at the white banner fluttering in the breeze beneath the clouds. “I have seen those same two dragons unwavering against the black sky. I have seen the ranks of the enemy stretching farther than I could see. I have seen you standing confident in a position where the hearts of lesser men would have failed, standing as a beacon before the world. I told you then that I had no fear of what lies ahead. Time has passed since then and now I have found you. The flag now flies above us. The enemy stands against us and you have the allegiance of our world.”
“Are you afraid?” Belgrave quietly asked.
She held Belgrave tighter and shook her head. “No, I am not afraid” she answered. “We will live, prophecy must be fulfilled.” She frowned and looked into the distance.
Belgrave reached up and stroked her cheek. “If you are not afraid, then what is bothering you?”
“I used to have no regard for anyone that I killed,” she answered. “After being with you for this long, I have begun to feel that every life I take belongs to an individual. They have families who love them and will mourn their loss. Every life I take, even that of an enemy, causes more pain and sorrow in this already grieving world. If I had my way, I would lay down my sword forever.”
“Then let us pray that prophecy is soon fulfilled and that we may both lay down our swords,” Belgrave said.
She smiled. “You have had a long day. Close your eyes and rest while our enemy is withholding their attack.” He obliged and gave a contented sigh as he closed his eyes.