The tunnel that led from Nasad had been constructed by the Lunari several thousand years before. It was wide enough for twenty-five men to walk side by side without touching the walls, and was just as high, if not higher. No one had ever used the tunnel before, but the many years of their stewardship had allowed the tunnel guard to improve its condition beyond what anyone had thought possible. The walls were decorated with ornate tapestries featuring fine needlework. Carpets covered parts of the floor. Gold and silver adorned the occasional pieces of furniture and the torches that burned upon tall pedestals.
The beginning of the tunnel was an easy descent down beneath the mountain and, after a fifteen-minute walk from the entrance, opened into a very large chamber. The walls of the chamber were lined with smaller rooms that contained enough supplies to support many thousands of people for quite some time. There were several levels of these rooms until they faded into the conical shaped ceiling of the chamber. An underground stream flowed through a trench along the perimeter of the chamber, supplying fresh water. There were fifteen such large chambers along the length of the tunnel, each a day’s journey from the next.
As Queen Desi’Rel stepped into the first chamber, she paused to look around in awe at the magnificence, but a soldier standing just inside the chamber quickly distracted her. “Nerak to the left, Vernon to the right,” the soldier said.
“I’m glad someone was here to direct traffic during our escape,” she replied. “I hope you haven’t been the recipient of any aggression from my soldiers.”
“Well,” the soldier replied with a quick bow, “There are the occasional soldiers who don’t listen, but they tend to follow their comrades to where they need to go. Oh, King Hevman is waiting to meet with you and the other kings and queens in the center of the room.”
“Thank you,” the Queen replied. “I will be there as soon as I assess my army and ensure that the wounded are being properly cared for.”
The soldier bowed again as she walked over to her army. She found Commander Sidrahkir still directing her troops as King Belgrave had ordered him. “Commander,” she called. Commander Sidrahkir came running. “The battle is over and I would like you to return to your own army. Colonel Yerah can take over from here.” The Commander gave her a quick bow and went off toward the opposite end of the room. She called over the Colonel. “I want a count of how many soldiers we have left,” she said.
The queen watched Colonel Yerah begin to move through the army as it began to organize. She had far fewer soldiers than she had expected or could even find believable. Captains were gathering the members of their companies and searching for their missing members. She knew that many of the units had lost most of their soldiers back on the beach and in the fortress. Eventually Colonel Yerah returned. “I have about two thousand soldiers able to fight,” he told her. “I have not counted how many are among the wounded, and I cannot confirm how many have been killed.”
Queen Desi’Rel’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. “Two thousand? We came here with forty-five thousand and all we have left is two thousand!?” She put her hand to her mouth and slowly looked around as the awful news sunk in. “Take charge of the army,” she ordered, trying to maintain her composure. “I need to see the other leaders. I do not know when I will return.”
She found King Hevman talking with King Liomanel and Princess Bisela’Var. Ikaro was standing a short distance away with Commanders Sidrahkir and Shedek, their faces downcast. Their figures were still covered with a spattering of dirt, blood, and sweat. King Hevman grimly greeted the queen. “Desi’Rel, I had not expected you so soon. I hope that you are prepared to hear the worst concerning our situation.”
She frowned, but nodded. “After the loss of my husband and forty-three thousand brave soldiers, I doubt that there is much else that could surprise me.”
“All of our armies have suffered similar catastrophic losses,” replied King Hevman. “Tanarad has lost sixty-five thousand, Nerak has lost seventy-nine thousand, Pia has lost twenty thousand, and Taor has lost fifteen thousand. Learning of your losses, I can assume that our combined armies have been reduced to a mere twenty-six thousand soldiers, hardly enough to launch a surprise counterattack against the Dark Wizard’s fortress.”
“Most of those casualties were from yesterday on the beach,” Commander Sidrahkir angrily interrupted from where he was standing. “If that floating fortress had not plowed down my army, Tanarad would still be defending the walls of the fortress.”
“Your army?” Princess Bisela’Var asked. “Are we not all fighting as one army for King Belgrave?”
“We are,” the Commander replied, “but it appears that both our King and Queen are missing. Look around and tell me if you see Belgrave or Naiya’Nal among the living.”
Queen Desi’Rel’s gasped in surprise at the Commander’s outburst and disregard for the Princess’s rank, but King Hevman put his hand on her arm. “I assure you; we are urgently looking for King Belgrave and Queen Naiya’Nal among the survivors and the wounded.”
Queen Vaersheena trotted up to the group. “They will be found. I doubt that either of them could be killed until after the final prophecy is fulfilled.” The dog looked up at Queen Desi’Rel. “I wish to offer my condolences for the loss of your husband. I am sure that King Vircto was a good man. I just hope that you are prepared for the hectic politics that will follow this tragedy.”
“I did not know the Canari knew the laws of our nations,” Queen Desi’Rel replied. “We have had no contact with your kind since...” She paused. “Well, for a very long time.”
“We are a very learned race,” Queen Vaersheena replied. “It is unlike the Canari to shy away from knowledge of any kind. I may be wrong, but I think it was a bad idea to make a law that gives a widowed queen a mere thirty days to wed or to step down and name a new king.”
“I’m glad that I’m not the only one that thinks that,” Queen Desi’Rel replied, “but I cannot help wondering if prophecy may have influenced the writing of that law. As I started thinking about it last night, I realized that there was only one man in all of Panei who would be worthy of leading Vernon. Vircto looked up to him and thought of him as a man worth emulating. He was there to help all of our nations during the occupation of Narva, even after losing his wife to the Barbidons.” She looked around and her eyes stopped on Ikaro. “Where is King Anou? Why is he not here?”
“As with King Belgrave, no one has seen him,” King Liomanel answered. “Ikaro says that he went to check on the southern gate partway through the final assault and that he was not seen entering the tunnel.”
A brief glimpse of surprised sadness passed across Queen Desi’Rel’s face. She frowned and looked down at the floor with a deep breath. “I need some time alone.” She turned and began to walk toward the tunnel that they had come through earlier.
“We could all use some time,” King Hevman said. “Return to your armies and get some rest.” He looked at the departing Queen Desi’Rel. “Did I just hear a rumor of a potential union between Vernon and Nerak? I cannot even begin to imagine the effects that such a change could have on the world. Let us hope that King Anou is alive and only missing.”
When she reached the tunnel, Queen Desi’Rel stopped to take a torch from one of the tunnel guards. She recognized the face of the man from years before when King Vircto had appointed him to serve on the tunnel guard, but she could not remember the man’s name. It did not matter. Once a person became a member of the tunnel guard, they changed their names.
Queen Desi’Rel slowly made her way down the tunnel and stopped to remove her armor as soon as she was out of sight from the chamber. She set it to the side where she could retrieve it later. Although blood still stained her robe, it was a relief to escape the burdensome confines of the armor. The battle was over and she no longer needed its protection. As she continued down the tunnel, she walked on the carpets as much as possible. Blood from the wounded soldiers that were dragged from the battle by the Canari was streaked across the uncovered bits of floor. Random weapons and bits of discarded armor were also scattered along the sides of the tunnel.
After about fifteen minutes of walking alone, she could see the faint outline of the great doors in the flickering torchlight. On the steps below the doors lay a body in a puddle of blood. Such a sight would have made her feel uneasy before the battle, but after several days of constant death, the sight no longer disturbed her. The body was wearing the white clothing of Tanarad, but there was a dark strip of bloodstained cloth wrapped around the right arm, the sign of a Red Exemplar. She moved closer and noticed the armor. There was only one man in the world with dragons etched onto his armor. She had found King Belgrave!
Queen Desi’Rel ran the rest of the way to King Belgrave and knelt beside him. He was unconscious and had a very weak pulse. It was evident that he was bleeding to death so she began to remove his armor in search for the wound. There was a small cut on his left forearm, but it was not deep enough to have made the puddle on the floor. The bloodstained armband on his right arm was now cold and sticky and unpleasant to remove, but there were no cuts beneath it. King Belgrave’s face only had a few small scratches. It was only when she removed the cloth wrapped around his torso and loosened his breastplate that more blood leaked out and she knew that she had found the life-threatening wound.
Queen Desi’Rel tore a strip of cloth from her robe and held it tight against the wound. She would do everything that she could to contain the bleeding. She thought about running for help, but realized that King Belgrave could easily die if she left him unattended. She sat on the steps and pulled his body across her lap. She would have to sit there and care for him until someone came looking for her. Her torch eventually burnt out and the tunnel around her was plunged into darkness. She lost track of time and did not know how long she sat there.
After what seemed like hours, she heard the tapping of claws on the stone floor and a voice softly spoke in the darkness. “Queen Desi’Rel?”
She recognized the inhuman voice. “I am here, Vaersheena,” she answered.
“I smell a man,” the dog announced. “Who is with you? Are you alright?”
“It is King Belgrave,” Queen Desi’Rel said. “He is badly hurt and could soon die. I would have gone for help myself, but I am holding his wound shut.”
Queen Vaersheena began to howl loudly. The sound echoed down the tunnel and Queen Desi’Rel knew that the Canari would spring into action as soon as they heard it.
Commander Sidrahkir cringed and looked up as he heard the howling from the tunnel. A howl like that could only mean one thing; that something bad was happening! More of the Canari began to howl and the sound filled the cavern. He looked over at Colonel Balvain. “We are safe inside a cave and behind impenetrable doors. I cannot imagine what could raise such an alarm. Ready a squad and grab your sword.”
The Colonel nodded and gave some orders to one of the soldiers before standing up. “Let us hope that whoever said those doors were invincible was right!”
Shouts began to echo throughout the chamber. Commander Sidrahkir could see soldiers running in various directions. He managed to hail one of the Canari. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“I am Norog. Get on my back. You must come at once,” the dog replied. “King Belgrave has been found!”
A smile crossed the Commander’s face. “King Belgrave is alive? That is the best news that I have heard all day!” he exclaimed, mounted the dog as he would a horse. He grabbed the hair on its neck as it began to race toward the tunnel. Several other Canari ran beside them carrying torches in their mouths.
Soon the Commander could see Queen Desi’Rel sitting on the stairs with King Belgrave’s body draped over her lap and his armor scattered around her. Noticing the severity of the King Belgrave’s injury, Commander Sidrahkir jumped from the back of the dog and ran to King Belgrave’s side. “We must work quickly if he is to survive.” He looked over at Queen Vaersheena. “Clear some of the rugs so that we have room to work.”
They sprang into action and slowly moved King Belgrave off the stairs and onto a soft rug on the flat floor of the tunnel. Moments later, King Hevman arrived with a doctor. The doctor knelt down beside the king, pulled out a small knife, and carefully cut off the bandages already wrapped around King Belgrave. More blood leaked from the wide incision as he peeled back the cloths. “Bring me water,” the doctor ordered. “I need to wash away some of the blood so that I can see just how deep this goes.” Someone quickly passed him some water and everyone watched as the blood slowly washed away. The cut was completely through the skin so the doctor stuck in his finger and briefly felt around. “There is no internal damage,” the doctor soon announced, removing his finger from the wound. “However, he is suffering from loss of blood and will need to be under constant care once I stitch up the cut.
“I can care for him,” Queen Desi’Rel replied as the doctor prepared his needle and thread. “This would not be the first important leader to be under my care.”
“Indeed!” the doctor exclaimed as he carefully stitched up King Belgrave’s wound. “I know of no one more qualified to nurse a king than you.”
“We have all heard the stories of the things that Queen Desi’Rel did during the times when Narva renewed the assault on Panei twenty years ago,” King Hevman stated. “I agree that she should be the one to care for King Belgrave.”
The doctor finished his stitching and looked up at the queen. “I have done as much as I can for his injury. Would you mind helping me clean him up and prepare him to be moved into the chamber?” She nodded and began to remove the rest of the king’s bloodstained garments so that she could wash his body. The doctor then turned to one of the Canari. “Bring some fresh bandages and blankets.” He looked back down at King Belgrave and felt the king’s pulse. “It will take some time for his body to replace the blood he has lost. He is very weak and it may be several weeks before he awakes with sufficient energy to attend to his kingly duties.”
King Hevman sighed. “There isn’t anything that myself, Queen Desi’Rel, or one of the others shouldn’t be able to handle.” He turned to Commander Sidrahkir. “As the highest ranking able-bodied survivor from your nation, you will have to lead Tanarad until he recovers.”
“Well first let’s get King Belgrave into the chamber and then we can sort things out and plan what to do next,” the Commander replied. He picked up King Belgrave’s shield and placed it beside the king. “Once King Belgrave is ready, we can place him on his shield so we can move him into the chamber.”
Queen Desi’Rel finished cleaning the dirt and blood from King Belgrave’s body and helped the doctor put on a bandage. They then lifted the king onto his shield and the doctor and King Hevman began to carry him down the tunnel toward the chamber with the Canari following behind.
Commander Sidrahkir gathered up King Belgrave’s armaments and watched as Queen Desi’Rel stooped to pick up a strip of red cloth from the stairs. She then walked further up the steps and picked a dagger off the floor near the doors. “What is that for?” he asked her.
“In the words of the ancient Lunari, ‘timati fasara nolo derenti, timati bene mo dere. Kalato timati fasara jesaru,’” she replied. “One comes from many, one stronger than all. From one comes victory! All of our hope is now with King Belgrave, for he has become a Red Exemplar!”
The Commander shook his head. “No, Captain Haloz specifically said that King Belgrave was not a Red Exemplar and honored him with a white armband. King Belgrave may be our only hope, but he cannot be a Red Exemplar.”
The Queen held up the knife and the bloody cloth. “The red memory of their sacrifice has stained the white armband. I have no doubt that King Belgrave is now a Red Exemplar.”
“Then I will trust your interpretation of events,” Commander Sidrahkir replied. “Come, we need to be going.” He turned and began to walk back down the tunnel carrying King Belgrave’s equipment. Queen Desi’Rel walked beside him with the dagger and bloody cloth.
Colonel Balvain was waiting for them when they arrived back in the chamber. One of the other soldiers from Tanarad took the armor from Commander Sidrahkir and another took the king’s sword. Colonel Balvain briefly bowed to Queen Desi’Rel and then looked at the Commander. “A tent has been erected for King Belgrave.” He pointed toward the center of the cavern and they could see the large tent.
“Take charge of the soldiers,” Commander Sidrahkir ordered the Colonel. “I will be with my king.” He turned back to Queen Desi’Rel. “I will only believe that King Belgrave is a Red Exemplar when I see a cut on his forearm,” he grinned.
“Oh, it is definitely there!” the Queen replied, walking toward the tent.