King Anou was able to talk two days later. He told them that his foot was the reason why he never made it to the tunnel. “Shortly after the final assault began, Nerak was being pushed back from the gate so I rallied my men and we charged,” he explained. “Once we had recaptured the entrance, I realized that myself, and the handful of soldiers that were with me, had been separated from the rest of my army. My soldiers fought valiantly against the enemy axe-men, but I do not think any escaped. I do know that I fell when an axe split my foot in half.”
“Then why is your foot completely gone now?” Queen Desi’Rel interrupted.
“I’ll get there,” King Anou replied. “Once I fell, the enemy completely ignored me and rushed into the fortress. I did manage to crawl to one side of the entrance and wrapped up my foot the best I could. Unfortunately, the battle ended soon after and the enemy began to pick through the bodies, looking for anyone still able to move their arms or legs. I was soon spotted and they dragged me down into their camp.” He paused and shook his head, as in disbelief at his own story.
“There were more survivors than I had expected, and some were worse off than I was. There were also prisoners they had taken at the beach.” He looked at King Hevman and gave a small smile. “I saw two soldiers of Taor that had been tied to a post. They said that they managed to convince their captors to let them sit unbound the previous night and that they attempted to overrun the guards and even killed a number of them. I must say, even after their second capture, they continued to shout insults against the enemy until their tongues were cut out, and even then, you could see the two of them making rude gestures.”
“Defiant to the end,” King Hevman declared, “That is what I like to hear about my soldiers. I presume they did not survive much longer.”
King Anou nodded to confirm King Hevman’s assumption and continued his story. “The day after they rounded up all the survivors, they forced us to pile and burn everyone else still lying around. They worked us like slaves with no regard to our ranks or wounds. Still, they did force us to drink an interesting brown liquid they called isded. It lessened the pain and increased our energy.” He paused and bowed his head. “Some of the bodies that they forced us to burn were still alive. The screams as they helplessly burned to death...” he paused. “The enemy called it mercy killing, but I say there was no mercy.”
“When did Naiya’Nal come back?” King Belgrave asked.
King Anou smiled. “I knew you would ask. The Dark Wizard returned with her shortly after the battle. I did happen to see when he took her, so I think he was just hiding in the clouds waiting for you to call the retreat and end the battle. Anyway, she spotted me soon after they returned and tried to convince the Dark Wizard to release me, but he wouldn’t have it. I talked to her later that night and she said that she was going to try teaching herself some new magic so she could attack Voth.”
“Did she succeed?”
“I’m not sure.” He shook his head. “She may have figured out the new magic, and at first, he seemed to be engulfed in fire, but something suddenly snapped and they were both thrown back from each other. A strange mixture of tiny sparks and shards of ice shot out to each side and killed some nearby Huvudets. Queen Naiya’Nal was the first of them back on their feet and she ran toward the Dark Wizard with a strange purple aura growing about her. Halfway there, she stopped and thrust her hands in front of her, but the purple glow kept going. It surrounded the Dark Wizard as he stood up, and began to thicken until it looked like...” he paused and weakly laughed. “It looked like he was covered with a thick layer of purple mud. I would give anything for another chance to see the face he made.”
The others also laughed at this description. “What did it do to him?” Commander Sidrahkir asked.
King Anou took a few deep breaths and sighed before he continued his story. “He fell to his knees and bent forward choking. She took the opportunity to grab his sword, but as she swung it at his head, he suddenly straightened up, grabbed her arm with one hand, her neck with the other, and forced her to kneel on the ground in front of him. She dropped the sword and the purple stuff began to fade from the Dark Wizard, almost as if it was being absorbed into his body. It seemed that he was growing stronger as she was growing weaker. After he subdued her, he chained her to his dragon and told it to eat her if she tried to get away.”
“Then how was she able to help you?” King Belgrave asked.
“I brought her water one day after most of the bodies had been piled to burn. She was sitting still chained to the dragon, dirty and crying. I asked her what had happened and she explained that she had given up her magic in her desperate attempt against Voth; that the purple aura that I had seen was the essence of her magic removed from her. She was crying because she had nothing left to show for sacrificing her entire life’s training. I asked why the Dark Wizard was keeping her alive and she said that she was the bait to bring King Belgrave to Voth.” He paused. “On the day that the dragon brought me over the mountain, she had managed to convince the Dark Wizard to send me to you alive with the idea that if you knew her condition, you would be quicker to respond. She did not have much time to clean and bandage my wounds, but she did say that when the deathbirds had picked clean the field, a way would come for King Belgrave to leave this island. I don’t know what she meant, but she also said to remind you that an army with a new allegiance awaits your command.”
King Belgrave held out the cloth with the message written on it. “Then it is true that she is in Sarda.” He grinned. “If the Dark Wizard thinks I have no more allies, then he is mistaken.” He looked at the others standing around him. “The Barbidon army that once fought against me in Panei will fight for me in Sarda. The Barbidons will march with me against the enslaver of this world.”
For a moment, the room was silent. Then Queen Desi’Rel spoke. “I guess we all agree that King Belgrave is going to Sarda.” She looked at King Anou. “But you still have not told us why your foot is gone.”
King Anou smiled. “I was saving that for last, to give a better ending to a bad story. After being forced to walk on a split foot for so long, my foot was black and the pain was moving up into my ankle. Queen Naiya’Nal knew that it needed amputated and was surprised to find that she had regained enough magic to make a flame to burn away the dead tissue. The pain was very intense and I do not remember much after that, but I can say that I did see her smile once more.”
“That is definitely a better ending than what it could have been,” King Belgrave agreed. “It gives me hope that Voth will not cause her much suffering. Now, I just need to finish healing and wait for the way off the island that she mentioned.”
“While we wait,” Queen Desi’Rel said, “we can play belgraveball!”
They all laughed except King Anou. “What’s that?” he asked.
“King Belgrave described some of the games they play in his world so I put together a game using all of them,” Commander Sidrahkir answered. “We’ve played three games so far. Pia won the first two games and Taor won the game today.”
“We’ll take you to watch a game tomorrow afternoon,” King Hevman added.
King Belgrave spent the next two and a half weeks anxiously waiting for the way to Naiya’Nal to show itself. There was no way to know how long the deathbirds would continue to feast on the corpses at Nasad nor what they had to do with him traveling over the mountains and across the sea to Sarda. The days were beginning to grow colder, and despite the constant dark cloud above them, they knew that the days were growing shorter as well. He began sleeping inside instead of on the roof.
On the first day of the month of Soldes, while King Belgrave was sitting inside telling Queen Desi’Rel stories of his home, Commander Sidrahkir ran into the room. “King Belgrave, a large bird has just come from over the mountains and has landed on the beach. It is here to take you to Sarda.”
“How do you know that?” King Belgrave asked.
“It told me so,” the Commander replied.
Queen Desi’Rel looked at the Commander and raised her eyebrows. “I think that you need to get some sleep before other things start talking to you too.”
“I’m serious,” the Commander insisted. “If you don’t believe me, you can come see it for yourself.”
“Is it big and black?” King Belgrave asked.
“Yes,” the Commander replied. “How did you know?”
“It would explain Naiya’Nal’s message about the deathbirds,” King Belgrave answered. “I believe that this may be the deathbird that we found guarding the last ring on Tayve. It flew away speaking of Nasad.”
“Then it must be one of the legendary creatures altered by the Lunari with the purpose of aiding prophecy,” Queen Desi’Rel said. “Are you sure that King Belgrave is healed sufficiently to be carried by a bird?”
King Belgrave grinned. “I am still a bit sore if I put too much of a strain on my wound, but I believe that I have healed enough to be able to use a sword and shield if necessary.”
“There is also the matter of the cold,” the Commander added. “I have heard that the winters of Sarda can be quite frigid compared to here. I think that you should wear some warm furs and leave the armor behind.”
“But what if I have to fight?” King Belgrave asked. “I’d need my armor for that.”
Commander Sidrahkir smiled and shook his head. “Sword and shield,” he said, reminding King Belgrave of the time when he first learned how to use a sword. “All you need is your sword and shield. Believe me, I have seen you fight and am confident that you will be successful without your armor. Besides, thick furs will provide you with some protection.”
Queen Desi’Rel sighed. “I would feel better if you took your armor with you, but I will trust Sidrahkir’s judgment on this. I would not know much about wearing armor in the cold.”
Commander Sidrahkir nodded and looked at King Belgrave. “Get your stuff ready. I will find some warm furs. You can leave your armor where it is.” He looked back at Queen Desi’Rel. “Pack him some food and water. It will be a long flight.”
The Queen sighed and stood up as Commander Sidrahkir turned and left. “I know that you’ve been packed and ready to go ever since you knew Naiya’Nal was in Sarda,” she said to King Belgrave, “but I have something that you have forgotten.” She pulled out a strip of red cloth and tied it around King Belgrave’s right arm. “The Red Exemplars will never let us down.”
King Belgrave looked at the armband. “What happened to the armband I put on in the tunnel?”
“I still have your white armband that was stained red by the memory of the Red Exemplars,” Queen Desi’Rel answered. “I wish to keep it as a memento of all that has transpired.”
King Belgrave walked over to his pack sitting against the wall and quickly rummaged through it. He pulled out his dagger and tossed it to the queen. “Keep the dagger as well,” he said. “Blood doesn’t come from nowhere.”
Commander Sidrahkir returned with a fur coat and some other bits of warm clothing. They helped King Belgrave get suited and ready for the long cold flight to the cold land of Sarda. When he finally stepped from the building and walked down to the beach, he found all the other kings and queens waiting to see him off. Before King Belgrave had the time to say his goodbyes, the bird had grabbed him in its claws and was carrying him away into the sky.
“There goes the only king that I have ever served,” Commander Sidrahkir said as they disappeared into the clouds. “I would give anything to be with him until the end.”
“So would the rest of us,” King Hevman added.
King Belgrave watched the ground drop away below him until it was hidden by the clouds. “What’s your name?” he finally asked the bird.
“Erom’Reven,” the bird replied.
“How did you know that you were going to take me to Sarda?”
“I am a bird and servant of the Lunari,” Erom’Reven replied. “I cannot say why I do the things that I do, but I can say that I know what I must do when the time comes. I suggest that you close your eyes and sleep for the rest of the flight. I will take you as far as I can, but from there, you will have to find your own way.”
“How far is that?”
“I will take you to the southeastern islands. Any further and I would be a target for the dragons of Voth. From there, I believe that you will be able to make your way north with the help of the Barbidons.”
“Then I will trust you to do what you may,” King Belgrave replied. “After that, I will trust prophecy to lead me the rest of the way.” The cloud stretched in every direction as far as he could see so he could not tell where they were. He sighed and closed his eyes. Perhaps the bird was right; he should get some rest while he still could.