In the morning, Ragwulch was the only Barbidon left in the room when King Belgrave awoke. “The others are upstairs,” he explained. “Come on up, you can grab your stuff later.”
King Belgrave followed Ragwulch up the stairs and into the main room of the tavern. The Barbidons had already rearranged the tables to form one long table in the center of the room. Many other Barbidons had already gathered and were milling around or sitting at the tables conversing amongst themselves. They stood and bowed as King Belgrave entered the room. “Hail, the Great King Belgrave,” Lugar said. He motioned for King Belgrave to sit at the head of the table. The other Barbidons then took their seats. Someone passed King Belgrave a cup filled with a hot greenish beverage. “Iceberry juice,” Lugar explained. “It helps to drive away the cold.”
King Belgrave took a swallow of the drink as Lugar spread out a map of northern Sarda on the table. The hot drink was tart, but had a sweet buttery flavor that he found refreshing in the early morning. He watched as Lugar set up various markers on the map. “Lugar, let’s get this started,” a Barbidon impatiently shouted from the far end of the table.
Lugar grinned. “The door’s that way,” he said, pointing.
“Jugosh, if you’re that eager to fight, I am sure that you will find Vemrok waiting,” another said.
One of the others slammed his cup on the table. “Just be quiet and let Lugar give us the plan,” he scolded. The others grunted and quieted down.
Lugar stood up and leaned forward, resting his hands on the table. “The plan is simple. We’re going to attack the Dark Wizard’s fortress and that’s about all that there is to it.” He pointed to a marker on the map. “We know that Vemrok will be guarding the causeway across the lake. We also know that the Dark Wizard’s dragons have been flying in more soldiers, but not in substantial numbers. We believe that Vemrok will station these soldiers around the fortress and throughout it.” He paused. “Lake Corpiscus is frozen over. With coordinated attacks from all sides, her attention will be distracted and the defenses will be weakened.”
“How do you know about the enemy defenses?” one of the others asked.
Lugar slammed his fist on the table and glared. “Do not forget that I once directly served a Dark Witch. I took part in their councils and learned their strategies. We may not know their exact positions, but I do know how they would most likely be arranged.”
King Belgrave stood up. “Let Lugar explain the plan without questioning him. I have confidence that he has considered all aspects of this situation, including a few things that you may not have thought of.” The others remained silent and King Belgrave sat down again.
Lugar nodded. “You all know how to move your troops swiftly across the land. Because it is winter, you will use large sleds and pull your equipment. They will also serve as rafts for your soldiers if the ice of Lake Corpiscus is melted or shattered.”
“Do you think that the Dark Wizard will send his dragons against us?” another Barbidon asked.
“I cannot say,” Lugar answered. “If he does, instruct your best marksmen to aim for the eyes. Once blinded, they would not know where to strike and they may just fly away. We will all need to be on the lookout for dragons. If they cannot be stopped, they will melt the ice.”
He looked back down at the map and started to move some of the markers. “We will march from Nazval this afternoon. When we reach the Dark Wasteland, the army will divide into seven groups. King Belgrave and I will take the center and move to attack the causeway. Chuvrut, Lichigov, Jugosh, you go east. Worgash, Worgor, Rogogilth, you go west. You have two days to get in position on the shores of Lake Corpiscus. At dawn on the third day, the drums will coordinate the attack.”
“And how do you propose that we pass the claws that haunt the Dark Wasteland?” Jugosh asked. “Should I already admit the loss of half my soldiers or do you have a plan for that?”
“I know about the claws that guard the Dark Wasteland, but I have been assured that they pose no threat in the winter.”
“Dare I call you a liar or a traitor?” one of the quieter Barbidons asked, standing up. “Lugar, I had a similar rank to yours and used to serve inside the fortress and never was I informed that the claws were safe in the winter. No Barbidon has ever dared to travel through the Dark Wasteland without a dragon escort, even in winter, so who informed you of this?”
Silence filled the tavern and all eyes looked at Lugar intently. “A servant is always free to turn against her master,” he explained calmly, pointing at a target hanging on the wall. A single dagger stuck from the center. “Even a Dark Witch can learn the error of her ways and reveal the secrets of her master. It was only eight days ago...”
King Belgrave stood up and took a few steps back from Lugar, placing his hand on his sword. “There are only two Dark Witches. You have already said that Vemrok stands against us, so who else is there? You could not have spoken with the other unless you still consort with the Dark Wizard, for she has been taken captive and held hostage since the battle of Nasad.”
A dagger flew across the room and stuck in the target beside the first one. The other Barbidons jumped from their seats in surprise. “Lugar does not speak of Vemrok or Naiya’Nal,” a girl’s voice said. They all turned to see a girl wearing a black cloak over purple robes; the ends of her red hair dyed purple to match her eyes.
“It’s Vemrok!” one of the Barbidons gasped. Several of the others reached for their swords, but backed down when the girl raised her hands toward them.
The girl slowly stepped toward the table. “I am Marla’Su, Dark Witch trained by Voth, twin of the one called Vemrok, and believer of the truth as told by the Dark Witch Naiya’Nal. I have left the slavery of Voth and have come to assist in his defeat.”
King Belgrave returned to his seat, but did not sit down. “Marla’Su, we have recently witnessed the trickery and lies of the Dark Wizard. What could you do or say to convince us that you are, in fact, genuinely with us?”
Marla’Su dropped her cloak from her shoulders. “What proof would you require?” she asked. “I was given several items of Naiya’Nal’s to show as proof.” She tossed a short piece of antler, several small black stones, and an old encrusted piece of metal on the table. “I have a piece of antler from an elkenar antelope, pebbles from Iswa, and an item found by you in the Bay of Anamnesis before you were officially crowned king and announced Naiya’Nal as your queen. If that does not convince you, then what about the armband that Naiya’Nal wore on her left arm.” She tossed a red strip of cloth to King Belgrave.
King Belgrave looked at the worn strip of red cloth. “You could not have gotten this unless Naiya’Nal willed it,” he said. “You have proved your claims.” He sat down and the other Barbidons followed his example.
“So what, other than the issue with the claws, did you tell Lugar?” one of the Barbidons asked Marla’Su.
“And why didn’t you tell of the Dark Wizard’s sneak attack?” another asked.
“She did not know about the sneak attack,” Lugar growled. “Her training was hurried and incomplete, and Voth does not share all of his secrets, even with his most trusted servants.”
“Well I guess that’s it then,” Jugosh said, standing up. “We have our orders and if there’s nothing else to discuss, I hope to see you all crossing the lake at dawn on the third day.”
Lugar nodded. “Prepare your soldiers, swords, spears, and bows. You know where to be and when. Good luck, and let us hope we survive to see the ruin of the Dark Wizard and the fulfillment of prophecy.”
King Belgrave watched as the Barbidons left their seats. Several quickly left the tavern while others stayed to finish their drinks. Marla’Su walked around the table to King Belgrave. “I have a message to tell you, from Naiya’Nal,” she quietly said. “I do not know what she meant, but she said there will be no victory without the fang of death.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for the reminder and the knowledge that my wife is still alive.” He looked down at the red cloth. “I still find it hard to believe she just gave this to you.”
Marla’Su smiled. “She made me promise that you would bring it back to her.” Her face became serious again. “Are you going to kill my sister?”
King Belgrave frowned and lowered his head and thought about the question for a moment. “I cannot say what will transpire during the battle,” he finally answered. “I wish that I could give a positive answer, but despite my best intentions and desires, my allegiance is to prophecy, not to you or your sister.”
“Well, could you at least ask her to turn against Voth?”
He looked Marla’Su in the face. “I will offer her the option if I see her face to face, but I doubt that she will accept.”
“Then I will go with you,” Marla’Su decided.
“No,” King Belgrave replied, shaking his head. “I have a different task for you.”
“But I have to save my sister!” she pleaded. She knelt beside him and hid her face on the table as tears began to flow from her eyes.
King Belgrave put his arm around her shoulders. “You are only a girl and I will not allow you to join us in battle. I will do what I can on your sister’s behalf, but she will ultimately decide her own fate. Now, are you willing to accept the task that I have for you?”
She looked up at him. “What choice do I have? There is nothing else for me to look forward to.”
“I do not know if I will return from this battle,” King Belgrave said. “Naiya’Nal is not a hostage without a purpose and the Dark Wizard is holding her to lure me to him. He wishes to fight me alone, away from my allies and potential assistance. I am confident that I will fulfill prophecy and defeat him, but I am not confident that I will survive. My task for you is to practice the skills taught to you by the Dark Wizard, but to use them for good. You are to remember the countless lives that have been lost, the sacrifices that have been made for the advancement of prophecy.” She was surprised as he removed the red armband from his right arm and tied it around hers. “You are not wearing this armband because you are a Red Exemplar; you are wearing it because you will be a living memory of the Red Exemplars.”
“I... I don’t know much about the Red Exemplars,” she stammered. “Why would you pick me?”
King Belgrave grabbed her shoulders and helped her to her feet. “A reputation as a Dark Witch would ruin any chance of a new life,” King Belgrave explained, “but the mark of the Red Exemplars covers all past offenses.”
“If I am not to go to battle, then where will you have me go?” she asked.
“If I do not return from battle, I want you to travel to Panei and search for Desi’Rel, the queen of Vernon,” he replied. “Tell her of everything that has happened here in Sarda and of the task that I have given you. She will be able to help you in times of need.” Marla’Su nodded. “If I do not return, seek out a commander from Tanarad named Sidrahkir, and give him this,” he said, taking the combined three rings from his finger and handing it to the girl. He stood up. “I will do what I can to save your sister, but I cannot make any promises.”
“How do you know that you will defeat Voth?” she asked as he turned to leave.
King Belgrave looked back at the girl. “The fang of death goes with me,” he answered.
King Belgrave left and went back to the basement to gather his belongings and put on his fur outfit. Ragwulch was waiting for him. “Lugar is ready to march as soon as you are,” he said.
“Then help me hurry!” King Belgrave laughed.