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Fantasy fiction fans of daring heroes and ruthless villains locked in rivalries to rule the world are invited to read Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I by Tracy Falbe.

About the fantasy novel: An expanding empire reaches the limits of its known world and keeps pushing. The Wilderness beyond is dominated by the rys, a magical race whose lives span centuries and powers include heat spells, sleepiness spells, telekinesis, spirit projection, remote viewing, mindreading, and, for the most powerful, the ability to control the souls of the dead. The rys Queen Onja has ruled her rys for over two thousand years, and she forces the Tribes of the Western Kingdoms to worship her as their Goddess.

But great age has finally started to weaken her, and her long-suffering rival, Shan, will seize a slim opportunity to defy her. Start reading Chapter 1 In the Service of the Empire.

Ebook readers can also find every novel of The Rys Chronicles epic at popular retail sites like Smashwords.com, Barnes & Noble, and the Kindle Store at Amazon.

My fantasy series took 6 years to write and it was a labor of love. Bringing my fantasy fiction to readers around the world has been very gratifying, and the positive comments from readers are especially appreciated.

Start reading this fantasy novel.

Lord Kwan stayed in his small tent staring at the warding crystal for the whole night and the next day. The Atrophane soldiers waited nervously for some word from their commander and they watched the skies for the bizarre bird beast.

Kwan had no desire beyond watching the swirl of blue light within the smooth orb. When Sandin tried to intrude, he ordered away his lieutenant with all the force of a Hordemaster.

The blue glow absorbed Kwan’s thoughts until they were not his own. He began to see images. He saw great blocks of stone standing on the plains. He saw his men dying, crumpling in hopeless agony, being torn apart by the ethereal hands of fearsome wraiths. Then he was in the mountains. Snowy peaks lorded over an alpine forest. He began to hear the dream voice of the Queen and was told her name was Onja.

Kwan began to understand. Onja began to make things very clear. She summoned him and his soldiers west into the mountains, and if he did not comply, she would release her army of ghosts to kill them. There was no defense from the Deamedron, as she called them. She showed him over and over her tormented spirit slaves killing the Atrophane like a scythe against grass. She showed him the horror until Kwan regained the mental faculty to beg her to stop.

Onja commanded Kwan to let the warding crystal guide him west.

Two voices started calling his name and Kwan opened his eyes. Sandin and Jesse were leaning over him. Kwan sat up, surprised that he had been asleep. It was dark except for the light from the lantern in Jesse’s hand and the glow of the warding crystal lying next to him on his sleeping mat.

Rubbing his head, Kwan said, “I must have dropped off for a couple hours. It should be morning soon.”

“My Lord, the sun has only just gone down,” Sandin said.

“What do you mean?” Kwan demanded.

“You came in here last night, and you have been in here all day. Don’t you remember me trying to talk to you?” Sandin said. Pointing at the warding crystal, he explained, “That thing put you in a trance. It is an evil charm. My Lord, you must get rid of it.”

Kwan turned to Jesse and ordered his squire to leave.

Now in private, he tried to explain things to Sandin. “Someone lives in the mountains to the west. She communicated with me somehow through this crystal.”

“My Lord, you are talking like a priest,” Sandin complained boldly.

“I know it is strange,” Kwan whispered. “But it is true. She wants to see us.”

“She?” Sandin asked.

“Her name is…Onja.” Kwan’s mouth shaped her name slowly, trying to match the sound to the abstraction in his head.

Sandin stared at his Lord General, and Kwan realized his lieutenant thought he was crazy.  He had never seen such doubt on Sandin’s face, and he had to reassure his officer.

“I will try to explain later. Now I must rest. Prepare to move west in the morning. If we find what I think we will find, I will explain everything,” Kwan said.

“My Lord, what will we find in the west?” Sandin said.

“Nothing, I hope,” Kwan whispered and lay back down, exhausted.

“Are you sick, my Lord?” Sandin asked quietly.

“Just tired, Lieutenant.”

Sandin’s gray eyes looked from the warding crystal to the weary face of his commander. In his fifteen years of service, he could not recall speaking to his Lord General while he was prone.

“It really is magic. I never would have expected such things. But the beast picked you out as our leader and gave you that charm.” Sandin was half talking to himself, trying to organize the information, trying to believe it. “This Onja must be a sorceress, like from a myth. My Lord, we should not go to her.”

“You are not Lord General yet, and I will decide what we should do,” Kwan said sternly.

Sandin dipped his head to show his respect. His must keep his faith in his Lord General. It was Kwan’s duty to lead well and it was Sandin’s duty to serve well.

The Atrophane headed northwest and a week later they reached the standing stones. When the monoliths were still just dots in the distance, Kwan halted his force. He stared at the stones covering a broad swath of prairie from the northeast to the southwest, and they looked just like the images that had been put in his mind.

Sick inside but trying to hide it, Kwan ordered his soldiers to make camp, and he added the strict order that no one was to approach the monoliths. In the light of day the Atrophane were curious about the place and they quietly wondered why their commander wanted them to stay away. It was only stones on the land and they had combed the ruins of the city, but when night came, the soldiers stopped grumbling.

A fog rose among the stones and damp tendrils drifted up the hills to the edge of the camp. Then points of light began to flare over the stones and they intensified until a pulsing glow filled the forbidden field. 

Kwan stood on the edge of camp, facing the glow. He did not want to believe that the standing stones really contained the ghost soldiers of Onja, but his denial would require proof and he had to go look. He opened his hand and looked at the warding crystal in his palm. It shone with a fierce light tonight and he could feel heat coming through his gauntlet.

He shut his hand against the magic light and he set his other hand on the hilt of his sword. Alone he approached the fog-shrouded stones. Every step that brought him closer became more difficult than the last. Instinctive fear clutched his heart, but he forced himself onward.

Once the mist surrounded him, the choking cold of the damp filled his lungs. He passed some small stones and stopped in front of an imposing monolith. Spheres of light beyond the monolith started to move toward him, and a bright spectral shape emerged from the stone in front of him. Kwan beheld a skeleton draped in a translucent cloak and shimmering armor. Points of bloody red light burned in the eye sockets, and the spirit swiped at him hungrily with a wispy sword. Kwan drew his sword, but the thing did not advance. More spirits swarmed the area, until he was completely surrounded. Sensing their malice, Kwan whirled to face the ring of spirits with his weapon, but an unseen force seemed to hold them back.

Before Kwan even knew it, his feet were retreating. He looked over his shoulder as he walked backwards and saw the watch fires of his expeditionary force on the high ground. He turned and ran until he was free of the clinging mist. Gasping for breath, Kwan checked to see if any of the spirits pursued him, but they had remained in their place.

He paused before returning to the camp to gather his nerves. Tonight, Kwan, the conqueror of the east, had learned of terror. It left him exposed and changed. He could not risk his men against these wretched spirits. The images of his soldiers being slaughtered by them had been branded deeply on his mind. If Onja was bluffing about their violent potential, he would just have to find out later. He would have to go before this Queen Onja if he was to learn anything. This realization hit him like a bear trap sinking into his leg.

Two torches left the perimeter of camp, and Sandin arrived with two soldiers.

“We must definitely go around this place,” Kwan announced.

“Yes, my Lord,” Sandin readily concurred. “But why have you drawn your sword?”

Casually Kwan sheathed his weapon but gave no answer. He signaled to the soldiers to go back to camp.

When they were out of earshot, Sandin asked, “My Lord, is this what you thought we would find in the west?”

“Yes. I was told of this place while I was in the trance with the crystal,” Kwan said.

“What did you see in there?” Sandin asked, glancing at the disturbed mist.

“The very face of damnation,” Kwan replied. “Onja claims that these ghosts are her slaves and she will send them to kill us if we do not go to meet her.”

“Do you believe this?” Sandin asked in shock.

“I don’t know,” the Lord General confessed in a rare candid moment. “But for now, I believe we must continue west. If we turn back and her threat is real, these ghosts will hunt us down. What can the living do against the dead?” Kwan shook his head.

“But you were not harmed by them,” Sandin observed hopefully.

“This crystal must have protected me,” Kwan said.

“Curse that thing, my Lord. This magic could just be filling your head with nonsense,” Sandin argued.

“That is real,” Kwan cried, pointing to the haunted stones.

Sandin could not deny that. His skin tingled with preternatural warning just being close to the stones, but that gave him more reason to think his commander was possessed.

After so many years together, Kwan guessed the strain his lieutenant was under.

What would I think of Sandin if a crystal put him in a trance? he thought.

“Lieutenant, we have entered the Wilderness, and it seems the rules are different here. I cannot fully judge the situation until I learn more about this Onja. With no knowledge, how can I oppose her? And we came to explore. It would not make sense to run away from the first thing we encounter. This journey will not be what we are used to, but we must maintain the courage and discipline that has made the Atrophane supreme. We must present a united command as we have always done,” Kwan said.

Sandin understood what his Lord General alluded to. The lieutenant knew he had been especially argumentative and doubtful of every decision from his commander.

But I have good reasons to question him, Sandin thought stubbornly.

He was not some junior officer. He was first lieutenant to the Lord General, and it was his duty to speak his mind.

Never imagining that he could speak such faithless words to his commander, Sandin confessed, “Lord Kwan, you are possessed. How can I trust you?”

The words did not upset Kwan, and he actually respected Sandin for having the nerve to ask the awful question.

Kwan said, “Yes, this sorceress has communicated with me with her magic. But I am not possessed by her. I am Lord General Kwan of Clan Chenomet, Hordemaster to the Darmar Zemthute II. I serve only the side of Atrophane! You know I hold the life of every soldier, and officer, in the highest esteem, and I consider them in every decision.”

Hearing these words did reassure Sandin. Lord Kwan was Atrophane’s greatest military leader, a legend in his own lifetime, and his integrity was well established.

Sandin cast his eyes down and said, “My Lord, forgive my disloyal thoughts and words.”

Kwan readily accepted the apology. “Lieutenant Sandin, do not regret your actions. You were doing your job as an officer when it appeared your commander was under a foreign influence. You thought first of the men under your command, and that is never wrong. Responsible leadership has ever been the source of our glory. I do not know what is going to happen. If this Onja truly enthralls me and I betray my duties to you and Atrophane, then by all means take command and get home—if you can.”

“I pray such a thing does not happen, my Lord,” Sandin said quickly. “I wish to be Lord General someday, but not by your misfortune. You have all my faith as always, my Lord.”

Kwan laid a firm hand on Sandin’s shoulder. “I know Sandin. You have always been the most reliable,” he praised. Kwan then thought of another officer who had not kept his faith.

After allaying Sandin’s fears and reinforcing his loyalty, Kwan addressed the men, explaining that they would travel west to meet a Queen who claimed to control the land they had entered. He perceived that the news unsettled the soldiers, but in the vast solitude of the Wilderness and in sight of the Deamedron, each man realized that they depended on the cleverness of their Lord General.

The Atrophane force traveled around the haunted standing stones. When they left the Deamedron behind, Kwan felt a measure of relief to have them out of his sight even if they were uncomfortably between him and Atrophane.

Here is the adventure you wanted, old man, Kwan thought as he led his force into the Rysamand.

Two days later, as the Atrophane ascended the eastern slopes of the towering mountains, riders appeared on the top of the next ridge. Kwan halted his men and sensed the familiar ripple of anticipation run through his soldiers.

“I see about one hundred of them,” Sandin judged, after quickly scanning their silhouetted forms.

“There could be more that we cannot see,” Kwan reminded. “They have a good position on us too. We will let them make the first move, but reinforce our flanks. Those on the ridge may just be a distraction.”

Sandin galloped down the front of the force, giving orders and positioning soldiers. Kwan patiently waited front and center. The riders on the ridge made no moves while the Atrophane rearranged their forces defensively.

After the Atrophane stewed for a while, three riders began to descend the slope. The heavy white horses managed the incline with surprising ease. No longer in silhouette, the characteristics of the riders became clear to the Atrophane. Cries of surprise and shock rose from the ranks as everyone saw that these riders were not human.

The blue riders halted a short distance in front of Kwan. The highland wind moaned against the ridge and the Atrophane fell silent. Signaling for Sandin to keep his place, Kwan eased his horse forward and marveled at their strange beauty. Their blue skin and fine features were quite attractive, but Kwan found their black eyes disturbing and mysterious, although not nearly as disturbing as the Tatatook.

The blue rider in the middle of the trio had mostly white hair with only a few remaining streams of black. All of them wore beautiful green suede uniforms, but a white cloak flowed around the shoulders of the middle rider and it looked like a stubborn snowdrift in a spring meadow.

The white-cloaked rider spoke, “You are the Lord Kwan.”

Although Kwan did not understand the language, he heard his name and nodded.

“Taf Ila,” the blue rider said, pointing at himself.

Despite the language barrier, Taf Ila was good at his job and he peaceably convinced the Atrophane commander to follow him. The main force of rys kept ahead of the Atrophane, but Taf Ila rode beside Kwan in a gesture of good faith.

At night the two races camped separately, but Taf Ila and his two aides shared a fire with Kwan, making rudimentary attempts at conversation. Kwan managed to learn that they were called rys and Queen Onja was their ruler. Kwan wondered if these rys possessed magical powers like their Queen. Because Taf Ila and the others behaved very self-assured and were only lightly armed, Kwan assumed they must have some reason for their confidence.

In the morning the Atrophane entered the Jingten Valley. The lovely city beside Lake Nin excited the humans. Lord Kwan had led them across the Wilderness and the discoveries were going to be greater than hoped. To the eyes of men accustomed to conquest, the city looked wealthy and vulnerable, and for an instant, Kwan even had to check his ambition. He remembered feeling the power of Onja, and his instinct warned him that this place was not without defense. Tact and diplomacy would be his tools for now, especially when he had no idea how large the rys army might be.

The rys stopped the Atrophane force outside the city, and Taf Ila indicated that Kwan could continue with only a few companions. Kwan selected five soldiers of excellent wit and skill, but he did not choose Sandin.

“Lieutenant, you have command. If I do not return by morning, take what actions you deem appropriate,” Kwan said.

Sandin saluted but he clearly did not relish being left behind. He burned to enter the foreign city.

With understanding Kwan added, “Your duty is here, Lieutenant. I would keep you insulated from this Queen who has summoned us. Be patient, I believe you will see the city soon enough.”

Sandin nodded, seeing the wisdom in Kwan’s decision. The lieutenant watched his Lord General ride away with his small honor guard and he sincerely hoped he would return before morning.

“Jingten,” Taf Ila proudly named his city as he escorted the humans.

Kwan admired the exotic place that seemed to be a well kept place of luxury. All the buildings were large and of thoughtful design. Trimmed hedges enclosed the properties, which were surrounded by flowering gardens and ornamental trees. Crystal streetlights lined the perfect roads, where every stone of the pavement was smooth and in place. Kwan saw no lesser dwellings for servants or workers, and he guessed that Jingten might be a ceremonial city kept apart from the disparities of the rest of the world. In all of his fantasies about exploring the Wilderness, he had never envisioned such an incredible place or the rys, who seemed a race taken from some forgotten myth.

The tiered Keep rose above the city, and when the tall iron bird gates swung open on their own, Kwan knew he entered the stronghold of the magic Queen. He could almost feel her looking at him now and he could not forget the way Onja had invaded his mind from so far away.

When the door wardens opened the throne room, the glow of Onja’s inner sanctum reflected on the silver studs on their jackets. The light from the four large spheres and the dazzle of the crystal encrusted walls made Kwan squint as he left the cool shade of the corridor. The white marble floor rose into the gleaming steps of the dais and a broad throne plated in gold commanded the room.

Bowing deeply, Taf Ila presented the humans to his Queen, but Kwan could not hear the rys speak. He had no perception beyond seeing Onja. She was easily the most incredible being the Lord General had ever seen. A simple black gown trimmed with sable fur covered the Queen. A netlike headdress of diamonds covered her pure white hair, surrounding her blue face in the light of a thousand rainbow facets. Kwan almost gaped at the sight of her jewels. Her headdress alone rivaled most fortunes, making him realize that Onja was unbelievably wealthy.

Onja allowed Kwan to study her, enjoying his awe. She had specifically worn her most spectacular diamond ensemble to impress upon him the magnitude of her rule.

“Queen Onja is pleased that you have come.”

The words roused Kwan from his viewing of the rys monarch and he looked to see who had spoken. The language had not been Atrophaney, but was somewhat familiar. It sounded like a dialect of the language used in the recently conquered lands bordering the Wilderness. His eyes found the figure of a small human girl seated two steps below the Queen. Her dark eyes regarded him calmly.

Kwan asked the men with him if any of them had understood the girl. One told him what the girl had said, adding that he had a fairly competent grasp of that language.

Probably just enough to pick up a wench, Kwan thought sourly, knowing that this was the moment when Dreibrand Veta would have served him best.

“Say that I am Lord Kwan and I have come as the Queen has asked,” Kwan instructed.

Hesitantly the soldier interpreted. The little girl translated for the Queen, and Kwan began to wonder where the rys had obtained the human child. He disliked communicating in a language foreign to both parties.

Onja spoke to the girl, who said, “Does Lord Kwan know that he intruded lands forbidden to all?”

When Kwan heard the question, he responded, “We are exploring. The Wilderness is an empty land without marker or warning.”

The Queen spoke again through the child’s voice. “Death is the punishment for all who enter the Wilderness.”

Kwan protested, “We did not know we intruded on land claimed by another.”

The soldier interpreted the response quickly this time.

Again in the rys tongue Onja spoke to the girl. She had carefully rehearsed each question and response with Elendra and the girl’s performance was pleasing her.

Elendra said, “If you believed the land did not belong to anyone, why do you bring an army?”

Kwan answered, “We did not know what we would encounter on our exploration. It is only a small force, meant for protection.”

As soon as the soldier managed an interpretation of the explanation, Onja spoke in the language used by the girl.

“You would make trouble where you found none!” the Queen accused, her voice ringing with power.

It was a sly accusation and inwardly Kwan smiled. Onja had faked her ignorance of the language and then revealed her feint, allowing him to see her devious nature. Now he would always have to wonder how much she knew.

“We have made no trouble,” Kwan said with diplomatic innocence.

Onja did not need the interpretation to catch the meaning of his words. Relaxing into her throne, Onja judged the human to be cunning and proud but willing to the pay the prices necessary for survival.

“Elendra,” Onja said sweetly. “You may go now. You have served me well.”

Elendra stood and bowed to her Queen. Scampering down the steps, she flashed a curious look at Kwan. Onja watched the girl leave, letting her adoration of the child distract her.

When her attention returned to Kwan, she stated coldly, “Entering my Wilderness results in death.”

“Then why have you not killed us?” Kwan asked boldly. The soldier disliked passing along the question.

Onja explained, “The death sentence has been delayed because I require a service of you. Serving me shall be the price for your lives.”

The scar on Kwan’s face rippled with restrained anger. Atrophane did not serve others. Atrophane served Atrophane.

Maintaining his pride, Kwan said, “Do we appear to you as mercenaries?”

Onja scowled at the impudent question. The day you learn not to be argumentative will soon come…but not today, she thought.

“I have mercenaries at my disposal. You are volunteers. I spared your lives from the Deamedron because I may have a use for an extra army. Jingten may require a defense in the spring, and defending the city will be the payment for my mercy. Until then, you and your men will be sheltered and provided for. I believe my proposal is more than fair,” Onja said.

Listening to the interpretation, Kwan wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. He had not expected her to ask them to defend the city, but it did mean something actually threatened this sorceress. This would be worth learning about.

Kwan said, “Queen Onja, you said Jingten may require a defense. You are not sure?”

Onja shifted her eyes uncomfortably, hating that she had not come across as omnipotent. Her words had been too precise and miraculously not lost in the translation.

“The threat to Jingten is being dealt with as we speak. Your army is a back up defense,” she answered.

“If Jingten is never attacked, will we be held here indefinitely?” Kwan asked.

These easterners! How I shall enjoy teaching them unquestioning obedience, Onja thought.

To Kwan’s tentative relief, she replied, “If I do not require the help of your soldiers, I will send you home. You shall escort an ambassador of the rys to your capital. I wish to establish relations with your leader and learn about the east.”

Although encouraged that she actually said they could leave, Kwan doubted her friendliness toward Atrophane. He worried that his expedition had opened an accursed tomb.

With no options at the moment but much to think about, Lord Kwan politely bowed to his demanding hostess and said, “We shall do as you ask, Queen Onja.”

Fully aware that his agreement lacked sincerity, Onja decided to devise a fitting demonstration of her authority to reinforce his commitment when he required it.

“Excellent,” Onja proclaimed. “You and your force shall camp in the forest for now. Shelter will be arranged before the snows come. Barracks for your men, and proper lodgings for you and your officers.”

Onja waved a hand imperiously, indicating that the meeting was concluded. Taf Ila promptly escorted the Atrophane from her presence. While leaving the Keep, one thought crowded out all others in Kwan’s mind. Who or what was the enemy of Queen Onja?

With the blessings of midsummer upon the land, I will make an expedition into the Wilderness. I have no information regarding any sort of population in the far west of Ektren, but the local people speak of the place with superstition. I attribute their fear to their ignorance and lack of initiative. By all appearances the Wilderness should offer many resources to the Empire and fertile land for expansion—Lord General Kwan Chenomet, Hordemaster, excerpt from dispatch to Darmar Zemthute II, year 779 Atrophane calendar.

“Must you go?” Elendra asked.

Queen Onja set the girl down on a couch and explained, “A Queen has many responsibilities, and I cannot give you all of my time, my sweet little dear. Until I come back, you keep your little brother company and behave yourself with Zanah.”

Elendra obediently nodded as her rys nanny approached.

Onja donned a floor length cloak that swished faintly when she turned away. On her way to the door, the Queen paused by Esseldan who played on the thick carpet. She squatted and put a hand on his plump cheek. The boy stopped rolling around when she touched him and stared at the Queen with wide eyes. He had come to accept the strange blue faces that had abruptly replaced his mother’s face, but he had spent many days wailing his disapproval.

“It is good to be friends now, Esseldan,” Onja said.

The boy’s expression remained neutral, but he intrigued Onja for a moment before she hurried out the door. The Queen went to her dock on Lake Nin, where Hefshul, mute as ever, waited patiently in a skiff.

Onja boarded the skiff and Hefshul pushed off. Oars dipping into tranquil waters sent ripples across the surface. Onja watched the tower slowly get closer. The Tomb of Dacian was the only structure in Jingten older than herself and equally resistant to ruin.

With his usual efficiency, Hefshul grounded the boat in front of the tower. He would wait for Queen Onja in the boat no matter how long she spent in the tower. Sometimes she would stay day and night.

Onja levitated out of the skiff and her skirts hung just over the cold water. She walked up the smooth cobbled path to the great doors of the tower.

Once known as the Jingten Tower, the Tomb of Dacian was wholly mysterious to all inhabitants of Jingten. Onja wrapped the tower in powerful and confusing wardings that she knew had never been properly penetrated by even the most determined rys minds. The tower housed all of Onja’s secrets in its safe chambers oblivious to time.

Onja entered the Tomb of Dacian. The glowing crystals in the walls cast her shadow along both sides of the hallway. Flanked by her dark silent attendants, she walked into the throne room. Opposite the entrance rose the dusty bulks of two thrones, where Jingten’s King had sat by his Queen in the last age. Onja passed between the golden chairs and entered a dark alcove in the stone wall. Marvelous tapestries had once covered this special spot, but Onja had transported the tapestries to the new Keep, where they had long since disintegrated.

Energy flowed along the spine of the Rysamand, originating deep inside the world, where the incredible mountains had been conceived. This energy rose through the very fabric of the land toward the heavens, and the masters of antiquity had designed the entire tower to focus a line of the potent force. The alcove Onja entered connected with a shaft that rose through every level, and it was here that the energy had been focused. Almost any rys could link with the harnessed energy and levitate quickly to upper levels, but the privilege had been reserved for royalty and ranking guests. Any others could use the many many stairs.

Grasping the line of energy was a trivial skill to Onja, but she loved the sensation of flying upward. She passed the lower levels that had once housed guests and bureaucrats and servants. Above these levels were the chambers where Onja and Dacian had once lived. Gliding to a soft stop, Onja hovered over the shaft briefly than stepped onto the top level, known as the observatory. Daylight poured through many skylights, and the bright observatory contrasted with the many dark levels below.

The center of the observatory opened to the throne room below, and a beautifully carved stone wall guarded the precipice. The relief carvings on the stone depicted rys among their beloved mountains and forests. Near the levitation portal sat a crystal sarcophagus where Dacian had been interred for twenty-two centuries. 

Onja approached his resting place and put her slender hands on the edge of the sarcophagus. Inside the crystal, Dacian’s eyes were open as if forever contemplating his cruel destruction of his cousins in Nufal.

Onja had come to this refuge to meditate. Initially in her pride she had disregarded Shan’s recent threat to overthrow her, but his words had lingered stubbornly in her mind. And his conduct with the Rysmavda Nebeck in Fata Nor four days ago had not escaped her attention. Shan had publicly dared her to strike him with her magic and she had to respond. Onja knew her killing magic could not reach him in the foothills, but she could still watch him. She had not expected him to reveal her waning power to the humans, and she regretted not attacking him while he was still in the Rysamand. His protests had to be stopped before the rysmavda could no longer enforce the faith.

Looking now upon Jingten’s fallen King, Onja admitted that Shan was perhaps the equal of Dacian. She had always known Shan was powerful. When she had held Shan as a tiny rysling, new to the world, she had known he was extraordinary, a rys of rare quality that only came along once in an age. And Onja had known that he would have to be controlled.

Onja had tried ensnaring Shan to her will as she had Dacian, but even in his youth Shan had been difficult to dominate. He was not her contemporary as Dacian had been, and the gulf of time that separated her from Shan had made it difficult to cultivate his trust.  Since winning their battle when Shan had turned one hundred, Onja had been able to intimidate him at least, but now Shan had matured and his strength made him more dangerous to her than ever.

I should have killed him, and damn your law, Onja thought.

Aloud she said, “Dacian, let us survey our realm and find the pretentious Shan.”

Swiftly Onja’s awareness radiated westward through the mountain pass, flying down the slopes to the lowlands where the human tribes dwelled. Her mind easily spotted Shan. The rys rode at the front of a column of warriors, and Onja recognized King Taischek by Shan’s side. Briefly she wondered why Shan valued human friendship so much. To Onja, humans were useful resources, but little else.

That skinflint Taischek will regret the company he keeps, Onja thought.

The Temu force moved in the opposite direction from Jingten, making Onja surmise that Taischek currently pursued one of his petty rivalries. This created no concern for the Queen, but she longed to pick Taischek’s mind and know what Shan had been saying to him. However, the proximity of Shan and his warding crystals blocked Onja’s probing awareness. Mindreading through a warding at this distance would take considerably more effort.

She saw Shan look upward with a suspicious expression on his blue face, and Onja withdrew her mind, trying to elude his alerted perception. While retreating she noticed the light haired easterner among the warriors and quickly tried to probe his mind. But a warding crystal protected him as well, which displeased her. It would require much patience on her part to catch Shan conversing with his friends about his intentions, so she could listen. She preferred reading the minds of her enemies at her convenience.

Thwarted from gaining any useful knowledge, Onja ended her observations with disgust. Blue light faded from her eyes and her awareness returned to her body, which was now leaning on Dacian’s sarcophagus. Even without reading any minds, she had learned enough from Rysmavda Nebeck to know Shan meant war. Although it stung her pride, Onja decided to strike first. She had supreme confidence in her powers, of course, but avoiding a dangerous confrontation with Shan would be the prudent alternative.

Even if Shan survives to reach Jingten, being hunted will wear on his mind, she thought. She would send instructions to her human servants to begin dealing with him.

“Nufal.” The thin thought of Dacian’s voice surfaced in Onja’s mind.

Blue light pulsed through the crystal sarcophagus and startled her. It had been a long time since he had tried to communicate.

With disinterest she started to disconnect her mind. She did not want to hear his regret about destroying Nufal again.

“Look!” His plea had a surprising note of command in it that convinced her to pay attention.

Onja settled into another meditation and followed Dacian’s mind into the Wilderness. She passed over the desolate Quinsanomar where thousands of imprisoned spirits stirred beneath the mind of their heartless mistress, expecting to be released on some vicious errand. But Onja ignored them and continued east. The prairie rolled onward toward the Tabren Mountains, where the chatter of a beautiful civilization had been replaced by the lonely moan of wind through crumbled buildings.

Arriving at a disintegrated Nufalese town upon the prairie, Onja understood Dacian’s insistence that she inspect her eastern domain. More humans had entered the Wilderness, and this time it was a large force of soldiers.

Onja inspected them freely without fear of detection. The eastern world was a wasteland of humanity that had no grasp of magic, and these soldiers clearly came from an eastern kingdom. She saw that they were richly accoutered with fine weapons and armor and good horses. Onja admired the military force and recognized that it was the product of an advanced and flourishing civilization.

The children of the east appear to be prospering. They have come far since I closed the Wilderness. Who would have guessed those enclaves of savages could make so much progress in two thousands years? Onja thought. Perhaps the time has come for the east to know their Goddess.

She watched the soldiers dismount and roam the ruins, puzzling at the city barely visible after centuries of decay. Onja quickly determined the leader among them by his splendid gear and the attention focused on him by the others. The leader’s white hair accentuated his tan and he stroked his goatee while pondering the surroundings. The winged creature holding two spears emblazoned upon his armor seized Onja’s attention.

How perfect, she thought pleasantly.

This time the Deamedron would not consume the intruders with mad slaughter. If she could dominate these well-armed men, it would begin her influence over the eastern peoples, whose servitude she had ignored too long.

Having seen enough, Onja returned her mind to Jingten. The long distances she had covered had made her weary, but she had plans to set in motion. She rubbed her temple while organizing her thoughts. Rebellion on the horizon and a small army of foreigners in the Wilderness shocked Onja after so many changeless years, but she was the Queen of Jingten and would adapt.

~

The brow and eye socket of a skull peeked out of the turf and Lord Kwan squatted to examine it. The ground had almost consumed the weathered bone, and Kwan wondered what thoughts had been in the ancient mind.

Next, Kwan walked through the arched doorway of a crumbled building. Most of the roofing had long since collapsed, and he picked his way through the overgrown rubble. In the central area of the ruin he saw steps leading to a lower level, and he descended into the gloom. A little daylight filtered down into the buried chamber and revealed a depressing scene. Skeletons littered the entire chamber and the bones, connected by cobwebs and a deep layer of dust, extended beyond the light.

Staying on the steps, Kwan bent and saw the sad sight of a child’s skeletal remains mixed with the bones of possibly a parent. He picked up the little skull, but it promptly disintegrated in his hand. Gingerly he examined a few more bones but he saw no conventional marks of violence.

He noticed the jewelry of the dead scattered beneath the blanket of dust. Within his reach, Kwan found a well cut diamond ring that sparkled gratefully once he wiped away the grime. He considered it very odd that the treasures had not been gleaned from the ruins. He pocketed the ring and brushed the morbid dust from his gloves before departing.

The sunny day greeted him, but it did not ease the troubles this ancient place of death brought him. Lieutenant Sandin approached and saluted the Lord General.

Sandin reported, “My Lord, there are skeletons among all of the ruins and scattered outside too. Most of the bones are crumbling and I would say this happened a very long time ago. Maybe even thousands of years. I suspect there are more remains that the soil has overgrown.”

Kwan nodded. “I am sure you are right, Lieutenant. And it seems these people died all at once.”

“What do you think happened, my Lord?” Sandin asked.

“I am thinking a plague…but I am not sure,” Kwan replied.

“Plague,” Sandin murmured with a shudder. Plague towns revolted him, even one from antiquity.

“We shall make camp outside the city,” Kwan decided.

“Excellent, my Lord,” Sandin acknowledged readily. “One more thing, the men are finding wonderful bits of treasure, but some are concerned that a curse protects this place. Why do you think the valuables have been left untouched?”

The Lord General swept his gaze over the empty land that looked peaceful and green except for the secretive ruins. Indeed the worries of his men had occurred to him, but, because he was a great conqueror, Kwan was an optimist and had faith in a simpler explanation.

“Perhaps no one else has ever been here,” he suggested.

The loneliness of the Wilderness had also impressed Sandin and he nodded. “Truly then we are the first, my Lord.”

“It would seem so,” Kwan said but he frowned at the snowy barrier of mountains to the west beyond the rolling prairie. “Yet I do not feel alone.”

Later that day, Kwan sat in front of his tent facing west. The expeditionary force of five hundred had camped a fair distance from the ruins near a small spring-fed lake. Kwan’s squire, Jesse, roasted a pheasant, and Kwan let his thoughts wander while waiting for his supper. So far the historic expedition had been entirely uneventful until reaching the ruins that day. They had traveled north from Droxy along the nearest chain of mountains. Kwan planned next to head west and reach the higher mountains. Regarding the western peaks, which were greater than any he had ever seen, Kwan doubted he would travel their slopes this year, but he would have enough summer to go and look at them. Then next year he could come back and try to breach the barrier to the other side of the world.

Although dreams of discovery thrilled him, Kwan also felt very far from Atrophane. The Horde road had always been his first love, and his times on his lovely estates were mere holidays between adventures, but suddenly his homeland tugged at his heart.

It is this desolate place. Nothing has prepared me for this emptiness, he thought. He admitted that the lack of human habitation made him uncomfortable. In all of his other travels, defending armies had come to face him, but the Wilderness confronted him with only countless empty elti and mysteries. His instincts warned him that danger lurked in the fragrant fertile land. The ancient holocaust within the ruins told him as much, and the more recent disappearances of Hydax and Gennor continued to bother him.

Now Kwan thought about Dreibrand. Privately he would consider that the young officer had deserted, but the notion sickened him. He knew many others thought Dreibrand had deserted, but he would not sanction that idea. To accept that truth created a rage Kwan did not want to feel. He missed Dreibrand and preferred to think that a Bosta had killed his errant lieutenant the night before the conquest of Droxy.

In retrospect, he wished he had chosen Dreibrand for the expedition if it would have meant that the intelligent young lieutenant would still be alive. Kwan had not expected Dreibrand to become so wildly upset about being left behind. Dreibrand should have considered the assignment to the chattel caravan a reward and a holiday after two years on the Horde road. But the ambitious son of the censured House had only wanted the Wilderness.

Kwan sighed and removed his thoughts from Dreibrand. The disappointment hurt too much.

You are getting old, Kwan, he thought.

The first chill of evening came across the land with a north breeze while Jesse served supper. Kwan savored the fresh pheasant and shared the bird with his good squire. Out in the Wilderness, Kwan had relaxed the formalities. There was no one to impress and everybody was completely loyal to him.

As he ate, Kwan watched the sun sink behind the mountains. Riding the last gleams of light from the west, Kwan saw a black speck in the sky. Surprised to see a bird at such a distance, he doubted his eyes.

“Young man, do you see that?” he asked.

Jesse squinted carefully, hoping that the dusk fooled his eyes as well. Reluctantly he replied, “Aye, Lord General.”

“It must be large,” Kwan speculated.

In silent agreement the squire nodded. He faced his lord, who he trusted completely, and Kwan noticed the fear on his squire’s face, which was no doubt aggravated by the dismal discovery of the ruins.

“Shall I get Lieutenant Sandin, Lord?” Jesse offered.

“No. I will do it myself,” Kwan said dismissively.

Before the sun completely left their half of the world, Kwan determined that the flying object seemed to be coming toward him. Resting his hand on the hilt of his sword, Kwan walked over to Sandin’s fire. The lieutenant lounged half asleep but he started awake when he noticed that the Lord General had come over to him.

Kwan told him what he had seen, expressing his concern that they would soon have a visitor.

“I will assemble the archers. It is probably a large predator and we should shoot it from the sky,” Sandin decided.

Approvingly Kwan nodded but added, “Only shoot if and when it attacks. I suspect that it is a great beast spawned by those great mountains, but we should not anger it needlessly, and I would like the chance to observe it.”

News of a large flying beast spread quickly because several men spotted it. The sentries around the horses were tripled in case it attacked the horses, and the remaining men gathered near the archers. After the beast disappeared in the deepening gloom, the soldiers watched the night sky expectantly. A full moon ascended the sky and provided some illumination.

The beast announced its arrival with the distinctive scream of the Tatatook. The predatory shriek rattled the nerves of the normally fearsome soldiers, and the archers drew their bows anxiously. Lord Kwan commanded them to stand steady and not shoot in panic.

The large wings flapped loudly as the intelligent beast controlled its landing in the midst of the soldiers. Men fell back cautiously to give it a wide berth. The taloned feet touched the ground, and it walked a little awkwardly like an eagle, but all who were near it clearly saw that it was much more than a colossal bird. The glistening black wings folded over a man-like torso and feathered arms ended in hands with talons.

The winged beast on Kwan’s armor glittered in the torchlight and many immediately contemplated the similarity. The incarnation of the symbol of the Chenomet Clan was a potent sign, and some wondered aloud if it could be a divine messenger to the Lord General.

The Tatatook boldly stalked toward Kwan, who accepted that if the beast struck him down, it would be his fate. Only Kwan’s orders restrained Sandin from commanding the archers to shoot. Bravely Kwan faced the beast. It turned its head after the fashion of birds and eyed him carefully. Queen Onja had been very specific about whom to deal with, and the Tatatook had no desire to make a mistake.

Satisfied that it had the right man, the Tatatook extended an arm. The talons opened to reveal a crystal orb glowing with blue light that twinkled on the sharp talons. The beast offered the orb and waited patiently for Kwan to realize that it was a gift. The Lord General experienced the unfamiliar sensation of fear, but he would never let his men see him hesitate. As he reached over the pointy talons, Kwan fully expected to feel them quickly slice into his wrist, but the beast did not move.

Grasping the orb, Kwan barely glanced at it because he would not take his eyes from the feathered intruder. With its assignment complete, the Tatatook abruptly unfolded its great wings. Soldiers scattered as it bounded for the open and leaped into the air. The Tatatook circled once overhead, and Kwan felt the wind created by the wings blast across his face. Then it flew higher, crossed the face of the moon, and disappeared into the night.

A hush remained over the Atrophane soldiers, and Sandin was the first to emerge from the shock. He ordered the archers to maintain a doubled watch in case it returned. Personally he doubted that the bird had been sent from some Atrophaney deity, as some had whispered, and he mistrusted the abomination.

Seeking instructions, Sandin returned his attention to Lord Kwan, but Kwan stared at the crystal orb in his hands and did not speak. The magical light intensified from the crystal, glowing upon Kwan’s face and transfixing his eyes.

“Lord General?” Sandin said twice without response.

Kwan gazed into the blue light, oblivious to his surroundings.

Unable to tolerate this, Sandin grabbed the orb from his commander’s hand and hissed, “What is this evil charm?”

When Sandin’s gloved fist closed around the orb, Kwan blinked hard and turned angry eyes upon his lieutenant.

“What kind of behavior is that, Sandin?” Kwan demanded harshly.

“It had you in a daze,” Sandin hastily explained. “Forgive me, my Lord.”

“Yes, yes,” Kwan agreed impatiently. “But I must have it. She is trying to communicate with me. I could hear her in my mind. I could almost see her.”

“My Lord, what are you talking about?” Sandin cried.

“Give it back,” Kwan ordered firmly, and Sandin reluctantly complied.

“My Lord…” Sandin tried to argue but the Lord General ignored him.

Kwan retreated to his tent with the crystal orb. Too overwhelmed by his commander’s bizarre behavior to react, Sandin watched him go.

Dreibrand was running now. He had lain low all day, even sleeping a little, but with the dusk he sensed that someone was hunting him. The perturbed chatter of birds warned him. Yesterday he would not have thought about birds. Today he did.

He peered around the tree that he had been laying against. He did not see anything through the bright spring foliage, but he heard someone approaching. Quickly, Dreibrand rose and slipped into the saddle. Riding away, he figured a Bosta pursued him, but he had no desire to stay and fight. Soon the night would cover him, and he would reach the Wilderness.

Dreibrand wished he had more food before entering the wild lands, but finding supplies had proved more difficult than he had anticipated. That morning as he rushed away from his old life, he had steered clear of the villages because the Horde was advancing on the settlements. Outside the villages the land was sparsely populated. The first cottage he found had contained no food whatsoever. Its occupants had been thorough before abandoning their home.

At the next farm Dreibrand had better luck. He found grain and hay that quickly renewed Starfield, and he scrounged an actual meal for himself out of the kitchen. Some foodstuffs lingered in the larder, and he shoved all of it into his saddlebags. Feeling very discouraged, he poked through the few possession that had been left behind. He found a small dull hatchet, but gained nothing else useful.

He felt odd rummaging through the abandoned homes all by himself. Usually soldiers would do this type of thing while he watched. The trumpets and drums of his conquering countrymen blared a few elti away, and Dreibrand keenly felt his separation from them. He had become accustomed to living and working inside the Horde, and outside the Horde he was not sure who he was.

For a moment he doubted himself, and thought about going back. It was frightening to hear the Atrophaney assault and not be a part of it. Sternly he told himself to forget his people. The Horde obviously went on without him, and he would go on without the Horde.

His supplies were meager, only a few days of rations really, but Dreibrand resolved to explore the Wilderness as much as he could. He spent the day dozing while the war raged into the valley. Then the nearby noises in the woods had set him going for the night. Dreibrand moved slowly in the darkness. The typical evening chirps and peeps sang in the forest, and he strained his ears for any more sounds of a rider.

It did not take Dreibrand long to convince himself that he was surrounded by riders. Bending low over his horse’s neck, he avoided a hanging branch in the gloom. Starfield was calm, and Dreibrand decided he had to get a grip on his emotions. He was letting the dark forest spook him.

The land became steeper, and sometimes he had to leave the saddle and lead Starfield around rough patches. In the dark he literally groped around obstacles, but he knew he still headed west. When Dreibrand hit a clear space, he checked his progress by the stars.

Late into the night he stopped to rest. The forest smelled moist and clean, and the aroma intoxicated his senses with its purity. Dreibrand tried to remember if he had ever been so alone. He had grown up in civilization and then traveled with the Horde for two years. He had never experienced such a complete isolation.

Dreibrand slept little that night, and when the dawn came he was thirsty. Casually he searched for water, knowing that a stream or spring could not be far in this green land. His slow progress, that had been so frustrating in the night, had gained him more distance than he thought. He was on a ridge halfway between the valley floor and the cliffs.

I am in the Wilderness, he thought with a thrill.

A beautiful land surrounded him. Each mature tree soared and curved like masterful sculptures, and vines and flowers filled the sunny places. He found water readily and it tasted good. Dreibrand washed his face and his skin tingled with awareness.

Smiling at the charming stream, he decided his paranoia had made him hear someone following him. He nibbled some food, then forced aside his hunger. Without looking back he continued westward. The cliffs loomed ahead like the steep walls of a temple, and they called to him as if he was a believer.

Dreibrand gazed up the slope eagerly, taking in every detail of the land. For a space the trees thinned and he could see quite a distance. At the top of the next rise he swore he saw a rider moving into cover. It was a fleeting image, maybe just a shadow tricking his eyes, but it looked like a rider.

I really did hear someone yesterday, he realized.

His clothing and armor clearly designated him as Atrophane, and Dreibrand reasoned that the rider would try to kill him because he was an invader. Deciding to be more cautious, he moved on but it was too late for stealth. A second rider broke from cover right behind him, and openly made pursuit. Dreibrand hurried Starfield toward a denser portion of the forest, hoping he could lose his trackers in the thicker growth.

For the rest of the morning Dreibrand avoided them. He would circle back and take another route, but they always picked up his trail again. Just when Dreibrand thought he might have slipped away, he would hear the rustle of a rider just out of sight.

Tired of being hunted, Dreibrand decided to confront them. He would make them pay for chasing him. He doubted any Bosta woodsman could cope with his skillful combat. Planning to engage them individually, Dreibrand tried to trail one of them, but his tracking skills were inadequate, and Dreibrand might have been looking at his own tracks.

Finally he heard a rider closing on his position. Dreibrand was no coward and he would end this game. Drawing his sword, he waited. A tall sleek horse of the Atrophaney breed emerged from the trees bearing a rider clothed in the soft browns and greens of an imperial scout.

Dreibrand felt panic and guilt. He recognized Hydax.

Furrowing his brow with suspicion, Hydax called, “What’s going on, Lieutenant?” Sarcasm danced with the words.

Knowing if Hydax was there, Gennor was sure to be nearby, Dreibrand glanced in all directions. “Get out of here,” he ordered.

“Sir, you need to come back. Have you forgotten yourself?” Hydax asked, moving closer.

Dreibrand threatened him with his sword, and Hydax arched his eyebrows with surprise. “Just say you never saw me!” Dreibrand shouted.

Raising his hands to calm his comrade, Hydax said reasonably, “Lieutenant, you need to come with me. What are you doing here?”

Dreibrand grimaced and his emotions raged with confusion. He did not want to fight Hydax, and he abandoned his plan to stand his ground. Just as he turned, Gennor rode down the slope toward him. With Gennor almost on top of him, Dreibrand galloped off.

Gennor halted and looked sternly at Hydax. “I told you he was a deserter,” Gennor said.

“He is mad. He must have eaten some rotten food,” Hydax defended.

“Come on, we still have to bring him back,” Gennor said and wheeled his horse around to resume the pursuit.

It was a clean and clear-cut chase. Dreibrand had no lead, and Hydax and Gennor soon rode along each side of him. When Gennor reached for Starfield’s bridle, Dreibrand lashed out with his sword. Gennor narrowly avoided losing his hand. Dreibrand stopped to engage them, and both scouts drew their swords.

At first Dreibrand drove them back with his skillful assault that alternated between riders, but he did not land a killing blow. Dreibrand did not want to hurt these men. He had lived and worked with them for two years. They had followed his orders, and on occasion ate and drank with him. They were Atrophane.

His hesitation to hurt his countrymen cost him dearly. Recovering from the initial onslaught, the scouts stayed on each side of Dreibrand. Without his shield Dreibrand could not fend off both attacks. The flat of a sword smacked the side of his head, and without a helmet to protect him, his senses reeled from the blow. A cut opened on his temple and extended into his scalp. Blood poured over one eye and he felt himself slumping in the saddle. Gennor seized Dreibrand’s sword arm and punched him in the jaw.

With Dreibrand disabled by Gennor, Hydax jumped onto Dreibrand’s back and tackled him from the saddle. Gennor followed them to the ground and stripped Dreibrand of his sword while Hydax held both arms. Gennor tried to grab the ivory handled dagger but Dreibrand kicked the scout.

“Damnit, keep him still,” Gennor complained while wincing at the pain in his knee.

Dreibrand and Hydax were both strong men, but Dreibrand was taller, and he struggled fiercely. Reaching back, Dreibrand pulled the scout’s hair and almost flipped him over his shoulder. Hydax yelled indignantly but managed to keep his hold.

Laughing with pleasure, Gennor popped the tip of his sword under Dreibrand’s chin, which got his attention.

“Surrender or die,” Gennor promised.

Dreibrand blinked at the blood and sweat running into his eyes, and he accepted the superiority of the steel at his throat. Gennor removed a leather thong from his gear and held it out to Hydax.

“Don’t try anything, Lieutenant Veta,” warned Gennor.

Dreibrand trembled with the energy for an escape, but Gennor pressed the sword against the vulnerable flesh of the neck, drawing a careful line of blood. Believing that Gennor’s threat was sincere, Dreibrand suffered the indignity of having his hands bound.

Gennor snatched the ivory handled dagger and tossed it by Dreibrand’s confiscated sword.

“You cannot treat me like this,” Dreibrand said.

Gennor put his sword away and abruptly pushed Dreibrand. With his hands tied behind his back, Dreibrand staggered back, off balance, until he stumbled to the ground. Gennor pounced on him and immediately started undoing the buckles to the chestplate armor.

“What are you doing?” Hydax inquired nervously.

“Teaching this excuse for an officer a lesson. I know a deserter when I see one,” Gennor answered while yanking the armor away from Dreibrand’s torso.

“Maybe not,” Hydax said. He had known Dreibrand Veta to be an outstanding officer and he suspected that Dreibrand could have cut him a couple times in the fight, but had restrained himself.

“I’ve watched him skulk around since yesterday. He’s a skulking deserter,” Gennor concluded and punched Dreibrand in the stomach. After slugging Dreibrand a few times, he stepped back.

“Get up,” he ordered.

More out of a hopeless desire for escape than a wish to comply with his captor, Dreibrand lurched awkwardly to his feet. Gennor had a couple quit punches waiting for him just as he achieved some balance. Dreibrand’s head throbbed and he could not see straight.

“Hold him for me,” Gennor suggested.

Hydax hesitated. “Come on Gennor, Veta was always square with us. Everyone likes him. He doesn’t deserve this.”

Dreibrand appreciated hearing such a glowing report on his popularity, but he doubted it could do much for him now.

“I don’t need you,” Gennor said. He charged Dreibrand and pinned him against a tree, landing several punches until he got tired and stepped away.

Gasping for air Dreibrand sagged against the tree. His clenched muscles sang with pain. In his extensive combat training he had learned how to take a few lumps, but the bruises would be deep.

Pleased by the results of his exertions, Gennor said, “Let us make a camp and get some rest.”

~

Although no smoke was rising in the morning, Miranda remembered the location of the camp from the night before. She went on foot because riding Freedom would be too noisy.

Securing her knife in her sash, she trotted into the woods. Once she was alone and surrounded by the trees, a nervous feeling settled over the back of her neck. Without the company of her children and the horse, the forest seemed closer and more aware of her as a newcomer. As she went, Miranda listened carefully for any threatening sounds and often looked back.

A strong warm wind surged up from the south, becoming amplified so close to the cliffs. When Miranda judged that she neared the campsite, she stopped walking openly and stayed near trees and shrubs. After creeping along for a while, she thought maybe she had gone too far. Having no desire to become disoriented, Miranda paused behind a tangle of vines.

The wind pushing through the trees lulled, quieting the leafvoices for a moment and allowing her to hear human voices. Silently she slipped between the vines toward the bright sun of a clearing. Staying in the deep shadow of the overhanging foliage, Miranda crawled up to the edge of the clearing where the grass started. On the other side of the glen she saw the camp.

A freshly killed deer hung from a tree, and a man prepared to clean the carcass. Another man stood nearby with his arms folded. She heard their voices clearly now, but the words were not her language. By their unfamiliar clothing Miranda suspected that they were Atrophane. Her heart sank. These men frightened her and they could offer her no assistance.

Miranda was about to creep away when she heard a third voice. Driven by curiosity, she peeked farther out of the shadows and saw a third man sitting on the ground and apparently tied to a tree. He wore blue clothing and black boots. Even at a distance the quality of the garments was apparent to her.

But the prisoner’s fine clothing was dirty and his long hair hung in tangles. Intrigued by the prisoner, she wondered if the bound man was an Atrophane, but that did not make sense. Perhaps he was a wealthy lord from the valley.

He looks richer than anyone around here, she concluded.

Also all three horses were taller and stronger than the local Droxy breed, indicating that they were foreigners. Miranda could not understand why they were there. The war was far behind in the valley, and why would Atrophane have an Atrophane prisoner? Pondering this mystery, she continued to observe them.

~

Dreibrand kicked at the dirt in frustration. His shoulders ached from being in an unnatural position all night tied to a tree, and his skull had turned into a vessel of punishment. Blood had dried on his temple where Gennor had felled him with the flat of his sword.

Hydax and Gennor had performed their duty marvelously. They were expert scouts, and Dreibrand would have sent them on this mission himself. The humiliation of capture stung Dreibrand deeply, but he had not lost hope. They would have to move him eventually, and he would try to escape. He could tell Hydax was sympathetic to him, and maybe he could convince Hydax to let him go. For now he planned to coax some food out of them, so he could get his strength back.

“Can’t you hurry up with that deer?” Gennor asked.

Hydax turned from cleaning the animal and laughed. “Oh, stop sweating me. We won’t be leaving until tomorrow anyway.”

“I still say we shouldn’t have taken time for your pleasure hunt today. Lord Kwan did not send us out here for a holiday,” Gennor maintained.

“Why don’t you gather some wood instead of standing there?” Hydax said, annoyed.

“Yes, Gennor, why don’t you gather some wood?” Dreibrand interjected. “I, for one, am looking forward to dinner.”

Gennor turned and said, “Well, look who’s finally talking. How about I knock you around some more? You just shut up and be a nice officer.”

Hydax gestured to Dreibrand with his knife. “I actually feel sorry for you Lieutenant Veta. You’ll think me and Gennor were a basket of flowers after Lord Kwan gets you. He did not look happy about you not showing up to work.”

“I am sure Lord Kwan hardly misses me,” Dreibrand grumbled.

“Oh! Lord Kwan misses you. He was terribly worried about you in fact. I think he wants to give you a promotion,” Gennor joked, and even Hydax had to laugh at that one.

Warming up to his humor, Gennor put a hand across his chest and bowed to Dreibrand. “I would like to thank you, Sir. I never thought I’d get the privilege of smacking up an officer.”

Dreibrand scowled, weary of the ridicule, but he continued, “I had no idea you bore me so much animosity, Gennor.”

Gennor shrugged. “Nothing really personal, Dreibrand. Just all these high-class officers. I risk my life more than the officers, but they get the huge estate grants,” he explained.

“I have never hung back in battle. I take the same risks as my men,” Dreibrand defended proudly.

“Except yesterday,” Gennor said.

Dreibrand truly had nothing to say to this, and he hung his head. He did not hang his head in shame, but in thought. He felt indifferent to the duties he had ignored yesterday and remained loyal to his decision to work for himself outside the strictures of Atrophaney society.

Retreating into his sense of humor, Dreibrand said, “I was so eager to see the Wilderness, I guess Droxy slipped my mind.”

Gennor smirked, undecided on whether he wanted to chuckle.

Stepping back from the gutted deer, Hydax said, “Well it did not slip Lord Kwan’s mind. What are you gonna tell him?”

“What are you going to tell him?” Dreibrand asked and looked both his captors in the eyes.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” Gennor scoffed. “You want me to lie for you? What could you possibly have to offer me, Veta?”

“Come on Gennor, I have always been good to you guys. All you have to say is you never saw me and let me go,” Dreibrand proposed optimistically.

“Where are you going?” Hydax inquired.

“I am exploring the Wilderness on my own. Lord Kwan wanted to send me back to Atrophane, so I am through with the Horde,” Dreibrand answered, and when he said the words, they sounded absurd.

Hydax frowned with disbelief.

“Come with me, Hydax. I could really use your expertise,” Dreibrand said.

“You are crazy,” Gennor complained. When he noticed Hydax seemed to be considering Dreibrand’s idea, he shouted, “If you run off too, I’ll make sure Lord Kwan gets you back.”

“Think about it, Gennor,” Dreibrand commanded. “You were just complaining about high class officers getting the most land. Well, here is your opportunity. Look at the Wilderness. It is just waiting to be taken. You can have all you can hold.”

For an instant Gennor appeared intrigued, and Dreibrand thought maybe he had convinced him. He would never know.

Suddenly the horses neighed nervously and began to pull at their tethers. The scouts looked around but did not see anything. Panic set in on the horses now, and they were screaming and breaking loose. Gennor ran to the grab the trailing lines of the horses.

A terrible shriek ripped through the forest. Dreibrand felt himself break out in a cold sweat and he tried to stand up by inching his back up the tree. The scream pierced the air again, audibly closer. A terrible danger was coming and Dreibrand started to struggle at his bonds.

A huge beast erupted from the forest and charged Hydax, who stood closest to the hanging deer. The creature had the form of a man but it was taller and had long hulking arms. Dark hair covered its body, and a long golden brown mane flowed from the head and face. The face was not human. Its long snout ended in bared yellow fangs, and its eyes gleamed with bestial intelligence.

Hydax stumbled back from the assault and held his butcher knife out in a futile defense. The beast knocked the knife out of his hand and tackled him. Hydax’s scream was the note of pure terror that quickens the blood of every predator. He tried to hold the jaws away from his neck, and the creature sank its teeth into his shoulder. It shook him wildly, and Hydax wailed and beat on its head.

Gennor gave up catching the horses to help his comrade. He charged the back of the beast with his sword raised, but the keen senses of the animal must have warned it of Gennor’s onslaught. It threw Hydax down and whirled on Gennor. Without any fear it faced Gennor and craftily dodged the sword, receiving only a small wound. This drawing of blood enraged the beast and it howled with elevated viciousness.

The ugly carnivorous face unnerved Gennor, and he sprinted away. The beast bounded after him, determined to punish the man who had cut it.

Hydax moaned and rolled near Dreibrand’s feet. The scout clutched his shoulder and blood poured onto the ground. He tried to gain his feet but fell weakly to his knees.

“Cut me loose,” Dreibrand begged. “You have to cut me loose.”

Hydax did not respond. Dreibrand trembled in genuine terror and struggled in his bonds. The coarse leather cut hotly into already raw wrists. At this moment he understood completely the trapped animal that could chew its own foot off. In overwhelming consternation Dreibrand fought at his bonds almost to the point of convulsing.

“Hydax! Cut me loose!” he cried desperately. “Don’t leave me like this.”

Hydax seemed oblivious to his pleas. He crawled toward his gear where his bow and quiver set. From the other side of the clearing Dreibrand heard an agonizing cry and saw Gennor fall fatally beneath the beast’s fury. After ravaging Gennor for a few seconds, the beast tossed the body aside and returned to its unfinished victim. Hydax fumbled painfully with his bow, but his wounds disabled him too much. The monster sprang onto the scout and began to chew up his head.

This horrible scene strangled Dreibrand, and he knew he was next. Every spray of blood and flying chunk of hair from the mortal struggle played out for Dreibrand in slow ugly detail. This was nothing like the heat of battle—where screams, and blood, and death abounded—but a ghastly torture for Dreibrand, whose whole instinct demanded that he not be torn apart by wild animals.

A sharp pain stung his wrist and his hands fell free. Dreibrand brought his hands up and saw the severed bindings hanging and blood dripping from one wrist. Astounded by this reprieve from fate, he jumped up and fled into the forest. His first few steps faltered on his stiff legs, but terror drove the pain of captivity out of his limbs.

He was amazed to see a woman flying ahead of him, her skirt held high over swift feet. Dreibrand ran madly after her, not daring to look back. Both man and woman raced beyond their normal endurances, driven by the terror that the beast pursued them.

Eventually the woman reeled to a stop and looked back. Blood thudded through her body, and gasping for air, she leaned on a tree. Dreibrand stopped beside her and rested too. They spoke no words, trying only to catch their breath. Gradually the rasping sound of their heavy breathing faded, and the songbirds could be heard again in the trees, making a safe sound.

“Thank you,” Dreibrand gasped, reaching out to take her hand.

She recoiled from him, and Dreibrand held his hands back in a gesture of peace.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Staring at him suspiciously, she said nothing and moved away. Abruptly Dreibrand realized she did not understand his language. He tried again in the Bosta speech.

“Thank you. I am Dreibrand Veta.”

The woman comprehended him, but she responded in a slightly different dialect. “Do you think it followed?”

Both of them scanned the forest, which now seemed peaceful.

Dreibrand concluded, “I think it would have caught us by now if it was chasing us. Who are you?”

Her green eyes calculated him. Slowly she replied, “Miranda.”

“Thank you for cutting me loose,” he said while he removed the remnants of his bonds.

Uninterested in his gratitude and perplexed by his presence, Miranda started walking away.

Dreibrand trotted after her. “Where did you come from?”

Without pausing she answered, “I had been watching your camp from a hiding place. I came to see who was here, but you are not my people. You are invaders.”

“Then why did you free me?” Dreibrand asked. The images of the rampaging beast burned in his head, and he still could not quite believe he had escaped.

Miranda glanced at him. “It was not right that you would have to suffer and die like that. I took a risk and came to cut your bonds. I did not think you would follow me.”

“May I follow you?” he said.

“You are Atrophane?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

“You came here to conquer Droxy. You are an enemy,” Miranda stated.

“I will not harm you. I owe you my life,” Dreibrand said earnestly.

Miranda considered his words, but her hesitant features showed that she made no conclusions. “This is not the place for talk. I have to go,” she said.

“To a safer place I hope,” Dreibrand said.

He followed her. Even though she had not actually given her consent, Miranda tolerated him. Each of them thought more about the frightening beast they had just encountered than about each other. On a subconscious level both of them welcomed the security of human company.

Miranda hiked straight for the cliffs, and the stony heights soon loomed over the trees. A long rocky slope came down from the cliffs to meet the woodland, and Miranda picked her way up the debris of erosion toward her cave.

Ignoring Dreibrand, she raced the last few steps to the cave and darted inside it. At the back of the cave Elendra clutched her little brother, but the shadows could not dim the relief in her eyes upon seeing her mother. Miranda embraced the children and allowed herself one shaky sob.

“Mama, I heard an awful sound while you were away,” Elendra reported.

Miranda nodded absently, trying to cope with the existence of such a creature. She knew she could not defend her family from such a thing.

“It is not safe out there,” she said.

Dreibrand darkened the cave entrance and Elendra screamed. Miranda’s already shredded nerves rattled with the child’s shriek.

“It’s all right. It’s all right,” she soothed. “This is…Dreibrand. He was at the camp I went to see.”

Looking around with dismay, Dreibrand said, “You are alone with two children?”

Miranda faced him proudly and explained, “We are hiding in the forest from the Atrophane.”

He could not miss her accusatory tone, and he did not know how to respond to it. Dreibrand was aware that people fled before the Horde, especially desperate women and children. He wanted badly to gain her trust and tell her he was no longer a part of the invading army, but he felt suddenly ashamed of everything about himself.

“I will get your fire going again,” he said and went outside.

Miranda lingered by the cave. The noon sun fell warmly on the cliff, and she watched Dreibrand forage among the abundant brush, gathering wood. She was content to let him do it. At that moment she lacked the courage to go near the forest. She had not expected the warnings about the Wilderness to become so vividly true.

I have always admired the courage and intelligence of my Lieutenant Veta, but it is a shame that the Gods have wasted such ability on a Veta—Kwan Chenomet, journal entry, year 779 Atrophane calendar.

Undaunted by the resistance gathered in the valley below, the Atrophane Horde stirred before the dawn. Despite its ponderous mass, the Horde was mobile and organized. On the day of a battle every member of the Horde had a place in the plan, and the Atrophane could move across a hostile land with strategy and speed.

Lord Kwan’s squire, Jesse, attended him at a brisk and excited pace. The Lord General must be ready precisely on time, and Jesse enjoyed the responsibility of accoutering such a great hero of the Empire. He expertly strapped the armor over the black leather and quilted silk garments. Kwan held out a hand and the squire pulled a gauntlet onto it.

When Jesse placed a gauntlet over the other hand, a guard entered the tent and announced Lieutenant Sandin. Kwan stretched his hands inside the gauntlets as Sandin entered.

The drinking of the night before showed in the gray eyes of the senior lieutenant, but the rest of his body was strong and eager for battle. Holding his jewel-encrusted helmet under his arm, Sandin kneeled to his lord and waited to be addressed.

“Rise,” Kwan said. “I trust all of your men are at the ready?”

Ignoring the question, Sandin sprang up and blurted his news, “Veta is gone!”

Kwan creased his forehead with puzzled concern. He had been trying not to think of Dreibrand’s terrible behavior. The conquest of Droxy was his priority and the discipline for Dreibrand’s indiscretions would be decided later.

“What do you mean gone?” Kwan asked.

Sandin replied, “He is not in the camp. There is no one to lead his forces.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Sandin went to the tent flap and motioned for someone to enter. “I brought Veta’s squire. He saw him last.”

The teenage squire entered the tent hesitantly. His adolescent beard made him look tender as a peach. He was nervous about speaking with the Lord General. Humbly he went down on his knees.

“All right boy, out with it. Where is Veta?” Lord Kwan said.

The squire swallowed. “My Lord, he came back to his tent in a terrible state last night. He stalked up and went berserk on everything, kicking all his stuff around, and waving his sword. Gods protect me, my Lord, but I thought he was gonna kill me in his madness. I had never seen Lieutenant Veta in such a mood. He swore some horrible oaths.” Looking sideways at Sandin, he added, “He said some terrible things.”

“Then what happened?” Kwan asked impatiently.

“He ordered me to saddle his horse and then he rode off,” the squire answered simply.

“There is more than that. Do you think you are the only one I talked to, fool?” Sandin cuffed the squire and added the details for Lord Kwan. “Soldiers heard Veta tell the squire he was going to kill me.”

Kwan cast a grim scowl upon the young man, who trembled. “Did Veta say this?”

The mouth of the squire flopped as he groped for words, but he knew he was too terrified to lie. “Yes, my-my-Lord,” he stammered.

Sandin drew a dagger. “Death for the traitor’s servant,” he hissed.

“No!” Kwan ordered sharply. “A servant cannot choose his master’s words.”

The squire cowered away from Sandin and thanked his Lord General for his mercy.

“My Lord, he is a traitor,” Sandin insisted. “He knew Veta wanted to murder me.”

“Why did you not tell me last night?” Kwan demanded of the squire. “Atrophane must not speak murder against each other.”

“I thought I had talked him out of it,” explained the squire.

“You couldn’t talk your dick out of your pants,” Sandin snarled and menaced the young man with his dagger.

“Then where is Veta?” Kwan asked with exasperation. His mind still did not accept that he was missing.

“I do not know,” the squire replied.

Thoughtfully, Kwan said, “Lieutenant, you said you talked to soldiers. What soldiers?”

“Veta made quite a scene last night, my Lord. Some of his men heard him threaten my life,” Sandin explained. “I am sure I could find more of them who saw Dreibrand last night. Maybe I can find out which way he went. My Lord, this is clearly desertion.”

Kwan recoiled from the word, and air hissed in his nostrils. The desertion of an Atrophaney officer was unprecedented, and Kwan could not accept it.

Dreibrand’s squire was quick to offer an alternative explanation. “My Lord, I am sure Lieutenant Veta only meant to cool down from whatever had him so upset. He will come back.”

“No one told you to speak,” Sandin snapped.

“That is possible,” Kwan agreed. “Veta lost his temper last night. His ride may have just been to calm him down.”

“My Lord, how can you make excuses for him?” Sandin asked incredulously. “After his behavior last night, he better have deserted.”

“No one deserted me!” Kwan snapped, and the words stabbed Sandin’s ears.

Kwan continued, “Veta may have left to cool down, but stray Bosta warriors may have attacked him. He could be a prisoner.”

Sandin did not dare say any more about desertion. It was humiliating to the Lord General. “I will find him, my Lord,” Sandin said.

“No. Veta’s foolishness cannot delay an Atrophaney conquest. Bring me Hydax and Gennor. I will send them to find Veta,” Kwan decided. He mastered his disappointment and anger by functioning, and the orders flowed from his lips like always. “Lieutenant Sandin, absorb Veta’s forces into your own and incorporate his battle orders. And do not discuss Veta with anyone. I know the men must be curious, but his actions have already given an ill omen to this battle, and I do not want that aggravated by open talk of his…disappearance.”

“Of course, Lord Kwan. I will serve you well,” Sandin said.

“I know. I have no doubts in your abilities, Lieutenant,” Kwan praised. “Now go, before we get behind schedule.”

Sandin saluted his Lord General, acknowledging his orders and dismissal. Turning to the forgotten squire still on his knees, Sandin jerked his thumb toward the tent flap and the boy scrambled out gratefully. Amazed by recent events, Sandin emerged into the thin morning light. The success of his harassment the night before exceeded his hopes. Veta’s anger had been crazy, and Sandin’s position with Lord Kwan was thoroughly reinforced in the aftermath. With his command nearly doubled, Sandin smiled with satisfaction. He had bested his rival, and Dreibrand had lost badly.

Kwan chewed his lip with restrained wrath. In a furtive motion, Jesse handed his lord his helmet then hung back. He had never seen Lord Kwan so upset before.

The episode in the council tent replayed in Kwan’s mind. He had hated to be harsh with Dreibrand. He recognized the ambition that burned in the young officer’s heart. No one recognized ambition better than a Lord General. Dreibrand sought military power, and that was why Sandin made life so difficult for him. That was why Kwan had to send Dreibrand back to Atrophane. He could only give the charismatic Lieutenant Veta so much prestige. He could not offend the sensibilities of the Empire by overfavoring a Veta.

Shutting his eyes against the disgust he felt, Kwan rejected the concept of desertion. He honestly believed that the enemy must have caught Dreibrand when he blundered out of camp in his rage.

I guess all of those Vetas are fools, Kwan thought bitterly.

Even if they did find Dreibrand alive, Sandin would demand that Dreibrand be drummed out of the military. But Kwan would not allow him to make the charge of desertion.

I will give him another chance, Kwan decided. He did not want Dreibrand to fail, even if he was a Veta.

“Bring my horse,” he quietly commanded of Jesse, who complied promptly.

The scouts arrived as Jesse left. Hydax and Gennor assumed their Lord General had a routine mission to assign until they sensed his ugly mood. Dropping to their knees quickly, both of them privately guessed that the incident last night had soured their commander’s temper.

Motioning them to their feet, Kwan issued his orders. “Hydax, Gennor, you are my best scouts, and I have a special mission for you. Lieutenant Veta left camp last night and has not been seen since. I fear that our enemy has waylaid him. Go quickly and find his trail before the Horde moves out. If he is a captive, free him or come get soldiers if you need to.” Kwan paused to clear his throat. “If he is dead, bring me his body.”

The scouts longed to ask why Lieutenant Veta had left camp. Rumors of the disruption in the officers’ meeting had been flying around camp. The nature of Lieutenant Veta’s misconduct was not clearly known, but it was serious. Hydax and Gennor saw that Lord Kwan was obviously upset, torn between righteous anger and terrible worry.

“Quickly now,” Lord Kwan urged.

“Yes, Lord Kwan,” the scouts answered in unison.

Yielding to his anger, Kwan shouted, “Bring him to me!”

Hydax and Gennor saluted and departed intent on their mission.

~

Dreibrand meant only to vent his fury when he recklessly galloped out of camp. Riding his horse seemed the only way to focus his temper and avoid committing more rash acts. With the reins in his hands and Starfield’s powerful muscles surging beneath him, Dreibrand felt in command again.

The cool forest night eventually slackened his anger to seething resentment. A small measure of reason replaced his vicious thoughts, and Dreibrand realized he was by himself on a road that was technically still enemy territory. Veering into the deep dark of the woodland, he hoped it was not too late to hide from any enemies who might be watching the road.

Pulling Starfield to a halt, he planned to rest in the forest before going back. This sudden solitude cleared his head and he tried to pull himself together. For a while he attempted to convince himself that surely next year he would campaign westward with Lord Kwan. Now he needed to go back to camp and accept his punishment. Among other things he would probably have to publicly apologize to Sandin.

Dreibrand ground his teeth at the thought of that humiliation. But if he did what he had to, he could keep his military career. His tantrum would be forgiven because a warrior was supposed to have violent passions, and he believed Lord Kwan would not dismiss him.

Groaning with frustration, Dreibrand realized his ambition and success had blinded him. He had thought his bond with his commander would overcome the seniority of others and that was why exclusion from the expeditionary force had hurt so much. He understood now that he was not the senior officer, and worse than that, a Veta would not be included on the historic first expedition into the Wilderness. But despite this understanding, his anger rushed back mixed with despair. He felt like a whipped hound who had been shown his place in the pack.

And he remembered how hard he had worked to get to that place. Being accepted at the Darmar’s military academy had been difficult, and he had been constantly pressed to obtain the money for his tuition. Then, there had been the struggle to graduate at the top of his class. The social pressure to exclude him had been a constant obstacle. Now it seemed that no matter how far he got from Atrophane, he could not escape the stigma of his family. He felt ill when he considered that he had helped to make the Empire bigger.

Two years away from the center of Atrophane society and many victories had helped Dreibrand forget his status in the Empire, but tonight he had been thoroughly reminded. The House of Veta was getting to be a joke among the ruling class, and Dreibrand had been born a disgrace thanks to his inept relatives.

Thinking of his family discouraged him most of all. Sometimes he even thought his relatives deserved their imperial chastening. In the desolate night of a foreign land, Dreibrand decided he had deluded himself with dreams of power and wealth, and he could not ignore the reality of his life within Atrophaney society. Assuming he did not die in battle, he would spend years winning a new name and fortune in the military only to have his family demand their imagined share.

Then he thought about Sandin exploring the Wilderness first. He thought about Sandin giving his name to the discovered places on the new maps. Dreibrand hated this with great jealousy. He had based his career goals on accompanying Lord Kwan into the Wilderness, and now that plan was stunted.

Dreibrand cursed at himself for not expecting this to happen. He wondered how he had ever been silly enough to think Lord Kwan wanted him on the expedition. Sandin had served for fifteen years, and been Kwan’s second in command for nine years. In time Sandin could become a Lord General, especially with the bounty of the Wilderness available.

And Dreibrand believed the Wilderness had much to offer. Although he had no facts to support this, Dreibrand sensed in his heart with intuitive certainty that something extraordinary lay beyond the bounds of the Atrophane Empire.

Lost in his thoughts, Dreibrand had allowed Starfield to drift into an open grassy area. The small crescent moon had ducked below the horizon hours ago, and only the stars remained to decorate the darkness. Dreibrand looked west. Even unable to see anything, he could feel the vast Wilderness sleeping beyond the cliffs. A watchful quiet emanated from the mysterious region, and it reminded Dreibrand of sensing an ambush just before it happened.

With bitter regret he turned away from the Wilderness that tantalized him so much. The Horde’s camp glittered in the nearby hills, but Dreibrand did not feel welcome. He had tried to play by the rules, but that did not matter in a society that resented your presence. The House of Veta had made its bid for power two generations ago and failed, and the Empire had punished Dreibrand’s family with a slow economic death, which was hastened by his overindulgent brother.

Yes, Lord Kwan liked Dreibrand, and would give him a decent career, but the Lord General would not share what Dreibrand really craved—access to substantial wealth and power. Acknowledging this limitation was a harsh lesson for Dreibrand, who had never lost sight of the prize.

“I will not waste my time with you anymore,” Dreibrand announced for only his horse to hear.

A new plan formed in his head. It was crazy and stupid, and in the near future when his life was much worse, Dreibrand would be baffled by his anger that broke the determination of his dreams. If Atrophane society did not want him, he would quit trying to be a part of it. He could still have one dream, and that was the Wilderness.

Suddenly, Dreibrand felt exhausted, spent by his upsetting night. Much against his character, he did not feel like going to war that morning, and he decided not to return to camp.

Why risk my life just so Lord Kwan can send me home? he thought.

He looked down at himself. He had his sword but no shield. He wore his chest armor but not his helmet. Now that he considered running off, it appeared that he had not prepared very well.

But things were easy to obtain. The countryside was in an uproar because of the invasion, and he would raid a few cottages and get some food and supplies. Then he would dive into the Wilderness where no one could find him. He would scout a passage over the cliffs, and then swing to the south and return to civilization. In a large city, probably Phemnalang, he could make a little money and maybe recruit some adventurers to go back to the Wilderness with him. If he could get enough people to follow him, he might be able to claim his own territory before the Empire even realized.

The Wilderness was vast, and in the beginning there would be plenty for anyone willing to brave the elements. Many people throughout the conquered lands and inside Atrophane itself were dissatisfied with life in the Empire, and Dreibrand anticipated many of them would seek a fresh start in the rich lands to the west, once they were explored.

Of course, he would be a deserter in the eyes of the military, but he could fix that by resigning his commission. He could send a letter to Lord Kwan once he was safely in Phemnalang. Dreibrand could not face his Lord General now. The sight of him would enflame his rage again. It was best to go. He regretted the rudeness after Lord Kwan had given him guidance, unlike his real father, but Dreibrand saw now with bitter clarity that playing by Lord Kwan’s rules was futile. Dreibrand assumed that Lord Kwan would be pleased to be rid of his overly ambitious Veta.

The thought of starting a new course independent of the military excited Dreibrand. The military had brought him as far as it could to suit his purposes, and he did not need to keep killing for the Empire to gain new lands when the Wilderness had so much to simply claim.

He hurried west now. It would be dawn soon and he needed to be safely hidden in the woods to avoid the Atrophane and the Bosta defenders of Droxy. He would hide mostly by day and move in the safety of night.

Dreibrand could not resist the possibilities of the Wilderness. Plunging alone into the new world instantly gratified him and he was especially pleased to be the first Atrophaney to go. The House of Veta would not be kept from history so easily.

Even as I await my execution, I can still taste the sweetness of my short-lived success. My ambition has ruined me, but I regret only the future that my family has to face—Baner Veta, grandfather of Dreibrand, excerpt from prison journal

The smoke of five thousand campfires rose from the slopes above the Droxy valley. The Horde had camped early, and it would descend upon the settlement tomorrow. With its famous efficiency, the Atrophane Horde had rolled into the high hills that separated the Droxy settlement from the river lands. Harassment by scattered Bosta warriors had caused a few skirmishes, but the Atrophane had not been delayed from occupying the road through the wooded hills.

When night came, the fires of the invaders would create a spectacle visible to all residents of Droxy. Dreibrand always imagined this intimidating sight as a constellation of stars shining back at heaven.

With his duties completed punctually, Dreibrand slipped away to the edge of the encampment. Standing on the last ridge above the valley, he surveyed the last state of civilization on the edge of the known world. The fortress of Droxy peeped out from a modest area of fields and pastures. The tiny fortress hardly seemed worthy of the Horde’s attention, but the Darmar Zemthute II had wished for the Empire to reach all the way to the mysterious Wilderness, and then beyond if possible.

Droxy and the surrounding agricultural villages bored Dreibrand, and tomorrow’s conquest seemed more like an errand than a real campaign. There would be little glory, only basic plundering and terror.

Lifting his eyes to the west, he gazed dreamily upon the green folds of virgin forest. Just west of Droxy the land rose abruptly in high cliffs that ran north and south. Beyond the plateau, Dreibrand saw mountains in the glow of the sinking sun.

Dreibrand’s blood ran hot as he beheld the wild distances. Very tall were the mountains, and he imagined how much more he could see standing on those unknown heights.

He squinted, trying to see a break in the cliffs, but they formed a sharp barricade to the next level of land.

There must be a way up, Dreibrand thought.

He did not know how anyone could look upon such a rich and available land and then shun it. Dreibrand puzzled over the warnings of evil in the Wilderness, but discounted them as lies meant to discourage the Atrophane. He understood that a vast and wild land would be dangerous. Nature had greater tests to offer him than enemy warriors, but he had faith that he would prevail.

After a long wistful look upon the gateway to the Wilderness, Dreibrand turned to leave. Only one more battle remained before he could explore the Wilderness, and thereby satisfy his long held dream and add fame to his military career. By entering the unknown world, he hoped to purge the Veta family of its disgrace. Atrophane society might ostracize the House of Veta, but a man who knew the Wilderness would be welcomed and respected. Dreibrand would be one of the men who doubled the size of the Empire.

Dreibrand accepted that this would take a few years, but with the Wilderness in sight, he regarded his future with renewed confidence. Until then, he would continue to be the dutiful lieutenant to Lord Kwan, who had given him the chance to travel this far.

The Horde was settling in comfortably for the night. The usual tension before a major battle was absent. The last valley had fallen efficiently and Droxy had an even lower population. The grim mood of soldiers contemplating death did not descend upon the camp tonight because a pleasant debacle was expected tomorrow.

The smell of food drifted from the cooking fires, and somewhere Dreibrand heard a stringed instrument playing a festive tune. Soldiers saluted him when they looked up from tending their weaponry, and others stepped aside from Dreibrand’s path. He enjoyed the respect he received out in the field. Back in the fashionable cities of Atrophane, he was just a young lieutenant from a ruined family, but here, he was surrounded by soldiers who responded to his authority.

Dreibrand arrived at the council tent. The imperial banner of a white horse and chariot on a black field hung outside the tent. Although Darmar Zemthute II did not travel with the Atrophane Horde, the tent was a tribute to imperial authority and all councils were held inside.

The other officers had already arrived, and Dreibrand realized he had pondered the Wilderness longer than he thought. Nervously he glanced at Lord Kwan’s tent, dreading that his commander would emerge and catch him in his tardiness. Quickly he straightened his cape and adjusted his tooled leather swordbelt on his hips. The design of waves tooled into the thick leather was inspired by his coastal homeland. Concerned with his image as the son of an impoverished house, Dreibrand tended to dress carefully.

The guards outside the council tent opened the flaps for Dreibrand and he entered. Brass braziers held small fires that lighted the large tent, and smoke curled out the hole at the top of the fabric roof. A dozen officers filled the tent in rows of six on each side of Kwan’s central seat. The lower ranking officers sat nearer the entrance, and places for Kwan’s four high lieutenants were next to his seat, two on each side. Dreibrand’s position was immediately to the left of Lord Kwan, which was an honor considering he had only served for two years. Success and bravery in battle had won Dreibrand a seat next to his Lord General.

Lieutenant Kelvi sat to the left of Dreibrand. If Kelvi resented being placed second to Dreibrand, he did not show it. Kelvi had only one more of the required ten years to serve before earning estate grants from the Empire, and he did not want to cause problems. His command skills were mediocre, and he knew Dreibrand was the superior officer.

As the second in command, Lieutenant Sandin sat to the right of Lord Kwan. His wavy brown hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, and his patrician features radiated confidence. On the right of Sandin sat Lieutenant Carfu Anglair, who was a good friend of Sandin. They were both independently wealthy, and Carfu was easy-going and content with his rank.

Noting Dreibrand’s abnormally late entrance, Sandin said, “Where have you been?”

Holding his sword back while seating himself in a cross-legged position, Dreibrand ignored Sandin. Before Sandin could comment further, the tent flaps opened wide and Lord Kwan swept inside. A servant struck a small gong hanging behind Kwan’s seat, and the rich tone welcomed the Hordemaster.

All the officers moved onto their knees and Lord Kwan strode toward his silk cushion. Upon taking his seat, Kwan instructed his officers to make themselves comfortable.

He plunged immediately into the business of the meeting, detailing his plans for Droxy and the strategy for taking the town. Then Kwan received his final reports from all the officers regarding their preparations and any suggestions for the battle plan. Dreibrand paid careful attention to the discussion and delivered his own report flawlessly.

When the plans for tomorrow’s conquest were approved and understood by all, Kwan called for wine. Servants distributed silver drinking cups to the officers, and wine was poured.

Raising his cup, Kwan proposed a toast. “To my officers, I offer my thanks and praise. Your service has brought Atrophane across the known lands of Ektren. Many long bloody years we have spent bringing our civilization to our lesser neighbors, but after tomorrow, a new world awaits the Atrophane. The Empire will replace mystery and myth in the Wilderness.”

Everyone erupted into an enthusiastic cheer, and Dreibrand’s cheer was truly jubilant. Wine drained from the cups and the servants quickly refilled them. The other officers gave their toasts, which were similar in theme to Lord Kwan’s toast.

When it was Dreibrand’s turn to toast, Sandin had already eloquently praised the Lord General, robbing Dreibrand of the chance to do so with impact.

Modestly, Dreibrand thanked the other officers for the pleasure of serving with them and concluded, “May the Wilderness bring us all greater fortunes.”

Once the formal toasts were completed, the gathering settled in for some basic drinking and merriment. Everyone was excited on the eve of conquering the known world. While drinking, Kwan lapsed into recounting glorious battles from the past. The older lieutenants tended not to listen because they had heard their Lord General’s stories before or been present at the battle. However, Dreibrand listened with actual interest, hoping to learn from Kwan’s exploits, but the others considered him a shameless bootlicker.

“Now it was the Pandovelari that scared my face.” Kwan pointed to his trademark scar. “Those were dark years spent warring with them. Believe it or not, but I often despaired that we would never overwhelm them. Just ask Sandin.”

Sandin turned away from his own conversation when he heard his name. Dreibrand disliked Lord Kwan including his second in command in their conversation, but it was a common occurrence that had to be tolerated.

“My Lord, you did not despair,” Sandin corrected politely.

Kwan yielded to his lieutenant’s flattery. “I meant only the despair of a Lord General who did not get a quick victory.”

“But it was worth the wait. Pandovelar brought you fame and greater wealth, my Lord,” Sandin said.

Kwan and Sandin struck their cups together, toasting their shared memory. Dreibrand waited while they finished their drink. He stared at the burgundy reflection of firelight on his wine until Kwan returned to their conversation. Kwan appreciated the restraint and patience Dreibrand displayed. He knew Dreibrand coveted Sandin’s rank and wealth, but everyone had their place in Atrophane society. Advancement required steps of service, and Dreibrand had much more to do.

Yet Kwan liked Dreibrand, and for now he would guide his career to a level appropriate for a Veta.

“It is a shame you were not with us back then, Dreibrand. You would have enjoyed the challenge,” Kwan said with actual sincerity.

“Challenges make me stronger, my Lord,” Dreibrand acknowledged.

“Yes, Pandovelar was a trial ground that made the Atrophane stronger. Now we are about to fulfill the destiny of Atrophane to expand the known world. At last the virgin lands of Ektren are before me.” Kwan sighed with great satisfaction.

Dreibrand nodded. Unable to contain his excitement any longer, he asked quietly, “When, Lord Kwan, do you think our first expeditionary force will depart into the Wilderness?” His widening eyes complemented his eager voice.

Kwan finished his wine before replying. “Well, Dreibrand, there will be many things to do. The Bosta territory will have to be secured and proper fortresses built. Slaves will have to be collected, and the rest of the plunder selected and distributed. Still, I plan to leave on an exploration by midsummer—maybe.”

“Excellent, my Lord,” Dreibrand beamed. “Until then I will personally scout the cliffs for a place our horses can ascend.”

Now Kwan gazed firmly at his young lieutenant. “Dreibrand, I have not selected you for the expeditionary force this year.”

The words were simple and clear, but Dreibrand resisted comprehension. Losing his practiced poise, he stammered, “Lord—Lord Kwan, how has my service displeased you?”

Kwan saw the disappointment on Dreibrand’s face and realized the young lieutenant burned to explore west just like himself. Sympathy, however, could not alter a Lord General’s plans. “Dreibrand, your service pleases me greatly,” he explained. “But I have many duties for many people. You shall take the chattel and plunder back to Atrophane. You will be received by the Darmar and enjoy the victory celebrations at the capital. I thought you would enjoy that.” Quietly he added, “It is very enjoyable.”

Dreibrand’s jaw dropped aghast, as if he had just been condemned to slavery in a mine. To see his dream and then be turned back to Atrophane stunned him. It had never occurred to him that he would not be at Lord Kwan’s side. He had specifically pursued his commission with Lord Kwan because of the Lord General’s desire to foray into the unknown lands.

Dreibrand’s heart thudded from the sudden agitation, but he fought the panic. He marshaled his confidence, telling himself he could persuade Lord Kwan to include him.

I am going! his mind dictated.

“Lord Kwan, please reconsider. Anyone can take the chattel back to Atrophane. Have I not proved myself a strong fighter? I will face any enemy. And the languages I have studied. You may need my skills,” Dreibrand insisted.

“We are all good fighters. And I have several interpreters,” Kwan countered.

“My skills in personal combat are well above average, and no one speaks languages like I can,” Dreibrand argued.

Trying not to be stern with his upset lieutenant, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, I have promised the places on this historic mission a long time ago. You are an Atrophaney officer, and you will follow my orders.”

Dreibrand faltered, uncertain what to say. How could he dare to protest his Lord General’s decision after being reminded of his obligation for obedience? But then he thought of the setting sun on the distant mountains. In the west he had hope. In the east, back in Atrophane, he had only old problems that would not go away and would only get worse.

“Which lieutenant have you chosen?” he blurted.

Kwan frowned at the inquiry, but answered, “Sandin, of course.”

By now the other officers had tuned into the conversation. Enjoying Dreibrand’s distress, Sandin remarked, “Ambition does not suit the House of Veta.”

Dreibrand narrowed his eyes at the senior officer, and hate bit into his reason.

“Did you really expect to be included on such a historic mission?” Sandin sneered.

“There is no need to be rude, Lieutenant,” Kwan rumbled. He rarely intervened in their rivalry, but he did not want Dreibrand goaded, especially after such disappointment.

“And why not include me on a historic mission?” Dreibrand demanded hotly.

“A Veta would sully the triumph of Atrophane acquiring the Wilderness,” Sandin stated.

“I will not let you insult my name,” Dreibrand yelled.

Hoping to cure the spoiling tempers, Carfu interjected, “Stop getting worked up, Dreibrand. We have all had our turn as chattel master, and it is not so bad. I have to stay in this shitty country and build a fortress. I should be the one getting upset.”

When Carfu spoke up, Dreibrand realized every officer was staring at him, and he looked down in shame. Focusing on his clenched fists, Dreibrand knew better than to make a scene. Strict rules of conduct governed Atrophaney behavior in social settings, and the military had extra elements of protocol.

Glad to see Dreibrand getting himself under control, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, it appears you did not expect this assignment, and because of that I will forgive your transgression. I know your family name places a hardship on you, but escorting the chattel back to Atrophane will be good for you. People will see you, and your soldiers will spread stories of your bravery. Returning after a two-year campaign with the Horde will give you glory, and people will respect you. Trust me, you can start building a name for yourself this way.”

Dreibrand looked into Kwan’s eyes. He could see that his Lord General truly wanted him to succeed and offered good advice, but Dreibrand could not give up on the Wilderness so easily. “I thank you for the opportunity to visit home, my Lord, but I am not homesick. Let me trade with Carfu. I will stay here and build a fortress,” Dreibrand offered.

Then I can explore the Wilderness from here, he plotted.

Kwan looked at Carfu, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it pleases you, my Lord, I would love to go to Atrophane.”

With a shake of his head Kwan dashed Dreibrand’s hopes. “You will be chattel master and present the Darmar with his share. There is no trading of my orders. I see now that I have been too lenient with you, Lieutenant Veta. You overstep your bounds. You will dispute my commands no more, and you will excuse yourself from this meeting,” Kwan announced.

A flicker of shock rustled through the gathered officers. A high lieutenant almost never suffered a reprimand.

Dreibrand meant to obey, but he thought of the lands that no Atrophane had ever seen. The possibilities of the Wilderness tempted him too much, and Dreibrand suddenly accepted that he had to go. Somehow he had to go.

He stood up as if he would quietly exit in his shame, but instead he shouted, “I challenge Lieutenant Sandin Promentro for his command. In the tradition of Galmonlay, I seek advancement through duel.”

Sandin laughed, and the senior officer’s absurd reaction enraged Dreibrand. “Do not threaten me with archaic laws, Veta,” he said.

“Galmonlay tradition is still accepted. If I defeat you in duel, I can have your military rank and your place on the expeditionary force,” Dreibrand said triumphantly. This way he could explore the Wilderness and kill Sandin.

“You idiot!” Sandin exclaimed and sprang to his feet.

The hands of both men flew to their sword handles. But long years and a ruthless life had not made Lord Kwan slow, and he instantly jumped between them.

“Such quarreling on the eve of a battle!” the Lord General cried with wrath. “You would curse the whole Horde with your disregard for taboo.”

“Lord Kwan, give me my challenge!” Dreibrand demanded.

“Silence!” Kwan thundered. “No duel can be fought on the eve of battle—not even by the rules of Galmonlay. I should flog you for even uttering your challenge on this night. This night of all nights.”

“Let me administer the punishment, my Lord,” Sandin requested eagerly. “The Vetas were never punished enough anyway. They should have all been made slaves.”

“I will kill you,” Dreibrand snarled. His rage was so focused on Sandin that he never saw Kwan strike.

The Lord General grabbed Dreibrand’s face and flung him to the ground. It was a rare man who tempted a blow from the hand of the fearsome Hordemaster, and Dreibrand almost fell completely. Pushing himself back to his feet, Dreibrand exited the tent without looking back.

The face of every officer was frozen with astonishment. Excluding Sandin, Dreibrand had obviously been Lord Kwan’s favorite officer and no one had ever expected such a disgraceful episode from Lieutenant Veta, whose conduct had always been impeccable.

Kwan sat back down. He said nothing and his neutral face did not reveal the bitter disappointment churning inside him.

With a smug smile Sandin settled back onto his cushion and gestured for a servant to bring him wine. It had taken him two years, but he had finally gotten Dreibrand to snap. Lord Kwan could never favor the young lieutenant like he had before.

Reeling with shame and hatred, Dreibrand staggered into the night. He hated Sandin so much, and he was ashamed that he had finally allowed his rival to force him into a disastrous outburst. The shame of acting so horribly in front of Lord Kwan sickened Dreibrand. His stupidity at challenging Sandin on the eve of a battle overwhelmed him. After breaking such an important taboo, Dreibrand was certain he could never convince Lord Kwan to include him on the expeditionary force.

If only I had waited until tomorrow to challenge, he lamented. A challenge on the day of battle would not have broken the taboo, and Lord Kwan might have agreed.

The magnitude of his blunder crushed his heart and mind, and Dreibrand gave in to his anger. Lord Kwan was one of the few people in the ruling class who would give him a chance, and he had completely ruined it. Now he would have to beg to keep his commission. Without his military career he was nothing.

Literally moaning with misery, Dreibrand clutched his head as irrational fury seized his mind. He pulled his sword out and charged his own camp. A fire still burned in front of his tent, and Dreibrand attacked it. The sword slashed through the coals, sending the cooking rack flying in a shower of sparks. Starfield neighed in alarm and pulled at his tether. His squire spun out of his bedroll as if every enemy the Atrophane had ever faced had come back for revenge.

The young man bounded to his feet and watched in terror as his master hacked the campfire into glowing piles.

“May the Gods curse Sandin as they have cursed me!” Dreibrand cried.

With the fire obliterated Dreibrand turned his eyes upon his shield leaning against his other gear. This became the next target of his rage. His sword beat against the polished metal that could not dodge the wild assault.

“I am going to kill that bastard,” he shouted several times.

Assuming he was the intended victim, the squire tried to slip away, but Dreibrand somehow noticed him despite his deranged state.

“Where’s my helmet?” he demanded.

The squire froze as if skewered by the question. Dreibrand made an awful sight in the diminished glow of the scattered coals. His shoulders heaved from ragged breathing and violent emotion fueled the gleam in his eyes.

“Sir, don’t kill me,” the squire squeaked.

“Not you! But it is time I started killing the right people around here,” Dreibrand shouted as he scanned his gear.

The commotion attracted a few soldiers from the surrounding encampment. They rushed up, thinking their officer had been attacked. Dreibrand turned to face the soldiers and his unhinged expression made them halt.

Dreibrand laughed at them. He wished he could give them some reward for their loyalty, but now he had disgraced them all.

“Get out of here! Don’t waste your time on me. I sully the Empire!” He was ranting now and waving his sword. He tore off his cape and threw it as his men.

Forgetting the soldiers, Dreibrand turned back to his squire. “Did you find it?” he barked.

The squire had not moved at all, and he regretted not fleeing while Dreibrand yelled at the soldiers. The young man cast his eyes over the strewn gear, but he was too flustered to focus on any objects in the twitching light.

“Ah, it should be here,” he mumbled and tried to perform his function.

Gesturing wildly with his sword, Dreibrand said, “Forget the helmet. I only need my sword to kill Sandin.” His eyes latched onto the flashing steel with affection.

The squire dodged the swinging sword. He really meant to flee right then, but he could not ignore Dreibrand’s last statement.

“Sandin? Sir, you cannot kill him,” he cried in genuine panic.

“I should have done this two years ago,” Dreibrand snarled with deepening conviction.

“Sir, no.”

Dreibrand turned away, clearly intending to attack his rival that very minute.

Desperately the squire grabbed Dreibrand’s arm.

“Sir, Lord Kwan will execute you,” he warned.

Dreibrand blocked out this consequence and shoved his servant away, but the squire held on. “Sir, no. They’ll kill me too,” he pleaded.

This got through to Dreibrand, who accepted that he was about to commit a crime against his own people. He had no authorization for a duel, and if he were successful, it would be murder.

“Everyone will try and stop you. You might not even reach Sandin,” reasoned the squire, who searched for rationality in his master’s eyes.

But the very mention of Sandin’s name seemed to incense Dreibrand all over again, and he gnashed his teeth with frustration that needed to be vented. Dreibrand knew he could not just sit in his tent while Sandin was so close by.

“Saddle my horse,” he commanded.

“Where are you going?” the squire asked suspiciously.

“Saddle my horse!” Dreibrand hollered and swiped at his tent with his sword. The blade snapped through two tent ropes, and half the shelter collapsed.

Giving up protest and hoping for the best, the squire jumped to comply. Starfield snorted as the servant hastily bridled the spirited warhorse. Tonight the squire was the definition of efficiency. The sooner he had that horse saddled the sooner his master would be gone.

Gods, spare me the blame, he pleaded.

Dreibrand stalked over and finished cinching the saddle himself. He jumped onto Starfield and goaded the horse into an immediate gallop. He tore through the camp and disappeared into the night.

His temper was so intense that Dreibrand knew he would kill Sandin if he stayed in camp. As much as he would have enjoyed this, Dreibrand could not murder his fellow officer. That would truly ruin his life much worse than it was already ruined.

I need to cool down. Then I will put things back together, he told himself.

He rode west.

The river crossing would be dangerous. The loss of some men and horses could be expected, but the overwhelming numbers of the Atrophane Horde would prevail. Dreibrand Veta was glad to lead the first wave of soldiers across the water even though officers of his rank did not usually put themselves at the forefront of battle.

But Dreibrand differed from the other lieutenants of the Lord General Kwan. He needed to try harder. Nothing less than his exploits and bravery would counteract the disgrace that burdened the Veta name.

The breath of horses and men steamed in the predawn chill of the spring night. The water would be cold, but Dreibrand knew he would soon have the heat of battle to keep him warm. He could feel the nervous agitation around him. Although Atrophane soldiers had complete confidence in their abilities, each man knew he would be vulnerable while in the middle of the river.

Their only protection would be the darkness. The blare of trumpets and thunder of drums that usually heralded the onslaught of the Atrophane would not be used tonight. Quiet and darkness would usher the conquerors into the Bosta heartland. The dawn would come, and the Bostas would see their existence as a free people end.

Calmly, Dreibrand gave the order to advance. Lord Kwan had honored him by allowing him to coordinate the crossing and decide the correct moment to start.

The hooves of Starfield, the dappled gray warhorse that Dreibrand rode, plunged first into the flowing water. Dreibrand liked being first. The splashing of hundreds of riders and the snorting of displeased horses warned the Bostas lining the opposite bank that the crossing began.

Dreibrand brought his shield up to his nose because arrows would soon be flying blindly through the dark. In his other hand, his sword was out and ready, waiting only to reach land and seek out the enemy.

Obediently, Starfield surged ahead and the water was soon flowing around Dreibrand’s feet. The water jumped over the tops of his boots, and he shivered from the sudden coldness that contrasted to the excited sweat beneath his clothing and armor.

The twang and whistle of countless arrows soon sang through the air. One glanced off Dreibrand’s shield and he asked the war god Golan to spare him from lucky shots in the night. A few cries of pain rose from the ranks, and one horse squealed from a terrible wound.

Dreibrand felt as if he was in the middle of the river for hours, although he knew the river was narrow and shallow compared to the greatness it achieved farther south. Finally the agony of anticipation ended, and his horse lurched up the bank. Dreibrand yelled and water splashed in every direction as the soldiers all around him rushed out of the water.

The Bostas swarmed on the shore, hoping to drive back the invaders while they were still in the water. Fighters on horseback and on foot hurled themselves at the Atrophane, and the crash of weapons erupted loudly. The dark made the struggle desperate and difficult, and combatants could barely see with whom they exchanged blows.

Knowing that only enemies could be in front of him, Dreibrand slashed with abandon, cutting down anyone who defied him. His powerful steed trampled and leaped over Bostas, and Dreibrand steadily gained a hold on the muddy bank.

A bleak gray line emerged in the east and lighted a depressing scene for the Bostas. Wherever the river could be forded, Atrophane soldiers pushed across the water on their horses or on rafts, and twenty times as many soldiers waited behind those already in the river. When defenders beheld the very vastness of the Atrophane Horde, their hearts usually quailed, and like those before them, the Bostas sensed the futility of their courage. For decades now the Atrophane had been rolling westward, expanding their Empire, and their reputation for victory was well established.

Despite a certainty of defeat, the Bostas decided that the Atrophane would have to buy their victory with blood. More than able to pay, the Atrophane smashed the valiant resistance and pushed the Bostas back toward their stronghold. The relatively small force of Bosta defenders could not repel the thousands of well-trained and heavily armed Atrophane. As the Bostas retreated to rally at their fortress, Atrophane foot soldiers were tripping over the thick sprawl of bodies on the riverbank.

Assembling the soldiers specifically under his command, Dreibrand charged after the Bostas just long enough to make sure they were serious about their retreat, and then he relented. He had accomplished his mission to win the opposite bank, and now he must secure their position and wait for the rest of the Horde to catch up. The engineers would have to ferry across the battering rams and assemble the siege engines before they could advance on the fortress.

The day had barely begun and bits of fog still lingered along the river. Panting, Dreibrand slung his shield over his back and pulled out a cloth to clean the blood from his sword. The gleam of the expensive steel returned as he wiped away the filth of battle. Nearby a soldier plunged a spear into a wounded Bosta. Seeing his oncoming death, the Bosta had pleaded for mercy. Dreibrand had come to know the word for mercy in the western tongues.

After confirming that all was well, Dreibrand returned to the riverbank to wait for Lord Kwan to arrive. The Lord General would be pleased with him and the Bostas would soon be conquered.

The next day the fortress of the Bostas was captured and the local lord beheaded. Sometimes the Atrophane maintained local leaders, but here on the frontier, no regime was significant enough to employ.

Dreibrand had not even noticed the name of the town around this Bosta fortress, and he did not care. Compared to the mighty city-states of the east and the rich trading cities of the delta, these back country settlements hardly mattered. The Atrophane had easily crushed the rudimentary facade of civilization that the Bostas considered a fortress. The rams had shattered the gates, and the stone walls had been too low to even challenge the siege towers and ladders.

Enjoying the afternoon sunshine, Dreibrand sat on a campstool and precisely shaved himself while his squire held a small mirror for him. Dreibrand had a serious face with a heavy brow, and his bright blue eyes advertised his intelligence. He had straight sandy hair that fell almost to his shoulders, as was the fashion for Atrophane men.

The squire handed Dreibrand a towel and then dutifully cleaned and put away the razor. After buttoning his shirt, Dreibrand pulled on his quilted silk jacket that padded him beneath his armor. Lord Kwan would be expecting a report soon, and he needed to get himself presentable.

Seeing that his master was ready, the squire grabbed the chestplate of armor. Dreibrand stood up while his servant buckled the armor in place. Like any squire, the youth was from a lower class and seeking access to higher circles by serving important people. This squire always did a good job, and Dreibrand found it unfortunate that his reference would probably hinder the young man more than it would help him.

Maybe in his class his name is mud just like mine, Dreibrand mused.

“Sir, when will we ever go back to Atrophane? I have never felt so far away from anything,” the squire complained and rolled his eyes at the hopelessly rural surroundings.

 “The adventure of riding with the Horde should not allow for homesickness,” Dreibrand scolded with good nature.

“I think the adventure is over, Sir,” the squire said. The squeal of a pig being butchered somewhere in the encampment marked his point.

 Dreibrand looked around the sprawl of the army in repose. The red fabric tents of the Lord General and his officers had been put up, and the weathered tan tents of the common soldiers encircled the ruined town. Many soldiers were getting their first bit of rest since entering Bosta territory, and they reclined by campfires. Other men organized the plunder of the Bostas. Although not as exciting as gold and jewels, the foodstuffs, and leather goods, and furs were satisfying and valuable. The soldiers had also divvied any stores of wine and beer that had been discovered, but they would not last long among so many. Captives were being sorted and held inside the remains of the stone fortress. Those that were fit would be sent away to serve the needs of the Empire.

Dreibrand liked the Horde when it was this way, happy and satiated. The drifting smoke from the defeated town marred the blue sky, but it did not damage Dreibrand’s mood. To him the torn town represented the bones of a small feast.

Turning back to his squire, he said, “The adventure is not over. Soon we shall see the Wilderness.”

Politely the servant nodded, but he did not share in Dreibrand’s fascination with the Wilderness.

Ever since Dreibrand had been a boy, the blank place on all maps of Ektren, labeled only as the Wilderness, had captured his imagination. Whenever life in Atrophane had been frustrating or unfair, his mind had often retreated into the possibilities of that mysterious land. Supposedly no one lived there, but he found that difficult to believe. He approached the Wilderness now and he would soon know the unknown.

Tossing on his cape, Dreibrand strode toward Lord Kwan’s tent. He was glad he had a spare pair of boots while the others dried out. When he arrived at the large red tent of the Lord General, he could hear laughter inside and he recognized the voice of Sandin Promentro. Dreibrand frowned when he thought of the senior lieutenant exchanging pleasantries with Lord Kwan. Naturally coveting the favor he received from the Lord General, Dreibrand resented the competition from Lieutenant Sandin, who had served Kwan longer than the other officers.

The guards outside the tent saluted Dreibrand, and then one ducked inside to announce him. A few more jocularities were shared before Dreibrand heard the Lord General dismiss Sandin.

Sandin emerged from the tent bearing a happy expression, but when he saw Dreibrand, he appeared to become even more pleased. Sandin’s gray eyes twinkled and he smirked at Dreibrand with his usual arrogance.

“Hey schoolboy,” Sandin said, and it was one of his favorite derogatory greetings.

Instantly angry, Dreibrand grabbed Sandin’s forearm but the other lieutenant did not flinch. Locking eyes with Dreibrand, Sandin jerked out of the grip. Physically both men were matched, but Sandin had the psychological edge over Dreibrand, and he knew it.

“What are you going to do?” Sandin demanded.

Sick with anger, Dreibrand lowered his hand. He knew better than to react to Sandin’s taunts. If he struck a senior officer, Lord Kwan would have to discipline him, and that would only lessen the Lord General’s opinion of him, which was Sandin’s whole purpose.

“Some day…” Dreibrand growled.

“Some day you will take orders from me,” Sandin sneered.

Dreibrand stoically let the sting sink in while Sandin walked away. He had no time for anger now. Composing himself for his meeting with his commander and lord, Dreibrand entered the tent. The sun glowed warmly through the red fabric roof, and he dropped to one knee and kept his eyes focused on the multi-colored rugs.

“Dreibrand, come sit.”

The rich and confident voice of the Lord General welcomed his lieutenant, and the tone was friendly. Kwan noticed that Dreibrand sprang to his feet so quickly that he must not have committed much weight to his knee.

This one never really kneels, Kwan thought.

Dreibrand approached the center of the tent where Kwan sat on his cushions. Long white hair flowed from the edges of Kwan’s bald head, and the famous Atrophane military leader had a perfect white goatee. His leathery skin was tan, except for a white scar riding his right jawline. Heavy layers of black and white silk clothed his body, and a plate of armor covered his chest. The design of a winged beast holding two spears was stamped into the black metal of the armor and highlighted with silver tracery. The surreal bird warrior symbolized his ancient clan, the Chenomet.

Casually, Dreibrand settled down among the cushions.

Kwan looked fondly at his officer. Organizing a hostile river crossing was tricky business with thousands of soldiers, and Dreibrand had made it look easy. And of course the lieutenant had led it personally because Dreibrand always led his offensives, but Kwan had already congratulated him for that. He used praise sparingly with Dreibrand after noticing the love the soldiers had for the bold young officer, even those under the command of other lieutenants.

Two years ago Kwan had allowed Dreibrand to purchase a commission in his Horde. When the recent graduate of the Darmar’s military academy had approached him seeking to serve, Kwan had been shocked. How could a Veta hope to be accepted by the Empire’s most powerful Hordemaster? But the intense young man with his impressive academy record remained in Kwan’s mind, and he discreetly investigated the youngest son of the House of Veta. It surprised him to learn that this Veta was not only ambitious but discriminating too. Dreibrand had not sought commissions from any of the lesser generals.

Then Kwan had realized that Dreibrand would have to work harder to sustain his military career because of the beleaguered status of his family. He could demand twice as much from Dreibrand for the privilege of becoming one of his lieutenants, and Kwan would get an especially diligent officer.

Dreibrand, however, had turned out to be a better officer than anyone had thought possible. After two years of campaigning, Kwan had seen in Dreibrand a natural talent for leadership, bravery, intelligence, and drive.

These things reminded Kwan of himself.

After politely greeting his Lord General, Dreibrand gave his report. He detailed the amount of men he had lost or were seriously injured. He reported how many horses had been lost, and how many horses had been captured from the enemy, but he commented that they were of smaller stock. He included amounts of other captured goods and estimated their value, and he relayed the reports from his scouting parties concerning remaining enemy activity in the hills.

“And the slavers are sorting the captives as we speak,” Dreibrand concluded.

Kwan had listened to the figures and facts, enjoying the thoroughness.

“Excellent, Dreibrand. Everything is going well,” Kwan said.

“And we are almost off the map, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan smiled because the Wilderness intrigued him as well. When he had conquered all the rich kingdoms outside Atrophane, his attention had turned to the mysterious lands beyond the known lands of Ektren. If he could take what belonged to any man, he could certainly take what belonged to no man.

“Soon the secrets of the Wilderness in the west will be known in Atrophane,” Kwan predicted confidently. “And the maps will have to be remade.”

“You have remade maps before, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan admired how Dreibrand always knew when to add an endearing comment.

“And what will you do with the rest of your day?” Kwan asked.

Dreibrand had wanted to talk about the Wilderness more, but if the Lord General wanted to change the subject, then it had to be that way. Dreibrand considered his answer carefully, knowing Kwan’s question was a test. In these private meetings Kwan often coached his young lieutenant, and Dreibrand appreciated the guidance.

Hoping Kwan would think his activity suitable, Dreibrand replied, “I plan to speak with some of the captives. Learn information about the area, and practice their language.”

With approval Kwan nodded. Dreibrand’s skill with language had often been indispensable because trustworthy interpreters were hard to come by in enemy territory.

“If you learn anything interesting, report back,” Kwan instructed.

“Of course, my Lord,” Dreibrand said. “Do you have any other orders?”

“Not for now. Let the men rest. We will move out soon,” Kwan said.

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement, but before he could raise the subject of the Wilderness again, Kwan dismissed him.

Dreibrand spent the rest of that day examining captives. The courtyard of the ransacked fortress made a gloomy setting in the late day sun. People had been chained and separated by sex into groups. Almost two hundred Bostas had been taken prisoner during the fighting. The others had died or fled west into the hills. Just as many Atrophane soldiers milled around the courtyard, plus the civilian slavers who followed the Horde.

Dreibrand studied the captives at length. He could see that they hated him. The harshness of defeat was still fresh, and none of them would want to talk to him. He would have to find a way to insure a productive conversation.

Dreibrand entered the guardhouse beside the broken gate, stepping over a dramatic splash of blood that stained the threshold. Earlier, he had pointed out his first two captives and instructed his men to bring the man in first.

A tall wiry man was brought inside the front room. Dreibrand sat at a table, and the soldiers pushed the prisoner into a chair across from the Atrophane lieutenant. The chains on his wrists clanged against the table. A plate of food waited in front of the prisoner, but he did not touch it. His skin was dirty and his hands were still trembling after his futile exertions to defend his homeland.

“The food is good,” Dreibrand said. He knew the food thing was a simple ploy, but sometimes it worked very well with prisoners. The stubborn vestige of pride left in the glare of this Bosta told Dreibrand that the prisoner was not hungry enough to take the food. Without giving the Bosta time to reconsider, Dreibrand handed the plate to his men, who then passed it around and ate.

Dreibrand asked the man for his name, but he got no response. Leaning back in his chair, Dreibrand took out his ivory handled dagger and saw his captive look nervously at the keen blade.

“I will tell you nothing,” the Bosta snarled.

“You do not even know what I want to talk about,” Dreibrand said.

“Stop speaking my language. I hate your accent,” the captive growled.

Gesturing with his dagger, Dreibrand insinuated, “I know other ways of communication.”

The Bosta looked down with resignation. Dreibrand signaled to a soldier, who departed to grab the other captive. The cry of a woman came from across the courtyard, followed by a cry of protest from another female. Dreibrand kept his focus on the Bosta man, who squirmed in his chair. He clearly wanted to go to the window, but the two Atrophane standing behind him held him in place.

“Keep a hold of him,” Dreibrand instructed while getting up to open the door.

The crunch of boots on gravel and the scrape of resisting steps approached the door. The Bosta man turned to see the other captive enter. Emotion surged across his face and he strained against the grip of his guards. Dreibrand saw that the man came close to crying out.

Dreibrand seized the chain hanging between the woman’s wrists and pulled her close. Now that the two captives were in the same room, their family resemblance became clear. Dreibrand guessed that she was his sister. Relatives could usually be picked out from a town’s captives, if one tried.

The woman struggled at her bonds and pulled away from Dreibrand.

“I think she likes me,” Dreibrand joked.

The Bosta man became livid. “You are scum!” he cried and spat at Dreibrand’s feet.

One of the Atrophane soldiers restraining the captive swatted him across the face. The woman screamed. Without any orders to stop, the soldiers continued to punch the captive. Dreibrand held the woman back when she lunged to assist her abused relative.

“If dear brother does not talk with me, it will be your turn next,” Dreibrand warned.

The Bosta woman began to sob, and Dreibrand told his men to desist. Sending the female captive back outside, Dreibrand reseated himself at the table.

“You care about your sister. I can see this,” Dreibrand said.

The captive wiped blood away from his upper lip, but he appeared to be listening.

“And I am sure you care about her future,” Dreibrand concluded.

The bloodshot eyes of the captive widened as he considered the implications of this statement.

“I cannot betray my people,” the Bosta whispered half to himself.

“If you refer to your countrymen hiding in the hills, do not be so concerned. They will show themselves soon enough. Now I only want to have a civilized talk,” Dreibrand said.

“Civilized? You are slavers,” the captive sneered, holding up his chains.

“I have seen Bostas selling slaves downriver,” Dreibrand replied coolly.

Dejected, the man said nothing.

Dreibrand continued, “I can see that your sister does not become a slave. She can stay here and live her life.”

The offer tempted the Bosta man, but his shoulders sagged because his conqueror had to be teasing him with a fantasy.

“Your sister has to be worth at least risking that I am honest,” Dreibrand reasoned. “And I give you my word.”

“What do you want to talk about?” the captive mumbled and hung his head.

Grinning happily, Dreibrand answered, “I want to talk about the Wilderness.”

“Is that why you are here?” chuckled the Bosta man.

“We are close, right? Over the next line of hills is the Wilderness.” Dreibrand went straight to business, ignoring the amusement the captive seemed to find in the subject.

Thinking of his sister, the captive hesitated. He told himself that the Atrophane had to be lying, but what if he was not lying?

To goad his thoughts in the right direction Dreibrand said, “I hope your sister is sold to a kind master. Some are cruel and take advantage of the abundance of slaves.”

The Bosta man shut his eyes. “Yes. Over the next line of hills you will see the Wilderness. There is only one more settlement,” he answered.

“And what can you tell me of this place?” Dreibrand asked.

“There is a fortress, a few villages,” the captive said.

Dreibrand stopped him. “Not the settlement. The Wilderness. Tell me about that.”

The Bosta narrowed his eyes and replied, “I should tell you nothing. But because I can see that you will go there, I will tell you this—do not go there. Now, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that you will think of my advice when you die.”

“Why would I die?” Dreibrand wondered.

“Because the Wilderness consumes all men,” explained the captive.

“What peoples live there?” Dreibrand demanded, suspecting that an unknown people defended the land.

Again the Bosta laughed. “No people live there. Any who dare enter never come back. No one lives west of Droxy.”

Dreibrand contemplated this information. He remembered the name of Droxy from the map. It was the farthest outpost of civilization.

“Why can no one live west of Droxy?” he asked.

“The Wilderness is evil. Have not the stories gone all the way east? Beasts and spirits rule the land, and it is not a place for men,” the captive said.

“Go on,” Dreiband prompted.

Deciding it would not harm his people to talk about it, the Bosta man continued, “Our oldest legends warn us of the evil in the west. It is said that thousands of years ago a war between Gods was fought in the Wilderness, and now their spirits guard the land. Also beasts prowl the forests. I have talked to people from Droxy who claim to have heard the howl of a fenthakrabi.”

“What is that?” Dreibrand demanded while trying to process the new word.

The captive smiled as if he already had his revenge upon the Atrophane. “Like I said, a beast.”

Dreibrand frowned. The man had to be making things up. He had hoped to learn something concrete instead of exaggerated folk tales. For months Dreibrand had been asking these questions as the Horde rolled westward, but the answers only became more cryptic as he approached the Wilderness.

Weary of the captive, Dreibrand ended the interrogation. As the soldiers yanked him toward the door, the Bosta man cried, “What about my sister?”

Dreibrand pursed his lips in thought. The stricken suspense on the captive’s face did have some sick appeal, but Dreibrand did not have a rotten heart.

“Set her free,” he ordered.

Instead of questioning more prisoners, Dreibrand retired to his tent. It was night now, but he did not feel tired at all. Lying awake, he stared at the light from the small oil lamp flickering on the red fabric. The light pulsed and fluttered like shades at an unholy celebration. Around him Dreibrand heard the noises of the Horde in repose. The mix of sounds from the thousands of soldiers was the only thing that eased his loneliness anymore. Sometimes he brought a female captive to his tent, if he fancied one, but that had ceased to suit him and he had recently lapsed into a strict solitude.

Thoughts of the Wilderness obsessed his mind, and he could almost feel the great land beckoning him from over the hills.

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The original novel Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I is copyrighted to the author Tracy Falbe. Do not copy, distribute, and/or sell the content of this novel without written permission from the author. If you want to share the novel, please direct people to this website or to www.braveluck.com.
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