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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.

Temu – Confederation member: This is a major tribe with land holdings that extend from the Rysamand foothills to fertile farm lands. Its large domain size and high population, many of which are skilled urban craftsmen, promotes the economic power of the tribe. Temu warriors are professional but temperamental by reputation. Temu military power is respected by its neighbors.

Tacus – Confederation member: Although this tribe lacks the size and influence of the Temu, it has traditionally positioned itself as a key ally. Overall the tribe is of modest means being neither rich nor poor. Its economy is primarily agricultural with minimal urban development.

Hirqua – Confederation member: A small but respected tribe, the Hirqua Tribe is known for maintaining its society with strong family and clan loyalties. Hirqua warriors are known for cunning, skill, and for possessing a greater sense of opportunism than the military men of their larger neighbors. Hirqua lands are mostly located within the heavily wooded Rysamand foothills and the tribal economy is based on the commodities of the forest: wood, fur and leather. Hirqua artisans flourish however, and wood carvings, fur and leatherwork are highly sought after from this tribe. Some metal mining also contributes to Hirqua wealth.

Nuram – Confederation member: A small tribe located within the fertile farm lands beyond the foothills, its economy is agriculturally based. Two urban centers have developed within the Nuram Domain however. Fetter Hem is known as a center of philosophy, writing and education, and Dee Hem is an arts center noted for theater and sculpture. Although a small tribe with little influence, the Nuram have an ancient warrior tradition.

Zenglawa – Confederation member: A tribe equal in land holdings, population, and urbanism to the Temu, the Zenglawa enjoy a strong agricultural economy due to its plentiful farmland. Trade and crafts thrive in the cities. Militarily, the Zenglawa are strong and generally rival the Temu although outright war is often prevented by the diplomatic structure of the Confederation.

Sabuto: A large tribe bordering the Temu Domain on its south, the Sabuto Tribe is the historical rival of the Temu Tribe. The Sabuto have warred continually with the Temu through the centuries. Such longstanding conflict has bred an attitude of permanent desire for vengeance between the tribes, and truces and treaties have never held. The Sabuto wield a powerful economy made rich by its fertile river bottom farmlands and its mining in the Rysamand foothills, where gold, silver, sterner metals, and jewels are taken from the rocky roots of the mountains. The Sabuto dominate the lesser tribes to the south and west of its domain. The threat of expansion of Sabuto influence is the motivation for the confederation of tribes in the north.

The Kezanada have been a force within western society since the time of the Great War between Jingten and Nufal. The society perhaps originated in an even earlier period but the history of the Kezanada, as recorded by Urlen, began with the Great War. Commanding fear and respect, the society of mercenaries actively worked to organize all mercenaries so as to control the soldier for hire market. Among the ceaselessly warring tribes of the west work was always easy to find.

In the early years of the society, some accounts stated that the Kezanada performed a formal role providing security at negotiations between warring tribes. Both tribes, when they deemed it necessary to negotiate, would pay Kezanada to arrange a safe meeting. One story indicated that initially, the Kezanada were associated with Vu, an ancient God of Contests, but this religious role was dropped after the Kezanada became the agents of Onja, the Goddess Queen.

For over two thousand years during the reign of Queen Onja, the Kezanada acted as her swords among the human tribes. The services of the Kezanada exceeded the selling of soldier services. Kidnapping, assassinating, and spying came to be the pillars of Kezanada power and livelihood. The Kezanada have often been accused, and justly so, of purposefully sowing strife through assassination, abduction, and various subtle intrigues in order to foster more war and thereby increase business. Many have also suspected Onja’s hand in these activities because wars among the humans amused her.

Of the many notable Overlords through the ages, arguably the most notorious was Depponemmer, who spent fifteen years hunting down and killing all the followers of the prophet Lin Fal after Onja burned the prophet alive with her magic.

The most famous Overlord was the first recorded Overlord of the society. He was Amar, who served Onja before and during her ascent to the rys throne. Amar was a mighty warrior who fought faithfully for the rys in the Great War. Armed with enchanted weapons gifted to him by Onja, he was the bane of his enemies and set the standard for excellence in the martial arts for all Kezanada after him.

The rain drummed incessantly outside the open balcony doors of Shan’s apartment, making his weariness feel worse. Casting his heat spell on such specific points at such a distance had been a strain, but Shan was proud of the accomplishment. The greater precision he could attain at a distance meant the greater potency he could achieve at close range.

During his meditations that morning, Shan had checked on Dreibrand, and he immediately regretted waiting so long to do so. The battle with the Kezanada had just ended and Shan saw the devastation at Dreibrand’s camp with dead Kezanada and dead Yentay. When he learned that prisoners had been taken, Shan had quickly sought the location of the Kezanada because the prisoners would need his help even with Dreibrand on his way to save them.

It took Shan an excessive amount of time to find the Kezanada and when he did the images repeatedly fogged up or simply disappeared. Although observing from a significant distance, Shan should not have had such difficulties. Finally the prisoners appeared to him, and it was almost too late. Shan saw the Kezanada bending over Redan with the knife and he barely had time to react by heating the weapon until the Kezanada dropped it. Then he burned Redan free and admired how the Zenglawa immediately helped the injured Hirqua.

Shan puzzled over the lack of clarity he had experienced while viewing the Kezanada. His only logical guess was that a warding crystal had worked against him, but it had not been of Onja’s magic. All his life he had studied Onja’s wardings, and with mild effort, he could penetrate them, but the blindspots he had just encountered did not possess any trademarks of her spells.

The unsettling possibility that Onja had devised entirely new warding crystals with unfamiliar spells occurred to Shan. Although Onja would be capable of this, he decided it was out of character. After living for so long and being so secure in her power, Onja, to his knowledge, never created new spells because her old spells had always served so well. Supreme power and great age had made her lazy.

The events of this day warned him that he had much more to learn. During his meditations he sometimes sent his awareness far and wide, or sometimes looked deep within himself. His powers were naturally great and he was mastering them, but not all masters were equal. Shan had to hone his skills, spells and speed into blinding perfection. He had to be able to hurl a destructive spell like a great bolt of lightning while defending himself from the same onslaught.

Onja had become adept at this over two thousand years ago, and he had a lot of catching up to do. He had to believe that his youth would prevail over her aging experience, but doubt clung to his mind even as he tried to banish its insidious influence. Onja’s works of old were sinister and strong. She had helped to create the Deamedron out of tens of thousands of rys and humans, and Shan accepted how difficult it was to match that might.

For encouragement, he reminded himself that Onja had only been half of the force behind the terrible spell and the legendary might of Dacian had been needed to create the Deamedron as well. With Dacian long gone, Onja was only one ancient and corrupt rys who Shan had to defeat for the sake of all rys and humans. The desire to end her tyranny and become King burned as hot as ever in Shan’s heart, and he forced himself to reflect on his past failure again. The defeat he had suffered when he had first challenged Onja had taught him a great deal. Shan’s flesh remembered the forced hibernation inside the stone while his mind lingered in wrathful awareness. But in his stone prison, he had learned every detail of the magic that held him, and he knew that Onja would not be able to trap him like that again.

After evaluating the lessons of their past confrontation, Shan renewed his confidence that he would defeat her the next time. By spring his mind would be disciplined enough to thwart even her great skill, but he needed to find out what had caused the blindspots he had experienced that morning.

Reluctantly he decided that he had sequestered himself overlong, and he stood up with a sigh. He needed a break so he could approach his problems with a fresh mind. Even a rys needed to relax sometimes.

He would visit with his host, King Taischek, who was a master of business but a high priest of pleasure. Among humans, Shan could find relief from his stress. Their light appreciation of a day of peace would clear his mind to think later of war.

After four pleasant days spent in Taischek’s company, Shan finally started to unwind. The King did not resent the time Shan spent shut away in his apartment because he knew his life and the future of his tribe depended on Shan perfecting his magic, but he was glad to see his rys friend all the same.

While Shan had been preoccupied with his extensive meditations, the Princes Kalek, Doschai, and Meetan had returned to Dengar Nor. Kalek was the last surviving son of Queen Vua and the heir, and the other slightly younger princes were the sons of other wives. They had spent the summer in the western part of the Temu Domain near the Tacus border. An old weaponmaster had a school in the small town of Selsha Nor where the princes received training. Although the education of the princes was not neglected, they enjoyed their freedom away from their parents and spent most of their time on lighter things like parties, hunting, sports, and Taischek privately hoped they were chasing girls. By his own admission, Taischek indulged his sons too much, allowing them to pursue their own sport more than the business of their rank. Having been fruitful with his nine wives over many years, Taischek took pleasure in seeing his children happy in their youth.

The three eldest princes had perhaps never paused to appreciate how their father spoiled them, but they began to realize that their easy days were over when hundreds of extra warriors showed up in Selsha Nor for their protection. Then came the unexpected news that their father had cast aside their stable world of privilege to challenge Onja. The rysmavda were swept out of the Temu Domain and some were executed. Upon reaching Dengar Nor, they learned that the alliances of the Confederation were weak, and, in the case of the Zenglawa, gone. When Taischek welcomed his princes home, he informed them that all three of them would ride to war with him in the spring. They were pleased and excited to serve their father, but each boy realized that their lives would become much more serious.

Although assaulting Jingten was a staggering concept, Taischek’s sons supported their father’s war completely and had faith in Shan’s ability. The rys had been a fixture in the royal household since before any of their births, and the boys had grown up trusting in Shan’s friendship.

In his typical fashion, Taischek, after making his momentous announcement to his sons, bade them to put aside their worries until a later time. Winter was coming and they were all safe in Dengar Nor and life was still good. Knowing well their father, the boys complied with his wishes, but they discussed the war among themselves all the time.

With no pause in the rain, the royal household entertained itself inside. Stripped to their waists, the sons of Taischek practiced wrestling with Xander, who in his youth had been a champion. From the side of the mat in the exercise room, Taischek cheered while holding his permanent prop—the wine cup. Shan listened to Taischek brag about his offspring as they occasionally bested Xander with their youth or were sometimes bested by the General’s craft.

“They remind me of you when you were that age,” Shan commented.

“They have not my scars,” Taischek said on a rare note of sadness.

“Your suffering made you strong,” Shan reminded softly.

Taischek nodded, remembering the strength he had needed to overcome the crippling wounds of his adolescence. “Shan, it is my sincere prayer that my children never need the strength that I had to find.”

Shan sipped his wine and said, “No children ever had a better example of strength.”

Taischek brightened under the compliment and hollered at Xander, “Are you going to let those puppies drag you down?”

Xander, who had been giving lessons on technique, succumbed under the good-natured crush of all three young princes. Glowing with sweat, he replied, “Sire, I am too old. They are children no more!”

Everyone laughed as Xander squirmed out from under the pile.

Sighing happily, Taischek said, “It is good to hear you laugh, Shan. I have missed that good sound.”

“I would not spend so much time alone and in silence if what I did was not so important,” Shan explained.

“I know, but you must not forget to appreciate the moment. Simply by being pleasant, you have Onja beat right there,” Taischek joked.

“That is why I am here, my Temu friend,” Shan said and took a liberal drink of his wine to prove to Taischek his sincere interest in relaxation. “Now, Taischek, tell me what I have missed. Have you seen Miranda?”

Hearing her name made Taischek feel like grumbling, but he answered, “I saw her with Vua twice. She asked about you.”

“Perhaps I should go see her,” Shan said.

“She directly asked me about you, forgetting to ask if she could talk to me,” Taischek went on, deciding to grumble. “Vua said she talked to her about her manners, but now I have to wonder what she said. And when is Dreibrand coming back? That’s what the problem is. That woman is the type. When the cat is away the mice will play type, I tell you she is. She needs someone around to keep her in line, eh? Or she just does whatever pops into her mind. Like bothering kings with important things on their mind—”

 “Father, you must like her if you talk about her so much.” It was Kalek who had interrupted. A towel was draped around his neck and he dabbed sweat from his face as he left the wrestling mat. “It is a good thing Shan is a rys, so he can live long enough to listen to you.”

“Ah, what a smart boy,” Taischek growled and smacked his son on the shoulder. “Now be good before I talk to you about your manners.”

Kalek laughed, knowing his father was not mad.

Shan said, “Do excuse me while I go see her. I checked in on her children during my meditations, and I would like to tell her they are well.”

“Can I count on your company for dinner?” Taischek asked and Shan said that he could.

When Shan reached Miranda’s apartment, a servant girl answered the door and curtsied to the rys. She had the look of awe and wariness that most people had when near a rys, especially Shan. He asked for Miranda

“The lady rests,” the girl answered.

“May I see her?”

The girl did not know what to say. She had no wish to disturb the King’s guest who she had been assigned to serve, nor did she want to say no to Shan.

Miranda spared her the decision. “Shan!” she cried happily from the arched doorway to the bedchamber. Leaning against the woodwork, she wore a robe over her nightgown, having not dressed for the day.

“Forgive me, Miranda. I will come back another time,” Shan apologized.

But Miranda insisted he stay and ordered the servant out. She just could not get used to having servants around when she had a conversation. Settling onto a couch, Miranda rubbed her eyes sleepily then patted a nearby cushion to invite Shan to sit.

“Sometimes I feel as if I never slept before in my whole life,” Miranda explained with a yawn. “Toil and hardship were all I ever knew.”

“That is a shame,” Shan offered.

“It is behind me. I have new problems now,” Miranda said and there was a lightness in her voice that Shan had not heard before. If he had not known the grief in her heart, Shan might have guessed that she sounded happy.

“Miranda, it is not like you not to visit me. I had hoped to see you,” he said.

She shrugged. “I did not want to bother you. What you do is important to both of us. Anyway, I have been sleeping a lot.”

“You are well I hope?” Shan asked.

Miranda looked at him almost suspiciously and insisted she felt fine.

Shan delivered his news that Elendra and Esseldan were healthy and treated well. “Would you like to see them again?” Shan suggested, reaching for a warding crystal in his jacket.

“No!” Miranda decided quickly then thanked him for his vigilant concern. In a much softer voice she offered an explanation. “I trust you that they are fine. It only hurts more when I see them. Can you tell me any news of Dreibrand?”

Shan nodded. “I think that he will be home soon. Maybe tomorrow. Last night I took a moment to find him, and he was in Fata Nor.”

“He is fine then,” Miranda said with obvious relief.

“Well, he had some trouble. They had an encounter with the Kezanada. Some men were lost.”

Miranda cried out with alarm.

“It is unfortunate,” Shan agreed. “But I believe Dreibrand has accomplished his goals. He has proved his command over the Yentay, and they have proved strong in battle.”

“I am glad to hear these volunteers are good warriors. We could use them,” Miranda said.

Shan concurred, “Yes, they are of great value and it is a shame that some were lost already. Once the wounded are patched up in Fata Nor, I am sure Dreibrand will come here. The weather is turning and I hope he has the sense to come home.”

“I cannot wait to see him,” Miranda said.

Watching her face soften affectionately as she contemplated her lover, Shan was reminded of his own loneliness. Hard decisions in his earlier days had resulted in his solitude. He did not regret his choices but sometimes considered them with longing.

Shan lay a hand on Miranda’s shoulder, assuring her, “Dreibrand rushes back to you even as we speak.”

~

In fact, Dreibrand rushed back to Dengar Nor at a greater pace than Shan had estimated. The relentless and ever colder downpour motivated the Yentay with misery. There was no rest on the road, and the group of volunteers entered Dengar Nor in the blackness of the wet night. The watchers at the gate were surprised by their unexpected arrival, but they easily recognized Dreibrand and knew that it was not an attack.

The Yentay poured gratefully inside the barracks. Although cold and empty, the barracks seemed cozy and homelike after the exposure they had all endured. The stable hands were not thrilled to be roused on the cold wet night to attend to three dozen tired horses, but Dreibrand decided his men deserved the service.

The hearths soon crackled with fires and lamps were lit. Dreibrand pulled a chair up to a fire, trying to warm up, but he knew he would never succeed until he got some dry clothes. That had to wait a little longer because he needed just a few minutes out of the rain and he wanted to see that his men got settled in all right.

The door banged open and a squad of Temu warriors hurried in out of the rain, escorting Shan and a young man dressed as if he held a high rank. The appearance of the rys startled the Yentay to their feet, but Shan quickly bade them to return to their resting positions.

Dreibrand jumped up to meet Shan, and they clasped hands happily.

“I am pleased that you are back,” Shan declared.

“It is good to be back. I only wish my outing had been more useful,” Dreibrand confessed.

“You did battle with the Kezanada. I want to hear all of the details. I did not see the battle itself,” Shan said.

Rolling his eyes, Dreibrand thought about Pelafan and Sutah’s meddling. “We have much to talk about.”

“Yes, but we will speak privately,” Shan said.

Now Dreibrand looked at Shan’s young companion, wondering who he was and why he was with Shan.

The rys noticed Dreibrand’s shift in attention and quickly introduced the young man, “This is Prince Kalek, King Taischek’s eldest son.”

The young Kalek stepped up and examined Dreibrand carefully. Dreibrand understood Kalek’s curiosity about his foreign appearance. At first everyone west of the Rysamand had looked strange to Dreibrand, although he hardly noticed now, but he realized that he was one among many and would always be an oddity in this place where he made a new life.

Shan continued, “Prince Kalek, this is Dreibrand Veta. He serves me as a general in the war on Jingten. These warriors are volunteers from other tribes, who will help us overthrow Onja.”

Kalek noted that Dreibrand did not bow to him and that irritated him. Normally Kalek was haughty and demanding, but he restrained his cockiness for the moment while looking at Dreibrand’s tall strong frame and bandaged arm.

Dreibrand sized up the Prince quickly. Kalek appeared five or six years younger than himself with a thick shock of Temu braids raining around his soft face. He had intense brown eyes but they were not friendly. Even on the other side of the Wilderness, Dreibrand could recognize the spoiled heir of a great man. They did not really look so different in Atrophane.

“King Taischek has much to be proud of,” Dreibrand said, finally dipping his head a little.

“Prince Kalek just had to see the foreign warrior who has so impressed his father,” Shan explained.

“Is that a Zenglawa?” Kalek demanded while scanning the barracks.

“Yes, Dreibrand has been assessing his loyalty,” Shan explained.

“Does the King know?” Kalek asked doubtfully.

“Yes, and your father is happy to leave my affairs to my judgment,” Shan scolded mildly.

Dreibrand watched the Prince for his reaction, but Kalek kept his opinion to himself and only frowned in the direction of the Zenglawa.

“Actually I think he is going to work out,” Dreibrand said. “When we fought the Kezanada, he took a bow from one of their archers and killed many of them. It made the difference in a tight spot. I told him he could have a bow again when we got back to Dengar Nor.”

Shan pondered the Zenglawa a moment. “Perhaps,” he murmured reluctantly.

“You of course will make the final decision,” Dreibrand added.

“Later. Let us go to the castle,” Shan said.

Despite Kalek’s nearby disapproving scowl, Redan had shyly approached his general. “Sir, may I speak to Lord Shan?”

After glancing at Shan’s inscrutable face, Dreibrand gave his permission. The rys did not protest because he had seen Redan act with bravery and honor and he was almost convinced that the Zenglawa was sincere in his wish to serve.

Almost reverently, Redan said, “Was it you that set me free, Lord Shan?”

“Yes. It was me,” Shan confirmed.

Impressed murmurs circulated the Yentay. They had all heard Redan’s belief that Shan’s magic had burned away his bindings all the way from Dengar Nor, but it meant a lot more when Shan agreed with the Zenglawa.

Shan took advantage of the moment and added, “In the spring I will ride at your sides and my magic will serve all of you.”

For a moment the Yentay forgot their exhaustion and their hearts surged with excitement. They had already held their own against the Kezanada, and when Shan went to war with them, they would be unstoppable. Even without a demonstration of his power, the men felt the aura of his power and cheered because they were a part of it.

“Rest now good warriors,” Shan instructed.

“Thank you, Lord Shan,” Redan said hastily before the rys departed.

Shan regarded him thoughtfully but made no reply. The Temu warriors escorted the prestigious persons back into the rain. They hurried through the city and up the switchbacked road to the splendid complex that was Taischek’s castle on the mesa. Knowing that Miranda was in the castle made Dreibrand feel like he had come home, a sensation that he had not known for a long time.

Kalek had many questions for Dreibrand and his pestering broke the sleepy silence of the castle. Dreibrand answered the Prince with a learned patience.

Finally, Shan scolded the young man with the security of someone who is the King’s dearest friend and ally. “Hush, Kalek. Dreibrand can tell you his stories of the world at another time.”

Annoyed at the rys’s lack of respect, Kalek pressed on. “Dreibrand Veta, my father—the King—says you defeated three Temu warriors when he tested you in non-lethal combat.”

“I defended myself and I showed myself to be a warrior,” Dreibrand responded modestly.

“You would not have done so well if I had been there to test you,” Kalek boasted.

Dreibrand tried not to sigh with indignation, but failed. He hoped a day later when he was fed and rested that the Prince would not seem so tiresome.

“Kalek.” Shan purposefully did not use the heir’s title again. “I need to speak with my general—privately.”

Kalek would not cross Shan but he disliked the dismissal. “We will speak later,” he announced but no one was interested. Shan and Dreibrand continued to the rys’s apartment.

Entering Shan’s private chambers, Dreibrand said, “Thank you for getting rid of him, Shan. I am in no mood for princely puppies.”

The rys chuckled at the criticism. “He really did want to meet you, but his attitude is usually not very endearing. I have often hoped that he would out grow it, but he only seems to grow into it.”

“It does not matter,” Dreibrand muttered, throwing off his wet fur lined cloak.

Shan easily started a good fire in the fireplace, quicker than a man could have done it. Dreibrand stripped away his gear and wrapped a wool blanket around his shoulders. Sitting gratefully near the soothing flames, he noticed that the soggy bloody bandage on his arm was staining through the blanket.

“Sorry about this,” he apologized.

“Have you had that looked at?” Shan worried.

“Yeah, I got stitched up in Fata Nor. The bandage is the worst part now. I was lucky to only get this. The Kezanada Overlord almost killed me,” Dreibrand explained.

“The Overlord!” Shan cried. “When?”

“When we fought the Kezanada,” Dreibrand replied.

Shan looked perplexed. “I know the Overlord. I have met the Overlord many times. I would have noticed him. Are you sure?”

“Everyone said it had to be the Overlord. He was a large man, brightly dressed unlike the others. If anybody could be a king of mercenaries, he could,” Dreibrand said.

Shan sat down heavily without his usual quiet grace. “Tell me everything about this clash with the Kezanada. Tell me everything,” Shan instructed greedily.

Starting with Pelafan and Sutah, Dreibrand made a full report to the rys, who listened raptly as if comparing details to his record. An uncharacteristic agitation crept into Shan’s mannerisms, which Dreibrand noticed.

When he finished, Shan confessed, “I never saw the Overlord.”

Dreibrand tried to soothe him, figuring the strain of the bounty caused Shan to be nervous. “Shan, you said you looked in on me after the battle. The Overlord was gone so of course you did not see him,” he reasoned.

Shan disregarded the idea and explained, “I knew something was wrong even at the time. I had trouble locating the Kezanada. And when I did perceive them, it was hard to focus. I barely found the prisoners in time to help.”

“It was far away. You did not know where the Kezanada were and it took you a while to find them. You still succeeded Shan. You still worked magic. Do not judge yourself so harshly for overlooking a few details,” Dreibrand advised.

Shan frowned and corrected, “I can see clearly much farther than that, and I would not have overlooked the Overlord. His presence should have immediately attracted my attention.”

Discarding his optimistic view, Dreibrand asked, “So what are you saying?”

Clearly not pleased by the notion and still reluctant to accept it, Shan answered, “A warding crystal must protect the Overlord from my perception. Onja must have given it to him, but I long ago acquired the ability to pierce any of her wardings. It must be something new. Something different.”

“Maybe Pelafan and Sutah gave him something,” Dreibrand suggested. “Those two were up to something.”

Waving a blue hand dismissively, Shan scoffed, “Those idiots! They have average abilities and could not even make a warding crystal. The answer must be that Onja has a new warding unfamiliar to me, and now it protects the Overlord. I must learn to see through this new fog she has made, and do it quickly.”

“And you can learn this?” Dreibrand asked.

“Eventually. I learned to penetrate all of her other wardings, and so I will unlock the secret of this spell. Hopefully it will not take too long. The trouble now is finding the warding again and keeping track of the blindspot so I can study it,” Shan said. For a moment, his concern with this challenge distracted him, but then he stood up and briskly apologized, “I have kept you up with too many questions and worries, my friend. Go now to Miranda. She misses you.”

Tiredly Dreibrand agreed, and his eyes were drooping as Shan showed him to the door. A dreary dawn had arrived by the time Dreibrand dragged himself to his apartment. His weariness overwhelmed him and he remembered little past that point.

The day was almost gone by the time he woke up in his bed. His arm was freshly dressed and he vaguely recalled falling asleep while Miranda cut away his nasty old bandage. Seeing her had been a joy to him and he found it difficult to believe he had actually collapsed upon reuniting with her.

He sat up, relishing the soft warm bed and pillows, feeling refreshed. Miranda, who had been patiently waiting for him to stir, entered and sat on the edge of the bed. Dreibrand coiled his arms around her.

“Forgive my sleepiness, my love,” he purred apologetically.

“You said you had been up for days, so I wanted to let you sleep,” Miranda said.

“And now what do you want me to do?” he asked, feeling suddenly energetic.

She smiled and kissed him. They immediately strengthened their embrace and made love with more than their usual intoxication for each other.

Resting in his arms, Miranda cherished the security she felt when they were alone. Purposefully she sat up and looked down on Dreibrand’s reclining body. Still unshaven, he looked rugged. His hair spread around him on the pillow, and he gazed at her appreciatively from under his heavy brow. Miranda wondered if all men from Atrophane were so good and strong.

Dreibrand enjoyed the sight of her naked body and laid a squeezing hand on her curving hip. He smiled at her round full breasts that were at eyelevel; then followed her curling hair up to her pretty face. He knew she had been a peasant girl, a slave even, but Dreibrand never saw her that way. There had been other lovers back in the east. Some had been wealthy women, so called well-bred women, but Miranda seemed so much finer to him. He admired her strength and her courage, and he loved possessing her. Dreibrand never wanted her to go away.

Miranda wet her lips and took a deep breath. Without knowing what else to do she blurted, “I carry your child.”

Dreibrand’s face slackened and his jaw dropped all the way. At length he said stupidly, “How?”

This made Miranda laugh. It was a relief to finally tell him. “What do you think happens when a man and a woman are together like us?” she chided.

Dreibrand actually looked embarrassed. “I know, but I never thought about it,” he confessed.

“Well think about it because we shall have a child in the spring,” she said.

“In the spring? Then you cannot go to Jingten,” he said.

“Yes I will.”

“No Miranda. Be reasonable,” he said firmly, recognizing the defiant look in her eyes.

She insisted, “I have to go. The pass will not thaw until late spring and I should give birth in time to go. I have to get Elendra and Esseldan back.”

Dreibrand clutched his head, which now felt totally muddled. Too many things were occurring to him at once. He might have to go to war without seeing his child, or at best he would see the infant, then go to war. Either way it would be a torment to him. He had only begun to get used to facing battle with Miranda in his life and now he would have a…family?

He shook the thought from his mind before the weight of responsibility took root.

Hugging Miranda gently, he decided, “We will save this quarrel for the spring. Let us just be happy for now.”

“You are happy?” she asked cautiously.

“Oh, very happy!” he exclaimed with honesty but not understanding.

“I am happy too,” Miranda said and it made Dreibrand feel good to hear it. But her face became serious and she whispered, “I know what it is to bear a child I do not want.” Her voice was shy as if she spoke of a taboo subject. “I know the resentment of having the children of a man I hate. As much as I love my children, I did not want them.”

Dreibrand listened apprehensively, uncertain of what she would say.

With a vulnerability that she had never let him see before, she continued, “But now I will know the joy of bearing the child of a man I love.”

Speaking these words made Miranda feel exposed. She had no experience to guide her interpretation of her emotions for Dreibrand, but she knew she wanted him and did not just need him.

Dreibrand held her gratefully, murmuring his own loving words. To know she really cared for him overwhelmed him with happiness. He shared a close trust with Miranda that he had not known with another woman, and he prized their relationship. With Miranda’s declaration of love, Dreibrand would find a way to cope with his impending fatherhood. Even in his confusion, he was already excited to see his child.

After one more long deep kiss, Dreibrand bounded out of bed and started dressing. “Can we go tell everybody?” he urged.

Pleased by his enthusiasm, Miranda got up, but quickly sat down. Dreibrand dropped his shirt and took her hand. “What is wrong?” The normal concern he had for her well being would now be doubled.

“I got up too fast and I felt a little sick,” Miranda explained, but when she saw his stricken look, she added, “Do not worry. It is normal.”

“Do you want to stay here?” he suggested.

Rubbing her temple, she accepted, “Yes, I am tired.”

Delicately he helped her back to bed and offered to stay, but Miranda would rather he enjoy himself instead of fussing over her.

“Go tell our news. I have kept it to myself long enough,” she encouraged.

For a moment he was indecisive, then rationalized, “I have business to attend to. I must speak with the King and Shan anyway.”

“Go,” she insisted.

The news elated Taischek, and he jumped out of his chair and even danced a couple steps. He sent a meaningful look heavenward as if a prayer had been answered, and then threw his arms around Dreibrand in congratulations.

“This is wonderful. Wonderful!” the King declared joyously.

Taischek’s exuberance stunned Dreibrand somewhat. He had imagined that Taischek would be happy for him but not thrilled. Shan shook his hand while Taischek still slapped his back.

“You and Miranda deserve this blessing,” Shan said.

General Xander congratulated him stiffly while Taischek signaled to a servant. The servant automatically went to get more wine.

Prince Kalek lounged indolently in his chair, seeing little reason for his father’s jubilation. So the foreign mercenary will have a bastard, he thought with annoyance.

Taischek kicked his son in the foot and scolded, “Where are your manners? A man in our household is expecting his firstborn and you do not congratulate him?”

Dreibrand could not help but enjoy Taischek criticizing his son on his behalf, and he looked at Kalek with an expression of irritating expectancy.

Kalek’s bored face rested on his fingers. Without standing he gestured sarcastically with his fingers and forced a smile, then returned his fingers to their propping position. Taischek frowned but knew how his son could be. He made a mental note to make sure Kalek recognized Dreibrand’s qualities.

The servant returned and replenished everyone’s wine. Taischek made a flattering toast complimenting Dreibrand’s virility, and Dreibrand tossed back his entire cup of wine. The warm rush of alcohol greeted him kindly, and Dreibrand realized he actually needed a drink. Sitting back down, he gestured for a refill, which made Taischek grin.

“Welcome home, Dreibrand Veta. May it be a long and pleasant winter,” Taischek decreed.

“Well said,” Shan cheered. “May we all enjoy our friendship in this easy season before the difficult tasks of the spring.”

“I see our General Veta has finally accepted that the war season is over,” Taischek observed with amusement. “Perhaps in the east they fight in this weather, but we do not.”

Taischek clapped his hands and called for musicians. He had noted Dreibrand’s mood for intoxication and intended to enjoy the company of the normally reserved foreigner now that he had the chance.

After a few more rounds of wine, Xander rose and said, “Sire, I can’t stay tonight. With your permission I would like to retire from the party.”

“Have some more drinks and you won’t need my permission,” Taischek joked and laughed loudly, but he quieted when he noticed Xander’s depressed expression. He realized he had been doting over Dreibrand, but he liked the brave young man who was so fascinating.

Surely, Xander knows nothing could diminish my opinion of him, Taischek thought. He considered making Xander stay so he could cheer him up, but if Xander wanted some solitude for once, Taischek could not deny his friend.

Taischek said, “Yes, yes, our company is much too dull. Go to your wives.”

“Thank you, Sire,” Xander said appreciatively. The General bowed to his King and Prince before leaving.

Dreibrand considered Xander’s departure out of character, but took no offense at the General’s lack of enthusiasm over his good news. Taischek’s company was easy to like and Dreibrand settled in and recounted his battle with the Overlord.

Knowing well the rightful reputation of the Overlord, Taischek marveled that Dreibrand had survived once his sword had been broken. When Dreibrand explained that he had saved himself by sho darting the Overlord, Taischek had to laugh but warned that the Overlord would want revenge.

“Because we are enemies anyway, I do not think I will notice,” Dreibrand said.

Once Taischek got Dreibrand drunk enough, Dreibrand happily answered the many questions that came from Kalek. The Prince paid close attention as Dreibrand described far off Atrophane and the many lands that the Horde had conquered. As Kalek questioned his father’s favored warrior, he restrained himself from any challenging comments although he had meant to goad Dreibrand into a fight that night. 

 With Kalek’s troublesome schemes on hold, the evening passed festively. Taischek continually teased Dreibrand about his approaching fatherhood, which in a way helped Dreibrand adjust to the fact.

The songs of birds dwindled as the Kezanada advanced on the Yentay camp, and Dreibrand heard the rattle of accouterments through the hushed woodland. This battle would define him to the Yentay and he hoped that afterwards they would trust his leadership.

He had arranged for Tytido to lead half of the men when the time came to fall back. For now, the Yentay waited on their horses with Dreibrand at the center of their line. The strain of waiting for the charge showed on their faces. As if in response to their worry, clouds rolled in to observe the gloomy contest. When the Kezanada came into sight, they made a grim sight. With their face shields down, they advanced with a sinister homogeneity. The Kezanada did not rush, but instead plodded toward their intended enemy with lazy confidence.

Dreibrand raised his sword, and the Yentay likewise brought up their swords and spears.

“Stay with the plan, Lieutenant Tytido,” Dreibrand ordered one last time.

“Yes Sir,” Tytido acknowledged. He was rapidly accepting the wisdom of Dreibrand’s strategy.

Directly in front of him in the opposing line of Kezanada, Dreibrand saw who he assumed to be his counterpart, the Kezanada leader. His gaudy gear set him apart from the other darkly clad warriors, and Dreibrand noted the man’s size and obvious strength. The edge of a cruel and hefty scimitar rose from the hard fist of the Overlord, and Dreibrand steeled his courage to face this daunting opponent.

A Kezanada lifted a horn and three quick blasts started the charge. The audacity of the frontal attack on his defensible position shocked Dreibrand even as he witnessed it. As Tytido had promised, the Hirqua warriors held their line and absorbed the charge.

The brightly dressed Kezanada attacked Dreibrand. A blur of big muscles and dyed furs flew at him on a spirited black horse, like a man in carnival costume who had suddenly gone mad.  Dreibrand’s shield blocked the first sweep of the scimitar and his body shuddered from the strength behind his enemy’s weapon.

Metal weapons rang against each other with violent shrieks, and spears and warclubs banged on shields. The bellows and screams of men and horses punctuated the clash. The Yentay feigned weakness and began to fall back. The thick-bodied Overlord assailed Dreibrand so relentlessly, that Dreibrand could do little except drop back. Tytido’s group broke off a little early, but it would have to do. Dreibrand’s expertly trained warhorse obeyed him instantly and completely dodged the lunging Kezanada leader. Calling to his warriors, Dreibrand led them aside and around the Kezanada flank.

The split in the battle briefly sent the Kezanada ranks into turmoil, but they recovered quickly and fought with undiminished fury. A few mounted Kezanada archers had hung back from the charge and they now advanced and began to shoot arrows at the Yentay on both flanks. The skilled shots quickly began to take a toll, and no Yentay could break off from the main fight to deal with the archers.

Dreibrand ducked behind his shield and accepted another horrendous whack from the scimitar. An arrow sank into his shield at the same moment, and he knew the battle was not going well. The skill and power of the Kezanada leader kept him pinned and Dreibrand struggled to cope with the assault. The Kezanada leader seemed to want only him and pursued him so stubbornly that Dreibrand had no more opportunity for retreat. Another blow from the scimitar landed on his shield, and Dreibrand slammed back with all of his strength, throwing the Kezanada’s weapon wide. With his opponent opened up, Dreibrand’s sword sailed in with a vengeance. The Kezanada had to bring his shield up and suffer Dreibrand’s hard furious attacks.

 But this Kezanada, who was the Overlord and weaponmaster of the society, did not stay on the defensive for long. The scimitar, which usually only had to become unsheathed to win its way, swiped down from a steep angle bearing all the great strength in the Overlord’s muscular body. Dreibrand dodged behind his shield too far to one side, and the force of the blow unhorsed him. Starfield bellowed indignantly as Dreibrand grabbed futilely at the reins. He gripped the saddle desperately with his legs, but the demands of gravity could not be denied.

He slammed onto the ground and his ribs banged inside his armor. Starfield remained nearby as his training dictated, but Dreibrand would not have a chance to regain the saddle. The Overlord circled Starfield, intending to trample Dreibrand. The wide shod hooves of the black warhorse loomed over Dreibrand and he rolled aside, narrowly escaping their crashing impact.

Elsewhere in the melee, Redan struggled with his foes as best he could. The short sword that Dreibrand had given him felt awkward in his hand, but Redan was managing to keep himself alive with it. Redan heard the enraged battle cry of the Hirqua next to him suddenly end when an arrow landed in the man’s throat. Frantically, Redan tried to spot the archer while keeping his horse circling one step ahead of the Kezanada mace that continually whirled by his head.

There, at the edge of the clearing, a Kezanada sat upon his calm horse carefully taking aim with his great black bow that curled at each end. Kezanada archers wore helmets with simple black cloth masks that did not interfere with vision instead of the metal visor.

Spurring his horse, Redan abandoned the fight. If any of his comrades had been able to take note of him at that moment, they would have thought he fled in fearful defeat. The Kezanada who had been fighting him laughed at his flight and then turned to find a more convenient victim.

Redan did not seek escape though. He only sought a weapon more suited to his skills. He viewed the Kezanada archer not so much as someone trying to kill him but as the wrongful possessor of what he needed. Sword held high, Redan charged the mounted archer, who stayed calm and swung his bow to face the oncoming warrior. The Kezanada arrow sank into the chest of Redan’s horse, killing it easily. The horse crashed disastrously and flung Redan over its dying head. Redan skidded on the ground, getting dirt even in his mouth and pebbles down his shirt.

He landed next to the mounted archer and jumped up as the Kezanada reached for another arrow. Redan hacked at the archer’s thigh before he could draw the bow. The Kezanada cried out with pain and Redan seized his arm and pulled him from the saddle. His sword jabbed the Kezanada under the chin, killing him as he fell to the ground.

Sheathing the bloody sword, Redan triumphantly took the bow and tore the quiver from the Kezanada’s back. Now he could be useful to this battle. Redan had earned the master archer title at an uncommonly young age of thirteen and was considered a prodigy among his tribe. Able to assume his proper role on the field of battle, Redan took a second to judge the bow then nocked an arrow.

Another Kezanada archer, who had turned to see what Redan had done, caught an arrow in the eye. Redan quickly located a third archer and dispatched him from the world. No more archers sniped the Yentay on this flank, and he gave his attention to the central battle. Every arrow in his commandeered quiver represented a dead Kezanada. Any gap in their armor provided a sufficient target.

So many Kezanada abruptly dropped that the Yentay on that flank began to prevail. Encouraged by the sudden turn of events, the Yentay pressed in on their diminished foes and drew warriors away from Tytido’s side.

Despite the help provided by Redan’s wicked accuracy, no relief came to Dreibrand. He and the Overlord were locked in a mortal duel that tested Dreibrand more than it tested the Kezanada.

After dodging the stomping hooves, Dreibrand flopped aside again when the Overlord bent low and hacked at him with the scimitar. The blade sliced an unpleasant but shallow wound on Dreibrand’s left arm, but he could not heed the pain. Even as the scimitar wounded him, he bounded to his feet. Although Dreibrand hated to harm such a fine animal, the fury of survival demanded brutal action, and he gripped his sword in both hands and chopped at the passing hind legs. The blade cut completely through a leg, and the warhorse screamed from the devastating blow and fell.

The Overlord recovered from the hopeless crash of his steed and whirled to face Dreibrand. The loss of his beautiful and valuable horse made the Overlord shake with rage. While the shock of the unhorsing was still fresh, Dreibrand attacked. The straight blade of Atrophaney steel that had protected him since the day he had left Atrophane swung from the left and then the right, shifting direction with a swiftness difficult for its size and weight. Dreibrand’s limbs and muscles had long since memorized the fighting moves and his fast attacks usually defeated an enemy swiftly, but the shield and scimitar of the Overlord were always there to stop him.

“You better have more for me than that, Easterner,” scoffed the Overlord in the common language.

Dreibrand narrowed his eyes at the expressionless visor that issued the taunt and assailed his opponent with renewed wrath and a primal cry. The Kezanada was stronger, but Dreibrand would not think him his better. Their swords clashed with exhaustive speed. Dreibrand made a mighty swing that should have knocked the Kezanada’s scimitar completely aside, but iron muscles locked the master-made blade, and the scimitar stayed in place. Instead, Dreibrand’s sword, that had swept away the defenders of many nations, snapped in complete ruin. The broken blade twirled across the gray sky and landed on the ground a small distance away.

The Overlord laughed, and Dreibrand’s gaping face was darkly comical as he looked at the stub of his sword. Unable to contemplate this misfortune any further, Dreibrand cowered behind his shield. His brave spirit did not acknowledge what looked like his impending doom. He blocked high with his shield, but then the scimitar would instantly swoop low toward his ankles, making him jump.

Blocking and pushing back the scimitar, Dreibrand backed into a tree. He spun behind the tree to avoid becoming pinned on it, and he was thankful for the scant shelter. The scimitar chopped at the trunk, sending out a spray of bark. Dreibrand’s senses were so alive that he smelled the pitch from the tree’s wound.

The Overlord yanked at his blade that was slightly stuck in the wood, and in this instant of respite, Dreibrand’s hand went to his swordbelt and he spun out from the other side of the tree. Just as the Overlord tugged his scimitar free, Dreibrand raised his new weapon inside the Kezanada’s guard. Dreibrand knew he only had one chance, and a slim chance at that, or he would surely die. He aimed the pistol at the thin strip of skin exposed below the visor and fired the sho dart.

The Overlord yelled sharply, surprised by the little sting at his neck and indignant at his opponent’s impertinence for shooting him with a sho dart. But strength of body and skill in warfare can protect no human from a sho dart, and the Kezanada became helpless. Loss of muscle command swept through his magnificent body and the Overlord teetered with diminishing balance. Dreibrand returned his pistol to his belt and pulled out his ivory handled dagger. The numbed fingers of the Overlord clung stubbornly to his scimitar, but Dreibrand knocked the weapon from his hand.

With a heavy crash the Overlord fell back and Dreibrand stepped forward, preparing to bend down and kill the man. Even driven deep into battle lust, he was reluctant to slay the paralyzed warrior. This hesitation saved him by allowing him to notice a familiar shade of blue out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw Sutah aiming a sho dart pistol, and just in time he raised his shield, where the deflected dart made a little bang.

The arrival of the rys required him to abandon the prone Kezanada. Snarling with anger, Dreibrand charged at Sutah, terribly upset with the trouble the rys had caused him. Before he reached Sutah, Pelafan appeared from behind a tree and tackled Dreibrand. The human and the rys grappled each other on the ground, and Pelafan barely kept the dagger at bay.

“Sutah! Shoot him,” Pelafan cried urgently.

Sutah fumbled with another sho dart, not performing well under such direct pressure. When Sutah finally got a clear shot at the struggling human, the pistol misfired and the sho dart jammed in the barrel.

Dreibrand, pumped up from his battle with the Overlord, hurled Pelafan away and scrambled to his feet.

“I’ll kill both of you!” he yelled.

By now, some Kezanada came to aid their fallen leader, and some Yentay came to help their general. In the sudden swarm of warriors, Pelafan and Sutah departed. They were not warriors and would not pretend to be. The rys sought their secret paths into the Rysamand, intending to return to Jingten and hideout among their kind. Neither of them had any desire to experience the Overlord’s reactions to the day’s events.

A long wailing note came from a Kezanada horn, signaling a retreat. They held the Yentay back as they collected their leader. The Overlord’s Second could have stayed and probably won the fight, but he felt it was his duty to protect his master. In the opinion of the Second, the attack had gone badly and their losses had been abnormally high because of the Zenglawa archer, but he did collect some prisoners so he would have something worthwhile to present his master.

Now protected by his surrounding warriors, Dreibrand staggered to Starfield and leaned on the side of his saddle. His body twitched with exhaustion after being put through grueling paces by the large Kezanada. He hoped Pelafan and Sutah had run off for good after failing again.

Dreibrand climbed into the saddle and rode among his men, ordering them to stay put. They were excited about their victory over the notorious Kezanada, but Dreibrand worried that the enemy fell back to regroup for another attack, and he would not allow his force to pursue pellmell.

With a happy whoop, Tytido rushed up to his general. “We drove them back, Sir!” he beamed.

Dreibrand cast a weary eye over their torn camp, viewing the bodies from both sides. He was proud of these Hirqua men who had fought bravely and well against a strong force. He no longer had any doubts in their resilience or conviction, but Dreibrand wondered what they would think of him. He had not slain a single attacker.

“Sir, did you really kill the Overlord?” Tytido asked.

“Overlord? Is that what they call their commander?” Dreibrand mumbled while examining his cut arm. He pulled off a gauntlet because blood had run all the way down his arm and inside it.

A grin broke across Tytido’s face as he realized that Dreibrand did not understand the significance of his opponent. He explained, “Sir, that was THE Overlord, the ruler of all Kezanada. At least, I believe so by his size and bright dress. He has been described to me many times. He is the deadliest warrior in all…in all Gyhwen. Or at least he was. Everyone saw him fall!” His excitement and awe became apparent to Dreibrand now.

“I did not kill him,” Dreibrand said quickly before everyone became too elated by their assumptions. “I took him down with a sho dart, but I did not get the chance to finish him.”

This news did not really diminish Tytido’s pleasure in their victory. “But you beat him. Dreibrand Veta beat the Overlord!” he shouted, and his voice blared across the cliffs, rousing a few cheers.

Briefly, Dreibrand acknowledged the praise, glad that they did not have to retreat after all. He walked Starfield to where his broken sword lay in the dirt. Dismounting, he picked up the blade and then retrieved the nearby handle. For a moment he just pondered the pieces, admiring the finely crafted detail on the pommel and hilt. The weapon had cost him a lot of money and had always proved its value, and he was still surprised that it had broken.

His study of his broken weapon ended when an agitated Hirqua ran up to him.

“General, General! Sir, Sir! They have taken Misho,” he cried.

“Slow down, speak common,” Dreibrand ordered. “What happened, Celrand?”

Celrand continued but did not really slow down, “The Kezanada took my cousin Misho prisoner. They had beaten down the Zenglawa and since we were closest to him, we went to help. The Zenglawa had taken out their archers and with their arrows killed many of the Kezanada. That is why we won. But they had gotten to him, and we tried to help, but…they got Misho too. I saw them carry both men away. They weren’t dead. At least Misho lived.” Celrand stopped and took a shaky breath.

Looking to Tytido, Dreibrand asked, “What will the Kezanada do with our men?”

Tytido had been frowning at Celrand because he felt his tribesman gave too much credit to the Zenglawa. Snapping out of his personal thoughts, Tytido responded, “Ah, they will interrogate them. Probably torture them.”

“But Misho knows nothing important!” Celrand protested, aghast. His cousin and he had joined this adventure on a bold whim, and the dangerous realities were hitting him hard.

Proudly Tytido informed Dreibrand, “No Hirqua warrior will betray himself to an enemy. As for the Zenglawa, I cannot say.”

Dreibrand’s face was disturbed as he tried to make a decision. A chill gust of wind howled against the cliffs and tossed his long hair. A cold drop of rain struck his cheek, and he looked to the darkening sky. The day had started out bad and looked like it intended to get worse. But Dreibrand had no need to think for long about his next move. He had to do the right thing for his men, but he wished they did not have to take on the Kezanada again so soon. Looking around at the Kezanada bodies, he noticed the black Kezanada arrows protruding from many of their necks and thought that Celrand might be right about Redan’s pivotal role in the battle.

Addressing Celrand, he said with reassuring confidence, “We will go after them at once. None of my men will be forsaken as prisoners.”

This decision applied some hope to Celrand’s anxiety. He was greatly relieved that Dreibrand wanted to save his cousin.

“Lieutenant, send scouts to find their trail. We cannot afford to lose them in the wilds, especially with the rain coming. Select two men to stay and help the wounded and—tend to the dead. And make sure they search and strip those Kezanada bodies. When finished they can help the injured to Fata Nor if we do not return today.”

Tytido saluted quickly and left to distribute his orders. Dreibrand asked Celrand to stay and wrap his arm. The scimitar had sliced a gruesome flap of flesh that should have been stitched, but Dreibrand could not take the time to give himself proper attention. He knew the plight of Misho and Redan was worse than his arm. Remembering his nasty captivity with Hydax and Gennor, he empathized with their peril.

Before departing, Dreibrand toured his wrecked camp, offering praise and comfort to the wounded. Four Yentay had been lost and it was a terrible blow, but he had to make sure the number did not become six. He believed Pelafan and Sutah had encouraged this attack on him, and he resented the ruin and death the meddlesome rys had caused for their petty reasons.

He found the short sword that he had given Redan laying on the ground. He hoped he would have the opportunity to return it to the brave Zenglawa, but for now he needed it. After packing his broken sword into his gear, Dreibrand led his twenty-seven fit warriors after the Kezanada. Although the Kezanada were elusive, Dreibrand was determined not to let them slip away.

~

The Kezanada galloped down the Jingten Road with little artifice until they reached a bridge over a small creek that wound down from the slopes. Here they splashed upstream into the woodland, letting the flowing water consume their tracks.

As the rain turned from a drizzle to a chilling shower, the Second decided to make a camp so that the Overlord could recover in some comfort. Currently the Overlord’s great frame was draped over a horse rather unceremoniously. On another horse, farther back in the group, were tied the prisoners.

The Kezanada force climbed out of the stream far away from the road and headed deep into a thick growth of pines. The many branches of the young trees provided a needley and difficult barrier to the riders, but they sought the cover produced by the screen of pines. The Kezanada knew the terrain along the road to Jingten well and they had a particular spot in mind. The thick juvenile woods eventually gave way to a more open and mature forest, and they finally entered a grove of regal old growth, whose crowns could be seen in the distance towering over their underlings.

In this place the Kezanada strung two ropes between trees and hung some skins over them. In the hasty shelter they placed the Overlord out of the rain. The prisoners received the opposite treatment. Redan and Misho were tied to stakes that had been quickly pounded into the ground in a clear and rainy spot. Their limbs were pulled out cruelly between each stake, making them look like skins stretched out to dry.

The rough treatment and the cold rain roused Redan from the blow he had taken to the head. Stunned and disoriented, he did not immediately comprehend his situation, until a Kezanada stretched his legs taut with bindings that were connected to stakes too far away. As his body was spread painfully, Redan remembered the battle and the many Kezanada he had killed before they overwhelmed him. Actually rather surprised to be alive, Redan smiled despite his discomfort while thinking of the devastation he had brought to the feared Kezanada. Eight of the faceless and notorious mercenaries had fallen from his artful aim.

The Zenglawa’s satisfied smirk did nothing to improve the mood of the nearest Kezanada, who was already upset with the lethal archer. Standing up from securing the leg bindings, the Kezanada sent a boot into Redan’s groin. Redan’s vague smile instantly disappeared as he let out an unflattering scream.  Pain and nausea wracked his body, and he almost went back into unconsciousness. The Kezanada laughed, but Redan was beyond hearing it and only squirmed helplessly.

Under the crude shelter of skins, the Second held a flask to the Overlord’s mouth. The elixir would speed away the effects of the sho dart. The Overlord groaned and raised a slow hand to wipe his lips. He took a few deep breaths and felt control seep back into his muscles.

When he found his voice, he complained thickly, “A sho dart. I had that foreigner, and he got me with a sho dart.”

“He is a servant of Shan. He will have rys things,” reasoned the Second.

The Overlord grumbled a few curses in reference to Dreibrand, then sent a harsh gaze upon his Second and demanded, “Why did you retreat? Benladu, we would have won.”

The Second was a bold man who knew little fear and lived in a harsh world, but difficult questions from his master sent a tight discomfort through his chest.

“It is my sworn duty to protect your person. I thought to take you to safety, Overlord. The fight was not important enough to risk you,” explained the Second.

 “Never disgrace the Kezanada with an unnecessary retreat,” the Overlord decreed with menace. “All who serve Shan deserve death to avenge our fallen brothers.”

“That is why I brought you prisoners,” offered the Second, hoping to recoup his favor.

“Ahhh, prisoners,” the Overlord sighed affectionately, outwardly pleased.

He decided not to pursue the issue of the retreat any more at this time. The Overlord was the most upset with Pelafan and Sutah, who had suggested the disastrous encounter with the Yentay. He hoped the larcenous rys had the sense to stay away from Do Jempur, because the sight of them would tempt him to murder, and the Overlord did not want to provoke Jingten.

Regaining his feet, the Overlord commanded, “Show me the prisoners.”

The Second eagerly complied.

The Overlord looked down through his visor at the prisoners. They looked wholly miserable, wet and shivering in the rain. He could tell one was a Hirqua and one was a Zenglawa, which surprised him. The young Hirqua still looked a little dazed, but the Overlord noted the intense gleam from the eyes of the long haired Zenglawa. Even pitifully strapped to the ground with the mud gluing dead pine needles in his hair, Redan radiated a stubborn pride.

Gesturing to Redan, the Second mentioned, “This is the one responsible for most of our losses. His skill is incredible.”

“A pity he did not seek to join the Kezanada. Shan will miss his service,” commented the Overlord as he squatted beside Misho’s head. He removed a stiletto from the many compartments of his coat and, seizing a bound hand, inserted the needle-like blade at the base of the man’s thumb. Misho winced at the poke, but otherwise remained stoic. Redan watched with wide eyes, filled with concern for his fellow prisoner.

Using the common speech, the Overlord asked, “Do you serve Shan?”

Misho quaked with the acceptance of his oncoming and painful demise and prayed to his ancestors for the strength to maintain the honor of his tribe.

“Where is Shan?” hissed the Overlord.

No answer.

“Young Hirqua, you do have a choice. The longer you resist me, the more pain you will earn,” the Overlord calmly explained, warming to the subject. “Now answer.”

 Misho’s failure to respond prompted the Overlord to sink the spike deep into the hand. The Hirqua could only scream with pain as the Overlord pierced the flesh and played nerves like violin strings. Thrashing his head, Misho fought at his bindings, but the effort weakened as the pain sabotaged his strength. The Overlord twisted the stiletto inside the hand and Misho howled.

“Do you remember where Shan is yet?” laughed the Overlord, pleased with his delicate trick.

“It is no secret where Shan is!” Redan yelled. He could not bear to see Misho’s torment and tried to distract the Overlord, even if it meant receiving the awful attention of the Kezanada leader.

“Wait your turn, Zenglawa. We shall soon hear why you are with these rebels,” the Overlord warned.

“You know where Shan is,” Redan cried. “Leave him alone.”

“Oh, but I want to be sure. The rys may have slipped by my spies,” the Overlord stated sarcastically.

The Overlord released the stiletto but left it sunk into the hand that now slowly oozed blood. Much to the despair of the prisoners, the Overlord removed a skewer from his coat. A large hand clamped onto Misho’s skull and held the Hirqua’s head steady. Misho’s eyes bulged with terror.

The Overlord continued, “Perhaps Shan is close by and your force was trying to slip him back to Jingten. In any case, I want every detail even if nothing is news to me.”

After making this depressing proclamation, the Overlord began to carefully slide his evil tool under the skin along the line of Misho’s jaw. Again the warrior screamed but his cries only made his suffering worse, and Misho lapsed into fast shallow gasps. The Overlord probed the side of the man’s face and accessed a nerve that brought enough pain to make Misho twitch all the way to his feet.

“Stop!” Redan pleaded, but his concern only earned him a kick in the ribs from the Second.

Laughing, the Overlord observed, “The Zenglawa acts as if he actually feels the Hirqua’s pain. Feel free to talk your business if this bothers you so much, Zenglawa.”

Redan turned away from the scene of Misho’s suffering. The temptation to just say Shan stayed at Dengar Nor assailed Redan because the Kezanada probably knew that anyway and there would be no true harm in confirming it. But Redan knew even that trifling admission would be faithless and he sincerely longed to do right by Shan. Now, as the prisoner of the terrible Kezanada, he would die and no one would ever know how much he truly believed in the fight against Onja.

Misho moaned plaintively and Redan gritted his teeth. The cruelty of the Overlord had not been exaggerated, and Redan suspected that nothing he could say would stop the torture.

Facing his tormented companion again, Redan insisted desperately, “We know nothing.”

Leaving the dreadful skewer in Misho’s face, the Overlord roughly turned his victim’s head and brought out another skewer. While the Overlord examined the unmarred side of Misho’s face, a Kezanada rushed up and interrupted the torture.

With a salute, he reported, “Overlord, the rebel warriors have followed us. They approach our position.”

Behind his visor the Overlord scowled with surprise. The Kezanada were rarely followed. Shan’s foreign warrior was bold indeed, and the Overlord had to admire Dreibrand’s perseverance. Sighing, the Overlord decided to abandon his prisoners. He doubted they knew anything of value, but their torture would have been satisfying.

Removing his instruments from Misho, the Overlord rose and announced, “Let Shan know what it is to find his men dead in the forest. Kill them.”

He left with his Second to deal with the approaching war party.

The Kezanada left to dispatch the prisoners drew his knife and approached the prisoners with business-like ease. Misho panted feverishly, too relieved that his torture had ceased to care about his approaching executioner. Redan stared at the Kezanada and experienced complete helplessness. He could not defend himself physically or verbally, and the Yentay would never arrive in time.

The Kezanada kneeled first by Redan. He was pleased to kill the archer who had taken so many of his brothers that day. With open eyes that showed no regret or surrender, Redan watched the blade come for his throat. Suddenly, he heard the curious sound of sizzling and the rain began to steam on the knife, and then the Kezanada’s gauntlet began to steam. The mercenary yelled with confusion and dropped the knife, which slapped into the mud with a hiss. Urgently the Kezanada tore off his steaming gauntlet that was burning his hand.

This bizarre event shocked Redan until comprehension suddenly flooded his mind as he looked at the Kezanada’s burned hand. Redan had known the same sensation of having a superheated weapon scorch his hand. It was magic.

It has to be Lord Shan, he thought with incredible joy.

Redan felt heat at his wrists and ankles and his bindings were destroyed. The sudden release of the strain on his muscles and joints was bliss to his aching body, but Redan could not even take a second to enjoy the relief. The Kezanada, although confused, already reached for the knife, but Redan snatched it up. Although the heat lingered in the handle, Redan could bear to grasp it under such desperate circumstances.

Redan lurched up and thrust the knife at the Kezanada, who blocked it awkwardly with his ungloved hand. The knife sank through the hand, and Redan grasped the Kezanada by the throat with his other hand. The men grappled fiercely, and Redan clung to his enemy with the desperation of a man who knew he only had the briefest of opportunities to save himself. Redan wrenched the knife out of the hand and struck with the speed of a starving snake, slitting the man’s throat so fast he even cut two of his own fingers.

Warm blood gushed over Redan’s hand as he pushed his defeated enemy back, gurgling in death throes. Still on his knees, Redan crouched lower and looked around warily. The other Kezanada mounted their horses and shouted orders, preparing for the assault on their position. So far, no one had noticed his extraordinary liberation or the killing of his executioner.

Flopping onto his stomach, he scrambled to Misho and cut his bindings.

“How?” Misho whispered weakly.

“Magic has set me free,” Redan whispered while hacking away the last of Misho’s restraints. “It must be Shan.”

Misho clutched his bleeding face with his good hand. Although the exquisiteness of the pain had mellowed, the damage to his tissue and nerves kept him in agony. Redan put an arm around the Hirqua’s shoulders and helped him sit up. The stress of the ordeal made Misho shudder repeatedly, and he feebly held his crippled hand against his chest. Great drops of blood plopped into his lap, and the rain spread the pinkness all over his front.

“Stand up,” Redan hissed.

“I feel so sick,” Misho whispered but he tried to get his feet underneath him.

Redan hoisted his injured comrade the rest of the way. “We must run!”

Although Misho needed Redan to support him, he did scramble along with some speed. He wanted very much to live.

The trumpeting of a Kezanada horn bounced between the large mossy trees and the war cries of the Yentay answered the horn as they broke out of the underbrush. They charged with indignant fury, knowing their only hope of saving the prisoners was to overwhelm the Kezanada quickly.

Redan dashed toward the line of advancing Yentay. Even in the rain and confusion, the Kezanada immediately noticed the unlikely sight of their escaping prisoners. Outraged that his victims were miraculously slipping away, the Overlord trashed his defense plans and ordered a charge. He wanted those miserable fools cut down before they reached their friends.

Redan and Misho heard the cheers of their comrades, who upon seeing them, rejoiced that they lived. But Redan also heard the pounding of angry hooves behind him and estimated that the Kezanada would reach him first. Redan’s nobility had not been fostered by his people, who tended to be conniving, but rather it was innate to his character. He instantly came to a decision and flung Misho ahead.

“Run, Misho, run!” he cried and turned to fight.

With only the knife he faced the closest mounted warrior despite the ridiculousness of the endeavor. At least by confronting the Kezanada, he could dodge the first few killing blows instead of just taking it in the back as he fled.

Celrand urged his horse harshly toward his stumbling cousin. Misho collapsed against the horse’s side, clutching Celrand’s thigh with his good hand and gasping. Distressed by Misho’s bloody appearance, Celrand hauled him into the saddle fearing that he was on the verge of death.

 For the second time that day, Dreibrand’s force came together with the Kezanada in a violent crash. With Misho already recovered, Dreibrand rallied his men to the aid of Redan.

Redan dodged between his Kezanada tormentors, using their horses to shield him as best he could. It was a game he could not play for long. As the Yentay drew some of the pressure off, he attempted to pull a Kezanada from his horse. The attempt proved quite futile and Redan found himself parrying sword strokes with his relatively puny knife while dancing alongside the horse.

The Kezanada swatted at him with annoyance, and the sword finally knocked the knife from Redan’s hand. Redan ducked as the sword came back on the return swing. Just then another sword slammed into the Kezanada’s helmeted head and the sturdy Kezanada slumped forward slightly stunned.

Dreibrand was on the other side of the mercenary and Redan was elated by the sight of his general. Again Dreibrand smacked the Kezanada with the short sword but the armor protected him.

Guiding his horse to Redan, Dreibrand extended a hand. “Redan, climb on!”

Even as he said this, Dreibrand had to block the blows from another Kezanada and Redan wasted no time in getting on Starfield. A third Kezanada assailed Dreibrand, who defended himself with shield and sword. Redan felt very exposed and burdensome hanging onto his general’s back and he wished he had a weapon to help in the fight.

Dreibrand hollered orders to withdraw and kicked Starfield’s sides to let the horse know the importance of the departure. The Yentay hightailed it back into the younger woods. Dreibrand issued more orders on the fly to return to their camp along the cliffs. With the Kezanada still close, he wanted to regroup with his wounded so as not to leave them vulnerable to vengeful retaliation.

The angered Kezanada howled after the Yentay for a while, but the Overlord had little energy for the chase. As he had exhausted Dreibrand, he had wearied himself and the entire day had already been a huge waste. The captives were lost and the Overlord was not getting any closer to Shan. He needed to return to Do Jempur, study his reports, and select warriors for his final attack.

The cold autumn rains had spoiled everybody’s lust for battle, and Dreibrand did not turn back to punish the Kezanada. By the time the Yentay returned to their camp, everyone was exhausted and soaked. They were proud of driving back the Kezanada and rescuing the prisoners, but they had lost friends and Misho needed help.

Redan slid down from Starfield’s rump and said, “You came for us, Sir.”

 “Of course we did,” Dreibrand said matter-of-factly as he dismounted. “Leaving you to our enemy was not an option.”

Redan thanked him sincerely.

“And thank you, Redan. You killed many Kezanada and proved your worth to your fellow warriors.” Dreibrand laid a hand on Redan’s shoulder and added, “You will have that bow you wanted when we get back to Dengar Nor.”

Redan grinned.

Next Dreibrand went to see Misho, who Celrand tended. The bloody Hirqua was pale and one eye drooped on his swollen face. Dreibrand examined the peculiar wounds while Celrand cleaned them, and Redan softly explained how they had been inflicted.

“He wanted t’know ’bout Lor Shan, Sir,” Misho said painfully. “But we said nothing.”

“I know,” Dreibrand agreed as if he had never doubted.

Celrand began to bandage his cousin, who tried to doze and elude his pain.

Redan said, “It is good you came when you did, Sir. The Overlord has no heart and would have slowly poked us both to death. His cruelty is calm and well practiced.”

“A suitable servant for Onja,” muttered Dreibrand.

He watched the blood soak into Misho’s bandages and knew that he had to end his scouting mission. He decided to head straight for Fata Nor so the wounded could get proper help and dry off because the rains had the look of not stopping for days.

Thoughtfully he asked, “Redan, how did you escape?”

With complete belief, Redan explained that Shan had set him free with magic. This caught the attention of a half dozen nearby warriors, some of who accused the Zenglawa of making up a story.

“Then who do you think it was? Pelafan? Sutah?” Redan demanded with defensive sarcasm.

“You might have just broken your bonds. Fear of death can bring great strength,” Celrand suggested.

“Look!” Redan commanded, holding up his arms. The singed bindings dangled from his wrists. This evidence ended any scoffing and those who had doubted were now quietly impressed.

Dreibrand said, “It seems someone has helped you Redan, but we will not know that it was Lord Shan until we get back to Dengar Nor so we can ask him.”

“I know it was Lord Shan,” Redan said. He was tired of always being doubted, but he was encouraged that Shan had chosen to help him with his magic. The privilege had been great.

“Let us circle back, Pelafan,” Sutah said as he watched his friend continue up the mountain trail that would converge with the road high in the pass.

“We have business ahead,” Pelafan grumbled dismissively.

“We have business behind! The warding crystal,” insisted Sutah.

Pelafan spun around, exasperated with his companion. His delicate nostrils flared in the high thin air as he contained his temper. Pelafan was still upset with Sutah for running away when he had been hurt, but he was more upset for missing Dreibrand with his sho dart.

“Oh, we will get that crystal and have revenge on that human,” Pelafan announced with menace and touched the bandage on his arm.

“How?” Sutah asked.

Pelafan replied, “I have glimpsed Kezanada warriors coming from the Jingten Valley as we speak. I intend to meet them on the road and convince them to attack the small force of humans. Then they will be dead and we can take the crystal.”

Remembering the Kezanada passing by a few days earlier, Sutah remarked that they had delivered their tribute quickly.

“Who cares about that,” Pelafan snapped. “Come on. I do not want to miss them.”

Trotting up beside Pelafan, Sutah queried, “How will you convince the Kezanada to help us? Those humans had very little gold and the Kezanada may not be tempted just by their gear and horses, especially if they have to fight for it.”

“Sutah, if you would keep quiet, I could think about the details,” Pelafan said irritably.

Although Sutah lacked the grumbling confidence of his partner, he stopped asking questions. If Pelafan’s plan succeeded, it would be great fun, and Sutah had no other plan in mind beyond a repeat of last night’s approach.

When they reached the road, they stood side by side in the lane and looked up into the pass where the alpine meadows stretched above the trees. Next to them, one ancient and stubborn tree grew bent and twisted, defying the constant wind. The rys had reached the road without much time to spare and they did not need their rys perceptions to see the approaching Kezanada force. The grim warriors led by their burly Overlord thundered down the pass at a full gallop. Because of their fast pace, Pelafan suspected that Onja had contracted some urgent business with the mercenary nation, but as long as Onja had not commanded them to punish him and Sutah, Pelafan did not care.

“You did not say the Overlord was with them,” Sutah said.

“Of course he is,” Pelafan said, although he had not known. When he had spied the Kezanada force entering the pass, they had been at the edge of his perception and very indistinct. He had not noticed the Overlord at all.

If the two forms blocking the road had been human, the Kezanada would have rolled right over the impudent vagabonds, but rys were a different matter. The Overlord recognized the two rys and decided to speak with them—briefly. Signaling for his warriors to halt, the Overlord slowed his steed’s mighty pace.

The Overlord’s great warhorse rumbled to a stop by the rys and many warriors flowed around Pelafan and Sutah until they were surrounded by hot lathered horses. The wind pulled at the black horsetails on every helmet, and the sun reflected brightly on the visored faces.

The handle of the Overlord’s scimitar protruded from his colorful furs, and on the other side of his mighty frame, a crystal laden pommel stuck out.

“Pelafan and Sutah, what do you want?” the Overlord demanded.

“Great master of the Kezanada,” Pelafan began diplomatically. “We require a favor from you and your mighty warriors.”

A contemptuous snort sounded behind the metal grate of the Overlord’s ornate helmet. “I have more important business than your skulking thievery.”

“But Overlord, it will be worth your while,” Pelafan said.

The Overlord scoffed, “I have no time for you, Pelafan. You know our arrangement. Go to my stronghold. My agents are always pleased to trade with you.”

“But Overlord please, I need only a moment,” Pelafan insisted.

The Overlord rumbled, “Pelafan, you have already caused me enough delay to anger me.”

Despite the Kezanada’s ominous tone, Pelafan continued, “Overlord, a nearby band of warriors possesses a valuable item that Sutah and I wish to steal. But we need your help.”

The Overlord noted the bandaged arm of the rys and chuckled, “Some human finally got the best of you, and now you want us to go punish them for you.” The Overlord smelled truth like a dog on a strong trail.

“Exactly,” Pelafan beamed.

Although Pelafan was a wiley rys, he was about a thousand times less powerful than Queen Onja and the Overlord had no fear of him. Derisively the Overlord laughed, “Pelafan, you do not ask a favor, you ask for a service, and you do not have the means to pay me to attack anyone.”

Pelafan glanced to Sutah, but Sutah had a puzzled expression on his face. As usual, Sutah had no support forthcoming and Pelafan decided to reveal more facts about his purpose. He had wanted to avoid mentioning the warding crystal because the Kezanada might covet it, but the Overlord was not being convinced.

“But they have a warding crystal. With that Sutah and I could steal in Jingten itself. We could filch all manner of jewels and antiques from the grand houses of Jingten, trading exclusively with the Kezanada of course. Overlord, think of the finery of Jingten slipping back down the Rysamand. With this warding crystal, our fellow rys will not be able to detect us. Except for Onja, but we will stay out of her Keep. This warding crystal is powerful. I believe it was made by Shan himself.”

The Overlord had not really been listening to the rys’s proposal, only remaining because the horses had been winded and needed the rest. But at the mention of Shan’s name, the Overlord abruptly granted his true attention.

Jumping down from his horse, he shouted excitedly, “Shan is here!?”

Elated to have the Overlord’s interest, Pelafan realized the Kezanada’s “more important business” must be the bounty for Shan. Pelafan wished he could answer that Shan actually was nearby because now that he had the Overlord’s attention he wanted to keep it. However, lying to the Kezanada was never recommended.

“A band of warriors is camped along those cliffs. They are led by the man from the east, who Shan has taken as a friend. He must be a very close friend if Shan has given him a warding crystal. You could capture him and he could reveal much about Shan,” Pelafan explained, enjoying the thought of the human suffering the Overlord’s torture.

Although aware that Pelafan tried to manipulate him, the Overlord felt tempted to attack the group of warriors. Slaughtering some men connected to Shan would be a nice appetizer for the revenge he wanted for his lost one hundred warriors. And torturing some prisoners could provide some valuable information.

“How many warriors are you talking about?” the Overlord demanded.

“Only forty,” Pelafan replied eagerly.

The Overlord looked around thoughtfully. He had forty Kezanada with him. The other half of his force was a full day behind in the Jingten Valley escorting the empty tribute wagons, baggage, and servants. However, even odds were excellent odds when the Kezanada were involved.

“Very well Pelafan, you and Sutah have your wish. The Kezanada will crush these humans who have offended you. I will have my prisoners, and you can keep the crystal because I have no use for such a thing. But you owe me,” the Overlord growled.

“Oh yes, of course, Overlord,” Pelafan accepted happily.

“I will attack in the morning. Now I need to make camp before dark and certainly not this high up the mountain,” the Overlord decided.

Pelafan and Sutah managed to persuade two Kezanada to let them ride double with them. Sutah was glad that Pelafan’s plan seemed to be working so far, but he needed to speak privately with his companion. Sutah knew Pelafan had been concentrating on his conversation with the Overlord and must not have yet noticed what was unusual. If Sutah shut his eyes, the Overlord and a handful of his warriors were simply not there. A powerful aura of magic hung over them, masking the rys’s perception more than Dreibrand’s warding crystal had. Much more.

When Pelafan finally noticed the effect, he looked at Sutah with surprise. Neither rys had heard of humans being granted the protection of warding crystals before, and now it seemed every human they encountered suddenly possessed the magic charms. The rys thieves realized that their Queen was arming her forces for genuine warfare. A rys power struggle of classical proportions was definitely brewing. Although these revelations were disturbing to Pelafan and Sutah, they, like most rys, were more curious about the outcome than interested in joining the conflict.

By now, the Zenglawa caravan had labored up the road and encountered the Kezanada, who arrogantly insisted the Zenglawa make way for them. When King Atathol first saw the Kezanada warriors, complete with their infamous Overlord and accompanied by two rys, he thought that Onja had contracted his killing for certain. The Kezanada were a traditional medium for the consequences of her displeasure. Few indiscretions were worthy of Onja’s magic, and Atathol was actually relieved when the Kezanada only bowled rudely through the Zenglawa group. The tribute caravan hurried into the pass even though it was dusk. The road would allow them to travel at night, and Atathol wanted to get into the Jingten Valley before stopping, especially with the Overlord on this side of the pass.

The Overlord directed his warriors to make camp in an area commonly used by caravans. Pelafan considered the site overly visible especially when he saw they intended to have fires, and he even gave the Overlord his unsolicited opinion.

Rather testily, the Overlord responded, “Then you and Sutah will monitor for spies all night. The rebels will think we are the Zenglawa anyway.”

Receiving all night guard duty for his complaining did not please Pelafan but he did not protest. He did not want the Overlord to change his mind about attacking.

~

Clouds gathered against the Rysamand, creating a starless black night, and Dreibrand paced beside his campfire like a chained dog. The thought of the rys returning with the night agitated him greatly. He knew he had been lucky to beat them off the night before and he did not know how he would fare in a second confrontation.

The uncertainty of the night gave Dreibrand a bad feeling. He had just come back from the lookout ridge where he had seen the fires of what he assumed to be the Zenglawa camp. The tribute caravan had moved out of sight from his vantage point and disappeared in the dusk before the campfires had appeared in the evening, but their closeness bothered him. As an Atrophaney officer he had always been confident in his superior forces and victorious outcomes, but he did not have those sensations tonight. Dreibrand believed his Hirqua warriors were durable enough but they were not the Horde.

Tytido shared Dreibrand’s fire, poking it with a stick and watching his general pace. When Dreibrand noticed his lieutenant observing him thoughtfully, he stopped because he should not let the others see him be so bothered.

Dreibrand touched his chestplate that covered the warding crystal hanging around his neck. Quietly he said, “Lieutenant, do you think those rys will come back?”

Tytido considered a moment, watching the flame that had started on the end of his poking stick. He did not blame his commander for being worried. Tytido remembered the sho dart and he did not want the rys to come back either.

“Sir, I think they might. Pelafan will plan some nasty trick if he can. You captured him and tied him up. For a rys that is quite humiliating, but I don’t know why they were bothering us in the first place,” Tytido said.

Dreibrand squatted next to Tytido and said, “I have a warding crystal. I think that is what they wanted.”

“You do?” Tytido cried, but Dreibrand motioned for him to keep his voice down.

“It is from Shan. Do you think Pelafan and Sutah would want something like that?” Dreibrand asked.

“Who wouldn’t? Can I see it, Sir?” Tytido asked eagerly. He had seen warding crystals before in temples and in the throne room of Onja when he had accompanied his tribe’s tribute caravan, but he had never touched one.

Dreibrand hesitated but he decided he could trust Tytido. He slipped the orb out of its pouch and handed it to Tytido, who admired the swirling light within the perfect sphere.

“It is my guess that those rys will go to Atathol and convince him to attack us,” Dreibrand whispered.

Tytido looked up from the fascinating charm. Trying to be optimistic, he said, “Sir, they will not leave their tribute to attack us.”

Because Tytido seemed so sure, Dreibrand considered that he could be worrying too much. Yet, he could not ignore his instincts, and he persisted, “You said yourself that I humiliated the rys, and I know they are up to something.”

Handing the warding crystal back to his general, Tytido said, “Sir, I know you were upset last night because the rys got into camp. It will not happen again. I have doubled the guard and assigned everyone two watches tonight. Get some rest, Sir. Do not let these bandit rys rattle your mind.”

Dreibrand disliked Tytido’s opinion that he was rattled, and he clung to his desire to take the initiative. “I am going to see what is going on in that camp up the mountain.  I will be back before dawn,” Dreibrand announced.

Startled, Tytido protested, “Why do you want to do that?”

“Pelafan and Sutah cannot detect me, or at least I think so. And if I have what they want you will be safer without me,” Dreibrand said.

“And if they can’t detect you, how will they know you have left the camp? They might attack anyway,” Tytido reasoned.

Dreibrand growled with frustration because his lieutenant had a good point. “But I must know what is going on at that camp,” he insisted, starting to pace again.

Tytido stood up to argue with his commander. He was beginning to like Dreibrand, even respect him, but sometimes the foreigner’s mind raced off in strange directions. Tytido did not know what went on in the eastern world, but on his side of the world, commanders did not rush off to enemy camps in the night.

Somewhat sternly, Tytido said, “It would be foolish to leave camp, Sir. Especially with rys around. We must stay together. If you go scouting, you could be captured.”

Dreibrand really disliked the possibility of being captured. He stopped pacing and then reluctantly plunked down next to the fire. Tytido’s candor had not angered him. Perhaps his scouting idea was foolish, and Dreibrand realized that he should let himself rely on the advice of his lieutenant sometimes.

The loss of sleep from the night before suddenly caught up with Dreibrand and his shoulders sagged with weariness. He would rest.

“I would have done well to have your wisdom to restrain me in the past, Lieutenant,” he said.

Subtle happiness lighted Tytido’s face. He sat down and resumed poking the fire. “Thank you, Sir,” he said.

With Tytido watching, Dreibrand went to sleep, but he left his armor on this night. The silvery glow of the coming dawn outlined the mountains when Tytido gripped Dreibrand’s shoulder to wake him. Dreibrand was surprised by the depth of his sleep as he shook it off and sat up. The first bird had not even broken into morning song yet, but the entire camp was stirring and men were already gathering the hobbled horses.

“What is it?” Dreibrand asked.

Tytido gave him a hand up and explained that he had sent scouts up the pass in the middle of the night and they had just reported back.

With a frown, Dreibrand reminded him that he had said that it would be foolish to go scouting with Pelafan and Sutah out there.

“Foolish for you, Sir,” Tytido said. “But you were right to believe that there was danger. A group of Kezanada is on the road. If Pelafan and Sutah told them about us, we could be in trouble.”

Dreibrand regretted mentioning Shan to Pelafan, and he imagined the deal the rys could make with the Kezanada. He had no doubt that the rys had contacted the mercenaries of Onja, and he took little comfort in the vindication that his worries had been warranted.

“How many?” Dreibrand asked as he bent to grab his sword belt and buckle it on.

“Fifty, we think,” Tytido estimated, going high.

Dreibrand called to Redan to get his horse, and the Zenglawa promptly scrambled off on his errand. Dreibrand decided, “We will give the Kezanada a chance to pass by in case they are not looking for us.”

Tytido nodded hopefully. Although Tytido had been eager to assail the tribute caravan of the Zenglawa earlier, he showed no signs of suggesting an attack this time. Tytido had known that this rebellion business would put him in conflict with the Kezanada, but now that this might actually happen, he found the concept had lost some of its allure.

Dreibrand noted the apprehension on his lieutenant’s face and had to ask, “Do the Hirqua have the stomach for fighting the Kezanada if it comes to that?”

Tytido’s face hardened into proud offense at Dreibrand’s rude question. “The Hirqua will stand in any fight,” he stated.

“Good! Now, Lieutenant, forgive the question. I had to know your mind because everyone speaks of the Kezanada with fear,” Dreibrand explained.

“Once we all fight together, hopefully there will be no more doubts about each other’s courage,” Tytido said.

Catching his lieutenant’s meaning, Dreibrand went on with business. He glanced at the light peeking over the mountains. “We must have a plan if they attack. We will hold this position. If they attack us, we will give way to them against the cliffs. Then our force will split and attack their flanks. We will either squeeze them successfully…or have access to escape.”

“I do not like this splitting up against the Kezanada,” Tytido said.

Dreibrand insisted, “Splitting us will split them. This position is not important to us. Our goal is to avoid defeat. If their force is too large for us to handle, we will retreat and regroup at the first bridge down the road to the east.”

“You do not sound confident with all these plans of retreat,” Tytido remarked.

Dreibrand asserted his authority. “Tytido, it is your place to advise me, even criticize, but do not snipe at my tactics. I know what I am doing. We are a small scouting force, not an army for open battle. Intelligence demands I plan a retreat. We are not here to die, but to win. I intend to be in Jingten in the spring and if I have to make a few strategic retreats to get there, I will.”

Tytido apologized, grudgingly accepting that it was time for him to accept that his general had the command.

Gently, wanting to foster Tytido’s confidence in him, Dreibrand added, “I think we will win, Lieutenant.”

They went together to the lookout ridge to watch the road while the Yentay broke camp and mounted up.

The Kezanada advanced quickly down the mountain, easy to see in the morning light. Even at a distance, Dreibrand could discern the value of the warriors that were feared by even the mighty Temu. They were all big and strong and on good horses. They rode together in a close confident force that owned the road. The Kezanada obviously believed in their notorious reputation.

Dreibrand was an experienced warrior, but his encounters with fighters of this caliber had been rare. He breathed deeply of the cool mountain air, smelling its freshness, feeling how he was alive, and prepared himself mentally to be tested.

The Kezanada force left the road below his vantage point and headed directly for his position.

“So, it is a fight then,” Dreibrand whispered.

It was a clear night near the pass and Dreibrand appreciated the dry weather. The stars sparkled like powdery snow in moonlight, concentrated in some places with such clarity that they looked like veins of pure silver in the basalt night. The mysterious howls of a few wolves on some distant hunt hidden in the mountains occasionally drifted to his ears, and Dreibrand remembered the night the wolves had attacked Miranda and him. That seemed a whole lifetime ago.

Staring at the stars from his bedroll, Dreibrand let his mind drift toward the celestial heights. The way the constellations shifted in his travels never ceased to amaze him. Comforted by the soothing vastness of the heavens, Dreibrand fell into a deep sleep.

Because he was tired, he did not wake out of habit and he slept past midnight. Eventually the mountain cold bothered him, rousing him enough to tighten the blanket around his body. He might have slipped back to sleep, but some nagging element of intuition told him something was wrong. Perhaps he had heard a crackle of frosted grass that sounded out of place.

Although his armor was off, Dreibrand still had his dagger in his belt and his sword by his side and most definitely his boots on. Sitting up, he eased his dagger out and listened closely. There were no noises to confirm his suspicions and he wondered if he was simply being paranoid.

He called to the nearest sentry. Two Hirqua soon appeared, worried by their general’s call, but they had nothing to report. Somewhat reassured after checking on the camp’s status, Dreibrand dismissed them and settled under his blanket. He held his dagger across his chest and tried to resume his deep sleep. Pine needles crunched under the boots of the sentries as they returned to their posts, and the camp was tranquil again.

But something had entered the camp, guided by the deepest shadows, and Dreibrand felt the closeness of an intruder at the last instant. As he flinched and dodged in a random direction, he heard a snapping click. The noise was vaguely familiar, but he did not place it at the time. Something small flew by his face and got stuck in his long hair. Then someone landed on top of him.

Slender hands clamped onto his throat. In the tussle, Dreibrand managed to stab the assailant in the arm. With a pained cry, the attacker withdrew his choking grasp and lurched back onto Dreibrand’s legs. The attacker called out several words, and Dreibrand instantly recognized the rys language. Another rys replied with a couple sharp words, and Dreibrand realized his attacker had a companion.

Tytido, who had been sleeping nearby, sprang from his blankets. He heard the brief exchange of rys words and located one of the intruders by his voice. A pair of onyx eyes gleamed in the inky dark and Tytido rushed the being bravely despite his inherent fear. He yelled, raising the alarm, but he never reached the rys. Click snap, and a dart stung his neck. Tytido immediately stumbled and the pain in his neck dispersed into numbness. In his sudden terror, while sprawling face first into the ground, Tytido thought he had been stricken dead by some punishing rys spell. Onja must have learned of his treachery and cast her judgement upon him.

Worries of Onja’s omnipotence did not occur to Dreibrand, but he did realize the intruders were using sho darts and their sharp rys perceptions could aim the nasty missiles in the dark. Thanking his luck for actually being missed by the sho dart, he delicately plucked the dart from his hair before it chanced to pierce his skin.

The rys he had stabbed was briefly stunned by the pain because rys rarely had injuries. Before the rys could renew the assault, Dreibrand thrust the sho dart into the rys’s cheek. The rys cried indignantly and Dreibrand shoved him away.

“Intruders in the camp!” Dreibrand yelled in his native language without realizing it.

Scrambling to his feet, Dreibrand lashed out with his dagger, seeking the second rys. The depth of the night cloaked everything except the stars and the black edge of the mountains, and the erratic movements of the alarmed warriors made it impossible for Dreibrand to interpret what he saw.

“Intruders! Do not let them get away. Stir the fires,” he commanded.

He rushed in what he thought could be the proper direction and tripped over Tytido. After Dreibrand stopped his fall, he rolled the motionless Hirqua over.

“Bring a light!” Dreibrand yelled.

Tinder was being thrown on the coals of several campfires and the flickering light thinned the dark. Someone lit a fresh torch and ran to Dreibrand’s summons. He was surprised to see that the torchbearer who had so swiftly answered his command was Redan. Dreibrand nodded to Redan with thanks then returned his attention to Tytido.

The light revealed Tytido’s frightened eyes in his somewhat slackened face. Dreibrand understood the frustration the Hirqua had to feel from the paralysis and the fear.

“You will be fine. This will pass. It is not magic, only poison,” Dreibrand explained.

This statement partially reassured Tytido but a stressed look remained in his eyes.

“Make him comfortable,” Dreibrand instructed Redan.

By now all the warriors were up. Most gathered near Dreibrand or circled the area searching for the other intruder. The injured rys was surrounded by warriors, who examined him cautiously. Dreibrand entered the circle of warriors to look at his captured attacker. Remembering Shan’s comment that sho darts worked well on humans, he wondered what effect the dart actually had on a rys. The glare of torchlight danced around the circle of Yentay, illuminating the fallen rys. The black haired rys had a lanky strong physique imbued with a tangible vitality, but his grace had been removed. The rys wobbled on his hands and knees, unable to coordinate his limbs enough to even crawl away. The normally intense black eyes had lost their focus.

The Hirqua warriors looming around the prisoner were intrigued by the incapacitated rys, whose kind tended to be haughty and casually intimidating. They saw the seeping stab wound and were impressed that Dreibrand had defeated the rys.

This success surprised Dreibrand as well. He knew how close the sho dart had come to its mark. But why did they attack me? he wondered.

Bending down on a knee, Dreibrand grabbed the rys and sat him up. The sho dart still dangled from the blue cheek and Dreibrand carefully removed it. The bright purple rys blood oozed from the puncture with a thick slowness that briefly mesmerized Dreibrand. Several warriors leaned close to look at the bleeding.

Dreibrand lifted the limp arm and examined the stab wound with a concern that contradicted the fact that he had inflicted the injury.

After ordering some bandaging, Dreibrand asked in the common language, “What is your name?”

The rys’s eyes drifted up to his captor’s face, but the chiseled blue lips fumbled on the words. Finally in a quiet slur, the rys responded, “Pelafan.”

“Pelafan, why did you attack me?” Dreibrand said.

“Who are you?” Pelafan said with confusion.

“I am the man you attacked,” Dreibrand explained, wondering how disoriented the rys could be.

After some dreamy consideration, Pelafan answered, “I attacked you because the sho dart missed…I panicked.”

Such an answer frustrated Dreibrand, but he resisted his rising temper. The rys appeared sincerely drugged, and Dreibrand needed to stay calm and take advantage of the rys’s weakened state.

“Why were you in my camp?” Dreibrand said.

Pelafan’s lips parted with the intention of answering but the effects of the sho dart were not sufficient to make him reveal his purposes. Taking pleasure in his last minute resistance, Pelafan grinned until his cheek hurt and he had to stop.

Although Pelafan gave unsatisfying answers, Dreibrand decided to ask more in the hopes that the rys would reveal something. “Were you looking for Shan?”

The mention of Shan’s name sent a flicker of focus through the rys’s eyes.

“You are Shan’s friend,” Pelafan stated as if he just recalled the fact.

Dreibrand pressed, “Do you want to find Shan?”

“No…not really,” the rys answered thickly.

Frowning, Dreibrand added, “Did Onja send you?”

Pelafan’s head rolled to one side. “No.”

“Who was with you?”

This question elicited no response, and Pelafan clearly was not inclined to reveal anything about his accomplice as a matter of principle, no matter how drugged he was. Sensing the rys would not easily give up his secrets, Dreibrand rose with frustration to reconsider his interrogation. He was still rattled by the attack and he needed to go over the event in his mind.

“We have not found the other intruder, Sir,” reported a warrior.

“Everyone is to watch the rest of the night,” Dreibrand decided with a scolding tone. The porousness of his sentry line upset him. Looking to the sagging Pelafan, he added, “And tie him up.”

“Rys magic will destroy any rope we put on him,” the warrior mentioned.

“Tie him up,” the general snapped. “And bring me his weapons.”

The man who had disarmed the fallen rys came forward and showed Dreibrand a long knife of the fashion the rys used and the small pistol that fired sho darts. Eagerly Dreibrand took the pistol that fit comfortably in his hand and examined the strange device with great interest. He located a compartment in the handle that contained three sho darts. Gingerly he rolled the delicate missiles in the palm of his hand, then put two back and set about figuring out how to load the weapon. He discovered a chamber that opened at the rear of the barrel and he pulled the trigger a few times to watch the inner workings of the mechanism. The trigger released a spring loaded bolt that drove the dart out the barrel. At the same time, the trigger also released a delicate clamping device that held the dart so that it would not simply fall out. The pistol was good for one shot and then it would take a moment to reload, but Dreibrand was glad to have it. He loaded the weapon with great care. He did not want to prick himself and fall over paralyzed in front of his men.

“I will guard the rys myself,” Dreibrand announced, gesturing with his new sidearm, courtesy of Jingten. “I should be able to keep Pelafan down for a while with three of these.”

The rys looked up blearily at the mention of his name, but Pelafan did not register that Dreibrand threatened him with more dartings.

The crowd of warriors dispersed, and Dreibrand sat down to study his prisoner. He tossed a branch on his fire to drive back the predawn frostiness. Redan entered the ring of firelight and bowed to his commander.

“How is Tytido?” Dreibrand asked.

“He is better, Sir. He is glad to know he is not dying,” Redan reported while his eyes strayed to the prisoner.

“Good. Now go watch the perimeter,” Dreibrand said absently.

Redan continued to study the prisoner and he did not leave. Dreibrand stared at him impatiently until Redan realized his general’s displeasure.

“The rys is a thief,” Redan blurted as an explanation for not leaving.

Intrigued, Dreibrand forgave Redan’s reluctance to go to his watch. “A thief? What makes you say that, Redan?”

“I am not certain, but it is a good bet. Rys thieves do lurk in the pass this time of year—for the tribute. They are rarely seen because they can usually avoid human detection at night. People in my tribe have always told stories about seeing rys thieves. Humans are often blamed for the nighttime pilfering because no other explanation is obvious. But I have reasons to believe the rumors,” Redan explained.

Although it was a guess, Dreibrand thought the possible explanation could fit. Pelafan wore a hodge podge of regular rys clothing and not the uniform of a Jingten soldier. If Onja had dispatched rys soldiers to attack the Yentay, Dreibrand assumed a rys war party would have attacked his camp outright. Of course, Pelafan might be a scout from a larger force, but Dreibrand preferred to believe he was just a thief.

Deciding to play with Redan’s theory, Dreibrand resumed his questioning of Pelafan. “Why are you a thief?”

Pelafan lifted his groggy head, considering the question.

Dreibrand continued, “Rys want for nothing. Every luxury is provided in Jingten. Why would a rys be a thief?”

In his doped state Pelafan saw no need to argue with this attack on his character. Dreibrand stated that he was a thief with such confidence, that Pelafan wrongly decided Dreibrand knew this fact.

“Jingten is so very…dull,” said the rys. “Stealing adds a thrill to my life.”

This one honest answer pleased Dreibrand. Hoping to gain insight into the rys’s loyalties, he slyly wondered, “Does Queen Onja not get angry that you take from her tribute?”

“Oh, do not say the words,” Pelafan moaned with as much alarm as his stupor would allow. “The Queen does not know. She pays little attention to the caravans as long as they arrive. And the humans never mention they lost some on the way.”

“This is not a tribute caravan. What did you come to steal from me?” Dreibrand said.

Pelafan shook his head. “Nothing,” he muttered lamely.

Dreibrand looked at the sho dart pistol and considered firing another one into Pelafan, hoping to disintegrate the rys’s resistance. If Dreibrand had been more certain of the effects on the rys, he would have done it. Instead he decided to save his three little darts, suspecting there would be a more urgent occasion for their use in the coming war.

He wished Shan had accompanied him on this venture. He had quickly gotten used to the company of his powerful friend. Shan would know the exact nature of this Pelafan and have the rys prisoner sharing all of his secrets. The idea of taking Pelafan back to Shan occurred to him but that might prove to be a futile undertaking. Dreibrand looked dubiously at the rope that bound Pelafan’s hands to his ankles. A rys, especially a rys that lived by thieving, probably did have a spell that could deal with plain rope, and Dreibrand had no iron manacles to better secure the rys. Trying to bring the rys back to Dengar Nor would probably not be worth the trouble.

Deciding he had enough of Pelafan’s slow answers, Dreibrand pondered the attack. What did this rys want from me? He was certain that he had been specifically singled out and the rys hoped to quietly assault him without arousing the attention of his warriors. If the sho dart had hit him, this would have been easily possible. Again, Dreibrand thanked the good half of his luck for being missed by the sho dart.

Pelafan took a deep rejuvenating breath and Dreibrand realized the sho dart was wearing off.

“I shall be free soon,” Pelafan announced.

“Then you better run away before I stab you again,” Dreibrand said angrily. His frustration had loosened his temper. He wanted to know what the rys thieves had hoped to gain from him, but the answer eluded him.

~

The rys ran until he could no longer hear the upset human camp. But his panicked flight riddled him with guilt. He should not have left Pelafan behind, who had been wounded and clearly needed help, but he had not expected the confrontation with the human to be so unnerving. The rys had no experience in handling a human protected by a powerful warding crystal, and the rys had no advantage against the aroused human in the dark. The sensation of encountering a human on nearly equal terms had overwhelmed him. When he heard Pelafan’s scream, he had fled in fear.

Turning back toward the human camp, the rys scowled and blamed Pelafan’s inaccurate sho dart for the disaster. Even though Pelafan could not perceive Dreibrand’s body with his mind, his companion thought he should have been able to make the shot at such close range. 

However, this rys was not altogether faithless and he intended to return to Pelafan. Relaxing, he began to meditate. The human camp was not far, but it was almost at the limit of his range. His observation yielded no information about Pelafan, and he assumed the man with the warding crystal must be too close to Pelafan and blocking his mind. With a tired sigh, the rys decided to rest. The warding crystal could not keep Pelafan from his sight under the light of day.

By the time the dawn broke across the top of the Rysamand, the rys had crept to the edge of the human camp and hidden himself among some broad-leafed foliage. The frosty ground felt as cold as a stone by a glacier, but the rys easily endured the chill. His race was of the mountains and the forces of winter caused him little bother. Calmly the rys concentrated on slowing his breathing to reduce the amount of steamy exhalations that might give him away in the bushes.

In the daylight the rys viewed the center of the camp and located Pelafan, who was miserably bound, but he could cast no spell in the area to assist his companion because the light haired human stood near his prisoner. This human was from beyond the Wilderness, and the rys had heard reports of him all summer from both humans and rys. Some Sabuto travelers had spoken of a strange man who served the Temu. The story in Jingten was that the human had badly angered Queen Onja and accompanied Shan into exile. What he was doing with a bunch of Hirqua, the rys could not guess.

Yesterday, when Pelafan and his companion had observed the arrival of the human warriors, they had noticed the foreigner. Normally this would have aroused only passing interest between the thieves, but they soon detected something very interesting about this man, or rather did not detect. When the humans had strolled out of sight and the rys watched them with their minds, the lifeforce of the blond man had been completely masked. They could discern his image in the daylight, but it had no substance, no pulse of existence, and they most certainly could not apply any spells to his body. 

Only one thing could cause a human to be so protected from rys magic, and the rys thieves coveted that item.

A warding crystal, a charm that only powerful rys could make, had to be on that man’s body. Knowing that the foreigner was a known associate of Shan, the rys thieves guessed that the crystal had to have been made by Shan, and therefore of exceptional quality. This kindled great desire in the hearts of the criminal rys. That warding crystal could command a great price from men, and the rys could have great fun with it themselves.

Even as Pelafan considered the rope that bound his limbs and the other rys waited anxiously nearby, both of them still pondered ways to obtain the warding crystal.

Shrugging to get comfortable in his armor, Dreibrand adjusted his swordbelt and secured his new sho dart pistol by his ivory handled dagger. All the time he watched Pelafan, noticing that a sharp gleam had returned to the rys’s eyes. He knew the sho dart had worn off and Pelafan should be making his promised escape attempt soon.

A little speck of blue light appeared in Pelafan’s eyes and a bright flame burst out of the rope. He jerked his hands out of the disintegrating bonds as soon as he could to avoid getting singed. Pelafan slapped at the burning rope and pulled it off his ankles. He stood up and with insulting indifference stretched the kinks out of his back as armed warriors gathered around. Dreibrand drew his pistol and leveled it at Pelafan’s face.

“Do not try to hurt anyone and you may leave,” Dreibrand offered.

“Oh, I may leave, may I?” Pelafan sneered happily. Despite his stab wound, he felt much more confident with the return of his natural abilities. “You only have enough sho darts to keep me down the rest of the day. What will you do after that, human?”

“I will use this if you try to hurt anyone. Now leave,” Dreibrand said.

“You call me a thief, yet you threaten me with my own property,” Pelafan ridiculed.

“Be glad you only lost your weapons for attacking me,” Dreibrand responded with equal contempt.

Reminded that the warded warrior had bested him, Pelafan held his tongue. He maintained his aloof posture, but he did not really want to tempt the human into shooting him again.

An outcry came from the east end of the camp when the other rys erupted from his hiding place and sprinted toward Pelafan. A Yentay hurled a spear, but the rys easily dodged it. Dreibrand immediately hollered orders to end any attacks on the second rys. He did not want to see any more rys blood shed, especially in a fatal way. Actually killing a rys would no doubt upset Shan, and more crucially, the citizenry of Jingten. It could be disastrous if the rys population decided to take Onja’s side in the war.

The warriors begrudgingly held back their weapons as the rys trotted to Pelafan’s side. The rys brandished a knife in one hand and a sho dart pistol in the other. Everyone carefully shifted away from whatever direction the pistol pointed.

“It lifts my heart that you came back for me, Sutah,” Pelafan greeted cheerfully in the rys language.

“No having a conference!” Dreibrand barked. “Get out of here.”

In a satirical expression of humility, Pelafan bowed to Dreibrand. “Sleep well, human,” he said and departed with Sutah.

Pelafan and Sutah ignored the watchful warriors as if they strolled through an empty forest. The snide parting words of Pelafan warned Dreibrand that the two rys planned on returning. He wished he knew what they wanted. They seemed to have no interest in Shan or Onja but they certainly meant to cause him more trouble.

After the rys sauntered down the slope and disappeared into the trees, Dreibrand went to the ridge overlooking the road. With the Jingten Pass in his view, he tried to comprehend the riddle of Pelafan and Sutah. He wished he could have met the rys on friendlier terms because chances were good that the two thieves had recently been to Jingten and probably knew information that would have been very interesting.

As the morning passed and Dreibrand had some peace, his thoughts settled on the probable reason for the undesired attention from the rys rogues. The warding crystal that Shan had given him lay against his chest in a neck pouch that he had acquired to hold it. Drawing out the pouch, he rolled the orb into his palm and contemplated the milky blue light. Shan had told him that the warding crystal would protect him from the magic of all but the most powerful rys, and Dreibrand realized the item would be valuable to any person. Pelafan and Sutah could have demanded a high price for it, or the rys might even have a use for the warding crystal. If it was the warding crystal that the rys sought, it did explain why he had been singled out among the men.

Whatever the reason, Dreibrand had to cope with two rys who wanted to personally assault him. He wanted to believe that Pelafan’s implied threat had just been a departing flourish of bravado. But if Dreibrand had learned one thing since crossing the Wilderness, it was that rys were proud: all rys were proud. Pelafan and Sutah would not accept defeat by a human.

Again Dreibrand wished that Shan was with him. Everything seemed so easy when Shan was riding at his side. Without the guidance of his rys friend, Dreibrand suddenly felt foreign and exposed in the western world.

Perhaps I came here to test myself as much as my men, he thought.

He heard the crunch of footsteps on the rocky trail to the lookout. Tytido appeared with the wind bristling his hair and tugging at his bright cloak.

“You bring news?” Dreibrand guessed.

“Sir, the Zenglawa tribute caravan is coming. A scout has just reported that they are on the road,” Tytido said.

Keenly interested, Dreibrand looked down to the exposed road, but it was still empty.

Pointing to the lower reaches of the road before its curves became lost in the landscape, Tytido explained, “We will see them any time now.”

“Do you know how many warriors escort the caravan,” Dreibrand asked.

“Yes Sir, one hundred twenty. King Atathol’s honor guard of fifty warriors and then warriors from other Zenglawa families. You can’t take many warriors to Jingten, but his escort is a little on the high side. King Atathol knows he has lost a few friends,” Tytido observed.

“Why should he be worried? King Taischek told me no one should attack during the tribute season,” Dreibrand commented while he shaded his eyes to watch the road. He could now discern a column of Zenglawa warriors escorting several wagons, but the distance was too great for him to determine which rider was Atathol.

“Yes, that is true,” Tytido delicately agreed. “But with rebellion in the land, anything could happen.”

Grinning broadly, Dreibrand took his attention from the road and looked Tytido in the eye. He knew what his lieutenant was suggesting, and he admitted that it was tempting. Atathol’s personality and attitude had not been endearing to Dreibrand, and the Zenglawa King was vulnerable. Dreibrand doubted he would catch this enemy of Shan with fewer warriors again.

I wish I had more men, he thought.

“Some treasure today would be good,” Tytido urged.

“There is much more treasure in Jingten. None of you are wasting your time with me,” Dreibrand said.

While watching the full length of the Zenglawa force come into view, Tytido privately decided not to press the issue of an attack. “Truly one caravan is nothing compared to Jingten,” he agreed.

“Where is Redan?” Dreibrand suddenly asked.

“He is in the camp—being watched,” Tytido answered.

“Thanks for thinking of that, Lieutenant,” Dreibrand approved. “Does he want to go back to his people?”

Tytido shrugged. “He does not seem to care, Sir.”

“You consider him faithless?” Dreibrand searched for the Hirqua’s opinion.

“I mostly find Redan strange. But if I were a Zenglawa I would leave my tribe too,” Tytido replied with a chuckle.

“The Zenglawa were your confederates for a long time,” Dreibrand noted.

“Just because peace is good does not mean the Zenglawa are,” Tytido said flatly.

Observing the caravan, Dreibrand said, “They do seem eager to reaffirm their loyalty to Onja.”

Tytido recalled all of the tribute caravans he had seen his tribe assemble over the years. Shaking his head, he commented, “All of us have been fools to give our wealth so easily to Onja. I am proud that the Hirqua have ended this practice. I sincerely hope that Shan will mind his own business once he is King of Jingten.”

“He will,” Dreibrand said and believed it. “Shan has no wish to tax the human nations.”

“The Hirqua leaders worry that Shan will favor the Temu more than the others. Give the Temu power to conquer other tribes,” Tytido said. He felt comfortable mentioning this to Dreibrand, who was not a Temu but might offer valuable insights into the relationship between Shan and the Temu.

Dreibrand did not quite know how to respond. If Shan and Taischek had some kind of private power deal, he did not know. Even if he did know, he served both the Temu King and Shan and it would be wrong for him to talk about it. Dreibrand believed the concern of the Hirqua was a natural conclusion, but he had seen no hint that it was true.

“Lieutenant Tytido, you have volunteered to serve Shan, and I know Shan will not forget the help you gladly offered. In truth, Shan dislikes death and violence and he would not sow seeds of war between his allies,” Dreibrand said.

These words satisfied Tytido somewhat and he said, “I mentioned this so that you would know—so that Lord Shan would know—some of the concerns among the Hirqua.”

“Shan will know,” Dreibrand promised.

Although he did not doubt Tytido’s loyalty to Shan’s cause, he now saw that Tytido had been sent forth with a specific agenda. Clearly, Shan’s allies desired equal favor from the future rys king, and it was nice to know he was in a position to influence the rys’s favor. Dreibrand saw how much he had to gain. Shan gave him opportunities that had not been available to him in Atrophane, but the stakes were perilously high.

Dreibrand read approval on the faces of the volunteers when Shan informed them that he would be their commander. The volunteers saw that Shan favored the man from the east, and Dreibrand’s growing reputation as a warrior had reached their ears. And although no one dared to mention it in the company of a large Temu war party, it did suit them that Dreibrand was not a Temu.

Shan told the volunteers that they and any others who joined their group would be called Yentay, which was the rys word for someone who climbs the highest mountain. The men found it typical that a rys would use such a poetic concept, but the symbolism was not lost.

 When Dreibrand assumed command of the Hirqua and Nuram volunteers, his first order was that they must elect their officers before they reached Dengar Nor. Having had no personal experience with these men who had joined Shan’s cause, he judged that deferring to their choices would be the best way to select a first and second lieutenant.

This suggestion was well received by the Yentay, and Dreibrand felt the familiar comfort of a successful command returning quickly. He had been trained for such things, and he was good at such things. Enjoying the glow of his brand new command, Dreibrand had not expected immediate complaints, but they erupted when he introduced Redan.

Neither the Hirqua nor the Nuram wanted a Zenglawa among them. The attack on Shan at the Common Ground had offended all the Confederates. When a few Yentay recognized Redan as one of the assassins, the yelling started.

Dreibrand looked sideways at Redan and noted that the Zenglawa faced the derisive hostility with calm and determination. Dreibrand called for silence and had to shout the order several times while Shan watched impassively.

Dreibrand stifled his displeasure because it made sense that the Yentay would resist Redan. Clearing his throat, he said in the common language, “Redan surrendered himself to Lord Shan and claimed that he believes in our cause and wishes to serve. I am aware that Redan was among the archers who so wrongfully attacked Lord Shan, but he did not take his shot. Lord Shan knows this to be the truth.” He looked to Shan, hoping the rys would offer confirmation. Without it, Dreibrand doubted he could ever get the Hirqua and the Nuram to accept Redan.

Shan nodded once, and the Yentay murmured.

Dreibrand continued, “Lord Shan chose not to punish Redan. He will be given a chance among us, but he must prove his loyalty. I will be judging his service and any of you should feel free to report to me if you see him doing anything wrong. For now, as you can see, he is unarmed.”

The Yentay looked at Redan and reconsidered. The Zenglawa did not look very intimidating. Redan had a black eye and bandages wrapped his burned hands. Begrudgingly the volunteers withdrew their protest, but no one would agree to ride double with the Zenglawa who had no horse. Dreibrand did not ask the Temu for a spare horse because he did not think it would be appropriate to trouble them over a Zenglawa.

He will probably run away before walking all the way to Dengar Nor, Dreibrand thought.

But Redan did not leave, and every evening after falling behind the column of riders, he would straggle into camp, get harassed by sentries, and eventually be allowed to enter. He would offer to take his turn at the watch, but no one trusted him so he would just relax by himself. When Dreibrand saw this, he found chores for him to do and observed that Redan suffered his hazing with patience and confidence.

On the third day of travel Dreibrand watched the sun rise. Although as a commander Dreibrand did not take a sentry position, he awoke well before dawn out of habit. They would be in Dengar Nor before the day was over and Redan was still with the group.

He had stayed in the Yentay section of camp but Miranda had spent the night in the nearby village. They had reentered the Temu heartland and better accommodations had become available for the King and a portion of his entourage. Taischek had invited Miranda to use the local guesthouse, and she had graciously accepted. When Dreibrand had awakened in the night, he missed her reassuring presence but it was fitting that she have a bed. He would have very much liked to join her, but he had thought it best to stay with his command.

Warriors stirred around Dreibrand, stretching the stiffness from their backs after sleeping on the cold ground. Each night was cooler than the last, and the frost was not far off in the future. Five Hirqua warriors and one Nuram warrior approached him in the brightening morning. Tytido of Clan Gozmochi was among them, and he saluted Dreibrand.

“According to your order, we have chosen our officers, General,” Tytido said.

“Call me Sir,” Dreibrand decided.

“Yes Sir,” Tytido said. “I have been elected the first lieutenant, and U’Chian of the Nuram has been elected second lieutenant.”

U’Chian bowed to Dreibrand. Like all the Nuram he kept the sides of his head shaved and the remainder of his long black hair tied in the back. The Nuram wore a plainer style of dress than the colorful Hirqua and the extravagant Temu. Dreibrand was pleased that his officers reflected both tribes. He looked back to Tytido and he was not surprised that this Hirqua had been elected. Tytido seemed to be the leader of the Hirqua volunteers as it was, and Dreibrand might have chosen the man anyway, because he was obviously intelligent.

Dreibrand asked the other warriors to confirm the election of Tytido and U’Chian and they stated that it had been so.

“I am pleased, and I know that you will perform your duties well,” Dreibrand said. “I realize that we will need some time to get used to working with each other, but our common interest in the defeat of Onja will bind us together. I intend for us to be the best warriors who serve Shan. We will be with him all the way to Jingten, and when he is king, he will have no lack of wealth to reward us with.

“But we have much to do until then. I have a good deal of military experience, but that was in my land, and I realize that some things are different here. We will learn from each other, because I know you have much to teach me of your part of the world. Because victory does not come to the idle, we will begin right away. Today I will ask Lord Shan if we can go on a patrol of the wild lands between the Temu Domain and the Jingten Pass. I believe the hardest part of our war will take place there, and I need greater knowledge of that area. If it pleases Lord Shan, we will leave tomorrow. The comforts of the Temu capital can wait until winter.”

“I look forward to it, Sir,” Tytido said.

“Good. Now get the men in their saddles, Lieutenant. We do not want the Temu to think we are slow,” Dreibrand ordered.

“That will not happen, Sir,” Tytido promised cheerfully.

The Temu war party and the Yentay passed through the village where Taischek, Shan, and Miranda joined them. Miranda rode by Dreibrand, and he noticed she looked tired despite having had a bed to sleep in. With hindsight, he worried that traveling to the council might have aggravated her recovery, and he was glad that she would be back in Dengar Nor that night.

Shortly after leaving the village, Miranda abruptly left the column and rode behind a hedgerow. When she did not return in a timely manner, Dreibrand veered from the road and went back to find her. Her roan gelding browsed casually on the hedge but he could not see Miranda. After dismounting, he heard her hacking on the other side of the shrubbery. Traveling with the Horde and camping in close proximity with thousands of people had given Dreibrand the unenviable skill of knowing the sound of almost any bodily function within ten paces, and he knew she was sick.

“Miranda,” he called nervously, trying not to rush to her and invade her privacy.

“I am coming,” she replied weakly.

He heard her canteen slosh as she rinsed out her mouth. When she came out from behind the hedge, she forced a smile and chided, “Can’t someone use the bushes in peace?”

“You are sick,” Dreibrand cried, rushing to her and laying a hand on her forehead. In a flash his concern turned to desperate worry. He had seen fevers strike people dead in a day.

Her green eyes shifted as if she considered contradicting the truth. “It is nothing,” she insisted.

Her forehead did not feel hot, but Dreibrand was still anxious. “This could be a fever. You should not have made this trip,” he fretted.

Seeing his terrible worry, Miranda tried to put him at ease. “My stomach was upset. Everyone has an upset stomach sometimes,” she said.

“But it might be worse,” he whispered.

“Dreibrand, I watched my mother and all of my brothers and sisters die of fever. I know this is not that,” she assured him.

He held her close, feeling a great compassion. She had not told him that about her family before. Every time she shared something about her past, it was so ugly, and he could understand why she kept so much to herself.

“If you are sick, I will change my plans. I will stay with you—I promise,” he said. He had told her earlier that he intended to talk to Shan and Taischek at the midday break about the mission he had planned for the Yentay, but he truly would not leave her if she fell ill. He hoped it was just a brief stomachache, as it seemed.

Miranda nudged him. “Let us go. We have fallen too far behind.”

Indeed all of the riders were gone and Redan walked by on the road. Miranda eyed the Zenglawa with dislike as Dreibrand helped her back into the saddle. Bruises still distorted the handsome high cheek-boned face of Redan, who looked at her with curiosity. When Dreibrand looked at him, he turned his eyes quickly back to the road.

“I do not like him,” Miranda stated firmly.

“I see quality in him. I believe his wish to serve Shan could be real,” Dreibrand said.

“Shan only tolerates him to show that he is merciful. That he is better than Onja,” Miranda complained.

Dreibrand responded, “Shan needs to inspire loyalty in as many ways as he can. I want Redan to have his chance. It is not an easy thing to go against your people.”

Miranda shot him a piercing look, guessing Dreibrand’s reasons for giving the Zenglawa a chance.

During the midday break, Dreibrand approached Taischek.

“Those Hirqua aren’t giving you any trouble are they?” the King teased. “Because if they are, I’m sure Xander could advise you.”

The Temu General brightened after his King’s kind comment, but Dreibrand politely declined any assistance.

“King Taischek, my visit does concern the volunteers,” Dreibrand said. “I came to ask you and Shan if I could take them on a patrol right away.”

“A patrol?” Shan said with curiosity.

“Yes, into the foothills east of the Temu Domain and up to the pass. I believe this is the likeliest place that Onja will put her allies to stop us, and I want a better knowledge of the land. Also I would like to observe the tribute caravans. I would like to verify that the Tacus and Hirqua do not pay and I want to see who does. But most importantly I need to get to know my warriors, and they need to get used to my command. This is best accomplished in the field,” Dreibrand explained.

“I see that you have given this much thought,” Taischek complimented.

“You are kind, King Taischek. But I must look to the discipline of these volunteers. I should keep them busy and not leave them to get bored in Dengar Nor,” Dreibrand said.

“Well I don’t know about being bored in Dengar Nor, but I see what you mean,” Taischek joked. “What do you say, Shan?”

The rys responded, “It is a good idea. Dreibrand will be able to judge the abilities and the loyalties of the Yentay.”

“Then you have my leave to travel east in the Temu Domain. When you are beyond my borders may your wits serve you well,” Taischek decided.

“Thank you. I will see what manner of men have joined us, and hopefully learn something of our enemies. I would like to see these Kezanada for myself,” Dreibrand said.

“Oh, don’t look too hard for them,” warned the King.

“Yes. Taischek is right,” Shan chimed in. “I know you are anxious to learn the details of the west, but be careful. You would not like to see the Kezanada.”

Taischek added, “And don’t look to make battles. Do your reconnaissance, but the war season is over. I don’t want some petty tribal leader complaining to me that you attacked him during the tribute season. That is not something you want to do.”

“Yes. I have no wish to waste warriors before they are needed,” Dreibrand assured them.

“Well, hurry back then, Dreibrand. The winter will be long, and you will need to entertain an old king with tales from your side of the world,” Taischek said.

“I look forward to it. But there is one more thing.” Dreibrand paused, trying to hide his discomfort. “I will need some provisioning. I mean, the Yentay will need some provisions before we leave tomorrow.”

Taischek scowled automatically and muttered in his native tongue.

Shan said, “Dreibrand, I will make arrangements for such things. The Yentay will need barracks as well. Taischek, do you remember that line of credit I was talking about?”

The King’s cheeks puffed out as he exhaled slowly. “How could I forget?” he grumbled.

“Now my friend, you must remember this is all an investment toward much greater things,” Shan soothed.

“Yes, yes, it isn’t a problem. Now let’s get to Dengar Nor,” Taischek said, signaling for his horse.

As soon as the king bustled to get back on his horse, warriors lounging along the road quickly concluded their break. The Yentay were the rear guard and Dreibrand hurried down the road to join them. With a light step, Shan appeared by his side and Dreibrand slowed to listen to the rys.

“Just one thing, Dreibrand,” Shan said very seriously. “I do not want you to go all the way into the Jingten Pass. You can approach but do not enter. Then you would be in the Rysamand, and her power can reach there.”

Thinking about Onja’s magic was sobering and Dreibrand took the warning seriously.

“Do not get any ideas. You do not want to go into the Rysamand without me,” Shan whispered.

“Then come,” Dreibrand whispered back with enthusiasm.

The turmoil showed on Shan’s normally neutral face. He wanted to go home. He wanted to be King of Jingten. He wanted to return Miranda’s children, but he did not want to lose.

“Not yet—I am sorry,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand said, disappointed.

“I will check on you when I can. And take your warding crystal,” Shan concluded when Dreibrand reached his horse.

The rys took a moment to speak pleasantly to Miranda before trotting to the front of the column to ride with the King.

The lovely city and castle of Dengar Nor appeared before sunset, and Taischek was glad to be home. With the Confederate Council over and no tribute to take to Jingten, he could settle in for the winter.

When Dreibrand and Miranda reached their apartment, Miranda flopped gratefully onto her soft wide bed. She had discovered that the rigors of the road became more acute after one had become accustomed to comfortable furnishings. Dreibrand stretched out next to her and brushed her curling locks from her face. She seemed to be fine and her cheeks had a healthy glow.

“See, I have no fever,” Miranda said happily.

He kissed her and she moaned happily as his arms tightened around her. It was good to be alone.

“Must you leave so soon?” she asked.

“I will be here until morning,” he said, as if that were all the time in the world.

“But what will I do tomorrow night?” she pouted.

Dreibrand stopped kissing her and looked at her with a little shock. He could see that she had made the comment specifically to disturb him, and he was not used to her toying with his feelings.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

Miranda smiled and curled one of the small braids on the side of his face around her finger. “It was only a little joke, Dreibrand. Do not look so upset.”

He had not realized he looked upset. His forehead wrinkled with thought and he sat up. He was upset.

“Well, why did you, um, make a joke like that?” he fumbled with his words and was not sure what he wanted to say.

Miranda took his hand. Softly she said, “Dreibrand, I am sorry. You have my faith.”

The confusion left his blue eyes and he looked at her with complete relief. It touched Miranda to see that his emotions for her were so intense.

Her voice became timid and she continued, “But, I was thinking, that maybe I want to know if I have your faith. We are lovers but there have been no words between us, and you are going away again…” Miranda trailed off. It had been difficult to say so much, to show that she wanted him to continue to care for her.

“Is that all,” he said with a happy little chuckle, embracing her as he did before. “I am yours, Miranda. I do not have time for other women, and what use would they be to me? Could I count on them to save my life? Could I trust them, as I do you? When I fought with the Sabuto, it was you I wanted to live to see. Trust me, Miranda, you are very special to me—I am in love with you.”

Dreibrand saw that his declaration startled her, and he realized that perhaps no one had ever said anything so kind to her before. He did not expect her to return the endearment, but he did not regret telling her. She had wanted assurances, and now she had some.

Miranda did not know how to respond. She supposed she should not be so surprised. His love had always been apparent in his actions, but it was still difficult for her to imagine someone loving her. Before she could say anything, someone pounded on the door.

“Who could that be?” she wondered.

Dreibrand bounced out of bed with excitement. “Our clothes. As soon as we got here, I sent a servant to tell the tailors we were back and to bring our order immediately,” he explained.

Miranda followed him out of the bedroom and he was already opening the door. After all the serious events at the council, she had forgotten about all the clothes Dreibrand had bought for them. She recognized the tailors he had hired when they entered with four servants carrying two trunks.

The dressmaker greeted Miranda with practiced delight and fussed until his servants opened a trunk. He brought forth three dresses, a cloth quilted jacket, a fur jacket, a long outer robe meant to be worn over dresses when the weather was cold, and a black wool riding habit with pants. Tassels and beadwork and embroidery adorned all of the outfits, and Miranda had the decent beginnings of a Temu lady’s wardrobe. She marveled at the beautiful clothes. The fine fabrics she had picked looked far more wonderful than she had imagined.

“Well, put something on,” Dreibrand urged.

While Miranda retreated to the bedroom, Dreibrand checked out his new clothes. He unloaded the trunk himself, too impatient to wait while the servants tried to do it dramatically. He had basically been in tatters since the Wilderness, and he was glad he could look presentable now.

“Will you want to do a final fitting now to see if any alterations are necessary, Sir?” the tailor asked.

“Not now. Send someone back tomorrow to help the Lady Miranda. For me, I will just use what I can for now, and get back to you later. I am leaving the city again,” Dreibrand answered.

“So soon, Sir?” the tailor inquired and his associate and the servants quieted themselves to listen.

“Cannot be helped,” Dreibrand said.

“The news from the council I hope is not bad, Sir?” the tailor wondered.

“No, not at all,” Dreibrand replied and indulged them with some news from the King’s trip.

“I wish I could’ve seen Lord Shan use his magic. That must have been a sight,” a servant commented dreamily and received five stern looks because he had interrupted Dreibrand.

Dreibrand used the opportunity to end his report. He had told them all they needed to hear, and he did not want to mention why he was leaving town or where he was going.

“Ah, here it is,” Dreibrand said as he pulled the last item out of the trunk. It was a mid length blue cloak lined with fur and he would need it in the highlands this time of year.

Dreibrand paid the tailors and dismissed them so he could be alone with Miranda again.The night passed quickly and Dreibrand was anxious to leave. He awoke and dressed before dawn after catching two hours sleep. Miranda and he had stayed up late enjoying their time together.

Miranda stirred when he sat at her bedside. Only a gray hint of dawn brightened the drapes.

“Wait for me and I will go see you off,” she offered after a sleepy groan.

“No need. I have some things to do in the city first. It will be boring. Stay here and sleep. I insist,” he said and brushed a kiss across her forehead.

He set a heavy purse next to her and placed her hand on it. “Here. This is most of the gold. If you want anything do not hesitate to buy it.”

“I only want you to come back safely,” she said.

“I will not be long. A couple weeks maybe. Not enough time to worry,” he said cheerfully.

When he stood to leave, Miranda stopped him with her hand. She regarded him thoughtfully and Dreibrand assumed she wanted to say something else.

“What?” he pressed because she did not speak.

“Nothing,” she said letting him go. “Just come back, General.”

He grinned when she used his title, but it reminded him how eager he was to be off. Miranda smiled back and her eyes drooped lazily with returning sleep. Dreibrand left quietly.

He made his arrangements for provisions at one of Taischek’s official storehouses and then he collected the Yentay, who had been given a barracks in the city. The Yentay were waiting for him with their horses saddled, and Dreibrand complimented Tytido on their readiness.

The general inspected his small company, impressed by the enthusiasm of the young men who had joined Shan. He understood their motives. Being a part of the rebellion against Onja had a tremendous allure, with both adventure and reward.

He found Redan standing in the last row. The proud face of the Zenglawa actually looked embarrassed that morning because he still had no horse.  Dreibrand halted Starfield by the outcast volunteer.

“Do you still wish to serve Lord Shan?” Dreibrand demanded.

“Yes Sir.”

Dreibrand grabbed a short sword in a worn scabbard out of his saddlebag that he had picked up in the city that morning. Tossing the cheap weapon to the Zenglawa, he said, “You will not be much use without a weapon.”

Redan snatched the falling weapon with a bandaged hand that moved with speed. He smiled while strapping on the sword.

“Sir, I would be of much better use with a bow,” Redan mentioned with a cocky tone.

Dreibrand scowled at the presumptiveness and explained, “I do not think I want you shooting at anything yet.”

Remembering that he had yet to prove his loyalty, Redan resisted his natural urge to boast. He would never get to serve Lord Shan if he upset the mercenary commander.

Respectfully, he said, “Sir, I will pass this test of trust and I thank you for giving me a chance.”

“Well, you have passed your walking test. When we pick up our provisions, you will get a horse,” Dreibrand said.

Before Redan could thank him again, Dreibrand rode to the front of his small group and ordered them to move out. It did not take long for them to get their light supplies and leave the city.

By evening they were camping in the open lands east of the farmlands of Dengar Nor. Dreibrand called a meeting around the main fire, for which Redan had earned the privilege of gathering all of the wood. The smallness of the force allowed everyone to attend the meeting, and the Yentay appreciated the openness of their commander.

Although the beginning slopes of the Rysamand were three or four days away, Dreibrand shared his plans with them.

“We will find a position in the highlands where we can spy on the traffic going to Jingten. But tonight, I do have a special mission for a few men.”

The announcement caused murmuring throughout the group. Dreibrand looked at the surrounding faces until he had their full attention again.

“I want to send some spies into the Sabuto territory. Word will not have traveled there yet that any Hirqua or Nuram have volunteered to serve Shan. I want news from the Sabuto. Because Shan is such a close friend of Taischek, I expect the Sabuto to stay on Onja’s side. After what Shan did to Dursalene, I imagine they will want revenge.”

A few men chuckled and a nearby warrior said, “The Sabuto have no balls for revenge. They take their beatings, then go looking for weaklings to attack.”

Finding the comment interesting, Dreibrand noted that the reputation of the Sabuto was widely maligned.

“You recall that Onja offers a bounty for Shan’s head. Greed may make them bolder,” Dreibrand reminded. “I want the Sabuto monitored. A few men should visit a couple towns and gather the news. If they are plotting anything big, something should come out in the gossip”

No one disputed Dreibrand’s decision, but no one was anxious to leave the main force and enter Sabuto territory.

“Would anyone like to volunteer?” Dreibrand prompted.

A few quiet conversations started in small cliques. U’Chian, the eldest of the Nuram cousins, spoke up first.

“Sir, we will travel through the Sabuto Domain and attempt to learn if they plot against Lord Shan,” said U’Chian.

“All five of you?” Dreibrand asked.

“We wish to stay together, Sir,” U’Chian responded.

Dreibrand considered a moment. He was not sure if he wanted to send the second lieutenant away so soon, but it was a good mission for a second lieutenant.

“And what Hirqua shall join them, Sir?” Tytido demanded, interrupting his thoughts.

Dreibrand understood that the Hirqua felt the Nuram had made his tribe look less bold. But Dreibrand liked his small Nuram team as it was.

“There will be no Hirqua. It would arouse suspicion to see Hirqua and Nuram traveling together in a foreign land,” Dreibrand explained. “I think it is best to send the Nuram.” With his decision made, he had no intention of letting it be debated. Beckoning to U’Chian, he gave him instructions. “Because you are with your kin, say you are out adventuring with your cousins. Which is maybe not far from the truth,” he added with a sly smile that the Nuram warriors reflected. “Say you are hunting or going south for the winter—whatever reasons young men have for traveling. Try not to be obvious but gossip in the towns as you go. After a week circle back to Dengar Nor, and I will speak with you when I return. If you learn something urgent, tell Lord Shan.”

“Sir, when should we go?” U’Chian asked.

“Leave us before dawn,” Dreibrand instructed.

After wishing the Nuram lieutenant luck and reminding him to be cautious, Dreibrand retired to his bedroll. With the fires burning low, Dreibrand lay in the dark and the old sensation of solitude in command returned to him. He remembered many nights with the Horde camped around him and still feeling alone. Being a commander satisfied him greatly, but when he lay awake in the darkness, he knew it was not everything. Thinking of Miranda, he craved her companionship. She brightened the quiet dark moments between his days as a warrior.

Dreibrand had three more nights alone with his thoughts as his force traveled east. They left the roads before reaching Fata Nor, desiring to avoid traffic. Using rough back trails that were sketched on the map the King had given him, Dreibrand led his men into the foothills. The bite of the wind increased with the elevation and the icy peaks loomed close and beautiful. Looking at the Rysamand, Dreibrand remembered Onja high and lovely on her throne but sinister as gangrene. The shriek of the Tatatook and the grumble of the glacier returned to his mind. He also remembered the depth of the Keep’s dungeon and the swiftness with which he had found himself in it. Patting Starfield’s strong neck, he admitted to himself that returning to Onja’s stronghold would be difficult.

The road to Jingten stretched below him now, winding into the pass. Tytido had brought him to a ridge south of the road that offered a spectacular view. A short hike away the Yentay were making a camp at the base of some cliffs. A thick stand of pines blocked the campsite from the road, and passing traffic would not notice their fires in the night. From this location, Dreibrand intended to monitor the road.

Currently the road was empty. To the east, the Jingten Pass yawned between its attendant mountains. He was getting close to the pass, but remembering Shan’s warning, he decided to stay well below the tree line. To the west he could see the setting sun, burning redly in a fluffy sea of clouds.

Turning to Tytido, he said, “This spot is perfect. It did not take you long to find it.”

Tytido grinned and admitted, “I knew about this spot. I have traveled with the Hirqua tribute caravan four times and I know the pass somewhat.”

“Good,” Dreibrand said, taking in the panoramic view again. “I am certain we will see something interesting from up here.”

They left the ridge for their hidden camp unaware that their arrival had already been noticed.

Kwan reflected that it was good to see humans, even at a distance. From the rooftop terrace of the building that he had been lodged in the night before, he watched who he presumed were the Kezanada depart the city. The horsemen rushed away on the west road, disappearing into the green coniferous folds of the Jingten Valley. The helmeted warriors looked dangerous and fearless behind their brightly clad leader, and Kwan wondered if they were part of a vast force similar to the Horde. He very much wanted to learn more about them, but rys soldiers had not permitted the Atrophane to stray far from the three buildings they had been allotted. Kwan guessed that Onja did not want them meeting the other humans.

He wondered if the Kezanada had left Jingten at such a high rate of speed because Onja had given them some urgent assignment or because they wanted distance between themselves and the Queen.

Probably both, Kwan concluded. If Onja has such mercenaries already in her service, why does she keep us?

With growing frustration Kwan lifted his eyes to the awesome peaks encircling the hidden valley. Normally he would have enjoyed the beauty of the towering fortresses of natural wonder, but the Rysamand looked like a prison now. The mysterious mountains looming out of the Wilderness had beckoned him with a thousand promises of adventure but now they enslaved him.

Kwan went inside and retreated to his private room. The rys had provided him with a nice house, comfortably furnished, and two tribute warehouses across the street had been outfitted as barracks for his soldiers. When he had been camped in the forest, he had been content to bide his time and learn about the rys, but now that he was inside the city, he truly felt like a prisoner.

With the freedom of his expeditionary force gone, Kwan reconsidered his decisions. When he had been in the Wilderness, the Deamedron had frightened him. Onja had said she could release the wraiths to kill upon the land, and Taf Ila had confirmed this. Of course, the rys could be lying to him, but Kwan believed in the threat of the Deamedron. If the demented spirits really could be released, it explained the emptiness of the Wilderness. What else could have prevented people from occupying the land? People lived in places less hospitable than the bountiful Wilderness. And the purportedly lethal power of the Deamedron could explain the mass deaths at the ruins.

Kwan feared to go east. If he took his soldiers and fled back the way he had come, the wretched wraiths could be sent to destroy him. But the road west went to a land where humans lived. Kwan contemplated gathering his men and making a break to the west. If he fled west, Onja would have to bring her Deamedron through the Jingten Valley, and he would gamble that she would not or could not do that.

He realized Onja might have another type of magic to use against him. She might enter his mind again and control him that way, or she could send her rys soldiers to stop him. That he feared the least. His Atrophane were veteran fighters and he guessed that the rys would have little stomach for fighting.

The Lord General sighed heavily, knowing he plotted his escape without enough information. He knew the humans in the west were the subjects of Onja and therefore he had to assume they would be hostile. He could not fight an entire civilization with five hundred men. Yet, Onja had her mysterious enemy in the west. If he could find this enemy, he might find sanctuary. When Kwan thought it through, his plan was clearly hopeless, even futile, but the indignity of being cloistered in Jingten awaiting Onja’s whim grated on his soul.

I am Atrophane. I can serve no foreign queen, he thought.

His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Drawing his steel and deploying his armies had always been the answer in the past, so why did he doubt himself now? Did the new element of magic frighten him so much he would become as meek as the most servile commoner? Recognizing his fear was painful, and Kwan longed for his courage to return.

Reaching into a pouch that dangled from his swordbelt, Kwan removed the warding crystal. The blue light locked within the glassy sphere immediately intrigued him, as it always did, and he stared at it for a long time. He knew Onja could communicate with him through it, forcing her thoughts upon the fabric of his mind.

Does she do it right now? Does she spy on me? Does she make me think only of my fear?

Before Onja could potentially reply to any of his questions, Kwan hurled the orb at the window. It shattered a pane and flew into the street, rolling over the cobbles until it came to rest.

“Read that thought, Onja,” he growled.

When the orb had crashed through the glass, Kwan had felt liberated, but the joy quickly faded. He had hoped that ridding himself of the magical device would free him from its sick spell, but perhaps more than self doubt bound him to Jingten.

The breaking glass had been heard and hurried steps banged up the stairs to Kwan’s chamber.

“Lord Kwan,” Sandin called outside his door.

“Enter.”

Sandin opened the door and stepped inside. A few soldiers stood behind him in the hall.

Seeing the broken window, he asked, “My Lord, did someone throw a rock at your window?”

“No. I did it,” Kwan replied calmly. “There is no danger. You may send the men away.”

Kwan invited Sandin to sit with him at a small table.

Leaning in to a conspiratorial distance, Kwan said, “I threw out the crystal orb. I thought you might like to hear that, Lieutenant Sandin.”

The news brightened Sandin considerably. “Excellent, my Lord.”

“But it will take more than tossing away a charm to free us of Onja’s magic,” Kwan muttered.

“It is a good start,” Sandin said.

“What do you think of leaving? Heading farther west?” Kwan whispered.

Sandin nodded. “We are all with you, my Lord. But why west?”

Kwan hesitated. His instincts nagged him to stop having this conversation. “In the east are the Deamedron. By Golan, I believe that threat is real. You did not see them up close like I did. We cannot go that way,” he replied.

Sandin recognized the conviction in his commander’s voice and knew he could not convince Kwan to go east. It was enough that Kwan had decided to take control of their situation. To Sandin, any direction was better than staying in Jingten with the creepy rys, but he would not have chosen to put the Rysamand between himself and Atrophane.

“We could all die,” Kwan warned.

“We should go—even if we die,” Sandin decided. “We are Atrophane and we should not serve this foreign Queen.”

“Good. Quietly ready the men. We will depart in the night,” ordered Kwan.

The decision to act renewed his self esteem. Whatever the danger, he could no longer respect himself if he did not try to escape.

That afternoon while his squire fitted a board over the missing windowpane, Kwan dozed on his bed. Before he returned to the hard outdoors, he intended to enjoy the comforts of Jingten for a few more hours.

“Lord Kwan!” Jesse called sharply.

When Kwan opened his eyes and heard the rumble of many hooves on the cobbled street below, he had an overwhelming sense of dread.

“My armor,” he said simply, putting his feet on the floor.

Kwan watched outside while Jesse strapped his chestplate in place. Rys soldiers on their fine white horses filled the street, and Taf Ila entered the house followed by many rys soldiers. A brief disturbance occurred on the first floor. Shouting reverberated in the stairwell, but the noise was soon replaced by the soft tread of suede boots on the floorboards.

As a surprise courtesy, a knock sounded on the door. Kwan faced the door and waved his squire aside. The door banged open to reveal a grim Taf Ila.

“Hello, Taf Ila,” Kwan said with mock pleasantness.

“Queen Onja summons you to the Keep,” Taf Ila announced gruffly, stepping forward.

Kwan asked, “Why so many soldiers? You only had to tell me to come. We are friends.”

Six rys flowed into the room with Taf Ila and surrounded Kwan impatiently.

Leaning close to the human’s ear, Taf Ila whispered, “Kwan, my friendship will not help you.”

Kwan studied the face of the one rys with whom he had fostered a relationship. He sensed no malice from Taf Ila. A cry from the squire redirected Kwan’s attention. The rys had seized the youthful Atrophane.

“Stop!” Kwan shouted. “Queen Onja could have no business with my servant.”

“Queen Onja has business with us all,” Taf Ila muttered bitterly.

The boy panicked in the grasp of the two rys, but their slender hands were strong and the squire could not get away.

“Do not fight us. None of us have any wish to harm you,” Taf Ila stated.

“Relax Jesse. I will protect you,” Kwan bade his squire.

Calmed by his lord’s words, Jesse stopped resisting and the rys released him. Nervously the squire fell into place behind Kwan. Downstairs, many Atrophane soldiers stood behind lines of rys soldiers. A few Atrophane soldiers were crumpled at the feet of the rys and Sandin was among those on the floor.

Taf Ila put a quick hand on Kwan’s arm before the Lord General’s hot words rushed out. “They are unharmed and will recover,” Taf Ila said.

As Kwan was escorted out, he glimpsed the anguish in Sandin’s gray eyes. Never before had Kwan seen defeat on the face of an Atrophane and the shame he felt almost made him stumble on the steps.

I must get them out of this cursed trap, he thought.

Kwan had the indignity of walking through the streets while the rys rode around him, but he realized he would be lucky if that was the worst that happened. The fact that the rys were bringing his squire to the Keep also disturbed Kwan, who recognized it as a bad sign.

Taf Ila and a dozen soldiers ushered Kwan and his squire into the Keep, forcing a brisk pace. Apparently Onja wanted to see him with all immediacy.

Before they entered the throne room, Taf Ila turned and whispered urgently, “She is the ruler of us all, Kwan. You must believe that. I tell you this as a friend.”

The ominous words did little to encourage Kwan, but at least Taf Ila had revealed himself as a friend. Kwan understood that the rys captain would not go against his Queen’s wishes but it was good to know that Taf Ila was not an evil being.

When the two Atrophane men were presented before the dais, the white-maned Queen pointedly looked away. After announcing Kwan, Taf Ila and the other rys stepped aside. In the sudden absence of the surrounding rys, Kwan felt exposed before the Queen, and he noticed Jesse edge a small step closer.

Still looking away, Onja rumbled, “Instruct them to kneel.”

Taf Ila relayed the order, knowing that it stung this human’s pride. With an insincere posture, Kwan complied. He had only kneeled to the Darmar before and the act felt strange. Jesse, who was much more accustomed to kneeling, made a better display of humility.

“All humans show me this respect,” Onja said, turning her hot gaze on Kwan. A blue glow consumed her black eyes and Kwan shuddered when he looked upon her powerful visage.

“You have been thinking of leaving Jingten,” Onja said. Her voice bore no accusatory tone. She simply stated fact. “You dislike serving in Jingten so much you are willing to risk running west into lands unknown to you. You hope that you could slip away and outrun the reach of my magic.”

Kwan stared at her blankly, remaining silent.

“Admit this!” Onja shouted.

“They are only thoughts,” he explained lamely.

“You told your officer to prepare your men to leave,” noted the Queen.

Overwhelmed, Kwan looked down at the smooth floor. His reflection in the glossy marble had no advice to offer. He had no chance of convincing the Queen of his innocence. The details Onja knew were staggering.

Onja chuckled at his discomfort. “I do not need the warding crystal to know your mind. It protected you from the Deamedron and it helps me to communicate with you, but it is hardly necessary. I can see anybody anywhere.”

Kwan made no reply and wondered what would happen next.

“Have you forgotten our agreement? You must stay here until spring in my service in exchange for my clemency. All of you deserve death for invading my realm.” Onja paused, hoping Kwan would respond, but he suffered her lecture patiently. “Why do you plot to leave my service? I ask so very little of you, and I treat you so well. You have all been given good food, good shelter.”

Kwan had to concede that point. “Yes Queen Onja, you have been generous.”

Indignantly Onja said, “And yet you still wish to run away? Your ignorance made you bold, Kwan. You hoped that my magic was not enough to stop you. You were very wrong. Your punishment would have started the instant you passed outside the city. I would not even have to send one soldier after you.” She pointed a white-nailed finger at Jesse and cried, “My mind sees everywhere and my hand touches everything!”

Jesse shrieked in pain. He attempted to run away but fell, clutching at his shins where a heat spell burned his legs.

“Stop! Stop hurting him,” Kwan begged. He jumped up and reached for his sword, but Onja swung out her other hand and halted any offensive the Lord General might have launched. His body froze and no longer obeyed the commands of his brain. Sweat instantly wetted Kwan’s forehead as he struggled against the paralysis but he only succeeded in knocking himself to the floor.

Onja intensified her spell toward the squire, making the boy scream as the heat began to blister his limbs. Pleased with how the lesson proceeded, Onja came down from her throne. Kwan had never been so close to her before. The long centuries had rounded and softened her once perfect rys features, but she still would have been beautiful if her soul had not been utterly wicked. The ancient being assailed Kwan with such cold malice that he knew it had been folly to attempt a simple escape. He would have to be a hundred times more clever to elude this sorceress, who could hear a whisper across the city.

Jesse screamed as he writhed in increasing pain.

“Promise me you will serve in Jingten and his suffering will stop,” Onja said.

Kwan looked at his poor squire but he hesitated to promise.

“You have forced me to extract this pledge from you. My proposal was fair and generous but you spurned it. I can make all of your men suffer this way,” Onja warned. “Now promise to serve Jingten and serve well.”

The torment of the squire increased and the horror of his cries shattered Kwan’s resistance.

“He will burn away before your eyes. I will cook him!” Onja shrieked.

Kwan relented. He had to. “Yes, I promise. We will defend Jingten. We will serve you, Queen Onja,” he gasped.

Throwing up her hands, Onja ended her spell and the invisible fire left Jesse’s body. Free of the clutching paralysis, Kwan went instantly to the side of his squire. Jesse had lapsed into shock from the torture, and Kwan lifted his head into his arms. The fabric of the squire’s pants had blackened from the heat and Kwan dreaded to know what terrible mess Onja had made of the boy’s legs.

“Oh lad, I am so sorry,” he murmured in Atrophaney. A helpless rage swelled inside him, sickening his mind.

“Take heart, Kwan,” Onja said. “The demonstration on the boy has spared all of your men a worse fate. Furthermore, I will not hold today’s insubordination against you. I knew this lesson would be necessary. My original proposal remains. Obey me and you will see your homeland again.”

The self control Kwan exercised at the moment was perhaps the greatest act of will in his life. The pride of his soul demanded he take his sword and lash out at the Queen, who stood so nearby. He could see the softness of her blue flesh that appeared so very mortal, but Kwan believed he could not win. He knew his sword remained at his side only as a bitter temptation, an added detail to aid in his torment. Onja left her victim armed because she was completely in command. Her painful magic could defend her quicker than a human’s violent outburst.

Miserably Kwan held his poor squire who had been punished for his master’s decision. Attacking Onja would not help Jesse, and Kwan accepted that he had to try and save the boy’s life.

Satisfied that her new Atrophaney subject had been sufficiently enlightened on his place in Jingten, Onja returned to her throne. She paused to enjoy the scene of the devastated Lord General holding the innocent young man.

“Taf Ila, get them out of here,” she ordered.

Relieved that he no longer had to stand by helplessly, Taf Ila eagerly complied. The rys soldiers, who had rushed the humans to face their cruel Queen, now gently lifted the damaged squire who whimpered fitfully.

A wagon conveyed the grievously injured squire back to Kwan’s new residence, and Taf Ila summoned a physician. Awkwardly, Taf Ila tried to explain to Kwan that the rys physician was a very successful healer, but Kwan could not even look at Taf Ila. He could not look at any of the rys, wishing he had never encountered the magical race. He could only look at the feverish face of Jesse.

Upon Kwan’s return to his lodging, the Atrophane were filled with both relief and dismay. A dozen questions assailed the Lord General as rys carried Jesse upstairs, but Kwan silenced them all with one harsh order.

Seeing Sandin slumped in a chair recovering from the sho dart, Kwan simply instructed, “Lieutenant, keep this place quiet.” Then he followed the rys up to his room.

Kwan insisted the rys lay his squire on his own bed. The rys physician soon arrived and began to tend the human. He coaxed a medicinal drink down the squire’s throat to help hydrate the burn victim and ease his pain. With tender patience, the healer carefully removed the human’s clothing, trying not to pull away much of the devastated skin. Jesse’s legs were badly burned, scorched almost to ash in some places.

The wreckage of the blistered oozing legs gave Kwan a greater understanding of Onja’s methods. If Jesse survived and did not succumb to an infection, it would take him all winter to heal. Until then the squire could not walk or ride, and if Kwan wanted to consider another departure, he would have to consider abandoning the boy.

Kwan turned away from the bed and slammed a fist into the wall repeatedly, venting his terrible rage on the cracking plaster. Taf Ila grabbed Kwan by the arm. The Lord General’s gloved hand was probably already broken, but he sent his other fist at Taf Ila in a blind fury.

Taf Ila blocked the blow and shouted, “The physician has enough to do.”

Kwan relaxed slightly, but he rationally considered attacking Taf Ila anyway.

“I am not your enemy,” Taf Ila insisted.

“You are Onja’s lackey!” Kwan shouted in Atrophaney.

Even without a translation the rys captain guessed the nature of the human’s outburst. He knew what he was.

Deciding not to pursue himself as a subject, Taf Ila said, “I believe Queen Onja will release you in the spring if you only obey her.”

Shaking free of the Taf Ila’s restraining grasp, Kwan slumped into a chair. “Obey her,” he groaned, rubbing his hand. “She gives me no commands, except to stay here. What use could she have for us? She plays with me. Who will she torture next?”

“It is possible you will defend Jingten. Queen Onja does have an enemy,” Taf Ila explained very quietly.

“With all of her magic, she needs humans to defend Jingten? That is nonsense,” Kwan scoffed. “Will not Taf Ila defend his home for his Queen?”

Shrugging, Taf Ila simply responded, “I am not threatened. It is Onja’s enemy.”

The statement from the obviously loyal captain confused Kwan and he figured he misunderstood the rys words. “But if her enemy attacks Jingten, you will fight?” he pressed.

“Rys do not kill rys,” Taf Ila answered, clinging to the law. “I will not get between Onja and her enemy. None of us will.”

A picture began to form for Kwan. A picture in which he was a pawn. He did not quite understand the statement about rys not killing rys, but Kwan suspected the rys used humans to fight their wars. He remembered the Kezanada leaving on seemingly urgent business.

Is the war already being fought somewhere? he thought.

From Taf Ila’s somewhat cryptic statements, Kwan surmised that Onja’s enemy was a rys or maybe an army of rys. This thought did little to encourage Kwan. If Onja could dominate him, what chance did humans have against her rys rival? The Lord General realized he and his five hundred Atrophane were just fuel for the fire of her war.

“Who is Onja’s enemy?” he asked.

“I will not speak of that,” Taf Ila said.

“If I am to defend your city, I must know what I am facing,” Kwan insisted irritably.

“Onja will instruct you if the need arises,” Taf Ila said.

Abandoning the pointless round of questioning, Kwan asked a personal question. “I see you do not want to hurt us. Why do you serve Onja?”

Taf Ila answered, “Queen Onja is the most powerful rys. It is her rightful place to lead. My magic is common, and it is my place to serve.”

Kwan considered the answer a little too dogmatic. Glancing at the physician attending his squire’s burns, he wondered if Taf Ila could not speak his mind openly because Onja might be spying.

Kwan’s white eyebrows lifted quizzically on his weathered face. He wanted to know more of the rys’s real thoughts.

Inwardly, Taf Ila appreciated the cynical expression. Humans could convey so many thoughts with just their faces.

Choosing his words, Taf Ila carefully expanded his response. “Queen Onja hurt your servant because you care about him. She often chooses the target that will cause the most pain. I assure you, obedience is the proper choice.”

“Onja keeps everyone in their place,” Kwan muttered bitterly while watching the physician work on Jesse.

Kwan had wished to cultivate Taf Ila as an ally, but now he doubted it would do him much good. Remembering Taf Ila’s fair daughter, Kwan realized the rys captain had his own vulnerabilities and would not wish to risk Onja’s anger. Kwan did not blame him though. Taf Ila was right. Onja was the most powerful rys and even the other rys could not dispute her actions.

Once Jesse’s wounds were medicated and dressed, the rys left Kwan alone. The Lord General kept a vigil at the boy’s side for many days and talked to no one, not even Lieutenant Sandin. Of all of the soldiers who had fallen or been injured under his command, Kwan felt the most remorse for his squire’s suffering.

Nufal was broken and dying but Dacian did not revel in his victory. A madness struck the King of Jingten and he cursed his own genius that won the war. He commanded our agents to put their weapons in the water, and when they did not want to, he made them obey with his magic—Urlen, Kezanada chronicler, year six of Amar’s Overlordship.

When the Atrophane heard that the rys Queen commanded them to stay in Jingten until spring, their impulse was to rush into the open city and conquer it. Kwan longed to do the same, but he would not allow it. More needed to be known about rys powers before attempting aggression. The Lord General ordered his men to be patient and observe the enemy.

Life remained pleasant for the humans, and the Jingten Valley grew more beautiful every day as the golden hues of autumn mingled with the deep green conifers. Although the Atrophane still camped in the forest, the rys supplied them well and were gradually outfitting some unused buildings for their housing.

Even a month after meeting the intimidating Queen Onja, Kwan still found the gathering of information about the rys to be painfully slow. His greatest obstacle was the language and he prioritized learning it and bade all of his men to pursue this interest. Unfortunately, the rys appeared to take little outward interest in the humans and they were openly snobby, rarely attempting to speak with them.

However, Taf Ila visited the camp daily and Kwan sought to learn from him. The rys captain showed little desire to oblige Kwan, but the Lord General wore him down with persistence, following the captain and asking incessant questions.

Because Onja had not forbidden it, Taf Ila finally began teaching Kwan in brief daily lessons. Giving the human some time each day was far better than suffering his constant badgering in a foreign language.

At first, progress was slow for Kwan. For a lifetime he had spoken only his native language. The conquered could learn to speak Atrophaney as far as he had been concerned, but now necessity motivated Kwan and he practiced diligently.

Learning the rys language from Taf Ila’s uninspired tutoring might have proved impossible for Kwan, but then the rys began to enjoy his daily sessions with Kwan and they became longer and more detailed. In all his centuries of life, Taf Ila had dealt with many humans on an official basis but he had never interacted with one on such a personal level before. His time with the human increasingly pleased him and Taf Ila grew to appreciate the other race, enjoying the differences and being surprised by the similarities.

Yet, Taf Ila disliked the presence of the humans because they reminded him of the changing times. He knew Queen Onja plotted to dominate Kwan’s homeland and in the mean time use his army in the coming war with Shan.

This war with Shan troubled Taf Ila most of all. The news from the lowlands was never good these days and getting worse.

Keeping his worries to himself, Taf Ila continued teaching Kwan. One afternoon during a lesson, they sat on a hillside overlooking Jingten. The humans would be moved into the city that night, but until then Taf Ila wished to enjoy the fine day out of the city. Pointing to the surrounding peaks, the rys told Kwan their names, obviously pleased to describe his homeland. Attentively Kwan listened. All knowledge of this strange land was good.

Abruptly Taf Ila halted his lecture and turned toward the trail that zigzagged up the hill. His relaxed and happy demeanor faded as he sensed his daughter approaching. He jumped up and marched down the trail.

Wondering what had disturbed his teacher, Kwan followed and saw a rys female scrambling up the slope.

“Hello Father!”

Kwan understood the greeting, but Taf Ila had never mentioned he had a family. Although rys did not show their age much, Kwan judged the female to be youthful. He thought she was lovely with fine sharp features and pure black hair, glistening like spun onyx. The tone Taf Ila used with the fair child surprised Kwan.

“Why are you here?” Taf Ila barked. “I told you not to come near the humans, and now you have just crossed their encampment.”

Quylan started to explain herself but her father interrupted.

“You have directly disobeyed me,” Taf Ila accused. I was having such a good day, he lamented.

“But I have a reason!” she blurted. “The Kezanada Overlord approaches.”

Looking at the west road in the valley below, Taf Ila said, “How do you know this?”

Quylan straightened her shoulders proudly and replied, “I perceived them. They are still many hasas away but I can see farther than most rys. No one else in the city has noticed their approach—”

“Stop bragging,” Taf Ila cut her off although her rapidly maturing powers impressed him. He knew his daughter could see even outside the Rysamand. “I assure you Queen Onja took note of them long before you did.”

Quylan frowned at the reminder but continued, “Father, I had to find you. Please let me come with you to the Keep when the Kezanada arrive. I must hear their news. Too many warding crystals protect the throne room and I will not be able to listen to the Overlord’s meeting with the Queen.”

Taf Ila gasped at his daughter’s words. He wanted to grab her and shake her, but he would never treat her roughly. His voice shook with emotion when he ordered, “Do not ever spy on Onja! Where do you even get such ideas? Quylan, do you think your silly young mind could elude the Queen? Onja would perceive you in a second.”

“Then take me with you, Father. Then I will have no need to spy,” she pleaded.

Sorry for his anger, Taf Ila said softly, “Do not concern yourself with such things. It is only the Kezanada tribute caravan.”

“But they are early!” Quylan insisted. Tribute caravans were never early.

Taf Ila shrugged. “The Kezanada are wealthy. They do not care when they pay.”

“But they must have news of Shan. Something must have happened,” Quylan said, revealing her true concern.

“Who are Kezanada?” Kwan interjected. Although he had not gathered why Taf Ila was upset with his daughter, Kwan did understand that a group called Kezanada approached the city.

Taf Ila had almost forgotten that Kwan waited nearby. He tried to explain, “They are…mercenaries. A society who sell their services.”

“They Onja’s enemy? Attack Jingten?” Kwan asked, almost hoping to see some action and maybe free himself of Onja before winter.

“No. They are no threat. They are paying their taxes,” Taf Ila said.

Disappointed, Kwan wondered what this society of mercenaries was like and why they paid taxes.

“Are Kezanada rys?” he asked.

Such a notion offended Taf Ila but he reminded himself that Kwan asked only out of genuine ignorance. “Humans,” he answered bluntly.

Since Kwan had spoken, Quylan had been staring at the human from the east.

“He does not look like the other humans,” she whispered.

“The humans from the east look different, but they are still humans,” Taf Ila explained quietly.

Kwan decided to introduce himself because they were talking about him. “Lord Kwan of Atrophane. Hello, daughter of Taf Ila.” He bowed politely.

His manners impressed Quylan. A human had never addressed her before and the encounter fascinated her. Taf Ila put a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. Normally he would not have introduced her to a human, but he felt the impulse to extend Kwan this courtesy.

“This is Quylan,” he said.

Kwan made an effort to recall some new vocabulary and managed to compliment, “She make you proud.”

With an exasperated smile Taf Ila admitted, “She makes me lose sleep.”

“Daughters,” Kwan laughed. “I have two girls.” He realized he had not thought about them for a long time.

“Then you will understand that you must excuse me. I have to take this daughter home,” Taf Ila said.

“Father, I want to go to the Keep,” she protested.

Taf Ila gently insisted, “I shall take you home, but I will tell you any news as soon as I can.”

Quylan had to accept her father’s decision but she pouted with disappointment.

“I hope Shan still lives,” she said.

Taf Ila winced. “Stop talking about Shan,” he ordered. “Lord Kwan, I will send rys to see you and your men to your new quarters tonight. I may not be available, but if you have any problems, send word to me at the Keep.”

Kwan nodded and thanked him. He wanted to ask more questions, but Taf Ila hurried away with his stunning daughter.

Now who is this Shan? Kwan thought.

~

Onja settled into her throne, excited to receive the Kezanada Overlord. Since the rysmavda executions in Dengar Nor, she had not observed the lowlands and she was looking forward to good news from the Overlord. The audacity of Shan’s tactics had angered her so terribly that she had stopped watching. His strategy would lose its effectiveness on her if she ignored it. If she did not see what was meant to frustrate her and advertise her reduced range of power, she would not suffer from the mental toll Shan wished to take from her mind.

The lives of a few priests were insignificant, and Onja had placed her hope in the Kezanada. She knew they had been massing for a strike against Shan and today Onja dared to think that they had been successful.

So pleased by the thought that the Kezanada had completed their assignment, Onja did not probe the mind of the approaching Overlord for confirmation. If Shan was dead, she wanted to experience the moment of delight without forewarning. Onja had even devised a special spell of preservation for Shan’s head to keep the trophy fresh and glorious.

The great doors opposite the Queen parted, admitting the Overlord and his entourage. The Overlord strode across the cool marble with the confidence of a very powerful man. He was a man of large build with a hefty girth and huge arms bulging with muscle. One long braid hung down his back, ending in a clasp set with a large ruby. A gold trimmed black mask covered half of his face because it was traditional for Kezanada to conceal their identities from people outside their society. His dark eyes peered through the mask with a cunning gleam. He possessed a creative and cruel intelligence that was sometimes subdued by the various things he put in his pipe. But today his mind was sharp and clear, as it always was when he met with Onja.

A jeweled belt held a scimitar to his waist and his mighty frame was clothed in richly embroidered robes that were trimmed with brightly dyed furs. His apparel conveyed a sense of excessive wealth more than taste, but the Overlord did not care if Onja saw how rich the Kezanada were. Most of the wealthy and powerful segments of society hired the Kezanada occasionally, and Onja often employed the Kezanada as agents of her malice. This gave the Kezanada the distinction of actually earning more from Onja than they paid in tribute. As the Overlord often liked to note, the rys so hated getting their hands dirty.

Onja clawed the armrests of her throne as she anticipated the news she wanted to hear. The Overlord stopped before her dais and kneeled, as did the rows of Kezanada behind him, who all looked the same in their horsetailed helmets with their visors down. Unmasked servants with shaved heads carried a large chest to the front of the throne room, stopping beside the Overlord.

Normally Onja would speak first, but she remained strangely silent. With his knees beginning to ache under his weight, the Overlord decided to proceed. Rising, he stepped over to the chest, and with a flourish, he flung it open. Gold, silver, jewels, curious rare crystals, chunks of uncut jade, and lovely figurines carved from alabaster and studded with lapis lazuli filled the chest.

The Overlord was fluent in the rys language, which was rare for humans, and he began his speech. “The Kezanada respectfully present their Goddess Queen, fair mistress of Jingten, with the finest prizes we have to offer from a year’s labor. Along with this magnificent chest of treasure, the Kezanada have brought cattle, grain, fine furs, and many items that will please the citizens of Jingten.”

With a sick expression Onja stared at the chest, curling her lips with displeasure. It was just the Kezanada’s usual tribute and the Overlord was giving his same old boring speech. The twinkle of treasure had never looked so dull to Onja. Somehow, Shan had robbed her of even this pleasure.

“Stop!” she thundered.

The Overlord obeyed and crossed his arms patiently. He had been waiting for the outburst.

“You were to bring me Shan’s head. I said you were excused this year’s tribute as downpayment for your service. Why are you here with your junk? Why do you not hunt Shan?” Onja demanded ominously.

The Overlord withstood her angry glare and explained, “The Kezanada have lost a hundred good men pursuing Shan. Great Queen Onja, we are only humans, and we cannot get near the powerful rys, who has so offended you. Shan knows where we are before we know where he is.”

Scowling, Onja said, “How could you have lost one hundred Kezanada?”

The Overlord felt his blood pressure surge. The news of the massacre in the Nolesh was still fresh and upsetting. Outwardly he maintained his trademark calm, answering, “I had massed a force in the Temu Domain to fall upon Shan when he left Dengar Nor. Then my people found this force all dead without any sign of battle, without so much as a wound. I can only conclude that Shan killed them with his magic.”

Onja frowned, scolding herself for not monitoring Shan, but she had hoped to avoid the exertion. And she had not expected Shan to do such things.

So, Shan finally used his superior powers to kill his precious humans, Onja thought with wicked satisfaction.

Despite the pleasure Onja gained from knowing how Shan must have been morally tormented by this action, she acknowledged his advanced use of power. Now more than ever, Onja knew she could not allow Shan to return to Jingten.

“So the Kezanada have given up,” Onja criticized.

The Overlord tolerated the sting in her words, but he had a purpose to his patience. “The Kezanada have already suffered their worst defeat in many generations and did not even engage the target. With such losses, we do not profit. The Kezanada have decided it would be worth it just to pay the tribute.”

“Since when can the Kezanada not be bought? Do you not want your revenge?” Onja stormed. She could not imagine that Shan had subdued the notorious Kezanada.

At the mention of revenge a subtle smile curved under the fringe of the Overlord’s mask. “Oh, the Kezanada desire Shan’s head,” he hissed.

“Then why are you here?” the Queen demanded again.

“We require your assistance, Great Queen,” he replied.

Onja glanced uncomfortably toward the attending Taf Ila, remembering his opinion of the bounty on Shan. She knew many rys would disapprove of her increased participation in the hunt for Shan. Onja had no fear of her subjects’ disfavor, but she did not want the distraction of a disgruntled citizenry either.

“Taf Ila, take your squad and leave,” she ordered.

For an instant Taf Ila almost protested the breach of security, but he caught his tongue. Onja and her mercenaries were discussing Shan, and he did not want to be involved. Without a word, he marched out with the guards.

This privacy made the Overlord wonder if he should be worried or impressed. Either way Onja certainly meant to talk seriously.

“What assistance do you have in mind?” Onja asked.

Containing his excitement, the Overlord said, “Give us some magic charm that will protect us from Shan so that we can approach him. Surely you must have such a thing.”

Onja did not answer. Although her face appeared inscrutable, the Overlord could guess that she had something on her mind, something important, something she did not want to tell him about.

Slowly the Queen made her reluctant decision and nodded. “I believe I have some items that will help you. Overlord of the Kezanada, meet me again tomorrow and I will give you that which you ask for.”

The Overlord bowed graciously to Onja and kept his thoughts buried.

Late that night, Hefshul ferried his Queen across the blackened lake. A cold wind howled down from the peaks and the old mute rys had to strain against the waves. Hefshul had long ago given up any concern for Onja’s activities, but his silent thoughts guessed the nature of her errand.

With the skiff rocking against the gravel shore in front of the Tomb of Dacian, Hefshul hunkered down into his fleece coat and watched Onja go ashore. The darkness was briefly broken by the blue sparkle of the Queen opening the magically sealed tower.

Places in the tower had not been entered since the days of warring with Nufal. On the day when Dacian had made his Last Law, the rys had thrown their enchanted weapons into Lake Nin, but Onja had stowed a few arms in the tower and she went to her ancient armory.

Onja removed the seal that she had placed on the armory door twenty-two centuries ago, and the air hissed out, delighting in its escape. Now secrets locked in forgotten silence could get out. A crystal mounted in the wall glowed in her powerful presence, revealing the few weapons that remained on the racks.

Onja remembered when the tower had bustled with activity and the armory had almost been cluttered with fine tools of war. Then she recalled the sickening day when the rys and humans had followed Dacian’s folly and hurled their weapons into the water.  Incredible masterworks of enchanted weapons had sunk into the lake that day, returning their magic to the deep secret waters of the Rysamand. No artisans today possessed the knowledge to remake that which had been thrown away.

But Onja had not let the fools get them all.

She hated to risk her precious collection out in the world in such uneducated hands, and she would not loan out every piece. Humans had not had such weapons to use since the defeat of Nufal, and Shan would not be prepared for this threat that he did not know existed. The enchanted weapons had been crafted specifically for the humans who had served their rys masters on the battlefield.

Delicately Onja plucked a quarrel from the shelf and she stared at the crystal tip of the arrow. Holding the sparkling point near her face, she shuddered as she felt the terrible power within. If this quarrel pierced rys flesh, the crystal tip would deliver a painful and lethal spell.

Only a small stock of the potent quarrels remained and she took these along with two crossbows. Onja gathered six swords with twinkling crystals set in the hilt. She removed her flowing cape and wrapped the weapons into an awkward bundle. When she returned to the skiff with her heavy burden, Hefshul eyed her package. From his vague emotion she sensed his disapproval.

“Row!” she snarled and Hefshul obeyed lazily.

Clutching her dark bundle, Onja wondered why her rys did not appreciate her efforts. She had made the rys of Jingten wealthy, respected, and the supreme race in the entire world, yet they balked when she had to put down one renegade.

The Kezanada Overlord received his summons early the next morning and he hurried to the throne room. Onja was alone and when he kneeled before her, he saw the bundle at the base of the dais.

“Rise and look inside,” Onja bade him.

Eagerly, despite fearing a trick, the Overlord unwrapped the cape and beheld the fine sharp weapons engraved with rys script and embedded with crystals. Reverently he grasped a sword and raised the perfect blade before his masked face. No agent of time could mar the enchanted blade that made the light quiver painfully on its sharp edges.

The history of the Kezanada stretched back even to the Age of Dacian and the fragile lore books had hinted at the existence of the enchanted weapons. When the rys had warred with Nufal, they had crafted arms that would protect them and their human allies from killing spells on the battlefield. The Overlord had hoped that Onja still possessed such things and he could barely suppress his triumphant joy to have the charmed sword in his hand. Onja had to be desperate to let him use this treasure, but he banished that line of reasoning. Even a thought was perilous in the court of Jingten.

“Shan will not be able to sense the warriors who carry these weapons. The enchantments on them will hide their bearers from Shan’s powers of perception and his spells. With these you should be able to arrange an ambush,” Onja explained. “Consider these weapons a loan. Do NOT lose them, and do not fail this time.”

“The Kezanada are honored to use your great treasures, Queen Onja,” the Overlord said solemnly.

Onja continued, “Leave your tribute as a deposit on the weapons. Bring me Shan’s head and my original offer stands. Begone from Jingten, Overlord. Every day Shan lives offends me.”

“He offends the Kezanada as well,” the Overlord agreed while wrapping the weapons.

Bowing deeply, he hoisted the enchanted bundle in his mighty arms. He would lead this mission himself and he needed his seven finest Kezanada to raise these magic weapons at his side. As he departed, his mind was already going over a list of candidates.

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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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