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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some day…” Dreibrand growled.

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

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

“Dreibrand, come sit.”

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

This one never really kneels, Kwan thought.

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

Casually, Dreibrand settled down among the cushions.

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

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

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

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

These things reminded Kwan of himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think she likes me,” Dreibrand joked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dejected, the man said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would I die?” Dreibrand wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Dreiband prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Set her free,” he ordered.

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

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