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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There must be a way up, Dreibrand thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am going! his mind dictated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Which lieutenant have you chosen?” he blurted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s my helmet?” he demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, no.”

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

Desperately the squire grabbed Dreibrand’s arm.

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

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

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

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

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

“Saddle my horse,” he commanded.

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

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

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

Gods, spare me the blame, he pleaded.

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

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

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

He rode west.