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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean gone?” Kwan asked.

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Then what happened?” Kwan asked impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do not know,” the squire replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quickly now,” Lord Kwan urged.

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

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

Hydax and Gennor saluted and departed intent on their mission.

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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