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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really did hear someone yesterday, he realized.

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

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

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

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

Dreibrand felt panic and guilt. He recognized Hydax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surrender or die,” Gennor promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Hydax inquired nervously.

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

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

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

“Get up,” he ordered.

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

“Hold him for me,” Gennor suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks richer than anyone around here, she concluded.

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Except yesterday,” Gennor said.

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

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

Gennor smirked, undecided on whether he wanted to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” Hydax inquired.

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

Hydax frowned with disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” he asked.

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

“Thank you. I am Dreibrand Veta.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I follow you?” he said.

“You are Atrophane?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is not safe out there,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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