Dreibrand assembled a mighty supply of wood and intended to keep a hearty blaze going all night. As he set down his last armful of firewood, he almost toppled to the ground.

“I hope that thing is afraid of fire,” he said breathlessly.

Standing in the cave entrance, Miranda observed the smear of dried blood on his head. He did not look well, and she had little hope that he would leave.

“Why is he here?” Elendra whispered.

“I think he needs help,” Miranda whispered back.

“I am scared of him. Make him go away,” Elendra insisted.

Miranda hushed her daughter. Leaving Esseldan in his basket, she shyly approached the new member of her camp.

“Thank you for gathering all that wood,” she said sincerely.

Dreibrand nodded painfully and gingerly touched his temple.

“What was that thing?” he said.

Miranda looked at the forest and the cliff shadow creeping across the trees. “I think it must be a fenthakrabi,” she answered hesitantly as if saying the name of the beast would make it appear.

“How do you live with such a thing?” Dreibrand wondered.

“I have never seen it before. I have heard stories. But I never really believed.” Miranda explained.

“Believe what?” Elendra asked impatiently.

Miranda had not realized the child could overhear and answered carefully, “There was a wild animal in the forest today. I…I did not get a good look at it.” She held back a shudder as she recalled the dreadful creature.

Dreibrand realized Miranda was trying to spare her daughter the gruesome details, and he dropped the subject. His exertions of the past days had caught up with him, leaving him dizzy.

“I heard you say fenthakrabi,” Elendra boldly pressed her mother.

“Say no more. Go sit by your brother,” Miranda ordered.

Elendra pouted and obeyed slowly.

“She’s a strong-willed girl,” Dreibrand commented.

“She wants me to make you go away,” Miranda said abruptly.

Dreibrand did not blame her for that reaction. Although he did not feel threatening, he had come to this country as an invader, and as Miranda had said, he was an enemy. This woman had no reason to help him further. Saving his life had been remarkably generous.

“Yeah, I understand. Let me trouble you no more,” he said and started to haul himself wearily to his feet.

“No, sit down,” Miranda insisted quickly. “I do not obey my daughter. She obeys me. You need to stay. It will be dark soon.”

Miranda did not need to include the implications of the coming night. Exhausted, hurt, and without a weapon, Dreibrand had little desire to face the forest alone.

“Your wounds need attention,” Miranda noted.

Dreibrand regarded the red lines around his wrists where the bindings had held him tightly for a day and a night. Blood had clotted all over his right wrist, where Miranda had cut him free.

“Sorry I cut you,” Miranda offered.

Tiredly, Dreibrand smiled. “Not a problem,” he said.

“What about your head?” she asked, eyeing the ugly cut.

“I have already lived with that for a day. Trust me, Miranda, it is better than it was,” he said.

“It is not that much better,” Miranda decided firmly.

She rummaged a clean rag from her pack and retrieved her canteen. Wetting the fabric, she began gently washing his cuts. Dreibrand relaxed happily under her ministrations.

“You must be a forest nymph who has carried me away,” he said dreamily. “Or maybe I died back there and this is paradise.”

Sitting back, Miranda rinsed out the rag. “I assure you I am no spirit of the wood and you are very much alive,” she said.

Dreibrand sighed. “You are so kind to help me.”

Miranda made no reply. She did not quite understand her motivations for helping him. She assumed it had to be pure sympathy.

“What are you doing here?” Dreibrand inquired.

“I already told you I hide from the war,” she replied with specific hostility.

Dreibrand tried quickly to restore her good will and corrected his question. “I mean, why are you alone with your children? Where is your husband?”

A savage gleam filled her eyes, and Dreibrand instantly regretted the question, realizing her husband probably fought the Atrophane as they spoke.

But the hate that flared out of her soul was not directed at him. Rigidly she replied, “I have no husband.”

Good news, Dreibrand thought and said diplomatically, “That happens.”

Discarding the subject, Miranda said, “We need to eat.”

More good news for Dreibrand, made evident by the grumblings of his stomach.

She fed her daughter first, before offering Dreibrand his plate. “I have very little food to share. I had hoped to fish today, but I never got to it,” she explained.

Dreibrand saw his hand shake when he reached for the plate, and he hated how ragged he felt. With an endearing smile he said, “As hungry as I am, I am glad that you did not go fishing today.”

Then he plunged into his food, greedy in his hunger. He realized that to know the Wilderness he would have to become tougher.

About halfway through his meal, Dreibrand realized that Miranda and her daughter were staring at him. A critical curiosity shone from the dark eyes of the little girl. Elendra sucked crumbs off her fingers as she regarded him with an aloof expression that did not quite fit her cute face.

“What is your name?” Dreibrand asked.

Elendra turned her gaze to her mother, who answered, “This is Elendra, and my son is Esseldan.”

“I like those names,” Dreibrand responded.

“Mama, he talks funny,” Elendra declared.

“Do not talk to people like that,” Miranda snapped, fearing the comment would anger the man.

Dreibrand chuckled, “I get that all the time. I promise to work on my Bosta, Elendra.”

His good-natured reply relaxed Miranda somewhat, and she explained to Elendra, “Our language is not his language.”

“Your Bosta sounds a little different than how I learned it,” Dreibrand commented.

Miranda shrugged. “I am not a Bosta. I originally lived south of the Bosta territory in Ciniva.”

Dreibrand recalled the area and nodded with understanding. The dialect in Ciniva lingered in Miranda’s speech.

He finished eating and after thanking Miranda again, he proposed, “Do not worry about the food. Tomorrow I will go back to the camp and scavenge. They had decent supplies and hopefully I can find Hydax’s bow. Then I can hunt for you.”

This plan surprised Miranda. “You would help me like that?” she asked doubtfully.

“Yes, Miranda. You saved me from a horrible death. I want to show my gratitude, and I want to eat also.” Lowering his voice, he glanced at the children. “Anyway, I think maybe you could use help.”

Miranda cast her eyes down in worry. She felt naturally inclined to like Dreibrand, but she never felt inclined to trust anyone.

I am not in a position to turn down help, she admitted to herself.

“But it will be too dangerous. That thing will still be there,” she whispered.

“Probably nearby,” he conceded. “But I have to go back for the food and gear. And my weapons are lying on the ground.” In Atrophaney he moaned, “I pray to Golan I can find Starfield.”

Mixed emotions tore through Miranda. She was afraid of the beast and no longer wanted to be alone. Although she was wary of him, Dreibrand’s presence did comfort her. The thought of supplies from the unfortunate camp had appeal as well.

“I would go now, but I have to rest,” Dreibrand said. He stretched out beside the fire and with a sigh closed his eyes.

As he dozed fitfully, Miranda reassessed her situation. She had not expected to save a strange man’s life, especially an Atrophane. She wondered if Dreibrand really intended to return with scavenged supplies, assuming the fenthakrabi did not kill him. By the quality of his clothing Miranda suspected that he possessed some rank among his people, but the reason for his captivity she could not guess. She resolved to find out later why a wealthy Atrophane would be the prisoner of his own people out in the Wilderness. For now he could rest, but until she knew more, she could not make a reliable judgment of him.

Miranda collected her children and the horse and went to the waterfall. Freedom drank and grazed happily on the fresh vegetation. The water roared down from the high cliff, sending out a cooling spray, and Miranda fished downstream where the water calmed itself briefly into a deep pool. She strained her ears for any sound of the beast, but hoped that it still fed on its earlier victims and would not be hunting.

Elendra sensed the stress in her mother and stayed close. The afternoon faded, and no fish rewarded Miranda’s efforts. Discouraged and afraid, Miranda looked at the sun above the cliffs and wished she could be up on that high land. It seemed safer up there.

Dreibrand heard the small family returning to the camp and opened his eyes. His face was in the dirt, and he pushed himself up slowly. The beating from yesterday had matured into a deep and thorough discomfort, but his nap had eased the headache slightly. The dry gravelly taste in his mouth bothered him the most and he felt complete gratefulness when Miranda dangled her canteen over him.

“You save me again,” he mumbled and took the water.

Miranda busied herself building up the fire. Dusk passed into night and they ate another small meal. Brooding on his situation, Dreibrand scanned the darkening forest with his blue eyes.

Elendra fell asleep by the fire, and Miranda wrapped a blanket around her. After discreetly feeding her son, she slipped the baby into his basket.

Dreibrand added wood to the fire and gestured for her to sit next to him. Miranda seated herself but not particularly close to him.

Before he could start the conversation, Miranda announced, “I am going to ask you questions now.”

“What do you want to know?” he said with a friendly tone.

“Why were you a prisoner?”

Dreibrand kept looking at her but was slow to reply. Finally he answered, “I am—I was an officer in the Atrophaney military. I served Lord General Kwan, who is a powerful Hordemaster. His orders displeased me and I left in a fit of rage. I was stupid.”

He shifted his gaze to the flames and shook his head. His narrow escape from death that day made him realize how much he had given up. No army surrounded him now, and his vulnerability in this Wilderness was total.

“What were your lord’s orders?” Miranda pressed for details.

Dreibrand gave into the urge to confess the rest of his foolishness to this strange woman. She was the closest thing he had to a friend. “After we conquered Droxy, I was to escort the chattel caravan back to Atrophane, present Darmar Zemthute II with his share, and distribute the rest to Lord Kwan’s estates,” he explained. Even now, he did not want to go back to Atrophane.

“You would actually see the Darmar of Atrophane?” Miranda asked in shock.

He nodded modestly, but privately enjoyed the fact that she was impressed.

“And you run away from this honor?” she asked incredulously.

“It is more a chore than an honor, but I suppose it meant Lord Kwan trusted me,” Dreibrand said. “I got upset because I did not want to go back to Atrophane. I wanted to stay here and be with the first Atrophane to explore the Wilderness. But Lord Kwan ordered me back home.”

“Those men that captured you were sent by your Lord Kwan to bring you back,” Miranda concluded.

“Yes. I was ill prepared and could not fight them off,” Dreibrand said. Discussing his capture embarrassed him.

Miranda found his story strange. “Why would you leave? You are obviously a rich lord,” she observed.

This comment made Dreibrand laugh, which made his sides hurt more. That Miranda thought he was a wealthy lord amused him greatly.

His mood much lightened, Dreibrand ended her confusion. “Oh Miranda, I am not a rich lord. The House of Veta is waning and destitute. These nice clothes you see are all I have, except for my horse and sword lost in the forest. My family has only one estate left, and that is mismanaged by my incompetent father.”

“One estate sounds like a lot to me,” Miranda commented.

“Not when your family used to have seventeen,” Dreibrand explained.

Her mouth opened with astonishment. Such wealth Miranda had never really imagined. “How could your family lose so much?” she asked.

The question made Dreibrand uncomfortable and Miranda apologized, “I am sorry. I ask too much.”

“Actually it is nice to meet someone who does not know,” he said. “I might as well tell you.

“Twenty-three years ago my grandfather assassinated the Minister of the Treasury because with the position empty, the Darmar at the time was certain to choose my grandfather as the replacement. The Treasury post is a very important position in the Empire. Back then my family was rich and respected, and the assassination would have been forgotten, except that one of my grandfather’s rivals uncovered the plot.

“Faced with the evidence, the Darmar could not ignore my grandfather’s crimes, and the Darmar had him executed. In addition, nine of our estates were forfeited to the Darmar. Other estastes were seized and distributed to other nobles. Since then, the Empire has officially censured the House of Veta for seven generations, and to make matters worse my father has squandered our fortune. I have no inheritance, and our last remaining estate is reserved for my worthless older brother. He is a spoiled failure who wastes money in gambling houses and brothels.”

Now that Dreibrand spoke about his family, he felt better about being stranded in the forest with a dangerous beast.

Miranda found it intriguing that people who had everything could make such problems for themselves, but she could empathize with a bad family life that had no future.

“I have a few questions about the Atrophane Horde,” Miranda continued.

Dreibrand looked at her attentively, and she asked, “If I had stayed in Droxy with my children, would your soldiers have killed us?”

This question caught Dreibrand off guard. He did not want to imagine Miranda at the mercy of marauding soldiers.

“You could have been killed,” he admitted. “But they would have wanted to take you alive. You would be a valuable slave.”

“Is that how you see me?” Miranda demanded angrily.

Dreibrand noted her defensive tone and her presence in the forest suddenly made more sense. War turned people into slaves, but it also gave slaves an opportunity to run away.

“Anyone can be a slave,” Dreibrand said.

“I am not a slave,” Miranda insisted.

Reacting to her sharp tone, he inquired, “Who has been hitting you?”

Miranda parted her lips, but faltered, uncertain what to say.

“Before you deny it, I saw the bruises on the side of your face when you cleaned my wounds, and the cut still shows on your lip,” Dreibrand said.

Her hand strayed to the bruise near her ear. She noted that Dreibrand was a very observant man, and not easily lied to. “I guess you could say I deserted too,” she conceded.

Dreibrand appreciated her subtle admission.

“Enough talk of me,” she declared, taking back control. “Would the Atrophane have killed my children?”

It disturbed Dreibrand to hear her questions. After expanding the Empire for two years, he had seen atrocity. “Sometimes children get killed,” he murmured.

Finally Miranda felt justified in her actions. Fleeing into the Wilderness was perhaps foolish, but it may have saved her children’s lives.

“Do you kill children?” she added coldly.

“No, of course not,” Dreibrand answered quickly as if he had a choice. “I am an honorable warrior, not a mad dog.”

Miranda hoped it was true.

After an awkward silence, Dreibrand complimented her actions. “You were wise to stay out of Droxy, but what is your next step?”

Miranda considered her options. “I saw my village burning when I rode up here, and if my former master saw me again, I think he would kill me, so I suppose I will make my way back to Ciniva,” she replied but with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.

“Back to your family?” he wondered.

Miranda frowned as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. “I have no family, except for my father, who sold me into slavery when I was fourteen. I will fend for myself. I can make money in one of the towns,” she decided. Miranda made this plan as she spoke the words and inwardly accepted the means by which she would support her family.

“It does not sound like you have much to go back to,” Dreibrand noted.

“No. But I will go on,” she whispered.

“I have an idea,” Dreibrand said. “We could find the way up these cliffs while things cool down around Droxy.”

“We?” Miranda repeated.

“Yes. I seriously think we should join forces,” he stated. “I want to explore while I am here, and then I will help you get back to Ciniva.”

“Who says I need your help for that?” Miranda argued.

“You will want to avoid the Atrophane, and the Bosta Territory will be under martial law for at least a year. To do this you must stick to the backcountry, which will be occupied by bandits and other desperate sorts. You will not be safe, but I could protect you.”

Miranda had to admit that he gave good reasons.

He added, “And with that fenthakrabi around, we both need someone to watch our backs.”

This reason carried the most weight. Although reluctant to trust him, she had to be practical and conceded the need for a companion.

“You say you can collect weapons from the camp tomorrow?” she said thoughtfully.

“Unless that thing carries weapons—and I hope it does not—I should get my sword, dagger, a bow, and maybe another sword or two,” he responded.

“If you promise to share these weapons with me, I will accompany you—as long as it pleases me,” she stated her terms.

Dreibrand grinned at her caution, admiring the way she conducted herself like a general. “You can have half of everything. I will even teach you how to use a weapon,” he offered happily.

Learning how to defend herself appealed greatly to Miranda. “You will teach me then.”

“We are agreed?” he urged.

“Yes. We will travel together,” she said.

Dreibrand seemed genuinely pleased, but Miranda remained neutral. She would wait to see if he kept his promises.

Next they agreed to split the watch throughout the night. Miranda let Dreibrand rest first because he was hurt. He buttoned his blue silk jacket while curling up on the bare ground, and made a mental note to find a blanket. Before giving in to his exhaustion, he asked sleepily, “Miranda, how can it be that no one lives west of Droxy?”

Hugging her knees and staring alertly into the night, she said simply, “Because anyone who enters the Wilderness never comes back.”

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