By night or by day
If from rules you stray
The demons of the wood
Will take you for good
To where no men go
A place only for Gods to know.

—Bosta nursery rhyme

The first day of their partnership began in dispute. When Dreibrand asked to borrow Miranda’s knife, she opposed him vehemently.

“I need it to cut down a sapling and sharpen it into a spear. I will give it right back,” he explained with exasperation.

Miranda rested her hand protectively on the knife in her sash. “I will not give you my knife and leave myself with nothing,” she stated.

“But I must have something before I go. My bare hands are not enough,” he argued.

“I will make it then,” Miranda offered.

Dreibrand exhaled with frustration and demanded, “Why can’t you trust me with the knife? Do you think I will hurt you? You should already trust me. You slept last night during my watch. I could have done anything to you.”

“I only had my eyes closed,” Miranda corrected.

Reluctantly, Dreibrand abandoned his anger and grinned. You were sleeping for a little while, he thought, but respected her bluff.

“Fine. Then can I borrow your horse?” he inquired.

Miranda scowled at the absurdity of his request.

Refusing to accept an impasse, Dreibrand reasoned, “We need to trust each other. Miranda, I know a lot of people are mean, but I will not hurt you. You saved me yesterday.”

Gradually the opposition drained from her defiant gaze, and she held out the knife for him. When he took it, Miranda quickly stepped back. Dreibrand grumbled a thank you and immediately went to hack down some saplings. He sharpened two into crude spears and gleaned some confidence from the pointy sticks.

He returned the knife to Miranda, presenting it handle first. She snatched it back without offering any words of apology for her suspicion.

Taking a deep breath, Dreibrand mentally prepared himself to hike into the forest. The fearsome fenthakrabi had to be in the vicinity and he felt stalked already.

“I will be back as quick as I can,” he said.

Hesitantly, Miranda wished him luck and he started down the rocky slope. Before entering the forest, he turned and waved. Miranda had to admit that he possessed bravery to return to the scene of yesterday’s carnage.

The day dragged and Miranda stayed vigilant, watching the trees and dreading the hellish scream of the beast’s attack. Despite her terror of the beast, they had a pressing need for food, and Miranda had to go fishing. While walking to the creek, Miranda decided she must be practical and warn her daughter of the danger. She explained that a large predator was somewhere in the forest, and if it attacked, Elendra must grab her brother and run.

Elendra took the news well because she had already assumed as much. The little girl was scared but she could cope with the fear because her mother was with her. Hiding in the cave the day before had been much harder.

Today, Miranda had better luck and netted six fish. To her hungry eyes, they looked like a tempting feast and she cleaned them quickly and threw the waste into the moving water.

The fish made an especially delicious lunch after days of old bread and dried fruit. Miranda left two fish in the pan, intending them for Dreibrand, but he had not returned yet.

“Is that man gone for good?” Elendra inquired, obviously hopeful that his departure had been permanent.

With a shrug, Miranda said, “He is supposed to come back.”

The afternoon drifted by, and Miranda worried that he had been killed. With this thought came the realization that she had wanted his company. His presence the night before had been reassuring, and she had enjoyed his willingness to help. Now she had to face being alone in the Wilderness again, and this time she knew the fenthakrabi was there.

Fighting off despair, Miranda buried her stress with tasks for the rest of the day. Returning to the creek, she washed her children and herself. The water was cold and invigorating, and it felt good to be clean. The water poured down from the Wilderness, and Miranda stood naked beneath the waterfall that washed away her old life.

Next, Miranda altered her clothes. Her long skirt did not suit her for riding or moving about the forest, and she sewed it into pants. Every few stitches, she would look up, watching for danger, but she managed to finish the last of the stitching before the daylight faded.

Elendra laughed at her when she put them on, but Miranda was rather pleased with the results. She enjoyed the secure feel of the cloth around her legs and the ease of movement.

After building the fire up big and bright, Miranda took little comfort from it. She found herself pacing and trying to sort out her dilemma. She knew she was defenseless against the creature, but back in Droxy there was war, and worse yet, Barlow.

Finally she sat down by herself away from the fire. As her eyes adjusted to the night, she watched silently. When Freedom nickered, her heart stopped with fear until she realized that the animal did sound afraid. Suddenly flushed with excitement, Miranda ran halfway down the slope just as Dreibrand emerged from the dusky forest. He rode a dappled gray horse, who neighed a reply to Freedom. Tremendous relief massaged Miranda, but now that Dreibrand had actually returned, she reserved her joy from him.

“Sorry I took so long, but I had to track my horse,” Dreibrand patted the thick shoulder of his fine steed. “You did not run all the way back to Atrophane,” he murmured affectionately in his native tongue.

Swinging down from his mount, Dreibrand laid a hand lovingly on the hilt at his hip and said, “By Golan, it is good to have my sword back.”

Miranda noticed he now wore a breastplate of armor and a quiver of arrows was slung over his back. The bow was tied across the bulging saddlebags. Miranda flipped open one of the saddlebags to examine the contents.

Dreibrand was unaccustomed to anyone looking at his things without permission, but he had promised to share and he tolerated her boldness.

“I was able to get most of the supplies the scouts had,” Dreibrand explained. “That beast stuck mostly to the deer, and then it must have dragged off the bodies. But all the gear was untouched.”

“Did you see it?” Miranda whispered fearfully.

“No, thank the Gods.”

“There is food waiting for you. I will tend your horse,” she said, and Dreibrand received the news happily.

He yielded the reins and strode toward the fire, finding his cold fish dinner immediately. Now that he had his gear back and more supplies, Dreibrand felt able to cope with the Wilderness, and it excited him again. He missed the army less and liked Miranda more.

He watched her unsaddle Starfield and tether the horse. She lugged the saddlebags over by the fire and pulled items out so she could look at them in the light.

“Look Elendra, Dreibrand has brought us food,” she said. The girl peeked with interest at the new supplies, but she showed Dreibrand no gratitude. Miranda knew she could not make her daughter like him but the girl would have to learn to tolerate him.

After assessing the foodstuffs, Miranda grabbed the sword that poked out of one of the bags. Dreibrand had wrapped the blade in a couple rags because the scabbard was presumably still attached to Gennor’s missing body. Miranda pulled back some of the cloth and admired the gleam of the blade in the firelight. Holding the weapon made her feel powerful.

“That one is yours,” Dreibrand said.

The quality of the weapon impressed Miranda, who had never possessed anything of value. Next she removed a hatchet and a butcher knife, but when she found an ivory handled dagger, her eyes lit up.

“I want this too,” she breathed.

Dreibrand gasped slightly and plucked it from her hand before she could react. Tucking the blade into its place on his swordbelt, Dreibrand said, “I did not mean for that to be in there. It is mine”

When Miranda frowned, he snidely added, “You have your own knife.”

She did not reply and thereby conceded the point. Dreibrand had come back and she did not have to be alone. And he had given her a sword. Grinning, she resumed her admiration of the weapon.

“Have you ever shot a bow?” Dreibrand inquired.

Timidly she shook her head.

“I will teach you, but for now I will carry the bow because I will hunt with it,” he said.

“And you will teach me to use this,” she said greedily and held up the sword.

“Sure, but it sounds like you are in a hurry to hurt someone,” he joked.

“I do not want to be defenseless,” she explained.

Dreibrand agreed and added quietly, “I was worried about you all day.”

His soft tone made her feel suddenly shy, and Miranda busied herself with the children. Elendra resisted her mother’s wish to go to sleep and argued against it even as Miranda tucked the blanket around her.

“I am sick of sleeping on the ground,” Elendra complained.

“You will get used to it,” Miranda predicted.

“I want to go home,” the girl whined and Miranda stroked her round cheek with a sympathetic touch. She did not know how to explain that they could not go home. The shack in Wa Gira was probably destroyed, or at least Miranda hoped so.

Miranda hummed a lullaby until her daughter drifted into the peaceful sleep of children. The tender maternal scene intrigued Dreibrand, who had rarely been around such family niceties.

When the girl and baby were asleep, Miranda moved around the campfire to speak with Dreibrand.

“I think we should move from this place. The beast might be very close, and someday soon it will want fresh meat,” she said.

“I agree. And we are still close to Droxy,” Dreibrand reminded.

“So your Lord Kwan will send more men after you?” Miranda asked.

“Maybe in a few days. But he will give Hydax and Gennor a couple more days to report back,” Dreibrand replied.

Miranda eyed his weapons and foreign clothes. Associating herself with a wanted person felt strange, but she supposed runaway slaves who stole horses kept such company.

“So do you know a way over the cliffs?” Dreibrand asked.

Miranda shook her head and appeared dubious about his destination. “Why do you want to go up there?”

“Because it is the Wilderness. You must be curious?” he said with enthusiasm.

Now that she thought about it, she was surprised to find that she was curious.

The firelight bounced up only a tiny portion of the cliff, and Dreibrand stared at the dark rock above. The stars marked the edge of the rocky barrier.

“It does not make sense that this place is uninhabited,” he remarked. “No ocean or desert separates this land from civilization. It is good green land and people should be there.”

“No one has ever come out of the west,” Miranda said.

“But I think people are there,” Dreibrand insisted. “Now that I am seeing for myself how large our world Ektren is, I cannot accept that people only live in one place. I believe more than ever that a great kingdom must be in the west. The Wilderness might be a buffer zone for protection. A frontier without roads or people can be difficult for an army to cross.”

His theory amused Miranda, who had never heard such an idea before. “Or it may just be an empty haunted land, like everyone says,” she suggested, thinking of the fenthakrabi.

Dreibrand frowned because he thought his explanation the most plausible. With clear skepticism he said, “I have also been told that thousands of years ago, Gods made war in the Wilderness and now they do not let humans live there.”

“I have heard that one too,” Miranda said.

“Well, maybe after all this time, the Gods will let me live there,” he said.

“You really want to be in the Wilderness,” Miranda observed.

“It is my dream,” Dreibrand confessed. “I feel strangled in my homeland, and I want to start a new life for myself. Where better to do so than a new land?”

“Then which way do you want to go?” Miranda asked.

“Well, it is north or south. I feel inclined to look north,” he said.

“Why north?” she wondered.

Dreibrand shrugged. “I just have a feeling, and I have to choose somehow.”

When Miranda considered his decision, she had no preference in direction. The next morning they rode north and Dreibrand’s eagerness to explore was almost contagious to her. His excitement allayed her fear of the fenthakrabi.

It rained that first night away from the cave, and Miranda endured the exposure. She wrapped Esseldan close to her body and managed to keep him dry. Luckily it was only a mild spring shower, but Elendra complained as if it had been a heavy storm.

Except for this, the next three days passed pleasantly, and they saw no sign of the fenthakrabi, although they kept watch every night. One afternoon they rode into an area that had suffered a forest fire in the past year or two. The land was open, providing a wide view, and covered with young vegetation.

Even though a green layer of renewal blessed the land, the blackened bare trunks of trees claimed by the fire haunted the area.

Dropping back beside Miranda, Dreibrand commented, “I still do not understand why none of your people have migrated here. This land is good. Look how quickly the land recovers.”

“People are afraid. They believe they cannot live west of Droxy,” Miranda explained.

“The Wilderness is where demons take bad children,” Elendra piped in.

Miranda chuckled nervously. Old folktales meant to intimidate children no longer seemed like a wise tactic.

After raising an eyebrow at the girl’s disturbing comment, Dreibrand said, “But you are not afraid to explore?”

“Oh, I am very afraid,” Miranda admitted, “But I am more afraid of war.”

“As you should be, Miranda,” he said darkly, remembering all the cities and towns he had razed.

They developed the habit of making a camp by late afternoon, which allowed enough daylight for Miranda’s archery lesson. Dreibrand did not consider himself a master archer, but he was competent with all standard weapons and a capable teacher. Eager to learn, Miranda took her lessons seriously and progressed rapidly. He taught her how to hold the bow and where and when to pull and release the string. Hydax’s old bow was a bit strong for her, but she managed.

With the hatchet Dreibrand hacked a cross into a tree to provide a target. He gently adjusted her stance before she drew back the string, and then he stepped back while she took her aim. His attention on their task faded and his gaze drifted along her shoulder and down her back. He found himself wanting to put a hand on her hip and maybe rub the small of her back with his thumb.

The string rolled off her fingers and the arrow struck the target. Miranda gasped with delight at her first perfect shot, and Dreibrand snapped out of his daydreams.

“Good shot!” he cried.

Miranda grinned with pride as she trotted to retrieve her arrow.

“Be careful taking it out. These arrows need to last as long as possible,” he called.

After archery practice, they sparred with the swords. Dreibrand taught her the basics of swordplay, which she found very awkward at first. Learning to handle the weapon with finesse and balance would take time Miranda realized.

Dreibrand enjoyed the sparring even though it did not challenge his skills. When he finished Miranda’s lesson, he trained on his own. He worked through a regimen of forms, swinging his sword, lunging, and sometimes he would even switch the weapon from hand to hand while the blade spun perilously. His body moved in graceful conjunction with his weapon, and he pushed his body to go longer and faster. Despite the empty country around him, Dreibrand suspected he would need to defend himself sooner or later.

Most days Miranda watched his display of physical skill, and even Elendra was fascinated by his exercises. As the day withdrew behind the omnipresent cliffs, Dreibrand stopped. He was panting a little and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Dreibrand, when you fight in a battle, is that what you do?” Miranda asked curiously. The speed and poise of his movements looked intimidating, but she could not quite imagine such a ballet taking place in a life and death struggle.

“No, not exactly. But as I practice, my body learns the movements, and I will react to attack in the appropriate way without thinking about it,” he explained.

“Have you fought in this way much?” she wondered.

For an instant many episodes of killing and mayhem flashed across his memory, but he spoke quietly despite the intense images. “I have fought in many battles.”

“How do you keep from being afraid?” Miranda said with genuine interest. Dreibrand had faced great armies of men and survived, but she had never been able to resist Barlow.

“As an Atrophane, I should say that I have no fear, but that is not true,” he admitted. “All I can say is accept the fear—it can make you strong when you need it most. Because the fear cannot be avoided, use it to stay alive instead of letting it get you killed. And, well, the more you survive, the more you thrive on the risk.”

While she contemplated his answer, Dreibrand decided, “We should rest here tomorrow. I will go hunting. We need fresh food.”

“That is fine,” Miranda said absently.

That night around the fire Dreibrand bounced Esseldan on his lap and lifted him playfully into the air. Both man and boy seemed intrigued by each other, and Esseldan cooed happily from Dreibrand’s attention.

“At least one of your kids likes me,” he said.

Elendra pointedly ignored the comment.

“He is a good baby,” Miranda said.

“You must be proud to have such healthy children,” Dreibrand remarked.

“I suppose I am,” she muttered.

When Esseldan assumed a crankier mood, Dreibrand placed him in his basket, and the baby actually slipped into sleep. Yawning noisily, Dreibrand stretched his arms. Generally he would sleep soon, and Miranda would take the first watch. He unbuckled his chestplate and groaned when he removed the armor.

“Chest armor can sure save your life, but sometimes it just has to come off,” he complained.

After carefully placing his armor on top of his other gear, he took off his fine officer’s jacket, which left him wearing a white silk shirt ruined by sweatstains. Smacking some of the dust off the jacket, he offered it to Miranda.

“I thought you could use this. Your clothes are all worn out,” he said.

“But don’t you need it?” she protested, suspicious of the gift but clearly wanting it.

“No, I still have a good shirt. Now wear this,” he insisted.

Hesitantly, Miranda reached out and received the garment. The weight of the richly quilted jacket surprised her. Never before possessing anything but homespun, she fingered the fabric and admired the construction. Slipping it on, she began rolling up the sleeves.

“Thank you,” she beamed.

Dreibrand laughed, reminded of a party where a naked dancing girl had frolicked drunkenly in an officer’s jacket. He did not share the memory with Miranda.

“I promised to share,” he said cheerfully. “Of course you deserve clothing for a fine lady, but this will help for now.”

When Miranda looked up from the jacket again, Dreibrand still gazed at her. Their eyes locked for an instant, but she quickly broke the connection. Dreibrand thought she was beautiful. He wanted to tell her, to touch her, but Miranda had not given any indications that she would welcome any advances. Even when she breastfed her son, she was careful that he never glimpsed a bit of breast.

He did not act on his feelings, deciding that it would be a mistake. Miranda had only started being more relaxed around him, and he did not want to disturb that progress with his common lust.

The next day when Dreibrand went hunting, he spent more time scouting than actually hunting. The land was thick with game, and he was confident that he could shoot something on the way back to camp. Despite his family’s declining position, he had grown up as a member of the ruling class and had enjoyed many formal hunting parties.

He hiked north and the land became rougher. From the top of a hill he could see that a range of foothills began, and beyond that rose mountains. This pleased him because at some point the cliff should fade into the hills. At that point he could ascend to the next level of land that looked so violently lifted from the earth.

His efforts were rewarded quicker than he hoped. The mighty rock wall of the cliff became lower and lower as he climbed into the hills, and finally he found the weak point. Crumbling beneath the elements, a broken rocky slope bit deeply into the cliff all the way to the top, and a stream came down in many rivulets. They would have to be careful climbing the eroded slope, but he judged that the horses could manage the path.

Dreibrand lingered, staring at the gap in the cliff, his gateway to the heart of the Wilderness. Excited by the possibilities, Dreibrand wondered what fortunes waited for him above. He longed to climb the cliff immediately but he had traveled farther from camp than usual and he still needed to hunt. The thrill of breaching the barrier would have to wait until tomorrow.

On his way back to camp, he amused himself with thoughts of returning to civilization and knowing the path into the Wilderness. His knowledge would be unique and he could solicit wealthy investors to finance an expedition.

His stomach growled, and Dreibrand had to put aside his schemes. He needed to focus on hunting and he did not want to return empty handed. He spied a small clique of antelope, and they were a type he had never seen before. With a challenging patience he stalked the tawny animals. Several times the antelope noted his presence and he would freeze. Although nervous by nature, the antelope did not directly associate him with danger. Creeping closer, he finally had a shot.

The arrow pierced the intended calf and the animal dropped to the ground, dying quickly. He rushed to claim his prize but the distressed mother threatened him with curled horns. Dreibrand pulled out his sword and swung it at her. Unwilling to abandon her unfortunate offspring, the antelope was only deterred after several pokes.

Glowing in the accomplishment of a successful day, he presented Miranda with the fresh meat. Providing for her gave him an unexpected sense of satisfaction.

While the meat cooked Dreibrand sharpened his sword with a suitable stone he had collected. Now that he had a fresh kill in camp he worried the scent might draw predators, especially the fenthakrabi. He had specifically made a small kill so they could quickly eat it and be done with it. The leftovers would last a couple days, but the odor of the food would not be overwhelming.

Listening to the stone scrape against the steel made Miranda nervous. Dreibrand’s preoccupation with the weapon reminded her of the perils of the Wilderness.

“I found a way up the cliff north of here,” he said, not pausing from his work.

“Then you still want to go west?” she asked.

“Yes, a little way. Unless you object,” he said.

Actually having someone consider her opinion startled her. What she thought or wanted had never counted before, and Miranda realized that she had been following Dreibrand rather meekly. She needed to think about what she was doing and act upon her thoughts. She was free now, and she repeated that fact in her mind like a lesson.

Exploring westward with Dreibrand did not distress her, but she worried about her children. Elendra was sick of living outside, and the children deserved a home. It hurt knowing that she could not give them a home right now. Returning to Droxy was too dangerous for a number of reasons, and being free of Barlow had too much appeal.

Heading into new lands gave her an incredible sense of possibility. She could reinvent herself now, and no one would ever look upon her as a poor man’s abused property.

“I will go west with you,” she agreed. “But you must understand that I must return to civilization before winter.”

“Of course, Miranda. I have no intention of freezing on some high mountain. We can head south soon. I will help you get to wherever you want to go. It is the least I can do for having my life saved,” he said.

“You have helped us so much already, you do not have to worry about that. Just don’t get us lost,” she warned.

That night a bright half moon illuminated a clear sky, and a silvery magic light was cast upon the forest. Halfway through Miranda’s watch wolves began to have their eerie conversation. The pack’s song was a low music that cut through sleep straight into instinct, and everyone woke up quickly. Elendra scrambled into her mother’s arms, and Esseldan fretted from the vibe of fear.

Failing to sound reassuring, Dreibrand said, “I do not think they are too close. We should be safe.” Rising from the blanket he had salvaged from the scouts’ camp, he added fuel to the glowing coals.

Miranda held Elendra tight. “See, Dreibrand thinks we will be fine. The fire will keep them away.”

“Are we always going to live outside?” Elendra whimpered miserably.

“We will have a home someday,” Miranda promised. “But it won’t be for a while. I am sorry.”

Elendra only sobbed, but not too loudly in her fear.

“Miranda go ahead and get some rest. I can watch now,” Dreibrand suggested. Gesturing toward her bedroll, he encouraged, “Do not worry. You are going to hear wolves in the forest.”

Mostly for Elendra’s sake, Miranda agreed. The wolfsong went on for many more hours, and Miranda started to appreciate the beauty in the mystic music. They sang to the soul of the Wilderness and it made her heart ache.

She awoke to the sounds of Dreibrand packing his gear. The sun was high and bright, and she had slept late.

“Nothing bad happened,” he reported cheerfully. “But it is high time we started today.”

Miranda heard the eagerness in his voice and rose stiffly from the ground, wondering when she had fallen asleep. And she had slept soundly, which surprised her.

When they arrived at the washout in the cliff, Miranda looked upon it dubiously. In her eyes the slope appeared loose and treacherous. The rocks were sharp and unstable, and half of them were wet and slippery. They could not risk riding, and the horses would have to be led.

“Race you to the top,” Dreibrand joked.

“I don’t know about this. Are you sure?” Miranda worried.

“Yes.” He tried to be emphatic but he sounded like he was still trying to convince himself. With increased conviction, he continued, “We can make it. It is only going to get rougher unless we get up to the plateau. You can see that it turns into mountains north of here.”

Miranda grinned with shock at his bold words. “You don’t know that,” she argued.

“Come one, Miranda. It is not that bad,” he persisted.

“I said I would go last night,” she reminded him.

Adjusting Esseldan in his sling, she dismounted and helped Elendra down. Dreiband led them but only a short way up both horses halted in mulish protest. It took considerable effort to persuade the horses to continue.

Their progress was slow, and Dreibrand discovered that finding the path up was a much more meticulous task than he had thought. Sometimes they would have to backtrack when the rubble became too sharp or unstable, and try a different route. This procedure proved more difficult than climbing.

Finally as they sweated in the afternoon sunshine, the rim of the great cliff reached down to them, and Dreibrand could see wildflowers in the overhanging turf. They splashed through the gap made by the stream, and a breathtaking view of mountains greeted Dreibrand when he scrambled onto the plateau with the swift water tugging at his heels. The lofty snowy peaks in the west looked much closer now, and he could almost feel the crisp alpine breeze in the distant glacial valleys. He breathed deeply of the pure air as he beheld the great mountain realm beyond the plateau.

Dreibrand wondered if a man had ever stood at this spot before, and if so, why had he not come back?

Hearing Miranda struggle in the current behind him snapped him out of the trance. Leaving his horse to drink, he rushed back to offer her a steady hand.

Between leading the horse and holding Elendra’s hand, Miranda was bogged down with the burden of her infant son strapped to her back.

Dreibrand picked Elendra up out of the water and carried her to dry land. At first he thought the girl would resist his help, but she was too tired after the climb to protest. Miranda thanked him gratefully as she slogged out of the water.

Catching her wind after the labor up the cliff, Miranda said, “It is beautiful. Everything looks different up here. Cleaner somehow.”

“Is it not amazing?” Dreibrand breathed. Already he did not want to go back.

They lounged on the grassy bank for a while, cooling down from the exertion of the climb. Dreibrand leaned over the clear water, splashed some onto his face, and ran his wet hands through his long hair. Relaxing, he watched the stream flow by. His daydreaming faded eventually and he walked across the water to investigate something he saw in the mud.

He would not relinquish his excellent mood until he was certain what he saw. For a moment he just stared at the man-shaped footprint pressed into the mud. He could clearly see the heel mark and the clawed toes, but the size was larger than a man, and Dreibrand knew what had recently strode up the bank.