Miranda’s face did not reveal her panic when she examined the ominous footprint. But she recalled the evil scream of the fenthakrabi and its vicious attack on the Atrophaney scouts and wondered how she would ever find the courage to face the thing. She glanced at her children, seeking strength.

“Do you think it is the same one?” she asked.

Dreibrand shrugged. “No way to know really.”

“I guess I have bigger problems than wolves,” Miranda muttered.

“Indeed,” agreed Dreibrand as his eyes roved the landscape. “We should get moving.”

They continued west until dusk and camped in an open place. The sky to the north had turned dark and threatening, and their chances of escaping the storm looked slim. Miranda built a fire even though a stray drop of rain struck her face as the young flames started.

Her tightening stomach banished her hunger as she realized that a dark wet night lay ahead. The beast stalked the land and the fire would not last the night.

Dreibrand had been quiet for some time and his face was troubled. He had vivid memories of the beast as well, and he already felt them sabotaging his courage. When he had been tied down during the fenthakrabi attack, he had known a new level of fear. Dreibrand had thought he had mastered his fears long ago, but the slavering face of abomination had taught him otherwise.

The tapping of rain quickened as a cold front hit the warm moist air from the south. Miranda threw her blanket over her head and Elendra scrambled under the meager protection. Esseldan snuggled inside her new jacket and had it the best of anyone.

The rain commenced to pour, and Miranda struggled hopelessly with the fire. There had been no time for any decent coals to develop, and the fire smoked weakly in departure.

Thunder rumbled angrily overhead, and its strong voice promised an opera. Dreibrand went to stand with the horses and hold them steady through the storm. The last rays of sunlight scurried behind the mountains and the black storm devoured the night. Rain beat on Dreibrand’s head and ran down his hair, soaking him thoroughly, and he hung his head with the horses. Since breaching the cliff barrier, all the signs had been bad and he marveled at his folly. Still, his warrior’s heart simply accepted that he would either survive or perish.

The thunderstorm began to rage with real zeal. Lightning crashed and lighted the landscape in surreal flashes of clarity, exhilarating Dreibrand with terrible humility. Power surged through his body and his heartbeat felt like a note drawn out on a violin string. Then a horrendous crack split the world with noise and light. An old mossy tree accepted the mighty bolt and flew apart in a thousand electric shards.

The pouring rain consumed the fire and guided the shattered trunk down. In compulsory terror every muscle of Dreibrand’s body screwed down tight, and his hands held the reins firmly when the horses jerked away.

In the next flash of lightning, he saw Miranda huddled with her children under the soggy tent of her blanket.

The worst of the storm lingered above them for many punishing minutes. Then reluctantly the thunderheads moved on. The brutal lightning diminished into the south, but the thunder rumbled reproachfully most of the night. The downpour relaxed into a miserable drizzle.

With the quieting of the storm, Esseldan’s shocked wail filled the bleak night. Miranda despaired over his helpless cries flying toward unfriendly ears, but she could not soothe him.

“Are you all right?” Dreibrand called.

She replied that they were fine. The sky flashed a gentler blue and she briefly saw him holding the horses.

Taking the horses, Dreibrand moved a little closer so he would not have to shout. “I will watch tonight, Miranda. I could never sleep in this kind of wet anyway,” he said.

“Tell me if you need help,” she said. “Maybe this storm will keep…it away.”

Wincing, Dreibrand wished she had not even mentioned it.

The dawn came bright and sunny, attended by pure white clouds. Green and revitalized, the land was enriched by the storm, except for the blackened remnants of the blasted tree.

Dreibrand opened his eyes and blearily took in the fresh morning. He had been dozing against the neck of Starfield. Wet and exhausted, he was glad to have the night over.

Wrapped in the mud spattered blanket, Miranda and her family had managed to sleep after all. Dreibrand left them to wake on their own and went to gather some of the scorched wood, hoping to coax a fire from it. To dry out and have a decent breakfast after the supperless ordeal of the night would greatly relieve his exhaustion.

Miranda emerged from her unsatisfying slumber. To stand in the sunny morning felt better than to lay in the soaking blanket. Esseldan was cranky and Elendra was positively surly. Miranda shook the water droplets from Esseldan’s basket and set him in it in a sunny place.

“That was a scary storm,” Miranda said.

Elendra nodded while rummaging in a pack for something to eat. “I don’t remember lightning ever being so close before, mama.”

“Well, sometimes it hits right close by. I am glad we made it through,” Miranda said.

She pulled off her silk jacket, which was heavy with water, and spread it over a bush to dry. All of her clothing felt clingy and damp, and her cheap tattered shoes squished muddily, but the bright morning helped to lift her wet spirits.

Freedom and Starfield were still in their bridles after Dreibrand had held them all night. Fetching their hobbles, Miranda went to unbridle them and let them graze for the morning. As she walked leisurely toward the horses, Starfield lifted his head abruptly and made a sharp warning call. Freedom neighed nervously and they both became agitated.

Instantly, Miranda realized something was wrong, very wrong, and there would not be much time. Dropping the hobbles, she raced toward the gear for the bow and quiver. She screamed for Dreibrand.

Out in a grove of trees Dreibrand heard the horses squeal and Miranda’s cry. The wood clattered from his arms, and he sprinted back, prepared for the worst.

The worst was happening. The hideous man-shaped beast strode confidently into their campsite, and the horses scattered in terror. Dreibrand drew his sword and ran toward it, shrieking a battle cry. He intercepted the fenthakrabi before it reached Miranda and the children.

Regarding him with dark remorseless eyes, it bellowed and lunged at Dreibrand with apish arms. He swiped at it with his sword and gave it several superficial cuts as it tried to reach him. The steel in his nerves surprised him now that he faced the beast. Being a free man wielding a sword helped his courage, but not as much as the desire to defend Miranda and her children. The thought of them being harmed gave him a frenzy of motivation.

The beast tried to grab the sword but howled in pain when it grasped the sharp blade. With the strength of a bear the beast swiped at Dreibrand’s midsection, striking him in the torso. His armor spared his organs from the crushing blow, but he still was thrown to the ground and the beast hurled its fearsome bulk on top of him.

The fanged jaws plunged toward his face, but Dreibrand grabbed its mouth with his left hand. The teeth slammed shut, but his thumb was lodged just behind the last molar and escaped being chomped off. Fiercely he squeezed the jaw and held back the slavering fangs. The fenthakrabi shrieked and sprayed him with hot reeking spittle as it pressed down with superior strength. Just before it succeeded in crushing the last of Dreibrand’s resistance, the beast stiffened and howled in pain. It tore off of him, and Dreibrand could see an arrow buried in its side.

Seizing the chance, Dreibrand lashed out with his sword, ripping open its guts. Dreibrand lurched to his feet and swung his sword in a high killing blow that half decapitated it. The sinister light faded from the deranged eyes, and it fell back dead.

After taking a few deep breaths to reaffirm that he was actually alive, Dreibrand lifted his sword high and exulted in his victory.

“We can kill you!” he yelled into the silent forest.

Miranda walked up holding the bow and stared at the bizarre beast. The frightful power of the animal was evident even in death. The bloodied form was larger than a man.

“Gods! It is a monster. I really thought it had me,” Dreibrand panted.

“Are you hurt?” Miranda asked laying a concerned hand on his arm.

Happy from her touch, he replied, “I am fine thanks to you. That is twice you kept me off that thing’s dinner menu. At least I taught you well enough not to hit me.” He gestured to the bow.

Miranda looked down guiltily and confessed, “Actually I was more than a little worried I would hit you.”

“It was a true shot,” he said kindly while bending over to pull the arrow from the grotesque beast. It had lodged deeply in the ribs and snapped off in Dreibrand’s hand, making him swear in Atrophaney. He begrudged the loss of the arrowhead, but he did not feel inclined to cut into the beast and retrieve it. The animal smelled awful, and was already drawing flies.

“What should we do with it?” Miranda asked. The size and strangeness of the beast mesmerized her. Now she saw in detail what others whispered about in mystery.

Wiping sweat from his forehead, Dreibrand decided, “We leave it right here. If any more of these things are around, maybe they will see this and think twice before attacking us again. Now I will round up the horses so we can get out of here.”

Still in their wet clothes, they quickly left the vicinity of the dead fenthakrabi. By noon they discovered a lovely lake nestled among stately pines. The water was clean and blue, and multitudes of wildflowers bloomed in all the sunny places. The spot was so untainted that they wondered if any human had ever been there before. Beautiful and tranquil, the lake seemed to be a part of Nature’s secret garden hidden away many long ages ago.

Such a perfect place invited them to rest and recover from their recent trials. Dreibrand went to bathe in the lake, which gave Miranda some privacy to dry her and the children’s clothes. He stripped his wet garments and the warm sun felt wonderful on his skin. He wished he had some oil to rub on his armor.

The water was cold beneath the sun-warmed top layer, but the pure water cleansed his body and removed the memory of the beast’s awful smell from his mind. The death of the beast relieved him greatly and he hoped they would not have to face such a thing again.

He heard Miranda enter the water with her children, but foliage and a curve in the shore blocked his view of them. Elendra’s laughter drifted across the water, and Dreibrand attributed some magic power to the waters because they made the sour child laugh.

That afternoon several plump fish landed in Miranda’s net, and her spirits were high. Wounding the beast with her arrow filled her with pride, and she felt strong and in control. Her terror that morning had not condemned her, and she had kept a steady hand and made a true shot. Having weapons pleased her, and Dreibrand had proved himself a worthy companion.

While cleaning the fish on the lakeshore, she glanced watchfully at Elendra. The girl sat in a patch of flowers and draped daisies over Esseldan’s head.

At least for a moment she is happy, Miranda thought.

When she returned to the camp from her fishing spot, she saw Dreibrand’s clothes scattered near the fire. He had evidently returned, but Miranda could not see him.

She called to him and his voice answered from nearby. Putting down her pack, she gave her baby to Elendra and then gathered his clothes and walked in the direction of his voice.

As she entered the sunny clearing where she thought his voice came from, Miranda scolded, “Do not play games with me! Where are you?”

Finding her indignation humorous, Dreibrand laughed and sat up, surprising her when he popped up out of the tall grass. He stretched his arms sleepily because he had been napping. His blanket covered him from the waist down, and his skin glowed from an afternoon’s worth of sun. Several fine white scars stood out on his shoulders and arms.

Miranda tossed his clothes at his side. “These have been dry for some time,” she said.

“Oh, you are no fun,” he teased and sheepishly grabbed his shirt.

He saw her looking at his body, just as he wanted her to. Out in the Wilderness, just the two of them, it would seem so natural for her to kneel down beside him and embrace him among the tall sweet grass. He saw on her face that she shared his thought.

Such feelings confused Miranda, and she worried that if she indulged her sudden curiosity, he would stop being nice to her. Barlow had been kind once—for two days. Then came the raping and rutting and beating. Miranda shuddered lightly, forcing the memories back in their cages.

He does not deserve to be compared to Barlow, she thought.

Dreibrand noticed that she was troubled and asked if something was wrong.

“Just get dressed,” she ordered. “You can take first watch tonight. I am tired.”

He nodded and said no more. It was clear that Miranda had retreated behind her defenses, as she often did, and no one was welcome.

That night the weather was clear, and Miranda slept heavily with the children, and enjoyed a little peace of mind. Dreibrand sat away from the glowing coals of the fire, so he could enjoy the coolness of the night. Periodically he tossed some moss onto the coals, making smoke to help against the mosquitoes.

Through a natural gap in the trees, he gazed at the moon reflecting perfectly on black waters. The pines stood watch over the magic pool in patient reverence. The wolves were howling again tonight, singing their most untame melodies to their mistress of the night.

Dreibrand listened to the howling and let his thoughts drift over the land with the mournful wails. The lonely magnitude of the Wilderness descended upon him, but he felt like he belonged to this place, like the power of the land could somehow flow into his own flesh. Belonging to the Atrophane Horde did not compare to this. Here he could be his own man.

The wolfsong cued a memory. A memory of wolves loping out of the hills onto a great battlefield, a battlefield where a dynasty had fallen. It had taken days to dispose of the dead, and every night the wolves would arrive to collect their grisly tribute.

But every soldier lived with such things and his mind moved on. Dreibrand thought of fairer things, and he thought of Miranda. He wondered how long she would be with him. He lusted for her of course, but his feelings were deepening. Sharing a path with her had been a good idea, and Dreibrand trusted her. She had not fled when the beast tackled him.

Suddenly he noticed that the wolves sounded much closer. Focusing his attention, he realized the pack ran through the woods now, singing to the splendorous night while bounding through the silver shade. Concerned but not panicked, Dreibrand woke Miranda.

“I think the wolves are coming near. Please sit up and watch with me,” he said.

Miranda relinquished her deep sleep reluctantly and gently moved Elendra aside.

Dreibrand added wood to the fire and said, “I want us to get prepared just in case. Every wolf in the country is running around tonight…and coming this way.”

The rising flames of the campfire and the howling revived Miranda, and she took up her sword. The pack could be heard on the opposite bank of the lake now. Reaching the glistening water, the wolves paused to sing with renewed vigor. Miranda roused Elendra and tucked Esseldan into his sister’s arms. Removing her heavy silk jacket, Miranda draped it protectively around her children as a barrier against snapping jaws.

“We are going to be fine,” she said. “But you and Esseldan have to stay right by the fire. Mama has a sword and I will protect you. Just hold tight to your brother and stay by the fire.”

“Yes, Mama,” Elendra whispered. She had faith in her mother after the attack that morning, but she was still afraid.

The wolfsong abruptly ended and the night waited in the foreboding silence. Dreibrand gathered the horses close. The animals were nervous and did not want him to tie them to a tree, but he could not defend them if they ran away. Freedom sweated and squealed in protest. Once the precious horses were secured, Dreibrand stepped back and drew his sword.

Time crawled by quietly, and Miranda imagined soft paws padding through pine needle carpet and sensitive wet snouts smelling their scent. She wondered if the scent of humans was a tantalizing new odor to the wolves.

The horses snorted and stomped, indicating the pack was indeed close by. Then Miranda saw eyes glint in the forest shadow. Long thin slits filled with the moon.

“They are here!” she hissed to warn Dreibrand.

Many wolves appeared on the edge of the firelight, circling the camp and eyeing potential targets. With a soundless rush they leaped into the camp and attacked the horses. Dreibrand was hard pressed to avoid the flailing hooves as he struck wolves with his sword. Yelps of pain sprang from snarling mouths as steel and hooves resisted the manacles of the food chain.

Three wolves braved the glare of the roaring campfire and attacked Miranda. Drawing a long stick out of the fire that she had prepared for this moment, Miranda swung her sword and the flaming brand in a wide protective arc. This halted their assault, but they stayed close, snarling and looking for a fresh opportunity to pounce.

Filled with protective maternal rage, Miranda brought the battle to them. Her sword struck dirt as a wolf narrowly dodged the blow, and another one cried out when she thrust the red-hot stick into its face. A third wolf entered the fray and sank teeth above her elbow. Terrible strength bowed Miranda’s body, and she struggled on the line between survival and death. The pain of the fangs in her flesh did not even register, and she hacked at the wolf’s body. A mortal wound opened on the side of the wolf, and it released her and staggered away.

Miranda retreated to her children. Esseldan screamed in constant terror but Elendra trembled silently at her mother’s feet.

A painful blow struck Miranda between her shoulder blades and she was thrown on her face. Claws tore across her back and a large white wolf landed beside her. It had apparently jumped over the fire and knocked her down from behind. Scrambling desperately, Miranda lunged between the wolf and her children as the wolf spun around.

Still just on her knees, she leveled her sword at the tall animal’s face and felt wholly prepared to give her life defending Elendra and Esseldan. The wolf was entirely silver white and taller than the others. Black lips pulled back from great canines, but Miranda did not flinch from the intimidating grin.

Oddly the animal did not attack and only regarded her with a piercing gaze. The wolf’s eyes began to glow with a sapphire light, and Miranda sensed something beyond the wolf’s spirit looking at her.

The dark night, and the flashing angry fire, and the snapping wolves retreated from her perception, and she felt very far away. The demonic light in the wolf’s eyes pulled her mind over a great distance, but Miranda saw no images.

At some point the white wolf raised its head and called to the brothers and sisters of the pack, and then simply trotted away as if it had never been interested. She saw the flowing white tail disappear into the night like the moon passing behind a cloud.

Miranda got off the ground, expecting another attack, but no wolves came. Seeing that her children were untouched, she looked for Dreibrand. A great black wolf chomped on his sword arm, but he had a dagger in his other hand and he slit the wolf’s throat. Dreibrand gave a triumphant cry and hurled the animal from his bloody arm.

No more wolves attacked and the forest was silent. Miranda sank down by her children and hugged them. “See we made it safe,” she murmured to her daughter, but Elendra was already calm.

However, Esseldan bawled terribly and Miranda lifted him into her arms, where he began to relax. Dreibrand staggered toward her, clutching his bleeding wrist. His sword slid from his hand, and he clenched and unclenched his hand, examining his pain.

“The bones were not crushed,” he announced breathlessly.

Relieved that his wound was not critical, he looked at Miranda. The arm that cradled her son dripped blood.

“Miranda, how bad is it?” he cried with concern.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, only vaguely aware of the wound.

Dreibrand turned her toward the fire, so he could inspect her injury. Blood soaked her sleeve, and when he held back the torn fabric, he saw deep puncture wounds in her biceps. Her arm bled heavily, but Dreibrand knew the blood flow would clean the punctures better than anything else he could do.

“Put Esseldan down and hold your hand over it,” Dreibrand instructed.

She obeyed woodenly while Dreibrand cut the sleeves off his shirt to use as bandaging. He hastily wrapped one sleeve around his tattered wrist then started to cut the sleeve off Miranda’s wounded arm. He had to gently pry away the bloody fabric where the teeth had driven it into flesh, but Miranda did not even wince. Dreibrand worried that the mayhem of the wolf attack had sent her mind into some kind of shock. She was non-responsive and her eyes were glazed over.

Ignoring the pain of his own injury, he quickly bound the silk sleeve over her wound, and blood oozed into the fabric. Dreibrand had helped to bandage soldiers on many occasions and his dressing applied just the right amount of pressure.

“Hey, Miranda, you did a good job,” he complimented, trying to coax some conversation out of her.

When she said nothing, he touched her chin and made her face him. “Miranda, come on, say something.”

His touch revived her attention somewhat, and she blinked several times. “Are the wolves gone?” she whispered.

“Yes. I do not know why, but they are gone,” he answered.

Miranda put her good arm around Elendra and pulled her daughter close. She sat in silence while Dreibrand rigged a sling for her arm. Almost as soon as he was finished she crumpled into her bedroll and went back to sleep as did her children. Dreibrand assumed the stress had gotten the best of her. On occasion he had seen even old veterans overwhelmed after a battle, and he tried not to worry about her.

In the morning Miranda woke suddenly and sat up. She gasped when she saw her arm in a sling and felt the pain. Not until she saw the fresh black wolf skin stretched out to dry and Dreibrand cooking wolf meat in the fire, did she remember the attack.

“Take it easy,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda caught her breath and the disorientation faded from her eyes. Esseldan sat in Dreibrand’s lap because the boy had awoken much earlier, and Dreibrand brought him over to his mother.

“Keep his weight on your good arm. The more you pamper that wound the quicker it will mend,” he instructed.

Miranda accepted her infant gingerly. Her arm hurt and her clothes were splotched with blood. Elendra, who had been snuggled next to her mother, arose with a yawn, but appeared rested despite the turmoil of the night.

“How do you feel?” Dreibrand asked.

“It hurts a lot, but I can take it,” Miranda said.

“Well, we are about to find out what wolf tastes like,” he said cheerfully.

Miranda looked around and clearly saw many wolf tracks all over their camp. Tentatively she said, “Dreibrand, I don’t remember much.”

“You were pretty stunned last night,” he explained. “But we fought them off. Those wolves must have decided to look for easier hunting.”

“You are hurt!” Miranda cried, finally noticing his bandaged wrist.

“I took care of it. It is not that bad,” he said.

Miranda tried to piece together the events of the night. She remembered fighting the wolves, and they had been everywhere. She recalled that she had hurt maybe two of the animals, but many more had circled her. Then in a rush of memory the image of the white wolf jumped back into her mind, and she felt the scratches on her back where the animal had hit her.

The eyes. The blue light! she thought. The unnatural glow in the eyes of the fearsome wolf had transfixed her, and Miranda remembered feeling the presence of another. Something very strange had happened, and she wanted to tell Dreibrand, but she did not know how to explain. Her memories were vague, and when she thought about the blue light, her mind started drifting.

Miranda ate in silence, barely tasting her food. Only when Dreibrand moved closer did she notice the circles under his eyes.

Realizing that she had slept most of the night while he had had no rest, she said, “Take some rest Dreibrand. I will take care of things, and we can ride in the afternoon.”

“Well, I have been thinking about that,” he said. “Maybe we should go back to the Bosta Territory.”

“But I thought you wanted to explore more than anything?” she responded.

“I have seen much already. I know more about this land than any man in civilization. I can go back and start raising money for my own expedition. But most of all my conscience will not allow me to let you and your children be in this dangerous place,” Dreibrand explained.

“We have defended ourselves. And the children have not been hurt at all,” Miranda said.

“I did not expect you to have such a positive attitude,” Dreibrand remarked. “But you must let me help you back to civilization for your own safety.”

“I do not remember being any safer with civilization,” Miranda grumbled bitterly. “Let us ride west just a few more days. I want to see things too. Even if we ride east the wolves will still be there.”

Her willingness to continue surprised Dreibrand. Despite his better judgement, her proposal to ride farther west appealed to him, and he only half-heartedly argued against it. “But we have been lucky so far. It would be best to turn back.”

“You are right. We must do that soon,” Miranda conceded. “But not today. I feel drawn to go a little farther.” She had no tangible reason behind her statement, but she meant it.

Dreibrand could not resist her enthusiasm to go on. Despite the dangers of the Wilderness, he dreaded delivering his resignation to Lord Kwan. Delaying such uncomfortable business was easy to do.

“Yes. We can head back after a few more days,” he decided.

 Dreibrand looked at Miranda earnestly now and considered his words carefully, not fully certain of what he wanted to say. Finally, he just spoke his mind. “But when we return to the settled country, what shall you do, Miranda? How will you get by? Do you know where you want to go?”

Miranda frowned suspiciously at his prying questions. Truly she did not know where to go, and as for how she would get by, she had no desire to inform him.

Dreibrand defended his inquiries. “I only ask because I care about what happens to you. I owe you my life and I take that very seriously. I will not just dump you off at the first town.”

“I can take care of myself. There is no need to worry yourself about me,” Miranda said proudly.

“But you need to worry. I do not really know your circumstances, but without friends or family or a home, you could easily be claimed as a slave. Your children too. You will need someone to attest to your freedom and to defend you from opportunistic slavers,” Dreibrand warned.

“And what do you have to offer? You seemed more of a fugitive than me,” she scoffed.

Dreibrand grinned awkwardly. “I can sort things out with my people when the time comes,” he said confidently although he doubted it would be easy. Convincing Lord Kwan to accept a retroactive resignation had its risks. The Hordemaster could choose to punish him as a deserter despite his nobility. But because Dreibrand’s censure forced him to live already in a permanent state of punishment, he decided there was no point in worrying about the risks.

He continued, “I could take you to Phemnalang and set you up with a place to live.”

With apprehension Miranda thought about Phemnalang. Of course she had heard about the large city in the south, famed for its wealth and wickedness, but she could not quite imagine what such a place could be like.

Although seriously reluctant to commit to going to Phemnalang with him, she could never dismiss the practical side of her nature. It made sense to accept his offer, at least for now.

Miranda rubbed her forehead, but her mind was not clear enough to make a decision. “I will think about it,” she said.

Dreibrand persisted, “I think you would agree that we are friends now, and that we will both need someone we can trust more than ever when we get back to civilization.”

“I said I would think about it,” Miranda snapped. Despite her muddled mind, she knew agreeing to let Dreibrand provide her with a home would most likely entail more than a polite thank you.

Dreibrand backed off and stretched out to sleep. He knew he would convince her to stay with him eventually.

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