The fairness of the lake convinced them to stay on another night and nurse their wounds. Not one wolf howl called to the moon that night, and the next morning they rode west without discussing their course.

The mature forest began to thin and a grassy open country spread between mountains ranges. Lofty snow-capped peaks dominated the western skyline and another line of mountains filled the northeast, but these were lower and darker. The landscape was wide and beautiful, and Dreibrand liked to imagine that it all belonged to him.

While they rode, he carried Esseldan in order to spare Miranda some stress to her injured arm. Her wound distressed him, and Dreibrand wished that he had been able to defend her better. Dreibrand secured the boy in the saddle in front of him, upright like a little rider. Esseldan, who had received no attention from his real father, thrived in Dreibrand’s strong grasp.

For more than a week, they continued their exploration and Dreibrand had no trouble finding game. With good food and fine weather, life became a pure ideal of existence. There was no civilization to clutter the mind and the land provided generously. All would have been well except that Elendra started sleepwalking. Every night Dreibrand or Miranda caught her rising and trying to wander away. After twelve nights of this in a row, Miranda finally decided to confide in Dreibrand about the white wolf and the glowing eyes.

Being reasonable, Dreibrand said, “The eyes of animals glow in the night. Perhaps that is all it was.”

Miranda wanted to agree with his simple explanation, but her mind was not as foggy as it had been right after the wolf attack, and she regarded her belief with more conviction.

“But it was not the normal glow in an animal’s eyes. The blue light was so strong; I can almost see it now as I saw it then. Someone was looking at me,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand asked her to explain better.

“I cannot explain,” Miranda moaned with frustration. “But I felt it inside. Like when someone is staring at you for a long time before you notice.”

Clearly, Miranda was disturbed, and Dreibrand reasoned stress had made her imagine things. He wanted to discount her story, but he took the time to re-evaluate the night of the wolf attack. At first he had relished their victory and kept the black wolf skin as a practical trophy, but in retrospect, he accepted that the wolves had given up quite easily, and it had been a large pack.

“Why did you not tell me this sooner?” he wondered.

Miranda shrugged uncomfortably. “I did not know how to explain, and I know it sounds silly. But now that Elendra is sleepwalking, I feel more certain of myself. We are not alone. The fenthakrabi was real, what if the other stories about ghosts are true—”

Dreibrand interrupted her because she was upsetting herself. “Did Elendra see this wolf?” he asked.

Calming down, Miranda said that she might have.

“I will go talk to her,” Dreibrand decided.

Elendra sat on the tangled roots of an old gnarled tree with her back to them. Swinging her legs, she hummed pleasantly and ignored Dreibrand’s approach.

“May I speak with you, Elendra?” he asked politely, courting her favor delicately.

She shrugged with disinterest and stared into the distance. Considering this a positive response, Dreibrand proceeded.

“When the wolves attacked did you see a big white one?” He kneeled beside her and waited patiently for a reply.

Elendra looked at him sideways. She had grudgingly accepted Dreibrand’s presence in her family, but her attitude did not go beyond suffering his company. Slowly she decided to answer him, hoping he would leave her alone if she did.

“I saw it. It jumped through the fire at us,” she said.

This corresponded with Miranda’s version of the events, which Dreibrand considered strange because the animal should have been afraid of the flames.

“Can you tell me anything else about it?” he coaxed.

“Blue fire came out of its eyes,” Elendra recalled without emotion.

“Were you afraid?” he whispered.

This question bothered her and she turned startled eyes toward Dreibrand. “No! There is no reason to be afraid,” she answered firmly.

Her tone seemed overly defensive in Dreibrand’s opinion. “Not even a little bit afraid?” he teased.

For a moment Elendra’s expression softened and she was just a sweet frightened six-year-old girl. She mumbled, “At first I was afraid, but then I knew I was safe.”

“How did you know, Elendra?” he pressed carefully.

Despite his soft approach, her hostile demeanor returned, and she stormed across the camp until her privacy was reestablished. Dreibrand walked back to Miranda, who had waited out of earshot.

“I am surprised you got to talk to her that much,” Miranda commented.

“In the end, few can resist my charms,” he said lightly.

Annoyed by his joke, Miranda demanded, “What did she say?”

“The same as you said. Perhaps you are right to worry. I cannot explain what happened, and maybe her sleepwalking is connected,” Dreibrand conceded.

Rubbing her temple with frustration, Miranda muttered, “What could it be? This is worse than wild animals.”

“Hey, maybe we have all been out here a little too long. Let us rest today, and tomorrow we will turn east,” Dreibrand decided but looked around wistfully at the wild land.

There is still so much more to see, he lamented privately.

Again, Miranda felt an urge to argue with him but she resisted it this time. She needed to return to civilization and make a new life for herself. Hiding in the forest had saved her from war, but it was time to stop hiding. She decided that in the morning she would tell Dreibrand that she would go with him to Phemnalang. He was smart and kind to her and she could do far worse.

“Let me check your arm,” Dreibrand suggested.

“Why? We have nothing to make a fresh bandage,” Miranda grumbled.

“Because I want to see how it is doing,” he insisted. He did not want to alarm her but he was watching for signs of infection.

She let him undo the sling and unwrap her arm, which had started to heal nicely. She considered Dreibrand’s concern unnecessary and suspected he fretted over her injury just to sit close to her.

He did enjoy sitting close to her, but the clean healing of the bite pleased him the most at that moment. It was a lucky thing.

“I want you to wear this sling a few more days,” Dreibrand instructed. When he finished tying it over her shoulder, he brushed a few wavy locks of hair behind her ear and touched her cheek tenderly.

Miranda cringed nervously, and he could see that she did not welcome the touch.

“You are beautiful,” he whispered, trying to excuse his action.

Her lips trembled temptingly, and he thought her agitation suited a virgin more than a mother of two.

Casting her eyes down, Miranda said, “If you knew me better, I am sure I would not suit you.”

She seemed to retreat behind some shame, but it did not concern him. He knew that slaves could be ill-used, and he did not hold it against her. “I think you suit me well,” he responded.

“You are only interested because I am the only woman out here,” she scorned.

What could be a better reason? Dreibrand thought, but he kept that to himself. “Even in the largest city, many men would find you appealing,” he said.

“I don’t need you to tell me that!” she snapped with disgust and got up.

He let her go and reflected that he could have thought of something better to say. Alone now, Dreibrand checked on the wolf skin stretched out to dry. Flipping it over, he ran his hands through the black fur. Turning back tomorrow would be hard for him, but taking Miranda and the children back was the right thing to do.

What am I doing out here with refugees anyway? he wondered for the first time. But he had no regret for his foray into the Wilderness. Every day he loved the wild land a little more, and he vowed to come back.

It occurred to him that when he did come back, Miranda would not be with him. He meant what he had said about helping her get a place to live, but now he realized he would have to leave her in the Empire. No doubt she would want to stay once she had a home. The thought of parting ways with her bothered him, and he did not want to contemplate never seeing her again.

Dreibrand spent the day lying around the camp. Weariness crept over him as the day passed, and he wondered at his lack of energy. Miranda avoided him all afternoon and foraged nearby for food. However, when she returned to prepare their evening meal, she did not appear angry with him anymore, which Dreibrand considered a good sign. When Miranda was upset, she generally made it plain to see, and he guessed that his touch that morning had not bothered her that much.

After eating, Dreibrand rolled inside his bedroll, feeling unusually tired.

“Miranda, wake me up if anything bothers you,” he said with his eyes already closed.

“Yes, I will,” Miranda replied, but he was asleep.

She let the fire dwindle into coals while watching the moon travel over the treetops. The children slept peacefully next to her. A serene expression blessed Elendra’s cute face, and Miranda hoped that no evil dreams would come to disturb her daughter.

As the night deepened, Elendra continued to sleep normally, and Miranda wondered if she had been frightening herself unnecessarily. The wolf attack must have stressed her daughter and caused a little sleepwalking. This explanation became more and more convincing to Miranda as she thought about it, and she smiled at herself for thinking the wolf’s eyes had been glowing with an unnatural light.

It was only the fire in its eyes, she thought with amusement. Just as the coals are glowing blue right now.

The blue light filled her perception, and this time it was warm and vital. Miranda felt secure, as if she snuggled in a soft bed under fragrant and fluffy covers—something she had never actually known in life. The blue light faded slowly into the black bliss of perfect rest. Then she was dreaming. She heard the swoosh of wind, and the flap of wings beating against it.

Dreibrand became aware but did not open his eyes. The dampness of dew clung to the land, and he was reluctant to give up the warmth of his blanket and the pleasantness of sleep. He wanted his dream to come back because it involved Miranda. Fuzzily he thought that she should be waking him soon. He had the nagging sensation that it was much later than the usual hour when Miranda woke him to take his watch.

With a terrible suspicion Dreibrand opened his eyes and was instantly mortified to see the pink glow of an emerging dawn. Sitting straight up, he saw Miranda sprawled among blankets empty of her children.

He cried out in dismay and sprang out of his bedroll, landing at Miranda’s side. Lifting her head and taking her hand, he called her name. Her eyes opened, but they held a distant vacant look.

Blindly she whispered, “Where am I?”

“Miranda! It is Dreibrand.”

She focused on his face and came back to herself. Gasping with delayed panic, Miranda saw that her children were gone. A terrible scream escaped her throat as she ripped out of Dreibrand’s grasp. She scrambled frantically over her empty blanket. Esseldan’s basket was not even present.

“I did not hear anything. I only just woke up. I am sorry, Miranda,” Dreibrand said helplessly.

Miranda’s eyes darted in every direction, but when she tried to recall her last memories, her mind felt unhinged.

“I don’t remember going to sleep. Everything was fine. I was awake!” she wailed.

Again, Miranda threw back her head and screamed, venting her agony. Tears began to flow, and her aching heart reluctantly pumped blood to flesh that no longer desired life. Her grief stricken cry faded into the land but was suddenly answered by a high sharp squeal. Miranda’s wet eyes opened and she instantly recognized Esseldan’s voice.

Her head turned sharply in the direction of his cry, and the image of Elendra walking that way with her brother flashed into Miranda’s memory.

My sleep was not real, Miranda thought and she dashed away to find them.

Dreibrand scooped up his sword and ran after her.

They ran over a rise, and on the other side, a crazy scene greeted them. The children were in the clutches of a giant bird that looked like a raven. A body of glossy black feathers towered over the small children, and inhuman eyes gleamed from the grotesque head, but it was much more than a giant bird. The body and legs, although covered with black feathers, had the shape of a man with huge wings protruding from a mighty back. Most shocking of all were the man-like arms reaching for Elendra.

The winged monster shrieked when it saw the woman and man rushing toward it. The violent threat in that terrible call shook the whole land, and sweet songbirds cowered and did not make one note that day.

The unwholesome sound made Elendra stumble back from the monster. She had been lugging Esseldan in his basket, but he fell from her arms, crying intensely. With the lightness of a bird, the monster hopped toward Elendra on its taloned feet.

Miranda screamed relentlessly as she saw the thing bend over her children. She ran with perilous speed and waved her arms insanely.

An impossible feathered arm reached briefly into the baby basket, but it apparently did nothing to the boy. Shrieking once again at Miranda’s approach, the monster seized Elendra with both arms and started to run away. Its path of departure was already chosen, and the monster spread its great wings while running.

Miranda ran past Esseldan. She could only glance at him as she sped by because of her urgency to save Elendra. Dreibrand caught up, and in a mighty effort passed Miranda and closed on the monster.

But the monster had studied the details of the land, and it headed into a clear area where the trees could not hinder its flight. Seeing that the monster would soon gain the air, Dreibrand gave his final effort. Raising his sword high, he leaped toward it as its feet pushed off the ground. The blade of his sword glinted once in the rising sun when it flashed beside the huge wing, but it did not reach far enough.

Dreibrand crashed to the ground. He rolled over and saw above him Elendra held close to the feathered breast of the monster. Her face was calm.

Miranda raced beneath the rising monster and called frantically to her daughter, but Elendra never acknowledged her. Miranda clawed futilely at the air, but the monster rapidly ascended to the sky. Screaming with abandon, she crumbled to her knees in utter defeat. The large black monster quickly became a speck in the sky, heading northwest.

Dreibrand staggered over to Miranda. If he had not known the fenthakrabi, he never would have believed this horror. The smaller the monster became in the high sky, the more acute his failure became. Miranda sobbed in mindless grief. He dropped to one knee and put his arms around her. His tangible human closeness brought Miranda back from her blind insanity of loss.

“She could not hear me. Magic has taken her mind and mine!” Miranda moaned. “I could not stop her. I could only be in my dream.”

His whole life, Dreibrand had considered magic to be something that only existed in myths. Even now his rational mind examined the situation carefully. He did not want to give himself over to superstition, but an acceptance stirred inside him. An acceptance that there was much in the world that he did not understand.

“We have to go back to Esseldan,” he said.

Dreibrand helped Miranda up, and she stumbled beside him in a daze. The cries of Esseldan pleading through the trees roused her from her devastation. Esseldan was where he had been dropped on a bed of tiny white flowers. Miranda clutched the boy to her bosom. It was good to have one child back, but it was terrible not to have both.

When she grabbed the baby, Dreibrand saw something drop out of his wrappings.

“What is this?” He stooped to pick it up. The object was a crystal orb about the size of an acorn, cobalt in color with a deep inner light. Miranda stared at the stone and clutched Esseldan tighter. She had seen that blue light before.

“Where did that come from?” she demanded fearfully.

“It fell out of Esseldan’s clothes. That thing must have left it there,” he explained.

Miranda choked on her sobs, while Dreibrand studied the crystal orb and tried to reason out the mystery. As a military commander, he had learned to be calm in a crisis, and his mind started analyzing everything that had happened. He guessed that the monster possessed some kind of higher intelligence because something that was purely bestial would have mauled the infant. Esseldan was unhurt, and Elendra had not been hurt either and she had willingly gone to the monster. Somehow the flying abductor had lured her away. Most of all he remembered his abnormally heavy sleep, and he knew with all certainty that Miranda would not have allowed her children to slip away. Something had prevented them from watching through the night. If that something was magic, Dreibrand did not know, but he felt inclined to use the term.

Are all the stories about the Wilderness true? he wondered. The physical hardships of the land had not frightened him, but how could a man cope with magic?

The light swirling inside the orb suggested more mysteries than answers. Frustrated he shook the orb at the section of sky where the flying monster had disappeared with Elendra.

“What are you?” he hollered.

After a fashion he received an answer. The light in the orb intensified.

“Elendra is dead. That thing has carried her away to, to…” Miranda trailed off unable to speak the rest of her horrible thoughts.

Dreibrand heard the profound agony in her voice and wished desperately that he could make things right. The sudden increase of light in the orb sparked a theory in his mind and he began to test it by holding the orb in various directions. He turned in a whole circle, and the light only brightened when he held it to the northwest.

Miranda continued to mutter in her grief. “I will never see her again.” Only by accepting the worse could she cope with her loss.

“We must follow it,” Dreibrand decided abruptly.

“How?” Miranda wailed miserably. She searched the empty sky that had consumed her daughter. Already Elendra had to be an impossible distance away, and Miranda cried with increasing hysteria.

Dreibrand sympathized with her grief, and felt some himself. Although Elendra had never made secret her opinion of him, he had truly tried to save the little girl, and he still would try.

The sobbing of mother and son made an awful noise, and Dreibrand gave his attention to soothing them. Wiping the tears from Miranda’s face, he softly told her to stop crying.

“I ca-cannot,” she stammered hopelessly.

“You are strong. Take control of yourself,” he said. His voice had the insistence of an officer, but a genuine kindness as well.

For the sake of her son, Miranda quieted herself so Esseldan could become calmer.

“Look at this,” Dreibrand said, holding up the crystal orb.

Miranda grimaced and cried vehemently, “I don’t want to look at it!”

“You must. This is not something left by a mere beast. Look, it glows brighter when I hold it in the direction that it took Elendra. It was left so that we can follow,” he explained.

Miranda watched him demonstrate the glow in the crystal when it was held to the northwest, but she hated to look at that strange light. She knew it was magic.

“See, we are invited to follow. Whatever power rules in this land, they have taken Elendra to make sure that we will follow. At least that is my best guess,” he admitted.

“It is of no use. Elendra is already so far away,” Miranda said.

“We have to try. We both saw that Elendra was not hurt. Maybe we can save her,” Dreibrand insisted.

Miranda could not dispute him. Of course she would try to save her daughter even if she did not believe it was possible.

Becoming surer of his interpretation of things, Dreibrand was becoming excited to learn who was the master of the flying monster. Something of intelligence and power lived in the Wilderness, and it knew they were there.

Miranda would cling to Dreibrand’s theory that the girl lived and they could find her. Holding her son in a tight grasp, Miranda doubted that the invitation was a friendly one.

“Do you really think she is still alive?” Miranda asked. She just needed to hear Dreibrand say yes, and he did.

He continued to soothe her with reasonable explanations that he could not know with any certainty. “The taking of hostages to get someone’s attention is a very common tactic. We will find Elendra, and then we will see who wants our attention.”

Recalling the presence behind the glowing eyes of the white wolf, Miranda said, “I don’t think we want to know.”

“But know we must. Let us waste no time,” Dreibrand responded.

Before the sun rose much higher, they quit their camp and rode northwest through the lands left silent and stunned by the voice of the winged monster.

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