Loose stones rolled from beneath Dreibrand’s boots, bouncing and rattling down a steep slope. The mountain sheep he stalked looked up alertly at the noise and moved to even higher ground. Dreibrand pressed himself against the rocks, trying to conceal himself from the wary sheep and also in fear of his crumbly footing.

Dreibrand was spending the day hunting while Miranda tended her son at their camp. They had been traveling west after leaving the terrible spirits behind them, and the orb had guided them into a high pass flanked by colossal peaks. But Miranda had halted their journey because Esseldan was sick. He had not been well since their ordeal among the haunted stones.

Today, Dreibrand hunted with a special purpose. He had been eyeing the ram of the herd, imagining his soft summer fleece as a fine gift for Miranda. Briefly he pictured her lying on the soft snowy wool, but the thought was too distracting to sustain. He had no wish to miss his footing and fall down the precarious slope.

At this high elevation the sun blazed hotly on his bare arms, but the wind blew down from frosty heights. He stayed still until the sheep resumed their nibbling of the tenacious vegetation on the mountainside. Carefully he crept farther up the rocky slope until he reached the spine of the ridge, and he bent low using the land to conceal him.

Higher up the ridge the ram regarded him suspiciously. This summer Dreibrand had hunted for food, not sport, and hunger had taught him a cunning patience. Slowly he continued along the ridge, sometimes stopping to rest nonchalantly as if nothing on the mountain could possibly interest him.

The herd remained unspooked and Dreibrand eventually closed to a suitable distance. Gently he eased out one of his best remaining arrows and set it to the bow. Rising fluidly to draw his shot, he focused on the target but his peripheral vision caught an anomaly on the landscape. 

Awestruck, he stood up to his full height and gaped at the vista beyond. The sheep scrambled to unattainable perches, forgotten. The ridge Dreibrand stood on was the top of the pass, and he looked down into a valley adorned with an incredible alpine lake, and beside this, he saw buildings. A city of blue stone buildings hugged the lakeshore and on the opposite shore stood a tower. Sleek and black, the tower reflected on the lake and pointed at the city. It was a fine city, and only the great mountains could humble its architecture.

At last he had found a civilization. The anticipation of the new adventure exhilarated him. Recklessly he ran down the slope, flying on before he could fall.

Miranda must hear the news, he thought.

~

Esseldan dozed fitfully in Miranda’s arms, and she wiped his nose when necessary. Miranda sat in the natural shelter of an outcropping of rock that blocked the wind from three directions. The sun warmed the protected place, and Miranda hoped that it would help Esseldan.

Humming softly, Miranda absorbed herself in her concern for him. She desperately wanted him to get better. It was torture to see him sick and not have Elendra.

By mid afternoon she began to feel unsettled. Long weeks in the Wilderness had made her keenly aware of her solitude, and suddenly she did not feel alone.

Sword at her side, Miranda walked away from the rock outcropping. The alpine forest appeared empty, but her intuition was distinctly bothered and she scanned the area. Wind whistled through pine needles and shook birch leaves.

Soft thuds sounded behind her, and she whirled to see three figures standing in her camp. They had apparently dropped from the rocks above, and they were unlike any beings Miranda had ever seen before. Their skin was blue and the features of their faces had a chiseled appearance. Most striking of all were their dark piercing eyes that regarded her with unknown intentions. But they were not beasts. Soft suede clothes and boots covered their bodies, and they held long thin knives.

Shifting Esseldan onto one arm, Miranda drew her sword, terrified of them.

One of the blue beings blew into a small silver whistle and the beating of horse hooves soon responded. Miranda looked over her shoulder and saw more of them riding out of the forest on white horses. Turning back to the three intruders, Miranda saw one approach, holding up his hand as if to calm her.

Miranda shrank away from the strange being, shocked by the existence of such a different race. She was about to flee in total panic when he said the one word that would make her stay.

“Elendra.”

Frozen with fear and exhilaration, Miranda repeated her daughter’s name, checking if she had heard him correctly.

“Elendra,” the blue being said again, and nodded with encouragement.

Torn between disbelief and joy, Miranda was not sure what to think. Hearing her daughter’s name did not mean Elendra was alive, but his thing had at least heard the name and that gave Miranda hope. The riders arrived on all sides of her, and Miranda knew any defense she made would be futile and destructive. She would surrender herself and maybe join Elendra.

The blue being that spoke to her seemed to sense her decision before she indicated it, and he put away his knife. Glancing at the dozen riders with long spears, Miranda followed his example and lowered her weapon.

The blue being tried to speak to her in a strange tongue. He soon understood that she had no comprehension of his language and simply gestured to her horses and saddles. Miranda guessed that he wanted her to saddle her horse and ride with them, but she shook her head. If she just left, Dreibrand might never find her.

Impatiently the blue being gestured toward the horses again. With her own language and simple but strong gestures, she emphasized the fact that there were two horses. Eventually he saw her point that she had a companion. He had known as much and still indicated that she should come with them.

“I will,” Miranda said with frustration. She wanted to see Elendra, but she did not want to lose Dreibrand either. Again she gestured that she needed to wait for him.

The blue being considered her with dark eyes and finally shrugged. He spoke to the others, apparently giving orders, and the riders withdrew back to the cover of the trees. The original three intruders sat down in her camp. Smiling, the one who spoke invited her to sit by her own fire and wait with them.

Keeping her distance, Miranda edged back into the sheltered camp for the sake of Esseldan, but she did not sit. The baby sniffled and coughed, and she could see the blue beings eyeing her son, which made her more nervous.

These strange beings were not like the beasts she had encountered in the Wilderness. They were like people, except that they were not human. Miranda did not need to entertain the thought that maybe they were humans who just looked radically different, because as a human she could innately see that these beings were not humans.

Looking upon their vital blue skin and peeking at their dreamy eyes, Miranda saw the world all over again. Anything she knew before this moment became insignificant. In all the days of her small suffering life, she had never imagined seeing such wonders.

But she was afraid.

Did they take my daughter?

A whistle sounded from the concealed riders, and the three beings rose together in one fluid movement. The leader grasped Miranda’s arm and moved her into the open.

Eager to report his discovery, Dreibrand emerged from the woods without caution and took in the scene of the occupied camp too late. He saw Miranda in the custody of a strange figure and white horses galloping toward him. Dreibrand put an arrow to his bow, but shock slowed his movements. He saw that they were not human, and he was amazed. But Dreibrand was a warrior and he would not waver before his foe.

He pulled back on his bow.

“Dreibrand!” Miranda screamed. “Dreibrand don’t fight them. Don’t! They have Elendra. I have given myself up.”

The riders swarmed around Dreibrand, and she pleaded, “Don’t fight.”

Her words traveled clearly in the high mountain air, but Dreibrand did not want to surrender. He knew he could slay maybe two or three of the riders before succumbing to their numbers.

Then Miranda would be alone, he thought.

Dreibrand looked at Miranda and she appeared unharmed. The riders circled him and leveled their spears at him, and he knew he had no chance against so many, and even if he did, all he could do was run away, and that would not help Miranda. Reluctantly he put away his arrow, and the shining spears lifted skyward and the riders stopped.

The strange beings completely intrigued him, and he studied them a moment. They were tall and slender with blue skin and hair ranging from black to white. Never before had he heard of such beings, not even in the wildest tale he had been told, and he marveled at their existence.

Eyes as deep and dark as the night sky looked back at Dreibrand from fine blue faces. The riders who had so recently threatened him now sat in patient silence, and Dreibrand found their character impossible to judge. Cautiously he walked toward Miranda, and the riders flanked him as he went but took no other action.

“Are you all right?” he asked Miranda.

“Yes, Dreibrand, we are fine. I do not think they wish to hurt us, but we have to go with them. I think they have Elendra,” she explained.

Shifting his attention to the blue leader, Dreibrand cast a displeased look at the hand on Miranda’s arm. Diplomatically the blue leader removed his hand, knowing how possessive human males could be.

Dreibrand extended a hand to Miranda and took her close to him. Now he felt able to introduce himself. “Dreibrand Veta.”

There was a tense silence before the blue leader reacted. His smile revealed perfect pearly teeth, and pointing at himself he said, “Taf Ila.”

Politely, Dreibrand bowed his head, impressed by the intelligence and civility of the strange being. But enough formalities had taken place for Taf Ila, who had a job to do. He gave orders in his language, and two blue beings went to saddle the humans’ horses.

“We have to go,” Miranda said.

Never really taking his eyes off Taf Ila, Dreibrand whispered, “I saw a city beyond the pass.”

Miranda gasped, “That must be where Elendra is.”

“Let us hope so,” he grumbled, watching his horse being brought to him.

Although the blue beings allowed him the dignity of keeping his weapons, Dreibrand had the distinct impression that he was a prisoner.

Soon they departed, surrounded on all sides by the watchful riders. Expecting to enter the city, Dreibrand draped his wolfhide over his shoulders to lend strength to his appearance. 

When they topped the pass, Miranda cried out with wonder at the sight of the lakeshore city. In her limited urban experiences, she had never beheld such a fine and beautiful city, and it shocked her even more after so long in the vast trackless wilds. Descending into the valley woodland, the party came upon the remnant of an ancient overgrown road that suffered from long disuse. Apparently the blue beings rarely went east of their city.

The faded road entered the valley in a series of switchbacks. At the lower elevations the trees grew taller and sometimes blocked the view of the city from the road. After a long ride down, the woodland gave way to the lakeshore city. By now the sun was sinking quickly, casting a vermilion glow upon the snow-capped peaks and sparkling on the lake, making it look like a masterfully cut sapphire. The copper roofs of the buildings had long since been stained green by the elements and the city appeared as a natural extension of the valley.

On the other side of the lake, the tower looked out of place and menacing, black against the fiery sunset, like a giant dead tree that refused to fall.

No walls protected the city, and the riders followed a cobblestone thoroughfare into the heart of the city. Dreibrand and Miranda soon suspected that their destination was the many-tiered stronghold looming over the rooftops ahead of them. One modest tower rose from a corner of the huge blocky building, and the sparkling lake cast golden highlights upon its walls.

The bronze street lamps contained large star-shaped crystals that were starting to glow along the clean streets of the city. The few beings who were seen by Dreibrand and Miranda were all richly dressed in leather and furs and bright intricate fabrics. As Taf Ila’s party neared the massive stronghold by the lake, the traffic thinned. High wrought iron gates, filled with intricate bird designs, barred the entrance to the stronghold. Without a word of command or the touch of a hand, the gates parted.

When they entered, Dreibrand and Miranda exchanged disturbed glances.  High walls enclosed the courtyard and the gates slipped shut behind them. Panic prowled on the faces of both humans, but there was nothing either one could say to each other. The moment overwhelmed them. The stone city was as magnificent as it was ominous.

Taf Ila halted the party and indicated that Miranda should dismount. Ignored by the blue leader, Dreibrand looked around warily and decided to include himself without being invited. He helped Miranda down from her horse. As she adjusted Esseldan, she saw Dreibrand’s inner distress and surmised that he did not want to be in the custody of these beings.

“Maybe they will let you leave,” Miranda whispered. “They did not want me to wait for you anyway, and I do not think this is a good place.”

“I am staying with you,” he said firmly. Although she appeared reasonably calm, Dreibrand had come to know her well enough to see her terror below the surface. He respected her courageous demeanor and reminded himself to do the same.

Taf Ila said something which apparently meant for them to be quiet and start moving. They complied and entered the stronghold with their armed escort. Walking upon glossy granite floors, they passed through wide halls filled with columns and they ascended steps at regular intervals. Where the roof of each level formed a tier on the outside, glass skylights were in place, but only the tired glow of a deepening dusk drifted down from the high windows. To combat the gloom, flaming braziers flanked each flight of steps, and thick candles burned atop golden stands. Crystals were set in the walls in lines and clusters, and the candlelight played on their facets, making the walls glitter with energy.

A massive set of carved wood doors waited ahead of them, and two guards dressed in green suede studded with silver attended the doors. When Taf Ila’s group arrived, the door wardens heaved open the great doors, and one struck his staff to the floor with a ceremonial thud.

A dazzle of brightness lay beyond the doors, and Miranda squinted at the splendor of the revealed throne room. Floors of fine white marble gleamed inside, and mosaics of crystals covered the walls, depicting the lakes and mountains of the encompassing land. Crystals of every imaginable hue reflected the myriad candles and filled the chamber with light.

Four smooth crystal orbs mounted on thick marble pedestals radiated a swirling blue light. Placed in each corner of the chamber, the orbs were almost as large as a human’s head, and except for their largeness, they were identical to the small orb that Dreibrand carried.

This marvelous room exceeded anything Miranda had ever thought possible. The place was a dream become reality, and the surreal light of the throne room caressed her senses like a gentle spring dawn waking her out of a terrible nightmare. She wanted to be lulled by the magnificent power around her. It was so far above her difficult life of poverty, that if she embraced it, she thought that she would never go back.

But she could not trust this power. She recognized the power and remembered that it had taken Elendra.

The guards urged the humans forward, and Taf Ila strode toward the dais at the far end. Dreibrand’s thick-booted footsteps thudded loudly in the calm chamber that seemed too outside of the world to be disturbed by the mundane noise.

At the base of the dais stood a tall blue being with bold streaks of white shot through his black hair. With folded arms, he regarded the humans with intense interest. The humans glanced at him briefly, as they took in all the strange sights, but both of their gazes quickly rose toward the figure high on the throne.

A female of the blue race lounged upon the golden throne. Her features were softer and rounder than the other beings present and pure white hair flowed around her shoulders. A wondrous cloak of ermine pelts fell over her simple black gown, and great diamonds dangled from the black tail of each animal skin. 

She was both beautiful and terrible. Power radiated from her like heat from a fire. Bowing to his wondrous monarch, Taf Ila stepped aside without a word.

The knowing gaze of the blue female drilled into Miranda for a long spell, and Esseldan squirmed. Finally, the blue female spoke in the halting words of an unfamiliar language.

“I am Queen Onja.”

Her voice drifted around Miranda’s mind like a memory. Slowly she found her tongue and asked weakly, “Where is Elendra?”

The Queen did not reply, but a door beside the dais clicked open. Miranda looked to the door in an agony of hope, and Elendra actually ran out toward her. The little girl stretched out her arms happily and cried out a joyous greeting to her mother.

Miranda crumpled to her knees to receive the embrace of her daughter. They joined in a tight hug, and relief and happiness spilled tears down Miranda’s face. The little girl beamed with pleasure and had never looked healthier. Elendra wore a black dress with lovely silver embroidery. Her black hair shimmered, and she looked like a dark princess inside the twinkling light of the throne room.

Swallowing a sob of joy, Miranda asked, “Elendra, did that flying monster bring you all the way here?”

Matter of factly, Elendra replied, “Yes. It is the Tatatook.”

Puzzlement twisted Miranda’s expression. In this bright magical place everything seemed like nonsense.

Elendra continued, “Oh Mama, I am so glad you made it. And Esseldan too! It is so wonderful here. You will love it.”

Miranda squeezed her daughter thankfully. The torment of seeing her daughter carried off by the flying monster finally released her body, and she could feel joy.

The return of Elendra relieved Dreibrand as well, but he was not distracted by maternal joy. The Queen had spoken in Miranda’s language, and he wanted some answers.

“Queen Onja, why did you take a daughter from a mother?” he asked.

The azure Queen, who had been intent on the little girl with her mother, turned unfriendly eyes upon the human male. She contemplated him briefly and decided not to speak with him. In her own language, she apparently gave orders because the guards moved toward Dreibrand.

The tall blue being with white-streaked hair suddenly spoke up, making the guards hesitate. He turned and seemed to engage the Queen in a very brief argument, which she ended quickly with short stern words. The guards resumed their mission, and Dreibrand stepped back to draw his sword.

Taf Ila pulled a small peculiar weapon from his jacket. Its handle curved down to be cradled in his palm and his forefinger curled around a trigger device. A spring-loaded snap sounded and Dreibrand felt a sting. A small dart lodged in Dreibrand’s arm when his blade was only halfway out of his scabbard.

Dreibrand’s look of surprise turned to dismay as his hand fumbled uselessly with the sword. A paralysis spread rapidly through his body. He tried to grab the dart with his other hand, but that hand did not work, and he fell over helpless.

“Dreibrand!” Miranda screamed. She wanted to rush to his side, but she did not want to let go of her daughter. Two guards decided to restrain her anyway.

Elendra tapped her shoulder, trying to get her mother’s attention. “Do not worry about him, Mama,” she said.

Blue guards grabbed Dreibrand under his arms and started hauling him away. He tried to protest but only managed a pathetic gurgle.

Now struggling against her guards, Miranda begged on his behalf, “Stop. Do not hurt him!”

“Mama, you stop yelling,” Elendra hissed.

The girl’s impudent words shocked Miranda, who paused to gape at her daughter. The tall being who had argued with the Queen approached Miranda and set a hand on her shoulder. At first Miranda flinched from his touch, expecting the same treatment Dreibrand was receiving, but she quickly sensed a compassion within this being and his eyes were comforting and sincere.

Quietly he said, “Be calm. I will help him.”

Miranda had no chance to ask him what was happening because he hurried after the guards removing Dreibrand.

The Queen watched the tall being rush out of the throne room, annoyed by his presumptiveness. After a final scowl, Onja returned her attention to Miranda. Rising from her throne, Onja gracefully descended the steps.

She dismissed the guards who held Miranda and said, “The man will not be hurt.  He did not have permission to speak and had to be taken away.”

Miranda wanted to protest more on Dreibrand’s behalf, but she dare not speak. Onja was close to her now, and the beauty and power of the female was staggering. Miranda quavered before the gleaming onyx eyes of the Queen that twinkled with inhuman thoughts.

“Rooms have been prepared for you,” Onja said. “Elendra will take you.”

The Queen pointed a slender blue hand toward the door Elendra had come out of, and it opened again.

“Everything is fine,” Elendra said.

Miranda looked down into her daughter’s happy face and wanted to believe her, but she could not forget Dreibrand. She did not know how she could help him though, and she doubted the Queen would let her look for him. Reluctantly, Miranda placed her hope in the kind being who had said he would help Dreibrand.

I will stay with my children and find him later, she decided.

She let Elendra guide her through the door, and the regular lighting seemed dull after the brilliance of the throne room. Ascending another level, Elendra took her mother to a magnificent suite. Beautiful stained glass doors opened onto a terrace overlooking the lake. A cool wind flowed in the open doors, filling the richly furnished room with fresh mountain air.

A female servant received the human guests and led Miranda into an adjacent room where a steaming bath in a large marble tub waited. Miranda stared at the sumptuous suite with disbelief.

How can this be? she thought.

Elendra splashed some water at her mother to knock her out of her trance. “See Mama, everything is wonderful here. Give me Esseldan while you wash. The Queen will be here soon.”

“She is coming here?” Miranda asked.

“Yes. The Queen does you a great honor,” Elendra said as she reached up to take her baby brother.

More servants entered the suite and began to set a table for dinner. Elendra withdrew from the bathroom. “Hurry,” she urged.

“Don’t go,” Miranda said.

Elendra smiled sweetly. “I will be right here.” She slipped out and shut the door.

Too stunned by her surroundings and her daughter’s bossy personality to think of a reaction, Miranda allowed the servant to remove her clothes. To her surprise the servant tossed the clothes in a nearby fireplace, and Miranda narrowly saved the silk jacket Dreibrand had given her.

Puzzled by the human’s attachment to the tattered clothes, the servant pointed to a lovely robe on a bench. Seeing that she could have new clothes, Miranda agreed to let her other rags burn, except the jacket.

Miranda lowered herself into the bath and marveled at the luxury. The hot water blessed her body with a relaxation she had never known, and she yielded to the care of the blue servant. She washed Miranda’s hair with fragrant soap and massaged her head, neck, and shoulders. The blue hands were strong and soothed muscles that had known only a lifetime of toil.

When Miranda heard someone enter the suite, she knew it was the Queen. The servant glanced at the bathroom door and reached for a towel. If Miranda could have been certain of the expressions on the faces of this blue race, she would have decided she saw fear on the servant’s face.

Draped in the flowing robe, Miranda left the bathroom. Onja sat on a couch with Elendra and Esseldan, and a table set with candles and a great variety of foods on silver dishes had been placed in front of them. As Miranda entered, Elendra handed her brother away to a servant, who took him into one of the bedrooms.

Miranda’s eyes followed her son, who coughed in the arms of the blue servant.

Before Miranda could express her concern, Onja said, “I have sent for a physician for the baby.”

“You can help him?” Miranda whispered hopefully.

“Mama, you must address Queen Onja as my Queen,” Elendra noted with exasperation.

Onja smiled and ran an adoring hand over the girl’s black hair. “We will give the boy medicine and keep him warm. He will be well in a few days,” Onja said.

“Thank you—my Queen,” Miranda said.

Onja hand fed a wedge of fruit to Elendra and wiped the girl’s chin afterward. “Your baby is so wonderful. I am pleased you brought him to Jingten for me to see,” the Queen commented to Miranda without looking at her.

Watching her daughter chew the food, Miranda asked, “This place is called Jingten?”

“Yes. Eat now, Miranda,” Onja insisted, and a servant automatically pushed an upholstered chair up to the table.

The many tempting roasts and salads and breads made Miranda realize how hungry she was. She had never seen food look so beautiful, and she obediently began to fill her plate. After the uncivilized fare of the Wilderness, the variety of food delighted her.

The delicious dishes made her senses reel, but the fine food did not slow her down. Miranda made sure to satisfy her hunger because she did not quite expect the Queen’s generosity to last. While eating, she watched Onja absolutely fawn over Elendra, and Miranda suddenly realized she had a serious competitor for the girl’s affection.

Trying to cloak her mistrust, Miranda inquired, “My Queen, how did Elendra get here?”

“The Tatatook fetched me,” Elendra explained again.

Miranda asked for clarification. “The flying monster is a tatatook?”

“THE Tatatook,” the Queen corrected. “He is a servant of mine, and I sent him to bring Elendra out of danger.”

“I was protecting my daughter just fine,” Miranda stated, forgetting her place.

Onja radiated displeasure, and Miranda regretted her tone.

“I removed Elendra from danger. And without the warding crystal I gave you, you would not have survived. You should thank me for guiding you and your children to safety,” Onja explained.

Dejected, Miranda looked down at her plate. She resented Elendra’s abduction, but she sensed that pressing the issue would only worsen her position.

Changing the subject, Miranda asked, “My Queen, you are the ruler of the Wilderness?”

Onja nodded and explained, “I rule the Wilderness, the Rysamand, and the human domains in the west.”

The mention of humans in the west intrigued Miranda, but Elendra yawned and immediately distracted the Queen.

“We bore the little girl,” Onja said. “I will leave, so she can rest.”

The Queen rose, her diamonds sparkling in the candlelight, and departed with all of the servants. Abruptly alone with her daughter, Miranda moved onto the couch and wrapped her arms around Elendra.

“I was so worried about you,” she murmured.

Elendra hugged her back and remembered how good her mother’s arms could be. Now that her mother was in Jingten, she could live in luxury and be happy. Elendra was so proud that she was worthy enough for the Queen to give them this wonderful place to live.

“Do you know where Dreibrand is?” Miranda asked softly.

Elendra shook her head and snuggled deeper into her mother’s arms. Miranda felt torn between her children and finding him, but she did not even know where to begin in the vast building. Miranda felt responsible for what had happened to him. In retrospect she thought she should not have waited for him when Taf Ila found her. Then he would still be free.

Elendra dozed now, and Miranda put her in the bedroom with Esseldan. Then she took up her sword and resolved to look for Dreibrand. She opened the door with the intention of quietly sneaking out, but a blue being stood in the doorway, and she gasped with alarm. The blue male held a small bag, and after a few simple gestures, he indicated that he was there to see the baby. Realizing that he was the physician, Miranda tried to conceal her guilt and casually set her sword down.

As she invited him inside, she purposefully looked into the hall. At both ends of the corridor, she saw guards in green suede uniforms.

Discouraged, Miranda stayed while the physician examined her son and gave him medicine.

I am not going anywhere, she realized.

Advertisements