The squad of blue beings dragged Dreibrand into the bowels of the building. They seem to know the way quite well, he observed.

After being stripped of his armor and weapons, Dreibrand was deposited in a lightless cell hewn from bedrock. His captors had specifically checked his pockets and taken the crystal orb, which made him wonder what powers the orb might have.

Dreibrand’s paralysis did not prevent him from experiencing the discomfort of the cold stone beneath him. Gradually the use of his body returned, much to his relief, and he wiped some drool from his beard.

At least I know where Elendra is, he thought in a sarcastic attempt to cheer himself.

Weakly he sat up as control returned to his muscles. He flexed his legs a few times and prepared to stand up when he heard the creak of the door opening at the top of the cellblock. Soft suede boots made hardly any sound on the stony floor, but Dreibrand saw the flicker of torchlight through the tiny barred window in his cell door. Certain that someone was coming, he lay down again.

The workings of the lock groaned and the door scraped open. The torchlight hurt Dreibrand’s eyes, and he squinted at the lone figure. He saw that it was the one with the white streaks in his hair, who had protested his mistreatment.

The blue being squatted beside Dreibrand. When he set the torch on the floor, dry rat turds snapped in the flame. The blue being put his hands on Dreibrand’s shoulders and helped him sit up. Dreibrand held back on his plan to grapple the being by surprise. This one seemed different, and Dreibrand wanted a chance to learn something.

“What are you?” he croaked.

“We are rys,” the blue being replied. “I am Shan.”

“You speak Miranda’s language?” Dreibrand said.

Shan explained, “Onja and I have learned from Elendra.” He removed a small flask from his jacket. “Drink.”

Dreibrand’s reactions were too slow to push away the flask, and Shan poured a swig into his mouth. The fluid went down his throat like a cold blast, but it was refreshing. Dreibrand immediately felt vitality return to his body.

Dreibrand thanked him for the remedy and said, “I am Dreibrand Veta from Atrophane. What happened to me?”

“The sho dart drugged you. Sho darts work quite well on humans,” Shan said.

Running his fingers through his hair, Dreibrand muttered, “I will have to get one of those.”

Shan chuckled, which was a musical sound, and it put Dreibrand at ease.

“Why am I a prisoner?” Dreibrand asked.

“Not anymore,” Shan announced happily and helped the human to his feet. “Onja has no interest in you, and she would throw a human aside like an apple core. I am not that way.”

When leaving the cell, which Dreibrand was eager to do, he became dizzy and had to lean on Shan for a moment. He hated this feebleness in front of the rys.

“Will not your Queen be displeased with you for letting me out?” Dreibrand wondered.

Shan’s dark eyes gleamed mischievously in the torchlight and he quietly replied, “My Queen is often displeased with me.”

A curious comment, Dreibrand thought.

He followed Shan out of the cellblock into an empty guardroom. Shan opened a cabinet, and Dreibrand saw his armor and weapons inside. He pulled out his scabbard and gratefully buckled the belt around his waist. The ivory handled dagger lay on a shelf, which pleased Dreibrand immensely because he had feared the guards would filch such a thing. He considered the return of his gear an act of friendship, and Shan even helped him put his armor on.

Although eager to end his incarceration, Dreibrand paused to look in the back of the cabinet, but it was empty.

“I had a crystal orb. Do you know where it is?” Dreibrand asked.

“They did not leave it here,” Shan said. “But come to my tower and I will give you another.”

Dreibrand looked in the cabinet again to make sure. “Will it be the same as the one the guards took?” he asked doubtfully.

“It will be better because it will be mine and not Onja’s,” Shan said cheerfully. “Come, Dreibrand Veta, the Keep has better places than the dungeon.”

They left the dark low places of woe and returned to the finer levels of the Keep. Firelight danced on the crystal decorated walls, but Dreibrand noticed that some crystals glowed when Shan walked by. At first Dreibrand thought it was a trick of the light, but after seeing the phenomenon several times, he had to accept it.

They walked outside onto a tier of the Keep and followed a walkway along the top of the courtyard wall, which lead to the tower on the corner of the Keep.

“Shan, is the woman I was with in that tower?” Dreibrand asked.

“No, she is with the Queen,” Shan replied.

Stopping, Dreibrand said, “I must find her. Tell me where she is.”

“She is with Onja, and the Queen does not want to see us. That I know,” Shan said.

“I don’t care. I have to see Miranda,” insisted Dreibrand, who started away on his own.

Shan sprang in his path to gently restrain him. “I am your friend if you will just let me prove it. Trust me and stay away from Onja. You will only get yourself put in the dungeon again—at best.”

The rys pointed to lighted windows a couple tiers up and said, “She is in there with both of her children. Later, when I am sure the Queen is gone, I will take you to see her. I promise.”

“But they are not safe,” Dreibrand protested.

“They are fine. Onja is treating them well,” Shan said.

Thinking of the children, Dreibrand said, “Why did you abduct Elendra?”

“I did not abduct her. The day she arrived was the first I knew about it,” Shan defended.

With suspicion, Dreibrand pressed, “But you did nothing to give her back to us.”

Calmly Shan said, “Once Elendra was here what could I do? The Tatatook is Onja’s servant, and it does not obey me. I can do many things, but I cannot fly. Onja assured me that her mother was being guided here, and I confirmed that for myself, so I just waited for you to arrive. It was not my doing to have the Tatatook snatch her from you.”

Dreibrand studied Shan, searching for sincerity. His inclination was to believe Shan, but the chiseled features of the blue face were hard to interpret. Longingly Dreibrand looked up to the suite that supposedly held Miranda.

“I promise to take you to her later. But we cannot disturb Onja’s meeting. The Queen will ignore my insubordination for letting you out, but I have to stay out of her sight for a while,” Shan said. “This tower is my private residence. Come and refresh yourself, please.”

Dreibrand hesitated.

“Remember you wanted a new crystal orb,” Shan coaxed.

Nodding, Dreibrand went with Shan into the tower.

Inside Shan’s residence, thick tapestries covered the walls, and each level had at least one balcony. Four levels up, they entered a furnished apartment that was slightly cluttered and apparently Shan’s living area. Three servants hustled out to greet them, and Shan sent one for food and drink. The other two he instructed to see to Dreibrand’s needs.

Dreibrand did not feel comfortable around the rys servants, but he allowed them to draw him a bath. He watched the water steam after it had been poured into the tub, and he wondered at this trick. Suspiciously, he tested the water, which was perfect, and he decided it would be good to be clean.

Once in the tub, he tried to talk to the servants, but they did not understand Miranda’s language or any other he tried. Resorting to signs, Dreibrand indicated he needed a razor to shave himself, and they seemed to understand.

However, when the rys servants returned with the razor, he adamantly refused to let them touch him. He saw no facial hair on any of the rys, and he would not trust them with the task. Shooing them out, he tended to his own needs.

A robe had been left for him, and Dreibrand appreciated Shan’s generosity, but he did not want to wear such a casual flimsy thing. He put his dirty clothes and gear back on because he wanted to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. Shan, so far, had been a friend, but he did not like the Queen’s hospitality.

When Dreibrand returned to Shan’s living area, the rys laughed at him.

“You look like a baby,” Shan remarked.

Dreibrand rubbed his now-smooth cheek and said, “I prefer to look this way.”

Composing himself, Shan said, “Forgive me, Dreibrand. Your appearance surprised me. Here, have some wine.”

Dreibrand accepted the goblet and looked thoughtfully at the red fluid within it.

“It is safe,” Shan encouraged and held his goblet up for a toast. The golden cups clinked together, and Shan said, “To my new friend.”

They drank. Although the foreign wine was new to Dreibrand’s palate, the sensations brought back memories. He had last drunk wine with Lord Kwan.

The alcohol felt warm and soothing in his body, but Dreibrand did not want to relax and he would not drink more than one cup.

“Do you always make friends so quickly?” Dreibrand inquired.

Shan shrugged. “Usually. I can tell if I will like somebody.”

“Are you magic?” Dreibrand blurted.

A smile lighted Shan’s face. “Yes, that is the best word for it. I have powers. All rys have powers,” he replied.

Dreibrand looked Shan up and down, as if trying to see what made him magic.

“What can you do?” Dreibrand whispered.

“Many things. More than most,” Shan said with a timid pride. “But I will explain things to you and Miranda together. That way I know you both will understand.”

“Can we go to her now?” Dreibrand asked urgently, setting down his goblet.

Shan’s black eyes glazed over briefly with a distant look. Satisfied with whatever had occupied his mind, he said, “We may go see your woman and children. Onja has left them for the night. But before I forget, let me get you a warding crystal.”

Shan opened a velvet-lined case on his desk and removed a glowing blue crystal orb. It was very like the one Dreibrand had found in the Wilderness.

Dreibrand shyly took the orb, and its light lessened when it left the rys’s hand.

Shan said, “This is properly called a warding crystal. It will protect you from spells from all rys, except the most powerful.”

“What kind of spells?” Dreibrand asked.

“Heat spells, sleep spells, mindreading, there are many spells. In time you will understand better,” Shan replied.

Confusion and fear vied for Dreibrand’s expression, and Shan commented, “It must be hard for you to understand us when no rys live on your side of the world. The humans in the west grow up knowing about rys.”

Dreibrand blinked. “Did you say humans?” he said and tucked away the warding crystal.

Shan nodded. “Yes. They live to the west. My kind live in these mountains, which are called the Rysamand.”

Stowing this useful information, Dreibrand reminded Shan that he wanted to see Miranda.  On their trip across the Keep they encountered the occasional guard, but no one questioned Shan. Dreibrand wondered what rank Shan possessed. If he had not known about the Queen, he would have guessed that Shan was in charge.

More guards were placed in the halls near Miranda’s suite, and Dreibrand eyed them carefully as he walked by them.

Why do they want Miranda and her children? he thought.

Arriving at the doors of the guest suite, Shan knocked on them softly. When no response came, Dreibrand fidgeted with distress. Shan knocked again, and finally someone could be heard fumbling with the latch. The door opened partially and Miranda peered out sleepily. She brightened immediately upon seeing Dreibrand.

“You are safe,” she cried, opening the door all the way. Miranda rushed to Dreibrand and took his hands. “Did they hurt you?”

“Only my pride,” he grumbled, but it pleased him to have her close and feel her touch. He squeezed her hands warmly and let his eyes gaze upon her for an indulgent moment. Her freshly bathed body smelled good and her clean hair looked fluffy and inviting. She looked back at him, obviously noticing the loss of his beard.

Shan quietly shut the door and bolted it.

Seeing that it was the tall rys who had spoken to her before, Miranda thanked him.

Shan accepted her gratitude gracefully and said, “I try to keep the dungeon empty. Onja is too quick to dislike someone. I often make friends where she makes enemies.”

“When I saw that I was trapped in here, you were my only hope. What is your name?” Miranda said.

“Shan,” he answered simply and bowed politely. Miranda had never really received such manners from anyone, and she liked the way it made her feel.

“Are the children here?” Dreibrand asked.

“They are sleeping. A healer gave medicine to Esseldan, and he is sleeping soundly,” she reported. “It is so wonderful to have Elendra back. She seems so happy, but…”

“What is it?” Dreibrand pressed, recognizing her troubled mood.

Miranda frowned, clearly resisting her own thoughts. Wandering to the couch and sitting, she murmured, “Onja seems so possessive of Elendra. I just cannot trust her.”

“Well I certainly don’t!” Dreibrand cried, seating himself beside her.

Shan laughed, still charmed by their ignorance of the world they had entered. “No one trusts Onja. Her wants and whims have no reason or loyalty.”

“Why was Elendra brought here? And why am I guarded?” Miranda demanded.

Shan enjoyed her forthright manner and took a seat. Humans were seldom so bold with a rys.

“My best guess is that the Queen is infatuated with your daughter. Onja’s mind is closed to me, but she clearly enjoys the company of the little girl. Small human children are never in Jingten, and Onja must have seen Elendra in the Wilderness and become interested. A desire to indulge Elendra is the only reason I can think of why Onja let you survive,” Shan concluded.

“Let us survive. What do you mean?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan lifted his fine eyebrows while considering his answer. He realized he had never had to explain this profound matter to anyone before.

They have no idea how powerful Onja really is, he thought and decided to tell it to them plainly.

With a sigh, he said, “No humans from the east have ever been allowed to approach Jingten. The Wilderness is Onja’s domain, and she has killed anyone who strayed too far into her land.”

Thinking of the mysterious emptiness of the Wilderness, Dreibrand said, “How long has this been going on? Have the rulers before Onja always defended that land?”

Shan studied the light-haired human from the east, who had spoken out of turn with the Queen of Jingten. The rys knew that Dreibrand’s boldness had been exercised out of ignorance, and he wondered if Dreibrand would be so bold once he was not ignorant.

“There is something you need to know,” Shan announced. He looked to Miranda next and felt an ominous concern. Onja treated Elendra’s mother well for now, but he had doubts that Onja’s goodwill would last.

Miranda and Dreibrand waited expectantly for his revelation.

“The rulers before Onja did not keep the Wilderness as it is now, but Onja has been the Queen for twenty-two centuries, and in that time, the Wilderness has been empty,” Shan explained.

For a long moment Dreibrand and Miranda were dumbfounded as the statement sunk in. Confused, Miranda said, “I don’t understand. Twenty-two centuries? Dreibrand, that is over two thousand years, right?”

He nodded to her in vague confirmation, and asked Shan, “Do you mean Onja has been alive for thousands of years?”

Knowing this information was difficult for the foreigners, Shan patiently confirmed his statement.

“How old are you?” Miranda suddenly demanded.

“I am five hundred forty—no,” he looked up thinking, “five hundred forty one.”

“I cannot believe this,” Miranda protested.

“Dear Miranda,” Shan said. “Do you think all life is measured on your hasty human scale? All rys live for centuries, but Onja IS uncommonly powerful and long lived.”

“And are you her heir?” Dreibrand inquired, thinking he had guessed the reason for Shan’s apparent authority.

Shan chuckled and looked down modestly as if embarrassed. Shyly he said, “I would like to think so, but Onja has made me pay for such thoughts.”

“Do you have any claim to the throne?” Dreibrand said in a conspiratorial whisper.

Shan straightened his shoulders with an automatic pride, but his meek words did not match his body language. “I must not speak of such things,” he said.

“You act like this Onja is listening at the door,” Dreibrand observed, hoping to goad answers from the rys. In his estimation, Shan came across as a rival of the Queen, and after his treatment that day, Dreibrand was interested in enemies of the Queen.

“But she is,” Shan corrected. “It is a power of rys to see and hear over distances. We need to concentrate, and it is not the easiest magic, but the perception of rys is far beyond that of humans. And of course, Onja is extremely powerful, and has been watching you in the Wilderness for many weeks. I still am not certain why she let you live. You must understand that you are the first humans ever to reach Jingten from the east for over two thousand years.”

This information was staggering and disturbing, but it allowed Miranda to make more sense of her experiences.

“Could Onja control my mind?” she asked.

“Onja can communicate over great distances, and her communications are often controlling. Sometimes her suggestion is enough to affect behavior,” Shan replied.

Despite her troubled heart, Miranda was excited to actually hear explanations for the strange things that had happened to her.

“Just before Elendra was taken, I felt like someone was looking at me. And when Elendra was stolen, Dreibrand and I slept with an unnatural heaviness. Did Onja cause these things?” Miranda asked in a hurry for information.

“By the way you describe it, I would say yes. But I am not sure what she did. I did not notice her plots until your daughter arrived in Jingten. I rarely look to the east. The Deamedron are frightening and they make my very soul shudder,” Shan said.

“What did you say? Dea-Deamedron?” Dreibrand said, struggling with the accent.

“Deamedron. That is the name for the spirits you saw on the Quinsanomar, which means final battlefield. I pleaded with Onja to guide you around that awful place, but the terror it caused you amused her, and she would not listen to me. I can imagine how terrible it was for you. No one, rys or human, goes to the Quinsanomar. You would have died if you did not have the warding crystal to protect you,” Shan explained.

“Yeah, I figured that out,” Dreibrand said wearily, and he rubbed his arm.

Shan continued, “Onja controls the Deamedron. They are her creation, and it is her great spell that binds their souls to this world. When she wants to, she can release the Deamedron from the confines of the Quinsanomar and loose them upon any who enter the Wilderness. Without a warding crystal there is no protection from them. That is why the Wilderness is empty.”

“But the Deamedron did not kill us,” Miranda said.

“No. Instead of sending the warrior spirits to kill you, she sent you a warding crystal and led you to Jingten,” Shan said.

“Not that I am complaining, but why didn’t she kill us?” Dreibrand wondered. “You said everyone before has been killed. What prompted this mercy?”

“I would not use the word mercy in connection with Onja,” Shan warned.

“Nor would I,” Miranda agreed. “She abducted Elendra, and I will never forgive her for that.”

“Of course not. But why did she let us live?” Dreibrand said.

Shan squirmed in his chair. He did not like to think in directions that Onja’s mind might go. Cautiously he speculated, “As the Queen likes Elendra, I assume she likes your baby. An infant may not survive a long flight with the Tatatook, and Onja guided you here, so you could transport the baby to her.”

“What will she do with my children?” Miranda demanded.

“I do not know,” Shan said uncomfortably. “Human children are exciting to rys because they have so much energy and grow so fast. I guess Onja simply wants to have your children here because they please her.”

“It does not please me,” Miranda protested.

Compassion pooled in Shan’s eyes, and he did not seem so strange and alien to the humans in that moment. With a quiet urgency he advised, “You must show the Queen of Jingten the greatest respect. She considers herself the Goddess of all the human tribes, and they are expected to worship her as the divine ruler of all Gyhwen. Onja will expect this from you.”

“People worship her as a Goddess?” Miranda asked incredulously.

“Out of fear, yes,” Shan replied. “All the tribes pay a mighty tribute to Jingten every year. Temples to Onja are in every major human city, and a human priesthood administers her rule. Along with every king, queen, general, or chief, all humans are subject to Onja.”

This was heavy news to hear, and it troubled Dreibrand. He realized that here humans were ruled by rys.

 “Is Onja a Goddess?” he asked because the concept troubled him. Atrophane had many deities, but they did not live in cities and show themselves to mortals.

Shan shrugged. “She is powerful enough to convince people she is their Goddess. You are a fool if you do not believe in her power. Even I have to do that,” he grumbled.

“She is no Goddess to me,” Miranda snapped.

Actual alarm showed on Shan’s face, and he hissed urgently, “Do not talk like that in her house, Miranda. I beg you!”

Miranda wanted to further express her resentment about Elendra’s abduction, but she remembered the force of Onja’s will reaching across the Wilderness, and she reflected upon her vulnerability.

“I have given you enough to think about for tonight,” Shan decided. “We can talk more tomorrow. We should go, Dreibrand.”

“I will stay here,” Dreibrand said, glancing at Miranda and hoping she would not protest his presumptiveness.

“I can guarantee your liberty if you stay at my tower. Onja might throw you back in the dungeon if she notices you,” Shan warned.

“Shan, I prefer he stay,” Miranda said.

Hearing that she wanted him to stay made Dreibrand’s heart pound and he ignored Shan’s warning. He took Miranda’s hand, and said, “Ah, Shan, I will slip back to your place early. I will not get caught.”

“As you wish then. Meet me in the morning. If I do not see you, I will check the dungeon,” Shan said playfully. He now realized that the humans desired to be together.

Shan saw himself out the door. When he shut the door, the bolt on the inside slid into place, and the metallic snap startled Dreibrand and Miranda. Witnessing the invisible force of Shan’s magic on the bolt convinced them of the reality of rys power.

Privately both accepted that they had not only come to a new land but a new world. They would need to adapt.

They discussed the information Shan had shared with them. Onja’s interest in them, and especially the children, was disturbing, but they agreed it was better than dying by the cold touch of the Deamedron.

In retrospect, Dreibrand contemplated how truly foolish his entry into the Wilderness had been. Briefly he thought of Lord Kwan, who would make his expedition soon, and Dreibrand wondered how his old commander would fare.

“Let us get out of here while we can,” Dreibrand whispered.

Fear and temptation danced inside Miranda’s green eyes, but she slowly shook her head.

Sadly she said, “I cannot run into the woods tonight. Esseldan needs to be inside right now more than anything so his medicine can work. And you heard Shan. The Queen has great powers and I can see that she has many soldiers. She will not let us go.”

“I do not care. I will fight if I have to. We need to go now while it is dark,” Dreibrand urged.

Punctuating Miranda’s concern, Esseldan began to cough and cry in the next room. Miranda rose to check on her son and give him another dose of medicine. While she tended her children, Dreibrand hung his head in frustrated thought. Is escape really possible? Can I really expect to break a woman with two small children out of this place?

We crossed the Wilderness, he thought in an attempt to encourage himself, but he had just learned that it had been by Onja’s will that they had survived.

I will ask Shan to help us. He clearly does not like the Queen, and I will convince him to help us get out of here, he decided.

Miranda returned from the children’s room, and a vague smile lighted her face. Having Elendra back was such a joy to her that it lessened her other worries. She walked to the open stained glass doors and the cool air rippled across the hem of her robe.

“I will ask Shan to help us,” Dreibrand said, getting up to stand behind her. “I need more information. I will ask him to tell us where the humans live. We need a place to go.”

Miranda felt guilty that she could not attempt an escape that night. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “You can go if you want, Dreibrand. I would understand. It is my fault you are here. I should not have made Taf Ila wait for you. Then you would be free.”

“Then I would be alone in the woods and not know where you were,” Dreibrand observed gently. “I will not leave you.”

She turned to face him, and he was close now. “Why do you care about me?” she whispered.

Dreibrand hesitated. When he looked at his life, helping her was the only worthwhile thing he had ever done. “It is good for me to care about you,” he finally replied.

“It is good to have someone care,” she murmured in a confusion of emotion. Miranda felt a great urge to be with him, but she had never freely chosen a lover before and she did not know how to proceed.

Dreibrand showed her. He easily sensed her mood and like any good warrior did not let the moment slip away. He entwined a strong hand through her soft hair and pulled her to his hungry lips. They kissed with a vital and instant passion that had been held back too long.

Her hands grabbed the buckles of his armor and blindly undid them. The metal plate hit the floor with a clang that neither of them heard. She pressed against his hot chest as he pulled away her robe. To feel her bare flesh intoxicated Dreibrand and he lifted her and carried her to the bedchamber.

They sank into the quilts and furs, kissing deeply. Eventually, Miranda pulled away and stood up. The candles had burned low and the flickering light glowed on her body. She yanked off his boots.

Dreibrand lay back enjoying her willingness as she removed the rest of his clothes. Grabbing her waist, he drew her down on top of him, and they explored each other’s bodies with abandon. Miranda moaned with pleasure, reveling in her choice of lover.

After they made love the first time, they rested in each other’s arms. Dreibrand’s hand still shook from the intensity of his emotions as he caressed her body. He had often known satisfaction, but never had he known such happiness with a woman.

Likewise, Miranda was delighted by the experience. She felt safe beside him, and she knew he cared for her. She had never expected such a thing.

They drifted back to lovemaking, seeking escape in their pleasure. But such a night passes quickly, and the birdsong and light of morning soon arrived. Weariness vied with the fire of their desire, and they dozed.

Dreibrand snuggled into the bedding, savoring the luxury of the furnishings. He had not slept in a bed for a long time, and he knew he had to go soon. Miranda stirred and went into the adjacent room to see her children. Through the wall he heard her talking to Elendra, who responded in a high sweet voice. Dreibrand dressed himself and went into the main room.

Miranda came out holding her son to her breast. Elendra followed, and regarded Dreibrand with a haughty look.

“The Queen does not like you,” Elendra stated.

“Well, you will have to put in a good word for me because she seems to like you,” Dreibrand said.

Elendra frowned with uncertainty.

“How is Esseldan?” Dreibrand asked as he put his armor back on.

“A little better,” Miranda responded.

“I will go to Shan now,” he said.

Miranda nodded. “I will be here with the children,” she said, pulling her daughter against her leg.

“I will come back here by tonight,” he promised.

She smiled, trusting in his sincerity. Neither of them wanted to be separated, but he had to go and speak with Shan. Hopefully the rys would prove to be the ally he appeared to be.

Dreibrand departed quietly, only removing his eyes from Miranda’s face when he shut the door. Rys guards were still in the hallway, and they looked at him skeptically as he walked by, but they did nothing.

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