I have been told that this year when the snows melt Dacian and his Queen will ride down from the Rysamand and face their foes in Nufal. I have been told that this year the war will end—Urlen, Kezanada Chronicler, year six of the Overlordship of Amar.

Two of Shan’s servants greeted Dreibrand when he arrived at the tower. He tried many times to ask for Shan, but the servants did not answer. They either did not understand his question or they felt no inclination to communicate. However, they did provide the human male with breakfast, which he gladly accepted.

Giving up on them as a source of information, Dreibrand finished his food, and started exploring the tower. He wandered onto a balcony. The waters of the deep blue lake lapped gently on the gravel shore below, and the blue stone buildings of the city rose to his left. Majestic mountains ringed the green valley, and the beauty of the place was a privilege to see.

It does look like the Gods could live here, he thought.

He went back inside and paused in front of a mirror. It was good to be clean and shaved, and he was glad not to look like a mine slave anymore.

“I am glad to see you are free.”

Dreibrand whirled to face the voice and saw Shan enter the room.

Shan continued, “I was worried I would have to go down into that nasty dungeon again.”

“I have been waiting here for you,” Dreibrand said.

“Would you like to go for a ride?” Shan asked.

Dreibrand did not want to refuse the invitation, but he could not waste time on such frivolities. He said, “Shan, I must talk to you. I need advice. I need help.”

“I know,” Shan acknowledged softly and his kind tone encouraged patience. “That is why we should go for a ride. Outside the city we can have the talk. Remember what I told you about rys.”

“But you said the Queen can see across the Wilderness. What good will a ride do?” Dreibrand asked, seeking to understand.

“A ride will do much because I am with you. With a little distance, Onja cannot hear me. Now please come. Let me show you my homeland so that you may know me,” Shan said.

“If I go, you will tell me more?” Dreibrand said, still reluctant.

The rys nodded.

They went to the stables and Dreibrand was pleased to see Starfield and Freedom well tended. Shan invited him to try one of the white rys horses, and Dreibrand agreed. Starfield deserved rest and riding a new horse would be exciting.

The rys horses were a larger breed with feathered feet, and Shan boasted that they had twice the endurance of common horses. He ordered two of them saddled.

Astride his favorite steed, the tall rys soon galloped toward the ornate iron gates of the Keep, and Dreibrand endeavored to follow. His horse resisted his will, seemingly irritated by the human rider, but Dreibrand was an accomplished rider and he prevailed.

Speeding down a city thoroughfare, Dreibrand struggled to master his mount. He glimpsed a few startled rys gaping at the human racing down the streets of their city.

Shan and Dreibrand clattered out of the paved city and headed into the alpine forest. Trees flew by in a green blur, and Dreibrand concentrated on avoiding low branches in his haste. He galloped after Shan, who set the hard pace to show off the stamina of the animals.

Steadily their steeds climbed the steep slopes and emerged above the tree line into the high meadows. Rock and snow soared above this place, and the mountains snagged the clouds. Shan pulled his horse to a stop, and Dreibrand drew alongside of him. The horses’ wide nostrils flared in the thin air, but they were not winded.

“You ride well, Dreibrand. A rys horse can be hard for a human to control,” Shan complimented.

Dreibrand grinned, “I grew up riding.”

They continued at a leisurely pace looking down at Jingten, which now looked small at the bottom of the valley. Quietly, Shan began to talk.

“In the city I can protect my thoughts from Onja, but I could never cloak my words,” Shan explained. “That is why we had to come up here.

“Last night you asked me what claim I had to the throne. The answer is that my power is my claim. The rys with the greatest magic has all rights to the throne, and I am very powerful. My magical ability exceeds that of average rys. Actually, all of my kind respect me as their superior—except of course Onja.”

“You wish to challenge her then?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan sighed and looked to the nearest mountaintop. “Once before I challenged her. And she put me in my place. But that was a long time ago. A rys comes of age at one hundred, and I challenged her then.”

Dreibrand considered the information, recalling how Shan had stood at the base of Onja’s throne. He wondered why the Queen would tolerate him and said, “Not to be rude, but why did Onja let you live? A ruler does not let rivals live.”

Shan chuckled grimly. “I am very sure Onja thought the same, but even she must follow some of our laws. Since the Great War, rys do not kill rys. It is the most important law to all rys. But do not worry, Dreibrand, she made me wish I was dead. She tore my mind apart and cast a standing stone around me. It took me five years to break out of that stone prison. But even that surprised her. I was meant to be imprisoned for a much longer time as a living memorial to her superiority. Since then it has been stalemate between us.”

Dreibrand remembered the standing stones of the Quinsanomar and surmised that the spirits of the Deamedron were locked in such magic prisons. “How did you live in stone?” he asked.

“Rys can hibernate. And the greater one’s magic, the longer one can hibernate. From that experience I learned to cast stone, even on myself. But I do not care to do so,” Shan said.

With new respect Dreibrand looked at Shan and tried to imagine five years locked in stone. But his thoughts returned to Miranda and the guards at her door.

“Shan, Miranda and I want to go be where the humans live. Will Onja let us go?” he said.

“She might let you go, but I believe she intends to keep the children here for her amusement,” Shan said.

“But Miranda cannot leave without them,” Dreibrand protested.

“I know. That is why we came up here to talk,” Shan said and stopped his horse.  He invited Dreibrand to hike higher with him.

They followed a strenuous trail into a realm of cold sharp rock and snow. Shan moved skillfully up the rocky surface, but Dreibrand felt out of his element. He was higher now than he had been in the pass when he entered the Rysamand, and he had to focus on each treacherous step. He wondered if Shan was putting him through some kind of physical test or if the rys simply wanted him to fall down the mountain.

At last they reached a flat table of rock shrouded by clouds. Dreibrand came puffing up behind Shan, bothered by the elevation.

“When it is not cloudy, this spot offers a wonderful view of Rystavalla,” Shan said proudly. When Dreibrand asked what Rystavalla was, Shan smiled and said that it was the world. “But the humans call her Gyhwen,” he added.

“The people in the east call the world Ektren,” Dreibrand said.

The name was new to Shan, but of only passing interest. Any word the humans used to name the world was little more than a childish nickname from the rys point of view.

“I have brought you to this lonely height because it helps to focus my power,” Shan explained. “I know Onja cannot eavesdrop on me here. Let me tell you some of our history, so you can understand better. I am sure you have noticed the tower across Lake Nin from the city.”

When Dreibrand nodded, Shan continued, “It is the Tomb of Dacian, who was the most powerful rys king to ever live. He was King of Jingten and Onja was his Queen. Twenty-two centuries ago, another kingdom of rys called Nufal lay east of here beyond the plains in the Tabren Mountains. They were the rivals of Jingten and there was war between Jingten and Nufal.

“To win the war, Dacian and Onja conceived a trap that would utterly defeat Nufal. Their vast war hosts met on the plains. This old battleground is now called the Quinsanomar. Both rys kingdoms had gathered all of their warriors and their human allies for a great battle. After both sides exhausted themselves with fierce killing, Dacian and Onja cast the greatest spell ever upon their opponents. All of the enemy warriors, rys and human, were killed and their souls imprisoned in stone. The spell held their spirits in bondage to Jingten. This was the creation of the Deamedron, and it was a terrible thing.

“When Dacian saw his victory, he realized his spell was evil and is said to have collapsed in horror. Onja however felt no guilt and promptly commanded her spirit slaves to slaughter every living soul in Nufal. The tormented Deamedron obeyed and all rys and humans were killed in the region. And to this day only ruins of the Nufalese civilization remain in the Wilderness.

“This holocaust caused Dacian to decree that no rys could kill rys ever again. It was his final law, and within days his grief killed him. At the time the tower was the seat of the monarchy, but Onja turned it into his tomb and had the Keep built in the city. No one except Onja has entered the tower since that time.

“The human allies of Jingten where terrified of Onja, whose power had created the Deamedron, and they have considered her a Goddess ever since, which Onja of course encouraged. In this way she has ruled them.”

Dreibrand ruminated this information silently. He doubted that grief had killed Dacian, but he did not share his cynical thoughts. The imprisoned souls of the Deamedron forever bound as Onja’s unholy army disturbed him deeply. In his belief, a warrior killed on the field of battle deserved his eternal rewards from the war God Golan. Thousands of years in limbo was a bitter fate.

Dismally he said, “Shan, are you telling me I have no chance against Onja?”

“No human has any chance, Dreibrand. Onja is too powerful,” Shan said.

“Then what can I do? Do you intend to challenge her again?” Dreibrand said.

Blue light flickered in Shan’s black eyes, and it startled Dreibrand. Shan wanted to say yes to Dreibrand’s question. Shan longed to be free of Onja’s tyranny and guide the rys according to his vision, but he knew that when he challenged Onja again there would be no room for error.

With regret Shan said, “The time for my challenge has not yet come, but it is close. At long last I sense that Onja has weakened. She still appears to be great, but like the old tree in the forest, she has rotted inside and waits only for a storm strong enough to blow her down. I will side with you and Miranda and help you get to my human friends.”

“Where will we go?” Dreibrand wondered.

“I will take you west to the Temu Domain. Taischek, the King of the Temu Tribe, is my closest human friend and he will shelter you if I ask it,” Shan explained.

“I do not ask for charity. I will earn my keep,” Dreibrand offered. “I am a trained warrior.”

“You are a mercenary then?” Shan inquired.

Dreibrand averted his gaze uncomfortably, wondering how best to explain himself. He answered, “I am now. In my homeland of Atrophane I was an officer in the military, but I resigned because I wanted to explore the Wilderness.”

Shan considered the simplistic answer, guessing that Dreibrand left out some details. He studied Dreibrand with a piercing gaze and saw an intelligent and ambitious man, and he decided the stranger might have much to offer.

Intruding upon the rys’s contemplative state, Dreibrand said, “How will we get away?”

“Onja regularly spends time in deep meditation. Next time she does this, we will leave. If I am with you, the rys soldiers will not harm you. But we must get out of Jingten before Onja notices, and that is the difficult part,” Shan said.

“What will happen if she does notice us?” Dreibrand asked.

“She may try to kill you with her magic,” Shan replied.

“Can she do that?” cried Dreibrand.

“Yes. But I can shield you. Her killing range is not as wide as it used to be. As long as we get away from the city our danger will be minimal,” Shan said.

“What if she follows?” Dreibrand asked.

“Unlikely. Onja has not gone any farther from the city than the Tomb of Dacian in living memory,” Shan said.

Dreibrand realized he would have to trust Shan completely for their safety. The thought of magic striking at him from far away was daunting, and Onja’s power to enslave the very spirit made his courage waver. But Dreibrand could not sit by and let the rys Queen keep Miranda’s children because they entertained her.

“When can we leave?” he said.

“Maybe tonight,” Shan answered.

“I will have to discuss this with Miranda first. Her son is ill, and she did not want to travel last night when I proposed we escape,” Dreibrand said.

Shan frowned. “Do not discuss it with her. We must not speak of this when we get back to Jingten. I will know when the opportunity to escape has come, and I will get you then. If Miranda wants to escape, she will have to travel whenever the time comes.”

“But I must tell her I have made arrangements with you,” Dreibrand insisted.

“Speak of our plan and you risk discovery,” Shan said bluntly. “Hint to her if you must, but do not talk about it.”

Reluctantly, Dreibrand nodded. If he and Shan had to talk on a mountainside, then he had to accept that they could not talk in the city.

“I thank you, Shan,” he said sincerely.

“Thank me after we escape. Now, let me be completely honest with you, Dreibrand. Helping you is very risky for me and for my friendship, I expect friendship,” Shan said.

“How do you mean?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan explained, “Soon I will be ready to challenge Onja for the throne. But to make my challenge successful many things will have to be done, which I will explain later. And I will need all of my friends.”

Dreibrand understood. The rys’s arrangement was not so alien. For his favor, he wanted loyalty. “You want me to serve you in your war?” he surmised.

“Yes. And the rewards for victory will be great—very great,” Shan promised.

I suppose the King of Jingten would have much to give, Dreibrand thought. He hated to make a decision when his understanding of the conflict was so vague, but if he had to choose a side, then he would choose. He had to find a place to fit into this strange land, and Shan’s offer sounded good.

I asked for his help. I have to accept his terms, Dreibrand reminded himself.

Despite his fear and uncertainty, it felt good to have a friend.

“Onja made my decision for me yesterday. I will not serve her and I will never call her Goddess. I will be your friend and ally as you ask,” Dreibrand declared and offered the rys his hand.

The rys grasped his hand firmly, and they were agreed.

“This is good! This is good!” Shan cried happily. “I knew when I saw you that it was a good sign. The Age of Onja will soon close.”

The clouds pulled away from the mountainside, and the sun blazed at its zenith. The sky opened, and Dreibrand could see the top of the world. On the opposite side of the valley, the icy peaks of the Rysamand reached to frigid heights and an invincible glacier held a plateau in a permanent grasp.

Shan could tell that Dreibrand admired the magnificent view, and he pivoted to point at the beautiful peaks. “That is Mount L’cha and that is Mount Fandanihn. And we are sitting on Mount Curlenfindi. These great mountains have beckoned rys and human alike to climb them. They are called bold and crazy, but rarely successful. But I have climbed all three.”

“It looks so incredible up here,” Dreibrand breathed. “Have you really stood on the top of those peaks?”

“Yes. It was in such a high place that I first realized how great the powers were inside me,” Shan recalled. “But we will save stories of my mountain climbing adventures for another day. We should get back.”

Dreibrand agreed and they hiked down to the meadows. The horses had wandered in their grazing, but they cantered back to Shan as soon as he returned. As they rode down into the tree line, a piercing shriek ripped the clear high air and echoed through the valley. Shan immediately stopped and surveyed the sky.

Dreibrand recognized the wretched sound.

“The Tatatook!” Shan cried and pointed to it in the sky. Dreibrand shielded his eyes from the sun and saw the flying beast swooping down from the mountains.

“The Queen has summoned her crow. Ride!” Shan commanded with ominous urgency.

The hooves of the white horses thundered through the forest as they dashed toward the city. Another shuddering call rent the air, and Dreibrand cursed himself for leaving Miranda.