For the moment Miranda focused on what was good. The relief of being reunited with her daughter eased Miranda’s worry about her circumstances, and the luxury and beauty of her suite helped her not think about the guards in the hall.

The rys physician stopped by to check on Esseldan. After another examination, the physician flashed Miranda a confident smile because the boy’s cough had lessened.

Elendra chattered freely when her mother bathed her and combed her long glistening hair. Once she was dressed, the girl showed her mother a box of toys that the Queen had given her. She rummaged through lovely dolls with perfect painted faces and removed a ball that bounced delightfully.

“I want to play with this,” Elendra announced.

Miranda obliged her, and they went onto the terrace in the bright morning. The girl’s laughter ranged from giggles to shrieks of joy as she chased the ball. A few times Miranda had to intervene to keep the ball from bouncing off the high terrace. She had never seen her daughter so happy.

Pausing from her play, Elendra said, “Queen Onja will let us have everything we ever need. She is so nice. Do you like it here, Mama?”

“It is very nice,” Miranda agreed with reservation. She wished her daughter was not so enamored with Jingten and Queen Onja. “But don’t you want to go make a home with people? We would only have to travel a little farther.”

Elendra wrinkled her nose. “No!” she snapped. “I’m sick of sleeping on the ground. I want to stay here and live like rich people.”

The words stung Miranda, who knew she had never been able to properly provide for her children. She stared at her daughter but could not blame her for wanting to stay in Jingten.

I should want to stay here too, Miranda thought and looked up the tiered levels of the mighty Keep. She should be thankful that such a wealthy and powerful queen wanted to take care of her children. But Miranda wondered if she could get used to living with the rys. She admitted that she liked the rys who had helped Dreibrand. Shan had seemed easy to like, and Miranda automatically appreciated his kindness. The physician had been concerned and gentle as well.

But Queen Onja scared her.

Although Miranda considered the practicality of staying in Jingten, as Onja seemed to want, she knew Dreibrand did not want to stay. Miranda did not want him to leave her, and she decided to leave when the chance came. She would take Elendra whether she wanted to go or not.

However, spoiling the lovely day by arguing with Elendra would be a shame, and Miranda dropped the subject. They played until noon. At lunch, a chest of clothes arrived for Miranda to choose from. Elendra sat on the bed watching her mother try on clothes in front of a mirror. The fine surroundings and gifts made Miranda understand how Jingten appealed to her daughter. Miranda had never experienced the indulgence of selecting beautiful clothes. Her only option had been rugged homespun.

Best of all, Miranda received a badly needed pair of suede boots of the kind the rys wore. A servant disposed of Miranda’s shoe remnants that had served her for too many years.

While trying on a fine linen suit embroidered with glossy green pine trees, Miranda strapped on her sword in its rugged rawhide scabbard and tucked her knife into the belt. She draped her dusty silk jacket over her shoulders and laughed at her appearance. She certainly was no longer the abused slave girl of Wa Gira. Clean and in decent clothes, she looked good in the reflection. Miranda had never even owned a mirror, and it pleased her to think of herself as looking good.

She was about to draw her sword and brandish it in front of the mirror for amusement, but a knock at the door snapped her out of her foolishness. A servant promptly opened the door, and two Jingten guards entered and indicated that Miranda should come with them. Her stomach tightened nervously, and she glanced at Elendra.

“They said the Queen wants to see you,” said Elendra, who had begun to pick up on the rys language.

“I don’t want to go now. I want to stay with my children,” Miranda said, addressing the nearest guard.

“Mama, don’t argue. Go see the Queen. Esseldan and I will be right here,” Elendra said.

Miranda hesitated. She wanted to trust Elendra, who did not seem the least bit worried, but the Queen filled her with fear. She remembered that Shan had said she would be expected to treat Onja like a Goddess.

One of the guards rapped the point of his spear impatiently on the open bedroom door, and Miranda knew she had no choice. On her way out, she turned back and saw the female servant holding her daughter. Elendra waved happily to her mother.

The guards brought Miranda to the throne room. The dazzle of the throne room was just as impressive to Miranda on the second visit.

From high on the golden dais, Onja looked down at the human. Slowly she pointed at the floor, and each guard put a hand on Miranda’s shoulders and pushed her to her knees. The gleaming marble chilled her knees through her new pants.

“Yesterday you were my guest. Today you are my subject,” Onja announced.

Pinned by Onja’s cruel gaze, Miranda quaked with terror.

Onja continued, “Today I make clear to you what your place is in Jingten. Everyone has a place in Jingten, and it is only fair that you know what yours is. Your man has no place here, and he will be banished today. You may have the privilege of staying with your daughter and continue to be wet nurse to the infant.”

“Wet nurse! I’m his mother!” Miranda screamed. Her outrage devoured her terror.

Blue fire flared in Onja’s eyes, and she warned, “Humans do not use such a tone with their Goddess.”

“Give me my children,” Miranda demanded. “And we will leave Jingten forever.”

The angry glow diminished from Onja’s eyes and the archaic queen actually laughed. “My poor silly girl, it is the children I want. You were allowed to survive the Wilderness to bring your infant to me. Miranda, you are my slave.”

The hurtful word galvanized Miranda’s soul. After so much freedom, she could never endure servitude again.

Springing to her feet and whipping out her sword, Miranda shrieked, “Child stealer!”

A spear quickly tripped her back to the floor, but she rolled and knocked the spear away. Swiping at the guards with her blade, Miranda fought them bravely, but she could not regain her feet.

Clever in combat but not inclined to kill, the team of rys guards soon had her in control. While one engaged her sword with his spear, the other jumped on top of her. He punched her in the face, but Miranda withstood the first blow, and he had to hit her again.

The second punch stunned her, and the sword was pulled from her grip. She struggled under the weight of the rys who pinned her, but to no avail.

“Bind her,” ordered Onja in the rys language as she walked down the steps.

Leather thongs were wound around Miranda’s wrists and throat, and the guards hauled her to her feet. The thong around her throat choked tighter and subdued her struggles. Secured like a captured animal, Miranda watched the Queen approach.

“You have chosen to die,” Onja informed her. “Your children shall miss you and always wonder why you abandoned them.”

Miranda cried out in rage, but the strangling thong made it a weak sound.

Onja taunted, “Yes, I will tell Elendra you did not want her anymore. It will break the little girl’s heart, but she is happier with me anyway.”

Grief tore through Miranda’s body, making her impatient for the blow of execution. Tears tumbled down her cheeks and ran with the blood on her chin.

“Bring her to the roof,” Onja commanded.

The guards dragged Miranda up many flights of dark cold stairs. With her breathing restricted, her steps began to falter. Deep inside the private thoughts of one of the guards, he pitied the human female but it did not deter his obedience to Onja. 

Eventually the guards brought her into the daylight on the highest level of the Keep. By this time Miranda’s vision had grayed and her consciousness was slipping away.

Onja stood on the roof with her arms raised. The wind flowed through the Queen’s white hair and blue light shone from her eyes. The guards waited in silence and loosened the thong around Miranda’s neck, allowing her to breathe better.

When Onja lowered her arms, she hung her head as if she was tired. But the weariness passed quickly, and she lifted her head and chuckled darkly.

Sauntering over to her prisoner, Onja said, “You will suffer, but your death will not be the worst because your daughter delights me so.”

“You spoil me,” Miranda rasped sarcastically.

“Yes, I do,” Onja agreed seriously.

Responding to the flourish of the Queen’s hand, the guards stepped back and released Miranda. Before Miranda could raise her bound hands, the long blue arm of the Queen lashed out and laid a cold hand on her forehead. Pain consumed Miranda. Every nerve inside and out felt like it was cut by sharp broken flint and skewered by a thousand needles.

Miranda grimaced in too much torment to cry out and crumpled to the roof. Onja bent as her victim fell and did not relent the torture. Only the will of Onja prevented Miranda’s heart from failing in the anguish.

At last satisfied with the punishment, Onja withdrew her dreadful touch. The intensity of the pain lingered in Miranda’s body as she coughed blood and bled from the nose. Utterly defeated, Miranda clawed feebly at the roof. Her ringing ears did not hear the approaching cry of the Tatatook, but she felt the wind made by the great wings as the creature landed. The Queen stroked the purplish black feathers with an affectionate greeting, and the Tatatook cawed with appreciation.

In the rys language, Onja instructed the fearsome flyer. “My pet, take this pitiful human and cast her upon the Galnuvet Glacier.” Turning to Miranda, Onja raised her voice and spoke in Miranda’s language. “While you die you can watch your flesh freeze.”

Obediently the Tatatook scooped Miranda into its arms and rushed into the air. Every motion of the great wings lifted them higher above Jingten, and Onja laughed as she watched her victim carried to her doom. Too weak from torture to resist, Miranda considered herself dead and faded into a swoon.

~

In his heart, Shan knew that Onja had summoned the Tatatook for some grim errand, but he dare not waste time using his magic to see what mischief she created. He hoped to return to the Keep in time to interrupt whatever Onja was doing.

At the gates of the Keep waited a squad of Jingten soldiers.

“What is this?” Shan demanded impatiently.

Taf Ila, who was Captain of the Jingten Guard, stepped forward and answered, “By order of the Queen, that human is banished and to depart immediately.” He pointed at Dreibrand dramatically.

“Let us through. This man has the right to collect his belongings,” Shan insisted.

“The Queen commanded me to execute this order immediately. What he has in the Keep is now forsaken,” Taf Ila said.

Shan’s temper ran out. It was not his habit to bicker with Keep guards. “This man is my guest, under my protection. Stop him from entering and you stop me. If Onja wants her order enforced, let her do it herself,” he said imperiously.

The Captain considered Shan’s words. The power and skill of Shan were no secret, and no rys, except for Onja, dared hinder his activities. Indecisively, Taf Ila glanced at Dreibrand, torn between his Queen’s orders and the knowledge that Shan could easily prevent all of them from doing their duty.

“What is happening?” demanded Dreibrand, who anxiously wanted to know what the rys were arguing about.

“They don’t want to let you in,” Shan answered hastily. “Stay close, my friend.”

He had grown tired of the dispute and it was time to remind his fellow rys that he was not to be defied.  Raising a hand, Shan cast a spell with the force of his mind. The iron bird gates of the Keep banged open and Shan’s magic shook the squad of soldiers like the rising wind of a storm through dry leaves.

Taf Ila glowered at Shan, but he stepped aside. This submission to Shan’s will impressed Dreibrand, who hurried inside.

“I have to go to Miranda,” Dreibrand said urgently.

“Yes, but we have to stay together. Onja has ordered you banished, and I fear she might order you killed next,” Shan explained.

“Why am I banished? What about Miranda?” Dreibrand said.

“I do not know,” Shan muttered as his eyes roved the Keep. Inside he could not find everything he wanted to find.

They jumped off their horses near the stable, and Shan yelled for the horses that belonged to the humans to be saddled. The stablemaster hurried to comply.

Desperate with worry, Dreibrand dashed into the Keep. He did not really know his way in the huge structure, and he hollered for Shan to tell him the way. The rys ran to catch up to his friend, giving as many warnings as directions.

Twice guards opposed Dreibrand, but they would fall back as soon as Shan caught up. Dreibrand found the hall where Miranda’s suite was, and it disturbed him that guards were no longer present. He reached the door, and finding that it was locked, he pounded on it with his fist and shouted for Miranda.

“Stay away from the door!” Shan warned from down the hall, but Dreibrand did not react in time.

The door was jerked open from inside by a rys soldier who leveled a spear at Dreibrand’s chest. He dodged the spear as it sailed through the door and clanged against the opposite wall. Dreibrand drew his sword, but Shan had reached him and grabbed his arm. The rys pulled him back and tried to get Dreibrand to stand behind him.

More soldiers poured into the hall, and they were followed by Queen Onja. The suite door slammed behind her.

“Engage them and you will die,” Shan hissed, and finally stepped in front of the human.

Dreibrand had no desire to hide behind Shan, and he yelled to Onja, “Where is Miranda?”

“She does not want to see you. Leave now or die,” Onja replied in Miranda’s language.

On the other side of the wall Shan could sense the human children, but Miranda was not there.

“Let the children go, Onja,” Shan said. “They do not belong to you.”

“All humans belong to me!” Onja snapped.

“Then where have you put Miranda?” Shan asked.

His bold questions angered the Queen. “Forget her. And forget him,” she said, turning a blazing gaze on Dreibrand.

Blue light consumed the Queen’s eyes, and Dreibrand felt her power sizzle across his skin. A flash filled the corridor, and he staggered back shielding his eyes. His skin tingled, and he smelled the distinct odor of singed hair. When his vision cleared, he saw that Shan was still in front of him, separated from Onja by a wall of blue light. Through the pulsing blue light, Dreibrand could see Onja’s face, which was twisted with strain and rage.

After a final snarl Onja relented her attack and Shan gasped with relief. The fierce swirling energy disappeared between them, but Onja’s eyes still glowed with her magic power.

“If his life means so much to you, then banish yourself with him,” Onja hissed.

Blue fire filled Shan’s eyes as well, and he burned with desire to fight his enemy. He and Onja had not sparred so flagrantly since his first challenge, and it excited him to block her magic. Over the past four centuries Onja had sensed his maturing powers, but until that moment she had not realized how strong he had become, and it had startled her. Shan watched the seed of fear germinate inside her, and it gratified him, but he cautioned himself not to gain too much confidence from the success. The spell had not been meant for him. 

I am a fool to try now. My magic has a better use at this time, he thought.

“I will leave,” Shan announced.

“Leave at once. Or you will spend a century in stone with birds shitting on your head!” Onja threatened.

Shan’s nostrils flared, hinting at the hate he restrained. He wanted to hurl insults at her, but now was not the time to toy with her. Turning to Dreibrand, Shan put a restraining hand on the man’s chest.

“We must retreat to my tower,” Shan whispered.

“What is going on?” Dreibrand growled.

“Onja just tried to kill you. We must go. Trust me,” Shan begged, pushing him down the hall.

“Go live with your human friends, Shan. Die in shame at the foot of the Rysamand,” Onja yelled.

Although Dreibrand could not understand the words, the wrath of the Queen of Jingten made him shudder. He feared her power, but he could not just leave as Shan wanted.

“I must have Miranda and the children,” he protested.

“You must have your life,” Shan countered and dragged him farther down the hall.

Dreibrand looked at the Queen and believed his life was in danger. Reluctantly he yielded to Shan’s will, but he loathed his lack of control.

When they reached Shan’s tower, the rys bolted the main entrance then leaned against the doors. Dreibrand watched him wipe perspiration from his forehead and realized even Shan could be intimidated.

But Shan composed himself quickly and stepped away from the doors.

“What is happening?” Dreibrand demanded again. “Did you challenge her and fail?”

“I did not challenge her in the sense that we discussed earlier, but I did save your life. Her attack spell was meant to kill you. I had to get you out of there,” Shan explained.

“But we have to get to Miranda,” Dreibrand said.

“She is not there!” Shan cried. “That is why we had to retreat. I could not waste time fighting with Onja when I have a chance to find Miranda.”

“Find her! Where is she?” Dreibrand exclaimed.

“The Tatatook probably took her somewhere. I must meditate to find her,” Shan said.

“And the children?” Dreibrand asked.

“They are in the suite. They are unhurt,” Shan replied. “Trust me Dreibrand, and do not leave this tower without me. I should be able to find her quickly. Just hope that it is quick enough and that she is still alive.”

“Alive?” Dreibrand choked, thinking of the flying monster hurting Miranda.

Such thoughts devastated him, and dark rage boiled inside him, urging him to rush through the Keep killing wantonly until he reached Onja. Luckily his anger stopped short of suicide. Such a rampage would be a useless folly. One sho dart and he would be defeated.

Shan rushed upstairs to a private chamber, and he sat down cross-legged in the center of the room. Dreibrand followed but stayed back to watch from a distance. Shan seemed already to be in a trance, and blue light filled his eyes.

In his mind, Shan remembered Miranda. He remembered her face and he remembered the individual force of her soul. Seeking her energy, he released his mind over the land. The features of the Jingten Valley passed beneath his inner vision as if he flew in the sky like the Tatatook. He scanned the woodlands and streams, looking up and down the mountains.

Shan looked once and then twice, finally becoming desperate. He did not sense Miranda, which meant she could be dead. It could take him quite a long time to find a cold dead body.

Then his mind was drawn to a mountain. He could see the powdery snow blowing from the frozen peak where summer could never reach. Shan recognized the disdainful profile of Mount L’cha. It was the view from the Galnuvet Glacier.

A dim lifeforce abandoned on the glacier beckoned his mind. Focusing his perception, Shan looked down on the frozen giant that carved valleys out of mountains and found Miranda. She was sprawled among jutting chunks of ice. Shan gently lowered his mind over her body and rejoiced in the beating of her heart. But her eyes were closed and she was unmoving, and Shan knew that she only lingered in this world.

With less that prudent haste, Shan recalled his mind to his body. Disregarding the strain on his system, he sprang to his feet. Dreibrand stopped his crazy pacing, expecting an answer from the rys. Shan looked beyond his friend and out a window. The lowering sun reflected redly on the snowy mountains, reminding Shan of Miranda’s bloody face.

He informed Dreibrand that Miranda lived but had been thrown onto a glacier to perish. Rushing to another room, Shan rummaged in a chest and began tossing out his mountain climbing gear.

“Here, take these,” he told Dreibrand.

Shan handed him a large coil of rope that he draped across his shoulder. Most of the other gear was unfamiliar to Dreibrand as Shan gave him ice axes and hammers and hooks and spiked gear to strap onto his boots.

“You will need all of this to climb the glacier and save her. Now we must hurry. I will talk more on the road,” Shan explained.

“But I cannot leave Elendra and Esseldan,” Dreibrand declared.

Painfully aware of Miranda’s suffering, Shan looked hard at Dreibrand. “Dreibrand, you must choose. If we stay here and fight for the children, you might die, but Miranda will surely die. The children do not appear to be in any danger, but Miranda is dying. We must go help her right now. If you must have the children now, then I will help you fight for them, but in that time Miranda will die.”

Dreibrand struggled with the dilemma. He did not want to leave the children, but he owed Miranda his life. In the end he only had one decision within him.

“I must go to her,” he said.

Shan set a friendly hand on Dreibrand’s shoulder. “I am sorry this happened. I did not know she was in such immediate danger, or I would not have left the city.”

Dreibrand appreciated the apology because part of him wanted to blame Shan for what was happening.

“Quickly now,” Shan instructed and they left the tower.

When they rode out of the Keep, Shan turned his horse to face the ancient fortress.

Shaking his fist, Shan cried, “A new age and a new king are coming to Jingten, Onja! Enjoy your last days, rotten queen.”

The nearby rys who heard his words stared at Shan with shock. Very little revolutionary spirit stirred in anyone’s heart. Shan had failed before when he challenged the Queen, and most citizens of Jingten wondered why he wasted his powers on such hopeless ideas.

High inside the Keep, Queen Onja heard his words echo through her mind but she disregarded them. She had banished him and if he dared to come back, she would destroy him.

She petted Elendra’s black hair as the girl cried in her lap. The news of Miranda’s abandonment had devastated the little girl, who now found comfort in the bosom of her Queen.

A well maintained road ran west from Jingten and Shan and Dreibrand galloped down it. Jingten disappeared behind them and the night gathered over the Rysamand.

Shan halted.

“Why do you stop?” Dreibrand asked, his voice anxious.

Shan answered, “Dreibrand, you must go on without me. I have to cast a spell of heat over Miranda or she will freeze in the night.”

This was too much for Dreibrand. He barely had a grasp of the day’s events and now Shan seemed to be ditching him.

“Now you just want me to leave?” he shouted. “I don’t even know where to go. You trick me, Shan. You have tricked me all day. You lured me out of Jingten so Onja could hurt Miranda.”

“I would have no need to lure you anywhere. If I am against you, why did I let you out of the dungeon?” Shan countered calmly. He understood that Dreibrand had to be bewildered by Jingten and especially Onja’s random cruelty.

Dreibrand did not respond and he felt some regret for accusing Shan of such duplicity. The Queen’s power was fresh in his mind, and Dreibrand admitted that Shan was right. Onja would have no need to lure him away with some elaborate trick.

“Listen to me, Dreibrand. The time you spend doubting me adds to Miranda’s suffering. I cannot cast this spell while I ride. It must be precise. I do not want to melt the ice around her and make her wet, and I do not want to burn her. But I can keep her warm through the night, if I sit and meditate. You must go on ahead to save time. It is a long ride, and I want you ready to rescue her in the morning,” Shan said. The rys dismounted and started packing the climbing gear onto his horse. He laid a hand on the white horse’s head and concentrated a moment. The horse stomped its hoof as if confirming the receipt of message.

“Take my horse and it will guide you to this year’s best spot to mount the glacier. Pick a place on the ice wall that gets the least sunlight so the ice will be strong. Strap the crampons on your boots and use the pick axes to climb,” Shan explained.

“But you are the climber,” Dreibrand interrupted with dismay. “I need your help.”

“You can do it,” Shan encouraged instantly. “You only need to be strong and careful. You will learn at the bottom and know at the top.”

Dreibrand wanted to say that he did not know how to climb a glacier, especially if it was the behemoth of ice he had seen from across the valley that afternoon. But he had to try. Miranda could have kept running from the fenthakrabi and left him to die, but she had taken the perilous moment to cut him free.

Shan continued, “Oh! Cut a couple saplings before you start. When you get on top, use them to probe the glacier surface for weaknesses and hold them under your armpits the rest of the time. If you break through a hidden crevasse, they might catch your fall. Once you are up there, use your warding crystal to find her. I will use it to guide you.”

Dreibrand took in the flurry of information, trying to process it. Determined not to fail, he swung onto Shan’s horse, and the climbing gear jingled as he landed in the saddle.

“With the first light of dawn get started and I will catch up with you tomorrow,” Shan said.

“I am going to climb as soon as I get there, light or no,” Dreibrand declared.

“No,” Shan cried. “The night is our enemy. Do not go up there in the dark. This is a treacherous time of year to be on the ice. Without light you will step into a crevasse for certain. You will understand when you see. Now go. I promise I will keep Miranda from freezing, but you must get to her.”

Dreibrand nodded.

“Good luck,” Shan said sincerely.

Given a free rein, the white horse sped away bearing Dreibrand toward the icebound heights. He did not understand why he trusted Shan. Maybe he was so hopelessly lost that he had no choice but to do as Shan said. His chest tightened with sorrow thinking of Miranda alone in the freezing dark. If the rys did keep Miranda alive and guided him to her, Dreibrand would no longer doubt Shan’s magic or his good character.

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