Shan is a good friend and I am fortunate for that. But I know he visits me so much because he cannot bear to be in Jingten and not be the king—Chendoaser, Nuram ruler, year 1850 of the Age of Onja.

 The ice axe sank into the glacier and Dreibrand tested his weight on it. The grass and trees of the Jingten Valley were far below him as he toiled in the land of gravel, mountains, and ice. Jagged cliffs loomed to his left, shading a fringe of the ice sheet he scaled. Even so, the softer days of summer had weakened the ice’s outer shell, and every swing of the axe had to bite deep to bear his weight.

The morning light had revealed to Dreibrand the high craggy face of the ice sheet that sprawled between mountains like a half asleep dragon. The glacier emanated an elemental presence, resenting the frigid plateau that trapped it so far from the living sea.

After climbing halfway up, Dreibrand gained some confidence. His muscles strained and shook from the exertion, but he was capable of the task. He had to be certain of the grip of his equipment each time before committing his weight, and the boulders and gravel heaped below motivated him not to fail.

Reluctantly heeding Shan’s advice, he had waited below for the night to end, tormented by the knowledge that Miranda was trapped above. In his anguish, he had even called to her, hoping to hear her reply from the darkness. But only the pitiless whine of the wind on ice and stone had answered him.

At last he could take action, and his rage and frustration translated into strength as he hauled himself on top of the Galnuvet Glacier. The clear morning sun reflected a million ways on the dazzling glacier, making tears start from his squinting eyes.

As Shan had instructed, Dreibrand had brought two sapling poles and placed them under his arms. Next he removed his warding crystal and examined its light to get a bearing. The magic orb indicated he search in the center of the ice field and this tangible sign that Shan led him gave him hope.

The crampons strapped to his boots aided him tremendously on the ice, but Dreibrand often needed one of the poles to keep his balance in the rough areas. It did not take long for him to discover the perils of the glacier. He heard a frightening crack beneath his forward foot and quickly jumped back, just in time to watch a chunk of ice drop into a hidden channel of rushing water. The water tunneled below the surface, and to get caught in it meant certain death.

Dreibrand continued, begrudging the slowness demanded by increased caution. The sun climbed toward its zenith, and he saw nothing in the glaring whiteness. The glacier became rougher and broken with great slabs of ice jutting upward at conflicting angles. Increasingly he saw places where the torn ice plunged into deep crevasses. These cold hungry traps he gave a wide berth. In this treacherous broken place he checked his crystal, and the blue light flared, sending waves of excitement through his body. He called to Miranda but no reply came.

Dreibrand scrambled up and down slabs of ice, searching on every side, but trying not to be reckless in his urgency. Finally, after he had despaired that Shan had sent him to a foolish death as some inhuman rys joke, he saw her motionless body lying past the next slab of ice. A streak of blood painted the slope of the ice toward her body, as if she had struck the slab and slid down to the bottom.

Dreibrand jumped down beside Miranda and gathered her in his arms. Blood had dried around her mouth and nose and it was caked in her hair along a cut on her scalp. Unable to contemplate the possible results, Dreibrand put his fingers to her neck. He could feel his own heart beating wildly as he waited for a sign of life. After what seemed like a hopeless eternity, a weak pulse revealed itself.

Shaking with gratitude, Dreibrand examined her injuries. She did not appear to have any frostbite. Apparently, Shan’s magic had protected her through the night. He discovered that her right arm was broken and the cut on her head had bled heavily before clotting. Although she lived, Dreibrand knew she was in serious trouble.

He could not rouse her from her unconscious state.

“Miranda, don’t die,” he begged, hugging her close. “Don’t die.”

Steadying his emotions, Dreibrand temporarily removed the coil of rope so he could take off his wolf hide. Tenderly he wrapped Miranda in the protective black fur and lifted her over his shoulder. He replaced the rope over his other shoulder and tucked the saplings under the same armpit. With the added weight, he had to use his ice axes to haul himself over jutting ridges of ice.

Miranda moaned faintly and he rejoiced that she made a sound.

“You are going to make it, Miranda. I am here now, and we are getting you to safety. Everything is all right.” He continued to babble comforting words as he clambered across the glacier, hoping she could hear him and find strength.

Adrenaline and determination kept him strong under his burden as he carried Miranda across the rough ice. The extra weight demanded additional caution on the summer weakened surface. Dreibrand tested every step twice as he plodded toward the edge.

Despite his care, he broke through into a hidden crevasse anyway. The crust of ice and snow bore his weight deceptively before he crashed through into nothingness. The saplings slammed into his armpit painfully, and he cried out in terror and pain, but the poles stopped his descent. Miranda’s body also helped to stop the fall by wedging him into the crack in the glacier.

The emptiness below was a terrible sensation, and Dreibrand struggled to grip the sides of the crevasse with his spiked feet. After getting himself somewhat stabilized, he eased Miranda off his shoulder and laid her back on the solid ice so that only her legs remained in the gap. He grasped an ice axe that was dangling from his wrist by its strap while the saplings sagged with failing reliability. Trying not to disturb his precarious support, he gave the axe a long swing and sank it into the ice as far as he could extend his arm. Holding tight to Miranda, he hoisted them out of the crevasse.

He panted against the cold blue ice that felt so good and solid beneath him. Although the saplings were almost broken, he kept them anyway and blessed Shan for the good advice. Dreibrand did not look back into the crevasse.

Finally he reached the edge of the glacier and immediately started pounding screws to secure the rope without pausing to rest. Shan’s equipment was marvelous and a lot of research had obviously gone into the construction of the gear. The ice screws had sturdy rings to put the rope through, and Dreibrand regretted that they would have to be left behind.

He decided to lower Miranda first instead of risking their combined weight against the rope stakes. The rope was long enough for him to lower her and have enough left for himself. Dreibrand took great care while devising a harness around her body. He did not want to hurt her, but the harness had to stay in place. When he was satisfied that the harness would not slip or strangle her, he set a hand on her cheek and told her to stay strong.

Gathering his courage he planted his feet firmly and eased her over the edge. Her head lolled and the constant wind tugged at her hair. Dreibrand focused on her battered face framed by the warm green valley beyond the glacial waste. The rope had been threaded through two rings, and Dreibrand had decent control as he lowered her down the wall of ice. His overworked muscles screamed painfully for the oxygen rationed by the thin air, but he commanded his body to function.

Miranda arrived at the bottom with remarkably few bangs and bumps, and Dreibrand was proud as he set her carefully on the gravel. So far below she looked small and lifeless, which made him anxious to get down to her.

Shaking out his strained arms, Dreibrand took a few invigorating breaths before rapelling the glacial cliff. In the middle of a drop, a screw pulled out and the sudden slack sent him briefly out of control, and he slammed into the ice. The ringed screw slid down the rope to dangle before his eyes and deliver the message to panic. Very quickly, he continued, repelling recklessly. He was very close to the bottom and feeling better when the other screw gave way. As he flew backward away from the ice wall, he had a crazy view of the rope falling lazily toward him.

His back struck the gravel hill at the base of the glacier, and Dreibrand skidded down the slope. With his wind knocked out, Dreibrand rolled to a stop and did not move for a long minute. Eventually he drew a ragged breath, which was followed by several masochistic gasps to renew his lungs. Then he moved his limbs, and was rather surprised to find them responsive.

Trying to ignore his own pain, he lurched upright and dragged himself over to Miranda. He untied the rope from her body. Miranda groaned weakly and he hoped it was a sign that she would regain consciousness soon. 

“I got you away from the glacier,” he whispered.

A great cracking sound interrupted his encouraging report. It was like a thousand trees about to fall, and the horrendous crack made his throbbing spine tingle. Instinct immediately informed Dreibrand to flee. Grabbing Miranda, he ran as a huge section of the glacier slipped down to crash on the ground. Ice and snow smacked his back as he escaped the crushing flow of the great calving.

Once Dreibrand was clear of the danger, he collapsed with Miranda in his arms. He looked back at the grumbling ice and felt warned not to come back.

Shan’s horse approached them, picking its way across the coarse rubble and snow banks above the alpine meadows. Dreibrand draped Miranda over the saddle and set out for the lower and friendlier land.

Upon returning to the fragrant pine forests, where bees buzzed in the sunny flowered places, Dreibrand built a fire. A blanket and shaggy fleece had been packed on Shan’s horse, and Dreibrand used these to wrap Miranda. Placing her close to the fire, he began to clean the blood from her face and hair, remembering fondly how she had once helped him.

Dreibrand assumed Shan would simply find their camp. He decided to wait for the rys before setting Miranda’s arm. After battles Dreibrand had often aided his wounded men, but confronted now with straightening Miranda’s arm, he felt nervous about his amateur skill.

She deserves the best, he thought.

Late in the day, Shan arrived riding Starfield and leading Freedom.

“You are an ice climber after all,” Shan said cheerfully.

Dreibrand rose wearily, almost too battered to stand, and greeted his friend, but his mood was not light. “Shan, Miranda is not doing well. I cannot wake her.”

Kneeling next to Miranda, Shan laid a gentle hand on her bruised head. His awareness traveled inside her body and he saw her injuries. He saw the shadow of torture that Onja had inflicted on the woman’s flesh and he shivered.

“There is much hope,” he determined, but the neutral statement only increased Dreibrand’s worry.

“Her arm is broken,” Dreibrand said.

“I know. I will set it while she is still unconscious to spare her the pain,” Shan said.

“Do you know how to do such things? Or can we take her to a healer?” Dreibrand asked.

“I am competent to set a bone. My magic allows me to see that it is set just right,” Shan replied.

They prepared a split and bandages. Dreibrand held Miranda in case the pain made her thrash about even in an unconscious state. Shan held her arm tentatively then abruptly snapped the bone back into alignment. A weak gasp escaped Miranda and she moved her head. The rys’s eyes began to glow, and he sent energy into her body, nourishing damaged flesh and soothing tortured nerves. Shan knew he could not completely undo the wicked torment Onja had imposed on Miranda, but he could help.

Dreibrand watched Shan treat Miranda with magic, but it did not alarm him. He knew the rys was not hurting her.

“She felt some pain when I set the arm. That is a pity, but it is also a good sign that she is responsive,” Shan announced when he released her from his power.

Next, they carefully bound her splint and bandaged her head.

Shan suggested, “You rest with her now. I will see to our dinner.”

Dreibrand did not dispute the idea and stretched out next to Miranda. The fire and covers had warmed her, but her face remained pale. Dreibrand hated to see her struggle for life after she had been so hot and vital in his arms just two nights ago.

“Stay with me, Miranda,” he whispered as his exhaustion overtook him.

Sometime later Dreibrand sat up with a start. Night had long since fallen, and the fire blazed happily on fresh fuel.

“Just me,” Shan said reassuringly. Two skinned rabbits roasted on a spit in front of him. “I warn you, I am not the best cook.”

Some fat sizzled in the fire and the aroma made Dreibrand realize he was ravenous.

“Not a problem,” he said, eyeing the dinner and wondering how much longer it needed to cook.

Taking his hungry eyes from the roasting rabbits, he checked on Miranda and was shocked to see her looking back at him.

“Miranda!” he cried, leaning over her. “Talk to me.”

Her cracked lips parted and she struggled briefly to find the breath to speak. Quietly in a confused voice, she said, “I am alive.”

“Yes,” Dreibrand laughed with joy. “You are alive.”

Wincing with pain, Miranda whispered, “I don’t feel good.”

Holding her good hand, Dreibrand explained, “You are hurt, but you are going to get better.”

Because she could not sit up, Dreibrand carefully poured a few drops of water from the canteen into her dry mouth. Her exposure had made her very thirsty and Dreibrand continued giving her water for some time.

When she was somewhat rehydrated, Miranda smiled to him weakly and commented, “I smell food.”

Dreibrand laughed again, filled with hope by her interest in eating. Although he took joy in her awakening, the bad news could not wait. With serious regret, he said, “I had to leave Elendra and Esseldan in Jingten. I had no choice. There was no time. I had to come to you. Miranda, I am so sorry…” He hung his head in shame.

With her good hand, Miranda touched his cheek soothingly. “I know,” she spoke painfully. “I fought. You would have only ended up like me. Onja stole my children and said I was her slave. I would not be her slave, and I paid the price. I thought I would die with my grief, but now I will live with it. Do not blame yourself, Dreibrand. Onja had control and we never had a chance.” Miranda coughed and added miserably, “Elendra wanted to stay in Jingten anyway.”

“Miranda, we will get them back,” Dreibrand promised.

“Yes,” she agreed but then a fit of coughing consumed her. In obvious pain, Miranda rolled over, shaken by her heaving lungs, and expectorated some blood. She lay back with a gurgling breath and shut her eyes. Dreibrand wiped the bloody drool from her lips.

Shyly, Shan moved closer and waited until Miranda opened her eyes again. When she saw him, her sad face brightened with a serene expression that washed away her pain.

“Shan,” she smiled.

“Yes, I am here,” he greeted.

“I saw you in the night,” Miranda whispered.

“I was there, watching over you. My magic let me keep you warm from far away. I wish I could have done more for you,” Shan said.

Miranda did not feel dissatisfied. The rys no longer seemed alien to her. Despite being unconscious, she remembered him vividly. He had been more real than a dream. Shan had been there with her, helping her live, in her time of greatest need.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“I apologize for the Queen of Jingten. She is a monster, and rys are not like her. When I can, I will try to set things right for you, Miranda,” Shan said.

“I know,” Miranda said. She would never doubt a word he said.

Later that night, Shan watched Dreibrand carefully feed Miranda bits of food. The tenderness between the humans intrigued Shan, and he was reminded of his loneliness.

Four days passed before Miranda could stand. Her health was willing to return, but the absence of her children made her sullen. She did not blame Dreibrand, but she privately blamed herself. She would be in Jingten right now with her children, if she had been willing to be Onja’s slave. It hurt to recognize her selfishness.

She walked slowly around their camp, with Dreibrand at her elbow in case she fell.

Holding her broken arm, she said, “When can we go to Jingten?”

Dreibrand had no answer for her, and he turned to Shan who reclined on a large boulder and stared at the sky.

The rys sat up, and his eyes strayed in the direction of Jingten.

Then he stood to answer Miranda directly. “You want me to say that I will go right now and get your children?” he said.

“I will go with you,” Miranda stated.

Her lack of hesitation even after Onja’s torture impressed Shan, and he took her bravery as a lesson.

“Onja will not give your children back. I have already demanded that she do so, and she became hostile,” Shan explained.

“That is clear,” Miranda said.

“Shan,” Dreibrand interjected. “You have made clear your intention to challenge her. Then do it now.”

The bold suggestion startled Shan, but his shock turned to pleasure.

How refreshing this human from the east who has not been raised with the power of Jingten weighing on his mind, Shan thought. He wanted to accept Dreibrand’s suggestion. Even as he thought of the challenge, Shan yearned to be the King of Jingten. He should listen to Dreibrand. How long did he intend to wait before challenging Onja again? Another hundred years? It had already been over four hundred.

But Shan growled with frustration and shook his head. “It is not an easy thing,” he muttered.

“But on the mountain you said you wanted Onja’s throne,” Dreibrand urged.

“And that is true,” Shan agreed.

“Is it that you do not want to kill her and break your law?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan paused, trying to hide his inner turmoil. “It is not that. But…killing and killing Onja are two different things. To face Onja I must practice,” he said.

“Practice what?” Miranda asked.

“Killing,” Shan confessed. “I have great power, but I have never used it to kill—not human or rys.”

Miranda cast her eyes down sadly. It was horrible to think of Shan’s magic that had kept her alive with warmth and kindness being turned in harmful directions.

“How will you practice?” Dreibrand inquired quietly.

With a determined sigh, Shan said, “I will make war. As I have never done before, I will ride on the battlefield with my friend Taischek. And as my power grows, I will turn Onja’s subjects against her, and then I will make war on Jingten.”

“Why must you do this?” Miranda cried.

“Because when I challenged Onja the first time, I was inadequate. Onja is thousands of years older than me. She fought in the Great War with Nufal. She won the Great War. The magic of an entire race failed against her. I have not had such a life to forge my skills,” Shan explained.

“Then what makes you think you can win?” Dreibrand asked, thinking of his commitment to serve Shan.

“Because my power is waxing and hers is waning. Dreibrand, Miranda, you must believe me,” Shan insisted. He clenched his fists in frustration. He believed, but he needed them to believe.

Dreibrand and Miranda accepted the vague answer because Shan was their only hope of getting near the children.

“Shan, this is not right. Do not make this war,” Miranda protested.

The rys appreciated her concern for people she did not even know, but his strategy was the least part of his guilt. He should feel guiltier for taking so long to implement it. “Miranda, I have tried to avoid this ugly path but I cannot seem to undo Onja’s evil by doing right.”

“When will you bring the war to Jingten?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan would not commit to a time. “I have too many things to consider before I can say for sure, but I will start the process as soon as we head west,” he said.

“West? But my children,” Miranda moaned.

“You need shelter and rest. I will take you to stay with my friends,” Shan said.

Realizing her children would be left behind indefinitely, Miranda became upset, but in her weak state, she fell back against Dreibrand. Supporting her, he took her to her bedding and laid her down. One drop of blood seeped from a nostril, and Dreibrand gave her a rag to hold to her nose.

“You need a safe place to get better,” he gently explained.

Aware of her aching body, Miranda could not argue. Tears dripped down her cheeks.

Dreibrand saw her desolation. Desperate to comfort her, he said, “If I thought I had any chance, I would go to Jingten right now and take Elendra and Esseldan back. But I have seen Onja’s power. She almost killed me. We need to give Shan a chance to help us. You know he wants to.”

“You are right,” Miranda whispered and drifted into sleep.

The next day Dreibrand left to hunt. He was restless and wanted to sort his thoughts out in solitude.

Shan stayed in camp with Miranda, and occupied himself by knapping an arrowhead from a piece of stone. Each strike from his working stone dropped a precise flake from the arrowhead. Absorbed by his work, he constantly examined the new edge with his sensitive fingers. Shan was an obvious master of the ancient art and he finished a perfectly symmetrical arrowhead.

While Miranda had quietly watched him make the stone point, Shan knew she wanted to speak. Setting down his new arrowhead, he regarded her with encouraging dark eyes.

“Shan, as you saw me on the glacier, can you look at my children? Can you see if they are all right? If I knew how they were, maybe I could bear to leave them,” she said.

“Yes, and I can do more. I will show you,” Shan replied. He reached inside his suede jacket and removed a warding crystal.

The sight of the magic orb still made Miranda uneasy.

“Shan, what are those exactly?” she asked.

“Powerful rys can make warding crystals. Our magic can be focused through them, and they create a protective bubble of magic. The warding crystal prevented the Deamedron from killing you, but they can protect you from less evil things. Only the most powerful rys can cast a spell through a warding,” Shan said, holding one out to her. “You keep this one.”

Miranda frowned with hesitation, but Shan urged, “I made this one. It has none of Onja’s magic in it. Dreibrand has one.”

She took the smooth orb in her hand. Even though Shan said it was of his making, it contained the same blue light that had frightened her weeks before in the eyes of the wolf.

“Now hold the crystal in front of you. Get comfortable and close your eyes,” Shan instructed.

Miranda did so, but sometimes she would peek at Shan. The rys sat in front of her in unblinking meditation. Blue fire consumed his eyes, and Miranda was fairly certain he could not see her.

Shan’s awareness flew the familiar path to Jingten. The timeless blue stone city of the rys came into sight, and he briefly felt the sting of his exile. Looking upon the ancient capital of his race, Shan finally realized that the next time he entered the city he must become the King.

Swift as a swallow, his mind dropped into the Keep, seeking the human children. Onja had numerous wardings in place around her vast private apartments, but they had ceased to confound his mind long ago. The children were there, alive and safe. He focused the images into the crystal Miranda held in her hand.

She gasped when the images hit her mind, then relaxed. Suddenly, Miranda saw Elendra. Her daughter sat at a table with the female rys who served as her nanny. An open book lay in front of Elendra, and the nanny appeared to be teaching her from the book. Elendra’s hair was neatly combed and she wore nice clothing.

Seeing her daughter well treated relieved Miranda. The rys were even schooling her—an opportunity Miranda had never dreamed any child of hers would receive.

The scene of Elendra with her nanny shifted, as Shan guided Miranda’s perception elsewhere. He showed her Esseldan napping peacefully in a crib. His round face had a healthy glow, and the boy did not cough or sniffle. Miranda missed her baby painfully, and it disturbed her that Esseldan had no human to hold him. She wished she could touch her children. They seemed so real and close.

Too soon for Miranda, the images began to fade. Opening her eyes, she reoriented herself.

“Was it real?” she finally gasped.

Shan nodded.

“I could watch them all day,” Miranda said.

“I wanted to let you watch longer, but Onja noticed me. We are still in the Jingten Valley, and she can attack us here. It is best that I not arouse her anger,” Shan said.

Reminded that Onja’s power kept her from her children, Miranda collapsed against Shan’s chest and started sobbing. She had been hiding her grief from Dreibrand because she knew he blamed himself, but she had to release her feelings somehow.

An emotional woman in his arms perplexed Shan. “Onja will pay for her crimes,” he said, patting her awkwardly.

After a little more weeping, Miranda wiped her tears and apologized, “I am sorry. Do not tell Dreibrand I acted like this. He is upset as it is, and I do not want him to feel any worse.”

Shan nodded.

“Why did Onja take my children?” Miranda moaned.

“I think perhaps because she loves young things. Onja is very old. I think she wants to surround herself with young things. When I was young, she liked me close to her, but human children are SO young. Humans live shorter lives, and children are so vital and intense that they are a pleasure to be near,” Shan said.

Miranda listened to his theory, but it made little sense to her.

Miserably she muttered, “I could never provide a good life. Maybe they are better off in Jingten.”

“Do not put such hard thoughts on yourself,” Shan advised. “You suffer enough.”

Miranda forced herself to agree with his wisdom because it made her feel better. Looking up to his mysterious face, she said, “Dreibrand told me he has pledged to serve you in your war against Onja. I wish to do the same.”

“Good,” Shan accepted. “I believe you will be a great enemy of the Queen.”

“Then I do not want to hold back your plans anymore. We should start tomorrow,” Miranda decided.

Worry creased Shan’s face as he warned, “Do not be hasty. I know how Onja hurt you. You will not heal quickly.”

“I know how to live with pain,” she retorted. “Let us waste no more time. I can ride.”

Shan sighed helplessly. The human female confused him by crying with grief and then abruptly giving orders.

When Dreibrand returned, Miranda immediately informed him of their departure in the morning. Of course out of concern for her health, he protested, but Miranda made her stubborn wishes clear. Dreibrand had traveled with her long enough to know her temperament and conceded. To his mind, the sooner she had proper shelter the better.

Shan gazed sternly at Dreibrand, indicating his dissatisfaction with the man’s minimal arguments against riding the next day. “Tell her no. She will listen to you,” Shan whispered.

“I am listening right now,” Miranda snapped. “I will be fine.”

Dreibrand chuckled as Shan lost his first encounter with Miranda’s temper.

Miranda understood her companions cared for her, and she knew her recovery was far from complete, but if Shan’s war against Onja was the only way she could get back into Jingten, then she would not delay him. Miranda could face leaving her children behind now that she saw they were still treated well. The sooner she left, the sooner she could reclaim them, she reasoned.