Shan had no concerns about traveling openly when he returned to the road that ran west out of Jingten. Onja had exiled him, but as long as he was actually leaving the valley, he did not expect trouble.

To pass the time Shan began to instruct his human friends in the common language that was used by the various tribes of the west. Dreibrand possessed a great aptitude for language and readily expanded his vocabulary. Miranda found learning a new language difficult, which frustrated her. She was glad she would have Dreibrand to rely upon.

Miranda’s stamina would last most of the day, but when evening arrived her weariness consumed her and she could not take a watch at night. Her head and chest often hurt, but she did not complain, and the whole nights of rest did her much good.

They kept a slow pace, but by the third day the road began to rise into the western pass, where banks of snow reached down from the great mountains. Shan explained that the Jingten Road was the only road through the Rysamand.

The rys recounted his explorations among the treacherous peaks. He had an obvious passion for mountain climbing and mentioned that when he had topped his first peak and looked down on the world, he had realized the potency of the magic inside him. This exceptional power had fostered ambition in his heart.

Dreibrand and Miranda had no shortage of questions about the new land they found themselves in, and Shan answered them patiently. Shan also sought from them descriptions of the eastern world. Miranda had only a small view to offer, but Dreibrand had many stories about different kingdoms and of course Atrophane, which were just as intriguing to Miranda as they were to Shan. 

“With your mind, have you ever looked as far as my homeland?” Dreibrand inquired.

Shan admitted that he had not even tried. “But…that land is very far away. It would take a lot.”

“Could you do it?” Dreibrand pressed.

“Yes,” Shan answered in a slow voice.

“Has Onja done it?” Dreibrand said, and a twinge of concern stirred in his chest.

“If she has, I do not know of it. Onja does not tell me many things,” Shan said with some resentment.

Dreibrand brooded on the possibilities.

Shan added, “But I know Onja well, and I would judge that she does not concern herself with anything beyond the Wilderness.”

“How well do you know Onja?” Miranda asked.

“She raised me,” Shan said.

“She did? Then how are you her kin?” Dreibrand said.

“I am not her kin,” Shan insisted. “My mother died while giving birth to me, and my father gave me to the Queen to raise. I am told he was an elderly rys, beyond the usual age that one would father a rysling, and he thought I would be best with the Queen. He died when I was very young.”

“Why would he think you would be best with the Queen?” Miranda wondered.

“Good question,” Shan said. “Onja told me he recognized that I was much more powerful than the other rys, and gave me to her to train.”

As a rysling Shan had accepted these explanations, but in later years he had sought confirmation of Onja’s story from other rys. Although Shan had never learned anything different about his parents, he had remained suspicious.

“Apparently Onja did not deserve the usual maternal loyalty,” Dreibrand observed.

“In the beginning, I loved her as my mother, and she adored me. But as the decades passed, and I matured, I began to doubt my feelings for her. She raised me to see her evils as normal, but I could not,” Shan said.

“Did she train you?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan nodded. “But only in some things. She keeps much knowledge from me. Onja would not want to compromise her power.”

They reached the top of the pass, and Shan stopped to look back at the green folds of the Jingten Valley. The road had climbed above the tree line, and the Rysamand ringed the green valley in a rocky fortress. He always paused to look back at his home before entering the human realm. He never quite felt the same in the outer regions of Rystavalla, beyond the mountains of his birth.

While waiting to move on, Miranda put her fingers to her nose and felt warm blood. It started to drip and she rummaged a rag out of a saddlebag.

“It is nothing,” she said dismissively when Dreibrand voiced his concern.

Shan realized the thin air did not help Miranda’s healing and he stopped pondering his home.

After cleaning the blood away, Miranda smiled reassuringly to Dreibrand. Although he worried about her, he had to admit that the glow was returning to her cheeks and her green eyes sparkled with life.

“I feel good today,” she added.

“Do you?” Dreibrand whispered playfully and allowed his eyes to wander her body suggestively.

The wind picked up through the pass and they hurried on, wishing to camp in the lower warmer elevations. The Rysamand gave way gradually to a lush lowland, hazy with warmth in the distance, but they had many switchbacks to travel before leaving the cold heights. A cloud sprawled against the face of the mountain on their left, covering it with mist down to the tips of the treetops in the forest below.

The slow progress in the rugged land grew tedious, but the Jingten Road was good and well maintained. After so long in the open Wilderness, Dreibrand and Miranda appreciated the road.

At dusk they reached the foothills, and the occasional broadleaf tree now ventured to live among the pines. After making their small camp, Shan declared that he would rest that night. The rys had been up for days and he promptly descended into a deep sleep.

Dreibrand and Miranda sat up together, watching the stars bejewel the sky. In the peaceful night Dreibrand’s watch degraded into a very close watch of only Miranda. They kissed deeply, and their hands caressed eagerly.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dreibrand whispered.

“You won’t,” Miranda said, and he lessened his restraint.

With their activities on the verge of becoming noisy, they grabbed a blanket and slipped off into the trees to ensure their privacy. Their naked bodies warmed each other in the cool night, and Miranda was thankful for the joy of love Dreibrand brought to her.

Fearful of aggravating her injuries, he made love to her gently, but still reveled in her flesh. Almost losing Miranda to death had made Dreibrand appreciate her more. While nuzzling her neck, he decided he no longer regretted giving up his life in Atrophane. He had often missed his command and loyal troops, but he did not miss Lieutenant Sandin, and he did not miss his censured status in Atrophane society. Miranda needed him more than Lord Kwan, and being the first Atrophane to see the mysteries of the west satisfied him greatly.

Kissing lazily, the lovers were inclined to arouse each other again, but a nagging sense of responsibility made Dreibrand sit up. If a soldier under his command had behaved so improperly on a watch, he would have deserved a beating.

“We should go back,” he said guiltily. “We left Shan alone.”

Miranda chuckled. “Yes. You wear me out anyway. I need my rest.”

As Dreibrand drew on his pants, he heard the horses knicker in the distance and he had a sinking suspicion.

“I will slip ahead and check on things. I have a bad feeling,” he whispered while drawing his sword. Picking up his boots in the other hand, he padded off barefoot toward the camp.

A waxing moon lent a little light to the night, and Dreibrand sensed something definitely amiss as he approached the camp through the pines. A few coals glowed from the campfire, and he could see Shan rolled up in his blanket. Dreibrand discerned two dark figures leading the horses away and he decided the odds were decent.

Leaping out of the black cover of the trees, Dreibrand gave a war cry that startled the horses enough to make them unruly. He swung his sword at the nearest thief, who blocked the blow with a wooden staff that snapped under the sharp blade. The second thief sprang to his accomplice’s aid, and Dreibrand hurled his boots at him. The thief grunted with pain as one leathery missile slammed across his face. The other boot landed on Shan.

The first thief dove at Dreibrand who reacted by stopping his approaching skull with the hilt of his sword. The thief fell to his knees from the stunning pain. The staff of the second intruder caught Dreibrand on his shirtless back, and he gritted his teeth with pain. But his sword swung in automatic retaliation, and the point bit flesh. Another swipe of the blade tore the staff from the thief’s hand, and he fell back crying out in surrender.

Putting the tip of his sword under the thief’s chin, Dreibrand commanded, “Get by your friend. Stay on your knees!”

Clutching his side, the man scooted over to his companion, who held his own bleeding head. Even in the gloom, Dreibrand could see they were young and scrawny. By now Shan had gotten up, and he stomped over to Dreibrand with a very un-rys-like heaviness and flung the boot at Dreibrand’s bare feet.

“Do the Atrophane throw clothes at their enemies?” Shan shouted with irritation.

Embarrassed by his lack of apparel, Dreibrand offered no explanation.

“What is happening?” Shan demanded.

“I stopped these horse thieves,” Dreibrand explained.

Glancing at the freely roaming horses, Shan looked upon Dreibrand quizzically and said, “It looks like you gave them a head start.”

“They did not have much of a chance,” Dreibrand joked weakly.

“He saved the horses,” Miranda interjected as she returned.

With a frown Shan turned to her. “I suggest you not distract Dreibrand from his watch,” he scolded.

“You are grumpy,” she retorted.

Shan did not reply. When rys did sleep, they slept heavily and did not like being awakened suddenly. Rubbing his neck, Shan accepted that the rude booted awakening had bothered his temper.

“I will not be so careless again,” Dreibrand offered sincerely.

With an improving mood, Shan said, “Miranda is right. No harm came to us. Now let us see who our visitors are.”

Shan leaned over the kneeling men. The prisoners were obviously fearful of the scrutiny of the rys, and Shan allowed a little hint of blue to flash in his dark eyes just to intimidate them.

“Who is it that would steal property from a citizen of Jingten?” Shan inquired imperiously.

“I am Ka-Kala,” stammered the thief with the split head. “This is Venton. Please, Lord, we did not know—”

Shan cut him off. “Do you not recognize a rys horse?”

Kala knew his guilt was evident but tried to explain anyway. “In the dark we did not see. Lord, we would never—”

“Shut up,” Shan snapped. “You knew what you did. You are lucky my friend did not kill you amateurs. Now, Venton is it? How are you Venton? Did the sword cut deep?”

“Not too deep, Lord,” Venton replied painfully.

“Good. Now let that be a lesson for you Venton. You should earn an honest living or at least become a better thief,” Shan advised. Becoming more serious, the rys asked, “Do either of you know where King Taischek is currently making his summer visit?”

“I heard Fata Nor,” Kala answered with uncharacteristic sincerity.

“Fata Nor,” Shan considered. “Yes, that is probably right. Thank you gentlemen. Now off with you.”

“You are going to let them go?” Dreibrand asked with surprise.

“Do you want to bring them along?” Shan countered.

Dreibrand shrugged with acceptance, seeing his point. The knaves will have to go lick their wounds, he reasoned.

“Get! Before I change my mind,” Shan ordered.

Without hesitation the thieves sprang to their feet and scrambled away.

“If I see you again, I will turn you into skunks!” Shan called after them and laughed.

Quietly Dreibrand inquired, “Can you really change people into animals?”

Conspiratorially, Shan answered, “No. But it does not hurt to cultivate a few rumors.”

Dreibrand appreciated the joke now that he considered the power of reputation.

Miranda gathered the horses and tethered them again. She petted Freedom’s neck and was glad the horses had not been successfully stolen. The night had grown late and she returned to her bedroll with sleep in mind this time. Shan and Dreibrand sat around the rekindled fire, talking.

“I should have mentioned the possibility of thieves,” Shan said. “Any traffic going to Jingten is usually wealthy. And at summer’s end, every tribe will send a tribute caravan to Onja. The thieves will be thickest then.”

“What is this Fata Nor they spoke of?” Dreibrand asked.

“It is a Temu town. In the summer Taischek visits every part of his domain, and he is there,” Shan explained.

“How far is that?” Dreibrand said.

“Two days. More like a day and a half,” Shan answered. “You will like King Taischek. He has a wonderful sense of humor.” Shan smiled, thinking fondly of his friend.

“And he will help us?” Dreibrand said.

Confidently, Shan replied, “Yes. Taischek does not love paying his tribute to Jingten and believes Onja is an evil sorceress and not a Goddess. Do not worry, Dreibrand. You will meet him soon and see for yourself. Now get some rest. I will watch the rest of the night. You knocked the sleep out of me.”

Sheepishly, Dreibrand apologized again and he was glad Shan had a sense of humor about it.

The next day the Jingten Road split into three roads, and they took the middle road. Leaving the rougher foothills behind, they entered a fertile land. They saw the occasional farmstead carved out of the forest, and people began to pass them on the road. The three travelers received stares ranging from fascination to apprehension. Shan was shown deference on the roadway because no one wished to offend a rys, but Dreibrand and Miranda presented a curiosity to the local people. The humans west of the Rysamand were racially different with darker skin and eyes and black hair. When the local people saw Dreibrand and Miranda, it showed on their faces that they had never seen people with such light features. Most of the passersby were clearly astounded.

Shan inquired about King Taischek from a couple more sources to confirm the thief’s report. As far as anyone knew the Temu King was still in Fata Nor.

“Why do you ask for Taischek when you could just find him with your magic?” Miranda said curiously.

Shan chuckled. “It is easier to ask. Magic is not always the best way to accomplish something.”

Miranda nodded.

On the next afternoon a large village clutching the side of hill came into view. Wooden buildings, some plain some brightly painted, looked out over fields and pastures. One round stone building with a slate roof rose in the center of the village, and Shan explained that it was a typical example of a temple to Onja.

Before they reached the outlying fields of Fata Nor, four riders galloped down the road to meet them. The riders wore vests of shining chain mail or leather jackets, and many semi precious stones dangled decoratively all over their gear. The four men had chin length black hair kept in numerous tight braids bound with red and gold thread. Swords and daggers hung from their waists, and two riders carried bows.

Dreibrand watched their approach warily, instantly recognizing them as respectable warriors. Although he had faith in Shan’s influence, Dreibrand automatically prepared his mind for a conflict as a precaution.

His worry soon proved unnecessary as the warriors halted their steeds, and the lead rider smiled broadly. He lacked his two front teeth, which made his smile appear all the wider.

In the common tongue the man shouted happily, “Lord Shan honors the Temu with his visit!”

Shan and the Temu warrior brought their horses alongside each other and grasped hands in friendship.

“It is about time you came out to receive me, General Xander,” Shan greeted with obvious humor.

Xander rolled his eyes at Shan’s scolding and said, “The talk of your strange companions delayed me.” His attention shifted to Dreibrand and Miranda and his eyes did not hide his astonishment. “Are they humans or is this some rys thing?”

Dreibrand held his tongue patiently despite his irritation at the question. He understood a meeting between differing peoples could be both delicate and volatile.

“They are as human as any Temu,” Shan assured him. “They are wanderers from the east beyond the Wilderness come to meet their brothers and sisters in the west. Allow me to introduce Dreibrand Veta and Miranda.”

Xander bowed his head politely but was unable to remove his eyes from the foreigners.

Shan continued, “This is Xander, General of the Temu and counselor to his lord, King Taischek.”

“Greetings, General Xander,” Dreibrand said and extended a hand.

Xander hesitated, admitting to himself that the stranger’s blue eyes were very disconcerting. Still, Xander knew fear from no man and firmly grasped Dreibrand’s hand.

“Well met,” Xander said simply. On such an extraordinary occasion he preferred to leave the speaking to King Taischek.

Turning his horse, Xander cast a furtive look upon Miranda, but his manners demanded he not allow his gaze to linger. In all of his days, the General had never imagined a woman so exotic.

The Temu warriors escorted the visitors into Fata Nor. A large tent stood on the common green at the base of the hillside village, and a purple banner emblazoned with a horned yellow serpent was planted beside the tent.

Every resident of Fata Nor had put aside all tasks and duties to gather for the spectacle of the arriving foreigners. The throng parted for the warrior escort but pressed around all sides of the party. Miranda and Dreibrand heard many shocked gasps and exclamations, and the scrutiny of so many eyes made them uncomfortable.

General Xander guided the guests to the tent where more warriors kept a space clear of curious villagers. Everyone dismounted, and Dreibrand conspicuously helped Miranda from her saddle.

Two women entered the clear space. Their straight black hair was unbraided and neatly pulled back into tight buns. They wore lovely flowing robes of deep red. With downcast eyes they walked directly to Miranda and addressed her alone.

“Our Queen invites you to join her,” they said together.

Miranda glanced to Shan for guidance.

“The Queen receives all female guests,” he explained quietly. “It is their custom. You have no need to fear.”

“I do not wish us to be separated,” Dreibrand protested.

To calm his protective impulses, Miranda touched his hand and said, “You cannot keep me in your pocket. I believe it would be rude not to go with them.”

Dreibrand nodded and watched her follow the women away. Where she entered the crowd, he noticed three men in blue robes and white skullcaps. Two were young men, who seemed to hang behind the heels of the other older man. The older one had a lean weaselish face, and his thin eyes glared at the visitors.

“Who are they?” Dreibrand whispered to Shan.

The rys was looking at the blue-robed men with equal intensity, and Dreibrand realized that they were looking directly at Shan.

“They are rysmavda, priests of the temple. They administer Onja’s rule,” Shan answered. “Normally they would greet a rys visitor and provide accommodations at the temple, but they know I would not enter their temple, and they resent it.”

“Do you think they know what happened in Jingten?” Dreibrand asked.

“Most likely, but it does not appear they have shared the news, or Xander would have said something to me already,” Shan said.

“Should I consider them enemies?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan hushed him. They had whispered enough in front of their hosts and it was time for King Taischek to receive them.

Xander led them into the tent. The tent seemed dark after the bright afternoon sun, and their eyes took a moment to adjust. A few oil lamps burned, providing a soft light. Many rugs and cushions furnished every inch of the tent.

The King sat with two men, and many scrolls were strewn around them. The King and one man discussed a scroll while the other man made careful notations upon a new scroll. When the guests entered, the King finished his thought and promptly tossed aside the paper and waved dismissively to his accountants.

Taischek was a stocky man with a round belly and a balding head. What remained of his salty black hair was braided in the Temu fashion. Wrinkles from age and his big grin made his eyes appear as mere slits, but the intelligence sparkled through.

Shan required no introduction and Taischek bounded energetically to his feet.

“Shan!” Taischek cried with genuine pleasure, throwing his burly arms around the rys.

Shan leaned down slightly to receive the sturdy embrace.

“Taischek, you look good,” Shan proclaimed.

The King threw back his head, laughing freely. Addressing Xander, he said, “I love this rys. I will never look old to him.” Sighing, Taischek dignified himself and looked Dreibrand up and down. “Now who are you who makes all my people drop their tools and set to gossip?”

Already beginning to like the King, Dreibrand bowed deeply. “Thank you for seeing me, King Taischek. I am Dreibrand, second son of House Veta from Atrophane, an empire far east of the Wilderness.”

Despite himself, Taischek looked a little impressed.

“You have nice manners, Dreibrand Veta, but I have never heard of Atrophane. How many taxes does Onja demand from the eastern world?” Taischek said. When he got the chance, he always compared the tribute of other peoples. He did not intend to let his tribe be overcharged.

A little surprised by the question, Dreibrand answered, “None, King Taischek. Atrophane is so far away we have never heard of Jingten.”

This information fascinated Taischek, who had never heard of a people who avoided Onja’s demands, and his concept of the world doubled.

“Very interesting,” the King mused. “Come sit with me. I will send for refreshment.”

The accountants had finished packing their records into wooden chests and Taischek hurried them out. Reclining among his many pillows, Taischek clapped his hands and a servant appeared from behind curtains carrying a tray of goblets and a pitcher of wine. Too impatient to suffer the fuss of the servant pouring the wine, Taischek seized the pitcher and began sloshing wine into the cups.

“Bring us food,” he barked, and the servant obediently disappeared on his errand.

“What have you been doing with yourself, Shan?” the King inquired pleasantly.

Sipping his wine, the rys replied casually, “You know me, making life difficult for Onja. Contradicting her every order and general feuding.”

“Did she finally kick you out?” Taischek asked as a joke.

“Yes,” Shan said simply.

The humor faded from Taischek’s face, and he kept his suddenly serious gaze on Shan as he handed Dreibrand the last cup of wine. Gratefully, Dreibrand accepted the drink, noting the King lacked a couple fingers but made up for them with rings.

“I hope to discuss business with you, Taischek,” Shan added.

Taischek suspected the meaning behind Shan’s words but shook his head adamantly. “Not today, Shan. Let us speak of serious matters tomorrow. The Temu celebrate tonight. We go to war against the Sabuto Tribe in three days and this day is only for pleasure.”

“Excellent idea!” Shan agreed readily, knowing it would please Taischek. The delay of a day meant little to a rys. Shan continued, “We are fortunate to arrive before your celebration. Dreibrand, the Temu have the best parties.”

“Of course we do!” Taischek cried, relieved that Shan had not pursued his business. “Tonight we shall enjoy ourselves so that we can take the warpath with memories of joy.”

Xander whooped with agreement and drained his goblet. The King called for another round, and Dreibrand had to hurry through his wine in order to take more.

Too dignified to rush through anything, Shan declined more wine and asked, “Why are you in this tent? Fata Nor has a wonderful guest house.”

“Yes, and all of my wives are in it,” Taischek grumbled. “I’m sick of them. I’m glad it’s the war season.”