Dreibrand enjoyed the familiar sensation of riding within an armed force. About two hundred warriors, bristling with weapons, followed the Temu King. Many wore a wonderfully supple chainmail beneath their vests and cloaks, and Dreibrand was fascinated by the lightweight armor.

As he rode, Dreibrand often reminded himself that this experience would be different from the battles he was used to fighting. He was not a commander and the Horde did not surround him with organized units of infantry and cavalry. The Temu raiders would fight as individual warriors, and Dreibrand would not have a disciplined military machine to back him up. His abilities did not worry him though. He had engaged in hand-to-hand combat many times, and the fact that he was alive proved that he was capable.

Mentally, Dreibrand tried to focus on the conflict ahead, but thoughts of Miranda distracted him. When he had gone to war before, he had not cared about who or what he left behind. His adventures had been free of emotional ties, and he had lived in the moment with no concerns beyond his own.

Now things were different. His thoughts were behind him with Miranda instead of ahead where the danger waited. He had not expected leaving her in Fata Nor to upset him so much, but it added to his motivation to survive. Living to see Miranda again would be as sweet as any victory.

Even as he had to accept his new feelings, he had to force them aside. Warm thoughts of love would not aid him in battle. He needed the calculating warrior that was so much a part of his being. He adjusted the shield strapped to his arm, thankful for the gift from the Temu that no doubt would soon prove its worth.

When the Temu camped at dusk, a warrior informed Dreibrand that by tomorrow night they would be in Sabuto territory and probably commence raiding the morning after that. Dreibrand noted his comrade’s eagerness for Sabuto blood and gained faith from the warrior’s willingness.

After volunteering for the unpopular late watch, Dreibrand sought out Shan who he had not spoken with all day. Dreibrand could have ridden up front with King Taischek and the rys, but he did not want the other Temu warriors to consider him a snobby stranger. He found Shan by Taischek’s fire, but the rys did not look up to acknowledge him.

Taischek, who had already picked clean his dinner plate, commented, “He has been as silent as an angry wife all afternoon.”

The King’s witty observation finally prodded the sought after reaction from the rys. Shan lifted his black eyes and managed a smile. Taischek’s often scolding sense of humor endeared him to the rys and prevented Shan from sinking too far into his troubled thoughts.

“You talk enough for both of us, Taischek,” remarked Shan.

The King chuckled and motioned for Dreibrand to sit and take a plate of food. Pleasantly he said, “Dreibrand Veta will talk to me, eh? Leave the moody rys to himself. He probably is just thinking of more impossible favors to ask of me.”

“They are not impossible,” Shan assured him.

Dreibrand ate quietly and occasionally cast an inquisitive look in Shan’s direction. He suspected the nature of Shan’s thoughts. Soon it would be time for the rys to become a warrior.

“Xander tells me there has been sign of a Sabuto hunting party in the area,” Taischek told Dreibrand.

“Really? I thought we were not in Sabuto territory yet,” Dreibrand said.

“This area is disputed,” Taischek explained. “No one lives here and both tribes often harvest game here. Hopefully in a week or two the Sabuto will not dare slink so close to my domain.” Taischek smiled secretively, enjoying the thought of the pain so close in the Sabuto’s future.

He continued, “You keep a close eye tonight, young warrior. If any Sabuto cowards still lurk in the area, they might sneak into camp to murder the sleeping.”

Dreibrand swore in Atrophaney and promised, “I will watch closely, King Taischek. A gutless murderer will get no mercy from me.”

“I will join you on your watch,” Shan announced.

This pleased Taischek. “I will sleep soundly with your great eyes watching.”

Shan fingered the hilt of the sword that now hung from his hip. It was a beautiful weapon that the King had given him, and the slightly curving blade was sleek and graceful like the rys.

“Why don’t you pull that out and show us what you know, Shan. After three hundred years you could probably use the practice,” Taischek suggested. He was eager to see what Shan could do.

“I do not need to practice,” Shan murmured.

Taischek grunted with disappointment.

“If I may be excused, King Taischek, I should go to my rest,” Dreibrand said.

“A man so young needing rest?” Taischek scoffed, but he meant it only as a joke and he waved Dreibrand away.

“I will wake you when the late watch starts,” Shan said.

That evening Dreibrand snatched little rest. He watched the stars come out while swatting at mosquitoes. The air had not cooled with the evening and a hot humid summer night put its wet hand on the land. He tossed uncomfortably in the clinging heat and understood why the King’s wives preferred the slightly higher climate in Fata Nor this time of year.

As soon as he managed a doze, it seemed Shan came to wake him. A full moon was high in the sky, and a haze of clouds reflected its glow, giving the night a lighted canopy. Dreibrand and Shan concealed themselves in a patch of saplings on the camp’s southern edge. The warriors they relieved had nothing to report.

“Do you sense anyone out there?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan answered, “Yes. Less than a hasa to the south. Perhaps they cannot decide to harass us or not.”

“How many are there?” Dreibrand asked.

“Only half dozen. They might come at us yet. We shall see,” Shan mused.

Dreibrand scanned between the patches of moonlit forest, straining to see farther. He was glad for Shan’s company, knowing the rys would detect an intruder first.

“Dreibrand,” Shan said hesitantly. “Onja watched us today.”

After a brief glance at Shan’s dark silhouette, Dreibrand returned his focus to the forest. “How bad is that?” he inquired.

Shan replied, “It is good and bad. It is good because Onja has become worried enough to check on my whereabouts. She accepts in her heart that I am a dangerous opponent, as she should.”

“Then it is as you planned. You wanted her to be nervous. So, what is bad?” Dreibrand said.

“You are right. It is as I planned,” Shan said evasively.

Dreibrand pressed the rys for his answer. He doubted Shan brought up the subject without wanting to talk about it.

Shan explained, “It is that today I saw that I cannot turn back. Onja sees that I want war with her, and she will give it to me. I must see this thing through, and I must shed blood.”

“I know you do not want to do violence,” Dreibrand said. “It is not too late for you to change your mind. All you have really done is insult a priest.”

“But then I could never go home. I do not want to be banished from Jingten and I cannot return in peace. First, I will take Onja’s kingdom and then I will take her throne. Therefore, I must proceed,” Shan declared.

Perhaps on this path I will do more good, he thought.

Privately, Dreibrand decided it was a shame that a being as kind and powerful as Shan should have to choose such a destructive path.

“You are just nervous, Shan,” Dreibrand soothed. “Every warrior has a first time.” Because Shan was so old and seemed so wise, Dreibrand felt strange offering Shan advice as if the rys were a frightened conscript.

“I suppose so,” Shan agreed. “And my time approaches. Two Sabuto are closing on our position.”

Dreibrand peered intently into the night, and every insect whine made his nerves more alert in the still forest. Shan leaned close and pointed to the positions of the approaching warriors.

“Come with me and take one,” Shan whispered.

“I can get both if you want to wait,” Dreibrand offered.

“No. I will do this.”

Dreibrand heard resolve in the rys’s voice, which lacked its musical quality at that moment.

Dreibrand’s heart quickened as he concentrated on every little sound, knowing he would eventually hear them as they passed through the forest litter. A thick bank of clouds consumed the moon, and Dreibrand heard the rustle of the Sabuto as they took advantage of the increased darkness to rush ahead. Two swords slipped out of their scabbards, and Shan and Dreibrand moved out to engage the Sabuto.

Following the point of his sword, Dreibrand trotted toward his enemy. In the dark he lost track of the dim form of his enemy, and his steps slowed. He did not want to stumble into him in the darkness.

Suddenly he smelled the body sweat of his quarry and froze. They had to be very near each other now, and the next one to so much as crackle a leaf would give himself away. The clouds thinned, and the moonlight gleamed on Dreibrand’s sword, revealing him instantly. Only the faint sound made by the Sabuto stepping forward allowed Dreibrand to know the direction of his enemy’s attack. He blocked high with his shield and stopped a blade swinging straight for his neck. As part of the same motion, Dreibrand thrust with his sword, only to be blocked by a shield.

The shadowy figures struggled, and their battle was eerily silent except for a couple grunts of exertion. They exchanged a few blows before Dreibrand prevailed. His sword sank through the man’s torso and stopped on a tree. The Sabuto exhaled his last breath while sliding down the sword to lean against the tree trunk. Dreibrand could barely see his face, but he knew the light of life had left the eyes.

Compared to the last two years, it had actually been quite a while since he had killed a man, and he felt the strange surge of supremacy mixed with the knowledge that he had ended a man’s life. The man came from a family, perhaps had children, and probably would be missed, but Dreibrand could not allow himself remorse. The Sabuto warrior had come to kill him, and this fact of war would never change.

He eased the dead warrior to the ground, and stayed low while looking for the other warrior. He did not know how Shan fared and he could not call out to him.

Shan stalked his victim with pantherish ease. His perceptions allowed him to know the exact location of the Sabuto and even which way the warrior turned his head. Shan circled the warrior and approached him from his left side. The rys knew that the warrior did not see him.

He is at my mercy, Shan thought. He could incapacitate the Sabuto with a spell of sleepiness and kill him with ease, and Shan suddenly saw how with his magic he could simply strike the human dead in a variety of ways. But Shan was determined to do it with the sword. Only experiencing the danger of close combat could teach him courage.

Shan rushed the warrior, but did not kill him in his moment of surprise. The Sabuto attacked but his weapon could not match the speed of the rys. Shan had every advantage, especially in the night. His advanced senses let him feel every movement of the warrior as it happened, and he could react perfectly.

Finally, Shan accepted what he had chosen to do and struck the man down with effortless precision. The slender sword penetrated the man’s heart, and he cried out once before he died. Shan pulled his sword back swiftly, as if expecting to keep the spurting blood off his weapon. He could feel the heat coming off the thick stream of blood. He could feel the body of the man perish as it was suddenly unplugged from its life-giving force, but Shan was the most sensitive to the soul lurching from the body that had so abruptly evicted it.

Shan had always been especially sensitive to souls departing bodies. The soul of the Sabuto warrior recognized him as a rys, and Shan experienced the shock and confusion of the man, who had never expected a rys to be guarding the camp. Shan watched the soul rise, beckoned by the next world. When people died Shan saw much more than humans and most rys.

The energy of the soul dissipated and Shan was thankful that it did not linger. He looked at the body heaped on the forest floor. The bloody corpse proved Shan was a killer. Shan struggled against the self-loathing he suddenly felt. He told himself that the dead man was Taischek’s enemy and he was justified in killing his friend’s enemy. But the only thought that helped Shan at all was that he had taken his first real step toward being King of Jingten.

Shan sensed Dreibrand cautiously approaching and the rys buried his feelings.

Dreibrand had heard the warrior cry out and moved toward the sound. Shan revealed himself to his friend with a flash of blue from his eyes. The magically lighted eyes startled Dreibrand, but he knew it had to be the rys.

Glancing at the body as he arrived, Dreibrand whispered, “Was it hard for you?”

“No,” Shan answered with little emotion.

A man screamed at another point on the camp perimeter.

“I will investigate,” Dreibrand instantly decided.

“There is no need. Another Sabuto died, and the others are leaving,” Shan reported.

They returned to their hiding spot among the saplings. Although he wanted to, Dreibrand did not pry into Shan’s thoughts.

After a while, Shan spoke in his usual friendly tone. “You can sleep if you want, Dreibrand. I can watch the whole camp.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I am not sleepy. I had to fight a warrior too, and my nerves are all on edge,” Dreibrand said.

No more incidents occurred in the night, but trouble came with the day. Winding south through the foothills, the Temu war party entered Sabuto territory and random sniper attacks started. One or two arrows would fly from a tree or thicket, but the harassing Sabuto warriors always fled after a few shots. Sometimes some Temu warriors flushed out and killed a sniper, but Taischek’s prudence would not allow the war party to disperse in pursuit of more Sabuto.

By noon, one Temu had been killed and another injured. Dreibrand’s armor saved him from becoming a casualty, but the arrow actually stuck in his chestplate. The accuracy of the shot made him perspire with agitation and the Temu closest to him called him lucky. Tossing the arrow to the ground, Dreibrand now shared the urgency of his Temu companions to reach a Sabuto settlement and have a direct battle.

The torment from the Sabuto increased all afternoon, but Taischek was not daunted and the Temu morale did not suffer. Arrows did not perturb Taischek, who like the bear accepted a few stings to get the honey.

Late in the day, the Temu topped a ridge and looked down into a cultivated valley. Sparkling in the slanting sun, a waterfall poured in from the eastern hills and a creek coursed through fields and orchards. A village smaller than Fata Nor, but similar in appearance, waited across the water.

The sniping ceased as the Temu regarded their target, and the Sabuto warriors probably retreated to defensive positions near the village. Dreibrand casually rode up beside Shan in order to hear the plans of the King and Xander and possibly give his opinion if he felt it necessary.

Xander proposed, “Sire, I say go now. We have about two hours light and we should not give them any more time to organize their defenses. If we wait, they will attack us in the dark.”

Although he loathed the Sabuto more than anything else, Taischek paused to consider his actions, not wishing to deploy his warriors incorrectly.

“You are right, General Xander,” Taischek decided.

Obviously pleased with his King’s agreement, Xander sang out the orders to attack in the lilting Temu language. The warriors cheered, and horns blasted proudly as the Temu descended on the village. They charged the fording place of the creek and took on the bulk of the Sabuto defenders. Taischek knew if his war party could crush the resistance at the ford, the village would be easily routed.

With his spiked mace held high, King Taischek entered the stream followed by the splash of his many warriors. The sinister points on the end of his favorite weapon had torn apart the lives of many Sabuto, and the waiting Sabuto recognized the bloodlusty howl of the Temu King.

When the Temu were halfway across the water, Sabuto archers launched a rain of arrows. Warriors crouched under their shields and urged their steeds toward their enemies. Suffering few losses, the Temu achieved the far bank and exchanged blows with the Sabuto defenders. Mounted or on foot, Sabuto warriors pressed down the slope trying to force the Temu back into the water.

The Temu outnumbered the Sabuto warriors and quickly began to overwhelm them. Then the Sabuto faltered when Shan charged up the bank on his powerful white horse. Only in ancient stories did humans face rys in battle, and even the bravest Sabuto warrior felt his courage fail when Shan’s sword swept near. The curved blade danced contemptuously between the weapons that opposed it, and the few who did not retreat fell dead.

Although Dreibrand did not inspire awe like the rys, he could see the curiosity in the eyes of the Sabuto, who were startled by his racial appearance. Blood sprayed from his busy sword as Starfield pranced among warriors. With well-practiced fury, Dreibrand defeated the Sabuto near him and saw that his comrades had been equally successful. Several Temu had swarmed into the trees to expel the archers, and the rest of the Sabuto fled to regroup in the village.

Taischek rallied his men for the final assault. Filled with vengeful pleasure, the King led the charge again, and this time blood crusted his mace and a grisly chunk of hair fluttered from one of the spikes. The battle swept into the village, and the remaining Sabuto warriors hurled themselves at their attackers, fighting with desperate tenacity. Weapons clashed urgently because the Temu were eager to have their task completed before the sun set. They fought from house to house, gradually cleansing the village of all inhabitants. Although Taischek maligned the Sabuto, they fought bravely, yielding their home only in death.

As the day expired, the Temu rampaged through the village and cut down the fleeing women and children and elderly. Only the swift escaped into the deepening dusk.

Dreibrand watched a Temu warrior ride down a Sabuto woman and strike her dead with his war club. Despite the sight of her broken dull-eyed face crashing into the dirt, her little children scrambled from the warrior’s terrible path and escaped. The pointless killing of the woman appalled Dreibrand. He knew the Temu were not slavers and the woman of their enemy had no value to them, but he considered her murder unnecessary.

Remembering Miranda and her children hiding in the forest from the Atrophane Horde, Dreibrand suddenly understood Miranda’s perspective on warfare. He turned Starfield back into the village, unwilling to watch the slaughter of those left defenseless by the day’s battle. Miranda had been wise to ask him for weapons and knowledge of their use, and he was glad that he had obliged her.

Dismounting, Dreibrand wiped his sword clean and walked his lathered horse. Shan, who also had no interest in extreme persecution, rode up and greeted him.

“It was an easy battle,” Shan remarked, dropping lightly to the ground.

“A small village and a small force,” muttered Dreibrand, who was unimpressed with the victory.

“True enough,” Shan agreed. “But the quicker this business is finished, the sooner we may attend to more important matters. I have learned what I needed from—from this place.”

They led their horses to the stream, taking their time to let the horses cool. Bodies littered the stream, so Shan and Dreibrand went upstream where death did not taint the water. Dreibrand splashed the cold water on his face and drank deeply, thirsty after the exertion and stress of battle.

Somewhat refreshed but his thoughts still with Miranda, Dreibrand asked, “Do the Sabuto ever raid Fata Nor?”

Shan could imagine the reason behind the question and sought to dispel Dreibrand’s worries. “Rarely. The Sabuto maintain a defensive posture for the most part. To the south and west of the Sabuto domain, there are no alliances or confederations, and the tribes war incessantly. Taischek is not the only enemy the Sabuto have to worry about. Taischek, however, belongs to a confederation of five tribes, and there is peace in the north. Fata Nor is a safe place for Miranda to be.”

They returned to the village and the Temu had already set to work gutting the settlement. They loaded grain onto a stolen wagon and despite the night, warriors rounded up livestock and selected horses as personal prizes.

“You could pick one out,” Shan suggested.

Dreibrand shrugged. “Maybe the next village,” he mumbled.

In the village square Taischek sat on a recently tapped barrel of wine, puffing on his pipe. The King had suffered an arrow to his thigh and Xander was carefully cutting it free. Although the wound looked painful, the arrow had not angled in deeply.

Taischek winced as Xander probed the wound, and he took a long drag on his pipe. Exhaling, he smiled to Shan and said, “I picked up a little burr today.”

“The Sabuto must be practicing,” Shan joked, but he was concerned for his friend too. “Taischek, let me help you.”

The King waved away the rys before he made a fuss. “Xander can handle it. I’m fine.”

Seeing that the wound was not mortal, Shan did not argue and let the King show off his toughness.

“And what a fight from you today, Shan,” Taischek said. “I wanted to stop and watch you. What a sight! A rys at battle. Forgive me for suggesting that you need practice.”

“I still have much to learn,” Shan said modestly.

Turning to Dreibrand, Taischek complimented, “Good fight today from you too. Glad I brought you along.”

“Thank you for letting me be a part of your victory, King of the Temu,” Dreibrand said, inclining his head.

Taischek set down his pipe, and picked up his mug of wine. Making a bitter face, he drank the wine anyway and commented, “I’m glad I did not have to pay for this shitty Sabuto wine.”

“Where are we bound for next?” Shan asked.

Wiping his mouth, the King answered, “Oh, we will escort this plunder back to my border, then swing back southwest. I know another village like this one that will be easy pickings.”

“I have another idea if you would like to hear it,” Shan said.

Taischek groaned with little interest but nodded anyway.

Slyly Shan suggested, “I think King Taischek could do better than these trifling villages. We should sack Dursalene and score twice the wealth you will get from raiding all these puny farmers’ huts.”

“Dursalene!” scoffed Taischek. “Dursalene has a stockade. I have not assembled a sufficient force to attack Dursalene and I have no desire to get involved in a siege. No, Shan, I wish I could burn Dursalene to the ground, but I can’t attack a lion when I set out rabbit hunting.”

“But you have me,” Shan noted and pressed on with his plan. “The Sabuto will never expect such a small force to ride for Dursalene. You will have the element of surprise, and I will destroy their stockade so the Temu can ride into the town. We will raid them in a day, just like this place.”

Despite his initial protest, Taischek’s interest had definitely been aroused. “How much damage can you do?”

“I can breach the wall in at least two or three places. The stockade will not be a problem when I get done with it,” Shan explained.

Considering the proposal, Taischek realized Shan wanted to demonstrate his powers to the Temu. The sack of Dursalene would be a generous gift to Taischek, and it would definitely spread word of Shan’s abilities among other tribes and possibly rally more support to the rys’s cause. If Shan was really capable of performing the feat, Taischek decided it would be a win-win situation.

“Well then it is a good idea, Shan. We shall get this lot back to my territory and this arrow out of my leg and then ride for Dursalene,” Taischek agreed.

With a final tug Xander removed the arrow and held a cloth against the bleeding.

“Sire, it needs to be stitched,” the General informed.

“Yes, I know. So get it done and we can drink together to our victory, eh,” the King said.