Miranda awoke with the restlessness of returning health. In the two weeks since the Temu war party had left Fata Nor, she had slept excessively. Shan and Dreibrand had been right. She had needed the rest.

Miranda reflected that she had never slept so much in her life. There had always been toil and servitude to get her up early and keep her up late. And her children had always needed her attention. 

Many times during her convalescence nightmares of Barlow had tossed her sleep. Even on the other side of the Wilderness, she feared him. As often as she dreamed of him, she dreamed of her children, but they reminded her of Barlow and started the nightmare again. Secretly she wished she could leave the children behind with Barlow and forget all the wretchedness he had inflicted upon her.

But these thoughts made her guilty. Elendra and Esseldan needed their mother and she would not forsake them. The freedom she now enjoyed would be ruined if she abandoned her duty to them.

Lying in bed and staring at the wood paneled walls of her room, she contemplated who she was. Free of her children and living in the household of a queen, Miranda did not really know herself.

She shrugged out of her bedding and propped herself up. Looking out the window, she saw that she had slept late and the day was cloudy. She usually stayed in her room late, enjoying the solitude. Queen Vua and the members of her household were extremely kind to her, but Miranda was not sure how to act around them. Her skills with the language were still limited, and only a small number of women knew the common language that Shan had taught her.

Miranda decided she would take her horse for a ride. Her body had recuperated enough to crave some physical activity, and Miranda wanted to get away from the town and have the freedom of the open countryside.

At first, Queen Vua disputed her idea, especially when Miranda said she wanted to be alone.

“Ladies do not ride alone,” Vua admonished softly.

“But my horse needs exercise,” Miranda said.

“I am sure your horse has not been neglected,” Vua said. “And your arm is still in a cast. You should not go riding.”

“But I rode here worse than I am now, Queen Vua,” Miranda pointed out. “And I feel much better. Getting out would be good for me.”

Vua sighed, thinking perhaps her guest had been in too much, especially in the summer. “Very well, Miranda. But my daughter Sephina and her sister Lana will go with you, as well as two warriors.”

Miranda did not really want so much company, but she accepted the decision of Vua and thanked her hostess.

The Princesses Sephina and Lana were excited to go, and they were genuinely pleased to see Miranda feeling stronger. Despite the clouds, no rain fell, and the women raced each other across the fields and pastures before galloping into the woods. The two warriors stayed close and joined in the fun. They were young warriors who had not been included in the King’s war party, and they shared playful glances with the princesses that would not have normally been allowed. The princesses and warriors joked with each other, enjoying the informal outing, and the warriors were pleased with their duty.

 Miranda rode ahead of them, enjoying the wind in her hair, which felt as good as two weeks bed rest. Reaching the top of a hill, she halted her chocolate brown mare and patted Freedom’s sweaty shoulder. The mare snorted, feeling good from the run.

“You needed to get out too,” Miranda commented.

Ahead of her was the nearby bulk of the Rysamand, rising to its supreme heights over the Temu domain. The gray clouds passed swiftly overhead, rushing into the mountainous barrier, bringing the rumor of winter. Pain clenched Miranda between her heart and her stomach as she looked upon the peaks. She had never seen winter in the mountains, but the Temu had explained to her that the pass would be impossibly clogged with snow in two months. The winter would cut her off from Elendra and Esseldan with the same effectiveness as Onja’s magic.

Miranda fought back the tears that constricted her throat. She had spent enough time laying in bed and crying, and she did not want her grief anymore. Staring hopelessly at the Rysamand, she tried to think of a way she could get back to Jingten and reclaim her children, but she had no more chance of success than the day Onja took them.

Bitterly, Miranda looked down at her right arm. The bone was thankfully mending, but the cast reminded her that she had almost died in the icy reaches of the Rysamand. She needed Shan if she was going to return to Jingten just as she had needed him to save her life. Returning her green-eyed gaze to the mountains, Miranda wished desperately that Shan was with her and that they could go to Jingten right now. She worried that winter would come before the rys went to claim the throne.

When will Shan get back? Dreibrand said they would only be gone for a couple weeks, Miranda fretted. Her thoughts then turned to Dreibrand and she hoped he had not been hurt.

Princess Sephina cantered up and disturbed Miranda’s horrible thoughts.

“Mother told me not to let you slip away by yourself,” Sephina said. As one of Vua’s daughters, she knew the common language.

Miranda smiled and hoped a tear did not sneak out of an eye. Sephina, who was close to her age, was a pleasant woman, and Miranda decided she was grateful for the company after all.

“I thought you wanted to be alone,” Miranda teased, letting her eyes stray back in the woods where the princesses had paused to dally with the warriors.

Sephina looked a little embarrassed. Modestly she said, “I would not make trouble like that.”

Farther down the hillside, the younger Lana squealed with laughter as the two warriors chased her up the slope.

“Your laughter could be heard in Jingten,” Sephina scolded when her sister arrived. One warrior noted that the Princess Sephina’s mood had changed, but the other man kept his attention on Princess Lana.

After another giggle, Lana turned to her sister, unimpressed with Sephina’s sudden self-righteousness. “You’re not my mother,” she sneered.

“I could tell your mother,” Sephina warned.

“I could tell yours!” Lana snapped, annoyed by her sister’s attitude.

Sephina widened her eyes at the threat but left things at a draw.

“My Ladies, the next hill shows a great view of the town and the roads, if you would like to go,” suggested one of the warriors. He knew having any more fun with the princesses would only bring hopeless trouble to him and his comrade, and he decided to take the opportunity to talk with the foreign woman.

“Lady Miranda, do you find the Temu domain beautiful?” he inquired while leading the way.

Miranda said that she did and added that it was good to get out.

“Everyone is happy that you are feeling better. When will your arm be healed?” he asked conversationally.

“The medicine woman said in a week, but I need time to get my strength back,” Miranda answered.

“I heard Lord Shan helped you with his magic when you were hurt. What does rys magic feel like?” the warrior wondered eagerly.

Princess Sephina gasped at the question because she had been the one to tell the warrior details about Miranda, but she was just as curious to hear the answer. Miranda did not mind the question. She was starting to get used to the fact that everybody talked about her.

“It feels good. Shan is very kind,” Miranda replied.

They continued to make small talk while riding leisurely to the top of the next hill. Miranda answered questions about the Wilderness and her homeland, and her companions were fascinated by all she said.

“To travel so far is amazing,” concluded one warrior.

“I did not really set out to,” Miranda noted thoughtfully.

The view from the hill was commanding. To the left sat Fata Nor, and to the right stretched two roads cutting through wooded uplands that met at the base of the hill. A warrior explained that one road went to Jingten, which Miranda had already traveled, and the other road went north to other tribal domains.

“Riders are on that road right now,” the warrior observed, pointing to a line of dust. “They will come into view in a moment.”

“Will they see us?” Miranda asked, suddenly nervous.

“If they look up,” the warrior said.

“I do not want them to see us,” Miranda said, yielding to her innate need to be cautious.

The Temu warrior had not thought to hide and he did not know why Miranda was so paranoid, but he decided it might be a good idea.

“My Ladies, there is no need for strangers to know you are out riding,” he said.

The princesses accepted his decision, but Lana said, “I still want to see.”

“We’ll be able to see,” he assured her pleasantly.

They moved into cover and dismounted. Concealed by the shade of trees, they waited for the riders to come into view.

“Could it be King Taischek’s war party returning?” Miranda asked hopefully.

“No. It is too small and from the wrong direction,” answered the warrior.

“Look!” hissed the other warrior.

About twenty riders emerged from the woodland and they were clearly not Temu warriors. Even from a distance, black horsetails could be seen streaming from the top of metal helmets, and visors covered all of the riders’ faces.

“Kezanada,” a warrior said, and both princesses gasped.

“They are heading for Fata Nor,” cried the other warrior.

The warriors exchanged panicked looks.

“What are they?” Miranda asked, watching the darkly clad warriors get closer.

“We have to leave,” a warrior announced, already urging the princesses toward the horses.

“Please, you must hurry,” the other warrior told Miranda while pulling her away from her observation.

“Are they enemies?” Miranda said.

“They are Kezanada,” the warrior replied as if that answered everything.

Miranda could not ignore the clear fear displayed by her companions, and she suddenly wished she had the sword she had lost in Jingten.

“We can get to Fata Nor just ahead of them. Follow me,” said one warrior.

It was a hard cross-country ride back to the town, with the earlier frolicking forgotten. Urging her horse to greater speed, Miranda felt her muscles begin to ache after growing soft from weeks in bed.

Queen Vua was in the town center meeting with villagers when she noticed the riding party returning across the fields. The droning testimony from a local grievance faded from her ears as she saw how fast the riders approached. She scowled at the princesses riding so recklessly.

And Miranda with that broken arm! she thought, but her mental scolding ended when she realized something had to be wrong. The Temu warrior in front waved urgently to the people.

A Temu laden with firewood scrambled out of the way as the riders rushed into town. The leading warrior jumped from the saddle and his feet hit the ground before his horse even stopped.

Breathing hard, he said, “My Queen, Kezanada are coming on the north road. They will be here any time.” He looked over his shoulder, expecting them.

A serious expression consumed Vua’s face. “How many?” she cried urgently.

“Ah, twenty, not many,” he answered.

This figure made Vua relax slightly, but it was enough to make other people cry out with alarm. An old veteran warrior who had been attending the Queen during the public meeting stepped forward. His name was Hetano and he had only one arm.

“My Queen, I can handle this. But you and the princesses must get inside,” Hetano said.

She nodded and ordered the princesses and Miranda to go immediately to the guesthouse.

Hetano told the two warriors who had been riding with the women to gather the other warriors. A crowd of concerned people had quickly thickened around Hetano.

“Get off the streets. There are only twenty of them and that is not enough to attack. The warriors will handle it,” Hetano announced.

He escorted the Queen to the guesthouse. When Vua hurried inside, her youngest daughter rushed into her arms and Vua petted her reassuringly. Outside a dog barked, and a few people cried with alarm from the surrounding fields, sending a ripple of apprehension through the women in the house. Servants ran around locking doors and windows, but Vua calmly took her seat and sent a servant to watch from a shuttered window.

Warriors were assembling outside and Hetano gave fast orders and pointed to various locations around the town. Three warriors stayed with him in front of the guesthouse.

Miranda heard the noise of riders, and they sounded like they were heading straight to the guesthouse.

Peeking carefully through the shutters, the servant girl reported, “Kezanada, my Queen.”

Vua nodded gravely, but no one dared breathe a word. The jingling of armed warriors dismounting could now be heard directly outside. Miranda crept near the servant girl so she could also look out.

Hetano faced a tall thickset man who acted like he was the leader of the riders. With his hands placed disdainfully on his hips, he looked down at Hetano. The stranger did not raise his visor and only shadows could be seen through the slits in the metal. By the amount of sweat-streaked dirt on his bare muscular arms, the man appeared to have traveled many fast hasas that day.

His voice had a metallic ring as he spoke through the visor. “My men would take water from the wells of Fata Nor.”

Hetano gestured generously with his one arm toward the nearest well and said, “You are welcome to the water if that is the extent of the Kezanada’s business here.”

The Kezanada leader laughed. “I came here for more than water. Where is Taischek?”

“King Taischek is away on Taischek’s business,” replied Hetano.

From the looks of the present Temu warriors, the Kezanada leader figured Hetano spoke truly, surmising that Taischek was probably off on some raid with his prime warriors. But the Kezanada was a bully and chose to be argumentative for the pleasure of it.

“I know the royal household is here, so don’t tell me he’s not here,” he rumbled.

Hetano showed no signs of intimidation but expanded his answer slightly, “King Taischek is away at war.”

“Ah, but surely his Queen is here?” said the Kezanada with a lewd tone. He turned his hidden face toward the guesthouse.

The young warriors behind Hetano bristled at the Kezanada’s mention of their beloved Queen, but Hetano maintained his composure.

“Let me speak with the Queen,” the Kezanada demanded, knowing the inappropriate request would provoke the Temu.

Stepping forward, Hetano boldly suggested, “If you wish to do battle with us, then just start it.”

The Kezanada leader looked around. He knew Temu warriors had to be concealed all over the town, and no doubt, bows were drawn. Taischek would not leave his family undefended, and the Kezanada force was not large enough to guarantee the submission of Fata Nor, and no one was paying him to attack a Temu town—at least not yet.

“You Temu have such attitudes,” the Kezanada commented.

He signaled to the other Kezanada men to go to the well. Leading their horses, they swaggered down the street, seemingly unconcerned with the glare of the watchful Temu warriors.

The Kezanada leader and Hetano did not move. “Where is the rys, Shan?” the Kezanada suddenly demanded, getting to the true nature of his business.

Hetano made no reply. He could be difficult too.

“Don’t play dumb with me you old cripple?” barked the leader. “I know Shan was asking for Taischek and bound for Fata Nor two weeks ago. Is he still here?”

“The Temu do not discuss their friends with people who do not give their names,” Hetano spat.

The leader paused. Kezanada, especially a ranking member, tended to be very private about their identities with outsiders. He also realized Hetano meant what he said. The Temu were notoriously loyal once they chose a friend, but the leader decided to press Hetano a little further. If he could make the Temu reveal any information, it could be helpful.

“You are hiding Shan,” he accused.

“A rys would not hide from you,” scoffed Hetano.

If Hetano could have seen the sinister glare behind the visor, he may not have remained so calm and confident. 

Taking a new approach, the leader asked, “Is Shan with Taischek?”

For the smallest instant the truth flickered across Hetano’s face as the Kezanada leader had expected it would.

Although Hetano realized this, he still lied, “I do not know where Shan is. I know only he is not in Fata Nor.”

The Kezanada leader asked no more questions. He knew the old warrior would not reveal Taischek’s whereabouts, unless of course he took the trouble to torture him, but he did not want to use such time consuming methods. If he could find Shan before the rys learned of the bounty, he would have a greater chance of succeeding in his mission.

“Tell Taischek he best part company with his rys friend,” warned the leader.

“King Taischek cares little about the opinion of a Kezanada,” Hetano said proudly.

“I doubt that,” scoffed the Kezanada. “Just thank your ancestors that I don’t want to waste time attacking your pitiful town.”

“Water yourselves and be gone,” Hetano said.

“Talk like that to a Kezanada and you will lose your tongue like your arm.”

Startled, Hetano whirled to see who had spoken. His attention had been so focused on the Kezanada leader, he had not noticed the approach of Rysmavda Nebeck.

“Shan has shown the emptiness of your threats,” Hetano retorted. He had never respected Nebeck, and now all of his faith was in his King and Shan.

“And Shan will bring death to those who serve him. When you learn of the crimes the renegade rys has tricked King Taischek into committing, you will wish you had not protected Shan,” Nebeck said.

“Enough of this prattle,” snapped the Kezanada leader. “You have obviously come to talk to me Nebeck, so do not waste my time.” He barged past Hetano and started walking down the street with the rysmavda. Nebeck scowled at the Kezanada’s rude behavior but he followed without complaint.

Once they were out of earshot, one of the young Temu warriors whispered to Hetano, “You cannot let him insult us like that. Hetano, let us fight them.”

“It is best to let them leave. A quarrel with the Kezanada is best avoided, and we will have war soon enough,” Hetano explained.

Inside the guesthouse, the servant girl related what had happened in a hasty whisper to Queen Vua. Miranda stayed at the window and strained to see the Kezanada again, but they had moved out of sight. Although she had not understood all the words exchanged, she had gathered that the Kezanada wanted Shan. Deeply concerned, Miranda went and kneeled before Vua.

Worry creased the Queen’s face as she thought about her husband and the storm he was bringing upon his tribe, but she relinquished her attention to Miranda.

“What are the Kezanada?” Miranda asked.

Vua tried to formulate a description for something everyone simply understood. “They are a brotherhood of professional soldiers or maybe criminals is a better term. Anyone can hire their services. A tribe or rich family can hire them to perform services like kidnapping, extortion, assassination, spying, or to fight in a war. They are very secretive and very powerful. They work for Jingten as well,” Vua explained.

“And their whole tribe does this?” Miranda said.

Vua replied, “They are not a tribe. Their castle is in Do Jempur north of the Temu Domain, but they are not a people like the Temu. A member of the Kezanada can come from any tribe. A man can join if he is willing and can meet their requirements. Sometimes the Kezanada invite a warrior to join them, if he has a talent they want or need.”

“Queen Vua, they want Shan. That means someone has hired them to find Shan, right?” Miranda said.

Vua nodded. “There is always some profit behind their actions, but I do not know much more than I have told you.”

“You said they work for Jingten. Queen Onja must have sent them,” Miranda determined.

“You are probably right,” Vua said.

“Shan must be warned!” Miranda cried.

Vua agreed. “He will be. Tonight I will send messengers. The Kezanada will watch us for this move, so I will send them in all directions. I have reasonable knowledge of where the King can be reached, and he will receive this important news.”

“Let me go with them,” Miranda proposed.

Adamantly Vua shook her head, determined not to indulge Miranda with the request.

“Why do you ask such a thing?” Vua demanded.

“I cannot sit here while those men hunt Shan. He saved me from death and I must warn him. Please, Queen Vua, let me go,” Miranda pleaded.

“No,” Vua said sternly. “The Kezanada are very dangerous, and you would only jeopardize yourself and the Temu warrior with you. The messengers have a better chance of success if they travel alone.”

Miranda knew she had to accept Vua’s decision, but she murmured hopelessly, “But I must do something to help Shan. He is the only one who can get my children back. Without his magic, I know I cannot beat Onja.”

Her face fell into her hands as sadness and frustration momentarily overwhelmed her.

Vua truly felt sympathy for the foreign woman. In her life, Vua had given birth ten times and seen five of her children die. Two sons lost at war, one in a riding accident, a grown daughter in childbirth, and a baby girl to childhood disease, but she could not quite grasp the horror of having her children stolen.

How this girl must suffer, she thought and then said, “Shan will not be harmed. Shan is with Taischek, and Taischek is with warriors. They will be safe.”

Lifting her head, Miranda thanked the Queen for being patient with her. Dismally Miranda realized she probably could not contribute much to Shan’s defense anyway. Shan had a Temu army and his magic to protect him. Mostly Miranda wanted something to do. She was tired of waiting among the women. Seeing them with their children caused her a jealous pain, and she would rather be with Shan plotting his return to Jingten.