Dreibrand managed to spend almost half his gold in one afternoon. The large crowd after the executions offered a tempting market for the merchants and they stayed open late. Dreibrand picked out a handsome bay stallion for himself and a roan gelding for Miranda along with hand-tooled leather saddles and bridles.

He hired two tailors and had himself and Miranda fitted for several outfits. He spared no expense on fabric and insisted that Miranda pick out only the best quality. She had protested at the cost and insisted that she did not need so many things, but Dreibrand had firmly instructed her not to care about the money. He spread a little extra gold between the tailors to make sure the orders were complete when they returned from the Confederate Council.

Miranda had not protested as much about the purchase of the horses and the next morning she waited with Dreibrand for their delivery to the castle. The horse dealer was not late and he rolled into the courtyard in a cart with his youthful assistant. The saddles were in the cart and the horses were tied behind it. Jumping down from the cart, the dealer shook hands with Dreibrand and bowed politely to Miranda. He was an amicable man with chubby cheeks and an abnormally unruly head of hair that his crooked braids could not quite tame.

“Thank you for bringing them up here today,” Dreibrand said.

“For you, no problem. Let other warriors in the King’s household know who has the best horses,” the dealer said happily. “You want to ride?”

They nodded and the dealer hollered to his assistant to saddle the horses. Dreibrand had inspected the animals thoroughly and rode them the day before, so he only checked them briefly on delivery. Once the horses were saddled, Dreibrand thanked the merchant and gave him a few more coins.

“Thank you, sir. I hope you need more horses soon,” the dealer beamed.

“I will look for you first,” Dreibrand assured him.

As the dealer departed, Miranda grumbled, “You did not have to give him that money. You did not even talk him down enough when you bargained yesterday.”

“We are foreigners, Miranda. It is important people around here like us,” Dreibrand explained.

Miranda supposed he was right, but she wished he would take a little more care with his gold. The dealer had liked him well enough yesterday.

The castle occupied only part of the mesa overlooking the city, and Taischek had tracks for riding and fields for practicing the arts of war on the rest of the high land. Here, Dreibrand and Miranda put the new horses through their paces and had fun racing each other.

When they returned to the castle stables, Miranda appeared almost carefree and happy. Dreibrand hoped she had put aside the trauma of the executions the day before.

“Now I have two horses,” Miranda said, celebrating the fact.

Dreibrand was glad that he had been able to provide her with something she liked. Every day he thought he loved her more. They made love every night, losing themselves in pleasure. Dreibrand enjoyed his good quarters, good food, and his good woman and never recalled being happier, but he wondered if Miranda shared the same feelings. Her passion had a hunger that thrilled him endlessly, but he could not tell if her feelings went beyond this.

He lent her a hand as she dismounted and asked how her arm was holding up. It was thin and pale, but she said it had not caused her any discomfort.

“I will have my old strength back soon. Then I want to practice archery again. I can almost pull my bow back already,” Miranda said.

Pleased that she was recovering, he told her to practice as much as she wanted.

They arranged stabling for their new horses and checked on Starfield and Freedom while they were there. The horses thrived on good hay and good oats and were getting a well deserved rest.

As they left the stable, Dreibrand said, “I have to go to a meeting with Taischek and Shan. I will see you tonight.”

“I want to go,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand paused with uncertainty. “I am not sure if that is allowed,” he said.

“Why?”

Awkwardly he avoided her gaze. “Miranda, you know how things are around here.”

“Do you not want me there?” she asked, and her voice revealed a hint of vulnerability.

“That is not it,” he answered.

“It is because I am not a man,” she surmised bitterly.

“Do not look at me like that,” Dreibrand defended. “You know I do not judge you that way. Atrophaney women do not have restrictions like the Temu. But we are here, and I do not think you can go.”

“Have you asked about this?” Miranda pressed.

“Well no,” he admitted.

“Then take me with you. I am sick of hearing about what you and Shan plan after the fact. I need to be there,” she insisted.

Dreibrand completely sympathized with her but she needed to be aware of her chances of attending the meeting.

“I want you there, but I cannot just change the Temu. Please understand this,” he warned.

“I will tell Taischek he has to let me,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand scowled and said very firmly, “Taischek is a King. You do not tell him anything. You ask. Do not go and upset him. We are Taischek’s guests and he treats us very well. His customs deserve respect.”

“Then I will ask,” Miranda said wearily.

Taischek and Xander were engaged in a heated conversation in their own language when Dreibrand and Miranda entered the council chamber. They stopped talking and Taischek quickly gave Dreibrand his attention, apparently glad to drop the discussion he was having with Xander.

Respectfully Dreibrand bowed. “I hope that I am not late, King Taischek.”

“Oh, no, no.” The King invited Dreibrand to sit in one of the high-backed chairs at the long table. “It is Shan who can’t tell time.”

Dreibrand cleared his throat, thinking of his words carefully. “King Taischek, Miranda wishes to sit with our council this afternoon.”

Taischek frowned and flatly told Miranda that it was not allowed.

She stepped forward and addressed her royal host, “Good King, this war concerns me closely, and I will hear what is talked about.”

Dreibrand shot her a look that she ignored. Taischek raised his eyebrows with surprise. Vua had mentioned how willful Miranda could be, but he had not been prepared for outright pushiness. Not even his most spoiled daughter spoke to him with such an assertive tone.

“These affairs concern me too, and I will conduct my meeting in my way. This is not your place,” Taischek said.

Remarkably unintimidated, Miranda protested, “This is my place. I was good enough for you yesterday when you wanted to show your tribe what a good cause this war is.”

Dreibrand shifted uneasily. He did not want to lose the favor he had risked his life to earn from Taischek because Miranda chafed under Temu custom. The position she placed him in was impossible, but he blamed himself. He should have guessed her antagonistic mood and advised her better.

The usually jovial King used a stern tone. “Miranda, I understand that you have a great interest in how this war is conducted, but such decisions are for men to make. Dreibrand Veta, you will escort her out and see that your woman observes her manners in the future.”

Dreibrand felt suddenly sick. He had worried this would happen, and he was not sure if Miranda would forgive him for what he had to now do. They needed the friendship of Taischek and he could not let her jeopardize that.

He was about to obey the King when Shan walked in and dissolved the confrontational moment.

“Hello, Miranda,” the rys said breezily as he seated himself beside Taischek.

“She was just on her way out,” the King growled.

“Oh Taischek, let her stay. I know it is not proper, but indulge me,” Shan said. “We could all learn of bravery from Miranda. Have you ever drawn your sword face to face with Onja?”

Taischek gave Shan a sour look, but it was hard to refuse when the rys put things in such words. He glanced to Xander for the General’s opinion but he shrugged noncommittally. Secretly Xander enjoyed her presence, which was too rarely near him.

The King sighed heavily. “Perhaps a new age is truly upon us. We have more important matters to discuss. Stay if you must, Miranda, but do not cross me again.”

Dreibrand quietly let his breath out, thankful for Shan’s intervention.

“Thank you, my King,” Miranda said with sweet sincerity because she had won her way.

Xander started the meeting by reporting on Kezanada activity. The elusive mercenaries had been descending on the Temu Domain in increasing numbers and an attack was expected when the King traveled to the Confederate Council.

“There is evidence of groups of Kezanada crossing the countryside, but it is difficult to put a number to them. I have no doubt that they have many agents in the city right now,” Xander said.

“We will travel with five hundred warriors. That should be enough to fight them off if they are foolish enough to directly attack me,” Taischek said.

Shan agreed. “Yes, that will be plenty. I have observed the Kezanada and there is a group of one hundred hiding in the Nolesh Forest to the north.”

“One hundred? They must be planning something big then. Kezanada do not usually work in such large groups,” Taischek said, shaking his head.

“Have you considered that they might seek a royal hostage?” Shan said ominously.

Discomfort crossed Taischek’s face, but he nodded to Shan’s question.

“Where is Prince Kalek?” Shan asked, referring to the Temu heir.

“He is safe,” Taischek answered. “He is still on summer holiday with his brothers Doschai and Meetan in Selsha Nor near the Tacus border, but they are well guarded, and I dispatched three hundred warriors to see them home.”

Shan relaxed and said, “Wise as always, Taischek. When do you expect your son to return?”

“At the start of tribute season. I thought it was best that he stay away. I wasn’t entirely sure how the tribe would react when I dissolved the rysmavda. If there was unrest, I did not want the princes traveling the roads. Kalek rarely wants to come home early anyway,” Taischek answered.

Shan said, “Good, but let me suggest that you instruct the protectors of Dengar Nor to be alert for a Kezanada attempt to infiltrate the castle. Any member of the royal household would suit them.”

“They can’t hope to storm the castle with only one hundred warriors,” Xander said.

“No, but they can climb the mesa, scale the castle walls and sneak inside. I have seen them practice just such a thing on their own castle in Do Jempur. Why do you think I requested guards to my suite?” Shan explained.

“True enough,” Xander grumbled. He knew what the Kezanada were capable of. Abduction was an expensive specialty for the Kezanada, but the size of Shan’s bounty would merit any effort.

“The guards on the castle will be tripled, and I will send two hundred more warriors to the princes,” Taischek decided.

“King Taischek, if I may?” Dreibrand interjected.

The King looked to his foreign warrior, almost eager for his opinion.

Dreibrand continued, “Shan knows where most of these Kezanada are hiding. I say we go clean them out right now. Such enemies should not be tolerated in your domain. Let them count their dead instead of making plots.”

The corners of Taischek’s mouth curled upward. He liked the foreigner’s thinking.

But Xander groaned. “Sire, the Kezanada would just love us to take a war party into the Nolesh. They could kill many Temu and still escape.” Looking to Dreibrand, the General explained, “The Nolesh Forest is very rugged and dense. The Kezanada prefer such conditions. They can fight well on the open field of battle, but they love to strike from the shadows. They would never give us a direct battle in there.”

A little crestfallen, Dreibrand admitted that he had spoken without knowing the lay of the land.

Taischek’s smile faded because he knew Xander was right, but he still had no solution. “You are wise, General, but Dreibrand has a point. The Kezanada are our enemy now, and I would not be much of a king if I let them do as they please in my domain. Until now, they had my leave to travel my domain because their affairs did not concern me and sometimes I found their services useful. But things have changed. They have made my business their business. I will drive them out,” Taischek decided.

“Sire, that may be impossible. Yes, we could clean out the Nolesh, but as we labored there, they would only find new places to hide,” Xander warned.

“True, but they would have to hide their forces farther from the city,” the King said.

“Sire, I was not exaggerating our losses. They have the advantage in the Nolesh. That place is a den favored by thieves,” the General grumbled.

“My friends,” Shan said quietly. “No Temu need die. I caused the Kezanada to come here, and I will deal with this threat. I believe they want to ambush me on the way to the Confederate Council or worse yet abduct a royal hostage. Either way, it cannot be allowed. General Xander is right in that if they are driven from the Nolesh, they will come back in another place, but I will bloody their noses enough to keep them away for now. Tonight, I will go kill these hundred Kezanada.”

Taischek had hoped Shan would offer to help. “Thank you, Shan. With your magic, the Temu will have the advantage. How many warriors do you need?”

“None,” Shan stated, casting his eyes down on the table.

The meeting fell into a shocked silence as every person considered Shan’s claim that he could kill one hundred warriors by himself.

“What are you going to do?” Taischek asked.

Shan folded his hands and rested his chin on his knuckles. A sad ache pressed on his chest. He did not want his friends to see the cruel destroyer he was becoming, but if he could say the words, then his plan would be real.

Softly he said, “I will kill them with my magic.”

Dreibrand understood that Shan did not like to take this action. He had seen Shan kill in battle, but the rys had used weapons and assumed the pretense of a fair fight.

Miranda wanted to speak against the plan, but she remembered well that Shan had said he needed to practice killing if he were to have any hope against Onja.

“Surely you will want some warriors,” Xander said.

“I will go alone,” Shan said adamantly. “No one is to follow me. As soon as it is full night, I will leave the city. Taischek please provide me with one of your horses, so I will attract less attention. In the morning I will be back and we can depart for the Confederate Council.”

“I will be ready in the morning then,” Taischek said. It touched him deeply that Shan took this course of action to lessen the burden on the Temu.

Dreibrand protested, “Shan, at least let me go with you. I can watch over you while you do this spell. Spies might see you leave the city and pursue you.”

“I will go alone!” Shan insisted.

Dreibrand looked to Miranda for support but she had none to offer. She did not want to argue with Shan after he had just stuck up for her with Taischek, and she believed the rys had chosen the best course of action. Miranda hated the thought of Queen Vua and her household being in danger from the Kezanada.

But Dreibrand persisted. “Shan, you have said yourself you need your friends to help protect you.”

Shan explained, “It is for your safety. I have not used my power in this way before, and I will be casting a large spell. I would not want any of my allies to get hurt. After tonight I will be able to refine the spell, but it is difficult to predict what will happen the first time. It is important no one follows me. I can avoid a few spies.”

Reluctantly, Dreibrand relented even though he thought Shan’s plan was too dangerous.

Shan tried to put him at ease. “Dreibrand, you will be at my side in many battles, but this I must do alone.”

Turning to Taischek, Shan said, “Unless there is something else you wish to discuss, Taischek, I would like to prepare for tonight. Once the Kezanada threat is removed, I see no trouble between here and the Confederate Council.”

“I have nothing else for today,” the King said and dissolved the meeting.

Shan quickly left the room with his head bent in thought.

As everyone else rose from their chairs, the King said, “Dreibrand Veta, do stay.”

Dreibrand cast Miranda an exasperated look, but her face mirrored his resentment and she walked out. General Xander left as well, leaving Dreibrand alone with the King. He walked to the head of the table where Taischek sat and waited for his royal reprimand.

Taischek stood and paced with his hands clasped behind his back. “Did you put her up to this?” he finally demanded.

“No, King Taischek.”

“But you brought her to this chamber and asked me to let her stay,” Taischek said, stopping his pacing and confronting Dreibrand.

Dreibrand explained, “She wanted to come, so I told her I would ask, but I warned her that it might not be your custom.”

“It is not!” Taischek snapped.

“King Taischek, she does not mean to offend. Miranda lives every day knowing Onja has her children. She wants to know how Shan proceeds with his challenge. She did not interrupt the meeting. She did not even speak,” Dreibrand said.

“But her words were hot before the meeting,” Taischek complained. He grumbled in his own language and paced a few more steps. When his temper was calmed, he said, “Dreibrand, I realize you are from a different land with different ways. I see that you are lenient with Miranda and perhaps that is your way—although I do not see any wisdom in it. But you are in the Temu Domain now, and her behavior is your responsibility. Do you understand?”

“Yes, King Taischek, I apologize for her,” Dreibrand replied.

The King measured Dreibrand with his eyes. He respected that Dreibrand accepted his responsibility, but he did not want to scold him too much. The foreigner was a cunning warrior and Taischek liked learning about foreign places from him.

With a sigh, Taischek said, “I can see that she is a difficult woman, but she must learn not to be difficult with me. If she comes in here again and starts telling me what to do, it will be your insubordination, Dreibrand. It will be your fault.”

“Of course, King Taischek. I will see that she understands,” Dreibrand said with a bow.

“I’m sure you will,” the King said confidently. “Now, it is my understanding that Miranda has chosen to travel with us tomorrow. I presume, so she does not have to wait for news from the Confederate Council. Let this be an opportunity for her to show off her new manners, eh?”

“Yes, King Taischek.”

When Dreibrand left the council chamber, Miranda was waiting in the hall for him. She did not miss his angry look and fell in step beside him as he stalked down the hall.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“What do you think?” he retorted in an ugly tone.

~

Shan waited in the drizzling rain the next morning while Taischek prepared for departure in the castle courtyard. The rys reported that the Kezanada were killed, but he said no more. Once again on his large white horse, Shan sat in silence. A flowing black cloak draped his body and the heavy hood completely cowled his face. Only the blue hands emerging from the black fabric showed that it was a rys.

Dreibrand waited beside Shan as the King’s honor guard formed their ranks. The rest of the five hundred warriors would join them outside the city. Dreibrand kept looking around for Miranda. They had quarreled bitterly the day before and she had stormed off and not come back. Dreibrand had fought the impulse to look for her, and when she did not return in the night, he assumed she had gone to stay with Queen Vua. Angrily he had thought that if she would not listen to him, then she might learn from the Queen. Who better to impress on her the importance of manners than the King’s wives and daughters?

But now, moments from leaving, Dreibrand worried that she had actually left in the night. He worried that she could have gone anywhere. It was a crushing thought.

Dreibrand wanted to ask Shan to locate her with his magic, but the cowled rys did not look like he wanted to talk, or maybe he was too tired to talk. Dreibrand did not know which, but he decided not to ask.

Taischek was ready to leave and panic stressed Dreibrand. As upset as he was, he could not leave the city without knowing where Miranda was. Dreibrand accepted that he would have to find her and catch up later, but it would be humiliating.

Just then, Miranda finally appeared. She was riding her new roan gelding and she hurried to join the entourage.

Gods! She is late. She must want Taischek to hate me, Dreibrand moaned inwardly.

Miranda took a place behind Shan, but she did not acknowledge Dreibrand. He tried three times to talk to her, but she ignored him as if her ears were incapable of hearing his voice. He gave up.

They left Dengar Nor and hooked up with the larger force of warriors. They traveled in peace all day with only the rain to bother them. Trees lined the road north out of Dengar Nor, and the dripping leaves tearfully wished the summer farewell. The Temu were traveling to a place called the Common Ground, three days to the north. It was the traditional meeting place of the five allied tribes.

Shan stayed silent, and Dreibrand’s pride prevented him from dropping back to talk to Miranda. He knew he could get her to talk if he tried harder, but it would probably only restart their fight. He could feel the strong words from their fight festering in her mind, but he did not know what to do about it.

Miranda had accused him of wanting to shut her out, which was ridiculous, but telling her so had only made her angrier. Dreibrand had tried to make her understand that making reckless demands of the King was counterproductive and would win her no favor, but she would not listen. 

Dreibrand looked back at Miranda. When they made eye contact, he turned around quickly. I must wait her out. I am the one who is right, he commanded himself.

By now, Dreibrand had hoped Shan would want to talk. Dreibrand burned with curiosity to know what had happened with the Kezanada.

Shan must have sensed that Dreibrand was about to attempt a conversation, and his cowl swung toward Dreibrand before he spoke. Dreibrand saw blue fire blazing in the depths of the cowl, as if Shan worked magic at that moment. Although he had seen light in Shan’s eyes before, he was taken aback this time.

“Is something wrong?” he asked quietly.

“No. My enemies lie dead in the forest,” Shan said as if he looked at the bodies at that moment.

“So what happened?” Dreibrand asked.

From within the hanging hood, Shan gazed at Dreibrand and truly wanted to answer his friend, but the fever of what he had done in the night still burned inside him. Shan boiled with a turmoil of new thoughts and sensations, and the events of the night replayed in his head.

Last night had been perfectly black after the sliver of a moon had set and the cloud cover had rolled in. Taischek had made sure that his most trusted men were manning the gate that Shan used to leave the city.

On the open road Shan bolted into a full gallop. His voluminous black cloak billowed from his shoulders like bats pouring from a cave. When he decided he had been on the road long enough, he headed cross-country to the north. Shan did not need his rys’s perception to hear riders thunder down the road he had just left. Looking back, he saw the lights of Dengar Nor across the black fields and Taischek’s castle twinkling high on the mesa. Soon the spies would realize Shan had left the road, and for their sake, he hoped they did not find his trail.

He had many hasas to ride before reaching the Kezanada encampment. The Temu farmlands yielded to wooded hills, and Shan eventually felt the presence of the old growth forest envelop him. Some of the trees in the Nolesh were older than he was and they told no secrets.

Probing the forest with his mind, Shan located the Kezanada sentries and dismounted to continue on foot. Beyond the sentries, he could feel the mass of men camped in the forest. Shan hoped what he was about to do would shock the Kezanada into rethinking their pursuit of his bounty.

Shan put a spell of sleepiness on the first two outer sentries that he approached. Lulled into a doze, the sentries awaited their death. Shan crept closer until he could see the campfires. Most of the Kezanada slept, but a few sat up talking.

Shan lowered himself into a cross-legged position, trying to limit the crackling of the ferns and forest litter. He focused his mind on his grim task but his conscience struggled to distract him. He had killed, but now he would kill with much greater intimacy. To magically extinguish life, especially in stealth, grated against his sense of honor. Deep down he judged himself harshly, knowing that what he did was wrong, but the Kezanada had to be deterred from hunting him or Taischek’s family. He had to gain more allies among the humans in order to weaken Onja’s position, and he could not allow the Kezanada to hinder him. Most importantly, those who were already his loyal friends relied on him to lead them to victory.

Banishing his natural revulsion, Shan began to meditate on his spell, gathering all the lifeforces of the surrounding men into his awareness. The rys felt the blood moving in their veins and the air passing through their lungs. He heard every word of conversation and the rattle of every snore. Shan linked to every man in the camp, sentries included, latching onto them like an invisible lamprey. Shan focused on their hearts. Only their hearts. The unsynchronized beating of a hundred hearts stormed his mind with a terrible roar, and Shan had to hold in a scream of agony.

He concentrated on only the rushing blood and the pumping hearts. Then, like the stockade at Dursalene but with a thousand times more refinement, Shan shattered the hearts. Valves flapped in useless tatters and the muscles of life screeched to a torn halt. Shan saw every internal detail of each man’s death as he released the spell’s visualization.

Most of the Kezanada clutched their chests in a terrible moment of pain before quickly dying. Some sat straight up out of their sleep and gasped before slumping back into a permanent rest. Every heart had been assaulted simultaneously, and as the Kezanada died, they did not know their comrades shared the same fate.

Shan sprang to his feet with outstretched arms, trembling with the awesome power he felt. His mind had been intimately entwined with each man at the moment of death, and Shan now held their souls. He experienced a sudden clarity of understanding as he grasped the many fresh spirits.

This is how Dacian and Onja made the Deamedron! he realized. He could conjure magical monoliths to imprison these souls restrained by his mind and create his own ghost soldiers who obeyed him.

The possibilities intoxicated him. He did not need to court the favor of the humans when he could create his own force of faithful and eternal Deamedron. Why should he care about the humans anyway? He was a million times greater than the best of their short-lived race. Rys deserved respect and they should demand the servitude of humans. He sullied himself by cultivating friendships with humans and promising them freedom.

I should be the master of all!

These mad thoughts filled Shan’s mind while the power of his spell surged through him. Holding the helpless souls made him feel so potent. Shan’s concept of magic swelled to a higher level that truly approached Onja’s power.

Finally, the thin wail of souls realizing their state of limbo reached Shan’s mind. The compassionate part of Shan shuddered at the sound, making the rys see that the thrill of his power had twisted his ambitions in awful ways, and had done it quickly.

“No!” Shan physically screamed and he released the Kezanada souls.

Sick with guilt Shan hurled himself onto the ground and wept until his face was muddied. Great sobs shook his blue body as he punished himself with unmitigated grief.

Is this how it started with Onja? he wondered. Was Onja once a decent being with caring feelings? Did her extreme talent for magic twist her into the Queen who loved her supremacy so much she claimed divinity?

Now Shan asked himself the most frightful question of all. Will I decay into such an evil being?

Rising to his knees, Shan cried, “I did not know the power would cause me such wretched temptation!”

The great old trees looming in the darkness absorbed the sound of his tortured voice, but they had little interest in his painful discoveries.

Shan’s mind lurched to the present where he was riding with the Temu. Dreibrand was asking him if he was hurt because the rys had slumped in his saddle.

“No,” Shan replied weakly, realizing he was exhausted.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Dreibrand coaxed.

“I learned many things. Many things,” Shan said cryptically. He bowed his head and the cowl covered the glow of his eyes.

Advertisements