“She can’t enter the Confederate Council,” Taischek insisted again.

Shan sighed. “Taischek please. You know I will keep asking until you say yes.”

King Taischek almost crossed his eyes with frustration. “I thought you had no more favors to ask of me,” he growled.

“What more have I asked?” Shan said innocently.

“You just said you intended to bring her into the council. That is a very large favor, Shan,” Taischek said.

Sitting in the circle at the King’s campfire, Miranda for once strategically held her tongue. She knew Shan would speak best for her, but she grew tired of this wrangling with Taischek.

Incredulously Shan countered, “Why did you think Miranda came with me?”

“Because she does not like to wait for news. I don’t care. Shan, you know women are not allowed at the Confederate Council. I did not make this rule. It is only how it is,” Taischek persisted.

Dreibrand also sat in the circle and he reached for Miranda’s hand, but she jerked it away. On the three day trip, she had barely spoken three words to him and he was at a loss as to how to end her anger with him. Dreibrand had the small consolation that at least she seemed to have heeded his advice that had caused their argument in the first place. She had not offended the King, and she was letting Shan argue on her behalf.

Shan continued, “Taischek, you promised that I could address the Confederation and Miranda is part of my presentation.”

Groaning, Taischek responded, “Shan, it is not just my decision. The Confederation is based on respect among the tribes and observation of common rules. No tribe would bring a woman into the council. It is bad enough she participates in my council, but if I bring her into the Confederate Council, the Temu will instantly offend the other four tribes. Then we will accomplish nothing.”

Shan paused to think. Taischek did have his point. Shan did not want to offend his potential allies, especially when his bounty probably tempted them to be his enemy. Turning to face Miranda, Shan felt torn. The captivity of her children would generate an emotional response from the humans and it was a crucial part of his argument to oppose Onja. Having the empty handed mother at his side would create the impact he needed to draw sympathy to his cause.

Finishing off a cup of wine, Taischek poured another, feeling confident that he had actually won an argument with the rys.

Miranda looked at the King and then at Shan, realizing that Shan considered giving into Taischek and leaving her outside the Confederate gathering. Although longing to argue for herself, Miranda remained quiet and accepted some of the dynamics of her situation. Taischek was not who she needed to convince. He already tolerated her presence, and Miranda knew he truly sympathized with her situation. After all, he had committed the Temu to the war against Onja. The recruitment of allies from the Confederation was of the utmost importance, and Miranda admitted to herself that she should not diminish Shan’s chances of success.

“I will wait at camp with the horses,” Miranda decided.

Taischek looked at her sharply, distrusting her surrender.

Shan said, “I will convince the other tribes to let you speak to them. I will send for you then.”

“I know you will do what you can. While I sit here, everyone else will decide what to do. It is only my children in Jingten,” she grumbled sarcastically.

Dreibrand caught her veiled hostility. He hated this counterproductive issue and empathized with Miranda’s frustration. Dreibrand knew what it felt like to be excluded arbitrarily.

Groping for a solution, he suggested, “None of the tribal delegates have to be offended right away. Miranda need not attract any attention until Shan wants her to speak. Miranda could wear a hooded cloak to hide her features. She is as tall as some men. No one will notice.”

The King had hoped the subject to be concluded and he had not expected Dreibrand to propose alternatives.

“Why sneak her in only to hide her?” Taischek said.

“Because Shan wants her there, and because Miranda wants to be there,” Dreibrand replied.

Miranda’s expression softened and she appreciated his support. He had openly sided with her—something he had been avoiding.

“That would work,” Shan agreed brightly.

“Hold on you pushy rys,” Taischek complained. “I didn’t say yes. What if she is noticed before you start to make your case? It will spoil everything.”

Dreibrand proposed, “The Temu need not take the responsibility. I will assume all blame if any offense is taken. I am clearly not a Temu, and you can say you did not know I brought Miranda to the council.”

It was a generous offer but Taischek had no use for it. “Dreibrand, I do not let others take blame for my decisions. You are a member of my household and offended tribal rulers will not look to you first. So I get the blame anyway.”

“You are right, King Taischek. I was only trying to find a solution that would suit all of us,” Dreibrand said.

Taischek found himself reconsidering. “Shan, can she really help you that much?”

The rys nodded. There were many reasons to rebel against Onja, but Miranda seemed to make those reasons clear to people.

“Miranda puts a human face on our cause. It is natural to help a woman whose children have been stolen,” Shan explained.

Taischek tapped his wine cup thoughtfully with a jeweled finger. He locked eyes with General Xander who was sitting on his right.

 “She will get everyone’s attention,” Xander said.

Slowly the King decided, “We are breaking so many rules already, I suppose one more won’t matter, but we will do as Dreibrand suggests and conceal the fact that she is a woman. I suspect tomorrow many things will change, including the Confederation.”

Shan agreed, “Tomorrow will be a momentous day for humans and rys. What I have to say will cause plenty of disturbance. Offense caused by Miranda may highlight our enemies more than it insults our friends.”

“Then I should get my rest. This war might start tomorrow,” Taischek concluded.

With the meeting over, Shan and Miranda left to practice her wording and pronunciation for what she needed to say. Dreibrand went to his bedroll to attempt some sleep before his watch, and he thought that Miranda had stopped looking so angry with him.

When he stirred for the late watch, he sought out Miranda.

Sitting awake in the dark, she heard him coming. “Dreibrand?” Miranda whispered.

He answered her and crouched beside her. Nearby, Shan slept deeply, renewing his strength, and Miranda seemed to be watching over him.

For a moment they sat in an awkward silence, until Miranda said, “So what did you want?”

“I was, I mean, I wanted to…” he trailed off. He felt himself on the verge of some kind of apology but he restrained it. He had already had to apologize to the King for her and he had not liked it.

“Why are you still up? You should get some rest,” he said.

“I cannot sleep. I am too excited for tomorrow. And Shan rests tonight. Many tribes are camped in the area, and I was worried,” Miranda said.

“I think we will be safe for tonight,” Dreibrand commented. He wanted to reach out to her, to kiss her. “Well, I have to get to my watch.”

Miranda caught his hand when he stood and she rose to face him. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“For what?”

“For sticking up for me with the King,” she replied. “It meant a lot to me.”

Feeling his anger dissolve, Dreibrand reminded her softly, “You made me promise to take you to the Confederate Council.”

“I should not have become so angry with you,” she confessed.

Dreibrand could tell that it had been hard for her to say that. Now he did put his arms around her. “I lost my temper too. I regret the quarrel,” he said.

“You were right. I should have used more care when speaking to the King. You tried to give me good advice, but I ignored you,” Miranda recalled.

“Let us put our angry words behind us. I see now that you are careful not to upset Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda sank into his embrace, whispering, “After so much freedom, it was hard being told what to do. I was so free in the Wilderness, and now I feel restricted and I got angry.”

“Everyone has pressures on them. Rules to follow. It is hard to take sometimes,” Dreibrand agreed. He cupped Miranda’s cheek in a hand. “Miranda, I will not choose the King before you, but I am trying to please him with my service. Taischek has much to offer us. I need to look to the future. When Shan is King, he will reward me and I will be wealthy. Then I will ask Taischek to sell me some Temu land, or if I am lucky, he will grant me some for my services. You and the children will need a home.”

“You are good to think of us,” Miranda murmured.

Dreibrand kissed her, relieved to have the return of her affection.

“I have to go. Remember, we are on the same side,” he whispered.

Miranda smiled and let him go. He disappeared into the dark to take his place on the camp perimeter, and Miranda marveled at her luck in finding such a trustworthy companion.

By morning she had fallen asleep and Shan roused her. Miranda felt queasy and she did not eat her ration, taking only a little tea instead.

As Shan tied her hair back and arranged the hood over her face, he asked what was the matter with her.

“I think I am too nervous to eat,” Miranda answered.

“You will do fine. Probably better than me. And there will not be nearly so many people as in Dengar Nor,” Shan encouraged.

“How many people will there be?” she said.

“Each King will have about fifty men with him, plus there will be some rysmavda, so two hundred fifty to three hundred,” Shan answered.

“And everyone just meets in the forest?” Miranda wondered.

“No, the Common Ground is a special meeting place. It is a very ancient place. Humans have lived here a long time. You will see,” Shan said.

Shan pulled the cloak around her torso and stepped back to consider her appearance.

“Do I look like a Temu warrior?” Miranda asked skeptically after she slung her bow over her shoulder. Dreibrand had acquired a few arrows to fill her quiver, but her arm was still weak and her shot was not good.

“No, but you do not look like anything and that will be enough. You will sit behind General Xander away from Dreibrand and me. Most people will be looking at me or Dreibrand because he looks different. No one should notice you until I call for you,” Shan explained.

“I am ready,” she said.

When the Temu delegation reached the Common Ground, Miranda understood what Shan meant when he called something ancient. The woodland gave way to the ruins of an amphitheater surrounded by statues. She could sense the antiquity in the sunny clearing as if the land itself remembered the many people who had come here through the ages. All five tribes of the Confederation considered this place neutral territory, and they had been meeting here for over two hundred years. One paved path led to the amphitheater, and it showed signs of recent repairs. Fresh paving stones had been placed where ancient ones had withered into the grass, and vines had been cut away from the statues.

The two statues flanking the path were larger that the others. No one knew the names of the stone humans or what tribe they may have belonged to. The arms of the statues had broken away long ago and the faces were worn dim by the ceaseless elements. Even so, a hint of ancient majesty lingered upon the faint features. Miranda felt uneasy as she passed between the statues as if they knew the secret under her cloak.

The amphitheater had been renewed by the Confederation, and new stones had been cut to replace the broken seats. Each tribe took a section of seating and the Kings were in the front row at stage level. There was King Ejan of the Tacus, King Atathol of the Zenglawa, King Sotasham of the Hirqua, and King Volvat of the Nuram. The blue robes of rysmavda were plain to see next to the kings of these tribes, and warriors in their various tribal regalia filled the rows behind their leaders.

All eyes were on Shan and a tangible tension flirted among the Confederates.

King Atathol of the Zenglawa, who was the elected speaker every year, strode to the center of the stage to call the council to order. His straight black hair fell freely from underneath his fox trimmed crown. Precious stones dangled from his pierced ears and a rich red velvet robe draped his royal body. From the voluminous robe he removed a parchment scroll and all in attendance guessed what document it had to be. Jingten had delivered a copy to every tribe.

In the traditional manner Atathol greeted the gathered tribes and blessed the Confederation for the peace and prosperity it brought, but he obviously rushed the opening formalities. Only the words on the parchment occupied the minds of the council.

Skipping the mundane issues usually discussed at the annual meeting, Atathol pointed at Taischek with the scroll and asked, “Have you brought this renegade rys to share with your allies, Taischek, King of the Temu?”

No one expected Taischek to say yes, but everyone listened expectantly.

His round face stern with dignity, Taischek stood up and joined Atathol on the stage. He knew Atathol liked being the center of attention and he enjoyed taking some of it from him. Placing his hands on his hips, Taischek measured the gathering with his eyes.

“It is well known that Shan is a trusted friend of mine,” Taischek said with great antagonism. 

Atathol responded, “Your friend has been condemned by Queen Onja. The Confederacy must not defy Jingten.”

Taischek hurled his gaze at Atathol, demanding, “Would I ask any of you to give up a friend because he is wanted? The Confederacy is about respecting each tribe’s sovereignty, not taking from each other.”

The Prime Rysmavda of the Zenglawa hurried to Atathol’s side and challenged Taischek’s statement. “No one here needs to be reminded what the Confederacy is for. But you forget that the Confederacy is just a part of Onja’s domain. No authority is above our Goddess. Keeping Shan in your domain could bring Onja’s wrath onto the entire Confederation. I propose a vote to decide if Taischek should give up Shan for the good of the Confederation.”

Atathol immediately concurred and motioned for the vote to be done without delay. A few shouts of approval came from the crowd, mostly from the Zenglawa section, but Taischek protested.

“To what purpose?” he barked. “Would you set all the tribes to quarrelling over my friend’s head? Onja would never award the bounty to the entire Confederation. Or would you claim the prize, Atathol?”

“How dare you, Taischek!” thundered the Zenglawa King.

Taischek sneered, “Don’t act so insulted. I know of the extra Zenglawa warriors in the area.”

Many faces scowled throughout the gathering. All the tribes were guilty of bringing more warriors than usual, but the Zenglawa had been the least discreet.

“Of course, we all know who would really get the bounty—the rysmavda,” Taischek added.

“I will not listen to your accusations, murderer,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda shouted. “It is the faith of the rysmavda that nurtures the goodwill of the Goddess.”

“It is the faith of the rysmavda that sends our goods into the mountains,” Taischek retorted.

While the Prime Rysmavda sputtered on his rage, Taischek continued, “And I think Atathol brought extra warriors to attack me if I continued to protect Shan.”

“Would you accuse me of wanting to start a war on the Common Ground?” Atathol cried with indignation.

“I accuse you of hoping to capture Shan,” Taischek said.

“And why wouldn’t I?” Atathol demanded defensively, looking to the audience for support. “Every tribe desires the bounty. Does Onja’s offer not tempt you, Taischek?”

“No!” Taischek roared. “Onja makes no real offer anyway. She offers a tax break. The Queen tempts you with that which is rightly yours. The Temu have no need to betray Shan. We have joined Shan in opposition to Onja, and we shall pay no tribute this year or ever again! I, King Taischek of the Temu, announce to you my Confederate brothers that the Temu are free.”

The Temu contingent applauded their King, but shocked murmurs rolled through the audience and many a brave warrior let his mouth slip open, aghast.

Before the wave of surprise crested, Taischek continued, “The Temu invite their allies to join this noble cause. In the spring we march to Jingten to cast down the Queen.”

The rysmavda seated by each king instantly advised each leader to spurn Taischek’s proposal, and the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda addressed all the delegates at once.

“Do not listen to the blasphemer. The renegade Shan has put a spell of madness on him. The only reason the Temu still live is because Onja must think of a special punishment for their heinous actions.”

Taischek laughed at the Prime Rysmavda. He was so happy he did not have to tolerate the priests anymore.

“Lord Shan does not put a spell on me. He speaks the truth, and the truth is Onja does not have the power that she had in centuries past,” Taischek said.

“Fool!” Atathol gasped. “Onja is the Goddess. She will kill us all for listening to your madness. Her wrath will soon be upon us.”

“And what is Onja’s wrath?” Shan queried as he strode out beside Taischek.

A hush fell on the amphitheater, and Shan hoped they all felt foolish arguing about his fate in front of him.

As if Taischek could actually give me to them, Shan thought.

With Shan’s approach Atathol actually stepped back and the Prime Rysmavda quailed behind him. Now that Shan was closer, the Zenglawa could no longer pretend he was some insignificant rys. They could not ignore the aura of his power, especially when they had been speaking against him.

Shan said, “I am listening, King Atathol. What is this wrath you seem to know so much about?”

Atathol glanced to the Prime Rysmavda for support. “Queen Onja will make us into Deamedron,” the King answered.

“She would have to leave Jingten and come here to do that. Not even I could cast a spell that powerful over such a long distance,” Shan explained.

The Prime Rysmavda found his tongue. “Queen Onja, our Goddess, can strike us down with fire and burn us alive. You can’t deny that, you rys heretic.”

“In her younger days she could,” Shan agreed with a viperish congeniality. “But she does not have the strength anymore. Onja has grown too old to terrorize the lowlands as she once could.”

“Onja is eternal!” shouted the Prime Rysmavda.

Shan scoffed, “Rys are not immortal.”

King Ejan of the Tacus stood up to speak. He was a tall man and his skin was darker than most of the Tacus, which was a trait of his royal family. A circlet of silver rested on his velvety short black hair.

“Lord Shan, has Onja truly grown weak with age?” he said.

“Yes, King Ejan. She is twice the normal age for a rys, and she is much weaker now,” Shan replied and he was glad to read the interest on the face of the Tacus King.

“You said her power could not terrorize the lowlands. Does that mean her power is still great in the Rysamand?” Ejan asked.

This was a detail Shan did not want to advertise, but he had to be honest with his potential ally. Ejan was an intelligent man with a large army. “You are correct, King Ejan. In the Rysamand, her power remains profound. The weakness I refer to is in her range. I assure you, she cannot hurt us here.”

Ejan considered Shan’s words and they did make sense to him. He reasoned that with age a man’s sight could become shorter, so with age, a rys’s magic might not reach as far.

“But when you and Taischek go to Jingten, Onja will be able to attack you with her magic,” Ejan surmised.

“My power will protect all who march with me. And when I battle with her, she will have to focus all of her power on me, and yes, King Ejan, her magic will be great, but I am greater. When she is defeated, I will become King of Jingten and master of the Rysamand. But I will not demand tribute. The human tribes will be free of rys rule.”

With excitement Taischek added, “Can you not see that the Age of Onja is at a close? The crazy Queen is old and her powers are fading. Shan is in his prime, and he is a fair and generous being. I know I am not the only one here who has seen his good character. We would all be better off with a friend in Jingten instead of a tyrant.”

Shan appreciated Taischek’s enthusiasm, and he could see that Ejan wanted to believe.

King Volvat of the Nuram now stood up to speak. “Lord Shan, you answer the King of the Tacus with good words, but will you have good words for my question? If you are powerful enough to defeat Queen Onja, why do you hide with the Temu and ask for our help?”

It was an uncomfortable question for Shan, especially the way Volvat put it.

Inclining his head in polite acknowledgement of the just question, Shan answered, “I ask for your help because your very obedience to Onja helps to keep her strong. She thrives on control of the human tribes and it pleases her when you send your tribute. If you turn away from her and reject her rule, it will shatter her confidence, which will make her more vulnerable to my attacks.

“I also ask for your help because unfortunately not all humans will be bold enough to defy Onja. Whole armies may try to prevent me from reaching Jingten. I have to rest sometimes and I need the protection of my allies.”

Volvat accepted the logic in Shan’s explanation but he was clearly not convinced. “I have no desire to meddle in the affairs of Jingten,” he decided.

Shan hid his disappointment at the blunt rejection and said, “Then agree not to hinder me or the Temu in our cause. Even your passive support would be helpful.”

Volvat pressed his lips together in consideration and sat down.

Atathol snorted with impatient disgust. “Taischek, this is madness. If you will not see reason, take your rys friend and leave. No one wants any part of your suicidal dreams. The Temu are only free to die a horrible death.”

Flushing with anger, Taischek restrained himself from striking the rude Zenglawa King. He had never liked Atathol and his opinion was not improving.

The Temu King managed a diplomatic tone and suggested, “I’m sure the other kings have more questions. Let us give Shan the stage so he can finish his proposal.”

“As Speaker, I deny your request. Both of you leave now,” Atathol ordered.

“You have no such authority,” Taischek scoffed.

“The Confederacy will not listen to any more blasphemous rantings from heretics,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda screeched.

“The Rysmavda are not the Confederation!” Shan shouted with a sudden horrendous anger. Blue light filled his eyes and his spell vaporized the warding crystals hanging from the necks of every rysmavda in the amphitheater. It was a stunning blow to the rysmavda to see Shan destroy the very representation of Onja’s magic touching their bodies. “Where I walk, Onja has no power. Any spell she makes, I shall undo,” Shan declared. 

The rysmavda with every tribe cried with outrage and fear when their warding crystals disappeared in a flash of heat, leaving black scorch marks on their robes. The Prime Rysmavda of the Nuram Tribe promptly left the council with his lesser rysmavda in tow. When the other priests saw this, they decided to do the same.

As the rysmavda exited the amphitheater, Atathol said, “This meeting is dissolved.”

Ejan spoke. “Wait, King Atathol. Nothing requires the rysmavda to be at the Confederate Council. I am interested in hearing more of what Shan has to say. Let the guest of the Temu continue.”

Looking for support, Atathol eyed Sotasham, the Hirqua King, who had not spoken yet.

“King of the Hirqua, you have ever been a reasonable man. You surely agree with my judgment?” asked Atathol.

Sotasham shrugged and responded, “I like this talk of no more Onja.”

When Atathol failed to find anyone to agree with him, Shan narrowed his eyes at the Zenglawa and whispered, “See, they do not share your unshakeable devotion to Onja.”

Shan’s stern look unnerved Atathol but he disguised his discomfort with a display of disgust. Throwing his hands into the air, he stormed back to his seat. Once nestled among his grim Zenglawa warriors, he glowered at Taischek.

“I told him he didn’t have the authority,” Taischek muttered smugly as he returned to his seat.

Alone on the circular stage, Shan felt an odd vulnerability. The surrounding humans seemed so alien and the hold Onja had on their minds was strong, but he had to break it for the good of everybody.

Drawing a deep breath, Shan began, “Onja has kept the human tribes in servitude for many centuries, skimming the cream from you labors. I personally know the Queen of Jingten takes pleasure in simply dominating you. I was sent to Onja’s court as a rysling and I was raised as her ward. I have spent long ugly years in her household, witnessing her callous decisions and feeling her wicked thoughts. She considers humans amusing pets that can be made to serve her demands.

“I believe that Onja is evil and she corrupts the potential in my own kind. Her excessive demands of tribute make Jingten wealthy, but the rys do not earn anything. They do not deserve their luxuries. The rys used to have a reason to be proud, and they were skilled in many esoteric crafts. Now they are lazy and supercilious. The rys have no need to live off the fat of your land, when we could prosper by our own means.

“I admit that while I prepare to confront Onja, I need allies to help me. The Temu believe in me and I thank them for their support. The Temu have ever been strong and good allies in the Confederation and they should not face this challenge alone. Join us and be free. None of you should pay tribute this year. Send Onja the message that you will be her slaves no more!”

These words stirred Ejan’s heart, but he was hesitant to get involved in a rys power struggle.

Ejan said, “Lord Shan, you have been a friend to me and helped me in the past, and the Tacus have benefited from your generous counsel. But I see a rys who would be King. There is nothing wrong with that, but I do not know if I could take my tribe into such a dangerous war just to support your ambition. The Tacus despise Onja’s taxes, yet we live well and the consequences of failure in this venture are grave.”

“True enough,” Shan conceded. “I am ambitious, but with your help I will not fail. At least deny Onja her tribute. The blow to her ego will diminish her confidence, and confidence has great value in the making of magic. But there is another reason I must return to Jingten and cast Onja down. A reason you may find more worthy than my desire to lead my kind.”

“What might that be?” asked Ejan, who was interested but skeptical.

Pausing for effect, Shan replied, “Onja holds captive two human children, taken from the people visiting from the far east. I have brought their mother to attest to this crime. I must defeat Onja so I can reunite this family and restore the honor of rys, who Onja sullies with her crime.”

Shan beckoned Miranda. Taischek stirred uneasily as she entered the stage and he wanted to grab her and conceal her, but he resisted the urge.

This might be entertaining, he thought with whimsical resignation.

Miranda fought the natural anxiety of being on stage. It was easier this time with a smaller audience, but they were all important tribal leaders, which was intimidating. At least the rysmavda had left. Shan’s mysterious eyes gleamed at her and she believed in his strength. She had to show these people her faith in Shan’s abilities, and Miranda now understood that Shan needed her faith as well. Meeting the rys, she grasped his outstretched hand and with her free hand, she tossed back her hood.

Many cries of surprise filled the amphitheater. Miranda suspected many of the remarks concerned her foreign racial appearance as much as her improper presence. Atathol, however, did not hesitate to attack this violation of protocol.

The Zenglawa King sprang to his feet and shouted, “Outrageous! Taischek, this is too much. You jeopardize all of us by siding with this Jingten fugitive and now a woman!” The speaker of the Confederacy actually floundered with the rest of his angry words, such was his indignation.

Taischek merely folded his arms and ignored all the shocked looks from the other tribes. Atathol stormed toward Miranda as if he meant to physically remove her. Seated with the Temu, Dreibrand tensed with readiness. He did not care if Atathol was a king backed up by warriors.

If that man touches her, he will get hurt, Dreibrand thought.

“I will not allow this insult,” Atathol declared.

Miranda leveled her green gaze at the outraged King. She recognized too well the tone of his voice and the stomp of his foot. His manner and posture reminded her of her former master when he had been about to assault her. Miranda’s toleration for such treatment had stopped many months ago.

“Be quiet and sit down. We have important matters to talk about,” Miranda snapped.

Her disrespect halted Atathol two paces away. No one in all of his life had ever spoken to Atathol in such a way, especially a strange woman, and he briefly lost touch with reality.

Taischek roared with laughter. He really could not help it. The expression on Atathol’s face was worth all the upset Miranda had ever caused him. Leaning close to Xander, he remarked, “I thought she gave me a hard time.”

Then louder, Taischek said, “Miranda has my leave to be here.”

General grumbling occurred throughout the council, but the fascination with the proceedings outweighed the break with tradition.

Atathol hissed, “You will pay for your insolence, woman.”

“There is little you could do to frighten me,” Miranda said with pride.

“Please sit King Atathol. I am not finished,” Shan urged in a soothing voice. He bent his will toward the upset Zenglawa, hoping no one would notice his subtle spell. Shan had seen Onja use magic in this way many times. Although he hated mimicking her, Shan decided it was necessary to calm the Zenglawa King. Miranda had been reckless with him.

Atathol returned to his seat, but he still seethed with anger.

Quickly returning to business, Ejan asked, “You are the woman of Taischek’s foreign mercenary?”

Miranda answered that she was. Shan interjected and introduced Miranda properly, explaining her story. In general, the people of the west were quite interested in seeing and hearing about the people from the east. Many had already been glancing curiously at Dreibrand most of the morning, but no one had guessed that an eastern woman was concealed in the Temu ranks.

As Shan told how Onja had claimed Miranda’s young children and then nearly killed Miranda for protesting, many human hearts stirred with anger. As Shan had expected, this human drama aroused their emotions. Not paying taxes to Jingten tempted these people, but worrying about their children might actually motivate them.

Hearing how Miranda had defied Onja and suffered injuries from the hand of the Queen made some of the assembled warriors look upon her with respect, which was new for Miranda. Privately, warriors wondered if they could have been so fearless in the face of the dreaded rys Queen.

As Shan concluded her sad story, Miranda implored the council, “Please give Shan the help he asks for. If not to make Shan King of Jingten, then to help me get my children back. Shan is the only one powerful enough to face Onja’s magic and defeat her. This I know much too well. Therefore, I will be at Shan’s side as he returns to his homeland no matter how many warriors Onja can buy to stop us. If you will not help us with your swords, at least keep your tribute. Let Onja know her final hour approaches.”

Miranda’s plea had a definite impact on the council. Any honorable man automatically wanted to help her, even if Shan’s cause had not moved him before. And Miranda’s brave pledge to return to Jingten and oppose Onja again shamed those that feared to face their tyrant at all.

Dreibrand smiled proudly when Miranda finished her speech. At that moment he thought she was the finest strongest woman he had ever met.

Ejan looked from Miranda to Shan, then glanced at his counselors. Finally the King of the Tacus proposed, “I call for a recess for the rest of the day, so that the tribes may consider the requests of the Temu and Shan.”

Indulgently Shan nodded. He knew Ejan to be a man who made careful decisions without rushing, but the rys felt confident that the Tacus would take his side. The Zenglawa, Shan had dismissed as a loss. Atathol obviously lusted for the bounty. Five years without owing tribute tempted him more than a future of freedom.

“A recess is an excellent idea, King Ejan,” Atathol agreed for once. “Do the other kings concur?”

All the tribes readily agreed because they had much to discuss and consider, and the council was closed for the day. The excitement and importance of the morning’s events caused the gathering to disperse in a quick informal manner. People left their seats and formed talkative knots, and the Kings of the Zenglawa and Tacus departed immediately with their warrior entourages.

“Well it is done then,” Taischek said as Shan and Miranda rejoined their group.

Glumly, Shan eyed the thinning crowd and muttered, “I do not think I did well.”

“It was fine,” Taischek encouraged. “They may be my allies but they are not Temu. They are not as brave as us. They will need time to come around to our way.”

“Some will,” Shan said, trying to retain some confidence. Trying to persuade people with words and reason was often discouraging.

Taischek directed his attention to Miranda now and scolded, “We did not come here to start a war with the Zenglawa.”

“Yes, my King,” Miranda said respectfully, but she noticed that Taischek did not really sound upset.

“But the Zenglawa may have come here to start a war with us, Sire,” Xander said. “Atathol left with a purpose in his step. We should get back to our camp and secure it well. I do not trust him—not even on the Common Ground.”

Taischek nodded as he heard his General’s wise counsel, accepting that he must now be wary of even his Confederate neighbors. The peace and prosperity between the five tribes had lasted for generations, and Taischek regretted that his choices had brought a good thing to an end.

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