After three or four more toasts to Shan and to himself, Taischek easily got a few cups ahead of everybody else and he spoke in a pleasant stream of words.

“Oh, Shan, I really enjoyed the way you showed everyone what a sneaking cur Atathol is. I never liked that man. He has no flair for arrogance, unlike myself. When you turned on him, I thought he was going to piss himself. Maybe he did a little.” Taischek laughed, and was echoed by Xander’s chuckle.

“I would have rather made a friend of him,” Shan lamented.

Taischek scoffed, “Atathol was supposedly my friend for years. But did he ever pay a friendly visit? Did he ever make a generous gesture? All he ever asked of the Temu were loans and ridiculous prices on trade items. You know, I even heard a rumor that he has a cousin married to a Sabuto. Can you imagine?!”

Miranda yawned discreetly on the other side of the campfire.

Using her language, Dreibrand whispered, “If you want to be included, you will have to listen to his stories.”

She smiled at his teasing. “You listen for me.”

Before Taischek progressed any further with his celebration, the challenges of sentries rang out on the perimeter, and Taischek quickly became serious again. Dreibrand stood up and drew his sword. He had expected some trouble.

To Miranda he said, “Stay close to me and Shan.”

A modest commotion moved through the camp and a warrior trotted into the light of his King’s fire. Dreibrand recognized him as Iley.

Bowing to Taischek, Iley reported, “Sire, a party of Hirqua warriors has approached the camp.”

Scowling, Taischek asked, “Do they attack?”

“No, Sire. They announced themselves openly and in peace. They wish to speak to Shan—Lord Shan,” Iley added respectfully and dipped his head to the rys.

With raised eyebrows, Taischek faced Shan. “Maybe you’re a little more popular than you thought, eh?”

“Perhaps,” Shan mused.

“Can we trust them?” Dreibrand wondered openly.

“The Hirqua are still our allies. We must allow the visit. They have joined us in refusing tribute to Jingten,” Taischek said.

“All a deception maybe. To get close to Shan,” Miranda suggested.

The rys considered things for a moment and decided, “I must receive these Hirqua. But prudence is required. Iley, have the Hirqua choose three representatives, and I will speak with them. Keep them guarded though.”

Taischek approved the plan and sent Iley on his way.

Remaining on his feet, Dreibrand put his sword away but intended to stand guard between Shan and the Hirqua.

Iley returned leading three Hirqua warriors who were guarded by several watchful Temu. The Hirqua kept their black hair short, but they were racially very similar to the Temu with dark eyes and pleasing faces. Stiff leather armor covered their torsos and forearms. Brilliant multicolored cloaks hung down their backs, and the design and weave of each garment signified each man’s family. Swords hung from their waists, and they normally carried spears, but the Temu had temporarily confiscated them.

“Why do the Hirqua approach my camp at night?” Taischek demanded gruffly.

The three warriors were young men, in their teens or just beyond. The oldest replied, “We meant no harm or offense, King of the Temu. We wish only to speak with Lord Shan.”

“King Sotasham said he could send no warriors. Why does he send them now?” Shan said.

The Hirqua bowed deeply to Shan, but his awe of the powerful rys did not make his words falter. “Our King has not sent us. We are individual warriors that come to serve you, Lord Shan.”

“You go against your King’s orders?” Taischek asked with displeasure.

Quickly the Hirqua explained, “No, we have King Sotasham’s leave to come here. He cannot commit our tribe to war, but a Hirqua warrior is a free warrior. Some of us want to join Lord Shan as an individual interest. As long as there are enough to defend the Hirqua homeland, warriors are free to pursue private warpaths.”

Very interested, Shan asked, “What is your name?”

“Tytido of Clan Gozmochi,” he replied proudly.

“How many have come with you, Tytido?” Shan said.

Gesturing to his companions, Tytido answered, “Besides us, thirty five more, Lord Shan.”

“And why do you join me?” Shan inquired.

“I believe, and so do the others, that more must be done than sit home and await the outcome of this rebellion. My tribe has agreed to withhold tribute, so our interest is firmly based upon your success, Lord Shan. I am willing to fight so that Clan Gozmochi can live free of Onja’s tyranny. Today the Zenglawa showed us that people would serve Onja against you. I wish to defend you from her servants who would prevent you from reaching Jingten.”

Shan regarded the other two Hirqua and said, “Tytido of Clan Gozmochi speaks well. Do you think as Tytido does?”

The other warriors introduced themselves and echoed the sentiments of Tytido. One of them added, “I will fight to return this lady her children.”

This comment startled Miranda. The concern of the stranger touched her deeply. Miranda remembered how her own people had openly disregarded her suffering, even when she had screamed for help when Barlow attacked her.

Shan declared, “This is all very excellent. Hirqua warriors make your camp where the Temu instruct you. We shall speak more in the morning. And welcome.”

The three Hirqua bowed to Shan and thanked him for his acceptance.

When the Hirqua were escorted away, Shan commented, “That was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if more men will join us by spring.”

“There will be more,” Taischek said. “If the Hirqua really intend not to pay their tribute, they will have to send more. It is good to see Sotasham will not keep all of his warriors at home. He probably even encouraged this Tytido and his lot to come to you. He is trying to have the best of everything without risking his army.”

“Yes, but the Hirqua are our second best ally after the Tacus, and this Tytido is sincere. I must find a place for these Hirqua warriors,” Shan said.

“We will absorb them among our ranks,” Xander offered.

Thoughtfully Shan shook his head. “I do not know if that would be best. The Temu and the Hirqua are Confederates but each tribe has its ego. The Temu warriors will want to lord over the Hirqua volunteers as a matter of pride. I do not want the Hirqua to resent their position among the Temu and rethink their decision to serve me. These Hirqua are proud and I doubt they will like taking orders from an equally proud Temu. I think they will serve me best if kept together as their own unit.”

Taischek said, “They have yet to prove their trustworthiness, and until then they must be controlled.”

“Yes, I know, Taischek,” Shan conceded. “But I have a solution. Put a trusted man as commander over them. This will control them and preserve their strength and morale.”

“Who do you have in mind?” Taischek asked.

“Dreibrand,” replied Shan, looking to his friend.

Dreibrand’s eyes widened with obvious interest. “You honor me, Shan.”

“You are most capable of the task and best of all you are of no tribe. You will bear them no prejudice and they will have no biases to hold against you,” Shan explained.

Dreibrand almost burst out with his acceptance. Until that moment, he had not realized just how much he missed command, but he remembered to ask permission.

Restraining his excitement, he said, “King Taischek, do you agree with this? I would like to accept with your leave.”

The King considered Shan’s proposal. Taischek did trust Dreibrand, who had so far pleased him very much, and the Hirqua most likely would not respond well to a Temu commander.

“Dreibrand, I recognize that our cause will be better served with you as a commander. You have my leave to command any volunteers who come to serve Shan, but you will still be in my service. I will trust you to keep these foreigners from disturbing my domain.”

Thanking the King, Dreibrand accepted his new responsibilities with a broad grin. At this moment assuming command of three dozen warriors felt as grand as receiving his commission in the Atrophane Horde. He was concerned about how the Hirqua would react to him because he was a foreigner, but he had never had much difficulty cultivating obedience and loyalty from his men before. He recalled that it had been everyone above him who had caused him problems.

Lifting the sloshing wineskin, Taischek said, “We had better have a toast to Shan’s new general then.”

After a quick glance at Xander, Dreibrand politely said, “General? There is no need to lift me so high. It is only a command of three dozen men.”

“Xander is the general of the Temu, and you will be the general of those that come to serve Shan. Perhaps by spring you will have more than a few Hirqua to command,” Taischek explained.

“There will be more volunteers, especially after I tell Tytido and his fellows that they will be rewarded handsomely for serving me,” Shan added.

“Not out of my share I hope,” Taischek cried with good nature.

“You know I would never do that to you,” Shan said.

Chuckling, Taischek accidentally drank some wine before he made the toast and he had to refill his cup. “To Shan’s general, then.”

Noise erupted on the perimeter again, interrupting the toast.

Dreibrand was the first to rise and his sword hit the night air again. “Perhaps I have nothing to command anyway,” he muttered, scanning the dark for intruders.

“Report!” Xander hollered.

A warrior acknowledged him and scrambled off to investigate. When he returned, he said, “Sire, General, several Nuram warriors approached our camp, but as soon as they announced themselves to the sentries, they ran into the trees. The situation is a little confusing. We are trying to collect them all now.”

With a groan, Xander hauled himself to his feet, grumbling, “I better handle this myself. This could be a trap.” As the General stomped away from the campfire, he barked orders in every direction.

“Now the Nuram are skulking about,” Taischek said.

“Maybe they are more volunteers,” Shan remarked hopefully.

From across the camp they heard shouting in the breezy night. Dreibrand fidgeted impatiently, almost on the verge of investigating the commotion himself. Setting down her wine, which she had barely touched, Miranda stood beside him and her presence reminded Dreibrand of where he wanted to be.

When the camp quieted, Xander returned and reported, “Five Nuram warriors have come to offer their service to Shan. They claim they discovered a Zenglawa lurking outside the camp after they greeted the sentry, and that is why they ran off. They were trying to capture him.”

“A Zenglawa. Did they get him?” Taischek said.

“Yes, Sire. I don’t know if the Nuram are mixed up with him or not. I have politely detained the Nuram, and Shan can decide if he wants to speak to them. The Zenglawa spy is a prisoner. Some of the men got a little excited when we finally nabbed him and smacked him up a little,” Xander explained.

Taischek chuckled but said, “Make sure that stops for now. We are better than the Zenglawa. Do you want to see these Nuram, Shan?”

The rys had been staring at the fire, but his attention snapped back to his surroundings when he heard his name. He answered that he would see the Nuram.

The group of Nuram warriors was from the same family. Two were brothers and all were cousins. Although their tribe would not openly support Shan, these men had decided to fight Jingten for reasons similar to the Hirqua who had volunteered. Shan deemed them quite sincere and welcomed their contribution.

After meeting with the rys, the Nuram were taken to join the Hirqua, and Xander settled back into his place by the King.

“Sire, what should we do with the Zenglawa spy?” he asked.

Taischek grumbled, “I don’t know. I don’t want to think about those Zenglawa. When we depart in the morning, just leave him tied to a tree.”

“That is very lenient of you, Sire,” Xander said.

Shan spoke up, “Taischek, let us see this Zenglawa.”

“I don’t want to see a Zenglawa. I have had enough of their rudeness,” protested the King.

“But he might be interesting,” Shan persisted.

“Oh, if you must,” Taischek relented and called for the prisoner.

Two Temu warriors produced the Zenglawa, whose hands were bound. Blood was caked under his nose and a puffy bruise discolored his caramel skin above his right eye. His long straight black hair had picked up a few leaves when he had been rolled on the ground, but the gleam in his eyes made it clear that no simple beating would lessen his pride.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Shan jumped up as soon as the prisoner was presented.

“Why are you here?” demanded the rys as if he knew the man.

The Zenglawa did not reply and Shan stalked up to him and looked at his hands. They were painfully scorched and blistered.

“Come back to try again?” Shan growled.

The Zenglawa shook his head and said, “I come to serve you, Lord Shan.”

Taken aback by the declaration, Shan said, “This morning you wanted to kill me.”

“This morning I wanted to obey my orders, but I never wanted to kill you, and I did not,” the prisoner responded.

“So you disagree with your tribe?” Shan asked.

“Yes, my Lord. It upset me when I was ordered to be an assassin, especially on the Common Ground. I am a master archer, and I use my skill for battle or sport, but I am not a murderer. King Atathol wanted me to be the instrument of his dishonor. I sought to obey him and think that his reasons were good. I thought maybe if you could be killed, you were not worthy of the allegiance you asked for,” the prisoner explained.

“There’s some Zenglawa thinking,” Taischek snorted.

An angry look crossed the prisoner’s face, but he remembered his situation and kept his emotions in check. He continued, “But I could not do it. I did not take the shot, although I don’t suppose anybody noticed. Everything happened so fast.”

“I know you did not take your shot,” Shan said and the prisoner’s eyes lit up with awe. The rys had not even been looking at him.

“Then, when you did not kill me or the other men who fired at you, I realized the good in you. You could have killed us—burned our whole bodies. You had every right to. Am I wrong?” he said, lifting his injured hands.

“I have no desire to kill anyone, but sometimes necessity demands it,” Shan said. “What is your name?”

“I am Redan,” the Zenglawa answered, lifting his head with pride.

“Atathol has sent him as a spy,” Taischek decided.

Shan held up a hand to quiet Taischek. He fully understood how deeply the Zenglawa had insulted them all, but he did not want Taischek to vent his anger on this one young warrior. Although Shan realized Redan could be part of an elaborate deception, he wanted to believe in the Zenglawa’s change of heart.

“Does Atathol know you are here?” Shan asked.

Redan answered, “No, I will no longer serve Atathol. He ordered me to shoot at your back, and I almost did it. I feel guilty for even lifting my bow. I wish to cleanse myself of this dishonor by serving you. Lord Shan, only you are worthy of my skill and loyalty.”

Tired of the Zenglawa’s speeches, Taischek complained, “If he is not a spy, he is a traitor. We asked for allies not Zenglawa strays.”

Crossing his arms, Shan pondered his latest volunteer. Most likely Taischek was right about the man, and short of interrogating him during a mindreading, Shan could not decide.

“Redan, I would like us to be friends, but you understand that it will be difficult for you to earn my trust. I must take my enemies very seriously these days.”

Giving into his misery, Redan hung his head and yielded, “I can only prove myself through good service, but if I cannot have the chance, then punish me as you see fit, Lord Shan.”

“I have but one enemy to punish, and she awaits her fate in Jingten. Go back to your tribe, Redan,” Shan declared.

Redan considered the possibility of returning home. He could catch up to the Zenglawa, but he still considered his tribe disgraced and he had abandoned his King’s side without permission.

Dreibrand had been observing the prisoner while Shan spoke to him. He had noticed the burned hands that marked him as an assassin, but when Dreibrand heard that this archer had not taken his shot, he became interested. Perhaps Shan’s power and goodness had won over one Zenglawa. Cursing himself as a fool, Dreibrand made an impulsive decision.

“I will accept you, Redan,” he announced. “Prove your sincerity to me, and I will recommend you to Shan. And if you are a spy, may the Gods help you, because I will find out.”

All faces turned to Dreibrand with various shocked expressions.

“Dreibrand, you can’t be serious,” Taischek sputtered. “The man does not deserve a chance. If anything he says is true, he has at least been faithless to his own King. He will be faithless again.”

Taischek’s judgement of the prisoner bit unknowingly deep into Dreibrand’s conscience.

“But, King Taischek, would you not agree that Atathol does not deserve his loyalty, especially because he serves Onja? Just because Redan has chosen to change his loyalty does not mean it is not loyalty,” Dreibrand said.

Taischek studied Dreibrand long and hard and was not altogether pleased with his attitude. But how else would a mercenary think? the King concluded.

“I still don’t trust him,” he grumbled.

“Nor do I, but I would give him a chance. Of course, it is still Shan’s decision,” Dreibrand said.

Shan wondered what had compelled Dreibrand to give the Zenglawa a chance. Whatever his reasons, Shan knew Dreibrand considered his security of the utmost importance and he decided to trust Dreibrand with Redan. To himself, Shan admitted that this archer intrigued him, and if the circumstances were different, he would probably immediately like the man.

“What do you think, Miranda?” Shan asked.

For a moment she considered her answer. The Zenglawa accent of the prisoner had been harder for her to understand, but she had followed most of the conversation. “I think any of these volunteers might be spies,” she warned, and Taischek laughed, appreciating her perfect suspicion.

“This one certainly is,” Taischek said.

“Not certainly,” Shan countered, making up his mind. With a hint of magic fire in his eyes, he leaned close to Redan. “You shall have your opportunity, Redan. This is Dreibrand Veta who has taken responsibility for you. You will obey him in everything.” Then speaking over his shoulder to Dreibrand, he added, “If at any point you doubt his motives, kill him.”

“Of course,” Dreibrand agreed.

“I hope we will speak again, Redan,” Shan said.

“We will, Lord Shan, and thank you,” Redan promised.

Shan returned to his seat by the fire, content to leave the Zenglawa to Dreibrand’s judgment. Taischek greeted him with a sour look, but Shan defended his action by insisting volunteers needed to be given a chance. It was hard enough to get people to go against the rule of Onja as it was.

Ignoring their conversation, Dreibrand focused on Redan, seeing some of himself in the Zenglawa warrior. After a nod from Dreibrand, the Temu guards released the prisoner and Dreibrand pulled out his ivory handled dagger. The Zenglawa flinched before he understood and put his bound hands over the blade so Dreibrand could cut him loose.

“Your days with me will not be easy. But if you prove trustworthy, things will improve,” Dreibrand stated.

“Then things will improve,” Redan said confidently.