Kwan reflected that it was good to see humans, even at a distance. From the rooftop terrace of the building that he had been lodged in the night before, he watched who he presumed were the Kezanada depart the city. The horsemen rushed away on the west road, disappearing into the green coniferous folds of the Jingten Valley. The helmeted warriors looked dangerous and fearless behind their brightly clad leader, and Kwan wondered if they were part of a vast force similar to the Horde. He very much wanted to learn more about them, but rys soldiers had not permitted the Atrophane to stray far from the three buildings they had been allotted. Kwan guessed that Onja did not want them meeting the other humans.

He wondered if the Kezanada had left Jingten at such a high rate of speed because Onja had given them some urgent assignment or because they wanted distance between themselves and the Queen.

Probably both, Kwan concluded. If Onja has such mercenaries already in her service, why does she keep us?

With growing frustration Kwan lifted his eyes to the awesome peaks encircling the hidden valley. Normally he would have enjoyed the beauty of the towering fortresses of natural wonder, but the Rysamand looked like a prison now. The mysterious mountains looming out of the Wilderness had beckoned him with a thousand promises of adventure but now they enslaved him.

Kwan went inside and retreated to his private room. The rys had provided him with a nice house, comfortably furnished, and two tribute warehouses across the street had been outfitted as barracks for his soldiers. When he had been camped in the forest, he had been content to bide his time and learn about the rys, but now that he was inside the city, he truly felt like a prisoner.

With the freedom of his expeditionary force gone, Kwan reconsidered his decisions. When he had been in the Wilderness, the Deamedron had frightened him. Onja had said she could release the wraiths to kill upon the land, and Taf Ila had confirmed this. Of course, the rys could be lying to him, but Kwan believed in the threat of the Deamedron. If the demented spirits really could be released, it explained the emptiness of the Wilderness. What else could have prevented people from occupying the land? People lived in places less hospitable than the bountiful Wilderness. And the purportedly lethal power of the Deamedron could explain the mass deaths at the ruins.

Kwan feared to go east. If he took his soldiers and fled back the way he had come, the wretched wraiths could be sent to destroy him. But the road west went to a land where humans lived. Kwan contemplated gathering his men and making a break to the west. If he fled west, Onja would have to bring her Deamedron through the Jingten Valley, and he would gamble that she would not or could not do that.

He realized Onja might have another type of magic to use against him. She might enter his mind again and control him that way, or she could send her rys soldiers to stop him. That he feared the least. His Atrophane were veteran fighters and he guessed that the rys would have little stomach for fighting.

The Lord General sighed heavily, knowing he plotted his escape without enough information. He knew the humans in the west were the subjects of Onja and therefore he had to assume they would be hostile. He could not fight an entire civilization with five hundred men. Yet, Onja had her mysterious enemy in the west. If he could find this enemy, he might find sanctuary. When Kwan thought it through, his plan was clearly hopeless, even futile, but the indignity of being cloistered in Jingten awaiting Onja’s whim grated on his soul.

I am Atrophane. I can serve no foreign queen, he thought.

His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Drawing his steel and deploying his armies had always been the answer in the past, so why did he doubt himself now? Did the new element of magic frighten him so much he would become as meek as the most servile commoner? Recognizing his fear was painful, and Kwan longed for his courage to return.

Reaching into a pouch that dangled from his swordbelt, Kwan removed the warding crystal. The blue light locked within the glassy sphere immediately intrigued him, as it always did, and he stared at it for a long time. He knew Onja could communicate with him through it, forcing her thoughts upon the fabric of his mind.

Does she do it right now? Does she spy on me? Does she make me think only of my fear?

Before Onja could potentially reply to any of his questions, Kwan hurled the orb at the window. It shattered a pane and flew into the street, rolling over the cobbles until it came to rest.

“Read that thought, Onja,” he growled.

When the orb had crashed through the glass, Kwan had felt liberated, but the joy quickly faded. He had hoped that ridding himself of the magical device would free him from its sick spell, but perhaps more than self doubt bound him to Jingten.

The breaking glass had been heard and hurried steps banged up the stairs to Kwan’s chamber.

“Lord Kwan,” Sandin called outside his door.

“Enter.”

Sandin opened the door and stepped inside. A few soldiers stood behind him in the hall.

Seeing the broken window, he asked, “My Lord, did someone throw a rock at your window?”

“No. I did it,” Kwan replied calmly. “There is no danger. You may send the men away.”

Kwan invited Sandin to sit with him at a small table.

Leaning in to a conspiratorial distance, Kwan said, “I threw out the crystal orb. I thought you might like to hear that, Lieutenant Sandin.”

The news brightened Sandin considerably. “Excellent, my Lord.”

“But it will take more than tossing away a charm to free us of Onja’s magic,” Kwan muttered.

“It is a good start,” Sandin said.

“What do you think of leaving? Heading farther west?” Kwan whispered.

Sandin nodded. “We are all with you, my Lord. But why west?”

Kwan hesitated. His instincts nagged him to stop having this conversation. “In the east are the Deamedron. By Golan, I believe that threat is real. You did not see them up close like I did. We cannot go that way,” he replied.

Sandin recognized the conviction in his commander’s voice and knew he could not convince Kwan to go east. It was enough that Kwan had decided to take control of their situation. To Sandin, any direction was better than staying in Jingten with the creepy rys, but he would not have chosen to put the Rysamand between himself and Atrophane.

“We could all die,” Kwan warned.

“We should go—even if we die,” Sandin decided. “We are Atrophane and we should not serve this foreign Queen.”

“Good. Quietly ready the men. We will depart in the night,” ordered Kwan.

The decision to act renewed his self esteem. Whatever the danger, he could no longer respect himself if he did not try to escape.

That afternoon while his squire fitted a board over the missing windowpane, Kwan dozed on his bed. Before he returned to the hard outdoors, he intended to enjoy the comforts of Jingten for a few more hours.

“Lord Kwan!” Jesse called sharply.

When Kwan opened his eyes and heard the rumble of many hooves on the cobbled street below, he had an overwhelming sense of dread.

“My armor,” he said simply, putting his feet on the floor.

Kwan watched outside while Jesse strapped his chestplate in place. Rys soldiers on their fine white horses filled the street, and Taf Ila entered the house followed by many rys soldiers. A brief disturbance occurred on the first floor. Shouting reverberated in the stairwell, but the noise was soon replaced by the soft tread of suede boots on the floorboards.

As a surprise courtesy, a knock sounded on the door. Kwan faced the door and waved his squire aside. The door banged open to reveal a grim Taf Ila.

“Hello, Taf Ila,” Kwan said with mock pleasantness.

“Queen Onja summons you to the Keep,” Taf Ila announced gruffly, stepping forward.

Kwan asked, “Why so many soldiers? You only had to tell me to come. We are friends.”

Six rys flowed into the room with Taf Ila and surrounded Kwan impatiently.

Leaning close to the human’s ear, Taf Ila whispered, “Kwan, my friendship will not help you.”

Kwan studied the face of the one rys with whom he had fostered a relationship. He sensed no malice from Taf Ila. A cry from the squire redirected Kwan’s attention. The rys had seized the youthful Atrophane.

“Stop!” Kwan shouted. “Queen Onja could have no business with my servant.”

“Queen Onja has business with us all,” Taf Ila muttered bitterly.

The boy panicked in the grasp of the two rys, but their slender hands were strong and the squire could not get away.

“Do not fight us. None of us have any wish to harm you,” Taf Ila stated.

“Relax Jesse. I will protect you,” Kwan bade his squire.

Calmed by his lord’s words, Jesse stopped resisting and the rys released him. Nervously the squire fell into place behind Kwan. Downstairs, many Atrophane soldiers stood behind lines of rys soldiers. A few Atrophane soldiers were crumpled at the feet of the rys and Sandin was among those on the floor.

Taf Ila put a quick hand on Kwan’s arm before the Lord General’s hot words rushed out. “They are unharmed and will recover,” Taf Ila said.

As Kwan was escorted out, he glimpsed the anguish in Sandin’s gray eyes. Never before had Kwan seen defeat on the face of an Atrophane and the shame he felt almost made him stumble on the steps.

I must get them out of this cursed trap, he thought.

Kwan had the indignity of walking through the streets while the rys rode around him, but he realized he would be lucky if that was the worst that happened. The fact that the rys were bringing his squire to the Keep also disturbed Kwan, who recognized it as a bad sign.

Taf Ila and a dozen soldiers ushered Kwan and his squire into the Keep, forcing a brisk pace. Apparently Onja wanted to see him with all immediacy.

Before they entered the throne room, Taf Ila turned and whispered urgently, “She is the ruler of us all, Kwan. You must believe that. I tell you this as a friend.”

The ominous words did little to encourage Kwan, but at least Taf Ila had revealed himself as a friend. Kwan understood that the rys captain would not go against his Queen’s wishes but it was good to know that Taf Ila was not an evil being.

When the two Atrophane men were presented before the dais, the white-maned Queen pointedly looked away. After announcing Kwan, Taf Ila and the other rys stepped aside. In the sudden absence of the surrounding rys, Kwan felt exposed before the Queen, and he noticed Jesse edge a small step closer.

Still looking away, Onja rumbled, “Instruct them to kneel.”

Taf Ila relayed the order, knowing that it stung this human’s pride. With an insincere posture, Kwan complied. He had only kneeled to the Darmar before and the act felt strange. Jesse, who was much more accustomed to kneeling, made a better display of humility.

“All humans show me this respect,” Onja said, turning her hot gaze on Kwan. A blue glow consumed her black eyes and Kwan shuddered when he looked upon her powerful visage.

“You have been thinking of leaving Jingten,” Onja said. Her voice bore no accusatory tone. She simply stated fact. “You dislike serving in Jingten so much you are willing to risk running west into lands unknown to you. You hope that you could slip away and outrun the reach of my magic.”

Kwan stared at her blankly, remaining silent.

“Admit this!” Onja shouted.

“They are only thoughts,” he explained lamely.

“You told your officer to prepare your men to leave,” noted the Queen.

Overwhelmed, Kwan looked down at the smooth floor. His reflection in the glossy marble had no advice to offer. He had no chance of convincing the Queen of his innocence. The details Onja knew were staggering.

Onja chuckled at his discomfort. “I do not need the warding crystal to know your mind. It protected you from the Deamedron and it helps me to communicate with you, but it is hardly necessary. I can see anybody anywhere.”

Kwan made no reply and wondered what would happen next.

“Have you forgotten our agreement? You must stay here until spring in my service in exchange for my clemency. All of you deserve death for invading my realm.” Onja paused, hoping Kwan would respond, but he suffered her lecture patiently. “Why do you plot to leave my service? I ask so very little of you, and I treat you so well. You have all been given good food, good shelter.”

Kwan had to concede that point. “Yes Queen Onja, you have been generous.”

Indignantly Onja said, “And yet you still wish to run away? Your ignorance made you bold, Kwan. You hoped that my magic was not enough to stop you. You were very wrong. Your punishment would have started the instant you passed outside the city. I would not even have to send one soldier after you.” She pointed a white-nailed finger at Jesse and cried, “My mind sees everywhere and my hand touches everything!”

Jesse shrieked in pain. He attempted to run away but fell, clutching at his shins where a heat spell burned his legs.

“Stop! Stop hurting him,” Kwan begged. He jumped up and reached for his sword, but Onja swung out her other hand and halted any offensive the Lord General might have launched. His body froze and no longer obeyed the commands of his brain. Sweat instantly wetted Kwan’s forehead as he struggled against the paralysis but he only succeeded in knocking himself to the floor.

Onja intensified her spell toward the squire, making the boy scream as the heat began to blister his limbs. Pleased with how the lesson proceeded, Onja came down from her throne. Kwan had never been so close to her before. The long centuries had rounded and softened her once perfect rys features, but she still would have been beautiful if her soul had not been utterly wicked. The ancient being assailed Kwan with such cold malice that he knew it had been folly to attempt a simple escape. He would have to be a hundred times more clever to elude this sorceress, who could hear a whisper across the city.

Jesse screamed as he writhed in increasing pain.

“Promise me you will serve in Jingten and his suffering will stop,” Onja said.

Kwan looked at his poor squire but he hesitated to promise.

“You have forced me to extract this pledge from you. My proposal was fair and generous but you spurned it. I can make all of your men suffer this way,” Onja warned. “Now promise to serve Jingten and serve well.”

The torment of the squire increased and the horror of his cries shattered Kwan’s resistance.

“He will burn away before your eyes. I will cook him!” Onja shrieked.

Kwan relented. He had to. “Yes, I promise. We will defend Jingten. We will serve you, Queen Onja,” he gasped.

Throwing up her hands, Onja ended her spell and the invisible fire left Jesse’s body. Free of the clutching paralysis, Kwan went instantly to the side of his squire. Jesse had lapsed into shock from the torture, and Kwan lifted his head into his arms. The fabric of the squire’s pants had blackened from the heat and Kwan dreaded to know what terrible mess Onja had made of the boy’s legs.

“Oh lad, I am so sorry,” he murmured in Atrophaney. A helpless rage swelled inside him, sickening his mind.

“Take heart, Kwan,” Onja said. “The demonstration on the boy has spared all of your men a worse fate. Furthermore, I will not hold today’s insubordination against you. I knew this lesson would be necessary. My original proposal remains. Obey me and you will see your homeland again.”

The self control Kwan exercised at the moment was perhaps the greatest act of will in his life. The pride of his soul demanded he take his sword and lash out at the Queen, who stood so nearby. He could see the softness of her blue flesh that appeared so very mortal, but Kwan believed he could not win. He knew his sword remained at his side only as a bitter temptation, an added detail to aid in his torment. Onja left her victim armed because she was completely in command. Her painful magic could defend her quicker than a human’s violent outburst.

Miserably Kwan held his poor squire who had been punished for his master’s decision. Attacking Onja would not help Jesse, and Kwan accepted that he had to try and save the boy’s life.

Satisfied that her new Atrophaney subject had been sufficiently enlightened on his place in Jingten, Onja returned to her throne. She paused to enjoy the scene of the devastated Lord General holding the innocent young man.

“Taf Ila, get them out of here,” she ordered.

Relieved that he no longer had to stand by helplessly, Taf Ila eagerly complied. The rys soldiers, who had rushed the humans to face their cruel Queen, now gently lifted the damaged squire who whimpered fitfully.

A wagon conveyed the grievously injured squire back to Kwan’s new residence, and Taf Ila summoned a physician. Awkwardly, Taf Ila tried to explain to Kwan that the rys physician was a very successful healer, but Kwan could not even look at Taf Ila. He could not look at any of the rys, wishing he had never encountered the magical race. He could only look at the feverish face of Jesse.

Upon Kwan’s return to his lodging, the Atrophane were filled with both relief and dismay. A dozen questions assailed the Lord General as rys carried Jesse upstairs, but Kwan silenced them all with one harsh order.

Seeing Sandin slumped in a chair recovering from the sho dart, Kwan simply instructed, “Lieutenant, keep this place quiet.” Then he followed the rys up to his room.

Kwan insisted the rys lay his squire on his own bed. The rys physician soon arrived and began to tend the human. He coaxed a medicinal drink down the squire’s throat to help hydrate the burn victim and ease his pain. With tender patience, the healer carefully removed the human’s clothing, trying not to pull away much of the devastated skin. Jesse’s legs were badly burned, scorched almost to ash in some places.

The wreckage of the blistered oozing legs gave Kwan a greater understanding of Onja’s methods. If Jesse survived and did not succumb to an infection, it would take him all winter to heal. Until then the squire could not walk or ride, and if Kwan wanted to consider another departure, he would have to consider abandoning the boy.

Kwan turned away from the bed and slammed a fist into the wall repeatedly, venting his terrible rage on the cracking plaster. Taf Ila grabbed Kwan by the arm. The Lord General’s gloved hand was probably already broken, but he sent his other fist at Taf Ila in a blind fury.

Taf Ila blocked the blow and shouted, “The physician has enough to do.”

Kwan relaxed slightly, but he rationally considered attacking Taf Ila anyway.

“I am not your enemy,” Taf Ila insisted.

“You are Onja’s lackey!” Kwan shouted in Atrophaney.

Even without a translation the rys captain guessed the nature of the human’s outburst. He knew what he was.

Deciding not to pursue himself as a subject, Taf Ila said, “I believe Queen Onja will release you in the spring if you only obey her.”

Shaking free of the Taf Ila’s restraining grasp, Kwan slumped into a chair. “Obey her,” he groaned, rubbing his hand. “She gives me no commands, except to stay here. What use could she have for us? She plays with me. Who will she torture next?”

“It is possible you will defend Jingten. Queen Onja does have an enemy,” Taf Ila explained very quietly.

“With all of her magic, she needs humans to defend Jingten? That is nonsense,” Kwan scoffed. “Will not Taf Ila defend his home for his Queen?”

Shrugging, Taf Ila simply responded, “I am not threatened. It is Onja’s enemy.”

The statement from the obviously loyal captain confused Kwan and he figured he misunderstood the rys words. “But if her enemy attacks Jingten, you will fight?” he pressed.

“Rys do not kill rys,” Taf Ila answered, clinging to the law. “I will not get between Onja and her enemy. None of us will.”

A picture began to form for Kwan. A picture in which he was a pawn. He did not quite understand the statement about rys not killing rys, but Kwan suspected the rys used humans to fight their wars. He remembered the Kezanada leaving on seemingly urgent business.

Is the war already being fought somewhere? he thought.

From Taf Ila’s somewhat cryptic statements, Kwan surmised that Onja’s enemy was a rys or maybe an army of rys. This thought did little to encourage Kwan. If Onja could dominate him, what chance did humans have against her rys rival? The Lord General realized he and his five hundred Atrophane were just fuel for the fire of her war.

“Who is Onja’s enemy?” he asked.

“I will not speak of that,” Taf Ila said.

“If I am to defend your city, I must know what I am facing,” Kwan insisted irritably.

“Onja will instruct you if the need arises,” Taf Ila said.

Abandoning the pointless round of questioning, Kwan asked a personal question. “I see you do not want to hurt us. Why do you serve Onja?”

Taf Ila answered, “Queen Onja is the most powerful rys. It is her rightful place to lead. My magic is common, and it is my place to serve.”

Kwan considered the answer a little too dogmatic. Glancing at the physician attending his squire’s burns, he wondered if Taf Ila could not speak his mind openly because Onja might be spying.

Kwan’s white eyebrows lifted quizzically on his weathered face. He wanted to know more of the rys’s real thoughts.

Inwardly, Taf Ila appreciated the cynical expression. Humans could convey so many thoughts with just their faces.

Choosing his words, Taf Ila carefully expanded his response. “Queen Onja hurt your servant because you care about him. She often chooses the target that will cause the most pain. I assure you, obedience is the proper choice.”

“Onja keeps everyone in their place,” Kwan muttered bitterly while watching the physician work on Jesse.

Kwan had wished to cultivate Taf Ila as an ally, but now he doubted it would do him much good. Remembering Taf Ila’s fair daughter, Kwan realized the rys captain had his own vulnerabilities and would not wish to risk Onja’s anger. Kwan did not blame him though. Taf Ila was right. Onja was the most powerful rys and even the other rys could not dispute her actions.

Once Jesse’s wounds were medicated and dressed, the rys left Kwan alone. The Lord General kept a vigil at the boy’s side for many days and talked to no one, not even Lieutenant Sandin. Of all of the soldiers who had fallen or been injured under his command, Kwan felt the most remorse for his squire’s suffering.

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