“Let us circle back, Pelafan,” Sutah said as he watched his friend continue up the mountain trail that would converge with the road high in the pass.

“We have business ahead,” Pelafan grumbled dismissively.

“We have business behind! The warding crystal,” insisted Sutah.

Pelafan spun around, exasperated with his companion. His delicate nostrils flared in the high thin air as he contained his temper. Pelafan was still upset with Sutah for running away when he had been hurt, but he was more upset for missing Dreibrand with his sho dart.

“Oh, we will get that crystal and have revenge on that human,” Pelafan announced with menace and touched the bandage on his arm.

“How?” Sutah asked.

Pelafan replied, “I have glimpsed Kezanada warriors coming from the Jingten Valley as we speak. I intend to meet them on the road and convince them to attack the small force of humans. Then they will be dead and we can take the crystal.”

Remembering the Kezanada passing by a few days earlier, Sutah remarked that they had delivered their tribute quickly.

“Who cares about that,” Pelafan snapped. “Come on. I do not want to miss them.”

Trotting up beside Pelafan, Sutah queried, “How will you convince the Kezanada to help us? Those humans had very little gold and the Kezanada may not be tempted just by their gear and horses, especially if they have to fight for it.”

“Sutah, if you would keep quiet, I could think about the details,” Pelafan said irritably.

Although Sutah lacked the grumbling confidence of his partner, he stopped asking questions. If Pelafan’s plan succeeded, it would be great fun, and Sutah had no other plan in mind beyond a repeat of last night’s approach.

When they reached the road, they stood side by side in the lane and looked up into the pass where the alpine meadows stretched above the trees. Next to them, one ancient and stubborn tree grew bent and twisted, defying the constant wind. The rys had reached the road without much time to spare and they did not need their rys perceptions to see the approaching Kezanada force. The grim warriors led by their burly Overlord thundered down the pass at a full gallop. Because of their fast pace, Pelafan suspected that Onja had contracted some urgent business with the mercenary nation, but as long as Onja had not commanded them to punish him and Sutah, Pelafan did not care.

“You did not say the Overlord was with them,” Sutah said.

“Of course he is,” Pelafan said, although he had not known. When he had spied the Kezanada force entering the pass, they had been at the edge of his perception and very indistinct. He had not noticed the Overlord at all.

If the two forms blocking the road had been human, the Kezanada would have rolled right over the impudent vagabonds, but rys were a different matter. The Overlord recognized the two rys and decided to speak with them—briefly. Signaling for his warriors to halt, the Overlord slowed his steed’s mighty pace.

The Overlord’s great warhorse rumbled to a stop by the rys and many warriors flowed around Pelafan and Sutah until they were surrounded by hot lathered horses. The wind pulled at the black horsetails on every helmet, and the sun reflected brightly on the visored faces.

The handle of the Overlord’s scimitar protruded from his colorful furs, and on the other side of his mighty frame, a crystal laden pommel stuck out.

“Pelafan and Sutah, what do you want?” the Overlord demanded.

“Great master of the Kezanada,” Pelafan began diplomatically. “We require a favor from you and your mighty warriors.”

A contemptuous snort sounded behind the metal grate of the Overlord’s ornate helmet. “I have more important business than your skulking thievery.”

“But Overlord, it will be worth your while,” Pelafan said.

The Overlord scoffed, “I have no time for you, Pelafan. You know our arrangement. Go to my stronghold. My agents are always pleased to trade with you.”

“But Overlord please, I need only a moment,” Pelafan insisted.

The Overlord rumbled, “Pelafan, you have already caused me enough delay to anger me.”

Despite the Kezanada’s ominous tone, Pelafan continued, “Overlord, a nearby band of warriors possesses a valuable item that Sutah and I wish to steal. But we need your help.”

The Overlord noted the bandaged arm of the rys and chuckled, “Some human finally got the best of you, and now you want us to go punish them for you.” The Overlord smelled truth like a dog on a strong trail.

“Exactly,” Pelafan beamed.

Although Pelafan was a wiley rys, he was about a thousand times less powerful than Queen Onja and the Overlord had no fear of him. Derisively the Overlord laughed, “Pelafan, you do not ask a favor, you ask for a service, and you do not have the means to pay me to attack anyone.”

Pelafan glanced to Sutah, but Sutah had a puzzled expression on his face. As usual, Sutah had no support forthcoming and Pelafan decided to reveal more facts about his purpose. He had wanted to avoid mentioning the warding crystal because the Kezanada might covet it, but the Overlord was not being convinced.

“But they have a warding crystal. With that Sutah and I could steal in Jingten itself. We could filch all manner of jewels and antiques from the grand houses of Jingten, trading exclusively with the Kezanada of course. Overlord, think of the finery of Jingten slipping back down the Rysamand. With this warding crystal, our fellow rys will not be able to detect us. Except for Onja, but we will stay out of her Keep. This warding crystal is powerful. I believe it was made by Shan himself.”

The Overlord had not really been listening to the rys’s proposal, only remaining because the horses had been winded and needed the rest. But at the mention of Shan’s name, the Overlord abruptly granted his true attention.

Jumping down from his horse, he shouted excitedly, “Shan is here!?”

Elated to have the Overlord’s interest, Pelafan realized the Kezanada’s “more important business” must be the bounty for Shan. Pelafan wished he could answer that Shan actually was nearby because now that he had the Overlord’s attention he wanted to keep it. However, lying to the Kezanada was never recommended.

“A band of warriors is camped along those cliffs. They are led by the man from the east, who Shan has taken as a friend. He must be a very close friend if Shan has given him a warding crystal. You could capture him and he could reveal much about Shan,” Pelafan explained, enjoying the thought of the human suffering the Overlord’s torture.

Although aware that Pelafan tried to manipulate him, the Overlord felt tempted to attack the group of warriors. Slaughtering some men connected to Shan would be a nice appetizer for the revenge he wanted for his lost one hundred warriors. And torturing some prisoners could provide some valuable information.

“How many warriors are you talking about?” the Overlord demanded.

“Only forty,” Pelafan replied eagerly.

The Overlord looked around thoughtfully. He had forty Kezanada with him. The other half of his force was a full day behind in the Jingten Valley escorting the empty tribute wagons, baggage, and servants. However, even odds were excellent odds when the Kezanada were involved.

“Very well Pelafan, you and Sutah have your wish. The Kezanada will crush these humans who have offended you. I will have my prisoners, and you can keep the crystal because I have no use for such a thing. But you owe me,” the Overlord growled.

“Oh yes, of course, Overlord,” Pelafan accepted happily.

“I will attack in the morning. Now I need to make camp before dark and certainly not this high up the mountain,” the Overlord decided.

Pelafan and Sutah managed to persuade two Kezanada to let them ride double with them. Sutah was glad that Pelafan’s plan seemed to be working so far, but he needed to speak privately with his companion. Sutah knew Pelafan had been concentrating on his conversation with the Overlord and must not have yet noticed what was unusual. If Sutah shut his eyes, the Overlord and a handful of his warriors were simply not there. A powerful aura of magic hung over them, masking the rys’s perception more than Dreibrand’s warding crystal had. Much more.

When Pelafan finally noticed the effect, he looked at Sutah with surprise. Neither rys had heard of humans being granted the protection of warding crystals before, and now it seemed every human they encountered suddenly possessed the magic charms. The rys thieves realized that their Queen was arming her forces for genuine warfare. A rys power struggle of classical proportions was definitely brewing. Although these revelations were disturbing to Pelafan and Sutah, they, like most rys, were more curious about the outcome than interested in joining the conflict.

By now, the Zenglawa caravan had labored up the road and encountered the Kezanada, who arrogantly insisted the Zenglawa make way for them. When King Atathol first saw the Kezanada warriors, complete with their infamous Overlord and accompanied by two rys, he thought that Onja had contracted his killing for certain. The Kezanada were a traditional medium for the consequences of her displeasure. Few indiscretions were worthy of Onja’s magic, and Atathol was actually relieved when the Kezanada only bowled rudely through the Zenglawa group. The tribute caravan hurried into the pass even though it was dusk. The road would allow them to travel at night, and Atathol wanted to get into the Jingten Valley before stopping, especially with the Overlord on this side of the pass.

The Overlord directed his warriors to make camp in an area commonly used by caravans. Pelafan considered the site overly visible especially when he saw they intended to have fires, and he even gave the Overlord his unsolicited opinion.

Rather testily, the Overlord responded, “Then you and Sutah will monitor for spies all night. The rebels will think we are the Zenglawa anyway.”

Receiving all night guard duty for his complaining did not please Pelafan but he did not protest. He did not want the Overlord to change his mind about attacking.

~

Clouds gathered against the Rysamand, creating a starless black night, and Dreibrand paced beside his campfire like a chained dog. The thought of the rys returning with the night agitated him greatly. He knew he had been lucky to beat them off the night before and he did not know how he would fare in a second confrontation.

The uncertainty of the night gave Dreibrand a bad feeling. He had just come back from the lookout ridge where he had seen the fires of what he assumed to be the Zenglawa camp. The tribute caravan had moved out of sight from his vantage point and disappeared in the dusk before the campfires had appeared in the evening, but their closeness bothered him. As an Atrophaney officer he had always been confident in his superior forces and victorious outcomes, but he did not have those sensations tonight. Dreibrand believed his Hirqua warriors were durable enough but they were not the Horde.

Tytido shared Dreibrand’s fire, poking it with a stick and watching his general pace. When Dreibrand noticed his lieutenant observing him thoughtfully, he stopped because he should not let the others see him be so bothered.

Dreibrand touched his chestplate that covered the warding crystal hanging around his neck. Quietly he said, “Lieutenant, do you think those rys will come back?”

Tytido considered a moment, watching the flame that had started on the end of his poking stick. He did not blame his commander for being worried. Tytido remembered the sho dart and he did not want the rys to come back either.

“Sir, I think they might. Pelafan will plan some nasty trick if he can. You captured him and tied him up. For a rys that is quite humiliating, but I don’t know why they were bothering us in the first place,” Tytido said.

Dreibrand squatted next to Tytido and said, “I have a warding crystal. I think that is what they wanted.”

“You do?” Tytido cried, but Dreibrand motioned for him to keep his voice down.

“It is from Shan. Do you think Pelafan and Sutah would want something like that?” Dreibrand asked.

“Who wouldn’t? Can I see it, Sir?” Tytido asked eagerly. He had seen warding crystals before in temples and in the throne room of Onja when he had accompanied his tribe’s tribute caravan, but he had never touched one.

Dreibrand hesitated but he decided he could trust Tytido. He slipped the orb out of its pouch and handed it to Tytido, who admired the swirling light within the perfect sphere.

“It is my guess that those rys will go to Atathol and convince him to attack us,” Dreibrand whispered.

Tytido looked up from the fascinating charm. Trying to be optimistic, he said, “Sir, they will not leave their tribute to attack us.”

Because Tytido seemed so sure, Dreibrand considered that he could be worrying too much. Yet, he could not ignore his instincts, and he persisted, “You said yourself that I humiliated the rys, and I know they are up to something.”

Handing the warding crystal back to his general, Tytido said, “Sir, I know you were upset last night because the rys got into camp. It will not happen again. I have doubled the guard and assigned everyone two watches tonight. Get some rest, Sir. Do not let these bandit rys rattle your mind.”

Dreibrand disliked Tytido’s opinion that he was rattled, and he clung to his desire to take the initiative. “I am going to see what is going on in that camp up the mountain.  I will be back before dawn,” Dreibrand announced.

Startled, Tytido protested, “Why do you want to do that?”

“Pelafan and Sutah cannot detect me, or at least I think so. And if I have what they want you will be safer without me,” Dreibrand said.

“And if they can’t detect you, how will they know you have left the camp? They might attack anyway,” Tytido reasoned.

Dreibrand growled with frustration because his lieutenant had a good point. “But I must know what is going on at that camp,” he insisted, starting to pace again.

Tytido stood up to argue with his commander. He was beginning to like Dreibrand, even respect him, but sometimes the foreigner’s mind raced off in strange directions. Tytido did not know what went on in the eastern world, but on his side of the world, commanders did not rush off to enemy camps in the night.

Somewhat sternly, Tytido said, “It would be foolish to leave camp, Sir. Especially with rys around. We must stay together. If you go scouting, you could be captured.”

Dreibrand really disliked the possibility of being captured. He stopped pacing and then reluctantly plunked down next to the fire. Tytido’s candor had not angered him. Perhaps his scouting idea was foolish, and Dreibrand realized that he should let himself rely on the advice of his lieutenant sometimes.

The loss of sleep from the night before suddenly caught up with Dreibrand and his shoulders sagged with weariness. He would rest.

“I would have done well to have your wisdom to restrain me in the past, Lieutenant,” he said.

Subtle happiness lighted Tytido’s face. He sat down and resumed poking the fire. “Thank you, Sir,” he said.

With Tytido watching, Dreibrand went to sleep, but he left his armor on this night. The silvery glow of the coming dawn outlined the mountains when Tytido gripped Dreibrand’s shoulder to wake him. Dreibrand was surprised by the depth of his sleep as he shook it off and sat up. The first bird had not even broken into morning song yet, but the entire camp was stirring and men were already gathering the hobbled horses.

“What is it?” Dreibrand asked.

Tytido gave him a hand up and explained that he had sent scouts up the pass in the middle of the night and they had just reported back.

With a frown, Dreibrand reminded him that he had said that it would be foolish to go scouting with Pelafan and Sutah out there.

“Foolish for you, Sir,” Tytido said. “But you were right to believe that there was danger. A group of Kezanada is on the road. If Pelafan and Sutah told them about us, we could be in trouble.”

Dreibrand regretted mentioning Shan to Pelafan, and he imagined the deal the rys could make with the Kezanada. He had no doubt that the rys had contacted the mercenaries of Onja, and he took little comfort in the vindication that his worries had been warranted.

“How many?” Dreibrand asked as he bent to grab his sword belt and buckle it on.

“Fifty, we think,” Tytido estimated, going high.

Dreibrand called to Redan to get his horse, and the Zenglawa promptly scrambled off on his errand. Dreibrand decided, “We will give the Kezanada a chance to pass by in case they are not looking for us.”

Tytido nodded hopefully. Although Tytido had been eager to assail the tribute caravan of the Zenglawa earlier, he showed no signs of suggesting an attack this time. Tytido had known that this rebellion business would put him in conflict with the Kezanada, but now that this might actually happen, he found the concept had lost some of its allure.

Dreibrand noted the apprehension on his lieutenant’s face and had to ask, “Do the Hirqua have the stomach for fighting the Kezanada if it comes to that?”

Tytido’s face hardened into proud offense at Dreibrand’s rude question. “The Hirqua will stand in any fight,” he stated.

“Good! Now, Lieutenant, forgive the question. I had to know your mind because everyone speaks of the Kezanada with fear,” Dreibrand explained.

“Once we all fight together, hopefully there will be no more doubts about each other’s courage,” Tytido said.

Catching his lieutenant’s meaning, Dreibrand went on with business. He glanced at the light peeking over the mountains. “We must have a plan if they attack. We will hold this position. If they attack us, we will give way to them against the cliffs. Then our force will split and attack their flanks. We will either squeeze them successfully…or have access to escape.”

“I do not like this splitting up against the Kezanada,” Tytido said.

Dreibrand insisted, “Splitting us will split them. This position is not important to us. Our goal is to avoid defeat. If their force is too large for us to handle, we will retreat and regroup at the first bridge down the road to the east.”

“You do not sound confident with all these plans of retreat,” Tytido remarked.

Dreibrand asserted his authority. “Tytido, it is your place to advise me, even criticize, but do not snipe at my tactics. I know what I am doing. We are a small scouting force, not an army for open battle. Intelligence demands I plan a retreat. We are not here to die, but to win. I intend to be in Jingten in the spring and if I have to make a few strategic retreats to get there, I will.”

Tytido apologized, grudgingly accepting that it was time for him to accept that his general had the command.

Gently, wanting to foster Tytido’s confidence in him, Dreibrand added, “I think we will win, Lieutenant.”

They went together to the lookout ridge to watch the road while the Yentay broke camp and mounted up.

The Kezanada advanced quickly down the mountain, easy to see in the morning light. Even at a distance, Dreibrand could discern the value of the warriors that were feared by even the mighty Temu. They were all big and strong and on good horses. They rode together in a close confident force that owned the road. The Kezanada obviously believed in their notorious reputation.

Dreibrand was an experienced warrior, but his encounters with fighters of this caliber had been rare. He breathed deeply of the cool mountain air, smelling its freshness, feeling how he was alive, and prepared himself mentally to be tested.

The Kezanada force left the road below his vantage point and headed directly for his position.

“So, it is a fight then,” Dreibrand whispered.

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It was a clear night near the pass and Dreibrand appreciated the dry weather. The stars sparkled like powdery snow in moonlight, concentrated in some places with such clarity that they looked like veins of pure silver in the basalt night. The mysterious howls of a few wolves on some distant hunt hidden in the mountains occasionally drifted to his ears, and Dreibrand remembered the night the wolves had attacked Miranda and him. That seemed a whole lifetime ago.

Staring at the stars from his bedroll, Dreibrand let his mind drift toward the celestial heights. The way the constellations shifted in his travels never ceased to amaze him. Comforted by the soothing vastness of the heavens, Dreibrand fell into a deep sleep.

Because he was tired, he did not wake out of habit and he slept past midnight. Eventually the mountain cold bothered him, rousing him enough to tighten the blanket around his body. He might have slipped back to sleep, but some nagging element of intuition told him something was wrong. Perhaps he had heard a crackle of frosted grass that sounded out of place.

Although his armor was off, Dreibrand still had his dagger in his belt and his sword by his side and most definitely his boots on. Sitting up, he eased his dagger out and listened closely. There were no noises to confirm his suspicions and he wondered if he was simply being paranoid.

He called to the nearest sentry. Two Hirqua soon appeared, worried by their general’s call, but they had nothing to report. Somewhat reassured after checking on the camp’s status, Dreibrand dismissed them and settled under his blanket. He held his dagger across his chest and tried to resume his deep sleep. Pine needles crunched under the boots of the sentries as they returned to their posts, and the camp was tranquil again.

But something had entered the camp, guided by the deepest shadows, and Dreibrand felt the closeness of an intruder at the last instant. As he flinched and dodged in a random direction, he heard a snapping click. The noise was vaguely familiar, but he did not place it at the time. Something small flew by his face and got stuck in his long hair. Then someone landed on top of him.

Slender hands clamped onto his throat. In the tussle, Dreibrand managed to stab the assailant in the arm. With a pained cry, the attacker withdrew his choking grasp and lurched back onto Dreibrand’s legs. The attacker called out several words, and Dreibrand instantly recognized the rys language. Another rys replied with a couple sharp words, and Dreibrand realized his attacker had a companion.

Tytido, who had been sleeping nearby, sprang from his blankets. He heard the brief exchange of rys words and located one of the intruders by his voice. A pair of onyx eyes gleamed in the inky dark and Tytido rushed the being bravely despite his inherent fear. He yelled, raising the alarm, but he never reached the rys. Click snap, and a dart stung his neck. Tytido immediately stumbled and the pain in his neck dispersed into numbness. In his sudden terror, while sprawling face first into the ground, Tytido thought he had been stricken dead by some punishing rys spell. Onja must have learned of his treachery and cast her judgement upon him.

Worries of Onja’s omnipotence did not occur to Dreibrand, but he did realize the intruders were using sho darts and their sharp rys perceptions could aim the nasty missiles in the dark. Thanking his luck for actually being missed by the sho dart, he delicately plucked the dart from his hair before it chanced to pierce his skin.

The rys he had stabbed was briefly stunned by the pain because rys rarely had injuries. Before the rys could renew the assault, Dreibrand thrust the sho dart into the rys’s cheek. The rys cried indignantly and Dreibrand shoved him away.

“Intruders in the camp!” Dreibrand yelled in his native language without realizing it.

Scrambling to his feet, Dreibrand lashed out with his dagger, seeking the second rys. The depth of the night cloaked everything except the stars and the black edge of the mountains, and the erratic movements of the alarmed warriors made it impossible for Dreibrand to interpret what he saw.

“Intruders! Do not let them get away. Stir the fires,” he commanded.

He rushed in what he thought could be the proper direction and tripped over Tytido. After Dreibrand stopped his fall, he rolled the motionless Hirqua over.

“Bring a light!” Dreibrand yelled.

Tinder was being thrown on the coals of several campfires and the flickering light thinned the dark. Someone lit a fresh torch and ran to Dreibrand’s summons. He was surprised to see that the torchbearer who had so swiftly answered his command was Redan. Dreibrand nodded to Redan with thanks then returned his attention to Tytido.

The light revealed Tytido’s frightened eyes in his somewhat slackened face. Dreibrand understood the frustration the Hirqua had to feel from the paralysis and the fear.

“You will be fine. This will pass. It is not magic, only poison,” Dreibrand explained.

This statement partially reassured Tytido but a stressed look remained in his eyes.

“Make him comfortable,” Dreibrand instructed Redan.

By now all the warriors were up. Most gathered near Dreibrand or circled the area searching for the other intruder. The injured rys was surrounded by warriors, who examined him cautiously. Dreibrand entered the circle of warriors to look at his captured attacker. Remembering Shan’s comment that sho darts worked well on humans, he wondered what effect the dart actually had on a rys. The glare of torchlight danced around the circle of Yentay, illuminating the fallen rys. The black haired rys had a lanky strong physique imbued with a tangible vitality, but his grace had been removed. The rys wobbled on his hands and knees, unable to coordinate his limbs enough to even crawl away. The normally intense black eyes had lost their focus.

The Hirqua warriors looming around the prisoner were intrigued by the incapacitated rys, whose kind tended to be haughty and casually intimidating. They saw the seeping stab wound and were impressed that Dreibrand had defeated the rys.

This success surprised Dreibrand as well. He knew how close the sho dart had come to its mark. But why did they attack me? he wondered.

Bending down on a knee, Dreibrand grabbed the rys and sat him up. The sho dart still dangled from the blue cheek and Dreibrand carefully removed it. The bright purple rys blood oozed from the puncture with a thick slowness that briefly mesmerized Dreibrand. Several warriors leaned close to look at the bleeding.

Dreibrand lifted the limp arm and examined the stab wound with a concern that contradicted the fact that he had inflicted the injury.

After ordering some bandaging, Dreibrand asked in the common language, “What is your name?”

The rys’s eyes drifted up to his captor’s face, but the chiseled blue lips fumbled on the words. Finally in a quiet slur, the rys responded, “Pelafan.”

“Pelafan, why did you attack me?” Dreibrand said.

“Who are you?” Pelafan said with confusion.

“I am the man you attacked,” Dreibrand explained, wondering how disoriented the rys could be.

After some dreamy consideration, Pelafan answered, “I attacked you because the sho dart missed…I panicked.”

Such an answer frustrated Dreibrand, but he resisted his rising temper. The rys appeared sincerely drugged, and Dreibrand needed to stay calm and take advantage of the rys’s weakened state.

“Why were you in my camp?” Dreibrand said.

Pelafan’s lips parted with the intention of answering but the effects of the sho dart were not sufficient to make him reveal his purposes. Taking pleasure in his last minute resistance, Pelafan grinned until his cheek hurt and he had to stop.

Although Pelafan gave unsatisfying answers, Dreibrand decided to ask more in the hopes that the rys would reveal something. “Were you looking for Shan?”

The mention of Shan’s name sent a flicker of focus through the rys’s eyes.

“You are Shan’s friend,” Pelafan stated as if he just recalled the fact.

Dreibrand pressed, “Do you want to find Shan?”

“No…not really,” the rys answered thickly.

Frowning, Dreibrand added, “Did Onja send you?”

Pelafan’s head rolled to one side. “No.”

“Who was with you?”

This question elicited no response, and Pelafan clearly was not inclined to reveal anything about his accomplice as a matter of principle, no matter how drugged he was. Sensing the rys would not easily give up his secrets, Dreibrand rose with frustration to reconsider his interrogation. He was still rattled by the attack and he needed to go over the event in his mind.

“We have not found the other intruder, Sir,” reported a warrior.

“Everyone is to watch the rest of the night,” Dreibrand decided with a scolding tone. The porousness of his sentry line upset him. Looking to the sagging Pelafan, he added, “And tie him up.”

“Rys magic will destroy any rope we put on him,” the warrior mentioned.

“Tie him up,” the general snapped. “And bring me his weapons.”

The man who had disarmed the fallen rys came forward and showed Dreibrand a long knife of the fashion the rys used and the small pistol that fired sho darts. Eagerly Dreibrand took the pistol that fit comfortably in his hand and examined the strange device with great interest. He located a compartment in the handle that contained three sho darts. Gingerly he rolled the delicate missiles in the palm of his hand, then put two back and set about figuring out how to load the weapon. He discovered a chamber that opened at the rear of the barrel and he pulled the trigger a few times to watch the inner workings of the mechanism. The trigger released a spring loaded bolt that drove the dart out the barrel. At the same time, the trigger also released a delicate clamping device that held the dart so that it would not simply fall out. The pistol was good for one shot and then it would take a moment to reload, but Dreibrand was glad to have it. He loaded the weapon with great care. He did not want to prick himself and fall over paralyzed in front of his men.

“I will guard the rys myself,” Dreibrand announced, gesturing with his new sidearm, courtesy of Jingten. “I should be able to keep Pelafan down for a while with three of these.”

The rys looked up blearily at the mention of his name, but Pelafan did not register that Dreibrand threatened him with more dartings.

The crowd of warriors dispersed, and Dreibrand sat down to study his prisoner. He tossed a branch on his fire to drive back the predawn frostiness. Redan entered the ring of firelight and bowed to his commander.

“How is Tytido?” Dreibrand asked.

“He is better, Sir. He is glad to know he is not dying,” Redan reported while his eyes strayed to the prisoner.

“Good. Now go watch the perimeter,” Dreibrand said absently.

Redan continued to study the prisoner and he did not leave. Dreibrand stared at him impatiently until Redan realized his general’s displeasure.

“The rys is a thief,” Redan blurted as an explanation for not leaving.

Intrigued, Dreibrand forgave Redan’s reluctance to go to his watch. “A thief? What makes you say that, Redan?”

“I am not certain, but it is a good bet. Rys thieves do lurk in the pass this time of year—for the tribute. They are rarely seen because they can usually avoid human detection at night. People in my tribe have always told stories about seeing rys thieves. Humans are often blamed for the nighttime pilfering because no other explanation is obvious. But I have reasons to believe the rumors,” Redan explained.

Although it was a guess, Dreibrand thought the possible explanation could fit. Pelafan wore a hodge podge of regular rys clothing and not the uniform of a Jingten soldier. If Onja had dispatched rys soldiers to attack the Yentay, Dreibrand assumed a rys war party would have attacked his camp outright. Of course, Pelafan might be a scout from a larger force, but Dreibrand preferred to believe he was just a thief.

Deciding to play with Redan’s theory, Dreibrand resumed his questioning of Pelafan. “Why are you a thief?”

Pelafan lifted his groggy head, considering the question.

Dreibrand continued, “Rys want for nothing. Every luxury is provided in Jingten. Why would a rys be a thief?”

In his doped state Pelafan saw no need to argue with this attack on his character. Dreibrand stated that he was a thief with such confidence, that Pelafan wrongly decided Dreibrand knew this fact.

“Jingten is so very…dull,” said the rys. “Stealing adds a thrill to my life.”

This one honest answer pleased Dreibrand. Hoping to gain insight into the rys’s loyalties, he slyly wondered, “Does Queen Onja not get angry that you take from her tribute?”

“Oh, do not say the words,” Pelafan moaned with as much alarm as his stupor would allow. “The Queen does not know. She pays little attention to the caravans as long as they arrive. And the humans never mention they lost some on the way.”

“This is not a tribute caravan. What did you come to steal from me?” Dreibrand said.

Pelafan shook his head. “Nothing,” he muttered lamely.

Dreibrand looked at the sho dart pistol and considered firing another one into Pelafan, hoping to disintegrate the rys’s resistance. If Dreibrand had been more certain of the effects on the rys, he would have done it. Instead he decided to save his three little darts, suspecting there would be a more urgent occasion for their use in the coming war.

He wished Shan had accompanied him on this venture. He had quickly gotten used to the company of his powerful friend. Shan would know the exact nature of this Pelafan and have the rys prisoner sharing all of his secrets. The idea of taking Pelafan back to Shan occurred to him but that might prove to be a futile undertaking. Dreibrand looked dubiously at the rope that bound Pelafan’s hands to his ankles. A rys, especially a rys that lived by thieving, probably did have a spell that could deal with plain rope, and Dreibrand had no iron manacles to better secure the rys. Trying to bring the rys back to Dengar Nor would probably not be worth the trouble.

Deciding he had enough of Pelafan’s slow answers, Dreibrand pondered the attack. What did this rys want from me? He was certain that he had been specifically singled out and the rys hoped to quietly assault him without arousing the attention of his warriors. If the sho dart had hit him, this would have been easily possible. Again, Dreibrand thanked the good half of his luck for being missed by the sho dart.

Pelafan took a deep rejuvenating breath and Dreibrand realized the sho dart was wearing off.

“I shall be free soon,” Pelafan announced.

“Then you better run away before I stab you again,” Dreibrand said angrily. His frustration had loosened his temper. He wanted to know what the rys thieves had hoped to gain from him, but the answer eluded him.

~

The rys ran until he could no longer hear the upset human camp. But his panicked flight riddled him with guilt. He should not have left Pelafan behind, who had been wounded and clearly needed help, but he had not expected the confrontation with the human to be so unnerving. The rys had no experience in handling a human protected by a powerful warding crystal, and the rys had no advantage against the aroused human in the dark. The sensation of encountering a human on nearly equal terms had overwhelmed him. When he heard Pelafan’s scream, he had fled in fear.

Turning back toward the human camp, the rys scowled and blamed Pelafan’s inaccurate sho dart for the disaster. Even though Pelafan could not perceive Dreibrand’s body with his mind, his companion thought he should have been able to make the shot at such close range. 

However, this rys was not altogether faithless and he intended to return to Pelafan. Relaxing, he began to meditate. The human camp was not far, but it was almost at the limit of his range. His observation yielded no information about Pelafan, and he assumed the man with the warding crystal must be too close to Pelafan and blocking his mind. With a tired sigh, the rys decided to rest. The warding crystal could not keep Pelafan from his sight under the light of day.

By the time the dawn broke across the top of the Rysamand, the rys had crept to the edge of the human camp and hidden himself among some broad-leafed foliage. The frosty ground felt as cold as a stone by a glacier, but the rys easily endured the chill. His race was of the mountains and the forces of winter caused him little bother. Calmly the rys concentrated on slowing his breathing to reduce the amount of steamy exhalations that might give him away in the bushes.

In the daylight the rys viewed the center of the camp and located Pelafan, who was miserably bound, but he could cast no spell in the area to assist his companion because the light haired human stood near his prisoner. This human was from beyond the Wilderness, and the rys had heard reports of him all summer from both humans and rys. Some Sabuto travelers had spoken of a strange man who served the Temu. The story in Jingten was that the human had badly angered Queen Onja and accompanied Shan into exile. What he was doing with a bunch of Hirqua, the rys could not guess.

Yesterday, when Pelafan and his companion had observed the arrival of the human warriors, they had noticed the foreigner. Normally this would have aroused only passing interest between the thieves, but they soon detected something very interesting about this man, or rather did not detect. When the humans had strolled out of sight and the rys watched them with their minds, the lifeforce of the blond man had been completely masked. They could discern his image in the daylight, but it had no substance, no pulse of existence, and they most certainly could not apply any spells to his body. 

Only one thing could cause a human to be so protected from rys magic, and the rys thieves coveted that item.

A warding crystal, a charm that only powerful rys could make, had to be on that man’s body. Knowing that the foreigner was a known associate of Shan, the rys thieves guessed that the crystal had to have been made by Shan, and therefore of exceptional quality. This kindled great desire in the hearts of the criminal rys. That warding crystal could command a great price from men, and the rys could have great fun with it themselves.

Even as Pelafan considered the rope that bound his limbs and the other rys waited anxiously nearby, both of them still pondered ways to obtain the warding crystal.

Shrugging to get comfortable in his armor, Dreibrand adjusted his swordbelt and secured his new sho dart pistol by his ivory handled dagger. All the time he watched Pelafan, noticing that a sharp gleam had returned to the rys’s eyes. He knew the sho dart had worn off and Pelafan should be making his promised escape attempt soon.

A little speck of blue light appeared in Pelafan’s eyes and a bright flame burst out of the rope. He jerked his hands out of the disintegrating bonds as soon as he could to avoid getting singed. Pelafan slapped at the burning rope and pulled it off his ankles. He stood up and with insulting indifference stretched the kinks out of his back as armed warriors gathered around. Dreibrand drew his pistol and leveled it at Pelafan’s face.

“Do not try to hurt anyone and you may leave,” Dreibrand offered.

“Oh, I may leave, may I?” Pelafan sneered happily. Despite his stab wound, he felt much more confident with the return of his natural abilities. “You only have enough sho darts to keep me down the rest of the day. What will you do after that, human?”

“I will use this if you try to hurt anyone. Now leave,” Dreibrand said.

“You call me a thief, yet you threaten me with my own property,” Pelafan ridiculed.

“Be glad you only lost your weapons for attacking me,” Dreibrand responded with equal contempt.

Reminded that the warded warrior had bested him, Pelafan held his tongue. He maintained his aloof posture, but he did not really want to tempt the human into shooting him again.

An outcry came from the east end of the camp when the other rys erupted from his hiding place and sprinted toward Pelafan. A Yentay hurled a spear, but the rys easily dodged it. Dreibrand immediately hollered orders to end any attacks on the second rys. He did not want to see any more rys blood shed, especially in a fatal way. Actually killing a rys would no doubt upset Shan, and more crucially, the citizenry of Jingten. It could be disastrous if the rys population decided to take Onja’s side in the war.

The warriors begrudgingly held back their weapons as the rys trotted to Pelafan’s side. The rys brandished a knife in one hand and a sho dart pistol in the other. Everyone carefully shifted away from whatever direction the pistol pointed.

“It lifts my heart that you came back for me, Sutah,” Pelafan greeted cheerfully in the rys language.

“No having a conference!” Dreibrand barked. “Get out of here.”

In a satirical expression of humility, Pelafan bowed to Dreibrand. “Sleep well, human,” he said and departed with Sutah.

Pelafan and Sutah ignored the watchful warriors as if they strolled through an empty forest. The snide parting words of Pelafan warned Dreibrand that the two rys planned on returning. He wished he knew what they wanted. They seemed to have no interest in Shan or Onja but they certainly meant to cause him more trouble.

After the rys sauntered down the slope and disappeared into the trees, Dreibrand went to the ridge overlooking the road. With the Jingten Pass in his view, he tried to comprehend the riddle of Pelafan and Sutah. He wished he could have met the rys on friendlier terms because chances were good that the two thieves had recently been to Jingten and probably knew information that would have been very interesting.

As the morning passed and Dreibrand had some peace, his thoughts settled on the probable reason for the undesired attention from the rys rogues. The warding crystal that Shan had given him lay against his chest in a neck pouch that he had acquired to hold it. Drawing out the pouch, he rolled the orb into his palm and contemplated the milky blue light. Shan had told him that the warding crystal would protect him from the magic of all but the most powerful rys, and Dreibrand realized the item would be valuable to any person. Pelafan and Sutah could have demanded a high price for it, or the rys might even have a use for the warding crystal. If it was the warding crystal that the rys sought, it did explain why he had been singled out among the men.

Whatever the reason, Dreibrand had to cope with two rys who wanted to personally assault him. He wanted to believe that Pelafan’s implied threat had just been a departing flourish of bravado. But if Dreibrand had learned one thing since crossing the Wilderness, it was that rys were proud: all rys were proud. Pelafan and Sutah would not accept defeat by a human.

Again Dreibrand wished that Shan was with him. Everything seemed so easy when Shan was riding at his side. Without the guidance of his rys friend, Dreibrand suddenly felt foreign and exposed in the western world.

Perhaps I came here to test myself as much as my men, he thought.

He heard the crunch of footsteps on the rocky trail to the lookout. Tytido appeared with the wind bristling his hair and tugging at his bright cloak.

“You bring news?” Dreibrand guessed.

“Sir, the Zenglawa tribute caravan is coming. A scout has just reported that they are on the road,” Tytido said.

Keenly interested, Dreibrand looked down to the exposed road, but it was still empty.

Pointing to the lower reaches of the road before its curves became lost in the landscape, Tytido explained, “We will see them any time now.”

“Do you know how many warriors escort the caravan,” Dreibrand asked.

“Yes Sir, one hundred twenty. King Atathol’s honor guard of fifty warriors and then warriors from other Zenglawa families. You can’t take many warriors to Jingten, but his escort is a little on the high side. King Atathol knows he has lost a few friends,” Tytido observed.

“Why should he be worried? King Taischek told me no one should attack during the tribute season,” Dreibrand commented while he shaded his eyes to watch the road. He could now discern a column of Zenglawa warriors escorting several wagons, but the distance was too great for him to determine which rider was Atathol.

“Yes, that is true,” Tytido delicately agreed. “But with rebellion in the land, anything could happen.”

Grinning broadly, Dreibrand took his attention from the road and looked Tytido in the eye. He knew what his lieutenant was suggesting, and he admitted that it was tempting. Atathol’s personality and attitude had not been endearing to Dreibrand, and the Zenglawa King was vulnerable. Dreibrand doubted he would catch this enemy of Shan with fewer warriors again.

I wish I had more men, he thought.

“Some treasure today would be good,” Tytido urged.

“There is much more treasure in Jingten. None of you are wasting your time with me,” Dreibrand said.

While watching the full length of the Zenglawa force come into view, Tytido privately decided not to press the issue of an attack. “Truly one caravan is nothing compared to Jingten,” he agreed.

“Where is Redan?” Dreibrand suddenly asked.

“He is in the camp—being watched,” Tytido answered.

“Thanks for thinking of that, Lieutenant,” Dreibrand approved. “Does he want to go back to his people?”

Tytido shrugged. “He does not seem to care, Sir.”

“You consider him faithless?” Dreibrand searched for the Hirqua’s opinion.

“I mostly find Redan strange. But if I were a Zenglawa I would leave my tribe too,” Tytido replied with a chuckle.

“The Zenglawa were your confederates for a long time,” Dreibrand noted.

“Just because peace is good does not mean the Zenglawa are,” Tytido said flatly.

Observing the caravan, Dreibrand said, “They do seem eager to reaffirm their loyalty to Onja.”

Tytido recalled all of the tribute caravans he had seen his tribe assemble over the years. Shaking his head, he commented, “All of us have been fools to give our wealth so easily to Onja. I am proud that the Hirqua have ended this practice. I sincerely hope that Shan will mind his own business once he is King of Jingten.”

“He will,” Dreibrand said and believed it. “Shan has no wish to tax the human nations.”

“The Hirqua leaders worry that Shan will favor the Temu more than the others. Give the Temu power to conquer other tribes,” Tytido said. He felt comfortable mentioning this to Dreibrand, who was not a Temu but might offer valuable insights into the relationship between Shan and the Temu.

Dreibrand did not quite know how to respond. If Shan and Taischek had some kind of private power deal, he did not know. Even if he did know, he served both the Temu King and Shan and it would be wrong for him to talk about it. Dreibrand believed the concern of the Hirqua was a natural conclusion, but he had seen no hint that it was true.

“Lieutenant Tytido, you have volunteered to serve Shan, and I know Shan will not forget the help you gladly offered. In truth, Shan dislikes death and violence and he would not sow seeds of war between his allies,” Dreibrand said.

These words satisfied Tytido somewhat and he said, “I mentioned this so that you would know—so that Lord Shan would know—some of the concerns among the Hirqua.”

“Shan will know,” Dreibrand promised.

Although he did not doubt Tytido’s loyalty to Shan’s cause, he now saw that Tytido had been sent forth with a specific agenda. Clearly, Shan’s allies desired equal favor from the future rys king, and it was nice to know he was in a position to influence the rys’s favor. Dreibrand saw how much he had to gain. Shan gave him opportunities that had not been available to him in Atrophane, but the stakes were perilously high.

Dreibrand read approval on the faces of the volunteers when Shan informed them that he would be their commander. The volunteers saw that Shan favored the man from the east, and Dreibrand’s growing reputation as a warrior had reached their ears. And although no one dared to mention it in the company of a large Temu war party, it did suit them that Dreibrand was not a Temu.

Shan told the volunteers that they and any others who joined their group would be called Yentay, which was the rys word for someone who climbs the highest mountain. The men found it typical that a rys would use such a poetic concept, but the symbolism was not lost.

 When Dreibrand assumed command of the Hirqua and Nuram volunteers, his first order was that they must elect their officers before they reached Dengar Nor. Having had no personal experience with these men who had joined Shan’s cause, he judged that deferring to their choices would be the best way to select a first and second lieutenant.

This suggestion was well received by the Yentay, and Dreibrand felt the familiar comfort of a successful command returning quickly. He had been trained for such things, and he was good at such things. Enjoying the glow of his brand new command, Dreibrand had not expected immediate complaints, but they erupted when he introduced Redan.

Neither the Hirqua nor the Nuram wanted a Zenglawa among them. The attack on Shan at the Common Ground had offended all the Confederates. When a few Yentay recognized Redan as one of the assassins, the yelling started.

Dreibrand looked sideways at Redan and noted that the Zenglawa faced the derisive hostility with calm and determination. Dreibrand called for silence and had to shout the order several times while Shan watched impassively.

Dreibrand stifled his displeasure because it made sense that the Yentay would resist Redan. Clearing his throat, he said in the common language, “Redan surrendered himself to Lord Shan and claimed that he believes in our cause and wishes to serve. I am aware that Redan was among the archers who so wrongfully attacked Lord Shan, but he did not take his shot. Lord Shan knows this to be the truth.” He looked to Shan, hoping the rys would offer confirmation. Without it, Dreibrand doubted he could ever get the Hirqua and the Nuram to accept Redan.

Shan nodded once, and the Yentay murmured.

Dreibrand continued, “Lord Shan chose not to punish Redan. He will be given a chance among us, but he must prove his loyalty. I will be judging his service and any of you should feel free to report to me if you see him doing anything wrong. For now, as you can see, he is unarmed.”

The Yentay looked at Redan and reconsidered. The Zenglawa did not look very intimidating. Redan had a black eye and bandages wrapped his burned hands. Begrudgingly the volunteers withdrew their protest, but no one would agree to ride double with the Zenglawa who had no horse. Dreibrand did not ask the Temu for a spare horse because he did not think it would be appropriate to trouble them over a Zenglawa.

He will probably run away before walking all the way to Dengar Nor, Dreibrand thought.

But Redan did not leave, and every evening after falling behind the column of riders, he would straggle into camp, get harassed by sentries, and eventually be allowed to enter. He would offer to take his turn at the watch, but no one trusted him so he would just relax by himself. When Dreibrand saw this, he found chores for him to do and observed that Redan suffered his hazing with patience and confidence.

On the third day of travel Dreibrand watched the sun rise. Although as a commander Dreibrand did not take a sentry position, he awoke well before dawn out of habit. They would be in Dengar Nor before the day was over and Redan was still with the group.

He had stayed in the Yentay section of camp but Miranda had spent the night in the nearby village. They had reentered the Temu heartland and better accommodations had become available for the King and a portion of his entourage. Taischek had invited Miranda to use the local guesthouse, and she had graciously accepted. When Dreibrand had awakened in the night, he missed her reassuring presence but it was fitting that she have a bed. He would have very much liked to join her, but he had thought it best to stay with his command.

Warriors stirred around Dreibrand, stretching the stiffness from their backs after sleeping on the cold ground. Each night was cooler than the last, and the frost was not far off in the future. Five Hirqua warriors and one Nuram warrior approached him in the brightening morning. Tytido of Clan Gozmochi was among them, and he saluted Dreibrand.

“According to your order, we have chosen our officers, General,” Tytido said.

“Call me Sir,” Dreibrand decided.

“Yes Sir,” Tytido said. “I have been elected the first lieutenant, and U’Chian of the Nuram has been elected second lieutenant.”

U’Chian bowed to Dreibrand. Like all the Nuram he kept the sides of his head shaved and the remainder of his long black hair tied in the back. The Nuram wore a plainer style of dress than the colorful Hirqua and the extravagant Temu. Dreibrand was pleased that his officers reflected both tribes. He looked back to Tytido and he was not surprised that this Hirqua had been elected. Tytido seemed to be the leader of the Hirqua volunteers as it was, and Dreibrand might have chosen the man anyway, because he was obviously intelligent.

Dreibrand asked the other warriors to confirm the election of Tytido and U’Chian and they stated that it had been so.

“I am pleased, and I know that you will perform your duties well,” Dreibrand said. “I realize that we will need some time to get used to working with each other, but our common interest in the defeat of Onja will bind us together. I intend for us to be the best warriors who serve Shan. We will be with him all the way to Jingten, and when he is king, he will have no lack of wealth to reward us with.

“But we have much to do until then. I have a good deal of military experience, but that was in my land, and I realize that some things are different here. We will learn from each other, because I know you have much to teach me of your part of the world. Because victory does not come to the idle, we will begin right away. Today I will ask Lord Shan if we can go on a patrol of the wild lands between the Temu Domain and the Jingten Pass. I believe the hardest part of our war will take place there, and I need greater knowledge of that area. If it pleases Lord Shan, we will leave tomorrow. The comforts of the Temu capital can wait until winter.”

“I look forward to it, Sir,” Tytido said.

“Good. Now get the men in their saddles, Lieutenant. We do not want the Temu to think we are slow,” Dreibrand ordered.

“That will not happen, Sir,” Tytido promised cheerfully.

The Temu war party and the Yentay passed through the village where Taischek, Shan, and Miranda joined them. Miranda rode by Dreibrand, and he noticed she looked tired despite having had a bed to sleep in. With hindsight, he worried that traveling to the council might have aggravated her recovery, and he was glad that she would be back in Dengar Nor that night.

Shortly after leaving the village, Miranda abruptly left the column and rode behind a hedgerow. When she did not return in a timely manner, Dreibrand veered from the road and went back to find her. Her roan gelding browsed casually on the hedge but he could not see Miranda. After dismounting, he heard her hacking on the other side of the shrubbery. Traveling with the Horde and camping in close proximity with thousands of people had given Dreibrand the unenviable skill of knowing the sound of almost any bodily function within ten paces, and he knew she was sick.

“Miranda,” he called nervously, trying not to rush to her and invade her privacy.

“I am coming,” she replied weakly.

He heard her canteen slosh as she rinsed out her mouth. When she came out from behind the hedge, she forced a smile and chided, “Can’t someone use the bushes in peace?”

“You are sick,” Dreibrand cried, rushing to her and laying a hand on her forehead. In a flash his concern turned to desperate worry. He had seen fevers strike people dead in a day.

Her green eyes shifted as if she considered contradicting the truth. “It is nothing,” she insisted.

Her forehead did not feel hot, but Dreibrand was still anxious. “This could be a fever. You should not have made this trip,” he fretted.

Seeing his terrible worry, Miranda tried to put him at ease. “My stomach was upset. Everyone has an upset stomach sometimes,” she said.

“But it might be worse,” he whispered.

“Dreibrand, I watched my mother and all of my brothers and sisters die of fever. I know this is not that,” she assured him.

He held her close, feeling a great compassion. She had not told him that about her family before. Every time she shared something about her past, it was so ugly, and he could understand why she kept so much to herself.

“If you are sick, I will change my plans. I will stay with you—I promise,” he said. He had told her earlier that he intended to talk to Shan and Taischek at the midday break about the mission he had planned for the Yentay, but he truly would not leave her if she fell ill. He hoped it was just a brief stomachache, as it seemed.

Miranda nudged him. “Let us go. We have fallen too far behind.”

Indeed all of the riders were gone and Redan walked by on the road. Miranda eyed the Zenglawa with dislike as Dreibrand helped her back into the saddle. Bruises still distorted the handsome high cheek-boned face of Redan, who looked at her with curiosity. When Dreibrand looked at him, he turned his eyes quickly back to the road.

“I do not like him,” Miranda stated firmly.

“I see quality in him. I believe his wish to serve Shan could be real,” Dreibrand said.

“Shan only tolerates him to show that he is merciful. That he is better than Onja,” Miranda complained.

Dreibrand responded, “Shan needs to inspire loyalty in as many ways as he can. I want Redan to have his chance. It is not an easy thing to go against your people.”

Miranda shot him a piercing look, guessing Dreibrand’s reasons for giving the Zenglawa a chance.

During the midday break, Dreibrand approached Taischek.

“Those Hirqua aren’t giving you any trouble are they?” the King teased. “Because if they are, I’m sure Xander could advise you.”

The Temu General brightened after his King’s kind comment, but Dreibrand politely declined any assistance.

“King Taischek, my visit does concern the volunteers,” Dreibrand said. “I came to ask you and Shan if I could take them on a patrol right away.”

“A patrol?” Shan said with curiosity.

“Yes, into the foothills east of the Temu Domain and up to the pass. I believe this is the likeliest place that Onja will put her allies to stop us, and I want a better knowledge of the land. Also I would like to observe the tribute caravans. I would like to verify that the Tacus and Hirqua do not pay and I want to see who does. But most importantly I need to get to know my warriors, and they need to get used to my command. This is best accomplished in the field,” Dreibrand explained.

“I see that you have given this much thought,” Taischek complimented.

“You are kind, King Taischek. But I must look to the discipline of these volunteers. I should keep them busy and not leave them to get bored in Dengar Nor,” Dreibrand said.

“Well I don’t know about being bored in Dengar Nor, but I see what you mean,” Taischek joked. “What do you say, Shan?”

The rys responded, “It is a good idea. Dreibrand will be able to judge the abilities and the loyalties of the Yentay.”

“Then you have my leave to travel east in the Temu Domain. When you are beyond my borders may your wits serve you well,” Taischek decided.

“Thank you. I will see what manner of men have joined us, and hopefully learn something of our enemies. I would like to see these Kezanada for myself,” Dreibrand said.

“Oh, don’t look too hard for them,” warned the King.

“Yes. Taischek is right,” Shan chimed in. “I know you are anxious to learn the details of the west, but be careful. You would not like to see the Kezanada.”

Taischek added, “And don’t look to make battles. Do your reconnaissance, but the war season is over. I don’t want some petty tribal leader complaining to me that you attacked him during the tribute season. That is not something you want to do.”

“Yes. I have no wish to waste warriors before they are needed,” Dreibrand assured them.

“Well, hurry back then, Dreibrand. The winter will be long, and you will need to entertain an old king with tales from your side of the world,” Taischek said.

“I look forward to it. But there is one more thing.” Dreibrand paused, trying to hide his discomfort. “I will need some provisioning. I mean, the Yentay will need some provisions before we leave tomorrow.”

Taischek scowled automatically and muttered in his native tongue.

Shan said, “Dreibrand, I will make arrangements for such things. The Yentay will need barracks as well. Taischek, do you remember that line of credit I was talking about?”

The King’s cheeks puffed out as he exhaled slowly. “How could I forget?” he grumbled.

“Now my friend, you must remember this is all an investment toward much greater things,” Shan soothed.

“Yes, yes, it isn’t a problem. Now let’s get to Dengar Nor,” Taischek said, signaling for his horse.

As soon as the king bustled to get back on his horse, warriors lounging along the road quickly concluded their break. The Yentay were the rear guard and Dreibrand hurried down the road to join them. With a light step, Shan appeared by his side and Dreibrand slowed to listen to the rys.

“Just one thing, Dreibrand,” Shan said very seriously. “I do not want you to go all the way into the Jingten Pass. You can approach but do not enter. Then you would be in the Rysamand, and her power can reach there.”

Thinking about Onja’s magic was sobering and Dreibrand took the warning seriously.

“Do not get any ideas. You do not want to go into the Rysamand without me,” Shan whispered.

“Then come,” Dreibrand whispered back with enthusiasm.

The turmoil showed on Shan’s normally neutral face. He wanted to go home. He wanted to be King of Jingten. He wanted to return Miranda’s children, but he did not want to lose.

“Not yet—I am sorry,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand said, disappointed.

“I will check on you when I can. And take your warding crystal,” Shan concluded when Dreibrand reached his horse.

The rys took a moment to speak pleasantly to Miranda before trotting to the front of the column to ride with the King.

The lovely city and castle of Dengar Nor appeared before sunset, and Taischek was glad to be home. With the Confederate Council over and no tribute to take to Jingten, he could settle in for the winter.

When Dreibrand and Miranda reached their apartment, Miranda flopped gratefully onto her soft wide bed. She had discovered that the rigors of the road became more acute after one had become accustomed to comfortable furnishings. Dreibrand stretched out next to her and brushed her curling locks from her face. She seemed to be fine and her cheeks had a healthy glow.

“See, I have no fever,” Miranda said happily.

He kissed her and she moaned happily as his arms tightened around her. It was good to be alone.

“Must you leave so soon?” she asked.

“I will be here until morning,” he said, as if that were all the time in the world.

“But what will I do tomorrow night?” she pouted.

Dreibrand stopped kissing her and looked at her with a little shock. He could see that she had made the comment specifically to disturb him, and he was not used to her toying with his feelings.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

Miranda smiled and curled one of the small braids on the side of his face around her finger. “It was only a little joke, Dreibrand. Do not look so upset.”

He had not realized he looked upset. His forehead wrinkled with thought and he sat up. He was upset.

“Well, why did you, um, make a joke like that?” he fumbled with his words and was not sure what he wanted to say.

Miranda took his hand. Softly she said, “Dreibrand, I am sorry. You have my faith.”

The confusion left his blue eyes and he looked at her with complete relief. It touched Miranda to see that his emotions for her were so intense.

Her voice became timid and she continued, “But, I was thinking, that maybe I want to know if I have your faith. We are lovers but there have been no words between us, and you are going away again…” Miranda trailed off. It had been difficult to say so much, to show that she wanted him to continue to care for her.

“Is that all,” he said with a happy little chuckle, embracing her as he did before. “I am yours, Miranda. I do not have time for other women, and what use would they be to me? Could I count on them to save my life? Could I trust them, as I do you? When I fought with the Sabuto, it was you I wanted to live to see. Trust me, Miranda, you are very special to me—I am in love with you.”

Dreibrand saw that his declaration startled her, and he realized that perhaps no one had ever said anything so kind to her before. He did not expect her to return the endearment, but he did not regret telling her. She had wanted assurances, and now she had some.

Miranda did not know how to respond. She supposed she should not be so surprised. His love had always been apparent in his actions, but it was still difficult for her to imagine someone loving her. Before she could say anything, someone pounded on the door.

“Who could that be?” she wondered.

Dreibrand bounced out of bed with excitement. “Our clothes. As soon as we got here, I sent a servant to tell the tailors we were back and to bring our order immediately,” he explained.

Miranda followed him out of the bedroom and he was already opening the door. After all the serious events at the council, she had forgotten about all the clothes Dreibrand had bought for them. She recognized the tailors he had hired when they entered with four servants carrying two trunks.

The dressmaker greeted Miranda with practiced delight and fussed until his servants opened a trunk. He brought forth three dresses, a cloth quilted jacket, a fur jacket, a long outer robe meant to be worn over dresses when the weather was cold, and a black wool riding habit with pants. Tassels and beadwork and embroidery adorned all of the outfits, and Miranda had the decent beginnings of a Temu lady’s wardrobe. She marveled at the beautiful clothes. The fine fabrics she had picked looked far more wonderful than she had imagined.

“Well, put something on,” Dreibrand urged.

While Miranda retreated to the bedroom, Dreibrand checked out his new clothes. He unloaded the trunk himself, too impatient to wait while the servants tried to do it dramatically. He had basically been in tatters since the Wilderness, and he was glad he could look presentable now.

“Will you want to do a final fitting now to see if any alterations are necessary, Sir?” the tailor asked.

“Not now. Send someone back tomorrow to help the Lady Miranda. For me, I will just use what I can for now, and get back to you later. I am leaving the city again,” Dreibrand answered.

“So soon, Sir?” the tailor inquired and his associate and the servants quieted themselves to listen.

“Cannot be helped,” Dreibrand said.

“The news from the council I hope is not bad, Sir?” the tailor wondered.

“No, not at all,” Dreibrand replied and indulged them with some news from the King’s trip.

“I wish I could’ve seen Lord Shan use his magic. That must have been a sight,” a servant commented dreamily and received five stern looks because he had interrupted Dreibrand.

Dreibrand used the opportunity to end his report. He had told them all they needed to hear, and he did not want to mention why he was leaving town or where he was going.

“Ah, here it is,” Dreibrand said as he pulled the last item out of the trunk. It was a mid length blue cloak lined with fur and he would need it in the highlands this time of year.

Dreibrand paid the tailors and dismissed them so he could be alone with Miranda again.The night passed quickly and Dreibrand was anxious to leave. He awoke and dressed before dawn after catching two hours sleep. Miranda and he had stayed up late enjoying their time together.

Miranda stirred when he sat at her bedside. Only a gray hint of dawn brightened the drapes.

“Wait for me and I will go see you off,” she offered after a sleepy groan.

“No need. I have some things to do in the city first. It will be boring. Stay here and sleep. I insist,” he said and brushed a kiss across her forehead.

He set a heavy purse next to her and placed her hand on it. “Here. This is most of the gold. If you want anything do not hesitate to buy it.”

“I only want you to come back safely,” she said.

“I will not be long. A couple weeks maybe. Not enough time to worry,” he said cheerfully.

When he stood to leave, Miranda stopped him with her hand. She regarded him thoughtfully and Dreibrand assumed she wanted to say something else.

“What?” he pressed because she did not speak.

“Nothing,” she said letting him go. “Just come back, General.”

He grinned when she used his title, but it reminded him how eager he was to be off. Miranda smiled back and her eyes drooped lazily with returning sleep. Dreibrand left quietly.

He made his arrangements for provisions at one of Taischek’s official storehouses and then he collected the Yentay, who had been given a barracks in the city. The Yentay were waiting for him with their horses saddled, and Dreibrand complimented Tytido on their readiness.

The general inspected his small company, impressed by the enthusiasm of the young men who had joined Shan. He understood their motives. Being a part of the rebellion against Onja had a tremendous allure, with both adventure and reward.

He found Redan standing in the last row. The proud face of the Zenglawa actually looked embarrassed that morning because he still had no horse.  Dreibrand halted Starfield by the outcast volunteer.

“Do you still wish to serve Lord Shan?” Dreibrand demanded.

“Yes Sir.”

Dreibrand grabbed a short sword in a worn scabbard out of his saddlebag that he had picked up in the city that morning. Tossing the cheap weapon to the Zenglawa, he said, “You will not be much use without a weapon.”

Redan snatched the falling weapon with a bandaged hand that moved with speed. He smiled while strapping on the sword.

“Sir, I would be of much better use with a bow,” Redan mentioned with a cocky tone.

Dreibrand scowled at the presumptiveness and explained, “I do not think I want you shooting at anything yet.”

Remembering that he had yet to prove his loyalty, Redan resisted his natural urge to boast. He would never get to serve Lord Shan if he upset the mercenary commander.

Respectfully, he said, “Sir, I will pass this test of trust and I thank you for giving me a chance.”

“Well, you have passed your walking test. When we pick up our provisions, you will get a horse,” Dreibrand said.

Before Redan could thank him again, Dreibrand rode to the front of his small group and ordered them to move out. It did not take long for them to get their light supplies and leave the city.

By evening they were camping in the open lands east of the farmlands of Dengar Nor. Dreibrand called a meeting around the main fire, for which Redan had earned the privilege of gathering all of the wood. The smallness of the force allowed everyone to attend the meeting, and the Yentay appreciated the openness of their commander.

Although the beginning slopes of the Rysamand were three or four days away, Dreibrand shared his plans with them.

“We will find a position in the highlands where we can spy on the traffic going to Jingten. But tonight, I do have a special mission for a few men.”

The announcement caused murmuring throughout the group. Dreibrand looked at the surrounding faces until he had their full attention again.

“I want to send some spies into the Sabuto territory. Word will not have traveled there yet that any Hirqua or Nuram have volunteered to serve Shan. I want news from the Sabuto. Because Shan is such a close friend of Taischek, I expect the Sabuto to stay on Onja’s side. After what Shan did to Dursalene, I imagine they will want revenge.”

A few men chuckled and a nearby warrior said, “The Sabuto have no balls for revenge. They take their beatings, then go looking for weaklings to attack.”

Finding the comment interesting, Dreibrand noted that the reputation of the Sabuto was widely maligned.

“You recall that Onja offers a bounty for Shan’s head. Greed may make them bolder,” Dreibrand reminded. “I want the Sabuto monitored. A few men should visit a couple towns and gather the news. If they are plotting anything big, something should come out in the gossip”

No one disputed Dreibrand’s decision, but no one was anxious to leave the main force and enter Sabuto territory.

“Would anyone like to volunteer?” Dreibrand prompted.

A few quiet conversations started in small cliques. U’Chian, the eldest of the Nuram cousins, spoke up first.

“Sir, we will travel through the Sabuto Domain and attempt to learn if they plot against Lord Shan,” said U’Chian.

“All five of you?” Dreibrand asked.

“We wish to stay together, Sir,” U’Chian responded.

Dreibrand considered a moment. He was not sure if he wanted to send the second lieutenant away so soon, but it was a good mission for a second lieutenant.

“And what Hirqua shall join them, Sir?” Tytido demanded, interrupting his thoughts.

Dreibrand understood that the Hirqua felt the Nuram had made his tribe look less bold. But Dreibrand liked his small Nuram team as it was.

“There will be no Hirqua. It would arouse suspicion to see Hirqua and Nuram traveling together in a foreign land,” Dreibrand explained. “I think it is best to send the Nuram.” With his decision made, he had no intention of letting it be debated. Beckoning to U’Chian, he gave him instructions. “Because you are with your kin, say you are out adventuring with your cousins. Which is maybe not far from the truth,” he added with a sly smile that the Nuram warriors reflected. “Say you are hunting or going south for the winter—whatever reasons young men have for traveling. Try not to be obvious but gossip in the towns as you go. After a week circle back to Dengar Nor, and I will speak with you when I return. If you learn something urgent, tell Lord Shan.”

“Sir, when should we go?” U’Chian asked.

“Leave us before dawn,” Dreibrand instructed.

After wishing the Nuram lieutenant luck and reminding him to be cautious, Dreibrand retired to his bedroll. With the fires burning low, Dreibrand lay in the dark and the old sensation of solitude in command returned to him. He remembered many nights with the Horde camped around him and still feeling alone. Being a commander satisfied him greatly, but when he lay awake in the darkness, he knew it was not everything. Thinking of Miranda, he craved her companionship. She brightened the quiet dark moments between his days as a warrior.

Dreibrand had three more nights alone with his thoughts as his force traveled east. They left the roads before reaching Fata Nor, desiring to avoid traffic. Using rough back trails that were sketched on the map the King had given him, Dreibrand led his men into the foothills. The bite of the wind increased with the elevation and the icy peaks loomed close and beautiful. Looking at the Rysamand, Dreibrand remembered Onja high and lovely on her throne but sinister as gangrene. The shriek of the Tatatook and the grumble of the glacier returned to his mind. He also remembered the depth of the Keep’s dungeon and the swiftness with which he had found himself in it. Patting Starfield’s strong neck, he admitted to himself that returning to Onja’s stronghold would be difficult.

The road to Jingten stretched below him now, winding into the pass. Tytido had brought him to a ridge south of the road that offered a spectacular view. A short hike away the Yentay were making a camp at the base of some cliffs. A thick stand of pines blocked the campsite from the road, and passing traffic would not notice their fires in the night. From this location, Dreibrand intended to monitor the road.

Currently the road was empty. To the east, the Jingten Pass yawned between its attendant mountains. He was getting close to the pass, but remembering Shan’s warning, he decided to stay well below the tree line. To the west he could see the setting sun, burning redly in a fluffy sea of clouds.

Turning to Tytido, he said, “This spot is perfect. It did not take you long to find it.”

Tytido grinned and admitted, “I knew about this spot. I have traveled with the Hirqua tribute caravan four times and I know the pass somewhat.”

“Good,” Dreibrand said, taking in the panoramic view again. “I am certain we will see something interesting from up here.”

They left the ridge for their hidden camp unaware that their arrival had already been noticed.

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.

Nufal was broken and dying but Dacian did not revel in his victory. A madness struck the King of Jingten and he cursed his own genius that won the war. He commanded our agents to put their weapons in the water, and when they did not want to, he made them obey with his magic—Urlen, Kezanada chronicler, year six of Amar’s Overlordship.

When the Atrophane heard that the rys Queen commanded them to stay in Jingten until spring, their impulse was to rush into the open city and conquer it. Kwan longed to do the same, but he would not allow it. More needed to be known about rys powers before attempting aggression. The Lord General ordered his men to be patient and observe the enemy.

Life remained pleasant for the humans, and the Jingten Valley grew more beautiful every day as the golden hues of autumn mingled with the deep green conifers. Although the Atrophane still camped in the forest, the rys supplied them well and were gradually outfitting some unused buildings for their housing.

Even a month after meeting the intimidating Queen Onja, Kwan still found the gathering of information about the rys to be painfully slow. His greatest obstacle was the language and he prioritized learning it and bade all of his men to pursue this interest. Unfortunately, the rys appeared to take little outward interest in the humans and they were openly snobby, rarely attempting to speak with them.

However, Taf Ila visited the camp daily and Kwan sought to learn from him. The rys captain showed little desire to oblige Kwan, but the Lord General wore him down with persistence, following the captain and asking incessant questions.

Because Onja had not forbidden it, Taf Ila finally began teaching Kwan in brief daily lessons. Giving the human some time each day was far better than suffering his constant badgering in a foreign language.

At first, progress was slow for Kwan. For a lifetime he had spoken only his native language. The conquered could learn to speak Atrophaney as far as he had been concerned, but now necessity motivated Kwan and he practiced diligently.

Learning the rys language from Taf Ila’s uninspired tutoring might have proved impossible for Kwan, but then the rys began to enjoy his daily sessions with Kwan and they became longer and more detailed. In all his centuries of life, Taf Ila had dealt with many humans on an official basis but he had never interacted with one on such a personal level before. His time with the human increasingly pleased him and Taf Ila grew to appreciate the other race, enjoying the differences and being surprised by the similarities.

Yet, Taf Ila disliked the presence of the humans because they reminded him of the changing times. He knew Queen Onja plotted to dominate Kwan’s homeland and in the mean time use his army in the coming war with Shan.

This war with Shan troubled Taf Ila most of all. The news from the lowlands was never good these days and getting worse.

Keeping his worries to himself, Taf Ila continued teaching Kwan. One afternoon during a lesson, they sat on a hillside overlooking Jingten. The humans would be moved into the city that night, but until then Taf Ila wished to enjoy the fine day out of the city. Pointing to the surrounding peaks, the rys told Kwan their names, obviously pleased to describe his homeland. Attentively Kwan listened. All knowledge of this strange land was good.

Abruptly Taf Ila halted his lecture and turned toward the trail that zigzagged up the hill. His relaxed and happy demeanor faded as he sensed his daughter approaching. He jumped up and marched down the trail.

Wondering what had disturbed his teacher, Kwan followed and saw a rys female scrambling up the slope.

“Hello Father!”

Kwan understood the greeting, but Taf Ila had never mentioned he had a family. Although rys did not show their age much, Kwan judged the female to be youthful. He thought she was lovely with fine sharp features and pure black hair, glistening like spun onyx. The tone Taf Ila used with the fair child surprised Kwan.

“Why are you here?” Taf Ila barked. “I told you not to come near the humans, and now you have just crossed their encampment.”

Quylan started to explain herself but her father interrupted.

“You have directly disobeyed me,” Taf Ila accused. I was having such a good day, he lamented.

“But I have a reason!” she blurted. “The Kezanada Overlord approaches.”

Looking at the west road in the valley below, Taf Ila said, “How do you know this?”

Quylan straightened her shoulders proudly and replied, “I perceived them. They are still many hasas away but I can see farther than most rys. No one else in the city has noticed their approach—”

“Stop bragging,” Taf Ila cut her off although her rapidly maturing powers impressed him. He knew his daughter could see even outside the Rysamand. “I assure you Queen Onja took note of them long before you did.”

Quylan frowned at the reminder but continued, “Father, I had to find you. Please let me come with you to the Keep when the Kezanada arrive. I must hear their news. Too many warding crystals protect the throne room and I will not be able to listen to the Overlord’s meeting with the Queen.”

Taf Ila gasped at his daughter’s words. He wanted to grab her and shake her, but he would never treat her roughly. His voice shook with emotion when he ordered, “Do not ever spy on Onja! Where do you even get such ideas? Quylan, do you think your silly young mind could elude the Queen? Onja would perceive you in a second.”

“Then take me with you, Father. Then I will have no need to spy,” she pleaded.

Sorry for his anger, Taf Ila said softly, “Do not concern yourself with such things. It is only the Kezanada tribute caravan.”

“But they are early!” Quylan insisted. Tribute caravans were never early.

Taf Ila shrugged. “The Kezanada are wealthy. They do not care when they pay.”

“But they must have news of Shan. Something must have happened,” Quylan said, revealing her true concern.

“Who are Kezanada?” Kwan interjected. Although he had not gathered why Taf Ila was upset with his daughter, Kwan did understand that a group called Kezanada approached the city.

Taf Ila had almost forgotten that Kwan waited nearby. He tried to explain, “They are…mercenaries. A society who sell their services.”

“They Onja’s enemy? Attack Jingten?” Kwan asked, almost hoping to see some action and maybe free himself of Onja before winter.

“No. They are no threat. They are paying their taxes,” Taf Ila said.

Disappointed, Kwan wondered what this society of mercenaries was like and why they paid taxes.

“Are Kezanada rys?” he asked.

Such a notion offended Taf Ila but he reminded himself that Kwan asked only out of genuine ignorance. “Humans,” he answered bluntly.

Since Kwan had spoken, Quylan had been staring at the human from the east.

“He does not look like the other humans,” she whispered.

“The humans from the east look different, but they are still humans,” Taf Ila explained quietly.

Kwan decided to introduce himself because they were talking about him. “Lord Kwan of Atrophane. Hello, daughter of Taf Ila.” He bowed politely.

His manners impressed Quylan. A human had never addressed her before and the encounter fascinated her. Taf Ila put a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. Normally he would not have introduced her to a human, but he felt the impulse to extend Kwan this courtesy.

“This is Quylan,” he said.

Kwan made an effort to recall some new vocabulary and managed to compliment, “She make you proud.”

With an exasperated smile Taf Ila admitted, “She makes me lose sleep.”

“Daughters,” Kwan laughed. “I have two girls.” He realized he had not thought about them for a long time.

“Then you will understand that you must excuse me. I have to take this daughter home,” Taf Ila said.

“Father, I want to go to the Keep,” she protested.

Taf Ila gently insisted, “I shall take you home, but I will tell you any news as soon as I can.”

Quylan had to accept her father’s decision but she pouted with disappointment.

“I hope Shan still lives,” she said.

Taf Ila winced. “Stop talking about Shan,” he ordered. “Lord Kwan, I will send rys to see you and your men to your new quarters tonight. I may not be available, but if you have any problems, send word to me at the Keep.”

Kwan nodded and thanked him. He wanted to ask more questions, but Taf Ila hurried away with his stunning daughter.

Now who is this Shan? Kwan thought.

~

Onja settled into her throne, excited to receive the Kezanada Overlord. Since the rysmavda executions in Dengar Nor, she had not observed the lowlands and she was looking forward to good news from the Overlord. The audacity of Shan’s tactics had angered her so terribly that she had stopped watching. His strategy would lose its effectiveness on her if she ignored it. If she did not see what was meant to frustrate her and advertise her reduced range of power, she would not suffer from the mental toll Shan wished to take from her mind.

The lives of a few priests were insignificant, and Onja had placed her hope in the Kezanada. She knew they had been massing for a strike against Shan and today Onja dared to think that they had been successful.

So pleased by the thought that the Kezanada had completed their assignment, Onja did not probe the mind of the approaching Overlord for confirmation. If Shan was dead, she wanted to experience the moment of delight without forewarning. Onja had even devised a special spell of preservation for Shan’s head to keep the trophy fresh and glorious.

The great doors opposite the Queen parted, admitting the Overlord and his entourage. The Overlord strode across the cool marble with the confidence of a very powerful man. He was a man of large build with a hefty girth and huge arms bulging with muscle. One long braid hung down his back, ending in a clasp set with a large ruby. A gold trimmed black mask covered half of his face because it was traditional for Kezanada to conceal their identities from people outside their society. His dark eyes peered through the mask with a cunning gleam. He possessed a creative and cruel intelligence that was sometimes subdued by the various things he put in his pipe. But today his mind was sharp and clear, as it always was when he met with Onja.

A jeweled belt held a scimitar to his waist and his mighty frame was clothed in richly embroidered robes that were trimmed with brightly dyed furs. His apparel conveyed a sense of excessive wealth more than taste, but the Overlord did not care if Onja saw how rich the Kezanada were. Most of the wealthy and powerful segments of society hired the Kezanada occasionally, and Onja often employed the Kezanada as agents of her malice. This gave the Kezanada the distinction of actually earning more from Onja than they paid in tribute. As the Overlord often liked to note, the rys so hated getting their hands dirty.

Onja clawed the armrests of her throne as she anticipated the news she wanted to hear. The Overlord stopped before her dais and kneeled, as did the rows of Kezanada behind him, who all looked the same in their horsetailed helmets with their visors down. Unmasked servants with shaved heads carried a large chest to the front of the throne room, stopping beside the Overlord.

Normally Onja would speak first, but she remained strangely silent. With his knees beginning to ache under his weight, the Overlord decided to proceed. Rising, he stepped over to the chest, and with a flourish, he flung it open. Gold, silver, jewels, curious rare crystals, chunks of uncut jade, and lovely figurines carved from alabaster and studded with lapis lazuli filled the chest.

The Overlord was fluent in the rys language, which was rare for humans, and he began his speech. “The Kezanada respectfully present their Goddess Queen, fair mistress of Jingten, with the finest prizes we have to offer from a year’s labor. Along with this magnificent chest of treasure, the Kezanada have brought cattle, grain, fine furs, and many items that will please the citizens of Jingten.”

With a sick expression Onja stared at the chest, curling her lips with displeasure. It was just the Kezanada’s usual tribute and the Overlord was giving his same old boring speech. The twinkle of treasure had never looked so dull to Onja. Somehow, Shan had robbed her of even this pleasure.

“Stop!” she thundered.

The Overlord obeyed and crossed his arms patiently. He had been waiting for the outburst.

“You were to bring me Shan’s head. I said you were excused this year’s tribute as downpayment for your service. Why are you here with your junk? Why do you not hunt Shan?” Onja demanded ominously.

The Overlord withstood her angry glare and explained, “The Kezanada have lost a hundred good men pursuing Shan. Great Queen Onja, we are only humans, and we cannot get near the powerful rys, who has so offended you. Shan knows where we are before we know where he is.”

Scowling, Onja said, “How could you have lost one hundred Kezanada?”

The Overlord felt his blood pressure surge. The news of the massacre in the Nolesh was still fresh and upsetting. Outwardly he maintained his trademark calm, answering, “I had massed a force in the Temu Domain to fall upon Shan when he left Dengar Nor. Then my people found this force all dead without any sign of battle, without so much as a wound. I can only conclude that Shan killed them with his magic.”

Onja frowned, scolding herself for not monitoring Shan, but she had hoped to avoid the exertion. And she had not expected Shan to do such things.

So, Shan finally used his superior powers to kill his precious humans, Onja thought with wicked satisfaction.

Despite the pleasure Onja gained from knowing how Shan must have been morally tormented by this action, she acknowledged his advanced use of power. Now more than ever, Onja knew she could not allow Shan to return to Jingten.

“So the Kezanada have given up,” Onja criticized.

The Overlord tolerated the sting in her words, but he had a purpose to his patience. “The Kezanada have already suffered their worst defeat in many generations and did not even engage the target. With such losses, we do not profit. The Kezanada have decided it would be worth it just to pay the tribute.”

“Since when can the Kezanada not be bought? Do you not want your revenge?” Onja stormed. She could not imagine that Shan had subdued the notorious Kezanada.

At the mention of revenge a subtle smile curved under the fringe of the Overlord’s mask. “Oh, the Kezanada desire Shan’s head,” he hissed.

“Then why are you here?” the Queen demanded again.

“We require your assistance, Great Queen,” he replied.

Onja glanced uncomfortably toward the attending Taf Ila, remembering his opinion of the bounty on Shan. She knew many rys would disapprove of her increased participation in the hunt for Shan. Onja had no fear of her subjects’ disfavor, but she did not want the distraction of a disgruntled citizenry either.

“Taf Ila, take your squad and leave,” she ordered.

For an instant Taf Ila almost protested the breach of security, but he caught his tongue. Onja and her mercenaries were discussing Shan, and he did not want to be involved. Without a word, he marched out with the guards.

This privacy made the Overlord wonder if he should be worried or impressed. Either way Onja certainly meant to talk seriously.

“What assistance do you have in mind?” Onja asked.

Containing his excitement, the Overlord said, “Give us some magic charm that will protect us from Shan so that we can approach him. Surely you must have such a thing.”

Onja did not answer. Although her face appeared inscrutable, the Overlord could guess that she had something on her mind, something important, something she did not want to tell him about.

Slowly the Queen made her reluctant decision and nodded. “I believe I have some items that will help you. Overlord of the Kezanada, meet me again tomorrow and I will give you that which you ask for.”

The Overlord bowed graciously to Onja and kept his thoughts buried.

Late that night, Hefshul ferried his Queen across the blackened lake. A cold wind howled down from the peaks and the old mute rys had to strain against the waves. Hefshul had long ago given up any concern for Onja’s activities, but his silent thoughts guessed the nature of her errand.

With the skiff rocking against the gravel shore in front of the Tomb of Dacian, Hefshul hunkered down into his fleece coat and watched Onja go ashore. The darkness was briefly broken by the blue sparkle of the Queen opening the magically sealed tower.

Places in the tower had not been entered since the days of warring with Nufal. On the day when Dacian had made his Last Law, the rys had thrown their enchanted weapons into Lake Nin, but Onja had stowed a few arms in the tower and she went to her ancient armory.

Onja removed the seal that she had placed on the armory door twenty-two centuries ago, and the air hissed out, delighting in its escape. Now secrets locked in forgotten silence could get out. A crystal mounted in the wall glowed in her powerful presence, revealing the few weapons that remained on the racks.

Onja remembered when the tower had bustled with activity and the armory had almost been cluttered with fine tools of war. Then she recalled the sickening day when the rys and humans had followed Dacian’s folly and hurled their weapons into the water.  Incredible masterworks of enchanted weapons had sunk into the lake that day, returning their magic to the deep secret waters of the Rysamand. No artisans today possessed the knowledge to remake that which had been thrown away.

But Onja had not let the fools get them all.

She hated to risk her precious collection out in the world in such uneducated hands, and she would not loan out every piece. Humans had not had such weapons to use since the defeat of Nufal, and Shan would not be prepared for this threat that he did not know existed. The enchanted weapons had been crafted specifically for the humans who had served their rys masters on the battlefield.

Delicately Onja plucked a quarrel from the shelf and she stared at the crystal tip of the arrow. Holding the sparkling point near her face, she shuddered as she felt the terrible power within. If this quarrel pierced rys flesh, the crystal tip would deliver a painful and lethal spell.

Only a small stock of the potent quarrels remained and she took these along with two crossbows. Onja gathered six swords with twinkling crystals set in the hilt. She removed her flowing cape and wrapped the weapons into an awkward bundle. When she returned to the skiff with her heavy burden, Hefshul eyed her package. From his vague emotion she sensed his disapproval.

“Row!” she snarled and Hefshul obeyed lazily.

Clutching her dark bundle, Onja wondered why her rys did not appreciate her efforts. She had made the rys of Jingten wealthy, respected, and the supreme race in the entire world, yet they balked when she had to put down one renegade.

The Kezanada Overlord received his summons early the next morning and he hurried to the throne room. Onja was alone and when he kneeled before her, he saw the bundle at the base of the dais.

“Rise and look inside,” Onja bade him.

Eagerly, despite fearing a trick, the Overlord unwrapped the cape and beheld the fine sharp weapons engraved with rys script and embedded with crystals. Reverently he grasped a sword and raised the perfect blade before his masked face. No agent of time could mar the enchanted blade that made the light quiver painfully on its sharp edges.

The history of the Kezanada stretched back even to the Age of Dacian and the fragile lore books had hinted at the existence of the enchanted weapons. When the rys had warred with Nufal, they had crafted arms that would protect them and their human allies from killing spells on the battlefield. The Overlord had hoped that Onja still possessed such things and he could barely suppress his triumphant joy to have the charmed sword in his hand. Onja had to be desperate to let him use this treasure, but he banished that line of reasoning. Even a thought was perilous in the court of Jingten.

“Shan will not be able to sense the warriors who carry these weapons. The enchantments on them will hide their bearers from Shan’s powers of perception and his spells. With these you should be able to arrange an ambush,” Onja explained. “Consider these weapons a loan. Do NOT lose them, and do not fail this time.”

“The Kezanada are honored to use your great treasures, Queen Onja,” the Overlord said solemnly.

Onja continued, “Leave your tribute as a deposit on the weapons. Bring me Shan’s head and my original offer stands. Begone from Jingten, Overlord. Every day Shan lives offends me.”

“He offends the Kezanada as well,” the Overlord agreed while wrapping the weapons.

Bowing deeply, he hoisted the enchanted bundle in his mighty arms. He would lead this mission himself and he needed his seven finest Kezanada to raise these magic weapons at his side. As he departed, his mind was already going over a list of candidates.

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.

The fires of the five tribes burned late into the night in the hills around the Common Ground. The Temu had proposed a revolution and the Confederates debated it hotly. Some believed Shan could defeat Onja. He had disgraced the rysmavda by destroying their warding crystals like he was swatting at a bug. Rumors from the Sabuto Domain indicated that Shan had allowed the Temu to destroy a whole town in a morning, and they had looted a temple. And of course there were the recantations and executions of the Temu rysmavda. No matter how much the rysmavda attached to the various tribes condemned the act, it only brought attention to the facts that the Temu had defied Jingten and Onja had not struck with her killing magic.

No one could dispute that Shan was powerful, but some insisted that his power could not possibly match the power of Onja. Yes, Shan could make strong spells, but it did not mean he could defeat the Queen in a face-to-face battle in the Rysamand. Others argued that Onja’s great age had to be weakening her, as Shan said, and the time was right to rally behind a rys champion and free themselves of Onja’s domination.

Then Shan’s sincerity about revoking rys rule of humans came into question. Some believed in his good character, but other people would never trust a rys as a matter of principle.

Some counselors and warriors were practical and based their decisions on simple loyalty to the concept of the Confederation. King Taischek had asked for their assistance, and as allies, they should comply, at least in some way.

Final decisions varied from tribe to tribe.

At the Temu camp things were quiet because they had chosen their course weeks ago. Shan meditated, listening to the discussions of the other tribes, particularly the Zenglawa. When he was done spying, he let his mind drift, exploring new ways to express his magical abilities. Late in the night, Shan emerged from his trance and relaxed into his bedroll. The stars reflected in his black eyes, but he missed the view of the night from the clear high slopes of the Rysamand.

Shan heard Dreibrand wake up and shake off his grogginess, preparing for his watch. Miranda had fallen asleep hours ago and Dreibrand did not disturb her. Shan was thankful to have friends nearby. He almost pitied Onja, knowing that she existed bereft of any sincere companionship.

Maybe that is why she keeps those innocent little children, he speculated.

Sitting up on his elbows, Shan whispered for Dreibrand, who made only a faint rustle in the darkness when he moved closer. 

“Tomorrow may not go well,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand agreed. “I had doubts about even coming here. Do you think any of these people will join us?”

“The Tacus will. Ejan wants to join and he is convincing his tribe right now,” Shan reported.

Shan’s knowledge impressed Dreibrand, who thought it was incredible how the rys could monitor people far away. It was a tremendous advantage but Dreibrand worried that they might need it.

“Any other tribes?” Dreibrand inquired.

“The Nuram and Hirqua were still arguing when I stopped listening, but I do not expect them to cause us any harm. Now it is the Zenglawa who trouble me. They have many warriors in the area, and I know they will disregard the sanctity of the Common Ground. Tomorrow they will try to kill me,” Shan answered.

“What? We must tell Taischek. When are they coming?” Dreibrand cried urgently, but Shan quieted him.

“No need to wake anyone. I will talk to Taischek about it in the morning. The Zenglawa will not attack our position tonight. They plan to place assassins in the audience tomorrow. When I speak on the stage, they will try to shoot me with arrows,” Shan said, shaking his head at their folly. “They talked so openly as if I could not listen to them.”

“Maybe they did that on purpose to misguide you, and they plot something else,” Dreibrand suggested.

“Oh, I am sure they will plot many things, but I know the assassins will be there tomorrow. I read it in Atathol’s mind—may I never have to go there again,” Shan said.

Dreibrand paused. It was sometimes startling to consider the extent of Shan’s powers. “What will you do then?” he whispered.

“I will protect myself with my magic. I can prevent their weapons from hitting me. I shall try to neutralize the assassins without killing them. I do not want anyone to say a guest of the Temu violated the Common Ground. I will only defend myself,” Shan explained.

“Will that be enough? What should I do?” Dreibrand asked.

“Watch for trouble. I will have most of my focus on those assassins, and I might miss another threat. But hopefully after I thwart the Zenglawa that will be the end of it for a while. Do not be so distressed, Dreibrand. This will give me a chance to demonstrate my power to all of the Confederate tribes,” Shan said.

Dreibrand disliked the plan. “Shan, do not go tomorrow. I want you to avoid this danger,” he recommended.

“You flatter me with your worry,” Shan murmured.

“I need you to get to Jingten,” Dreibrand said.

“Yet I will go to the council tomorrow,” Shan insisted. “If I cannot be brave with humans, how can I be brave with Onja?”

Dreibrand stopped arguing and accepted that they would not gain allies by showing fear.

Shan continued, “I regret that I pull these tribes apart. The Confederacy has brought peace to the north.”

“It is best to draw the lines early in a battle. If they will not be allies now, they were worthless allies anyway,” Dreibrand stated.

“Tomorrow the Confederation may dissolve, and it will be the end of a good thing,” Shan lamented.

“As you like to say a new age is coming,” Dreibrand said. “Old alliances crumble and new ones will form. I suppose some bad days lie ahead, but once the war has started, you will get used to it.”

Shan chuckled darkly. “You always make things sound so simple. Even so, I regret the deaths I cause, so that I can set things right in Jingten.”

With a sigh, Dreibrand admitted, “Perhaps I just make things sound easy to soothe my own conscience. Maybe I am wrong to say you will get used to the dying, but the world is a beautiful place where people do ugly things. I entered the military life over two years ago and I have seen a lot of carnage, even directed a lot of it myself. After a while one does become numb to the killing. The true test to my soul was to let myself feel the pain around me. When you let yourself be numb, you will kill for no reason…”

Dreibrand trailed off, remembering Miranda close to death on the glacier. He tried to remember the last time he had played with Esseldan. He even missed Elendra although the little girl probably did not miss him. Looking up at the stars, he did not ask for redemption but the strength to win more battles. With the blood of so many on his hands, he could tolerate another war.

He continued, “But this war we make on Jingten must be done. It must be done for the humans, for the rys, and for Miranda.”

“You are right, Dreibrand. This war will be terrible like all wars, but I hope more good comes of it than evil. I have chosen my actions, and I must not moan about the consequences,” Shan decided. He then apologized to Dreibrand for making him late for his turn at watch.

Reluctantly Dreibrand went to his duty and watched carefully until dawn, expecting the Zenglawa to attack.

In the morning Taischek was not pleased with Shan’s news about assassins, and he complained at length about Atathol’s worthless character. No tribe had ever been so deviant as to plot a public assassination on the Common Ground. Like Dreibrand, the Temu King did not want Shan to attend the council, but Shan convinced him that he could handle the assassins. The rys emphasized that he did not want the Temu to raise arms while on the Common Ground, unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Let the other tribes see the evil Onja inspires in those loyal to her,” Shan concluded.

In the amphitheater, faces were grim and warriors fingered their weapons nervously, fearing the Confederacy might collapse at any moment.

As speaker, Atathol swaggered onto the stage and opened the council for the second day.

The Zenglawa King announced, “Before the tribes proclaim their decisions, I would remind my Confederates why our ancestors long ago acquiesced to the rule of Onja. She has been the Queen of Jingten for as long as we have history, and she deals with her enemies harshly. In life she demands loyalty and taxes, but our spirits are free. Her enemies she makes into Deamedron, shackling the soul with magic. And the Deamedron are not just humans, but rys too.” Looking directly at Shan, he added, “Even the rys long ago accepted the rule of Onja.”

Shan countered, “Long ago, long ago! You speak of centuries past. Then, Onja truly was supreme, but twenty-two centuries have passed since she made the Deamedron. Her time now fades, and it is my time of ascension. The strongest rys always rises to the throne. It is the natural course of our society. Onja is not immortal, and she is afraid. Why do you think she tries to pay humans to murder me? It is because she cannot do it herself.”

Atathol barked, “You have made your case, Shan the pretender. Now let me warn my human brothers against your dangerous ideas.”

“I can assume I will not have the friendship of the Zenglawa to rely upon,” Shan said with cold certainty.

“The Zenglawa will not participate in any revolt against Jingten,” Atathol proclaimed.

“Will you raise arms against the Temu if Onja commands it?” Taischek demanded bitterly.

Atathol cast his eyes down, answering no.

Taischek frowned. He had seen Atathol lie better, but at least Atathol had given him the courtesy of lying poorly. Shan and Taischek exchanged knowing glances.

King Ejan rose from the Tacus section and said, “The Zenglawa have made their decision and shared their opinion. The Tacus now wish to state their decision.”

Atathol begrudgingly yielded the stage, deeply suspecting the Tacus King had a greatly different opinion.

Solemnly Ejan announced to his Confederates, “The Tacus Tribe has decided to lend its full support to Lord Shan and the Temu. Shan’s vision of a world free of Onja’s tyranny appeals to us. I know Shan to be an honorable rys who will end taxation from Jingten, like he said. I would see my tribe inherit a free world, and I will join the Temu on their march to Jingten.”

Ejan crossed the stage and bowed to Shan.

“Lord Shan, I will commit half of my warriors, including myself to your campaign in the spring. And the Tacus will pay no tribute this year,” Ejan declared.

Shan stood up and returned the bow, gratefully accepting the pledge of the Tacus King.

The Hirqua and the Nuram announced their decisions next. Unfortunately they did not commit warriors like the Tacus, but the tribes did lend what support their courage would allow. The Hirqua agreed not to pay tribute, but they wanted to reserve their army for the defense of their homeland with rebellion sweeping the land. The Nuram would not directly enrage Jingten by withholding tribute, but King Volvat sincerely pledged not to raise arms against the Temu or any of its allies.

Militarily Shan had only gained half an army, and that not until spring, but much had been achieved. Two more tribes were withholding tribute, and this defiance would shock Onja. The snows would block the pass by the time she wholly accepted that three tribes were actually not sending tribute. Then it would be too late for her to send the rys soldiers that the humans feared.

Shan kept his mind tuned into the surrounding people, especially the Zenglawa. He could feel each body and every soul, and he vividly recalled his attack on the Kezanada. He disliked the memory but it gave him strength. Shan felt the edginess among the Zenglawa and he located three assassins in the top row of their section. He felt their lurking excitement. They believed that they could kill him and win Onja’s favor for their tribe.

It was important to Shan that Atathol betray himself in front of his Confederates. If the Zenglawa were to be his enemy, Shan wanted them isolated. He did not want Atathol to reconsider his plan, and Shan decided to present the assassins a better target and coax Atathol into attacking.

Better now than on the road back to Dengar Nor, Shan thought.

When Shan left the partial security of the Temu section, Dreibrand restrained himself from following.

Noticing the discomfort of his foreign warrior, which he shared, Taischek whispered, “They must see Shan’s strength.”

Taking the stage, Shan issued a rather bland and uninspiring thank you speech. His mind could not be spared to focus on elegant words. As Shan expressed his appreciation for the audience that they had allowed him, he casually faced Atathol several times. Atathol stared back at Shan with great intensity, and the rys could sense the Zenglawa’s courage coiling for the strike. Speaking while focusing on the assassins became more difficult and Shan realized what a gamble he had taken. If his concentration was flawed, he could get hurt.

Appearing to remove his attention from Atathol, Shan heightened his awareness around the King and the assassins while ending his speech. The rys no longer saw his audience with the sight of his eyes. With his mind, he saw only his enemies, and his magical perception provided him with the vivid details he needed.

He saw the subtle hand signal from Atathol. From the top row of the Zenglawa section, three bows swiftly rose with archers behind them. Arrows jumped onto the strings as the assassins took aim. Shan visualized his spell instantly. Not long ago wielding magic of this precision and power would have taken him a long period of mental preparation, but his skills were expanding rapidly.

Miranda and most of the other people saw the assassins raise their weapons as Shan turned his back on them. Except for a few gasps, there was no time for anyone to react.

“Shan!” Miranda cried in a strangled voice as her hands flapped excitedly for her bow, although she could not possibly make a shot in time.

With a vibrating snarl two arrows flew from their bows. Shan’s mind had locked onto all three minds of the archers and he knew the instant the men decided to release their shots. Shan’s eyes burned bright blue as his spell sheltered him. Instead of the arrows slamming into his exposed body, the missiles burst into hot flames and only sprinkled his rippling cloak with sparkling ashes.

The third assassin had yet to fire his shot, and he hesitated as he watched the other arrows wither in the impregnable magic around the rys. This assassin had been prepared to shoot, ordered to do so by his King and Prime Rysmavda, but in the final moment, he had been reluctant to murder. His fingers still tentatively held the string.

The other two assassins reached for their second arrows, but Shan ended the assault. His mind enveloped the bows in the hands of the three archers, and the weapons were incinerated in a superheated flash. The failed assassins cried out in pain and flung the glowing embers from their burned hands. Sparks rained onto the Zenglawa section, and warriors scrambled away from the assassins, fearing more retaliation from Shan.

The fiery spectacle of Shan’s defense convinced all who saw that Shan had reason to boast of his power, and the Tacus were further encouraged by the display. However, the Zenglawa paled with fear, and not a single warrior dared to draw a weapon. With a perturbed menace, Shan whirled on Atathol. Eyes still glowing with power, Shan approached the King, who cringed in a very unroyal posture.

“I am as powerful as Onja,” Shan snarled. “So if you lack the courage to strike at her, do not expect to succeed against me.”

“They—they did not have my consent. I would not—I would never condone such an action on the Common Ground,” Atathol stammered.

“Silence!” Shan roared. “Atathol of the Zenglawa has disappointed his Confederate brothers. Leave now before you cause more trouble.”

Thrilled to see that Shan had weathered the attack, Taischek sprang to his feet, followed by Dreibrand. Miranda left her seat as well, but a firm yet gentle hand took her arm. General Xander had halted her departure. The Temu opened his toothy mouth but issued no words. He really wanted to say just about anything to her, but a crushing shyness assailed the valiant Temu General.

“Let go of me,” Miranda insisted.

Xander finally managed some words, knowing he could not grab her and not say anything. “Stay. You should not go near the Zenglawa. It is not safe. Remember how you angered Atathol? He may be unpredictable, especially in this moment of shame.”

“Shan will not let the likes of him hurt me,” Miranda argued.

“Is there not enough trouble, Lady?” Xander whispered.

Miranda had not intended to give in, but the pleading look in Xander’s eyes made her relent. The council did teeter on the verge of a violent eruption, and she decided to go along with the General’s sincere wish to protect her.

Taischek and Dreibrand were at Shan’s side now, and Taischek yelled, “How dare you attack my guest and friend? Atathol, if I didn’t have greater things to accomplish, I would call this an act of war. But I won’t sunder the Confederacy because of a foolish Zenglawa. Atathol, you are never to enter the Temu Domain and may we never speak again.”

Atathol barely heeded Taischek’s tirade because he was so shocked that his plan had failed. The arrows had been in the air, and Atathol still had not fully accepted that Shan had not been hit. He had meant to swiftly kill the rys and end the mad rebellion that Taischek had infected the Confederation with. Once Shan was dead, the Zenglawa could have claimed the bounty and life would have continued without worry of Onja’s retribution. Now Atathol had enraged the renegade rys and disgraced his tribe in front of his allies.

Regaining some composure, Atathol stood despite Shan’s simmering proximity. Taischek glared at him with passionate offense, and the foreign mercenary seemed ready to kill him right now. The other tribes were yelling with outrage, and some Tacus warriors had tried to reach the assassins, but a line of Zenglawa warriors had formed to stop them.

Braving their hatred, Atathol announced his retreat. “The Zenglawa shall depart. But remember us when Onja enslaves your spirits.”

“Let them leave in peace,” Shan shouted, before anyone got hurt.

The Tacus warriors who had sought to seize the assassins relented, remembering that this was the Common Ground.

As the Zenglawa left their seats, Shan scanned their faces. They quaked in the sight of his ire, but Shan resisted the pleasure their fear offered him. He wondered why Onja’s bounty had tempted them so much more than his offer of freedom, but he did not hate them. Shan forced himself to forgive their greedy foolishness.

They are insignificant compared to my true enemy, he thought.

The Zenglawa section had almost cleared out when Shan noticed one of the assassins still standing on the top row. It was the archer who had not fired, and he was staring back at Shan. The archer’s scorched hands hung at his sides, and he was oblivious to the glares from the nearby Tacus. One of his comrades grabbed his arm and pulled him along with the last of the Zenglawa. For a moment Shan’s attention lingered on the archer, and he wondered why the Zenglawa had not fired his arrow. He had been about to do it. Shan had read it in his mind. Perhaps he had convinced one member of the Zenglawa not to serve Onja, but it was a small consolation.

As the last of the Zenglawa passed between the ancient statues on their way out, Taischek muttered a few Temu expletives.

Shan spent the rest of the day talking privately with the other kings. Ejan arranged to muster with the Temu in the spring and share information until then. The Kings of the Nuram and Hirqua further agreed to pass along any useful information to Dengar Nor, particularly if they noticed more Kezanada movements.

That evening, Shan returned to the Temu camp feeling encouraged and especially glad that no fatal violence had occurred at the council. Around Taischek’s fire the mood was relaxed now that the worrisome council had ended. Scouts had reported that the Zenglawa had broken camp and were leaving in the gathering dusk. Because it was not Taischek’s way to stay too serious for too long, he settled in after his meal for some drinking. A servant fetched a bulging wineskin from his cargo—an act Xander readily applauded.

“I brought this in case things went well,” Taischek explained, although everyone knew Taischek brought the wine in case of anything.

Dreibrand passed Miranda a cup of wine before accepting his own. Her closeness pleased him, and he wished they could slip away into the darkness, but the sentries kept a tight perimeter, and they would probably attract undesired attention.

The King raised his cup and all the others followed.

Taischek toasted, “We have lost the Zenglawa as our Confederate brother, but the Confederacy continues. This is a minor loss compared to the gains we will make. To the future King of Jingten!”

Shan allowed their cheers to please him.

“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.

Lord Kwan stayed in his small tent staring at the warding crystal for the whole night and the next day. The Atrophane soldiers waited nervously for some word from their commander and they watched the skies for the bizarre bird beast.

Kwan had no desire beyond watching the swirl of blue light within the smooth orb. When Sandin tried to intrude, he ordered away his lieutenant with all the force of a Hordemaster.

The blue glow absorbed Kwan’s thoughts until they were not his own. He began to see images. He saw great blocks of stone standing on the plains. He saw his men dying, crumpling in hopeless agony, being torn apart by the ethereal hands of fearsome wraiths. Then he was in the mountains. Snowy peaks lorded over an alpine forest. He began to hear the dream voice of the Queen and was told her name was Onja.

Kwan began to understand. Onja began to make things very clear. She summoned him and his soldiers west into the mountains, and if he did not comply, she would release her army of ghosts to kill them. There was no defense from the Deamedron, as she called them. She showed him over and over her tormented spirit slaves killing the Atrophane like a scythe against grass. She showed him the horror until Kwan regained the mental faculty to beg her to stop.

Onja commanded Kwan to let the warding crystal guide him west.

Two voices started calling his name and Kwan opened his eyes. Sandin and Jesse were leaning over him. Kwan sat up, surprised that he had been asleep. It was dark except for the light from the lantern in Jesse’s hand and the glow of the warding crystal lying next to him on his sleeping mat.

Rubbing his head, Kwan said, “I must have dropped off for a couple hours. It should be morning soon.”

“My Lord, the sun has only just gone down,” Sandin said.

“What do you mean?” Kwan demanded.

“You came in here last night, and you have been in here all day. Don’t you remember me trying to talk to you?” Sandin said. Pointing at the warding crystal, he explained, “That thing put you in a trance. It is an evil charm. My Lord, you must get rid of it.”

Kwan turned to Jesse and ordered his squire to leave.

Now in private, he tried to explain things to Sandin. “Someone lives in the mountains to the west. She communicated with me somehow through this crystal.”

“My Lord, you are talking like a priest,” Sandin complained boldly.

“I know it is strange,” Kwan whispered. “But it is true. She wants to see us.”

“She?” Sandin asked.

“Her name is…Onja.” Kwan’s mouth shaped her name slowly, trying to match the sound to the abstraction in his head.

Sandin stared at his Lord General, and Kwan realized his lieutenant thought he was crazy.  He had never seen such doubt on Sandin’s face, and he had to reassure his officer.

“I will try to explain later. Now I must rest. Prepare to move west in the morning. If we find what I think we will find, I will explain everything,” Kwan said.

“My Lord, what will we find in the west?” Sandin said.

“Nothing, I hope,” Kwan whispered and lay back down, exhausted.

“Are you sick, my Lord?” Sandin asked quietly.

“Just tired, Lieutenant.”

Sandin’s gray eyes looked from the warding crystal to the weary face of his commander. In his fifteen years of service, he could not recall speaking to his Lord General while he was prone.

“It really is magic. I never would have expected such things. But the beast picked you out as our leader and gave you that charm.” Sandin was half talking to himself, trying to organize the information, trying to believe it. “This Onja must be a sorceress, like from a myth. My Lord, we should not go to her.”

“You are not Lord General yet, and I will decide what we should do,” Kwan said sternly.

Sandin dipped his head to show his respect. His must keep his faith in his Lord General. It was Kwan’s duty to lead well and it was Sandin’s duty to serve well.

The Atrophane headed northwest and a week later they reached the standing stones. When the monoliths were still just dots in the distance, Kwan halted his force. He stared at the stones covering a broad swath of prairie from the northeast to the southwest, and they looked just like the images that had been put in his mind.

Sick inside but trying to hide it, Kwan ordered his soldiers to make camp, and he added the strict order that no one was to approach the monoliths. In the light of day the Atrophane were curious about the place and they quietly wondered why their commander wanted them to stay away. It was only stones on the land and they had combed the ruins of the city, but when night came, the soldiers stopped grumbling.

A fog rose among the stones and damp tendrils drifted up the hills to the edge of the camp. Then points of light began to flare over the stones and they intensified until a pulsing glow filled the forbidden field. 

Kwan stood on the edge of camp, facing the glow. He did not want to believe that the standing stones really contained the ghost soldiers of Onja, but his denial would require proof and he had to go look. He opened his hand and looked at the warding crystal in his palm. It shone with a fierce light tonight and he could feel heat coming through his gauntlet.

He shut his hand against the magic light and he set his other hand on the hilt of his sword. Alone he approached the fog-shrouded stones. Every step that brought him closer became more difficult than the last. Instinctive fear clutched his heart, but he forced himself onward.

Once the mist surrounded him, the choking cold of the damp filled his lungs. He passed some small stones and stopped in front of an imposing monolith. Spheres of light beyond the monolith started to move toward him, and a bright spectral shape emerged from the stone in front of him. Kwan beheld a skeleton draped in a translucent cloak and shimmering armor. Points of bloody red light burned in the eye sockets, and the spirit swiped at him hungrily with a wispy sword. Kwan drew his sword, but the thing did not advance. More spirits swarmed the area, until he was completely surrounded. Sensing their malice, Kwan whirled to face the ring of spirits with his weapon, but an unseen force seemed to hold them back.

Before Kwan even knew it, his feet were retreating. He looked over his shoulder as he walked backwards and saw the watch fires of his expeditionary force on the high ground. He turned and ran until he was free of the clinging mist. Gasping for breath, Kwan checked to see if any of the spirits pursued him, but they had remained in their place.

He paused before returning to the camp to gather his nerves. Tonight, Kwan, the conqueror of the east, had learned of terror. It left him exposed and changed. He could not risk his men against these wretched spirits. The images of his soldiers being slaughtered by them had been branded deeply on his mind. If Onja was bluffing about their violent potential, he would just have to find out later. He would have to go before this Queen Onja if he was to learn anything. This realization hit him like a bear trap sinking into his leg.

Two torches left the perimeter of camp, and Sandin arrived with two soldiers.

“We must definitely go around this place,” Kwan announced.

“Yes, my Lord,” Sandin readily concurred. “But why have you drawn your sword?”

Casually Kwan sheathed his weapon but gave no answer. He signaled to the soldiers to go back to camp.

When they were out of earshot, Sandin asked, “My Lord, is this what you thought we would find in the west?”

“Yes. I was told of this place while I was in the trance with the crystal,” Kwan said.

“What did you see in there?” Sandin asked, glancing at the disturbed mist.

“The very face of damnation,” Kwan replied. “Onja claims that these ghosts are her slaves and she will send them to kill us if we do not go to meet her.”

“Do you believe this?” Sandin asked in shock.

“I don’t know,” the Lord General confessed in a rare candid moment. “But for now, I believe we must continue west. If we turn back and her threat is real, these ghosts will hunt us down. What can the living do against the dead?” Kwan shook his head.

“But you were not harmed by them,” Sandin observed hopefully.

“This crystal must have protected me,” Kwan said.

“Curse that thing, my Lord. This magic could just be filling your head with nonsense,” Sandin argued.

“That is real,” Kwan cried, pointing to the haunted stones.

Sandin could not deny that. His skin tingled with preternatural warning just being close to the stones, but that gave him more reason to think his commander was possessed.

After so many years together, Kwan guessed the strain his lieutenant was under.

What would I think of Sandin if a crystal put him in a trance? he thought.

“Lieutenant, we have entered the Wilderness, and it seems the rules are different here. I cannot fully judge the situation until I learn more about this Onja. With no knowledge, how can I oppose her? And we came to explore. It would not make sense to run away from the first thing we encounter. This journey will not be what we are used to, but we must maintain the courage and discipline that has made the Atrophane supreme. We must present a united command as we have always done,” Kwan said.

Sandin understood what his Lord General alluded to. The lieutenant knew he had been especially argumentative and doubtful of every decision from his commander.

But I have good reasons to question him, Sandin thought stubbornly.

He was not some junior officer. He was first lieutenant to the Lord General, and it was his duty to speak his mind.

Never imagining that he could speak such faithless words to his commander, Sandin confessed, “Lord Kwan, you are possessed. How can I trust you?”

The words did not upset Kwan, and he actually respected Sandin for having the nerve to ask the awful question.

Kwan said, “Yes, this sorceress has communicated with me with her magic. But I am not possessed by her. I am Lord General Kwan of Clan Chenomet, Hordemaster to the Darmar Zemthute II. I serve only the side of Atrophane! You know I hold the life of every soldier, and officer, in the highest esteem, and I consider them in every decision.”

Hearing these words did reassure Sandin. Lord Kwan was Atrophane’s greatest military leader, a legend in his own lifetime, and his integrity was well established.

Sandin cast his eyes down and said, “My Lord, forgive my disloyal thoughts and words.”

Kwan readily accepted the apology. “Lieutenant Sandin, do not regret your actions. You were doing your job as an officer when it appeared your commander was under a foreign influence. You thought first of the men under your command, and that is never wrong. Responsible leadership has ever been the source of our glory. I do not know what is going to happen. If this Onja truly enthralls me and I betray my duties to you and Atrophane, then by all means take command and get home—if you can.”

“I pray such a thing does not happen, my Lord,” Sandin said quickly. “I wish to be Lord General someday, but not by your misfortune. You have all my faith as always, my Lord.”

Kwan laid a firm hand on Sandin’s shoulder. “I know Sandin. You have always been the most reliable,” he praised. Kwan then thought of another officer who had not kept his faith.

After allaying Sandin’s fears and reinforcing his loyalty, Kwan addressed the men, explaining that they would travel west to meet a Queen who claimed to control the land they had entered. He perceived that the news unsettled the soldiers, but in the vast solitude of the Wilderness and in sight of the Deamedron, each man realized that they depended on the cleverness of their Lord General.

The Atrophane force traveled around the haunted standing stones. When they left the Deamedron behind, Kwan felt a measure of relief to have them out of his sight even if they were uncomfortably between him and Atrophane.

Here is the adventure you wanted, old man, Kwan thought as he led his force into the Rysamand.

Two days later, as the Atrophane ascended the eastern slopes of the towering mountains, riders appeared on the top of the next ridge. Kwan halted his men and sensed the familiar ripple of anticipation run through his soldiers.

“I see about one hundred of them,” Sandin judged, after quickly scanning their silhouetted forms.

“There could be more that we cannot see,” Kwan reminded. “They have a good position on us too. We will let them make the first move, but reinforce our flanks. Those on the ridge may just be a distraction.”

Sandin galloped down the front of the force, giving orders and positioning soldiers. Kwan patiently waited front and center. The riders on the ridge made no moves while the Atrophane rearranged their forces defensively.

After the Atrophane stewed for a while, three riders began to descend the slope. The heavy white horses managed the incline with surprising ease. No longer in silhouette, the characteristics of the riders became clear to the Atrophane. Cries of surprise and shock rose from the ranks as everyone saw that these riders were not human.

The blue riders halted a short distance in front of Kwan. The highland wind moaned against the ridge and the Atrophane fell silent. Signaling for Sandin to keep his place, Kwan eased his horse forward and marveled at their strange beauty. Their blue skin and fine features were quite attractive, but Kwan found their black eyes disturbing and mysterious, although not nearly as disturbing as the Tatatook.

The blue rider in the middle of the trio had mostly white hair with only a few remaining streams of black. All of them wore beautiful green suede uniforms, but a white cloak flowed around the shoulders of the middle rider and it looked like a stubborn snowdrift in a spring meadow.

The white-cloaked rider spoke, “You are the Lord Kwan.”

Although Kwan did not understand the language, he heard his name and nodded.

“Taf Ila,” the blue rider said, pointing at himself.

Despite the language barrier, Taf Ila was good at his job and he peaceably convinced the Atrophane commander to follow him. The main force of rys kept ahead of the Atrophane, but Taf Ila rode beside Kwan in a gesture of good faith.

At night the two races camped separately, but Taf Ila and his two aides shared a fire with Kwan, making rudimentary attempts at conversation. Kwan managed to learn that they were called rys and Queen Onja was their ruler. Kwan wondered if these rys possessed magical powers like their Queen. Because Taf Ila and the others behaved very self-assured and were only lightly armed, Kwan assumed they must have some reason for their confidence.

In the morning the Atrophane entered the Jingten Valley. The lovely city beside Lake Nin excited the humans. Lord Kwan had led them across the Wilderness and the discoveries were going to be greater than hoped. To the eyes of men accustomed to conquest, the city looked wealthy and vulnerable, and for an instant, Kwan even had to check his ambition. He remembered feeling the power of Onja, and his instinct warned him that this place was not without defense. Tact and diplomacy would be his tools for now, especially when he had no idea how large the rys army might be.

The rys stopped the Atrophane force outside the city, and Taf Ila indicated that Kwan could continue with only a few companions. Kwan selected five soldiers of excellent wit and skill, but he did not choose Sandin.

“Lieutenant, you have command. If I do not return by morning, take what actions you deem appropriate,” Kwan said.

Sandin saluted but he clearly did not relish being left behind. He burned to enter the foreign city.

With understanding Kwan added, “Your duty is here, Lieutenant. I would keep you insulated from this Queen who has summoned us. Be patient, I believe you will see the city soon enough.”

Sandin nodded, seeing the wisdom in Kwan’s decision. The lieutenant watched his Lord General ride away with his small honor guard and he sincerely hoped he would return before morning.

“Jingten,” Taf Ila proudly named his city as he escorted the humans.

Kwan admired the exotic place that seemed to be a well kept place of luxury. All the buildings were large and of thoughtful design. Trimmed hedges enclosed the properties, which were surrounded by flowering gardens and ornamental trees. Crystal streetlights lined the perfect roads, where every stone of the pavement was smooth and in place. Kwan saw no lesser dwellings for servants or workers, and he guessed that Jingten might be a ceremonial city kept apart from the disparities of the rest of the world. In all of his fantasies about exploring the Wilderness, he had never envisioned such an incredible place or the rys, who seemed a race taken from some forgotten myth.

The tiered Keep rose above the city, and when the tall iron bird gates swung open on their own, Kwan knew he entered the stronghold of the magic Queen. He could almost feel her looking at him now and he could not forget the way Onja had invaded his mind from so far away.

When the door wardens opened the throne room, the glow of Onja’s inner sanctum reflected on the silver studs on their jackets. The light from the four large spheres and the dazzle of the crystal encrusted walls made Kwan squint as he left the cool shade of the corridor. The white marble floor rose into the gleaming steps of the dais and a broad throne plated in gold commanded the room.

Bowing deeply, Taf Ila presented the humans to his Queen, but Kwan could not hear the rys speak. He had no perception beyond seeing Onja. She was easily the most incredible being the Lord General had ever seen. A simple black gown trimmed with sable fur covered the Queen. A netlike headdress of diamonds covered her pure white hair, surrounding her blue face in the light of a thousand rainbow facets. Kwan almost gaped at the sight of her jewels. Her headdress alone rivaled most fortunes, making him realize that Onja was unbelievably wealthy.

Onja allowed Kwan to study her, enjoying his awe. She had specifically worn her most spectacular diamond ensemble to impress upon him the magnitude of her rule.

“Queen Onja is pleased that you have come.”

The words roused Kwan from his viewing of the rys monarch and he looked to see who had spoken. The language had not been Atrophaney, but was somewhat familiar. It sounded like a dialect of the language used in the recently conquered lands bordering the Wilderness. His eyes found the figure of a small human girl seated two steps below the Queen. Her dark eyes regarded him calmly.

Kwan asked the men with him if any of them had understood the girl. One told him what the girl had said, adding that he had a fairly competent grasp of that language.

Probably just enough to pick up a wench, Kwan thought sourly, knowing that this was the moment when Dreibrand Veta would have served him best.

“Say that I am Lord Kwan and I have come as the Queen has asked,” Kwan instructed.

Hesitantly the soldier interpreted. The little girl translated for the Queen, and Kwan began to wonder where the rys had obtained the human child. He disliked communicating in a language foreign to both parties.

Onja spoke to the girl, who said, “Does Lord Kwan know that he intruded lands forbidden to all?”

When Kwan heard the question, he responded, “We are exploring. The Wilderness is an empty land without marker or warning.”

The Queen spoke again through the child’s voice. “Death is the punishment for all who enter the Wilderness.”

Kwan protested, “We did not know we intruded on land claimed by another.”

The soldier interpreted the response quickly this time.

Again in the rys tongue Onja spoke to the girl. She had carefully rehearsed each question and response with Elendra and the girl’s performance was pleasing her.

Elendra said, “If you believed the land did not belong to anyone, why do you bring an army?”

Kwan answered, “We did not know what we would encounter on our exploration. It is only a small force, meant for protection.”

As soon as the soldier managed an interpretation of the explanation, Onja spoke in the language used by the girl.

“You would make trouble where you found none!” the Queen accused, her voice ringing with power.

It was a sly accusation and inwardly Kwan smiled. Onja had faked her ignorance of the language and then revealed her feint, allowing him to see her devious nature. Now he would always have to wonder how much she knew.

“We have made no trouble,” Kwan said with diplomatic innocence.

Onja did not need the interpretation to catch the meaning of his words. Relaxing into her throne, Onja judged the human to be cunning and proud but willing to the pay the prices necessary for survival.

“Elendra,” Onja said sweetly. “You may go now. You have served me well.”

Elendra stood and bowed to her Queen. Scampering down the steps, she flashed a curious look at Kwan. Onja watched the girl leave, letting her adoration of the child distract her.

When her attention returned to Kwan, she stated coldly, “Entering my Wilderness results in death.”

“Then why have you not killed us?” Kwan asked boldly. The soldier disliked passing along the question.

Onja explained, “The death sentence has been delayed because I require a service of you. Serving me shall be the price for your lives.”

The scar on Kwan’s face rippled with restrained anger. Atrophane did not serve others. Atrophane served Atrophane.

Maintaining his pride, Kwan said, “Do we appear to you as mercenaries?”

Onja scowled at the impudent question. The day you learn not to be argumentative will soon come…but not today, she thought.

“I have mercenaries at my disposal. You are volunteers. I spared your lives from the Deamedron because I may have a use for an extra army. Jingten may require a defense in the spring, and defending the city will be the payment for my mercy. Until then, you and your men will be sheltered and provided for. I believe my proposal is more than fair,” Onja said.

Listening to the interpretation, Kwan wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. He had not expected her to ask them to defend the city, but it did mean something actually threatened this sorceress. This would be worth learning about.

Kwan said, “Queen Onja, you said Jingten may require a defense. You are not sure?”

Onja shifted her eyes uncomfortably, hating that she had not come across as omnipotent. Her words had been too precise and miraculously not lost in the translation.

“The threat to Jingten is being dealt with as we speak. Your army is a back up defense,” she answered.

“If Jingten is never attacked, will we be held here indefinitely?” Kwan asked.

These easterners! How I shall enjoy teaching them unquestioning obedience, Onja thought.

To Kwan’s tentative relief, she replied, “If I do not require the help of your soldiers, I will send you home. You shall escort an ambassador of the rys to your capital. I wish to establish relations with your leader and learn about the east.”

Although encouraged that she actually said they could leave, Kwan doubted her friendliness toward Atrophane. He worried that his expedition had opened an accursed tomb.

With no options at the moment but much to think about, Lord Kwan politely bowed to his demanding hostess and said, “We shall do as you ask, Queen Onja.”

Fully aware that his agreement lacked sincerity, Onja decided to devise a fitting demonstration of her authority to reinforce his commitment when he required it.

“Excellent,” Onja proclaimed. “You and your force shall camp in the forest for now. Shelter will be arranged before the snows come. Barracks for your men, and proper lodgings for you and your officers.”

Onja waved a hand imperiously, indicating that the meeting was concluded. Taf Ila promptly escorted the Atrophane from her presence. While leaving the Keep, one thought crowded out all others in Kwan’s mind. Who or what was the enemy of Queen Onja?

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.

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The original novel Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I is copyrighted to the author Tracy Falbe. Do not copy, distribute, and/or sell the content of this novel without written permission from the author. If you want to share the novel, please direct people to this website or to www.braveluck.com.
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