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The rain drummed incessantly outside the open balcony doors of Shan’s apartment, making his weariness feel worse. Casting his heat spell on such specific points at such a distance had been a strain, but Shan was proud of the accomplishment. The greater precision he could attain at a distance meant the greater potency he could achieve at close range.

During his meditations that morning, Shan had checked on Dreibrand, and he immediately regretted waiting so long to do so. The battle with the Kezanada had just ended and Shan saw the devastation at Dreibrand’s camp with dead Kezanada and dead Yentay. When he learned that prisoners had been taken, Shan had quickly sought the location of the Kezanada because the prisoners would need his help even with Dreibrand on his way to save them.

It took Shan an excessive amount of time to find the Kezanada and when he did the images repeatedly fogged up or simply disappeared. Although observing from a significant distance, Shan should not have had such difficulties. Finally the prisoners appeared to him, and it was almost too late. Shan saw the Kezanada bending over Redan with the knife and he barely had time to react by heating the weapon until the Kezanada dropped it. Then he burned Redan free and admired how the Zenglawa immediately helped the injured Hirqua.

Shan puzzled over the lack of clarity he had experienced while viewing the Kezanada. His only logical guess was that a warding crystal had worked against him, but it had not been of Onja’s magic. All his life he had studied Onja’s wardings, and with mild effort, he could penetrate them, but the blindspots he had just encountered did not possess any trademarks of her spells.

The unsettling possibility that Onja had devised entirely new warding crystals with unfamiliar spells occurred to Shan. Although Onja would be capable of this, he decided it was out of character. After living for so long and being so secure in her power, Onja, to his knowledge, never created new spells because her old spells had always served so well. Supreme power and great age had made her lazy.

The events of this day warned him that he had much more to learn. During his meditations he sometimes sent his awareness far and wide, or sometimes looked deep within himself. His powers were naturally great and he was mastering them, but not all masters were equal. Shan had to hone his skills, spells and speed into blinding perfection. He had to be able to hurl a destructive spell like a great bolt of lightning while defending himself from the same onslaught.

Onja had become adept at this over two thousand years ago, and he had a lot of catching up to do. He had to believe that his youth would prevail over her aging experience, but doubt clung to his mind even as he tried to banish its insidious influence. Onja’s works of old were sinister and strong. She had helped to create the Deamedron out of tens of thousands of rys and humans, and Shan accepted how difficult it was to match that might.

For encouragement, he reminded himself that Onja had only been half of the force behind the terrible spell and the legendary might of Dacian had been needed to create the Deamedron as well. With Dacian long gone, Onja was only one ancient and corrupt rys who Shan had to defeat for the sake of all rys and humans. The desire to end her tyranny and become King burned as hot as ever in Shan’s heart, and he forced himself to reflect on his past failure again. The defeat he had suffered when he had first challenged Onja had taught him a great deal. Shan’s flesh remembered the forced hibernation inside the stone while his mind lingered in wrathful awareness. But in his stone prison, he had learned every detail of the magic that held him, and he knew that Onja would not be able to trap him like that again.

After evaluating the lessons of their past confrontation, Shan renewed his confidence that he would defeat her the next time. By spring his mind would be disciplined enough to thwart even her great skill, but he needed to find out what had caused the blindspots he had experienced that morning.

Reluctantly he decided that he had sequestered himself overlong, and he stood up with a sigh. He needed a break so he could approach his problems with a fresh mind. Even a rys needed to relax sometimes.

He would visit with his host, King Taischek, who was a master of business but a high priest of pleasure. Among humans, Shan could find relief from his stress. Their light appreciation of a day of peace would clear his mind to think later of war.

After four pleasant days spent in Taischek’s company, Shan finally started to unwind. The King did not resent the time Shan spent shut away in his apartment because he knew his life and the future of his tribe depended on Shan perfecting his magic, but he was glad to see his rys friend all the same.

While Shan had been preoccupied with his extensive meditations, the Princes Kalek, Doschai, and Meetan had returned to Dengar Nor. Kalek was the last surviving son of Queen Vua and the heir, and the other slightly younger princes were the sons of other wives. They had spent the summer in the western part of the Temu Domain near the Tacus border. An old weaponmaster had a school in the small town of Selsha Nor where the princes received training. Although the education of the princes was not neglected, they enjoyed their freedom away from their parents and spent most of their time on lighter things like parties, hunting, sports, and Taischek privately hoped they were chasing girls. By his own admission, Taischek indulged his sons too much, allowing them to pursue their own sport more than the business of their rank. Having been fruitful with his nine wives over many years, Taischek took pleasure in seeing his children happy in their youth.

The three eldest princes had perhaps never paused to appreciate how their father spoiled them, but they began to realize that their easy days were over when hundreds of extra warriors showed up in Selsha Nor for their protection. Then came the unexpected news that their father had cast aside their stable world of privilege to challenge Onja. The rysmavda were swept out of the Temu Domain and some were executed. Upon reaching Dengar Nor, they learned that the alliances of the Confederation were weak, and, in the case of the Zenglawa, gone. When Taischek welcomed his princes home, he informed them that all three of them would ride to war with him in the spring. They were pleased and excited to serve their father, but each boy realized that their lives would become much more serious.

Although assaulting Jingten was a staggering concept, Taischek’s sons supported their father’s war completely and had faith in Shan’s ability. The rys had been a fixture in the royal household since before any of their births, and the boys had grown up trusting in Shan’s friendship.

In his typical fashion, Taischek, after making his momentous announcement to his sons, bade them to put aside their worries until a later time. Winter was coming and they were all safe in Dengar Nor and life was still good. Knowing well their father, the boys complied with his wishes, but they discussed the war among themselves all the time.

With no pause in the rain, the royal household entertained itself inside. Stripped to their waists, the sons of Taischek practiced wrestling with Xander, who in his youth had been a champion. From the side of the mat in the exercise room, Taischek cheered while holding his permanent prop—the wine cup. Shan listened to Taischek brag about his offspring as they occasionally bested Xander with their youth or were sometimes bested by the General’s craft.

“They remind me of you when you were that age,” Shan commented.

“They have not my scars,” Taischek said on a rare note of sadness.

“Your suffering made you strong,” Shan reminded softly.

Taischek nodded, remembering the strength he had needed to overcome the crippling wounds of his adolescence. “Shan, it is my sincere prayer that my children never need the strength that I had to find.”

Shan sipped his wine and said, “No children ever had a better example of strength.”

Taischek brightened under the compliment and hollered at Xander, “Are you going to let those puppies drag you down?”

Xander, who had been giving lessons on technique, succumbed under the good-natured crush of all three young princes. Glowing with sweat, he replied, “Sire, I am too old. They are children no more!”

Everyone laughed as Xander squirmed out from under the pile.

Sighing happily, Taischek said, “It is good to hear you laugh, Shan. I have missed that good sound.”

“I would not spend so much time alone and in silence if what I did was not so important,” Shan explained.

“I know, but you must not forget to appreciate the moment. Simply by being pleasant, you have Onja beat right there,” Taischek joked.

“That is why I am here, my Temu friend,” Shan said and took a liberal drink of his wine to prove to Taischek his sincere interest in relaxation. “Now, Taischek, tell me what I have missed. Have you seen Miranda?”

Hearing her name made Taischek feel like grumbling, but he answered, “I saw her with Vua twice. She asked about you.”

“Perhaps I should go see her,” Shan said.

“She directly asked me about you, forgetting to ask if she could talk to me,” Taischek went on, deciding to grumble. “Vua said she talked to her about her manners, but now I have to wonder what she said. And when is Dreibrand coming back? That’s what the problem is. That woman is the type. When the cat is away the mice will play type, I tell you she is. She needs someone around to keep her in line, eh? Or she just does whatever pops into her mind. Like bothering kings with important things on their mind—”

 “Father, you must like her if you talk about her so much.” It was Kalek who had interrupted. A towel was draped around his neck and he dabbed sweat from his face as he left the wrestling mat. “It is a good thing Shan is a rys, so he can live long enough to listen to you.”

“Ah, what a smart boy,” Taischek growled and smacked his son on the shoulder. “Now be good before I talk to you about your manners.”

Kalek laughed, knowing his father was not mad.

Shan said, “Do excuse me while I go see her. I checked in on her children during my meditations, and I would like to tell her they are well.”

“Can I count on your company for dinner?” Taischek asked and Shan said that he could.

When Shan reached Miranda’s apartment, a servant girl answered the door and curtsied to the rys. She had the look of awe and wariness that most people had when near a rys, especially Shan. He asked for Miranda

“The lady rests,” the girl answered.

“May I see her?”

The girl did not know what to say. She had no wish to disturb the King’s guest who she had been assigned to serve, nor did she want to say no to Shan.

Miranda spared her the decision. “Shan!” she cried happily from the arched doorway to the bedchamber. Leaning against the woodwork, she wore a robe over her nightgown, having not dressed for the day.

“Forgive me, Miranda. I will come back another time,” Shan apologized.

But Miranda insisted he stay and ordered the servant out. She just could not get used to having servants around when she had a conversation. Settling onto a couch, Miranda rubbed her eyes sleepily then patted a nearby cushion to invite Shan to sit.

“Sometimes I feel as if I never slept before in my whole life,” Miranda explained with a yawn. “Toil and hardship were all I ever knew.”

“That is a shame,” Shan offered.

“It is behind me. I have new problems now,” Miranda said and there was a lightness in her voice that Shan had not heard before. If he had not known the grief in her heart, Shan might have guessed that she sounded happy.

“Miranda, it is not like you not to visit me. I had hoped to see you,” he said.

She shrugged. “I did not want to bother you. What you do is important to both of us. Anyway, I have been sleeping a lot.”

“You are well I hope?” Shan asked.

Miranda looked at him almost suspiciously and insisted she felt fine.

Shan delivered his news that Elendra and Esseldan were healthy and treated well. “Would you like to see them again?” Shan suggested, reaching for a warding crystal in his jacket.

“No!” Miranda decided quickly then thanked him for his vigilant concern. In a much softer voice she offered an explanation. “I trust you that they are fine. It only hurts more when I see them. Can you tell me any news of Dreibrand?”

Shan nodded. “I think that he will be home soon. Maybe tomorrow. Last night I took a moment to find him, and he was in Fata Nor.”

“He is fine then,” Miranda said with obvious relief.

“Well, he had some trouble. They had an encounter with the Kezanada. Some men were lost.”

Miranda cried out with alarm.

“It is unfortunate,” Shan agreed. “But I believe Dreibrand has accomplished his goals. He has proved his command over the Yentay, and they have proved strong in battle.”

“I am glad to hear these volunteers are good warriors. We could use them,” Miranda said.

Shan concurred, “Yes, they are of great value and it is a shame that some were lost already. Once the wounded are patched up in Fata Nor, I am sure Dreibrand will come here. The weather is turning and I hope he has the sense to come home.”

“I cannot wait to see him,” Miranda said.

Watching her face soften affectionately as she contemplated her lover, Shan was reminded of his own loneliness. Hard decisions in his earlier days had resulted in his solitude. He did not regret his choices but sometimes considered them with longing.

Shan lay a hand on Miranda’s shoulder, assuring her, “Dreibrand rushes back to you even as we speak.”

~

In fact, Dreibrand rushed back to Dengar Nor at a greater pace than Shan had estimated. The relentless and ever colder downpour motivated the Yentay with misery. There was no rest on the road, and the group of volunteers entered Dengar Nor in the blackness of the wet night. The watchers at the gate were surprised by their unexpected arrival, but they easily recognized Dreibrand and knew that it was not an attack.

The Yentay poured gratefully inside the barracks. Although cold and empty, the barracks seemed cozy and homelike after the exposure they had all endured. The stable hands were not thrilled to be roused on the cold wet night to attend to three dozen tired horses, but Dreibrand decided his men deserved the service.

The hearths soon crackled with fires and lamps were lit. Dreibrand pulled a chair up to a fire, trying to warm up, but he knew he would never succeed until he got some dry clothes. That had to wait a little longer because he needed just a few minutes out of the rain and he wanted to see that his men got settled in all right.

The door banged open and a squad of Temu warriors hurried in out of the rain, escorting Shan and a young man dressed as if he held a high rank. The appearance of the rys startled the Yentay to their feet, but Shan quickly bade them to return to their resting positions.

Dreibrand jumped up to meet Shan, and they clasped hands happily.

“I am pleased that you are back,” Shan declared.

“It is good to be back. I only wish my outing had been more useful,” Dreibrand confessed.

“You did battle with the Kezanada. I want to hear all of the details. I did not see the battle itself,” Shan said.

Rolling his eyes, Dreibrand thought about Pelafan and Sutah’s meddling. “We have much to talk about.”

“Yes, but we will speak privately,” Shan said.

Now Dreibrand looked at Shan’s young companion, wondering who he was and why he was with Shan.

The rys noticed Dreibrand’s shift in attention and quickly introduced the young man, “This is Prince Kalek, King Taischek’s eldest son.”

The young Kalek stepped up and examined Dreibrand carefully. Dreibrand understood Kalek’s curiosity about his foreign appearance. At first everyone west of the Rysamand had looked strange to Dreibrand, although he hardly noticed now, but he realized that he was one among many and would always be an oddity in this place where he made a new life.

Shan continued, “Prince Kalek, this is Dreibrand Veta. He serves me as a general in the war on Jingten. These warriors are volunteers from other tribes, who will help us overthrow Onja.”

Kalek noted that Dreibrand did not bow to him and that irritated him. Normally Kalek was haughty and demanding, but he restrained his cockiness for the moment while looking at Dreibrand’s tall strong frame and bandaged arm.

Dreibrand sized up the Prince quickly. Kalek appeared five or six years younger than himself with a thick shock of Temu braids raining around his soft face. He had intense brown eyes but they were not friendly. Even on the other side of the Wilderness, Dreibrand could recognize the spoiled heir of a great man. They did not really look so different in Atrophane.

“King Taischek has much to be proud of,” Dreibrand said, finally dipping his head a little.

“Prince Kalek just had to see the foreign warrior who has so impressed his father,” Shan explained.

“Is that a Zenglawa?” Kalek demanded while scanning the barracks.

“Yes, Dreibrand has been assessing his loyalty,” Shan explained.

“Does the King know?” Kalek asked doubtfully.

“Yes, and your father is happy to leave my affairs to my judgment,” Shan scolded mildly.

Dreibrand watched the Prince for his reaction, but Kalek kept his opinion to himself and only frowned in the direction of the Zenglawa.

“Actually I think he is going to work out,” Dreibrand said. “When we fought the Kezanada, he took a bow from one of their archers and killed many of them. It made the difference in a tight spot. I told him he could have a bow again when we got back to Dengar Nor.”

Shan pondered the Zenglawa a moment. “Perhaps,” he murmured reluctantly.

“You of course will make the final decision,” Dreibrand added.

“Later. Let us go to the castle,” Shan said.

Despite Kalek’s nearby disapproving scowl, Redan had shyly approached his general. “Sir, may I speak to Lord Shan?”

After glancing at Shan’s inscrutable face, Dreibrand gave his permission. The rys did not protest because he had seen Redan act with bravery and honor and he was almost convinced that the Zenglawa was sincere in his wish to serve.

Almost reverently, Redan said, “Was it you that set me free, Lord Shan?”

“Yes. It was me,” Shan confirmed.

Impressed murmurs circulated the Yentay. They had all heard Redan’s belief that Shan’s magic had burned away his bindings all the way from Dengar Nor, but it meant a lot more when Shan agreed with the Zenglawa.

Shan took advantage of the moment and added, “In the spring I will ride at your sides and my magic will serve all of you.”

For a moment the Yentay forgot their exhaustion and their hearts surged with excitement. They had already held their own against the Kezanada, and when Shan went to war with them, they would be unstoppable. Even without a demonstration of his power, the men felt the aura of his power and cheered because they were a part of it.

“Rest now good warriors,” Shan instructed.

“Thank you, Lord Shan,” Redan said hastily before the rys departed.

Shan regarded him thoughtfully but made no reply. The Temu warriors escorted the prestigious persons back into the rain. They hurried through the city and up the switchbacked road to the splendid complex that was Taischek’s castle on the mesa. Knowing that Miranda was in the castle made Dreibrand feel like he had come home, a sensation that he had not known for a long time.

Kalek had many questions for Dreibrand and his pestering broke the sleepy silence of the castle. Dreibrand answered the Prince with a learned patience.

Finally, Shan scolded the young man with the security of someone who is the King’s dearest friend and ally. “Hush, Kalek. Dreibrand can tell you his stories of the world at another time.”

Annoyed at the rys’s lack of respect, Kalek pressed on. “Dreibrand Veta, my father—the King—says you defeated three Temu warriors when he tested you in non-lethal combat.”

“I defended myself and I showed myself to be a warrior,” Dreibrand responded modestly.

“You would not have done so well if I had been there to test you,” Kalek boasted.

Dreibrand tried not to sigh with indignation, but failed. He hoped a day later when he was fed and rested that the Prince would not seem so tiresome.

“Kalek.” Shan purposefully did not use the heir’s title again. “I need to speak with my general—privately.”

Kalek would not cross Shan but he disliked the dismissal. “We will speak later,” he announced but no one was interested. Shan and Dreibrand continued to the rys’s apartment.

Entering Shan’s private chambers, Dreibrand said, “Thank you for getting rid of him, Shan. I am in no mood for princely puppies.”

The rys chuckled at the criticism. “He really did want to meet you, but his attitude is usually not very endearing. I have often hoped that he would out grow it, but he only seems to grow into it.”

“It does not matter,” Dreibrand muttered, throwing off his wet fur lined cloak.

Shan easily started a good fire in the fireplace, quicker than a man could have done it. Dreibrand stripped away his gear and wrapped a wool blanket around his shoulders. Sitting gratefully near the soothing flames, he noticed that the soggy bloody bandage on his arm was staining through the blanket.

“Sorry about this,” he apologized.

“Have you had that looked at?” Shan worried.

“Yeah, I got stitched up in Fata Nor. The bandage is the worst part now. I was lucky to only get this. The Kezanada Overlord almost killed me,” Dreibrand explained.

“The Overlord!” Shan cried. “When?”

“When we fought the Kezanada,” Dreibrand replied.

Shan looked perplexed. “I know the Overlord. I have met the Overlord many times. I would have noticed him. Are you sure?”

“Everyone said it had to be the Overlord. He was a large man, brightly dressed unlike the others. If anybody could be a king of mercenaries, he could,” Dreibrand said.

Shan sat down heavily without his usual quiet grace. “Tell me everything about this clash with the Kezanada. Tell me everything,” Shan instructed greedily.

Starting with Pelafan and Sutah, Dreibrand made a full report to the rys, who listened raptly as if comparing details to his record. An uncharacteristic agitation crept into Shan’s mannerisms, which Dreibrand noticed.

When he finished, Shan confessed, “I never saw the Overlord.”

Dreibrand tried to soothe him, figuring the strain of the bounty caused Shan to be nervous. “Shan, you said you looked in on me after the battle. The Overlord was gone so of course you did not see him,” he reasoned.

Shan disregarded the idea and explained, “I knew something was wrong even at the time. I had trouble locating the Kezanada. And when I did perceive them, it was hard to focus. I barely found the prisoners in time to help.”

“It was far away. You did not know where the Kezanada were and it took you a while to find them. You still succeeded Shan. You still worked magic. Do not judge yourself so harshly for overlooking a few details,” Dreibrand advised.

Shan frowned and corrected, “I can see clearly much farther than that, and I would not have overlooked the Overlord. His presence should have immediately attracted my attention.”

Discarding his optimistic view, Dreibrand asked, “So what are you saying?”

Clearly not pleased by the notion and still reluctant to accept it, Shan answered, “A warding crystal must protect the Overlord from my perception. Onja must have given it to him, but I long ago acquired the ability to pierce any of her wardings. It must be something new. Something different.”

“Maybe Pelafan and Sutah gave him something,” Dreibrand suggested. “Those two were up to something.”

Waving a blue hand dismissively, Shan scoffed, “Those idiots! They have average abilities and could not even make a warding crystal. The answer must be that Onja has a new warding unfamiliar to me, and now it protects the Overlord. I must learn to see through this new fog she has made, and do it quickly.”

“And you can learn this?” Dreibrand asked.

“Eventually. I learned to penetrate all of her other wardings, and so I will unlock the secret of this spell. Hopefully it will not take too long. The trouble now is finding the warding again and keeping track of the blindspot so I can study it,” Shan said. For a moment, his concern with this challenge distracted him, but then he stood up and briskly apologized, “I have kept you up with too many questions and worries, my friend. Go now to Miranda. She misses you.”

Tiredly Dreibrand agreed, and his eyes were drooping as Shan showed him to the door. A dreary dawn had arrived by the time Dreibrand dragged himself to his apartment. His weariness overwhelmed him and he remembered little past that point.

The day was almost gone by the time he woke up in his bed. His arm was freshly dressed and he vaguely recalled falling asleep while Miranda cut away his nasty old bandage. Seeing her had been a joy to him and he found it difficult to believe he had actually collapsed upon reuniting with her.

He sat up, relishing the soft warm bed and pillows, feeling refreshed. Miranda, who had been patiently waiting for him to stir, entered and sat on the edge of the bed. Dreibrand coiled his arms around her.

“Forgive my sleepiness, my love,” he purred apologetically.

“You said you had been up for days, so I wanted to let you sleep,” Miranda said.

“And now what do you want me to do?” he asked, feeling suddenly energetic.

She smiled and kissed him. They immediately strengthened their embrace and made love with more than their usual intoxication for each other.

Resting in his arms, Miranda cherished the security she felt when they were alone. Purposefully she sat up and looked down on Dreibrand’s reclining body. Still unshaven, he looked rugged. His hair spread around him on the pillow, and he gazed at her appreciatively from under his heavy brow. Miranda wondered if all men from Atrophane were so good and strong.

Dreibrand enjoyed the sight of her naked body and laid a squeezing hand on her curving hip. He smiled at her round full breasts that were at eyelevel; then followed her curling hair up to her pretty face. He knew she had been a peasant girl, a slave even, but Dreibrand never saw her that way. There had been other lovers back in the east. Some had been wealthy women, so called well-bred women, but Miranda seemed so much finer to him. He admired her strength and her courage, and he loved possessing her. Dreibrand never wanted her to go away.

Miranda wet her lips and took a deep breath. Without knowing what else to do she blurted, “I carry your child.”

Dreibrand’s face slackened and his jaw dropped all the way. At length he said stupidly, “How?”

This made Miranda laugh. It was a relief to finally tell him. “What do you think happens when a man and a woman are together like us?” she chided.

Dreibrand actually looked embarrassed. “I know, but I never thought about it,” he confessed.

“Well think about it because we shall have a child in the spring,” she said.

“In the spring? Then you cannot go to Jingten,” he said.

“Yes I will.”

“No Miranda. Be reasonable,” he said firmly, recognizing the defiant look in her eyes.

She insisted, “I have to go. The pass will not thaw until late spring and I should give birth in time to go. I have to get Elendra and Esseldan back.”

Dreibrand clutched his head, which now felt totally muddled. Too many things were occurring to him at once. He might have to go to war without seeing his child, or at best he would see the infant, then go to war. Either way it would be a torment to him. He had only begun to get used to facing battle with Miranda in his life and now he would have a…family?

He shook the thought from his mind before the weight of responsibility took root.

Hugging Miranda gently, he decided, “We will save this quarrel for the spring. Let us just be happy for now.”

“You are happy?” she asked cautiously.

“Oh, very happy!” he exclaimed with honesty but not understanding.

“I am happy too,” Miranda said and it made Dreibrand feel good to hear it. But her face became serious and she whispered, “I know what it is to bear a child I do not want.” Her voice was shy as if she spoke of a taboo subject. “I know the resentment of having the children of a man I hate. As much as I love my children, I did not want them.”

Dreibrand listened apprehensively, uncertain of what she would say.

With a vulnerability that she had never let him see before, she continued, “But now I will know the joy of bearing the child of a man I love.”

Speaking these words made Miranda feel exposed. She had no experience to guide her interpretation of her emotions for Dreibrand, but she knew she wanted him and did not just need him.

Dreibrand held her gratefully, murmuring his own loving words. To know she really cared for him overwhelmed him with happiness. He shared a close trust with Miranda that he had not known with another woman, and he prized their relationship. With Miranda’s declaration of love, Dreibrand would find a way to cope with his impending fatherhood. Even in his confusion, he was already excited to see his child.

After one more long deep kiss, Dreibrand bounded out of bed and started dressing. “Can we go tell everybody?” he urged.

Pleased by his enthusiasm, Miranda got up, but quickly sat down. Dreibrand dropped his shirt and took her hand. “What is wrong?” The normal concern he had for her well being would now be doubled.

“I got up too fast and I felt a little sick,” Miranda explained, but when she saw his stricken look, she added, “Do not worry. It is normal.”

“Do you want to stay here?” he suggested.

Rubbing her temple, she accepted, “Yes, I am tired.”

Delicately he helped her back to bed and offered to stay, but Miranda would rather he enjoy himself instead of fussing over her.

“Go tell our news. I have kept it to myself long enough,” she encouraged.

For a moment he was indecisive, then rationalized, “I have business to attend to. I must speak with the King and Shan anyway.”

“Go,” she insisted.

The news elated Taischek, and he jumped out of his chair and even danced a couple steps. He sent a meaningful look heavenward as if a prayer had been answered, and then threw his arms around Dreibrand in congratulations.

“This is wonderful. Wonderful!” the King declared joyously.

Taischek’s exuberance stunned Dreibrand somewhat. He had imagined that Taischek would be happy for him but not thrilled. Shan shook his hand while Taischek still slapped his back.

“You and Miranda deserve this blessing,” Shan said.

General Xander congratulated him stiffly while Taischek signaled to a servant. The servant automatically went to get more wine.

Prince Kalek lounged indolently in his chair, seeing little reason for his father’s jubilation. So the foreign mercenary will have a bastard, he thought with annoyance.

Taischek kicked his son in the foot and scolded, “Where are your manners? A man in our household is expecting his firstborn and you do not congratulate him?”

Dreibrand could not help but enjoy Taischek criticizing his son on his behalf, and he looked at Kalek with an expression of irritating expectancy.

Kalek’s bored face rested on his fingers. Without standing he gestured sarcastically with his fingers and forced a smile, then returned his fingers to their propping position. Taischek frowned but knew how his son could be. He made a mental note to make sure Kalek recognized Dreibrand’s qualities.

The servant returned and replenished everyone’s wine. Taischek made a flattering toast complimenting Dreibrand’s virility, and Dreibrand tossed back his entire cup of wine. The warm rush of alcohol greeted him kindly, and Dreibrand realized he actually needed a drink. Sitting back down, he gestured for a refill, which made Taischek grin.

“Welcome home, Dreibrand Veta. May it be a long and pleasant winter,” Taischek decreed.

“Well said,” Shan cheered. “May we all enjoy our friendship in this easy season before the difficult tasks of the spring.”

“I see our General Veta has finally accepted that the war season is over,” Taischek observed with amusement. “Perhaps in the east they fight in this weather, but we do not.”

Taischek clapped his hands and called for musicians. He had noted Dreibrand’s mood for intoxication and intended to enjoy the company of the normally reserved foreigner now that he had the chance.

After a few more rounds of wine, Xander rose and said, “Sire, I can’t stay tonight. With your permission I would like to retire from the party.”

“Have some more drinks and you won’t need my permission,” Taischek joked and laughed loudly, but he quieted when he noticed Xander’s depressed expression. He realized he had been doting over Dreibrand, but he liked the brave young man who was so fascinating.

Surely, Xander knows nothing could diminish my opinion of him, Taischek thought. He considered making Xander stay so he could cheer him up, but if Xander wanted some solitude for once, Taischek could not deny his friend.

Taischek said, “Yes, yes, our company is much too dull. Go to your wives.”

“Thank you, Sire,” Xander said appreciatively. The General bowed to his King and Prince before leaving.

Dreibrand considered Xander’s departure out of character, but took no offense at the General’s lack of enthusiasm over his good news. Taischek’s company was easy to like and Dreibrand settled in and recounted his battle with the Overlord.

Knowing well the rightful reputation of the Overlord, Taischek marveled that Dreibrand had survived once his sword had been broken. When Dreibrand explained that he had saved himself by sho darting the Overlord, Taischek had to laugh but warned that the Overlord would want revenge.

“Because we are enemies anyway, I do not think I will notice,” Dreibrand said.

Once Taischek got Dreibrand drunk enough, Dreibrand happily answered the many questions that came from Kalek. The Prince paid close attention as Dreibrand described far off Atrophane and the many lands that the Horde had conquered. As Kalek questioned his father’s favored warrior, he restrained himself from any challenging comments although he had meant to goad Dreibrand into a fight that night. 

 With Kalek’s troublesome schemes on hold, the evening passed festively. Taischek continually teased Dreibrand about his approaching fatherhood, which in a way helped Dreibrand adjust to the fact.

Shan is a good friend and I am fortunate for that. But I know he visits me so much because he cannot bear to be in Jingten and not be the king—Chendoaser, Nuram ruler, year 1850 of the Age of Onja.

 The ice axe sank into the glacier and Dreibrand tested his weight on it. The grass and trees of the Jingten Valley were far below him as he toiled in the land of gravel, mountains, and ice. Jagged cliffs loomed to his left, shading a fringe of the ice sheet he scaled. Even so, the softer days of summer had weakened the ice’s outer shell, and every swing of the axe had to bite deep to bear his weight.

The morning light had revealed to Dreibrand the high craggy face of the ice sheet that sprawled between mountains like a half asleep dragon. The glacier emanated an elemental presence, resenting the frigid plateau that trapped it so far from the living sea.

After climbing halfway up, Dreibrand gained some confidence. His muscles strained and shook from the exertion, but he was capable of the task. He had to be certain of the grip of his equipment each time before committing his weight, and the boulders and gravel heaped below motivated him not to fail.

Reluctantly heeding Shan’s advice, he had waited below for the night to end, tormented by the knowledge that Miranda was trapped above. In his anguish, he had even called to her, hoping to hear her reply from the darkness. But only the pitiless whine of the wind on ice and stone had answered him.

At last he could take action, and his rage and frustration translated into strength as he hauled himself on top of the Galnuvet Glacier. The clear morning sun reflected a million ways on the dazzling glacier, making tears start from his squinting eyes.

As Shan had instructed, Dreibrand had brought two sapling poles and placed them under his arms. Next he removed his warding crystal and examined its light to get a bearing. The magic orb indicated he search in the center of the ice field and this tangible sign that Shan led him gave him hope.

The crampons strapped to his boots aided him tremendously on the ice, but Dreibrand often needed one of the poles to keep his balance in the rough areas. It did not take long for him to discover the perils of the glacier. He heard a frightening crack beneath his forward foot and quickly jumped back, just in time to watch a chunk of ice drop into a hidden channel of rushing water. The water tunneled below the surface, and to get caught in it meant certain death.

Dreibrand continued, begrudging the slowness demanded by increased caution. The sun climbed toward its zenith, and he saw nothing in the glaring whiteness. The glacier became rougher and broken with great slabs of ice jutting upward at conflicting angles. Increasingly he saw places where the torn ice plunged into deep crevasses. These cold hungry traps he gave a wide berth. In this treacherous broken place he checked his crystal, and the blue light flared, sending waves of excitement through his body. He called to Miranda but no reply came.

Dreibrand scrambled up and down slabs of ice, searching on every side, but trying not to be reckless in his urgency. Finally, after he had despaired that Shan had sent him to a foolish death as some inhuman rys joke, he saw her motionless body lying past the next slab of ice. A streak of blood painted the slope of the ice toward her body, as if she had struck the slab and slid down to the bottom.

Dreibrand jumped down beside Miranda and gathered her in his arms. Blood had dried around her mouth and nose and it was caked in her hair along a cut on her scalp. Unable to contemplate the possible results, Dreibrand put his fingers to her neck. He could feel his own heart beating wildly as he waited for a sign of life. After what seemed like a hopeless eternity, a weak pulse revealed itself.

Shaking with gratitude, Dreibrand examined her injuries. She did not appear to have any frostbite. Apparently, Shan’s magic had protected her through the night. He discovered that her right arm was broken and the cut on her head had bled heavily before clotting. Although she lived, Dreibrand knew she was in serious trouble.

He could not rouse her from her unconscious state.

“Miranda, don’t die,” he begged, hugging her close. “Don’t die.”

Steadying his emotions, Dreibrand temporarily removed the coil of rope so he could take off his wolf hide. Tenderly he wrapped Miranda in the protective black fur and lifted her over his shoulder. He replaced the rope over his other shoulder and tucked the saplings under the same armpit. With the added weight, he had to use his ice axes to haul himself over jutting ridges of ice.

Miranda moaned faintly and he rejoiced that she made a sound.

“You are going to make it, Miranda. I am here now, and we are getting you to safety. Everything is all right.” He continued to babble comforting words as he clambered across the glacier, hoping she could hear him and find strength.

Adrenaline and determination kept him strong under his burden as he carried Miranda across the rough ice. The extra weight demanded additional caution on the summer weakened surface. Dreibrand tested every step twice as he plodded toward the edge.

Despite his care, he broke through into a hidden crevasse anyway. The crust of ice and snow bore his weight deceptively before he crashed through into nothingness. The saplings slammed into his armpit painfully, and he cried out in terror and pain, but the poles stopped his descent. Miranda’s body also helped to stop the fall by wedging him into the crack in the glacier.

The emptiness below was a terrible sensation, and Dreibrand struggled to grip the sides of the crevasse with his spiked feet. After getting himself somewhat stabilized, he eased Miranda off his shoulder and laid her back on the solid ice so that only her legs remained in the gap. He grasped an ice axe that was dangling from his wrist by its strap while the saplings sagged with failing reliability. Trying not to disturb his precarious support, he gave the axe a long swing and sank it into the ice as far as he could extend his arm. Holding tight to Miranda, he hoisted them out of the crevasse.

He panted against the cold blue ice that felt so good and solid beneath him. Although the saplings were almost broken, he kept them anyway and blessed Shan for the good advice. Dreibrand did not look back into the crevasse.

Finally he reached the edge of the glacier and immediately started pounding screws to secure the rope without pausing to rest. Shan’s equipment was marvelous and a lot of research had obviously gone into the construction of the gear. The ice screws had sturdy rings to put the rope through, and Dreibrand regretted that they would have to be left behind.

He decided to lower Miranda first instead of risking their combined weight against the rope stakes. The rope was long enough for him to lower her and have enough left for himself. Dreibrand took great care while devising a harness around her body. He did not want to hurt her, but the harness had to stay in place. When he was satisfied that the harness would not slip or strangle her, he set a hand on her cheek and told her to stay strong.

Gathering his courage he planted his feet firmly and eased her over the edge. Her head lolled and the constant wind tugged at her hair. Dreibrand focused on her battered face framed by the warm green valley beyond the glacial waste. The rope had been threaded through two rings, and Dreibrand had decent control as he lowered her down the wall of ice. His overworked muscles screamed painfully for the oxygen rationed by the thin air, but he commanded his body to function.

Miranda arrived at the bottom with remarkably few bangs and bumps, and Dreibrand was proud as he set her carefully on the gravel. So far below she looked small and lifeless, which made him anxious to get down to her.

Shaking out his strained arms, Dreibrand took a few invigorating breaths before rapelling the glacial cliff. In the middle of a drop, a screw pulled out and the sudden slack sent him briefly out of control, and he slammed into the ice. The ringed screw slid down the rope to dangle before his eyes and deliver the message to panic. Very quickly, he continued, repelling recklessly. He was very close to the bottom and feeling better when the other screw gave way. As he flew backward away from the ice wall, he had a crazy view of the rope falling lazily toward him.

His back struck the gravel hill at the base of the glacier, and Dreibrand skidded down the slope. With his wind knocked out, Dreibrand rolled to a stop and did not move for a long minute. Eventually he drew a ragged breath, which was followed by several masochistic gasps to renew his lungs. Then he moved his limbs, and was rather surprised to find them responsive.

Trying to ignore his own pain, he lurched upright and dragged himself over to Miranda. He untied the rope from her body. Miranda groaned weakly and he hoped it was a sign that she would regain consciousness soon. 

“I got you away from the glacier,” he whispered.

A great cracking sound interrupted his encouraging report. It was like a thousand trees about to fall, and the horrendous crack made his throbbing spine tingle. Instinct immediately informed Dreibrand to flee. Grabbing Miranda, he ran as a huge section of the glacier slipped down to crash on the ground. Ice and snow smacked his back as he escaped the crushing flow of the great calving.

Once Dreibrand was clear of the danger, he collapsed with Miranda in his arms. He looked back at the grumbling ice and felt warned not to come back.

Shan’s horse approached them, picking its way across the coarse rubble and snow banks above the alpine meadows. Dreibrand draped Miranda over the saddle and set out for the lower and friendlier land.

Upon returning to the fragrant pine forests, where bees buzzed in the sunny flowered places, Dreibrand built a fire. A blanket and shaggy fleece had been packed on Shan’s horse, and Dreibrand used these to wrap Miranda. Placing her close to the fire, he began to clean the blood from her face and hair, remembering fondly how she had once helped him.

Dreibrand assumed Shan would simply find their camp. He decided to wait for the rys before setting Miranda’s arm. After battles Dreibrand had often aided his wounded men, but confronted now with straightening Miranda’s arm, he felt nervous about his amateur skill.

She deserves the best, he thought.

Late in the day, Shan arrived riding Starfield and leading Freedom.

“You are an ice climber after all,” Shan said cheerfully.

Dreibrand rose wearily, almost too battered to stand, and greeted his friend, but his mood was not light. “Shan, Miranda is not doing well. I cannot wake her.”

Kneeling next to Miranda, Shan laid a gentle hand on her bruised head. His awareness traveled inside her body and he saw her injuries. He saw the shadow of torture that Onja had inflicted on the woman’s flesh and he shivered.

“There is much hope,” he determined, but the neutral statement only increased Dreibrand’s worry.

“Her arm is broken,” Dreibrand said.

“I know. I will set it while she is still unconscious to spare her the pain,” Shan said.

“Do you know how to do such things? Or can we take her to a healer?” Dreibrand asked.

“I am competent to set a bone. My magic allows me to see that it is set just right,” Shan replied.

They prepared a split and bandages. Dreibrand held Miranda in case the pain made her thrash about even in an unconscious state. Shan held her arm tentatively then abruptly snapped the bone back into alignment. A weak gasp escaped Miranda and she moved her head. The rys’s eyes began to glow, and he sent energy into her body, nourishing damaged flesh and soothing tortured nerves. Shan knew he could not completely undo the wicked torment Onja had imposed on Miranda, but he could help.

Dreibrand watched Shan treat Miranda with magic, but it did not alarm him. He knew the rys was not hurting her.

“She felt some pain when I set the arm. That is a pity, but it is also a good sign that she is responsive,” Shan announced when he released her from his power.

Next, they carefully bound her splint and bandaged her head.

Shan suggested, “You rest with her now. I will see to our dinner.”

Dreibrand did not dispute the idea and stretched out next to Miranda. The fire and covers had warmed her, but her face remained pale. Dreibrand hated to see her struggle for life after she had been so hot and vital in his arms just two nights ago.

“Stay with me, Miranda,” he whispered as his exhaustion overtook him.

Sometime later Dreibrand sat up with a start. Night had long since fallen, and the fire blazed happily on fresh fuel.

“Just me,” Shan said reassuringly. Two skinned rabbits roasted on a spit in front of him. “I warn you, I am not the best cook.”

Some fat sizzled in the fire and the aroma made Dreibrand realize he was ravenous.

“Not a problem,” he said, eyeing the dinner and wondering how much longer it needed to cook.

Taking his hungry eyes from the roasting rabbits, he checked on Miranda and was shocked to see her looking back at him.

“Miranda!” he cried, leaning over her. “Talk to me.”

Her cracked lips parted and she struggled briefly to find the breath to speak. Quietly in a confused voice, she said, “I am alive.”

“Yes,” Dreibrand laughed with joy. “You are alive.”

Wincing with pain, Miranda whispered, “I don’t feel good.”

Holding her good hand, Dreibrand explained, “You are hurt, but you are going to get better.”

Because she could not sit up, Dreibrand carefully poured a few drops of water from the canteen into her dry mouth. Her exposure had made her very thirsty and Dreibrand continued giving her water for some time.

When she was somewhat rehydrated, Miranda smiled to him weakly and commented, “I smell food.”

Dreibrand laughed again, filled with hope by her interest in eating. Although he took joy in her awakening, the bad news could not wait. With serious regret, he said, “I had to leave Elendra and Esseldan in Jingten. I had no choice. There was no time. I had to come to you. Miranda, I am so sorry…” He hung his head in shame.

With her good hand, Miranda touched his cheek soothingly. “I know,” she spoke painfully. “I fought. You would have only ended up like me. Onja stole my children and said I was her slave. I would not be her slave, and I paid the price. I thought I would die with my grief, but now I will live with it. Do not blame yourself, Dreibrand. Onja had control and we never had a chance.” Miranda coughed and added miserably, “Elendra wanted to stay in Jingten anyway.”

“Miranda, we will get them back,” Dreibrand promised.

“Yes,” she agreed but then a fit of coughing consumed her. In obvious pain, Miranda rolled over, shaken by her heaving lungs, and expectorated some blood. She lay back with a gurgling breath and shut her eyes. Dreibrand wiped the bloody drool from her lips.

Shyly, Shan moved closer and waited until Miranda opened her eyes again. When she saw him, her sad face brightened with a serene expression that washed away her pain.

“Shan,” she smiled.

“Yes, I am here,” he greeted.

“I saw you in the night,” Miranda whispered.

“I was there, watching over you. My magic let me keep you warm from far away. I wish I could have done more for you,” Shan said.

Miranda did not feel dissatisfied. The rys no longer seemed alien to her. Despite being unconscious, she remembered him vividly. He had been more real than a dream. Shan had been there with her, helping her live, in her time of greatest need.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“I apologize for the Queen of Jingten. She is a monster, and rys are not like her. When I can, I will try to set things right for you, Miranda,” Shan said.

“I know,” Miranda said. She would never doubt a word he said.

Later that night, Shan watched Dreibrand carefully feed Miranda bits of food. The tenderness between the humans intrigued Shan, and he was reminded of his loneliness.

Four days passed before Miranda could stand. Her health was willing to return, but the absence of her children made her sullen. She did not blame Dreibrand, but she privately blamed herself. She would be in Jingten right now with her children, if she had been willing to be Onja’s slave. It hurt to recognize her selfishness.

She walked slowly around their camp, with Dreibrand at her elbow in case she fell.

Holding her broken arm, she said, “When can we go to Jingten?”

Dreibrand had no answer for her, and he turned to Shan who reclined on a large boulder and stared at the sky.

The rys sat up, and his eyes strayed in the direction of Jingten.

Then he stood to answer Miranda directly. “You want me to say that I will go right now and get your children?” he said.

“I will go with you,” Miranda stated.

Her lack of hesitation even after Onja’s torture impressed Shan, and he took her bravery as a lesson.

“Onja will not give your children back. I have already demanded that she do so, and she became hostile,” Shan explained.

“That is clear,” Miranda said.

“Shan,” Dreibrand interjected. “You have made clear your intention to challenge her. Then do it now.”

The bold suggestion startled Shan, but his shock turned to pleasure.

How refreshing this human from the east who has not been raised with the power of Jingten weighing on his mind, Shan thought. He wanted to accept Dreibrand’s suggestion. Even as he thought of the challenge, Shan yearned to be the King of Jingten. He should listen to Dreibrand. How long did he intend to wait before challenging Onja again? Another hundred years? It had already been over four hundred.

But Shan growled with frustration and shook his head. “It is not an easy thing,” he muttered.

“But on the mountain you said you wanted Onja’s throne,” Dreibrand urged.

“And that is true,” Shan agreed.

“Is it that you do not want to kill her and break your law?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan paused, trying to hide his inner turmoil. “It is not that. But…killing and killing Onja are two different things. To face Onja I must practice,” he said.

“Practice what?” Miranda asked.

“Killing,” Shan confessed. “I have great power, but I have never used it to kill—not human or rys.”

Miranda cast her eyes down sadly. It was horrible to think of Shan’s magic that had kept her alive with warmth and kindness being turned in harmful directions.

“How will you practice?” Dreibrand inquired quietly.

With a determined sigh, Shan said, “I will make war. As I have never done before, I will ride on the battlefield with my friend Taischek. And as my power grows, I will turn Onja’s subjects against her, and then I will make war on Jingten.”

“Why must you do this?” Miranda cried.

“Because when I challenged Onja the first time, I was inadequate. Onja is thousands of years older than me. She fought in the Great War with Nufal. She won the Great War. The magic of an entire race failed against her. I have not had such a life to forge my skills,” Shan explained.

“Then what makes you think you can win?” Dreibrand asked, thinking of his commitment to serve Shan.

“Because my power is waxing and hers is waning. Dreibrand, Miranda, you must believe me,” Shan insisted. He clenched his fists in frustration. He believed, but he needed them to believe.

Dreibrand and Miranda accepted the vague answer because Shan was their only hope of getting near the children.

“Shan, this is not right. Do not make this war,” Miranda protested.

The rys appreciated her concern for people she did not even know, but his strategy was the least part of his guilt. He should feel guiltier for taking so long to implement it. “Miranda, I have tried to avoid this ugly path but I cannot seem to undo Onja’s evil by doing right.”

“When will you bring the war to Jingten?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan would not commit to a time. “I have too many things to consider before I can say for sure, but I will start the process as soon as we head west,” he said.

“West? But my children,” Miranda moaned.

“You need shelter and rest. I will take you to stay with my friends,” Shan said.

Realizing her children would be left behind indefinitely, Miranda became upset, but in her weak state, she fell back against Dreibrand. Supporting her, he took her to her bedding and laid her down. One drop of blood seeped from a nostril, and Dreibrand gave her a rag to hold to her nose.

“You need a safe place to get better,” he gently explained.

Aware of her aching body, Miranda could not argue. Tears dripped down her cheeks.

Dreibrand saw her desolation. Desperate to comfort her, he said, “If I thought I had any chance, I would go to Jingten right now and take Elendra and Esseldan back. But I have seen Onja’s power. She almost killed me. We need to give Shan a chance to help us. You know he wants to.”

“You are right,” Miranda whispered and drifted into sleep.

The next day Dreibrand left to hunt. He was restless and wanted to sort his thoughts out in solitude.

Shan stayed in camp with Miranda, and occupied himself by knapping an arrowhead from a piece of stone. Each strike from his working stone dropped a precise flake from the arrowhead. Absorbed by his work, he constantly examined the new edge with his sensitive fingers. Shan was an obvious master of the ancient art and he finished a perfectly symmetrical arrowhead.

While Miranda had quietly watched him make the stone point, Shan knew she wanted to speak. Setting down his new arrowhead, he regarded her with encouraging dark eyes.

“Shan, as you saw me on the glacier, can you look at my children? Can you see if they are all right? If I knew how they were, maybe I could bear to leave them,” she said.

“Yes, and I can do more. I will show you,” Shan replied. He reached inside his suede jacket and removed a warding crystal.

The sight of the magic orb still made Miranda uneasy.

“Shan, what are those exactly?” she asked.

“Powerful rys can make warding crystals. Our magic can be focused through them, and they create a protective bubble of magic. The warding crystal prevented the Deamedron from killing you, but they can protect you from less evil things. Only the most powerful rys can cast a spell through a warding,” Shan said, holding one out to her. “You keep this one.”

Miranda frowned with hesitation, but Shan urged, “I made this one. It has none of Onja’s magic in it. Dreibrand has one.”

She took the smooth orb in her hand. Even though Shan said it was of his making, it contained the same blue light that had frightened her weeks before in the eyes of the wolf.

“Now hold the crystal in front of you. Get comfortable and close your eyes,” Shan instructed.

Miranda did so, but sometimes she would peek at Shan. The rys sat in front of her in unblinking meditation. Blue fire consumed his eyes, and Miranda was fairly certain he could not see her.

Shan’s awareness flew the familiar path to Jingten. The timeless blue stone city of the rys came into sight, and he briefly felt the sting of his exile. Looking upon the ancient capital of his race, Shan finally realized that the next time he entered the city he must become the King.

Swift as a swallow, his mind dropped into the Keep, seeking the human children. Onja had numerous wardings in place around her vast private apartments, but they had ceased to confound his mind long ago. The children were there, alive and safe. He focused the images into the crystal Miranda held in her hand.

She gasped when the images hit her mind, then relaxed. Suddenly, Miranda saw Elendra. Her daughter sat at a table with the female rys who served as her nanny. An open book lay in front of Elendra, and the nanny appeared to be teaching her from the book. Elendra’s hair was neatly combed and she wore nice clothing.

Seeing her daughter well treated relieved Miranda. The rys were even schooling her—an opportunity Miranda had never dreamed any child of hers would receive.

The scene of Elendra with her nanny shifted, as Shan guided Miranda’s perception elsewhere. He showed her Esseldan napping peacefully in a crib. His round face had a healthy glow, and the boy did not cough or sniffle. Miranda missed her baby painfully, and it disturbed her that Esseldan had no human to hold him. She wished she could touch her children. They seemed so real and close.

Too soon for Miranda, the images began to fade. Opening her eyes, she reoriented herself.

“Was it real?” she finally gasped.

Shan nodded.

“I could watch them all day,” Miranda said.

“I wanted to let you watch longer, but Onja noticed me. We are still in the Jingten Valley, and she can attack us here. It is best that I not arouse her anger,” Shan said.

Reminded that Onja’s power kept her from her children, Miranda collapsed against Shan’s chest and started sobbing. She had been hiding her grief from Dreibrand because she knew he blamed himself, but she had to release her feelings somehow.

An emotional woman in his arms perplexed Shan. “Onja will pay for her crimes,” he said, patting her awkwardly.

After a little more weeping, Miranda wiped her tears and apologized, “I am sorry. Do not tell Dreibrand I acted like this. He is upset as it is, and I do not want him to feel any worse.”

Shan nodded.

“Why did Onja take my children?” Miranda moaned.

“I think perhaps because she loves young things. Onja is very old. I think she wants to surround herself with young things. When I was young, she liked me close to her, but human children are SO young. Humans live shorter lives, and children are so vital and intense that they are a pleasure to be near,” Shan said.

Miranda listened to his theory, but it made little sense to her.

Miserably she muttered, “I could never provide a good life. Maybe they are better off in Jingten.”

“Do not put such hard thoughts on yourself,” Shan advised. “You suffer enough.”

Miranda forced herself to agree with his wisdom because it made her feel better. Looking up to his mysterious face, she said, “Dreibrand told me he has pledged to serve you in your war against Onja. I wish to do the same.”

“Good,” Shan accepted. “I believe you will be a great enemy of the Queen.”

“Then I do not want to hold back your plans anymore. We should start tomorrow,” Miranda decided.

Worry creased Shan’s face as he warned, “Do not be hasty. I know how Onja hurt you. You will not heal quickly.”

“I know how to live with pain,” she retorted. “Let us waste no more time. I can ride.”

Shan sighed helplessly. The human female confused him by crying with grief and then abruptly giving orders.

When Dreibrand returned, Miranda immediately informed him of their departure in the morning. Of course out of concern for her health, he protested, but Miranda made her stubborn wishes clear. Dreibrand had traveled with her long enough to know her temperament and conceded. To his mind, the sooner she had proper shelter the better.

Shan gazed sternly at Dreibrand, indicating his dissatisfaction with the man’s minimal arguments against riding the next day. “Tell her no. She will listen to you,” Shan whispered.

“I am listening right now,” Miranda snapped. “I will be fine.”

Dreibrand chuckled as Shan lost his first encounter with Miranda’s temper.

Miranda understood her companions cared for her, and she knew her recovery was far from complete, but if Shan’s war against Onja was the only way she could get back into Jingten, then she would not delay him. Miranda could face leaving her children behind now that she saw they were still treated well. The sooner she left, the sooner she could reclaim them, she reasoned.

Dreibrand was running now. He had lain low all day, even sleeping a little, but with the dusk he sensed that someone was hunting him. The perturbed chatter of birds warned him. Yesterday he would not have thought about birds. Today he did.

He peered around the tree that he had been laying against. He did not see anything through the bright spring foliage, but he heard someone approaching. Quickly, Dreibrand rose and slipped into the saddle. Riding away, he figured a Bosta pursued him, but he had no desire to stay and fight. Soon the night would cover him, and he would reach the Wilderness.

Dreibrand wished he had more food before entering the wild lands, but finding supplies had proved more difficult than he had anticipated. That morning as he rushed away from his old life, he had steered clear of the villages because the Horde was advancing on the settlements. Outside the villages the land was sparsely populated. The first cottage he found had contained no food whatsoever. Its occupants had been thorough before abandoning their home.

At the next farm Dreibrand had better luck. He found grain and hay that quickly renewed Starfield, and he scrounged an actual meal for himself out of the kitchen. Some foodstuffs lingered in the larder, and he shoved all of it into his saddlebags. Feeling very discouraged, he poked through the few possession that had been left behind. He found a small dull hatchet, but gained nothing else useful.

He felt odd rummaging through the abandoned homes all by himself. Usually soldiers would do this type of thing while he watched. The trumpets and drums of his conquering countrymen blared a few elti away, and Dreibrand keenly felt his separation from them. He had become accustomed to living and working inside the Horde, and outside the Horde he was not sure who he was.

For a moment he doubted himself, and thought about going back. It was frightening to hear the Atrophaney assault and not be a part of it. Sternly he told himself to forget his people. The Horde obviously went on without him, and he would go on without the Horde.

His supplies were meager, only a few days of rations really, but Dreibrand resolved to explore the Wilderness as much as he could. He spent the day dozing while the war raged into the valley. Then the nearby noises in the woods had set him going for the night. Dreibrand moved slowly in the darkness. The typical evening chirps and peeps sang in the forest, and he strained his ears for any more sounds of a rider.

It did not take Dreibrand long to convince himself that he was surrounded by riders. Bending low over his horse’s neck, he avoided a hanging branch in the gloom. Starfield was calm, and Dreibrand decided he had to get a grip on his emotions. He was letting the dark forest spook him.

The land became steeper, and sometimes he had to leave the saddle and lead Starfield around rough patches. In the dark he literally groped around obstacles, but he knew he still headed west. When Dreibrand hit a clear space, he checked his progress by the stars.

Late into the night he stopped to rest. The forest smelled moist and clean, and the aroma intoxicated his senses with its purity. Dreibrand tried to remember if he had ever been so alone. He had grown up in civilization and then traveled with the Horde for two years. He had never experienced such a complete isolation.

Dreibrand slept little that night, and when the dawn came he was thirsty. Casually he searched for water, knowing that a stream or spring could not be far in this green land. His slow progress, that had been so frustrating in the night, had gained him more distance than he thought. He was on a ridge halfway between the valley floor and the cliffs.

I am in the Wilderness, he thought with a thrill.

A beautiful land surrounded him. Each mature tree soared and curved like masterful sculptures, and vines and flowers filled the sunny places. He found water readily and it tasted good. Dreibrand washed his face and his skin tingled with awareness.

Smiling at the charming stream, he decided his paranoia had made him hear someone following him. He nibbled some food, then forced aside his hunger. Without looking back he continued westward. The cliffs loomed ahead like the steep walls of a temple, and they called to him as if he was a believer.

Dreibrand gazed up the slope eagerly, taking in every detail of the land. For a space the trees thinned and he could see quite a distance. At the top of the next rise he swore he saw a rider moving into cover. It was a fleeting image, maybe just a shadow tricking his eyes, but it looked like a rider.

I really did hear someone yesterday, he realized.

His clothing and armor clearly designated him as Atrophane, and Dreibrand reasoned that the rider would try to kill him because he was an invader. Deciding to be more cautious, he moved on but it was too late for stealth. A second rider broke from cover right behind him, and openly made pursuit. Dreibrand hurried Starfield toward a denser portion of the forest, hoping he could lose his trackers in the thicker growth.

For the rest of the morning Dreibrand avoided them. He would circle back and take another route, but they always picked up his trail again. Just when Dreibrand thought he might have slipped away, he would hear the rustle of a rider just out of sight.

Tired of being hunted, Dreibrand decided to confront them. He would make them pay for chasing him. He doubted any Bosta woodsman could cope with his skillful combat. Planning to engage them individually, Dreibrand tried to trail one of them, but his tracking skills were inadequate, and Dreibrand might have been looking at his own tracks.

Finally he heard a rider closing on his position. Dreibrand was no coward and he would end this game. Drawing his sword, he waited. A tall sleek horse of the Atrophaney breed emerged from the trees bearing a rider clothed in the soft browns and greens of an imperial scout.

Dreibrand felt panic and guilt. He recognized Hydax.

Furrowing his brow with suspicion, Hydax called, “What’s going on, Lieutenant?” Sarcasm danced with the words.

Knowing if Hydax was there, Gennor was sure to be nearby, Dreibrand glanced in all directions. “Get out of here,” he ordered.

“Sir, you need to come back. Have you forgotten yourself?” Hydax asked, moving closer.

Dreibrand threatened him with his sword, and Hydax arched his eyebrows with surprise. “Just say you never saw me!” Dreibrand shouted.

Raising his hands to calm his comrade, Hydax said reasonably, “Lieutenant, you need to come with me. What are you doing here?”

Dreibrand grimaced and his emotions raged with confusion. He did not want to fight Hydax, and he abandoned his plan to stand his ground. Just as he turned, Gennor rode down the slope toward him. With Gennor almost on top of him, Dreibrand galloped off.

Gennor halted and looked sternly at Hydax. “I told you he was a deserter,” Gennor said.

“He is mad. He must have eaten some rotten food,” Hydax defended.

“Come on, we still have to bring him back,” Gennor said and wheeled his horse around to resume the pursuit.

It was a clean and clear-cut chase. Dreibrand had no lead, and Hydax and Gennor soon rode along each side of him. When Gennor reached for Starfield’s bridle, Dreibrand lashed out with his sword. Gennor narrowly avoided losing his hand. Dreibrand stopped to engage them, and both scouts drew their swords.

At first Dreibrand drove them back with his skillful assault that alternated between riders, but he did not land a killing blow. Dreibrand did not want to hurt these men. He had lived and worked with them for two years. They had followed his orders, and on occasion ate and drank with him. They were Atrophane.

His hesitation to hurt his countrymen cost him dearly. Recovering from the initial onslaught, the scouts stayed on each side of Dreibrand. Without his shield Dreibrand could not fend off both attacks. The flat of a sword smacked the side of his head, and without a helmet to protect him, his senses reeled from the blow. A cut opened on his temple and extended into his scalp. Blood poured over one eye and he felt himself slumping in the saddle. Gennor seized Dreibrand’s sword arm and punched him in the jaw.

With Dreibrand disabled by Gennor, Hydax jumped onto Dreibrand’s back and tackled him from the saddle. Gennor followed them to the ground and stripped Dreibrand of his sword while Hydax held both arms. Gennor tried to grab the ivory handled dagger but Dreibrand kicked the scout.

“Damnit, keep him still,” Gennor complained while wincing at the pain in his knee.

Dreibrand and Hydax were both strong men, but Dreibrand was taller, and he struggled fiercely. Reaching back, Dreibrand pulled the scout’s hair and almost flipped him over his shoulder. Hydax yelled indignantly but managed to keep his hold.

Laughing with pleasure, Gennor popped the tip of his sword under Dreibrand’s chin, which got his attention.

“Surrender or die,” Gennor promised.

Dreibrand blinked at the blood and sweat running into his eyes, and he accepted the superiority of the steel at his throat. Gennor removed a leather thong from his gear and held it out to Hydax.

“Don’t try anything, Lieutenant Veta,” warned Gennor.

Dreibrand trembled with the energy for an escape, but Gennor pressed the sword against the vulnerable flesh of the neck, drawing a careful line of blood. Believing that Gennor’s threat was sincere, Dreibrand suffered the indignity of having his hands bound.

Gennor snatched the ivory handled dagger and tossed it by Dreibrand’s confiscated sword.

“You cannot treat me like this,” Dreibrand said.

Gennor put his sword away and abruptly pushed Dreibrand. With his hands tied behind his back, Dreibrand staggered back, off balance, until he stumbled to the ground. Gennor pounced on him and immediately started undoing the buckles to the chestplate armor.

“What are you doing?” Hydax inquired nervously.

“Teaching this excuse for an officer a lesson. I know a deserter when I see one,” Gennor answered while yanking the armor away from Dreibrand’s torso.

“Maybe not,” Hydax said. He had known Dreibrand Veta to be an outstanding officer and he suspected that Dreibrand could have cut him a couple times in the fight, but had restrained himself.

“I’ve watched him skulk around since yesterday. He’s a skulking deserter,” Gennor concluded and punched Dreibrand in the stomach. After slugging Dreibrand a few times, he stepped back.

“Get up,” he ordered.

More out of a hopeless desire for escape than a wish to comply with his captor, Dreibrand lurched awkwardly to his feet. Gennor had a couple quit punches waiting for him just as he achieved some balance. Dreibrand’s head throbbed and he could not see straight.

“Hold him for me,” Gennor suggested.

Hydax hesitated. “Come on Gennor, Veta was always square with us. Everyone likes him. He doesn’t deserve this.”

Dreibrand appreciated hearing such a glowing report on his popularity, but he doubted it could do much for him now.

“I don’t need you,” Gennor said. He charged Dreibrand and pinned him against a tree, landing several punches until he got tired and stepped away.

Gasping for air Dreibrand sagged against the tree. His clenched muscles sang with pain. In his extensive combat training he had learned how to take a few lumps, but the bruises would be deep.

Pleased by the results of his exertions, Gennor said, “Let us make a camp and get some rest.”

~

Although no smoke was rising in the morning, Miranda remembered the location of the camp from the night before. She went on foot because riding Freedom would be too noisy.

Securing her knife in her sash, she trotted into the woods. Once she was alone and surrounded by the trees, a nervous feeling settled over the back of her neck. Without the company of her children and the horse, the forest seemed closer and more aware of her as a newcomer. As she went, Miranda listened carefully for any threatening sounds and often looked back.

A strong warm wind surged up from the south, becoming amplified so close to the cliffs. When Miranda judged that she neared the campsite, she stopped walking openly and stayed near trees and shrubs. After creeping along for a while, she thought maybe she had gone too far. Having no desire to become disoriented, Miranda paused behind a tangle of vines.

The wind pushing through the trees lulled, quieting the leafvoices for a moment and allowing her to hear human voices. Silently she slipped between the vines toward the bright sun of a clearing. Staying in the deep shadow of the overhanging foliage, Miranda crawled up to the edge of the clearing where the grass started. On the other side of the glen she saw the camp.

A freshly killed deer hung from a tree, and a man prepared to clean the carcass. Another man stood nearby with his arms folded. She heard their voices clearly now, but the words were not her language. By their unfamiliar clothing Miranda suspected that they were Atrophane. Her heart sank. These men frightened her and they could offer her no assistance.

Miranda was about to creep away when she heard a third voice. Driven by curiosity, she peeked farther out of the shadows and saw a third man sitting on the ground and apparently tied to a tree. He wore blue clothing and black boots. Even at a distance the quality of the garments was apparent to her.

But the prisoner’s fine clothing was dirty and his long hair hung in tangles. Intrigued by the prisoner, she wondered if the bound man was an Atrophane, but that did not make sense. Perhaps he was a wealthy lord from the valley.

He looks richer than anyone around here, she concluded.

Also all three horses were taller and stronger than the local Droxy breed, indicating that they were foreigners. Miranda could not understand why they were there. The war was far behind in the valley, and why would Atrophane have an Atrophane prisoner? Pondering this mystery, she continued to observe them.

~

Dreibrand kicked at the dirt in frustration. His shoulders ached from being in an unnatural position all night tied to a tree, and his skull had turned into a vessel of punishment. Blood had dried on his temple where Gennor had felled him with the flat of his sword.

Hydax and Gennor had performed their duty marvelously. They were expert scouts, and Dreibrand would have sent them on this mission himself. The humiliation of capture stung Dreibrand deeply, but he had not lost hope. They would have to move him eventually, and he would try to escape. He could tell Hydax was sympathetic to him, and maybe he could convince Hydax to let him go. For now he planned to coax some food out of them, so he could get his strength back.

“Can’t you hurry up with that deer?” Gennor asked.

Hydax turned from cleaning the animal and laughed. “Oh, stop sweating me. We won’t be leaving until tomorrow anyway.”

“I still say we shouldn’t have taken time for your pleasure hunt today. Lord Kwan did not send us out here for a holiday,” Gennor maintained.

“Why don’t you gather some wood instead of standing there?” Hydax said, annoyed.

“Yes, Gennor, why don’t you gather some wood?” Dreibrand interjected. “I, for one, am looking forward to dinner.”

Gennor turned and said, “Well, look who’s finally talking. How about I knock you around some more? You just shut up and be a nice officer.”

Hydax gestured to Dreibrand with his knife. “I actually feel sorry for you Lieutenant Veta. You’ll think me and Gennor were a basket of flowers after Lord Kwan gets you. He did not look happy about you not showing up to work.”

“I am sure Lord Kwan hardly misses me,” Dreibrand grumbled.

“Oh! Lord Kwan misses you. He was terribly worried about you in fact. I think he wants to give you a promotion,” Gennor joked, and even Hydax had to laugh at that one.

Warming up to his humor, Gennor put a hand across his chest and bowed to Dreibrand. “I would like to thank you, Sir. I never thought I’d get the privilege of smacking up an officer.”

Dreibrand scowled, weary of the ridicule, but he continued, “I had no idea you bore me so much animosity, Gennor.”

Gennor shrugged. “Nothing really personal, Dreibrand. Just all these high-class officers. I risk my life more than the officers, but they get the huge estate grants,” he explained.

“I have never hung back in battle. I take the same risks as my men,” Dreibrand defended proudly.

“Except yesterday,” Gennor said.

Dreibrand truly had nothing to say to this, and he hung his head. He did not hang his head in shame, but in thought. He felt indifferent to the duties he had ignored yesterday and remained loyal to his decision to work for himself outside the strictures of Atrophaney society.

Retreating into his sense of humor, Dreibrand said, “I was so eager to see the Wilderness, I guess Droxy slipped my mind.”

Gennor smirked, undecided on whether he wanted to chuckle.

Stepping back from the gutted deer, Hydax said, “Well it did not slip Lord Kwan’s mind. What are you gonna tell him?”

“What are you going to tell him?” Dreibrand asked and looked both his captors in the eyes.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” Gennor scoffed. “You want me to lie for you? What could you possibly have to offer me, Veta?”

“Come on Gennor, I have always been good to you guys. All you have to say is you never saw me and let me go,” Dreibrand proposed optimistically.

“Where are you going?” Hydax inquired.

“I am exploring the Wilderness on my own. Lord Kwan wanted to send me back to Atrophane, so I am through with the Horde,” Dreibrand answered, and when he said the words, they sounded absurd.

Hydax frowned with disbelief.

“Come with me, Hydax. I could really use your expertise,” Dreibrand said.

“You are crazy,” Gennor complained. When he noticed Hydax seemed to be considering Dreibrand’s idea, he shouted, “If you run off too, I’ll make sure Lord Kwan gets you back.”

“Think about it, Gennor,” Dreibrand commanded. “You were just complaining about high class officers getting the most land. Well, here is your opportunity. Look at the Wilderness. It is just waiting to be taken. You can have all you can hold.”

For an instant Gennor appeared intrigued, and Dreibrand thought maybe he had convinced him. He would never know.

Suddenly the horses neighed nervously and began to pull at their tethers. The scouts looked around but did not see anything. Panic set in on the horses now, and they were screaming and breaking loose. Gennor ran to the grab the trailing lines of the horses.

A terrible shriek ripped through the forest. Dreibrand felt himself break out in a cold sweat and he tried to stand up by inching his back up the tree. The scream pierced the air again, audibly closer. A terrible danger was coming and Dreibrand started to struggle at his bonds.

A huge beast erupted from the forest and charged Hydax, who stood closest to the hanging deer. The creature had the form of a man but it was taller and had long hulking arms. Dark hair covered its body, and a long golden brown mane flowed from the head and face. The face was not human. Its long snout ended in bared yellow fangs, and its eyes gleamed with bestial intelligence.

Hydax stumbled back from the assault and held his butcher knife out in a futile defense. The beast knocked the knife out of his hand and tackled him. Hydax’s scream was the note of pure terror that quickens the blood of every predator. He tried to hold the jaws away from his neck, and the creature sank its teeth into his shoulder. It shook him wildly, and Hydax wailed and beat on its head.

Gennor gave up catching the horses to help his comrade. He charged the back of the beast with his sword raised, but the keen senses of the animal must have warned it of Gennor’s onslaught. It threw Hydax down and whirled on Gennor. Without any fear it faced Gennor and craftily dodged the sword, receiving only a small wound. This drawing of blood enraged the beast and it howled with elevated viciousness.

The ugly carnivorous face unnerved Gennor, and he sprinted away. The beast bounded after him, determined to punish the man who had cut it.

Hydax moaned and rolled near Dreibrand’s feet. The scout clutched his shoulder and blood poured onto the ground. He tried to gain his feet but fell weakly to his knees.

“Cut me loose,” Dreibrand begged. “You have to cut me loose.”

Hydax did not respond. Dreibrand trembled in genuine terror and struggled in his bonds. The coarse leather cut hotly into already raw wrists. At this moment he understood completely the trapped animal that could chew its own foot off. In overwhelming consternation Dreibrand fought at his bonds almost to the point of convulsing.

“Hydax! Cut me loose!” he cried desperately. “Don’t leave me like this.”

Hydax seemed oblivious to his pleas. He crawled toward his gear where his bow and quiver set. From the other side of the clearing Dreibrand heard an agonizing cry and saw Gennor fall fatally beneath the beast’s fury. After ravaging Gennor for a few seconds, the beast tossed the body aside and returned to its unfinished victim. Hydax fumbled painfully with his bow, but his wounds disabled him too much. The monster sprang onto the scout and began to chew up his head.

This horrible scene strangled Dreibrand, and he knew he was next. Every spray of blood and flying chunk of hair from the mortal struggle played out for Dreibrand in slow ugly detail. This was nothing like the heat of battle—where screams, and blood, and death abounded—but a ghastly torture for Dreibrand, whose whole instinct demanded that he not be torn apart by wild animals.

A sharp pain stung his wrist and his hands fell free. Dreibrand brought his hands up and saw the severed bindings hanging and blood dripping from one wrist. Astounded by this reprieve from fate, he jumped up and fled into the forest. His first few steps faltered on his stiff legs, but terror drove the pain of captivity out of his limbs.

He was amazed to see a woman flying ahead of him, her skirt held high over swift feet. Dreibrand ran madly after her, not daring to look back. Both man and woman raced beyond their normal endurances, driven by the terror that the beast pursued them.

Eventually the woman reeled to a stop and looked back. Blood thudded through her body, and gasping for air, she leaned on a tree. Dreibrand stopped beside her and rested too. They spoke no words, trying only to catch their breath. Gradually the rasping sound of their heavy breathing faded, and the songbirds could be heard again in the trees, making a safe sound.

“Thank you,” Dreibrand gasped, reaching out to take her hand.

She recoiled from him, and Dreibrand held his hands back in a gesture of peace.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Staring at him suspiciously, she said nothing and moved away. Abruptly Dreibrand realized she did not understand his language. He tried again in the Bosta speech.

“Thank you. I am Dreibrand Veta.”

The woman comprehended him, but she responded in a slightly different dialect. “Do you think it followed?”

Both of them scanned the forest, which now seemed peaceful.

Dreibrand concluded, “I think it would have caught us by now if it was chasing us. Who are you?”

Her green eyes calculated him. Slowly she replied, “Miranda.”

“Thank you for cutting me loose,” he said while he removed the remnants of his bonds.

Uninterested in his gratitude and perplexed by his presence, Miranda started walking away.

Dreibrand trotted after her. “Where did you come from?”

Without pausing she answered, “I had been watching your camp from a hiding place. I came to see who was here, but you are not my people. You are invaders.”

“Then why did you free me?” Dreibrand asked. The images of the rampaging beast burned in his head, and he still could not quite believe he had escaped.

Miranda glanced at him. “It was not right that you would have to suffer and die like that. I took a risk and came to cut your bonds. I did not think you would follow me.”

“May I follow you?” he said.

“You are Atrophane?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

“You came here to conquer Droxy. You are an enemy,” Miranda stated.

“I will not harm you. I owe you my life,” Dreibrand said earnestly.

Miranda considered his words, but her hesitant features showed that she made no conclusions. “This is not the place for talk. I have to go,” she said.

“To a safer place I hope,” Dreibrand said.

He followed her. Even though she had not actually given her consent, Miranda tolerated him. Each of them thought more about the frightening beast they had just encountered than about each other. On a subconscious level both of them welcomed the security of human company.

Miranda hiked straight for the cliffs, and the stony heights soon loomed over the trees. A long rocky slope came down from the cliffs to meet the woodland, and Miranda picked her way up the debris of erosion toward her cave.

Ignoring Dreibrand, she raced the last few steps to the cave and darted inside it. At the back of the cave Elendra clutched her little brother, but the shadows could not dim the relief in her eyes upon seeing her mother. Miranda embraced the children and allowed herself one shaky sob.

“Mama, I heard an awful sound while you were away,” Elendra reported.

Miranda nodded absently, trying to cope with the existence of such a creature. She knew she could not defend her family from such a thing.

“It is not safe out there,” she said.

Dreibrand darkened the cave entrance and Elendra screamed. Miranda’s already shredded nerves rattled with the child’s shriek.

“It’s all right. It’s all right,” she soothed. “This is…Dreibrand. He was at the camp I went to see.”

Looking around with dismay, Dreibrand said, “You are alone with two children?”

Miranda faced him proudly and explained, “We are hiding in the forest from the Atrophane.”

He could not miss her accusatory tone, and he did not know how to respond to it. Dreibrand was aware that people fled before the Horde, especially desperate women and children. He wanted badly to gain her trust and tell her he was no longer a part of the invading army, but he felt suddenly ashamed of everything about himself.

“I will get your fire going again,” he said and went outside.

Miranda lingered by the cave. The noon sun fell warmly on the cliff, and she watched Dreibrand forage among the abundant brush, gathering wood. She was content to let him do it. At that moment she lacked the courage to go near the forest. She had not expected the warnings about the Wilderness to become so vividly true.

I have always admired the courage and intelligence of my Lieutenant Veta, but it is a shame that the Gods have wasted such ability on a Veta—Kwan Chenomet, journal entry, year 779 Atrophane calendar.

Undaunted by the resistance gathered in the valley below, the Atrophane Horde stirred before the dawn. Despite its ponderous mass, the Horde was mobile and organized. On the day of a battle every member of the Horde had a place in the plan, and the Atrophane could move across a hostile land with strategy and speed.

Lord Kwan’s squire, Jesse, attended him at a brisk and excited pace. The Lord General must be ready precisely on time, and Jesse enjoyed the responsibility of accoutering such a great hero of the Empire. He expertly strapped the armor over the black leather and quilted silk garments. Kwan held out a hand and the squire pulled a gauntlet onto it.

When Jesse placed a gauntlet over the other hand, a guard entered the tent and announced Lieutenant Sandin. Kwan stretched his hands inside the gauntlets as Sandin entered.

The drinking of the night before showed in the gray eyes of the senior lieutenant, but the rest of his body was strong and eager for battle. Holding his jewel-encrusted helmet under his arm, Sandin kneeled to his lord and waited to be addressed.

“Rise,” Kwan said. “I trust all of your men are at the ready?”

Ignoring the question, Sandin sprang up and blurted his news, “Veta is gone!”

Kwan creased his forehead with puzzled concern. He had been trying not to think of Dreibrand’s terrible behavior. The conquest of Droxy was his priority and the discipline for Dreibrand’s indiscretions would be decided later.

“What do you mean gone?” Kwan asked.

Sandin replied, “He is not in the camp. There is no one to lead his forces.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Sandin went to the tent flap and motioned for someone to enter. “I brought Veta’s squire. He saw him last.”

The teenage squire entered the tent hesitantly. His adolescent beard made him look tender as a peach. He was nervous about speaking with the Lord General. Humbly he went down on his knees.

“All right boy, out with it. Where is Veta?” Lord Kwan said.

The squire swallowed. “My Lord, he came back to his tent in a terrible state last night. He stalked up and went berserk on everything, kicking all his stuff around, and waving his sword. Gods protect me, my Lord, but I thought he was gonna kill me in his madness. I had never seen Lieutenant Veta in such a mood. He swore some horrible oaths.” Looking sideways at Sandin, he added, “He said some terrible things.”

“Then what happened?” Kwan asked impatiently.

“He ordered me to saddle his horse and then he rode off,” the squire answered simply.

“There is more than that. Do you think you are the only one I talked to, fool?” Sandin cuffed the squire and added the details for Lord Kwan. “Soldiers heard Veta tell the squire he was going to kill me.”

Kwan cast a grim scowl upon the young man, who trembled. “Did Veta say this?”

The mouth of the squire flopped as he groped for words, but he knew he was too terrified to lie. “Yes, my-my-Lord,” he stammered.

Sandin drew a dagger. “Death for the traitor’s servant,” he hissed.

“No!” Kwan ordered sharply. “A servant cannot choose his master’s words.”

The squire cowered away from Sandin and thanked his Lord General for his mercy.

“My Lord, he is a traitor,” Sandin insisted. “He knew Veta wanted to murder me.”

“Why did you not tell me last night?” Kwan demanded of the squire. “Atrophane must not speak murder against each other.”

“I thought I had talked him out of it,” explained the squire.

“You couldn’t talk your dick out of your pants,” Sandin snarled and menaced the young man with his dagger.

“Then where is Veta?” Kwan asked with exasperation. His mind still did not accept that he was missing.

“I do not know,” the squire replied.

Thoughtfully, Kwan said, “Lieutenant, you said you talked to soldiers. What soldiers?”

“Veta made quite a scene last night, my Lord. Some of his men heard him threaten my life,” Sandin explained. “I am sure I could find more of them who saw Dreibrand last night. Maybe I can find out which way he went. My Lord, this is clearly desertion.”

Kwan recoiled from the word, and air hissed in his nostrils. The desertion of an Atrophaney officer was unprecedented, and Kwan could not accept it.

Dreibrand’s squire was quick to offer an alternative explanation. “My Lord, I am sure Lieutenant Veta only meant to cool down from whatever had him so upset. He will come back.”

“No one told you to speak,” Sandin snapped.

“That is possible,” Kwan agreed. “Veta lost his temper last night. His ride may have just been to calm him down.”

“My Lord, how can you make excuses for him?” Sandin asked incredulously. “After his behavior last night, he better have deserted.”

“No one deserted me!” Kwan snapped, and the words stabbed Sandin’s ears.

Kwan continued, “Veta may have left to cool down, but stray Bosta warriors may have attacked him. He could be a prisoner.”

Sandin did not dare say any more about desertion. It was humiliating to the Lord General. “I will find him, my Lord,” Sandin said.

“No. Veta’s foolishness cannot delay an Atrophaney conquest. Bring me Hydax and Gennor. I will send them to find Veta,” Kwan decided. He mastered his disappointment and anger by functioning, and the orders flowed from his lips like always. “Lieutenant Sandin, absorb Veta’s forces into your own and incorporate his battle orders. And do not discuss Veta with anyone. I know the men must be curious, but his actions have already given an ill omen to this battle, and I do not want that aggravated by open talk of his…disappearance.”

“Of course, Lord Kwan. I will serve you well,” Sandin said.

“I know. I have no doubts in your abilities, Lieutenant,” Kwan praised. “Now go, before we get behind schedule.”

Sandin saluted his Lord General, acknowledging his orders and dismissal. Turning to the forgotten squire still on his knees, Sandin jerked his thumb toward the tent flap and the boy scrambled out gratefully. Amazed by recent events, Sandin emerged into the thin morning light. The success of his harassment the night before exceeded his hopes. Veta’s anger had been crazy, and Sandin’s position with Lord Kwan was thoroughly reinforced in the aftermath. With his command nearly doubled, Sandin smiled with satisfaction. He had bested his rival, and Dreibrand had lost badly.

Kwan chewed his lip with restrained wrath. In a furtive motion, Jesse handed his lord his helmet then hung back. He had never seen Lord Kwan so upset before.

The episode in the council tent replayed in Kwan’s mind. He had hated to be harsh with Dreibrand. He recognized the ambition that burned in the young officer’s heart. No one recognized ambition better than a Lord General. Dreibrand sought military power, and that was why Sandin made life so difficult for him. That was why Kwan had to send Dreibrand back to Atrophane. He could only give the charismatic Lieutenant Veta so much prestige. He could not offend the sensibilities of the Empire by overfavoring a Veta.

Shutting his eyes against the disgust he felt, Kwan rejected the concept of desertion. He honestly believed that the enemy must have caught Dreibrand when he blundered out of camp in his rage.

I guess all of those Vetas are fools, Kwan thought bitterly.

Even if they did find Dreibrand alive, Sandin would demand that Dreibrand be drummed out of the military. But Kwan would not allow him to make the charge of desertion.

I will give him another chance, Kwan decided. He did not want Dreibrand to fail, even if he was a Veta.

“Bring my horse,” he quietly commanded of Jesse, who complied promptly.

The scouts arrived as Jesse left. Hydax and Gennor assumed their Lord General had a routine mission to assign until they sensed his ugly mood. Dropping to their knees quickly, both of them privately guessed that the incident last night had soured their commander’s temper.

Motioning them to their feet, Kwan issued his orders. “Hydax, Gennor, you are my best scouts, and I have a special mission for you. Lieutenant Veta left camp last night and has not been seen since. I fear that our enemy has waylaid him. Go quickly and find his trail before the Horde moves out. If he is a captive, free him or come get soldiers if you need to.” Kwan paused to clear his throat. “If he is dead, bring me his body.”

The scouts longed to ask why Lieutenant Veta had left camp. Rumors of the disruption in the officers’ meeting had been flying around camp. The nature of Lieutenant Veta’s misconduct was not clearly known, but it was serious. Hydax and Gennor saw that Lord Kwan was obviously upset, torn between righteous anger and terrible worry.

“Quickly now,” Lord Kwan urged.

“Yes, Lord Kwan,” the scouts answered in unison.

Yielding to his anger, Kwan shouted, “Bring him to me!”

Hydax and Gennor saluted and departed intent on their mission.

~

Dreibrand meant only to vent his fury when he recklessly galloped out of camp. Riding his horse seemed the only way to focus his temper and avoid committing more rash acts. With the reins in his hands and Starfield’s powerful muscles surging beneath him, Dreibrand felt in command again.

The cool forest night eventually slackened his anger to seething resentment. A small measure of reason replaced his vicious thoughts, and Dreibrand realized he was by himself on a road that was technically still enemy territory. Veering into the deep dark of the woodland, he hoped it was not too late to hide from any enemies who might be watching the road.

Pulling Starfield to a halt, he planned to rest in the forest before going back. This sudden solitude cleared his head and he tried to pull himself together. For a while he attempted to convince himself that surely next year he would campaign westward with Lord Kwan. Now he needed to go back to camp and accept his punishment. Among other things he would probably have to publicly apologize to Sandin.

Dreibrand ground his teeth at the thought of that humiliation. But if he did what he had to, he could keep his military career. His tantrum would be forgiven because a warrior was supposed to have violent passions, and he believed Lord Kwan would not dismiss him.

Groaning with frustration, Dreibrand realized his ambition and success had blinded him. He had thought his bond with his commander would overcome the seniority of others and that was why exclusion from the expeditionary force had hurt so much. He understood now that he was not the senior officer, and worse than that, a Veta would not be included on the historic first expedition into the Wilderness. But despite this understanding, his anger rushed back mixed with despair. He felt like a whipped hound who had been shown his place in the pack.

And he remembered how hard he had worked to get to that place. Being accepted at the Darmar’s military academy had been difficult, and he had been constantly pressed to obtain the money for his tuition. Then, there had been the struggle to graduate at the top of his class. The social pressure to exclude him had been a constant obstacle. Now it seemed that no matter how far he got from Atrophane, he could not escape the stigma of his family. He felt ill when he considered that he had helped to make the Empire bigger.

Two years away from the center of Atrophane society and many victories had helped Dreibrand forget his status in the Empire, but tonight he had been thoroughly reminded. The House of Veta was getting to be a joke among the ruling class, and Dreibrand had been born a disgrace thanks to his inept relatives.

Thinking of his family discouraged him most of all. Sometimes he even thought his relatives deserved their imperial chastening. In the desolate night of a foreign land, Dreibrand decided he had deluded himself with dreams of power and wealth, and he could not ignore the reality of his life within Atrophaney society. Assuming he did not die in battle, he would spend years winning a new name and fortune in the military only to have his family demand their imagined share.

Then he thought about Sandin exploring the Wilderness first. He thought about Sandin giving his name to the discovered places on the new maps. Dreibrand hated this with great jealousy. He had based his career goals on accompanying Lord Kwan into the Wilderness, and now that plan was stunted.

Dreibrand cursed at himself for not expecting this to happen. He wondered how he had ever been silly enough to think Lord Kwan wanted him on the expedition. Sandin had served for fifteen years, and been Kwan’s second in command for nine years. In time Sandin could become a Lord General, especially with the bounty of the Wilderness available.

And Dreibrand believed the Wilderness had much to offer. Although he had no facts to support this, Dreibrand sensed in his heart with intuitive certainty that something extraordinary lay beyond the bounds of the Atrophane Empire.

Lost in his thoughts, Dreibrand had allowed Starfield to drift into an open grassy area. The small crescent moon had ducked below the horizon hours ago, and only the stars remained to decorate the darkness. Dreibrand looked west. Even unable to see anything, he could feel the vast Wilderness sleeping beyond the cliffs. A watchful quiet emanated from the mysterious region, and it reminded Dreibrand of sensing an ambush just before it happened.

With bitter regret he turned away from the Wilderness that tantalized him so much. The Horde’s camp glittered in the nearby hills, but Dreibrand did not feel welcome. He had tried to play by the rules, but that did not matter in a society that resented your presence. The House of Veta had made its bid for power two generations ago and failed, and the Empire had punished Dreibrand’s family with a slow economic death, which was hastened by his overindulgent brother.

Yes, Lord Kwan liked Dreibrand, and would give him a decent career, but the Lord General would not share what Dreibrand really craved—access to substantial wealth and power. Acknowledging this limitation was a harsh lesson for Dreibrand, who had never lost sight of the prize.

“I will not waste my time with you anymore,” Dreibrand announced for only his horse to hear.

A new plan formed in his head. It was crazy and stupid, and in the near future when his life was much worse, Dreibrand would be baffled by his anger that broke the determination of his dreams. If Atrophane society did not want him, he would quit trying to be a part of it. He could still have one dream, and that was the Wilderness.

Suddenly, Dreibrand felt exhausted, spent by his upsetting night. Much against his character, he did not feel like going to war that morning, and he decided not to return to camp.

Why risk my life just so Lord Kwan can send me home? he thought.

He looked down at himself. He had his sword but no shield. He wore his chest armor but not his helmet. Now that he considered running off, it appeared that he had not prepared very well.

But things were easy to obtain. The countryside was in an uproar because of the invasion, and he would raid a few cottages and get some food and supplies. Then he would dive into the Wilderness where no one could find him. He would scout a passage over the cliffs, and then swing to the south and return to civilization. In a large city, probably Phemnalang, he could make a little money and maybe recruit some adventurers to go back to the Wilderness with him. If he could get enough people to follow him, he might be able to claim his own territory before the Empire even realized.

The Wilderness was vast, and in the beginning there would be plenty for anyone willing to brave the elements. Many people throughout the conquered lands and inside Atrophane itself were dissatisfied with life in the Empire, and Dreibrand anticipated many of them would seek a fresh start in the rich lands to the west, once they were explored.

Of course, he would be a deserter in the eyes of the military, but he could fix that by resigning his commission. He could send a letter to Lord Kwan once he was safely in Phemnalang. Dreibrand could not face his Lord General now. The sight of him would enflame his rage again. It was best to go. He regretted the rudeness after Lord Kwan had given him guidance, unlike his real father, but Dreibrand saw now with bitter clarity that playing by Lord Kwan’s rules was futile. Dreibrand assumed that Lord Kwan would be pleased to be rid of his overly ambitious Veta.

The thought of starting a new course independent of the military excited Dreibrand. The military had brought him as far as it could to suit his purposes, and he did not need to keep killing for the Empire to gain new lands when the Wilderness had so much to simply claim.

He hurried west now. It would be dawn soon and he needed to be safely hidden in the woods to avoid the Atrophane and the Bosta defenders of Droxy. He would hide mostly by day and move in the safety of night.

Dreibrand could not resist the possibilities of the Wilderness. Plunging alone into the new world instantly gratified him and he was especially pleased to be the first Atrophaney to go. The House of Veta would not be kept from history so easily.

Even as I await my execution, I can still taste the sweetness of my short-lived success. My ambition has ruined me, but I regret only the future that my family has to face—Baner Veta, grandfather of Dreibrand, excerpt from prison journal

The smoke of five thousand campfires rose from the slopes above the Droxy valley. The Horde had camped early, and it would descend upon the settlement tomorrow. With its famous efficiency, the Atrophane Horde had rolled into the high hills that separated the Droxy settlement from the river lands. Harassment by scattered Bosta warriors had caused a few skirmishes, but the Atrophane had not been delayed from occupying the road through the wooded hills.

When night came, the fires of the invaders would create a spectacle visible to all residents of Droxy. Dreibrand always imagined this intimidating sight as a constellation of stars shining back at heaven.

With his duties completed punctually, Dreibrand slipped away to the edge of the encampment. Standing on the last ridge above the valley, he surveyed the last state of civilization on the edge of the known world. The fortress of Droxy peeped out from a modest area of fields and pastures. The tiny fortress hardly seemed worthy of the Horde’s attention, but the Darmar Zemthute II had wished for the Empire to reach all the way to the mysterious Wilderness, and then beyond if possible.

Droxy and the surrounding agricultural villages bored Dreibrand, and tomorrow’s conquest seemed more like an errand than a real campaign. There would be little glory, only basic plundering and terror.

Lifting his eyes to the west, he gazed dreamily upon the green folds of virgin forest. Just west of Droxy the land rose abruptly in high cliffs that ran north and south. Beyond the plateau, Dreibrand saw mountains in the glow of the sinking sun.

Dreibrand’s blood ran hot as he beheld the wild distances. Very tall were the mountains, and he imagined how much more he could see standing on those unknown heights.

He squinted, trying to see a break in the cliffs, but they formed a sharp barricade to the next level of land.

There must be a way up, Dreibrand thought.

He did not know how anyone could look upon such a rich and available land and then shun it. Dreibrand puzzled over the warnings of evil in the Wilderness, but discounted them as lies meant to discourage the Atrophane. He understood that a vast and wild land would be dangerous. Nature had greater tests to offer him than enemy warriors, but he had faith that he would prevail.

After a long wistful look upon the gateway to the Wilderness, Dreibrand turned to leave. Only one more battle remained before he could explore the Wilderness, and thereby satisfy his long held dream and add fame to his military career. By entering the unknown world, he hoped to purge the Veta family of its disgrace. Atrophane society might ostracize the House of Veta, but a man who knew the Wilderness would be welcomed and respected. Dreibrand would be one of the men who doubled the size of the Empire.

Dreibrand accepted that this would take a few years, but with the Wilderness in sight, he regarded his future with renewed confidence. Until then, he would continue to be the dutiful lieutenant to Lord Kwan, who had given him the chance to travel this far.

The Horde was settling in comfortably for the night. The usual tension before a major battle was absent. The last valley had fallen efficiently and Droxy had an even lower population. The grim mood of soldiers contemplating death did not descend upon the camp tonight because a pleasant debacle was expected tomorrow.

The smell of food drifted from the cooking fires, and somewhere Dreibrand heard a stringed instrument playing a festive tune. Soldiers saluted him when they looked up from tending their weaponry, and others stepped aside from Dreibrand’s path. He enjoyed the respect he received out in the field. Back in the fashionable cities of Atrophane, he was just a young lieutenant from a ruined family, but here, he was surrounded by soldiers who responded to his authority.

Dreibrand arrived at the council tent. The imperial banner of a white horse and chariot on a black field hung outside the tent. Although Darmar Zemthute II did not travel with the Atrophane Horde, the tent was a tribute to imperial authority and all councils were held inside.

The other officers had already arrived, and Dreibrand realized he had pondered the Wilderness longer than he thought. Nervously he glanced at Lord Kwan’s tent, dreading that his commander would emerge and catch him in his tardiness. Quickly he straightened his cape and adjusted his tooled leather swordbelt on his hips. The design of waves tooled into the thick leather was inspired by his coastal homeland. Concerned with his image as the son of an impoverished house, Dreibrand tended to dress carefully.

The guards outside the council tent opened the flaps for Dreibrand and he entered. Brass braziers held small fires that lighted the large tent, and smoke curled out the hole at the top of the fabric roof. A dozen officers filled the tent in rows of six on each side of Kwan’s central seat. The lower ranking officers sat nearer the entrance, and places for Kwan’s four high lieutenants were next to his seat, two on each side. Dreibrand’s position was immediately to the left of Lord Kwan, which was an honor considering he had only served for two years. Success and bravery in battle had won Dreibrand a seat next to his Lord General.

Lieutenant Kelvi sat to the left of Dreibrand. If Kelvi resented being placed second to Dreibrand, he did not show it. Kelvi had only one more of the required ten years to serve before earning estate grants from the Empire, and he did not want to cause problems. His command skills were mediocre, and he knew Dreibrand was the superior officer.

As the second in command, Lieutenant Sandin sat to the right of Lord Kwan. His wavy brown hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, and his patrician features radiated confidence. On the right of Sandin sat Lieutenant Carfu Anglair, who was a good friend of Sandin. They were both independently wealthy, and Carfu was easy-going and content with his rank.

Noting Dreibrand’s abnormally late entrance, Sandin said, “Where have you been?”

Holding his sword back while seating himself in a cross-legged position, Dreibrand ignored Sandin. Before Sandin could comment further, the tent flaps opened wide and Lord Kwan swept inside. A servant struck a small gong hanging behind Kwan’s seat, and the rich tone welcomed the Hordemaster.

All the officers moved onto their knees and Lord Kwan strode toward his silk cushion. Upon taking his seat, Kwan instructed his officers to make themselves comfortable.

He plunged immediately into the business of the meeting, detailing his plans for Droxy and the strategy for taking the town. Then Kwan received his final reports from all the officers regarding their preparations and any suggestions for the battle plan. Dreibrand paid careful attention to the discussion and delivered his own report flawlessly.

When the plans for tomorrow’s conquest were approved and understood by all, Kwan called for wine. Servants distributed silver drinking cups to the officers, and wine was poured.

Raising his cup, Kwan proposed a toast. “To my officers, I offer my thanks and praise. Your service has brought Atrophane across the known lands of Ektren. Many long bloody years we have spent bringing our civilization to our lesser neighbors, but after tomorrow, a new world awaits the Atrophane. The Empire will replace mystery and myth in the Wilderness.”

Everyone erupted into an enthusiastic cheer, and Dreibrand’s cheer was truly jubilant. Wine drained from the cups and the servants quickly refilled them. The other officers gave their toasts, which were similar in theme to Lord Kwan’s toast.

When it was Dreibrand’s turn to toast, Sandin had already eloquently praised the Lord General, robbing Dreibrand of the chance to do so with impact.

Modestly, Dreibrand thanked the other officers for the pleasure of serving with them and concluded, “May the Wilderness bring us all greater fortunes.”

Once the formal toasts were completed, the gathering settled in for some basic drinking and merriment. Everyone was excited on the eve of conquering the known world. While drinking, Kwan lapsed into recounting glorious battles from the past. The older lieutenants tended not to listen because they had heard their Lord General’s stories before or been present at the battle. However, Dreibrand listened with actual interest, hoping to learn from Kwan’s exploits, but the others considered him a shameless bootlicker.

“Now it was the Pandovelari that scared my face.” Kwan pointed to his trademark scar. “Those were dark years spent warring with them. Believe it or not, but I often despaired that we would never overwhelm them. Just ask Sandin.”

Sandin turned away from his own conversation when he heard his name. Dreibrand disliked Lord Kwan including his second in command in their conversation, but it was a common occurrence that had to be tolerated.

“My Lord, you did not despair,” Sandin corrected politely.

Kwan yielded to his lieutenant’s flattery. “I meant only the despair of a Lord General who did not get a quick victory.”

“But it was worth the wait. Pandovelar brought you fame and greater wealth, my Lord,” Sandin said.

Kwan and Sandin struck their cups together, toasting their shared memory. Dreibrand waited while they finished their drink. He stared at the burgundy reflection of firelight on his wine until Kwan returned to their conversation. Kwan appreciated the restraint and patience Dreibrand displayed. He knew Dreibrand coveted Sandin’s rank and wealth, but everyone had their place in Atrophane society. Advancement required steps of service, and Dreibrand had much more to do.

Yet Kwan liked Dreibrand, and for now he would guide his career to a level appropriate for a Veta.

“It is a shame you were not with us back then, Dreibrand. You would have enjoyed the challenge,” Kwan said with actual sincerity.

“Challenges make me stronger, my Lord,” Dreibrand acknowledged.

“Yes, Pandovelar was a trial ground that made the Atrophane stronger. Now we are about to fulfill the destiny of Atrophane to expand the known world. At last the virgin lands of Ektren are before me.” Kwan sighed with great satisfaction.

Dreibrand nodded. Unable to contain his excitement any longer, he asked quietly, “When, Lord Kwan, do you think our first expeditionary force will depart into the Wilderness?” His widening eyes complemented his eager voice.

Kwan finished his wine before replying. “Well, Dreibrand, there will be many things to do. The Bosta territory will have to be secured and proper fortresses built. Slaves will have to be collected, and the rest of the plunder selected and distributed. Still, I plan to leave on an exploration by midsummer—maybe.”

“Excellent, my Lord,” Dreibrand beamed. “Until then I will personally scout the cliffs for a place our horses can ascend.”

Now Kwan gazed firmly at his young lieutenant. “Dreibrand, I have not selected you for the expeditionary force this year.”

The words were simple and clear, but Dreibrand resisted comprehension. Losing his practiced poise, he stammered, “Lord—Lord Kwan, how has my service displeased you?”

Kwan saw the disappointment on Dreibrand’s face and realized the young lieutenant burned to explore west just like himself. Sympathy, however, could not alter a Lord General’s plans. “Dreibrand, your service pleases me greatly,” he explained. “But I have many duties for many people. You shall take the chattel and plunder back to Atrophane. You will be received by the Darmar and enjoy the victory celebrations at the capital. I thought you would enjoy that.” Quietly he added, “It is very enjoyable.”

Dreibrand’s jaw dropped aghast, as if he had just been condemned to slavery in a mine. To see his dream and then be turned back to Atrophane stunned him. It had never occurred to him that he would not be at Lord Kwan’s side. He had specifically pursued his commission with Lord Kwan because of the Lord General’s desire to foray into the unknown lands.

Dreibrand’s heart thudded from the sudden agitation, but he fought the panic. He marshaled his confidence, telling himself he could persuade Lord Kwan to include him.

I am going! his mind dictated.

“Lord Kwan, please reconsider. Anyone can take the chattel back to Atrophane. Have I not proved myself a strong fighter? I will face any enemy. And the languages I have studied. You may need my skills,” Dreibrand insisted.

“We are all good fighters. And I have several interpreters,” Kwan countered.

“My skills in personal combat are well above average, and no one speaks languages like I can,” Dreibrand argued.

Trying not to be stern with his upset lieutenant, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, I have promised the places on this historic mission a long time ago. You are an Atrophaney officer, and you will follow my orders.”

Dreibrand faltered, uncertain what to say. How could he dare to protest his Lord General’s decision after being reminded of his obligation for obedience? But then he thought of the setting sun on the distant mountains. In the west he had hope. In the east, back in Atrophane, he had only old problems that would not go away and would only get worse.

“Which lieutenant have you chosen?” he blurted.

Kwan frowned at the inquiry, but answered, “Sandin, of course.”

By now the other officers had tuned into the conversation. Enjoying Dreibrand’s distress, Sandin remarked, “Ambition does not suit the House of Veta.”

Dreibrand narrowed his eyes at the senior officer, and hate bit into his reason.

“Did you really expect to be included on such a historic mission?” Sandin sneered.

“There is no need to be rude, Lieutenant,” Kwan rumbled. He rarely intervened in their rivalry, but he did not want Dreibrand goaded, especially after such disappointment.

“And why not include me on a historic mission?” Dreibrand demanded hotly.

“A Veta would sully the triumph of Atrophane acquiring the Wilderness,” Sandin stated.

“I will not let you insult my name,” Dreibrand yelled.

Hoping to cure the spoiling tempers, Carfu interjected, “Stop getting worked up, Dreibrand. We have all had our turn as chattel master, and it is not so bad. I have to stay in this shitty country and build a fortress. I should be the one getting upset.”

When Carfu spoke up, Dreibrand realized every officer was staring at him, and he looked down in shame. Focusing on his clenched fists, Dreibrand knew better than to make a scene. Strict rules of conduct governed Atrophaney behavior in social settings, and the military had extra elements of protocol.

Glad to see Dreibrand getting himself under control, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, it appears you did not expect this assignment, and because of that I will forgive your transgression. I know your family name places a hardship on you, but escorting the chattel back to Atrophane will be good for you. People will see you, and your soldiers will spread stories of your bravery. Returning after a two-year campaign with the Horde will give you glory, and people will respect you. Trust me, you can start building a name for yourself this way.”

Dreibrand looked into Kwan’s eyes. He could see that his Lord General truly wanted him to succeed and offered good advice, but Dreibrand could not give up on the Wilderness so easily. “I thank you for the opportunity to visit home, my Lord, but I am not homesick. Let me trade with Carfu. I will stay here and build a fortress,” Dreibrand offered.

Then I can explore the Wilderness from here, he plotted.

Kwan looked at Carfu, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it pleases you, my Lord, I would love to go to Atrophane.”

With a shake of his head Kwan dashed Dreibrand’s hopes. “You will be chattel master and present the Darmar with his share. There is no trading of my orders. I see now that I have been too lenient with you, Lieutenant Veta. You overstep your bounds. You will dispute my commands no more, and you will excuse yourself from this meeting,” Kwan announced.

A flicker of shock rustled through the gathered officers. A high lieutenant almost never suffered a reprimand.

Dreibrand meant to obey, but he thought of the lands that no Atrophane had ever seen. The possibilities of the Wilderness tempted him too much, and Dreibrand suddenly accepted that he had to go. Somehow he had to go.

He stood up as if he would quietly exit in his shame, but instead he shouted, “I challenge Lieutenant Sandin Promentro for his command. In the tradition of Galmonlay, I seek advancement through duel.”

Sandin laughed, and the senior officer’s absurd reaction enraged Dreibrand. “Do not threaten me with archaic laws, Veta,” he said.

“Galmonlay tradition is still accepted. If I defeat you in duel, I can have your military rank and your place on the expeditionary force,” Dreibrand said triumphantly. This way he could explore the Wilderness and kill Sandin.

“You idiot!” Sandin exclaimed and sprang to his feet.

The hands of both men flew to their sword handles. But long years and a ruthless life had not made Lord Kwan slow, and he instantly jumped between them.

“Such quarreling on the eve of a battle!” the Lord General cried with wrath. “You would curse the whole Horde with your disregard for taboo.”

“Lord Kwan, give me my challenge!” Dreibrand demanded.

“Silence!” Kwan thundered. “No duel can be fought on the eve of battle—not even by the rules of Galmonlay. I should flog you for even uttering your challenge on this night. This night of all nights.”

“Let me administer the punishment, my Lord,” Sandin requested eagerly. “The Vetas were never punished enough anyway. They should have all been made slaves.”

“I will kill you,” Dreibrand snarled. His rage was so focused on Sandin that he never saw Kwan strike.

The Lord General grabbed Dreibrand’s face and flung him to the ground. It was a rare man who tempted a blow from the hand of the fearsome Hordemaster, and Dreibrand almost fell completely. Pushing himself back to his feet, Dreibrand exited the tent without looking back.

The face of every officer was frozen with astonishment. Excluding Sandin, Dreibrand had obviously been Lord Kwan’s favorite officer and no one had ever expected such a disgraceful episode from Lieutenant Veta, whose conduct had always been impeccable.

Kwan sat back down. He said nothing and his neutral face did not reveal the bitter disappointment churning inside him.

With a smug smile Sandin settled back onto his cushion and gestured for a servant to bring him wine. It had taken him two years, but he had finally gotten Dreibrand to snap. Lord Kwan could never favor the young lieutenant like he had before.

Reeling with shame and hatred, Dreibrand staggered into the night. He hated Sandin so much, and he was ashamed that he had finally allowed his rival to force him into a disastrous outburst. The shame of acting so horribly in front of Lord Kwan sickened Dreibrand. His stupidity at challenging Sandin on the eve of a battle overwhelmed him. After breaking such an important taboo, Dreibrand was certain he could never convince Lord Kwan to include him on the expeditionary force.

If only I had waited until tomorrow to challenge, he lamented. A challenge on the day of battle would not have broken the taboo, and Lord Kwan might have agreed.

The magnitude of his blunder crushed his heart and mind, and Dreibrand gave in to his anger. Lord Kwan was one of the few people in the ruling class who would give him a chance, and he had completely ruined it. Now he would have to beg to keep his commission. Without his military career he was nothing.

Literally moaning with misery, Dreibrand clutched his head as irrational fury seized his mind. He pulled his sword out and charged his own camp. A fire still burned in front of his tent, and Dreibrand attacked it. The sword slashed through the coals, sending the cooking rack flying in a shower of sparks. Starfield neighed in alarm and pulled at his tether. His squire spun out of his bedroll as if every enemy the Atrophane had ever faced had come back for revenge.

The young man bounded to his feet and watched in terror as his master hacked the campfire into glowing piles.

“May the Gods curse Sandin as they have cursed me!” Dreibrand cried.

With the fire obliterated Dreibrand turned his eyes upon his shield leaning against his other gear. This became the next target of his rage. His sword beat against the polished metal that could not dodge the wild assault.

“I am going to kill that bastard,” he shouted several times.

Assuming he was the intended victim, the squire tried to slip away, but Dreibrand somehow noticed him despite his deranged state.

“Where’s my helmet?” he demanded.

The squire froze as if skewered by the question. Dreibrand made an awful sight in the diminished glow of the scattered coals. His shoulders heaved from ragged breathing and violent emotion fueled the gleam in his eyes.

“Sir, don’t kill me,” the squire squeaked.

“Not you! But it is time I started killing the right people around here,” Dreibrand shouted as he scanned his gear.

The commotion attracted a few soldiers from the surrounding encampment. They rushed up, thinking their officer had been attacked. Dreibrand turned to face the soldiers and his unhinged expression made them halt.

Dreibrand laughed at them. He wished he could give them some reward for their loyalty, but now he had disgraced them all.

“Get out of here! Don’t waste your time on me. I sully the Empire!” He was ranting now and waving his sword. He tore off his cape and threw it as his men.

Forgetting the soldiers, Dreibrand turned back to his squire. “Did you find it?” he barked.

The squire had not moved at all, and he regretted not fleeing while Dreibrand yelled at the soldiers. The young man cast his eyes over the strewn gear, but he was too flustered to focus on any objects in the twitching light.

“Ah, it should be here,” he mumbled and tried to perform his function.

Gesturing wildly with his sword, Dreibrand said, “Forget the helmet. I only need my sword to kill Sandin.” His eyes latched onto the flashing steel with affection.

The squire dodged the swinging sword. He really meant to flee right then, but he could not ignore Dreibrand’s last statement.

“Sandin? Sir, you cannot kill him,” he cried in genuine panic.

“I should have done this two years ago,” Dreibrand snarled with deepening conviction.

“Sir, no.”

Dreibrand turned away, clearly intending to attack his rival that very minute.

Desperately the squire grabbed Dreibrand’s arm.

“Sir, Lord Kwan will execute you,” he warned.

Dreibrand blocked out this consequence and shoved his servant away, but the squire held on. “Sir, no. They’ll kill me too,” he pleaded.

This got through to Dreibrand, who accepted that he was about to commit a crime against his own people. He had no authorization for a duel, and if he were successful, it would be murder.

“Everyone will try and stop you. You might not even reach Sandin,” reasoned the squire, who searched for rationality in his master’s eyes.

But the very mention of Sandin’s name seemed to incense Dreibrand all over again, and he gnashed his teeth with frustration that needed to be vented. Dreibrand knew he could not just sit in his tent while Sandin was so close by.

“Saddle my horse,” he commanded.

“Where are you going?” the squire asked suspiciously.

“Saddle my horse!” Dreibrand hollered and swiped at his tent with his sword. The blade snapped through two tent ropes, and half the shelter collapsed.

Giving up protest and hoping for the best, the squire jumped to comply. Starfield snorted as the servant hastily bridled the spirited warhorse. Tonight the squire was the definition of efficiency. The sooner he had that horse saddled the sooner his master would be gone.

Gods, spare me the blame, he pleaded.

Dreibrand stalked over and finished cinching the saddle himself. He jumped onto Starfield and goaded the horse into an immediate gallop. He tore through the camp and disappeared into the night.

His temper was so intense that Dreibrand knew he would kill Sandin if he stayed in camp. As much as he would have enjoyed this, Dreibrand could not murder his fellow officer. That would truly ruin his life much worse than it was already ruined.

I need to cool down. Then I will put things back together, he told himself.

He rode west.

The river crossing would be dangerous. The loss of some men and horses could be expected, but the overwhelming numbers of the Atrophane Horde would prevail. Dreibrand Veta was glad to lead the first wave of soldiers across the water even though officers of his rank did not usually put themselves at the forefront of battle.

But Dreibrand differed from the other lieutenants of the Lord General Kwan. He needed to try harder. Nothing less than his exploits and bravery would counteract the disgrace that burdened the Veta name.

The breath of horses and men steamed in the predawn chill of the spring night. The water would be cold, but Dreibrand knew he would soon have the heat of battle to keep him warm. He could feel the nervous agitation around him. Although Atrophane soldiers had complete confidence in their abilities, each man knew he would be vulnerable while in the middle of the river.

Their only protection would be the darkness. The blare of trumpets and thunder of drums that usually heralded the onslaught of the Atrophane would not be used tonight. Quiet and darkness would usher the conquerors into the Bosta heartland. The dawn would come, and the Bostas would see their existence as a free people end.

Calmly, Dreibrand gave the order to advance. Lord Kwan had honored him by allowing him to coordinate the crossing and decide the correct moment to start.

The hooves of Starfield, the dappled gray warhorse that Dreibrand rode, plunged first into the flowing water. Dreibrand liked being first. The splashing of hundreds of riders and the snorting of displeased horses warned the Bostas lining the opposite bank that the crossing began.

Dreibrand brought his shield up to his nose because arrows would soon be flying blindly through the dark. In his other hand, his sword was out and ready, waiting only to reach land and seek out the enemy.

Obediently, Starfield surged ahead and the water was soon flowing around Dreibrand’s feet. The water jumped over the tops of his boots, and he shivered from the sudden coldness that contrasted to the excited sweat beneath his clothing and armor.

The twang and whistle of countless arrows soon sang through the air. One glanced off Dreibrand’s shield and he asked the war god Golan to spare him from lucky shots in the night. A few cries of pain rose from the ranks, and one horse squealed from a terrible wound.

Dreibrand felt as if he was in the middle of the river for hours, although he knew the river was narrow and shallow compared to the greatness it achieved farther south. Finally the agony of anticipation ended, and his horse lurched up the bank. Dreibrand yelled and water splashed in every direction as the soldiers all around him rushed out of the water.

The Bostas swarmed on the shore, hoping to drive back the invaders while they were still in the water. Fighters on horseback and on foot hurled themselves at the Atrophane, and the crash of weapons erupted loudly. The dark made the struggle desperate and difficult, and combatants could barely see with whom they exchanged blows.

Knowing that only enemies could be in front of him, Dreibrand slashed with abandon, cutting down anyone who defied him. His powerful steed trampled and leaped over Bostas, and Dreibrand steadily gained a hold on the muddy bank.

A bleak gray line emerged in the east and lighted a depressing scene for the Bostas. Wherever the river could be forded, Atrophane soldiers pushed across the water on their horses or on rafts, and twenty times as many soldiers waited behind those already in the river. When defenders beheld the very vastness of the Atrophane Horde, their hearts usually quailed, and like those before them, the Bostas sensed the futility of their courage. For decades now the Atrophane had been rolling westward, expanding their Empire, and their reputation for victory was well established.

Despite a certainty of defeat, the Bostas decided that the Atrophane would have to buy their victory with blood. More than able to pay, the Atrophane smashed the valiant resistance and pushed the Bostas back toward their stronghold. The relatively small force of Bosta defenders could not repel the thousands of well-trained and heavily armed Atrophane. As the Bostas retreated to rally at their fortress, Atrophane foot soldiers were tripping over the thick sprawl of bodies on the riverbank.

Assembling the soldiers specifically under his command, Dreibrand charged after the Bostas just long enough to make sure they were serious about their retreat, and then he relented. He had accomplished his mission to win the opposite bank, and now he must secure their position and wait for the rest of the Horde to catch up. The engineers would have to ferry across the battering rams and assemble the siege engines before they could advance on the fortress.

The day had barely begun and bits of fog still lingered along the river. Panting, Dreibrand slung his shield over his back and pulled out a cloth to clean the blood from his sword. The gleam of the expensive steel returned as he wiped away the filth of battle. Nearby a soldier plunged a spear into a wounded Bosta. Seeing his oncoming death, the Bosta had pleaded for mercy. Dreibrand had come to know the word for mercy in the western tongues.

After confirming that all was well, Dreibrand returned to the riverbank to wait for Lord Kwan to arrive. The Lord General would be pleased with him and the Bostas would soon be conquered.

The next day the fortress of the Bostas was captured and the local lord beheaded. Sometimes the Atrophane maintained local leaders, but here on the frontier, no regime was significant enough to employ.

Dreibrand had not even noticed the name of the town around this Bosta fortress, and he did not care. Compared to the mighty city-states of the east and the rich trading cities of the delta, these back country settlements hardly mattered. The Atrophane had easily crushed the rudimentary facade of civilization that the Bostas considered a fortress. The rams had shattered the gates, and the stone walls had been too low to even challenge the siege towers and ladders.

Enjoying the afternoon sunshine, Dreibrand sat on a campstool and precisely shaved himself while his squire held a small mirror for him. Dreibrand had a serious face with a heavy brow, and his bright blue eyes advertised his intelligence. He had straight sandy hair that fell almost to his shoulders, as was the fashion for Atrophane men.

The squire handed Dreibrand a towel and then dutifully cleaned and put away the razor. After buttoning his shirt, Dreibrand pulled on his quilted silk jacket that padded him beneath his armor. Lord Kwan would be expecting a report soon, and he needed to get himself presentable.

Seeing that his master was ready, the squire grabbed the chestplate of armor. Dreibrand stood up while his servant buckled the armor in place. Like any squire, the youth was from a lower class and seeking access to higher circles by serving important people. This squire always did a good job, and Dreibrand found it unfortunate that his reference would probably hinder the young man more than it would help him.

Maybe in his class his name is mud just like mine, Dreibrand mused.

“Sir, when will we ever go back to Atrophane? I have never felt so far away from anything,” the squire complained and rolled his eyes at the hopelessly rural surroundings.

 “The adventure of riding with the Horde should not allow for homesickness,” Dreibrand scolded with good nature.

“I think the adventure is over, Sir,” the squire said. The squeal of a pig being butchered somewhere in the encampment marked his point.

 Dreibrand looked around the sprawl of the army in repose. The red fabric tents of the Lord General and his officers had been put up, and the weathered tan tents of the common soldiers encircled the ruined town. Many soldiers were getting their first bit of rest since entering Bosta territory, and they reclined by campfires. Other men organized the plunder of the Bostas. Although not as exciting as gold and jewels, the foodstuffs, and leather goods, and furs were satisfying and valuable. The soldiers had also divvied any stores of wine and beer that had been discovered, but they would not last long among so many. Captives were being sorted and held inside the remains of the stone fortress. Those that were fit would be sent away to serve the needs of the Empire.

Dreibrand liked the Horde when it was this way, happy and satiated. The drifting smoke from the defeated town marred the blue sky, but it did not damage Dreibrand’s mood. To him the torn town represented the bones of a small feast.

Turning back to his squire, he said, “The adventure is not over. Soon we shall see the Wilderness.”

Politely the servant nodded, but he did not share in Dreibrand’s fascination with the Wilderness.

Ever since Dreibrand had been a boy, the blank place on all maps of Ektren, labeled only as the Wilderness, had captured his imagination. Whenever life in Atrophane had been frustrating or unfair, his mind had often retreated into the possibilities of that mysterious land. Supposedly no one lived there, but he found that difficult to believe. He approached the Wilderness now and he would soon know the unknown.

Tossing on his cape, Dreibrand strode toward Lord Kwan’s tent. He was glad he had a spare pair of boots while the others dried out. When he arrived at the large red tent of the Lord General, he could hear laughter inside and he recognized the voice of Sandin Promentro. Dreibrand frowned when he thought of the senior lieutenant exchanging pleasantries with Lord Kwan. Naturally coveting the favor he received from the Lord General, Dreibrand resented the competition from Lieutenant Sandin, who had served Kwan longer than the other officers.

The guards outside the tent saluted Dreibrand, and then one ducked inside to announce him. A few more jocularities were shared before Dreibrand heard the Lord General dismiss Sandin.

Sandin emerged from the tent bearing a happy expression, but when he saw Dreibrand, he appeared to become even more pleased. Sandin’s gray eyes twinkled and he smirked at Dreibrand with his usual arrogance.

“Hey schoolboy,” Sandin said, and it was one of his favorite derogatory greetings.

Instantly angry, Dreibrand grabbed Sandin’s forearm but the other lieutenant did not flinch. Locking eyes with Dreibrand, Sandin jerked out of the grip. Physically both men were matched, but Sandin had the psychological edge over Dreibrand, and he knew it.

“What are you going to do?” Sandin demanded.

Sick with anger, Dreibrand lowered his hand. He knew better than to react to Sandin’s taunts. If he struck a senior officer, Lord Kwan would have to discipline him, and that would only lessen the Lord General’s opinion of him, which was Sandin’s whole purpose.

“Some day…” Dreibrand growled.

“Some day you will take orders from me,” Sandin sneered.

Dreibrand stoically let the sting sink in while Sandin walked away. He had no time for anger now. Composing himself for his meeting with his commander and lord, Dreibrand entered the tent. The sun glowed warmly through the red fabric roof, and he dropped to one knee and kept his eyes focused on the multi-colored rugs.

“Dreibrand, come sit.”

The rich and confident voice of the Lord General welcomed his lieutenant, and the tone was friendly. Kwan noticed that Dreibrand sprang to his feet so quickly that he must not have committed much weight to his knee.

This one never really kneels, Kwan thought.

Dreibrand approached the center of the tent where Kwan sat on his cushions. Long white hair flowed from the edges of Kwan’s bald head, and the famous Atrophane military leader had a perfect white goatee. His leathery skin was tan, except for a white scar riding his right jawline. Heavy layers of black and white silk clothed his body, and a plate of armor covered his chest. The design of a winged beast holding two spears was stamped into the black metal of the armor and highlighted with silver tracery. The surreal bird warrior symbolized his ancient clan, the Chenomet.

Casually, Dreibrand settled down among the cushions.

Kwan looked fondly at his officer. Organizing a hostile river crossing was tricky business with thousands of soldiers, and Dreibrand had made it look easy. And of course the lieutenant had led it personally because Dreibrand always led his offensives, but Kwan had already congratulated him for that. He used praise sparingly with Dreibrand after noticing the love the soldiers had for the bold young officer, even those under the command of other lieutenants.

Two years ago Kwan had allowed Dreibrand to purchase a commission in his Horde. When the recent graduate of the Darmar’s military academy had approached him seeking to serve, Kwan had been shocked. How could a Veta hope to be accepted by the Empire’s most powerful Hordemaster? But the intense young man with his impressive academy record remained in Kwan’s mind, and he discreetly investigated the youngest son of the House of Veta. It surprised him to learn that this Veta was not only ambitious but discriminating too. Dreibrand had not sought commissions from any of the lesser generals.

Then Kwan had realized that Dreibrand would have to work harder to sustain his military career because of the beleaguered status of his family. He could demand twice as much from Dreibrand for the privilege of becoming one of his lieutenants, and Kwan would get an especially diligent officer.

Dreibrand, however, had turned out to be a better officer than anyone had thought possible. After two years of campaigning, Kwan had seen in Dreibrand a natural talent for leadership, bravery, intelligence, and drive.

These things reminded Kwan of himself.

After politely greeting his Lord General, Dreibrand gave his report. He detailed the amount of men he had lost or were seriously injured. He reported how many horses had been lost, and how many horses had been captured from the enemy, but he commented that they were of smaller stock. He included amounts of other captured goods and estimated their value, and he relayed the reports from his scouting parties concerning remaining enemy activity in the hills.

“And the slavers are sorting the captives as we speak,” Dreibrand concluded.

Kwan had listened to the figures and facts, enjoying the thoroughness.

“Excellent, Dreibrand. Everything is going well,” Kwan said.

“And we are almost off the map, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan smiled because the Wilderness intrigued him as well. When he had conquered all the rich kingdoms outside Atrophane, his attention had turned to the mysterious lands beyond the known lands of Ektren. If he could take what belonged to any man, he could certainly take what belonged to no man.

“Soon the secrets of the Wilderness in the west will be known in Atrophane,” Kwan predicted confidently. “And the maps will have to be remade.”

“You have remade maps before, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan admired how Dreibrand always knew when to add an endearing comment.

“And what will you do with the rest of your day?” Kwan asked.

Dreibrand had wanted to talk about the Wilderness more, but if the Lord General wanted to change the subject, then it had to be that way. Dreibrand considered his answer carefully, knowing Kwan’s question was a test. In these private meetings Kwan often coached his young lieutenant, and Dreibrand appreciated the guidance.

Hoping Kwan would think his activity suitable, Dreibrand replied, “I plan to speak with some of the captives. Learn information about the area, and practice their language.”

With approval Kwan nodded. Dreibrand’s skill with language had often been indispensable because trustworthy interpreters were hard to come by in enemy territory.

“If you learn anything interesting, report back,” Kwan instructed.

“Of course, my Lord,” Dreibrand said. “Do you have any other orders?”

“Not for now. Let the men rest. We will move out soon,” Kwan said.

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement, but before he could raise the subject of the Wilderness again, Kwan dismissed him.

Dreibrand spent the rest of that day examining captives. The courtyard of the ransacked fortress made a gloomy setting in the late day sun. People had been chained and separated by sex into groups. Almost two hundred Bostas had been taken prisoner during the fighting. The others had died or fled west into the hills. Just as many Atrophane soldiers milled around the courtyard, plus the civilian slavers who followed the Horde.

Dreibrand studied the captives at length. He could see that they hated him. The harshness of defeat was still fresh, and none of them would want to talk to him. He would have to find a way to insure a productive conversation.

Dreibrand entered the guardhouse beside the broken gate, stepping over a dramatic splash of blood that stained the threshold. Earlier, he had pointed out his first two captives and instructed his men to bring the man in first.

A tall wiry man was brought inside the front room. Dreibrand sat at a table, and the soldiers pushed the prisoner into a chair across from the Atrophane lieutenant. The chains on his wrists clanged against the table. A plate of food waited in front of the prisoner, but he did not touch it. His skin was dirty and his hands were still trembling after his futile exertions to defend his homeland.

“The food is good,” Dreibrand said. He knew the food thing was a simple ploy, but sometimes it worked very well with prisoners. The stubborn vestige of pride left in the glare of this Bosta told Dreibrand that the prisoner was not hungry enough to take the food. Without giving the Bosta time to reconsider, Dreibrand handed the plate to his men, who then passed it around and ate.

Dreibrand asked the man for his name, but he got no response. Leaning back in his chair, Dreibrand took out his ivory handled dagger and saw his captive look nervously at the keen blade.

“I will tell you nothing,” the Bosta snarled.

“You do not even know what I want to talk about,” Dreibrand said.

“Stop speaking my language. I hate your accent,” the captive growled.

Gesturing with his dagger, Dreibrand insinuated, “I know other ways of communication.”

The Bosta looked down with resignation. Dreibrand signaled to a soldier, who departed to grab the other captive. The cry of a woman came from across the courtyard, followed by a cry of protest from another female. Dreibrand kept his focus on the Bosta man, who squirmed in his chair. He clearly wanted to go to the window, but the two Atrophane standing behind him held him in place.

“Keep a hold of him,” Dreibrand instructed while getting up to open the door.

The crunch of boots on gravel and the scrape of resisting steps approached the door. The Bosta man turned to see the other captive enter. Emotion surged across his face and he strained against the grip of his guards. Dreibrand saw that the man came close to crying out.

Dreibrand seized the chain hanging between the woman’s wrists and pulled her close. Now that the two captives were in the same room, their family resemblance became clear. Dreibrand guessed that she was his sister. Relatives could usually be picked out from a town’s captives, if one tried.

The woman struggled at her bonds and pulled away from Dreibrand.

“I think she likes me,” Dreibrand joked.

The Bosta man became livid. “You are scum!” he cried and spat at Dreibrand’s feet.

One of the Atrophane soldiers restraining the captive swatted him across the face. The woman screamed. Without any orders to stop, the soldiers continued to punch the captive. Dreibrand held the woman back when she lunged to assist her abused relative.

“If dear brother does not talk with me, it will be your turn next,” Dreibrand warned.

The Bosta woman began to sob, and Dreibrand told his men to desist. Sending the female captive back outside, Dreibrand reseated himself at the table.

“You care about your sister. I can see this,” Dreibrand said.

The captive wiped blood away from his upper lip, but he appeared to be listening.

“And I am sure you care about her future,” Dreibrand concluded.

The bloodshot eyes of the captive widened as he considered the implications of this statement.

“I cannot betray my people,” the Bosta whispered half to himself.

“If you refer to your countrymen hiding in the hills, do not be so concerned. They will show themselves soon enough. Now I only want to have a civilized talk,” Dreibrand said.

“Civilized? You are slavers,” the captive sneered, holding up his chains.

“I have seen Bostas selling slaves downriver,” Dreibrand replied coolly.

Dejected, the man said nothing.

Dreibrand continued, “I can see that your sister does not become a slave. She can stay here and live her life.”

The offer tempted the Bosta man, but his shoulders sagged because his conqueror had to be teasing him with a fantasy.

“Your sister has to be worth at least risking that I am honest,” Dreibrand reasoned. “And I give you my word.”

“What do you want to talk about?” the captive mumbled and hung his head.

Grinning happily, Dreibrand answered, “I want to talk about the Wilderness.”

“Is that why you are here?” chuckled the Bosta man.

“We are close, right? Over the next line of hills is the Wilderness.” Dreibrand went straight to business, ignoring the amusement the captive seemed to find in the subject.

Thinking of his sister, the captive hesitated. He told himself that the Atrophane had to be lying, but what if he was not lying?

To goad his thoughts in the right direction Dreibrand said, “I hope your sister is sold to a kind master. Some are cruel and take advantage of the abundance of slaves.”

The Bosta man shut his eyes. “Yes. Over the next line of hills you will see the Wilderness. There is only one more settlement,” he answered.

“And what can you tell me of this place?” Dreibrand asked.

“There is a fortress, a few villages,” the captive said.

Dreibrand stopped him. “Not the settlement. The Wilderness. Tell me about that.”

The Bosta narrowed his eyes and replied, “I should tell you nothing. But because I can see that you will go there, I will tell you this—do not go there. Now, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that you will think of my advice when you die.”

“Why would I die?” Dreibrand wondered.

“Because the Wilderness consumes all men,” explained the captive.

“What peoples live there?” Dreibrand demanded, suspecting that an unknown people defended the land.

Again the Bosta laughed. “No people live there. Any who dare enter never come back. No one lives west of Droxy.”

Dreibrand contemplated this information. He remembered the name of Droxy from the map. It was the farthest outpost of civilization.

“Why can no one live west of Droxy?” he asked.

“The Wilderness is evil. Have not the stories gone all the way east? Beasts and spirits rule the land, and it is not a place for men,” the captive said.

“Go on,” Dreiband prompted.

Deciding it would not harm his people to talk about it, the Bosta man continued, “Our oldest legends warn us of the evil in the west. It is said that thousands of years ago a war between Gods was fought in the Wilderness, and now their spirits guard the land. Also beasts prowl the forests. I have talked to people from Droxy who claim to have heard the howl of a fenthakrabi.”

“What is that?” Dreibrand demanded while trying to process the new word.

The captive smiled as if he already had his revenge upon the Atrophane. “Like I said, a beast.”

Dreibrand frowned. The man had to be making things up. He had hoped to learn something concrete instead of exaggerated folk tales. For months Dreibrand had been asking these questions as the Horde rolled westward, but the answers only became more cryptic as he approached the Wilderness.

Weary of the captive, Dreibrand ended the interrogation. As the soldiers yanked him toward the door, the Bosta man cried, “What about my sister?”

Dreibrand pursed his lips in thought. The stricken suspense on the captive’s face did have some sick appeal, but Dreibrand did not have a rotten heart.

“Set her free,” he ordered.

Instead of questioning more prisoners, Dreibrand retired to his tent. It was night now, but he did not feel tired at all. Lying awake, he stared at the light from the small oil lamp flickering on the red fabric. The light pulsed and fluttered like shades at an unholy celebration. Around him Dreibrand heard the noises of the Horde in repose. The mix of sounds from the thousands of soldiers was the only thing that eased his loneliness anymore. Sometimes he brought a female captive to his tent, if he fancied one, but that had ceased to suit him and he had recently lapsed into a strict solitude.

Thoughts of the Wilderness obsessed his mind, and he could almost feel the great land beckoning him from over the hills.

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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.