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The Temu guards outside Shan’s apartment had become a normal sight to Dreibrand and Miranda. Shan had summoned them that morning and they were eager to hear from him. The rys had been in seclusion for nearly two weeks since the party where Dreibrand had revealed his happy news.

After knocking on the door, they waited patiently for a response. Dreibrand smiled at Miranda, simply appreciating her company and admiring her green velvet gown with gold trim. Its tailoring flattered the curves of her body and the color brought out her eyes beautifully. Gradually, Dreibrand realized her new clothes would not fit her in a few months. Frowning, he thought about his remaining gold, which he had planned to spend on more gear for himself.

“Come on,” Miranda said.

While he had been contemplating the small details in his life, the door had opened. Shaking his head, Dreibrand admonished himself for being so distracted.

Shan strode through the large entry hall and greeted them promptly. He hugged Miranda politely and wished her well. “Dreibrand has told me about the baby. I am glad for your blessing.” The rys’s tone became serious and he added, “Now I must get your other dear children back to you.”

Miranda murmured her thanks, knowing how much Shan did care.

“Let us sit,” Shan said briskly, leading them to his salon. “Dreibrand, does that sword suit you?”

Dreibrand brushed his hand over the pommel of the sword at his side. He had returned the cheap short sword to Redan and selected another better one from Taischek’s armory, but it was nothing special.

“Well, I had thought this would just be a temporary weapon,” he answered.

As they settled into the comfortable furniture, Shan said, “I see. Then you shall have a new one by spring. I have arranged with Taischek’s master weaponsmith to have a new weapon forged for you. But I have a recommendation.”

Shan scooped up a suede bag from an end table and emptied two warding crystals into his palm. Points of sapphire light sparkled deep inside the milky blue orbs.

“I have made you new warding crystals,” he said, distributing them. “I want you to carry these in addition to the ones you already have, so you will be doubly protected. I have made some adjustments and refinements to my warding spells, so these are stronger. With your wardings, you will be on nearly equal terms with any common rys, and you will have some protection from Onja’s spells. I fear when we march on Jingten, Onja will target my friends to make me suffer. That is one of her favorite cruelties, and I wanted you to have extra protection. Dreibrand, I thought you might want this crystal set in the pommel of your new sword. It will make a visible statement to the Yentay that you are my chosen commander and that my power is behind you.”

Examining his new warding crystal, Dreibrand considered Shan’s idea and it appealed to him. Then he looked sternly at Miranda and mentioned, “Chances are high that Miranda will not be able to accompany us to Jingten.”

“There is also a chance I will go,” Miranda added quickly.

Shan noted the understandable tension between them on this subject but breezed over it. “Nonetheless, accept these warding crystals.”

“Yes, of course we do, Shan,” Dreibrand agreed.

“Good. It is best we all stay as protected as possible. Even now,” Shan said.

Dreibrand asked, “Have you had any luck finding the Overlord?”

Shan stretched back into the couch and combed his fingers through his white-streaked black hair. He seemed to be pondering his conclusion one more time before revealing it.

He answered, “I looked first in Do Jempur, and my visions were strange, lacking in detail. I did not see the Overlord. This gave me an opportunity to study the warding, but I became weary as I tried to pierce its magic, and this morning when I woke, there was no blindspot or Overlord in Do Jempur. It is unfortunate that I lost track of the warding magic, but I did learn one thing: Onja did not make the warding.”

Miranda, who had been informed of the wardings that blocked Shan, inquired who then had made the powerful magic.

“That is the great puzzle, Miranda,” Shan admitted helplessly. “The ability to make warding magic is rare, and this warding is so powerful, I cannot imagine who could have made it besides Onja. But the magic of each rys has an individual signature, and even if this is a new spell created by Onja, I would recognize her power in the spell. But this warding was not created by any rys I have ever met.”

Immediately after speaking these words, Shan sat up with a sudden revelation and cried, “By any rys alive!”

He jumped up and started pacing. “Of course, of course,” he muttered in agreement with his conclusion. “The warding was made by a rys who died long ago. A warding crystal made in ancient times—maybe even by Dacian. But where has Onja been hiding it? I would have detected such a thing in the Keep and nothing is in the Tomb of Dacian.”

Dreibrand broke into his thoughts. “You told me you have never been in the Tomb of Dacian, that no one except Onja can go there.”

Shan halted and explained, “But I can penetrate Onja’s wardings and I have explored the tower with my mind. It is empty. Perhaps Onja has a stash outside the city in the mountains. That must be it. Who would notice some warding crystals in a wild place, especially when no one is looking for it? Now, Onja has warded her assassins with magic unfamiliar to me.”

Calming down, Shan returned to his seat. “Very clever. I had not expected this. But I will cope. Warding or not, the Kezanada are still visible to normal sight after all.”

“But you cannot focus a spell on them,” Dreibrand worried.

“For the time being, but that will change. Once I locate the warding again, I should be able to unlock its secrets,” Shan assured him. “But now to a matter that I can take care of today. You tell me the Zenglawa is an archer of extraordinary skill and he served you well, but his loyalty must be determined completely. He cannot have a bow and be near me. We cannot go to war in the spring with any doubts about him.”

Reluctantly Dreibrand agreed. Although he very much wanted Redan to be a part of his force, he could not gamble with Shan’s safety.

“Just send the Zenglawa home,” Miranda recommended.

Shan said, “I would not arbitrarily turn him back into an enemy, especially if he did come to us in good faith. Redan will have one chance. If he will allow me, I will test him. I will read his mind. Then I will be certain.”

“Will it hurt him?” Miranda whispered.

“No,” Shan said. “Now let us go down to the armory. We will talk to the weaponsmith about how you want your new sword. And Dreibrand tell him whatever you desire. I have arranged to cover any expense.”

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement.

Shan continued, “And order a helmet and shield. Anything you desire. My general must look grand and fearsome.”

“Oh, I will,” Dreibrand beamed. “I have some ideas to discuss with the weaponsmith.”

“And while we are down there, send for Redan. Tell him he can come to select a bow, but do not mention that I wish to test him,” Shan instructed.

~

Redan looked at the castle above him as he walked up from the city. Receiving the summons to meet his general at the castle armory excited him, but he was apprehensive approaching the Temu stronghold by himself. The other Yentay accepted him more or less after his decisive efforts against the Kezanada, but passing alone through Dengar Nor, Redan had seen the cold looks from the Temu. They recognized him as Zenglawa and openly disliked his presence.

Sighing, he continued up the inclining road and thought, I did not choose this path to please the Temu.

The weather had dried out but a cold wind blew hard this day, stripping trees to their bare winter branches. Redan was thankful to reach the castle entrance and step out of the wind despite the rude reception from the Temu guards. Although they had been notified of the Zenglawa’s visit, the guards demanded his reasons for coming and took away his weapon. Redan knew Dreibrand had meant well by returning the short sword, but it seemed he was not meant to have it.

When the Temu finished harassing him, Redan hurried to his appointment. He had expected only Dreibrand to meet him and he was surprised to see Shan.

Hastily and a bit flustered, Redan bowed deeply to the rys. “Lord Shan, how may I serve you?”

“That is not determined,” Shan stated.

Miranda set down a sword that she had been examining and strolled to Shan’s side. “I still think you should send him home,” she said icily.

Redan looked at the foreign woman, whose different features made her strangely beautiful, but her disarming green eyes pierced him with the precision of one of his own arrows. His pledges of loyalty and brave deeds had obviously convinced her of nothing.

“Redan has served me well, Miranda. He deserves this chance,” Dreibrand reminded.

Something about the general’s words disturbed Redan, and he glanced at Dreibrand suspiciously.

“Redan, Lord Shan would speak with you,” Dreibrand said with unmistakable seriousness.

The Zenglawa looked at Shan, but he did not dare to speak. The rys approached to an intimate distance and a sudden dread of rys magic gripped Redan and many questions flew through his mind. Had he done something to make them think he was a spy? Was this a trap? What was the rys going to do?

The black eyes of the rys leaned close, holding Redan with their insistent gleam. If he had wanted to move away, he was not sure that he could have. Stressed from his growing worry, Redan swallowed to ease his drying mouth then realized his nervousness made him look guilty.

How much time passed before Shan finally spoke Redan could not guess.

“Redan, you have performed well as a Yentay and your talents make you a valuable warrior. However, you raised your weapon against me once, and I am unable to trust you completely. I am sorry.”

His passion to prove his loyalty gave Redan the nerve to defend himself. “Lord Shan, set any task for me and I will do it. I believe in the war against Onja. I believe you should be King.”

“Ssshhh.” Shan’s gentle hushing instantly halted Redan’s quickening words. “There is no action that will prove your loyalty. No passionate words can convince me that you are not part of a Zenglawa plot.”

 Observing the dejection on Redan’s face as he perceived his ultimate rejection, Shan said, “Take heart, Redan. I will make you a fair offer. I can peer into your mind. If your loyalty is real, I will know. But if you do not want to submit yourself to my magic, you may go back to the Zenglawa—or where you please. But you must leave.”

“Then do what you must, Lord Shan,” Redan decided instantly.

This lack of hesitation impressed Shan and he wasted no time in beginning his spell. Redan was suddenly unable to move or even blink his eyes. A blue light began to slowly consume Shan’s black eyes, and Redan felt his awareness of his body slip away. His vision decreased until he saw only a blue glow, like he was floating in a bright blue sky. Whispers seeped into Redan’s mind, but they were too faint for him to determine any words.

His thoughts and hopes were there for Shan see as in a dream. Redan wanted the glory that would come if Shan accepted him. Serving the powerful rys lord and participating in the audacious overthrow of Jingten would be fitting uses of his talent. Not since adolescence had Redan derived much satisfaction from demonstrating his archery. He could win any tournament and the skirmishes the Zenglawa had with nomadic hill tribes offered no challenge. The admiration of his grasping and dishonest tribesmen meant little to him, and King Atathol had proved unworthy.

Redan wanted his skill to contribute to a great purpose. Through great and historic acts he would win true fame, which was better than being a local novelty among the Zenglawa.

Dreibrand edged closer to Miranda and set a hand on her shoulder while they watched the rys hold the human in the grasp of his powerful mind.

“These rys have such power over us,” Miranda whispered.

“That is why Shan should be King over them,” Dreibrand whispered back. “He is the only one who really respects us.”

Miranda knew Dreibrand was right. While observing Redan in the grip of Shan’s magic, she remembered the powerful hold of Onja. Involuntarily she twitched as she remembered Onja’s unkind touch that lingered in her body.

At last Shan stepped away from Redan. Dreibrand and Miranda, who both expected different news, waited eagerly for the verdict.

Shan took a renewing breath while Redan blinked and reoriented himself to the surroundings. No fear showed on Redan’s face, but he did feel mildly violated.

“Atathol’s order to kill me really did offend you,” Shan said.

“Yes Lord,” Redan said feeling very much redeemed.

“Your loyalty is true. I have seen the passion of your heart,” Shan declared.

A satisfied smile broke across Dreibrand’s face because he had judged the Zenglawa correctly.

“Shan, you are certain?” Miranda asked incredulously.

“Ah, Miranda, ever suspicious and the last to be convinced,” Shan observed lovingly. “Fear no more about Redan. He believes in our cause as much as any of us.”

Miranda believed Shan, but she shot Redan a potent look, which he understood immediately. He was still on probation by her standards.

Continuing in a happy voice, Shan said, “Welcome Redan. I forgive you for what you considered doing at the Common Ground. Your bravery and skill will help us to triumph. How would you choose to serve me?”

Overwhelmed, Redan fell to his knees and breathed, “As your bodyguard, Lord Shan.”

Shan laughed and gestured for Redan to rise. “Who better to guard me than he who would have been my assassin?”

Redan thanked his rys lord exuberantly, until Shan bid him to stop.

“It appears you may pick out that bow,” Dreibrand said.

Redan glanced to Shan for confirmation and the rys waved him toward the racks of Taischek’s weapon horde. After dipping his head reverently one more time, Redan went to find his new bow.

“I am glad that is settled,” Dreibrand said.

Shan nodded. “You were right about him. He will be very valuable to us.”

“He has been already,” Dreibrand added, recalling the dead Kezanada.

A Temu warrior rushed into the armory looking for Dreibrand. Urgently he announced, “A few Nuram warriors have come to the castle, General Veta. They wish to see you directly.”

“Yes, at once,” Dreibrand answered.

He had been on the verge of worrying about his Nuram spies and the news of their return relieved him. Although he hoped for the best, he doubted their news would be good.

Taischek’s vast castle provided many meeting rooms and Dreibrand received the Nuram in the nearest such chamber. Dreibrand ordered a servant to bring wine to warm them from their cold traveling, which they greatly appreciated.

Before relaxing and drinking, the Nuram bowed to Shan and showed Miranda a particular deference. They remembered her story from the Confederate Council and they admired her brave defiance of Onja. The Nuram were weather worn and the sides of their heads that were normally shaved had grown in a little.

“Lieutenant U’Chian, it is good to see the return of you and your cousins,” Dreibrand greeted.

“The sight of Dengar Nor made us all glad,” U’Chian declared. “General Veta, Lord Shan, the news is bad.”

“Go on,” Dreibrand prompted.

U’Chian reported, “The Sabuto are outraged. They plan war with the Temu in the spring and they hope to bring Onja the head of Lord Shan as well. They have rallied the lesser tribes of the south to join them. They claim Lord Shan seeks to conquer all humans and set the Temu above the rest.”

“I suspected as much,” Dreibrand grumbled but Shan showed no reaction.

U’Chian continued, “The Sabuto are using the bounty offered on Lord Shan to recruit other tribes to their side. The Sabuto use this opportunity to rid themselves of their Temu enemy, especially now that the Confederation has been weakened by the loss of the Zenglawa. They hope to gain the favor of Jingten and overtake the wealth and power of the Confederation.”

“These are ambitious times,” Dreibrand sighed.

“Taischek must hear of this at once,” Shan decided.

“Of course,” Dreibrand agreed. “Lieutenant U’Chian, I realize you are tired but you need to stay at the castle while we arrange a meeting with the King. I am sure he will meet with us quickly. We will discuss the rest of the details in the presence of the Temu. I commend you on a job well done and I appreciate the risks you took.”

The Nuram all smiled a little guiltily. U’Chian, as spokesman for his cousins, confessed, “Sir, actually we had an easy time of it. The Sabuto never suspected us.”

“Then you were lucky. The rest of the Yentay had a rough time. We battled the Kezanada and some of us were lost,” Dreibrand said.

The Nuram became sober-faced and reflective. U’Chian quietly apologized, “We did not know. We should have been fighting at your side, Sir.”

Dreibrand said, “Your mission was very important and do not regret the ease of your success. This information is very valuable, and it seems there will be plenty of war for everybody.”

When they left to go to Taischek’s council room, Redan emerged from the nearby armory. He trotted after Shan, holding high his new bow and quiver. Although Redan had no arrow nocked, his sudden appearance alarmed the Nuram warriors. Remembering Redan to have unlikely loyalty, the Nuram assumed the worst and immediately drew their swords. The hiss and ring of hastily exposed steel made the others turn with fear. Redan skidded to a halt and grimaced at the fine weapons targeting his vitals.

Dreibrand quickly recognized the misunderstanding and intervened before Redan got hurt. “No. Put your swords away,” he ordered. “Redan is a confirmed member of the Yentay now and a valuable member of our force. Much has happened while you were away among the Sabuto.”

Redan nodded to emphasize Dreibrand’s statement and straightened his back with pride. “Lord Shan has accepted me,” he stated.

Keeping a dubious eye on Redan, the Nuram reluctantly replaced their swords.

Shan chuckled. “It is good to see so much concern for my welfare.”

The Nuram glowed under the compliment.

“Redan, you are excused,” Dreibrand said, deciding the news Taischek was about to hear was bad enough without being reminded of the Zenglawa.

Redan appeared crestfallen not to be included in the council that they obviously hastened to, but he had to obey. His fine new weapon consoled him though. He stroked the curving wood of the bow, already bonding with it. The bow was not as fine as the one that Shan had blasted from his hands, but it was more than serviceable. He planned to craft another bow that would be a perfect extension of his body and soul. Only such a personal creation would truly be worthy of a master, but until then, it was good to have a bow again.

And tonight, it would be enough to go out into the lovely city of Dengar Nor and show off for the Temu. His empty pockets could use some gold that a little friendly competition would provide.

~

King Taischek had of course been aware of the arrival of Dreibrand’s Nuram spies, and when he soon afterward received a request for a meeting, he knew the news would be bad. Deep down he suspected the nature of the report from the Sabuto Domain, and he wished he could ignore it. But he could only allow himself a little kingly tardiness before going to his council chamber where everyone had already gathered.

Swathed in abundant red quilted robes, Taischek strode into his council chamber. Everyone stood respectfully and bowed as he took his seat. He lowered his stocky frame into his elegant chair at the head of the table, eyeing his Nuram guests and fidgeting with his large emerald ring. The heads of the two snakes carved into the wooden back of his chair met over his head with flicking tongues.

The rys spoke. “Taischek, these good Yentay bring word from the Sabuto Domain that your enemy plots a great revenge upon us. They rally the small tribes of the south to go to war with them against the Temu.”

After letting the news ruminate for a moment, Taischek commented with fatalistic humor, “Well, Shan you have certainly set our whole world to war.”

The words pained Shan to the soul, but he accepted the results of his actions. Violence was necessary to end the Age of Onja just as violence had heralded her rule.

Shan continued, “The Sabuto also wish to gain domination in the north, where the Confederacy rules now. They will serve Onja and hope to get my head as they defeat you.”

“Our enemies unite once my Confederate allies proved timid,” lamented Taischek.

“Not all are timid,” Dreibrand reminded. He did not want the present Yentay to feel slighted, and the Nuram warriors appreciated their general’s attentiveness.

The King acknowledged Dreibrand and made the proper correction, knowing every volunteer became more precious every day. Taischek then personally questioned the Nuram warriors about various details. The Nuram spies had not been able to learn the exact strategies of the Sabuto, but they knew with certainty that they would take the warpath north in the spring.

After hearing all the information the Nuram had to offer, Taischek said, “Dreibrand Veta, I thank you for gaining this news for me. You were wise to send spies while you could.”

Dreibrand inclined his head in acceptance of the King’s praise and explained, “In my heart I knew the Sabuto would strike at you once the Temu became the foe of Onja.”

“It is logical,” Taischek agreed. “But these alliances with other tribes surprise me. I would not have thought the Sabuto and their neighbors could stop raiding each other long enough to attack me. It will be a host of faithless dogs that comes in the spring.”

“Greed for my bounty drives them,” Shan concluded.

“But will they attack after we leave for Jingten or before?” Miranda wondered.

Begrudgingly, Taischek noted her astute concern. She never takes her eyes from the prize and neither must I, he thought.

“That is the real problem,” Taischek said. “Onja may command them to block us from entering the Rysamand. I have no fear of facing the Sabuto in battle in this way, but I know the Sabuto lust to put fair Dengar Nor to the sword, and they may wait until I have departed for Jingten and then invade my domain. If I leave half of my army behind for defense, it may not be enough. And surely Onja will send other tribes to guard the Jingten Pass, like the Zenglawa, and then we may not have enough strength to break through. Whether it is by Onja’s design or not, our forces will be split.”

“We cannot allow them to split our war host,” Dreibrand declared adamantly. In his opinion, they did not have enough warriors to create two viable armies.

“I will not leave my people open to Sabuto invasion. Temu children will not know the cruelties of the Sabuto!” Taischek’s voice rang with emotion.

“Then we must strike offensively,” Dreibrand offered. “When the Tacus arrive to supplement us, we will bring the war to the Sabuto first and end their plans of conquest. Then we can go to Jingten.”

“But that could take all summer!” Miranda protested.

Dreibrand understood her fear of delay and faced her with an intense expression. Grinding his fist into his hand, he promised, “I will crush them in a week. Two at most. Shan will be King and your children free before midsummer.”

His eyes smoldered with the potencies of his conviction. Dreibrand’s pledge was no fanciful boast. He knew how to be a successful warmonger, and he remembered the burning cities and the conquered weighted by their chains. Dreibrand did not need to hate his enemy, only desire their destruction. With Shan’s power, he would know the exact course of the Sabuto invasion force and be able to strike them swiftly and decisively. Patience was a virtue of the Atrophane but only after speed.

The King’s eyebrows arched with interest at Dreibrand’s impressive words. Can he really orchestrate such a swift purging of the Sabuto threat? he wondered. He glanced at Shan. Yes, we do have the advantage.

Shan, who had been considering quietly, decided, “It is too early to settle on a strategy. We will have to make adjustments as our enemies show themselves. However, I believe Dreibrand’s idea may be the right choice. It is the only way to keep our force united. The Temu cannot be left vulnerable to Onja’s minions while we go to Jingten. We will defeat our enemies as they come. The Sabuto, or any other tribe, cannot prevail against me.”

Miranda sighed tiredly. Although she would never say so, she did not care about warring tribes. She wanted only to strike at Jingten. To strike at Onja. To see Onja die. She wanted to protest more, but she did not have the energy and she was starting to feel sick again.

Dreibrand wanted the same thing she wanted. He had no personal passions against the Sabuto, but he had grown loyal to Taischek and he could not ignore the problems the Temu faced. The Sabuto were coming with everything they could muster and Taischek could not leave his tribe defenseless.

“This is enough for now,” Taischek determined. “We must wait for General Xander to return to the city before we discuss this more. I need to consider what I have learned. And General Veta, instruct your men that this is to be kept secret for now.” The King let his eyes drift meaningfully toward the Nuram.

With the meeting dissolved, Dreibrand decided to accompany the Nuram to their barracks and check on all of the Yentay. He wanted to revise the training schedule and discuss the news with Tytido. He told Miranda he would return from the city that night. She smiled carelessly, trying to hide her discomfort. She did not want him to worry and she believed that she would feel better after lying down for a while.

Dreibrand was eager to get to work, so he asked Shan to escort Miranda to their apartment. She rolled her eyes at the formality of his doting, but she did not complain and Shan was pleased to walk with her.

Miranda accepted Shan’s arm while they walked to her quarters. She noticed the obeisant looks from the Temu passing in the hall. Their respect was for Shan but included her as well. Her relationship with the powerful rys made her special. She liked the feeling.

Shan sensed how the news from the Nuram spies had depressed her. There seemed to be no end to obstacles between her and her children. The rys said, “Miranda, we will get to Jingten just like Dreibrand said. Do not worry about the Sabuto. They are not going to stop us. They are an enemy at least that can be seen.”

Her green eyes flashed up at him as they walked. “You are more troubled by the magic given to the Kezanada Overlord than you have said,” she guessed.

He did not deny it. “Onja has armed her agents with a potent warding. This will test me greatly,” Shan admitted. He always felt safe disclosing his troubles to her. “I must learn this magic that Onja has kept secret from me. Until I understand the enchantment she has given her assassins, I will not be ready to face her in battle. Forgive me, Miranda. I know all of this must be so painfully slow for you.”

She nodded gravely and her eyes welled suddenly with tears that she did not let fall. She understood more than the others the daunting challenge that Shan faced against Onja. The wicked power of the rys Queen prowled still through Miranda’s flesh that had been pierced by Onja’s magic. The pain could still drill deep, reaching for precious life.

Miranda faltered a step and she touched her softening belly. Alarmed, Shan stopped. “What is it?” he asked anxiously.

With a deep breath, she straightened and explained that she was weary but that was to be expected. “Do not worry. I know about being pregnant,” she insisted sweetly.

Shan did not seem convinced but they continued to the door to her apartment, where they stopped.

Delaying their goodbye, Miranda asked, “How will you find the Overlord?”

“That, Miranda, I know for certain,” Shan said. “He will come to me.”

~

The Rys Chronicles continue in

Book II

The Goddess Queen

available at www.braveluck.com

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Miranda had to languish in Fata Nor for nine more days after the disturbing incident with the Kezanada before General Xander returned with most of the Temu war party.

People rushed out to greet the returning column of warriors. Miranda easily spotted Dreibrand among the Temu and her heart thudded with joy to see him alive and unhurt. His bangs had gotten long over the summer and now a couple small braids held them on each side of his face, put there recently by a Temu comrade. His beard had started again as well.

Seeing Miranda, he steered Starfield away from the ranks. Miranda rushed into his anxious arms as soon as he jumped from his horse. They simply hugged each other for a moment to affirm their physical reality.

“You look better,” he said happily.

“I am much better,” Miranda agreed then kissed him.

When their lips parted, Miranda grinned but Dreibrand stared at her thoughtfully. He remembered the woman he had seen killed at the first Sabuto village.

“What is it?” Miranda wondered.

His face brightened and he dismissed the memory. He could be happy now.

“I was worried about you, but that is over,” he replied. “I have something to show you.”

Dreibrand opened a saddlebag and removed the sack with gold coins in it. Miranda gasped lightly when he let her peek at the contents, but her awe quickly turned to caution and she glanced around nervously.

Dreibrand chuckled approvingly, but he dispelled her worries. “All the warriors have the same. This is my proper share. No one will take it. We raided a rysmavda temple in Dursalene and it was full of treasure.”

Recalling that the rysmavda were an omnipresent part of the western world, he looked over his shoulder to the temple. Nebeck and his junior rysmavda had not joined the people of Fata Nor in greeting the returning war party.

“Where is Shan?” Miranda asked.

“He and Taischek went with a few warriors to the capital city of Dengar Nor. Xander came here to escort the Queen’s household back to the capital. So of course I came here,” Dreibrand explained.

“Did King Taischek get the message about the Kezanada?” Miranda inquired urgently.

“Yes. One of Vua’s messengers reached us a few days ago before we split from the King,” Dreibrand said. “Miranda, are these Kezanada really as terrible as everyone makes them out to be?”

“Yes, they are frightening,” Miranda said, recalling the tension when the Kezanada had entered Fata Nor.

Dreibrand shrugged. His judgement of these infamous mercenaries would have to wait until he saw them for himself.

“Dreibrand, do you think Shan is all right?” Miranda whispered.

This question amused Dreibrand. He had come to have an even greater appreciation of Shan’s powers over the last couple weeks.

“Yes, I am sure Shan is fine,” he assured her. “He went on with Taischek instead of backtracking to Fata Nor with me so he would spend less time on the road and avoid the Kezanada.”

Gesturing with his eyes to the temple, Dreibrand inquired about Rysmavda Nebeck. Dreibrand had learned that Onja could communicate with her priests via the large orbs in the temples, and he very well expected the rysmavda in Fata Nor to know what had happened in Dursalene.

“The rysmavda have kept to themselves in the temple. That Nebeck talked to the Kezanada though. I saw it myself. I do not know what was said, but I am sure he told them everything he could,” Miranda said.

“Yes, but Nebeck will not matter much longer. Taischek is going to close the temples in the Temu Domain,” Dreibrand said very quietly.

“Really?” Miranda whispered.

“It is only a matter of days, but we will not get to see Nebeck lose his job. We are going to Dengar Nor,” Dreibrand said.

“I am told that is a fine city,” Miranda said with excitement.

~

Queen Vua’s household was packed and on the road early the next morning. With Kezanada in the area, Xander insisted upon a hasty departure. The residents of Fata Nor turned out to see off the Queen’s caravan. Silently some wished the warriors would not leave, but others did not worry so much. The Kezanada tended to trouble the upperclasses.

Most of the women rode in covered coaches and wagons, but Miranda rode her horse with the younger women and servants. Dreibrand conveniently chose to be among the warriors that flanked the female riders so he could chat with Miranda all day long.

He noticed Miranda had their old bow and quiver packed in her gear, but all the arrows were gone and she could not possibly draw the bow until her arm was better. At her waist she had tied her old knife—the one she had used to cut him loose when they met.

“I will have to see about getting you a new sword,” Dreibrand mentioned.

Her eyes lit up. “Oh please, could you? I just do not know how to ask the Queen, and I do not think she would approve. I think she would have said something about my knife but there was too much of a hurry this morning. But she gave me a look.”

“Oh, she probably has a dagger tucked in her sleeve,” Dreibrand joked quietly.

Before the day ended, Dreibrand heard more about Miranda’s sidearm than she did. At the midday break some of Dreibrand’s new Temu friends teased him because his woman carried a weapon, but he did not get angry. Although informed that an armed woman was unconventional in Temu society, he believed Miranda was safer with her knife and he knew that he was.

En route to Dengar Nor, Xander took every precaution, sending scouts in all directions around the caravan. The General did not want to be surprised by any Kezanada. The reported group of twenty warriors had evaporated into the countryside and Xander hoped fortune would keep it that way.

At sunset on their second day of travel the caravan reached Dengar Nor. The softened foothills gave way to a broad flat valley, heavily cultivated with green pastures, golden fields of ripening grains, orchards and vineyards. Rushing streams of snowmelt slowed into a system of creeks and rivers that watered the fertile valley. Rising out of the bounteous heartland of the Temu Tribe, Taischek’s castle claimed the top of a rocky mesa. A fine walled city clung to the base of the mesa, and a switchbacked road led from the city to the castle.

Stone towers flanked the main city gate and the yellow serpent standard flapped from both pinnacles. It was a splendorous city, and Taischek often employed artisans and workers to remodel and improve the city and castle.

The imposing castle and sophisticated city impressed Dreibrand. The Temu Tribe was far richer than the foothill town of Fata Nor had indicated.

Crowds cheered Xander when he entered Dengar Nor. Everyone at the capital knew about the sack of Dursalene, and they gave the returning war party the same adoration that Taischek had received four days earlier when he had returned. Xander enjoyed his glorious welcome, and Taischek descended from his castle to greet the General. The King proclaimed that the next day would be a holiday to celebrate the victory in Dursalene and the return of the royal court.

The caravan labored up to the castle and servants quickly began to unpack the Queen’s household. A steward sought out Dreibrand and informed him that the King had given him an apartment in the castle. This generosity pleased Dreibrand and he promptly requested that the steward take Miranda to his new apartment before she got shuttled off with Vua’s entourage. Dreibrand told Miranda to follow the steward, and then he took off in pursuit of Taischek so that he could immediately thank the King.

Miranda opened her mouth to ask him where he was going, but Dreibrand dashed through the crowd too quickly to be stopped. She scowled with frustration.

“Do you have any bags, lady?” the steward inquired.

Miranda turned to the Temu man. He asked his question again, and Miranda understood him the second time. She pointed to her saddlebags and the steward draped them over his shoulder.

“I need to take care of my horse,” Miranda said.

“It will be seen to. Please come,” the steward said.

He escorted her into the fine castle that towered many stories above. Graceful arches and high ceilings made the castle seem even bigger on the inside. Miranda had only experienced luxury once before in Jingten, but she found herself in it again. The steward took her to an apartment with a fire already blazing in a marble fireplace. Velvety furniture sat on thick carpets with octagon designs. In the bath, another servant was already heating water for her to wash.

Later as a girl washed her hair and sponged her back, Miranda actually had to laugh. Although her heart ached for the safe return of her children, she had to admit she liked the good treatment. While suffering through her dismal life, Miranda had dreamed of better things, but she had had no concept of how well some people lived.

I deserve this, she thought and reclined into the warm water.

 The servant was tying a robe around Miranda when Dreibrand returned with a wine cup still in his hand. Miranda promptly asked the girl to heat more water, and Dreibrand collapsed into a chair and set the wine on a table.

“Well, I managed to escape tonight’s drinking. I need to save my strength for tomorrow’s victory banquet,” he declared. “Gods! Taischek would rule the whole of Ektren if he stayed sober.”

Miranda sat on his lap despite his travel stained clothes. “You chose me instead of your party?” she said sweetly.

“Of course. I would rather be here. In Atrophane we say it is not much of a party if there are no girls,” Dreibrand explained.

Miranda laughed, a genuine laugh. She had missed Dreibrand’s sense of humor.

Unbuckling his chestplate, she whispered, “You must tell me more about how an Atrophane has a party.”

“As much as you want to hear,” he said feeling his lust build pleasantly. He had survived yet more battles and wanted the pleasures of life.

Politely Miranda thanked the servant and asked her to leave. She would attend her warrior herself.

The next morning Dreibrand rolled over in the empty feather bed. Sleepily he sat up and saw Miranda sitting at the window. Wrapped in a blanket, she rested her elbows on the windowsill and stared at the dawn over the Rysamand. The sun had just slipped over the peaks, lighting the snow-capped mountains in a fuchsia blaze.

Hearing Dreibrand stir, she murmured over her shoulder, “At least my children are in a beautiful place.”

Realizing the joys of the evening had faded into the realities of the day, Dreibrand walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Miranda, we will get them back. Shan will help us. He just needs more time. In the Sabuto Domain I saw him fight and kill. He is doing as he said. I have seen his power and I know he will defeat Onja when he is ready,” Dreibrand said.

Despite her terrible grief, Miranda’s eyes stayed dry. “I know,” she whispered.

She continued to stare at the Rysamand, feeling her soul crack into sharp cold edges of determination.

My strength is returning, Onja, she thought spitefully.

“It is early. Come back to bed,” Dreibrand urged.

Miranda let him guide her back under the covers but she could not fall back asleep. Dreibrand returned to a deep slumber and Miranda realized that while she had been recuperating in Fata Nor he had known no rest on the warpath. Careful not to disturb him, she slipped away and quietly dressed. She wanted to see Shan.

When she left the apartment, the long empty hall looked like it went nowhere in the huge castle. Dreibrand had mentioned that he had seen Shan the day before, but Miranda had no idea where to find him. Wandering deeper into the building, she soon ran across a servant and inquired about the rys. The servant rattled off the directions and Miranda half understood them, but she gathered that Shan was quartered in the south wing. After questioning a few more servants after several wrong turns, she located his apartment. Two Temu warriors guarded Shan’s door.

“May I enter?” Miranda asked, sounding as confident as she could.

“That is the rys lord’s decision,” replied one of the Temu. “You are the woman from the east?”

“Yes. I am Miranda. Shan knows me,” she said.

“Then you may knock. Lord Shan will let you enter if he wants to see you,” the guard explained.

Trying to ignore the watchful Temu, Miranda knocked on the door. The presence of guards surprised her and made her think about the Kezanada who had been looking for Shan. The knock gained no response, and Miranda wondered if Shan was sleeping. Her patience soon eroded and she lifted her hand to knock again, but before her knuckles hit the wood, the bolt snapped back and the door opened slightly. Tentatively she pushed the door open but no one was there. She entered and slid the bolt back in place.

Shan had the best accommodations the Temu had to offer. A vast suite unfolded before her with many rooms connecting to the large entry hall. At the center of the foyer stood a beautiful vase taller than a person. Daylight streamed through a skylight and reflected marvelously on the many iridescent glazes. Miranda paused to admire the vase but saw no possible function for the oversized container.

She called out to Shan. His euphonious voice answered from the room farthest down the hall. Miranda found him on a divan apparently doing nothing.

With genuine warmth Shan rose to greet her. “Miranda. How wonderful to see you. Last night, Dreibrand told me you felt much better.”

She nodded, suddenly at a loss for words as she reacquainted herself with Shan’s features. After not seeing a rys for a few weeks, his appearance was slightly shocking, but his black eyes and the white streaks in his black hair quickly became familiar again.

“May I?” Shan said, gesturing to her arm.

With her consent he held her cast and concentrated briefly. Miranda saw his magic faintly flicker in his eyes.

“You can tell your medicine woman that your bone is healed and the cast can come off anytime. That is, if she is interested in my opinion,” Shan said.

“I will make sure that she is,” Miranda responded happily.

“Now sit with me. What did you come to talk about?” Shan invited.

Miranda did not waste time expressing her concerns. “Shan, I saw these Kezanada that pursue you. They look very dangerous. Can they harm you?”

Shan shrugged. “I accept the possibility that they could succeed…but they would have to get lucky.”

“You have guards on your door, I see,” she noted.

“A prudent precaution. Not all Kezanada are tall bold warriors. They have other agents, more discreet in appearance and possessing skills in stealth and murder,” Shan explained.

“And what happened to the warriors I saw in Fata Nor? No one has seen them since,” Miranda said.

Shan answered, “They are in the countryside, listening to their spies and reassessing the situation. I believe they hoped to catch me on the open road. I expect them to make their next move when I journey to the Confederate Council.”

Miranda pursed her lips in thought. She intended to go the Confederate Council with Shan and the possibility of a Kezanada attack disturbed her.

She continued, “I am told these Kezanada work for hire. Who do you think has hired them?”

“Anybody and everybody,” Shan chuckled mirthlessly, picking up a large parchment from the low table in front of him. “The Kezanada Overlord may have made me his own project, but I suspect that Onja has directly hired him. I would bet that other people have purchased the services of the Kezanada for information about my location.”

Presenting the document to Miranda, Shan added brightly, “Have you seen the details of my bounty?”

Miranda glanced briefly at the parchment then looked to Shan.

Politely Shan explained it to her. “This is the seal of Jingten at the bottom. And here it says that if a tribal leader presents my actual severed head to Onja, then his tribe shall be excused the payment of five year’s tribute. Or if a private party or individual is so fortunate as to acquire my head, then the payment will be one million gold pieces.”

Miranda’s eyes widened at the figure, which sounded very large.

“Cheap bitch!” Shan grumbled. “Jingten holds perhaps the greatest treasure in the world. A million gold pieces is a trifle. Onja flatters herself sending this offer to Taischek. I know he would not betray me.”

Miranda contemplated the parchment and the details Shan said it contained. Even though Shan scoffed at the reward Onja offered for his head, Miranda believed that it would encourage more people than the Kezanada to seek his death. The rys’s jeopardy would increase with every day.

“Shan, let us go to Jingten now, before the snows. Before more enemies gather around. There is no reason to go to the Confederate Council. The tribes there might try to kill you. This is between you and Onja. You do not need to recruit allies. For my children, let us leave for Jingten now,” she pleaded.

Emotion showed on Shan’s face. He truly cared for her. Her desire to return to Jingten and fight inspired him, but he needed caution as well as courage.

Slowly Shan responded, “For your children I must wait. My mind and body must be completely ready when I face Onja again. In the Sabuto Domain I did things that I have never done before and I learned much. I explored aspects of my power that I had hoped to never use, but it opened my mind to new directions. I can kill and destroy, and I can do it without hesitation, but I must not forget that Onja has two thousands years more experience than me. I cannot afford to overestimate my powers. If I launch my attack on Onja prematurely, then we all shall perish. Me, you, Dreibrand, Taischek, all the people who trust me.”

The rys sighed heavily. “Miranda, know that I desperately want to go now. I wanted to strike at Onja when she put you on the glacier to die, but if I had done that I might have failed and you would be dead for certain, probably Dreibrand too. But I cannot allow my rage to provoke me into a foolish move. Defeating Onja must be a perfectly calculated act.”

Miranda buried her face in her hands, physically holding her grief inside.

“Then tell me how to help you if we must wait. This idleness will kill me. Command me, Shan. Tell me how to keep your enemies away from you,” she insisted.

Shan considered her request, uncertain how to reply. He wanted to use her, and he cherished her loyalty, but she had already suffered so much. Shan hated to put her in harm’s way, but he had accepted her offer to serve him.

He decided, “Miranda, I do not know if you can keep my enemies away, but you can help me turn people away from Onja’s side. The more humans that rebel, the weaker Onja will become, and the sooner I can strike her down. She draws confidence from her domination of others just like I draw confidence from the support of my friends.”

“Yes, of course. What must I do?” Miranda said eagerly.

“It may not be easy for you. I want you to bring your story to the people. I want people to see the young woman, who Onja has wronged, the mother of the children who are captives in Jingten. Then humans will see that it is not just for a rys they fight,” Shan explained. “The Temu Tribe is loyal to the King, but defying Jingten is very stressful for them, and out of fear, people might look for reasons to go against Taischek. But this can be kept to a minimum if Taischek and I act quickly. Already we are taking the rysmavda from the people. We cannot have agents of Jingten insisting Onja is a Goddess when we seek to destroy her.”

“Dreibrand told me the temples would be closed,” Miranda said.

“More than closed. The rysmavda, including Prime Rysmavda Arshen of Dengar Nor, were put in prison two days ago. All rysmavda in the Temu Domain should be locked up by now. Next week the King plans a spectacle in the city with the prisoners here. Most of the rysmavda are of the Temu Tribe, so Taischek will give them a chance to recant their belief that Onja is a Goddess and their role as priests. Those rysmavda from other tribes are being deported. I want you to come to this. You can tell people about your children and you can confront the rysmavda with the wickedness of Onja,” Shan said.

“What of the priests who do not give up their belief?” Miranda asked.

“They will be summarily executed,” Shan stated.

Miranda gasped lightly. Resisting the possibility, she said, “But they will all give up their beliefs, right?”

“Most will,” Shan assured her. “Taischek will not kill members of his own tribe without giving them ample opportunity to choose their people over Onja.”

“If some stay loyal to Onja, can’t they just be left in prison?” Miranda suggested.

“It would not send a strong enough message. We are trying to show other tribes that Onja is not a Goddess and that she cannot do anything if her rysmavda are removed from power,” Shan said heavily.

“It is so terrible,” Miranda murmured.

Leaning closer, Shan gently added, “You can help convince them to recant. Most of the rysmavda are not bad men. Being a priest is an occupation passed down through their family or they became a priest because it suited their skills. It is not wrong for them to believe in Onja’s power, because she has great magic, but they must see that they can no longer promote her as a Goddess who demands tribute.”

Miranda nodded, trying to comprehend everything Shan had said. It seemed to make sense, but it was hard to think about so many things at once—the loyalty of the Temu, the imprisonment of priests, the impression other tribes would receive.

“Shan, how will I do as you ask? I am not good with the language. I do not always know the words to use,” Miranda said.

“I will help you. But the harder part will be speaking in front of so many people. Most of the city will turn out. Have you ever been in front of so many people?” Shan inquired.

Miranda stiffened. She had not thought about it that way. The only time she had ever been in front of a crowd of people had been her slave auction in Ciniva, and that had only been a small crowd. She shuddered and sent away the terrifying memory.

“It frightens most people, but you can get used to it,” Shan said.

Thinking of her children, Miranda said, “I can do it.”

“If you get afraid, just look to me. I will be there to help you. You have a week to improve your language skills and I will help you practice. Now, tonight think about what you want to say, and we will go over it in the morning.” Shan instructed.

With a deep breath Miranda tried to picture herself in front of so many people, people who were actually listening to her. “Thank you for letting me help. This sounds so important, I hope I can do it right,” she said.

Shan started to smile reassuringly but his sculpted lips failed in the attempt and he turned away from her. Miranda felt that something troubled him, and she took one of his hands and asked what it was.

His slender blue fingers squeezed her hand lightly. “Before you devote yourself to this cause as my enemies gather, I would confess something to you,” he cautioned softly.

“What?” she whispered, apprehensive.

“I should have acted quicker to help you when you arrived in Jingten. I should have known Onja would do something terrible. I had no doubt that she meant to keep your children, but I thought I would have time to get you and the children out of Jingten. It is my fault you are separated from your children. I did nothing when I might have,” Shan said.

This statement caused no anger in Miranda, and she immediately tried to soothe Shan. “Do not blame yourself. Although I was afraid of Onja, I chose to stay that first night. Dreibrand tried to get me to leave, but Esseldan was sick and I thought it was best for him to have the medicine and be inside. You could not have convinced me to leave, if Dreibrand could not.”

“I could have tried. I should have tried. Instead, I wasted time sneaking off to talk with Dreibrand,” Shan lamented.

“It is easy to find mistakes in the past,” Miranda admonished. “If you want to blame yourself for Onja’s wickedness, then I forgive you. I know you did not want this to happen to me, and I do not take back my wish to serve you. Shan, you are good.”

Shan snorted. “I no longer can claim to be good,” he muttered.

“None of us are perfect,” Miranda said.

Shan seemed to resist this notion, but finally conceded, “True enough. You are kind to me, Miranda. Let me say that I am sorry the rys have committed this crime. I feel responsible.”

“Most of my life has been very unpleasant. I stopped blaming anyone but myself a long time ago,” Miranda explained.

Shan studied her, wondering how bad Miranda’s life had been. It surprised him that Onja’s cruelties compared to others in her life.

“Any help you give to me will put you in danger,” Shan warned.

“I am not afraid. I have already been tortured by Onja. Not much else worries me,” Miranda said.

Although he did not show it, Shan’s heart ached when she mentioned the abuse the Queen had inflicted on her. “Know that I will protect you with my magic if anyone tries to hurt you while you serve me,” Shan promised.

Miranda remembered his magic keeping her warm and alive when she neared death, and it gave her courage knowing he would continue to protect her.

“Now go get that cast off,” Shan suggested pleasantly.

Miranda hugged him and Shan told her to come back early the next morning.

That night Miranda lay awake thinking about what Shan had assigned her. She wondered if she really could inspire people to fight a war like Shan said. She thought about how strange it was that she had run away from war in Droxy only to find herself plotting a war now. Although she had no experience in such complicated matters, she resolved to learn. Her heart steeled itself for the violence ahead.

With the mysterious visitors hidden from view, the Temu returned to their preparations for the evening’s celebration. In a recently harvested field many tables and benches were set up and laden with a bountiful variety of foods. Several pigs roasted nearby along with a whole steer and numerous kegs of beer and wine rolled out of storage, some of which got tapped ahead of schedule. Musicians tuned their instruments, and women gathered flowers to adorn their hair.

Inside the royal tent King Taischek listened to Dreibrand describe his distant homeland. Dreibrand spoke of his military career as if it had come to a normal completion. He regretted the necessity of the deceit, but he knew he could not forge a new name in a new land by admitting to his rash abandonment of his duty.

Instinctively, Taischek sensed the omissions in his guest’s story but forgave them, understanding a man that crossed the world would leave some things behind. And Shan seemed to sanction the young man, and that counted for much with Taischek.

“And Queen Onja has no say in this Atrophane Empire?” Taischek pressed, requiring clarification on this detail because it shook his perception of the world’s power structure.

Dreibrand nodded emphatically. “It is true, King Taischek. Onja is not known in the east.”

“It is good to know not all men have to tolerate her,” concluded the King.

Xander spoke. “May I see your sword?”

“Certainly,” Dreibrand said and unbuckled his swordbelt. He eased the blade partway out of the scabbard and handed the weapon over to the Temu General.

Taischek and Xander bent over the sharp heavy blade, admiring the workmanship in their own language. Although the King possessed many fine weapons, this sword did not lack in appeal. When Taischek returned the sword, he tapped Dreibrand’s armor, impressed by the metal plate.

“You must be a wealthy man in your world,” Taischek commented.

“No King,” Dreibrand said. “My gear may be of high quality, but it is all I own. I am not a wealthy man, especially in my country.”

“A poor man generally would not possess such a beautiful woman,” Xander noted in the Temu language.

By the responding expression on Taischek’s face, Dreibrand wondered what the General had said. Dreibrand glanced at Shan, hoping the rys would interpret if it had been important, but Shan was renowned for his tact.

Clearing his throat, Taischek said, “And where is your woman from? Is it the custom of your people to go exploring the Wilderness with a woman?”

“Her name is Miranda,” Dreibrand said while trying to conceal his discomfort. He worried information about Miranda might jeopardize his carefully edited story. His circumstances did look strange.

She knows the truth. I should have told her what not to talk about. Where is she? I need to see her, he thought.

“And what is her story?” the King prompted with as much patience as a king could offer.

“King Taischek, you declared that this day was for pleasure, and Miranda’s story is not a happy one—and perhaps hers to tell,” Dreibrand responded. When he actually thought about it, he did not know much about her.

Taischek chuckled at the way Dreibrand sidestepped the question. “Thank you for obeying my edict. Which reminds me, we should start the festivities. A fine feast and much drinking await us.”

Shan said, “If you would allow Dreibrand and me to wash up, we will join you shortly.”

Standing, Taischek summoned a servant and ordered a wash basin. “When you are ready, come out and sit with us,” Taischek instructed as he exited with Xander.

For the sake of privacy, Dreibrand used Miranda’s language. “Taischek showed little desire to talk about your business,” he commented.

Wiping his hands, Shan said, “Oh, he has his party, like he said. Taischek guesses what I will ask him, and he does not like it.”

“Then why are you so sure he will support you?” Dreibrand worried.

“He already agreed to support me against Onja whenever I asked, just as you have done,” the rys explained.

“You saved him too,” Dreibrand surmised and wondered if other people owed Shan allegiance.

Shan nodded. “I saved him from worse than a dungeon. In his youth Taischek was a hostage in the royal household of the Sabuto Tribe as part of a peace agreement with the Temu. But these tribes are traditional rivals and hostilities started after a season or two. I went to the Sabuto when the peace ended, but they had already tortured Taischek and meant to burn him alive, but I could not see the boy die. I cut him free of the stake before the flames went too far. Still, he was terribly injured and did not walk for a year. But he was young and grew to be a strong man.”

The gruesome story contrasted with the jovial king, but Dreibrand now understood better Taischek’s zest for life.

Before they left the tent, Dreibrand asked quietly, “What did the General say when Taischek gave him that look?”

“Nothing,” Shan said breezily.

“Come on, Shan,” Dreibrand urged.

“Really, it was nothing,” Shan insisted. “He just did not think you were poor.”

Dreibrand frowned but he dropped the subject. It probably was nothing, and he admitted that he often became annoyed when he did not know what was being said.

They exited the tent and found themselves in a festive atmosphere. Music played and torches were being lit in the approaching dusk. Although Dreibrand had been eager to start Shan’s business, he decided to follow Taischek’s order and enjoy himself.

While walking through the crowd, Dreibrand scanned over the heads of people trying to spot Miranda. Apparently a male/female segregation organized the seating with a broad length of field separating the ladies’ tables from the men’s tables. He strayed toward the women’s section but Shan grabbed his elbow and steered him back.

“Men and women do not mix at Temu social gatherings,” Shan informed him.

“I thought you said they threw good parties,” Dreibrand grumbled, still trying to locate Miranda.

Shan hushed him because they had reached Taischek’s table. Two seats had been saved to the right of the King, and Shan and Dreibrand sat in the honored place. Immediately servants poured wine for the newly arrived guests, while a musical performance in front of the table absorbed Taischek. When the harps and flutes concluded their rousing tune, Taischek applauded exuberantly, delighting his loyal musicians.

A clear note from a horn sounded, and the musicians withdrew, clearing the field before the King. An empty table in the women’s area was across from the King’s table and the horn signaled the entrance of the Temu Queen and her entourage.

“Vua is always late,” complained Taischek as he stood up.

All the men rose as Queen Vua flowed across the grass, leading her co-wives and daughters. Wreaths of flowers crowned all the women in the entourage, and they all wore fluttering red robes over soft white gowns. The spectacle of their beauty hushed the men respectfully as the King and Queen bowed to each other. With the simple formality completed, everyone sat down.

Beside the plump gray-haired Queen, Dreibrand finally saw Miranda. Dressed like the other women, her lovely raiment impressed him. She kept her bandaged arm hidden in the folds of her red robe, but in the flattering gown and crowned with flowers, she was easily the center of attention. Dreibrand had often dreamed of her adorned in fine clothes and the result pleased him greatly. Miranda looked directly at Dreibrand, and he hated the distance between them.

“What a treasure you have brought us from the east,” declared King Taischek after he saw Miranda.

“Eyes of pure jade,” Xander interjected fondly in the Temu language. “Sire, you should see her up close. She is a wonder.”

“Be careful of your manners, Xander,” warned the King softly and he checked to see if Dreibrand had understood.

Servants dished out the main courses of tender and savory meats and more wine flowed into cups. Taischek dug into his feast with abandon and bade the musicians to play again.

Between mouthfuls of food, the King said, “It is good to have you back, Shan. You have stayed away too long. And your visit gave me a wonderful opportunity to piss off Nebeck. I gave you his seat and put the rysmavda at that table.”

He pointed to an empty table behind him. “I don’t think they are going to come,” Taischek said with insincere disappointment.

“It will probably take Nebeck a day to work up his courage to actually confront me. He fears my presence will soil him in Onja’s eyes,” Shan said.

“He’d soil his presence in Onja’s eyes,” Taischek joked.

Shan ate sparingly, like any rys, and listened with pleasure to the reports of the Temu King. With increasing intoxication Taischek described every thing that had happened to him since Shan’s last visit. The Temu royal household had been blessed with two more daughters and one more son.

“Two more daughters!” Shan exclaimed. “Every man in the Confederation will end up married to a Temu.”

Taischek laughed and drained another goblet of wine. “I hope so. The other tribes will wish I made war on them instead of sending my daughters. Except the Sabuto scum. They get only my sword.”

Lifting his right hand, Taischek showed off a large emerald ring on his thumb. “Look at that Shan. I took that rock from the Sabuto last year and had my jeweler make this ring over the winter. He did a good job.”

Shan admired the wondrous green gem. The lands of the Sabuto Tribe possessed the best jewel mines.

An uncharacteristic grin broke Shan’s blue face as he said, “Shall you be wearing this to Jingten?”

Such a question made even in jest actually startled Taischek. With a frown the King withdrew the sparkling hand.

Shan tapped Dreibrand on the shoulder and said, “You should see our great King Taischek when he pays his tribute to Onja. He wears barely more than a hermit’s rag and only brings his skinny wives.”

Taischek now had to chuckle at the duplicity he shared with Shan. The King had put his act of poverty on for so long, he had almost taken offense when Shan joked about it.

“I do what I must so that the Temu prosper,” Taischek said humbly.

Dreibrand eased away his finished plate and decided to enter the conversation. “King Taischek, you say you go to war in three days against the Sabuto Tribe. I would like to join you.”

“Oh really?” Taischek rumbled. He shoved some pork into his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully.

“Looking for work are you, Dreibrand Veta?” the King finally determined. “What kind of pay do you think you are worth?”

Dreibrand smiled, encouraged by the question. He answered, “I think that I am worth quite a bit. But for now all I ask is that the Temu provide Miranda refuge. She has injuries and needs a home to rest in.”

The King cast a concerned look in Miranda’s direction. “She looks healthy to me,” he said gruffly.

“Onja hurt her more than it shows,” Shan explained softly.

“Onja hurt her…” the King trailed off. He did not want to know tonight. This news had to be connected to Shan’s business, which he wanted to live without for one more merry night.

Shan continued, “But Dreibrand does not need to work for her refuge. I ask this of you Taischek, as a favor.”

“This is my concern, Shan,” Dreibrand insisted.

Taischek studied the young man. He respected him for wanting to take care of his woman.

And if he wants to work for so little, I should defer to his pride, Taischek thought, but he said, “Of course she can stay. I would never turn out an injured woman. Now what pay do you want, Dreibrand?”

“Her safety is all that I require,” Dreibrand answered. “You may reward my efforts as you see fit, King Taischek.”

Taischek laughed. “He IS brave.” Nudging Xander with an elbow, he said, “What do you think, General? Should I take on this mercenary?”

“If he’s worthy, I have no objession,” Xander slurred.

“Yes, yes, of course. We will see to that,” the King agreed. “I would be glad to have you along, Dreibrand. Look at you! You will scare the balls off the Sabuto. They will think you are some rys demon.”

Dreibrand was not sure if the last comment was a compliment, but he was glad to have a king to fight for.

“But you must prove yourself, man from Atrophane,” Taischek added. He turned to Xander and gave instructions in the Temu language.

Obediently, Xander rose but swayed drunkenly. Remembering that he was a general, he plopped back into his seat and gave the orders to someone else.

Wary of the methods by which he would prove himself, Dreibrand looked questioningly at Shan. The rys sipped his wine and offered no details.

Finally, Dreibrand asked, “What will I have to do?”

Shan replied breezily, “Do not worry. They are not planning to kill you.”

Dreibrand frowned at the statement, but he did not have time to contemplate the meaning because several Temu warriors arrived behind him.

“Remove your armor and weapon,” a Temu commanded in the common tongue.

Reluctantly, Dreibrand complied. He would have to follow through on what he had started.

Across the field, Miranda noticed Dreibrand giving his gear to the warriors, and she feared the Temu had turned against them.

“What is happening?” she cried, looking at her hostess the Queen.

“It looks like our warriors wish to test him,” Vua replied, but then she saw her guest’s apprehension and added, “This will be fun.”

Miranda wanted to be reassured by the comment, but it looked like Dreibrand was going to fight someone. The servants and musicians cleared a wide space between the tables of the King and Queen, and the rest of the Temu, murmuring with excitement, crowded around on all sides. Warriors began lining up in front of the crowd, and they led Dreibrand into the ring. He was given a quarterstaff, and Miranda watched him test its weight and balance.

Now the Temu challenger came forward. His armor was also removed, and he wielded a quarterstaff. Grinning broadly and enjoying the cheers from his friends, the young warrior took off his shirt to display his supple physique. He bowed to an unmarried section of ladies, who appreciated his attention, and then held his staff high and pranced before the whole crowd.

Dreibrand examined the situation and relaxed. His test appeared to be a sporting competition on fair terms. Eyeing his opponent, he deemed the youth fast and clever, but perhaps overly proud to represent his tribe. With a confident grin, Dreibrand strode to the center of the impromptu arena and felt his heart quicken with excitement.

At this point King Taischek climbed on top of his table and addressed his tribe in the common tongue for the sake of his guests.

“Great Temu, I introduce Dreibrand Veta. He comes from a land called Atrophane in the distant east. He has asked for the honor of serving me and riding with Temu warriors. Now for all to see, the warriors shall test him and judge his worth.”

The Temu cheered, happy with the quality of the spectacle. Dreibrand took the opportunity to approach Miranda and regarded his opponent casually while he spoke to her.

“You look beautiful,” he whispered to her.

She had to smile, but her concern could not be suppressed. “Dreibrand! This looks dangerous.”

“I can handle him,” he answered as if her worry was absurd.

Drums began to pulse in a low rhythm to herald the combat. Dreibrand left her table and faced his opponent. Because it was their test Dreibrand decided to let the warrior make the first move. They circled each other cautiously and the torchlight gleamed on the metal tips of their staves.

“Are you finished saying goodbye to your woman?” the warrior taunted.

With the practiced superiority of an Atrophaney commander, Dreibrand said, “Actually, I told her you were nothing to worry about.”

The fight started.

With a battle cry the Temu planted his quarterstaff in the ground and vaulted into the air. Dreibrand blocked too high and too late and the man’s feet slammed into his stomach. The unexpected blow knocked Dreibrand onto the field. The Temu landed and swung his staff, but Dreibrand managed to roll aside from the strike and swing his own staff. The hard wood snapped across both shins of the warrior. Springing to his feet, Dreibrand got in another good blow across the jaw. The Temu now took his turn hitting the dirt, where he received a few more whacks to the ribs and thighs before he could raise his staff to block the relentless attack.

Taischek frowned and accepted that the young warrior was losing. The King signaled to another warrior, who gladly jumped into the ring. This tribal member grinned with eagerness to avenge his younger cousin, and a whip uncoiled from his expert hand.

Pleased by the contest’s approaching conclusion, Dreibrand did not see his new opponent. The whip cracked, and his staff flew from unsuspecting hands. He looked at his empty palms with puzzlement, but the urgency of battle could not allow him to ponder the rude disappearance of the weapon. Dreibrand whirled and met the gaze of his new attacker and saw that his staff had sailed far out of reach. The whip circled over the Temu’s head, winding for another strike.

Dreibrand accepted that he would have to take another lick and charged the warrior. The whip sang and wrapped around his ankles this time. His boots protected him from the whip’s bite, and he lunged for the warrior before the whip jerked his feet away. Tackling his opponent, Dreibrand was already punching him as he hit the ground. The Temu had to release the whip to defend his face with both hands, pushing and slapping and pulling hair.

Dreibrand grimaced through his efforts, but he kept the warrior pinned. With a brutal grasp Dreibrand seized his throat and began to slam the warrior’s head into the ground repeatedly.

As the choking abuse subdued the man, Dreibrand glanced back at his first opponent, who was rising painfully to resume the fight. Giving the second opponent’s head one more good bounce, Dreibrand kicked free of the tangling whip and scrambled after his distant quarterstaff. He retrieved his weapon and struck the whip-bearing warrior in the back of the head just as he sat up. The first warrior engaged Dreibrand again, and their staves cracked against each other furiously. Again Dreibrand beat him back.

Taischek gestured to a third warrior to join the fight. This time a glance from the young warrior warned Dreibrand that another attacker approached from behind, and he turned just in time to block the staff of the third warrior. Struggling between two opponents, Dreibrand recalled the day Hydax and Gennor had captured him, and the sting of that defeat filled him with a furious determination. The old familiar battle rage flowed through his veins, and he remembered the Dreibrand Veta that could kill a man defending his home and whose mercy had been slavery.

Dreibrand kept moving to prevent being pinned between two warriors. His senses were keen with adrenaline, and with his skill he blocked both of their attacks, and the metal-tipped ends of his staff danced inside their defenses.

The youngest Temu got some ribs cracked and sank to one knee. Without hesitation Dreibrand finished the original opponent with a blow upside the head that knocked him out. This victory had a price, and the third and freshest warrior hit Dreibrand in the head. His brow split and bleeding, Dreibrand staggered back in significant pain.

Now the warrior with the whip had recovered enough to regain his feet, and the whip hissed through the air. The heartless leather danced across Dreibrand’s back and he gasped. He continued to parry the attacks from the third warrior and the whip cut his flesh again. Dreibrand decided he really disliked the Temu with the whip and at any cost that man had to go. Roaring angrily, Dreibrand attacked his current opponent with enough force to drive him back, and then he turned to assault the whip-wielding warrior. The lash flew around his feet again, but Dreibrand swung his staff like a club and hit the hand holding the whip. The offending weapon slid from broken fingers. Dreibrand jumped closer and beat him down with several blows.

The third warrior leaped on Dreibrand’s back and got his staff under his chin. Dreibrand had to drop his own weapon to grab the choking pole. The Temu pulled him backward, bending him uncomfortably. Dripping blood and sweat from his face, Dreibrand hauled forward and raised the Temu slightly off his feet.

They struggled back and forth, entering a stalemate. Dreibrand could prevent himself from being choked but could not remove the warrior.

“Hold!” cried Taischek, deciding things had gone far enough.

The Temu warrior released Dreibrand. Turning to face his opponent, Dreibrand rested a moment and then sucker punched the Temu. The men resumed their fight, both grasping the remaining staff and swinging fists at each other. Taischek jumped down from his table and broke them up himself, actually laughing.

“Do we want Dreibrand Veta on our side, Temu?” the King bellowed.

The warriors roared with unanimous approval. The foreigner was worthy.

With a sigh of relief Miranda sat back. She hated seeing him get hurt but his skill and strength had thrilled her. To have the devotion of such a man was lucky, and Miranda wished she could go to him. However, his place tonight was with the Temu men, who now introduced themselves individually to Dreibrand and welcomed him into their warrior brotherhood. Miranda saw King Taischek guide his guest back to his table.

With the trial of combat over, Miranda realized her head throbbed. Fatigued and uncomfortable, she asked the Queen to excuse her. Vua agreed readily, knowing of Miranda’s injuries, and summoned a servant to escort her guest back to the guesthouse.

Even with a throng of warriors around him, Dreibrand noticed Miranda’s departure, but he was clearly expected to stay at the party. He returned to his seat, and Shan had a towel ready to clean his forehead.

“You fought very well,” Shan complimented as he dabbed his friend’s swollen cut.

“If I am not shot with a sho dart, I can be dangerous. How is my back?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan glanced at the welts bleeding through the fabric and said, “You needed a new shirt anyway.”

Dreibrand chuckled at Shan’s annoying answer. He watched the injured Temu warriors being helped away by their comrades, and it soothed his stinging back.

“Get him some wine, Shan!” King Taischek barked.

“I thought I would bandage his head first,” Shan said.

“Ah, it’s nothing for a strong warrior like him. Let’s drink!” Taischek poured Dreibrand a goblet.

Thirsty from his ordeal, Dreibrand gratefully quaffed the wine, refilled his cup and toasted the King.

“Good job, Atrophane warrior,” Taischek said. “Now save your battle lust for the Sabuto and we shall be good friends. Shan, thank you for bringing him to me.”

Shan inclined his head in acceptance of the gratitude.

Taischek continued, “I have just the thing that will make your head feel better, Dreibrand.” The King removed a pouch from his vest pocket. Out of it he retrieved a pipe and a bundle of dried plant material.

Shan saw this and shared a laugh with the King.

“What is that?” Dreibrand asked, truly intrigued.

“Don’t they smoke in your great eastern empire?” Taischek asked contemptuously.

“Smoke?” Dreibrand was honestly baffled.

His confusion made the King laugh harder and comment, “No wonder you left home. Xander, this man does not even…” Taischek stopped when he realized the General was unconscious. Quietly he added, “Xander is always the first to go.”

With genuine fascination, Dreibrand watched the King light the filled pipe and inhale the smoke. Completely accustomed to the activity, Taischek did not cough and exhaled with a slow sigh. He handed the pipe to Shan, who puffed happily.

“This will shut up our smart rys friend,” Taischek said. “He’ll think he is five hasas away.”

“Watching you drink is not the only thing that amuses me,” Shan countered while he handed the pipe to an empty area near Dreibrand.

“You probably can’t find your butt already,” Taischek joked, but Shan ignored him easily.

Now Dreibrand received the pipe and regarded it curiously, unsure how to proceed.

“Don’t let it go out,” Taischek ordered.

Curiosity and an aching skull made Dreibrand comply. His virgin lungs protested with much hacking and coughing, which entertained everybody thoroughly. Once his coughing subsided, Dreibrand gulped down the rest of his wine. Despite his burning chest, he began to feel an immediate pleasantness seep through his system. He nodded appreciatively, noticing the sweet smell of the smoke. His subsequent turns with the pipe caused him no discomfort, and his pain drifted away. He felt absolutely wonderful and thanked Taischek exuberantly with a slight slur.

Taischek lovingly tucked his pipe away and said, “Just a little Temu medicine.”

Shan stood and without a word wandered off.

The King chuckled and explained, “It affects Shan more than us. Sends him into some rys dreamland or something.”

This was interesting, but Dreibrand felt too good at the moment to give any thought to where Shan had gone. Dreibrand found himself sharing many toasts with the Temu King and the surrounding warriors. He had a wonderful time and consumed much more wine than was his habit. Despite repeatedly slipping into his native language, he made a few friends and, with a mildly comprehensible speech, personally forgave the warrior who had split his head. Taischek rallied his men late into the night, and being the true king of his tribe, saw them all pass out first.

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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.