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Fantasy fiction fans of daring heroes and ruthless villains locked in rivalries to rule the world are invited to read Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I by Tracy Falbe.
About the fantasy novel: An expanding empire reaches the limits of its known world and keeps pushing. The Wilderness beyond is dominated by the rys, a magical race whose lives span centuries and powers include heat spells, sleepiness spells, telekinesis, spirit projection, remote viewing, mindreading, and, for the most powerful, the ability to control the souls of the dead. The rys Queen Onja has ruled her rys for over two thousand years, and she forces the Tribes of the Western Kingdoms to worship her as their Goddess.
But great age has finally started to weaken her, and her long-suffering rival, Shan, will seize a slim opportunity to defy her. Start reading Chapter 1 In the Service of the Empire.
My fantasy series took 6 years to write and it was a labor of love. Bringing my fantasy fiction to readers around the world has been very gratifying, and the positive comments from readers are especially appreciated.
Start reading this fantasy novel.
Kwan reflected that it was good to see humans, even at a distance. From the rooftop terrace of the building that he had been lodged in the night before, he watched who he presumed were the Kezanada depart the city. The horsemen rushed away on the west road, disappearing into the green coniferous folds of the Jingten Valley. The helmeted warriors looked dangerous and fearless behind their brightly clad leader, and Kwan wondered if they were part of a vast force similar to the Horde. He very much wanted to learn more about them, but rys soldiers had not permitted the Atrophane to stray far from the three buildings they had been allotted. Kwan guessed that Onja did not want them meeting the other humans.
He wondered if the Kezanada had left Jingten at such a high rate of speed because Onja had given them some urgent assignment or because they wanted distance between themselves and the Queen.
Probably both, Kwan concluded. If Onja has such mercenaries already in her service, why does she keep us?
With growing frustration Kwan lifted his eyes to the awesome peaks encircling the hidden valley. Normally he would have enjoyed the beauty of the towering fortresses of natural wonder, but the Rysamand looked like a prison now. The mysterious mountains looming out of the Wilderness had beckoned him with a thousand promises of adventure but now they enslaved him.
Kwan went inside and retreated to his private room. The rys had provided him with a nice house, comfortably furnished, and two tribute warehouses across the street had been outfitted as barracks for his soldiers. When he had been camped in the forest, he had been content to bide his time and learn about the rys, but now that he was inside the city, he truly felt like a prisoner.
With the freedom of his expeditionary force gone, Kwan reconsidered his decisions. When he had been in the Wilderness, the Deamedron had frightened him. Onja had said she could release the wraiths to kill upon the land, and Taf Ila had confirmed this. Of course, the rys could be lying to him, but Kwan believed in the threat of the Deamedron. If the demented spirits really could be released, it explained the emptiness of the Wilderness. What else could have prevented people from occupying the land? People lived in places less hospitable than the bountiful Wilderness. And the purportedly lethal power of the Deamedron could explain the mass deaths at the ruins.
Kwan feared to go east. If he took his soldiers and fled back the way he had come, the wretched wraiths could be sent to destroy him. But the road west went to a land where humans lived. Kwan contemplated gathering his men and making a break to the west. If he fled west, Onja would have to bring her Deamedron through the Jingten Valley, and he would gamble that she would not or could not do that.
He realized Onja might have another type of magic to use against him. She might enter his mind again and control him that way, or she could send her rys soldiers to stop him. That he feared the least. His Atrophane were veteran fighters and he guessed that the rys would have little stomach for fighting.
The Lord General sighed heavily, knowing he plotted his escape without enough information. He knew the humans in the west were the subjects of Onja and therefore he had to assume they would be hostile. He could not fight an entire civilization with five hundred men. Yet, Onja had her mysterious enemy in the west. If he could find this enemy, he might find sanctuary. When Kwan thought it through, his plan was clearly hopeless, even futile, but the indignity of being cloistered in Jingten awaiting Onja’s whim grated on his soul.
I am Atrophane. I can serve no foreign queen, he thought.
His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Drawing his steel and deploying his armies had always been the answer in the past, so why did he doubt himself now? Did the new element of magic frighten him so much he would become as meek as the most servile commoner? Recognizing his fear was painful, and Kwan longed for his courage to return.
Reaching into a pouch that dangled from his swordbelt, Kwan removed the warding crystal. The blue light locked within the glassy sphere immediately intrigued him, as it always did, and he stared at it for a long time. He knew Onja could communicate with him through it, forcing her thoughts upon the fabric of his mind.
Does she do it right now? Does she spy on me? Does she make me think only of my fear?
Before Onja could potentially reply to any of his questions, Kwan hurled the orb at the window. It shattered a pane and flew into the street, rolling over the cobbles until it came to rest.
“Read that thought, Onja,” he growled.
When the orb had crashed through the glass, Kwan had felt liberated, but the joy quickly faded. He had hoped that ridding himself of the magical device would free him from its sick spell, but perhaps more than self doubt bound him to Jingten.
The breaking glass had been heard and hurried steps banged up the stairs to Kwan’s chamber.
“Lord Kwan,” Sandin called outside his door.
Sandin opened the door and stepped inside. A few soldiers stood behind him in the hall.
Seeing the broken window, he asked, “My Lord, did someone throw a rock at your window?”
“No. I did it,” Kwan replied calmly. “There is no danger. You may send the men away.”
Kwan invited Sandin to sit with him at a small table.
Leaning in to a conspiratorial distance, Kwan said, “I threw out the crystal orb. I thought you might like to hear that, Lieutenant Sandin.”
The news brightened Sandin considerably. “Excellent, my Lord.”
“But it will take more than tossing away a charm to free us of Onja’s magic,” Kwan muttered.
“It is a good start,” Sandin said.
“What do you think of leaving? Heading farther west?” Kwan whispered.
Sandin nodded. “We are all with you, my Lord. But why west?”
Kwan hesitated. His instincts nagged him to stop having this conversation. “In the east are the Deamedron. By Golan, I believe that threat is real. You did not see them up close like I did. We cannot go that way,” he replied.
Sandin recognized the conviction in his commander’s voice and knew he could not convince Kwan to go east. It was enough that Kwan had decided to take control of their situation. To Sandin, any direction was better than staying in Jingten with the creepy rys, but he would not have chosen to put the Rysamand between himself and Atrophane.
“We could all die,” Kwan warned.
“We should go—even if we die,” Sandin decided. “We are Atrophane and we should not serve this foreign Queen.”
“Good. Quietly ready the men. We will depart in the night,” ordered Kwan.
The decision to act renewed his self esteem. Whatever the danger, he could no longer respect himself if he did not try to escape.
That afternoon while his squire fitted a board over the missing windowpane, Kwan dozed on his bed. Before he returned to the hard outdoors, he intended to enjoy the comforts of Jingten for a few more hours.
“Lord Kwan!” Jesse called sharply.
When Kwan opened his eyes and heard the rumble of many hooves on the cobbled street below, he had an overwhelming sense of dread.
“My armor,” he said simply, putting his feet on the floor.
Kwan watched outside while Jesse strapped his chestplate in place. Rys soldiers on their fine white horses filled the street, and Taf Ila entered the house followed by many rys soldiers. A brief disturbance occurred on the first floor. Shouting reverberated in the stairwell, but the noise was soon replaced by the soft tread of suede boots on the floorboards.
As a surprise courtesy, a knock sounded on the door. Kwan faced the door and waved his squire aside. The door banged open to reveal a grim Taf Ila.
“Hello, Taf Ila,” Kwan said with mock pleasantness.
“Queen Onja summons you to the Keep,” Taf Ila announced gruffly, stepping forward.
Kwan asked, “Why so many soldiers? You only had to tell me to come. We are friends.”
Six rys flowed into the room with Taf Ila and surrounded Kwan impatiently.
Leaning close to the human’s ear, Taf Ila whispered, “Kwan, my friendship will not help you.”
Kwan studied the face of the one rys with whom he had fostered a relationship. He sensed no malice from Taf Ila. A cry from the squire redirected Kwan’s attention. The rys had seized the youthful Atrophane.
“Stop!” Kwan shouted. “Queen Onja could have no business with my servant.”
“Queen Onja has business with us all,” Taf Ila muttered bitterly.
The boy panicked in the grasp of the two rys, but their slender hands were strong and the squire could not get away.
“Do not fight us. None of us have any wish to harm you,” Taf Ila stated.
“Relax Jesse. I will protect you,” Kwan bade his squire.
Calmed by his lord’s words, Jesse stopped resisting and the rys released him. Nervously the squire fell into place behind Kwan. Downstairs, many Atrophane soldiers stood behind lines of rys soldiers. A few Atrophane soldiers were crumpled at the feet of the rys and Sandin was among those on the floor.
Taf Ila put a quick hand on Kwan’s arm before the Lord General’s hot words rushed out. “They are unharmed and will recover,” Taf Ila said.
As Kwan was escorted out, he glimpsed the anguish in Sandin’s gray eyes. Never before had Kwan seen defeat on the face of an Atrophane and the shame he felt almost made him stumble on the steps.
I must get them out of this cursed trap, he thought.
Kwan had the indignity of walking through the streets while the rys rode around him, but he realized he would be lucky if that was the worst that happened. The fact that the rys were bringing his squire to the Keep also disturbed Kwan, who recognized it as a bad sign.
Taf Ila and a dozen soldiers ushered Kwan and his squire into the Keep, forcing a brisk pace. Apparently Onja wanted to see him with all immediacy.
Before they entered the throne room, Taf Ila turned and whispered urgently, “She is the ruler of us all, Kwan. You must believe that. I tell you this as a friend.”
The ominous words did little to encourage Kwan, but at least Taf Ila had revealed himself as a friend. Kwan understood that the rys captain would not go against his Queen’s wishes but it was good to know that Taf Ila was not an evil being.
When the two Atrophane men were presented before the dais, the white-maned Queen pointedly looked away. After announcing Kwan, Taf Ila and the other rys stepped aside. In the sudden absence of the surrounding rys, Kwan felt exposed before the Queen, and he noticed Jesse edge a small step closer.
Still looking away, Onja rumbled, “Instruct them to kneel.”
Taf Ila relayed the order, knowing that it stung this human’s pride. With an insincere posture, Kwan complied. He had only kneeled to the Darmar before and the act felt strange. Jesse, who was much more accustomed to kneeling, made a better display of humility.
“All humans show me this respect,” Onja said, turning her hot gaze on Kwan. A blue glow consumed her black eyes and Kwan shuddered when he looked upon her powerful visage.
“You have been thinking of leaving Jingten,” Onja said. Her voice bore no accusatory tone. She simply stated fact. “You dislike serving in Jingten so much you are willing to risk running west into lands unknown to you. You hope that you could slip away and outrun the reach of my magic.”
Kwan stared at her blankly, remaining silent.
“Admit this!” Onja shouted.
“They are only thoughts,” he explained lamely.
“You told your officer to prepare your men to leave,” noted the Queen.
Overwhelmed, Kwan looked down at the smooth floor. His reflection in the glossy marble had no advice to offer. He had no chance of convincing the Queen of his innocence. The details Onja knew were staggering.
Onja chuckled at his discomfort. “I do not need the warding crystal to know your mind. It protected you from the Deamedron and it helps me to communicate with you, but it is hardly necessary. I can see anybody anywhere.”
Kwan made no reply and wondered what would happen next.
“Have you forgotten our agreement? You must stay here until spring in my service in exchange for my clemency. All of you deserve death for invading my realm.” Onja paused, hoping Kwan would respond, but he suffered her lecture patiently. “Why do you plot to leave my service? I ask so very little of you, and I treat you so well. You have all been given good food, good shelter.”
Kwan had to concede that point. “Yes Queen Onja, you have been generous.”
Indignantly Onja said, “And yet you still wish to run away? Your ignorance made you bold, Kwan. You hoped that my magic was not enough to stop you. You were very wrong. Your punishment would have started the instant you passed outside the city. I would not even have to send one soldier after you.” She pointed a white-nailed finger at Jesse and cried, “My mind sees everywhere and my hand touches everything!”
Jesse shrieked in pain. He attempted to run away but fell, clutching at his shins where a heat spell burned his legs.
“Stop! Stop hurting him,” Kwan begged. He jumped up and reached for his sword, but Onja swung out her other hand and halted any offensive the Lord General might have launched. His body froze and no longer obeyed the commands of his brain. Sweat instantly wetted Kwan’s forehead as he struggled against the paralysis but he only succeeded in knocking himself to the floor.
Onja intensified her spell toward the squire, making the boy scream as the heat began to blister his limbs. Pleased with how the lesson proceeded, Onja came down from her throne. Kwan had never been so close to her before. The long centuries had rounded and softened her once perfect rys features, but she still would have been beautiful if her soul had not been utterly wicked. The ancient being assailed Kwan with such cold malice that he knew it had been folly to attempt a simple escape. He would have to be a hundred times more clever to elude this sorceress, who could hear a whisper across the city.
Jesse screamed as he writhed in increasing pain.
“Promise me you will serve in Jingten and his suffering will stop,” Onja said.
Kwan looked at his poor squire but he hesitated to promise.
“You have forced me to extract this pledge from you. My proposal was fair and generous but you spurned it. I can make all of your men suffer this way,” Onja warned. “Now promise to serve Jingten and serve well.”
The torment of the squire increased and the horror of his cries shattered Kwan’s resistance.
“He will burn away before your eyes. I will cook him!” Onja shrieked.
Kwan relented. He had to. “Yes, I promise. We will defend Jingten. We will serve you, Queen Onja,” he gasped.
Throwing up her hands, Onja ended her spell and the invisible fire left Jesse’s body. Free of the clutching paralysis, Kwan went instantly to the side of his squire. Jesse had lapsed into shock from the torture, and Kwan lifted his head into his arms. The fabric of the squire’s pants had blackened from the heat and Kwan dreaded to know what terrible mess Onja had made of the boy’s legs.
“Oh lad, I am so sorry,” he murmured in Atrophaney. A helpless rage swelled inside him, sickening his mind.
“Take heart, Kwan,” Onja said. “The demonstration on the boy has spared all of your men a worse fate. Furthermore, I will not hold today’s insubordination against you. I knew this lesson would be necessary. My original proposal remains. Obey me and you will see your homeland again.”
The self control Kwan exercised at the moment was perhaps the greatest act of will in his life. The pride of his soul demanded he take his sword and lash out at the Queen, who stood so nearby. He could see the softness of her blue flesh that appeared so very mortal, but Kwan believed he could not win. He knew his sword remained at his side only as a bitter temptation, an added detail to aid in his torment. Onja left her victim armed because she was completely in command. Her painful magic could defend her quicker than a human’s violent outburst.
Miserably Kwan held his poor squire who had been punished for his master’s decision. Attacking Onja would not help Jesse, and Kwan accepted that he had to try and save the boy’s life.
Satisfied that her new Atrophaney subject had been sufficiently enlightened on his place in Jingten, Onja returned to her throne. She paused to enjoy the scene of the devastated Lord General holding the innocent young man.
“Taf Ila, get them out of here,” she ordered.
Relieved that he no longer had to stand by helplessly, Taf Ila eagerly complied. The rys soldiers, who had rushed the humans to face their cruel Queen, now gently lifted the damaged squire who whimpered fitfully.
A wagon conveyed the grievously injured squire back to Kwan’s new residence, and Taf Ila summoned a physician. Awkwardly, Taf Ila tried to explain to Kwan that the rys physician was a very successful healer, but Kwan could not even look at Taf Ila. He could not look at any of the rys, wishing he had never encountered the magical race. He could only look at the feverish face of Jesse.
Upon Kwan’s return to his lodging, the Atrophane were filled with both relief and dismay. A dozen questions assailed the Lord General as rys carried Jesse upstairs, but Kwan silenced them all with one harsh order.
Seeing Sandin slumped in a chair recovering from the sho dart, Kwan simply instructed, “Lieutenant, keep this place quiet.” Then he followed the rys up to his room.
Kwan insisted the rys lay his squire on his own bed. The rys physician soon arrived and began to tend the human. He coaxed a medicinal drink down the squire’s throat to help hydrate the burn victim and ease his pain. With tender patience, the healer carefully removed the human’s clothing, trying not to pull away much of the devastated skin. Jesse’s legs were badly burned, scorched almost to ash in some places.
The wreckage of the blistered oozing legs gave Kwan a greater understanding of Onja’s methods. If Jesse survived and did not succumb to an infection, it would take him all winter to heal. Until then the squire could not walk or ride, and if Kwan wanted to consider another departure, he would have to consider abandoning the boy.
Kwan turned away from the bed and slammed a fist into the wall repeatedly, venting his terrible rage on the cracking plaster. Taf Ila grabbed Kwan by the arm. The Lord General’s gloved hand was probably already broken, but he sent his other fist at Taf Ila in a blind fury.
Taf Ila blocked the blow and shouted, “The physician has enough to do.”
Kwan relaxed slightly, but he rationally considered attacking Taf Ila anyway.
“I am not your enemy,” Taf Ila insisted.
“You are Onja’s lackey!” Kwan shouted in Atrophaney.
Even without a translation the rys captain guessed the nature of the human’s outburst. He knew what he was.
Deciding not to pursue himself as a subject, Taf Ila said, “I believe Queen Onja will release you in the spring if you only obey her.”
Shaking free of the Taf Ila’s restraining grasp, Kwan slumped into a chair. “Obey her,” he groaned, rubbing his hand. “She gives me no commands, except to stay here. What use could she have for us? She plays with me. Who will she torture next?”
“It is possible you will defend Jingten. Queen Onja does have an enemy,” Taf Ila explained very quietly.
“With all of her magic, she needs humans to defend Jingten? That is nonsense,” Kwan scoffed. “Will not Taf Ila defend his home for his Queen?”
Shrugging, Taf Ila simply responded, “I am not threatened. It is Onja’s enemy.”
The statement from the obviously loyal captain confused Kwan and he figured he misunderstood the rys words. “But if her enemy attacks Jingten, you will fight?” he pressed.
“Rys do not kill rys,” Taf Ila answered, clinging to the law. “I will not get between Onja and her enemy. None of us will.”
A picture began to form for Kwan. A picture in which he was a pawn. He did not quite understand the statement about rys not killing rys, but Kwan suspected the rys used humans to fight their wars. He remembered the Kezanada leaving on seemingly urgent business.
Is the war already being fought somewhere? he thought.
From Taf Ila’s somewhat cryptic statements, Kwan surmised that Onja’s enemy was a rys or maybe an army of rys. This thought did little to encourage Kwan. If Onja could dominate him, what chance did humans have against her rys rival? The Lord General realized he and his five hundred Atrophane were just fuel for the fire of her war.
“Who is Onja’s enemy?” he asked.
“I will not speak of that,” Taf Ila said.
“If I am to defend your city, I must know what I am facing,” Kwan insisted irritably.
“Onja will instruct you if the need arises,” Taf Ila said.
Abandoning the pointless round of questioning, Kwan asked a personal question. “I see you do not want to hurt us. Why do you serve Onja?”
Taf Ila answered, “Queen Onja is the most powerful rys. It is her rightful place to lead. My magic is common, and it is my place to serve.”
Kwan considered the answer a little too dogmatic. Glancing at the physician attending his squire’s burns, he wondered if Taf Ila could not speak his mind openly because Onja might be spying.
Kwan’s white eyebrows lifted quizzically on his weathered face. He wanted to know more of the rys’s real thoughts.
Inwardly, Taf Ila appreciated the cynical expression. Humans could convey so many thoughts with just their faces.
Choosing his words, Taf Ila carefully expanded his response. “Queen Onja hurt your servant because you care about him. She often chooses the target that will cause the most pain. I assure you, obedience is the proper choice.”
“Onja keeps everyone in their place,” Kwan muttered bitterly while watching the physician work on Jesse.
Kwan had wished to cultivate Taf Ila as an ally, but now he doubted it would do him much good. Remembering Taf Ila’s fair daughter, Kwan realized the rys captain had his own vulnerabilities and would not wish to risk Onja’s anger. Kwan did not blame him though. Taf Ila was right. Onja was the most powerful rys and even the other rys could not dispute her actions.
Once Jesse’s wounds were medicated and dressed, the rys left Kwan alone. The Lord General kept a vigil at the boy’s side for many days and talked to no one, not even Lieutenant Sandin. Of all of the soldiers who had fallen or been injured under his command, Kwan felt the most remorse for his squire’s suffering.
Nufal was broken and dying but Dacian did not revel in his victory. A madness struck the King of Jingten and he cursed his own genius that won the war. He commanded our agents to put their weapons in the water, and when they did not want to, he made them obey with his magic—Urlen, Kezanada chronicler, year six of Amar’s Overlordship.
When the Atrophane heard that the rys Queen commanded them to stay in Jingten until spring, their impulse was to rush into the open city and conquer it. Kwan longed to do the same, but he would not allow it. More needed to be known about rys powers before attempting aggression. The Lord General ordered his men to be patient and observe the enemy.
Life remained pleasant for the humans, and the Jingten Valley grew more beautiful every day as the golden hues of autumn mingled with the deep green conifers. Although the Atrophane still camped in the forest, the rys supplied them well and were gradually outfitting some unused buildings for their housing.
Even a month after meeting the intimidating Queen Onja, Kwan still found the gathering of information about the rys to be painfully slow. His greatest obstacle was the language and he prioritized learning it and bade all of his men to pursue this interest. Unfortunately, the rys appeared to take little outward interest in the humans and they were openly snobby, rarely attempting to speak with them.
However, Taf Ila visited the camp daily and Kwan sought to learn from him. The rys captain showed little desire to oblige Kwan, but the Lord General wore him down with persistence, following the captain and asking incessant questions.
Because Onja had not forbidden it, Taf Ila finally began teaching Kwan in brief daily lessons. Giving the human some time each day was far better than suffering his constant badgering in a foreign language.
At first, progress was slow for Kwan. For a lifetime he had spoken only his native language. The conquered could learn to speak Atrophaney as far as he had been concerned, but now necessity motivated Kwan and he practiced diligently.
Learning the rys language from Taf Ila’s uninspired tutoring might have proved impossible for Kwan, but then the rys began to enjoy his daily sessions with Kwan and they became longer and more detailed. In all his centuries of life, Taf Ila had dealt with many humans on an official basis but he had never interacted with one on such a personal level before. His time with the human increasingly pleased him and Taf Ila grew to appreciate the other race, enjoying the differences and being surprised by the similarities.
Yet, Taf Ila disliked the presence of the humans because they reminded him of the changing times. He knew Queen Onja plotted to dominate Kwan’s homeland and in the mean time use his army in the coming war with Shan.
This war with Shan troubled Taf Ila most of all. The news from the lowlands was never good these days and getting worse.
Keeping his worries to himself, Taf Ila continued teaching Kwan. One afternoon during a lesson, they sat on a hillside overlooking Jingten. The humans would be moved into the city that night, but until then Taf Ila wished to enjoy the fine day out of the city. Pointing to the surrounding peaks, the rys told Kwan their names, obviously pleased to describe his homeland. Attentively Kwan listened. All knowledge of this strange land was good.
Abruptly Taf Ila halted his lecture and turned toward the trail that zigzagged up the hill. His relaxed and happy demeanor faded as he sensed his daughter approaching. He jumped up and marched down the trail.
Wondering what had disturbed his teacher, Kwan followed and saw a rys female scrambling up the slope.
Kwan understood the greeting, but Taf Ila had never mentioned he had a family. Although rys did not show their age much, Kwan judged the female to be youthful. He thought she was lovely with fine sharp features and pure black hair, glistening like spun onyx. The tone Taf Ila used with the fair child surprised Kwan.
“Why are you here?” Taf Ila barked. “I told you not to come near the humans, and now you have just crossed their encampment.”
Quylan started to explain herself but her father interrupted.
“You have directly disobeyed me,” Taf Ila accused. I was having such a good day, he lamented.
“But I have a reason!” she blurted. “The Kezanada Overlord approaches.”
Looking at the west road in the valley below, Taf Ila said, “How do you know this?”
Quylan straightened her shoulders proudly and replied, “I perceived them. They are still many hasas away but I can see farther than most rys. No one else in the city has noticed their approach—”
“Stop bragging,” Taf Ila cut her off although her rapidly maturing powers impressed him. He knew his daughter could see even outside the Rysamand. “I assure you Queen Onja took note of them long before you did.”
Quylan frowned at the reminder but continued, “Father, I had to find you. Please let me come with you to the Keep when the Kezanada arrive. I must hear their news. Too many warding crystals protect the throne room and I will not be able to listen to the Overlord’s meeting with the Queen.”
Taf Ila gasped at his daughter’s words. He wanted to grab her and shake her, but he would never treat her roughly. His voice shook with emotion when he ordered, “Do not ever spy on Onja! Where do you even get such ideas? Quylan, do you think your silly young mind could elude the Queen? Onja would perceive you in a second.”
“Then take me with you, Father. Then I will have no need to spy,” she pleaded.
Sorry for his anger, Taf Ila said softly, “Do not concern yourself with such things. It is only the Kezanada tribute caravan.”
“But they are early!” Quylan insisted. Tribute caravans were never early.
Taf Ila shrugged. “The Kezanada are wealthy. They do not care when they pay.”
“But they must have news of Shan. Something must have happened,” Quylan said, revealing her true concern.
“Who are Kezanada?” Kwan interjected. Although he had not gathered why Taf Ila was upset with his daughter, Kwan did understand that a group called Kezanada approached the city.
Taf Ila had almost forgotten that Kwan waited nearby. He tried to explain, “They are…mercenaries. A society who sell their services.”
“They Onja’s enemy? Attack Jingten?” Kwan asked, almost hoping to see some action and maybe free himself of Onja before winter.
“No. They are no threat. They are paying their taxes,” Taf Ila said.
Disappointed, Kwan wondered what this society of mercenaries was like and why they paid taxes.
“Are Kezanada rys?” he asked.
Such a notion offended Taf Ila but he reminded himself that Kwan asked only out of genuine ignorance. “Humans,” he answered bluntly.
Since Kwan had spoken, Quylan had been staring at the human from the east.
“He does not look like the other humans,” she whispered.
“The humans from the east look different, but they are still humans,” Taf Ila explained quietly.
Kwan decided to introduce himself because they were talking about him. “Lord Kwan of Atrophane. Hello, daughter of Taf Ila.” He bowed politely.
His manners impressed Quylan. A human had never addressed her before and the encounter fascinated her. Taf Ila put a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. Normally he would not have introduced her to a human, but he felt the impulse to extend Kwan this courtesy.
“This is Quylan,” he said.
Kwan made an effort to recall some new vocabulary and managed to compliment, “She make you proud.”
With an exasperated smile Taf Ila admitted, “She makes me lose sleep.”
“Daughters,” Kwan laughed. “I have two girls.” He realized he had not thought about them for a long time.
“Then you will understand that you must excuse me. I have to take this daughter home,” Taf Ila said.
“Father, I want to go to the Keep,” she protested.
Taf Ila gently insisted, “I shall take you home, but I will tell you any news as soon as I can.”
Quylan had to accept her father’s decision but she pouted with disappointment.
“I hope Shan still lives,” she said.
Taf Ila winced. “Stop talking about Shan,” he ordered. “Lord Kwan, I will send rys to see you and your men to your new quarters tonight. I may not be available, but if you have any problems, send word to me at the Keep.”
Kwan nodded and thanked him. He wanted to ask more questions, but Taf Ila hurried away with his stunning daughter.
Now who is this Shan? Kwan thought.
Onja settled into her throne, excited to receive the Kezanada Overlord. Since the rysmavda executions in Dengar Nor, she had not observed the lowlands and she was looking forward to good news from the Overlord. The audacity of Shan’s tactics had angered her so terribly that she had stopped watching. His strategy would lose its effectiveness on her if she ignored it. If she did not see what was meant to frustrate her and advertise her reduced range of power, she would not suffer from the mental toll Shan wished to take from her mind.
The lives of a few priests were insignificant, and Onja had placed her hope in the Kezanada. She knew they had been massing for a strike against Shan and today Onja dared to think that they had been successful.
So pleased by the thought that the Kezanada had completed their assignment, Onja did not probe the mind of the approaching Overlord for confirmation. If Shan was dead, she wanted to experience the moment of delight without forewarning. Onja had even devised a special spell of preservation for Shan’s head to keep the trophy fresh and glorious.
The great doors opposite the Queen parted, admitting the Overlord and his entourage. The Overlord strode across the cool marble with the confidence of a very powerful man. He was a man of large build with a hefty girth and huge arms bulging with muscle. One long braid hung down his back, ending in a clasp set with a large ruby. A gold trimmed black mask covered half of his face because it was traditional for Kezanada to conceal their identities from people outside their society. His dark eyes peered through the mask with a cunning gleam. He possessed a creative and cruel intelligence that was sometimes subdued by the various things he put in his pipe. But today his mind was sharp and clear, as it always was when he met with Onja.
A jeweled belt held a scimitar to his waist and his mighty frame was clothed in richly embroidered robes that were trimmed with brightly dyed furs. His apparel conveyed a sense of excessive wealth more than taste, but the Overlord did not care if Onja saw how rich the Kezanada were. Most of the wealthy and powerful segments of society hired the Kezanada occasionally, and Onja often employed the Kezanada as agents of her malice. This gave the Kezanada the distinction of actually earning more from Onja than they paid in tribute. As the Overlord often liked to note, the rys so hated getting their hands dirty.
Onja clawed the armrests of her throne as she anticipated the news she wanted to hear. The Overlord stopped before her dais and kneeled, as did the rows of Kezanada behind him, who all looked the same in their horsetailed helmets with their visors down. Unmasked servants with shaved heads carried a large chest to the front of the throne room, stopping beside the Overlord.
Normally Onja would speak first, but she remained strangely silent. With his knees beginning to ache under his weight, the Overlord decided to proceed. Rising, he stepped over to the chest, and with a flourish, he flung it open. Gold, silver, jewels, curious rare crystals, chunks of uncut jade, and lovely figurines carved from alabaster and studded with lapis lazuli filled the chest.
The Overlord was fluent in the rys language, which was rare for humans, and he began his speech. “The Kezanada respectfully present their Goddess Queen, fair mistress of Jingten, with the finest prizes we have to offer from a year’s labor. Along with this magnificent chest of treasure, the Kezanada have brought cattle, grain, fine furs, and many items that will please the citizens of Jingten.”
With a sick expression Onja stared at the chest, curling her lips with displeasure. It was just the Kezanada’s usual tribute and the Overlord was giving his same old boring speech. The twinkle of treasure had never looked so dull to Onja. Somehow, Shan had robbed her of even this pleasure.
“Stop!” she thundered.
The Overlord obeyed and crossed his arms patiently. He had been waiting for the outburst.
“You were to bring me Shan’s head. I said you were excused this year’s tribute as downpayment for your service. Why are you here with your junk? Why do you not hunt Shan?” Onja demanded ominously.
The Overlord withstood her angry glare and explained, “The Kezanada have lost a hundred good men pursuing Shan. Great Queen Onja, we are only humans, and we cannot get near the powerful rys, who has so offended you. Shan knows where we are before we know where he is.”
Scowling, Onja said, “How could you have lost one hundred Kezanada?”
The Overlord felt his blood pressure surge. The news of the massacre in the Nolesh was still fresh and upsetting. Outwardly he maintained his trademark calm, answering, “I had massed a force in the Temu Domain to fall upon Shan when he left Dengar Nor. Then my people found this force all dead without any sign of battle, without so much as a wound. I can only conclude that Shan killed them with his magic.”
Onja frowned, scolding herself for not monitoring Shan, but she had hoped to avoid the exertion. And she had not expected Shan to do such things.
So, Shan finally used his superior powers to kill his precious humans, Onja thought with wicked satisfaction.
Despite the pleasure Onja gained from knowing how Shan must have been morally tormented by this action, she acknowledged his advanced use of power. Now more than ever, Onja knew she could not allow Shan to return to Jingten.
“So the Kezanada have given up,” Onja criticized.
The Overlord tolerated the sting in her words, but he had a purpose to his patience. “The Kezanada have already suffered their worst defeat in many generations and did not even engage the target. With such losses, we do not profit. The Kezanada have decided it would be worth it just to pay the tribute.”
“Since when can the Kezanada not be bought? Do you not want your revenge?” Onja stormed. She could not imagine that Shan had subdued the notorious Kezanada.
At the mention of revenge a subtle smile curved under the fringe of the Overlord’s mask. “Oh, the Kezanada desire Shan’s head,” he hissed.
“Then why are you here?” the Queen demanded again.
“We require your assistance, Great Queen,” he replied.
Onja glanced uncomfortably toward the attending Taf Ila, remembering his opinion of the bounty on Shan. She knew many rys would disapprove of her increased participation in the hunt for Shan. Onja had no fear of her subjects’ disfavor, but she did not want the distraction of a disgruntled citizenry either.
“Taf Ila, take your squad and leave,” she ordered.
For an instant Taf Ila almost protested the breach of security, but he caught his tongue. Onja and her mercenaries were discussing Shan, and he did not want to be involved. Without a word, he marched out with the guards.
This privacy made the Overlord wonder if he should be worried or impressed. Either way Onja certainly meant to talk seriously.
“What assistance do you have in mind?” Onja asked.
Containing his excitement, the Overlord said, “Give us some magic charm that will protect us from Shan so that we can approach him. Surely you must have such a thing.”
Onja did not answer. Although her face appeared inscrutable, the Overlord could guess that she had something on her mind, something important, something she did not want to tell him about.
Slowly the Queen made her reluctant decision and nodded. “I believe I have some items that will help you. Overlord of the Kezanada, meet me again tomorrow and I will give you that which you ask for.”
The Overlord bowed graciously to Onja and kept his thoughts buried.
Late that night, Hefshul ferried his Queen across the blackened lake. A cold wind howled down from the peaks and the old mute rys had to strain against the waves. Hefshul had long ago given up any concern for Onja’s activities, but his silent thoughts guessed the nature of her errand.
With the skiff rocking against the gravel shore in front of the Tomb of Dacian, Hefshul hunkered down into his fleece coat and watched Onja go ashore. The darkness was briefly broken by the blue sparkle of the Queen opening the magically sealed tower.
Places in the tower had not been entered since the days of warring with Nufal. On the day when Dacian had made his Last Law, the rys had thrown their enchanted weapons into Lake Nin, but Onja had stowed a few arms in the tower and she went to her ancient armory.
Onja removed the seal that she had placed on the armory door twenty-two centuries ago, and the air hissed out, delighting in its escape. Now secrets locked in forgotten silence could get out. A crystal mounted in the wall glowed in her powerful presence, revealing the few weapons that remained on the racks.
Onja remembered when the tower had bustled with activity and the armory had almost been cluttered with fine tools of war. Then she recalled the sickening day when the rys and humans had followed Dacian’s folly and hurled their weapons into the water. Incredible masterworks of enchanted weapons had sunk into the lake that day, returning their magic to the deep secret waters of the Rysamand. No artisans today possessed the knowledge to remake that which had been thrown away.
But Onja had not let the fools get them all.
She hated to risk her precious collection out in the world in such uneducated hands, and she would not loan out every piece. Humans had not had such weapons to use since the defeat of Nufal, and Shan would not be prepared for this threat that he did not know existed. The enchanted weapons had been crafted specifically for the humans who had served their rys masters on the battlefield.
Delicately Onja plucked a quarrel from the shelf and she stared at the crystal tip of the arrow. Holding the sparkling point near her face, she shuddered as she felt the terrible power within. If this quarrel pierced rys flesh, the crystal tip would deliver a painful and lethal spell.
Only a small stock of the potent quarrels remained and she took these along with two crossbows. Onja gathered six swords with twinkling crystals set in the hilt. She removed her flowing cape and wrapped the weapons into an awkward bundle. When she returned to the skiff with her heavy burden, Hefshul eyed her package. From his vague emotion she sensed his disapproval.
“Row!” she snarled and Hefshul obeyed lazily.
Clutching her dark bundle, Onja wondered why her rys did not appreciate her efforts. She had made the rys of Jingten wealthy, respected, and the supreme race in the entire world, yet they balked when she had to put down one renegade.
The Kezanada Overlord received his summons early the next morning and he hurried to the throne room. Onja was alone and when he kneeled before her, he saw the bundle at the base of the dais.
“Rise and look inside,” Onja bade him.
Eagerly, despite fearing a trick, the Overlord unwrapped the cape and beheld the fine sharp weapons engraved with rys script and embedded with crystals. Reverently he grasped a sword and raised the perfect blade before his masked face. No agent of time could mar the enchanted blade that made the light quiver painfully on its sharp edges.
The history of the Kezanada stretched back even to the Age of Dacian and the fragile lore books had hinted at the existence of the enchanted weapons. When the rys had warred with Nufal, they had crafted arms that would protect them and their human allies from killing spells on the battlefield. The Overlord had hoped that Onja still possessed such things and he could barely suppress his triumphant joy to have the charmed sword in his hand. Onja had to be desperate to let him use this treasure, but he banished that line of reasoning. Even a thought was perilous in the court of Jingten.
“Shan will not be able to sense the warriors who carry these weapons. The enchantments on them will hide their bearers from Shan’s powers of perception and his spells. With these you should be able to arrange an ambush,” Onja explained. “Consider these weapons a loan. Do NOT lose them, and do not fail this time.”
“The Kezanada are honored to use your great treasures, Queen Onja,” the Overlord said solemnly.
Onja continued, “Leave your tribute as a deposit on the weapons. Bring me Shan’s head and my original offer stands. Begone from Jingten, Overlord. Every day Shan lives offends me.”
“He offends the Kezanada as well,” the Overlord agreed while wrapping the weapons.
Bowing deeply, he hoisted the enchanted bundle in his mighty arms. He would lead this mission himself and he needed his seven finest Kezanada to raise these magic weapons at his side. As he departed, his mind was already going over a list of candidates.
Lord Kwan stayed in his small tent staring at the warding crystal for the whole night and the next day. The Atrophane soldiers waited nervously for some word from their commander and they watched the skies for the bizarre bird beast.
Kwan had no desire beyond watching the swirl of blue light within the smooth orb. When Sandin tried to intrude, he ordered away his lieutenant with all the force of a Hordemaster.
The blue glow absorbed Kwan’s thoughts until they were not his own. He began to see images. He saw great blocks of stone standing on the plains. He saw his men dying, crumpling in hopeless agony, being torn apart by the ethereal hands of fearsome wraiths. Then he was in the mountains. Snowy peaks lorded over an alpine forest. He began to hear the dream voice of the Queen and was told her name was Onja.
Kwan began to understand. Onja began to make things very clear. She summoned him and his soldiers west into the mountains, and if he did not comply, she would release her army of ghosts to kill them. There was no defense from the Deamedron, as she called them. She showed him over and over her tormented spirit slaves killing the Atrophane like a scythe against grass. She showed him the horror until Kwan regained the mental faculty to beg her to stop.
Onja commanded Kwan to let the warding crystal guide him west.
Two voices started calling his name and Kwan opened his eyes. Sandin and Jesse were leaning over him. Kwan sat up, surprised that he had been asleep. It was dark except for the light from the lantern in Jesse’s hand and the glow of the warding crystal lying next to him on his sleeping mat.
Rubbing his head, Kwan said, “I must have dropped off for a couple hours. It should be morning soon.”
“My Lord, the sun has only just gone down,” Sandin said.
“What do you mean?” Kwan demanded.
“You came in here last night, and you have been in here all day. Don’t you remember me trying to talk to you?” Sandin said. Pointing at the warding crystal, he explained, “That thing put you in a trance. It is an evil charm. My Lord, you must get rid of it.”
Kwan turned to Jesse and ordered his squire to leave.
Now in private, he tried to explain things to Sandin. “Someone lives in the mountains to the west. She communicated with me somehow through this crystal.”
“My Lord, you are talking like a priest,” Sandin complained boldly.
“I know it is strange,” Kwan whispered. “But it is true. She wants to see us.”
“She?” Sandin asked.
“Her name is…Onja.” Kwan’s mouth shaped her name slowly, trying to match the sound to the abstraction in his head.
Sandin stared at his Lord General, and Kwan realized his lieutenant thought he was crazy. He had never seen such doubt on Sandin’s face, and he had to reassure his officer.
“I will try to explain later. Now I must rest. Prepare to move west in the morning. If we find what I think we will find, I will explain everything,” Kwan said.
“My Lord, what will we find in the west?” Sandin said.
“Nothing, I hope,” Kwan whispered and lay back down, exhausted.
“Are you sick, my Lord?” Sandin asked quietly.
“Just tired, Lieutenant.”
Sandin’s gray eyes looked from the warding crystal to the weary face of his commander. In his fifteen years of service, he could not recall speaking to his Lord General while he was prone.
“It really is magic. I never would have expected such things. But the beast picked you out as our leader and gave you that charm.” Sandin was half talking to himself, trying to organize the information, trying to believe it. “This Onja must be a sorceress, like from a myth. My Lord, we should not go to her.”
“You are not Lord General yet, and I will decide what we should do,” Kwan said sternly.
Sandin dipped his head to show his respect. His must keep his faith in his Lord General. It was Kwan’s duty to lead well and it was Sandin’s duty to serve well.
The Atrophane headed northwest and a week later they reached the standing stones. When the monoliths were still just dots in the distance, Kwan halted his force. He stared at the stones covering a broad swath of prairie from the northeast to the southwest, and they looked just like the images that had been put in his mind.
Sick inside but trying to hide it, Kwan ordered his soldiers to make camp, and he added the strict order that no one was to approach the monoliths. In the light of day the Atrophane were curious about the place and they quietly wondered why their commander wanted them to stay away. It was only stones on the land and they had combed the ruins of the city, but when night came, the soldiers stopped grumbling.
A fog rose among the stones and damp tendrils drifted up the hills to the edge of the camp. Then points of light began to flare over the stones and they intensified until a pulsing glow filled the forbidden field.
Kwan stood on the edge of camp, facing the glow. He did not want to believe that the standing stones really contained the ghost soldiers of Onja, but his denial would require proof and he had to go look. He opened his hand and looked at the warding crystal in his palm. It shone with a fierce light tonight and he could feel heat coming through his gauntlet.
He shut his hand against the magic light and he set his other hand on the hilt of his sword. Alone he approached the fog-shrouded stones. Every step that brought him closer became more difficult than the last. Instinctive fear clutched his heart, but he forced himself onward.
Once the mist surrounded him, the choking cold of the damp filled his lungs. He passed some small stones and stopped in front of an imposing monolith. Spheres of light beyond the monolith started to move toward him, and a bright spectral shape emerged from the stone in front of him. Kwan beheld a skeleton draped in a translucent cloak and shimmering armor. Points of bloody red light burned in the eye sockets, and the spirit swiped at him hungrily with a wispy sword. Kwan drew his sword, but the thing did not advance. More spirits swarmed the area, until he was completely surrounded. Sensing their malice, Kwan whirled to face the ring of spirits with his weapon, but an unseen force seemed to hold them back.
Before Kwan even knew it, his feet were retreating. He looked over his shoulder as he walked backwards and saw the watch fires of his expeditionary force on the high ground. He turned and ran until he was free of the clinging mist. Gasping for breath, Kwan checked to see if any of the spirits pursued him, but they had remained in their place.
He paused before returning to the camp to gather his nerves. Tonight, Kwan, the conqueror of the east, had learned of terror. It left him exposed and changed. He could not risk his men against these wretched spirits. The images of his soldiers being slaughtered by them had been branded deeply on his mind. If Onja was bluffing about their violent potential, he would just have to find out later. He would have to go before this Queen Onja if he was to learn anything. This realization hit him like a bear trap sinking into his leg.
Two torches left the perimeter of camp, and Sandin arrived with two soldiers.
“We must definitely go around this place,” Kwan announced.
“Yes, my Lord,” Sandin readily concurred. “But why have you drawn your sword?”
Casually Kwan sheathed his weapon but gave no answer. He signaled to the soldiers to go back to camp.
When they were out of earshot, Sandin asked, “My Lord, is this what you thought we would find in the west?”
“Yes. I was told of this place while I was in the trance with the crystal,” Kwan said.
“What did you see in there?” Sandin asked, glancing at the disturbed mist.
“The very face of damnation,” Kwan replied. “Onja claims that these ghosts are her slaves and she will send them to kill us if we do not go to meet her.”
“Do you believe this?” Sandin asked in shock.
“I don’t know,” the Lord General confessed in a rare candid moment. “But for now, I believe we must continue west. If we turn back and her threat is real, these ghosts will hunt us down. What can the living do against the dead?” Kwan shook his head.
“But you were not harmed by them,” Sandin observed hopefully.
“This crystal must have protected me,” Kwan said.
“Curse that thing, my Lord. This magic could just be filling your head with nonsense,” Sandin argued.
“That is real,” Kwan cried, pointing to the haunted stones.
Sandin could not deny that. His skin tingled with preternatural warning just being close to the stones, but that gave him more reason to think his commander was possessed.
After so many years together, Kwan guessed the strain his lieutenant was under.
What would I think of Sandin if a crystal put him in a trance? he thought.
“Lieutenant, we have entered the Wilderness, and it seems the rules are different here. I cannot fully judge the situation until I learn more about this Onja. With no knowledge, how can I oppose her? And we came to explore. It would not make sense to run away from the first thing we encounter. This journey will not be what we are used to, but we must maintain the courage and discipline that has made the Atrophane supreme. We must present a united command as we have always done,” Kwan said.
Sandin understood what his Lord General alluded to. The lieutenant knew he had been especially argumentative and doubtful of every decision from his commander.
But I have good reasons to question him, Sandin thought stubbornly.
He was not some junior officer. He was first lieutenant to the Lord General, and it was his duty to speak his mind.
Never imagining that he could speak such faithless words to his commander, Sandin confessed, “Lord Kwan, you are possessed. How can I trust you?”
The words did not upset Kwan, and he actually respected Sandin for having the nerve to ask the awful question.
Kwan said, “Yes, this sorceress has communicated with me with her magic. But I am not possessed by her. I am Lord General Kwan of Clan Chenomet, Hordemaster to the Darmar Zemthute II. I serve only the side of Atrophane! You know I hold the life of every soldier, and officer, in the highest esteem, and I consider them in every decision.”
Hearing these words did reassure Sandin. Lord Kwan was Atrophane’s greatest military leader, a legend in his own lifetime, and his integrity was well established.
Sandin cast his eyes down and said, “My Lord, forgive my disloyal thoughts and words.”
Kwan readily accepted the apology. “Lieutenant Sandin, do not regret your actions. You were doing your job as an officer when it appeared your commander was under a foreign influence. You thought first of the men under your command, and that is never wrong. Responsible leadership has ever been the source of our glory. I do not know what is going to happen. If this Onja truly enthralls me and I betray my duties to you and Atrophane, then by all means take command and get home—if you can.”
“I pray such a thing does not happen, my Lord,” Sandin said quickly. “I wish to be Lord General someday, but not by your misfortune. You have all my faith as always, my Lord.”
Kwan laid a firm hand on Sandin’s shoulder. “I know Sandin. You have always been the most reliable,” he praised. Kwan then thought of another officer who had not kept his faith.
After allaying Sandin’s fears and reinforcing his loyalty, Kwan addressed the men, explaining that they would travel west to meet a Queen who claimed to control the land they had entered. He perceived that the news unsettled the soldiers, but in the vast solitude of the Wilderness and in sight of the Deamedron, each man realized that they depended on the cleverness of their Lord General.
The Atrophane force traveled around the haunted standing stones. When they left the Deamedron behind, Kwan felt a measure of relief to have them out of his sight even if they were uncomfortably between him and Atrophane.
Here is the adventure you wanted, old man, Kwan thought as he led his force into the Rysamand.
Two days later, as the Atrophane ascended the eastern slopes of the towering mountains, riders appeared on the top of the next ridge. Kwan halted his men and sensed the familiar ripple of anticipation run through his soldiers.
“I see about one hundred of them,” Sandin judged, after quickly scanning their silhouetted forms.
“There could be more that we cannot see,” Kwan reminded. “They have a good position on us too. We will let them make the first move, but reinforce our flanks. Those on the ridge may just be a distraction.”
Sandin galloped down the front of the force, giving orders and positioning soldiers. Kwan patiently waited front and center. The riders on the ridge made no moves while the Atrophane rearranged their forces defensively.
After the Atrophane stewed for a while, three riders began to descend the slope. The heavy white horses managed the incline with surprising ease. No longer in silhouette, the characteristics of the riders became clear to the Atrophane. Cries of surprise and shock rose from the ranks as everyone saw that these riders were not human.
The blue riders halted a short distance in front of Kwan. The highland wind moaned against the ridge and the Atrophane fell silent. Signaling for Sandin to keep his place, Kwan eased his horse forward and marveled at their strange beauty. Their blue skin and fine features were quite attractive, but Kwan found their black eyes disturbing and mysterious, although not nearly as disturbing as the Tatatook.
The blue rider in the middle of the trio had mostly white hair with only a few remaining streams of black. All of them wore beautiful green suede uniforms, but a white cloak flowed around the shoulders of the middle rider and it looked like a stubborn snowdrift in a spring meadow.
The white-cloaked rider spoke, “You are the Lord Kwan.”
Although Kwan did not understand the language, he heard his name and nodded.
“Taf Ila,” the blue rider said, pointing at himself.
Despite the language barrier, Taf Ila was good at his job and he peaceably convinced the Atrophane commander to follow him. The main force of rys kept ahead of the Atrophane, but Taf Ila rode beside Kwan in a gesture of good faith.
At night the two races camped separately, but Taf Ila and his two aides shared a fire with Kwan, making rudimentary attempts at conversation. Kwan managed to learn that they were called rys and Queen Onja was their ruler. Kwan wondered if these rys possessed magical powers like their Queen. Because Taf Ila and the others behaved very self-assured and were only lightly armed, Kwan assumed they must have some reason for their confidence.
In the morning the Atrophane entered the Jingten Valley. The lovely city beside Lake Nin excited the humans. Lord Kwan had led them across the Wilderness and the discoveries were going to be greater than hoped. To the eyes of men accustomed to conquest, the city looked wealthy and vulnerable, and for an instant, Kwan even had to check his ambition. He remembered feeling the power of Onja, and his instinct warned him that this place was not without defense. Tact and diplomacy would be his tools for now, especially when he had no idea how large the rys army might be.
The rys stopped the Atrophane force outside the city, and Taf Ila indicated that Kwan could continue with only a few companions. Kwan selected five soldiers of excellent wit and skill, but he did not choose Sandin.
“Lieutenant, you have command. If I do not return by morning, take what actions you deem appropriate,” Kwan said.
Sandin saluted but he clearly did not relish being left behind. He burned to enter the foreign city.
With understanding Kwan added, “Your duty is here, Lieutenant. I would keep you insulated from this Queen who has summoned us. Be patient, I believe you will see the city soon enough.”
Sandin nodded, seeing the wisdom in Kwan’s decision. The lieutenant watched his Lord General ride away with his small honor guard and he sincerely hoped he would return before morning.
“Jingten,” Taf Ila proudly named his city as he escorted the humans.
Kwan admired the exotic place that seemed to be a well kept place of luxury. All the buildings were large and of thoughtful design. Trimmed hedges enclosed the properties, which were surrounded by flowering gardens and ornamental trees. Crystal streetlights lined the perfect roads, where every stone of the pavement was smooth and in place. Kwan saw no lesser dwellings for servants or workers, and he guessed that Jingten might be a ceremonial city kept apart from the disparities of the rest of the world. In all of his fantasies about exploring the Wilderness, he had never envisioned such an incredible place or the rys, who seemed a race taken from some forgotten myth.
The tiered Keep rose above the city, and when the tall iron bird gates swung open on their own, Kwan knew he entered the stronghold of the magic Queen. He could almost feel her looking at him now and he could not forget the way Onja had invaded his mind from so far away.
When the door wardens opened the throne room, the glow of Onja’s inner sanctum reflected on the silver studs on their jackets. The light from the four large spheres and the dazzle of the crystal encrusted walls made Kwan squint as he left the cool shade of the corridor. The white marble floor rose into the gleaming steps of the dais and a broad throne plated in gold commanded the room.
Bowing deeply, Taf Ila presented the humans to his Queen, but Kwan could not hear the rys speak. He had no perception beyond seeing Onja. She was easily the most incredible being the Lord General had ever seen. A simple black gown trimmed with sable fur covered the Queen. A netlike headdress of diamonds covered her pure white hair, surrounding her blue face in the light of a thousand rainbow facets. Kwan almost gaped at the sight of her jewels. Her headdress alone rivaled most fortunes, making him realize that Onja was unbelievably wealthy.
Onja allowed Kwan to study her, enjoying his awe. She had specifically worn her most spectacular diamond ensemble to impress upon him the magnitude of her rule.
“Queen Onja is pleased that you have come.”
The words roused Kwan from his viewing of the rys monarch and he looked to see who had spoken. The language had not been Atrophaney, but was somewhat familiar. It sounded like a dialect of the language used in the recently conquered lands bordering the Wilderness. His eyes found the figure of a small human girl seated two steps below the Queen. Her dark eyes regarded him calmly.
Kwan asked the men with him if any of them had understood the girl. One told him what the girl had said, adding that he had a fairly competent grasp of that language.
Probably just enough to pick up a wench, Kwan thought sourly, knowing that this was the moment when Dreibrand Veta would have served him best.
“Say that I am Lord Kwan and I have come as the Queen has asked,” Kwan instructed.
Hesitantly the soldier interpreted. The little girl translated for the Queen, and Kwan began to wonder where the rys had obtained the human child. He disliked communicating in a language foreign to both parties.
Onja spoke to the girl, who said, “Does Lord Kwan know that he intruded lands forbidden to all?”
When Kwan heard the question, he responded, “We are exploring. The Wilderness is an empty land without marker or warning.”
The Queen spoke again through the child’s voice. “Death is the punishment for all who enter the Wilderness.”
Kwan protested, “We did not know we intruded on land claimed by another.”
The soldier interpreted the response quickly this time.
Again in the rys tongue Onja spoke to the girl. She had carefully rehearsed each question and response with Elendra and the girl’s performance was pleasing her.
Elendra said, “If you believed the land did not belong to anyone, why do you bring an army?”
Kwan answered, “We did not know what we would encounter on our exploration. It is only a small force, meant for protection.”
As soon as the soldier managed an interpretation of the explanation, Onja spoke in the language used by the girl.
“You would make trouble where you found none!” the Queen accused, her voice ringing with power.
It was a sly accusation and inwardly Kwan smiled. Onja had faked her ignorance of the language and then revealed her feint, allowing him to see her devious nature. Now he would always have to wonder how much she knew.
“We have made no trouble,” Kwan said with diplomatic innocence.
Onja did not need the interpretation to catch the meaning of his words. Relaxing into her throne, Onja judged the human to be cunning and proud but willing to the pay the prices necessary for survival.
“Elendra,” Onja said sweetly. “You may go now. You have served me well.”
Elendra stood and bowed to her Queen. Scampering down the steps, she flashed a curious look at Kwan. Onja watched the girl leave, letting her adoration of the child distract her.
When her attention returned to Kwan, she stated coldly, “Entering my Wilderness results in death.”
“Then why have you not killed us?” Kwan asked boldly. The soldier disliked passing along the question.
Onja explained, “The death sentence has been delayed because I require a service of you. Serving me shall be the price for your lives.”
The scar on Kwan’s face rippled with restrained anger. Atrophane did not serve others. Atrophane served Atrophane.
Maintaining his pride, Kwan said, “Do we appear to you as mercenaries?”
Onja scowled at the impudent question. The day you learn not to be argumentative will soon come…but not today, she thought.
“I have mercenaries at my disposal. You are volunteers. I spared your lives from the Deamedron because I may have a use for an extra army. Jingten may require a defense in the spring, and defending the city will be the payment for my mercy. Until then, you and your men will be sheltered and provided for. I believe my proposal is more than fair,” Onja said.
Listening to the interpretation, Kwan wrinkled his brow thoughtfully. He had not expected her to ask them to defend the city, but it did mean something actually threatened this sorceress. This would be worth learning about.
Kwan said, “Queen Onja, you said Jingten may require a defense. You are not sure?”
Onja shifted her eyes uncomfortably, hating that she had not come across as omnipotent. Her words had been too precise and miraculously not lost in the translation.
“The threat to Jingten is being dealt with as we speak. Your army is a back up defense,” she answered.
“If Jingten is never attacked, will we be held here indefinitely?” Kwan asked.
These easterners! How I shall enjoy teaching them unquestioning obedience, Onja thought.
To Kwan’s tentative relief, she replied, “If I do not require the help of your soldiers, I will send you home. You shall escort an ambassador of the rys to your capital. I wish to establish relations with your leader and learn about the east.”
Although encouraged that she actually said they could leave, Kwan doubted her friendliness toward Atrophane. He worried that his expedition had opened an accursed tomb.
With no options at the moment but much to think about, Lord Kwan politely bowed to his demanding hostess and said, “We shall do as you ask, Queen Onja.”
Fully aware that his agreement lacked sincerity, Onja decided to devise a fitting demonstration of her authority to reinforce his commitment when he required it.
“Excellent,” Onja proclaimed. “You and your force shall camp in the forest for now. Shelter will be arranged before the snows come. Barracks for your men, and proper lodgings for you and your officers.”
Onja waved a hand imperiously, indicating that the meeting was concluded. Taf Ila promptly escorted the Atrophane from her presence. While leaving the Keep, one thought crowded out all others in Kwan’s mind. Who or what was the enemy of Queen Onja?
Miranda awoke with the restlessness of returning health. In the two weeks since the Temu war party had left Fata Nor, she had slept excessively. Shan and Dreibrand had been right. She had needed the rest.
Miranda reflected that she had never slept so much in her life. There had always been toil and servitude to get her up early and keep her up late. And her children had always needed her attention.
Many times during her convalescence nightmares of Barlow had tossed her sleep. Even on the other side of the Wilderness, she feared him. As often as she dreamed of him, she dreamed of her children, but they reminded her of Barlow and started the nightmare again. Secretly she wished she could leave the children behind with Barlow and forget all the wretchedness he had inflicted upon her.
But these thoughts made her guilty. Elendra and Esseldan needed their mother and she would not forsake them. The freedom she now enjoyed would be ruined if she abandoned her duty to them.
Lying in bed and staring at the wood paneled walls of her room, she contemplated who she was. Free of her children and living in the household of a queen, Miranda did not really know herself.
She shrugged out of her bedding and propped herself up. Looking out the window, she saw that she had slept late and the day was cloudy. She usually stayed in her room late, enjoying the solitude. Queen Vua and the members of her household were extremely kind to her, but Miranda was not sure how to act around them. Her skills with the language were still limited, and only a small number of women knew the common language that Shan had taught her.
Miranda decided she would take her horse for a ride. Her body had recuperated enough to crave some physical activity, and Miranda wanted to get away from the town and have the freedom of the open countryside.
At first, Queen Vua disputed her idea, especially when Miranda said she wanted to be alone.
“Ladies do not ride alone,” Vua admonished softly.
“But my horse needs exercise,” Miranda said.
“I am sure your horse has not been neglected,” Vua said. “And your arm is still in a cast. You should not go riding.”
“But I rode here worse than I am now, Queen Vua,” Miranda pointed out. “And I feel much better. Getting out would be good for me.”
Vua sighed, thinking perhaps her guest had been in too much, especially in the summer. “Very well, Miranda. But my daughter Sephina and her sister Lana will go with you, as well as two warriors.”
Miranda did not really want so much company, but she accepted the decision of Vua and thanked her hostess.
The Princesses Sephina and Lana were excited to go, and they were genuinely pleased to see Miranda feeling stronger. Despite the clouds, no rain fell, and the women raced each other across the fields and pastures before galloping into the woods. The two warriors stayed close and joined in the fun. They were young warriors who had not been included in the King’s war party, and they shared playful glances with the princesses that would not have normally been allowed. The princesses and warriors joked with each other, enjoying the informal outing, and the warriors were pleased with their duty.
Miranda rode ahead of them, enjoying the wind in her hair, which felt as good as two weeks bed rest. Reaching the top of a hill, she halted her chocolate brown mare and patted Freedom’s sweaty shoulder. The mare snorted, feeling good from the run.
“You needed to get out too,” Miranda commented.
Ahead of her was the nearby bulk of the Rysamand, rising to its supreme heights over the Temu domain. The gray clouds passed swiftly overhead, rushing into the mountainous barrier, bringing the rumor of winter. Pain clenched Miranda between her heart and her stomach as she looked upon the peaks. She had never seen winter in the mountains, but the Temu had explained to her that the pass would be impossibly clogged with snow in two months. The winter would cut her off from Elendra and Esseldan with the same effectiveness as Onja’s magic.
Miranda fought back the tears that constricted her throat. She had spent enough time laying in bed and crying, and she did not want her grief anymore. Staring hopelessly at the Rysamand, she tried to think of a way she could get back to Jingten and reclaim her children, but she had no more chance of success than the day Onja took them.
Bitterly, Miranda looked down at her right arm. The bone was thankfully mending, but the cast reminded her that she had almost died in the icy reaches of the Rysamand. She needed Shan if she was going to return to Jingten just as she had needed him to save her life. Returning her green-eyed gaze to the mountains, Miranda wished desperately that Shan was with her and that they could go to Jingten right now. She worried that winter would come before the rys went to claim the throne.
When will Shan get back? Dreibrand said they would only be gone for a couple weeks, Miranda fretted. Her thoughts then turned to Dreibrand and she hoped he had not been hurt.
Princess Sephina cantered up and disturbed Miranda’s horrible thoughts.
“Mother told me not to let you slip away by yourself,” Sephina said. As one of Vua’s daughters, she knew the common language.
Miranda smiled and hoped a tear did not sneak out of an eye. Sephina, who was close to her age, was a pleasant woman, and Miranda decided she was grateful for the company after all.
“I thought you wanted to be alone,” Miranda teased, letting her eyes stray back in the woods where the princesses had paused to dally with the warriors.
Sephina looked a little embarrassed. Modestly she said, “I would not make trouble like that.”
Farther down the hillside, the younger Lana squealed with laughter as the two warriors chased her up the slope.
“Your laughter could be heard in Jingten,” Sephina scolded when her sister arrived. One warrior noted that the Princess Sephina’s mood had changed, but the other man kept his attention on Princess Lana.
After another giggle, Lana turned to her sister, unimpressed with Sephina’s sudden self-righteousness. “You’re not my mother,” she sneered.
“I could tell your mother,” Sephina warned.
“I could tell yours!” Lana snapped, annoyed by her sister’s attitude.
Sephina widened her eyes at the threat but left things at a draw.
“My Ladies, the next hill shows a great view of the town and the roads, if you would like to go,” suggested one of the warriors. He knew having any more fun with the princesses would only bring hopeless trouble to him and his comrade, and he decided to take the opportunity to talk with the foreign woman.
“Lady Miranda, do you find the Temu domain beautiful?” he inquired while leading the way.
Miranda said that she did and added that it was good to get out.
“Everyone is happy that you are feeling better. When will your arm be healed?” he asked conversationally.
“The medicine woman said in a week, but I need time to get my strength back,” Miranda answered.
“I heard Lord Shan helped you with his magic when you were hurt. What does rys magic feel like?” the warrior wondered eagerly.
Princess Sephina gasped at the question because she had been the one to tell the warrior details about Miranda, but she was just as curious to hear the answer. Miranda did not mind the question. She was starting to get used to the fact that everybody talked about her.
“It feels good. Shan is very kind,” Miranda replied.
They continued to make small talk while riding leisurely to the top of the next hill. Miranda answered questions about the Wilderness and her homeland, and her companions were fascinated by all she said.
“To travel so far is amazing,” concluded one warrior.
“I did not really set out to,” Miranda noted thoughtfully.
The view from the hill was commanding. To the left sat Fata Nor, and to the right stretched two roads cutting through wooded uplands that met at the base of the hill. A warrior explained that one road went to Jingten, which Miranda had already traveled, and the other road went north to other tribal domains.
“Riders are on that road right now,” the warrior observed, pointing to a line of dust. “They will come into view in a moment.”
“Will they see us?” Miranda asked, suddenly nervous.
“If they look up,” the warrior said.
“I do not want them to see us,” Miranda said, yielding to her innate need to be cautious.
The Temu warrior had not thought to hide and he did not know why Miranda was so paranoid, but he decided it might be a good idea.
“My Ladies, there is no need for strangers to know you are out riding,” he said.
The princesses accepted his decision, but Lana said, “I still want to see.”
“We’ll be able to see,” he assured her pleasantly.
They moved into cover and dismounted. Concealed by the shade of trees, they waited for the riders to come into view.
“Could it be King Taischek’s war party returning?” Miranda asked hopefully.
“No. It is too small and from the wrong direction,” answered the warrior.
“Look!” hissed the other warrior.
About twenty riders emerged from the woodland and they were clearly not Temu warriors. Even from a distance, black horsetails could be seen streaming from the top of metal helmets, and visors covered all of the riders’ faces.
“Kezanada,” a warrior said, and both princesses gasped.
“They are heading for Fata Nor,” cried the other warrior.
The warriors exchanged panicked looks.
“What are they?” Miranda asked, watching the darkly clad warriors get closer.
“We have to leave,” a warrior announced, already urging the princesses toward the horses.
“Please, you must hurry,” the other warrior told Miranda while pulling her away from her observation.
“Are they enemies?” Miranda said.
“They are Kezanada,” the warrior replied as if that answered everything.
Miranda could not ignore the clear fear displayed by her companions, and she suddenly wished she had the sword she had lost in Jingten.
“We can get to Fata Nor just ahead of them. Follow me,” said one warrior.
It was a hard cross-country ride back to the town, with the earlier frolicking forgotten. Urging her horse to greater speed, Miranda felt her muscles begin to ache after growing soft from weeks in bed.
Queen Vua was in the town center meeting with villagers when she noticed the riding party returning across the fields. The droning testimony from a local grievance faded from her ears as she saw how fast the riders approached. She scowled at the princesses riding so recklessly.
And Miranda with that broken arm! she thought, but her mental scolding ended when she realized something had to be wrong. The Temu warrior in front waved urgently to the people.
A Temu laden with firewood scrambled out of the way as the riders rushed into town. The leading warrior jumped from the saddle and his feet hit the ground before his horse even stopped.
Breathing hard, he said, “My Queen, Kezanada are coming on the north road. They will be here any time.” He looked over his shoulder, expecting them.
A serious expression consumed Vua’s face. “How many?” she cried urgently.
“Ah, twenty, not many,” he answered.
This figure made Vua relax slightly, but it was enough to make other people cry out with alarm. An old veteran warrior who had been attending the Queen during the public meeting stepped forward. His name was Hetano and he had only one arm.
“My Queen, I can handle this. But you and the princesses must get inside,” Hetano said.
She nodded and ordered the princesses and Miranda to go immediately to the guesthouse.
Hetano told the two warriors who had been riding with the women to gather the other warriors. A crowd of concerned people had quickly thickened around Hetano.
“Get off the streets. There are only twenty of them and that is not enough to attack. The warriors will handle it,” Hetano announced.
He escorted the Queen to the guesthouse. When Vua hurried inside, her youngest daughter rushed into her arms and Vua petted her reassuringly. Outside a dog barked, and a few people cried with alarm from the surrounding fields, sending a ripple of apprehension through the women in the house. Servants ran around locking doors and windows, but Vua calmly took her seat and sent a servant to watch from a shuttered window.
Warriors were assembling outside and Hetano gave fast orders and pointed to various locations around the town. Three warriors stayed with him in front of the guesthouse.
Miranda heard the noise of riders, and they sounded like they were heading straight to the guesthouse.
Peeking carefully through the shutters, the servant girl reported, “Kezanada, my Queen.”
Vua nodded gravely, but no one dared breathe a word. The jingling of armed warriors dismounting could now be heard directly outside. Miranda crept near the servant girl so she could also look out.
Hetano faced a tall thickset man who acted like he was the leader of the riders. With his hands placed disdainfully on his hips, he looked down at Hetano. The stranger did not raise his visor and only shadows could be seen through the slits in the metal. By the amount of sweat-streaked dirt on his bare muscular arms, the man appeared to have traveled many fast hasas that day.
His voice had a metallic ring as he spoke through the visor. “My men would take water from the wells of Fata Nor.”
Hetano gestured generously with his one arm toward the nearest well and said, “You are welcome to the water if that is the extent of the Kezanada’s business here.”
The Kezanada leader laughed. “I came here for more than water. Where is Taischek?”
“King Taischek is away on Taischek’s business,” replied Hetano.
From the looks of the present Temu warriors, the Kezanada leader figured Hetano spoke truly, surmising that Taischek was probably off on some raid with his prime warriors. But the Kezanada was a bully and chose to be argumentative for the pleasure of it.
“I know the royal household is here, so don’t tell me he’s not here,” he rumbled.
Hetano showed no signs of intimidation but expanded his answer slightly, “King Taischek is away at war.”
“Ah, but surely his Queen is here?” said the Kezanada with a lewd tone. He turned his hidden face toward the guesthouse.
The young warriors behind Hetano bristled at the Kezanada’s mention of their beloved Queen, but Hetano maintained his composure.
“Let me speak with the Queen,” the Kezanada demanded, knowing the inappropriate request would provoke the Temu.
Stepping forward, Hetano boldly suggested, “If you wish to do battle with us, then just start it.”
The Kezanada leader looked around. He knew Temu warriors had to be concealed all over the town, and no doubt, bows were drawn. Taischek would not leave his family undefended, and the Kezanada force was not large enough to guarantee the submission of Fata Nor, and no one was paying him to attack a Temu town—at least not yet.
“You Temu have such attitudes,” the Kezanada commented.
He signaled to the other Kezanada men to go to the well. Leading their horses, they swaggered down the street, seemingly unconcerned with the glare of the watchful Temu warriors.
The Kezanada leader and Hetano did not move. “Where is the rys, Shan?” the Kezanada suddenly demanded, getting to the true nature of his business.
Hetano made no reply. He could be difficult too.
“Don’t play dumb with me you old cripple?” barked the leader. “I know Shan was asking for Taischek and bound for Fata Nor two weeks ago. Is he still here?”
“The Temu do not discuss their friends with people who do not give their names,” Hetano spat.
The leader paused. Kezanada, especially a ranking member, tended to be very private about their identities with outsiders. He also realized Hetano meant what he said. The Temu were notoriously loyal once they chose a friend, but the leader decided to press Hetano a little further. If he could make the Temu reveal any information, it could be helpful.
“You are hiding Shan,” he accused.
“A rys would not hide from you,” scoffed Hetano.
If Hetano could have seen the sinister glare behind the visor, he may not have remained so calm and confident.
Taking a new approach, the leader asked, “Is Shan with Taischek?”
For the smallest instant the truth flickered across Hetano’s face as the Kezanada leader had expected it would.
Although Hetano realized this, he still lied, “I do not know where Shan is. I know only he is not in Fata Nor.”
The Kezanada leader asked no more questions. He knew the old warrior would not reveal Taischek’s whereabouts, unless of course he took the trouble to torture him, but he did not want to use such time consuming methods. If he could find Shan before the rys learned of the bounty, he would have a greater chance of succeeding in his mission.
“Tell Taischek he best part company with his rys friend,” warned the leader.
“King Taischek cares little about the opinion of a Kezanada,” Hetano said proudly.
“I doubt that,” scoffed the Kezanada. “Just thank your ancestors that I don’t want to waste time attacking your pitiful town.”
“Water yourselves and be gone,” Hetano said.
“Talk like that to a Kezanada and you will lose your tongue like your arm.”
Startled, Hetano whirled to see who had spoken. His attention had been so focused on the Kezanada leader, he had not noticed the approach of Rysmavda Nebeck.
“Shan has shown the emptiness of your threats,” Hetano retorted. He had never respected Nebeck, and now all of his faith was in his King and Shan.
“And Shan will bring death to those who serve him. When you learn of the crimes the renegade rys has tricked King Taischek into committing, you will wish you had not protected Shan,” Nebeck said.
“Enough of this prattle,” snapped the Kezanada leader. “You have obviously come to talk to me Nebeck, so do not waste my time.” He barged past Hetano and started walking down the street with the rysmavda. Nebeck scowled at the Kezanada’s rude behavior but he followed without complaint.
Once they were out of earshot, one of the young Temu warriors whispered to Hetano, “You cannot let him insult us like that. Hetano, let us fight them.”
“It is best to let them leave. A quarrel with the Kezanada is best avoided, and we will have war soon enough,” Hetano explained.
Inside the guesthouse, the servant girl related what had happened in a hasty whisper to Queen Vua. Miranda stayed at the window and strained to see the Kezanada again, but they had moved out of sight. Although she had not understood all the words exchanged, she had gathered that the Kezanada wanted Shan. Deeply concerned, Miranda went and kneeled before Vua.
Worry creased the Queen’s face as she thought about her husband and the storm he was bringing upon his tribe, but she relinquished her attention to Miranda.
“What are the Kezanada?” Miranda asked.
Vua tried to formulate a description for something everyone simply understood. “They are a brotherhood of professional soldiers or maybe criminals is a better term. Anyone can hire their services. A tribe or rich family can hire them to perform services like kidnapping, extortion, assassination, spying, or to fight in a war. They are very secretive and very powerful. They work for Jingten as well,” Vua explained.
“And their whole tribe does this?” Miranda said.
Vua replied, “They are not a tribe. Their castle is in Do Jempur north of the Temu Domain, but they are not a people like the Temu. A member of the Kezanada can come from any tribe. A man can join if he is willing and can meet their requirements. Sometimes the Kezanada invite a warrior to join them, if he has a talent they want or need.”
“Queen Vua, they want Shan. That means someone has hired them to find Shan, right?” Miranda said.
Vua nodded. “There is always some profit behind their actions, but I do not know much more than I have told you.”
“You said they work for Jingten. Queen Onja must have sent them,” Miranda determined.
“You are probably right,” Vua said.
“Shan must be warned!” Miranda cried.
Vua agreed. “He will be. Tonight I will send messengers. The Kezanada will watch us for this move, so I will send them in all directions. I have reasonable knowledge of where the King can be reached, and he will receive this important news.”
“Let me go with them,” Miranda proposed.
Adamantly Vua shook her head, determined not to indulge Miranda with the request.
“Why do you ask such a thing?” Vua demanded.
“I cannot sit here while those men hunt Shan. He saved me from death and I must warn him. Please, Queen Vua, let me go,” Miranda pleaded.
“No,” Vua said sternly. “The Kezanada are very dangerous, and you would only jeopardize yourself and the Temu warrior with you. The messengers have a better chance of success if they travel alone.”
Miranda knew she had to accept Vua’s decision, but she murmured hopelessly, “But I must do something to help Shan. He is the only one who can get my children back. Without his magic, I know I cannot beat Onja.”
Her face fell into her hands as sadness and frustration momentarily overwhelmed her.
Vua truly felt sympathy for the foreign woman. In her life, Vua had given birth ten times and seen five of her children die. Two sons lost at war, one in a riding accident, a grown daughter in childbirth, and a baby girl to childhood disease, but she could not quite grasp the horror of having her children stolen.
How this girl must suffer, she thought and then said, “Shan will not be harmed. Shan is with Taischek, and Taischek is with warriors. They will be safe.”
Lifting her head, Miranda thanked the Queen for being patient with her. Dismally Miranda realized she probably could not contribute much to Shan’s defense anyway. Shan had a Temu army and his magic to protect him. Mostly Miranda wanted something to do. She was tired of waiting among the women. Seeing them with their children caused her a jealous pain, and she would rather be with Shan plotting his return to Jingten.
Heavy thoughts weighted the steps of Taf Ila as he made his way slowly to the throne room. Being Captain of the Jingten Guard was usually an effortless assignment. He had responsibilities, of course, but except in the autumn when the humans brought their tribute, there was rarely anything of consequence to do—until this summer.
When the Tatatook had abruptly appeared bearing the human girl, Taf Ila had actually been sent east to collect the other humans. Never before had Onja allowed humans to approach Jingten from the east, and, at the time, Taf Ila had worried that her unprecedented mercy signaled changing times.
The concept caused Taf Ila difficulty. Even by a rys’s reckoning things never changed in Jingten, but the arrival of the easterners had quickly altered the timeless quality of daily life in Jingten. The festering stalemate between Onja and Shan had finally collapsed, resulting in Shan’s expulsion from the bosom of the Rysamand. And the humans had been badly treated, except for the children. Although Taf Ila had not personally harmed Miranda, he still felt linked to her murder.
Taf Ila winced, upset that he had actually let such thoughts form. He should not consider Onja’s commands with criticism or guilt. The woman had defied the Queen’s will and suffered the consequences. That was all.
Nearing the throne room, Taf Ila concentrated on his duty. He did not know why Onja had summoned him. The door wardens let him enter and the rich magical light of the throne room bathed him. No guards attended Onja, who waited on her dais. She always addressed her captain from her throne. The centuries could never diminish her love of lording over others. Respectfully Taf Ila bowed to her, holding his gaze down until she spoke.
“You lack punctuality today,” Onja observed.
To Taf Ila, this was a scathing criticism, but he mustered an apology. “Forgive me, my Queen. I have many concerns these days. You have made a busy rys of me.”
“I shall make a busier rys of you,” she responded.
He noticed a stack of parchment scrolls on a table near the dais.
“What do you will of me?” Taf Ila inquired humbly.
Onja wore a dark blue high-collared gown heavily embroidered with gold, and her haughty gaze held her loyal captain. When he looked upon his Queen, Taf Ila felt renewed reverence as the depth of her powers went beyond his senses. He believed a more regal sight than Queen Onja could not exist.
“I am expecting more visitors from the east,” Onja announced.
Surprise lifted Taf Ila’s features.
Onja continued, “You will ride out to meet them and escort them to Jingten. It is a large force of five hundred soldiers, so take an appropriate number of rys with you. Your intention is not to make battle. Just display our strength and intimidate them mildly, if they need it. I have every confidence that you will perform this task well, Captain.”
It took Taf Ila a moment to absorb the information. More people in the east? An army! He needed more details.
Collecting his thoughts, he asked, “My Queen, have you put them under a spell?”
“Their leader is Kwan and I have contacted him. He is compelled to come to me. He will accept your invitation to escort him to Jingten,” Onja explained.
Taf Ila relaxed now that he knew his Queen had the foreign leader under her influence. His errand would be somewhat difficult, but with a little care, he could manage it.
“My Queen, please forgive me, but I must ask. Why do you want to see these humans from the east? You have never wanted them before,” Taf Ila said.
Onja indulged her captain’s curiosity. “There are great realms in the east now. An empire of humans, if you can imagine such a thing. The eastern world has an impressive civilization, by human standards of course. Therefore, I would speak with this Kwan. Our contact will begin the expansion of my dominion to the far east. It is time the rest of Rystavalla accepted me as their Goddess.”
A rare and mysterious smile graced the Queen’s face as she considered the servitude of the east and pictured more proud humans submitting to her out of fear. Claiming a new land would make her feel young again. She had no particular purpose in mind for her future subjects, beyond enjoying them bowing to her supremacy.
Her plan stunned Taf Ila, who had never thought much about the east.
When he said nothing, Onja continued, “But this will take time. My first step is to meet this eastern general and perhaps find a use for his army. They approach the Rysamand as we speak, but you need not leave on your mission until morning. I have another task for you today.”
As if this was not enough? he thought with exasperation, then instantly regretted it.
Directing his attention to the table full of scrolls, Onja said, “You must arrange for these dispatches to be sent before you leave tomorrow.”
Taf Ila regarded the pile. He had handled dispatches countless times, but he had never seen so many. Some bore the blue seal for the rysmavda, others had the gold seal for delivery to kings, and one had the black seal.
“There must be two for every kingdom,” Taf Ila said.
“Note the special one for the Kezanada,” Onja instructed.
Taf Ila looked at the black seal and nodded.
Onja continued, “In the drawer is a copy I had made for you to read. You need to know about this situation. Read it now.”
Her voice trembled with anger on the last word, and Taf Ila now sensed that his Queen was upset. He obeyed instantly and removed the parchment from the drawer. The flowing script of the official Jingten scribe stated the Queen’s decree in the common human language. Taf Ila considered the scribe’s beautiful hand better suited to the rys language, but few humans could read that.
Onja expected that her captain would want to speak freely once he had read the scroll. With a lock of white hair sliding over her shoulder, she leaned forward like a curious cobra.
“Any questions, Captain?”
Taf Ila’s black eyes fell to the marble floor as he considered discarding his concerns, but the issue was too important. He glanced at the parchment again, hoping the words would change.
Forcing his voice not to falter, he said, “My Queen, this bounty you offer the humans for Shan’s head troubles me.”
Onja’s upper lip twitched with displeasure as she sat back against her solid and reassuring throne.
“Why does this trouble you?” she asked.
Onja obviously wanted him to talk to her about the dispatches, and he raised his gaze cautiously and answered, “By rewarding the humans for his death, it could be interpreted that you caused his death…thereby breaking Dacian’s Last Law.”
Onja kept her face neutral but she scowled inside. Dacian had really inconvenienced her with his last decree and she wished that she had shut him away only one day sooner.
“Does the Captain of the Guard presume to tell his Queen the law?” Onja snarled.
“No, no,” he answered quickly. “But my Queen, is it really necessary to arrange his murder? Is not banishment from Jingten enough?”
“He would kill me!” she hissed defensively. “Do you know what he has done just this morning?”
Taf Ila shook his head, but her accusation surprised him. It was true that Shan desired to be King, but no one took him seriously anymore. Shan was known for his generous heart and non-violent disposition, and Taf Ila did not want to believe his Queen’s claim.
“This morning Shan led a Temu war party on the Sabuto town of Dursalene. He used his magic against the Sabuto, and the Temu looted my temple! The flames have consumed it already!” Onja shouted in rage. “The noble Shan would throw away your precious rys law, and you accuse me of his crimes.”
Taf Ila gaped at her news. He could not imagine that the humans would be so bold, even with Shan’s encouragement.
He apologized, “I am sorry, my Queen. I was ignorant of the looting of a temple. But I meant only to inform you that this bounty would upset many citizens. Could you talk to Shan and make him see reason? I cannot imagine that he really wants to make war on you. No one wants to see a rys die. For over two thousand years we have lived in peace and unity, and it has been good. We must not lapse into the darkness that consumed our cousins in Nufal.”
Revealing her fury, Onja stormed down the dais and Taf Ila felt energy crackle around his body. He was a brave rys, but he wavered at the approach of his wrathful Queen, raising his hands and falling back a step. The parchment fluttered in his grasp as a puny barrier to her anger.
With blue light flaring in her obsidian eyes, Onja screamed, “Speak not to me of history. I was there. My magic ended the killing, and my magic will guard the rys forever.” She bent over the cringing Taf Ila and added, “Shan would bring back the dark days you and the others fear. He is no longer a citizen of Jingten and does not deserve the protection of our law. His lust for my throne is unjustified, and his greed will get many rys killed if I do not stop him. So, do not whine to me, Captain, about Shan’s rights, because he does not have any! Tell that to the citizens of Jingten when they complain about the bounty I offer the humans.”
Receding into a bitter calm, Onja said, “He knew his place among us, but he would not stay in it. Shan is a dangerous renegade, and I will deal with him. And if I choose to use my human servants, that is my concern. Your concern is this Kwan in the east and those dispatches.”
The blue light withdrew from Onja’s eyes. Turning from her captain, she decided not to punish him. She had wanted to hear his opinion. Taf Ila was a capable and loyal rys and she should not have treated him so badly.
“You have your assignment. Leave Shan to me. The interests of Jingten are ever close to my heart. Dismissed,” she said.
With rattled nerves Taf Ila saluted somewhat ridiculously with the parchment then bowed to his Queen. He had always accepted Onja as the supreme rys, but today she had truly terrified him. For a moment he had thought she would strike him dead and the experience left him visibly shaken. Scooping up the scrolls, he left the throne room. He was so disturbed that he dumped the dispatches at his office and walked straight home to his fine stone house. A couple hours of meditation in the comforting surroundings of the house that had been his home for almost seven hundred years would soothe him.
Unbuttoning his suede jacket, Taf Ila strode through the entry hall and did not notice his daughter rush to meet him.
“Father! You are home early,” she cried happily.
Her voice startled him and he jumped back with uncharacteristic nervousness, but the sight of his daughter pleased him. He immediately reached out and hugged her close.
“Quylan.” He said her name as if it was a spell that would calm him. Stroking her glossy black hair, he gave her another squeeze.
“Something is wrong,” Quylan stated.
“I was upset, but I am better now,” Taf Ila said.
She looked at her father quizzically.
“I came home to have some tea,” he said tiredly.
“I am glad to have your company, Father,” Quylan said and tugged at his hand.
His lovely daughter renewed him and he followed Quylan, whose steps skipped lightly down the hall to the kitchen. Although Taf Ila and her mother had separated, their union had been blessed. He also had an older son, but his daughter was his joy. The largest heap of treasure in the Keep could not rival her in his heart.
Dropping heavily into a kitchen chair, he watched Quylan pour the tea. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, filling the room with pure warmth. A blue aura flared briefly around Quylan when the sun hit her just right. Although still a rysling, she had begun to show potential as a magic user—a lot of potential. Taf Ila was suddenly glad that she would have this strength to help her through life.
Quylan sipped her tea while her father did not touch his cup. Patiently she waited for him to explain his obvious distress, but he only stared moodily at the kitchen table.
Finally she asked, “Father, what has happened?”
Sighing, he took a drink of tea and looked at her warmly. “Nothing to concern you, my treasure. You are still free of the problems of your elders and should enjoy the remainder of your ryslinghood,” he replied.
Quylan ignored his paternal evasion and whispered, “Is there bad news about Shan?”
His expression turned instantly hard and Taf Ila demanded, “Why do you ask about him?”
He had never used such a harsh tone with her, and Quylan looked away with guilt. Softly she confessed, “I tried to find him the other day. I saw him with human warriors, but I could not see much else. It is hard to see beyond the Rysamand.”
“Why would you do such a thing?” Taf Ila asked with horror.
Quylan defended herself in a bolder tone and looked straight at her father now. “No one has ever been banished from Jingten before. I wanted to see what he was doing. I was worried.”
“Do not worry yourself about him,” Taf Ila ordered.
“There has been bad news about him,” Quylan surmised again, hoping to coax the news from her father.
Taf Ila buried his face in his hands and regretted yelling at his sweet daughter. He had to gain control of his emotions. Many rys depended on him, most especially Quylan. Sitting up, he tried to rub the tension out of his temple. He did not want to share the terrible news with Quylan, but she would hear about it anyway.
In a soft voice, he said, “Shan has led an attack on a temple and it has been looted and burned. Queen Onja has issued a bounty to the humans for his head.”
“What?” Quylan cried. “She cannot.”
“The Queen can do this because it is necessary. Shan cannot defile temples. The Queen will not excuse his behavior. I have already discussed this with her, and asked her not to call for his death,” Taf Ila explained quickly, reaching out to Quylan.
“No, no. They have quarreled before. Shan always comes back,” Quylan insisted.
Taf Ila set a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “Not this time, Quylan. Shan has gone mad. He is banished and does not have the protection of law.”
“Father, a rys cannot say that a rys must die. Just because Onja asks the humans to do it does not get around our sacred law,” Quylan protested.
“And I told her so,” Taf Ila soothed. “But Queen Onja made it very clear that other rys should not get between her and Shan.”
“But you taught me yourself that Dacian’s Last Law was more important than any other law. You cannot stand by while that law is ignored,” Quylan argued.
“I must, and you must, Daughter,” Taf Ila said firmly. “Rys have another law and that is a challenge for the throne is between the monarch and the challenger. Only in that way can the strongest truly prevail and lead us. Onja and Shan will never relent in this battle, and this can only end with one of their deaths. Leave the guilty to the guilty.”
“Oh, it is so horrible,” Quylan whimpered with tears now clinging to her lashes.
Her father hated to see her upset and wished Shan had never caused this evil conflict that marred the beauteous peace of Jingten. Taf Ila vowed to do his best to protect Quylan from the coming turmoil that he felt building like a bad blizzard.
He said, “Now forget Shan. I doubt the humans could kill the likes of him. I have more important news that concerns us more directly. An army of humans is in the Wilderness, and I must leave tomorrow to meet them.”
“An army in the Wilderness!” Quylan cried with dismay.
Still coping with the shock himself, Taf Ila continued, “I know it is hard to imagine, but Queen Onja wants to speak with these people from the east.”
“An army. But Father, it will be so dangerous,” Quylan worried.
“Onja has everything under control. They are only humans, and I need only to escort them to Jingten. But I do not want you to go anywhere near these humans. And stay away from the Keep. I insist that you obey me in this,” Taf Ila decided.
Quylan nodded absently, trying to imagine an army approaching Jingten from any direction, let alone the east. The overwhelming news frightened her young mind. Suddenly the world had stopped following the rules she had been raised to believe it would always follow.
After finishing his tea, Taf Ila attempted to console his daughter. “Quylan, you are not of age yet and need not let the troubles of your elders bother you. As a rysling you have the privilege of ignoring these ugly days. Go to your friends’ parties in the forest and sing and dance. Let your soul soak up the glory of the Rysamand and enjoy the sweetness of youth. You will be old most of your life.”
“Yes, I will try,” Quylan sighed, actually wishing she could turn her mind from the disturbing events.
Trying to end on a lighter note, Taf Ila added, “But do not make promises to any young males. You are too young for that.”
Quylan indulged her father’s attempt to treat her like a rysling, and she giggled shyly. “Father, you talk like you were never eighty nine.”
“Well I certainly was once, and that is why I said that. A female should not have a mate until she is at least one hundred and fifty,” he said.
“At least!” she agreed jokingly, glad that his dark mood had improved.
Taf Ila rose and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Thank you for the tea and the talk, Daughter. I shall meditate upstairs for a while, then I will be gone for a couple days.”
“Be careful Father,” she said sincerely.
“You would be surprised how well I manage,” he said.
After Taf Ila went upstairs, Quylan wandered into the backyard and sat on a bench next to the lakeshore. Some swans drifted silently over the water. Outwardly Jingten seemed as beautiful and tranquil as ever, but Quylan could only think of the troubled future. Humans were in the Wilderness, and Onja and Shan would throw away the law to battle with each other. And she had never seen her father so disturbed.
He was frightened, she admitted. What did Onja say to him?
She raised her eyes from the lake and stared westward into the mountains—the direction Shan had taken in his exile. She wanted to look for him again, but her heart ached with illogical young love and she could not focus.
Over the years, Quylan had accompanied her father to the Keep many times, and she had shyly watched Shan whenever she dared. Twice she had noticed Shan observing her and dreamed that he was interested. Two years ago Shan had come to Taf Ila’s office when she had happened to be there, and Shan had smiled to her before her father shooed her out. She had wanted to say something to Shan, but the aura of his great power had kept her silent.
But it was his power that attracted her and now that Shan was banished, her dream of knowing him could never happen.
Quylan wiped a lonely tear from her cheek and scolded herself for breaking her own heart. Any male rys would gladly accept her devotion, and she wanted only the outcast.
I should take Father’s advice, she concluded miserably.
With the blessings of midsummer upon the land, I will make an expedition into the Wilderness. I have no information regarding any sort of population in the far west of Ektren, but the local people speak of the place with superstition. I attribute their fear to their ignorance and lack of initiative. By all appearances the Wilderness should offer many resources to the Empire and fertile land for expansion—Lord General Kwan Chenomet, Hordemaster, excerpt from dispatch to Darmar Zemthute II, year 779 Atrophane calendar.
“Must you go?” Elendra asked.
Queen Onja set the girl down on a couch and explained, “A Queen has many responsibilities, and I cannot give you all of my time, my sweet little dear. Until I come back, you keep your little brother company and behave yourself with Zanah.”
Elendra obediently nodded as her rys nanny approached.
Onja donned a floor length cloak that swished faintly when she turned away. On her way to the door, the Queen paused by Esseldan who played on the thick carpet. She squatted and put a hand on his plump cheek. The boy stopped rolling around when she touched him and stared at the Queen with wide eyes. He had come to accept the strange blue faces that had abruptly replaced his mother’s face, but he had spent many days wailing his disapproval.
“It is good to be friends now, Esseldan,” Onja said.
The boy’s expression remained neutral, but he intrigued Onja for a moment before she hurried out the door. The Queen went to her dock on Lake Nin, where Hefshul, mute as ever, waited patiently in a skiff.
Onja boarded the skiff and Hefshul pushed off. Oars dipping into tranquil waters sent ripples across the surface. Onja watched the tower slowly get closer. The Tomb of Dacian was the only structure in Jingten older than herself and equally resistant to ruin.
With his usual efficiency, Hefshul grounded the boat in front of the tower. He would wait for Queen Onja in the boat no matter how long she spent in the tower. Sometimes she would stay day and night.
Onja levitated out of the skiff and her skirts hung just over the cold water. She walked up the smooth cobbled path to the great doors of the tower.
Once known as the Jingten Tower, the Tomb of Dacian was wholly mysterious to all inhabitants of Jingten. Onja wrapped the tower in powerful and confusing wardings that she knew had never been properly penetrated by even the most determined rys minds. The tower housed all of Onja’s secrets in its safe chambers oblivious to time.
Onja entered the Tomb of Dacian. The glowing crystals in the walls cast her shadow along both sides of the hallway. Flanked by her dark silent attendants, she walked into the throne room. Opposite the entrance rose the dusty bulks of two thrones, where Jingten’s King had sat by his Queen in the last age. Onja passed between the golden chairs and entered a dark alcove in the stone wall. Marvelous tapestries had once covered this special spot, but Onja had transported the tapestries to the new Keep, where they had long since disintegrated.
Energy flowed along the spine of the Rysamand, originating deep inside the world, where the incredible mountains had been conceived. This energy rose through the very fabric of the land toward the heavens, and the masters of antiquity had designed the entire tower to focus a line of the potent force. The alcove Onja entered connected with a shaft that rose through every level, and it was here that the energy had been focused. Almost any rys could link with the harnessed energy and levitate quickly to upper levels, but the privilege had been reserved for royalty and ranking guests. Any others could use the many many stairs.
Grasping the line of energy was a trivial skill to Onja, but she loved the sensation of flying upward. She passed the lower levels that had once housed guests and bureaucrats and servants. Above these levels were the chambers where Onja and Dacian had once lived. Gliding to a soft stop, Onja hovered over the shaft briefly than stepped onto the top level, known as the observatory. Daylight poured through many skylights, and the bright observatory contrasted with the many dark levels below.
The center of the observatory opened to the throne room below, and a beautifully carved stone wall guarded the precipice. The relief carvings on the stone depicted rys among their beloved mountains and forests. Near the levitation portal sat a crystal sarcophagus where Dacian had been interred for twenty-two centuries.
Onja approached his resting place and put her slender hands on the edge of the sarcophagus. Inside the crystal, Dacian’s eyes were open as if forever contemplating his cruel destruction of his cousins in Nufal.
Onja had come to this refuge to meditate. Initially in her pride she had disregarded Shan’s recent threat to overthrow her, but his words had lingered stubbornly in her mind. And his conduct with the Rysmavda Nebeck in Fata Nor four days ago had not escaped her attention. Shan had publicly dared her to strike him with her magic and she had to respond. Onja knew her killing magic could not reach him in the foothills, but she could still watch him. She had not expected him to reveal her waning power to the humans, and she regretted not attacking him while he was still in the Rysamand. His protests had to be stopped before the rysmavda could no longer enforce the faith.
Looking now upon Jingten’s fallen King, Onja admitted that Shan was perhaps the equal of Dacian. She had always known Shan was powerful. When she had held Shan as a tiny rysling, new to the world, she had known he was extraordinary, a rys of rare quality that only came along once in an age. And Onja had known that he would have to be controlled.
Onja had tried ensnaring Shan to her will as she had Dacian, but even in his youth Shan had been difficult to dominate. He was not her contemporary as Dacian had been, and the gulf of time that separated her from Shan had made it difficult to cultivate his trust. Since winning their battle when Shan had turned one hundred, Onja had been able to intimidate him at least, but now Shan had matured and his strength made him more dangerous to her than ever.
I should have killed him, and damn your law, Onja thought.
Aloud she said, “Dacian, let us survey our realm and find the pretentious Shan.”
Swiftly Onja’s awareness radiated westward through the mountain pass, flying down the slopes to the lowlands where the human tribes dwelled. Her mind easily spotted Shan. The rys rode at the front of a column of warriors, and Onja recognized King Taischek by Shan’s side. Briefly she wondered why Shan valued human friendship so much. To Onja, humans were useful resources, but little else.
That skinflint Taischek will regret the company he keeps, Onja thought.
The Temu force moved in the opposite direction from Jingten, making Onja surmise that Taischek currently pursued one of his petty rivalries. This created no concern for the Queen, but she longed to pick Taischek’s mind and know what Shan had been saying to him. However, the proximity of Shan and his warding crystals blocked Onja’s probing awareness. Mindreading through a warding at this distance would take considerably more effort.
She saw Shan look upward with a suspicious expression on his blue face, and Onja withdrew her mind, trying to elude his alerted perception. While retreating she noticed the light haired easterner among the warriors and quickly tried to probe his mind. But a warding crystal protected him as well, which displeased her. It would require much patience on her part to catch Shan conversing with his friends about his intentions, so she could listen. She preferred reading the minds of her enemies at her convenience.
Thwarted from gaining any useful knowledge, Onja ended her observations with disgust. Blue light faded from her eyes and her awareness returned to her body, which was now leaning on Dacian’s sarcophagus. Even without reading any minds, she had learned enough from Rysmavda Nebeck to know Shan meant war. Although it stung her pride, Onja decided to strike first. She had supreme confidence in her powers, of course, but avoiding a dangerous confrontation with Shan would be the prudent alternative.
Even if Shan survives to reach Jingten, being hunted will wear on his mind, she thought. She would send instructions to her human servants to begin dealing with him.
“Nufal.” The thin thought of Dacian’s voice surfaced in Onja’s mind.
Blue light pulsed through the crystal sarcophagus and startled her. It had been a long time since he had tried to communicate.
With disinterest she started to disconnect her mind. She did not want to hear his regret about destroying Nufal again.
“Look!” His plea had a surprising note of command in it that convinced her to pay attention.
Onja settled into another meditation and followed Dacian’s mind into the Wilderness. She passed over the desolate Quinsanomar where thousands of imprisoned spirits stirred beneath the mind of their heartless mistress, expecting to be released on some vicious errand. But Onja ignored them and continued east. The prairie rolled onward toward the Tabren Mountains, where the chatter of a beautiful civilization had been replaced by the lonely moan of wind through crumbled buildings.
Arriving at a disintegrated Nufalese town upon the prairie, Onja understood Dacian’s insistence that she inspect her eastern domain. More humans had entered the Wilderness, and this time it was a large force of soldiers.
Onja inspected them freely without fear of detection. The eastern world was a wasteland of humanity that had no grasp of magic, and these soldiers clearly came from an eastern kingdom. She saw that they were richly accoutered with fine weapons and armor and good horses. Onja admired the military force and recognized that it was the product of an advanced and flourishing civilization.
The children of the east appear to be prospering. They have come far since I closed the Wilderness. Who would have guessed those enclaves of savages could make so much progress in two thousands years? Onja thought. Perhaps the time has come for the east to know their Goddess.
She watched the soldiers dismount and roam the ruins, puzzling at the city barely visible after centuries of decay. Onja quickly determined the leader among them by his splendid gear and the attention focused on him by the others. The leader’s white hair accentuated his tan and he stroked his goatee while pondering the surroundings. The winged creature holding two spears emblazoned upon his armor seized Onja’s attention.
How perfect, she thought pleasantly.
This time the Deamedron would not consume the intruders with mad slaughter. If she could dominate these well-armed men, it would begin her influence over the eastern peoples, whose servitude she had ignored too long.
Having seen enough, Onja returned her mind to Jingten. The long distances she had covered had made her weary, but she had plans to set in motion. She rubbed her temple while organizing her thoughts. Rebellion on the horizon and a small army of foreigners in the Wilderness shocked Onja after so many changeless years, but she was the Queen of Jingten and would adapt.
The brow and eye socket of a skull peeked out of the turf and Lord Kwan squatted to examine it. The ground had almost consumed the weathered bone, and Kwan wondered what thoughts had been in the ancient mind.
Next, Kwan walked through the arched doorway of a crumbled building. Most of the roofing had long since collapsed, and he picked his way through the overgrown rubble. In the central area of the ruin he saw steps leading to a lower level, and he descended into the gloom. A little daylight filtered down into the buried chamber and revealed a depressing scene. Skeletons littered the entire chamber and the bones, connected by cobwebs and a deep layer of dust, extended beyond the light.
Staying on the steps, Kwan bent and saw the sad sight of a child’s skeletal remains mixed with the bones of possibly a parent. He picked up the little skull, but it promptly disintegrated in his hand. Gingerly he examined a few more bones but he saw no conventional marks of violence.
He noticed the jewelry of the dead scattered beneath the blanket of dust. Within his reach, Kwan found a well cut diamond ring that sparkled gratefully once he wiped away the grime. He considered it very odd that the treasures had not been gleaned from the ruins. He pocketed the ring and brushed the morbid dust from his gloves before departing.
The sunny day greeted him, but it did not ease the troubles this ancient place of death brought him. Lieutenant Sandin approached and saluted the Lord General.
Sandin reported, “My Lord, there are skeletons among all of the ruins and scattered outside too. Most of the bones are crumbling and I would say this happened a very long time ago. Maybe even thousands of years. I suspect there are more remains that the soil has overgrown.”
Kwan nodded. “I am sure you are right, Lieutenant. And it seems these people died all at once.”
“What do you think happened, my Lord?” Sandin asked.
“I am thinking a plague…but I am not sure,” Kwan replied.
“Plague,” Sandin murmured with a shudder. Plague towns revolted him, even one from antiquity.
“We shall make camp outside the city,” Kwan decided.
“Excellent, my Lord,” Sandin acknowledged readily. “One more thing, the men are finding wonderful bits of treasure, but some are concerned that a curse protects this place. Why do you think the valuables have been left untouched?”
The Lord General swept his gaze over the empty land that looked peaceful and green except for the secretive ruins. Indeed the worries of his men had occurred to him, but, because he was a great conqueror, Kwan was an optimist and had faith in a simpler explanation.
“Perhaps no one else has ever been here,” he suggested.
The loneliness of the Wilderness had also impressed Sandin and he nodded. “Truly then we are the first, my Lord.”
“It would seem so,” Kwan said but he frowned at the snowy barrier of mountains to the west beyond the rolling prairie. “Yet I do not feel alone.”
Later that day, Kwan sat in front of his tent facing west. The expeditionary force of five hundred had camped a fair distance from the ruins near a small spring-fed lake. Kwan’s squire, Jesse, roasted a pheasant, and Kwan let his thoughts wander while waiting for his supper. So far the historic expedition had been entirely uneventful until reaching the ruins that day. They had traveled north from Droxy along the nearest chain of mountains. Kwan planned next to head west and reach the higher mountains. Regarding the western peaks, which were greater than any he had ever seen, Kwan doubted he would travel their slopes this year, but he would have enough summer to go and look at them. Then next year he could come back and try to breach the barrier to the other side of the world.
Although dreams of discovery thrilled him, Kwan also felt very far from Atrophane. The Horde road had always been his first love, and his times on his lovely estates were mere holidays between adventures, but suddenly his homeland tugged at his heart.
It is this desolate place. Nothing has prepared me for this emptiness, he thought. He admitted that the lack of human habitation made him uncomfortable. In all of his other travels, defending armies had come to face him, but the Wilderness confronted him with only countless empty elti and mysteries. His instincts warned him that danger lurked in the fragrant fertile land. The ancient holocaust within the ruins told him as much, and the more recent disappearances of Hydax and Gennor continued to bother him.
Now Kwan thought about Dreibrand. Privately he would consider that the young officer had deserted, but the notion sickened him. He knew many others thought Dreibrand had deserted, but he would not sanction that idea. To accept that truth created a rage Kwan did not want to feel. He missed Dreibrand and preferred to think that a Bosta had killed his errant lieutenant the night before the conquest of Droxy.
In retrospect, he wished he had chosen Dreibrand for the expedition if it would have meant that the intelligent young lieutenant would still be alive. Kwan had not expected Dreibrand to become so wildly upset about being left behind. Dreibrand should have considered the assignment to the chattel caravan a reward and a holiday after two years on the Horde road. But the ambitious son of the censured House had only wanted the Wilderness.
Kwan sighed and removed his thoughts from Dreibrand. The disappointment hurt too much.
You are getting old, Kwan, he thought.
The first chill of evening came across the land with a north breeze while Jesse served supper. Kwan savored the fresh pheasant and shared the bird with his good squire. Out in the Wilderness, Kwan had relaxed the formalities. There was no one to impress and everybody was completely loyal to him.
As he ate, Kwan watched the sun sink behind the mountains. Riding the last gleams of light from the west, Kwan saw a black speck in the sky. Surprised to see a bird at such a distance, he doubted his eyes.
“Young man, do you see that?” he asked.
Jesse squinted carefully, hoping that the dusk fooled his eyes as well. Reluctantly he replied, “Aye, Lord General.”
“It must be large,” Kwan speculated.
In silent agreement the squire nodded. He faced his lord, who he trusted completely, and Kwan noticed the fear on his squire’s face, which was no doubt aggravated by the dismal discovery of the ruins.
“Shall I get Lieutenant Sandin, Lord?” Jesse offered.
“No. I will do it myself,” Kwan said dismissively.
Before the sun completely left their half of the world, Kwan determined that the flying object seemed to be coming toward him. Resting his hand on the hilt of his sword, Kwan walked over to Sandin’s fire. The lieutenant lounged half asleep but he started awake when he noticed that the Lord General had come over to him.
Kwan told him what he had seen, expressing his concern that they would soon have a visitor.
“I will assemble the archers. It is probably a large predator and we should shoot it from the sky,” Sandin decided.
Approvingly Kwan nodded but added, “Only shoot if and when it attacks. I suspect that it is a great beast spawned by those great mountains, but we should not anger it needlessly, and I would like the chance to observe it.”
News of a large flying beast spread quickly because several men spotted it. The sentries around the horses were tripled in case it attacked the horses, and the remaining men gathered near the archers. After the beast disappeared in the deepening gloom, the soldiers watched the night sky expectantly. A full moon ascended the sky and provided some illumination.
The beast announced its arrival with the distinctive scream of the Tatatook. The predatory shriek rattled the nerves of the normally fearsome soldiers, and the archers drew their bows anxiously. Lord Kwan commanded them to stand steady and not shoot in panic.
The large wings flapped loudly as the intelligent beast controlled its landing in the midst of the soldiers. Men fell back cautiously to give it a wide berth. The taloned feet touched the ground, and it walked a little awkwardly like an eagle, but all who were near it clearly saw that it was much more than a colossal bird. The glistening black wings folded over a man-like torso and feathered arms ended in hands with talons.
The winged beast on Kwan’s armor glittered in the torchlight and many immediately contemplated the similarity. The incarnation of the symbol of the Chenomet Clan was a potent sign, and some wondered aloud if it could be a divine messenger to the Lord General.
The Tatatook boldly stalked toward Kwan, who accepted that if the beast struck him down, it would be his fate. Only Kwan’s orders restrained Sandin from commanding the archers to shoot. Bravely Kwan faced the beast. It turned its head after the fashion of birds and eyed him carefully. Queen Onja had been very specific about whom to deal with, and the Tatatook had no desire to make a mistake.
Satisfied that it had the right man, the Tatatook extended an arm. The talons opened to reveal a crystal orb glowing with blue light that twinkled on the sharp talons. The beast offered the orb and waited patiently for Kwan to realize that it was a gift. The Lord General experienced the unfamiliar sensation of fear, but he would never let his men see him hesitate. As he reached over the pointy talons, Kwan fully expected to feel them quickly slice into his wrist, but the beast did not move.
Grasping the orb, Kwan barely glanced at it because he would not take his eyes from the feathered intruder. With its assignment complete, the Tatatook abruptly unfolded its great wings. Soldiers scattered as it bounded for the open and leaped into the air. The Tatatook circled once overhead, and Kwan felt the wind created by the wings blast across his face. Then it flew higher, crossed the face of the moon, and disappeared into the night.
A hush remained over the Atrophane soldiers, and Sandin was the first to emerge from the shock. He ordered the archers to maintain a doubled watch in case it returned. Personally he doubted that the bird had been sent from some Atrophaney deity, as some had whispered, and he mistrusted the abomination.
Seeking instructions, Sandin returned his attention to Lord Kwan, but Kwan stared at the crystal orb in his hands and did not speak. The magical light intensified from the crystal, glowing upon Kwan’s face and transfixing his eyes.
“Lord General?” Sandin said twice without response.
Kwan gazed into the blue light, oblivious to his surroundings.
Unable to tolerate this, Sandin grabbed the orb from his commander’s hand and hissed, “What is this evil charm?”
When Sandin’s gloved fist closed around the orb, Kwan blinked hard and turned angry eyes upon his lieutenant.
“What kind of behavior is that, Sandin?” Kwan demanded harshly.
“It had you in a daze,” Sandin hastily explained. “Forgive me, my Lord.”
“Yes, yes,” Kwan agreed impatiently. “But I must have it. She is trying to communicate with me. I could hear her in my mind. I could almost see her.”
“My Lord, what are you talking about?” Sandin cried.
“Give it back,” Kwan ordered firmly, and Sandin reluctantly complied.
“My Lord…” Sandin tried to argue but the Lord General ignored him.
Kwan retreated to his tent with the crystal orb. Too overwhelmed by his commander’s bizarre behavior to react, Sandin watched him go.
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.
“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.”
“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.
For the moment Miranda focused on what was good. The relief of being reunited with her daughter eased Miranda’s worry about her circumstances, and the luxury and beauty of her suite helped her not think about the guards in the hall.
The rys physician stopped by to check on Esseldan. After another examination, the physician flashed Miranda a confident smile because the boy’s cough had lessened.
Elendra chattered freely when her mother bathed her and combed her long glistening hair. Once she was dressed, the girl showed her mother a box of toys that the Queen had given her. She rummaged through lovely dolls with perfect painted faces and removed a ball that bounced delightfully.
“I want to play with this,” Elendra announced.
Miranda obliged her, and they went onto the terrace in the bright morning. The girl’s laughter ranged from giggles to shrieks of joy as she chased the ball. A few times Miranda had to intervene to keep the ball from bouncing off the high terrace. She had never seen her daughter so happy.
Pausing from her play, Elendra said, “Queen Onja will let us have everything we ever need. She is so nice. Do you like it here, Mama?”
“It is very nice,” Miranda agreed with reservation. She wished her daughter was not so enamored with Jingten and Queen Onja. “But don’t you want to go make a home with people? We would only have to travel a little farther.”
Elendra wrinkled her nose. “No!” she snapped. “I’m sick of sleeping on the ground. I want to stay here and live like rich people.”
The words stung Miranda, who knew she had never been able to properly provide for her children. She stared at her daughter but could not blame her for wanting to stay in Jingten.
I should want to stay here too, Miranda thought and looked up the tiered levels of the mighty Keep. She should be thankful that such a wealthy and powerful queen wanted to take care of her children. But Miranda wondered if she could get used to living with the rys. She admitted that she liked the rys who had helped Dreibrand. Shan had seemed easy to like, and Miranda automatically appreciated his kindness. The physician had been concerned and gentle as well.
But Queen Onja scared her.
Although Miranda considered the practicality of staying in Jingten, as Onja seemed to want, she knew Dreibrand did not want to stay. Miranda did not want him to leave her, and she decided to leave when the chance came. She would take Elendra whether she wanted to go or not.
However, spoiling the lovely day by arguing with Elendra would be a shame, and Miranda dropped the subject. They played until noon. At lunch, a chest of clothes arrived for Miranda to choose from. Elendra sat on the bed watching her mother try on clothes in front of a mirror. The fine surroundings and gifts made Miranda understand how Jingten appealed to her daughter. Miranda had never experienced the indulgence of selecting beautiful clothes. Her only option had been rugged homespun.
Best of all, Miranda received a badly needed pair of suede boots of the kind the rys wore. A servant disposed of Miranda’s shoe remnants that had served her for too many years.
While trying on a fine linen suit embroidered with glossy green pine trees, Miranda strapped on her sword in its rugged rawhide scabbard and tucked her knife into the belt. She draped her dusty silk jacket over her shoulders and laughed at her appearance. She certainly was no longer the abused slave girl of Wa Gira. Clean and in decent clothes, she looked good in the reflection. Miranda had never even owned a mirror, and it pleased her to think of herself as looking good.
She was about to draw her sword and brandish it in front of the mirror for amusement, but a knock at the door snapped her out of her foolishness. A servant promptly opened the door, and two Jingten guards entered and indicated that Miranda should come with them. Her stomach tightened nervously, and she glanced at Elendra.
“They said the Queen wants to see you,” said Elendra, who had begun to pick up on the rys language.
“I don’t want to go now. I want to stay with my children,” Miranda said, addressing the nearest guard.
“Mama, don’t argue. Go see the Queen. Esseldan and I will be right here,” Elendra said.
Miranda hesitated. She wanted to trust Elendra, who did not seem the least bit worried, but the Queen filled her with fear. She remembered that Shan had said she would be expected to treat Onja like a Goddess.
One of the guards rapped the point of his spear impatiently on the open bedroom door, and Miranda knew she had no choice. On her way out, she turned back and saw the female servant holding her daughter. Elendra waved happily to her mother.
The guards brought Miranda to the throne room. The dazzle of the throne room was just as impressive to Miranda on the second visit.
From high on the golden dais, Onja looked down at the human. Slowly she pointed at the floor, and each guard put a hand on Miranda’s shoulders and pushed her to her knees. The gleaming marble chilled her knees through her new pants.
“Yesterday you were my guest. Today you are my subject,” Onja announced.
Pinned by Onja’s cruel gaze, Miranda quaked with terror.
Onja continued, “Today I make clear to you what your place is in Jingten. Everyone has a place in Jingten, and it is only fair that you know what yours is. Your man has no place here, and he will be banished today. You may have the privilege of staying with your daughter and continue to be wet nurse to the infant.”
“Wet nurse! I’m his mother!” Miranda screamed. Her outrage devoured her terror.
Blue fire flared in Onja’s eyes, and she warned, “Humans do not use such a tone with their Goddess.”
“Give me my children,” Miranda demanded. “And we will leave Jingten forever.”
The angry glow diminished from Onja’s eyes and the archaic queen actually laughed. “My poor silly girl, it is the children I want. You were allowed to survive the Wilderness to bring your infant to me. Miranda, you are my slave.”
The hurtful word galvanized Miranda’s soul. After so much freedom, she could never endure servitude again.
Springing to her feet and whipping out her sword, Miranda shrieked, “Child stealer!”
A spear quickly tripped her back to the floor, but she rolled and knocked the spear away. Swiping at the guards with her blade, Miranda fought them bravely, but she could not regain her feet.
Clever in combat but not inclined to kill, the team of rys guards soon had her in control. While one engaged her sword with his spear, the other jumped on top of her. He punched her in the face, but Miranda withstood the first blow, and he had to hit her again.
The second punch stunned her, and the sword was pulled from her grip. She struggled under the weight of the rys who pinned her, but to no avail.
“Bind her,” ordered Onja in the rys language as she walked down the steps.
Leather thongs were wound around Miranda’s wrists and throat, and the guards hauled her to her feet. The thong around her throat choked tighter and subdued her struggles. Secured like a captured animal, Miranda watched the Queen approach.
“You have chosen to die,” Onja informed her. “Your children shall miss you and always wonder why you abandoned them.”
Miranda cried out in rage, but the strangling thong made it a weak sound.
Onja taunted, “Yes, I will tell Elendra you did not want her anymore. It will break the little girl’s heart, but she is happier with me anyway.”
Grief tore through Miranda’s body, making her impatient for the blow of execution. Tears tumbled down her cheeks and ran with the blood on her chin.
“Bring her to the roof,” Onja commanded.
The guards dragged Miranda up many flights of dark cold stairs. With her breathing restricted, her steps began to falter. Deep inside the private thoughts of one of the guards, he pitied the human female but it did not deter his obedience to Onja.
Eventually the guards brought her into the daylight on the highest level of the Keep. By this time Miranda’s vision had grayed and her consciousness was slipping away.
Onja stood on the roof with her arms raised. The wind flowed through the Queen’s white hair and blue light shone from her eyes. The guards waited in silence and loosened the thong around Miranda’s neck, allowing her to breathe better.
When Onja lowered her arms, she hung her head as if she was tired. But the weariness passed quickly, and she lifted her head and chuckled darkly.
Sauntering over to her prisoner, Onja said, “You will suffer, but your death will not be the worst because your daughter delights me so.”
“You spoil me,” Miranda rasped sarcastically.
“Yes, I do,” Onja agreed seriously.
Responding to the flourish of the Queen’s hand, the guards stepped back and released Miranda. Before Miranda could raise her bound hands, the long blue arm of the Queen lashed out and laid a cold hand on her forehead. Pain consumed Miranda. Every nerve inside and out felt like it was cut by sharp broken flint and skewered by a thousand needles.
Miranda grimaced in too much torment to cry out and crumpled to the roof. Onja bent as her victim fell and did not relent the torture. Only the will of Onja prevented Miranda’s heart from failing in the anguish.
At last satisfied with the punishment, Onja withdrew her dreadful touch. The intensity of the pain lingered in Miranda’s body as she coughed blood and bled from the nose. Utterly defeated, Miranda clawed feebly at the roof. Her ringing ears did not hear the approaching cry of the Tatatook, but she felt the wind made by the great wings as the creature landed. The Queen stroked the purplish black feathers with an affectionate greeting, and the Tatatook cawed with appreciation.
In the rys language, Onja instructed the fearsome flyer. “My pet, take this pitiful human and cast her upon the Galnuvet Glacier.” Turning to Miranda, Onja raised her voice and spoke in Miranda’s language. “While you die you can watch your flesh freeze.”
Obediently the Tatatook scooped Miranda into its arms and rushed into the air. Every motion of the great wings lifted them higher above Jingten, and Onja laughed as she watched her victim carried to her doom. Too weak from torture to resist, Miranda considered herself dead and faded into a swoon.
In his heart, Shan knew that Onja had summoned the Tatatook for some grim errand, but he dare not waste time using his magic to see what mischief she created. He hoped to return to the Keep in time to interrupt whatever Onja was doing.
At the gates of the Keep waited a squad of Jingten soldiers.
“What is this?” Shan demanded impatiently.
Taf Ila, who was Captain of the Jingten Guard, stepped forward and answered, “By order of the Queen, that human is banished and to depart immediately.” He pointed at Dreibrand dramatically.
“Let us through. This man has the right to collect his belongings,” Shan insisted.
“The Queen commanded me to execute this order immediately. What he has in the Keep is now forsaken,” Taf Ila said.
Shan’s temper ran out. It was not his habit to bicker with Keep guards. “This man is my guest, under my protection. Stop him from entering and you stop me. If Onja wants her order enforced, let her do it herself,” he said imperiously.
The Captain considered Shan’s words. The power and skill of Shan were no secret, and no rys, except for Onja, dared hinder his activities. Indecisively, Taf Ila glanced at Dreibrand, torn between his Queen’s orders and the knowledge that Shan could easily prevent all of them from doing their duty.
“What is happening?” demanded Dreibrand, who anxiously wanted to know what the rys were arguing about.
“They don’t want to let you in,” Shan answered hastily. “Stay close, my friend.”
He had grown tired of the dispute and it was time to remind his fellow rys that he was not to be defied. Raising a hand, Shan cast a spell with the force of his mind. The iron bird gates of the Keep banged open and Shan’s magic shook the squad of soldiers like the rising wind of a storm through dry leaves.
Taf Ila glowered at Shan, but he stepped aside. This submission to Shan’s will impressed Dreibrand, who hurried inside.
“I have to go to Miranda,” Dreibrand said urgently.
“Yes, but we have to stay together. Onja has ordered you banished, and I fear she might order you killed next,” Shan explained.
“Why am I banished? What about Miranda?” Dreibrand said.
“I do not know,” Shan muttered as his eyes roved the Keep. Inside he could not find everything he wanted to find.
They jumped off their horses near the stable, and Shan yelled for the horses that belonged to the humans to be saddled. The stablemaster hurried to comply.
Desperate with worry, Dreibrand dashed into the Keep. He did not really know his way in the huge structure, and he hollered for Shan to tell him the way. The rys ran to catch up to his friend, giving as many warnings as directions.
Twice guards opposed Dreibrand, but they would fall back as soon as Shan caught up. Dreibrand found the hall where Miranda’s suite was, and it disturbed him that guards were no longer present. He reached the door, and finding that it was locked, he pounded on it with his fist and shouted for Miranda.
“Stay away from the door!” Shan warned from down the hall, but Dreibrand did not react in time.
The door was jerked open from inside by a rys soldier who leveled a spear at Dreibrand’s chest. He dodged the spear as it sailed through the door and clanged against the opposite wall. Dreibrand drew his sword, but Shan had reached him and grabbed his arm. The rys pulled him back and tried to get Dreibrand to stand behind him.
More soldiers poured into the hall, and they were followed by Queen Onja. The suite door slammed behind her.
“Engage them and you will die,” Shan hissed, and finally stepped in front of the human.
Dreibrand had no desire to hide behind Shan, and he yelled to Onja, “Where is Miranda?”
“She does not want to see you. Leave now or die,” Onja replied in Miranda’s language.
On the other side of the wall Shan could sense the human children, but Miranda was not there.
“Let the children go, Onja,” Shan said. “They do not belong to you.”
“All humans belong to me!” Onja snapped.
“Then where have you put Miranda?” Shan asked.
His bold questions angered the Queen. “Forget her. And forget him,” she said, turning a blazing gaze on Dreibrand.
Blue light consumed the Queen’s eyes, and Dreibrand felt her power sizzle across his skin. A flash filled the corridor, and he staggered back shielding his eyes. His skin tingled, and he smelled the distinct odor of singed hair. When his vision cleared, he saw that Shan was still in front of him, separated from Onja by a wall of blue light. Through the pulsing blue light, Dreibrand could see Onja’s face, which was twisted with strain and rage.
After a final snarl Onja relented her attack and Shan gasped with relief. The fierce swirling energy disappeared between them, but Onja’s eyes still glowed with her magic power.
“If his life means so much to you, then banish yourself with him,” Onja hissed.
Blue fire filled Shan’s eyes as well, and he burned with desire to fight his enemy. He and Onja had not sparred so flagrantly since his first challenge, and it excited him to block her magic. Over the past four centuries Onja had sensed his maturing powers, but until that moment she had not realized how strong he had become, and it had startled her. Shan watched the seed of fear germinate inside her, and it gratified him, but he cautioned himself not to gain too much confidence from the success. The spell had not been meant for him.
I am a fool to try now. My magic has a better use at this time, he thought.
“I will leave,” Shan announced.
“Leave at once. Or you will spend a century in stone with birds shitting on your head!” Onja threatened.
Shan’s nostrils flared, hinting at the hate he restrained. He wanted to hurl insults at her, but now was not the time to toy with her. Turning to Dreibrand, Shan put a restraining hand on the man’s chest.
“We must retreat to my tower,” Shan whispered.
“What is going on?” Dreibrand growled.
“Onja just tried to kill you. We must go. Trust me,” Shan begged, pushing him down the hall.
“Go live with your human friends, Shan. Die in shame at the foot of the Rysamand,” Onja yelled.
Although Dreibrand could not understand the words, the wrath of the Queen of Jingten made him shudder. He feared her power, but he could not just leave as Shan wanted.
“I must have Miranda and the children,” he protested.
“You must have your life,” Shan countered and dragged him farther down the hall.
Dreibrand looked at the Queen and believed his life was in danger. Reluctantly he yielded to Shan’s will, but he loathed his lack of control.
When they reached Shan’s tower, the rys bolted the main entrance then leaned against the doors. Dreibrand watched him wipe perspiration from his forehead and realized even Shan could be intimidated.
But Shan composed himself quickly and stepped away from the doors.
“What is happening?” Dreibrand demanded again. “Did you challenge her and fail?”
“I did not challenge her in the sense that we discussed earlier, but I did save your life. Her attack spell was meant to kill you. I had to get you out of there,” Shan explained.
“But we have to get to Miranda,” Dreibrand said.
“She is not there!” Shan cried. “That is why we had to retreat. I could not waste time fighting with Onja when I have a chance to find Miranda.”
“Find her! Where is she?” Dreibrand exclaimed.
“The Tatatook probably took her somewhere. I must meditate to find her,” Shan said.
“And the children?” Dreibrand asked.
“They are in the suite. They are unhurt,” Shan replied. “Trust me Dreibrand, and do not leave this tower without me. I should be able to find her quickly. Just hope that it is quick enough and that she is still alive.”
“Alive?” Dreibrand choked, thinking of the flying monster hurting Miranda.
Such thoughts devastated him, and dark rage boiled inside him, urging him to rush through the Keep killing wantonly until he reached Onja. Luckily his anger stopped short of suicide. Such a rampage would be a useless folly. One sho dart and he would be defeated.
Shan rushed upstairs to a private chamber, and he sat down cross-legged in the center of the room. Dreibrand followed but stayed back to watch from a distance. Shan seemed already to be in a trance, and blue light filled his eyes.
In his mind, Shan remembered Miranda. He remembered her face and he remembered the individual force of her soul. Seeking her energy, he released his mind over the land. The features of the Jingten Valley passed beneath his inner vision as if he flew in the sky like the Tatatook. He scanned the woodlands and streams, looking up and down the mountains.
Shan looked once and then twice, finally becoming desperate. He did not sense Miranda, which meant she could be dead. It could take him quite a long time to find a cold dead body.
Then his mind was drawn to a mountain. He could see the powdery snow blowing from the frozen peak where summer could never reach. Shan recognized the disdainful profile of Mount L’cha. It was the view from the Galnuvet Glacier.
A dim lifeforce abandoned on the glacier beckoned his mind. Focusing his perception, Shan looked down on the frozen giant that carved valleys out of mountains and found Miranda. She was sprawled among jutting chunks of ice. Shan gently lowered his mind over her body and rejoiced in the beating of her heart. But her eyes were closed and she was unmoving, and Shan knew that she only lingered in this world.
With less that prudent haste, Shan recalled his mind to his body. Disregarding the strain on his system, he sprang to his feet. Dreibrand stopped his crazy pacing, expecting an answer from the rys. Shan looked beyond his friend and out a window. The lowering sun reflected redly on the snowy mountains, reminding Shan of Miranda’s bloody face.
He informed Dreibrand that Miranda lived but had been thrown onto a glacier to perish. Rushing to another room, Shan rummaged in a chest and began tossing out his mountain climbing gear.
“Here, take these,” he told Dreibrand.
Shan handed him a large coil of rope that he draped across his shoulder. Most of the other gear was unfamiliar to Dreibrand as Shan gave him ice axes and hammers and hooks and spiked gear to strap onto his boots.
“You will need all of this to climb the glacier and save her. Now we must hurry. I will talk more on the road,” Shan explained.
“But I cannot leave Elendra and Esseldan,” Dreibrand declared.
Painfully aware of Miranda’s suffering, Shan looked hard at Dreibrand. “Dreibrand, you must choose. If we stay here and fight for the children, you might die, but Miranda will surely die. The children do not appear to be in any danger, but Miranda is dying. We must go help her right now. If you must have the children now, then I will help you fight for them, but in that time Miranda will die.”
Dreibrand struggled with the dilemma. He did not want to leave the children, but he owed Miranda his life. In the end he only had one decision within him.
“I must go to her,” he said.
Shan set a friendly hand on Dreibrand’s shoulder. “I am sorry this happened. I did not know she was in such immediate danger, or I would not have left the city.”
Dreibrand appreciated the apology because part of him wanted to blame Shan for what was happening.
“Quickly now,” Shan instructed and they left the tower.
When they rode out of the Keep, Shan turned his horse to face the ancient fortress.
Shaking his fist, Shan cried, “A new age and a new king are coming to Jingten, Onja! Enjoy your last days, rotten queen.”
The nearby rys who heard his words stared at Shan with shock. Very little revolutionary spirit stirred in anyone’s heart. Shan had failed before when he challenged the Queen, and most citizens of Jingten wondered why he wasted his powers on such hopeless ideas.
High inside the Keep, Queen Onja heard his words echo through her mind but she disregarded them. She had banished him and if he dared to come back, she would destroy him.
She petted Elendra’s black hair as the girl cried in her lap. The news of Miranda’s abandonment had devastated the little girl, who now found comfort in the bosom of her Queen.
A well maintained road ran west from Jingten and Shan and Dreibrand galloped down it. Jingten disappeared behind them and the night gathered over the Rysamand.
“Why do you stop?” Dreibrand asked, his voice anxious.
Shan answered, “Dreibrand, you must go on without me. I have to cast a spell of heat over Miranda or she will freeze in the night.”
This was too much for Dreibrand. He barely had a grasp of the day’s events and now Shan seemed to be ditching him.
“Now you just want me to leave?” he shouted. “I don’t even know where to go. You trick me, Shan. You have tricked me all day. You lured me out of Jingten so Onja could hurt Miranda.”
“I would have no need to lure you anywhere. If I am against you, why did I let you out of the dungeon?” Shan countered calmly. He understood that Dreibrand had to be bewildered by Jingten and especially Onja’s random cruelty.
Dreibrand did not respond and he felt some regret for accusing Shan of such duplicity. The Queen’s power was fresh in his mind, and Dreibrand admitted that Shan was right. Onja would have no need to lure him away with some elaborate trick.
“Listen to me, Dreibrand. The time you spend doubting me adds to Miranda’s suffering. I cannot cast this spell while I ride. It must be precise. I do not want to melt the ice around her and make her wet, and I do not want to burn her. But I can keep her warm through the night, if I sit and meditate. You must go on ahead to save time. It is a long ride, and I want you ready to rescue her in the morning,” Shan said. The rys dismounted and started packing the climbing gear onto his horse. He laid a hand on the white horse’s head and concentrated a moment. The horse stomped its hoof as if confirming the receipt of message.
“Take my horse and it will guide you to this year’s best spot to mount the glacier. Pick a place on the ice wall that gets the least sunlight so the ice will be strong. Strap the crampons on your boots and use the pick axes to climb,” Shan explained.
“But you are the climber,” Dreibrand interrupted with dismay. “I need your help.”
“You can do it,” Shan encouraged instantly. “You only need to be strong and careful. You will learn at the bottom and know at the top.”
Dreibrand wanted to say that he did not know how to climb a glacier, especially if it was the behemoth of ice he had seen from across the valley that afternoon. But he had to try. Miranda could have kept running from the fenthakrabi and left him to die, but she had taken the perilous moment to cut him free.
Shan continued, “Oh! Cut a couple saplings before you start. When you get on top, use them to probe the glacier surface for weaknesses and hold them under your armpits the rest of the time. If you break through a hidden crevasse, they might catch your fall. Once you are up there, use your warding crystal to find her. I will use it to guide you.”
Dreibrand took in the flurry of information, trying to process it. Determined not to fail, he swung onto Shan’s horse, and the climbing gear jingled as he landed in the saddle.
“With the first light of dawn get started and I will catch up with you tomorrow,” Shan said.
“I am going to climb as soon as I get there, light or no,” Dreibrand declared.
“No,” Shan cried. “The night is our enemy. Do not go up there in the dark. This is a treacherous time of year to be on the ice. Without light you will step into a crevasse for certain. You will understand when you see. Now go. I promise I will keep Miranda from freezing, but you must get to her.”
“Good luck,” Shan said sincerely.
Given a free rein, the white horse sped away bearing Dreibrand toward the icebound heights. He did not understand why he trusted Shan. Maybe he was so hopelessly lost that he had no choice but to do as Shan said. His chest tightened with sorrow thinking of Miranda alone in the freezing dark. If the rys did keep Miranda alive and guided him to her, Dreibrand would no longer doubt Shan’s magic or his good character.
I have been told that this year when the snows melt Dacian and his Queen will ride down from the Rysamand and face their foes in Nufal. I have been told that this year the war will end—Urlen, Kezanada Chronicler, year six of the Overlordship of Amar.
Two of Shan’s servants greeted Dreibrand when he arrived at the tower. He tried many times to ask for Shan, but the servants did not answer. They either did not understand his question or they felt no inclination to communicate. However, they did provide the human male with breakfast, which he gladly accepted.
Giving up on them as a source of information, Dreibrand finished his food, and started exploring the tower. He wandered onto a balcony. The waters of the deep blue lake lapped gently on the gravel shore below, and the blue stone buildings of the city rose to his left. Majestic mountains ringed the green valley, and the beauty of the place was a privilege to see.
It does look like the Gods could live here, he thought.
He went back inside and paused in front of a mirror. It was good to be clean and shaved, and he was glad not to look like a mine slave anymore.
“I am glad to see you are free.”
Dreibrand whirled to face the voice and saw Shan enter the room.
Shan continued, “I was worried I would have to go down into that nasty dungeon again.”
“I have been waiting here for you,” Dreibrand said.
“Would you like to go for a ride?” Shan asked.
Dreibrand did not want to refuse the invitation, but he could not waste time on such frivolities. He said, “Shan, I must talk to you. I need advice. I need help.”
“I know,” Shan acknowledged softly and his kind tone encouraged patience. “That is why we should go for a ride. Outside the city we can have the talk. Remember what I told you about rys.”
“But you said the Queen can see across the Wilderness. What good will a ride do?” Dreibrand asked, seeking to understand.
“A ride will do much because I am with you. With a little distance, Onja cannot hear me. Now please come. Let me show you my homeland so that you may know me,” Shan said.
“If I go, you will tell me more?” Dreibrand said, still reluctant.
The rys nodded.
They went to the stables and Dreibrand was pleased to see Starfield and Freedom well tended. Shan invited him to try one of the white rys horses, and Dreibrand agreed. Starfield deserved rest and riding a new horse would be exciting.
The rys horses were a larger breed with feathered feet, and Shan boasted that they had twice the endurance of common horses. He ordered two of them saddled.
Astride his favorite steed, the tall rys soon galloped toward the ornate iron gates of the Keep, and Dreibrand endeavored to follow. His horse resisted his will, seemingly irritated by the human rider, but Dreibrand was an accomplished rider and he prevailed.
Speeding down a city thoroughfare, Dreibrand struggled to master his mount. He glimpsed a few startled rys gaping at the human racing down the streets of their city.
Shan and Dreibrand clattered out of the paved city and headed into the alpine forest. Trees flew by in a green blur, and Dreibrand concentrated on avoiding low branches in his haste. He galloped after Shan, who set the hard pace to show off the stamina of the animals.
Steadily their steeds climbed the steep slopes and emerged above the tree line into the high meadows. Rock and snow soared above this place, and the mountains snagged the clouds. Shan pulled his horse to a stop, and Dreibrand drew alongside of him. The horses’ wide nostrils flared in the thin air, but they were not winded.
“You ride well, Dreibrand. A rys horse can be hard for a human to control,” Shan complimented.
Dreibrand grinned, “I grew up riding.”
They continued at a leisurely pace looking down at Jingten, which now looked small at the bottom of the valley. Quietly, Shan began to talk.
“In the city I can protect my thoughts from Onja, but I could never cloak my words,” Shan explained. “That is why we had to come up here.
“Last night you asked me what claim I had to the throne. The answer is that my power is my claim. The rys with the greatest magic has all rights to the throne, and I am very powerful. My magical ability exceeds that of average rys. Actually, all of my kind respect me as their superior—except of course Onja.”
“You wish to challenge her then?” Dreibrand whispered.
Shan sighed and looked to the nearest mountaintop. “Once before I challenged her. And she put me in my place. But that was a long time ago. A rys comes of age at one hundred, and I challenged her then.”
Dreibrand considered the information, recalling how Shan had stood at the base of Onja’s throne. He wondered why the Queen would tolerate him and said, “Not to be rude, but why did Onja let you live? A ruler does not let rivals live.”
Shan chuckled grimly. “I am very sure Onja thought the same, but even she must follow some of our laws. Since the Great War, rys do not kill rys. It is the most important law to all rys. But do not worry, Dreibrand, she made me wish I was dead. She tore my mind apart and cast a standing stone around me. It took me five years to break out of that stone prison. But even that surprised her. I was meant to be imprisoned for a much longer time as a living memorial to her superiority. Since then it has been stalemate between us.”
Dreibrand remembered the standing stones of the Quinsanomar and surmised that the spirits of the Deamedron were locked in such magic prisons. “How did you live in stone?” he asked.
“Rys can hibernate. And the greater one’s magic, the longer one can hibernate. From that experience I learned to cast stone, even on myself. But I do not care to do so,” Shan said.
With new respect Dreibrand looked at Shan and tried to imagine five years locked in stone. But his thoughts returned to Miranda and the guards at her door.
“Shan, Miranda and I want to go be where the humans live. Will Onja let us go?” he said.
“She might let you go, but I believe she intends to keep the children here for her amusement,” Shan said.
“But Miranda cannot leave without them,” Dreibrand protested.
“I know. That is why we came up here to talk,” Shan said and stopped his horse. He invited Dreibrand to hike higher with him.
They followed a strenuous trail into a realm of cold sharp rock and snow. Shan moved skillfully up the rocky surface, but Dreibrand felt out of his element. He was higher now than he had been in the pass when he entered the Rysamand, and he had to focus on each treacherous step. He wondered if Shan was putting him through some kind of physical test or if the rys simply wanted him to fall down the mountain.
At last they reached a flat table of rock shrouded by clouds. Dreibrand came puffing up behind Shan, bothered by the elevation.
“When it is not cloudy, this spot offers a wonderful view of Rystavalla,” Shan said proudly. When Dreibrand asked what Rystavalla was, Shan smiled and said that it was the world. “But the humans call her Gyhwen,” he added.
“The people in the east call the world Ektren,” Dreibrand said.
The name was new to Shan, but of only passing interest. Any word the humans used to name the world was little more than a childish nickname from the rys point of view.
“I have brought you to this lonely height because it helps to focus my power,” Shan explained. “I know Onja cannot eavesdrop on me here. Let me tell you some of our history, so you can understand better. I am sure you have noticed the tower across Lake Nin from the city.”
When Dreibrand nodded, Shan continued, “It is the Tomb of Dacian, who was the most powerful rys king to ever live. He was King of Jingten and Onja was his Queen. Twenty-two centuries ago, another kingdom of rys called Nufal lay east of here beyond the plains in the Tabren Mountains. They were the rivals of Jingten and there was war between Jingten and Nufal.
“To win the war, Dacian and Onja conceived a trap that would utterly defeat Nufal. Their vast war hosts met on the plains. This old battleground is now called the Quinsanomar. Both rys kingdoms had gathered all of their warriors and their human allies for a great battle. After both sides exhausted themselves with fierce killing, Dacian and Onja cast the greatest spell ever upon their opponents. All of the enemy warriors, rys and human, were killed and their souls imprisoned in stone. The spell held their spirits in bondage to Jingten. This was the creation of the Deamedron, and it was a terrible thing.
“When Dacian saw his victory, he realized his spell was evil and is said to have collapsed in horror. Onja however felt no guilt and promptly commanded her spirit slaves to slaughter every living soul in Nufal. The tormented Deamedron obeyed and all rys and humans were killed in the region. And to this day only ruins of the Nufalese civilization remain in the Wilderness.
“This holocaust caused Dacian to decree that no rys could kill rys ever again. It was his final law, and within days his grief killed him. At the time the tower was the seat of the monarchy, but Onja turned it into his tomb and had the Keep built in the city. No one except Onja has entered the tower since that time.
“The human allies of Jingten where terrified of Onja, whose power had created the Deamedron, and they have considered her a Goddess ever since, which Onja of course encouraged. In this way she has ruled them.”
Dreibrand ruminated this information silently. He doubted that grief had killed Dacian, but he did not share his cynical thoughts. The imprisoned souls of the Deamedron forever bound as Onja’s unholy army disturbed him deeply. In his belief, a warrior killed on the field of battle deserved his eternal rewards from the war God Golan. Thousands of years in limbo was a bitter fate.
Dismally he said, “Shan, are you telling me I have no chance against Onja?”
“No human has any chance, Dreibrand. Onja is too powerful,” Shan said.
“Then what can I do? Do you intend to challenge her again?” Dreibrand said.
Blue light flickered in Shan’s black eyes, and it startled Dreibrand. Shan wanted to say yes to Dreibrand’s question. Shan longed to be free of Onja’s tyranny and guide the rys according to his vision, but he knew that when he challenged Onja again there would be no room for error.
With regret Shan said, “The time for my challenge has not yet come, but it is close. At long last I sense that Onja has weakened. She still appears to be great, but like the old tree in the forest, she has rotted inside and waits only for a storm strong enough to blow her down. I will side with you and Miranda and help you get to my human friends.”
“Where will we go?” Dreibrand wondered.
“I will take you west to the Temu Domain. Taischek, the King of the Temu Tribe, is my closest human friend and he will shelter you if I ask it,” Shan explained.
“I do not ask for charity. I will earn my keep,” Dreibrand offered. “I am a trained warrior.”
“You are a mercenary then?” Shan inquired.
Dreibrand averted his gaze uncomfortably, wondering how best to explain himself. He answered, “I am now. In my homeland of Atrophane I was an officer in the military, but I resigned because I wanted to explore the Wilderness.”
Shan considered the simplistic answer, guessing that Dreibrand left out some details. He studied Dreibrand with a piercing gaze and saw an intelligent and ambitious man, and he decided the stranger might have much to offer.
Intruding upon the rys’s contemplative state, Dreibrand said, “How will we get away?”
“Onja regularly spends time in deep meditation. Next time she does this, we will leave. If I am with you, the rys soldiers will not harm you. But we must get out of Jingten before Onja notices, and that is the difficult part,” Shan said.
“What will happen if she does notice us?” Dreibrand asked.
“She may try to kill you with her magic,” Shan replied.
“Can she do that?” cried Dreibrand.
“Yes. But I can shield you. Her killing range is not as wide as it used to be. As long as we get away from the city our danger will be minimal,” Shan said.
“What if she follows?” Dreibrand asked.
“Unlikely. Onja has not gone any farther from the city than the Tomb of Dacian in living memory,” Shan said.
Dreibrand realized he would have to trust Shan completely for their safety. The thought of magic striking at him from far away was daunting, and Onja’s power to enslave the very spirit made his courage waver. But Dreibrand could not sit by and let the rys Queen keep Miranda’s children because they entertained her.
“When can we leave?” he said.
“Maybe tonight,” Shan answered.
“I will have to discuss this with Miranda first. Her son is ill, and she did not want to travel last night when I proposed we escape,” Dreibrand said.
Shan frowned. “Do not discuss it with her. We must not speak of this when we get back to Jingten. I will know when the opportunity to escape has come, and I will get you then. If Miranda wants to escape, she will have to travel whenever the time comes.”
“But I must tell her I have made arrangements with you,” Dreibrand insisted.
“Speak of our plan and you risk discovery,” Shan said bluntly. “Hint to her if you must, but do not talk about it.”
Reluctantly, Dreibrand nodded. If he and Shan had to talk on a mountainside, then he had to accept that they could not talk in the city.
“I thank you, Shan,” he said sincerely.
“Thank me after we escape. Now, let me be completely honest with you, Dreibrand. Helping you is very risky for me and for my friendship, I expect friendship,” Shan said.
“How do you mean?” Dreibrand asked.
Shan explained, “Soon I will be ready to challenge Onja for the throne. But to make my challenge successful many things will have to be done, which I will explain later. And I will need all of my friends.”
Dreibrand understood. The rys’s arrangement was not so alien. For his favor, he wanted loyalty. “You want me to serve you in your war?” he surmised.
“Yes. And the rewards for victory will be great—very great,” Shan promised.
I suppose the King of Jingten would have much to give, Dreibrand thought. He hated to make a decision when his understanding of the conflict was so vague, but if he had to choose a side, then he would choose. He had to find a place to fit into this strange land, and Shan’s offer sounded good.
I asked for his help. I have to accept his terms, Dreibrand reminded himself.
Despite his fear and uncertainty, it felt good to have a friend.
“Onja made my decision for me yesterday. I will not serve her and I will never call her Goddess. I will be your friend and ally as you ask,” Dreibrand declared and offered the rys his hand.
The rys grasped his hand firmly, and they were agreed.
“This is good! This is good!” Shan cried happily. “I knew when I saw you that it was a good sign. The Age of Onja will soon close.”
The clouds pulled away from the mountainside, and the sun blazed at its zenith. The sky opened, and Dreibrand could see the top of the world. On the opposite side of the valley, the icy peaks of the Rysamand reached to frigid heights and an invincible glacier held a plateau in a permanent grasp.
Shan could tell that Dreibrand admired the magnificent view, and he pivoted to point at the beautiful peaks. “That is Mount L’cha and that is Mount Fandanihn. And we are sitting on Mount Curlenfindi. These great mountains have beckoned rys and human alike to climb them. They are called bold and crazy, but rarely successful. But I have climbed all three.”
“It looks so incredible up here,” Dreibrand breathed. “Have you really stood on the top of those peaks?”
“Yes. It was in such a high place that I first realized how great the powers were inside me,” Shan recalled. “But we will save stories of my mountain climbing adventures for another day. We should get back.”
Dreibrand agreed and they hiked down to the meadows. The horses had wandered in their grazing, but they cantered back to Shan as soon as he returned. As they rode down into the tree line, a piercing shriek ripped the clear high air and echoed through the valley. Shan immediately stopped and surveyed the sky.
Dreibrand recognized the wretched sound.
“The Tatatook!” Shan cried and pointed to it in the sky. Dreibrand shielded his eyes from the sun and saw the flying beast swooping down from the mountains.
“The Queen has summoned her crow. Ride!” Shan commanded with ominous urgency.
The hooves of the white horses thundered through the forest as they dashed toward the city. Another shuddering call rent the air, and Dreibrand cursed himself for leaving Miranda.