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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.

Ebook readers can also find every novel of The Rys Chronicles epic at popular retail sites like Smashwords.com, Barnes & Noble, and the Kindle Store at Amazon.

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.

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

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

“Come on,” Miranda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just send the Zenglawa home,” Miranda recommended.

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

“Will it hurt him?” Miranda whispered.

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

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

“That is not determined,” Shan stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, at once,” Dreibrand answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Dreibrand prompted.

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

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

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

“These are ambitious times,” Dreibrand sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nuram glowed under the compliment.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

The Rys Chronicles continue in

Book II

The Goddess Queen

available at www.braveluck.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone laughed as Xander squirmed out from under the pile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kalek laughed, knowing his father was not mad.

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

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

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

“The lady rests,” the girl answered.

“May I see her?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a shame,” Shan offered.

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

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

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

“You are well I hope?” Shan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda cried out with alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does the King know?” Kalek asked doubtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. It was me,” Shan confirmed.

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

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

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

“Rest now good warriors,” Shan instructed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry about this,” he apologized.

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

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

“The Overlord!” Shan cried. “When?”

“When we fought the Kezanada,” Dreibrand replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you can learn this?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You are happy?” she asked cautiously.

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

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

Dreibrand listened apprehensively, uncertain of what she would say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go,” she insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The songs of birds dwindled as the Kezanada advanced on the Yentay camp, and Dreibrand heard the rattle of accouterments through the hushed woodland. This battle would define him to the Yentay and he hoped that afterwards they would trust his leadership.

He had arranged for Tytido to lead half of the men when the time came to fall back. For now, the Yentay waited on their horses with Dreibrand at the center of their line. The strain of waiting for the charge showed on their faces. As if in response to their worry, clouds rolled in to observe the gloomy contest. When the Kezanada came into sight, they made a grim sight. With their face shields down, they advanced with a sinister homogeneity. The Kezanada did not rush, but instead plodded toward their intended enemy with lazy confidence.

Dreibrand raised his sword, and the Yentay likewise brought up their swords and spears.

“Stay with the plan, Lieutenant Tytido,” Dreibrand ordered one last time.

“Yes Sir,” Tytido acknowledged. He was rapidly accepting the wisdom of Dreibrand’s strategy.

Directly in front of him in the opposing line of Kezanada, Dreibrand saw who he assumed to be his counterpart, the Kezanada leader. His gaudy gear set him apart from the other darkly clad warriors, and Dreibrand noted the man’s size and obvious strength. The edge of a cruel and hefty scimitar rose from the hard fist of the Overlord, and Dreibrand steeled his courage to face this daunting opponent.

A Kezanada lifted a horn and three quick blasts started the charge. The audacity of the frontal attack on his defensible position shocked Dreibrand even as he witnessed it. As Tytido had promised, the Hirqua warriors held their line and absorbed the charge.

The brightly dressed Kezanada attacked Dreibrand. A blur of big muscles and dyed furs flew at him on a spirited black horse, like a man in carnival costume who had suddenly gone mad.  Dreibrand’s shield blocked the first sweep of the scimitar and his body shuddered from the strength behind his enemy’s weapon.

Metal weapons rang against each other with violent shrieks, and spears and warclubs banged on shields. The bellows and screams of men and horses punctuated the clash. The Yentay feigned weakness and began to fall back. The thick-bodied Overlord assailed Dreibrand so relentlessly, that Dreibrand could do little except drop back. Tytido’s group broke off a little early, but it would have to do. Dreibrand’s expertly trained warhorse obeyed him instantly and completely dodged the lunging Kezanada leader. Calling to his warriors, Dreibrand led them aside and around the Kezanada flank.

The split in the battle briefly sent the Kezanada ranks into turmoil, but they recovered quickly and fought with undiminished fury. A few mounted Kezanada archers had hung back from the charge and they now advanced and began to shoot arrows at the Yentay on both flanks. The skilled shots quickly began to take a toll, and no Yentay could break off from the main fight to deal with the archers.

Dreibrand ducked behind his shield and accepted another horrendous whack from the scimitar. An arrow sank into his shield at the same moment, and he knew the battle was not going well. The skill and power of the Kezanada leader kept him pinned and Dreibrand struggled to cope with the assault. The Kezanada leader seemed to want only him and pursued him so stubbornly that Dreibrand had no more opportunity for retreat. Another blow from the scimitar landed on his shield, and Dreibrand slammed back with all of his strength, throwing the Kezanada’s weapon wide. With his opponent opened up, Dreibrand’s sword sailed in with a vengeance. The Kezanada had to bring his shield up and suffer Dreibrand’s hard furious attacks.

 But this Kezanada, who was the Overlord and weaponmaster of the society, did not stay on the defensive for long. The scimitar, which usually only had to become unsheathed to win its way, swiped down from a steep angle bearing all the great strength in the Overlord’s muscular body. Dreibrand dodged behind his shield too far to one side, and the force of the blow unhorsed him. Starfield bellowed indignantly as Dreibrand grabbed futilely at the reins. He gripped the saddle desperately with his legs, but the demands of gravity could not be denied.

He slammed onto the ground and his ribs banged inside his armor. Starfield remained nearby as his training dictated, but Dreibrand would not have a chance to regain the saddle. The Overlord circled Starfield, intending to trample Dreibrand. The wide shod hooves of the black warhorse loomed over Dreibrand and he rolled aside, narrowly escaping their crashing impact.

Elsewhere in the melee, Redan struggled with his foes as best he could. The short sword that Dreibrand had given him felt awkward in his hand, but Redan was managing to keep himself alive with it. Redan heard the enraged battle cry of the Hirqua next to him suddenly end when an arrow landed in the man’s throat. Frantically, Redan tried to spot the archer while keeping his horse circling one step ahead of the Kezanada mace that continually whirled by his head.

There, at the edge of the clearing, a Kezanada sat upon his calm horse carefully taking aim with his great black bow that curled at each end. Kezanada archers wore helmets with simple black cloth masks that did not interfere with vision instead of the metal visor.

Spurring his horse, Redan abandoned the fight. If any of his comrades had been able to take note of him at that moment, they would have thought he fled in fearful defeat. The Kezanada who had been fighting him laughed at his flight and then turned to find a more convenient victim.

Redan did not seek escape though. He only sought a weapon more suited to his skills. He viewed the Kezanada archer not so much as someone trying to kill him but as the wrongful possessor of what he needed. Sword held high, Redan charged the mounted archer, who stayed calm and swung his bow to face the oncoming warrior. The Kezanada arrow sank into the chest of Redan’s horse, killing it easily. The horse crashed disastrously and flung Redan over its dying head. Redan skidded on the ground, getting dirt even in his mouth and pebbles down his shirt.

He landed next to the mounted archer and jumped up as the Kezanada reached for another arrow. Redan hacked at the archer’s thigh before he could draw the bow. The Kezanada cried out with pain and Redan seized his arm and pulled him from the saddle. His sword jabbed the Kezanada under the chin, killing him as he fell to the ground.

Sheathing the bloody sword, Redan triumphantly took the bow and tore the quiver from the Kezanada’s back. Now he could be useful to this battle. Redan had earned the master archer title at an uncommonly young age of thirteen and was considered a prodigy among his tribe. Able to assume his proper role on the field of battle, Redan took a second to judge the bow then nocked an arrow.

Another Kezanada archer, who had turned to see what Redan had done, caught an arrow in the eye. Redan quickly located a third archer and dispatched him from the world. No more archers sniped the Yentay on this flank, and he gave his attention to the central battle. Every arrow in his commandeered quiver represented a dead Kezanada. Any gap in their armor provided a sufficient target.

So many Kezanada abruptly dropped that the Yentay on that flank began to prevail. Encouraged by the sudden turn of events, the Yentay pressed in on their diminished foes and drew warriors away from Tytido’s side.

Despite the help provided by Redan’s wicked accuracy, no relief came to Dreibrand. He and the Overlord were locked in a mortal duel that tested Dreibrand more than it tested the Kezanada.

After dodging the stomping hooves, Dreibrand flopped aside again when the Overlord bent low and hacked at him with the scimitar. The blade sliced an unpleasant but shallow wound on Dreibrand’s left arm, but he could not heed the pain. Even as the scimitar wounded him, he bounded to his feet. Although Dreibrand hated to harm such a fine animal, the fury of survival demanded brutal action, and he gripped his sword in both hands and chopped at the passing hind legs. The blade cut completely through a leg, and the warhorse screamed from the devastating blow and fell.

The Overlord recovered from the hopeless crash of his steed and whirled to face Dreibrand. The loss of his beautiful and valuable horse made the Overlord shake with rage. While the shock of the unhorsing was still fresh, Dreibrand attacked. The straight blade of Atrophaney steel that had protected him since the day he had left Atrophane swung from the left and then the right, shifting direction with a swiftness difficult for its size and weight. Dreibrand’s limbs and muscles had long since memorized the fighting moves and his fast attacks usually defeated an enemy swiftly, but the shield and scimitar of the Overlord were always there to stop him.

“You better have more for me than that, Easterner,” scoffed the Overlord in the common language.

Dreibrand narrowed his eyes at the expressionless visor that issued the taunt and assailed his opponent with renewed wrath and a primal cry. The Kezanada was stronger, but Dreibrand would not think him his better. Their swords clashed with exhaustive speed. Dreibrand made a mighty swing that should have knocked the Kezanada’s scimitar completely aside, but iron muscles locked the master-made blade, and the scimitar stayed in place. Instead, Dreibrand’s sword, that had swept away the defenders of many nations, snapped in complete ruin. The broken blade twirled across the gray sky and landed on the ground a small distance away.

The Overlord laughed, and Dreibrand’s gaping face was darkly comical as he looked at the stub of his sword. Unable to contemplate this misfortune any further, Dreibrand cowered behind his shield. His brave spirit did not acknowledge what looked like his impending doom. He blocked high with his shield, but then the scimitar would instantly swoop low toward his ankles, making him jump.

Blocking and pushing back the scimitar, Dreibrand backed into a tree. He spun behind the tree to avoid becoming pinned on it, and he was thankful for the scant shelter. The scimitar chopped at the trunk, sending out a spray of bark. Dreibrand’s senses were so alive that he smelled the pitch from the tree’s wound.

The Overlord yanked at his blade that was slightly stuck in the wood, and in this instant of respite, Dreibrand’s hand went to his swordbelt and he spun out from the other side of the tree. Just as the Overlord tugged his scimitar free, Dreibrand raised his new weapon inside the Kezanada’s guard. Dreibrand knew he only had one chance, and a slim chance at that, or he would surely die. He aimed the pistol at the thin strip of skin exposed below the visor and fired the sho dart.

The Overlord yelled sharply, surprised by the little sting at his neck and indignant at his opponent’s impertinence for shooting him with a sho dart. But strength of body and skill in warfare can protect no human from a sho dart, and the Kezanada became helpless. Loss of muscle command swept through his magnificent body and the Overlord teetered with diminishing balance. Dreibrand returned his pistol to his belt and pulled out his ivory handled dagger. The numbed fingers of the Overlord clung stubbornly to his scimitar, but Dreibrand knocked the weapon from his hand.

With a heavy crash the Overlord fell back and Dreibrand stepped forward, preparing to bend down and kill the man. Even driven deep into battle lust, he was reluctant to slay the paralyzed warrior. This hesitation saved him by allowing him to notice a familiar shade of blue out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw Sutah aiming a sho dart pistol, and just in time he raised his shield, where the deflected dart made a little bang.

The arrival of the rys required him to abandon the prone Kezanada. Snarling with anger, Dreibrand charged at Sutah, terribly upset with the trouble the rys had caused him. Before he reached Sutah, Pelafan appeared from behind a tree and tackled Dreibrand. The human and the rys grappled each other on the ground, and Pelafan barely kept the dagger at bay.

“Sutah! Shoot him,” Pelafan cried urgently.

Sutah fumbled with another sho dart, not performing well under such direct pressure. When Sutah finally got a clear shot at the struggling human, the pistol misfired and the sho dart jammed in the barrel.

Dreibrand, pumped up from his battle with the Overlord, hurled Pelafan away and scrambled to his feet.

“I’ll kill both of you!” he yelled.

By now, some Kezanada came to aid their fallen leader, and some Yentay came to help their general. In the sudden swarm of warriors, Pelafan and Sutah departed. They were not warriors and would not pretend to be. The rys sought their secret paths into the Rysamand, intending to return to Jingten and hideout among their kind. Neither of them had any desire to experience the Overlord’s reactions to the day’s events.

A long wailing note came from a Kezanada horn, signaling a retreat. They held the Yentay back as they collected their leader. The Overlord’s Second could have stayed and probably won the fight, but he felt it was his duty to protect his master. In the opinion of the Second, the attack had gone badly and their losses had been abnormally high because of the Zenglawa archer, but he did collect some prisoners so he would have something worthwhile to present his master.

Now protected by his surrounding warriors, Dreibrand staggered to Starfield and leaned on the side of his saddle. His body twitched with exhaustion after being put through grueling paces by the large Kezanada. He hoped Pelafan and Sutah had run off for good after failing again.

Dreibrand climbed into the saddle and rode among his men, ordering them to stay put. They were excited about their victory over the notorious Kezanada, but Dreibrand worried that the enemy fell back to regroup for another attack, and he would not allow his force to pursue pellmell.

With a happy whoop, Tytido rushed up to his general. “We drove them back, Sir!” he beamed.

Dreibrand cast a weary eye over their torn camp, viewing the bodies from both sides. He was proud of these Hirqua men who had fought bravely and well against a strong force. He no longer had any doubts in their resilience or conviction, but Dreibrand wondered what they would think of him. He had not slain a single attacker.

“Sir, did you really kill the Overlord?” Tytido asked.

“Overlord? Is that what they call their commander?” Dreibrand mumbled while examining his cut arm. He pulled off a gauntlet because blood had run all the way down his arm and inside it.

A grin broke across Tytido’s face as he realized that Dreibrand did not understand the significance of his opponent. He explained, “Sir, that was THE Overlord, the ruler of all Kezanada. At least, I believe so by his size and bright dress. He has been described to me many times. He is the deadliest warrior in all…in all Gyhwen. Or at least he was. Everyone saw him fall!” His excitement and awe became apparent to Dreibrand now.

“I did not kill him,” Dreibrand said quickly before everyone became too elated by their assumptions. “I took him down with a sho dart, but I did not get the chance to finish him.”

This news did not really diminish Tytido’s pleasure in their victory. “But you beat him. Dreibrand Veta beat the Overlord!” he shouted, and his voice blared across the cliffs, rousing a few cheers.

Briefly, Dreibrand acknowledged the praise, glad that they did not have to retreat after all. He walked Starfield to where his broken sword lay in the dirt. Dismounting, he picked up the blade and then retrieved the nearby handle. For a moment he just pondered the pieces, admiring the finely crafted detail on the pommel and hilt. The weapon had cost him a lot of money and had always proved its value, and he was still surprised that it had broken.

His study of his broken weapon ended when an agitated Hirqua ran up to him.

“General, General! Sir, Sir! They have taken Misho,” he cried.

“Slow down, speak common,” Dreibrand ordered. “What happened, Celrand?”

Celrand continued but did not really slow down, “The Kezanada took my cousin Misho prisoner. They had beaten down the Zenglawa and since we were closest to him, we went to help. The Zenglawa had taken out their archers and with their arrows killed many of the Kezanada. That is why we won. But they had gotten to him, and we tried to help, but…they got Misho too. I saw them carry both men away. They weren’t dead. At least Misho lived.” Celrand stopped and took a shaky breath.

Looking to Tytido, Dreibrand asked, “What will the Kezanada do with our men?”

Tytido had been frowning at Celrand because he felt his tribesman gave too much credit to the Zenglawa. Snapping out of his personal thoughts, Tytido responded, “Ah, they will interrogate them. Probably torture them.”

“But Misho knows nothing important!” Celrand protested, aghast. His cousin and he had joined this adventure on a bold whim, and the dangerous realities were hitting him hard.

Proudly Tytido informed Dreibrand, “No Hirqua warrior will betray himself to an enemy. As for the Zenglawa, I cannot say.”

Dreibrand’s face was disturbed as he tried to make a decision. A chill gust of wind howled against the cliffs and tossed his long hair. A cold drop of rain struck his cheek, and he looked to the darkening sky. The day had started out bad and looked like it intended to get worse. But Dreibrand had no need to think for long about his next move. He had to do the right thing for his men, but he wished they did not have to take on the Kezanada again so soon. Looking around at the Kezanada bodies, he noticed the black Kezanada arrows protruding from many of their necks and thought that Celrand might be right about Redan’s pivotal role in the battle.

Addressing Celrand, he said with reassuring confidence, “We will go after them at once. None of my men will be forsaken as prisoners.”

This decision applied some hope to Celrand’s anxiety. He was greatly relieved that Dreibrand wanted to save his cousin.

“Lieutenant, send scouts to find their trail. We cannot afford to lose them in the wilds, especially with the rain coming. Select two men to stay and help the wounded and—tend to the dead. And make sure they search and strip those Kezanada bodies. When finished they can help the injured to Fata Nor if we do not return today.”

Tytido saluted quickly and left to distribute his orders. Dreibrand asked Celrand to stay and wrap his arm. The scimitar had sliced a gruesome flap of flesh that should have been stitched, but Dreibrand could not take the time to give himself proper attention. He knew the plight of Misho and Redan was worse than his arm. Remembering his nasty captivity with Hydax and Gennor, he empathized with their peril.

Before departing, Dreibrand toured his wrecked camp, offering praise and comfort to the wounded. Four Yentay had been lost and it was a terrible blow, but he had to make sure the number did not become six. He believed Pelafan and Sutah had encouraged this attack on him, and he resented the ruin and death the meddlesome rys had caused for their petty reasons.

He found the short sword that he had given Redan laying on the ground. He hoped he would have the opportunity to return it to the brave Zenglawa, but for now he needed it. After packing his broken sword into his gear, Dreibrand led his twenty-seven fit warriors after the Kezanada. Although the Kezanada were elusive, Dreibrand was determined not to let them slip away.

~

The Kezanada galloped down the Jingten Road with little artifice until they reached a bridge over a small creek that wound down from the slopes. Here they splashed upstream into the woodland, letting the flowing water consume their tracks.

As the rain turned from a drizzle to a chilling shower, the Second decided to make a camp so that the Overlord could recover in some comfort. Currently the Overlord’s great frame was draped over a horse rather unceremoniously. On another horse, farther back in the group, were tied the prisoners.

The Kezanada force climbed out of the stream far away from the road and headed deep into a thick growth of pines. The many branches of the young trees provided a needley and difficult barrier to the riders, but they sought the cover produced by the screen of pines. The Kezanada knew the terrain along the road to Jingten well and they had a particular spot in mind. The thick juvenile woods eventually gave way to a more open and mature forest, and they finally entered a grove of regal old growth, whose crowns could be seen in the distance towering over their underlings.

In this place the Kezanada strung two ropes between trees and hung some skins over them. In the hasty shelter they placed the Overlord out of the rain. The prisoners received the opposite treatment. Redan and Misho were tied to stakes that had been quickly pounded into the ground in a clear and rainy spot. Their limbs were pulled out cruelly between each stake, making them look like skins stretched out to dry.

The rough treatment and the cold rain roused Redan from the blow he had taken to the head. Stunned and disoriented, he did not immediately comprehend his situation, until a Kezanada stretched his legs taut with bindings that were connected to stakes too far away. As his body was spread painfully, Redan remembered the battle and the many Kezanada he had killed before they overwhelmed him. Actually rather surprised to be alive, Redan smiled despite his discomfort while thinking of the devastation he had brought to the feared Kezanada. Eight of the faceless and notorious mercenaries had fallen from his artful aim.

The Zenglawa’s satisfied smirk did nothing to improve the mood of the nearest Kezanada, who was already upset with the lethal archer. Standing up from securing the leg bindings, the Kezanada sent a boot into Redan’s groin. Redan’s vague smile instantly disappeared as he let out an unflattering scream.  Pain and nausea wracked his body, and he almost went back into unconsciousness. The Kezanada laughed, but Redan was beyond hearing it and only squirmed helplessly.

Under the crude shelter of skins, the Second held a flask to the Overlord’s mouth. The elixir would speed away the effects of the sho dart. The Overlord groaned and raised a slow hand to wipe his lips. He took a few deep breaths and felt control seep back into his muscles.

When he found his voice, he complained thickly, “A sho dart. I had that foreigner, and he got me with a sho dart.”

“He is a servant of Shan. He will have rys things,” reasoned the Second.

The Overlord grumbled a few curses in reference to Dreibrand, then sent a harsh gaze upon his Second and demanded, “Why did you retreat? Benladu, we would have won.”

The Second was a bold man who knew little fear and lived in a harsh world, but difficult questions from his master sent a tight discomfort through his chest.

“It is my sworn duty to protect your person. I thought to take you to safety, Overlord. The fight was not important enough to risk you,” explained the Second.

 “Never disgrace the Kezanada with an unnecessary retreat,” the Overlord decreed with menace. “All who serve Shan deserve death to avenge our fallen brothers.”

“That is why I brought you prisoners,” offered the Second, hoping to recoup his favor.

“Ahhh, prisoners,” the Overlord sighed affectionately, outwardly pleased.

He decided not to pursue the issue of the retreat any more at this time. The Overlord was the most upset with Pelafan and Sutah, who had suggested the disastrous encounter with the Yentay. He hoped the larcenous rys had the sense to stay away from Do Jempur, because the sight of them would tempt him to murder, and the Overlord did not want to provoke Jingten.

Regaining his feet, the Overlord commanded, “Show me the prisoners.”

The Second eagerly complied.

The Overlord looked down through his visor at the prisoners. They looked wholly miserable, wet and shivering in the rain. He could tell one was a Hirqua and one was a Zenglawa, which surprised him. The young Hirqua still looked a little dazed, but the Overlord noted the intense gleam from the eyes of the long haired Zenglawa. Even pitifully strapped to the ground with the mud gluing dead pine needles in his hair, Redan radiated a stubborn pride.

Gesturing to Redan, the Second mentioned, “This is the one responsible for most of our losses. His skill is incredible.”

“A pity he did not seek to join the Kezanada. Shan will miss his service,” commented the Overlord as he squatted beside Misho’s head. He removed a stiletto from the many compartments of his coat and, seizing a bound hand, inserted the needle-like blade at the base of the man’s thumb. Misho winced at the poke, but otherwise remained stoic. Redan watched with wide eyes, filled with concern for his fellow prisoner.

Using the common speech, the Overlord asked, “Do you serve Shan?”

Misho quaked with the acceptance of his oncoming and painful demise and prayed to his ancestors for the strength to maintain the honor of his tribe.

“Where is Shan?” hissed the Overlord.

No answer.

“Young Hirqua, you do have a choice. The longer you resist me, the more pain you will earn,” the Overlord calmly explained, warming to the subject. “Now answer.”

 Misho’s failure to respond prompted the Overlord to sink the spike deep into the hand. The Hirqua could only scream with pain as the Overlord pierced the flesh and played nerves like violin strings. Thrashing his head, Misho fought at his bindings, but the effort weakened as the pain sabotaged his strength. The Overlord twisted the stiletto inside the hand and Misho howled.

“Do you remember where Shan is yet?” laughed the Overlord, pleased with his delicate trick.

“It is no secret where Shan is!” Redan yelled. He could not bear to see Misho’s torment and tried to distract the Overlord, even if it meant receiving the awful attention of the Kezanada leader.

“Wait your turn, Zenglawa. We shall soon hear why you are with these rebels,” the Overlord warned.

“You know where Shan is,” Redan cried. “Leave him alone.”

“Oh, but I want to be sure. The rys may have slipped by my spies,” the Overlord stated sarcastically.

The Overlord released the stiletto but left it sunk into the hand that now slowly oozed blood. Much to the despair of the prisoners, the Overlord removed a skewer from his coat. A large hand clamped onto Misho’s skull and held the Hirqua’s head steady. Misho’s eyes bulged with terror.

The Overlord continued, “Perhaps Shan is close by and your force was trying to slip him back to Jingten. In any case, I want every detail even if nothing is news to me.”

After making this depressing proclamation, the Overlord began to carefully slide his evil tool under the skin along the line of Misho’s jaw. Again the warrior screamed but his cries only made his suffering worse, and Misho lapsed into fast shallow gasps. The Overlord probed the side of the man’s face and accessed a nerve that brought enough pain to make Misho twitch all the way to his feet.

“Stop!” Redan pleaded, but his concern only earned him a kick in the ribs from the Second.

Laughing, the Overlord observed, “The Zenglawa acts as if he actually feels the Hirqua’s pain. Feel free to talk your business if this bothers you so much, Zenglawa.”

Redan turned away from the scene of Misho’s suffering. The temptation to just say Shan stayed at Dengar Nor assailed Redan because the Kezanada probably knew that anyway and there would be no true harm in confirming it. But Redan knew even that trifling admission would be faithless and he sincerely longed to do right by Shan. Now, as the prisoner of the terrible Kezanada, he would die and no one would ever know how much he truly believed in the fight against Onja.

Misho moaned plaintively and Redan gritted his teeth. The cruelty of the Overlord had not been exaggerated, and Redan suspected that nothing he could say would stop the torture.

Facing his tormented companion again, Redan insisted desperately, “We know nothing.”

Leaving the dreadful skewer in Misho’s face, the Overlord roughly turned his victim’s head and brought out another skewer. While the Overlord examined the unmarred side of Misho’s face, a Kezanada rushed up and interrupted the torture.

With a salute, he reported, “Overlord, the rebel warriors have followed us. They approach our position.”

Behind his visor the Overlord scowled with surprise. The Kezanada were rarely followed. Shan’s foreign warrior was bold indeed, and the Overlord had to admire Dreibrand’s perseverance. Sighing, the Overlord decided to abandon his prisoners. He doubted they knew anything of value, but their torture would have been satisfying.

Removing his instruments from Misho, the Overlord rose and announced, “Let Shan know what it is to find his men dead in the forest. Kill them.”

He left with his Second to deal with the approaching war party.

The Kezanada left to dispatch the prisoners drew his knife and approached the prisoners with business-like ease. Misho panted feverishly, too relieved that his torture had ceased to care about his approaching executioner. Redan stared at the Kezanada and experienced complete helplessness. He could not defend himself physically or verbally, and the Yentay would never arrive in time.

The Kezanada kneeled first by Redan. He was pleased to kill the archer who had taken so many of his brothers that day. With open eyes that showed no regret or surrender, Redan watched the blade come for his throat. Suddenly, he heard the curious sound of sizzling and the rain began to steam on the knife, and then the Kezanada’s gauntlet began to steam. The mercenary yelled with confusion and dropped the knife, which slapped into the mud with a hiss. Urgently the Kezanada tore off his steaming gauntlet that was burning his hand.

This bizarre event shocked Redan until comprehension suddenly flooded his mind as he looked at the Kezanada’s burned hand. Redan had known the same sensation of having a superheated weapon scorch his hand. It was magic.

It has to be Lord Shan, he thought with incredible joy.

Redan felt heat at his wrists and ankles and his bindings were destroyed. The sudden release of the strain on his muscles and joints was bliss to his aching body, but Redan could not even take a second to enjoy the relief. The Kezanada, although confused, already reached for the knife, but Redan snatched it up. Although the heat lingered in the handle, Redan could bear to grasp it under such desperate circumstances.

Redan lurched up and thrust the knife at the Kezanada, who blocked it awkwardly with his ungloved hand. The knife sank through the hand, and Redan grasped the Kezanada by the throat with his other hand. The men grappled fiercely, and Redan clung to his enemy with the desperation of a man who knew he only had the briefest of opportunities to save himself. Redan wrenched the knife out of the hand and struck with the speed of a starving snake, slitting the man’s throat so fast he even cut two of his own fingers.

Warm blood gushed over Redan’s hand as he pushed his defeated enemy back, gurgling in death throes. Still on his knees, Redan crouched lower and looked around warily. The other Kezanada mounted their horses and shouted orders, preparing for the assault on their position. So far, no one had noticed his extraordinary liberation or the killing of his executioner.

Flopping onto his stomach, he scrambled to Misho and cut his bindings.

“How?” Misho whispered weakly.

“Magic has set me free,” Redan whispered while hacking away the last of Misho’s restraints. “It must be Shan.”

Misho clutched his bleeding face with his good hand. Although the exquisiteness of the pain had mellowed, the damage to his tissue and nerves kept him in agony. Redan put an arm around the Hirqua’s shoulders and helped him sit up. The stress of the ordeal made Misho shudder repeatedly, and he feebly held his crippled hand against his chest. Great drops of blood plopped into his lap, and the rain spread the pinkness all over his front.

“Stand up,” Redan hissed.

“I feel so sick,” Misho whispered but he tried to get his feet underneath him.

Redan hoisted his injured comrade the rest of the way. “We must run!”

Although Misho needed Redan to support him, he did scramble along with some speed. He wanted very much to live.

The trumpeting of a Kezanada horn bounced between the large mossy trees and the war cries of the Yentay answered the horn as they broke out of the underbrush. They charged with indignant fury, knowing their only hope of saving the prisoners was to overwhelm the Kezanada quickly.

Redan dashed toward the line of advancing Yentay. Even in the rain and confusion, the Kezanada immediately noticed the unlikely sight of their escaping prisoners. Outraged that his victims were miraculously slipping away, the Overlord trashed his defense plans and ordered a charge. He wanted those miserable fools cut down before they reached their friends.

Redan and Misho heard the cheers of their comrades, who upon seeing them, rejoiced that they lived. But Redan also heard the pounding of angry hooves behind him and estimated that the Kezanada would reach him first. Redan’s nobility had not been fostered by his people, who tended to be conniving, but rather it was innate to his character. He instantly came to a decision and flung Misho ahead.

“Run, Misho, run!” he cried and turned to fight.

With only the knife he faced the closest mounted warrior despite the ridiculousness of the endeavor. At least by confronting the Kezanada, he could dodge the first few killing blows instead of just taking it in the back as he fled.

Celrand urged his horse harshly toward his stumbling cousin. Misho collapsed against the horse’s side, clutching Celrand’s thigh with his good hand and gasping. Distressed by Misho’s bloody appearance, Celrand hauled him into the saddle fearing that he was on the verge of death.

 For the second time that day, Dreibrand’s force came together with the Kezanada in a violent crash. With Misho already recovered, Dreibrand rallied his men to the aid of Redan.

Redan dodged between his Kezanada tormentors, using their horses to shield him as best he could. It was a game he could not play for long. As the Yentay drew some of the pressure off, he attempted to pull a Kezanada from his horse. The attempt proved quite futile and Redan found himself parrying sword strokes with his relatively puny knife while dancing alongside the horse.

The Kezanada swatted at him with annoyance, and the sword finally knocked the knife from Redan’s hand. Redan ducked as the sword came back on the return swing. Just then another sword slammed into the Kezanada’s helmeted head and the sturdy Kezanada slumped forward slightly stunned.

Dreibrand was on the other side of the mercenary and Redan was elated by the sight of his general. Again Dreibrand smacked the Kezanada with the short sword but the armor protected him.

Guiding his horse to Redan, Dreibrand extended a hand. “Redan, climb on!”

Even as he said this, Dreibrand had to block the blows from another Kezanada and Redan wasted no time in getting on Starfield. A third Kezanada assailed Dreibrand, who defended himself with shield and sword. Redan felt very exposed and burdensome hanging onto his general’s back and he wished he had a weapon to help in the fight.

Dreibrand hollered orders to withdraw and kicked Starfield’s sides to let the horse know the importance of the departure. The Yentay hightailed it back into the younger woods. Dreibrand issued more orders on the fly to return to their camp along the cliffs. With the Kezanada still close, he wanted to regroup with his wounded so as not to leave them vulnerable to vengeful retaliation.

The angered Kezanada howled after the Yentay for a while, but the Overlord had little energy for the chase. As he had exhausted Dreibrand, he had wearied himself and the entire day had already been a huge waste. The captives were lost and the Overlord was not getting any closer to Shan. He needed to return to Do Jempur, study his reports, and select warriors for his final attack.

The cold autumn rains had spoiled everybody’s lust for battle, and Dreibrand did not turn back to punish the Kezanada. By the time the Yentay returned to their camp, everyone was exhausted and soaked. They were proud of driving back the Kezanada and rescuing the prisoners, but they had lost friends and Misho needed help.

Redan slid down from Starfield’s rump and said, “You came for us, Sir.”

 “Of course we did,” Dreibrand said matter-of-factly as he dismounted. “Leaving you to our enemy was not an option.”

Redan thanked him sincerely.

“And thank you, Redan. You killed many Kezanada and proved your worth to your fellow warriors.” Dreibrand laid a hand on Redan’s shoulder and added, “You will have that bow you wanted when we get back to Dengar Nor.”

Redan grinned.

Next Dreibrand went to see Misho, who Celrand tended. The bloody Hirqua was pale and one eye drooped on his swollen face. Dreibrand examined the peculiar wounds while Celrand cleaned them, and Redan softly explained how they had been inflicted.

“He wanted t’know ’bout Lor Shan, Sir,” Misho said painfully. “But we said nothing.”

“I know,” Dreibrand agreed as if he had never doubted.

Celrand began to bandage his cousin, who tried to doze and elude his pain.

Redan said, “It is good you came when you did, Sir. The Overlord has no heart and would have slowly poked us both to death. His cruelty is calm and well practiced.”

“A suitable servant for Onja,” muttered Dreibrand.

He watched the blood soak into Misho’s bandages and knew that he had to end his scouting mission. He decided to head straight for Fata Nor so the wounded could get proper help and dry off because the rains had the look of not stopping for days.

Thoughtfully he asked, “Redan, how did you escape?”

With complete belief, Redan explained that Shan had set him free with magic. This caught the attention of a half dozen nearby warriors, some of who accused the Zenglawa of making up a story.

“Then who do you think it was? Pelafan? Sutah?” Redan demanded with defensive sarcasm.

“You might have just broken your bonds. Fear of death can bring great strength,” Celrand suggested.

“Look!” Redan commanded, holding up his arms. The singed bindings dangled from his wrists. This evidence ended any scoffing and those who had doubted were now quietly impressed.

Dreibrand said, “It seems someone has helped you Redan, but we will not know that it was Lord Shan until we get back to Dengar Nor so we can ask him.”

“I know it was Lord Shan,” Redan said. He was tired of always being doubted, but he was encouraged that Shan had chosen to help him with his magic. The privilege had been great.

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

“We have business ahead,” Pelafan grumbled dismissively.

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

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

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

“How?” Sutah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Pelafan beamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only forty,” Pelafan replied eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring a light!” Dreibrand yelled.

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

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

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

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

“Make him comfortable,” Dreibrand instructed Redan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Pelafan said with confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is Tytido?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelafan lifted his groggy head, considering the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I shall be free soon,” Pelafan announced.

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You bring news?” Dreibrand guessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I had more men, he thought.

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

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

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

“Where is Redan?” Dreibrand suddenly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shan will know,” Dreibrand promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shan nodded once, and the Yentay murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Sir,” Dreibrand decided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am coming,” she replied weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

“But it might be worse,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the midday break, Dreibrand approached Taischek.

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

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

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

“A patrol?” Shan said with curiosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taischek scowled automatically and muttered in his native tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then come,” Dreibrand whispered back with enthusiasm.

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

“Not yet—I am sorry,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand said, disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Must you leave so soon?” she asked.

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

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

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

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who could that be?” she wondered.

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

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

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

“Well, put something on,” Dreibrand urged.

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

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

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

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

“Cannot be helped,” Dreibrand said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would anyone like to volunteer?” Dreibrand prompted.

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

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

“All five of you?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave us before dawn,” Dreibrand instructed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After three or four more toasts to Shan and to himself, Taischek easily got a few cups ahead of everybody else and he spoke in a pleasant stream of words.

“Oh, Shan, I really enjoyed the way you showed everyone what a sneaking cur Atathol is. I never liked that man. He has no flair for arrogance, unlike myself. When you turned on him, I thought he was going to piss himself. Maybe he did a little.” Taischek laughed, and was echoed by Xander’s chuckle.

“I would have rather made a friend of him,” Shan lamented.

Taischek scoffed, “Atathol was supposedly my friend for years. But did he ever pay a friendly visit? Did he ever make a generous gesture? All he ever asked of the Temu were loans and ridiculous prices on trade items. You know, I even heard a rumor that he has a cousin married to a Sabuto. Can you imagine?!”

Miranda yawned discreetly on the other side of the campfire.

Using her language, Dreibrand whispered, “If you want to be included, you will have to listen to his stories.”

She smiled at his teasing. “You listen for me.”

Before Taischek progressed any further with his celebration, the challenges of sentries rang out on the perimeter, and Taischek quickly became serious again. Dreibrand stood up and drew his sword. He had expected some trouble.

To Miranda he said, “Stay close to me and Shan.”

A modest commotion moved through the camp and a warrior trotted into the light of his King’s fire. Dreibrand recognized him as Iley.

Bowing to Taischek, Iley reported, “Sire, a party of Hirqua warriors has approached the camp.”

Scowling, Taischek asked, “Do they attack?”

“No, Sire. They announced themselves openly and in peace. They wish to speak to Shan—Lord Shan,” Iley added respectfully and dipped his head to the rys.

With raised eyebrows, Taischek faced Shan. “Maybe you’re a little more popular than you thought, eh?”

“Perhaps,” Shan mused.

“Can we trust them?” Dreibrand wondered openly.

“The Hirqua are still our allies. We must allow the visit. They have joined us in refusing tribute to Jingten,” Taischek said.

“All a deception maybe. To get close to Shan,” Miranda suggested.

The rys considered things for a moment and decided, “I must receive these Hirqua. But prudence is required. Iley, have the Hirqua choose three representatives, and I will speak with them. Keep them guarded though.”

Taischek approved the plan and sent Iley on his way.

Remaining on his feet, Dreibrand put his sword away but intended to stand guard between Shan and the Hirqua.

Iley returned leading three Hirqua warriors who were guarded by several watchful Temu. The Hirqua kept their black hair short, but they were racially very similar to the Temu with dark eyes and pleasing faces. Stiff leather armor covered their torsos and forearms. Brilliant multicolored cloaks hung down their backs, and the design and weave of each garment signified each man’s family. Swords hung from their waists, and they normally carried spears, but the Temu had temporarily confiscated them.

“Why do the Hirqua approach my camp at night?” Taischek demanded gruffly.

The three warriors were young men, in their teens or just beyond. The oldest replied, “We meant no harm or offense, King of the Temu. We wish only to speak with Lord Shan.”

“King Sotasham said he could send no warriors. Why does he send them now?” Shan said.

The Hirqua bowed deeply to Shan, but his awe of the powerful rys did not make his words falter. “Our King has not sent us. We are individual warriors that come to serve you, Lord Shan.”

“You go against your King’s orders?” Taischek asked with displeasure.

Quickly the Hirqua explained, “No, we have King Sotasham’s leave to come here. He cannot commit our tribe to war, but a Hirqua warrior is a free warrior. Some of us want to join Lord Shan as an individual interest. As long as there are enough to defend the Hirqua homeland, warriors are free to pursue private warpaths.”

Very interested, Shan asked, “What is your name?”

“Tytido of Clan Gozmochi,” he replied proudly.

“How many have come with you, Tytido?” Shan said.

Gesturing to his companions, Tytido answered, “Besides us, thirty five more, Lord Shan.”

“And why do you join me?” Shan inquired.

“I believe, and so do the others, that more must be done than sit home and await the outcome of this rebellion. My tribe has agreed to withhold tribute, so our interest is firmly based upon your success, Lord Shan. I am willing to fight so that Clan Gozmochi can live free of Onja’s tyranny. Today the Zenglawa showed us that people would serve Onja against you. I wish to defend you from her servants who would prevent you from reaching Jingten.”

Shan regarded the other two Hirqua and said, “Tytido of Clan Gozmochi speaks well. Do you think as Tytido does?”

The other warriors introduced themselves and echoed the sentiments of Tytido. One of them added, “I will fight to return this lady her children.”

This comment startled Miranda. The concern of the stranger touched her deeply. Miranda remembered how her own people had openly disregarded her suffering, even when she had screamed for help when Barlow attacked her.

Shan declared, “This is all very excellent. Hirqua warriors make your camp where the Temu instruct you. We shall speak more in the morning. And welcome.”

The three Hirqua bowed to Shan and thanked him for his acceptance.

When the Hirqua were escorted away, Shan commented, “That was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if more men will join us by spring.”

“There will be more,” Taischek said. “If the Hirqua really intend not to pay their tribute, they will have to send more. It is good to see Sotasham will not keep all of his warriors at home. He probably even encouraged this Tytido and his lot to come to you. He is trying to have the best of everything without risking his army.”

“Yes, but the Hirqua are our second best ally after the Tacus, and this Tytido is sincere. I must find a place for these Hirqua warriors,” Shan said.

“We will absorb them among our ranks,” Xander offered.

Thoughtfully Shan shook his head. “I do not know if that would be best. The Temu and the Hirqua are Confederates but each tribe has its ego. The Temu warriors will want to lord over the Hirqua volunteers as a matter of pride. I do not want the Hirqua to resent their position among the Temu and rethink their decision to serve me. These Hirqua are proud and I doubt they will like taking orders from an equally proud Temu. I think they will serve me best if kept together as their own unit.”

Taischek said, “They have yet to prove their trustworthiness, and until then they must be controlled.”

“Yes, I know, Taischek,” Shan conceded. “But I have a solution. Put a trusted man as commander over them. This will control them and preserve their strength and morale.”

“Who do you have in mind?” Taischek asked.

“Dreibrand,” replied Shan, looking to his friend.

Dreibrand’s eyes widened with obvious interest. “You honor me, Shan.”

“You are most capable of the task and best of all you are of no tribe. You will bear them no prejudice and they will have no biases to hold against you,” Shan explained.

Dreibrand almost burst out with his acceptance. Until that moment, he had not realized just how much he missed command, but he remembered to ask permission.

Restraining his excitement, he said, “King Taischek, do you agree with this? I would like to accept with your leave.”

The King considered Shan’s proposal. Taischek did trust Dreibrand, who had so far pleased him very much, and the Hirqua most likely would not respond well to a Temu commander.

“Dreibrand, I recognize that our cause will be better served with you as a commander. You have my leave to command any volunteers who come to serve Shan, but you will still be in my service. I will trust you to keep these foreigners from disturbing my domain.”

Thanking the King, Dreibrand accepted his new responsibilities with a broad grin. At this moment assuming command of three dozen warriors felt as grand as receiving his commission in the Atrophane Horde. He was concerned about how the Hirqua would react to him because he was a foreigner, but he had never had much difficulty cultivating obedience and loyalty from his men before. He recalled that it had been everyone above him who had caused him problems.

Lifting the sloshing wineskin, Taischek said, “We had better have a toast to Shan’s new general then.”

After a quick glance at Xander, Dreibrand politely said, “General? There is no need to lift me so high. It is only a command of three dozen men.”

“Xander is the general of the Temu, and you will be the general of those that come to serve Shan. Perhaps by spring you will have more than a few Hirqua to command,” Taischek explained.

“There will be more volunteers, especially after I tell Tytido and his fellows that they will be rewarded handsomely for serving me,” Shan added.

“Not out of my share I hope,” Taischek cried with good nature.

“You know I would never do that to you,” Shan said.

Chuckling, Taischek accidentally drank some wine before he made the toast and he had to refill his cup. “To Shan’s general, then.”

Noise erupted on the perimeter again, interrupting the toast.

Dreibrand was the first to rise and his sword hit the night air again. “Perhaps I have nothing to command anyway,” he muttered, scanning the dark for intruders.

“Report!” Xander hollered.

A warrior acknowledged him and scrambled off to investigate. When he returned, he said, “Sire, General, several Nuram warriors approached our camp, but as soon as they announced themselves to the sentries, they ran into the trees. The situation is a little confusing. We are trying to collect them all now.”

With a groan, Xander hauled himself to his feet, grumbling, “I better handle this myself. This could be a trap.” As the General stomped away from the campfire, he barked orders in every direction.

“Now the Nuram are skulking about,” Taischek said.

“Maybe they are more volunteers,” Shan remarked hopefully.

From across the camp they heard shouting in the breezy night. Dreibrand fidgeted impatiently, almost on the verge of investigating the commotion himself. Setting down her wine, which she had barely touched, Miranda stood beside him and her presence reminded Dreibrand of where he wanted to be.

When the camp quieted, Xander returned and reported, “Five Nuram warriors have come to offer their service to Shan. They claim they discovered a Zenglawa lurking outside the camp after they greeted the sentry, and that is why they ran off. They were trying to capture him.”

“A Zenglawa. Did they get him?” Taischek said.

“Yes, Sire. I don’t know if the Nuram are mixed up with him or not. I have politely detained the Nuram, and Shan can decide if he wants to speak to them. The Zenglawa spy is a prisoner. Some of the men got a little excited when we finally nabbed him and smacked him up a little,” Xander explained.

Taischek chuckled but said, “Make sure that stops for now. We are better than the Zenglawa. Do you want to see these Nuram, Shan?”

The rys had been staring at the fire, but his attention snapped back to his surroundings when he heard his name. He answered that he would see the Nuram.

The group of Nuram warriors was from the same family. Two were brothers and all were cousins. Although their tribe would not openly support Shan, these men had decided to fight Jingten for reasons similar to the Hirqua who had volunteered. Shan deemed them quite sincere and welcomed their contribution.

After meeting with the rys, the Nuram were taken to join the Hirqua, and Xander settled back into his place by the King.

“Sire, what should we do with the Zenglawa spy?” he asked.

Taischek grumbled, “I don’t know. I don’t want to think about those Zenglawa. When we depart in the morning, just leave him tied to a tree.”

“That is very lenient of you, Sire,” Xander said.

Shan spoke up, “Taischek, let us see this Zenglawa.”

“I don’t want to see a Zenglawa. I have had enough of their rudeness,” protested the King.

“But he might be interesting,” Shan persisted.

“Oh, if you must,” Taischek relented and called for the prisoner.

Two Temu warriors produced the Zenglawa, whose hands were bound. Blood was caked under his nose and a puffy bruise discolored his caramel skin above his right eye. His long straight black hair had picked up a few leaves when he had been rolled on the ground, but the gleam in his eyes made it clear that no simple beating would lessen his pride.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Shan jumped up as soon as the prisoner was presented.

“Why are you here?” demanded the rys as if he knew the man.

The Zenglawa did not reply and Shan stalked up to him and looked at his hands. They were painfully scorched and blistered.

“Come back to try again?” Shan growled.

The Zenglawa shook his head and said, “I come to serve you, Lord Shan.”

Taken aback by the declaration, Shan said, “This morning you wanted to kill me.”

“This morning I wanted to obey my orders, but I never wanted to kill you, and I did not,” the prisoner responded.

“So you disagree with your tribe?” Shan asked.

“Yes, my Lord. It upset me when I was ordered to be an assassin, especially on the Common Ground. I am a master archer, and I use my skill for battle or sport, but I am not a murderer. King Atathol wanted me to be the instrument of his dishonor. I sought to obey him and think that his reasons were good. I thought maybe if you could be killed, you were not worthy of the allegiance you asked for,” the prisoner explained.

“There’s some Zenglawa thinking,” Taischek snorted.

An angry look crossed the prisoner’s face, but he remembered his situation and kept his emotions in check. He continued, “But I could not do it. I did not take the shot, although I don’t suppose anybody noticed. Everything happened so fast.”

“I know you did not take your shot,” Shan said and the prisoner’s eyes lit up with awe. The rys had not even been looking at him.

“Then, when you did not kill me or the other men who fired at you, I realized the good in you. You could have killed us—burned our whole bodies. You had every right to. Am I wrong?” he said, lifting his injured hands.

“I have no desire to kill anyone, but sometimes necessity demands it,” Shan said. “What is your name?”

“I am Redan,” the Zenglawa answered, lifting his head with pride.

“Atathol has sent him as a spy,” Taischek decided.

Shan held up a hand to quiet Taischek. He fully understood how deeply the Zenglawa had insulted them all, but he did not want Taischek to vent his anger on this one young warrior. Although Shan realized Redan could be part of an elaborate deception, he wanted to believe in the Zenglawa’s change of heart.

“Does Atathol know you are here?” Shan asked.

Redan answered, “No, I will no longer serve Atathol. He ordered me to shoot at your back, and I almost did it. I feel guilty for even lifting my bow. I wish to cleanse myself of this dishonor by serving you. Lord Shan, only you are worthy of my skill and loyalty.”

Tired of the Zenglawa’s speeches, Taischek complained, “If he is not a spy, he is a traitor. We asked for allies not Zenglawa strays.”

Crossing his arms, Shan pondered his latest volunteer. Most likely Taischek was right about the man, and short of interrogating him during a mindreading, Shan could not decide.

“Redan, I would like us to be friends, but you understand that it will be difficult for you to earn my trust. I must take my enemies very seriously these days.”

Giving into his misery, Redan hung his head and yielded, “I can only prove myself through good service, but if I cannot have the chance, then punish me as you see fit, Lord Shan.”

“I have but one enemy to punish, and she awaits her fate in Jingten. Go back to your tribe, Redan,” Shan declared.

Redan considered the possibility of returning home. He could catch up to the Zenglawa, but he still considered his tribe disgraced and he had abandoned his King’s side without permission.

Dreibrand had been observing the prisoner while Shan spoke to him. He had noticed the burned hands that marked him as an assassin, but when Dreibrand heard that this archer had not taken his shot, he became interested. Perhaps Shan’s power and goodness had won over one Zenglawa. Cursing himself as a fool, Dreibrand made an impulsive decision.

“I will accept you, Redan,” he announced. “Prove your sincerity to me, and I will recommend you to Shan. And if you are a spy, may the Gods help you, because I will find out.”

All faces turned to Dreibrand with various shocked expressions.

“Dreibrand, you can’t be serious,” Taischek sputtered. “The man does not deserve a chance. If anything he says is true, he has at least been faithless to his own King. He will be faithless again.”

Taischek’s judgement of the prisoner bit unknowingly deep into Dreibrand’s conscience.

“But, King Taischek, would you not agree that Atathol does not deserve his loyalty, especially because he serves Onja? Just because Redan has chosen to change his loyalty does not mean it is not loyalty,” Dreibrand said.

Taischek studied Dreibrand long and hard and was not altogether pleased with his attitude. But how else would a mercenary think? the King concluded.

“I still don’t trust him,” he grumbled.

“Nor do I, but I would give him a chance. Of course, it is still Shan’s decision,” Dreibrand said.

Shan wondered what had compelled Dreibrand to give the Zenglawa a chance. Whatever his reasons, Shan knew Dreibrand considered his security of the utmost importance and he decided to trust Dreibrand with Redan. To himself, Shan admitted that this archer intrigued him, and if the circumstances were different, he would probably immediately like the man.

“What do you think, Miranda?” Shan asked.

For a moment she considered her answer. The Zenglawa accent of the prisoner had been harder for her to understand, but she had followed most of the conversation. “I think any of these volunteers might be spies,” she warned, and Taischek laughed, appreciating her perfect suspicion.

“This one certainly is,” Taischek said.

“Not certainly,” Shan countered, making up his mind. With a hint of magic fire in his eyes, he leaned close to Redan. “You shall have your opportunity, Redan. This is Dreibrand Veta who has taken responsibility for you. You will obey him in everything.” Then speaking over his shoulder to Dreibrand, he added, “If at any point you doubt his motives, kill him.”

“Of course,” Dreibrand agreed.

“I hope we will speak again, Redan,” Shan said.

“We will, Lord Shan, and thank you,” Redan promised.

Shan returned to his seat by the fire, content to leave the Zenglawa to Dreibrand’s judgment. Taischek greeted him with a sour look, but Shan defended his action by insisting volunteers needed to be given a chance. It was hard enough to get people to go against the rule of Onja as it was.

Ignoring their conversation, Dreibrand focused on Redan, seeing some of himself in the Zenglawa warrior. After a nod from Dreibrand, the Temu guards released the prisoner and Dreibrand pulled out his ivory handled dagger. The Zenglawa flinched before he understood and put his bound hands over the blade so Dreibrand could cut him loose.

“Your days with me will not be easy. But if you prove trustworthy, things will improve,” Dreibrand stated.

“Then things will improve,” Redan said confidently.

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

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

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

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

Final decisions varied from tribe to tribe.

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow may not go well,” Shan said.

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

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

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

“Any other tribes?” Dreibrand inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atathol cast his eyes down, answering no.

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

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

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

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

Ejan crossed the stage and bowed to Shan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let go of me,” Miranda insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King raised his cup and all the others followed.

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

Shan allowed their cheers to please him.

“She can’t enter the Confederate Council,” Taischek insisted again.

Shan sighed. “Taischek please. You know I will keep asking until you say yes.”

King Taischek almost crossed his eyes with frustration. “I thought you had no more favors to ask of me,” he growled.

“What more have I asked?” Shan said innocently.

“You just said you intended to bring her into the council. That is a very large favor, Shan,” Taischek said.

Sitting in the circle at the King’s campfire, Miranda for once strategically held her tongue. She knew Shan would speak best for her, but she grew tired of this wrangling with Taischek.

Incredulously Shan countered, “Why did you think Miranda came with me?”

“Because she does not like to wait for news. I don’t care. Shan, you know women are not allowed at the Confederate Council. I did not make this rule. It is only how it is,” Taischek persisted.

Dreibrand also sat in the circle and he reached for Miranda’s hand, but she jerked it away. On the three day trip, she had barely spoken three words to him and he was at a loss as to how to end her anger with him. Dreibrand had the small consolation that at least she seemed to have heeded his advice that had caused their argument in the first place. She had not offended the King, and she was letting Shan argue on her behalf.

Shan continued, “Taischek, you promised that I could address the Confederation and Miranda is part of my presentation.”

Groaning, Taischek responded, “Shan, it is not just my decision. The Confederation is based on respect among the tribes and observation of common rules. No tribe would bring a woman into the council. It is bad enough she participates in my council, but if I bring her into the Confederate Council, the Temu will instantly offend the other four tribes. Then we will accomplish nothing.”

Shan paused to think. Taischek did have his point. Shan did not want to offend his potential allies, especially when his bounty probably tempted them to be his enemy. Turning to face Miranda, Shan felt torn. The captivity of her children would generate an emotional response from the humans and it was a crucial part of his argument to oppose Onja. Having the empty handed mother at his side would create the impact he needed to draw sympathy to his cause.

Finishing off a cup of wine, Taischek poured another, feeling confident that he had actually won an argument with the rys.

Miranda looked at the King and then at Shan, realizing that Shan considered giving into Taischek and leaving her outside the Confederate gathering. Although longing to argue for herself, Miranda remained quiet and accepted some of the dynamics of her situation. Taischek was not who she needed to convince. He already tolerated her presence, and Miranda knew he truly sympathized with her situation. After all, he had committed the Temu to the war against Onja. The recruitment of allies from the Confederation was of the utmost importance, and Miranda admitted to herself that she should not diminish Shan’s chances of success.

“I will wait at camp with the horses,” Miranda decided.

Taischek looked at her sharply, distrusting her surrender.

Shan said, “I will convince the other tribes to let you speak to them. I will send for you then.”

“I know you will do what you can. While I sit here, everyone else will decide what to do. It is only my children in Jingten,” she grumbled sarcastically.

Dreibrand caught her veiled hostility. He hated this counterproductive issue and empathized with Miranda’s frustration. Dreibrand knew what it felt like to be excluded arbitrarily.

Groping for a solution, he suggested, “None of the tribal delegates have to be offended right away. Miranda need not attract any attention until Shan wants her to speak. Miranda could wear a hooded cloak to hide her features. She is as tall as some men. No one will notice.”

The King had hoped the subject to be concluded and he had not expected Dreibrand to propose alternatives.

“Why sneak her in only to hide her?” Taischek said.

“Because Shan wants her there, and because Miranda wants to be there,” Dreibrand replied.

Miranda’s expression softened and she appreciated his support. He had openly sided with her—something he had been avoiding.

“That would work,” Shan agreed brightly.

“Hold on you pushy rys,” Taischek complained. “I didn’t say yes. What if she is noticed before you start to make your case? It will spoil everything.”

Dreibrand proposed, “The Temu need not take the responsibility. I will assume all blame if any offense is taken. I am clearly not a Temu, and you can say you did not know I brought Miranda to the council.”

It was a generous offer but Taischek had no use for it. “Dreibrand, I do not let others take blame for my decisions. You are a member of my household and offended tribal rulers will not look to you first. So I get the blame anyway.”

“You are right, King Taischek. I was only trying to find a solution that would suit all of us,” Dreibrand said.

Taischek found himself reconsidering. “Shan, can she really help you that much?”

The rys nodded. There were many reasons to rebel against Onja, but Miranda seemed to make those reasons clear to people.

“Miranda puts a human face on our cause. It is natural to help a woman whose children have been stolen,” Shan explained.

Taischek tapped his wine cup thoughtfully with a jeweled finger. He locked eyes with General Xander who was sitting on his right.

 “She will get everyone’s attention,” Xander said.

Slowly the King decided, “We are breaking so many rules already, I suppose one more won’t matter, but we will do as Dreibrand suggests and conceal the fact that she is a woman. I suspect tomorrow many things will change, including the Confederation.”

Shan agreed, “Tomorrow will be a momentous day for humans and rys. What I have to say will cause plenty of disturbance. Offense caused by Miranda may highlight our enemies more than it insults our friends.”

“Then I should get my rest. This war might start tomorrow,” Taischek concluded.

With the meeting over, Shan and Miranda left to practice her wording and pronunciation for what she needed to say. Dreibrand went to his bedroll to attempt some sleep before his watch, and he thought that Miranda had stopped looking so angry with him.

When he stirred for the late watch, he sought out Miranda.

Sitting awake in the dark, she heard him coming. “Dreibrand?” Miranda whispered.

He answered her and crouched beside her. Nearby, Shan slept deeply, renewing his strength, and Miranda seemed to be watching over him.

For a moment they sat in an awkward silence, until Miranda said, “So what did you want?”

“I was, I mean, I wanted to…” he trailed off. He felt himself on the verge of some kind of apology but he restrained it. He had already had to apologize to the King for her and he had not liked it.

“Why are you still up? You should get some rest,” he said.

“I cannot sleep. I am too excited for tomorrow. And Shan rests tonight. Many tribes are camped in the area, and I was worried,” Miranda said.

“I think we will be safe for tonight,” Dreibrand commented. He wanted to reach out to her, to kiss her. “Well, I have to get to my watch.”

Miranda caught his hand when he stood and she rose to face him. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“For what?”

“For sticking up for me with the King,” she replied. “It meant a lot to me.”

Feeling his anger dissolve, Dreibrand reminded her softly, “You made me promise to take you to the Confederate Council.”

“I should not have become so angry with you,” she confessed.

Dreibrand could tell that it had been hard for her to say that. Now he did put his arms around her. “I lost my temper too. I regret the quarrel,” he said.

“You were right. I should have used more care when speaking to the King. You tried to give me good advice, but I ignored you,” Miranda recalled.

“Let us put our angry words behind us. I see now that you are careful not to upset Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda sank into his embrace, whispering, “After so much freedom, it was hard being told what to do. I was so free in the Wilderness, and now I feel restricted and I got angry.”

“Everyone has pressures on them. Rules to follow. It is hard to take sometimes,” Dreibrand agreed. He cupped Miranda’s cheek in a hand. “Miranda, I will not choose the King before you, but I am trying to please him with my service. Taischek has much to offer us. I need to look to the future. When Shan is King, he will reward me and I will be wealthy. Then I will ask Taischek to sell me some Temu land, or if I am lucky, he will grant me some for my services. You and the children will need a home.”

“You are good to think of us,” Miranda murmured.

Dreibrand kissed her, relieved to have the return of her affection.

“I have to go. Remember, we are on the same side,” he whispered.

Miranda smiled and let him go. He disappeared into the dark to take his place on the camp perimeter, and Miranda marveled at her luck in finding such a trustworthy companion.

By morning she had fallen asleep and Shan roused her. Miranda felt queasy and she did not eat her ration, taking only a little tea instead.

As Shan tied her hair back and arranged the hood over her face, he asked what was the matter with her.

“I think I am too nervous to eat,” Miranda answered.

“You will do fine. Probably better than me. And there will not be nearly so many people as in Dengar Nor,” Shan encouraged.

“How many people will there be?” she said.

“Each King will have about fifty men with him, plus there will be some rysmavda, so two hundred fifty to three hundred,” Shan answered.

“And everyone just meets in the forest?” Miranda wondered.

“No, the Common Ground is a special meeting place. It is a very ancient place. Humans have lived here a long time. You will see,” Shan said.

Shan pulled the cloak around her torso and stepped back to consider her appearance.

“Do I look like a Temu warrior?” Miranda asked skeptically after she slung her bow over her shoulder. Dreibrand had acquired a few arrows to fill her quiver, but her arm was still weak and her shot was not good.

“No, but you do not look like anything and that will be enough. You will sit behind General Xander away from Dreibrand and me. Most people will be looking at me or Dreibrand because he looks different. No one should notice you until I call for you,” Shan explained.

“I am ready,” she said.

When the Temu delegation reached the Common Ground, Miranda understood what Shan meant when he called something ancient. The woodland gave way to the ruins of an amphitheater surrounded by statues. She could sense the antiquity in the sunny clearing as if the land itself remembered the many people who had come here through the ages. All five tribes of the Confederation considered this place neutral territory, and they had been meeting here for over two hundred years. One paved path led to the amphitheater, and it showed signs of recent repairs. Fresh paving stones had been placed where ancient ones had withered into the grass, and vines had been cut away from the statues.

The two statues flanking the path were larger that the others. No one knew the names of the stone humans or what tribe they may have belonged to. The arms of the statues had broken away long ago and the faces were worn dim by the ceaseless elements. Even so, a hint of ancient majesty lingered upon the faint features. Miranda felt uneasy as she passed between the statues as if they knew the secret under her cloak.

The amphitheater had been renewed by the Confederation, and new stones had been cut to replace the broken seats. Each tribe took a section of seating and the Kings were in the front row at stage level. There was King Ejan of the Tacus, King Atathol of the Zenglawa, King Sotasham of the Hirqua, and King Volvat of the Nuram. The blue robes of rysmavda were plain to see next to the kings of these tribes, and warriors in their various tribal regalia filled the rows behind their leaders.

All eyes were on Shan and a tangible tension flirted among the Confederates.

King Atathol of the Zenglawa, who was the elected speaker every year, strode to the center of the stage to call the council to order. His straight black hair fell freely from underneath his fox trimmed crown. Precious stones dangled from his pierced ears and a rich red velvet robe draped his royal body. From the voluminous robe he removed a parchment scroll and all in attendance guessed what document it had to be. Jingten had delivered a copy to every tribe.

In the traditional manner Atathol greeted the gathered tribes and blessed the Confederation for the peace and prosperity it brought, but he obviously rushed the opening formalities. Only the words on the parchment occupied the minds of the council.

Skipping the mundane issues usually discussed at the annual meeting, Atathol pointed at Taischek with the scroll and asked, “Have you brought this renegade rys to share with your allies, Taischek, King of the Temu?”

No one expected Taischek to say yes, but everyone listened expectantly.

His round face stern with dignity, Taischek stood up and joined Atathol on the stage. He knew Atathol liked being the center of attention and he enjoyed taking some of it from him. Placing his hands on his hips, Taischek measured the gathering with his eyes.

“It is well known that Shan is a trusted friend of mine,” Taischek said with great antagonism. 

Atathol responded, “Your friend has been condemned by Queen Onja. The Confederacy must not defy Jingten.”

Taischek hurled his gaze at Atathol, demanding, “Would I ask any of you to give up a friend because he is wanted? The Confederacy is about respecting each tribe’s sovereignty, not taking from each other.”

The Prime Rysmavda of the Zenglawa hurried to Atathol’s side and challenged Taischek’s statement. “No one here needs to be reminded what the Confederacy is for. But you forget that the Confederacy is just a part of Onja’s domain. No authority is above our Goddess. Keeping Shan in your domain could bring Onja’s wrath onto the entire Confederation. I propose a vote to decide if Taischek should give up Shan for the good of the Confederation.”

Atathol immediately concurred and motioned for the vote to be done without delay. A few shouts of approval came from the crowd, mostly from the Zenglawa section, but Taischek protested.

“To what purpose?” he barked. “Would you set all the tribes to quarrelling over my friend’s head? Onja would never award the bounty to the entire Confederation. Or would you claim the prize, Atathol?”

“How dare you, Taischek!” thundered the Zenglawa King.

Taischek sneered, “Don’t act so insulted. I know of the extra Zenglawa warriors in the area.”

Many faces scowled throughout the gathering. All the tribes were guilty of bringing more warriors than usual, but the Zenglawa had been the least discreet.

“Of course, we all know who would really get the bounty—the rysmavda,” Taischek added.

“I will not listen to your accusations, murderer,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda shouted. “It is the faith of the rysmavda that nurtures the goodwill of the Goddess.”

“It is the faith of the rysmavda that sends our goods into the mountains,” Taischek retorted.

While the Prime Rysmavda sputtered on his rage, Taischek continued, “And I think Atathol brought extra warriors to attack me if I continued to protect Shan.”

“Would you accuse me of wanting to start a war on the Common Ground?” Atathol cried with indignation.

“I accuse you of hoping to capture Shan,” Taischek said.

“And why wouldn’t I?” Atathol demanded defensively, looking to the audience for support. “Every tribe desires the bounty. Does Onja’s offer not tempt you, Taischek?”

“No!” Taischek roared. “Onja makes no real offer anyway. She offers a tax break. The Queen tempts you with that which is rightly yours. The Temu have no need to betray Shan. We have joined Shan in opposition to Onja, and we shall pay no tribute this year or ever again! I, King Taischek of the Temu, announce to you my Confederate brothers that the Temu are free.”

The Temu contingent applauded their King, but shocked murmurs rolled through the audience and many a brave warrior let his mouth slip open, aghast.

Before the wave of surprise crested, Taischek continued, “The Temu invite their allies to join this noble cause. In the spring we march to Jingten to cast down the Queen.”

The rysmavda seated by each king instantly advised each leader to spurn Taischek’s proposal, and the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda addressed all the delegates at once.

“Do not listen to the blasphemer. The renegade Shan has put a spell of madness on him. The only reason the Temu still live is because Onja must think of a special punishment for their heinous actions.”

Taischek laughed at the Prime Rysmavda. He was so happy he did not have to tolerate the priests anymore.

“Lord Shan does not put a spell on me. He speaks the truth, and the truth is Onja does not have the power that she had in centuries past,” Taischek said.

“Fool!” Atathol gasped. “Onja is the Goddess. She will kill us all for listening to your madness. Her wrath will soon be upon us.”

“And what is Onja’s wrath?” Shan queried as he strode out beside Taischek.

A hush fell on the amphitheater, and Shan hoped they all felt foolish arguing about his fate in front of him.

As if Taischek could actually give me to them, Shan thought.

With Shan’s approach Atathol actually stepped back and the Prime Rysmavda quailed behind him. Now that Shan was closer, the Zenglawa could no longer pretend he was some insignificant rys. They could not ignore the aura of his power, especially when they had been speaking against him.

Shan said, “I am listening, King Atathol. What is this wrath you seem to know so much about?”

Atathol glanced to the Prime Rysmavda for support. “Queen Onja will make us into Deamedron,” the King answered.

“She would have to leave Jingten and come here to do that. Not even I could cast a spell that powerful over such a long distance,” Shan explained.

The Prime Rysmavda found his tongue. “Queen Onja, our Goddess, can strike us down with fire and burn us alive. You can’t deny that, you rys heretic.”

“In her younger days she could,” Shan agreed with a viperish congeniality. “But she does not have the strength anymore. Onja has grown too old to terrorize the lowlands as she once could.”

“Onja is eternal!” shouted the Prime Rysmavda.

Shan scoffed, “Rys are not immortal.”

King Ejan of the Tacus stood up to speak. He was a tall man and his skin was darker than most of the Tacus, which was a trait of his royal family. A circlet of silver rested on his velvety short black hair.

“Lord Shan, has Onja truly grown weak with age?” he said.

“Yes, King Ejan. She is twice the normal age for a rys, and she is much weaker now,” Shan replied and he was glad to read the interest on the face of the Tacus King.

“You said her power could not terrorize the lowlands. Does that mean her power is still great in the Rysamand?” Ejan asked.

This was a detail Shan did not want to advertise, but he had to be honest with his potential ally. Ejan was an intelligent man with a large army. “You are correct, King Ejan. In the Rysamand, her power remains profound. The weakness I refer to is in her range. I assure you, she cannot hurt us here.”

Ejan considered Shan’s words and they did make sense to him. He reasoned that with age a man’s sight could become shorter, so with age, a rys’s magic might not reach as far.

“But when you and Taischek go to Jingten, Onja will be able to attack you with her magic,” Ejan surmised.

“My power will protect all who march with me. And when I battle with her, she will have to focus all of her power on me, and yes, King Ejan, her magic will be great, but I am greater. When she is defeated, I will become King of Jingten and master of the Rysamand. But I will not demand tribute. The human tribes will be free of rys rule.”

With excitement Taischek added, “Can you not see that the Age of Onja is at a close? The crazy Queen is old and her powers are fading. Shan is in his prime, and he is a fair and generous being. I know I am not the only one here who has seen his good character. We would all be better off with a friend in Jingten instead of a tyrant.”

Shan appreciated Taischek’s enthusiasm, and he could see that Ejan wanted to believe.

King Volvat of the Nuram now stood up to speak. “Lord Shan, you answer the King of the Tacus with good words, but will you have good words for my question? If you are powerful enough to defeat Queen Onja, why do you hide with the Temu and ask for our help?”

It was an uncomfortable question for Shan, especially the way Volvat put it.

Inclining his head in polite acknowledgement of the just question, Shan answered, “I ask for your help because your very obedience to Onja helps to keep her strong. She thrives on control of the human tribes and it pleases her when you send your tribute. If you turn away from her and reject her rule, it will shatter her confidence, which will make her more vulnerable to my attacks.

“I also ask for your help because unfortunately not all humans will be bold enough to defy Onja. Whole armies may try to prevent me from reaching Jingten. I have to rest sometimes and I need the protection of my allies.”

Volvat accepted the logic in Shan’s explanation but he was clearly not convinced. “I have no desire to meddle in the affairs of Jingten,” he decided.

Shan hid his disappointment at the blunt rejection and said, “Then agree not to hinder me or the Temu in our cause. Even your passive support would be helpful.”

Volvat pressed his lips together in consideration and sat down.

Atathol snorted with impatient disgust. “Taischek, this is madness. If you will not see reason, take your rys friend and leave. No one wants any part of your suicidal dreams. The Temu are only free to die a horrible death.”

Flushing with anger, Taischek restrained himself from striking the rude Zenglawa King. He had never liked Atathol and his opinion was not improving.

The Temu King managed a diplomatic tone and suggested, “I’m sure the other kings have more questions. Let us give Shan the stage so he can finish his proposal.”

“As Speaker, I deny your request. Both of you leave now,” Atathol ordered.

“You have no such authority,” Taischek scoffed.

“The Confederacy will not listen to any more blasphemous rantings from heretics,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda screeched.

“The Rysmavda are not the Confederation!” Shan shouted with a sudden horrendous anger. Blue light filled his eyes and his spell vaporized the warding crystals hanging from the necks of every rysmavda in the amphitheater. It was a stunning blow to the rysmavda to see Shan destroy the very representation of Onja’s magic touching their bodies. “Where I walk, Onja has no power. Any spell she makes, I shall undo,” Shan declared. 

The rysmavda with every tribe cried with outrage and fear when their warding crystals disappeared in a flash of heat, leaving black scorch marks on their robes. The Prime Rysmavda of the Nuram Tribe promptly left the council with his lesser rysmavda in tow. When the other priests saw this, they decided to do the same.

As the rysmavda exited the amphitheater, Atathol said, “This meeting is dissolved.”

Ejan spoke. “Wait, King Atathol. Nothing requires the rysmavda to be at the Confederate Council. I am interested in hearing more of what Shan has to say. Let the guest of the Temu continue.”

Looking for support, Atathol eyed Sotasham, the Hirqua King, who had not spoken yet.

“King of the Hirqua, you have ever been a reasonable man. You surely agree with my judgment?” asked Atathol.

Sotasham shrugged and responded, “I like this talk of no more Onja.”

When Atathol failed to find anyone to agree with him, Shan narrowed his eyes at the Zenglawa and whispered, “See, they do not share your unshakeable devotion to Onja.”

Shan’s stern look unnerved Atathol but he disguised his discomfort with a display of disgust. Throwing his hands into the air, he stormed back to his seat. Once nestled among his grim Zenglawa warriors, he glowered at Taischek.

“I told him he didn’t have the authority,” Taischek muttered smugly as he returned to his seat.

Alone on the circular stage, Shan felt an odd vulnerability. The surrounding humans seemed so alien and the hold Onja had on their minds was strong, but he had to break it for the good of everybody.

Drawing a deep breath, Shan began, “Onja has kept the human tribes in servitude for many centuries, skimming the cream from you labors. I personally know the Queen of Jingten takes pleasure in simply dominating you. I was sent to Onja’s court as a rysling and I was raised as her ward. I have spent long ugly years in her household, witnessing her callous decisions and feeling her wicked thoughts. She considers humans amusing pets that can be made to serve her demands.

“I believe that Onja is evil and she corrupts the potential in my own kind. Her excessive demands of tribute make Jingten wealthy, but the rys do not earn anything. They do not deserve their luxuries. The rys used to have a reason to be proud, and they were skilled in many esoteric crafts. Now they are lazy and supercilious. The rys have no need to live off the fat of your land, when we could prosper by our own means.

“I admit that while I prepare to confront Onja, I need allies to help me. The Temu believe in me and I thank them for their support. The Temu have ever been strong and good allies in the Confederation and they should not face this challenge alone. Join us and be free. None of you should pay tribute this year. Send Onja the message that you will be her slaves no more!”

These words stirred Ejan’s heart, but he was hesitant to get involved in a rys power struggle.

Ejan said, “Lord Shan, you have been a friend to me and helped me in the past, and the Tacus have benefited from your generous counsel. But I see a rys who would be King. There is nothing wrong with that, but I do not know if I could take my tribe into such a dangerous war just to support your ambition. The Tacus despise Onja’s taxes, yet we live well and the consequences of failure in this venture are grave.”

“True enough,” Shan conceded. “I am ambitious, but with your help I will not fail. At least deny Onja her tribute. The blow to her ego will diminish her confidence, and confidence has great value in the making of magic. But there is another reason I must return to Jingten and cast Onja down. A reason you may find more worthy than my desire to lead my kind.”

“What might that be?” asked Ejan, who was interested but skeptical.

Pausing for effect, Shan replied, “Onja holds captive two human children, taken from the people visiting from the far east. I have brought their mother to attest to this crime. I must defeat Onja so I can reunite this family and restore the honor of rys, who Onja sullies with her crime.”

Shan beckoned Miranda. Taischek stirred uneasily as she entered the stage and he wanted to grab her and conceal her, but he resisted the urge.

This might be entertaining, he thought with whimsical resignation.

Miranda fought the natural anxiety of being on stage. It was easier this time with a smaller audience, but they were all important tribal leaders, which was intimidating. At least the rysmavda had left. Shan’s mysterious eyes gleamed at her and she believed in his strength. She had to show these people her faith in Shan’s abilities, and Miranda now understood that Shan needed her faith as well. Meeting the rys, she grasped his outstretched hand and with her free hand, she tossed back her hood.

Many cries of surprise filled the amphitheater. Miranda suspected many of the remarks concerned her foreign racial appearance as much as her improper presence. Atathol, however, did not hesitate to attack this violation of protocol.

The Zenglawa King sprang to his feet and shouted, “Outrageous! Taischek, this is too much. You jeopardize all of us by siding with this Jingten fugitive and now a woman!” The speaker of the Confederacy actually floundered with the rest of his angry words, such was his indignation.

Taischek merely folded his arms and ignored all the shocked looks from the other tribes. Atathol stormed toward Miranda as if he meant to physically remove her. Seated with the Temu, Dreibrand tensed with readiness. He did not care if Atathol was a king backed up by warriors.

If that man touches her, he will get hurt, Dreibrand thought.

“I will not allow this insult,” Atathol declared.

Miranda leveled her green gaze at the outraged King. She recognized too well the tone of his voice and the stomp of his foot. His manner and posture reminded her of her former master when he had been about to assault her. Miranda’s toleration for such treatment had stopped many months ago.

“Be quiet and sit down. We have important matters to talk about,” Miranda snapped.

Her disrespect halted Atathol two paces away. No one in all of his life had ever spoken to Atathol in such a way, especially a strange woman, and he briefly lost touch with reality.

Taischek roared with laughter. He really could not help it. The expression on Atathol’s face was worth all the upset Miranda had ever caused him. Leaning close to Xander, he remarked, “I thought she gave me a hard time.”

Then louder, Taischek said, “Miranda has my leave to be here.”

General grumbling occurred throughout the council, but the fascination with the proceedings outweighed the break with tradition.

Atathol hissed, “You will pay for your insolence, woman.”

“There is little you could do to frighten me,” Miranda said with pride.

“Please sit King Atathol. I am not finished,” Shan urged in a soothing voice. He bent his will toward the upset Zenglawa, hoping no one would notice his subtle spell. Shan had seen Onja use magic in this way many times. Although he hated mimicking her, Shan decided it was necessary to calm the Zenglawa King. Miranda had been reckless with him.

Atathol returned to his seat, but he still seethed with anger.

Quickly returning to business, Ejan asked, “You are the woman of Taischek’s foreign mercenary?”

Miranda answered that she was. Shan interjected and introduced Miranda properly, explaining her story. In general, the people of the west were quite interested in seeing and hearing about the people from the east. Many had already been glancing curiously at Dreibrand most of the morning, but no one had guessed that an eastern woman was concealed in the Temu ranks.

As Shan told how Onja had claimed Miranda’s young children and then nearly killed Miranda for protesting, many human hearts stirred with anger. As Shan had expected, this human drama aroused their emotions. Not paying taxes to Jingten tempted these people, but worrying about their children might actually motivate them.

Hearing how Miranda had defied Onja and suffered injuries from the hand of the Queen made some of the assembled warriors look upon her with respect, which was new for Miranda. Privately, warriors wondered if they could have been so fearless in the face of the dreaded rys Queen.

As Shan concluded her sad story, Miranda implored the council, “Please give Shan the help he asks for. If not to make Shan King of Jingten, then to help me get my children back. Shan is the only one powerful enough to face Onja’s magic and defeat her. This I know much too well. Therefore, I will be at Shan’s side as he returns to his homeland no matter how many warriors Onja can buy to stop us. If you will not help us with your swords, at least keep your tribute. Let Onja know her final hour approaches.”

Miranda’s plea had a definite impact on the council. Any honorable man automatically wanted to help her, even if Shan’s cause had not moved him before. And Miranda’s brave pledge to return to Jingten and oppose Onja again shamed those that feared to face their tyrant at all.

Dreibrand smiled proudly when Miranda finished her speech. At that moment he thought she was the finest strongest woman he had ever met.

Ejan looked from Miranda to Shan, then glanced at his counselors. Finally the King of the Tacus proposed, “I call for a recess for the rest of the day, so that the tribes may consider the requests of the Temu and Shan.”

Indulgently Shan nodded. He knew Ejan to be a man who made careful decisions without rushing, but the rys felt confident that the Tacus would take his side. The Zenglawa, Shan had dismissed as a loss. Atathol obviously lusted for the bounty. Five years without owing tribute tempted him more than a future of freedom.

“A recess is an excellent idea, King Ejan,” Atathol agreed for once. “Do the other kings concur?”

All the tribes readily agreed because they had much to discuss and consider, and the council was closed for the day. The excitement and importance of the morning’s events caused the gathering to disperse in a quick informal manner. People left their seats and formed talkative knots, and the Kings of the Zenglawa and Tacus departed immediately with their warrior entourages.

“Well it is done then,” Taischek said as Shan and Miranda rejoined their group.

Glumly, Shan eyed the thinning crowd and muttered, “I do not think I did well.”

“It was fine,” Taischek encouraged. “They may be my allies but they are not Temu. They are not as brave as us. They will need time to come around to our way.”

“Some will,” Shan said, trying to retain some confidence. Trying to persuade people with words and reason was often discouraging.

Taischek directed his attention to Miranda now and scolded, “We did not come here to start a war with the Zenglawa.”

“Yes, my King,” Miranda said respectfully, but she noticed that Taischek did not really sound upset.

“But the Zenglawa may have come here to start a war with us, Sire,” Xander said. “Atathol left with a purpose in his step. We should get back to our camp and secure it well. I do not trust him—not even on the Common Ground.”

Taischek nodded as he heard his General’s wise counsel, accepting that he must now be wary of even his Confederate neighbors. The peace and prosperity between the five tribes had lasted for generations, and Taischek regretted that his choices had brought a good thing to an end.

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