You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘romance’ tag.

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.

Advertisements

Dreibrand managed to spend almost half his gold in one afternoon. The large crowd after the executions offered a tempting market for the merchants and they stayed open late. Dreibrand picked out a handsome bay stallion for himself and a roan gelding for Miranda along with hand-tooled leather saddles and bridles.

He hired two tailors and had himself and Miranda fitted for several outfits. He spared no expense on fabric and insisted that Miranda pick out only the best quality. She had protested at the cost and insisted that she did not need so many things, but Dreibrand had firmly instructed her not to care about the money. He spread a little extra gold between the tailors to make sure the orders were complete when they returned from the Confederate Council.

Miranda had not protested as much about the purchase of the horses and the next morning she waited with Dreibrand for their delivery to the castle. The horse dealer was not late and he rolled into the courtyard in a cart with his youthful assistant. The saddles were in the cart and the horses were tied behind it. Jumping down from the cart, the dealer shook hands with Dreibrand and bowed politely to Miranda. He was an amicable man with chubby cheeks and an abnormally unruly head of hair that his crooked braids could not quite tame.

“Thank you for bringing them up here today,” Dreibrand said.

“For you, no problem. Let other warriors in the King’s household know who has the best horses,” the dealer said happily. “You want to ride?”

They nodded and the dealer hollered to his assistant to saddle the horses. Dreibrand had inspected the animals thoroughly and rode them the day before, so he only checked them briefly on delivery. Once the horses were saddled, Dreibrand thanked the merchant and gave him a few more coins.

“Thank you, sir. I hope you need more horses soon,” the dealer beamed.

“I will look for you first,” Dreibrand assured him.

As the dealer departed, Miranda grumbled, “You did not have to give him that money. You did not even talk him down enough when you bargained yesterday.”

“We are foreigners, Miranda. It is important people around here like us,” Dreibrand explained.

Miranda supposed he was right, but she wished he would take a little more care with his gold. The dealer had liked him well enough yesterday.

The castle occupied only part of the mesa overlooking the city, and Taischek had tracks for riding and fields for practicing the arts of war on the rest of the high land. Here, Dreibrand and Miranda put the new horses through their paces and had fun racing each other.

When they returned to the castle stables, Miranda appeared almost carefree and happy. Dreibrand hoped she had put aside the trauma of the executions the day before.

“Now I have two horses,” Miranda said, celebrating the fact.

Dreibrand was glad that he had been able to provide her with something she liked. Every day he thought he loved her more. They made love every night, losing themselves in pleasure. Dreibrand enjoyed his good quarters, good food, and his good woman and never recalled being happier, but he wondered if Miranda shared the same feelings. Her passion had a hunger that thrilled him endlessly, but he could not tell if her feelings went beyond this.

He lent her a hand as she dismounted and asked how her arm was holding up. It was thin and pale, but she said it had not caused her any discomfort.

“I will have my old strength back soon. Then I want to practice archery again. I can almost pull my bow back already,” Miranda said.

Pleased that she was recovering, he told her to practice as much as she wanted.

They arranged stabling for their new horses and checked on Starfield and Freedom while they were there. The horses thrived on good hay and good oats and were getting a well deserved rest.

As they left the stable, Dreibrand said, “I have to go to a meeting with Taischek and Shan. I will see you tonight.”

“I want to go,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand paused with uncertainty. “I am not sure if that is allowed,” he said.

“Why?”

Awkwardly he avoided her gaze. “Miranda, you know how things are around here.”

“Do you not want me there?” she asked, and her voice revealed a hint of vulnerability.

“That is not it,” he answered.

“It is because I am not a man,” she surmised bitterly.

“Do not look at me like that,” Dreibrand defended. “You know I do not judge you that way. Atrophaney women do not have restrictions like the Temu. But we are here, and I do not think you can go.”

“Have you asked about this?” Miranda pressed.

“Well no,” he admitted.

“Then take me with you. I am sick of hearing about what you and Shan plan after the fact. I need to be there,” she insisted.

Dreibrand completely sympathized with her but she needed to be aware of her chances of attending the meeting.

“I want you there, but I cannot just change the Temu. Please understand this,” he warned.

“I will tell Taischek he has to let me,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand scowled and said very firmly, “Taischek is a King. You do not tell him anything. You ask. Do not go and upset him. We are Taischek’s guests and he treats us very well. His customs deserve respect.”

“Then I will ask,” Miranda said wearily.

Taischek and Xander were engaged in a heated conversation in their own language when Dreibrand and Miranda entered the council chamber. They stopped talking and Taischek quickly gave Dreibrand his attention, apparently glad to drop the discussion he was having with Xander.

Respectfully Dreibrand bowed. “I hope that I am not late, King Taischek.”

“Oh, no, no.” The King invited Dreibrand to sit in one of the high-backed chairs at the long table. “It is Shan who can’t tell time.”

Dreibrand cleared his throat, thinking of his words carefully. “King Taischek, Miranda wishes to sit with our council this afternoon.”

Taischek frowned and flatly told Miranda that it was not allowed.

She stepped forward and addressed her royal host, “Good King, this war concerns me closely, and I will hear what is talked about.”

Dreibrand shot her a look that she ignored. Taischek raised his eyebrows with surprise. Vua had mentioned how willful Miranda could be, but he had not been prepared for outright pushiness. Not even his most spoiled daughter spoke to him with such an assertive tone.

“These affairs concern me too, and I will conduct my meeting in my way. This is not your place,” Taischek said.

Remarkably unintimidated, Miranda protested, “This is my place. I was good enough for you yesterday when you wanted to show your tribe what a good cause this war is.”

Dreibrand shifted uneasily. He did not want to lose the favor he had risked his life to earn from Taischek because Miranda chafed under Temu custom. The position she placed him in was impossible, but he blamed himself. He should have guessed her antagonistic mood and advised her better.

The usually jovial King used a stern tone. “Miranda, I understand that you have a great interest in how this war is conducted, but such decisions are for men to make. Dreibrand Veta, you will escort her out and see that your woman observes her manners in the future.”

Dreibrand felt suddenly sick. He had worried this would happen, and he was not sure if Miranda would forgive him for what he had to now do. They needed the friendship of Taischek and he could not let her jeopardize that.

He was about to obey the King when Shan walked in and dissolved the confrontational moment.

“Hello, Miranda,” the rys said breezily as he seated himself beside Taischek.

“She was just on her way out,” the King growled.

“Oh Taischek, let her stay. I know it is not proper, but indulge me,” Shan said. “We could all learn of bravery from Miranda. Have you ever drawn your sword face to face with Onja?”

Taischek gave Shan a sour look, but it was hard to refuse when the rys put things in such words. He glanced to Xander for the General’s opinion but he shrugged noncommittally. Secretly Xander enjoyed her presence, which was too rarely near him.

The King sighed heavily. “Perhaps a new age is truly upon us. We have more important matters to discuss. Stay if you must, Miranda, but do not cross me again.”

Dreibrand quietly let his breath out, thankful for Shan’s intervention.

“Thank you, my King,” Miranda said with sweet sincerity because she had won her way.

Xander started the meeting by reporting on Kezanada activity. The elusive mercenaries had been descending on the Temu Domain in increasing numbers and an attack was expected when the King traveled to the Confederate Council.

“There is evidence of groups of Kezanada crossing the countryside, but it is difficult to put a number to them. I have no doubt that they have many agents in the city right now,” Xander said.

“We will travel with five hundred warriors. That should be enough to fight them off if they are foolish enough to directly attack me,” Taischek said.

Shan agreed. “Yes, that will be plenty. I have observed the Kezanada and there is a group of one hundred hiding in the Nolesh Forest to the north.”

“One hundred? They must be planning something big then. Kezanada do not usually work in such large groups,” Taischek said, shaking his head.

“Have you considered that they might seek a royal hostage?” Shan said ominously.

Discomfort crossed Taischek’s face, but he nodded to Shan’s question.

“Where is Prince Kalek?” Shan asked, referring to the Temu heir.

“He is safe,” Taischek answered. “He is still on summer holiday with his brothers Doschai and Meetan in Selsha Nor near the Tacus border, but they are well guarded, and I dispatched three hundred warriors to see them home.”

Shan relaxed and said, “Wise as always, Taischek. When do you expect your son to return?”

“At the start of tribute season. I thought it was best that he stay away. I wasn’t entirely sure how the tribe would react when I dissolved the rysmavda. If there was unrest, I did not want the princes traveling the roads. Kalek rarely wants to come home early anyway,” Taischek answered.

Shan said, “Good, but let me suggest that you instruct the protectors of Dengar Nor to be alert for a Kezanada attempt to infiltrate the castle. Any member of the royal household would suit them.”

“They can’t hope to storm the castle with only one hundred warriors,” Xander said.

“No, but they can climb the mesa, scale the castle walls and sneak inside. I have seen them practice just such a thing on their own castle in Do Jempur. Why do you think I requested guards to my suite?” Shan explained.

“True enough,” Xander grumbled. He knew what the Kezanada were capable of. Abduction was an expensive specialty for the Kezanada, but the size of Shan’s bounty would merit any effort.

“The guards on the castle will be tripled, and I will send two hundred more warriors to the princes,” Taischek decided.

“King Taischek, if I may?” Dreibrand interjected.

The King looked to his foreign warrior, almost eager for his opinion.

Dreibrand continued, “Shan knows where most of these Kezanada are hiding. I say we go clean them out right now. Such enemies should not be tolerated in your domain. Let them count their dead instead of making plots.”

The corners of Taischek’s mouth curled upward. He liked the foreigner’s thinking.

But Xander groaned. “Sire, the Kezanada would just love us to take a war party into the Nolesh. They could kill many Temu and still escape.” Looking to Dreibrand, the General explained, “The Nolesh Forest is very rugged and dense. The Kezanada prefer such conditions. They can fight well on the open field of battle, but they love to strike from the shadows. They would never give us a direct battle in there.”

A little crestfallen, Dreibrand admitted that he had spoken without knowing the lay of the land.

Taischek’s smile faded because he knew Xander was right, but he still had no solution. “You are wise, General, but Dreibrand has a point. The Kezanada are our enemy now, and I would not be much of a king if I let them do as they please in my domain. Until now, they had my leave to travel my domain because their affairs did not concern me and sometimes I found their services useful. But things have changed. They have made my business their business. I will drive them out,” Taischek decided.

“Sire, that may be impossible. Yes, we could clean out the Nolesh, but as we labored there, they would only find new places to hide,” Xander warned.

“True, but they would have to hide their forces farther from the city,” the King said.

“Sire, I was not exaggerating our losses. They have the advantage in the Nolesh. That place is a den favored by thieves,” the General grumbled.

“My friends,” Shan said quietly. “No Temu need die. I caused the Kezanada to come here, and I will deal with this threat. I believe they want to ambush me on the way to the Confederate Council or worse yet abduct a royal hostage. Either way, it cannot be allowed. General Xander is right in that if they are driven from the Nolesh, they will come back in another place, but I will bloody their noses enough to keep them away for now. Tonight, I will go kill these hundred Kezanada.”

Taischek had hoped Shan would offer to help. “Thank you, Shan. With your magic, the Temu will have the advantage. How many warriors do you need?”

“None,” Shan stated, casting his eyes down on the table.

The meeting fell into a shocked silence as every person considered Shan’s claim that he could kill one hundred warriors by himself.

“What are you going to do?” Taischek asked.

Shan folded his hands and rested his chin on his knuckles. A sad ache pressed on his chest. He did not want his friends to see the cruel destroyer he was becoming, but if he could say the words, then his plan would be real.

Softly he said, “I will kill them with my magic.”

Dreibrand understood that Shan did not like to take this action. He had seen Shan kill in battle, but the rys had used weapons and assumed the pretense of a fair fight.

Miranda wanted to speak against the plan, but she remembered well that Shan had said he needed to practice killing if he were to have any hope against Onja.

“Surely you will want some warriors,” Xander said.

“I will go alone,” Shan said adamantly. “No one is to follow me. As soon as it is full night, I will leave the city. Taischek please provide me with one of your horses, so I will attract less attention. In the morning I will be back and we can depart for the Confederate Council.”

“I will be ready in the morning then,” Taischek said. It touched him deeply that Shan took this course of action to lessen the burden on the Temu.

Dreibrand protested, “Shan, at least let me go with you. I can watch over you while you do this spell. Spies might see you leave the city and pursue you.”

“I will go alone!” Shan insisted.

Dreibrand looked to Miranda for support but she had none to offer. She did not want to argue with Shan after he had just stuck up for her with Taischek, and she believed the rys had chosen the best course of action. Miranda hated the thought of Queen Vua and her household being in danger from the Kezanada.

But Dreibrand persisted. “Shan, you have said yourself you need your friends to help protect you.”

Shan explained, “It is for your safety. I have not used my power in this way before, and I will be casting a large spell. I would not want any of my allies to get hurt. After tonight I will be able to refine the spell, but it is difficult to predict what will happen the first time. It is important no one follows me. I can avoid a few spies.”

Reluctantly, Dreibrand relented even though he thought Shan’s plan was too dangerous.

Shan tried to put him at ease. “Dreibrand, you will be at my side in many battles, but this I must do alone.”

Turning to Taischek, Shan said, “Unless there is something else you wish to discuss, Taischek, I would like to prepare for tonight. Once the Kezanada threat is removed, I see no trouble between here and the Confederate Council.”

“I have nothing else for today,” the King said and dissolved the meeting.

Shan quickly left the room with his head bent in thought.

As everyone else rose from their chairs, the King said, “Dreibrand Veta, do stay.”

Dreibrand cast Miranda an exasperated look, but her face mirrored his resentment and she walked out. General Xander left as well, leaving Dreibrand alone with the King. He walked to the head of the table where Taischek sat and waited for his royal reprimand.

Taischek stood and paced with his hands clasped behind his back. “Did you put her up to this?” he finally demanded.

“No, King Taischek.”

“But you brought her to this chamber and asked me to let her stay,” Taischek said, stopping his pacing and confronting Dreibrand.

Dreibrand explained, “She wanted to come, so I told her I would ask, but I warned her that it might not be your custom.”

“It is not!” Taischek snapped.

“King Taischek, she does not mean to offend. Miranda lives every day knowing Onja has her children. She wants to know how Shan proceeds with his challenge. She did not interrupt the meeting. She did not even speak,” Dreibrand said.

“But her words were hot before the meeting,” Taischek complained. He grumbled in his own language and paced a few more steps. When his temper was calmed, he said, “Dreibrand, I realize you are from a different land with different ways. I see that you are lenient with Miranda and perhaps that is your way—although I do not see any wisdom in it. But you are in the Temu Domain now, and her behavior is your responsibility. Do you understand?”

“Yes, King Taischek, I apologize for her,” Dreibrand replied.

The King measured Dreibrand with his eyes. He respected that Dreibrand accepted his responsibility, but he did not want to scold him too much. The foreigner was a cunning warrior and Taischek liked learning about foreign places from him.

With a sigh, Taischek said, “I can see that she is a difficult woman, but she must learn not to be difficult with me. If she comes in here again and starts telling me what to do, it will be your insubordination, Dreibrand. It will be your fault.”

“Of course, King Taischek. I will see that she understands,” Dreibrand said with a bow.

“I’m sure you will,” the King said confidently. “Now, it is my understanding that Miranda has chosen to travel with us tomorrow. I presume, so she does not have to wait for news from the Confederate Council. Let this be an opportunity for her to show off her new manners, eh?”

“Yes, King Taischek.”

When Dreibrand left the council chamber, Miranda was waiting in the hall for him. She did not miss his angry look and fell in step beside him as he stalked down the hall.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“What do you think?” he retorted in an ugly tone.

~

Shan waited in the drizzling rain the next morning while Taischek prepared for departure in the castle courtyard. The rys reported that the Kezanada were killed, but he said no more. Once again on his large white horse, Shan sat in silence. A flowing black cloak draped his body and the heavy hood completely cowled his face. Only the blue hands emerging from the black fabric showed that it was a rys.

Dreibrand waited beside Shan as the King’s honor guard formed their ranks. The rest of the five hundred warriors would join them outside the city. Dreibrand kept looking around for Miranda. They had quarreled bitterly the day before and she had stormed off and not come back. Dreibrand had fought the impulse to look for her, and when she did not return in the night, he assumed she had gone to stay with Queen Vua. Angrily he had thought that if she would not listen to him, then she might learn from the Queen. Who better to impress on her the importance of manners than the King’s wives and daughters?

But now, moments from leaving, Dreibrand worried that she had actually left in the night. He worried that she could have gone anywhere. It was a crushing thought.

Dreibrand wanted to ask Shan to locate her with his magic, but the cowled rys did not look like he wanted to talk, or maybe he was too tired to talk. Dreibrand did not know which, but he decided not to ask.

Taischek was ready to leave and panic stressed Dreibrand. As upset as he was, he could not leave the city without knowing where Miranda was. Dreibrand accepted that he would have to find her and catch up later, but it would be humiliating.

Just then, Miranda finally appeared. She was riding her new roan gelding and she hurried to join the entourage.

Gods! She is late. She must want Taischek to hate me, Dreibrand moaned inwardly.

Miranda took a place behind Shan, but she did not acknowledge Dreibrand. He tried three times to talk to her, but she ignored him as if her ears were incapable of hearing his voice. He gave up.

They left Dengar Nor and hooked up with the larger force of warriors. They traveled in peace all day with only the rain to bother them. Trees lined the road north out of Dengar Nor, and the dripping leaves tearfully wished the summer farewell. The Temu were traveling to a place called the Common Ground, three days to the north. It was the traditional meeting place of the five allied tribes.

Shan stayed silent, and Dreibrand’s pride prevented him from dropping back to talk to Miranda. He knew he could get her to talk if he tried harder, but it would probably only restart their fight. He could feel the strong words from their fight festering in her mind, but he did not know what to do about it.

Miranda had accused him of wanting to shut her out, which was ridiculous, but telling her so had only made her angrier. Dreibrand had tried to make her understand that making reckless demands of the King was counterproductive and would win her no favor, but she would not listen. 

Dreibrand looked back at Miranda. When they made eye contact, he turned around quickly. I must wait her out. I am the one who is right, he commanded himself.

By now, Dreibrand had hoped Shan would want to talk. Dreibrand burned with curiosity to know what had happened with the Kezanada.

Shan must have sensed that Dreibrand was about to attempt a conversation, and his cowl swung toward Dreibrand before he spoke. Dreibrand saw blue fire blazing in the depths of the cowl, as if Shan worked magic at that moment. Although he had seen light in Shan’s eyes before, he was taken aback this time.

“Is something wrong?” he asked quietly.

“No. My enemies lie dead in the forest,” Shan said as if he looked at the bodies at that moment.

“So what happened?” Dreibrand asked.

From within the hanging hood, Shan gazed at Dreibrand and truly wanted to answer his friend, but the fever of what he had done in the night still burned inside him. Shan boiled with a turmoil of new thoughts and sensations, and the events of the night replayed in his head.

Last night had been perfectly black after the sliver of a moon had set and the cloud cover had rolled in. Taischek had made sure that his most trusted men were manning the gate that Shan used to leave the city.

On the open road Shan bolted into a full gallop. His voluminous black cloak billowed from his shoulders like bats pouring from a cave. When he decided he had been on the road long enough, he headed cross-country to the north. Shan did not need his rys’s perception to hear riders thunder down the road he had just left. Looking back, he saw the lights of Dengar Nor across the black fields and Taischek’s castle twinkling high on the mesa. Soon the spies would realize Shan had left the road, and for their sake, he hoped they did not find his trail.

He had many hasas to ride before reaching the Kezanada encampment. The Temu farmlands yielded to wooded hills, and Shan eventually felt the presence of the old growth forest envelop him. Some of the trees in the Nolesh were older than he was and they told no secrets.

Probing the forest with his mind, Shan located the Kezanada sentries and dismounted to continue on foot. Beyond the sentries, he could feel the mass of men camped in the forest. Shan hoped what he was about to do would shock the Kezanada into rethinking their pursuit of his bounty.

Shan put a spell of sleepiness on the first two outer sentries that he approached. Lulled into a doze, the sentries awaited their death. Shan crept closer until he could see the campfires. Most of the Kezanada slept, but a few sat up talking.

Shan lowered himself into a cross-legged position, trying to limit the crackling of the ferns and forest litter. He focused his mind on his grim task but his conscience struggled to distract him. He had killed, but now he would kill with much greater intimacy. To magically extinguish life, especially in stealth, grated against his sense of honor. Deep down he judged himself harshly, knowing that what he did was wrong, but the Kezanada had to be deterred from hunting him or Taischek’s family. He had to gain more allies among the humans in order to weaken Onja’s position, and he could not allow the Kezanada to hinder him. Most importantly, those who were already his loyal friends relied on him to lead them to victory.

Banishing his natural revulsion, Shan began to meditate on his spell, gathering all the lifeforces of the surrounding men into his awareness. The rys felt the blood moving in their veins and the air passing through their lungs. He heard every word of conversation and the rattle of every snore. Shan linked to every man in the camp, sentries included, latching onto them like an invisible lamprey. Shan focused on their hearts. Only their hearts. The unsynchronized beating of a hundred hearts stormed his mind with a terrible roar, and Shan had to hold in a scream of agony.

He concentrated on only the rushing blood and the pumping hearts. Then, like the stockade at Dursalene but with a thousand times more refinement, Shan shattered the hearts. Valves flapped in useless tatters and the muscles of life screeched to a torn halt. Shan saw every internal detail of each man’s death as he released the spell’s visualization.

Most of the Kezanada clutched their chests in a terrible moment of pain before quickly dying. Some sat straight up out of their sleep and gasped before slumping back into a permanent rest. Every heart had been assaulted simultaneously, and as the Kezanada died, they did not know their comrades shared the same fate.

Shan sprang to his feet with outstretched arms, trembling with the awesome power he felt. His mind had been intimately entwined with each man at the moment of death, and Shan now held their souls. He experienced a sudden clarity of understanding as he grasped the many fresh spirits.

This is how Dacian and Onja made the Deamedron! he realized. He could conjure magical monoliths to imprison these souls restrained by his mind and create his own ghost soldiers who obeyed him.

The possibilities intoxicated him. He did not need to court the favor of the humans when he could create his own force of faithful and eternal Deamedron. Why should he care about the humans anyway? He was a million times greater than the best of their short-lived race. Rys deserved respect and they should demand the servitude of humans. He sullied himself by cultivating friendships with humans and promising them freedom.

I should be the master of all!

These mad thoughts filled Shan’s mind while the power of his spell surged through him. Holding the helpless souls made him feel so potent. Shan’s concept of magic swelled to a higher level that truly approached Onja’s power.

Finally, the thin wail of souls realizing their state of limbo reached Shan’s mind. The compassionate part of Shan shuddered at the sound, making the rys see that the thrill of his power had twisted his ambitions in awful ways, and had done it quickly.

“No!” Shan physically screamed and he released the Kezanada souls.

Sick with guilt Shan hurled himself onto the ground and wept until his face was muddied. Great sobs shook his blue body as he punished himself with unmitigated grief.

Is this how it started with Onja? he wondered. Was Onja once a decent being with caring feelings? Did her extreme talent for magic twist her into the Queen who loved her supremacy so much she claimed divinity?

Now Shan asked himself the most frightful question of all. Will I decay into such an evil being?

Rising to his knees, Shan cried, “I did not know the power would cause me such wretched temptation!”

The great old trees looming in the darkness absorbed the sound of his tortured voice, but they had little interest in his painful discoveries.

Shan’s mind lurched to the present where he was riding with the Temu. Dreibrand was asking him if he was hurt because the rys had slumped in his saddle.

“No,” Shan replied weakly, realizing he was exhausted.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Dreibrand coaxed.

“I learned many things. Many things,” Shan said cryptically. He bowed his head and the cowl covered the glow of his eyes.

Shan had no concerns about traveling openly when he returned to the road that ran west out of Jingten. Onja had exiled him, but as long as he was actually leaving the valley, he did not expect trouble.

To pass the time Shan began to instruct his human friends in the common language that was used by the various tribes of the west. Dreibrand possessed a great aptitude for language and readily expanded his vocabulary. Miranda found learning a new language difficult, which frustrated her. She was glad she would have Dreibrand to rely upon.

Miranda’s stamina would last most of the day, but when evening arrived her weariness consumed her and she could not take a watch at night. Her head and chest often hurt, but she did not complain, and the whole nights of rest did her much good.

They kept a slow pace, but by the third day the road began to rise into the western pass, where banks of snow reached down from the great mountains. Shan explained that the Jingten Road was the only road through the Rysamand.

The rys recounted his explorations among the treacherous peaks. He had an obvious passion for mountain climbing and mentioned that when he had topped his first peak and looked down on the world, he had realized the potency of the magic inside him. This exceptional power had fostered ambition in his heart.

Dreibrand and Miranda had no shortage of questions about the new land they found themselves in, and Shan answered them patiently. Shan also sought from them descriptions of the eastern world. Miranda had only a small view to offer, but Dreibrand had many stories about different kingdoms and of course Atrophane, which were just as intriguing to Miranda as they were to Shan. 

“With your mind, have you ever looked as far as my homeland?” Dreibrand inquired.

Shan admitted that he had not even tried. “But…that land is very far away. It would take a lot.”

“Could you do it?” Dreibrand pressed.

“Yes,” Shan answered in a slow voice.

“Has Onja done it?” Dreibrand said, and a twinge of concern stirred in his chest.

“If she has, I do not know of it. Onja does not tell me many things,” Shan said with some resentment.

Dreibrand brooded on the possibilities.

Shan added, “But I know Onja well, and I would judge that she does not concern herself with anything beyond the Wilderness.”

“How well do you know Onja?” Miranda asked.

“She raised me,” Shan said.

“She did? Then how are you her kin?” Dreibrand said.

“I am not her kin,” Shan insisted. “My mother died while giving birth to me, and my father gave me to the Queen to raise. I am told he was an elderly rys, beyond the usual age that one would father a rysling, and he thought I would be best with the Queen. He died when I was very young.”

“Why would he think you would be best with the Queen?” Miranda wondered.

“Good question,” Shan said. “Onja told me he recognized that I was much more powerful than the other rys, and gave me to her to train.”

As a rysling Shan had accepted these explanations, but in later years he had sought confirmation of Onja’s story from other rys. Although Shan had never learned anything different about his parents, he had remained suspicious.

“Apparently Onja did not deserve the usual maternal loyalty,” Dreibrand observed.

“In the beginning, I loved her as my mother, and she adored me. But as the decades passed, and I matured, I began to doubt my feelings for her. She raised me to see her evils as normal, but I could not,” Shan said.

“Did she train you?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan nodded. “But only in some things. She keeps much knowledge from me. Onja would not want to compromise her power.”

They reached the top of the pass, and Shan stopped to look back at the green folds of the Jingten Valley. The road had climbed above the tree line, and the Rysamand ringed the green valley in a rocky fortress. He always paused to look back at his home before entering the human realm. He never quite felt the same in the outer regions of Rystavalla, beyond the mountains of his birth.

While waiting to move on, Miranda put her fingers to her nose and felt warm blood. It started to drip and she rummaged a rag out of a saddlebag.

“It is nothing,” she said dismissively when Dreibrand voiced his concern.

Shan realized the thin air did not help Miranda’s healing and he stopped pondering his home.

After cleaning the blood away, Miranda smiled reassuringly to Dreibrand. Although he worried about her, he had to admit that the glow was returning to her cheeks and her green eyes sparkled with life.

“I feel good today,” she added.

“Do you?” Dreibrand whispered playfully and allowed his eyes to wander her body suggestively.

The wind picked up through the pass and they hurried on, wishing to camp in the lower warmer elevations. The Rysamand gave way gradually to a lush lowland, hazy with warmth in the distance, but they had many switchbacks to travel before leaving the cold heights. A cloud sprawled against the face of the mountain on their left, covering it with mist down to the tips of the treetops in the forest below.

The slow progress in the rugged land grew tedious, but the Jingten Road was good and well maintained. After so long in the open Wilderness, Dreibrand and Miranda appreciated the road.

At dusk they reached the foothills, and the occasional broadleaf tree now ventured to live among the pines. After making their small camp, Shan declared that he would rest that night. The rys had been up for days and he promptly descended into a deep sleep.

Dreibrand and Miranda sat up together, watching the stars bejewel the sky. In the peaceful night Dreibrand’s watch degraded into a very close watch of only Miranda. They kissed deeply, and their hands caressed eagerly.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dreibrand whispered.

“You won’t,” Miranda said, and he lessened his restraint.

With their activities on the verge of becoming noisy, they grabbed a blanket and slipped off into the trees to ensure their privacy. Their naked bodies warmed each other in the cool night, and Miranda was thankful for the joy of love Dreibrand brought to her.

Fearful of aggravating her injuries, he made love to her gently, but still reveled in her flesh. Almost losing Miranda to death had made Dreibrand appreciate her more. While nuzzling her neck, he decided he no longer regretted giving up his life in Atrophane. He had often missed his command and loyal troops, but he did not miss Lieutenant Sandin, and he did not miss his censured status in Atrophane society. Miranda needed him more than Lord Kwan, and being the first Atrophane to see the mysteries of the west satisfied him greatly.

Kissing lazily, the lovers were inclined to arouse each other again, but a nagging sense of responsibility made Dreibrand sit up. If a soldier under his command had behaved so improperly on a watch, he would have deserved a beating.

“We should go back,” he said guiltily. “We left Shan alone.”

Miranda chuckled. “Yes. You wear me out anyway. I need my rest.”

As Dreibrand drew on his pants, he heard the horses knicker in the distance and he had a sinking suspicion.

“I will slip ahead and check on things. I have a bad feeling,” he whispered while drawing his sword. Picking up his boots in the other hand, he padded off barefoot toward the camp.

A waxing moon lent a little light to the night, and Dreibrand sensed something definitely amiss as he approached the camp through the pines. A few coals glowed from the campfire, and he could see Shan rolled up in his blanket. Dreibrand discerned two dark figures leading the horses away and he decided the odds were decent.

Leaping out of the black cover of the trees, Dreibrand gave a war cry that startled the horses enough to make them unruly. He swung his sword at the nearest thief, who blocked the blow with a wooden staff that snapped under the sharp blade. The second thief sprang to his accomplice’s aid, and Dreibrand hurled his boots at him. The thief grunted with pain as one leathery missile slammed across his face. The other boot landed on Shan.

The first thief dove at Dreibrand who reacted by stopping his approaching skull with the hilt of his sword. The thief fell to his knees from the stunning pain. The staff of the second intruder caught Dreibrand on his shirtless back, and he gritted his teeth with pain. But his sword swung in automatic retaliation, and the point bit flesh. Another swipe of the blade tore the staff from the thief’s hand, and he fell back crying out in surrender.

Putting the tip of his sword under the thief’s chin, Dreibrand commanded, “Get by your friend. Stay on your knees!”

Clutching his side, the man scooted over to his companion, who held his own bleeding head. Even in the gloom, Dreibrand could see they were young and scrawny. By now Shan had gotten up, and he stomped over to Dreibrand with a very un-rys-like heaviness and flung the boot at Dreibrand’s bare feet.

“Do the Atrophane throw clothes at their enemies?” Shan shouted with irritation.

Embarrassed by his lack of apparel, Dreibrand offered no explanation.

“What is happening?” Shan demanded.

“I stopped these horse thieves,” Dreibrand explained.

Glancing at the freely roaming horses, Shan looked upon Dreibrand quizzically and said, “It looks like you gave them a head start.”

“They did not have much of a chance,” Dreibrand joked weakly.

“He saved the horses,” Miranda interjected as she returned.

With a frown Shan turned to her. “I suggest you not distract Dreibrand from his watch,” he scolded.

“You are grumpy,” she retorted.

Shan did not reply. When rys did sleep, they slept heavily and did not like being awakened suddenly. Rubbing his neck, Shan accepted that the rude booted awakening had bothered his temper.

“I will not be so careless again,” Dreibrand offered sincerely.

With an improving mood, Shan said, “Miranda is right. No harm came to us. Now let us see who our visitors are.”

Shan leaned over the kneeling men. The prisoners were obviously fearful of the scrutiny of the rys, and Shan allowed a little hint of blue to flash in his dark eyes just to intimidate them.

“Who is it that would steal property from a citizen of Jingten?” Shan inquired imperiously.

“I am Ka-Kala,” stammered the thief with the split head. “This is Venton. Please, Lord, we did not know—”

Shan cut him off. “Do you not recognize a rys horse?”

Kala knew his guilt was evident but tried to explain anyway. “In the dark we did not see. Lord, we would never—”

“Shut up,” Shan snapped. “You knew what you did. You are lucky my friend did not kill you amateurs. Now, Venton is it? How are you Venton? Did the sword cut deep?”

“Not too deep, Lord,” Venton replied painfully.

“Good. Now let that be a lesson for you Venton. You should earn an honest living or at least become a better thief,” Shan advised. Becoming more serious, the rys asked, “Do either of you know where King Taischek is currently making his summer visit?”

“I heard Fata Nor,” Kala answered with uncharacteristic sincerity.

“Fata Nor,” Shan considered. “Yes, that is probably right. Thank you gentlemen. Now off with you.”

“You are going to let them go?” Dreibrand asked with surprise.

“Do you want to bring them along?” Shan countered.

Dreibrand shrugged with acceptance, seeing his point. The knaves will have to go lick their wounds, he reasoned.

“Get! Before I change my mind,” Shan ordered.

Without hesitation the thieves sprang to their feet and scrambled away.

“If I see you again, I will turn you into skunks!” Shan called after them and laughed.

Quietly Dreibrand inquired, “Can you really change people into animals?”

Conspiratorially, Shan answered, “No. But it does not hurt to cultivate a few rumors.”

Dreibrand appreciated the joke now that he considered the power of reputation.

Miranda gathered the horses and tethered them again. She petted Freedom’s neck and was glad the horses had not been successfully stolen. The night had grown late and she returned to her bedroll with sleep in mind this time. Shan and Dreibrand sat around the rekindled fire, talking.

“I should have mentioned the possibility of thieves,” Shan said. “Any traffic going to Jingten is usually wealthy. And at summer’s end, every tribe will send a tribute caravan to Onja. The thieves will be thickest then.”

“What is this Fata Nor they spoke of?” Dreibrand asked.

“It is a Temu town. In the summer Taischek visits every part of his domain, and he is there,” Shan explained.

“How far is that?” Dreibrand said.

“Two days. More like a day and a half,” Shan answered. “You will like King Taischek. He has a wonderful sense of humor.” Shan smiled, thinking fondly of his friend.

“And he will help us?” Dreibrand said.

Confidently, Shan replied, “Yes. Taischek does not love paying his tribute to Jingten and believes Onja is an evil sorceress and not a Goddess. Do not worry, Dreibrand. You will meet him soon and see for yourself. Now get some rest. I will watch the rest of the night. You knocked the sleep out of me.”

Sheepishly, Dreibrand apologized again and he was glad Shan had a sense of humor about it.

The next day the Jingten Road split into three roads, and they took the middle road. Leaving the rougher foothills behind, they entered a fertile land. They saw the occasional farmstead carved out of the forest, and people began to pass them on the road. The three travelers received stares ranging from fascination to apprehension. Shan was shown deference on the roadway because no one wished to offend a rys, but Dreibrand and Miranda presented a curiosity to the local people. The humans west of the Rysamand were racially different with darker skin and eyes and black hair. When the local people saw Dreibrand and Miranda, it showed on their faces that they had never seen people with such light features. Most of the passersby were clearly astounded.

Shan inquired about King Taischek from a couple more sources to confirm the thief’s report. As far as anyone knew the Temu King was still in Fata Nor.

“Why do you ask for Taischek when you could just find him with your magic?” Miranda said curiously.

Shan chuckled. “It is easier to ask. Magic is not always the best way to accomplish something.”

Miranda nodded.

On the next afternoon a large village clutching the side of hill came into view. Wooden buildings, some plain some brightly painted, looked out over fields and pastures. One round stone building with a slate roof rose in the center of the village, and Shan explained that it was a typical example of a temple to Onja.

Before they reached the outlying fields of Fata Nor, four riders galloped down the road to meet them. The riders wore vests of shining chain mail or leather jackets, and many semi precious stones dangled decoratively all over their gear. The four men had chin length black hair kept in numerous tight braids bound with red and gold thread. Swords and daggers hung from their waists, and two riders carried bows.

Dreibrand watched their approach warily, instantly recognizing them as respectable warriors. Although he had faith in Shan’s influence, Dreibrand automatically prepared his mind for a conflict as a precaution.

His worry soon proved unnecessary as the warriors halted their steeds, and the lead rider smiled broadly. He lacked his two front teeth, which made his smile appear all the wider.

In the common tongue the man shouted happily, “Lord Shan honors the Temu with his visit!”

Shan and the Temu warrior brought their horses alongside each other and grasped hands in friendship.

“It is about time you came out to receive me, General Xander,” Shan greeted with obvious humor.

Xander rolled his eyes at Shan’s scolding and said, “The talk of your strange companions delayed me.” His attention shifted to Dreibrand and Miranda and his eyes did not hide his astonishment. “Are they humans or is this some rys thing?”

Dreibrand held his tongue patiently despite his irritation at the question. He understood a meeting between differing peoples could be both delicate and volatile.

“They are as human as any Temu,” Shan assured him. “They are wanderers from the east beyond the Wilderness come to meet their brothers and sisters in the west. Allow me to introduce Dreibrand Veta and Miranda.”

Xander bowed his head politely but was unable to remove his eyes from the foreigners.

Shan continued, “This is Xander, General of the Temu and counselor to his lord, King Taischek.”

“Greetings, General Xander,” Dreibrand said and extended a hand.

Xander hesitated, admitting to himself that the stranger’s blue eyes were very disconcerting. Still, Xander knew fear from no man and firmly grasped Dreibrand’s hand.

“Well met,” Xander said simply. On such an extraordinary occasion he preferred to leave the speaking to King Taischek.

Turning his horse, Xander cast a furtive look upon Miranda, but his manners demanded he not allow his gaze to linger. In all of his days, the General had never imagined a woman so exotic.

The Temu warriors escorted the visitors into Fata Nor. A large tent stood on the common green at the base of the hillside village, and a purple banner emblazoned with a horned yellow serpent was planted beside the tent.

Every resident of Fata Nor had put aside all tasks and duties to gather for the spectacle of the arriving foreigners. The throng parted for the warrior escort but pressed around all sides of the party. Miranda and Dreibrand heard many shocked gasps and exclamations, and the scrutiny of so many eyes made them uncomfortable.

General Xander guided the guests to the tent where more warriors kept a space clear of curious villagers. Everyone dismounted, and Dreibrand conspicuously helped Miranda from her saddle.

Two women entered the clear space. Their straight black hair was unbraided and neatly pulled back into tight buns. They wore lovely flowing robes of deep red. With downcast eyes they walked directly to Miranda and addressed her alone.

“Our Queen invites you to join her,” they said together.

Miranda glanced to Shan for guidance.

“The Queen receives all female guests,” he explained quietly. “It is their custom. You have no need to fear.”

“I do not wish us to be separated,” Dreibrand protested.

To calm his protective impulses, Miranda touched his hand and said, “You cannot keep me in your pocket. I believe it would be rude not to go with them.”

Dreibrand nodded and watched her follow the women away. Where she entered the crowd, he noticed three men in blue robes and white skullcaps. Two were young men, who seemed to hang behind the heels of the other older man. The older one had a lean weaselish face, and his thin eyes glared at the visitors.

“Who are they?” Dreibrand whispered to Shan.

The rys was looking at the blue-robed men with equal intensity, and Dreibrand realized that they were looking directly at Shan.

“They are rysmavda, priests of the temple. They administer Onja’s rule,” Shan answered. “Normally they would greet a rys visitor and provide accommodations at the temple, but they know I would not enter their temple, and they resent it.”

“Do you think they know what happened in Jingten?” Dreibrand asked.

“Most likely, but it does not appear they have shared the news, or Xander would have said something to me already,” Shan said.

“Should I consider them enemies?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan hushed him. They had whispered enough in front of their hosts and it was time for King Taischek to receive them.

Xander led them into the tent. The tent seemed dark after the bright afternoon sun, and their eyes took a moment to adjust. A few oil lamps burned, providing a soft light. Many rugs and cushions furnished every inch of the tent.

The King sat with two men, and many scrolls were strewn around them. The King and one man discussed a scroll while the other man made careful notations upon a new scroll. When the guests entered, the King finished his thought and promptly tossed aside the paper and waved dismissively to his accountants.

Taischek was a stocky man with a round belly and a balding head. What remained of his salty black hair was braided in the Temu fashion. Wrinkles from age and his big grin made his eyes appear as mere slits, but the intelligence sparkled through.

Shan required no introduction and Taischek bounded energetically to his feet.

“Shan!” Taischek cried with genuine pleasure, throwing his burly arms around the rys.

Shan leaned down slightly to receive the sturdy embrace.

“Taischek, you look good,” Shan proclaimed.

The King threw back his head, laughing freely. Addressing Xander, he said, “I love this rys. I will never look old to him.” Sighing, Taischek dignified himself and looked Dreibrand up and down. “Now who are you who makes all my people drop their tools and set to gossip?”

Already beginning to like the King, Dreibrand bowed deeply. “Thank you for seeing me, King Taischek. I am Dreibrand, second son of House Veta from Atrophane, an empire far east of the Wilderness.”

Despite himself, Taischek looked a little impressed.

“You have nice manners, Dreibrand Veta, but I have never heard of Atrophane. How many taxes does Onja demand from the eastern world?” Taischek said. When he got the chance, he always compared the tribute of other peoples. He did not intend to let his tribe be overcharged.

A little surprised by the question, Dreibrand answered, “None, King Taischek. Atrophane is so far away we have never heard of Jingten.”

This information fascinated Taischek, who had never heard of a people who avoided Onja’s demands, and his concept of the world doubled.

“Very interesting,” the King mused. “Come sit with me. I will send for refreshment.”

The accountants had finished packing their records into wooden chests and Taischek hurried them out. Reclining among his many pillows, Taischek clapped his hands and a servant appeared from behind curtains carrying a tray of goblets and a pitcher of wine. Too impatient to suffer the fuss of the servant pouring the wine, Taischek seized the pitcher and began sloshing wine into the cups.

“Bring us food,” he barked, and the servant obediently disappeared on his errand.

“What have you been doing with yourself, Shan?” the King inquired pleasantly.

Sipping his wine, the rys replied casually, “You know me, making life difficult for Onja. Contradicting her every order and general feuding.”

“Did she finally kick you out?” Taischek asked as a joke.

“Yes,” Shan said simply.

The humor faded from Taischek’s face, and he kept his suddenly serious gaze on Shan as he handed Dreibrand the last cup of wine. Gratefully, Dreibrand accepted the drink, noting the King lacked a couple fingers but made up for them with rings.

“I hope to discuss business with you, Taischek,” Shan added.

Taischek suspected the meaning behind Shan’s words but shook his head adamantly. “Not today, Shan. Let us speak of serious matters tomorrow. The Temu celebrate tonight. We go to war against the Sabuto Tribe in three days and this day is only for pleasure.”

“Excellent idea!” Shan agreed readily, knowing it would please Taischek. The delay of a day meant little to a rys. Shan continued, “We are fortunate to arrive before your celebration. Dreibrand, the Temu have the best parties.”

“Of course we do!” Taischek cried, relieved that Shan had not pursued his business. “Tonight we shall enjoy ourselves so that we can take the warpath with memories of joy.”

Xander whooped with agreement and drained his goblet. The King called for another round, and Dreibrand had to hurry through his wine in order to take more.

Too dignified to rush through anything, Shan declined more wine and asked, “Why are you in this tent? Fata Nor has a wonderful guest house.”

“Yes, and all of my wives are in it,” Taischek grumbled. “I’m sick of them. I’m glad it’s the war season.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could not rouse her from her unconscious state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She deserves the best, he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

“Her arm is broken,” Dreibrand said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shan,” she smiled.

“Yes, I am here,” he greeted.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will go with you,” Miranda stated.

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

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

“That is clear,” Miranda said.

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

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

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

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

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

“And that is true,” Shan agreed.

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

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

“Practice what?” Miranda asked.

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

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

“How will you practice?” Dreibrand inquired quietly.

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

“Why must you do this?” Miranda cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“West? But my children,” Miranda moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sight of the magic orb still made Miranda uneasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it real?” she finally gasped.

Shan nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Shan nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the moment Miranda focused on what was good. The relief of being reunited with her daughter eased Miranda’s worry about her circumstances, and the luxury and beauty of her suite helped her not think about the guards in the hall.

The rys physician stopped by to check on Esseldan. After another examination, the physician flashed Miranda a confident smile because the boy’s cough had lessened.

Elendra chattered freely when her mother bathed her and combed her long glistening hair. Once she was dressed, the girl showed her mother a box of toys that the Queen had given her. She rummaged through lovely dolls with perfect painted faces and removed a ball that bounced delightfully.

“I want to play with this,” Elendra announced.

Miranda obliged her, and they went onto the terrace in the bright morning. The girl’s laughter ranged from giggles to shrieks of joy as she chased the ball. A few times Miranda had to intervene to keep the ball from bouncing off the high terrace. She had never seen her daughter so happy.

Pausing from her play, Elendra said, “Queen Onja will let us have everything we ever need. She is so nice. Do you like it here, Mama?”

“It is very nice,” Miranda agreed with reservation. She wished her daughter was not so enamored with Jingten and Queen Onja. “But don’t you want to go make a home with people? We would only have to travel a little farther.”

Elendra wrinkled her nose. “No!” she snapped. “I’m sick of sleeping on the ground. I want to stay here and live like rich people.”

The words stung Miranda, who knew she had never been able to properly provide for her children. She stared at her daughter but could not blame her for wanting to stay in Jingten.

I should want to stay here too, Miranda thought and looked up the tiered levels of the mighty Keep. She should be thankful that such a wealthy and powerful queen wanted to take care of her children. But Miranda wondered if she could get used to living with the rys. She admitted that she liked the rys who had helped Dreibrand. Shan had seemed easy to like, and Miranda automatically appreciated his kindness. The physician had been concerned and gentle as well.

But Queen Onja scared her.

Although Miranda considered the practicality of staying in Jingten, as Onja seemed to want, she knew Dreibrand did not want to stay. Miranda did not want him to leave her, and she decided to leave when the chance came. She would take Elendra whether she wanted to go or not.

However, spoiling the lovely day by arguing with Elendra would be a shame, and Miranda dropped the subject. They played until noon. At lunch, a chest of clothes arrived for Miranda to choose from. Elendra sat on the bed watching her mother try on clothes in front of a mirror. The fine surroundings and gifts made Miranda understand how Jingten appealed to her daughter. Miranda had never experienced the indulgence of selecting beautiful clothes. Her only option had been rugged homespun.

Best of all, Miranda received a badly needed pair of suede boots of the kind the rys wore. A servant disposed of Miranda’s shoe remnants that had served her for too many years.

While trying on a fine linen suit embroidered with glossy green pine trees, Miranda strapped on her sword in its rugged rawhide scabbard and tucked her knife into the belt. She draped her dusty silk jacket over her shoulders and laughed at her appearance. She certainly was no longer the abused slave girl of Wa Gira. Clean and in decent clothes, she looked good in the reflection. Miranda had never even owned a mirror, and it pleased her to think of herself as looking good.

She was about to draw her sword and brandish it in front of the mirror for amusement, but a knock at the door snapped her out of her foolishness. A servant promptly opened the door, and two Jingten guards entered and indicated that Miranda should come with them. Her stomach tightened nervously, and she glanced at Elendra.

“They said the Queen wants to see you,” said Elendra, who had begun to pick up on the rys language.

“I don’t want to go now. I want to stay with my children,” Miranda said, addressing the nearest guard.

“Mama, don’t argue. Go see the Queen. Esseldan and I will be right here,” Elendra said.

Miranda hesitated. She wanted to trust Elendra, who did not seem the least bit worried, but the Queen filled her with fear. She remembered that Shan had said she would be expected to treat Onja like a Goddess.

One of the guards rapped the point of his spear impatiently on the open bedroom door, and Miranda knew she had no choice. On her way out, she turned back and saw the female servant holding her daughter. Elendra waved happily to her mother.

The guards brought Miranda to the throne room. The dazzle of the throne room was just as impressive to Miranda on the second visit.

From high on the golden dais, Onja looked down at the human. Slowly she pointed at the floor, and each guard put a hand on Miranda’s shoulders and pushed her to her knees. The gleaming marble chilled her knees through her new pants.

“Yesterday you were my guest. Today you are my subject,” Onja announced.

Pinned by Onja’s cruel gaze, Miranda quaked with terror.

Onja continued, “Today I make clear to you what your place is in Jingten. Everyone has a place in Jingten, and it is only fair that you know what yours is. Your man has no place here, and he will be banished today. You may have the privilege of staying with your daughter and continue to be wet nurse to the infant.”

“Wet nurse! I’m his mother!” Miranda screamed. Her outrage devoured her terror.

Blue fire flared in Onja’s eyes, and she warned, “Humans do not use such a tone with their Goddess.”

“Give me my children,” Miranda demanded. “And we will leave Jingten forever.”

The angry glow diminished from Onja’s eyes and the archaic queen actually laughed. “My poor silly girl, it is the children I want. You were allowed to survive the Wilderness to bring your infant to me. Miranda, you are my slave.”

The hurtful word galvanized Miranda’s soul. After so much freedom, she could never endure servitude again.

Springing to her feet and whipping out her sword, Miranda shrieked, “Child stealer!”

A spear quickly tripped her back to the floor, but she rolled and knocked the spear away. Swiping at the guards with her blade, Miranda fought them bravely, but she could not regain her feet.

Clever in combat but not inclined to kill, the team of rys guards soon had her in control. While one engaged her sword with his spear, the other jumped on top of her. He punched her in the face, but Miranda withstood the first blow, and he had to hit her again.

The second punch stunned her, and the sword was pulled from her grip. She struggled under the weight of the rys who pinned her, but to no avail.

“Bind her,” ordered Onja in the rys language as she walked down the steps.

Leather thongs were wound around Miranda’s wrists and throat, and the guards hauled her to her feet. The thong around her throat choked tighter and subdued her struggles. Secured like a captured animal, Miranda watched the Queen approach.

“You have chosen to die,” Onja informed her. “Your children shall miss you and always wonder why you abandoned them.”

Miranda cried out in rage, but the strangling thong made it a weak sound.

Onja taunted, “Yes, I will tell Elendra you did not want her anymore. It will break the little girl’s heart, but she is happier with me anyway.”

Grief tore through Miranda’s body, making her impatient for the blow of execution. Tears tumbled down her cheeks and ran with the blood on her chin.

“Bring her to the roof,” Onja commanded.

The guards dragged Miranda up many flights of dark cold stairs. With her breathing restricted, her steps began to falter. Deep inside the private thoughts of one of the guards, he pitied the human female but it did not deter his obedience to Onja. 

Eventually the guards brought her into the daylight on the highest level of the Keep. By this time Miranda’s vision had grayed and her consciousness was slipping away.

Onja stood on the roof with her arms raised. The wind flowed through the Queen’s white hair and blue light shone from her eyes. The guards waited in silence and loosened the thong around Miranda’s neck, allowing her to breathe better.

When Onja lowered her arms, she hung her head as if she was tired. But the weariness passed quickly, and she lifted her head and chuckled darkly.

Sauntering over to her prisoner, Onja said, “You will suffer, but your death will not be the worst because your daughter delights me so.”

“You spoil me,” Miranda rasped sarcastically.

“Yes, I do,” Onja agreed seriously.

Responding to the flourish of the Queen’s hand, the guards stepped back and released Miranda. Before Miranda could raise her bound hands, the long blue arm of the Queen lashed out and laid a cold hand on her forehead. Pain consumed Miranda. Every nerve inside and out felt like it was cut by sharp broken flint and skewered by a thousand needles.

Miranda grimaced in too much torment to cry out and crumpled to the roof. Onja bent as her victim fell and did not relent the torture. Only the will of Onja prevented Miranda’s heart from failing in the anguish.

At last satisfied with the punishment, Onja withdrew her dreadful touch. The intensity of the pain lingered in Miranda’s body as she coughed blood and bled from the nose. Utterly defeated, Miranda clawed feebly at the roof. Her ringing ears did not hear the approaching cry of the Tatatook, but she felt the wind made by the great wings as the creature landed. The Queen stroked the purplish black feathers with an affectionate greeting, and the Tatatook cawed with appreciation.

In the rys language, Onja instructed the fearsome flyer. “My pet, take this pitiful human and cast her upon the Galnuvet Glacier.” Turning to Miranda, Onja raised her voice and spoke in Miranda’s language. “While you die you can watch your flesh freeze.”

Obediently the Tatatook scooped Miranda into its arms and rushed into the air. Every motion of the great wings lifted them higher above Jingten, and Onja laughed as she watched her victim carried to her doom. Too weak from torture to resist, Miranda considered herself dead and faded into a swoon.

~

In his heart, Shan knew that Onja had summoned the Tatatook for some grim errand, but he dare not waste time using his magic to see what mischief she created. He hoped to return to the Keep in time to interrupt whatever Onja was doing.

At the gates of the Keep waited a squad of Jingten soldiers.

“What is this?” Shan demanded impatiently.

Taf Ila, who was Captain of the Jingten Guard, stepped forward and answered, “By order of the Queen, that human is banished and to depart immediately.” He pointed at Dreibrand dramatically.

“Let us through. This man has the right to collect his belongings,” Shan insisted.

“The Queen commanded me to execute this order immediately. What he has in the Keep is now forsaken,” Taf Ila said.

Shan’s temper ran out. It was not his habit to bicker with Keep guards. “This man is my guest, under my protection. Stop him from entering and you stop me. If Onja wants her order enforced, let her do it herself,” he said imperiously.

The Captain considered Shan’s words. The power and skill of Shan were no secret, and no rys, except for Onja, dared hinder his activities. Indecisively, Taf Ila glanced at Dreibrand, torn between his Queen’s orders and the knowledge that Shan could easily prevent all of them from doing their duty.

“What is happening?” demanded Dreibrand, who anxiously wanted to know what the rys were arguing about.

“They don’t want to let you in,” Shan answered hastily. “Stay close, my friend.”

He had grown tired of the dispute and it was time to remind his fellow rys that he was not to be defied.  Raising a hand, Shan cast a spell with the force of his mind. The iron bird gates of the Keep banged open and Shan’s magic shook the squad of soldiers like the rising wind of a storm through dry leaves.

Taf Ila glowered at Shan, but he stepped aside. This submission to Shan’s will impressed Dreibrand, who hurried inside.

“I have to go to Miranda,” Dreibrand said urgently.

“Yes, but we have to stay together. Onja has ordered you banished, and I fear she might order you killed next,” Shan explained.

“Why am I banished? What about Miranda?” Dreibrand said.

“I do not know,” Shan muttered as his eyes roved the Keep. Inside he could not find everything he wanted to find.

They jumped off their horses near the stable, and Shan yelled for the horses that belonged to the humans to be saddled. The stablemaster hurried to comply.

Desperate with worry, Dreibrand dashed into the Keep. He did not really know his way in the huge structure, and he hollered for Shan to tell him the way. The rys ran to catch up to his friend, giving as many warnings as directions.

Twice guards opposed Dreibrand, but they would fall back as soon as Shan caught up. Dreibrand found the hall where Miranda’s suite was, and it disturbed him that guards were no longer present. He reached the door, and finding that it was locked, he pounded on it with his fist and shouted for Miranda.

“Stay away from the door!” Shan warned from down the hall, but Dreibrand did not react in time.

The door was jerked open from inside by a rys soldier who leveled a spear at Dreibrand’s chest. He dodged the spear as it sailed through the door and clanged against the opposite wall. Dreibrand drew his sword, but Shan had reached him and grabbed his arm. The rys pulled him back and tried to get Dreibrand to stand behind him.

More soldiers poured into the hall, and they were followed by Queen Onja. The suite door slammed behind her.

“Engage them and you will die,” Shan hissed, and finally stepped in front of the human.

Dreibrand had no desire to hide behind Shan, and he yelled to Onja, “Where is Miranda?”

“She does not want to see you. Leave now or die,” Onja replied in Miranda’s language.

On the other side of the wall Shan could sense the human children, but Miranda was not there.

“Let the children go, Onja,” Shan said. “They do not belong to you.”

“All humans belong to me!” Onja snapped.

“Then where have you put Miranda?” Shan asked.

His bold questions angered the Queen. “Forget her. And forget him,” she said, turning a blazing gaze on Dreibrand.

Blue light consumed the Queen’s eyes, and Dreibrand felt her power sizzle across his skin. A flash filled the corridor, and he staggered back shielding his eyes. His skin tingled, and he smelled the distinct odor of singed hair. When his vision cleared, he saw that Shan was still in front of him, separated from Onja by a wall of blue light. Through the pulsing blue light, Dreibrand could see Onja’s face, which was twisted with strain and rage.

After a final snarl Onja relented her attack and Shan gasped with relief. The fierce swirling energy disappeared between them, but Onja’s eyes still glowed with her magic power.

“If his life means so much to you, then banish yourself with him,” Onja hissed.

Blue fire filled Shan’s eyes as well, and he burned with desire to fight his enemy. He and Onja had not sparred so flagrantly since his first challenge, and it excited him to block her magic. Over the past four centuries Onja had sensed his maturing powers, but until that moment she had not realized how strong he had become, and it had startled her. Shan watched the seed of fear germinate inside her, and it gratified him, but he cautioned himself not to gain too much confidence from the success. The spell had not been meant for him. 

I am a fool to try now. My magic has a better use at this time, he thought.

“I will leave,” Shan announced.

“Leave at once. Or you will spend a century in stone with birds shitting on your head!” Onja threatened.

Shan’s nostrils flared, hinting at the hate he restrained. He wanted to hurl insults at her, but now was not the time to toy with her. Turning to Dreibrand, Shan put a restraining hand on the man’s chest.

“We must retreat to my tower,” Shan whispered.

“What is going on?” Dreibrand growled.

“Onja just tried to kill you. We must go. Trust me,” Shan begged, pushing him down the hall.

“Go live with your human friends, Shan. Die in shame at the foot of the Rysamand,” Onja yelled.

Although Dreibrand could not understand the words, the wrath of the Queen of Jingten made him shudder. He feared her power, but he could not just leave as Shan wanted.

“I must have Miranda and the children,” he protested.

“You must have your life,” Shan countered and dragged him farther down the hall.

Dreibrand looked at the Queen and believed his life was in danger. Reluctantly he yielded to Shan’s will, but he loathed his lack of control.

When they reached Shan’s tower, the rys bolted the main entrance then leaned against the doors. Dreibrand watched him wipe perspiration from his forehead and realized even Shan could be intimidated.

But Shan composed himself quickly and stepped away from the doors.

“What is happening?” Dreibrand demanded again. “Did you challenge her and fail?”

“I did not challenge her in the sense that we discussed earlier, but I did save your life. Her attack spell was meant to kill you. I had to get you out of there,” Shan explained.

“But we have to get to Miranda,” Dreibrand said.

“She is not there!” Shan cried. “That is why we had to retreat. I could not waste time fighting with Onja when I have a chance to find Miranda.”

“Find her! Where is she?” Dreibrand exclaimed.

“The Tatatook probably took her somewhere. I must meditate to find her,” Shan said.

“And the children?” Dreibrand asked.

“They are in the suite. They are unhurt,” Shan replied. “Trust me Dreibrand, and do not leave this tower without me. I should be able to find her quickly. Just hope that it is quick enough and that she is still alive.”

“Alive?” Dreibrand choked, thinking of the flying monster hurting Miranda.

Such thoughts devastated him, and dark rage boiled inside him, urging him to rush through the Keep killing wantonly until he reached Onja. Luckily his anger stopped short of suicide. Such a rampage would be a useless folly. One sho dart and he would be defeated.

Shan rushed upstairs to a private chamber, and he sat down cross-legged in the center of the room. Dreibrand followed but stayed back to watch from a distance. Shan seemed already to be in a trance, and blue light filled his eyes.

In his mind, Shan remembered Miranda. He remembered her face and he remembered the individual force of her soul. Seeking her energy, he released his mind over the land. The features of the Jingten Valley passed beneath his inner vision as if he flew in the sky like the Tatatook. He scanned the woodlands and streams, looking up and down the mountains.

Shan looked once and then twice, finally becoming desperate. He did not sense Miranda, which meant she could be dead. It could take him quite a long time to find a cold dead body.

Then his mind was drawn to a mountain. He could see the powdery snow blowing from the frozen peak where summer could never reach. Shan recognized the disdainful profile of Mount L’cha. It was the view from the Galnuvet Glacier.

A dim lifeforce abandoned on the glacier beckoned his mind. Focusing his perception, Shan looked down on the frozen giant that carved valleys out of mountains and found Miranda. She was sprawled among jutting chunks of ice. Shan gently lowered his mind over her body and rejoiced in the beating of her heart. But her eyes were closed and she was unmoving, and Shan knew that she only lingered in this world.

With less that prudent haste, Shan recalled his mind to his body. Disregarding the strain on his system, he sprang to his feet. Dreibrand stopped his crazy pacing, expecting an answer from the rys. Shan looked beyond his friend and out a window. The lowering sun reflected redly on the snowy mountains, reminding Shan of Miranda’s bloody face.

He informed Dreibrand that Miranda lived but had been thrown onto a glacier to perish. Rushing to another room, Shan rummaged in a chest and began tossing out his mountain climbing gear.

“Here, take these,” he told Dreibrand.

Shan handed him a large coil of rope that he draped across his shoulder. Most of the other gear was unfamiliar to Dreibrand as Shan gave him ice axes and hammers and hooks and spiked gear to strap onto his boots.

“You will need all of this to climb the glacier and save her. Now we must hurry. I will talk more on the road,” Shan explained.

“But I cannot leave Elendra and Esseldan,” Dreibrand declared.

Painfully aware of Miranda’s suffering, Shan looked hard at Dreibrand. “Dreibrand, you must choose. If we stay here and fight for the children, you might die, but Miranda will surely die. The children do not appear to be in any danger, but Miranda is dying. We must go help her right now. If you must have the children now, then I will help you fight for them, but in that time Miranda will die.”

Dreibrand struggled with the dilemma. He did not want to leave the children, but he owed Miranda his life. In the end he only had one decision within him.

“I must go to her,” he said.

Shan set a friendly hand on Dreibrand’s shoulder. “I am sorry this happened. I did not know she was in such immediate danger, or I would not have left the city.”

Dreibrand appreciated the apology because part of him wanted to blame Shan for what was happening.

“Quickly now,” Shan instructed and they left the tower.

When they rode out of the Keep, Shan turned his horse to face the ancient fortress.

Shaking his fist, Shan cried, “A new age and a new king are coming to Jingten, Onja! Enjoy your last days, rotten queen.”

The nearby rys who heard his words stared at Shan with shock. Very little revolutionary spirit stirred in anyone’s heart. Shan had failed before when he challenged the Queen, and most citizens of Jingten wondered why he wasted his powers on such hopeless ideas.

High inside the Keep, Queen Onja heard his words echo through her mind but she disregarded them. She had banished him and if he dared to come back, she would destroy him.

She petted Elendra’s black hair as the girl cried in her lap. The news of Miranda’s abandonment had devastated the little girl, who now found comfort in the bosom of her Queen.

A well maintained road ran west from Jingten and Shan and Dreibrand galloped down it. Jingten disappeared behind them and the night gathered over the Rysamand.

Shan halted.

“Why do you stop?” Dreibrand asked, his voice anxious.

Shan answered, “Dreibrand, you must go on without me. I have to cast a spell of heat over Miranda or she will freeze in the night.”

This was too much for Dreibrand. He barely had a grasp of the day’s events and now Shan seemed to be ditching him.

“Now you just want me to leave?” he shouted. “I don’t even know where to go. You trick me, Shan. You have tricked me all day. You lured me out of Jingten so Onja could hurt Miranda.”

“I would have no need to lure you anywhere. If I am against you, why did I let you out of the dungeon?” Shan countered calmly. He understood that Dreibrand had to be bewildered by Jingten and especially Onja’s random cruelty.

Dreibrand did not respond and he felt some regret for accusing Shan of such duplicity. The Queen’s power was fresh in his mind, and Dreibrand admitted that Shan was right. Onja would have no need to lure him away with some elaborate trick.

“Listen to me, Dreibrand. The time you spend doubting me adds to Miranda’s suffering. I cannot cast this spell while I ride. It must be precise. I do not want to melt the ice around her and make her wet, and I do not want to burn her. But I can keep her warm through the night, if I sit and meditate. You must go on ahead to save time. It is a long ride, and I want you ready to rescue her in the morning,” Shan said. The rys dismounted and started packing the climbing gear onto his horse. He laid a hand on the white horse’s head and concentrated a moment. The horse stomped its hoof as if confirming the receipt of message.

“Take my horse and it will guide you to this year’s best spot to mount the glacier. Pick a place on the ice wall that gets the least sunlight so the ice will be strong. Strap the crampons on your boots and use the pick axes to climb,” Shan explained.

“But you are the climber,” Dreibrand interrupted with dismay. “I need your help.”

“You can do it,” Shan encouraged instantly. “You only need to be strong and careful. You will learn at the bottom and know at the top.”

Dreibrand wanted to say that he did not know how to climb a glacier, especially if it was the behemoth of ice he had seen from across the valley that afternoon. But he had to try. Miranda could have kept running from the fenthakrabi and left him to die, but she had taken the perilous moment to cut him free.

Shan continued, “Oh! Cut a couple saplings before you start. When you get on top, use them to probe the glacier surface for weaknesses and hold them under your armpits the rest of the time. If you break through a hidden crevasse, they might catch your fall. Once you are up there, use your warding crystal to find her. I will use it to guide you.”

Dreibrand took in the flurry of information, trying to process it. Determined not to fail, he swung onto Shan’s horse, and the climbing gear jingled as he landed in the saddle.

“With the first light of dawn get started and I will catch up with you tomorrow,” Shan said.

“I am going to climb as soon as I get there, light or no,” Dreibrand declared.

“No,” Shan cried. “The night is our enemy. Do not go up there in the dark. This is a treacherous time of year to be on the ice. Without light you will step into a crevasse for certain. You will understand when you see. Now go. I promise I will keep Miranda from freezing, but you must get to her.”

Dreibrand nodded.

“Good luck,” Shan said sincerely.

Given a free rein, the white horse sped away bearing Dreibrand toward the icebound heights. He did not understand why he trusted Shan. Maybe he was so hopelessly lost that he had no choice but to do as Shan said. His chest tightened with sorrow thinking of Miranda alone in the freezing dark. If the rys did keep Miranda alive and guided him to her, Dreibrand would no longer doubt Shan’s magic or his good character.

I have been told that this year when the snows melt Dacian and his Queen will ride down from the Rysamand and face their foes in Nufal. I have been told that this year the war will end—Urlen, Kezanada Chronicler, year six of the Overlordship of Amar.

Two of Shan’s servants greeted Dreibrand when he arrived at the tower. He tried many times to ask for Shan, but the servants did not answer. They either did not understand his question or they felt no inclination to communicate. However, they did provide the human male with breakfast, which he gladly accepted.

Giving up on them as a source of information, Dreibrand finished his food, and started exploring the tower. He wandered onto a balcony. The waters of the deep blue lake lapped gently on the gravel shore below, and the blue stone buildings of the city rose to his left. Majestic mountains ringed the green valley, and the beauty of the place was a privilege to see.

It does look like the Gods could live here, he thought.

He went back inside and paused in front of a mirror. It was good to be clean and shaved, and he was glad not to look like a mine slave anymore.

“I am glad to see you are free.”

Dreibrand whirled to face the voice and saw Shan enter the room.

Shan continued, “I was worried I would have to go down into that nasty dungeon again.”

“I have been waiting here for you,” Dreibrand said.

“Would you like to go for a ride?” Shan asked.

Dreibrand did not want to refuse the invitation, but he could not waste time on such frivolities. He said, “Shan, I must talk to you. I need advice. I need help.”

“I know,” Shan acknowledged softly and his kind tone encouraged patience. “That is why we should go for a ride. Outside the city we can have the talk. Remember what I told you about rys.”

“But you said the Queen can see across the Wilderness. What good will a ride do?” Dreibrand asked, seeking to understand.

“A ride will do much because I am with you. With a little distance, Onja cannot hear me. Now please come. Let me show you my homeland so that you may know me,” Shan said.

“If I go, you will tell me more?” Dreibrand said, still reluctant.

The rys nodded.

They went to the stables and Dreibrand was pleased to see Starfield and Freedom well tended. Shan invited him to try one of the white rys horses, and Dreibrand agreed. Starfield deserved rest and riding a new horse would be exciting.

The rys horses were a larger breed with feathered feet, and Shan boasted that they had twice the endurance of common horses. He ordered two of them saddled.

Astride his favorite steed, the tall rys soon galloped toward the ornate iron gates of the Keep, and Dreibrand endeavored to follow. His horse resisted his will, seemingly irritated by the human rider, but Dreibrand was an accomplished rider and he prevailed.

Speeding down a city thoroughfare, Dreibrand struggled to master his mount. He glimpsed a few startled rys gaping at the human racing down the streets of their city.

Shan and Dreibrand clattered out of the paved city and headed into the alpine forest. Trees flew by in a green blur, and Dreibrand concentrated on avoiding low branches in his haste. He galloped after Shan, who set the hard pace to show off the stamina of the animals.

Steadily their steeds climbed the steep slopes and emerged above the tree line into the high meadows. Rock and snow soared above this place, and the mountains snagged the clouds. Shan pulled his horse to a stop, and Dreibrand drew alongside of him. The horses’ wide nostrils flared in the thin air, but they were not winded.

“You ride well, Dreibrand. A rys horse can be hard for a human to control,” Shan complimented.

Dreibrand grinned, “I grew up riding.”

They continued at a leisurely pace looking down at Jingten, which now looked small at the bottom of the valley. Quietly, Shan began to talk.

“In the city I can protect my thoughts from Onja, but I could never cloak my words,” Shan explained. “That is why we had to come up here.

“Last night you asked me what claim I had to the throne. The answer is that my power is my claim. The rys with the greatest magic has all rights to the throne, and I am very powerful. My magical ability exceeds that of average rys. Actually, all of my kind respect me as their superior—except of course Onja.”

“You wish to challenge her then?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan sighed and looked to the nearest mountaintop. “Once before I challenged her. And she put me in my place. But that was a long time ago. A rys comes of age at one hundred, and I challenged her then.”

Dreibrand considered the information, recalling how Shan had stood at the base of Onja’s throne. He wondered why the Queen would tolerate him and said, “Not to be rude, but why did Onja let you live? A ruler does not let rivals live.”

Shan chuckled grimly. “I am very sure Onja thought the same, but even she must follow some of our laws. Since the Great War, rys do not kill rys. It is the most important law to all rys. But do not worry, Dreibrand, she made me wish I was dead. She tore my mind apart and cast a standing stone around me. It took me five years to break out of that stone prison. But even that surprised her. I was meant to be imprisoned for a much longer time as a living memorial to her superiority. Since then it has been stalemate between us.”

Dreibrand remembered the standing stones of the Quinsanomar and surmised that the spirits of the Deamedron were locked in such magic prisons. “How did you live in stone?” he asked.

“Rys can hibernate. And the greater one’s magic, the longer one can hibernate. From that experience I learned to cast stone, even on myself. But I do not care to do so,” Shan said.

With new respect Dreibrand looked at Shan and tried to imagine five years locked in stone. But his thoughts returned to Miranda and the guards at her door.

“Shan, Miranda and I want to go be where the humans live. Will Onja let us go?” he said.

“She might let you go, but I believe she intends to keep the children here for her amusement,” Shan said.

“But Miranda cannot leave without them,” Dreibrand protested.

“I know. That is why we came up here to talk,” Shan said and stopped his horse.  He invited Dreibrand to hike higher with him.

They followed a strenuous trail into a realm of cold sharp rock and snow. Shan moved skillfully up the rocky surface, but Dreibrand felt out of his element. He was higher now than he had been in the pass when he entered the Rysamand, and he had to focus on each treacherous step. He wondered if Shan was putting him through some kind of physical test or if the rys simply wanted him to fall down the mountain.

At last they reached a flat table of rock shrouded by clouds. Dreibrand came puffing up behind Shan, bothered by the elevation.

“When it is not cloudy, this spot offers a wonderful view of Rystavalla,” Shan said proudly. When Dreibrand asked what Rystavalla was, Shan smiled and said that it was the world. “But the humans call her Gyhwen,” he added.

“The people in the east call the world Ektren,” Dreibrand said.

The name was new to Shan, but of only passing interest. Any word the humans used to name the world was little more than a childish nickname from the rys point of view.

“I have brought you to this lonely height because it helps to focus my power,” Shan explained. “I know Onja cannot eavesdrop on me here. Let me tell you some of our history, so you can understand better. I am sure you have noticed the tower across Lake Nin from the city.”

When Dreibrand nodded, Shan continued, “It is the Tomb of Dacian, who was the most powerful rys king to ever live. He was King of Jingten and Onja was his Queen. Twenty-two centuries ago, another kingdom of rys called Nufal lay east of here beyond the plains in the Tabren Mountains. They were the rivals of Jingten and there was war between Jingten and Nufal.

“To win the war, Dacian and Onja conceived a trap that would utterly defeat Nufal. Their vast war hosts met on the plains. This old battleground is now called the Quinsanomar. Both rys kingdoms had gathered all of their warriors and their human allies for a great battle. After both sides exhausted themselves with fierce killing, Dacian and Onja cast the greatest spell ever upon their opponents. All of the enemy warriors, rys and human, were killed and their souls imprisoned in stone. The spell held their spirits in bondage to Jingten. This was the creation of the Deamedron, and it was a terrible thing.

“When Dacian saw his victory, he realized his spell was evil and is said to have collapsed in horror. Onja however felt no guilt and promptly commanded her spirit slaves to slaughter every living soul in Nufal. The tormented Deamedron obeyed and all rys and humans were killed in the region. And to this day only ruins of the Nufalese civilization remain in the Wilderness.

“This holocaust caused Dacian to decree that no rys could kill rys ever again. It was his final law, and within days his grief killed him. At the time the tower was the seat of the monarchy, but Onja turned it into his tomb and had the Keep built in the city. No one except Onja has entered the tower since that time.

“The human allies of Jingten where terrified of Onja, whose power had created the Deamedron, and they have considered her a Goddess ever since, which Onja of course encouraged. In this way she has ruled them.”

Dreibrand ruminated this information silently. He doubted that grief had killed Dacian, but he did not share his cynical thoughts. The imprisoned souls of the Deamedron forever bound as Onja’s unholy army disturbed him deeply. In his belief, a warrior killed on the field of battle deserved his eternal rewards from the war God Golan. Thousands of years in limbo was a bitter fate.

Dismally he said, “Shan, are you telling me I have no chance against Onja?”

“No human has any chance, Dreibrand. Onja is too powerful,” Shan said.

“Then what can I do? Do you intend to challenge her again?” Dreibrand said.

Blue light flickered in Shan’s black eyes, and it startled Dreibrand. Shan wanted to say yes to Dreibrand’s question. Shan longed to be free of Onja’s tyranny and guide the rys according to his vision, but he knew that when he challenged Onja again there would be no room for error.

With regret Shan said, “The time for my challenge has not yet come, but it is close. At long last I sense that Onja has weakened. She still appears to be great, but like the old tree in the forest, she has rotted inside and waits only for a storm strong enough to blow her down. I will side with you and Miranda and help you get to my human friends.”

“Where will we go?” Dreibrand wondered.

“I will take you west to the Temu Domain. Taischek, the King of the Temu Tribe, is my closest human friend and he will shelter you if I ask it,” Shan explained.

“I do not ask for charity. I will earn my keep,” Dreibrand offered. “I am a trained warrior.”

“You are a mercenary then?” Shan inquired.

Dreibrand averted his gaze uncomfortably, wondering how best to explain himself. He answered, “I am now. In my homeland of Atrophane I was an officer in the military, but I resigned because I wanted to explore the Wilderness.”

Shan considered the simplistic answer, guessing that Dreibrand left out some details. He studied Dreibrand with a piercing gaze and saw an intelligent and ambitious man, and he decided the stranger might have much to offer.

Intruding upon the rys’s contemplative state, Dreibrand said, “How will we get away?”

“Onja regularly spends time in deep meditation. Next time she does this, we will leave. If I am with you, the rys soldiers will not harm you. But we must get out of Jingten before Onja notices, and that is the difficult part,” Shan said.

“What will happen if she does notice us?” Dreibrand asked.

“She may try to kill you with her magic,” Shan replied.

“Can she do that?” cried Dreibrand.

“Yes. But I can shield you. Her killing range is not as wide as it used to be. As long as we get away from the city our danger will be minimal,” Shan said.

“What if she follows?” Dreibrand asked.

“Unlikely. Onja has not gone any farther from the city than the Tomb of Dacian in living memory,” Shan said.

Dreibrand realized he would have to trust Shan completely for their safety. The thought of magic striking at him from far away was daunting, and Onja’s power to enslave the very spirit made his courage waver. But Dreibrand could not sit by and let the rys Queen keep Miranda’s children because they entertained her.

“When can we leave?” he said.

“Maybe tonight,” Shan answered.

“I will have to discuss this with Miranda first. Her son is ill, and she did not want to travel last night when I proposed we escape,” Dreibrand said.

Shan frowned. “Do not discuss it with her. We must not speak of this when we get back to Jingten. I will know when the opportunity to escape has come, and I will get you then. If Miranda wants to escape, she will have to travel whenever the time comes.”

“But I must tell her I have made arrangements with you,” Dreibrand insisted.

“Speak of our plan and you risk discovery,” Shan said bluntly. “Hint to her if you must, but do not talk about it.”

Reluctantly, Dreibrand nodded. If he and Shan had to talk on a mountainside, then he had to accept that they could not talk in the city.

“I thank you, Shan,” he said sincerely.

“Thank me after we escape. Now, let me be completely honest with you, Dreibrand. Helping you is very risky for me and for my friendship, I expect friendship,” Shan said.

“How do you mean?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan explained, “Soon I will be ready to challenge Onja for the throne. But to make my challenge successful many things will have to be done, which I will explain later. And I will need all of my friends.”

Dreibrand understood. The rys’s arrangement was not so alien. For his favor, he wanted loyalty. “You want me to serve you in your war?” he surmised.

“Yes. And the rewards for victory will be great—very great,” Shan promised.

I suppose the King of Jingten would have much to give, Dreibrand thought. He hated to make a decision when his understanding of the conflict was so vague, but if he had to choose a side, then he would choose. He had to find a place to fit into this strange land, and Shan’s offer sounded good.

I asked for his help. I have to accept his terms, Dreibrand reminded himself.

Despite his fear and uncertainty, it felt good to have a friend.

“Onja made my decision for me yesterday. I will not serve her and I will never call her Goddess. I will be your friend and ally as you ask,” Dreibrand declared and offered the rys his hand.

The rys grasped his hand firmly, and they were agreed.

“This is good! This is good!” Shan cried happily. “I knew when I saw you that it was a good sign. The Age of Onja will soon close.”

The clouds pulled away from the mountainside, and the sun blazed at its zenith. The sky opened, and Dreibrand could see the top of the world. On the opposite side of the valley, the icy peaks of the Rysamand reached to frigid heights and an invincible glacier held a plateau in a permanent grasp.

Shan could tell that Dreibrand admired the magnificent view, and he pivoted to point at the beautiful peaks. “That is Mount L’cha and that is Mount Fandanihn. And we are sitting on Mount Curlenfindi. These great mountains have beckoned rys and human alike to climb them. They are called bold and crazy, but rarely successful. But I have climbed all three.”

“It looks so incredible up here,” Dreibrand breathed. “Have you really stood on the top of those peaks?”

“Yes. It was in such a high place that I first realized how great the powers were inside me,” Shan recalled. “But we will save stories of my mountain climbing adventures for another day. We should get back.”

Dreibrand agreed and they hiked down to the meadows. The horses had wandered in their grazing, but they cantered back to Shan as soon as he returned. As they rode down into the tree line, a piercing shriek ripped the clear high air and echoed through the valley. Shan immediately stopped and surveyed the sky.

Dreibrand recognized the wretched sound.

“The Tatatook!” Shan cried and pointed to it in the sky. Dreibrand shielded his eyes from the sun and saw the flying beast swooping down from the mountains.

“The Queen has summoned her crow. Ride!” Shan commanded with ominous urgency.

The hooves of the white horses thundered through the forest as they dashed toward the city. Another shuddering call rent the air, and Dreibrand cursed himself for leaving Miranda.

The squad of blue beings dragged Dreibrand into the bowels of the building. They seem to know the way quite well, he observed.

After being stripped of his armor and weapons, Dreibrand was deposited in a lightless cell hewn from bedrock. His captors had specifically checked his pockets and taken the crystal orb, which made him wonder what powers the orb might have.

Dreibrand’s paralysis did not prevent him from experiencing the discomfort of the cold stone beneath him. Gradually the use of his body returned, much to his relief, and he wiped some drool from his beard.

At least I know where Elendra is, he thought in a sarcastic attempt to cheer himself.

Weakly he sat up as control returned to his muscles. He flexed his legs a few times and prepared to stand up when he heard the creak of the door opening at the top of the cellblock. Soft suede boots made hardly any sound on the stony floor, but Dreibrand saw the flicker of torchlight through the tiny barred window in his cell door. Certain that someone was coming, he lay down again.

The workings of the lock groaned and the door scraped open. The torchlight hurt Dreibrand’s eyes, and he squinted at the lone figure. He saw that it was the one with the white streaks in his hair, who had protested his mistreatment.

The blue being squatted beside Dreibrand. When he set the torch on the floor, dry rat turds snapped in the flame. The blue being put his hands on Dreibrand’s shoulders and helped him sit up. Dreibrand held back on his plan to grapple the being by surprise. This one seemed different, and Dreibrand wanted a chance to learn something.

“What are you?” he croaked.

“We are rys,” the blue being replied. “I am Shan.”

“You speak Miranda’s language?” Dreibrand said.

Shan explained, “Onja and I have learned from Elendra.” He removed a small flask from his jacket. “Drink.”

Dreibrand’s reactions were too slow to push away the flask, and Shan poured a swig into his mouth. The fluid went down his throat like a cold blast, but it was refreshing. Dreibrand immediately felt vitality return to his body.

Dreibrand thanked him for the remedy and said, “I am Dreibrand Veta from Atrophane. What happened to me?”

“The sho dart drugged you. Sho darts work quite well on humans,” Shan said.

Running his fingers through his hair, Dreibrand muttered, “I will have to get one of those.”

Shan chuckled, which was a musical sound, and it put Dreibrand at ease.

“Why am I a prisoner?” Dreibrand asked.

“Not anymore,” Shan announced happily and helped the human to his feet. “Onja has no interest in you, and she would throw a human aside like an apple core. I am not that way.”

When leaving the cell, which Dreibrand was eager to do, he became dizzy and had to lean on Shan for a moment. He hated this feebleness in front of the rys.

“Will not your Queen be displeased with you for letting me out?” Dreibrand wondered.

Shan’s dark eyes gleamed mischievously in the torchlight and he quietly replied, “My Queen is often displeased with me.”

A curious comment, Dreibrand thought.

He followed Shan out of the cellblock into an empty guardroom. Shan opened a cabinet, and Dreibrand saw his armor and weapons inside. He pulled out his scabbard and gratefully buckled the belt around his waist. The ivory handled dagger lay on a shelf, which pleased Dreibrand immensely because he had feared the guards would filch such a thing. He considered the return of his gear an act of friendship, and Shan even helped him put his armor on.

Although eager to end his incarceration, Dreibrand paused to look in the back of the cabinet, but it was empty.

“I had a crystal orb. Do you know where it is?” Dreibrand asked.

“They did not leave it here,” Shan said. “But come to my tower and I will give you another.”

Dreibrand looked in the cabinet again to make sure. “Will it be the same as the one the guards took?” he asked doubtfully.

“It will be better because it will be mine and not Onja’s,” Shan said cheerfully. “Come, Dreibrand Veta, the Keep has better places than the dungeon.”

They left the dark low places of woe and returned to the finer levels of the Keep. Firelight danced on the crystal decorated walls, but Dreibrand noticed that some crystals glowed when Shan walked by. At first Dreibrand thought it was a trick of the light, but after seeing the phenomenon several times, he had to accept it.

They walked outside onto a tier of the Keep and followed a walkway along the top of the courtyard wall, which lead to the tower on the corner of the Keep.

“Shan, is the woman I was with in that tower?” Dreibrand asked.

“No, she is with the Queen,” Shan replied.

Stopping, Dreibrand said, “I must find her. Tell me where she is.”

“She is with Onja, and the Queen does not want to see us. That I know,” Shan said.

“I don’t care. I have to see Miranda,” insisted Dreibrand, who started away on his own.

Shan sprang in his path to gently restrain him. “I am your friend if you will just let me prove it. Trust me and stay away from Onja. You will only get yourself put in the dungeon again—at best.”

The rys pointed to lighted windows a couple tiers up and said, “She is in there with both of her children. Later, when I am sure the Queen is gone, I will take you to see her. I promise.”

“But they are not safe,” Dreibrand protested.

“They are fine. Onja is treating them well,” Shan said.

Thinking of the children, Dreibrand said, “Why did you abduct Elendra?”

“I did not abduct her. The day she arrived was the first I knew about it,” Shan defended.

With suspicion, Dreibrand pressed, “But you did nothing to give her back to us.”

Calmly Shan said, “Once Elendra was here what could I do? The Tatatook is Onja’s servant, and it does not obey me. I can do many things, but I cannot fly. Onja assured me that her mother was being guided here, and I confirmed that for myself, so I just waited for you to arrive. It was not my doing to have the Tatatook snatch her from you.”

Dreibrand studied Shan, searching for sincerity. His inclination was to believe Shan, but the chiseled features of the blue face were hard to interpret. Longingly Dreibrand looked up to the suite that supposedly held Miranda.

“I promise to take you to her later. But we cannot disturb Onja’s meeting. The Queen will ignore my insubordination for letting you out, but I have to stay out of her sight for a while,” Shan said. “This tower is my private residence. Come and refresh yourself, please.”

Dreibrand hesitated.

“Remember you wanted a new crystal orb,” Shan coaxed.

Nodding, Dreibrand went with Shan into the tower.

Inside Shan’s residence, thick tapestries covered the walls, and each level had at least one balcony. Four levels up, they entered a furnished apartment that was slightly cluttered and apparently Shan’s living area. Three servants hustled out to greet them, and Shan sent one for food and drink. The other two he instructed to see to Dreibrand’s needs.

Dreibrand did not feel comfortable around the rys servants, but he allowed them to draw him a bath. He watched the water steam after it had been poured into the tub, and he wondered at this trick. Suspiciously, he tested the water, which was perfect, and he decided it would be good to be clean.

Once in the tub, he tried to talk to the servants, but they did not understand Miranda’s language or any other he tried. Resorting to signs, Dreibrand indicated he needed a razor to shave himself, and they seemed to understand.

However, when the rys servants returned with the razor, he adamantly refused to let them touch him. He saw no facial hair on any of the rys, and he would not trust them with the task. Shooing them out, he tended to his own needs.

A robe had been left for him, and Dreibrand appreciated Shan’s generosity, but he did not want to wear such a casual flimsy thing. He put his dirty clothes and gear back on because he wanted to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. Shan, so far, had been a friend, but he did not like the Queen’s hospitality.

When Dreibrand returned to Shan’s living area, the rys laughed at him.

“You look like a baby,” Shan remarked.

Dreibrand rubbed his now-smooth cheek and said, “I prefer to look this way.”

Composing himself, Shan said, “Forgive me, Dreibrand. Your appearance surprised me. Here, have some wine.”

Dreibrand accepted the goblet and looked thoughtfully at the red fluid within it.

“It is safe,” Shan encouraged and held his goblet up for a toast. The golden cups clinked together, and Shan said, “To my new friend.”

They drank. Although the foreign wine was new to Dreibrand’s palate, the sensations brought back memories. He had last drunk wine with Lord Kwan.

The alcohol felt warm and soothing in his body, but Dreibrand did not want to relax and he would not drink more than one cup.

“Do you always make friends so quickly?” Dreibrand inquired.

Shan shrugged. “Usually. I can tell if I will like somebody.”

“Are you magic?” Dreibrand blurted.

A smile lighted Shan’s face. “Yes, that is the best word for it. I have powers. All rys have powers,” he replied.

Dreibrand looked Shan up and down, as if trying to see what made him magic.

“What can you do?” Dreibrand whispered.

“Many things. More than most,” Shan said with a timid pride. “But I will explain things to you and Miranda together. That way I know you both will understand.”

“Can we go to her now?” Dreibrand asked urgently, setting down his goblet.

Shan’s black eyes glazed over briefly with a distant look. Satisfied with whatever had occupied his mind, he said, “We may go see your woman and children. Onja has left them for the night. But before I forget, let me get you a warding crystal.”

Shan opened a velvet-lined case on his desk and removed a glowing blue crystal orb. It was very like the one Dreibrand had found in the Wilderness.

Dreibrand shyly took the orb, and its light lessened when it left the rys’s hand.

Shan said, “This is properly called a warding crystal. It will protect you from spells from all rys, except the most powerful.”

“What kind of spells?” Dreibrand asked.

“Heat spells, sleep spells, mindreading, there are many spells. In time you will understand better,” Shan replied.

Confusion and fear vied for Dreibrand’s expression, and Shan commented, “It must be hard for you to understand us when no rys live on your side of the world. The humans in the west grow up knowing about rys.”

Dreibrand blinked. “Did you say humans?” he said and tucked away the warding crystal.

Shan nodded. “Yes. They live to the west. My kind live in these mountains, which are called the Rysamand.”

Stowing this useful information, Dreibrand reminded Shan that he wanted to see Miranda.  On their trip across the Keep they encountered the occasional guard, but no one questioned Shan. Dreibrand wondered what rank Shan possessed. If he had not known about the Queen, he would have guessed that Shan was in charge.

More guards were placed in the halls near Miranda’s suite, and Dreibrand eyed them carefully as he walked by them.

Why do they want Miranda and her children? he thought.

Arriving at the doors of the guest suite, Shan knocked on them softly. When no response came, Dreibrand fidgeted with distress. Shan knocked again, and finally someone could be heard fumbling with the latch. The door opened partially and Miranda peered out sleepily. She brightened immediately upon seeing Dreibrand.

“You are safe,” she cried, opening the door all the way. Miranda rushed to Dreibrand and took his hands. “Did they hurt you?”

“Only my pride,” he grumbled, but it pleased him to have her close and feel her touch. He squeezed her hands warmly and let his eyes gaze upon her for an indulgent moment. Her freshly bathed body smelled good and her clean hair looked fluffy and inviting. She looked back at him, obviously noticing the loss of his beard.

Shan quietly shut the door and bolted it.

Seeing that it was the tall rys who had spoken to her before, Miranda thanked him.

Shan accepted her gratitude gracefully and said, “I try to keep the dungeon empty. Onja is too quick to dislike someone. I often make friends where she makes enemies.”

“When I saw that I was trapped in here, you were my only hope. What is your name?” Miranda said.

“Shan,” he answered simply and bowed politely. Miranda had never really received such manners from anyone, and she liked the way it made her feel.

“Are the children here?” Dreibrand asked.

“They are sleeping. A healer gave medicine to Esseldan, and he is sleeping soundly,” she reported. “It is so wonderful to have Elendra back. She seems so happy, but…”

“What is it?” Dreibrand pressed, recognizing her troubled mood.

Miranda frowned, clearly resisting her own thoughts. Wandering to the couch and sitting, she murmured, “Onja seems so possessive of Elendra. I just cannot trust her.”

“Well I certainly don’t!” Dreibrand cried, seating himself beside her.

Shan laughed, still charmed by their ignorance of the world they had entered. “No one trusts Onja. Her wants and whims have no reason or loyalty.”

“Why was Elendra brought here? And why am I guarded?” Miranda demanded.

Shan enjoyed her forthright manner and took a seat. Humans were seldom so bold with a rys.

“My best guess is that the Queen is infatuated with your daughter. Onja’s mind is closed to me, but she clearly enjoys the company of the little girl. Small human children are never in Jingten, and Onja must have seen Elendra in the Wilderness and become interested. A desire to indulge Elendra is the only reason I can think of why Onja let you survive,” Shan concluded.

“Let us survive. What do you mean?” Dreibrand asked.

Shan lifted his fine eyebrows while considering his answer. He realized he had never had to explain this profound matter to anyone before.

They have no idea how powerful Onja really is, he thought and decided to tell it to them plainly.

With a sigh, he said, “No humans from the east have ever been allowed to approach Jingten. The Wilderness is Onja’s domain, and she has killed anyone who strayed too far into her land.”

Thinking of the mysterious emptiness of the Wilderness, Dreibrand said, “How long has this been going on? Have the rulers before Onja always defended that land?”

Shan studied the light-haired human from the east, who had spoken out of turn with the Queen of Jingten. The rys knew that Dreibrand’s boldness had been exercised out of ignorance, and he wondered if Dreibrand would be so bold once he was not ignorant.

“There is something you need to know,” Shan announced. He looked to Miranda next and felt an ominous concern. Onja treated Elendra’s mother well for now, but he had doubts that Onja’s goodwill would last.

Miranda and Dreibrand waited expectantly for his revelation.

“The rulers before Onja did not keep the Wilderness as it is now, but Onja has been the Queen for twenty-two centuries, and in that time, the Wilderness has been empty,” Shan explained.

For a long moment Dreibrand and Miranda were dumbfounded as the statement sunk in. Confused, Miranda said, “I don’t understand. Twenty-two centuries? Dreibrand, that is over two thousand years, right?”

He nodded to her in vague confirmation, and asked Shan, “Do you mean Onja has been alive for thousands of years?”

Knowing this information was difficult for the foreigners, Shan patiently confirmed his statement.

“How old are you?” Miranda suddenly demanded.

“I am five hundred forty—no,” he looked up thinking, “five hundred forty one.”

“I cannot believe this,” Miranda protested.

“Dear Miranda,” Shan said. “Do you think all life is measured on your hasty human scale? All rys live for centuries, but Onja IS uncommonly powerful and long lived.”

“And are you her heir?” Dreibrand inquired, thinking he had guessed the reason for Shan’s apparent authority.

Shan chuckled and looked down modestly as if embarrassed. Shyly he said, “I would like to think so, but Onja has made me pay for such thoughts.”

“Do you have any claim to the throne?” Dreibrand said in a conspiratorial whisper.

Shan straightened his shoulders with an automatic pride, but his meek words did not match his body language. “I must not speak of such things,” he said.

“You act like this Onja is listening at the door,” Dreibrand observed, hoping to goad answers from the rys. In his estimation, Shan came across as a rival of the Queen, and after his treatment that day, Dreibrand was interested in enemies of the Queen.

“But she is,” Shan corrected. “It is a power of rys to see and hear over distances. We need to concentrate, and it is not the easiest magic, but the perception of rys is far beyond that of humans. And of course, Onja is extremely powerful, and has been watching you in the Wilderness for many weeks. I still am not certain why she let you live. You must understand that you are the first humans ever to reach Jingten from the east for over two thousand years.”

This information was staggering and disturbing, but it allowed Miranda to make more sense of her experiences.

“Could Onja control my mind?” she asked.

“Onja can communicate over great distances, and her communications are often controlling. Sometimes her suggestion is enough to affect behavior,” Shan replied.

Despite her troubled heart, Miranda was excited to actually hear explanations for the strange things that had happened to her.

“Just before Elendra was taken, I felt like someone was looking at me. And when Elendra was stolen, Dreibrand and I slept with an unnatural heaviness. Did Onja cause these things?” Miranda asked in a hurry for information.

“By the way you describe it, I would say yes. But I am not sure what she did. I did not notice her plots until your daughter arrived in Jingten. I rarely look to the east. The Deamedron are frightening and they make my very soul shudder,” Shan said.

“What did you say? Dea-Deamedron?” Dreibrand said, struggling with the accent.

“Deamedron. That is the name for the spirits you saw on the Quinsanomar, which means final battlefield. I pleaded with Onja to guide you around that awful place, but the terror it caused you amused her, and she would not listen to me. I can imagine how terrible it was for you. No one, rys or human, goes to the Quinsanomar. You would have died if you did not have the warding crystal to protect you,” Shan explained.

“Yeah, I figured that out,” Dreibrand said wearily, and he rubbed his arm.

Shan continued, “Onja controls the Deamedron. They are her creation, and it is her great spell that binds their souls to this world. When she wants to, she can release the Deamedron from the confines of the Quinsanomar and loose them upon any who enter the Wilderness. Without a warding crystal there is no protection from them. That is why the Wilderness is empty.”

“But the Deamedron did not kill us,” Miranda said.

“No. Instead of sending the warrior spirits to kill you, she sent you a warding crystal and led you to Jingten,” Shan said.

“Not that I am complaining, but why didn’t she kill us?” Dreibrand wondered. “You said everyone before has been killed. What prompted this mercy?”

“I would not use the word mercy in connection with Onja,” Shan warned.

“Nor would I,” Miranda agreed. “She abducted Elendra, and I will never forgive her for that.”

“Of course not. But why did she let us live?” Dreibrand said.

Shan squirmed in his chair. He did not like to think in directions that Onja’s mind might go. Cautiously he speculated, “As the Queen likes Elendra, I assume she likes your baby. An infant may not survive a long flight with the Tatatook, and Onja guided you here, so you could transport the baby to her.”

“What will she do with my children?” Miranda demanded.

“I do not know,” Shan said uncomfortably. “Human children are exciting to rys because they have so much energy and grow so fast. I guess Onja simply wants to have your children here because they please her.”

“It does not please me,” Miranda protested.

Compassion pooled in Shan’s eyes, and he did not seem so strange and alien to the humans in that moment. With a quiet urgency he advised, “You must show the Queen of Jingten the greatest respect. She considers herself the Goddess of all the human tribes, and they are expected to worship her as the divine ruler of all Gyhwen. Onja will expect this from you.”

“People worship her as a Goddess?” Miranda asked incredulously.

“Out of fear, yes,” Shan replied. “All the tribes pay a mighty tribute to Jingten every year. Temples to Onja are in every major human city, and a human priesthood administers her rule. Along with every king, queen, general, or chief, all humans are subject to Onja.”

This was heavy news to hear, and it troubled Dreibrand. He realized that here humans were ruled by rys.

 “Is Onja a Goddess?” he asked because the concept troubled him. Atrophane had many deities, but they did not live in cities and show themselves to mortals.

Shan shrugged. “She is powerful enough to convince people she is their Goddess. You are a fool if you do not believe in her power. Even I have to do that,” he grumbled.

“She is no Goddess to me,” Miranda snapped.

Actual alarm showed on Shan’s face, and he hissed urgently, “Do not talk like that in her house, Miranda. I beg you!”

Miranda wanted to further express her resentment about Elendra’s abduction, but she remembered the force of Onja’s will reaching across the Wilderness, and she reflected upon her vulnerability.

“I have given you enough to think about for tonight,” Shan decided. “We can talk more tomorrow. We should go, Dreibrand.”

“I will stay here,” Dreibrand said, glancing at Miranda and hoping she would not protest his presumptiveness.

“I can guarantee your liberty if you stay at my tower. Onja might throw you back in the dungeon if she notices you,” Shan warned.

“Shan, I prefer he stay,” Miranda said.

Hearing that she wanted him to stay made Dreibrand’s heart pound and he ignored Shan’s warning. He took Miranda’s hand, and said, “Ah, Shan, I will slip back to your place early. I will not get caught.”

“As you wish then. Meet me in the morning. If I do not see you, I will check the dungeon,” Shan said playfully. He now realized that the humans desired to be together.

Shan saw himself out the door. When he shut the door, the bolt on the inside slid into place, and the metallic snap startled Dreibrand and Miranda. Witnessing the invisible force of Shan’s magic on the bolt convinced them of the reality of rys power.

Privately both accepted that they had not only come to a new land but a new world. They would need to adapt.

They discussed the information Shan had shared with them. Onja’s interest in them, and especially the children, was disturbing, but they agreed it was better than dying by the cold touch of the Deamedron.

In retrospect, Dreibrand contemplated how truly foolish his entry into the Wilderness had been. Briefly he thought of Lord Kwan, who would make his expedition soon, and Dreibrand wondered how his old commander would fare.

“Let us get out of here while we can,” Dreibrand whispered.

Fear and temptation danced inside Miranda’s green eyes, but she slowly shook her head.

Sadly she said, “I cannot run into the woods tonight. Esseldan needs to be inside right now more than anything so his medicine can work. And you heard Shan. The Queen has great powers and I can see that she has many soldiers. She will not let us go.”

“I do not care. I will fight if I have to. We need to go now while it is dark,” Dreibrand urged.

Punctuating Miranda’s concern, Esseldan began to cough and cry in the next room. Miranda rose to check on her son and give him another dose of medicine. While she tended her children, Dreibrand hung his head in frustrated thought. Is escape really possible? Can I really expect to break a woman with two small children out of this place?

We crossed the Wilderness, he thought in an attempt to encourage himself, but he had just learned that it had been by Onja’s will that they had survived.

I will ask Shan to help us. He clearly does not like the Queen, and I will convince him to help us get out of here, he decided.

Miranda returned from the children’s room, and a vague smile lighted her face. Having Elendra back was such a joy to her that it lessened her other worries. She walked to the open stained glass doors and the cool air rippled across the hem of her robe.

“I will ask Shan to help us,” Dreibrand said, getting up to stand behind her. “I need more information. I will ask him to tell us where the humans live. We need a place to go.”

Miranda felt guilty that she could not attempt an escape that night. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “You can go if you want, Dreibrand. I would understand. It is my fault you are here. I should not have made Taf Ila wait for you. Then you would be free.”

“Then I would be alone in the woods and not know where you were,” Dreibrand observed gently. “I will not leave you.”

She turned to face him, and he was close now. “Why do you care about me?” she whispered.

Dreibrand hesitated. When he looked at his life, helping her was the only worthwhile thing he had ever done. “It is good for me to care about you,” he finally replied.

“It is good to have someone care,” she murmured in a confusion of emotion. Miranda felt a great urge to be with him, but she had never freely chosen a lover before and she did not know how to proceed.

Dreibrand showed her. He easily sensed her mood and like any good warrior did not let the moment slip away. He entwined a strong hand through her soft hair and pulled her to his hungry lips. They kissed with a vital and instant passion that had been held back too long.

Her hands grabbed the buckles of his armor and blindly undid them. The metal plate hit the floor with a clang that neither of them heard. She pressed against his hot chest as he pulled away her robe. To feel her bare flesh intoxicated Dreibrand and he lifted her and carried her to the bedchamber.

They sank into the quilts and furs, kissing deeply. Eventually, Miranda pulled away and stood up. The candles had burned low and the flickering light glowed on her body. She yanked off his boots.

Dreibrand lay back enjoying her willingness as she removed the rest of his clothes. Grabbing her waist, he drew her down on top of him, and they explored each other’s bodies with abandon. Miranda moaned with pleasure, reveling in her choice of lover.

After they made love the first time, they rested in each other’s arms. Dreibrand’s hand still shook from the intensity of his emotions as he caressed her body. He had often known satisfaction, but never had he known such happiness with a woman.

Likewise, Miranda was delighted by the experience. She felt safe beside him, and she knew he cared for her. She had never expected such a thing.

They drifted back to lovemaking, seeking escape in their pleasure. But such a night passes quickly, and the birdsong and light of morning soon arrived. Weariness vied with the fire of their desire, and they dozed.

Dreibrand snuggled into the bedding, savoring the luxury of the furnishings. He had not slept in a bed for a long time, and he knew he had to go soon. Miranda stirred and went into the adjacent room to see her children. Through the wall he heard her talking to Elendra, who responded in a high sweet voice. Dreibrand dressed himself and went into the main room.

Miranda came out holding her son to her breast. Elendra followed, and regarded Dreibrand with a haughty look.

“The Queen does not like you,” Elendra stated.

“Well, you will have to put in a good word for me because she seems to like you,” Dreibrand said.

Elendra frowned with uncertainty.

“How is Esseldan?” Dreibrand asked as he put his armor back on.

“A little better,” Miranda responded.

“I will go to Shan now,” he said.

Miranda nodded. “I will be here with the children,” she said, pulling her daughter against her leg.

“I will come back here by tonight,” he promised.

She smiled, trusting in his sincerity. Neither of them wanted to be separated, but he had to go and speak with Shan. Hopefully the rys would prove to be the ally he appeared to be.

Dreibrand departed quietly, only removing his eyes from Miranda’s face when he shut the door. Rys guards were still in the hallway, and they looked at him skeptically as he walked by, but they did nothing.

The forest diminished wholly into a great rolling plain as they journeyed northwest. Only sky and waving grass surrounded Dreibrand and Miranda, and the mountains loomed higher with every day. Miranda had never seen the world look so huge, and she despaired constantly, thinking about Elendra lost in this vast and desolate place.

After a week of pursuit, Miranda began to lose faith in Dreibrand’s theory that the crystal orb would guide them to Elendra. Miranda’s chest ached from the absence of her daughter and she saw her actions as futile.

She carried Esseldan herself now. Her arm had mended and caused her no pain, and she needed the comfort of her remaining child strapped to her back.

Although he never voiced his concern, even Dreibrand wondered if he had chosen the right course. It had seemed so clear to him at first, but when Elendra had been abducted, his mind had been desperate. Now he privately considered that the girl had to be dead, but he could not bring himself to suggest such a thing to Miranda.

When his doubts struck him the hardest, he would remove the crystal orb from his pocket and let the eerie glow reassure him. To his mind this crystal could not be a natural occurrence, and in his estimation their course had changed slightly. Several times each day he checked the brightness of the orb and carefully observed the point at which it gave the most light. Gradually they were being steered more to the north. The mountains were close in the west, and their course now went parallel to the snow-capped barrier.

Even after hard days in the saddle, they seemed to only crawl across the land. Sometimes Miranda convinced Dreibrand to press on into the night and to save more time Dreibrand hunted from the saddle. Abundant game dotted the plains, and they rode through herds of antelope and elk every day, but they veered around ornery cliques of hulking buffaloes. Dreibrand always chose small game though. At some point everyday, a rabbit or prairie chicken came close enough to be shot with an arrow when they needed some meat.

But their relentless riding began to take a toll. By the ninth day after Elendra’s disappearance, Dreibrand knew the horses needed rest. The health of their mounts could not be compromised, but he did not know how to tell Miranda that they must stop while Elendra was still lost.

Esseldan made the announcement.

Miranda sagged in her saddle. The sun had tanned her face, but she did not glow with health. Tossing nights riddled with stress and silent hopeless tears had left her dull and tired. Her son whimpered and cried the whole morning, squirming in the carrying sling, and by afternoon he erupted into a tantrum.

Miranda tried transferring him into Dreibrand’s care, but the baby only howled more. Starfield shook at his bit, annoyed by the screaming passenger.

Dreibrand halted the steed and suggested, “Perhaps the little man is telling us to rest. We are both exhausted, and the horses need a break.”

Miranda stared at the horizon and thought about her daughter. Except for the strange crystal, they had no sign of Elendra. Miranda would keep searching, but she could not kill her son to save her daughter.

“Yes, we can camp early,” she agreed tersely.

Making camp placated Esseldan, and he resumed his usual pleasant behavior. Dreibrand placed the boy on the black wolf hide and entertained him with the fluffy tail. Nearby the horses grazed eagerly, and Dreibrand stretched out his stiff legs.

But Miranda had no thoughts for rest. Atop a rise she had her sword out and practiced a form that Dreibrand had been teaching her. They had not taken time to practice with the weapons since Elendra’s abduction, and Dreibrand was surprised to see she had the energy for such things.

Tickling the boy one last time with the tail, Dreibrand stood and went to join Miranda. He drew his sword.

“It has been too long since your last lesson,” he remarked.

He decided a little impromptu sparring would help him judge her progress and he attacked without further words.

A new determination fired Miranda’s movements. Her fighting skills had improved nicely, but Dreibrand was still the teacher, and when he thought she had enjoyed enough success, he knocked the sword out of her hand.

Her face contorted with indignation at the loss of her weapon. When she moved toward the sword in the grass, Dreibrand scooped her up with his free arm. Thrilled to hold her tight, he laughed as she struggled and smacked him harmlessly on his armor.

“Put me down!” she ordered.

“Make me,” he teased.

Miranda did not appreciate his joke and gave him a dark ugly look. Dreibrand recognized that he had upset her too much and set her down. Moodily she stomped away and grabbed her lost weapon.

“Miranda, I am sorry,” he apologized. “I was only playing.”

Her expression softened, and Miranda looked down thoughtfully. She regretted becoming so mad, but being grabbed and feeling his superior strength had panicked her. Seven long years with Barlow would be slow to fade she realized.

“No. I am sorry,” she mumbled reluctantly. “You do not deserve my temper.”

“Do not worry about it,” he said breezily and sheathed his sword.

Now that his weapon was put away, Miranda raised hers with a threatening gesture.

Dreibrand smiled at her cunning and raised his hands in a mock surrender.

“Have you had enough already?” she asked.

“Yes. You win. I am your prisoner,” he said.

Miranda frowned and slid her sword into the crude sheath of animal skin she had made for it.

Putting his hands down, Dreibrand commented, “You are getting better with the sword.”

“When we find Elendra, I intend to win her back,” she said ominously.

“We will,” Dreibrand agreed in a whisper.

With a kinder tone, she added, “I appreciate you keeping your promise and teaching me to use weapons. You have been good to me.”

Dreibrand shrugged off the compliment. “I owe you my life. You were there when I needed you—twice.”

He moved closer, and Miranda eyed him warily. Softly, he said, “Miranda, is it so bad that I want to be near you?”

She leaned away from him slightly. He made her nervous but in a manner unfamiliar to her. Miranda was not afraid of him anymore. Dreibrand had proven himself kind and reliable, but she knew why he wanted to be near her.

“You are near me every day,” she stated defensively, as if his question were ridiculous.

“Exactly. And it would be so natural for a man and a woman, alone in this wild place to…” he trailed off suggestively and put a tentative hand on her shoulder. Miranda shrugged out of his hand, but then he caught her in both arms. Her body became rigid, but she did not really fight his embrace.

Dreibrand continued, “You do not have to suffer alone. Isn’t it better when I hold you? I care about you.”

Miranda put her hands on his chest and felt the sun-warmed metal of his armor. Shaking her head, she pushed and he reluctantly let her go. He saw the confusion in her eyes and knew that to restrain her would upset her.

Free of him, Miranda walked over to her son and picked him up. Dreibrand had not really wanted to let her go, especially when he could glimpse an inkling of willingness in her eyes, but he did not want to scare her.

It was hard to be patient Dreibrand realized. He had grown accustomed to female companionship when he wanted it. A soldier had to win a woman’s favor in an evening and march on the next day. He had been alone with Miranda for weeks now, and her remoteness perplexed him.

The next morning Miranda awoke to Dreibrand sitting by her. She focused on his soft yellow beard and the sunlight glinting in his wind blown hair. His blue eyes sparkled under his serious brow, and he tickled her nose with delicate sprigs of flowers. For a brief moment, Miranda felt lighthearted and enjoyed his attention, but she could not accept the luxury of such feelings.

“I thought these would cheer you. They smell quite nice,” he said.

Miranda sat up and took the flowers and sniffed the fancy blossoms.

“I wouldn’t think an Atrophane officer would pick flowers,” she teased awkwardly.

Encouraged by her genuinely positive reaction, he took her hand. “I was rude to bother you yesterday. I know because of Elendra, you could not have any thoughts for me, so let us go quickly and find your daughter,” he said. During his watch, Dreibrand had accepted that her worry for Elendra distracted her from him, and rightly so.

Miranda nodded, and although she was thankful for his understanding, she simply accepted his apology. Her feelings for him were confused, and she had no attention to give to sorting them out. Any thoughts for her own pleasure were crushed by the stress of losing Elendra.

For another week they rode north and the summer sun followed them with lengthening days. The lush plain had no shortage of game, and they did not lack for food. No beasts or storms troubled them, yet they constantly maintained their guard. Both of them had become too hardened by Nature, even in summer’s bounty, to be lulled into a sense of security in the Wilderness.

As every day slipped by without trace of Elendra, Miranda withdrew into dark brooding. She blamed herself for the abduction of Elendra, inwardly criticizing her every decision over the past several weeks.

Dreibrand could see that she tormented herself, and he comforted her as well as he could.

After checking their course one afternoon, he said, “I think we must be getting closer. The orb feels warm today.”

Miranda did not look away from the ears of her horse. She seldom strained her eyes to scan the horizon anymore, and usually just stared listlessly at her horse while riding.

“You just think it is warmer because all of this is so hopeless,” she grumbled.

“No. I just noticed it. Here you take it,” Dreibrand suggested, offering her the crystal orb.

As always Miranda refused to touch it.

Placing the orb in his front pocket, Dreibrand insisted, “I tell you it feels warm today. It must mean that we are finally getting close.”

Although she was too discouraged to really feel any hope, his opinion finally intrigued her. She stayed more attentive that day.

The next morning was cloudy. No thunder rumbled, but they assumed a storm would start eventually. Cheerlessly they continued their trek north until midday when suddenly a dark form broke the northern horizon.

“What is that?” Dreibrand cried.

He and Miranda exchanged curious glances, but they were too far away to determine the exact shape or character of the object. Drawing out the crystal orb, Dreibrand could feel that it had increased in warmth again. It did not burn, but it was hot and he judged the glow to be greater as well.

“This must be something. Come on,” he ordered and urged Starfield ahead.

The object was a large narrow boulder sticking up out of the ground. Taller than a man, the blue rock showed no sign of design or symbol.

They halted to examine the monolith.

“This could be some kind of boundary marker,” Dreibrand exclaimed. He was so excited to have found something.

Miranda did not allow herself any excitement, and thought pessimistically that it was just a boulder. She wandered over a ridge and looked northward. The land sloped down and many more standing stones covered the land for as far as she could see. Some were lone monoliths, and others were arranged in circles or scattered in no particular pattern. The sizes did not vary much, but all of the standing stones were at least as large as a man. The presence of the weighty boulders defied reason.

The wind moaned in places where the stones stood close together, and Miranda felt a distinct foreboding. Esseldan squirmed on her back and began to cry.

She soothed the boy and turned her horse around. Freedom gladly obeyed. She returned to Dreibrand, who still studied the first enigmatic stone.

“There are many more boulders over that ridge. They cover the land completely,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand snapped out of his consideration of the monolith and quickly went to investigate. The forest of standing stones upon the lonely plain made a disquieting sight. Again he hoisted the crystal orb, and the blue light was undeniably stronger. However, when he tried to check their course, the orb gave the same brightness in every direction, dimming only in the direction they had come from.

Miranda witnessed this as she arrived alongside of him. “I do not like this place,” she announced.

“But this must be where this orb intended to lead us,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda scanned the land. There was nothing except the creepy stones, and she was reluctant to proceed.

“We should go back and try again. You have lost our bearing,” she decided.

“But the orb has consistently pointed north. You have seen me check many times. Going back will only waste time,” Dreibrand argued.

Miranda bit her lip. She definitely did not want to waste time, and going back would be counterproductive. There was nothing back there.

“This place is frightening,” she whispered.

Dreibrand agreed, “Yes. I can feel…I do not know.” Something impressed him on a subconscious level. Vaguely he thought of the stunned silence on a finished battlefield covered with dead.

“We should go around this place,” Miranda suggested.

Dreibrand looked at the multitude of stones stretching to the east and west. Despite the sudden loss of guidance from the crystal orb, he believed they needed to continue north.

“We should continue in the same direction. The orb has led us here and we need to keep going,” he reasoned.

Thinking of her daughter, Miranda gathered her courage. This strange place of standing stones was the only aberration in the rolling untouched landscape, and she could not ignore it because she was afraid. With the faintest tinge of hope, she wondered if Elendra might be close.

“Yes, you are right. Going around is foolish. They are only boulders,” Miranda said.

Silently they entered the area of monoliths. A lone vulture circled down from the overcast sky and landed atop a monolith very close to them. Dreibrand drew his sword and hacked at the bird with disgust. It flapped out of his reach and cackled at him boldly. Cold eyes without compassion glared out of its naked head.

Once Dreibrand finished frustrating himself with the nasty bird, they hurried onward. They did not discuss the implications of the vulture’s arrival.

Their spirits brightened when they saw the standing stones clear out up ahead.

“See. No need to ride around,” Dreibrand said, feeling vindicated.

Indeed, Miranda was glad that she had agreed with Dreibrand, and she looked forward to leaving the unsettling stones behind her.

But the clean plains ahead proved to be like a shimmering mirage in the desert. Almost as soon as they saw beyond the land of stones, a heavy mist began to consume the land. The mist seemed to rise out of nothing, and it covered the land as rapidly as a cloudbank moving onto land from a large body of water. An immediate chill slapped the air, and the mist swirled higher.

“Hurry!” Dreibrand urged, focusing on the fading grassland beyond.

The mist soon took all visibility beyond a few paces, and they could not gallop for fear of striking a monolith in the murk.

“Stay closer,” Dreibrand called when he looked back and only saw the dim outline of Miranda on her horse.

“Where are you?” she cried.

He had to let her catch up. When she entered the small sphere of visibility, Dreibrand saw the relief flood her eyes. The mist pressed close now, and they could only see the nearest blue stone monoliths lurking in the haze.

“We must ride side by side. We must not get separated in this,” Dreibrand decided and Miranda heartily agreed.

The cold shroud of mist obscured all sense of direction, and every time they rode around an obstacle, Dreibrand feared that their course became muddled. Before the sudden fog had blocked his view of the clear plains ahead, he had focused on the proper direction, but he no longer had any reference points.

“We should have come out by now,” Miranda observed nervously.

“I know,” Dreibrand admitted.

“We are lost,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand knew they were in trouble, but he would not accept defeat so easily. The edge of the standing stones might only be a few paces away in the seething fog.

“This mist is more magic. No natural mist could rise so quickly and so completely. We are being trapped,” Miranda concluded.

Dreibrand halted their slow blind progress and removed the crystal orb. It shone with a constant blue light in any direction. Bereft of guidance, he put the orb back in his pocket, and the blue glow faded from the pale mist. He had followed the crystal orb diligently, and now he wondered if he had been led to this place to die.

Shaking off the nasty thought, he had no choice but to continue plodding in blindness.

A leaning blue monolith leered out of the mist, and the horses snorted when they passed close to it. It was a larger stone than the others they had seen, reaching over their heads even on horseback. Many standing stones clustered near this great blue hulk, and Dreibrand worried that he had blundered deeper into the place of stones because they had become denser.

Esseldan coughed and whimpered against Miranda’s neck. Dreibrand looked over at them with concern and regretted his eagerness to enter the stones.

In a strained silence they tried to find the edge of the stones until the dim daylight receded.

“Dreibrand, I have to stop,” Miranda said.

“It will be dark soon. Let us keep going,” he pressed.

“I know, but I have to take care of the baby while I can still see. Then we can go,” she said.

He agreed and took a break from the saddle himself. Esseldan cried while his mother attended him, and the sobs sounded smothered by the cold mist.

A thick soupy darkness rose from the ground as the light of the distant day retreated. They had nothing to make a fire. Fuel was scarce on the grassland, but the lank turf growing between the standing stones had nothing to offer.

Weeks in the Wilderness had made Dreibrand and Miranda accustomed to the true dark of the night, but nothing could harden them for being lost among the stones clogged with fog. An unsettling silence oppressed the land, and no nocturnal insect sang at all.

“We cannot make any progress in this. We will rest here,” Dreibrand decided.

“Must we stop? I want to keep going,” Miranda insisted tiredly.

“I would, Miranda, but in this dark we could find our way out and wander back in, before we knew we left. I don’t like it here either, but it is best to wait for light,” he reasoned.

Out of weariness she relented. Dreibrand took out the blue orb because it was their only means of light. Normally, Miranda disliked the inexplicable glow from the crystal, but tonight in the thick dark, she found some comfort in the light. She sat down on her blanket and nestled Esseldan in her lap. Right in front of her Dreibrand settled down on his own blanket, and the horses stood abnormally close to him. Starfield occasionally muzzled the top of his head, and he patted the intrusive nose.

“Maybe the fog will lift in the morning,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda looked at him doubtfully. She shivered inside her jacket and tucked the wrappings around Esseldan. The night grew colder and the damp was relentless. Even her hair was wet.

Feeling the need to be distracted by idle conversation, she said, “Tell me about Atrophane.”

His nervous mind needed distraction as well, and her suggestion pleased him. But thoughts of his homeland came hard to him. Already that life seemed to belong to a different man.

Dreibrand let his mind float back eastward over the many lands he had traveled and subdued. Finally he saw once again the Lasocosta Sea, whose surf played on the eastern Atrophane coast, and his heart suddenly ached to ride the waves as he had in his adolescence.

Dreibrand shared his memories with Miranda, describing the wide delta of the Phol River that was supposed to be the hand of the Goddess Simosha, who held Atrophane’s most bountiful fields. He told her next of the Outer Coast region where he was from. Splendid pastures filled with prize stock stretched between orchards that overlooked cliffs and sandy beaches.

Miranda had trouble picturing the great palace cities and lavish country estates he described, but she believed that they must be marvelous.

Then Dreibrand told her of darker things, and she had less trouble seeing these aspects of Atrophane. He spoke of slums where criminals of every creed and philosophy plied their trades in the shadows of gorgeous palaces. He spoke of the mines in the Vartrane Mountains where many unfortunate slaves labored in grim conditions.

“The land of my birth is forever behind me,” he concluded quietly. He cast his blue eyes down with sadness. He had not thought so much of home for a long time.

“Dreibrand!” Miranda hissed.

Instantly his mind snapped back to his immediate reality. The Wilderness had made his senses sharp, and he was on his feet even as the horses squealed. Miranda had seen it first and he only had to raise his eyes to notice.

A cold white light expanded out of the black mist. Miranda stood now and pulled out her sword while clutching Esseldan fiercely to her chest. Spectral forms gathered in the light revealing the skeletal detail of humans. Horrifying fleshless bone coalesced in the glowing mist. The ghosts brandished the remembered spirits of their weapons, which had an ethereal glow. Red eyes flared in vaporous skulls, and Miranda saw the point of her sword shaking in the haunting glow.

Three distinct ghosts formed quickly, and the swirling light promised to make more. These three glided toward Dreibrand and Miranda. One wielded a smoky warhammer and the other two held pikes.

Dreibrand raised his sword, hoping it could fend off the spirits, but when the ghosts seemed about to attack, they shifted directions and drifted by.

“They, they…aren’t attacking,” Miranda stammered.

More spirits developed across the haunted land, casting crazy lights on the standing stones. A frigid wind swept around Dreibrand and Miranda’s ankles and crept up their legs, making them ache and their flesh crawl.

“I don’t understand,” Dreibrand mumbled while watching a tall ghost with long delicate bones drift by.

An ancient long dead army now stalked across the land. Sometimes a spirit would flare brightly or simply fade back into the dark mist. A few more ghosts gathered around the living creatures and circled close, but the specters always moved on.

By now the horses sweated nervously, but the steeds stayed close to their masters. Sometimes Starfield or Freedom would jump with the intention of bolting when a spirit passed too close, but both horses stayed put as if they were tied down.

Slowly, Dreibrand and Miranda lowered their swords and watched the unholy spectacle of the walking dead. Esseldan cried softly against his mother’s chest, too afraid to shriek loudly. Dreibrand put an arm around Miranda as much to steady himself as to comfort her.

It was impossible to judge how long they stared at the multitude of ghosts. Their minds did not think of time when confronted with such an astounding mystery. Gradually, Dreibrand began to imagine the fallen army and guess that the standing stones were extraordinary grave markers. Before the mist, he had seen the stones stretching across the plains, and he calculated that the army must have been a sprawling host, greater than the Horde.

Remembering the tales of Gods making war that he had heard in the east, Dreibrand finally made some sense of the legends.

A mighty civilization was here. Or maybe still is, he thought. Tearing his wide eyes from the unsettling ghosts, he looked down at the crystal orb on his blanket.

“I am going to test a theory,” he announced.

Cautiously he approached the edge of the ghost activity, holding his sword defensively.

“What are you doing?” Miranda cried. “Come back here!”

Dreibrand ignored her and left the circle of safety around their camp. Ghosts glided toward him and did not change their course. A daunting spirit lord, with a translucent band of gold around his gleaming skull, flew ahead of his damned brethren and struck at Dreibrand with a misty blade. The mortal sword of Dreibrand parried the blow without effect. The spirit’s blade simply passed through the Atrophaney steel and clipped Dreibrand’s forearm.

An icy explosion of pain crippled his arm, and he had to seize his sword with his other hand before it fell to the ground. The spirit raised the weapon for another blow, and his musty men-at-arms gathered behind him excited for the victim.

It took all of Dreibrand’s courage to run away and not to be paralyzed with terror.  He stumbled back to Miranda and the ghosts thankfully did not pursue. Dreibrand crumpled to the ground and gave into his agony for a moment, clutching his arm. Visibly shaken by his rash actions, Miranda kneeled beside him.

“The crystal orb protects us from these spirits,” he gasped. “If you are not close to it, they attack.”

“Let me see,” Miranda said, trying to pry his good hand away from his injury. The haunted glow from the spirits provided some light, but she saw no visible wound. She touched his stiff cold hand, and he could not contain a cry of pain. Cold sweat broke out on his forehead, and he trembled as he tried to tolerate the pain.

In a desperate flash of reasoning, Miranda guessed that the crystal orb might help him if it was their only protection from the ghosts as he said. She scrambled to the orb, but her hand hesitated above the crystal. She was loath to touch the magical item, and the weird light swirling within reminded her vividly of the power behind the white wolf.

Dreibrand moaned and sucked air between his clenched teeth. She grabbed the orb and pressed it into his lifeless hand. He felt an almost instant relief and relaxed.

“That’s better,” he whispered.

With his pain eased, Miranda scolded him. “Dreibrand, you should not take such risks. I was so scared.”

“It was not one of my smarter ideas,” he agreed with a painful chuckle. “But now I know for certain why the ghosts did not attack us.”

Miranda looked around fearfully. “What is this terrible place? How will we ever get out?” She did not voice her worry that little Elendra was held somewhere in the horrible realm.

Dreibrand considered her questions rhetorical and lay in quiet pain, hoping his arm was not crippled. The pins and needles of life crept down his fingers until he could eventually grasp Miranda’s hand that held the orb against his palm. With a tortuous slowness warmth spread up his wrist and forearm, easing the pain.

Grimly he realized he could have just been killed. As a warrior he could face his mortality, but the thought of his eternal spirit trapped among the haunted stones terrified him.

“We will get out of here, Miranda,” he promised.

They sat through the night with no possibility of sleep. The ghosts stalked between the stones, and the fear they inspired nearly maddened the living creatures trapped inside the seething mass of death. An immense cattle market of damned souls surrounded Dreibrand and Miranda, who endured the horror bravely.

After a timeless torment Dreibrand rose painfully to his feet, still holding the crystal orb. “Let us get ready,” he said.

“For what?” Miranda asked miserably.

“It will be dawn soon,” he answered while fumbling to gather his gear. “When the sun breaks in the east, I will get my bearings and know which way is north.”

They climbed into the saddles of their drooping mounts. The horses were exhausted by fear.  With a painful slowness the ghosts gradually dissipated, and the inky dark of night returned. Dreibrand waited alertly for the dawn. With every breath he could feel the cold mist, and he knew it would obscure the dawn and dilute the sun. But in the first minutes of daybreak, he would have a chance to detect the east.

When his chance came, he did not miss it. The vermilion glare at the day’s birth cut through the mist, and Dreibrand saw the east. He was appalled how much he had become turned around, and he guessed that his disorientation had not been natural.

“Now!” he said, facing north and urging his tired warhorse.

He pressed on quickly in the mist that had actually become thicker in the night. Leaning out from his saddle, he grabbed the bridle of Miranda’s horse to prevent losing her in his rush. While the sun burned clearly in the east, he pushed on recklessly, trusting Starfield to avoid obstacles as best a beast could. When the land started to rise, his heart thudded with hope.

The mist thinned ahead and he could see green grass unmarked by stones. He pushed Starfield into a feeble gallop. Both horses climbed the slope eagerly now despite their weariness, until they finally emerged above the mist. The sun bathed Dreibrand and Miranda with warmth and the clean high plains unfolded before them. On a higher hill in front of them stood another mighty monolith as a guardian over the haunted land.

It was Miranda’s inclination to give it a wide berth, and Dreibrand would have agreed except that this monolith was of a different character. Its edges were sharper and straighter as if it might have once had a stonecutter’s attention.

They approached it cautiously, and Miranda trailed in the rear. She kept an eye on the mist in the lower lands in case it rose to follow them.

“I see writing!” Dreibrand gasped and jumped from his saddle.

He stood before the blue stone and the rising sun illuminated the ancient script carved in the surface. Time had made once sharp letters smooth and round, but a lengthy paragraph still stood out from the stone. Unfortunately, Dreibrand could not read it at all.

As if waiting for divine intervention to show him the meaning of the words, he stared at the writing.

“Do you know what it says?” Miranda finally asked. She certainly knew she could not read it.

Vaguely he shook his head, too overwhelmed to answer. Removing the crystal orb from his pocket, Dreibrand checked to see if it would guide him again. Like before, the orb flared brightest in a particular direction, but this time it was not north but west.

Dreibrand looked across the plains that rose into foothills, and his eyes climbed the mountains. One deep gap between peaks appeared in the snow-capped barrier, and he wondered if it might be a pass.

They rode a good distance away from the mist shrouded land of standing stones before turning west as the orb directed them. By noon they had to stop. They ate the last of their food, but after their ordeal neither had the energy to search for food. Spreading their bedrolls, both lay down to sleep.

“The orb is guiding us again, and I think we shall be with whoever took Elendra soon. They probably live in the mountains,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda heard his words and was glad that he was encouraged. “We are never going back are we?” she said.

Dreibrand rolled across the grass to lie beside her. They had crossed too many elti not to be honest with each other. He answered, “No. I don’t think so. Miranda, I am sorry. I never thought anything like this would happen.”

“Do not apologize. You offered to turn back and I declined. But I think then that my mind was not my own. Some kind of magic drew me farther west until Elendra was taken. I wish I could have listened to you,” Miranda sighed.

“I should have turned back anyway,” he lamented.

“But I did not really want to go,” Miranda recalled. “If I never see the east again, I do not care. I just want to see Elendra again.”

The fairness of the lake convinced them to stay on another night and nurse their wounds. Not one wolf howl called to the moon that night, and the next morning they rode west without discussing their course.

The mature forest began to thin and a grassy open country spread between mountains ranges. Lofty snow-capped peaks dominated the western skyline and another line of mountains filled the northeast, but these were lower and darker. The landscape was wide and beautiful, and Dreibrand liked to imagine that it all belonged to him.

While they rode, he carried Esseldan in order to spare Miranda some stress to her injured arm. Her wound distressed him, and Dreibrand wished that he had been able to defend her better. Dreibrand secured the boy in the saddle in front of him, upright like a little rider. Esseldan, who had received no attention from his real father, thrived in Dreibrand’s strong grasp.

For more than a week, they continued their exploration and Dreibrand had no trouble finding game. With good food and fine weather, life became a pure ideal of existence. There was no civilization to clutter the mind and the land provided generously. All would have been well except that Elendra started sleepwalking. Every night Dreibrand or Miranda caught her rising and trying to wander away. After twelve nights of this in a row, Miranda finally decided to confide in Dreibrand about the white wolf and the glowing eyes.

Being reasonable, Dreibrand said, “The eyes of animals glow in the night. Perhaps that is all it was.”

Miranda wanted to agree with his simple explanation, but her mind was not as foggy as it had been right after the wolf attack, and she regarded her belief with more conviction.

“But it was not the normal glow in an animal’s eyes. The blue light was so strong; I can almost see it now as I saw it then. Someone was looking at me,” Miranda said.

Dreibrand asked her to explain better.

“I cannot explain,” Miranda moaned with frustration. “But I felt it inside. Like when someone is staring at you for a long time before you notice.”

Clearly, Miranda was disturbed, and Dreibrand reasoned stress had made her imagine things. He wanted to discount her story, but he took the time to re-evaluate the night of the wolf attack. At first he had relished their victory and kept the black wolf skin as a practical trophy, but in retrospect, he accepted that the wolves had given up quite easily, and it had been a large pack.

“Why did you not tell me this sooner?” he wondered.

Miranda shrugged uncomfortably. “I did not know how to explain, and I know it sounds silly. But now that Elendra is sleepwalking, I feel more certain of myself. We are not alone. The fenthakrabi was real, what if the other stories about ghosts are true—”

Dreibrand interrupted her because she was upsetting herself. “Did Elendra see this wolf?” he asked.

Calming down, Miranda said that she might have.

“I will go talk to her,” Dreibrand decided.

Elendra sat on the tangled roots of an old gnarled tree with her back to them. Swinging her legs, she hummed pleasantly and ignored Dreibrand’s approach.

“May I speak with you, Elendra?” he asked politely, courting her favor delicately.

She shrugged with disinterest and stared into the distance. Considering this a positive response, Dreibrand proceeded.

“When the wolves attacked did you see a big white one?” He kneeled beside her and waited patiently for a reply.

Elendra looked at him sideways. She had grudgingly accepted Dreibrand’s presence in her family, but her attitude did not go beyond suffering his company. Slowly she decided to answer him, hoping he would leave her alone if she did.

“I saw it. It jumped through the fire at us,” she said.

This corresponded with Miranda’s version of the events, which Dreibrand considered strange because the animal should have been afraid of the flames.

“Can you tell me anything else about it?” he coaxed.

“Blue fire came out of its eyes,” Elendra recalled without emotion.

“Were you afraid?” he whispered.

This question bothered her and she turned startled eyes toward Dreibrand. “No! There is no reason to be afraid,” she answered firmly.

Her tone seemed overly defensive in Dreibrand’s opinion. “Not even a little bit afraid?” he teased.

For a moment Elendra’s expression softened and she was just a sweet frightened six-year-old girl. She mumbled, “At first I was afraid, but then I knew I was safe.”

“How did you know, Elendra?” he pressed carefully.

Despite his soft approach, her hostile demeanor returned, and she stormed across the camp until her privacy was reestablished. Dreibrand walked back to Miranda, who had waited out of earshot.

“I am surprised you got to talk to her that much,” Miranda commented.

“In the end, few can resist my charms,” he said lightly.

Annoyed by his joke, Miranda demanded, “What did she say?”

“The same as you said. Perhaps you are right to worry. I cannot explain what happened, and maybe her sleepwalking is connected,” Dreibrand conceded.

Rubbing her temple with frustration, Miranda muttered, “What could it be? This is worse than wild animals.”

“Hey, maybe we have all been out here a little too long. Let us rest today, and tomorrow we will turn east,” Dreibrand decided but looked around wistfully at the wild land.

There is still so much more to see, he lamented privately.

Again, Miranda felt an urge to argue with him but she resisted it this time. She needed to return to civilization and make a new life for herself. Hiding in the forest had saved her from war, but it was time to stop hiding. She decided that in the morning she would tell Dreibrand that she would go with him to Phemnalang. He was smart and kind to her and she could do far worse.

“Let me check your arm,” Dreibrand suggested.

“Why? We have nothing to make a fresh bandage,” Miranda grumbled.

“Because I want to see how it is doing,” he insisted. He did not want to alarm her but he was watching for signs of infection.

She let him undo the sling and unwrap her arm, which had started to heal nicely. She considered Dreibrand’s concern unnecessary and suspected he fretted over her injury just to sit close to her.

He did enjoy sitting close to her, but the clean healing of the bite pleased him the most at that moment. It was a lucky thing.

“I want you to wear this sling a few more days,” Dreibrand instructed. When he finished tying it over her shoulder, he brushed a few wavy locks of hair behind her ear and touched her cheek tenderly.

Miranda cringed nervously, and he could see that she did not welcome the touch.

“You are beautiful,” he whispered, trying to excuse his action.

Her lips trembled temptingly, and he thought her agitation suited a virgin more than a mother of two.

Casting her eyes down, Miranda said, “If you knew me better, I am sure I would not suit you.”

She seemed to retreat behind some shame, but it did not concern him. He knew that slaves could be ill-used, and he did not hold it against her. “I think you suit me well,” he responded.

“You are only interested because I am the only woman out here,” she scorned.

What could be a better reason? Dreibrand thought, but he kept that to himself. “Even in the largest city, many men would find you appealing,” he said.

“I don’t need you to tell me that!” she snapped with disgust and got up.

He let her go and reflected that he could have thought of something better to say. Alone now, Dreibrand checked on the wolf skin stretched out to dry. Flipping it over, he ran his hands through the black fur. Turning back tomorrow would be hard for him, but taking Miranda and the children back was the right thing to do.

What am I doing out here with refugees anyway? he wondered for the first time. But he had no regret for his foray into the Wilderness. Every day he loved the wild land a little more, and he vowed to come back.

It occurred to him that when he did come back, Miranda would not be with him. He meant what he had said about helping her get a place to live, but now he realized he would have to leave her in the Empire. No doubt she would want to stay once she had a home. The thought of parting ways with her bothered him, and he did not want to contemplate never seeing her again.

Dreibrand spent the day lying around the camp. Weariness crept over him as the day passed, and he wondered at his lack of energy. Miranda avoided him all afternoon and foraged nearby for food. However, when she returned to prepare their evening meal, she did not appear angry with him anymore, which Dreibrand considered a good sign. When Miranda was upset, she generally made it plain to see, and he guessed that his touch that morning had not bothered her that much.

After eating, Dreibrand rolled inside his bedroll, feeling unusually tired.

“Miranda, wake me up if anything bothers you,” he said with his eyes already closed.

“Yes, I will,” Miranda replied, but he was asleep.

She let the fire dwindle into coals while watching the moon travel over the treetops. The children slept peacefully next to her. A serene expression blessed Elendra’s cute face, and Miranda hoped that no evil dreams would come to disturb her daughter.

As the night deepened, Elendra continued to sleep normally, and Miranda wondered if she had been frightening herself unnecessarily. The wolf attack must have stressed her daughter and caused a little sleepwalking. This explanation became more and more convincing to Miranda as she thought about it, and she smiled at herself for thinking the wolf’s eyes had been glowing with an unnatural light.

It was only the fire in its eyes, she thought with amusement. Just as the coals are glowing blue right now.

The blue light filled her perception, and this time it was warm and vital. Miranda felt secure, as if she snuggled in a soft bed under fragrant and fluffy covers—something she had never actually known in life. The blue light faded slowly into the black bliss of perfect rest. Then she was dreaming. She heard the swoosh of wind, and the flap of wings beating against it.

Dreibrand became aware but did not open his eyes. The dampness of dew clung to the land, and he was reluctant to give up the warmth of his blanket and the pleasantness of sleep. He wanted his dream to come back because it involved Miranda. Fuzzily he thought that she should be waking him soon. He had the nagging sensation that it was much later than the usual hour when Miranda woke him to take his watch.

With a terrible suspicion Dreibrand opened his eyes and was instantly mortified to see the pink glow of an emerging dawn. Sitting straight up, he saw Miranda sprawled among blankets empty of her children.

He cried out in dismay and sprang out of his bedroll, landing at Miranda’s side. Lifting her head and taking her hand, he called her name. Her eyes opened, but they held a distant vacant look.

Blindly she whispered, “Where am I?”

“Miranda! It is Dreibrand.”

She focused on his face and came back to herself. Gasping with delayed panic, Miranda saw that her children were gone. A terrible scream escaped her throat as she ripped out of Dreibrand’s grasp. She scrambled frantically over her empty blanket. Esseldan’s basket was not even present.

“I did not hear anything. I only just woke up. I am sorry, Miranda,” Dreibrand said helplessly.

Miranda’s eyes darted in every direction, but when she tried to recall her last memories, her mind felt unhinged.

“I don’t remember going to sleep. Everything was fine. I was awake!” she wailed.

Again, Miranda threw back her head and screamed, venting her agony. Tears began to flow, and her aching heart reluctantly pumped blood to flesh that no longer desired life. Her grief stricken cry faded into the land but was suddenly answered by a high sharp squeal. Miranda’s wet eyes opened and she instantly recognized Esseldan’s voice.

Her head turned sharply in the direction of his cry, and the image of Elendra walking that way with her brother flashed into Miranda’s memory.

My sleep was not real, Miranda thought and she dashed away to find them.

Dreibrand scooped up his sword and ran after her.

They ran over a rise, and on the other side, a crazy scene greeted them. The children were in the clutches of a giant bird that looked like a raven. A body of glossy black feathers towered over the small children, and inhuman eyes gleamed from the grotesque head, but it was much more than a giant bird. The body and legs, although covered with black feathers, had the shape of a man with huge wings protruding from a mighty back. Most shocking of all were the man-like arms reaching for Elendra.

The winged monster shrieked when it saw the woman and man rushing toward it. The violent threat in that terrible call shook the whole land, and sweet songbirds cowered and did not make one note that day.

The unwholesome sound made Elendra stumble back from the monster. She had been lugging Esseldan in his basket, but he fell from her arms, crying intensely. With the lightness of a bird, the monster hopped toward Elendra on its taloned feet.

Miranda screamed relentlessly as she saw the thing bend over her children. She ran with perilous speed and waved her arms insanely.

An impossible feathered arm reached briefly into the baby basket, but it apparently did nothing to the boy. Shrieking once again at Miranda’s approach, the monster seized Elendra with both arms and started to run away. Its path of departure was already chosen, and the monster spread its great wings while running.

Miranda ran past Esseldan. She could only glance at him as she sped by because of her urgency to save Elendra. Dreibrand caught up, and in a mighty effort passed Miranda and closed on the monster.

But the monster had studied the details of the land, and it headed into a clear area where the trees could not hinder its flight. Seeing that the monster would soon gain the air, Dreibrand gave his final effort. Raising his sword high, he leaped toward it as its feet pushed off the ground. The blade of his sword glinted once in the rising sun when it flashed beside the huge wing, but it did not reach far enough.

Dreibrand crashed to the ground. He rolled over and saw above him Elendra held close to the feathered breast of the monster. Her face was calm.

Miranda raced beneath the rising monster and called frantically to her daughter, but Elendra never acknowledged her. Miranda clawed futilely at the air, but the monster rapidly ascended to the sky. Screaming with abandon, she crumbled to her knees in utter defeat. The large black monster quickly became a speck in the sky, heading northwest.

Dreibrand staggered over to Miranda. If he had not known the fenthakrabi, he never would have believed this horror. The smaller the monster became in the high sky, the more acute his failure became. Miranda sobbed in mindless grief. He dropped to one knee and put his arms around her. His tangible human closeness brought Miranda back from her blind insanity of loss.

“She could not hear me. Magic has taken her mind and mine!” Miranda moaned. “I could not stop her. I could only be in my dream.”

His whole life, Dreibrand had considered magic to be something that only existed in myths. Even now his rational mind examined the situation carefully. He did not want to give himself over to superstition, but an acceptance stirred inside him. An acceptance that there was much in the world that he did not understand.

“We have to go back to Esseldan,” he said.

Dreibrand helped Miranda up, and she stumbled beside him in a daze. The cries of Esseldan pleading through the trees roused her from her devastation. Esseldan was where he had been dropped on a bed of tiny white flowers. Miranda clutched the boy to her bosom. It was good to have one child back, but it was terrible not to have both.

When she grabbed the baby, Dreibrand saw something drop out of his wrappings.

“What is this?” He stooped to pick it up. The object was a crystal orb about the size of an acorn, cobalt in color with a deep inner light. Miranda stared at the stone and clutched Esseldan tighter. She had seen that blue light before.

“Where did that come from?” she demanded fearfully.

“It fell out of Esseldan’s clothes. That thing must have left it there,” he explained.

Miranda choked on her sobs, while Dreibrand studied the crystal orb and tried to reason out the mystery. As a military commander, he had learned to be calm in a crisis, and his mind started analyzing everything that had happened. He guessed that the monster possessed some kind of higher intelligence because something that was purely bestial would have mauled the infant. Esseldan was unhurt, and Elendra had not been hurt either and she had willingly gone to the monster. Somehow the flying abductor had lured her away. Most of all he remembered his abnormally heavy sleep, and he knew with all certainty that Miranda would not have allowed her children to slip away. Something had prevented them from watching through the night. If that something was magic, Dreibrand did not know, but he felt inclined to use the term.

Are all the stories about the Wilderness true? he wondered. The physical hardships of the land had not frightened him, but how could a man cope with magic?

The light swirling inside the orb suggested more mysteries than answers. Frustrated he shook the orb at the section of sky where the flying monster had disappeared with Elendra.

“What are you?” he hollered.

After a fashion he received an answer. The light in the orb intensified.

“Elendra is dead. That thing has carried her away to, to…” Miranda trailed off unable to speak the rest of her horrible thoughts.

Dreibrand heard the profound agony in her voice and wished desperately that he could make things right. The sudden increase of light in the orb sparked a theory in his mind and he began to test it by holding the orb in various directions. He turned in a whole circle, and the light only brightened when he held it to the northwest.

Miranda continued to mutter in her grief. “I will never see her again.” Only by accepting the worse could she cope with her loss.

“We must follow it,” Dreibrand decided abruptly.

“How?” Miranda wailed miserably. She searched the empty sky that had consumed her daughter. Already Elendra had to be an impossible distance away, and Miranda cried with increasing hysteria.

Dreibrand sympathized with her grief, and felt some himself. Although Elendra had never made secret her opinion of him, he had truly tried to save the little girl, and he still would try.

The sobbing of mother and son made an awful noise, and Dreibrand gave his attention to soothing them. Wiping the tears from Miranda’s face, he softly told her to stop crying.

“I ca-cannot,” she stammered hopelessly.

“You are strong. Take control of yourself,” he said. His voice had the insistence of an officer, but a genuine kindness as well.

For the sake of her son, Miranda quieted herself so Esseldan could become calmer.

“Look at this,” Dreibrand said, holding up the crystal orb.

Miranda grimaced and cried vehemently, “I don’t want to look at it!”

“You must. This is not something left by a mere beast. Look, it glows brighter when I hold it in the direction that it took Elendra. It was left so that we can follow,” he explained.

Miranda watched him demonstrate the glow in the crystal when it was held to the northwest, but she hated to look at that strange light. She knew it was magic.

“See, we are invited to follow. Whatever power rules in this land, they have taken Elendra to make sure that we will follow. At least that is my best guess,” he admitted.

“It is of no use. Elendra is already so far away,” Miranda said.

“We have to try. We both saw that Elendra was not hurt. Maybe we can save her,” Dreibrand insisted.

Miranda could not dispute him. Of course she would try to save her daughter even if she did not believe it was possible.

Becoming surer of his interpretation of things, Dreibrand was becoming excited to learn who was the master of the flying monster. Something of intelligence and power lived in the Wilderness, and it knew they were there.

Miranda would cling to Dreibrand’s theory that the girl lived and they could find her. Holding her son in a tight grasp, Miranda doubted that the invitation was a friendly one.

“Do you really think she is still alive?” Miranda asked. She just needed to hear Dreibrand say yes, and he did.

He continued to soothe her with reasonable explanations that he could not know with any certainty. “The taking of hostages to get someone’s attention is a very common tactic. We will find Elendra, and then we will see who wants our attention.”

Recalling the presence behind the glowing eyes of the white wolf, Miranda said, “I don’t think we want to know.”

“But know we must. Let us waste no time,” Dreibrand responded.

Before the sun rose much higher, they quit their camp and rode northwest through the lands left silent and stunned by the voice of the winged monster.

By night or by day
If from rules you stray
The demons of the wood
Will take you for good
To where no men go
A place only for Gods to know.

—Bosta nursery rhyme

The first day of their partnership began in dispute. When Dreibrand asked to borrow Miranda’s knife, she opposed him vehemently.

“I need it to cut down a sapling and sharpen it into a spear. I will give it right back,” he explained with exasperation.

Miranda rested her hand protectively on the knife in her sash. “I will not give you my knife and leave myself with nothing,” she stated.

“But I must have something before I go. My bare hands are not enough,” he argued.

“I will make it then,” Miranda offered.

Dreibrand exhaled with frustration and demanded, “Why can’t you trust me with the knife? Do you think I will hurt you? You should already trust me. You slept last night during my watch. I could have done anything to you.”

“I only had my eyes closed,” Miranda corrected.

Reluctantly, Dreibrand abandoned his anger and grinned. You were sleeping for a little while, he thought, but respected her bluff.

“Fine. Then can I borrow your horse?” he inquired.

Miranda scowled at the absurdity of his request.

Refusing to accept an impasse, Dreibrand reasoned, “We need to trust each other. Miranda, I know a lot of people are mean, but I will not hurt you. You saved me yesterday.”

Gradually the opposition drained from her defiant gaze, and she held out the knife for him. When he took it, Miranda quickly stepped back. Dreibrand grumbled a thank you and immediately went to hack down some saplings. He sharpened two into crude spears and gleaned some confidence from the pointy sticks.

He returned the knife to Miranda, presenting it handle first. She snatched it back without offering any words of apology for her suspicion.

Taking a deep breath, Dreibrand mentally prepared himself to hike into the forest. The fearsome fenthakrabi had to be in the vicinity and he felt stalked already.

“I will be back as quick as I can,” he said.

Hesitantly, Miranda wished him luck and he started down the rocky slope. Before entering the forest, he turned and waved. Miranda had to admit that he possessed bravery to return to the scene of yesterday’s carnage.

The day dragged and Miranda stayed vigilant, watching the trees and dreading the hellish scream of the beast’s attack. Despite her terror of the beast, they had a pressing need for food, and Miranda had to go fishing. While walking to the creek, Miranda decided she must be practical and warn her daughter of the danger. She explained that a large predator was somewhere in the forest, and if it attacked, Elendra must grab her brother and run.

Elendra took the news well because she had already assumed as much. The little girl was scared but she could cope with the fear because her mother was with her. Hiding in the cave the day before had been much harder.

Today, Miranda had better luck and netted six fish. To her hungry eyes, they looked like a tempting feast and she cleaned them quickly and threw the waste into the moving water.

The fish made an especially delicious lunch after days of old bread and dried fruit. Miranda left two fish in the pan, intending them for Dreibrand, but he had not returned yet.

“Is that man gone for good?” Elendra inquired, obviously hopeful that his departure had been permanent.

With a shrug, Miranda said, “He is supposed to come back.”

The afternoon drifted by, and Miranda worried that he had been killed. With this thought came the realization that she had wanted his company. His presence the night before had been reassuring, and she had enjoyed his willingness to help. Now she had to face being alone in the Wilderness again, and this time she knew the fenthakrabi was there.

Fighting off despair, Miranda buried her stress with tasks for the rest of the day. Returning to the creek, she washed her children and herself. The water was cold and invigorating, and it felt good to be clean. The water poured down from the Wilderness, and Miranda stood naked beneath the waterfall that washed away her old life.

Next, Miranda altered her clothes. Her long skirt did not suit her for riding or moving about the forest, and she sewed it into pants. Every few stitches, she would look up, watching for danger, but she managed to finish the last of the stitching before the daylight faded.

Elendra laughed at her when she put them on, but Miranda was rather pleased with the results. She enjoyed the secure feel of the cloth around her legs and the ease of movement.

After building the fire up big and bright, Miranda took little comfort from it. She found herself pacing and trying to sort out her dilemma. She knew she was defenseless against the creature, but back in Droxy there was war, and worse yet, Barlow.

Finally she sat down by herself away from the fire. As her eyes adjusted to the night, she watched silently. When Freedom nickered, her heart stopped with fear until she realized that the animal did sound afraid. Suddenly flushed with excitement, Miranda ran halfway down the slope just as Dreibrand emerged from the dusky forest. He rode a dappled gray horse, who neighed a reply to Freedom. Tremendous relief massaged Miranda, but now that Dreibrand had actually returned, she reserved her joy from him.

“Sorry I took so long, but I had to track my horse,” Dreibrand patted the thick shoulder of his fine steed. “You did not run all the way back to Atrophane,” he murmured affectionately in his native tongue.

Swinging down from his mount, Dreibrand laid a hand lovingly on the hilt at his hip and said, “By Golan, it is good to have my sword back.”

Miranda noticed he now wore a breastplate of armor and a quiver of arrows was slung over his back. The bow was tied across the bulging saddlebags. Miranda flipped open one of the saddlebags to examine the contents.

Dreibrand was unaccustomed to anyone looking at his things without permission, but he had promised to share and he tolerated her boldness.

“I was able to get most of the supplies the scouts had,” Dreibrand explained. “That beast stuck mostly to the deer, and then it must have dragged off the bodies. But all the gear was untouched.”

“Did you see it?” Miranda whispered fearfully.

“No, thank the Gods.”

“There is food waiting for you. I will tend your horse,” she said, and Dreibrand received the news happily.

He yielded the reins and strode toward the fire, finding his cold fish dinner immediately. Now that he had his gear back and more supplies, Dreibrand felt able to cope with the Wilderness, and it excited him again. He missed the army less and liked Miranda more.

He watched her unsaddle Starfield and tether the horse. She lugged the saddlebags over by the fire and pulled items out so she could look at them in the light.

“Look Elendra, Dreibrand has brought us food,” she said. The girl peeked with interest at the new supplies, but she showed Dreibrand no gratitude. Miranda knew she could not make her daughter like him but the girl would have to learn to tolerate him.

After assessing the foodstuffs, Miranda grabbed the sword that poked out of one of the bags. Dreibrand had wrapped the blade in a couple rags because the scabbard was presumably still attached to Gennor’s missing body. Miranda pulled back some of the cloth and admired the gleam of the blade in the firelight. Holding the weapon made her feel powerful.

“That one is yours,” Dreibrand said.

The quality of the weapon impressed Miranda, who had never possessed anything of value. Next she removed a hatchet and a butcher knife, but when she found an ivory handled dagger, her eyes lit up.

“I want this too,” she breathed.

Dreibrand gasped slightly and plucked it from her hand before she could react. Tucking the blade into its place on his swordbelt, Dreibrand said, “I did not mean for that to be in there. It is mine”

When Miranda frowned, he snidely added, “You have your own knife.”

She did not reply and thereby conceded the point. Dreibrand had come back and she did not have to be alone. And he had given her a sword. Grinning, she resumed her admiration of the weapon.

“Have you ever shot a bow?” Dreibrand inquired.

Timidly she shook her head.

“I will teach you, but for now I will carry the bow because I will hunt with it,” he said.

“And you will teach me to use this,” she said greedily and held up the sword.

“Sure, but it sounds like you are in a hurry to hurt someone,” he joked.

“I do not want to be defenseless,” she explained.

Dreibrand agreed and added quietly, “I was worried about you all day.”

His soft tone made her feel suddenly shy, and Miranda busied herself with the children. Elendra resisted her mother’s wish to go to sleep and argued against it even as Miranda tucked the blanket around her.

“I am sick of sleeping on the ground,” Elendra complained.

“You will get used to it,” Miranda predicted.

“I want to go home,” the girl whined and Miranda stroked her round cheek with a sympathetic touch. She did not know how to explain that they could not go home. The shack in Wa Gira was probably destroyed, or at least Miranda hoped so.

Miranda hummed a lullaby until her daughter drifted into the peaceful sleep of children. The tender maternal scene intrigued Dreibrand, who had rarely been around such family niceties.

When the girl and baby were asleep, Miranda moved around the campfire to speak with Dreibrand.

“I think we should move from this place. The beast might be very close, and someday soon it will want fresh meat,” she said.

“I agree. And we are still close to Droxy,” Dreibrand reminded.

“So your Lord Kwan will send more men after you?” Miranda asked.

“Maybe in a few days. But he will give Hydax and Gennor a couple more days to report back,” Dreibrand replied.

Miranda eyed his weapons and foreign clothes. Associating herself with a wanted person felt strange, but she supposed runaway slaves who stole horses kept such company.

“So do you know a way over the cliffs?” Dreibrand asked.

Miranda shook her head and appeared dubious about his destination. “Why do you want to go up there?”

“Because it is the Wilderness. You must be curious?” he said with enthusiasm.

Now that she thought about it, she was surprised to find that she was curious.

The firelight bounced up only a tiny portion of the cliff, and Dreibrand stared at the dark rock above. The stars marked the edge of the rocky barrier.

“It does not make sense that this place is uninhabited,” he remarked. “No ocean or desert separates this land from civilization. It is good green land and people should be there.”

“No one has ever come out of the west,” Miranda said.

“But I think people are there,” Dreibrand insisted. “Now that I am seeing for myself how large our world Ektren is, I cannot accept that people only live in one place. I believe more than ever that a great kingdom must be in the west. The Wilderness might be a buffer zone for protection. A frontier without roads or people can be difficult for an army to cross.”

His theory amused Miranda, who had never heard such an idea before. “Or it may just be an empty haunted land, like everyone says,” she suggested, thinking of the fenthakrabi.

Dreibrand frowned because he thought his explanation the most plausible. With clear skepticism he said, “I have also been told that thousands of years ago, Gods made war in the Wilderness and now they do not let humans live there.”

“I have heard that one too,” Miranda said.

“Well, maybe after all this time, the Gods will let me live there,” he said.

“You really want to be in the Wilderness,” Miranda observed.

“It is my dream,” Dreibrand confessed. “I feel strangled in my homeland, and I want to start a new life for myself. Where better to do so than a new land?”

“Then which way do you want to go?” Miranda asked.

“Well, it is north or south. I feel inclined to look north,” he said.

“Why north?” she wondered.

Dreibrand shrugged. “I just have a feeling, and I have to choose somehow.”

When Miranda considered his decision, she had no preference in direction. The next morning they rode north and Dreibrand’s eagerness to explore was almost contagious to her. His excitement allayed her fear of the fenthakrabi.

It rained that first night away from the cave, and Miranda endured the exposure. She wrapped Esseldan close to her body and managed to keep him dry. Luckily it was only a mild spring shower, but Elendra complained as if it had been a heavy storm.

Except for this, the next three days passed pleasantly, and they saw no sign of the fenthakrabi, although they kept watch every night. One afternoon they rode into an area that had suffered a forest fire in the past year or two. The land was open, providing a wide view, and covered with young vegetation.

Even though a green layer of renewal blessed the land, the blackened bare trunks of trees claimed by the fire haunted the area.

Dropping back beside Miranda, Dreibrand commented, “I still do not understand why none of your people have migrated here. This land is good. Look how quickly the land recovers.”

“People are afraid. They believe they cannot live west of Droxy,” Miranda explained.

“The Wilderness is where demons take bad children,” Elendra piped in.

Miranda chuckled nervously. Old folktales meant to intimidate children no longer seemed like a wise tactic.

After raising an eyebrow at the girl’s disturbing comment, Dreibrand said, “But you are not afraid to explore?”

“Oh, I am very afraid,” Miranda admitted, “But I am more afraid of war.”

“As you should be, Miranda,” he said darkly, remembering all the cities and towns he had razed.

They developed the habit of making a camp by late afternoon, which allowed enough daylight for Miranda’s archery lesson. Dreibrand did not consider himself a master archer, but he was competent with all standard weapons and a capable teacher. Eager to learn, Miranda took her lessons seriously and progressed rapidly. He taught her how to hold the bow and where and when to pull and release the string. Hydax’s old bow was a bit strong for her, but she managed.

With the hatchet Dreibrand hacked a cross into a tree to provide a target. He gently adjusted her stance before she drew back the string, and then he stepped back while she took her aim. His attention on their task faded and his gaze drifted along her shoulder and down her back. He found himself wanting to put a hand on her hip and maybe rub the small of her back with his thumb.

The string rolled off her fingers and the arrow struck the target. Miranda gasped with delight at her first perfect shot, and Dreibrand snapped out of his daydreams.

“Good shot!” he cried.

Miranda grinned with pride as she trotted to retrieve her arrow.

“Be careful taking it out. These arrows need to last as long as possible,” he called.

After archery practice, they sparred with the swords. Dreibrand taught her the basics of swordplay, which she found very awkward at first. Learning to handle the weapon with finesse and balance would take time Miranda realized.

Dreibrand enjoyed the sparring even though it did not challenge his skills. When he finished Miranda’s lesson, he trained on his own. He worked through a regimen of forms, swinging his sword, lunging, and sometimes he would even switch the weapon from hand to hand while the blade spun perilously. His body moved in graceful conjunction with his weapon, and he pushed his body to go longer and faster. Despite the empty country around him, Dreibrand suspected he would need to defend himself sooner or later.

Most days Miranda watched his display of physical skill, and even Elendra was fascinated by his exercises. As the day withdrew behind the omnipresent cliffs, Dreibrand stopped. He was panting a little and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Dreibrand, when you fight in a battle, is that what you do?” Miranda asked curiously. The speed and poise of his movements looked intimidating, but she could not quite imagine such a ballet taking place in a life and death struggle.

“No, not exactly. But as I practice, my body learns the movements, and I will react to attack in the appropriate way without thinking about it,” he explained.

“Have you fought in this way much?” she wondered.

For an instant many episodes of killing and mayhem flashed across his memory, but he spoke quietly despite the intense images. “I have fought in many battles.”

“How do you keep from being afraid?” Miranda said with genuine interest. Dreibrand had faced great armies of men and survived, but she had never been able to resist Barlow.

“As an Atrophane, I should say that I have no fear, but that is not true,” he admitted. “All I can say is accept the fear—it can make you strong when you need it most. Because the fear cannot be avoided, use it to stay alive instead of letting it get you killed. And, well, the more you survive, the more you thrive on the risk.”

While she contemplated his answer, Dreibrand decided, “We should rest here tomorrow. I will go hunting. We need fresh food.”

“That is fine,” Miranda said absently.

That night around the fire Dreibrand bounced Esseldan on his lap and lifted him playfully into the air. Both man and boy seemed intrigued by each other, and Esseldan cooed happily from Dreibrand’s attention.

“At least one of your kids likes me,” he said.

Elendra pointedly ignored the comment.

“He is a good baby,” Miranda said.

“You must be proud to have such healthy children,” Dreibrand remarked.

“I suppose I am,” she muttered.

When Esseldan assumed a crankier mood, Dreibrand placed him in his basket, and the baby actually slipped into sleep. Yawning noisily, Dreibrand stretched his arms. Generally he would sleep soon, and Miranda would take the first watch. He unbuckled his chestplate and groaned when he removed the armor.

“Chest armor can sure save your life, but sometimes it just has to come off,” he complained.

After carefully placing his armor on top of his other gear, he took off his fine officer’s jacket, which left him wearing a white silk shirt ruined by sweatstains. Smacking some of the dust off the jacket, he offered it to Miranda.

“I thought you could use this. Your clothes are all worn out,” he said.

“But don’t you need it?” she protested, suspicious of the gift but clearly wanting it.

“No, I still have a good shirt. Now wear this,” he insisted.

Hesitantly, Miranda reached out and received the garment. The weight of the richly quilted jacket surprised her. Never before possessing anything but homespun, she fingered the fabric and admired the construction. Slipping it on, she began rolling up the sleeves.

“Thank you,” she beamed.

Dreibrand laughed, reminded of a party where a naked dancing girl had frolicked drunkenly in an officer’s jacket. He did not share the memory with Miranda.

“I promised to share,” he said cheerfully. “Of course you deserve clothing for a fine lady, but this will help for now.”

When Miranda looked up from the jacket again, Dreibrand still gazed at her. Their eyes locked for an instant, but she quickly broke the connection. Dreibrand thought she was beautiful. He wanted to tell her, to touch her, but Miranda had not given any indications that she would welcome any advances. Even when she breastfed her son, she was careful that he never glimpsed a bit of breast.

He did not act on his feelings, deciding that it would be a mistake. Miranda had only started being more relaxed around him, and he did not want to disturb that progress with his common lust.

The next day when Dreibrand went hunting, he spent more time scouting than actually hunting. The land was thick with game, and he was confident that he could shoot something on the way back to camp. Despite his family’s declining position, he had grown up as a member of the ruling class and had enjoyed many formal hunting parties.

He hiked north and the land became rougher. From the top of a hill he could see that a range of foothills began, and beyond that rose mountains. This pleased him because at some point the cliff should fade into the hills. At that point he could ascend to the next level of land that looked so violently lifted from the earth.

His efforts were rewarded quicker than he hoped. The mighty rock wall of the cliff became lower and lower as he climbed into the hills, and finally he found the weak point. Crumbling beneath the elements, a broken rocky slope bit deeply into the cliff all the way to the top, and a stream came down in many rivulets. They would have to be careful climbing the eroded slope, but he judged that the horses could manage the path.

Dreibrand lingered, staring at the gap in the cliff, his gateway to the heart of the Wilderness. Excited by the possibilities, Dreibrand wondered what fortunes waited for him above. He longed to climb the cliff immediately but he had traveled farther from camp than usual and he still needed to hunt. The thrill of breaching the barrier would have to wait until tomorrow.

On his way back to camp, he amused himself with thoughts of returning to civilization and knowing the path into the Wilderness. His knowledge would be unique and he could solicit wealthy investors to finance an expedition.

His stomach growled, and Dreibrand had to put aside his schemes. He needed to focus on hunting and he did not want to return empty handed. He spied a small clique of antelope, and they were a type he had never seen before. With a challenging patience he stalked the tawny animals. Several times the antelope noted his presence and he would freeze. Although nervous by nature, the antelope did not directly associate him with danger. Creeping closer, he finally had a shot.

The arrow pierced the intended calf and the animal dropped to the ground, dying quickly. He rushed to claim his prize but the distressed mother threatened him with curled horns. Dreibrand pulled out his sword and swung it at her. Unwilling to abandon her unfortunate offspring, the antelope was only deterred after several pokes.

Glowing in the accomplishment of a successful day, he presented Miranda with the fresh meat. Providing for her gave him an unexpected sense of satisfaction.

While the meat cooked Dreibrand sharpened his sword with a suitable stone he had collected. Now that he had a fresh kill in camp he worried the scent might draw predators, especially the fenthakrabi. He had specifically made a small kill so they could quickly eat it and be done with it. The leftovers would last a couple days, but the odor of the food would not be overwhelming.

Listening to the stone scrape against the steel made Miranda nervous. Dreibrand’s preoccupation with the weapon reminded her of the perils of the Wilderness.

“I found a way up the cliff north of here,” he said, not pausing from his work.

“Then you still want to go west?” she asked.

“Yes, a little way. Unless you object,” he said.

Actually having someone consider her opinion startled her. What she thought or wanted had never counted before, and Miranda realized that she had been following Dreibrand rather meekly. She needed to think about what she was doing and act upon her thoughts. She was free now, and she repeated that fact in her mind like a lesson.

Exploring westward with Dreibrand did not distress her, but she worried about her children. Elendra was sick of living outside, and the children deserved a home. It hurt knowing that she could not give them a home right now. Returning to Droxy was too dangerous for a number of reasons, and being free of Barlow had too much appeal.

Heading into new lands gave her an incredible sense of possibility. She could reinvent herself now, and no one would ever look upon her as a poor man’s abused property.

“I will go west with you,” she agreed. “But you must understand that I must return to civilization before winter.”

“Of course, Miranda. I have no intention of freezing on some high mountain. We can head south soon. I will help you get to wherever you want to go. It is the least I can do for having my life saved,” he said.

“You have helped us so much already, you do not have to worry about that. Just don’t get us lost,” she warned.

That night a bright half moon illuminated a clear sky, and a silvery magic light was cast upon the forest. Halfway through Miranda’s watch wolves began to have their eerie conversation. The pack’s song was a low music that cut through sleep straight into instinct, and everyone woke up quickly. Elendra scrambled into her mother’s arms, and Esseldan fretted from the vibe of fear.

Failing to sound reassuring, Dreibrand said, “I do not think they are too close. We should be safe.” Rising from the blanket he had salvaged from the scouts’ camp, he added fuel to the glowing coals.

Miranda held Elendra tight. “See, Dreibrand thinks we will be fine. The fire will keep them away.”

“Are we always going to live outside?” Elendra whimpered miserably.

“We will have a home someday,” Miranda promised. “But it won’t be for a while. I am sorry.”

Elendra only sobbed, but not too loudly in her fear.

“Miranda go ahead and get some rest. I can watch now,” Dreibrand suggested. Gesturing toward her bedroll, he encouraged, “Do not worry. You are going to hear wolves in the forest.”

Mostly for Elendra’s sake, Miranda agreed. The wolfsong went on for many more hours, and Miranda started to appreciate the beauty in the mystic music. They sang to the soul of the Wilderness and it made her heart ache.

She awoke to the sounds of Dreibrand packing his gear. The sun was high and bright, and she had slept late.

“Nothing bad happened,” he reported cheerfully. “But it is high time we started today.”

Miranda heard the eagerness in his voice and rose stiffly from the ground, wondering when she had fallen asleep. And she had slept soundly, which surprised her.

When they arrived at the washout in the cliff, Miranda looked upon it dubiously. In her eyes the slope appeared loose and treacherous. The rocks were sharp and unstable, and half of them were wet and slippery. They could not risk riding, and the horses would have to be led.

“Race you to the top,” Dreibrand joked.

“I don’t know about this. Are you sure?” Miranda worried.

“Yes.” He tried to be emphatic but he sounded like he was still trying to convince himself. With increased conviction, he continued, “We can make it. It is only going to get rougher unless we get up to the plateau. You can see that it turns into mountains north of here.”

Miranda grinned with shock at his bold words. “You don’t know that,” she argued.

“Come one, Miranda. It is not that bad,” he persisted.

“I said I would go last night,” she reminded him.

Adjusting Esseldan in his sling, she dismounted and helped Elendra down. Dreiband led them but only a short way up both horses halted in mulish protest. It took considerable effort to persuade the horses to continue.

Their progress was slow, and Dreibrand discovered that finding the path up was a much more meticulous task than he had thought. Sometimes they would have to backtrack when the rubble became too sharp or unstable, and try a different route. This procedure proved more difficult than climbing.

Finally as they sweated in the afternoon sunshine, the rim of the great cliff reached down to them, and Dreibrand could see wildflowers in the overhanging turf. They splashed through the gap made by the stream, and a breathtaking view of mountains greeted Dreibrand when he scrambled onto the plateau with the swift water tugging at his heels. The lofty snowy peaks in the west looked much closer now, and he could almost feel the crisp alpine breeze in the distant glacial valleys. He breathed deeply of the pure air as he beheld the great mountain realm beyond the plateau.

Dreibrand wondered if a man had ever stood at this spot before, and if so, why had he not come back?

Hearing Miranda struggle in the current behind him snapped him out of the trance. Leaving his horse to drink, he rushed back to offer her a steady hand.

Between leading the horse and holding Elendra’s hand, Miranda was bogged down with the burden of her infant son strapped to her back.

Dreibrand picked Elendra up out of the water and carried her to dry land. At first he thought the girl would resist his help, but she was too tired after the climb to protest. Miranda thanked him gratefully as she slogged out of the water.

Catching her wind after the labor up the cliff, Miranda said, “It is beautiful. Everything looks different up here. Cleaner somehow.”

“Is it not amazing?” Dreibrand breathed. Already he did not want to go back.

They lounged on the grassy bank for a while, cooling down from the exertion of the climb. Dreibrand leaned over the clear water, splashed some onto his face, and ran his wet hands through his long hair. Relaxing, he watched the stream flow by. His daydreaming faded eventually and he walked across the water to investigate something he saw in the mud.

He would not relinquish his excellent mood until he was certain what he saw. For a moment he just stared at the man-shaped footprint pressed into the mud. He could clearly see the heel mark and the clawed toes, but the size was larger than a man, and Dreibrand knew what had recently strode up the bank.

Read the complete novel – ebook or paperback

Download Union of Renegades free in multiple ebook formats at Brave Luck Books and find out what happens next. And join the readers' list and enter the current giveaway drawing.

Paperbacks are still available. Your best price is at Brave Luck Books or shop at Amazon if you like.

Bookmark or share this fantasy novel

Copyright notice

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.