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Fantasy fiction fans of daring heroes and ruthless villains locked in rivalries to rule the world are invited to read Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I by Tracy Falbe.

About the fantasy novel: An expanding empire reaches the limits of its known world and keeps pushing. The Wilderness beyond is dominated by the rys, a magical race whose lives span centuries and powers include heat spells, sleepiness spells, telekinesis, spirit projection, remote viewing, mindreading, and, for the most powerful, the ability to control the souls of the dead. The rys Queen Onja has ruled her rys for over two thousand years, and she forces the Tribes of the Western Kingdoms to worship her as their Goddess.

But great age has finally started to weaken her, and her long-suffering rival, Shan, will seize a slim opportunity to defy her. Start reading Chapter 1 In the Service of the Empire.

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

My fantasy series took 6 years to write and it was a labor of love. Bringing my fantasy fiction to readers around the world has been very gratifying, and the positive comments from readers are especially appreciated.

Start reading this fantasy novel.

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

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

“Come on,” Miranda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just send the Zenglawa home,” Miranda recommended.

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

“Will it hurt him?” Miranda whispered.

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

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

“That is not determined,” Shan stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, at once,” Dreibrand answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Dreibrand prompted.

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

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

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

“These are ambitious times,” Dreibrand sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nuram glowed under the compliment.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

The Rys Chronicles continue in

Book II

The Goddess Queen

available at www.braveluck.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone laughed as Xander squirmed out from under the pile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kalek laughed, knowing his father was not mad.

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

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

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

“The lady rests,” the girl answered.

“May I see her?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a shame,” Shan offered.

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

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

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

“You are well I hope?” Shan asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda cried out with alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does the King know?” Kalek asked doubtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. It was me,” Shan confirmed.

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

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

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

“Rest now good warriors,” Shan instructed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry about this,” he apologized.

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

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

“The Overlord!” Shan cried. “When?”

“When we fought the Kezanada,” Dreibrand replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you can learn this?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You are happy?” she asked cautiously.

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

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

Dreibrand listened apprehensively, uncertain of what she would say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go,” she insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring a light!” Dreibrand yelled.

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

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

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

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

“Make him comfortable,” Dreibrand instructed Redan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Pelafan said with confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is Tytido?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelafan lifted his groggy head, considering the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I shall be free soon,” Pelafan announced.

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You bring news?” Dreibrand guessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish I had more men, he thought.

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

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

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

“Where is Redan?” Dreibrand suddenly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shan will know,” Dreibrand promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shan nodded once, and the Yentay murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call me Sir,” Dreibrand decided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am coming,” she replied weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

“But it might be worse,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the midday break, Dreibrand approached Taischek.

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

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

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

“A patrol?” Shan said with curiosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taischek scowled automatically and muttered in his native tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then come,” Dreibrand whispered back with enthusiasm.

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

“Not yet—I am sorry,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand said, disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Must you leave so soon?” she asked.

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

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

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

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who could that be?” she wondered.

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

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

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

“Well, put something on,” Dreibrand urged.

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

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

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

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

“Cannot be helped,” Dreibrand said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will find a position in the highlands where we can spy on the traffic going to Jingten. But tonight, I do have a special mission for a few men.”

The announcement caused murmuring throughout the group. Dreibrand looked at the surrounding faces until he had their full attention again.

“I want to send some spies into the Sabuto territory. Word will not have traveled there yet that any Hirqua or Nuram have volunteered to serve Shan. I want news from the Sabuto. Because Shan is such a close friend of Taischek, I expect the Sabuto to stay on Onja’s side. After what Shan did to Dursalene, I imagine they will want revenge.”

A few men chuckled and a nearby warrior said, “The Sabuto have no balls for revenge. They take their beatings, then go looking for weaklings to attack.”

Finding the comment interesting, Dreibrand noted that the reputation of the Sabuto was widely maligned.

“You recall that Onja offers a bounty for Shan’s head. Greed may make them bolder,” Dreibrand reminded. “I want the Sabuto monitored. A few men should visit a couple towns and gather the news. If they are plotting anything big, something should come out in the gossip”

No one disputed Dreibrand’s decision, but no one was anxious to leave the main force and enter Sabuto territory.

“Would anyone like to volunteer?” Dreibrand prompted.

A few quiet conversations started in small cliques. U’Chian, the eldest of the Nuram cousins, spoke up first.

“Sir, we will travel through the Sabuto Domain and attempt to learn if they plot against Lord Shan,” said U’Chian.

“All five of you?” Dreibrand asked.

“We wish to stay together, Sir,” U’Chian responded.

Dreibrand considered a moment. He was not sure if he wanted to send the second lieutenant away so soon, but it was a good mission for a second lieutenant.

“And what Hirqua shall join them, Sir?” Tytido demanded, interrupting his thoughts.

Dreibrand understood that the Hirqua felt the Nuram had made his tribe look less bold. But Dreibrand liked his small Nuram team as it was.

“There will be no Hirqua. It would arouse suspicion to see Hirqua and Nuram traveling together in a foreign land,” Dreibrand explained. “I think it is best to send the Nuram.” With his decision made, he had no intention of letting it be debated. Beckoning to U’Chian, he gave him instructions. “Because you are with your kin, say you are out adventuring with your cousins. Which is maybe not far from the truth,” he added with a sly smile that the Nuram warriors reflected. “Say you are hunting or going south for the winter—whatever reasons young men have for traveling. Try not to be obvious but gossip in the towns as you go. After a week circle back to Dengar Nor, and I will speak with you when I return. If you learn something urgent, tell Lord Shan.”

“Sir, when should we go?” U’Chian asked.

“Leave us before dawn,” Dreibrand instructed.

After wishing the Nuram lieutenant luck and reminding him to be cautious, Dreibrand retired to his bedroll. With the fires burning low, Dreibrand lay in the dark and the old sensation of solitude in command returned to him. He remembered many nights with the Horde camped around him and still feeling alone. Being a commander satisfied him greatly, but when he lay awake in the darkness, he knew it was not everything. Thinking of Miranda, he craved her companionship. She brightened the quiet dark moments between his days as a warrior.

Dreibrand had three more nights alone with his thoughts as his force traveled east. They left the roads before reaching Fata Nor, desiring to avoid traffic. Using rough back trails that were sketched on the map the King had given him, Dreibrand led his men into the foothills. The bite of the wind increased with the elevation and the icy peaks loomed close and beautiful. Looking at the Rysamand, Dreibrand remembered Onja high and lovely on her throne but sinister as gangrene. The shriek of the Tatatook and the grumble of the glacier returned to his mind. He also remembered the depth of the Keep’s dungeon and the swiftness with which he had found himself in it. Patting Starfield’s strong neck, he admitted to himself that returning to Onja’s stronghold would be difficult.

The road to Jingten stretched below him now, winding into the pass. Tytido had brought him to a ridge south of the road that offered a spectacular view. A short hike away the Yentay were making a camp at the base of some cliffs. A thick stand of pines blocked the campsite from the road, and passing traffic would not notice their fires in the night. From this location, Dreibrand intended to monitor the road.

Currently the road was empty. To the east, the Jingten Pass yawned between its attendant mountains. He was getting close to the pass, but remembering Shan’s warning, he decided to stay well below the tree line. To the west he could see the setting sun, burning redly in a fluffy sea of clouds.

Turning to Tytido, he said, “This spot is perfect. It did not take you long to find it.”

Tytido grinned and admitted, “I knew about this spot. I have traveled with the Hirqua tribute caravan four times and I know the pass somewhat.”

“Good,” Dreibrand said, taking in the panoramic view again. “I am certain we will see something interesting from up here.”

They left the ridge for their hidden camp unaware that their arrival had already been noticed.

The fires of the five tribes burned late into the night in the hills around the Common Ground. The Temu had proposed a revolution and the Confederates debated it hotly. Some believed Shan could defeat Onja. He had disgraced the rysmavda by destroying their warding crystals like he was swatting at a bug. Rumors from the Sabuto Domain indicated that Shan had allowed the Temu to destroy a whole town in a morning, and they had looted a temple. And of course there were the recantations and executions of the Temu rysmavda. No matter how much the rysmavda attached to the various tribes condemned the act, it only brought attention to the facts that the Temu had defied Jingten and Onja had not struck with her killing magic.

No one could dispute that Shan was powerful, but some insisted that his power could not possibly match the power of Onja. Yes, Shan could make strong spells, but it did not mean he could defeat the Queen in a face-to-face battle in the Rysamand. Others argued that Onja’s great age had to be weakening her, as Shan said, and the time was right to rally behind a rys champion and free themselves of Onja’s domination.

Then Shan’s sincerity about revoking rys rule of humans came into question. Some believed in his good character, but other people would never trust a rys as a matter of principle.

Some counselors and warriors were practical and based their decisions on simple loyalty to the concept of the Confederation. King Taischek had asked for their assistance, and as allies, they should comply, at least in some way.

Final decisions varied from tribe to tribe.

At the Temu camp things were quiet because they had chosen their course weeks ago. Shan meditated, listening to the discussions of the other tribes, particularly the Zenglawa. When he was done spying, he let his mind drift, exploring new ways to express his magical abilities. Late in the night, Shan emerged from his trance and relaxed into his bedroll. The stars reflected in his black eyes, but he missed the view of the night from the clear high slopes of the Rysamand.

Shan heard Dreibrand wake up and shake off his grogginess, preparing for his watch. Miranda had fallen asleep hours ago and Dreibrand did not disturb her. Shan was thankful to have friends nearby. He almost pitied Onja, knowing that she existed bereft of any sincere companionship.

Maybe that is why she keeps those innocent little children, he speculated.

Sitting up on his elbows, Shan whispered for Dreibrand, who made only a faint rustle in the darkness when he moved closer. 

“Tomorrow may not go well,” Shan said.

“I know,” Dreibrand agreed. “I had doubts about even coming here. Do you think any of these people will join us?”

“The Tacus will. Ejan wants to join and he is convincing his tribe right now,” Shan reported.

Shan’s knowledge impressed Dreibrand, who thought it was incredible how the rys could monitor people far away. It was a tremendous advantage but Dreibrand worried that they might need it.

“Any other tribes?” Dreibrand inquired.

“The Nuram and Hirqua were still arguing when I stopped listening, but I do not expect them to cause us any harm. Now it is the Zenglawa who trouble me. They have many warriors in the area, and I know they will disregard the sanctity of the Common Ground. Tomorrow they will try to kill me,” Shan answered.

“What? We must tell Taischek. When are they coming?” Dreibrand cried urgently, but Shan quieted him.

“No need to wake anyone. I will talk to Taischek about it in the morning. The Zenglawa will not attack our position tonight. They plan to place assassins in the audience tomorrow. When I speak on the stage, they will try to shoot me with arrows,” Shan said, shaking his head at their folly. “They talked so openly as if I could not listen to them.”

“Maybe they did that on purpose to misguide you, and they plot something else,” Dreibrand suggested.

“Oh, I am sure they will plot many things, but I know the assassins will be there tomorrow. I read it in Atathol’s mind—may I never have to go there again,” Shan said.

Dreibrand paused. It was sometimes startling to consider the extent of Shan’s powers. “What will you do then?” he whispered.

“I will protect myself with my magic. I can prevent their weapons from hitting me. I shall try to neutralize the assassins without killing them. I do not want anyone to say a guest of the Temu violated the Common Ground. I will only defend myself,” Shan explained.

“Will that be enough? What should I do?” Dreibrand asked.

“Watch for trouble. I will have most of my focus on those assassins, and I might miss another threat. But hopefully after I thwart the Zenglawa that will be the end of it for a while. Do not be so distressed, Dreibrand. This will give me a chance to demonstrate my power to all of the Confederate tribes,” Shan said.

Dreibrand disliked the plan. “Shan, do not go tomorrow. I want you to avoid this danger,” he recommended.

“You flatter me with your worry,” Shan murmured.

“I need you to get to Jingten,” Dreibrand said.

“Yet I will go to the council tomorrow,” Shan insisted. “If I cannot be brave with humans, how can I be brave with Onja?”

Dreibrand stopped arguing and accepted that they would not gain allies by showing fear.

Shan continued, “I regret that I pull these tribes apart. The Confederacy has brought peace to the north.”

“It is best to draw the lines early in a battle. If they will not be allies now, they were worthless allies anyway,” Dreibrand stated.

“Tomorrow the Confederation may dissolve, and it will be the end of a good thing,” Shan lamented.

“As you like to say a new age is coming,” Dreibrand said. “Old alliances crumble and new ones will form. I suppose some bad days lie ahead, but once the war has started, you will get used to it.”

Shan chuckled darkly. “You always make things sound so simple. Even so, I regret the deaths I cause, so that I can set things right in Jingten.”

With a sigh, Dreibrand admitted, “Perhaps I just make things sound easy to soothe my own conscience. Maybe I am wrong to say you will get used to the dying, but the world is a beautiful place where people do ugly things. I entered the military life over two years ago and I have seen a lot of carnage, even directed a lot of it myself. After a while one does become numb to the killing. The true test to my soul was to let myself feel the pain around me. When you let yourself be numb, you will kill for no reason…”

Dreibrand trailed off, remembering Miranda close to death on the glacier. He tried to remember the last time he had played with Esseldan. He even missed Elendra although the little girl probably did not miss him. Looking up at the stars, he did not ask for redemption but the strength to win more battles. With the blood of so many on his hands, he could tolerate another war.

He continued, “But this war we make on Jingten must be done. It must be done for the humans, for the rys, and for Miranda.”

“You are right, Dreibrand. This war will be terrible like all wars, but I hope more good comes of it than evil. I have chosen my actions, and I must not moan about the consequences,” Shan decided. He then apologized to Dreibrand for making him late for his turn at watch.

Reluctantly Dreibrand went to his duty and watched carefully until dawn, expecting the Zenglawa to attack.

In the morning Taischek was not pleased with Shan’s news about assassins, and he complained at length about Atathol’s worthless character. No tribe had ever been so deviant as to plot a public assassination on the Common Ground. Like Dreibrand, the Temu King did not want Shan to attend the council, but Shan convinced him that he could handle the assassins. The rys emphasized that he did not want the Temu to raise arms while on the Common Ground, unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Let the other tribes see the evil Onja inspires in those loyal to her,” Shan concluded.

In the amphitheater, faces were grim and warriors fingered their weapons nervously, fearing the Confederacy might collapse at any moment.

As speaker, Atathol swaggered onto the stage and opened the council for the second day.

The Zenglawa King announced, “Before the tribes proclaim their decisions, I would remind my Confederates why our ancestors long ago acquiesced to the rule of Onja. She has been the Queen of Jingten for as long as we have history, and she deals with her enemies harshly. In life she demands loyalty and taxes, but our spirits are free. Her enemies she makes into Deamedron, shackling the soul with magic. And the Deamedron are not just humans, but rys too.” Looking directly at Shan, he added, “Even the rys long ago accepted the rule of Onja.”

Shan countered, “Long ago, long ago! You speak of centuries past. Then, Onja truly was supreme, but twenty-two centuries have passed since she made the Deamedron. Her time now fades, and it is my time of ascension. The strongest rys always rises to the throne. It is the natural course of our society. Onja is not immortal, and she is afraid. Why do you think she tries to pay humans to murder me? It is because she cannot do it herself.”

Atathol barked, “You have made your case, Shan the pretender. Now let me warn my human brothers against your dangerous ideas.”

“I can assume I will not have the friendship of the Zenglawa to rely upon,” Shan said with cold certainty.

“The Zenglawa will not participate in any revolt against Jingten,” Atathol proclaimed.

“Will you raise arms against the Temu if Onja commands it?” Taischek demanded bitterly.

Atathol cast his eyes down, answering no.

Taischek frowned. He had seen Atathol lie better, but at least Atathol had given him the courtesy of lying poorly. Shan and Taischek exchanged knowing glances.

King Ejan rose from the Tacus section and said, “The Zenglawa have made their decision and shared their opinion. The Tacus now wish to state their decision.”

Atathol begrudgingly yielded the stage, deeply suspecting the Tacus King had a greatly different opinion.

Solemnly Ejan announced to his Confederates, “The Tacus Tribe has decided to lend its full support to Lord Shan and the Temu. Shan’s vision of a world free of Onja’s tyranny appeals to us. I know Shan to be an honorable rys who will end taxation from Jingten, like he said. I would see my tribe inherit a free world, and I will join the Temu on their march to Jingten.”

Ejan crossed the stage and bowed to Shan.

“Lord Shan, I will commit half of my warriors, including myself to your campaign in the spring. And the Tacus will pay no tribute this year,” Ejan declared.

Shan stood up and returned the bow, gratefully accepting the pledge of the Tacus King.

The Hirqua and the Nuram announced their decisions next. Unfortunately they did not commit warriors like the Tacus, but the tribes did lend what support their courage would allow. The Hirqua agreed not to pay tribute, but they wanted to reserve their army for the defense of their homeland with rebellion sweeping the land. The Nuram would not directly enrage Jingten by withholding tribute, but King Volvat sincerely pledged not to raise arms against the Temu or any of its allies.

Militarily Shan had only gained half an army, and that not until spring, but much had been achieved. Two more tribes were withholding tribute, and this defiance would shock Onja. The snows would block the pass by the time she wholly accepted that three tribes were actually not sending tribute. Then it would be too late for her to send the rys soldiers that the humans feared.

Shan kept his mind tuned into the surrounding people, especially the Zenglawa. He could feel each body and every soul, and he vividly recalled his attack on the Kezanada. He disliked the memory but it gave him strength. Shan felt the edginess among the Zenglawa and he located three assassins in the top row of their section. He felt their lurking excitement. They believed that they could kill him and win Onja’s favor for their tribe.

It was important to Shan that Atathol betray himself in front of his Confederates. If the Zenglawa were to be his enemy, Shan wanted them isolated. He did not want Atathol to reconsider his plan, and Shan decided to present the assassins a better target and coax Atathol into attacking.

Better now than on the road back to Dengar Nor, Shan thought.

When Shan left the partial security of the Temu section, Dreibrand restrained himself from following.

Noticing the discomfort of his foreign warrior, which he shared, Taischek whispered, “They must see Shan’s strength.”

Taking the stage, Shan issued a rather bland and uninspiring thank you speech. His mind could not be spared to focus on elegant words. As Shan expressed his appreciation for the audience that they had allowed him, he casually faced Atathol several times. Atathol stared back at Shan with great intensity, and the rys could sense the Zenglawa’s courage coiling for the strike. Speaking while focusing on the assassins became more difficult and Shan realized what a gamble he had taken. If his concentration was flawed, he could get hurt.

Appearing to remove his attention from Atathol, Shan heightened his awareness around the King and the assassins while ending his speech. The rys no longer saw his audience with the sight of his eyes. With his mind, he saw only his enemies, and his magical perception provided him with the vivid details he needed.

He saw the subtle hand signal from Atathol. From the top row of the Zenglawa section, three bows swiftly rose with archers behind them. Arrows jumped onto the strings as the assassins took aim. Shan visualized his spell instantly. Not long ago wielding magic of this precision and power would have taken him a long period of mental preparation, but his skills were expanding rapidly.

Miranda and most of the other people saw the assassins raise their weapons as Shan turned his back on them. Except for a few gasps, there was no time for anyone to react.

“Shan!” Miranda cried in a strangled voice as her hands flapped excitedly for her bow, although she could not possibly make a shot in time.

With a vibrating snarl two arrows flew from their bows. Shan’s mind had locked onto all three minds of the archers and he knew the instant the men decided to release their shots. Shan’s eyes burned bright blue as his spell sheltered him. Instead of the arrows slamming into his exposed body, the missiles burst into hot flames and only sprinkled his rippling cloak with sparkling ashes.

The third assassin had yet to fire his shot, and he hesitated as he watched the other arrows wither in the impregnable magic around the rys. This assassin had been prepared to shoot, ordered to do so by his King and Prime Rysmavda, but in the final moment, he had been reluctant to murder. His fingers still tentatively held the string.

The other two assassins reached for their second arrows, but Shan ended the assault. His mind enveloped the bows in the hands of the three archers, and the weapons were incinerated in a superheated flash. The failed assassins cried out in pain and flung the glowing embers from their burned hands. Sparks rained onto the Zenglawa section, and warriors scrambled away from the assassins, fearing more retaliation from Shan.

The fiery spectacle of Shan’s defense convinced all who saw that Shan had reason to boast of his power, and the Tacus were further encouraged by the display. However, the Zenglawa paled with fear, and not a single warrior dared to draw a weapon. With a perturbed menace, Shan whirled on Atathol. Eyes still glowing with power, Shan approached the King, who cringed in a very unroyal posture.

“I am as powerful as Onja,” Shan snarled. “So if you lack the courage to strike at her, do not expect to succeed against me.”

“They—they did not have my consent. I would not—I would never condone such an action on the Common Ground,” Atathol stammered.

“Silence!” Shan roared. “Atathol of the Zenglawa has disappointed his Confederate brothers. Leave now before you cause more trouble.”

Thrilled to see that Shan had weathered the attack, Taischek sprang to his feet, followed by Dreibrand. Miranda left her seat as well, but a firm yet gentle hand took her arm. General Xander had halted her departure. The Temu opened his toothy mouth but issued no words. He really wanted to say just about anything to her, but a crushing shyness assailed the valiant Temu General.

“Let go of me,” Miranda insisted.

Xander finally managed some words, knowing he could not grab her and not say anything. “Stay. You should not go near the Zenglawa. It is not safe. Remember how you angered Atathol? He may be unpredictable, especially in this moment of shame.”

“Shan will not let the likes of him hurt me,” Miranda argued.

“Is there not enough trouble, Lady?” Xander whispered.

Miranda had not intended to give in, but the pleading look in Xander’s eyes made her relent. The council did teeter on the verge of a violent eruption, and she decided to go along with the General’s sincere wish to protect her.

Taischek and Dreibrand were at Shan’s side now, and Taischek yelled, “How dare you attack my guest and friend? Atathol, if I didn’t have greater things to accomplish, I would call this an act of war. But I won’t sunder the Confederacy because of a foolish Zenglawa. Atathol, you are never to enter the Temu Domain and may we never speak again.”

Atathol barely heeded Taischek’s tirade because he was so shocked that his plan had failed. The arrows had been in the air, and Atathol still had not fully accepted that Shan had not been hit. He had meant to swiftly kill the rys and end the mad rebellion that Taischek had infected the Confederation with. Once Shan was dead, the Zenglawa could have claimed the bounty and life would have continued without worry of Onja’s retribution. Now Atathol had enraged the renegade rys and disgraced his tribe in front of his allies.

Regaining some composure, Atathol stood despite Shan’s simmering proximity. Taischek glared at him with passionate offense, and the foreign mercenary seemed ready to kill him right now. The other tribes were yelling with outrage, and some Tacus warriors had tried to reach the assassins, but a line of Zenglawa warriors had formed to stop them.

Braving their hatred, Atathol announced his retreat. “The Zenglawa shall depart. But remember us when Onja enslaves your spirits.”

“Let them leave in peace,” Shan shouted, before anyone got hurt.

The Tacus warriors who had sought to seize the assassins relented, remembering that this was the Common Ground.

As the Zenglawa left their seats, Shan scanned their faces. They quaked in the sight of his ire, but Shan resisted the pleasure their fear offered him. He wondered why Onja’s bounty had tempted them so much more than his offer of freedom, but he did not hate them. Shan forced himself to forgive their greedy foolishness.

They are insignificant compared to my true enemy, he thought.

The Zenglawa section had almost cleared out when Shan noticed one of the assassins still standing on the top row. It was the archer who had not fired, and he was staring back at Shan. The archer’s scorched hands hung at his sides, and he was oblivious to the glares from the nearby Tacus. One of his comrades grabbed his arm and pulled him along with the last of the Zenglawa. For a moment Shan’s attention lingered on the archer, and he wondered why the Zenglawa had not fired his arrow. He had been about to do it. Shan had read it in his mind. Perhaps he had convinced one member of the Zenglawa not to serve Onja, but it was a small consolation.

As the last of the Zenglawa passed between the ancient statues on their way out, Taischek muttered a few Temu expletives.

Shan spent the rest of the day talking privately with the other kings. Ejan arranged to muster with the Temu in the spring and share information until then. The Kings of the Nuram and Hirqua further agreed to pass along any useful information to Dengar Nor, particularly if they noticed more Kezanada movements.

That evening, Shan returned to the Temu camp feeling encouraged and especially glad that no fatal violence had occurred at the council. Around Taischek’s fire the mood was relaxed now that the worrisome council had ended. Scouts had reported that the Zenglawa had broken camp and were leaving in the gathering dusk. Because it was not Taischek’s way to stay too serious for too long, he settled in after his meal for some drinking. A servant fetched a bulging wineskin from his cargo—an act Xander readily applauded.

“I brought this in case things went well,” Taischek explained, although everyone knew Taischek brought the wine in case of anything.

Dreibrand passed Miranda a cup of wine before accepting his own. Her closeness pleased him, and he wished they could slip away into the darkness, but the sentries kept a tight perimeter, and they would probably attract undesired attention.

The King raised his cup and all the others followed.

Taischek toasted, “We have lost the Zenglawa as our Confederate brother, but the Confederacy continues. This is a minor loss compared to the gains we will make. To the future King of Jingten!”

Shan allowed their cheers to please him.

“She can’t enter the Confederate Council,” Taischek insisted again.

Shan sighed. “Taischek please. You know I will keep asking until you say yes.”

King Taischek almost crossed his eyes with frustration. “I thought you had no more favors to ask of me,” he growled.

“What more have I asked?” Shan said innocently.

“You just said you intended to bring her into the council. That is a very large favor, Shan,” Taischek said.

Sitting in the circle at the King’s campfire, Miranda for once strategically held her tongue. She knew Shan would speak best for her, but she grew tired of this wrangling with Taischek.

Incredulously Shan countered, “Why did you think Miranda came with me?”

“Because she does not like to wait for news. I don’t care. Shan, you know women are not allowed at the Confederate Council. I did not make this rule. It is only how it is,” Taischek persisted.

Dreibrand also sat in the circle and he reached for Miranda’s hand, but she jerked it away. On the three day trip, she had barely spoken three words to him and he was at a loss as to how to end her anger with him. Dreibrand had the small consolation that at least she seemed to have heeded his advice that had caused their argument in the first place. She had not offended the King, and she was letting Shan argue on her behalf.

Shan continued, “Taischek, you promised that I could address the Confederation and Miranda is part of my presentation.”

Groaning, Taischek responded, “Shan, it is not just my decision. The Confederation is based on respect among the tribes and observation of common rules. No tribe would bring a woman into the council. It is bad enough she participates in my council, but if I bring her into the Confederate Council, the Temu will instantly offend the other four tribes. Then we will accomplish nothing.”

Shan paused to think. Taischek did have his point. Shan did not want to offend his potential allies, especially when his bounty probably tempted them to be his enemy. Turning to face Miranda, Shan felt torn. The captivity of her children would generate an emotional response from the humans and it was a crucial part of his argument to oppose Onja. Having the empty handed mother at his side would create the impact he needed to draw sympathy to his cause.

Finishing off a cup of wine, Taischek poured another, feeling confident that he had actually won an argument with the rys.

Miranda looked at the King and then at Shan, realizing that Shan considered giving into Taischek and leaving her outside the Confederate gathering. Although longing to argue for herself, Miranda remained quiet and accepted some of the dynamics of her situation. Taischek was not who she needed to convince. He already tolerated her presence, and Miranda knew he truly sympathized with her situation. After all, he had committed the Temu to the war against Onja. The recruitment of allies from the Confederation was of the utmost importance, and Miranda admitted to herself that she should not diminish Shan’s chances of success.

“I will wait at camp with the horses,” Miranda decided.

Taischek looked at her sharply, distrusting her surrender.

Shan said, “I will convince the other tribes to let you speak to them. I will send for you then.”

“I know you will do what you can. While I sit here, everyone else will decide what to do. It is only my children in Jingten,” she grumbled sarcastically.

Dreibrand caught her veiled hostility. He hated this counterproductive issue and empathized with Miranda’s frustration. Dreibrand knew what it felt like to be excluded arbitrarily.

Groping for a solution, he suggested, “None of the tribal delegates have to be offended right away. Miranda need not attract any attention until Shan wants her to speak. Miranda could wear a hooded cloak to hide her features. She is as tall as some men. No one will notice.”

The King had hoped the subject to be concluded and he had not expected Dreibrand to propose alternatives.

“Why sneak her in only to hide her?” Taischek said.

“Because Shan wants her there, and because Miranda wants to be there,” Dreibrand replied.

Miranda’s expression softened and she appreciated his support. He had openly sided with her—something he had been avoiding.

“That would work,” Shan agreed brightly.

“Hold on you pushy rys,” Taischek complained. “I didn’t say yes. What if she is noticed before you start to make your case? It will spoil everything.”

Dreibrand proposed, “The Temu need not take the responsibility. I will assume all blame if any offense is taken. I am clearly not a Temu, and you can say you did not know I brought Miranda to the council.”

It was a generous offer but Taischek had no use for it. “Dreibrand, I do not let others take blame for my decisions. You are a member of my household and offended tribal rulers will not look to you first. So I get the blame anyway.”

“You are right, King Taischek. I was only trying to find a solution that would suit all of us,” Dreibrand said.

Taischek found himself reconsidering. “Shan, can she really help you that much?”

The rys nodded. There were many reasons to rebel against Onja, but Miranda seemed to make those reasons clear to people.

“Miranda puts a human face on our cause. It is natural to help a woman whose children have been stolen,” Shan explained.

Taischek tapped his wine cup thoughtfully with a jeweled finger. He locked eyes with General Xander who was sitting on his right.

 “She will get everyone’s attention,” Xander said.

Slowly the King decided, “We are breaking so many rules already, I suppose one more won’t matter, but we will do as Dreibrand suggests and conceal the fact that she is a woman. I suspect tomorrow many things will change, including the Confederation.”

Shan agreed, “Tomorrow will be a momentous day for humans and rys. What I have to say will cause plenty of disturbance. Offense caused by Miranda may highlight our enemies more than it insults our friends.”

“Then I should get my rest. This war might start tomorrow,” Taischek concluded.

With the meeting over, Shan and Miranda left to practice her wording and pronunciation for what she needed to say. Dreibrand went to his bedroll to attempt some sleep before his watch, and he thought that Miranda had stopped looking so angry with him.

When he stirred for the late watch, he sought out Miranda.

Sitting awake in the dark, she heard him coming. “Dreibrand?” Miranda whispered.

He answered her and crouched beside her. Nearby, Shan slept deeply, renewing his strength, and Miranda seemed to be watching over him.

For a moment they sat in an awkward silence, until Miranda said, “So what did you want?”

“I was, I mean, I wanted to…” he trailed off. He felt himself on the verge of some kind of apology but he restrained it. He had already had to apologize to the King for her and he had not liked it.

“Why are you still up? You should get some rest,” he said.

“I cannot sleep. I am too excited for tomorrow. And Shan rests tonight. Many tribes are camped in the area, and I was worried,” Miranda said.

“I think we will be safe for tonight,” Dreibrand commented. He wanted to reach out to her, to kiss her. “Well, I have to get to my watch.”

Miranda caught his hand when he stood and she rose to face him. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“For what?”

“For sticking up for me with the King,” she replied. “It meant a lot to me.”

Feeling his anger dissolve, Dreibrand reminded her softly, “You made me promise to take you to the Confederate Council.”

“I should not have become so angry with you,” she confessed.

Dreibrand could tell that it had been hard for her to say that. Now he did put his arms around her. “I lost my temper too. I regret the quarrel,” he said.

“You were right. I should have used more care when speaking to the King. You tried to give me good advice, but I ignored you,” Miranda recalled.

“Let us put our angry words behind us. I see now that you are careful not to upset Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda sank into his embrace, whispering, “After so much freedom, it was hard being told what to do. I was so free in the Wilderness, and now I feel restricted and I got angry.”

“Everyone has pressures on them. Rules to follow. It is hard to take sometimes,” Dreibrand agreed. He cupped Miranda’s cheek in a hand. “Miranda, I will not choose the King before you, but I am trying to please him with my service. Taischek has much to offer us. I need to look to the future. When Shan is King, he will reward me and I will be wealthy. Then I will ask Taischek to sell me some Temu land, or if I am lucky, he will grant me some for my services. You and the children will need a home.”

“You are good to think of us,” Miranda murmured.

Dreibrand kissed her, relieved to have the return of her affection.

“I have to go. Remember, we are on the same side,” he whispered.

Miranda smiled and let him go. He disappeared into the dark to take his place on the camp perimeter, and Miranda marveled at her luck in finding such a trustworthy companion.

By morning she had fallen asleep and Shan roused her. Miranda felt queasy and she did not eat her ration, taking only a little tea instead.

As Shan tied her hair back and arranged the hood over her face, he asked what was the matter with her.

“I think I am too nervous to eat,” Miranda answered.

“You will do fine. Probably better than me. And there will not be nearly so many people as in Dengar Nor,” Shan encouraged.

“How many people will there be?” she said.

“Each King will have about fifty men with him, plus there will be some rysmavda, so two hundred fifty to three hundred,” Shan answered.

“And everyone just meets in the forest?” Miranda wondered.

“No, the Common Ground is a special meeting place. It is a very ancient place. Humans have lived here a long time. You will see,” Shan said.

Shan pulled the cloak around her torso and stepped back to consider her appearance.

“Do I look like a Temu warrior?” Miranda asked skeptically after she slung her bow over her shoulder. Dreibrand had acquired a few arrows to fill her quiver, but her arm was still weak and her shot was not good.

“No, but you do not look like anything and that will be enough. You will sit behind General Xander away from Dreibrand and me. Most people will be looking at me or Dreibrand because he looks different. No one should notice you until I call for you,” Shan explained.

“I am ready,” she said.

When the Temu delegation reached the Common Ground, Miranda understood what Shan meant when he called something ancient. The woodland gave way to the ruins of an amphitheater surrounded by statues. She could sense the antiquity in the sunny clearing as if the land itself remembered the many people who had come here through the ages. All five tribes of the Confederation considered this place neutral territory, and they had been meeting here for over two hundred years. One paved path led to the amphitheater, and it showed signs of recent repairs. Fresh paving stones had been placed where ancient ones had withered into the grass, and vines had been cut away from the statues.

The two statues flanking the path were larger that the others. No one knew the names of the stone humans or what tribe they may have belonged to. The arms of the statues had broken away long ago and the faces were worn dim by the ceaseless elements. Even so, a hint of ancient majesty lingered upon the faint features. Miranda felt uneasy as she passed between the statues as if they knew the secret under her cloak.

The amphitheater had been renewed by the Confederation, and new stones had been cut to replace the broken seats. Each tribe took a section of seating and the Kings were in the front row at stage level. There was King Ejan of the Tacus, King Atathol of the Zenglawa, King Sotasham of the Hirqua, and King Volvat of the Nuram. The blue robes of rysmavda were plain to see next to the kings of these tribes, and warriors in their various tribal regalia filled the rows behind their leaders.

All eyes were on Shan and a tangible tension flirted among the Confederates.

King Atathol of the Zenglawa, who was the elected speaker every year, strode to the center of the stage to call the council to order. His straight black hair fell freely from underneath his fox trimmed crown. Precious stones dangled from his pierced ears and a rich red velvet robe draped his royal body. From the voluminous robe he removed a parchment scroll and all in attendance guessed what document it had to be. Jingten had delivered a copy to every tribe.

In the traditional manner Atathol greeted the gathered tribes and blessed the Confederation for the peace and prosperity it brought, but he obviously rushed the opening formalities. Only the words on the parchment occupied the minds of the council.

Skipping the mundane issues usually discussed at the annual meeting, Atathol pointed at Taischek with the scroll and asked, “Have you brought this renegade rys to share with your allies, Taischek, King of the Temu?”

No one expected Taischek to say yes, but everyone listened expectantly.

His round face stern with dignity, Taischek stood up and joined Atathol on the stage. He knew Atathol liked being the center of attention and he enjoyed taking some of it from him. Placing his hands on his hips, Taischek measured the gathering with his eyes.

“It is well known that Shan is a trusted friend of mine,” Taischek said with great antagonism. 

Atathol responded, “Your friend has been condemned by Queen Onja. The Confederacy must not defy Jingten.”

Taischek hurled his gaze at Atathol, demanding, “Would I ask any of you to give up a friend because he is wanted? The Confederacy is about respecting each tribe’s sovereignty, not taking from each other.”

The Prime Rysmavda of the Zenglawa hurried to Atathol’s side and challenged Taischek’s statement. “No one here needs to be reminded what the Confederacy is for. But you forget that the Confederacy is just a part of Onja’s domain. No authority is above our Goddess. Keeping Shan in your domain could bring Onja’s wrath onto the entire Confederation. I propose a vote to decide if Taischek should give up Shan for the good of the Confederation.”

Atathol immediately concurred and motioned for the vote to be done without delay. A few shouts of approval came from the crowd, mostly from the Zenglawa section, but Taischek protested.

“To what purpose?” he barked. “Would you set all the tribes to quarrelling over my friend’s head? Onja would never award the bounty to the entire Confederation. Or would you claim the prize, Atathol?”

“How dare you, Taischek!” thundered the Zenglawa King.

Taischek sneered, “Don’t act so insulted. I know of the extra Zenglawa warriors in the area.”

Many faces scowled throughout the gathering. All the tribes were guilty of bringing more warriors than usual, but the Zenglawa had been the least discreet.

“Of course, we all know who would really get the bounty—the rysmavda,” Taischek added.

“I will not listen to your accusations, murderer,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda shouted. “It is the faith of the rysmavda that nurtures the goodwill of the Goddess.”

“It is the faith of the rysmavda that sends our goods into the mountains,” Taischek retorted.

While the Prime Rysmavda sputtered on his rage, Taischek continued, “And I think Atathol brought extra warriors to attack me if I continued to protect Shan.”

“Would you accuse me of wanting to start a war on the Common Ground?” Atathol cried with indignation.

“I accuse you of hoping to capture Shan,” Taischek said.

“And why wouldn’t I?” Atathol demanded defensively, looking to the audience for support. “Every tribe desires the bounty. Does Onja’s offer not tempt you, Taischek?”

“No!” Taischek roared. “Onja makes no real offer anyway. She offers a tax break. The Queen tempts you with that which is rightly yours. The Temu have no need to betray Shan. We have joined Shan in opposition to Onja, and we shall pay no tribute this year or ever again! I, King Taischek of the Temu, announce to you my Confederate brothers that the Temu are free.”

The Temu contingent applauded their King, but shocked murmurs rolled through the audience and many a brave warrior let his mouth slip open, aghast.

Before the wave of surprise crested, Taischek continued, “The Temu invite their allies to join this noble cause. In the spring we march to Jingten to cast down the Queen.”

The rysmavda seated by each king instantly advised each leader to spurn Taischek’s proposal, and the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda addressed all the delegates at once.

“Do not listen to the blasphemer. The renegade Shan has put a spell of madness on him. The only reason the Temu still live is because Onja must think of a special punishment for their heinous actions.”

Taischek laughed at the Prime Rysmavda. He was so happy he did not have to tolerate the priests anymore.

“Lord Shan does not put a spell on me. He speaks the truth, and the truth is Onja does not have the power that she had in centuries past,” Taischek said.

“Fool!” Atathol gasped. “Onja is the Goddess. She will kill us all for listening to your madness. Her wrath will soon be upon us.”

“And what is Onja’s wrath?” Shan queried as he strode out beside Taischek.

A hush fell on the amphitheater, and Shan hoped they all felt foolish arguing about his fate in front of him.

As if Taischek could actually give me to them, Shan thought.

With Shan’s approach Atathol actually stepped back and the Prime Rysmavda quailed behind him. Now that Shan was closer, the Zenglawa could no longer pretend he was some insignificant rys. They could not ignore the aura of his power, especially when they had been speaking against him.

Shan said, “I am listening, King Atathol. What is this wrath you seem to know so much about?”

Atathol glanced to the Prime Rysmavda for support. “Queen Onja will make us into Deamedron,” the King answered.

“She would have to leave Jingten and come here to do that. Not even I could cast a spell that powerful over such a long distance,” Shan explained.

The Prime Rysmavda found his tongue. “Queen Onja, our Goddess, can strike us down with fire and burn us alive. You can’t deny that, you rys heretic.”

“In her younger days she could,” Shan agreed with a viperish congeniality. “But she does not have the strength anymore. Onja has grown too old to terrorize the lowlands as she once could.”

“Onja is eternal!” shouted the Prime Rysmavda.

Shan scoffed, “Rys are not immortal.”

King Ejan of the Tacus stood up to speak. He was a tall man and his skin was darker than most of the Tacus, which was a trait of his royal family. A circlet of silver rested on his velvety short black hair.

“Lord Shan, has Onja truly grown weak with age?” he said.

“Yes, King Ejan. She is twice the normal age for a rys, and she is much weaker now,” Shan replied and he was glad to read the interest on the face of the Tacus King.

“You said her power could not terrorize the lowlands. Does that mean her power is still great in the Rysamand?” Ejan asked.

This was a detail Shan did not want to advertise, but he had to be honest with his potential ally. Ejan was an intelligent man with a large army. “You are correct, King Ejan. In the Rysamand, her power remains profound. The weakness I refer to is in her range. I assure you, she cannot hurt us here.”

Ejan considered Shan’s words and they did make sense to him. He reasoned that with age a man’s sight could become shorter, so with age, a rys’s magic might not reach as far.

“But when you and Taischek go to Jingten, Onja will be able to attack you with her magic,” Ejan surmised.

“My power will protect all who march with me. And when I battle with her, she will have to focus all of her power on me, and yes, King Ejan, her magic will be great, but I am greater. When she is defeated, I will become King of Jingten and master of the Rysamand. But I will not demand tribute. The human tribes will be free of rys rule.”

With excitement Taischek added, “Can you not see that the Age of Onja is at a close? The crazy Queen is old and her powers are fading. Shan is in his prime, and he is a fair and generous being. I know I am not the only one here who has seen his good character. We would all be better off with a friend in Jingten instead of a tyrant.”

Shan appreciated Taischek’s enthusiasm, and he could see that Ejan wanted to believe.

King Volvat of the Nuram now stood up to speak. “Lord Shan, you answer the King of the Tacus with good words, but will you have good words for my question? If you are powerful enough to defeat Queen Onja, why do you hide with the Temu and ask for our help?”

It was an uncomfortable question for Shan, especially the way Volvat put it.

Inclining his head in polite acknowledgement of the just question, Shan answered, “I ask for your help because your very obedience to Onja helps to keep her strong. She thrives on control of the human tribes and it pleases her when you send your tribute. If you turn away from her and reject her rule, it will shatter her confidence, which will make her more vulnerable to my attacks.

“I also ask for your help because unfortunately not all humans will be bold enough to defy Onja. Whole armies may try to prevent me from reaching Jingten. I have to rest sometimes and I need the protection of my allies.”

Volvat accepted the logic in Shan’s explanation but he was clearly not convinced. “I have no desire to meddle in the affairs of Jingten,” he decided.

Shan hid his disappointment at the blunt rejection and said, “Then agree not to hinder me or the Temu in our cause. Even your passive support would be helpful.”

Volvat pressed his lips together in consideration and sat down.

Atathol snorted with impatient disgust. “Taischek, this is madness. If you will not see reason, take your rys friend and leave. No one wants any part of your suicidal dreams. The Temu are only free to die a horrible death.”

Flushing with anger, Taischek restrained himself from striking the rude Zenglawa King. He had never liked Atathol and his opinion was not improving.

The Temu King managed a diplomatic tone and suggested, “I’m sure the other kings have more questions. Let us give Shan the stage so he can finish his proposal.”

“As Speaker, I deny your request. Both of you leave now,” Atathol ordered.

“You have no such authority,” Taischek scoffed.

“The Confederacy will not listen to any more blasphemous rantings from heretics,” the Zenglawa Prime Rysmavda screeched.

“The Rysmavda are not the Confederation!” Shan shouted with a sudden horrendous anger. Blue light filled his eyes and his spell vaporized the warding crystals hanging from the necks of every rysmavda in the amphitheater. It was a stunning blow to the rysmavda to see Shan destroy the very representation of Onja’s magic touching their bodies. “Where I walk, Onja has no power. Any spell she makes, I shall undo,” Shan declared. 

The rysmavda with every tribe cried with outrage and fear when their warding crystals disappeared in a flash of heat, leaving black scorch marks on their robes. The Prime Rysmavda of the Nuram Tribe promptly left the council with his lesser rysmavda in tow. When the other priests saw this, they decided to do the same.

As the rysmavda exited the amphitheater, Atathol said, “This meeting is dissolved.”

Ejan spoke. “Wait, King Atathol. Nothing requires the rysmavda to be at the Confederate Council. I am interested in hearing more of what Shan has to say. Let the guest of the Temu continue.”

Looking for support, Atathol eyed Sotasham, the Hirqua King, who had not spoken yet.

“King of the Hirqua, you have ever been a reasonable man. You surely agree with my judgment?” asked Atathol.

Sotasham shrugged and responded, “I like this talk of no more Onja.”

When Atathol failed to find anyone to agree with him, Shan narrowed his eyes at the Zenglawa and whispered, “See, they do not share your unshakeable devotion to Onja.”

Shan’s stern look unnerved Atathol but he disguised his discomfort with a display of disgust. Throwing his hands into the air, he stormed back to his seat. Once nestled among his grim Zenglawa warriors, he glowered at Taischek.

“I told him he didn’t have the authority,” Taischek muttered smugly as he returned to his seat.

Alone on the circular stage, Shan felt an odd vulnerability. The surrounding humans seemed so alien and the hold Onja had on their minds was strong, but he had to break it for the good of everybody.

Drawing a deep breath, Shan began, “Onja has kept the human tribes in servitude for many centuries, skimming the cream from you labors. I personally know the Queen of Jingten takes pleasure in simply dominating you. I was sent to Onja’s court as a rysling and I was raised as her ward. I have spent long ugly years in her household, witnessing her callous decisions and feeling her wicked thoughts. She considers humans amusing pets that can be made to serve her demands.

“I believe that Onja is evil and she corrupts the potential in my own kind. Her excessive demands of tribute make Jingten wealthy, but the rys do not earn anything. They do not deserve their luxuries. The rys used to have a reason to be proud, and they were skilled in many esoteric crafts. Now they are lazy and supercilious. The rys have no need to live off the fat of your land, when we could prosper by our own means.

“I admit that while I prepare to confront Onja, I need allies to help me. The Temu believe in me and I thank them for their support. The Temu have ever been strong and good allies in the Confederation and they should not face this challenge alone. Join us and be free. None of you should pay tribute this year. Send Onja the message that you will be her slaves no more!”

These words stirred Ejan’s heart, but he was hesitant to get involved in a rys power struggle.

Ejan said, “Lord Shan, you have been a friend to me and helped me in the past, and the Tacus have benefited from your generous counsel. But I see a rys who would be King. There is nothing wrong with that, but I do not know if I could take my tribe into such a dangerous war just to support your ambition. The Tacus despise Onja’s taxes, yet we live well and the consequences of failure in this venture are grave.”

“True enough,” Shan conceded. “I am ambitious, but with your help I will not fail. At least deny Onja her tribute. The blow to her ego will diminish her confidence, and confidence has great value in the making of magic. But there is another reason I must return to Jingten and cast Onja down. A reason you may find more worthy than my desire to lead my kind.”

“What might that be?” asked Ejan, who was interested but skeptical.

Pausing for effect, Shan replied, “Onja holds captive two human children, taken from the people visiting from the far east. I have brought their mother to attest to this crime. I must defeat Onja so I can reunite this family and restore the honor of rys, who Onja sullies with her crime.”

Shan beckoned Miranda. Taischek stirred uneasily as she entered the stage and he wanted to grab her and conceal her, but he resisted the urge.

This might be entertaining, he thought with whimsical resignation.

Miranda fought the natural anxiety of being on stage. It was easier this time with a smaller audience, but they were all important tribal leaders, which was intimidating. At least the rysmavda had left. Shan’s mysterious eyes gleamed at her and she believed in his strength. She had to show these people her faith in Shan’s abilities, and Miranda now understood that Shan needed her faith as well. Meeting the rys, she grasped his outstretched hand and with her free hand, she tossed back her hood.

Many cries of surprise filled the amphitheater. Miranda suspected many of the remarks concerned her foreign racial appearance as much as her improper presence. Atathol, however, did not hesitate to attack this violation of protocol.

The Zenglawa King sprang to his feet and shouted, “Outrageous! Taischek, this is too much. You jeopardize all of us by siding with this Jingten fugitive and now a woman!” The speaker of the Confederacy actually floundered with the rest of his angry words, such was his indignation.

Taischek merely folded his arms and ignored all the shocked looks from the other tribes. Atathol stormed toward Miranda as if he meant to physically remove her. Seated with the Temu, Dreibrand tensed with readiness. He did not care if Atathol was a king backed up by warriors.

If that man touches her, he will get hurt, Dreibrand thought.

“I will not allow this insult,” Atathol declared.

Miranda leveled her green gaze at the outraged King. She recognized too well the tone of his voice and the stomp of his foot. His manner and posture reminded her of her former master when he had been about to assault her. Miranda’s toleration for such treatment had stopped many months ago.

“Be quiet and sit down. We have important matters to talk about,” Miranda snapped.

Her disrespect halted Atathol two paces away. No one in all of his life had ever spoken to Atathol in such a way, especially a strange woman, and he briefly lost touch with reality.

Taischek roared with laughter. He really could not help it. The expression on Atathol’s face was worth all the upset Miranda had ever caused him. Leaning close to Xander, he remarked, “I thought she gave me a hard time.”

Then louder, Taischek said, “Miranda has my leave to be here.”

General grumbling occurred throughout the council, but the fascination with the proceedings outweighed the break with tradition.

Atathol hissed, “You will pay for your insolence, woman.”

“There is little you could do to frighten me,” Miranda said with pride.

“Please sit King Atathol. I am not finished,” Shan urged in a soothing voice. He bent his will toward the upset Zenglawa, hoping no one would notice his subtle spell. Shan had seen Onja use magic in this way many times. Although he hated mimicking her, Shan decided it was necessary to calm the Zenglawa King. Miranda had been reckless with him.

Atathol returned to his seat, but he still seethed with anger.

Quickly returning to business, Ejan asked, “You are the woman of Taischek’s foreign mercenary?”

Miranda answered that she was. Shan interjected and introduced Miranda properly, explaining her story. In general, the people of the west were quite interested in seeing and hearing about the people from the east. Many had already been glancing curiously at Dreibrand most of the morning, but no one had guessed that an eastern woman was concealed in the Temu ranks.

As Shan told how Onja had claimed Miranda’s young children and then nearly killed Miranda for protesting, many human hearts stirred with anger. As Shan had expected, this human drama aroused their emotions. Not paying taxes to Jingten tempted these people, but worrying about their children might actually motivate them.

Hearing how Miranda had defied Onja and suffered injuries from the hand of the Queen made some of the assembled warriors look upon her with respect, which was new for Miranda. Privately, warriors wondered if they could have been so fearless in the face of the dreaded rys Queen.

As Shan concluded her sad story, Miranda implored the council, “Please give Shan the help he asks for. If not to make Shan King of Jingten, then to help me get my children back. Shan is the only one powerful enough to face Onja’s magic and defeat her. This I know much too well. Therefore, I will be at Shan’s side as he returns to his homeland no matter how many warriors Onja can buy to stop us. If you will not help us with your swords, at least keep your tribute. Let Onja know her final hour approaches.”

Miranda’s plea had a definite impact on the council. Any honorable man automatically wanted to help her, even if Shan’s cause had not moved him before. And Miranda’s brave pledge to return to Jingten and oppose Onja again shamed those that feared to face their tyrant at all.

Dreibrand smiled proudly when Miranda finished her speech. At that moment he thought she was the finest strongest woman he had ever met.

Ejan looked from Miranda to Shan, then glanced at his counselors. Finally the King of the Tacus proposed, “I call for a recess for the rest of the day, so that the tribes may consider the requests of the Temu and Shan.”

Indulgently Shan nodded. He knew Ejan to be a man who made careful decisions without rushing, but the rys felt confident that the Tacus would take his side. The Zenglawa, Shan had dismissed as a loss. Atathol obviously lusted for the bounty. Five years without owing tribute tempted him more than a future of freedom.

“A recess is an excellent idea, King Ejan,” Atathol agreed for once. “Do the other kings concur?”

All the tribes readily agreed because they had much to discuss and consider, and the council was closed for the day. The excitement and importance of the morning’s events caused the gathering to disperse in a quick informal manner. People left their seats and formed talkative knots, and the Kings of the Zenglawa and Tacus departed immediately with their warrior entourages.

“Well it is done then,” Taischek said as Shan and Miranda rejoined their group.

Glumly, Shan eyed the thinning crowd and muttered, “I do not think I did well.”

“It was fine,” Taischek encouraged. “They may be my allies but they are not Temu. They are not as brave as us. They will need time to come around to our way.”

“Some will,” Shan said, trying to retain some confidence. Trying to persuade people with words and reason was often discouraging.

Taischek directed his attention to Miranda now and scolded, “We did not come here to start a war with the Zenglawa.”

“Yes, my King,” Miranda said respectfully, but she noticed that Taischek did not really sound upset.

“But the Zenglawa may have come here to start a war with us, Sire,” Xander said. “Atathol left with a purpose in his step. We should get back to our camp and secure it well. I do not trust him—not even on the Common Ground.”

Taischek nodded as he heard his General’s wise counsel, accepting that he must now be wary of even his Confederate neighbors. The peace and prosperity between the five tribes had lasted for generations, and Taischek regretted that his choices had brought a good thing to an end.

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.

I heard the words of Lin Fal the Prophet, and I believed. But I knew his days were numbered—Semsem II, Temu ruler, year 1230 of the Age of Onja.

The prisoners squinted when they were led into the morning sun. The grime of Taischek’s prison had smeared their blue robes and they plodded down the castle road to the city under heavy guard. Prime Rysmavda Arshen was the foremost prisoner, and the warding crystal on a silver chain around his neck had been replaced by manacles and iron chains on his wrists. Thirty rysmavda and acolytes trailed behind Arshen, but few expressions matched the fury on Arshen’s face.

Astride a chestnut horse with a white mane and tail, King Taischek led the procession and Arshen hurled condemnations at the back of his monarch. He warned of Onja’s killing fire falling from the sky and he told the Temu warriors that surrounded him that they were as good as Deamedron already. Arshen called for the other rysmavda to join him in haranguing their captors, but only a few added their voices to the threats of the Prime Rysmavda. Over a week in prison with no sign of Onja’s magic to save them had worn on the faith of some, and others were too afraid to speak and draw attention to themselves. 

Crowds overflowed onto the castle road, and people packed the streets leading to the city square. Some people started throwing rocks at the rysmavda, but Taischek quickly ordered a few warriors to stop them before those who liked to throw rocks encouraged those who had not thought of it.

In the city square Baydek Hall stood across from the rysmavda temple of Dengar Nor. Named after the Temu monarch who founded the bureaucracy, Baydek Hall housed the offices of government officials. The steps of Baydek Hall were broad and designed as a platform for public announcements, parade observation, and sometimes trials. The steps would be crowded today with the thirty-one prisoners on display.

Warriors held back the crowd, and Taischek watched as the prisoners were lined up in their chains. The name of the King flew off the lips of many in the crowd as they hollered their support. The rysmavda had been in prison for over a week now, everyone had heard about the looting of the Dursalene temple, and people were beginning to believe that they had a chance to defeat Onja. No righteous firestorm descended to punish the tribe, Taischek seemed as healthy as ever, and the report was circulating that he had actually killed rysmavda.

Shan waited with Dreibrand and Miranda just inside Baydek Hall. Warriors and bureaucrats milled around the lobby, taking turns looking out the doors and windows. The sound of the crowd outside filled the three story high lobby like a strong wind in a hollow tree. Shan and his friends were tucked in an alcove beside the main doors, and beyond the glossy pillars, they could see the backs of the heads of the rysmavda lining up on the steps.

Miranda wet her lips and noticed that she was breathing faster.

“Are you all right?” Dreibrand asked.

She nodded but looked afraid. Dreibrand understood her fear. Taischek and Shan had asked him to give his testimony about the Atrophane Empire in the east where Onja had no control. He had addressed large groups of soldiers on countless occasions but he had never spoken to the public. Under the Darmar’s censure, all Vetas were excluded from pursuing a political career.

Dreibrand clasped her hand and told her not to worry.

“I hope no one has to be killed,” Miranda said.

“They serve Onja; just remember that,” Dreibrand reminded her sternly.

A commotion broke out on the steps. Dreibrand strained to see what the yelling was about as a couple warriors pushed past him to assist the situation.

As the yelling dwindled, Shan explained, “They had to gag Arshen. Taischek will speak now.”

King Taischek mounted the steps to stand beside his prisoners. He wore his official crown and all of his courtly finery. A winged serpent of gold circled his head, complementing his skin that was the color of polished oak. A long tailed coat of brilliant red draped his body and the sleeves of his coat were constructed entirely of thick strings of amber beads. Beneath his coat he wore a knee length white robe trimmed with golden bells and impossibly white boots covered his feet, fitted with golden spurs. He was as much the lord of the palace as the master of the battlefield.

Banners rose on each side of the King, and the purple fields of fabric with their yellow serpents cast shadows over the prisoners. The thousands cheered for Taischek until horn blasts insisted on quiet. Gradually a suitable hush crept over the city square, and Taischek scanned the faces of his tribe.

The King addressed his people.

He officially announced that the Temu Tribe would offer no tribute to Jingten and that they were the ally of Lord Shan in his battle to overthrow Onja. Although this news had been a fact to a few and a rumor to most, hearing it confirmed by the King finally made it reality, and cries of dismay erupted from the crowd.

Taischek continued, projecting his voice even farther from his stocky body. Of course not everyone could hear him, but it would be enough that some heard him.

“The wealth and hard work of generations of Temu have been wasted on Onja. Not even a rys can rule forever. It has been twenty-two centuries and Onja is old. Look, I take her temples and her priests and nothing happens.” Taischek gestured contemptuously to the sky. “In Dursalene I looked directly into a temple orb and the Queen did not strike! The Temu are done with Onja. The Temu will no longer obey an evil rys who claims her powers make her a Goddess. The Temu are not afraid to let Onja know what we think of her. We have taken her temples and we will disband her priests!”

Taischek pivoted to view his prisoners. Chomping on his gag, Arshen glared at the King. They had hated each other for years, and the Prime Rysmavda still did not quite believe that Taischek dared to treat him so. The faces of the other rysmavda ranged from terror to resignation. The younger faces of their acolytes appeared convinced already.

“Rysmavda of Dengar Nor, I, King Taischek, ask you to return your full loyalty to your tribe and renounce your service to Onja. Do not contribute to her evil tyranny. Help your tribe to be free,” Taischek said.

His invitation met with murmurs of approval from the crowd. As always the King was fair with any Temu.

Arshen growled through his gag and struggled violently against the two warriors who kept him in place.

“Prime Rysmavda Arshen wishes to speak,” Taischek said and signaled for the gag to be removed. “Let Arshen be first to set the example and recant his belief in Onja as the Goddess.”

Arshen gasped when the gag was pulled away, but he had no intention of accepting Taischek’s offer.

“The King of the Temu brings death and damnation to the whole tribe!” Arshen immediately cried. “Remember the false prophet Lin Fal. He burst into flaming cinders in front of a thousand of his worshippers during the kingship of Semsem II. Onja tolerates no blasphemy.”

“That was a thousand years ago,” Taischek scoffed.

“Now the King of the Temu would be the puppet of a pretender rys who has already failed once against Onja. The tribe will die as did Lin Fal,” Arshen predicted.

Taischek hated to let him go on like this, but he knew he had to let the Prime Rysmavda plead his case. The King did not want his tribe to think he had gone mad. He wanted to prove to his tribe that Onja had grown weak and her theocracy could be ended. 

“You know nothing of the powers of Lord Shan,” Taischek countered. “You call him a failure, but I see a rys who challenged Onja and lived! No one in history can make this claim.”

“The Goddess will consume the foolish rys and all who serve him,” Arshen insisted.

“Onja is no Goddess!” Taischek thundered. “If she were a goddess, I would have been punished already. If you will not listen to me, listen to Lord Shan.”

The rys emerged onto the platform and Arshen recoiled into the grip of his guards. The Prime Rysmavda did not want the presence of Shan to taint him.

“Do not fear me, Arshen,” Shan said. “My quarrel is not with you. Onja no longer needs priests to serve her. Her time comes to an end.”

“The Goddess is forever,” Arshen hissed.

Shan shook his head and, as he argued with the priest, he addressed the crowd as well. “Magic does not make a Goddess. Onja was very powerful and humans and rys had to bow down to her. But she is not eternal. Like all rys, Onja was born of the Rysamand that were born of the world—not the other way around. Onja cannot create life or make the weather. The true power of the divine cannot be grasped by any mortal creature.”

Turning directly to the people, Shan proclaimed, “When I am King of Jingten, I will not be called God and I will not demand tribute. The human kingdoms will be free of rys tyranny.”

People gasped in wonder and some cheered. Shan’s dream of a new world was tempting even when compared to their ingrained fear of Onja.

Shan continued, “Arshen, I do not blame you for serving Onja. It is a fact that her power was great and we all have had to obey her. But as a rys, I know that her power fades. Already it is apparent to any who would open their eyes. Onja does not strike at the Temu or me because she cannot reach this far. Her magic will let her see me, but her impotence strangles her as we speak. Her killing magic has receded into the Rysamand. The human kingdoms have no need to obey her now.”

Taischek spoke. “Even now human kingdoms exist that Onja does not rule. A new warrior has entered my household. He is from a distant land east of the Rysamand, where humans know nothing of Onja. If she was a Goddess, would there be kingdoms she did not control?”

The King beckoned to the building where Dreibrand waited, and the foreign warrior walked out. Dreibrand bowed to Taischek, but his eyes roved the faces of the priests and the spectators. The morning had turned hot and the drama of Taischek’s show trial was ripening. Dreibrand wondered how deeply the populace cared for Onja’s religion. He knew in his country priests could be very powerful and they would not be likely to recant their beliefs because that was the source of their power.

But the Temu seemed willing to give up Onja’ religion. Dreibrand attributed this to the fact that Onja was not a Goddess, and people knew that in their hearts, even if they had never dared to say it. 

Taischek proceeded to carefully question Dreibrand, who explained the large human civilization that existed beyond the rule of Onja. He answered that before he traveled west, he had never even heard of rys.

Then the King had Dreibrand relate the events that took place while he was in Jingten, describing the confrontation between Shan and Onja in which Onja had relented and Shan had been unharmed. Dreibrand added without prompting that Shan had saved his life when Onja assailed him with her magic.

The King whirled on Arshen. “Tell me priest of Onja, why does your Goddess only rule here? Is she not jealous of the many Gods and Goddesses who are worshipped in the east? We are allowed no idol or belief outside of her.”

“The mind of the Goddess cannot be known,” Arshen responded dogmatically but the conviction was ebbing from his voice.

“I’ll tell you why—because it is far away,” Taischek cried. “If Onja was a human, she would be no greater than the ruler of the Empire where Dreibrand Veta is from. But instead she is an evil and corrupt rys who would make us worship her.”

Arshen’s mind scrambled a defense and he regained his venom. “You would let a stranger fill your head with lies. All humans must do Onja’s will or pay for their disobedience with their souls,” he said.

“I doubt she has that threat over you,” Taischek hissed so that the crowd could not hear. “Stay stubborn, Arshen. It would not ruin my day to execute you.”

“Kill me and your domain will rise against you,” Arshen warned.

“I don’t think so. Nobody complained while you were in prison,” Taischek said.

Shan cut them off. He knew that Taischek and Arshen would degenerate into bitter name-calling if left to do it. “Arshen, there is no question what Onja has been capable of, but her power no longer reaches the lowlands. She demonstrates this by placing a bounty on my head. Why would Onja have to pay humans to hunt me?”

“The bounty is to warn humans that you are the enemy,” Arshen answered.

“It is because she cannot hurt me here. She cannot hurt any of us,” Shan persisted.

“Arshen, recant your belief in Onja as Goddess. Set the example for the rest of the rysmavda of the Temu Tribe. Deny Onja and declare your only loyalty is for your tribe,” Taischek ordered.

“No,” Arshen said.

“You know what the stakes are,” Taischek warned.

“Never!” Arshen shouted and the other rysmavda jingled in their chains with agitation.

Taischek had predicted that Arshen would refuse, but the King would not relent. He glanced meaningfully to Shan before he continued, “Arshen, do not throw away your life for an evil sorceress. Come back to your tribe that wants you. You can’t expect the people to worship evil.”

“The Goddess is not evil. Onja protects all of Gyhwen. The Temu Tribe must not turn from her. Has the story of the Deamedron grown so old?” Arshen pleaded, trying to get the people to believe. It was hard for the Prime Rysmavda when no supporters cried out from the sea of people. He knew they believed in Onja’s power. It was a fact. But the tribe was on the side of Taischek and Shan.

Will I have to die to make them believe? Will we all have to die? he thought.

As Arshen’s hungry eyes looked for support, Shan went to get Miranda. She saw him coming toward the doorway and she knew it was time. All of her nerves buzzed like hummingbird wings.

Before Dreibrand had left her, he had tenderly put his lips close to her ear and whispered that she should pretend like she was mad at him so everyone could hear. She loved how he encouraged her and his little joke helped her in this moment of terror.

Miranda followed Shan outside. She had tried to prepare herself for the crowd, but being the center of its attention was much more intense than looking at it through a door. The crowd seemed to become especially attentive, and Miranda’s mouth felt especially dry. Luckily, she did not have to speak right away as Shan introduced her.

“Tell us what Onja did to you, Miranda,” Shan prompted.

Miranda cleared her throat. Everyone was looking at her. The King, Shan, Dreibrand, General Xander, countless Temu warriors, the spectators, and the prisoners. She looked at the grizzled priests and remembered that Shan had said she must help convince them to recant. If they did not, the executions would start.

With a deep breath she found her voice. The words were halting and soft at first, but they quickly became stronger. Suddenly Miranda wanted everyone to hear her.

“I came west with my children. I have a six-year-old daughter and an infant son. Onja took them from me and said I had to be her slave. I said I would not do this, and she tortured me and left me to die on the icy mountains. Lord Shan saved me from freezing with his magic. My children still are in Jingten. I will help Lord Shan become King in his home because he will give my children back.”

Her nervousness caused her emotions to surge and she directed her anger at Arshen. “Why do you tell your people to worship Onja? She steals children and tortures people.”

Arshen had no answer, but Taischek pressed him. “Arshen, how do you expect the Temu to tolerate this behavior from Onja. Will she start to demand our children with the tribute?”

“I do not know the mind of Queen Onja,” Arshen defended.

“Do you think we can have no better Goddess than a rys sorceress who steals children?” Taischek asked.

“I cannot judge the actions of the Goddess. It is our place to obey,” Arshen said.

“Enough of this, Arshen. Onja is old, and the Temu must join with Shan to get rid of her. You cannot tell us it is to our benefit to stay subservient to her. Recant!” Taischek yelled.

“I told you no! If the Temu do not turn back to Onja, she will kill us all. Rysmavda, do not recant. We must show our people our faith,” Arshen ordered.

The prisoners stirred with mixed feelings. Taischek stomped past Arshen and addressed the prisoners at random, asking them to recant. Arshen continually yelled for the rysmavda to stand by their beliefs, until Taischek ordered him regagged.

The King reached a young acolyte. An earnest youth in the midst of his indoctrination who looked fearfully at his King.

“Recant and join your tribe,” Taischek said.

The wide eyes of the acolyte rolled toward the Prime Rysmavda, seeking guidance. He feared Onja most, but he feared Arshen first and he wanted to obey his high priest. Part of him believed he must not recant in order to show his tribe that they must not rebel against Onja. He believed that Arshen was right.

“This is your last chance,” Taischek warned. He had not anticipated that the acolyte would stand so firm.

“No, my King,” the acolyte blurted.

Taischek paused and looked at the face of the teenage Temu. This moment was as hard as he had thought it would be, but the boy could be a fanatic just like Arshen if he let him live.

“Executioner!” Taischek ordered.

The youth gasped as reality assaulted him and he grabbed for the warding crystal that no longer hung around his neck. Four warriors hustled out with the chopping block followed by an axe man who began to warm up his shoulders for the swing.

Miranda watched two guards start to drag the youth toward his sharp edged doom. She turned to Shan and then Dreibrand, but she could see that they believed this had to happen. Before it was too late to act, she rushed to intercept the acolyte and stopped his advancement toward the executioner.

Clasping his hands, Miranda implored, “You are too young to be so stubborn. Would you die for a Queen who tortured me? Your death will not change my mind. I have to fight Onja. Now tell your King that you are loyal to him.”

Her action truly stunned Taischek, but he said nothing. He saw that the acolyte could be on the verge of recanting. Taischek would never be sure if it was the truth of her words or her pretty face that worked on the youth.

The acolyte gaped at Miranda, absorbing her words. He looked at the executioner and the warrior waiting to put a bag over his head. Then he looked to Arshen, but Miranda grabbed his cheek and turned him toward Taischek.

“Look to your King,” Miranda said.

The acolyte blinked with confusion, but he was grateful for his second chance.

“I am loyal to the Temu Tribe and King Taischek,” the acolyte said.

“Say Onja is not a Goddess,” Taischek ordered.

“Onja is not a Goddess,” the youth whispered.

“Louder,” Taischek barked.

“Onja is not a Goddess!” the acolyte wailed and fearful tears filled his eyes. He dropped to his knees, falling out of Miranda’s grasp. “My King, protect me. Onja will kill us all.”

With relieved tenderness, the King comforted him. “No. She cannot hurt us. See, we are fine.”

Filled with confidence from her success, Miranda turned to the nearest prisoner and pleaded for him to recant. He was a full-fledged rysmavda and he capitulated. Miranda moved up and down the row of prisoners asking them to recant. Her sweet invitation to live was hard to resist, and all but six priests refused with Arshen.

Speaking to Arshen, Miranda tried to convince him one last time, so the other six priests could change their minds. “Do not die for Onja. She does not even care about you.”

Arshen’s gag had been removed again so he could recant, but he said, “Stop lying to me you wandering strumpet. Onja has your children because you cannot take care of them.”

Although his harsh tone allowed Miranda to guess that he had insulted her, she did not understand every word, but Dreibrand did.

“I’ll kill you myself,” Dreibrand cried and his ivory handled dagger appeared in his hand.

Shan restrained him. “He is dead already,” he whispered.

Taischek stepped close to Miranda and said, “I thank you, but there is nothing you can do for him. Go stand by Shan.”

Miranda wanted to do more. She wanted to argue with the rysmavda all day. She could not understand their loyalty to Onja, but she obeyed the King and returned to her place. Dreibrand glared at Arshen one last time before joining Miranda with a kinder gaze.

Slipping his dagger back in place, Dreibrand said quietly, “You were wonderful.”

“You saved many lives, Miranda,” Shan added.

The rysmavda who recanted were released from their chains and their blue robes were stripped away. In their plain under tunics, the rysmavda kneeled to their King, and Taischek told them to watch closely the fate of their former brethren because all followers of Onja were the enemy of the Temu.

Taischek returned his attention to the expectant crowd. “Temu, you have seen twenty four rysmavda recant their belief in Onja as Goddess and return their loyalty to their tribe. Unfortunately, the Prime Rysmavda and six foolish priests refuse to join us even though I have clearly shown that Onja has grown weak and that Onja is evil. It grieves me to put this sentence on men who were born Temu, but the tribe cannot suffer enemies to live among us. They are sentenced to death.”

Excitement rippled through the crowd and people pressed against the ring of warriors who held back the spectators. General Xander hollered orders for more warriors to reinforce the barrier and he hollered to the civilians to stop pushing.

Taischek leaned close to Arshen and said, “I should have done this to you a long time ago.”

“Your soul will serve the Queen for eternity in harsh bondage,” Arshen snarled.

“At least I get to see you die first,” Taischek retorted with satisfaction. “Enjoy watching your men die, Arshen. You go last,”

With a victorious flourish Taischek left the condemned rysmavda and stood by Shan. A warrior beat a slow and solitary rhythm on a drum and one rysmavda was dragged toward the executioner.

“Your faith honors the Goddess,” Arshen shouted.

Miranda watched the rysmavda facing his executioner. When she had pleaded for him to recant, his eyes had not even looked at her, but he lost his composure when a warrior pulled the bag over his head. The rysmavda struggled in terror as insistent hands pushed him toward death.

A simple basket that might have been used to collect long stemmed flowers or even carry a baby was placed by the chopping block. Miranda fought the urge to turn away, knowing she must watch to show how much she believed in Shan’s cause.

The blind prisoner was bent over the block now and the axe was raised. The entire throng of people seemed to hold its breath, then the axe fell, and a great roar rose from the throats of the Temu. The head fell cleanly into the waiting basket, but the body jerked with alarming animation before flopping away from the axe man. Blood spurted in quantity and two warriors immediately wrapped the body in a shroud and tossed the head in the package. The corpse was dragged to the foot of the steps, leaving a red trail on the polished stone.

The axe took the life of the second rysmavda with all efficiency, but the third rysmavda collapsed in the grip of his captors, shrieking for mercy. He recanted his belief in Onja as goddess and begged the King to accept him back into the tribe. Taischek had to be merciful but he ordered the rysmavda put back in prison because he had taken too long to recant.

Three more rysmavda died, leaving only Arshen. As the warriors took the Prime Rysmavda to the block, he again warned Taischek of his doom.

“Enough of your empty words. You have always been against me, Arshen,” Taischek said.

Prime Rysmavda Arshen, master of all Temu temples and servant of Onja died on the block. The axe fell with a meaty thud. The crowd no longer cheered, exhausted by the violence. The drummer stopped and an eerie silence held the city as if the people waited for Onja’s reply.

The bloody remains of Arshen were tossed onto the pile of bodies.

Taischek signaled to General Xander to proceed with their planned finale. The temple on the opposite side of the square was heavily guarded in case the crowd became frenzied and decided to loot the temple themselves. The doors of the temple opened and a squad of workers hauled out a cart bearing the temple statue of Onja. Warriors parted the crowd so the statue could be brought before the King.

Taischek placed his hands on his hips and surveyed his people, waiting for the perfect moment to speak.

“Temu Tribe, this was an easy day. Harder days lie ahead. Like the fools executed today, some people in other tribes will stay loyal to Onja. Enemies will gather against us, but with the power of Lord Shan, we will prevail. The Temu will help Lord Shan return to his home and end the Age of Onja!”

The workers pulled the statue off the cart. It crashed onto the pavement and one blue stone arm broke away. Sledgehammers had been loaded on the cart as well, and the workers each seized one and began to demolish the statue. The heavy hammers soon bludgeoned the lovely face of the Queen of Jingten into chunks and dust. 

When the King left, the crowd took a long time to disperse. The spectators who wanted souvenirs from the historic day gleaned every shattered scrap of the statue from the pavement.

Upon returning to the castle, Miranda could not relax. She paced alone in her apartment while Dreibrand had lunch with the King and Shan. It bothered her somewhat that she had not been invited, but other things bothered her more at the moment. The bloody images of the executions played through her mind over and over.

A sharp pain started in her temple and she had to lean on the mantle of the fireplace. A headache had not struck her for many days, and she wondered if the stress of the morning had caused her to relapse. Next a couple drops of blood came from her nose and she hurried to wipe it away. Perhaps the power of Onja could not punish the rebellious Temu, but Miranda still felt the touch of Onja’s wrath.

The nosebleed ended and she was cleaned up just as Dreibrand returned. He carried a covered plate of food and Miranda greeted him with a forced smile.

“Here, I brought something for you to try. The Temu call it palalai. It is just great. You have to try it,” Dreibrand said. He removed the cover, revealing a crispy fruity pastry but Miranda quickly turned away.

“I cannot eat,” she said.

Dreibrand reconsidered the dessert and set it down. He moved close to her and massaged her shoulders.

“Everything went very well today. Taischek is very pleased,” Dreibrand reported. “He is a popular king and after today his tribe will not doubt his decisions. And most of the tribute had already been collected by the temples for this year and that will more than finance Shan’s war.”

Miranda heard the good news but she could not forget the men who had just died.

“Why didn’t they listen to me, Dreibrand? Why did they choose death when they could have lived?” Miranda asked.

“They are priests. It is their job to be faithful. Nothing you could have said to Arshen would have changed his mind. Taischek and him have been feuding for many years I am told. Arshen would not have sided with Taischek for any reason. He preferred to die thinking he had won,” Dreibrand explained. “Miranda, just think about the rysmavda you saved. Some of them would not have recanted if you had not asked them as you did.”

Miranda sighed, knowing she must see this day as a victory. “I just cannot believe I saw six men get killed,” she murmured.

Dreibrand moved his hands around her body and kissed the side of her face. “You really impressed me today. The most powerful Atrophaney lady could not have done better,” Dreibrand praised.

Miranda remembered her experience in front of the crowd. She had worried about her foreign accent, but Shan had coached her carefully and she had spoken with success. It had been good to feel important.

“Now do that again at the Confederate Council and we shall have many allies,” Dreibrand predicted.

“I will have to speak at the council?” Miranda asked with a share of excitement and surprise. She turned in Dreibrand’s arms to face him, waiting for the answer.

“Yes, Shan told me so. But he said we should not talk about that. He has some details to work out with Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

“When do we leave?”

“The day after next,” he replied. “Now you must stop moping about those executions. They were servants of Onja and you must think only of that. Pleasant things remain to be done today. We need to go shopping.”

“Shopping?” Miranda said, confused by the frivolous proposal.

“Yes. You need more clothes and I need more clothes. And I want to buy us two new horses before we leave,” Dreibrand said.

She looked at him skeptically.

“Dengar Nor is a fine and beautiful city. You must want to see some of it,” Dreibrand urged. 

Dreibrand always made everything sound like a good idea and she did not protest. She had only seen the city from the main road or the city square, and it would be a marvelous thing to walk the streets of a real city. Hoping her headache would fade, she agreed to go because she needed the distraction.

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

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

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

“You look better,” he said happily.

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

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

“What is it?” Miranda wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Shan?” Miranda asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” Miranda whispered.

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My strength is returning, Onja, she thought spitefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda glanced briefly at the parchment then looked to Shan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They will be summarily executed,” Shan stated.

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

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

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

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

“It is so terrible,” Miranda murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” she whispered, apprehensive.

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

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

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

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

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

“None of us are perfect,” Miranda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The original novel Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I is copyrighted to the author Tracy Falbe. Do not copy, distribute, and/or sell the content of this novel without written permission from the author. If you want to share the novel, please direct people to this website or to www.braveluck.com.