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

“We have business ahead,” Pelafan grumbled dismissively.

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

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

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

“How?” Sutah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Pelafan beamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only forty,” Pelafan replied eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dreibrand enjoyed the familiar sensation of riding within an armed force. About two hundred warriors, bristling with weapons, followed the Temu King. Many wore a wonderfully supple chainmail beneath their vests and cloaks, and Dreibrand was fascinated by the lightweight armor.

As he rode, Dreibrand often reminded himself that this experience would be different from the battles he was used to fighting. He was not a commander and the Horde did not surround him with organized units of infantry and cavalry. The Temu raiders would fight as individual warriors, and Dreibrand would not have a disciplined military machine to back him up. His abilities did not worry him though. He had engaged in hand-to-hand combat many times, and the fact that he was alive proved that he was capable.

Mentally, Dreibrand tried to focus on the conflict ahead, but thoughts of Miranda distracted him. When he had gone to war before, he had not cared about who or what he left behind. His adventures had been free of emotional ties, and he had lived in the moment with no concerns beyond his own.

Now things were different. His thoughts were behind him with Miranda instead of ahead where the danger waited. He had not expected leaving her in Fata Nor to upset him so much, but it added to his motivation to survive. Living to see Miranda again would be as sweet as any victory.

Even as he had to accept his new feelings, he had to force them aside. Warm thoughts of love would not aid him in battle. He needed the calculating warrior that was so much a part of his being. He adjusted the shield strapped to his arm, thankful for the gift from the Temu that no doubt would soon prove its worth.

When the Temu camped at dusk, a warrior informed Dreibrand that by tomorrow night they would be in Sabuto territory and probably commence raiding the morning after that. Dreibrand noted his comrade’s eagerness for Sabuto blood and gained faith from the warrior’s willingness.

After volunteering for the unpopular late watch, Dreibrand sought out Shan who he had not spoken with all day. Dreibrand could have ridden up front with King Taischek and the rys, but he did not want the other Temu warriors to consider him a snobby stranger. He found Shan by Taischek’s fire, but the rys did not look up to acknowledge him.

Taischek, who had already picked clean his dinner plate, commented, “He has been as silent as an angry wife all afternoon.”

The King’s witty observation finally prodded the sought after reaction from the rys. Shan lifted his black eyes and managed a smile. Taischek’s often scolding sense of humor endeared him to the rys and prevented Shan from sinking too far into his troubled thoughts.

“You talk enough for both of us, Taischek,” remarked Shan.

The King chuckled and motioned for Dreibrand to sit and take a plate of food. Pleasantly he said, “Dreibrand Veta will talk to me, eh? Leave the moody rys to himself. He probably is just thinking of more impossible favors to ask of me.”

“They are not impossible,” Shan assured him.

Dreibrand ate quietly and occasionally cast an inquisitive look in Shan’s direction. He suspected the nature of Shan’s thoughts. Soon it would be time for the rys to become a warrior.

“Xander tells me there has been sign of a Sabuto hunting party in the area,” Taischek told Dreibrand.

“Really? I thought we were not in Sabuto territory yet,” Dreibrand said.

“This area is disputed,” Taischek explained. “No one lives here and both tribes often harvest game here. Hopefully in a week or two the Sabuto will not dare slink so close to my domain.” Taischek smiled secretively, enjoying the thought of the pain so close in the Sabuto’s future.

He continued, “You keep a close eye tonight, young warrior. If any Sabuto cowards still lurk in the area, they might sneak into camp to murder the sleeping.”

Dreibrand swore in Atrophaney and promised, “I will watch closely, King Taischek. A gutless murderer will get no mercy from me.”

“I will join you on your watch,” Shan announced.

This pleased Taischek. “I will sleep soundly with your great eyes watching.”

Shan fingered the hilt of the sword that now hung from his hip. It was a beautiful weapon that the King had given him, and the slightly curving blade was sleek and graceful like the rys.

“Why don’t you pull that out and show us what you know, Shan. After three hundred years you could probably use the practice,” Taischek suggested. He was eager to see what Shan could do.

“I do not need to practice,” Shan murmured.

Taischek grunted with disappointment.

“If I may be excused, King Taischek, I should go to my rest,” Dreibrand said.

“A man so young needing rest?” Taischek scoffed, but he meant it only as a joke and he waved Dreibrand away.

“I will wake you when the late watch starts,” Shan said.

That evening Dreibrand snatched little rest. He watched the stars come out while swatting at mosquitoes. The air had not cooled with the evening and a hot humid summer night put its wet hand on the land. He tossed uncomfortably in the clinging heat and understood why the King’s wives preferred the slightly higher climate in Fata Nor this time of year.

As soon as he managed a doze, it seemed Shan came to wake him. A full moon was high in the sky, and a haze of clouds reflected its glow, giving the night a lighted canopy. Dreibrand and Shan concealed themselves in a patch of saplings on the camp’s southern edge. The warriors they relieved had nothing to report.

“Do you sense anyone out there?” Dreibrand whispered.

Shan answered, “Yes. Less than a hasa to the south. Perhaps they cannot decide to harass us or not.”

“How many are there?” Dreibrand asked.

“Only half dozen. They might come at us yet. We shall see,” Shan mused.

Dreibrand scanned between the patches of moonlit forest, straining to see farther. He was glad for Shan’s company, knowing the rys would detect an intruder first.

“Dreibrand,” Shan said hesitantly. “Onja watched us today.”

After a brief glance at Shan’s dark silhouette, Dreibrand returned his focus to the forest. “How bad is that?” he inquired.

Shan replied, “It is good and bad. It is good because Onja has become worried enough to check on my whereabouts. She accepts in her heart that I am a dangerous opponent, as she should.”

“Then it is as you planned. You wanted her to be nervous. So, what is bad?” Dreibrand said.

“You are right. It is as I planned,” Shan said evasively.

Dreibrand pressed the rys for his answer. He doubted Shan brought up the subject without wanting to talk about it.

Shan explained, “It is that today I saw that I cannot turn back. Onja sees that I want war with her, and she will give it to me. I must see this thing through, and I must shed blood.”

“I know you do not want to do violence,” Dreibrand said. “It is not too late for you to change your mind. All you have really done is insult a priest.”

“But then I could never go home. I do not want to be banished from Jingten and I cannot return in peace. First, I will take Onja’s kingdom and then I will take her throne. Therefore, I must proceed,” Shan declared.

Perhaps on this path I will do more good, he thought.

Privately, Dreibrand decided it was a shame that a being as kind and powerful as Shan should have to choose such a destructive path.

“You are just nervous, Shan,” Dreibrand soothed. “Every warrior has a first time.” Because Shan was so old and seemed so wise, Dreibrand felt strange offering Shan advice as if the rys were a frightened conscript.

“I suppose so,” Shan agreed. “And my time approaches. Two Sabuto are closing on our position.”

Dreibrand peered intently into the night, and every insect whine made his nerves more alert in the still forest. Shan leaned close and pointed to the positions of the approaching warriors.

“Come with me and take one,” Shan whispered.

“I can get both if you want to wait,” Dreibrand offered.

“No. I will do this.”

Dreibrand heard resolve in the rys’s voice, which lacked its musical quality at that moment.

Dreibrand’s heart quickened as he concentrated on every little sound, knowing he would eventually hear them as they passed through the forest litter. A thick bank of clouds consumed the moon, and Dreibrand heard the rustle of the Sabuto as they took advantage of the increased darkness to rush ahead. Two swords slipped out of their scabbards, and Shan and Dreibrand moved out to engage the Sabuto.

Following the point of his sword, Dreibrand trotted toward his enemy. In the dark he lost track of the dim form of his enemy, and his steps slowed. He did not want to stumble into him in the darkness.

Suddenly he smelled the body sweat of his quarry and froze. They had to be very near each other now, and the next one to so much as crackle a leaf would give himself away. The clouds thinned, and the moonlight gleamed on Dreibrand’s sword, revealing him instantly. Only the faint sound made by the Sabuto stepping forward allowed Dreibrand to know the direction of his enemy’s attack. He blocked high with his shield and stopped a blade swinging straight for his neck. As part of the same motion, Dreibrand thrust with his sword, only to be blocked by a shield.

The shadowy figures struggled, and their battle was eerily silent except for a couple grunts of exertion. They exchanged a few blows before Dreibrand prevailed. His sword sank through the man’s torso and stopped on a tree. The Sabuto exhaled his last breath while sliding down the sword to lean against the tree trunk. Dreibrand could barely see his face, but he knew the light of life had left the eyes.

Compared to the last two years, it had actually been quite a while since he had killed a man, and he felt the strange surge of supremacy mixed with the knowledge that he had ended a man’s life. The man came from a family, perhaps had children, and probably would be missed, but Dreibrand could not allow himself remorse. The Sabuto warrior had come to kill him, and this fact of war would never change.

He eased the dead warrior to the ground, and stayed low while looking for the other warrior. He did not know how Shan fared and he could not call out to him.

Shan stalked his victim with pantherish ease. His perceptions allowed him to know the exact location of the Sabuto and even which way the warrior turned his head. Shan circled the warrior and approached him from his left side. The rys knew that the warrior did not see him.

He is at my mercy, Shan thought. He could incapacitate the Sabuto with a spell of sleepiness and kill him with ease, and Shan suddenly saw how with his magic he could simply strike the human dead in a variety of ways. But Shan was determined to do it with the sword. Only experiencing the danger of close combat could teach him courage.

Shan rushed the warrior, but did not kill him in his moment of surprise. The Sabuto attacked but his weapon could not match the speed of the rys. Shan had every advantage, especially in the night. His advanced senses let him feel every movement of the warrior as it happened, and he could react perfectly.

Finally, Shan accepted what he had chosen to do and struck the man down with effortless precision. The slender sword penetrated the man’s heart, and he cried out once before he died. Shan pulled his sword back swiftly, as if expecting to keep the spurting blood off his weapon. He could feel the heat coming off the thick stream of blood. He could feel the body of the man perish as it was suddenly unplugged from its life-giving force, but Shan was the most sensitive to the soul lurching from the body that had so abruptly evicted it.

Shan had always been especially sensitive to souls departing bodies. The soul of the Sabuto warrior recognized him as a rys, and Shan experienced the shock and confusion of the man, who had never expected a rys to be guarding the camp. Shan watched the soul rise, beckoned by the next world. When people died Shan saw much more than humans and most rys.

The energy of the soul dissipated and Shan was thankful that it did not linger. He looked at the body heaped on the forest floor. The bloody corpse proved Shan was a killer. Shan struggled against the self-loathing he suddenly felt. He told himself that the dead man was Taischek’s enemy and he was justified in killing his friend’s enemy. But the only thought that helped Shan at all was that he had taken his first real step toward being King of Jingten.

Shan sensed Dreibrand cautiously approaching and the rys buried his feelings.

Dreibrand had heard the warrior cry out and moved toward the sound. Shan revealed himself to his friend with a flash of blue from his eyes. The magically lighted eyes startled Dreibrand, but he knew it had to be the rys.

Glancing at the body as he arrived, Dreibrand whispered, “Was it hard for you?”

“No,” Shan answered with little emotion.

A man screamed at another point on the camp perimeter.

“I will investigate,” Dreibrand instantly decided.

“There is no need. Another Sabuto died, and the others are leaving,” Shan reported.

They returned to their hiding spot among the saplings. Although he wanted to, Dreibrand did not pry into Shan’s thoughts.

After a while, Shan spoke in his usual friendly tone. “You can sleep if you want, Dreibrand. I can watch the whole camp.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I am not sleepy. I had to fight a warrior too, and my nerves are all on edge,” Dreibrand said.

No more incidents occurred in the night, but trouble came with the day. Winding south through the foothills, the Temu war party entered Sabuto territory and random sniper attacks started. One or two arrows would fly from a tree or thicket, but the harassing Sabuto warriors always fled after a few shots. Sometimes some Temu warriors flushed out and killed a sniper, but Taischek’s prudence would not allow the war party to disperse in pursuit of more Sabuto.

By noon, one Temu had been killed and another injured. Dreibrand’s armor saved him from becoming a casualty, but the arrow actually stuck in his chestplate. The accuracy of the shot made him perspire with agitation and the Temu closest to him called him lucky. Tossing the arrow to the ground, Dreibrand now shared the urgency of his Temu companions to reach a Sabuto settlement and have a direct battle.

The torment from the Sabuto increased all afternoon, but Taischek was not daunted and the Temu morale did not suffer. Arrows did not perturb Taischek, who like the bear accepted a few stings to get the honey.

Late in the day, the Temu topped a ridge and looked down into a cultivated valley. Sparkling in the slanting sun, a waterfall poured in from the eastern hills and a creek coursed through fields and orchards. A village smaller than Fata Nor, but similar in appearance, waited across the water.

The sniping ceased as the Temu regarded their target, and the Sabuto warriors probably retreated to defensive positions near the village. Dreibrand casually rode up beside Shan in order to hear the plans of the King and Xander and possibly give his opinion if he felt it necessary.

Xander proposed, “Sire, I say go now. We have about two hours light and we should not give them any more time to organize their defenses. If we wait, they will attack us in the dark.”

Although he loathed the Sabuto more than anything else, Taischek paused to consider his actions, not wishing to deploy his warriors incorrectly.

“You are right, General Xander,” Taischek decided.

Obviously pleased with his King’s agreement, Xander sang out the orders to attack in the lilting Temu language. The warriors cheered, and horns blasted proudly as the Temu descended on the village. They charged the fording place of the creek and took on the bulk of the Sabuto defenders. Taischek knew if his war party could crush the resistance at the ford, the village would be easily routed.

With his spiked mace held high, King Taischek entered the stream followed by the splash of his many warriors. The sinister points on the end of his favorite weapon had torn apart the lives of many Sabuto, and the waiting Sabuto recognized the bloodlusty howl of the Temu King.

When the Temu were halfway across the water, Sabuto archers launched a rain of arrows. Warriors crouched under their shields and urged their steeds toward their enemies. Suffering few losses, the Temu achieved the far bank and exchanged blows with the Sabuto defenders. Mounted or on foot, Sabuto warriors pressed down the slope trying to force the Temu back into the water.

The Temu outnumbered the Sabuto warriors and quickly began to overwhelm them. Then the Sabuto faltered when Shan charged up the bank on his powerful white horse. Only in ancient stories did humans face rys in battle, and even the bravest Sabuto warrior felt his courage fail when Shan’s sword swept near. The curved blade danced contemptuously between the weapons that opposed it, and the few who did not retreat fell dead.

Although Dreibrand did not inspire awe like the rys, he could see the curiosity in the eyes of the Sabuto, who were startled by his racial appearance. Blood sprayed from his busy sword as Starfield pranced among warriors. With well-practiced fury, Dreibrand defeated the Sabuto near him and saw that his comrades had been equally successful. Several Temu had swarmed into the trees to expel the archers, and the rest of the Sabuto fled to regroup in the village.

Taischek rallied his men for the final assault. Filled with vengeful pleasure, the King led the charge again, and this time blood crusted his mace and a grisly chunk of hair fluttered from one of the spikes. The battle swept into the village, and the remaining Sabuto warriors hurled themselves at their attackers, fighting with desperate tenacity. Weapons clashed urgently because the Temu were eager to have their task completed before the sun set. They fought from house to house, gradually cleansing the village of all inhabitants. Although Taischek maligned the Sabuto, they fought bravely, yielding their home only in death.

As the day expired, the Temu rampaged through the village and cut down the fleeing women and children and elderly. Only the swift escaped into the deepening dusk.

Dreibrand watched a Temu warrior ride down a Sabuto woman and strike her dead with his war club. Despite the sight of her broken dull-eyed face crashing into the dirt, her little children scrambled from the warrior’s terrible path and escaped. The pointless killing of the woman appalled Dreibrand. He knew the Temu were not slavers and the woman of their enemy had no value to them, but he considered her murder unnecessary.

Remembering Miranda and her children hiding in the forest from the Atrophane Horde, Dreibrand suddenly understood Miranda’s perspective on warfare. He turned Starfield back into the village, unwilling to watch the slaughter of those left defenseless by the day’s battle. Miranda had been wise to ask him for weapons and knowledge of their use, and he was glad that he had obliged her.

Dismounting, Dreibrand wiped his sword clean and walked his lathered horse. Shan, who also had no interest in extreme persecution, rode up and greeted him.

“It was an easy battle,” Shan remarked, dropping lightly to the ground.

“A small village and a small force,” muttered Dreibrand, who was unimpressed with the victory.

“True enough,” Shan agreed. “But the quicker this business is finished, the sooner we may attend to more important matters. I have learned what I needed from—from this place.”

They led their horses to the stream, taking their time to let the horses cool. Bodies littered the stream, so Shan and Dreibrand went upstream where death did not taint the water. Dreibrand splashed the cold water on his face and drank deeply, thirsty after the exertion and stress of battle.

Somewhat refreshed but his thoughts still with Miranda, Dreibrand asked, “Do the Sabuto ever raid Fata Nor?”

Shan could imagine the reason behind the question and sought to dispel Dreibrand’s worries. “Rarely. The Sabuto maintain a defensive posture for the most part. To the south and west of the Sabuto domain, there are no alliances or confederations, and the tribes war incessantly. Taischek is not the only enemy the Sabuto have to worry about. Taischek, however, belongs to a confederation of five tribes, and there is peace in the north. Fata Nor is a safe place for Miranda to be.”

They returned to the village and the Temu had already set to work gutting the settlement. They loaded grain onto a stolen wagon and despite the night, warriors rounded up livestock and selected horses as personal prizes.

“You could pick one out,” Shan suggested.

Dreibrand shrugged. “Maybe the next village,” he mumbled.

In the village square Taischek sat on a recently tapped barrel of wine, puffing on his pipe. The King had suffered an arrow to his thigh and Xander was carefully cutting it free. Although the wound looked painful, the arrow had not angled in deeply.

Taischek winced as Xander probed the wound, and he took a long drag on his pipe. Exhaling, he smiled to Shan and said, “I picked up a little burr today.”

“The Sabuto must be practicing,” Shan joked, but he was concerned for his friend too. “Taischek, let me help you.”

The King waved away the rys before he made a fuss. “Xander can handle it. I’m fine.”

Seeing that the wound was not mortal, Shan did not argue and let the King show off his toughness.

“And what a fight from you today, Shan,” Taischek said. “I wanted to stop and watch you. What a sight! A rys at battle. Forgive me for suggesting that you need practice.”

“I still have much to learn,” Shan said modestly.

Turning to Dreibrand, Taischek complimented, “Good fight today from you too. Glad I brought you along.”

“Thank you for letting me be a part of your victory, King of the Temu,” Dreibrand said, inclining his head.

Taischek set down his pipe, and picked up his mug of wine. Making a bitter face, he drank the wine anyway and commented, “I’m glad I did not have to pay for this shitty Sabuto wine.”

“Where are we bound for next?” Shan asked.

Wiping his mouth, the King answered, “Oh, we will escort this plunder back to my border, then swing back southwest. I know another village like this one that will be easy pickings.”

“I have another idea if you would like to hear it,” Shan said.

Taischek groaned with little interest but nodded anyway.

Slyly Shan suggested, “I think King Taischek could do better than these trifling villages. We should sack Dursalene and score twice the wealth you will get from raiding all these puny farmers’ huts.”

“Dursalene!” scoffed Taischek. “Dursalene has a stockade. I have not assembled a sufficient force to attack Dursalene and I have no desire to get involved in a siege. No, Shan, I wish I could burn Dursalene to the ground, but I can’t attack a lion when I set out rabbit hunting.”

“But you have me,” Shan noted and pressed on with his plan. “The Sabuto will never expect such a small force to ride for Dursalene. You will have the element of surprise, and I will destroy their stockade so the Temu can ride into the town. We will raid them in a day, just like this place.”

Despite his initial protest, Taischek’s interest had definitely been aroused. “How much damage can you do?”

“I can breach the wall in at least two or three places. The stockade will not be a problem when I get done with it,” Shan explained.

Considering the proposal, Taischek realized Shan wanted to demonstrate his powers to the Temu. The sack of Dursalene would be a generous gift to Taischek, and it would definitely spread word of Shan’s abilities among other tribes and possibly rally more support to the rys’s cause. If Shan was really capable of performing the feat, Taischek decided it would be a win-win situation.

“Well then it is a good idea, Shan. We shall get this lot back to my territory and this arrow out of my leg and then ride for Dursalene,” Taischek agreed.

With a final tug Xander removed the arrow and held a cloth against the bleeding.

“Sire, it needs to be stitched,” the General informed.

“Yes, I know. So get it done and we can drink together to our victory, eh,” the King said.

Bosta refugees brought a new reality to the Droxy settlement. Isolated on the fringe of civilization, the people of the settlement had not concerned themselves with the conquests of the Atrophane Empire. Their general opinion was that the Atrophane, who lived in palaces and built monuments, could not possibly be interested in the crude farming settlements carved out of the edge of the Wilderness.

But this assumption dissolved as weary beaten Bostas plodded toward the Droxy fortress for the second day straight. The refugees passed through the village of Wa Gira on their way and a panic had started. Many villagers were filling carts and planning to abandon their cluster of cottages and seek shelter in the Droxy fortress as well.

In front of a lowly shack at the end of the lane stood a young woman clutching her infant son. The spring breeze blew through her curly light brown hair, which gently brushed the head of her dark haired child. Her green eyes were wide with fear and uncertainty.

She had spoken with many of the passing Bostas and their reports had been terrifying. The young woman had no idea what to do. She had never experienced a foreign invasion. Occasionally bandits plagued the villages around Droxy or clans skirmished over land disputes, but otherwise life was peaceful around Droxy, except of course for her life.

“Miranda!”

She turned toward the man who bellowed her name. Coming up the road from Droxy, he struggled against the crowd of refugees. He was barrel-chested and thick limbed with a disheveled shock of black hair drooping close to his eyes.

The sight of her master brought Miranda no relief. She considered the arrival of Barlow an enhancement of the crisis. He had been in Droxy for three days, and Miranda had assumed he would stay there. Mostly she hoped he would never come back.

Puffing from his brisk hike back to Wa Gira, Barlow stomped up to her.

“Get inside,” he ordered and pushed her at the door.

She stumbled a bit and her shoulder hit the door. The baby began to cry from the jostling, and Miranda tried to quiet her son as she entered.

“I am sorry, Esseldan,” she murmured.

“Where is Elendra?” Barlow demanded.

“In the back,” Miranda replied, referring to the lean-to portion of the shack where she slept with her children. Barlow stayed in the sturdier front room, but Miranda shunned his bed except when forced.

“Get out here,” Barlow snarled and a six-year-old girl shyly peeked around the doorway. The dazzling dark eyes of the little girl carefully watched her father, but she did not come out.

“She will learn to do as I say no matter how much you let her run wild,” Barlow warned Miranda, who made no comment.

Looking around the sparsely furnished shack, Barlow cried, “And why is nothing packed? I came all the way back here to get you.”

Unimpressed by his concern, Miranda said, “Where are we going?”

His eyes flashed with anger. He despised her questions, but no amount of intimidation ever slowed her sharp tongue for long.

“Droxy, you stupid bitch,” he snapped.

She stowed the pain of his cruel words deep in her heart, and the hurt did not show on her face.

“Why go there? Everyone has said the Atrophane broke through their fortresses, and their walls were larger than Droxy,” Miranda said.

“Do not try and be clever, Miranda, because you are not. Now shut up and pack!” Barlow yelled.

At that moment, the thought of going to Droxy disturbed Miranda as much as the abstract threat of the Atrophane Horde.

“I was not trying anything,” she defended. “Droxy will not save us.”

Barlow seized her arm. Miranda shifted Esseldan into her other arm and held him away from his father.

“We both know why we are going to town,” Barlow hissed.

Miranda glanced at her daughter, who monitored the exchange from a safe distance. Lowering her eyes, Miranda stopped arguing.

When they arrived in Droxy shortly after nightfall, the fortress town was thronged with refugees and local Droxy peasants. Added to the press were the mustering soldiers and the landowning vassals of Lord Doamir.

“Barlow, are you going to join the defense?” Miranda asked sarcastically.

In retaliation he swung at her, but she halted her stride just in time to avoid the back of his hand. Missing her, Barlow contented himself with a vicious scowl.

He had arranged accommodations for Miranda and the children in a stable stall behind a tavern. The miserable shelter did not surprise her, but she contained her comment about not wishing to inconvenience the horses. She would see more of Barlow’s temper soon enough.

Thankfully he departed quickly into the tavern. Exhausted, Miranda plopped down on a bundle of hay and let Esseldan breastfeed. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves after she noticed her hand shaking. That morning she had been planting the crops that would allow her and her children to subsist through another year without any help from Barlow. Now her small field and garden were abandoned to the Atrophane Horde.

Miranda tried to imagine what the Atrophane invasion would be like. She grasped that it was a much larger thing than the local disputes. All her life she had heard the reports about the Atrophane Empire growing in the east. But the grand stories of conquerors living in opulent cities had never seemed to apply to her life.

“Mama, what is happening?” Elendra finally asked. The little girl could be extraordinarily tolerant of disruption, but the quaver in her voice revealed true fear.

Miranda’s green eyes regarded her daughter sadly. Even Elendra can tell this is worse than usual, Miranda thought.

“The Atrophane Horde has come to conquer our land,” Miranda answered bluntly.

Elendra understood this truth less than her mother did and simply said, “When can we go home?”

“I do not know,” Miranda whispered. Normally she would try to comfort her daughter, but Miranda was too overwhelmed to muster any bright words. From her seat in the stable she could look up the alley beside the tavern and see the crowd of refugees in the fortress courtyard. All day she had seen the trauma on the faces of Bostas, and in her heart Miranda knew Droxy was a deathtrap.

“Mama, can I have some food?” Elendra asked.

Gesturing to their bundle of supplies, Miranda answered, “Yes, but remember we have to make it last.”

They ate their meager supper of bread and dried fruit. Miranda wished she was outside the dirty town so she could forage for fresh greens in the woodland and meadows. Years of economic neglect from her master had made Miranda skilled at gleaning food from the land, but there would be nothing to brighten their meal tonight.

Spreading out the blankets, Miranda took some solace in the fact that the straw in the stall was fresh. She tucked her children snugly into the corner, and then stepped out for a moment alone. A chocolate brown mare in the next stall hung her head out and Miranda petted the velvety nose of the good-natured animal. The softness beneath her fingers calmed her thoughts and her mind drifted back to a distant day.

Miranda remembered being a child on a farm south of the Bosta territory and sneaking rides on the work horses. Her father would become angry when he caught her riding, but the exhilaration and freedom of sitting high on the horse had always been worth the risk. After a brief wish to have that feeling again, Miranda pushed away memories of better moments. She belonged to Barlow now.

Miranda patted the horse one more time before joining her children in the stall. Weariness pulled Miranda quickly into sleep, but her fears knew no rest. In her slumber she heard a rumble in the hills, and she imagined a heavy spring thunderstorm heralding the heat of summer.

Suddenly she was in the courtyard of Droxy with her children, and the walls of the fortress loomed around her like a dark and dirty canyon. A booming sound shook the stone walls like pebbles, and Miranda fell screaming to the ground, desperately clutching her children. The screams of people flew around the courtyard like a distressed flock of birds.

Miranda jumped up and started running. Moving was difficult as if weights were tied to her limbs. Each step seemed to take a tortuous amount of time, and after managing a few, Miranda realized she no longer held Elendra’s hand.

Horrified, she looked back and saw soldiers swarming around her shrieking daughter. Black armor clad the strange attackers, who wielded black swords. Blood and sweat streaked their distorted faces. One swung wide with his obsidian blade, felling Elendra. The girl’s blood sprayed in an arc as she toppled to the cobbles.

Her little body made one gruesome twitch, and she gurgled one mouthful of blood before her life lifted away from a growing pool of red.

Flames consumed the fortress on all sides, and the apish soldiers seized Miranda when she rushed crazily toward her daughter. Esseldan was torn from her embrace, and a soldier thrust a pike through the tender body of the infant and flung him into a fire.

Screaming, Miranda watched her son sail through the smoky air into the greedy flames. Darkness seeped over the hellish scene and Miranda felt cold air against her skin. The sinister heat of the war flames dissipated and the soldiers released her arms. She sat up screaming, but the fact that it was a nightmare brought her little relief.

Her children stirred next to her, and Miranda lay back down before they woke up. Sweat cooled on her face in the mild spring night, and it felt blissful after the terrible heat of the flames. But with the noises of the refugee packed town around her, she experienced again the acute emotion of the nightmare. The Atrophane Horde was coming and Droxy would be crushed. The Atrophane were going to kill people in the process, and maybe even her children.

Miranda tightened her arm over her children until they fussed from the grip. Murmuring for them to go back to sleep, she accepted the gravity of the danger. They needed to hide outside Droxy. The fortress would be the target of the Atrophane Horde, and Miranda reasoned that the countryside would be safer.

She hated Barlow for forcing them to come to Droxy. She knew concern for their safety did not motivate him. Bitterly, Miranda hoped that when the Atrophane came they would capture Barlow and make a slave of him.

This pleasant concept almost brought a smile to her lips, but then the back door of the tavern burst open, startling the horses in the stable. As if her hateful thoughts had summoned him, Barlow stood silhouetted in the lamplight of the doorway. The tavern sounds leaked out into the night, and Miranda remembered who was really the slave.

“Miranda!” It was Barlow’s drunken drawl. “Come here.”

Briefly she touched the heads of her children to remind herself that they depended on her utterly. Then she rose to face her master.

“There you are. Wonderful.” He skidded down the steps in a flurry of clumsiness. The luck of the drunken kept him from falling.

“Leave me alone, Barlow,” she snarled.

He grabbed her wrist. “Now, now, my dear. Come along with me.”

“I said leave me alone,” she persisted and struggled to be free of him.

Laughing at her defiance, which he had proved futile many times, Barlow pulled her into the tavern.

“I’ll have none of your attitude tonight,” he warned.

Immediately inside the back door was a stairway and Barlow dragged her up a few steps before she managed to stop him.

“No,” she hissed, while clawing at his hand on her wrist.

He turned and leaned into her face. Miranda could smell the wine on his breath and see the cold look in his eyes.

Barlow growled, “Now my little girlie, you’re gonna go up into that first room or I’ll beat you to DEATH.”

He had prostituted her before, but Miranda always made it difficult. By making him struggle she gained some satisfaction from the fact that he had to work for the money a little bit.

Barlow clamped a hand around her throat and dragged her roughly up the stairs. On the dark back stair no one noticed his rough treatment of her. No one ever cared how he treated her anyway.

Reaching the top, Barlow pinned her to a wall and whispered, “I mean it, Miranda. You’re gonna do this because it’s what you’re for. Give me trouble one more time, and I’ll sell Elendra.”

Miranda winced. This was the threat that controlled her the most. Barlow pushed her down the hall. The pain in her throat warned her not to lash out at him. Her children needed her healthy and strong, and if she did not obey, Barlow could cripple her. Intoxication always sent his temper into uglier places.

“Get in there,” he barked, drawing back a menacing hand.

Primarily just to get away from him, Miranda darted into the room and slammed the door behind her. The solid wood felt good against her back because it held Barlow out. A candle burned on the windowsill, and she saw a man sitting on the bed. Sometimes the men were rough and nasty, like Barlow, and even when she could control the situation, she was always afraid.

Cautiously the figure on the bed rose and walked up to her. He was a soldier. Miranda recognized the brown uniform of Lord Doamir’s militia. His short sword was still buckled around his waist. The soldier was young, not even Miranda’s age.

Hesitantly he reached out and touched her face with a shy gentleness.

“You are very pretty,” he whispered, leaning closer.

Miranda realized she was trembling and tried to steady herself. She had learned it was best not to show fear.

The soldier took her hand. “Come sit,” he invited, prying her off the door.

Woodenly she moved with him and sat down on the edge of the bed. His kindness disarmed her. He unbuckled his weaponry and slid out of his tunic. He began to untie his shirt collar but stopped because she did not follow his example.

“I do not want to be here,” she confessed.

A puzzled expression crossed his face. Obviously he thought he had purchased the company of a willing woman. Checking his sense of urgency, the soldier sat next to her, and with a tenderness unfamiliar to her, took her by the shoulders.

Softly he said, “I—I go to war tomorrow. I go to face the Atrophane Horde. Give me, lady, a last night of pleasure. I won’t hurt you.”

Miranda now saw the fear in his eyes that mirrored her own. In his features she could see the boy that lingered in the man, and it saddened her that he had to go face death. Suspecting that she may soon have to face death as well, Miranda agreed with his request for pleasure. He at least was going to defend the settlement and he had already shown her more kindness and respect than Barlow ever could.

He happily embraced her and kissed her boldly. Miranda awkwardly accepted his passion and gradually let it take hold of her. Barlow had always forced himself on her from a young age, an ordeal she avoided as much as possible, but this was different. She suddenly desired this stranger, whose young body seethed with excitement.

The young soldier kissed down her neck and between her breasts, loosening clothing as he went. A stray hand pulled away garments until he told Miranda to finish taking off her clothes. He lay back on the bed and removed his remaining garments. The last of the candle light danced on their strong young bodies. Still a little voluptuous from her recent pregnancy, Miranda fell nakedly into his arms, thrilling at the heat of his body. They enjoyed each other several times. Miranda obliged him willingly, thankful to know that there could be pleasures between a man and a woman.

Very late into the night the soldier was satisfied and slipped into a peaceful sleep. He had given her a few more coins in gratitude. Poverty motivated her to accept, but she would have to be careful. Barlow always beat her if he discovered her extra gifts. Miranda lingered by the soldier a moment more to savor the glow of her ecstasy. Such a thing would probably not happen again for a long time, if ever.

Finally she kissed him and wished that he would not die. She knew it was time to leave. The children had been unattended much too long, and she understood that it was not her place to stay. Despite their primal employment of each other, he was not her lover, only a paying customer. Miranda mostly regretted that Barlow received most of the money instead of her.

Slipping from the bed, Miranda sorted out her clothes in the dark. While she dressed, he did not wake, but that was fine.

What would I say anyway, she thought sadly.

The tavern had grown quiet, and she rushed down the stairs, eager to return to her children. She almost tripped over Barlow, who had passed out on the bottom step. She longed to kick him, but waking him would not be worth it.

Returning to the stable, she was relieved to see the children snuggled in the stall where she had left them. She cursed Barlow for forcing her to neglect them, and she cursed herself for not being capable of resisting Barlow. Drained by the night’s events, she sank into the straw. She recalled her brief pleasure with the young soldier, and then tucked away the memory where it would not distract her too often. Her satisfaction tonight had been a lucky accident, and she sternly warned herself never to hope for such things.

A couple hours remained before dawn, and she dropped into a deep sleep. Harsh dreams cruised her mind again. The young soldier approached her, and at first she was glad and felt desire for him.

He held out his arms to her and cried, “Help me! Please help me.”

Now a terrible wound opened on his head, and blood ran down his face.

“Mama, what is wrong with him?”

Miranda looked down and saw Elendra holding her infant brother. They both looked small and helpless.

The soldier collapsed and Elendra asked, “Will I die like him?”

A gash opened on Elendra’s forehead and blood dripped onto the baby. Unable to bear the horror, Miranda opened her eyes. Convulsively she hugged Elendra and petted her forehead, trying to convince herself that her daughter was unharmed. The girl murmured and snuggled deeper into her mother’s arms.

Miranda knew that Elendra trusted her automatically but feared that her daughter’s faith was misguided. The nightmares shattered any hope she might have had in castle walls, and the petrifying images warned her to take her children farther from the Atrophane Horde. Hiding inside a fortress that they would surely attack seemed preposterous.

A cockcrow bounced harshly off the fortress walls as the sun rose with the promise of a hot muggy day. The back door of the tavern banged open and Miranda heard a disturbance that sounded like the barkeep kicking Barlow out. Their arrangement was obviously for him to sleep outside.

Cringing, Miranda considered her problems doubled now that Barlow was up and around. No doubt he would rent her out again tonight, and anger rose inside her like a demon. She jumped up to face him as he came around the corner. His stringy black hair hung over bloodshot eyes, and he smiled at her acidic gaze.

“Up so early, Miranda?” he chuckled. “Better get your rest. We’ll need more money.”

Miranda’s lower lip trembled with bottled rage. Ignoring her, he grabbed their bucket and wandered away to get water. Disgusted that she had been unable to confront Barlow with a single word, Miranda sobbed with emotion. In her despair, she decided something had to change.

It had never happened before, despite years of cruel domination, but this morning murder sprouted in her heart. Tonight she would not let Barlow control her, and he would not profit from making her a whore.

The river crossing would be dangerous. The loss of some men and horses could be expected, but the overwhelming numbers of the Atrophane Horde would prevail. Dreibrand Veta was glad to lead the first wave of soldiers across the water even though officers of his rank did not usually put themselves at the forefront of battle.

But Dreibrand differed from the other lieutenants of the Lord General Kwan. He needed to try harder. Nothing less than his exploits and bravery would counteract the disgrace that burdened the Veta name.

The breath of horses and men steamed in the predawn chill of the spring night. The water would be cold, but Dreibrand knew he would soon have the heat of battle to keep him warm. He could feel the nervous agitation around him. Although Atrophane soldiers had complete confidence in their abilities, each man knew he would be vulnerable while in the middle of the river.

Their only protection would be the darkness. The blare of trumpets and thunder of drums that usually heralded the onslaught of the Atrophane would not be used tonight. Quiet and darkness would usher the conquerors into the Bosta heartland. The dawn would come, and the Bostas would see their existence as a free people end.

Calmly, Dreibrand gave the order to advance. Lord Kwan had honored him by allowing him to coordinate the crossing and decide the correct moment to start.

The hooves of Starfield, the dappled gray warhorse that Dreibrand rode, plunged first into the flowing water. Dreibrand liked being first. The splashing of hundreds of riders and the snorting of displeased horses warned the Bostas lining the opposite bank that the crossing began.

Dreibrand brought his shield up to his nose because arrows would soon be flying blindly through the dark. In his other hand, his sword was out and ready, waiting only to reach land and seek out the enemy.

Obediently, Starfield surged ahead and the water was soon flowing around Dreibrand’s feet. The water jumped over the tops of his boots, and he shivered from the sudden coldness that contrasted to the excited sweat beneath his clothing and armor.

The twang and whistle of countless arrows soon sang through the air. One glanced off Dreibrand’s shield and he asked the war god Golan to spare him from lucky shots in the night. A few cries of pain rose from the ranks, and one horse squealed from a terrible wound.

Dreibrand felt as if he was in the middle of the river for hours, although he knew the river was narrow and shallow compared to the greatness it achieved farther south. Finally the agony of anticipation ended, and his horse lurched up the bank. Dreibrand yelled and water splashed in every direction as the soldiers all around him rushed out of the water.

The Bostas swarmed on the shore, hoping to drive back the invaders while they were still in the water. Fighters on horseback and on foot hurled themselves at the Atrophane, and the crash of weapons erupted loudly. The dark made the struggle desperate and difficult, and combatants could barely see with whom they exchanged blows.

Knowing that only enemies could be in front of him, Dreibrand slashed with abandon, cutting down anyone who defied him. His powerful steed trampled and leaped over Bostas, and Dreibrand steadily gained a hold on the muddy bank.

A bleak gray line emerged in the east and lighted a depressing scene for the Bostas. Wherever the river could be forded, Atrophane soldiers pushed across the water on their horses or on rafts, and twenty times as many soldiers waited behind those already in the river. When defenders beheld the very vastness of the Atrophane Horde, their hearts usually quailed, and like those before them, the Bostas sensed the futility of their courage. For decades now the Atrophane had been rolling westward, expanding their Empire, and their reputation for victory was well established.

Despite a certainty of defeat, the Bostas decided that the Atrophane would have to buy their victory with blood. More than able to pay, the Atrophane smashed the valiant resistance and pushed the Bostas back toward their stronghold. The relatively small force of Bosta defenders could not repel the thousands of well-trained and heavily armed Atrophane. As the Bostas retreated to rally at their fortress, Atrophane foot soldiers were tripping over the thick sprawl of bodies on the riverbank.

Assembling the soldiers specifically under his command, Dreibrand charged after the Bostas just long enough to make sure they were serious about their retreat, and then he relented. He had accomplished his mission to win the opposite bank, and now he must secure their position and wait for the rest of the Horde to catch up. The engineers would have to ferry across the battering rams and assemble the siege engines before they could advance on the fortress.

The day had barely begun and bits of fog still lingered along the river. Panting, Dreibrand slung his shield over his back and pulled out a cloth to clean the blood from his sword. The gleam of the expensive steel returned as he wiped away the filth of battle. Nearby a soldier plunged a spear into a wounded Bosta. Seeing his oncoming death, the Bosta had pleaded for mercy. Dreibrand had come to know the word for mercy in the western tongues.

After confirming that all was well, Dreibrand returned to the riverbank to wait for Lord Kwan to arrive. The Lord General would be pleased with him and the Bostas would soon be conquered.

The next day the fortress of the Bostas was captured and the local lord beheaded. Sometimes the Atrophane maintained local leaders, but here on the frontier, no regime was significant enough to employ.

Dreibrand had not even noticed the name of the town around this Bosta fortress, and he did not care. Compared to the mighty city-states of the east and the rich trading cities of the delta, these back country settlements hardly mattered. The Atrophane had easily crushed the rudimentary facade of civilization that the Bostas considered a fortress. The rams had shattered the gates, and the stone walls had been too low to even challenge the siege towers and ladders.

Enjoying the afternoon sunshine, Dreibrand sat on a campstool and precisely shaved himself while his squire held a small mirror for him. Dreibrand had a serious face with a heavy brow, and his bright blue eyes advertised his intelligence. He had straight sandy hair that fell almost to his shoulders, as was the fashion for Atrophane men.

The squire handed Dreibrand a towel and then dutifully cleaned and put away the razor. After buttoning his shirt, Dreibrand pulled on his quilted silk jacket that padded him beneath his armor. Lord Kwan would be expecting a report soon, and he needed to get himself presentable.

Seeing that his master was ready, the squire grabbed the chestplate of armor. Dreibrand stood up while his servant buckled the armor in place. Like any squire, the youth was from a lower class and seeking access to higher circles by serving important people. This squire always did a good job, and Dreibrand found it unfortunate that his reference would probably hinder the young man more than it would help him.

Maybe in his class his name is mud just like mine, Dreibrand mused.

“Sir, when will we ever go back to Atrophane? I have never felt so far away from anything,” the squire complained and rolled his eyes at the hopelessly rural surroundings.

 “The adventure of riding with the Horde should not allow for homesickness,” Dreibrand scolded with good nature.

“I think the adventure is over, Sir,” the squire said. The squeal of a pig being butchered somewhere in the encampment marked his point.

 Dreibrand looked around the sprawl of the army in repose. The red fabric tents of the Lord General and his officers had been put up, and the weathered tan tents of the common soldiers encircled the ruined town. Many soldiers were getting their first bit of rest since entering Bosta territory, and they reclined by campfires. Other men organized the plunder of the Bostas. Although not as exciting as gold and jewels, the foodstuffs, and leather goods, and furs were satisfying and valuable. The soldiers had also divvied any stores of wine and beer that had been discovered, but they would not last long among so many. Captives were being sorted and held inside the remains of the stone fortress. Those that were fit would be sent away to serve the needs of the Empire.

Dreibrand liked the Horde when it was this way, happy and satiated. The drifting smoke from the defeated town marred the blue sky, but it did not damage Dreibrand’s mood. To him the torn town represented the bones of a small feast.

Turning back to his squire, he said, “The adventure is not over. Soon we shall see the Wilderness.”

Politely the servant nodded, but he did not share in Dreibrand’s fascination with the Wilderness.

Ever since Dreibrand had been a boy, the blank place on all maps of Ektren, labeled only as the Wilderness, had captured his imagination. Whenever life in Atrophane had been frustrating or unfair, his mind had often retreated into the possibilities of that mysterious land. Supposedly no one lived there, but he found that difficult to believe. He approached the Wilderness now and he would soon know the unknown.

Tossing on his cape, Dreibrand strode toward Lord Kwan’s tent. He was glad he had a spare pair of boots while the others dried out. When he arrived at the large red tent of the Lord General, he could hear laughter inside and he recognized the voice of Sandin Promentro. Dreibrand frowned when he thought of the senior lieutenant exchanging pleasantries with Lord Kwan. Naturally coveting the favor he received from the Lord General, Dreibrand resented the competition from Lieutenant Sandin, who had served Kwan longer than the other officers.

The guards outside the tent saluted Dreibrand, and then one ducked inside to announce him. A few more jocularities were shared before Dreibrand heard the Lord General dismiss Sandin.

Sandin emerged from the tent bearing a happy expression, but when he saw Dreibrand, he appeared to become even more pleased. Sandin’s gray eyes twinkled and he smirked at Dreibrand with his usual arrogance.

“Hey schoolboy,” Sandin said, and it was one of his favorite derogatory greetings.

Instantly angry, Dreibrand grabbed Sandin’s forearm but the other lieutenant did not flinch. Locking eyes with Dreibrand, Sandin jerked out of the grip. Physically both men were matched, but Sandin had the psychological edge over Dreibrand, and he knew it.

“What are you going to do?” Sandin demanded.

Sick with anger, Dreibrand lowered his hand. He knew better than to react to Sandin’s taunts. If he struck a senior officer, Lord Kwan would have to discipline him, and that would only lessen the Lord General’s opinion of him, which was Sandin’s whole purpose.

“Some day…” Dreibrand growled.

“Some day you will take orders from me,” Sandin sneered.

Dreibrand stoically let the sting sink in while Sandin walked away. He had no time for anger now. Composing himself for his meeting with his commander and lord, Dreibrand entered the tent. The sun glowed warmly through the red fabric roof, and he dropped to one knee and kept his eyes focused on the multi-colored rugs.

“Dreibrand, come sit.”

The rich and confident voice of the Lord General welcomed his lieutenant, and the tone was friendly. Kwan noticed that Dreibrand sprang to his feet so quickly that he must not have committed much weight to his knee.

This one never really kneels, Kwan thought.

Dreibrand approached the center of the tent where Kwan sat on his cushions. Long white hair flowed from the edges of Kwan’s bald head, and the famous Atrophane military leader had a perfect white goatee. His leathery skin was tan, except for a white scar riding his right jawline. Heavy layers of black and white silk clothed his body, and a plate of armor covered his chest. The design of a winged beast holding two spears was stamped into the black metal of the armor and highlighted with silver tracery. The surreal bird warrior symbolized his ancient clan, the Chenomet.

Casually, Dreibrand settled down among the cushions.

Kwan looked fondly at his officer. Organizing a hostile river crossing was tricky business with thousands of soldiers, and Dreibrand had made it look easy. And of course the lieutenant had led it personally because Dreibrand always led his offensives, but Kwan had already congratulated him for that. He used praise sparingly with Dreibrand after noticing the love the soldiers had for the bold young officer, even those under the command of other lieutenants.

Two years ago Kwan had allowed Dreibrand to purchase a commission in his Horde. When the recent graduate of the Darmar’s military academy had approached him seeking to serve, Kwan had been shocked. How could a Veta hope to be accepted by the Empire’s most powerful Hordemaster? But the intense young man with his impressive academy record remained in Kwan’s mind, and he discreetly investigated the youngest son of the House of Veta. It surprised him to learn that this Veta was not only ambitious but discriminating too. Dreibrand had not sought commissions from any of the lesser generals.

Then Kwan had realized that Dreibrand would have to work harder to sustain his military career because of the beleaguered status of his family. He could demand twice as much from Dreibrand for the privilege of becoming one of his lieutenants, and Kwan would get an especially diligent officer.

Dreibrand, however, had turned out to be a better officer than anyone had thought possible. After two years of campaigning, Kwan had seen in Dreibrand a natural talent for leadership, bravery, intelligence, and drive.

These things reminded Kwan of himself.

After politely greeting his Lord General, Dreibrand gave his report. He detailed the amount of men he had lost or were seriously injured. He reported how many horses had been lost, and how many horses had been captured from the enemy, but he commented that they were of smaller stock. He included amounts of other captured goods and estimated their value, and he relayed the reports from his scouting parties concerning remaining enemy activity in the hills.

“And the slavers are sorting the captives as we speak,” Dreibrand concluded.

Kwan had listened to the figures and facts, enjoying the thoroughness.

“Excellent, Dreibrand. Everything is going well,” Kwan said.

“And we are almost off the map, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan smiled because the Wilderness intrigued him as well. When he had conquered all the rich kingdoms outside Atrophane, his attention had turned to the mysterious lands beyond the known lands of Ektren. If he could take what belonged to any man, he could certainly take what belonged to no man.

“Soon the secrets of the Wilderness in the west will be known in Atrophane,” Kwan predicted confidently. “And the maps will have to be remade.”

“You have remade maps before, my Lord,” Dreibrand said.

Kwan admired how Dreibrand always knew when to add an endearing comment.

“And what will you do with the rest of your day?” Kwan asked.

Dreibrand had wanted to talk about the Wilderness more, but if the Lord General wanted to change the subject, then it had to be that way. Dreibrand considered his answer carefully, knowing Kwan’s question was a test. In these private meetings Kwan often coached his young lieutenant, and Dreibrand appreciated the guidance.

Hoping Kwan would think his activity suitable, Dreibrand replied, “I plan to speak with some of the captives. Learn information about the area, and practice their language.”

With approval Kwan nodded. Dreibrand’s skill with language had often been indispensable because trustworthy interpreters were hard to come by in enemy territory.

“If you learn anything interesting, report back,” Kwan instructed.

“Of course, my Lord,” Dreibrand said. “Do you have any other orders?”

“Not for now. Let the men rest. We will move out soon,” Kwan said.

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement, but before he could raise the subject of the Wilderness again, Kwan dismissed him.

Dreibrand spent the rest of that day examining captives. The courtyard of the ransacked fortress made a gloomy setting in the late day sun. People had been chained and separated by sex into groups. Almost two hundred Bostas had been taken prisoner during the fighting. The others had died or fled west into the hills. Just as many Atrophane soldiers milled around the courtyard, plus the civilian slavers who followed the Horde.

Dreibrand studied the captives at length. He could see that they hated him. The harshness of defeat was still fresh, and none of them would want to talk to him. He would have to find a way to insure a productive conversation.

Dreibrand entered the guardhouse beside the broken gate, stepping over a dramatic splash of blood that stained the threshold. Earlier, he had pointed out his first two captives and instructed his men to bring the man in first.

A tall wiry man was brought inside the front room. Dreibrand sat at a table, and the soldiers pushed the prisoner into a chair across from the Atrophane lieutenant. The chains on his wrists clanged against the table. A plate of food waited in front of the prisoner, but he did not touch it. His skin was dirty and his hands were still trembling after his futile exertions to defend his homeland.

“The food is good,” Dreibrand said. He knew the food thing was a simple ploy, but sometimes it worked very well with prisoners. The stubborn vestige of pride left in the glare of this Bosta told Dreibrand that the prisoner was not hungry enough to take the food. Without giving the Bosta time to reconsider, Dreibrand handed the plate to his men, who then passed it around and ate.

Dreibrand asked the man for his name, but he got no response. Leaning back in his chair, Dreibrand took out his ivory handled dagger and saw his captive look nervously at the keen blade.

“I will tell you nothing,” the Bosta snarled.

“You do not even know what I want to talk about,” Dreibrand said.

“Stop speaking my language. I hate your accent,” the captive growled.

Gesturing with his dagger, Dreibrand insinuated, “I know other ways of communication.”

The Bosta looked down with resignation. Dreibrand signaled to a soldier, who departed to grab the other captive. The cry of a woman came from across the courtyard, followed by a cry of protest from another female. Dreibrand kept his focus on the Bosta man, who squirmed in his chair. He clearly wanted to go to the window, but the two Atrophane standing behind him held him in place.

“Keep a hold of him,” Dreibrand instructed while getting up to open the door.

The crunch of boots on gravel and the scrape of resisting steps approached the door. The Bosta man turned to see the other captive enter. Emotion surged across his face and he strained against the grip of his guards. Dreibrand saw that the man came close to crying out.

Dreibrand seized the chain hanging between the woman’s wrists and pulled her close. Now that the two captives were in the same room, their family resemblance became clear. Dreibrand guessed that she was his sister. Relatives could usually be picked out from a town’s captives, if one tried.

The woman struggled at her bonds and pulled away from Dreibrand.

“I think she likes me,” Dreibrand joked.

The Bosta man became livid. “You are scum!” he cried and spat at Dreibrand’s feet.

One of the Atrophane soldiers restraining the captive swatted him across the face. The woman screamed. Without any orders to stop, the soldiers continued to punch the captive. Dreibrand held the woman back when she lunged to assist her abused relative.

“If dear brother does not talk with me, it will be your turn next,” Dreibrand warned.

The Bosta woman began to sob, and Dreibrand told his men to desist. Sending the female captive back outside, Dreibrand reseated himself at the table.

“You care about your sister. I can see this,” Dreibrand said.

The captive wiped blood away from his upper lip, but he appeared to be listening.

“And I am sure you care about her future,” Dreibrand concluded.

The bloodshot eyes of the captive widened as he considered the implications of this statement.

“I cannot betray my people,” the Bosta whispered half to himself.

“If you refer to your countrymen hiding in the hills, do not be so concerned. They will show themselves soon enough. Now I only want to have a civilized talk,” Dreibrand said.

“Civilized? You are slavers,” the captive sneered, holding up his chains.

“I have seen Bostas selling slaves downriver,” Dreibrand replied coolly.

Dejected, the man said nothing.

Dreibrand continued, “I can see that your sister does not become a slave. She can stay here and live her life.”

The offer tempted the Bosta man, but his shoulders sagged because his conqueror had to be teasing him with a fantasy.

“Your sister has to be worth at least risking that I am honest,” Dreibrand reasoned. “And I give you my word.”

“What do you want to talk about?” the captive mumbled and hung his head.

Grinning happily, Dreibrand answered, “I want to talk about the Wilderness.”

“Is that why you are here?” chuckled the Bosta man.

“We are close, right? Over the next line of hills is the Wilderness.” Dreibrand went straight to business, ignoring the amusement the captive seemed to find in the subject.

Thinking of his sister, the captive hesitated. He told himself that the Atrophane had to be lying, but what if he was not lying?

To goad his thoughts in the right direction Dreibrand said, “I hope your sister is sold to a kind master. Some are cruel and take advantage of the abundance of slaves.”

The Bosta man shut his eyes. “Yes. Over the next line of hills you will see the Wilderness. There is only one more settlement,” he answered.

“And what can you tell me of this place?” Dreibrand asked.

“There is a fortress, a few villages,” the captive said.

Dreibrand stopped him. “Not the settlement. The Wilderness. Tell me about that.”

The Bosta narrowed his eyes and replied, “I should tell you nothing. But because I can see that you will go there, I will tell you this—do not go there. Now, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that you will think of my advice when you die.”

“Why would I die?” Dreibrand wondered.

“Because the Wilderness consumes all men,” explained the captive.

“What peoples live there?” Dreibrand demanded, suspecting that an unknown people defended the land.

Again the Bosta laughed. “No people live there. Any who dare enter never come back. No one lives west of Droxy.”

Dreibrand contemplated this information. He remembered the name of Droxy from the map. It was the farthest outpost of civilization.

“Why can no one live west of Droxy?” he asked.

“The Wilderness is evil. Have not the stories gone all the way east? Beasts and spirits rule the land, and it is not a place for men,” the captive said.

“Go on,” Dreiband prompted.

Deciding it would not harm his people to talk about it, the Bosta man continued, “Our oldest legends warn us of the evil in the west. It is said that thousands of years ago a war between Gods was fought in the Wilderness, and now their spirits guard the land. Also beasts prowl the forests. I have talked to people from Droxy who claim to have heard the howl of a fenthakrabi.”

“What is that?” Dreibrand demanded while trying to process the new word.

The captive smiled as if he already had his revenge upon the Atrophane. “Like I said, a beast.”

Dreibrand frowned. The man had to be making things up. He had hoped to learn something concrete instead of exaggerated folk tales. For months Dreibrand had been asking these questions as the Horde rolled westward, but the answers only became more cryptic as he approached the Wilderness.

Weary of the captive, Dreibrand ended the interrogation. As the soldiers yanked him toward the door, the Bosta man cried, “What about my sister?”

Dreibrand pursed his lips in thought. The stricken suspense on the captive’s face did have some sick appeal, but Dreibrand did not have a rotten heart.

“Set her free,” he ordered.

Instead of questioning more prisoners, Dreibrand retired to his tent. It was night now, but he did not feel tired at all. Lying awake, he stared at the light from the small oil lamp flickering on the red fabric. The light pulsed and fluttered like shades at an unholy celebration. Around him Dreibrand heard the noises of the Horde in repose. The mix of sounds from the thousands of soldiers was the only thing that eased his loneliness anymore. Sometimes he brought a female captive to his tent, if he fancied one, but that had ceased to suit him and he had recently lapsed into a strict solitude.

Thoughts of the Wilderness obsessed his mind, and he could almost feel the great land beckoning him from over the hills.

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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.
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