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

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

“Come on,” Miranda said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just send the Zenglawa home,” Miranda recommended.

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

“Will it hurt him?” Miranda whispered.

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

Dreibrand’s eyes lit up with excitement.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

“That is not determined,” Shan stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, at once,” Dreibrand answered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Dreibrand prompted.

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

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

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

“These are ambitious times,” Dreibrand sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nuram glowed under the compliment.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

The Rys Chronicles continue in

Book II

The Goddess Queen

available at www.braveluck.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sutah! Shoot him,” Pelafan cried urgently.

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

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

“I’ll kill both of you!” he yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second eagerly complied.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Shan?” hissed the Overlord.

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” Misho whispered weakly.

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

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

“Stand up,” Redan hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redan thanked him sincerely.

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

Redan grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

“A suitable servant for Onja,” muttered Dreibrand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have business ahead,” Pelafan grumbled dismissively.

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

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

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

“How?” Sutah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” Pelafan beamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only forty,” Pelafan replied eagerly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Dreibrand asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nufal was broken and dying but Dacian did not revel in his victory. A madness struck the King of Jingten and he cursed his own genius that won the war. He commanded our agents to put their weapons in the water, and when they did not want to, he made them obey with his magic—Urlen, Kezanada chronicler, year six of Amar’s Overlordship.

When the Atrophane heard that the rys Queen commanded them to stay in Jingten until spring, their impulse was to rush into the open city and conquer it. Kwan longed to do the same, but he would not allow it. More needed to be known about rys powers before attempting aggression. The Lord General ordered his men to be patient and observe the enemy.

Life remained pleasant for the humans, and the Jingten Valley grew more beautiful every day as the golden hues of autumn mingled with the deep green conifers. Although the Atrophane still camped in the forest, the rys supplied them well and were gradually outfitting some unused buildings for their housing.

Even a month after meeting the intimidating Queen Onja, Kwan still found the gathering of information about the rys to be painfully slow. His greatest obstacle was the language and he prioritized learning it and bade all of his men to pursue this interest. Unfortunately, the rys appeared to take little outward interest in the humans and they were openly snobby, rarely attempting to speak with them.

However, Taf Ila visited the camp daily and Kwan sought to learn from him. The rys captain showed little desire to oblige Kwan, but the Lord General wore him down with persistence, following the captain and asking incessant questions.

Because Onja had not forbidden it, Taf Ila finally began teaching Kwan in brief daily lessons. Giving the human some time each day was far better than suffering his constant badgering in a foreign language.

At first, progress was slow for Kwan. For a lifetime he had spoken only his native language. The conquered could learn to speak Atrophaney as far as he had been concerned, but now necessity motivated Kwan and he practiced diligently.

Learning the rys language from Taf Ila’s uninspired tutoring might have proved impossible for Kwan, but then the rys began to enjoy his daily sessions with Kwan and they became longer and more detailed. In all his centuries of life, Taf Ila had dealt with many humans on an official basis but he had never interacted with one on such a personal level before. His time with the human increasingly pleased him and Taf Ila grew to appreciate the other race, enjoying the differences and being surprised by the similarities.

Yet, Taf Ila disliked the presence of the humans because they reminded him of the changing times. He knew Queen Onja plotted to dominate Kwan’s homeland and in the mean time use his army in the coming war with Shan.

This war with Shan troubled Taf Ila most of all. The news from the lowlands was never good these days and getting worse.

Keeping his worries to himself, Taf Ila continued teaching Kwan. One afternoon during a lesson, they sat on a hillside overlooking Jingten. The humans would be moved into the city that night, but until then Taf Ila wished to enjoy the fine day out of the city. Pointing to the surrounding peaks, the rys told Kwan their names, obviously pleased to describe his homeland. Attentively Kwan listened. All knowledge of this strange land was good.

Abruptly Taf Ila halted his lecture and turned toward the trail that zigzagged up the hill. His relaxed and happy demeanor faded as he sensed his daughter approaching. He jumped up and marched down the trail.

Wondering what had disturbed his teacher, Kwan followed and saw a rys female scrambling up the slope.

“Hello Father!”

Kwan understood the greeting, but Taf Ila had never mentioned he had a family. Although rys did not show their age much, Kwan judged the female to be youthful. He thought she was lovely with fine sharp features and pure black hair, glistening like spun onyx. The tone Taf Ila used with the fair child surprised Kwan.

“Why are you here?” Taf Ila barked. “I told you not to come near the humans, and now you have just crossed their encampment.”

Quylan started to explain herself but her father interrupted.

“You have directly disobeyed me,” Taf Ila accused. I was having such a good day, he lamented.

“But I have a reason!” she blurted. “The Kezanada Overlord approaches.”

Looking at the west road in the valley below, Taf Ila said, “How do you know this?”

Quylan straightened her shoulders proudly and replied, “I perceived them. They are still many hasas away but I can see farther than most rys. No one else in the city has noticed their approach—”

“Stop bragging,” Taf Ila cut her off although her rapidly maturing powers impressed him. He knew his daughter could see even outside the Rysamand. “I assure you Queen Onja took note of them long before you did.”

Quylan frowned at the reminder but continued, “Father, I had to find you. Please let me come with you to the Keep when the Kezanada arrive. I must hear their news. Too many warding crystals protect the throne room and I will not be able to listen to the Overlord’s meeting with the Queen.”

Taf Ila gasped at his daughter’s words. He wanted to grab her and shake her, but he would never treat her roughly. His voice shook with emotion when he ordered, “Do not ever spy on Onja! Where do you even get such ideas? Quylan, do you think your silly young mind could elude the Queen? Onja would perceive you in a second.”

“Then take me with you, Father. Then I will have no need to spy,” she pleaded.

Sorry for his anger, Taf Ila said softly, “Do not concern yourself with such things. It is only the Kezanada tribute caravan.”

“But they are early!” Quylan insisted. Tribute caravans were never early.

Taf Ila shrugged. “The Kezanada are wealthy. They do not care when they pay.”

“But they must have news of Shan. Something must have happened,” Quylan said, revealing her true concern.

“Who are Kezanada?” Kwan interjected. Although he had not gathered why Taf Ila was upset with his daughter, Kwan did understand that a group called Kezanada approached the city.

Taf Ila had almost forgotten that Kwan waited nearby. He tried to explain, “They are…mercenaries. A society who sell their services.”

“They Onja’s enemy? Attack Jingten?” Kwan asked, almost hoping to see some action and maybe free himself of Onja before winter.

“No. They are no threat. They are paying their taxes,” Taf Ila said.

Disappointed, Kwan wondered what this society of mercenaries was like and why they paid taxes.

“Are Kezanada rys?” he asked.

Such a notion offended Taf Ila but he reminded himself that Kwan asked only out of genuine ignorance. “Humans,” he answered bluntly.

Since Kwan had spoken, Quylan had been staring at the human from the east.

“He does not look like the other humans,” she whispered.

“The humans from the east look different, but they are still humans,” Taf Ila explained quietly.

Kwan decided to introduce himself because they were talking about him. “Lord Kwan of Atrophane. Hello, daughter of Taf Ila.” He bowed politely.

His manners impressed Quylan. A human had never addressed her before and the encounter fascinated her. Taf Ila put a protective arm around his daughter and pulled her close. Normally he would not have introduced her to a human, but he felt the impulse to extend Kwan this courtesy.

“This is Quylan,” he said.

Kwan made an effort to recall some new vocabulary and managed to compliment, “She make you proud.”

With an exasperated smile Taf Ila admitted, “She makes me lose sleep.”

“Daughters,” Kwan laughed. “I have two girls.” He realized he had not thought about them for a long time.

“Then you will understand that you must excuse me. I have to take this daughter home,” Taf Ila said.

“Father, I want to go to the Keep,” she protested.

Taf Ila gently insisted, “I shall take you home, but I will tell you any news as soon as I can.”

Quylan had to accept her father’s decision but she pouted with disappointment.

“I hope Shan still lives,” she said.

Taf Ila winced. “Stop talking about Shan,” he ordered. “Lord Kwan, I will send rys to see you and your men to your new quarters tonight. I may not be available, but if you have any problems, send word to me at the Keep.”

Kwan nodded and thanked him. He wanted to ask more questions, but Taf Ila hurried away with his stunning daughter.

Now who is this Shan? Kwan thought.

~

Onja settled into her throne, excited to receive the Kezanada Overlord. Since the rysmavda executions in Dengar Nor, she had not observed the lowlands and she was looking forward to good news from the Overlord. The audacity of Shan’s tactics had angered her so terribly that she had stopped watching. His strategy would lose its effectiveness on her if she ignored it. If she did not see what was meant to frustrate her and advertise her reduced range of power, she would not suffer from the mental toll Shan wished to take from her mind.

The lives of a few priests were insignificant, and Onja had placed her hope in the Kezanada. She knew they had been massing for a strike against Shan and today Onja dared to think that they had been successful.

So pleased by the thought that the Kezanada had completed their assignment, Onja did not probe the mind of the approaching Overlord for confirmation. If Shan was dead, she wanted to experience the moment of delight without forewarning. Onja had even devised a special spell of preservation for Shan’s head to keep the trophy fresh and glorious.

The great doors opposite the Queen parted, admitting the Overlord and his entourage. The Overlord strode across the cool marble with the confidence of a very powerful man. He was a man of large build with a hefty girth and huge arms bulging with muscle. One long braid hung down his back, ending in a clasp set with a large ruby. A gold trimmed black mask covered half of his face because it was traditional for Kezanada to conceal their identities from people outside their society. His dark eyes peered through the mask with a cunning gleam. He possessed a creative and cruel intelligence that was sometimes subdued by the various things he put in his pipe. But today his mind was sharp and clear, as it always was when he met with Onja.

A jeweled belt held a scimitar to his waist and his mighty frame was clothed in richly embroidered robes that were trimmed with brightly dyed furs. His apparel conveyed a sense of excessive wealth more than taste, but the Overlord did not care if Onja saw how rich the Kezanada were. Most of the wealthy and powerful segments of society hired the Kezanada occasionally, and Onja often employed the Kezanada as agents of her malice. This gave the Kezanada the distinction of actually earning more from Onja than they paid in tribute. As the Overlord often liked to note, the rys so hated getting their hands dirty.

Onja clawed the armrests of her throne as she anticipated the news she wanted to hear. The Overlord stopped before her dais and kneeled, as did the rows of Kezanada behind him, who all looked the same in their horsetailed helmets with their visors down. Unmasked servants with shaved heads carried a large chest to the front of the throne room, stopping beside the Overlord.

Normally Onja would speak first, but she remained strangely silent. With his knees beginning to ache under his weight, the Overlord decided to proceed. Rising, he stepped over to the chest, and with a flourish, he flung it open. Gold, silver, jewels, curious rare crystals, chunks of uncut jade, and lovely figurines carved from alabaster and studded with lapis lazuli filled the chest.

The Overlord was fluent in the rys language, which was rare for humans, and he began his speech. “The Kezanada respectfully present their Goddess Queen, fair mistress of Jingten, with the finest prizes we have to offer from a year’s labor. Along with this magnificent chest of treasure, the Kezanada have brought cattle, grain, fine furs, and many items that will please the citizens of Jingten.”

With a sick expression Onja stared at the chest, curling her lips with displeasure. It was just the Kezanada’s usual tribute and the Overlord was giving his same old boring speech. The twinkle of treasure had never looked so dull to Onja. Somehow, Shan had robbed her of even this pleasure.

“Stop!” she thundered.

The Overlord obeyed and crossed his arms patiently. He had been waiting for the outburst.

“You were to bring me Shan’s head. I said you were excused this year’s tribute as downpayment for your service. Why are you here with your junk? Why do you not hunt Shan?” Onja demanded ominously.

The Overlord withstood her angry glare and explained, “The Kezanada have lost a hundred good men pursuing Shan. Great Queen Onja, we are only humans, and we cannot get near the powerful rys, who has so offended you. Shan knows where we are before we know where he is.”

Scowling, Onja said, “How could you have lost one hundred Kezanada?”

The Overlord felt his blood pressure surge. The news of the massacre in the Nolesh was still fresh and upsetting. Outwardly he maintained his trademark calm, answering, “I had massed a force in the Temu Domain to fall upon Shan when he left Dengar Nor. Then my people found this force all dead without any sign of battle, without so much as a wound. I can only conclude that Shan killed them with his magic.”

Onja frowned, scolding herself for not monitoring Shan, but she had hoped to avoid the exertion. And she had not expected Shan to do such things.

So, Shan finally used his superior powers to kill his precious humans, Onja thought with wicked satisfaction.

Despite the pleasure Onja gained from knowing how Shan must have been morally tormented by this action, she acknowledged his advanced use of power. Now more than ever, Onja knew she could not allow Shan to return to Jingten.

“So the Kezanada have given up,” Onja criticized.

The Overlord tolerated the sting in her words, but he had a purpose to his patience. “The Kezanada have already suffered their worst defeat in many generations and did not even engage the target. With such losses, we do not profit. The Kezanada have decided it would be worth it just to pay the tribute.”

“Since when can the Kezanada not be bought? Do you not want your revenge?” Onja stormed. She could not imagine that Shan had subdued the notorious Kezanada.

At the mention of revenge a subtle smile curved under the fringe of the Overlord’s mask. “Oh, the Kezanada desire Shan’s head,” he hissed.

“Then why are you here?” the Queen demanded again.

“We require your assistance, Great Queen,” he replied.

Onja glanced uncomfortably toward the attending Taf Ila, remembering his opinion of the bounty on Shan. She knew many rys would disapprove of her increased participation in the hunt for Shan. Onja had no fear of her subjects’ disfavor, but she did not want the distraction of a disgruntled citizenry either.

“Taf Ila, take your squad and leave,” she ordered.

For an instant Taf Ila almost protested the breach of security, but he caught his tongue. Onja and her mercenaries were discussing Shan, and he did not want to be involved. Without a word, he marched out with the guards.

This privacy made the Overlord wonder if he should be worried or impressed. Either way Onja certainly meant to talk seriously.

“What assistance do you have in mind?” Onja asked.

Containing his excitement, the Overlord said, “Give us some magic charm that will protect us from Shan so that we can approach him. Surely you must have such a thing.”

Onja did not answer. Although her face appeared inscrutable, the Overlord could guess that she had something on her mind, something important, something she did not want to tell him about.

Slowly the Queen made her reluctant decision and nodded. “I believe I have some items that will help you. Overlord of the Kezanada, meet me again tomorrow and I will give you that which you ask for.”

The Overlord bowed graciously to Onja and kept his thoughts buried.

Late that night, Hefshul ferried his Queen across the blackened lake. A cold wind howled down from the peaks and the old mute rys had to strain against the waves. Hefshul had long ago given up any concern for Onja’s activities, but his silent thoughts guessed the nature of her errand.

With the skiff rocking against the gravel shore in front of the Tomb of Dacian, Hefshul hunkered down into his fleece coat and watched Onja go ashore. The darkness was briefly broken by the blue sparkle of the Queen opening the magically sealed tower.

Places in the tower had not been entered since the days of warring with Nufal. On the day when Dacian had made his Last Law, the rys had thrown their enchanted weapons into Lake Nin, but Onja had stowed a few arms in the tower and she went to her ancient armory.

Onja removed the seal that she had placed on the armory door twenty-two centuries ago, and the air hissed out, delighting in its escape. Now secrets locked in forgotten silence could get out. A crystal mounted in the wall glowed in her powerful presence, revealing the few weapons that remained on the racks.

Onja remembered when the tower had bustled with activity and the armory had almost been cluttered with fine tools of war. Then she recalled the sickening day when the rys and humans had followed Dacian’s folly and hurled their weapons into the water.  Incredible masterworks of enchanted weapons had sunk into the lake that day, returning their magic to the deep secret waters of the Rysamand. No artisans today possessed the knowledge to remake that which had been thrown away.

But Onja had not let the fools get them all.

She hated to risk her precious collection out in the world in such uneducated hands, and she would not loan out every piece. Humans had not had such weapons to use since the defeat of Nufal, and Shan would not be prepared for this threat that he did not know existed. The enchanted weapons had been crafted specifically for the humans who had served their rys masters on the battlefield.

Delicately Onja plucked a quarrel from the shelf and she stared at the crystal tip of the arrow. Holding the sparkling point near her face, she shuddered as she felt the terrible power within. If this quarrel pierced rys flesh, the crystal tip would deliver a painful and lethal spell.

Only a small stock of the potent quarrels remained and she took these along with two crossbows. Onja gathered six swords with twinkling crystals set in the hilt. She removed her flowing cape and wrapped the weapons into an awkward bundle. When she returned to the skiff with her heavy burden, Hefshul eyed her package. From his vague emotion she sensed his disapproval.

“Row!” she snarled and Hefshul obeyed lazily.

Clutching her dark bundle, Onja wondered why her rys did not appreciate her efforts. She had made the rys of Jingten wealthy, respected, and the supreme race in the entire world, yet they balked when she had to put down one renegade.

The Kezanada Overlord received his summons early the next morning and he hurried to the throne room. Onja was alone and when he kneeled before her, he saw the bundle at the base of the dais.

“Rise and look inside,” Onja bade him.

Eagerly, despite fearing a trick, the Overlord unwrapped the cape and beheld the fine sharp weapons engraved with rys script and embedded with crystals. Reverently he grasped a sword and raised the perfect blade before his masked face. No agent of time could mar the enchanted blade that made the light quiver painfully on its sharp edges.

The history of the Kezanada stretched back even to the Age of Dacian and the fragile lore books had hinted at the existence of the enchanted weapons. When the rys had warred with Nufal, they had crafted arms that would protect them and their human allies from killing spells on the battlefield. The Overlord had hoped that Onja still possessed such things and he could barely suppress his triumphant joy to have the charmed sword in his hand. Onja had to be desperate to let him use this treasure, but he banished that line of reasoning. Even a thought was perilous in the court of Jingten.

“Shan will not be able to sense the warriors who carry these weapons. The enchantments on them will hide their bearers from Shan’s powers of perception and his spells. With these you should be able to arrange an ambush,” Onja explained. “Consider these weapons a loan. Do NOT lose them, and do not fail this time.”

“The Kezanada are honored to use your great treasures, Queen Onja,” the Overlord said solemnly.

Onja continued, “Leave your tribute as a deposit on the weapons. Bring me Shan’s head and my original offer stands. Begone from Jingten, Overlord. Every day Shan lives offends me.”

“He offends the Kezanada as well,” the Overlord agreed while wrapping the weapons.

Bowing deeply, he hoisted the enchanted bundle in his mighty arms. He would lead this mission himself and he needed his seven finest Kezanada to raise these magic weapons at his side. As he departed, his mind was already going over a list of candidates.

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.

Shan was kind to visit me as my days come to their end. He listened patiently as I recalled the adventures of my youth. He was at my side then, but he does not seem a day older now. I know that he has changed but the changes have taken a lifetime to see, like watching a tree grow or noticing the course of a river shifting after many seasons. He is becoming powerful and some day he will stop the evil that festers in the mountains. I can die believing this—Chendoaser, Nuram ruler, year 1882 of the Age of Onja.

The fuzzy blackness emerged into a painful grayness. Dreibrand opened his eyes slightly, but even the overcast day provided a vengeful glare. His skull felt like a year old walnut shell, and he ached like a teenager after his first bender. Close dark shapes hovered him, and Dreibrand squinted at them. Several smiling Temu children kneeled around him, closely examining the immobile foreigner. His arrival into hurtful consciousness made them all comment with excitement, and their chatter pierced his eardrums like breaking dishes. He implored them to hush, but his furry tongue and dry lips hindered his speech and made them laugh harder.

Escape would be the only chance for relief.

A cool drizzle started and the merciful wet soothed him slightly. Groaning, he sat up. His vision swam and a wave of nausea passed lazily. Apparently he had dropped on the field in a stupor and been left on the ground. The only people present besides the curious children were a few villagers, who were cleaning up the mess from the banquet.

Willpower helped Dreibrand to his feet, and he shuffled to his gear that had been set under the table. He buckled his sword back on and was vaguely pleased to see that his dagger remained in its place. After a brief rest, he reached for his armor. The chestplate slid from his fumbling hands and banged on the table on the way back to the ground. The resulting clang assaulted his abused head and made him shudder. Thoroughly reminded of why he avoided heavy drinking, Dreibrand grabbed his armor and plodded into Fata Nor, searching for a well.

Shan found him kneeling at a basin by a village well literally soaking his head. After drinking and washing, Dreibrand had dozed off with the injured half of his head lying in the shallow water.

“There you are,” Shan declared, easing his friend’s head out of the basin. “I thought I better get you when we heard children were poking you with sticks.”

“Were they?” Dreibrand muttered.

“Get up, Dreibrand. It is time for us to have our talk with Taischek,” Shan said.

Trying not to actually move his head, Dreibrand carefully climbed the basin until he stood up. Smoothing back his wet hair, he moaned, “I think I should throw myself on my sword.”

Shan scolded, “Nonsense. This will pass. We will get you some food—”

“No,” Dreibrand cut him off with an adamant whisper. “I—I am not hungry.”

“Perhaps not,” Shan reconsidered. “But you know how important our business is. Can you make it?”

“Of course,” Dreibrand replied. “But can we walk slowly?”

The rys smiled. “I assumed that.”

As they headed for the King’s tent, Dreibrand was painfully aware of his shabby appearance. His shirt had long since ceased to be anything worthy of pride, and he was rumpled, battered and dirty. But he had not looked much better before the banquet, and Taischek had been impressed with him then.

Is he still impressed with me? Dreibrand wondered nervously. The last half of the evening laughed at his attempts to remember it.

“Where did you go last night?” Dreibrand asked.

Waving a blue hand, Shan answered, “I did not notice.”

“What was that smoke?” Dreibrand said.

Shan explained, “It is a flower that grows in the lowlands. Humans use it for medicine and pleasure. But its effect on rys goes beyond the human experience. It makes me unable to entirely control my awareness. My mind is set adrift. It is very pleasurable, but it leaves me very vulnerable. I rarely indulge, and I suspect last night was my last opportunity to be so frivolous.”

Rubbing his head, Dreibrand said, “I could use some right now.”

“I am sure you could,” Shan agreed. “But your mind must be clear. This will be my first council of war.”

Dreibrand reflected on the task ahead, realizing that it had not been that long since his last war council, but much had happened in between. He was not even the same person anymore.

“Where is Miranda?” he said.

“At the guest house. Taischek went to speak with her earlier,” Shan answered.

What did she tell him? Dreibrand worried, which made his head throb. But he had no way to ask Shan without seeming suspicious.

Shan interrupted his secret fretting. “This will not be pleasant.”

Dreibrand lifted his aching eyes and saw Rysmavda Nebeck and the two younger priests waiting between them and the King’s tent at the edge of the village.

“Lord Shan, we must speak,” Nebeck announced with authority.

“What makes you so bold with me, rysmavda?” Shan demanded.

Nebeck’s narrow lips twitched as the intimidation washed over him, but his purpose did not diminish from his eyes. A pale warding crystal hung over his chest on a silver chain, but there seemed to be no heart behind it. His stringent expression advertised his cold outlook, and his white skullcap made his thin face look even hungrier.

“What is your purpose in Fata Nor?” Nebeck said.

“How dare you ask my business?” Shan hissed.

“I no longer have to show you respect. I know you are cast out of Jingten,” Nebeck said. “Now I demand to know your business among these good subjects of the Queen, our Goddess.”

“Go hide in your temple,” Shan snapped.

Nebeck did not waver and his temerity surprised Shan. “You are an enemy of the Queen. I will not let you be in my templesphere. I will not let your blasphemous treachery put the citizens of Fata Nor at risk.”

“The only risk is that these people will soon see that you have no power to back up your greedy and controlling ways,” Shan said.

The younger rysmavda gasped, and Nebeck gaped in shock.

Villagers had gathered a modest distance from the rys and the rysmavda, and they hung on every hot word.

“Onja has no power here. She cannot strike us down from Jingten as in days of old,” Shan announced. “If Onja is a Goddess, I invite her to strike me down because I say she is not.” He raised his arms as if beckoning the legendary wrath of the Queen.

Dreibrand sensed the tension from all of the nearby Temu, and he shared some himself. But dealing with Onja was Shan’s role, and he focused on those things he could cope with. Through his hangover, he monitored the three rysmavda as Shan had told him to do.

“Well, Rysmavda Nebeck, where is the power of Onja?” Shan demanded impatiently.

Nebeck cringed, convinced that a killing spell from his Goddess was surely on its way. Clutching his warding crystal, he retreated with his associates.

“Onja, take this rogue from us!” he pleaded.

Shan laughed as if a fool had irritated him for too long. Blue light flared in his eyes and he pointed at Nebeck. The rysmavda cried out in pain and released the warding crystal that now blazed on the end of its chain. The charm then burst into pieces that fell to the path like plain broken glass.

Nebeck wailed in dismay. “You are cursed!”

The crowd had thickened quickly, and the King and General Xander emerged from the tent. If Shan’s confrontation with the rysmavda distressed Taischek, it did not show. Taischek stormed through the crowd that parted for him automatically.

“Rysmavda Nebeck, why do you anger my guest?” Taischek rumbled.

“Temu King, Shan has been banished by the Queen, our Goddess, and we must not harbor him. She commanded me so last night,” Nebeck answered with extra emphasis on the last sentence for the benefit of the crowd.

“Shan is my friend and is permanently welcome among our tribe—no matter what. Why don’t you go count our gold and leave us alone,” Taischek sneered, referring to the tribute collecting function of the temple.

“Temu King, I warn you. Shan will bring Onja’s wrath to our tribe,” Nebeck insisted.

“You act like Onja treats us well now,” the King countered. “Now leave us. I wish to visit with my friends.”

“Prime Rysmavda Arshen in Dengar Nor will hear of this,” Nebeck warned, but the King was already ignoring him. Taischek signaled for the crowd to be dispersed and waved Shan and Dreibrand into the tent.

Once inside the tent, Taischek showed his emotion. “By the great Tartarlan, you have really gone and done it, Shan.”

The rys made no reply. Shan knew that Taischek would fuss until he accepted things. Shan had told him this day could come.

Taischek flopped into his place and brooded deeply. Xander motioned for them to sit and they waited in silence, not wishing to intrude upon the King’s thoughts.

Dreibrand tried to interpret what had just happened. He had not expected the confrontation with the rysmavda or Shan to be so aggressive. He had not caught all of the words, but he had gathered that Shan had just publicly declared Onja’s religion false.

The King heaved a great sigh and his eyes rounded the gathering. He seemed to take some comfort from those present.

On a tremendously light note that dismissed his heavy mood, Taischek said, “Don’t I have a fine crew. My General is the first to pass out, and my new warrior, Dreibrand, is the last to wake up.”

Everybody chuckled and felt a little relieved.

Turning exclusively to Dreibrand, the King continued, “I spoke with your companion, Miranda. Her news was hard to hear.”

Dreibrand’s stomach tightened.

“The captivity of her children breaks my heart. I have never heard of Onja doing such a thing. This strange behavior from the Queen does not please the Temu,” Taischek said.

His sincerity was apparent. Taischek also knew the horror of torture and he sympathized with the foreign woman who had endured the hateful touch of the Queen. Most of all, Onja’s sudden desire to possess children worried him.

Will she begin to demand children from us? he wondered.

“You see that we must tolerate Onja no longer,” Shan said. “The time has come for me to put aside my fear, and free the world from her tyranny and claim the throne of my kind. Taischek, King of the Temu Tribe, on this day I ask you to fulfill your promise. Help me overthrow Onja.” When Shan spoke her name, his voice was almost a snarl.

Xander cast anxious eyes upon his lord. He would do and die by his King’s orders, but would his King really commit to this mad venture? Every human knew rys were superior, and Onja was invincible.

Finally, Taischek said with a resigned tone, “Shan, you are the prince of favors. You pull a boy from the fire and he would say anything out of gratitude. But Shan, I have come to know you well, and I know you act first out of compassion, not ambition. Still, you control your generosity, recognizing the value of your good deeds.

“The years did pass though, and I came to think you would not defy the Queen in my lifetime. Your plots could easily outlive one man. Now in my old age you ask me to help change the world.”

Shan frowned. “Do not plead old age with me Taischek. You could kill an ox.”

Taischek raised a hand to prevent Shan from lecturing him. “I only meant that you waited so long to ask your favor, I had come to hope I was free of the obligation. Shan, my sword is at your service as I promised it would be long ago. My ancestors bowed to Onja, and it became our way.” The King gestured to Dreibrand. “He comes from a place where Onja has no dominion. If she truly were a Goddess, every person in Gyhwen would serve her as we have. Therefore, I, Taischek, have the courage to free my people, so that my heirs will prosper even more than I.

“I understand that humans can only hope to defeat Onja with the aid of a rys, and we must not miss our opportunity. Perhaps together we can prevail.”

“Yes we shall!” Shan cried with excitement. Setting his plans in motion bolstered his confidence. It was one thing to plot and whisper, but there was power in the freedom of actually moving toward his goal. He could not convey the depth of his hate for Onja to his friends. No human could quite understand how she had wronged him by lingering in this world, continually denying him his rightful place as leader of the rys. She kept him forever in a voiceless limbo, and he could only have a furtive respect from his own kind.

With an eerie potency in his voice, Shan continued, “Onja is old, very old. Older than any rys has ever been. Since my last challenge, I have grown into the prime of my life, whereas Onja has only aged more beyond a natural life. I can feel the strain inside her mind and body, and she will not withstand my second challenge. With your help, we will aggravate that strain, until I can strike her down.”

“What part could the Temu possibly play in this rys thing?” Xander suddenly demanded.

“Please, Xander do not become upset,” Taischek soothed his general. “Shan will explain.”

Respectfully, Shan nodded to Xander, reading the reluctance on the Temu’s face. “Good General, many humans will unfortunately remain loyal to Onja—out of fear. Onja knows well that I wish to cast her down, and it is only a matter of time before she sends her allies to kill me. Threats from rysmavda are only the beginning. Therefore, I will need protection. I will need an army to return to Jingten because she will set her allies to protect her. And of equal importance, the fact that an entire army has risen in opposition to her will devastate her confidence. The defiance of so many humans will make her nervous because it will demonstrate that her power cannot reach the lowlands anymore.”

“Has she really become so weak? Are we actually safe from her in the lowlands?” Taischek asked eagerly.

Shan nodded. “Her magic can still reach us, but it has become limited. She can see and hear us, and communicate with the rysmavda of course, and other minor things, but she cannot kill. Onja is no longer the Queen that your ancestors had to bow to.”

Although Xander accepted the Temu were now committed to this cause, he would still voice his concerns in council. “And when we face rys soldiers, what can you do for us?” he asked.

“The rys forces are the least of my concern,” Shan responded. “They will stand aside when we reach Jingten. I have a right to challenge Onja, and it is not the way of rys to interfere in the challenges of others. If combat does occur with rys soldiers, my magic will even the odds for you. The soldiers of Jingten know how powerful I am and they will not be willing to confront me.”

“It is true,” Dreibrand supported. “I have seen it. The soldiers have no power over Shan.”

The rys restrained Dreibrand’s eagerness. Humbly he said, “Do not say that. I am flesh, and anyone, rys or human, could conceivable hurt me. That is why I need my friends to guard me from those that would try. I regret that I involve you in war, but Onja has wronged the humans even more than her own kind. I suggest that the Temu not pay their tribute to Jingten this year. It will reveal Onja’s weakness to the other tribes, and the rys have no need for your treasures. We are brilliant and gifted on our own, except Onja has made the rys into lazy overlords. When I am King, there will be no tribute. Humans and rys can trade and do business as it pleases them, but I need no dominance over humans. The Rysamand will be for the rys, but that is all.”

These words appealed to Taischek and even placated Xander. The King knew his trust in Shan’s goodness had not been misguided, and he imagined the glory of marching on Jingten. Onja’s seemingly eternal tyranny had become a part of the short lives of men, but Taischek realized that Shan had watched generations of Temu bow to Onja and give up the labors of the tribe. Now Shan offered a chance to stop the exploitation, if only they had the courage to oppose Jingten’s ruthless Queen.

Taischek was no longer reluctant to say the words, and when he did, it felt good. But he knew that in all of his days of war and intrigue he had never done such a dangerous thing. “You are right. The Temu will not pay tribute,” he said.

Shan continued, “You know that I am not a hasty being, but too many centuries have given themselves to history, and the time for action has arrived. Taischek take me before the Confederation when it convenes next month so that I may invite your allies to join us in the denial of tribute. The more tribes that oppose her, the better. For once Onja will feel insecurity. Let her hear the voice of rebellion across the icy peaks all winter long!”

Thinking of Onja, Shan’s ebony eyes became unfocused, and the others wondered what far off place he looked upon. No one spoke, and the air quivered as if some power quickened around the rys. A brilliant blue flared from the rys’s eyes before Shan shut them and drew a shuddering breath.

Tentatively, Dreibrand said, “Shan…what is it?”

Shan opened his eyes and seemed himself again. Slowly he replied, “I suddenly felt so confident and great power surged inside me.” Sweeping his gaze over the three men, he added, “I will not fail you my friends.”

Taischek nodded solemnly. “Of course, Shan. I would never doubt you. But I cannot guarantee that the other four tribes of the Confederation will follow the example of the Temu. An end to tribute is very appealing, but people will be afraid. Shan, it is hard for some to change. Not everyone is a Temu.”

“When we meet with the Confederates, your influence will guide their decisions,” Shan said. “And I once advised King Ejan of the Tacus when the wild Zandas harassed his kingdom. He will heed my call for support.”

“I will make sure you address the Confederation,” Taischek promised. “But Shan, please understand that I cannot neglect the Sabuto. My warriors are counting on the plunder from the raids I have planned. And well, this is me. I attack the Sabuto every year. They would lose track of the calendar if I didn’t show up.”

Shan laughed. “Taischek, I would never deny you your annual revenge on the Sabuto. In fact, this year I intend to join you on the warpath, if you will have me.”

Taischek blinked with surprise. He knew Shan abhorred the wanton violence of war. “Of course you are welcome, Shan,” he said while imagining the fear of the Sabuto when they saw that the powerful rys lord accompanied him.

“And if I could indulge your generosity in one more thing, Taischek. I need a sword,” Shan said.

“A sword?” Taischek laughed. “Do you intend to fight like a man?”

Shan’s face became drawn with regret and he inwardly reproached himself for what he had chosen to do. He had tried in his life to do the right thing. He had tried to foster peace, but the world seemed to resist his efforts as if they were contrary to Nature.

“As you know, my hand has never been used in violence. But such a trait only makes me weak before Onja. I must learn the strength of a warrior, and I can no longer hide from this fact. Therefore, I request to fight with the Temu. I will fight, and I will kill,” Shan said.

A bit flustered by these words from his kindly friend, Taischek said, “Shan, do you even know how to use a sword?”

Shan smiled. “I have never bragged about that skill, but I do possess it. I will admit I have not picked up a weapon in three hundred years. Do you recall the great warrior king of the Nuram Tribe, Chendoaser?”

Begrudgingly, Taischek said that he did, although it was not his habit to consider the kings of other tribes as great warriors.

Shan continued, “Chendoaser and I were friends as we are, and he taught me the use of swords so that I might spar with him. Chendoaser reasoned that if he could match a rys, no man could best him. And I suppose he was right. The Nuram were never greater than when he was king, and Chendoaser never lost. He died old and at home. I assumed you would have heard the story, Taischek. Back then we made quite a spectacle of ourselves.”

Taischek shrugged. “Chendoaser was a great king, but only of a little tribe. The Temu do not concern themselves with old stories about the Nuram.”

“Well, the Nuram still talk about it,” Shan muttered. “But at any rate, I am sure my use of the sword will be quite satisfactory.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Taischek said. “Until the meeting of the Confederation, let us enjoy the pleasure of a simple warpath against the Sabuto. Then we will tackle Jingten.”

Much to Dreibrand’s distress, the King immediately called for wine to toast his agreement with Shan. Politely, Dreibrand sipped the wine. His stomach lurched when the wine hit it, but its protests dwindled as the alcohol eased his hangover. Sternly he ordered himself not to get caught up in another bout of drinking so soon after the last.

“King Taischek, may I be excused?” he asked, hoping it was not too rude. “I would like to see Miranda and inform her I go to war in two days.”

“Have to tell your woman you are going to war, eh?” Taischek slapped Xander on the shoulder and joked, “You know what that means.”

Xander made no comment.

Guessing Dreibrand wanted to dodge the drinking, which would probably continue for most of the day, Shan supported his friend’s request. “Let him go, Taischek,” he said with a kindly glance toward Dreibrand.

Taischek waved one hand while his other hand lifted his wine cup. Smacking his lips, the King said, “Do as you please for the next two days, Dreibrand Veta. Those Sabuto bastards will occupy you soon enough.”

“Thank you, King Taischek,” Dreibrand said.

When he bowed his way out of the tent, he was pleased that his head did not start spinning. Outside the rain had increased, and he hurried into the village. He did not know where the guesthouse was, but he assumed a building fit to house the Temu Queen would not be too difficult to spot.

He found a large timber building, painted red and gold, with guards outside. A warrior stepped forward, barring Dreibrand from standing on the sheltered steps to the door, and the rain tumbled from the eaves onto his head. Dreibrand was informed that access to Queen Vua’s residence was not easy, and the King’s personal permission was required.

Frustrated and soaked by the rain, Dreibrand stared at the unobliging warrior and did not appreciate the inconvenience. He was about to slosh back to Taischek’s tent and let the King enjoy his little joke, when a Temu woman stuck her head out a window and contradicted the warrior with an abrupt tone.

“Aren’t you special,” the warrior grumbled but stepped aside.

A little smugly Dreibrand smiled to the surly Temu and passed inside out of the wet. A servant girl handed him a towel to dry his hair and promptly conveyed him to the great room. Three sets of doors opened from the great room to an inner courtyard where the summer rain pattered. Women filled the room, seated at looms, spinning wheels or over embroidery hoops, but no needles pierced fabric and the clacking of looms had stopped. All of the women stared at him and exchanged hushed comments and a few giggles. Dreibrand felt thoroughly appreciated.

He scanned the room for Miranda, but she was not there. He did see Queen Vua surrounded by her co-wives and daughters, and he bowed to the Queen.

“Thank you for admitting me, Queen of the Temu, and please forgive my intrusion. I wish only to see how Miranda fares. She left the party early.”

“And you stayed late,” Vua stated sarcastically.

“I could not refuse Temu hospitality,” he explained and added a charming smile.

“No. Of course not,” Vua agreed. “Now Dreibrand Veta, I would not normally allow a strange man into my home, but Miranda has asked for you all day. So I indulge my guest…and maybe myself because you are an especially strange man. Still, do not make a habit of coming to my door. It is not the Temu way.”

He nodded respectfully and tried not to glance at all of the women staring at him. “Yes, Queen Vua. I meant no insult, and I thank you for your patience.”

Vua studied him a moment longer. He believed she wanted to ask him many questions and talk with him as the King had, but she refrained.

“The King has told me of your arrangement, and I am pleased to have Miranda in my household while she recuperates,” Vua said. “As the Queen of the Temu, I assure you of her comfort and safety.”

Dreibrand bowed deeply. He was truly grateful to the Queen, and he was glad Miranda would be cared for. He thanked the Queen again.

“Show him upstairs,” Vua ordered the servant.

Dismissed, Dreibrand followed his guide onto the second level, where he was shown into a small room. Miranda slept peacefully on a bed in the warm light of an oil lamp. Her freshly bound arm lay across her bosom, and Dreibrand sat on the edge of the bed as the servant closed the door.

Her eyes opened promptly. “I heard you come in,” she whispered.

He leaned over and kissed her passionately. When his lips were slightly satisfied, he said, “I hated not being able to sit with you. To talk with you.”

“I disliked it too, but they are nice people,” she said.

“Nice to you,” he joked, fingering the lump on his head.

Miranda scolded playfully, “King Taischek told me you asked for that.”

“He talked to you this morning,” Dreibrand said uncomfortably.

“Oh, he did. Dreibrand, he is a real king. I can just tell. I don’t know how, but I can just tell. He has this way about him. Like no one can tell him what to do,” Miranda commented with excitement.

“No one can,” Dreibrand noted, but his worries pressed on his mind. “Miranda, did you tell him about—about how I left the military?”

After shaking her head, she said, “Did you tell him I was a slave?”

“No, no, I told him nothing,” Dreibrand assured her. “I don’t know that much to tell.”

Looking away, Miranda said, “What I have told you is enough. The rest is not pleasant.”

He took her hand. “Thanks for keeping my secret. No one must know that I left the military so inappropriately. It is very important.”

“And no one must know that I was a slave,” Miranda added.

They embraced, pleased that they had automatically known what the other did not want revealed.

“What did you tell him?” Dreibrand asked.

Miranda shrugged and explained that she had recollected for the King events pretty much as they had happened. Miranda paused thoughtfully before she added, “Shan was with him, so he knows the same, but do you suppose Shan can tell if someone does not say everything?”

“Maybe,” Dreibrand replied, wrinkling his brow, but then he changed the subject. “How do you feel?” he inquired.

“Better. Their medicine woman put a fresh cast on my arm, but she said I needed more rest,” Miranda reported.

“And you will have it. I have arranged your lodging with King Taischek. I will go fight for him while you recover,” Dreibrand said.

Miranda sat up quickly. “Go fight? Where?” she demanded.

“The Temu are raiding a tribe called the Sabuto. I will only be gone two or three weeks, I think,” Dreibrand explained.

“You’re leaving!” she cried.

“Miranda, I am trying to take care of us. I need to make money. And Shan is going, and I need to stay with him. He is our chance to get your children back and I said I would serve him,” Dreibrand said, perplexed by her attitude.

“You will not come back,” she moaned and pushed him away. Miranda struggled with her depression. Dreibrand’s companionship helped her tolerate the absence of her children, and the news of his departure filled her with fearful desolation. The attachment she felt for him suddenly seemed a wasted emotion.

Pausing to see things her way, Dreibrand soothed her. “I am sorry. I know you must be scared to be alone with these strange people. It is hard for me too. But I promise to come back. There is no other way. I have to do this. I need to earn our way, and I need Taischek’s favor. I know what I am doing. I will come back with a share of plunder and I will give it to you.”

Miranda studied his sincere face, still amazed that he cared for her. As always his generosity moved her, but she felt troubled.

“Dreibrand, you talk like it is right to kill people and steal from them.”

Her words sounded strange to his Atrophaney educated mind, and his mouth hung open without a reply. Dreibrand contemplated her statement, knowing that he had not led the most virtuous life. Even if his family was censured, he had grown up in a privileged class and it was a ruthless world that had bred him.

He tried to explain himself. “Miranda, is it right that your father sold you into slavery? Is it right that a beautiful woman like you wore rags? A few more years in the fields and you would have started to turn into a wizened peasant that nobody would notice. You say that you will not be a slave again. Well, this is what it takes. There are rewards in this life for those who are stronger than others.” Seeing the weakness of his argument, he finally admitted, “Maybe it is not right, like you say, but it is what I must do. I believe a lot of people will die before Shan is King in Jingten. Would you kill to get your children back?”

“That is different,” Miranda protested.

Emphatically, Dreibrand shook his head. “No! Killing is killing. Just think of my joining the war with the Temu as part of our greater goal. By serving Taischek I can gain a home for us. When the children are back with us, we will need a home, right? I admit that not all things I do are good, but I will always do good by you. That I can promise.”

He took her hand and she no longer pushed him away.

“You are right,” she conceded with forced pragmatism. “I should not have judged you. Now tell me what you and Shan plotted in your meeting with the King.”

Dreibrand related the few plans that had been settled. Shan’s confident declaration to defeat the Queen gave Miranda hope.

She considered what she had heard and said, “You must promise to come get me before you go to the Confederate gathering. This war is as much mine as anyone else’s, and I will not be kept separate from it. I have told Shan I wish to play a part in his plans, and he has accepted me.”

Dreibrand suggested, “When the time comes, we will see how your arm is.”

“My arm should be out of the splint before a month has passed. The medicine woman said so. I will be ready and fit to ride to this meeting where Shan will seek allies.” Miranda would not be deterred.

“And what of your headaches that you try so hard to hide from me?” he persisted.

“I get a little better every day,” she defended. “I will not let you ride off and forget me. I intend to go.”

“I would not forget you,” Dreibrand relented with a smile. “If I can, I will come get you.”

“You must promise,” she insisted.

“I promise. I will want to see you anyway,” he said and kissed her again.

She lingered in his embrace, but wondered if it would infringe on Queen Vua’s hospitality to let herself get carried away with her man.

“Where are you staying?” she asked breathlessly, pulling away from him.

“Can I stay here?” Dreibrand asked, not terribly concerned about it at that moment.

Miranda laughed, realizing he probably had not been issued any guest quarters yet. “That’s right. You slept outside,” she teased. “Well, I do not think you can stay here. I will ask Queen Vua to get you a place to stay.”

“She seems to like you,” Dreibrand commented.

Miranda tilted her head thoughtfully. “She is probably just being polite.”

“No. I think she likes you. And you should make sure she likes you. That would be a good thing,” Dreibrand suggested.

It was still a little hard for Miranda to believe that she associated with kings and queens, but she would try to do as he said. Miranda liked Vua and she did need a friend.

“I leave in two days,” Dreibrand said.

Her face fell with disappointment. She did not want to accept that he would really leave her.

Dreibrand coiled his strong arms around her body. “Let us enjoy these two days as much as we can,” he proposed hungrily, and she was distracted by his passion.

Dreibrand was running now. He had lain low all day, even sleeping a little, but with the dusk he sensed that someone was hunting him. The perturbed chatter of birds warned him. Yesterday he would not have thought about birds. Today he did.

He peered around the tree that he had been laying against. He did not see anything through the bright spring foliage, but he heard someone approaching. Quickly, Dreibrand rose and slipped into the saddle. Riding away, he figured a Bosta pursued him, but he had no desire to stay and fight. Soon the night would cover him, and he would reach the Wilderness.

Dreibrand wished he had more food before entering the wild lands, but finding supplies had proved more difficult than he had anticipated. That morning as he rushed away from his old life, he had steered clear of the villages because the Horde was advancing on the settlements. Outside the villages the land was sparsely populated. The first cottage he found had contained no food whatsoever. Its occupants had been thorough before abandoning their home.

At the next farm Dreibrand had better luck. He found grain and hay that quickly renewed Starfield, and he scrounged an actual meal for himself out of the kitchen. Some foodstuffs lingered in the larder, and he shoved all of it into his saddlebags. Feeling very discouraged, he poked through the few possession that had been left behind. He found a small dull hatchet, but gained nothing else useful.

He felt odd rummaging through the abandoned homes all by himself. Usually soldiers would do this type of thing while he watched. The trumpets and drums of his conquering countrymen blared a few elti away, and Dreibrand keenly felt his separation from them. He had become accustomed to living and working inside the Horde, and outside the Horde he was not sure who he was.

For a moment he doubted himself, and thought about going back. It was frightening to hear the Atrophaney assault and not be a part of it. Sternly he told himself to forget his people. The Horde obviously went on without him, and he would go on without the Horde.

His supplies were meager, only a few days of rations really, but Dreibrand resolved to explore the Wilderness as much as he could. He spent the day dozing while the war raged into the valley. Then the nearby noises in the woods had set him going for the night. Dreibrand moved slowly in the darkness. The typical evening chirps and peeps sang in the forest, and he strained his ears for any more sounds of a rider.

It did not take Dreibrand long to convince himself that he was surrounded by riders. Bending low over his horse’s neck, he avoided a hanging branch in the gloom. Starfield was calm, and Dreibrand decided he had to get a grip on his emotions. He was letting the dark forest spook him.

The land became steeper, and sometimes he had to leave the saddle and lead Starfield around rough patches. In the dark he literally groped around obstacles, but he knew he still headed west. When Dreibrand hit a clear space, he checked his progress by the stars.

Late into the night he stopped to rest. The forest smelled moist and clean, and the aroma intoxicated his senses with its purity. Dreibrand tried to remember if he had ever been so alone. He had grown up in civilization and then traveled with the Horde for two years. He had never experienced such a complete isolation.

Dreibrand slept little that night, and when the dawn came he was thirsty. Casually he searched for water, knowing that a stream or spring could not be far in this green land. His slow progress, that had been so frustrating in the night, had gained him more distance than he thought. He was on a ridge halfway between the valley floor and the cliffs.

I am in the Wilderness, he thought with a thrill.

A beautiful land surrounded him. Each mature tree soared and curved like masterful sculptures, and vines and flowers filled the sunny places. He found water readily and it tasted good. Dreibrand washed his face and his skin tingled with awareness.

Smiling at the charming stream, he decided his paranoia had made him hear someone following him. He nibbled some food, then forced aside his hunger. Without looking back he continued westward. The cliffs loomed ahead like the steep walls of a temple, and they called to him as if he was a believer.

Dreibrand gazed up the slope eagerly, taking in every detail of the land. For a space the trees thinned and he could see quite a distance. At the top of the next rise he swore he saw a rider moving into cover. It was a fleeting image, maybe just a shadow tricking his eyes, but it looked like a rider.

I really did hear someone yesterday, he realized.

His clothing and armor clearly designated him as Atrophane, and Dreibrand reasoned that the rider would try to kill him because he was an invader. Deciding to be more cautious, he moved on but it was too late for stealth. A second rider broke from cover right behind him, and openly made pursuit. Dreibrand hurried Starfield toward a denser portion of the forest, hoping he could lose his trackers in the thicker growth.

For the rest of the morning Dreibrand avoided them. He would circle back and take another route, but they always picked up his trail again. Just when Dreibrand thought he might have slipped away, he would hear the rustle of a rider just out of sight.

Tired of being hunted, Dreibrand decided to confront them. He would make them pay for chasing him. He doubted any Bosta woodsman could cope with his skillful combat. Planning to engage them individually, Dreibrand tried to trail one of them, but his tracking skills were inadequate, and Dreibrand might have been looking at his own tracks.

Finally he heard a rider closing on his position. Dreibrand was no coward and he would end this game. Drawing his sword, he waited. A tall sleek horse of the Atrophaney breed emerged from the trees bearing a rider clothed in the soft browns and greens of an imperial scout.

Dreibrand felt panic and guilt. He recognized Hydax.

Furrowing his brow with suspicion, Hydax called, “What’s going on, Lieutenant?” Sarcasm danced with the words.

Knowing if Hydax was there, Gennor was sure to be nearby, Dreibrand glanced in all directions. “Get out of here,” he ordered.

“Sir, you need to come back. Have you forgotten yourself?” Hydax asked, moving closer.

Dreibrand threatened him with his sword, and Hydax arched his eyebrows with surprise. “Just say you never saw me!” Dreibrand shouted.

Raising his hands to calm his comrade, Hydax said reasonably, “Lieutenant, you need to come with me. What are you doing here?”

Dreibrand grimaced and his emotions raged with confusion. He did not want to fight Hydax, and he abandoned his plan to stand his ground. Just as he turned, Gennor rode down the slope toward him. With Gennor almost on top of him, Dreibrand galloped off.

Gennor halted and looked sternly at Hydax. “I told you he was a deserter,” Gennor said.

“He is mad. He must have eaten some rotten food,” Hydax defended.

“Come on, we still have to bring him back,” Gennor said and wheeled his horse around to resume the pursuit.

It was a clean and clear-cut chase. Dreibrand had no lead, and Hydax and Gennor soon rode along each side of him. When Gennor reached for Starfield’s bridle, Dreibrand lashed out with his sword. Gennor narrowly avoided losing his hand. Dreibrand stopped to engage them, and both scouts drew their swords.

At first Dreibrand drove them back with his skillful assault that alternated between riders, but he did not land a killing blow. Dreibrand did not want to hurt these men. He had lived and worked with them for two years. They had followed his orders, and on occasion ate and drank with him. They were Atrophane.

His hesitation to hurt his countrymen cost him dearly. Recovering from the initial onslaught, the scouts stayed on each side of Dreibrand. Without his shield Dreibrand could not fend off both attacks. The flat of a sword smacked the side of his head, and without a helmet to protect him, his senses reeled from the blow. A cut opened on his temple and extended into his scalp. Blood poured over one eye and he felt himself slumping in the saddle. Gennor seized Dreibrand’s sword arm and punched him in the jaw.

With Dreibrand disabled by Gennor, Hydax jumped onto Dreibrand’s back and tackled him from the saddle. Gennor followed them to the ground and stripped Dreibrand of his sword while Hydax held both arms. Gennor tried to grab the ivory handled dagger but Dreibrand kicked the scout.

“Damnit, keep him still,” Gennor complained while wincing at the pain in his knee.

Dreibrand and Hydax were both strong men, but Dreibrand was taller, and he struggled fiercely. Reaching back, Dreibrand pulled the scout’s hair and almost flipped him over his shoulder. Hydax yelled indignantly but managed to keep his hold.

Laughing with pleasure, Gennor popped the tip of his sword under Dreibrand’s chin, which got his attention.

“Surrender or die,” Gennor promised.

Dreibrand blinked at the blood and sweat running into his eyes, and he accepted the superiority of the steel at his throat. Gennor removed a leather thong from his gear and held it out to Hydax.

“Don’t try anything, Lieutenant Veta,” warned Gennor.

Dreibrand trembled with the energy for an escape, but Gennor pressed the sword against the vulnerable flesh of the neck, drawing a careful line of blood. Believing that Gennor’s threat was sincere, Dreibrand suffered the indignity of having his hands bound.

Gennor snatched the ivory handled dagger and tossed it by Dreibrand’s confiscated sword.

“You cannot treat me like this,” Dreibrand said.

Gennor put his sword away and abruptly pushed Dreibrand. With his hands tied behind his back, Dreibrand staggered back, off balance, until he stumbled to the ground. Gennor pounced on him and immediately started undoing the buckles to the chestplate armor.

“What are you doing?” Hydax inquired nervously.

“Teaching this excuse for an officer a lesson. I know a deserter when I see one,” Gennor answered while yanking the armor away from Dreibrand’s torso.

“Maybe not,” Hydax said. He had known Dreibrand Veta to be an outstanding officer and he suspected that Dreibrand could have cut him a couple times in the fight, but had restrained himself.

“I’ve watched him skulk around since yesterday. He’s a skulking deserter,” Gennor concluded and punched Dreibrand in the stomach. After slugging Dreibrand a few times, he stepped back.

“Get up,” he ordered.

More out of a hopeless desire for escape than a wish to comply with his captor, Dreibrand lurched awkwardly to his feet. Gennor had a couple quit punches waiting for him just as he achieved some balance. Dreibrand’s head throbbed and he could not see straight.

“Hold him for me,” Gennor suggested.

Hydax hesitated. “Come on Gennor, Veta was always square with us. Everyone likes him. He doesn’t deserve this.”

Dreibrand appreciated hearing such a glowing report on his popularity, but he doubted it could do much for him now.

“I don’t need you,” Gennor said. He charged Dreibrand and pinned him against a tree, landing several punches until he got tired and stepped away.

Gasping for air Dreibrand sagged against the tree. His clenched muscles sang with pain. In his extensive combat training he had learned how to take a few lumps, but the bruises would be deep.

Pleased by the results of his exertions, Gennor said, “Let us make a camp and get some rest.”

~

Although no smoke was rising in the morning, Miranda remembered the location of the camp from the night before. She went on foot because riding Freedom would be too noisy.

Securing her knife in her sash, she trotted into the woods. Once she was alone and surrounded by the trees, a nervous feeling settled over the back of her neck. Without the company of her children and the horse, the forest seemed closer and more aware of her as a newcomer. As she went, Miranda listened carefully for any threatening sounds and often looked back.

A strong warm wind surged up from the south, becoming amplified so close to the cliffs. When Miranda judged that she neared the campsite, she stopped walking openly and stayed near trees and shrubs. After creeping along for a while, she thought maybe she had gone too far. Having no desire to become disoriented, Miranda paused behind a tangle of vines.

The wind pushing through the trees lulled, quieting the leafvoices for a moment and allowing her to hear human voices. Silently she slipped between the vines toward the bright sun of a clearing. Staying in the deep shadow of the overhanging foliage, Miranda crawled up to the edge of the clearing where the grass started. On the other side of the glen she saw the camp.

A freshly killed deer hung from a tree, and a man prepared to clean the carcass. Another man stood nearby with his arms folded. She heard their voices clearly now, but the words were not her language. By their unfamiliar clothing Miranda suspected that they were Atrophane. Her heart sank. These men frightened her and they could offer her no assistance.

Miranda was about to creep away when she heard a third voice. Driven by curiosity, she peeked farther out of the shadows and saw a third man sitting on the ground and apparently tied to a tree. He wore blue clothing and black boots. Even at a distance the quality of the garments was apparent to her.

But the prisoner’s fine clothing was dirty and his long hair hung in tangles. Intrigued by the prisoner, she wondered if the bound man was an Atrophane, but that did not make sense. Perhaps he was a wealthy lord from the valley.

He looks richer than anyone around here, she concluded.

Also all three horses were taller and stronger than the local Droxy breed, indicating that they were foreigners. Miranda could not understand why they were there. The war was far behind in the valley, and why would Atrophane have an Atrophane prisoner? Pondering this mystery, she continued to observe them.

~

Dreibrand kicked at the dirt in frustration. His shoulders ached from being in an unnatural position all night tied to a tree, and his skull had turned into a vessel of punishment. Blood had dried on his temple where Gennor had felled him with the flat of his sword.

Hydax and Gennor had performed their duty marvelously. They were expert scouts, and Dreibrand would have sent them on this mission himself. The humiliation of capture stung Dreibrand deeply, but he had not lost hope. They would have to move him eventually, and he would try to escape. He could tell Hydax was sympathetic to him, and maybe he could convince Hydax to let him go. For now he planned to coax some food out of them, so he could get his strength back.

“Can’t you hurry up with that deer?” Gennor asked.

Hydax turned from cleaning the animal and laughed. “Oh, stop sweating me. We won’t be leaving until tomorrow anyway.”

“I still say we shouldn’t have taken time for your pleasure hunt today. Lord Kwan did not send us out here for a holiday,” Gennor maintained.

“Why don’t you gather some wood instead of standing there?” Hydax said, annoyed.

“Yes, Gennor, why don’t you gather some wood?” Dreibrand interjected. “I, for one, am looking forward to dinner.”

Gennor turned and said, “Well, look who’s finally talking. How about I knock you around some more? You just shut up and be a nice officer.”

Hydax gestured to Dreibrand with his knife. “I actually feel sorry for you Lieutenant Veta. You’ll think me and Gennor were a basket of flowers after Lord Kwan gets you. He did not look happy about you not showing up to work.”

“I am sure Lord Kwan hardly misses me,” Dreibrand grumbled.

“Oh! Lord Kwan misses you. He was terribly worried about you in fact. I think he wants to give you a promotion,” Gennor joked, and even Hydax had to laugh at that one.

Warming up to his humor, Gennor put a hand across his chest and bowed to Dreibrand. “I would like to thank you, Sir. I never thought I’d get the privilege of smacking up an officer.”

Dreibrand scowled, weary of the ridicule, but he continued, “I had no idea you bore me so much animosity, Gennor.”

Gennor shrugged. “Nothing really personal, Dreibrand. Just all these high-class officers. I risk my life more than the officers, but they get the huge estate grants,” he explained.

“I have never hung back in battle. I take the same risks as my men,” Dreibrand defended proudly.

“Except yesterday,” Gennor said.

Dreibrand truly had nothing to say to this, and he hung his head. He did not hang his head in shame, but in thought. He felt indifferent to the duties he had ignored yesterday and remained loyal to his decision to work for himself outside the strictures of Atrophaney society.

Retreating into his sense of humor, Dreibrand said, “I was so eager to see the Wilderness, I guess Droxy slipped my mind.”

Gennor smirked, undecided on whether he wanted to chuckle.

Stepping back from the gutted deer, Hydax said, “Well it did not slip Lord Kwan’s mind. What are you gonna tell him?”

“What are you going to tell him?” Dreibrand asked and looked both his captors in the eyes.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” Gennor scoffed. “You want me to lie for you? What could you possibly have to offer me, Veta?”

“Come on Gennor, I have always been good to you guys. All you have to say is you never saw me and let me go,” Dreibrand proposed optimistically.

“Where are you going?” Hydax inquired.

“I am exploring the Wilderness on my own. Lord Kwan wanted to send me back to Atrophane, so I am through with the Horde,” Dreibrand answered, and when he said the words, they sounded absurd.

Hydax frowned with disbelief.

“Come with me, Hydax. I could really use your expertise,” Dreibrand said.

“You are crazy,” Gennor complained. When he noticed Hydax seemed to be considering Dreibrand’s idea, he shouted, “If you run off too, I’ll make sure Lord Kwan gets you back.”

“Think about it, Gennor,” Dreibrand commanded. “You were just complaining about high class officers getting the most land. Well, here is your opportunity. Look at the Wilderness. It is just waiting to be taken. You can have all you can hold.”

For an instant Gennor appeared intrigued, and Dreibrand thought maybe he had convinced him. He would never know.

Suddenly the horses neighed nervously and began to pull at their tethers. The scouts looked around but did not see anything. Panic set in on the horses now, and they were screaming and breaking loose. Gennor ran to the grab the trailing lines of the horses.

A terrible shriek ripped through the forest. Dreibrand felt himself break out in a cold sweat and he tried to stand up by inching his back up the tree. The scream pierced the air again, audibly closer. A terrible danger was coming and Dreibrand started to struggle at his bonds.

A huge beast erupted from the forest and charged Hydax, who stood closest to the hanging deer. The creature had the form of a man but it was taller and had long hulking arms. Dark hair covered its body, and a long golden brown mane flowed from the head and face. The face was not human. Its long snout ended in bared yellow fangs, and its eyes gleamed with bestial intelligence.

Hydax stumbled back from the assault and held his butcher knife out in a futile defense. The beast knocked the knife out of his hand and tackled him. Hydax’s scream was the note of pure terror that quickens the blood of every predator. He tried to hold the jaws away from his neck, and the creature sank its teeth into his shoulder. It shook him wildly, and Hydax wailed and beat on its head.

Gennor gave up catching the horses to help his comrade. He charged the back of the beast with his sword raised, but the keen senses of the animal must have warned it of Gennor’s onslaught. It threw Hydax down and whirled on Gennor. Without any fear it faced Gennor and craftily dodged the sword, receiving only a small wound. This drawing of blood enraged the beast and it howled with elevated viciousness.

The ugly carnivorous face unnerved Gennor, and he sprinted away. The beast bounded after him, determined to punish the man who had cut it.

Hydax moaned and rolled near Dreibrand’s feet. The scout clutched his shoulder and blood poured onto the ground. He tried to gain his feet but fell weakly to his knees.

“Cut me loose,” Dreibrand begged. “You have to cut me loose.”

Hydax did not respond. Dreibrand trembled in genuine terror and struggled in his bonds. The coarse leather cut hotly into already raw wrists. At this moment he understood completely the trapped animal that could chew its own foot off. In overwhelming consternation Dreibrand fought at his bonds almost to the point of convulsing.

“Hydax! Cut me loose!” he cried desperately. “Don’t leave me like this.”

Hydax seemed oblivious to his pleas. He crawled toward his gear where his bow and quiver set. From the other side of the clearing Dreibrand heard an agonizing cry and saw Gennor fall fatally beneath the beast’s fury. After ravaging Gennor for a few seconds, the beast tossed the body aside and returned to its unfinished victim. Hydax fumbled painfully with his bow, but his wounds disabled him too much. The monster sprang onto the scout and began to chew up his head.

This horrible scene strangled Dreibrand, and he knew he was next. Every spray of blood and flying chunk of hair from the mortal struggle played out for Dreibrand in slow ugly detail. This was nothing like the heat of battle—where screams, and blood, and death abounded—but a ghastly torture for Dreibrand, whose whole instinct demanded that he not be torn apart by wild animals.

A sharp pain stung his wrist and his hands fell free. Dreibrand brought his hands up and saw the severed bindings hanging and blood dripping from one wrist. Astounded by this reprieve from fate, he jumped up and fled into the forest. His first few steps faltered on his stiff legs, but terror drove the pain of captivity out of his limbs.

He was amazed to see a woman flying ahead of him, her skirt held high over swift feet. Dreibrand ran madly after her, not daring to look back. Both man and woman raced beyond their normal endurances, driven by the terror that the beast pursued them.

Eventually the woman reeled to a stop and looked back. Blood thudded through her body, and gasping for air, she leaned on a tree. Dreibrand stopped beside her and rested too. They spoke no words, trying only to catch their breath. Gradually the rasping sound of their heavy breathing faded, and the songbirds could be heard again in the trees, making a safe sound.

“Thank you,” Dreibrand gasped, reaching out to take her hand.

She recoiled from him, and Dreibrand held his hands back in a gesture of peace.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Staring at him suspiciously, she said nothing and moved away. Abruptly Dreibrand realized she did not understand his language. He tried again in the Bosta speech.

“Thank you. I am Dreibrand Veta.”

The woman comprehended him, but she responded in a slightly different dialect. “Do you think it followed?”

Both of them scanned the forest, which now seemed peaceful.

Dreibrand concluded, “I think it would have caught us by now if it was chasing us. Who are you?”

Her green eyes calculated him. Slowly she replied, “Miranda.”

“Thank you for cutting me loose,” he said while he removed the remnants of his bonds.

Uninterested in his gratitude and perplexed by his presence, Miranda started walking away.

Dreibrand trotted after her. “Where did you come from?”

Without pausing she answered, “I had been watching your camp from a hiding place. I came to see who was here, but you are not my people. You are invaders.”

“Then why did you free me?” Dreibrand asked. The images of the rampaging beast burned in his head, and he still could not quite believe he had escaped.

Miranda glanced at him. “It was not right that you would have to suffer and die like that. I took a risk and came to cut your bonds. I did not think you would follow me.”

“May I follow you?” he said.

“You are Atrophane?” she demanded.

“Yes.”

“You came here to conquer Droxy. You are an enemy,” Miranda stated.

“I will not harm you. I owe you my life,” Dreibrand said earnestly.

Miranda considered his words, but her hesitant features showed that she made no conclusions. “This is not the place for talk. I have to go,” she said.

“To a safer place I hope,” Dreibrand said.

He followed her. Even though she had not actually given her consent, Miranda tolerated him. Each of them thought more about the frightening beast they had just encountered than about each other. On a subconscious level both of them welcomed the security of human company.

Miranda hiked straight for the cliffs, and the stony heights soon loomed over the trees. A long rocky slope came down from the cliffs to meet the woodland, and Miranda picked her way up the debris of erosion toward her cave.

Ignoring Dreibrand, she raced the last few steps to the cave and darted inside it. At the back of the cave Elendra clutched her little brother, but the shadows could not dim the relief in her eyes upon seeing her mother. Miranda embraced the children and allowed herself one shaky sob.

“Mama, I heard an awful sound while you were away,” Elendra reported.

Miranda nodded absently, trying to cope with the existence of such a creature. She knew she could not defend her family from such a thing.

“It is not safe out there,” she said.

Dreibrand darkened the cave entrance and Elendra screamed. Miranda’s already shredded nerves rattled with the child’s shriek.

“It’s all right. It’s all right,” she soothed. “This is…Dreibrand. He was at the camp I went to see.”

Looking around with dismay, Dreibrand said, “You are alone with two children?”

Miranda faced him proudly and explained, “We are hiding in the forest from the Atrophane.”

He could not miss her accusatory tone, and he did not know how to respond to it. Dreibrand was aware that people fled before the Horde, especially desperate women and children. He wanted badly to gain her trust and tell her he was no longer a part of the invading army, but he felt suddenly ashamed of everything about himself.

“I will get your fire going again,” he said and went outside.

Miranda lingered by the cave. The noon sun fell warmly on the cliff, and she watched Dreibrand forage among the abundant brush, gathering wood. She was content to let him do it. At that moment she lacked the courage to go near the forest. She had not expected the warnings about the Wilderness to become so vividly true.

I have always admired the courage and intelligence of my Lieutenant Veta, but it is a shame that the Gods have wasted such ability on a Veta—Kwan Chenomet, journal entry, year 779 Atrophane calendar.

Undaunted by the resistance gathered in the valley below, the Atrophane Horde stirred before the dawn. Despite its ponderous mass, the Horde was mobile and organized. On the day of a battle every member of the Horde had a place in the plan, and the Atrophane could move across a hostile land with strategy and speed.

Lord Kwan’s squire, Jesse, attended him at a brisk and excited pace. The Lord General must be ready precisely on time, and Jesse enjoyed the responsibility of accoutering such a great hero of the Empire. He expertly strapped the armor over the black leather and quilted silk garments. Kwan held out a hand and the squire pulled a gauntlet onto it.

When Jesse placed a gauntlet over the other hand, a guard entered the tent and announced Lieutenant Sandin. Kwan stretched his hands inside the gauntlets as Sandin entered.

The drinking of the night before showed in the gray eyes of the senior lieutenant, but the rest of his body was strong and eager for battle. Holding his jewel-encrusted helmet under his arm, Sandin kneeled to his lord and waited to be addressed.

“Rise,” Kwan said. “I trust all of your men are at the ready?”

Ignoring the question, Sandin sprang up and blurted his news, “Veta is gone!”

Kwan creased his forehead with puzzled concern. He had been trying not to think of Dreibrand’s terrible behavior. The conquest of Droxy was his priority and the discipline for Dreibrand’s indiscretions would be decided later.

“What do you mean gone?” Kwan asked.

Sandin replied, “He is not in the camp. There is no one to lead his forces.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Sandin went to the tent flap and motioned for someone to enter. “I brought Veta’s squire. He saw him last.”

The teenage squire entered the tent hesitantly. His adolescent beard made him look tender as a peach. He was nervous about speaking with the Lord General. Humbly he went down on his knees.

“All right boy, out with it. Where is Veta?” Lord Kwan said.

The squire swallowed. “My Lord, he came back to his tent in a terrible state last night. He stalked up and went berserk on everything, kicking all his stuff around, and waving his sword. Gods protect me, my Lord, but I thought he was gonna kill me in his madness. I had never seen Lieutenant Veta in such a mood. He swore some horrible oaths.” Looking sideways at Sandin, he added, “He said some terrible things.”

“Then what happened?” Kwan asked impatiently.

“He ordered me to saddle his horse and then he rode off,” the squire answered simply.

“There is more than that. Do you think you are the only one I talked to, fool?” Sandin cuffed the squire and added the details for Lord Kwan. “Soldiers heard Veta tell the squire he was going to kill me.”

Kwan cast a grim scowl upon the young man, who trembled. “Did Veta say this?”

The mouth of the squire flopped as he groped for words, but he knew he was too terrified to lie. “Yes, my-my-Lord,” he stammered.

Sandin drew a dagger. “Death for the traitor’s servant,” he hissed.

“No!” Kwan ordered sharply. “A servant cannot choose his master’s words.”

The squire cowered away from Sandin and thanked his Lord General for his mercy.

“My Lord, he is a traitor,” Sandin insisted. “He knew Veta wanted to murder me.”

“Why did you not tell me last night?” Kwan demanded of the squire. “Atrophane must not speak murder against each other.”

“I thought I had talked him out of it,” explained the squire.

“You couldn’t talk your dick out of your pants,” Sandin snarled and menaced the young man with his dagger.

“Then where is Veta?” Kwan asked with exasperation. His mind still did not accept that he was missing.

“I do not know,” the squire replied.

Thoughtfully, Kwan said, “Lieutenant, you said you talked to soldiers. What soldiers?”

“Veta made quite a scene last night, my Lord. Some of his men heard him threaten my life,” Sandin explained. “I am sure I could find more of them who saw Dreibrand last night. Maybe I can find out which way he went. My Lord, this is clearly desertion.”

Kwan recoiled from the word, and air hissed in his nostrils. The desertion of an Atrophaney officer was unprecedented, and Kwan could not accept it.

Dreibrand’s squire was quick to offer an alternative explanation. “My Lord, I am sure Lieutenant Veta only meant to cool down from whatever had him so upset. He will come back.”

“No one told you to speak,” Sandin snapped.

“That is possible,” Kwan agreed. “Veta lost his temper last night. His ride may have just been to calm him down.”

“My Lord, how can you make excuses for him?” Sandin asked incredulously. “After his behavior last night, he better have deserted.”

“No one deserted me!” Kwan snapped, and the words stabbed Sandin’s ears.

Kwan continued, “Veta may have left to cool down, but stray Bosta warriors may have attacked him. He could be a prisoner.”

Sandin did not dare say any more about desertion. It was humiliating to the Lord General. “I will find him, my Lord,” Sandin said.

“No. Veta’s foolishness cannot delay an Atrophaney conquest. Bring me Hydax and Gennor. I will send them to find Veta,” Kwan decided. He mastered his disappointment and anger by functioning, and the orders flowed from his lips like always. “Lieutenant Sandin, absorb Veta’s forces into your own and incorporate his battle orders. And do not discuss Veta with anyone. I know the men must be curious, but his actions have already given an ill omen to this battle, and I do not want that aggravated by open talk of his…disappearance.”

“Of course, Lord Kwan. I will serve you well,” Sandin said.

“I know. I have no doubts in your abilities, Lieutenant,” Kwan praised. “Now go, before we get behind schedule.”

Sandin saluted his Lord General, acknowledging his orders and dismissal. Turning to the forgotten squire still on his knees, Sandin jerked his thumb toward the tent flap and the boy scrambled out gratefully. Amazed by recent events, Sandin emerged into the thin morning light. The success of his harassment the night before exceeded his hopes. Veta’s anger had been crazy, and Sandin’s position with Lord Kwan was thoroughly reinforced in the aftermath. With his command nearly doubled, Sandin smiled with satisfaction. He had bested his rival, and Dreibrand had lost badly.

Kwan chewed his lip with restrained wrath. In a furtive motion, Jesse handed his lord his helmet then hung back. He had never seen Lord Kwan so upset before.

The episode in the council tent replayed in Kwan’s mind. He had hated to be harsh with Dreibrand. He recognized the ambition that burned in the young officer’s heart. No one recognized ambition better than a Lord General. Dreibrand sought military power, and that was why Sandin made life so difficult for him. That was why Kwan had to send Dreibrand back to Atrophane. He could only give the charismatic Lieutenant Veta so much prestige. He could not offend the sensibilities of the Empire by overfavoring a Veta.

Shutting his eyes against the disgust he felt, Kwan rejected the concept of desertion. He honestly believed that the enemy must have caught Dreibrand when he blundered out of camp in his rage.

I guess all of those Vetas are fools, Kwan thought bitterly.

Even if they did find Dreibrand alive, Sandin would demand that Dreibrand be drummed out of the military. But Kwan would not allow him to make the charge of desertion.

I will give him another chance, Kwan decided. He did not want Dreibrand to fail, even if he was a Veta.

“Bring my horse,” he quietly commanded of Jesse, who complied promptly.

The scouts arrived as Jesse left. Hydax and Gennor assumed their Lord General had a routine mission to assign until they sensed his ugly mood. Dropping to their knees quickly, both of them privately guessed that the incident last night had soured their commander’s temper.

Motioning them to their feet, Kwan issued his orders. “Hydax, Gennor, you are my best scouts, and I have a special mission for you. Lieutenant Veta left camp last night and has not been seen since. I fear that our enemy has waylaid him. Go quickly and find his trail before the Horde moves out. If he is a captive, free him or come get soldiers if you need to.” Kwan paused to clear his throat. “If he is dead, bring me his body.”

The scouts longed to ask why Lieutenant Veta had left camp. Rumors of the disruption in the officers’ meeting had been flying around camp. The nature of Lieutenant Veta’s misconduct was not clearly known, but it was serious. Hydax and Gennor saw that Lord Kwan was obviously upset, torn between righteous anger and terrible worry.

“Quickly now,” Lord Kwan urged.

“Yes, Lord Kwan,” the scouts answered in unison.

Yielding to his anger, Kwan shouted, “Bring him to me!”

Hydax and Gennor saluted and departed intent on their mission.

~

Dreibrand meant only to vent his fury when he recklessly galloped out of camp. Riding his horse seemed the only way to focus his temper and avoid committing more rash acts. With the reins in his hands and Starfield’s powerful muscles surging beneath him, Dreibrand felt in command again.

The cool forest night eventually slackened his anger to seething resentment. A small measure of reason replaced his vicious thoughts, and Dreibrand realized he was by himself on a road that was technically still enemy territory. Veering into the deep dark of the woodland, he hoped it was not too late to hide from any enemies who might be watching the road.

Pulling Starfield to a halt, he planned to rest in the forest before going back. This sudden solitude cleared his head and he tried to pull himself together. For a while he attempted to convince himself that surely next year he would campaign westward with Lord Kwan. Now he needed to go back to camp and accept his punishment. Among other things he would probably have to publicly apologize to Sandin.

Dreibrand ground his teeth at the thought of that humiliation. But if he did what he had to, he could keep his military career. His tantrum would be forgiven because a warrior was supposed to have violent passions, and he believed Lord Kwan would not dismiss him.

Groaning with frustration, Dreibrand realized his ambition and success had blinded him. He had thought his bond with his commander would overcome the seniority of others and that was why exclusion from the expeditionary force had hurt so much. He understood now that he was not the senior officer, and worse than that, a Veta would not be included on the historic first expedition into the Wilderness. But despite this understanding, his anger rushed back mixed with despair. He felt like a whipped hound who had been shown his place in the pack.

And he remembered how hard he had worked to get to that place. Being accepted at the Darmar’s military academy had been difficult, and he had been constantly pressed to obtain the money for his tuition. Then, there had been the struggle to graduate at the top of his class. The social pressure to exclude him had been a constant obstacle. Now it seemed that no matter how far he got from Atrophane, he could not escape the stigma of his family. He felt ill when he considered that he had helped to make the Empire bigger.

Two years away from the center of Atrophane society and many victories had helped Dreibrand forget his status in the Empire, but tonight he had been thoroughly reminded. The House of Veta was getting to be a joke among the ruling class, and Dreibrand had been born a disgrace thanks to his inept relatives.

Thinking of his family discouraged him most of all. Sometimes he even thought his relatives deserved their imperial chastening. In the desolate night of a foreign land, Dreibrand decided he had deluded himself with dreams of power and wealth, and he could not ignore the reality of his life within Atrophaney society. Assuming he did not die in battle, he would spend years winning a new name and fortune in the military only to have his family demand their imagined share.

Then he thought about Sandin exploring the Wilderness first. He thought about Sandin giving his name to the discovered places on the new maps. Dreibrand hated this with great jealousy. He had based his career goals on accompanying Lord Kwan into the Wilderness, and now that plan was stunted.

Dreibrand cursed at himself for not expecting this to happen. He wondered how he had ever been silly enough to think Lord Kwan wanted him on the expedition. Sandin had served for fifteen years, and been Kwan’s second in command for nine years. In time Sandin could become a Lord General, especially with the bounty of the Wilderness available.

And Dreibrand believed the Wilderness had much to offer. Although he had no facts to support this, Dreibrand sensed in his heart with intuitive certainty that something extraordinary lay beyond the bounds of the Atrophane Empire.

Lost in his thoughts, Dreibrand had allowed Starfield to drift into an open grassy area. The small crescent moon had ducked below the horizon hours ago, and only the stars remained to decorate the darkness. Dreibrand looked west. Even unable to see anything, he could feel the vast Wilderness sleeping beyond the cliffs. A watchful quiet emanated from the mysterious region, and it reminded Dreibrand of sensing an ambush just before it happened.

With bitter regret he turned away from the Wilderness that tantalized him so much. The Horde’s camp glittered in the nearby hills, but Dreibrand did not feel welcome. He had tried to play by the rules, but that did not matter in a society that resented your presence. The House of Veta had made its bid for power two generations ago and failed, and the Empire had punished Dreibrand’s family with a slow economic death, which was hastened by his overindulgent brother.

Yes, Lord Kwan liked Dreibrand, and would give him a decent career, but the Lord General would not share what Dreibrand really craved—access to substantial wealth and power. Acknowledging this limitation was a harsh lesson for Dreibrand, who had never lost sight of the prize.

“I will not waste my time with you anymore,” Dreibrand announced for only his horse to hear.

A new plan formed in his head. It was crazy and stupid, and in the near future when his life was much worse, Dreibrand would be baffled by his anger that broke the determination of his dreams. If Atrophane society did not want him, he would quit trying to be a part of it. He could still have one dream, and that was the Wilderness.

Suddenly, Dreibrand felt exhausted, spent by his upsetting night. Much against his character, he did not feel like going to war that morning, and he decided not to return to camp.

Why risk my life just so Lord Kwan can send me home? he thought.

He looked down at himself. He had his sword but no shield. He wore his chest armor but not his helmet. Now that he considered running off, it appeared that he had not prepared very well.

But things were easy to obtain. The countryside was in an uproar because of the invasion, and he would raid a few cottages and get some food and supplies. Then he would dive into the Wilderness where no one could find him. He would scout a passage over the cliffs, and then swing to the south and return to civilization. In a large city, probably Phemnalang, he could make a little money and maybe recruit some adventurers to go back to the Wilderness with him. If he could get enough people to follow him, he might be able to claim his own territory before the Empire even realized.

The Wilderness was vast, and in the beginning there would be plenty for anyone willing to brave the elements. Many people throughout the conquered lands and inside Atrophane itself were dissatisfied with life in the Empire, and Dreibrand anticipated many of them would seek a fresh start in the rich lands to the west, once they were explored.

Of course, he would be a deserter in the eyes of the military, but he could fix that by resigning his commission. He could send a letter to Lord Kwan once he was safely in Phemnalang. Dreibrand could not face his Lord General now. The sight of him would enflame his rage again. It was best to go. He regretted the rudeness after Lord Kwan had given him guidance, unlike his real father, but Dreibrand saw now with bitter clarity that playing by Lord Kwan’s rules was futile. Dreibrand assumed that Lord Kwan would be pleased to be rid of his overly ambitious Veta.

The thought of starting a new course independent of the military excited Dreibrand. The military had brought him as far as it could to suit his purposes, and he did not need to keep killing for the Empire to gain new lands when the Wilderness had so much to simply claim.

He hurried west now. It would be dawn soon and he needed to be safely hidden in the woods to avoid the Atrophane and the Bosta defenders of Droxy. He would hide mostly by day and move in the safety of night.

Dreibrand could not resist the possibilities of the Wilderness. Plunging alone into the new world instantly gratified him and he was especially pleased to be the first Atrophaney to go. The House of Veta would not be kept from history so easily.

Even as I await my execution, I can still taste the sweetness of my short-lived success. My ambition has ruined me, but I regret only the future that my family has to face—Baner Veta, grandfather of Dreibrand, excerpt from prison journal

The smoke of five thousand campfires rose from the slopes above the Droxy valley. The Horde had camped early, and it would descend upon the settlement tomorrow. With its famous efficiency, the Atrophane Horde had rolled into the high hills that separated the Droxy settlement from the river lands. Harassment by scattered Bosta warriors had caused a few skirmishes, but the Atrophane had not been delayed from occupying the road through the wooded hills.

When night came, the fires of the invaders would create a spectacle visible to all residents of Droxy. Dreibrand always imagined this intimidating sight as a constellation of stars shining back at heaven.

With his duties completed punctually, Dreibrand slipped away to the edge of the encampment. Standing on the last ridge above the valley, he surveyed the last state of civilization on the edge of the known world. The fortress of Droxy peeped out from a modest area of fields and pastures. The tiny fortress hardly seemed worthy of the Horde’s attention, but the Darmar Zemthute II had wished for the Empire to reach all the way to the mysterious Wilderness, and then beyond if possible.

Droxy and the surrounding agricultural villages bored Dreibrand, and tomorrow’s conquest seemed more like an errand than a real campaign. There would be little glory, only basic plundering and terror.

Lifting his eyes to the west, he gazed dreamily upon the green folds of virgin forest. Just west of Droxy the land rose abruptly in high cliffs that ran north and south. Beyond the plateau, Dreibrand saw mountains in the glow of the sinking sun.

Dreibrand’s blood ran hot as he beheld the wild distances. Very tall were the mountains, and he imagined how much more he could see standing on those unknown heights.

He squinted, trying to see a break in the cliffs, but they formed a sharp barricade to the next level of land.

There must be a way up, Dreibrand thought.

He did not know how anyone could look upon such a rich and available land and then shun it. Dreibrand puzzled over the warnings of evil in the Wilderness, but discounted them as lies meant to discourage the Atrophane. He understood that a vast and wild land would be dangerous. Nature had greater tests to offer him than enemy warriors, but he had faith that he would prevail.

After a long wistful look upon the gateway to the Wilderness, Dreibrand turned to leave. Only one more battle remained before he could explore the Wilderness, and thereby satisfy his long held dream and add fame to his military career. By entering the unknown world, he hoped to purge the Veta family of its disgrace. Atrophane society might ostracize the House of Veta, but a man who knew the Wilderness would be welcomed and respected. Dreibrand would be one of the men who doubled the size of the Empire.

Dreibrand accepted that this would take a few years, but with the Wilderness in sight, he regarded his future with renewed confidence. Until then, he would continue to be the dutiful lieutenant to Lord Kwan, who had given him the chance to travel this far.

The Horde was settling in comfortably for the night. The usual tension before a major battle was absent. The last valley had fallen efficiently and Droxy had an even lower population. The grim mood of soldiers contemplating death did not descend upon the camp tonight because a pleasant debacle was expected tomorrow.

The smell of food drifted from the cooking fires, and somewhere Dreibrand heard a stringed instrument playing a festive tune. Soldiers saluted him when they looked up from tending their weaponry, and others stepped aside from Dreibrand’s path. He enjoyed the respect he received out in the field. Back in the fashionable cities of Atrophane, he was just a young lieutenant from a ruined family, but here, he was surrounded by soldiers who responded to his authority.

Dreibrand arrived at the council tent. The imperial banner of a white horse and chariot on a black field hung outside the tent. Although Darmar Zemthute II did not travel with the Atrophane Horde, the tent was a tribute to imperial authority and all councils were held inside.

The other officers had already arrived, and Dreibrand realized he had pondered the Wilderness longer than he thought. Nervously he glanced at Lord Kwan’s tent, dreading that his commander would emerge and catch him in his tardiness. Quickly he straightened his cape and adjusted his tooled leather swordbelt on his hips. The design of waves tooled into the thick leather was inspired by his coastal homeland. Concerned with his image as the son of an impoverished house, Dreibrand tended to dress carefully.

The guards outside the council tent opened the flaps for Dreibrand and he entered. Brass braziers held small fires that lighted the large tent, and smoke curled out the hole at the top of the fabric roof. A dozen officers filled the tent in rows of six on each side of Kwan’s central seat. The lower ranking officers sat nearer the entrance, and places for Kwan’s four high lieutenants were next to his seat, two on each side. Dreibrand’s position was immediately to the left of Lord Kwan, which was an honor considering he had only served for two years. Success and bravery in battle had won Dreibrand a seat next to his Lord General.

Lieutenant Kelvi sat to the left of Dreibrand. If Kelvi resented being placed second to Dreibrand, he did not show it. Kelvi had only one more of the required ten years to serve before earning estate grants from the Empire, and he did not want to cause problems. His command skills were mediocre, and he knew Dreibrand was the superior officer.

As the second in command, Lieutenant Sandin sat to the right of Lord Kwan. His wavy brown hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, and his patrician features radiated confidence. On the right of Sandin sat Lieutenant Carfu Anglair, who was a good friend of Sandin. They were both independently wealthy, and Carfu was easy-going and content with his rank.

Noting Dreibrand’s abnormally late entrance, Sandin said, “Where have you been?”

Holding his sword back while seating himself in a cross-legged position, Dreibrand ignored Sandin. Before Sandin could comment further, the tent flaps opened wide and Lord Kwan swept inside. A servant struck a small gong hanging behind Kwan’s seat, and the rich tone welcomed the Hordemaster.

All the officers moved onto their knees and Lord Kwan strode toward his silk cushion. Upon taking his seat, Kwan instructed his officers to make themselves comfortable.

He plunged immediately into the business of the meeting, detailing his plans for Droxy and the strategy for taking the town. Then Kwan received his final reports from all the officers regarding their preparations and any suggestions for the battle plan. Dreibrand paid careful attention to the discussion and delivered his own report flawlessly.

When the plans for tomorrow’s conquest were approved and understood by all, Kwan called for wine. Servants distributed silver drinking cups to the officers, and wine was poured.

Raising his cup, Kwan proposed a toast. “To my officers, I offer my thanks and praise. Your service has brought Atrophane across the known lands of Ektren. Many long bloody years we have spent bringing our civilization to our lesser neighbors, but after tomorrow, a new world awaits the Atrophane. The Empire will replace mystery and myth in the Wilderness.”

Everyone erupted into an enthusiastic cheer, and Dreibrand’s cheer was truly jubilant. Wine drained from the cups and the servants quickly refilled them. The other officers gave their toasts, which were similar in theme to Lord Kwan’s toast.

When it was Dreibrand’s turn to toast, Sandin had already eloquently praised the Lord General, robbing Dreibrand of the chance to do so with impact.

Modestly, Dreibrand thanked the other officers for the pleasure of serving with them and concluded, “May the Wilderness bring us all greater fortunes.”

Once the formal toasts were completed, the gathering settled in for some basic drinking and merriment. Everyone was excited on the eve of conquering the known world. While drinking, Kwan lapsed into recounting glorious battles from the past. The older lieutenants tended not to listen because they had heard their Lord General’s stories before or been present at the battle. However, Dreibrand listened with actual interest, hoping to learn from Kwan’s exploits, but the others considered him a shameless bootlicker.

“Now it was the Pandovelari that scared my face.” Kwan pointed to his trademark scar. “Those were dark years spent warring with them. Believe it or not, but I often despaired that we would never overwhelm them. Just ask Sandin.”

Sandin turned away from his own conversation when he heard his name. Dreibrand disliked Lord Kwan including his second in command in their conversation, but it was a common occurrence that had to be tolerated.

“My Lord, you did not despair,” Sandin corrected politely.

Kwan yielded to his lieutenant’s flattery. “I meant only the despair of a Lord General who did not get a quick victory.”

“But it was worth the wait. Pandovelar brought you fame and greater wealth, my Lord,” Sandin said.

Kwan and Sandin struck their cups together, toasting their shared memory. Dreibrand waited while they finished their drink. He stared at the burgundy reflection of firelight on his wine until Kwan returned to their conversation. Kwan appreciated the restraint and patience Dreibrand displayed. He knew Dreibrand coveted Sandin’s rank and wealth, but everyone had their place in Atrophane society. Advancement required steps of service, and Dreibrand had much more to do.

Yet Kwan liked Dreibrand, and for now he would guide his career to a level appropriate for a Veta.

“It is a shame you were not with us back then, Dreibrand. You would have enjoyed the challenge,” Kwan said with actual sincerity.

“Challenges make me stronger, my Lord,” Dreibrand acknowledged.

“Yes, Pandovelar was a trial ground that made the Atrophane stronger. Now we are about to fulfill the destiny of Atrophane to expand the known world. At last the virgin lands of Ektren are before me.” Kwan sighed with great satisfaction.

Dreibrand nodded. Unable to contain his excitement any longer, he asked quietly, “When, Lord Kwan, do you think our first expeditionary force will depart into the Wilderness?” His widening eyes complemented his eager voice.

Kwan finished his wine before replying. “Well, Dreibrand, there will be many things to do. The Bosta territory will have to be secured and proper fortresses built. Slaves will have to be collected, and the rest of the plunder selected and distributed. Still, I plan to leave on an exploration by midsummer—maybe.”

“Excellent, my Lord,” Dreibrand beamed. “Until then I will personally scout the cliffs for a place our horses can ascend.”

Now Kwan gazed firmly at his young lieutenant. “Dreibrand, I have not selected you for the expeditionary force this year.”

The words were simple and clear, but Dreibrand resisted comprehension. Losing his practiced poise, he stammered, “Lord—Lord Kwan, how has my service displeased you?”

Kwan saw the disappointment on Dreibrand’s face and realized the young lieutenant burned to explore west just like himself. Sympathy, however, could not alter a Lord General’s plans. “Dreibrand, your service pleases me greatly,” he explained. “But I have many duties for many people. You shall take the chattel and plunder back to Atrophane. You will be received by the Darmar and enjoy the victory celebrations at the capital. I thought you would enjoy that.” Quietly he added, “It is very enjoyable.”

Dreibrand’s jaw dropped aghast, as if he had just been condemned to slavery in a mine. To see his dream and then be turned back to Atrophane stunned him. It had never occurred to him that he would not be at Lord Kwan’s side. He had specifically pursued his commission with Lord Kwan because of the Lord General’s desire to foray into the unknown lands.

Dreibrand’s heart thudded from the sudden agitation, but he fought the panic. He marshaled his confidence, telling himself he could persuade Lord Kwan to include him.

I am going! his mind dictated.

“Lord Kwan, please reconsider. Anyone can take the chattel back to Atrophane. Have I not proved myself a strong fighter? I will face any enemy. And the languages I have studied. You may need my skills,” Dreibrand insisted.

“We are all good fighters. And I have several interpreters,” Kwan countered.

“My skills in personal combat are well above average, and no one speaks languages like I can,” Dreibrand argued.

Trying not to be stern with his upset lieutenant, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, I have promised the places on this historic mission a long time ago. You are an Atrophaney officer, and you will follow my orders.”

Dreibrand faltered, uncertain what to say. How could he dare to protest his Lord General’s decision after being reminded of his obligation for obedience? But then he thought of the setting sun on the distant mountains. In the west he had hope. In the east, back in Atrophane, he had only old problems that would not go away and would only get worse.

“Which lieutenant have you chosen?” he blurted.

Kwan frowned at the inquiry, but answered, “Sandin, of course.”

By now the other officers had tuned into the conversation. Enjoying Dreibrand’s distress, Sandin remarked, “Ambition does not suit the House of Veta.”

Dreibrand narrowed his eyes at the senior officer, and hate bit into his reason.

“Did you really expect to be included on such a historic mission?” Sandin sneered.

“There is no need to be rude, Lieutenant,” Kwan rumbled. He rarely intervened in their rivalry, but he did not want Dreibrand goaded, especially after such disappointment.

“And why not include me on a historic mission?” Dreibrand demanded hotly.

“A Veta would sully the triumph of Atrophane acquiring the Wilderness,” Sandin stated.

“I will not let you insult my name,” Dreibrand yelled.

Hoping to cure the spoiling tempers, Carfu interjected, “Stop getting worked up, Dreibrand. We have all had our turn as chattel master, and it is not so bad. I have to stay in this shitty country and build a fortress. I should be the one getting upset.”

When Carfu spoke up, Dreibrand realized every officer was staring at him, and he looked down in shame. Focusing on his clenched fists, Dreibrand knew better than to make a scene. Strict rules of conduct governed Atrophaney behavior in social settings, and the military had extra elements of protocol.

Glad to see Dreibrand getting himself under control, Kwan said, “Dreibrand, it appears you did not expect this assignment, and because of that I will forgive your transgression. I know your family name places a hardship on you, but escorting the chattel back to Atrophane will be good for you. People will see you, and your soldiers will spread stories of your bravery. Returning after a two-year campaign with the Horde will give you glory, and people will respect you. Trust me, you can start building a name for yourself this way.”

Dreibrand looked into Kwan’s eyes. He could see that his Lord General truly wanted him to succeed and offered good advice, but Dreibrand could not give up on the Wilderness so easily. “I thank you for the opportunity to visit home, my Lord, but I am not homesick. Let me trade with Carfu. I will stay here and build a fortress,” Dreibrand offered.

Then I can explore the Wilderness from here, he plotted.

Kwan looked at Carfu, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it pleases you, my Lord, I would love to go to Atrophane.”

With a shake of his head Kwan dashed Dreibrand’s hopes. “You will be chattel master and present the Darmar with his share. There is no trading of my orders. I see now that I have been too lenient with you, Lieutenant Veta. You overstep your bounds. You will dispute my commands no more, and you will excuse yourself from this meeting,” Kwan announced.

A flicker of shock rustled through the gathered officers. A high lieutenant almost never suffered a reprimand.

Dreibrand meant to obey, but he thought of the lands that no Atrophane had ever seen. The possibilities of the Wilderness tempted him too much, and Dreibrand suddenly accepted that he had to go. Somehow he had to go.

He stood up as if he would quietly exit in his shame, but instead he shouted, “I challenge Lieutenant Sandin Promentro for his command. In the tradition of Galmonlay, I seek advancement through duel.”

Sandin laughed, and the senior officer’s absurd reaction enraged Dreibrand. “Do not threaten me with archaic laws, Veta,” he said.

“Galmonlay tradition is still accepted. If I defeat you in duel, I can have your military rank and your place on the expeditionary force,” Dreibrand said triumphantly. This way he could explore the Wilderness and kill Sandin.

“You idiot!” Sandin exclaimed and sprang to his feet.

The hands of both men flew to their sword handles. But long years and a ruthless life had not made Lord Kwan slow, and he instantly jumped between them.

“Such quarreling on the eve of a battle!” the Lord General cried with wrath. “You would curse the whole Horde with your disregard for taboo.”

“Lord Kwan, give me my challenge!” Dreibrand demanded.

“Silence!” Kwan thundered. “No duel can be fought on the eve of battle—not even by the rules of Galmonlay. I should flog you for even uttering your challenge on this night. This night of all nights.”

“Let me administer the punishment, my Lord,” Sandin requested eagerly. “The Vetas were never punished enough anyway. They should have all been made slaves.”

“I will kill you,” Dreibrand snarled. His rage was so focused on Sandin that he never saw Kwan strike.

The Lord General grabbed Dreibrand’s face and flung him to the ground. It was a rare man who tempted a blow from the hand of the fearsome Hordemaster, and Dreibrand almost fell completely. Pushing himself back to his feet, Dreibrand exited the tent without looking back.

The face of every officer was frozen with astonishment. Excluding Sandin, Dreibrand had obviously been Lord Kwan’s favorite officer and no one had ever expected such a disgraceful episode from Lieutenant Veta, whose conduct had always been impeccable.

Kwan sat back down. He said nothing and his neutral face did not reveal the bitter disappointment churning inside him.

With a smug smile Sandin settled back onto his cushion and gestured for a servant to bring him wine. It had taken him two years, but he had finally gotten Dreibrand to snap. Lord Kwan could never favor the young lieutenant like he had before.

Reeling with shame and hatred, Dreibrand staggered into the night. He hated Sandin so much, and he was ashamed that he had finally allowed his rival to force him into a disastrous outburst. The shame of acting so horribly in front of Lord Kwan sickened Dreibrand. His stupidity at challenging Sandin on the eve of a battle overwhelmed him. After breaking such an important taboo, Dreibrand was certain he could never convince Lord Kwan to include him on the expeditionary force.

If only I had waited until tomorrow to challenge, he lamented. A challenge on the day of battle would not have broken the taboo, and Lord Kwan might have agreed.

The magnitude of his blunder crushed his heart and mind, and Dreibrand gave in to his anger. Lord Kwan was one of the few people in the ruling class who would give him a chance, and he had completely ruined it. Now he would have to beg to keep his commission. Without his military career he was nothing.

Literally moaning with misery, Dreibrand clutched his head as irrational fury seized his mind. He pulled his sword out and charged his own camp. A fire still burned in front of his tent, and Dreibrand attacked it. The sword slashed through the coals, sending the cooking rack flying in a shower of sparks. Starfield neighed in alarm and pulled at his tether. His squire spun out of his bedroll as if every enemy the Atrophane had ever faced had come back for revenge.

The young man bounded to his feet and watched in terror as his master hacked the campfire into glowing piles.

“May the Gods curse Sandin as they have cursed me!” Dreibrand cried.

With the fire obliterated Dreibrand turned his eyes upon his shield leaning against his other gear. This became the next target of his rage. His sword beat against the polished metal that could not dodge the wild assault.

“I am going to kill that bastard,” he shouted several times.

Assuming he was the intended victim, the squire tried to slip away, but Dreibrand somehow noticed him despite his deranged state.

“Where’s my helmet?” he demanded.

The squire froze as if skewered by the question. Dreibrand made an awful sight in the diminished glow of the scattered coals. His shoulders heaved from ragged breathing and violent emotion fueled the gleam in his eyes.

“Sir, don’t kill me,” the squire squeaked.

“Not you! But it is time I started killing the right people around here,” Dreibrand shouted as he scanned his gear.

The commotion attracted a few soldiers from the surrounding encampment. They rushed up, thinking their officer had been attacked. Dreibrand turned to face the soldiers and his unhinged expression made them halt.

Dreibrand laughed at them. He wished he could give them some reward for their loyalty, but now he had disgraced them all.

“Get out of here! Don’t waste your time on me. I sully the Empire!” He was ranting now and waving his sword. He tore off his cape and threw it as his men.

Forgetting the soldiers, Dreibrand turned back to his squire. “Did you find it?” he barked.

The squire had not moved at all, and he regretted not fleeing while Dreibrand yelled at the soldiers. The young man cast his eyes over the strewn gear, but he was too flustered to focus on any objects in the twitching light.

“Ah, it should be here,” he mumbled and tried to perform his function.

Gesturing wildly with his sword, Dreibrand said, “Forget the helmet. I only need my sword to kill Sandin.” His eyes latched onto the flashing steel with affection.

The squire dodged the swinging sword. He really meant to flee right then, but he could not ignore Dreibrand’s last statement.

“Sandin? Sir, you cannot kill him,” he cried in genuine panic.

“I should have done this two years ago,” Dreibrand snarled with deepening conviction.

“Sir, no.”

Dreibrand turned away, clearly intending to attack his rival that very minute.

Desperately the squire grabbed Dreibrand’s arm.

“Sir, Lord Kwan will execute you,” he warned.

Dreibrand blocked out this consequence and shoved his servant away, but the squire held on. “Sir, no. They’ll kill me too,” he pleaded.

This got through to Dreibrand, who accepted that he was about to commit a crime against his own people. He had no authorization for a duel, and if he were successful, it would be murder.

“Everyone will try and stop you. You might not even reach Sandin,” reasoned the squire, who searched for rationality in his master’s eyes.

But the very mention of Sandin’s name seemed to incense Dreibrand all over again, and he gnashed his teeth with frustration that needed to be vented. Dreibrand knew he could not just sit in his tent while Sandin was so close by.

“Saddle my horse,” he commanded.

“Where are you going?” the squire asked suspiciously.

“Saddle my horse!” Dreibrand hollered and swiped at his tent with his sword. The blade snapped through two tent ropes, and half the shelter collapsed.

Giving up protest and hoping for the best, the squire jumped to comply. Starfield snorted as the servant hastily bridled the spirited warhorse. Tonight the squire was the definition of efficiency. The sooner he had that horse saddled the sooner his master would be gone.

Gods, spare me the blame, he pleaded.

Dreibrand stalked over and finished cinching the saddle himself. He jumped onto Starfield and goaded the horse into an immediate gallop. He tore through the camp and disappeared into the night.

His temper was so intense that Dreibrand knew he would kill Sandin if he stayed in camp. As much as he would have enjoyed this, Dreibrand could not murder his fellow officer. That would truly ruin his life much worse than it was already ruined.

I need to cool down. Then I will put things back together, he told himself.

He rode west.

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.

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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.