3 Chapter Preview of Union of Renegades

Union of Renegades: The Rys Chronicles Book I by Tracy Falbe

Union of Renegades was the first novel I published. It’s the first book of the 4-part series The Rys Chronicles, which remains my best-selling series to this day.

If you’re in the mood for an epic fantasy with lots of characters and high stakes in the style of A Game of Thrones (except that this series actually goes somewhere and comes to an exciting conclusion), then read this three-chapter sample.

1 ~ In the Service of the Empire ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some day…” Dreibrand growled.

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

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

“Dreibrand, come sit.”

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

This one never really kneels, Kwan thought.

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

Casually, Dreibrand settled down among the cushions.

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

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

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

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

These things reminded Kwan of himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think she likes me,” Dreibrand joked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dejected, the man said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would I die?” Dreibrand wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Dreiband prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Set her free,” he ordered.

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

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

2 ~ Comfort in a Stranger’s Kiss ~

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.


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.

3 ~ Promised Places ~

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.

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