Tenlyres Chapter 4

Chapter Index

Sunrise arrived just ahead of the Red Lector to Korlom. Ilsa watched the western horizon from within a stand of tower grass east of the village. When she sighted the black flags with red flame emblems approaching, she lowered her binoculars and then glanced at Blue. Her friend chewed a scrap of dried meat from her day’s ration.

They had ridden out of Korlom before dawn. Ilsa had tasked her strider to wake them early before she had gone to sleep in the lean-to the previous night. The Red Lector’s scouts had not been moving around an hour ago, but Ilsa had seen them rouse themselves and their runners ten minutes before the flags of the Red Lector’s main force came into view.

Blue’s morning-dusted eyes met Ilsa’s gaze. “How are you so awake?”

“The Red Lector wants something in the east. He’s a religious leader, so he wouldn’t be leading an army just to fight Chogrum.” She frowned and turned toward the village. She raised the binoculars and looked through them. “What is he after?”

The column of the Red Lector’s forces did not look huge at a distance, but they moved into Korlom at speed. Ilsa guessed there must be about a thousand light striders, creatures similar in build, but smaller than the great striders Ilsa and Blue had ridden from Dal. Here and there she spotted the forms of low cat-like runners and taller great striders.

Despite the rumors she had heard back in Morhoi, about the increasing mechanization of Ayoch’s military, this force seemed to be all riders. Ilsa saw no sign of autos or crawlers. She supposed that made sense, given the potentially treacherous terrain of the steppe and the speed of the modified animals on the plateau. Plant-piles beneath the ground could create sinkholes but striders and runners were usually light enough to avoid, or agile enough to escape a collapse.

Blue put a hand on her arm. Ilsa lowered her binoculars. Her friend wore an expression of concern. “That’s a lot of troops to ride into a tiny village.”

“The Filami should be alright until fighting breaks out with Chogrum.” Ilsa hoped what she said was true, but she did not trust the Ayochian forces or the Red Lector. “We need to get ahead of them if we want to beat them to the center.”

“Ilsa,” Blue said. “What do you know about the Red Lector?”

“Of the five Lectors that serve the royalty of Ayoch, the Red Lector is traditionally the most warlike.”

“That explains why that’s the one leading troops here.” Blue frowned. “I can barely get my head around a priest leading an army.”

Ilsa frowned. “Scripture from Ayoch tells that Tenlyres is important to the monarchy.”

“Hmm…” Blue shook her head. “They don’t really know a whole lot about the lyres, though, do they?”

“Nobody does.” Ilsa did not want to delve into the lack of belief Blue had for any religion, especially when she did not believe in Ayoch’s religion herself.

“Somebody does.” Blue glanced over her shoulder at their silent steed, crouched behind the stand of tower grass.

Ilsa shrugged.

Blue gave a frustrated sigh. “We had better ride unless you want me to try to stop them here.”

“We can’t fight a thousand soldiers.”

“But I could control their commander. Have him lead them away.”

“If you could concentrate that long on him, maybe.” Ilsa shook her head. “It’s too risky. And besides that, if they have anyone with mind senses or any war magi, we’d be completely out of place.” And out of luck.

“War magi?” Blue frowned. “What makes you think they have magi at all?”

“Ayochian forces don’t usually go into battle without them. The Red Lector could well have more than one, or even his own mind eater.”

“Let’s hope not. This is gonna be dangerous enough.” Blue turned toward the striders. “We should ride east.”

“In a moment.” Ilsa raised the binoculars and looked through them. She looked among the troops riding all over the village until she spotted a man who rode a great strider onto the main street between two rows of little houses.

He wore a deep blue coat with a red scarf hanging across his shoulders. The deep blue, the same color as the Ayochian Flag gave him away as a nobleman, and the red scarf made Ilsa wonder at religious affiliation. Even through Ilsa’s binoculars, the man’s long white hair and weathered skin gave away his age.

She guessed he might be an officer, or even the Red Lector himself.

“Blue,” she said, still looking through the binoculars, “Can you sense the mind in the center of the village?”

“Barely.”

“Can you tell me about the men there?”

“The troops are in awe of the guy in the middle. They’re all focused on him.”

“He might be the Red Lector.” Ilsa followed the white haired rider as he slowed his mount. A light strider rode to his side and handed him a scroll case. At first, the soldiers around the main street stood at attention, but then as one, they fell to one knee. Ilsa lowered the binoculars. “Definitely the Lector.”

Blue nodded. “Can we get moving, then?”

Ilsa turned toward their striders. “Let’s ride.”

 

The Red Lector did not stay long in the village. Ilsa looked back an hour’s ride east of Korlom and saw the column of troops appearing to follow her and Blue. The scouts on their cat-like runners rode ahead. They moved fast, even faster than the pace of Ilsa and Blue’s striders.

Ilsa urged her steed forward, but knew already the runners could catch up if they ran at top high speed for the next hour or two and paced themselves. She made a face as she considered having to explain to the Ayochians why she and Blue were riding east at speed. The Oshomi nomads might be able to ride away when they were in danger, but Ilsa was of the city of Dal, regardless of the fact that it was built on the plateau. If she and Blue could not find the Oshomi before the Red Lector did, completing the mission would be nearly impossible.

Blue shot her a glance as they barreled across the low grass flatland. Their striders accelerated and kicked up mud from the steppe as they went. The mud provided evidence to Ilsa the days were getting warmer. Spring was on its way. She hugged herself to the strider’s thick neck and turned her head toward Blue.

Her friend’s eyes shifted toward the column behind them. “They’re quick. Have you got a plan?”

“I think I fooled them last time, but that was back in the village.” And I never mentioned to them that my traveling companion was from Chogrum. She shook her head. “We have to outlast them.”

“How long before those runners get tired?”

“An hour, I would guess, maybe two. But if they sprint when they get close enough they could get us in rifle range in that time.”

“It’s three-hundred kilometers to Fort Sardul, and a hundred more to the lyres on the other side.” Blue frowned. “Can the striders get us that far without stopping?”

“That’s over four days in a straight line, so I doubt it,” said Ilsa. “And we can’t afford to circle like before, not with the army so close behind.”

“We can’t fight them either.” Blue grimaced over her shoulder. “There are too many, even if we got lucky and they were all useless shots.”

“Something tells me they’re not. We can’t let them get in range to start shooting.” Ilsa glanced behind her.

Eight scouts rode ahead of the column, all on fast and vicious-fanged runners. They looked to be a kilometer or more behind, but they were gaining fast. Someone with good aim might be able to hit a target with a rifle from that distance if stationary. The same shooter on a strider’s back could probably manage a similar range, but only the best and most experienced could compensate for the rolling gait of a runner.

Ilsa once saw her father make that sort of shot, years ago. His runner had been at full pace and his rifle hadn’t even had telescopic sights. She cursed the thought. Father was exceptional, maybe even unique, in his skill with all firearms. They called him Black Powder in the fraternity of mercenaries, still to this day.

Her eyes narrowed as she watched the runners gaining. A towering man on the back of one of the two lead cats raised a thick-barreled rifle. They were still hundreds of meters away. Ilsa thought she recognized the man by his build and height. Kaij Haram, the leader of the scouts, stood high in the saddle, cast in the light of morning. He leveled the weapon in their direction.

A red thought ran through Ilsa’s mind. The image of herself with a bullet-wound torn through her back and out her front surfaced. She prayed to Hathani though she knew the goddess only answered wishes with reality. At this point, her gamble for spying so long seemed foolish.

A gunshot cracked the air behind Ilsa. Both she and Blue looked back. Neither of them had been hit. Kaij had fired the weapon skyward, an ultimatum trying to convince them to stop fleeing.

Ilsa smirked. “He doesn’t think he can hit us from there.”

“I don’t know many who could.” Blue put a hand to her armored chest. “He sure scared me, though.”

Me too. Ilsa kept her eyes on the leader of the scouts. His runners’ chest heaved. The great cat began to slow. Other scouts caught up with their leader. Evidently the steeds lacked the endurance Ilsa had dreaded possible.

The scouts began to recede, now only stalking the plain. She turned to Blue. A cold breeze picked up from the northeast.

She frowned. “That’s odd.”

“What’s odd?”

“The wind felt warm this morning.”

“It’s the weather. You can’t predict everything.” They urged their striders forward.

The temperature dropped fast. The muddy ground felt firmer under the striders’ steps. A faint whiff of propellant with a metallic tinge reached her nose. “Do you smell that?”

“Smell what?”

“Ayochian auto-launch powder.”

“I don’t smell any powder,” said Blue.

That did not mean there wasn’t any. Ilsa’s sense of smell was sharper than Blue’s.

Ilsa frowned up at the sky. The air temperature dropped even further. Above her, she glimpsed a tiny shape, perhaps the size of a hummingbird, gliding fifty meters overhead. She squinted to make out the shape more clearly. Her breath misted in the frigid air and the new chill reached through her coat. Ilsa shivered but kept her gaze on the solitary bird above them.

“Blue.” She pointed upward. “Can you sense that bird’s mind?”

Blue looked upward. “I can see a speck up there. You sure it’s a bird?”

“Humor me.”

Blue closed her eyes as they rode. Frosty white patches began to form in the long mane of Ilsa’s strider. Something about that bird was off. Blue opened her eyes. “There’s no mind up there. Can’t be a bird.”

“You’re sure?”

“Completely.” Blue frowned. “There is something odd up there, but it’s not a mind.”

Ilsa trusted her friend’s mental senses. She held the reins in her left and then clenched her right hand, then spread the fingers wide. A brand burned. Her bonded shotgun appeared with its barrel pressed into her palm. She closed her grip on the weapon and began to carefully load the gun with three shells of bird shot. No sense wasting heavier ammunition on something so small. This would be enough.

Blue glanced at her. “What are you doing?”

Ilsa raised the shotgun and aimed it at the small form above them. “I’m testing a hypothesis.” She sniffed the air. The smell of auto-launch propellant remained, despite having ridden a few hundred meters since she had first noticed it. She aimed at the shape with its tiny wings. It was angling down.

The air froze at her fingers and made her wish she could afford to wear gloves. But with gloves on she could not use her weapon bonds. She looked up the shotgun barrel, eyes almost closed to keep the little shape centered. She pulled the trigger.

The shotgun roared in its familiar voice. A ring of metal on metal followed an instant later, only audible to Ilsa due to her trained ears. Her airborne target lost a wing to the bird shot, but no blood came forth. She watched the shape of the target spiral down to the plain ahead of them. Immediately the chill in the air began to recede.

Ilsa watched the ground for the fallen shape as they approached. She slowed her strider. “Blue, I want to get a look at this.”

Blue glanced behind them. Ilsa checked as well. The scouts were still over a thousand meters away.

“Alright,” Blue said. “But be quick.”

Ilsa spotted a glint of metal in the low grass. She kept her strider moving and slid part way down the mounting rope, legs pressed together to keep her steady, just like she and Cass Kalteri had done as initiates years before. Her feet bobbed just above the mud and grass without touching any of it.

She snatched the hot, bird-shot-battered, form from the ground with one hand. It was small enough to fit in her palm. She stuffed the wreckage into her pocket and then scurried up to the saddle. Her steed had only slowed a little the whole time.

Blue raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”

Ilsa took the wreckage from her coat pocket. She turned it over in her hands and frowned. The shape resembled an overly-long bullet, but with a bent and broken wing of aluminum-like metal on one side and groove along each edge, where the wings must have collapsed. The thing reeked of propellant with additional auto-launch fuel. It’s sides were etched with mystic syllables in High Ayochian, writing marred by furrows of bird-shot.

“It’s a projectile,” said Ilsa. “Based on an Ayochian magus round, I think.”

“So they do have war magi.”

The air felt warmer around Ilsa already. War magi powers had limited range, but symbols like those on the bullet could be used to extend that range. She frowned. “I’d say at least one ice magus, probably among the scouts.”

“This continues to get better.” Blue sighed.

“It doesn’t change our plan. We have to stay ahead of that army.”

“Fair enough,” said Blue. “But I don’t know if I can beat a full magus.”

“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Ilsa stuffed the magus round into her pocket. We have to keep up our pace. She looked ahead. In the distance clouds hovered on the eastern horizon. Keep on hoping, Ilsa thought. Another memory of Cass returned, this one far more recent. Stay red, Ilsa.

Stay red. She urged her steed to full pace. Blood pounded in her veins.

*

Tenlyres Chapter 3

Chapter Index 

The strider sprang over a stand of two-meter-tall tower grass. Ilsa sat high in the saddle. After a four-days-ride across the plateau’s steppe, Ilsa and Blue had left the driest part of the western plateau behind. Forty meters away, a set of cold geysers issued misty spray into the chill air of late winter, evidence of a Lotok pile formation beneath the soil.

Though Ilsa had ridden on the steppe near Dal as a girl, and later as a neophyte in Hathani’s clergy, she had never before traveled this far into the center of the plateau, this close to Tenlyres. Over two hundred kilometers from the city limits of Dal, small wisps of smoke drifted over the Filami village of Korlom, clearly visible above the waves of wind-blown tower grass that concealed all but the very tops of the cluster of tiny houses.

Blue whistled as she and her strider caught up with Ilsa. She glanced at Ilsa. “Looks like the place is still standing.”

Ilsa nodded. “For now.”

Once war struck, the Filami could well vanish. They had not faired well in the last struggle between Chogrum and Dal. Though neither side considered the native settlements as targets they also did not offer them shelter or give them distance. Unlike the Oshomi and Vogmem nomads of the plateau, the Filami villagers were tied to their homes and the plant piles that sustained them. Already few in number, the Filami had barely survived the crossfire between city-states.

Ilsa sighed. Far too many people would be dragged into the war if Dal and Chogrum clashed again. The conflict seemed inevitable, but for the Unification’s sake, Ilsa hoped she and Blue would not be too late in reaching the Oshomi, the most powerful of the nomad peoples around Tenlyres. She shifted her heels to spur her strider. They rode into the village.

Blue looked around and sniffed the air. The village consisted of some twenty-five small houses, all of simple design but with small charms of carved animal bone hanging on strands of plains-grass around their doors. A young boy, probably not more than ten, looked up at Ilsa and Blue’s striders, the beasts themselves taller than any house in the village. He gasped, his stare moving between Ilsa and Blue. An old man limped to the boy’s side from one of the nearby houses. He stood protectively in front of the child.

“Who are you?” he asked in the odd dialect of Yrian the Filami used which mingled the old and modern languages.

Ilsa turned and gestured to the red staff strapped sideways across the back of her saddle. “I am a priestess of the Unification. This is my partner.” She motioned to Blue.

The old man shifted his head. The motion rustled his mane of gray hair. His eyes were bright. “You work for the Unification? Can you help us with a dispute?”

Blue glanced at Ilsa.

Ilsa kept her eyes on the man and the boy. “What kind of dispute?”

“You’re not the only travelers Korlom’s has seen lately.”

Blue closed her eyes and sniffed the air, a sure sign to Ilsa she was trying to reach out with her mind. The man and the boy didn’t seem to notice Blue’s change in demeanor. They both kept their eyes on Ilsa. Good, it might make them less suspicious if they missed Blue using her powers.

“Can you tell me about the others?”

The boy’s eyes roved over the striders. The old man nodded to Ilsa. “First one rode into town yesterday. He rode a white strider and didn’t say anything to anyone. My grandson got a good look at him, but I didn’t.”

Ilsa turned shifted her gaze to the boy. His face flushed. “Miss Priestess, I saw him. He had dark hair, and wore armor, with a lot of saddle bags.”

“Thanks.” Ilsa smiled at the boy, who reddened further. “You said there were others?”

“Two more.” The old man nodded. “After the white strider, there was a man and a woman, both pale with black hair traveling together last night. Sounded Chogrumian when they asked for directions. Said they were brother and sister, out to study the Lyre near here.” The old man snorted and shook his head. “They headed a kilometer north-east to the Lyre. The brother had one arm shorter than the other.”

Blue glanced at Ilsa. “Lemuel?”

“Sounds like it. He was at the stables for a reason, and we circled around once we left the city to avoid being spotted on the direct route.” Ilsa folded her arms. She turned to the old man. “You said there was some kind of dispute?”

“For some reason, the brother and sister don’t like the man who rode through first. We heard shots this morning. One of our patrols saw them in some kind of standoff by the old burial mounds near the Lyre around noon.”

Blue frowned.

Ilsa nodded. “Thanks for the help, friend. We’re heading that way, so we’ll see what we can do.”

“Thank you much.” The old man bowed. “I fear there is worse to come.”

“If we can help it, we’ll see to that too,” said Ilsa. She glanced at Blue. “Come on.”

They spurred their steeds to the northeastern edge of Korlom. The westernmost Lyre came into view, a curved arch of dark stone that loomed over even the clumps of pale gray tower grass that dotted the plains here and there. They rode onward.

 

Ilsa heard a gunshot as they approached the Lyre over the low grasses. With her steed close to Ilsa’s, Blue turned to her. “You’ve got to be kidding me. A gunfight between strangers?”

“Don’t be so sure they’re strangers to each other.” Ilsa frowned ahead at the Lyre. Nobody was in view, but as they had drawn closer to the towering twenty-meter-high arch of the Lyre, the burial mounds had begun to present ample places to hide, in addition to the stands of tower grass in the surrounding area.

Ilsa smelled the remains of a ballistic propellant on a cool breeze from the north. A metallic tinge permeated the odor. Her nose gave her far more information than her eyes. She always recognized that metallic smell in propellant. Whatever caliber or make the firearm might be, it had been loaded with western-style auto-launch bullets, the kind made in Ayoch and, even years ago, all too common in Dal.

“Let’s hope there are still two sides to talk down,” Ilsa added. She tugged the reins and turned her steed toward the smell. “This way.”

“Aren’t we gonna talk about this?” asked Blue.

Ilsa hesitated, spurs poised to drive her strider to a gallop. “If we can’t keep three people from killing each other, we can’t unify the plateau.”

“You could say the same thing if we get killed.”

“Since when are you afraid of a few bullets? You’ve got your armor.”

Blue grimaced. “We’re on a mission to find the Oshomi Protector. That’s more important than some random folk in the middle of nowhere.”

Ilsa shook her head. “Fine, stay here. I’ll go ahead and see what the problem is.”

Blue urged her steed ahead with a motion of her heels. “No way, Ilsa. I’m watching your back.”

“Thanks. We’ll discuss our priorities again once we’re on our way.”

“Ilsa, that’s actually kind of reasonable. What brought that on?”

“Hey, I can be very reasonable. Let’s go.” Ilsa spurred her steed and the beast ran forward between two burial mounds that towered even over the head of the massive strider. Blue was close behind.

She rode the strider on a curving path that led her toward the north, sniffing the air for any more traces of propellant. She caught the tinny smell of shot again just twenty meters from the looming Lyre. She was close enough she could see the metallic strings of the infamous landmark. She wondered when last the huge instrument had been played, but knew from her studies in the Unification that it had to have been a century at least.

The smell of auto-launch propellant grew thick in the air at a place between four mounds. Ilsa reined in her strider. The creature’s long mane blustered in the breeze. Strands threatened to obscure Ilsa’s vision, so she leaned to one side. The smell of the strider and the propellant did not make a good mix. However, the propellant here was older, its odor mingled with grass and dirt. She looked down and searched the short-grass for glints of metal. A few spent shell cases lay scattered at the base of the mound nearest the Lyre, evidence of the earlier shots.

Blue caught up with Ilsa. “Anything?”

“Someone shot from the side of that mound, but hours ago from the look of things.” Ilsa looked up at the Lyre. A slim shadow flitted across the raised stone base of the archway, only visible for a moment, but long enough for the shape of a rifle to be clear. “Up there, under the arch. I think that must be the shooter.”

“I believe it, but who was she shooting at?”

“First things first,” said Ilsa. “Stop the shooting.”

“Good goal.” Blue’s eyes flicked toward the Lyre. “Should we try to flank her?”

Ilsa nodded. “Good plan.” I’ll take the direct approach. Can you try to get closer?”

“Sure. I can’t stop what I can’t sense.”

“That goes for everyone.” Except father, I guess. Ilsa nodded to Blue. “Head north. I’ll go east. Stay low.”

Blue closed her eyes and then twitched her reins. The strider squatted to lower its profile, then waddled between the northward burial mounds, moving awkwardly despite the additional joint in its legs that provided it additional flexibility while running. Ilsa turned her strider and rode east into the wind.

She hunched forward, close to the strider’s neck. She flexed her free left hand and produced the pistol from the bond there. The brand burned for a moment, but then the pain faded.

At times like these, she wished father had insisted she bond with a rifle instead of one of her other weapons. Maybe someday she would have the courage to endure another brand so she would never be without a long-range option. She ought to do that, but she hated the idea of being burned again. The memories were too vivid, even nearly two decades later.

She kept her head down and loaded the pistol with the same magazine she had used back in Dal. She would be short the bullet she had ejected back then, which left nine shots. She doubted she would need more, but did not dare hope she would be able to avoid firing this time. She had pulled the trigger too many times to think she could avoid killing completely.

Her strider carried her up a black-stone ramp, pristine of the plains-grass except where a few plants crept onto the edges, that led up to the Lyre. The stones that made up the Tenlyres were nearly unbreakable, and also completely unknown elsewhere on the plateau. Granite cracked and developed fissures in time. Plants broke granite. Nothing grew on whatever stone the Lyres were made from.

Ilsa dismounted her strider using the climbing line on the saddle. She landed, cat-like, and sank into a silent crouch on the eastern side of the Lyre’s thicker side. Her eyes moved toward the open archway where the strings stood, looking as thin as any smaller instrument’s, and somehow stretched eternally taut.

Her gaze drifted to the northerly burial mounds visible between the strings in the archway. She saw no sign of Blue or her strider, but a dark cloaked figure stood between two sets of strings, shoulder-length black hair moving in the wind so it slapped a high collar. Lemuel held a long scroll in his deformed right hand and wrote on it with the pencil gripped in his left. The sound of the pencil scratching was audible despite the breeze.

She crept forward, listening for any other sounds. Her soft-soled boots made no sound on the stone. Her heartbeat might have been louder, but if Lemuel had not noticed her strider’s breathing her heart would not give her away. She kept her gun’s barrel pointed downward and made her way to the edge of the wall by the archway. There, she stopped and looked back at the plains. Behind her, loud thumps of strider feet clapped the soil.

A white shape bounded around the side of the arch just five meters from the base of the ramp. Saddlebags hung on the creature’s saddle, along with a shovel and pickax lashed to the side closer to Ilsa. The strider carried a man with dark hair and tawny skin, wearing a suit of armor similar to what Blue wore, but much less well-maintained to Ilsa’s eyes. Armor like that could stop blades and bullets equally.

He turned his head and saw Ilsa, but didn’t look worried, or even surprised. He raised one open palm from the reins. He carried no visible weapons, and short of the pickax on his saddle he appeared completely defenseless. Ilsa knew looks could be deceiving. Still, why had that woman with the rifle shot at him?

Footsteps under the arch made Ilsa turn. The woman with the rifle, a youthful face, and hair the same color as Lemuel’s stepped between two strings. She was slender, or she might not have fit. She looked down the sight of her rifle at the man on the white strider. Ilsa raised her pistol and stood up. “Don’t pull that trigger.”

The girl with the rifle whirled and aimed it at Ilsa. “Who are you? Talk fast.” Her voice bore the same unmistakable Chogrumian accent as Lemuel’s.

“I’m a priestess of the Unification. I met your brother back in Dal.” She slowly lowered the barrel of her pistol.

“You met him?” The girl lowered the barrel of the rifle. “Then you know he’s totally harmless, not like that man.” She jerked her head toward the man on the white strider, who had turned his mount and begun to ride toward them cautiously. The girl pointed the rifle in his direction. “Don’t make another move, Thoss.”

The man raised both hands leaving the reins completely unattended. He said something soft that Ilsa could not hear. His strider stopped in its step, planting both of its thick, multi-jointed legs on the grass at the edge of the ramp. He nodded to the girl. “You’ve got me, girl.” His voice carried a Chogrumian accent heavier than that of either the girl, Lemuel, or Blue. “I surrender.”

The girl lowered the barrel of the rifle barely a centimeter. She furrowed her brow. “I don’t believe you.”

“Of course, you don’t.” The man bowed his head “But it’s true.”

“Get down from that strider,” said the girl. “Go on.”

Ilsa decided it would be for the best to have everyone on the same level. She glanced at the girl and then at the man. “The villager said they heard gunshots. What’s the problem here?”

The girl grimaced. “This man is Ferdinand Thoss. He’s a grave robber.”

“N-Now, d-don’t be rude,” said Thoss with a small but noticeable stutter. He grimaced. “I am a professional adventurer.”

Ilsa frowned. Footsteps approached through the archway. Lemuel stepped out beside the girl with the rifle. Side-by-side their familial relationship was, even more, obvious, pale skin and thick black hair. He rolled up the scroll he carried and glared at Thoss. “If you’re not here to rob these burial mounds, what are you doing here?”

The girl shook her head. “Why bother asking? He’s a liar.”

Ilsa glanced at Ferdinand. He gave her a small smile. “I think the priestess would like to hear what I have to say.”

She nodded. “That’s true.”

Lemuel turned toward Ilsa. “What are you doing here? Did you follow us from Dal?”

“I didn’t follow anyone,” said Ilsa. “My partner and I are on a mission to the central Lyre. We heard about a dispute from the villagers and came to see if we could help.”

“It’s too bad. What my sister said is absolutely true. Ferdinand Thoss is a grave robber, petty thief, and most of all a liar.”

“P-Petty th-thief?” Ferdinand glowered at Lemuel. “C-Come d-down here and say that to me, cripple.”

Lemuel grunted and stepped past his sister. Her hand fell onto his shrunken right forearm. “Don’t bother. I can kill him from here once the priestess is satisfied.”

A chill ran through Ilsa’s chest to hear such a young woman speak so callously about murder. “I won’t be satisfied if we can’t all leave this place alive.”

Lemuel raised an eyebrow. “Priestess, please.”

“My name is Ilsa.” She met his eyes. “And I won’t let you kill someone over treasure kept by the dead.”

Ferdinand smirked. “It seems she agrees with me, Lemuel.” His voice had steadied completely. He met the sister’s eye and winked.

She raised her hunting rifle in a fluid motion and aimed at Ferdinand’s face. Ilsa’s pistol flew back to aim at the girl. “Don’t shoot him.”

“Or what? You wanted to avoid violence. Well, once he’s dead he won’t cause any more trouble.”

“And what about you? You think killing him won’t hurt you?”

Lemuel leaned toward his sister. He whispered in a voice barely audible to Ilsa, “She may be right.”

“What would either of you know? Brother, you’ve never even held a weapon.” The girl’s finger began to squeeze the trigger.

Ferdinand tensed, then sprang to one side. One arm extended. Whatever he was doing he would be too late.

Ilsa shoved her pistol into her coat pocket, safety still locked. At the same time, she leaped toward Lemuel’s sister, also too late.

The girl’s aim shifted. A heavy crack rang in Ilsa’s ears. She rammed into the girl and knocked the rifle out of her hands. The weapon skidded down the ramp. A spent shell case rolled ahead of it. Ilsa grabbed the girl by the collar of her coat and shoved her down. Surprised or simply overpowered, Lemuel’s sister fell into a sitting position despite Ilsa’s hurried lack of proper technique.

Ferdinand Thoss leaped forward, unhurt. Ilsa glimpsed a single flattened pancake of a bullet fall from his breastplate. A lance of gleaming black steel stretched from the end of his left arm. It’s basket-guard completely concealed his hand, including the brand Ilsa realized must be there. He was bonded to his lance like she was to her guns.

He raised the lance to thrust past Ilsa at the fallen girl. Ilsa pulled the pistol from her pocket and removed the safety in the same motion. Lemuel shouted a warning. Lightning fast, she aimed and fired at the lance’s conical steel blade. The bullet dented the weapon’s metal shell, crumpled, then deflected to the side.

Ferdinand stepped sideways, obviously fearing Ilsa’s shot but too late to have dodged the first bullet if she had wanted to kill him. Lemuel’s sister threw herself out of reach of the blade. She landed with a grunt on her seat with her back to a set of unbreakable Lyre strings clustered together.

Ferdinand’s lance sank away into his hand, reabsorbed by his weapon bond. He clawed at his temples with both hands and a grimace on his face. A soundless scream formed on his face.

Blue stepped out from the archway. “You heard the priestess. Nobody dies today.”

Lemuel dropped into a crouch beside his sister. “Tirica, are you alright?”

Tirica glared at Ilsa. “I’m fine, brother. But it looks like we’re outgunned.”

Ilsa returned to her full height and removed the magazine from her pistol. She kept the bullet in the chamber, just in case. Her heartbeat seemed louder than before. “Is everyone alright?”

A dull moan issued from Ferdinand. He sank to his knees. Blue walked over to Ilsa. “He’ll be fine. Nothing worse than one’s own memories, though.”

Ilsa nodded to Blue and then turned to Lemuel and Tirica. “So, you two are here to study the Lyre?”

“I am,” Lemuel said. “My sister is here to protect me from people like Thoss.”

Ilsa frowned. She turned to Ferdinand. “And I suppose you really are a grave robber.”

On his knees, Ferdinand nodded. “Th-The d-dead d-don’t need treasure.”

“And you don’t need to kill each other. Get back on that strider and go treasure hunting somewhere else.”

Ferdinand looked up at her from between strands of dark hair. “Alright.” His expression turned hard. “I don’t blame you, priestess. But tell your mind-eater never to get into my head again.”

Ilsa shrugged. “She’s my friend, not my servant. I don’t control her.”

Ferdinand Thoss pushed himself up from his knees. He turned his back on Ilsa. “If you don’t control a mind-eater then you can’t stop them from controlling you.” He walked over to his strider and then climbed the rope unsteadily back to the saddle. “Until next time, Lemuel Chollush.” He turned his steed and rode northward.

Lemuel shook his head. “Let’s hope this is the last time.”

“I wouldn’t be optimistic about that.” Tirica turned toward Ilsa. “Thanks for saving me.” She glanced at Blue. “You too.”

Blue shrugged. “Stay out of trouble, if you can.” She turned to Ilsa. “We should go back to the village. I bet they’ll show their gratitude with a hot meal.”

Ilsa smiled at Blue. After four days of nothing but dried food and rationed water, she hoped her friend was right.

 

The dinner ovens in the grandfather’s house had been cold for an hour by the time Ilsa and Blue left to go to the lean-to on the edge of the town where their striders were tethered. Blue burped gratefully as they walked. The lean-to was dark, but despite the winter chill, Ilsa was grateful for its presence.

Having to roll out her dry-mat and sleeping bag under a tiny tarp with her strider close by for added warmth had gotten old over the last few nights. No doubt she would sleep under the stars in the frigid air many more times in the coming weeks, but for now, she and Blue had a roof, if not a door. She took off her heavy outer coat, leaving her light shirt and tough riding pants.

She sat down cross-legged on her dry-mat between a large saddle-bag and her pack. Blue unrolled her sleeping bag and then set to removing the composite plates of her armor. One of the striders outside grunted softly. The modified steeds slept heavily most nights and had been developed not to vocalize unless ordered. That grunt was a warning, like a dog’s bark. Ilsa unfolded her legs and stood up.

She walked to the entrance of the lean-to and looked out into the gathering twilight. The soft tread of large paws on the grass along the village path warned her of a different kind of steed approaching the lean-to. She stepped out of the lean-to and looked into the shadows, squinting in the fading light of the sunken sun.

Not one, but five riders made their way along the path down the center of the village. They rode, not striders, but smaller, four-legged hybrid creatures, called runners. Runners had cat-like faces, complete with fanged jaws, but they also had dog-like loyalty and animal cunning easily equal to striders. Built smaller and lower than striders, they could run faster over short distances, but tired more quickly. On the steppe, they did not make sense as one’s only steed, yet here were five of them.

Ilsa stepped into the path. She tried not to look nervous as she faced the man who rode on the central runner’s saddle. He was huge, easily over two-meters tall, and wore a dark set of riding gear and winter coat. On one side of his creature’s saddle, stood a pole bearing a flag with a white diamond on a deep blue field, the standard of Ayoch. On the other side, another pole flew a black flag with a red-flame emblem on its field. Ilsa recognized that flag was well, a symbol of the Red Lector, one of Ayoch’s five highest priests.

She bowed her head to the group as they stopped before her. At the same time, she prepared herself in case she needed to draw a weapon. Then she realized she had left her ammunition in her pack in the lean-to. Stupid, careless. She had let herself relax too much. She raised her head. “Hello.”

“Who are you?” asked the huge rider who sat between the two flags. His accent was similar to a Dalite, but Ilsa caught the tell-tale tonal hints of an Ayochian native-speaker. As if she needed further confirmation of his origins. Those flags announced his allegiance more clearly than any words or accents.

“My name is Ilsa Barrett. I am a priestess of Hathani, from Dal.”

The man nodded. His severe features melted into a handsome smile. “My name is Kaij Haram. My brother, Yunn…” He motioned to the rider on his left, another tall man, but far thinner than Kaij. “…And I are the leaders of the Red Lector’s scouts.”

“The Red Lector? He’s here?”

“Not in Korlom, yet.” Kaij’s runner prowled forward a few more meters, leaving the rest of the riders behind in their line. “He will be here by sunrise, along with the rest of our forces.”

“Why has Ayoch sent troops so far across the plateau?”

Kaij smirked. “Have you been traveling this wild place, long?”

Ilsa shook her head. “No, I only left Dal last week.”

“I’m surprised you do not know, then. Chogrum has sent a force from the eastern side of the plateau. The council of Dal requested assistance from Ayoch, and here we are.”

“War.” Ilsa breathed in.

“Perhaps.” Kaij’s smile slipped slightly. “But don’t worry, priestess. The Red Lector will drive them back. For the good of both Dal and Ayoch, we march on the central Lyre.”

“The central Lyre.” The Oshomi Protector’s people dwelt too close to there for comfort. Could this be a coincidence? Regardless, a battle in that place would be a disaster for diplomacy and the Unification. She nodded to Kaij. “Thank you, Mister Haram,” she said. “My companion and I will keep clear of there.”

“That’s a bit of wisdom. Hathanians like proverbs, right? Perhaps there is one to be found there.”

“Perhaps. Good luck, soldiers of Ayoch.”

“Thank you, priestess.” Kaij turned to his scouts. “Secure the village’s perimeter. Meet up with the others on patrol and form pairs. We can’t have spies about when my father arrives.”

The other scouts guided their steeds away from the path, intent on their new orders. Kaij and his quiet brother, Yunn, each gave another nod to Ilsa, then rode back toward the center of the village. Ilsa returned to the lean-to and found Blue sitting with her back to the wall by the entrance, eyes wide.

“War,” she whispered.

Ilsa nodded. “We’ll have to hurry to beat them to the central Lyre.”

“Yeah.” Blue folded her hands. “We have to.”

*

Tenlyres Chapter 2

 

Chapter Index 

Ilsa and Blue made their way across Dal. That day they took less than an hour to cross town on the transit system, compared to the two hours alone and on foot when Ilsa had the last time she had been in the city. The wheels of the small transit car squealed, and it bobbed against the guidance wire overhead as the driver put on the breaks. The little round car began to slow.

She glanced at Blue. Her partner in the Unification chewed the last bite of the vegetable wrap Ilsa had bought back at the food stand. The paper napkin of another wrap Blue had already eaten lay discarded on the wrought-iron bench where they sat. Ilsa had only eaten half of her wrap, but Blue was always hungry and germs didn’t bother her.

Over the last two years, Ilsa had never seen Blue sick. Even on campaign in Morhoi when the rest of their company had been wracked by the seasonal afflictions that swept the eastern nations every autumn, Ilsa herself coughing on the edge of fever, Blue had been fearless of illness. Her immune system had not failed her.

They paid the driver of the transit car and left the tiny stopping stand, built from little more than wood and wire, for a bustling narrow street. Just a few steps from the stopping stand, Ilsa looked across the way and saw a high-but-narrow screen that stood on poles in front of a building, beside a two-meter-tall plant pile.

The screen must have been connected to the information stored in the pile, because it displayed a digitally animated image, two flags flapping in the breeze. One was the simple white ring of Dal on the traditional sky blue field. The other flag bore an eight-sided white diamond at its center, cast on a darker blue field, the flag of Ayochian Royalty.

The two flags looked all too similar to Ilsa’s eyes, but her heart knew the difference. The flag of Dal represented a city-state just trying to survive an age of increasingly advanced technology. The other was far different. With their eastern border secured by the recent alliance formed with Dal, the nation of Ayoch had been conquering territory in the far west, a thousand miles away from the Plateau of Yr. Ayoch’s royal court demanded conquest in all directions, and the Plateau of Yr held symbolic importance to them.

Some day, Ayoch would move to take over parts of Yr, especially in the center around Tenlyres.

Words in the common language of Yr solidified between the two flags on the screen. Blue set down her travel case and followed Ilsa’s gaze. She read the words aloud in her mild Chogrumian accent. “Join the fight. Protect your home.”

Ilsa wrinkled her nose. “How many people is that going to sway?”

“Too many, I would guess.” Blue folded her arms. “Let’s go.”

The image shifted again, showing a flag patterned with three vertical stripes, one white on either side of a bright red. Beneath the flag words read: Burn the flag of Chogrum. The words flashed bright and the flag vanished.

Ilsa glanced at Blue’s face. Her friend’s expression darkened, but only a little. She unfolded her arms and picked up her travel case. “Let’s go, Ilsa.”

She nodded and they started down the street. People pushed and jostled each other all along the way, but  the few that looked gave Ilsa and Blue only the briefest of curious glances. Ilsa carried her red staff, making her office clear, but she doubted anyone would recognize her despite being just a few blocks from Saint Banyeen’s Garden where she had been ordained alongside Cass Kalteri.

She had changed since those days. Likely the people here were different altogether or had simply forgotten her.

Hathani’s clergy was well-respected, but a priestess who went unrecognized was always going to be of far lower influence than one who people noticed. As a full-blooded Dalite and a locally honored priestess, Cass would surely have been known for her proverbs in this part of the city. Ilsa tried to tell herself none of that mattered in the face of war between Chogrum and Dal.

Ilsa and Blue made their way five blocks toward the eastern edge of town. In the center of the next block stood a set of tall-walled stables. Outside the building, a man led a pair of great striders by their reins. The striders took up most of the street and forced Ilsa and Blue to keep close to the buildings on one side as they passed.

At the open gate to the yard just outside the stables, there stood a burly man shouting at passersby. Ilsa did not recognize him, but as she and Blue drew close enough to hear his words, she immediately knew his type. An instigator.

“We must strike first! We must say that Chogrum has made war in the west for the last time!” He hefted one meaty fist. “Who is with me, among of all you people?”

A small crowd in front of him cheered, accompanied by some impolite murmurs. Despite the darkness of Blue’s skin, Ilsa had a feeling her partner would pass unnoticed. There were other nations and cities of people who could have been Blue’s family besides Chogrum though Ilsa knew little about Blue’s family beyond the city of her birth. Wherever her ancestors hailed from, Blue could keep a low profile when needed. Being from Chogrum was not something to raise to someone like this man.

They had almost passed the semi-circle of supporters when the man raised his voice to a scream that Ilsa hoped would leave him hoarse for all his drama. He pointed past the small crowd. At first, Ilsa worried he had guessed Blue’s origin, but then followed the instigator’s finger to a second man who had been walking a short distance behind Ilsa and Blue.

“You there, what do you have to say about Chogrum?”

The lanky man wore a long-sleeved gray winter coat, with the high collar of a black jacket visible through the unbuttoned front. He had a pair of thin-rimmed glasses set on his  nose. Ilsa glimpsed a pair of scroll cases, the sort used to transport paper documents without water ruining them.

Most priestesses kept at least one such container to preserve their personal words. Ilsa only carried a smaller case because she rarely devised her own proverbs. This man had two of the heavy cylinders. Those could carry a lot of paper. Ilsa wondered why he would need so much space. Could he be some kind of bureaucrat or scholar?

He stopped and then looked up at the burly instigator. “Sir, I have nothing to say about Chogrum.”

But his accent, so similar to Blue’s, but, even more noticeable, said too much. The man must be from Chogrum.

The instigator’s lip curled. One hand clenched into a fist. “Don’t you care about the war that’s coming?”

The man with the black collar bowed his head. “What can I say? Clearly, you do.” He shifted his stance. His trailing sleeves caught a breeze and drifted as he turned to keep walking toward the stable. One of them trailed further than the other as if the arm it was covered was shorter than the one on the other side.

The instigator gave a roar of rage. He lunged out to block the man with the black collar, and in the process cut off Ilsa’a path forward. “I’ll show you some respect.”

Ilsa, Blue, and the man with the black collar stopped in front of him. His supporters fanned out on either side of him. Ilsa grimaced. “Stop being stupid. Leave this man alone.”

The loud man rounded on Ilsa. “A priestess, too! How dare you stand against this city while you carry that red staff?”

The man with the high collar glanced at Ilsa. Blue raised her eyebrows. Ilsa took a deep breath. “I carry this staff, because of Hathani, not because of Dal. Out of the way.”

“I don’t think so.” The beefy instigator folded his arms. “I think the three of you need to be punished.”

Blue’s eyes moved to the dozen or so men and women backing up the large man in their center. Ilsa knew that gaze. Her friend sized up the people because her plan was to drive them back if a fight actually started.

Ilsa shook her head. “Punishment is between the just and the unjust, not between cities or peoples.”

“Spoken like a priestess. All you Hathanians do is talk!” The instigator laughed, and then cracked his knuckles. “Tell me how your words feel when I jam them down your throat.” He took a step toward Ilsa.

She nodded to Blue. The big man shook his head. The man with the black collar held up both hands as if to hold the bigger man back. His sleeves fell back to his wrists. His left hand trembled, and his right looked slender and misshapen, as did the bony wrist at its base.  The instigator surged forward and swung artlessly at the scholar’s head with a massive hand.

The man with the black collar took the blow to the cheek. He grunted and staggered to one side. Ilsa met the eyes of the big man as he pushed the scholar to one side. She raised her voice just slightly, “Do you only strike unarmed people?”

“Chogrum killed unarmed civilians when they shelled this district during the last war.”

“I know. I lost family in that war.”

“Don’t stand up for this idiot, then! If you’re a Dalite you should be with us.”

“No. No one should be with you.”

“Hold your tongue! I’m the one with supporters behind me.” He raised a clumsy fist to strike.

He moved far too slow, but his strength could have been dangerous if Ilsa got careless. She darted to one side. The force of his punch carried him past her.

Ilsa clenched her right hand into a tight fist, then unclenched it, triggering her Weapon Bond. Her brand burned on the back of her hand, turning the flesh a painful, angry, red. Ilsa ignored the pain. The pistol fell into her hand and she trained it on the man beside her. Her free hand slammed pulled a magazine from her pack and slammed it in to load the gun.

“I think now its time for you to be quiet.” Ilsa held the gun aimed at the big man. Her finger hovered over the trigger, but she hoped he would take the chance he had to back down. “I don’t like to threaten.”

His face turned red. “Magic. Damn it.” He backed away from her.

“Leave. Now. Stop gathering here. I think your friends will appreciate it.” Ilsa nodded past the big man to where Blue had driven his supporters. They stared back from one wall of the stable yard with wide, teary eyes. Blue had only used her mental skills in the most basic and least invasive way, but that appeared to be enough. The fight had gone out of every pale face.

The big man’s face darkened, still red with rage. He glared at Ilsa. “I won’t forget this.”

“That’s a difference between us, then.” Ilsa waved her pistol at him. “Go.”

He glowered at her, but then turned and lurched to his supporters. Blue let him by, so he could lead the others away. Fools, all of them, if they thought another war on the plateau would solve anything.

When they had all left the yard, Ilsa walked over to Blue. The Chogrumian scholar turned toward them. His pale face bore a growing bruise on one cheek. “Thank you.”

“Anyone who doesn’t want this war is a friend,” said Blue.

Ilsa nodded. “No matter which city you’re from.” Or what that city has done.

He bowed his head to her. “Thanks. My name is Lemuel Chollush. I am at your service.”

“I’m Ilsa Barrett. This is Blue.”

“Blue?”

Blue nodded. “Just, Blue.”

“Alright, then.” Lemuel smiled broadly and then winced at the obvious pain in his face. “Shall we go inside?”

Ilsa nodded. She removed the magazine from her pistol, quickly ejected the unused bullet, and then returned the weapon to its insubstantial state. She stuffed the magazine and unused bullet back into her pack’s ammo pocket. Blue and Lemuel led the way into the stable office.

The great striders used for riding between Chogrum and Dal, on the plains without roads were valuable, but Ilsa and Blue both had plenty of money for them. Pay left over from the last battles they had fought in the eastern nations, in Morhoi. The manager gave them a weary glance, but they settled the deal quickly. Stable hands let out two striders, one with a weeping yellow mane for Ilsa, and a darker-colored straight-haired one for Blue.

The steeds were biologically engineered and cybernetically enhanced. They walked on two powerful hind legs with a set of small forelimbs curled at the front. Their hair was shaggy and long, and in the case of Ilsa’s flowing like a willow tree, and they had hairy faces. Lemuel waved to them with his long left arm as they rode out of the gate and onto the street, headed for Saint Banyeen’s Garden. Ilsa waved back. “Stay safe,” she called.

“You too.”

They passed the stony walls, the iron gate, the garden paths, and rode toward the edge of the city to find a cheap place to stay the night. Already the sun was rolling high over Yr, and they had preparations to do before leaving the city at the next dawn. Ilsa stroked the fur of her weeping strider’s mane, gently beginning her rapport with the animal.

“Goodbye, Dal,” whispered Ilsa as she rode east.

*

Tenlyres Chapter 1

 

Chapter Index

A vein of pink granite ran through the gray stone at the edge of the train tracks. Ilsa noted the color as a sign they had almost reached the city of Dal, just a few miles after taking the tunnel up to the Yrian Plateau. She laid her head against her seat, eyes still following the pink line in the barren ground where only sparse grass grew.

A few small shacks passed in the distance, right where the ground fell away at the edge.

Train wheels roared. The whistle blew. They passed the end of the pink granite vein and began to slow. The train pulled into Eshak station, on the western side of Dal.

Fingertips brushed Ilsa’s arm as her traveling companion, Blue, sat forward and peered out the window past her. Black braids fell around Blue’s shoulders. Those braids shifted only a little as the train came to a full stop.

Home. Ilsa took a deep breath. “This is it.”

Graystone buildings set with sparkling glass panes loomed over downtown Dal, visible in the distance above the long street outside the train window.

Blue grinned, eyes still focused out the window. “No fooling. I finally get to see the place you grew up.”

“Probably not. My mother told me they tore down our old building a few years ago.” Ilsa stood up and stretched her arms. She reached for the overhead luggage bins, where she had stowed her pack along with her red-painted wooden staff, a symbol of her office as a priestess of Hathani.

Blue shrugged. “I meant the Garden.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You want to see Saint Banyeen’s?” The garden where she had been trained in Hathani’s clergy had once been more home to Ilsa than her mother’s apartment, but those days were passed. “I thought you didn’t care about gods.”

“I don’t care about gods in particular.” Blue reached up with one long-sleeved arm and pulled down a travel case from the overhead compartment. She grunted with the effort of lowering the heavy case.

Ilsa knew from watching Blue pack, that the case contained her suit of combined armor. Blue did not like walking around in ordinary clothes, but security on the train took notice of heavily equipped mercenaries. As agents of the Unification, both Ilsa and Blue traveled with a low profile, but habits like Blue’s insistence on wearing armor were hard to kick. Ilsa knew that from experience.

She slung her pack over one shoulder. Staff in hand, she followed Blue out of their compartment and through the brightly lit central corridor to the open exit doors of the train. They stepped onto the platform.

The street that led downtown was lined with food stands and travel vendors, operating out of the sort of small motorized carts common throughout the city. Ilsa breathed in the smell of city air, fuel mingled with spicy food, fresh in the cool air. For the first time since she had left Saint Banyeen’s Garden, she had returned home.

Blue hefted her travel case and slung its strap over one shoulder. “Which way first?”

“Saint Banyeen’s is on the other side of town, but Fountain Street Hospital isn’t far from here.” The bottom seemed to drop out of Ilsa’s stomach as she said the name of the place where her mother had been committed.

“I’m hungry.”

“You can eat while I visit my mother.”

Blue frowned. “You’re going right now?”

The void sensation in Ilsa’s belly grew. “I have to see her. I won’t be long.” She paced a few steps from the edge of the platform and set one end of her staff on the pavement.

Blue raised her eyebrows. “You have to?”

Ilsa nodded.

“If you say so. I’ll get you something to eat for when you’re done.”

“I can feed myself.”

“I’m starting to doubt that. You haven’t eaten since we left Ayoch this morning.”

Ilsa sighed. “Please. It’s only been a few hours.”

“Does your mother really make you this nervous?”

“Maybe.” Ilsa held up her free hand, palm open. Her loose coat sleeve fell back. The back of her hand bore a pale brand shaped like a ring with a single dot in the middle, the evidence of one of her weapon bonds. “Please, Blue. Stop.”

“I understand. I’ll eat, then meet you outside the hospital.”

“Thanks. And sorry.” Ilsa lowered her hand, letting the sleeve fall back over the brand. She didn’t like pointing an open palm at her friend. For most people the gesture meant resistance in peace, but for someone who knew Ilsa’s bond, the motion implied a threat. When she summoned the weapon bonded to that symbol, it would appear in that hand.

“Don’t ruin yourself over any of this.”

“Over what?”

“Take your pick. Your building. Your mother. Her condition isn’t your fault, you know.”

“I know.”

“If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to see her.”

Ilsa sighed. “Yes, I do.” It’s my place as her daughter, even if she is insane.

“If that’s what you think.”

She nodded to Blue. “It is what I think.”

“Good luck,” said Blue.

“I’ll eat when I’m done. Then, we should get striders for tomorrow’s ride.”

“Deal.” Blue turned toward the food stands. “It’s a long way from here to Tenlyres.”

Ilsa nodded to Blue. She hesitated and leaned on her staff for a moment. Then she started down the street toward the hospital.

 

Fountain Street Hospital occupied an entire block one street south of the street that led downtown from the station. Ilsa followed a narrow lane around the western side of the building to reach the mind ward. Like the front of Fountain Street, the building was made of the gray granite common in buildings across the Plateau of Yr, from Dal in the west to Chogrum in the east.

Behind a wrought iron fence with traces of snow at its base, the outer wall of the mind ward was painted with a peeling mural of white roses, another symbol of the goddess Hathani. The mind ward had been funded by contributions from temples and clerical gardens all over the city. Saint Banyeen’s had offered a sizable donation. Ilsa’s mother had been freely committed to the ward because of Ilsa’s affiliation with the garden.

Ilsa trudged through the open gate in the fence. She went up a patched blacktop drive to the four-doors-broad entryway of the mind ward. The place looked like Ilsa felt inside, like it was fighting a losing battle.

She stepped inside and crossed a floor of white tiles to the front desk. The nurse working there looked up at her. Dark eyes moved to Ilsa’s staff. “Good morning, priestess. How may I help you?”

“My name is Ilsa Barrett. I’m looking for my mother.”

The nurse nodded to her, then turned to the bright screen of a tablet where it sat upright on the desk. A ten-centimeter-long interface pin jutted from one side of the tablet and connected to the green and mossy side of a domesticated plant pile where it rose up through a hole carved through the desk.

Plant piles were easy to keep indoors. They grew wild the world over, each one capable of storing vast amounts of digital information within its genetic repository. The larger the pile, the more data it could hold. The one set in the desk was tiny by most standards, but it probably contained copies of all the patient records for the mind ward.

The tablet screen bore a news bulletin, warning of a Chogrumian force’s advance toward the center of the plateau. The desk nurse ignored the bulletin and tapped a few keys on her tablet’s touchscreen. “Is your mother, Luca Barrett?”

“Yes.”

“She is on the second floor. Room 216.”

“Thank you.”

The nurse squinted at the screen. “She has another visitor at the moment.”

Ilsa’s frowned. Who would visit her maddened mother? For that matter, who else still living in Dal even knew her?

“Is something wrong?”

She forced her expression to return to a polite smile. “Nothing.”

The nurse smiled at her. Laugh lines crinkled at the corners of her mouth. “Have a good visit, priestess.”

If that was possible, Ilsa would not be so worried. She had not seen her mother in over seven years. Luca Barrett had spent a decade in this place, and Ilsa doubted that would help matters. Despite the care the facility offered to its patients they were still effectively prisoners.

Ilsa walked past the desk to the main hall of the mind ward. She found the stairway the same place she remembered it, near the elevator on one side of the hall. She climbed to the second floor, stepped into a low-security hallway, and then followed it straight to Room 216. Everything was where she remembered though a fresh coat of paint may have gone over the interior walls, unlike the mural outside.

She stopped at the door. With the sound of her boots on the tiles silenced, she heard a voice from the other side. It belonged to her mother, soft, ethereal, and barely audible.

“I’m always happy to see you. But I’m afraid you worry too much, Cass.”

Cass. Ilsa’s breath caught. She knew that name all too well.

“I’d worry more if I didn’t visit enough.” The voice that replied took Ilsa’s mind back to Saint Banyeen’s Garden and years into the past, an old friend and a betrayer.

She had first met Cass at her initiation as a neophyte when they had both been thirteen years old. The short form of High Priestess Uopemm marched across a garden path, strands of gray hair drifting in a slight breeze. Ilsa and Cass stood beside a prayer altar at one end of the path, both with their long hair, traditionally left untrimmed for a month prior to beginning training in the garden, tied back into long ponytails. Cass’s hair was red-blond, Ilsa’s, so black the highlights could have been blue. Each held the stem of a white rose in both hands.

The high priestess looked Cass up and down, said the blessing of Hathani in old Yrian, which sounded completely different from the modern version of the language nearly everyone spoke on the plateau. Cass bowed to the high priestess. Uopemm gave her a curt nod, then turned to Ilsa.

Nervous under the high priestess’s gaze, Ilsa shifted the rose in her hands. One of the thorns cut her already-branded palm. The high priestess did not seem to notice the blood that flowed between her fingers. She said the blessing. Ilsa bowed, silent despite the pain. Then, Ilsa and Cass set their white roses on the altar to complete the ritual.

Cass’s had been clean, but Ilsa’s flower was spotted with blood.

Almost fifteen years later, Ilsa took a deep breath outside the door to her mother’s room in the mind ward. She opened pulled it open and stepped inside.

Cass sat in a chair by the head of the bed, pale red hair cut short now that she had the freedom of a full priestess. Her red staff was propped against a wall in the corner by a south-facing window, through which light filtered into the room. She wore a plain black shirt and trousers. Her coat hung on a hook by the door.

Mother and Cass turned together to face Ilsa. Luca looked surprisingly well, for a middle-aged woman who had been a prisoner since her mid-forties. Her formerly pure black hair had strands of gray in it, and her face was pale and lined, but she did not look like a miserable prisoner. Her eyes bloomed with recognition when she saw Ilsa’s face.

“Is that—?” She hesitated. “Is that you, Ilsa?”

“It’s me, mother.” Ilsa walked to the foot of the bed and let the door shut behind her.

Cass stared at her, eyes wide. She put her hands on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet, eyes still on Ilsa. “I can’t believe it.”

“You thought I’d never come back?” Ilsa shook her head. “You were wrong.”

Tears began to build in mother’s eyes. She pushed herself to her feet, hospital gown trailing about her ankles, and then walked to the foot of the bed where Ilsa stood. They were the same height, mother, and daughter, but her mother had not passed many of her finer features to Ilsa. Mother’s face in her youth had been the model of Dalite beauty, but Ilsa’s was far too blunt, too harsh. Mother opened her arms to embrace Ilsa.

Those arms were frail, all but devoid of muscle. Ilsa hugged mother back, still holding her staff. The emptiness she had felt in her stomach when she left the train remained, even in that moment. Ilsa stepped back from her mother and felt the beginning of tears in her own eyes.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Mother wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m so happy to see you, Ilsa.”

“I wanted to see you, mother.” Ilsa sniffed back a trickle of tears.

Mother cried openly. “You haven’t written since the middle of summer. I worried you were dead. Your work is so dangerous.”

“You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a priestess of Hathani.”

“A mercenary priestess,” said Cass from the corner of the room, “Isn’t safer than any other mercenary, east or west of the plateau.”

Ilsa turned toward Cass, words she wanted to shout at her former friend already on her lips. She spoke softly. “Don’t forget why I went east, Cass. I sure haven’t.”

“I wasn’t the one who requested you leave Saint Banyeen’s. And I didn’t make you leave Dal, or Yr, either.”

Ilsa walked around her mother and planted her staff between herself and Cass. “You told them about my father. The rest followed.”

Cass grimaced. “The High Priestess already thought she knew.” She took her staff from the wall and started toward Ilsa.

Mother stepped between Cass and Ilsa. She raised her clean, empty palms as if to hold them both back without touching them. “Peace, both of you. What’s done is done.”

“Yes. It is.” Ilsa grimaced.

“Ilsa, please. Cass has been good to me. She’s helped me stay sane while you were away. The visions aren’t so bad when I have visitors.”

Ilsa lowered the end of her staff. “You still have them? You never mention them in your letters.”

“You don’t want to hear about them. The doctors call them hallucinations, and I thought you would agree.”

“Mother. I—” What could she say? She did not believe her mother had mystic sight. The ancient legends of those who could see spirits were nonsense. Even the Oshomi Nomads who lived in the center of the plateau didn’t really believe in them, except for the small band that lived around the Guardian of Tenlyres.

“I see them all the time. My parents. My brothers.”

Trauma hallucinations, the doctors had called them. Ilsa remembered from years ago when she had first had mother committed. Mother’s whole family, including both her parents and all her brothers, had died in the war with Dal’s rival city, Chogrum forty years ago. Ilsa’s father had been from Chogrum. Since her childhood, she had wondered how her mother could have loved him, knowing where he came from.

Ilsa put a hand on mother’s shoulder. She looked into mother’s eyes. “It’s alright. I’m here.”

“They aren’t my only visions, Ilsa. I see a horse with girl’s face, white roses in her hair.” Mother’s eyes went wide. She trembled as she looked Ilsa. “When she talks, she sounds like you, my daughter.”

“Mother, please try to calm down.”

“She has pale skin, pale like ours, but her face is shaped like a nomad’s. Why does she speak with your voice? Why does my beast daughter visit me?”

Cass approached slowly from mother’s other side. “Luca, your daughter is here, your real daughter.”

Mother blinked and turned to Cass. Ilsa kept her hand on mother’s shoulder and looked at her tear-streaked face. “I’m here, mother. Everything is safe.”

She nodded, and then wiped away her tears with her hand. “Thank you. Thank Hathani, and all the gods, for both of you.” She looked from Cass to Ilsa. “Ilsa, I’m so glad to see you. It’s just, my beast daughter frightens me.”

“A sight like that would scare me too.” Ilsa wished she did not have to tell mother the rest. “I wanted to see you, mother. But I can only visit you today. Tomorrow I’m leaving again.”

“You’re leaving?” Cass scowled. “You just got here.”

“I have something to do. I’m riding east in the morning.”

Mother deflated. All the excitement from first seeing Ilsa faded from her face. “Why do you have to go? Are you here to fight against Chogrum?”

“I’m not.” Ilsa sighed. “I can’t tell you where I’m going. It’s for the Unification.”

Cass’s scowl turned even darker. “Unification is never going to happen, Ilsa. Your mother needs you.”

Ilsa shook her head. “I’m going, but I’ll come back. I promise.”

“Is it dangerous, this mission of yours?” mother asked.

“I won’t lie to you.” Ilsa squeezed her mother’s shoulder gently, and then released her grip. She turned toward the door. “But I will be back. Saints preserve you, mother.”

Mother said nothing. Ilsa marched out the door. She made it most of the way down the hall to the stairway before Cass caught up with her.

The red-haired priestess clapped a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. “Ilsa, stop.”

Ilsa whirled and swung her staff one-handed. Cass blocked the blow with her own staff. Wood rebounded from wood. They glared at each other.

“What do you want?”

“We’re on the edge of war with Chogrum,” said Cass. “Why are you going east?”

Ilsa lowered her voice. “I’m going to Tenlyres. Cass, you can’t stop me.”

“I wish I could. But you’re right. I should never have told the high priestess about your father. She only suspected you, but she wouldn’t have dismissed you from the garden if I hadn’t confirmed what she thought.”

“An apology? You’re a few years late, Cass.”

“I regret it every day, Ilsa. You were my best friend. I would never have told her if I had known what she would do.”

“Whole lot of good that does me now.” Ilsa took a deep breath and drew her staff up, away from the lock with Cass’s weapon. “But I’ll remember this.”

“Be careful. Tenlyres is going to be even more dangerous than usual with war brewing.”

“I know. Thank you for visiting my mother. Saints preserve you, Cass.”

“Be red.” Cass nodded to Ilsa.

Ilsa turned and continued on her way out of the hospital. She recognized Cass’s words. They were the beginning of one of her proverbs. Cass always had been good at writing those little scripts.

Blue met her on the street outside the mental ward, dark hair and skin glowing in the light of midday.

“That really was quick,” Blue said. “You alright?”

“I’m fine.” Ilsa’s stomach growled. “But I’m hungry.”

“Good. You admitted it.” Blue smiled. “Let’s eat.”

“You waited?”

“Of course, I waited. You’re like my sister, even if you try to live like you don’t have a body.”

Ilsa smirked at her friend. “Thanks, Blue.”

“Food, then striders. It’s a few hundred kilometers even to the Western Lyre.”

“It is.” Ilsa nodded. Her smirk faded away. “And I hear there’s a war on its way.” She turned over Cass’s parting blessing, one only Hathani’s clergy really used. Be red, Ilsa thought, like blood on a rose. She clapped Blue on the shoulder.

They started down the street, heading to the east side of Dal.

 

*

Work in Progress

Hey, everybody.

This is my new website, and I am Tim Niederriter, the sole employee at Mental Cellar Publications. I am happy to report that soon this site will be full of stuff to read, including a new serial novel. I’ll post more about that over the next week as I set up pages.

I’m also planning to release a novel this month as well, and that will be the first in a series.

In the meantime, you can check out my Amazon author page: here. You can also find my two published short stories on the Apple ibookstore, on the nook store at Barnes and Noble’s site, and a few other places online.

You can read my progress blog over here: dwellerofthedeep.

Finally, you can follow me on twitter, where I go by @TNiederriter.

Thanks for reading. Happy new year!