Ilsa and Blue have traveled across the plateau of Yr and found the Keeper of Tenlyres.
They and their allies have fought their way through the lines of the Red Lector, but allies have been left behind.
This is the final chapter of Part 1 of Tenlyres, but the story is far from over. Part 2 begins here on May 20th.
The strider’s wooly hair blew in the cold breeze, a breeze that carried the smells of blood and powder to Ilsa’s nose. Streaks of pink granite radiated from the edges of the Central Lyre’s base, and she followed one of them to the ramp that led to the inverted arch of the lyre.
Behind her in the saddle, Lemuel cradled his sister’s head in his shrunken hand. His other hand was pressed to her bloodstained side.
“How is she?” Ilsa asked.
“Her wound is serious.” Lemuel sagged forward so his forehead touched Ilsa’s shoulder. He spoke into her ear. “We need shelter, as soon as we can get inside.”
Her face flushed from the heat of battle and from having his hands pressed to her heart. She nodded, then turned toward the Keeper of Tenlyres. The veiled Oshomi woman sat in her horse’s saddle at the center of some thirty riders who had managed to break through the line.
The Keeper’s red eyes scanned her remaining comrades, then locked on Ilsa’s gaze, still fresh from her tears. Cass had been there for her this time. The Keeper said nothing for a long moment, then turned toward Blue.
“Mind eater,” she said in the steppe’s common language. “Let me join you.”
Ahead of Ilsa, Blue guided her strider to the strings that hung from the stone arch of the lyre overhead. Blue’s shoulder slumped with weariness, but she did not appear hurt beyond her fatigue. Ilsa rode to a stop beside Blue, under the arch. “If the Lyre really is hollow, how do we get inside?”
“The lyre will show us the way,” said the Keeper in her flat voice. “Have patience.”
Ilsa looked over her shoulder, past Lemuel and Tirica, at the lines of the Red Lector where the sounds of gunfire were beginning to diminish. Her eyes narrowed. She prayed Cass would survive, and Ferdinand too.
“Do not fear, priestess. I told my people to surrender once we broke through.” The Keeper craned her neck and looked up a the crosspiece where the lyre’s strings looped around rings of black stone. “Your friends will be safe, and soon we will free them.”
“Confidence,” said Blue. “I like that.”
“Keeper,” said Lemuel with sweat on his brow, “My sister is hurt.”
“I have eyes, scholar.” The Keeper said the words with her usual lack of inflection. “I will see to her once we are inside.” She reached out gingerly and touched a metallic string of the lyre. The string did not move, stiff and tough as the unbreakable stones around them. “Priestess.” The Keeper’s gaze moved to the submachine gun in Ilsa’s hand. “Your weapon.”
Ilsa frowned at the strings of the lyre. She reached out with the barrel of her gun and carefully flicked the fire mode selector to semi. The weapon’s barrel brushed a static metal string on either side, the two closest together on the lyre and pointed northward, away from the battle.
“Good,” said the Keeper. “Now hold it steady and fire. Once.”
Ilsa squeezed the trigger. Her tired arm shuddered with the recoil, but not so much she couldn’t hold the weapon steady. The bullet sailed away and the strings vibrated, to form a single low note. The note rumbled on as the sound of the gunshot faded from Ilsa’s ears. Her eyes flicked from one end of the lyre’s arch to the other.
All strings stilled, but the note of the two she had played with her gunshot lingered, echoed, thundered in the air. Ilsa’s heartbeat quickened. Behind her, Lemuel cried out in surprise. She looked back. He pointed toward one side of the lyre’s arch with his shrunken hand, jaw slack. The stone shifted, melted, reformed into a passage large enough for a strider to pass. The passage led downward.
“Now.” The Keeper’s voice contained no emotion. The riders guided their steeds through the tunnel in the stone. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper in last. The solitary note she had played on the strings faded completely from the air as they entered the passage.
And downward they rode on a spiraling slope of black stone. Yet within the tunnel, there was light. Veins of pale pink crystal glowed with weak illumination that cast the shadows of riders and horses along the walls. The air in the tunnel was warm. Weariness descended on Ilsa as they rode out into a vast cavern a few moments after they began their descent.
The ceiling ran with the same pink crystalline lights as the walls of the passage. Still, shadows stretched at the sides of the huge chamber.
The Keeper’s voice echoed from ahead of them. “We rest here.”
With care, Ilsa helped Lemuel carry Tirica down the climbing line from the saddle to the floor of the cavern. She was about to climb down herself when Hailek gave a grunt of exhaustion and settled onto his haunches. Ilsa slid down his back. The strider laid down his head.
Ilsa patted his side. “Rest, my friend,” she murmured.
Blue’s strider lay down beside Hailek. Blue dismounted. She walked over to Ilsa and Lemuel and Tirica. She looked back toward the tunnel they had come through. It gave no sign of sealing behind them.
“Someone needs to guard our exit,” Blue said.
Ilsa nodded to Blue.
Her friend put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll do it.” Her eyes moved to Tirica’s pale face and Lemuel hunched over her. “Help them.” Blue turned to a few nearby Oshomi. “Hey, that door isn’t going to guard itself.”
The Oshomi exchanged glances, then dismounted, and followed Blue back up the passage.
“Stay safe,” said Ilsa, “Blue.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Blue sent back mentally. Ilsa halfway smiled at that.
The Keeper of Tenlyres walked over to Ilsa, moving slowly on foot. Her horse followed a short distance behind her, apparently just as eager to serve with the wound across its back as without. Ilsa looked at the Keeper’s red eyes, then motioned to Tirica.
“I’ll do what I can.” The Keeper unfastened a tie that held up her veil. When Ilsa saw the face the thin cloth had been hiding, she gasped. The Keeper’s features were Oshomi, clearly, but also strangely Dalite. She bore the kind of fine features Ilsa always associated with her mother.
Mother’s words returned to her from before she started this ride. “Beast daughter,” she whispered.
The Keeper’s red eyes met Ilsa’s, equally surprised. “Siuku has that meaning in my language. How did you know my name?”
“My mother has hallucinations—Visions. She sees a horse with a human face. Your face.”
“And she calls this spirit her beast daughter.”
The Keeper knelt down beside Tirica. Her strange face fell into shadow and she spread her hands over the wound in the girl’s side.
Lemuel hovered over his sister, still crouched low. “Can you help her?”
“She is hurt deep. It will take time to heal.” The Keeper pressed her hands to the bloody wound and closed her eyes. She said nothing, did not appear to move, but light began to pour from her hands. Tirica shuddered and groaned. Lemuel hunched toward her. She opened her eyes at the same time as the Keeper.
“Lemuel,” she said. “Where am I?”
“Safe,” he said. “We made it.”
Tirica looked down at her wound. The Keeper’s hands remained pressed to the bloody coat.
“Tired,” Tirica said. She settled her head back on the stone and closed her eyes.
“Rest,” said the Keeper. “You will recover.” She took her hands from Tirica’s side and then stood up.
Ilsa frowned at her. “How did you do that?”
“The spirits of this place are not mysterious to me. That is what it means to be the Keeper of Tenlyres.”
“Siuku,” Ilsa said, “That’s your name.”
“Yes.” The Keeper faced Ilsa. She spread her arms and then wrapped them around Ilsa in a firm embrace. “Thank you for your help, priestess.”
“My mission isn’t over.”
“We will fight together again, Ilsa Barrett.”
“I want to know the truth. Why can my mother see your face?”
“Some things are mysterious, even to me.” The Keeper’s horse snorted behind her. “For now, we must survive.”
Ilsa put her arms around the Keeper and hugged her back. “Thank you. I’m sorry about the chief.”
“Duruko was a warrior. The spirits will guide him to his rest.” Yet there were tears in the Keeper’s eyes when she withdrew from their embrace. “Be kind to my people.” She walked away from Ilsa, toward the Oshomi who had made it from the camp to the lyre.
Lemuel straightened his back and turned to Ilsa. He said nothing but held his small hand in his ordinary hand. There were tears in his eyes too.
She walked to his side. “We must be the first city-dwellers to stand in a place like this in a long time.”
He looked at her with an exhausted but genuine smile. “It’s shame we probably won’t get out of it.”
“Don’t worry about that.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Right now, we have the present.”
“You sound like your friend.”
Ilsa frowned. “Blue talks a lot.”
“And she’s right a lot too.” Lemuel touched her hand. He sank down beside his sister.
Ilsa sat down beside him. “You think so?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“And you know what?” Ilsa shook her head. “I may agree with you.”