Tenlyres Chapter 16

Previously…
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.

Previous Chapter

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.”

“Yes.”

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.”

“I know.”

“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.”

Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue have found the Keeper of Tenlyres, but the forces of the Red Lector are right behind them.
With a group of Oshomi, they must fight toward the Central Lyre.
A fierce battle continues.

Previous Chapter

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The battle lines reeked of blood and powder. Where the Oshomi had charged, the line of the Red Lector had been shattered into pockets of survivors who still fought with fanatical zeal. The wings of the Red Lector’s forces swept toward the center.

Ilsa’s ears rang with the whine of Ayochian artillery bombarding the Keeper’s camp kilometers behind her. Just a hundred meters from the Central Lyre, only the Lector’s command party and scouts stood in her path. She reloaded her machine gun with a full magazine from her saddlebag.

A loud ring of metal on metal broke through the whines and crashes of distant artillery.

The Oshomi Chief, Duruko, parried another stroke from Kaij’s long blade. The scar-faced nomad leader pivoted in his saddle, greatsword in both hands, and slashed along the side of Kaij’s runner. The blade scored a bloody gash in the cat-like steed’s flank. The creature hissed and swiped at Duruko with a deadly claw.

Nearby Ilsa, the Keeper of Tenlyres shouted a warning, the first time Ilsa had heard her with any heat in her voice. Duruko swayed away from the claw, but it drew blood from his side and leg nonetheless. His horse whinnied and carried Duruko out of reach of Kaij and his lethal steed.

Close behind the Keeper, Blue’s eyes rolled in her head. Kaij, in the process of turning to pursue Duruko, took on a blank expression as Blue attacked his mind. Then confusion passed across his face. His focus returned. His nostrils flared.

Between two other scouts, Kaij’s brother, Yunn, chanted an incantation under his breath. Blue flinched though her eyes remained unfocused. “He’s countering me. And he’s good at it.”

The Keeper of Tenlyres turned her steed toward Kaij. She raised one of her few remaining arrows to her bowstring and drew the weapon taut. Kaij produced a pistol from one hand, his eyes once again sharp with focus. He trained the gun on the Keeper.

Ilsa’s machine gun rounds hit Kaij, one in the shoulder, and the other in the gun hand. Blood flew from both new wounds. He kept his grip on the pistol. His wounded hand shook but he pulled the trigger.

The bullet cut a bloody wound on the neck of the Keeper’s horse. The animal cried with pain and bucked. The Keeper’s arrow flew wide of the scout leader. More scouts and survivors from the Red Lector’s line troops ran toward Kaij. He dropped his bloody pistol from his wounded hand. In one hundred heartbeats the weapon would vanish as was the way of bonded weapons. Ilsa had a clear shot at the man.

She leveled her machine gun and knew she would not need a burst to kill him. A chill ran through her at the thought. The cold sensation flowed down her arm into her chest. She hated to kill. She hated that this man and she must be locked in a deadly confrontation. Her heartbeat slowed. The effects of adrenaline began to slacken.

The old wounds along her thigh and in her shoulder began to throb with pain, no longer dimmed by her fury in the fray. Her whole arm felt numb. Her finger fell from the trigger guard of her submachine gun.

“Ilsa!” Blue shouted at her. “It’s the ice magus.”

She looked down at her chilled arm. Frost clung to her sleeve and up to the shoulder, but she knew it went deeper. A man’s hand moved from her side to her arm. The sensation was of dull needles as Lemuel’s fingers pressed down on her arm, trying to massage feeling back into her nerves.

She grimaced. “Thanks, but that’s not the only place.” Her heartbeat thudded slow and loud.

“Cass,” Blue called to the red-haired priestess. “We need to take out the magus.”

Cass Kalteri replied with a grunt. She trained her gun on Yunn and pulled the trigger. Shards of ice formed from the blood of riders from both sides arose from the ground and caught each bullet as Cass fired. Shadows crept from fallen men and women, horses and striders, and climbed up the strider where Cass hung onto Tirica’s limp form with one arm and her weapon in the other.

Cass cursed. She kicked at the grasping shadows created by other Ayochian Magi. Her foul words reached Ilsa across the battlefield. Not very much like the young priestess Ilsa had met back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden all those years ago.

Her hand twitched from pain of the cold and from the complaints of nerves. Her strider carried her and Lemuel forward at a steady pace. Kaij closed with Duruko again. A hand pressed to Ilsa’s chest.

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

Ilsa grimaced at the pain in her heart and lungs, the same needles of numbness that stabbed at her arm. “That’s where I need help.”

She raised the machine gun with agonized slowness. Duruko and Kaij passed each other like jousters. Red gleamed on Kaij’s blade.

Duruko tumbled from the saddle. The greatsword fell from his fingers. The Keeper of Tenlyres launched one of her two remaining arrows at Kaij, a cry of rage in her formerly flat voice. The arrow struck the leader of the Red Lector’s scouts in his already-wounded arm. His blood streamed down the shaft.

Yunn brought his hands together, eyes locked on Ilsa. The cold around her heart intensified. She sighed out a breath of pure frost that hazed her vision. Lemuel’s small hand joined his good hand in pressing down on her chest, trying to spread heat through her. In one way, it worked, but he could not seem to go deep enough through her coat.

She sagged against his chest, her strength fading. The strider kept moving. Kaij turned toward her, pain warring with a maddening expression of joy on his face. How man heartbeat had it been since he lost his pistol? Less than a hundred, for certain. She still had time, if she could just move.

The Red Lector’s armored bodyguards advanced on the remaining Oshomi. The sound of bullets seemed distant. Scouts with their short blades and Oshomi with lances clashed at close quarters, but the scouts’ runners were larger and more dangerous than the Oshomi’s horses. They would lose.

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

Kaij rode toward her and Lemuel, sword in one hand, ignoring the bloody wounds on his other side.

A white strider barreled across her misted vision. Ferdinand Thoss, the bandit, and grave robber held a javelin in one hand, and a long spear with a black blade in the other. Shadows leaped from the spear’s black point and caught hold of Kaij’s sword arm. The tendrils of darkness wrapped the Ayochian man’s wrist and held him at bay. Ferdinand gave a wild yell and hurled his javelin at the ice wall formed between Yunn and Cass.

Ice splintered and broke. Cass squeezed the trigger. Yunn’s folded hands turned red with spattered blood. He looked down at his hands, clenched them together tight as he saw the bullet wound in his abdomen. An icy stab ran through Ilsa’s chest. Then the ice magus tumbled from his runner’s saddle.

Kaij roared in rage as his brother fell. A pistol appeared in his wounded hand. He pressed the weapon into his armpit and started to load it one-handed. More scouts surrounded Ferdinand. Cass yelled and charged toward them, closely followed by Blue on her strider.

Feeling began to return to Ilsa’s chest, and with the pain came a flush of pleasure. She willed the thoughts away. Her coat hung open and Lemuel’s hand were pressed to the center of the chest, large hand over shrunken hand. She nodded to him.

“Thank you.” Her gun hand twitched. She raised the weapon just as Kaij finished loading his pistol.

The magical shadows from Ferdinand’s long spear still held Kaij’s sword arm. Ilsa swung the barrel of the machine gun toward the scout leader. He shot Ferdinand’s strider in the side. The white steed made no sound but slowly slumped onto its hind legs. Ferdinand swung his legs over one side of the wounded strider and jumped down, holding his spear in both hands. The shadows connecting the end of the spear to Kaij’s arms tugged Kaij with him. And they both fell to the blood and grass of the steppe.

Kaij raised his pistol toward Ilsa. Her bullet hit his knee and he buckled, then fell to the ground. The sword and gun both fell from his hands. Blue and the Keeper of Tenlyres reached Ilsa’s side, with a few more of the Keeper’s riders close behind.

“We go forward,” said the Keeper in a steady voice. “For Duruko!” She squeezed her legs into her horse’s flanks. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper toward the thin line of the Red Lector’s guards. Where Duruko had fallen, Ferdinand stood, his basket-hilted lance in one hand and a javelin in the other. The scouts around him had retreated or fallen. A dozen wounded or unhorsed Oshomi gathered with him. Two of them stood over Duruko’s still body, rifles bitter with the smell of use.

Ferdinand nodded to Ilsa as she neared. “We’ll hold them here for now,” he called. “Then I’ll catch up with you.”

Cass rode back toward Ferdinand, cradling the wounded Tirica to her. The scouts had fallen or retreated behind her. “The way is open.” She pointed through the bloody gap she had made in the Ayochian line. “Go, now.” Ilsa, Blue, and the Oshomi turned their steeds toward the gap. Ilsa and Cass’s striders passed close by each other.

“Take her,” said Cass. She dragged Tirica’s leg over the side of the saddle. Together Ilsa and Lemuel lifted Tirica and set her between the two of them on Hailek’s saddle. Cass nodded to them. Blood coated her front, but none of it appeared to be hers. Ilsa hoped not too much of it belonged to Tirica.

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

“Now we’re both red.” Cass’ eyes gleamed as she met Ilsa’s gaze. “Good luck.” She wheeled her strider toward the Red Lector’s command party. Ferdinand turned in the same direction.

The voice of Ilsa’s oldest friend spoke again. “Go with the Keeper. Help the girl.”

Ilsa nodded to Cass. Tears threatened her eyes. “Don’t lose yourself, Cass. I owe you one.” She urged Hailek toward the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode with her. And they broke through the Ayochian Lines.

Tenlyres Chapter 14

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden to the center of the plateau.
They have met with the Keeper of Tenlyres among the Oshomi nomads, the woman who it is their mission to protect.
However, the forces of the Red Lector have closed the distance.
The jaws of their trap bite down in the form of artillery from the mechanized force while riders try to cut off the way to the Central Lyre.
The day will be bloody.

Previous Chapter

Hooves and claws galloped and bounded over steppe-grass. Oshomi nomads on horseback surrounded Ilsa and Lemuel. The naturally-bred animals easily kept pace with Ilsa’s strider. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode just ahead of them, her horse leaping over the plains moving north. Ahead of them, in the distance, the curved stone of the Central Lyre rose from the plateau’s surface, strings glinting in the morning sun. The sound of artillery thundered in the opposite direction.

A slender red and blue line snaked toward the lyre from the west, the force of the Red Lector on their light striders and runners. The troops raced to block Ilsa and the Oshomi’s path to the center of the plateau. Ilsa doubted that they would be safe, even if they got to the lyre, but she had now choice now except to trust the Keeper’s word.

The strangely pale, red-eyed Oshomi woman with the bow slung across her back, leaned over her steed’s neck as if to whisper in the horse’s ear. Any sound she made was lost to Ilsa. The smell of Ayochian auto-launch propellant was overwhelming on the breeze.

Blue and the rest of the travelers capture by the scarred Oshomi chief with Ilsa and Lemuel, caught up with them. Blue rode the same great strider that had carried her from Dal alongside Ilsa. She shot a glance at Ilsa as she moved alongside, with Cass Kalteri just behind her on a runner.

“Ilsa, aren’t we going the wrong way?”

“The Keeper says we’ll be safe at the Central Lyre.”

Blue grimaced. “Did she say why?”

“Not precisely. But she seemed confident.” Ilsa heard the note of doubt in her own voice. She grunted. “Can’t exactly go back, now.”

“Point made. All days be damned.” Blue guided her strider closer to Ilsa and squinted into the distance. “Looks like going forward isn’t gonna be easy either.”

“The path is red,” said Cass. “Be red to walk it.”

Ilsa turned at the other priestess. “Shit, Cass. Now is not the time for your words.”

“And yet, there may not be another time.” Cass pressed her palms together and then pulled them apart. A submachine gun appeared from one bonded palm. She loaded the weapon with a magazine from her belt.

Ilsa nodded. “It is time for that.” She produced a pistol and loaded it. Then produced her shotgun and loaded that. The Red Lector’s lines continued to crawl across the land before them. They reached past the Central Lyre and began to curve to encircle the massive monument.

Lemuel’s small right hand fell onto her shoulder. He leaned forward, chest to her back. “How are we to pass them?” he whispered.

She stiffened her spine. “Hold on tight. We’ll break through.”

“And what if one of us is shot?”

“Then don’t let go.”

She squeezed her legs together around Hailek’s midsection. The strider quickened his already stern pace. He made no complaint, but Ilsa knew he had reached his fastest, and would tire quickly at this speed.

Blue fell behind by a few meters, but Cass on her runner kept pace with Ilsa and Lemuel on her runner. The cat-like steed’s sides’ heaved with exhausted breaths. Cass kept her eyes ahead and checked the slide on her machine gun.

“They’re going to be ready for us.”

“Ready for a fight.” Ilsa grimaced at the small army a kilometer ahead of them. “Not ready for us.”

Cass did not answer. They moved ahead in the Oshomi formation and caught up with the veiled Keeper on her galloping mare. Ilsa glanced at the Oshomi woman. The Keeper unslung the bow and then tugged three steel-tipped arrows from the quiver attached to her saddle, ignoring the smaller quiver hanging from a sling across her shoulders.

“Keeper,” said Ilsa, “Are your people ready to charge?”

The Keeper’s flat voice answered. “Duruko will lead the formation.”

A gunshot cracked the air from behind Ilsa, loud, nuanced by a whistle of air, Chogrumian long-rifle, Tirica Chollush’s weapon. One of the soldiers in the Red Lector’s army pitched off his light strider. The Oshomi closed the distance. Six hundred meters. Five hundred. Four hundred. Three hundred meters from the Ayochian line. Two hundred meters from the red and the blue. The Oshomi got to within one hundred meters.

In the fore of the riders, Duruko shouted the order to charge in the language of the Oshomi. Lightning lances and rifles rose from the formation, mixed with mundane swords and spears, traditional bows and arrows, and a few smaller firearms loaded with Dalite and projectiles. The Oshomi raced toward the lines and their weapons began to speak like thunder.

The Red Lector’s troops returned fire.

Riders fell. Screams echoed in the morning air. The smell of blood and propellant mingled in Ilsa’s nose.

She looked down the barrel of her pistol, searching for the Red Lector himself, as Hailek carried her and Lemuel over the ground. Cass’s weapon spoke in a careful ballistic chant. Two soldiers fell from their saddles.

The Keeper’s arrows flashed through the air, silent against the sound of gunfire. Her arm moved in rapid draw and release. Draw. Release. More soldiers fell, with shafts in their chests.

Ilsa spotted the Red Lector’s command party a few meters behind the line, directly in front of the Central Lyre. His scouts, with his sons, Kaij the weapon-bond and Yunn the ice magus, rode with them. Their rifles and blades remained silent and still, but Ilsa had no doubt they would be ready when the Oshomi broke through the line.

Short and heavy General Boraij Kanan carried a long-barreled revolver. The red-armored Lectoral Protectors clustered on their striders, a fortress that surrounded the Red Lector himself. Goji Haram carried no weapon, but at his right hand rode Ozleji Sammhar, the fang-masked Ayochian weapon-bond, disciple of Ilsa’s father. A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine at the sight of the towering bodyguard. Of all the Ayochian soldiers she feared him the most.

“No time for that,” Blue’s voice said into Ilsa’s mind.

“No time for what?” Ilsa sent back.

“You’re the scariest killer on this field. Use it.”

Ilsa could swear she heard laughter in Blue’s message. She grunted in annoyance. The situation was no joke.

Ozleji Sammhar clenched both hands into fists. The huge pistol Ilsa had seen before appeared in one, and an ornate shotgun appeared in the other. He propped the pistol against his armored hip and loaded the shotgun. Guns roared and men and women screamed in every direction.

She extended her arm and picked off a rider with a standard. One of the Red Lector’s banners tumbled to the steppe-grass and mud below. Ilsa turned int the saddle, tugging at Lemuel’s hand where he held her waist.

A pull of the trigger went first. A flare of the muzzle and the kick of the pistol followed. Another standard bearer fell, further down the line opposite the first one.

Clusters of Ayochian soldiers scrambled to retrieve the fallen flags. Where one group fought, an Ayochian lightning lance thundered with its deafening blast. Electricity leaped and shot and chained through the group, and they all fell.

The scarred Oshomi Chief, Duruko, shoved the lightning lance back at the rider from whom he had grabbed it. A rifle appeared in his hand, in the heart of a cluster of nomads near the fore of the charge. Blades cut down Ayochians. Bullets knocked Oshomi from their horses.

The sounds of battle could overwhelm the inexperienced. Somehow Ilsa found it all too familiar. She turned and shot. Aimed. Shot again. And again. Her pistol was down to the last loaded bullet, but she had yet to fire her machine gun. The Ayochian center wavered under the onslaught.

Claws extended, Cass’s runner leaped onto a light strider just ahead of Ilsa. The cat-steed pulled down both the soldier and the strider. Two more soldiers took aim at Cass as her runner bit and tore at the fallen pair.

Cass shot one with her pistol. The soldier fell. The other raised an assault rifle.

One bullet hit Cass’s runner in the shoulder. The cat-steed howled with pain as it pitched onto one side. The runner’s bulk crushed the bloodied form of the Ayochian soldier it had been intent on slaughtering just an instant before.

Another bullet slashed through Cass’s saddle and chipped a fragment from her staff. Red-painted wood flew skyward. Cass turned her submachine gun towards the soldier.

A third bullet hit Cass in the back of the hand that held her weapon. An eruption of blood sprayed across Cass’s chest up to her hood and her collar. She screamed and ducked her head. Her retaliating shot went wide.

Ilsa killed the soldier who had shot Cass with two rounds from her submachine gun. She then dropped two more with the same burst. Seven bullets spent. Twenty-one left in the magazine.

She rode to Cass’s runner as the cat struggled to stand despite its wounded shoulder.

“You’re hit.” Ilsa’s voice sounded almost as flat to her as the Keeper’s.

Cass grimaced but did not look at her hand. She swung her legs over one side of her saddle. Her unwounded hand pressed to the fur of the runner’s head. She leaned over the creature and spoke into one feline ear. “Hathani bless you and protect you. Greet no other gods on the pathway to paradise.”

Tirica caught up beside Ilsa on her strider. Her rifle was slung across her shoulder and she held a pistol. “Priestess, Kalteri. Are you alright?”

Cass’s brow furrowed. She turned to Tirica. “I could use a lift to the lyre.”

Tirica guided her steed closer and tossed down the line for Cass to climb up to the saddle. Cass freed the bag with her staff from the wounded runner’s saddle and slung it over one shoulder. She started to climb.

Blue reached Ilsa’s cluster. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips moved in a subvocal chant Ilsa could not hear over the sounds of the fight. Ayochian troops were in retreat from the center of their line.

Duruko’s forward group of riders strung out in a line across the broken portion of the Ayochian line where Ilsa and her group gathered. They whooped and yelled and drove the Red Lector’s troops back with guns and spears. Ilsa found the Keeper of Tenlyres riding just behind that line, a lone rider on a bloody battlefield.

Ferdinand’s white strider appeared on the other side from Tirica. The adventurer’s face glowed with fevered excitement. He held a javelin in one hand, and his basket-hilted lance in the other. His eyes continued to move as he searched for enemies. “This, I will have to write home about.”

“Don’t speak so soon,” said Ilsa.

Cass reached the saddle of Tirica’s strider. She fastened her bag to the saddle and then slung her leg over the strider’s back. She bandaged her bleeding hand with a white cloth from her saddlebag.

In the pocket formed by Duruko’s line of riders, Ilsa turned toward the Red Lector’s command party, now isolated just beyond them.

Goji Haram shouted orders, his face as white as his hair. His ten armored protectors remained clustered around him and General Kanan. The scouts, including the lector’s sons, had left his side. Surviving soldiers from the broken line had rallied with their leader. A few other adjutants and lesser clerics of the Ayochian religion looked around furtively from within the formation of soldiers that surrounded the Red Lector.

Ilsa scowled at the red armor, the blue cloth, the white face of the Red Lector, most warlike of the religious leaders of the monarchy. She thought of how she had felt, rendered powerless without her weapons when she had first met him. His condescension had been irritating, and his level of knowledge frightening. Her eyes moved to the Keeper of Tenlyres, now all too close to the Red Lector’s party. Goji Haram’s mission to capture the Keeper ran directly counter to Ilsa’s. She would not let him succeed.

She raised her submachine gun and looked through its iron sights. She aimed for the heart of the Red Lector, barely visible in a gap between his protectors. Ilsa squeezed the trigger.

Ozleji Sammhar lurched to one side and swung his hand cannon toward Ilsa. Two gunshots echoed from the quiet center of the battle lines. The lull broke into a staccato of more shots and shouts.

Ilsa’s shot struck Sammhar’s armored collar with the crack of metal on metal. He fell from his great strider and crashed to the ground a few meters below. His own shot went wide of Ilsa.

Tirica grunted with pain and then slumped forward in her saddle. Blood spattered from the black wound Sammhar’s bullet had torn in her side. Cass shouted a late warning and grabbed the young woman’s wounded side with one hand. Blood ran through fingers as she applied pressure. Lemuel released a strangled cry. His hand slipped from Ilsa’s waist.

The Red Lector’s other guards sprang forward toward Duruko’s Oshomi, where the Keeper of Tenlyres rode just behind the line.

Ilsa stared at Tirica and Cass. The stench of ballistic propellants was overpowering. Blue’s eyes snapped shut, then open again. Those eyes focused on Ilsa. “Move it,” she said. “I can’t make stall the scouts any longer.”

As if to illustrate Blue’s words, the Red Lector’s scouts hit Duruko’s thin line with a sudden fusillade. Shards of red ice flew from the bloody ground, stabbing into horses and riders alike. Ilsa snapped her attention from Tirica and Cass. She drove her heels into Hailek’s side and rode toward the Keeper of Tenlyres as the woman drew back her bowstring.

Blue’s strider matched Hailek’s pace on one side of Ilsa while Ferdinand charged on the other. As they approached the line of Oshomi, Kaij Haram led the scouts on their runners in charge from the other side. Great cats leaped and clawed at horses. Duruko’s rifle felled a burly man, but then the scouts were upon his group. He tossed away his rifle and drew a two-handed sword from a bond on his palm. Kaij rode straight for the Oshomi chief, a long-bladed sword emerged from his own bonded palm. Steel rang against steel.

An arrow dropped another scout. Ilsa and Blue caught up with the Keeper as she lowered her bow. Only a few arrows remained in either of her quivers. “Keeper,” said Ilsa. “We have to get through before they close the gap.”

The albino woman looked back at the direction they had charged. Horses and striders, Ayochians and Oshomi, lay scattered in their wake. Some Oshomi had broken through the line and made it to the black stone base of the Central Lyre, but the Red Lector’s bodyguards were fanning out to block any more nomads from reaching the monument. The Keeper took a deep breath that pulled in her veil around her mouth.

“You are right, Priestess. We must go. Now.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder. Cass had gotten control of Tirica’s strider while holding the wounded woman against her chest. Tirica’s eyes were closed, but Ilsa could see her breath in the chill created by the ice magus’s powers. The two of them moved forward slowly, but they kept moving. Ilsa’s gaze fixed on the glittering strings of the Central Lyre. She urged her steed forward.

Tenlyres Chapter 13

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, in search of a means to prevent the brewing war.
Now, captured by a group of Oshomi nomads, Ilsa is closer than ever to the Keeper of Tenlyres.
She and her friends have convinced the Oshomi Chief to take them to the Keeper.

Previous Chapter

 

The tent of the Keeper of Tenlyres was the largest in Duruko’s camp. Ilsa stood just inside the entryway, Lemuel at her side. The tent was without light, except for a single small and halfway-covered lightning lamp standing on a pole pounded into the ground in the center of the circular enclosure. On the opposite side of the lamp from Ilsa and Lemuel and Duruko sat a woman on a meditation pad, legs folded into a lotus position.

Lamplight cast the woman’s shadow behind her but illuminated pale hair, unusual among the Oshomi. A gray veil covered her face below her eyes, and her eyes were closed. Ilsa felt the urge to step forward and bow to the woman because she knew she had to be the keeper, as no other Oshomi women wore veils.

“Keeper,” said Duruko, the scarred Oshomi chief, “My scouts captured a group of city-dwellers.”

“Where did you find them?” asked the woman in a flat tone, eyes still closed.

“West of here. Riding toward the Central Lyre. This man has studied the Lyres. You may be interested in his knowledge.”

“Perhaps.” The woman’s eyes opened slowly. Her irises were pink but flecked with specks of darker color. Her red gaze fell upon Lemuel. “He is a cripple.” She spoke without inflection, stating a fact and nothing more. “That is interesting.”

Her red eyes moved to Ilsa. “Duruko. You did not mention you brought me a woman as well.”

“A priestess, Keeper.” Duruko bowed his head. “Forgive me, but she told me she is on a mission to protect you.”

“You do not trust her.”

“How could I? She was born in a city and rides a strider.”

“Trust her.”

Duruko’s head jerked up from his bow. “Keeper, she could be lying.”

The Keeper’s eyes remained on Ilsa’s face. Ilsa froze under the red gaze. Her breath caught as the woman studied her impassively. Their eyes met and Ilsa held the gaze of the Keeper for a silent minute. She felt no tendrils in her mind, only her heartbeat and breathing.

The Keeper’s gaze did not waver Ilsa. “She is not lying.”

Duruko nodded. “That is good news, Keeper.”

“You were right to bring her to me. There are others.”

“Indeed. Three more women, and one more man, with runners and striders as steeds.”

“You are a priestess.” The Keeper’s flat tone never changed.

“I—I am.” Ilsa found herself stammering like she never had, even as a girl in school or at Saint Banyeen’s Garden years ago. Had she not been in such awe at the Keeper’s strange presence and finally meeting the holiest nomad leader, she might have been annoyed at her own cracking voice.

“You belong to Hathani’s clergy, the white rose, the red staff.”

“Yes, Keeper.”

“There is another priestess with them, another white rose.”

“How did you know?” Ilsa asked.

“I saw a small hand pointing down a path between two white roses. And that path led toward the sunrise.”

Ilsa frowned. “Where did you see this? How?”

“I have dreamed it more than once. Always I have remembered it. But one cannot say a dream is true until it unfolds.” The Keeper looked to Lemuel. “Your arm is shrunken, yet you have knowledge of Tenlyres.”

“Yes.” Lemuel straightened his back but did not return the Keeper’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”

“Let me meet you with joy.” The Keeper’s eyes fixed on Lemuel’s arm. “Tell me what you know.”

“Every lyre is larger than it appears. They go deep into the earth.”

The Keeper nodded once. “Continue.”

“I have studied the resonant frequency of every lyre but the central one. Though they are all different, they all protect the lyres from erosion and other damage.”

“Curious. You know a great deal.”

“I have studied the lyres my whole life.”

“That is good. Chogrumians must not forget they were once a village of the Filami people.”

“The Filami?” Ilsa had never heard of a direct relationship between the plant pile farmers who dwelt in villages on the steppe and the people of Chogrum.

“Once the people of Chogrum lived among the lyres and knew of the maze. Memory is good.” The Keeper continued to look at Lemuel. “Do not confuse yourselves. The divide has grown deep.”

He nodded, but still kept his eyes averted from the Keeper. “I will remember that.”

“As you should.” The Keeper’s red-eyed gaze moved to Ilsa’s face. “Priestess, who do you really serve?”

“The Unification. We wish to see all the gods worshiped as one.”

“You who dwell in cities know nothing of gods. The blood of wounded horses. The heartbeat of the newborn foal. The wind in the ears of the rider. These things connect nomads to the lyres.”

Ilsa frowned, annoyed with the Keeper’s dismissal. “The blood of wounded humans and horses is much the same.” She closed her eyes and listened. Her ears had always been keen, but at that moment, the world seemed still except for the gentle thump of her pulse and the breath of herself and Lemuel. The lamplight flickered in the covered glass that contained it and made the inside of the tent seem darker in its momentary absence. “Our hearts beat the same. The wind reaches all of us.”

The Keeper studied Ilsa’s face in silence for seconds, a minute, two minutes. “That is your creed.”

“Yes.” Ilsa released a breath she only then realized she had been holding.

“Do not be confused. The Unification does not anger me.”

“Koor of Morhoen sent my friend and me to protect you.”

“You cannot protect yourselves. I have every Oshomi on the steppe in my service.”

Ilsa inhaled a long, slow breath. “Is this camp the center of your army? Can you call to your people and see them at your side?” She worried she was being too rude, but she plowed on, seeing her chance to make her case. “Have you seen the Red Lector? His forces must be near by now, and his riders outnumber this camp by five to one.”

The eyes of the Keeper narrowed, but the rest of her face remained hidden by her veil. She unfolded her legs from the lotus position and stood on the floor of the tent. The pale skin of her bare feet looked sallow in the dim yellow light of the lamp. “I have seen this army. He will need to ride faster to catch us on the plateau.”

“What about the Central Lyre? He will reach it any day now.”

“So he will. But it will do him little good unless he knows what this scholar knows. And that knowledge has never belonged to a city dweller before.” The Keeper’s gaze burned with ice. “You are a priestess, but you have never known the truth.”

“What truth?” Ilsa took a step forward toward the Keeper. “Please, tell me.”

Duruko grunted. One hand fell to his belt, moving toward a knife. The Keeper’s eyes flicked to the chief. “Peace, Duruko.”

He grunted again and folded his arms. “Take care, priestess. You walk on dangerous ground.”

“Is this ground more dangerous than a Lotok where the geyser erupt with the cold? I have seen the steppe. I have seen the Lyres and the nomads. And I have seen the Red Lector, his army, and his sons. Let us take you to safety where Ayoch cannot go.”

“You will need better words to convince me to abandon my people,” said the Keeper.

Ilsa lowered her voice. “There is another army on its way here from Ayoch.”

Duruko started. “What? Why did you not tell me before?”

“Information is powerful. I only learned this piece through a chance encounter.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the pale face of the Keeper, what little was visible over her veil. “This army belongs to someone called the Gray Lector, but its mission cannot be anything good, being this far across the plateau. We met forward scouts from them just yesterday. We killed them.”

Duruko scowled. “My scouts heard brief gunfire west of here. That was you?”

“Probably.” Ilsa clenched her hands in tension, not to summon any of her weapons. “The truth is, I do not know this army’s intent, but they have machines, vehicles, heavy weaponry, and who knows how many there are of them.”

Duruko’s scarred face furrowed. “Fear mongering.”

“Truth,” said Ilsa. “Days west of here, at Doubtless Manor, I intercepted a communication between them and Lord Palend.”

Lemuel glanced at her, unspoken questions in his wide and nervous eyes.

Ilsa bowed to the Keeper of Tenlyres. “My only concern is your safety, Keeper. If you will not leave your people, we will need to find shelter somewhere all of us can go.”

The Keeper’s eyes closed. “I believe you, priestess. Ride with us to the Central Lyre.”

“But that is where the enemy is going,” Lemuel said. “Surely, further east would—”

“The lyre is only a day’s ride from here. And it never refuses shelter to my family.” The Keeper of Tenlyres opened her eyes. “The spirits are with us.”

Ilsa bowed her head to the Keeper. “Thank you, Keeper.”

A gunshot split the air from outside the tent, unmistakable, loud, irrevocable, lethal. Ilsa smelled Ayochian auto-launch propellant. She raised her head. “It’s the Red Lector.”

Duruko grabbed Ilsa’s arm with weathered fingers. He whirled and dragged her from the tent. Bright daylight blinded her. Lemuel stumbled out of the tent after them.

“Tirica,” he shouted, “Where are you?”

His sister replied with a cry of alarm. “Get down,” she called from her crouch few dozen yards away, dismounted among the tents, horses, and striders. She carried her rifle with its telescopic sights. Cass, Blue, and Ferdinand were clustered nearby in similar posture, with their own weapons drawn. Oshomi nomads ran for weapons. A body lay beside a horse by the tent where Blue and the others crouched.

“It’s Ayoch,” said Blue, “But this isn’t the Red Lector.”

A high-pitched whine from high above made the bottom drop out of Ilsa’s stomach. In Morhoen artillery shells made a very similar sound. “Damn it.” The Gray Lector’s army had gotten into range. Ilsa pulled her arm from Duruko’s grip. “We need to ride now.”

“This camp is all warriors,” said Duruko, “We ride for the central lyre.”

The first shell overshot the camp and exploded on the far side.

“They haven’t found the range yet,” said Ilsa, “We have a chance to get away until they do.”

Duruko turned to each of the guards who stood outside the tent. “She is right.”

Then, he raised his voice and shouted in the Oshomi language, words Ilsa did not understand with a ululating sound. A pair of horses broke from a herd and galloped to his side. He sprang onto one’s back.

“Hailek,” called Ilsa.

Her silent weeping-haired strider answered her by trotting up from beside the tent. Ilsa turned to Cass and Blue. “We’re going with them,” she called to the others. As the others mounted as quickly as they could, Ilsa pulled down the mounting rope from Hailek’s saddle. “Climb up,” she said.

“What about you?”

“Right behind you, but first, we need the Keeper.”

He answered her with a nod of his head.

The second horse Duruko had called stamped the ground nearby. More bullets cracked the air. Oshomi fired back at the unseen foes. Another shell whined in the distance.

Lemuel started to climb up to Hailek’s saddle, awkward with his shrunken right arm, but without complaint.

Ilsa turned back to the tent. The Keeper of Tenlyres stood in the entryway, a cloak across her shoulders, veil over her face. She held a reflex bow in one hand, and a quiver of arrows in the other. While the battle made the camp thunder and blister and scream, she stood serene. Her red eyes moved to the nearby horse Duruko had called. “I am with you, priestess.” Her tone was flat as ever. She climbed into the saddle of the second horse. “We ride.”

Tenlyres Chapter 12

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, only to be captured by the Oshomi nomads.
Even so, Ilsa knows the Keeper of Tenlyres is close. If she can survive, her mission is only beginning.

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa regained the sense of her hands and arms as the Oshomi led her and her captured companions to the east. In the dark, she smelled the powder of weapons, especially once the stench of burnt ozone faded and she regained her hearing after the defining lightning attack. For his part, Ferdinand seemed rattled, but otherwise relatively unhurt. Hailek, as usual, made no complaint. They rode to the east.

The sky had begun to brighten by the time they approached a small cluster of tents ringed by horses and dark-cloaked sentries, an Oshomi campsite. Ilsa hoped the Oshomi would give them some chance to explain themselves. For that, still being alive had to be a good sign, but nothing was certain. Only she and Ferdinand appeared to have been it the by the lightning but the Oshomi who had attacked from behind must have numerous, for she could not remember hearing so much as a shot from Tirica or Cass before they had surrendered.

The big and scarred Oshomi, who still carried the lightning lance he had blasted Ferdinand and Ilsa with, rode close to her side, one weathered hand clenched on Hailek’s reins. The man carried only a few long knives for additional weapons, but Ilsa’s roving eye spotted a strange scar on the back of the hand holding the reins, the kind of scar that looked deliberate. Brands were not the only way to make weapon bonds, scars and tattoos could be used as well. Likely he had a more flexible weapon, such as a rifle, bonded to that hand. Ilsa sniffed out the powder whiffs and detected a few from him. Probably a gun bond.

She sniffed again, seeking the location of the nomad’s ammunition. The scarred man glanced at her. “Smell something good?” he asked in Yrian, the language common both within and between the cities of Dal in Chogrum. His tone was amused, but his dark eyes looked harsh in the cold morning light.

“You’re a weapon bond,” she said in the same language, one many people, even off the plateau, would understand. “Guns, right?”

“Yes.” He motioned toward her with the lightning lance. “You are too.”

“Right,” she said. “Can you tell me where you’re taking us?”

“We are there, already.” The man snorted in a nasal laugh. “This is my war camp.” He motioned to the cluster of tents around them. “Here I will decide your fate.”

“So, you’re the leader here.”

“My name is Duruko. I am the chief of my tribe.”

“What is the name of your tribe?”

“You ask too many questions, woman.”

“You’ve given me answers so far.”

“Do not push me. I can make things worse for you.”

She assumed that meant he had not decided their fate yet. Good. “I’m a priestess of the Unification,” she said.

He poked his lightning lance at one end of the red staff that stuck out from her saddle. “That is a Hathanian symbol.”

“I was trained as a priestess of Hathani. But I serve the Unification.”

He snorted again. “You city-dwellers will say anything when you’re trying to save your lives. Cowards.”

Her face flushed with anger. She took a breath. “Call me a coward if you want—”

“I just did.”

“—I am here to help you.”

“Funny.” But this time, he didn’t snort or chuckle. “I saw you riding with the westerner. The red banner.”

“My friends and I were just trying to get closer to the Central Lyre.”

He looked at her and their eyes met.

“That’s where the Ayochians are going, chief.”

“Don’t make this about them. This is about you.”

Ilsa kept her eyes on his. “But you don’t trust them because you saw me riding with their column.”

“You can try to push me, but you people who live in cities will never know how to argue with an Oshomi.”

“I’m not trying to argue with you.” Ilsa looked toward the large tent at the center of the camp. “Look, I want to protect the Keeper.”

His brow creased for the first time. “Say something more. Prove it.”

“Koor of the East sent my friend and I find and protect the Keeper of Tenlyres because we think that could be a way to prevent war.”

“War is here already.” The man’s scarred face furrowed.

“It will be worse once Chogrum and Dal start to fight. The weapons the cities have now won’t care if you’re Filami or Oshomi. The people of the plateau will see worse slaughter than last time.”

“Last time, the Keeper did not need protection from the Unification.”

She frowned at him. He raised a hand to stop the party. Their gazes locked once again. “The Red Lector wants to capture the Keeper. I want to help you stop him.”

“If you are telling the truth, there would be no need to destroy you.” He set his jaw. His eyes appeared distant, dull with what might have been remembered grief. “But I have seen too many liars to trust any city dweller.”

Ilsa nodded. “If there is a way to prove our intentions, please, allow us the chance. My friend is a mind eater. Let her send the memory of Koor’s orders to you.”

“What good is a priest’s word? He does not know the plateau. He has never seen the tower grass or the Lotok geysers. He has not fought Vogmem or touched a lyre’s endless stone or unbreakable strings. And neither have any of you.”

An excited sound came from behind Ilsa. The leader of the Oshomi riders turned and glared past her at Lemuel. She followed the scarred man’s gaze to the scholar. “Speak,” said the Oshomi. “What brings you into this, cripple?”

Lemuel stared at the man, a mixture of outrage and fear mingling on his face. He swallowed visibly but did not look away from the scarred leader. “You seem to know the true value of the lyres, sir. In that case, I think I have something that may interest you.”

The leader’s scarred face split into a mirthless grin that twisted the scars on his cheeks into ragged, spiraling patterns. “What could you know that I do not?”

“I know why the lyres can’t be broken.” Lemuel grinned and slowly held up a scroll case. “If you like, I can share this with you.”

The Oshomi outriders that surrounded the group exchanged glances. The leader’s eyes moved from the scroll case to Lemuel’s shrunken arm. “You are a cripple. Had you been born among my people you would not have survived your first winter.”

“Yet here I am.” His gaze moved to the Oshomi leader with confidence. “Do you want me to tell you what I know, or not?”

Ilsa doubted Lemuel could know much about the Lyres. The mystery of their pristine material was millennia old. The Oshomi leader nodded to Lemuel. “Do this, and if it pleases me, I will show you to the Keeper.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened in surprise. She would not have guessed this Oshomi would care enough to ask.

Lemuel nodded to the leader. “Thank you, sir.”

“Talk.”

“Right. You see, most people who have studied the lyres study their physical properties to divine their purpose.” He glanced at Ilsa. His hands were trembling.

She hoped she kept the worry she felt from showing on her face. He had to be confident, or this would not work. “What is their purpose?”

He brightened a little. “I’m not entirely sure. But one thing is certain. I discovered last year, using a geometer that each lyre goes far further down into the earth than we ever theorized. What we see on the surface is less than a tenth of the full height of the structure.”

“How is that possible?” Ilsa frowned. “Moving that much material?”

“How is any of it possible?” Lemuel grinned at her, then turned to the Oshomi leader.

“Get to the point,” said the scarred man. “Why are the lyres unbreakable?”

“Yes, of course.” Lemuel rubbed his small hand into his larger, left hand. “Because of their size, I was able to use a resonator to measure their frequency. The lyres are never still. They vibrate at a subtle, frequency, inaudible to humans. To be honest I don’t fully understand the way it works. But the frequency is what keeps plants from growing on them, keeps wind and rain from eroding them and so on. The geometer also indicates that the lyres have large hollows somewhere beneath the surface.” He bowed to the Oshomi leader. “I suppose I could say more, but I’d rather your guarantee our lives before I continue. Sir.”

The scarred man grunted. “My name is Duruko, and I am the chief of this tribe. You, Chogrumian, have my attention.”

Lemuel raised his head. “Really?”

“My people and I may not live in cities or have fortresses, but we are not fools. Your findings will be of interest to the Keeper.” His face twitched into a smile. “You, cripple—Pick one of your comrades to accompany you to the keeper. The rest will be safe here.”

Lemuel glanced over his shoulder at Tirica. His sister nodded to him. Then Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “The priestess should go with us.”

Tirica gave an irritated grunt from behind them.

Duruko slipped his lightning lance into a loop on one side of his horse’s saddle. “Very well.” He turned to Ilsa. “Follow on foot, and do not attempt any treachery.”

“I understand.” She exchanged a nervous glance with Lemuel.

Duruko dropped from his horse onto the flattened steppe grass. Lemuel and Ilsa dismounted. She patted Hailek’s foreleg. The weeping strider pushed gently back against her touch. She turned, and followed Lemuel and Duruko toward a tent at the center of the camp.

Blue sent her a thought as she walked. “Don’t mess this up. I can’t help you if something goes wrong.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder at Blue and nodded to her friend.