Tenlyres Chapter 9

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After encountering the thief and adventurer, Ferdinand Thoss, at the Palend Manor, the two of them have fallen behind the Red Lector’s forces who are still headed east. However, Ilsa learned the depth of Lord Palend’s enmity against the Red Lector from a message Palend sent to an Ayochian rearguard on the plain, addressing a mysterious ‘Gray Lector’.
They rested one night in the manor, but the longer they wait, the further they fall behind.

Previous Chapter

Cover

Morning light poured through the window of the manor house and fell onto the bed and woke Ilsa. She opened her eyes, felt the three fresh stitches in her leg were Ferdinand’s lance had cut her, and grimaced. He could have just punched her. On the other hand, the blood made her story to Lord Palend more convincing. She could hardly complain much. It had worked.

From what Ilsa could tell, Lord Palend trusted her more now than he had before. A pang of guilt ran through her stomach. But all of this was necessary.

One of Palend’s groundsmaids had bandaged her leg the previous afternoon and later made sure to change it before Ilsa slept. Ilsa climbed out of bed and glanced at the white bandages on her thigh. Fighting as a mercenary in Morhoi, an occupation where men and women were lucky to have a full single set of clothes, she had gotten used to being filthy. For the short term, she considered a cut a day for a bath a day a reasonable trade. She was no stranger to cuts and burns.

Ilsa walked toward the window where she had left her clothes. Her wounded leg twinged as she reached the chest of drawers. She dressed, but her leg’s nerves complained more and more as she did. Fully clothed, she buckled on her ammunition belt and walked to the door.

She stepped out into the hallway on the second floor. Hardwood gave a slight bounce under her step. A jolt of pain ran through leg from the wound in her thigh to the back of her knee. She grunted and shifted to lean against the wall plaster. Once the pain subsided she continued down the hall, ginger on her feet and one hand pressed to the wall for balance.

After limping down the stairs, she made her way to the dining room. The smell of cooking meat greeted her from the kitchen on the other side of the long hall that stretched along the Eastern outer wall of the mansion. Sunlight poured into the room and cast Lord Palend’s shadow from where he sat in his chair at he head of the long table.

He turned and smiled at Ilsa as she entered the room nearby him. “Good morning, priestess. How is your leg?”

She bowed her head to him. “It’s a bit painful. Looks like he may have cut deeper than I first thought.”

“Hopefully it’s not an infection.” Palend scowled. “I wouldn’t doubt the blackguard who did this does not keep his blades clean.”

“He is a weapon bond. I’m not entirely sure why, but once summoned, the weapon arrives completely clean.”

“Completely?” Palend raised his eyebrows.

“It would be difficult to find a more sanitary blade than one conjured through a bond.”

“Well, that is good, I suppose.” Palend shook his head. “How is your friend, the mind eater?”

“I haven’t seen her this morning.” However, Ilsa had told Blue the truth the previous day, before Lord Palend and the Suel’s returned from Fort Sardul, and after Ferdinand’s escape from the manor.

“I hope the Oshomi did not hurt her too badly.”

Ilsa shrugged. “She isn’t used to meeting another mind eater who can match her. Blue is very skilled in her art.” She knew what she said was true, but unimportant truths did not help her feel better about her lie to Lord Palend. However, he still had not mentioned the Gray Lector or his conversation with the Ayochian rearguard. Though he admitted to hating the Red Lector, supporting some sort of assassination attempt otherwise seemed beyond him.

“I see. You know, I’ve only met a few mind eaters in my life. And none from Chogrum.”

“They are the rarest form of magi, from what I understand. Chogrum trains more than Dal, but they’re colleges are almost unknown in Morhoi.”

“Interesting.” Palend drew in a deep breath through his nose and then sighed happily. “Well, it seems the lighter meat is about done.”

Ilsa sniffed, following the smell of the cooking meat. “Lighter meat? You eat them out here?”

“Why, of course. Our old generator here at the manor began to fail last winter, and once the new one arrived, I had the old one slaughtered. Of course, given the size of our generator, my staff and I have been eating the meat we from one lighter for over a year.”

Ilsa smiled. “I’ve never had lighter before. In Morhoi they have a taboo against it.”

“But you’re not from Morhoi.”

“I wasn’t preparing a lot of different kinds of meals either. On campaign, things get very stretched, even if you’re on the winning side.” Ilsa did not want to go into the other hardships of war, but if the Red Lector died Ayoch might well step in to fight Chogrum more seriously. “You were never a soldier, were you, Lord Palend?”

“Never,” said Palend. “But I’ve seen death on this plateau.”

Not enough death to keep you from plotting against an enemy, evidently, Ilsa thought. She limped to the table. A woman appeared from a door on the near wall behind Lord Palend’s seat, carrying a serving platter of steaming slices of meat that ranged from dark to light in color. The woman set the platter before Lord Palend, just in front of his own large dinner plate.

“Please, have a seat, priestess. I don’t believe Hathani forbids meat, am I correct?”

“True.” Ilsa pulled out the chair nearest Palend. She sank gratefully into the seat. “How can I refuse?”

From the passage behind Ilsa, a squeal of excitement announced Blue’s arrival. She stepped into the room wearing a long white dressing gown she must have borrowed from someone on Palend’s staff. “I knew I smelled lighter meat! Lord Palend, I would be infinitely grateful if you would supply me with a few slices of this delicacy. It has been years since I’ve had any!”

“Of course, of course.” Palend’s lined face split into a grin. “You seem far more excited than Priestess Barrett.”

“Never mind, Ilsa. She doesn’t know what she likes, and if she does, she seems set on denying it.” Blue walked to the table, grinning wide and sniffing at the air.

Ilsa grunted. “I know what I like.”

Blue pulled out a chair and sat down.

Palend called for two more plates. As the server brought out plates for Blue and Ilsa, Jia Suel marched into the room from the entrance leading to the front of the house. “Lord Palend,” she said. “Your other guests have arrived.”

“Ah, good.” Palend smiled. “Send them in.”

Ilsa looked at Blue in surprise, unable to keep the cold sense of fear from creeping down her spine. Could the Ayochian rearguard have made it to the manor so soon? Did that mean the Gray Lector, whoever that might be, was here too?

Palend chuckled. “Don’t look so alarmed, priestess. I have a feeling you are familiar with both of these guests. Blue told me you encountered my friend Lemuel and his sister on your way here.”

“Lemuel Chollush?” Ilsa could have laughed with relief, but held it in. “The scholar from Chogrum?”

“Indeed.” Palend smiled. “I made his acquaintance in the summer when he passing this point on his way west.” He turned to Jia. “Please, direct them in here. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the food as much as Blue.”

Blue laughed so loud, the server stepped back from her in surprise. “I doubt that they’ll match me, Lord Palend.”

“Perhaps not.” Palend shook his head.

Jia ducked out of the room, and then returned a few moments later with the Chollush’s following her.

Lemuel looked unruffled, especially for having traveled across the central plateau for at least another few days. Somehow, his pale face remained free of stubble and his long dark hair could have been washed that morning for all Ilsa could tell. He wore a coat as dark as his face was pale.

His shrunken right hand folded into his ordinary-sized right palm. He carried his two scroll cases on his belt, perhaps, Ilsa guessed, containing rolled data screens as well as rolls of paper for notes. A calligraphy box hung behind them on the belt.

Plant piles needed plants to interface with inside every device humans used to view the data stored in the genetic code of each one. Ilsa stood, though her bandaged leg twinged with pain, and turned toward Lemuel and his sister.

The younger Chollush looked almost as put together as her brother. She wore the same dark traveling clothes and black cloak and an empty holster on her hip. Her eyes flashed as she met Ilsa’s eyes. Their gazes locked.

Lemuel might be a scholar, but his sister fancied herself a killer. Ilsa did not like that in someone so young. Tirica did not break her gaze from Ilsa’s, stubborn eyes but with little else to indicate defiance.

The room was silent except for the sounds of Blue eating. Her fork scraped on the plate. A knife rasped as she carved a piece of meat.

“Ilsa Barrett.” Lemuel bowed low to Ilsa. “It is good to see you again, priestess.”

“And you, Lemuel.” Ilsa nodded to him and Tirica.

Lord Palend motioned to the table. “I see we are all acquainted. Sit, my friends. We have breakfast to eat.”

Lemuel smiled. Tirica turned toward Palend and dipped her head. “Thank you, Lord Palend.”

“Please, all of you, call me Chakeb. On this plain, as everywhere, the point of status and money is to do good, not demand respect.”

“With respect, Chakeb. That makes me less than comfortable,” said Lemuel.

“And you should know, that is no argument at all. Take a seat, my friend.” Palend laughed and waved at the table. Tirica and Lemuel followed his motion and walked around to the far side of the table and then sat down across from Ilsa and Blue. Palend turned to the server. “Two more plates, please.”

The server bowed and then bustled out of the room. Ilsa sat down again. She faced across the table at Tirica.

Lemuel coughed to clear his throat. “I regret to say this.” His Chogrumian accent seemed thicker as he slowed his voice. “I have to warn you, Chakeb, there is another Ayochian force heading this way. I don’t know their intentions though they fly the banners of the Red Lector.”

Lord Palend’s eyes widened slightly. “More Ayochians?” He frowned though he had already known about the Ayochians, being that he had sent them a message through his plant pile. “How are they traveling?”

“Armored vehicles,” said Lemuel, “A column of forty or fifty crawlers with some striders and runners as outriders. There must be at least five hundred soldiers, but there could be a lot more.”

“Could be twice as many, depending on the crawlers.” Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. “You’re sure they have crawlers?”

Tirica scowled at Ilsa. “My brother wears glasses, but he has eyes like you and me.”

Blue spoke through a mouthful of food. “She’s got you there.”

“Fair point.” Ilsa sat back and took a deep breath. “But that only makes our mission more urgent. If those crawlers get to the central Lyre first, the Oshomi will have to flee, and then who knows where they’ll take the Guardian of Tenlyres.”

“The Guardian of Tenlyres.” Tirica’s scowl darkened. “What’s so important about this person?”

“Sister—”

“I’m serious, Lemuel. Why bother protecting one person when there’s a way about to begin?”

Blue gulped down her food and frowned down at her empty plate.

“The Unification believes the Guardian of Tenlyres might have the divine authority to end a war, but that won’t happen if Ayoch captures the guardian.”

“The Unification is bullshit.”

Ilsa glared at Tirica. Blue looked up from her greasy plate with a grimace on her face.

Lemuel raised his good left hand. “Tirica—”

“No, Lemuel. They don’t have a real reason, just superstition.”

“You’re wrong.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The Guardian is a powerful figure in Ayochian lore. Historically, the Lectors owe their existence to this place. Five Lectors. Ten Lyres. Each Lector is officially the protector of two Lyres, and Ayoch has always wanted to possess them, as well as the Guardian. If the Guardian pushes for peace, most of the Lectors will too. Without Ayoch’s support, Dal will want peace with Chogrum.”

“Lectors don’t rule Ayoch. The queen does.”

“Sister.”

“Lemuel—”

“No, this time, I know you’re wrong. Without the authority of the Lectors, even a supposedly divine monarch does not control the Ayochian people.” Lemuel took a deep breath and turned to Ilsa. “Please, Ilsa, let us help you get to the Guardian.”

“But brother, what about your research?”

“If there is a war the future could be at stake.” Lemuel sighed. “I do not usually like to admit this, but we have to live in the same world as everyone else, regardless of any knowledge we have of the past.”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Lemuel, my young friend, you have grown since I last spoke to you.”

“I should hope so.” Lemuel looked down at his shrunken right side. “I have to make up for the things I cannot change, somehow.”

Palend nodded.

Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “Will you accept help from my sister and me?”

She frowned at him. Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s forearm. “We’ve fallen behind. We need all the help we can get.”

“You’re right.” Ilsa folded her hands beside her plate. “I don’t like to admit that, any more than you like to admit history isn’t anything, Lemuel.”

He smiled weakly at his sister.

Tirica shrugged. “I’ll protect you, whatever you choose, brother.”

“Thank you, Tirica.”

“Just tell me one thing,” said Tirica.

“Alright,” said Ilsa.

“Are you willing to kill for your mission, priestess?”

Ilsa’s eyes narrowed. The memory of killing the Oshomi rider during the fight near the Ninth Lyre returned, as did the numbness in her heart and mind that followed. She set her jaw. “I will do what I have to do.”

Tirica nodded. “Glad to hear it.”

Palend whistled. “You three are all so serious. If you want to reach my age, perhaps you should be more like Blue. Please, let us eat.”

Blue laughed. “I’ve been trying to tell Ilsa that all along, old man.”

“Blue,” Ilsa muttered.

“Just accept something for once.” Blue burped. “Enjoy yourself.”

Ilsa rolled her eyes but refused to argue. “We have to leave later today,” she said, “but for now, I’ll try to relax.” She dished up a slice of lighter meat with her fork. She took a knife and carved the food for her breakfast.

Tenlyres Chapter 8

 

Recap
Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After a skirmish with the Oshomi, Ilsa and Blue have returned to Palend Manor to recover their strength.
When they arrived at the manor, Ilsa discovered the thief, Ferdinand Thoss had broken in, and was siphoning money from Lord Palend’s account through a plant pile. Ferdinand and Ilsa find that Lord Palend has been in contact with the Red Lector’s general, Boraij Kanan as well as a mysterious figure known as the Gray Lector.
Ilsa has decided to lie to Lord Palend about her encounter with Ferdinand in order to secure shelter at the manor until Blue can recover from a mind eater attack.

Previous Chapter

A hundred Oshomi riders circled the scouts at a distance, and then charged towards the Red Lector’s column. Kaij shouted an order and the scouts turned their steeds to ride back toward the main column. Ilsa and Blue rode with them.

Her heartbeat accelerated as first shot cut the air, a single echoing clap from somewhere near the column. She could not tell who had opened up first, the Ayochians or the Oshomi. In the next moment, the resounding crack of the first shot was lost in the roars of the fusillade that followed.

Bolts of electricity shot from a few Oshomi, the ones who carried lances with straight metal prongs instead of angled points. Those lightning catchers rode ahead of the rest of the nomads. The sound of their weapons rumbled across the plain. Men and striders pitched to the ground from within the Red Lector’s formation.

Ilsa grimaced and clenched her branded right hand. She drew her submachine gun from within the bond. Her hands worked automatically and she loaded the forty round magazine under the weapon’s sleek barrel. All of this without Hailek breaking his stride.

The sound of gunfire and thunderclaps died away for an instant as the Oshomi skirted along the hastily forming lines of the Red Lector’s forces. Ilsa and Blue on their striders fell behind the accelerating runners of the scouts, but they made it to within a hundred meters from the head of the column before the shooting resumed.

Uniformed and armored Ayochian soldiers on light striders still taller than horses, returned fired on the Oshomi. They lacked the thundering lances wielded by Oshomi lightning catchers but made up for the absence of the terrifying weapons with sheer numbers and the discipline of their engineered steeds. The blue and red line wavered along its length, but at no point did it break.

In the lead of the scouts, the Red Lector’s sons outpaced even the others on runner-back. Ilsa watched Kaij level a rifle as he drew alongside the front his father’s troops. He slowed his steed and fired. An Oshomi lightning catcher who had been lining up a shot on the Red Lector’s command party fell from the saddle.

Yunn pressed his palms together and the ground rapidly iced over beneath the hooves of a group of galloping nomad horses. The animals whinnied in surprise, skidded, and several of them fell.

The other scouts began to catch up with Kaij and Yunn. They readied guns and slowed their runners. Another great shout went up from the Oshomi, and half the riders swept around in a ring to encircle the Red Lector’s command party at the front of the column. The Ayochian line behind the Red Lector’s group broke.

Ilsa turned in her saddle to follow the path of some dozen more Oshomi stringing themselves out to attack the scouts at the head of the column. She raised her submachine gun and traced the route of the lead rider, a big woman who almost casually fitted an arrow to her towering bow at full gallop. Ilsa flicked her weapon’s selector to semiautomatic, to improve her aim and not waste bullets.

She looked down the iron sights of the machine gun. The lead rider loosed an arrow toward Ilsa and her steed. Ilsa drove her heels into Hailek’s flanks. The strider lurched forward. He grunted as the arrow slashed across the back of his head and made blood flow into his mane from a cut behind his ear. Ilsa did now want to shoot, but she knew in that moment she would not have the choice for long.

Wind whistled in her ears, audible even over the sound of screams and shots and thunder. She squeezed the trigger. She smelled the powder ignite inside her weapon.

Speed of movement. Judged by sight.

Distance. Estimated with precision.

Cover. Nonexistent.

Only the shifting steppe winds could interfere. Half of Ilsa would not have been surprised if the Oshomi had the wind on her side.

Wind or no wind, the rider tumbled from her saddle. Ilsa trusted the aim her father had taught her those years ago when he had first branded her to bind her weapons to her spirit. The woman she had shot would not rise, thanks to the bullet in her heart.

“Hathani keep you,” murmured Ilsa. She turned Hailek toward Blue. The sound of the battle faded into the background as her friend met her gaze.

Blue nodded to her.

Ilsa shivered. She had taken another life. All too quick. Far too easy. She rode toward the Red Lector’s troops.

Blue’s eyes lost their focus as she devoured the courage of the Oshomi riders behind Ilsa. The string of riders that been trying to outflank the scouts broke and retreated from the battle. Ilsa watched them go, numb to the scene.

Ahead of her, she glimpsed Ozleji Sammhar, the Lectoral Protector trained by Ilsa’s father, brandish a massive hand cannon of a pistol in one fist as he hefted an ornate shotgun in the other. The fanged visor of his helm was down, hiding his face. The few Oshomi who had closed with the Lector’s command party lay broken and bloody on the ground before him, shredded by shot along with their horses.

Some Oshomi were still close by, but all of them were in retreat.

Blue turned to Ilsa. “I’d say this was the battle he talked about.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa lowered her machine gun to her side and flexed her free hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Blue nodded. Then she flinched. A tremor ran through her whole frame. She swayed in the saddle.

“Blue?” Ilsa asked.

Blue grimaced. “There’s a mind eater here.” Sweat ran along her brow. “Whoever it is, is taking a swing at me. No problem. I can handle—” Her last word became a scream of pain. She shuddered and then slid sideways.

Ilsa reabsorbed her machine gun and urged Hailek sideways. She caught Blue before she could fall completely from her saddle. Her friend looked up at her face with dull eyes.

“Shit.” Ilsa’s grip on Blue’s shoulders tightened.

“That’s what I was gonna say.” Blue went limp, but her heartbeat remained audible.

Ilsa pulled her friend sideways onto Hailek’s saddle, then grabbed the reins of Blue’s strider. She glanced in the direction of the Red Lector, then down at her friend’s slack face. She turned the two striders back toward Palend’s Manor.

“Just a few kilometers,” she said to Blue. “I’ll get you some help.”

 

Ilsa supported Blue along the front of the saddle as the two of them rode through the gates of Palend’s Manor. Blue’s strider loped in behind them. Her friend looked up at the great house as they entered the yard. At first, Ilsa thought Blue was still unconscious because she had thrashed and shifted at different times on the ride back.

Then Blue said, “This place again?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa sighed. “At least, they aren’t shooting at us this time.” The stitched wound in her shoulder throbbed as a reminder of their last entrance to the building.

She halted Hailek and in the yard, a few meters from the front of the house. “Can you get down from here?” she asked Blue.

“Sure. Don’t worry about me.” Blue twisted her waist and then lurched into a sitting position. “Don’t worry.”

“Excuse me if I do.”

“No thanks. You gotta relax a little. Some Oshomi mind eater just dropped a bomb in my mind. I’ve done that to too many other people to whine now.”

Ilsa grunted and swung her legs over one side of the saddle. She dropped the line and descended it to the ground.

She looked around the yard and found no sign of any people or even the metal sentries that had greeted them last time. With Oshomi forces clashing with the Red Lector only a few kilometers to the east, Palend may have ordered most of his people inside, or they might be sheltering at Fort Sardul, not far away.

Blue groaned and started to climb down the line from Hailek’s back. Ilsa waited below, looking upward, ready to catch her friend if she slipped.

The wind whistled over the walls. Ilsa scanned the parapets from the inside. She finally spotted a shape, barely humanoid, on one wall, looking east. One of Palend’s plant-brained metal guards, she could tell from the silhouette. Everyone else seemed to be indoors if they were in the manor at all. But someone had opened the gates for them.

Ilsa frowned and glanced back toward the gatehouse. A man with long hair and ballistic armor stepped out from the gatehouse, all too familiar. Ferdinand Thoss, a man the Chollushes had called a dangerous bandit, looked down from the wall at Ilsa and Blue in the yard. Ilsa frowned up at him, one question circling in her mind.

What is he doing here?

Blue struggled to the bottom of the line. She slumped against Hailek’s leg. “Who is that?”

“The grave robber from the Western Lyre.” Ilsa shook her head. “Somethings wrong.”

“Definitely.” Blue grimaced and sank to the ground, still pressing against Hailek’s leg. The strider paid her no attention.

“Blue,” said Ilsa. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”

“Be careful. He has a weapon bond.” Blue grimaced. “And I’m not exactly up for stopping him.”

“I’ll see what he’s doing here. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” She began to march back toward the wall. She considered producing one of her guns, but she had already taken one life today. Blood she had not even truly seen with her own eyes now spread across the steppe grass beside the Ninth Lyre. Ilsa stopped a few yards from the gatehouse.

She looked up at the spot where Ferdinand stood. He met her eyes. “Priestess Barrett,” he called. “It’s good to see you again.” His gaze shifted to the garden on the south side of the manor house where black-trunked trees completely unnatural to the steppe stood, cultivated by Lord Palend and his servants.

Ilsa returned her eyes to Ferdinand’s face. “I hope I can say the same. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a guest of the old lord of this manor. Besides, I hoisted this gate for you and your mind eater, so shouldn’t you be grateful?” The corners of his lips turned upward in a small smile. “What ever happened to not looking a gift-horse in the mouth?”

Ilsa glanced at the gates, still standing open. Something was off about what Ferdinand said, and he was Chogrumian despite the traces of Morhoen ancestry she guessed he had in his past, judging from his unusual facial features.

“That a Chogrumian saying?”

“Nah,” said Ferdinand. “But when you grow up on a farm you get used to the concept.”

“A bad gift is a bad gift.” Ilsa grunted. “You still heading east?”

“That I am.” Ferdinand paced along the top of the wall. “Charming though you are, I have a feeling I should leave sometime today.”

“Oh? Could it be you aren’t as welcome here as you said before?”

“What an odd accusation. I assure you, priestess, I am in good stead with the lord of this manor.”

“Interesting. His servants didn’t want to trust Blue just because of her accent.”

“Interesting is right. Pr-priestess. Y-you have c-cut right to the h-heart of th-this.” His stutter grew obvious despite his apparent attempt to suppress it. Ilsa recalled the way he had muddled his speech back at the Western Lyre when upset.

She clenched her hand to produce a pistol, just in case. Once she opened her hand she would be armed, but she hesitated. Ferdinand stared at her for a moment. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he bolted along the wall that encircled the manor, heading toward the garden.

Ilsa cursed. She opened her fingers and then locked the gun that appeared in her hand in a tight grip. She swiped a magazine from her belt and loaded the pistol, but did not thumb off the safety until she hit her stride. Her finger hovered outside the trigger guard as she ran.

Ferdinand did not look back. About ten meters from the garden he dropped into a low crouch, still moving at a high pace. A sound like a tree branch whipping against stone rang through the air. In Ferdinand’s next stride he leaped off the parapet, gripping a wooden javelin in each of his fists. He launched farther than would be possible for an ordinary human. He flew into the garden of gnarled black trees and vanished from Ilsa’s view even with the branches bare from winter.

Ilsa looked after him with a grimaced, but kept her pace up and ran toward the garden. Her heartbeat became loud to her as she reached the tree line on the outside of the dense copse at the center of the plot of cultivated soil.

She searched between the trees with her eyes, seeking any sign of Ferdinand. Evidently the large lance with the basket guard was not the only weapon he had bonded to him. At range her guns should have a significant advantage over his javelins though the small spears were designed to be thrown, so he would not be completely defenseless.

Best to be careful. If Ferdinand was sneaking around the manor, where were Palend and his servants? Had he hurt them?

Ilsa took a deep breath. It did little to slow her heart. Good, because I may need the adrenaline if he has any more tricks up his sleeve. She stalked to one black tree trunk and then pressed her back against it. The smells of fertilizer, moss, and fungus mingled in her nose.

Ferdinand’s soft footsteps crunched slowly over the stiff grass and traces of snow and moved toward the center of the copse of trees in the garden. Then his footsteps stopped. “W-well, th-this could be inconvenient. I’m gonna need new boots.”

Ilsa peered around the tree trunk. Ferdinand paced around one side of a plant pile where it emerged from the earth in a clearing at the center of the garden. The pile looked like a mound of dark green bulbs piled about a meter over the ground, but with small tendrils creeping out and upward, reaching toward the pale sun. Behind the pile, a fuzzy white mountain shifted.

The heavier sound of a strider rumbled to Ilsa’s ears as Ferdinand’s steed stood up from behind the pile, shocking white against the deep green bulbs and yellowish tendrils of the plant pile. Ferdinand reabsorbed his bonded javelins into his bare feet and then patted the strider’s side with an open palm.

Ilsa held her breath and watched him reach up and take a tablet from a saddlebag that hung down his strider’s white flank. He knelt down beside the pile and extended the connector pin from the tablet. He turned to look over his shoulder. Ilsa darted back behind the tree. She took the pistol she held in both hands and double-checked the safety. It was still locked. She thumbed it off but kept her finger off the trigger.

He might be quick to draw, but judging by his movements earlier, she was faster.

She stepped out from behind the tree trunk, barrel of the pistol down. “Ferdinand Thoss.” She walked forward with careful, deliberate steps. “What are you doing?”

Ferdinand looked up from his tablet with a start. He turned toward Ilsa with a grimace on his face. “I’m checking up on Lord Palend. Looks like he’s been busy networking.”

“Networking?”

“Yes, quite a bit of networking.” Ferdinand’s eyes moved to the gun in Ilsa’s grip. “I think you may interested in this.”

Ilsa scowled. “So you’ve hacked into his connection logs?”

“It’s not difficult to do if you know where to look.” Ferdinand bowed his head. “Ilsa, you may want to hear this.”

“Alright.” She took another step toward him. “What’s interesting?”

“Lord Palend contacted an animal pile on the plains west of here this morning. Turns out, that plant pile is registered to some Ayochian General called Boraij Kanan.”

“General Kanan.” Ilsa remembered the heavyset angry man in the Red Lector’s command tent the night before. She frowned. “But he’s already riding east with the Red Lector.” She walked to Ferdinand’s side and looked down at the tablet he crouched before.

He nodded. “The message is to his second in command, some captain whats-his-name. Who cares? The message was to be relayed to the General, according to the log.”

“What did he say?” Ilsa peered down at the screen.

“Not so fast.” Ferdinand quickly shifted to hide the screen from Ilsa with his back. “I want you to promise to let me go before I share.”

“That depends. Why were you here in the first place? Something tells me you didn’t come here to help me spy on the Red Lector’s general.”

Ferdinand took a deep breath. “Maybe Chollush was right about me being a thief. I’m here to skim some funds from Palend’s account before I head east. Dalite credit can be useful in Chogrum, you know.”

Ilsa frowned. “I believe you. If it’s just money, I can let you go.”

“Good.” Ferdinand smiled. “You’re very reasonable, especially for a priestess.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

“Alright. Alright.” He shifted so she could see the tablet.

She read the transcription of the digital message from the screen. Her lips began to murmur the words as her gaze moved down the screen.

“General Kanan should know that I have his back against the Red Lector. When the time comes I will see Haram beaten, one way or another. Tell him I’m happy with his performance last night, and I think I played my part for Haram to put more trust in him. I may not pay homage to your religion but you may trust my alliance with your Gray Lector. One last thing. Be careful should you choose to move too soon. An honor bound priestess of Hathani is traveling with Haram at the moment. I have a feeling she may interfere though I cannot fully predict her actions. Please inform the general. Respectfully yours, Lord Chakeb Palend.”

Ilsa scowled. “Lord Palend is working with the general? But he threatened to kill Palend last night.”

“The performance, perhaps?”

“Looks like it. The general must have been faking.”

“But he connected with someone who worked for a Gray Lector. Ayoch has five high-up Lectors, right? Each one named for a color?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa’s breath caught and she paused with realization. “But none of them are called Gray.”

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Looks like they’re planning something against the Red one.” He yanked the pin from the plants, leaving a small hole in the bulb he had stabbed to access the memory of the pile. Without information to process, the tablet’s screen immediately went blank, showing the pattern of a leaf beneath the glass cover. He stuffed the device into his saddle bag and turned to Ilsa. “Time to go. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Thank you, priestess. Hope your friend is alright.”

Ilsa nodded. “Blue should be fine. But she’ll need a day or two of rest. I was hoping Palend would let us stay here.”

“Then you’ve got one more problem. Thanks to his sentry’s logs, Palend’s gonna notice I was here, even if you let me go.”

She frowned at him. “Do you have any ideas?”

He nodded to her. “If you look like you tried to stop me, he’ll definitely let you stay.”

“You’re right.” She clenched the grip of her pistol against her palm brand.

“We’ll look like we fought.” He extended one arm away from his steed. “That work for you?”

She frowned. Deceiving Palend would not have felt good just an hour ago, but he had deceived her and Blue, if only for an apparent personal vendetta against the Red Lector. She took a deep breath and then nodded to Ferdinand.

He smiled. “Good doing business with you.” He produced the steel lance in a flash. The edge of the blade sliced along her outer thigh.

Ilsa gasped with pain and thrust her arm out. She fired her pistol skyward. The gunshot roared and Ferdinand’s lanced slipped back into his bond. He leaped onto his steed and rode out of the garden and toward the gateway.

She looked down at her leg. Blood ran from the cut in her slashed pants, shallow, but painful. She swayed, dizzy, and then started to limp after Ferdinand. She would tell Blue the truth, and they would make plans on how best to talk with Lord Palend. She blinked at the pain and kept limping forward.

Tenlyres Chapter 7

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
Following a skirmish at a manor close to the Ninth Lyre, Ilsa and Blue learned of the Red Lector and the nation of Ayoch’s agenda of conquest from Lord Palend.
They have decided to ride to the nearby fort where Red Lector has camped, in an attempt to learn more about his mission and how it may conflict with their own.

Previous Chapter

Cover

7: Eastward Questions

At dusk, the illusory veils around Fort Sardul parted and Ilsa and the others approached. Her weeping-haired strider, Hailek, covered the cooling ground without complaint. Ilsa, Palend, Blue, and Raheb circled the fort toward the gates.

The walls were higher than those of Palend’s Manor, surmounted by parapets and crenelations. Fort Sardul’s stones were gray granite streaked, lined and cracked and streaked with pink veins that reminded Ilsa of blood vessels.

Iron gates bore the same circular emblem as Dal’s flag wrought into their center. Double doors opened, separating the sigil’s two sides. Ilsa followed Lord Palend, who rode a dark-haired great strider of his own. They passed through the open doors and into the courtyard of the fort.

Designed like an ancient castle, Fort Sardul was one of the oldest forts on the whole plateau. However, the people who had built it seemed to have known as little about Tenlyres as Ilsa did in the present. The fortress walls had withstood over eight centuries of weather as well as countless wars. The same could not be said for the nation that hard ordered it constructed. Ancient conquerers from what was now Ayoch had occupied the central plateau, but where nomads still roamed the remains of their settlements were difficult to find.

Oh, the settlers had fought wars to hold the land, just as all nations did. Just as all nations, they eventually failed. Ilsa looked up at the central citadel of Fort Sardul, six stories high and built of material far newer than the walls. The citadel had to be tall, to get the best view of the land. During the latest war with Chogrum, the fort’s commander had leveled the original citadel in an attempt to destroy his attackers after the enemy breached the inner gates.

Cracks and scars marked unfeeling walls by the gateway where the fighting had been the fiercest during the most recent siege.

Ilsa halted her steed alongside Lord Palend, just inside the courtyard. The broad space was full of tents and small striders. The banner of Ayoch flew in the center of the Red Lector’s camp. Blue caught up with Ilsa, closely followed by Raheb Suel, the manservant who acted as Palend’s bodyguard. From the open doors of the citadel came a party of soldiers in the pale blue cloth and black armor-plated uniforms of the Dalite garrison.

A sturdy woman with a lined face and thick gray hair held up a hand and halted the group’s advance on the gateway. Her gaze moved over the four striders and the people on their back. Ilsa thought she could see the woman’s eyes linger on Blue, but eventually, she shifted toward Lord Palend.

“Chakeb Palend. Good to see you, old friend.”

“Commander Sevett.” Palend bowed in his saddle. “I have brought my friends—” He motioned with one hand to Ilsa and Blue. “—To meet the Red Lector.”

Commander Sevett raised her eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to go down that road? Lector Haram may not be happy to see you.”

“And I won’t likely be happy to see him. But I need to see him, commander, as do my friends.”

The commander turned to Blue, then glanced at Ilsa’s red staff, sticking out sideways from her saddle. “Are you a priestess of Hathani?”

“I am,” said Ilsa. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“And you.” Sevett nodded toward Blue. “What’s your name?”

“Call me Blue.”

“Blue?” Sevett wrinkled her nose. “That’s your name?”

“Same today as it will be tomorrow.” Blue smiled. “I’m at your service.”

“She’s from Chogrum.” Sevett scowled. “How do you know this one, Chakeb?”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Commander, I have friends from all over the world. I assure you, the Red Lector’s plans are safe with Blue.”

Sevett motioned to her escort. “You will all be under guard until you leave the fort.”

Ilsa nodded but didn’t like the implication, even if they were just scouting. Palend waved a hand. “Of course. Any level of security you like, commander.”

They dismounted their striders. Ilsa took her staff with her. She patted Hailek’s flank once she dropped to the ground. Flanked by guards, they walked toward the citadel. The Red Lector’s encamped forces surrounded them. Clusters of troops surrounded small fires.

Up close the people of Ayoch could have been Dalites. In the gathering gloom, they could also have been monsters. Ilsa knew all soldiers had that ability. All people contended with sides both good and evil.

Even so, Ayoch’s imperialism made these soldiers, sheltering from the cold breeze, tending fires, cooking food, the enemies of Unification. The monarchs of Ayoch seemed to love their new lands more than their subjects. Ilsa set her jaw as she walked past fire pits where most of the soldiers didn’t even seem to notice her and Blue and the people around them. Their group moves slowly, with Palend and Sevett in the lead, flanked by Dalite guards.

She had never been in a war this personal before, a war like the one that had destroyed her family.

They reached the fire pit closest to the center-most tent, a tent that bore the unmistakable insignia of Red Lector’s rank and a brightly illuminated script in High Ayochian on a pole by the entrance. Two guards, both big men with rifles propped to their shoulders, stood beside the banner pole. One of them, a whole head taller than the other, raised a gloved hand in motion to halt Sevett.

“Commander.” The giant guard’s gaze shifted to Ilsa, then to Blue. “Who are your guests?”

“Two women in the service of Lord Chakeb Palend,” said Sevett. “And they have my trust.”

This meeting had become so simple, with Palend’s help. Too simple.

“Names?” asked the guard. His eyes moved back toward Ilsa. Dark brows bent inward.

“Ilsa Barrett,” said Ilsa.

“And I’m called Blue.” She smirked. “I think your Lector will want to meet us. He knows Lord Palend already.”

The guard nodded to Blue. “I recognized him, myself, Chogrumian.”

Blue gave an unhappy hiss. “Don’t judge me by where I was born.”

“Regrettably, that is part of my task.” The guard wiped a glove across his sweaty forehead, visible through the raised toothy visor of a full helmet. “I am a Lectoral Protector.”

“You got a name, protector?” Blue asked.

The other guard grunted and clenched a fist tight.

“Ozleji Sammhar.” The guard’s eye glinted in the firelight. He clapped the other guard on the shoulder. “Leave it.” The huge man motioned to the tent. “You may enter, but first, leave your weapons here.”

Raheb handed over his pistol, Blue the knives she kept at her belt and in her boot. They were all allowed past the guards and into the tent. Ilsa moved to follow them. Ozleji Sammhar’s heavy glove fell onto her shoulder. She looked up in surprise. Her gaze met his dark eyes and her breath caught.

His lip curled. “Your weapons, Barrett?”

She scowled at him, staff clenched in one hand. “I’m not carrying any weapons.”

“Not on the outside. But you are a weapon bond, aren’t you priestess?”

Ilsa pulled away from his hand. “How did you guess?”

He let her step back from him without complaint. “Each style of bond is noticeable to a tutored nose. I’m surprised you didn’t notice mine. From your presence, I think we have the same form of bond.”

Her glare locked on his smile. “What are you talking about?” But even as she spoke she began to smell the powder-dust aura of her father emanating from him. As unmistakable as the Red Lector’s standard, the aura of weapons bonded to human spirit by fire.

His grin widened. “I never thought I would have the chance to meet another like me, someone trained by Black Powder.”

Her eyes widened. “Black Powder?”

“My teacher.” Ozleji Sammhar nodded, then pulled off one glove. “He taught me how to bond weapons to my spirit with fire.” A pale crescent brand became clearly visible on the man’s palm. “But I can tell he taught you more.”

Ilsa stared at him. “He didn’t teach me much.”

“Then why did you seek him out?”

“I never sought out that man.” She made one hand into a fist. She felt her brand begin to burn anew.

“Pardon me for not believing that,” said Ozleji. “Only he has mastered the technique of bonding weapons without the need of a shrine to keep the original. Only he teaches how to bind firearms to the very spirit of a human.”

“I didn’t say I’d never met him.” Ilsa felt her lips pull back into a savage snarl. “He is my father.” She clenched her fists and produced both pistols, but held the empty weapons at her sides.”Do not mention him again. And don’t let those go untouched for over a minute unless you want them to return to me.” She handed the empty firearms to the guards, followed by the shotgun and submachine gun she produced next. She did not trust them with all her weapons, but she saw no other choice. “Now, let me through.”

“With pleasure.” Ozleji Sammhar bowed to her. “An honor to meet you, as well.” He motioned her to follow the others into the tent. She walked after them, shaking in anger with every step.

 

Inside the Red Lector’s command tent, a ring of halfway shuttered lamps cast their light onto a central table. Shadows crept from metallic markers indicating locations on the flat steppe, stuck into the table’s ports at the appropriate places. Small lights flickered up the sides of the marker at the center, one of ten shaped like tiny versions of the Ten Lyres.

Two men looked up from the table as Ilsa stepped into the tent. Lord Palend and his bodyguard Raheb Suel stood on one side of Blue just within the entrance. Ilsa stopped on the other side of her friend and looked at the two men by the table. A familiar smell of cured meat wafted from the table.

The tall man with long white hair and thickly woven red scarf folded his arms and looked at Ilsa. Despite his faded hair and creased skin, he did not look as old as Lord Palend, but he was probably past sixty. Ilsa remembered him from her spying in Korlom and everything added up. He must be the Red Lector.

The man on the other side of the table was shorter than Ilsa, and a few years younger than the Red Lector, but still well into middle age judging by the strands of silver in his red hair. He had a heavy paunch but was not so flabby as to lose his facial features completely to the fat in his cheeks. Beady brown eyes shifted from the Red Lector to Ilsa.

“Is this all of them?” the heavy little man asked.

The guard from outside, Ozleji Sammhar, spoke from behind Ilsa. “Yes, General.”

She grimaced. Somehow she had missed him following her inside. Ilsa planted the end of her staff on the carpet that made the bottom of the tent. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“The priestess who ran from us at Korlom. A pleasure.” The Red Lector smirked. He spoke Yrian without any noticeable accent, which alone was fairly normal for an Ayochian with a strong education. “It suits you to meet us here, but not there?”

Blue’s gaze flicked toward Ilsa. She looked like she wanted to speak up, but Ilsa knew all too well that Blue was already in a tough enough position. Dal had been allied with Ayoch for years out of necessity, but Chogrum had never been on good terms with the western monarchy.

Ilsa dipped her head to the Red Lector. “Your eminence,” she said using the formal Yrian word for a high priest or priestess. “I regretted not meeting you in Korlom, but my partner and I could not be sure of your understanding, given the situation with Chogrum.”

“Ah yes, the brewing of war.” The Red Lector’s smirk did not slip but became even more smug. “A frightening thing for many to see, but not you, I’d wager. You two have experience in these matters.” He nodded to Ilsa, and then to Blue. “My sons tell me you shot down a magus round. Quite impressive.”

Ilsa snorted. “It seemed necessary. Your scouts did not appear willing to let us go.”

The short general glared at Ilsa. His Yrian was rougher, intermingled with harsh-sounding signs of his Ayochian origins. “What makes you think the Lector will let either of you go now? You may be Dalite originally, but we know your true nature now, priestess.”

A cold stab of fear crept into Ilsa’s chest. She did not let it spread out to become visible. She raised her eyebrows. “I am not proud of my work in Morhoi. That is one reason I returned to Yr.”

“Interesting.” The Red Lector steepled his long fingers. “I do have to wonder why a priestess from a prestigious Dalite Clerical Garden found the need to become a mercenary in the east, let alone consort with a Chogrumian Mind Eater.”

Blue closed her eyes, arms folded. A short series of thoughts lashed from Blue and snapped into Ilsa’s mind. They’ve done their research. What now?

Ilsa frowned at the Red Lector. “How did you contact Saint Banyeen’s?”

His smug smiled looked so broad as to be painful. He picked up a small device that looked like a small tablet with a speaker attached. “Ayoch does not live in the past, priestess. I have been in contact with my forces in Dal since the day we left the city. It was not difficult to get in touch with High Priestess Uopemm using the pile networks. She told me you were quite a troublemaker but did not elaborate.”

“I have not often been on good terms with the High Priestess.” Ilsa seethed with frustration but tried to keep the feeling internal. She had not realized the Ayochians had mobile pile access so far across the plateau. If she had known she might not have given the scouts her real name when she first met them in Korlom. The habits of both a priestess and mercenary, both careers reliant on reputation, had betrayed her.

The Red Lector’s smile finally slipped a little. “No need to be upset. General Kanan is a bit overzealous. I see no reason not to let you go your own way.”

“But they spied on us!” Spittle flew from the general’s lips. He turned to the Lector. “Eminence, please reconsider.”

“I have a deal to offer you and your partner.” The Red Lector’s expression returned to full leer. He motioned to the board. “The forces of an Oshomi tribe have been spotted just east of here, by the Ninth Lyre. We are to engage them in the morning if they stand in our way and would appreciate your assistance if we encounter them.”

“You want us to fight?” Blue started.

“You are mercenaries, are you not?” The Red Lector did not even look at Blue. His gaze remained on Ilsa. “One battle in my service, then I will pay you and you may go on your way.”

Ilsa took a deep breath and tried to slow her heart rate. His offer would give them leeway to get away if they actually fought the nest day and he kept his word. She had no illusions that between his war magi and his troops they would not get away from the fort tonight if the Red Lector did not allow it.

Lord Palend thumped his black staff on the carpet. It hit with a dull sound and left a dent in the ground beneath. Ilsa glanced at him, a bit surprised the old man could muster enough strength for that. He glared at the Red Lector. “I will not allow this coercion, Goji.”

“Goji?” The Red Lector’s nostrils flared. “You would do well to watch your tongue when choosing to address me, Palend.”

General Kanan took a step toward Palend and raised a hand, palm open. He swung his arm. Raheb caught his slap before it could strike the old lord. “Manners, general,” he said. “My master is too old for you to strike him.”

The general’s face reddened. He pulled his hand way. “Why, you!” he reached for the pistol at his belt.

Ilsa’s world dilated as the man seized the grip of his pistol. He began to raise the weapon, a worn and common nine millimeter with an extended magazine jutting from the base of the grip. An inch out of the belt, Ilsa tensed to leap at him. She would not let the man kill for such a stupid reason.

“Kanan, stop.” The Red Lector shrugged his shoulders. “The servant has the right of it, no matter how rude Palend has been by addressing me by my given name.”

Kanan slammed the pistol back into its holster and glared at Raheb. He turned so his face fell into shadows, but Ilsa could tell he had turned crimson in complexion. Red. Too much red.

She relaxed her stance and then turned to the Red Lector. “I think your terms are almost fair.”

“Almost?” The Lector’s smile returned, but nowhere near as broad as before. Compared to his prior expression he looked thoughtful. “What can we do to even terms?”

“Tell me,” Ilsa said. “Why are you taking this army to the central lyre? Answer that and you will have us for one battle, free of charge.”

The Red Lector raised on eyebrow. “Very well. We have a mission to capture the Keeper of Tenlyres who lives among the Oshomi.”

Ilsa’s heart skipped a beat. A chill ran down her spine and she stiffened. Ozleji Sammhar laughed.

“You appear to have struck a nerve, your eminence.”

Blue turned to Ilsa, eyes wider than Ilsa ever wanted to see. Her friend’s thoughts were muddled as they mingled with Ilsa’s own.

Tenlyres.

Oshomi.

The Keeper.

He knows too much.

Does he know our mission?

Ilsa took a deep breath. “Thank you, your Eminence.” She dipped her head to the Red Lector. “We will ride with you to the Ninth Lyre.”

 

Palend returned to the manor that night. Ilsa and Blue set up at the edge of the Red Lector’s troops and rested until morning. Then, restless in the early light, they rode out of Fort Sardul with the scouts and the Lector’s twin sons.

Kaij took the lead on his runner but kept his pace slower than the great cat-hybrid could go at its quickest. Ilsa and Blue rode just behind him, but ahead of the rest of the scouts.

Ever since Sammmhar, the Lectoral Protector, had returned Ilsa’s weapons and she had reabsorbed them, the brands had seemed to itch.  That made one reason she had not slept easy, but not the main one. She scowled at the faint rays or rising sun, filtering through a layer of pale gray clouds. The Red Lector really had known too much the previous evening.

A few kilometers distant, the silhouette of the Ninth Lyre loomed over the land, looking much like the Westernmost Lyre by Korlom. Ilsa wondered where Lemuel and his sister, and even the grave robber, Ferdinand, were now. She offered a silent prayer to Hathani to keep them. The prayer felt redundant when left unspoken.

The Three deities kept everyone, in one form or another.

Through the hazy morning sky the glistening form of a locust cruised over the plateau, several kilometers overhead. The hybrid sky creature looked nothing like a bird, bearing more resemblance to an immense sting ray Ilsa remembered from books about the southern seas, but with thousands of small flight tubes blossoming in clusters from the center of its back. Those tubes inflated with lighter than air gas to carry the creature as high as the clouds. A passenger compartment hung beneath the creature and swayed on its tethers as the beast banked in flight.

Ilsa and Blue had taken a Locust from Morhoi to Ayoch on their way to Dal. The creatures could only land in water, and such pools were  not seen in Dal because of the prohibitive cost. She did not like that form of travel, but she would take it compared to riding with possible enemies close on every side.

Kaij looked over his shoulder at her. “You two gave us the slip quite well, leaving Korlom.”

Ilsa shrugged, trying to ignore Kaij’s lingering eyes. “Doesn’t matter much now, does it?”

“We’re all riding together for the moment,” said Blue. “That much is a fact.”

“You understand that our Eminent Father has been quite generous to both of you.”

“Oh, yeah. Really generous. He only surrounded us with thugs.” Blue laughed with false mirth. “I tell you, he truly burdened us with options last night.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Kaij. “But one option is one more than the Chogrumian forces will get from us when we meet them.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You’re confident.”

“Of course, I am.” He snorted, then turned to face forward in his saddle. He tilted to one side and wheeled one arm in the air. Most of the other scouts spurred their runners and caught up with Ilsa and Blue. Only Kaij’s brother, Yunn, and one other of the dozen riders hung back.

Blue glanced at Ilsa. The thought she sent her asked if she knew what they were doing. Ilsa shrugged. She didn’t know much about Ayochian military signaling, having spent most of her mercenary career east of the opposite side of Yr.

She looked back to the skinnier but all too similar Haram brother, Yunn, and the scout riding beside him, whose form was bundled up so heavily it could have belonged to anybody, man or woman. A kilometer behind the scouts, the Ayochian column advanced. Yunn’s yellow hair trailed in a braid from the back of his tall hat. He wore a pair of black gloves, which he kept on the reins of his runner. The expression on his handsome face was uneasy, and his eyes appeared unfocused.

He didn’t seem to see anyone else in the party, not his brother, not his comrades, and certainly not Ilsa nor Blue.

Blue frowned at Ilsa. “He seems to have detected my sending to you. He could be looking for someone to suppress.”

“Right,” said Ilsa. “He’s a war magus.”

“An ice magus,” said a hiss of a voice from behind them. “I am an ice magus.”

Ilsa glanced back at Yunn.

He urged his runner to catch up with Ilsa and Blue, a grimace on his face. “My powers are good for more than war.”

“That’s good to know.”

Blue shrugged her shoulders. “All magic has more than one application. In in Morhoi people bond to their favorite tools, after all.”

Yunn scowled at her. “And the ability to eat others’ thoughts is far worse than even freezing the blood in someone’s veins.”

“Say what you like. I’ve never stopped someone’s heart with my powers.”

“No, but I wager you’ve made someone take other lives.”

Blue sniffed and turned in her saddle to look forward. Ilsa had to acknowledge to herself that Yunn had a point. She had seen Blue command people to fight for her more than once, not to mention the hammer blows Blue could deliver with the adrenaline boost provided by nourishing off the thoughts she stole.

Ilsa grunted. Blue closed her eyes, perhaps because she could tell Ilsa did not fully agree with her. A tiny smirk curled Yunn’s lip, a contrast to the way his father’s grin seemed to split his whole face in half.

He nodded to Ilsa. “You see, we’re all guilty here. Right, priestess?

“I don’t know.”

Yunn looked like he wanted to say something, but his eyes grew distant in the next moment. His hands trembled. He shouted, “Oshomi are close!”

Kaij turned in his saddle to look back at Yunn. “Are you certain brother?”

Blue’s eyes flew open. “Just listen, you idiot. I sense them too.”

Kaij twitched toward Yunn and then glared at Blue.

Ilsa turned this way and that, searching for any sign of nomadic warriors. A shout louder than either Yunn or Blue roared from a hundred voices ahead of the scouts, in the shadow of the Ninth Lyre. She turned just in time to see a hundred riders spill out from behind the monstrous instrument.

Though cast in the shadow of the lyre, the Oshomi were unmistakable. Feathers fluttered in the hair of humans and horses. Hide and cloth, braids and beards, bows and rifles. Wild-born horses were far shorter than striders, but a hundred of them sounded like thunder. Hooves unlike the paws of runners or the feet of striders crashed over the ground.

Ilsa stared at the nomad warriors and realized she could be near meeting the Keeper of Tenlyres.

Tenlyres Chapter 6

Ilsa and Blue have outrun the Red Lector’s forces, but war is nearer than ever.

They have arrived at a Dalite Manor on the steppe close to the central part of Tenlyres.

After an initial clash with overprotective guards, the lord of the manor decided to talk to them.

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Ilsa’s coat hung draped over the back of an elegant chair, her shirt folded on top of it. The shoulders of both garments were torn where the bullet had grazed her. She sat in the small dining room of Lord Palend’s manor house. Blue, across a carved wooden table from Ilsa, drummed her fingers on the tabletop as a groundsmaid who worked at the estate quietly stitched the wound.

Behind Blue, Lord Palend kept his eye averted from Ilsa. His craggy face had gone pale when Ilsa had removed her coat. Evidently he did not like the sight of blood. And there had been blood, despite the relative shallowness of the graze.

What surprise Ilsa had felt at Palend’s open squeamishness was overshadowed by the pain of the needle and thread moving through her skin. She grimaced, having refused the pain medicine Palend had offered. No matter the pain, she could not afford to sacrifice any part of her clear head in this situation. She did not know if she could trust Palend or his servants.

She turned her gaze toward Palend where he stood, leaning on his blackwood staff. “Is Fort Sardul near here?”

He waved his hand through the air but did not turn toward her. “Yes, very near. Just a few kilometers away.”

Blue raised her eyebrows. “We didn’t see it.”

The needle moved. Ilsa gritted her teeth. How much longer?

The groundsmaid squinted through thick glasses, intense in concentration.

Lord Palend frowned at Blue. “If you are with the Unification why are you going to Fort Sardul?”

Blue sucked her teeth. Her eyes flicked toward Ilsa. There was a question implied in her glance. Blue didn’t need her mental powers to convey it. Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.

Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.

Ilsa started to nod. The needle moved. Sensation flared. She let out of a hiss of pain, then bowed her head toward Blue and Palend.

Through clenched teeth, she said, “A force from Ayoch is heading this way.”

Palend turned toward her with a gasp. “From Ayoch? Has the war begun already?”

She looked up at his face. Strands of hair, loosed from her once-tight tie, drifted at the edges of her vision. He paled further. She wasn’t sure which of them was swaying more. “Between Dal and Chogrum, not yet. But the Red Lector is leading these Ayochians, so it may be near.”

“The Red Lector?” Palend’s lips trembled. Gnarled fingers clenched around his black staff.

Blue’s hand flattened on the tabletop. “You sound like you know him.”

“I’ve met him. Unless Goji Haram has been replaced since I was last in Ayoch.” A scowl deepened the fissures in his face. “That man has never seen eye to eye with me.”

The needle came out of Ilsa’s shoulder. The groundsmaid used a fine-pointed scissors to cut the string. Ilsa gave a grateful sigh, despite the continued burn of the wound. The groundsmaid stepped back from her, carrying the needle and spool of thread, as well as the tissues she had used to soak up the blood.

“Haram.” She remembered the name of the leaders of the scouts, Yunn, and Kaij Haram.

“You know the name.” Palend met Ilsa’s gaze, face darkened. “You should, being that you’re with the Unification. Goji and his wife are known as conquerers in the west of Ayoch. She is a general, and he is the Lector who justifies her wars within their national religion.”

A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine, and it had nothing to do with wearing only a bra for a top. She leaned against the back of her chair. “I’ve heard of the Red General of Ayoch, but I never knew why she was called that.”

“It isn’t just her husband’s status,” said Palend. “My partners in the lands she has conquered have spoken of her tactics. She spills too much blood in the name of her queen.”

Be red. Be red. Cass, did you know what was going on in Ayoch when you told me that?

Ilsa frowned. “I didn’t see a female general back in Korlom.”

“They’re already in Korlom?”

“They were a few days ago,” said Blue. “We just barely outpaced them on the way here.”

“It was a close call.” Ilsa grunted. “They have war magi with them. Enough to send one with the scouts. Does Goji Haram have children?”

“Three that I’m aware of. Twin sons, and a younger daughter.”

Ilsa pressed her palm to her forehead. She brushed her hair back from her face. “I think his sons are riding with the scouts. Will they come here?”

Palend shook his head. “Likely they will camp by Fort Sardul. They probably radioed ahead and requested the veil be lifted. I bet that’s why you couldn’t see it on your way here.”

Veils produced by war magi usually formed as side effects of other magic and consisted of chaotic illusions that muddled reality’s appearances.

“A veil?” Ilsa stood up and walked to the chair where her shirt and coat lay along the back. “Does the fort have war magi too?”

“As far as I know they have a machine that replicates the illusory effect. It’s quite a new invention, only added this year.”

Ilsa’s scowled. “A machine the produces veils like a magus? Is that even possible?” She glanced at Blue.

Her friend shrugged. “It could be possible with digital assistance, but plant-piles definitely wouldn’t work because they don’t have muscles to control gestures. An animal-pile might be capable of that, though.”

Ilsa wrinkled her nose. Animal-piles could be used to store data, but they were difficult to feed and maintain because of their size and waste products. Plant-piles nourished only from water and sunlight captured by other plants connected to them. Animal-piles were like other animals. They needed to eat, drink, and pass waste. On the Plateau of Yr, they lived only in human captivity and were usually considered more trouble than they were worth by normal people. On the other hand, animal-piles could provide mobile databases and networks, the kind an aggressive army might find very useful.

She stopped by the chair and frowned at Blue and Palend. “If they have this kind of ability and share it with the Red Lector, our mission could get complicated.”

Palend walked to the table. The base of his staff thumped on the hardwood floor. “What is your mission, priestess?” He glanced at Blue. “And who is your traveling companion?”

“My name is Blue.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m a mind eater, but I fight for the Unification too.”

Ilsa nodded, still unsure if she could trust Palend though he obviously had no love for the Red Lector. “We’ve worked as mercenaries in Morhoi until recently.” She glanced at Blue. Her friend shrugged. Ilsa picked up her shirt and looked at the filthy, bloody garment. She turned toward Palend. “I’d like to know if you have a stance on the Unification before I tell you what we’re doing on the plateau.”

“Very well.” Palend bowed to her, then turned and dipped his head to Blue. “In all honesty, I admire the philosophy of Unification, despite growing old in the light of Vada.” He closed his eyes for an instant, as followers of Vada often did when they mentioned their deity by name.

Vada was one of The Three, so Ilsa was familiar with many of her related ritual gestures. “After all.” Palend turned to Ilsa. “A peaceful world would be a better world.”

Blue kept her eyes on Ilsa. She did not look convinced. But choice did the two of them have?

“Alright,” said Ilsa. “We’re looking for the Guardian of Tenlyres who lives among the nomads. If there is a war, the Oshomi could be caught in the middle, and we mean to keep the heart of their religion safe.”

Blue nodded.

Palend took his staff in both hands. He looked very old in the electric light above that made the lines in his face seem deep as the darkest rivers of Morhoi. “A worthy goal. Perhaps I can assist you. I have little reason to help Ayoch or the Red Lector’s family.”

“Your guard said Unification was worse than Chogrum,” said Blue.

“Raheb has my safety in mind. He knows I will act in the cause of peace, even if I risk this life of mine.”

Blue frowned.

“I believe you.” Ilsa looked up from the shirt in her hands, surprised to realize the words wore true. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“I can offer you a place to rest for now. And when the Red Lector’s army arrives, I can help you get into Fort Sardul to investigate things. My wealth and lands afford me special protections from the Dalite military.”

“We could use more information,” said Blue.

Ilsa reached for her shoulder and touched near the stitches with a ginger hand. “We could use real rest, no matter how little.”

“That’s definitely so.” Blue smirked.

Palend smiled. “I will tell my staff to prepare accommodations.” His eyes moved to Ilsa’s torn and dirty shirt. “And we’ll see if I can find you some clothes while we wash what you’re wearing.”

Blue chuckled. “Are you a dirty old man?”

“No. But I’m looking at two filthy young women.” Palend held his nose and grinned.

Blue laughed. “You know what, you’ve got a point, old man.”

Ilsa smiled. A chance to bathe almost made her wounded shoulder worth it. She dropped her shirt onto the back of the chair. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Thank you for your mission. But may I ask you one thing?”

“Sure.”

“Why would servants of the Unification fight as mercenaries for money?”

“We have taken money from many commanders, but we only ever fought for one cause, our own.”

“That could be a good proverb,” said Blue. “Write it down, Ilsa.”
She shrugged. “It’s the truth.”

“That’s what’s so good about it.”

Ilsa rolled her eyes but Blue’s praise still felt good.

Palend looked from one of them to the other. He nodded absently. “I will have my people draw each of you a private bath.” He left the room for the larger adjacent dining hall. His staff thumped on the floor as if he were forcing it down with every step.

#

Steam still rose from the bath as the water drained. Ilsa had carefully avoided getting her stitches wet. She walked to the sink by the door, still trying to dry her hair with a towel, and looked down at the clothes folded under the mirror beside the basin.

The shirt was pale blue, almost gray. It looked a little small for her but was finely woven. Ilsa found herself grateful for fresh clothes, regardless of either of those facts.

Light streamed through the high window in the wall over the tub and shined off the mirror in front of Ilsa. Her reflection looked tired, even to her own eyes, despite being newly clean. Her eyes moved down to her shoulder. The stitched wound looked so small with the blood around it washed away, but the residual pain went deeper than the surface.

Ilsa finished drying her hair and folded her towel beside the basin of the sink. She took care as she dressed in the warm clothes left by Lord Palend’s servants. The day had been strange so far, and replacing her worn and battered clothes with oddly comfortable new garments did not make it feel any more normal.

She fastened her old belt around the waist of a pair of dark-colored riding pants. The belt carried two magazines of pistol ammunition in the pockets on either side. She slipped her black hair into a fresh tie to keep it back from her eyes. She buttoned up her new shirt and it found it was indeed a bit smaller than the last old one. She left the top button undone, pulled on a light jacket and then left the steaming bathroom for the hallway that led along the first floor of the house.

Somehow, Palend’s estate had been off her radar when she had been thinking about crossing the plateau. At the moment, it was a stroke of luck, a gift from Hathani perhaps.

A short woman, blond hair tied into a ponytail, stood in the hall with her arms folded. She leaned against the wall opposite the bathroom door. “Priestess.” She bowed her head. “Forgive me.”

Ilsa took a deep breath as she looked at the woman with her head bowed against her gray-green camouflage shirt. “For what?” She had suspicions, but it would be better to know for sure.

“I shot you.”

Ilsa’s stitches were too fresh for her not to feel an instinctive flash of temper. She controlled the feeling and nodded. “You were doing what you thought was right. I can forgive you for that.”

“Thank you for sparing my husband. I don’t know what I would have done if…”

“That man out front?” Ilsa thought of Raheb and remembered her weapon under his chin. Words from Hathani’s ancient book returned to her mind.

“Always fight alongside those you love. Those you love are those you trust.”

“Thank you, priestess.”

“My name is Ilsa.” Ilsa held out her branded right hand, sideways to not threaten with the marks of her weapon bonds.

The woman looked up at her face, surprised. “I’m Jia.” She took Ilsa’s hand cautiously. “Still, Jia Suel, thanks to your restraint.”

Ilsa frowned. While some Dalite women returned to their maiden name when widowed, she had thought that tradition might die out. If there were children in a marriage the combined name almost always stuck. She pulled Jia close and clapped her on the back with her free hand. “Good to meet you, Jia Suel.”

Jia pulled back, tears in her eyes. She dabbed at her face with a white handkerchief. “Thank you, Ilsa.” She took a deep breath. “Lord Palend sent me to ask if you would be ready to go to Fort Sardul this evening.”

“I should be, as long as Blue is.”

“Blue.” Jia’s shoulders slumped. “The mind eater.”

“Yes.” Ilsa met Jia’s damp gaze. “She’s my partner in the Unification, Chogrumian or not.”

“Do you think that’s wise? Going to the fort with her, I mean.”

“She can find things I can’t.”

Jia touched her forehead with her fingertips. “I think I know what you mean.”

Ilsa nodded to Jia. “I’m sorry she had to hurt you. Tell Palend I’ll be ready.”

The woman bowed her head. “I’m a hunter. I thought shooting people would be the same as shooting animals. I guess I was wrong.”

“The action is the same.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The consequences are different.”

Jia did not reply, but turned and walked away. Ilsa let her go. She thought of the people she had killed, with her bonded weapons, and by other means. In war, such actions were encouraged. Thoughts about the consequences were punished by one’s own mind. Those were memories not even someone like Blue could devour completely, not that Ilsa would ever ask for that. She had to remember her own actions to forgive others.

Tenlyres Chapter 5

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Doubtless Manor

 

In days long gone, when The Three of Yr walked the world, the plateau was lush with life. White roses, primrose, and even the bird of paradise flowers abounded. When The Three returned to their hidden places most of Yr withered out of longing for their presence. So wrote the First Speaker for Hathani in one of the books Ilsa had studied at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, years ago.

In the present, the fourth month waned and winter’s chill was fading into the muddy hope of springtime, Ilsa guided her weary strider, Hailek she had decided to call the beast, around a broken patch of ground where a plant pile from a Lotok formation had broken the surface. The dark green mound of memory cells climbed up through a crack in the soil. She was grateful to see any green. Over the past days of restless, riding there had been nothing to see except the occasional stand of tower grass. Only that morning had they reached this miles-wide swath of Lotok.

A few yards away, a gout of cold water and mist erupted from the earth and startled Blue’s nearby strider. The normally unflappable creature bucked backward out of the spray. Blue held onto the reins and fought for stability, a common Morhoen curse on her lips. “Tomorrow break you!”

Ilsa kept her eyes on the ground, looking for other points where cold geysers might erupt. The green on the surface of the plateau might have faded when the Three deities disappeared, but the plant piles beneath the surface remained thick in some places. Nourished through symbiotic connection to the plains-grass above, the piles could well out-last human civilization. They had survived the fall of many nations in the past.

Blue steered her mount away from the geyser. Her coat and her strider’s hair dripped with icy spray, water forced to he surface by the plant piles shifting below the ground. She turned in her saddle and glanced at Ilsa. “Any sign of the fort around here?”

“We rode straight. Fort Sardul should be less than half a day from here.”

“If we actually rode straight.” Blue frowned at the empty horizon, then shook her head. “I don’t see it. That’s for sure.”

Blue might be gifted with an invincible immune system, but Ilsa knew her friend’s long-term patience was far more limited.

“I’ve never been to the fort.” Ilsa scanned the distant plains. No one could build directly over a Lotok formation, but Ilsa was certain Fort Sardul must be near. The map certainly supported the fort’s location. She squinted through wafting mists from the occasional geyser eruption. Her eyes caught on a glint of glass.

Glass in the window of a house—What Ilsa had thought a formation of gray granite that rose from the ground on its own appeared to be part of some hidden settlement. She studied the area around the window as she fished out her binoculars from the saddle bag behind her back. She raised the lenses to her eyes. A crude, five-meter-high wall of thick granite circled the carved house a hundred or so meters out from its sides.

It all looked derelict, and was built too close to the Lotok for comfort, given the gradual creeping movement of the underground formation. Ilsa frowned at the thought. She had never heard of a primitive homestead like one so from Dal whether abandoned or not. Any families with holdings on the plateau would be wealthy enough to build something better.

She pointed with her free hand, toward the glint of glass.

“Looks like someone used to live over there.”

Blue squinted at the point. “If you say so. Just looks like a pile of rocks to me.”

“Well, it’s not in good repair,” said Ilsa. “So it can’t be the fort.” She lowered the binoculars.

“Think we should check it out?” asked Blue.

“Better to be on the safe side.” Ilsa guided her strider toward the ruined homestead. She wished she had been able to find more information on the central region of Yr, but the plateau seemed very nearly to devour information. The Oshomi people and their herds of genuine horses were the most famous element beyond the Tenlyres themselves, but near the forts people could settle in relative safety, or so Ilsa had heard. She and Blue rode toward the ruins.

 

The walls looked sheerer up close, and far from ruined. What had appeared crude now looked as architected as any structure Ilsa had seen in Dal or Morhoi. She peered over the wall, standing on her Strider’s saddle, and glimpsed a finely crafted manor house that had looked like ruined stone from the distance.

Blue pressed a gloved hand to the polished surface of the wall. Lines from dripping water streaked the dark surface. “Seems a lot different up close.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa frowned. “Too different.” She looked along the curve of the wall. A gate was situated in the structure, high enough for a great strider to pass under it, and with slender watchtowers on either side. Ilsa guided her steed toward the gate.

She stopped before a pair of black-sealed iron doors with rust marks in places where the coat had peeled away. Ilsa looked up at the tower window above. “Hey!” she called. “Anyone there?”

Blue rode to her. “What are you doing?”

“It definitely doesn’t look abandoned.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the window. A shadowy face appeared in the frame, looking down at Ilsa. She raised her arm and waved up at the person keeping watch.

The face and in the window turned and said something Ilsa couldn’t hear through the glass. Ilsa saw the mouth move, but could not determine much else through the misted glass pane.

Blue glanced at her. “I hope they’re on our side.”

Ilsa shrugged. “It’s not like we’re criminals. Lots of Dalites on the plains support unification.”

Both of the heavy doors clanked open. Ilsa rode into the gateway and then stopped, seeing three figures standing just a few meters inside. The one in the center was a man in a warm but well-tailored Dalite coat, with dark hair and pale skin. The other two were only vaguely humanoid, but distinctly not human.

Glittering glass camera eyes peered out from beneath the guard of metallic domed helmets. Long steel arms hung at their sides. Even longer legs of the same material carried each of the sentries forward toward the gate. A glint of a blade was visible along each of their forearms, and Ilsa spotted gun barrels on the opposite side of each limb. The man raised a hand and the mechanical sentries halted.

“I am Raheb Suel, the chief guard. What business do you have with Lord Palend?”

Ilsa frowned at the sentries. “Lord Palend? Since when does a Lord of Dal live in Tenlyres?”

Raheb shook his head, face grim. A handgun flashed from his sleeve into his hand. “You women owe me an answer, not the reverse.”

“Look,” said Blue, “We don’t want any trouble.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You’re from Chogrum.”

“Shit.” Blue raised her hands. “We’re not here to fight.”

Raheb moved fast. He raised his pistol and took the safety off in the same motion. He aimed at Blue. Ilsa seized the small bag of ammunition and then leaped from her strider, a warning shout on her lips. Blue’s steed leaped forward without any audible command, vaulting one of the metal guardians. A shot rang out, but not from Raheb.

Blue’s armored shoulder took an impact of a rifle round. From the clang and whine of the shot, Ilsa guessed the armor had just saved Blue’s life. The force of the shot knocked her friend backward over her saddlebags. She fell from the strider onto the grass inside the courtyard walls. With a groan, Blue struggled to stand up.

Ilsa landed on the ground, her strider between herself and Blue. One of the sentries swung a rapidly-extended blade straight at her face. Ilsa dodged to one side. Air whistled past the strike. She clenched her right hand. A brand burned.

A pistol appeared in her grip. She loaded it in an instant, as she darted away from the sentry, following the curve of the wall away from Blue and the gate. One of the sentries followed her. The other rushed toward Blue. Both sets of forearm blades extended to the length of short swords.

“Suel, call this off!” Ilsa shouted. “We don’t mean any harm.” She smelled powder wafting from the manor house behind the well-dressed man. A glint of a scope’s reflection told her whoever had hit Blue was lining up another shot.

“I can’t. The master will not deal with Chogrumians.”

Raheb paced toward Ilsa. Blue found her feet. The sniper’s glinting scope angled toward Ilsa. The metal sentry swung a blade at Blue, but she was out of its way, moving out of its path away from Ilsa. Ilsa’s opponent lunged at her. She fired twice, smashing the eyepieces of the glass cameras in the helmet. The sentry continued forward.

Ilsa dodged to one side and the sentry plowed into the wall behind her, evidently not knowing to stop itself now that it was blinded. Blades clanged as they struck stone. Ilsa turned to face Raheb.

“I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone here.”

Raheb scowled. “You rode here with a Chogrumian.”

“We’re with the Unification. Both of us.”

“Even worse.” Raheb kept his pistol trained on her. The sniper would definitely have a shot lined up by now.

Ilsa ducked low and rushed at the man, then leaped to one side. He squeezed off a shot, well wide of her. The rifle cracked from the great house rooftop. A bullet seared across Ilsa’s shoulder, drawing blood. She winced in pain, but brought her gun to a stop under the man’s chin. He backpedaled in time to avoid a potential shot, but she used the moments of cover his retreat provided her to produce her other pistol and load it. The magazine clicked into place.

She aimed the newly summoned weapon at the clanking sentinel following Blue and fired twice. The machine’s head burst in two places and steam issued from the back of its dome. The sentry collapsed. Ilsa shot her friend a glance. “Blue, can you stop that sniper from here?”

Blue nodded to her, eyes closed. Ilsa kept her first pistol on Raheb. His hands shook as he fought to keep the gun aimed at Ilsa.

“Who are you?”

“Ilsa Barrett. Priestess of the Unification, and of Hathani.” The pain in her shoulder built, despite the damage from the wound not seeming serious otherwise. “Please, put down that gun.”

His wavering hand steadied. His eyes flicked toward Blue. “What is she doing?”

“Eating your sniper friend’s thoughts probably. Don’t count on someone else shooting me anytime soon.”

He gritted his teeth. “You bitch. How dare you!”

“Got her.” She turned to Raheb. “Sniper’s aimed at you now, man.”

His eyes widened. A clunk of wood on a paved path drew Ilsa to glance toward the main entrance of the house. The slow shape of a man leaning on a black staff of wood made his way toward them from the covered porch at the front.

“That’s enough,” called the old man. “Raheb, put away your gun. I believe these women are with the Unification.”

Raheb grimaced. “Lord Palend,” he lowered his pistol to his side and bowed to the old man. “Whatever you command is my call.”

Palend nodded to him and then turned toward Ilsa as he approached them. “Catch those striders of yours. Then, I want to talk to both of you.”

Ilsa glanced in the direction of Hailek and Blue’s strider, who had both run along the outer wall, away from the gunfire. She nodded toward the old man, grateful for his sanity. “As you wish.”

He glanced at Blue. “You too, miss. Release Jia as a show of good faith.”

Blue hesitated with an intake of breath. She glanced at Ilsa.

“Trust me,” said Palend. “She won’t shoot.”

Blue breathed out. “She is released.”

The scope’s reflection vanished from Ilsa’s sight. She unloaded her pistols and then withdrew them into their seals. Blue’s will had already reined in the two striders. Ilsa turned to Palend. “Let’s talk.”

 

Tenlyres Chapter 4

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Edge of War

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 

Previous Chapter

Western Lyre

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 

Previous Chapter

Striders Cover

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

Beast Daughter

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!