Tenlyres Chapter 25

Ilsa must protect the Keeper of Tenlyres from the forces of Ayoch.
Enemies are everywhere in the shadow of Nurse Mountain.

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Tenlyres II - Chapter 25 Powder and Ice lq

Tirica leaned on Ilsa as they made their way past the hairy bulk of a resting strider on the way into the hermit’s expansive cave. Ilsa frowned into the shadows ahead of them. “Where are the other steeds?”

“The Keeper sent them away to find food.” Tirica grimaced. “She said she would call them when they were needed. We sure could use them now.”

“I’m not so sure.” Ilsa looked over her shoulder at the still-darker night outside the cave. The lantern lights of the Red Lector’s troops bloomed among the boulders down the slope. “They’re going to have us surrounded soon.”

Tirica shuddered. “Damn it. My arm is going numb.” She flexed her fingers, but they only opened halfway.

“Must have been Melinda’s shots. She uses poison in her bullets.”

The girl nodded as they reached a bend in the passage. “Set me down here. I’ll watch our backs.”

“Lemuel told me to protect you. And I plan to do that.”

She barked a harsh laugh. “I’m used to protecting him. Let me do this.”

Ilsa looked at Tirica’s face. Sweat ran along her brow and her cheeks were pale. She shook her head. “You’re already hit. We need to get you to Siuku.”

“The Keeper?”

“She can heal you.”

“Seems like that’s half of what she does.” Tirica groaned, and then lurched away from Ilsa. She stumbled and nearly fell, extended her arm and braced herself on the wall. “They’ll trap us in here if we both go. And I can’t walk alone.”

Ilsa thought about protesting, then nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t do anything risky.”

“Thanks.” Tirica sat down, back to the wall, and unlimbered her rifle. She looked down the telescopic sight and watched the opening of the passage behind them. “Now go. The others should be straight down this passage.”


She left Tirica by the bend and proceeded along the smooth-worn stone floor of the chill cave. Warm orange lamplight grew as she continued, but the gentle tinge of color it gave the walls did little to ease her mind. Hopefully Blue and the others were on their way already. Megalli, and whatever small group of skyriders she could gather at this hour, simply would not be a match for the scouts alone.

Ilsa did not like being trapped. She might have studied at Saint Banyeen’s. She might have once longed for the chance to return to that place. Still, she would not want to be stuck in any kind of cage. And tactically this situation was terrible. At least twenty scouts outside.

Kaij. Yunn. And Ferdinand possessed and turned against her.

They were all deadly opponents. She wished she had taken the chance to finish Melinda, despite the cold feeling the idea of killing someone so young started to form in her stomach. As it was, Melinda could definitely be after them as well. Ilsa emerged from the passage with worry filling her mind.

Siuku, Cass, and two of Siuku’s riders stood on one side of the lampstand in the center of the small, roughly circular chamber. On the other side, a small man in what appeared to be his early sixties sat upon a thick mat, probably stuffed with goat wool. He wore Vogmem-style hide clothing, had Morhoenese features, white hair, and his eyes were closed tight. Pale lips moved as he chanted in a voice so low Ilsa could not make out any hint of his language. The hermit did not react as Ilsa entered.

A wizened Vogmem woman, who looked even older than the man on the mat, detached herself from the wall beside the mat. Deep lines crossed her face. She reached for a small revolver at her waist, even as Siuku and the others turned toward Ilsa.

Ilsa raised her hands. “It’s alright,” she said. “I’m here with the Keeper.”

Siuku nodded to the woman. “She speaks truth, Akirette.”

Shadows deepened in Akirette’s face. “Where is the other one? What about the shots we heard?”

“Tirica was hit. She’s okay, and watching the entrance, but there are a lot of Ayochians outside.” Ilsa turned to Siuku. “Can you go help her?”

“From the sound of things we are outnumbered.” Siuku’s eyes moved toward the hermit and Akirette over her veil. “I will return in a moment.” She turned to the rider on her left, a young man. “Okko. Bring your lance and follow me.”

He picked up a short lightning lance from where it was propped against the wall behind him. “I only have one shot of lightning left, Keeper.”

“Then we will make the most of it.” Siuku turned to the other rider, a scarred woman, older than the young lightning catcher. “Takudu, stay here and protect the hermit.”

“As you wish, Keeper. Though I would prefer to accompany you.”

Ilsa nodded to the Oshomi woman. “Stay. I’ll protect the Keeper for you.”

The hermit’s eyes snapped open and fixed on Ilsa’s face. “No. Ilsa Barrett. Stay where you are.” His voice came out as series of wheezed breaths, and though his eyes focused on Ilsa, their green irises wobbled as if not fully focused.

A chill crept through Ilsa as she met his wavering gaze. “How do you know my name?”

“I know you. You are a friend to Nameless.”

“You mean Blue.”

“She still calls herself Blue? She earned that privilege, but abandoned it when she fled the temple.”

Ilsa started toward him. “You. You’re a mind eater.”

The hermit’s pale lips parted in a grimace of pain. “I am indeed.”

Akirette’s eyes flicked down toward the hermit. She scowled. “I don’t believe it.”

“You should know better by now, child,” the hermit said without looking at the Vogmem chieftain. “After all our discussions, I never told you before because I thought you would not understand.”

“I’m no magus.” Akirette’s brows furrowed. “But I am the eldest of my people yet living.”

“Indeed.” The hermit’s eyes remained on Ilsa. “But next to a thousand years of study you still have much to learn.”

Ilsa glared at the man before her. “That doesn’t explain how you lived so long.”

“Ten years in the Temple of Colors are as one year in this world. But while we commune within, we are suspended outside of time.” The hermit grinned with dirty teeth. “I am confident you will believe me, Ilsa. After all, you trust Nameless.”

“We have no time for this,” said Siuku. “Hermit, we have a battle to fight.”

“Bring me Nameless,” said the hermit. “Give her to the temple, and I will help you survive this night.”

Ilsa grunted. “We can’t give you Blue. She has to decide for herself.”

Akirette’s lined, shadowy scowl moved so her eyes locked with Ilsa’s. “How many are there?”

“At least twenty. All Ayochian veterans.”

“We will need help to survive long enough for help to arrive,” said Akirette.

Ilsa glared at her. “They’re close by now.”

A gunshot echoed down the passage, the familiar sound of Tirica’s long rifle.

“The Ayochians are closer.” Akirette’s eyes narrowed. “Negotiate for your friend if we live through this.”

Siuku nodded to Ilsa. “I agree with the Vogmem. Much as I hate to say it.”

“Blue fought for you. For us.”

The hermit smirked. “She will continue to fight for you. But right now, I am here and she is not.”

Another shot from Tirica’s rifle sounded. Staccato fire from the Ayochian scouts answered this time. Ilsa gritted her teeth. She turned to Cass. “What about you?”

Cass inhaled a deep breath. “Hathani keep me. I don’t want to die here.”

“We won’t have to, either way. At least fifty Vogmem riders are on their way around the lake.”

“Give up Nameless. I will guarantee all of our safety.”

“Do you even have that much power?” Ilsa felt the urge to cry, as she had before she last saw her mother back in Dal. She fought back that urge.

“One thousand years of study are at my command. I will bend these foes to my will. Just say the words.”

Ilsa turned her back on him. She clenched her fist at her side. Her other hand found her pistol. “I will not give up my friend.”

“Then you will fight this battle without me.” The hermit’s eyes became unfocused, their intensity fading. His posture did not change, but Ilsa could tell his senses were gone from the world.

Akirette gave a high-pitched laugh. “Should have known. I always hated Dalites. And you clergy are the worst of them all.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we must fight.”

“I know.” Siuku picked up her bow and her half-full quiver of arrows. “Fortune be with us.”

“Fortune favors the careful.” Akirette drew her revolver and checked its chambers. She glanced at Ilsa. “If I die here, I will haunt you, girl.”

“I look forward to it.” Ilsa stalked down the passage toward the insistent and growing sounds of gunfire.

She hated the sense of dread that built within her mind as she walked. Had she thrown away their chance at survival? She would not think on it. She unfolded her clenched hand and produced her shotgun as she did. The bond burned, almost as hot as the original branding. But pain meant nothing at that moment. She listened to Siuku and the lightning catcher’s footsteps behind her. Akirette stayed further back with Cass.

Ilsa told herself they would win, with or without the hermit’s help. She loaded the shotgun with the one set of shells she had brought with her for it and stayed close to the wall as she walked toward where Tirica sat by the bend in the passage.

Tirica pressed her back to the dark stone and started to reload, knees pulled in tight. One of the scouts ducked around the mouth of the cave and trained his gun on her. Ilsa raised her arm. She dropped the man with a shot from her pistol. She felt hollow as he fell back with a scream of pain. The smell of her powder burned in her nose.

Her first shot of the battle rang in the ear. Let it not also be the last, she hoped in a dark prayer. This is where the missions had always led her, to blood and pain.

She twisted at the hip. Her aim was true when she fired again. Another Ayochian soldier fell to the stony hillside. The sound of a rifle skittering down the slope scraped at Ilsa’s ears. She stopped beside Tirica, who finished reloading. Her eyes scanned for any signs of movement in the darkness.

“You holding up.”

“Trying.” Tirica sounded breathless.

Siuku crouched down beside Tirica, searching her shoulder for the holes Melinda’s bullets had torn in her clothes. She did not take long, once she found the traces of blood.

Okko, the young lightning catcher, caught up with Ilsa. He held his short-hafted lance like a rifle. He saw the fallen Ayochian on the slope and at the mouth of the cave. His off-hand fell to the butt of a pistol in his belt. “Tell me where you want me, priestess.”

“Follow me. How much lightning do you have?”

“Only one shot left, but a big shot.”

“Stay close.” Ilsa glanced at Siuku and Tirica. The Keeper of Tenlyres removed her veil with one hand. She pulled back the fabric from the hole where dark blood welled up.

Two bullets. One wound. Melinda shot with deadly precision. How could she have failed to kill Tirica with accuracy like that?

Ilsa took a breath and turned to face the lake, where moonlight gleamed on the water. She stepped forward, moving cautiously. She had to avoid being detected by Yunn or he could easily freeze her where she stood if his powers were still as strong as they had been back at the Central Lyre.

She held the shotgun in one hand, and her pistol in the other. She stalked toward the mouth of the cave. She heard Cass’s voice exclaim in concern when the other priestess reached Tirica and Siuku.

Ilsa swept the muzzle of the shotgun in an arc, silent for the moment, but ready to roar with lethal power at a moment’s notice. Okko’s footsteps were nearly silent, close behind her. Blood and propellant wafted in the fresh air. But mostly, she smelled the water of the lake with a hint of the moldering trading post below. The wind was soft and cold on her face. Good. Kaij and Melinda with their bonded senses would likely not be able to pinpoint her by smell, even once she started shooting.

She and Okko walked past Tirica’s strider. The animal might have a simple mind, but it was smart enough to have cringed against the wall of the cave to minimize its visibility to the outside. At the very mouth of the cave, Ilsa stopped in her paces. She spotted a flurry of movement around the boulder where she had fought Melinda.

The psychotic girl’s form was gone from the top of the stone. Kaij stood with a rifle in hand, aiming down the sights despite the sling on one arm. Ilsa ducked back, pushing Okko behind her with the arm that held her pistol. Kaij’s shot whined through the air, then cracked the rocky ceiling within the cave mouth. Traces of gray dust drifted down.

Judging by the large size of the bullet, and the small flickers of etched text visible on its sides were it had not vanished into the stone, this was a magus round. Ilsa’s mind conjured a dozen curses as Yunn’s power began to manifest in frosty tendrils creeping out from the crack where the bullet had embedded itself in the stone.

Okko stared. “What is that?”

“War magic,” said Ilsa. “Don’t let the frost touch you.”

Okko answered with a grunt as he retreated toward the bend where Tirica and Siuku were still in cover. Frost crept toward Tirica’s unflappable strider, moving down the wall of the cave in feathery patterns. The animal seemed completely unaware of the spreading danger.

Ilsa yelled at the strider. The animal raised its head and turned toward her. “Get outside,” said Ilsa. “Go.”

The strider lumbered to its feet and lurched out of the mouth of the cave. Ayochian bullets screamed and whined through the air. The strider must have been hit at least once because it roared in pain. Then the steed charged off into the night. It’s feet thudded on the slope.

The sound of gunshots faded. Ilsa backed away from the frost, which had reached the floor and filled the exit of the passage. Ice crystals began to build up. She grimaced at the growing bluish mirror that reflected the light from around the bend behind her.

She held the shotgun out in front of her. “Is this your plan, Yunn? To trap us in here?”

“Not at all, priestess,” Yunn replied from the darkness around the mouth of the cave. “I’d rather kill you, to be honest.”

Ilsa frowned. Something above her rattled. She glanced up at the ceiling just as a shard of ice dropped. She threw herself backward, but the ice cut along her sleeve and drew blood from one arm. Another icicle wobbled overhead. He had sent the ice further into the cave along the ceiling faster than she had hoped. Her shotgun blast shattered the icicle into a freezing spray.

She retreated further, showered in biting, clinging frost and pelted by ice.

Ilsa rounded the bend. “Get back, everyone.”

Siuku helped Tirica to her feet. Cass retreated along with Akirette, almost to the Hermit’s inner chamber.

Okko glanced around the corner, his breath mist in front of him. “They’re coming in.”

Ilsa could tell he was right from the sound of footsteps and reflections of lantern light glimmering on the icy walls. She stepped out, both guns raised. Kaij and Yunn stood behind four other Ayochian scouts.

“End of the road, priestess.” Yunn’s eyes were unfocused. He gritted his teeth with concentration and sent a wave of ice creeping around the bend beside Ilsa. The frost leaped to Tirica and Siuku.

Ilsa released a frustrated growl, words gone in her anger, and opened up with her shotgun and pistol. Arms shook with recoil and ears rang with the deafening din of fire. The scouts ducked to the walls and retaliated. Kaij pulled Yunn to one side, as their soldiers covered them.

She could not approach the wall, but kept moving forward. One bullet cut through her shoulder in an explosion of pain. Another rang off the barrel of her shotgun and made her aim with the weapon go wild. A third round whistled by her ear. A spray of shot perforated her leg just below the knee. Ilsa’s breath caught in her chest.

Pain burned through her middle, but she realized she had not been hit there. The pain was her own heart thumping. Another shot hit her side and she fell to one knee.

She turned the shotgun with one round left and pulled the trigger. A scout leveled a rifle at her. His shot would have hit her in the forehead had she not fallen flat as she retaliated.

The last of the four scouts between her and the Red Lector’s sons shuddered and slumped to the ground. Ilsa gasped in breathless pain as she aimed her pistol at Yunn. “Call off your brother, Kaij,” she said through gritted teeth. “Or I will.”

“Too late for your Chogrumian friend, I bet.” Yunn’s eyes refocused, and he looked nervous.

Kaij fired two shots from a borrowed pistol. Both hit Ilsa, one cut across her hip. The other ripped a gash in her stomach as she rolled over, trying to dodge. She grunted in pain and refocused to shoot. But the brothers Haram were gone from the cave.

Ilsa struggled to stand up but failed. She settled for pressing her hand to the blood wound across her abdomen. The cold and pain and dizziness from blood loss were intense. She lay on her back, wounds bleeding and looked around the bend to where the others had hidden.

Siuku and Tirica held each other tightly for warmth from Yunn’s frost. Tirica seemed barely conscious, but Siuku nodded to Ilsa over the girl’s shoulder, tears in her red eyes. Okko stood behind them, with a helpless expression on his face.

Her vision wavered. The sound of hoofbeats approached along the lake shore. But all she smelled was her own blood and powder, fresh and pungent. The cold closed in around her as Siuku helped Tirica to support herself on Okko, then turned toward Ilsa.

“You fought like a demon,” said Siuku, as she limped to Ilsa’s side and then sank to her level.

Ilsa gave a dull nod as Siuku unfastened the button that held up her veil. The world swam with agony. Ilsa drifted into blackness.

Tenlyres Chapter 24

Ilsa, Blue, and their allies have arrived at the Lake of Saints.
But there is more in the mountains than the crater lake.
Enemies have followed them from the steppe.
The Red Lector’s troops have caught up.

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Tenlyres II - Chapter 24 Nurse Mountain lq


The Lake of Saints was dark, but those infuriating lights still bounced along the far shore. In the shadow of Nurse Mountain, those lights were the only reflections on the water, the stars hidden by the curving peak. Ilsa clenched her free hand into a fist but knew even if she had a rifle she would not be able to hit anything on the opposite shore. At night, in shadow, and so far away she doubted even her father could shoot accurately.

Blue shook from head to toe. “Why did Ashnia ask where the Keeper was? They were already headed after her.”

“We can’t be sure why this happened.” Ilsa glanced at Blue. Her friend was hot with rage, so hot her skin could have been burning in the night. “But you’re right. We need to catch up, and fast.”

“I thought the Lake would be safe.” Blue glared at the lights.

“I’m surprised there are still Ayochians going after the Keeper, even after the Uzan attacked them. But there it is.”

“There it is.” Blue’s voice was almost a growl.

Ilsa grunted. “How do we catch up?”

A hawk cried from behind Ilsa and Blue. Megalli stood on the shore by the lodge, holding a long rifle by the barrel. A great hawk, even larger than the one Banasi had ridden over the plains, circled low and then landed beside the Vogmem leader.

Megalli waved them over. “If you’re light enough, one of you can ride with me.”

Ilsa gave the hawk a sideways glance. “You sure?”

“Sure as anything, priestess. Akirette and the Keeper need help. And I’m just one pretty little rider with decent aim.” She leaned close to the hawk and whispered something in the bird’s ear.

Ganara and four or five other Vogmem emerged from the doorway of the lodge. The yellow-haired Vogmem chieftain marched toward Megalli, Ilsa, and Blue, boots thudding on the stony shore. The smell of powder wafted in the air.

Ganara’s nostrils flared as she looked across the lake. “Vada damn them all. The Ayochians are going to attack the hermitage. There’s no way the runners will get there in time.”

Ilsa frowned at Megalli. “How many skyriders are camped here?”

“I have my personal guard. Ten riders and twenty hawks, but rousing them will take time.”

“We don’t have time,” Ganara said.

“I hate to agree with her, but she’s right.” Blue’s hot anger had subsided. She sounded numb. “That man who attacked us is dangerous on his own, and I sense at least ten riders on the far shore.”

“Can you take any of them over?” asked Ilsa.

“A strong magus is protecting them. I can’t get a grip on any individuals.”

Ilsa glanced at Megalli and her hawk. “We can’t just wait here. Megalli, I’ll fly with you.”

“Two guns are better than one.” Megalli loaded her old rifle with the tell-tale second clunk of an extended magazine bumping against the stock. She took the rifle the by the stock and then wrapped her other hand around one of the handles on the cloth saddle stretched between the hawk’s huge wings. Her legs folded into a crouch. Megalli turned to Ganara, all traces of her earlier teasing gone. “We’ll slow them down. Bring as many of your riders as you can rouse quickly.”

“I’m not going to let you fight alone.” Ganara folded her arms. “No honor in that.”

Hiragen and Lemuel made their way out of the lodge as Ilsa climbed onto the back of the hawk, loaded pistol in one hand. Lemuel ran up to Ilsa and the hawk. The bird shot him a gold-eyed glare. He backed off a step, both hands up in a soothing gesture.

“Ilsa, protect Tirica.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Lemuel gave a nod, his eyes on hers.

“Hold on, priestess,” Megalli said. Then she leaned forward and spoke to the hawk. The great wings beat and they lifted off the shore to fly across the dark waters. The hawk called into the howling wind, a piercing shriek that seemed as thought it could wake the dead.

Cold ran through Ilsa. Her fingers wrapped around one of the wooden handles on the back of the saddle, rough to the touch. The rocking motion of the great hawk’s wings nearly made her sick as they ascended. Then her stomach jumped as those wings spread and they fell into a steady downward glide.

She looked toward the fires of the Vogmem camp near the lodge. A few other winged shadows wheeled around the flickers of flame. Ilsa hoped they would be quick to follow her and Megalli. The wind bit into her skin, cold as any winter.

Ilsa returned her gaze to the bobbing lanterns passing along the rocky lake shore ahead of them. Her teeth chattering, she began to see that Blue had underestimated their numbers. Not ten, but twenty or more runners were cast in the lantern light, and these were only the ones riding with illumination. For all she knew, there could easily be twice that many.

Megalli spoke to the hawk with words Ilsa did not understand. The bird banked westward. The lights of the stars fell behind the shadows of Nurse Mountain. Ilsa squinted into the shadows. “Where is the hermitage?”

Megalli pointed with her rifle barrel, directly into the shadows at the base of the Mountain. “He lives in a cave near an abandoned Morhoen trading post.”

“A trading post?”

“There used to be an Ayochian fort, and before that a temple to Vada built by my people.”

Ilsa shivered and leaned in close behind Megalli. “There’s a lot of history to this place.”

“They say the hermit saw it all.”

“How old is this hermit?”

Megalli lowered the barrel of her rifle. “He was old when my grandmother became chieftain of the skyriders, and she has been gone for twenty years.”

Ilsa frowned as she considered the sort of lifespan that implied. “How?”

“I can’t be sure. But there are stranger things than immortal monks in this world.”

“Maybe. But I’ve never met an immortal.” Or have I? She scowled as her thoughts turned to Blue’s explanation of the Temple of Colors, and then to the Uzan.

“Neither have I. Only Akirette and Hiragen visit the hermit.”

The hawk banked to the east. They caught an updraft and Ilsa’s stomach lurched as they soared high over the shallows, then over the lake shore. She lost any thread of the conversation as Megalli guided the hawk in a dizzying downward spiral.

The outline of the old trading post appeared before them. The rotten supports of a collapsed pier extended into the water from a still-intact but vacant collection of wooden structures a short distance from the shore. Ilsa smelled decay but with it the flowers of white roses, the flowers of Hathani.

She peered into the darkness ahead of them as the bird glided to land beside the largest structure. Though she could not see, she knew Cass was close. Good. The hawk had been fast enough to outrace the Ayochian party. Ilsa climbed off the hawk. Her footsteps felt strange and comforting on solid ground once again.

Megalli nodded to her. “I’ll get airborne and cover you. Find the others, priestess.”

Almost funny, how authoritative the otherwise flighty young chieftain sounded now. Ilsa nodded to her. “I can smell one of them. They’re close.” At least, Cass is close. She prayed silently that Cass had not separated from the others.

The hawk beat its wings and ascended with Megalli.

Ilsa crouched and slipped through the shadows, moving her feet carefully to avoid as many loose stones possible. The smell of rotten wood seemed all the more intense when coupled with the fresh breeze off the lake. She made her way past one collapsed structure on the eastern side of the trading post and then froze. The lights of the Ayochian Party approached along the curved shore of the lake where traces of ice floated in the shallows.

At the head of the riders a tall man rode, a lantern pole propped against one shoulder and his other arm in a sling. Ilsa squinted to confirm her suspicion, but she could have guessed Kaij Haram would not have died back at the Central Lyre. Even after his wounds when the Oshomi broke through the Red Lector’s lines, and despite the Uzan’s brutal attack, he still rode high in the saddle. Behind him, she glimpsed the pale face of his lethal twin brother, the ice magus Yunn.

She gritted her teeth as she thought of the icy chill Yunn had sent to her heart. If not for Lemuel’s warmth and Cass’s sure shooting, she would have died on that field before ever reaching the Central Lyre. Her fear of the Red Lector’s sons was real, and somewhere Ferdinand lurked under the control of the Lector’s daughter. No telling about any others.

Ilsa kept moving toward the mountain, eyes adjusting to the inky darkness. Skin prickling with the cold, mouth dry, she breathed as softly and steadily as she could. She left the shelter of the trading post and crept up the steepening slope of the barren mountainside. Boulders strewn here and there provided her shelter, but she doubted they would have missed spotting her in those first few seconds.

A clatter of pebbles from ahead of her made her turn. A figure hunkered down behind a boulder ten meters further up the slope from Ilsa. She carried a long rifle of Chogrumian make, with a telescopic sight. Tirica shifted, and dislodged another few pebbles. They skittered down the slope, bouncing off other stones on the way down to the derelict buildings by the shore.

Ilsa waved a hand around the side of her boulder, motioning to Tirica, but did not call out, for fear of attracting too much attention to Lemuel’s sister. The Red Lector’s sons and their party of scouts had reached the trading post. The breathing of their animals was loud, interspersed with low purring sounds, and the click of claws on stones. Runners were vocal more often than the stoic-natured striders.

The bustle of motion below gave Ilsa the chance to sneak up the slope. She held her breath until she reached the stone where Tirica was hiding. She looked over her shoulder, but did not think Kaij, Yunn, or their troops had spotted her. At any rate, they did not fire a shot.

“Tirica,” said Ilsa. “Where are the others?”

“At the hermitage.” Tirica jerked her finger at the wide opening of finished stone in a section of sheer rock face, up the slope to the northeast, about forty meters away. “I was keeping watch.”

“Do you think we can get to the cave without them seeing us?” Ilsa asked.

Tirica exhaled. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

The scuffle of the runners below drew Ilsa’s attention. One of the animals had broken away from the main group and was making its way up the slope slowly, riderless, paws padding on the stony scree. Ilsa frowned at the creature.

“What is it doing?” she murmured.

Tirica leaned in behind Ilsa. “What’s going on down there?”

“A distraction of course!” crowed a girlish voice from the rock above them. Ilsa glanced up and glimpsed the flicker of an iron barrel. She grabbed Tirica’s shoulders and pulled her sideways.

Melinda, her father’s apprentice, turned in her place atop of the boulder. “Found them,” she called to the scouts below.

Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as she lurched painfully up from the stone where she had pulled Tirica. She leveled her pistol at Melinda. Nothing to be gained from being stealthy now, she thought. It’s time to fight.

She squeezed the trigger.

Melinda fell to her belly on the top of the boulder, flattened to the stone. Ilsa’s shot went wide. One of Melinda’s arms extended. She held a pistol in her grip.

“Tirica. Run.”

“What about you?”

“Get to the hermit.”

She gave no sign she had heard Ilsa but clutched her rifle to her chest.

Ilsa leveled her pistol at Melinda. The slim young gun bond grinned at Ilsa from beneath a mop of frizzy hair, still pressed to the top of the boulder.

Tirica ran.

Melinda rolled and spun on her back. Ilsa lost her view of the girl. She pelted toward the boulder and leaped. Melinda fired twice.

Blood rushed from Ilsa’s face as the wind and the shock of the sounds hit her. Yet there was no pain except for the ache of the impact when she hit the side of the rock. Her fingers found purchase. She scrambled to the top of the boulder just as Tirica’s running silhouette stumbled. Tirica fell.

Melinda cackled with laughter and rolled onto her back. Both pistols flew to aim at Ilsa. Ilsa’s pistol barrel slammed into the girl’s chin.

Melinda’s skull cracked against stone and the shots she fired went wide. The roar of powder came from the slope below. Bullets whistled past Ilsa from the scouts.

She fell into a crouch with a grunt and slammed her father’s psychotic apprentice again. Melinda’s laughter died away. Her eyes rolled back in her head and the  pistols fell from her fingers.

Ilsa glanced down at the slope. One of the other scouts handed Kaij a shotgun. They stood just ten meters away. Ilsa slipped over the side of the boulder. She ran up the slope to where Tirica had fallen.

Tirica groaned as Ilsa touched her side.

Ilsa smelled blood, mingled with spent propellant. “Where did she hit you?”

“My shoulder.” Tirica grunted.

Ilsa helped her to her feet, feeling the wet of blood on her hands. “She’s down. We have to hurry.” And she helped Tirica to the mouth of the hermit’s cave.