Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, in search of a means to prevent the brewing war.
Now, captured by a group of Oshomi nomads, Ilsa is closer than ever to the Keeper of Tenlyres.
She and her friends have convinced the Oshomi Chief to take them to the Keeper.
The tent of the Keeper of Tenlyres was the largest in Duruko’s camp. Ilsa stood just inside the entryway, Lemuel at her side. The tent was without light, except for a single small and halfway-covered lightning lamp standing on a pole pounded into the ground in the center of the circular enclosure. On the opposite side of the lamp from Ilsa and Lemuel and Duruko sat a woman on a meditation pad, legs folded into a lotus position.
Lamplight cast the woman’s shadow behind her but illuminated pale hair, unusual among the Oshomi. A gray veil covered her face below her eyes, and her eyes were closed. Ilsa felt the urge to step forward and bow to the woman because she knew she had to be the keeper, as no other Oshomi women wore veils.
“Keeper,” said Duruko, the scarred Oshomi chief, “My scouts captured a group of city-dwellers.”
“Where did you find them?” asked the woman in a flat tone, eyes still closed.
“West of here. Riding toward the Central Lyre. This man has studied the Lyres. You may be interested in his knowledge.”
“Perhaps.” The woman’s eyes opened slowly. Her irises were pink but flecked with specks of darker color. Her red gaze fell upon Lemuel. “He is a cripple.” She spoke without inflection, stating a fact and nothing more. “That is interesting.”
Her red eyes moved to Ilsa. “Duruko. You did not mention you brought me a woman as well.”
“A priestess, Keeper.” Duruko bowed his head. “Forgive me, but she told me she is on a mission to protect you.”
“You do not trust her.”
“How could I? She was born in a city and rides a strider.”
Duruko’s head jerked up from his bow. “Keeper, she could be lying.”
The Keeper’s eyes remained on Ilsa’s face. Ilsa froze under the red gaze. Her breath caught as the woman studied her impassively. Their eyes met and Ilsa held the gaze of the Keeper for a silent minute. She felt no tendrils in her mind, only her heartbeat and breathing.
The Keeper’s gaze did not waver Ilsa. “She is not lying.”
Duruko nodded. “That is good news, Keeper.”
“You were right to bring her to me. There are others.”
“Indeed. Three more women, and one more man, with runners and striders as steeds.”
“You are a priestess.” The Keeper’s flat tone never changed.
“I—I am.” Ilsa found herself stammering like she never had, even as a girl in school or at Saint Banyeen’s Garden years ago. Had she not been in such awe at the Keeper’s strange presence and finally meeting the holiest nomad leader, she might have been annoyed at her own cracking voice.
“You belong to Hathani’s clergy, the white rose, the red staff.”
“There is another priestess with them, another white rose.”
“How did you know?” Ilsa asked.
“I saw a small hand pointing down a path between two white roses. And that path led toward the sunrise.”
Ilsa frowned. “Where did you see this? How?”
“I have dreamed it more than once. Always I have remembered it. But one cannot say a dream is true until it unfolds.” The Keeper looked to Lemuel. “Your arm is shrunken, yet you have knowledge of Tenlyres.”
“Yes.” Lemuel straightened his back but did not return the Keeper’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”
“Let me meet you with joy.” The Keeper’s eyes fixed on Lemuel’s arm. “Tell me what you know.”
“Every lyre is larger than it appears. They go deep into the earth.”
The Keeper nodded once. “Continue.”
“I have studied the resonant frequency of every lyre but the central one. Though they are all different, they all protect the lyres from erosion and other damage.”
“Curious. You know a great deal.”
“I have studied the lyres my whole life.”
“That is good. Chogrumians must not forget they were once a village of the Filami people.”
“The Filami?” Ilsa had never heard of a direct relationship between the plant pile farmers who dwelt in villages on the steppe and the people of Chogrum.
“Once the people of Chogrum lived among the lyres and knew of the maze. Memory is good.” The Keeper continued to look at Lemuel. “Do not confuse yourselves. The divide has grown deep.”
He nodded, but still kept his eyes averted from the Keeper. “I will remember that.”
“As you should.” The Keeper’s red-eyed gaze moved to Ilsa’s face. “Priestess, who do you really serve?”
“The Unification. We wish to see all the gods worshiped as one.”
“You who dwell in cities know nothing of gods. The blood of wounded horses. The heartbeat of the newborn foal. The wind in the ears of the rider. These things connect nomads to the lyres.”
Ilsa frowned, annoyed with the Keeper’s dismissal. “The blood of wounded humans and horses is much the same.” She closed her eyes and listened. Her ears had always been keen, but at that moment, the world seemed still except for the gentle thump of her pulse and the breath of herself and Lemuel. The lamplight flickered in the covered glass that contained it and made the inside of the tent seem darker in its momentary absence. “Our hearts beat the same. The wind reaches all of us.”
The Keeper studied Ilsa’s face in silence for seconds, a minute, two minutes. “That is your creed.”
“Yes.” Ilsa released a breath she only then realized she had been holding.
“Do not be confused. The Unification does not anger me.”
“Koor of Morhoen sent my friend and me to protect you.”
“You cannot protect yourselves. I have every Oshomi on the steppe in my service.”
Ilsa inhaled a long, slow breath. “Is this camp the center of your army? Can you call to your people and see them at your side?” She worried she was being too rude, but she plowed on, seeing her chance to make her case. “Have you seen the Red Lector? His forces must be near by now, and his riders outnumber this camp by five to one.”
The eyes of the Keeper narrowed, but the rest of her face remained hidden by her veil. She unfolded her legs from the lotus position and stood on the floor of the tent. The pale skin of her bare feet looked sallow in the dim yellow light of the lamp. “I have seen this army. He will need to ride faster to catch us on the plateau.”
“What about the Central Lyre? He will reach it any day now.”
“So he will. But it will do him little good unless he knows what this scholar knows. And that knowledge has never belonged to a city dweller before.” The Keeper’s gaze burned with ice. “You are a priestess, but you have never known the truth.”
“What truth?” Ilsa took a step forward toward the Keeper. “Please, tell me.”
Duruko grunted. One hand fell to his belt, moving toward a knife. The Keeper’s eyes flicked to the chief. “Peace, Duruko.”
He grunted again and folded his arms. “Take care, priestess. You walk on dangerous ground.”
“Is this ground more dangerous than a Lotok where the geyser erupt with the cold? I have seen the steppe. I have seen the Lyres and the nomads. And I have seen the Red Lector, his army, and his sons. Let us take you to safety where Ayoch cannot go.”
“You will need better words to convince me to abandon my people,” said the Keeper.
Ilsa lowered her voice. “There is another army on its way here from Ayoch.”
Duruko started. “What? Why did you not tell me before?”
“Information is powerful. I only learned this piece through a chance encounter.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the pale face of the Keeper, what little was visible over her veil. “This army belongs to someone called the Gray Lector, but its mission cannot be anything good, being this far across the plateau. We met forward scouts from them just yesterday. We killed them.”
Duruko scowled. “My scouts heard brief gunfire west of here. That was you?”
“Probably.” Ilsa clenched her hands in tension, not to summon any of her weapons. “The truth is, I do not know this army’s intent, but they have machines, vehicles, heavy weaponry, and who knows how many there are of them.”
Duruko’s scarred face furrowed. “Fear mongering.”
“Truth,” said Ilsa. “Days west of here, at Doubtless Manor, I intercepted a communication between them and Lord Palend.”
Lemuel glanced at her, unspoken questions in his wide and nervous eyes.
Ilsa bowed to the Keeper of Tenlyres. “My only concern is your safety, Keeper. If you will not leave your people, we will need to find shelter somewhere all of us can go.”
The Keeper’s eyes closed. “I believe you, priestess. Ride with us to the Central Lyre.”
“But that is where the enemy is going,” Lemuel said. “Surely, further east would—”
“The lyre is only a day’s ride from here. And it never refuses shelter to my family.” The Keeper of Tenlyres opened her eyes. “The spirits are with us.”
Ilsa bowed her head to the Keeper. “Thank you, Keeper.”
A gunshot split the air from outside the tent, unmistakable, loud, irrevocable, lethal. Ilsa smelled Ayochian auto-launch propellant. She raised her head. “It’s the Red Lector.”
Duruko grabbed Ilsa’s arm with weathered fingers. He whirled and dragged her from the tent. Bright daylight blinded her. Lemuel stumbled out of the tent after them.
“Tirica,” he shouted, “Where are you?”
His sister replied with a cry of alarm. “Get down,” she called from her crouch few dozen yards away, dismounted among the tents, horses, and striders. She carried her rifle with its telescopic sights. Cass, Blue, and Ferdinand were clustered nearby in similar posture, with their own weapons drawn. Oshomi nomads ran for weapons. A body lay beside a horse by the tent where Blue and the others crouched.
“It’s Ayoch,” said Blue, “But this isn’t the Red Lector.”
A high-pitched whine from high above made the bottom drop out of Ilsa’s stomach. In Morhoen artillery shells made a very similar sound. “Damn it.” The Gray Lector’s army had gotten into range. Ilsa pulled her arm from Duruko’s grip. “We need to ride now.”
“This camp is all warriors,” said Duruko, “We ride for the central lyre.”
The first shell overshot the camp and exploded on the far side.
“They haven’t found the range yet,” said Ilsa, “We have a chance to get away until they do.”
Duruko turned to each of the guards who stood outside the tent. “She is right.”
Then, he raised his voice and shouted in the Oshomi language, words Ilsa did not understand with a ululating sound. A pair of horses broke from a herd and galloped to his side. He sprang onto one’s back.
“Hailek,” called Ilsa.
Her silent weeping-haired strider answered her by trotting up from beside the tent. Ilsa turned to Cass and Blue. “We’re going with them,” she called to the others. As the others mounted as quickly as they could, Ilsa pulled down the mounting rope from Hailek’s saddle. “Climb up,” she said.
“What about you?”
“Right behind you, but first, we need the Keeper.”
He answered her with a nod of his head.
The second horse Duruko had called stamped the ground nearby. More bullets cracked the air. Oshomi fired back at the unseen foes. Another shell whined in the distance.
Lemuel started to climb up to Hailek’s saddle, awkward with his shrunken right arm, but without complaint.
Ilsa turned back to the tent. The Keeper of Tenlyres stood in the entryway, a cloak across her shoulders, veil over her face. She held a reflex bow in one hand, and a quiver of arrows in the other. While the battle made the camp thunder and blister and scream, she stood serene. Her red eyes moved to the nearby horse Duruko had called. “I am with you, priestess.” Her tone was flat as ever. She climbed into the saddle of the second horse. “We ride.”