Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
They have escaped Black Powder, the Red Lector, and the demonic Uzan, for now, but hunger could become a deadly foe as well.
The morning after the escape from the siege, Ilsa woke to the sounds of Oshomi talking and planning. Her stomach growled as she stood up from where she had lain against Hailek’s wooly bulk. Lemuel still slept on the other side of the animal, shrunken arm tucked to his black-clad side. His face was peaceful with the faint hint of a smile on his lips. Ilsa turned and found Blue walking toward her.
“You rest well?” her friend asked.
“I suppose I did.” Ilsa glanced in Lemuel’s direction.
Blue clapped her on the shoulder, making her turn, and then leaned in close. “He’s a little odd, but seems that you like him.”
Ilsa’s cheeks flushed. “Maybe—Blue, that’s not the point. We have to try to stay alive here.”
With a grin, Blue turned toward the rising sun. “I’m just glad to see the sun again. Turns out being underground for most of a week was terrible for me.”
“Turns out.” Ilsa followed Blue’s gaze toward the center of the camp. Siuku and half-dozen other riders were mounting their horses. She waved Blue and Ilsa over to her.
“Will either of you join us? We hunt, or we go hungry today. We break camp and ride north, or we may be caught by pursuers.”
Ilsa and Blue exchanged glances.
“I’ve never hunted before,” said Blue. “I can help break camp.” She raised her eyebrows and glanced at Ilsa.
“I have hunted before,” said Ilsa. “I’ll go with you, at the least I can act as a guard.”
Siuku nodded. “I might have known you would. You should rouse your strider.”
“Alright.” Ilsa did not want to wake Lemuel, but she saw no other way. She returned to Hailek’s side, then walked around to the far side and knelt down beside Lemuel. Her hand pressed to the shoulder of his good arm. She held it there for a moment, enjoying the feel of his warm muscle and firm bone through his coat. Then, she shook him gently.
His eyes opened and he glanced at her hand on his shoulder. She withdrew her arm quickly, maybe too quickly. She smiled at him. “Sorry, Lemuel. I need Hailek.”
He looked around, blearily. “What? Is it morning?”
“Yeah,” she said. “The Keeper says we need to go hunting.”
Lemuel sat up, then got to his feet. He folded his shrunken hand into his larger one. He looked over Ilsa’s shoulder as Blue’s footsteps approached swishing over the short steppe grass. He nodded to Blue.
“You’re with us non-hunters, breaking camp, Lem,” said Blue. “Keeper says we need to keep riding.”
“Terrific.” Lemuel’s good hand felt down his back. He grimaced. “I never liked riding as a kid. I don’t really know how I ended up so far from civilization.”
Ilsa smirked. “Too late now. We’re stuck out here.”
“No lie, that.” Blue turned toward the rest of the camp.
Ilsa followed her friend’s gaze. Tirica and Cass were talking by the remains of the campfire. Siuku and her hunters looked ready to ride, all mounted and checking bows or guns. Talking to Cass would have to wait, for which Ilsa was glad. She wasn’t eager to find out how Cass’s arm had been broken in captivity. She would learn soon enough, she decided.
“Hailek,” said Ilsa. “Up.”
The strider got to his feet. His long hair blustered in a stiff gust of wind. If a storm blew up, hunting might become difficult. Weather on the steppe could change fast.
She climbed up to Hailek’s back and then swung her legs across the saddle. She rode to join the other hunters.
“Do you have a rifle?” asked Siuku.
Ilsa shook her head. “What are we hunting?”
“The beasts of the air are my prey. You’ll ride with me, priestess.”
“Then I won’t need a rifle.”
They rode out of the makeshift camp and headed north. Far away, the points of the mountains on the edge of the plateau were visible as small misty spikes making the horizon jagged. The sounds of birds calling in the spring air pierced the wind that cloaked other sounds on the plain.
Ilsa produced her shotgun and loaded it. She urged Hailek forward, but slower than he could run. They kept pace with the horses of Siuku and the others.
Siuku’s pale red eyes looked toward the north, never turning to search for prey. Ilsa and the other Oshomi scanned the steppe in every direction. Even so, Siuku was the first to find large enough animals for food.
A rush of wings and feathers came from ahead of them, a nest stirred up in a clump of tall grasses as the riders approached. Siuku drew back an arrow and fired. One of the birds cried in dismay and fell. The shot must have been difficult with a bow, but Siuku made no comment but slowed her steed as they closed with the fallen animal.
Ilsa took aim with her shotgun. Her weapon roared and the spray of shot brought down another bird in flight. The other hunters continued the pursuit, shouting and shooting. Ilsa and Siuku collected the birds they had killed in their wake. Both had been clean kills.
The hunt went on, moving northward all day. As evening approached and the horses grew tired, they angled their path to rejoin the rest of the band. They collected a few prey animals, but without food for the entire day, Ilsa was hungry by the time Siuku called a halt to the hunt. The party rode toward the new campsite where cook fires were just beginning to spark.
Then, Ilsa saw another winged shape, circling the camp. It was no prey animal. A hawk larger than a horse circled the camp. A humanoid figure rode on the great hawk’s back between the wings, bundled in warm clothes and with a scarf streaming from her neck. She carried a bow and arrow, and a long lance hung at her side.
Ilsa pointed. “Who is that?”
A murmur ran through the hunting party.
Siuku pushed her steed ahead. “A skyrider of the Vogmem tribes. Blasphemers, they shape their steeds as city-dwellers do.”
“The Vogmem are nomads. How do they engineer a bird big enough to fly?”
“I do not know. But this one has spotted us. We may be in danger.”
Ilsa grunted. She supposed a day without a threat would have been too much to ask. She said a small prayer to Hathani in her head, not one written in the books, but one she could have put into words herself.
Please do not test us unless you must.
Keep us, Hathani.
The Vogmem skyrider circled lower as Ilsa and Siuku reached the camp. She withdrew her shotgun into the weapon bond and produced one of her pistols. Lemuel and Blue left the ring of Oshomi around the campfires and ran toward the hunting party. Lemuel waved his good arm and pointed around the fire with his small one.
Blue dropped a thought into Ilsa’s mind. The woman on that hawk is some kind of magus. I don’t think I can keep her from getting away to tell her people about us.
I’ll handle this, Ilsa thought for Blue’s benefit. She hated the idea of being helpless again like her father had made her back at the Central Lyre. She grimaced. “Faster, Hailek.” The strider complied, now well-used to obeying her voice. He hurtled around Lemuel and through the camp. Ilsa turned in her saddle and loaded the pistol with a half-full magazine, just in case.
If this was a scout, she would not need to start with a full magazine. And with enough luck, this situation would not come to violence. She kept the safety on and stuffed the pistol into the waistband of her coat. An odd thought struck her as she did.
Black Powder had been wearing gun belts back at the Central Lyre. Why use those when he was a weapon bond? She shook herself mentally and resolved to figure an answer out later. That encounter had far raised more questions than it answered.
The skyrider skimmed over the camp, hooting and, Ilsa realized, laughing, at the Oshomi below. She shouted in the Filami steppe-language, “What are you doing so far North, Oshomi?”
“Our business is not yours,” called Siuku. “Now come down here before we shoot you down.”
The hawk circled overhead, just past Ilsa. Once it turned to face the camp, it dropped the last five meters straight down beside Hailek.
The skyrider was a tiny woman with wavy black hair and a lined face. She smirked at Ilsa as she turned her strider toward the landed hawk. “You won’t catch me,” said the skyrider. “I can be airborne again in an instant.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Ilsa said. “Who are you?”
“I’m a scout for my band. We live near the pass that leads to the Lake of Saints. And you, city-dweller, who are you?”
The others rode over toward them, but everyone kept a safe distance from the hawk and its rider. Siuku glared at the older woman on the hawk. “You,” she said. “Are Vogmem.” Her usually monotone voice trembled with obvious rage. “You will be lucky if I don’t kill you just for that.”
“Oshomi like to be scary. But you’re not just any Oshomi.” The skyrider whistled. “You are the Keeper of Tenlyres, aren’t you?”
“I am. And your people killed my parents.”
“What has passed is gone.” The skyrider shrugged. “Our peoples have never been friends, girl.”
The Oshomi murmured and a few of them cursed more loudly in their own language. A few made rude hand gestures. Siuku held up a hand to hush them.
Ilsa turned toward the Keeper. “She wanted to know who I am. I haven’t told her, but we don’t need to hurt her either.”
“You understand nothing about the steppe, priestess.” Siuku’s eyes remained fixed on the skyrider. “But I will admit, now is not the time for grudges.”
“What do you mean?” The skyrider smirked. “Just a moment ago you were talking about killing me for being Vogmem. Not that you could.”
“Flight is useful,” said Siuku as the chill breeze whipped through her hair and moved her veil. “But there are things even birds cannot escape.” Her tone had returned to the usual flat level. Ilsa wondered how the Keeper managed to hide her anger so quickly when it had been so evident before. “The Uzan are freed from the Central Lyre.”
“Uzan? Demons?” said the skyrider. “These are stories for the old to tell the children. I’ve told some myself, on occasion. But they are not real.”
“No matter what you believe, it’s true. They clash a day and a half’s ride south of here,” said Siuku. “And honesty is all I have to show besides the lives of my people since our escape.”
“Not quite,” said the skyrider. “Cook me some peace meat and let me go. I’ll fly and tell my chief you don’t want war.”
Ilsa frowned. Peace meat was only barely familiar to her, but the sharing of a prey animal sometimes represented a truce for the tribes of the steppe. She hoped that was true.
Siuku nodded to one of her hunters. “Prepare the peace meat from my kill. We do not want war with the Vogmem this day.”
The skyrider laughed. “My name is Banasi. Nice to meet you, Keeper of Tenlyres.”
The meat cooked, it’s smell distinct and savory to Ilsa’s nose. She had smelled too much powder lately, and not enough good scents. Ilsa sat down with Tirica, Lemuel, Cass, and Blue by the fire.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to see another war start today,” said Tirica softly as she leaned back beside her brother.
“If we had any alcohol left, I would drink to that.” Blue chuckled. “Too bad, right?”
Cass gave a small smile and a nod toward the Chogrumian mind eater. “It’s true.”
Lemuel glanced from Blue to Ilsa. “It’s good to be alive. Even in a muddy, bloody place like this.”
“What is with you Chollush’s and your quotes tonight?” Ilsa said. “You could have been clerics of Hathani.” Her eyes met with Lemuel’s and she couldn’t help slight flush of warmth in her face. He stood up from the pile of saddle-bags they sat on a short distance from the fires.
“Ilsa, can I ask you something?”
“The answer isn’t what you want,” said Cass softly, her smile gone.
Ilsa frowned at the other priestess. She stood up and took Lemuel by the good arm, then led him away from the fire. Behind her, the others exchanged looks and a few words Ilsa could not discern. She and Lemuel stopped several meters away. She leaned toward him close.
He started and said, “Ilsa—I’m sorry, I didn’t know your order was—”
She stopped his lips with hers. His strong hand fell to her hip. Warmth moved through her, from his fingers, from his lips, from his chest. He touched as well as he talked. She broke from their kiss. “That’s not what Cass meant.” She shook her head. “It’s just me, Lemuel.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t—I’m not good with relationships. Cass knows because when I was at Saint Banyeen’s there was this boy. And I hurt him, inside.”
“I’m not a little boy.” Lemuel’s voice was gentle. “Don’t worry about me.”
She put her hand on his small hand and clasped his shrunken wrist. “I’m bound to worry, but I trust you too.”
He smiled, tentatively. “Alright. I suppose we had better get back. Eat so we don’t starve.”
“Sounds like an idea,” said Ilsa. They walked back to the fire. Her hand still held his wrist.