Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, only to be captured by the Oshomi nomads.
Even so, Ilsa knows the Keeper of Tenlyres is close. If she can survive, her mission is only beginning.
Ilsa regained the sense of her hands and arms as the Oshomi led her and her captured companions to the east. In the dark, she smelled the powder of weapons, especially once the stench of burnt ozone faded and she regained her hearing after the defining lightning attack. For his part, Ferdinand seemed rattled, but otherwise relatively unhurt. Hailek, as usual, made no complaint. They rode to the east.
The sky had begun to brighten by the time they approached a small cluster of tents ringed by horses and dark-cloaked sentries, an Oshomi campsite. Ilsa hoped the Oshomi would give them some chance to explain themselves. For that, still being alive had to be a good sign, but nothing was certain. Only she and Ferdinand appeared to have been it the by the lightning but the Oshomi who had attacked from behind must have numerous, for she could not remember hearing so much as a shot from Tirica or Cass before they had surrendered.
The big and scarred Oshomi, who still carried the lightning lance he had blasted Ferdinand and Ilsa with, rode close to her side, one weathered hand clenched on Hailek’s reins. The man carried only a few long knives for additional weapons, but Ilsa’s roving eye spotted a strange scar on the back of the hand holding the reins, the kind of scar that looked deliberate. Brands were not the only way to make weapon bonds, scars and tattoos could be used as well. Likely he had a more flexible weapon, such as a rifle, bonded to that hand. Ilsa sniffed out the powder whiffs and detected a few from him. Probably a gun bond.
She sniffed again, seeking the location of the nomad’s ammunition. The scarred man glanced at her. “Smell something good?” he asked in Yrian, the language common both within and between the cities of Dal in Chogrum. His tone was amused, but his dark eyes looked harsh in the cold morning light.
“You’re a weapon bond,” she said in the same language, one many people, even off the plateau, would understand. “Guns, right?”
“Yes.” He motioned toward her with the lightning lance. “You are too.”
“Right,” she said. “Can you tell me where you’re taking us?”
“We are there, already.” The man snorted in a nasal laugh. “This is my war camp.” He motioned to the cluster of tents around them. “Here I will decide your fate.”
“So, you’re the leader here.”
“My name is Duruko. I am the chief of my tribe.”
“What is the name of your tribe?”
“You ask too many questions, woman.”
“You’ve given me answers so far.”
“Do not push me. I can make things worse for you.”
She assumed that meant he had not decided their fate yet. Good. “I’m a priestess of the Unification,” she said.
He poked his lightning lance at one end of the red staff that stuck out from her saddle. “That is a Hathanian symbol.”
“I was trained as a priestess of Hathani. But I serve the Unification.”
He snorted again. “You city-dwellers will say anything when you’re trying to save your lives. Cowards.”
Her face flushed with anger. She took a breath. “Call me a coward if you want—”
“I just did.”
“—I am here to help you.”
“Funny.” But this time, he didn’t snort or chuckle. “I saw you riding with the westerner. The red banner.”
“My friends and I were just trying to get closer to the Central Lyre.”
He looked at her and their eyes met.
“That’s where the Ayochians are going, chief.”
“Don’t make this about them. This is about you.”
Ilsa kept her eyes on his. “But you don’t trust them because you saw me riding with their column.”
“You can try to push me, but you people who live in cities will never know how to argue with an Oshomi.”
“I’m not trying to argue with you.” Ilsa looked toward the large tent at the center of the camp. “Look, I want to protect the Keeper.”
His brow creased for the first time. “Say something more. Prove it.”
“Koor of the East sent my friend and I find and protect the Keeper of Tenlyres because we think that could be a way to prevent war.”
“War is here already.” The man’s scarred face furrowed.
“It will be worse once Chogrum and Dal start to fight. The weapons the cities have now won’t care if you’re Filami or Oshomi. The people of the plateau will see worse slaughter than last time.”
“Last time, the Keeper did not need protection from the Unification.”
She frowned at him. He raised a hand to stop the party. Their gazes locked once again. “The Red Lector wants to capture the Keeper. I want to help you stop him.”
“If you are telling the truth, there would be no need to destroy you.” He set his jaw. His eyes appeared distant, dull with what might have been remembered grief. “But I have seen too many liars to trust any city dweller.”
Ilsa nodded. “If there is a way to prove our intentions, please, allow us the chance. My friend is a mind eater. Let her send the memory of Koor’s orders to you.”
“What good is a priest’s word? He does not know the plateau. He has never seen the tower grass or the Lotok geysers. He has not fought Vogmem or touched a lyre’s endless stone or unbreakable strings. And neither have any of you.”
An excited sound came from behind Ilsa. The leader of the Oshomi riders turned and glared past her at Lemuel. She followed the scarred man’s gaze to the scholar. “Speak,” said the Oshomi. “What brings you into this, cripple?”
Lemuel stared at the man, a mixture of outrage and fear mingling on his face. He swallowed visibly but did not look away from the scarred leader. “You seem to know the true value of the lyres, sir. In that case, I think I have something that may interest you.”
The leader’s scarred face split into a mirthless grin that twisted the scars on his cheeks into ragged, spiraling patterns. “What could you know that I do not?”
“I know why the lyres can’t be broken.” Lemuel grinned and slowly held up a scroll case. “If you like, I can share this with you.”
The Oshomi outriders that surrounded the group exchanged glances. The leader’s eyes moved from the scroll case to Lemuel’s shrunken arm. “You are a cripple. Had you been born among my people you would not have survived your first winter.”
“Yet here I am.” His gaze moved to the Oshomi leader with confidence. “Do you want me to tell you what I know, or not?”
Ilsa doubted Lemuel could know much about the Lyres. The mystery of their pristine material was millennia old. The Oshomi leader nodded to Lemuel. “Do this, and if it pleases me, I will show you to the Keeper.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened in surprise. She would not have guessed this Oshomi would care enough to ask.
Lemuel nodded to the leader. “Thank you, sir.”
“Right. You see, most people who have studied the lyres study their physical properties to divine their purpose.” He glanced at Ilsa. His hands were trembling.
She hoped she kept the worry she felt from showing on her face. He had to be confident, or this would not work. “What is their purpose?”
He brightened a little. “I’m not entirely sure. But one thing is certain. I discovered last year, using a geometer that each lyre goes far further down into the earth than we ever theorized. What we see on the surface is less than a tenth of the full height of the structure.”
“How is that possible?” Ilsa frowned. “Moving that much material?”
“How is any of it possible?” Lemuel grinned at her, then turned to the Oshomi leader.
“Get to the point,” said the scarred man. “Why are the lyres unbreakable?”
“Yes, of course.” Lemuel rubbed his small hand into his larger, left hand. “Because of their size, I was able to use a resonator to measure their frequency. The lyres are never still. They vibrate at a subtle, frequency, inaudible to humans. To be honest I don’t fully understand the way it works. But the frequency is what keeps plants from growing on them, keeps wind and rain from eroding them and so on. The geometer also indicates that the lyres have large hollows somewhere beneath the surface.” He bowed to the Oshomi leader. “I suppose I could say more, but I’d rather your guarantee our lives before I continue. Sir.”
The scarred man grunted. “My name is Duruko, and I am the chief of this tribe. You, Chogrumian, have my attention.”
Lemuel raised his head. “Really?”
“My people and I may not live in cities or have fortresses, but we are not fools. Your findings will be of interest to the Keeper.” His face twitched into a smile. “You, cripple—Pick one of your comrades to accompany you to the keeper. The rest will be safe here.”
Lemuel glanced over his shoulder at Tirica. His sister nodded to him. Then Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “The priestess should go with us.”
Tirica gave an irritated grunt from behind them.
Duruko slipped his lightning lance into a loop on one side of his horse’s saddle. “Very well.” He turned to Ilsa. “Follow on foot, and do not attempt any treachery.”
“I understand.” She exchanged a nervous glance with Lemuel.
Duruko dropped from his horse onto the flattened steppe grass. Lemuel and Ilsa dismounted. She patted Hailek’s foreleg. The weeping strider pushed gently back against her touch. She turned, and followed Lemuel and Duruko toward a tent at the center of the camp.
Blue sent her a thought as she walked. “Don’t mess this up. I can’t help you if something goes wrong.”
Ilsa looked over her shoulder at Blue and nodded to her friend.