Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Separated from the rest of their group during a sudden attack by the monstrous Uzan, Ilsa, Blue, and the Keeper, ride toward the mountain pass on the edge of the plateau.
The mountain pass came into sight a few kilometers ahead of Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku. Dew glistened on wiry clumps of mountain grass, pale blue glittering against struggling green. The rough terrain was difficult for already weary striders. Hailek seemed to be tiring as dawn crept over the mountains to the east.
They had ridden evasively during the night to avoid the Uzan, or they would have reached the pass sooner. Blue’s eyes were shot with blood, and Ilsa could only conclude her own looked similar. Granite slopes. Spiny trees. Dark birds that never called out. These things did not seem to care about the arrival of the Uzan so close to them.
Ilsa shivered as she thought of the monstrous beasts. The fact that she had killed one of them seemed completely unimportant. That one had barely managed a shot thanks to Blue’s control. Next time she might not be so lucky.
The world had grown darker since the journey began. Darker, and far, far stranger. Ilsa guided Hailek up a slope into the broadest portion of the pass to the Lake of Saints. Riding behind Blue, Siuku pointed. “Others,” she said in her monotone.
Ilsa’s tired eyes made out the shapes of horses and striders, clear against the gray mountains ahead. Her heart leaped into her throat as she searched for her friends. Lemuel, you have to be here, she thought, and Cass, I still owe you.
She found Tirica first. She sat upon a strider’s back with her long rifle propped against her shoulder. Cass rode behind her, red hair like a halo around her face.
Ilsa kept searching the group of Oshomi who had survived the siege and the Uzan attack. She finally spotted a dark coat with a high collar. Lemuel.
She pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides with more force than needed. The strider grunted and lurched the last few paces up the slope. He stumbled with a groan of protest but covered the rest of the distance. Hailek shuddered and sank to the ground just a few paces away from Lemuel, whose horse gave an anxious snort.
She slid down his side and her shoes landed on the stony ground. “Keeper,” she called. “Please help him, if you can.”
“You should have asked sooner, priestess.” Despite her words, Siuku climbed down from Blue’s strider and ran to the place on Hailek’s side where the Uzan had wounded him.
Ilsa leaned close and brushed the hair of Hailek’s neck gently. “It will be alright, my friend. Hathani keeps us all.”
She turned toward where Lemuel had sat on his animal and found him close before her. She smiled at him, but could not keep from sagging forward from exhaustion. His embrace caught her. His small hand moved down the back of her coat. “They all feared for you.”
“And you didn’t?”
“Only a little.” He squeezed her to him with both arms. “I trust you, Ilsa.”
She set her chin on his shoulder. “Thank you.” It had been years since anyone besides Blue and the Unification had invested that kind of confidence in her. “You helped me get here, you know.”
She flushed, glad he couldn’t see her face. “I wanted to see you that much.”
“And your mission.”
“Yes.” She spoke into his ear. “My mission didn’t have to bring me to this place.” Her grip on him released and she stepped back.
Blue rode to the rest of the party. “The Uzan won’t be far behind us. Do you know anywhere we can go?”
Siuku replaced her veil and straightened her back. “To the Lake of Saints,” she said. “It is not far from here, though the way is difficult for horses.”
“Vogmem control the Lake of Saints,” said Cass. “I heard that at Saint Banyeen’s just before I left.”
“It is a good thing we shared peace meat with them.” Siuku walked past Ilsa and Lemuel toward her riders. “We must hurry.” She raised her bow and one of the riderless horses trotted to her. She climbed up to ride bareback.
A groan came from behind Ilsa. She and Lemuel looked in Hailek’s direction. The great wooly strider climbed to his feet, steady once again. His wound was sealed, but the hair above it was still gone, and the skin was pallid where it had been sealed.
Ilsa offered Lemuel the rope. They climbed into the saddle and rode after the rest of the party.
As they went, Cass and Tirica gradually dropped back to ride beside them.
She glanced at the other priestess, who still wore her arm in a sling. Their eyes met.
“I’m glad you made it,” Cass said. “When that missile hit, I feared the worst.”
“I wouldn’t die while I owe you.” Ilsa grinned wearily, feeling the tug of Lemuel’s small hand holding onto her belt. “And you’re not the only one I owe a debt in this group.”
Cass nodded. “The gates of the mountains stand open to all,” she quoted from the oldest scripture. “But we who fight for Hathani must always remember the ways of gods do not rely on our success.”
“Not your words?” Ilsa said. “I’m surprised.”
“The ancients said it best.”
Ilsa looked down at Cass’s arm. “How did that happen?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
Ilsa nodded. “Alright.” When they had been students Cass would never have passed up an opportunity to talk. Things had changed.
The way through the mountains grew steeper within the hour. She could only imagine how brutal the slopes would be if one strayed from the pass. Certainly, a horse would not make it through, and a strider as tired as Hailek likely would do little better.
Around noon, they followed the path around a bend in the rocky side of the mountain. Glimmers of pale blue water scattered with shards of ice were Ilsa’s first sight of the Lake of Saints. The lake filled a vast crater situated between three white peaks.
The mountain north of the lake bowed over, like a doting mother inspecting her child’s cradle. Her appearance had earned her a name known well in Dal, Chogrum, and beyond. Nurse Mountain’s arms wrapped around the water’s edge.
Lemuel gasped as he looked down upon the lake. Ilsa admitted the awe of the sight to herself as well. The Lake of Saints was holy to every member of the three. Hathanian scripture did not emphasize physical structures, but even among her clergy, the place bore significant history. For this was where many hermits had lived to pen their scriptures, and from here prophets had often proceeded with their messages to the people.
Veins of pink granite, the same traces as on every edge of the plateau, ran through each mountain. Lightning transcribed on stone. Fresh, cold air surrounded the party as they began their descent toward the pale waters of the lake. Hailek’s labored breaths became harsh halfway down the slope. Ilsa patted his side.
“Just a little more, my friend.”
A rumble like stone upon stone made Ilsa turn toward the peak above her, but thankfully there was no sign of a rock slide. Ahead of them, Siuku raised her hand to halt the party. The cry of a bird echoed over the heights.
Three great birds glided by just above their level, a rider on each of their backs. The old skyrider circled back on the lead bird. “What brings you Oshomi to this place?”
“Banasi,” called Siuku. “We seek shelter with our friends?”
Banasi replied with a laugh. “Times are strange, but peace is also on my chieftain’s mind.” Her bird carried her higher before Siuku could reply.
Lemuel shook his head in wonder. Ilsa glanced at him.
He sighed. “If only Chogrum and Dal could put aside the past so quickly.”
She pressed her lips together tight and nodded. Unification would be ideal, but it was a matter of hope, and far from a simple one. She would fight for that hope as long as she was able.
Banasi’s bird circled lower. The old skyrider called out, “Follow this path to the lake, Keeper of Tenlyres. My band is already there.”
Siuku signaled the party to keep moving. Down the slope, the sound of stone and stone drew Ilsa’s attention again. A shaggy, gray and white goat climbed along the steep slope. On the animal’s back, sat a woman with yellow hair and a heavy coat almost the same color as her goat. Other goat-riders moved in along the slopes above the pass. They escorted the Oshomi, Ilsa, and her friends, down to the Lake of Saints.
The Vogmem encamped by the edge of the lake gave Ilsa and the Oshomi glares and nervous looks as they approached. So much for the peace meat, Ilsa thought. The people did not appear as trusting as their scouts suggested.
They were clad in thick clothes and had mostly red or yellow hair. Most of them carried firearms ranging from rifles and shotguns to a variety of old-fashioned pistols. A few even wore piecemeal plates of armor sewn together with joins made from ballistic cloth.
Ilsa and the others rode to the lake shore within the camp. A cabin far larger than the tents of the rest of the camp stood nearby, and before it, two groups of armed Vogmem riders on their own large goats waited for them.
“Keeper of Tenlyres,” said a man from the center of the group closer to the lake in a slight accent that sounded close to Chogrumian, but definitely tinted with the hints of the Vogmem tribal language.
His beard was thick and red. He wore a black woolen coat and his goat had brindled fur of almost the same coloration. The man rode forward a few paces, stocky on the back of his animal. “I am Hiragan, chieftain of the northern pass. Welcome to the Lake of Saints.”
Siuku rode her saddle-less horse toward the man. Her veil hid any trepidation she might have, but Ilsa guessed some kind of worry had to be going on in the Keeper’s mind. Here they sat among the people who killed her parents.
“I have heard there are four chieftains of the Vogmem.” She motioned toward the camp. “Am I correct in guessing you are not the only one here?”
Hiragen grinned within his beard. He glanced at the other group of riders by the cabin.
“You guess well, Keeper.” A goat carried a woman forward. She was pale, though not albino like Siuku and her hair was blond. She wore a pair of pistols with old-fashioned revolving chambers on her belt. A black staff crossed the saddle behind her. A primrose flower was nestled in her hair.
The black staff and the primrose were both symbols of Vada, the same symbols Lord Palend had displayed back at his manor. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as the woman smiled at Siuku. “Here we pray to the Three, but you are a welcome guest, Keeper.”
“So, you are Ganara,” said Siuku. “I’ve heard of your war with Chogrum.”
“Fortunate Chogrumians never meet me,” said Ganara with a smirk. “The unlucky ones do.”
Ilsa felt Lemuel stiffen in the saddle behind her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you,” she whispered to him.
He relaxed a little but remained tense. Ganara’s eyes fell upon Blue. “This one is not Oshomi.” She shifted her gaze to Tirica, then Ilsa and Lemuel. “I see you have some odd allies, Keeper.”
“No more odd for me to ride with them than with you.”
“Vogmem ride together.” Ganara raised an eyebrow. “And you need our help.”
“And I need the help of these city-dwellers as well.”
She glared from Ilsa to Siuku. “You’ve used them. Now you have us as allies. What use are these?”
“I do not abandon those who have fought by my side.” Siuku’s voice remained atonal, but the words still sent a chill through Ilsa.
Hiragen bellowed a laugh. “I believe you, Keeper of Tenlyres. Ganara, the others will be here soon, and I’m sure they won’t appreciate it if you or your people murder the Keeper’s friends. Even if they are city-dwellers.”
“I will wait for them. But we will have a verdict on these Chogrumians.” Ganara nodded to Hiragen. “For now, I will wait.”
“The other half of our Chieftains are on the far side of the lake,” said Hiragen. “They will return by nightfall. You and your riders have endured much, and you look it.”
“We would appreciate rest,” said Siuku.
“My thoughts exactly.” Hiragen motioned for two of his riders to lead the group into the camp. “Join us for now. My skyrider, Banasi, tells me you have dealt with many perils. The details can wait for when the other chieftains arrive.”
“Thank you.” Siuku nodded to the chieftains.
Ilsa and the Oshomi followed her into the Vogmem camp.