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Some time after the battle of Howling Pass, Ilsa and a small group of allies ride east toward Chogrum.
If we are to ride for any reason, let us ride as one people.
Ilsa rode the dappled gray steppe horse into the Filami village. Over the past month, she had become used to the animal, though it was completely unlike any strider or runner. In a way, that seemed fitting for a ride to Chogrum, a city where she had never been before. Everything became strange at once.
The village was tiny, as were most of the Filami settlements on the plateau of Yr. And like the rest, it was located in an area rich with underground plant piles. Atalem, however, had a dire distinguishing feature. It was the closest settlement of any kind to the Eastern Lyre, the place where Uzan slept closest to Chogrum.
If an attack was going to surprise the Prince of Chogrum, it would come from the lyre south of Atalem. The maps of the Oshomi called it the Flowering Lyre. The nomad warriors who rode with Ilsa assured her she would understand why they did once she saw it.
For the first time in years, she rode without Blue close by. Her friend was with a group of nomads further north, but also on their way eastward. They would reach Heaven’s Lyre, located just a little further west than Ilsa was now, and make certain the Gray Lector and Black Powder did not try to raise another demonic army from it.
Even so, her friend felt close.
Ilsa touched the egg-shaped locket that contained a bit of plant pile and hung from a string around her neck. It had once belonged to Ashnia Haram, but Blue had repurposed it to amplify Ilsa’s sense of spirits, at least as it applied to humans.
She had been skeptical at first but learned that if she focused a little, Ilsa could send a short message to Blue over seemingly any distance. Useful, in keeping their two groups in contact with each other while not sending out radio signals or messengers.
Her horse snorted as they passed a bale of Filami winter root. The hottest part of summer was approaching, but evidently, the people of Atalem still had some of their winter crops left over. Winter root could grow deep within piles and be extracted without damaging the rest of the organism if one knew where to dig.
Ilsa supposed the Filami here had mastered that sort of knowledge long ago. She pulled on the reins to slow her horse. That had taken some adjustment, as opposed to a whisper or flex of posture which would have sufficed to control a strider.
Siuku, the Keeper of Tenlyres, caught up with Ilsa, riding bareback with no reins, and brought her horse to a stop in the center of Atalem’s main street. Villagers emerged from some of the nearby houses with caution. Some even held firearms, though none had the weapons readied.
Ilsa understood their caution. Oshomi like Siuku and the rest of the band riding with Ilsa sometimes raided the Filami villages near them for goods and supplies. Still, she doubted it would come to violence here, and if it did, Ilsa could quickly disarm the Filami without killing them. She doubted any of them had weapon bonds, and she was confident she could out-shoot unbonded marksmen.
Siuku called out to the villagers in the steppe’s trade language. “Do not fear. We are not raiders.”
A murmur ran through the Filami. A few of them came closer to the keeper.
Siuku continued, “I am the Keeper of Tenlyres, and I seek to protect all of Yr from the awakening of Asurdeva.”
More murmurs. One of the Filami elders waved his arm at Siuku. She turned toward him. “What is it?” Her voice lost much of its grandeur. When she lowered the volume it went back to its usual monotone.
“You are Oshomi. When have the Oshomi protected anything?”
“I speak for all Oshomi now, not those of the past. In the coming days, we must all act as one if we are to survive.”
The Filami exchanged glances as more Oshomi from Ilsa’s group rode into the village, and along with them, Lemuel and Tirica Chollush. The scholar Ilsa loved, and his sister made their way toward her on their own horses, having also traded their striders to keep better pace on this ride east. She glanced in their direction.
Lemuel gave her a nod, more confident in their relationship after their time in the mountains. Ilsa felt the same way about things. They had held together under pressure without collapsing inward. She turned and rode to the keeper’s side.
Ilsa raised both her branded hands. “She speaks the truth. I am a priestess of the Unification. I am not Oshomi, and you can trust the keeper’s words.”
Another elder shook her head. “I have heard the Keeper of Tenlyres rides the lands in the center of the steppe. Peaceful or not, why should we believe you are who you say?”
Siuku bowed her veiled head. “I would not ask you to trust me on faith alone. Have you anyone with cuts or wounds among you?”
The second elder’s lined faced pinched into a frown. “The young occasionally cut themselves on the digging blades. What are you suggesting?”
“Bring me anyone with an open wound, and I will heal them.”
After a few minutes of jostling and whispers and then some talk among the elders, a young man with a bandaged forearm walked forward.
Siuku climbed down from her horse and unfastened one side of her veil. She carefully opened up the bandage with deft hands. Then, she touched the exposed wound in front of the crowd of Filami. Light flickered beneath her fingers.
The young man’s eyes went wide and he stared at the smooth skin left behind from Siuku’s touch.
“It’s true,” he exclaimed. “The Keeper of Tenlyres can heal the wounded.”
Siuku held out her hands, fingers streaked with small traces of the young man’s blood. “I have been given this power by the spirits. Please, trust that I will not betray you.”
The villagers crowded closer, their fear abated. A miracle has a way of convincing, Ilsa thought.
She suspected Siuku’s abilities were more similar to the powers of a mind eater or other magus than the keeper herself did, but the evidence was light. For one thing, Siuku’s mind did not seem to cloud with the after effects, which was a difference between her and any type of magi but the ones referred to as mind eaters.
Her powers had physical influence. That meant if she was a magus she should be emanating traces of illusive fog as well when she used them. But that never happened either.
The Keeper of Tenlyres remained mysterious to Ilsa, even after being healed by her more than once.
Siuku healed more wounded villagers. The elders inspected each one and eventually motioned for the other Oshomi to dismount. After that, many of the villagers left to prepare a feast. Others stepped forward to help the Oshomi tend to their tired horses. The band of the keeper was welcomed to Atalem with food from the local stores of crops.
As the meal came to a close a few hours later, and most of the nomads and villagers had finished eating, Ilsa and Lemuel were sitting on a wooden bench facing south, where sunlight spilled down from a cloudless sky. Siuku was talking with the village elders at a table nearby, and Ilsa caught a familiar word one of the Filami said in a soft voice.
Ilsa rose from the bench and looked toward the table, sharpening her ears to better listen in.
“Uzan,” said Siuku. “They can be difficult to detect. But you say they moved about in the night?”
“Yes. South of here, by the field of flowers,” said the elder. “There are not many of them, but there need not be to threaten our village.”
“I understand,” said Siuku. “My people will investigate the place at once.”
“You are generous, Keeper of Tenlyres.”
A rumble of agreement came from the other elders.
“If we are to be friends, we must share what we have. And I have warriors.” Siuku bowed to the elders. When she raised her head, she did not look in Ilsa’s direction, but motioned her closer to the table with one hand, eerily aware of Ilsa’s location.
“Priestess,” said the keeper. “It seems our visit to the Flowering Lyre must be today.”
“It makes sense,” said Ilsa. “I can look into it right away.”
“I will send a few of my warriors with you.”
Lemuel and Tirica approached behind Ilsa. The Chogrumian siblings drew Ilsa and Siuku’s attention.
“With respect, your holiness,” said Lemuel, “But my sister and I have studied this lyre before. We should go as well.”
“A good idea,” said Siuku. “Go now if you can. I will send a group of warriors to join you once I have them readied.”
“Thank you, keeper.” Ilsa glanced at Lemuel and Tirica. “Are you sure? This could be dangerous.”
“You know how to kill Uzan.”
“That doesn’t make it easy. Or safe.”
He shrugged. “Nothing out here is safe. Chogrum will be sending troops to fight Ayoch and Dal any day now. And who knows how many Uzan there will be.”
“You can’t get rid of us that easily,” said Tirica with a grin.
“I know.” A smile tugged at the corners of Ilsa’s lips. “We’ve been across half of Yr together.”
“Damn right,” said Tirica.
They went to retrieve their horses. Once mounted, they rode south toward the place where wild flowers bloomed from the plant piles. The easternmost artifact of Tenlyres.
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