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Ilsa has been wounded badly and returns to the camp near the village of Atalem.
Each of us owes our lives to someone else, parents, friends, saviors of all kinds.
That does not mean we should not do what we can to protect ourselves.
The world spun and then stabilized. Ilsa heard voices fading away, accompanied by the pure and consistent agony of her wounds. Grazed head, burnt hand, torn side, wounded leg… they were all still there. Somehow she had survived. Again, she survived.
She lay on a cot in a tent, a large pale-colored one from the Chogrumian military, rather than the small homes of the Oshomi. She looked up at the ceiling. Her groan of pain joined the sounds of other wounded that filled the space.
The triage tent dimmed with the passing hours. Some screams silenced. New cries began.
Ilsa found a discarded rifle on the floor beside her cot. She lurched to stand up. She had to find Lemuel and tell him what had happened. She had to, though the feeling in her stomach that built when she thought of telling him about Tirica’s choice made her hesitate.
Eventually, she found a crutch to lean on and then left the rifle behind. She limped toward the exit of the tent. Her wounds were all wrapped to stop the blood flow, but her head still felt light. She hated waking up in a hospital alone. It had happened too often lately.
She made her way through the camp north of Atalem. Despite her lightheadedness, she reached out for Blue’s spirit. “Find me,” she murmured. “Please.”
She staggered past a dozen tents and was halfway to the trenches the Chogrumians had dug out for shelter from the bombardment before Blue and Lemuel found her.
Her eyes filled with tears when she saw them in the fading daylight. “You two,” she said. “You made it”
Lemuel threw himself over the side of his horse and ran to her. “Ilsa?” His voice broke. “Is that really you? I heard… Cass and Ferdinand told me you were dead.”
She looked at him and nodded. “I used a blast seal to escape the fall. Took a Chogrumian carrier back here, but I don’t know the rest.”
“I don’t care how it happened.” He threw his arms around her. They pressed themselves to each other, warm, and alive, despite everything.
Her crutch fell to the ground. She held onto Lemuel instead.
Blue’s gentle pressure in her mind made her look at her friend over Lemuel’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” asked Blue.
“Too much, Blue,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything. Both of you need to know. I just need to sit down first.”
She staggered along with them, Lemuel supporting her. He helped her onto his horse and then led it while she rode. She thought of her own horse. She hoped the animal had made it to safety.
At least Ferdinand and Cass had survived.
Blue told her through mental communication that the Uzan had fallen back from Atalem, but most of the village now lay in ruins, and the cost in lives to the Chogrumians and the Oshomi had been high.
“They’ll come back, you know,” said Ilsa softly. “First was out there today. And Black Powder won’t give up.”
“Neither will the Gray Lector or Asurdeva, I suspect,” said Lemuel. “We have to hold on.” He sighed. “I hope Tirica is alright.”
“She’s alive,” said Ilsa in a dry croak of a voice. “I—I saw her today.”
“You saw her? Where?”
“When the blast seal transported me out of the launcher I ended up at a medical center for the mercenaries. She was there.”
Lemuel turned to stare back at her where she sat on the horse, eyes wide. “You saw her?”
“Yeah.” Ilsa felt an urge to cry, but she channeled it into a single deep breath. “Lemuel, I don’t know how to say this—She—She has a weapon bonded to her spirit.”
“What? Why would they do that?”
“She agreed to fight for them.” Ilsa touched her side. “She shot me. Here.”
Lemuel dropped the reins he been using to lead the horse. He bent down to reach for them, but his big hand shook too much to pick them up.
He shook his head. “It can’t be—She wouldn’t.”
Ilsa lifted her wounded leg despite the pain that shot through her as she did. She climbed down and then supported herself on the horse’s side. Lemuel stared at her.
Blue’s mind withdrew. She brought her strider to a stop behind Ilsa and Lemuel. Yet, she said nothing.
Lemuel’s lips trembled. “I can’t believe it.”
“I don’t like it anymore than you do,” said Ilsa. “They forced her into it after First’s attack in Chogrum failed.”
“She’s alive,” said Blue. “Get me close enough to her and I can stop her. We aren’t dealing with true belief. Once she’s free of them, she won’t keep fighting us.”
Lemuel nodded, but tears began to leak from his eyes.
Ilsa let go of the horse and staggered toward him. A jagged flare of pain shot through her calf and she stumbled. She fell forward but caught herself on Lemuel’s shoulder. He sank down slowly, and they sat on the trampled steppe grass.
His face close to hers, he sniffed, trying to fight his tears. She pressed her forehead to his.
“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, halfway to tears herself. “We will get her back, even if we have to fight her to do it.”
“She isn’t free,” said Blue.
“Right.” Ilsa brushed the tears from Lemuel’s cheeks. “We won’t give up.”
Lemuel’s small arm wrapped around Ilsa’s back. His little hand patted down her spine. “Thank you, Ilsa.” He breathed in deep. “And Blue. Thank you, both.” His big hand found Ilsa’s cheek and cupped her face. “I studied and studied, but I never could say I would trust anyone outside my family with my life before I met you two.”
“Lemuel.” Ilsa pulled him to her, one hand around the back of his head, the other around his waist. “You’ve got us. We won’t abandon Tirica.”
His little hand touched the freshly-dressed wound on her side. She let out a gasp of pain. He withdrew his fingers. “I’m sorry. She did this to you.”
“It’s not as bad as my leg. And she didn’t hit me there.”
“You’ve fought so long. I know you wish you could stop.”
“I won’t stop fighting until my father is defeated. Until the Uzan are beaten, none of us can stop.”
“Until peace is in sight,” said Blue.
“How can we see peace from the battlefield?” said Ilsa. “That’s what I worry about.”
“You’re both warriors. It’s what you do.”
“We have a cause.” Ilsa sighed. “I just don’t know if that’s enough.”
“It has to be,” said Blue.
“We have to hope it is because we don’t fight for a nation, we fight for the people, to protect them and save as many as we can.” Ilsa looked into Lemuel’s eyes. “And we’ll protect your sister too.”
“What if she doesn’t give you a choice?”
“I’ll die before I kill her.” Ilsa blinked back tears and hoped her brave words were true, though she doubted them. She gritted her teeth. “I swear—”
“Don’t. You can’t sacrifice yourself.” Lemuel’s hand moved down her face to her shoulder. “I would never ask you to do that.”
Ilsa held on to him in silence for a long moment, aching, pained. “Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to be worth your trust.”
“You already have,” he said.
The sound of hooves, four or five horses, and half a dozen goat runners, drew close through the camp.
“Priestess,” said Siuku as she and a group of other Oshomi leaders caught up with them. “You should have stayed in triage.” Behind her veil her eyes were tired. “You were seriously wounded.”
“I know,” said Ilsa. “I just couldn’t lie there.”
“Let me heal you.” Siuku climbed down from her horse. She approached Ilsa and Lemuel.
Ilsa’s eyes met his, and then they disentangled themselves. Behind Siuku, Ilsa saw Ganara, the Vogmem chieftain, and priestess of Vada who had wielded the True Blackwood staff at the battle of Howling Pass. The blond woman gave a curt nod to Ilsa.
Siuku knelt down beside Ilsa. Lemuel got to his feet nearby. The Keeper of Tenlyres unfastened the seal on her veil. Without the veil, she looked even more exhausted.
How many people has she saved today? Ilsa wondered. How many former enemies owe her their lives? This is how we can unify the people, by healing instead of killing.
The pain from her calf faded. Siuku sealed the cut in Ilsa’s head. Then, the keeper touched her side where Tirica had shot her. The pain there vanished with a touch of a weary hand.
Siuku replaced her veil. “You will have a few scars,” she said. “And I can’t help your hand.”
“Thank you,” said Ilsa. “I’ve been through the worst wounds of my life from the mountains to now, and I wouldn’t be alive without you.”
Siuku’s voice came out less monotone than usual. “I saw you in my visions, Ilsa Barrett. Since we first met you have become important to me.”
Ilsa bowed to the keeper. “I will protect you as long as I am able.”
“Let us both pray that you remain able.”
Siuku stood, and offered a hand to help Ilsa to her feet. She turned to Blue. “Has the prince of Chogrum arrived?”
“His force is setting up in the northern part of the camp,” said Blue. “They should be almost done by now.”
“The prince is here?” Ilsa asked.
“Scouts have sighted more of Black Powder’s forces approaching our position,” said Blue. “We don’t know the exact numbers, but from here we will defend Chogrum from both men and monsters.”
“What about Ayoch and Dal?” said Ilsa. “Their armies are still moving east.”
“Indeed.” Ganara tossed her head. “Allies or not, we can catch the Uzan and their human friends between our forces and theirs if we hold here.”
Ilsa nodded. “That could work. We can still win.”
Lemuel glanced at her with reddened eyes. His unspoken question was obvious.
She folded her hands together. “And we’ll get Tirica out of there before it’s over.”
Great hawks called to each other as they flew overhead. Ilsa looked up. Skyriders.
She brought her gaze down to level with Blue. “How did you destroy the artillery?”
Blues shrugged. “The raiders delayed them long enough for Chogrum’s weapons to find the range. After that, their crews started to run. Even Uzan won’t survive a hit from the big guns. Just too bad they got most of their weapons out of there when they went.”
Ilsa frowned. “How many were destroyed?”
“Two. They still have at least three left.”
“If we move fast enough, they can’t hit us,” said Ganara. “My warriors will deal with them next time.”
“We should meet with the prince,” Siuku said to Ganara. “We have plans to make, and you can tell him what you just said.”
“I’ve never seen so many soldiers in one place,” Ganara said. “Chogrum has a mighty army.”
“Ilsa,” the keeper said. “Will you, your scholar, and Blue accompany us? There is much to discuss for the coming battle.”
Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. He nodded to her.
“As you wish,” said Ilsa. And they set off toward the prince’s part of the allied camp.
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