This is the final installment of Tenlyres here on the site.
It has been a long journey. Thanks to everyone who followed the story.
These last two chapters go together, so here they are on the same day, in the same post.
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The battle is over. The time has come to count the cost.
When the voice of one is silent, the knowledge of all suffers.
When one voice drowns out all others, that is even worse.
The last of Asurdeva’s light faded from around the base of the Flowering Lyre. Ilsa gripped Blue’s arm and muttered a prayer to Hathani as she opened her eyes.
Silence reigned over the steppe.
Uzan stood frozen. Mercenaries and Ayochian traitors looked down at the weapons they had abandoned, surrounded by Vogmem and Chogrumian troops.
The battle was over. The voices of the guns faded.
Ilsa looked at the failing body of Black Powder. His breathing came and went fast and shallow where he lay with his back to the lyre’s northern arm. His brands had gone dark, and blood dripped from his jaw line.
Siuku finished sealing Ilsa’s wounded shoulder. She reached for her forehead and closed the cuts above her brow. Ilsa bowed into the keeper’s hand. “Thank you, keeper.”
“You fought for all of us. I wish we could have helped you.”
“You did. If you had not gone after Asurdeva—Tirica—He wouldn’t have given me the chance.”
Siuku frowned at Black Powder’s fallen form. “He was exceptionally quick. And uniquely dangerous.”
“Was.” Ilsa took in the damage her bullets had done to Black Powder. Six bleeding wounds formed a spiral on his chest. He might still be alive, but not for long. He had never done anything but evil to her, but still, tears began to creep into her eyes.
Blue got to her feet beside Ilsa. She helped up Siuku, then offered Ilsa her hand.
“You’ve taken more than enough hits for me,” she said. “Let me help you.”
Ilsa clasped her friend’s hand and pulled herself up into a standing position. She looked back down at Black Powder. “I almost can’t believe it. We won.”
“Almost?” Blue’s expression cracked into a grin as she fought laughter. “I can’t believe it at all.”
“The alliance between Chogrum and the nomads was strong,” said Siuku. “But the Uzan would have beaten us without your song, Ilsa.”
“Not really mine. Credit to the ancients.” Ilsa looked down at Tirica’s unconscious form. “Is she—?”
“She is alive.” Siuku rubbed her red eyes. Were those tears there?. “I can hear her heartbeat.”
“What about Asurdeva?” asked Ilsa.
“Suppressed, but not gone.” Blue sighed. “I don’t know if what the keeper and I did will last.”
Lemuel rushed to the set of strings, then turned sideways and eased through. He crouched next to Tirica. “She’s alright.”
Ilsa sank down beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks to Blue and the keeper.”
Ashnia picked her way between the strings after him. “She could be. But as long as that god lives within her, she is in danger.”
Tirica’s eyelids fluttered open. She looked up at Lemuel and Ilsa. When she saw them tears began to flow. “I—I’m so sorry. Ilsa, I can’t—” She sobbed. “I can’t ask you to forgive me.”
“No need to ask,” said Ilsa.
“He’s dying.” Ilsa reached for her eyes but decided the tears there deserved to stay. “I shot him.”
“How could you beat him? Cass didn’t stand a chance.”
Ilsa’s tears flowed. “Cass—Tirica—Is she—?”
“She’s alive. He wanted to torture her.” Tirica looked at Black Powder’s fallen form. “I guess he won’t get the chance.”
“Not now,” said Blue.
“Never again.” Ilsa looked at her father’s body as the breathing slowed, then stilled.
Tirica followed her gaze. “You beat him. How?”
“He cared too much about that monster in you.” Ilsa shook her head. “That gave me an opening.”
“Rest,” said Lemuel to Tirica. “You’re alive. You’re free. That’s enough.”
Tirica nodded to Ilsa.
She rose and took in the scene on the other side of the Lyre. The prince still lay unconscious, his severed arm stretched on bloody stone. His bodyguards hovered around him. A few of them had been wounded as well. Kaij and Yunn stood side by side, glaring at the Chogrumians nearby.
“Thanks for the help,” Ilsa said to them. “I guess we’re even after all the times you tried to kill us.”
“I’ll tell our mother you said that,” said Kaij. “After we take General Kanan’s head.”
As more allied troops arrived from the battlefield, many of them leading prisoners of war, it became obvious Boraij Kanan was not among them. Megalli’s hawk touched down on the far side of the strings from the prince. She dismounted and reported that she had seen him disappear in an explosion.
“A blast seal,” said Ilsa. “He’s still alive.”
“We’ll find him,” said Kaij. “And he will pay.” He turned to Ashnia, who now stood, pensive, beside Blue. “Are you coming with us, little sister?”
Ashnia’s gaze moved to Blue, then to Tirica. “There’s something else I need to do.”
“Something we have to do,” said Ilsa’s friend.
Ilsa looked at her, surprised. “Blue?”
Blue caught Tirica’s eye as Lemuel helped the girl to her feet. “If anyone knows a way to exorcise Asurdeva, it would be the Temple of Colors.”
Blue sighed and then turned to Ilsa. “We’ll need to go east of Yr to find the temple’s heart.”
Ilsa approached Blue. “I need to head back to Dal. My mother isn’t insane. She needs to be released.”
“So, I guess this is goodbye,” said Blue. “For now.”
“Take care of yourself, Blue.” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on this mission.”
“Neither could I.” Blue clapped a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. She looked ready to cry herself.
Ilsa pulled her into an embrace. “Go on,” she said.
“Maybe this way I can find out who I was, who I am.”
“I can tell you who you are.” Ilsa tightened her arms around Blue, then released her. “You’re my friend.”
“Always will be. Memory or no memory.” Blue sniffed back tears. “I’ll see you later, Ilsa.”
Ilsa released her and nodded. They had a lot to do to clean up this battlefield, and there was still peace to negotiate between Chogrum and Dal. But the monsters were silent. For now, that had to be enough.
Siuku touched Ilsa’s arm, then withdrew a short distance. “You have been able protectors, the two of you. It is not easy to say goodbye.”
Ilsa sniffed. “What do you mean?”
“This alliance must spread. Chogrum and Ayoch will have peace if I can speak to their leaders at once.”
Ilsa smiled. “It’s been an honor, keeper.”
“The west is calling,” said Siuku. “Go, help your mother.”
“We worked together to bring us to this point. Now, let me see to the peace.” The keeper’s expression softened. “Tomorrow is ours to shape, whether we stand in one place or not.”
New tears beaded in Ilsa’s eyes.
One week later Ilsa prepared to ride west with Cass. The red-haired priestess had recovered enough with Siuku’s healing to sit in the saddle. Ferdinand and his white strider waited for them and their borrowed Chogrumian runners on the edge of the camp.
The sun was just rising at their back. Ilsa guided her runner between a row of tents. Her mind wandered to Lemuel. She had not had the heart to ask him to come with them. His sister needed him more than Ilsa did.
She had left a letter in their tent for him. Hopefully he would understand. Her mother had been a prisoner for too long. Now she could go free, and there were things she could teach Ilsa about the spirits.
She glanced at Cass as they rode toward Ferdinand.
“Are you alright?” Cass asked.
“Save the concern for yourself,” said Ilsa. “When we found you we weren’t sure you’d live.”
“Looks like Hathani gave us both a second chance.” Cass leaned forward in the saddle. Her bandages and slings made her look almost like a box kite as they flapped in the wind.
Ilsa sighed. “Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m starting over.”
“Because of Lemuel?”
“Yeah. Him and Blue. It will be strange, not being around them.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Cass’s eyes moved to the scroll case on Ilsa’s saddle. “You’ve been writing. Do you think you’ll start preaching?”
“You know I’m not a great speaker.”
“Hey, if you’re starting over you can learn.”
“What would I even say?”
“What do I say?”
“Before I rode out of Dal you told me to be red.”
“Seems to me you followed that advice.”
They closed with Ferdinand.
“Good morning, priestesses,” he said.
Cass touched her lips with one hand and blew him a kiss.
Ilsa smiled. “We’re ready to ride.”
“Not yet,” said Ferdinand. “We’re missing someone.”
“Who?” asked Ilsa.
“Lemuel didn’t tell you? That figures.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Are you—? You’re kidding me.”
“Not in the least. But it looks like the bookworm slept in.” Ferdinand grinned at Ilsa. “You know, I like being the bearer of good news.”
Feet pounded on the steppe grass behind them.
“There he is now,” said Ferdinand.
Ilsa turned in the saddle. Lemuel rode toward them on a runner of his own. He held onto the saddle with his big hand, and waved with the little one. “Wait for me.”
“About time,” said Ferdinand as Lemuel caught up. “Looks like Ilsa tried to ditch you.”
Ilsa’s face grew hot. “What? I—”
“We didn’t talk about it,” said Lemuel sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I was just… nervous. Ilsa—”
“Didn’t you want to go with Tirica?”
“Ashnia told me the Temple doesn’t keep written records. Tirica told me she could handle herself. And Blue…”
“She told me not to let you leave without me.”
Ferdinand whistled. “You cut that last one pretty close.”
“Oh be quiet, grave robber.”
Ilsa giggled. “That’s plenty.” She reached for Lemuel’s small hand and took it. “Let’s ride.”
* * *
A firearm pushes back when fired, but for humans the only direction is forward.
Do not take all your lessons from weapons of war.
Dear High Priestess Uopemm,
When last you saw me, you condemned me for my father’s deeds. It once seemed true that I could never forgive you. Since then, things have changed. I send this letter with Cass because I know I am not welcome at Saint Banyeen’s. Please, be kinder to her than you were to me. She did a great service for me, and for all the nations of the plateau in dueling Black Powder. I will let her tell you the rest.
No doubt you have heard of the peace negotiations between Chogrum and Ayoch. Let us both pray that hope is realized. That is out of both our hands now, but I wish the Keeper of Tenlyres the greatest fortune in executing her plan.
I am writing to tell you that your payments to the hospital will no longer be required. My mother is to be discharged. I will see to that myself. High Priestess, I have learned as much from my travels as I ever did from you. Both you and they have been great teachers, both harsh in your own ways.
Regardless, I forgive you.
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