Aysmar stopped walking at the entrance to the hedge dwelling and stood looking expectantly at the stony faced line of Tingions before her. Ezria had her arms folded and her eyes were like granite. Aysmar felt her emotions intensely in her throat and she tried to swallow them down to prevent embarrassment from tears. The heat she felt over betraying Ezria was an intense stabbing pain in her forehead. If she didn’t concentrate solely on Alliette in the clutches of Vanweer then she would lose all the strands of logic that had made her do it.
Kurann and Marine stood to either side of Ezria, like loyal foot soldiers. Which, Aysmar supposed, they were. More loyal than her. But what choice had she had? She owed her loyalty to her wife above her commando any day. Perhaps, she realised with sudden clarity, she had been in the wrong job then - but it was too late for thoughts like that now. Now she was stood topside staring at her former boss and closest confidante who was supported by her new protege, and a man she used to call a friend. Aysmar felt the world shift beneath her feet. She hung her head.
Her eyes filled with unwanted tears and the mud blurred beneath her feet. She was so sick of worrying, there hadn’t been a moment for over a week now when she hadn’t been churned up inside and strung out to the end of her last nerves. Her ears were ringing from the intensity of keeping the sobs in her stricken throat. And then there were arms around her, strong arms and a gentle hushing noise close to her ear. She sagged into the Tingion holding her and let herself cry, letting it come in waves and full juddering exertions. She felt like the anger and sadness and uncertainty had built to un unsustainable level in her head and this was the only way she could get them out.
“I’m so sorry.” She stuttered through the tears, and a hand rubbed slowly up and down her back.
“It’s ok,” Ezria said back, soothing Aysmar as best she could, “I understand. She’s your wife. I would be worried about you if you hadn’t done everything you could. I just wish you had known you could trust me.”
If Ezria had thought those words would stop Aysmar’s tears she was hugely mistaken. The intensity ramped up again and Aysmar was awash with regret and terror of the future. “She won’t stop until she has the stone.” She gasped, unable to see a way things would work out safely.
“If she won’t stop, then we will just have to do it for her.” Ezria said calmly, “But we will need your help.”
Ezria stood patiently and waited for the all encompassing sobs to subside from Aysmar.
Marine watched the scene with a lump in her throat. She wanted to be angry with Aysmar for betraying them, but she kept finding all her anger was aimed at herself. Had she betrayed her parents by not immediately rescuing them and appeasing Vanweer? In her head, she was sure working for Vanweer could only spell even worse disaster in the long run. It’s not like she was going to leave them to rot - the plan was to sort out the Vanweer problem, but just from the outside. But looking at Aysmar, she wondered if there was something wrong with her that she didn’t feel that pull? But then again, her thoughts corrected her, they are your parents; not your partner. Perhaps she would have acted differently had it been a lover she had been robbed of. Her eyes shifted unconsciously to Briar, and then she adamantly looked at her feet; determined not to feel the electricity she felt for them. She was furious about their intentions, and angry and guilty about her actions in rescuing Briar from Ezria. If she’d just let Ezria carry on they could still be below ground right now, working on getting her parents free. Instead, she’d been so carelessly distracted by the excitement of the Topside and of Briar’s intoxicating vitality. What had she been thinking? The trip down the river and subsequent conversation on the river bank had been the wake up call she needed.
Aysmar was nodding and sniffing at Ezria and Ezria held a finger under Aysmar’s chin to lift it to look into her eyes. “You always had my trust.” She whispered.
“But…” Aysmar began, her face shining damply.
“I know. I know what you were doing. But, I have to trust that I am not wrong and then when it came to it, you would have done the right thing. Luckily, we will never have to find out because we are here now and I have you back, and Aysmar, you have my trust.” Ezria held Aysmar’s gaze and stood firm.
Marine tried to concentrate on Aysmar’s aura to see how confused it felt, but she couldn’t access it. There was some sort of vague propulsion coming out from the two of them and she found them both unreadable. She tried to concentrate harder but there was nothing appearing. She wondered if this meant the stone was actually gone from her pocket? Or perhaps, she was just a lot further off mastering it than she’d hoped. It had always worked best when she was desperate and had no other options.
Ezria’s voice broke into Marine’s thoughts, “Let’s convene with Sinfire. Come on.”
The little group followed her into the hedge dwelling where Sinfire was seated in the circle with a few other Tingions, including the raiders they had met in the Cavern.
“Thank you for joining us Briar. Late night?” Sinfire raised an eyebrow and Marine felt a little tinge of pleasure at Briar’s discomfort. Serves you right, she thought. For kidnapping me AND nearly drowning me. They settled themselves into the gaps in the circle and looked expectantly at Sinfire and Ezria. Ezria began.
“You have not all met Aysmar,” she said quietly, indicating the silent, puffy eyed Aysmar “she is my lieutenant and has been at my side for years. She is also completely trusted by Vanweer who believes her to be working for the government. Our plan, is to send her below to tell Vanweer we have the stone and are planning to keep it above ground. If she wants it, she will need to come and get it. Fingers crossed we can lure her up here where, with your help, we have the advantage and can put a stop to her before she has all the stones.”
Ezria fell silent and Sinfire picked up where she left off, “We will put out the call to the 12 Field Families and unite. They will be anxious to have an end to this and have the stones restored. If Aysmar can string the time out below ground then we should have some time to get into formation here and prepare for an invasion. Vanweer will think she is being led to us defenceless and then we spring the trap. We will be lying in wait, with hopefully greater numbers. Once Vanweer is subdued we can find out where the other stones have been removed to and they can come back. I don’t need to tell you how much those stones mean for our survival.”
The Topsiders were all nodding vehemently around the circle and Marine was hoping Sinfire would elaborate for them but she didn’t.
“We will need to send you with a message Aysmar,” Ezria turned to her lieutenant, smiling gently, “You will go to Vanweer and tell her that we are here, and that we are not coming back. You’ll tell her that Marine Skylorn knows how to control the stones. That way she will come wanting the stone and Marine and we can predict her tactics. Aysmar, can you do this? Can you lure her Topside so we can fight on our terms?”
Aysmar lifted her chin to the branches and nodded stiffly, too overwhelmed with emotion to speak. Marine felt a hand slip into hers, she flinched - instinctively wanting to pull it away from Briar’s touch but when she turned to look it was Kurann.
“We will get your parents back, you see if we don’t.” He said, and smiled nervously.