“Well where is it then? Aysmar almost screamed at Marine. Marine flinched, rapidly trying to remember when she’d last been certain the stone was in her pocket. Had she lost it in the river? No. It had definitely been in her pocket when she’d woken up - she had felt it there against her thigh.
“I told you.” She said, gratefully finding words where she thought there had only been confusion, “It’s back at the hedge with Ezria.” She looked Aysmar square in the eye as she said it. Aysmar looked wild and desperate. She scrabbled at the rest of Marine’s pockets and clothes, pulling and tugging and searching through the fabric for the stone.
“You have to give it to me.” Aysmar sobbed, and as she looked up into Marine’s face, Marine saw tears streaming down Aysmar’s pale skin. Strong hands took hold of Aysmar’s shoulders and pulled her off Marine. Briar, gentle but firm, manoevred Aysmar away from the trembling Marine and found her a large stone to sit down on. Aysmar didn’t struggle. She gave into Briar’s handling and allowed herself to settle on the stone, “You have to give me the stone. If you don’t she… she will…” Aysmar’s voice faded away to nothing and Marine felt her heart throbbing with sympathy for her.
“What’s happened?” Briar asked, their voice low, soothing and calming. Aysmar couldn’t answer, the tears were coming fast and constant now as she hiccoughed and shook on the pebble.
“Vanweer has my family.” Marine heard herself saying, “She arrested them after I escaped. I know how you feel.”
Aysmar’s wide eyes turned up to beg at Marine, “She does? So, were you taking the stone to her? Vanweer… Vanweer has my wife. Since she took her, it’s all I can think about to get her back. I haven’t slept, or eaten. I just… I can’t.”
Marine hesitated, it hadn’t occurred to her to take the stone to Vanweer, even with her family being in captivity. Did that make her a bad daughter? The thought simply hadn’t crossed her mind for it to even be considered and dismissed - she just knew in her bones that the stone didn’t want to be with Vanweer.
“No,” Marine answered, finally, “No, I don’t think Vanweer should have the stone. I feel like if she has the stone then somehow my family might be in even more danger. Eventually.”
Briar nodded silently by Marine’s side.
“Oh, I agree there.” Said Aysmar, wiping her streaming nose on the back of her sleeve, ‘Vanweer is… she’s capable of so much you have no idea about. She’s my mother.”
This threw Marine. She felt like she could barely compute the information.
“Your mother?” She and Briar said in unison, and Aysmar nodded gloomily.
“She barely had much to do with me growing up - we were always with one nanny or another, but as soon as we got useful for her career she took an interest. I’m the soldier, my brother is the next politician in waiting and my sister is the wholesome family Tingion. We’re everything she needs. She has had me reporting on Ezria since the search for the Lost Stones hotted up, then, just before we went Topside to retrieve this one she let me know very casually that she was going to take Alliette in to stay with her while I was away. She said it was for safety, or so Alliette didn’t get lonely, something along those lines. I forget the words she used exactly. But I haven’t seen Alliette since. No one has. Van weer says we will see each other again when she has the stone. Please, Marine, you have to help me get Alliette back. She’s… she’s not a happy woman and she won’t survive long with my mother in charge.”
Marine sat beside Aysmar on the stone. “I honestly, don’t have the stone.” She said, wondering if that were true. “Come with us to Ezria and let’s talk.”
Aysmar sat, very still for a moment, and then nodded looking at the ground. She really didn’t have many other options.
They trudged back along the river, keeping tight in to the hedge and walking mostly in silence.
“What a mess.” Marine said to Briar eventually, as she slipped on yet another bit of an uneven ground. Finally she had found something she preferred about the underground - the floor was all smooth and where you expected it to be. The floor was better under ground. And there were no rivers. She eyed the river suspiciously where it lay concealed in the long grass.
“At least you have us on your side now.” Said Briar, focusing on the path in front of them. Marine chewed on that sentence for a moment.
“Why do we have you?” She asked, stopping walking.
“What?” Briar stopped in their tracks too and turned to look at Marine, “What do you mean?”
Aysmar looked imaptiently at both of them, “Why have you stopped? We need to get to the hedge. To the stone.”
Marine ignored her, “Why did you bring us up here? What were you doing in the Cavern?”
“The Cavern?” Briar asked.
Marine waved the question away crossly, “The animal hole or whatever it was. What were you doing down there and why did you bring us up here?”
“We were on manoeuvres. Practising exercises below ground.”
“Same reason you do it up here - all sorts of things are different. The light, the air, the ground is all smooth and hard to walk on. We need to be at our best, so we practise.”
Briar’s face was serene but Marine sensed there was something they weren’t telling her.
“So why take us?”
What does Briar say?
- Sensed the stone (The Topsiders have noticed a change in their powers and so are trying to collect up the stones) 11115111
- Knew Vanweer was up to no good so took them when they knew they were outlaws to help the fight 111
- Took them for ransom when they said were outlaws (Marine and Briar don’t end up together) 111151111
Briar looked Marine upside and she could sense them trying to decide what to tell her. The air around them seemed to waver from clear waves to a churning mass - not unlike the river water had been and she shivered at the thought of being back in its chilly grip. Eventually, Briar nodded and Marine felt the air around them relax and glide calmly towards her.
“We are going to ask Van Weer to swap you back in exchange for the stone.”
Marine’s mouth fell open. Aysmar huffed grumpily and shuffled her feet, clearly anxious to be heading towards the hedge in some capacity.
“You were, you were holding us hostage?” Marine was appalled.
“Look, we have to have the stone!” Briar’s voice was urgent and stony, “You don’t understand - we have a plan.”
“No, YOU didn’t understand.” Shouted back Marine, and the birds nearby stopped chirping. Marine didn’t notice, “Did you not hear me say earlier that Van Weer has my family? My parents? My flesh and blood? The people I care about most in the world? And you just swanned below ground and took us and stopped us from being able to rescue them?”
“We have to have the stones back… you… look, I can’t, I can’t tell you why but we have to have the Stones back.” Briar crossed their arms and stood firm on the muddy ground. Marine mirrored their body language and faced off in the shadow of the hedge.
“I have to have my parents back. We had a plan, a mission… we know Van Weer, we know the territory and you have wasted all this time just for your own selfishness… my parents could be dead and it would be because of you.” Marine looked Briar up and down, disgusted. Annoyed at her body for still feeling an electric pull towards them when she was so furious and betrayed. How had she let herself get swept up in the excitement of them without thinking? She should have let Aysmar attack below ground. Sadly, she realised she had thought they were potentially there to help.
“We are trying to do the same thing.” Briar tried to say, but Marine cut them off.
“No. We are an elite team who were well on course to sort out a problem we were in a good situation to sort. Now we are up here like cattle, being treated like guests but really just waiting for your envoy to get back from Van Weer and tell her you’re willing to hand us over in exchange for your precious stone.”
Aysmar’s face appeared between the two of them, looking concerned. “I thought Ezria had the stone?”
Marine shifted, “She does.”
“Then how are you going to be swapped for it with Van Weer?”
“We didn’t know they had the stone. I found out just now when you did.” Briar grumped.
“So now we have no value they can simply kill us and take the stone - there’s no need to involve Van Weer at all.” Snapped Marine, and began marching off in the direction of the hedge camp.
“Hey! That’s not fair - we would never do that!” Briar called after her, and Marine swung round - furious and suddenly terrified of the fate of her family.
“No? Is kidnapping as far as you go then? No murder? What will your leaders say? Oh, sure they know where we live and have to go back and face Van Weer and possible torture but we trust them so much not to give us up and the location of the stone that we are going to let them free? I’m not sure Briar.”
Briar’s mouth opened and closed a few times before they worked out what to say. “Marine… Marine I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, I might accept your apology when I know whether I’m at liberty to go back and release my family or not.” She slammed her feet into the mud and stomped off down the path - listening out for the sound of Tingions to give her some assurance she was nearly back.
Her head was swimming. What could she do? Was the stone in her pocket? It was, surely? That was why she could feel Briar’s aura? How did she get back into a solid, touchable form? If she could, who would get to keep it? Her? Aysmar and therefore Vanweer? The Topsiders?
If she kept it she perhaps had a chance of releasing her family, but then what? They couldn’t stay in the city. They would have to escape and live elsewhere. Topside? She couldn’t picture her Dad living up here with all the sky.
If she gave it to Aysmar and the stone made it’s way back to Vanweer then perhaps there was a chance both their families could go free? Marine didn’t trust Vanweer to stick to her word at all.
And what if it stayed here with the Topsiders? What did they need it for? If they kept it, would Vanweer give up looking? Doubtful.
Whatever the answer was, Marine felt fairly sure that the very worst outcome would be the stone staying Topside and away from her.
They arrived back at the hedge and a worried Kurann came bounding over immediately, “Where have you been?” He asked, “We have been so worried about you all night.”
“It’s a long story,” Marine said truthfully, “Where is Ezria?”
“I’m here.” Ezria appeared like smoke from behind Kurann, who was still worriedly looking Marine up and down.
“We found Aysmar.” Marine said, indicating the figure of Aysmar that was just coming in to a view about a meter behind Marine. Briar was bringing up the rear. “She has confessed to working for Vanweer. Vanweer has her wife. She wants the stone. I’ve told her you have it and brought her here to get it.”
Ezria nodded and rubbed her chin, “Well, we have a fe moments to come up with a plan.”
What is their plan?
- Capture Aysmar
- Capture Aysmar working with the Topsiders
- Give the stone to Aysmar
- Kill Aysmar
- Give her a different stone to give to Vanweer
- Send her below with a message. You can draft messages and I’ll pick my favourite.