The journey from Ayla’s home to Kira’s camp was short and eventful, but the aforementioned events paled into the past as Ayla and her little party arrived at their destination.
“Ayla.” Kira met them at the entrance of the camp. She was in full armor, gold edged black steel plates covering every inch of her impressive body. Only her head was bare, her braid wrapped about her head in usual style, her eyes narrowed with obvious irritation. “I’m fairly certain I asked you to keep these two away from here.”
“And I’m fairly certain I’m not one of your soldiers to be ordered about,” Ayla said smoothly. She met Kira’s gaze evenly, without concern. The warrior was still no match for the witch, no matter how great the armlette she commanded.
“Ayla doesn’t follow the laws of the land or of common decency, for that matter.” Liz appeared from the nearby forest. She was walking somewhat gingerly, and her gaze, when it landed on Ayla, was particularly bitter.
“Who is this?” Kira forgot her annoyance, her dark eyes focusing on Liz with no small amount of interest.
“I’m Liz,” Liz said boldly. “I’m Ariadne’s envoy and this witch’s whipping girl.”
Kira turned her gaze back to Ayla. “She looks just like her.”
“I know.” Ayla spoke the words almost like a ventriloquist, her lips clamped together to stop stray emotion from escaping.
“I don’t know what to think,” Ayla said curtly. She turned to Liz. “You may run along to Ariadne now, tell her of what has passed.”
“I will,” Liz said, chin raised. “She will wreak her vengeance upon you, and it will be full of venge.”
Kira snorted in amazement. “She even sounds like…”
“I don’t need to hear this,” Ayla cut Kira off shortly.
Liz was already off, running at a fast lope. That left Moon and Vix by Ayla’s side, both looking sheepish under Kira’s less than impressed stare.
“How long was it before they convinced you to come here? A day?”
“A matter of hours,” Ayla said. “What is it that has these two so very concerned?”
“Who knows? They are not soldiers,” Kira shrugged. “I imagine everything concerns them.”
“Ariadne’s plan must be stopped,” Vix said, finding her voice and her courage. “She is operating outside the purview of nature.”
“It would be easier to stop it if we knew what it was,” Ayla said. “But they cannot speak directly to the nature of the plan.”
“So two army dropouts tell you something is wrong and you drop everything and come rushing into a war zone to do… something about something?” A slow grin spread over Kira’s face. “You were bored.”
“A witch is never bored.”
“You were bored,” Kira laughed out loud. “You couldn’t stand being left out of the fun. Come along then, there is room in my tent for you. As for your guides, they can report to the usual quarters.”
Moon and Vix shot one another hopeful looks as they sloped off toward the canvas tents which held the general rank and file. That left Ayla and Kira alone, walking back through the camp toward the grand black tent in which Kira lived.
“You didn’t need to come,” Kira said, holding the tent flap open.
“You knew I would,” Ayla replied. “You knew what would happen when you left your little friends at my home. You wanted me here.”
Kira smirked. “It’s always nice having you around, Ayla.”
“I should thrash you for being so devious.”
“Don’t you have a whipping girl for that?” Kira began removing the heavy shoulder guards.
“She deserved everything she got,” Ayla replied firmly. “She’s impulsive, rude, mouthy…”
“And she looks a lot like Atrocious.”
“A passing resemblance,” Ayla said, trying to play it off. “She is not Atrocious. She is a disobedient, disrespectful…”
“Sounds like Atrocious to me.”
“Atrocious is gone.”
“I know.” Kira put her hand on Ayla’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sorry. This must be hard for you.”
“It’s another of Ariadne’s little games,” Ayla said grimly. “I am sure of it.”
“If it is, it’s a cruel one.”
“I’m afraid I may have taken it out on Liz somewhat,” Ayla sighed, taking a seat. She crossed one leg over the other, graceful even under pressure. Her hair was long and loose as always, flowing gently down her back and over her shoulders, nearly brushing the floor. “I have had little patience with her, and shown even less kindness.”
Kira shrugged as she removed her breastplate, revealing a leather tunic which conformed neatly to the lines of her body. “She didn’t seem too worse for wear.”
“It’s not her hide I worry about, so much as her heart. She is fanatical about Ariadne.”
“That won’t last long. Ariadne is the only goddess who does not want to be worshipped.”
“She wants to be a witch, but she has no magical aptitude at all,” Ayla rested her head on two of her fingers and sighed. “It’s quite sad.”
“Sad, maybe, but not your problem. Ariadne’s problem.”
Ayla nodded slowly, then clasped her hands together in her lap. “Are you going to tell me what the big secret is?”
“I don’t know what the big secret is,” Kira said. “I’m just a grunt. I bring the muscle.”
“And Ariadne brings the dark plots,” Ayla mused.
“Can’t argue with the goddess who grants eternal life,” Kira agreed. She settled herself down on her bed, arms behind her head.
There was a moment’s silence before Ayla responded. When she did it was in a casual tone which belied the significance of the statement. “Actually, I rather think you can. I intend to.”
“What?” Kira sat bolt upright. “What do you mean?”
“It means I tire of her tyranny.”
“So you are on the side of the Empress.”
“I am not on any side,” Ayla said. “This war does not concern me. The boundless goddess who sends innocents to do her work does.”
“I know you pledged your loyalty,” Ayla said, waving Kira’s concerns away with one long, elegant hand. “I do not expect your help. This is a matter between Ariadne and I.”
“No.” Kira stood up, shaking her head. She stood over Ayla, pointing a finger at her with a demeanour which was undeniably stern and staunch. If she had been addressing anyone other than Ayla, it might have had some effect. “This is your attempt at suicide.”
“Hardly.” Ayla’s lip curled slightly, as if the idea were beneath her.
“Ariadne will destroy you if you cross her. You know that. You’re counting on it. This is about Atrocious, isn’t it?”
The witch’s green eyes glittered. “Everything is.”