“What are you so afraid of?” Ayla asked the question when she and Aeron were alone in the middle of the deserted camp. Each and every soldier, even the commander had dutifully retired. Ayla and Aeron were alone, two blondes stood in the middle of a dust bowl ringed with tents, one calm, one still panting with rage.
“I fear nothing.”
“That’s not true. Anger like yours does not arise without fear. I ask you again. What are you afraid of?”
Aeron breathed heavily for a few seconds before admitting her concerns. “These people are weak. Our enemy is strong. Clitera City is impenetrable. We will never take it. Ariadne will be displeased when we fail, and she will sacrifice us all.”
“That’s a reasonable fear to have,” Ayla said. “Ariadne is a fearsome goddess.”
“They do not know her,” Aeron said. “They think she is on our side. But I know what she really is and I know there are no sides for one such as her. She wants what she wants. We are nothing to her. I feel her in every breeze. I can scent her on the wind. She is watching us all and she is not pleased.”
“Have you told Kira any of this?”
Aeron shook her head curtly. “The commander’s life hangs in the balance as much as any of ours. Ariadne could turn her to a pile of mouldering bones at any moment. We are none of us safe. There is a fire at our back and another at our front and we are to be burned.”
“Why have you not fled, if that is the case?”
“Because I am not a coward,” Aeron replied. “Because this is all there is for me. I was made for war.”
“Yes,” Ayla agreed. “You were.” She smiled at the warrior, who was still trembling with rage. “I think you and I might have a similar purpose.”
“What is that?”
“I have decided to banish Ariadne.”
Aeron’s eyes widened and her skin grew pale. She shook her head emphatically and took three great steps back from Ayla, as if she feared being in her presence. “You cannot speak like that.”
“Oh I can,” Ayla said, folding her arms over her chest and standing quite still. She carried herself with a demeanour of perfect certainty, ignoring Aeron’s impulse to flee. “All beings have their weaknesses,” she said. “Even Ariadne.”
A fresh voice rose from the ether of nothingness, startling Aeron into an aggressive posture.
Ayla lifted her eyes to the heavens as if asking for strength. “I see you have discovered how to make an invisibility potion work, Lizling.”
“Do not call me that. It is not my name!”
“Lizelda? Lizward? Lizington? Lizben?”
“Stop it! Stop it at once!” The air between Aeron and Ayla was full of annoyance. “I have discovered your plan and I will inform Ariadne of it!”
“No!” The short cry preceded Aeron hurling herself at what seemed to be thin air, but which was most certainly Liz. The two women went to the ground, Aeron straddling the invisible spy.
“Enough, Aeron.” Ayla gave the command calmly. “That one is no threat.”
“I am the threatiest threat you will ever discover.”
Ayla crouched down, whispered a few words and Liz appeared suddenly. She was caught between Aeron’s thighs, pinned to the ground quite effectively. Her face was covered in dust and her clothing was twice as ragged as it had been when they last met. She was an unholy mess, her braids bedraggled, scratches across the bridge of her nose and cheeks as if she had been running through bushes.
“Tell me something,” Ayla said, still crouched there before her captive. “Have you ever actually met Ariadne?”
Liz frowned. “Well of course I have.”
“What does Ariadne look like?”
“She is… uh… she is beautiful.”
Ayla shook her head slowly. “You have never been in Ariadne’s presence, have you? Admit it.”
“Not yet,” Liz spat dust. “But I will be, once I earn it. Once I tell her what you are planning.”
“How do you intend to tell her what I am planning when you do not know where she is or how to find her?”
“That is my problem, not yours… OWWW!”
Liz squealed loudly, and for good reason. Aeron had leaned down and bitten her swiftly on the back of her neck. It was not a particularly vicious bite, she released as soon as she had done it, but it was no doubt painful none the less.
“Aeron, please,” Ayla said mildly. “I know this one just cries out for punishment, but we must pace ourselves.”
“Ow, that hurt.” There was a plaintive note to Liz’s complaint, which made sense for Aeron had broken the skin in a couple places and left an unpleasant looking red ring in the pale skin of her neck.
“It will need to be cleaned. Let her up.”
Aeron rose to her feet, keeping a close eye on Liz as Ayla ushered her little party back to Kira’s tent where her bag of many tricks was waiting. So was Kira. The commanding warrior was pacing the tent back and forth, a thunderous expression on her face which grew darker still when Aeron made her appearance.
“Sit down, Liz,” Ayla ordered. “I have something to clean that wound.”
“I cannot sit,” Liz complained. “Because someone beat me.”
“You can sit and you will,” Ayla said. “You have the choice of this bed or a hard stool.”
Grumbling, Liz lowered her bottom gingerly onto Kira’s bed. She winced as she put her weight fully down. “There is not a part of me that does not sting,” she said morosely. “But I will suffer for Ariadne as much as she calls for me to suffer.”
“I hope you are a glutton for suffering then,” Kira said. “Ariadne knows how to cause great suffering. It is her stock and trade.”
“You too are an ingrate!” Liz’s ire sparked. “There is not a single true believer here.”
“We know Ariadne,” Aeron said, her voice gravelly. “You imagine her. Who is the true believer?”
“I am,” Liz insisted. “Because I believe through faith. You only have knowledge. It is a poor substitute.”
For a second, all tension between Aeron, Kira and Ayla was lost as the three women exchanged incredulous looks.