Shi’ar had always been a refuge for the Aramis’. No matter how far they traveled, Shi’ar waited for them. Neither Artur nor Stefan would admit it, but this was the first time they weren’t pleased to see the towering spires of their home. They had left Duncan and Josef at the gateway. Artur had quickly scribbled a message for Christien and given it to them. They would reenter the gateway and go to Christien’s before riding into Green Hills.

Wearily, Artur and Stefan dismounted allowing others for once to take care of their horses. Stefan grinned as Jaella flew through the front door and into her father’s arms. He patted the other children on the head as he entered the front door. His dark eyes glanced around then he relaxed when he didn’t see his wife.

“Where’s Rik?” Artur asked finally managing to get inside the door.

Gwen smiled. “He’ll be back shortly,” she assured him. She frowned slightly at his expression. “He took a patrol out. You have time to bathe.”

Artur absently nodded. “Let me know when he’s back,” he said as he started up the steps.

After a moment, Stefan nodded at Gwen then followed his brother.

Gwen glanced at Elaina who also frowned. She started to say something, then glanced at the children. “Well, who’s going to help me?” she smiled. “We’ll have to prepare something special for tonight’s meal.”

As expected, the boys quickly disappeared. The girls smiled in triumph. One day the boys would find out that sweets awaited those who helped in the kitchen. But for now, the sweets belonged to them.

Elaina walked to the door and watched the boys playing in the courtyard. She saw the sun low on the horizon and thought about Christien. Her eyes narrowed for a moment then she nodded. Her mind was made up. It was just a matter of details now.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Stefan quietly entered his quarters somewhat surprised to see Devora reclining on the cushioned seats in the front room. “Are you ill?” he asked.

Devora slowly sat up. “Do you care?” she asked waspishly.

Stefan frowned. “I have too much on my mind to argue with you,” he entered their bedroom.

Devora followed. “You slept with her, didn’t you!” she yelled.

“That’s none of your business!” Stefan snapped over his shoulder.

“I’m your wife!” Devora blinked back tears. “What do you mean it’s none of my business?”

“I mean that you are my wife,” Stefan answered coldly. “And you will remain my wife. Neither of us can change that. But what is between Careen and myself is between the two of us. It doesn’t concern you...or anyone else.”

“How dare you?” Devora angrily blazed. “She just appears, and you suddenly forget that you’re married? That you have a duty towards me? You said you loved me!”

“I did,” Stefan admitted suddenly very tired. “But this is different.”

“I imagine it is,” Devora nodded bitterly. “That bitch.”

Stefan suddenly swung around anger shooting from his dark eyes. Frightened, Devora instinctively stepped back.

“Don’t ever...ever bring this up again,” Stefan warned in a cold voice. “Or I swear by all the Gods, Devora, I’ll go to the Wastelands to live.” He glanced around. “This chamber is yours. I’ll have my things moved to the smaller chamber.”

“The one that would have been for our children,” Devora couldn’t resist taunting. “What about your promises to me about children, Stefan?”

“Leave it alone!” Stefan shouted. “I’ve warned you!” He angrily slammed the door behind him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Be prepared to come home if I need you. Artur

Christien frowned as he studied his brother’s message. Then he glanced at his friends. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

Duncan eloquently shrugged. The gesture usually meant he might not be able to swear what he knew was the truth but he was pretty sure he was right.

Josef hesitated. “I know Artur and Stefan argued about a woman. I think her name was Careen,” he finally admitted.

“Stefan stayed every night with her,” Duncan half-smiled not sure of Christien’s reaction. “That was no secret.”

Christien cursed under his breath. “What is he thinking?” he muttered.

Duncan grinned. “I can tell you what he’s thinking,” he teased.

“Duncan, stop,” Josef groaned.

Christien shook his head. “How did the negotiations go?” he asked.

“Pretty well,” Josef nodded. “I just hope it goes as well in Green Hills.”

“Be careful, both of you,” Christien frowned at their expressions. “I expect to hear from you in a couple of days.”

“Ready to ride to the rescue?” Duncan teased.

“If necessary,” Christien had to grin back.

“Don’t worry,” Josef mounted his horse.

“I always worry,” Christien pointed out.

He heard Duncan’s laughter ringing in his ears as he watched them ride towards the Green Hills border. He glanced back down at the message from Artur and frowned. With a sigh he turned back towards the almost completed wall. With luck they might get another level finished before dark.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Stefan saw Rik riding through the front gate. He glanced at the boys. “Go find Artur and tell him to meet Rik and me out here,” he ordered.

The boys blinked at his unusually harsh tone but quickly obeyed. “Wonder where we can hide to listen?” Shiloh mused as they ran inside.

They met Artur on the steps and told him what Stefan had said.

“You boys stay inside with Gwen,” Artur ordered his eyes narrowed.

“But we were...” Trainor started to explain.

“Stay!” Artur snapped.

The boys instinctively stepped back against Gwen and looked up at her. “I think perhaps you’d better stay inside,” she advised. She looked over at Elaina. “However, he didn’t say anything about us going outside.”

Elaina grinned. “Don’t argue,” she looked at the boys. She looked over her shoulder at the girls. “You children begin eating,” she advised. “I think we might be a while.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“You’re back!” Rik grinned seeing his brothers. “You’re early, too. The negotiations must have gone well.”

“They did,” Artur nodded. He gave his brother an even look. “But we have to talk.”

Rik dismounted and tossed the reins to one of his men. Removing his gloves, he started walking with his brothers. “Tell me,” he said his eyes slightly narrowing.

Artur hesitated. Stefan glanced at Rik then took a deep breath. “The alliance between Rhyane, Woodlands, Shi’ar, and the Wastelands is in place,” he began. “Odan and Macedin, Eldrin’s commanders will be in touch to coordinate military tactics. His witches are concentrating on finding the rest of Maxen’s Stones. The Wastelands will also acknowledge Paolo as the rightful Lord of Elhalyn.”

“So all’s well,” Rik grinned. “That should give Axter something to think about.” He glanced at Artur. “What’s wrong?” He turned to Stefan. “Don’t tell me you...”

Stefan flushed. “That’s between Careen and myself,” he broke in.

“And Devora?” Rik frowned.

“That’s my concern,” Stefan’s voice hardened.

“Stop it, Rik!” Artur snapped. “That’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?” Rik reluctantly looked at Artur not willing to drop the matter. He stared in partial amazement as Artur looked away. “What is it?” he asked softly.

“The Caliph...Eldrin...” Artur took a deep breath and faced Rik. “He’s Trainor, Rik. Your son.”

Rik stared at Artur in silence. Then he slowly shook his head. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “Trainor..died, Artur. You know that.”

“That’s what we thought,” Artur nodded. “But he survived. With the help of the Prophet, he says. He went to the Wastelands and...became Caliph.”

Rik looked at Stefan who slowly nodded. “He said he never got word to you because it was better you thought him dead,” he explained. “Now he can’t leave the Wastelands or he’ll die.”

Rik glanced at Artur. “You believe this?” he asked.

“No,” Artur snapped.

“Yes,” Stefan said somewhat reluctantly. When they looked at him, he shrugged. “I’m not saying I understand or like it. But I don’t believe he’s lying.”

“You’re sure?” Rik stared at Artur. “You’re positive it’s Trainor?”

“From the moment I saw him,” Artur met Rik’s intense look evenly.

Rik’s face slowly turned red. “Alive,” he hissed. “All these years that I...” He abruptly turned away and stalked back to where the rest of his men were dismounting.

Artur and Stefan exchanged worried looks and followed.

Rik snatched the reins of a horse from one of his men and quickly mounted.

“Where are you going?” Artur demanded.

“Those damn fortifications aren’t done!” Rik angrily shouted. “I don’t know why Christien can’t seem to get it done but I will!”

Before anyone could say anything, Rik wheeled the horse around and galloped towards the front gate.

Stefan eyed Artur questioningly. “Don’t you think somebody should go with him?” he asked. “Christien doesn’t know what’s going on.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” Artur mused. He shrugged seeing Gwen and Elaina walking towards them. “Christien isn’t going to take Rik’s tongue-lashing lying down. He’ll get it out of his system. Besides, I sent Christien a message that I might need him to come home. When Rik shows up, he’ll know there’s something’s going on besides building a fortification.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Christien gingerly leaned against the partially-completed wall automatically rubbing his aching back. It made him feel a little better to see Starra walking almost as stiffly. Not for the first time, Christien silently cursed the necessity of building strong sturdy walls. The sun was quickly disappearing behind the mountains. The workers were putting away their tools thankful the days’ work was completed.

He pushed himself away from the wall and began walking to his quarters. Starra automatically fell in behind him. Ever since Christien had sent Elaina back to Shi’ar, Starra had taken to keeping Christien company. Otherwise, he forgot to eat or sleep. He was a study in Aramis determination to finish a detested job quickly.

They’d barely reached Christien’s quarters when they heard the guard at the front gate shouting a warning. They whirled around Christien’s hand on the hilt of his sword.

“It’s Lord Rik!” the guard shouted obviously surprised.

“Rik?” Christien frowned remembering Artur’s message.

Starra’s eyes narrowed as Rik galloped through the open gate. She saw the horse had been ridden hard.

“Rik, what are you doing here?” Christien asked as Rik flung himself off his horse. “Is something wrong at Shi’ar?” He nodded as one of the guards took the reins to lead the horse to the stable.

“I’m here to get this done!” Rik looked over his shoulder at the partially completed wall.

Christien exchanged a glance with Starra. He made a slight motion with his head for Starra to leave. As she hesitated, Rik turned back around.

“And you!” Rick jabbed his finger at Starra. “You listen to me! You're an Aramis, and you’ll be known as such!”

Christien’s eyes widened in surprise. He tensed seeing Starra beginning to frown.

“It’s about time you people remembered just who’s in charge!” Rik raged. “You’ll be publicly acknowledged as an Aramis, Starra!” He whirled around to face Christien. “And, you! Why aren’t these fortifications completed? Too busy playing Ranger to get some real work done?”

Christien took a deep breath fighting down his anger. “We’re working as fast as we can,” he finally grated out. “It takes time to build walls as thick as you want them.”

Rik looked around. “I can see just how hard you’re working,” he sneered.

“We’ve been...” Starra started to explain.

“When I want to hear your opinion, I’ll ask for it!” Rik shouted. “Right now, I’m talking with him!”

“Considering you’ve been sitting comfortably at Shi’ar surrounded by your family, Rik, I don’t think you’re in a position to judge how hard anyone’s been working,” Christien seethed.

Rik suddenly struck Christien across the face knocking him to the ground. Starra instinctively stepped between the two brothers, looking at Rik in amazement.

Christien slowly shook his head to clear it. Although not as physically big as either Artur or Stefan, Rik was deceptively strong. Angrily, Christien got to his feet. But before he could say anything, Rik turned and walked away.

“He wants this done, he’ll get it done,” Christien angrily muttered before turning to walk away.

Starra watched Rik disappear into Christien’s quarters. She turned and saw Christien snatching up tools to work on the wall. She took a deep breath trying to figure out which of them was the more stubborn. After a few moments, she followed Rik.

“Where’s the food!” Rik was yelling as she entered Christien’s quarters.

“I doubt there is any,” Starra closed the door behind her. When Rik turned around, she put her hands on her hips. “Christien’s usually too tired to eat. I usually bring something over and make him eat.”

“Playing mother hen?” Rik jeered.

“Making sure he doesn’t starve to death...or work himself into exhaustion,” Starra snapped back. “You listen to me, Lord Rik!” She ignored his cold smile when she used his title. “You wanted this done, and he’s doing it. He’s up before dawn to take out a patrol so the Green Hills troops can see there’s still a military presence. He works on those walls. He patrols in the afternoon. He works on the walls. Everyone works until almost dark. Except now.”

“What are you talking about?” Rik snapped.

“Christien’s out there with a few men, who probably don’t want you hitting them the same way you hit your brother, in the torchlight trying to move those heavy stones!” Starra shouted.

“That’s ridiculous,” Rik shook his head.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Starra prodded. “I don’t know what more you think can be done!” She turned to go then looked back. “You can proclaim whatever you want, Lord Rik. That doesn’t mean I have to acknowledge it.” She ignored his shouted command to return and slammed the door behind her.

Half an hour later, Rik opened the door. “Those fools,” he muttered seeing that Starra had joined Christien, Mikhail, and a few other men at the walls. He walked across the courtyard towards them.

Mikhail saw Rik approaching and nudged Starra. She silently nodded and hissed a warning to Christien. Christien’s eyes narrowed but he continued working.

“That’s enough,” Rik quietly told Mikhail. “Take your men and get some rest.”

Mikhail exchanged a glance with Starra then nodded. They were grateful not only to quit working but not have to get involved in an Aramis family brawl.

Rik climbed up to where Starra and Christien were working. “That’s enough,” he said firmly. “You can’t do this in the dark.”

“What did you expect?” Christien snarled slowly leaning against one of the larger stones. “Did you really think this would be completed in a couple of weeks?”

“No,” Rik shook his head. He wearily sat down and stared at Starra.. “I won’t do anything about you, Starra. I promised that before and I promise it again.” He forced a smile. “I’m not used to dealing with a sister. I should use nicer words when talking with you.”

Starra slightly smiled. “As you wish,” she shrugged. She glanced from one to the other then slowly walked away.

“Let me see,” Rik reached out to turn Christien’s face towards the torchlight. When Christien tried to jerk away, Rik leaned forward. “Not too bad,” he said in relief. “Elaina would be furious if I really hurt you.” He looked away from Christien’s angry glare. “You’re doing an excellent job here,” Rik nodded as he looked around. “Better than what anyone could expect. Now that Artur and Stefan are back, they can take turns here and let you come home.”

Christien studied Rik closely. He remembered Artur’s message and his eyes narrowed. “Josef and Duncan said the negotiations went well,” he sat down across from Rik.

Rik absently nodded. “Do you remember Trainor?” he quietly asked.

Christien frowned. “Of course I remember Trainor,” he answered. “I haven’t been gone from home that long.”

“Not that Trainor,” Rik slightly smiled. “The other son.”

Christien frowned. “Vaguely,” he admitted. “He was the same age as Stefan...and Starra. I think I was nine when he died.”

Rik absently nodded again. He stared into the darkness for a few moments. “In some ways, I looked on you like a son,” he quietly said. “After Trainor died, I mean. I never stopped thinking of you as my brother, but sometimes I pretended you were my son.”

Christien stared at his brother in surprise.

“Artur and Stefan told me that Trainor’s alive,” Rik continued. “He’s called Eldrin now and is Caliph of the Wastelands.”

“What?” Christien leaned forward. “Trainor? Alive?”

Rik nodded. “Artur recognized him even after all these years,” he explained.

“How?” Christien asked after a moment.

Rik shrugged. “Something about being rescued by the Prophet and forbidden to leave the Wastelands,” he answered. “To be honest, I don’t remember much of what they said.” He shrugged and stared back into the darkness. “I suppose I had to lash out at someone for something,” he continued. “You and Starra just happened to be the unlucky ones.”

“What are you going to do?” Christien asked after a moment.

“Go to the Wastelands,” Rik decided. “I have to know if this is really Trainor.”

“Artur could have been mistaken,” Christien offered.

“I doubt it,” Rik shook his head. “If Artur had the slightest doubt about this, he wouldn’t have told me.”

Christien nodded after a moment. “Take Gwen with you,” he suggested.

“Why?” Rik asked in surprise.

Christien half-shrugged. “To keep you from hitting Trainor..Eldrin...whoever he is,” he pointed out.

Rik flushed slightly. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he muttered.

“Whoever the Caliph is, I doubt it would serve our cause if you hit him,” Christien winced as he stood. “I’m going to bed.”

“You need to eat first,” Rik stood and carefully climbed down. “I’ll send Stefan to replace you tomorrow with some fresh men. You all look like you could use some rest away from here.”

“I can finish the job,” Christien snapped.

“I’m still sending Stefan,” Rik argued. “He needs some time to think about how he’s going to straighten out his mess with Devora.”

Christien groaned. “I’m not getting involved in that,” he said firmly. “I like Careen. She helped us. She helped keep Elaina alive until Fawn arrived. But Devora’s family.”

Rik slightly frowned. “That meant something once,” he murmured.

Christien frowned but didn’t reply.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Don’t worry, Elaina,” Stefan grinned as he prepared to ride out the next afternoon. “I’ll keep an eye on Christien. If I can, I’ll get him to leave for a while.” He grinned even more. “Want me to make up something that’ll get him back here for sure?”

“No!” Elaina half-laughed. “He’d be furious if you did that.”

“I’d be counting on you to save me,” Stefan teased. He glanced over her shoulder to see Devora standing in the doorway glaring at him. He turned and mounted his horse. Without a word to his wife, he whirled his horse around and led his men down the hill towards the gateway.

Elaina turned to see Devora disappearing back inside. She shivered, suddenly cold even standing in the bright sunlight.

Stefan halted his men at the gateway. “I have something special for you,” he turned to one of his men and handed him a message. “Go to the Wastelands. Make sure this is given to Careen. Then return to me in Elhalyn.” When the man hesitated, Stefan grinned. “Lord Rik won’t be leaving for the Wastelands until tomorrow.”

The man took the message with a sigh. He just hoped no one else would find out. With a silent nod, he disappeared into the gateway.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“He’s bringing her to him.”

Devora’s mind spun as the words whirled around her.

“You know he’s replaced you with her.”

“I’m his wife,” Devora whispered. “He promised me. He swore!”

“Promises mean nothing when a woman like Careen is involved. He probably isn’t to blame. He’s just taking what’s being offered. But he does seem to be taking it very willingly.”

Devora took a ragged breath. “I’ll teach him!” she swore. “He’s not the only one who can take a lover.”

“That could be dangerous. Are you sure you can do it without getting caught? Who around here would take the chance?”

“You would,” Devora looked up her blue eyes never wavering.

“Yes, I would. You deserve to be cherished. You deserve to be the only one. He deserves to be betrayed.”

“I swear he’ll pay for this!” Devora’s hands curled into fists.

“Ride out this afternoon. Make sure you’re alone. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Devora moaned slightly as a warm mouth pressed against her neck.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Late the next morning, Rik halted in front of the gateway. He glanced at Gwen who easily sat astride her horse beside him. “Are you sure you want to come with me?” he quietly asked. “It might not be pleasant.”

Gwen’s eyebrows rose in mock surprise. “As though I’ve never seen a couple of Aramis’ fighting,” she scoffed, putting her hand on Rik’s arm. “If you want me to stay here, I will. But I think I should go.”

Rik slowly nodded. “Christien’s right,” he sighed. “I probably won’t do anything silly if you’re with me.”

“As though that ever stopped you,” Gwen muttered loud enough for him to hear.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Simon waited patiently by the gateway. He smiled as Rik led his people though. He hoped the Lord of Shi’ar wouldn’t want to see Careen. Rik would probably be furious that she’d left the Wasteland to join Stefan in Elhalyn. He knew both Evan and Odan were furious about her actions. Only Eldrin’s personal intervention had prevented them from going after her. But Simon knew there would be an angry confrontation when she returned.

“Welcome to Dedresia, Lord Rik,” Simon greeted. He bowed to Gwen. “Lady Gwen, a pleasure to see you again.”

“Thank you, Simon,” Gwen smiled as Rik helped her dismount. She stared at the city behind him. “What a marvelous place!”

“Wait until you see the marketplace,” Simon smiled exchanging a wink with Rik. “Then you will be amazed.”

Gwen grinned at Rik who was shaking his head. “I’ll make a point of it,” she assured him.

“This is a private visit,” Rik murmured to Simon as they entered through the gates of Dedresia.

“Yes, I know,” Simon nodded. “Eldrin asked that I bring you to him. He’s at the stables. He’s just purchased a new string of horses.” He smiled. “You’ll find that nothing like good horseflesh will attract a man of the Wastelands.” He grinned at Gwen. “That and a beautiful woman, of course.”

“Of course,” Gwen nodded with a sigh. “Where exactly is this marketplace?”

“Later,” Rik patted her arm relieved that both she and Simon were taking a light-hearted approach to this visit. He was even more grateful that Simon seemed to be taking his time in escorting them to the stables.

He stopped when he saw Eldrin walking up the path with a larger man. “That’s Odan,” Simon mentioned. “He’s become the commander of the troops here in Dedresia.” He kept to himself this was Careen’s brother.

Gwen looked from Rik to Eldrin. There was no real physical resemblance between the two. In fact, Eldrin resembled Stefan more than anyone else. Yet there was something in the way the two eyed each other that bespoke of kinship.

“Aren’t these horses magnificent?” Simon carefully steered Rik and Gwen towards the corral.

Rik slowly followed watching from the corner of his eyes as Eldrin spoke quietly to Odan. The man glared at Rik until Eldrin put a hand on his arm and spoke quietly again. Then Odan slowly nodded and turned to walk away.

Gwen leaned against the corral as Simon had turned around to talk to Rik. He also saw Odan slowly walking away and quietly sighed in relief.

Suddenly Gwen cried out as she felt a sharp sting in her arm. She jerked away holding her arm in pain.

Simon whirled around and quickly pulled her back. “Sand scorpion!” he yelled in warning. He thrust Gwen at Rik and backed them away.

Odan ran over spotting the scorpion scurrying along the ground. With a grimace, he brought a large booted foot down. The scorpion wiggled under his boot as Odan ground his foot back and forth smashing the scorpion. Then he used his dagger and pinned it to the ground.

“Gwen!” Rik exclaimed as Gwen crumpled in his arms. He and Simon lowered her to the ground. “Gwen!” Rik began lightly slapping her cheeks.

Simon closed his eyes for a moment then reopened them. “Fawn is on her way,” he assured Rik.

Gwen lay in Rik’s arms her eyes wide gasping for air.

“She’ll be too late,” Eldrin said quietly from behind Rik. He moved Simon aside and knelt next to Rik. “Lay her down,” he ordered.

Rik hesitated then obeyed as Simon squeezed his shoulder. Odan walked over and pulled Rik back. As Rik began to fight him, Simon put a hand on his chest. “Don’t interfere,” he cautioned Rik. “It’s her only chance.”

Rik watched with narrowed eyes as Eldrin knelt next to Gwen. Slowly putting his hands on her chest, he closed his eyes. Gradually a soft green glow appeared around his hands and spread throughout Gwen’s body.

“What is he doing?” Rik demanded.

“Trying to save her life,” Simon assured him not taking his eyes from Eldrin.

Rik shivered as Fawn appeared next to him. She saw what Eldrin was doing and bit her lip.

“The poison acted too quickly,” Simon explained. “It was a fully developed scorpion.”

Even Rik could see that Gwen was breathing more easily, and he began to relax. After a few minutes, the glow began to fade. When it had completely disappeared, Eldrin sat back and opened his eyes.

Simon released Rik who knelt next to Gwen. Fawn placed a hand on Gwen’s chest and nodded. “Let’s get her to the palace,” she suggested. She smiled at Rik. “She’ll be fine.”

Simon walked over to where the dead scorpion had been pinned to the ground. “I’m sorry about the dagger, Odan,” he said over his shoulder. Simon pointed a finger at the scorpion and it suddenly burst into flames.

Odan shrugged. The poison from the scorpion’s body had ruined the blade. “I’ll make sure the ground is dug up so the animals don’t get into the poison that’s spilled,” he assured Eldrin. Then he quickly reached out to catch Eldrin before he collapsed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rik hesitated then softly knocked on the door. After a few moments it opened. A beautiful woman with titian-colored hair opened the door. “I’m Rik,” he said when she simply stared at him.

“I’m Ana, Eldrin’s wife,” the woman reluctantly opened the door. “How is your wife?”

“She’ll be fine,” Rik said with relief. “Fawn said she needed to remain quiet for the rest of the day.”

“She’s fortunate,” Ana coolly replied. “Had Eldrin not been there she would have died,” she continued pointedly.

“How is...Eldrin?” Rik asked.

“He’ll recover,” Ana calmly motioned for Rik to take a seat. “He’s sleeping now. I won’t have him disturbed.”

Rik slowly sat down. “You know about him...and me?” he assumed.

“Of course,” Ana nodded with a slight smile. “Eldrin and I have no secrets.”

Rik got to his feet almost aimlessly wandering around the room. “Then you know just how difficult this is,” he said.

“I know how difficult it’s been for Eldrin for years,” Ana replied curtly. “And how difficult it will always be for him.”

Rik turned to look at her. “I’ve only known for the past couple of days that my son’s been alive all these years,” he pointed out equally curt. “That’s not something a man can easily accept.”

Ana shrugged. “I really don’t care if you or any of the Aramis’ accept it or not,” she replied. “My concern is Eldrin...and our son.” She leaned back deceptively casual. “Your brother certainly didn’t seem to accept it.”

Rik waved a hand in dismissal. “Artur knows how hard I took my son’s death,” he explained. “His anger was more for me than for himself.”

“Once Artur was gone, Eldrin calmed down and forgave him,” Ana coldly replied. “He said he understood what Artur had done.” She met Rik’s eyes. “I’m not so forgiving.”

“So I can see,” Rik slightly smiled. “I’m glad.”

That statement took Ana by surprise.

“Why did Eldrin collapse?” Rik asked down across from her. “Fawn healed Elaina but she never collapsed.”

“Eldrin doesn’t heal,” Ana explained carefully. “He takes the pain...hurt...injury...into himself.” She looked away. “In this case, the scorpion’s poison.”

“You mean...” Rik looked shocked.

“He took the poison from your wife into himself,” Ana snapped. “He’ll recover. He always recovers. Even when it kills him.”

Rik slowly got to his feet. “They didn’t explain that,” he mumbled.

“It’s not a well-known fact,” Ana admitted. “Simon and Fawn know. I don’t know if Odan does.”

“Is that why he can’t leave the Wastelands?” Rik asked turning back around.

Ana shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “And I don’t care.”

Rik nodded. “Can I see him?” he quietly asked. “I won’t disturb him.”

Ana hesitated then nodded. Rik followed her into a back chamber where she quietly opened the door. Eldrin lay on the bed his face pale but his breathing was deep and regular.

Rik carefully walked past Ana and stood next to the bed. He stared down at Eldrin for several moments. Then he slowly reached out and brushed Eldrin’s hair from his face. Then he abruptly turned around and brushed past Ana.

“Does he do that a lot?” Rik asked trying to keep his voice even as Ana followed him into the front room.

“Whenever it’s needed,” Ana admitted. She unconsciously wrung her hands. “It’s always worse after a battle. He won’t stop. He can’t be stopped. He just keeps trying to save everyone.” She turned to face Rik. “That’s why I hate the idea of what’s coming.”

Rik slowly nodded. “A lot of people don’t like it,” he pointed out. “But there’s not much we can do, is there?”

“No,” Ana admitted. “I wish there were.”

Rik suddenly grinned. “Don’t blame Artur too much,” he urged. “He sees things in black and white. He doesn’t have much patience with things he can’t see or touch.”

“And you?” Ana resolutely faced Rik. “Do I need to protect Eldrin from you?”

“No,” Rik replied softly. He glanced past Ana towards Eldrin’s room. “Whatever the two of us can salvage....” He shrugged. “I have no quarrel with Eldrin.”

“And with Trainor?” Ana prodded.

Rik grinned again. “Nor with Trainor,” he promised. “And not just because he saved Gwen.”

Ana slowly nodded. “Good,” she half-smiled. “Would you like to see your grandson?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Eldrin smiled as he weakly leaned against the garden wall. Gwen sat quietly in a chair talking with Ana as they watched Rik try to find Benami who was pretending to hide among the shrubs. Rik kept walking past Benami’s hiding place letting the boy dart down the path to another hiding place. The garden was situated so that the evening sun didn’t directly strike it, allowing the child to take advantage of the deepening shadows.

Then Rik saw Eldrin and stopped. The two men stared at each other silently for a moment then Rik started walking towards him. Ana softly called for her son who reluctantly joined her and Gwen.

Gwen held her breath as Rik stood in front of Eldrin. She closed her eyes with relief as Rik carefully pulled Eldrin against him and hugged him close. Eldrin’s arms closed around his father, his face clearly showing his quiet pleasure. She exchanged a relieved look with Ana then began listening to Benami’s childish chatter.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Christien didn’t like it...but he couldn’t argue much about it. Careen had shown up the day after Stefan. It only took one quick look to see the happiness that lay between them. Starra had shook her head but remained silent. Christien had welcomed Careen cautiously. He waited until he and Stefan were alone before challenging him about Careen.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Christien quietly asked. “Bringing Careen here?”

“That’s none of your business,” Stefan smiled coldly.

“Of course it is,” Christien said wearily. “I’ll tell you what I told Rik. I like Careen. She helped keep Elaina alive until Fawn arrived. I owe her a debt. But Devora’s your wife. She’s part of our family.”

“Do you want me interfering in your marriage?” Stefan demanded. He nodded when Christien’s eyes narrowed. “No, I didn’t think so. Don’t interfere in mine.”

Christien ran a hand through his hair. “We’re in Elhalyn,” he mused. “Technically, I’m in charge here since I hold this in Paolo’s name. Even if Rik disapproves, he can’t do anything.”

“You’ve got to have everything neat and in place, don’t you, Christien?” Stefan laughed. “Thank the Gods I’m not so picky.” He stood up and stretched. “You waited part of your life lusting and wanting a woman who was married to someone else. If Brandor had lived, you would never have said a word to her and been miserable. I don’t intend to follow your lead.”

“Fine,” Christien snapped. “At least you’ll have someone to soothe your hurts at the end of the day.”

“If Rik thinks I’m going to slave away like you’ve been doing, he’s crazy!” Stefan yelled. “Careen’s going to help us build that wall!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

True to Stefan’s words, Careen used her magic to lift the heavy stones. It was a bit unsettling to see her standing a distance away merely wiggling her fingers and watching stones (so heavy it took almost ten men to lift) easily settling into place.

Christien didn’t like it....but he couldn’t argue much about it. With Careen’s help, the work progressed a lot faster. The men were happier even if some of them didn’t like that Careen spent her nights with Stefan.

But Stefan and Careen were the only ones unhappy when the walls were completed. She returned to the Wastelands early one morning. Christien found Stefan atop one of the finished walls staring at the nearby mountains. “What are you going to do?” Christien gently asked.

Stefan stood quietly for several moments. “What would you have done if Rik had said he wouldn’t make the match between you and Elaina?” he asked in return. “If, for whatever reason, he didn’t want the marriage to occur?”

Christien took a deep breath staring at his brother. “I don’t know,” he finally answered.

“Neither do I,” Stefan turned and walked away.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I’ll miss you not being here,” Christien teased Starra as she saddled her horse a week later. He grinned when she shot him a level look. “I will,” he assured her. “Making sure I eat. Making sure I sleep. You’ll make a wonderful mother some day.”

Starra gave him a quick look up and down. He was obviously exhausted and had lost weight. The dark circles under his eyes silently told of many hours of missed sleep. “Doesn’t look like I did a very good job,” she pointed out.

Christien grinned even more. “Not for lack of trying,” he assured her. He looked around. “At least we’ve gotten it done. The workers can go home, and this can be just a military settlement.”

“Just as long as you don’t go tearing off into Green Hills after your friends,” Starra reminded him.

Christien gave her a sour look. “I expected as much from Duncan,” he shook his head. “But Josef should have sent a more detailed message than ‘Everything’s fine’.” His eyes suddenly began twinkling. “Maybe Duncan’s message to you was a little more...explicit?” He openly grinned when Starra slightly flushed. “Just what did he say?” he prodded.

“None of your business,” Starra snapped. “Nonsense. It was all nonsense.”

“That’s Duncan,” Christien nodded. “I think he’s really fallen for you.” He grinned. “Play him just right, and you could wind up the next Lady of the Woodlands.”

“Now YOU are talking nonsense,” Starra said briskly. She turned her head as wagons began rolling through the open gates. “Looks like the supplies are here.”

Christien sighed. “Now I know what Rik’s job is like,” he moaned. “Taking care of all this mess and making it work.”

Starra snorted. “Rik’s job is to make sure someone else does the work.” She mounted her horse and stared down at him. “You should do the same.”

Christien half-smiled and shook his head. He watched her ride out with a feeling of loneliness. He took a deep breath and helped unload the wagons directing supplies to the various buildings. Some of the soldiers had brought their wives and even children since this would be a permanent garrison.

“Christien! Christien!”

Christien swung around startled by the sound of a child’s voice screaming his name. He stood almost in shock as he saw Paolo, astride a fat pony, riding across the courtyard. Then he grinned. “Paolo!” he yelled back walking forward.

Paolo awkwardly brought the trotting pony to a halt and leaned over for Christien to take him. With a laugh, Christien pulled the boy into his arms and gave him a tight hug.

“I missed you! Did you miss me?” Paolo hugged him back. “Did you see me riding? Wasn’t I good?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Christien laughed. “Where are the others?”

“They didn’t get to come,” Paolo’s blue eyes twinkled. “They’re mad. But Uncle Artur said they could come some other time.” He twisted around to look over his shoulder. “Mama’s here. She went over there.” He pointed towards the healers’ building.

Christien caught his breath. He glanced around at the line of wagons to be unloaded. “Come on, you can help me,” he reluctantly turned away. “And tell me everything that’s been going on.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was late afternoon by the time all the wagons were unloaded. Paolo tiredly trudged along with Christien to the healers’ building only to be told Elaina had gone to Christien’s quarters. Paolo groaned he looked across the courtyard. With a grin, Christien picked him up and carried him towards his quarters.

When he opened the door, he inhaled the pleasant smells of a hot cooked meal. He grinned at Elaina and quickly kissed her. “Paolo’s tired,” he explained with a grin.

“Just Paolo?” Elaina asked silently noting his worn expression.

Christien shrugged putting Paolo down. “Better go wash up,” he advised. “Looks like we get to eat before you go back.”

He missed the puzzled look on Paolo’s face as the boy disappeared into the back. Instead, he pulled Elaina into his arms. “Wish we could have more time,” he murmured.

“We’re not leaving tonight,” Elaina smiled.

“No?” Christien’s eyes lightened. “I guess I’m due for a lucky break.” Reluctantly he moved back as Paolo ran back into the room.

Elaina shook her head at her son. “Wash your hands completely,” she remonstrated.

Christien grinned. “Come on, Paolo,” he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s do as we’re told.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“You need to return to Shi’ar. It’s going to be dark soon.”

Devora reluctantly began dressing. She felt him watching her as she slowly covered her body.

“Does anyone suspect?”

“No,” Devora shook her head. “No one pays much attention to me. They’re afraid of confronting Stefan.” She blinked back tears. “People I thought were my friends...Gwen, Elaina...none of them say anything.”

“I imagine his brothers say something.”

Devora shrugged. “They haven’t told him to stop betraying me,” she declared.

“Or he’s not listening. I told you. A woman like Careen can make a man do anything.”

Devora looked up. “Do you think she’s done something to Rik and Artur?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s capable of doing anything to get what she wants.”

Devora bit her lip. “I don’t know what to do.” She relaxed when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Giving in to the pressure, she lay back down.

“Do just what you’ve been doing.”

Devora smiled into the eyes that seemed to claim her soul.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Poor Paolo,” Christien grinned tucking the blanket around the sleeping boy. “He worked hard today.”

Elaina gently kissed Paolo’s forehead then led the him out of the room, closing the door behind her. As Christien sat back down at the table, he began picking food out of the serving tray. Elaina watched, a little worried as he continued to wolf down food as though he’d not eaten for days.

Suddenly Christien reached out and pulled Elaina onto his lap. “I’m glad you’re staying tonight,” he murmured.

“Think you can stop eating long enough?” Elaina teased. When Christien flushed, she laughed. “I’ll have to have a few words with Starra. She promised me she’d watch out for you.”

“She did, did she?” Christien had to grin. “She tried, Elaina. She just couldn’t be everywhere.”

“Like you were?” Elaina brushed back his hair. “You look exhausted.”

“Not that exhausted,” Christien picked her up and headed for his room. “When are you leaving tomorrow?”

Elaina quickly kissed him. “We’re not leaving,” she murmured between kisses.

Christien almost missed what she was saying. Then he stopped and stared at her. “What do you mean, you’re not leaving?” he asked staring at her.

“We can talk about it later, can’t we?” Elaina’s mouth moved across his neck, her hot breath sending chills through his body.

Christien hesitated obviously torn between what he wanted to do and what he thought he should do.

Finally Elaina sighed. “Paolo and I aren’t leaving,” she explained. “We’re staying with you.”

“No,” Christien shook his head putting Elaina on her feet. “No, you can’t.”

“Why not?” Elaina demanded her hands on her hips. “Isn’t this a safer place now than it was before?”

“Yes,” Christien admitted. “But it’s still a military camp.”

“Some of the others have their families with them,” Elaina pointed out. “Besides, if you’re supposed to be holding Elhalyn for Paolo, we should be here.”

“Don’t do this to me,” Christien mumbled running hand through his hair. “I don’t want either you or Paolo in danger.”

“I don’t want us in danger,” Elaina took Christien’s hands into hers. She stared into his eyes. “But I don’t want us to be apart either. Paolo’s thrilled to be here. That’s all he’s talked about for days.”

Christien smiled obviously pleased.

“I promise I will take Paolo and run like a bunny if we’re attacked,” Elaina swore. “But until then, can’t we stay?”

Christien stared at her for a moment then pulled her into his arms. “I want you to stay,” he admitted burying his face in her hair. “I need you with me.”