CHAPTER EIGHTEEN





Almost every soldier in Shi’ar was out looking for Jaella. Stefan and Christien quickly conferred with Rik then left to join the search. Elaina found herself immediately surrounded by the children all of whom were blaming themselves for Jaella’s disappearance.

“We didn’t hear a thing!” Paolo protested tears in his blue eyes. “She went to sleep with us in the playroom...then Levi woke up and she was gone!”

“I had to...had...well, I had something I needed to do!” Levi explained with an embarrassed air.

“I shouldn’t have gone to sleep.” Trainor’s lower lip trembled. “I knew she was really upset.”

“You couldn’t have known she would run away.” Elaina gave him a hug. With a glance at Rik, she herded the children upstairs.

“That’s it!” Rik smacked his hand on the table in front of him. “I’m going out, too!”

“You’re not strong enough!” Gwen immediately protested.

“Lady Gwen is correct,” Adriana coolly advised from the far end of the table. “Besides, with the others out looking for Jaella, someone in authority needs to be here.”

Rik gave her an angry look. “Are you this exasperating with Artur?” he demanded.

“Rik!” Gwen scolded.

Adriana smiled. “From what he’s told me, I probably am,” she admitted. “I didn’t mean to interfere...”

“No, you’re right,” Rik interrupted with a sigh. “I just...hate not being able to help her. I just hope Stefan or Christien find her first.”

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She was cold...she was hungry...and she was afraid to go home. Jaella curled up against a nearby rock feeling sorry for herself. She’d heard her father bellowing her name more than once during the night. But she’d kept moving and hiding. She once thought about going to Starra but she was almost always with Artur. And the others would have brought her to her father if she’d gone to them.

“Well, hello.”

Jaella quickly got to her feet spinning around. She saw a young brown-haired man holding the reins of his horse.

“Who are you?” Jaella demanded.

“Who are you?” The young man grinned.

“I asked first,” Jaella pointed out.

“I have business here.” He leaned against a nearby rock. “Mind if I rest my horse while we talk?”

“You’re here to see my uncle? Lord Rik?” Jaella asked.

“Actually to see Christien. I understand he’s not at Elhalyn. So I was hoping he’d be here.” The young man reached over to his horse. He glanced at Jaella and smiled. “Hungry? I’d be happy to share.”

“Thank you,” Jaella nodded.

“Let me guess.” The young man tossed her a breadcake. “Running away from home?”

“How did you know?” Jaella asked as she nibbled.

The young man laughed. “I doubt there’s been very many children who haven’t thought about running away from home. Some even do.” His dark eyes twinkled. “Most bring food with them.”

Jaella scowled. “I was afraid someone would hear me in the kitchen,” she admitted.

“So this was an impulse and not planned,” the young man guessed. He nodded to himself. “Where were you planning on going? It’s really not safe out here by yourself, you know.”

Jaella shrugged. “I know where to hide,” she said somewhat proudly. “They’ve been looking for me most of the night.”

“Have they?” The young man looked thoughtful. “You must be very good at hiding.”

“I guess you’ll tell them you saw me,” Jaella mumbled.

“Is Christien at Shi’ar?” the young man suddenly asked.

“No,” Jaella shook her head.

“Then there’s no need for me to go there.” The young man stood to remount his horse. “Can I take you somewhere? Like I said, it’s really not safe out here by yourself.”

Jaella hesitated then her eyes widened as she saw the sparkling gem in his bracer. “Is that real?” she asked.

The man glanced down at his arm and smiled. “Actually, it is,” he said. “Would you like to see it? It’s a ruby.”

Jaella eagerly nodded and walked to his side. The young man held out his arm. As Jaella moved closer, he suddenly covered her mouth with his hand and slapped her hard. Jaella’s dark eyes rolled back in their sockets and she collapsed against him.

Lucas chuckled to himself as he lifted Jaella’s unconscious body onto his horse and mounted behind her. “The ladies just love pretty gems,” he remarked. He ripped a sleeve from her gown and dropped it next to the horse. He quickly looked around then created a whirlwind around them and disappeared.

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Artur curtly refused water from Starra who took a deep gulp. “She can’t have gotten far,” he repeated for the tenth time. “Where the hell is she?”

“Probably curled up somewhere asleep,” Starra observed. “Or trying to get back to the castle...if she’s not been there all the time.”

Artur irritably shook his head. “We looked in every nook and cranny,” he assured her. “She’s out here somewhere.”

Starra glanced at him curiously. She’d returned to Shi’ar leaving the defenses at Elhalyn in Mikhail’s hands. No one had said what led to Jaella’s disappearance but she’d seen the strain between Artur and Rik.

They turned their heads to see Stefan and Christien riding to join them. A quick conference left Stefan shaking his head. “On foot and in the dark?” He looked at the others. “She couldn’t have gone any farther from the castle than this. She’s somewhere close by.”

“We’ve decided that!” Artur snapped. He glared at his younger brother.

“We’ll find her,” Christien easily interrupted. “She’s probably just afraid to come out right now. What with everyone looking for her.”

Artur bit back a response and rode away.

“What happened?” Stefan asked Starra who shrugged.

“Well, I know where I’m going to look.” Stefan moved his horse away. “Everytime I thought about running away, I had that place in mind.”

“Everyone’s supposed to return to the castle by midday in case she’s been found!” Starra yelled as he rode away. She glanced at Christien. “What happened at Dedresia?”

“Josef raised the Sword of Maxen.” Christien rode slowly by her side. “Careen wound up speaking from the Orb. Not that the Prophecy told us much.” He glanced sideways at Starra. “Duncan sends his love.”

Starra turned her dark eyes towards Christien. “Are we at war?” she asked.

Christien tried not to smile. “Looks like,” he nodded. “I’ll stay as long as I can but you and I need to get back to Elhalyn as soon as possible.”

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Stefan glanced around the rocky ground. To anyone who didn’t ride into the outcrop, it looked like a bunch of boulders leaning against each other. Once you reached the outcrop, however, you saw there were several places almost completely hidden from view where someone could hide. It had been Stefan’s hiding place more than once during his childhood.

During the solitary ride, he kept thinking about what had happened at Dedresia. Like Macedin, he put little stock in the Orb’s Prophecy. What magic they possessed would be of limited help in the upcoming war. And, despite himself, he thought about Careen. He’d seen the anger in Evan’s eyes directed at him when Careen had collapsed. When she’d appeared that morning looking pale and tired, he’d been actually tempted to go to her side. But Evan’s presence next to her had kept him in his place.

Focusing his thoughts onto looking for Jaella, he dismounted at the outcropping. He carefully stepped around the boulders remembering all the hiding places. He quietly called Jaella’s name assuring her he was alone. All he heard was the echo of his own voice. Then he suddenly stopped seeing a piece of cloth on the ground.

Stefan’s dark eyes darted from side to side his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He cautiously glanced around before stepping forward and retrieving the piece of cloth. His hand tightened around it as he recognized it as a sleeve from a girl’s dress....the dark purple color Jaella loved. He looked around for tracks but found none. He bellowed Jaella’s name more than once but heard nothing.

He tucked the piece of cloth in his shirt as he remounted his horse. Cursing to himself, he quickly rode back to Shi’ar.

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One by one, the searchers returned to Shi’ar at midday. As each searcher returned without Jaella, faces grew longer and voices became softer. They glanced at Artur who was one of the last to return when he rode in then averted their heads.

Rik was talking with Starra and Christien as he rode to the door of the castle. Artur gave Rik one glance as he dismounted. The look on Rik’s face answered his silent question. Artur brushed past them and slowly walked up the stairs.

“There’s food ready, Artur,” Gwen called to him.

“Later,” Artur evenly replied. He stopped on the landing as he heard Stefan calling from outside. He quickly ran back outside to see Stefan throwing himself off his horse.

“I found this.” Stefan brought out the piece of purple cloth.

“It’s Jaella’s,” Gwen immediately identified. “In fact, she was wearing it yesterday.”

Artur turned the cloth over in his hands. “No blood,” he mumbled. He absently shrugged off Rik’s hand on his arm. “Not attacked by wolves then.” He glanced at Stefan. “Where did you find this?”

Stefan identified the outcropping. “How she knew about it, I don’t know,” he admitted.

“Maybe it was put there,” Starra guessed.

“That means someone has her.” Christien’s eyes narrowed.

“Which means we’ll be hearing from that someone,” Rik mused.

“If we’re right and it was put there,” Artur frowned.

“It’s a clean tear along the seam,” Gwen pointed out. “There’s no tearing of the material at the wrist. It looks like it was ripped at the shoulder seam.”

“If we’re supposed to know she’s been taken, why leave it in such a out of the way place?” Artur persisted. “We might not find it.”

“But we did.” Starra’s dark eyes met his.

“So now we wait?” Artur growled.

Rik glanced at the others. “We’ll continue looking,” he assured him. “Stefan, concentrate the search in the area where you found this.”

Stefan met Rik’s eyes and nodded. “We’ll be back by nightfall,” he promised.

“Wait for us.” Christien started to follow.

“No,” Rik shook his head. “You and Starra need to get to Elhalyn.” He held up his hand. “Don’t argue. If Elhalyn falls, Shi’ar’s endangered.”

Christien hesitated. “Another couple of hours won’t matter, Rik,” he murmured. He nodded at Artur who continued to turn the cloth between his fingers.

Rik hesitated then nodded. “By nightfall,” he prodded.

Christien flashed him a grin. Before anyone could say anything, he and Starra had mounted their horses and were riding after Stefan.

Rik put a hand on Artur’s arm. Artur looked up almost surprised to see the others gone. “They’re being ridiculous,” he said. “If she’s been taken, they won’t find anything now. If there were tracks, Stefan would have found them...and followed them.”

“Just to be sure,” Rik assured him. He steered his brother into the castle. “Get something to eat and sleep. You’ve been out all night.”

“So has my daughter,” Artur hollowly replied. But he walked up the stairs towards his tower.

He paused in the hallway then opened the door to Jaella’s room absurdly expecting to see her standing there. But the room was empty...and cold. He stood in the middle of the room looking around. He suddenly realized it had been almost a year since he’d been in her room. He looked around silently studying the toys and clothing which lay strewn across the floor. He absently picked up a doll and stared at it.

“Artur?” Adriana quietly asked from the half-open door.

Artur quickly tossed the doll onto the bed and turned around. “No one’s found her, Adriana,” he answered.

“Trainor and the others are blaming themselves.” Adriana awkwardly closed the door behind her. “Can you talk with them? It doesn’t seem to matter what the rest of us say.”

Artur ran a hand through his hair. “I should never have had children,” he muttered. “Of course, they’re not to blame. Jaella’s not to blame either, I suppose.”

“Neither are you.” Adriana leaned on her staff looking in his direction.

“Don’t you ever get tired of being right all the time?” Artur snapped.

Adriana smiled. “I’ll let you know when it happens,” she replied.

Artur walked to the window and opened it. “It looks like someone took Jaella,” he muttered. “Not from here. But after she left the castle.” He sighed looking at the nearby mountains. “She ran away because of me. Now, one of the Jackal’s people have her.”

“Are you sure?” Adriana asked in a shocked voice.

“Anyone around here who found her would have brought her back,” Artur replied grimly. “Oh, Rik and the others aren’t saying it. But it’s the only explanation.”

“Then she won’t be harmed,” Adriana surmised. “Harming her doesn’t serve them. They need her alive and well to bargain with Shi’ar.”

Artur angrily slammed the window shut. “Bargain!” he snorted. “What sort of bargain can we make?”

“Artur, perhaps one of Eldrin’s magicians should be here,” Adriana suggested. “If a messenger is sent, magic could prove helpful.”

Artur glanced at her over his shoulder then nodded. “I’ll tell Rik,” he agreed. “He can arrange it.” He started to walk towards the door then halted next to Adriana. Slowly he put a hand on her arm. “They have my little girl,” he murmured closing his eyes. “Those bastards have my little girl.”

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It was rare that any Aramis dreaded coming home. But as darkness fell, Stefan, Starra, and Christien all felt uneasy as they slowly walked into the Great Hall. They stood staring silently at the others.

“We looked, Artur,” Stefan tiredly reported. “I swear...we’ve looked.” He took a deep breath. “We’ll start again at daylight.”

“If she’s been taken, we’ll hear about it.” Rik quietly tapped his fingers on the table in front of him.

“Wouldn’t we have heard by now?” Starra asked slowly unbuckling her sword.

Rik grinned mirthlessly. “They’re letting us exhaust ourselves,” he guessed. He glanced at Artur who sat staring into the fire. “Eldrin is sending one of his magicians to be here when we are contacted. It might help.”

“Where’s Elaina?” Christien asked pushing himself away from the wall.

“She stayed with the children until they fell asleep,” Gwen quietly answered. “She has food for you in your tower.”

Christien nodded. He glanced meaningfully at Rik who reluctantly shook his head. Christien took a deep sigh and glanced at Starra. She glared at Rik.

“I’m heading to Elhalyn to check on things tomorrow,” Christien began. “Starra can stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can, Artur.”

“No,” Rik regretfully answered. “You need to be in Elhalyn.”

“I need to...” Christien began.

“Don’t argue,” Artur interrupted without turning his head. “We’re not going to find Jaella. One way or another, they’ll send her to us.”

Rik grimaced and leaned towards him. Gwen quickly put a hand on his arm and shook her head. “Try to get some sleep, Artur,” she said as she motioned for the others to leave.

Artur silently nodded still staring into the fire.

Stefan reluctantly turned to go upstairs with the others. He started slightly as he heard a sound behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see Adriana emerging from the shadows. The sound he’d heard was her staff as she walked across the stone floor. He saw her place her hand on Artur’s shoulder and even more astonishingly saw Artur lean his cheek against her hand. Then he felt a sudden jerk on his arm as Starra pulled him up the stairs.

Elaina looked up from her chair as Christien entered. She silently walked to him and pulled him close to her. “You’re chilled and exhausted,” she murmured.

“Where’s Paolo?” Christien mumbled into her hair.

“Safe,” Elaina assured him. “There are at least two guards with the children at all times now.”

Christien silently nodded. “I was so worried about him,” he whispered. “I never thought Shi’ar wouldn’t be safe.”

“Jaella left Shi’ar,” Elaina pointed out. “It is safe in here.”

“Devora let Lucas in here,” Christien shuddered. He pulled her closer to him. “By the Gods, I want him dead!”

“How’s Artur?” Elaina murmured.

“Adriana’s with him,” Christien sighed. He realized how tightly he was holding Elaina and loosened his grip. He glanced down at her upturned face. “He feels that whoever took Jaella will contact us.”

“No more searching?” Elaina asked with a frown.

Christien shook his head. “I’m heading for Elhalyn tomorrow.” He reluctantly stepped back and began unlacing his shirt. “I’d ask you to come with me, but I think you’d better stay here.”

Elaina nodded. “Don’t worry about me,” she asked. “The war will start in Elhalyn, won’t it?”

Christien hesitated then nodded. “That’s what everyone seems to think,” he admitted. He thought about a quick bath but instead sat on the bed pulling off his boots. Sleep seemed far more important. “They’re probably right.”

“Then you need to eat and get a good night’s sleep,” Elaina advised in a level voice. She caught her breath as Christien suddenly reached out and pulled her down onto the bed next to her.

“I need you,” Christien thickly muttered burying his face in her warm neck.

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Jaella groaned as she slowly opened her eyes. Memories suddenly flooded her mind and she quickly sat up looking around.

“It’s about time you woke up,” Lucas remonstrated. “I didn’t hit you that hard.”

Jaella looked around. The room was stone. One candle flickered on a rickety table in the corner. A thick wooden door stood half-open. “Where am I?” she demanded getting off the small bed.

Lucas’ eyebrows rose. “You’re quite spirited,” he admitted with a smile. “But then, given your heritage, I shouldn’t expect anything less.” He grinned at her sudden glance at the door. “Don’t try. There are guards just outside.” He leaned against the opposite wall. “As for where you are...don’t be concerned about that. You’ll be back at Shi’ar soon enough.”

“Who are you?” Jaella’s eyes snapped.

“You can call me Lucas.” He grinned at her expression. “I see you’ve heard of me.”

“You hurt Aunt Elaina and Uncle Christien!” Jaella screamed. She threw herself at Lucas hitting him with her small fists.

The sudden attack took him by surprise. He wrapped one arm around her small waist lifting her off the floor. Then he roared in pain and anger as Jaella sank her sharp teeth into his arm. He threw her away from him. “You little brat!” he snarled as she bounced once on the bed then rolled off. His hand flew to the hilt of his sword as she ran for the door.

“Problems, Lucas?” An older man grabbed Jaella as she ran out the door. He picked her up and sat her back on the bed. “Stay there, Jaella. No need for anyone to get hurt.”

“Who are you?” Jaella demanded rubbing both her arms.

“Lord Axter of Green Hills,” Nicolai introduced himself.

“Oh. Him.” Jaella turned to look at Lucas then at Axter. “I demand to be returned to Shi’ar at once.”

Lucas rubbed the arm she’d bitten. “I’d enjoy breaking that little cat’s spirit,” he muttered.

“I’d suggest, little one, that you not antagonize him any further,” Nicolai advised. “You’ll be returned to Shi’ar as soon as certain negotiations are completed.”

Lucas gave Jaella a cold look then followed Nicolai out the door. Jaella shivered as it slammed behind them. She curled up on the bed and stared at the flickering candle. “I want my papa,” she whispered.

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“If there’s any way we can help, Lord Rik, we will,” Josef assured the older man.

Rik glanced at the sword strapped to Josef’s hip. “So that’s it, hmmm?” he mused.

Josef slightly colored. “Believe me, I’d be more than willing to give it to someone else, but it seems I can’t,” he admitted.

“Don’t be so hasty, Josef,” Rik shook his head. “The more this goes on, the more I think events occur for a reason.” He glanced over his shoulder to where Careen quietly spoke with Adriana. Then he looked back at Josef. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to Rhyane, however?”

Josef briefly smiled. “Perhaps like you, I think events occur for a reason,” he answered. “Father sent a message that Rhyane was in good hands.” He hesitated. “Perhaps I need to be here.” He suddenly grinned. “Duncan’s gone to the Woodlands, though. He was a little upset that Starra wasn’t here.”

“She’s out searching for Jaella,” Rik nodded. “It’s something to do even though we all agree she probably won’t be found that way.”

“You all agree?” Josef’s eyes glanced up the massive staircase to where Artur stood on the landing talking with the children.

Rik glanced up the stairs then back at Josef. “A piece of advice, Josef,” he quietly said. “When you become a father...become a father.” He glanced back at Artur who was gently patting Trainor on the head. “Too many times, it happens too late..” His voice trailed off as Careen approached.

“I’m not sure why Eldrin sent me,” she explained. “But I can easily understand how uncomfortable my being here will be. If you wish, I’d be more than happy to have Eldrin send someone else.”

Rik studied her for a moment then smiled. “Josef and I were just discussing how events seem to be having a purpose lately,” he said. “Let’s see how things work out.”

Careen gave him a dubious look but nodded. Her eyes met Artur’s as he entered the Great Hall. He stared at her for a moment then caught the look in Rik’s eyes. “Any news?” he quietly asked. He looked over his shoulder at the children. “Get to the table,” he suggested.

“None,” Rik shook his head. “Starra were out again at first light. Stefan will probably go out when she returns.”

“At best they’ll only find a message or a messenger,” Artur’s blue eyes were steady. “Any word from Christien?”

“None,” Rik shook his head. “I consider that a good omen.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Lord Rik.” Careen carefully edged away from them. “I’ll occupy myself outside. Just send someone if you need me.”

“Without eating?” Rik forced a smile to his face.

Careen matched his smile. “I don’t eat in the mornings,” she assured him. She glanced up the staircase as she passed it walking towards the front door.

Artur shook his head as he went to the table. Careen’s presence was just going to be trouble.

Rik glanced at Josef. “I didn’t have a chance to tell her Stefan’s already gone outside,” he innocently spoke.

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There was something about the mountains that attracted her, Careen admitted. Given her choice, she would have lived there since the seacoast was out of the question. But Odan had put down roots in The Wasteland...and for some reason, Leodin’s children felt a need to stay together.

She gave a quick upwards glance at Stefan’s tower as she walked past. She remembered Devora jumping from that tower stretching out her arms as though to take flight. Not for the first time, she ironically saluted Devora. Her spectacular death had accomplished what she wanted the most...the separation of Stefan and Careen. Lost in thought, she almost ran into someone who was coming around the corner. She automatically stepped back and looked up.

“What are you doing here?” Stefan demanded.

“Eldrin sent me.” Careen managed to keep her voice steady. “If someone contacts your brother about Jaella, they felt magic might prove useful.”

“So they sent you?” Stefan’s dark eyes narrowed.

“I didn’t ask to come!” Careen angrily retorted. “In fact I offered to leave!”

Stefan studied her for a moment. “Rik’s up to something,” he decided. He gave Careen a sharp look. “He probably thinks by throwing the two of us together, we’ll rediscover true love.”

“As though that ever existed,” Careen quickly replied.

The two stared at each other in silence for several moments.

“Are you feeling better?” Stefan asked in a quiet voice. “You looked pretty exhausted in Dedresia.”

“I’m better,” Careen acknowledged. “The headache’s finally gone.” She kept her eyes on Stefan’s face as he slowly raised a hand and let his fingers caress the side of her cheek.

“Good,” he murmured. “I should have asked then.”

“You asked now.” Despite herself Careen closed her eyes to savor the light touch on her cheek. After a few moments, Stefan lowered his hand and she opened her eyes.

“I wish we could go back,” Stefan softly admitted.

Careen stepped back. “Would you really want to try?”

Slowly Stefan shook his head as the words froze on his lips.

Careen nodded. “I can’t go back,” she admitted. “It hurts too much.”

“Careen, I...” Stefan began.

“They say Aramis’ don’t apologize,” Careen interrupted as she looked over her shoulder at the main gate. Then she looked back at him. “Don’t prove them wrong on my account,” she mockingly advised.

Stefan gave her a half-smile. “But it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it, Careen?”

“It was,” she bitterly admitted. “Now, if you don’t mind, I was looking for a place to meditate. Adriana says it works wonders for clearing the mind.”

Stefan watched her walk away for a few moments then resolutely turned and walked the other way. Neither noticed a pair of hazel eyes watching them.

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An hour later Careen silently damned Adriana and her precious meditation. She stretched cramped muscles. What she needed was to be doing something. She idly considered riding out with Stefan later in the day. It wouldn’t hurt to see where he’d found Jaella’s sleeve.

She quickly glanced upward as a shadow fell over the ground. A cloud, momentarily blocking the sunlight, slowly moved away. Careen frowned at it. It would be just like Lucas...

“You’ll hurt your eyes if you do that for very long,” Josef advised with a smile.

Flushed, Careen looked over her shoulder. “I’m getting paranoid,” she shrugged. “I’m starting to see menace in clouds.”

Josef glanced towards the sky. “Then do something about it,” he shrugged.

Careen studied Josef for a moment then raised her arms. Slowly she formed a fiery ball between her hands. Taking aim at the cloud, she released it sending it streaking across the sky. It struck the cloud on one end and violently separated it into several smaller clouds.

“Should it have done that?” Josef asked with a frown.

Careen shrugged. “I don’t know much about clouds,” she admitted. She glanced at him. “Were you looking for me?”

It was Josef’s turn to shrug. He glanced over his shoulder as Starra galloped towards them.

“What happened!?” she demanded leaning down from her panting horse.

“I destroyed a cloud,” Careen admitted after a moment.

“A cloud?” Starra glanced up at the sky. The remnants of the larger cloud were slowly drifting away. “A cloud?” she repeated.

“Practice,” Careen easily explained. “Sorcerers have to practice as well, you know.”

Starra bit back an angry retort and turned her horse away.

“Perhaps we should go somewhere else.” Josef’s eyes were twinkling.

“I think so,” Careen muttered. She glanced at Starra over her shoulder. “What does Duncan see in her anyway?”

Josef shrugged. “You like Duncan?” he evenly asked.

Careen grinned. “Under different circumstances, I imagine the two of us could have some fun.”

“Scared of Starra?” Josef asked glancing at her from the corner of his eyes.

Careen snorted. “No, I’m not scared of Starra,” she denied. She suddenly shrugged. “But these aren’t normal circumstances.”

Josef nodded. “Maybe we should stop treating every day like normal,” he mused. “If we’re going to die tomorrow, perhaps we should...as you so aptly put it...have fun today.”

Careen glanced at him. “That’s an interesting thought,” she admitted.

Josef smiled. “Unfortunately, that’s Duncan’s thinking, not mine,” he shrugged. “I see things long-range...and plan accordingly.” He suddenly stopped and turned to her. “Maybe that’s what happened between you and Stefan.”

“By the Gods!” Careen hissed. “Does everyone know my business!?”

“The two of you weren’t exactly circumspect,” Josef pointed out with a slight smile. “Don’t forget Christien’s one of my best friends...and he’s Stefan’s brother.” He grinned as Careen muttered something under her breath. “I take it whatever broke the two of you apart is final?” he asked.

“Yes!” Careen gave him an angry look. “Make sure everyone knows it since everyone seems so damned interested!”

“I’m sorry,” Josef quietly said. He saw her hesitate then look at him. “I really am.”

Careen nibbled the corner of her lip. “Don’t take it to heart,” she advised with a bright smile. “There are a lot of men in this world, after all.”

Josef absently frowned as she walked away.

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Two days later, Christien woke from a troubled sleep. He looked out the window disgruntledly. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. As he splashed cold water on his face, he rubbed his forehead trying to shake the headache that was trying to form behind his eyes. Stubbornly ignoring the throb, he quickly dressed and hurried outside. He saw Mikhail running across the open area towards him.

“I was just coming to get you,” Mikhail half-grinned. “There’s a rider coming. Under a white flag.”

“White flag?” Christien’s eyes narrowed. “From Green Hills?”

“From that direction,” Mikhail shrugged. “Do we let him in?”

“No,” Christien shook his head. “We’ll parley from here.” He followed Mikhail onto the parapet and silently watched the rider approach.

The rider stopped close to the closed front gate. He idly scanned the men on the walls who silently returned his stare. When he saw Christien, he bowed his head. “I have a message for you, Lord Christien,” he announced.

“Who are you?” Christien demanded.

“I am called Cragen,” the man answered. “I bear a message from Lucas.”

Mikhail gave the men close to him a silent warning look when he heard their low rumblings. He glanced at Christien who remained stone-faced.

“I have no need to hear anything from Lucas,” Christien shouted as he turned to leave.

“I wonder if Lord Artur would agree,” Cragen called back.

Despite himself, Christien looked back at Cragen. “I suppose you need to ask Lord Artur that question,” he finally replied.

“Hear this, Christien Aramis!” Cragen shouted so everyone could hear. “You are invited under a flag of truce to the border to meet Lucas regarding the child, Jaella! If you refused to accompany me now, the girl will die! Your answer, sir!”

“Flag of truce to the border!” Mikhail uncharacteristically exploded. “This is Elhalyn! We don’t need a flag of truce in our own territory!”

“Enough!” Christien hissed. He saw Cragen’s sardonic smile and turned back to him. “Why should we believe Lucas knows anything about Jaella?” He gave Cragen a sardonic look of his own. “Or am I supposed to trust Lucas’ well-known reputation for telling the truth?”

“I am authorized to offer proof,” Cragen admitted. “I will need to reach into my saddlebag.” He smiled broadly as several men readied arrows as his reached into the saddlebag. “I’ll leave it at the front gate for someone to retrieve.”

Christien nodded at Mikhail who scrambled down the steps. Cragen casually dropped something at the front gate and returned to his horse. He waited as Mikhail appeared next to Christien. Christien glanced at the purple piece of cloth in Mikhail’s hands. “Jaella’s,” he quietly identified. He exchanged a quick look with Mikhail then looked back down at Cragen. “I’ll get a troop together,” he announced.

“No more than three men,” Cragen cautioned. He broadly smiled when Mikhail again exploded. “Those are the conditions. You and two others come with me now.”

“Agreed,” Christien nodded turning away from the wall. “Mikhail, you’re with me. Pick someone you can trust to come with us. Pick someone else to go through the gateway in the healers’ building to Shi’ar and tell them what’s going on. Tell them to wait. And as soon as we’re out of sight, I want a troop of Rangers to follow.” He nodded at the man on the front gate. “Open it.”

---------------------------------------------

They were only ten miles from Wolf's Lair when the air shimmered a hundred yards ahead of them. Lucas, with Jaella sitting in front of him and followed by three riders, slowly rode towards them.

“I thought you said the border!” Mikhail accused Cragen who silently shrugged.

“Enough!” Christien angrily ordered. He raised his voice as Lucas came closer. “I don’t recall giving you permission to enter Elhalyn!”

Lucas grinned. “She got impatient, Christien.” He patted Jaella’s dark hair. “How could I deny such a beautiful creature?”

Christien stared at Jaella who sat stiffly in front of Lucas. She stared back at Christien with huge dark eyes. Then she started as Lucas casually put a hand on her shoulder.

“What do you want, Lucas?” Christien demanded.

“A trade, of course,” Lucas grinned. “Which is why we’re meeting here rather than at the border. I know you’ve gotten a message to Shi’ar by now.”

“What kind of trade?” Christien tried to relax his fingers.

“A very simple one,” Lucas grinned enjoying Christien’s reaction. “You for the girl.”

'He only has whatever power you give him.' Christien’s eyes narrowed remembering Careen’s words. He wondered what she would do in this case.

“Don’t do it!” Jaella suddenly shouted. She thrust her elbow backwards then howled as it connected with Lucas’ armor.

Lucas immediately slapped his hand around Jaella’s throat and squeezed.

“Lucas!” Christien bellowed. “Stop it!”

“Someone should have taught her some manners,” Lucas grimaced. He relaxed his hold only a little. He glared at Christien. “We trade now or she dies...here and now.”

Mikhail glanced at Christien who sat glaring across the open space at Lucas.

“I’m supposed to trust you?” Christien coldly asked.

“Exactly,” Lucas grinned wolfishly. “What’s the answer, Christien?”

“We trade,” Christien flatly agreed. “Turn her loose.”

“Christien!” Mikhail hissed.

“Get Jaella back to Shi’ar,” Christien quietly ordered. “Tell Lord Rik he knows what he has to do.” He met Mikhail’s blue eyes. “No more trades.”

Lucas lowered Jaella to the ground but kept a hand on her arm. Christien saw the look on Jaella’s face. For a second he was tempted to let her try whatever she was contemplating, but then quickly called, “Jaella!” When she looked at him, he shook his head.

Christien removed his gloves and handed them to Mikhail along with his sword. “If this doesn’t work, give the sword to Rik and these to Elaina,” he quietly ordered. “She’ll understand.” Before Mikhail could reply, he kicked his horse forward.

Lucas released his hold on Jaella. She took two steps forward then turned back around and spit on the ground in front of him. He looked at her in open astonishment as she turned and marched away.

“Jaella, are you hurt?” Christien asked as he approached.

Jaella shook her head her dark eyes watching her uncle closely.

“Don’t even try, Christien,” Lucas warned with a smile.

Christien glanced up and saw what appeared to be a red ball of fire in Lucas’ left hand.

“I can destroy her with this before you can even move,” Lucas promised with a smile. “And I’d enjoy it. I owe the little cat a scorching.”

“Go to Mikhail,” Christien ordered Jaella. “He’ll take you home.”

Jaella hesitated for a second then walked towards Mikhail. Halfway to him, she turned and screamed at Lucas. “You’ll pay for this! I swear it!” Choking back tears, she ran the rest of the distance to Mikhail who quickly scooped her up in front of him.

Mikhail took one more look at Christien then angrily wheeled his horse around. With a curt nod at the other guard to follow, they quickly rode away.

“What now?” Christien asked meeting Lucas’ eyes.

Lucas glanced down at the fiery ball in his hand and dissipated it. “Now, you come with me,” he jovially answered. “Before the reinforcements that you’re counting on arrive, of course.” He quickly created a whirlwind and they disappeared.

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Mikhail paused by the gateway as the Rangers who’d followed them reported that Lucas had used his magic to take Christien away. He felt Jaella shudder in his arms and quickly removed his jacket and wrapped it around her. He told the others to return to the stronghold.

“It’s all my fault,” Jaella whimpered.

Mikhail glanced down at the girl in his arms. “Don’t worry,” he tried to joke. “I’ll protect you.” He was astonished when she burst into tears. He wondered who was going to protect him.

-----------------------------------------------------

“Why would Christien tell us to wait?” Stefan repeated for the seventh time.

“If you ask that again...” Rik growled.

“Whatever the reason was, it was flawed reasoning.” Careen’s voice came from the shadows in the corner. “He has no magic with him.”

“Magic isn’t everything!” Stefan shot a reply in her general direction.

“He obviously didn’t have a choice,” Josef opinioned. “I’d say Lucas didn’t give him any option but to act immediately.”

“But why tell us to wait?” Stefan repeated for the eighth time.

“In case it’s a trap.” Adriana sat next to a silent and brooding Artur. “What better bait?”

“Exactly what the bastard would use,” Careen agreed.

Elaina jumped as Rik patted her hand. “Don’t worry.” He forced a smile. “He won’t do anything rash.”

“Of course not.” Elaina smiled in appreciation of his effort. “He’s never rash.”

Their heads turned suddenly as the door flew open. Mikhail, Jaella in his arms, stood framed in the doorway for a second before he stepped forward kicking the door shut behind him.

“Jaella!” Artur shouted as he jumped up and ran towards them.

“Papa?” Jaella’s eyes widened then she held out her arms to him.

Artur almost snatched his daughter from Mikhail and held her close. With a somewhat embarrassed look, Mikhail walked past them.

“I don’t think she’s been hurt,” Mikhail quickly explained in a low voice. “More scared, I think.”

“I’ll get some warm food for you both.” Gwen hurried into the kitchen.

“Christien?” Rik quickly asked.

Mikhail’s eyes dropped to the floor then he silently handed Christien’s sword to Rik. “Lucas said if Christien didn’t surrender himself for Jaella, he’d kill her in front of us,” he quietly explained. His eyes rose to meet Rik’s. “He would have, too. That I swear.”

Stefan saw Rik become unsteady on his feet. “Sit down, Rik,” he ordered helping his older brother to a chair.

Silently, Rik allowed Stefan to help him. He glanced over to where Artur sat in a chair in front of the fire rocking his daughter. Jaella’s face was peaceful as Artur murmured to her. He quickly turned to Elaina who stood white-faced. “Sit with me, Elaina,” he offered.

When Elaina sat next to Rik, Mikhail silently gave her Christien’s gloves. “He said you would understand,” he explained uncertainly.

Elaina stared at the gloves in her lap...the ones she’d given Christien as a pledge-gift at their wedding. “Yes,” she murmured. “I do.” She looked up as Josef awkwardly patted her shoulder. She tried to smile at Josef recognizing his own worry.

After a moment, Mikhail cleared his throat and turned to Rik. “Christien said you’d know what to do,” he continued. “He said no more trades.” When Rik silently nodded, he burst out. “I’m sorry! There should have been something...”

“There wasn’t.” Careen slowly emerged from the darkness. “Lucas knew Christien wouldn’t sacrifice Jaella.”

“Would you?” Stefan demanded.

Careen met his look. “With no disrespect, Lord Rik, Lucas just won a bloodless victory,” she advised.

“Then we make him pay,” Artur spoke up. He glanced down at his daughter who lay curled against him. “And pay dearly,” he grimly promised.



GO TO CHAPTER NINETEEN



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