“You need to eat,” Artur finally snapped. It had been difficult to get a fire going the previous day. Although he refused to admit it, he missed the easy way she’d used her magic to keep them warm.
“Do you have the Stone?” Adriana asked quietly.
“Is that the only thing you’re concerned about?” Artur grumbled. “As far as I can tell, you weren’t injured back there...” He broke off hearing Adriana’s soft laugh.
“I apologize,” she said after a moment. “Thank you for making sure I wasn’t...injured.”
“I didn’t do anything that would embarrass you,” Artur muttered. “And, yes, I have the damned Stone.”
“Good,” Adriana nodded. “Keep it safe.”
“I’d rather you took it.” Artur turned to get it from his saddlebag.
“No.” Adriana’s voice was soft but firm. “It’s best if you keep it.”
“Why?” Artur turned back around. “I haven’t any magic. I can’t use it.” When Adriana didn’t answer, he cursed under his breath. “We’ll start back tomorrow. But now you are going to eat.” Ignoring her protest, he ladled soup into a bowl and handed it to her. He looked at her irritably when she didn’t reach to take the bowl. “I said you’re going to eat,” he firmly ordered.
Slowly Adriana reached out a hand for the bowl...a hand that stretched nowhere near where the bowl was being held. Then Adriana lowered her hand and closed her eyes. “I can’t see, Artur,” she finally explained. “Would you please put the bowl in my hand?”
“What do you mean you can’t see?!” Artur angrily roared.
Adriana winced. “There’s no need to shout,” she retorted. She took a deep breath. “My vision is gone. I don’t know if it’s permanent or not.”
“Because of what happened in the grotto?” Artur asked, gently placing the bowl in her hands.
Adriana nodded awkwardly sipping the soup. “Probably from the witches’ fire,” she decided. “Very few can handle it without damage.”
“That...thing,” Artur shook his head. “Phoenix did this to you.”
“Not intentionally, I’m sure,” Adriana frowned. “Actually, I’m surprised I survived.”
Artur studied her for a moment. “That’s why I’m here,” he finally decided. “To make sure the Stone got returned.”
Adriana nodded. “There was no guarantee I would survive,” she agreed.
“You knew this...thing was inside you!” Artur demanded.
“Yes,” Adriana nodded, blankly staring into the bowl of soup. “Both my grandfather and myself have known for years. We told Eldrin only last year.”
“Eldrin,” Artur growled in distaste. “I might have known he would countenance this! But your own grandfather! I thought better of him!”
“Do you think he was happy about it?” Adriana demanded, finally raising her head. She stared in Artur’s direction. “Do you think either Eldrin or I were happy about it?” She shook her head. “I don’t know why you detest Eldrin. But this wasn’t his choice! Any more than it was mine or my grandfather’s.” She took a deep breath. “It had to be done.”
Artur started to argue then looked away. “So you were chosen as the sacrifice,” he finally spat out.
“If you want to look at it that way...yes,” Adriana coldly replied. “Or did you think a war of this magnitude would claim no casualties?”
“War is different!” Artur snapped.
“This is a different kind of war,” Adriana pointed out. “It will be fought in different ways.” Her fingers tightened around the bowl. “And some are going to die either in battle your way and some are...” She shrugged and reached the bowl in his direction. “I can’t eat anymore.”
Artur took the bowl from her, noticing she’d eaten less than half. “You’ll need to do better than that,” he pointed out putting the rest back in the pot.
“I’ll try,” Adriana promised with a slight smile.
Artur frowned as she snuggled back into the blankets. “Are you cold?” he asked.
“I can’t seem to get warm,” Adriana admitted. “It’s a coldness inside me.”
“I can’t make the fire bigger,” Artur pointed out. “We’d choke on the smoke.” He hesitated then grudgingly asked, “Can your magic create more heat?”
Adriana slowly shook her head. “I have no magic, either, Artur,” she admitted. “I’m blind in more ways than one.”
Artur stared at her in stunned silence. “You seem to be taking it well,” he finally said.
“Well?” Adriana’s grey eyes stared at him. “Well?! All my life I have feared being buried alive! Now I’m entombed within my own body!” She looked around as though trying to find something to throw at him. “You denigrate magic and find it somehow unwholesome! Did you ever stop to think I might find your violent nature abhorrent as well?” When Artur didn’t answer, she took a deep breath. “How would you feel if you couldn’t use your sword arm? If you couldn’t feel the sword in your hand? You remember how to use it but you can’t?” She leaned forward. “Taking this well? I wish I had died in that grotto!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Artur snapped. “You said yourself your sight might come back.”
“My magic is gone,” Adriana said in a stunned voice as though acknowledging it for the first time. “It’s gone...” her voice trailed off as she lowered her head to her knees. “Goddess...I’m so cold inside.”
Artur quickly moved around the fire and sat next to her. Silently, he pulled her against him wrapping his arms around her and pulling the blankets around them. He felt her silent sobs and pulled her onto his lap rocking her silently. He stared down at her even as he stroked her pale blonde hair. He shook his head trying to understand what she’d lost. He slowly felt Adriana relax against him.
“I’m sorry,” Adriana softly said against his chest. “I had no reason to lash out at you like that.”
Artur shrugged. “I don’t understand magic...or like it,” he admitted. “But I can understand how it would feel to lose something of myself.” He hesitated. “When I said you were taking it well, I meant it as a compliment. If I’d lost my sword arm, I’d be howling.” He smiled to himself as Adriana stifled a giggle. “Are you laughing at me, woman?” he mockingly demanded.
“No,” Adriana shook her head. “I just can’t believe I lost control of myself like that.”
“Maybe it’s time you did,” Artur gingerly reached out and touched her cheek. He caught his breath as she looked up at him. “Maybe it’s time you took something for yourself.” Slowly he lowered his head and kissed her.
Adriana seemed to hesitate then kissed him back, moving her lips under his. Then she pulled back and turned her head aside. “No,” she whispered.
“Why not?” Artur asked his finger caressing her cheek. He smiled noticing how she leaned into the caress.
“I won’t use you,” Adriana shook her head.
“Use me?” Artur grinned. “I might have to give that some thought.”
“You know what I mean,” Adriana bitterly replied. “I use you as a substitute for what I’ve lost while you have pity on the poor blind woman.”
Artur deliberately turned her head to face him. “Is that what you think this is?” he gruffly demanded. “I told you once I speak plainly. What I say I mean. There is no pity involved. By the Gods, Adriana, you’re the last person I would pity!” When she stared at him in surprise, he laughed. “Magic or not, you’re no weak woman.”
Slowly Adriana reached a hand up and brushed it against his cheek. “And you are a strong man,” she whispered. She caught her breath as Artur slowly pulled her against him his mouth stopping any more talk.
Rik slowly walked through the gardens of the palace. He had observed more during this visit the luxuries of Dedresia. While the realm was little more than desert in most places, Dedresia itself was a prosperous place. ‘If it wasn’t so hot’, he grinned to himself.
He absently rubbed his left arm which had begun to ache. He sat down by the fountain flexing his arm and frowning. He looked up and saw Simon sitting on a nearby bench.
“Do you need me to call Fawn?” Simon quietly asked.
“If you did, she’d just call Eldrin,” Rik grumbled with a half-grin. “No, it’s nothing.”
“They’ve succeeded,” Simon said quietly. He saw Rik’s puzzled look. “Adriana and Artur. They have the Stone.”
“When did Adriana contact you?” Rik asked.
“She didn’t,” Simon shook his head. “We have a link, she and I. If she was able to retrieve the Stone, that link would be shattered.”
“Why?” Rik studied Simon closely.
“Because it would cost her the magic she possesses,” Simon sorrowfully lowered his head. “If not her life.”
“Simon!” Rik jumped up. “Why didn’t some of the others go with her? Maybe together...”
Simon shook his head. “No,” he said. “It had to be this way.” He looked up at Rik. “I know you can’t understand. But some sacrifices had to be made.”
“You don’t know if she’s alive?” Rik asked after a moment. “Or Artur?”
“No,” Simon said after a moment. “The link weakened all day. But tonight I’ve lost it completely.” He took a deep breath and composed himself. “I would imagine it would take as long to return as to get there.”
“We’re not waiting that long,” Rik firmly decided. “I’ll return to Shi’ar at first light and send Stefan out after them.” He suddenly grinned. “Do you think Careen would like to join him?” He chuckled at Simon’s expression. “I mean, he might need someone with magic to help.”
“I’m sure he’d appreciate her magical services,” Simon drily replied.
Artur finished tying the last provision pack onto Adriana’s horse. He glanced at the sky. With luck they would be out of the higher mountains before it began snowing. They wouldn’t be able to move as fast as he would like but maybe their luck would hold a little longer. He turned quickly as he heard snow crunching behind him and swore under his breath.
Adriana stood arms extended slowly shuffling towards him. Used to seeing calm assurance on her face, he was stunned by the uncertainty and fear he now saw. “Come straight ahead,” he calmly advised. “There isn’t anything in front of you.”
Adriana relaxed and forced a smile. “I had a vision of tumbling over the edge,” she admitted walking more steadily towards him. “You did warn me about that.”
Artur grunted and took her arm. “You’ll ride with me,” he said as he helped her mount. “Until you learn to ride again, you're likely to tumble over the edge.” He saw her stiffen. “You’re going to have to get used to learning everything over again,” he pointed out.
“I’m well aware of what I need to relearn,” Adriana replied waspishly. After a moment, she added, “I hope you weren’t disappointed by my ineptitude of last night.”
Artur froze with one foot in the stirrup. “Adriana!” he sputtered. Then he saw a slight smile curving her lips and quickly mounted behind her. “If that was ineptitude, then I look forward to learning with you,” he retorted. He smiled when Adriana chuckled.
He took the reins of his horse and glanced over his shoulder to make sure Adriana’s horse was following. He frowned as Adriana settled back against him. ‘This probably isn’t the best idea you’ve ever had,’ he suddenly realized.
“I knew I should have sent some men with them,” Christien irritably grumbled. He glanced across the table at Stefan who was grinning broadly. “I should have known better than listen to Artur.”
“Yes, you should have,” Stefan nodded. He reached out and rumpled Paolo’s hair. “Keeping Christien on his toes, are you, Paolo?”
Paolo grinned back. “I’m a good boy, Uncle Stefan,” he proudly stated.
Stefan grinned. “I’m sure you are,” he nodded in mock agreement. He glanced at Elaina. “I'm positive that we’ve plenty of provisions, but if you have some of those honey breadcakes to spare...” he hinted.
Elaina grinned. “I have plenty,” she assured him. “I’ll wrap them some you.” She glanced at Christien. “Paolo, why don’t you come and help me?”
Paolo eagerly nodded and followed his mother.
Stefan looked at his brother. “You look like you haven’t slept in days,” he commented. “What’s wrong?”
Christien waved a hand in dismissal. “You said Careen was meeting you here.” He studied his mug.
Stefan nodded. “Rik asked her,” he suddenly grinned. “Surprised me that he did so. But I’m not complaining.”
“Is Devora?” Christien asked glancing up. He slowly exhaled at the cold look in Stefan’s dark eyes. “Never mind.”
“Keep it that way, little brother,” Stefan said quietly.
Christien scowled. “When I asked about Careen, it was because I need her advice.”
“Her advice?” Stefan questioned. He started to say more then stopped as Paolo and Elaina reentered the room.
“Here, Uncle Stefan!” Paolo shoved a wrapped package into his hands. “I wrapped them just for you!”
“I’m impressed,” Stefan grinned. “I’ll think of you when I eat them.” He reached out and grabbed Paolo around the waist, hoisting him onto his broad shoulders as he stood. “Better watch out,” he warned as he headed for the door.
Paolo quickly bent over to avoid hitting his head as they went outside. He excitedly bounced on Stefan’s shoulders. Stefan ignored the boy’s movements and strode towards his horse.
Christien, however, saw Stefan frown as he saw Careen laughing with Mikhail. He grinned slightly, noticing that Careen didn’t seem to be immune to Mikhail’s innate charm.
“You’re late,” Stefan snapped as he approached them.
“Really?” Careen coolly replied. “I’m out here with the horses and been here for a while. So has our escort.” She indicated where two soldiers from Shi’ar and two soldiers from Wolf’s Lair were standing next to their horses. “Where have you been?” Before Stefan could answer, she smiled at Paolo. “Hello, Paolo. You look very handsome today.”
“Thank you,” Paolo grinned charmingly. “You look pretty.”
Mikhail nodded a silent greeting to Stefan then walked towards the parapet on the front wall.
Stefan glanced up at Paolo with a grimace. “Time to go,” he decided putting Paolo on the ground. He glanced at Careen. “Christien needs your advice.”
Careen looked questioningly at Christien who shrugged. “It’s more important you find Artur and Adriana,” he replied. “This can wait until later.”
Careen nodded then smiled at Paolo. “I’ll see you when I return,” she promised with a wink.
“Let’s go,” Stefan snapped. He saw Christien’s eyes twinkling and quickly mounted. “We’ll be back as soon as we can,” he promised.
“Be careful,” Christien warned even as his older brother whirled his horse around.
Careen grinned at Christien and mounted her horse. With a smile on her face, she quickly caught up to Stefan.
Christien shook his head hearing Stefan’s quarreling tone even as they passed through the front gate.
“Looks like we’ve got more refugees coming in,” Mikhail warned with a shout.
Christien sighed and nodded. He felt Elaina put a hand on his arm. He turned and tried to smile.
“I can meet them,” Elaina offered.
Christien shook his head. “It’s too easy for them to hide someone dangerous in a group of refugees,” he pointed out. “You and Paolo stay here.”
Elaina automatically pulled Paolo back when he tried to follow Christien. “Stay with me,” she smiled at her son. “I may need your help.”
Paolo pouted and kicked the dirt. “I want to help Christien,” he mumbled.
“Let’s see if we can fool Christien,” Duncan suggested as they approached the gate.
“It’s a magical disguise,” Starra logically pointed out. “Of course we could fool him.” She looked down at Levi. “I’m not carrying you!” She glared at him. “And stop calling me Mother.” She turned to watch Stefan disappearing over the rise. “I wonder where he’s going in such a hurry.”
“I’m sure we’ll find out,” Josef smiled. He glanced at Duncan. “Don’t fool Christien too much,” he suggested.
They quietly stood in line waiting to go through the gate. Starra approvingly noted that each person was questioned before being allowed inside. Nonetheless, no one was turned away. ‘Christien can’t afford to take in everyone. Not to mention the dangers of letting everyone inside the walls.’ They uncomplainingly allowed themselves to be pushed to the back of the line by refugees desperate to get inside the walls.
Levi began whining holding his arms up to Starra. “Hold me,” he whimpered.
Starra saw both Christien and Mikhail glancing in their direction. She quickly picked Levi up, and he nestled his head against her shoulder. “Give me any more trouble, and I’ll let Duncan wring your neck,” she hissed into his ear.
Levi glanced over to where Duncan was glaring at him. “You’ll protect me,” he said confidently as he nestled his face against her neck.
Starra was tempted to wring his neck herself but saw Mikhail eyeing them suspiciously. So she patted Levi’s back assuming what she hoped was the pose of a weary mother trying to soothe an exhausted child.
Duncan slowly shuffled forward leaving heavily on his staff. “Gracious Lord, our thanks for giving our poor family sanctuary,” he wheezed.
Christien nodded reaching out a hand to steady what appeared to be an exhausted old man. He decided this group would be sheltered first.
“You come from Elhalyn?” Mikhail asked.
“My son was killed because he would not follow Lord Jaxon,” Duncan’s voice trembled. “May the Gods curse him for all eternity! He left a widow and son that my brother and I have brought with us.”
“I’m sure we can find a place for you,” Christien gently said. “Mikhail, make sure they have some food immediately.”
Mikhail hesitated glancing at Starra again. He didn’t like the way the woman was staring at Christien. “This way,” he motioned.
“You’re very kind,” Josef added to Christien as they passed him.
Christien nodded and turned to walk away, calling for the gate to be closed. Josef saw Starra put Levi down nudging him to walk. He glanced back and saw a man approaching Christien from his rear. He stopped watching as the man seemed to hesitate. Then he saw the glint of sunlight hitting a drawn dagger.
“Christien! Behind you!” he yelled in warning. He reached for his own dagger and threw it.
Christien quickly spun around drawing his sword in one smooth motion. He stared in surprise to see a man, dagger in hand, falling face forward into the dirt a dagger buried in his back. Christien looked past the man to see his fellow Ranger walking towards them. “Josef?” he asked in surprise.
Mikhail looked stunned to see Starra, Duncan, and a very small man standing next to him where refugees had been only seconds before.
“I thought it was time to drop the illusion,” Levi explained as Starra glared down at him.
Slowly Josef walked over and pulled the dagger from the man’s back. “He was going to stab you,” he quietly explained.
Christien looked at Mikhail. “Find his companions!” he yelled. He glanced to where he’d left Elaina and Paolo and saw them running towards him. Then he looked back at Josef. “How did you...?”
“We’ll explain later,” Josef assured him as Elaina threw her arms around Christien. He glanced back down at the dead man and frowned.
“A mezle?” Christien frowned. “I thought they didn’t exist.”
“Of course we exist!” Levi drew himself up as much as possible. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are,” Starra smiled. “Remember I said I would protect you? Well, you can repay me by protecting Paolo. He’s Lord of Elhalyn.”
“Really?” Levi stared at Paolo. “Guardian of the Lord of Elhalyn.” He nodded. “Yes, that suits my talents.”
Christien eyed Levi uncertainly. The mezle was barely inches taller than the child Lord of Elhalyn. “At least for now,” he agreed. He looked at Paolo. “Why don’t you find Levi a place to sleep?”
Levi yelped in protest as Paolo eagerly grabbed him by the arm. “Come on!” he shouted enthusiastically.
Duncan watched in grim satisfaction as Paolo dragged Levi off to a back room. He grinned as a door was slammed shut.
Josef studied Christien’s weary face then looked away as Elaina set food in front of them. He saw her lightly squeeze Christien’s shoulder.
“If you need more, it’s in the back,” Elaina smiled at the others. “I’ll see to the refugees while you’re talking.”
“Take Mikhail with you,” Christien ordered. He frowned when Elaina started to speak. “No arguments, Elaina.”
Elaina took a deep breath to conceal her irritation and nodded. “I’ll see the rest of you later,” she promised.
“You look worse now than when I left,” Starra bluntly observed. “What’s going on?”
“You mean besides worrying about the three of you?” Christien snapped. “Going after one of the Stones under Axter’s nose?”
“We got it, didn’t we?” Duncan grinned. He set the Stone in the center of the table. “The Topaz of Greed.”
Christien glanced at the Stone and grimaced. “Put it away,” he snapped.
“None of us have magic,” Duncan protested. “What’s the harm?”
“We don’t know who around us might have magic!” Christien shouted. “I said put it away!”
Duncan looked at his friend in surprise then replaced the Stone in his pack.
“What’s going on?” Starra demanded. “And it’s more than being concerned about the three of us.”
“Artur and Adriana went into the high mountains after another one of the Stones,” Christien explained. “The link Adriana had with her grandfather is gone. He and Rik think something’s happened to them. So Stefan and Careen have gone looking for them.” He shook his head. “Stefan’s affair with Careen is causing problems. I’ve got more and more refugees coming in everyday. Today one of them tried to kill me. Maybe tomorrow someone tries to hurt Elaina or Paolo.” He glared across the table at Starra. “There’s a lot going on.” He abruptly stood. “Get some rest. And do me a favor. Get that Stone out of here. I don’t like it being here. It’s too risky.”
They watched in silence as Christien slammed the door behind him.
“There’s something else,” Josef glanced at Duncan who slowly nodded.
“He won’t tell until he’s ready,” Starra pointed out.
Josef nodded. “He’s right though,” he nudged Duncan’s arm. “We do need to get this Stone out of here. The situation here is too unsettled. And the Stone is too dangerous with what it can do.”
“Still cold?” Artur asked glancing down at Adriana.
“I think I’ll always be cold,” she softly replied even as she snuggled deeper into Artur’s arms. “Aren’t you cold?”
Artur suddenly thought of the long hours he’d spent that day riding with Adriana in his arms. “Hardly,” he brusquely answered.
“Are the stars visible?” Adriana looked upward.
“Yes,” Artur nodded. He glanced at the campfire he’d banked. “But don’t ask me to explain what they look like.”
Adriana smiled. “I suppose I asked that too many times today,” she admitted.
“A lot,” Artur smiled pushing her hair away from her face. “What happens when we get back?”
Adriana frowned slightly. “In whose Realm did we find the Stone?” she asked.
“Elhalyn,” Artur admitted. “But I don’t think it’s wise to give it to Christien. He already has two of them. No need to deliberately make him more of a target.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Adriana nodded. “You could keep it at Shi’ar.”
Artur hesitated. “No one there has magic so it would be wasted,” he decided. “Take it to Dedresia.” He unconsciously pulled Adriana closer. “Maybe Eldrin, the Great Healer, will be able to do something about your eyesight,” he sarcastically snorted.
“You hate him so much?” Adriana twisted her head to look back at him.
Artur hesitated. “No, not hate,” he finally admitted. “I just don’t like him.”
“Why?” Adriana asked.
“Isn’t there anyone you don’t like?” Artur snapped. “Does there have to be a reason?”
“Not really,” Adriana irritatingly answered. “And yes, there should be a reason.”
“It’s personal,” Artur firmly answered. “Leave it at that.”
Adriana leaned back against his chest. “Will you come to Dedresia with me?” she asked.
“I’ll take you if you want,” Artur slowly answered. “But first I need to return to Shi’ar.”
Adriana silently nodded. “I can go through the gateway at Shi’ar,” she reasoned. “I’m sure someone will get me to Eldrin.”
“I said I’d go if you wanted!” Artur snapped. “Just don’t expect me act like a smitten puppy the way Stefan’s doing!”
Adriana absently ran her fingers across Artur’s wrist. “Whoever she was, she must have hurt you a great deal,” she quietly observed.
Artur stiffened. “Leave it alone,” he coldly warned.
“For someone who refuses to take much on faith, you certainly ask a great deal of others!” Adriana snapped pulling her hand away.
Artur silently stared down at her. “Sometimes people expect too much from someone like me,” he thinly replied. “I don’t play games, Adriana. If I don’t like something...or someone, I let them know.”
“And if you do like someone?” Adriana turned to stare up at him.
“I don’t spill my guts all over the ground like some people I know!” Artur snapped. “Either I’m accepted as I am or I’m not! Don’t expect soft words and poetry from me, Adriana! My actions speak for me!”
“Really?” Adriana considered his words. “And what actions are those?”
With a growl, Artur suddenly pulled her roughly against him and kissed her hard. He thought he heard a soft giggle from Adriana as he lowered her to the ground beneath him.
Christien decided Levi was leaving just as soon as he could figure out a way to do it. It didn’t help that Paolo liked Levi. But Levi was trouble...and he was pulling Paolo into that trouble as well. ‘And Paolo doesn’t need any help.’ He finally sighed in relief as the noise abated in Paolo’s room.
He held out a hand as Elaina joined him in bed a short time later. “Please tell me they’re asleep,” he plaintively asked.
“They soon will be,” Elaina smiled. “I’m sure it was just the excitement of the day that has them so roused up. It’ll be different tomorrow.”
Christien snorted and pulled Elaina to him. He gently caressed her arm reveling in the feel of her against him. Almost desperately, he pulled Elaina under him as he quickly undressed her.
Elaina stiffened slightly as Christien moved his mouth over her body. ‘This is Christien’, she told herself. Taking a deep breath, she pulled him closer to her.
Christien groaned against her throat as he tried to keep enough control to make sure Elaina received her pleasure. But encouraged by Elaina’s actions, he felt that control slipping away.
Afterwards, he held Elaina close to him gently stroking her back. He felt her shiver and pulled her closer. Lowering his head to kiss her, he suddenly noticed she had stiffened. Puzzled, he raised his head and stared down at her. “You’re not sure who I am, are you?” he quietly asked. When Elaina hesitated, he let her go.
“I’m sure,” Elaina quickly answered reaching out to touch his arm.
“Are you?” Christien suddenly rolled over and pinned Elaina to the bed beneath him. He smiled coldly. “How are you sure, Elaina?” he mockingly asked. He lowered his face until it almost touched hers. “How do you know who just made love to you?” he hissed.
Elaina’s grey eyes widened uncertainly. She stared up into Christien’s cold blue eyes, fighting her own sense of panic.
Christien saw the fear in Elaina’s eyes and felt a sharp stab of pain in his chest. “That’s what I thought,” he angrily muttered. He suddenly rolled off the bed and began dressing.
“Why did you do that?” Elaina demanded as she angrily sat up.
“Because you can’t tell the difference!” Christien shouted. He jerked his boots on and reached for his shirt. “Do you think I like that?”
“Do you think I like it?” Elaina shouted back as she got out of bed wrapping a robe around her.
“It doesn’t matter,” Christien seethed as he reached for his jacket. “It won’t happen again!” He ignored his friends sleeping by the fire in the front room as he stomped out, slamming the door behind him.
Josef cautiously raised his head and glanced at Duncan. Duncan was looking over his shoulder at the closed bedroom door. With a sigh, Duncan got up and walked to the door. He gently rapped on the door. “Elaina?” he quietly asked.
“I’m fine, Duncan,” Elaina called back.
Duncan shrugged at Josef who had opened the front door. “What’s he doing?” he asked walking to look over his shoulder.
“Well, he just smashed his hand against the side of the building,” Josef reported. “Now he’s heading for the front wall. I think he’s about to make someone’s life miserable tonight.” He gently shut the door.
Duncan quickly pulled on his boots and reached for his jacket. Then he knocked again on Elaina’s door. “Elaina. He’s outside. We’ll keep an eye on him.” He was surprised when the door opened. He took one look at her tear-stained face and looked away. “He can be an idiot, you know,” Duncan mumbled.
“It’s my fault,” Elaina quietly said. “Please tell him to come back inside. I know he hasn’t been sleeping well. And something’s bothering him, but he won’t tell me.”
“Don’t worry,” Josef grinned as he shrugged into his jacket. “He’ll tell us.”
The guard on the high parapet watched curiously as Christien made his way to his post. His eyes widened when Christien barked, “You’re relieved.” When the man started to reply, Christien turned on him furiously. The man swallowed quickly, saluted, and left.
Christien turned to face the cold northern wind, taking the brisk clean air deeply into his lungs. He felt the anger building inside him and smashed his fist repeatedly on the hard stone. Seconds later, he felt the resulting pain shoot through his hands. Cursing under his breath, he painfully stretched out his fingers. He saw his bloodied knuckles and frowned. ‘Maybe if I’m wounded in some way, Elaina could...’
Christien suddenly spun around at the touch on his shoulder. He had his sword ready to thrust forward when another sword clashed with his and arched it upward.
“Christien!” Josef barked in warning.
Christien blinked, seeing the surprised look on Duncan’s face. He looked up and saw it had been Josef’s sword that had prevented him from attacking his friend. Slowly Josef backed away allowing Christien to sheathe his sword.
“You startled me,” Christien mumbled turning away.
“You tell us what’s going on,” Josef angrily sheathed his sword. “Enough is enough, Christien!”
Duncan frowned when Christien didn’t reply or turn back around. He started to say something only to have Josef angrily spin Christien around to face them.
“You’re not in any condition to command this garrison!” Josef accused. “Unless you start telling us what’s going on, I personally will send you back to Shi’ar at dawn!”
Christien stared down at the hand on his arm. He rubbed his eyes and blinked.....
Christien winced as Elaina’s screams echoed around him. He looked around the unfamiliar chamber, his hand instinctively reaching for the sword at his side. He frowned looking down to his side where it should have been.
“I suggest you just watch.”
Christien spun around at the voice in his ear. He snarled seeing Lucas and started towards him.
“You can’t hurt me here,” Lucas warned even as Christien lunged towards him.
Christien suddenly stopped as his lunge carried him through Lucas’ form.
Lucas sighed. “I told you,” he pointed out. He turned and smiled. “Better hurry. You really need to see this.”
Despite himself, Christien took a few steps forward. He could heard Elaina alternately screaming in pain then begging for mercy. “What have you done?” he hissed to Lucas.
Silently, Lucas smiled. “Maybe you did it.”
Christien caught his breath seeing Elaina stretched out on a bed. She was obviously pregnant and in labor. He saw Gwen and Devora on either side of the bed looking distraught. He saw Gwen reluctantly take a knife and open Elaina’s abdomen.
Christien’s fists clenched as he watched. ‘Paolo’s birth was not...normal....he had to be cut from me.’ He shook, remembering Elaina’s words. He shook his head in denial at what he was seeing. “This isn’t real!” he shouted at Lucas.
“Isn’t it?” Lucas leaned down almost hissing the words.
Christien saw a bloody howling child raised from Elaina’s body. Elaina gasped in relief then shuddered collapsing onto the bed.
“No!” Christien shook his head, backing away.
“The question is...who’s child is it?” Lucas smiled coldly. “Yours or mine?”
With a snarl, Christien jerked his arm away bringing it back to strike Lucas...only it was Josef he almost struck.
Duncan held his breath as Josef stared at Christien with no expression. Christien turned white and lowered his hand. “Did you see it?” he whispered. “Tell me you saw it.”
“I didn’t see anything, Christien,” Josef evenly replied.
“He’s trying to drive me insane.” Christien limply leaned against the parapet wall. “This time I wasn’t even asleep.”
Duncan carefully stepped forward and put a hand on Christien’s shoulder. “Tell us,” he quietly urged.
Slowly at first, then words tumbling over themselves, Christien told his friends about the nightmares and about Lucas appearing twice, the last time impersonating Christien. “Elaina can’t tell us apart,” he finished bitterly. “She wasn’t even sure tonight.”
Duncan raised his eyebrows at Josef. “I can see a big problem there,” he admitted.
“You can’t do anything without sleep,” Josef firmly told him.
“I’m not going back in there!” Christien snapped.
“You’re being a fool!” Josef snapped back. “Listen to yourself! You’re letting your pride get in the way of your good sense! I’ll put it down to lack of sleep at this point but not for very long!”
Christien angrily glared at his friend his fists clenching.
“Let’s not wake the whole garrison,” Duncan lightly suggested. “Look, Christien. Stay out here if you want. But you need to sleep if you can. Josef and I will stand watch. If you start acting like you’re having a nightmare, we’ll wake you.”
Before Christien could reply, Duncan steered him to a corner and shoved him down. “Please, Christien,” he softly said. “I’m too tired to referee a fight between you and Josef this late at night.”
Grumbling, Christien curled up and closed his eyes. Both his friends noticed how he automatically curled his fist around the hilt of his sword.
GO TO CHAPTER TWELVE