CHAPTER FIFTEEN





“I wish you’d let me send an escort with you,” Christien grumbled as he watched Starra add provisions to her saddlebag.

“The gateway will get me close to Woodlands. I’ll be fine, Christien,” Starra quietly replied.

Christien frowned. “Mikhail can command Elhalyn,” he decided. “I’ll ride with you.”

“You will not.” Starra turned to face him. “You need to be at Wolf’s Lair. Not at Woodlands.” She saw him scowl and half-smiled. “I’ll let you know about Duncan and Josef as soon as I can,” she promised.

“I shouldn’t have let them go alone,” Christien muttered looking away. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“And what was their excuse?” Starra shrugged. “They didn’t ask for an escort and probably wouldn’t have accepted one. They knew how short you were on manpower.”

“Do you realize how irritating you can be?” Christien snapped.

Starra smiled as she mounted her horse. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” she promised.

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

After four days of hard riding, Starra saw the tall towers of Ravenscroft just over the horizon. She marveled at how peaceful the area seemed. Shi’ar and Wolf’s Lair fairly hummed with activity and a sense of urgency. The lush green countryside of Woodlands suggested that the horrors of war would never touch it. She suddenly hoped it never would.

A few miles further, she encountered a patrol. She’d avoided earlier ones but allowed this one to spot her. She seriously doubted any of Lucas’ people would risk operating this close to the home of the Lord of Woodlands.

The leader of the patrol silently listened to her then courteously escorted her to the Castle. Everyone was polite, but Starra was under no illusion that she was trusted. Her expectation of the fighting spirit of Woodlands rose.

She waited in the Great Hall of Ravenscroft, silently comparing it to Shi’ar’s. The openly martial trophies in Shi’ar’s Great Hall were missing here. Ravenscroft’s Great Hall was decorated in bright colors with various objects on the walls. Not only swords and shields, but banners and objects Starra couldn’t begin to identify.

“Starra!” She turned suddenly and saw Josef gingerly walking down the stairs.

He nodded at the guards who’d remained with Starra. “I can vouch for her,” he offered.

The guards courteously nodded and left.

“How are you?” Starra asked coming closer. She saw the heavy bandages over one shoulder.

Josef shrugged. “Better,” he admitted. “I should be well enough to start home in a few days.” He took her arm and walked her to a nearby table. “I was almost out of range of that crossbow,” he ruefully admitted. “The arrow didn’t go as deep as it would normally have done.”

“How fortunate,” Starra ironically replied.

Josef suddenly grinned. “I suppose I should be more grateful,” he admitted. “But it bothers me we lost the Stone.”

Starra shrugged. “I’m not so sure it would have done us any good to have the Stone of Greed,” she argued.

“I’d rather we have it even if we didn’t use it,” Josef pointed out. He glanced over his shoulder at the sound of voices.

Starra looked over his shoulder and rose as the Lord and Lady of Woodlands came down the stairs.

“Should you be up, Josef?” Maire asked.

“Leave him alone, Maire,” Jamie advised. “Left up to you neither he nor Duncan would be allowed out of bed for a month.”

“They almost died,” Maire angrily hissed.

“I’m feeling much better,” Josef quickly assured her. “This is...”

“Starra,” Jamie smiled. “We met before when she made a most impressive ride from Shi’ar.”

Starra found herself blushing. “Lord Jamie,” she murmured. “Lady Maire.”

“What brings you to Woodlands?” Maire sat down next to Starra. She suddenly frowned. “Josef mentioned Rik didn’t look well.”

“He nearly died,” Starra admitted. She saw the sudden frown on Jamie’s face. “I think he will recover. But I’m not sure if he will ever lead Shi’ar’s armies again.”

“That will be hard on him,” Jamie muttered, running a hand through his dark hair. “What happened?”

Starra hesitated. “Stefan’s wife, Devora, made an alliance with Lucas,” she slowly answered. “She poisoned Rik.”

Jamie’s face paled. “Why?” he finally whispered.

“Because of Stefan’s affair with Careen,” Starra shrugged uncomfortably. “When she was discovered, she threw herself from one of the Towers. Careen and Christien were with her.” She looked at Jamie. “Stefan blames Careen for her death. She’s returned to Dedresia.”

“Well, that’s just like a man!” Maire exploded after a moment. When Jamie glanced at her, she continued. “He doesn’t blame his brother who was right there, but he blames Careen. And no doubt he blames Careen for Devora’s decision. As though he wasn’t as deeply involved in that affair as she was!”

Jamie grinned at his wife’s irritation. Then he glanced at Starra. “Is that why you’ve come here?” He quickly changed the subject.

“Eldrin has called for a conference in Dedresia within ten days,” Starra tried not to look at Maire. “He would like all the Lords to attend if possible. If not, for them to send someone who can make decisions if necessary.”

“Then it’s open warfare,” Jamie mused glancing at Starra

“I’d say so,” Starra agreed.

“Maire, would you like to go to Dedresia?” Jamie asked. “I’d prefer to stay here and get the troops ready.” When Maire nodded, he turned to Josef who held up a hand.

“I’ll leave this afternoon,” Josef advised. “I’m certain either my father or mother will be here to join Lady Maire.”

“Probably Kathlyna,” Jamie grinned. “I’m not certain Garn would trust her with the troops. She’s likely to have them attacking somebody as soon as he was away.”

Josef grinned. “Most likely,” he admitted. He stood and formally bowed. “With your permission, I’ll prepare to leave.”

Maire watched him fondly as he headed for the stairs. “A delightful boy,” she idly remarked. Then she glanced at Jamie. “We must remember to try and keep them both as safe as possible.”

Jamie grunted. “I don’t know about Josef, but Duncan is itching to get revenge on Lucas,” he pointed out.

Maire waived her hand. “I’m certain there are plenty of people who want that,” she remarked.

“Including you?” Jamie teased.

Maire ignored her husband and turned back to Starra. “You’ve come a long distance,” she smiled. “I hope you’ll at least stay the night before returning to Shi’ar.”

“Thank you, Lady Maire,” Starra nodded. “I would appreciate that.”

“Good,” Maire nodded. She glanced at Jamie. “Isn’t there something that demands your immediate attention, my dear?”

Jamie glanced from one woman to the other. “I suppose there is,” he wryly admitted. “Until this evening, ladies.” He glanced over his shoulder as he left the Great Hall. He saw their heads close together and shook his head.

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

Duncan glanced irritably out the window. Josef had returned to Rhyane with the news of the upcoming conference in the Wastelands. He stiffly rose from the chair and walked towards his bed. His wound was slowly healing, and he was worried war would break out before he’d recovered. As he sat on the side of the bed, he idly wondered if he could convince his father to let him at least come downstairs once his mother had left.

Duncan glanced up at the soft knock on his door. “Enter,” he called eager for some company. His eyes widened as Starra quietly entered the room bearing a tray of food. “Starra?” he gulped.

“Oh, Duncan, you look horrible,” Starra softly spoke. She set the tray on a nearby table.

“I do?” Duncan’s eyes widened. “I mean...I guess I do.” He sighed dramatically. “But I’ll survive.”

“I heard about what happened,” Starra said as she walked closer to the bed. “You were so brave.”

“I was?” Duncan’s eyes narrowed uncertainly. “Well...so was Josef.”

“Of course he was.” Starra smiled as she put her hands on Duncan’s shoulders.

Duncan took a deep breath. “I didn’t know you were the messenger who came about the conference,” he said.

“Does it hurt much?” Starra ignored his statement.

“Uh...some...not much,” Duncan stammered.

“Why don’t I take a look at it?” Starra suggested. She gently pushed him onto the bed. “Roll over,” she urged.

“Really, it’s fine,” Duncan stammered as he obeyed. “The healers here are excellent.”

“I’d feel better if I knew for sure,” Starra ran her hands down his bare back.

Duncan shivered as he felt her body next to his. He could swear he felt her warm breath across his back and moved uncomfortably.

“Duncan,” Starra said in a teasing voice. “You need to get used to my touch.” She gently massaged his shoulders.

“I do?” Duncan murmured, enjoying the feel of her hands on him. He closed his eyes to intensify the sensation.

“Of course. Since we’re to be married,” Starra explained.

Duncan’s eyes flew open. “Married?” he managed to blurt.

“Of course,” Starra grinned as she felt him tense beneath her hands. “I know you sent me those notes.”

“Well...yes...” Duncan stammered. “But...marriage...” He took a deep breath. “I mean, we have a serious war to fight. I don’t....couldn’t marry you with that hanging over our heads.”

“I’m a warrior, too, Duncan,” Starra continued. “I know the risks. I don’t care about them.”

Duncan gulped. “I can’t,” he blurted. “I mean...I won’t do that to you...can’t do that.”

Starra smiled and leaned forward. “A word of advice, Duncan,” she whispered. “Don’t play games unless you really want to win them.”

Duncan froze as she slid off the bed. He rolled to one side wincing at the pain in his back. Propping himself on his elbows, he watched as she strode towards the door. “Starra!” he called. When she turned, he frowned. “You weren’t serious, were you?” he asked.

“Were you?” Starra’s eyebrows rose in question.

“I adore you,” Duncan smiled as he tried to get to his feet. “You’re my princess....my special one.”

Starra half-smiled. “Games are for children, Duncan,” she pointed out. “I’m not a child.”

“But it’s fun to play games,” Duncan grinned.

“You didn’t want to play this game,” Starra pointed out. “Or weren’t you planning to offer marriage?”

Duncan slowly straightened. “Well...of course...” he finally admitted.

“Then let’s get married now,” Starra urged.

“Now?” Duncan paled. He would later tell Josef the idea of marriage felt like a noose around his neck...slowly tightening.

Starra shook her head with a smile. “Talk to me when you’ve grown up, Duncan,” she suggested opening the door. “Maybe I’ll listen then.”

“Starra!” Duncan called even as the door closed. In exasperation, he threw a pillow at the door.

Starra walked down the hallway to where Maire stood. “You know your son well.”

Maire smiled. “Duncan should know better than to play these games. But then he’s like me in that regard.” She smiled fondly then turned away. “Next time, you’ll have to deal with him yourself.”

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

Starra rode away from Ravenscroft the next morning without seeing Duncan. From what Maire hinted, he was remaining in his room either sulking or scheming about something. Starra felt it was probably a combination of both.

She stopped at Wolf’s Lair to assure Christien that his friends were still alive. Christien grinned and murmured something about Duncan always having luck on his side. Starra chose to ignore him and return to Shi’ar.

Once there, Adriana approached her asking for instructions on using the staff Elaina and Mikhail had given her.

“The first thing you need to do is forget almost everything Mikhail told you,” Starra advised.

Adriana frowned. She flexed her fingers around her staff as she held it defensively in front of her.

“Mikhail fights like a man,” Starra advised. “So, naturally, he’d teach you to fight that way.” She glanced at Adriana’s stance. “You’re standing balanced the way he would. But you’re not as big or as strong as Mikhail. That’s why you keep overbalancing.”

Adriana slowly nodded. “That makes sense,” she admitted. “But he seemed to know what he was doing.”

“He’s a good fighter,” Starra agreed. “One of the best.” She reached out and slid Adriana’s hands further out from the middle of the staff. “But he doesn’t know anything about how a woman needs to fight.”

“I don’t intend to go out looking for a fight,” Adriana pointed out.

“I don’t imagine you’ll need to,” Starra grimly replied. “If what I’ve heard is correct, it’ll come to us.”

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

Artur turned away from the window shaking his head.

Rik glanced up at him from his bed. “What’s wrong?” he croaked.

“Nothing,” Artur answered. “Just Starra about to flip Adriana into the dirt.”

Rik weakly grinned. “Something wrong with that?” he teased.

Artur grunted. “She doesn’t need to be learning how to fight,” he muttered. “Without her magic, she won’t be doing anything.”

“Maybe Adriana feels she needs to know how to defend herself,” Rik leaned back on the pillows.

“Why should she?” Artur demanded. “I can...”

“You can?” Rik’s eyes twinkled even as he closed them. “I didn’t realize you had asked for her. Did Simon agree?”

Artur angrily glared at his brother. “I can see you’re recovering,” he finally snapped.

Rik slowly opened his eyes. “Who’s going to the conference in Dedresia?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Artur snapped. “If I send Stefan, he’s likely to run into Careen. The way he’s feeling now about her, one of them would kill the other. If I go, I don’t know that Stefan’s capable of looking after Shi’ar.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I thought about sending Christien and sending Starra to Wolf’s Lair.”

Rik closed his eyes in consideration. “Send both Christien and Stefan,” he advised. “Elhalyn needs to be seen as independent of Shi’ar.”

“You think Christien can control Stefan?” Artur asked casually walking back to the window.

Rik shrugged. “Not really,” he admitted. He opened his eyes to see Artur looking out the window to the practice yard. “But sending Starra to Wolf’s Lair might save Adriana some bumps and bruises.”

Artur glared at his brother then stomped out.

A few seconds later, the door opened and Gwen entered. She stared at her husband who held out his hand to her. Gwen took his hand and sat on the edge of the bed. “You must be feeling better,” she assessed. “You at least have the energy to get Artur mad.”

Rik grinned. “That doesn’t take much energy,” he pointed out. He kissed the back of Gwen’s hand and settled back on the pillows. “How is Stefan?” he asked.

Gwen hesitated. “Ready to explode,” she admitted. “Except no one will give him the opportunity to explode at them. He won’t do it with the children or with Elaina or me. Everyone else has been staying away from him.”

Rik sighed. “Would it do any good for me to talk with him?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Gwen cautioned. “He’s asked about you. But until he accepts what Devora did to you, I don’t think he wants to see you.”

“I don’t blame him,” Rik pointed out. “I’m not sure I blame Devora.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have left Stefan and Careen alone.”

“That was Stefan’s choice,” Gwen argued. “You couldn’t have stopped him. He would just have gone to Dedresia.”

Rik reluctantly nodded. “Tell him I want to see him,” he decided. “He probably won’t argue with me as much as he would with Artur about going to Dedresia.”

“Dedresia!” Gwen looked shocked. “Are you insane? That’s the last place he needs to go!”

“I’d go to this conference myself but I can’t,” Rik irritably argued. “If Artur goes, then Stefan is in charge of Shi’ar. And from what I’ve heard, he’s not capable of that. He needs to get this out of his system.”

“It runs deeper than that,” Gwen pointed out. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Neither does Artur,” Rik nodded.

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

“Stop tensing up!” Starra snapped. “Stay relaxed...fluid.”

“It’s more difficult that I thought,” Adriana reluctantly admitted. “It’s certainly not what Mikhail taught me.”

“Mikhail’s big enough and strong enough to stand there and fight toe to toe with someone,” Starra pointed out. “You’re not.”

Adriana flushed then nodded. She braced herself, hearing Starra quickly move to one side.

Starra smiled to herself as she quietly moved back to her original position. She deliberately scraped her foot on the dirt then lunged forward driving her sword upwards against Adriana’s shaft.

Adriana stumbled backwards from the force of Starra’s lunge. She tripped over her own feet and fell face forward into the dirt. She angrily grabbed the staff and slammed it against the ground.

“Don’t just lay there!” Starra yelled. “Move! Get up! If I was really attacking you, you’d be dead by now!”

“That’s enough!” Artur roared.

Adriana angrily got to her feet as Starra glanced over her shoulder.

Starra hid the smile of amusement at his angry countenance. “Is there a problem, Artur?” she blandly asked.

Artur swore under his breath as he passed Starra. He put a hand on Adriana’s arm. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.

Adriana shook off his arm. “What are you bellowing about?”

“What do you mean what am I bellowing about?” Artur shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Learning to defend myself!” Adrian angrily shouted back. “Or do you think I should sit quietly in the corner for the rest of my life?” She took a step closer to him.

Artur instinctively backed away. “I never said anything of that sort,” he seethed.

“Do you think I should just give up?” Adriana continued stepping closer to him. “Well, I’m not! So either give some constructive help or go find something else to do!”

Artur glared at her for a couple of seconds then whirled around and stomped off.

Starra watched him for a few moments then eyed Adriana with new respect. “I didn’t think you had that much temper,” she casually remarked. 'Or the guts to stand up to an enraged Aramis.'

“Of course I have a temper!” Adriana snapped. She took a couple of deep breaths. “Shall we continue?” she finally asked.

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

“I’m not going,” Stefan flatly refused.

“I need you to go,” Rik closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, Stefan was started to fidget. “I know how...awkward it would be to meet with Careen. But Christien will also be there. And I think Eldrin’s smart enough to do his best to keep the two of you apart.” He weakly shook his head. “I’d go myself but...”

“Don’t be a fool, Rik!” Stefan snapped. “And don’t take me for one either!” He flushed when Rik again closed his eyes. “I’ll go,” he sullenly muttered as Gwen moved closer to the bed.

“Thank you, Stefan,” Rik murmured. He opened his eyes a few moments later to see Stefan hesitating by the door.

“I’m sorry about this, Rik,” Stefan muttered.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Rik quietly replied. “I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault.”

Stefan stared at Rik for a moment then silently closed the door behind him.

Gwen casually put her fingers around Rik’s wrist. After a moment, she smiled. “You’re a deceptive man,” she quietly commented.

Rik looked at her in wounded surprise. “I am not,” he defended himself. After a moment he added, “I’m inventive.”

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

“Don’t worry about Wolf's Lair,” Mikhail assured Christien. “I’ll be in contact with Artur. Between the two of us, we’ll handle things.” He hesitated for a moment. “Are you taking Elaina with you to Dedresia?”

“I hope to,” Christien admitted. “Maybe Paolo although the other children would probably raise a howl.” He suddenly grinned. “I should leave them all at Shi’ar to keep an eye on Rik. I owe him that.”

“I’m not so sure they shouldn’t go with you to keep an eye on Stefan,” Mikhail solemnly mentioned.

“That’s one reason I hope to take Elaina with me,” Christien grimly admitted. He nodded towards the gateway that had begun to glow. “Just as promised,” he muttered.

Mikhail curiously watched. A rider had informed Christien that the representatives from Rhyane and Woodlands wanted to join up with Elhalyn before proceeding to Shi’ar and then to the Wastelands. He’d been surprised to hear the representatives were the respective wives of the Lords of Rhyane and Woodlands.

Christien rode forward to greet them. Mikhail slowly rode behind him eyeing the women curiously. He was surprised to see only one soldier accompanying each of them.

“Lady Maire. Lady Kathlyna. Welcome to Elhalyn,” Christien greeted.

“Christien, you’re as handsome as ever!” Kathlyna of Rhyane leaned over to give him a hug. She was a tall slender woman with long light red hair braided down her back. Her dark blue eyes twinkled as Christien slightly blushed.

Shorter and more curvaceous than Kathlyna, Maire looked almost voluptuous next to her. Her dark red hair was tied at her neck. Her green eyes twinkled as she caught Mikhail’s openly approving look. He saw her watching him and turned his attention back to Christien. He reddened slightly when Maire whispered something to Kathlyna who turned to openly stare at him.

“Only two guards with them?” Mikhail murmured to Christien.

“Only because their husbands insisted,” Christien guessed with a smile. “They’re both very powerful witches. And more than capable of taking care of themselves.”

Mikhail shrugged not completely convinced. “We’ll be on alert here,” he assured him. “Don’t worry.”

Christien half-smiled. “I’m making a habit of worrying,” he replied.

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

“Dear Rik! You look almost....haggard!” Hands on her hips, Kathlyna stared down at Rik.

“Kathlyna,” Rik weakly held out a hand to her. “As beautiful as always.”

“I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your ability to lie so well,” Kathlyna leaned down to kiss his cheek. They both began to laugh.

Maire glanced at Gwen and saw the slight narrowing of Gwen’s eyes. “They’ve always acted this silly around each other,” she sniffed. “Well, until the time Garn decided to put an end to it. Remember how he almost dumped you down that well, Rik?”

“Actually I’d forgotten that nasty incident,” Rik rolled his eyes. “A simple misunderstanding between the two of us.”

“As I recall Garn understood it all too well.” Maire winked at Gwen.

“How’s Jamie?” Rik quickly changed the subject. “And Garn?” he added.

“Both are well,” Kathlyna smiled. “Doing better than you.”

“Kathlyna!” Maire hissed.

“We’re all old friends,” Kathlyna shrugged. “No need to simper around anything.”

“How are Josef and Duncan?” Gwen asked sitting on the side of the bed taking Rik’s hand. She stared across the bed at Kathlyna.

Rik saw the look his wife was giving Kathlyna. Even worse, he saw the teasing look in Kathlyna’s eyes. He hurriedly slid his other hand from Kathlyna’s grip and patted Gwen’s hand.

“They’ll be fine,” Kathlyna grinned at Rik. She eyed Gwen closely then slightly nodded. “Given time.”

“I’m not so sure Duncan will be so eager to approach Starra again, however,” Maire grinned. “She asked him when he planned to marry her.”

“Marry?!” Rik looked startled. “The boy said when this was over he wanted to speak to me about a personal matter, but I didn’t think for a moment...”

“Duncan is a great plotter,” Maire laughed. “But commitment? I’m not certain he’ll ever agree to that.”

“I’d say that all depends on Starra,” Gwen interjected. “She’s a very determined woman. If she wants him, I’m not sure he’ll have much of a choice.”

“Do any of them?” Kathlyna asked with an arched eyebrow.

“I’m not certain I like this conversation,” Rik grumbled as the women chuckled.

Gwen patted Rik’s hand. “We know,” she soothingly replied.

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

Elaina shivered slightly at Stefan’s cold command to enter. She slowly pushed open the door to his chamber. “Am I interrupting?” she hesitantly asked.

“What would you be interrupting?” Stefan snapped. He saw the hesitant look on her face and sighed. “What is it, Elaina? I’m busy. We leave in the morning.”

“I know.” Elaina gently closed the door behind her. “Christien wants me to go as well. I thought I’d ask you if that was a problem.”

Stefan shrugged. “Why should it be?” he demanded turning away. “You’re his wife. He has a right to bring you if he wants.”

Elaina hesitated. “And if you and Careen see each other?” she asked.

Stefan spun around. “Is that why Christien’s taking you with us?” he accused. “To try and keep me from...doing anything?”

“Do you really think I could do that?” Elaina asked with wide eyes.

Stefan curtly laughed. “I imagine you’d try,” he admitted. His dark eyes turned cold. “I have no intention of looking for Careen. I won’t do anything as long as she doesn’t cross my path.”

“The two of you are bound to see each other,” Elaina pointed out.

Stefan stared at her for a minute. “Was there anything else you wanted?” he asked.

“No,” Elaina shook her head. She started to touch his arm, but he quickly turned away.

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

“Did you have a pleasant time with Starra knocking you all over the practice yard?” Artur snarled.

Adriana coolly looked in his direction. “Is there a reason you don’t want me to learn to defend myself?” she asked.

Artur took a deep breath. “Of course not,” he replied. “I just don’t see the necessity of you being knocked around. Starra can get rough.”

“And one of Lucas’ soldiers wouldn’t be?” Adriana prodded. She turned her head as though to stare into the fire. She was glad the Great Hall was deserted this late. Artur wasn’t making much of an effort to keep his voice down even though they sat side by side.

“That’s not going to happen,” Artur snapped.

“You can’t guarantee that,” Adriana replied. “And I’m not so much of a fool to believe it anyway.” She hesitated then continued in a soft voice. “I have to know how to defend myself, Artur. I’ve lost so much. Sometimes I feel as though I don’t have control over anything.”

Artur looked away for a second. “I wish I could help,” he finally murmured.

Adriana turned her head towards his voice. “You do...sometimes,” she smiled. “But this is something I have to do myself, Artur. For myself.”

Artur abruptly cleared his throat. “Are you going to Dedresia tomorrow?” he asked.

“And have Starra think I’m running away from her tutelage after only a few days?” Adriana smiled. “No, I’ll be staying here.”

“Good,” Artur curtly nodded. “Probably for the best right now.” He paused for a moment. “Too many people trying to teach you the same thing isn’t good. Starra can do it.”

“Thank you.” Adriana reached out and touched his arm. “I appreciate your hospitality.” She refrained from chuckling when he snorted.

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

“Welcome to Dedresia,” Simon greeted with a tired smile. He glanced at Christien and Stefan. “I hope Lord Rik is better.”

“He’s recovering,” Christien answered after a second’s hesitation. He glanced at Stefan who ignored him. “Thanks to the assistance of your people.”

“Not my people,” Simon smiled. “And Adriana?”

“She’s at Shi’ar,” Elaina smiled. “I wish I could say she was recovering as well.” When Simon slowly nodded, she continued, “When we left, she was learning to fight with a quarterstaff.”

Simon looked surprised for a moment then genuinely smiled. “That should prove interesting,” he nodded.

“May I present Lady Maire Lorcan of the Woodlands and Lady Kathlyna Rhyane of Rhyane,” Christien turned to present the other women. As they stepped forward, he glared at Stefan.

“Ladies,” Simon bowed in greeting. “I hope your journey was a pleasant one.”

“As pleasant as could be expected given the distance,” Kathlyna nodded. “When will we get started?”

Simon smiled as Maire rolled her eyes. “I can see this will be an interesting meeting,” he nodded. “Please come with me. I’ll show you to your quarters. The evening meal will be in a few hours. I’m sure something will be discussed then.”

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

“This isn’t going to be easy,” Evan muttered to Eldrin as he glanced around the room. His dark green eyes lit on Stefan for a moment then he turned away.

“Just how difficult is it going to be?” Eldrin half-smiled.

Evan shrugged. “Careen’s made it very clear it’s her business,” he remarked. “Odan and I were told, in so many words, to stay out of it. And she knows winning this war is the most important thing.”

“Where is Careen, by the way?” Eldrin asked.

“She said she wasn’t hungry,” Evan coldly smiled. “I’ve never known that to happen.” He saw Eldrin’s concerned look. “It’s just her way of avoiding him. I seriously doubt she’ll be at any planning meetings either.”

“I value her ideas and suggestions,” Eldrin frowned. “See if you can convince her otherwise.”

Evan raised his eyebrows and walked away. He was more concerned about Hector cozying up to the witches from Rhyane and Woodlands. Both women were extremely powerful. Worse, they seemed to enjoy Hector’s antics.

Eldrin casually walked across the room to where Stefan stood looking out the window. Stefan turned as he approached and stiffened.

“I wanted to talk to you privately,” Eldrin admitted. “I have trouble seeing Christien as an adult. I still remember him as a child.” He self-consciously shrugged as Stefan frowned. “How is father? Really?”

Stefan hesitated for a moment. “He’ll recover,” he explained. “He’s still weak and confined to bed. The healers all said it was a matter of time to see how much he’ll recover.” He shrugged. “I think he’ll recover faster the closer we get to war.”

“I wish there was someway to keep him out of it,” Eldrin mused. He flushed when Stefan snorted.

“I seriously doubt that will happen,” Stefan proposed. “If the armies take the field, it’ll take more than us to keep him out of it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Eldrin sadly smiled. “How is Lady Gwen?” He suddenly smiled. “I don’t imagine Father’s an easy man to be around right now.”

“Gwen can handle more than Rik gives her credit for,” Stefan admitted. “She’s tired but she’ll keep him in hand.”

Eldrin nodded. After a moment, he glanced at Stefan. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “I realize this isn’t easy.”

Stefan coldly looked at his nephew. “Then don’t make it any harder,” he advised. He turned around and left the room.

Christien glanced at Eldrin who helplessly shrugged. “I’m going after Stefan,” he murmured to Elaina. “Why don’t you find out from Eldrin what happened in case Stefan won’t tell me?” He smiled when Elaina gently squeezed his arm.

Christien hesitated outside the banquet room. He saw Stefan disappearing around the corner. “Stefan!” he called out running to catch up.

Stefan hesitated then turned around. “Don’t worry,” he snapped. “I’m going to my quarters.” He turned to walk away.

“What happened in there?” Christien asked falling into step with his brother.

Stefan shrugged. “Eldrin wanted to know about Rik,” he explained. “I decided I’d had enough of feasting and plan to go to sleep.” He glanced at Christien. “Assuming that meets with your approval.”

Christien took a deep breath. “Don’t take this out on me,” he quietly advised. “I haven’t done anything.”

Stefan glared at him for a moment then slowly nodded. “Then maybe you’d best leave me alone,” he said in a equally quiet voice.

Christien started to say something as they turned the corner then almost ran into Stefan who’d suddenly stopped. Christien glanced up and stiffened. Careen and another man stood at the end of the corridor. They’d obviously been in deep discussion but were now looking at them. Christien glanced from Careen’s face to his brother’s.

Stefan coldly glared at Careen for several seconds. His fingers curled into fists as he brushed past Christien and down an adjacent hallway.

Careen’s green eyes angrily glittered in response as she abruptly turned and walked the other way.

Christien glanced from his brother’s back to the man at the other end of the hallway. The man was staring at Careen’s retreating figure then turned to look at Christien. They stared silently at each other for a moment, then Christien expressively shrugged his shoulders. The other man suddenly grinned and walked towards him.

“I’m Odan,” he introduced himself. “Careen’s brother.”

“I’m Christien Aramis,” Christien smiled. “Stefan’s brother.” He eyed the other man for a few seconds. “How is Careen?”

Odan looked a little surprised. “Angry,” he answered. “Not that anyone will admit to it, but she destroyed the fountain in the garden.” He smiled at Christien’s expression. “Evan and I are just grateful that energy wasn’t directed at us.” He shook his head. “Eldrin just looked at it and ordered it to be repaired. I think he knows who did it, but he didn’t say anything.” He glanced down the hall where Stefan had disappeared. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

Christien nodded. “Think it would do any good to put them somewhere alone for about an hour?” he asked.

Odan snorted. “I thought about asking Hector about it because the rest of the palace would need to be protected,” he admitted. “But Careen would kill me afterwards.”

Christien slowly nodded. “Stefan would probably kill me, too,” he admitted. “Would you tell Careen I’d like to talk with her before I leave?”

Odan slowly nodded. “May I ask why?” He suspiciously eyed the other man.

“I need to apologize,” Christien admitted. “At first I felt the same as Stefan...at the time Devora died. I was wrong.”

Odan relaxed. “I’ll tell her,” he agreed. He glanced back down the corridor. “Won’t that cause a problem with your brother?”

Christien uncomfortably shrugged. “It won’t be the first time,” he admitted with a rueful smile.

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

Careen glowered at the partially completed fountain. She told herself Eldrin wouldn’t let the destruction of another fountain go unmentioned. She felt the anger building inside her and contrarily kicked a piece of masonry. Stifling a curse, she hopped backwards and sat down on one of the benches.

Evan tried not to smile as he stepped out of the shadows. “I wonder how long it will take to get finished?” he idly remarked standing in front of the fountain.

“What are you doing out here?” Careen snapped.

Evan shrugged. “I don’t much care for the so-called civilized feasting and mingling,” he answered. “You know that.”

Careen grimaced as she flexed her toes. “That explains why you’re not inside,” she pointed out. “Not what you’re doing out here.”

“What are you doing out here?” Evan turned around. “I thought you were eating with Odan and Alyxa.”

“I did.” Careen carefully stood putting her weight on her tingling foot. “We finished eating and I left.” When Evan didn’t speak, she glanced at him.

“You saw him,” Evan flatly accused.

“Yes, I saw Stefan,” Careen flushed. “We looked at each other and walked away. I didn’t blast him into tiny little pieces if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

“I could care less about Stefan Aramis,” Evan shrugged. “I do care about winning this war.”

“So do I!” Careen snapped. “All the realms need to be allied. I’m not going to do anything to threaten that alliance.”

“Then what are you doing out here?” Evan quietly repeated.

Careen started to answer then took a deep breath. “He was so cold,” she finally muttered. “Just like I didn’t exist.” She restlessly walked a few steps in one direction then turned and walked back. “After everything we...were to each other...just like I didn’t exist,” she muttered to herself.

“And what was everything?” Evan asked. He eyed his sister curiously. To his knowledge, no man had ever captured her attention for any length of time...except Lucas, he suddenly recalled. To her credit, she had managed to pull away from him before it was too late.

Careen looked at her brother surprised by his neutral tone. “We were going to be together,” she slowly admitted. “He would never let me go, and I would always be with him.” She suddenly shook her head and bitterly laughed. “I just now realized how ridiculous that sounds,” she sarcastically admitted.

“Is it?” Evan asked stepping closer. When she looked at him in surprise, he continued. “Don’t you think Fawn and I haven’t made the same kind of commitment? Or that Odan hasn’t promised the same to Alyxa?” He smiled ironically. “You look surprised.”

“I just never thought about it,” Careen admitted. “Being the self-centered person that I am. I just never thought it would end this way.”

“He had no trust in you,” Evan stated. “Or it wouldn’t have ended this way.”

Careen shook her head walking away. “He’s just feeling guilty about betraying Devora.”

“You’re defending him?” Evan demanded.

Careen shrugged. “Call it what you want,” she answered.

Evan walked to his sister and turned her to face him. “Do you think he’ll come back to you?” he asked staring into her eyes. When Careen didn’t answer, he took a deep breath. “Listen to me, Careen. It’s over. Even if he understands and accepts what you did, can you trust him again? Can you believe that he’ll not remember that he didn’t trust you before?”

“It’s not that simple,” Careen tried to twist out of her brother’s grasp.

“Yes, it is.” Evan took Careen’s chin in his hand and forced her to look at him. “We both know how important trust it. How it can be abused. And how it can never be regained.”

Careen stared at her brother for a few seconds. “It could be different with Stefan,” she murmured. She saw the disbelief in her brother’s eyes. “It might be,” she stressed.

“Do you think so?” Evan slowly released her.

Careen closed her eyes. “I need to find out,” she admitted. “I can’t go on like this. It’s destroying me. I can’t eat...can’t sleep...”

Evan took a deep breath. “Let it go,” he urged. “Let him go.”

“I can’t!” Careen snapped. “Don’t you understand, Evan? I can’t let it go! I don’t understand how I could mean so much to him one moment and then mean less than nothing the next!” Not waiting for his answer, she whirled around the walked off.

Evan watched as she entered the palace. “You assume you meant something to him in the first place,” he muttered.

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Stefan assumed that whoever was knocking on his door would go away when he didn’t answer. But someone kept knocking...quietly but persistently. Finally, with a loud curse, he walked over and flung open the door. He was surprised to see Careen standing there. He started to close the door, but she blocked it from closing.

“We can talk privately or I can scream through your closed door,” Careen quietly advised. “Which is it going to be?”

Stefan glared at her then walked back into his room. “I’ve got nothing to say to you,” he declared.

Careen quietly closed the door behind her. “You’ve got a lot to say,” she corrected him. “And I’m not leaving until it’s said.”

Stefan whirled around. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “I should think you’d prefer I not say anything.”

“And what would that be?” Careen demanded her hands on her hips.

Stefan’s eyes narrowed. “You could have saved Devora,” he accused.

“From falling?” Careen considered. “Possibly. Christien was closer, but I might have at least broken her fall, I suppose.”

“You suppose!” Stefan exploded. “You suppose?!”

“That wouldn’t have saved her!” Careen shouted. “She’d failed Lucas and the Jackal God. You saw what happened at Elhalyn! And that was nothing compared to what happened on the Misty Isles! No one could have saved her from that...or worse!”

“We could have tried!” Stefan snarled.

“You could have done nothing!” Careen shouted. “I know Lucas! I know what he can do.”

“I imagine you do,” Stefan sneered.

Careen froze. “I told you once I was not his lover,” she seethed. “I may be damned for the things I’ve done, Stefan, but it won’t be for that.” She took a deep breath. “So, you blame me that I couldn’t perform a miracle and save Devora. Let’s not forget, she chose to ally with the Jackal God. Let’s not forget, she became Lucas’ lover. Let’s not forget, she wasn’t perfect!”

“You say another word and...” Stefan started towards her.

“You’ll what?” Careen goaded. “What will you do, Stefan?”

Stefan angrily stared at her for a few seconds. “Get out,” he quietly ordered. “I don’t want to see you again. That may be impossible given the situation we’re in. But don’t ever talk to me again...especially about Devora.”

“I would have fought all the realms for you,” she whispered. She slowly shook her head as though surprised at the entire situation. “You fool, we could have had so much.” She slowly walked away closing the door quietly behind her.

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

Christien put out a hand to stop Elaina. They watched as Careen walked away from Stefan’s room. They glanced at each other with a mixture of confusion and alarm. They slowly walked down the hall then stopped when they heard the sound of things being violently thrown and smashed inside Stefan’s room. They stood quietly by the door until the sounds stopped. Christien started to enter the room, but Elaina stopped him.

“Let me,” she softly advised. When Christien hesitated, Elaina smiled. “He won’t hit me. But he will hit you.”

Christien shrugged but stepped back. He kept the door from closing behind her, watching carefully.

Elaina looked around the wrecked room. She shook her head at the evidence of Stefan’s temper. ‘At least he didn’t direct it towards Careen.’ She stepped further into the room and saw Stefan sitting next to the bed. His knees were drawn up to his chest, and he rested his forehead on his knees.

Slowly Elaina knelt next to him. He looked up as she slowly slid an arm around his shoulders. “She said I was a fool,” he whispered tears in his eyes. “I suppose I am. But I can’t go back to her, Elaina.”

Elaina slowly sat next to him and pulled his head onto her shoulder. She glanced at the half-open door in time to see Christien quietly closing it leaving them alone.

“I can’t go back,” Stefan brokenly repeated. “I can’t go back. I just can’t.”

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

Careen slammed the door to her chambers behind her. She angrily waved an arm and light appeared from several torches. She saw someone sitting in the chair and stiffened.

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding.”

“What are you doing here, Alyxa?” Careen asked. She knew her brother's wife rarely left the sumptuous quarters that she and Odan shared.

“I thought you might need to talk,” Alyxa slowly stood. “Odan and Evan are concerned, but they have no idea what this is like.”

“I’ll never let this happen again,” Careen angrily vowed. “No one is ever going to do this to me again.”

Slowly Alyxa put her arms around Careen. “Don’t say that,” she murmured.

“No one,” Careen furiously growled. “Never.”

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

“From what I understand there was some sort of altercation between Careen and that Stefan person,” Hector loudly whispered to Eldrin as they prepared to enter the conference room.

“I hope they’re both still alive,” Eldrin weakly smiled.

“Well, of course they are.” Hector patted Eldrin’s arm. “You worry too much.” He walked past him and cheerfully greeted Macedin who snarled a reply.

Eldrin relaxed when he saw Stefan sitting next to Christien. Christien silently nodded a greeting. Eldrin nodded back noticing that Stefan looked exhausted.

The far door to the conference room opened. Everyone fell silent as Careen, Odan, and Evan stood framed in the doorway, all three looking grim and determined. Simon glanced at Eldrin who calmly nodded a silent greeting to them. He saw Christien and Odan exchange a quick silent look. Each seemed satisfied with what he saw in the other’s expression.

Kathlyna curiously watched as everyone took their places at the ornate table. It was evident there was antagonism in the air. ‘I hate not knowing what’s going on.’ She glanced at Maire, who barely shrugged.

Eldrin slowly looked at everyone then motioned for them to sit. “Thank you all for being here,” he began. “We have a lot to do.”



GO TO CHAPTER SIXTEEN



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