“You’re insane, Rik!” Christien shouted. He’d repeated this statement many times during the previous evening’s arguments. “You’re absolutely insane!”

“I doubt it.” Rik’s voice was quiet but intense. His bright blue eyes glared at Christien. “I told you last night, we’ll be at Shi’ar tomorrow. We can discuss it then.”

“And all the while, you’re planning this idiocy!” Christien accused. “By the time we get back to Shi’ar, you’ll have it all planned!” He glared at Stefan. “And I suppose you agree with him!”

Stefan shrugged, aware that no amount of argument would sway either brother. “Let’s just say I prefer to see what Artur has to say,” he commented. He calmly returned the glares from both his brothers.

Christien glared at Rik. “You’re letting your heart rule your head!” he accused.

“And you’re not?” Rik shouted.

Christien flushed then angrily left Rik’s campfire. Elaina saw him walking towards their tent. Like everyone else, she knew he’d been arguing with Rik for the previous two days. No one had heard their exact words, and Christien had refused to explain.

“Christien, what’s going on?” Elaina asked as he flopped down by the fire.

“Nothing’s settled yet,” Christien growled almost to himself. He suddenly became aware of Elaina’s presense. “Never mind,” he told her. He glanced over his shoulder where Rik and Stefan stood deep in discussion. “Better get some sleep,” he advised. “We’ll ride hard to get to Shi’ar as early as possible tomorrow.”

Elaina started to say something then noticed the stiff set of Christien’s shoulders. With a sigh, she entered the tent. Lying down, she pulled a blanket over her. After a few moments, she felt another blanket being laid across her. She opened her eyes to see Christien kneeling next to her. “Aren’t you going to sleep?” she hesitantly asked.

“Later,” Christien brusquely replied. He stood and walked away.

Elaina watched him leave wondering if the distance Christien kept from her was because they weren’t alone or if it was because he’d been told she was a witch. Although healers were accepted as a necessity, witches were viewed by most people as evil and capricious. Although it seemed that Maire Lorcan’s abilities were easily accepted by her husband and friends. ‘Perhaps its different elsewhere.’

It was obvious that Rik didn’t want to discuss anything the next day. He’d ostentaciously ridden next to Elaina knowing that neither Christien nor Stefan wanted to argue in front of her. After a few hours, Christien decided to ride with his Rangers as they spread out as a precaution.

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

Paolo and the other children descended on them hardly before they’d dismounted. Elaina wondered who was the happiest to see them, the children or a visibly relieved Artur.

“Mama! Mama! I’ve been riding! I only fell off my pony once!” Paolo proudly pulled back the sleeve on his left arm and displayed a large bruise. “It’s the only one!” Before his mother could reply, the boy ran to show Christien.

Elaina exchanged an amused look with Gwen. “I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Artur grunted. “He’s a good boy.” He affectionately looked at his own children. “Unlike some I could mention,” he teased.

“We need to talk as soon as we’re clean and rested,” Ric said as he gave his wife a kiss.

Artur took a long look at all his brothers, then sighed.

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

“I don’t like it,” Artur grumbled. He folded his arms across his chest and started at Rik. “I don’t like it at all.”

“I agree that it’s risky and dangerous,” Rik nodded. “But do we really have a choice?”

“We need to wait and get Rhyane and Woodlands firmly allied,” Christien protested. He paced the length of the room trying to find the words to convince his brother.

“We are allied,” Rik shrugged.

“They’ll provide troops and support?” Christien demanded. “That doesn’t sound like Jamie Lorcan. And Garn Rhyane wasn’t even there.”

“They will if it’s necessary,” Rik assured him.

“Necessary!” Christien exploded. He caught his breath. “But not now.” He shook his head.

“Garn will join if Jaxon openly espouses the Jackal God,” Artur pointed out. “He won’t be able to do otherwise. He’s openly stood against the Jackal for too long.” He glanced at Rik. “And if he brings Rhyane to this war, Jamie will bring the Woodlands.”

“You’re taking too much on faith,” Christien warned. He found his fingers making fists and forced them to relax.

“It’s a gamble,” Artur corrected him. He stared at Rik. “And I don’t like gambles.”

“It’s because it’s a gamble that it’ll work,” Rik pointed out. He glanced at Stefan. “Well?”

Stefan slowly shrugged. “I think Rik’s right,” he concluded. “And I think it’s a gamble we can win.”

Christien glanced at Artur knowing he was the only one who might be able to change Rik’s mind.

“I’m not so convinced as Stefan,” Artur finally admitted. He slowly raised his eyes to meet Christien’s. “But it’s the only plan we have...unless you have something to offer against it.”

Christien hesitated then slowly shook his head. “No,” he finally admitted. “Only to wait.”

“Waiting won’t help!” Stefan snapped. “Waiting will only allow Jaxon to consolidate his hold on Elhalyn!”

“Fine!” Christien angrily snapped in return. “I said I didn’t have any other plan!”

“Then it’s settled,” Rik firmly announced. He glanced at each of his brothers. “Let’s get to work.”

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

“Well, at least they’re not screaming at each other,” Gwyn ruefully told Elaina as she passed her on the stairway. “Whether they’re eating the food I brought to them...” she shrugged. “I don’t know if Christien argued the other three into agreeing with him or if they convinced him.”

“Do you know what’s going on?” Elaina prodded.

“No.” Gwyn looked irritated. “But Rik Aramis, High and Mighty Lord of Shi’ar, won’t sleep tonight until I do,” she promised.

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

“I’m glad I didn’t go,” Paolo confided as Elaina tucked him into bed.

“Why?” Elaina asked in surprise.

“Because I wouldn’t have been a good boy,” Paolo assured her. “I don’t like Lady Clarisa or Lord Jaxon.”

“Uncle Jaxon,” Elaina automatically corrected him.

“My uncles are nice,” Paolo corrected her. “He’s not nice so he’s not my uncle any more.”

Elaina looked at her son in surprise.

“I was only a good boy because you and grandfather wanted me to be a good boy.” Paolo snuggled under the woven blanket. He wiggled his toes and smiled. “So I would have been a very bad boy if I’d gone.”

“You musn’t be a bad boy,” Elaina remonstrated. She brushed his blonde hair away from his forehead. “I wish you had told me how you felt.”

Paolo shrugged. “Grandfather said it was our secret.” He suddenly looked at his mother in horror. “Did I break a promise?”

“No,” Elaina assured him. “I’m glad you like it here.”

“Do I have to ever go back there?” Paolo asked as he continued to wiggle his toes.

“No,” Elaina quickly assured him. “I promise.” She tucked the blanket around him. “Now you must go to sleep.”

“I’m not really sleepy, Mama,” Paolo pleaded.

“Yes, you are,” Elaina smiled. “Go to sleep.”

“Yes, Mama,” Paolo sighed. He waited until his mother had closed the door behind him, then at the candle she’d left burning on the chest in the corner. ‘I’m not sleepy.’ Throwing back the blanket, he quietly got out of bed and opened his toy chest.

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

Christien hadn’t returned when Elaina entered their chambers so she decided to take a long bath. Afterwards, she walked out onto the tower ramp that separated their tower from Artur’s.

She leaned against the parapet and watched the sun slowly slip behind the mountains. She knew Elhalyn lay in that direction. It seemed war was inevitable. Although she felt no loyalty or compassion for either Jaxon or Clarisa, she hated that war would bring death to both realms. She stood there as the air grew cooler and the guards took their place for the night watch on the gate and walls.

Elaina heard someone walking towards her and looked up. Christien leaned against the parapet next to her. His hair was damp from his own bathing, and his eyes looked tired. Elaina glanced at him then looked back towards the gate. “Gwyn said you and your brothers were arguing,” she finally said.

“That’s not unusual,” Christien assured her.

“She said it sounded like you were arguing with them,” Elaina continued.

Christien silently nodded.

“Rik and Stefan told you, didn’t they?” Elaina’s spine stiffened. When Christien glanced at her, she blurted, “That I’m a witch. That my...power...healed you.”

“Yes,” Christien warily answered in confusion

“I see.” Elaina’s voice grew cold. “I’m not sure why the others would argue for me except they can see a use for my...power.” She turned to stare at Christien. “Don’t worry. I won’t impose myself on you.”

“What are you talking about?” Christien demanded. “My brothers like you very much.” He shook his head. “Rik adores you. If he wasn’t so besotted with Gwyn, I’d be worried.”

Elaina’s eyes narrowed. “I seemed so distant...” She saw something cold flicker in Christien’s blue eyes. “You married me to ally with Elhalyn...” Her voice drifted off as Christien’s jaw clenched. “I know you’re worrying that any child...”

“You know nothing! Nothing at all!” Christien snapped his hand slapping the stone wall. He took several deep breaths. “I can’t talk to you about this now,” he muttered.

Elaina frowned. “Why not?” she demanded.

Christien seemed surprised to see her standing next to him. He suddenly straightened. “We leave before dawn tomorrow.” His voice was rough. “We’re attacking Elhalyn.” He turned and walked away.

Elaina watched him enter the tower, stunned into silence. It was minutes before she could move suddenly chilled in the night air. She found Christien in their sitting room sharpening his sword with short angry strokes. She slowly sat in the chair opposite him.

“Why?” Elaina quietly asked.

“Rik thinks its best,” Christien replied evenly. “He wants vengeance for Rafael, of course. But he feels Jaxon will attack us as soon as he’s able. So Rik believes we’ll have a better advantage if we move first.”

“You don’t agree?” Elaina asked after a moment.

Christien shrugged. “I’d prefer to wait,” he admitted. “To get Woodlands and Rhyane firmly committed to us. The others don’t believe we have that much time.”

Elaina swallowed. “All of you are going?” she asked. She unconsciously closed her hands into fists.

Christien nodded concentrating on his task. “Artur doesn’t like that part either,” he answered then glanced at her. “We’ll leave enough men to hold Shi’ar if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

“That’s part of it.” Elaina’s eyes narrowed. “But I’m also concerned about you. Are you healthy enough?” When Christien didn’t answer, Elaina suddenly snapped, “I don’t want you going!”

Christien angrily glared at her. “I wouldn’t be concerned about it,” he snarled. “Either way, you’ll be important to the victors. I don’t think Jaxon’s stupid enough to do anything to you considering your power. You’ll make another marriage.”

Their eyes locked for a second. Then they looked away barely acknowledging the hurt they saw in the others’ eyes. Elaina took a deep breath then jumped as Christien suddenly stood, his sword clattering onto the stone floor. He walked to the window and threw it open breathing deeply. Elaina started to stand then sat back down as Christien softly spoke.

“I was there when you married Brandor D’Van,” he began. “Rik brought me. He looked forward to seeing Rafael again and thought I was old enough to come with him.” He slightly smiled at the memory. “I was barely thirteen and so concerned about not embarrassing my brother.”

Christien briefly glanced over his shoulder then back outside. “Then I saw you,” he mused. “You were so beautiful. Like the Goddess come to walk among us.” He laughed sharply. “And I hated Brandor. Admired him and hated him at the same time. He was the warrior I wanted to be. And he had you.”

Christien closed his eyes. “So I decided I’d become a warrior that even Brandor D’Van would respect and admire,” he continued. “I pestered Rik and Artur until they could have joyfully knocked my brains out. I trained and trained until even Stefan got tired of it.” He hesitated. “Then I heard Brandor had been killed. I had my horse halfway saddled to go to Elhalyn to get you. Then I realized I was only fifteen. I had nothing to show you...nothing to prove my worth.” He laughed harshly. “A fifteen year old boy thinking he could compare himself to a warrior like Brandor D’Van!”

Elaina stared at him silently her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

“So I kept training and learning,” Christien continued. “I spent a summer training with Duncan Lorcan and Josef Rhyane. We decided to form the Rangers. I don’t know about them, but my brothers gave me a hard time about that. Artur still thinks I’m a fool.”

Christien took a deep breath. “I’d seen Rik and Artur both make political marriages. Artur was so miserable that he was guilty about being relieved when his wife died. So I fought them on every marriage proposal dangled in front of me. None of them were for you. Then Rafael contacted Rik about a marriage between the two of us. Rik thought I’d turn it down like all the others.” Christien suddenly grinned. “He was shocked when I not only agreed but told him I wanted it done immediately and didn’t care about the details..”

Christien leaned his head against the window casing. “Then when he told me it was done, I honestly panicked,” he admitted. “Who was I to compare to Brandor D’Van? So I told myself I would catch the raiders who were harassing our southern border. I would bring them back as proof I was worthy of you.” He bit his lip. “Instead of being covered with glory, I never even got close to them.” He took another deep breath. “I call myself a Ranger, but I can’t even capture raiders. Brandor would have had them the first week.”

“Brandor wasn’t perfect,” Elaina said softly. “He didn’t always succeed.”

“You married me to please your father and to protect Paolo,” Christien ignored her. “Even if you’d noticed me years ago, it was as a boy. You couldn’t help but continue to compare me to Brandor.” He turned around before Elaina could speak.

“I am Christien Aramis of Shi’ar. I am a Ranger and sworn to follow the Lord of Shi’ar.” He stared into Elaina’s eyes. “And I leave with him tomorrow.” Without another word, he walked passed her firmly closing the door behind him.

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

“We must strike fast,” General Paolo D’Van announced to his troops. “We must not fail. All the realms depend upon us. We will succeed.” Paolo looked at the wooden toy soldiers and nodded in satisfaction at their shouts of agreement. He rose to his knees and began putting some of them onto the small wooden horses.

From the partially open doorway, Christien grinned. He’d come to see Paolo even though he figured the boy would be asleep. To his surprise, he’d found Paolo on the floor exhorting his troops to victory.

“Now, you will ride like the wind this way,” Paolo ordered as he turned the horses to the left. “The rest of you will ride like the wind the other way.” He lined up the other horses in the opposite direction. He stared at the rest of the toy soldiers. “There aren’t any more horses so you will have to run like the wind straight ahead.”

“Looks like you could use some more horses,” Christien said quietly closing the door behind him.

Paolo jumped up guiltily. “I’m going right to sleep,” he quickly promised.

“Really?” Christien’s eyes twinkled. He knelt and studied the soldiers. “Looks to me like you’ve got a battle to fight.” He grinned at Paolo. “And their general decides to go to sleep?”

Paolo grinned back and stifled a yawn. “I told Mama I wasn’t sleepy,” he said kneeling back down. “Are you going to tell her?”

“No,” Christien grinned. “But maybe it would be better if you played with them on the bed.”

Paolo nodded picking up his soldiers and tossing them on the bed. “I don’t have enough for the bad men,” he said. “But I can pretend.”

“I used to have some like these,” Christien recalled. “I’ll see if I can find them for you.”

“When you come back?” Paolo grew suddenly serious as he got under the blanket.

“How did you know?” Christien asked sitting on the side of the bed. When Paolo looked away, he suddenly grinned. “You and the others were on that outside parapet on Rik’s tower, weren’t you?”

Paolo bit his lip and stared at the toy soldier in his hands.

“That’s a dangerous place,” Christien warned. “You can fall pretty easily from there.” When Paolo didn’t look at him, he continued. “You ask Stefan how much it hurts to fall from there.”

“Uncle Stefan?” Paolo looked surprised.

Christien nodded. “He and I used to climb up there when Rik and Artur were discussing matters we thought we should know about,” he admitted. “But Stefan got too big for that small parapet and fell one day.” He grinned. “I’m surprised Rik hasn’t remembered that and blocked it.”

“Are you going to tell?” Paolo asked sadly.

“We’ll discuss it when I get back,” Christien offered. “Until then, none of you go back up there. Understand?”

“Yes,” Paolo snuggled under the blanket. “Are you really going to attack Uncle Jaxon?”

“Yes,” Christien admitted after a moment. “I’m sorry if that makes you sad.”

Paolo shook his head. “He wasn’t nice to me. And Lady Clarisa was always mean to Mama.” He looked up at Christien. “I like my new family a lot better.”

“I’m glad,” Christien smiled and smoothed Paolo’s hair from his face. “But I think we better let the army get a good night’s sleep, General.”

Reluctantly, Paolo nodded.

Christien carefully gathered up the toys and put them in the chest next to the bed. He saw Paolo yawn again and smiled. “You watch out for your Mama while I’m gone,” Christien said. He hesitated then leaned down and kissed Paolo’s forehead. “I’ll be gone by the time you wake tomorrow morning.”

“You’ll be back,” Paolo anxiously said.

Christien sat down again on the side of the bed. He took Paolo’s hand and held it between both of his. “I swear by all the Gods I believe in, I will do everything possible to return,” he promised.

Paolo’s sleepy blue eyes stared at him for a few seconds, then he nodded. “And Rangers keep their promises,” he yawned.

“Yes, we do,” Christien agreed. He sat and watched Paolo’s eyes slowly close. A few minutes later, Paolo’s regular breathing told him the boy was asleep. Christien leaned forward and kissed him again on the forehead. Wearily, he closed the door behind him and walked back to his chamber.

He saw the sitting room was empty, the open window now closed. He closed the door behind him and saw Elaina had put his sword on the chair. He sheathed it and put away the sharpening tools. It hadn’t needed to be sharpened, but it had been something to do. Taking a deep breath, he blew out the candles in the sitting room and opened the door to the bedroom. He saw Elaina sitting on the end of the bed dressed in her nightgown and fur robes. She calmly at him as he closed the door behind him.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to stay behind,” she quietly told him. “I apologize for that, Christien.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Christien mumbled looking away uncomfortably.

“Yes, it does,” Elaina firmly argued. “We both know it does.” When Christien finally nodded, she continued. “You told me who you are, Christien. But you need to know who I am.”

Christien turned to warily look at her. He forced his hands to unclench.

“I am Elaina K’Yer, daughter of Elhalyn.” Elaina met his eyes. “I married Brandor D’Van and loved him. When he died, it...I never wanted to hurt like that again.” She stood and slowly walked to Christien. “I married you because I believed you to be a man I would be proud to call my husband. Were you not, I would never have consented to this marriage.” She slowly took one of his hands in hers. “I’m sorry I asked you to stay. It was wrong. I was only thinking of myself.”

Christien slowly nodded. “I understand, Elaina,” he gently replied. He smiled slightly. “Believe me, I do.”

“Will you answer me a question?” Elaina prodded.

Eyes slightly narrowing, Christien slowly nodded.

Elaina smiled and gently parted his lips with her finger. “How did you chip your tooth?” she asked lightly touching it with her finger.

Christien grinned and relaxed. He took her hand and kissed her finger. “Little brothers always want to do what their older brothers are doing,” he answered. “Stefan was learning to ride a horse and I was still on this old fat pony. I could run faster than he could walk.” He grinned sheepishly. “They told me I couldn’t ride a horse yet because I was too little. So, when they weren’t looking, I got up on Stefan’s horse. He immediately threw me half-way across the practice field.”

“That’s how it happened?” Elaina grinned.

Christien shook his head. “Stefan did that when he hit me for daring to get on his horse,” he remembered. “I was howling from being thrown, from Stefan punching me, from Artur shaking me...Rik finally got me away from them. He thought it was funny.”

He hesitated a moment, then dropped Elaina’s hand. “Will you answer me a question?” he asked suddenly serious. When Elaina nodded, he walked away a few steps. “You wouldn’t let me love you with all the candles burning.” He suddenly turned and gave her a level look. “Why?”

Elaina caught her breath at the unexpected question. She took a deep breath.

“Never mind,” Christien snapped as he turned away walking towards the door. Not for the first time, he silently cursed Brandor D’Van.

“Paolo’s birth wasn’t....normal,” Elaina choked out. Christien turned around to see her shakily sit on the end of the bed. “Clarisa said he needed to be...cut out of me.” She closed her eyes.

Christien suddenly paled. ‘As long ago as that’, he suddenly thought. ‘Clarisa and Jaxon were plotting even then.’

“I was dying...fevered for days.” Elaina took a deep breath and opened her eyes staring at the floor. “Some traveling healers arrived in Elhalyn. My father insisted they care for me. Their skills saved my life.” She forced a bitter smile. “Perhaps they had some power as well.” She shuddered. “The scar is....ugly. I can’t stand to look at it let alone have someone else see it”

Christien knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he whispered.

Elaina’s eyes were bitter. “What man would want a wife who might not be able to bear his children? I know Father told Rik. I thought Rik told you.”

“Rik knew I didn’t care. Not as much as I was pushing him to settle matters.” He shook his head. “I don’t want children at the risk of killing you. I have Paolo. He’ll be my son.” He grinned. “I couldn’t ask for a better child.”

“He’s just been on his best behavior lately,” Elaina warned with a shaky smile then forced herself to stare into Christien’s eyes. “The healers said there was a chance I might conceive. But not likely.”

“If I have you and Paolo, I have my family,” Christien said firmly. “But if there’s a chance...”

“No.” Elaina put her fingers over Christien’s mouth. “Please don’t say you won’t love me the way you have, Christien.”

After a moment, he nodded. Removing her hand, he forced a smile. “I suppose if you let me risk my life in battle then I have to allow you to risk yours in bearing a child,” he reluctantly admitted.

Elaina remembered what Stefan had said about Christien not wanting anyone he cared for to be in danger. She rested her forehead against his, sliding her arms over his shoulders.

After a moment, Christien moved his head and gently kissed her lips. He felt Elaina’s mouth slide open, and her arms tighten around him. Drawing a ragged breath, he moved back and began blowing out the candles as Elaina slid onto the bed.

Christien pulled his shirt over his head and joined Elaina. She surprised him by turning to him. He caught his breath as Elaina became the aggressor using her mouth on his body. Hands shaking, he pulled her gown away needing to touch her...wanting to taste her as well.

But Elaina continued exploring him with her mouth. Christien gasped as waves of arousal shot though him. His fingers entangled themselves in her hair as he struggled to catch his breath. Finally, he groaned a ragged plea.

Elaina passionately kissed him and murmured her own need. As Christien eagerly moved over her, she took his face between her hands. “Look at me,” she asked.

Dazed and confused, Christien stared down at her.

“You are Christien,” Elaina softly spoke. “You’ve never been anyone else.”

Christien stared at her for a split second then lost the final remnants of the control he’d always kept with her.

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

Hours later, Elaina stirred lazily stretching her legs. Not feeling Christien’s warm solid body next to her, she forced her eyes open. Looking through the window, she saw the sky was just starting to rise. Suddenly sitting up, she looked around. Her husband was gone.

Finding her gown, she pulled it over her head and ran to the window. A group of men were forming in the practice yard preparing to ride out. Elaina turned around and found her fur robe. Drawing it around her shoulders, she saw a folded piece of paper under a candelabra. Her hands shaking, she lit the candles and opened the paper.

My heart is yours forever. Christien

Elaina dropped the note on the floor and ran.

Gwyn had just come back into the Great Hall when Elaina ran down the staircase. “He’s riding out,” Gwyn warned.

Not heeding her, Elaina ran outside. “Christien!” she screamed running towards the main gate.

Startled, Christien reined in and looked back through the misty half-light of early morning. He saw Elaina running towards him, the nearby riders trying to keep their startled horses in line. He turned his horse and rode towards her.

Elaina felt herself being caught up onto the horse in front of Christien. “Are you insane?” he furiously shouted. “You could have been trampled!”

“Don’t you ever leave again without telling me!” Elaina angrily shouted back. She took a deep breath and tried to relax. “Please, Christien, don’t do that to me again!”

After a moment, Christien nodded feeling her shaking in his arms. “I won’t,” he promised pulling her close to him. Slowly he walked his horse back to the castle. “Go back inside,” he told her. “You’ll freeze out here.”

Elaina hugged him closely. “I love you, Christien Aramis,” she whispered before releasing him. “Come back to me.”

Slowly Christien lowered her to the ground. He hesitated then leaned down and kissed her long and hard. Then whirling his horse around, he galloped towards the gate. The Rangers formed behind him and followed.

Elaina stood and watched until the gates closed. She shivered in the early morning air then turned and closed the door behind her.

High atop Shi’ar, five children stood on the parapet outside Stefan’s tower. They watched as the army thundered along the road towards war with Elhalyn. “They’ll be back,” Cheyne finally said. When the others didn’t answer, she gave them an angry look. “I said they’ll be back!” she firmly repeated daring them to contradict her.

“They’ll be back,” Paolo solemnly nodded. “Christien promised. And Rangers keep their promises.”

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

Lucas nodded curtly to the man standing next to him. He looked up as Jaxon entered the Great Hall.

“I don’t know where it’s gone,” Jaxon disgustedly shook his head. “Mother’s looked through all the jewels she can find. There’s no amethyst.”

“Your sister has it,” Lucas answered softly.

“What?!” Jaxon shouted. “How? I know she didn’t take it with her when she wed!”

“Apparently your father sent it to her.” Lucas carefully walked towards Jaxon. “I just received word confirming that she has it.” He shook his head. “That’s not good, Jaxon.” He smiled coldly his finger rubbing the ruby in his bracer. “The Jackal has many friends. The army of Shi’ar will be here soon. You’re not ready.”

“Shi’ar? Here?” Jaxon paled. Then he shook his head. “But I couldn’t be ready, Lucas! You know that! Not as long as Father lived!”

Lucas’ eyebrows rose. “What I know is that you’ve failed the Jackal,” he said smoothly. “You’ve failed the Jackal. I’m afraid measures will have to be taken.” He smiled coldly as Jaxon backed away.

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

Days later a toddler jumped in the air to catch a brightly multi-colored ball that hovered in the air just inches above his head. “Mine,” he said firmly.

“Really?” The older man smiled happily. “Can you say ‘please’?”

The boy looked up and nodded. “Mine,” he repeated firmly.

The man looked a confused. “He didn’t say ‘please’, did he, Ana?”

“No, Uncle Hector, he didn’t.” Ana repressed a smile. “You shouldn’t let him have the ball.”

“But he’s so cute,” Hector protested slowly lowering the ball through the air to the boy.

“Mine!” the boy jumped up to grab the ball.

“Benami!” Ana said sharply.

“Mine,” Benami pouted. Then he looked up at Hector and smiled. “Love you.”

“See!” Hector beamed picking up the boy. “He loves me.”

Ana smiled as Hector carried Benami to the other side of the garden. Benami, just past his second birthday, held the ball close to him. She felt arms slide around her waist and turned to see her husband smiling.

“Greedy little thing, isn’t he?” Eldrin shook his head at his son’s actions. He nuzzled his wife’s red-gold curls smiling as he breathed her scent.

“Wonder who he takes that after?” Ana smiled back her blue eyes twinkling.

Eldrin’s smile faded slightly. “I know who,” he murmured to himself. Then he stepped back. “Simon and the others need to see us...and Hector.”

Ana’s smile also faded. “Uncle Hector, we need to meet with the others,” she called.

“Yes, Ana,” Hector called back seemingly absorbed in watching Benami chase the ball.

“Now, Uncle Hector,” Ana prodded.

“ course.” Hector turned to one of the nearby guards. “You will watch out for him, won’t you?” When the man nodded, Hector smiled. “Of course you will.” He patted Benami’s head and walked to Ana. “Now, dear, what is so important?”

Eldrin turned his face appreciatively to catch the dry desert wind. Everything seemed so quiet and peaceful. ‘Unfortunately, it's not going to last’, he thought as he followed his wife and her uncle inside.

“Adriana! Simon! How wonderful to see you!” Hector hugged the man and woman standing just inside.

Simon, an elderly man who features showed more than a generous share of the Old Blood, smiled. His pale green eyes crinkled at the obvious pleasure Hector showed in seeing them even though he’d seen them only the previous day. But to Hector, every day was a new day full of surprises and adventures. While some people questioned the wisdom of allowing such a chaotic person to channel the great amount of magic he possessed, Simon had found him to be a great friend.

Simon’s granddaughter, Adriana, smiled a little less enthusiastically. Hector tended to tire her with the force of his personality. It didn’t help that she knew with her pale blonde hair and slate grey eyes, she seemed to fade into the background next to Hector’s vibrant gregariousness.

“Where are the others?” Eldrin quietly asked.

“They’re coming.” Adriana’s grey eyes were shadowed.

Eldrin sat down. “Why don’t you go ahead?” he suggested.

“The Jackal has made his move,” Adriana explained.

“Oh, that again,” Hector grimaced. “You’d think a god would find something better to do.” His attention wandered and became focused on the small cracks on the table.

Ana’s eyes twinkled. People in the Wastelands had traditionally looked askance at most magic. Although some were now used to magic because of Eldrin’s welcome to those with magic, most of the council were still troubled by Hector. They had seen him conjure miniature ponies and prance them across the table when he became bored.

“The Jackal God’s taken over Elhalyn,” Adriana sternly continued. “And his people plan on attacking Shi’ar.”

“Oh.” Hector returned his attention to Adrina. “That isn’t good,” he admitted.

“Then it’s started,” Eldrin sighed not noticing Ana’s arm on his wrist. “I just wish it hadn’t been...” He glanced at Adriana. “Who’s leading the attack?”

“Lucas of the Isles,” Adriana continued. “Evan and I were monitoring. Evan recognized him.”

“Where is Evan?” Hector looked under the table. “Evan?” he whispered.

“We had matters to discuss.” A man spoke from the doorway.

Hector beamed. “There you are! You’re missing all the excitement!”

Evan would have openly sneered except he respected Hector’s magic too much. He took his seat at the council table. Standing to either side was his sister, Careen, and his brother, Odan. All three siblings bore a striking resemblance to each other with their black hair and dark green eyes. Odan’s stockier build, however, indicated his warrior profession while Careen and Evan had the lean build of sorcerers.

“I’m sorry,” Eldrin apologized. “But it looks like Leodin is coming into the open.”

Odan looked somewhat troubled but Careen nodded her thanks. Evan ignored Eldrin’s words. “Lucas is constructing a gateway to send troops from Elhalyn to Shi’ar,” he reported. “Shi’ar will never know they’re there until the attack comes.”

Eldrin glanced around the table. “Then we need to warn Shi’ar,” he said heavily. “And get our own troops prepared. The desert sands may not protect us in this case.”

“The Lord of Shi’ar is already on the way to attack Elhalyn,” Adriana pointed out. “Most of his army might be in Elhalyn today.”

“Why didn’t we know sooner?” Macedin snapped. A mercenary soldier who had backed Eldrin to the throne of the Wastelands, he had little use or respect for magic. His irritation clearly showed in the snap of his blue eyes.

“It’s not as simple as sending one of your spies, Macedin.” Adriana gave Evan a warning look. “Lucas has one of the Stones of Maxen. The Stone of Rage. Our monitoring had to be very circumspect and cautious.” She ignored Macedin’s snort of derision. “It seems Shi’ar possesses one of the Stones as well. Evan and I disagree about a possible second.”

“Then it seems we need to aid Shi’ar,” Simon quietly pointed out. “The armies should be evenly matched. But Lucas’ magic will need to be countered.”

“Simon and Careen,” Eldrin decided. He held up his hand as both Adriana and Evan began to protest. “They work well together,” he pointed out. “I’ll need Evan, Adriana, and Hector to erect guards and wards around our towns.” He looked at Odan. “I’ll need you and Macedin to coordinate the troops here with those stationed along the borders.” He nodded curtly and left followed by Ana.

Careen waved her fingers at her brothers as she left with Simon. “I don’t like it,” Evan muttered to Odan.

“She can take care of herself,” Odan replied although he, too, frowned. “But Lucas is bound to recognize her.”

Evan nodded curtly and stood up. “I know.” He took a deep breath. “So much for living in obscurity.”

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

Eldrin stood on the balcony watching his son play with Hector’s magic ball. Ana slid an arm around his waist.

“I wish it hadn’t come this soon,” Eldrin murmured. “And that Shi’ar wasn’t in the forefront.”

“We have time,” Ana comforted him. “Perhaps they won’t need to know.”

Eldrin nodded although he didn’t look convinced.

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

“That’s not fair!” Paolo angrily shouted. He got to his feet and rubbed his backside. “You didn’t wait for me to get ready!”

Cheyne serenely smiled. “An enemy won’t wait for you to get ready, Paolo,” she taunted before looking up at an impassive Starra. “Right?”

Paolo took that opportunity to lower his head and dived at Cheyne who squealed as she was knocked to the ground.

“Right,” Starra drily replied. She reached down and the two wrestling children to their feet “Get up,” she ordered. “Now, do you want to just knock each other into the dirt or do you want to actually learn how to fight?”

“Fight.” Five voices echoed one another.

Elaina, on her way towards the garden, smiled as she watched the children with Starra. It had been over four days since the army had left Shi’ar. Everyone knew the battle by now had either been won, lost, or was being fought. But as Gwyn had pointed out before, it did no one any good to sit and worry.

Elaina sighed to herself as she began working around the small healing plants. It would be at least another couple of days before they could expect to hear anything. Remembering the long days of waiting before news of Brandor’s death had been brought to her, she had passed the days since Christien’s departure with a growing sense of dread.

Elaina suddenly shivered as a sudden blast of cold air buffeted her. She looked up expecting to see a cloud covering the sun but there was no cloud.

Suddenly a thunderous explosion occurred followed by screams and curses. Elaina got to her feet and ran towards the front of the castle. She saw a huge hole in the front wall and armored men in black armor galloping through the hole.

Starra immediately shoved the children towards the castle. She knew Gwyn and Devora were inside. Drawing her sword, she cut down one of the mounted attackers as he tried to run over Cheyne. The man screamed and fell to the ground blood gushing from his open throat. “Move!” Starra yelled at the frightened children.

Shiloh grabbed Cheyne’s hand and pulled her towards the safety of the castle. Trainor and Jaella grabbed Paolo.

“I want to fight!” Paolo howled even as he was dragged towards the castle.

Starra ran with them to the steps of the castle. “Inside!” she ordered.

As the children obeyed, she heard the door behind her slam shut. Starra sent a prayer to Anhur that it had been one of Shi’ar’s people who’d done that. She saw Dino Jihadan begin to rally his troops to protect the castle itself.

Then three men almost casually rode through the hole breached in Shi’ar’s walls. Dressed in black armor like the attacking troops, they also wore black cloaks lined with scarlet. One of the men raised his hand and a yellow light traveled from his hand to a defender’s chest. The defender screamed and fell to the ground.

Starra loudly cursed. Whoever was attacking possessed magic. And Shi’ar didn’t.

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

Elhalyn was a smoking stinking mess. The army of Shi’ar rode silently through the blackened streets dazed and stunned at the carnage. No one seemed to left alive.

“Maybe someone escaped,” Christien finally spoke. He winced as the sound of his voice shattered the eerie stillness.

“I hope so,” Rik nodded. “But it doesn’t look like anything survived.”

The worst sight was at the castle itself. Staked to the massive doors of Elhalyn Castle were the dead and mutilated bodies of Clarisa and Jaxon.

“Get them down!” Rik angrily snapped.

Stefan and Mikhail slowly pulled at the stakes holding the bodies to the door. They finally came loose, and the bodies limply tumbled to the ground.

“What in the name of Anhur is that?” Artur suddenly pointed to one side of the castle yard.

They turned to see a glowing orange triangle. The base was eight feet wide and the height was around ten feet high. Rik had slowly started to ride towards it when they felt the air suddenly chill around them. The air shimmered next to the triangle, and two figures appeared.

Rik’s horse shied as Artur and Stefan quickly rode to his side.

The old man looked around in obvious distress. “By all the Gods,” he murmured. “I can’t believe they’d do this.”

The young woman grimaced. She carefully looked around as though committing it to memory. “It was worse on the Misty Isles,” she recalled. She turned to stare at the nearby warriors. “Shi’ar?” she called out.

“I am Lord of Shi’ar,” Rik called back. “Who are you and what do you know about this?”

“I am Careen, and this is Simon.” The woman slowly walked forward. “And this? This was done by Lucas from the Isles. One of the Jackal God’s favored minions.” She looked tempted to spit on the ground. “We’ve been sent by Eldrin, Lord of the Wastelands, to help you.”

“The ones who did this have gone to Shi’ar,” Simon advised. “They seek the Stones of Maxen.”

“Shi’ar!” Artur stiffened. He accusingly turned to Rik.

“They can’t be there!” Rik shouted back. “We would have seen them!”

“They used the gateway.” Simon turned around. “Through this, their entire force would be at Shi’ar within minutes.”

Stefan’s dark eyes glittered. “Assuming you’re telling the truth,” he pointed out. “For all we know, you did this.” He waved a hand back towards the castle.

“Listen to me, you big oaf!” Careen yelled as she stomped towards him. “You can either trust us to get you through the gateway and accept our help or you can ride back and find Shi’ar in ruins!”

“Get everyone back here!” Rik ordered. He turned to Simon. “How close can you put us to Shi’ar Castle?”

“I can’t change the resonances of the gateway,” Simon apologized. “We go where it sends us.”

“Then it might not go to Shi’ar at all!” Artur argued.

“It does,” Careen assured him. “There’s no other way Lucas could have gotten his troops there so quickly.”

“How close?” Rik repeated.

Careen shrugged. “Lucas always did like to make a grand entrance,” she mused. “I’d say less than a mile.” She suddenly gasped as Stefan pulled her up onto his horse in front of him.

“You can come with me,” he coldly grinned. “Just in case you’re lying.”

Careen studied him for a moment. “You’d be interesting if you weren’t such a fool,” she told him.

“I can’t alter the resonances,” Simon suddenly smiled. “But I can give Lucas a rather rude surprise when he comes back through the gate.”

“What do you mean?” Rik asked.

Simon shrugged. “If he comes back, it will explode,” he explained. “It won’t hurt him very much, but it will take him quite a while to get back to friendly territory.”

Christien pulled himself together as the remainder of their troops joined them. All he could think about was Shi’ar looking like Elhalyn...and Elaina pinned to the doors of Shi’ar. From the looks on the others’ faces, he knew they were thinking the same about their families.

“Stefan, you’re first,” Rik quickly organized the troops. “Wait for all of us to get through,” he warned his brother.

“I’ll try,” Stefan shrugged.

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

Elaina tried to work her way towards Starra. She knew once there, she could try to get inside, not realizing the front door had been closed. She screamed as someone grabbed her arm. ,p. “No! You must stay here!” Alejo implored.

“Come with me, Alejo.” Elaina tugged on her arm. “I’ll take you inside.”

“No!” Alejo firmly held to her arm looking around wildly. “Here she is, my Lord! Here!”

Elaina turned to see one of the sorcerers looking in their direction. He coolly smiled and trotted his horse in their direction.

“Alejo!” Elaina struggled in earnest now. “What are you doing?”

“The Jackal commands me, my lady,” Alejo used both hands to hold onto her arm. “He is the One I serve!”

Elaina watched in horrid fascination as the man slowly dismounted. He motioned to Alejo who released her. Backed against the castle wall, Elaina had no place to run.

“My name is Lucas,” the man introduced himself. “I’m pleased to meet you, Lady Elaina.”

“What’s going on?” Elaina stammered.

Lucas looked around. “Alejo, go find something to do,” he ordered. As the older man backed away, Lucas smiled at Elaina. “Merely expanding the Jackal’s territory.” His eyes lit on the amethyst necklace at her throat. “And returning to the Jackal what is rightfully his.”

Elaina tried to move to one side but Lucas only smiled.

“You do yourself no favors by resisting,” he warned her. He quickly reached out and grabbed her arm. He winced slightly and looked somewhat confused. “It will be easier if you give me what I want.” He winced again and tightened his grip.

Elaina groaned as his fingers dug into her forearm. She tried to twist away suddenly reaching for the dagger in her belt. She slashed at Lucas’ arm, stumbling backwards when he released her.

Lucas looked at the gash on his arm then at the jeweled dagger in her hand. “You little fool,” he smiled coldly. “You have no idea what you possess, do you?”

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

Stefan shook his head dazed at traveling through the gateway He moved his men away from the glowing triangle to make room for the next group. Looking around, he saw they were just down the hill from Shi’ar. Even at this distance, they could hear sounds of battle. Stefan glanced over his shoulder. The gateway was glowing a brighter orange. He remembered Rik’s order.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Careen turned to look up at him.

Stefan grinned widely and nodded to one man. “Tell Rik we couldn’t wait,” he ordered. He kicked his horse into a gallop followed by his men.

“Let me down at the gate,” Careen pointed. “I’ll make my way up on the wall. I can use my magic better from up there.”

“Just be careful what you do with it,” Stefan warned.

“Then keep your big head out of my way,” Careen warned.

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

Alejo saw them galloping through the hole in the wall. He turned and ran back to Lucas.

“My Lord!” he screamed. “My Lord!”

Lucas grimaced at the interruption and looked over his shoulder. The ruby in his bracer glowed brightly and Alejo stumbled to the ground blood gushing from his mouth. Lucas looked back at Elaina and shrugged. “He never should have let that necklace reach you in the first place.”

He took a step towards Elaina. “You can’t run,” he told her soothingly. “You can’t hide. Give me what I want, and all this killing and destruction will stop. It’s in your hands to stop this, Elaina. Stop it now before anyone else dies.”

“You want the necklace?” Elaina asked her voice shaking.

“And the dagger,” Lucas added. He smiled coldly. “And you. I think the Jackal will permit me to have that reward.”

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

Dino heaved a sigh of relief as the last of Shi’ar’s army poured through the wall. A woman and old man were using magic against the attackers with increasing success. He sidestepped an attacker’s lunge and regrouped his forces.

Rik sent half of his men to reinforce Starra’s group defending the castle doors. The attackers, surprised to see Shi’ar’s army coming through the wall, quickly realized they were outnumbered.

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

“You can’t touch me, can you?” Elaina suddenly realized. She glanced at the imprint of his hand on her forearm.

“You don’t know the power you can misuse, Elaina,” Lucas softly warned taking another step forward.

“Can’t you hear them?” Elaina glanced past Lucas. “Shi’ar’s army is back. You’re going to lose.”

Lucas looked around and cursed. It was impossible but they were here. Obviously, it was time to retreat...but not without what he wanted. He turned back around. “I can touch you if I have to,” his voice grated. “You won’t like it very much if I do. In fact, you won’t like it at all.”

“You’d better run,” Elaina desperately warned taking a deep breath. She saw the sudden lust rising in Lucas’ face. “While you can escape!”

“Not without you,” Lucas muttered stepping closer.

Elaina suddenly reversed the knife sticking the point just under her left breast.

“Don’t be a fool, Elaina.” Lucas slowly shook his head. “If you do, I’ll just take what I want anyway.”

“But you won’t have me,” Elaina pointed out. “And you may not get the necklace either. The only way out is that hole in the wall. And it’s almost cut off.”

Lucas glanced back over his shoulder then lunged towards her.

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

One of the scarlet cloaked sorcerers foolishly looked around for Lucas then screamed as Christien came up behind him thrusting a sword into his back.

Pulling his sword free of the falling body, Christien glanced past see Elaina confronting a tall man in a scarlet lined cloak. He kicked the other horse out of his way. Elaina had the dagger to her breast as the man looked at Christien then lunged at her.

NOOO!” Christien screamed he watched Elaina bury the dagger in her heart.

‘ hurts...Oh, Christien....’

“You fool!” Lucas shouted as he watched Elaina fall to the ground. Kneeling, he started to reach for the necklace when he heard a horse galloping towards him. He quickly dodged, barely escaping from being run over by Christien’s horse.

Cursing to himself, Lucas easily mounted his horse as Christien threw himself off his. He rode back to the others working his way towards the hole in the wall. His men fell in line with him, cutting their way through the Shi’ar defenders.

Lucas howled as it felt as though his right arm was being torn apart. Snarling, he looked to his right and saw a woman on the wall. “Careen,” he muttered in recognition. He saw her preparing another magic missile and lowered himself across his horse. Riding over several people, including some of his own, Lucas and a few of the others made their escape through the gateway.

Christien knelt by Elaina pulling her into his arms. “Elaina,” he murmured. “Elaina!” he shouted. He shook her but she lay limp in his arms. Sitting on the ground, he saw the dagger, his own pledge-gift to her, embedded in her body and jerked it out. With a curse, he threw it to one side. Holding Elaina close to him, he buried his face in her hair and sobbed.

Artur saw Christien sitting on the ground next to Elaina and froze. Looking around, he saw the battle almost over. “Rik! Stefan!” he shouted and pointed. Then he slowly rode to his brother. He dismounted and put a hand on Christien’s shoulder.

Slowly Christien looked up at Artur, then saw Stefan and Rik approaching. “Damn you, Rik!” Christien shouted. “You wouldn’t listen, would you? You had to do it your way! You couldn’t let just one of us stay, could you?”

“Christien,” Stefan began.

“Stay out of this, Stefan!” Christien shouted. He looked back down at Elaina and smoothed her hair from her pale face. “One night, Rik, that’s all we really had. Past all the misunderstandings and confusions. Just one night!” He buried his in Elaina’s shoulder. “She killed herself so she wouldn’t be taken with your damned Stone!”

“They’re gone,” Simon quietly said although he didn’t believe anyone was paying attention to him.

Careen leaned down and picked up the dagger. She nodded to herself. It was one of Maxen’s Stones. Evan had been right that two of the Stones were in Shi’ar. She studied the Stone for a moment then glanced at the others who seemed to be in almost as much shock as Christien. She murmured something to Simon who frowned. Careen urged him, figuring they’d be less likely to hit an old man than her.

Slowly Simon knelt across from Christien. He lightly placed his hand on her neck. “The wound is still bleeding,” he quietly looked at Rik. “She must still be alive alive.”

“What?!” Rik looked stunned.

Careen held up the dagger. “The Emerald of Protection,” she identified. “That’s probably why Lucas couldn’t take her himself,” she guessed. “It protected her.”

“But she’s likely to die now if she doesn’t get help,” Simon pointed out. “I wish Fawn were here,” he added.

“She’s alive, Christien!” Artur gripped his brother’s shoulder as hard as possible. When Chrisiten stared up at him, Artur pointed to the bleeding wound. “We need to get her inside.” When Christien didn’t move, Stefan stepped in and took Elaina from him. As Christien started to fight him, Artur knocked him down.

“Stop it, Christien!” he bellowed. Then he reached down and helped Christien to his feet. “Do you understand what they’re saying?”

“Yes,” Christien nodded then looked at Artur his eyes clearing. “You’re saying she’s really alive?” He looked as though he believed Artur was lying.

“For now,” Rik cautioned as he watched Simon and Careen follow Stefan inside. He winced as Christien brushed past him.

“Starra! Get that door open!” Stefen bellowed as he ran towards the front door.

Starra instantly raced to the front door and banged on it, demanding entrance.

Inside, one of the servants looked to Gwyn who nodded for him to open the door.

“What if it’s the bad men?” Paolo fearfully asked.

“Starra wouldn’t tell us to let them in!” Shiloh assured him.

“Gwyn! I need you with me!” Stefan yelled.

The children watched as Stefan bounded up the stairs.

Paolo’s blue eyes widened in shock. “Mama!” He darted through the crowd of people, running towards the stairs. At the second step he was caught up in someone’s arms. Turning his head, he saw it was Christien who was carrying him. The small boy flung his arms around Christien’s neck as he sobbed in fear.

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

“This is not my fault,” Rik muttered at the closed door of Christien’s chambers. “It is not my fault.” He glared at the closed door.

Artur glanced at him. “What did you expect?” he asked. “Christien holds you responsible.”

“How was I supposed to know this Lucas was going to be involved with all that magic?” Rik grumbled.

“He was at Elhalyn!” Artur shouted. “Maire Lorcan told you he had one of those Stones!”

“Fine!” Rick shouted back. “I made a mistake in taking everyone against Elhalyn! But Christien doesn’t have to act like I’m the Jackal God Himself! That is, when he condescends to even notice me at all!”

Artur shook his head as Rik continued glowering at him. “Christien was right, and we were wrong.” He hesitated. “Just leave him alone for a while. He’s not going to want to even see you until he knows if Elaina’s going to live.”

Rik leaned against the wall as Artur walked away. ‘And if she doesn’t?’ he asked himself.

For three days, Christien had held vigil next to Elaina’s bed. When Paolo was allowed in, Christien pulled the boy onto his lap and the two of them sat quietly...waiting. The others looked in every couple of hours. But Christien had coldly ordered Rik out when he’d walked in. Despite the best attempts and requests from his brothers and even Gwyn, Christien refused to allow Rik into the room...or to even speak with him.

After the first night, Simon had left. Even with his power and Careen’s combined, they knew little of how to use the healing stone. It would take Simon over a day to return to the Wastelands by the small gateways he could create. He promised to have Fawn return as quickly as possible.

Fawn, a small slender woman with long dark hair and wide soft brown eyes, had appeared in the early morning hours of the fourth day.

“Thank the Gods.” Careen smiled gratefully and almost jerked her into the bedchamber. “This is Fawn, my brother’s wife. She’s probably the best healer in the known realms.”

Fawn gently smiled. “Careen exagerates,” she softly protested. “But I’ll do whatever I can to help.” She studied Christien for a moment. “If it is possible, she will live.”

Christien curtly nodded then left the bedroom as Fawn began examining Elaina’s wound. For some reason, he couldn’t stand to look at it even though he’d seen much worse. He saw Paolo curled up in one of the chairs in the sitting room. He knew he should carry the boy back to his bed but instead he picked him up and put him on his lap.

“Mama?” Paolo’s eyes few open.

“A healer is with her,” Christien whispered. “The one they call Fawn. The one we’ve waited for.”

Paolo looked up at Christien.

“Are you scared?” he asked.

“Yes,” Christien nodded after a moment. He felt Paolo snuggle closer to him and hugged the boy. He felt ice close around his heart. He wanted to kill Rik...but knew he wouldn’t...knew he couldn’t. But if Elaina died, he swore to accomplish two things. First, he would see that Paolo was protected. Then he would hunt down whoever this Lucas was wherever he was and tear him apart with his bare hands.

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

“What’s wrong with her husband?” Fawn asked as she quickly prepared Elaina.

“Elaina stabbed herself to prevent Lucas from taking her,” Careen explained. “Christien blames his brother, Rik, for ordering everyone to attack Elhalyn.”

Fawn glanced at Gwyn. “Rik is the one I saw in the corridor?” she asked.

Gwyn nodded sighing despite herself. “He blames himself as much as Christien does,” she stressed. “But right now, Christien won’t listen to anyone where Rik’s concerned.”

Fawn nodded. “First, we will see if we can save Elaina,” she mumured. “Then we will see if we can save the soul of Shi’ar.”

Gwyn curiously looked at Careen who shrugged.

“She talks like that a lot,” Careen muttered. “It makes my brother crazy.” She suddenly grinned. “He doesn’t like what he doesn’t understand.”

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

Hours later, Gwyn gently touched Christien’s shoulder. “Christien, wake up.”

Both Christien and Paolo immediately awoke. Christien’s eyes flickered towards the bedroom door, automatically noticing the sun was low in the sky. He must have slept for hours.

“She’s much better,” Gwyn quickly him. “And she wants to see both of you.”

Christien glanced down at Paolo who had jumped to his feet clapping his hands. “Gwyn...really?” he quietly asked.

“Yes,” Gwyn wearily nodded. She saw Careen and Fawn come to the door. Fawn smiled at Paolo and led him inside.

Christien shakily got to his feet, then sat back down covering his face with his hands. “She was gone,” he mumbled.

“If not for the Stone, she would have been.” Careen stretched her arms over her head. “Plus, Fawn can produce miracles.”

“I simply have a skill for healing,” Fawn said as she rejoined them. “And I was able to use the healing Stone properly.”

“I owe you a great debt, Lady Fawn.” Christien finally stood. “One I don’t know how I can ever repay.”

Fawn studied him for a few seconds. “Forgive your brother,” she gently suggested. When Christien’s eyes grew cold, she continued. “He’s been outside for days. Lady Gwyndolyn can tell you that. In his own way, he’s held vigil as well. I think he realizes he could lose not only Elaina but you and Paolo as well.”

“Why do you care?” Christien’s eyes narrowed.

“A healer should not only heal the body but the mind and spirit as well,” Fawn smiled, then turned to Gwyn. “Now, with your permission, Lady Gwyndolyn, I’d like to rest.” She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, exhaustion showing in her dark eyes.

“Of course,” Gwyn took her by the arm as Careen followed them out.

Christien was halfway to the bedchamber when he heard Rik’s voice in the hall questioning Fawn. He looked out the door and caught sight of Rik. One glance told him that his brother had probably been there for days. He looked as haggard as Christien had ever seen him.

Slowly Christien walked to the door. He hesitated in the doorway for a moment, tempted to close the door. He realized Rik was silently staring at him. Instead, he walked to Rik and hugged him.

Rik threw his arms around his brother and heaved a sigh of relief. He held Christien close for a few seconds then stepped back. “Better go to her, little brother, before she gets the wrong idea,” he suggested.

Christien gave him another quick hug then closed the door behind him.

Careen looked over at Fawn. “You’re good,” she complimented her. “I knew you could do that with Evan, but....” She grinned as Fawn hushed her.

Christien walked into the bedchamber and gently closed the door behind him. He smiled seeing Paolo stretched out on the bed next to his mother....sound asleep. He knelt beside the bed and gently kissed Elaina’s hand.

Elaina slowly opened her eyes and saw Christien smiling at her. “I love you,” she murmured.

“And I love you.” Christien leaned forward and kissed her lips. “But if you ever do that to me again, I’ll be very angry.” He grinned in relief when Elaina smiled back at him. “Get some rest,” he urged. “I’ll be here.”

“Is he gone?” Elaina fought to keep her eyes open.

Christien didn’t ask who she meant. He knew. “Yes,” he nodded gently running his fingers across her lips. “Get some rest. We’ll talk later.” He didn’t move until he was sure Elaina was asleep. Then he quietly moved a chair next to the bed and took her hand. Leaning back he closed his eyes and began to plan.


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