It took Christien a couple of weeks to get back on his feet. To his irritation, the poison had drained a great deal of his strength. Despite his best intentions, Christien found himself snapping at Elaina when she tried to help him. For the most part, Elaina held her tongue, realizing he was just frustrated over his weakness.

When Gwyn heard his brothers laying bets on when Elaina would turn on Christien, she enlisted the help of the children. Christien then found himself a ward of the children who were dedicated to helping him get around and making sure he didn’t overdo. After a while, Christien saw the humor in the situation and allowed them to watch after him. The only irritation was that Elaina disappeared during the day.

After the third cold rainy day in a row, Christien’s temper was strained even with the children. ‘A man can only take so much of playing hares and hounds,’ he silently told himself. As he slowly walked back to his tower, he saw Gwyn coming towards the playroom.

“They’re in there.” Christien nodded back towards the playroom. “I don’t need a keeper any more, Gwyn.”

Gwyn raised her eyebrows. “Much less five of them?” she sweetly smiled.

Christien scowled. “Where’s Elaina?” he demanded.

“I’m not sure where she is right now,” Gwyn answered. “I saw her earlier with Devora. Then I saw Rik talking with her. I doubt she’s outside.” She gave her husband’s youngest brother an innocent look. “She has things to do, Christien.”

“Things to do?” Christien interrupted hotly.

She patted his arm. “Why don’t you go get some rest?” she advised.

“If I get any more rest, you can bury me,” Christien snapped as he walked away. “I’ll be down for meals from now on.” He gave Gwyn a sharp look. “If that’s permitted.”

“You’re getting as bad as Rik,” Gwyn murmured with a smile.

Christien snorted and stomped away, determined to find something to do. He found Artur and Rik studying maps spread across the table in the Great Hall. “Where’s Stefan?” he asked joining them.

“In their tower with orders not to be disturbed.” Rik smilingly shook his head.

“Where’s Elaina?” Christien demanded.

“We’ve got more important things to worry about that keep track of your wife,” Artur grunted.

“What are you two doing?” Christien picked up a map.

“Trying to plan some strategy.” Rik took the map from Christien and replaced it on the table. ,p. Just to annoy his brothers, Christien sat down and listened to them discuss possible defense strategies in case of an attack from Green Hills. Every so often, he would sigh or silently shake his head.

“Don’t you have anything else to do?” Artur finally snapped.

“No,” Christien sighed laying his chin on his crossed hands. He stared at the maps with rapt concentration. “Not a thing.”

“Axter hasn’t even bothered to send a complaint that we violated the border.” Rik’s eyes narrowed as he mentioned the Lord of Green Hills.

Artur snorted. “He knew it would be meaningless.”

“Why don’t you send Axter a complaint that we were attacked?” Christien innocently asked. When he brothers looked at him, he continued. “Maybe he doesn’t realize what happened.”

“Are you delirious or just stupid?” Artur shouted.

Christien shrugged. “If Rik sends a message, he’ll have to respond, won’t he?”

Rik’s eyes moved quickly from one brother to the other. “I’ll keep it in mind,” he answered. He returned his attention to the map. “What we need is something to occupy Axter’s attention for a while. Right now, he has nothing else to do but bother us.”

“Maybe we should try convincing Rafael to send Jaxon to harass him,” Christien suggested. His fingers idly traced the drawing of the nearby mountains.

“Now that has to be the most idiotic idea...” Artur began.

“I doubt Jaxon would go and I doubt Rafael has the strength to force it right now,” Rik quickly interrupted. He took a deep breath. “Maybe you should go rest for a while, Christien.”

“I’m not tired,” Christien sighed again.

“The only other way to harass Axter is either from Rhyane or the Wastelands,” Artur pointed out. “I doubt Garn will do anything. Not as long as his daughter is married to Axter’s heir.”

“Josef didn’t like that either,” Christien mournfully nodded mentioning the heir to Rhyane. “I think he wanted Briar to marry Duncan Lorcan.”

“Christien! Go find something else to do!” Artur loudly ordered. “You’re no help here!”

“I don’t have anything else to do,” Christien sighed again. “Of course, if I knew where Elaina was...”

Artur threw up his hands. “Let me know when you want to continue,” he snapped at Rik as he started for the door.

Rik slowly rolled up the maps. “You obviously don’t have enough to do,” he finally pointed out.

“No, I don’t,” Christien admitted. He gave Rik an innocent look. “I guess I won’t until everyone considers that I’ve healed.”

“I’m going to find the children,” Rik snapped. He glanced over his shoulder as he strode up the stairs. “Sometimes I think you need to be included in that group!”

Christien sat for a few minutes thinking hard. If Green Hills and Elhalyn allied with each other against Shi’ar, they would be cut off from the other realms of Rhyane and Woodland. He’d watched as Rik had eyed the area of the Wastelands with consideration. Not much was known about their inhabitants. Hopefully, they would remain neutral. If they chose to ally against Shi’ar, they would be quickly overrun before the armies of either the Woodlands or Rhyane would be able to save them.

When Christien saw servants beginning to prepare the evening meal, he stood and stretched, wincing at the pain in his side. Despite the earlier quick healing, his wound was now taking time to heal.

Slowly he climbed the stairs to his tower. He’d almost reached the top of the stairs when he heard the front door open. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Artur leading someone inside. He hesitated, then decided he’d irritated his brother enough for one day and continued towards his tower.

He paused when he opened the door to his chambers. Strewn across the chairs and tables were jackets. Softly closing the door, he walked over and picked one up. He frowned when he saw they were the lightly armored jackets he and his Rangers wore. He turned the jacket over and stared at the embroidered Ranger emblem.

Smiling slightly, Christien refolded the jacket. Now he understood what Elaina had been doing. She’d promised she would give them a more impressive emblem. He wondered if his men would appreciate the delicate stitchery.

When he heard Elaina in the next room, he replaced the jacket on the chair and opened the door to their bedroom. He smiled as he saw Elaina sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace combing her damp hair.

Elaina glanced up. “You saw them,” she grimaced. “I thought you wouldn’t be back for a while, and I could surprise you.”

“I saw and was surprised,” Christien assured her with a pleased grin. “I just couldn’t figure out which was mine.”

Elaina found herself smiling in return. “Actually yours is in the trunk. Of course, the emblem’s a little different.”

Absurdly feeling like a child at Solstice, Christien opened the trunk and removed the jacket. Unfolding it, he saw the familiar Ranger emblem with the crest of Shi’ar over it. He carefully touched the threads. He grinned at her. “Jaella will love how you combined the reds and greens,” he said. “She loves bright colors.”

“So I’ve noticed.” Elaina’s eyes were dancing. “I think she’ll like her Solstice gift.”

Christien carefully laid his jacket on the bed. He walked over and sat behind Elaina on the floor. He reached for the comb and began gently combing her hair. “Thank you,” he murmured. “They will be worn with pride.”

Elaina’s eyes closed as Christien rhythmically ran the comb through her hair. “Are you feeling better?” she softly asked.

Christien chuckled. “Will you tell Gwyn to call off the children?” he humorously pleaded. “They don’t need to pull guard duty. I’d tell her, but I don’t think she’d believe me.”

“We just don’t want you to overdo,” Elaina explained turning to look at him.

“I know,” Christien nodded caught by the look in her eyes. Slowly he moved forward and gently kissed her. He felt Elaina move towards him....then cursed as someone pounded on the chamber door.

“Christien!” Stefan bellowed. “Elaina!”

‘I’m going to kill him’, Christien silently promised himself as he slowly got to his feet. He winced as Stefan continued pounding on the door and shouting. “What!?” he demanded throwing the door open. Christien frowned expecting to see a smirk on his brother’s face. Instead he saw a look of concern.

“A rider’s just come from Elhalyn,” Stefan softly said his eyes searching for Elaina.

Christien caught his breath and nodded. “We’ll be right down,” he promised. He closed the door and took a deep breath. When he talked back into the bedroom, Elaina looked up at him then frowned at his serious expression.

“What’s wrong?” she asked getting to her feet.

“A rider just came in from Elhalyn,” Christien uncomfortably said. “Stefan says we need to come downstairs.” He forced himself to look at Elaina whose face had paled. He swallowed hard and took her hand.

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

“Hail, Lord Rik of Shi’ar!” The messenger from Elhalyn officiously but curtly bowed as Rik and Gwen descended the stairs.

Rik’s eyebrows rose in amusement. He glanced at Artur and his amusement died at the serious expression on his brother’s face. “Greetings.” Rik hesitated then took his time to study the messengers’ badge. “Ah, from Elhalyn. Well, this is very formal greetings from one friend to the other.” He ceremoniously sat Gwyn on one of the chairs.

“My message is from Lord Jaxon of Elhalyn.” The man thrust a rolled parchment at Rik who took his time in accepting it. “I am to inform you that Lord Rafael has died and his son, Lord Jaxon, now reigns.”

“Insolent little....” Artur muttered turning away.

“Indeed?” Rik carefully scanned the words on the parchment. “I’m sure I can attribute the brusqueness and brevity of this message to Lord Jaxon’s grief at his father’s death.” He slowly studied the messenger.

“I’m sure.” The man again curtly bowed.

Gwyn saw Rik’s fingers tighten around the parchment. “You’ve ridden a long way,” she smoothly interrupted. “I’ll show you to our guest quarters.”

“My Lady.” The messenger bowed again and followed her out of the Great Hall.

Rik glanced at Artur. “I don’t like him,” he muttered. “He actually acted like he was doing us a favor by bringing us a message.” He shook his head. “Looks like Rafael was right about Jaxon’s attitude towards Shi’ar.”

“I’d prefer you kick him out and diplomacy be damned,” Artur snorted. “I’m going to put guards on his door whether he...or it. If we’re going to be at war with Shi’ar, I don’t want any of their people able to just walk around here without me knowing about it.”

Stefan glanced at Artur who passed him on the steps. “Christien and Elaina are on their way,” he advised.

Rik nodded taking a deep breath.

Christien tightly held Elaina’s hand as they entered the Great Hall. He saw the expression on the others’ faces and took a deep breath.

Rik waited until they sat before speaking. “I’m sorry, Elaina,” he gently began. “Your father died last week. A messenger just formally brought me news of his death and of Jaxon’s assumption of the Elhalyn.”

Elaina blinked a few times then took a deep breath. “Did he did my father die?” she stumbled.

“Apparently his heart gave out from what I’ve been told,” Rik spoke carefully. “It was sudden. He didn’t suffer.” He ignored Stefan’s quick glance.

Elaina nodded her fingers playing with the folds of her gown. “I knew he was ill,” she murmured. “But...”

“Elaina,” Rik cut her off. When she looked up, he smiled. “Your home is here now. Rafael knew Jaxon and Clarisa would make things difficult for you. He wanted you to be here.”

Elaina nodded after a moment then slowly stood. “I need to tell Paolo,” she half-whispered.

“I’ll come with you.” Christien also stood.

“No,” Elaina shook her head taking a few steps away from him. “No...I need to do this alone with him.”

Slightly hurt, Christien nodded. His jaw clenched as he watched Elaina leave. Stefan noticed the clenched jaw and shook his head. It was a dead giveaway that Christien was angry about something.

“Where are you going to do?” Stefan demanded.

“Nothing rash,” Rik promised with a cold smile. “Our new Lord of Elhalyn is a formal man. His announcement was sent to the other Lords as well. But no personal touches. All correct formality.” He slowly nodded to himself. “I must remember that.” He glanced at Christien. “Give her some time,” he advised.

Christien gave his brother a cold look and stalked outside.

Stefan gave Rik a curious look then slowly returned to his tower.

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

An hour later, Rik stood by the main gate as Starra prepared to ride out. “Use your judgement,” he advised. “But take no chances.”

Starra gave him a questioning look and Rik grinned.

“Well, no major risks,” he amended. “Once you clear Elhalyn and Green Hills, take the old common road.”

Starra nodded. “Don’t worry about me,” she told him as she mounted her horse. “I take it you’re going to Elhalyn?”

“Of course,” Rik grinned widely. “I’ve been very formally invited after all.”

“Then you take no major risks,” Starra retorted as she rode off.

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

Wearily, Christien wearily climbed the steps to his tower. He told himself he could understand Elaina wanting to be alone with her son. Stefan and Artur had both told him how the boy had cried when he’d left his grandfather. He told himself it was just Elaina’s sorrow that had caused her to reject his presence. But it bothered him just the same.

Quietly going into the bedroom, he noticed the fire had been banked. He irritably glanced at the closed window. But the steady drizzle outside convinced him to leave it closed.

Slowly he pulled his shirt over his head and turned around to the bed. He smiled slightly seeing both Elaina and Paolo asleep. He thought about carrying the boy back to his room then decided to leave him there. Leaning down, he tucked the fur robe around Paolo and brushed back the hair from his forehead.

Paolo’s nose wrinkled and he opened his eyes.

Christien put a finger to his lips.

“My grandfather’s dead,” Paolo whispered tears in his eyes.

“I know,” Christien whispered back. He glanced at Elaina then motioned for Paolo to move over. He quickly removed his boots and slid under the robes.

Paolo rolled towards Christien and stared at him.

“I know I wouldn’t see him again,” Paolo whispered.

“How?” Christien reached over and began rubbing the boy’s back.

“I just knew,” Paolo whimpered. “I don’t like this,” he pouted. “Mama’s the only one left.”

Christien winced slightly. “I don’t remember my mother,” he whispered. “She died when I was very very young.” He hesitated. “Then my father died when I wasn’t much older than you.” He frowned slightly. “I still remember feeling like I was all alone.”

“But you had Uncle Rik and Uncle Stefan and Uncle Artur,” Paolo reminded him.

“Rik and Artur were much older,” Christien pointed out. “Grown men. Rik had so much to do after our father died. And Artur was busy helping him.” He grinned slightly. “Stefan is almost five years older than I am. He considered himself a man and not to be bothered with a small boy.”

“I’m sorry.” Paolo patted Christien’s chest in sympathy.

Christien smiled. “You have more than your Mama,” he whispered. “That’s what your grandfather wanted.”

“I miss him.” Paolo’s lip quivered. “I shouldn’t cry. Warriors don’t cry.”

“Sometimes we do,” Christien whispered back. “It’ll be our secret.” He winced slightly as Paolo sobbingly flung himself against his chest. He rubbed the boy’s back soothingly until the child eventually relaxed and fell asleep. Then he carefully rolled Paolo to his back and stretched his arm. He saw Elaina silently watching and faintly smiled.

“Thank you,” she whispered reaching across Paolo to take Christien’s hand.

Christien nodded sliding his fingers around hers. He leaned over to kiss Elaina only to have Paolo suddenly roll over, his hand smacking Christien in the jaw. With a rueful smile, Christien laid his head back down and contented himself with holding his wife’s hand.

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

Rik had known Christien wouldn’t be pleased with his plan. So he was prepared for Christien’s outburst when it came. ,p. “You’re out of your mind!” Christien furiously shouted at Rik. “There’s no way I’m going to let Elaina go to Elhalyn! You don’t need to go either!”

Rik eloquently raised an eyebrow. “Why is that?” he asked with a faint smile.

The adults were gathered in the Great Hall after the morning meal. The children were supposed to be in the playroom. However, sensing something important was happening, they were sitting on the stairs quietly watching and listening.

Christien glared at his brother. “If we may be at war with Elhalyn, why would you ride in there?” he demanded. “Don’t you think that’s awfully risky?” He missed Elaina’s faint shudder at his words.

Rik shrugged. “What would be the point?” he asked. “Killing me would just put Artur in charge. It would also mean open warfare with no only Shi’ar but possibly the other realms as well.” He shook his head. “I don’t think Jaxon is ready for that yet.”

“Gamble with your own life if you want,” Christien seethed. “But you leave Elaina out of this!”

Elaina spoke up. “Christien, be reasonable. Paolo is Jaxon’s heir.” When Christien angrily glared at her, she swallowed hard. “I agree Paolo shouldn’t go. That means as his mother, I need to protect Paolo’s interests and be at Jaxon’s ascension.”

Christien’s jaw clenched. He slowly looked at Rik. “You tell her why it’s dangerous for her or Paolo to be there,” he icily demanded. When his brother hesitated, he raised his voice. “You tell her, Rik!”

Elaina looked from Christien to Rik who took a deep breath. “It’s entirely possible Rafael’s death wasn’t natural,” Rik finally admitted.

“What?” Elaina stared at Rik in confusion. “You said....” her voice drifted off.

“That’s what Jaxon’s message said,” Rik corrected. “Rafael told Artur he was being poisoned. There wasn’t anything the healers could do. Jamie Lorcan from Woodlands even sent two healers on the sly.” He watched as the shock slowly faded from Elaina’s face. “He knew you wouldn’t leave him if you knew.”

“But who?” Elaina frowned. Then she suddenly shivered. “Clarisa? Not Jaxon!”

“He finally said he thought both in a letter that came a few weeks ago,” Rik admitted. “Rafael believed Jaxon would possibly ally with Green Hills and attack us once he was dead.”

“You knew this?” Elaina looked at Christien.

Christien momentarily looked away.

“I told everyone it was best you didn’t know,” Rik spoke up. “It was what Rafael wanted.”

“You knew?” Elaina repeated to Christien.

“Yes,” Christien curtly answered meeting her eyes. After a moment, he looked at Rik. “Jaxon or Clarisa could poison you while you’re there. Rafael said he didn’t know when or how it was done. It obviously took a while to take effect. It’s just too dangerous.”

“I sent Starra to tell Jamie Lorcan,” Rik spoke up. “He’ll be there as well. I don’t think Jaxon’s stupid enough to do anything with both of us there.”

“You what?!” Stefan roared. “That’s through Elhalyn territory if not Green Hills as well!”

Rik nodded. “She promised not to take chances.”

Stefan shoved his chair back and began pacing. “We don’t even know she’ll get through!” he shouted.

“We will when she shows up with Jamie at Jaxon’s ascension,” Rik pointed out.

“You’re taking too many risks.” Christien shook his head. “Elaina’s not going.”

“You don’t speak for me, Christien,” Elaina quietly spoke.

“Don’t be a fool!” Christien snapped.

“I’m not!” Elaina snapped back. “But we’re talking about my father who was murdered!”

Christien stared at her then took a long deep breath. He stood and quietly looked at Rik. “Then I’m going.”

Rik shook his head. “You’re not in any shape for that journey,” he said. “And if we do have to fight our way back, you’re not in shape for that either. Stefan’s going with us.”

“If that’s the case, it’s too dangerous for either of you to go!” Christien shouted. He looked at Artur and Stefan. “Will one of you talk some sense into him?”

“I’d like to beat some sense into him,” Stefan growled. “Sending Starra out on her own like that.”

“One person stood a better chance than a troop,” Rik pointed out.

Artur’s eyes narrowed. “Four days’ hard riding to get there,” he estimated. “Two days at least in Elhalyn. Four days’ back.” He shook his head. “Rik’s right, Christien. You’re not healed enough for that.”

“Don’t tell me what I’m healed enough for!” Christien shouted. “I can’t believe you’re supporting him in this!”

“We don’t have a choice,” Rik pointed out. “Christien, stop and think for a moment. Jaxon doesn’t really expect us to be there. Elaina’s presence is bound to make him draw back a little. And when Jamie shows up...”

“If he shows up,” Stefan interrupted.

When Jamie shows up,” Rik repeated giving Stefan an angry look. “He’ll really start to think. He doesn’t want to be at war with both of us. And the both of us being there will make him consider just that.”

Christien stared down at Elaina. “You’re going,” he accused.

“Yes,” Elaina stood and put a hand on his arm. “Try to understand...”

Christien jerked his arm away from her. “Then I wish you a pleasant journey, my lady,” he coldly replied. He glanced at Rik. “Artur can handle things here. I’m taking a patrol out. I know I’m healed enough for that.” He spun on his heel and walked out slamming the door behind him.

The children watched him leave. “They’re not using the angry rocks,” Jaella shook her head.

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

The next morning, Elaina hugged Paolo and mounted her horse. “You’ll be good for Aunt Gwyn, won’t you?” she asked with a smile.

“I promise, Mama,” Paolo sweetly smiled. His blue eyes twinkled. “I’m always a good boy.”

Elaina saw Rik leaning down from his horse speaking quietly to Artur. She looked over her shoulder hoping to see Christien riding in. True to his word, he’d immediately ridden out two days earlier with his Rangers and hadn’t returned.

Stefan leaned over to her. “You’d think my little brother would be past the pouting stage by now,” he grinned. When Elaina looked away, he laughed. “It’s what he’s doing right now. You’re doing something he doesn’t want you to do. So he’s gone off to pout.”

“It’s more than that, Stefan,” Elaina denied.

“Well, perhaps,” Stefan grudgingly admitted. “He’s right that this is dangerous. And the Gods know he’d rather be half-killed than let anyone he cares about be in danger.” He shrugged. “But he’s got to learn he can’t control that all the time.”

“And if it were Devora that was going?” Elaina’s eyes twinkled.

“I’d pity Jaxon,” Stefan laughed.

“Don’t worry about Paolo.” Artur joined them. “We’ll watch out for him.”

“Thank you.” Elaina hesitated. “Will you tell Christien I’m sorry I upset him?”

Artur snorted. “He’s acting like a child who can’t have everything he wants,” he declared. Then seeing the expression in Elaina’s eyes, he shrugged. “I’ll tell him,” he grunted.

Rik rode over. He saw the amethyst necklace around Elaina’s throat. “Perhaps you should leave that here,” he suggested. When Elaina frowned, he continued. “Even though your father gave it to you, Clarisa might argue it should belong to her or Jaxon.” He smiled engagingly. “No need to have any unnecessary trouble.”

Elaina frowned but nodded. She pulled the chain over her head and handed it to Gwyn. “Would you put this away for me?” she asked.

“Of course,” Gwyn nodded although she eyed Rik curiously.

“Would it bother you not to take the dagger either?” Rik asked. When Elaina started to protest, he continued with a half-smile. “I know it’s your pledge-gift, but it’s also old symbol of when Elhalyn was a dominion of Shi’ar. Jaxon might take offense.”

Both Artur and Stefan gave Rik startled looks.

“I didn’t know that,” Elaina frowned as she removed the dagger and sheath from her belt.

“Eons ago,” Rik airily assured her. “Actually, Rafael and I found it very amusing. But, well, you know Jaxon...” His voice trailed off.

“I’ll put it with your necklace,” Gwyn promised taking the dagger. She turned to Artur and muttered, “What is he up to?”

Artur shrugged. “When he gets back, we’re going to have a nice long talk about communication,” he threatened.

Elaina smiled and turned her horse to fall in between Rik and Stefan. She waved to Paolo as he and the other children ran towards the gate shouting their good-byes.

Two days later, Christien watched from the cover of trees as they crossed the border into Elhalyn. “We’ll set up camp here and take turns watching the other pass,” he ordered not taking his eyes from them. “They’ll have to come back one way or the other.” ‘Six days is all you’ve got, Rik,’ he silently told himself. ‘Because after that, I’m coming after you.’

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

“Who’s here?” Jaxon stuttered. “Who?!”

“Lord Rik Aramis of Shi’ar,” Jaxon’s servant stuttered in return. “With a group. They say Lady Elaina is with them.”

Jaxon cursed under his breath. “Notify my mother,” he ordered. As the servant left, he turned and glared at Lucas. “What’s he doing here?” he snarled.

“To pay his respects, of course,” Lucas smilingly shrugged. “I am a little surprised at Lady Elaina’s presence.”

“She’s probably here to make sure that brat of hers is named my heir,” Jaxon snapped.

“Which could work to our advantage,” Lucas smoothly replied. “After all, you should take an interest in your nephew’s welfare. And, as your heir, naturally you’d want him close by.”

After a moment, Jaxon smiled. “I see your point,” he nodded. “I think I’ll let them be brought to me,” he decided. “Stand with me, Lucas.”

Lucas’ blue eyes sparkled humorously as he glanced at the idol of the Jackal god. ‘A time and a place for everything,’ he reminded himself.

Even though she’d only been gone a short time, Elaina found the castle of Elhalyn seemingly wrapped in an oppressive air. At first she put it down to her father’s death, but soon realized it was much more than that. She also realized she was having trouble recognizing though everyone she remembered had been replaced. The thought sent a chill up her spine.

Rik smiled to himself as he saw Elaina’s spine stiffen. Once more, he pitied his brother if Christien thought this was a woman who’d meekly obey his wishes. He glanced around the Great Hall as they entered silently comparing it to the last time he’d been there. Then he and Rafael had drunk each other under the table that night...the night of Elaina’s marriage to Brandor D’Van. Elaina had been only seventeen when she wed but a beautiful woman even then.

Come to think of it, Rik remembered, Christien had been there as well. He’d hardly passed his thirteenth birthday, but he probably would still remember parts of the castle. If Christien had been healthy, Rik would have preferred to bring him rather than Stefan.

Catching sight of Jaxon sitting on Rafael’s throne, Rik buried the sudden rush of anger. He forced himself not to scowl and controlled the urge to throw Jaxon on the floor and end his miserable existence then and there. Instead, he forced a smile. “Greetings, Jaxon.” He barely inclined his head. “Or should I say, Lord Jaxon?”

Jaxon flushed not used to sparring with older men. “Lord Rik,” he finally managed to reply. “How kind of you to grace my ascension ceremony.” He glanced at Elaina. “Sister, you look well.”

Elaina barely managed to nod, sick at the thought her brother might have caused their father’s death.

“My brother, Stefan,” Rik nodded towards his brother. “You probably got to know each other at Elaina’s wedding.”

“Not as well as I’d like,” Stefan grinned absently cracking his knuckles.

Lucas’ eyes narrowed slightly. Jaxon might be inclined to dismiss Stefan as a hulking brute, but he had the suspicion there was a shrewd brain behind those black eyes.

“Elaina!” Clarisa exclaimed as she swept into the room. “My dear child!” Before anyone could move, she gathered Elaina into her arms. “We’ll both miss him so much!”

Elaina stiffened as Clarisa hugged her. Stefan placed one large hand on Clarisa’s shoulder and slightly squeezed. Startled, Clarisa turned around.

“My condolences, Lady Clarisa,” Stefan said giving Elaina the chance to pull away.

“Yes...yes,” Clarisa stepped away. She saw Elaina standing next to Rik so decided to stand next to her son. “I’m surprised your husband didn’t accompany you at a time like this.”

“He’s far too busy chasing raiders,” Elaina replied coldly. She looked at Jaxon. “I’m sure you’ve had trouble with them as well.”

“Not really,” Jason smirked. He felt Lucas tense beside him.

Rik’s eyes had caught sight of the Jackal god idol behind Jaxon. “Interesting trinket,” he mused.

“Hardly a trinket,” Jaxon snapped.

Rik slowly looked back at Jaxon, silently letting him know he didn’t approve of his tone. Jaxon caught his breath and looked away.

“Everyone should have the choice to worship whatever god he chooses,” Lucas spoke up his voice soft and accommodating. “Surely you have no objection to that, Lord Rik?”

“Depends on what form the worship takes,” Rik shrugged. “A new advisor, Jaxon?”

Jaxon bristled, insulted that Rik was talking to him without the respect due his though he was not Rik’s equal now.

“My name is Lucas,” Lucas replied meeting Rik’s eyes. “I’m merely a visitor. Lord Jaxon has been kind enough to allow me to stay for a while.”

“That’s very hospitable of you, Jaxon.” Rik’s blue eyes danced.

Lucas smiled back slightly nodding his head in appreciation of the irony.

“I’ll have you shown to your quarters,” Clarisa interrupted. “Although we weren’t prepared for your arrival.”

“No bother,” Rik assured her. “We realized you probably wouldn’t be prepared so we’ve made plans to camp outside the walls.” He slightly bowed to Jaxon. “With your kind permission, of course,” he mockingly added.

“Nonsense,” Jaxon sputtered after a moment. “I’ll not hear of it.”

“Neither will I,” Rik replied softly. The two stared at each other for a moment.

“Elaina.” Jaxon turned his attention to his sister. “You and I must talk about Paolo. He is my heir after all.”

“That I’m willing to acknowledge,” Elaina nodded.

“Good, then you have no objection to bringing him here,” Jaxon said with a laugh when Elaina paled. “To be educated and trained by me.”

“I’m sure Christien wouldn’t mind staying here,” Rik nodded. “I’m sure he could prove quite useful.” He smiled thinly. “After all, he is the boy’s father now.”

Jaxon froze at the thought of Christien Aramis being underfoot. Still, he’d overcome bigger obstacles. “Well, it’s nothing that has to be settled now,” he smiled. “If you choose to camp outside, of course you’re welcome to do so.” He stood. indicating he considered the conversation had ended.

‘Jaxon, I see I’ve got to work on your timing,’ Lucas ruefully thought..

“My Lord!” Jaxon’s servant ran back into the room. “There are more visitors!”

Jaxon frowned and quickly walked to the door followed by Lucas and Clarisa.

Rik grinned at Stefan. “I wonder who?” he murmured to his brother as they also followed.

Jaxon cursed under his breath as he looked at Lucas in frustration. Under the Woodlands banner of a golden eagle on a dark blue background casually rode Lord Jamie Lorcan and his wife, Maire. Behind them rode a visibly exhausted Starra leading an escort of Woodlands warriors.

“Jamie!” Rik grinned walking forward as Jamie, a man close to Rik’s age, lithely dismounted.

“Hello, Rik,” Jamie’s dark eyes smiled. He reached up to help his wife dismount.

“Maire, beautiful as ever,” Rik kissed her cheek. “The years don’t seem to touch you.”

“You lie so nicely,” Maire smiled. She turned to her husband. “You see, I told you Rik would have as much silver his his hair as you.” She absently patted her own silverless dark red hair.

Jamie grimaced. “It shows more in mine.” He ran a hand through his dark hair. He offered his arm to his wife. “Shall we?”

“Lord Lorcan,” Jaxon’s voice grated. “Lady Lorcan. How nice of you to attend.”

“We’re all friendly neighbors,” Maire purred. “It’s the least we could do. How awful poor Rafael died so suddenly.”

“Some people are even talking about his being poisoned.” Jamie’s dark eyes were hooded. “Of course, that’s just idle gossip.”

“Of course.” Jaxon’s voice shook slightly. After a moment, he continued. “I take it you’ll be camping outside the walls, too, Lord Lorcan?”

“We wouldn’t want to disturb you with our comings and goings,” Maire assured him. “I’m sure you’re far too busy to entertain us.” Her green eyes narrowed as she studied Lucas who casually moved back into the shadows within the doorway. “I’m sure you already have many visitors.”

“Then until the ceremony tomorrow,” Jaxon curtly replied, turning around. Followed by Clarisa and Lucas, he reentered the castle.

“Let’s get out of here,” Stefan muttered taking Elaina’s hand.

“I suggest no one say anything you might not want overheard,” Maire cautioned. Jamie and Rik gave her quick glances but nodded.

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

Maire Lorcan traveled in style. Their tent pitched under the impressive Woodlands banner was spacious and comfortable with carpeting and tapestries. Rik appreciatively studied their surroundings. “Did you bring your entire sleeping chamber with you all the way from Kingwood?” he asked.

“You’re such a tease,” Maire laughed pinching Rik’s cheek.

“I think we should put our people together,” Jamie quietly suggested. “There’s no sense in being separated.”

Rik nodded at Stefan. “Make sure all our people are quartered around this tent,” he ordered.

“You’ll be our guests, of course,” Maire said before Stefan left.

“Is there room?” Stefan’s dark eyes flickered around the chamber.

“Of course there is,” Rik grinned. He glanced over his shoulder at Stefan. “Trust me.”

“You’re such a tease,” Maire repeated with a sigh.

“You stay here, Stefan,” Starra spoke up. “I’ll give the orders and find a place.”

“Nonsense, you’ll stay here,” Rik ordered.

Starra studied him for a moment aware of Stefan’s mocking grin.

“My place is with the troops,” Starra argued.

“You place is where I tell you it is!” Rik seethed.

Jamie stifled a smile. “Come with me, please, Starra,” he took her arm. “We have plenty of room, and you need quiet rest after that long ride.” He raised his eyebrows in Rik’s direction. “Especially if you have to guard him in the mood he’s in.”

Not wanting to offend the powerful Lord of the Woodlands, Starra grudgingly followed him. Stefan grinned at Rik, then went to coordinate the consolidation of their camp.

Maire had ignored the entire commotion and had begun brewing some tea.

“I do not understand why she fights me on everything,” Rik muttered as he helped Elaina sit.

“Really?” Maire innocently looked sideways at him. She glanced up as Jamie returned.

“Starra’s already half-asleep,” he grinned. “She made one hell of a hard ride. I tried to get her to stay at Woodlands, but she refused. Said somebody had to come and keep you out of trouble.”

Rik laughed. “She can try.”

“We need to take precautions if we intend to talk,” Maire murmured. When Jamie nodded, she rose and disappeared into the next chamber.

Elaina curiously glanced at Rik but he bent his head towards Jamie’s and the two conversed in low tones.

“The camps are being consolidated,” Stefan announced as he reentered. He glanced at Rik as he sat next to Elaina. “The perimeter is very secure.”

Rik nodded as Maire rejoined them holding a small white oval shaped stone in her hand. She quietly sat between Jamie and Elaina and placed the stone in her lap. She closed her eyes and hummed under breath.

Jamie grinned and leaned towards Rik. “The humming is just for effect,” he confided. He grinned wider as Maire’s hand slapped his thigh.

After a few seconds, the stone’s color deepened to a pale gold. Slowly energy began spreading out from the stone in an ever-widening circle.

Looking around, Elaina could see Stefan was uneasy. However, Rik and Jamie seemed unconcerned. After several minutes, Maire opened her eyes and nodded. “The encampment is safe.”

“Won’t the others see the glow?” Stefan asked.

“It can’t be seen from the outside,” Jamie assured him. But should anyone try to eavesdrop or attack, we’ll know it.”

“You’re a witch,” Elaina breathed in surprise.

“Yes,” Maire smiled reaching for the teapot. “Tea, dear?”

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

Maire insisted on finishing tea and cakes before allowing any serious conversation. Elaina saw the easy friendship between Rik and the Lorcans even to the point of Jamie laughing as Maire and Rik flirted outrageously with each other.

“Years ago when we were young and stupid...” Rik finally began.

“Or at least just young,” Jamie grinned.

Rik grinned back. “Or just young,” he agreed. “We all looked for the Stones of Maxen. Myself, Rafael, Jamie, Maire, Garn and Kathlina of Rhyane....and others,” Rik’s eyes briefly clouded. “We never found them, of course.”

“They don’t exist,” Stefan snorted.

“Yes, they do,” Rik grinned. “Because Rafael had one.”

“What?!” Maire’s green eyes snapped. “He held out on us?”

“Not really,” Rik cautioned her. “After a while, we gave up. We had other responsibilities. We couldn’t just go running off to follow another legend.” He grinned. “Of course, we all hoped our children would find the Stones.”

“Duncan’s mentioned it a couple of times,” Jamie smiled ruefully. “I think he’s plotting with Garn’s boy to try next year.”

Maire snorted. “They’d better keep it quiet or they’ll find Kathlina going with them,” she advised.

Rik grinned. “We’d all still go if we could,” he pointed out. When Maire sniffed, he continued. “Rafael never stopped looking in his own way.” He looked at Elaina. “You said he gave refuge to every traveling healer and that your mother had a talent for healing.”

Elaina nodded in confusion.

“I know he also gave refuge to any wandering bard,” Rik recalled. “Listening to every story and legend about the Stones.”

Elaina smiled. “I remember,” she nodded. “Not so much after I married...Brandor. But he did when I was a child.”

“He was afraid some of the bards might have the power of the Old Ones,” Rik explained. “Like Maire has.”

“He was afraid they’d detect he had one of the Stones,” Jamie guessed.

When Rik nodded, Stefan grunted. “If you knew all this...” he began.

“I didn’t,” Rik shook his head. “Not until that last letter. Then he explained everything. He knew he’d never find the other Stones, and he didn’t want Jaxon even knowing he had one.”

“Mother’s necklace!” Elaina exclaimed. When Rik nodded, she caught her breath. “No wonder you wanted me to leave it behind.”

“Good thing,” Maire nodded somberly. “Whoever that man was with Jaxon has a great deal of power. He also has one of the Stones.” When the others looked at her in surprise, she nodded. “In his bracer. He tried to stay in the background when he realized I felt the pull of the Stone.”

“Which one?” Jamie asked.

“Rage,” Maire half-whispered.

“Each Stone had a power,” Rik explained to Stefan and Elaina.

“The ruby controlled rage,” Maire’s voice took on a sing-song edge. “The onyx created death. The topaz created greed. They were the negative Stones. The emerald provided protection. The sapphire forced truth. The amethyst controlled healing.”

“And the diamond enhanced the power of the other stones,” Jamie recalled.

“And if you had all of them including the diamond?” Stefan asked serious for the first time.

“You would be very very powerful,” Maire admitted.

“Too powerful,” Jamie interjected. He glanced at Rik. “So Rafael sent you the amethyst.”

“He sent it to Elaina,” Rik smiled. “Her mother was a talented healer. So is Elaina.”

“But I’m no witch,” Elaina protested.

Maire turned to study her. Elaina found herself trapped within the deep emerald green of Maire’s eyes. Slowly Maire nodded. “You have power,” she determined. “Untapped and untrained. But you have the gift of healing which the amethyst heightens.”

“That’s why Christien healed so quickly at first,” Stefan guessed.

Elaina looked at the others. “What do I do?” she whispered.

“Nothing,” Rik said rubbing his hands. “As soon as the ascension ceremony is over, we leave. Little Jaxon is plotting, and we have a lot to do.”

“I don’t relish the idea of traveling after dark.” Jamie shook his head. “It would be safer to leave early the next morning.”

“Good,” Maire smiled. “I want a chance to shop in the bazaar.” She grinned as Jamie rolled his eyes. “I’m sure Lorcan gold is accepted here.”

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

Elaina was somewhat embarrassed that most of the merchants in the bazaar refused to accept her gold. Many of them pressed their hands against hers mumbling their sorrow at Rafael’s death and their concern about Jaxon’s rule.

Maire noticed two of the Elhalyn soldiers were watching Elaina carefully. Casually yawning and wiggling her fingers, she smiled as a strand of emerald magic gently surrounded them...lulling them into sleep.

Elaina glanced over her shoulder in concern as the two soldiers fell to the ground. They were immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. Maire took Elaina’s arm and briskly walked her away. The two Woodlands’ guards following them managed to mask their grins.

“You must buy something for your new husband,” Maire teased. “By the Gods, it’s hard to believe Christien’s even old enough to be married!”

“You know him?” Elaina asked studiously looking at a display of leather.

“For years,” Maire assured her. “I’ve known Rik for...well, I’ve know Rik for some time. But I’ve known Christien himself for about 4 years. He trained with my son, Duncan, and Rhyane’s heir, Josef.” She glanced at Elaina. “I like him very much.”

Startled, Elaina glanced at the other woman. “So do I,” she admitted.

“Good,” Maire smiled taking her arm. “Forget the leather goods. You need to buy him something totally romantic and frivolous.”

Elaina frowned. “I think he’d appreciate something practical,” she hesitated.

“Nonsense.” Maire briskly pulled her along. “I don’t care what any man says. They may claim that they’d prefer something practical. But they really want something that shows we remembered them while they were away from us.” She glanced over her shoulder. “And don’t you dare let Christien get away with anything less either.”

“Of course not,” Elaina murmured. She followed Maire throughout the bazaar noticing that she purchased several unconventional items. She was afraid to ask who they were for. Finally, she found a gift for Christien.

“A woolen vest?” Maire dubiously looked at the blue garment.

“He can put it under his armor during cold weather,” Elaina explained. “For warmth.”

“Now why would you consider this romantic?” Maire questioned.

“Because the color matches the color of Christien’s eyes.” Elaina blushed.

Maire studied the garment for a few second. “Very good,” she murmured.

Elaina turned to the vendor and reached for her gold.

“No, my Lady.” The woman pushed the garment back into Elaina’s hands. “May the Gods bless you and your son.”

Elaina blinked back tears. “Thank you,” she whispered.

As she and Maire walked away, Elaina shook her head. “I feel as though I should stay,” she muttered.

“Now what good would that do?” Maire reasonably pointed out. “Do you think you could stop whatever Jaxon is planning?”

“No,” Elaina admitted lowering her head.

“Exactly,” Maire shrugged. “You must do what is best in the long run.” She frowned. “And remember to make your enemy always pay double for what they’ve taken from you.”

Elaina shuddered at the cold tone of Maire’s voice and hoped she would never become this woman’s enemy.

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

Rik maintained an expression of faint amusement during Jaxon’s ascension. Despite himself, Jaxon kept glancing at Rik, getting more and more irritated by that expression. He knew that Rik was deliberately treating him like a child and silently vowed to humble him as soon as possible.

“I think Rik’s starting to irritate Jaxon,” Maire whispered to Jamie.

Jamie nodded. “I think it’s probably best we keep them separated,” he admitted. “We’re definitely outnumbered here. And I don’t think Rik’s in a mood to care about that.”

“You’re getting cautious in your old age,” Maire teased.

Jamie briefly smiled. “I’m just trying to increase the number of years that I can adore you,” he said.

“Of course, you are.” Maire patted his hand.

“And seeing as how the Gods finally called Rafael to his reward...” the priest droned.

Elaina’s eyes snapped in anger when she saw the smirk on Clarisa’s face. Stefan gripped her hand and squeezed. When she glared up at him, he leaned down and whispered, “If you want to tear her apart, I’ll hold her.”

Elaina flushed. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. She glanced again at the dais where Jaxon was receiving the jewel-encrusted crown of Elhalyn. “Until now, I don’t think I completely believed that...”

“Don’t think about it,” Stefan hurriedly advised. “You can’t do anything about that now.” He glanced over her head at Rik. “That’ll happen soon enough.”

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

It was a weary group that five days later crossed the border between Elhalyn and Shi’ar. Rik’s eyes narrowed as he saw riders approaching. Although they were now in Shi’ar’s territory, he called a warning to the others.

The soldiers immediately began to form a protective ring around Elaina with Starra putting her horse next to Elaina’s. Stefan rode up beside his older brother. Drawing his sword, he anxiously waited for the riders to get closer.

Rik relaxed. “It’s Christien,” he muttered to Stefan.

“I guess he’s healed,” Stefan grinned. He turned to the others. “It’s Christien!” he shouted.

Elaina suddenly kicked her horse sending it flying past the others. Rik stopped Stefan from following. “I don’t think you should do that,” he warned with a smile.

Christien saw Elaina break from the rest of the group and galloped ahead to meet her. Stopping next to her, his eyes widened in surprise when Elaina leaned over to hug him. Settling his horse down, Christien pulled her onto the saddle in front of him.

“I missed you,” Elaina breathlessly confessed.

Christien held her close, briefly closing his eyes.

“I’m so sorry about how I acted before I left,” she apologized. “I was hurt you hadn’t told me about Father.”

Christien saw his brothers approaching each wearing a wide grin. “I understand,” he nodded. He reluctantly dismounted and helped Elaina back onto her horse.

“You don’t look like you’ve been home lately.” Stefan looked his brother up and down.

“I’ll go home when my lady does,” Christien hotly retorted. His jaw clenched when he saw Stefan roll his eyes.

A sudden burst of cold air buffeted them. The horses shied away from each other as their riders fought to control them.

“Let’s go,” Rik suddenly ordered. “I’ll feel much better behind the walls of Shi’ar.”

Christien remounted and glanced at Rik. “It’s not good, is it?” he asked.

“No,” Rik shook his head then suddenly grinned. “Not good at all.”


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