CHAPTER NINE





“You want to do what?” Rik looked at Starra in surprise.

“Josef Rhyane and Duncan Lorcan want me to join them at Crystal Falls in Green Hills,” Starra patiently repeated. “They believe they’re on the trail of one of the Stones of Maxen.”

“Since neither of them have magic, how would they know?” Rik grinned.

Starra shrugged. “They didn’t explain that,” she answered.

“Since you don’t have magic, how would you know?” Rik’s grin got wider.

Starra shrugged again. “They didn’t explain that,” she repeated.

Rik paused for a moment. “Then why should you go?” he asked.

“Christien is concerned about his friends,” Starra briskly answered. “You know if he’s caught inside Green Hills, he’s a dead man.”

“And if you’re caught?” Rik’s eyebrows rose.

Starra shrugged again. “A useful pawn,” she decided. “They’ll try to use me to negotiate with you.”

Rik leaned back in his chair. “You seem awfully casual about that possibility,” he pointed out.

Starra nodded. “If I’m caught, they either kill me, take me prisoner, or let me go,” she reasoned. “If I’m with the heirs of Rhyane and Woodland, more than likely, they’ll have to let me go or risk antagonizing both realms.” “Assuming you’re caught when you’re with them,” Rik shook his head. “You’ll pardon me if I take your safety a little more seriously than you obviously do.” He studied the wall behind Starra. “How do the expect to find a Stone without magic?” he mused. “Without magic, it’s a wild good chase.” After a few moments, he looked at Starra and nodded. “Be very careful, if you please. The last time I let you go chasing around, I nearly had my head taken off by your brothers.” He grinned at her expression. “Don’t you think you might be a little conspicuous? After all, there aren’t many women warriors.”

“I’ll travel as a bard,” Starra answered. She flushed slightly at Rik’s expression. “I have a passable voice and know a lot of stories.” When he grinned, she glanced away. “I didn’t say I would announce it. I’ll just use it if necessary.”

“I’m sure you’ll make a fine bard,” Rik’s eyes were twinkling.

“I’ll do my best,” Starra sardonically replied. She stood and hesitated. “Thank you...Rik.” She quickly left before he could reply.

Rik slowly grinned. It was the first time she’d used just his name. “I’ll be damned,” he shook his head.

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My beautiful Starra. A single day away from you is an eternity of torture. Josef and I are tracking one of the Stones of Maxen. Meet us at Crystal Falls in Green Hills. Together, there is nothing that you and I cannot accomplish. But we’ll let Josef help us. Set the gateway for these coordinates. It will get you close to me. If you cannot join us, I will continue to dream of your grace and beauty until the day the Gods smile and allow me to once more be in your exalted presence. But have pity on the one who would travel across mountains, oceans, even the desert sands to have one glimpse of your beauty. Your devoted servant....Duncan Lorcan

Starra shook her head again as she refolded Duncan’s message. What utter nonsense, she decided. Yet she pocketed the message determined not to leave it where anyone might find it...in case they searched for clues to her whereabouts.

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“You realize this is probably going to get us killed?” Josef idly pointed out.

“Maybe,” Duncan agreed cheerfully.

“At the very least, we’ll be captured and be dragged in front of the local authorities,” Josef continued.

“At which time, we’ll reveal who we really are,” Duncan grinned.

“At which time, we’ll be taken back to Lord Axter,” Josef continued. “That won’t be pleasant.”

Duncan shrugged. “We’ll escape long before then,” he assured his friend.

“Have you thought this out at all?” Josef finally glared across the table.

“Of course,” Duncan looked insulted. “I value my safety as much as you value yours.” He patted Josef’s arm. “But you’ve got to take risks in order to live.”

Josef grunted. “It all depends on how you define living,” he retorted. “Mine is breathing with all limbs intact.” Duncan grinned. “You and Christien worry too much,” he scoffed.

“And you don’t worry enough,” Josef shot back in irritation. He poured more wine and watched from the corner of his eyes the activity surrounding the nearby gambling hall. They’d learned of its existence while visiting Josef’s sister, Briar, at Lord Axter’s court. Quite of a few of the soldiers who’d gambled there grumbled at their losses yet expressed a great desire to return and try their luck again. Duncan had immediately decided one of Maxen’s stores, the Topaz of Greed, had to be in the gambling hall. It had made sense at the time, but after a few days of sitting and watching, Josef was beginning to doubt his friend.

“I wish I could get another message to Christien,” Josef quietly spoke. “He was really worried about us just visiting Briar. If he knew what we were doing...”

“He’d do something crazy,” Duncan interrupted. “You know Christien.” He grinned. “Besides, Starra’s coming. I’m sure she or Lord Rik have told Christien what we’re doing.”

“I just hope Christien doesn’t come along,” Josef half-grinned. “What are you going to do if Starra does show up?”

“Count my blessings,” Duncan replied with a smile. “Thank all the Gods for one more chance to look at her...”

Josef groaned. He wasn’t sure just how serious Duncan was about Starra. “I’d be careful if I were you,” he warned. “Just remember she’s Christien’s sister.”

“I know that!” Duncan looked shocked. “I’d never do anything to hurt my sweet lady...or give Christien any reason to come after me.” He looked past Josef and grinned. “How much more gold do you have?”

Josef reached in his pocket and handed Duncan a few gold pieces.

“That’s all?” Duncan looked pained.

“It’s all you’re going to get,” Josef pointed out. “No one wins much there. No need to lose everything.”

“All the gossip says there’s a major game held every third night,” Duncan grumbled. “Invitation only.” He juggled the coins in his hand. “This won’t get us invited.”

“Neither will losing all our gold,” Josef pointed out. He settled back in his chair and watched Duncan jauntily walk down the street to the gambling hall. Idly, he drummed his fingers on the table. Another couple of days, he decided. Then they were leaving.

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

“Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Rik,” Adriana nodded her head. She glanced around the Great Hall and nodded again. “This place suits you.”

Rik grinned across the table at her. “So I’ve been told,” he acknowledged. He looked over Adriana’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I blurted out that you’re a witch. I think the children are waiting for you to do something magical. They’ve hardly taken their eyes off you throughout the entire meal.”

Artur scowled over at the children’s table. Jaella smiled and waved her fingers at her father.

“Then how could I disappoint them?” Adriana smiled. “With your permission, of course?”

“Of course,” Rik’s eyes lit up with anticipation.

Adriana looked over at the children’s table where they sat eating their evening meal. All four children sudden froze staring at her. Adriana closed her eyes then opened them. Artur was close enough to see that her dark grey eyes had taken on an almost silver tint.

Cheyne caught her breath as she looked up. “Look,” she whispered.

The other children looked up to see what looked like golden snowflakes gently falling around them. Shiloh carefully held out his hand to catch one. “Look!” he urged holding out his hand for the others to see.

To Gwen’s relief, the golden snowflakes disappeared before making a mess on the floor.

Rik laughed. “Impressive,” he grinned.

Adriana shrugged. “If you want to see something impressive, you should see Hector,” she admitted. “He has a very different sort of imagination.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve seen enough magic,” Devora suddenly stood and quickly walked from the room.

Stefan’s eyes glittered dangerously. “My apologies,” he finally said through clenched teeth. “She’s obviously not well.”

“No apologies are necessary,” Adriana smoothly replied. She turned back to Rik. “I hope my mission is successful. We feel one of the Stones might lie on Wolf's Head Mountain. I understand it's along the border between Shi’ar and Elhalyn.”

“There were once some settlements there,” Rik admitted. “But that area’s been uninhabited for several generations. There’s snow and ice even in the summer months. It won’t be an easy journey. I doubt many of the maps I have are even accurate anymore.”

“Eldrin felt it was necessary to try,” Adriana eyed him coolly. “However, since the Stone lies either within Shi’ar or Elhalyn, I would not think of searching for it without your permission.”

Rik shrugged. “I hope it’s in Shi’ar,” he laughed. “Elhalyn already has two of the Stones.” He saw Adriana eyeing him speculatively. “The Stones belong to Elaina,” he pointed out. “Until Paolo is old enough to rule Elhalyn...or what’s left of it...” Rik grinned widely. “...or what part of it we can retake from Green Hills, she’s Lady of Elhalyn.”

“Then Elhalyn is ruled independently of Shi’ar?” Adriana casually asked her long fingers playing with the stem of her goblet.

Rik grinned. “You’re good,” he acknowledged. When Adriana smiled slightly, he continued. “Right now, let’s just say that Shi’ar and Elhalyn are very closely united in both purpose and blood.”

“Of course,” Adriana nodded. She glanced at the children’s table. “The magic will discontinue when they leave the table.” She gracefully stood. “With your permission, Lord Rik, I would like to borrow a horse and guide to begin my journey tomorrow.”

Rik’s fingers drummed on the table. He glanced at Artur. “How about it, Artur?” he asked. “You probably know more about those mountains that just about anyone.”

Artur scowled at his brother.

“I wouldn’t presume to take you away from anything important,” Adriana folded her hands in front of her.

“Recovering the Stones is important,” Rik pointed out. He glanced at Artur again.

“Seems everyone is going to look for those damned Stones,” Artur scowled again. He glanced at Adriana. “Be ready at first light. We’ll go through the gateway to Elhalyn. Best Christien knows where we’re going as well.” He grinned coldly at Rik. “Besides, if the Stone is found within Elhalyn territory, we should give it to him. Right?”

Rik frowned. “Well, it can be tricky to fix the border exactly through the mountains,” he began.

“I won’t have any problems knowing exactly where I am,” Artur assured him with a nod.

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

“Another winner!” the games master shouted joyfully.

Duncan staggered as someone pounded his back. “Good fortune!” someone else shouted in his ear.

Duncan grinned as he stacked his gold pieces in front of him. It had taken time, but he’d figured out the system for the wheel. It was rigged, of course. But all it took was time and patience, he congratulated himself. He pretended to study the wheel. Then he put a large stack of gold on the red and gold block on the table. A murmur ran through the crowd seeing the size of his bet.

Duncan watched the wheel closely half holding his breath. Then he grinned as the games master shouted, “Another winner!”

Duncan looked up at the ceiling grinning widely. He saw a spark of yellow in the decorative tiles above him and shook his head. He looked back at the bigger stack of gold. He thought about the delicately woven bracelet of mithrian silver that would look marvelous around Starra’s wrist....determinedly, he pushed all of his gold onto the green and silver block.

“All of it, sir?” the games master asked.

“All of it!” Duncan laughed. “I can’t lose!”

Everyone held their breath as the wheel spun. A massive groan went through the room as it stopped two spaces from the green and silver block.

“Sorry, sir,” the games master quickly pushed the gold into the pot by his side.

“No,” Duncan shook his head. “That isn’t right! The wheel was supposed to stop on the green and silver block!” He stared in shock at the disappearing gold.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the games master smirked. “Perhaps you’d like to try again later?”

“No!” Duncan smashed his fist onto table. “It’s impossible! I know the system!”

The games master looked over his shoulder then back at Duncan. “I’m truly sorry, sir,” he soothingly replied. “But there is no system. It’s a game of chance.”

“Come on, sir.” Duncan winced as a heavy hand squeezed his shoulder. “Time to leave.”

“But...but...” Duncan sputtered as he was led to the door. “You don’t understand! I know the system! Let me go!” He pulled away and swung at the large man behind him.

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

Josef smiled and tossed a few copper coins on the table. The proprietress of the Staff and Bull smiled gratefully at his generosity and scooped up the coins.

Josef walked down the street smiling when Starra nodded in recognition.

“Have a pleasant journey?” he quietly asked.

Starra leaned against her staff. “A long walk,” she admitted. “I didn’t think it would be advisable to bring a northern stallion this far south.”

“Probably not,” Josef grinned. “I suppose I better warn you. Duncan’s really looking forward to seeing you again.”

Starra gave Josef a level look but said nothing.

“I’d like to apologize in advance for whatever happens,” Josef’s hazel eyes twinkled.

“I don’t understand...” Starra began then narrowed her eyes. “What’s going on down there?”

Josef looked around and groaned. “Duncan’s down there,” he muttered starting to walk down the street. “It’s a gambling hall.”

Starra’s eyebrows rose but she followed silently. They were almost to the entrance when the door opened and they saw Duncan being thrown into the dirt.

“Come back soon,” the huge man laughed as he shut the door.

A few people stared as Duncan rolled over with a groan. Most, however, ignored him. He groaned again as Josef helped him sit up. “I was cheated,” he moaned. “It should have been the green and silver block.”

Josef tilted Duncan’s face up to him and winced. “That’s going to hurt in a little while,” he judged.

“The system worked,” Duncan continued to mumble. “I was winning. It should have been the green and silver block.”

“I told you it was rigged,” Josef tried to get Duncan to his feet. He frowned when Duncan continued to mumble about being cheated.

Starra reached down and grabbled Duncan’s other arm. Together, she and Josef pulled Duncan to his feet. Starra gave Josef a quick look. “I don’t know your friend but I’d say this isn’t normal,” she pointed out.

Josef shook his head. “Not even for Duncan,” he agreed. They slowly walked down the street. “We’re camped outside of town,” he explained. “I’ll put Duncan on with me and you can take his horse.”

“Bring him in here, kind sir,” the proprietress of the Staff and Bull called to Josef. “I doubt he can ride.”

Josef hesitated then nodded. They followed the elderly woman through the dining hall and kitchen to a small room in the back.

“Put him there,” the woman motioned to a small bed in the corner. “I’ll give him something that’ll bring him back around.”

“You’re very kind,” Josef smiled over his shoulder as he and Starra laid Duncan on the bed. “Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

“Besides possibly a broken nose?” Starra stared down at Duncan.

“My husband would come back from that place like that,” the woman snorted as she put a pot over the fireplace. She glanced at Josef. “You should keep him away from there. But he’ll go back.” Josef and Starra exchanged glances. “He’s not normally that stupid,” Josef said. “Why do you say that, Mistress....?”

“My name is Leya,” the old woman started stirring the liquid in the pot. “My husband went there and would come back like him. He kept losing but wouldn’t stay away. He finally gambled away our home.” She waved her arm to indicate the building.

“What happened?” Josef asked.

“He dropped dead the day he lost our home,” Leya continued. “The next day The Master sent his men to take this building and put me out.”

“The Master?” Josef leaned against the fireplace and folded his arms.

“That’s what they call him,” Leya shrugged. “I call him something worse.” She had to smile when Josef grinned. “They were real surprised when I paid them the gold my husband lost.” She looked over her shoulder at Starra. “A wise woman always keeps something for herself.”

Starra nodded approvingly. “I agree,” she said glancing back down at Duncan.

Josef walked back to listen to Duncan’s mumbling. “Has to be some sort of magic,” he murmured to Starra. “Despite what you may have heard, Duncan’s not an idiot.”

“What I may have heard?” Starra blandly looked at Josef.

“Whatever Christien might have said,” Josef hesitantly replied.

“Christien hasn’t told me anything,” Starra’s voice was amused. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

Josef considered. “Not really,” he finally decided shaking his head.

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

“Feeling better?” Josef asked a few hours later.

Duncan grinned wanly. “I don’t think I could feel any worse,” he muttered. He glanced sheepishly at Starra who stood talking with Leya. “Not exactly the way I wanted her to find me.”

“I thought you wanted her to see you in bed,” Josef teased.

“Not like this!” Duncan hissed. He saw Starra look over at him and forced a smile. “Be quiet, Josef,” he muttered.

Josef hid a smile and turned around. “We’re indebted to you, Leya,” he said walking to where she stood.

Leya studied him. “Neither of you’re the sort to be hanging around that place,” she decided. “Are you going to do something about it?”

“Possibly,” Josef slowly nodded. “But it’s probably better you don’t know anything about it.” He gently eased a gold piece into her palm. “As soon as it’s dark, we’ll leave.”

Leya nodded slipping the gold piece into her apron. “I need to see about the evening meal,” she said. “I’ll bring you something to eat as soon as it’s ready.”

Starra walked over and studied Duncan. “What happened?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” Duncan struggled to sit up. He glanced at Josef. “The stone’s there. I’m sure of it. I know I caught a glimpse of something yellow in the ceiling.”

“The whole ceiling is decorated with false gems,” Josef pointed out. “I’ve been in there, too. Nothing happened to me.”

“What better place to hide a real stone than with phony ones?” Duncan pointed out. “Hardly anybody would even look at the ceiling.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I started winning. Maybe that triggered the stone.”

“Or someone’s using it,” Josef and Starra said at the same time. They glanced at each other.

“Leya did mention someone they call The Master,” Josef pointed out.

Duncan sat back petulantly. “I’ve never been that susceptible to magic,” he pointed out. “I grew up around magic. I don’t understand how it affected me so much.”

“It’s the stone of greed,” Josef pointed out. “Everyone is greedy for something. We all want something that’s just out of our reach. Whoever’s using the stone just plays on it.” He glanced at Duncan. “Were you thinking about wanting something?”

Duncan’s dark eyes flickered away momentarily. “Maybe,” he finally admitted remembering the mithrian bracelet he wanted to purchase for Starra.

Josef stretched. “As soon as it’s dark, we’ll leave so Leya’s not in danger,” he decided. “The gambling hall closes in the early morning. We’ll give Duncan a day to recuperate then we’ll break in then and see if we can find the stone.”

“We become thieves?” Starra asked innocently. She raised her eyebrows is mock surprise. “I thought the two of you were Rangers.”

“This time we’re liberators,” Duncan patted her hand then squeezed it before she could snatch it away. He laid back down holding her hand and closed his eyes. “Liberators, my sweet one.”

Josef turned away before either of them could see his grin. If Duncan could see the expression on Starra’s face, he probably would have started running for his life.

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

“As you can see, our guards are alert for any sign of invaders,” Mikhail said. “We have a clear view of all the possible approaches.” He looked down. “Would your Lordship care to inspect the walls further?”

“Yes,” Paolo straightened his thin shoulders. “We must be alert at all times.”

“Absolutely,” Mikhail replied with a straight face.

“We cannot relax our vi..vi..” Paolo frowned.

“Vigilence,” Mikhail supplied.

Paolo nodded vigorously. “We can’t do that.”

“No, your Lordship,” Mikhail stared straight ahead.

“What’s going on?” Christien quietly asked.

Paolo spun around with a smile. “Mikhail’s letting me look at the walls!” he smiled.

Christien nodded his eyes slightly narrowed. “Lordship?” he asked.

“Well,” Mikhail’s eyes were twinkling. “He is.”

Christien nodded slowly relaxing. He looked down at Paolo. “You know Mikhail is just playing, don’t you?” he asked.

Paolo nodded. “I know,” he grinned. Christien hesitated. “I think your mother wants to give you a reading lesson.” He placed Paolo on the ladder leading to the ground. “Don’t argue,” he said before Paolo could speak.

“Good-bye,” Paolo said mournfully slowly going down the ladder.

Christien watched to be sure he was safely on the ground before turning to Mikhail. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he said.

Mikhail shrugged. “He is Lord of Elhalyn,” he pointed out. “The troops should know that and respect him.”

“As long as he doesn’t try to order anyone around,” Christien said after a moment. “Elaina doesn’t want him thinking he’s better than anyone else.”

Mikhail grinned. “Just keep working him like you did the day he got here and he’ll know for sure he’s no better than anyone else,” he offered.

Christien grinned despite himself. “Somehow I have the feeling that if it’s a choice between working with me and lessons with his mother, I’ll win every time no matter how hard the work is,” he chuckled.

“Someone’s through the gateway!” one of the guards shouted.

Christien turned to see the signal from the detachment at the gateway. The guards quickly moved into position waiting to see who rode up the hill.

“Who is it? Who is it?” Paolo squirmed past both Christien and Mikhail trying to climb the highest row of stones to see over the wall.

“I thought I told you to go to your mother!” Christien snapped pulling Paolo into his arms.

“I just want to see who’s coming,” Paolo stretched his neck trying to look over the wall.

“Paolo, when I tell you to do something, you need to do it,” Christien remonstrated making the boy look at him.

“I’m sorry,” Paolo looked up at Christien sorrowfully. “I didn’t mean to be a bad boy.”

“You’re not a bad boy,” Christien gently set him down. “Just do what you’re supposed to do when I tell you to do it.”

“It’s Lord Artur with a lady,” Mikhail identified in a surprised voice.

“Uncle Artur!” Paolo clapped his hands and scampered down the ladder seemingly unconcened about falling.

Christien took a deep breath then yelled. “Paolo! Wait for me! Don’t go to the gate!” He quickly started down the ladder.

“No better than anyone else,” Mikhail muttered with a grin as he shook his head.

“Uncle Artur!” Paolo eagerly jumped from one foot to the other waiting by Christien’s side as Artur and Adriana reined their horses to a stop.

Artur smiled. He dismounted and knelt as Paolo ran into his arms. “Do I dare ask if you’re behaving?” he grinned over Paolo’s shoulder at Christien.

Christien eloquently shrugged but grinned.

“I’m a good boy, aren’t I, Christien?” Paolo assured him looking back at Christien.

“Almost always,” Christien smiled. “Now, please go tell your mother we have guests.”

Paolo nodded as Artur turned him loose. He took a half-dozen steps then began screaming. “Mama! Mama! Uncle Artur’s here!”

Both Christien and Artur winced. “How close is Elaina?” Artur asked as their horses were led away.

“Not close,” Christien admitted. He glanced past Artur.

“This is Adriana,” Artur’s voice turned brusque. “One of Eldrin’s witches. She thinks she has a lead on one of the Stones of Maxen.”

“Come with me,” Christien invited. “Our hospitality isn’t much, Adriana, but we offer it with good intentions.”

“My needs are very simple, Lord Christien,” Adriana bowed her head. “I would be honored.”

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

“Are you sure only the two of you need to go?” Christien asked after they had finished a quick meal. He glanced at Artur. “I can’t spare many men, but you’re welcome...”

Artur shook his head. “You know you can’t spare any men. Between my knowledge of the mountains and Adriana’s magic, there’s no need for anyone else.”

“I’m surprised Rik didn’t go,” Christien lowered his voice glancing over to where Elaina was folding an extra blanket for Adriana.

Artur shrugged. “So am I,” he admitted. “Rik chased after those Stones when we were young. You’d think he’d want to go now.”

Christien frowned. “Rik’s not ill, is he?” he suddenly asked. “I know he was pretty upset about...Eldrin.”

“Seems to be fine,” Artur slowly nodded although he slightly frowned. Then he resolutely shrugged. “Rik knows what he’s doing.” He glanced at Christien. “Did you know Starra’s off chasing one of these Stones with your two friends?” “No!” Christien’s hand tensed around his mug. “Where are they?” When Artur hesitated, he leaned closer. “Not in Green Hills!” When Artur nodded, he took a deep breath. “That’s why Josef’s message was so short.”

“You stay out of Green Hills,” Artur ordered. “They’ve got a death sentence on you there.”

Christien shrugged. “Against all of us if you think about it,” he pointed out. “Like Duncan said, we’re at war even if it hasn’t been officially declared.”

“You heard what I said,” Artur’s blue eyes drilled into his younger brother. “Starra can keep those two out of trouble.” He shook his head. “Although I can’t imagine why she went in the first place.”

“Duncan sent her a message,” Christien said wryly. He shrugged at Artur’s expression. “It must have been a very enticing one.”

“Are you certain you don’t want another blanket, Artur?” Elaina spoke up.

“No,” Artur shook his head. “I’m used to the cold.”

“The blankets are appreciated,” Adriana spoke quietly with a smile. She turned as Paolo quickly touched her arm.

“Are you really...a witch?” Paolo half-whispered.

“Paolo!” Elaina remonstrated.

Adriana smiled. “Yes, I am,” she nodded.

“Like Careen?” Paolo’s eyes widened in excitement. “Mikhail said she just waved her fingers...” he began moving all his fingers. “And the stones just flew through the air...”

“Careen and I have different types of magic,” Adriana patted his head noticing the frown on Christien’s face.

“Careen was here?” Artur muttered as they went outside.

“I didn’t think it was any secret,” Christien said uncomfortably. He took a deep breath. “What was I supposed to do? I don’t want him to disappear like he did before. Besides, from what I can tell, he and Devora aren’t happy together.”

“Stefan’s affair with Careen isn’t helping that either,” Artur muttered. He shook his head. “It’s just not right.”

“I know,” Christien nodded his eyes shadowed. “But it’s not right to force Stefan and Careen to stay apart either.”

Artur grunted as he mounted his horse. “With luck, we’ll be back within two weeks,” he said.

Christien automatically helped Adriana mount. “If you’re not, I’m sending someone after you,” he warned.

“If there’s trouble, I can contact my grandfather easily,” Adriana assured him. “He can relay messages through Lord Rik.”

Christien nodded but looked at Artur. “Two weeks,” he repeated.

Artur laughed as he turned his horse. “Take care of them, Paolo,” he grinned.

“I will,” Paolo grinned at his mother.

Christien frowned as he watched his brother ride through the front gate. He felt Elaina’s hand on his arm.

“He knows the mountains well,” Elaina pointed out. “They’ll be back.”

“Starra’s off in Green Hills chasing one of the Stones,” Christien shook his head. “If she’s caught...” He took a deep breath. “Artur’s off into the mountains chasing one of the Stones. I just wish things would stop for a little while,” he irritably said. He saw Paolo walking away. “Paolo!” he called.

Paolo turned around with a pleading look on his face.

“Reading lesson,” Christien reminded him. When Paolo opened his mouth, he shook his head. “Now.”

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

Starra frowned as the moonlight glinted off Josef’s blonde hair. He was briefly visible then disappeared into the shadows. She glanced at Duncan who was staring at the front of the gambling hall.

“I know I could have beaten that wheel,” Duncan muttered.

“It’s not important now,” Starra hissed.

“Of course it is!” Duncan surprisingly hissed back. “For one, I don’t like being cheated! Second, I don’t like being tricked! Third, I don’t like being beaten up! Fourth, I wanted the money to buy you an exquisite bracelet!”

“A bracelet?” Starra looked at him in surprise.

“A beautiful mithrial bracelet, sweet one,” Duncan ruefully nodded then shrugged. “Too many people have been robbed here. We need to do more than just take the Stone.” “Without the Stone, whoever’s running this place won’t be able to...” Starra started to point out. Then he nudged Duncan. “Josef’s waiting.”

Quietly they crept forward. Josef had the door half-open. He grinned as they approached. “For a Ranger, I have quite a knack for opening locked doors,” he whispered.

“Christien would be horrified,” Duncan teased.

Starra shook her head. Somehow she had trouble imagining Christien with these two.

Slowly they entered the gambling hall and looked around. Shadows played across the gaming tables. Duncan almost snarled in the direction of the wheel.

“Where was the Stone, Duncan?” Josef whispered.

Silently, Duncan led them across the room. He stood in the spot where he’d gambled and looked up. “There,” he whispered pointing to the ceiling.

Josef stepped onto the table and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” he muttered.

Starra walked behind the bar and felt around. “I have some candles,” she hissed walking back to them.

Duncan reached and carefully lit one before handing it up to Josef. “Be careful,” he whispered.

“I’m always careful,” Josef hissed back. He held the candle up to the ceiling blinking as the light caught the jeweled facets. He carefully examined one yellow stone.

“That’s it,” Duncan grinned.

“It’s a fake,” Josef shook his head.

“Are you sure?” Starra asked looking up.

Josef grinned at her. “My mother has more jewels than anyone I know,” he assured her. “I learned the difference between real and fake jewels when I was very young.” He glanced down and moved across the table.

“Did you hear something?” Duncan’s hand crept to the hilt of his sword.

Starra peered into the darkness. “No,” she said uncertainly.

“Now this is real,” Josef muttered. He took his dagger and began working a yellow jewel from the ceiling. "And since I've been around Mother's magic all my life, I know the tingle of magic. And I'm getting a tingle from this beauty."

“Somebody’s here,” Duncan quietly warned.

“I don’t see anyone,” Starra looked around.

“Wish we knew if this is what we’re looking for,” Josef muttered. “I’d hate for this to all be for nothing.”

“Josef,” Duncan said warningly.

“Got it!” Josef whispered in satisfaction as the jewel fell into the palm of his hand. He turned as Duncan hit his boot.

“This isn’t good,” Starra muttered drawing her sword.

From the far corner of the room, a cloud of hazy blue smoke was crawling across the floor. Flashes of yellow and red light darted through the smoke. “Who do you think you are to be stealing from me?” All three stiffened as the booming voice echoed around them. “Do you truly wish to die?”

“Not at all,” Duncan smiled pleasantly. “Who does?” He took a few steps forward.

“Duncan,” Starra hissed in warning. She looked at Josef who watched with narrowed eyes.

“Return my property and leave!” the voice boomed. “Otherwise, you shall feel my wrath!”

“I wouldn’t want you to go to all that trouble,” Duncan smiled walking closer. “After all, we both know you can’t do a thing to hurt us. You’re nothing more than smoke and light.” With those words, Duncan darted forward into the smoke.

Josef lightly jumped from the table to the floor, studying the jewel in his hands. “Having problems, Duncan?” he called out.

“No,” Duncan gurgled from inside the smoke.

Starra looked from one to the other in confusion. Then she caught her breath as Duncan emerged from the smoke holding a very very small person by the neck. Duncan coughed the smoke from his lungs.

“Let me go!” the small man was screeching. “Let me go, I say! You shall surely feel my wrath if you don’t!”

“Be quiet!” Duncan irritably shook the small man. “Now give us some light. And don’t tell me you can’t because I know you can.”

The small man looked at Josef in supplication. When Josef frowned at him, he sighed and waved his fingers. The room immediately became illuminated. The small man saw Starra and held out his hands. “Gentle lady, please save me!” he pleaded.

“Why should I?” Starra crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ve obviously been cheating people...stealing their money.” She sat on the edge of the table. “Who are you? And what are you?”

“What am I?” the man tried to look insulted. “I’m one of the mezls.”

“I didn’t think there were any of you left,” Starra frowned. “Duncan, do you have to hold him so tightly?”

“Yes, Duncan, do you have to hold me...” the man gurgled as Duncan tightened his grip on his neck. “My name is Levi, my lady,” he gurgled.

“Where are the rest of you?” Josef frowned. “Mezls are never alone.”

“I am,” Levi looked forlorn. “I’m an outcast because of a small misunderstanding. And because of who and what I am, everyone either shuns me or tries to take what I have.”

“So you take it first?” Josef looked amused.

Levi shrugged. “I thought to make my own way...to prove my worth,” he explained. “But I was cheated. So I decided to get back what is mine.”

“You’re taking what belongs to others,” Duncan shook Levi then sat him on the table.

“You mean your own people won’t take you back?” Starra asked.

“Not unless I have enough gold to...” Levi quickly looked first at Josef then Duncan. “I'm afraid that's confidential information.”

Duncan snorted. "You mean you cheated one of your own, and they won't let you back until you're able to repay what you took."

"I resent that implication!" Levi gave Starra an imploring look. "Malicious accusatons! All of them!"

“And this?” Josef held up the yellow jewel.

“It’s magic,” Levi’s eyes narrowed. “Certainly of no use to you.” He reached for the Stone only to have Duncan pull him back.

“Are there any other magic stones?” Josef asked sternly. “Your life literally depends on your answer.”

Levi gulped and looked at Josef. “No,” he squeaked.

“Listen to me, little man,” Duncan said coldly. “The followers of the Jackal God are looking for this Stone. Fortunately, we’ve found it first. But they’ll be here soon. We’re not that far ahead of them.”

“The Jackal God?” Levi looked around fearfully. “Here?” He literally tore himself from Duncan’s grasp and dove against Josef. “Hide me!”

Josef tried to push Levi away. “We’re leaving and taking the Stone where it will be safe,” he announced. “You’d best take what you have and leave now as well.”

“And go where?” Levi clung to Josef. “Take me with you!” When they didn’t answer, he pleaded, “I can be very helpful. I do have some small amount of magic. I don’t eat much.”

“He comes with us,” Starra decided.

“He does?” Josef asked looking at Starra.

“You’re both Rangers,” Starra looked at them blandly. “Surely you wouldn’t leave him to be tortured and killed by Lucas, would you?”

“Tortured? Killed?” Levi shuddered. “I won’t eat anything!”

“Enough,” Josef pushed him towards Starra. “You’ll have to take him. My mother would blow him out of existence after an hour.”

“Mine, too,” Duncan agreed.

“Mezls like children,” Starra helped Levi off the table. “There are plenty of children at Shi’ar.” She smiled to herself thinking of her brother’s reaction to Levi. “Get what you can carry. We leave now.”

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

Elaina eyes flew open. She saw the moonlight streaming through the window and realized it was still hours before dawn. She turned her head slightly straining to hear if Paolo was calling for her. When she heard nothing, she relaxed. Christien’s face moved deeper against her neck as he stirred in his sleep. Elaina smiled and gently stroked the arm that lay across her waist. He was looking much better than when she’d first arrived. She was proud that the dark circles under his eyes had almost disappeared. She turned her head slightly her body curling against Christien’s and started to close her eyes.

Suddenly her eyes opened as she saw a shadowy figure in the corner. She caught a glimpse of a dark ruby glinting in the moonlight as the figure stepped forward.

“I can take him anytime I want,” Lucas coldly smiled. “You know that, Elaina.” The moonlight danced in his ice blue eyes. “Whenever I want...he dies.”

“No!” Elaina screamed sitting up.

Hardly before Elaina’s scream ended, Christien had grabbed the sword by the bed in one fluid movement and was crouching by the bed. His eyes uncertainly flickered looking into the shadows.

“Mama!” Paolo called from the other room.

“Paolo!” Elaina cried out struggling to get up.

“Stay here!” Christien snapped. He carefully opened the adjoining door. He saw Paolo sitting in the middle of his bed rubbing his eyes. “Are you alright?” he asked.

Paolo nodded sleepily. “I heard Mama,” he murmured.

“I think she had a nightmare,” Christien forced a smile. “Why don’t you go sit with her while I check to make sure nothing’s wrong.”

“No, no,” Elaina lay curled in the bed sobbing. When Paolo ran to her, she reached and pulled him into the bed with her. “He was here,” she sobbed to Christien. “He was here.”

“Who, Mama?” Paolo squirmed in his mother’s tight embrace.

Christien nodded his eyes narrowed. He quickly lit several candles illuminating the room. Then he sat on the bed with his back to the wall. He carefully set his sword on the trunk next to him. He pulled Elaina into his arms and smiled at Paolo. “It was just a nightmare, Paolo,” he assured him with a smile. “Isn’t that right, Elaina?”

Elaina stared up at Christien then forced a smile. “Yes, Paolo, a nightmare,” she murmured as she held onto Paolo with one arm and Christien with the other. “Just a nightmare.”

Paolo squirmed again then settled down with a sigh.

Christien gently stroked Elaina’s arm knowing neither of them wouldn’t sleep again that night. He stared at the opposite wall and frowned.





GO TO CHAPTER TEN



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