CHAPTER NINETEEN





Although Rik Aramis hadn’t had much sleep, he still looked more refreshed than anyone else the next morning. To Adriana’s masked amusement, it seemed the lingering effects of Rik’s illness had almost disappeared now that he had an open foe to fight. He seemed almost his old self as he began issuing orders.

“All the children need to go to Dedresia,” he announced as they sat around the table the next morning. He reached for his mug and drank deeply. He saw Artur start to argue then slowly nod. Predictably, there was a protest from the children’s table.

“We want to stay here!” Cheyne protested with a toss of her head.

“I’m Lord of Elhalyn,” Paolo chirped. “I need to stay, too.”

“If they’re staying, we’re staying!” Trainor added.

“As Protector to the Lord of Elhalyn...” Levi hesitated. “I think we should go to Dedresia.” He whimpered when Jaella smacked him on the arm.

“Shiloh, you’re the heir to Shi’ar. And, yes, Paolo, you are Lord of Elhalyn.” Rik looked at his son. “But we’re not playing a game. This is serious, and you children need to be protected. You are the future of Shi’ar and Elhalyn.” He held up his hand to forestall further arguments. “No arguing.”

It wasn’t often that Rik used that tone of voice with the children. They recognized it and subsided although not without some muttered grumbling.

“Go on.” Gwen gave them a smile. “I’ll be up shortly to help you pack.” She watched with amusement as they made their displeasure known by loudly stomping up the stairs.

“You need to pack, too,” Rik said. “You, Elaina, and Adriana are going as well.”

“Really?” Gwen patted his arm and smiled fondly. “Don’t let power go to your head, dear. I’m going nowhere.” Before he could argue, she continued. “If you and the others are all in the field, who is going to organize the supplies from here? Elaina needs to coordinate the healers. You know they’ll be needed. And Adriana’s advice has proven invaluable.” She studied Rik’s reddening face for a moment. “You look flushed, dear. Are you certain you’re well enough for this?”

“Gwen!” Rik roared. “You’ll do as you’re told!”

“I’ll go help the children pack and begin organizing our supplies.” Gwen patted Rik’s arm again. “Elaina, why don’t you come with me?”

Rik’s mouth opened and closed as he watched his wife blithely disobey him. Elaina hesitated then followed Gwen with a rueful smile back at Rik.

“Don’t waste your time,” Stefan advised his dark eyes twinkling. “You’re not going to win that battle.”

“We’ll see,” Rik muttered. He shook his head to clear it. “Starra, get to Rhyane. Advise them and Woodlands about the situation here.”

Starra nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as possible,” she promised.

“You’ll stay there,” Rik ordered. “If Josef’s going to be fighting here, you’ll replace him with the forces of Rhyane and Woodlands. And take the Stone of Truth with you. Give it to Garn.” He suddenly grinned. “He’s the most honest man I know. He should appreciate it the most.”

Starra narrowed her eyes. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Rik studied her for a moment. “I think you do,” he gently replied.

To the surprise of the others, Starra’s eyes dropped momentarily. Then she straightened her shoulders and nodded. “As you wish,” she agreed.

Rik briefly smiled at her. “Now, any comments before I tell you what we’re going to do?” he asked.

“I believe Careen was mistaken when she said Lucas won a victory,” Adriana quietly spoke.

“He did,” Careen flatly replied.

Adriana turned her sightless eyes in Rik’s direction. “Which would be harder, Lord Rik?” she proposed. “To turn down a bargain with your brother as bait...or with a child as bait?”

“With Jaella, of course,” Rik coldly smiled.

Adriana nodded. “Lucas had a stronger card to play while he held Jaella,” she explained. “Yet he threw it away for a weaker one. I have to wonder why.”

“All the problems Lucas has thrown at Christien bothered him, too,” Careen admitted. “I put it down to Lucas just wanting to stir up trouble.” She glanced at Josef. “Now that I think about it, trading Jaella for Christien isn’t like Lucas.”

“Maybe it wasn’t his idea,” Josef suggested.

Careen considered this idea then slowly shook her head. “Lucas is one of the Jackal God’s hand-picked minions,” she recalled. “I seriously doubt this was anyone else’s idea.”

“Does it matter?” Artur bluntly interrupted.

“Possibly,” Adriana slowly nodded. “If this is Lucas’ idea, then he’s made a mistake in strategy.”

“Christien has a small gateway in the healer’s building at Elhalyn,” Rik spoke up. “Careen, how long would it take you to create a larger gateway within the stronghold?”

“How large?” Careen frowned.

“Large enough to send through at least ten men at a time,” Rik grinned. “To just behind the current Elhalyn-Green Hills border.”

Stefan slowly smiled.

Careen frowned. “Most of the day at least,” she calculated. “We could use it under the cover of darkness to transport your men.”

“Exactly,” Rik nodded. “See to it.” He turned to Stefan. “You’ll go to Dedresia with the children. Advise Eldrin of our plans. See if he can turn Macedin loose along their border with Green Hills sometime tomorrow as a diversion.”

“Then I’ll be back.” Stefan’s words were half-promise half-threat.

“Starra, you advise Jamie and Garn what we’re doing,” Rik ordered. “Anything they can do as a diversion along their borders will help.”

“With your permission, Lord Rik,” Josef quietly spoke up. “I’ll join in your attack.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Rik smiled.

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

It would have surprised those at Shi’ar to know that Nicolai Axter agreed with Adriana’s analysis. He also felt that Lucas had made a mistake in trading Jaella for Christien. Not for the first time, he silently questioned Lucas’ seeming obsession with the youngest Aramis brother and pondered his options. Open warfare with not only Shi’ar but the other realms was just a matter of time. Even Rhyane would be against them.

He had watched Lucas’ men dragging Christien into the dungeons of the castle the previous night. Christien’s fate, such as it was, didn’t matter to Nicolai. But the security of Green Hills and his son’s inheritance did. Not for the first time, he took quiet counsel that night with his wife. Both had made choices earlier on that tied them to Lucas. But they’d been careful not to include their son, Thane, in those choices.

Now, with the sun starting it’s ascent across the sky, Nicolai sent for Thane.

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

The next few hours were hectic. Josef, after entrusting a message to his parents to Starra, left with Careen to construct the gateway at Elhalyn. The children, still grumbling under their breaths, departed with Stefan to Dedresia. After Paolo had left, Elaina uncharacteristically dissolved into sobs. Gwen hurriedly wrapped an arm around her and led her away. Rik waited for Starra at the front gate. “You do understand, don’t you?” he asked as he patted the side of her horse.

“Yes,” Starra nodded. “If Shi’ar falls, you want something to survive.”

Rik gave her a quick grin. “Eldrin will watch over the children,” he assured her. “But I’ll rest easier knowing you’re away from here as well.”

Starra shrugged. “I’ll be fighting alongside the armies of Woodlands and Rhyane,” she promised. “I’m not certain how safe that will be.”

“Give Duncan a chance,” Rik asked half-seriously. “He’s not such a bad choice, is he?”

Starra eyed him in silence. She suddenly leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Be careful, my brother,” she whispered. Before Rik could respond, she quickly mounted her horse and rode away.

Rik stared after her in stunned silence for a moment. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered to himself.

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

Christien gasped as cold water splashed across his face reviving him from unconsciousness. He gulped air into his lungs wincing as the effort aggravated his bruised ribs.

“Time to wake up.” Lucas’ taunting voice rang in his ears.

Christien forced his eyes open. His arms and legs had been chained to the stone wall at some point after losing consciousness forcing him into a humiliating kneeling position. He winced as he was barely able to open his left eye.

Lucas knelt in front of him studying him curiously. “I have to admit, stubbornness must be a dominant family trait,” he mused. “Even the little girl had more of it than I’d expected.” He smiled at Christien’s look of defiance. “You know you’re doomed, don’t you? Of course, you do. You know there will be no rescue. Yet you still persist in being stubborn.” He sighed and stood. “You can save yourself a lot of unnecessary pain, Christien. Just...accept.”

“No.” The word was whispered but firm.

Lucas reached out and tilted Christien’s face upward. “In a way,” he admitted. “I’m glad. It’s not often that I have such a worthy adversary.” He suddenly backhanded Christien across the face.

“So this is Christien Aramis,” a voice behind Lucas quietly spoke.

Lucas looked over this shoulder. “Thane,” he nodded in greeting. “Not quite so imposing, is he?”

Christien looked up to see Thane Axter standing just behind Lucas.

“I never thought he was,” Thane coolly replied. He studied Christien for a moment. “We’ve never met. He wasn’t invited to my wedding.” He smiled ironically. “I suppose I should thank him for not being interested in Briar a few years ago.”

Lucas’ face suddenly darkened. “He should have been interested,” he muttered. He reached out and wrapped his fingers in Christien’s hair. He forced the kneeling man to look up at him. “You have no idea how much trouble you have caused me,” he hissed. “Elhalyn was to have been mine! Elaina was to have been mine!” Angrily, he kicked Christien in the ribs.

“That wasn’t ever going to happen,” Christian defiantly muttered.

Thane watched impassively as Lucas grew angrier. He saw Christien taking sharp shallow breaths. 'The man's an idiot! Who does he think he's impressing with this ridiculous stoicism? He's only going to make Lucas even angrier. Or is that the idea?' Eyes narrowed, he studied Christien closely.

“We could all have avoided this unpleasantness of open warfare if you’d only taken Briar!” Lucas’ voice was strained as he struck Christien again. “So, it’s all your fault, Christien! All of it!” Breathing deeply, he fingered the ruby in his bracer.

“Good,” Christian muttered. He focused his blurry eyesight on the man standing in front of him. “It was the least I could do.”

Christien grunted suddenly as it seemed an unseen hand reached into his chest and grabbed his heart. His eyes widened painfully as he heard the roar of his own blood in his ears.

“Lucas, stop it!” Thane suddenly shouted. “He’s goading you! He wants you to kill him!”

For a moment, Thane wasn’t sure Lucas had heard him. Then Lucas muttered something under his breath and stepped back. The red glow around the ruby disappeared.

Christien moaned in pain as the pressure in his chest was suddenly relieved. He slumped against the wall despising himself for giving Lucas the satisfaction of hearing him moan.

“Yes,” Lucas nodded to himself as he breathed deeply. “If he’s dead, he can’t be used against Shi’ar.” He glanced at Thane. “Nicely deduced.” He glanced back at Christien. “Make sure he gets just enough food and water to keep him alive.” He reached out and grabbed Christien’s chin forcing him to look upward. “And you will eat and drink, Christien. Even if someone has to shove it down your throat.” He angrily slammed Christien’s head back against the stone wall sending Christien back into unconsciousness.

Thane silently watched as Lucas angrily left the room. He quietly knelt in front of Christien and studied him. “You wouldn’t have lasted two months with Briar,” he half-smiled to himself.

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

“I want him dead, Uncle Stefan!” Jaella demanded as she hugged her uncle. “You understand? Dead! In little tiny bloody pieces!”

“I’m sure he will be,” Stefan assured her with a serious look. “Just don’t cause trouble here. Dedresia is a very nice place.”

Jaella gave him a final hug then went to join the others.

Stefan glanced down at Paolo who’d remained by his side. He knelt and gave the boy a hug. “Don’t worry,” he murmured.

“The bad man has Christien, doesn’t he?” Paolo asked.

Stefan hesitated then nodded. “We’re going after him,” he promised.

Paolo gravely nodded and turned to follow the others. He hesitated and looked over his shoulder. “If he hurts Christien, I want him dead, too,” he whispered.

“Bloodthirsty little ones, aren’t they?” Macedin humorously quipped from behind Stefan.

Stefan stood and waved as the children disappeared with Ana. “Most are,” he admitted. He glanced over his shoulder. “Will there be any problems in providing us with a diversion?” he asked.

“Shouldn’t be,” Macedin cheerfully answered. “Odan and I are coordinating our forces. He’ll be stationed about half-way to the border while I go on.” He raised one eyebrow. “What if Lucas holds Christien’s life against your attack?”

“We attack.” Stefan’s voice was cold yet resigned. “No quarter.”

Macedin thoughtfully nodded then smiled. “Good luck.”

Stefan nodded as Eldrin joined them. “I’m sending Evan through to Rhyane,” he advised. “That should provide quite a bit of magic along the Green Hills border from that side.” He wearily smiled. “Besides, Evan thinks Odan may be correct that there will be a corresponding attack from Leodin against Rhyane.”

Stefan shrugged. “Hopefully, we’re getting the jump on that,” he advised.

“Simon will go with you, Macedin,” Eldrin nodded.

“I don’t need any sorcerers!” Macedin angrily replied. “They’ll just get in the way!”

“It’s either Simon or Hector.” Eldrin’s dark eyes twinkled. “You have to take one.”

Macedin fumed. “Simon, then,” he grumbled. “Tell the old man to be ready in an hour.”

“The old man is ready now,” Simon spoke from behind them.

Macedin curtly nodded to Eldrin and Stefan before whirling on his heel. Simon grinned at Eldrin from behind Macedin’s back and silently followed.

“Is there anything else I can do?” Eldrin quietly asked Stefan.

Stefan shook his head. “Just see the children are kept safe,” he sighed. “I’ll send word as soon as we know anything.”

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

Starra was astonished to find a large encampment of combined Rhyane and Woodlands troops halfway between the Rhyane capital and the Green Hills border. She was immediately escorted to a large tent that flew the emblems of both realms.

“Starra!” Duncan joyfully hugged her as she entered. He waved the guards away. “I didn’t know you were coming!”

Starra smiled to herself at his exuberance. “Where are the Lords?” she asked. “I must speak with them immediately.”

Duncan saw the serious look on her face and called a guard. “Ask the Lords to join us immediately,” he ordered. Turning back to Starra, he took her arm. “Mother and Kathlyna are inside.” He grinned at her expression. “Did you really think either of them would miss a fight like this?” he asked.

Either Garn and Jamie weren’t too far away or the messenger was exceptionally fast because they’d only sat down with Maire and Kathlyna when they made their appearance. Starra immediately stood when they arrived but Garn waved her to sit. “From your expression, the news isn’t good,” he gently said.

“No, it isn’t,” Starra admitted. She took a deep breath and relayed what had happened. She ended with repeating Rik’s request for diversionary action along the border. “Lord Josef also asked I tell you he will be fighting with the troops from Shi’ar,” she finished. “Lord Rik also asked that I stay and fight with you in his place.”

To her surprise, Duncan suddenly stood and left the tent. Maire watched her son leave with a worried look. She glanced at Jamie who silently shook his head.

Garn thoughtfully nodded. “I’ve made some alliances with some of the undersea folk especially those close to my coastal waters,” he began. “We received word that Leodin’s ships are heading this way.” He shook his head. “I hope the Wastelands can provide some diversion because I have to concentrate on meeting this threat.”

“I understand,” Starra nodded. “Do you have any idea as to where they’ll land?”

“Any further west and they’d be gambling quite a bit on their line of retreat,” Garn explained. “We don’t think they have enough ships with them for that. From where we’re based now, we can easily get to any one of three of the best landing sites.”

Starra suddenly reached into her jacket pocket. “Lord Rik said I was to give this to you,” she said.

Garn stared at the Sapphire of Truth in his hand. “I suppose it’s best the Stones be separated again,” he admitted.

“You know,” Kathlyna mused. “If you’d cut that Stone down, it would make a lovely ring for me, Garn.”

“Kath!” Garn exploded. Then he flushed as Jamie put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Just a thought,” Kathlyna purred.

“If you’ll tell me where I can put my things, I’ll get settled and report back for orders,” Starra quickly stood.

“You’ll stay with us, of course,” Maire smiled. “Don’t argue. There’s plenty of room.”

“I’ll send a messenger to Rik about what’s going on here,” Garn told her. “He needs to know we might not be able to help.”

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

An hour later, Starra found Duncan with the horses. He was murmuring to one in particular as he held a carrot for the horse to bite. Starra watched in silence for a moment then stepped forward. “A beautiful animal,” she said.

Duncan nodded without looking at her. “I raised her from the time she was born,” he quietly answered stroking her nose. “She’s small but fast. And she’s not afraid of battle.”

“You left rather suddenly,” Starra mentioned.

Duncan shrugged. “I’d heard all I wanted to hear,” he evaded. He hesitated. “You’ve had time to get used to losing Christien. I haven’t.”

“He’s not lost!” Starra angrily replied.

“Do you think Lucas is going to let Christien live?” Duncan suddenly exploded. “Once he realizes that Shi’ar and the other realms won’t bargain with him, Christien’s a dead man!” He caught his breath. “Assuming he’s not dead already!”

“You’re awfully quick to dismiss him!” Starra argued. She stepped closer and stared into Duncan’s eyes. “I’m not!”

“Don’t be a fool, Starra!” Duncan blazed. “Once Christien has no usefulness, Lucas will kill him in a second!” He hesitated. “If he’s lucky, that is.”

Starra frowned seeing the shadows in Duncan’s dark eyes. “Stop it!” she hissed. “You’re not doing anyone any good by thinking like that!”

“I can’t stop!” Duncan shouted. He took a deep breath and patted his horse who’d shied away. “It’s not in me to stop!” He shook his head. “Christien was the one who convinced me I didn’t have to be anything other than what I am. That I didn’t have to be the great man my father is! That I could be the man I am!” He shook his head blinking back tears. “I knew he was going to get himself killed one day,” he muttered.

Starra put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s not easy for me either,” she quietly said. “Josef took it pretty hard, too.”

“How is Elaina?” Duncan mumbled as he rubbed his eyes.

Starra hesitated. “She’s Christien’s wife and daughter of Elhalyn,” she answered. “How do you think she’s taking it?”

“Probably the way I am,” Duncan feebly joked. He slowly reached out and pulled Starra against him. “I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered.

“So am I,” Starra surprisingly whispered back.

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

Careen brushed back her dark hair and wearily stretched. She smiled as Josef began kneading her shoulder muscles. “Shouldn’t be much longer,” she muttered. “The gateway’s holding power now.” She glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “You do that very well.”

Josef’s eyes twinkled. “I do many things well,” he teased.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Careen assured him. She stretched her neck and studied the glowing gateway. “If this works, Lucas is going to be very surprised.”

“Do you think Christien’s still alive?” Josef quietly asked working his fingers deeper into her muscles.

Careen shrugged. “It’s irrelevant,” she coolly answered.

“You’re going to get angry, but I’m going to ask it anyway,” Josef said after a moment. When she looked over her shoulder at him, he continued, “Why do you always try to act so cold? You’re not, you know.”

Careen studied him for a moment. “We were raised to be cold, selfish, and ambitious,” she flatly replied. “Old habits die hard.”

“As long as they die,” Josef replied with a smile. His smile broadened when she narrowed her eyes at him.

“Are you teasing me?” Careen asked.

“I could be,” Josef admitted. “Or I could be telling you the truth.” He stepped back and looked at the gateway. “What now?”

Careen looked back at the gateway. “Send someone to Shi’ar,” she decided. “In a couple of hours, it’ll be as ready as it’ll ever be.” She glanced at Josef. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking I’m a nice person, Josef. I’m the daughter of Leodin and Solitaire D’Nar.”

“Exactly,” Josef smiled. “I have parts of my parents in me as well. You have parts of your parents in you. But we’re not our parents. I’m not Garn or Kathlyna. And you’re not Leodin or Solitaire.” He lightly chucked her under the chin with a wide grin. “So stop trying to be them.” He glanced at the gateway. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Careen’s eyes were narrowed as she watched him walk away. She slowly shook her head and stared at the glowing gateway.

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

Duncan stared at the gently billowing top of the tent. The encampment was quiet as everyone tried to sleep. He smiled as Starra stirred next to him. He slid his arm up and down her back in a soothing motion. He watched as her face relaxed as she snuggled closer to him.

Duncan stared back up at the top of the tent and offered a silent wager to the Gods.

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

Despite herself, Careen was impressed with the silent efficiency with which Rik moved his troops into position. Again and again, she sent out quiet feelers probing for any magic in the Green Hills encampment. Finally, she was satisfied there was none and advised Rik he wouldn’t be facing magic.

Rik happily grinned. “Take a rest,” he whispered. “There’ll be work for you later.”

Josef gently squeezed Careen’s shoulder as he followed Rik into the darkness.

Just as the sky began to lighten, Careen heard sounds of fighting in the encampment below. She strained to peer through the darkness but couldn’t see anything. She cast an anxious look at the sky and took a deep breath.

Raising her hands over her head, she concentrated on forming a glowing ball between her hands. She held it as long as possible then launched it into the sky. High overhead, it exploded illuminating the scene below.

The Green Hills defenders were slowly being encircled and backed into the center of camp. Small pockets of resistance held out although it seemed most were accepting they were defeated. The glow in the sky had begun to be replaced by sunlight when the final defenders surrendered. Careen noticed that few of them were being treated gently. She began slowly descending her eyes searching for Josef and Rik.

“Start sending them back through!” Rik ordered Dino Jihadan. “Make sure they’re secured and well guarded! Take them straight to Shi’ar’s dungeon!”

Dino, blood flowing from a deep cut on the side of his head, briskly nodded. He flashed a quick smile as Careen as he walked away.

“Stefan!” Rik bellowed. He saw his younger brother turn in his direction. “Take a troop and form a defensive perimeter about a mile south! As soon as we clean up here, we’ll march!”

Stefan nodded and motioned to some of Christien’s Rangers to follow him.

Rik glanced at Artur who was limping towards him. “How badly are you hurt?” he demanded.

“Not bad,” Artur grimaced. “Just twisted my knee.” He glanced at Careen. “The light was a good idea,” he admitted.

Careen’s eyes widened. “You’re welcome,” she answered. She saw Josef walking towards them a somewhat surprised look on his face. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

Josef silently held out his left arm. A jagged cut was slowly yet visibly healing itself. He stared at Maxen’s Sword still in his right fist. “I guess it protects in more ways than one,” he murmured.

Rik’s eyes twinkled. “I’m envious,” he grinned. “Still, there is something for having the ladies fuss over a little wound, you know.”

Josef grinned back. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he promised.

“What now?” Careen interrupted.

“We regroup, heal our wounds, then press on,” Rik decided. “As soon as the prisoners are sent through, we’ll bring in horses and supplies. Then we move on Green Hills.”

“I’ll start constructing another gateway,” Careen decided. “If we can be sure there aren’t any troops between us and the border, I can try to get us right to Green Hills.”

“Ambitious, aren’t you?” Artur half-snarled at his brother.

“It’s more than time,” Rik answered. He turned to Careen. “Get it started.”

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

The women at Shi’ar silently watched as the prisoners were marched into the castle and down to the dungeons. Elaina had a brief argument with Dino over treating the prisoners’ wounds. Dino was of the opinion they could heal themselves. Gwen settled the argument by promising Dino only one prisoner would be treated at a time and always in the presence of at least three guards. Grumbling, he agreed unless Lord Rik countermanded the order. Gwen serenely smiled but didn’t reply.

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

Jamie and Maire exchanged quick looks when Starra and Duncan appeared together for the morning meal. Maire had been sure that Starra had slipped into Duncan’s quarters sometime during the night. She sighed to herself reading the silent warning in her husband’s eyes. She would love to know what had happened.

Duncan looked surprised to see Evan conferring with Garn. “When did he get here?” he asked as he reached for some fruit.

“Early,” Kathlyna grumbled. “Garn pulled me out of bed so I could confirm he was who he said he was.” She rubbed her eyes. “This world is getting far too uncivilized...making people get up so early.”

Duncan nodded sympathetically.

“Jamie’s going to lead some of his troops against Green Hills,” Garn announced. “Evan’s presence will let Maire go with him and supply some magic.” He glanced at Starra. “You’re welcome to stay with us or go with Jamie.”

Starra hesitated then glanced at Duncan who nodded. “I’ll stay here,” she proposed. She saw Maire and Kathlyna exchange knowing looks and reddened slightly.

Garn nodded. “I just got word that Leodin’s ships have entered Shorehaven,” he quietly continued. “Evan will come with us to meet them.” He smiled to himself as he saw the twinkling in his wife’s eyes. “We leave in an hour,” he lightly teased. “Do you think you can be ready by then, Kath?”

“Of course,” Kathlyna nodded. “You know I hate getting up this early. I think Leodin will be just the one to take it out on.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Evan coolly warned.

“I never underestimate anyone, dear boy,” Kathlyna grinned. “Not even my husband.”

The two forces separated a little more than an hour later. Starra bit her lip as she watched the Woodlands army marching towards Green Hills.

Duncan saw the look on her face. “Go with them,” he urged.

Starra slowly shook her head. “No,” she answered. “I’ve made my choice.”

“Any regrets?” Duncan held his breath.

“If so, you’ll be the first to know,” Starra promised. She resolutely turned her horse and rode after Garn.

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

“This is such a nice-looking place,” Leodin admitted. “I’ve been on the islands so long, I’d forgotten how beautiful the mainland can be.”

Solitaire smiled at her husband. “Shall I have the midday meal brought to us so we can picnic in peace?” she teased.

Leodin returned the smile. He picked up her hand and gallantly kissed the knuckles. “As soon as the battle is over,” he promised. He glanced behind him at the encampment. “I imagine Rhyane’s forces will be here shortly.”

“I understand Lady Rhyane is a powerful sorceress,” Solitaire remarked.

“But she’s only one person,” Leodin reminded her. He glanced over his shoulder. “And we have many weapons.” He smiled as the dark spots in the sky grew closer.

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

“What are those things?” Duncan hissed.

Evan’s eyes narrowed. “We were never sure,” he reluctantly admitted. “They were used against the Misty Isles.” He coldly smiled. “Careen called them Mother’s pets.”

Duncan looked at the huge bird-like creatures in awe. They sat perched on the rocks along the shoreline.

“Leodin must be very confident,” Evan mused. “He’s only brought two of them.”

“How do we defeat them?” Starra studied the creatures. “They look almost armored.”

“They’re covered with small scales,” Evan answered. “Direct blows to their body won’t harm them. But they are vulnerable about the eyes and neck.”

“Great,” Duncan grumbled. “In order to hurt them, we have to get close enough for them to really hurt us.”

“Unless we prevent them from getting close to us,” Evan pointed out. “Once they’re in the air, there’s not much we can do.”

“No problem,” Duncan grumbled. “Just wait here while I go down there and tie them up.”

“Hush, Duncan!” Starra snapped. “You’re not helping matters.”

“Actually, that’s not such a bad idea,” Evan mused.

Duncan glared at Evan. “If you think I’m...” he began.

“Be quiet!” Evan ordered. “I have to do this exactly right.” He looked down to where Leodin and Solitaire waited as Garn and Kathlyna rode closer.

“Greetings, Lord of Rhyane,” Leodin greeted with a smile. “Lady Rhyane. I’m Leodin of the Isles. This is my wife, Solitaire.”

Garn coolly surveyed the encampment. “It’s customary to request permission before landing,” he pointed out.

“I was positive there would be no reason why you wouldn’t allow us to land,” Leodin smiled. “Is there?”

“That depends upon your purpose,” Garn retorted. “I’m sure you know we’ve given sanctuary to refugees from the Misty Isles.”

“I hope you haven’t condemned us without hearing both sides of the story,” Solitaire smoothly interjected. “Especially after all the stories I’ve heard about the legendary fairness of the Lord of Rhyane.”

Kathlyna snorted. “He may be fair, but I’m realistic,” she interrupted. “This is a military encampment. Why? And why are those creatures here?”

Garn started to say something but then looked at Leodin for an answer.

“We understand that some of the refugees you’ve harbored have been planning military action against us,” Leodin explained. “We felt it to be in our best interest to bring them to justice.”

“If that’s true, and I have no evidence that it is, then I’ll deal with them,” Garn promised. “You may return to your island realm.”

Leodin exchanged a smile with Solitaire.

Evan saw the look pass between his parents. “Now,” he muttered to himself. Standing, he raised his arms towards the creatures. Bands of yellow energy streamed from his fingers towards the creatures.

The bird-like creatures suddenly squawked as the energy enveloped them, pinning their wings to their sides.

Kathlyna gave a sudden loud laugh. She spread her arms towards the creatures and bands of green energy wrapped around the creatures necks...binding them together.

Garn shouted a command and his soldiers poured onto the beach towards Leodin’s troops.

Leodin snarled and threw an energy blast towards Garn. The Lord of Rhyane quickly ducked, falling from his horse. As he drew his sword, he saw Leodin raise his hands again.

Before Leodin could send another energy blast towards Garn, he stumbled backwards as small bat-like creatures flew in his face.

Garn threw a grateful glance at Kathlyna who was glaring at Leodin. It wasn’t the first time she’d saved his life in battle.

Solitaire followed the direction of the yellow energy and narrowed her eyes. Motioning for several soldiers to join her, she teleported them and herself to the top of the hill.

Evan hesitated as Solitaire appeared before him. Then he was thrown backwards as Solitaire directed an energy blast at him.

Kathlyna saw the yellow energy around the creatures flicker then fade. She glanced over her shoulder to see Evan trying to get to his feet to face Solitaire. Quickly, Kathlyna wrapped the creatures in more skeins of green energy. Sweat dripped into her eyes as she exerted all her power to lift the bound and struggling creatures high into the air. Using the last of her energy, she literally threw them towards the sea. The creatures squawked a high-pitched squeal as they fell into the deep water and sank.

Kathlyna swayed in her saddle trying to stay upright. She felt herself being yanked off her horse. Just as she started to hit that person, she felt herself swung to one side. She realized Garn had pulled her from her horse just as one of Leodin’s soldiers swung his sword at her. It wasn’t the first time he’d saved her life in battle.

“Stay behind me,” Garn ordered as he cut down the soldier who’d tried to spear his wife.

Disgruntled, Kathlyna obeyed. She would only be a hindrance until her power was regenerated.

Duncan found himself facing two battle-scarred soldiers. He gradually fell back before their attack. He saw Starra grimly battling with a third soldier. Then he saw Starra stumble and her attacker’s sword thrust deep into her thigh.

“Starra!” Duncan screamed. He looked at the two men in front of him. “You’re dead,” he promised. Swinging his sword in a wide arc, he lunged forward.

The two soldiers momentarily fell backwards surprised at Duncan’s attack. One man recovered and lunged forward only to have Duncan’s sword plunge into his chest. Duncan frantically tried to pull his sword free as the second man came closer. Duncan kicked the second man’s feet from under him and pulled on his sword. To his shock, the first man got back to his feet seemingly unhurt by the wound in his chest.

“Well, Evan, so this is where you disappeared to,” Solitaire coldly smiled.

Evan quickly formed a ball of fire and threw it at her.

Contemptuously, Solitaire waved the ball of fire aside. The air crackled around them as a lightning bolt flew towards Evan. He rolled to one side grimacing as the electrical charge numbed his fingers. Getting to his feet, he saw tendrils of black energy forming around his feet. Desperately, he moved aside snarling as they followed.

“Did you think we taught you everything, my son?” Solitaire taunted. She aimed another lightning bolt at Evan laughing loudly as this one struck him.

“These men can’t be hurt!” Garn shouted to Kathlyna.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Kathlyna snarled. “It’s some sort of magic.”

Garn hesitated then reached into his pocket. He tossed the Sapphire of Truth towards his wife who easily caught it. They exchanged a quick considering look. Then Kathlyna levitated the Stone high into the air.

“No!” Leodin shouted in frustration.

“Hurry!” Garn shouted.

Kathlyna threw a burst of green energy towards the Stone. It encircled the Sapphire then went through it. The entire area was encompassed in a blue glow.

Leodin snarled as his army was revealed as walking corpses. He started to throw an energy blast at Kathlyna then suddenly turned to look for Solitaire. With another snarl, he teleported.

“Strike at their heads!” Garn ordered recognizing their foes.

Duncan’s eyes widened as his opponents were revealed. “Their heads, Starra!” he shouted. “Their heads!”

Starra automatically obeyed thrusting her sword at her opponent’s forehead. The creature stiffened and howled. For a second it stayed upright then slowly fell to the ground. Limping, Starra hurried to help Duncan.

Duncan parried a thrusting sword and kicked the creature in the stomach. The creature stumbled backwards and Duncan struck the creature with his sword just behind the ear.

Starra lunged at the final creature knocking them both to the ground. She grunted as the creature’s hands closed around her throat. “Duncan!” she hissed through gritted teeth.

Duncan stood over the creature then thrust his sword into the creature’s head. As the creature slumped onto Starra, he reached down and rolled it away.

Evan’s eyes widened as Solitaire screamed when the blue light struck her. He watched in horrid fascination as her face seemed to change...to become almost spider-like. He remembered Careen being struck by Solitaire one-time for referring to her as The Black Widow.

“What are you?” he whispered trying to get to his feet.

Solitaire used her cloak to cover part of her face as she glared at him.

Leodin suddenly appeared between them. He shot a blast of dark energy towards Evan who reeled backwards trying to keep on his feet.

Leodin glanced over his shoulder at Solitaire. Then he looked back at Evan. “Where is Careen and Odan!” he demanded. “Are they here?”

Evan glared at his father and threw a weak burst of yellow energy in his direction.

Leodin contemptuously knocked the energy aside. “You always were a fool,” he muttered. His fingers played with the dark stone at his throat.

Evan gritted his teeth as the Stone of Death caught him in its grasp. He labored for air feeling the temperature in his body begin to rise. He glared at Leodin who was watching with grim amusement.

Then Evan’s eyes widened as his father was struck in the forehead by a thrown rock. Solitaire whirled in that direction to see Duncan pointing his sword at her. Starra heaved another rock at Leodin. This one struck him in his chest and he stumbled backwards.

Evan, released from the Stone’s magic, scrambled to his feet. He swayed as the numbness in his body began to disappear.

“Leodin.” Solitaire clutched at his arm as a small tendril of smoke wafted from her cloak. She was shielding her eyes from the blue glow of the Sapphire of Truth.

Leodin immediately wrapped his arms around Solitaire and they disappeared.

Evan swayed on his feet as Starra dropped to the ground holding her bleeding leg.

Duncan started to grin as the bodies of Leodin’s soldiers began to fade. Then he threw back his head and howled a triumphant battle cry...a cry that was echoed by the Rhyane soldiers on the shoreline.

“We won.” Evan’s voice was full of surprise. “They were defeated.”

“Of course.” Duncan knelt next to Starra. “They’re not invincible, you know.”

“No,” Evan shook his head. “I didn’t know. They’d never been defeated.”

“They’d never run into us,” Duncan jubilantly replied. He glanced up to see Evan scowling at him.

“I wonder how the others are doing.” Evan took a deep breath. “If I had the energy, I’d find Careen and help her.”

“You need to rest,” Starra pointed out. She nodded towards the water where Leodin’s ships were turning around. “There’s no guarantee they won’t be back.”

“They won’t.” Duncan cheerfully helped her stand. “They know when they’ve been beaten.”

Evan stood on the hill watching Leodin’s ships slowly disappear over the horizon. On the beach, the wounded were being treated. A gentle breeze ruffled his dark hair. He remembered the transformation on Solitaire’s face and couldn’t refrain from shuddering. Not for the first time, he wondered what had spawned him.



GO TO CHAPTER TWENTY



FEEDBACK APPRECIATED!