“Congratulations, Christien,” Rik smiled as he handed his brother a goblet of wine. “You pushed further south into Elhalyn than I thought you’d be able.”

Christien shrugged accepting the wine. He wearily sat at the table across from his brothers. “I think the Green Hills troops were a little surprised themselves,” he admitted. “But the line they’ve drawn is a good strategic one. Much further north and they’d have been exposed to a counter attack.”

“At least something was saved for Paolo,” Stefan grunted. “Half of Elhalyn is better than nothing.”

“They’re building fortifications as well?” Artur asked.

Christien nodded. “Just as we are,” he agreed. He turned to Rik. “I need more men...more craftsmen and engineers. My Rangers aren’t suited to building large fortifications. And I’ll need more troops.”

Rik frowned. “Why?” he asked.

Christien hesitated. “Because I’m taking Elaina back with me,” he curtly answered. “Paolo can stay here.”

“Elaina? Why?” Rik sputtered. “You’re on the frontline, Christien! She belongs here where it’s safe!”

Christien’s blue eyes angrily stared at his older brother. “I’ll decide where’s she’s safe,” he seethed.

Rik hesitated surprised by Christien’s reaction. “Think for a....” he began.

“It’s not a matter for discussion, Rik!” Christien shouted as he stood. “Not by you! Just have those men ready to leave tomorrow!”

Rik’s eyes narrowed as he swallowed his own anger.

“Am I interrupting?” A quiet voice from the other side of the room intoned.

“Simon,” Rik said in obvious relief. He released a sigh as he stood and motioned the elderly wizard forward. “Not at all.”

Christien turned and automatically stood as Simon approached. “Greetings,” he nodded as he controlled his own anger. “I didn’t know you had returned.”

Simon smiled as though the anger in the room didn’t exist. “I can’t imagine why you should,” he commented as he took a seat at the table. “From what I understand, you’ve been extremely busy.” He glanced at Christien with some sympathy. “After all, until Lord Paolo reaches his majority, you speak for Elhalyn in his name.”

Stefan’s dark eyes twinkled as Christien digested that information. From the look on his face, it was quickly giving him indigestion.

“I’m sure you and Rik have much to discuss,” Christien finally replied. He gave Rik a quick glance as he stood.

Rik silently nodded. “I’ll arrange it,” he quietly agreed.

Artur gave Rik a barely imperceptible nod and followed Christien.

Christien glanced over his shoulder as Artur followed him outside. “When did Simon get here?” he asked.

“Seven suns ago.” Artur easily fell into step with Christien. “Rik sent a message to the Wastelands asking for an alliance. Simon came to negotiate one. If the Wastelands will ally with us, we’ll have Green Hills isolated and surrounded.”

Christien nodded. “It’ll make things a lot easier,” he admitted. “Is Careen still here?”

“No, thank the Gods,” Artur snorted. He glanced over his shoulder then lowered his voice. “Simon sent her back to the Wastelands.”

Christien raised an eyebrow. “Why?” he asked.

Artur stopped and then angrily paced back and forth. Christien was reminded of an angry mastiff who couldn’t make up his mind which opponent to attack. He hid his smile, waiting for Artur to continue.

“She and Stefan...” Artur shook his head. “I can’t believe....”

“What?” Christien prodded. “Either tell me or not. I’ve got a lot to do before leaving tomorrow.”

Artur angrily stopped in front of him. “She and Stefan did everything but bed each other!” he snapped. He saw Christien’s eyes widen in disbelief and nodded. “At first, I thought it was just Careen teasing.” He took a deep breath. “It’s obvious she’s nothing more than a cheap flirt.” His eyes snapped again. “But Stefan! I thought Devora was going to claw out Careen’s eyes one night!”

“So I take it someone whispered to Simon who packed Careen off to the Wastelands?” Christien teased.

“Don’t make light of this, Christien!” Artur snapped. “Stefan’s loyalty should be to Devora. He has no business around someone like Careen.”

Christien nodded. “How did Stefan take it?” he asked.

Artur grimaced. “He didn’t say anything to Simon,” he pointed out. “How could he? But he said plenty to Rik and me.” When Christien glanced at him, he shook his head. “That little witch has done something to him.”

Christien stared past Artur. “Well, you know Stefan,” he lightly answered. “He’s always committing to this and that without thinking much about it.”

“He committed to Devora!” Artur snapped. “Whether he took five minutes or five years to do it is irrelevant!”

Christien watched Artur fight the impulse to throw something. ‘Maybe. Or maybe not.’

“And Rik’s sending Stefan to the Wastelands along with me!” Artur continued. He snorted. “I don’t need Stefan to conduct negotiations.”

“Why isn’t Rik going?” Christien asked with barely veiled amusement.

“He’s sending a message to Green Hills and wants to be here if there’s any answer,” Artur explained.

Christien’s eyebrows rose. “And Rik doesn’t think I need to know that?” he mused.

“Talk to Rik about that!” Artur snapped. “If he thinks I’m going to babysit Stefan...”

“Are you?” Christien interrupted. When Artur didn’t answer, he sighed. “Stefan disappeared before, remember? Push him into a corner, and he’ll do it again.”

“I know!” Artur snapped. “But I’m not going to let him think that I approve or condone his actions! Not for a minute!” He hesitated. “Devora wants to go to the Wastelands with us, and I can’t say I blame her!”

“Is she going?” Christien curiously asked.

Artur shook his head. “No!” he snapped. “Stefan refuses to allow it!”

Christien watched as Artur stomped away. He decided that facing the Green Hills army with a pitched battle a possibility every day suddenly didn’t seem so dangerous.

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

“I’ve given orders for some extra troops and engineers to be ready to leave tomorrow morning,” Rik advised Christien during the evening meal.

“Good,” Christien nodded. “We’ll probably leave about mid-morning.”

“I still think..” Rik began.

“Don’t think, Rik,” Christien warned in a low voice. “And don’t mention it again.”

Gwyn saw Rik’s face redden and patted his leg under the table.

“What’s this message you’re sending to Green Hills?” Christien asked. “Considering I’m the one standing between you and Green Hills, don’t you think I should know about it?”

“The message is that I and the other lords back Paolo’s claim to Elhalyn, and we demand he remove his troops,” Rik’s voice seethed. “I hope that meets with your permission.”

Christien flushed under the lash of his brother’s voice. “I have no objection,” he finally answered.

Watching the two, Gwyn thought each of them wanted to say more but neither one knew what it was they wanted to say.

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

One moon later, Elaina found Starra who had accompanied them to Christien’s fortifications in Elhalyn which they’d named Wolf’s Lair. She smiled as Starra was openly puzzled at her request.

“You want me to do what?” Starra’s dark eyes narrowed.

“I want you to teach me to fight,” Elaina repeated. “If anyone around here can teach me, it’s you.”

“Why would you want to know how to fight?” Starra asked regaining her composure.

“Because I need to know how to defend myself,” Elaina pointed out. “Christien wants me here so I should at least know how to do it correctly.” She caught Starra’s eyes flickering to the emerald in the dagger at her waist. “I might not have the dagger with me all the time,” she continued. “It could get knocked out of my hand. Starra, I don’t even know how to use a dagger.”

Starra glanced around the half-built fortifications. Elaina had a valid point, she conceded. The armies of Shi’ar managed to hold the high mountain passes of Elhalyn, keeping them from being completely cut off from their allies. For the most part, Christien’s Rangers had replaced the Shi’ar armies holding what territory they possessed in Elhalyn in Paolo’s name as rightful Lord of Elhalyn. However, some of the Shi’ar troops had reappeared when Christien had brought Elaina back with him.

Starra took a deep breath. “When can you want to start?” she asked. “Do you have the time?”

Elaina half-smiled at the tone in Starra’s voice. Her healing skills were kept busy as the craftsmen tried to hastily build the fortifications. “How about now?” she asked.

Starra shrugged. “Do you know anything about self-defense?” she hopefully asked. Then she sighed as Elaina’s answer was written on her face.

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

Christien slowly rode back towards the partially constructed fortifications. So far the Green Hills troops were busy with their own fortifications. Nicolai Axter, Lord of Green Hills, looked determined to make the southern part of Elhalyn part of his realm despite Rik’s public proclamation of Paolo as rightful Lord of Elhalyn.

It had bothered him that Rik had done it so quickly and almost without consulting either Elaina or himself about it. While he was realistic enough to know Rik had to do it quickly, it was just one more of Rik’s actions that seemed to rankle Christien. And Christien knew his unspoken accusation that Rik couldn’t be trusted to protect Elaina had soured their relationship.

Christien studied the walls of the fortifications as he rode through the gate. It wasn’t pretty, but it would serve. If they were lucky, it would be used as a supply fortification when they retook Elhalyn for Paolo. If they weren’t lucky, this would be the beginning of Elhalyn’s new castle.

He stabled his horse and began walking towards the healers’ building looking for Elaina. He heard the clang of weapons and hesitated. Usually, the men didn’t practice this close to the general open area. He walked around the corner to see Elaina lying on the ground looking up at Starra. Her jeweled dagger lay to one side and Starra had her sword ready to thrust downward into Elaina.

“Starra!” Christien shouted as he leapt towards them.

Starra turned her head just in time to feel him slam into her knocking them both to one side.

Snarling, Christien closed his hand around Starra’s wrist trying to make her loosen her grip on her weapon.

Elaina rose to her feet as Mikhail, his right hand clumsily bandaged, joined her. “Stop them!” she shouted at Mikhail.

Mikhail nodded to several others who cautiously approached the two brawling figures. Mikhail reached out and grabbed Christien around the throat trying to pull him away from Starra. Starra took that slight opening and drove her fist into Christien’s gut. Feeling the two combatants slightly separate, the other men moved between them pulling Christien to his feet. Starra rolled to her feet her black eyes snapping in anger.

“Christien! Stop!” Elaina got in front of Christien trying to catch his eyes. She saw him slowly relax his eyes flickering momentarily to her then back at Starra

“What was going on?” Christien demanded.

“Starra was teaching me to fight,” Elaina explained.

Mikhail gestured to the others who released Christien and quickly retreated. Very few people wanted to get involved in an Aramis family fight.

“What?” Christien’s voice shook with anger. He shrugged off Mikhail’s restraining arm.

“You wife wanted to learn how to defend herself,” Starra spoke up. “It seemed a reasonable request.”

“Reasonable!?” Christien shouted. He took two steps towards Starra who barely managed to contain her own anger as she braced herself for another attack. “You were going to spear her!”

“She was not!” Elaina started forward only to have Mikhail pull her back. She looked at him but he shook his head warningly at her.

“You stay out of this!” Christien looked over his shoulder at Elaina. He turned back to Starra and missed the angry look his wife shot him. “How dare you?!”

“That’s my job, isn’t it?” Starra slowly sheathed her sword. “To teach the ladies and children?”

“Not Elaina!” Christien shouted. “That’s an order!”

Starra angrily stared at him for a few seconds. “As you wish, Lord Christien,” she formally replied. She bowed her head and walked off.

Christien felt his stomach twist. He hated when she did that to him. He didn’t like being treated like Rik. He turned around to see Elaina carefully unwrapping the bandage around Mikhail’s hand. “What happened to you?” he snapped.

“Nothing serious.” Mikhail tried to pull his hand away from Elaina’s grasp.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Elaina kept a tight grip on his hand. “It’s bleeding, and this is your sword hand.” She studied it for a moment. “Come with me.” She gave Christien a furious look and walked away. Mikhail apologetically shrugged at Christien and followed.

Frustrated, Christien kicked a clod of dirt against the nearby building.

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

The sun had nearly touched the night’s horizon when Christien carefully approached Starra who sat at near the horses slowly sharpening her sword. He had the uncomfortable feeling she was imagining it dancing across his throat. He knew everyone had stayed clear of him during the past hour not wanting to be the unwitting target of his wrath.

Starra saw him approach and quickly stood. “Yes, my lord?” she asked.

“Don’t!” Christien automatically put up his right hand. “Don’ that with me, Starra.” He saw her controlled expression and carefully walked closer. “You know I hate it. And I’m not your lord. I’m your brother.” He looked at the ground. “I shouldn’t have said what I did the way I did.”

Starra half-smiled. It was as close as any Aramis came to apologizing. “Is Elaina still angry with you?” she asked sitting back down.

Christien slowly exhaled. From her tone of voice, it didn’t sound like she was planning on killing him. “I haven’t seen her,” he admitted. “She took Mikhail into the healer’s building to work on his hand.”

“Don’t you think you should see her?” Starra asked.

“Why did she ask you to teach her to fight?” Christien asked running a hand through his hair. “She could get hurt.”

“She will get hurt if you keep her here,” Starra pointed out. “Any warrior with a thimbleful of ability could take that dagger away from her.” She saw him look away. “Healers can be brought here through the gateway if necessary. There’s no reason for her to be here. No reason at all.”

“You sound like Rik,” Christien half-smiled. “Or at least what he’d sound like if he said it to me.”

“He should have said it. But you’ve made it impossible for him to do that, haven’t you?” Starra pointed out. She hesitated for a moment. “If Elaina wants me to teach her, I will. But we both know she’ll never be any good at it.”

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

Mikhail grimaced as Elaina finished bandaging his hand.

“That’s a severe cut,” she murmured. “Your hand will be sore for days.” She glanced at him. “You should have come to me when this happened.”

Mikhail shrugged but smiled engagingly. “Christien seems to think you’re being bothered too much by small cuts and bruises,” he admitted. “Which we have been doing.” He grinned charmingly. “We’re sorry about bothering you.”

“If someone’s hurt, I expect to be called,” Elaina angrily replied. “I don’t care what Christien says.” Then she smiled at Mikhail’s expression. “I’m a healer,” she pointed out lightly. “And this isn’t a small cut.”

Smiling, Mikhail started to reply then saw Christien in the open doorway. “Thank you, my lady.” He quickly stood. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Just don’t use that hand for the next day or so,” Elaina cautioned ignoring Christien. “If it starts bleeding again, find me immediately.”

“Yes, my lady,” Mikhail nodded. “Thank you, my lady.” He nodded at Christien who eyed him narrowly as he left. He closed the door behind Mikhail and turned around. He watched Elaina clean the table where she’d been working.

“I hate it when Starra acts that way.” Christien idly picked up one of the small bottles littering one side table.

“When Starra acts that way?!” Elaina whirled around. “You talked to her like she was a...”

“I know.” Christien replaced the bottle. “I just came from talking with her.” He shrugged. “I was angry and didn’t think.” He glanced at her. “Just like I wasn’t thinking when I spoke to you like that.” When Elaina didn’t reply, he shrugged again. “I should have known Starra wouldn’t hurt you.”

“No, she wouldn’t...intentionally,” Elaina smiled. “Although I’m going to have a bruise or two by tomorrow.” She saw her husband frown and took his hand. “Christien, I need to know how to protect myself.”

After a moment, Christien nodded. “I just didn’t think,” he mumbled pulling her against him. He closed his eyes once more feeling Elaina’s dead body in his arms.

Elaina felt Christien’s arms tighten around her and hugged him back. “Is Starra angry with me?” she asked.

Christien laughed slightly. “No, just with me,” he admitted. “But it’s settled between us. She’ll teach you if you want, no matter what I say. She’s good at ignoring her brothers.” He saw Elaina smile and slowly lowered his head to kiss her lips. Then he jerked back as the door was flung open.

“You’d better come.” Mikhail looked at Christien. “We have visitors.”

“Stay here,” Christien brusquely ordered Elaina as he followed Mikhail.

“I will not,” Elaina muttered following Christien. But she halted at the outer door when he gave her a warning look over his shoulder.

“The messenger says they claim to be from Woodlands and Rhyane and that you can vouch for them,” Mikhail quickly explained.

“I wonder...” Christien’s eyes narrowed.

Mikhail curiously glanced at him as Christien walked towards the gate. Silently he took his place at Christien’s side.

The golden eagle banner of the Woodlands and fluttered in the cool evening air beside the Rhyane banner of a white stallion on a green background. The lead rider was one of Shi’ar’s warriors from the detachment guarding the gateway. The other six riders appeared to be evenly split under their respective banners. Slowly the riders came to a stop, and Christien walked towards the group under the Woodlands banner.

“He looks like Duncan Lorcan,” Christien announced. “But he’s obviously an impostor.”

The young dark-haired dark-eyed man on the horse looked down at him. “Really?” he asked.

“The Duncan Lorcan I know would never leave his safe comfortable home to travel into the mountains.” Christien’s voice was lightly mocking.

“Except that I need to get to the Wastelands where I hear the women are sultry and beautiful.” The young man laughed. “It’s my duty to find out if that’s true.”

The young blonde-haired man riding under the banner of Rhyane softly chuckled. “Did you think anything other than women could get him into the mountains, Christien?”

Christien shook his head in mock sorrow. “I should have known,” he admitted. Then he turned and waved to the warriors behind him. “Friends,” he called back. He motioned Mikhail forward. “Mikhail, I’d like you to meet Duncan Lorcan, heir to Woodlands and Josef Rhyane, heir to Rhyane,” he pronouned. “This is Mikhail Tieer, General of Shi’ar.”

Mikhail bowed but glanced at Christien. “My honor, my lords,” he quietly remarked as they dismounted.

Christien threw an arm around Josef’s slender shoulders. “I’ve always wondered,” he mused. “Put these two in a room of women and who’d win the most?”

Josef studied them as Duncan and Mikhail automatically glanced at each other with considering glances.

“It would be interesting to watch, I’m sure.” Josef folded his arms across his chest. “But since I don’t know Mikhail all that well, I don’t believe I can really decide.”

“It’s very clear who the winner would be,” Duncan spoke up his dark eyes twinkling. “The ladies would be the winners. And you two would be the most envious.”

Mikhail smiled slightly. “I’ll see to your men and horses,” he said.

Elaina glanced at Starra who had stood next to her. They saw Christien hug the two men and walk with them towards the building where he and Elaina were staying. “It looks like you have guests,” Starra slightly smiled.

“Why don’t you join us?” Elaina invited.

“No, thank you.” Starra declined. “It’s obvious they are friends of Christien’s.”

Elaina sighed wondering why Starra founght against being a part of her family. She sighed again and walked towards her quarters.

She found the three men sitting at the lone table in the middle of the front room. A jug of wine had already been opened. Christien rose and led her to the table where Duncan and Josef quickly stood. “Josef, Duncan...this is Elaina, my wife,” he said proudly. “Elaina, Duncan Lorcan of the Woodlands and Josef Rhyane of Rhyane.”

Elaina noticed the Ranger badges on their jackets and smiled. “The other Rangers you told me about,” she nodded. “I’m honored to meet you.”

“And we are very honored to meet you, Elaina. You’re far more beautiful than I could have imagined.” Duncan smiled as he kissed the back of her hand. “Please accept my personal apologies for missing your wedding.”

Josef grinned. “Don’t mind him, Elaina.” He rescued her hand and bowed over it. “Duncan really can’t help himself.”

“I’ll let you three talk while I prepare the meal,” Elaina tried not to laugh.

“She can cook?” Duncan put a hand over his heart. “My dream woman!”

Christien scowled and smacked Duncan on the shoulder. “My wife,” he reminded him.

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

Elaina had to admit that Duncan was a charming man...almost as charming as Mikhail. Josef was more restrained but had his own brand of charm. Despite the sparseness of their provisions, it was the most enjoyable meal she’d had since being in the encampment.

“Christien told me he trained with the two of you,” Elaina remarked as they finished the meal. “Is that how you met?”

“Actually we met in a brothel,” Duncan answered with a smile.

Josef quickly pounded Christien on the back as he choked on a piece of bread. Elaina pushed a cup of wine towards Christien then smiled at Duncan. “Really? Do tell me more.”

Duncan ignored Christien’s angry look. “Well, actually Josef and I were very young,” he recalled. “Just past fifteen. So, naturally, we looked upon Christien as an experienced man of the world. He was almost eighteen, you see.”

“Duncan,” Christien growled in warning.

“There we were, Josef and I, sitting at a table having a quiet drink, you understand.” Duncan ignored Christien’s warning. “We were trying to decide if we wanted to...well, or just leave. Then...” Duncan sat back in his chair and shook his head. “All of a sudden this fight breaks out. Every chair in the building was flying through the air. And tables were being tossed from one side of the room to the other.”

“It was hardly that much of a fight,” Josef interrupted. “It looked more impressive than it actually was.”

Christien shot Josef an agrieved look. “It was a huge fight,” he corrected him.

“It certainly was,” Duncan nodded. He leaned forward staring into Elaina’s twinkling grey eyes. “Bodies being pummeled every possible way a body can be pummeled. And who’s in the middle of it? Christien, that’s who. And all over one of the brothel girls.”

Elaina saw Christien’s jaw clench. “Was she pretty, Christien?” she asked with a smile.

Christien stared down at his cup. “I don’t remember,” he answered shooting Duncan another angry look.

“Of course, she was beautiful,” Duncan assured Elaina. “Not as beautiful as you, but beautiful. Christien always did have an eye for beautiful women. In fact, I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t with a....”

“Duncan!” Christien roared. He saw both Josef and Elaina trying not to laugh and took a deep breath. “I don’t think Elaina wants to hear anything like that.”

“I don’t?” Elaina murmured looking at Christien from the corner of her eyes.

“How long are you and Duncan planning on staying?” Christien turned to Josef determined to change the subject.

“Just until tomorrow morning.” Josef forced down a laugh. “We’re meeting Stefan and Artur in Shi’ar and traveling on together to the Wastelands. We decided to stop here to see you first.”

“I’m flattered,” Christien muttered draining his cup.

“Then you must excuse me.” Elaina rose. “I’m sure the three of you would like to visit without having to entertain me as well.”

“Oh, please don’t go.” Duncan stood and took her hand. Whispering loudly he added, “I think Christien’s angry with me. He might do me bodily harm if you leave.”

Christien shook his head as Josef chuckled.

“I’m sure you can defend yourself quite well, Duncan.” Elaina patted his hand then offered her hand to Josef. “Good evening.”

“Elaina, thank you for your hospitality,” Josef smiled.

“I won’t be long,” Christien whispered as he kissed her cheek. When Elaina had closed the door to the back room, he sat down and glared at Duncan. “Did you have to tell her that story?”

“Would you have me lie?” Duncan looked aghast. “Did you want me to tell her we met in a chapel while at prayer?”

“Will you be coming back this way?” Christien asked as he opened another bottle of wine.

“I don’t know about Duncan but I probably won’t.” Josef’s hazel eyes darkened. “Father wants me to try and act as mediator between your brother and Axter. By carrying a proposal from Rik to Axter, I can check on Briar as well.”

Duncan and Christien exchanged glances remembering that Josef’s sister, Briar, was married to Thane Axter, heir of Green Hills.

“Do you think it will do any good?” Christien asked quietly.

“No.” Josef shook his head. “But I think Father’s more worried about Briar...and what will happen in we’re drawn into a war.” He glanced at Christien. “Rhyane will support Shi’ar. There’s no question about that. Not even for Briar’s sake could Father support a follower of the Jackal god.”

“Has Axter publicly acknowledged that?” Christien frowned.

“No.” Duncan shook his head. “And he won’t unless he absolutely has to.”

“Do you think Briar has any influence with Axter?” Christien asked.

Josef hesitated. “I don’t know,” he replied heavily. “I don’t know what she’s capable of. I never liked Thane, and I certainly don’t trust him. And I don’t know how much Briar has been influenced by them.”

Christien and Duncan exchanged another look. “Well, there’s no way you’re riding in there alone,” Duncan announced. “I told Father I was going with you if you went into Green Hills.”

“There’s no need, Duncan.” Josef smiled sadly. “I doubt I’ll be in any danger.”

“I have my uses,” Duncan protested lightly. “Maybe I can charm Briar.”

“Good luck,” Josef said sourly. “I think she’s the one woman you never could charm.” He smiled suddenly. “But I do recall she had a soft spot for Christien.”

Christien snorted. “Somehow I don’t think my presence in Green Hills would lead to a peaceful solution.”

Now Josef and Duncan exchanged looks.

“I heard that Elaina’s a healer.” Josef sipped his drink. “Is that why she’s here?”

Christien’s eyes narrowed. “Yes,” he answered. “Why?”

Josef shrugged. “It’s not usual to see women in a military camp,” he answered.

“Actually, there are two of them here,” Christien pointed out. “Elaina and Starra.”

“Father told me how she made that ride to the Woodlands and back to Elhalyn,” Duncan smiled. “I didn’t get back before they left so I missed seeing her. Mother said she looks like Stefan.”

Christien nodded. “Just as stubborn,” he muttered. This time he caught the look exchanged between his two friends. “What is it?” he asked.

Duncan shrugged. “It’s just that given the situation and all,” he glanced at Josef. “Wouldn’t Elaina be safer at Shi’ar?” He braced himself for an exhibition of Aramis temper. To his surprise, Christien merely poured himself another cup of wine.

“She died at Shi’ar. That’s what no one can understand.” Christien’s voice was flat as he drained the cup. “No one can tell me that Stone kept her from dying. I know what a dead body feels like!” He took a deep breath when Josef put a hand on his arm. “I promised to protect her and I wasn’t able to do that. Instead I watched as she shoved that dagger into her own heart.” He irritably shook his head. “She was dead. I don’t care what anyone says.”

“If you say she died, Christien, then she died,” Josef said quietly. “We believe you.”

“No, you don’t.” Christien half-smiled. “But you’re my friends, and you believe that I believe it.” He nodded as Duncan poured more wine into his cup. “I know she shouldn’t be here. She needs to be at Shi’ar with Paolo. But I can’t forget holding her dead body in my arms. And as long as she’s here, I can see that she’s alive.”

“And if the camp is attacked?” Josef pointed out. “The gateway is a mile away.”

“There’s a small gateway in the healer’s building.” Christien shook his head. “Only one person at a time can go through but we could evacuate the wounded...and Elaina...if necessary.”

“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” Duncan grinned sitting back in his chair. “Is there?”

“Morale’s low.” Christien rubbed his hands over his face. “I can’t blame them. I have my wife with me. Most of these men aren’t soldiers. They’re craftsman, engineers, builders. They’d like to have their wives with them.” He shook his head. “Because I have Elaina here, I have to keep more soldiers on duty. Because of the limited provisions, I can’t have as many builders as I need. So, the fortification isn’t being built as quickly as it should. Some of the soldiers are even helping with the building. I think that’s how Mikhail got hurt today.”

“So what do you do?” Josef quietly asked, leaning forward to catch Christien’s eyes.

“Send her home,” Christien muttered. He glanced at Duncan. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“You’re at war, Christien.” Duncan’s voice was low and serious. “Just because Axter hasn’t formally proclaimed it, don’t think you aren’t. Do you want her falling into their hands?”

“No!” Christien’s eyes blazed then he looked away. “Take Elaina to Shi’ar with you tomorrow,” he finally said with a half-smile. “That should make Rik happy at least.”

“Will she go?” Josef asked.

Christien nodded. “She knows I’m being a fool about this. By the Gods! Everyone knows I’m being a fool about this.”

“That’s because you are being a fool about it,” Duncan pointed out. He grinned at Christien’s scowl.

“Do me a favor,” Christien asked after a moment. He uncorked another bottle of wine. “When you’re in Green Hills, if you see a man named Lucas, be careful of him. He’s very dangerous.”

“Mother told me about him,” Duncan nodded. “We will.”

“Stay away from him,” Christien carefully spoke. “I don’t want him harmed if at all possible.” He saw the confused looks on his friends’ faces. “You see, I intend to kill him myself.”

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

Elaina sleepily turned over as Christien sat on the edge of the bed. He pulled off one boot and let it fall to the floor with a thud. Elaina smiled slightly as Christien winced at the noise. “Where are the others?” she softly asked.

“You’re awake.” Christien looked over his shoulder in surprise. “No, I woke you, didn’t I?” He turned back around and jerked off his other boot. “They’re bedded down in the front room.” He tugged at his shirt.

Elaina sat up and helped him pull the shirt over his head. With a groan Christien lay down pulling Elaina next to him. “They’re leaving tomorrow morning,” he murmured nuzzling her forehead.

Elaina smiled at the smell of wine on his breath. “I know.” She patted his chest.

“I want you to go with them.” Christien heavily sighed. “They’re going to Shi’ar to meet Stefan and Artur.”

Elaina raised up on her elbow to look at him. “Why?” she asked.

“Because that’s where you need to be.” Christien’s fingers played with her hair. “Not here. It’s too dangerous.”

“It’s the same as it’s been since we got here,” Elaina pointed out.

Christien nodded. “But Josef and Duncan...and Starra are right,” he took a deep breath. “You aren’t all that safe here. You’ll be safe at Shi’ar...with Rik.”

Elaina smiled. “I’ll tell him you said that,” she promised.

Christien’s smile was faint. “I suppose I shouldn’t have dragged you out here.”

“You didn’t drag me anywhere.” Elaina laid back down and pulled his head onto her breast. “I came because I wanted to.” She gently began stroking his hair as she felt his arm go around her waist. “I can be very stubborn, you know.” She felt Christien relax. A few moments later, she heard him begin to softly snore. But it was hours before she finally fell asleep.

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

“Thank the Goddess we don’t have to ride very far,” Duncan muttered as he finished saddling his horse.

“You shouldn’t have drank so much last night,” Josef pointed out.

“Why is it that you and I can drink the same amount but you never feel the aftereffects?” Duncan demanded. “Even Christien looks awful this morning.”

Josef turned around to see Christien and Elania walking towards them.

“I understand you’re to be my escort today,” Elaina smiled. “I hope you both are feeling well.”

“Just fine,” Josef assured her with a grin. He loudly whispered. “I’ll tell you my secret, Elaina. I never drink as much as they do.”

“He lies,” Duncan muttered. Then he looked past Christien his eyes widening. “Who is that?”

“Who?” Christien turned around and frowned.

“That goddess, of course.” Duncan’s eyes were fixed on Starra who was leading Elaina’s horse towards them. “Is that Starra?”

Christien glanced at Duncan...then at Starra...then back to Duncan. “Yes,” he finally answered.

Josef was also watching Duncan in surprise. Then he looked down to his hands where Duncan had thrust the reins of his horse.

“Allow me.” Duncan walked forward and took the reins of Elaina’s horse from her. “I’m Duncan Lorcan. You must be Starra.”

“That’s right,” Starra slowly nodded. “My honor, Lord Lorcan.”

“Duncan,” Duncan charmingly smiled. “My father is Lord Lorcan.”

Starra nodded a second time while looking past him at Christien who shrugged.

“Do you know you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?” Duncan handed the reins to Christien. “And, believe me, Starra, I’ve seen many many beautiful women.”

“Indeed.” Starra’s eyes narrowed. “You do me a great honor, Lor...Duncan.” She turned to leave. “Have a safe journey, Elaina.”

“I hope you’re not spoken for.” Duncan blocked her way.

Starra took a deep breath. Not only was she at least five winters older than this puppy, she knew she was taller and probably stronger as well. “That would be my business,” she pointed out.

“And mine,” Duncan assured her with a grin. “Because if you are, then I’d have to kill him. And that’s no way to begin our meaningful relationship.”

“Really?” Starra replied coolly. “I believe the others are ready to leave now.”

“I intend to return,” Duncan promised with a smile. “And we will continue this conversation, Starra.” He walked back to Christien and clapped him on the shoulder before mounting his horse.

“Try to talk some sense into him, Josef,” Christien muttered. “She’ll kill him.” He glanced at Starra who was standing, hands on hips, looking at Duncan with a half-amused and half-annoyed expression. “One way or the other, she’ll kill him.”

Josef grinned. “Have either of us ever been able to stop him where a woman’s been concerned?” he asked.

Elaina suddenly realized Christien wasn’t going with them to the gateway. “You’re staying here?” she quietly asked.

“If I came with you to the gateway, I’d probably change my mind,” Christien half-smiled. He quickly kissed her then helped her mount. “Tell Paolo I miss him.”

Elaina started to reply then just nodded.

“Be careful,” Christien called to Josef and Duncan as they rode away. Watching as they rode through the open gates, he felt Starra next to him and looked at her.

“Is he always like that?” Starra asked.

Christien hesitated. “Well, not like that,” he admitted. He took a deep breath. “Don’t kill him, Starra. He’s my friend.”

Starra speculatively studied the riders for several seconds. “We’ll see,” she finally answered.

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

“Damn you, Stefan Aramis!” Devora raged. In frustration, she picked up a unlit candle and threw it at her husband’s head.

Stefan quickly ducked as the candle struck the stone wall behind him and shattered. “Now what did that accomplish?” he asked.

“Don’t you dare try to make this a joke!” Devora seethed. “You’re going to the Wastelands after that whore!”

Stefan’s eyebrows rose. “I’m going to the Wastelands to help Artur negotiate an alliance,” he quietly answered.

“Then why can’t I go with you?” Devora demanded.

“Because this is not a pleasure excursion,” Stefan patiently explained. He carefully belted his sword, carefully eyeing his wife.

“If you’re not going to chase after that whore, there’s no reason I can’t go with you,” Devora pushed. “Christien took Elaina to Elhalyn with him.”

“Christien’s a fool,” Stefan snorted. “And what he does with his wife is his business, not mine.” He pulled himself up to his full height and stared down at Devora. “And Careen’s not a whore.”

“How do you know?” Devora angrily demanded. “Don’t you think I saw how the two of you acted while she was here? Don’t you think I know Simon sent her back to the Wastelands to prevent a scandal?”

Stefan stared at his wife for a few seconds. Devora anxiously tried to read something in his dark eyes.

Stefan casually picked up his traveling pack. “I never liked being pushed,” he firmly spoke. “Don’t ever push me again, Devora.” Without another word, he left their chamber loudly slamming the door behind him.

“I’m warning you, Stefan!” Devora furiously screamed. “Don’t you dare go to her!”

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

“Mama!” Paolo shouted as he ran to where Elaina was dismounting.

Elaina quickly swept her son into her arms smiling as he flung his arms around her neck. “I missed you,” she murmured.

“I missed you, too.” Paolo peered around her then frowned. “Where’s Christien?”

“He couldn’t come right now,” Elaina apologized. “But he said to tell you he misses you.”

Paolo sighed. “He’ll be back soon?” he asked.

“As soon as he possibly can,” Elaina promised. She turned to Josef and Duncan and set the boy on his feet. “Paolo, this is Lord Duncan Lorcan of the Woodlands and Lord Josef Rhyane of Rhyane.” She glanced at Duncan and Josef who were trying not to grin as Paolo quickly adjusted his shirt. “My son, Paolo, Lord of Elhalyn.”

“Greetings, Lord Paolo.” Josef bowed from the saddle.

Paolo’s eyes were caught by the colorful banners of Rhyane and the Woodlands. “Are those yours?” he asked. He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder and remembered his manners. “Welcome, Lord Josef...Lord Duncan.”

Duncan glanced over his shoulder at the banners. “Pretty banners, aren’t they?” he grinned.

“Mama, where’s my ban...” Paolo turned to look at his mother.

“Later, Paolo,” Elaina quickly interrupted. “Lord Duncan and Lord Josef are leaving with your uncles and don’t have time to talk.”

Paolo nodded then noticed the badges on their jackets. “Rangers!” he shouted. “You’re Rangers like Christien!”

“That’s right,” Josef nodded with a smile.

“He’s the best Ranger!” Paolo confided.

“Paolo!” Elaina remonstrated. She ignored Paolo’s look of confusion. “He meant no disrespect to either of you.”

“But all I said was...” Paolo tried to explain.

“Hush!” Elaina ordered looking down at her son.

“No offense taken, Elaina.” Duncan was obviously trying not to laugh out loud.

“He could be right, you know,” Josef grinned.

“Elaina!” Rik’s voice boomed as he joined them. He gave her a quick hug. “I’m surprised to see you back here.”

“Christien insisted,” Elaina quietly assured him. She saw his eyes widen uncertainly. “He knows I’m safe here.”

Rik’s eyes lightened as he smiled. “Then I suppose he’s not angry at me anymore,” he whispered. He nodded not waiting for Elaina’s reply. “Good. He’s not a pleasant person to be around when he’s angry.” He stepped around Elaina to where Josef and Duncan waited. “I’m Rik Aramis, Lord of Shi’ar,” he announced. “From the looks of you, I’d say you’re Duncan Lorcan.” He pointed at Duncan. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like your father when he was young?”

“Several people,” Duncan admitted with a grin. “Mostly older women who sigh with longing for days gone by.”

Rik roared with laughter. “And you must be Josef Rhyane,” he turned to Josef.

“Lord Rik, it’s an honor.” Josef bowed his head in greeting. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Christien.”

Rik’s eyes quickly scanned Josef for some resemblance to his parents but found none. Then he grinned. “Now that sounded like Kathlyna,” he said. “How is your mother? Still making your father crazy?”

“Every day of his life,” Josef admitted with a grin.

Rik glanced over his shoulder as Artur and Stefan stopped their horses next to them. “My other brothers, Artur and Stefan Aramis,” he said. “This is Duncan Lorcan and Josef Rhyane.”

The four men looked at each other carefully and nodded.

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Artur promised. He gave Stefan a warning look that intrigued Duncan.

Rik watched anxiously as they rode down the hill towards the gateway. ‘There are so many things that could go wrong,' he thought. It would be much easier if everyone would just cooperate with him.

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

“Welcome to Dedrisia.” Simon welcomed them at the gates of walled city. He saw Artur openly gasping as he breathed the hot dry air. “You’ll get used to the heat soon,” he promised.

Duncan dismounted and gawked at the mushroom-shaped towers of Dedresia. “I’m sorry,” he finally apologized after Josef hit him in the back. “But I never expected a city like this.”

“Yes, most people expect squalid little tents,” Simon admitted. “Please follow me. These men will stable your horses.”

They casually walked through a marketplace that rivaled Elhalyn’s in its glory. By the time they reached the palace, they were all drenched with sweat. Simon smiled to himself and showed them to their quarters. Despite their desert surroundings, it was obvious that Dedrisia had an abundant supply of water. The city was too large to flourish without it.

“Please, rest and refresh yourselves,” Simon invited. “We’ll eat later.”

“The old man’s not even sweating,” Josef grumbled to Duncan.

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

The sun was halfway to the horizon when Eldrin decided to meet his fate. “I’ll send for them now,” he told Ana. “That way, if there are any problems, hopefully we can correct them before the negotiations begin.”

“I’ll get them,” Ana offered.

“It’s not necessary,” Eldrin protested.

“There is a chance they won’t know,” Ana suggested.

Slowly Eldrin shook his head. “Stefan might not,” he admitted. “But Artur will. Probably from the beginning.”

Ana gently kissed his cheek and left. She silently prayed to the Prophet for understanding as she slowly walked through the palace. When she stood before one particular door, she took a several deep breaths, then gently rapped on a door.

Stefan opened the door and grinned. “Hello,” he smiled appreciating the beautiful woman dressed in white.

Ana smiled back. Stepping into the room, she used every bit of charm she possessed. “I am Ana, wife to Eldrin,” she introduced herself. “I believe you’re Stefan Aramis?”

“That’s right.” Stefan closed the door looking curiously at Artur. “This is my brother, Artur.”

“We’re honored.” Artur bowed his head. <> “My husband would like to meet with you and your brother now, if possible,” Ana smiled.

Artur hesitated. “Shi’ar will not negotiate without Rhyane and the Woodlands,” he cautioned.

“This is not about negotiations,” Ana slightly frowned. “This is a personal matter.”

“Personal?” Artur also frowned.

“I’m afraid I cannot say more,” Ana apologized although she looked as though she wanted to say much more. “If you will come with me.”

Shrugging, Artur nodded. He and Stefan followed Ana down an endless maze of corridors. She gently tapped on a door. A man’s voice gently called for them to enter. Again, Ana looked like she wanted to speak. Instead, she opened the door and motioned for them to enter.

Slowly Eldrin turned around. He motioned for Ana to leave but she quietly closed the door and leaned against it.

“It can’ can’t be...” Artur looked stunned.

Stefan stared at his brother in concern. “What is it?”

“Trainor?” Artur took two steps forward then stopped. “But you’re...”

“Dead?” Eldrin sadly smiled. “No, Uncle Artur. I’m alive. But my name is Eldrin now.”

“Trainor?” Artur put his hands on Eldrin’s shoulders. He stared into Eldrin’s dark eyes...eyes as dark as Stefan and Starra’s. “Trainor,” he slowly nodded. Suddenly he drew back his fist and hit Eldrin in the jaw with all his strength.


Feedback appreciated!