CHAPTER THIRTEEN





“We should reach Elhalyn by this evening,” Artur surmised. He glanced down in front of him trying to read Adriana’s expression.

“You’re worried about Christien,” she replied.

Artur shrugged. “Apparently, Christien’s looking more for Careen’s help than mine,” he snapped.

“Careen has magic,” Adriana logically pointed out. She tried to stay erect and not lean back against Artur. “If he has a problem where he needs magic, why would it upset you that he would ask Careen for assistance and not you?”

“I’m not upset!” Artur’s voice raised slightly. He automatically glanced over his shoulder at Stefan and Careen then looked back at Adriana. “You know how I feel about that woman,” he said in a low voice.

“I know,” Adriana quietly replied. She automatically squeezed his wrist. “I suppose we’ll go on to Shi’ar?”

“Probably for the best,” Artur agreed. “Whatever Christien wants Careen for, Stefan can stay around to watch.” He frowned. “I’d like to talk to Rik and see what’s wrong there.”

“I can go on to Dedresia from Shi’ar,” Adriana said after a moment. “Lord Rik will probably need you at Shi’ar.”

“What will you do at Dedresia?” Artur frowned.

Adriana shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m not certain,” she admitted. “All my life, I’ve trained to use magic. I certainly don’t know how to cook or sew...or anything else a woman traditionally does.”

Artur suddenly grinned. Then he chuckled as Adriana suddenly turned her head in his direction as though reading his mind. She reddened slightly and turned back around.

“I need to find something useful,” Adriana continued. “I can’t see myself sitting idly in a corner.”

“Stay at Shi’ar,” Artur suddenly proposed. “Gwen and Devora could help you. It would probably do Devora good...to be able to help someone rather than be miserable.”

“You expect me to be someone’s project?” Adriana coolly asked.

Artur grunted. “Don’t read anything into what I say,” he advised. He glanced up at the early morning sun. “We’ll decide what to do once we reach Shi’ar.”

Adriana stared to speak but was interrupted by a sudden shout of warning from Stefan.

Artur looked around automatically drawing his sword. He paused for a moment in surprise seeing Stefan battling with one of their own men. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Careen struggling with another man. Two of the guards were lying motionless on the ground.

“Stay relaxed!” Artur barked in Adriana’s ear. He wrapped his left arm securely around her and used his knees to wheel his horse around to meet one of the soldiers attacking him.

Adriana heard the clang of swords and sounds of battle. She instinctively raised her hand to create a magic missile only to remember her magic had disappeared. She flinched feeling the whistle of a sword past her ear. She heard a grunt and then the sound of someone falling from a horse.

“Artur!” she cried out even as she felt his arm staying securely around her waist.

“Not now!” Artur barked kicking his horse forward.

Stefan whirled his horse around getting under his opponent’s guard. With a loud laugh, he swung his huge sword nearly decapitating his opponent. He looked around seeing that Careen had managed to kick her way free. He whistled loudly getting the man’s attention as Careen formed a fiery missile. It flew from her hand and struck her attacker in the chest. He screamed and fell to the ground.

He turned to see Artur charging into the other melee. One of the men defending them lay on the ground. His opponent looked up startled to see Artur almost upon him. Stefan loudly cursed wondering why Artur would do such a thing with Adriana on the horse in front of him. Before he could more forward, Careen had spun around sending another missile towards their final opponent.

The man quickly ducked and rushed towards her. Stefan rode between them thrusting his sword into the man’s chest. The man gurgled blood gushing from his mouth as he fell to the ground. Stefan glanced over to find their final attacker slumping to the ground.

Careen slid off her horse and ran to where one of their defenders lay gasping on the ground. Their other defender lay on the ground obviously dead.

“Are you insane?” Stefan yelled at Artur. “You could have gotten her killed!”

Artur ignored Stefan as he cautiously looked around. “What happened?” he demanded.

“I need the red bag on my horse,” Careen called. She glanced at Stefan. “Now! He needs some healing.”

“They just turned on us,” Stefan explained as he found the bag Careen wanted. He tossed it to her then slowly dismounted. He walked over and reached for Adriana. “You can get down now,” he gently told her.

Artur held onto Adriana’s arm as his brother helped her down. As he dismounted, he looked at one of their attackers. “He’s from Shi’ar,” his voice grated.

“The rest are from Elhalyn,” Stefan quickly identified. When Adriana touched his arm, he turned back around.

“Take me to Careen,” she requested. “Perhaps I can help her.” Stefan led her to Careen where she knelt next to her. “What can I do?” she asked.

Artur’s eyes narrowed dangerously as he saw the sardonic look Careen gave Adriana.

Careen took a deep breath and reached for Adriana’s hand. “Here,” she ordered. “Keep pressing on the wound while I get a bandage.”

Adriana shivered as she felt warm blood running across her fingers.

Stefan glanced at Artur. “Christien was concerned about some of the refugees being infiltrators,” he said. “I can understand how that could happen. But one of ours from Shi’ar?”

Artur cursed under his breath. “A wizard tracked us into the mountains,” he recalled. “Someone from Dedresia, Elhalyn, or Shi’ar must have known where we were going.” He grunted. “I told Adriana the information didn’t come from Elhalyn or Shi’ar.”

“Guess you might have been wrong,” Stefan frowned. He ignored Artur’s scowl and walked over to Careen. “How is he?” he asked.

“He might live if we get to Elhalyn quick enough,” Careen looked up. “That means magic. But the process of getting him there might kill him.” She shrugged seeing Artur approach.

“We need to let Rik and Christien know we’ve got traitors in the ranks,” Artur decided. “Use the magic.”

“Get the horses,” Careen told Stefan. She rose and walked to one of the men who’d attacked them. Reaching down, she began pulling at his clothing.

“What are you doing?” Artur roared as he helped Adriana to her feet. He felt her jump startled at his voice.

“There.” Careen pointed to the man’s lower stomach. Stefan looked down and saw what appeared to be a tattoo of a double helix. Careen kicked the dead man’s leg. “Sealed to the Jackal,” she snarled.

“So we let you strip everyone to see if they have this mark?” Stefan’s eyes twinkled.

Artur grunted and turned away convinced Stefan was an idiot sometimes. He led Adriana back to his horse noticing the blood on her hands. “Don’t touch anything,” he advised reaching for his waterskin.

Adriana shivered as the cold water splashed over his hands. “Well, I know I won’t be a healer,” she shakily smiled. “I never realized how sticky blood is.” She rubbed her hands against the folds of her cloak.

Slowly Artur pulled her into his arms. He felt her trembling and was suddenly aware of how fragile she now seemed. “I told you I wouldn’t allow you to be hurt,” he tried to joke. He felt her hands close around his jacket and pulled her closer.

“I feel so helpless,” Adriana hissed.

“It will pass,” Artur rubbed her back. “Until then, I’ll take care of things.”

“I’m used to taking of myself!” Adriana snapped suddenly pulling away. “I don’t like having to rely on someone else!”

Artur grinned. “That’s better,” he replied. “I prefer it when you snap and bark.”

Adriana glared in the direction of his voice.

“We need to go now,” Stefan called interrupting her.

Adriana stiffened when Artur took her arm but allowed him to lead her to where the others waited. “How close can you get us?” she asked Careen.

“Probably close to the gateway,” Careen guessed. “That puts us within a mile of Elhalyn.”

Artur took a deep breath as Careen raised her hands. Just before the countryside disappeared, he realized Adriana was holding onto his arm with both hands.

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My angel. Although the fates conspire to keep us apart, I hold you in my heart. I count the days until I once again will be blessed to gaze upon your beauty. Forever your devoted servant.

Starra carefully refolded the message that had once again appeared under her door during the night. She had eliminated both Levi and Mikhail as Duncan’s messenger. That left Paolo and Christien...neither of whom she could challenge.

She muttered under her breath as she carefully put the message with the others. For the last three mornings, a different message had appeared. She hoped Duncan had had the intelligence to write the messages out and have Paolo deliver them one at a time. She hoped Duncan hadn’t been stupid enough to give them to Christien.

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“I’d really like to know where you and Paolo disappear to before dawn every morning,” Elaina murmured in Christien’s ear as she set a plate of breadcakes in front of him.

Christien’s eyes slightly widened as he glanced at her. “Nothing important,” he murmured in return. “Actually, Paolo and I were hoping to keep that quiet.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Elaina promised in a low voice. She turned to Paolo who was snickering under his breath at something Levi had said. “Hurry up and eat,” she advised. “The troop will want to leave as early as possible for Shi’ar.”

Paolo looked pleadingly at Christien. “Do I really have to go?” he asked.

“We’ve talked about this,” Christien reminded him. “It’s better if you go.”

Paolo sighed dramatically then looked at Levi. “You’ll like Shiloh and Trainor and Jaella and Cheyne,” he promised. “They’re fun.”

Levi looked at the table of food then pleadingly up at Elaina. “They’ll feed me, won’t they?” he asked.

“Gwen will make sure you get fed,” Elaina smiled. “Besides, you’re Guardian of the Lord of Elhalyn. You have to go with Paolo.”

Elaina heard Christien muttering something about Levi’s title but chose to ignore it.

“I wish Uncle Artur and Uncle Stefan would come back,” Paolo pouted as he guzzled his milk. “I want to see them.”

“You will,” Christien assured him with a forced smile.

Elaina worriedly glanced at Christien. Ever since Lucas had tried to fool Paolo, he’d been staying up nights to keep watch. She’d managed to get him to sleep some during the day so he wasn’t quite as exhausted as he had been. But no one could ignore the worried look that was becoming more and more pronounced as each day passed with no word from either Stefan or Artur.

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“I don’t care what Levi says about being Guardian of the Lord of Elhalyn,” Christien muttered to Starra. “You make sure Paolo gets to Rik in one piece.”

Starra absently nodded. “I’d appreciate it if you would keep an eye on my quarters,” she evenly requested. “It seems someone’s been prowling around in the early hours of the morning.”

“Really?” Christien frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

Starra stared at Christien for a moment then shrugged. “I’ll find out who it is,” she promised. “But I’ll make sure Paolo gets to Shi’ar safely. In fact, he can ride with me.” Before Christien could say anything, she walked over to Paolo.

Christien half-smiled. It was fun while it lasted. He knew Starra would find out they’d put the messages from Duncan under her door. Paolo wouldn’t intend to confess but there was no way he could lie under Starra’s questioning. He realized from the worried look on Paolo’s face that the boy was afraid of accidentally revealing Duncan’s secret.

“Don’t worry,” Christien whispered as he hugged Paolo. “Go ahead and tell Starra if she asks. I accidentally let her know something. So we’ll tell Duncan it’s my fault.”

Paolo nodded in relief. “When can I come back?” he asked.

“Soon, I hope,” Christien admitted. “I’m counting on you to keep an eye on your Uncle Rik and Aunt Gwen for me.”

“I promise,” Paolo somberly nodded before running to kiss his mother.

“Don’t interrogate Paolo,” Christien told Starra with a smile. “I’ve been leaving the messages under your door for Duncan. Paolo was just helping me.”

Starra studied him for a moment. “More likely Duncan got Paolo to do it and you’re protecting him,” she decided.

“Now why would I protect Duncan?” Christien grinned.

Starra shook her head. “I’ll deal with Duncan,” she promised.

“Can I watch?” Christien’s eyes twinkled.

Starra glared at him for a moment then turned to Mikhail. “I’ll be back either tonight or in the morning,” she advised.

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“I’ll kill him,” Gwen muttered under her breath.

Fawn smiled to herself as she followed Gwen up the stairs. “I’m certain Lord Rik didn’t want to alarm you,” she proposed.

Gwen snorted. “He’s seriously ill and doesn’t want to alarm me?” she muttered. “I knew something was wrong, but he kept denying it.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I put it down to worry about Artur.”

“Still no word?” Fawn frowned.

Gwen shook her head. “I wondered why Rik insisted that only Devora or I prepare the meals,” she mused. “He should have told me.”

“No one seems to be ill?” Fawn asked.

“No,” Gwen shook her head. “I’ve been supposing he was fighting an illness. Not poison.” She opened the door to their chambers. “Rik! Fawn’s here.”

Gwen glanced at Fawn when no one answered. The two women quickly walked towards the bedchamber. “Rik!” Gwen called out shoving the door open. She froze in the doorway seeing Rik lying unconscious on the floor.

Fawn brushed past her kneeling next to him. “He’s alive,” Fawn quickly announced. “Help me get him onto the bed.”

Gwen bit her lip when she heard Rik’s labored breathing. She brushed his hair back from his forehead. “He’s burning up,” she murmured to Fawn.

“I need a messenger to go to Dedresia,” Fawn quickly. “Eldrin can’t and musn’t be allowed to come. Tell him to send Rosslyn to me.”

“I’ll send the messenger immediately,” Gwen nodded. “Then I’ll send one to Christien.”

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“I’ll be glad to get home,” Duncan grumbled stretching painfully in the saddle. “A nice hot bath...sleeping in my own bed...”

Josef chuckled. “You’re always thinking about your own comforts,” he teased.

Duncan shrugged. “If I don’t, who will?” he asked. “I hope Careen got back to Elhalyn and was able to help Christien.”

Josef nodded. “I hope nothing happened to Artur and Adriana,” he added. “I can’t get over how ill Lord Rik looked.”

“Well, he is a lot older than we are,” Duncan casually pointed out.

“He’s about the same age as our parents,” Josef argued. “He looked ill.”

“Well, obviously Christien didn’t know about it,” Duncan offered. “He would have mentioned it.”

“Could be they’re keeping it from him,” Josef reasoned.

“I’d hate to be the person who made that decision,” Duncan stretched again. “I’ll be glad to get home.”

“Looks like you’ll get your wish soon,” Josef pointed. “There’s the gateway.”

“And Father’s guards,” Duncan grinned. “Wonder how Christien would like it if he knew a troop of Woodlands soldiers was inside his borders?”

“I doubt it’s something high on the list of his priorities right now,” Josef shrugged. He squinted as they came closer. “Do you recognize any of them?” He pointed at the men huddled around a fire.

“I see Foxe,” Duncan nodded raising his hand in greeting. He glanced over at Josef. “You worry too much.” He grinned as Foxe reached out to take the reins of his horse. “How are things at home?”

“I’m sorry, my Lord.” Foxe reached out and pulled Duncan from his horse.

Josef yelled a warning as the men around the fire suddenly rose to their feet, swords drawn.

Duncan rolled at he hit the ground. “Josef!” he yelled.

Josef turned his horse to see Duncan throwing him the Topaz of Greed. He easily caught the Stone then whirled his horse, heading across country.

Duncan grunted as Foxe kicked him in the side of the head. As he fell on the ground, he tried to reach his sword. Another well-aimed kick in the stomach drove the breath from his lungs. Dazedly he saw one of the soldiers aim a crossbow at Josef and fire. The arrow flew through the air and lodged in Josef’s back.

Duncan screamed as he felt a sword thrust into his back. As he fell forward, he dimly saw Josef falling from his horse.

Lucas carefully withdrew his sword from Duncan’s. He casually wiped the sword on Duncan’s cloak cleaning it of his blood. He glanced at one of his men. “Go get it,” he ordered.

Foxe licked his lips as two of the soldiers ran to where Josef lay. “I did what you wanted,” he stammered. “You said you’d let me live.”

“Yes, I did,” Lucas smiled. “And you lived up to your part of the bargain.” He nodded. “I suggest you get as far away from here as you can. I don’t think you could explain any of this.”

Foxe nodded and turned around. When he did, Lucas thrust his sword forward spearing Foxe. As the man slowly pitched forward, a startled look on his face, Lucas pulled his sword free. “A man who’d betray one master would betray another,” he quietly commented. As he cleaned his sword on Foxe’s pants, he shrugged. “Besides, you’d only get caught.” He turned as one of the men approached him.

“He’s still alive,” the man reported as he handed the Stone to Lucas.

Lucas smiled as he stared at the Stone. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he mused. He tossed it in the air and then put it into an inner pocket. “Leave them,” he ordered. “I’ll destroy the gateway. Their wounds and exposure should kill them.” He laughed. “That way, I can truthfully tell the good Lords of Rhyane and Woodlands that I didn’t kill their sons.”

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Starra sharply reined in her horse as they approached the gateway. The air around the gateway seemed to shimmer ominously. Drawing her sword, she quickly ordered her troop to surround the horse where Paolo and Levi sat.

Paolo squirmed around trying to see through the bodies around him. “What is it?” he demanded.

Starra glanced at him in irritation then looked back at the gateway. “Artur!” she shouted seeing him appear.

“Uncle Artur!” Paolo kicked his horse forward only to find it blocked by Starra’s stallion.

“Stop that!” Starra demanded immediately silencing the boy. Motioning for the others to stay where they were, she rode forward.

Artur looked up automatically drawing his sword. He relaxed when he saw Starra approaching. He glanced to where Careen knelt next to the wounded man. He saw her look at Stefan and shake her head. “The shock killed him,” she murmured standing up. She shook off Stefan’s hand on her shoulder.

“Where are the others?” Starra demanded.

“Dead,” Artur snapped. “Some of them attacked us.”

Starra stared at him for a moment. “Two of those men were from Shi’ar,” she flatly announced.

“One of them attacked us,” Artur repeated. He ignored Starra’s muttered curses. “Where are you going?”

“Taking Paolo to Shi’ar,” Starra turned around. “Christien can explain why.” She ordered one of her men to take the body back to Elhalyn.

“We’ll ride to Elhalyn,” Stefan told her. He waved to Paolo who grinned at him. “We may be in Shi’ar later today.”

Artur hesitated then turned to Adriana. “Do you want to go with them?” he quietly asked. “I need to speak with Christien.”

Adriana hesitated. “I’d prefer to stay with you,” she slowly replied. “I feel comfortable with you.” She hesitated again. “I’d only get in their way.”

Artur carefully patted her shoulder. “Good,” he brusquely nodded. He turned to Starra. “Warn Rik and be careful!” he barked.

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

“Christien!” Elaina called throwing open the door to their bedchamber. She frowned as she saw his eyes fly open and his hand immediately reach for his sword. “Artur and Stefan are back!”

Christien slowly relaxed groggily shaking his head. “Alone?” he asked getting to his feet.

“Careen and Adriana are with them,” Elaina slowly answered. “No one else,” she added when Christien quickly looked at her.

Christien muttered under his breath as he brushed past her buckling on his sword. Outside, he saw Artur carefully helping Adriana from his horse. He glanced at Stefan who had tossed the reins of his horse to a nearby soldier. “I’m glad you’re back,” Christien greeted. “But where are the others?”

“Two of the soldiers attacked us,” Stefan quietly answered. He glanced around and saw Mikhail. He called his name and motioned him to join them. “The other two died in the fight.”

“Move, Christien,” Artur snapped leading Adriana forward.

Christien automatically moved frowning as he saw Adriana’s outstretched hand. “This way, Adriana,” he reached for her.

“How are you, Christien?” Adriana greeted him as she stepped inside.

“I think the question should be how are you?” Christien asked glancing at Artur.

“We retrieved the Stone,” she quietly answered. “But I lost both my magic and my sight.”

Christien looked at the others in stunned silence as Adriana sat down. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. He uncomfortably looked at the others. “What do you mean some of my men attacked you?”

“Just that,” Stefan answered. “Including two from Shi’ar.”

“Sealed to the Jackal,” Careen added as Mikhail joined them. She glanced at Stefan who nodded. “I saw the marks myself.”

“We saw Starra at the gateway,” Artur absently rubbed Adriana’s shoulder. “I told her to let Rik know.”

“You need to look for this type of mark on each man,” Stefan drew the symbol on the table. When Mikhail nodded, Careen irritably rubbed the table as though erasing the mark. “You don’t just leave a symbol like that,” she explained.

“I’ll do it now,” Mikhail promised. He gave Christien a look then left.

“You need to rest and eat,” Elaina advised. “Christien, you can explain to Careen what’s been going on.”

Christien uncomfortably shrugged as both Artur and Stefan looked at him. “There have been nightmares,” he began. “Then Lucas actually was here...looking like me.” He took a deep breath. “I wasn’t able to command. Right now Mikhail and Starra are commanding the garrison. That’s why I sent Paolo to Shi’ar.” He suddenly grinned. “Lucas tried to fool Paolo but didn’t.”

“Nightmares?” Artur snorted.

Christien angrily flushed. He started to speak but Adriana interrupted him.

“How alert could you be if you were deprived of sleep?” Adriana reasoned. She awkwardly reached up to touch his arm.

“Typically Lucas,” Careen’s eyes narrowed. “He likes to play games.”

“It’s not a game!” Christien shouted. He took a deep breath and lowered his voice. “I don’t see...”

“Lucas plays with people,” Careen interrupted. “But in a case like this, he can only take whatever power you give him.” When Christien glared at him, she continued. “If he comes to you in a dream, it’s still your dream. You control it. If he shows you something, change it.” She shrugged. “Eventually, he’ll realize you aren’t going to play; and he’ll quit.”

“It was a good idea on Lucas’ part,” Adriana reasoned. “Christien doubts what he sees and hears. If he hadn’t relieved himself of command, who knows what would be happening now? Especially with some of the Jackal’s people already here.”

“Good decision,” Stefan grinned at his brother.

“Josef and Duncan didn’t give me much of a choice,” Christien admitted.

“When was Lucas here last?” Careen asked.

“Two nights ago,” Elaina answered. “That’s when he tried to trick Paolo.”

Careen slowly shook her head. “If Lucas is impersonating you, he could order the garrison to do something foolish,” she reasoned.

“I know,” Christien nodded. “But I also reasoned that he might impersonate Mikhail.”

“Possible,” Careen admitted. “But there’s a limit even to Lucas’ abilities.” She glanced at Christien. “For some reason, he doesn’t like you very much.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Artur snapped.

Careen shrugged. “Lucas doesn’t do anything on impulse,” she answered. “There’s always a reason. I just wonder what it might be.” She glanced at Adriana. “I think the Stone of Truth should remain here.”

Christien groaned. “Not another one,” he mumbled. “I just got rid of one.”

“What?” Stefan demanded.

“Josef, Duncan, and Starra brought back the Stone of Greed from Green Hills,” Christien explained. “Duncan and Josef left a couple of days ago taking it to Woodlands.”

“This one might help,” Adriana slowly nodded. “Lucas is using an illusion to look like you. The Stone would destroy that illusion.”

“Except I don’t have magic to use it,” Christien pointed out.

“Lucas does,” Careen nodded to herself. “He’d trigger it if he used his magic in any way within a mile of you, including creating an illusion.”

“And I could use a counter command to confirm all orders,” Christien bit his lip in thought. “As long as I’d keep that command confined to a few people.”

Artur removed the Stone from his inner pocket and tossed it to Christien. “Looks like you get it,” he smiled.

Christien ruefully looked at the Stone then pocketed it. “I’ll get it mounted in a bracer,” he decided. “In the meantime, I want to see what Mikhail’s found.”

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Jamie Lorcan studied the dead bodies in front of him. Six good men...dead...some slain from behind. But there should have been seven....

“Foxe is missing,” Daneel Thorne reported. “And there are tracks heading northeast.”

“Towards Elhalyn?” Jamie’s eyes narrowed. After a moment, he pointed to one of his men. “Advise Lady Maire we probably won’t be back tonight. And have her put the Castle on guard.”

The man quickly saluted and rode off.

“What do you think?” Daneel asked as they, too, mounted.

“I think a group of men, with Woodlands badges’, are riding into Elhalyn,” Jamie muttered. “I don’t like that. Not at all.”

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“My Lady,” Starra greeted Gwen as they rode up.

“Aunt Gwen!” Paolo shouted jumping off his horse. He ran to her and gave her a tight hug. “This is Levi!”

“You’re all welcome,” Gwen said quietly. “Paolo, take Levi upstairs. The other children are in the playroom.”

Starra noticed Gwen’s distracted air. As Paolo dragged Levi up the stairs, she quietly asked what was wrong.

Gwen hesitated then told Starra of Rik’s illness. “Fawn and another healer named Rosslyn are with him,” she said. “I need to get back in there.” She looked up the stairs to see Devora watching. After a moment, Devora turned around and disappeared up the stairs. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” Gwen irritably remarked. “She’s refused to help. She won’t even come out of her chamber.”

“Artur and Stefan are at Elhalyn,” Starra turned back to her horse. “They arrived just as I was leaving. I’ll get them here.”

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“Mikhail found about a half dozen men,” Artur grumbled. “I can’t believe Christien just let Careen...make them disappear.”

“She didn’t make them disappear,” Adriana tried not to smile. She gently squeezed his hand. “She just sent them somewhere else. Probably into the high mountains.” When Artur snorted, she looked up at him. “Would you have preferred she kill them in cold blood?”

“You always defend her,” Artur snapped.

“And I defend you to her,” Adriana pointed out.

“Don’t bother,” Artur shrugged. “I don’t care about her opinion.”

Christien noticed the two of them standing close together as he, Stefan, and Careen walked back towards his quarters. He glanced at Stefan. “What happened in the mountains?” he asked.

Stefan grinned. “Ask him,” he advised.

Christien shook his head. He saw Artur glower at Elaina who had joined them. “No, I don’t think so,” he decided. He suddenly spun around as the guards at the gate yelled for the gate to be opened. He felt his heart lurch as he saw Starra galloping through the gate. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Artur and Elaina running towards her as well.

“Is Paolo safe?” Christien demanded grabbing the reins of her horse.

“Yes,” Starra panted slowly dismounting. “He’s at Shi’ar.” She glanced up as Artur and Elaina joined them.

“Paolo’s safe,” Christien murmurred to Elaina who had grabbed his arm.

“Rik is very ill,” Starra said in a low voice. “There are two healers there from Dedresia. Fawn and Rosslyn.” She hesitated. “Lady Gwen asked you get to Shi’ar as quickly as possible.”

Stefan spun around shouting for their horses.

“No!” Careen shouted at him.

“This isn’t your affair!” Artur yelled.

Stefan bristled as Careen stared at Artur. “Fine, everyone go riding though the gateway,” she hissed. “You think Green Hills might not have spies watching the gateway?” Artur’s face darkened as she laughed. “Why not let everyone ride out?”

“Enough!” Christien harshly ordered. “She’s right, Artur!” He turned to Starra. “Let Mikhail know what’s going on. He’s in command.” He turned to Careen. “Can your magic get them to Shi’ar?”

“To the gateway,” Careen nodded.

“The rest of you go with Careen,” Christien ordered. “In a few hours, Starra and I will ride out. We’ll create the illusion the rest of you are still here.”

Starra grinned and walked away. ‘He sounds like he’s feeling better.’

Artur spun around walking back towards Adriana.

Stefan slowly nodded. “It might work,” he conceded.

“I’ll stay here,” Elaina offered. She shook her head when Christien started to argue. “One of us needs to be here.”

Christien took a deep breath. “Not alone,” he ordered. After a moment’s hesitation, he frowned. “I’ll have Mikhail stay with you.”

Elaina’s eyes twinkled. “That should be interesting,” she murmured. When Christien glared at her, she added, “I hear he has a very nice singing voice.” Her eyes widened when Christien’s hand squeezed hers. She leaned forward and gently kissed his lips. “Let me know about Rik,” she requested.

“Artur, what’s going on?” Adriana asked as he approached.

“How did you know it was me?” Artur snapped.

“Your walk,” Adriana half-smiled. “I heard you approaching.” She shrugged. “You have a very distinctive walk.”

Artur snorted. “Rik’s very ill,” he quickly explained. “Christien has some ridiculous plan to have Careen use her magic...”

“Of which you disapprove,” Adriana smiled.

“...to get us to Shi’ar without anyone knowing,” Artur continued. Then he glared at her.

“If you’re giving me an angry look, it’s quite wasted,” Adriana pointed out. She tensed slightly hearing others approach. “Are all of you going?”

“I’m staying,” Elaina quietly said. “You’re welcome to stay with me.”

Slowly Adriana nodded. “I think I will,” she admitted. “I can’t be of any use at Shi’ar.”

“Suit yourself,” Artur muttered as he entered the building.

“He’s just worried about Rik,” Christien said uncomfortably.

“I understand,” Adriana nodded although she slightly frowned. She turned to go inside the building and stumbled slightly.

Christien immediately caught her arm to keep her from falling.

“Thank you,” Adriana flushed. Inside, she pulled away from Christien then looked around uncertainly.

“Here,” Artur gently took her arm and led her to a chair. He hesitated as she sat then leaned over her. “Are you sure you want to stay here?”

“I’m just as helpless here as I would be at Shi’ar...or Dedresia,” Adriana bitterly replied. “It doesn’t seem to make a difference where I stay.”

“It does to me,” Artur told her. “But you do as you think best.”

“I’ll stay with Elaina,” Adriana said after a moment. “She shouldn’t be alone.” She lightly touched Artur’s arm. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Artur frowned.

“For reminding me that I didn’t lose my intelligence as well,” Adriana looked in his direction.

“I just told you the truth,” Artur grumbled. He turned around seeing Stefan and Careen come in. “Well? What are we waiting for?”

Christien reached in his pocket and slipped the Stone of Truth into Elaina’s hands. “Keep this,” he whispered. He shook his head to prevent her from speaking. “I’ll be with the others. You might need it.” He turned to the others. “Starra and I will be along in about an hour.”

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

Eldrin paced around the conference table. Every so often he would stop and look out the window. Then he would begin pacing again.

Simon eyed him sympathetically. “I’m sure you’ll get word about him soon,” he advised.

“I should be there,” Eldrin fumed. “I’ve done everything asked of me, Simon! Everything!” He forced his hands to unclench. “I can help him. You know that.”

“You would not survive long enough to help him,” Simon pointed out with concern.

“I know,” Eldrin laughed harshly. “That’s the only reason I’m still here.” He glared at Simon. “He’s my father!”

“And Adriana is my granddaughter!” Simon answered back.

“I’m sorry,” Eldrin said after a moment. He looked back out the window.

“I understand,” Simon answered with a sigh. “All we can do is wait.”

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

“What in the name of the Seven Rings are you doing out here!” Jamie Lorcan loudly demanded.

Maire Lorcan stared up at him. “What do you think I’m doing?” she demanded equally loudly. “I intend to look for my son!”

“What makes you think Duncan’s involved?” Jamie reached down to help her onto his horse.

“Because he sent a message that he would be back soon,” Maire settled in front of Jamie. “And you think it’s about him as well so don’t start lecturing me, Jamie Lorcan!”

Jamie took a deep breath. “Who’s in charge at home?” he asked.

“Archer,” Maire smiled mentioning Jamie’s chief warlord.

Jamie silently nodded. “It’ll do for a while,” he admitted. “Then you’re going back.”

“We’ll see,” Maire calmly replied. “We must be close to the Elhalyn border. I had an awful time finding you.”

“Close,” Jamie agreed. “The tracks aren’t even hidden.”

“None of them expected to be followed,” Daneel pointed out. “It was luck that we happened upon those bodies.”

“Wonderful thing, luck,” Maire cheerfully acknowledged.

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

Dino Jihardin looked astonished as Artur, Stefan, and Careen purposefully strode up the road from the gateway. He called for the gates to be opened and walked down to meet them.

“Put everyone on guard, Dino,” Artur ordered as he walked through the gate. “Christien and Starra will be coming in about an hour.”

Dino crisply nodded and turned away.

Careen eyed Stefan as they walked into the Great Hall of Shi’ar. It was obvious he hadn’t thought about her and Devora being in the same place at the same time. Nevertheless, she followed the brothers up the stairs even Artur seeming to be oblivious of her presence.

“Artur!” Gwen threw herself into his arms as they entered Rik’s chambers.

Artur held Gwen close. “How is he?” he murmured.

“Not well,” Gwen admitted pulling herself together. She smiled at Stefan who kissed her cheek. She glanced uncertainly at Careen who quietly moved away. “I was just going back in.” She hesitated. “He’s having so much difficulty breathing. He’s running such a high fever.” She glanced around. “I was hoping Elaina would come.”

“Christien and Starra will be here soon,” Stefan told her. “We can send Starra back. But I thought Eldrin sent two healers.”

“Yes,” Gwen pulled herself erect. “I haven’t told the children anything except that Rik isn’t feeling well.”

Artur nodded. “That’s for the best now,” he decided turning to follow Gwen.

Stefan turned as Careen touched his arm. “I’ll be outside,” she murmured. “I can’t do anything here anyway.”

He nodded and followed the others.

Outside, Careen followed the hallway to the main corridor. She suddenly stopped and looked over her shoulder. She saw a woman glaring at her. From Stefan’s description, Careen recognized the woman as Stefan’s wife, Devora. The two women looked at each other for a few moments. Then Devora walked away. A few seconds later, Careen heard the sound of a door loudly slamming shut. Slowly Careen walked away.

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“Over here!” Daneel yelled waving an arm.

Jamie kicked his horse forward ignoring Maire’s sudden grunt of discomfort.

“Duncan!” Maire screamed jumping from Jamie’s horse.

“This one’s alive, too!” One of the soldiers called out. “Looks like Lord Josef.”

“Duncan?” Maire carefully turned her son onto his back.

Duncan’s eyes fluttered open. “Mother?” he whispered.

“Don’t talk,” Maire briskly ordered. “Bring Josef to me,” she ordered Jamie.

“Father...the Stone,” Duncan muttered.

“Never mind,” Jamie knelt by his son.

“Lucas took it...the Stone of Greed,” Duncan winced as he took a deep breath. “I failed.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jamie squeezed his son’s shoulder. “We’ll get it back.”

“Josef?” Duncan’s eyes fluttered.

“Alive,” Jamie glanced over his shoulder. When he looked back, Duncan was unconscious.

“I’ll tear this Lucas’ heart out,” Maire muttered vengefully.

“I don’t think he has one,” Jamie mused. “But I’ll help you find out.”



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