Rafael silently cursed his shaking hands as he sealed the letter. He glanced at Alejo, one of the few people left in Elhalyn who he completely trusted. He’d been one of Rafael’s personal servants since before his first marriage.

Without a word, Rafael put the letter into a package sealing it with his personal seal. Then he handed it to Alejo. “Please give my best regards to your granddaughter on the occasion of her wedding,” he said loudly, his eyes on the half-open door.

“You do my granddaughter great honor, my lord.” Alejo’s eyes were damp. He knew he would never see Rafael alive again. “I will see this reaches your daughter and the Lord of Shi’ar,” he whispered.

Rafael nodded. “May you have a pleasant journey,” he nodded in dismissal.

“And you, my Lord,” Alejo whispered kissing the back of Rafael’s hand. He backed out of the room and bowed low to Clarisa. He refrained from shivering when she coldly nodded in return. He quickly left. It was a long walk to his granddaughter’s village of Dionay.

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

A week later, Stefan angrily eyed the barely smouldering remains of the small village of Dionay. “Find me someone alive!” he demanded. However, it was clear all the villagers had been killed and the raiders gone. Some of the bodies, mostly the women, indicated they’d died a slow agonizing death.

“West?” Stefan’s black eyes glittered. “Towards Elhalyn?”

“More than likely towards the Triangle Pass,” Tomas decided. “From there they could either turn into Elhalyn or Green Hills.” He glanced around. “Looks like they’re driving some of the livestock they must have found here. Otherwise, they’d head over the mountains like before.”

Stefan grimly nodded. “Ride to Shi’ar,” he ordered. “Tell my brothers I’m heading over the mountains to try and prevent them from disappearing into Green Hills at the Pass. They need to cut them off from getting to Elhalyn.”

Tomas nodded running for his horse. Grimly, Stefan joined the group digging graves.

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

Gwyn had been right, Elaina decided. The Aramis men were definitely hard to live with. Christien was a different man during the day than at night. At night, he was almost ruthlessly passionate although he always made sure of her pleasure. During the day, he was cold and hard. Even Rik commented that Christien almost always had a guarded edge to him now.

Yet Elaina couldn’t fault Christien’s relationship with Paolo. The boy obviously adored him, and Christien was more than patient in teaching him to ride. Yet Christien either looked at her with eyes cold and guarded or with eyes hot and passionate. But there was no gentleness in Christien’s passion, and he never again asked her who he was.

Elaina found herself most days in the massive garden Gwyn had started. To her joy, part of the garden included herbs for healing, a skill Elaina had inherited from her long-dead mother. With Gwyn’s evident pleased permission, she planted some herbs she’d brought with her. It amused her that one punishment for the children was to work in the garden either under Gwyn’s supervision or now hers.

She was in the garden when Paolo came running up to her. “Mama! Mama!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

“Paolo, be careful!” Elaina stood up afraid he would run over some of the small plants.

“They’re going after the raiders!” Paolo yelled. “Come quick!”

Elaina gathered her skirts and stepped around the small plants. Paolo jumped from one foot to the other with urgency. Finally, Elaina took his hand; and they began running towards the front of the castle. They arrived in time to see Artur with his men thundering through the open gate. The other children were jumping up and down shouting encouragement to them as they passed by. Elaina left Paolo with them and entered the castle. She glanced up the stairs hearing Christien and Rik as they came down.

“I chased those raiders for months!” Christien snapped his eyes flashing. “For months, Rik! Months of them leading me over the mountains! Following cold and useless trails! Then Stefan takes one patrol in that general direction and almost lands in their arms!”

“You have my sympathy!” Rik sarcastically snapped back obviously eager to join his brothers. “When everyone returns, we’re going to sit down and talk about who’s in charge around here and who gets to do what!”

Christien grunted then stiffened slightly as he saw Elaina standing at the bottom of the stairs. Rik flashed a grin at Elaina as he walked past her and out the door.

“Paolo told me you were going.” She put a hand on Christien’s arm. “I hope you find them, Christien.”

A small smile played on his lips. “My lady, with my luck, either Stefan or Artur will have settled the matter before I even get there,” he ruefully admitted. “Artur, of course, has taken the shorter route to hopefully intercept them.” He smiled as he noticed the dagger at her waist. The dark emerald flashed at him.

“Just be careful,” Elaina urged. She glanced at the crude Ranger emblem on his armored shirt and put her hand over it. “Would you like something more impressive?”

Christien’s eyes narrowed as he glanced to where her hand covered his heart. Realizing what she meant, he relaxed. “My men might take it from me,” he half-joked.

“I’ll make emblems for all of them,” Elaina promised.

Christien took Elaina’s jaw in his hand and stared into her grey eyes.

“Christien!” Rik bellowed from outside.

Christien’s eyes irritably flickered to the door and he lowered his hand. He leaned forward and gave Elaina a quick kiss. “We’ll be fine,” he assured her softly. He formally took Elaina’s hand and walked her to the door.

Outside, he saw Rik impatiently waiting by Christien’s horse. Christien grinned at his brother who scowled back. Noticing the children standing to one side, he gave Paolo a smile. “I’m counting on you to protect your mother while I’m gone,” he said.

Paolo grinned and thrust his shoulders back. “I will,” he promised loudly.

Rik rolled his eyes as Christien mounted. “You don’t mind if I help him?” he caustically asked his youngest brother. “Seeing as how I have so little to do.”

“Not at all.” Christien’s eyes twinkled. He glanced at Elaina and carefully put on the gloves she’d given him. He saw her smile and nodded. “Stay well, my lady,” he formally said backing his horse away.

“Stay well, my lord,” Elaina replied raising her hand.

The children ran after the horses yelling their good-byes stopping only at the main gate. Elaina watched as they rode out, Christien’s Ranger banner snapping in the crisp breeze. Despite herself, she shivered remembering when another man rode away from her into battle.

Rik slowly rejoined Elaina. “They’ll be fine,” he reassured her. “Until they get home, that is.” When Elaina looked at him curiously, he grinned. “It seems they forget I decide who does what around here. They need to be reminded.”

“That should prove interesting,” Gwyn spoke from behind them. When Rik raised an eyebrow at her, she stared at him. “Let’s see. Stefan is already there. Artur was just ready to ride out on patrol, so obviously he should go. And Christien deserves to go since he’s chased them for months.” She paused and stared at Rik. “Exactly why should you go?”

Rik scowled. “Because I’m Lord of Shi’ar, that’s why!” he shouted before stomping off.

“And we never forget it!” Gwyn called after him trying not to chuckle. She saw Elaina’s concerned expression. “Don’t mind him. He just hates being left behind.” She noticed the children running after Rik. “They’ll cheer him up. Sometimes I think he would prefer to play with them than do anything else anyway.”

Elaina smiled at the children dancing around Rik as he walked towards the corral. She looked back as the main gates were closed and frowned.

Gwyn put a hand on her arm. Taking a deep breath, she turned around. “Standing here worrying does no good,” she advised. “Best to just keep busy.”

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

Stefan pushed his men hard over the mountains to reach Triangle Pass first. Artur took the old road through the mountains in the direction of Elhalyn before turning south towards the Pass. Christien simply led his men to the burned village and then followed the raiders’ trail.

Christien heard his men cursing beneath their breaths as they slowly rode through the carnage. Christien kept a rein on his own temper. Mikhail glanced at him and silently pitied the raiders if they caught up to them first.

A shout from one of the ruined houses brought them up short. Swords flashed in the sun as they looked around.

“Hold!” Christien ordered seeing an old man running towards them. Mikhail carefully eased his horse next to Christien’s, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“You are from Shi’ar!” the man shouted. “Shi’ar?”

“I’m Christien Aramis of Shi’ar,” Christien nodded.

“I am Alejo,” the man identified himself panting heavily. “I serve Lord Rafael of Elhalyn.”

“What are you doing here?” Mikhail demanded as Christien studied the old man.

“This is...was my granddaughter’s village,” Alejo blinked back tears. “I arrived a few hours ago and found this.” He took a deep breath. “I was to use her wedding as an excuse to be here. But I was to go on to Shi’ give this to Lady Elaina...and the letter inside to the Lord of Shi’ar.” He handed the package to Christien.

Christien stared at the package sealed with Rafael’s personal seal. Silently, he handed it to Mikhail. “Take Alejo to Lord Rik,” he ordered Mikhail. “The rest of us will continue.” He glared at Mikhail when he started to argue.

Mikhail shrugged and did what any good field general would do. He ordered one of the lower-ranking soldiers to take Alejo to Shi’ar.

When Christien reformed his men, he raised an eyebrow as Mikhail took his place beside him. He glanced over his shoulder to see Alejo on the back of a horse, desperately holding on to an obviously cursing soldier. He glanced at Mikhail whose blue eyes twinkled in silent mirth.

“Let’s go!” Christien ordered shaking his head with a slight smile.

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

It was late that night when the rider approached Shi’ar. He was detained for a moment until recognized then allowed inside. A runner went to the castle to inform Rik of their arrival. After telling Rik what had happened, the rider declined Gwyn’s invitation to come inside and headed for the barracks.

Elaina hugged Alejo and helped him inside. Devora brought him some food as he explained his mission.

“My father,” Elaina asked urgently. “How is he?”

Alejo took time to swallow some wine. “Not as well as when you left,” he replied evenly. “But there’s some that’s been a little sick.” He forced a smile. “There’s been many that’s missed your skill at healing, my lady.”

Elaina smiled and blushed a little. She reached for the package and carefully broke the seal. Inside lay a wrapped item and a sealed letter with Rik’s name on it. Silently, she handed the letter to Rik.

Elaina carefully pulled back the wrappings and gasped. A silken bag on a golden cord lay in her lap. Hands shaking, she opened it. Inside lay an amethyst dangling from a golden chain. As Elaina held it in her hand, the candlelight caught the prisms and seemed to illuminate the stone from the inside.

“How beautiful,” Devora enviously said.

“It was my mother’s,” Elaina said her voice catching in her throat. “It was her mother’s...and her mother’s before her. She gave it as a pledge-gift to father.”

“Obviously Rafael thought you should have it,” Rik said with a forced laugh. “I have to admit, it will look better on you than on him.”

Elaina smiled wanly then turned to Alejo. “How long can you stay?” she asked.

“I’d hoped to stay with my granddaughter.” Alejo looked at his clasped hands. “But that’s impossible now.” He glanced at Rik. “My Lord felt it would be inadvisable for me to return.”

Rik nodded slightly.

“Why?” Elaina looked confused.

“I angered Lord Jaxon,” Alejo said after a moment. “It was a misunderstanding, but Lady Clarisa was not pleased either.”

“Then you’re welcome to stay here,” Rik grinned. He glanced at Gwyn.

“Come along,” Gwyn stood. “We’ll find you a room for now.”

Rik waited until the others had disappeared up the stairs then walked back into the dining hall. He lit several candelabras and set them in front of him. Carefully, he opened Rafael’s letter.

An hour later, Gwyn came back downstairs and found him staring at the letter. Slowly, she put a hand on his shoulder.

Rik glanced up and smiled wanly. Kissing her hand, he drew her down next to him.

“Bad news?” Gwyn asked softly.

Rik nodded. “Rafael warns me that Jaxon will probably attack as soon as he’s settled on the throne.” He rubbed his eyes. “He says there have been a lot of strangers coming and going....all seeing Jaxon and not him.” He hesitated. “Rafael’s almost confined to bed. He doesn’t think he’ll live much longer and after reading this I don’t think so either.”

“Do you think it would do any good for you to go to Elhalyn?” Gwyn asked searching his eyes.

Rik smiled. “Reading my thoughts?” he teased. Slowly he shook his head. “It would only delay the inevitable. He’s bound to be in a great deal of pain. There’s no need to prolong that.” He slowly stood folding the letter. “I’ll talk with this Alejo tomorrow when Elaina’s not around. He should be able to tell me more.”

“I’m sorry.” Gwyn stood and took Rik’s hand as he blew out the candles. “I know he’s your friend.”

“A good friend.” Rik’s blue eyes were icy in the candlelight. “I won’t forget him....or this.” Despite himself, he crumpled the letter in his hand. “If Rafael’s correct, we’re going to see some bad times, Gwyn. Very bad times.”

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

Late the next day, Stefan saw the raiders below him. He’d met up with Artur and his men earlier, and they’d carefully surrounded the raiders just south of the Triangle Pass. Technically, they were in Green Hills and had to right to be there. Neither Artur nor Stefan gave this more than a passing thought if they considered it at all.

Looks like Christien’s going to miss all the fun, Stefan told himself. He glanced over at Artur impatiently.

Artur saw the look and shook his head. “Why are they making camp?” he asked his eyes narrowed. “Why are they stopping?”

“Because they’re in Green Hills,” Stefan snapped. “Christien always stopped at the border. Anhur forbid our Ranger little brother do something to disturb the peace with Green Hills.”

Artur gave Stefan an impatient look of his own. “I don’t recall Christien ever mentioning the raiders stopping just across the border to have a party,” he acidly pointed out.

Stefen took a deep breath and looked down the hill again. Some of the livestock had been butchered and they could hear sounds of revelry. “Do you want to send a message to Lord Axter?” he asked with pointed courtesy. “Asking permission to attack?”

Artur almost spit on the ground at the name of the Green Hills Lord. “He’s probably going to get the rest of the booty,” he snorted. He took a deep breath. “I’ll work around that way,” he pointed. “Give me fifteen minutes.” He glared at Stefan. “And I mean the full fifteen minutes.” He shook his head at Stefan’s grin and led his men to the right.

Just as the fifteen minutes elapsed, Stefan shook his head. He’d really hoped Christien would have joined them. He deserved the chance to finish what he’d started months ago. Taking a deep breath, he nodded at his men.

Giving wild yells, Stefan and his men rode down the hillside. They saw the raiders look up startled then scramble for their weapons. Stefan led his men directly into the center of the camp. Laughing wildly, he swung his horse around his huge sword slashing from side to side.

Artur led his men in to contain the raiders that tried to escape. Cut off from their retreat further into Green Hills, the raiders regrouped and slowly backed towards the north.

Artur whirled around as he heard men shouting behind him. Seemingly from nowhere, plain-glad men on horses were attacking their rear. He screamed a warning at Stefan who barely managed to keep from being skewered from behind. The brothers exchanged a quick look. They’d been lured into a trap.

The raiders and their rescuers now began forming a loose ring around the warriors from Shi’ar. Both Artur and Stefan immediately realized they were now fighting trained warriors and not just raiders. Artur shouted commands that Stefan bellowingly echoed. They would form a wedge and try to cut through the ring for freedom.

Christien and Mikhail exchanged quick glances as they surveyed the scene below them. Without a word, they formed their men. Mikhail pointed to where it looked like the others would try to break the ring. Christien nodded. He raised his sword high in the air and galloped forward.

Just before they got to the fighting below, they split their forces in two. Artur, seeing them come, led the charge forward. Christien and Mikhail’s charge forced the men on either side of Artur’s attack point to give away. The men directly in front of Artur were simply ridden down.

Stefan swung around heedless of Artur’s bellow. He hated to simply make a run for the safety of Shi’ar. He saw Mikhail join his men to Stefan’s and sighed. If Mikhail was willing to cut and run, the fight probably could not be won. He stood in the stirrups looking to be sure Christien’s men were pulling back as well.

Stefan yelled a warning to Christien even though he knew his brother couldn’t hear him. One of the raiders was deliberately heading towards Christien. Stefan bellowed in anger as he saw Christien take a wicked sword thrust in the ribs.

Christien gasped as a hot flash of pain seared his side. Gritting his teeth, he kicked his assailant back. Barely managing to stay on his horse, Christien swung his sword in a wide arc as another raider came close.

Both Artur and Stefan fought back towards Christien as the rest of the Rangers formed a protective circle around him. Artur grabbed the reins of Christien’s horse. Ignoring his brother’s curses, he wheeled the horses around. Stefan formed the men to fight their way to where Mikhail was clearing a path of retreat.

Christien felt his sword falling from his rapidly numbing fingers. He leaned forward on his horse just trying to stay on.

Stefan rode up beside him and pulled Christien onto his horse. He grabbed Christien’s sword just before it fell and tossed it to Mikhail. Yanking Christien up against him, he kicked his horse into a fast gallop. Once across the border, Mikhail and some of the Rangers dropped back to see if the raiders were following.

The others didn’t stop until they were miles inside Shi’ar’s borders. Reining in, Artur looked around. “We’ll rest here!” he shouted. He looked over his shoulder to see someone pulling Christien off Stefan’s horse.

Artur dismounted throwing the reins to one of his men. Pulling off his gloves, he quickly walked back as Stefan dismounted. He knelt beside Christien as one of the Rangers carefully unlaced Christien’s lightly armored shirt.

Stefan exchanged a quick look with Artur. “Told you that light armor isn’t any protection,” Stefan reminded Christienr.

“I’m not as big as you,” Christien gasped. “I don’t need as much.” He groaned as the bloodied shirt was finally cut away.

Artur cursed under his breath. The open jagged wound was already turning black. The sword used against Christien had been poisoned.

Jaw clenching and his dark eyes burning, Stefen quickly stood and walked to the others. All wounds would have to be checked immediately.

Artur suddenly stood as he heard horses quickly approaching. He relaxed when he saw Mikhail.

“No one’s following,” Mikhail said catching his breath. He slowly dismounted. “We mauled them pretty good as well.” He glanced at Artur. “Those others weren’t raiders.”

Artur nodded curtly. “We need to station some men at the old fortifications,” he decided. “We can hold the road from there in case they decide to invade.”

“Christien?” Mikhail quickly asked seeing Christien arch in pain as a bandage was placed over his wound.

“Poisoned wound,” Artur growled. He heard Stefan giving the order to remount as Christien was helped to his feet. He hesitated then turned to Mikhail.

“I’ll hold the fortifications,” Mikhail said with a smile. He grinned openly when Artur hesitated. Everyone knew how close the four brothers were. “I think it might take both of you to explain what happened.” When Artur gave him a curious look, Mikhail continued, “One to explain to Lord Rik and the other to Lady Elaina.” He grinned. “I don’t envy either of you.”

Artur snorted although he relaxed somewhat. He nodded curtly to Mikhail and went to help Christien onto Stefan’s horse. From the looks of the others, none of the men seemed to have poisoned wounds.

“I can ride!” Christien snapped although he held his side and grimaced in pain.

“Sure you can,” Stefan forced a laugh. He saw the Rangers form around him. “Just imagine I’m Elaina,” he suggested.

Angrily, Christien tried to turn and hit Stefan. Instead, he fell forward holding his side. He tried not to cry out.

“That’s enough, Stefan!” Artur yelled as he mounted. He saw the concerned look on Stefan’s face as he helped Christien sit back up.

Stefan pulled a shivering Christien as he pulled him back against his broad chest. “This isn’t going to be easy on you,” he warned. “We’ve got to ride hard to get you home fast.”

“It’s poisoned, isn’t it?” Christien gasped glancing over at Artur. After a second’s hesitation, Artur curtly nodded.

Stefan pulled his larger cloak around Christien as they started forward. “Don’t try to stay conscious,” he advised knowing each move of the horse would painfully jostle Christien.

As they galloped away, Artur winced at Christien’s cry of pain. He looked over his shoulder and saw Christien had passed out. Stefan’s huge arms easily supported him. Resolutely, Artur settled in for a long ride. At the very best, it would be the next afternoon before they reached Shi’ar. Long enough for the poison to kill his youngest brother.

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

The sun was low in the sky when the inhabitants of Shi’ar were alerted by the guards at the gate of riders quickly approaching. Dino Jihadan, commander of the garrison, immediately ordered men to the parapets and notified Rik. A short dark-haired man who sported several scars, his dark eyes anxiously scanned the horizon. All he’d been told was there might be an attack on Shi’ar, and he wasn’t taking any chances.

By the time Rik joined him on one of the parapets, Dino had somewhat relaxed. “Looks like Artur’s horse in the lead,” he pointed out. “But he’s riding awfully fast.”

Rik nodded trying to make out the riders a little further behind his brother.

The gate swung open as Artur approached. He saw Rik coming down and shouted, “Get Gwyn! Christien’s hurt!”

Rik abruptly motioned to a nearby soldier who ran for the castle. “What happened?” he demanded as Artur rode to one side and dismounted. Over his shoulder, Rik could see the other riders almost at the gate.

Artur ignored him as he pulled Rik towards the castle. Stefan rode past them bellowing for Gwyn. By the time, he dismounted pulling Christien down with him, Rik and Artur were reaching to take their unconscious brother from his exhausted arms.

“Gwyn’s upstairs in Christien’s tower,” Devora called to them as they brushed past her. She turned to Stefan who leaned wearily in the doorway. She put a hand on his arm. When he started to say something, she shook her head.

Glancing over her shoulder, Stefan saw the children standing looking wide-eyed at him. Resolutely, he pushed himself away from Devora. “What’s this?” he asked forcing a grin. “No smiles? No hugs? No welcome home?” He was suddenly mobbed by all five children hugging on his legs and arms.

“What happened to Uncle Christien?” Trainor demanded.

“Nothing much.” Stefan airily waved his hand walking them into the dining hall. “Nothing to be concerned about.” He saw Paolo’s expression lighten somewhat. He also saw that Cheyne didn’t believe him. “Now, I need food. I demand sustenance!”

He sat down wearily as the children ran towards the kitchen. He saw Cheyne hesitate, and he motioned to her. “Find your Aunt Elaina and tell her Christien’s hurt,” he said quietly. “She needs to go to their tower.”

Cheyne’s eyes widened, but she nodded silently and ran out of the room.

“That girl sees too much,” Stefan muttered as Devora sat next to him. He avoided Devora’s eyes. “Too much.”

Cheyne found Elaina in the garden where she was putting away some tools.

“Come quick!” Cheyne said grabbing Elaina’s hand. “They got back, and Uncle Christien’s hurt!” She stared at Elaina her dark eyes flashing. “They think because we’re children they can’t tell us the truth. But I think he’s hurt badly.”

Elaina dropped the tools and started running.

“We won’t tell Paolo!” Cheyne shouted running after her. “He’s young enough we can still lie to him!”

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

Gwyn bit her lip as Rik and Artur laid Christien on his bed. A cold sweat covered his body and his breathing was labored. As Artur pulled Stefan’s cloak away, Gwyn gasped at the wound in Christien’s side.

Cursing loudly, Rik flung the cloak to one side. Artur picked it up. “I’ll see it’s burned,” he said to no one in particular. “Shouldn’t be kept. Probably poisoned from the wound.”

Carefully, Gwyn removed the rest of the bandage from Christien’s side. She frowned and took a deep breath as the stench from the poisoned wound took her breath away. “Rik, I need water,” she ordered. “And plenty of it. Artur, burn that cloak. And make sure Stefan has no open wounds that cloak might have touched.”

“No one else is poisoned,” Artur looked at Rik, his blue eyes almost vacant. “Only Christien.” When Rik touched his arm, Artur looked away. “Stefan said the man came straight for Christien...just for him.”

“Go on, Artur,” Rik said quietly heading for the other room. “We’ll talk later.”

Artur had reached the intersection of Christien’s tower and the main part of the castle when he saw Elaina half-running towards him. She saw the look on his face and slowed down to almost a walk.

“Artur?” Elaina put a hand on his arm. “How’s Christien?”

“Stefan and I...they led us into a trap.” Artur found his voice faltering. “We rode right into it. Christien and his men showed up just in time to help us get out.” He forced himself to look at Elaina. “He took a sword thrust in the ribs. It’s poisoned.”

Elaina took a step back, looking at Artur in horror. Then she turned and ran down the hall.

Gwyn looked up as Elaina ran into the bedroom. Elaina’s face turned white as she slowly walked to the side of the bed. The sun glinted off the amethyst at her throat giving her skin a sickening cast.

Kneeling beside the bed, she watched as Gwyn tried to clean the wound. Elaina saw the skin around the wound was blackened. Rik stood to one side giving Gwyn clean cloths.

“I hope you know more about poisons than I do,” Gwyn muttered to Elaina. “I’ve never seen one like this.” She showed one of the bloodied cloths to Elaina.

Elaina frowned as she studied the cloth. Mixed with Christien’s blood was a thick green ooze. “We need to draw out the poison,” she quietly mused. “And clean the flesh around the wound.” She quickly stood. “I’ll make a poultice.” She looked at Rik. “I know Artur and Stefan are tired. But you’ll need help holding him down. Drawing out that poison is going to hurt him.”

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

Gwyn curiously watched as Elaina spread a yellowing poultice across a strip of cloth. It was evident Elaina’s knowledge and skill at healing far surpassed hers. While Elaina had been making the poultice, Gwyn had cut away the blackening flesh from around the wound. Now it was raw and red.

Elaina took a deep breath and nodded to the others. Rik knelt by Christien’s head and held his hands. Artur and Stefan together held his legs. With a silent prayer to the Prophet, Elaina laid the cloth onto Christien’s wound and gently pressed down.

Christien immediately screamed and arched in pain. Gwyn helped hold Christien’s shoulders to the bed.

“Good, good,” Elaina murmured with a smile.

“Good!” Artur exploded. “Are you crazy?”

“Hush, Artur!” Gwyn scolded him. “If he was close to death, he couldn’t react this way.”

“Unless this kills him,” Stefan retorted his dark eyes shadowed. He heaved a sigh of relief as Christien slowly relaxed.

A few minutes later, Elaina drew the cloth from the wound. With a look of disgust, she dropped it into the nearby bucket. Artur walked over and kicked the bucket next to the window so the stench would drift outside.

As Elaina prepared the next poultice, Gwyn carefully wiped around the wound where the same greenish ooze seeped.

“What is that?” Artur asked in a hushed voice.

“I’m not sure what it’s called,” Elaina’s voice shook and she took a deep breath. “But it eats away at the inside of a person.”

“How do you know about it?” Rik asked quietly.

“My mother studied healing after she married father,” Elaina half-smiled. “They always gave refuge to any wandering healer. I took up the skill and studied all she’d written about it.” She took a deep breath and nodded to them.

Christien screamed again as the poultice drew more poison from his body.

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

Hours later, Elaina sighed as Gwyn finished bandaging Christien’s side. The last two poultices she’d applied had not drawn any of the poison from the wound. As Gwyn stitched the wound, Elaina made the others soak their hands in almost boiling hot water. She cleansed her hands as well.

Stefan held Christien in his arms as she changed the bedding. Gwyn then gathered all the cloth to carry it to be burned. “I’ll send up some food,” she said over her shoulders.

“Don’t forget your hands,” Elaina nodded staring down at Christien.

“I’ll make sure,” Rik muttered under his breath. He glanced at Stefan and Artur. “You’re both half-dead,” he ordered. “Get some sleep.”

After a moment, Artur nodded. “Call if you need us,” he said pulling Stefan out after him.

“Rik, will you tell Paolo that Christien will be fine,” Elaina requested.

“Will he?” Rik demanded softly.

Elaina turned to look at him. “I’ve gotten as much of the poison as I can,” she slowly replied. “But I can’t tell if some of it’s deep inside him where the poultice can’t reach.”

Rik looked away and nodded. “Send one of the servants if you need us,” he told her before gently closing the door.

Christien’s fever kept rising and falling throughout the night. Elaina knew then that some of the poison was still inside him. She also knew there wasn’t much she could do to aid him with that except try to keep him as cool as possible without chilling him.

At one point, Christien’s eyes flickered opened and he called for Rik.

“Rik’s asleep,” Elaina murmured as she laid a cool cloth across his forehead. “You need to sleep as well.”

Slowly Christien dragged his eyes open. He stared at Elaina for a long moment. “Elaina?” he whispered.

“Yes,” Elaina smiled reassuringly.

Christien’s eyes closed. “I’m home,” he sighed.

“Yes,” Elaina bit her lip. “You’re home.”

Christien’s eyes opened again. “Artur said the wound was poisoned,” he muttered.

“Gwyn and I got most of it out,” Elaina dipped the cloth in the basin of water and wrung it. “But we didn’t get it all. You must stay quiet.”

Christien nodded and closed his eyes. “What about the others?” he whispered.

“No one else was poisoned,” Elaina assured him wiping his face. “Please sleep, Christien.”

Christien shakily reached for her hand. Elaina took his hand in hers and gently squeezed it. She soothingly brushed his hair back from his forehead. After a moment, Christien murmured Rik’s name again. “Get Rik,” he mumbled forcing his eyes open.

“It can wait,” Elaina soothed him. “Whatever it is can wait. You need to rest.”

“Rik has to promise to keep you here if I die,” Christien mumbled his eyes unfocusing.

“You’re not going to die,” Elaina said firmly.

“He has to promise.” Christien blinked a couple of times staring at Elaina.

“It doesn’t matter!” Elaina took a deep breath. “It’s not important, Christien.”

Christien stared at her for a few seconds, then closed his eyes. “I suppose not,” he muttered.

Elaina bit her lower lip. “You know Rik would protect me and Paolo,” she murmured gently touching his shoulder.

“He better,” Christien murmured. Minutes later, he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

It was almost dawn when, exhausted, Elaina stretched out next to him on the bed. She carefully laid her hand on his chest covering his heart. Grimacing, Elaina moved the amethyst away from her throat. She stretched the chain as far as possible laying the gem on Christien’s chest. Closing her eyes, she promised herself she’d only sleep an hour.

A few hours later, Gwyn and Rik entered the bedroom. They found both Elaina and Christien asleep. Rik squinted slightly as sunlight glittered off the amethyst. He frowned slightly as Gwyn quietly stood at the side of the bed and closed her fingers around Christien’s wrist. She looked at Rik in surprise.

“What’s wrong?” Rik demanded.

“Nothing,” Gwyn frowned. “In fact, he’s much better.”

Slowly Elaina’s eyes flickered opened. She rubbed her eyes as she sat up.

“You’ll only make those dark circles worse,” Rik teased.

Gwyn quickly removed Christien’s bandage and gasped. The wound, jagged and raw the day before, was now half-healed. Rik and Elaina looked at her in surprise.

“He always was a fast healer...” Rik mumbled. “But this...”

Elaina irritably moved the amethyst to one side. The sun had heated the gem until it almost burned her skin.

Rik eyed her with a speculative frown. “You do have a skill for healing,” he remarked.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Elaina said in a hushed voice. She found the small velvet bag for the necklace and tied it around the amethyst. “I don’t understand.”

Gwyn saw the frown on Rik’s face. “Well, I, for one, am not questioning this,” she smiled. “Lie back down, Elaina. Did you get much sleep?”

“Maybe an hour,” Elaina admitted. “I should tell Paolo.”

“We’ll do it,” Rik grinned. “You’ll need your rest. If I know Christien, he’ll be wanting to get up once he knows how much he’s healed. You’ll have your hands full then.”

Elaina hesitated then nodded. Gwyn pushed Rik out of the room and gently closed the door behind her.

“What’s that frown for?” Gwyn asked as they walked down the corridor.

“Hmm?” Rik looked at her curiously for a moment. “Nothing. I hope.” He took her arm. “Plenty of time to consider it later if necessary.”

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

Christien felt a cool hand on his forehead. “Elaina?” he mumbled as he opened his eyes.

“No,” Devora grinned. “She’s asleep.”

Christien, feeling someone laying next to him, carefully turned his head. Elaina lay curled next to him in a deep sleep.

“Poor girl’s exhausted,” Devora grinned. “Now I wouldn’t think missing a few hours’ sleep would be that hard on her. After all, the two of you haven’t been married that long.”

Christien gave her an angry look. “Why are you here?” he quietly demanded.

“Just bringing in some food.” Devora motioned to the tray.

Christien looked at the tray and grimaced feeling his stomach lurch. “Maybe later,” he muttered. “Where’s Rik? I need to talk to him.”

“Probably outside,” Devora shrugged. “I’ll tell him. But Gwyn’s trying to keep all your brothers from disturbing you.” She grinned. “Must be nice to have two women fussing over you.”

“Go bother Stefan and leave me alone,” Christien irritably ordered.

Devora impishly blew him a kiss as she left.

Christien shook his head then glanced down at Elaina. He frowned seeing the exhaustion on her face. They should have made her rest, he told himself as he gently brushed the hair from her forehead. She didn’t need to have been nursing him for days without someone making her rest. Gently, he kissed the top of her head nuzzling the softness of her hair with his cheek.

Minutes later, the door opened. Christien moved slightly away from Elaina as Rik quickly closed the door behind him.

Grinning at Christien, Rik chuckled. “Stefan and Artur would have a fit if they knew I was here,” he explained sitting next to the bed. “Gwyn’s ordered us all to leave you alone.”

Christien slowly smiled. “Then I’d say you’re in trouble,” he said.

“Only if I’m caught,” Rik pointed out. He studied Christien for a moment. “You look a lot better than the last time I saw you.” He glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see Gwyn behind him. “Devora said you wanted to see me.”

“Is everyone else all right?” Christien quickly asked.

Rik nodded. “You were hurt the worst,” he explained. “A few wounds, but nothing serious...or poisoned.” When Christien’s eyes narrowed, he continued. “Stefan saw you take the thrust. He thinks you were singled out.”

“Interesting.” Christien stared at the ceiling. “Those men weren’t all raiders.”

“Apparently Lord Axter of Green Hills wants to play,” Rik grinned joyfully. “Of course, he’ll say his men saw you and the others illegally in their territory attacking some poor defenseless people. Naturally, they intervened.” He chuckled at Christien’s expression. “I’m expecting an official protest any day.”

Both men jumped as the door suddenly opened. Gwyn stood in the doorway hands on hips. She glared at Rik who smiled angelically at her.

“It’s alright, Gwyn,” Christien quietly intervened. “I needed to talk with Rik.”

Gwyn glanced at Christien then at Rik who was nodded in serious agreement. “He did,” Rik told her.

“Out,” Gwyn abruptly told her husband. “You and the others can bother him later.”

“Rik.” Christien’s hand found his brother’s arm as Rik started to stand. “If something happens to me, I want Elaina and Paolo to stay here.”

“Of course,” Rik nodded. When Christien’s grip eased, he grinned. “I may have more reason than you think to keep her here.”

Christien frowned then looked at Elaina as she stirred. He gave Rik a hard questioning look that his brother completely ignored.

Elaina’s eyes flickered open. “Christien?” she murmured slowly raising up.

“He’s much better,” Gwyn spoke up. “He’d be a lot better if Rik would leave him alone.”

Christien smiled reassuringly at Elaina. “You should have made her sleep, Gwyn,” he half-chided. “No one needs to go days without sleep.”

“Days?” Rik looked confused. “They got you back late yesterday.”

“Elaina worked her heart out healing you up,” Gwyn said briskly giving Rik a slight shove towards the door. “That’s why she looks exhausted.”

“You worked hard too, Gwyn,” Elaina softly protested.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Gwyn pushed Rik harder finally getting him to the door. “You owe her your life, Christien. She was able to draw most of the poison out of the wound.” She turned her attention to Rik who stood in the doorway protesting even as he was shoved across the outer room and into the hallway.

Elaina smiled as the door was slammed shut.

“Thank you, Elaina,” Christien murmured. When she started to speak, he shook his head. “Gwyn is a truthful woman. I owe you my life.”

Elaina blushed. “I’m happy you’re better.”

Christien’s eyes narrowed. “Rik promised me he will protect you and Paolo if anything happens to me,” he said.

Elaina glanced over her shoulder and frowned. “Is that why you think I’m happy you’re better?” she asked in surprise. When Christien hesitated, she frowned. “You’re my husband, Christien. Why would you think I’d be happy if you’re hurt...or worse?”

Christien shrugged uncomfortably wishing Gwyn would return. “It’s not that I think you’d be happy if I’m hurt,” he slowly answered.

“Good!” Elaina interrupted. “I can’t believe you’d even think that!”

“I said I didn’t!” Christien snapped. “I just wanted you to know you’ll be taken care of. No matter what.”

“Then I thank you for telling me!” Elaina felt her own anger rising.

Christien cursed under his breath and tried to get up. He gasped as a sudden pain shot through his side and he fell back onto the bed.

“Christien,” Elaina gasped as she hurried to the bed. “You need to stay quiet so you can heal.” As Christien gasped for air, she stroked his forehead. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to anger you.”

“Neither did I,” Christien finally gasped. He forced a smile. “A poor way to thank the person who saved my life.”

Gwyn returned having finally gotten Rik out of the tower. “Elaina, you should go bathe,” she pointed out. “I’m sure you’ll feel much better.” She pulled Elaina to her feet and gave her a gentle shove into the next room. “I told Rik to have hot water brought up.” She put her hands on her hips and stared down at Christien. “Now, let’s see what kind of shape you’re in.”

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

Slowly Rafael made his way down the stairs to the Great Hall of Elhalyn. The last time he’d been there was when he’d seen Elaina wed. Pausing by the door, he saw shadows dancing along one wall. The fire had obviously been banked high. He heard a man laugh and edged forward with one shaky hand braced against the wall.

“The heat feels good,” the man said with a smile. “I come from a climate more blessed than this one.”

Clairsa shuddered. “Then you must boil,” she declared fanning herself.

“Or make others boil,” the man laughingly admitted.

Rafael glanced inside the Hall. Clarisa, Jaxon, and the unknown man sat with their backs to the door.

“All is ready, I presume?” the man asked.

“As much as we can be,” Jaxon nodded. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The man half-smiled. “Time can be so insignificant,” he mused. “Then, it can be so very important. Isn’t that right, Lord Rafael?”

Clarisa gasped as Jaxon leapt to his feet whirling around. The man didn’t take his eyes from the flames.

“You shouldn’t be up, my dear.” Clarisa slowly got to her feet as Rafael shuffled into the room.

“Don’t bother, Clarisa,” Rafael sneered. “I should have stopped your kind ministrations long ago.”

Clarisa started to say something but saw Rafael’s eyes widen suddenly as he looked above the mantle.

“What is that thing doing here?” he demanded hoarsely.

Clarisa smiled briefly and Jaxon openly smiled. The man sitting before the fire casually looked up at the dark carving of the Jackal god.

“A gift for the new Lord of Elhalyn,” he replied in a friendly tone. “Surely you have no objection.”

“No objection?” Rafael’s mouth went dry. “How dare you? Who are you?”

The man stood and turned with one fluid movement. “My name is Lucas,” he replied with a slight smile. “Advisor to Lord D’Nar of the Isles.”

“Lord D’Nar,” Rafael snarled. “Thieving bastard. Is he so greedy he extends his empire this far north? I would have thought absorbing the Misty Isles would have taken longer.”

“The Misty Isles and their inhabitants are loyal subjects to Lord D’Nar.” Lucas’s blue eyes twinkled. “Seeing as how they have no other ruler.”

“Has Princess Alyxa died?” Rafael’s eyes widened in feigned surprise. He saw something in Lucas’ eyes and smiled coldly. “No, I thought not.” He walked closer to the fireplace. Both Jaxon and Clarisa instinctively stepped aside. “Tell me, Lucas, how are Lord D’Nar’s children?” Silently damning the shaking in his body, he gripped the back of one chair for support.

“Lord Damon is well,” Lucas replied evenly.

“I meant his other children.” Rafael’s smile didn’t touch his eyes. “You must remember them. They incurred their parents’ wrath when they balked at the butchery of the Misty Isles.” He laughed harshly. “I wish them well wherever they are. The Gods only know where they got their sense of right and wrong. Having been spawned by that bastard and his snake of a wife!”

“That’s hardly courteous,” Lucas lightly pointed out. “Here I am, a guest in your home. And you insult my liege lord and lady in such a way.” He sorrowfully shook his head.

“Guest!” Rafael shouted. “No guest of Elhalyn! You will leave now!”

“Now?” Lucas casually glanced out the window at the darkness. “Not even offering me shelter from the night.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you can take your chances with the wolves and the raiders!” Rafael thundered. He caught the glance that passed between his wife and son. “Jaxon,” he said shakily. “What have you done?”

“Done?” Jaxon figeted under his father’s angry gaze. “What do you mean?” he stammered.

“It means, Jaxon, that Lord Rafael is no fool,” Lucas smiled. “No one has ever doubted your intelligence, sir.” He glanced at the others. “He realizes that to reach Elhalyn, I had to come through Green Hills since Rhyane’s borders are closed to those of the Isles. And since the raiders who have plagued Shi’ar and Elhalyn to some slight extent come from Green Hills...” He turned back to an obviously distressed Rafael and gently smiled. “Am I correct, sir?”

“Jaxon, you are a fool!” Rafael raged. He staggered slightly and clutched the chair even tighter. Catching sight of the Jackal god’s idol, his fists clenched. “Get out, whoever you are! And take this abomination with you!” He reached out to throw the idol to the floor.

“Don’t!” Lucas’ commanding voice made even Rafael halt. When Rafael looked at him in surprise, Lucas shook his head. “The idol can only be touched by true believers. I wouldn’t touch it if I were you.” He coldly smiled. “Unless, of course, you wish to deny Anhur and promise yourself to the Jackal.” He carefully folded his hands before him.

Rafael saw a large ruby embedded in Lucas’ wrist bracer. His eyes widened in sudden knowledge. “You will not win,” he whispered. He staggered backwards suddenly hearing the roar of his blood in his ears. “You will not find what you seek here,” he hissed.

Clarisa put her hands over her mouth in fright and horror as Rafael’s knees buckled and he fell to the floor, blood gushing from his eyes and mouth. Slowly Lucas walked over and knelt beside Rafael. After a moment, he stood and looked at a pale-faced Jaxon.

“Hail, Lord Jaxon, Lord of Elhalyn,” he intoned in a slightly mocking voice.


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