CHAPTER TWENTY





The castle of Green Hills bustled with activity. Word had reached them of Shi’ar’s victory in Elhalyn. Scouts reported that Shi’ar’s army would soon be at the Green Hills border if they hadn’t already crossed it. Other scouts reported the massing of an army along the border with the Wasteland. It was known Macedin commanded that army. His reputation was such that several of Nicolai’s barons demanded he sue for immediate peace with Macedin. In the middle of this bedlam came word of an army marching from the west under the banner of the Woodlands.

Nicolai watched with silent alarm as Lucas raged. ‘Leodin’s invasion of Rhyane must have failed if the Woodlands army feels confident enough to march towards us. That meant that Rhyane’s army will soon be joining them.’

“Parley with the Woodlands and Wasteland armies,” Lucas finally ordered Nicolai. “This Macedin is a mercenary. Buy him off.”

Nicolai raised his eyebrows slightly but nodded. “Jamie Lorcan isn’t a mercenary,” he pointed out. “He can’t be bought off.”

“Neither does he have the stomach for a real war,” Lucas angrily retorted. “Stall him. I’ll take care of Shi’ar. Then we can turn our attention to Jamie Lorcan. I wouldn’t mind setting matters with his heir, young Duncan, who I hear is still alive,” he snarled.

“Just how do you plan on taking care of Shi’ar?” Nicolai curiously asked. “I’ve skirmished with them all my life. They’re not going to just cut and run, you know.”

“You forget I have Christien Aramis,” Lucas’ eyes narrowed. “I’ve studied these Aramis’. They’re tough until they have to sacrifice.” He missed the quick look that passed between Nicolai and Marika. “I don’t believe Rik Aramis will sacrifice his little brother.” He glanced at Nicolai. “I trust you and Thane can handle the other matters.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Nicolai easily smiled. “After all, as you said, Macedin can be bought off.”

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Elaina’s hand felt cool and gentle on his forehead. Her soft murmuring sounded as sweet as a bird’s chirping in the early spring. Christien knew he was either hallucinating or suffering through another of Lucas’ nightmares. But he didn’t care, and it didn’t matter. At some point soon enough, Lucas would kill him. Until then, he would enjoy what small pleasure his fevered mind conjured for him.

Despite his desire to keep Elaina’s memory with him, the sudden splashing of cold water on his face brought him back to reality. Blinking, he sputtered shaking his head to remove the water. This violent action merely increased the horrible thumping in his head. He squinted upwards to see Lucas standing before him.

“Time for a little ride, Christien,” Lucas coldly smiled. “Apparently your brothers are feeling their oats. It’s time to remind them what their place is.”

“You must be joking,” Christien muttered. “If they’re coming for you, nothing will stop them.”

“Oh, I think you’ll stop them,” Lucas smiled. “Not willingly, of course. Although I have considered that.” He laughed at Christien’s look of defiance. “Imagine their faces, if you were to appear at my side...fighting at my side.” He laughed again. “But I’m afraid you’re far too defiant, not to mention stubborn. You’d be nothing more than a worthless vegetable by the time I’d converted you.” He motioned for his soldiers to step forward. “Bring him outside and tie him to a horse. Whoever allows him to escape, dies.”

An hour later, Nicolai and Marika watched as Lucas led his army north to meet Shi’ar’s army. Marika leaned her head on Nicolai’s shoulder for a moment then turned away. “There’s no need for you to do this,” she murmured.

“Nonsense,” Nicolai briskly shook his head. “I never had any intention of allowing you to do this alone, my dear.”

Marika smiled over her shoulder. “Would you think me weak to say that I’m glad of that?” she asked.

Nicolai smiled. “No,” he admitted. He gave her a quick kiss. “I’ll see Thane and Briar on their way,” he commented. “I’ll be back shortly.” He paused halfway to the door and looked back at her. “You will wait, won’t you?” The words were half-question half-order.

“I’ll wait,” Marika promised.

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Macedin’s scouts told him there was a small military force on the Green Hills side of the border. Although their presence was known, the Green Hills force was making no effort to cross the border. It seemed they were simply waiting.

Macedin squinted at the sun high in the sky and pondered this information. Although Eldrin had given him full rein to create whatever diversion he could, he knew Eldrin didn’t especially want an all-out war with Green Hills. And, despite his reputation, Macedin wasn’t a rash man. He had a healthy respect for the Green Hills army having skirmished with them in the days before he’d allied with Eldrin.

“Well, Simon.” He finally turned to the wizard. “Any suggestions?”

“I think events are occurring elsewhere,” Simon slowly thought. “They’re waiting to see if they can afford to commit to fighting us.”

“If they’re that uncertain, perhaps we should attack,” Macedin mused.

“Or perhaps we should wait and gain a victory without fighting,” Simon hopefully suggested.

Macedin snorted. “I didn’t come all this way to just turn around and ride back to Dedresia,” he pointed out. “It wouldn’t hurt for the Wastelands to control the river.”

Simon sighed. Control of the nearby river was a constant sore spot to not only Macedin but Eldrin as well.

Macedin turned away as a rider quickly galloped towards them. After a brief conversation, he turned back to Simon. “It seems they want to talk,” he coldly smiled.

“So they’re not all certain things are secure behind them,” Simon guessed.

“Apparently not,” Macedin laughed. “Thane, heir to Green Hills, is the one asking for a parley.”

“May I accompany you?” Simon smoothly suggested.

“Afraid I’ll just kill him and be done with it?” Macedin’s eyes twinkled. “Come along if you want.”

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It wasn’t often that Jamie Lorcan showed surprise. Years of looking for the Stones of Maxen and generally fighting his way out of trouble in his youth had trained him to control his reactions. His wife was the only one who could generally read his expression.

However, no one had ever accused Maire Lorcan of hiding her reaction or emotions. So she was openly surprised when Jamie’s scouts told him that Briar Rhyane Axter was riding towards them with an armed escort.

“Well, I never thought Axter would be so...so...cowardly as to send Briar to do his dirty work for him,” Maire finally sniffed.

“He’s not,” Jamie frowned. “And neither is Marika.”

Maire’s expression told Jamie her unspoken opinion of the Lady of Green Hills. “I wonder if they thought Garn and Kathlyna would be with us,” she finally said.

Jamie shrugged. “We’ll wait here and find out,” he decided.

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“There has to be another way!” Ana shouted. “I won’t allow this!”

“Ana, don’t make this any more difficult than it already is!” Eldrin shouted back.

“Just how easy do you expect me to make it?” Ana demanded. “I intend to make it very very difficult, Eldrin!”

“Hector, talk to her!” Eldrin threw up his hands.

“Certainly,” Hector smiled. “What shall we talk about, Ana?”

“Stay out of this, Uncle Hector,” Ana warned.

“Hector!” Eldrin looked at him in astonishment. “You know what we’re talking about!”

“Oh,” Hector nodded suddenly serious. “That.”

“Yes, that!” Ana wrung her hands. “Eldrin, please...”

“Ana, you always knew we wouldn’t have much time together.” Eldrin put his hands on her shoulders. He stared into her eyes seeking understanding...absolution. “You knew.”

“Why you?” Ana demanded. “Why?”

“I don’t know!” Eldrin exploded. “Do you think I’ve never asked that? I’ve asked it almost every day since the Prophet brought me here! Don’t you think I wish there were some other way?” He suddenly realized he was digging his fingers into her shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he muttered releasing her.

Ana threw herself into his arms, sobbing against his shoulder.

Eldrin looked over her shoulder at Hector who looked as though he were ready to cry as well. “By all rights, I should have died with I was 14,” he murmured. “Every day since then has been a gift. Especially where you and Benami have been concerned.” He slowly pulled away from her and shook her gently. “You have to pull yourself together, Ana. I don’t believe anyone will challenge Benami’s right to Dedresia and the Wastelands. But he’s a child. There will be hard times. Odan, Macedin, Simon...Hector...even Evan will help you. But they’ll all have their own ideas about what should be done. You will need to not only lead but pull them together. For Benami’s sake.”

Ana took several deep heaving breaths and nodded. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I never meant for this to happen.”

“I know.” Eldrin gave her another hug. “Hector will stay with you.” He glanced over her shoulder. “Won’t you, Hector?”

“Of course.” Hector patted her shoulder. “Don’t you worry, Eldrin. Everything will be fine here. Ana will do an excellent job.”

Moments later, Eldrin heard Ana sobbing through the closed door. He resolutely turned and made his way to the Prophet’s Temple. He waved away the attending priests and stood before the altar.

“Tell me there’s another way,” he demanded. “Tell me!” He looked around the sanctum, silently challenging the unseen God.

You’ve always known there is no other way. Your life was extended for this purpose. The time is now.

“You’re a God,” Eldrin whispered. “You could change it. If you brought me here to do good, how much more good can I do by surviving?”

No one should outlive his life span. By extending yours much has been altered and not necessarily for the good of all concerned. You are the one who can control all. You must do this.

“What if I refuse?” Eldrin demanded although he knew he would not.

Then all that has been fought for...sacrificed for...will be for naught. Is that what you wish?

“No.” Eldrin’s shoulders slumped. He turned and looked out the open Temple door at the city he had created from the desert’s shifting sands. “But...” He slowly smiled. “At least I won’t be forgotten.” He turned back around and straightened his shoulders. “Take me.”

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“They’re coming,” Mikhail breathlessly reported to Rik. “I spotted Lucas in the forefront.”

Rik silently nodded. “Take command of Christien’s Rangers,” he ordered. He saw Mikhail’s look of surprise. “You were there when Lucas took him away. You command his Rangers.”

Mikhail quickly saluted and rode away.

Rik looked at Artur and Stefan and silently nodded at them. Without a word, the two rode back to their forces and separated, each taking one of Rik’s flanks. Dino brought the rest of the army into position behind Rik.

“He’ll want to talk first,” Careen warned. She glanced at Rik. “If Christien’s alive, he’ll try to use him.”

Rik silently nodded. “It’s what I expected,” he admitted. He glanced at her and Josef who sat astride a horse just behind them. “If you think you have a chance to do it, fine. If not...” he hesitated. “Take no unnecessary chances.”

“I’m afraid I can’t agree to that,” Josef calmly replied. “If there’s any chance at all, I intend to take it.”

Rik’s eyes twinkled. “You’re a lot like your father, did you know that?” he asked.

Josef smiled back. “I think if I have anything of my mother in me, it’ll serve me better this day. She’s definitely more of a gambler than he is.” He glanced at Careen. “You know Lucas the best. What do you think?”

“Keep him talking as long as you can,” Careen shrugged as she turned her horse away. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Josef exchanged a quick nod with Rik and turned to follow her. Rik hesitated then resolutely turned back to await Lucas and the Green Hills army.

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Nicolai was surprised to discover his hand was steady as he poured liquid into the waiting glasses. He was mildly surprised to feel detachment as though his surroundings no longer meant anything to him. He glanced to his left to see Marika standing at the open window. “Changed your mind?” he asked.

“No,” Marika shook her head. “Just wondering how it’s all going to turn out.” She turned and walked back to him. “I’m going to miss not knowing.”

Nicolai grinned. “I’m sure Thane and Briar will land on their feet,” he assured her. “Briar most of all. Garn won’t allow anything to happen to her.”

“Is that why you sent her in that direction?” Marika’s eyes twinkled. “I would have sent her to negotiate with Macedin myself.”

“Thane needs the practice,” Nicolai sardonically teased. He held one glass out to her and held the other one.

Marika took the glass and stared into Nicolai’s eyes. Without a word, she drained the glass.

Nicolai drained his grimacing slightly at the taste. Marika chuckled at his expression. She took his hand and led him towards the waiting bed.

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“Well, Thane, heir to Green Hills, what did you want to say?” Macedin demanded. “I haven’t all day, you know.”

“First of all, I’m not heir to Green Hills.” Thane glanced upwards at the sun. “By now, my parents are dead. I am Green Hills.”

“Is that a fact?” Macedin half-smiled. “My condolences...and congratulations.”

Thane flushed. “It was their choice,” he retorted. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “I have no quarrel with the Wastelands. My wife is negotiating with Rhyane at this moment.”

“And Lucas?” Simon politely asked. “It is our understanding he wields a great deal of power in Green Hills.”

“We’ll see how much power he wields against Shi’ar’s army,” Thane grimly answered. “My parents owed a debt to Lucas. I don’t. If he beats Shi’ar, he’ll have to face my army when he returns. And, I hope you’ll assist as well.”

“You’re offering an alliance?” Macedin asked.

“If you don’t have the authority to negotiate one, perhaps he does,” Thane smoothly nodded at Simon.

“Don’t trifle with me, boy,” Macedin angrily warned. “If you want to go back to Green Hills and wait for Lucas, go right ahead. I’m staying here until I know exactly what you intend to do.”

Thane curtly nodded. “Just realize that if you invade, you will be at war with Green Hills,” he warned just before he rode away.

“Insolent little pup!” Macedin exploded. “I have half a mind to...”

“Let him go,” Simon advised. “He was telling the truth.”

“How can you be so sure?” Macedin demanded.

“Couldn’t you sense his fear?” Simon smiled. “He knew he was gambling on our response. There’s so much he can’t control at this point that he was forced to tell the truth.”

Macedin grunted. “I’ll give orders to make camp,” he decided.

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“Oh, Uncle Jamie!” Briar exclaimed as she reined in her horse next to Jamie. She flung her arms around his shoulders and sobbed.

Jamie glanced warningly at Maire who was rolling her eyes. “Now, Briar, stop crying.” He patted her back. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Briar leaned back and wiped the tears from her eyes. “It’s horrible,” she sobbed. “Nicolai and Marika....they’re dead.” She saw the quick exchange of looks between Jamie and Maire. “Thane’s trying to keep the Wastelands from invading us. That horrible awful Lucas has taken the army to fight Shi’ar!”

“Thane sent you to talk with us?” Jamie’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to Nicolai and Marika?”

“You poor dear,” Maire cooed. She ignored Jamie’s warning scowl.

“It’s all so...complicated.” Briar took a deep breath. “Thane believes you’re coming to invade us. But I know you’re not, Uncle Jamie. I knew you were coming to save us.”

“Nicolai? Marika?” Jamie gently prodded.

“Lucas had some sort of hold over them,” Briar admitted. “Something about Marika’s health. When he rode out, they decided....to die.” Her voice trailed off. When no one spoke, she hesitantly continued. “Thane said they felt Lucas would be defeated. And would take it out on them.”

“So Thane is now Lord of Green Hills,” Maire mused. “What’s his relationship with Lucas?” She smiled benignly at Briar. “After all, if Lucas does defeat Shi’ar...”

“He won’t,” Briar calmly replied. “And even if he does, you’ll be at war with Lucas, won’t you?” She looked at Jamie.

“Yes,” he admitted. “Well, your parents may be catching up to us. We’ve had word they successfully repelled Leodin’s invasion.” He saw Briar’s fingers nervously playing with the reins of her horse. “But you’re safe with us, Briar.” He smiled comfortingly. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

“Jamie’s right, dear Briar,” Maire agreed with a slight smile. “You’re safe.”

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Christien repressed a moan as his horse was brought to a sudden stop. He looked around, still surprised to be alive. They’d ridden hard for most of the morning. Now, as the sun stood high overhead, he realized they sat atop a ridge facing the armies of Shi’ar.

The Ranger blinked, straining to see through swollen eyes. He easily picked out the Ranger banner on one flank under Mikhail’s command. He quickly spotted Artur and Stefan’s men flanking Rik and Dino. He curiously looked at Lucas who seemed somewhat surprised to find Shi’ar’s army so close to the Green Hills capital.

Lucas motioned with his hand and Christien found his horse being led to stand next to Lucas.

Christien grimaced knowing he was in full sight of the Shi’ar army. Lucas nodded to a man on his right who rode towards Rik under a while flag.

“It won’t work,” Christien told Lucas. “They won’t back down for me.”

Without a word Lucas swung his left fist, catching Christien in the side of the head. With a grunt, Christien fell sideways barely managing to keep on the horse.

“Just so they’ll understand I’m serious about this,” Lucas thinly smiled.

Christien shook his head to clear it. From the corner of one eye, he gauged the distance between them wondering if he could manage to kick Lucas from his horse before being killed.

Rik’s hands clenched as he watched Lucas strike Christien. With an obvious effort, he relaxed watching Lucas’ messenger come closer. He saw Artur and Stefan break from their position and ride towards him. When the messenger stopped about 20 feet away, he faced all three Aramis brothers.

“Greetings, Lord Rik, from...”

“I know who sent you,” Rik brusquely interrupted. “What do you want?”

The messenger blinked then continued. “If you and your army do not return to Shi’ar immediately, your brother will be executed,” he loudly announced.

Several of the men near them growled in response. The messenger eyed them with more than a little concern.

“So be it,” Rik answered.

“What?” The messenger openly gaped at Rik. “Did you not understand? Your brother...”

“Yes, yes, yes.” Rik waved his hand with an impatient gesture. “He will be executed. Lucas will kill him with his bare hands. My brother’s blood will be on my conscience.” He paused and stared at the messenger. “Correct?”

“Yes,” the messenger hesitantly nodded.

“You tell Lucas that I’ve had enough.” Rik angrily pointed at the messenger stabbing the air for emphasis. “He’s caused enough trouble. We’re not leaving until he’s either dead or defeated.” He paused for a moment. “However, if Lucas releases my brother now, I might be persuaded to be merciful.”

The messenger stared at Rik in astonishment. Then he looked at Artur. “You don’t understand,” he stressed. “Lucas will kill him! Right in front of you!”

“Then Lucas will die,” Artur shrugged.

“Do you think you can remember that message?” Rik politely asked. “If so, tell him what I’ve said.”

The messenger slowly turned obviously hoping Rik would change his mind. After one final look over his shoulder, he slowly rode back to Lucas.

Stefan gave Rik a silent inscrutable look before turning and riding back to his forces.

Artur started to say something then wheeled his horse and rode back to his waiting men.

Rik stared across the meadow at Christien. Lucas had kept his men out of bowshot. If he wanted, Lucas could kill Christien before any of them could get close enough to stop it. He wondered if his youngest brother understood.

“Well?” Lucas demanded as his messenger approached.

“They...Lord Rik said if you released his brother he might be persuaded to be merciful,” the messenger hesitantly repeated. “But he will not retreat. He does not intend to leave until you are either dead or defeated.” He took one look at Lucas’ expression and quickly moved away.

Lucas slowly turned to look at Christien.

“I told you,” Christien quietly spoke. “And, if I know my brothers, they’re not alone. This won’t the only battle you’ll fight today...or tomorrow...or next week.”

Lucas’ face darkened at the tone of pride in Christien’s voice. “But you won’t be here to see it,” he grimly promised. He nodded at two of his men. “Remove his head.”

Christien found himself being jerked off his horse. His knees buckled as he struggled to stand. He found himself dragged in front of Lucas so everyone on both sides could watch.

Lucas looked across the meadow as the Shi’ar army remained in place. He could almost make out the expression on Rik’s face and hesitated at the seeming nonchalance Rik projected. He glanced at his men who were forcing Christien to his knees then back at Rik. “Do it!” he loudly commanded.

Christien took a deep breath, fighting the panic that was building inside of him. He was both surprised and appalled at the fear rising in him. Desperately, he struggled not only with the men holding him but with his own fear. As he was pushed to his knees, he suddenly realized he was going to die.

Christien desperately tried to control his fear. He was determined not to disgrace himself not only in front of both armies but in front of Lucas. Suddenly, a memory of Elaina flashed into his mind. He remembered the morning the armies left Shi’ar to attack Elhalyn...when Elaina had come running through the darkness to him...remembering how much he loved her.

Christien felt a sense of calm flow through him. Holding that memory of Elaina, he turned to look at Lucas. “You’ve won nothing,” he quietly told him.

“Finish it!” Lucas angrily ordered.

Christien instinctively closed his eyes struggling to hold onto Elaina’s memory, intending to take it to the next world with him. He felt a cool rush of air against his neck and flinched despite himself. He heard one of the men holding him howl in pain and opened his eyes. He caught a glimpse of Careen as she jerked him to his feet. Confused, he started to look around when there was a flash of light and the world spun around him.

Lucas looked in astonishment as Christien disappeared in a flash of light. He glared at Careen.

“Did you really think you could get away with this?” Careen challenged with a laugh.

Josef, hearing the shouts from the Shi’ar army, quickly engaged the soldier closest to Careen.

“Come on, Lucas,” Careen taunted. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Little fool.” Lucas shook his head as he slowly dismounted. He seemed totally disinterested as the Green Hills army met the oncoming Shi’ar attack.

Dizzy, Christien fell to the ground and looked up as Rik jumped off his horse and ran to him.

Shouts from the throats of the Shi’ar army echoed as they charged the Green Hills army. Rik quickly cut the bindings around Christien’s wrists and shoved him towards a horse Dino was holding.

The gleaming sword in Josef’s hand caught and twisted the sunlight as it flashed back and forth. Not for the first time, he realized Maxen’s Sword had some innate power that almost controlled him rather than he controlling the sword. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Careen and Lucas circling each other.

“You’ve made some poor choices, Careen,” Lucas smiled. “But I’m a forgiving man.”

Careen laughed. “Then you’ve changed,” she taunted.

“I can give you what you want,” Lucas’ voice was low and persuasive. “All you’ve ever wanted.” He looked to his right where Stefan, astride his golden warhorse, was easily visible. “I can make him forget everything but you.”

Careen’s face froze then darkened. “You bastard!” she screamed as she formed a ball of fire and sent in flying at Lucas.

Lucas casually waved the ball of fire aside. Two nearby men screamed as it struck them. Fingering the ruby on his bracer, he stared at Careen.

Josef saw Careen stumble backwards and whirled around. He instinctively swung the sword in the air between Lucas and Careen. He felt a slight tingling as the Sword cut through the magic from the Ruby.

Lucas’ eyes widened as he saw the Sword in Josef’s hands. “Maxen’s Sword,” he murmured in shock. He quickly formed a lightning bolt and threw it towards Josef.

Josef instinctively threw himself to the ground only to see the lightning bolt bounce off a shimmering shield Careen formed in front of him. The lightning bolt flew back towards Lucas who quickly turned away.

Artur roared as a lightning bolt struck the ground close to him splattering dirt in his face. He saw Christien grimly keeping pace with Dino protecting Rik’s left side even as Dino protected Rik’s right. He pressed his men forward seeing the Green Hills line beginning to break.

Mikhail and Stefan were slowly encircling the rest of the Green Hills army who began to fight to clear a line of retreat.

“Do you think you can tempt me?!” Careen angrily shouted as she created balls of ice and sent them flying through the air towards Lucas’ head.

Lucas deflected the iceballs sending them flying in all directions. He formed another lightning bolt only to have Josef, wielding Maxen’s Sword, deflect and dissolve it before it reached Careen.

“Do you think I would take anything you would offer?!” Careen’s face was red with anger. “Do you really think I’d do that?!” Raising her hands in the air, she called down lightning from the sky aiming it at Lucas. “Do you think I’ve forgotten anything?!”

Lucas jerked as the lightning bolts struck him. For a moment, he was outlined with an eerie pale glow. Then he roared as he threw the electrical energy back into the sky.

Josef froze watching as Lucas seemed to change. His face contorted as his body shook then seemed to get larger. “Fool!” Lucas screamed. “You shouldn’t have done that, Careen!”

Lucas’ booming voice echoed across the battlefield. Stefan whirled around to see Josef being flung backwards the Sword of Maxen still clutched in his hand. A stream of red energy flowed from Lucas to Careen wrapping around her throat and raising her into the air. He angrily cursed as he wheeled his horse around in their direction.

“You think I’m just a man?” Lucas demanded. He laughed as Careen’s eyes bulged. She struggled to breathe even as she tried to form more iceballs.

Josef struggled to his feet then launched himself at Lucas. At the same time, Stefan threw himself from his horse trying to knock Lucas down. Both men seemed to bounce off Lucas as though hitting a barrier. Lucas, his eyes now a dark glowing red, looked at them with contempt. “I’ll deal with the two of you later,” he promised.

With a smile of pure evil, Lucas watched as Careen desperately struggled to breathe. He callously tightened the energy laughing as she gasped for air.

Suddenly the air shimmered next to Lucas as Eldrin suddenly appeared. He saw Careen being strangled by the energy Lucas had wrapped around her throat. He raised his hands and bolts of pure white energy struck the red energy, snapping it.

Careen fell heavily to the ground loudly gasping for air. Josef rose to his feet and ran to her side. Stefan also scrambled to his feet and remounted his horse.

Stunned, Lucas turned to face Eldrin. “Who...” he started to ask.

Eldrin aimed bolts of white energy directly as Lucas. The energy struck him in the chest sending him flying backwards.

Seeing energy bolts from the corner of his eyes, Rik turned. He was astonished to see Eldrin firmly walking towards Lucas who was scrambling to his feet. “But he can’t leave...” Rik muttered. His eyes suddenly widened, and he spurred his horse towards the two combatants.

Dino exchanged a wary glance with Christien who was barely managing to stay in the saddle. Spurring his own horse forward, Dino galloped to catch up to Rik.

“Stay here!” Artur ordered as he passed Christien to follow Rik.

Christien took a deep breath and turned to join up with Mikhail and the Rangers.

Although there were pockets of resistance from the Green Hills army, most of them were surrendering to Shi’ar.

“Are you alright?” Josef demanded as he helped Careen to her feet.

Unable to speak, Careen merely nodded. She glanced over her shoulder as Stefan rode behind them. “Eldrin...” she croaked.

“I thought he couldn’t leave the Wastelands,” Stefan shouted.

Careen nodded. “His life is forfeit if he does,” she frowned.

Josef instinctively started towards Eldrin only to have Careen grab his arm. “Don’t,” she hoarsely warned.

The air around Eldrin seemed to shimmer with white light as he deliberately advanced upon Lucas. Lucas tried to form a protective barrier around himself but Eldrin’s white energy quickly dissolved it. Lucas quickly formed a ball of fire and threw it towards Eldrin.

The fire surrounded Eldrin then slowly dissolved. Lucas’ eyes widened in surprise. He quickly remounted his horse. Forming several lightning bolts, he threw them in front of him clearing a path for his retreat.

Careen looked back at Stefan. “Stop Rik,” she coughed. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Something is giving Eldrin that sort of power. If he interferes, he’s likely to get himself killed.”

Stefan nodded and spurred his horse towards Rik.

“What is it?” Josef asked even as Careen edged closer. He worriedly noted the gleam in her eyes.

“That sort of energy is beyond Eldrin’s capabilities,” Careen explained. “If Lucas is able to draw upon the Jackal’s power, then I’d say The Prophet is helping Eldrin.”

Josef’s eyes widened. After a couple of seconds, he grabbed Careen’s arm. “You don’t need to get any closer either,” he decided.

Careen stiffened then reluctantly nodded.

Eldrin saw Stefan intercept Rik and Rik’s obvious anger towards his brother for the interference. Artur would later tell Adriana that Eldrin had a look of intense regret on his face for a moment before turning back towards Lucas.

Eldrin raised his arms and was immediately surrounded by an intense white energy. The energy built and built until the air crackled.

At that sound, Lucas wheeled his horse around and threw a bolt of red energy towards Eldrin. He snarled as his energy was immediately dissolved. Lucas looked towards the sky and angrily shouted.

Josef felt a tingling in his arm. He glanced down at the Sword of Maxen which seemed to vibrate with its own energy. He watched in stunned silence as the Sword seemed to pull his arm upwards until the Sword was pointing at Lucas.

Careen saw the Sword’s action. Her eyes narrowed slightly and then she coldly smiled. “Be ready to turn it loose,” she ordered Josef.

Josef nodded, not telling her he’d been willing to relinquish the Sword almost from the moment he’d raised it. He bit his lip as the Sword strained in his grasp as though trying to pull away.

Careen watched the Sword closely. Taking a deep breath, she stood at Josef’s shoulder. “Now,” she hissed.

Josef released the Sword. Careen threw a small burst of energy at the hilt of the Sword sending it flying towards Lucas.

At the same time, Eldrin released the energy he’d been building. It, too, flew across the meadow and up the ridge towards Lucas.

The energy and Sword reached Lucas at the same time. Lucas screamed as the Sword found it’s way through his leather armor. Eldrin’s energy enveloped Lucas sending sparks flying into the air. Eldrin gritted his teeth as he threw another massive bolt of energy towards Lucas.

Lucas screamed again as the air around him seemed to explode. There was a sudden explosion that knocked more than one man to the ground. When the air cleared, Lucas was gone. His horse lay dead on the ground. The Sword of Maxen lay beside the horse.

“Is he dead?” Josef asked after a moment.

“I don’t know,” Careen whispered. She took a few steps towards where Lucas has been. She hesitated then ran to the spot.

Eldrin staggered looking around with a confused look on his face. He put a hand to the side of his head then fell to the ground.

Cursing, Rik pushed past his brothers riding quickly to his son’s side.

Careen cautiously kicked the ground where Lucas had been. Eyes narrowed, she looked from side to side even kneeling and touching the dirt with her fingers.

Josef cautiously picked up the Sword of Maxen. He felt a familiar tingle in his fingers and sighed. “Looks like it still belongs to me,” he muttered. He glanced at Careen as he sheathed the Sword. “Well?” he asked.

“He’s gone,” Careen finally answered. She glanced up at him. “I don’t know if he’s dead. If not, he’s badly hurt.”

“So either way, we have a respite,” Josef tried to smile.

“We weren’t going to defeat the Jackal God,” Careen reminded him as she got to her feet. “The best we could do is defeat Lucas.”

“I don’t imagine the Jackal would be very happy with him with the way things have turned out,” Josef surmised as he looked around the battlefield. “So if he did survive, I don’t think he’ll be bothering us for a long while.”

Careen reluctantly nodded. “I’d be more happy if I could kick his dead body and be sure,” she muttered.

Josef gave her a wide smile. “You know, I think you and Mother would be great friends,” he guessed. “Think about coming back to Rhyane with me.”

“Is that a proposition?” Careen cocked her head to one side.

“Perhaps,” Josef’s eyes twinkled. “Come and find out.”

Careen stared at him for a moment then turned away. She watched as Rik flung himself from his horse and ran to where Eldrin lay on the ground. Without responding to Josef, she began running towards them.

“Trainor,” Rik murmured as he held his son against his chest. He looked around. “Get me a healer!” he shouted.

“No.” Eldrin’s voice was weak. He tried to smile when Rik looked down at him. “We’ve won...Father. For a while at least.”

“Why?” Rik’s eyes filled with tears. “Why did you come?”

“It had to be this way.” Eldrin tried to take a deep breath. “The Prophet fought through me. It’s what I was saved for.”

Hands trembling, Rik brushed Eldrin’s dark hair away from his face.

“Father...take me home.” Eldrin stared up at Rik for a moment then his eyes closed.

Rik felt the life leave his son’s body. Openly sobbing, he pulled Eldrin against him rocking him back and forth.

Stefan abruptly turned away. “I’ll take charge of the prisoners,” he muttered to Artur.

Artur absently nodded. He stared at Rik for a moment then looked around. “There’s work to be done!” he barked at the nearby soldiers. They quickly backed away and found something else to do.

Josef caught Christien as he tried to dismount. Careen gave him an ironic look. “You’d better see a healer before Elaina catches sight of you,” she advised.

“Thank you.” Christien looked at both of them. “I didn’t think I was going to live.”

Josef grinned. “I wasn’t about to have to explain this to Duncan,” he pointed out. “Careen’s right, though. Let’s find you a healer.”

Artur put a hand on Rik’s shoulder. “I’ll send messengers to the other armies,” he quietly said. “With Lucas out of the way, Green Hills should sue for peace.” When Rik didn’t reply, he turned away and shouted orders.

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

Artur was correct that Green Hills sued for peace. Thane allowed the blame for the war to rest on the shoulders of his dead parents. No one was ever sure just how involved he and Briar had been. But none of the other rulers attended Thane’s ascension...not even Briar’s father.

Rik had almost gone to war with the Wastelands over Eldrin’s body. Eldrin had asked Rik to take him home. To Rik, that meant Shi’ar. Surprisingly, Stefan had stepped in arranging for Eldrin’s heart to remain at Shi’ar while his body was returned to the Wastelands. Artur had looked at his younger brother in surprise but shrugged just glad the matter was closed.

Artur and Adriana represented Shi’ar at Eldrin’s funeral. Rik had coldly refused to attend and Elaina refused to allow Christien to attend. It was at her request that Stefan had reluctantly agreed to represent Elhalyn for him. Josef represented Rhyane while Duncan represented the Woodlands. Starra accompanied Duncan much to Josef’s amusement. Ana received them all with sad graciousness even managing to put Artur at ease.

The funeral was attended by most of the people in Dedresia. Eldrin had been genuinely loved and respected by his people. Artur felt that Ana would have few challenges to Benami’s ascension. After the funeral, Ana excused herself. Benami’s ascension would be that evening.

As they met in the gardens before the ascension ceremony, Simon took the opportunity to confront Artur and Adriana. After a quick hug and whispered conversation with Adriana, the elderly wizard turned to Artur. “I’d like to know your intentions towards my granddaughter,” he sternly asked.

Artur sputtered his face quickly flushing. “That’s between us,” he finally answered. To his surprise, Simon smiled.

“Of course it is,” he nodded. He saw Adriana’s stern expression and smiled again. Leaning forward, he kissed her cheek. “If he’d answered anything else, I would have...how does Hector put it?...make him...”

“Don’t you dare!” Adriana warned. A smile played across her lips.

Starra saw Stefan studying Careen from the corner of his eyes. “If you want her back, you’d better do something about it,” she quietly warned.

Slowly Stefan shook his head. Resolutely, he turned to his sister. “It’s over,” he said.

“Is it?” Starra quietly challenged.

Stefan shrugged as Duncan joined them. Starra gave Duncan an irritated look at the interruption.

“If you want, we can be married here.” Duncan swallowed hard.

“Married?” Starra frowned. “I thought you didn’t want to get married.”

Duncan ignored the sudden interested look from Stefan. “Well, the war’s over,” he stammered. “I mean for the time being. I guess we’ll always have to be on guard. And, I did make a promise.”

“What promise?” Starra asked giving Stefan an irritated look.

Stefan blandly smiled refusing to leave.

“Well, I promised the Gods that if we won and Christien got out of that mess alive, that I’d marry you.” Duncan took a deep breath. “I’m a man of my word.”

“You promised the Gods,” Starra quietly repeated.

Stefan briefly closed his eyes. He wondered if Duncan was a quick healer.

“You promised the Gods!” Starra shouted.

“Starra, keep your voice down!” Duncan hissed.

“Keep my voice down!” Starra roared. She balled up her fist and landed a hard blow to Duncan’s stomach.

Duncan’s eyes widened painfully as he fell to his knees. “Starra...” he grunted.

Starra’s fingers grabbed Duncan’s hair and jerked his head back to look up at her. “I don’t marry a man because he’d made a promise to the Gods!” she shouted. “Do you understand me, Duncan Lorcan?”

“Yes,” Duncan gasped. “Please let me go, Starra.”

Starra released him and stepped back. She gave him an angry look and walked away. Macedin watched her with open appreciation.

Stefan shook his head as Duncan got to his feet.

“She loves me,” Duncan grinned. “She must if she got that upset. Right, Stefan?”

Stefan put his hands up and shook his head. “I don’t get involved in Starra’s love life,” he protested.

“Love life?” Duncan frowned. “You mean there’s someone else besides me?” Without waiting for an answer, he quickly followed Starra. “Starra! Wait! We have to talk!” he called.

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

“I don’t know what Solitaire is,” Evan concluded. “But I know what I saw.” He glanced at Odan. “You’re safe enough. You had a different mother. But Careen and I can’t take the chance that whatever she is might be passed to our children.” He saw Odan’s sudden frown.

“You don’t speak for me, Evan,” Careen interrupted.

“Don’t be a fool, Careen!” Evan snapped. “We don’t know...”

“Precisely.” Careen’s eyes narrowed. “We don’t know.” She looked at both her brothers. “It’s possible she’s mutated as the price for the magic she’s obtained. It’s possible she’s...something else. The fact is we don’t know.”

“We can’t take the chance,” Evan stubbornly repeated.

“Then you don’t,” Careen coldly nodded. “But I’ll be damned if they’ll take my future away.”

Odan put a hand on Evan’s arm. “She’s right, Evan,” he quietly agreed.

“Listen to me, Evan.” Careen stepped closer to him. “They ruled our past. In many ways, they’ve determined our present. But the future belongs to us. And I, for one, intend to live it.” She held up a hand to stop Evan’s argument. “Our parents influenced us. But I don’t intend to let them influence my children.”

“Careen, are you...” Evan looked shocked.

“No, I’m not.” Careen angrily shook her head. “But I want children, Evan. I want a life!”

“With Stefan?” Odan quietly asked.

Careen hesitated. “No,” she answered. “I’m going back to Rhyane with Josef.”

“Rhyane!” Evan looked surprised. “I thought you’d stay here.”

Careen shrugged. “I miss the ocean,” she admitted. “Rhyane has a nice long coastline.” She impishly smiled. “Going to miss me, Evan?”

“Hardly,” Evan denied. “I just don’t think you’re thinking this through.”

“Possibly not,” Careen agreed. She patted Evan on the arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back even if only to keep you in line.”

“I suggest you be more concerned about your future,” Evan snapped before turning away.

“Don’t listen to him,” Odan murmured. “I think what he saw affected him more than he’s willing to admit.”

Careen shrugged. “It’s his choice,” she pointed out. “Just like going to Rhyane is my choice.”

“I hope it works out for you,” Odan smiled. “He seems like a good man.”

“I know,” Careen ironically nodded. “Strange isn’t it? You, me, Evan...we’re all attracted to such good people.”

Odan chuckled. “Don’t stay away too long,” he cautioned. “Evan doesn’t know it, but Fawn is with child.”

“What?!” Careen’s green eyes twinkled. “You mean our Evan’s going to be a daddy?” She glanced to her left where Evan stood quietly talking with Simon. “He’s not going to take that well especially feeling the way he does.”

“I know,” Odan seriously nodded. “Will you come if we need help in keeping him under control?”

“Of course,” Careen grinned. “You know I always enjoy that.”

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

“I can’t say that I’m happy about how things have turned out,” Simon mused. “Eldrin’s loss is hard to contemplate.”

Evan nodded. “Things will be very different,” he acknowledged. “But I don’t see any serious threats to Benami. I think we’ll have time to build on what we’ve accomplished.”

“Macedin is happy that we control the river,” Simon pointed out with a smile.

“That’s going to be a sore spot with Green Hills for sometime,” Evan frowned. “But that should make Macedin happy as well.”

“Strange,” Simon mused. “We planned for so long for this moment. Now that it’s here, I almost feel a void.” He sadly smiled. “Perhaps it’s Eldrin’s presence I miss.”

“I feel it, too,” Evan admitted. “Perhaps because we were focused for so long on a certain challenge. Now we don’t know what the next challenge is.”

Simon smiled. “We never did find the Diamond of Control,” he pointed out. “I suppose that could be a challenge to someone.”

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

“Benami!” Hector called out as he entered the boy’s bedchamber. “It’s almost time! Are you dressed!”

“Look!” Benami clapped his hands pointing at the gem suspended in the air. “Look what I did!”

“Very good!” Hector clapped his hands in appreciation. “You’ve learned well.”

“Our secret,” Benami impishly smiled.

“Oh, yes, our secret.” Hector put a finger over his lips. “I don’t think the others would understand how you’re able to do this.”

“Big surprise,” Benami beamed.

“Oh, it’ll be a very big surprise,” Hector assured him. He easily floated the twinkling gem towards him. “Now, your mother is waiting. It’s a very important ceremony, you understand.”

The boy sighed. “I have to?” he plaintively asked.

“Yes,” Hector nodded. “But if you do well, perhaps I’ll conjure a treat for you later tonight. How would you like to ride a dragon?”

Benami clapped his hands in glee. “Yes!” he shouted.

“Then go on,” Hector advised. “I’ll be right there.” He smiled fondly as the boy raced into the corridor calling for his mother. He glanced at the sparkling diamond resting in the palm of his hand. “Such a lot of fuss over a little stone,” he murmured. Smiling to himself, he replaced the Stone of Control in Benami’s toy chest and closed the lid.


THE END



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