Christien reluctantly opened his eyes. The sun was barely visible through the half-open window, and he stifled a groan. Slowly he turned his head to see Elaina sleeping next to him. He stared at her for a moment then gradually left the bed. He gently tucked the furs around her, smiling slightly when she burrowed deeper into them. Picking up his boots, he quietly left.

He ducked into the kitchen to grab something to eat. Munching on some warm bread, he walked through the house shaking his head at the preparations for the day’s ceremonies. He and Elaina would be repeat their wedding vows witnessed by the local chieftains under Rik’s allegiance. Although legally wed, it would give the people of Shi’ar a chance to witness the alliance between Shi’ar and Elhalyn.

Several people nodded to Christien smiling and wishing him well with his marriage. Christien nodded in reply forcing a smile. He walked outside breathing the cool air with relief.

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

“You know, Gwyn, I think Artur’s right,” Rik said an hour later as he stared out his bedroom window onto the practice yard.

“About what?” Gwyn asked curiously as she combed her hair.

“Christien’s an idiot.” Rik glanced over his shoulder. “He’s in the practice yard attacking a dummy like he’s fighting for his life.”

“Maybe he is,” Gwyn suggested. She smiled when he grunted. “Maybe you should talk to him. He’s probably just nervous.”

Nervous or not, Rik decided as he watched his youngest brother hack at the dummy with a sword, something wasn’t right. Casually walking closer, he picked up a practice sword from the rack. Standing a few feel behind Christien, he suddenly bellowed. “Christien!”

Christien whirled around his sword swinging in a wide arc.

Rik laughed and motioned his brother forward. “Come one,” he urged. “You got something sticking in your throat, little brother?”

“Ihate to be called that,” Christien’s voice grated. His eyes glittered dangerously.

“Little brother,” Rik taunted with a wide grin. “It’s what you are. Little brother.”

“Stop it, Rik.” Christien took a deep breath and lowered his sword.

Rik looked disappointed. “Stefan’s a lot more fun than you are,” he complained.

“Then go fight with him.” Christien slowly relaxed.

Rik lowered his sword and walked to Christien. Slowly he took the sword from Christien and replaced both of them in the rack. Rik looked over his shoulder and saw Christien staring off into space. He walked back and put his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “Talk to me, Christien,” he said firmly.

Christien looked at him then slowly shook his head.

Rik studied him closely. “How much sleep did you get last night?” he asked.

“Not much,” Christien admitted. He suddenly flushed seeing the twinkle in Rik’s eyes. “I didn’t touch her if that’s what you’re...”

“It’s not.” Rik shook his head although he silently admitted Christien was right. “Having second thoughts about this?” When Christien didn’t answer, Rik tightened his grip on his shoulders. “You’re married to the girl, Christien. But if you want, I’ll find some way out of it for you.”

Christien smiled weakly. “I know you would, Rik.” He rubbed his eyes. “I haven’t changed my mind. Things are just different than I thought they’d be, that’s all.”

Rik frowned slightly. “Nothing is ever what you think it will be,” he advised. “You told me you wanted this marriage....that you would marry Elaina or no one else.”

“I meant it then.” Christien met Rik’s eyes. “I mean it now.”

“Then all you need is some sleep.” Rik grinned sliding an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Come on. If I know Artur...and I do...he’s been up for hours. It’ll be quiet in his tower.”

“I should be here when...” Christien protested.

“You need to be awake and alert for the ceremony,” Rik interrupted.

Christien allowed Rik to lead him to Artur’s tower. Feeling like a youngster, he let Rik put him to bed. “Thanks, Rik,” he mumbled as Rik closed the shutters.

Rik grinned as he softly closed the door and went to find Artur.

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

“This dress is gorgeous!” Devora exclaimed as Elaina laid her wedding dress on the bed.

“Thank you,” Elaina smiled. “I thought I would wear the same one as I did at home.”

“Gwyn!” Devora called. “Look at this needlework!”

Gwyn came in trailed by Cheyne and Jaella in various stages of dress and undress.

“Oooo,” Cheyne gently touched the dress.

“It’s exquisite,” Gwyn marveled. “I wish you’d brought the seamstress who did this with you.”

“I did it,” Elaina said proudly.

“By the Goddess, don’t tell Rik that!” Gwyn laughed. “He’s as vain as any woman. He’ll have you doing special needlework for him!”

Elaina smiled. “I wouldn’t mind,” she admitted. “Perhaps I can do something as a surprise for the Winter Solstice.”

“He’d love you forever,” Gwyn sighed. “It’s all I can do to keep their clothes sewn and in order let alone do anything fancy.”

“Will you do something for me?” Cheyne asked.

“And me?” Jaella echoed.

“Enough,” Gwyn said firmly as Devora laughed. “Don’t overburden her. Besides, it’s not polite to ask for gifts.”

“Uncle Rik does,” Jaella grinned.

“Uncle Rik does a lot of things you don’t need to be doing,” Gwyn sighed. “Go finish dressing. Then we’ll see to your hair.” As the girls ran out of the room, she looked at Elaina apologetically. “You’ll be sorry you ever mentioned this,” she warned.

They heard the girls squeal as someone pounded on the door of the sitting room. “Devora!” Stefan bellowed.

Devora rolled her eyes. Walking to the door, she shouted, “What is it, Stefan? We’re busy.”

“I need to get Christien’s clothing.” Stefan pounded on the door again.

Devora glanced over her shoulder to be sure the girls were dressed, then unlocked the door. “Hurry,” she curtly ordered.

Stefan grinned at her then stared at Jaella and Cheyne. “Who are these lovely young ladies?” he curiously asked.

“It’s us, Stefan,” Cheyne grinned.

“Cheyne?” Stefan’s black eyes widened. “Jaella?”

The girls giggled as Stefan shook his head doubtfully.

“Enough nonsense.” Devora shoved her husband towards the bedroom. “Get what you came for and get out.”

Grinning at Gwyn and Elaina, Stefan opened a chest in the corner. He finally found what he was looking for and slammed the lid shut. Under Devora’s censorious gaze, he winked at the girls. “A vision in purple,” he said to Jaella. “And a rival in gold,” he grinned at Cheyne.

“May the Goddess forgive him,” Devora muttered under her breath as the girls giggled again. “Out!” she ordered slamming the door after him.

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

The Great Hall had been gaily decorated with brightly colored ribbons trailing from the overhead crossbeams. Someone had managed to intertwine ivy with the ribbons giving a splash of green to the reds, golds, and blues. At each corner of the Great Hall, hung the various war banners of the House of Shi’ar. Over the area where the priestess of the Goddess stood patiently waiting to bless the wedding hung a banner that Gwyn had produced with the Ranger emblem Christien wore.

Christien caught sight of the Ranger banner as he entered the Great Hall and smiled. Gwyn, at least, had never teased or taunted him about his desire to reform the Rangers. Unlike his brothers who seemed to take delight in trying to frustrate him.

“What if I forget?” Paolo anxiously whispered to Christien as they walked to the front of the Great Hall.

Christien guided Paolo to his place and stood next to him. Leaning down to straighten Paolo’s collar, he whispered. “What if I forget?” He grinned as Paolo gave him a horrified look. Then he saw the boy relax and smile. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “If we get into trouble, Rik will save us. That’s his job, you know.”

“Really?” Paolo peered around Christien to where Rik stood with Gwyn. Apparently satisfied, he nodded.

Christien straightened up. He saw Rik looking at him and smiled reassuringly. Rik nodded back with a satisfied smile.

“There’s Mama,” Paolo whispered tugging on Christian’s hand as the voices around them suddenly hushed.

Christien turned towards the staircase. His eyes glittered as he saw Elaina descending preceded by Cheyne and Jaella. The rich colors of the girls’ dresses were offset by the soft ivory lace of Elaina’s gown. He clenched his fists as she approached.

Elaina glided across the Great Hall smiling as she passed through the crowd. She smiled softly at Paolo who grinned up at her. She saw the stiff set of Christien’s jaw and held her head higher in response. When he took her hand, she stiffened slightly Coloring, she turned to face the priestess.

The old woman, dressed in the green of the Goddess, raised the circular clear crystal symbol of the Goddess high for everyone to see. When the whispers of the crowd ceased, she slowly lowered it. “The Goddess bless this union of two honorable houses,” she intoned. “Christien Aramis, son of Andre and Felicia, son of the house of Shi’ar, what do you bring to this woman?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, then Christien evenly replied, “I bring to her my life and my honor.”

The priestess eyed him for a moment waiting for him to continue. When it was evident he wasn’t going to say anything further, she slowly continued. “Christien Aramis, son of Andre and Felicia, son of the house of Shi’ar, who will vouch for this?”

“I, Rik Aramis, son of Andre and Margarita, swear to his life and to his honor,” Rik quickly spoke up.

“Christien Aramis, son of Andre and Felicia, son of the house of Shi’ar, what do you give this woman as a token and pledge?”

Christien took a wrapped object from Stefan’s hands. Carefully handing it to Elaina, he spoke firmly, “I give to her this as a token and pledge that I shall protect her with my life.” Elaina’s grey eyes studied him closely as she unwrapped the object.

Rik’s eyes widened. Christien had given Elaina one of the oldest relics of Shi’ar. He automatically glanced at the wall where it had been displayed. He caught Artur and Stefan’s eyes. Both brothers returned somewhat innocent looks.

Elaina stared down at the curved dagger. A dark emerald stone embedded in the handle sparkled at her. Slowly she rewrapped the gift and handed it to Jaella who stood behind her.

The priestess, at heart a romantic woman, gave Christien a dark look which he ignored. She obviously disapproved of the impersonal pledge-gift. “Elaina K’Yer D’Van, daughter of Rafael and Allanna, daughter of Elhalyn, what do you bring to this man?” she asked somewhat hopefully.

“I bring to him my life and my honor,” Elaina coolly repeated Christien’s words.

Rik rocked back and forth slightly on his heels conscious of Gwyn’s hand on his arm. He saw Starra, in the front of the crowd, nod slowly in approval. Somehow, that didn’t help. He frowned again when he saw Paolo’s mouth moving trying to remember the words. This ceremony was not proceeding the way he wished.

The priestess, now convinced the situation was hopeless, took a deep breath. “Elaina K’Yer D’Van, daughter of Rafael and Allanna, daughter of Elhalyn, who will vouch for this?”

Slowly Paolo stepped forward. He took a deep breath. “I, Paolo D’Van, son of Brandor and Elaina, swear to her life and her honor.” He gave an audible sigh of relief and edged back to Stefan. “They changed the words,” he loudly whispered to Stefan in protest.

The priestess glanced at Rik who shrugged. “Elaina K’Yer D’Van, daughter of Rafael and Alana, daughter of Elhalyn, what do you give this man as a token and pledge?”

Elaina turned to Cheyne who ceremoniously handed her a wrapped object. “I give to him this as token and pledge of my belief in my husband’s promise,” she intoned handing the object to Christien.

Slowly Christien unwrapped the object his eyes widening in surprise. A pair of gloves, intricately worked with delicate stitchery, lay in his hands. Elhalyn was reknown for its fine clothing and rarely exported any of them. The supple gloves were embroidered with the crest of Shi’ar and Christien guessed they would fit perfectly. He carefully rewrapped the gloves and handed them to Stefan.

“May the Goddess bless this union.” The priestess joined Elaina and Christien’s hands. Everyone could almost hear her silent extra plea to the Goddess as she lit a white candle and placed it between their hands. “May the Goddess watch over both of you. May She find pleasure in your union. May your lives be long and blessed.”

Rafael had once told Elaina that a certain look from an Aramis could freeze iron. He’d never mentioned that a certain look from an Aramis could melt iron. Elaina shivered slightly as he saw that particular look in Christien’s blue eyes.

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

Rik’s temper improved during the feast. A hurried conference with Artur and Stefan convinced him Christien’s gift was suitable if uninspired. Elaina and Christien graciously circulated through the crowd. Jaella and Cheyne preened in their new dresses. All in all, Rik finally admitted a few hours later, everything had gone well.

He noted the approving looks from the local chieftains. Christien was a popular man and they approved of his choice of a bride. He grinned and nudged Gwyn in the ribs when Christien stood Paolo on one of the tables to help him adjust his shirt.

“He picked up on being a father quickly,” Rik chuckled.

“He’s always had a knack with the other children,” Gwyn smiled. “It’s good that Paolo has taken a liking to him.”

Rik suddenly walked over to them and put his hand on Paolo’s shoulder. “I was very impressed,” he told the boy.

Paolo smiled widely and straightened his shoulders. “Thank you, Uncle Rik. But they changed the words on me.”

“You did the right thing,” Rik pointed out seriously. “You handled it as well as any boy of seven.”

Christien grinned as Paolo’s eyes widened. “I’m only five,” he admitted.

“Five!” Rik looked astonished. “Really?” When Paolo nodded, Rik scooped him up into his arms. “Then this calls for a real celebration!”

Elaina smiled from across the room where she was speaking with the priestess and her acolytes. It eased her mind that Paolo had been easily and quickly accepted by the Aramis family.

Christien shook his head slightly as he watched Rik gather the other children. Sometimes he wondered about his brother. He jumped slightly as a heavy hand slapped his shoulder.

“Getting nervous, little brother?” Stefan grinned as Artur handed him a goblet of wine.

Christien shot him a level look. For good measure, he gave Artur one as well. Rik must have told them about the previous night. “Any reason I should be?” he asked.

“Let me explain about women.” Stefan’s arm slid around his shoulder.

“He knows nothing about women,” Starra interrupted as she joined them.

“I know a lot about women,” Stefan disagreed with a smile.

“May you and Elaina find happiness, Christien.” Starra ignored Stefan.

“Thank you, Starra.” Christien disengaged himself from Stefan’s grasp. “Perhaps you’ll be the next to receive the blessing of the Goddess.”

Stefan choked on his wine as Artur snorted. Starra gave each of them a look of dismissal. “Perhaps,” she nodded before turning away.

“Now what man in his right mind...” Stefan sputtered.

“She’s a good woman,” Artur acknowledged. “But she’s a hard one.”

“She’s an Aramis,” Christien pointed out. “Whether she accepts it or not.”

“Speaking of women,” Stefan slid his arm around Christien’s shoulders and started walking him away. “Let me give you some advice.”

Christien wound up receiving advice from not only Stefan, but Artur and Rik as well. Trapped against one wall by his well-meaning brothers, who gave conflicting advice then argued with each other about who was right, Christien’s eyes followed Elaina as Gwyn and Devora escorted her up the stairs.

Catching his look, Rik suddenly slapped his back. Caught off-guard, Christien staggered slightly. “Your only problem was your pledge-gift,” he shook his head.

“Who was to know Elaina was going to give Christien this?” Stefan waved the gloves in Rik’s face.

Christien quickly took the gloves from Stefan. “You’ve had too much to drink,” he muttered.

“It’s my little brother’s wedding!” Stefan laughed. “When is there a better time to drink?”

“Don’t worry,” Rik advised. “You’ll do just fine.”

“I’m not worried!” Christien snapped. He took a few steps then turned back. “Enjoy the party,” he smiled thinly.

“He’s worried,” Artur decided as he drank from his goblet.

“Christien! Christien!” A babble of childish voices stopped him halfway across the room. He turned around to see the five children running towards him.

“This is for you and Elaina!” Cheyne thrust a wrapped round object towards him.

Christien knelt down. “That’s very kind of you,” he said slowly.

“It’s from all of us,” Trainor added.

“I didn’t know about it,” Paolo looked sad. “But they said I could give it to you and Mama, too.”

“You gave us a wonderful present during the ceremony,” Christien told him. “We’re sorry the words got changed.”

Paolo shyly smiled back.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” Jaella demanded.

“Well, it’s for both of us,” Christien pointed out. “I should open it with Elaina, shouldn’t I?”

“Where is she?” Shiloh looked around.

“She’s already gone upstairs,” Paolo said glowing with self-importance. “She told me.”

“Then I’d better join her.” Christien gave all the children quick hugs. “Thank you for the gift.”

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

Devora carefully folded Elaina’s wedding dress and placed it in the chest next to the wall. “I just love your clothes,” she sighed. “Especially that gown.” She gave Elaina’s light blue nightgown an approving look.

“Now who’s hinting for a gift at Winter Solstice,” Gwyn teased.

Devora shrugged. “If it’s good enough for Lord Rik...” she began.

Elaina flushed. “At least it would be appreciated,” she muttered.

“Oh, your gift was appreciated,” Devora said quickly. “I thought Christien’s eyes were going to jump out of his skull.”

Gwyn saw Elaina glance at the dagger on the chest next to the bed. “Elaina, the Aramis men aren’t easy to live with,” she explained.

“Or live without,” Devora added with a sensual smile.

Despite herself, Elaina smiled.

“Or easy to love,” Gwyn continued with a warning look at Devora. “But they live by their words.”

After a moment, Elaina nodded. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Christien will be here soon.”

Gwyn nodded recognizing dismissal even if Devora didn’t and closed the door behind them. They saw Christien coming around the corner towards his rooms.

Christien saw the look on Devora’s face. “You’d better see to Stefan,” he quickly advised. “He’s had a lot to drink.”

“Has he?” Devora’s eyes narrowed. “I think I can solve that problem.”

Gwyn smiled as Devora stalked away. “Very nice,” she murmured to Christien. “That should keep Stefan occupied.” She saw Christien grin. “I think I can keep Artur and Rik occupied for a while. After that, they’ll be too busy with aching heads and stomachs to bother you.”

“Thank you, Gwyn. Especially for the banner.” Christien gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Rik doesn’t deserve you.”

“I know,” Gwyn smiled as she squeezed his hand.

Christien watched until she disappeared around the corner. He stared at the gloves in his hand and took a deep breath. Quietly he opened the door. He tossed the children’s gift onto one of the chairs. Unlacing the top of his shirt, he ran a hand through his hair. Slowly he walked towards the bedroom.

Elaina stood looking at the locket in her hands. It had been a pledge-gift from her first husband, Brandor D’Van. Inside was a lock of his hair. She’d later woven a lock of her own hair with it. Her eyes strayed to the dagger Christien had given her and then back to the locket. Slowly she closed the locket and laid it with the dagger in the trunk. “Good-bye, Brandor,” she murmured closing the lid of the trunk.

Christien’s blue eyes flashed when he heard Brandor’s name. He slammed the door of the bedroom behind him.

Elaina jumped and whirled around. “Christien!” She slowly relaxed. “You scared me.”

“My apologies, my lady,” Christien coolly apologized. Slowly he began extinguishing the candles until only one candelabra remained. He carefully set it on the table next to the bed. He deliberately tossed the gloves on the trunk by the wall.

“Gwyn and Devora left some wine.” Elaina was surprised her voice was so calm. “Would you like some?”

“No.” Christien shook his head. He walked over to Elaina and put his hands on her shoulders. “Who am I?” he asked.

Elaina looked confused. “You’re Christien,” she finally answered.

“That’s right.” Christien’s eyes narrowed. “I’m Christien.”

To Elaina’s surprise, Christien suddenly lowered his head his mouth covering hers. Before she realized it, she was lying across the bed. She moaned softly as Christien eagerly removed her gown his mouth finding her soft skin.

It seemed Christien undressed without removing either his mouth or hands from Elaina’s silken body. Elaina briefly wondered he how knew where to touch her to set her body ablaze.

Christien felt her react quickly to him and realized she must be as starved as he. Staring down at her, he asked himself if she really knew who was with her.

“Elaina?” Christien took her jaw in his hands. “Look at me.”

Slowly Elaina’s eyes opened. She stared up at him grey eyes darkened with passion.

“Who am I?” Christien quietly asked.

Elaina blinked his words seeming to come from far away.

Christien’s eyes hardened at her hesitation. As he kissed her deeply and lowered himself onto her, he imagined she breathed his name.

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

Christien gasped as he threw cold water on his face. Raising up, he let the cold water drip onto his chest. Refusing to look at himself in the polished mirror, he turned around and saw Elaina sitting on the side of the bed facing away from him. From her movements, he realized she was lacing the front of her gown.

Pulling an old shirt over his head, he ran a hand through his tousled brown hair. He hesitated then took her brush and walked to the other side of the bed. He silently held it out to her. “I’ll be back later,” he quietly said.

Elaina took the brush and began running it through her hair. “Do you want to eat here or with the others?” she coolly asked.

Christien stiffened. “Whichever pleases you, my lady.” He spun around. Seconds later, Elaina heard the door slam behind him.

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

“That’s interesting,” Mikhail Tieer humorously observed.

Starra looked over her shoulder. She frowned as she watched Christien cross the practice yard seemingly oblivious to the stares he received.

Mikhail, commander of Rik’s armies, shook his head as Christien took a practice sword and began attacking one of the dummies. “With a bride that looks like Elaina, why would he be down here?” he mused his blue eyes alight with consideration.

“The children are coming for a session. Perhaps you should give them a riding lesson instead,” she suggested.

Mikhail grinned and nodded. “He doesn’t look like he’s in the mood for a lot of questions,” he agreed. “Especially by the children.”

Starra watched as he crossed the field to intercept the oncoming children. She smiled to herself as she saw both Jaella and Cheyne look up at the handsome blonde warrior with adoring looks. Mikhail had the same effect on women, no matter their age. And it was only because he had that effect on every woman that had kept Rik and Stefan from removing his head from his shoulders when they noticed Gwyn and Devora reacting to him. Starra wondered how Elaina would react...and how Christien would handle her reaction.

She watched Christien for almost an hour before walking over to him. He was panting heavily flexing his cramping hands.

“Maybe you should wear the gloves,” Starra suggested taking a practice sword from the wall.

“Go away,” Christien growled.

Starra shrugged. “I assumed that’s what they were for.” She studied the blade of her sword.

Christien glanced at her. “Why won’t you let Rik publicly acknowledge you as our sister?” he asked getting his breathing under control.

“If I want something, I earn it,” Starra evenly replied turning to face him. “Not because it’s given to me.”

Christien shook his head. “You’re as stubborn as the rest of us,” he decided.

Starra considered then nodded. “Perhaps,” she admitted. “Why are you out here?”

Christien scowled. “You want to fight?” he motioned her forward. “Come at me.”

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

Gwyn studied Artur with concealed compassion. He didn’t usually drink but he’d been one of the last ones standing after last night’s feast. She’d left Rik groaning in their rooms. She’d smiled when he told her he was dying and assured him he’d have a magnificent funeral.

She assumed Stefan was in equally pathetic shape since no one had seen either he or Devora since she’d dragged him off early that morning.

Gwyn had found Artur slumped in a chair in the dining hall staring at a plate of fruit. She patted his arm and brought him a potion to settle his stomach. He drank it slowly nodding as the throbbing in his head eased.

“Taking some to Rik?” he finally asked.

“Maybe later,” Gwyn smiled. “He hasn’t suffered enough yet.”

Artur had to smile. He turned and frowned as Elaina walked into the hall.

“Good morning, Elaina,” Gwyn said after a moment. “Would you like something to eat?”

“I’ll take it upstairs,” Elaina answered coolly. “Could you ask for some food to be sent up later as well?”

“Of course,” Gwyn rose and headed for the kitchen.

Artur forced some fruit into his mouth. He glanced up as Elaina reached across the table for the jug of water. He frowned as he noticed the large bruise on her wrist. He suddenly stood up and walked out ignoring Elaina’s questioning look.

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

Christien leaned against the wall his eyes closed. He heard Starra replacing the practice swords. He stood up and opened his eyes to thank her for the workout when he saw Artur stalking across the field.

“Christien!” Artur bellowed.

Starra quickly turned around. While Artur was known to bellow most of the time, it wasn’t often that he allowed his temper to creep into his voice.

“What?” Christien started forward, concerned at the tone in his brother’s voice. “What’s wrong?”

Artur’s fist caught him square in the jaw. Christien flew back landing in the dirt.

Starra stood, hands on hips, watching in silent amusement.

“What was that for?” Christien shouted getting to his feet.

“What do you think it’s for?” Artur bellowed. Lowering his head, he dived against Christien knocking the younger man back onto the ground. Straddling his youngest brother, Artur punched him hard. “You never, never, hurt Elaina again!” he shouted.

Christien gave up trying to talk to Artur and concentrated on defending himself.

Starra leaned against the wall and watched.

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

Gwyn looked up in surprise as Starra entered the Great Hall dragging Artur by one arm and Christien by the other. She watched as Starra silently dumped both men in chairs. She nodded at Gwyn and stalked out, her long dark braid swinging from side to side.

Gwyn stared at both brothers. “Would either of you like to tell me what’s going on?” she asked.

“Artur thinks I hurt Elaina,” Christian muttered shaking his head. “I didn’t.”

“She was bruised,” Artur snapped. “Badly bruised. On her wrist. Are you saying she did that to herself?”

“That’s enough!” Gwyn snapped. “Both of you!” She waited as both men quieted. “Elaina seemed fine to me, Artur. She could have gotten bruised anywhere. We were moving those baggage trunks around yesterday. I have a few bruises myself.” She turned to Christien. “And you...I think you need to get cleaned up. I’ve sent some food upstairs.”

Christien gave his brother an angry look and stomped out.

“How in the world did Starra get the two of you apart?” Gwyn asked with amusement.

“She hit me from behind,” Artur snarled. He weaved slightly as he got to his feet. “Send some food up for me as well, Gwyn, if you please.”

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

Elaina sat in the middle of the floor in the sitting room. She carefully laid skeins of thread around her and began unwinding the snags. The case she’d packed them in had broken during the journey from Elhalyn, and she hoped to find another one later in the day.

She paused for a moment as her sleeve pulled back revealing the bruise on her wrist. She laid her wrist in her lap and gingerly touched it. It looked worse than it was hardly hurting at all. It was the result of the grip Christien had kept on it during the night.

He’d turned to her more than once during the night, and she’d met his passion willingly even joyfully. Yet there had been no softness or gentleness in his caresses. And he’d seemed angry when she tried to be gentle in return. And afterwards, he’d roughly gripped her wrist even in sleep.

Elaina jumped as the door was flung open then slammed shut. “Christien! You startled me.” She took a deep breath pulling her sleeve over the bruise.

“I seem to keep doing that.” Christien’s eyes narrowed as he noticed her actions.

Elaina glanced up at him then frowned. “What happened to you?” she asked getting up.

“Artur is what happened to me,” Christien’s voice grated as he headed into the bedroom. He jerked his shirt over his head snapping some of the laces.

“Artur?” Elaina followed him. She turned him around and studied his face. “Sit down,” she said. “I’ll get some water.”

Wearily Christien sat on the bed. He removed his boots then laid down too exhausted to sit up. Moments later, he flinched as a cool wet cloth touched an open cut on his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” Elaina murmured. “But it needs to be cleaned.”

“I know.” Christien’s eyes briefly opened then closed. He lay quietly as Elaina carefully cleaned the cut then wiped his face. “Artur thinks I abused you last night,” he said quietly. He suddenly opened his eyes and searched Elaina’s face. “Did I?”

“No.” Elaina sat back in surprise. “Whatever put that idea in Artur’s mind?”

Christien’s fingers slowly raised the sleeve of her gown. “This,” he said studying the bruise.

“He never even said a word to me about it,” Elaina caught Christien’s eyes. “And I never said any such thing to him.”

Christien slowly nodded. “I didn’t realize. It won’t happen again.” He slowly removed his hand.

“Have you eaten?” Elaina asked after a moment. She took the basin into the other room. When she didn’t get an answer, she walked back to the bed. “Christien?” She smiled to herself seeing his eyes were closed. Gently she put a fur robe over him and quietly closed the door.

Christien’s eyes opened when he heard the door close. Taking a deep breath, he silently rolled off the bed. He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door then walked to the chest in the corner and carefully opened it. Lying on top was the dagger he’d given Elaina as a pledge gift. Next to it was a locket.

Reaching down, he opened the locket and saw two locks of hair braided as one. He immediately recognized Elaina’s brown hair only a few shades darker than his own. He stared at the intertwined blonde hair he remembered as Brandor’s. Slowly, Christien closed the locket and laid it next to the dagger.

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

Elaina carefully set the food on the table in the sitting room. By lighting all the candles and placing the candelabra around the room, the room became more cheerful. She idly wondered if Christien would mind if she brightened up the rooms a little. It seemed his taste ran to neutral dull colors.

Unknowingly taking a deep breath, she slowly opened the door to the bedroom. Although she’d left Christien asleep hours before, she was surprised to see one of the windows open and Christien, fully dressed, leaning out.

“Christien?” she asked slowly coming in the room. “Is something wrong outside?”

Christien turned suddenly the breeze ruffling through his hair. “No.” He shook his head with a slight smile. “I just needed some air.” He started to close the window.

“You can leave it open,” Elaina said putting a hand on his arm. “I don’t mind.” She saw his jaw clench and turned away. “Gwyn sent up some food. You must be starved.”

Silently, Christien followed Elaina to the other room. He sat down then quickly stood up. Reaching onto the chair, he picked up a wrapped item and smiled. “Here,” he said putting it on the table. “A gift from all the children.” He sat down and began eating.

Elaina sat across from him smiling to herself as she watched him hungrily eat. She poured some wine in a goblet and set it in front of him. Then she reached for the object and unwrapped it. She stared at it for a moment then glanced at Christien who was watching with amusement. “A rock?” she asked putting it on the table.

“It’s an angry rock.” Christien’s eyes twinkled.

“Oh, an angry rock,” Elaina nodded. “That explains it.” She looked at Christien and patiently waited.

“A few weeks after Stefan brought Devora here, the children apparently decided they’d heard enough arguing,” Christien explained as he ate. “So they gave them a rock. It was an angry rock. Whenever one of them was angry at the other, they would take the rock, say what they were angry about, and slam the rock onto the table.” He grinned. “The idea, according to Jaella, was their anger would be transferred to the rock. And all would be well.”

Elaina smiled. “She has a very good imagination.”

Christien grunted. “Too much sometimes,” he said. After a moment, he continued, “So obviously, Rik and Gwyn had to have be fair, you understand.”

“Of course.” Elaina’s eyes twinkled as Christien kept eating. “How well has it worked?”

Christien shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I’ve lost count of the tables that have had to be replaced.”

Elaina laughed and Christien grinned. “So, to be fair, of course, we had to have an angry rock,” Elaina nodded. She rose and put it on the mantle over the fireplace. “Just in case,” she smiled over her shoulder.

Christien hesitated then poured more wine. “Paolo and the others seem to have become fast friends,” he said as Elaina seated herself.

“There were no other children at Elhalyn for Paolo to play with,” Elaina explained as she began eating. “I’m glad he was able to make friends so quickly with the other children.”

“I told him we’d select a pony for him.” Christien looked across the table at his wife. “Tomorrow, if that’s acceptable to you.”

“Of course. You don’t have to ask me,” Elaina smiled. “It’s long past time that he should have known how to ride.” She hesitated. “I’m glad he likes you...and that you like him.”

“He’s a charming rascal,” Christien grinned. “Almost as charming as Rik.”

After the meal, Elaina cleared the table. When she returned, Christien was sitting next to a half-opened window sharpening his sword. Silently, she sat on the floor and continued unsnarling her threads. They sat in quiet yet comfortable silence with each other until a knock on the door.

“Enter,” Christien called out. He smiled as Paolo’s blonde head slowly peeked around the open door.

“Aunt Gwyn said I wasn’t supposed to come in, but...can Trainor and Shiloh stay in my room tonight?” he asked. He looked from one to the other and bit his lower lip. “Please?”

Christien’s eyes twinkled and he glanced at Elaina. Elaina’s eyes were also twinkling. “For tonight,” Elaina nodded. “If their parents approve.”

“They will!” Paolo grinned happily and closed the door. It immediately reopened and he thrust his head back inside the room. “Thank you,” he chirped closing the door. It immediately reopened and Paolo ran inside to hug his mother. “Good-night, Mama,” he kissed her cheek.

“Good-night,” Elaina chuckled.

Paolo walked over to Christien. “Pony tomorrow?” he loudly whispered.

Christien nodded. “Tomorrow,” he whispered back.

“Good-night, Christien,” Paolo grinned before running back to the door. Just before he closed it, they could hear him shouting, “Shiloh! Trainor! I get my pony tomorrow!”

Christien fell back in his chair laughing. Elaina’s cheerful laugh echoed his. After a moment, she stood and put the thread on the chair. “I’ve done about all I can stand on that this evening,” she chuckled as she walked into the bedroom.

Christien carefully finished sharpening his sword then replaced it above the fireplace mantle. He slowly closed the window and extinguished the candles.

He stood in the doorway watching as Elaina sat on the side of the bed slowly unpinning her hair. “You can close the window if you want,” he said unevenly as he sat and pulled off his boots.

“I don’t mind it open,” Elaina replied.

“Good.” Christien took a deep breath. He looked over his shoulder to see Elaina brushing her hair. He watched for a moment, then turned to kneel behind her. Silently, he took the brush from her fingers and gently began brushing her hair.

Elaina caught her breath as Christien’s fingers moved through her hair. “I didn’t know you knew how to comb long hair,” she murmured.

Christien slowly moved her hair from her shoulder. “It’s no more difficult than brushing a horse’s mane,” he mumbled as he kissed the side of her neck.

“Really?” Elaina closed her eyes. “I suppose I should take offense at that.”

Christien’s reply was lost as his mouth moved across her soft shoulder. The brush fell to the floor as he slid her gown lower. His fingers encountered the delicate needlework on her gown and he raised his head. “Thank you for my pledge-gift,” he murmured as he tilted her head back. His mouth moved against her throat. “I know mine wasn’t as personal.”

“It suited you,” Elaina mumbled.

Christien froze for a moment suddenly remembering the locket with intertwined hair. “Yes,” he nodded coolly. “It did.” He pulled Elaina back onto the bed and roughly kissed her.

“Christien,” Elaina gasped. “The candles.....”

“Stay on,” Christien mumbled as he quickly undressed her.

“Please, Christien!” Elaina’s nails dug into his arms. “Blow them out.”

Christien angrily shoved Elaina away then stood and began blowing out the candles leaving only the candelabra on the table in the corner untouched. Breathing deeply, Christien returned to the bed.

“Thank you,” Elaina tried to keep her voice even. “I just...”

“Don’t say anything,” Christien almost snarled pulling her beneath him. “Just don’t.”

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

Hours later, Elaina watched dry-eyed as the last candle flickered out. The moonlight shone through the open window as a slight breeze cooled the room. She turned her head to see Christien asleep beside her softly snoring.

Carefully, Elaina tried to remove her hair from his grasp. The night before, he’d held her wrist tightly. This night, he’d wrapped his hand in her long hair. Working the strands carefully, she finally pulled free.

Christien stirred stretching against her. Elaina put her hand on his shoulder and he drifted back to sleep. Carefully, Elaina curled her body against his catching her breath when Christien turned and threw an arm over her waist.

She watched the moon drift across the night sky wondering why, in their most passionate moments, Christien asked her who he was....then kissed her to prevent her from answering.


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