Apologies for the delay with this chapter! Of course I have been traveling and then I opted to make a long overdue update to Take My Hand, which some of you may also be reading. This past week was particularly exciting for me since I had a relative visiting from Australia. It was her first time visiting the USA, so we did some sightseeing and, of course, lots of shopping!

Thank you teardrop456, poloplaya4e, Nordy Girl, Market Square Heroes and shortstef for reviewing the last chapter! Chapter 5 is longer and I hope more interesting as we delve deeper into the details of this story!

I'm pasting a note that I originally placed in the latest update to Take My Hand about toxic ingredients in products that we use. I have yet to update my profile with more specifics and I promise that something will be up by the end of this week!

I have an issue of concern that I'd like to share. During my many travels I have learned a number of things along the way, as one might expect. Yet, one of these learnings was so appalling that I have taken it to heart and have now taken up a cause. I'd like to raise your awareness of the toxic chemicals that are used to make many of the products that we use everyday, including (but not limited to) cosmetics and other health and beauty products. Chemicals (causing hazards such as cancer, damage to our organs and allergies to name a few) that are found in everyday products such as skin care, shampoo, make-up, sunscreen, toothpaste, soap and endless other common household products are poisoning our bodies. I have posted more information about this issue on my profile; please check it out!

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Chapter 5 - Destruction

Trevor walked silently next to his brother as he waited for details on tonight's fun. Whatever Caleb's plans, Trevor would bet his life that they were somehow related to Ariana. The girl was pivotal to the plans that he and Caleb had so carefully laid out years ago, even before the disappearance of the monarchy. His mind wandered to his adolescent days and the discovery of gold on Henry's lands. The night before the annual archery competition, Trevor had sought out all of his opponents and discretely sabotaged each one to ensure his victory. However, as Trevor was sneaking off the property of his last adversary, his shadowy figure had been spotted and the shrill scream of a woman filled the evening air. That scream had quite possibly saved his life; it certainly warned Trevor that he had been detected and within seconds arrows whizzed by him. Trevor darted into the forest, seeking protection behind the thick shields of tree trunks and the dark veil of leaves and brush to hide him from his attacker. Eventually, the number of shots dancing around him subsided and soon stopped; Trevor carefully made his way out of the dense thicket and proceeded to head home. During his search for cover, he had purposely remained near the edge of the forest; knowing that running recklessly through it in the liquid darkness would surely result in mishap. In the distance, Trevor could make out the frame of a house and the smoke wafting from its chimney came into view behind the silhouette of trees.

Taking a step toward the picturesque home in the clearing, Trevor's foot suddenly sank into the vegetation of the forest floor and soon he was swallowed by the ground. He lay crumpled on the earthen floor, bits of dust and debris still falling on top of him. Gritting his teeth, Trevor stood up and found himself in a tight pocket, surrounded by a round wall of soil on all sides. He realized he had somehow fallen into a hole; it wasn't terribly deep, only about eight feet, and Trevor climbed his way out. Now more cautious of his footing, Trevor resumed his exit from the forest. He stepped into the clearing and faced the back of the house, which he recognized belonged to the chandler and knew at once that these lands belonged to him.

From here, Trevor easily made his way home, brushing the dust as best he could from his clothes before walking through the front door and flopping down in a chair. He took his boots off and tipped each one over, letting the dirt fall on the floor; he would have someone sweep it up later, now he needed to get some food and rest before the competition. Grabbing an apple from a bowl off the table, Trevor bit into it and gazed into the fire, imagining his victory and the purse size of his soon to be winnings. The image was so vivid that Trevor could see the sparkle of gold glittering before him. He shook his head, dismissing the vision, but the twinkle remained. Eyes wide, he looked down at the floor that now shimmered and winked at him with scattered starlight. Shaking anxiously, Trevor knelt down and found flecks of yellow peeking through the brown dirt.

The tournament now forgotten, he brought Caleb to the back of the chandler's property the following evening and he confirmed the discovery. They surmised Henry had no idea of the wealth he sat on; otherwise it would have been mined long ago. Covering the area with fallen tree branches to hide the hole, the brothers sat down and began scheming a way to acquire these newfound riches; there was no way they'd be able to fully mine the region without their actions going unnoticed. The original plan had been for Caleb to marry Ariana and inherit the lands. However, when King Jordan and Queen Gloria passed away and the crown prince disappeared, Caleb forcefully gained control of the East and quickly increased his aspirations. Yes, he would still marry Ariana; in fact, he needed the gold now more than ever, since he had an army to build up and strengthen. Once that was accomplished, he planned on disposing of Ariana and making an alliance with the leader of the Northern territory by marrying his only daughter; thus, expanding his power and reach. Trevor was perfectly happy to take a secondary role in his brother's plans; he certainly didn't want to deal with the mercenary's brat and was glad Caleb wanted the job. Unlike their father and uncle, who had turned on each other and became enemies (resulting in both of their downfalls), Caleb and Trevor were a team and took a unified stand. Besides, being the only sibling of the Eastern dictator certainly came with many of the advantages but without nearly all of the work and responsibility power demanded. The way Trevor saw it, he was getting the better end of the bargain.

But all of their plans depended on the gold and to get the gold required getting the girl. Trevor snapped back to the present; they had been walking for a while now and it was time to get the details of tonight's treachery from Caleb. "Since when did you develop an affinity for vegetables, brother?" he teased.

Caleb gave him a wicked grin. "Come now, Trevor. Don't you remember what Mother used to tell us? 'The secret to becoming big and strong is through vegetables,'" he mimicked.

Trevor raised an eyebrow and looked back mischievously. "Mother was short a few marbles, if you recall," he reminded his brother.

"That she was; although, to her credit, father may have had something to do with it," Caleb laughed. "Regardless, she may have been on to something." He stopped walking and directed Trevor's attention to the right. Trevor turned his head. His eyes trailed to where Caleb was pointing and saw they were approaching Ariana's home, which came as no surprise to him.

"Such as?" Trevor inquired.

"Such as the fact that I've been going about wooing Ariana all wrong! I need to give that stubborn girl a reason for wanting to marry me, aside from my good looks and charm, of course. When we're through here tonight, Trevor, she will be the one chasing after me!" Caleb's face was filled with glee.

"So what's the plan?" Trevor asked, curious how his brother was going to perform this small miracle.

"Tonight," Caleb whispered, "we're going to set her house on fire."

"Ah, so that is the carrot," Trevor mused. "You put her life in danger and then miraculously show up to rescue her by playing hero and saving the day."

"Wrong. I'm not going to save her."

Trevor's eyes widened slightly. "Surely you're not thinking of - "

"No!" Caleb snapped, shaking her head. "We need the girl alive, you know that! If she dies, the property goes to some long lost cousin twice removed or some gibberish like that; you were with me when we broke into the town records and examined Henry's will. Think, Trevor! Since she is unwilling, we need to lure her to me!" He paused. "Tell me, what does Ariana love most above all else?"

He thought for a moment and soon understanding appeared in Trevor's eyes. "Henry," he whispered. Of course. The answer to their dilemma had been sitting in a bed waiting to be discovered.

"Precisely," he confirmed, a smile of satisfaction appearing on Caleb's face. "Henry is the carrot that is going to bait Ariana right into my arms." He pulled out a flint from his knapsack. "We're going to start a fire by Henry's room, which is over there," he gestured toward the lower story window on the right. "Then, I'm going to go in and pull that cripple from the flames and bring him out here. At which point I'll go back and rescue Ariana or she will exit the burning building on her own accord, whatever comes first. Regardless, she will then pledge her undying devotion to me for saving her father's pitiful life; Henry himself will encourage her to marry me after this!"

"You know," Trevor assessed, "this just might work. Even if she isn't taken by your heroism, which is a possibility we can't ignore, her role as a dutiful daughter will come into play and she will feel the need to reward her father's liberator." He gave Caleb a sly smile. "Any idea of what 'reward' you'll demand, Caleb?"

Caleb's smile mirrored Trevor's. "Well, she will need someplace to stay until the house is repaired; and, being the benevolent leader that I am, I insist that she stay with me instead of suffering out on the cold streets. We all know how dangerous it can be for a woman out alone at night, especially one so distraught after nearly losing her father and her own home; we wouldn't want someone taking advantage of her, would we? I'll be sure to provide the shelter and comfort she needs." Caleb cackled vindictively and Trevor joined in; it was too easy. "Let's get this started; the sooner we begin, the sooner I can collect." With a wave of his good arm, he motioned his brother toward the house. Discretely creeping up to the domicile, they knelt down; spark after spark shot out as Caleb struck the flint against steel and aimed at the leaves, twigs and other debris he could find to use as tinder. A small flame took shape and was soon licking the wood panels that made up the front of the house. The pair stepped back to watch the fire grow and hid a safe distance away, waiting for the opportune time for Caleb to make his grand entrance and Trevor to step in and put out the fire.

The wind picked up; Mother Nature nursed the hungry flames and expanding tendrils stretched to widen their embrace around the structure. The blaze entered the house, pushing and prodding its way deeper, searching for nourishment. Eventually, the fire found what it was looking for; stored in the depths of the cellar was a small sack of gun powder that Jocelyn had procured during her many travels as a mercenary. Had Caleb known of its existence, he may have rethought his plan. Fire and powder collided, their fusion resulting in a burst of chaos.

Outside, the smirks on Caleb and Trevor's faces were finally wiped off as they watched in horror as the entire house was quickly engulfed in flames.

"What the - "

"Go!" Caleb cut Trevor off. "Bring the men; we need to put this fire out before the entire Eastern domain is singed to a crisp!" I may lose Ariana; but, I'll be damned if I lose my territory as well!

Realizing the severity of the situation, Trevor sprinted off to get help.

Unnoticed by both men, another figure who had watched their entire exchange silently rushed toward the inferno the brothers had started.

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Ariana tossed in her sleep; sweat spilled off her body. Why was she so hot? Her arms thrashed in the air, trying to throw off covers that weren't there. Always on guard for her father's voice calling her during the night, her eyes opened immediately when she heard him calling her name. Tremendous heat and the promise of nearby flames greeted her as she sat up in bed. Ariana gasped and started to choke as she inadvertently inhaled the poisonous fumes of smoke. Fire! I know I put out all of the flames after I cooked dinner; how did this happen? There was no time to figure it out now, terror struck her heart and squeezed it with all its strength; she needed to help her father.

"Daddy!" she yelled, over and over again, running to the hole in the floorboards and peeking down at him.

"Ariana!" Henry shouted back. "Get out of here! I don't know how much longer the house can take the heat before it collapses!"

Relieved that her father was still alive and conscious, she shouted "I'm not going anywhere without you, Daddy! I'll be right there!"

Ariana approached her bedroom door and cautiously touched the handle; she drew her hand away quickly as her fingers were burned by its contact. The fire was right outside her door; she needed to find another way out. Her eyes searched the room and landed on the old practice sword her mother had given and an idea formulated in her head. Ariana grabbed the sword and went back to the crack in her bedroom floor.

"Step way from the hole, Daddy! I'm coming!" She heard Henry drag himself to the lower end of the bed. Once she knew he was a safe distance away, she raised the sword and started hacking into the floorboards. Bits of dust and wood jumped up into Ariana's face; she ignored them and focused on her task, stopping only when she was caught with another fit of coughing. Picking the blade up once again, she pierced the small area again and again until she had carved out a jagged opening she could fit through. Sticking her head through the gap, she smiled down at her father, and then threw the sword down; she may have use of it later. Next, she adjusted her skirts and slipped her body through the breach and slowly lowered herself down. The uneven, spiky edges of the roughly cut timbers scraped her sides and tore the bodice of her dress in a number of places.

Henry watched in amazement at what his daughter was trying to accomplish. First she had ripped through the floor like a mad woman and now she was wriggling her way down to him. Henry looked at her with fatherly affection. You're all grown up now, Ariana; a woman after your mother's heart. Jocelyn is more a part of you than you realize. She landed on the bed with a thud and leapt into his arms. "That was brilliant, Ariana!" he commended her.

"It's going to be all right, Daddy! I'm here now; I'll get you out of here." She raised her head, looking around the room for an escape route. It was even hotter here than in her own room; to her dismay, she saw flames encircling the room and knew she had to act fast. Hopping off the bed, Ariana seized the discarded practice weapon and approached the only window not blocked off by fire - the one that overlooked the forest. With a cry, she plunged the sword through the glass, shattering it, and brushed the shards off the sill.

"This is our way out, Da - "

Ariana's words were cut off as a tornado of fire from below shot through the floor by the opposite window, the impact throwing both father and daughter off their feet. Both watched in panic as the fire started to eat away at the wooden floor beneath their feet.

Henry got over the shock first and called to his daughter. "Ariana! Go! Get out of here! Save yourself!"

She shook her head violently, "No! We're a team, Daddy. I'm not going anywhere without you."

"I have lived my life! I'm not going to sacrifice you to save my broken self!"

"The two of you can bicker about this later; right now, time is of the essence, wouldn't you agree?"

They looked up at the sound of a new voice. "Nana!" Ariana exclaimed when she saw the woman standing outside the desecrated window. Henry looked back in relief when he saw her; she could help save his daughter.

"No time for salutations, dear heart. Come on, now! You haven't much time left," she commanded gravely, as she threw a wet piece of cloth on the window sill.

Ariana put her arm around Henry and led him to the window, attempting to push him up. "You first, Daddy."

Henry pulled away from his daughter; the house was unstable, he could feel the floor shaking under the pressure. "I'm not going anywhere."

Ariana stared at her father, stunned. "What are you talking about, Daddy?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Henry continued, "until I see you get out of here safely. Once you are out, then I will follow."

"But you need me to help you up!" she protested.

"I can manage, Ariana. Now go; GO! We've wasted enough time!"

Ariana looked her father in the eye and what she saw there told her he wasn't going to back down. "Promise me that you'll be right behind me, Daddy," Ariana pleaded, her voice shaking.

Henry swallowed. He knew this might be the first time he'd have to break a promise to her. "I promise; I love you, Ariana."

"I love you too, Daddy." She climbed up the sill, shielding her face from the flames that surrounded everything. Nana grabbed her hand and pulled her through, but not before the bottom of her skirts caught on fire.

"Drop to the ground! Roll!" Nana ordered. Ariana did as was told and the orangey-red sparks died out.

"Daddy!" she called, standing up and racing back to the house. "You can do it!" Ariana encouraged him.

Henry pulled himself up to the sill, trying to kick his feet up. On his third attempt, his left foot connected with the window ledge; but, as he hoisted himself up, his hands slipped and he fell back into the bedroom. Just as Henry got back to his feet, the floor groaned and he started to sink. Frantic, he lunged toward the window, yet all he could manage to grab was the cloth sitting on the window ledge.

Ariana shot forward, reflexes like a cat, and managed to grasp the other end of the fabric. The weight of her father pulled her forward; but, Ann quickly came and wrapped her arms around the tiny waist, grounding the girl. Gritting her teeth, Ariana concentrated on pulling her father up; however, the hiss of seams ripping broke through her thoughts. NO! Hold on just a little longer; please! The material ignored her silent pleas and continued to tear.

"Ariana," Henry said, his voice strained. "Stay safe; watch out for Caleb. Do what makes you happy. I'll give your mother your love." His grip was slipping and the smell of gunpowder was making him nauseous and dizzy. Gunpowder? Why would there be – of course. He perked up. Jocelyn's project - did she ever finish it? I –

Henry's thoughts were interrupted as the fabric snapped and he fell backward, still clutching its folds. He dropped from his bedroom down into the blazing cellar; the floorboards having given way.

"DADDY!" Endless tears flooded Ariana's face as she screamed, helpless as Nana held her back from jumping after her father, she watched him sink into the sea of flames that had once been their home.