Something tickled his nose as he slept. He tried to fight the urge to wake up, but it happened again and then again. He finally opened his eyes to see what had bothered him enough to wake him from a wonderful dream. Conri looked down to realize the soft hair of the very person he had been dreaming about was the culprit of the assault on his nose.
Eleri lay in his arms with her head resting on his chest. His arms were wrapped around her, holding her close to him. He moved one hand and smoothed down her hair, placing his arm back around her. Judging by the dim light around them, he knew they had only a little time before they needed to awaken and leave. He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep when he felt her stir against him.
He rubbed her back gently, hoping she would continue to slumber, but she yawned and looked up at him. “Conri?”
“You should rest a while longer, Eleri. We do not need to leave just yet.”
“The sooner we arise and get on our way, the sooner we can find a place better than this simple shelter and hard ground to rest.”
She pushed away from him and stretched. He sat up and watched her for a moment. “This shelter isn’t so bad. The company almost makes the hard ground worth it.”
She gave him a small smile as she rubbed her lower back. “I hope you don’t think too ill of me for the position in which we slept. It was dreadfully cold last night, even with our small fire. I was trying to keep us from dying of exposure.”
He reached out and swept a dark red curl off her cheek, letting his hand graze her soft skin. “You do not need to justify yourself to me. I hope you know that by now.”
She tucked the curl behind her ear and looked down. “I don’t wish to hurt you, Conri. I don’t want to lead you somewhere I am not ready to go.”
He let his hand fall and nodded. “And I do not mean to pressure you in any way.” He pulled his cloak tight around him, noticing how cold the air was in their shelter. “I just don’t want you being so careful around me. I am not judging every move you make or word you say.”
“You may not be, but I am.” She looked at the burned logs in front of her before reaching to the side and throwing some fresh sticks on the pile. She closed her eyes and reached out her hand. A small fire went from her fingertips to light the fire before her. Leaning back, she looked at Conri. “You are important to me, and there is nothing I would not do to keep from hurting you.”
Conri looked down and picked up a small twig next to him. He threw it on the fire and watched it catch quickly. He had heard enough of her explanations and excuses. He knew he was probably in love with her. He also knew she was not indifferent to him. The past week and a half of travel had shown him that well. Whenever they touched, whether it was him holding her hand on rough terrain or at night when she would rest close to him, he could feel the connection between them. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she could as well. Several times, he was close to kissing her, and he didn’t think she would resist. Still, he did not want to press her. He knew she had feelings for another, deep feelings.
He could not believe he did not notice her and Caerywn’s connection before that morning they had to flee the Haven’s estate. Surely there had been signs on their journey to the northern temple. He should have noticed looks or conversations, and looking back; he could see things he missed. He was nervous about their final destination and a little dazzled by Eleri.
Now that he knew, he did not find himself angry. He felt jealousy as he thought of Caerwyn loving her, but he did not blame either one. They had known each other for years. They had formed their bond long before either of them met Conri. He could not find fault at what had happened between them. He knew very little about it as Eleri had not spoken much of it, and he had not asked. He had the sense that when she was ready, she would talk about it. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to hear it, but perhaps knowing the truth would be better than what he had imagined in his head.
“How far do you think we will make it today?” he asked as he sat back.
“I am hoping to make it to a small village I believe lays in the middle of this side of the forest in two days. It is still a long way from Niamhan and the Silver Palace. You should not be recognized, and I doubt anyone would remember me the few times I have been there.”
“Will there be a place to stay?”
“There is probably a small inn, though I don’t know how nice it will be. I think it might be mostly a brothel, honestly.” She smiled a little. “You might like that, but I am not sure we can waste what little coin we have on any entertainment.”
He smiled a little. “I am in no need of entertainment, Eleri, though I might find it interesting to see a real brothel. I’ve never even been close to one.”
“I’m not sure I want you even within half a village of a brothel. Someone who looks like you and talks as you do, the ladies would be on you in a second. They will know you are highborn and think you have money. One or two may even take you in as a charity if it is a slow night. I doubt they see a man as handsome as you very often.”
His smile widened, and she rolled her eyes. “It is no secret you are handsome, Conri, or that I find you so.”
“You will have to make sure you stay by my side when we get to this village. If there is a chance we can sleep on something softer than the ground, I think we should take it. Even if you do have to keep numerous women from stealing me away.”
“Perhaps, I will let one have you after all,” she laughed. “I could use a peaceful night alone.”
Conri laughed with her. ’If you think you can actually stand it, then see what happens.” He said teasingly. “Perhaps if I do this right, your jealousy will win out, and your night will not be as peaceful as you thought.”
She stopped laughing and rolled her eyes as she smacked his arm. “I guess I should be glad you haven’t lost your sense of humor, but perhaps you went a bit too far with that one.”
“Maybe I did, but you will have to excuse me. What else can I do but try to make some light of our situation? It seems almost impossible to do what we must.”
“It is not impossible. It will only take time to get to my father’s house. After that, we will have many resources to get you on the throne. Your way to your rightful place is not impossible, my prince.”
He sat back a little, almost letting her know he was not speaking of his crown or the land when he talked of something being impossible. He did want to take the place meant for him and save Elathia, but just as much, he wanted Eleri. Knowing her connection to Caerwyn and her crazy notion that she was not good enough to be his eventual queen, he thought his cause to win her heart might be hopeless.
They ate a meager breakfast of some apples and leftover wild game that Eleri had killed the day before. As she put out their fire and disassembled their shelter, Conri packed up their meager possessions in a small pack they had found on the way.
“You know if we shifted, we could make up more ground,” said Conri as they walked through the forest. “I could go first, and you could pack our clothes away in this bag and place it on me. I promise not to look too much as you undress.”
“I am not sure shifting would be wise for us at the moment. I’m afraid certain instincts would become stronger, and we might not get much traveling done as we would like. Perhaps in the days to come, we might try it if we need to. But, for now, let us walk as we are.”
They moved through the trees, staying off the path that lay not too far from them. They wished to meet no one they didn’t have to as they didn’t want anyone to journey with them or ask them questions. As they walked, Conri asked Eleri about her life growing up in Cadwin Manor. She spoke at first about her mother.
“I remember her as the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” said Eleri as she kicked a small pinecone at her feet. “It is probably just because I loved her so much, but I do know she was beautiful. You can see a portrait of her when we reach Cadwin Manor.”
“Do you look like her?”
“My father says I do, but I do not think I am quite as lovely. I have his sharper chin, and I am not sure where my green eyes came from. My father’s are green, but they are not like mine. My mothers were a lovely clear blue.”
“I like your eyes,” said Conri. “They were one of the first things I noticed about you.”
“One of the first?” she asked with a mischievous grin.
“Well, the light was bright when you walked into the room, and I could not get a good look at your face. I may have noticed some of your other lovely attributes first.”
“Would you like to describe these attributes to me?” she asked with a laugh.
“I wouldn’t mind it at all, but I am sure you can probably guess. I don’t believe you are one of those women who do not know how lovely they are. I am sure many men have told you.”
“I almost forgot who I was speaking with. Of course, you wouldn’t mind saying things to shock me. I know that men find me attractive, but I usually drive them away easily when they hear how much I like to speak my mind. I come off abrasive at times.”
“Not abrasive,” said Conri. “You come off as commanding and confident when you are speaking about something you are passionate about. I imagine weak men find you intimidating. Some strong men might find you so as well.”
“Do you find me intimidating, your highness?”
“There were times when I first met you that I could see you that way, but I have never been shy. Instead of letting it guide me in being careful with you, I was bold and stupid. You must have thought me very foolish when we first met.”
“I never thought you were foolish. When I first met you, I found you handsome, charming and infuriating. You were trying to intimidate me and play some game. I would not have it and wished to beat you before we even really starting playing. I believe I got more than I bargained for but probably what I deserved.”
“I knew quickly that I should not have tried to toy with you. I actually felt a bit ashamed for every woman I dallied with in some way. Most didn’t care about me finding some little pleasure in them and pushing them aside, but a few were hurt, I think. No matter what she might have caused by being fooled by Bren Farrow, I still feel a little guilty about Aella. I should never have started anything with her.”
“Aella made her own decisions. She knew who you were and let her passion get the better of her.”
“Well, hopefully, she will make better decisions in the future. I do hope she and the Havens are well, Caerwyn and Lady Farrow too.”
“I worry for them, but Caerwyn is smart and strong. Lady Farrow is clever, and I believe, a good fighter. They will take care of the Havens and keep them safe.”
They were quiet for a few moments before Conri looked at Eleri. “You never talk about him unless I bring him up, and then you barely say three words about him.”
“What good would it do to speak of him to you. You can’t want to hear any of it.”
Conri shrugged. “I care about you. I want to know everything about you. I believe he is a big part of your story, and I would like to hear it.”
She let out a deep breath. “Maybe someday, but not today. I feel better than I have since we left the Haven’s estate. My side does not ache for once, and it is an unusually warm and beautiful fall day. I wish to walk with you and enjoy your company.” She took his hand.
He pulled her close to him as they walked. “I will never force you to speak about anything, but I want you to know you do not have to hide your feelings for Caerwyn from me. I know he is important to you. If you need to talk about him, I am here.”
“Thank you, your highness. I will keep it in mind.”