She was beginning to get used to waking up in Conri’s arms. Eleri was starting to feel as if she wouldn’t be able to sleep without him. She leaned up and kissed his lips, wondering if it would be a problem she would have to face. She had a feeling it was up to her. Conri stirred as she pulled away. He opened his eyes and gave her a soft smile.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” said Eleri.
He pulled her close to him and kissed her again. “I do not mind being woken up in such a manner. It is a great relief when you kiss me first thing in the morning.”
“A relief?” she asked with confusion.
He sighed and held her close to him. “I suppose I am scared one of these days you will wake up and explain to me why we can’t do this anymore. I don’t take any moment we share for granted, Eleri.”
She put her hand up to his cheek and stroked it. It would be so easy to tell him there was nothing to worry about. It would feel right to say she would love him forever and never leave him. She wanted to say it all and more so badly, but something held her back. She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t give herself to him fully. She was sure she loved him and knew how severely it would hurt her if she had to give him up.
She stared up at him, trying to think of a reason. Her mind first went to Caerwyn. She had deep feelings for him, ones that had existed for some time. She believed it was love, but it was so different than what she felt for Conri that she could not be as sure as she once was. There was definitely passion with Caerwyn. The fire that ran through her body as he loved her was intoxicating. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, right on the edge and looking down. There was always a moment that you wondered what would happen if you jumped. Being loved by Caerwyn made her feel as though she would either perish or fly.
Being loved by Conri was almost the opposite. She felt as though she was tied to him, safe from all that could hurt her, even herself. Her bad thoughts and doubts were manageable, giving her time to rest. When he held her and loved her, it was as if everything seemed so simple.
She experienced pleasure from both men, but with Caerwyn, it was as terrifying as it was consuming. She knew it wouldn’t last each time because he would continually pull away from her, making her second guess everything, even herself. With Conri, it was intense and fulfilling. She began to think she had never felt as loved as she did when she was with Conri. She laughed at herself.
“Are you laughing at me? I suppose I do sound pathetic.”
She stopped laughing and shook her head. “You do not sound pathetic at all. I was laughing at myself because I am such a fool.”
“Me, you, us,” she said.
“Do you want to elaborate?” he asked.
She smiled as she moved to lie on him, her face hovering over his. “I think there is something else I would rather do this morning than explain to you what an idiotic woman I am.”
His hands went to the hem of her nightgown, raising it as they moved up the back of her thighs. “I will be happy to indulge you this morning, but I would like to hear you tell me more about this later.”
Eleri kissed her way down his body, letting her concerns leave her for a while as she spent all her energy focusing on the man she knew she loved.
They emerged from the room sometime later. They walked downstairs together to see if they could find something for breakfast, knowing they were late for the usual meal.
“I am afraid I made us too late for breakfast,” said Eleri as they walked into the small dining room. “I can go see what I can find for us in the kitchen.”
Before she could turn to go, Conri took her hand and pulled her close. “I am not even sure I am in the mood for breakfast. We only have one more day here before we travel. There are better ways to spend it than sitting here in the dining room.”
“What ways would that be?” she asked with a laugh.
He responded by kissing her, and she found she thought he had a good point. When she finally pulled away, she was going to suggest they pack up some food to enjoy the day outdoors, but she saw someone enter the room out of the corner of her eyes.
She moved to Conri’s side and saw her aunt coming through the door. She was a tall woman with her dark brown hair running in a thick braid down her shoulder. Her clear blue eyes that were much like Eleri’s mother’s were wide, and her eyebrows raised.
“Aunt Efa,” said Eleri taking a step closer. “You have made it back.”
Her aunt looked at Conri before nodding at Eleri. “I arrived late last night and didn’t want to disturb you. Grace said it wouldn’t be a good idea, and I believe I can see why.” She moved forward. “It is good to meet you, your highness. My name is Efa Moss, and I am glad you have found shelter in my home.” She gave a pretty curtsey with a small smile on her face.
“I am very grateful for the hospitality we have been shown. Your home is lovely, and I have enjoyed my time here.”
Eleri’s aunt seemed to be trying not to laugh, but she composed herself quickly. “I am glad to hear it. Have you two had breakfast yet? Grace and I slept late ourselves, and there is some food still out in the kitchen if you are interested in joining us.”
Eleri looked at Conri. “We will be happy to eat with you both, thank you.”
“I know your journey hasn’t been ideal, but I am happy to see you, Eleri,” said her aunt. “it has been too many months since I have seen you.”
“I have missed you, Aut Efa.” Eleri went to her aunt and hugged her.
“Let’s go eat, and then later, we can all meet together and decide what to do next. I imagine you want me to help you get to Cadwin manor, and I will be happy to do it. It will take a great deal of energy even with your combined power, my dear, so I will need to rest most of the day before I attempt it.”
“I don’t believe either of us mind staying here another night if need be,” said Conri. “You can rest all you like.”
Efa nodded. “Now, come eat with us. Grace has told me some of how you ended up here, and I read your father’s letters, Eleri. Now, I would like to hear your version of the story.”
They spent the better part of the morning talking in the kitchen while the young girl, Millie, bounced around them tidying up. When Eleri’s aunt had asked all her questions, she stood up.
“Millie, will you run into the nearest village and pick up some supplies? I believe Grace has a list,” said Efa.
Grace took a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it to the girl. The girl wiped her hands and took the list with a nod. “I will be back as soon as I can.”
“Do not speak with anyone you meet about anything you have seen or heard here, Millie,” said Efa sternly.
“Of course not, mam. I would never do anything to mess up what I have here. I like living in this house.”
“And we like having you, Millie,” said Grace. “Now, go do as your told, and I am sure Efa will give you a lesson in the next couple of days.”
Efa nodded, and Millie happily hurried from the room. Efa looked at Eleri. “There are a few things I need to gather in the woods that Millie will not be able to get in a shop. Will you help me, Eleri? The prince can stay behind and assist Grace with clearing the food.”
Eleri glanced at Conri, knowing her aunt wished to see her alone. “I will be happy to go with you, aunt. Let me grab a cloak.”
“I will meet you outside the front door,” said her aunt before putting her hand on Grace’s shoulder for a moment. Grace held her hand before Efa turned and left the room.
Conri stood up. “I will be back in a moment to help you, Grace.”
“Take your time, your majesty. I can manage myself if you have something better to do.”
“I will be happy to assist you; just give me a few minutes.” He walked Eleir out of the room and to the front door where he picked up Eleri’s cloak and held it out. “I suppose your aunt wishes to speak with you alone.” Eleri nodded before slipping her hands into the sleeves. Conri pulled it up and gently turned her around. “I can probably guess the subject.” He fastened the cloak around her neck.
“I am sure you can, since you are it,” said Eleri as she took his hands once he was through.
“Will she try to convince you being with me is a mistake?”
“She has never tried to convince me of anything. She does occasionally give advice, but her favorite thing to do is to let me talk until I come to my own decisions.”
“Do you think you will come to any today?” he asked with a half-smile.
She leaned forward and kissed him softly. “I think I might.” His smile grew, and she pushed him away playfully. “Go help, Grace. I will be back soon, and I hope to find you here. I believe you and I need to have a long talk.”
“I will go nowhere and will be waiting right here when you get back.”
She opened the door to step out. Before she left, she turned and looked at him. “Conri,”
“I know there are a million reasons why this whole journey has probably not been good for the land, but I find that I cannot regret it.”
“I will not ever think it was a mistake, Eleri. I believe I will always remember it as one of the happiest times of my life.”
She smiled. “I will be back soon.” She walked out of the cottage feeling very light. She moved quickly towards her aunt, who waited on the edge of the woods, holding a basket.
“You are in a good mood this morning,” said Efa as they walked together into the forest. “I don’t think I have ever seen you smile so much since you were a young girl.”
“Perhaps I am relieved to be in a safe place after so much uncertainty the past few weeks.”
Her aunt chuckled. “Maybe, or it could have to do with a handsome prince who can’t seem to keep his hands off of you.”
“I believe you could be right,” said Eleri making her aunt turn to look at her with a small look of surprise. “I will not lie to you, aunt, because I know from experience it will do no good. I believe much of light-heartedness and smiles have to do with Conri.”
“This is a change from your earlier feelings. I believe you thought you would never get past another,” said Efa as she bent down to pick a small green plant from the ground.
“I will always have feelings for Caerwyn. I care about him, but he has pushed me away too many times for me to trust in what he says now.”
Her aunt straightened up. “What has he said to you recently?”
“That he was wrong, and he should have picked me all along. He says he loves me and will not give up on us.”
“How did you respond?” asked Efa.
“I was very non-committal. I was attracted to Conri at the time, but I never thought it would get as far as it had. I said Caerwyn was free to try to convince me, but I wasn’t sure he ever could.”
Her aunt put the plant in her basket. “Butt things have changed now.”
Eleri nodded. “I didn’t want to fall in love with the prince. I tried not to do it.”
“Love?” said her aunt, her voice rising. “You are in love?”
“I am. There is no other way to explain how I feel for Conri. We haven’t known each other very long, but I can’t deny what I believe is true.”
Her aunt smiled a little. “And has he told you he loves you?”
“Yes, several times. He says he can see no future for himself as king unless I am by his side as queen.”
“Then should I congratulate you?” asked her aunt. “Will I soon be bowing before you and calling you your majesty?”
Eleri turned and picked a large red leaf off a tree. “I don’t know.”
“Why? You say you love the prince, and I can see that it is true. He obviously adores you. How are you still so unsure?”
“While I do love him and do not doubt his love for me, I wonder if it is natural and not due to some ancient magic from long ago.”
“You refer to the prophecy, I suppose?” Her aunt moved to a tree and picked some large red berries from it.”
“My whole life, I have been told by many that I am mean to marry the prince and become the eventual queen. I swore I would never let some words on a piece of paper control my future, but here I am, head over hills for this prince just like I was told to do.”
“The prophecy said nothing about love.”
“It doesn’t, but what if I was only drawn to Conri in the first place because of it?”
“What does it matter if you were? You are happy now and in love. Does it matter how it started?”
Eleri couldn’t help a small grin. “That is what Conri said. He told me even if he was first drawn to me because of magic or the goddess that he fell in love with me because of who I am.”
“I like this man more and more,” said her aunt with a laugh.
“Only because he agrees with you,” said Eleri with sarcasm.
“It is because he sees the value in one of my favorite people in this land. You know how much I love you, Eleri, and I want to see you valued and loved as you deserve. I don’t dislike Caerwyn; in fact, I am a little fond of the man, but the way he has treated you all these years has made me think he does not deserve you.”
“If it comes to deserving someone, then I am not sure I deserve Conri. I have spent the last few years chasing after a man who repeatedly told me he didn’t want me. It doesn’t help that it happens to be the very man who must protect the prince.”
“Does Prince Conri know your past with Caerwyn?” asked her aunt as they stopped in front of a group of hazelnut trees.
“He does. He wanted to know everything about me, so I told him,” said Eleri as she picked one of the few remaining nuts off the tree.
“What did he have to say about it when you told him?”
Eleri picked another nut, finding it rotten. She dropped and searched for more. “He does not blame me for following my heart and thinks Caerwyn did me very wrong. I am afraid it will come between them, and you know how that can hurt the land. I should have pushed Conri away as soon as he said it, but at the point, it was impossible.”
“Why would you push him away when he was right? Even if you ran away from Elathia, it would not help the relationship between the prince and Caerwyn. It might make it worse. The two men will have to work things out between them at this point.”
“I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. I must perform my duties as First Advisor, and to not be with Conri now seems impossible.”
Her aunt smiled. “Yet, you seem to be still holding back a little from him.”
She nodded. “I cannot make him any promises though I think I might want to. Sometimes I wish he could just claim each other and get it over with.” Eleri paused and looked at her aunt. “I think I might already belong to him in all the ways that count.”
Her aunt put a hazelnut into her basket and dusted off her hands. She hooked her basket around her arm and walked to Eleri. Taking her hands, she looked into Eleri’s eyes. “I would never tell you what to do, but can I say what I think?”
“You know you can say whatever you like to me, Aunt Efa.”
“I don’t think this is about you deserving Prince Conri. You know too much about love from your parents, and I hope me, to believe you have to earn someone’s love. I believe you are having a hard time trusting in the prince’s love because of your experience with Caerwyn.”
“What do you mean?”
“Eleri, I don’t wish to speak ill of him, but he did not treat you well. I know you did not do anything you didn’t wish, but he led you on. I watched him with you. He was so tender and caring one minute and then would push you away the next. Much of it, I don’t believe he could help. He has an important duty, and the goddess knows what kind of father he has. Still, the truth is he hurt you deeply. You have a hard time trusting what you have in Conri because of all the hurt and pain you have experienced.”
“That may be true, but I am also afraid of hurting Conri. I feel so in love with him now, but what if it all has to do with the prophecy? What if one of us realizes it, and we grow cold with one another because we were forced together.”
Her aunt squeezed her hands. “That is nonsense, Eleri. You say you don’t wish your life to be controlled by some writings on a piece of paper, but that is what is happening. You love your prince, but you are holding back because of some words a woman said years ago. What happens if you do to him what Caerwyn did to you? If you keep him at arm’s length and don’t admit how you feel, that is what will turn him cold towards you.”
Eleri felt her eyes water. “You have no idea how badly I want to love him completely. He breaks down the barrier I have put up more and more every day.”
“Then let it fall, Eleri,” said her aunt. “I am not telling you to marry the man tomorrow or do any official claiming, but stop letting your past experiences and that stupid prophecy get in the way of something that could be truly special.”
Eleri let her tears flow, and her aunt brought her into her arms. “I am not your mother, Eleri, and I would never try to be. My sister loved you beyond anything, but she is not here. I can only do for you what I believe she would have done.” Her aunt pulled back and wiped a tear from Eleri’s cheek. “Your mother almost let others talk her out of being with your father. If she had, she would have missed out on everything that made her life worth living. She would have had to live without your father’s love, and she wouldn’t have had you.
“You know how others see the love I have for Grace. We have to hide it much of the time, but if I let cowardice keep me from being with her, I would be a miserable creature. Do not make a mistake and let others and your own fears keep you from finding out if Prince Conri is the one person who will help make this life worthwhile.”
Eleri laughed a little through her tears. “I had the same thoughts this morning in bed.
Her aunt leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Then I believe it is time to return to the house. You need to talk with your prince, and I need to rest to prepare for your journey so I can take you to Cadwin manor when you are ready. I have written your father to tell him you were safe, which means if I don’t get you back, he will send no telling how many men to come fetch you.”
They went back to the cottage together. Eleri asked her aunt about her journey to the family estate, and her aunt’s expression grew dark. She explained to Eleri that several young magic users had gone missing. One was found, but he was so weak they weren’t sure he would survive. He had no use of magic and could barely function. Efa worried the powers of the Silver Palace were behind it all.
When they got back to the cottage, Conri was outside examining the flowers that grew on one of the front windows. Her aunt smiled at Eleri before telling her she would enter by the kitchen. Eleri walked up to stand beside Conri.
“Did you have a pleasant walk with your aunt?” asked Conri.
“I did, but it wasn’t very far. Would you like to walk out a bit with me?” asked Eleri.
Conri turned from the flowers and gave her a half-smile before he nodded. He offered Eleri his arm, and they walked across the small lawn into the trees. She took him to a small stream that was flowing well due to recent rains. They sat together on a fallen log close to the water, holding hands.
Eleri looked down, finding she had a hard time meeting Conri’s eyes. “You know my feelings for you have grown lately, Conri. I can honestly say that I love you and know that it is true.”
He reached forward and placed his free hand on the side of her face, gently raising it so she would look at him. “And I hope you know how much I love you, Eleri. Nothing you can say or do will change it, so tell me whatever you wish. If you have made some sort of decision, I want to hear it.”
Her heart skipped a beat, hearing the small amount of dread in his voice. She wanted to ease his fears quickly. “Conri, I am so tired of denying what I know is true. I have known it for a while now, even before that night in the village. I have let that stupid prophecy and experiences with others hold me back, and I started to realize this morning how foolish it was. My aunt only confirmed it.”
She scooted closer to him, “I love you, and I believe you love me. I don’t care if the prophecy first drew us together because it doesn’t mean what we feel isn’t real. I want to stop holding back and see where this goes because I believe it might lead us somewhere wonderful.”
He took a deep breath as he squeezed her hand. “What about Caerwyn?”
“I will always care for him and love him in some way, but he has never made me feel as you do. My love for him, while real, never had the chance to take root because he would snatch it away time and time again. I never felt safe with him, always knowing our time together was short. When I was with him, I could set down my fears and burdens for a while, but when he left, they were always there for me to pick up again, heavier each time. With you, my problems do not disappear, but they are so much easier to bear. I am starting to realize that is because you help me carry them. I think that is what real love is.”
“I want to share everything with you, the good and the bad. I have never felt that with anyone. Even when I spoke with Aella, I felt we couldn’t speak of important things. I don’t want to hold anything back from you. I also don’t want ever to overshadow who you are. You are a strong, brilliant woman, and I will remind you of it over and over, so you never forget it.”
“And you will be a wonderful king. Too many times, you have devalued yourself, and I will not have it, Conri. No matter what happens, I will be near you to make sure you understand it.”
“So, what now?” he asked
“We get back to Cadwin manor, and we defeat those who would destroy our land. Then you take your throne, and you rule,” said Eleri.
Conri smiled as he looked down before glancing up at her. “And will you be by my side with a crown of your own?”
She laughed a little. “Let us just say that I am not opposed to that future, but I will not hold you to it.” She grew serious. “I can tell you that I will not hold back from you anymore, and as long as you want me, there will be no other for me. There might not be even if you were to let me go. I love you, Conri. There more I think about it, the more I believe you are the only man I have truly loved.”
He did not respond with words, but he looked at her with such tenderness that she saw a flash of her future before her eyes, and every bit of it included Conri. He leaned forward and kissed her. She lost track of time as they sat together, spending some of their time talking and the rest sharing sweet kisses. She was about to suggest they head back to the house when a loud noise behind them made them both jump.
“What was that?” asked Conri.
“I don’t know, but it sounds like it came from the house.” Eleri took off, running towards her aunt’s home.
As it came into view, she stopped, seeing one side had collapsed. Conri caught up with her and gasped at the sight. Eleri moved forward and saw her aunt, Grace, and the young man named Gregory, who helped around the house, were by the front door. She looked to the left of the house by the woods and saw a group of twenty of Lord Fellen’s soldiers gathered, all on foot. In front of them stood Ciara Sullivan. She had her hand raised and a crumpled body at her feet. Eleri moved forward automatically.
“Eleri,” said Conri, taking her hand. “You cannot go out there.”
She took her hand away and looked at him. “I have to, Conri. I have to help them. I can’t let them hurt Grace or my aunt.”
“Then I will go with you,” he said.
“You should stay hidden,” whispered Eleri urgently.
“We face things together, remember?” he took her hand again. “Whatever happens, I will not let you go alone.”
She looked back at her aunt and Grace standing close together. She nodded at Conri, and they walked towards the house.
“How are you here?” Eleri heard her aunt ask furiously.
“I met someone very interesting in a nearby village. She was so little and quiet that I didn’t expect to learn much from her, but her magic was surprisingly strong. I only wanted to add it to my collection, but I saw she had some secrets. I took them from her with her magic.” Ciara moved the little body at her feet over, and Eleri saw it was poor Millie.
Efa moved forward a few steps. “It is you who has been taking the magic users.”
“Indeed,” said Ciara. “I found an old spell in my family library. All this collected magic comes in handy when breaking through wards. You should have reinforced yours here, Efa. I guess you have been too busy.” Ciara turned and smiled. “And here is the very young woman I have wanted to speak with.”
Efa turned and looked at Eleri and shook her head. Eleri continued to move forward to stand by her aunt’s side, Conri with her. “We have nothing to speak about, Ciara. You should leave with your men now while you all still can.”
Ciara laughed. “Always so bold, my lady.” Caira gave a mock curtsey. “And your highness, I am glad to see you as well. I remember that day close to Lord Farrow’s house. We had such a nice conversation.”
“You are mistaken,” said Conri angrily. ’You should do as Lady Eleri says and move on.”
“But I cannot go without her. My lord and future king has requested her presence. If she would just go with me, I will leave you all here in peace.”
Eleri looked at her aunt and then at Conri. Conri took her hand. “Do not even think about it,” he growled quietly.
“But there is no other way. I must go,” said Eleri.
“No, you will not,” said her aunt. “There is another way; we can fight,”
“I know you are powerful, aunt, but you must see we are too outnumbered. And I can feel Ciara’s power; it is amplified.”
“It is probably due to her nefarious deeds and the power she just gained from poor Millie,” said Efa. “But we will not be alone. Someone else has broken my wards, someone welcomed.”
Eleri looked at her aunt in confusion when she heard a loud grow, followed by a scream. She looked up to see Ciara turned, looking at her men. A group of four wolves pounced from different sides at the soldiers, while a large white one knocked Ciara to the side. A large group of Cadwin guards followed the wolves on horseback.
Efa threw out a spell towards Ciara on the ground as the woman rolled away. Eleri threw out her hand, knocking over a soldier who was swinging his sword at one of the wolves. She pulled Conri behind her.
“I should go shift and help,” he said.
She tried to stop him by grabbing his hand, telling him it wasn’t needed, but he moved out of her grasp and started running towards the woods. She looked at those fighting in front of her, seeing that the Cadwin guards would surely be successful. Conri did not need to put himself in danger. She ran toward him, trying to catch him, noticing that Caerwyn in wolf form was also moving towards Conri.
The white wolf cut Conri off and circled him. Conri looked down at Caerwyn, both distracted by each other. Eleri continued to move toward them as something caught her attention from her left. She saw Ciara getting up from the ground close by, her eyes on Conri and Caerwyn.
Eleri raised her hand at the same time as Ciara. As Ciara threw out a spell towards the prince and wolf, Eleri jumped in front of them, trying to put up a block between her and Ciara’s attack. The spell hit her, and while her block sent the magic back, the power of the spell threw her through the air. She hit something hard, her head taking the majority of the hit. She fell on her side as pain exploding in her head. Her vision grew dim immediately. She felt the gentle brush of fur against the side of her face, and the last thing she heard before she blacked out was a cry of anguish from who she thought was Conri and the whimper of a wolf.