Cadwin Manor stood before him as he let go of Aron’s arm. Caerwyn looked up at the familiar house towards where he knew Eleri’s room window was. There were a few windows with light coming from them. He stared at the home for a moment until he felt Efa bump into him. He put his hand around her to steady her as Grace grabbed her from the other side.
“Efa, are you alright?” asked Grace with concern.
Efa nodded. “I am just tired. It has been a very long day. I probably shouldn’t have attempted to bring all three of you even with your magic helping me, Grace, but I knew you all wanted to come.”
“I would have stayed,” said Grace as Efa straightened up. “I should have taken care of poor Millie for her departing. The sweet girl did not deserve such an end.”
“She is in good hands with the priestesses of the temple in the village. They will see everything is done right. I gave them plenty of coin. We can visit her resting place in a few days and pay our respects.”
“And your house is already well on its way to being cleaned up. Soon you can work to rebuild it,” said Caerwyn.
Efa nodded. “We need to get inside. I want to check on Eleri before I retire for the night.”
Caerwyn offered her his arm to help her, and she took it. They walked together, though Aron moved a head a bit as they got close to the door. A servant must have been watching for them because the door opened as they got near.
As soon as they entered, Aron spoke urgently to the servant. “How is Lady Eleri? She is still living, isn’t she?”
“She is alive, Aron. She seems much the same as earlier today when Efa left, though Prince Conri thinks she is breathing more evenly. I am not sure if he is right or only sees what he wishes,” said Lord Cadwin as he came down the stairs.
“I will go check on her now,” said Efa as she let go of Carewyn’s hand.
“I will go as well,” said Caerwyn and Grace at the same time.
“She doesn’t need too many visitors to disturb her,” said Efa.
“I will check on her later,” said Aron. “If something does change, can someone let me know? I should go see the guards here and make sure everyone is on high alert.”
“I will keep you informed,” said Caerwyn.
“Thank you,” said Aron formally before he walked back out the door.
“I will just peek in, Efa,” said Grace. “I will not disturb her. I just want to see her for a moment.”
“That is all I wish as well,” said Caerwyn, though he knew as soon as he saw her, he would not want to leave her side.
“Then come on,” said Efa. She looked at Lord Cadwin. “Is someone with her now?”
“Prince Conri has been sitting with her for some time. I told him he should get some rest, but he was adamant he would stay by her side.”
Efa nodded. “I figured it would be like that. I will speak with him and remind him he must rest at some point.” She glanced at Caerwyn before continuing up the stairs.
Perhaps he imagined it, but he sensed Lord Cadwin was staring at him. There was a strange mixture of dread and pity on his face. Caerwyn tried to ignore it as he walked by. They were all quiet as they made their way to Eleri’s room. Before Efa opened the door, she looked at both Caerwyn and Grace.
“Try not to make any noises above a whisper. She does not need to be disturbed. I have asked that she be given water every so often, but right now, she should be resting peacefully for some time.”
They both gave their assurances that they understood, and Efa opened the door. Caerwyn walked in slowly behind Grace, remembering the times he had been in the room. He had spent many hours speaking with Eleri, laughing with her, and loving her in her bed. The familiar scent of woods, herbs, and the delicate floral scent she wore invaded his senses. It was a smell that was uniquely hers, and he felt himself react to it with longing, fear, and sorrow.
The room was dark, lit only by the fire and one candle close to the bed. As he got close, he saw that a chair had been brought close to Eleri’s side. Prince Conri was in the chair, bent over, so his head laid on the bed, close to Eleri. His eyes were closed, and his breathing even. As he slumbered, he held Eleri’s hand.
“My poor girl,” whispered Grace as she moved closer. “And look at the prince. Efa, this is too much.”
“Shh,” said Efa as she turned slightly. “Grace, you must hold yourself together. Trust in our Eleri’s strength.”
Caerwyn stopped close to the bed as Grace turned away. He looked down to see Eleri lying on her back with her hair braided neatly. She appeared to be sleeping soundly, though she looked unusually pale. He wished so badly to reach out and touch her to see that she was real and warm. Ever since he had seen her crumbled on the ground with her wound, he had been terrified he would never see her alive again.
He had been so stupid not to see Ciara. He was distracted by Prince Conri for a moment. He had not felt their bond in a while, and to be in the prince’s presence again, threw him off. The weight of the responsibility he felt for the man caught him off guard, and he needed to steady himself. By the time he was able to look away, he saw Eleri flying towards a nearby tree. He could still hear the sound she made when she hit. It almost made him feel as if all the breath had been knocked out of him.
“You highness,” said Ela as she gently shook Prince Conri. He leaned up and blinked his eyes, looking at Eleri before turning to Efa. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I need to check on her.”
Prince Conri leaned down and kissed Eleri’s hand before letting it go. He stood up and stretched as he moved next to Caerwyn. Efa put her hand on Eleri’s forehead. Conri glanced at Caerwyn, and Caerwyn took a deep breath, feeling their bond. They watched in silence as Efa kept her hand on Eleri’s head. Grace turned around and watched with her hands balled into fists at her side. Efa finally took her hand off of Eleri and kissed her forehead. Standing up, she looked at them all and smiled a bit.
“I believe she is doing a little better. Her mind is not quite as foggy as before, and I can tell she is sleeping even more soundly than elixir could make her. I think my earlier spells and elixirs have helped.”
“So, will she be well?” asked Prince Conri.
“I believe she will live,” said Efa. “I only worry about what effects she will have when she wakes up.”
“If she lives, we can deal with whatever it is,” said Conri as Caerwyn nodded in agreement.
“She will need someone close to her at all times in case she wakes up,” said Efa. “She needs water at least every four hours, and some broth should be brought to her in the morning. I must rest tonight, but I can call a servant to look after her. “
“There is no need,” said Prince Conri. “I will not leave her for anything.”
“You should not stay up all night, your highness. You will need some real rest at some point,” said Grace.
“She is right,” said Efa. “I know you wish to be with Eleri, but when she wakes up, she will need you even more than she does now. You should rest while you can.”
Prince Conri looked to argue, but Caerwyn moved forward. “I will stay with the prince and make sure he rests. Perhaps we could take turns sleeping and keeping an eye on her.”
“I am not sure that is the best idea,” said Efa as she looked between the two men. “You have both been through much lately, and tired people rarely make good decisions.”
Conri stared at Caerwyn for a moment before turning to Efa. “We will be fine. We both want the same thing, and that is to help Eleri. I would like to speak with Caerwyn, but I will do nothing to compromise Eleri’s recovery.”
Caerwyn cocked his head, trying to understand the prince’s meaning. He finally shrugged. “We will be fine, Efa. Get some sleep. I am sure Lord Cadwin and others will join us at some point.”
“Aella and Lady Farrow have already been here,” said Conri. “They both seemed anxious to check back in.”
Efa looked at Grace for a long moment before saying, “Very well. I have to sleep to regain some strength, but if anything changes, wake me. I will be three doors down, closest to the stairs.”
“Of course,” said Prince Conri.
Efa walked up to him and put her hand on his arm. “She will be well, your highness. You will just have to give her time.”
“I know,” said Prince Conri. “I told her I would never leave her, and I meant it.”
Efa squeezed the prince’s arm and walked out. Grace stopped and took Conri’s hand, giving it a squeeze. He gave her a grin and a small bow. Caerwyn wondered at the display before him. Conri could not have spent more than three days with these women, less with Efa as he had the impression she had been out traveling for some time. They hardly addressed Caerwyn at all, only giving him a look or nod as they left.
Conri sat back down in the chair next to Eleri. “Have you eaten, Caerwyn?”
“I had a bite of something while I was still outside of Efa’s,” responded Caerwyn.
“There is some wine and water that was left by one of the servants. I imagine if you want tea, you can ring for it. Otherwise, you should pull up a chair somewhere close if you are going to stay.”
Caerwyn watched the prince for a moment as he stared at Eleri. He finally turned and grabbed a chair by the fireplace. He walked to sit close to Eleri’s feet so he could look at her face without being blocked by the prince. They were quiet for a while, both listening to Eleri’s soft breaths and the crackle of the fire. Prince Conri finally yawned and wiped at his eyes.
“You know you can go rest if you need to, your highness,” said Caerwyn. “You have been out in the land longer than me, and I doubt you are used to long journeys or late nights ending with sleeping on the ground. You must be exhausted. I can stay here with Eleri. You don’t need to stay by her side.”
Prince Conri turned abruptly and gave him a furious look. “It is absolutely necessary. Did you not hear that I promised her I would stay by her side? I will not break that promise. I will never break any promise I make to her. She has had enough disappointment and heartache in her life.”
The prince turned back to look at Eleri as he picked up her hand. He kissed it and held it close to him as he leaned on the bed. Caerwyn watched him as he leaned forward and brushed a small curl off her forehead. The way he did it was so familiar. It looked like he had done it a hundred times. It was gentle and without thought. It was the touch of a lover.
“You said you wish to speak with me, your highness?” Caerwyn leaned up in his chair.
“I do, but I am not sure now is the right time. I would not like to have a heated discussion that would disturb Eleri.”
Caerwyn raised his eyebrows. “You think what you have to say to me will cause an argument between us?”
“I am not sure. I don’t believe you will like what I have to say,” said Conri, finally looking away from Eleri to stare at Caerwyn.”
Caerwyn rubbed his forehead, feeling a pain start to spread. “I will do nothing to hurt Eleri. Whatever it is you have to say to me, I will remain calm.”
Prince Conri took a deep breath. “I think you know already that I have feelings for Eleri. I have never hidden them.”
Caerwyn nodded. “You have been very open in your admiration of her.” He looked away for a moment. “Unlike me. Your highness, let me apologize for keeping the secret of my love for Eleri from you.”
“I don’t believe it is me you need to apologize to,” said the prince sounding annoyed. “It is not me you profess to love but treat as though I am disposable.”
“I never saw her as disposable,” said Caerwyn in a harsh whisper. “Eleri knows how important she is to me. None in this land comes before her, not even you. It is probably wrong to say, but it is the truth.”
“You say so with words, but your actions have proved otherwise.” Conri looked down at Eleri, and Caerwyn did as well. She lay still and continued to look at peace. “She loved you. I believe she still loves you in a way, but she can never trust your words. Your actions have shown her just where she stands in your life.”
“What do you know about it?” snapped Caerwyn.
“I know quite a bit. She told me your history one night as we traveled. I held her in my arms as she cried over you. She is everything wonderful, and you made her doubt it. You have committed a grave sin in hurting such a woman, Caerwyn, but I think you will receive your punishment in full in having to live without her. You will have to watch another man love her as she deserves knowing it could have been you.”
Caerwyn stared at the prince as he tried to calm himself. His wolf growled within him as Caerwyn slightly shook. It wasn’t as if the prince wasn’t at least partially correct. Caerwyn knew he had hurt Eleri in many ways, and he was ashamed of it. Still, he had made up his mind to show her he was wrong. He planned to prove to her she was everything to him. It was not fair that Conri could come in and take her from him in a couple of months just because of some old prophecy.
“You are so sure she will turn from me?” asked Caerwyn, trying to keep his voice calm. “I suppose you believe you are the man who will love her as she deserves.”
“I am, and she knows it. Much happened on our journey, Caerwyn. I do not wish to cause you great pain in explaining it in detail, but just this morning, Eleri and I talked.” He picked up Eleri’s hand again and gazed down at her with a soft smile. “She told me she loved me completely and that no man had ever made her feel as I do. She said there would never be another for her. We all but made a commitment to each other.”
Caerwyn’s head fell as his breathing increased. He could not lose her. It did not make sense. She had loved him for so long. He knew he had been foolish, but she had always been there, waiting for him, saying she loved him and would have no other.
“She has told me things like it, your highness,” said Caerwyn. “You were alone with her for some time. It is easy to command one’s attention when you are the only option.”
“Do not downplay what we shared on our journey,” said Prince Conri in a dangerous whisper. “You were not there, and you cannot possibly know.” He gave one long breath. “I am not telling these things to hurt you. I only want you to be prepared. I believe she will be my queen. I know it will be difficult for you to bear, but we all three have a duty to this kingdom, and we will have to learn to work together somehow.”
Caerwyn stood up, feeling as though he couldn’t keep still. He stopped by the fireplace and turned to look at Conri. “You expect me to accept this? You think I would just give up?”
Conri let go of Eleri’s hand and stood up. He walked over to the table by the fireplace and poured a glass of wine. After taking a drink, he looked at Caerwyn. “I will not speak for Eleri, but I know what she will say to you. Once she lets you know how things are, you will not pressure her. You will let her go with your good wishes for her happiness. I know it will hurt, but to continue to pester her with your empty promises will do no good.”
“You can command me in some things, your highness, but I don’t believe you can tell my heart what it must feel. I will not pester her with empty promises. I will show her that the love we have felt for years will endure.” Caerwyn felt the emotions of the day run through him. He thought Eleri was dead when he first went to her. In his wolf form, he could smell the blood from her wound, and the sound of her hitting the tree was amplified.
He just knew it had cracked her skull. His anger flared within him. “I will convince her to run from Elathia with me. I will take her far way, somewhere you cannot confuse her with the idea that she is fated to be with you. You think you have some claim over her due to that prophecy, but I have years of experience in loving her. What we have is so much deeper than anything you could have obtained over a few weeks.”
They both turned as they heard Eleri move in the bed. The prince hurried over, and Caerwyn moved to stand behind him. She turned her head to the side; her eyes scrunched up as in pain.
“It is alright, Eleri,” said the prince softly. He gently put his hand on the side of her face. She turned towards it and appeared to relax. “Sleep and heal, my love.”
“You should probably go, Caerwyn,” said Prince Conri, not taking his eyes off of Eleri. “I doubt we will come to an agreement tonight. Once she is awake and well, she can tell you herself.”
“You are that sure about this?” asked Caerwyn.
“I believe in the love I share with Eleri. You can say it is new, and you would be right, but that has nothing to do with its depth. We belong together, and it is not because of some stupid prophecy. It is because we understand one another. We know each other faults and the burdens we carry. We are willing to help each other and walk through this life together. There is nothing we could not face.”
Caerwyn shook his head. The prince’s voice was confident. He looked at Eleri with such tenderness that Caerwyn had no doubt the man loved her. Still, he could not just give up. He needed his chance to speak with her and let her know all he felt for her. He was prepared to do anything for her. “I will await a time when she can tell me how she feels,” said Caerwyn.
“Very well,” said Conri. “Now go clean up and rest. I wish to be alone with her for a while. I may not command your heart, but I am still your prince. I am not asking you to leave; I am ordering you to go.”
Caerwyn felt the strange bond that they shared come over him. His responsibility for the prince’s wellbeing mixed in with the authority Conri had over him. “I will do as you ask, but I will not be gone long. By early morning, I will be back here.”
Prince Conri nodded. “I will have someone find you if anything changes. I hope you know I do not wish to be cruel to you. I understand what she means to you.” He laughed quietly. “I probably understand it better than anyone.”
“Thank you, your highness. If you require anything from me, let me know. I will check with Aron later about the protections of the manor. I have no doubt he has done more than an adequate job.”
“Good night, Caerwyn,” said Prince Conri, clearly dismissing him. “Make sure no one but Efa or Lord Cadwin disturbs us for a while. I would never presume to keep Eleri’s aunt or father from her.”
Caerwyn bowed and walked to the door. As he opened it, he watched the prince sitting by Eleri’s side. The prince leaned over and very softly kissed her lips. A strange feeling came over Caerwyn as though he was intruding on something too intimate for his eyes. For a second, he believed he saw a future in which Conri shared something with Eleri that he never could. Caerwyn quickly left the room and shut the door. As he walked down the hall, he tried to shake the feeling off, but it lingered within him.
“Caerwyn, when did you arrive?” asked Emilia as she met him coming down the hall.
“Not too long ago,” said Caerwyn coming to a stop in front of her. “Why are you up so late?”
“I could not sleep thinking about poor Lady Eleri. I am surprised you are not with her.”
Caerwyn looked back towards her room. “The prince ordered me to leave, so I must obey. He told me he did not wish to be disturbed by anyone except Eleri’s aunt or father.”
“He ordered you from the room?” asked Emilia, appearing confused. “Did you quarrel?”
“I suppose you could call it a quarrel,” said Caerwyn, not knowing what else to say. He felt so unsettled. His heart was racing, and he could feel the sweat forming on his forehead even though the hall was cool. Closing his eyes, the thought that he might have lost Eleri forever flooded every part of him. He felt as though his legs would not hold him up.
“Caerwyn?” Emilia reached out and grabbed his arm.
Her touch was cool against his skin which seemed to be on fire. He took a deep breath. Her scent was clean and slightly sweet. He moved closer to her, feeling a steadiness come from her that he needed so badly at the moment.
“Do you wish to talk?” she asked.
He shook his head. It would do no good to speak of it. If he said it out loud, he was afraid it would become real.
“Can I get you something or help you to your room? Perhaps you need some food or some tea? Maybe a glass of wine?”
He opened his eyes and looked down at her. As everything felt like it was crashing down inside of him, he could think of only one thing he wanted, and it was an escape. Without another thought, he leaned down and kissed Emilia hard. She made a startled noise against his lips before throwing her arms around him. He broke their kiss for only one moment to pick her up. As she continued to kiss him, he stumbled down the hall to his bedroom. He left all his guilt, fear, and cares at his door, wanting only a few hours to forget.
When Caerwyn opened his eyes, his room was flooded with light. He sat up quickly, realizing how late it probably was. Emilia stirred beside him, disturbed by his sudden movement. She sat up next to him and stretched.
“I need to get to my room and change. Others are probably looking for at least one of us,” said Emilia as she swung her legs over to the floor.
“I need to check on Eleri,” said Caerwyn.
They both hastily put on clothes, Caerwyn feeling the familiar sense of guilt and shame come over him. He tried not to look at Emilia as she dressed. Once they were both fully clothed, Caerwyn cracked open his door to see that the hall was empty. He looked back at Emilia and nodded. He opened the door wider so she could slip out, but as she moved by him, her leg tangled in his. She stumbled forward, trying not to fall. Caerwyn grabbed for her, letting go of the door. He steadied her in his arms just as he heard footsteps coming quickly down the hall. He looked up to see Aron a few feet from them both. Emilia immediately moved out of his arms.
Aron glanced at Emilia before settling his eyes on Caerwyn. “I have been sent to fetch you. Eleri is awake, and she is asking for you.”
It took Caerwyn a moment to process what Aron had said. “She is awake?”
“Yes, and is adamant that she sees and speaks with you. She is very agitated, and Lord Cadwin asks that you hurry.”
Aron did not wait for a response; he turned and walked back down the hall towards Eleri’s room. Caerwyn looked at Emilia before following Aron.