Their Bonds of Duty

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Chapter 21

Pulling her blue cloak tight around her, Eleri looked up at the cloudy sky. It was not ideal weather for walking, but she could not stand being cooped up in the house. It had rained for two days straight, and while that morning had not been sunny, there was at least no rain. She was surprised not to see Caerwyn at breakfast, but he had been around her less and less the past few days. She attributed it to him spending more time with Prince Conri, which she approved. Caerwyn and the prince needed to have a good relationship, and lately, it had been strained.

She knew she was the cause, and she could not find fault with either man. Though she couldn’t remember it, she had been told that she shared something special with the prince very recently. As she spent more and more time with him, she started to see that it could be true. She did feel drawn to Prince Conri. She had since the first time she saw him, but she feared it was due to the prophecy and some magic from the moon goddess. She did not wish to trap herself or the prince in some relationship with false love that would not last.

Still, sometimes when she was with him, the way he looked at her made her believe perhaps it went beyond any prophecies or ancient magic. When he took her hand, she felt the urge to kiss him and had once. It had not left her unaffected. At night, he sometimes entered her dreams, and they were not unpleasant. Eleri took a breath as she put her hand on a tree and leaned forward. Her thoughts went to Caerwyn. As much as they had shared, she had to give him a chance. She had loved him for so long that just to let him go seemed as if it should be wrong.

“Have you walked too far, my dear?” asked her aunt as she came up to her.

“Aunt Efa, when did you arrive?” asked Eleri as she straightened up.

“Not long ago. I could not find you in the house, and Aron told me he believed you were out here. Are you all alone?”

Eleri nodded. “Not many were present at breakfast, and Lady Aella did not wish to go out in the damp. It would not be good for Lady Haven’s lungs, so I did not press the older woman. How is your house coming along?”

“Very nicely. Magic has its benefits, and I think it will be back to near perfect in just a few weeks.” She looked away. “Other things cannot be fixed, that poor girl.”

“I am sorry. I know you were fond of her. Grace told me of your loss. She said you took her in to help her with her magic.”

Her aunt nodded. “I found her in the village. She was stealing food. It was not malice; she only took what she needed to survive. Her mother and father both died a few years ago, and Millie fended for herself. I sensed the magic in her and offered her a place to stay. She said she would only come if she could earn her way. She was very sweet and would have been a powerful magic user eventually.”

“And she was killed by Ciara Sullivan?” asked Eleri.

“She was. Ciara has been abducting magic users and draining them. She said she was collecting their magic to amplify her power. I don’t know what kind of dark magic that must take.”

A vision of Ciara flashed in Eleri’s mind. “She was involved in the attack on the Havens Estate, wasn’t she?”

“I believe she was. Are some of your memories coming back?”

“Just flashes here and there. I remember Bren Farrow grabbing me and causing me some terrible pain. Aella has apologized to me for bringing him into the Havens Estate, but I don’t remember her part in it.”

They walked a little way along the tree line. “What about any memories of Prince Conri?”

“I have had a few, but nothing solid. There are mostly just impressions. I’ll remember laughing at something he said or feeling his hand in mine.”

“Have you spent much time with him lately?” asked her aunt.

“I have spent some. I enjoy speaking with him, and…,” Eleri looked down at the ground, feeling her cheeks go warm.

“And what, Eleri?”

“I kissed him. Just once,” said Eleri quickly.

“You do know that you did much more than kissing the man in my house, according to Grace, so there is no need for embarrassment,” said her aunt with a grin. “Did you enjoy it?”

“Or course I enjoyed it. He is a very handsome man, and it was only a short, gentle kiss,” said Eleri. “But I feel horrible about it now.”

“Whatever for?”

“Caerwyn has been so attentive to me since I woke up. He has said that he loves me and will choose me over everything else. How can I just ignore such a thing?”

“So you will choose a life with Caerwyn because of obligation?” Her aunt shook her head. “I can’t think that would make either of you happy in the end.”

“It is not just obligation. You know I have loved him for some time,” said Eleri, feeling a little annoyed.

“You have, and he has done nothing but ignore your love, telling you to move on. What makes you think this time will be different?”

Eleri hesitated. She couldn’t lie and say she was sure. She had many doubts about Caerwyn. When he was with her, showing her attention, it was easy to forget. She always was swept away by him when they were together. Sometimes the world faded around her. When she was alone at night, or he was engaged elsewhere, thoughts of the past would enter her mind. She would remember how badly it hurt when he pushed her away. Each time she would have to pick herself up and feel shame in what she had done and how badly she wanted to do it again.

“You do have doubts, don’t you, Eleri?”

“It is hard to get past what has happened, but if there is a chance I could be happy with him, I have to take it, don’t I?” Eleri stopped and put her hand on her aunt’s arm.

“I will not tell you what to do. Only you can determine your future. You are young, Eleri. There is no need to rush into anything.”

“You are right. I should not worry about this until things are settled in Elathia and Prince Conri is crowned king. Then Caerwyn will know more about if having a wife is even possible as the Bright One. No matter what he offers me, I don’t think I could let him give it up.”

“You can get to know the prince better as well,” said her aunt. “Do not dismiss him.”

“Perhaps he will meet another before long. I know he has enjoyed the company of many women in his past. One resides here now,” said Eleri.

“Have you noticed him spending time with her, or have you like the rest of us seen that he only ever looks at you,” said her aunt with a smile. Eleri rolled her eyes as her aunt laughed. “You should come inside with me, Eleri. I think some tea would do you good. I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet.”

“You go on, aunt. I wish to walk just a bit more. The rain has kept me too long in the house.”

“If you are sure, I will go,” said Efa.

“I am sure. I think some solitude will do me good. I need some time to think.”

“Do not stay out here if it rains or if you get too cold. I don’t need you falling ill after all that has happened.”

Eleri smiled. “I will not be too long.”

She watched her aunt walk back to the house before walking deeper into the woods towards the pond. As she approached it, she saw someone close by the edge of the water. She tried to avoid him, seeing who it was, but he looked over at her and bowed.

“Lady Eleri, I hope you will give me a moment of your time. I have wanted to speak with you,” said Lord Nevis as he lifted his cane.

She saw no way to deny him, so she walked closer. “I will give you a moment. I have been walking for some time and am a little chilled. I planned to go back to the house soon.”

“What I have to say will not take long.”

She folded her arms and looked at him. “I am waiting, my lord.”

“I know many in this land, especially those in this house, think I am heartless, and perhaps it is true. Still, I care about what happens to my family and Elathia. Though he would tell you otherwise, I only want what is right for my son. Caerwyn was born to be the Bright One, and he must do his duty.”

“I agree,” said Eleri. “I would never wish to come between him and the position he was born for.”

“Yet, you have, Lady Eleri. As the Bright One, his only priority must be his ruler. You have confused him. He thinks he must have you, so he has put you above everything else, me, the land, even Prince Conri.”

“Caerwyn will do his duty well no matter if he finds a way to marry one day or not.”

“It has never been done before,” said Lord Nevis with an angry grunt. “The Bright One has always remained as one with no responsibilities beyond his duty.”

“Maybe things need to change. I can’t imagine many of the Bright Ones were truly happy all alone,” said Eleri.

“There are ways for a man to find companionship without marriage.” Lord Nevis looked her up and down. “I believe you know all about it. I think you have let my son have his way with you many times, even without any promises or commitment.”

Eleri felt her face flush. “What I have or haven’t given your son or any man isn’t your concern, my lord. I will not discuss it with you.”

Lord Nevis smiled nastily, and Eleri took a step back. “There is no need to be embarrassed. I have known many ladies who not only give but take what they want. If all you wanted were a few nights of pleasure with my son, I would have no issue with you, but you want the impossible. He cannot have a life with you. He cannot marry you, mark you, and provide you with children.”

“I don’t see why not. He is a natural man and shifter despite his position. As you have implied, I know he has all the necessary parts and is able everything required to make a family.”

“Just because he can, doesn’t mean he should. You also have another duty to the land.”

Eleri unfolded her arms. “I am very ready to be the First Advisor to our king. I have prepared my whole life for it. “

“I was not referring to the First Advisor, and you know it. You need to stop playing these games with Caerwyn and focus on the prince. I hope the future king can overlook your past indiscretions, though there is something to be said for a woman with experience.”

Eleri took a deep breath. Her usually peaceful wolf growled within her. “None of this is any of your business, my lord. I will not stand here and listen to you speak so of me.”

She turned to go when he grabbed her arm. “You will listen because, for some reason, the goddess has chosen you to help lead this land. Why she would choose such an undisciplined and unnatural woman, I do not know. Your father should never have married your mother, and everyone knows what kind of woman your aunt is. The Cadwin name was once so proud and strong, but you will see it ruin with your stupidity and loose ways.”

Eleri felt her wolf come to the surface as her magic surged. It burst out of her, and Lord Nevis took his hand back as if he had been stung. He looked at her for one moment before his eyes turned hard. He picked up his stick and swung it at her. She dropped down to avoid it, landing hard on her back. The man looked down on her with his cane raised. Her head was throbbing, and she held her hand up, tensing in expectation of the blow. He stared at her before slowly putting his cane down. Without another word, he turned from her and walked away quickly.

Eleri lay still for a moment with her arm over her eyes. She would not cry because of the horrible man. She knew if she ran to her father right now and told him what Lord Nevis had done, there was a chance he would not leave her father’s house alive. Her father was a good man, but he, like everyone else, had his limits.

She sat up slowly and wiped her eyes. She would not go to her father. She could not depend on him to protect her forever. She didn’t think she could really depend on anyone. Caerwyn had never proven to be very steady. Her aunt loved her, but she was often out in the land doing as she pleased. Her father would do anything for her, but she felt like a burden on him.

Standing up, she brushed off her skirts, feeling very alone. Ever since her mother had died, she had a feeling of solitude. She knew she was luckier than most with having those who cared for her, but sometimes it felt like she was missing something or someone. For years, she thought it was just grief that caused her to feel so, but now it almost felt like she was still searching for something to help her feel whole.

She slowly walked towards the house, wondering if she could slip up to her room without anyone noticing. Before she got too far, she heard someone say her name. She turned to see Caerwyn walking towards her, and she moved to meet him.

“I have been looking for you. I missed you at breakfast since I slept later than I meant to, but I have had a lot on my mind. Will you walk with me?”

She noticed he looked nervous and out of sorts. His hands were fidgeting, and he wasn’t looking directly at her. Tucking back a piece of her hair behind her ear, she nodded. “I will walk with you for a bit. I am a little tired, so I thought to go back to the house.”

“We can wait for another time if you wish,” said Caerwyn as he finally looked down at her.

She could see that his eyes were red and underneath them was dark. He quickly looked away under her inspection. “No, let us speak now. I think you need to say whatever it is on your mind.”

He sighed heavily and nodded. He took her hands. “I have been dreading telling you this, but I know it is the right thing. I only ask that you remember that it is only you that I love. I have made many mistakes, but I will make them all up to you.”

“This sounds like a confession, Caerwyn,” she said with a nervous laugh.

He stared at her, and dread hit her stomach. She dropped his hands and took a step back. “Just tell me. Whatever it is, just let me hear it.”

He looked up before closing his eyes. “I am a weak man, Eleri. When we were separated after the attack on the Havens estate, I was lost. I worried about failing in my duty to the prince, and I was desperate to know if you were safe. It all became too much. I needed some kind of release and escape.”

“What did you do?” she quietly asked.

He took a moment before meeting her eyes with his own. “I found comfort and a moment of pleasure in another.” He licked his lips and looked down. “I took Emilia to bed.”

Eleri inhaled sharply. “You lay with Lady Farrow?”

He nodded. “I have known her for so long, and in the past, we have spent time together. It was too easy to fall into her arms again. The first time I had drunk too much wine, and…”

“The first time?” asked Eleri incredulously. “This has happened more than once?”

“We have kissed a few times, but the worst I have not said yet.” He slightly turned from her. “The night you were injured, I watched the prince with you. I could tell how much he loved you, and he told me you returned his love. I thought I had lost you, and I came across Emilia in the hall. I wanted to forget what I had seen. I wanted to find whatever relief I could.”

Eleri closed her eyes. “You loved her while I lay injured in my bed. I am such a damned fool. I should have known better.”

Caerywn took her hand. “You are not a fool. It is I who am the foolish one. I have done two worthy women very wrong. I cannot take it back, but I will atone for it. I will do it by loving you as you deserve. I will do whatever you ask.”

She pulled her hand away as tears came to her eyes and her head pounded worse. She could not even begin to process what he was saying. All she knew was she had to get away from him. There was nothing but heartache for her in the man in front of her. He would never be who she needed as he had no idea what he wanted.

“What I ask is that you leave me alone, Caerwyn,” she said furiously. “I can’t even look at your right now.”

He grabbed her arm much like his father. “Eleri, please. I cannot bear the thought of being divided from you forever. It can’t end like this.”

She scoffed. “Then perhaps you should have put more thought into your actions and controlled yourself.” She let her magic run through her as she shoved him away. He grunted as he fell to the ground, and she turned and ran from him.

She wasn’t sure where she was going. She ran through the trees, some of the lower branches slapping her face. She felt one scratch her cheek, but she didn’t care. The running helped keep the pain from swallowing her. She finally emerged in the small field close to the stable.

She saw someone in front of her that caused a moment of hope to flare within her chest. Prince Conri was standing close to the back of the stables. She started to go to him when she noticed he was not alone. While she watched, he embraced Aella, giving her a short kiss on her cheek before she lay her head on his shoulder. Eleri gave a short involuntary cry before she took off into the woods again. Somewhere in her, she knew running was not the answer, but she could not stop herself.

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