He put on his gloves before he opened the door, letting Aella exit. She asked him to go for a walk so they could talk. He saw no reason to deny her and wished to go out for a bit himself. He believed Eleri was outside and hoped they might come across her without Caerwyn. Perhaps, he could dismiss Aella and spend a few moments alone with Eleri at some point.
Once he closed the door, he offered Aella his arm, and she took it. Her touch was gentle and light. He remembered many nights when she touched him in pleasurable ways. He would never say those times with her were not enjoyable, but he did not want to relive them. He never wanted any woman now other than Eleri. After being with her, all others disinterested him. While he had experienced fleeting pleasure with those he had spent time with, it was nothing to the all-encompassing feeling that was to be had with Eleri.
The nights he shared with her were more than he could ever think possible. They were so connected that he could not imagine going through life without her. The passion they experience mixed in with something that could only be described as life-giving. Before he believed, he saw the land in a muted way. Since experiencing Eleri’s love and attentions, everything had more color and depth. He felt as if he was becoming all he was meant to be. Before, being king was some distant thing he wondered if he could actually do, but with Eleri by his side, it seemed not only attainable but like his true destiny.
As he walked with Aella, he looked around to see if he could catch a glimpse of Eleri, but he had no luck. Deciding the field by the stables would be a good open place to speak with Aella, he led her there. They passed a few horses in a paddock, and Aella stopped to pet one on his nose.
“I miss my horse back at the Havens,” she said with a small sigh. “I wonder if anyone is seeing to him.”
“I am sure there is someone taking care of the place. Lord Fellen has taken it, but he will not let it go to waste. He will try to preserve it for some shifter family he thinks is worthy, but one day soon, it will be given back to the Havens.”
“I am not sure where I belong anymore,” said Aella. “I knew I could not live forever with the Havens, but it always felt like home, even more so than the place I grew up.”
“You will find your place one day, Aella. Until then, you have many who care about you. You will always have somewhere safe to reside.”
“Which I suppose I should be thankful for as an Ordinary.”
“Everyone should have somewhere safe to stay. When I am king, I will work to make it so,” vowed Conri.
“I believe you,” she said as she took his arm again. They began walking behind the stables. “I think you will be a good king. I always have.”
“I am not sure why you thought it. I have been rather lazy and irresponsible for most of my life.”
“I always knew you were a good man. Maybe that is why I was so drawn to you,” said Aella.
“I am sure you were drawn to me out of boredom. I like to think my good looks had something to do with it.”
She laughed a little. “Perhaps at first, but I spent more time with you because I enjoyed your company. I hope I was not just some way to pass your time.”
He stopped and took her hand. “You were a good friend to me, and I cared about you. I still care about you.”
“Even after what I did?” she asked.
“What did you really do, Aella? You did not mean to give Bren Farrow a way into the Havens Estate to cause such destruction. He lied to you. It is not your fault.”
“I was foolish and careless. I didn’t even really care that much for him. He flattered me, and I fell for his trap. It might be too late, but I have learned much. I cannot just think of myself and do as I wish. I have been rather selfish and spoiled much of my life. It is time I grew up.”
Conri nodded. “You and I have much in common. I need to become who I was meant to be. I have wasted too many years playing at my destiny. It is time I claim it.”
“You have changed these past few months,” she said with a small smile. “Especially after the weeks you were out in the land.”
“I experienced much and saw what life is like in Elathia. It is not pleasant for many,” said Conri. “I have such a responsibility to this place and the people. I cannot let them down.”
“I think she changed you as well,” said Aella slowly. “Lady Eleri, I mean.”
“She did,” confirmed Conri. “I love her, Aella. I don’t think I will ever love another.”
“I am so sorry for what has happened to her and you. It cannot be easy seeing her forget things that must be very special to you.”
“It is excruciating, but all hope is not lost. She is alive and well. I convinced her that we were meant to be once. I can do it again,” said Conri.
Aella gripped his hand. “I hope you are right, though it might be harder now without her undivided attention.”
Conri shrugged. “What can I do but try? If I give up now, I will always regret it.”
“I know this may not help, Conri, but I am always here for you as a friend. I do not expect or even want anything else from you but to ease your burdens when I can. I know you have avoided me for a while because of my past actions, but it is unnecessary. I will not demand anything from you.”
Conri took her other hand. “I was angry at you for a while. I was angry at myself as well. I felt as though I used you, and then there was the whole episode with Bren. You were careless, but I know you were not malicious. I want you to know I forgive you if you need it. I also hope you forgive me.”
“I don’t think I need to forgive you because you did nothing wrong. What I shared with you I gave willingly. I don’t even regret it. I see it as a part of growing up. Now we have outgrown each other in that way, but hopefully, we can become something else.”
Conri took one of her hands and kissed it. “I hope so because I do care about you. I would hate to lose you completely from my life.”
She moved into his arms, and he enveloped her in a hug. As he leaned down to kiss her cheek, he saw movement out of the corner of his eyes. Pulling back from Aella, he saw a flash of a blue cloak disappear into the trees.
“I’m sorry, Aella, but I have to go. I hope you don’t mind walking back by yourself.”
“Not at all. I plan to stop by the stables and see more of the horses. I hope to see you at lunch or perhaps supper.”
Conri nodded before he ran towards the woods. He knew it was Eleri in her blue cloak he had seen. He wasn’t sure why she was running from him, but he would find out. He moved quickly in the forest, looking each way for any glimpse of her. A light mist started falling, and it coated his skin and hair. As he brushed some of his hair out of his face, he thought perhaps he should shift to try to track her. He made up his mind to do it when he saw a bit of blue in the trees ahead.
He walked forward, finding Eleri sitting on a fallen tree, her head in her hands. He approached her slowly, trying to fight the urge to grab her and pull her into his arms. It was natural to comfort her that way, but he reminded himself she did not remember loving him. She might not welcome such a display of affection.
“Eleri?” he softly said as he neared her.
She looked to the side with red eyes before wiping her face with the sleeve of her cloak. “I am sorry, your highness. I did not mean to disturb your time with Lady Aella. There was no need for you to come find me.”
“You disturbed nothing,” said Conri, trying to think why she would not look at him. “We were just out for a morning walk.”
“It looked like more than a walk,” she said, not much louder than a whisper.
He smirked for one second before feeling awful for it. She must have seen him embracing Aella. The thought that she could be jealous made him feel a little hopeful, but it was quickly replaced with guilt. She was obviously upset.
“Eleri, what you might have seen was nothing more than a display of friendship and coming to an understanding. “ He sat down by her on the log. “I care about Aella very much, but my feelings for her do not even compare to what I feel for you.”
“I have no claim over you. If you have found comfort in another, I should be glad. I told myself I would be happy for you when you found someone. Seeing it in front of my eyes was different than I thought it would be.”
“I found comfort in no one because there is no peace for me unless it is found in you,” he said hurriedly. “I do not want to scare you as I know you don’t remember, but I cannot lie to you. You are all I want, Eleri.”
“You don’t mean it. How could you? You have watched me spend all my time with Caerwyn these past few weeks while you suffered.” More tears spilled down her cheeks before she put her head back in her hands. “I am such a silly fool. I will never learn.” She broke down into sobs, and Conri moved closer to her, placing his arm around her.
“Did something happen with Caerwyn? Did he hurt you?”
She calmed herself slightly and raised her head. “I don’t want to burden you with my troubles.”
“Please, tell me. Hearing your troubles is not a burden. It is when you hold back from me that hurts me.”
She shook her head before wiping her eyes. “I don’t know why I am so upset. It is not as if he ever made me any commitment. He has told me over and over that we can’t be together. I should have listened long ago. I should have known his words were empty. Besides, it is not as if he belongs to me. Perhaps the time on his journey was not so bad but in my own house? I was a few doors down unconscious, and all he could think about was bedding her?”
Conri felt his pulse quicken as his instinct to protect Eleri heightened. “What did he do, Eleri? You have to tell me.”
“It will only increase the distance between you. I have already said too much. I have been told before that I would be the ruin of this land. I hoped it wouldn’t come true.”
“It is not true. It could never be true. What have you done but follow your heart and trust others? I need to know what Caerwyn has done to upset you. If you don’t tell me, I will demand it from him,” said Conri.
She sniffled as she pulled her wet hair out of her face. “He took Lady Farrow to bed at least two times since the attack on the Havens. I believe the last time was the night I was injured.”
“He and Lady Farrow?” asked Conri in disbelief. “He lay with her?”
Eleri nodded. “He told me himself, said he had to confess. I suppose I overreacted, but I have had an awful morning. I barely had time to compose myself before seeing him.” She stood up and started pacing and rambling. “I don’t know why that man thought he could treat me as he did. Looking back, I guess he was right. If I will give myself to such a man as his son, I must be nothing but a loose woman.”
Conri watched her, trying to make sense of her words. As he started to understand what he was saying, his rage built. His wolf growled with him, making him echo the sound in his throat. “Did Lord Nevis say hurtful things to you?”
She stopped pacing. “He told me to let Caerwyn go. He said that I had my pleasure from him, and it should be enough. Then he told me that he hoped you could overlook what I had done, though you might like an experienced woman. I tried to leave, saying I would hear no more, but he wouldn’t let me. He grabbed me, and…” She turned away from Conri.
Conri stood up and walked to stand behind her. He put a hand on her arm and gently turned her to face him. “What did he do, Eleri?”
“He told me I was unnatural and that my father should have never married my mother. He spoke ill of Aunt Efa and said I would be the end of the Cadwin name.” I was so angry, and I felt ill. I couldn’t control myself; I only wished him to let me go. I let my magic flow through me so it would cause him some pain. He did let me go, but he was angry. “He swung at me with that cane he uses. I managed to fall to the ground before he hit me. It looked like he would strike at me again, but he gained control of himself and left.”
She looked down, and her voice became so quiet Conri could barely hear her. “I should have fought back or run, but I was terrified, and my head ached. When I saw him over me with his cane raised, all I could do was wait for the pain.”
Conri could not take it anymore. He pulled her to him and held her, trying to calm his anger. As much as he wanted to run to the men that hurt her, he knew he needed to comfort her first. He would see to punishing those who would dare do anything to the woman he loved later, but for now, he would focus on Eleri.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she laid her head against his shoulder. “I continue to burden you. Now that I have said it all out loud, I know it is not that bad.”
“It is. It is taking everything within me not to run and find Lord Nevis at this moment. Caerwyn would not be far behind in hearing my displeasure.”
“You must do nothing. You need Caerwyn to take your throne, and Lord Nevis is an important man in Elathia,” said Eleri.
“He will be nothing in this land when I am through. I am not sure how I will move forward with Caerwyn, but I believe his father is an evil man. This place will be better off without him in power. I am to be king, and he dares to treat you this way. Perhaps I shouldn’t say it, but I still hope you will be my queen.”
She stood up a little straighter so she could look at him. “You know there is no way I am worthy to be your queen. Some of what Lord Nevis said is right. After all that I have done, I cannot be the wife you need.”
He couldn’t help a small smile. “Do you know how many times we have had this conversation? I finally convinced you it was not true. I will tell you again what I said many times before. You are all I need, and I believe you are the perfect queen for Elathia. I could go on and on about your bravery, your goodness, and of course your beauty, but I doubt you would hear it.”
She stared at him with wide eyes for a moment as her hand moved up to his cheek. “Conri, I know this sounds mad, but did we kiss while a thousand candles floated around us?”
He looked at her curiously before nodding his head. “It felt like it. We were at the village festival during the candle blessing.”
“Would you kiss me now?” she asked as she continued to stare at him.
He stalled for just a few moments, wondering if he was taking advantage of her when she was upset, but the intense look in her eyes told him she not only wanted him to kiss her, there was a need. He slowly bent down until their lips met.
It started as a gentle kiss such as the one they shared that night in the village. Before he could pull away, she leaned into him, and her lips parted. He pulled her completely against him, deepening their kiss. He didn’t know how long they stood there together as everything disappeared around them, but when they finally broke apart to breathe, the rain was steady and cold.
“We have to get back to the house,” he said as he breathed heavily.
“I cannot go back there, not yet.” She took his hand and pulled him to the left.
They ran together, Eleri leading them through trees and deeper into the forest until they finally emerged in a long barren field. Conri could see a small house in the distance. They ran together towards the shelter as the cold rain fell around them. Once they reached the back door, Eleri opened it and walked in with Conri following her.
They entered a small kitchen that was clean but looked as though it hadn’t been used in a long while. Eleri took off her cloak as she walked forward. Conri did the same as he moved behind her until he came to a sitting area with a fireplace. Once again, the room was clean, but he could tell no one had lived there for many years.
There were some logs on a rack by the fireplace. Eleri moved to it and picked up one, throwing it into the fireplace. Conri saw what she was doing and took over for her, placing a few into a pile. Once he was done, Eleri held out her hand, and fire sparked, catching onto the logs. Eleri spread out her cloak close to the fire and indicated Conri should do the same.
They sat down together on an old sofa near the fire as Eleri pulled her hands through her hair, leaning forward so it could dry. Conri watched her in silence as he slightly shifted to find a comfortable position on the sofa. She eventually leaned back and looked at Conri with a slight smile. She held out her hand, and he took it. She leaned into him, and he gently kissed her head.
“Your memories continue to come back?” he asked quietly.
“Slowly and with effort. I usually just have a flash here or there. If I try hard to think about one, little snippets start appearing in my mind. When you told me you had said those things before, it felt like a million things flashed in my mind. I picked the one with the candles to focus on because I think I dreamed it before. It made me feel safe.”
“You are safe with me, Eleri. No matter what you choose in your life, I hope you will always find rest and comfort with me.”
“I feel like there is so much more to discover about you, Conri. Sometimes it feels as if I should know you better than anyone, but I quickly dismiss it. Even if I had my memories, we have not known each other very long.
“What does time have to do with knowing someone. I can tell you for a fact that just a few weeks ago, you knew better than anyone ever has. Besides not being able to love you, that has been the hardest part. I finally felt as though someone knew everything about me and still chose me, and that was taken from me.”
She looked up at him. “I’m so sorry, Conri. I have been so focused on my own troubles that I have given little thought to what this must be like for you. It was just so hard to imagine it was true. It is not that I didn’t believe you, but my mind told me it didn’t happen.”
“You do not need to be sorry. You were injured, saving me once again. I owe you everything, Eleri. I don’t say these things to pressure you into remembering or being with me; I say them because it is true. I have spent the nights lately wondering what I would do if you never regained your memories and moved on with another. The only conclusion I could come up with is I would love you no matter what, and I would find a way to help you be happy, even if that meant letting you go.”
She intertwined her hand with his. “I don’t want to give you false hope, but I am not sure I want you to let me go. Whatever this is between us, I don’t think I can dismiss it, not now.”
He felt new hope spring in his chest, making him feel warm despite his wet clothes and the dim room. “I will give you all the time you need. I will not force you to try to remember anything. We can make new memories, and I hope in the end, you will choose me. If you don’t, then all I ask is that you are happy.”
She laughed a little, and it caused Conri to pull her closer. “You make it sound so easy, and perhaps it should be.” She took a deep breath. “Words are just words, though. I think I have finally learned that lesson.”
“I will not just give you words, Eleri. I will prove it to you in my actions. I will first become who I was meant to be. I will work with you to save this land and proved to you I am a man worthy of the crown and you.”
“I don’t think I have ever thought you weren’t worthy. You struck me as a little immature when we first met, but speaking to you know, you seem so different. You have matured in years with just a few month’s time.”
“I think some of it was due to the moon crowning, but the majority is because of you. Your passion and wisdom helped change me. Gaining your love and trust will always be one of my greatest accomplishments, and now I get to do it again.”
She kissed him with no hesitation that time. It was not gentle or slow; it was almost claiming. It caught Conri off guard, but he quickly recovered, pulling her up until she was in his lap. The past weeks were agony, and to experience her passion again felt like a huge weight had lifted off him.
He pulled back and placed a soft kiss on her neck. “I love you,” he said. He kissed the other side of her neck, speaking again of his love for her. He made his way up to her lips, whispering of his devotion against them. She did not return his words, but she did not ask him not to say them. She kissed him one more time before settling into him.
“I know we will have to return soon as others will look for us, but I am so tired,” she said with a yawn.
“Rest for a bit, and then we will slowly make our way back. I know it is wrong as many must be worried, but I do not wish to hurry this time with you.” He kissed her forehead as his arm tightened around her.
“Thank you, Conri,” she said as one on the brink of sleep.
“You do not need to thank me, Eleri. You and I go through things together. You may not remember it, but I will show you again.”