The day was miserable. They woke up to clouds, a cold wind, and a fine mist. Eleri pulled her hood up on her cloak, holding it close to her body as they walked. She was tired and sore from sleeping on the ground. Her side had been feeling better, but the cold and wet weather made it ache anew. If she was going to make it another day on the road, she needed a bed and a way to get some clean clothes.
She looked over at Conri, who appeared much stronger than she felt. She didn’t know how he still looked so handsome, covered in dirt from the road with his light brown hair damp from the mist that surrounded him. He must have sensed her eyes on him because he turned and gave her a smile that sent a bolt of longing through her body.
She should have been used to how he affected her, but the pull she felt towards him every day surprised her. As she slept next to him at night, she wanted very much to kiss him and more. The urge to give herself to him was strong, and she believed he would take her up on any offer in an instant.
Sometimes he gave her a look that held so much intensity and desire that it was hard not to throw herself into his arms. She had to turn away and remind herself that she did not deserve him. He needed someone better than her to be his queen and wife. Besides, her heart was divided as ever, and as much as she wanted Cori, she also missed Caerwyn.
“How much longer to the village?” asked Conri as he turned to look at Eleri.
Eleri stumbled a bit as she tried to look at him. She grabbed for her side as pain ran up it from stopping herself from falling. “I don’t think it is much further. I hope it is not. I think we will lose all light soon, and I would like to arrive before the few shops that are there close.”
Conri moved closer to her. “Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” she said as she let go of her side. “The cold and damp have made my side ache, but it is nothing I cannot handle. I will feel better tomorrow if I can have one night of good rest off of the ground.” She tried to keep her teeth from chattering as she spoke to him.
He put one of his arms around her and pulled her close as they walked. “You are freezing and still hurt. I do not need you to fall ill. How will I know where I am going without my guide and protector?”
She looked up and grinned at him. “I am not your protector, my prince. I am only your advisor. If you are expecting me to keep you as safe as the Bright One, you will be disappointed.”
“I don’t think so,” said Conri as they walked on. “It was you who saved me from the Haven’s estate.”
“And brought you out to the edge of the land,” said Eleri. “My skills as a sorceress could not even get us close to Cadwin Manor.”
“You were injured just before we traveled. I blame myself for not being able t protect you better. I know it is uncomfortable, but I cannot be too angry getting to spend time with you as we travel on foot. I believe I enjoy your company above everyone else.”
She shook her head. “I am not sure you have met enough people in the land to make that statement. Perhaps as we meet more people on this trip, you will see just how inadequate of any sort of partner I am. You could find many who would be a better guide, traveler, and even advisor, not to mention queen.”
Conri slowed down and pulled a little away from her. “Why do you think so little of yourself?”
She took a deep breath. It was not that she thought little of herself. She felt proud of many of her accomplishments and skills. She just wished to put some distance between them. “I am only trying to get you to see that any future you think we might have beyond me being your First Advisor cannot be. I don’t care what the prophecy says; you must find another as your queen.”
They walked on a moment more in silence. “It is because you love another, isn’t it? Caerwyn has already claimed your heart, and you have decided there is no room for me.”
“That isn’t it at all,” said Eleri as she stopped for a moment. “I don’t think Caerwyn and I could ever be either. He made his choice long ago, no matter what he tries to say now. If I could disappear from this land and leave you both to better futures, I would, but I have a duty to you and the land. I will see that duty through. As your First Advisor, let me give you this advice. Do not look at me as a viable option as your future queen. I will do nothing but disappoint you.”
She started walking again, and Conri hurried to catch up to her. “Will you elaborate on your counsel, First Advisor? Will you tell me why you would not make a good queen because from what I know of you, I think you would be an excellent leader of the land.” His voice sounded sharp with a touch of anger
She huffed, feeling her irritation rise. “You know a little of it already. How could you ever trust me when I kept my feelings for Caerwyn from you? I flirted with you. I kissed you and found ways for us to be alone. I even let you show me a moment of pleasure. I think I would have given you everything that night if we hadn’t been interrupted.”
Conri laughed a little. “I truly pleased you that night?”
She rolled her eyes, frustrated that he wasn’t getting the point. “That is not important, my prince. Do you not see what kind of woman I am? On that trip, I let Caerwyn have his way with me even after he had told me over and over we could not be together. I knew I had no future with the man, and I still let him love me.”
“How do you know you don’t have a future with him? I believe he thinks differently.”
Eleri waved her hand. “He talks as if he has changed his mind, but I know who he is. Once he speaks with his father and we get closer to placing you on the throne, he will return to who he will always be. The Bright One was not meant to have a wife or father children. His complete devotion must be to you.”
Conri shook his head. “You should be honest with me, Eleri, or at least be honest with yourself. You are holding back from me because you still have some small hope to have a future with him.” He walked faster, and she let herself fall behind. She wanted to argue with him, but a small part of her thought he might have a point
They were silent again for a longer time. Eleri walked as quickly as she could, longing for a warm place to rest. She did not like being at odds with Conri, but he needed to hear the truth. She was confused about Caerwyn, and she wasn’t ready to dig deep and look at her inentions with the man. She was very sure about the prince, though. She cared for him too much to hurt him. There was too much of a chance she would disappoint him in many ways, and she could never face it.
She kept her head down and focused on placing one foot in front of the other as the wind picked up around them. Her eyes began to feel heavy, and her side ached worse. She wasn’t sure how much further she could go. Just when she thought she might pass out, she heard Conri say her name.
“Eleri, look ahead. Is that the village?”
Eleri looked up and saw a few buildings through the trees. Many had smoke coming from their chimneys. She felt instant relief and almost collapsed from it. Conri must have seen her stumble because he moved to her and took her arm gently.
“I am fine, your highness. That is the village ahead. We need to hurry so we can purchase some warmer, clean clothing.”
Conri pulled her close to him as they walked on. “Eleri, whatever mistakes you believe you have made, you should know that I have made plenty as well. I will not give up on the idea of us just because you have some crazy notion that I deserve better. If you can honestly tell me you have no feelings for me, I will let you be.”
Eleri looked up at him. It should have been easy to lie and say she did not want him in the way a woman wanted her husband, but she could not do it. She did feel attracted to him, and she cared for him. What she felt for him was very close to love if it wasn’t already.
“You cannot do it,” he said with a large smile. “I know you feel the same pull towards me that I feel towards you. I cannot tell the future, so I don’t know where it will lead, but I am unwilling to ignore it. Can we not see where it goes and just let it happen? Do not push me away because you are scared of the future or who you are meant to be.”
“I cannot make you any promises, Conri, but I am not going anywhere. I could not leave you if I tried. Let us focus on getting you to safety, and then we will go from there.”
Conri said nothing more, so she took that as his agreement. They continued to the village. Eleri had been there a few times before, but she hardly remembered much about it. It was small and simple. There were a few tiny homes on the edge of the town, with two or three large cottages scattered amongst them. It didn’t take long for them to enter the center of the village where they found three shops, and the inn Eleri remembered her father had left her outside of to wait when he went in for a few moments.
They pulled their cloaks tight around themselves, trying to hide their dirty, and in Eleri’s case, torn clothing. Eleri pulled out her small money pouch that had luckily been in her cloak pocket when she had gone out to walk the morning they had to flee from the Haven’s estate. Conri took out what money he had found in the abandoned village. They went into the first shop they saw where they were able to buy some simple clothes and new cloaks. Eri found a heavy, dark red dress that would be good for traveling, while Conri chose some brown pants and a dark tunic.
“Do you happen to have a place we could change?” asked Eleri to the older woman behind the counter. “I know it is an odd request, but we have been traveling for a few days with not much on us.”
The old woman nodded. “We have gotten more travelers than I would like that have had to run from their homes with not much on them. What village have they gotten now?”
Conri glanced at Eleri. “We have been traveling for some time.”
“Yes,” agreed Eleri. “We both grew up in villages close to the river. We found each other as we were searching for a new place to settle for a while now. We haven’t had any luck.”
“I’m afraid life on the river is not safe anywhere,” said the older woman. “You would do better settling somewhere like here, deep into the forest.” She looked closely at Eleri. “You are a pretty young thing, very pretty. You could make a good living here if you are willing. I know the mistress of the inn. She would set you up nicely.”
Eleri shook her head. “I thank you, but no. I do not look down on women who earn their bread in that way, but it is not for me.”
“You are so sure?” asked the older woman. “With how you look, you could make a nice amount of coin. One of the men might even snap you up for his own after a time. We’ve had a few young ladies taken in by lords and wealthy merchants who pass through, some as wives and some as mistresses. Either don’t have terrible lives.”
“She is not interested,” said Conri with distaste.
The older woman smiled, showing many missing teeth. “It’s like that between you, is it? I suppose you could try to get on with one of the nearby farmers. It would be a hard life, but eventually, you might be able to take a wife.”
“We will not be staying in the village long,” said Eleri. “Do you have somewhere we could change?”
“I do,” said the woman. “I can give you a little water to clean up with as well. Perhaps you should get a bite to eat in the inn. Maybe you will change your mind about work there once you see how clean it is. If your young man could stand it, you could make enough to support you both.”
Eleri gave the older woman a small smile as Conri huffed. “We do plan to eat a meal at the inn. I doubt I will change my decision, but I promise to keep an open mind if you let us change quickly.”
The woman nodded as she indicated they should follow her. She took them to the back of her shop, where there was a living space set up. After she showed Conri to a very small bedroom, she took Eleir to a large room that Eleri thought must have been the woman’s own bedroom.
“You can change in here. There is some clean water in that bowl. I will see that your young man has some as well.”
“You are very kind,” said Eleri.
“I know what it is like to have nothing and depend on others. It is why I do not wish for you to dismiss a life some of the young women have chosen here. I was taken in by the woman who runs the inn. At first, I, like you, thought myself too good for a life as someone who entertained men, but I soon found many good things about it. Eventually, it gave me enough money to buy my store. I have all of this because of those few years I spent in the inn. I also have many interesting stories.”
“I do not think myself too good for that life, I assure you. It is just not for me. I have other things in mind for how I will spend my time in this land.”
“I hope it is not the young man holding you back,” said the older woman. “He is handsome, but you do not need to build your whole life around him. Women too often think they need some man to take care of them and make them whole. You strike me as a very resourceful person. Do what you must to find your happiness, even if you must leave the young man to find his own way.”
“I thank you for your advice, good woman,” said Eleri. “But I am afraid it is not valid here. I am bound to that man more than you can know, or I can explain.”
“Then I hope he proves worthy of your devotion,” said the older woman as she turned to leave.
Eleri stood still for a moment as the old woman closed the door, thinking that Conri proving worthy wasn’t the problem.