The night wind was awful, and the dampness in the air made it almost unbearable to be outside. Caerwyn looked back over his group to see them all huddled in on themselves with the cloaks they wore held tight. Poor Lady Havens was supported by her husband and her niece. Her cough had gotten so bad that she couldn’t go more than five or six steps without having to stop for a second to catch her breath.
Emilia brewed up some tea with some mint she had acquired and a few late-ripening elderberries she had found in the forest. The tea seemed to calm Lady Haven’s cough for a while, but it would always come back. Emilia kept plenty of the tea brewed and mixed it with some wine. It helped, but Lady Havens was now not only short of breath but a little drunk as well.
“How much further, Caerwyn?” asked Aron as he walked next to him.
“We are almost there. You should see the place come into view soon, even as dark as it is.”
Aron looked up and tilted his head. “Is that it, then?”
Caerywn lifted his head and nodded as he looked at the half-ruined tower in front of him. It wasn’t much to look at, but it would provide shelter with ready beds. The tower had once been a part of a massive estate owned by the ancient shifter family of Pirey, but that family had betrayed the Gidlens hundreds of years ago. Their house had been mostly burned down after they were caught when their lands were taken. They were given to distant relatives of the family. It belonged to another branch of the Pireys, but nothing had ever been done on the estate again.
Sometimes younger sons or outcasts of the family would reside in the tower. The most recent exile of the Preys currently lived in the tower, and he was a friend of Caerywn’s. Selven Pirey may have looked shifty and unreliable, but Caerywn knew he was actually a good man just trying to make it in the land. He constantly provided information for Caerwyn. Usually, Caerywn paid well for it, but he knew that was only for Selven’s survival. If it came down to it, Selven would help him for free.
Caerywn’s group made it to the front door on the lowest level of the tower. Almost all windows in the building were dark except for two on the bottom floor and one near the top. Caerwyn knocked loudly, hoping either Selven or the old man who served him would answer. He waited a few minutes as Aron and Emilia looked at him skeptically. Caerywn knocked again loudly, this time for almost a full minute.
Finally, the door swung open. “What use are you, Larney, if you won’t even answer the door,” yelled Selven into the house. He turned, looking angry before his mouth fell open and his eyes grew wide. “Bright one, what in the name of the goddess are you doing here?”
“It is a long story that I am sure you have already heard most of. Let us in, Selven, and I will answer every question you have. I have some people with me that need to get warm and have a decent meal.”
Selven looked behind Caerywn at the others with him. He looked back at Caerwyn and nodded before stepping out of the way. Caerwyn walked in with Aron directly behind him. He entered into a small entry that was dark and dirty. A few swords hung on the wall before him with a torch above them. Caerwyn could see many cobwebs between the swords.
“Come into the main area. There is a fire there. I can call Larney to get you some kind of food. It may not be anything special, but it will be hot and edible.” Selven led them into a sizeable half-circle-shaped room. It was cluttered with old sofas and chairs, dusty books piled high, and crumpled up papers everywhere. Lord Havens brought his wife to a high back chair near the fire. She sat down with his assistance and started coughing.
“Perhaps, I should have Larney bring some elixir for the lady’s cough,” said Selven. “Are there any injuries that need attending?”
“I believe we are all well, just exhausted and hungry. All we ask is some substance and a place to stay for a night or two. Maybe some news as well.”
“Give me a moment to arrange everything, and I will tell you what I have heard, Caerwyn,” said Selven. “Make yourselves comfortable, and move whatever is needed to find a place to sit.”
“Who is this man?” asked Aron as he moved a stack of books over to sit on a half-broken sofa. His guards moved to two chairs by the far wall.
“Selven Pirey,” said Emilia as she sat in a chair close to Aron.
“You know Selven?” asked Caerwyn.
“He often came to speak with my husband. Lord Farrows found him amusing and liked to hear all the news the man would tell him.”
“He is a Pirey?” asked Aron. “You trust him then?”
“I think hundreds of years is enough time to erase the sins of a family, Aron,” said Caerwyn as he moved some crumpled paper to the floor to sit in a chair. “Selven has been a good friend to me. He will not betray us, and I believe he will prove useful in getting word to Lord Cadwin. I take it you would like some word of the prince and Lady Eleri.”
Aron nodded. “If he can help us know the fate of Eleri, I will bear a night or two in a place such as this.”
“It may be a little dirty and cluttered, but it is warm,” said Lord Havens from over by the fire.
“He says he has medicine for my aunt,” said Aella softly. “I would sleep anywhere to see her well.”
“I am not so bad, my dear,” said Lady Havens with a slight wheeze. “I already feel better sitting down and getting warm. I think a few days of rest is all I need.”
“Then you shall have it,” said Caerwyn. He looked at the Havens and wondered if he should leave them there when he traveled on. Perhaps Emilia would stay behind and see to their safety. He would miss her as he traveled, but his main goal was to get to Lord Cadwin’s as quickly as he could.
After a few moments, Selven came in, followed by his servant, Larney, holding a tray. Larney was an older man with a hunched-over back. His head was almost entirely bald, with only wispy white hairs on the side. He grunted as he walked forward, placing the large tray on the only clear table in the room.
“I will go get some wine and the elixir you wanted, Selven,” said Larney as he turned. He shuffled back out as Selven started to separate the pile of bowls on the tray.
“Come get some stew while we wait for the wine. It is a little thin as Larney had to add some water to make it stretch. He had only cooked enough for him and me. There is enough bread for all. He always makes too much of it.”
Aella came up with Aron and helped distribute the food. Caerwyn took his bowl, finding the soup was thin but not unpalatable. The bread was warm and dense. It was the best meal he had eaten since they fled the Haven’s estate. Lady Havens ate and was given her elixir. Before long, she slumbered in her chair, finally seeming at peace after coughing through many nights.
“I would ask what has brought you here, but I believe I know the answer already,” said Selven as he sat back in a chair next to Caerwyn with a glass of wine in his hand.
“What have you heard?”
“There was some sort of skirmish at Lord Haven’s estate. It is said he was mistreating his servants and tenants, especially shifters.”
“I have mistreated no one,” said Lord Havens as he got up and walked closer to them so he would not disturb his wife.
“I know, my lord, and so do many others, but they had to have some excuse to invade your estate. They could not come out and say they wished to kill the prince.”
“I don’t believe that is why they came,” said Emilia.
“Oh,” said Selven as he sat forward. “Will you enlighten me then?”
Caerwyn closed his eyes and tried to steady his breath. His wolf inside of him growled Eleri’s name. “He wants Eleri,” said Caerywn quietly as he opened his eyes. “He wants to claim her and make her his wife.”
Selven’s eyes widen slightly. “He thinks he can fulfill the prophecy if he marries her? That doesn’t really fit, does it?”
Caerwyn raised his hands. “Whose to say how the man thinks, but what matters is he is desperate to take her. I don’t know how he thinks he will force her to marry him. I don’t believe I want even to begin to imagine it.”
Selven reached over and poured some dark wine into a glass next to him. He handed it to Caerwyn. “I am sorry, my friend. I know this cannot be easy for you.”
“Have you heard anything about her or the prince, Selven?” asked Caerwyn before he took a drink. “Have they made it to Cadwin manor?”
“I have heard nothing about the prince or Lady Eleri,” answered Selven. “I don’t believe either is bein held by Lord Fellen, or I would have heard.”
Emilia nodded. “I think Lord Fellen would have let everyone know if he had Lady Eleri or the prince.”
“So you have no idea where they are? Are they together?”
“I believe they are together,” said Caerwyn. “We were separated during the fight at the Haven’s Estate, and Eleri said she would get the prince to safety. She was trying to travel to Cadwin Manor, but I have no idea if they made it.”
“And you are afraid to send a message to Lord Cadwin?” asked Selven. “That is probably wise. I know plenty of messages that have been intercepted whether they traveled by bird or man.”
“I am sure Lord Cadiwn knows at least some of what happened, “ said Aron. “If Eleri is not home by now, I bet he has sent out riders to look for his daughter.”
Caerwyn had thought of that as well. He nodded at Aron. “He probably believes she is with you, though, and some of your guards.”
“I should never have left her side,” said Aron.
“Nothing you can do about it now,” said Selven as he took a long drink. “She is a strong one, I believe. I have only laid eyes on her twice, but she struck me as knowing what she was about.”
Caerwyn finished his wine as Aron and Selven kept talking. He didn’t listen to their conversation as he thought about Eleri and Prince Conri. He knew Eleri was very capable of taking care of herself and that Prince Conri was not helpless. Still, he would not rest easy until he saw them both with his own eyes.
He leaned over and poured some more wine into his glass as he thought of Eleri. Though he knew his first priority and worry should be for Prince Conri, his thoughts were mostly filled with her. He missed her more than he ever had. All those months he had stayed away from her had been agony, but now, knowing they were separated not just by distance but also much more was almost beyond what he could stand.
Every time he tried to tell her to move on as he pushed her away, he knew somewhere in him, he still had some small hope for them. She always said she would not give up on them. Though Caerwyn tried and tried to stay away from her, he never could for long. He longed for her always. His wolf demanded her constantly. Now, he had to face the fact that he may have lost her forever. He told her to move on, and it seemed she may have finally listened. Caerwyn thought the prince probably helped in the matter. He knew she was drawn to Conri.
“What do you think, Caerwyn?” asked Aron, causing Caerwyn to shake his head.
“I’m sorry; I was not attending to the conversation,” said Caerwyn.
“Selven says he can get us a couple of horses. Two of us could ride ahead to Cadwin manor and bring back some help for the group.”
Caerwyn looked around the group. “You could go with one of your guards, or perhaps Emilia would like to ride ahead.”
“I will do as you wish, Caerwyn, but I would like to stay with the group,” said Emilia. “Lady Havens might do better after a rest, but she will probably still need some attention. I would feel better staying with the ladies.”
“I would like to ride to my lord and let him know all that has happened. If you let me know the path you will take and stay upon it, then I could probably ride back within four days to retrieve you. I hate to leave you if you think you need my help, though,” said Aron.
“I think I can manage if you leave one of your guards. Emilia is a good fighter if it comes to it, but I doubt we see much trouble,” said Caerwyn as he took another sip of wine.
“If you think it is a good idea, I will leave early tomorrow. Perhaps you could stay here until I make it back,” suggested Aron.
Caerwyn glanced at Selven and shook his head. “I don’t want to stay in one place too long, and I don’t like putting Selven in danger for any longer than necessary.”
“You know you are welcomed to stay, my friend,” said Selven. “I do not live in fear of Lord Fellen.”
“It will be better if we move on in a couple of days,” said Emilia. “We may not be Lord Fellen’s main interest, but he might think he could use some of our group to entrap Lady Eleri and our prince. I would hate for him to get his hands on the Havens.”
“We will stay two nights to give us all time to rest, but then we will move on. If Selven has a map, I will show you what paths we will take, Aron.”
“I have one in the room I use as library and study. I can show you whenever you wish,” said Selven.
“Let us go now,” said Caerwyn as he finished his second glass of wine. “Aron will need his rest for his journey tomorrow.”
Caerwyn walked from the room with Aron by his side.
“Perhaps, I will find Eleri and the prince safe and warm at Cadwin manor,” said Aron
Caerwyn nodded, hoping that would be the case, but fearing it would not. After choosing a path on the map, the group dispersed to rooms shown to them by Larney. Caerwyn let everyone find their place while he walked back into the main room with Selven. They sat down, and both poured another glass of wine.
“I would say you should go get some sleep, Caerwyn, but I doubt you are doing much of it these days,” said Selven.
“How can I rest knowing how I have failed? I can’t imagine how my father will react when he knows my shame.”
“I doubt you should feel any shame. You are always too hard on yourself. I am sure you did all you could to keep your prince safe. Sending him with Lady Eleri must have been the only way to save him.” Selven took a drink and looked at Caerwyn. “Probably saved her life as well.”
Caerwyn nodded. “I’m thankful she didn’t have a way to get Prince Conri to me and sacrifice herself. I have no doubt she would have done it.”
“Sounds like an extraordinary woman,” said Selven carefully as he eyed Caerwyn.
Caerwyn nodded as he drank his wine. She was extraordinary. She was brave, beautiful, challenging, and more talented than she would admit. He again felt like the most foolish man in Elathia for rejecting her love over and over.
“If you aren’t in the mood for talking, I’m going to check to make sure the others are settled in.”
Caerwyn watched as Sylven drained his glass and stood. “I am sorry, my friend. I am beyond thankful for your help and shelter, but it has been a trying time. Conversation at this moment is almost impossible for me.”
“There is no need for apologies. I can’t imagine how hard this is for you. After feeling the bond with the prince, being away from him must be agony.”
Caerwyn nodded, knowing part of his bad feelings was a loss of his duty. He should be by his ruler in this time of danger, but he had been so focused on worrying over Eleri that he had not had time to analyze his worries for Prince Conri.
Selven hesitated before leaving the room. He said quietly. “I know you must be worried about Lady Eleri as well. You have told me some of your history with the young woman during our past late-night talks, and while I don’t know where you stand with her now, feelings, as you described, do not go away easily.”
Caerwyn refilled his glass. His tongue was always looser around Selven, probably because they were usually drinking together. “I am not sure where I stand with her now either, but my feelings for her have only changed in that they have grown.”
“And now she is alone with a man she is said to be connected with by fate,” said Selven shaking his head. “What a complicated mess.”
Caerwyn shrugged before taking another drink. “I knew the moment I first kissed that woman it would complicate things beyond reason, but although I have tried to deny it, I believe she is worth any amount of complications.”
“That is a change of heart for you,” said Selven. “I don’t know what to wish you, Caerwyn, except that I hope you find a way to be happy and at peace.”
“I’m not sure there is a way, but I appreciate the sentiment,” said Caerwyn. “Go on and check on the others. I wish to be alone for a while. I know my way to my room.”
Selven waited a moment more in silence before he finally turned as he shook his head and left the room.
Caerwyn spent much too long by himself, drinking more wine than he had in a while. His head was full of visions of Eleri. He thought of the many times he had loved her. No one’s skin had ever felt as soft. He had never kissed sweeter lips. No matter how many women he became entangled with, none had ever driven him to the depths of passion that she did. Every sigh she gave sent shudders down his spine. The memory of taking her almost caused him to forget where he was. He needed release, but he could not do it there.
Finishing his glass, he hurried from the room, going to the spiral staircase in the heart of the tower. He climbed it clumsily, feeling the effects of the wine and the desire that coursed through his body from his thoughts of Eleri. He made it to the usual floor he slept on and walked down the hall. There were five rooms, and he always stayed in the third one from the staircase. In his drunken and passion-filled state, he must have miscounted because when he opened the door, he was not met with his usual simple, empty room, but the sight of a half-dressed Emilia standing in front of a small fireplace.
She was in her thin under shift with an old shawl draped around her shoulders. The light from the fireplace illuminated her figure through the material, showing her desirable curves. Caerwyn automatically moved towards her. She was not who he wanted, but she was lovely. He had memories of loving her from long ago. She was the first woman he ever felt any inclination for, and in those throws of first young love, he found much pleasure from Emilia.
She stepped forward towards him, a worried look on her face. Before she could speak, Caerwyn grabbed her and kissed her forcefully. She struggled for one moment, and he felt a pang of guilt and shame. Before he could pull away, she settled into their kiss, her arms going around his neck. He pressed her further against him as one of his hands moved from her waist up to her small but firm breast.
He moved down to kiss her neck, knowing he would soon be too far gone to turn back. Picking her up and taking her to her bed would be so easy. It would help sate the desire that ran through him. He could not have the one he loved and wanted, but Emilia would be a good distraction.
She said his name quietly, her sweet voice tickling his ear with her breath. A wonderful distraction indeed, but just that. He forced himself to pull back, taking his hands off of her and turning around. She deserved better than what he had to offer. She was a beautiful, good woman who had been through too much already. To use in her in such a way as to give him a few moments of half pleasure was wrong.
“Caerwyn,” she said uncertainly.
“I’m sorry, Emilia. I didn’t mean…. I came in here by mistake, and I…”
She moved towards him with her hand out. “You don’t need to say anything further. I know I am not who you really desire, but that has never bothered me. If you need me, I am here. I am not unwilling.”
“I cannot do this to you.” Caerwyn could not look at her. He knew the soft look in her eyes would undo him. “I am afraid my head and heart are full of another, and all I would see is her as I loved you.”
There were both quiet for a moment, and he heard her shuffle a bit as if adjusting her shift and shaw. “You must do what you believe is right,” she finally said. “But do not think you have to protect me. I am wiser to most ways of this land than you may ever be, and I know how things are.” She moved closer to him, putting her hand on his arm. “I care about you very much. I always have. You know it because I have never been shy in telling you. I am here for you however you need me. I am used to taking what I can get, and I will be satisfied with whatever you give me, even if it is loving me with another woman in mind. I may sound pathetic, but at this point in my life, I don’t care.”
He finally turned and looked at her. “You are worth so much more than this, Emilia. I wish I could make you see it, but at the very least, I don’t want to make you feel less.”
She smiled a little and took her hand away to pull her shaw closer to her. “You could never make me feel less, Caerwyn. You are one of the few people in Elathia who has always made me feel equal.”
He shook his head and looked at her. “Then I have done you wrong because you are beyond equal to me. You are above me in every way that matters.”
“Go to bed, Caerwyn, if you can find it,” she said with a small laugh. “I would help you, but I am afraid I would stay with you, and I don’t think that is what you want or need tonight.”
He walked to the door and opened it. Before walking out, he looked at her as she watched him. Perhaps she wasn’t what he wanted, but he knew he needed her in his life.”