The sun was almost down when Eleri stopped close to a stream, deep in the forest along the southern border of Elathia. Conri stood still beside her as she looked around. She turned one way and then the other, her russet-colored fur brushing his, making him close his eyes in a mixture of satisfaction and agony.
Spending the day running across the land with her was pure elation. In his wolf form, he was aware of her like never before. Every time she would nudge him or look at him as they ran, he would feel his need to claim her become stronger. Her scent nearly drove him insane with desire. For so long, he had doubted the prophecy stating she was destined to be his, but after knowing her and feeling the effect she had on him, he could no longer dismiss it.
It didn’t really matter if the prophecy was true or not. What mattered was he wanted her more than anything or anyone he had wanted before. He had plenty of experience with desire, but what he felt for her was beyond anything he felt in the past. She felt like such a part of him that he was afraid he would never feel complete unless she agreed to be his. He was already hers, and he knew it. There would never be another he could truly belong with because, almost without even knowing it, he had given his heart and all that he would ever be to her.
He knew it should be a scary situation. She could easily dismiss him and take off with all that made his life worth anything, but he was not afraid. It was natural to feel as though he belonged to her that to try to deny it would only cause him pain. He knew he could not control her decisions or actions. She seemed so set on dismissing any chance of them. Though she said it was because she was not worthy of him, he thought it might have to do more with Caerwyn and her feelings for the man.
If only he could get her to talk to him. If she was in love with Caerywn and had been for some time, why were they not truly together? It was obvious to him that Caerwyn cared for her. He knew Caerywn held back due to his duty as the Bright One, but surely a woman like Eleri would have moved him to throw all tradition aside. If Caerwyn loved her even half as much as Conri already thought he did, then the man could not have denied it. She would already be his, and Conri would be lost.
Eleri turned to him in her wolf form. She nodded, and he understood her. He turned away, so his back was to her, waiting in silence. Before long, he felt human fingers against his course fur as Eleri worked to take their bag off his back. He knew he shouldn’t, but he could not help himself. If she noticed, he would blame his wolf’s nature. He turned slightly, seeing the side of her naked form in the moonlight peeking through the clouds overhead. She was breathtaking, and everything in him wanted to shift immediately and take her into his arms. Instead, he closed his eyes and turned away.
“I will go dress over by a nearby tree so you can shift and put your clothes on,” said Eleri. “I will not go far.”
He gave her a few seconds to walk off before shifting himself. Finding she had pulled out his clothes for him, he quickly put them on his human form, realizing how cold it was as the sun was almost gone. After putting on his boots, he searched for some substantial sticks for a fire as Eleri walked towards him. She watched what he was doing for a moment before lifting her hands.
“I’m feeling very well this evening, and if you stand back, I will make sure we have substantial cover and warmth tonight,” she said.
Conri moved back and watched in wonder as she moved around with her hands waving. Sticks, leaves, stones, and moss flew towards her so fast that he barely had time to register what was happening. It seemed like only a few seconds passed before a nice shelter made up of materials from the forest stood in front of him. Eleri gave him a grin before she pushed some moss aside to walk inside. Conri followed her, entering into a space tall enough he could stand and wide enough he could lay down with room to spare.
There was already a place for a fire in the center surrounded by stones. A large pile of sticks and leaves lay in the middle with a slight opening in the shelter overhead. Eleri lit the sticks with a touch, and a strong fire caught. The hole above the fire was perfectly made to funnel the smoke to the top and out into the night sky.
Conri sat down across from Eleri and watched her as she held out her hand. Their bag came flying into them, landing next to Conri.
“Search through our things and find the food and drink we bought from that shop in the village. I could do with a small glass of wine, I think.”
“You are sure after this morning?” asked Conri as he picked up the bag.
She smiled at him. “I told you I feel particularly well, and I think I will need the wine to help me settle.”
Conri stared at her for a few moments, noticing that her bright green eyes almost seemed to glow in the dim space. She had a slight smile on her face as she looked back at him, and it made him squirm a little where he was. He put his attention on the bag and pulled out some apples, dried meat, and the wineskin.
He looked up from the bag to find Eleri had moved to sit beside him. He started for a moment, having not heard any signs of movement. “What did you find?” she asked.
He held up the meat, apple, and wineskin. She grabbed the wineskin and took a long drink.
“You should probably eat as well,” said Conri. “You haven’t had much all day.”
She nodded and took some meat out of his hand. “I meant to look for some small game to kill, but my mind was too occupied as we traveled. I completely forgot.”
He watched her as she bit off a piece of her meat and took another drink of wine. He gave her a small smirk and asked, “What did you think about that caused you to be so distracted?”
She held out the wineskin towards him, and he took it. She took another bite of her meat and looked thoughtful as she chewed. “I do not shift very often, and my wolf has a strong mind of her own. It takes a lot of my concentration to control her.”
He tried to keep his smile from widening. “And what was she so intent on doing that you would not allow?”
She said nothing, but she looked at him up and down in a way that he could easily guess the answer she wished to give. He took a swig of wine and picked up some meat. He ate it quickly as he watched her move on to an apple. She took a few bites before again picking up the wine and taking a long swig.
“That won’t last us past this night if we keep drinking it,” said Conri as he finished his meat.
She handed the wineskin to him and shrugged. “I believe I know where we are. I think we are easily within a day’s walk of a good-sized village. We can stop there tomorrow night and find a place to stay. We can buy whatever we need before we leave to continue.”
Conri took a sip of wine as she finished her apple. She threw the core into the fire and moved closer to him. He felt his desire grow as she brushed against him as she settled. He swallowed hard as she took the wineskin from him.
“Aren’t you afraid we will run out of coins?” he asked, trying to take his eyes off of her but failing.
“We will have plenty. From the village, we can travel somewhere. I know we will be safe and get whatever supplies we need,” she said after taking a drink.
“Where would that be?”
“My aunt’s house is north of here, nestled into the Red forest. From there, we will have less than three days to travel to Cadwin Manor. If she is at home, she can probably take us there in an instant, but I know she travels much this time of year.” She handed the wineskin back to him and laid her head on his shoulder. “You can finish that off if you like.”
He felt like his whole body was on fire with her against him. He always desired her, but there was something about being in wolf form that heightened that feeling. He remembered it from the night he received the moon crown. He could not stop himself from going to her that night, and he felt even more unable to control what he felt for her at the moment. He finished the wine and looked down at her.
“You are very warm. It has made all these cold nights almost bearable,” said Eleri.
He put his arm around her and pulled her completely against him. “Are you cold now, my lady? I thought it was rather warm in here, but it might just be me.”
She looked up at him. “I am not cold, but I do enjoy being close to you. I probably shouldn’t say it, but I always enjoy being in your arms.”
He turned slightly and leaned down as she leaned up. As their lips met, Conri felt that feeling of complete surrender come over him. He felt as though he had drunk much more wine than the wineskin could ever hold. As her lips parted, he deepened their kiss and pulled her up on his lap. He could taste the apple and wine on her tongue, but beyond that was something much sweeter, a taste that was all her own. He craved more and more of it.
One of her hands went under his cloak and onto his thigh. It rubbed lightly against his pants, and he groaned against her lips. One of his hands close to her waist worked its way up until he caressed her breast over her dress. She shifted, so she straddled him, pulling her dress up as she moved. He released her lips, and she raised her head. He kissed her neck, his tongue flicking out to taste her skin. She moaned as she moved her hands to bury them into his hair.
His kisses went lower as his hands moved to her back. He searched for the ties to her dress to undo them. Finding them, he clumsily pulled at them while kissing the top of her breast. She moved against him, and he thought he might not be able to take the tension that had built inside of him. He wanted relief, and he knew he would only find it in her.
“Conri, wait,” she said breathlessly. “You know we cannot do this.”
He growled as he leaned up to look at her. His arms around her tighten their hold. “Why? Do not tell me you do not want me because I will not believe it.”
She kissed him gently before leaning back. “Of course, I want you, but it is not wise. I cannot give you all you want. I will only end up hurting you if I take this any further.”
She tried to move out of his lap, but he held on to her. He leaned forward and kissed her fiercely. She did not resist, leaning into the kiss as her hands went up to his face. She pulled back and stroked his cheek as she looked at him with a sad smile.
“Eleri, why are you so worried about what might happen a year from now or even a few months down the road? I am not some child who does not know what he wants. I am content to have you for as long as you will allow. If I do lose you to another, I would rather have a wonderful memory of loving you than many regrets of lost chances.”
“Those are pretty words, Conri, but you do not mean them. I may not have known you long, but I believe I know you well. You have hidden your heart behind jests and shallow feelings, but I know how good you really are. You love boldly and free. If I tie myself to you any further, I am afraid of how badly I might hurt you.”
“You are love just as freely and strongly, if not more,” said Conri fiercely. “I know you would never do anything with the intention of hurting me, so I am letting you know now that I do want you, Eleri. I want you forever, but I am willing to take what you can give me. I know there is another you feel connected to, and you will need to make decisions. I am not asking you to make that decision now. I am only asking you to give us a chance.” He kissed her lips and then her neck. “Let me show you how wonderful we could be together. I want to show you how much I already feel for you.”
She shook her head and pushed away. He could see tears in her eyes, and he pulled her back to him. He shifted her so she would be more comfortable against him and held her while she cried. He said nothing as he gently kissed her forehead and cheek. She settled eventually, and he reached up to move the hair out of her facing and wipe some tears from her cheeks.
“My father accused Caerwyn of being a coward,” she said shakily. “I’m afraid it is I who is the real coward. I’m also weak and foolish.”
“You are not,” said Conri gently. “You might be the bravest person I have ever met. I owe my life to you.”
“But I leave in so much fear, Conri. I am scared of never living up to who I am supposed to be. Whether it is the daughter of the great Lord Cadwin, your first advisor, and even the queen, I know I will fall short in everyone.”
“You are much too hard on yourself. You are so brilliant and good. I don’t think there is anything you couldn’t do.”
“I have you fooled then,” she said. She tried to move from his lap, but he held on to her.
“Tell me how you have fooled me because I don’t see it. You have been brutally honest with me at times,” said Conri.
“I kept my feelings from Caerwyn a secret from you. I kissed him and loved him on our journey. I had every opportunity to tell you about the two of us, but I kept it to myself because of fear.”
Conri sighed and moved a bit more of her hair behind her ear. “Tell me about him now then.”
She pulled back a bit and looked at him with confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Tell me about you and Caerwyn. Explain to me how you met and how you came to love him. Why aren’t you together now?”
“I am not sure what good it will do,” she said quietly. “I think you already know why we aren’t together.”
“I want to hear it all, Eleri. I am interested in everything about you, and I know he is important to you. Talk to me, Eleri, please.”
She took a breath and nodded. She slid from his lap as he let her go. She pulled her legs up, making sure her feet were tucked under her skirt before folding her arms and holding them against her.
“I saw him first when I was barely eleven years old. My mother was killed that year, and I spent much of my time by myself. Caerwyn’s uncle and father came to Cadwin Manor to speak with my father, and Caerwyn came with them. They let him play on the back lawn while they talked. He found me sitting in a tree branch as I read my mother’s favorite book and cried.
“I am sure he found me very uninteresting a first. I was a young girl with wild hair wearing a grass-stained dress, but he climbed up to the branch when he saw that I was crying. He asked me about my book. I ended up telling him about my mother. He told me his mother had died not long after his brother was born. Before he could say much more, his father called him back to the house.
“I saw him several more times over the few years, but we weren’t allowed many conversations. I had a strict governess who taught me etiquette, and she believed young girls should not speak with young boys. Caerwyn was usually in the company of his father, who was also very strict. It was not until I was eighteen and allowed to be in mixed company that we had any real conversation.
“It was at the spring festival celebration held at my home that I first danced with him. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever see, and he appeared to be transfixed by me, though I don’t know why. The moment he took my hand, I felt a pull towards him.” She laughed a little. “You might have guessed that I am an adventurous and curious creature, and I had kissed a few young men before that night. I had done a bit more than that and might have done more had not Aron always interfered. He has always been like an annoying older brother, always watching me too closely.”
Conri grinned at her. “He might annoy you, but I know you value him. He cares about you very much. I know you love him.”
She smiled. “I do. I love him as much as anyone could love their true brother, but at the time, I mainly felt annoyed with him. At the spring festival, he was distracted by some lovely young women. I took advantage of it and went for a walk with Caerwyn out into the forest. He told me about his uncle how had died a few years back, and how he didn’t know if he could truly be the Bright one. I told him about how I felt inadequate as Lady Eleri, the next First Advisor. We always had an easy time talking with each other.
“He kissed me in a clearing in the woods. The sky was cloudless, and a hundred stars were overhead. It felt like the moons shined down on us as we kissed that night. I would have let him go as far as he wished, but he eventually pulled back. He told me we couldn’t go any further because of who we both were. He was the Bright One and could have no wife or children. I was Lady Eleri, destined to be queen.”
She sighed. “That prophecy has always haunted me. I wanted no part of it, as you well know. I let him walk me back to the house, annoyed that he would presume I couldn’t separate a night of passion from falling in love. Still, I thought of him long after that night. I saw him again when he came to speak with my father. He tried to leave without seeing me, but I walked with him out to the road. I don’t remember how, but somewhere along the way, he kissed me again.
“We shared many kisses the next few months. He wrote to me, and I wrote back. No one thought much of it. We would be bound together soon as we worked to put you on your throne. He came to the Fall Moon festival that year at my father’s house, and we snuck off into the woods again. This time he did not hold back.
“After that, we found ways to meet often. He would come to the house when my father was away, and we would spend our days and nights together. I was allowed to travel to my aunts, and he met me there. She was not at home, and Aron was called back to my father, leaving some young guards to protect me. Caerywn and I took every advantage of our time together. It was there that I first realized I loved him. The night before my aunt returned, I told him because I was a fool. That was the first time he told me I must forget him. He said we could not see each other unless it was official court business.”
She wiped a tear from her cheek. “He told me he did not love me because he could not love anyone. He would forget me, and I should forget him.” She shook her head. “I cried for days over him. I even told my aunt. She was so good for me, letting me blubber on about how it was all unfair. I left for home, determined to forget him, but it was not to be. I felt so connected to him that I could never get him out of my mind. It seemed he felt the same, and we met many more times out in the land. He told me over and over again, we had to stop, but still, we met.
“Finally, a little under nine months before I traveled to the Haven’s Estate, Caerwyn came to my home to deliver a message to my father. My father was away, and Caerwyn went to leave. He stayed because I offered him supper. I gave him a room to spend the night before he left the following day. I tried to ignore my urge to go to him, but I went to his room. Before I could go back to my own, he opened the door, and we made love. I thought he might finally claim me, but as always, he pulled back.
“I was angry. I was tired of being rejected by him as I truly felt he was the one for me. He told me to forget him and to move on. I refused, and he would not change his mind. I left angry, but I knew I loved him, and he loved me. I thought I would never meet another who could make me feel as he did.”
Conri was quiet as he watched her wipe her cheeks again. He heard the pain in her voice as she told their story. He knew there were many details she left out, and he was grateful for it. As much as he wanted to know everything about her, he did not relish the idea of hearing about another man loving her in detail.
“So now you see what how foolish and weak I am. I gave myself over and over to a man who obviously didn’t want me. I tried to force him to bind himself to me, and even now that I know I should be ashamed of my feelings, I can’t help but still love him.”
Conri reached out and took her hand. “You are not the fool in that story, Eleri. Caerywn is the idiot who did not claim you when he had the chance. Do you not see how wonderful you are? Any man in this land would not hesitate to claim you if you gave him a chance.”
She gave a half-smile. “Any man, but the one I thought I wanted.”
He pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed it. “You still haven’t explained why you think you are a coward.”
She took her hand away from him and looked down. “Haven’t you already guessed? You must see that I am one.” She looked away. “I’m terrified of being with you, Conri. You know that I want you, but I am so scared of what will happen If I let myself love you.”
“What are you most afraid of?” he asked quietly.
She turned and looked at him. “That I won’t be able to let you go. I am afraid that if I tie myself to you in such a way, I will fall so in love with you that I won’t be able to pull myself back.”
He laughed a little. “You are afraid of the very thing I want more than anything else in this land.”
“But don’t you see what a disaster I would be as your wife and queen? I already can barely handle being the First Advisor. I find myself distracted constantly by a man who has told me repeatedly he doesn’t want me, and I can’t even work up the courage to either love you or leave you alone. How can I help you rule Elathia when I can’t even rule myself?”
“You don’t think I have doubts about being king?” asked Conri. “I may have known my whole life I was destined for it. I may have even fooled myself into believing I have accepted it, but I don’t know if I can do it. There is so much wrong in Elathia. So many people have suffered because of what is happening in the Silver Palace. How can I be the man who makes it all better?”
“But you won’t do it alone,” said Eleri. “You will have your advisors and Caerwyn.”
“And you wouldn’t have to depend on yourself if you were my queen. We could rely on each other. “
She sat back a little, placing her hands on the ground behind her. Conri watched her, wondering what was truly going through her mind. He finally scooted so he was against her and put his arm around her. “I would never abandon you, Eleri. If you do find that you truly want me, I will claim you in a second. I know it is not official, but I already feel claimed by you. Nothing in this land could keep me from your side.”
She looked at him as more tears fell from her cheeks. “It’s hard, Conri. I think in one second I know what I want, but in another, my mind fills with doubts.”
He pulled her so that she rested her head against his shoulder. “Then I will be patient and help you figure it out as you help me learn what it means to be king.”
“Yes,” she said in a breath.
“Now, I know you are tired, and I am as well. We can rest now and wake up early. Hopefully, we can find this village you told me about while there is still light out tomorrow. A proper inn, no matter how small, will be a luxury at this point.”
She nodded and sat up from him. He packed up the few things they had out while she lay down by the fire. Once he had the bag closed, he moved to her and lay down next to her. She moved into his arms and lay her head against his chest.
“Rest well, my love,” he said as he kissed her forehead.
“You shouldn’t call me that,” she quietly said as she closed her eyes.
“If it bothers you, I will not, but I can assure you it is the truth.”
She snuggled into him. “It does not bother me, but I still have doubts if I am what you need.”
“Let me worry about what I need, and you focus more on what you truly want. You deserve to be happy, and I will see that you are.” Conri held her close as he closed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to make sure Eleri never had to feel pain and disappointment again.