As we walked up the road to the palace, I ran my hand through my short hair, trying to tame it. Ever since I cut it, it decided to grow in every which way. I had forgotten to put a shirt on but I was a farmer and hunter now. Not having a shirt made our job easier. At least I hadn't started sweating yet, I guess.
I hesitated before climbing the stairs up to the castle. Even though it had been over a month since I last entered, I felt a strange sensation in my stomach. The guard told me to wait outside of the throne room's door. I dusted the dirt off my pants.
"I have a villager here with claims that he knows where the escaped prisoner is," I heard the guard announce.
"Send him in," the king's familiar voice said.
I took a steadying breath and walked in, keeping my head up. They all stood, staring at me with gaping mouths.
"David!" the queen cried and, to my surprise, she flew from the throne and hugged me tightly. "Look at you! We were so worried about you!"
The king shook my hand with a smile. Angel just stood, looking at me as if in a trance. I looked right back at her, captivated as always. Her hair was so long she had to pull it back now like her mother. That was the only change, though, and my eyes soaked in every part of her. She was as beautiful as ever. Looking into those green-gold eyes brought back painful yet wonderful memories. Seeing her pale lips made me want to run to her and kiss her but I held back. If what I had heard was true, I had broken her heart.
If only she knew mine was, too.
"You've heard from William?" the king asked, shattering the moment and I nodded.
"I ran into him in the woods while I was hunting," I said and explained what happened. "Just today I received this from him. I don't think he would haven't sent it unless something bad happened."
I handed them the note. While they read it, my eyes were dragged back to Angel. Her face was still surprised, her hand covering her mouth, and I swallowed thickly. The queen straightened suddenly and I knew why she was staring at me.
"Angel, why don't you take David to get some water?" she suggested quietly. "It's hot outside."
"It's okay," I said quickly.
"No, I'll take you," Angel said.
Her voice was still as soft as silk. I swallowed again and followed behind her. As we walked, I was again reminded of the fact I was shirtless. I still remembered the path to the kitchen but Angel wasn't leading me there. I should've seen that coming. She led me instead to the atrium. I opened the door for her and we stood, facing each other.
"You left me," she whispered, a tear falling down her cheek.
I looked away. "It's what is best for you."
"How do you know?" she challenged. At this, I didn't have an answer and I stared at her. "Exactly," she said and took my hand in hers. She ran her fingers over the calluses. "You look so different," she whispered. Her gentle touch made me shiver. "How long has it been?"
"Over a month," I answered, whispering, too.
"What have you been doing?" she asked and I told her. "I'm very sorry to hear that." I could only shrug, lost once more in her eyes. They were moist as she held my hand in both of hers. "Please stay."
I managed to take my hand back. She watched as I studied the design of the wrought iron table. I tried to think of a good argument, one that no one could counter. But I couldn't.
"The children will miss me," I muttered.
"They can come here," she whispered.
"David," she interrupted and took my head in her hands gently. "Stay with me. Please stay," she begged.
I leaned into her touch, sighing. Every night I dreamt of her and every morning I woke up, expecting to smell her perfume. I had drawn her over and over since I left, unable to draw anything else. My home was littered with her picture.
She stood on her toes and pressed her lips to mine. I kissed her back immediately, a small groan of longing escaping my throat. I held her around the waist tightly, lifting her feet off the ground. She held onto my just as tightly, our lips moving in sync. In that moment, all I wanted was her.
"You'll never amount to anything, boy."
"No wonder no woman will take you."
"They want every man in the village. Even you."
"Either marry the bitch or don't come home."
My father's voice echoed through my head and I pulled back. My insecurities and doubt showed on my face. To my utter disbelief, she got on her knees.
"What are you doing?" I asked. She didn't answer. She got on her hands and rested her head at my feet. "Oh, God. No. Don't do this, Angel," I begged, tears falling. "Please don't do this."
"I'll renounce my throne," she said, ignoring me. "I will give away everything I have. I will become your slave."
"No," I said, falling to my knees as well and grabbing her wrists. "You don't know what you're doing, Angel."
"Yes, I do," she whispered.
"I won't let you," I said firmly. "I can't. No."
She grabbed my face again. "Then stay with me."
I lowered my head, my mind a jumble of confusing thoughts and feelings. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her outer dress fall.
"No!" I yelled, gathering the cloth and pulling it back on her, sobbing now. "Stop it, Angel! You don't know what this means! I won't leave you! Please! I'll stay! Just don't do this to yourself!"
She let out a sob and threw herself into my arms. I held her close, shaking.
"Don't leave me again," she cried into my chest. "Please."
"I won't," I promised, finally making up my mind. "I promise I won't leave you."
The door to the palace opened and the queen hurried out.
"I heard shouting," she breathed and her jaw dropped at the sight in front of her.
With shaking hands, I helped Angel fix her gown. The queen watched, bewildered, as I led Angel to her bedchambers.
I kissed her again. "Don't you ever do that again," I said.
"That's how badly I want to be with you," she said, caressing my cheek. "Can't you understand that?"
"I can now," I whispered. I sighed and put my forehead on hers, closing my eyes briefly. "Your parents probably have some more questions for me. Please, rest. You look dead on your feet. We'll speak more later."
She nodded and I left, closing the door behind me. I didn't make it far down the hall before a fist collided with my jaw. I stumbled back in surprise.
"Stop it, Roland!" Queen Miranda shouted.
I rubbed my jaw. The king stood in front of me, looking furious and like he wanted to strike again.
"You whored my daughter!?" he yelled and I sighed, looking at the queen, frustrated.
"He wouldn't let me finish," the queen said and I took them to the nearest room.
"It's not like that, Your Highness," I said and had him sit. I rubbed my jaw again. "You have a good right hook."
He didn't laugh and I sighed. I sat down across from him and explained what happened.
"I don't even know if I'm welcome here," I finished.
The king's face had softened.
"I'm sorry I hit you," he said but I shook my head.
"I would have done the same."
"You're always welcome here, David," the queen said. "But you have to assure us that you're here for good now."
I nodded. "I am. I have some loose ends in the village to take care of first, though."
"More importantly," the king said, "we need to talk about William."
"I think he's in trouble," I said. "If he wasn't, he wouldn't have sent that note."
"Should we send a troop there?" he asked.
"No. I think that would only provoke the pack."
"So what do you suggest?"
"Sending just a few people in," I answered. "I'll go."
"You will not," a voice snapped from the door.
"You're supposed to be in bed," I said through clenched teeth as Angel stormed in.
"You can't go," she said, ignoring me. "We have people trained for this sort of thing."
"You do?" I asked and the queen nodded. "Very well. If we hear from William again, we'll send them in."
I tried to hide my yawn but the queen led me out. It had been a long day even thought it was just after noon. Angel stayed by my side as I was taken to a new room on the second floor. She held my hand the whole way.
The new room was just a few doors down from hers. The queen left us to talk. Once she was out of earshot, I kissed Angel tenderly on the lips.
"I'm sorry I broke your heart," I whispered, stroking her cheek with my thumb.
"And I'm sorry I broke yours," she whispered back. "Don't deny it."
I smiled. "I should've known there was a little bit of your mother in you."
She smiled back. "Sleep. I have a feeling your life is going to be hectic tomorrow."
I nodded and held her close to me, shutting my eyes as I inhaled her perfume, feeling at home.