I woke up the next morning a little after the sun rose. My maids, who had learned a considerable amount of responsibility from Lady Yael, woke up groggily to assist me. I turned their help down, saying it was too early for them to be awake. But they insisted and eventually, rose to start their day.
As I walked down the halls to have my breakfast, there was a commotion coming from the Infirmary. Remembering that Owen was still hurt and on the verge of death, I rushed over.
“I believe he has passed,” one of the physicians told the other. He put two fingers on Owen’s throat and wrist, a mournful look on his face. His companion nodded. My heart hammered in my chest, as the seconds went by without any further objections.
“Owen cannot be dead,” I whispered to myself. Selenah said Owen would heal. I walked over to his bedside and knelt, taking his hand in mine. It was warm and moist, which I found odd. I assumed the palm of a dead man would be stiff and cold.
“Mistress, we need to prepare him for his death rites,” one of the nurses told me.
“No!” I cried, tears pricking at my eyes. “He is not dead.” I gripped onto his hand and brought it to my lips. “He is not dead,” I whispered. I pressed his hand to my forehead and refused to get up. I was not going to accept it. He did not deserve to die. Not for someone as useless as me.
I had been foolish to believe that everyone who I came across in life was out to get me. Owen made the mistake of trying to reason with me. And now he would pay for it with his life.
“You must eat, Mistress.” Yana told me after she and the other two had arrived. “Please!”
I ignored her. If I had to starve, so be it. How distraught his parents would be when they learn their son died to save someone like me! And the King. How will he punish me for killing his nephew?
I do not know how long I stayed there, nor do I recall falling asleep; but I awoke with a start when I felt something pull me to my feet.
The first thing I saw was Owen, sitting upright in the Infirmary bed with a smile on his face. Releasing me, I sat on the bed beside him, awestruck that he was alive.
“I am so glad you are all right!” I exclaimed, hugging him. The feeling of guilt vanished as he laughed and embraced me tightly. “I thought you had...” I cut myself off. “I am so sorry. It is my fault you were hurt and—”
“All is well, Melanie,” he said. “I thought myself, too, that I would leave this world, but then I thought of you, still captive under the Shadow Reaper. I could not go until I knew you were safe.”
An instinctive smile grew on my face at his words. But I bit my lip and looked away, suddenly feeling self-conscious that I had been the reason that he not only risked his life, but also the reason why he fought to live.
“I do not understand,” I said in a low voice, still refusing to look at him. “Why do you care for me? You spoke of friendship, but not even Tiran would give up his life for mine.” Saying those last words hurt me only slightly; I knew Tiran had more to lose than I did.
Owen was silent a moment before saying with a small laugh, “I do not think I know either. But I am happy that I did.” I looked up at him, seeing him run his hand through his hair in embarrassment.
“Owen, truly, I am glad you are all right,” I whispered. I gazed at his blue eyes, meaning every word I said. Then I heard a stifled giggle, nearly making me gasp aloud. My maids are watching!
“I have to go,” I said, getting up. Owen nodded as I called over several physicians to tell them Owen was alive and well. I waved goodbye and ushered my maids out of the Infirmary.
“Mistress Melanie is in love!” Ayah said as I sat in the dining hall, waiting on my breakfast. The accusation made my heart skip a beat. I am not...
“You could not have been more wrong,” I shot back, ringing the bell to call in a kitchen maid who arrived shortly with our breakfast. After we all settled in, I expected a silent meal, but my maids made it otherwise.
“Oh, it was adorable to see the two of you together like that,” Blaire said with a sigh, making Yana and Ayah nearly choke as they tried not to giggle at my horrified.
“We are just friends,” I quickly countered, now trying to hide the flush in my cheeks. I had also left out that we were friends again. It was impossible not to forgive Owen after what he had done, especially since most of it was my fault.
“Friends, you say,” Yana said, winking.
I rolled my eyes. “It is true. I see Owen as a worthy friend. He has proved it by all means. What else is there to see in him?” As I said these words aloud, I could not express how grateful I was to Owen. If not for him, where would I be?
“Much more!” Yana exclaimed, sending the three into giggles.
I pushed away the tray once it was empty, ringing the bell to call in the maid again. She came back quickly and left without another word.
“And he is in love with you!” Blaire cried. I raised my brows, finding it surprising that they could ever believe that. How could anyone love me? “He took a dagger —to the heart, might I add— for you. How can you think otherwise?”
“He had done that in the name of friendship,” I countered.
“Well, if Mistress Melanie does not want him, I surely would,” Yana said. We all laughed as she pouted. “I am serious, stop laughing!” Yana’s cheeks reddened.
Amidst all our talk, I had not seen a messenger come up and wait patiently for us. His fingers were wrapped around the satchel across his shoulder so tight, I could see the whites of his knuckles.
“I apologize for delaying you,” I said after recovering from our laughter. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Archduke Owen is to report to the King’s Castle immediately,” he replied. “I suspect that you should be there as well.” I thought it odd for him to say the last bit, but nodded in thanks.
“Are you sure it is all right to leave so soon? Was it not yesterday there were reports of dragons rampaging through the Kingdom?”
“The King requested this audience, Mistress.”
Sighing, I nodded. “I think it is best you tell the Archduke. I will be ready as soon as I can. Let him know that I will meet him at the Palace gates.”
The boy nodded and jogged off.
A flash of green caught my eye from his wrist, and although I was intrigued by it, I did not have the time to dwell on it for the three had caught my attention once more with jests about Owen and I. But I was not so irritated about it this time. At least we were speaking about his reputation as a great swordsman and heroic nobleman, and not about his funeral arrangements.
Later, I headed over to the Palace gates with my maids beside me. Owen and the messenger were already there, waiting as expected. Owen was dressed in his usual fine clothing, and I smiled at the sight of him looking as if the Shadow Reaper never harmed him.
When the carriage was set, the messenger bowed, opened the door for me, and helped me up.
As I sat down, I could see my maids watching Owen. He seemed a little flushed— probably from the exercise he had to do so soon after his recovery. I gave a small wave to my maids before the messenger shut the door and got the carriage into motion.
I gazed out through the window, remembering the last time Owen and I had taken a trip together in a carriage. The thought of the undead skeleton grabbing a hold of me made my skin prickle. I then furrowed my eyebrows, realizing that I could not recall any Guards taking position around us for this trip.
For a while, the journey was silent. All I could hear was the rhythm of the horse’s hooves treading heavily on the dirt road. Owen was surprisingly quiet.
When we continued, minute after minute, hour after hour, I glanced wearily at Owen. He frowned as he stared out the window.
“We should have reached the King’s Castle by now,” he said, glancing at me. Just then the carriage abruptly stopped. I swallowed hard and felt my heart begin to race.
“Surely, there is a rational explanation for our delay,” I said, biting my lip in worry.
Owen immediately unsheathed his sword despite my hopeful thinking. Just as he reached for the carriage door, it flew open. The tip of a stranger’s sword was at Owen’s throat before I could blink.
“Lower the sword and no one’ll get hurt,” the brigand said, his voice gritty. I noticed that his left eye was shut, and a pink slash of a scar ran from his eyebrow to his cheekbone.
Owen slowly lowered his sword to the carriage floor, looking defeated. “Now, hand it over,” he commanded. Owen hesitated. The stranger’s sword flashed towards me, making my heart skip a beat and my breathing falter. “Now,” he growled, “or I’ll kill the lady.”
Owen’s sword clattered towards the bandit, who smiled in response, his lips curling as it took a sinister expression. “C’mon boys, we got us some nobles!”
A tall, muscled bandit pulled us out and dragged us onto the deserted road. He had us by our arms while their scarred-faced leader watched. By the looks of it, there must have been at least seven of the bandits and no Guards around our carriage; the messenger was nowhere in sight. I swallowed at the thought. Was this a set up?
“These horses are in top condition, Gyor,” one of them said to the bandit with one eye. His companion nodded.
“We’ll get a lot out of ’em. Maybe eight gold apiece,” the other added. One of the scouts whistled as they made their way back, hearing the hefty price stolen Palace horses would get them.
“That’ll get us some fine food,” another said.
“It sure will,” Gyor said. “Not only that, we’ll get some riches off the lady.” My mouth went dry. A couple of his comrades chuckled, and he grinned as Owen scowled at him. “Tie ’em up, Rojer.”
There was a sudden, searing pain to the side of my head and I fell tothe ground, with the vague notion of hearing an eagle’s call before I lostconsciousness.