I awoke when a draft of air prickled my neck. I found myself laying on the ground, curled up beside Owen, his arms around me. I shook my head, blinking up at him in surprise to see that he had been untied. He smiled when he noticed I had woken up. But I caught sight of his swollen jaw from last night and could not smile back.
“How are you feeling?” I whispered, pushing myself up. I could feel the warmth of the sun as I did so. Had this been a different situation, I was sure to have enjoyed spending the night here.
“As best as one can,” he answered, watching me rise from where he lay.
I looked about the deserted camp, not a single bandit in sight. The only proof they had been here was a spot of black earth, ashen remnants of the fire they had made.
“What happened? Where are the bandits?” I asked Owen as I helped him to stand up. The forest was quiet and empty, save for us.
“Rojer, I believe, untied me. The rest of his men left along with him some time ago.”
“Did any of them tell you where we are?” He shook his head. I frowned. “Then how are we to get to the King’s Castle? Or back to the Solstice Palace?”
“Perhaps if we follow their tracks, we may find the road again and wait for help there,” he suggested. I nodded. It was a better start than none.
It was quiet as Owen scoured the forest ground for their tracks. We paused occasionally to give his sore chest a bit of rest.
During one of these rests, I stared at Owen’s heaving form, still in disbelief that last night had actually happened. Did the talkative Archduke, nephew of the King, really cry on my shoulder?
However, Owen was unable to find any trace of them. But in our search, we came across two horses tied to a single tree, rider-less. They were not Palace horses, so they did not belong to the bandits who had stolen ours.
Owen calmed them down before they could alert their riders of our presence, should they be nearby. The tracks to where the two led down to a pebbly path towards a stream.
We hid behind one of the trees and peeked out to see who they were. I could not believe my eyes.
It is Selenah and Prince Gareth! I looked at Owen just as he turned to me. He was equally surprised.
“...You agree to your father’s proposal?” I heard Selenah ask. She tossed something into the stream in agitation, her body stiff. They must have been talking about King Liason’s decision to marry Prince Gareth to one of the Porticor princesses. But what are they doing out here?
“Selenah, listen. My father wishes only for me to have a son to secure my position.” Prince Gareth turned to look at her. “Do you think, if we were to ever marry, that we...?”
Selenah hesitated. “I do not know...If I were to have a child, I know the Shadow Reaper will stop at nothing to have him dead.” She turned away from him. “How could we bring a child into such a perilous life? Is there no one else that can produce this heir your father seeks?”
“My cousin’s children will be considered as heirs,” Gareth said slowly. “And I have brought up the idea to my father before. He was not unwilling to hear me out.” From of the corner of my eye, I saw Owen nearly trip over his own footing. It made me want to roll my eyes.
But despite the awkwardness of the situation we had found ourselves in, we had found our way back home.
“Follow my lead,” I whispered to Owen.
He gave me a perplexed look, but nodded anyway. I inched away silently until I was several yards away from the two. Taking a deep breath, I shouted, “Help! Someone, please help us!”
I was shocked by how fast they came for us. Prince Gareth’s sword was unsheathed and Selenah’s hands glowed. The two halted mid-run at the sight of us.
“Your Highness!” I exclaimed, feigning surprise.
Selenah rushed towards me and nearly knocked me down in her tight embrace. Owen and the Prince exchanged words and clasped each other’s hands firmly.
“What happened to you?” Selenah asked frantically, her eyes searching my face.
“We were on our way to the King’s Castle,” I told her. “We were ambushed.”
She looked at me with pained eyes, perhaps seeing the bare skin that should have been covered in jewelry. She embraced me once more, muttering an apology. I stood rigid, frowning at her show of care.
“Do you know why we were called?” Owen asked. “It may prove to be the reason why we were taken captive.”
Selenah drew away from me and exchanged a glance with Prince Gareth.
“Owen, allow us to take you there safely. I will deal with those bandits later,” Prince Gareth replied.
Owen narrowed his eyes slightly at how his cousin evaded the question entirely, but mutely nodded.
Selenah and the Prince both mounted the same horse, allowing Owen and I to mount the other. I was careful not to press my weight on him, seeing how his face flushed with pain as he forced himself onto the horse.
As we rode, I became anxious about why we were asked to the King’s Castle. It was evident that Selenah and the Prince knew. But they kept it to themselves.
When we arrived, we were changed and brought a quick meal. Selenah treated Owen’s wounds from the bandit attack after we had settled in. I looked away when he had removed his shirt to reveal the dark bruise on his chest. But I found myself inclining my head to watch them through my peripheral gaze. I saw Selenah touch his bare skin, whispering a spell. I clenched my hands, feeling a sudden rush of anger at the sight. At that moment, I desperately wished I had magic of my own.
Prince Gareth was also present, first asking of the bandits’ descriptions, and later speaking of some festivity that had occurred just recently. But I was too busy trying to ignore how Selenah looked so natural at Owen’s side to pay attention to what exactly was being said.
I huffed and turned away, upset that my eyes had wandered back to them.
“Oh, you should have seen Melanie, Gareth!” Owen exclaimed, catching my attention.
I turned my head to face them, seeing the Prince and Selenah face me, too. I cocked my head, meeting Owen’s gaze.
“I would not have thought any woman capable of fighting back the bandits’ ringleader. But the number she did to him, I cannot help feel proud to know her.”
Hearing him, I wanted to laugh and smile and cry all at once. Selenah’s face broke into a grin and she clapped her hands together, looking at Prince Gareth. He nodded in my direction, but his eyes were still wide in shock of what Owen had said.
But I dropped my gaze and gripped my left arm. I would rather not think about Gyor at all, even if it were about the tale of my heroism.
After promising justice and saying farewell, Selenah and Prince Gareth departed. As soon as they had gone, the King requested that Owen speak with him.
“Melanie, would you please wait for me by the courtyard?” Owen told me as we stopped some yards away from where His Majesty stood.
I nodded and began walking back until I stopped myself. I could not hold back my curiosity. I wanted to know what was the King would speak to Owen about.
Waiting for Owen to make his way to the King, I fell in step with him and hid by the stone archway when the two had met up. I looked over my shoulder, making sure I could not be seen by any passing maid or servant who could call me out.
“I have summoned you today to speak of important matters. Perhaps you know, my only son, Gareth, is smitten with her Ladyship Selenah and refuses any other hand other than hers.” I gawked at his bluntness as he continued. “But, I need an heir, and soon.” He paused. “I do not approve of my son’s decision for Lady Selenah is keen on not having children. But, I shall agree to their terms of their forestalling so long as you can assure this throne with a male heir of your own. Perhaps this year would suffice, yes?”
“But Uncle,” Owen said. “This year? How am I to–?”
“You are twenty-three, Owen. Must I remind you how many women you have seen this past year?”
My breath left me hearing those words. What?
“And I am sure that there is no problem with you attaining a child from one of these women.”
I heard Owen sigh, remaining silent.
“Is there?” the King demanded.
Owen bowed his head. “No, Uncle.”
“Very well. I expect that you will choose your bride within the fortnight. I will be looking forward to your betrothal, Owen. I am sure your father will be, too. You are dismissed.”
I jumped at the King’s last words, knowing I had to make my exit quickly to not be seen eavesdropping.
Quietly, I made my way back to the courtyard. There, I pretended as if I had been there the entire time by sitting myself down on one of the wooden benches and gazing absently at the sight before me.
When Owen arrived, he looked at me with a blank expression that scared me. Is there someone he had in mind? Is that why his attitude changed in my presence? The thought of it made my heart fall, but I waved it away. Of course, if anyone he would marry, it would be a noble and not the likes of me. I almost gasped aloud. Did I really think that?
“Would you accompany me on a walk, Melanie?”
We strolled about, quiet and withdrawn. I did not know what to say to him; I had to pretend I did not know that the King expected so much from him so soon, or that I was bitterly against it. And I was sure he was forming the right words to tell me.
“Melanie,” Owen said. He stopped walking. I turned to face him.
“You have become seventeen just the past day.”
For a moment I just stared, but then I could not help but laugh. What a thing to say at this moment!
“Gareth told me they celebrated the start of summer for Lady Selenah’s birth. I thought it was only fair to wish the same to you.”
I smiled, glancing up at the sunlit, summer’s sky.
“It seems so trivial, to celebrate the season, when so many things have happened and changed.” My gaze dropped down, and I feared he would catch my allusion to what the King had just said to him.
Owen shook his head. “I would say that is a valid reason to celebrate life, for all its changes are ours alone to live by.”
I closed my eyes to the breeze that blew by. I reopened them and walked with Owen at my side.
Some time passed before I mustered the courage to ask, “What did the King say?”
Owen’s initial happiness faded away. He played with the cufflink of his sleeve.
“It is nothing too important to worry about.” Lie.
“We were ambushed for no reason at all, then?” I could not stop myself from saying it. Owen frowned, but gave in.
“My cousin wants to marry your sister.” His words were sharp. “And the King wishes for me to secure an heir, so they may have some time for themselves.”
“Is that a problem,” I said in a low voice, “that my sister and the Prince want to be together?” I wanted to know. Did he, like Connor and Prince Gareth, have also fallen in love with Selenah? Is that why it hurt him to hear the King say it?
“No, of course not,” he said quickly, raising an eyebrow at my asking. “I am glad they are happy together.” I held back a sigh of relief. “It is just that...I am not brave enough to tell the one girl I care for to be...my wife.”
“And have a child with her.”
He nodded, looking away. Is he blushing?
“Does the King have anyone in mind?”
I exhaled, realizing that I held my breath awaiting his answer.
“But he expects me to wed soon,” he added, his shoulders hunching.
“Perhaps I could help assist you,” I heard myself saying.
Owen looked at me, an eyebrow raised in question.
“Assist you in telling the girl you care for to be your wife,” I clarified.
He watched me for a moment before his face broke out into a grin.
“If only you could,” he said with a chuckle. I did not understand what was so amusing, but it was better to have heard Owen laugh than to see him worry.
As we continued to walk the castle grounds, Owen appeared to be more content. He glanced my way every so often with a small smile on his face, as if I had helped him achieve something as he talked. I listened with only half my usual enthusiasm. What if someone notices us acting so friendly and this ruins his chance of marrying that girl of his choosing? I could not spoil Owen’s, or her, possible chance of having a good life together.
I closed my eyes briefly before turning to face Owen. We had just reached the Castle’s interior walls that would lead us back inside.
“Perhaps I should go home, back to the Solstice Palace,” I suggested. “I am sure you will be busy preparing for your wedding and I do not wish to interfere. Send my regards to Prince Gareth and my sister when they return.”
Owen gaped at me as I walked away, forcing myself not to look back.
Later that day, a carriage was set for my departure. The King, tending to other businesses, did not bid me farewell. Owen, on the other hand, insisted he come with me.
“I cannot leave you on your own. Not after what happened on the road.”
My eyes widened. Am I realizing now how much he cares about my safety? Or how he insists on coming along with me? But then I remembered that he was going to be married and have a child with another woman. One from the many the King had spoken about.
“I will be fine, Owen,” I said gently, although I wished more than anything for him to accompany me. “There are many Guards with me this time.” I gave a halfhearted smile. “And I assure you have more important things to worry about than me.” The look on his face made me regret my words, but Owen relented, a defeated look on his face.
The carriage door slammed shut. Flanked with six Guards on horseback, I made my way back home.
As the time past on my journey, I began to regret leaving Owen. But I brushed my thoughts aside. I have to stay away from him if he does not.
When I arrived that night, my maids were glad to see me and excited to hear of my tale after a late supper. They all seemed besotted by Rojer, imaging him to be their roguish prince to protect them from any danger.
“So strong,” Ayah said, dreamily.
“So brave,” Blaire cooed.
“He is perfect for me!” Yana declared. We all giggled. “But,” Yana went on, in a more hushed tone. “How did the Archduke respond to that bandit wanting you to...?” she trailed off, not wanting to say anymore.
The other two nodded, awaiting my answer.
“Must I?” I replied, warily. I did not want to even think about Owen. Not after what I knew.
“What is a good tale without the danger?” Blaire countered.
“And its heroes?” Ayah added.
“Do not forget the romance!” Yana finished.
I sighed in defeat. The three grinned at their win. It would not be sobad to relay a simple event...