“I came here once I was dispatched from the dragon hunting unit,” Tiran explained as we made our way to the dining quarters. “So tell me, the Shadow Reaper had only contacted you through dreams?” he asked, as we settled in for a late supper.
“No. He came before me as a projection within the Palace gates.”
“That is impossible,” Tiran exhaled, leaning back. “No one can break through her Ladyship’s barriers. Not even the Captain can,” he said. His voice became thoughtful as he spoke on. “I think it is best that we tell your sister what is going on before this gets out of hand. She may even be able to fortify the barrier even more, so that the Shadow Reaper cannot appear within these walls again.”
I shook my head. “No, he will use it against me, I am sure of it. The more I am in contact with her, the more he will want me on his side.” Tiran watched me for a moment.
“You are right,” he conceded.
We both lapsed into a silence as we ate our meals. After the dishes were cleared, Tiran sighed. “It is getting late. Rest, Mel. You will need it,” he said rising as I stood up.
He escorted me back to my chamber. “Good night,” he whispered, opening the door for me, and kissing my forehead.
I smiled and closed the door behind me, feeling an odd pressure in my chest. The memory of Owen saying good night to me flooded my mind. Will I ever see him again? If Tiran was alive, surely, Owen is, too?
It was another sleepless night. Not only was I up feeling wretched that there was a chance of Owen being certainly dead or held captive, I was afraid to close my eyes, to dream another nightmare of the death of someone I cared for. I resisted the urge to sleep, fighting it back with worries and fears of what would happen if I did.
The next morning I awoke, feeling light-headed. I was not sure when I had fallen asleep, but it was not enough. Despite the lack of rest, I dressed myself quickly and quietly so I would not wake my maids any earlier than usual.
I could barely keep my eyes open and my mind was set on a simple task at hand: breakfast. My thoughts slipped back to Owen’s chance of being in danger because of me. Because of who I am.
To busy myself with other things, my maids suggested spending time with the other nobles. I did as they asked, only half-listening to what the noblewomen spoke about.
“Can you believe one of my servants ruined my gown?” one of them exclaimed.
The others gasped in horror, hands to their hearts.
I frowned. Who cares? There were lives at stake because of what the Shadow Reaper was doing and they were worrying about ruined gowns?
“If she were under my authority, I would have her sent her to cleaning chamber pots for a fortnight for such insolence,” another noblewoman commented. The others agreed. I sat upright, giving them a sour look. What is wrong with these women?
Unable to stand their presence any longer, I excused myself and walked out. My maids were at my side instantly, but I could not feel better by their company. All of this was my fault. There was no denying it. Had I never been born, Selenah would not have me as an enemy...
I bit my lip to stop the tears that threatened to break free. I broke into a run, heading for the chamber Tiran had spent the night in. Surely, he would be there for me.
But he was not.
A maid walking by had said Tiran had left for home and had said he would return by the next morn.
I dropped to the floor by the chamber door, letting my tears flow. Why is my life so pitiful? I could not do anything to protect the people I cared most about. My maids sat with me, glancing at one another before Yana spoke.
“What has you so upset?” She asked.
“Please tell us!” Ayah added, nodding her head several times.
I opened my mouth and then shut it. How can I explain that I feared for Owen’s life because the Shadow Reaper was threatening me through my dreams?
“It is the Archduke,” Blaire said for me. Yana and Ayah glanced in my direction to confirm her words. I nodded, wiping the edges of my eyes. “I am sure he is safe, Mistress,” Blaire went on, a hand on my arm. “After all, Guard Tiran arrived safe. I saw how relieved you were to see him when he came.” As much as I wanted to believe her, there was no certainty.
I closed my eyes. I would do anything to know if Owen was all right.
Just then, there was a commotion outside, forcing me out of my misery. Wiping my tears away, I made my way towards the Palace gates where several carriages had stopped.
“Blaire, Ayah – find out what is happening,” I whispered, my eyes trailing the dozens of nobles for Owen. My search came up short. The two quickly returned, grim looks on their faces.
“The King’s Castle was under attack!” Ayah exclaimed, making my eyes widen.
“How? By who?”
“Dark Mages,” Blaire answered. “The nobles have fled to seek refuge here at the Palace.”
I swallowed. Without Owen as the Solstice Palace’s prince, I was the next in command. How can I manage everything without help?
“You can do this,” I heard Yana say encouragingly. Taking a deep breath, I nodded. Yes, I can. And I will.
The rest of the day was chaotic. Each nobleman and his family had certain residential needs that I could not find to reason with. One would say their chambers were smaller than that of their previous chambers at the King’s Castle, or it was too drafty, or they did not want a chamber to overlook the roads or Palace woods. Their trivialities were both endless and insistent.
However, I made sure everyone had eaten in the finest silverware and the food to their liking as most were dissatisfied with their given living quarters. If I did not at least get this right, fights would ensue.
Despite the waning hours, I kept a fervent hope that Owen would be among the many nobles still arriving late into the evening.
The last of my hope flickered out when the Palace had finally succumbed to a peaceful lull sometime near midnight.
I was very much tired, but I felt an urge to stay up. Out of fear or anxiety, it was impossible to say. Regardless of my effort, my eyelids began to droop and sleep overcame me.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my hazy mind awoke to the sounds of a Guard’s shout.
Weary, I looked out the window that viewed the front gates and saw, between the two pillars, a sparkling, magical web that had caught something. Without thinking, I raced out towards the clamor.
The web caught a horse and its rider, the horse frozen in mid-run and his finely dressed rider holding on for dear life. The two Royal Guards cautioned me not to near until they deemed the traveler safe, and I slowed my pace. The rider seemed terrified by the palace’s barrier and turned to face me as I neared.
The horse’s hooves clattered on the cobblestone path as the two Guards allowed him entry. I could barely keep myself upright as he dismounted his horse.
Is it really him? Or is this another trick? I raced into his open arms, despite my doubts. He embraced me tightly.
“I thought I would never see you again,” I whispered, feeling my heart beat loudly.
“Where were you?” I asked, breaking away from the embrace, searching his darkened face. “I was worried sick that the Shadow Reaper took you!”
“I shall tell you everything in the morning,” he assured, turning me around to herd me back inside. He gave me a tired smile and I nodded. “Good night,” I heard him say behind me as I entered my chamber.
I went to sleep soon afterwards, relieved.
My eyes fluttered open, my heart racing.
This time, I saw everyone: Selenah, Gareth, Owen, Tiran, Ayah, Blaire, and Yana being burned alive by the same black shadowy Dragon from my nightmare the day before. I watchd, trapped by a wall of green flame, unable to stop their torture. I could still hear their screams and the sight of the green fire bursting from the Dragon’s jaws. This time, the Shadow Reaper was silent as he stood atop the Dragon, his face obscured in my memory.
I confessed my nightmare to Tiran as we ate breakfast. He seemed jaded after I told him, and guilt settled in my stomach. I did not want to burden him, and I told him so.
“Mel, I do not want you handling this yourself,” he replied, reaching over to give my hand a squeeze. He almost looked guilty for reacting the way he had. “You should not carry this hardship alone.”
We fell silent, resuming our meal.
“How large were the Dragons you faced?” I prompted after some time, imagining the fearsome Dragon in my dreams.
“No larger than a horse,” Tiran replied. “Which is odd,” he said after a moment, putting down his knife. “The Dragon you speak of must be as large as this Palace.”
We lapsed into another silence, fears growing inside us.
“Have you seen Owen?” I asked. I had not seen him since his late night coming.
“The Archduke? No, I have not,” Tiran said. “I heard he arrived here in the hours of night. Have your maids send for him. He is likely to be asleep after a hard ride.” I nodded and did as he told me.
Tiran took me outside to the Palace gardens and spoke of lighter —and more harmless— subjects. It was a reprieve from all the chaos I had been through.
He finished speaking about the daily havoc his five boys made when Yana arrived, informing me that Owen would be here soon. Tiran decided then to take his leave.
“I should be off, now,” he said. “I promised my wife I would return once I checked up on you.” He smiled and I hugged him farewell. He walked off towards the stables and disappeared from view.
As he left, I heard someone walk up behind me.
“Good morning,” I said, turning to face Owen. “Did you rest well?”
He smiled. It felt good to see him happy again. But I frowned a bit. I needed to know. Where had he been?
Owen sighed, understanding my facial expression. “My ordeal seems trite compared to what has happened,” he said, his eyes cast to the ground.
I narrowed my eyes. How could he think so lowly of his well-being? I waited for him to continue. “I...ran off, to be honest. My father had come from his estate and told me he had arranged a ship to take me to Porticor to marry,” he said. “But I could not go. Not with you—” He cut himself off, clearing his throat. “I knew he would send others to look for me here at the Palace, so I stayed at an inn near the edge of the city and left at night so they would not find me.”
“Did you not think what grief your disappearance would have caused?” I could feel my anger rising. “I would have thought of your disappearance as the Shadow Reaper declaring war on us.” I had not realized that my heart pounded, almost deafening in my ears as I spoke, and a blush began to creep up into my cheeks as he stared at me.
Owen quickly bent down, kissing my cheeks. “I promise I will never disappear on you again. I will always be with you.”
He stared into my eyes, and for a second I believed it. I wanted to trust those words, but to how many other women did he say that to? I turned away from him and began walking, still feeling his lips on my cheeks.
He followed. “You do not believe me, do you?”
“Why? Why should I believe you?” I asked, frowning. “You still must marry and have the next heir. How are you to do that with me at your side?” It had not occurred to me that I had spoken his intentions out loud.
His face looked pained, as if there were tears in his eyes.
“Melanie, what I meant—”
A large shadow crossed his face, and I turned around to look at what had caused it. A massive creature, black and shadowed, as if it shunned the light of the sun, flew over us. It flapped its clawed wings once, sending leaves sweeping across the ground and me struggling to keep my skirts down.
I took one long look at it as it continued to fly off into the sky and screamed in realization. It is the Dragon from my dreams! Its long neck snaked backwards to face me, its green eyes cold as ice.
Owen shoved me to the ground and used his body a shield as a burst of green flame erupted from the Dragon’s mouth. I shut my eyes, thinking it all another nightmare. It has to be. The Dragon was only a monster that haunted my dreams— but Owen saw it, too. I forced myself to open my eyes and saw Owen’s face inches from mine.
“Are you all right?” he asked. I barely had time to grasp that Owen was so close to me when the image of the Dragon’s eyes bore into mine.
I buried my face in his chest, whispering. “It is real! It is real!”
He pulled himself up and cradled me in his arms, his eyes filled with concern. “What is real, Melanie? The Dragon?”
I shook my head.
“The Dragon from my nightmares,” I corrected.