“How are you...?” I paused, biting my lip. “You stopped breathing, Owen. We took you for dead.”
He looked away from me, squinting at something in the distance.
We both rested against the stone columns outside my chamber, where my maids had scurried away, but no doubt within earshot of our conversation. I waited patiently for him to answer.
“Your sister, Lady Selenah, bought me back. I remember opening my eyes to see her tear-streaked face light up at my awakening. I cannot recall how she did it or of the days that had passed since we last spoke.”
Hearing him say those words, I felt my face flush red at the memory. From the corner of my eye, I saw Owen smile. “Did you take my confession to be a lie as well?”
I did not know what to say. Yes and no?
Owen propped himself off the column turning to face me completely. Feeling his undivided attention, I tried to remain calm. There were simply too many emotions; I could not understand it all, or think to entangle it. There were doubts that held me back from him, some otherworldly sense telling me we could never be.
“Melanie,” he took a step forward, but I shook my head, stopping him from coming any closer.
“Owen, I love you, truly I do,” I said, tears welling up behind my eyes. My fingers gripped onto the silver bird at my throat as I took a shaky breath. “But we cannot be together, not like that. Not ever.”
I saw him inhale sharply, his fists clench at his sides. It hurt to see the evident pain on his face, the tear-stung eyes that glimmered now in sadness. I had finally said those words he had been waiting to hear me say. And I had brought misery along with it.
“Why?” he whispered, the rough edge in his voice clawing my ears. “Why?”
“You would never believe the things I have done and caused, or what I will do,” I choked out, my thoughts wavering to the Shadow Reaper’s prophecy. He could not truly be gone if he had continued to haunt my dreams. “I do not deserve happiness, Owen, not anything. I do not deserve you because,” I paused, forcing myself to stare directly into his eyes, “because you deserve far better than me.” Better than a girl tainted by the Shadow Reaper. Better than a duchess.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
He stepped forward to place his hands gently on my neck, his thumb rubbing against my cheek. I pressed against his palm, seeing him smile faintly.
“Melanie you are more than just Lady Selenah’s sister, more than just a pawn in someone’s game. How many times must I risk my life for you to understand that I would travel through seas and kingdoms, even through worlds, just to come back to you?”
“You do not understand,” I insisted, putting a hand over his to lower it away. “It is because you would endanger yourself so for a girl who does not ought to have it. I refuse to make you do that ever again.”
“No, Owen.” I forced myself to stay firm. “Your parents, they were devastated by your death. And who was there to blame? Me, Owen. It was me they blamed. I forced you into this mess and I will not have you back in it. If not for me, you would be happily married in Porticor,” I added, looking straight at him. “Because that is the fate you deserve.”
“Happily married?” he echoed. “Do you truly believe I would be happy with any other woman save you? Melanie, why can you not accept this? Accept me?”
I felt my tough demeanor slacken at his words. As much as I wanted him, I knew letting him go would be the rightful decision for us both.
“Because I cannot. I should not after everything that has happened. I would only endanger you further—”
Owen smiled, catching me off guard. I blinked as he knelt to the ground, taking my hands in his.
“Melanie, that is what love is. I would do anything for you, just as I know that you are pushing me away because you think it is right. Melanie, I would rather live a brief life with you at my side than an eternity without you. Have me be the happiest man Tenebris has ever known, Melanie, and marry me.”
I gaped, unable to contain my shock. After everything I have said, he still wants us to wed? My breathing faltered and my eyes watered. The happiness I saw in his eyes, his face, it was happiness for me, too. Because of me. And I knew there was nothing else I wanted more in life than to have that happiness, too.
“Yes,” I whispered, unable to control myself. “Yes, I will.”
The sound of three muffled squeals resonated in the air between us. I let out a laugh, of relief and happiness, as Owen drew up to softly place a kiss on my lips. I lost myself then, blinded by the taste of victory.
When we pulled back, resting our foreheads together, I found my senses to question his coming.
“Owen,” I began, searching his face, “does your mother and father know that you are here? That you are alive and well?”
He remained silent, casting his gaze down.
“Owen, answer me.”
But he did not have to say it for me to realize what it was. His silence was enough.
“You must tell them,” I said, lifting his chin with my hand.
“I...I do not want them to know,” he replied, his eyes finding mine. I swallowed. The thought of another sacrifice he was paying for me was unsettling.
“You know you cannot hide from them forever. It would not be right, especially as they care so much for you.”
“Please, Melanie. Just for now. I do not want them to spoil what little time of freedom I have with you.”
I could not deny him nor would I have done so. All I wished for now as to live a comforted life without the stresses and pains of the life we had endured.
Nodding, I entwined my fingers with his, and we stepped out together where my maids mobbed us with questions.
“Where shall the wedding be?” Ayah asked, eyes bright.
“In a beautiful meadow!” Blaire suggested.
“Behind a magnificent waterfall,” Yana sighed.
Owen and I grinned at each other.
“They both sound like wonderful ideas,” Owen said. “But perhaps Melanie and I should think it over ourselves, before we announce anything.”
“A pity,” Yana replied, “I have much more romantic places to recommend!”
We all laughed, dispelling any doubts and worries that I had just minutes ago. This was my life now. And I could not have been any happier.
Our swords clashed with a loud clank, the sound muffled by the helmet I wore. My thoughts trailed back to the month that had slipped by, a month of happiness and safety.
But it was all so fleeting, the memories, the fun, almost as if the cloud that had held me up so high was gone and all I was left with now was the crushing feeling of reality. All my worries came back, stronger than ever.
I hissed as the sword in my hand skittered to the ground. I rubbed my cut palm, holding it to my chest.
Owen dropped his sword, pulling off his helmet as he rushed to my side, taking my wounded hand in his.
“Melanie, forgive me,” he said, regret in his eyes. “I thought you would parry my attack.”
Sighing, I pulled away from him, taking off my own helmet. My hair blew in the winter breeze while I sat on the cold trodden earth to examine the cut.
Owen knelt before me as he gently pried the ripped glove from my hand. The cut was nothing serious, not deep enough to draw blood, but enough to leave, what I hoped to be, a temporary scar. Owen smiled in relief and lifted my hand to his lips.
“I lost you again,” he whispered, brushing away a lock of stray hair from my face.
Guilt stabbed at me. “Sorry.”
He shook his head.
“What has gotten into you these past days, Melanie? Is it because I sent for my parents?”
I looked away.
Yes, maybe it was. What will they do, knowing their son came to me first, and not them? But it was more than that. How was I to explain what I truly felt? How am I to tell him I feel a void in my chest, as if some darkness is taking over? And I am losing that battle within?
“Melanie, look at me,” I heard Owen say, using his thumb to make me face in his direction. “I could not ask for any more in my life. I have you and a home to provide you. But even now I feel you falling from my grasp.” His words hurt me because I knew they were true.
I felt the familiar pulse by my throat as Owen drew me close to him. Closing my eyes I tried to shut out the feeling of desolation, of desperation. But what am I to despair about? I was living a happy life. And yet there was a part of me craving for something else.
It was when our lips touched, a commotion behind him forced me to move away, opening my eyes. I looked over Owen’s shoulder to see what was going on. The moment I did, my heart skipped a beat.
Standing before us were the two I had hoped I would never have to see again: the Lord and Lady of Herington. They were dressed in rich black furs, crying out their time in mourning. Owen had turned to see them as well, the color draining from his face. Neither of us were ready for this now.
“Owen?” the Lady of Herington whispered, eyes wide. “My son, is that truly you?”
I shuffled back, trying to breath calmly. I could not do this, but Owen held me steadfast by his side, helping me to stand.
“Yes, Mother, it is I.”
She took a few steps closer, but could not get any closer as the fence surrounding the arena stopped her from doing so. She opened her mouth to speak, but her husband spoke instead.
“Son, we have mourned your loss like none other,” he said, his tone bordering on spiteful. “And then we are told you are alive, living away from us for the past month. What have you to say for yourself?”
But then the Lord of Herington caught sight of me, his eyes narrowing and he turned up his nose in disgust. “You again! And to find that you have spent your days with that wench? You shame this family,” he spat, eyes blazing. “She is—”
“Do not dare speak ill of my future wife,” Owen warned, catching his father by surprise. “I suspected neither of you would consent so I remained away to reside with Melanie.”
“Wife?” his father repeated, his face pale.
“My son, never would I dream of preventing you from your happiness,” his mother said, looking over to me. “I am only grief-stricken that you could not see that, choosing to stay away from your own parents has caused us such despair.”
“What are you spewing, woman?” the Lord of Herington barked, red-faced.
His wife flinched and Owen tensed, but did nothing as his father went on to berate his wife.
“My son decides to forsake me and here you are telling him that the pain he caused me was just? You are just as daft as he is!”
My insides turned at his words, filling me with hatred.
He raised a hand to strike her but I rushed forward, taking the hit. The Lord of Herington swore, pulling his hand away from my armored shoulder.
I stared hard at him as he scowled.
“If you wish to deal with me, your highness, then do so. Your wife is not at fault,” I said, meeting his gaze. I would not have Owen’s mother hurt if she was only doing what she thought was best for her son.
“You will regret making an enemy of me,” he hissed, causing a thin blade of fear to run down my spine, but I kept a passive face. He turned to his wife. “Come, it was foolish of me to think my son would ever live up to my standards.” But there was a hint of sadness in his fierce voice as the Lady of Herington bowed her head and did as he said.
Blinking back confusion, I turned to face Owen, feeling responsible for what had just happened. He stared after his parents, a plaintive look in his eyes.
I walked up to him, taking his hands in mine.
“Owen, I am so sorry for doing this to you, to your parents,” I confessed, glancing up at him. “I do not know what it means to have such devoted parents who love you as much as yours do. Please, spend time with them, I beg of you, Owen.”
When he did not reply, I bit my lip, feeling crushed. For once, Owen must have realized the damage I caused him.
Quickly taking a step back, I grabbed my fallen sword and helmet from the ground and walked off the arena, with my head bowed low.
This love we had could not solve every problem and that was the heartbreaking truth.
I walked up to him, taking his hands in mine.
“Owen, I am so sorry for doing this to you, to your parents,” I confessed, glancing up at him. “I do not know what it means to have such devotion, Owen.”