The next several days —or was it weeks?— I played the obedient hostage, waiting patiently for Selenah to come, if she would at all. But my time there was not spent in vain.
When I awoke, it was as if invisible servants dressed me, brought my meals, and when I was bored, they told me stories like Tiran did.
My hair was fixed into different styles every morning, and I would be dressed into the most beautiful of gowns. It made me feel for the first time in my life that I was the princess, the spoiled one, and not Selenah.
However, my surprisingly pleasant life here came to an abrupt end.
I was glancing through the pages of a recipe book for my next dessert that afternoon when the door to the cellar burst open. Walking in were two Dark Mages, one carrying a thin strip of black cloth in his hands.
As they approached, I kicked the covers and pillows in their direction, a vain attempt at slowing them down.
“What are you doing?” I shouted, but my voice wavered in fear. I jumped down from the bed and stepped back as far as I could from them. When my back hit the cold wall, tears sprang up in my eyes.
“It is time for your reckoning,” one of them said, grabbing a hold of my wrist. I pulled my arm back but the other dark mage clamped his hand over my other arm.
“The Queen has come for you,” said the other. The Queen? Queen Sellena? Or did he mean Selenah?
In my hesitance, the Dark Mage with the cloth in his hand shoved me forward and tied it around my mouth. I struggled to pull away, but to no avail.
Through the darkness, they took me down several flights of stairs. A single candle was lit by a black rusted gate.
It was then it finally dawned on me. Selenah had come to rescue me; and she could not do that seeing as I was living here so comfortably.
One of the Dark Mages let me go, but it only made the other’s grip tighten. He pushed me into a cell while the other Dark Mage began shifting thick silver chains from the ceiling and floor towards us.
Taking the chains from the ceiling, the Dark Mage cuffed my wrists and then walked over to pull on a dangling rope at the other end of the cell. With a whiz, my arms were flung above my head. I kicked out instinctively, but the Dark Mage who had held me still before caught me by my waist and legs, bringing my swinging to a stop. My body tensed at his frozen touch, the scars upon my back and stomach, from my last Dark Mage encounter, flared with pain.
In my ephemeral paralysis, the Dark Mages chained my ankles in the same rusted steel as my hands.
When I came to, blinking in the almost total-darkness, the Two Dark Mages had taken position. Both stood diagonal from either side of me. In their hands was something I had not seen before.
Their whips glittered silver.
My heart pounded in my ears. I begged for mercy through the rag in my mouth, weeping. But their cold, expressionless faces did not alter the slightest bit at my words or tears. It came to me then that the Dark Mages had no empathy. If they had even just the tiniest bit of remorse, they did not show it at all.
I could not understand how a man who had not wished to harm me from his own magic would order the Dark Mages to do this.
The barbed points on their whips crackled in the air as it flew in my direction. I struggled to move away from it, but with my wrists chained from the ceiling and my ankles to the floor, I could go nowhere.
When their whips made contact with my skin, I screamed.
I hung limp in the dirty cell, ready to accept death. My body ached and it felt as if my blood were on fire.
I heard the flapping of crow’s wings and the sound of swords unsheathing sometime after the Dark Mages had left me. I thought I heard Prince Gareth’s voice cry out to someone, but the name slipped my mind. I heard hoof beats and boots. I cowered away from the cell door, afraid the Dark Mages returned with their whips.
The figures that raced in did not look like Dark Mages, nor did they have the key to the dungeon gate. They pushed against the old, tarnished door and it fell away on their first try. They rushed in, swords clanking against their armor.
One of them approached me first, his voice familiar. He said something and the chains that held me for so long broke away. I fell against him as he embraced me. I could see the tears in his eyes. I have seen these eyes before, I thought. These kind, gentle, and fatherly eyes.
“Tiran,” I whispered, bringing my fingers to brush against his cheek.
He smiled a little and lifted me off the ground. I rested my head against his chest and closed my eyes, assured that I would no longer suffer.
When I opened my eyes, I was in bed. It was not the fluffy purple bed that I had been used to, but it felt just as comfortable. My chest felt sore, as if it had been torn apart, and only a cold, burning sensation lingered.
But sitting beside me was Tiran.
He was leaning forward on his knees, elbows bent to place his hands over most of his face. I wanted to smile at the worry creases on his forehead. He drew up seeing that I was awake.
“How are you feeling, Mel?” His words sounded too loud to my ears. My time spent in silence must have adjusted my hearing.
“Sick,” I replied, looking up. From the windows along the wall, sunlight streamed through, creating moving patterns at the wooden ceiling. Tiran touched my forehead and from the corner of my eye, I saw him frown.
“We healed you with magic. Your scars, your pain, it should have all left,” he replied, withdrawing his hand.
There was silence for some time. Then memory flooded in: the kidnapping, the mirror, the ransom...my torture.
“How long has it been since I...was gone?” I asked, trying to keep my thoughts away from my last moments as prisoner. Tiran took a steady breath.
“It has been a month,” he answered, “since Her Ladyship last made contact with you.”
I felt my jaw drop. That is absurd! It took Selenah a month to decide it was high time she saved me!
“Do not take it so harshly,” Tiran added, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. “It was near impossible to locate your whereabouts. The passing month was an arduous one indeed, for all of us.” His words brought me out of my anger and I smiled over at him.
“Then I am glad to be back,” I said. He nodded, giving me a small smile in return. I paused a moment before asking, “How long have I been here?”
“A single night,” he answered.
“So where is Selenah?”
Tiran hesitated, looking away from me. “Your sister has yet to return.” His voice was low. “We have Royal Guards stationed everywhere and still searching.” At my silence, he continued in a hopeful tone. “The Captain went mad after Selenah had not returned with the Prince. He is searching for her as we speak, and no doubt will find her unharmed, soon.”
I thought about what he had just told me. “You should not have come,” I finally said. Tiran looked taken aback by my statement, mouth open to protest my words. “It was a trap – all of it was,” I continued. “Had Selenah not realized it, or you? The Shadow Reaper knew Selenah would come for me. He told me so.”
I did not add the part that I had almost felt at home in my cell and because Selenah had come for me, it had been ripped away from me. Tiran was silent and looked away. “It may be too late,” I whispered. “The Shadow Reaper was ready—”
“We cannot lose hope,” Tiran said quickly. “She is the child prophesized...” Tiran now seemed unsure of what was going on. He turned to look at me and said, “I must go speak with the others. Rest well.” He stood up and briskly walked out, a hand on his sword’s hilt.
I sighed and sank back into the pillow. Was it wrong of me that some small part of me wanted to return? Or that I was not troubled that Selenah had yet to come back? Closing my eyes, I let fatigue overcome me.
The nurse was kind and helped me to regain my strength. Her son Rern, who was seven, helped as well. We raced and played together. And we would gaze out the window at the clouds or stars when we grew tired of running about.
My time here was vastly different from that of the Shadow Reaper’s keep. And while I enjoyed the princess-like care I had received there, the days I spent with Rern and his mother were just as caring. At the Infirmary, not once did it cross my mind about Selenah’s whereabouts or if she had returned safely. It was as if I had forgotten her existence.
It was on my third night recuperating when she did arrive. Rern and I were on the floor, playing with some colored blocks while his mother napped nearby. I was still in the castle’s infirmary, though Rern’s mother had said I was fit to leave the day before.
Just then, the door swung open, causing Rern’s mother to sit up. She looked towards the doorway and immediately curtsied.
Selenah walked in, dazzling in another of her rich, sumptuous dresses and jeweled accessories. She frowned as she looked me over, seeing that I was adorned in the plain white gown given to me by the Infirmary. Rern immediately jumped away to bow and stand beside his mother. I remained on the floor.
“Mel, what are you doing? You were issued to leave yesterday,” she stated as if I did not know. “Get up, change into another dress, and follow me.”
I crossed my arms over my chest, displeased. I had forgotten what it had been like to be under her rule.
I saw my nurse gawk. Perhaps she had never seen anyone disobey their superior before.
“No?” Selenah echoed. “I will not tolerate such—”
“I said no, Selenah.”
“Mel, not now,” she hissed.
When I did not respond, she strode over to me and dropped to her knees in a great pool of silk. She then lowered her voice as she spoke. “The man who kidnapped you, he did not feed you anything strange did he?” At my raised eyebrows she shook her head. “Did he make you repeat words of another language?”
“Like a spell?” I asked. She nodded, biting her lip. I thought a moment. “No, of course not. Why?”
She glanced at the nurse and back to me in defeat. “I shall send for someone to take you to the Solstice Palace while I go on ahead.” She turned and left.
At her change of topics, I contemplated whether or not to force her to speak her true intentions. But I decided not to. Selenah had mentioned the Solstice Palace before. It had been Queen Isomara’s residence when she was alive. If she is dead then why would the King allow it to be reinstated? Did the King believe another queen would take her place?
Rern looked at me. “The Solstice Palace!” he exclaimed. “Tis bigga than the King’s Castle! Only royalty allowed!” He grinned. “If Melanie goes, I wanna go too! Please Mama!”
I heard his mother sigh and then look at me. “Good luck, mistress,” was all she said before she scolded Rern and took him away. After returning, she had me fitted into a dress that she had brought in. “A gift from her Ladyship.”
The dress itself was beautiful —it was a satin, plum colored gown embroidered with silver— but I hated that Selenah had given it.
My escort to the Solstice Palace came soon after I was dressed. He was lively and talkative – the opposite of how I felt. He was dressed finely, wearing a dark blue doublet, white breaches, and tall, black and gold boots. He stood tall and proud, with a sword scabbard at his hip.
I raised my eyebrows at his presence. This could not be the messenger Selenah was talking about.
He was perhaps his mid-twenties, and he looked familiar. His sandy colored hair...I had seen it somewhere before, but could not recall where. Surprisingly, he was slim, but well built, and I assumed his weapon was not just for show.
He talked enough for the two of us as he led me to a carriage, about something I did not care to listen to. I immediately recognized the infamous four Royal Guards that mounted their steeds around the carriage. They all scowled in my direction. I frowned back.
The messenger followed me into the carriage and sat opposite me. His talking finally ceased when the carriage began to move, jostling us as we ran through town. I gazed out the window at the passing scenery —bricked, thatched-roof homes, running children, and standing vendors— and could not help but sigh. I had to accept that my life would forever be in shadow.
“Everyone is talking about a Royal Wedding,” the messenger prompted, perhaps in effort to draw me out of my silence.
“Yes, I suppose they are,” I replied, without even turning to look at him. The city roads and shops were now few, and trees had begun to take over. “No doubt my sister will make a magnificent Queen, like Sellena the First.” The moment the words escaped my lips, my eyes widened. Did the King plan for Selenah to marry Prince Gareth? Is that why the Solstice Palace would be in service again?
“You do not seem all too happy about it,” he noted in surprise. “You, as her sister, will gain nobility. You will become a Duchess and find residence in the King’s Castle.”
What does a messenger like him know about noble ranks and Royal Weddings?
“Duchess,” I mused. “I would rather elope with a stable boy.”
The messenger gawked at me. I seemed to be getting a lot of that these days. But his words had only angered me. What is so great about being a part of nobility? What is the title of Duchess worth when Selenah would reign as Queen?
“I do not see why you are surprised, messenger. I am nothing but my sister’s maid, as His Majesty the King once said. Not fit for any title that resides by Selenah.”
He paused before speaking.
“I am surprised that someone who has endured so much for her Ladyship would wave away such luxury,” he said.
I furrowed my brows. What did he mean by that?
“And I am no mere messenger, Mistress Melanie. I am Archduke Owen, second in line as Heir Successor to the Throne of Tenebris.” He said it with pride, and I expected that he must have puffed his chest whilst saying it.
But I turned to look at him, eyes wide. He smiled, making my face flush with embarrassment. I felt foolish, mistaking the Archduke for a messenger.
Muttering a quick apology, I turned back to gaze out the window once more, shaking my head. I gave a mental sigh. I was sure he was another courtier who must be in love with Selenah. Did he assume that being close to me would help him get to her?
“Why are you accompanying me to the Solstice Palace? I thought Prince Gareth would come with us,” I asked, watching the blur of trees whiz by. The Archduke’s face brightened at my asking.
“Alas, he is not. Gareth has matters to discuss with his father.” I nodded, glancing away. “I am here in his place,” he continued on, “to keep the two of you safe and to see that those lower in rank are governed—”
Shouts from outside cut him off. The carriage halted abruptly and the sounds of hooves were heard, fleeing.
The Archduke drew out his sword as I gripped the edge of my seat. Iopened my mouth to speak, but he put a finger to his lips, motioning for silence.