Someone gently shaking Rowena woke her up the next morning. ‘Ena? I think you should wake up now.’ Artem’s voice was soothing but insistent.
‘Just five more minutes,’ she mumbled trying to roll away from him but was stopped by the fact that they were still sharing a bedroll and were pressed quite close together.
‘No, really Ena, you’re going to want to get up.’ There was a snigger and Rowena’s eyes slowly opened. Standing above her and Artem were Hans, Jem, Lukas and Ishak. Jem couldn’t have looked more gleeful, his eyes sparkling at the opportunity to tease both his king and Rowena. ‘I told you,’ he whispered in her ear as she stared up at the four men looking down on her.
‘Good morning,’ Jem said cheerfully, a cheeky smile on his face. ‘Good sleep your majesty?’
‘You know what I’m going to say,’ Artem said warningly.
‘Yes I know, get lost.’
‘Very good, now scram.’
Ishak was the last of them to leave, his face stony as he looked directly at Rowena. She knew why he was looking at her in that way. He knew she hadn’t told Artem about who she was, and she could tell he was judging her for it.
‘Sorry about that,’ Artem said once the others were out of sight. ‘I hadn’t thought about what would happen if they saw us like this.’
‘That’s alright,’ she said weakly, still half asleep. ‘It’s time to be getting up now anyway.’ With great difficulty, she climbed out of the bedroll and began packing her stuff up and trying to find her comb to make her hair look less like a bird’s nest.
‘Is there something wrong?’ Artem asked cautiously. ‘You seem a little… I don’t know, different.’
‘No, I’m fine,’ Rowena said, smiling her small fake smile. ‘I just wasn’t expecting the others to see us like that. It was a private moment and to have them standing over us was just a bit strange.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he climbed out of the bedroll and walked over to her, putting his arms around her. ‘That was my fault, I was careless. Can you forgive me?’
‘Of course I can,’ she said. ‘But I do think we need to get going or we’ll never make it to Peria in three days.’
The others had already packed their stuff up and extinguished the fire, so as soon as Artem and Rowena were ready, the group set off. Only about half an hour into the journey, and Ishak caught Rowena and maneuvered her away from the rest of the group.
‘I take it you haven’t spoken to him then?’ When Rowena refused to respond, he cracked. ‘What are you thinking? We had a deal.’
‘I know that and I’m going to stick to it. You’re going to have to trust that I will tell him when the time is right.’
‘You’ve had plenty of time. You could have told him last night.’
‘I was going to,’ she hissed, ‘before Jem’s terrible timing meant that I would have had an audience to my humiliation and I would rather I told him when we were alone.’
‘Look I don’t care where or when you tell him, as long as it’s today.’
‘I will do.’
‘I’m not sure you mean it.’
‘I do,’ Rowena insisted.
‘Well if you really meant it, then why did you let him tell you he loved you?’ There was a horrid silence as Rowena realized what had happened.
‘You were there weren’t you? You were hiding in the trees listening to us.’ She put her hand to her head, not knowing what to think. ‘That was private. How could you do that?’
‘Artem is my king and the best friend I have ever had, even more than that, he’s like my son. I will do everything I can to protect him from being hurt.’
‘And what about me? You said you were my friend. What if I get hurt, do you care then?’ Ishak couldn’t look Rowena in the eye as she stared at him, waiting for his answer. ‘No I guess you don’t care. And why should you? You don’t benefit from me being around, in fact you might actually lose out. Artem might discover that he doesn’t need you anymore if he has the right woman in his life. You’re scared that I might be the right woman.’
‘That is a lie.’
‘No it isn’t, I can see it in your eyes.’ There was a tense silence as Rowena looked at Ishak, her gaze never faltering or leaving his face. ‘But you don’t need to worry. I’ll keep my promise, as you want me to, and then I’ll be out of both yours and Artem’s lives for good.’ And with that she picked up her speed and strode away from Ishak, forcing back the tears that were threatening to spill over.
Don’t be so silly, she told herself. It’s for the best. You’re protecting the man you love, that is what you should be doing and if the only way to do that is to lose him then so be it. She marched on, ignoring the other voice in her head saying, but I love him.
She found herself walking with Lukas at the front of the group. He was a man of very few words, but that was more out of shyness than anything else. He felt intimidated by Rowena’s presence, not knowing what he should say to her, so saying nothing at all. For Rowena this was perfect, it gave her time to think without being disturbed by Ishak or anyone else. She decided, the next time they stopped for a break, she would take Artem aside and tell him the truth. If he was going to leave her stranded, she would rather he did it in daylight, instead of leaving her alone in the dark.
The only problem was that time had to catch up with her and before she knew it they were getting ready for their midday meal. She could feel Ishak’s eyes on her as she nibbled at her bread. She knew he was waiting. Trying not to lose any courage, she walked up to Artem and drew him a little distance away from the others.
‘I need to talk to you, in private.’
‘Can’t we talk on the road? We should be moving soon.’
‘Please Artem, you’ll want to hear this.’ She led him away into a small area, hidden from the rest of the group by undergrowth. ‘I have something I need to tell you. Something important.’
‘Is this what you tried to tell me last night?’
‘Yes. But first you must promise not to interrupt me.’
‘Of course.’ Artem’s face was worried, almost scared about what was going to come out of her mouth.‘Alright then, here goes. I’m not who I told you I was. My name is Lady Rowena Octavia Sarema Oriata and I’m the Crown Princess of Fersere.’