“Will you kill me?” Xavier breathed. The question left his lips like the gentlest of prayers. He meant it with all of his swelling, wounded heart: he was ready for death. The king towered over him, his thick beard failing to mask his antipathy as his thin lips pulled into a taut frown.
“Death would be far too merciful a thing for the likes of you,” he scorned, red in the face. “And I am not a merciful man.” With that, the man turned away, his blood-red cape coiling against the breeze.
Hot blood flooded Xavier’s cheeks. If you won’t kill me, he wondered, then what on earth will you do to me? The cluster of noblemen and peasants, gathered to watch the boy’s sentence, began to stir. Whispers circulated across the courtyard until each pair of eyes burned right through him.
“Then torture ’im,” insisted one peasant.
“Throw ’im in the Pit!” suggested another.
“Dùltag,” hissed a woman in pink robes, spitting at Xavier’s feet.
Xavier jumped away, tugging at the rope binding his wrists together. Before him, the Aramorian people transformed into Alden wolves cornering their final prey of winter—eyes aflame, fangs bared, and each of them rising up together with one thing on their mind: blood.
With hoarse voices, they cursed and damned his name in the common and ancient tongues.
Shame settled at the pit of Xavier’s chest.
He closed his eyes, heaving deeply. Nothing will harm you, Xavier. No one will.
Mother always says so. Has she ever been wrong? Never.
Trembling, he remembered the princess’s round face. He told her those same words: nothing will harm you, Andria. No one will. I promise you, I won’t let go.
Did Mother lie, too?
Xavier’s eyes shot open at the sting of abraded skin when a sharp object collided with his temple. Tripping over his feet, he fell backwards. The swarm lunged at him. Over all of their angry cries, Xavier barely heard the two voices among them filled with concern: “Xavier!” A boy his age struggled against the mob to reach his friend, his amber eyes gleaming. Beside him, a mousy-haired girl shoved a grown man out of her way with impressive poise.
“Get away from my brother!” she howled.
“Caolan!” Xavier cried. He nearly smiled. “Isabella—!” A boot crashed against Xavier’s face. Quickly, he pulled himself onto his feet, blinking wildly. Past a pair of legs, he glimpsed his friend and sister once more before a rotten apple struck him on the back of his head—and in a flash, they disappeared. Apples and stones fell from the sky, and all Xavier could do was huddle and pray to Rùna that the crowd would stop.
Suddenly, two strong arms took hold of Xavier, hauled him to his knees, and enveloped him.
“Enough!” a woman cried.
Recognizing the Guardians’ insignia upon her armor, Xavier clung to her for his life.
“Mother!” he gasped. Yet as quickly as his heart soared, it fell, as his mother brandished a dagger at the hoard surrounding them. Guardsmen everywhere unsheathed their swords in one swift motion.
King Oliver surged forward; the look in his eyes told Xavier that he intended to pry the boy from his mother’s arms himself.
“Have mercy, Oliver,” Xavier’s mother asserted. It was not a plea or prayer—it was a command.
“Traitors do not deserve mercy, Meredithe,” said Oliver. He seemed amused by her courage, at best.
“Where is my husband?” demanded Guardian Meredithe. “What have you done with him?” The king offered her a sly grin before raising his hand: out of the crowd stepped two guardsmen and a tall, broad man whose wrists were tied with rope behind him. Sweat beaded down his unshaven face. Meredithe’s grip wavered in shock.
A shrill gasp echoed across the courtyard as Isabella elbowed her way to the front of the hoard.
“No—Father!” she cried. Meredithe caught her daughter in her arms and held her children close.
Their father hung his head. Pain flooded his gentle, emerald eyes.
“Kneel,” the king instructed Xavier. “And you—,” with rage, the king pointed at Isobella, “—back to Benedìct—unless both of you want your mother to share the boy’s penance!” Venom must have taken place of the blood that ran through the king’s veins, to cause such a tempest in his amber eyes. Nothing could halt the madness in this man.
Xavier looked from the king, to his father; to his mother and sister; and to Caolan, standing powerless among the hoard of Aramorians. All of this, he thought. This is my fault. Not theirs.
Xavier met his mother and sister’s gazes and reluctantly pushed them away with gentle hands. Meredithe did not fight back when two guardsmen seized her by the arms. Isobella kicked and screamed, but she was no match for the armored knights. Her guardsmen grumbled as they dragged her through the hoard. Though she vanished from sight, her shouting never stopped.
The courtyard stilled. The sun crawled behind the mountains. Xavier wished he could follow it to the edge of the world and tuck himself away forever. To never feel anything ever again.
Shakily, Xavier lowered himself onto his dirtied, buckling knees and bowed his head before the king. His left eye twitched, purple from the kick to his face. His stomach wrenched, knowing in his gut that this dusk would not greet him kindly—that, like the dawn, it would surely seize and break him.
Andria of Aramore was not dead, but she might as well have been.
Xavier failed her. He failed everyone.
There would be no end to this wrath.
“Thirteen lashes: one for each year that my daughter lived,” announced the king through gritted teeth. “But not upon your back.”
A guardsman pressed Guardian Nathaniel forward. With a broad knife, he cut the Guardian’s shoulder-length hair to his scalp. An upsurge of gasps and cries of disapproval erupted from the ring of onlookers.
Xavier shrunk, trying desperately not to cry. He watched as his father was stripped of his shirt and latched to the lashing post at the center of the courtyard. By the time the sun hid beneath the darkness, blood will have speckled the grass and flowers beneath his father’s feet. A hurricane raged in the man’s eyes—a kind of loathsome glare Xavier learned to fear. His father and the king had been friends since they were boys, but that evening, he knew he must not be alone in hating the king. King Oliver’s own Guardian reviled him.
The restless mob broke to make a path for a massive man clad in leather and armor, with a dark scar across his shaved scalp and one blinded eye. The man readied a whip in his hand, breathing like a bull preparing to charge, sporting a vile smirk. Xavier felt like spitting at the giant’s feet.
King Oliver gestured for Xavier to step forward.
“Count,” he ordered.
No, Xavier wanted to say. All color drained from his face. No—I won’t!
A hush fell upon the crowd. Xavier cast his eyes to the dirt—to the mud beneath his boots that so resembled dark, thick blood.
Then, Xavier found his father’s gaze: dark rings shaded Nathaniel’s deep green gems of eyes. Do it, Son, he seemed to pray. You must.
Xavier shut his eyes and nodded.
“One,” he muttered.