Cued by the revving of an engine, slivers of light beyond the blinds spun and vanished down the Evans’ driveway. From her window, Andria watched the snow fall lightly without a doubt that it would worsen by the morning. This time of year always felt the same: the forests grew quiet and the snow collapsed onto the earth in tons—not too different from the kingdoms, now that she thought of it...
Tucking her feet into a pair of slippers, she pulled a sweatshirt over her head and knelt at the fireplace to situate a couple of logs into the pit. A German shepherd bounded to her side, tail wagging, and dug her snout into Andria’s arm. Instinctively, she hugged her dog close and gazed into the flames.
“Guess it’ll be only you and me for a while, Colonel,” she told her dog, scratching her beneath the chin. Suddenly, however, the dog jumped, withholding a bark but alert. “What’s wrong, girl?”
Then, she felt it—the omniscient presence she had only felt once before. Andria rose to her feet in a panic. Death, she realized. A fierce silence overcame the house as a mixture of peace and dread began to seep into her thoughts. Fear was not a factor. Guilt was—as if she had, for some time, forgotten who she was born to be.
Andria strode to the front door and latched its dead bolt in place.
“That make you feel better, girl?” she tried Colonel. Her dog laid down, however, and hid her face between her front paws. “Didn’t think so,” Andria sighed. “Me neither.”
Andria’s fingers slid to the base of her collarbone. For the first time in years, she felt insecure without her locket draped upon her bosom. Intuition caused her to reach for it, despite the shame it brought her. The choice she made—there was no way of going back now.
The wind rattled the windows. Run, it seemed to tell her. Flee. But to where? Colonel howled as the wind shook the house, bounding back onto her paws and barking at the front door. Fight, said her intuition. She eyed the closet. Quickly, she darted across the room to shut off the lights and sought out Henry's old shotgun from the pantry.
She threw on her coat and snow boots in haste. The last time she disobeyed the wind, she lost someone dear to her. She was not about to lose her dog, nor her life.
Something tapped on the window.
Fate awaits, she heard at the back of her mind.
Her heart pounding, she scrutinized the sight before her: two men stood with their arms raised, one of them wearing what looked to be rags, boots, and a large coat of fur; the second was barefoot and dressed in... armor?
Xavier felt a soft carpet beneath his feet all the while. It almost made him uncomfortable, how clean and comfortable everything in Skünatt was. Though, the thought of Andria living a life of luxury down here did bring him some sense of satisfaction—and jealousy, as he has been living a life of anything but.
“This is nothing less than a luxury inn—hell, it’s warmer than any castle I’ve visited,” Caolan gawked. He took Xavier by the shoulders. “Keep the faith, Xavier. Rüna has blessed us, can’t you see? ’Tis time to take a nice, long bath. Then we can rest until morning.” He tugged Xavier into the men’s room. Xavier was surprised no one commented on the stench Xavier gave off; he slightly hoped most of it had been washed away by Kildred’s sacred oasis.
“Is there not a bath?” Caolan wondered a lot. “Or a chamber pot?” He turned the corner to spot an open space separated by curtains. Alien devices that looked like sleek, silver tubes hung from the wall. There was some sort of lever underneath the strangely-shaped nozzle. Xavier looked at Caolan with uncertainty. “Perhaps you... turn it?” suggested Caolan. Clearly, he did not intend to try it out himself. Why is it always me? Xavier sighed.
With a shaking hand, Xavier reached out and pulled the lever. Immediately, water spurted out of the nozzle. Caolan and Xavier jumped back and scooted into the far corner.
“What in Aramore…?” Caolan breathed in awe.
Xavier carefully turned the knob back again. How is it bathing when there is no bath involved?
Caolan picked up a bottle on the shelf. Sniffing it, he popped it open and squirted some kind of substance onto his hand. Xavier grabbed at Caolan’s wrist with raging eyes.
“Heel, Guardian. It smells like strawberries. It shan’t be dangerous if it smells like strawberries.” Caolan took another whiff of it. “Is this there soap?”
Xavier shrugged. Though he was curious to smell the substance himself, he said nothing. He glanced around before grabbing a clean towel hung from a rack beside them. Carefully, he removed Caolan’s heavy coat and handed it back to his friend.
“Don’t drown,” Caolan said, leaving Xavier to wash.
Xavier gave him a wary look before pulling aside the curtain. He took off his old dirty clothes and turned the handle. Water squirted out again, only… it was warm. And it felt absolutely amazing on his aching muscles. The dirt and grime on his skin was difficult to scrub off. He spotted a little sort of sponge on a tray on the wall and grabbed it. It was sudsy when the water soaked it. Xavier brushed it along his skin and watched as the grime on his skin gradually began to vanish.
He observed the sponge closely, picking at it for minutes. What kind of magic does this item hold? he wondered. Skünatt was known as a land of black magic.
After some time, however, he came to realize it was just a sponge.
It was an hour later before Xavier stepped from the shower. A couple of the ranch hands bathed in the stalls beside him, and he noticed that the boy who just finished before him collected his things with a towel around his waist. They all seemed very private of their bodies, these people; in the Palace, communal bathing was the norm. Servants would clean his body for him from head to toe. In fact, it still feels like a punishment even now to be cleaning his own body—proof that though he has made progress, he has not yet redeemed himself.
Xavier grabbed his raggedy clothes and stood before a porcelain basin with his towel around his waist. He took a good look at himself in the mirror, slicking back his wet hair. He no longer looked a mess, but still didn’t look very well put together. 'Tis the beard, he decided.
As if on cue, Caolan marched out of the shower butt-naked. Some of the ranch hands stopped in their tracks and looked before turning away. Xavier hissed at him, and Caolan quickly grabbed a towel to wrap around his waist, muttering an apology, suddenly very aware of where he was.
I’ve been locked up in a damned prison for five years.
A scruffy beard and untidy hair are the least of my problems.
A boy two basins away started shaving himself. It seemed like he lathered some thick soap on his face before running the device carefully across his skin. Xavier grabbed a bar of soap and did the same, remaining cautious in stroking his beard with the contraption.
Staring at the ceiling, dimly lit by a nearby candle flame, Xavier cleared his throat.
Damn it, he told himself, nothing is stopping you.
“Thank y-you,” he breathed—a wispy breath of air.
You must say it, Xavier.
Xavier ran his fingertips down the smooth curve of his jawbone. Pressing his aching head further into the carpet, he let his eyes fall shut. He had forgotten this freedom: the comfort of safety and cleanliness. The spirits of the boys downstairs ran rampant like horses. This land truly was free, just like he and Andria once fantasized. This kind of hospitality, however, was nothing of what Xavier expected to find in Skünatt.
His index finger lightly traced the small cut he gave himself right at the left edge of his chin.
Perhaps this place has its imperfections, Xavier pondered.
A quiet tapping at the door made Xavier snap upwards. Immediately, he grabbed for Xanthus, but it was not on his belt. Caolan pressed the door ajar. He ran a hand through his light, wet hair that stuck in all directions.
“Why the hell are you on the floor?” he asked. Xavier cast him a glare. It’s all I’m used to, he wanted to say. “I reckoned you’d be sleeping in your bed like a baby by now.”
I cannot sleep, Xavier wanted to say. However, like the best friend he was, Caolan understood without any words. He sat on the ground beside the Guardian.
“Forgive me if ’tis foolish of me to ask, but... Are you feeling better?” After some thought, Xavier nodded. “Do you think the princess is somewhere near?”
Xavier shrugged and relaxed against the floor once again, letting his mind wander.
“We shall find her, Xavier,” Caolan reassured him.
Even if she does not want to be found?
“Th-... Thank you,” muttered Xavier. Those two words—they took all of his might. Caolan smirked. Proudly, he pat Xavier’s arm and rose to his feet, pulling the door shut as he left.
“Of course. Don’t hurt yourself, Guardian Boy.” Dear Rüna, never call me that again. “Sleep well.”
Guardian Boy, Xavier huffed.
Uncovering his eyes, Xavier spun around: the garden fountain spewed cool blasts of sparkling water that resembled waves supporting a wading lion. Xavier eyed the hedges all around him, waiting for one to stir. Perhaps the Princess was light on her feet, but she was bound to make a mistake sometime.
Xavier tip-toed down the broad walkway that led to the grand plum tree, peeking through the bushes every meter he walked. Soon, the golden plums ripe on their branches came into view. In the trunk of the plum tree were footholds dug into the bark from childhood playtime. She wouldn’t try that again, Xavier mused, glancing at the soft patch of grass that ringed around the tree and remembering the day she fell from a branch and bruised her bum for weeks.
Behind him, he heard a crack.
A figure dove behind a hedge, giggling mischievously.
“Can’t run now!” Xavier shouted. But she kept running. She never listened. “Hìl, don’t be a cheat!” Andë’s laughter rang through the warm air as she sprinted through archways of hedges, twisting and turning around each one, with Xavier on her tail all the way. A huge grin pulled at the sides of his mouth. He loved it when she laughed. “I’ve won fair and square!”
“Not until you’ve caught me, Guardian Boy!” teased the Princess. She darted behind a row of rose bushes. Xavier kept on his path, determined that he could reach the end of the brush before her. But once he lost sight of her, her footsteps and giggling ceased.
“Andë?” Xavier called, racing back to the entrance to the rose garden. He rounded a hedge of roses to find a man looming over Andria who had freshly-combed hair the shade of the sun and eyes like springtime grass. Yet his voice was filled with disgust and contempt, and those eyes that so often looked upon his people with interest and glee were now pointed at Andria like daggers.
Xavier quickly arrived at her side, his hand instinctively springing to the dagger at his hip. The man looked over Xavier before a smug smile tugged at his lips.
“What danger do I pose, Guardian?” challenged the man. Deliberately, he leaned on the hilt of his sword. “My father said nothing about the Princess of Aramore being a mere child.” The little Princess glared at the man, holding Xavier back and stepping forward.
“With the tantrums you throw, Prince Edmund, it seems to me that you are, too.” There it was—her effortless authority. Her sharp wit. Xavier’s heart swelled. Yes. Show him you are not to be trifled with. “You are only too proud to admit it, I think.” Edmund squinted at her. Even in the shadow of a boy like him—much taller and stronger than a girl like her—she showed no fear. It was a trait Edmund always admired. Unless, of course, Princess Andria was involved.
In that case, it infuriated him to the core.
“No wonder your father and mother want so badly to give you away,” he spat. “Who would want a sharp tongue like yours around the castle?”
“Apparently, your father and mother do,” she huffed.
“Well, I sure as hell don’t.” Edmund shoved past Andria, nearly knocking her into a hedge, before sauntering away. Xavier didn’t like how Edmund always scolded Andria’s outspokenness. He had seen how much time Andria spent in the library and how often she would write stories in her tower when she was locked away. Her mind was always reeling with ideas she could never express. When she spoke, she was never the little, innocent thing everyone had expected her to be. And when the Court realized that, they began insisting that she stop speaking indefinitely.
Edmund was no different from those men. Xavier clenched his fists, his eyes locked on his target, but Andria held him back by an arm.
“The lout isn’t worth it,” she said, her eyes burning into the back of the prince’s head.
“I cannot believe you are to be wed to that man within the month,” Xavier responded. “’Tis unfair. You deserve someone better.”
Princess Andria almost laughed. “And who might that be, Guardian Boy? You?”
Xavier opened his mouth to refute her question but ended up blushing a deep red instead.
“Well, I… I….”
Andria covered her mouth and broke into laughter. Xavier looked away, feeling his face grow hot and his stomach twist inside of him.
Andria held out her hand. “Help me up, Guardian Boy?” Xavier wanted to do anything but touch her now. But this was his duty, wasn’t it? He held her hand and helped her onto her feet. “Thank you, Xavier,” she said cutely before pressing her lips to his cheek.
He froze, his eyes wide. Andria giggled and ran away again, calling, “But you still haven’t caught me!”
Xavier never knew his face could become so hot without exploding. He pressed his fingers to the spot where she kissed him. Dimples grew on his cheeks when the tickling of butterflies flooded his stomach.
The princess kissed me, he celebrated in his mind. Not on the lips—but who the hell cares!
He proceeded to chase her through the blooming gardens.
Xavier awoke to a strange heat pressing against his skin: light.A beam of it peeked from behind the curtain of his window as though afraid it would scare him. After all, it had not seen any race of Xavier for years. Xavier bolted upwards to catch a better glimpse of it, rushing to pull away the curtains and reveal the sunlight.Dawn had not been kind to him last. But this morning, it greeted Xavier like an old and dearly-missed friend, enveloping him in a warm forgiveness. Xavier always imagined the dawn’s voice to sound like the Princess’s once did: young, elegant, daring, and full of fire. As it peered over the hillsides, it seemed to call him from afar—as though saying, Ah, there you are. Xavier could almost hear the grin upon the dawn’s lips, could almost see the freckles upon her nose. It’s been years—five long years—but I’ve been waiting.