Suddenly something roared from the lawn. Xavier jumped back. He had never heard anything so loud before — and it just kept roaring. It took him some time before he opened the window and peeked outside. He sighed. All it was, was a man with a... contraption on his back. When he pointed a nozzle at the leaves, they blew from the runway for carriages into a neat pile on the grass.
Skünatt is strange, he decided then.
The trees outside shook with a harsh wind. The man with the strange contraption shivered and continued blowing the leaves away. Someone knocked on Xavier’s door. Glancing at the beautiful, golden sun one last time, Xavier went to answer it.
Caolan stood in the doorway with a sly smile on his face. “Find your voice yet?” he chuckled. Xavier rolled his eyes and allowed Caolan to come into the room.
“That man Wilkinson wants to speak with us soon.”
Xavier nodded and looked once again to the sun. He wanted to feel its rays on his skin. It was almost too bright.
“Take care not to watch it too long,” Caolan warned with a chuckle. “Or else you’ll be mute and blind.”Xavier laughed. He sounded fine whenever he laughed, as though he could speak any moment. But when he tried, he couldn’t.
“Can you write down what’s wrong?” Caolan asked. Xavier stared at him. “Even if you misspell. I want to know how I can help you. If I even can.”
All you’ve ever done is help me, Xavier thought.
All I need to do is find the Princess. Maybe if I find her I can get my voice to work again.
He ran a hand through his messy but clean hair and sighed. She’s out there somewhere. Alive. Hopefully. Seeming to know what Xavier was thinking, Caolan said, “We’ll find her. I promise you that.”
Xavier slumped forward. After all these years at least someone was still optimistic. He wished it would have been him. But Xavier couldn’t imagine himself finding Andria. He didn’t even know if she’d look the same; those bright and fiery opal eyes. Her gold hair that had begun to brown just a bit at the ends.
“Doubt is man’s greatest hindrance,” Caolan reminded Xavier.
Xavier looked at him. Those were Guardian Nathaniel’s words. As though his father were speaking to him from thousands of miles away as well... Xavier nodded.
Another knock on the door: Danny.
“Morning,” he said, tossing on a coat. “Breakfast’s downstairs. You can eat whatever’s in the fridge and doesn’t have somebody’s name on it. Trust me, these guys will defend their food with their lives.”
“Hey, Mrs. Wilkinson is making some pancakes in the big house. You two are welcome to have some.”
“Pancakes?” Caolan asked.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them.” Xavier and Caolan looked at one another and shrugged. “Jeez, how long have you two been locked up? Since the middle ages?”
“Wow, you two must really be into this joke you’re playing. Never mind,” Danny said with a chuckle. “Just go on across the yard to the big house and eat some breakfast.”
Xavier and Caolan headed outside. Now that they could see the surrounding area, they couldn’t believe their eyes. The fields and forests surrounding them were very different, but still felt somewhat like the kingdoms. And the sky — it was so much wider. Clouds covered a small patch of the expanse of blue. The way the sun touched them, they looked to be the heavens.
And we live up there, Xavier thought. Somewhere up there…
“Amazing,” Caolan gawked, turning around to see everything. They headed towards the house in the distance. Some boys stood outside on its porch, talking and laughing. “Who knew this place, beneath its complications, wouldn’t be so different after all,” Caolan mused aloud.
The ranch boys parted ways for the two of them as they passed through and into the big house. A sweet, sugary aroma filled Xavier’s nostrils. Must be the pancakes, or whatever they’re called. Mrs. Wilkinson stood in front of an odd square cube that looked like it produced a lot of heat. Is that….an oven? She turned to them and smiled.
“Take a seat, boys, the pancakes will be done in no time. I’m told they’re the best in town.” Xavier’s mouth watered just thinking about the sweet food he would get to taste. It’s been too long.
Xavier and Caolan sat at a wooden table decorated with mats and with flowers at its center. A few more boys sat down, all of them still talking amongst themselves. The big box with the images that they were using last night was back on, and Xavier couldn’t believe what it was doing — there were moving pictures in that thing, as though they were seeing straight through into another world. It looked like men playing some kind of sport. Only, they wore very strange armor and held no weapons at their sides. Their helmets and clothes were so brightly colored.
“Here you are, boys,” said Mrs. Wilkinson, placing two big plates of many pancakes on the table before them. The boys immediately started serving themselves. “Now, now, leave some for our guests.”
Xavier and Caolan each grabbed two and poured the gooey, sticky substance all over them like the other boys. When Xavier tasted the sweetness he nearly scarfed down the entire plate of food. Caolan did the same. These pancakes were delicious. Xavier reached for more but stopped when a bigger presence sat at the table—Mr. Wilkinson. All the boys seemed to eat slower out of respect and politeness. Xavier decided that whoever Wilkinson was, he was much loved.
“I see you’ve shaved,” he remarked to Xavier. The Guardian nodded. “You haven’t spoken a word since I’ve met you. Is something wrong?”
If there’s any time you’re going to speak, Xavier thought, then it must be now. He shook his head.
“Thank you,” he forced himself to say. Caolan interjected for him.
“We did not expect such kindness on that road last night,” he said. “We’re very grateful.”
“Believe it or not, most of these boys were found wandering too. I found Jake here when he was thirteen, and Finny when he was fifteen.”
“If you do not mind me asking, why do you take in strangers with no explanation of where they’re from?” Caolan asked.
“Everyone deserves a home. A good home. Some of these boys don’t have families and had nowhere to go with their lives. It was the least I could do for the man that too me in when I was about your age.”
Xavier smiled. He found this man’s gentle, generous nature very becoming. Very admirable. These boys quite reminded him of the stable boys and young workers he once knew. Many of them were robbed of their homes or even their families. And of course the damned King never did a thing about it. He never expected to find a man who would in a land like Skünatt. There existed such kindness in this dangerous land. Perhaps this wasn’t any hell after all.
“That is very kind of you,” said Caolan, observing the boys at the table.
“Thank you,” Wilkinson said with a nod. He turned to the other ranch boys. “You boys seem rather relaxed. I’m sure there’s something out in the yard you can busy yourselves with.” Right on cue, they all stood up and exited the house. Wilkinson looked at Caolan and Xavier and pursed his lips. “I know I said that you two didn’t have to offer me any explanation as to why you were walking on the side of the road last night. Yet I’m still curious. I called some state prisons and penitentiaries to see if they’d lost some guests, but there were none reported.”
Caolan and Xavier look at one another.
“‘Tis a long story, Sir,” Caolan muttered. He wanted to be anything but dishonest towards this man. “‘Tis complicated.”
“Try me, son. I’ve seen and heard a lot of strange things in my day.”
Cannot be any stranger than this, Xavier thought to himself. He watched Caolan, curious as to what he would say.
“To be honest, Sir, we’re actually looking for one of our friends that disappeared a long time ago.”
“Oh?” asked Wilkinson, leaning back in his chair.
“Her name was Andria. She’s about our age. Do you know anybody by that name?”
“Not that I can think of,” Wilkinson answered.
Caolan looked at Xavier who he thought could possibly be able to say something now on the topic of the Princess. Still, he said nothing, but Xavier sure wanted to.
“She would have shown up maybe five years ago. Just out of the blue. She’s not from around here, like us.”Wilkinson suddenly had a curious twinkle in his eye. “A girl your age?” he repeated. “Shown up five years ago.... That does remind me of someone.”
Caolan and Xavier leaned forward.
“Who, Sir?” Caolan questioned.
“But she’s never gone by the name Andria... Clara is her name. One of the sweetest girls you’d ever meet.”Caolan slumped back in his chair, bur Xavier still kept forward. Is it possible she has changed her name?
“She lives with the Evans’ on their farm. A nice family they are.”
“Could you tell us where it is? We’d like to find out if ‘tis actually her.”
Wilkinson stood and approached a device in the other room, which had buttons he pressed and a strangely-shaped block he held to his ear.
“I thought he was calling her over,” Caolan muttered to Xavier, who shrugged. Wilkinson began speaking into the block, looking at the boys a couple of times. “What if it is truly her?” Caolan smiled and shook Xavier by the shoulder. “You could go home.”
Xavier sighed, but he could not help the smile that stretched his lips. He could see his family again. But only if Oliver gets past the fact that we left a trail of dead bodies behind us when we ran...
Xavier hung his head and swallowed.
“What is it, mate?” Caolan said. “This should be your day. We are one step closer to finding her.”
“W-would....” Xavier heaved a deep breath. “Would sh-she... Even want t-to see me?”
“Xavier, all you ever did was support and protect her. She has no reason to turn you away.”
She has every reason. Her freedom, Xavier told himself. “C-Caolan, I c-can’t l-let her stay h-here. Sh-she will kn-know that.” Caolan was ready to respond but Wilkinson interrupted them.
“It seems Mr. and Mrs. Evans are out of town. Clara answered but…it seems she’s not the one you two are looking for.”
“What did she say?” Caolan asked.
“She said she’s never heard of any ‘Andria,’“ Wilkinson explained. “And, you know, I haven’t either. I don’t think she lives here in town, boys.” Xavier nodded and gazed at the table with a sigh. “If you want to try to leave town yourselves, I can drive you to a bus stop that’ll take you into Salem within an hour. It’s not too long of a drive away.”
“That would be very helpful, Sir,” said Caolan. “But... if I might ask... why is it you are being so kind to us?”
Wilkinson smiled gently at them at sat across from them at the table.
“To be honest, boys, you aren’t the first men to come stumbling out of those woods the way you did. Speaking the way you do. Wearing those kind of clothes. Whether I understand it or not, there’s a pattern I can’t ignore. Those men I met were good men. The least I could do was think the same of you until I had any reason to think otherwise.”
“Thank you, Sir Wilkinson,” Caolan said. Xavier saw Mr. Wilkinson furrow his brow at being called “Sir”. Maybe it wasn’t custom in Skünatt to be so formal.
“I’ll take you two into town in a few minutes then.”
The town of Sublimity was fancier than any village either Caolan or Xavier had ever seen. The buildings were built side by side and even together by a red rectangular stone. It was very cozy compared to Aramore. Wilkinson handed Caolan some odd pieces of green parchment. “To pay your bus fare with,” he explained.Caolan thanked him again and watched him drive back down the road. Xavier sat on a bench next to a sign that was supposedly for the bus, or whatever it was.
“Do you think we’ll find her in Salem?”
Xavier shrugged, obviously disheartened, “I just have a f-feeling she’s h-here s-somewhere.” His mind wandered to that girl named Clara. What had Wilkinson told her? That two boys were looking for her. Across the street an old green pickup truck pulled into a spot.
Xavier froze. Air stifled his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He grasped Caolan’s arm and stood up, staring at the girl who exited the driver’s seat of the carriage: golden hair, slender figure.
“What is it?” Caolan asked. Xavier pointed at the girl. “Who... Is that her?”
Xavier said nothing. He got up, slinging his bag over his shoulder and peeking from behind the bus stop.
The girl stood at the window of a shop called Alfieri’s Supplies.
It was her, the Princess of Aramore, standing in the middle of a walkway in broad daylight.
She was there, in front of Xavier, after five long years of having lost her. He began to walk across the street toward her when one of those odd carriages made a startling loud pitched sound. It would have run him over if Caolan had not pulled him back in time. Onlookers and passerby gawked as Caolan helped his friend up. They had even caught Andria’s attention.
Caolan dragged Xavier back to the bus stop. “Oy, don’t move so fast. She will see us.” Indeed, Andria gazed after them. With time, however, she turned away and entered the supplies shop. Xavier closed his eyes. He began to sweat.
“Ande,” he muttered.
“That was definitely her.”
Xavier examined the situation. He noticed groups of people walking across the road in between two painted lines of white. With time, a light before them turned red. Then it was time for the carriages to make their journey. Xavier rushed to the sidewalk and waited, keeping an eye on Andria’s own carriage. It was like Wilkinson’s — a “truck” — only, green. It had some kind of large, rough blanket in the back of it — leaving what looked to be just enough room for Caolan and Xavier to hide beneath it.
The light turned green and he raced to the back of the truck. He waited until no one was looking to climb in and underneath the blanket. Caolan followed suit. Several minutes passed before Andria came back and dropped some heavy objects into the back, nearly in top of them. Xavier covered Caolan’s mouth so he wouldn’t make a noise.
The truck soon roared to life and they were on their way back to wherever she had come from. A bumpy road soon greeted them rather suddenly and Caolan and Xavier tried their very bests to hold on so they wouldn’t be thrown out. Then the truck stopped, but it still idled.
Their blanket was thrown off of them and hen they looked around, there was no house in sight.The moment Xavier sat up, something metal was shoved before his face. A strange object he had never seen before. Some kind of long, metal barrel.
And staring at him down the barrel were two fierce, amber eyes. Andria’s hair fell to frame her heart-shaped face. Her freckles were gone, but her cheeks were still just as naturally rosy as they always had been.
What was in her eyes, however, was not kindness. It was ferocity.
The Princess and the thing in her hands were lethal.
Caolan immediately threw up his hands. Xavier slowly raised his, looking her straight in the eye — praying that she recognized him before she made any deadly moves.
“I don't recall willingly picking up any hitchhikers,” she said. “You best run unless you want you intend to get hurt.” Andria's amber eyes burned into Caolan's. Had time truly faded her memories of them? Or perhaps Xavier and Caolan grew to be unrecognizable? With a deep breath, Xavier scooted towards her, lowering his hands. Andria, with surprising strength, pressed the barrel of her weapon against his chest.
“Don’t. Move,” she warned.
“‘T-Tis me.” Xavier covered his chest with his hands, gesturing to the silver locket that rested above his heart. “Xavier.”
Terror flashed in Andria’s eyes. “Excuse me?” Her ferociousness nearly entirely vanished, and what remained was a look of desperate confusion and shock. But it didn't occur to her to put down her weapon. “You can’t be,” she whispered. “Is this a joke?”
“Of course not,” Xavier huffed. Andria stared into his eyes, horrified. Rage rose within him through his bloodstream. Without a thought, he yanked Andria's weapon from her grasp. A loud shot rang off somewhere behind him before he climbed over the edge of the truck—red in the face from an anger that has taken five years to boil. Now it rose to the back of his throat like vomit. He couldn't contain it any longer.
Andria backed away, her eyes filling with tears.
“I… I thought…,” she stammered. A sob broke her composure. “God, Xavier, I thought you were dead.”
“Is that why you left me, th-then?” Xavier demanded. Easily, he towered over Andria. Hands tore at his shoulders, trying to pull him away from the Princess. But Xavier barely heard Caolan's pleading to stop himself. His eyes were on target. “Is that why you n-never even looked back? Was it n-not your plan all along to leave me to drown—?”
“Of course not!”
“Do you have any idea of what I have had to endure?” Like a bull, he kept leading Andria backwards, until her back ran into her truck. “What I have had to see?”
“Xavier, I thought you were dead--I'm sorry!” Andria roared through her tears. “I never meant to leave you, or hurt you. I thought I had killed you.” Fear ran rampant in her eyes: fear and fury and remorse. And Xavier was certain, looking into her wet eyes, that he had become her nightmare. Her greatest fear brought back from the dead. She shied away, shutting her eyes from the sight of him.
Caolan tore him away from her. “Give her space,” he told him. Xavier stepped back, breathing deeply, watching as Caolan helped Andria onto her feet. She looked at his friend as though he were a nightmare too--but one which was much more pleasant than she had assumed. Xavier clenched his fists as that realization crept into his rapidly-beating heart.
“A-Andria,” he stuttered. She wouldn't look at him, holding Caolan's hands as he calmed her down. “Ande, look at me.” That name. Ande. Trembling, she met Xavier's gaze. Her eyes were the same. And in this moment, she truly looked like a child again. All that was missing were her freckles and tiara. It seemed that words lingered on her tongue but she didn't have the courage to let them free. Runa, what have I done? thought Xavier. He, the nightmare, pressed her back into her cage. She, of all people, didn't deserve that.
He wanted so dearly to apologize. He would have given anything to see a shred of the joyful girl he knew years ago. But nothing could bring her back now. Nothing from within his jumbled, violent thoughts. Not yet.
Andria never looked away from him--watching at him as though she knew this could be her last day on earth by his hands.
A sob leapt to Xavier's throat. He wouldn't dare allow Andria or Caolan to hear it, to see it in his eyes. But it was too late. Xavier turned his back on them, heaving a deep breath. Not here, he pleaded with himself. Not now.
“I'm sorry,” said a voice behind him. Andria no longer sounded like a little girl, but a young woman. “Do you have a place to stay?” Xavier never answered. Caolan answered for him.
“No. We don't.”
“You can stay with me. I have food and clothes you can have. It's the least I can do.” Xavier turned to glance at Caolan, then Andria. Despite the fear apparent in her eyes, never did her voice become small. “We can talk there.”