Andria leaned on her elbows in the dark, inspecting the door. Scratch, scratch. There it was again. She peeked up and down her hallway to find it dark and empty. No Felix or Colonel in sight. Shaking her head, she returned to the soft linens of her bed and closed her eyes.
A heavy sleep drowned her consciousness, yet an itch appeared at the back of her throat. She coughed a bit into her arm, believing it to be a small irritation – but it didn’t show any signs of going away. Each wretch seemed to grow worse and worse. It felt like something was scratching at her throat, clawing its way up from the inside and trying to expel itself from her body. She fumbled for her bedside lamp, and when she managed to turn it on, Andë spewed a black liquid into her hands.
She stared at it in utter terror as the black droplets—the same consistency as blood—began to move up her hands and latch onto her wrists. Andria tried shaking it off, yet the substance trailed its way up her arms. She sprinted to the bathroom and turned on the faucet to wash the black goo off. Without warning, however, she vomited the black substance everywhere into the porcelain bowl and even onto the mirror. It ran slowly down her medicine cabinet, beginning to look like ink – ink that slowly began to formulate three words on the mirror:
Don't let go.
In the mirror’s reflection she saw the little boy she left in the oasis five years ago. Bearing a forlorn expression, he turned his back on her and removed his shirt: his back was marred with open wounds fresh from a lashing and dripping bright red blood onto the white-tiled floor. His punishment. His scars. Her fault.
Suddenly, the boy lowered his shirt, perking up like the guard dog he was trained to become. He stared past her.
“They’re coming,” he said. Shaking, Andria gazed over her shoulder. A síolnach in the form of a ghostly shadow floated in the doorway, watching her. Soon, it transformed into a vapory but solid figure – something that could hurt her. Before Andria could run, it lunged and tackled her to the floor, tearing at her skin with its claws. Its touch burned unlike any other pain she ever felt. She thrashed at it, screaming until her throat was raw, but the creature only hissed louder and forcibly shook her. Andria felt her head smack against the tile.
Andë’s eyes flew open.
“No!” she screamed, clawing at the darkness. She wrapped her arms around her knees and shook, remembering in moments that her protector is under this same roof. She doesn't have to face this--this terror, these tears--alone. “Xavier!”
The door swung open at the hands of a silhouetted man. Andria blinked wildly. Was he... watching my door?
“Milady?” said Xavier, examining the room. Andria caught a glimpse of the Xanthus through the dark. And the moment she knew Xavier was near, she threw herself at him--enveloping him in a tight hug.
“I'm sorry,” she whimpered, tugging at his shirt. That was a nightmare, she reminded herself over and over. All in your mind. That's all. Why couldn't she believe it? “I let go--fuck, I'm so sorry!”
Xavier didn't know what to say. He looked at her, holding her cheek with his palm. She held his hand. He hadn't seen her cry since the night of her betrothal. And, boy, was it a difficult sight.
“I've forgiven you, Ande,” he said. “I know it isn't your fault.”
“Of course it is.”
“I refuse to believe that.”
It was the first time he meant what he said.
Andria cried softly to herself, shaking in her place. Xavier hadn't a clue what to do to console her. He hated that sinking, losing feeling. If it were a physical force directly threatening her life, he could spring into action without thinking. But when it came to dilemmas of the mind and emotions, he had little experience.
Raising her chin gently, Xavier met her watery gaze.
“I'm here,” he assured her. “You do not have to be alone, Milady.”
Andria shut her eyes. His voice. It was deeper than the boy’s, but the same. Matured. It brought her back to Aramore and the times they shared. Not the times she was told what to do or was forced to watch men make decisions about what was fit for a little princess. Not the times she cried herself to sleep, wrote farewell letters, or fled in the dead of night. Much of that life, she realized, was immaculate, but only when she had Xavier at her side. Her Guardian. Her Kildred. Her best friend.
Andria's lip trembled.
“May I see your back?” she breathed. Xavier furrowed his brows. “Please.”
With uncertainty, the Guardian cast down his eyes and shifted around, lifting his thin shirt above his toned shoulders. Andria drew herself closer to him, expecting to see the old wounds scarred over with time. What she saw, however, was smooth skin, untouched by undeserved brutality. She touched his spine with a gentle finger to make sure her eyes did not deceive her, and she breathed a sigh of relief when her vision proved honest.
Father never touched him, Andria reassured herself. She neatly tucked the image of the boy in her nightmare into the back of her mind.
“You expected scars,” Xavier said. It was not a question. Andria nodded.
“My father can be cruel.”
“I know.” There was a hint of an untold truth behind his words. Andria laid her palm against his shoulder. “My father took the lashes for me. And your father… he was unmoved.”
“What?” Andria clutched his arm. Suddenly, everything began shrinking—her room, her vision, her stomach.
“Aye.” Xavier swallowed. “He made me count them.”
It was not only Guardian Xavier who bore the consequences. It was his family, too. It was everyone who ever loved him—stolen of a member of their family. It was Guardian Nathaniel, who loved his son so much that he gave up the skin of his back so that his son would remain safe.
Andria covered her mouth and shut her eyes.
“Damn him,” Andria whispered. Her voice shook terribly. The moment Xavier faced her, tears cascaded down her cheeks. “I’m so selfish,” she wailed, hitting her mattress. Xavier immediately wrapped her in his arms and rocked her back and forth. She tried to squirm from his grasp. “Damn it, I’ve ruined everything. I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve any of you—.”
“Shh, Andë, ‘tis okay—.”
“No, it isn’t!” she cried. “You and your family have suffered because of me!”
“‘Tis my fault as well, Andria. I ran with you.”
“But I left you there.”
“You didn’t mean to.” He brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I know you didn’t mean to.” He gazed at the locket chain around Andria's neck: the token shone like the day it was made--Andria kept it clean. He recalled the very day he gave it to her in an ornate chest. The way she smiled and giggled when he latched it around her neck.
He wrapped her more tightly in his arms. Andria, however, sat still.
“I give up,” she whimpered. Xavier froze. “I'll... I'll come home, Xavier. I owe it to you. To everyone.”
“I've made my choice. I... I can't live like this, knowing I stole so much. Knowing I hurt someone like you or your father... God. I can't live like this.”