Chapter 12: The Subtle Sailor
Acacia peered through the flower forest out toward the burning ripples of the sea. She thought she witnessed a flash of color...maybe a torn robe. It floundered in the wind but disappeared. She pulled at Circinus’s mane, but the small colt did not catch anything with his mirroring gaze.
“Endurance never slowed us down,” mumbled Chiron irritably.
He bowed to eat a swirly mushroom when Acacia caught another glimpse of the banner darting to-and-fro between the rocks and pine like a wandering kerchief. “Stay still—a follower!”
“It means only we’ve come this far to find dwellings.” Circinus guided. “A follower is the first sign of civilization.” Acacia trembled in aftershock. The party continued toward a sheer crag not to evade the sailor but scout for him. Circinus and Chiron scraped their heels on the cliff-hang. Thunder came despite the blue sky. Absence followed and reverberated.
Yet the party did not leave as the sails ferried closer. A giant gust of wind almost knocked Acacia off Circinus to plunge her into the rocky deep.
“Hold on as I do,” Circinus expounded.
A hankered traveler tied his line to a crag.
“Whence do you come?” Chiron asserted.
The traveler was too shaken to speak. “I’m heading toward Acropolis”—
“Where do you live?” Chiron rumbled.
Once more in the past three months, Acacia began to wonder if she had picked up the wrong crowd.
“If you would please give me a chance—I come from Medora.”
“State your purpose,” Chiron demanded.
“I was sent to Acropolis to gather supplies. Medora is in preparation for an incoming tide.”
Chiron’s voice came with alternating rumbles. “Please convince me that you don’t mean to harm us.” He commanded.
“My journey is days away and I meant to gather supplies, in the meanwhile, since I’m already low.” He shouted.
Acacia waited for one of the stallions to speak. The traveler averted his glance but did the same.
“I am Chief Chiron. This is Circinus, my guide and messenger. Know Acacia as well but tell no one in Acropolis of our goal except Young and High, Priest Kazimir and Sage Daphne.”
The traveler choked, “If you would assist me, my goal is to seek weaponry.”
Circinus whinnied under his breath and mocked. “Blunderers...murderers.”
“It’s alright, Circinus. Well, then if you are not a pirate, climb up the cliff before the spirits knock you down!” Acacia roared over the gale.
The clouds were smooth and off-white like opera cream, but a threatening front appeared, distant the isles—a scene never foretold by the forest.
Acacia unraveled a rope from her duffle that reached only halfway down the precipice. Circinus gleamed over the edge.
“Let me assist, my mare.” Chiron helped gnaw the rope. It must have taken the traveler a dreamcatcher’s blooming to navigate the rocks, but nothing else could be done to intervene.
When the traveler reached the summit, it was apparent how long he had sailed. His overalls were un-mended; his black beard collected at his breast, and his tan was leathery. The only thing intact was his velvet-hooded cape.
“I have rarely seen a unicorn. I’ve heard stories both pure and dreadful about your people. If the dreadful rumors are false, I know you can help me.” His eyes and lips looked hungry.
“We will lead you to practical supplies,” Circinus warned, “only that you never turn your back on your new guides.”
“We will show you the way. I believe you can show us our way,” Acacia added. “Is Medora the nearest hovel?” She searched.
“Medora, if you go by land, is the nearest town. I doubt if it’s our nearest hideout.” Andelko cautioned.
“What do you mean exactly? We are not in search of a hideout, though shelter wouldn’t impede us.” Her eyes turned skew-whiff.
“Don’t be so assured. There is not much you can do unless you want to be the town drunk. For your friends the same.” Andelko wasn’t any less cockeyed, but Acacia cocked her head in suspicion.
To her surprise, the companions were unharmed by his words.
Chiron performed a bow to allow the traveler on his shoulders. “Only to keep pace,” he expounded. Chiron said there was no time for interrogation. The traveler was even more hesitant than Acacia when climbing his massive shoulders.
“I have traveled by far longer than you. Lead us halfway to Medora. It’s unknown whether I should expel our mission, but to convince you that Medora is our new known destination, I’ll explain how I need to find a scholar, I mean storyteller, named Janus. He is privileged and withholds something important of mine.” Acacia expounded.
“The something belongs to this land,” Chiron corrected.
“Still, nothing you’ve said has told me about you,” Circinus chided. “Who am I guiding? A merchant or gypsy?”
“Call me by Andelko. I am High Sailor of Medora and it pleases me to be guided and it blesses the seas between for us to meet.” He bowed.
“I have met many since my first visit to Acropolis, and many I have met again, and have come to known after such a while. Hopefully, it pleases us to meet you.” Chiron bowed back in statement. Acacia countered his gestural act, but she found clues in his eloquence.
“If what you need rests near my city, fate will follow us.”
Setting up camp had not been discussed for over a day.
“I can venture forward by foot, but it seems we need repose.” Andelko urged Chiron.
“We must find a hot spring. Our path lost the stream. Besides, the creeks may be polluted with spells.”
“What I’ve heard from the unicorns is different. They have the power to heal, to recover, and to purify. My sailor knowledge doesn’t lie. The famous sailor Anthony did not know what he saw, but lie, he never did.” Andelko took large breaths. “I do not fear poisonous waters, or any water, for that matter.”
“So, it’s true?” Acacia rang. “Some I thought were stories strung by my grandmother.”
Chiron snorted then heaved a chortling whinny. “It’s best avoided. I’m impressed that you two have learned about our charming ways, but our natures can’t be pressed.”
The forest was covered in vines with umbrella-like leaves. Their veins and underbellies were a deep purple. The shade felt damper; the air felt cooler. Nonetheless, the journey from the sea was more grueling than recent the journey to it. The hill almost plunged into a ninety-degree drop. If it weren’t for the stone monoliths, footing would prove escapable. What lay at the bottom of that hill was undeniable yet reassuring amidst the fresh air. Their cooler and quieter path was not lost, though festered in danger.
“Touch water and it might disappear. Drink it and you might die.” Circinus guided.
Andelko shivered. “Much has changed since the days of the first rulers, yet our world is so young. And I am much younger, though I may not look it to you.” He admitted that he had much to learn about spells and poisons, but Acacia and Chiron still snorted.
At the bottom of the precipice, Circinus could clearly gauge the river-like depth.
“Touch it and you won’t die, but drown, and we would surely die.” Circinus examined. He sniffed, stopping midway, to catch himself tempted by the cool water. He did not think it poisonous but thought it unsavory. Unicorns could purify waters but spells recently worked against them.
“I see rapids ’round the bend,” Acacia observed. The opposite side of the stream was unusually stagnant.
“It hasn’t rained for days,” Circinus noticed, “surely, it’s enchanted.” Suddenly his words were taken by a flash of lightning and rain.
“Aye, it hasn’t,” Andelko then concerned, said, “I just escaped a nasty headwind. One hundred furlongs it might have been. Ways away I was but it’s come—to swallow us all.”
Some monoliths sat by the river. Others collided with the rapids, but they were too tall to step on. A few flat rocks were piled above the river, but they were much too slippery.
“We can’t turn back,” warned Circinus.
With a thunder, Circinus darted between the monoliths. Acacia was curious as to why they could dance on rock with such ease. His feet did not stick to the rocks, but he collided with Chiron. They collapsed in the water. The water was rising, but the fall felt effortless. A chill crept up Acacia’s robe and sank in her back. Andelko was ready to unfurl his tethers. The water stopped rising and thankfully, both Chiron and Circinus did not sink. Acacia could at least reach Andelko.
“Why do you stop?” Andelko asked as he tied his tether to the monolith.
“Is the river shallow?” Acacia wondered.
The water swept over their backs as the stallions throttled forward with much river still ahead. Their hooves seemed to glide as they skimmed the current. Soon the current was barely touching them.
“You are a mighty swimmer, Chiron.” Acacia acknowledged.
“I have my strength back.” Chiron snared. “But the fruit still must return to our hands to nourish our lands’.” The unicorn attempted a famed high sailor melody which had been passed down to the pirates. Andelko patted his back in reverence of the tune.
They barely touched the current.
The air became chiller as a tempest met up with them. Chiron and Circinus collapsed on solid ground, the partners tumbling from their steeds.
It appeared safe country, so he set up his initial camp. The sliver of sunset painting the sky settled with the resonating chord of good-bye. The clouds wisped like water in a sloshing bucket. The storm left. Andelko would only be able to release them from the bonds of other storms.
“Wherever we may be, we are alive,” Acacia directed the words at Chiron, part of the mantra Ara used to heal Chiron and part of Daphne’s mantra.
There reigned an obstinate silence with the only sounds being the tuned cracks of the fire.
“My fate is alive, though I can’t count on my life.” Andelko broke out.
Andelko’s words were known, but within Acacia, the words festered increasingly with denial. His wariness glowered with an ominous eye as the fire ignited his intent.
“What, Andelko, do you know of your fate?” Acacia became practical. The trees played in the alien sun before the mighty orb became obscured. His eyes glazed over the world and wherever he saw, it was invisible to everyone but him.
“I’m still trying to piece together the role creatures’ play. With the unicorns and their traumas, it’s hard to decipher whether their war was a war. A battle, a revolt, a revolution, or genocide—whatever you name it, they were not in charge of their fate which is sometimes not an excuse if you can’t try to control it.”
Chiron heaved, “And what excuses do we need if fate abides by us?”
Acacia choked softly, “Tell us what you’ve heard about the unicorns.”
Andelko pried his memories for an explanation. “Not that you need to oversee your fate. I’d hate to see others take charge of your destiny as well. Blunderers and murderers, and that’s all I’ve heard of unicorn lore.” With fatigue, he began to mumble.
Acacia’s ears pricked. “Who are these blunderers and murderers?” The silence gnawed at her and withheld answers. Silence interrupted her questions and fatigue marked the end. She was ready with a kitchen knife whipped in one hand and a secret in the other. Acacia hid the utensil behind her back. The knife, a hidden weapon, was barely recognizable in the land of Acropolis. The sailor must have seen her distrust for Andelko already held a knife to her throat and an intoxicated grip on her shoulder.
Andelko choked and gasped unevenly, “It could be anyone—even your friends, even...” Acacia whipped the other knife to his throat as he faltered to speak, “even you.” No one recognized Acacia in feral Acropolis, not even herself.
“Or you, sir. How did we hear about this upcoming tide? Is it an upcoming war, or oncoming genocide?” She tried to jest with a sailor song Circinus taught her. Acacia realized how much Andelko could do for them, but she imagined what horrors he meant and how much he could undo.
“I will tell you; just believe me.” Andelko pleaded. He bowed his head and his knife, releasing his grip. Acacia threw her knife behind a foot.
Chiron and Circinus snorted with approval. Their eyes, though glassy, were still readable in the twilight, cautious yet defeated, as the fire played in their gaze.
Circinus released a breath, “There is something I withheld. I admit I tried to protect everyone by defending knowledge itself, but we are headed toward the dunes. That is our only way.”
Andelko nodded, “But what I say involves these dunes, as I accept your knowledge, for I have also delayed.” He snapped at Acacia’s wrist with a rope and she tried to writhe his hand away only for the knife to be aimed at her chest. Acacia’s hand then lay limp as her ears became ready.
Andelko added in frenzy. “The skies are gathering our ancestors. Yours, mine...if we can reach the dunes we can be safe from their fury. Maybe they are only guiding us to the dunes, but listen to them, not me.” Andelko’s advice became genuine, but his eyes lacerated.
More questions shone in her eyes. “We cannot find shelter with the dunes, but I take their word.” Acacia was ready to side with Circinus. She spoke diligently almost with the patience of diplomacy.
Andelko lassoed his rope around Acacia’s torso. The shock was mystifying, rendering her more unable to move than the tether. Andelko took a swig of his flask and threw the caustic remnants into the fire. Acacia no longer could glimpse the unicorns on the other side of the pit. Burning blazes of fermented grapes and fermenting fire put tears in her eyes.
She struggled to release her line, sawing at it after she stretched for her knife, but the rope sawed into her. Thankfully, she did not have to use her weapon on Andelko. However, he pulled on the line bringing her closer. Keeping her at bay did not hold back her tension.
When Chiron and Circinus felt the struggle, they leaped to her side, but first they remained behind Andelko. He did not notice them from the roar of the bonfire. All he felt was cool dew behind his neck. The dew he realized, however, was alive, and when the unicorns realized his discovery, they pounded and tramped their hooves on him either in warning or defense, for Acacia could no longer tell in the light or in chaos.
Andelko pried the rope, shortening it to pull Acacia even closer, but she spun outward, increasing his distress. She took the knife from behind her back and spun the blade toward Andelko. It whorled directionless, but it reached his fingers with the blade sticking straight through his finger gaps. He caught the kitchen dagger. A smile stuck on his teeth with the smell of strong oak and grapes emanating either from the blaze or his breath. The knife carefully fled from his fingers, but the rope remained, only to be dropped at his wrist. His knife dropped but then a second blade whorled toward him catching Andelko off guard and slicing the rope between them in an uneven two. Acacia caught the lose rope still hanging around her waist and lassoed the remaining line and swinging it around his neck. After the rope clutched his neck, she frantically unknotted the rope tied to her waist adding some distance between them.
“I’m listening.” The new, composed High Warrior vied. “Could I ever trust you? My name is High Warrior Acacia and sorry to have met you!”
Circinus nudged Andelko with his horn into his side. Chiron nudged Andelko’s head with the same warning intent. He was already out limp as an eel. Acacia then gathered her thoughts, for Andelko’s were going out.
Acacia almost spoke but Chiron caught up with her thoughts, speaking for Andelko. “The unicorn war is far greater than our war, but however petty this is, I pray to unveil your stance, Andelko. Here me upon waking!”
Circinus sniffed his flask. A pungent but indulgent odor invaded his nostrils. He took one step back and grunted.
Andelko took in one deep breath and suddenly appeared conscious.
Perhaps he has been poisoned?
In hoarseness, the vagabond recollected in slow blinks:
“Ah, the unicorn war:
’Clear Orion could not with fortune best
the most belligerent in rest
That once ’fore fought in vain
only had naught been slain.
By the upcoming tide
marked by the villager’s pride.’”
Andelko nodded then blinked on the verge of knocking out. Acacia was not sure whether to come to his aid or let him be at rest. She instead thought about his riddle, either a warning or insult, but the words spoke with magic and not with wine. His comatose, no matter how profound, was certain to later cause a stir, but no greater than if he awoke with sudden interruption. She shut his eyelids as if he were dead and looked at Chiron.
“This is no ordinary poisoning,” Chiron pointed.
“The wine can only be gathered from the coast, and I presume it came from the fruit. Perhaps the one Conrad ate, but Conrad lies dead?” Circinus bobbed his mane in the direction of the dunes. “We haven’t got that far. Next morning as soon as Andelko has recovered, we shall gather weaponry. The fruit will be off our path, but this sailor might be in the right direction. I only pray that our destination is Medora.”
Acacia took up the flask to sniff it. “The fruit might already be gone. Many citizens, including our sailor, might soon be dead.” She held Andelko’s head in her lap, his hair blanketing her like Circinus’s mane.
Acacia whispered, “I didn’t mean this to happen, but I never said thank you for your sailor-time stories.”
Chiron and Circinus nuzzled him.
Then, Chiron drudged to Acacia’s side. “Acacia—how can you harm an innocent one, who is very much under the same spell as you?” Chiron snapped. “How—I dare, you! To commit—
Chiron’s reprimand chilled her. His rumbles warned the earth and warned the sky. He brayed and whinnied not caring if the forest could hear him. Just as Chiron was about to trample her, Circinus gathered enough force to nudge him sideways.
Acacia stormed, “How dare I? Even if he was against us, he was right about you. Unicorn lore! That’s all I’ve heard!” She held back many other words she would regret saying. Acacia couldn’t fight the urge to sputter them or keep the conscience to counteract them, so she rephrased.
“I was...the one by your side at Agora. If I had been able to heal, I could help you...now I’m not so sure I can help at all.” She expected a strong reaction from Chiron, and if not, Circinus.
Instead, Chiron’s emotive conscience became even stronger. He sighed and closed his eyes, lying next to Andelko in pain. The silence hung as heavy as the clouds.
Chiron opened his eyes and Acacia continued, “I am the one who trusted you. But I trust you should behave in my midst as does Circinus. However, I apologize for your temper.”
When the silence did not move, Chiron explained, “And I was the one who trusted you.” Even the strong silence could not budge Acacia’s knife or her words, so he continued, “I am thankful of your newfound trust, something that’s difficult to come by around here. I will never flee your side, Acacia. I should be sorry for my temper. I wished the last of my days would be calmer.” Despite the foreign markings of his words, she could sense his sympathy.
“And I will never flee yours. Rest...rest.” She stroked his silky coat. Her hushed voice led to lullabies but turned into laments. She would do everything in her honor to soothe the tethered creature. Everyone had their own problems and stress disturbed the old gentleman horse the greatest.
The fire died down but not completely. It continuously kept the company warm, enough for Circinus to fall asleep next Chiron. They were bundled in a fashion that made them feel even closer.
Acacia turned her eyes to the forest. A flare caught her attention enough for her to jump.
A camp? Did the campers poison my friend?
The object wasn’t a campfire for it crept closer, but it was a flame.
If I could challenge Andelko, maybe the flare isn’t worth challenging. She looked for a silhouette carrying a torch, but the object floated, not in an orb, but in a shape of a creature. It glided, and then it emerged from the forest in aerial flips. The creature appeared mightily and gratefully in its outstretched arms.
It’s a bird. At this time of night? I really need some sleep.
Its feathers shone of crimson and gold fire with metallic webbing. Its eyeballs were diamonds.
The bird’s voice spoke through her mind with stinging force, I am firebird. The bird carried a scroll in its beak. The scroll did not singe from the bright, fire-like feathers.
Firebird then dropped the scroll in Acacia’s palm. You are invited, blessed patron. She could not tell if the firebird was male or female, but she did not think deeply about anything until she unfurled the scroll. The lithe hand wrote:
“The elders of Medora cordially invite you to the seasoned masquerade. Arrive in one moon no later than sunrise. Find me in town square. R.S.V.P optional.”
Before she could thank the firebird, it disappeared in a whirr, leaving a trail of flames.
Andelko’s ears and lips twitched in delightful slumber.