Chapter 25: Mother
The Serpent lay sleeping in her den. Andelko wished the voices in the distance, perhaps the travelers, would be quiet. He didn’t want to wake Mother but perhaps the travelers were so accustomed to passing this way that they knew Mother was a deep sleeper.
Mother’s head rose and fell like the tide and truthfully, she was the color of a mountain.
A few trees blocked the entrance to her cave. The top of the mountain where her head rose was too steep to climb and too risky to fall into. The entrance of her mountain den seemed an easy entrance—but no one has been able to risk it, says Andelko.
Acacia imagined all the possibilities—scree traps falling, poisonous symbiotic lizards, snakes, firebirds, Milko...
All may be companions to Mother.
Then Mother’s companions are far trickier than she.
Chiron and Circinus stood aback. She was afraid of making any noise, speaking her thoughts aloud, but many thoughts ran through her head.
I could take the unicorns in with me for their mighty horns and protect them or I could take it like I am and run.
There was no time to think, “Chiron—Circinus, are you willing to go in with me?”
Chiron’s knees buckled under him. Acacia gasped, trying not to elicit a scream and trying desperately to stand back despite wanting to catch his sore body.
“I have been trying to hide it...I’ve been afraid...wanting to be strong...I just need rest.”
“I will go.” Circinus insisted.
Acacia decided to walk astride Circinus instead of letting him carry her in case she was knocked off or hindered Circinus in any way. Circinus wasn’t weak, without pity, but far young. They left the packs with Chiron for the swiftness of escape.
Phillipi was always connected to the outside world. Although the wilderness did not have the careening catacombs and bomb tunnels of the cities, the ancients set up forgotten underground trade routes to the unicorn cities, probably where the original black markets began. The black markets were probably why the wild and cultivated worlds became separate. In the old days, they would trade poppy, stolen treasures from our world (maybe to take to the Serpents of the Mound), and even unicorn slaves.
Were these slaves the cultivated ones? If they were, then that would make them either far more aggressive or submissive since the word goes that they were used as entertainment in the arenas, sometimes tortured by their rider’s tenacity to hold on, and worse, by stabbings. By word, some escaped into the mountains to become wild or to become refugees in the unicorn city.
For all Acacia knew, the tunnels leading in and out of Mother’s den led anywhere, even to the fruit.
Daphne must have it. Or it is buried with Conrad? But I’m involved with my friends. Why? So, I can stop the war? Why haven’t I told Andelko where I suspect the fruit might really be? If I did suspect, why first, didn’t I prompt Chiron or Circinus?
Circinus’s breathing was heavy, even for a small stead. Acacia realized her breath was staggering too since the dive into her nagging thoughts. Her thoughts were louder than the breathing. A larger wind came from the tunnels and it hissed.
“I stop here,” Circinus said, looking at the curving branches in the earth. “We are close. Look what litters the floor!”
Acacia squinted through the dwindling light. What appeared to be bones, human bones, scattered the ground in larger heaps the farther the entrances led. Something was more peculiar about these bones—they shone with the slightest swash of Acacia’s torch. They shone like gold and were littered like skeletal potpourri. Of all the treasures to count not one stolen weapon!
If Andelko came out alive...then why didn’t he end up in the heap?
A shadow or movement made Acacia turn.
“I have decided you can’t go in alone, not after what I’ve put you through.”
“Then, we will put ourselves through.” She answered grumpily. Andelko realized he was missing one or two explanations. He knew it was risky to leave Chiron but Chiron once again, assured himself he was strong.
“Each one of us came out alive but never have we been able to retrieve the plunders from our village. Each came running out in fear or agony.”
“But if we could grab the weapons, no fear!” Acacia added.
“Yes, and the only problem is where to find them. Many weapons have been taken so they all look the same, but each has something in common—they were stolen.”
“Which way do we take then?”
“Each way will lead us to Mother but she is very disorganized. I’m afraid if we try ev’ry tunnel, Mother may wake.”
“Those weapons...do they shine with red?” Circinus asked.
“I can’t say whether they do. One of the messengers told me there were bows, axes, scimitars, and daggers—shields, even.”
“If they do, I can follow their scent. The odor of Mother is very strong like nothing I’ve ever smelled or tasted but I will sniff out every tunnel,” Circinus reasoned.
“Then I will be right behind you!” Acacia wanted to back him up and not lose him.
Mother would have to take me first. The sooner or later my death awaits me.
The first tunnel smelled like water and fungi; the second tunnel smelled like earth; the third tunnel smelled like calcified bone; the fourth tunnel smelled like sea; the five tunnel scented of fresh air; the sixth tunnel scented of pine; and the seventh tunnel of young hatchlings and open air, and in the seventh tunnel, something metallic, almost like treasure—but mixed with blood, perhaps the blood of a newborn bird.
“My scent is obscured!”
“Circinus, how about we try every tunnel?” Acacia suggested.
“I’ve tried every tunnel and the only one I’m unsure about is the seventh! It smells of newborn blood. I’m sorry, but we have to head in.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, I wouldn’t be surprised if Anton Drought or Jan guarded these tunnels. Of course, I would save them if Mother guarded them of out appetite but if they were working together...who knows?”
“Circinus is right,” Andelko said with much bite. “You guard from the back, Acacia, I will guard front.”
The sound of dripping could be heard through every tunnel. The bones seemed just as strewn about as in every other tunnel. Acacia had the urge to kick them out of the way, but they made noise even under light tread.
Acacia thought whether or not she should extinguish her brazier but fire could also be used as a weapon, especially if the den contained twigs and straw.
I never did stop feeling claustrophobic on this journey.
All three persons and unicorns halted. After one profound crunch of brittle bone, a snoring, almost hissing, and wheezing sound echoed through.
I hope I didn’t set her off.
“Was that you?” Acacia asked Andelko. He didn’t answer.
Either he thought I was joking or my misstep caused Mother to stir, but I didn’t blame Andelko for his snoring or the bone.
Circinus ran with his only opportunity. If Mother became louder, either Circinus’s clacking hooves would have disturbed Mother’s dreams or she was at the end of her rest anyway.
Andelko and Acacia sprinted after him but it was far debilitating outrunning a unicorn, especially trapped between pockets of bone.
The wind and suffocation blew out the brazier. Acacia and Andelko were left in the dark—but it wasn’t much farther before they heard receding footsteps. Either Circinus stopped to rest or hide or the tunnel went deeper, or worse.
“Circinus?” Acacia didn’t speak very loudly for her friend because it would put everyone in danger and besides, the echoes carried her voice faster than running.
He signaled with a stomp of a hoof. Mother’s snoring stopped.
Andelko and Acacia followed the slope down to where Circinus stood—at the end of the tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel—light. The dome was the larger than any cathedral, stadium, or mausoleum Acacia had been to in her small town saturated with great learning.
My existence is so small...
And there she was! Not a serpent. Yes, her head stuck out of the dome ceiling, the source of the dim but piercing light that shone down in rays around the den. Around the den shone armor, jewels from the unicorn caves, gold, silver, but where were the weapons?
The first thing Acacia noticed was that of course, Mother was no serpent but her head rose like one. She was more elegant than imagined in the curve of her neck and the black and dirty beige feathers around her body. She didn’t seem to have legs, but they were under her large plumage.
Acacia did not dare say a word, but when Mother rolled into an elongated snore, she piqued, “Andelko, why, this isn’t a serpent. We have these back home, but none like her. Mother is a goose.”
“Look, around at these other tunnels,” Andelko pointed. There were six identical tunnels on the other side of Mother’s den. Also, there were piles of upheaved trees, logs, and heaps of straw.
It was still impossible to find the weaponry in all the chaos—above the tunnels, nearer the skylight, ancient windows, and lines of shelves, the remnants of older halls and chambers. A distant cry of gulls and crash of sea soared above Mother’s snoring.
Andelko and Acacia went to the far ends near the tunnels where armor was littered. Some looked ancient, others looked like the weapons used in Agora. Circinus waited by the far middle exit where he sniffed the air.
Andelko sifted through piles upon piles of gold, heaps upon heaps of straw to find nothing but a bag. Acacia decided to help him lift the sackcloth bag because either it was snagged under the weight of gold or heavy with armor. Acacia looked back at Circinus but he still guarded the entrance.
Finally, when the bag was free, Andelko heaved it over his shoulder. All was silent for a while. Acacia became so used to the vibrating snores they didn’t seem out-of-place at first, but one eye of Mother’s blinked open.
Run. There was no questioning Andelko’s stare.
Circinus tried to pull forward but he stood back as Andelko rushed closer. The head of the goose whipped back and the neck craned forward. The worst sound came through those snapping jaws.
Andelko swung on Circinus’s back. The weight was too much for him. Acacia was left hauling the bag of weapons which didn’t feel as heavy as it looked. Acacia decided to lighten the load, to Andelko’s chagrin, by emptying some weapons, but also to distract the goose with gold. She lanced an amulet back toward a diverting tunnel. Surely, Mother’s head flew down the tunnel in search of the shiny object but hissed in her wake.
Circinus galloped toward the sound of the ocean but the tunnel was not a straight path. Circinus scrambled up a slope but the earth was so dry and hard that he slipped on his side, rolling Andelko off before he clambered back on. The rest of the way was a steep incline right. The sound of snapping jaws pursued them from the back recesses. The jaws sounded farther off than they were. The bill, the nostrils, was right up on Acacia’s neck. She turned and rolled under Mother’s bill.
But this was a trap. Acacia tried to push the neck off but instead it let her go. Mother did tease. She snapped again. Acacia tried scrambling up the slope where Andelko hadn’t moved to protect Circinus or to protect Acacia. All were cornered. Andelko lowered himself down the slope and offered his hand to her. She shook her head and handed the bag of weapons to Andelko. Acacia never forgot her first batch of weapons she carried from Acropolis—a bow and arrow. She pointed the tip of the bow at Mother’s eye. Mother hissed and snapped again. Acacia found herself in a dark place that smelled faintly of moldy grass clippings. The teeth sunk into her thighs. A warm substance trickled down her thighs—maybe it was saliva, maybe blood, but either way she couldn’t move. The teeth which looked barely long enough to pierce a fish sunk deeper with a paralyzing shot of pain. The arrow still pointed, Acacia first aimed toward the ceiling—and then hit Mother between her eyes. She released the arrow and the teeth sunk no longer. She was still stuck and started to feel faint. There wasn’t enough light to know whether or not someone could black out, but the blood flowed through every limb in her body and she felt weaker. With the weakness came a sense of release.
An inescapable hiss released itself from the throat of Mother and sprayed on Acacia’s face. A high-pitched whine rang through Acacia’s ears. Droplets ran through the ceiling of Mother’s jaw and splashed on Acacia’s head. It was enough to keep Acacia alert as Mother was loosening her grip. Acacia felt herself falling back into the earth and into consciousness.
Andelko caught her but she was no more than a lifeless doll. Before Mother could attack again, Acacia dropped to the floor as Andelko brandished his weapon and advanced toward Mother. She hissed some more, nipped, snapped, and backed away. When Mother decided to take another jab at it, Andelko drew her back even further and suddenly, what became a hiss started to sound like a hoarse scream from a sore throat, and then the scream became a moan.
When Mother was well out of way, Andelko returned to Acacia who lay in a pool of blood. Her eyes did not move but Mother’s throat stretched forth a softer, more soothing moan, cooing and even wounded. Andelko hoisted Acacia atop Circinus and secured her using a lasso of rope around his hilt after wrapping her in a blanket from his pack.
He led Circinus out of the tunnel using the other remainder of his rope for Circinus the guide to clamp on since the slope was steepening. Up and right, left and down, the tunnels wandered again, and again until the soaring of gulls and sea were heard much clearer.
The sea became much clearer in sight, but the tunnel didn’t empty out onto shoals. The dead end was an empty chamber, long forgotten but filled with nostalgia. It was like the home where Andelko spent his early years.
Have I lived in time with the Old Rulers? Andelko thought. He spent his early years in towers that almost looked like palaces until his old family was forced to travel. He loved the freedom but missed the stability.
Now that he was getting older with the days, he wanted a home.
“I wonder what it was like in your home, Acacia. Please wake up and tell me all your exciting tales. You could remember a’ least one.”
Andelko looked down over what was once a window into the free sea. He turned around and assembled the task of releasing Acacia from Circinus’s back and laying her gently on the dirt floor. The clay was warm and supple.
Circinus nudged her head and breathed his warm, supple breath onto her. A breeze blew in from the sea. Andelko imagined a curtain in companion with the window and a bed under Acacia. He wanted the comforts more for Acacia than the comfort to satisfy his nostalgia.
He looked out once more over the bay and assessed whether he could jump. He looked once into the room. It was impossible to take a unicorn and a dying girl over the edge—and not to mention irresponsible.
But we can’t go back in once Mother has woken up. And her chicks are somewhere hatched.
“Circinus, I have to jump. But I can’t leave her.”
“Are you asking, Andelko, if I could take her back through the dim tunnels, by myself?”
“I’m asking for your help.”
Circinus looked from Andelko to the open sea air, uncertain. “It’s your turn, Andelko; escape. My nose never did fail. I know the way but it’s uncertain I should make any noise. I will go with Acacia and lead her to safer ground.”
“I’m uncertain whether I can make this height but I’ve fallen in worse waters, in darker times, from higher heights, well, they say the brine has healin’ properties. I will take her to my fall. The waters should be enlivening.”
“And I navigate back through the tunnels,” Circinus suggested. “You have capabilities that we unicorns don’t four feet on the ground or four feet off. Swim! I can find the exit out in which we came.”
“Why can’t you be more useful like a Pegasus?” Andelko asked.
“If those existed.” Circinus laughed then sighed.
Andelko balanced on the crumbling, mud-packed window sill. He pushed the bag of pillaged weapons over the edge first. Without the added weight it was easier to freefall hanging onto Acacia but after Andelko hit the water with a crash, Acacia awoke. Her eyelids shifted open but no other response came other than a wheezing, dry breath choked with water. Andelko still held onto her as he swam to shore. She stared into a vast nowhere.
Andelko waded to shore and placed her on the sand. He saw emptiness in her face—she felt emptiness. The cloudless sky whitened but Acacia wasn’t back to her usual senses. Andelko put pressure on her legs and tore a bit of his shirt to account for bandages. He placed a hand on her forehead. Her daze was interrupted by a squelching, heaving cough and with it came seawater and blood.
From a distance came the sound of many hooves.
For once, the friends thought they have failed but in place of this illusion thundered Circinus, guiding Chiron upon return. Behind Andelko, the weaponry bag lapped upon the rocks.
We can catch up with the others if Andelko didn’t lead me astray or we can return to Marko or the gypsies if we remember where to meet them, Acacia thought. I feel myself slipping again.
Andelko tied Acacia to Circinus again before tying the weapons to Chiron. He hopped onto Chiron to lead in direction of their original journey—to Phillipi, to battle, to follow the gypsies!
Just like I thought, Acacia sensed. Marko belongs where he is and I won’t bother Andelko about it. Just rest...
Kazimir greeted the captors with a long drop into the cell room from a shaft in the ceiling. A pang like venom shot through his leg.
My bone, my muscle...no my foot—all are broken.
Daphne dropped through the same shaft, careful to land near him and not nearly in the same position. She offered her hand to Kazimir and reluctantly he rose. With gaunt eyes, Acacia’s parents gazed like horses in a pen. The silence was rattling.
“Please, you stay here, dear Kazimir, and I’ll go find Jason. Better to find him unguarded than us.” Daphne suggested.
Kazimir could only nod in response to the growing wall between him and Acacia’s parents.
No key was in sight. Maybe that’s what Daphne came here to accomplish. But I? What do I say to these poor family members? How do I escape in case it’s Jan that returns and not Daphne? Ah, but better in here than the battlefield if I’m correct.
The glazed yet intense eyes of the Alexander’s bore through the bars of the cell. Kazimir released his thoughts and held out his hand like he would to a wounded animal in the pound.
“So, Acacia is out there in the great unknown. Without a toothbrush, eh?” came Mr. Alexander’s droll response despite his fatigue.
Kazimir’s gaze bore unblinking, “We must bring you to her. Only a mysterious friend knows where.”
Footsteps. The sound of metallic keys--rings...maybe--resounded through the corridors. How many footsteps, how many keys were there?
A cold stare answered him along with a warm hand centered over his mouth. The scholar did not protest--or blink.
The second pair of footsteps came.
“Daphne?” Only muffled sounds respired.
Daphne clamped her free hand over Jason’s mouth.
“I didn’t bring you to them; you brought yourself and that is something not even your wine could make you do.” Daphne spoke tersely to Jason.
A pair of hands touched Kazimir from behind making him jump and anchored him to the cell and before he saw it, Jason was flailing, kicking, and punching Grandmother Alexander. Jason gave one last kick and Daphne was left helpless on the floor.
No one was weaker, older, or younger in the battle. A grimace shone in Daphne’s eyes.
“Your father will hear about this,” and she raised her shaking fist in aim at Jason’s nose. Instead of being hit, Jason crashed to the floor in shock, grabbing Kazimir’s pant leg. One hand lay on his dagger. Jason remembered the battle training Ondrea taught him before the court case.
Where has he abandoned me? thought Jason. The better question is why?
Jason, daring to release Kazimir, brought his right fist to Daphne.
Grandmother waived the keys she stole while Jason was asleep and waved them in the air, bartering to let them go. Jason’s fist stopped before receiving the brutal stab of the key. Jason waved his dagger at Daphne, backing her into the door to the stairwell while he shut it behind him after Kazimir slipped in. Daphne waved her keys once more in his face, so close that her grayish-green eyes could see and feel his breath.
“You don’t need to let them go,” Jason reasoned. “You have them and if you tempt me, you are prisoner. If not here, then in my thoughts—they go with you.”
“I gave you everything; but yet you blame your problems on me as if I was your own.”
“I was yours!” Jason exclaimed. “More than any other child in town, but no more than Acacia. What has my family got to do with me?”
“But I never let you be prisoner.” Daphne came to a whisper. “You already had everything in the world.”
Fear and caution wear a mask on Daphne, thought Kazimir. But inside she is fearless. Then Kazimir thought up an idea.
“Jason,” whispered Kazimir. “Tell me a story, like the ones from our childhood.”
“Oh, stories are never the same as they were in childhood.”
“Then tell me the story of how Mr. and Mrs. Alexander lay prisoner.”
“Well, that, Kazimir, is easy. I went to the surface where Domain welcomed me. I led them to Acacia. They followed. We feasted. They never fought hard enough, not for her.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Jason whipped a flask from his belt loop and untwisted the cap, revealing a vinegar scent that smelled like something conjured, not at all like the rotten wine from Domain.
Kazimir grimaced. Even worse, the putrefied scent lasted longer on Jason’s breath.
“I’ll tell you what, grandson,” Daphne continued, “your father won’t hear of this but he will answer for this.”
“He won’t care to hear of this and he answers to no one!” Jason growled.
“Then you will answer to me! Yes, I will be your guardian, and if you want me to I will rule your subjects, take them as well for you have taken advantage of my good will and my gratitude toward my granddaughter.”
“And you threw away your position!”
This riled Kazimir. “Enough.” Each of them decided to go back into the stairwell.
Kazimir’s arms grabbed Jason in a chokehold. Daphne faltered with the keys that finally opened the gates and released Mrs. and Mr. Alexander into her arms as Jason writhed and thrashed. Kazimir screamed as the vinegar and wine solution was poured into his eyes. Jason tried to twist Kazimir into a chokehold as Daphne raced out the door into a two-way corridor, dark except for the pre-dawn eminence. A flight of stairs wound to the left, opposite the stairs Daphne climbed to fight the guards to find Jason who slept in his study.
Daphne pulled the Alexander’s to the farthest point of the tower facing the exit. More guards were stationed surrounding the tower. Daphne met the cross of their spears but ducked underneath, kicking the guards onto their hands and dismantling their weapons.
The weakened Alexander’s already had a head start crossing the bridge but farther up ahead, an enchanted mote of fire stopped them. Guards stationed on the outside bridge advanced toward them. There was no other way except to go back in the tower and help the still struggling Kazimir or jump off the side of the bridge. A set of flames appeared and engulfed the two guards, reducing them to charred flesh.
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander didn’t know whether to thank or curse the blaze that seemed to be raining in the sky and growing. It stopped the guards but blocked the Alexander’s escape. They had no choice but to wait for Kazimir. Kazimir came tumbling after, carrying the danger, the weapon, the new prisoner Jason, in his hands like a doll.
We can’t afford this prisoner but what will happen when he wakes? The conscious prisoner could be a danger to us for what he could do and for what his armies seek from him, and plus he would cost us time, but what could we do for him, what should we do to him? What would Daphne say? Kazimir feared his power-riddled speculations.
Acacia’s father started to look ablaze but newly impatient.
Wait—thought Acacia’s mother—how can we dispose of him?
No sooner had Kazimir peered at the flames and rolled Jason down the mote and into the river. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander looked at each other and then Kazimir who jumped in.
Mr. Alexander remembered on a restless night while being entranced by the moon after waking into full, clear consciousness, Jason’s twisted tales.
The waters were protected, and more so, enchanted and holy. But did I hear they were holy, poison, or both?
Mrs. Alexander became hypnotized by the circle of flames but what she stared at was a gap in the fortification seemingly pushed back by an invisible force.
Next to the brazened guards were gnarled and warped spears but Daphne held back for Kazimir. There was nothing in her place to do about the guards. Kazimir emerged on the other side of the mote nearest the second ring of flames. He pushed the bodies of the guard into the river and led the way through the gap in the fire as it closed more and more.
Mr. Alexander silently thanked their brutal rescuer.
“I’m a healer but I’m not always proud. Those guards will awaken and they will remember their death if the water is lucky and heals them. Jason is unconscious but the motes are protected and he will bear his guards eventually.”
Mr. and Mrs. Alexander were covered in soot and ashes like the guards as they fled. The flame of the rising sun mixed with the blaze, lighting the way East. Apprentice Kazimir led the way.
Water, white-hot sky, cool, damp earth, cool, damp and clammy breath of a strange creature—dizziness, chaos, disorientation. What is past and present? Acacia asked herself. I fear them and the future. Nothing makes sense. Order does not make sense.
Her eyes shifted into focus. Andelko, even his face changed. More battered, sun-worn and bruised, older and saltier, saltier but wiser, just like him. Chiron took a liking to him, haven’t you Chiron?
The sun felt warmer than the hot, blowing wind but some other sensation could not get away from Acacia’s skin. A burn.
And it’s only dawn. How long was my dreamless dream? This state I’m in.
Andelko had been so accustomed to the featurelessness and uneventfulness of the trip he almost had not noticed Acacia’s stirring.
“Heaven’s sake, I haven’t been more worried all my life, and do I ever worry?”
“No?” Acacia really didn’t have the answer. “Where am I?”
Andelko stopped Chiron and Circinus. He lifted her off Circinus and placed her on the ground. A vast expanse greeted the morning and finally gave her order in addition to awe. For miles and leagues could be seen. A haze lifted unearthing a pocked land of lakes. Surrounding those island lakes ancient, crumbling towers, dotted the land in-between. Yet squinting further, there was a sight she didn’t trust. Even in demolition, they could stand in beauty. Slithering and snaking in and out of those lakes were long necks and tales filled with scales. Their bodies were blacker than night but once they touched the sun, their scales shone like the unicorn caves around the fire.
Like the rainbow ravens we used to color over in black in elementary school, Acacia thought, their feathers, or scales, truly reveal something underneath.
“Yes,” Acacia jumped at the sound of a human voice.
Clearly, I have been quiet too long to remember a voice. Or he read me.
“Those were the sea serpents I rode as a kid. They were gentler toward those they knew. I couldn’t live with them though.”
The words wouldn’t come. “I felt the same way. You can’t always belong with those you can trust.” I thought I spoke too soon.
“I don’t know if that’s what I meant but you’re right. I chose a different path and it gave me back to the same place.”
The emotion in Andelko’s voice made Acacia feel anxious yet free, a weird nauseous mix that failed description. Edge and catharsis rose from her.
“It would’ve been my time to die. It would’ve been easier...except...I wouldn’t be able to see this. How gladly and deathly afraid I am to meet them.”
“You are not fit yet to ride them, but don’t be afraid of their glances.”
“Should I?” her concern rose.
“If I shouldn’t; should not you?” His old smile returned to his cheeks.