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Chapter 9: Wilderness

The heat suffocated Acacia, drilling her forward. She felt all too willing in Kazimir’s errand but knew he had efforts beyond her control in Acropolis. The town fared her goodbyes as the rocky outcroppings became gauzy with haze and Acacia neared the forests without instruction or knowledge. You could hear lutes, but it melded into the tinkering of the wood with clandestine noises of birds and insects resounding like cymbals from the gypsies of Acropolis. If only she didn’t have to leave her temple sanctuary to find Jason; whatever creature might have found her in the city, she ventured staying at temple was wiser. As long as Jason stayed in Acropolis after she captured him, under temple watch and kept his surrender, it wasn’t her quarrel to seek and make alliance with a town she barely knew. However, the thing she guarded most wasn’t her safety but her abilities and the lead-laden bow and arrow. The tall, lush trees clouded the night, giving her seclusion.

She found in this newest sanctuary the imagining of Kazimir patiently waiting, and his image gave her company by the fireplace in the center of the clearing. His warmth was stronger than the fire of Daphne, but he still had an air of cool, grounded thoughtfulness only meant to steady his passions and blazing presence. As she looked up at the stars, they looked ten times brighter, like someone sent away millions of lanterns. Maybe there was a single star for everyone who existed on Earth, or in Acropolis, or even in the stretches of unknown space. Some people we will never meet, she thought, but somehow, we are connected through another, even by an imprint such as a star as our destinies are imprinted by some outside force of other connected worlds.

She remembered Kazimir’s telescope he found in Acropolis last night and his mirthful words: “Look through and you will see our existence, where we are. Therefore, are we.” The apparition through the telescope appeared to be an orb with a churning red surface as if someone had boiled blood. She had seen something similar to the swirling globe, but nothing so dangerous up close. Kazimir narrated the constellations, giving the stars names, stories, and personalities. They even had music which Acacia could hear as the sounds of the village faded into glimmers of high-pitched whistles, their harmonies beaconing in and out like far-away chimes. One story spoke of a hunter who had fallen prey to a siren only to lose a fight with a unicorn. Others were more soothing and haunting like the parable about a star that had fallen to lead the famous sailor Anthony back home.

Out of the reaches of her earth, time elapsed even more, and she would wonder if everyone and everything she fought for would be futile if it came to ruins. Acacia couldn’t see the time but there was hope a citizen in the next village could give her the hour. However, in this new but old world, time was relative. She wanted to think of Conrad if only his image wouldn’t haunt her. The fire was a hypnotizing tune and sight although it would be much easier to sleep to the sound of lyre and mandolin. Yet she failed to find a reason for distraction considering Conrad’s death. Death’s course flowed differently in Acropolis, but the consequences remained death.

Acacia instead thought of the constellations and learned from their instructions according to Kazimir. The compass she packed in Kazimir’s leather duffel was not alone and neither was she. Acacia dozed off into the fire, sleeping on the pine needle floor, the closest thing to her mattress, and rested her head on the luggage of very small necessities.

While asleep, the world became the red orb in the sky, or what it appeared to be. The inferno blazed without a spark and only some rising mist of smoke came from the ground. The earth illuminated with crimson clay. Flashing white thoroughbreds ran either from the mist or into it. They raced so fast that only their tails and flanks were visible. Soon she was so unsure of time and place even direction was lost and soon she was surrounded. Her mind elevated into the smoke as the sky became brighter and reason flooded in like vertigo. Her consciousness came with the morning sun. It was still so early, but it felt too late.

The Sun only meant to keep things going, not only keep things alive, she philosophized bleakly. Acacia removed as much traces as possible from her campsite and packed for the next village forgetting the dream.

Only nine leagues were away by estimation until arrival. Elderberries, wood strawberries, currents, black walnuts, and tubers would be provisions when she ran out of supplies. Fresh water was harder to come by when the pristine streams were poisoned with spells. The only way you could tell which waters were spell-free was to gaze into them until they disappeared. She remembered this from Daphne and hated the fact that any water could dry up and thought there should be a way to free the spells.

Was the water just invisible or did it dry up along with other rumors? If I go to sea maybe the water, there is safe to drink...or deadly. Also, why chance being caught by fishers and their scoping glasses?

Slowly the land became divided in Acacia’s viewpoint, but quickly she was unaware of the worlds’ affairs. More in tune with the pine, the honeysuckle, and the small burrowers she became and as unaware as aware.

Why can’t everyone just spread out into this diluted Nature, live in the forest and peaceably leave the withered path? No distractions, only new beginnings. Would nature be itself if we inhabited it? No trouble or more...less I think it would be only if people learn from their seclusion, she answered herself. I would be first if willing to live here.

The journey on foot the second day was exhorting, and Acacia had still four more days to traverse. She pondered other modes of transportation. I could build a canoe or a raft. Hollowing out the logs with hot coals might take longer, but perhaps I could tie a few logs with rope in another day’s notice. I would stand out perchance, but I could change my appearance once I get to the next town and buy a batique headscarf. They never taught me back home how to create a guise. Avoiding assassins is something not taught at Domain Private University.

Never once she thought to stop and rest for fear of falling asleep. Without the image of Kazimir or Conrad other reflections came to mind.

Back in the town of Capital Domain, she never thought about others’ affairs as much when the townspeople only thought about their own. Acacia desperately wanted to drown out all evil and self-centeredness, but she didn’t know if the desire would eradicate it, even if the little drama she stirred in herself might be spared—the worries mustered themselves even when put out of mind. Here she actively sought involvement with the unknown world of which she felt so connected if only to make up lost heroism. The faster the past swept in, the swifter Acacia’s stride.

Acacia had knowledge of all the old fables and epics from bonfire days but little knowledge of the way Acropolian magic worked. The epics of the new age were easy to come by, but lots of plots were hidden with Jason. He was a storyteller and had the power of twisting tales to benefit his plot.

Jason hopefully went in exile near the next town, but if not, warriors and poets, even merchants, could spell clues. This time she put aside heroism and wished for a star to guide her to Jason, and finally, bring both of them back to Domain. She did not know where she belonged, and despite all the magic, Acacia felt only immigration papers would let her decide which world was more promising—immigration papers hopefully to be inaugurated by Grandmother Daphne.

Acacia found a hot spring for sanctuary on the seventh day. After she covered herself with her white blanket and decked her head in flora worn by the high priests—branches of elderberry and olive—she bathed herself in the sanctuary—clothed in cleansing steam—after drinking from the long sought-after water. Surprisingly, after repeated attempts of dunking her head beneath the surface, the water neither refracted or disappeared. The only sight was the blur in her eyes. The only music of the deep wood was the gurgling of the spring.

Then out of the canopy, a gust carefully careened through the avenues of the branches toward the spring, blowing leaves like the signaling of autumn, and out of the canopy a light shone but did not pervade the cool dank of the understory enough to see a single stone. Whether the wind was propelled by the sun or hiding from it, she couldn’t guess clearly, but it gave her a resonating, refreshing feeling and either presence of the wind spirits was not left implacable, but reassuring. Some light beams penetrated and danced in the fountain spring she couldn’t tell was man-made or not.

Slowly the sounds of the stars like the clinking of chimes flooded in like a distant reminder. One last gulp of the spring was enough to keep her head clear, but the coolness did not wash away yester-week’s dreams. Her eyes shone clearly, and her throat was quenched with needed fire. She couldn’t clear her eyes sufficiently without seeing the haze and mist that soon formed into burning white shapes.

The shapes came closer; their long hair flowing in the breeze, their stance wild, and their eyes held curious expressions. The white shapes’ elegantly wild struts did not subdue the sound of their heavy, barbaric snorting. Two voices then broke the air.

“She doesn’t smell like our tribe.”

“Oh, she doesn’t? And how do you know it is not a he?”

“I know these things, Circinus, because I can smell. You couldn’t track a fly.”

“Hello, don’t step any closer; I know you have been watching me, and there is no need to be vexed. I am only a messenger.” Acacia grabbed onto her golden bow, seized her quiver, and then crouched in the spring. She would not last anywhere in history if the horned deceivers took her down before the next town because these tribesmen wore a fierce veil however thin their veil may be.

“I know messengers. I have hundreds. Circinus is my guide. He is also my messenger.” He turned to snort at Circinus.

“Listen,” Acacia chided, “I don’t mean to interfere with your journey, but I’ve been lost on my own seven days in counting.”

The large horse hummed eloquently, “Would you like to be my new messenger?”

“I’m sorry,” Acacia hesitated then added cautiously, “it wouldn’t be my appointed duty, because I’m only a warrior, and besides, I wouldn’t know how to go about being a messenger, and no offense, a messenger to a stranger like you.” She stared dauntingly at the tall, obscured figures. “Besides, I thought you had hundreds.”

“I have hundreds, yes, and Circinus here, he is my favorite.” He turned again and puffed at Circinus. The leader mused but suddenly appeared downcast despite his usual unmoving visage. “My uncle is only a warrior. Methinks he is brave enough to be my messenger.” He lowered his noble mane. “Yes, me think so.”

Acacia slowly dropped her bow beneath the water. “Well if Circinus there is strong enough to be both your guide and messenger, sure I can be your messenger. I need direction from both of y’all to get to the next town.”

The full forms of the two adventurers appeared, clearly not apparitions, and clearly not a human in guise, but a different type of horse. Their fur was the silkiest and whitest of any she had seen at the farms in Domain and each horse had a pearly horn protruding from their elongated foreheads. The horns had leafy, veiny webbing running up and through the spiral, cone-like protrusions. They had the two most enormous hooves of all the Clydesdales in Domain, especially the leader, and they were adorned with hair at the ankles like festive winter boots.

“I have never seen anything like you in Domain, or at least I think...where I belong, or in seven days I’ve been traveling. What do they call your tribe, come again?”

“They call us unicorn,” spoke the leader, “and they also call me Chiron.” He stepped closer, intimidatingly.

“I can’t believe no one has taught you that,” Circinus made a whinny; Acacia guessing it to be snicker. Circinus and Chiron bowed to drink from the spring.

The stallions were surprisingly tame when Circinus lowered his mane again to allow Acacia to stride on his back. Acacia did not know whether Circinus meant a chivalrous bow or whether he meant to suggest riding on his back. Without knowing anything about the elusive pair, she rose out of the hot spring and skillfully jumped on Circinus’s back anyway. Living in Domain, Acacia learned to trot, canter, and ride bareback, along with archery, botany, and astronomy at the local college and public one-room schoolhouses. Everything else, including her studies, was instinct.

“What brings you at the head of the forest?” her new guide asked.

“I’m sure it’s information not surreptitious.” Acacia was curious of any myths, conjured or otherwise.

“It’s not information we’ve gathered, it’s certain, for the forest communicates all things,” he sang annoyingly.

At least I’m not too far from my Daphne. Help me, appear at any moment!

“Then the forest has been guiding me this entire time but perhaps in an unwanted direction.” Acacia tried to appear on her best behavior.

“The more time away you spend from Domain—I think that name sounds familiar—the cleverer you become! Yet I wouldn’t warrant going without a guide or without faith in confidence.”

“Oh, well, thank you, but wait until I get even cleverer. What awaits your journey then?”

“I believe you haven’t told us what awaits you,” Chiron mediated. “The forest speaks for itself, but it also holds many secrets. It’s undeniable you have been looking for a former friend. Tell me, what brings you so far in search of a friend?”

“It’s kind of embarrassing, and I’m quite shocked even that my grandmother and I told you, if we did knowingly,” and I’m shocked enough to speak to a horse. She almost resisted the gossip, “but seeing as there is no escaping each other, I’ll divulge. This friend of a cousin is, like the forest, also very secretive. I didn’t know this place existed until we went into a legal battle.” The creatures raised a few horse eyebrows.

“I had sights of this place in my dreams, woven from stories my will-giver and grandmother, Daphne, told me before she disappeared. Not just I, but my close friends and family. Our town is very tight-knit and although we keep secrets, our secrets are not tight. I am very close with my cousin too though it doesn’t seem that way with the current situation. You will soon find out that I used to be close to this person, Janus, whom I am seeking as I am also seeking my cousin that ran off who might be abounding with him as he is bounded to him.”

Chiron and Circinus did not expect such oration from the arbitrary traveler.

“I’ve only been as far as Scholar’s Cove, but Jan, I have heard of him. The majestic bard...who knew he could be so secretive?”

Right, majestic. Right, secretive!

Chiron grunted and heaved a sigh of deep thought. “He traveled with our band once and told stories like the hunter who lost a battle with a unicorn, only after falling prey to a siren. Has the forest spoken it to you before?”

“Chiron, I am not sure the forest can tell me everything—or anything—though I’ve heard it whisper warnings told of my elders. I thought those were just recollection dreams. Funny how it told you of Jan’s majesty.”

“Oh, most certainly it cannot!” he expressed a louder grunt.

“But I am certain my friend, Kazimir, the high priest of Acropolis told me the same story.”

Circinus ruffled his mane. “I might guess your journey is not migratory, but still guided by the same source, meaning we must find Jan who knows many tales.”

“He knows many tales and many myths, but we must protect the land first and that’s the only purpose so far as I see.”

“Acacia...” a low rumble appeared nearby.

“Was that you that said my name Chiron?”

“I hoped that we could find you.” Acacia felt a chill ripple down Circinus’s spine. His electricity vibrated through her mind and reverberated through the forest. Old tears threatened her eyes. Her faults were bare, yet she felt comforted by the knowing creatures. “I hoped your name was not of myth.”

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