Acacia: A Diverted Arrow
It was winter in the south. The sort of winter that trees bowed over with ice until they snapped in half and people lost their lives for venturing past the city walls during cloudy days. And every warhound worth it’s bite was howling louder than usual, as if the cold awakened something ferocious in them.
Acacia could feel it too. There was a sting in her lungs as she marched out of the city gates towards the stables in her hunting gear. Despite how sunny it was, the cold sunk through leather and fur to steal what little warmth she had remaining. She couldn’t resist it, though. There was something invigorating about hunting in the dead of winter. Snow somehow offered a stillness, a quiet tranquility she couldn’t find anywhere else.
The horsemaster caught sight of her approach and tossed a hand her way. She thought at first it was a sign of greeting but when he moved towards her gelding she knew the old man had a favor to ask.
“Headed out again already?”
“At least til the storages are full.” She raised the longbow into view to give him an idea of her task.
She greeted her horse, her palm cupping around the soft velvet of his nose then downwards along the soft hide of its neck. “Ir’vaqur, ready for the hunt?”
“If you’ve got time...” The old man hesitated in his request, choosing to search the stable walls for the horse’s reins instead of asking her directly.
Acacia chuckled under her breath. “Alright, what is it?”
“I’ve got a horse that needs some training.”
She turned her attention to the saddle, hoisting it up onto the gelding’s back and strapping it comfortably into place. “Isn’t that your job, Fa’lar?” She tossed him a quick grin before stocking the saddle bags with supplies for the long winter hunt.
“My job is procuring the best horses for Ta’nes,” he retorted. “This young one is wilder than most horses. Not as easy a task.” He looked at her from across the saddle, though, nodding slightly in understanding. “If you have time.”
She wasn’t against helping the stables. She was always willing to lend a hand to anyone who needed it. Ta’nes was built on community. Without a strong community, winter was long and wars were brutish. But she was against having more tasks thrown at her than she could finish. And it seemed like the stables and the kennels were always begging her for extra support.
Her lips curled into a smirk in a way as not to offend the old man. “Don’t you have stable hands running around somewhere?”
“We both know you’re better than them at training horses.”
“And,” added another as he rounded the corner, “you’re the best we’ve got.”
“Darius,” Fa’lar chastised the younger man.
Darius leaned his arms over the stalls open gate doors. “The hounds take to her just as well,” he reasoned. “Should have just put her in charge of all the beasts.”
“They like me because I’m nice. You should try it.” Acacia smirked then sighed overdramatically. “Don’t tell me you’re here for a favor too.”
“Now that you mention it...”
Before she could even think of a witty retort, her older brother’s voice boomed her name. She stepped out of the stables just as he was hobbling downhill towards them. He was darker than Acacia, taking after their mother, especially in the eyes. But he was wide shouldered and tall like their father. An imposing man to stand next to.
“Farris,” she stated but whatever retort she was planning fell flat at the sight of her shield.
Her older brother was taller than her and he could swing a heavier sword. But he wasn’t even half as skilled at using a shield. He always looked clownish holding them, awkward and uncertain. “What’s this about?”
“Hunting’s been postponed.” He held out the long metal shield in slight distaste and she took it from him rather hastily.
It had been their grandfather’s back during the war. It was dented in some places, scratched, but otherwise pristine. It was perhaps her most prized possession and she often griped anytime someone handled it.
“Who decided that?”
“I did.” Farris held out her sword as well. “We need to patrol the northern ridge. Farmers said they saw something suspicious.”
She took her sword from him a little less enthusiastically. “Isn’t that what city guards are for?”
“You mean scouts,” he cheekily countered. “Scouts first then warriors.”
She fastened the sword’s belt around her waist with a roll of her eyes. She scoffed as a haughty smirk spread wide on her face. “Then what does that make you?”
Darius snorted at that which promptly drew Acacia’s annoyed glare.
The horsemaster nodded fiercely and went on his way, muttering under his breath, “If you’ve got time...” He somewhat slapped Darius on the back then dragged him away by his collar.
Acacia sighed before leading the gelding out of its stall and hoisting herself into the saddle. Her plans of a long quiet hunt were completely ruined. She would bet that the farmers didn’t see anything. They were always getting frightened by their own stories. Ghosts and demons. Sometimes monsters. By everytime Acacia was sent to look into matters, there was never anything serious.
Farris jumped into the saddle of his own horse. “It’s probably nothing,” he agreed, seeing her annoyance between her furrowed brows. “But just in case, we have to take a look.” The sternness in his expression quickly softened to a wide grin. “Race you to the woodline?”
Before she could answer, Farris was already spurring his steed towards the hills. She was a better rider than him. Better rider than most. Somehow, she always knew how to coax whatever steed she was riding into being a little faster and work a little harder. But she always felt guilty in the end.
She muttered under her breath, to no one in particular except save the horse, “The point of a patrol is to catch bandits... He’s just going to scare them off.” She encouraged the gelding to follow after him, down the slopes towards the fields where the woods were on the opposite side. It was hard to believe with all the snow that months ago the fields were sprawling with lavender. The aroma had been so strong it permeated every road through the city and even reached up the steps of the citadel.
Above a hawk soared across a cloudy gray sky. But then she looked again, trying to make out the oddness of its shape. Dragon, she wondered. It was rare but on occasion they flew through the area. It wasn’t serpentine enough to be a dragon. She could make out the dark wings but it looked human. Were those arms and legs?
“Farris!” She pulled tightly on the horse’s reins, forcing the gelding to a halt. She needed to see it clearer but the clouds darkened the sky too much and she could only make out a strange silhouette. “Farris, wait!”
Her brother swerved his racing steed to turn then slow to a staggering halt. His attention swept from Acacia to the sky where her eyes were focused. “Harpy! Hurry.” Farris threw his attention back at her. “We have to shoot it down before it reaches the citadel. Or before it returns to its flock.”
Harpy. The word seemed unreal. No one had seen one in over a decade. Every grizzly warrior who fought in the war couldn’t stop talking about them, though. ‘Those damn Arpaeians,’ they’d say followed by ‘murderers’ and ‘monsters’.
She rushed to grab an arrow from her quiver and notch it into her bow. She pulled the arrow back to the corner of her mouth, eyes desperate to make out the creature’s unusual form. She had to hit it somewhere critical if she hoped to take it out of the sky. But it looked so incredibly human. She could make out human feet. Talons at the end of them but human all the same.
“Acacia!” Farris growled through clenched teeth. His hands were turning white and he was nearly jumping out of his saddle. “Quickly!”
Her eyes fluttered shut just as she caught sight of her grandfather’s shield and the bear carved into the metal. She let the arrow slip through her fingers but not before tilting her bow slightly downwards. She looked between Farris’s stiff shoulders and distorted expression to the arrow as it whistled downwards into the hills below.
The Arpaeian glanced at them briefly, its wings swinging back hard until its body stopped short in the air. It swerved away from them back towards the woods where it had flown from.
“Damn it, Acacia!” Farris gave a low groan. He rammed his boots into the side of his horse until it was nearly jumping down the hill into the woodlands. Acacia followed pursuit, heart hammering with fear. She watched her older brother tug the ram’s horn from his saddle and press it against his lips. He blew hard until a high wailing sound filled the hillside and woodlands.
Its wings were faster than their horses. The woods were slow to navigate through and the branches were thickening the further they went. Farris lost confidence in the chase, his horse slowing as he searched the dark landscape for some sign of the creature.
Another horn somewhere further in the woods called out. They were calling for help.
Acacia spurred her horse towards the sound, faster and faster, out racing her brother and whoever else might have heard the call. She was trembling though. Her whole body was filling up with a sickening adrenaline that pooled sweat along her spine.
Her horse swerved sharply, mud and grass flying through the air the deeper they went into the woods. She caught sight of the small mob and jerked the horse’s reins back. She just barely managed to steady the gelding before leaping from the saddle and rushing down a small slope to see the Arpaeian for herself.
She had heard stories and even seen a few sketches of the infamous monsters. They were always depicted with large owlish eyes and beaked noses with jagged teeth.
Acacia couldn’t quite make out what was happening. They were all in a frenzy, shouting as they fought against the writhing Arpaeian. When her eyes met the Arpaeian’s her feet stumbled weakly to a halt. It was brief, a few moments, but it had been enough. He looked human. She might not have even known he was Arpaeian if she hadn’t seen him flying overhead.
The guards pinning him down shoved his face into the dirt. She caught a glimpse of black feathers right before she was jerked around to look Farris dead in the eyes.
He growled a sound she’d never heard from him before, “What were you thinking?”
“My horse moved-”
“Bullshit. I know you missed it on purpose.” His whole face seemed to be twisting tighter with anger. “I’ve seen you take down smaller prey. Your hesitation could have gotten people killed.”
She sucked a sharp breath down through her teeth. “Grandfather wouldn’t have thought so.”
Farris shoved her back towards her horse. “Go back and alert the guard captain. They need to prepare a prison cell.”
She turned on her heels and climbed the small slope to her waiting mount. As a scream of pain filled the air, she jolted her gaze back to the chaotic scene. The mob seemed to be shoving his face into the dirt while another tied ropes around its massive wings. She could an outstretched arm clawing at the earth in an attempt at freedom.
Acacia’s stomach turned sickeningly.
“Acacia,” Farris hissed.
She pried her attention away. She hurried into the saddle and spurred the horse back towards Ta’nes. It was hard to process what she’d seen. Everyone she had ever talked to called the Arpaeians monsters. They told horror stories about them around fires, in taverns, on hunting trips... Only her grandfather had ever talked about their beauty. He had called them intelligent and wise.
Everyone said the old man had been bewitched but Acacia fell in love with his stories about them. And now, after seeing one for herself, she felt conflicted. If what her grandfather said was true, then how could he be right and everyone else wrong?
She quickened their pace once the steed broke through the woodline. In the distance, the white and gray walls of Ta’nes seemed to melt into the winter landscape. At its highest point, crumbling spired and stone towers were weathered with age. And among those towers was the capital’s citadel, a profound relic of wartime. Surrounding the citadel was a city of dark rooftops that looked more like mountains than buildings.
The guard captain was already at the gates when she arrived. She leapt from the saddle just as the stablehand rushed to meet her. He took the gelding’s reins as she grabbed her gear.
“We heard the call.”
“Captain.” She approached the waiting group with her bow and shield in hand. “An Arpaeian was taken down. Farris believes we need to prepare a cell.”
The captain’s eyes swept over the tops of the woods, searching for another monster. He nodded a few times but he didn’t quite look at her.
The emptiness in his expression softened as his lips pulled into a wide grin. He gave a nod to his waiting guards and they immediately set off towards the citadel. He peered back at her. “You aren’t scared, are you, little cub?” He slapped his hand down on top of her head and the softness of her short, black curls.
She pushed his hand away. “I’m the best soldier you’ve got.”
He snorted but he didn’t argue with her. “You’re good at dueling, I’ll give you that. Now, war? That’s all luck, little cub.” The humor seemed to be melting and it took everything in him to keep his grin. “Speaking of dueling, your younger siblings could use some advice from their more experienced sibling. Why don’t you go check in on them?”
“Yes, Captain.” She locked her eyes on his and pressed her hand against her heart in salute. She stepped past him into the massive city’s marketplace. She had the urge to take another look at the woods before getting too far but she forced her attention forward.
It was a monster, she reasoned. Why else would an entire nation go to war with them? There were countless tales of children being kidnapped by the Arpaeians. There were tales that the creature’s song could lull people into a mindless state, ripe for the taking. Of course, she also knew that stories could get over exaggerated with time so she always took them with a grain of salt.