Acacia: Crossing Borders
Early morning dew collected along her skin and hair. The scents of cedar were a welcoming comfort, despite the cold nip in the air. Acacia slept countless nights in the woods. She found that time among nature was refreshing. It always cleaned away whatever troubles weighed her down inside the city walls of Ta’nes.
This time, as her attention fell on the Arpaeian, she knew it would take more than a night in the woods to erase her worries.
He looked healthier, though. The tan in his complexion was returning to his face. And with luck, he would have enough strength to continue their journey north.
For a moment, she wondered if he could continue without her. She wanted to check on her family, to at least let them know she was alive. She wanted to ask her father about the strange things Baerister told her about.
But part of her wanted to keep journeying north, to see the border wall for herself. She wanted to see beyond Ta’nes. In truth, she wanted to learn more about Baerister and his people.
Her grandfather’s stories were right so far. How could she turn back without seeing things through?
Acacia forced herself to her feet. She groaned as her stiff back protested. Resting all night against a tree hadn’t been the best idea.
She floundered towards the gelding and grabbed her waterskin from the nearby saddle. She moved through the trees with Ir’vaqur towards the sounds of a brook. Mist hung lazily between the trees, making the already white snow glisten with ice.
They reached the stream, finding it rather small. But the water was moving and from what she could tell, the area nearby was clean. There were a few animal tracks in the mud where they stopped to get a drink.
Ir’vaqur lowered his head and greedily drank down the water.
“If it’s good enough for you,” she reasoned and filled the water skin. She guzzled as much as she could. But it was icy going down her throat and she could feel it in the pit of her stomach. It would have been better to warm it with a fire but they simply didn’t have the luxury.
Water was water, she told herself and refilled it a second time.
She trudged back to the small meadow with Ir’vaqur. The sun was just beginning to skirt the horizon and cast beams of light through the trees. They would need to get moving as soon as possible if they wanted to keep ahead of the hunting party.
Baerister was already awake when she made it back. He was rolling up onto his knees. With help from the tree he slept against, he managed to get to his feet. He was hunched over, his wings fell around him like a black cloak. “We have to move.”
Acacia held out the slushing waterskin and gave a firm nod. “Let me get the horse saddled. Drink some water first.”
He was slow to take it, every movement seemed to strike across his expression painfully. But he drank down as much water as he could while Acacia heaved the saddle onto the gelding. She ensured everything was back in its proper place.
“We will be unable to pass through the border directly.” Baerister used the trees as support as he shuffled through the meadow. “They will be looking for you and will kill me on sight.”
“What’s our plan then?” Acacia led the gelding closer to his side and helped hoist him into the saddle.
He wasn’t hunched over as much as the day before so she knew the medicine was working. He was able to grip the saddle horn and keep his balance fairly well.
“There is a canyon that smugglers use to sneak across the border. Thus far, the guards do not know about it. We might be able to get north through there.”
“Smugglers?” Her brow peaked. “And you know this because...”
“Everyone north of here knows. It is not so much a secret as it is a story.” He gripped his ribs with one of his hands and heaved down a breath. “Anyone brave enough to travel south for business goes through that canyon.”
Acacia felt the same uneasiness rise. Ta’nes in her eyes was a home, a tight knit community that worked together to stay safe. She worked fields with farmers and helped blacksmiths carry supplies. Everyone pitched in to help each other with even the smallest tasks. How could they have turned their backs on their own king and waited for a war that was already declared finished.
Acacia rubbed her hands along her face and returned her focus to the situation at hand. “Alright. Where’s this canyon?”
“Northwest of here.” He let out a groan but nodded his head in determination. “We can follow the base of the mountains until we reach it.”
Acacia pulled herself into the saddle with him. “Hold on. I’ll try to get us there as fast as possible. I don’t want them to track us until we’re far enough away.”
His arms slipped around her waist without further discussion.
The gelding jolted into a steady gallop through the woodlands, weaving through trees and the further they went the more spacious the woods became. She got so caught up in trying to navigate the landscape that she forgot entirely about Baerister’s story and the Ta’nesian soldiers hunting them. She cleared her mind and allowed herself some semblance of peace as they sped along.
It was hours before they reached the base of the mountain ridge. They climbed a well worn path that snaked the side of the mountain. When the path grew narrow, she slowed the gelding to an unsteady trot.
She glanced back at Baerister. He wasn’t as bright and refreshed as he had been that morning. He was slowly losing color again. The weight of his head pressed against her shoulder. Despite the wintry season, Baerister’s feathers smelled of flowers and sweet honey.
She placed a palm against her forehead and then his. He was hot, feverish again. The medicine was wearing off. They needed to stop somewhere soon but the path was too narrow.
Acacia quickened Ir’vaqur’s pace. The moved further up the side of the mountain but her hears pricked at an unfamiliar sound. She saw it then, through the waist of tree, and over the edge of a cliff.
A wall spanded between two mountain ridges. On either side were statues of warriors, their shields posted in front of them. They wore helmets and armor, same as Ta’nesian warriors. She couldn’t make out the rest of the details from her position on the path. But she could see the wall was double enforced and manned by a garrison of soldiers. On the far end of the wall, she could make out what looked like people’s homes carved into the mountainside.
Her next breath felt strange, like feathers caught in her lungs.
“Baerister was right,” she told Ir’vaqur. “That’s too well armoed for a checkpoint, don’t you think?”
The horse whinnied and continued up the winding path.
Acacia focused on the path, on the wind rolling down the mountain and the branches creaking above them. The sun’s light tried to break through the blanket of gray clouds. She focused on the birds chattering. She focused on anything but the dark questions in the back of her mind, clawing for attention.
Finally after following the curving mountain range, she just barely caught sight of the canyon’s entrance. It was wide enough for perhaps two horses to pass through side by side. Or a small caravan of smugglers.
Acacia eased out of the saddle and led the horse towards the shadowy entrance. She craned her head back to take in the sheer wall of cliffs on either side of the path.
But once they reached the canyon’s entrance, Ir’vaqur stopped. She tugged the gelding’s reins harder but the horse grumbled and refused. His nostrils flares and his eyes widened in fear.
A chill ran down her spine.
She jolted her gaze to Baerister but he was unconscious and she was fairly certain it hadn’t been his voice. She looked around the canyon and then the woods behind them. She didn’t see anyone but she definitely heard someone.
Her chest tightened with her next breath. Something was watching them. Her hunter’s instincts told her as much. Her gaze roved over the tan cliff sides, searching for any signs of movement. But the sky was dark with clouds and what little light poured through sent shadows dancing across the stone.
Acacia gently squeezed Baerister’s shoulder. She kept her voice low and her eyes on the cliffs above them. “Something’s here. We have to race to the other side. Do you think you can handle it?”
Baerister’s breath stuttered out of his lungs as he nodded. He tried sitting up but it was clear he wasn’t strong enough.
She groaned with indecision. If they raced through the canyon, the winds would rip his wings apart and pull him right out of the saddle.
As she looked about the canyon one more time, it was impossible to make out anything clear. The shadows and rocks looked oddly like the outlines of something and the more she starred the more monsters her mind began to conjure up.
Baerister grunted as he sat upright, the word hissing through his teeth, “Hurry.”
Acacia hoisted herself into the saddle in front of him. “Hold on to me and don’t let go.” She gently leaned forward and calmly spoke to the gelding, “We have to go forward now. Be swift and we’ll make it through.” She urged the horse forward.
Ir’vaqur stepped into the canyon unsteadily, a slow and nervous gate.
Baerister’s feverishly hot hands gripped at Acacia’s waist.
The gelding slowly picked up speed. A trot quickened to a gallop. Ir’vaqur’s breathing grew louder, matching in rhythm with Baerister’s in her ear.
His fingers began digging into her skin as the horse rocked wildly underneath them. His pain must have risen up in short bursts because his grip tightened each time.
Acacia glanced back at him. His eyes were clenched shut and his wings were flailing through dirt and rocks then snapping up into the wind. He was sweating profusely and his skin was unusually pale. She wasn’t sure how much longer the Arpaeian would be able to handle it.
Pebbles cascaded down the mountain cliffs behind them. She looked for the sound but the canyon’s echoes made it sound as if a waterfall of sand were falling. The stones clattered left and right and every time Acacia glanced up there was nothing visible.
“Only the wind,” she told herself but when the horse staggered sideways to avoid the pebbles she knew something was definitely wrong. “Steady,” Acacia cooed. “We’re almost there.” She ran her palm along the gelding’s neck, its muscle taut with anxiousness and its nose flaring with each heaved breath.
The end of the canyon was just in sight, clouds and blue skies beyond the mountain’s open jaws. She couldn’t believe how spooked she was by a canyon and a nervous horse. Nothing so far had happened besides some pebbles falling.
She placed a hand on Baerister’s and gently rubbed the tension in his grip. “Almost there.”
Something cracked, louder than pebbles. Thunder? Had one of his wings snapped? She looked sharply over her shoulder and found his wings still dragging limply behind them. The moment she returned her eyes ahead, the horse was rearing up in distraught, a shrieking whine echoing against Acacia’s eardrum.
She just caught sight of the large furred creature before Baerister’s hold on her waist pulled her out of the saddle. She fell backwards right on top of him. By the time she was able to get her bearings, the gelding was rearing up again and screaming.
She rolled away from Baerister and clutched her stunned chest. It took her a while to catch her next breath and sweep her attention towards the horse. Through the thin legs of the gelding she could just catch sight of the animal’s furry legs.
A bear, she considered, getting up onto her knees and drawing her sword.
It wasn’t until the horse staggered sideways that she got a good look at the animal. It appeared to be a bear or whatever was left of it. Its skin was half melted, muscle and bone plainly in view even in the dimness of the canyon. What little fur it had left was matted with black tar. It snarled, snapping its half melted snout and rotting teeth.
The moment she readied her shield, the beast was charging towards her. Acacia widened her stance and bent her knees just enough. Right before the bear reached her, she spun away from its open jaws and slid her sword right across the bear’s shoulder. It was a clean cut but whatever had melted most of the bear’s fur did far more damage than her blade.
Acacia faced the bear just as it was turning around for a second attack. She twisted her blade and loosened her grip. This time Acacia made the charge. Her voice bellowed in echoes around the canyon.
The bear reared backwards onto its hind legs. It swiped a paw as large as her head. She ducked down just in time and plummeted her blade into its chest. It gave a hideous roar, spit flying out of its decrepit mouth.
Before she could jerk her blade free, a massive arm swung about and slammed her own shield into her jaw. Acacia staggered sideways. Only her hold on the sword’s handle kept her from being pitted into the ground. She just barely managed to get the sword dislodged when she caught a glimpse of a shadow overhead.
Pebbles scattered down the cliffside.
Acacia rolled out of the way of both the bear and the shadow. She got to her feet and readied her shield. Drake, she realized, sweeping her eyes across the rough, scaly skin. It wasn’t as large as a dragon but it could swallow a man whole if it wanted to. Acacia knew she didn’t stand a chance against a drake. The bear, perhaps, but certainly not both. But the two beasts were too busy with snapping their jaws at each other to care about her.
Acacia shuffled sideways in search of Baerister. The reptile turned its head towards her, a large yellow eye that rolled across her frozen form. Then, without a second thought, returned its focus back to the bear. It clamped its jaws onto the bear’s arm, bones crunching.
She tried not to waste anymore time. She hurried over to where Baerister sat slumped against the cliffside. His wings looked like a crumpled cape pooled on the ground around him.
She sheathed her sword and quickly anchored his arm around her shoulder then hoisted him up onto his feet. He groaned weakly, the sounds of what might have been words, muttering from his lips.
She hauled him towards the mouth of the canyon. “Hold on a bit longer.”
The bear gave another gargled scream before it went quiet. The only sounds that filled the air was the crunching of bones and slurping of meat. The drake paid them no attention. Perhaps it saw them only as a nuisance during its meal.
The gelding paced back and forth at the mouth of the canyon. He was far too afraid to venture closer to the feeding reptile.
Baerister’s legs weakened and Acacia nearly lost hold of him the last few steps of the way. “Nearly there,” she encouraged.
His head fell forward, sweat lacing his skin. “You fight well,” he rasped and reached a trembling hand out for the horse’s saddle.
She helped him roll his weight into the leather seat and ensured he wouldn’t fall again. “You’re lucky I’ve been training my whole life.”
“I am afraid Arpaeians are useless at fighting.”
“You fought in wars,” she shot back. “With us.”
“With armor.” He pushed himself upright and groaned as his arms shook. “Without it, we would die. Our bones are twigs compared to yours.”
Acacia glanced at his shattered wings and knew that it must be true. It must have been why the Arpaeians retreated so easily to the mountains when the war first broke out. Or at least, that was what the historians said. And Acacia was finding that nearly everything she learned was wrong.
She grabbed the gelding’s reins and quickly led it away from the snarling and gnashing teeth of the drake. She didn’t want the creature to change its mind while they were busy talking.
Up ahead was another forest, thicker and darker. She could only hope this forest was void of any mutated bears. Or mutated creatures of any kind.