Acacia: Loyalty Undefined
There was less snow north of the mountains. The forest here was thicker and it was darker than the one she was used to. It smelled muskier as well, somehow damp in the dry winter air. Among the musk there was the sweet scent of flowers and the sharpness of cedar. There was a smiliarness to it as well. She’d spent a good portion of her life hunting for Ta’nes so forests were a second home for her.
The branches were so thick that they rubbed against each other, creaking with every hard breeze that rolled by. Sometimes Acacia could make out the skittering of squirrels as they raced about the tree top and the very robust call of an owl in the distance. And then, rather distinctly, she could hear the loud sloshing of boots as they kicked through the dead leaves and fallen branches.
Acacia stopped and steadied the horse beside her. She peered through the tree trunks to make out who was approaching. Their movements were slow as they trekked. A few of them, she determined. They were silent which meant they were hunting or looking for something. They stumbled out of the trees and jolted to a stop.
They were just as surprised as she was. And she thought for just a moment, she was safe.
But the head of the group grinned from ear to ear, drew his sword, and marched closer. He roused the others to follow him, “Look what we found lost in the woods.”
Ir’vaqur jumped a few steps back, jostling Baerister in the saddle but the Arpaeian didn’t even stir from sleep. She steadied the gelding, sliding her fingers down its forehead in hopes to soothe away its fear.
“It’s alright,” she whispered. “Stay back and keep Baerister safe.”
She tugged the horse’s reins in the direction away from the approaching men. The horse obeyed. It trotted away some distance before stopping and turning with uncertainty.
Acacia drew her sword and stared down the group of three which prompted them to stop a short distance away. They weren’t Ta’nesian, that much she could tell. Their leather gear was old and tattered, poorly sewn together with cheap materials. She could only think of one reason they were taunting her into fighting them. They were desperate bandits because they certainly didn’t appear like they belonged to a proper, wealthy group.
“We have no money,” Acacia reasoned, widening her stance if they attacked. “We have nothing for you to steal.”
One of them chortled. “Sword, shield, horse...” He shrugged his shoulders. “Those all sound like coin to me. Hand ’em over and you can leave.”
“My friend is wounded.” She nudged her head to Baerister who managed to wake up just enough to lean his weight into Ir’vaqur’s neck. “He can’t walk so we need the horse.”
“I really don’t care,” another spoke up and stepped closer.
“And I really don’t want to kill you.”
They all laughed and gave each other sideways glances.
“Us three against you?” He swept a hand towards the archer. “You really want to test an arrow to your armor?”
“No but I would like to test my shield arm,” Acacia retorted and stared them down. “Go on. But let me tell you what’s about to happen. That’s a crossbow. Takes time and strength to load. When his arrow hits my shield, it’s going to take him a long time to reload a second shot and by the time he does... you and your other friend will be dead.”
They looked slightly ruffled by her words and her glare. She’d trained enough younger recruits to know how to look intimidating. It wasn’t her first time fighting off bandits either but she had to admit that this was her first time so far away from home and entirely alone. Baerister couldn’t possibly help her and if she got wounded... and then, the trek to the healer would be even more painstaking.
She had to admit, it was a little exhilarating.
The bandits didn’t back down. The archer fired the first shot just as she predicted. Like all her years of training, she raised her shield just before the arrow could hit her and allowed it to smack off of the shield’s surface.
The leader of the three lunged forward and swung his sword. It obviously wasn’t made for him. It was too heavy which threw his weight too far and left him vulnerable. Acacia raised her boot and kicked him backwards into the dirt. It gave her just enough time to spear her sword through the next charging bandit. Metal slid through flesh and past bone, sapping the energy out of him. She tugged her sword free and the man dropped to the ground lifelessly.
A part of her hoped they would scurry off after that. She hesitated in expectation. Surely after one of them died, the other two would give up, but the archer managed to reload the crossbow during that time. His mistake was not having moved further away from his compatriots, putting him in the prime position of her shield.
She swung her shield out and allowed the edge of it to strike the crossbow aside, leaving him open for her sword. She struck the blade up through his chest then pushed his weight backwards until he stumbled and fell off her blade. He hit the forest floor, the dead leaves almost swallowing his small frame.
She faced the last of them and again she had a small desire that he would admit defeat and run away. But he looked determined as he got to his feet and stared her down.
She finally grouched, “If it were possible I’d just arrest you and let someone else handle your fate. I’m giving you the choice of running.”
He spat at the ground near her feet. “Then you’re lucky you’ve never known hunger like I have. You’d realize then there are no choices.”
“These forests are filled with wildlife. Are Amitran so averse to eating squirrels?”
“Give me your horse,” he grinned teasingly. “I’ll eat that.”
Before she had a chance to reply, he lunged forward and swung his sword. She staggered out of the way, his blade just barely scraping across her shield. Just when his torso was in range, she let her blade strike through his chest in a merciful blow.
All of their deaths were clean, quick, and precise. If she had to take a life, she would do so with as little suffering as possible. Just as her grandfather had taught her.
“Didn’t go quite as planned,” she huffed.
Acacia ran her eyes over the three of them before wiping the blood from her blade. They must have been desperate to ignore her abilities, to ignore the death of their friends.
Ir’vaqur let out a grumble as he trotted back over to where she stood.
“You’re damn lucky you have me.” She sheathed her sword and gave Baerister a long hard look. “If you had escaped without me... how far would you have even gotten?”
Baerister said nothing. His hollow and heavy eyes were enough. He seemed to shrink into himself.
Acacia gave the gelding a good rub along his neck. Ir’vaqur was looking just as worn out and tired. It was true that they had been covering a lot of ground and doing so rather quickly. The strange encounters along the way certainly weren’t helping. They had a few more hours of sunlight and Acacia knew that those last few hours could be precious.
She led Ir’vaqur forward, past the dead bodies, and deeper into the grove. She wanted to be far away from the blood and death.
As the sun dipped closer to the horizon, the forest began to shift with shadows, thin beams of light tilting until finally it was nearly gone.
Ir’vaqur tugged at its reins, bowing its head a few times as if to plead with her.
“Let’s take a rest,” she said, a little to both of them.
Baerister must have tried getting out of the saddle because his body shifted sideways seconds before toppling over. Acacia managed to grab one of his arms but the rest of his body smacked into the forest floor. He coughed out a raspy breath but instead of trying to move he resigned himself to stay put.
She kneeled down beside him and took out the vial from her belt. “This is the last of it. I’ll try to find some herbs in the morning.” She didn’t let him grab it this time. She poured the remaining contents into his mouth and watched him swallow it down with a grimace. He would need every drop if he hoped to make it a few more days.
The leaves rustled and just as Acacia looked towards the noise, she caught a glimpse of armor between the trees. She stayed hunkered down and posted her shield in front of her. She couldn’t risk an archer catching them off guard. With her gaze locked on the area where she heard the sound, she watched as they peered around the tree.
His familiar features eased her tension.
She heaved out a sigh of relief and got to her feet. “Darius,” she greeted and waved him over. “I was worried you were another bandit.”
“Move away from it.” His brows pinched and he notched an arrow into his bow. “It’s too weak to stop you.”
“Wait.” She held up her hands. “Just a moment. Let me explain.”
Darius kept his distance like she asked. But then his expression crumpled as if she had insulted him, the truth washing away whatever hope he had been clinging to. “So, you really did it then? I thought maybe... it forced you but... you actually helped it.”
“I couldn’t let them kill an innocent man.”
“It killed Subu. He’s dead because of it.
“They attacked him first. What should he have done?”
Darius’s mouth flew open but then it hung there as he failed to find the right words. His expression flattened and he rubbed a palm across his forehead. “They’re monsters. They’re not pets or--”
“Darius,” she snapped. “They’re people. They have feelings and--” She huffed and rolled her head away in disbelief. “Tell me you aren’t so blind?”
He rubbed his hand over his mouth then looked at Baerister who was still sitting weakly at Acacia’s feet. She hoped Darius’s feelings would change, he would feel a sense of guilt or understanding, but there was a plainess to him.
“If you came to fight me or kill me...” She drew her sword and raised her shield in front of her. “I don’t want to but Gods, don’t make me.”
“You’ll kill me, is that it?” He tossed a hand and threw his weight a step sideways. “You can betray everyone you know for this beast?”
“He’s not a beast. If only you could see that.”
A tremble ran through her as she considered what would happen if Darius did decide to fight her. She couldn’t bear the thought of killing him. They had grown up together, hunted together and trained the warhounds for the benefit of their community.
She stated with as much determination as she could muster, “This is the right thing to do.”
Darius shook his head but the anger that tightened his features melted into grief. “I left moments after you. No one saw you but me and I doubt they even know what happened. They’re probably just now realizing you’re missing.”
She let her shield fall to her side and sheathed her blade. “Will you help us?”
He stared at her then down at Baerister. He calculated something. He was deep in thought of what he might do next. He finally put away his arrow and shouldered his bow. “Where are you headed?
“A healer.” Acacia kneeled beside Baerister and they shared a quiet glance. “His wings are dislocated and I think his ribs are broken.”
“His wings look broken in a few places as well,” Darius agreed. Despite sounding less hostile, he made no effort to move closer. He stood still in his uncertainty. After all, Ta’nesians shared stories around fires about the atrocities Arpaeians are capable of. Ta’nesian children are warned of the Arpaeian’s song that steals memories just before the beast eats them.
Darius tossed his head over his shoulder. “I left my horse waiting over the hill. I’ll go and fetch it.”
“We’ll be here.” She firmly nodded at him. “It’ll be nice to have some help.”
He stepped backwards then turned to trek back through the way he came.
“He might betray us,” Baerister whispered once he knew Darius was far enough away. “His heart is racing. He is sweating a lot.”
“He’s afraid,” she stated plainly. “How could you even tell? He was... far.”
“Arpaeian eyes see better than others.”
She didn’t know how to feel about that. She helped move him comfortably against a tree. There was no moss to cushion him, only dry leaves leftover from autumn. But he eased his head back and slid his eyes shut.
Acacia whispered, “Let’s trust him. I’ve known him for a long time.”
“If that is... your belief.” He looked at her and bowed his head politely. “I will follow your lead.”
She patted his shoulder gently and when Darius returned with his horse in tow, she almost sighed loudly in relief. For a moment, she worried that the hunting party would be right behind him.
Darius tied up his horse on the edge of the clearing. “I can take the first watch.”
She smiled and tossed a hand in dismissal. “No, don’t worry. I can take the first watch. I’ll wake you when it’s time to take over.”
He grinned and shrugged his shoulders. Darius sat down near his mount and crossed his arms. “Have it your way, then. Always needing to be in charge.” He tossed his grin at Baerister and the Arpaeian looked slightly timid about it.
Acacia moved to stand adjacent between the both of them. She sat down among the leaves and leaned against a thin, young birch.
Darius didn’t look like a man who would betray them. He was all smiles and he even stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. She nodded to herself. He had chased after her in case she needed help, she reminded herself. Baerister was just being biased because he didn’t trust easily.
As she watched them sleep and her gaze swept up across the canopy, she did wonder what was happening in Ta’nes. She almost considered her family’s horror when they realized she was missing. She quickly pushed the idea aside and focused on something else. She allowed her eyes to slide shut and focus on the moment around her; the woods, the scent of cedar that coated the air, the crispness of the winter chill in her lungs.
She just barely opened her eyes, wondering if it had been a dream or if someone had called out to her. Leaves rustled and crunched, the sounds of something heavy moving across the forest earth. There was a loud cry of pain.
She jolted up onto her knees just as Darius was bringing the dagger to Baerister’s throat. Talons dug into Darius’s arm which weakened him just enough to keep the dagger from plummeting downwards into his neck.
Acacia leapt forward and shoved Darius backwards into the dirt. His arm was wrenched free but the talons sliced across the soft flesh. She couldn’t consider it, though. She was frantic as she pinned her knee into his hand, the dagger along with it.
He wasn’t giving up quite yet. He made an attempt to grab her sword but her other knee dug into his chest until he cried in surrender. His hold on the dagger loosened and Acacia snatched hold of it. She tossed it across the otherside of the small clearing.
“Why?” She heaved out a heavy sigh. “He didn’t do anything to you.”
His lips pulled back in a grimace. “I’m trying to help you, Acacia. He’s got you charmed under a spell and he’ll take you back with him and--”
“Stop! Just--” Acacia’s laugh was breathy with disbelief. “Do you hear yourself? I’m here of my own free will.”
“I can’t believe that!” He squirmed to get free, kicking his legs and twisting in hopes to turn the struggle in his favor.
Acacia, quite used to brawling with people bigger than her, grabbed his arm and twisted until he was thrown faced down into the dirt with his wrist torqued in an awkward position. She had the upper hand and no matter how much he struggled, he wouldn’t be able to break free.
“The Acacia I know would never betray her family.”
“I didn’t betray them. Helping Baerister has nothing to do with my family. Or with you.” She felt tension in her neck and along her skull. She didn’t quite understand why it was so hard for him to understand that. “I’m going to let you go. When I do, you’re going to go back to Ta’nes. Understand?”
He tried to shake his head but only shoved his nose and mouth into the dirt. He huffed trying to get the dirt from his lips.
Acacia released him and rolled up onto her feet. She stared him down as he pushed himself up off the ground and rolled over. She watched his movements carefully, waiting to see if he would lunge for his dagger or his bow.
He dusted himself off and faced her. “I’m not leaving without you. I can’t leave you with that thing.” For a brief second, his eyes darted towards the area she threw the dagger.
“Well, I’m not going with you. And you’re not going with us.”
The second he flinched, the second he made an attempt to grab a weapon, Acacia struck forward. She grabbed the front of his hunting vest. Her knuckles connected with his nose, slamming his eyes shut and dropping him back to the ground. She threw a second punch and Darius went limp, his skull swimming with pain. She hoped this time Darius wouldn’t get back up and fight her.
Acacia strode over to Baerister and hoisted him up onto his feet. “Go, get on Ir’vaqur. Can you do that alone?”
His head bobbed in understanding and he managed to shuffle towards the place where the gelding was tied up.
Acacia grabbed her gear and marched over to Darius’s horse. She ran a soothing hand down its neck. “Be calm. We have to leave now.” She untied its reins and led it towards Ir’vaqur.
She gave an apologetic glance to Baerister who sat lopsided in the saddle.
He shook his head though and she supposed that was his way of accepting her apology.
Acacia grabbed Ir’vaqur’s lead then jumped into the other horse’s saddle. She pulled Ir’vaqur along as they rode deeper into the woods. It was still the middle of the night so it made the ride all the more difficult.
They traveled well into the woods until they reached the edge, a dark valley of stars rolling out across the open sky above.
She helped Baerister rest against one of the trees then hunkered down beside him. Acacia could feel a strange solemness to the quiet between them. It was also peaceful in a way. Especially when he leaned into her, his warmth pressing against her shoulder, the rhythm of his breathing in her ear.
She wasn’t going to leave his side tonight. Especially not after almost losing him.