The Sovereign Gods

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Acacia: The Healer's Cottage

Light filtered through the trees, just enough to stir Acacia out of a light sleep. She drew in a long breath and slowly released it. Her gaze swept over to Baerister, who was curled up beside her on a bed of leaves. She looked towards the two horses as they grazed lazily on the nearby flowers.

She hadn’t noticed them last night but hundreds of flowers skirted between the trees like a wall. As she got up onto her knees, she could peer out of the woods to what looked like an expansive grassland.

Acacia stepped out of the dim forest to the valley that rolled all the way to the edge of the horizon. It reminded her of the field outside Ta’nes, its tall grasses and scattered wildflowers. The wind against her skin felt refreshing after spending days in the cramp, musky forest.

The leaves behind her crunched. She opened her eyes and looked back just as Baerister was rolling up onto his knees.

“Hold on,” she ordered, racing to help him.

He held up a hand. He didn’t bother to look at her. “I can handle it.”

Her lips thinned but she didn’t argue with him. “I’ll get the horses saddled and we can take off. These flowers look like Za’hira’s Grace. We can harvest them and make a concoction from their roots.”

Baerister staggered to his feet. He trudged forward but his legs were heavy beneath his weight. He didn’t reply nor did he appear to be listening to her. He was acting strange or, rather, she thought he was. She hadn’t known him long enough to be sure. But she felt he should have acted a little more grateful about it. Unless he was still angry about trusting Darius, which seemed silly.

She turned her attention to the horses and walked over to where they grazed absentmindedly. The horse Darius had brought was unfamiliar to her. She would have to think of a name for it while they journeyed. It would give her something to think about since Baerister wasn’t exactly talkative.

“Don’t you think so,” she whispered to Ir’vaqur with a nod of her head. “All this trouble we’re going through to help him...”

The horse only stomped a hoof into the ground as a reply.

She hummed in agreement. “He is in a lot of pain,” she agreed. “He might be quiet and ungrateful because of that.”

Acacia saddled the horses and led the way into the valley.

She really missed how the wind felt, how the sun warmed her dark skin, the way the flowers smelled in the crispness of winter. Even Baerister looked healthier as he sat down on the hillside and watched the wind roll across the old tan wheat in gentle waves.

Acacia left Ir’vaqur and the mare by the woods and gathered as many of the pale flowers as she could. It was their roots that really mattered. They were thin and nearly impossible to collect but if she could obtain enough, the potion would be quite potent.

When she gathered a pouch’s worth, she strolled down the hill to stand beside the quiet, brooding Arpaeian. He was surveying the white clouds that drifted lazily across the azure sky. It didn’t quite feel like winter this far north. It felt like the slow transition between winter to spring, when flowers were fighting to bloom against the chill in the air. And when the snow turned to rain and the soil softened.

She rolled her eyes shut and basked in the warm sunlight. For just a moment she wanted to forget about everything that happened and pretend she was just on another one of her hunts. Except it donned on her that she was the farthest from Ta’nes than she had ever been before. She was the farthest from her family, too.

“I am sorry,” he stated.

Acacia glanced at him, a little shocked he said something so strange. She sat down next to him and stretched out her legs, her knees and toes cracking as she did.

Finally she asked, “What do you mean?”

“I have been a burden to you since you first helped me.” His eyes lowered as a weight fell over him, a weight of shame and guilt perhaps, that curved his shoulders forward. “It seems that is my curse.”

“Is that why you were a little more quieter than usual?” The corner of her mouth tugged into a smirk but he didn’t seem to realize her jest. “Because, you’re almost... always quiet.” She grinned and tilted her head but he didn’t quite catch on. “It’s a joke...”

His owlish eyes narrowed at her before sweeping away. In the sunlight his tan skin seemed to glow and the black feathers gathered along his scalp shimmered with tins of purple and green. She imagined if his wings weren’t broken they would be an incredible sight to behold.

Her grandfather’s stories about the Arpaeia seemed more and more believable.

He was quiet for so long that when he finally spoke up, Acacia jolted a little.

“How do you know so much about healing herbs?”

“Sort of a hunter’s task. While we’re out looking for food to bring back, we also have the best opportunity to find herbs, roots, flowers... Anything useful.” She leaned her weight back into her hands and looked sideways at him. “What will you do after you’re healed?”

He shook his head ever so slightly.

Acacia almost grumbled but she swallowed the sound. She was trying so hard to get the Arpaeian to talk with her. She was curious about the Arpaeians but the more she tried talking to him, the more she realized she wasn’t going to learn much.

“Will you go back to your people?” She pressed her knees to her chest, fingers fiddling with the grass.

Baerister took a while to reply. “I can not return yet...”

“Your wings will be fine--”

“No.” He peered at her from the corner of his eye.

It was hard to read his expressions but, she thought, his thin brows were bowing under the weight of grief.

“That would not help. My...” He took down a deep breath then sighed. “It does not matter. We should continue our journey.”

Acacia eyed him for a moment but she nodded all the same. She got to her feet then carefully helped Baerister stand. She anchored his arm around her neck before shuffling through the tall grass towards Ir’vaqur. The gelding had moved some distance away while grazing so the walk would be far. The other horse was unfamiliar to her and she wasn’t sure if it was calm enough for the wounded Arpaeian to ride.

“I like it here,” she told him.

Baerister halted for a second, taking in the view. “Yes... it is peaceful, I agree.” He finally looked down at her beneath the weight of his arm. “Perhaps, in the future, you could return to it.”

She grinned as they continued forward. “Sure. Both of us, someday.”

“Both of us,” he whispered and the sound was so breathy she wasn’t sure she heard it correctly.

“How much further until we reach this healer you spoke of?”

“Tomorrow at the latest.”

“How do you know them?” She helped steady his weight against Ir’vaqur before helping him slide his foot into the stirrup.

“She is a friend of my brother’s.”

“You have a brother?”

He awkwardly pulled himself into the saddle with a low, guttural growl. His eyes were slammed shut but he nodded his head in reply.

She wanted to ask more questions but she only nodded her head and grabbed Ir’vaqur’s reins. She led Ir’vaqur over to the grazing mare and hoisted herself up and into the saddle.

His voice was soft, “I am sorry that your friend was... I did not want...”

She laughed, louder than she expected. “That idiot?” Acacia looked over her shoulder at his wide eyes and raised brows. “Don’t be sorry. He’ll recover and slink foolishly back to Ta’nes with a bruised ego. Honestly, he was always too arrogant.”

His eyes softened and she saw the faintness of a smile. “I see.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard. If you need to take a break just let me know.”

“Thank you,” the word fell awkwardly from his tongue.

Acacia felt a smirk grow. She gently spurred the mare into the valley, allowing the horses to enjoy the gentle trot through the soft meadow. Now that they had put distance between them and Ta’nes, she didn’t feel much like pushing forward too hard.

~:~

They traveled through the grasslands and found themselves following an old weathered dirt path that eventually led into a wider road. It appeared to be used quite often by wagons and caravans. Perhaps years ago it had been flattened and maintained by the closest city or town. It was the first sign that they were getting closer to other people.

And then, within an hour of riding, small country homes and farms began to appear in the distance. They were simple cottages of stone and clay, roofs thatched together with muddy straw. There were very few people, most of them out in the fields tending to their crops and livestock. None of them seemed to take notice of the two unlikely travelers.

Acacia looked back at Baerister who was managing to hold himself upright, albeit slouched over.

“Take the left,” he told her, then lowered his head. “...when we reach the divide in the road. The healer’s home is that way.”

She did as he suggested and allowed him to take the lead as they grew nearer to their destination. He finally pointed to one of the cottages alone among the hills. It was a small house with a pasture and garden, surrounded by a low wall.

Acacia rode the mare through the open gate and looked back to make sure Ir’vaqur was still following. Before either of them had time to say or do anything, an elderly woman hobbled out the front door.

She gave them an approving look. “I thought you might be coming by,” she said, eyes narrowing as she got a better look at him. “Although, I hadn’t thought it would be quite like this.” She waved for him to climb down from the horse and he did so without protest.

As Baerister rolled out of the saddle, Acacia quickly followed to help steady his swaying body. He leaned against her for support, his arms trembling around her. Their eyes meet briefly, an encouraging look, before turning back to the old woman.

“I was attacked during my journey.”

The old woman’s lips thinned. She turned her scrutiny to Acacia for a moment before examining Baerister’s tattered wings and hunched back. “You never should have been on your own.” She waved a hand for them to follow her as she hobbled down the path towards the cottage’s front door. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, it seems.”

She pushed open the front door and waved them inside. “And you young lady? What’s your part in all this?”

“My rescuer,” Baerister answered plainly. “Acacia. I trust her.”

“Acacia.” She nodded her head firmly. “I’m Yunoiya. A trusted friend of Baerister is a trusted friend of mine.”

“Thank you, Yunoiya.” Acacia bowed her head respectfully.

The old woman reached out and grabbed Baerister’s arm. “I’ll take it from here, dear. You should tie up your horses and take a rest.”

She hesitated. As Baerister stepped forward without her, she felt a strange sense wash over her. She couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Acacia stepped outside and grabbed the horse’s reins, leading them to the small pasture beside the cottage. A stone wall at the front of the house led a thinner, wooden one where Acacia tied the horses up to. She hoped they wouldn’t rip it apart in search for more food.

Back inside, the cottage was warm. To the right was a kitchen with a cluttered table with no dining chairs. There were books and pots stacked on the table so she doubted anyone ever ate there. Along the wall there were shelves of jars filled with pickled foods and other jars full of what looked like herbs that had been grounded into dust.

Earlier, the healer and Baerister disappeared behind a curtain doorway next to the kitchen and near a burning hearth. There was a cauldron in the hearth that appeared to be filled with what might have been a soup or a potion. Acacia didn’t dare to test it out.

To the left was a spacious living room with cushioned chairs, a wall of bookshelves and more jars filled with various items. Some of them had labels although the writing was messy and obscure. There were skulls among the jars, different animals and monsters. And what might have been an animal’s paw that shriveled up long ago into a dry lump.

The healer came out from behind the curtain, scurried to one of the shelves, and without even having to look, grabbed a jar. She hobbled back behind the curtain just as quickly as she appeared.

Acacia rubbed her fingers across her brow then sat down in one of the chairs in front of the hearth. It was warm and, after the chilly ride, it was comforting. She eased back into the softness of the chair and felt her muscles melt into it. The aches in her hip joints and knees seemed to soften as well and finally she could finish her quest.

It was finished, wasn’t it?

She sighed in relief at the notion.

She had rescued the Arpaeian, brought him to the help he needed, and she could finally return home to her family. The thoughts that she pushed aside during their journey began to resurface. She worried if her family was alright. Did they think she was a traitor? Or did they believe the Arpaeian kidnapped her? Either scenario would have given her father a heart attack.

And there was Darius. Would he return to Ta’nes and call her the traitor that she was? Would they call for her arrest and possibly her execution? Perhaps, she would never be able to return home to her people.

Before she could worry further and panic, the healer burst through the curtain and hobbled towards the kitchen. “Should be fine,” she said to no one in particular. “He’ll be on his feet in no time. Bones are tricky wounds, though.”

Acacia rolled up onto her feet, her bones popping in protest. She leaned forward and swallowed the groan of pain. “Is there anything I can help you with?

“Hm?” Her eyes widened as she considered the offer. “Actually, yes...” She turned around sharply and began searching about the room. She checked the fireplace first, poking the hot coals while muttering, “Where could it be? The oven again?” She tossed the metal skewer onto the floor then hurried over to the oven. She threw open the metal door and peered inside. She groaned in annoyance, brows furrowed and fingers clutching at her dress.

“Maybe I can help you find it?” Acacia fiddled with her hands as she moved over to the kitchen to assist. “What does it look like?”

“Ah.” She hurried past Acacia, pushing aside the piles of papers to reveal the object hiding underneath it all. Or rather, sleeping, Acacia realized as the older woman grabbed at it and pulled. “Unbelievable. You tore up another of my books.” She heaved the heavy creature up into the air and swung it around into Acacia’s fumbling arms.

She tried to hold onto the intense weight as best she could, hugging the rough, scaly skin against her chest. “What is it?”

“Hirain. He’s a dragon,” she spat, not at all happy about it.

“Dragon?” Acacia scurried to grab it under the arms and quickly hold it at a safe distance.

“A fat, lazy one, too!” She shoved a hard finger into the plump scaly belly of the beast which prompted him to open his mouth and hiss.

Acacia turned her head away from it in hopes to avoid any fire it might breathe out. Her voice strained as she asked, “What do you want me to do with it?” She stared at its open mouth and plump tongue. The teeth were so small they were barely visible at all.

“He’s harmless. Can’t even catch a mouse.” She grabbed a few things from a nearby table and put them into Acacia’s already full arms. Then she shoved her out the front door and stated harshly, “Take him for a walk. He’s lazy and stubborn and a worthless dragon.”

Before Acacia had the chance to turn around, the front door was being slammed shut. She looked down at the squirming lizard, its back legs kicking and its tail slapping into her knees. “Fine. Fine.” She awkwardly lowered it onto the ground where it melted against the ground.

Hirain gave a final hiss before tucking his arms beneath his chin, readily returning to sleep. His eyes slid firmly shut and, if she didn’t know it was a dragon, she might have thought it was a lump of wood. Its wings were small, barely half the size of its large belly. There were a few horns as well but they looked twisted as if they hadn’t grown properly.

She surveyed the ropes she had been given. “I guess this is your... leash?”

Hirain didn’t move or even glance at her. He was already quite content with sleeping outside.

She glanced over at Ir’vaqur who was eying them suspiciously. “This will take expert training, don’t you agree?”

Acacia grabbed the dragon’s legs and slid them into the knotted harness. Normally she would have trained commands but she didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin with a dragon.

“Let’s go,” she stated and tugged at the rope.

But Hirain didn’t budge.

She tried again, walking away this time and dragging her behind him.

Hirain rolled over onto his side like a brick and raked across the dirt path. She pulled once more but he weighed so much that it was like being a recruit again when she was forced to pull logs across the training ground.

Acacia narrowed her eyes. She was one of the best trainers in Ta’nes so surely her experience was enough. If Hirain were a warhound, she would use something for motivation. There had to be something he wanted. Not playing obviously, she considered. Then she would use food as bribery.

Acacia walked back into the house. He scurried behind her towards the door but the moment she grabbed food from off one of the shelves he slowed to a halt. His eyes were locked on the meat which was exactly what she wanted.

She sauntered back out of the house with a wry smile. “Hungry?”

Hirain followed behind her, mouth open and tongue bobbing.

She tore off a small piece and tossed it to him.

He snapped it up and swallowed it down in one bite. The small morsel only made him hungrier. He rushed forward, ready to jump which prompted Acacia into running. She knew if the dragon landed on her, she’d be flattened into the dirt. She rushed down the path towards the gate with Hirain rushing after as quickly as he could, spiked belly tearing at the earth.

Acacia giggled in delight as she climbed up onto the stone wall. “Keep up!”

Hirain could barely jump up high enough to reach her. His claws scratched against the stone wall, jaws snapping at the air for another bite.

“You’ll have to work hard if you want this delicious dried meat.” She walked across the short wall, one foot after the other with a wide smile on her lips. Acacia hadn’t had so much fun in weeks. She couldn’t remember the last time she was laughing so hard.

She walked to the end of the stone wall and then walked back, the dragon barely aware of her trick. Acacia stopped in the middle of the wall and held up her hand. “Sit”

Hirain hissed in response and left his jaws wide open as if she would drop it into his mouth.

She ripped a small piece off and held it out until Hirain was forced to step back and sit down on his haunches. She said the command just before dropping the small bite onto his wagging tongue.

Hirain swallowed it down and begged for more.

“Just like a hound,” she jeered and knew immediately it would be easy to have him trained in no time. So long as she had food, of course.

Yunoiya’s voice rang out as she peeked through one of the open windows. “Come in for some biscuits, dear. I just made a fresh pot of tea.”

Acacia leapt from the wall and raced towards the path with Hirain hobbling after her. She couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled out of her, the excitement of something so simple and yet so entertaining. She stopped just before she reached the door and spun around.

“Sit,” she ordered and held out the dried meat.

Hirain rose up on his back legs but he wasn’t tall enough to reach the food. Just as he sat down to get his bearings, she let the meat fall. His eyes widened and his jaws snapped up the last bite.

Yunoiya let out a surprised huff. “Not so entirely useless,” she spat at the dragon then smirked at Acacia. “Come inside and get some rest, dear.”

Hirain rolled his head sideways to get a look at the old woman. He grumbled a little before following at Acacia’s heels through the front door of the cottage. He followed her through the living room to the small table where Yunoiya had laid out a tea set with a three-tier plate of bisquits.

Yunoiya snapped her fingers and the dragon froze. “Not again,” she grouched.

Acacia sat stiffly in the chair across from the healer. “What happened last time?”

The old woman waved her hand and Hirain hissed in annoyance. “Last time I invited someone over for tea, Hirain spilled everything and ruined my favorite grimoire.” Her tone shifted the moment she turned to Acacia. “Relax, my dear. You’ve traveled far and from what Baerister has told me, you’ve suffered much.”

“Not so much,” she admitted and brought the cup of tea to her lips. She took a sip, the bitterness softened by a touch of orange spice and milk. “Although...” She thought back on the bear in the canyon, how mutated it had been. And then there was Darius who had attempted to kill Baerister out of some misguided fear.

Yunoiya chuckled. “By your accent, you’ve lived in Ta’nes your whole life.”

Yes, she considered, Yunoiya did sound quite a bit different. Perhaps the bandits as well had sounded strange, a different lilt to their words than she was used to.

Acacia nodded and took one of the biscuits. It was warm between her fingers. “Have you ever been to Ta’nes?” She took the first bite, sugar coating her tongue and pairing well in the aftertaste of the tea.

“A lot,” she admitted. “Before and after Ta’nes broke away.”

“What... happened?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know yet. She wasn’t sure she was ready to hear another story about her home.

“The usual, dear.” She took a sip of her tea and leaned back in her arm chair. “Amitra accuses Ta’nes of something. Ta’nes accuses Amitra of something.”

“The Treaty of Ashnear.”

Yunoiya’s lips thinned as she considered it. “A piece of it, I think. But the treaty came after King Eiyanh took the throne.”

That name again, Acacia thought. “Did King Arcaveous die?”

“Arcaveous?” The healer sucked down a breath of air too quickly and choked on it. “Dying would have been a blessing for him. Poor, dear. But it’s not so simple. And there are too many stories to know which is true.”

“Which do you think is true?”

Her brow rose. “Ta’nes doesn’t know?”

Acacia shook her head.

“Arcaveous was assassinated. Him, all his children, and his wife. Ta’nes accused Eiyanh of the murders. Eiyanh accused the Ta’nesian who was Captain of the King’s Guard.” She flourished her hands as if that explained everything.

Acacia felt her skin grow cold, a chill that drew sweat along her spine.

“Problem is,” she added with a nod of her head. “Captain of the King’s Guard died that night. In fact, nearly everyone there died. Even all of Arcaveous’s children were found dead.”

“Except Eiyanh.”

“But he was on the other side of Amitra when it happened.” She winked though and grinned. “Or, so they say.”

Acacia cupped her hands around the warm cup of tea. She cleared her throat and asked, “What was the name of the Captain that died?”

“Captain Kaliid.”

So, it had been her mother, she smirked. But her mother was alive. She never spoke of any assassinations. She only talked about how great King Arcaveous was, how mild-mannered and compassionate he was.

Yunoiya stiffened then placed her own cup onto the table. She must have sensed the tension in Acacia because she added, “Why do you ask? Did you know her?”

Acacia laughed and shook her head. “No. Not at all.”

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