Acacia: A Weighted Council
The marketplace consisted of mostly fabrics, furs, and leather vendors. Ta’nes was a city built up around a citadel, hardened by the fires of war. It was a practical city and in turned cared little for beauty. Since nearly every home was void of a kitchen area, everyone crowded the food vendors and corner shops. They gathered around fire braziers and ate their meager meals and drank down their hearty beers.
The city wasn’t beautiful to look at but the people who lived there were almost family.
She followed the wide market road uphill towards the barracks and training grounds. The closer she got the louder the shouting became. Metal clashed and wood snapped as recruits practiced their skills in front of their scrutinizing mentors.
Acacia just barely stepped through the stone archway to the courtyard when she heard boots scuff against the stone overhead. She leapt forward and rolled up onto her knees, shield at the ready for whatever might attack her. The Arpaeian’s long talons were still fresh in her mind.
But the moment she saw the dark plume of hair on his head and the smallness of his frame, she had a strong guess at who he was.
He raised his head, brows furrowed and small lips pursed tight. He stood up and dusted the dirt off his training clothes.
“You could have been hurt,” she barked while standing taller. “Sneaking up on me is not part of your training. Why aren’t you with the others?”
“I almost had it this time.” He looked up at her but his lips were twisting in a sour frown. “How did you know?”
“You’re noisy, for starters.”
He stiffened his shoulders, hands tightly clenched as he walked past her. But Acacia shoved her hand down on his head before he could walk further away. He was only eleven years old and the youngest of her siblings. She didn’t want to be so strict with him. She hated how cruel Farris had been when he mentored her.
Their mother’s laugh broke the tension and drew both their gazes. “Go easy on him.” She smiled softly, elbow pressed into the arm of her wheelchair. “Perhaps scouting is in his blood.” She rested her chin on her hand as she took in both of her children with soft eyes.
Acacia dropped her hand from his head “Still, he needs to pick a better target next time.” She marched past him towards her mother’s delighted gaze. “Do you need anything?”
She shook her head ever so slightly, dark skin beautifully contrasting against her yellow tunic. “If I need anything, I can get it myself.” She raised a challenging brow.
“I’m not busy right now.”
“Neither am I. In fact, I’m the least busiest person in the whole capital.”
Acacia sighed softly and nodded her head slightly. “Captain Sar asked me to help out with training.”
Her mother sat back in her chair, hands lowering to the wooden wheels on either side. “You can tell the captain that training is going well. At least until Kyer disappeared.”
Acacia darted her attention back to her younger brother. “You made mother come look for you?”
“She didn’t have to,” he snapped back.
“Acacia.” Her mother’s tone hardened. “I am his mentor. I will determine if he’s in trouble or needs punishment. I do not need you coming here to check up on me.”
Her lips parted to try and explain. She had no intentions of wounding her mother’s pride. She had only meant to follow the captain’s order and offer some assistance.
“I don’t need your help. I’ve been a soldier here for almost forty years. I killed a man when I was Kyer’s age. I was Captain of the King’s Guard during the war.”
“I know that,” Acacia barked. “I never said... Fine.” She sucked down a breath of air, nearly choking on it.
“You’ve never even seen a battlefield.” She muttered under her breath and rolled her chair back towards the training grounds. “Kyer.”
He jolted at his name and stood taller. “Yes, mot--Yes, sir.” He ran past her into the training grounds. He wasn’t about to anger her any further.
Acacia shouted loudly as she turned towards the archway. “I’m headed to the tavern then. Maybe someone there needs help swallowing their drink.”
She marched further up the round but she wasn’t entirely aware of where she was marching. Her mind was still reeling from their argument and from the encounter with the Arpaeian. She couldn’t stop thinking about it all. She couldn’t stop remembering the Arpaeian’s wide, pleading eyes, how human they looked. He was begging her for help, clawing at the ground to be released.
“Acacia,” her father’s stern voice halted her steps as it echoed along the empty streets.
She spun to face him, standing taller with her heart pounding in her chest. Her voice was firm, “Sir.”
He strode towards her, the confident gate of an experienced commander. He was broad shouldered and the fur cloak certainly added height to them. He was an imposing man to stand in front of. “I just spoke with Farris.”
Acacia’s chest grew tight as she cleared her throat. “I’ve never seen one before, sir. I panicked...”
He looked over her expression, hard eyes never easing up. But his words somehow sounded softer, a father gently advising, “You’ve never had to take a life before. Not like your mother and I.”
“It won’t happen again,” Acacia stated but the words felt hollow even to her own mouth. “I know my duty to the people of Ta’nes.”
“You’ve been lucky. We’ve been in a quiet state of peace for quite some time.” He pushed back the edge of his fur cloak and gripped the leather belt around his waist. The longsword sheathed at his side was a reminder that Ta’nes was always prepared for war.
He added tenderly, “You don’t remember what it was like when we were at war, do you?”
“No, sir.” Her head dropped, boot scuffing back across the snow clumped road. “Can I ask you a question? About the war?”
He was quiet for a moment and she was forced to look up at his blank expression. He settled his hand onto her shoulder, somehow heavier than she remembered it. “I want you to join the meeting. It’s time for you to start learning the truth about Ta’nes and about what we’re doing here.”
“The council meeting?” She gripped her hands behind her back, trying to hide the sudden tremble that ran through her. “I don’t think they would appreciate having--”
“My daughter,” he added quickly.
“A child.” Her brow rose.
The corners of his lips twitched into a minor smile. “You’re not a child, Acacia. You are a war bear and someday you will join the council. Who else could take my place?”
“Farris,” she blurted, her own ears jolting at the sound. She stuttered suddenly, words twisted on her tongue, “He’s the oldest...”
“He’s hot-headed. He’s got all the bite of a bear but not the cleverness of one.” Her father’s grin was growing. He stepped closer and lowered his voice, a teasing whisper, “Out of all my children, you are my best replacement.”
Acacia couldn’t stop herself from chuckling. “Don’t let Farris hear that.”
He laughed a hearty sound. “Come on now. The meeting’s probably already started.” He swung his great bear of an arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards the citadel at the heart of the city. “I hope you weren’t planning on getting besotted at the tavern again.”
She clicked her tongue. “You’ve certainly done it enough times.” Acacia felt lighter when her father chuckled. “Did mother tell you where I was headed?”
He snorted. “I can always tell. You always have that look in your eye when you’re angry. And it doesn’t help when you scrunch your nose, either.”
She groaned while trying to push her father’s grappling arm away. “I wasn’t going to the tavern actually.” Acacia relented. She walked side by side with him and gave a nod of her head. “I always offend her no matter what I say or do.”
His tone softened, words almost quiet, “Your mother didn’t mean whatever it is she said. You know that. It’s hard being a bear without claws.” He swept his gaze across the aging buildings that lined the road. The further they went towards the citadel’s gates, the larger the buildings became. Older too, back before Ta’nes became a city.
“Then what is it? She doesn’t snap at anyone else like that.”
“She snaps at me all the time.” He grinned, a chuckle in his throat but it slowly faded. “Perhaps she doesn’t want her daughter to end up fighting in a meaningless war and dying for a meaningless cause.”
Acacia darted her attention to the hardness of his scowl. “The war with the Arpaeians?”
She expected him to agree but he was silent for a long time. Finally he released a long gruff sigh and replied, “War, my cub. Whether it is with humans or beasts, it is vicious.”
The massive citadel loomed over them as they grew closer. Stone steps skirted the base of the entrance, a slow climb for invaders and perfect for a strategic overhead attack from the turrets above.
“I wonder,” she added quietly. “Grandpa’s stories... He always talked kindly of the Arpaeians. Would it be such a bad idea to... speak with them?” Acacia stopped in front of the citadel’s open doors and looked up at her father.
“Your grandfather aso claimed our ancestors came from an island of bears.” He raised a brow at her and quirked his lips into a smile. “He liked telling stories. I’m telling you what I know. They’re ravenous. Those claws and fangs will rip through a man like a newly forged blade. One severed your mother’s spine with a swipe of its hands.”
Acacia’s eyes lowered instinctively. She suddenly felt silly in front of her father. He was a commander. He lived and fought in those wars. Her own mother nearly died in them. Her brother did die in them.
Her father grumbled under his breath and dropped his hand down on her soft hair. “Your grandfather was a soft-hearted and kind man. He believed in peaceful solutions. It’s a good quality to have. But there must be a balance between being kind and knowing history.”
“I understand,” she said flatly and forced herself to stare unwaveringly into his eyes.
The corners of his eyes wrinkled as his lips cracked into a smile. “Although to tell you the truth, an island full of talking bears does have a nice ring to it.”
Acacia laughed loudly. “The bears didn’t talk,” she corrected. “We could talk to them.”
“That’s not what he told me.” He turned sharply into the high vaulted foyer, the guards posted at the entrance bowing their heads in greeting. “He told me that the bears could talk. But only to us.”
She snorted in disbelief. “Maybe you weren’t listening to his story well enough.”
He mockingly snorted in reply. “Shall we head into the important council meeting or not?” He flourished a hand towards the spacious hall ahead of them but his smirk was enough to take the bite out his words.
The closer they got to the war room doors her steps grew shakier beneath her. She straightened her spine and raised her head up. She knew everyone on the council and had spoken with them at least once before. But it had always been during an uneventful matter. Now, as she stepped through the arched doorway, the tension stole the breath from her lungs.
Whatever heated argument they were having halted. The councilors stiffened at the sight of her father and all bowed their heads in respect.
The room was dark despite all the candles. The drapes were drawn shut and the dark oak furniture seemed to suck what little light spilled into the room. Scattered across the war table were discolored maps and ragged books. Piles of parchment paper and scattered letters were gathered together in one corner of the table. Along the walls were countless shelves lined with more books, missives, and scrolls.
“Lord Kaled,” they greeted formally. “My lady.”
Acacia respectfully returned the nod.
Morgan, the citadel’s royal Mage stepped towards her. Her voice was robust and yet quiet, “I’m glad your father brought you, Lady Kaled. He always speaks highly of you.”
“Thank you, Lady Morgan.” She bowed her head against respectfully. “I hope you don’t mind my... tagging along.”
“Not at all,” Mace intervened quickly. “Your father already mentioned your coming by.”
Acacia smiled meekly. She hadn’t expected that at all. Her father’s joke from earlier, or rather what she had assumed was a joke, now started to weigh on her. He truly wanted her to one day take his place on the council.
Tomlin was the first to speak back on the matter at hand, as loud as always, “We haven’t seen an Arpaeian in these parts for nearly a decade. There can only be one reason it would descend the mountains.”
Mace spoke much softer than his compatriot. “It’s true that we haven’t had trouble for some time but...”
“If it’s flown here then they’re planning something.”
“What? War?” Erena, the youngest of the group, scoffed. “I highly doubt it.”
Her father’s gaze slid over to her and she felt the heat of it. “Lady Kaled.” He gave a slight nod of his head at her. “What are your thoughts?”
“Trade,” she mumbled as everyone’s scrutinizing gaze fell on her. Her throat was painfully dry. She cleared it and spoke louder, “They haven’t attacked in a decade. They might be setting up trade routes.”
Erena smirked then rolled her eyes teasingly at the others. “My thoughts exactly.”
Her father’s large hand fell heavily onto her skull. His words were smooth, “We’ll send scouts to the mountains. They’ll find more answers there. The rest of us should check the armory. We’ve grown lazy. Only the gods know what’s in there.”
“And the beast?” Tomlin retorted.
Her father spoke without an ounce of regret, “Tomorrow morning we’ll send our best inquisitor. They’ll get answers one way or another.”
“If it stays alive long enough,” Erena grouched. “We shouldn’t risk a possible alliance.” She glared over at Morgan. “You’re awfully quiet.”
The meek Mage tucked her hands behind her back and spoke softly, “I agree that we should wait. In our haste, we could make mistakes. Sending a single Arpaeian down the mountains is hardly a call of war.”
“Your advice is appreciated,” her father told them as he leaned forward into the war table. “For now, the inquisitor will be vital in securing information. Send scouts to survey the area in case there are more. This single Arpaeian may be a spy. And that is a risk we can’t take.” His voice was deep, darker than she’d ever heard it, “They wouldn’t come down from the mountains unless they wanted something. If it’s war they want then we’ll be dam ready for it.”
The council did not argue with the old war bear. They all bowed their heads in respect and left the room one by one. A heavy silence fell over the room as Acacia stood idly beside her father.
His gaze remained locked on the large map sprawled out across the table.
Acacia struggled to get the question past her lips. “Will you kill it?”
“Eventually.” He reached out across the map and grabbed the ceramic figurine that had been posted in place of Ta’nes. He held it in view for her to see it. “These are our people. It is our duty as wardens to protect them. It always has been.” He set the figurine into her hand and tapped his finger onto the map where the whole of the Ta’nesian prefecture took up the southern half of the continent.
“I’m aware.” She slammed it back on capital which rested below a curving chain of mountains. “Amitra needs us to stand as wardens.”
“No.” He stood taller but eyed the northern region with thinning lips. “We must focus on our own people. The north can deal with their own problems.”
Acacia stood dumbstruck to hear such strange words from her father.
His chuckle also seemed a little strange, off putting. “My cub, I know. Your whole life I preached about being protectors and loyal soldiers but it is time I tell you that Ta’nes is our only concern. We stopped caring about Amitra a long time ago.”
“And what if the Arpaeian didn’t come here to attack us?”
“It killed some of our people, Acacia. Think of their families. How could we let it go free after that?”
“I see,” she said softly and her father must have sensed the resignation. “It’s just... we attacked first. Grandfather believed they weren’t monsters. He left--”
“Yes, he left. He abandoned Ta’nes and died chasing after his fairytales.” Her father’s voice grew louder, deep and baritone, “I went to war with those things. Why don’t you believe me when I say they’re monsters?”
Her throat was swelling and it was hard to say what she wanted. Acacia knew her father’s mind was clouded with war. Her grandfather warned her that anger and revenge changed people.
“You have spent your whole life training and never questioned me. What did you think you were training for? Diplomatic meetings?”
She forced her mouth open and blurted, “To protect our people. This is not protecting our people. It’s attacking an innocent person for simply traveling too close.”
“You want us to wait for them to attack first? Or would you prefer them to kill us while we’re sleeping?”
There were too many thoughts whirling around in her skull that she couldn’t even begin to argue or ask more questions.
He gently laid his hands onto both of her shoulders, the candles casting his brown skin in an amber hue. “I do not take pleasure in killing. Or in war.”
“I know that...” Her voice trailed away that not even she felt convinced. “But this... it seems wrong.”
His hands slid to his side. Her father’s expression flattened, an emptiness to it she hadn’t seen before. His words also sounded darker than she was used to, “Perhaps I was wrong in thinking you were ready. You’re in your twenty-fifth year but you’re still acting like a child.”
“Sir...” Acacia bawled her hands into fists at her side.
“For now, tend to your duties. It’s time to retire your bow and pick up your sword and shield.” He stepped away from her then marched towards the large mahogany door.
Acacia stared at the door. She couldn’t believe her father’s words. How could he be so filled with hatred, so unwilling to put the past behind him. The last battle was over a decade ago.
She looked at the map again. And what had her father meant about abandoning Amitra? Was he turning his back on his king as well? It had to be the spark of war that brought such strange thoughts to his mind.
She peered down at the coat of arms which was beautifully drawn in the corner of the map. It had been the crest of their city for countless years, one that she wore proudly on her armor. She had been raised to be a warrior but now that her city was on the edge of the first war in over a decade, Acacia couldn’t stop herself from feeling trembling.
She had to see the monster for herself. She had to know what the possible threat looked like and determine her own opinions about the matter. Otherwise, how could she sleep comfortably?