Acacia: A Bitter Truth
They left the comfort of the tavern for the market streets. It was less crowded than before. Evening was drawing to an end and most of the town was crowding the bars and taverns. They made their way out of town easily now that there were no people and the bazaars were closing for the night.
Along the dirt road back to the countryside, there was no need for them to rush. Yunoiya’s cottage was just distant enough that they would reach it before dark. Besides, Acacia wanted to enjoy the quiet calm of the countryside just a little longer. Since arriving at Yunoiya’s home she felt a sense of ease wash over her that she hadn’t felt in such a long time.
Baerister surprisingly broke the silence, “Strange that you can eat so much.”
She roved her gaze up and down his tall, lanky figure. “Strange you eat so little! Muscles take a lot of protein,” she excused. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re no better than the dragon.”
She gave Hirain a fierce look. “I don’t steal.”
The reptile only grinned cheekily at the comment as if he were quite proud of stealing food. It was no wonder Yunoiya wanted him out of the house for the day. She could only imagine all the trouble having a dragon would cause.
“You didn’t drink much,” Acacia added.
Baerister eyed her for a moment as he processed her question. “You mean alcohol? No, I do not enjoy Amitran drinks. They are far too bitter for my palate.”
She laughed a little and stuck up her nose in mockery. “Your palate, huh? And what do Arpaeians enjoy drinking? Water? Juice?”
His smirk was small. He tucked his hands behind his back as if her question was entertaining. “Herbs. Poisonous ones are our favorite. They tingle the tongue.”
She flinched at the notion.
“In fact, we often put poisons in our food as well.”
She threw her full attention to him and found his lips trembling as he repressed his smile. “You? Joking? I never thought I’d see the day. Someone call the kingdom to celebration!”
“I can joke... when the time is right.” Baerister lowered his chin and raised a wry brow. “You, however, never seem to stop joking. And talking... Endlessly so.”
Acacia huffed in annoyance. Her voice was sharper, “So what do Arpaeians really drink?”
He laughed, a loud and deep sound that jolted Acacia’s ears. She hadn’t heard his laugh, not the full force of it. Perhaps it was the ale he drank although he only drank a single glass. Or perhaps, after feeling healthier and in a safer place, his personality was finally showing through.
She gave Ir’vaqur a knowing look. Now, he wants to talk.
Baerister answered her question with a soft smile, “We drink an assortment of teas; herbs, flowers, bark...” He stepped a bit closer, examining her expression as they walked. “You are quite curious about my people, itellu.”
She looked him up and down, feeling heat in her face as he leaned closer to her. She could see the paleness of his eyes, gray sparking with thin streaks of faded blue. They unnerved her, made her heart race inside of her chest.
She snapped her attention back to the road and barked, “Shouldn’t I be?”
“Because you are considering issi ekalli and leading my house as matriarch?”
She snorted and rolled her eyes.
Ir’vaqur pulled at his reins and threw his head back with a grumble.
Acacia gripped the rein tighter. “Your jokes are even upsetting Ir’vaqur.” She rubbed a hand along his nose, whispering softly for him to calm down. But his hoof stomped impatiently. “Steady, boy. Steady.”
The word was shouted into her thoughts.
Images flashed across her mind’s eye; plumes of black smoke, burning wood, and charred flesh, a cottage on fire with its garden engulfed by flames.
Acacia looked at Baerister and he must have sensed her confusion.
“What is it?”
She looked at Hirain and wondered if it was his voice shouting at her. Perhaps dragons possessed such abilities but the lizard still looked lethargic from overeating. No, she reasoned, remembering it had happened back at the canyon with the undead bear. Her gaze shifted to Ir’vaqur. She looked dead in his eyes and, as if to answer her question, bowed his head and pulled at his reins.
Acacia felt the anxiety tremble through her. She managed to finally answer Baerister, “I think there’s a fire. Maybe someone’s home.”
His head tilted because it hadn’t really been much of an answer. He looked around at the scattered houses nearby. It was getting darker and surely a fire would be easy to spot. His gaze stopped on the road ahead and then his brows pinched.
“Yunoiya.” He strode forward. His long legs carried him rather quickly but he swayed in his steps, all of his strength having been used up in the marketplace.
“Baerister, wait!” Acacia pulled the gelding forward as she tried to chase after him. “It could be dangerous. Let me go instead!”
She wondered what Baerister could see because his steps were quickening and he almost fell forward as they neared the cottage. Even Hirain began to grow irritated. He paced back and forth in the cart, a low growl in his throat as he propped his front legs over the edge as if he were about to jump out.
She smelled the smoke before she saw anything. In the shadow of dusk, the sky blazed in pink and orange. There was still a halo of light on the horizon that obscured whatever fire might be burning. Then she saw the black clouds swirling amid the pastel sky and finally the fire. The entire cottage was up in flames.
She pulled harder on Ir’vaqur’s reins but the horse could only go as fast as the cart allowed.
Baerister ran through the gate and stepped towards the front door but the fire was too big. He recoiled backwards as a flame rolled out through the doorway like a blade cutting through the air. The fire must have been burning for quite some time because most of the structure was collapsing inwards.
The moment the cart was outside the gate, Hirain jumped off the back and ran past.
“Wait!” Acacia grabbed hold of him. “It’s too dangerous. You can’t.”
Hirain kicked his feet and squirmed out of her grasp. One of his claws sliced through her leather brace, right into the muscles of her arm. Acacia jolted back and lost hold of his sleek scales. He ran into the flames right after Baerister.
She gripped at the wound, the wet slickness of blood that oozed between her fingers. She ripped the sleeve of her shirt off then wrapped it around the gashes along her inner arm. She used her teeth and fingers to tie it in place. It wasn’t the best bandage but she didn’t have time to properly treat it.
By the time she was done and raced to the cottage’s open door, she could just make out Baerister’s silhouette among the smoke and flames. He was coughing and shielding his eyes against the heat. Wooden beams were blocking Baerister’s path to the curtained room in the back.
“Baerister,” she rasped, her throat clenching shut from the smoke. Acacia ran a hand down her face, the sweat and ash caking her skin in a crusty layer. But she stepped forward into the house, just enough to grab Baerister’s elbow and tug him backwards. She hauled him to the door then staggered out into the cool air, the sweat on her skin turned to frost.
Baerister stepped out and gasped for air. He coughed and staggered towards the stone wall that surrounded the cottage. He sucked down another breath then dropped to his knees. He sat back against his haunches in defeat. She couldn’t see his expression but his shoulders were trembling and she wondered if he was crying.
Acacia looked back at the fire and searched for any sign of Hirain. She could only see the flames and hear the cracking of the fire as it engulfed the cottage. The fire was spreading to the grass nearby and the empty pasture where the other horse had been left behind.
Perhaps Yunoiya had taken the other horse and escaped somewhere nearby.
She sauntered over to Baerister and helped him to his feet. “We have to move further away. The fire’s too strong.”
He walked with her out the open gate and down the path.
“Hirain,” she muttered. “Do you think he’s alright?” She peered up at Baerister’s face, the soot and sweat possibly masking his tears.
His features were flat as he finally managed to reply, “She isn’t in there.”
“You think so?”
He looked at the small onlooking crowd as if he weren’t ready to answer her question, not quite ready to admit what might have already happened. “Perhaps they saw something.”
“Stay here. I’ll ask around.” She patted a gentle hand on his shoulder and leaned his weight into the small cart.
Acacia strode over towards a pair of onlookers. “Good afternoon.” She raised an awkward hand in greeting because she wasn’t sure how Amitrans greeted one another.
The woman looked her up and down then looked back at the fire.
The older man nodded his head in reply. “Terrible thing. Wonder if Yunoiya made it out alright.”
The woman scoffed. “Probably already knew it was coming.”
Acacia tried to lighten her tone as she asked, “What do you mean?”
“She’s a witch.” The woman gave her a knowing look like Acacia would agree or react in some way. “One of those that should be locked up. Instead she’s out here risking our lives.”
“Stop it,” the old man chastised. “Yunoiya made a remedy for your cough when you got sick. Helped me when I broke my leg last year.”
“Still illegal,” she retorted. “Dangerous.”
Acacia smiled but it was tense and her lips felt thin. “What’s illegal?”
“Magic,” she quickly blurted.
The old man grumbled and walked off as if he were finished with the discussion. He wanted nothing more to do with her.
“How can magic be illegal,” Acacia inquired with a low voice. “Isn’t it something you’re born with?”
She eyed her up and down again. “Who are you? You’re not from here.”
Acacia went to reply but she smiled and turned away. Amitra was stranger than she could have thought. Magic was praised in Ta’nes and viewed as incredibly helpful. It was like making food illegal. Or eating food was illegal.
She joined Baerister in the empty field across the road from Yunoiya’s cottage. Ir’vaqur grazed on the grass then eyed her as she approached. She stared at the horse for a while before finally turning her attention to Baerister. He eyed her as well, hopefully for some news.
Acacia timidly shook her head. “They weren’t much help. We can ask around later. It’s getting dark...”
Baerister rolled up onto his feet and sauntered off without a word. He began collecting bits of wood, tree limbs, and moss. Whatever he could use for the campfire, he dumped it all together into a pile.
Acacia turned her attention to unhitching Ir’vaqur from the cart. The gelding had worked hard for their trip into town. And, perhaps, he had attempted to save her life twice if not more. She looked into his eyes again, searching for answers. Ir’vaqur was a normal horse. She knew his parentage and was even there during his birth. So, how could such a normal horse born of normal parents be able to speak to her? To think his thoughts into her own?
She looked at Baerister. She might have asked him about it but the emptiness in his eyes told her to wait. First things first, they had to find out what happened to Yunoiya. They had to find out if she was still alive because Acacia couldn’t bear the thought of the sweet old woman’s death.
By the time they had a fire going, the pink faded from the sky, a spark of purple before it twisted to black. The thick clouds of smoke melted into the night sky, blocking out any sign of stars. Even the thin sliver of moon dimmed, their only source of light being the campfire and the smolders from Yunoiya’s cottage.
“We’ll find her,” Acacia consoled but Baerister ignored her. “I hope Hirain is alright... Dragons like fire, don’t they?” She looked at Ir’vaqur as if the horse might reply to her. She nodded to herself. Hirain would be fine, of course, she thought. He had slept in the fireplace once.
She stood up and crossed the road to the cottage. The fires were mostly out and the wintry chill in the air tamed the lingering heat. The grass and garden were scorched, a black stain on the earth. There was nearly nothing left within the stone walls. As Acacia grew closer to the house’s remains, she could just make out Hirain’s figure in the smoldering ashes.
She kneeled down on the edge of debris. “Hirain. Maybe she isn’t here.”
The dragon eyed her then closed his eyes as if he were pouting.
“We’ll find her,” she added. “I promise.”
Hirain slithered out of the ashes, his golden scales black with soot. He hissed then grumbled as he hobbled out the gate towards Baerister and the campfire.
Acacia moved towards the pasture and thankfully Ir’vaqur’s saddle was stil safely posted on the stone wall. It was hot to the touch but just enough where Acacia could haul it over to camp where everyone was quietly brooding.
She returned to wreckage to search for her grandfather’s shield, carefully pushing ashes around with her boots until silver glinted with flares of sparks. She squatted down and shoved as much ash as she could before the heat became unbearable. Her family crest, the proud bust of a bear, was all she really had of her grandfather. It was all she had of her family, she supposed, now that she couldn’t return home.
She used leather from one of her pouches to handle the shield and carry it back to camp. The moment she set it down, she turned her gaze to Baerister. But somewhere along the path, someone’s boots were crunching against dirt and rocks.
Acacia scooped up the shield, ignoring the burning pain in her grasp.
“Apologies,” he greeted. “I don’t mean to disturb.”
Baerister’s expression went taut, everything thinning as he considered the stranger.
Acacia eyed the man’s slumped stature as he moved closer to the campfire. He was squeezing a bundle of cloth, a burlap sack with something inside by the looks of it. He was a farmer, she thought. The dirt on his hands and clothes proved he had spent the day doing hard labor.
“I like Yunoiya. She’s a good woman. Never did a wrong thing to anyone.”
She lowered the shield to her feet and softened her tone, “Do you know what happened to Yunoiya?”
He gave a swift nod and clenched his teeth. “Some Paladins came by... Called her a heretic and accused her of treason. Couldn’t believe my ears. Yunoiya?” He shook his head and a breathy laugh fell from his lips. “They arrested her and took her into town. If you could stop them then...” He finally looked at Acacia, finally raised his head. He held out the bag and gave another nod. “It’s not much but you must be famished.”
Acacia took the bag but her attention remained on his averting eyes. “Care to join us?”
He tossed a hand up and backed away from the camp. “No, I’d... I’d better not. I’ve already risked my family coming here, speaking with you.” He turned sharply and marched back down the road. He disappeared into the darkness just as quickly as he arrived.
She set the sack down between them and sat down. “What are Paladins?” Acacia mostly asked herself. She didn’t expect the quiet, broody Arpaeian to answer her.
“Knights. Rather, they were knights.”
Acacia opened the bag and eyed the chunks of dried meats and cheese. They weren’t much but it was going to be a long night and a rushed morning.
She took a piece of meat and held it out to him.
He eyed it for a bit then reached into the sack and took some cheese. “Arpaeians don’t usually eat meat.” He took a large bite of the cheese and bowed his head into his hands. He rubbed his fingertips across his forehead, perhaps to ease the tension there. “If the Paladins took Yunoiya, we will have to go to the prisons as soon as possible. They might execute her in the morning.”
“Execute?” Acacia held out a piece of dried meat to Hirain but the lizard turned his head away and closed his eyes. Great, she mused, now I have two brooding companions.
Baerister asked quietly, “Ta’nes doesn’t consider magic a danger?”
She shrugged her shoulders. It never even crossed her mind. “Swords are dangerous but those aren’t illegal.”
Baerister’s lips trembled, a minor smirk curling there. “You always manage to surprise me, itellu.”
A jolt ran through her. She wasn’t sure why but everytime he called her itellu, it sounded far too intimate on his tongue.
Acacia nibbled on the meat a bit. Venison, she considered. A fond memory of hunting and drying meat with her father came to mind. He always knew the best spices and the best techniques for each cut of meat. He was always eager to teach her everything he knew. He had even considered making her his apprentice. No, she shoved the thoughts away. Not now. She would remember the past later.
She inquired with a lighter tone, “So, Arpaeians don’t like meat?”
His eyes softened as he bowed his head in admittance. “We avoid taking life whenever possible. The life of an animal is equal to our own.”
“It’s a noble idea...” She hummed in consideration. She would remember from then on not to offer him such things.
Her gaze fell on Hirain. His arms and legs were tucked under his body and his eyes were still shut tight. He was quite some distance from the fire as well. She thought she saw him shiver a bit. Or perhaps, the dragon was crying. She couldn’t be sure. She didn’t know enough about dragons.
Acacia moved closer to Hirain and laid down in the dirt. The dragon hissed for a moment but he didn’t move away or bite her. In fact, she thought perhaps he leaned into her, seeking out some form of warmth against the cold night air.
“I shall take the first watch,” Baerister suggested.