Acacia: Fate Unfolding
Smoke billowed lazily over Ta’nes as an uneasy quiet snaked through her streets. An orange glow enveloped the western part of the city, clusters of busy taverns and just south of that were the fires from the brickworks and forges.
Ta’nes was built up around a grisly army abandoned by their king and country to wait out a war that seemed to be over.
At least, until now.
Perhaps the anticipation for war had finally boiled over. They were willing to find any excuse to fight again. Acacia hoped it was the latter, that the Arpaeia had no intentions of invading. She didn’t want to lose anyone else to a senseless war that no one had ever won or lost. And to be fair, she never truly understood the reason behind the war to begin with.
She’d heard stories, war stories about glory and honor. But it was her grandfather’s stories that scared her. He didn’t sugarcoat them like the others did. He told her the harshness of battle, the nagging starvation, and the crows picking out the eyes of his dead friends.
She climbed the steep slope along the edge of the citadel’s massive walls. Acacia stopped once she reached the entrance to the servant’s tunnels, the very same tunnels she played in as a child. Back then Ta’nes seemed livelier. Royalty often came to visit to inspire the troops, the council hosted large banquets, and even her parents looked prouder.
Now the tunnels were mostly used by spiders and rats.
She grabbed the torch at the mouth of the entrance and pulled out her flint striker, clicking metal against metal until a spark licked the torch. It took only moments for the oil to begin to burn. The far corners of the tunnel’s entryway bloomed with light.
But her steps slowed, the scuff of her boots echoing down the long passageways as the winds howled behind her. The air was stale, dry as she took down a long deep breath. If her father saw her in these tunnels, if he knew what she was about to do, he would have been furious.
She laid her palm over the hilt of her sword, felt the heaviness of the blade’s weight pulling on her belt. Her father had told her to pick up her sword but no, not yet. She couldn’t accept another war so easily. If there was some way to avoid it then she would give her life and limb to do so. But should she need it, she was prepared, sword and shield ready for the attack. After all, she had never seen an Arpaeian in person.
Acacia marched forward, taking her time through the dark maze. It had only been last month when she had shown her younger sister, Eshe, the vast tunnels. But it had been years since the last time she took the path to the dungeons. She rarely ever needed to go there, especially since they were mostly filled with petty drunks and the occasionally brawlers.
She shuffled down the final path and stopped before the dead end. Her fingers reached out to the thin cracks between the stone, the soft flutter of wind told her it was the right place. Acacia pressed her whole weight against the door and shoved it open as quickly as she could. The echoes clamored around the room, stone grinding against stone, but the sound ended just as soon as it had started. There was just enough space between the wall and door for someone to slip through.
She held her breath and listened for anyone who might have heard the loud noise. But there was nothing. Not even the prisoners behind their cell doors bothered to move. Acacia shuffled forward, torch guiding the way until she caught sight of the metal cage in the center of one of the rooms. She could just barely see it, the creature’s outline in the dark space. A sudden nervousness jittered through her. The torch’s light trembled in her grasp.
Its wings were far too large for the small cage. Black feathers poked out between all of the bars and under the light black shimmered into teal and violet. As she rounded the cage, his eyes reflected the light back at her like a cat’s. She had seen the same glow in the woodlands from wild cats, beasts that would gladly eat her alive. She half expected him to snarl and hiss at her but he hardly moved at all. He only stared back at her, just as curious.
“My name is Acacia,” she spoke softly.
Her gaze swept over his exposed skin, completely void of clothes. She couldn’t remember if he had been naked when she first saw him in the woods or if her own people had stripped him down. He didn’t look ashamed, though, sitting naked on the cage floor.
Her throat tightened as she pulled the torch away and allowed the shadows to hide him better. But not before her gaze caught sight of his feet and the infamous long talons.
She forced the words out of her drying mouth, “Are you wounded?”
He released a heavy sigh, an animalic purr rolling behind it. His attention averted but there was little room in the cage for him to move.
“Do you understand our language?” She stared into the shadows of the cage but he made no reply and she wasn’t sure if he was understanding her at all. If that were true then all the sneaking around she did to make contact with him was pointless.
She moved closer to let the light reveal his expression. “They said you killed people...”
He raised his chin and tilted his head. His voice was deep, rumbling behind it a sound she couldn’t quite explain, “I’m sure they said... many things.” His wings flexed and the feathers ruffled in a hushed sigh. But it must have been painful because his lips twisted into a grimace and his nose crinkled.
They must have broken them on purpose. They wouldn’t have wanted him flying away. Her chest felt tight.
Acacia took in a deep breath laced with the musky scent of the dungeons. “Well? Was any of it true? Did you kill people?”
“I killed some, yes.”
She turned away from him, hand clenching and unclenching into a fist. She marched through the narrow prison room. The torch’s light danced across the gray brick walls, red and orange flickering wildly with her movements.
“But why? Why did you kill them? Why are you here?”
“They attacked me.”
Acacia finally stopped and laid her heavy gaze on him. He looked no older than her. Perhaps he was a teenager.
“Your arrow flew at my chest.”
She wanted to admit about missing him on purpose but she still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened back in those woods. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Your king told you to. I met him earlier.” He shifted in the cage, awkwardly trying to fit his long legs in the small space.
“There is no king in Ta’nes.”
He hummed, that rumbled gravely sound rolling around in his throat again. “The one who leads.”
Her father, she wondered. One of the councilmen. She knew even being in the dungeons, talking to the Arpaeian, would have enraged them. But if her people killed him, wouldn’t the Arpaeian nation truly have a reason for war? She couldn’t let them kill an innocent man simply because of their own fear. And he was a man, wasn’t he? He was talking with her. He wasn’t the monster they made him out to be.
Acacia lowered her head, fingertips pressed against her skull. She could sense the sharpness of a migraine coming on. “If I let you go... will you leave peacefully?”
He clicked his tongue then turned his head towards her. “If they allow me to leave in such a manner. But who are you to release me? Are you their matriarch?”
“Matriarch?” Her brows jolted at the unfamiliar title then she shook her head. “I’m not sure what that is but no... No, I’m nothing like that. I’m just a scout.” Acacia eyed his expression, the exhaustion that clung to his features. He looked as if he had been a prisoner for months, starved and sickly. “Why did you leave the mountains?”
A flash of tension crossed his expression. He averted his gaze. The words he spoke were acidic, “Is it a crime to leave the mountains?”
“No,” she muttered. “No but you had to have known that coming here was dangerous.” Her breath shuddered in her lungs as she searched for better words. “Why did you leave your home to come here?”
“Home...” His lips twitched slightly. He sneered before letting it fade. “The Arpaeians have no home.”
She felt the grief in his tone, felt it low in her stomach as a sickness coldly washed over her. Acacia sighed. “I want to know if you’re dangerous. We were at war once.”
“Everyone was at war... at least once.”
She gripped the torch tighter, the sickness in her stomach only tightening. She hung the torch on the wall then grabbed the set of keys posted by the entrance. She shuffled through the few keys that were on the ring before approaching the cage. The dungeons weren’t part of her duties in Ta’nes. She was a hunter and a scout. It took her a few tries before finding the correct key and popping the door’s lock loose.
Acacia took a few cautious steps away from the cage. She watched his unmoving expression for any sign of aggression. She wanted to trust her instincts. She wanted to believe her grandfather’s accounts of the Arpaeia over the war stories ladened with bias.
But she also knew that all stories came from some truth. After all, his talons were twenty knives ready for the kill.
When he made no efforts to move, she was somewhat baffled. Didn’t he realize what she had done? Or did the Arpaeia not have knowledge about cages?
“I can sneak you out of here...” She shuffled towards the door and reached out a shaky hand to the door’s bars. He hadn’t even budged. In fact, his scowl only deepened as she eased the door open and waited. “The guards might check on you soon. We should probably get going.”
His gaze slid over to the wooden door across the room.
“It’s not a trick,” she stated.
“You tried to kill me...” His throat rumbled, head tilting away from her as he clicked his tongue. There was something dark in his voice when he spoke, something that sent a chill down her spine. “Who is the true monster here?”
She softened her tone, tried to be gentle. Her voice wavered, mouth drying as she spoke, “I don’t know you. Or your people. And from what I can tell, you’ve done nothing wrong. Let me try to get you out of here safely.”
The tension in his expression softened slightly. He eased himself up onto his knees and gripped the bars for support. His legs trembled as he took his first steps out of the cage, wings dragging as they slumped uselessly behind him. He growled with lips pulled back in a grimace but quickly swallowed the pain.
“Are you alright?” She reached out but jerked her hand back. She had forgotten about how completely naked he was. Her attention rolled away to the prison cell’s entrance.
“My wings are broken,” he stated plainly. “Dislocated.”
Acacia’s face burned red and her eyes watered slightly. A mix of grief and embarrassment swept over her. “I’m sorry. Did they...”
“They did.” He stepped around her, walking on the balls of his feet towards the entrance.
“Wait,” she hissed. She cleared her throat as he gawked over his shoulder at her. “There might be someone out there. Let me check and then we can go.”
He straightened his spine and took down a large breath. He loomed over her, tall and thin, yet somehow his eyes were soft. He wasn’t trying to frighten her. Or so she assumed.
Acacia stalked over to the door and peered down the hallway. It was completely void of guards and soldiers. Which wasn’t entirely unusual. The dungeons were hardly ever guarded and they certainly wouldn’t think one of their own would release the enemy. She huffed out a heavy breath, the weight of the situation suddenly sickening. If anyone saw her now, she would be a traitor.
“This way,” she whispered over her shoulder. “I know another way out of here. We can get to the kitchen and grab some supplies.” She trudged down the hallway with the clacking of his talons slowly behind her. She glanced back at his slumped form and shaky legs. Acacia tried to take smaller steps for his benefit but her heart was hammering. They needed to get out of the hall as soon as possible.
She led him towards a spiral staircase and drew in her bottom lip. She swept her attention down both ends of the hall then to his stony expression. “I’ll go ahead to make sure the kitchen is empty. You think you’ll be alright if I leave you here alone?”
“I think I’ll be fine on my own...” He held out an open hand, talons plainly in view.
Acacia eyed them for a moment. They were almost as large as a hawk’s. “If someone sees you...” No, she shook her head suddenly. She didn’t want to know the answer. She knew he would defend himself and that meant someone would die, perhaps someone she knew. “I’ll be back soon. Just try to stay quiet until then.”
“I shall make an attempt.”
She snuck down the staircase, her steps expertly placed to keep any sounds from echoing against the stone walls. Acacia crept through the kitchen door and glanced around. It was a fairly large space, feeding a good portion of the army and all of the people that worked in the citadel.
When she searched every corner and ensured the place was completely empty, she headed back up the stone steps. He stood just where she had left him, fingers squeezing into the jagged stone wall. His brows were pinching, owlish eyes narrowed. He took a painful step forward, as his other hand wrapped around his bruised ribs.
“It’s safe,” she whispered, lips pressing hard into each other. “I can find some medicine and clothes when we get down there. They keep a few extra in the kitchen.” She led the way down the stairs, hurrying straight for the cabinets where the medicine was kept. Most of it was herbal remedies. Some of it was made by the citadel’s mages.
He took longer than her to get down the stairs. By the time he reached the bottom step, she was shoving a pile of clothes into his chest. He gathered them into his arms with mild disinterest. “What are these?”
“Pants. A shirt.” She watched his unmoving features, the unwavering stare as he held them. She tugged at her own shirt. “Clothes? You wear them, don’t you? Or do your people always walk around naked?”
He groaned, the rumble rolling into a low growl. “These are not... adequate.”
“I know they’re not exactly silk... but they’ll do the job just as well.”
He tossed the shirt onto the ground. When he saw her flattening brows he unfolded the pants and held them up for inspection. But he made an attempt to put his foot through the correct hole, his sharp talons slicing most of the fabric along the way.
She rolled her attention across the massive kitchen, arms folding stiffly as she waited on him. “You never told me your name.” She focused on the back entrance of the room.
She glanced over to check if he was finished. The pants were on, torn and tattered from his claws and the laces were loose around his waist. But at least he was somewhat covered now. “It’s freezing outside,” she reasoned and looked frantically about the kitchens for more clothing.
He hobbled past her towards the window and ripped the drapes right off the pole. With practiced movements he wrapped the long cloth in an ornate manner. It worked perfectly around his wings and she imagined Arpaeian clothes must have worked similarly.
She nodded meekly. “Let’s keep moving.”
“Do you have a plan?”
Acacia smiled timidly at him as he shuffled behind her. “Go out the back door and grab a horse...”
A deep rumble rolled around in his chest.
She supposed it was his sign of agreement since he didn’t make any effort to argue.
She pried open the kitchen’s back door and glanced around the courtyard. During the day, people would have been dropping off goods but at such a late hour, the area was deathly quiet. Acacia slid out the door and stalked along the dirt path. She quickly surveyed the area before waving for him to follow her. “The stables are this way.”
When she didn’t hear him follow she turned around and saw him lingering in the doorway. He was breathing harder than earlier and his shoulders were quivering.
“If we stay here too long, someone might pass by.” She hurried to his side, boots scuffing against dirt and rocks. “I know you’re in pain but the stables aren’t far. Once you get a horse it’ll be easier.”
“Why?” His words resounded against her eardrum, deep and echoing. “Why are you helping me?”
She looked him in the eye. It was dark but there was just enough light from the moon that she could see how pale his eyes were. They were strange to look at, animalic and predatory but yet... they were so human.
“You must want something in return.”
Her brows pinched, the corners of her mouth pressed firm into a scowl. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? People are always wanting something.” She batted her eyes and turned her attention down the path. “This war’s killed enough people. Stopping another war is a pretty damn good reason, don’t you think?” She followed the path for a few steps then looked back at him questioningly.
Baerister pushed his weight from the doorway and staggered forward.
She marched further between the citadel and the massive stone walls surrounding the town. Every now and then, she would glance back to make sure no one was following them. When they stepped through the citadel’s eastern gate towards the empty training grounds, horns began blaring throughout the city.
“They must have checked on you,” she blurted, waving her hand for him to follow as she quickened her pace. They were outside the city’s walls now so it would be easy for him to ride a horse into the woodlands. But there was no way her people would allow him to get far without pursuing.
The moment they neared the stables, she knew exactly where to go and what to grab. She saddled Ir’vaqur, the fastest horse in the stables and regrettably her favorite. There were shouts in the distance, the entire city swelling in fear. Every soldier in every house was likely gearing up for war. If they found Baerister, they would kill him without hesitating. There was no room for mercy now that he had escaped.
By the time the horse was saddled and ready to ride, the soldiers were spanning their search closer to the stables. The winds muffled their words but any moment now she would be able to see them.
“Follow the river.” Acacia quickly led the horse over to Baerister, motioning him to climb into the saddle. “It’s harder to track horse hooves if you ride through the water where it’s shallow.”
His attention swept over the large animal and the saddle before leering over at Acacia.
“We don’t have time for this.” She pointed to the stirrup with one hand and motioned his foot with the other. “Your foot through here and throw your weight into the saddle.”
He tried what she suggested and as he hoisted his body over, a sharp groan of pain jutted out of his throat. His lifeless wings flopped against the horse and then back to the ground with a heavy thud. Baerister buckled over but he was in the saddle at the very least.
“Stop them!” Their shouting was louder, even breaking past the howling wind. “Stop the traitor and prisoner!”
Acacia glanced at the mob. The orange hue of lit torches were gathering together. She turned her attention back to him. “Hurry. If you don’t leave now they’ll catch up to you.” Acacia put the reins into his hands and gave a firm nod of her head. “Go.”
Before he could reply, her ears jolted at the sound of a bow’s strong pulled taut and the whistle of an arrow. She spun around, her back pressing into the side of the horse as the arrow hit the dirt. Her gaze swept up to the battlements above. As their eyes met, she could see his expression jolt with surprise.
“Darius,” she muttered.
His lips parted as if to ask her a question. Why? Why was she, of all people, with the monster?
Her heart hammered into her ribs, sweat beading along her spine. There was no easy way to explain her presence there. She pushed herself away from the horse but a heavy weight fell onto her shoulder. She gasped as Baerister pulled her around and snatched hold of her arm. He jolted the horse forward just before tugging Acacia into the saddle with him.
“Baerister, stop!” She struggled to break her arm free, to get out of the saddle.
He spurred the horse faster, teeth clenching as his wings were tossed around by the wind. “They called you a traitor. They will kill you.”
“I have to go back,” she reasoned, throat tightening before she could say anything else. She knew in a sense that he was right. Darius had seen her helping him and he would likely report his story to his commander. Without a doubt, not even her father would be able to protect her from a trial and execution.
Her skull was swimming. Acacia rolled her head forward and pressed it into Baerister’s shoulder. She couldn’t go back. She could never return home. Was it worth it in the end? Saving him? Her gaze swept up to the deepening wrinkles between his brows as he fought through the pain. No, she reasoned, it had been the right thing to do. Her grandfather had been right all along. They were not monsters at all.
She sat taller, turning in the saddle to the open fields that surrounded Ta’nes. “Head into the woods. They won’t be able to track us as easily. And the wind won’t be as strong against your wings.”
Baerister peered down at her, lips twisting as he grimaced. But he nodded his head and steered the horse towards the wood-line. Over his shoulder, she could see the watchtower pyres being lit to signal the neighboring towns about their distress. They were calling for blood, making a declaration of war.
Her family. Would they be alright after the crimes she committed?