Acacia: A Tense Night
Hooves pounded into the soft earth. The gelding’s whining and labored breaths were drowned out by the winds whipping against Acacia’s ears. The moment they broke through the tree-line, she couldn’t see anything beyond a few meters. The horse could sense Acacia’s hesitation and despite her urging the gelding to go faster it simply slowed to a halt and reared up in dismay.
“It’s too dark to ride,” she muttered, heart hammering in her chest. She pulled the reins to the side in hopes the gelding would follow the orders. “We could try to walk the rest of the way.”
Baerister reached past her with a trembling hand. He loosely held the reins as he rasped, “I can see. Not well but enough.”
Acacia glanced over her shoulder at him while nodding but as her eyes caught sight of his furrowed brows, she shook her head. “You’re not really in much shape to be leading us anywhere.”
“We have little choice, don’t we?” He urged the gelding forward. It took some time before the horse’s hooves clomped across the mossy earth and followed Baerister’s command. He swallowed down a harsh groan, leaning forward into Acacia’s spine. She just caught sight of his wing snagging into one of the low hanging branches.
“Baerister,” she stated, “walking would be easier.”
“No.” He rolled his head forward into her shoulder, the feather plumes along his crown brushing her cheek. “It’s slower. I don’t think... I can walk.”
Acacia eased herself back to support his growing weight. She rolled her eyes over to see his thinning gaze. He was desperately trying to keep the horse’s slow march forward but his hands began to fall limply into Acacia’s lap. There was no convincing him but if she didn’t do something soon, the Arpaeian would fall out of the saddle and hurt himself even further.
Before she could get the words out, another branch snagged his wing and jerked him backwards into the dirt. He let out a guttural cry of pain.
Acacia snapped up the reins and pulled the horse to a stop. The impatient and frightened gelding reared backwards and it took all of Acacia’s strength to stay seated. “Steady now,” she whispered. She rubbed the horse’s neck as he stomped the ground. “Easy there. Easy. We’re alright.”
She unmounted and searched for Baerister among the shadows. Luckily the canopy above was thin where they were, offering much needed light in the dark forest. She could just make out his form as he attempted to roll up onto his knees. “Careful.” Acacia strode quickly to his side and pulled him up onto trembling legs. “Let’s take a break before we keep going.”
The Arpaeian’s weight staggered backwards and nearly pulled Acacia with him. She managed to pull him forward then ease him against the nearest tree.
He groaned, throat straining to speak, “Your people will catch up with us soon unless we keep going.” He tried getting to his feet again but Acacia shoved him back into the tree.
“If I can’t see then they definitely can’t see.” She squatted down in front of him with her shield and leaned her weight into it. “They’re most likely putting up a perimeter along the treeline until morning.” She swept her eyes across the dense darkness that surrounded them. Every now and then she could make out a slight outline of something moving.
Baerister swallowed down another groan, breath caught in his lungs as he powered through a wave of agony.
Acacia shook her head. “I had no idea the Arpaeians were so stubborn.”
He clenched his eyes shut before releasing a slow sigh. He finally looked at her. His attention was locked on her eyes and she wasn’t sure what he expected from her. She almost averted her gaze until he asked her, once more, the same question, “Why are you helping me? Your kind are known for their brutality.”
Acacia huffed. She sat down and laid her shield on the mossy ground. “Not all humans are like that.”
“No. Not humans.” He shook his head slightly and turned his attention back to the woods. “Ta’nesians. Everyone knows your people are violent.”
“To be fair, Ta’nes is an army.” She stretched out her legs and squeezed her sore knees. “We’re born to be soldiers and to fight. Especially the Arpaeia.”
His words quieted, “Exactly. War hungry. Brutish. Bloodthirsty.”
“Bloodthirsty?” Acacia felt her face burn, a sudden anger swelling inside of her chest. “We might be an army but we’re not bloodthirsty. We haven’t attacked anyone. You’re the one that flew into our territory. You knew we were enemies.”
He released a loud, exaggerated sigh. “I did know better...” Baerister shifted awkwardly, trying to fit the tree between limp wings. “Yet here I thought the war was over. Your people clearly haven’t changed. You’re still clinging to your hatred.” His lips began to tremble as he repressed a bitter smile.
She clenched her hands into fists. “My brother died fighting that war and my mother was crippled. People lost their families and their homes. Entire towns were destroyed.”
“Do you think the Arpaeia are so cold as to not mourn their own dead?” His fingers curled around his ribs, squeezing as he tried to get comfortable. “We lost countless people as well. But at least we put down our weapons and signed the treaty. Can you say the same?” His lips pulled back as he cringed, fangs and teeth glinting in the darkness.
“What are you talking about?”
Baerister’s eyes slid shut. He swallowed down another groan and ignored her.
Acacia gasped then huffed breathily when he stayed quiet. She jumped up onto her feet as the annoyance knotted inside of her chest. She paced away from him, pulling her lips between her teeth. She growled the words, “What treaty?”
“The Treaty of Ashnear. The treaty that ended the war.” He slowly opened his eyes and swept his gaze across her features, searching for some hint of truth.
She shook her head in utter disbelief.
“Do you really not know?”
She threw out open palms with impatience. “Clearly only you’ve heard of it because no one in Ta’nes has ever talked about it. If we knew we wouldn’t have been waiting around aimlessly like a bunch of morons.”
“King Eiyanh and Matriarch Laveln met together in Ashnear to discuss an end to the war. The King of Ta’nes sent a representative to formally refuse any alliance with the Arpaeia.”
She shook her head and clenched her teeth. “You keep mentioning a king. Ta’nes doesn’t have a king. We have a council.”
“Someone leads Ta’nes whether they call themselves king or not. Someone is leading your council and it appears that they’re keeping a lot of secrets from you.”
Acacia shook her head. “I’m pretty sure I know about the Ta’nesian council far better than you.”
Baerister slowly raked his fingers through the feathers along his scalp. “Sometimes hatred blinds people to the truth.”
Hadn’t her grandfather said something similar? Suddenly she didn’t feel much like arguing with him.
Although there was a nagging point about his story. How could an entire city, no, an entire province, be ignorant of a treaty? It had to be wrong and yet if... if Baerister wasn’t lying, then her family and friends had been training for a war that was already over.
She was so caught up in the first strange point that she didn’t ask him about the second. Last she checked, King Arcaveous was the one ruling Amitra. Who was Eiyanh and what happened to the last king?
Baerister’s husky voice pricked her ears, “You’ll see when we get to the border.”
She scoffed thinking about it and scuffed her boot across the mossy ground. “You mean the checkpoint?”
There was a narrow pass between the mountains that separated Amitra from Ta’nes. It was notoriously dangerous that merchants at one point refused to travel south with their supplies.
She glowered over at him. He was clearly in no state to be arguing with her. She reached into the pouch on her belt and pulled out one of the small vials. “If we even make it that far.” Acacia moved closer to him and held out the vial. “This will keep your fever down and take away some of the pain.”
He pulled his attention from her to the glass vial and slowly took it in hand.
“Unless we find a healer soon, it won’t be of much use.”
“I know a healer in Amitra. It’ll take a few days to reach her.”
“Across this supposed border?”
Acacia marched away from him to the grazing stallion and grabbed its reins. She tied the leather strap to one of the exposed roots of a tree and removed the heavy saddle. The night was going to be a long wait for both of them and the exhausted gelding would need to recover as much as possible.
“It was a tough race,” she muttered to the horse while gently stroking its neck. “You did a great job, Ir’vaqur.”
When she glanced back at Baerister who had fallen quiet, her stomach clenched. A thin layer of sweat had already begun to spread across his skin. The feathers along his skull, dark black feathers, were flattening as sweat gathered in them. The vial was untouched in his hands.
She returned to his side and snapped up the vial. “I wouldn’t poison you after going through all the trouble of helping you escape.”
Acacia popped off the cork and pressed the glass to his lips. Just as she did his eyes opened, pale gray eyes which were a sharp contrast to the dark bronze of his skin. Now that she was closer to him, she could see the black quills along his pinched brows.
She made sure her words were an order, “Drink. As soon as you get your strength back we can move again.”
He glanced down at the medicine and without arguing swallowed the liquid in one mouthful. He didn’t even cringe at the sharp bitterness that usually made Acacia gag. As she stuffed the vial back into her pouch, he cleared his throat and added, “Rest. I’ll keep watch.”
“I don’t think so.” A wry smile curled along her lips. “You’re wounded. You almost fell asleep moments ago.”
“There are creatures in these woods that thrive in the dark.”
“Exactly. I’ve spent my whole life in these woods.”
“Except I’m the one that can see in the dark.”
“Sleep.” Acacia impatiently walked across the small clearing to the other side. “I don’t wanna have to haul you through the woods during the day because you’re tired.”
Baerister’s eyes rolled shut. “I could say the same about you.”
She kept her gaze on the flat darkness surrounding them, her tone just as flat, “I’m. Not. Wounded.”
He made no more effort to speak with her. The smirk he made was a clear reply.
She let her eyes rest on him, the slump wings and crumpled curtain he wore. He had to be freezing. The more she stared at him the more she realized how much of a hindrance his wings were. She knew his people lived in cities in the mountains. They once, according to legend, lived in cities that hovered over the land. Perhaps they were used to being cold.
He was interesting, that much she couldn’t deny. His words earlier bothered her though. She never traveled so far north as to even see the checkpoint. It had always just been there. It was a safe middle ground or so she thought. Few people ever talked about Amitra, or the other foreign lands, or ever talked about the king. Of course, with no war and little in the way of events, it wasn’t strange not to talk about the north.
Baerister had no reason to lie to her about the treaty though. He seemed bewildered that she herself had no idea. And to call her people brutish as if they were somehow thugs... They were loyal protector of their king and country.
Ashnear... She tried to remember where such a place was. No one had ever mentioned an Ashnear. And she was certain none of the maps she’d ever seen had anything called Ashnear.
She eased her spine into the trunk of a tree and quietly sighed.
A more worrying thought crossed her mind. What was happening now that the entire city knew she was the one with the Arpaeian? Would her family have to defend her honor? Would the council declare her a traitor? Would the council throw her father out of his seat? Their family was one of the founders of Ta’nes but her actions might have erased all of that.