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Caldera 3 – Arren

May 1, 2007

Part 1 can be found here.

Caden could make out four people standing in the road ahead of him, and his hand immediately went to his sword. He had been worried about being ambushed since leaving Blackwood, and it seemed unlikely that they were here by chance, talking in the middle of the road. With the thick brush along the side of the road it would be easy for bandits to hide, and next to impossible to follow them if they knew the area.

Caden rode Akati as close as he dared before dismounting. He patted Akati’s nose affectionately and unsheathed his sword, holding it out down by his knees to avoid it flashing in the sun and giving him away. He started walking along the edge of the road towards the men.

Even though the road was clear, Caden had never been much of a hunter and found his slow approach agonizing. His suspicions were confirmed when he got closer. Two of them, one with a bow, were standing next to one another with their backs towards him, and past them were the remaining two men, one with a sword and one who just looked scared.

“C’mon. I know that you’ve got something. ‘D hate to have to kill ya. Just hand it over and that’ll be it.” It was the far bandit who was speaking, gesticulating with his sword in a way that made the man take an involuntary step backwards. This is about to get nasty.

“As I have already said. I have nothing of value with me.” The man didn’t look like he was lying, Caden couldn’t see a horse anywhere, and the man clearly didn’t have anything on him. They must be desperate.

Caden was only a few strides from the closest bandit at this point, and didn’t want to risk things getting out of hand. He ran towards the bandit with the bow. The other bandit, this one with a sword, heard Caden coming, and started to turn. Caden’s slash caught him at his collar bone and continued down until his sword had exited the torso. He heard the twanging of the bow and looked to see the traveler with an arrow sticking out of his thigh. The bowman was only a few feet away, and went down the same as the first. Caden continued towards the final bandit when he saw the man fall backwards with a stiletto sticking out of his throat.

* * *

The sun had just begun it’s descent towards the horizon when Caden finished with the bandits’ cairns. The man who he had saved was a courier for the Magistrate of Arren by the name of Tristan. Although Caden took an immediate dislike to the man’s arrogance, he couldn’t leave the man there, and had agreed to help him back to Arren.

“I still do not see why we must bury the corpses.” Tristan was sitting on a stump in the shade of one of the oak trees that lined the road. “They were only bandits, after all.”

Fool. “If you want to leave, feel free to. I will pay my respects to the dead.” Caden’s rebuke was harsh, and Tristan took a step back.

Caden rearranged his things so that Tristan could ride Akati without hurting his leg further, making sure to take out the letter that Arkos had given him. Together they started again towards Arren.

* * *

“Remember, The Fair Lily,” Tristan said as Caden helped him to dismount. Caden nodded. At first he had objected to Tristan’s offer of a reward, but had given in, not wanting to injure the man’s pride. Besides, the money would probably come in useful. He watched as Tristan limped up to the gate, and then entered after a brief discussion with the guard.

The temple was only a few blocks from the Magistrate’s office. Built out of a grey stone that had veins of some white mineral running through it, it dwarfed all of the surrounding structures. The setting sun caught the reds and yellows of the stained glass that covered the upper half of the building. Even the doors were works of art, covered with inlays. He raised one of the steel rings that had been set into each door and knocked.

It seemed like an eternity, but finally he heard the sound of the bar being raised, and the door opened enough for Caden to see the face of the man behind it. The man had a balding forehead, and his face was covered in a closely trimmed beard that had once been black, but had begun to fade to a dark grey.

“What is it?” The man’s voice had an edge to it, he clearly thought that he had more important things to be doing.

“I apologize for the late hour, but I would like an audience with the priest here.”

The man just looked at him, unblinking, and then shut the door. Caden heard the bar being lifted and put back in place. He wasn’t sure what to do. Is Arkos testing me? The temple in Blackwood had been easy, Lileas had been waiting for him, had known his name, everything.

He waited until the city watch came around, lighting the street lamps. They were looking at him suspiciously, and he didn’t want to end up in jail for the night, so he untied Akati and left in search of an inn.

* * *

The next morning, Caden went back to the temple. He reached the temple just as dawn was breaking, and the white mineral in the stone was even more beautiful in the rising sun’s light than it was in the evening.

There was an old man sitting on the top of the steps, balding with white hair around his ears, wearing a brown robe of some coarse material. The man was clearly looking for someone, his head was up, and he kept on scanning the crowd, and when he turned to Caden, it was as if he was looking only at him. The doors of the temple opened, and the old man either didn’t hear or didn’t care, because he took no notice of the two young acolytes who walked up behind him.

There was a brief scuffle, and the man was thrown bodily into the street. Caden hurried over, and pulled the man to his feet by the crook of his elbow.

“Caden.” Hearing his own name from this stranger surprised Caden, and he almost dropped the old man.

“How did you know my name?”

“I’ve been waiting.”

Despite the man’s cryptic manner, Caden went with him, and together they ate at a small street vendor. The man’s name was Alcuin, and until a few months prior he had been the head priest of the temple. The man that Caden had met the previous night was Raphael, an acolyte until he kicked Alcuin out and started running the temple himself. When he had appealed to the magistrate, he had encountered nothing but indifference. That was when he had had the dream, and had seen Caden for the first time.

“So what should I do?” Caden asked, watching Alcuin eat. Even though he was so thin that Caden doubted that he had eaten more than a bowl of rice in the last week, he still ate carefully, as though he were at court.

“All I know is that you’re supposed to take care of it.”

* * *

Caden had decided that it would be best for him to wait until evening to deal with Raphael, and had decided to explore the town. Arren deceptively big, hugging the coastline and hemmed in by the surrounding farmlands. He was walking down the main street, which followed the waterfront. This town is just one massive market. He was almost able to forget that he was by the sea, he could barely hear the waves and gulls over the vendors and the crowds.

Caden felt hemmed in and needed to get away from the people. Fortunately, Arren wasn’t that big, and it didn’t take him long to run out of road, as the town rose, following a bluff, and the buildings dwindled down to small houses before finally giving way to the large houses which overlooked the sea.

Caden found a clearing that went all the way to the end of the bluff where it dropped straight down to the water, where he sat down, looking out over the sea. He remembered sitting like this with Tara, when they had first met. I wonder if she’s out there, somewhere. He had seen the maps that depicted the large, crescent shaped continent, and knew that most directions would just lead to land, but he liked to think that Limbo was somewhere out there, across the sea yet unreachable by boat. It was what his mother had told him, when his father died, and they had sent his body out on his small fishing boat, lighting it and watching the current take it to destinations unknown.

He hadn’t understood then, standing there, holding on to her knee, when she looked down at him with tears in her eyes, but he understood now. We believe what we have to believe to keep going. Something his friend Brendan had told him when they had been together on a campaign. Brendan had died the next month, and Brendan’s words had been echoing through Caden’s head while he stood there on his friend’s family’s doorstep, telling them of what had happened.

The morning slowly changed to afternoon as Caden sat on the bluff, absorbed in the endless motion of the tides and crashing of the surf. How much of my life was dictated by that one event? He wondered, returning again to his memories of his fathers’ death. Had his father not died, Caden probably would have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a fisherman. As it was, he had never been on a boat save to ferry him across a river, and even then he hadn’t liked it. Would I even be here now if not for that?

For the first time since he had left Helena, he cried. In the army, he had been constantly exposed to death, and in that situation you just keep on moving. You tell yourself that you’ll grieve later, when there’s time. But there never is time, is there, not really. He had heard that grieving was mostly a process of acceptance, and to grieve would be to lose the mechanisms that kept the paralysis of fear at bay on the battlefield. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but he suspected that, deep down, he did.

When he finally stood up, his body stiff as he bent down to pick up his sword from where he had layed it down next to him on the grass. The handle felt cool in his hand, and when his skin touched it, he felt as though he was distanced from his memories, and felt some of the tension go out of his shoulders. At the same time, he felt like everything else sharpened, the gulls came into sharper contrast as they circled and dived over the swells, the salt in the air stung his nose as though he had just stepped out into the open, even the gentle give of the turf under his boots seemed clearer to him.

Walking back down the slope towards his inn, Caden began to wonder what the sword was doing to him. Is it enchanted? One of his commanders had had an enchanted sword, and it was an ostentatious thing, with a massive ruby in the pommel, but it was effective, Caden had seen it cut through armor plating with apparent ease. Looking again at his sword, he decided that it was too plain to be enchanted and started to walk back towards the temple.

* * *

Caden didn’t have a plan as he stood at the door to the temple. He heard the sound of the bar being raised and the door opened, and the door opened a crack the same as it had the previous evening. It was Raphael, smiling. Before he knew what he was doing, Caden kicked the door as though he were stepping through it.

It wasn’t clear if Raphael had tripped over his robe or the carpet, but he was sprawled on his back. Caden went through the doorway, and his shadow was stretched long into the church, casting Raphael’s face into shadow.

“What are you doing!?” Raphael was scrambling to get up, his robe tangling around his ankles. Caden took another step forward.

“Stop!” The voice was Alcuin’s, but it wasn’t the soft, reassuring voice that Caden had heard in the morning, it was hard now, commanding. Caden froze, startled. It was then that he realized that he was holding his sword, although he could not remember drawing it. What was I about to do? He looked down and saw the terror in Raphael’s eyes and it mirrored his own feelings at what he had almost done. He took a step back, lowering the sword, and Raphael relaxed.

“You were about to kill him,” Alcuin said, his voice softening. “And for what? Because a stranger told you to? No, not even that, I told you no such thing.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t even realize what I was doing.” Caden re-sheathed the sword as he said this. Not wanting to look at either Alcuin or Raphael.

“You can leave now,” Alcuin told the visibly shaken acolyte in a soft voice, who all but ran off towards the rooms at the side of the temple. He turned to face Caden directly, and his face contained none of the anger that Caden feared, but that made it even worse. “As for you, your apology is hardly necessary. You dealt with the situation in the only manner with which you are familiar, with violence. This is hardly surprising, given your past, but still regrettable.”

Caden looked around the temple. The interior was as beautiful as the exterior, every vertical surface was covered with designs and sculpture, and the stained-glass cast everything in varying hues. As with other temples that Caden had visited, there were no seats in the main space, but benches ran along the walls and the columns. Alcuin led him to one of the columns and they sat down next to one another.

“So what do I do?”

“People are, in general, easy to deal with. Everyone wants something, and every time you interact with someone, there is an exchange going on. You have a sword, and you know how to use it, but in the end, a man with a sword has only one option, and that is violence. The more options you have, the more likely it is that things will turn out favorably.”

“But sometimes force is necessary.” Caden thought back to the bandits, tried to think of how that could have gone differently, but every possibility seemed to end worse than what had actually happened.

“Yes, of course, but less often than you think.”

* * *

After the incident at the temple, it was time for Caden to move on. That evening he found Tristan waiting for him at The Fair Lily. Tristan was no longer wearing the fine clothes that Caden had seen him in on the road, and although he still limped it wasn’t as bad. He looks beaten.

“What happened?” Caden asked.

“I am no longer the Magistrate’s courier. Sir Edward was not as understanding about my misfortune as I had hoped him to be.” Tristan looked down at his clothes as he said this, as though he were disgusted at the indignity of wearing a commoners clothes. He had lost his pride, and Caden could not help but to pity him.

“So what will you do now?”

“I don’t know.” He held out his hand, it had a purse in it. Probably his savings. “This rightly belongs to you.”

“Keep that.” The two of them stood there, looking at each other for a long moment. “I could use a traveling companion,” Caden said, surprising himself. “There is nothing to keep you here, is there?” Tristan shook his head. “Then we should get you a horse.”

Chapter 4 can be found here.

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