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Caldera 4 – Elgen

June 5, 2007

“Are you sure you’re going to stop here?” Caden asked, looking over at his companion. He and Tristan had just arrived at Elgen, the city that all but straddled the border between Kalmar and it’s neighbor to the West, Baden. The city was situated along the seaward shore of a large island that split the Ley river as it flowed into the ocean. Between Elgen and the mountains where the Ley originated, the river was too wide to be bridged and too rough to be forded, so the island effectively controlled the border.

“I don’t know what lies ahead of you, but I know there isn’t anything there for me.” Tristan had grown increasingly uncomfortable over the last few months as he had traveled with Caden towards Baden. “This is as far as I go.”

Caden shrugged, they had had this discussion several times before. I wonder what he’s so uneasy about? Caden, himself was a little worried about what lay ahead for him. He had only ever crossed the Eastern border, and even then it was only as part of a military campaign. The truth was, he had no way of knowing what lay ahead of him as he traveled West into Baden and from there North to Olec and Ravos.

The two of them had been forced inland by the mountains, but they had given way to plains and the road led once again to the water. The Western and Eastern borders were very different, he constantly expected to turn a corner and find a fort or a castle, anything. Where are the defenses? He knew that it was a mistake for him to think in this way, but he couldn’t help it, no matter how peaceful a border was, there had to be some fortifications.

Situated as it was, Elgen was a center of commerce, and had clearly benefitted from it. The roads were smooth, the buildings tall, and the city didn’t smell like a city. It didn’t smell like a small town, either, the air was filled with a melange of scents: spicy food, bread, incense, salty water, and things that he had no name for.

“It looks like this is where our paths part,” Caden said. “Unless, of course, you reconsider.”

“I like this place, I think I’ll stay here, maybe find myself a wife.” Tristan smiled as he said this, and Caden realized that the man seemed to fit this city. There would be no point in trying to pull him away from it. “We should split up our funds, I guess.” Tristan didn’t seem to be upset at the prospect of dividing their money, and Caden was glad that it didn’t look like they would fight over it.

“I didn’t realize that we had done so well,” Caden said when Tristan took out the purse, which was fairly bulging.

“We did alright for ourselves, and we lived cheaply.” While Caden had been fulfilling his obligations at the various temples, Tristan had been doing odd jobs. The temples usually took care of at least some of their meals and lodging, and several times they had hired out to guard caravans on the roads between the towns.

“I think that I’ll only need twenty or so marks, if you have them in there.”

“Only twenty? At least twice that is yours.”

“You’ll have more use for it than I will, keep it.”

“Fair enough,” Tristan said as he counted out the coins and handed them to Caden, who put them in his own, much smaller purse. The two of them dismounted and shook hands.

“I don’t doubt that we will meet again,” Caden said as he looked in the other man’s green eyes and smiled.

* * *

After he had left Tristan in the town center, Caden felt alone, he had grown used to Tristan’s company. He also felt free, however; it was easy to forget how simple life is when you have no responsibility outside of yourself. Over the past months, Caden had passed through over a dozen towns, and spent time at a temple in each of them, sometimes a single day, sometimes a fortnight. One thing he had been able to discern no pattern in, however, was which temple in a given city would be expecting him. He had taken to asking the guards at the gate the locations of the temples, and then visiting all of them until he found the one that was expecting him.

The evening light was fading, and he had been to all of the temples in the city, none of which had been expecting him. The only place he had left to visit was the old Abbot’s residence. Caden passed the house several times before realizing that he would have to follow the narrow path through the trees that covered one of the hills in the center of the town.

After dismounting and leading Akati up the path, he found the house. There was a frail-looking old man sitting in front of the house, drinking tea and watching the sunset. When he saw Caden, he stood up. He was taller than average, but not more than a palm-span taller than Caden himself. His hair was steel-grey, and his closely cropped goatee was white, lending to a feeling of age.

“Caden, I presume,” the man asked. Caden nodded, still approaching the house. “I am Brother Justin, all though some still call me Abbot. I’m glad you found me, I know it can be difficult. One would think that Arkos would have a better plan for all of this,” the abbot said, smiling. Caden was stunned, he had never heard anyone mock Arkos like this old man was doing.

“I’m sure that there is a reason for this process,” Caden said, perhaps a bit too harshly.

“I agree. Don’t look so upset. I would not worship a god that did not have a sense of humor. Have a seat, tell me about yourself.” The abbot sat back down and poured a second cup of tea for Caden.

“I think that I should see to my horse first.” Caden couldn’t help the edge that was creeping into his voice.

“Excellent, I would not trust a man who doesn’t treat his horse well. After all, if we cannot treat a creature as undemanding as a horse well, how can we hope to do the same for our brothers and sisters,” Brother Justin said, and Caden immediately felt relieved. “There is a stable around the side of the house.”

* * *

“I wonder what Arkos wants an old man like me to teach you? I do not imagine that I could help you much with your swordsmanship, so that makes the obvious choice strategy,” Justin said after Caden had finished telling him of the events that had led up to that point.

“Strategy? I know plenty about strategy, I’ve been a soldier for over a decade.”

“Really?” Justin arched an eyebrow. “Tell me what you know of the subject, then.”

“I know about formations and maneuvers,” Caden began. “I know that when an enemy has flanked you–”

“You are talking about tactics,” Justin cut him off. “We were talking about strategy.”

“But they’re the same thing.”

“No, they are not. It looks like I have a lot to teach you.” If not for his smile, Caden would have thought the old man condescending. “Tactics are important, yes, but strategy is necessary. Tactics win battles. Strategy wins wars.”

“So its like the tactics of tactics?” Caden asked.

“Yes, but it is easier to think of it as the plan that determines every move you make. Strategy is not about war, it is about planning, and has a role in all human affairs.” Justin stopped for a moment, reflective. “I suppose that it has a role in all divine affairs, as well.”

“How do you plan on teaching me strategy, then?”

“There is a game . . .”

* * *

“And that’s the game,” Justin said as he sat back from the table, stroking his white goatee before taking a sip of tea.

“I’m glad I wasn’t actually fighting in that battle,” Caden said. His few remaining pieces were surrounded and in imminent danger. He wasn’t upset, however, this was the third game that they had played, and it had gone better than in the previous two. At least it looked like I was offering some resistance this time.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if you had been on my side.” There were two piles of captured pieces, Caden’s pieces outnumbered Justin’s three-to-one. Caden started to move the pieces back to their starting positions, but Justin held out a hand to stop him. “We do not need to play any more tonight. The game will not teach you much in any case.”

“Then why did you teach it to me?”

“I didn’t say that it was worthless, Caden. The game is a way of testing out ideas and training your mind to think, it cannot teach you anything about strategy by itself.”

“Then how do I learn strategy?”

Justin ignored Caden’s question. “I’m going to go down to the cellar to get dinner. I’ll be right back.” The old man got out of his chair, and walked to a door in the back of the room, opening it to reveal a stairway that led down into the cellar. Next to the door, there was a lamp, but instead of picking it up, Justin reached inside and pulled out a a ball that was giving off a soft, golden light. Holding it, Justin went down into the cellar. What was that? Caden had heard stories about objects that magically produced light, and although he had always given them some credibility, seeing one in person was a totally different matter.

When Justin returned, holding a wicker basket that held bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine, he returned the orb to its lamp.

“I take it from your expression that you have never seen one of those before. Do you know what it is?”

“I’ve heard of them before, but I don’t know any proper name.”

“Its an Aldren Ball. They are expensive, but very useful. You will see more of their like as you travel West. Be careful that you don’t rely on things like that, though.”

They were quiet after that as they ate a simple dinner of salted meat, bread, cheese, and wine. The food wasn’t rich, but it was all fresh. The cheese wasn’t the hard cheese that he was used to, it wasn’t overly salty, but it had a sharp taste nonetheless. It was the sort of food that Caden would have imagined a king eating while out hunting.

“Thank you, this is nicer food than I’ve had in a long time. I–” Caden choked up, then, as he remembered the last time he had eaten so well. We were so young. He had to hold himself back to keep from crying at the memory of his wedding.

Justin was respectful, waiting patiently for Caden to deal with the rush of emotions. When Caden had relaxed, Justin handed him another piece of bread with a slice of cheese before refilling both of their wine glasses. Justin raised his glass, and Caden did the same.

“To better times,” he said, before taking a long drink from his glass, and Caden did the same. “So, as for strategy, unfortunately, there isn’t much I can teach you about strategy. It isn’t like swordsmanship, I could teach you, but we don’t have the time. It took me ten years to get Lileas to where she is now, and it would take even longer with you.”

“But she can’t be more than eighteen. Wouldn’t it take less time for me?” Caden asked.

“No, it would take several years for you to unlearn all that you know, and then many more to learn it all the right way.” Justin got up then, and walked to the entry way. He bent over, and when he stood back up, Caden could see that he was holding two shoes. As he walked back into the light, Caden could see that one of the shoes was his. “Look,” Justin said, holding out Caden’s shoe, with the sole facing the ceiling. “See how the shoe is worn down on the outside corner?”

“Yeah. Isn’t that normal.”

“Yes, it is normal, but that doesn’t mean that its right. Now look at this.” Justin held out the other shoe. Even though it was clearly old, the sole was worn evenly, as though it had simply been made with a thinner sole. “My shoes used to look like yours, with the heel all worn down. You don’t need to worry about learning about your sword, you need to learn how to walk, how to move. You need to learn about your body. Pay attention to it, and it will tell you everything you need to know.” He walked back to the entryway, and carefully set the shoes back where they had been.

Caden didn’t respond. It seemed absurd, that he would need to learn how to walk again, but a part of him knew that Justin was right, and would not let him forget it. As he sat back in his chair, he felt how his shoulders were tight, and how his head tilted slightly to the left. He felt a dull ache in his lower back that he had never noticed before, but he knew that it was an old hurt. It will take the rest of my life to move like he does. The thought was depressing, but then Caden looked at Justin, really looked, and he saw Justin in a different light. He didn’t really know how old the man was, he had just assumed that because of the white hair, he was ancient. Justin didn’t seem ancient, though, the way he held himself, he looked young.

“How old are you?” Caden asked.

Justin just smiled and said, “Old enough. Old enough to know that I should be getting to sleep soon.” Justin walked over to the bookcase that took the wall adjacent to the fireplace, and Caden noticed that his shoulders and head appeared to be gliding, as though Justin merely willed himself to move.

Justin brought back a book from the bookcase. “In case I forget, take this with you, I do not need it anymore,” he said, handing Caden the book. The cover read: Tactics and Strategies. Below the title, in small letters, was written the name Cecil. “If there is anyone who can teach you about strategy, it would be Cecil.”

“I never knew that he wrote a book.” Cecil was a legendary swordsman and general who had lived centuries ago. Caden could remember a handful of sayings that his officers had used, and the stories that he had heard as a child.

“Not many do. Keep it safe.”

* * *

Caden awoke to the sound of a man’s scream being cut short, and when he burst into the main room of the house, there were bodies everywhere, but no Justin. Caden could hear sounds of fighting outside, and when he peered through the door, saw Justin standing in the midst of a group of soldiers. Although his face was dimly illuminated and half hidden by his goatee, Caden could see that Justin looked calm, serene. In fact, he seemed to be moving in slow motion, stepping calmly out of the way of oncoming swords, and then back into the void left by their passing to kill their owners. He looked up at Caden.

“Get your things and leave the city!” he yelled. “There isn’t much time!” There was a note of command in the voice, and Caden found himself back in his room, quickly repacking his saddlebags before he realized what was going on. Slinging his bags over his shoulder, he grabbed his sword, and felt the now familiar sensations of life flow into him, sharpening his vision, even in the darkness. Suddenly, he could hear the sounds of fighting throughout the city, and smell the buildings burning.

“Sorry,” he said to Akati, as he saddled the horse as quickly as he could. Once he was finished, he hopped up, slung the sword over his shoulder, and started to leave Justin’s house. As he rounded the corner, he did not see Justin. There were a dozen men laying there, dead or dying, Akati stepped around them and started down the path.

There was no sign of Justin, or anyone else for that matter, on the street, and so Caden headed north. He knew that he was on the Western edge of the city, and kept the dancing flames on his right as he sped North. The streets were clear on the outskirts of the city, everyone had either fled to or away from the city.

It began to rain, big droplets hitting him in the face every now and again. The rain cut down on the smoke that filled the air, but the combination of the fresh scent of water in the air and the smoke was sickening. Every few minutes, he would hear the screams and moans of the dying and wounded. He didn’t stop, didn’t slow down as Justin’s words compelled him forward. He’s not the sort to panic, I need to get off of this island.

The force of the explosion behind him stunned Akati, who missed a step, and for a moment it felt as though he would be thrown from his saddle. Looking behind him, he saw a pillar of blue flame twisting towards the sky, painting the horizon an eerie silver color. Shit, they’re blowing the bridges. The thought scared him, he didn’t want to be trapped on this island. He urged Akati Northward through the rain.

Chapter 5 can be found here.

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