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Caldera 5 – The Bridge

June 18, 2007

It didn’t occur to Caden that the Northern bridge would be heavily defended until he was almost there, and by that time, he had left the possibility of hiding in the forest far behind. There’s no way I would make it now. His only choice, then, was to hope that he could somehow get across the bridge.

When he came around a bend and found that the road led straight to the bridge he was relieved, it was guarded, but only by a half-dozen men. It looked like there weren’t any archers in the group, so there was a good chance that he would make it through. At least the rain will hide the sound of my approach. There was a shout, and they turned almost as one, but not towards him. Instead, they were looking the other way, to the West, where another rider holding a spear was approaching them at a gallop. Have the Elgen troops broken through?

Caden was almost among them when the other rider hit the group. The man didn’t raise his spear, but he didn’t slow down either, and rode straight into them. The soldiers, none of whom were mounted, panicked, darting in all directions like minnows from shadow. Caden didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, he raced past the soldiers, following the man onto the bridge, Akati’s hooves ringing against the smooth stone and drops of rain hitting him in the face, blurring his vision. Looking over his shoulder, he could see a group coming his way, marching North from the city, probably Elgen troops coming to take out the bridge.

If the man ahead of Caden knew he was being followed, he gave no sign of it, continuing across the bridge at a full gallop. His horse was black, and as the light from the burning city rose and fell, a few times it looked as though he wasn’t riding at all, but rather floating across the bridge. Caden followed him at about twenty paces, Akati easily keeping up with the other man’s horse.

At the end of the bridge, the man came to a stop, and instantly Caden realized his error. The stone of the bridge wouldn’t have given Akati much traction even if it had been dry, and the rain had made the situation worse. He almost ran into the rider, who now had his spear up, ready to skewer Caden, who barely managed to come to a stop a few paces away.

“Why are you following me?” the man asked, and Caden recognized his accent, he came from Western Kalmar, near the border with Asennos.

“I’m not. I just don’t want to be here when they blow the bridge,” Caden said. With his hand resting on the grip of his sword, he could hear fighting from across the river. He resisted the urge to turn his head, knowing that the arch of the bridge would block his view. Surprise registered on the man’s face when Caden spoke.

“You’re from Kalmar?” the man asked as he eyed Caden’s sword. “Why are you leaving the city?”

“Listen, you can stay here, I don’t care. But I need to go.” Caden could hear fighting from the other end of the bridge as the guards were overrun. He tightened his grip on his sword. The man backed off, holding his spear up defensively. He looked like he knew in his head how to hold the weapon, but his hands had never really learned how. He’s no soldier, or if he is, he’s never been in battle, Caden thought. The man’s spear was aimed too low, he might as well have been holding a fishing rod.

Caden left him there, by the bridge. I need to get to shelter before the rain gets any worse. Akati was still warm, and by the time the clouds were again bathed in blue light from whatever the Elgen troops had done to the bridge, Caden well away from it. Only then did he find a waystation well off the road where he could sleep. It wasn’t much, a shelter big enough for two or three people carved out of the stump of what must have been a massive tree, but it would keep the rain off of his head for the night.

* * *

When Caden awoke, the rain had slackened off to a fine mist. He looked around and saw that there was another horse next to Akati, and he reached for his sword, holding the sheath in his left hand. He was still in the shelter, and couldn’t see any other signs of whoever had come during the night. Keeping his back up against the inside of the trunk, he looked around. Dawn’s light was starting to filter through the forest’s canopy, and it seemed an altogether different world from the one he had gone to sleep in, as though the battle the day before had never happened.

Caden’s saddlebags were sitting next to him, and they didn’t look as though they had been touched. When his right had closed around the cord-wrapped grip, he experienced the now familiar sensation of sharpened senses, but something else, too. Out of the corner of his eye, it appeared that everything around him was gently pulsating, but anything that he looked directly at seemed solid and constant again. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. He was convinced of this as the effect seemed to fade the more he concentrated on it.

There was a rustling in the underbrush, and the man from the bridge stepped out, immediately taking a small step back when he saw that Caden was holding his sword.

“What are you doing here?” Caden tensed, and saw the man stiffen response, fearful.

“I needed to get off the road last night.” The man was holding a small cloth sack that was bulging with red and black berries. “My name is Tiernan, by the way.”

“I’m Caden.” Both of them relaxed, as though merely knowing each other’s names granted a measure of safety. Tiernan’s shoulders visibly loosened and Caden’s grip on his sword relaxed.

The two of them talked, sharing the berries that Tiernan had picked. Caden had been right, Tiernan was from Western Kalmar, and had grown up in Graenthe Keep, one of many that lined the border with Asennos. He had blond hair and green eyes that suggested that at some point his ancestors had mixed with the Asennans, a common trait of people from that area. He wasn’t particularly tall, but Caden wouldn’t have considered him short, either. His slender frame made him seem small though, and with no breadth to his shoulders, Caden couldn’t picture him fitting in with the martial lifestyle of a border keep.

“What made you decide to leave?” Caden asked.

“My father was the Master at Arms, and when he died, there was nothing to keep me there. Although I’m a decent shot, I don’t have his talents, so I’m heading to Olec to work with my cousin, who’s a merchant.” Caden hadn’t noticed the horsebow strapped behind Tiernan’s saddle, but it wasn’t surprising that he wouldn’t want to risk ruining the bow strings.

Caden looked up at the sky and started to gather his things. “Its almost noon. We should get going.”

“No, there are still troops on the road,” Tiernan said. “They’ve been passing by all night.”

* * *

Although the two of them tried to leave the waystation, but were kept there by the constant flow of Baden troops Westward. Tiernan spent most of the time exploring the surrounding area while Caden worked on the sword-forms that Lileas had taught him and tried to read Tactics and Strategies, although the persistent damp made the latter impractical. He was walking back to the waystation when he noticed a small plant that was growing at the base of a large tree.

The plant had palm-sized, spade-shaped leaves and reached no higher than his waist, but what drew his eye to it was that it was blue, not the blue of the sky or the ocean, but more like the blue that he had seen on beetles’ carapaces. The plant’s leaves had a sheen to them, but also seemed luminous, as though they were in a single beam of sunlight. This is ridiculous, it must be some sort of illusion. He couldn’t bring himself to leave it, though. He crouched down and touched one of the leaves, it had an odd texture to it, covered in flattened bumps. He tried to pull the leaf off, but his hand slipped off of the smooth surface. He pulled the small knife that he kept in his boot out and cut the leaf off, half expecting for something interesting to happen. Nothing did however, the knife cut through the plant and the leaf came free. He carried it back to the camp and placed it between the last page and the cover of Tactics and Strategies.

“Caden!” Tiernan’s voice rang through the trees, although not so loud as to be able to reach the road. Caden tensed anyway, looking towards the road, but no one came. “Caden, what’s wrong?” He almost jumped at the sound of his name from a few paces behind him, where Tiernan had emerged from the forest.

“Nothing. What is it?”

“Found a path that looks like it leads East. Its too narrow to ride, but it won’t be too difficult to lead the horses.” Tiernan looked excited, and Caden felt it too, it would be good to be moving on again.

“Good. Let’s get going.”

Chapter 6 can be found here.

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