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Caldera 7 – Afon

July 23, 2007

Caden and Tiernan had been traveling with a merchant caravan since leaving Evergate a fortnight ago. Unfortunately, the caravan was headed to Pons, and Caden was not looking forward to parting ways with it the next morning. Tiernan had been busy for the entire trip, leaving Caden to spend time with the merchants, and it had been nice to talk with other people for a change.

“That’s it!” Alec, the man in charge of the whole thing, yelled from his seat on the lead wagon as the line ground to a stop. “We aren’t going to find a better place than this.” After that, he started giving orders, making sure that firewood was gathered, dinner was prepared, fresh water was drawn, and the horses were seen to. He sounds like a general. There were times, back in the Kalmarian Dragoons, that Caden would have welcomed a leader as competent as Alec.

Caden was part of the group that was taking care of the horses, and he lost himself in the work, allowing the repetitive tasks to take his mind off of Tara. When he was finished, he joined the rest of the caravan on the colorful blankets that had been spread on the ground around the fire as they waited for dinner.

“So, is Olec much like Baden?” he asked, leaning forward so that Alec could more easily refill his mug of ale.

“No, it–” Alec began before being cut off by his wife, Celia. Caden had to smile at the couple.

“No, its nothing like Baden. Or Kalmar or Asennos, for that matter,” she said. She and her husband were of a similar build, solid but not fat, their hands calloused by the life on the road. Alec ran the wagons, although it was clear that the wagons were all he ran. Celia was the trader of the two, and sometimes Caden wondered if Alec ever got a chance to speak. “Once you get North of the narrows, the land flattens out, and its nothing but grass as far as the eye can see, which is why they import so much timber and iron from us. But they’ve got the best horses you’ll ever lay eyes on, I’d wager.”

Celia went on like that until dinner was ready, and then she went on some more, Alec only getting a word in when she was eating. Caden hardly said a word the whole evening, as she told him about the politics, culture, geography, and just about everything else he would ever want to know about the country.

“So, Caden, do you play Atrici?” Alec asked after the meal was over and Celia had gone to help clean up from dinner. He had produced a pipe from one of his coat pockets, and was packing tobacco into it.

“Atrici?” Caden asked.

“Don’t let him get you into that game, you’ll be up all night,” one of the teamsters interjected as she walked past the two of them.

“I’ve also heard it called Logi,” Alec said after getting his pipe lit and blowing out a puff of sweet-smelling smoke. When Caden didn’t recognize the name, Alec started to explain it.

It didn’t take long for Caden to recognize the game that he had played with Justin back in Elgen. “Oh, I’ve played that a couple of times, I just hadn’t heard it called anything other than The Game,” Caden said.

Alec laughed. “Makes sense, some people think its the only game worth playing.” Alec placed the honey-colored wooden board on the bench in between them. He also pulled out three small bags that clinked when he set them down, one of them grey and the other two black. He handed one of the black bags to Caden, who teased open the knot on the drawstring and withdrew a stone. It was white.

“Looks like you’ll be going first,” Alec said. “Do you remember how to play?”

“I believe so, but I guess we’ll see in a minute here,” Caden said, and Alec smiled at the joke. The Atrici board was a square piece of polished wood a little over four palms to a side. It’s surface was inscribed with a grid of eleven lines by thirteen lines, the intersections of which had small divots to hold the pieces once they were played. The only other marks on the board were five intersections where the divots had been painted, called stars, one at the center and the other four near the corners. The objective of the game was to control either the four corner stars or the center star and at least two of the corner stars.

Every game started with both players controlling the corner star nearest to them on their right side, so they both placed four stones out, one at each of the of the adjacent intersections to their star. After that they took turns placing one stone out at a time. The camp moved on around them, some people preparing things for the next day, some resting, and the children chasing the dogs. Alec and Caden didn’t talk, each of them hunching over the board, staring at the stones as though they held portents of the future. The only noises being made were the stones grinding as they were pulled out of the bags and then clacking as they were played, sounding to Caden like practice swords being struck together.

“It’s odd, I’ve only played this game a few times, but I think that I’ve gotten better since I played last,” Caden said after they had finished the first game. He had lost, having only captured one additional corner star while Alec controlled the rest.

“That’s the nature of it, once you learn how to play the game rattles around in your brain as long as you don’t stop for too long,” Alec said, gathering his stones back into his bag to ready for the next game. “Take Celia, she rarely plays, but she started when she was very young, you understand. Beats me every time.” Alec let out a rumbling laugh.

“I can’t help but wish I had learned the game when I was younger,” Caden said. Would I even be here today if that had been the case? Would my choices have been any different?

“That’s how we all feel. No matter what we do, it would be nice to have started earlier,” Alec said.

The two of them played three more games after that, until the fire had died down and they had to squint at the board in the lamplight. Each game took longer than the last, although Caden won none of them. He’s too agressive. It bothered him that he could see Alec wasn’t spending enough time setting up his big moves, but he didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. After the third game, Alec took put all of his stones in his pouch, tying the drawstrings, and Caden followed suit.

“You’ll be wanting to get some sleep, we’ve got an early morning tomorrow if you want to make Afon by nightfall,” Alec said, packing the board and the stones back into their chest. “Next time we meet maybe you’ll get a chance to be beaten by Celia.”

“See you in the morning then,” Caden said, standing up slowly and stretching his aching body before making his way to the tent that he shared with Tiernan.

* * *

“I’m glad that’s over with,” Tiernan said as they rode away from where the caravan was still at the fork in the road, readying to leave. Caden felt the resentment behind his companion’s words, but the effect of the sun filtering through the leaves made it distant. Still, it was the only thing that either of them had said since they left the merchants, and he didn’t look forward to spending the rest of the trip in silence.

“Why? They were nice enough,” Caden said, chewing on a piece of flatbread that Celia had given him when he left.

“It just seems so pointless. You ride all day, and then you spend half the evening gathering firewood or staking down tents, then you do the same thing the next day. It wouldn’t have been so bad, even, if they had anything to say. You always think about merchants, about the places they’ve seen, but all they ever talk about is the price of wool.”

He wasn’t talking to Celia, Caden thought, repressing the urge to smirk as they rode on in silence. But he could remember Tiernan talking to Celia, and the look on her face when she just gave up on him. The first couple of days, it had seemed the same way to him too, like all they talked about was costs and wares, but then he had realized that trading and prices were just how the merchants made sense of the world, and once he had understood that, suddenly it seemed as though everyone were full of things to talk about. I guess they just needed to find a way to connect.

* * *

The city of Afon was actually two cities, on the Baden side it was called Afon, and on the Olec side it was called Eastgate. Celia had told him to expect it, but nothing could have prepared Caden for the sight of a city that was actually built on a massive bridge. The bridge itself was over a thousand years old, the relic of some forgotten people. He would have expected it to be a magnificent sight in itself, but it was so built up that Caden couldn’t actually see the bridge at all. Why would they have built something like this? What could possibly require a bridge this big? Once they were actually in the city, however, the shock wore off, and with it his questions. It was no different than if the city were simply built on a hill.

“Hey! You there!” Caden looked over and there was a man yelling at him from a blacksmith’s shop. The man was wearing a stained leather apron that hung down almost to his knees and beckoning him closer. “Come over here!”

Caden exchanged a glance with Tiernan, who shrugged. As they approached the man, Caden started to appreciate how big he was. He had a barrel chest and his arms were as big around as Caden’s legs. Somehow the man’s smile, peeking out from his curly red beard, made him seem non-threatening, and Caden got down off of Akati when he reached the shop. As he approached the man, he could feel the heat coming out of the shop in waves and smell the quench buckets that reminded him of burnt water, like a kettle that had been left on the fire for all the water boil away.

“Fine horse ya got there. I’m Gustav,” he said, switching the pair of massive tongs he was holding over to his left hand before offering Caden his right. “You’ll lame him if you keep on like that, though.” Gustav pointed to Akati’s front left foot, and it was suddenly obvious to Caden that the leg was sitting at an odd angle.

“I see. Can you reshoe him?” Caden asked.

“I could, but my friend Echann would do a better job, I work mostly with bigger stuff. If you take a left up there, its just past the first intersection,” Gustav said.

“Thanks,” Caden said, deciding that he liked Gustav. “Could you recommend an inn? My friend and I just arrived.”

“Yeah, the Spire, right across the way there,” Gustav said, pointing to a building that Caden hadn’t noticed before, tucked a few paces off the street. The inn’s shingle had a picture of a tower that matched the tower rising out of the middle of the city.

“Thanks,” Caden said.

“Least I could do,” Gustav replied, waving them off.

“Do you need any work done at the farrier’s?” Caden asked Tiernan.

“No. I’ll go see to our lodgings, I’ll take your stuff in,” Tiernan said.

“Thanks,” Caden said, undoing his saddle bags and handing them to his companion before heading off.

Echan’s place was easy to spot. The entire front of the shop was open, and the thick wooden posts that were holding up the roof were covered with tools, tack, and various other gear. There were two young men working at the side of the shop, one shaping bars of metal into horseshoes and the other filing them and stacking them neatly on a small cart.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice came from the other side of the shop. Caden looked over and saw a woman getting up from a small table where it looked like she had just finished eating. She drained the last of whatever was in her mug and started walking towards Caden. She was a little bit taller than Caden and by the look of her arms, just as strong. “What can I do for you?”

“Gustav sent me over. I need new shoes for Akati here,” Caden said.

“I’m Echann. You mind?” she asked as she approached Akati. Caden nodded. He was about to warn her that Akati could be stubborn, but when she reached for his foreleg, he lifted it for her so she could see the hoof. “You in the military?” she asked.

“Kalmarian Dragoons for twelve years,” he said. “How did you know?”

“These shoes are soft metal, they’re easier to make but they usually only use them for soldiers, no reason in putting a good shoe on a horse thats probably going to die.” She had a good point, he had only been riding Akati for a little over a year now, his past three horses had died in battle. “How much more traveling are you going to be doing?”

“I’m on my way to Land’s End,” Caden said, and Echann whistled.

“That’s quite a ways. I’ll hot forge some shoes for him, its a bit more expensive, but you’ll thank me. Besides, a fine horse like this deserves the best,” she said, stroking Akati’s head.

“How long will it take?” Caden asked.

“Better part of an hour, you can stick around if you want,” she said.

* * *

“That’s it,” Echann said, walking Akati back to the front of the shop. It was clear that the old shoes had been bothering him, and Caden felt ashamed that he hadn’t noticed it earlier. Now Akati had the smooth gait of a nobleman’s horse. “These’ll last you to Land’s End and back. Twice, if you want.”

By the time Caden had paid and was on his way, it was starting to get dark out. He was almost back to the inn when he first heard them. Two groups of people were coming towards him, one from each direction. Some of them were carrying torches, and in the flickering light, he could see the telling glints of long knives and studded clubs. Both groups were silent, which was never a good sign. Loud groups usually didn’t cause much trouble, but these people were here to fight, and there wasn’t anything that anyone could do to stop it.

The group in front of him wasn’t yet at the entrance to the inn that Gustav had pointed out, and Caden began to run towards it. Something hard, a rock maybe, hit him in the hip and sent him tumbling. By the time he had gotten up Akati had reached the inn, and Caden saw a stable boy grab his reins. The mob was almost at the inn, he would never make it in time. He put his hand on his sword, loosening it in its scabbard. He could see the group in front of him shifting their grips on their clubs and knives. When he glanced over his shoulder the other group was almost upon him.

As one, both groups charged, no longer silent, two screaming masses coming towards him. Caden drew his sword, turning to face the group at his back, as they were the closer of the two. The groups weren’t in any sort of formation and their lines were loose, so Caden cut through the first two ranks easily as he tried to get away from the line of battle. He was shoved hard from behind as a man who had been in the front was pushed into him, the force driving the tip of his sword into the chest of a man in front of him.

Caden did not know how long he was fighting for before he became aware of himself again, it could have been a minute or an hour, but it was still twilight. It’s probably only been a few minutes. Something in him knew that he needed to get to the edge of the battle to livke, and had kept him moving forward. He broke through the mass, and just stood there for a moment. There were several people standing there, staring at him. He could feel the blood starting to well from a cut on his cheek, and when he looked down he was spattered with the stuff, some from small cuts and punctures on his arms and hands, most from wounds he had inflicted on others. The people looked at him as though they were going to attack him, and then thought better of it, charging past him. He turned slowly to face the crowd, but there was no crowd anymore, only small clusters of combat.

The people who he had thought were rushing past him had in fact been running forward to confront one man who was holding a sword that dripped with blood. The man appeared untouched, as though he had just stepped into the street. Caden watched as he killed the the group, cutting through them as though he were harvesting wheat or gutting fish. Whipping the sword diagonally in front of him to clear it of blood, the man took another step towards Caden.

He was slightly taller than Caden, and broader of shoulder, but not a huge man by any means. He was wearing leather armor that covered his shoulders and the top portion of his chest. It was so stained it took on an almost black hue. Steel braces covered his forearms, nicked and scarred from use. He had long, brown hair that fell almost to his shoulders, and his unlined face was calm, almost serene.

The man sprinted forward at surprising speed, bringing his sword up, and Caden moved to counter. The two swords met at an angle, and Caden felt himself being pushed back, his boots sliding across the stone as he leaned into his sword. The man raised his sword for another blow, but stopped as he was about to swing. There was an arrow protruding from his right shoulder, and Caden could see Tiernan standing by the inn, bow in hand. The man simply reached over with his left hand and pulled the arrow out, dropping it to the ground as he reached back towards his sword. His face was impassive, as though the arrow were no more important than a mosquito.

Caden saw his opportunity, raising his sword to slash at the man. The man was impossibly fast though, blocking with his raised sword, and Caden felt as though he were cutting at hardwood with a dull axe. He felt himself being thrown back, and then an intense pain in his arm as he almost dodged a sideways slash. He paused for a moment to regain his balance when a gloved fist smashed into his temple, knocking him down. He didn’t pass out immediately, as he would have expected, but retained consciousness just long enough to see Gustav looming behind the man, both hands swinging a hammer towards the man’s ribs, the sledge connecting with a sickening crunch before the world faded away.

Chapter 8 can be found here.

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