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Caldera 9 – Elpida

August 22, 2007

Four days after Caden and Tiernan had left the bridge cities, the fortress of Yasiliki was visible against the mountains. The fortress looked as though it belonged on a mural in a king’s archive. Built of a grey stone so dark that it looked black from a distance, the castle rivaled the majesty of the mountains whose foothills it was built on. The angular towers that soared above the walls looked as though they were nearly as tall as the ice-capped peaks that pierced the sky, and Caden couldn’t tell if that were truly the case or if it was just a trick of the eyes. Yasiliki had stood for generations, but only a handful of armies had marched against it. Seeing it with his own eyes, Caden now understood why. A commander would have to be insane to march against that.

Looking past the castle, Caden could see that Celia hadn’t been exaggerating, grass extended to the horizon, waves rippling across it’s surface with the breeze that flowed in from the East. It seemed to Caden that where the ripples touched it, the grass looked as though it was made out of emerald, so bright it was nearly white in places. He had gotten so used to the effects of the sword that he froze when he realized that he wasn’t holding it. When he looked again, though, the effect was gone.

Caden and Tiernan decided to bypass the fortress, as it didn’t look like the sort of place to welcome visitors, although there were a numerous wagons coming and going from it. As they passed, Caden was able to watch the wagons enter the castle. There were a dozen guards at the castle’s gate, inspecting the wagons as they passed through. Unlike most guards that Caden had encountered both on his travels and during his time with the Dragoons, they weren’t bored. Instead, as each wagon approached the gate, four soldiers came out to meet it, asking questions of the driver and inspecting the cargo before the wagon even reached the gates.

* * *

It was early afternoon the next day when the road brought them to the city of Elpida. The city was a sprawling mess of buildings and horse lots, confined only on by the river that ran along the city’s West side. The breeze shifted, and both Caden and Tiernan had to cover their faces for a moment. To say the city smelled of horse would have been an understatement, the air was saturated with the smell. As they drew closer, however, they became accustomed to the smell, and by the time they entered the city itself Caden barely noticed it.

With broad streets and low buildings, Elpida felt more like a large town than a city. Everywhere there were stables, farriers, and various other shops whose purpose was unclear except in that it pertained to horses. Caden found himself even more grateful to Gustav, he got the feeling that it would not have been a good thing for him to come here with Akati needing new shoes as badly as he had.

A few questions and a coin to a street boy who had been loitering near the edge of the city got them a guide who promised to take them to an inn. The boy walked ahead of them, winding through the crowds, moving quickly enough that they were in constant danger of losing him in the streets. He had informed them that all of the inns were all on the opposite side of town. Hopefully it doesn’t smell as much there. Caden got the feeling that it would be impossible to avoid the smell of horse in the city, though.

The center of Elpida was dominated by a building whose design he didn’t recognize. At two stories, it was the tallest building in town, but the only distinguishing mark on it was a lance crossed with a stalk of wheat. The area that surrounded it was bare for at least a hundred paces, paved in large, smooth stones that were well cut and fit together with hardly a seam. Caden rode up until he was just behind their guide.

“What building is that, there?” he asked.

“That’s the Temple of Thanus,” the boy said, turning around to give them a puzzled look.

“It doesn’t look like a temple to me.” It was square and unassuming, with small doors and windows. “I had thought it was a prince’s house or something.”

“Prince?” the boy asked. “Is that like a king? We don’t have kings.”

“Its like a king who isn’t a king yet,” Tiernan answered. “Who runs Olec, then?”

As they continued through the city, the boy gave them an explanation of how things worked. Olec was controlled by a council of five, who were actually Thanussian high priests. The main temples such as the one they had just passed were used as the administrative offices of the cities, and most of the worship took place in smaller temples spread throughout the neighborhoods. It looked like it worked, other than the unavoidable mess of the horses, the city was relatively clean, without the usual refuse that lined the streets of most cities.

“So what about other religions?” Caden asked once the boy had finished his explanation.

“My dad says that we can’t force anyone to believe, so the best thing to do is to show people what it looks like when things are done right,” the boy said, with a note of pride in his voice.

Caden sensed that he wouldn’t be able to get much more out of the boy, so they continued on in silence. As they rode, he noticed a Garden of Melchior and many small temples of Thanus, but he did not see a single temple of Arkos. He didn’t worry about it too much, the commotion of the city had tired him, and he was glad when they reached an inn.

* * *

When Caden woke up, there was no sign of Tiernan. His bed looked as though it had not been slept in, and his pack was where Caden had left it the night before. Getting up, Caden rubbed the stubble that covered his face, deciding not to shave, stopping only briefly at the bathroom at the end of the hall before continuing down the stairs to the main room.

“Have you seen my friend?” Caden asked when the innkeeper looked up at him. “Did he ever come back in last night?” Tiernan had left almost as soon as they had found the inn, and while it wasn’t unusual for him to have late nights, it was unusual for him to not be back by morning.

“Haven’t seen him,” the innkeep said, polishing a glass with the corner of his apron and setting it on the shelf behind the bar. “You might want to try the prison.” At Caden’s look, he shrugged. “If he’s not there, no big deal, but if he is, the sooner you show up . . .”

Caden gave in to the innkeep’s logic, he didn’t want to think that Tiernan would be in jail, but knew that it was a possibility. Fortunately, the jail was only a short walk, and he was there before the sun was fully above the roofs of the houses.

He reached the building, looking exactly like it’s neighbors except for the corroded iron bars that bridged the windows and the lance-and-wheat emblem above the door. He knocked, and the door rattled against it’s hinges. He stood back, and although he could hear movement inside, no one came to the door immediately. Finally, he heard the sound of a bolt being drawn, and a man in a red tunic opened the door.

“What do you want?” he asked, rubbing his eyes with one hand before shading them against the morning sun.

“My friend never came back to the inn last night. I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t here before I started to look for him elsewhere,” Caden said.

“What does he look like?”

“He’s about as tall as I am, smaller though, and with blond hair.” Caden imagined that Tiernan would be easy to pick out, almost every single person he had seen in Elpida had either brown or red hair.

“Yeah, he’s here,” the guard said.

Caden’s mouth was open. He had been about to thank the guard and move on when he realized that the guard had just told him that Tiernan was there. “What’s he in for?”

“Fighting.” The guard shrugged. “I was going to let him out this morning anyway. If you wait a minute, I’ll go get him.”

The guard disappeared back into the building. Caden heard the sound of a lock being turned and the squeaking of rusty hinges. A minute later, Tiernan was standing in front of him, shading his eyes and squinting. His clothes were rumpled, and he looked tired. There was a cut above his left eye and when he walked, he shuffled stiffly. Looks like he picked a fight with the wrong person.

“We can talk about it later,” Tiernan said, cutting off Caden’s question. “I need some breakfast.”

* * *

After Caden had taken Tiernan back to the inn, he had left again only to find that there were no temples of Arkos in Elpida. He didn’t want to return immediately to the inn, though, and spent the rest of the morning restocking his provisions. When he arrived back at the inn, Tiernan was in the common room, arguing with someone who had their back turned to the door. The innkeeper looked like he was about to throw both of them out, but stopped when he saw Caden at the door.

“I had nothing to do with it! How can you blame me that your stuff was stolen?” he yelled.

“Screw you.” When the other person spoke, Caden realized that it Tiernan was arguing with a woman. “If not for you, I wouldn’t have been in jail last night, and my stuff wouldn’t have been taken.”

Caden stepped fully into the common room, making sure that both of them would be able to see him. “Hey, calm down.” Both of them stopped and turned towards him. Tiernan was about to speak again when Caden cut him off, addressing the woman. “How much did you lose?”

The woman turned to face him, and he saw that the woman had the coffee colored skin of the Northerners, but with what looked like a tinge of green, although it was difficult to tell in the poor light of the inn. Her hair was brown, but lighter than her skin, looking almost blond by contrast. He had only seen a few people from the North before, but never this close before. He caught himself staring and quickly looked away, not wanting to seem rude.

“Everything. All of my coin, my provisions, my clothes. Everything but my horse,” she said, turning towards Caden. She was almost as tall as him, but had a much smaller build. Still, her movements were smooth in a way that reminded him of Lileas back in Blackwood. He unconsciously took a step backwards, shifting his feet so that he didn’t feel as vulnerable.

“Alright,” Caden said, ignoring the glare that Tiernan was giving him. “We couldn’t replace all of that, but we’ll do what we can before we leave.”

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“North,” Caden said. “Why?”

“I was heading that way, as well. If I can travel with you and help me out with some basic provisions, we can call it even.”

Caden didn’t like the idea of traveling with someone who he barely knew, but he knew that he definitely didn’t want to leave her here, either. There weren’t many good options for women traveling alone without money, it was bad enough with money.

“Tiernan?” he asked.

“Can I have a moment?” Tiernan asked her, taking Caden by the arm and leading him outside.

“I really don’t see that we have much of a choice. Unless you have a good reason, I think we should take her with us,” Caden said.

“What in the five hells are you thinking?” Tiernan asked, doing his best to loom over Caden.

“What am I thinking? We’re almost broke, that’s what I’m thinking. And its not right to just leave her here. You know what happens to women with no money,” Caden growled, taking a step forward, forcing Tiernan to take a step back.

“Do you even want to know why she and I were fighting?” Tiernan asked, backing down.

“Did she steal from you? Try to kill you? Cheat you?”

“No, but–” Tiernan said, defensive.

“Then I don’t want to hear it. You’re stopping in the next city, anyway. Do you have a problem with that?” Caden looked Tiernan in the eye as he talked, and Tiernan nodded, looking away.

When the two of them reentered the inn, the woman was sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room. Caden hadn’t eaten that morning, and he guessed that Tiernan hadn’t had a chance yet, either, so he ordered them some porridge and some weak ale before he sat down at the table, with Tiernan following suit.

“What’s your name?” Caden asked.

“Most call me Inkeri.”

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