Chapter One: Oilada

There wasn't much to say about the last week. Sure, she had seen better. Weeks filled with sunshine and festivals, sailing across the sea watching the sun sink below the horizon, and the sounds of music floating out across the water. But she'd also had worse.

Much worse.

So Andie tried to ignore the gripes and complaints. She tried to remember that her companions were completely out of their element. Not that she was in hers. Oh no, she certainly not in hers.

As the sun shot pale rays of light through the trees, she valiantly tried to ignore Kole as he muttered under his breath. But she couldn't contain the smile as Veden asked another question.

"Do you ever stop talking?" Kole demanded.

"I don't know," the younger man replied. "I've never had anyone to talk to."

Veden continued to chatter as they continued down the forest trail. The only interruption to stream of words came when his large feet, attached to long and gangly legs, tripped over a rock.

"How far to the next one, Andie?"

She slowed down, waited for the young man to reach her. "It's not too much farther. We should be there by mid afternoon."

"What's this one?"

"The Temple at Oilada. It's a really old one. Built by the first clerics in Lodora."

"Will we be near the ocean?" he asked eagerly.

"No. It'll be a couple of weeks yet before we reach the coast."

"If he doesn't talk us to death first," Kole said.

"Do I talk too much Andie?" Veden asked with a worried frown.

"No," she said, patting his arm. "I think it's because Kole talks so little everyone talks more than he does."

They continued on the road in that way for some time. Veden kept up his steady monologue, occasionally asking Andie questions. It seemed that the boy wanted to know everything. He asked about the birds that were singing, the accents of the travelers they passed now and then, and even the names of berries that grew along the edge of the paths.

Andie did her best to answer each question, thankful for her many hours of lessons. It was hard to be annoyed when Veden looked at her in awe as she patiently explained the difference between a blackberry and a currant.

Lunch was a brief affair. They found a small clearing blooming with wildflowers. A small hunk of lamb and an apple was hardly filling, but that would have to hold them until they reached the temple. There, the clerics would replenish their stores before they moved on.

The afternoon passed by much the same. The trail eventually became rougher, sloping upwards in jagged lines. Kole took over the lead when it became more of a climb, helping Andie scramble up the rocks when her short legs gave her trouble. She was thankful for his strength as he easily hauled her up.

Andie was wheezing by the time they reached the stone wall of the temple. The iron gate was open, welcoming all travelers who braved the wilderness to reach it.

The temple was far more than one building. The complex was built in the old style, completely self sufficient. They passed a vegetable garden and small orchard. Andie pointed out the buildings where the clerics would make wine and beer, much to Veden's interest.

Kole was the first to catch the scent of roasting meat, if the growling of his stomach was any indication. The smell of lamb wafted towards them from the great hall, where they could see a young man rushing towards them.

The man, wrapped in the dark green robes of a cleric, hurried towards them. His face was alight with pleasure as he stopped and welcomed them. His smiling eyes gave no indication of surprise at seeing such travel weary visitors.

Forgetting to introduce himself, the cleric ushered them towards the great hall, a large stone and wood structure with enormous double doors leading in. He invited them to sit, brought refreshments, and then dashed off again.

Andie sighed as she sat on the long wooden bench. Kole and Veden took up the bench opposite her. The hall was filled with many such tables and benches, though the majority were empty. A few other clerics were scattered throughout. Other than a quick look no one paid them any mind.

"That is good stuff," Kole said after taking a hearty swig of ale that was set in front of him. "None for you."

"You never let me have any," Veden muttered.

"Don't look at me," she said as he turned to her. "You know I'll say the same."

Andie couldn't contain a smile as he gazed pitifully into his mug of goat's milk. Bright orange hair was sticking out of his old gray cap. His white shirt hung loosely on his thin frame. He looked every one of his fifteen years.

"The wine any good?" Kole asked, nodding at her glass.

"It's dry," she said with a grimace. "Which means the locals must love it. No you can't try it."

"I didn't say anything," Veden protested.

"You didn't have to."

The cleric who had greeted them introduced himself as Alexi. He was new to Oilada but would be pleased to show the travelers about the temple. Though their feet ached, the three agreed.

Alexi was enthusiastic, relating all the relative and obscure facts about the temple. They quickly discovered that their participation in the tour was unnecessary. The cleric led them from building to building, expounding on each one's function and its importance to the temple.

Andie found her mind drifting away from Alexi's monologues. She concentrated on the cool breeze instead. It felt cool after spending the day hiking up the side of a mountain. At one point they were stopped in the courtyard she took the time to pin up her braid, leaving just a few unruly gold locks to flutter about.

By the time they reached the dormitories, Andie was surprised that the man had anything left to say. Surely there couldn't be too much to say about an old building where all people did was sleep?

She was wrong. Alexi had just finished the thrilling story of a game of hide and seek gone wrong when Andie interrupted.

"Thank you so much Alexi, for the tour. It's been most informative," she began, shooting a quick, warning glance at Kole's smirk. "Do you know if there are any spare rooms available? Would it be possible for us to stay the evening before setting out in the morning for Intoilo?"

The cleric tilted his head. "Are you travelers of the Yepaki?

Andie nodded and pulled a chain out from beneath her dress. She held out the bronze pendant depicting a hawk in flight. The others pulled theirs out as well.

Alexi nodded. "There is always room at the temple for the Yepaki. Please make yourselves at home while I see to your rooms."

When he trotted away, Andie tucked the necklace back out of sight. "One night here then we get back on the road."

Kole crossed his arms across his chest. "Just the one?"

"Why? Did you want to stay longer?"

He shook his head and gazed steadily down at her. "You've never stayed anywhere longer than a single night."

"We've only been traveling together for a week. That's hardly enough time for you to jump to that conclusion."

"There's not much to do here," Veden commented, looking about. "It's quiet. Out in the middle of nowhere."

"As was every other temple we've visited so far," Kole commented.

Andie looked away, gazing out over the valley below. "It's the fastest way to the coast. The fastest way to a ship."

"And far from any large cities or the main roads," said Kole.

"The sooner we reach the coast, the faster we can book passage," Andie pointed out. "Unless you've changed your mind about wanting to go home?"

Kole scowled. "Of course not."

"Then what's with the attitude?" she asked, sitting down on a bench. Veden moved to stand beside her, watching anxiously.

"You told him we were heading to Intoilo."

"I did."

"This morning you said we were going to Ropitio."

Andie lowered her gaze, stared at the hands clasped tightly in her lap. "I did."

"Any reason you don't want people knowing where we are?" Kole asked.

She could feel the intensity of his gaze above her, along with Veden's curious one. "Most Yepaki that stop here go to Intoilo next. It's better if we blend in."

"Why?"

Andie sighed, studied the white knuckles. "It just it. It's nobody's business who we are. The sooner we get to the coast and leave for the east the better."

Kole opened his mouth, but Alexi chose that moment to return. He continued to scowl instead as they were ushered into the dormitory and shown their rooms. Andie escaped into her small, glorified closet and gratefully closed the door behind her.

She lowered herself slowly onto the bed and set her satchel beside her. Inside were her meager belongings. Carefully she pulled out her spare travelling dress, a well worn gown of blue gray, and began to unfold it. As the last folds gave way, she looked down at the golden bracelet. Traced the intricate design with her finger.

And wondered if she would ever wear it again.