Wind whistled in their ears, leaves swirling around their horses ankles. The sun peered over the far east horizon as Ray and Jex made it to the far end of the city. Jex drew to a stop, his gaze turning back to the sleeping town. Silence rattled through the air as he took one last survey of the town and turned to Ray with a smile as warm as the morning sun.

”Well be seeing Aldolk again soon, ” he reassured Ray, pushing them along.

The weary expression on her face left her unsure. She was more than certain the days events would play out with Jex realizing that chasing fantasies was pointless. Ray gazed upon Aldolk.

”Are we really leaving? ” she questioned herself. Aldolk was all she had ever known and come to love over time and in her life. They would be back, just as Jex said. She adjusted her bow into a better position on her back. After several minutes of travel, Aldolk was behind them.

”Jex, ” Ray started as they traveled along the dirt road, headed west to the foothills, ”You at least told people of our departure, correct? ”

”Mmm I can say yes, ” Jex answered with playful intentions Ray was not fond of. Jex laughed, ”I did, I did. Its all I spoke of for a long time, three days to be exact. I think theyve grasped the point. ”

Ray looked astonished, ”And you expect them to take a hint? ”

”Yes, ” he smirked, but his games were ruffling Rays feathers. He pulled ahead into a lope.

”Jex! ” she cried and raced after him. She pulled up next to him grabbing the reins of his horse slowing him down. ”At least try not to wear out the horses. Now did you or did you not tell them? ”

”All right, all right, I asked your grandfather yesterday and my father just wants me to get out more. Do I need an explanation? ”

”Yes, ” she answered in short.

They trudged along, the ascending sun soon disappearing behind a blanket of grey clouds. The lack of sun swallowed the shadows, and the wind caused loose leaves to twirl in circles on either side of the trail, getting stuck in between large rocks that appeared at the base of the hills. The plains and wheat fields had vanished. Though making a good time, it would be awhile before they would see other people again.

By mid afternoon, Jex drew to a stop near a large boulder and dismounted. His boots crunched the loose gravel that littered the trail. He scanned the area, Ray following suit. A scanty, leafless tree was off to their right. Though it appeared dead, it was evident it had just lost its leaves. In the light, the hills drab appearance was nothing more than boulders and yellow wheat grass rousing through the crevices of the rocks.

”Do you know where we are? ” asked Ray as she searched her saddle bag for a morsel of food. Jex packed it the best he could with several hard rolls, meat packages, russet apples, potatoes, and a hide water skin. The servings were small, appropriate for a light trip. She nibbled on bread as the hunger in her stomach subsided.

”No, ” Jex answered then pointed to a wooden sign he found stuck in the dirt. ”I don need to. It says Chathing twenty units west. ”

Ray examined the sign swallowing the bite of bread. She gazed back the way they came knowing they were still several hours from their destination. ”Well lets not stop then, ” she commented, climbing onto the saddle of her horse once more. Jex followed suit after grabbing an apple from his saddlebag, holding it with his teeth as he mounted. Questions sprang to Jexs mind when leading himself and Ray through the winding roads of the foothills.

”What do you think Chathing is like? ” he asked with childish wonder, ”Or our guide, a real legend… ”

Ray bunched her lips. ”Ive only heard things about Chathing. Its quiet and closed though great for travelers stay. As far as our legendary guide goes, most end up being greedy brutes just looking for some gullible farm boy to come their way and ask for directions. Then they charge you an entire pot of lute just to go up the mountain… ”

Jex erupted in a laugh, ”Your way of seeing things amuses me. Just think about it, were meeting a dragon slayer. That alone makes him great. ”

Ray softened. ”Whatever you say, Jex. ”

Night dawned on them within a few hours. Gravel dust coated the hooves and lower legs of the steeds as their muscles strained and stretched to keep them balanced from the ground giving way beneath them. Yet, it proved worth their efforts as the gates to Chathing appeared in the distance, lighted by the emanation of the moon.

Chathing was medium in size that lay at the base of the mountains. It appeared like a fortress, identified for its large marble walls protecting the homes and buildings inside. Tranquility radiated from the city. Even in the darkness, it seemed to glow with a beckoning light that welcomed travelers from all around. Jex and Ray only paused a moment on the top of the hill before descending into the last valley. No gates kept them out as they entered unsupervised. Only a few souls lurked the streets after hours. A torch lit the door to every grey house and building. The flame flickered, casting shadows on the smooth walls and reflecting in the dark panes of each window.

”Seems like everyones asleep at this hour, ” Jex commented as they trotted towards the center of the town in search of a soul to converse with. Lights were more common in the windows of buildings as they moved toward the center of town.

In a back alley way the light of flames streamed across the smooth surface of a two story building. Shadows of persons huddling around the small fire cast across the wall in masses. Their snarling voices were loud in a chorus of hoots and howls as they mingled. The faint smell of cooked deer hung in the air.

Jex having heard the men ventured ever so closer with Ray on his heels.

”I say hes got three days, that buggar. He ain caused nothing but trouble not payin up them taxes, he hasn , ” one said with a thick accent. His teeth dove into a piece of meat.

Another man laughed. ”Like ones got a deathwish around ere. I got ta pay me taxes. I say the kings up ta something, Borren. We can keep doin this. ”

Gurgling laughter erupted from Borrens throat. ”I say we throw lucky to em. Comin this far, the kings grown a couple testies, he has. ”

The group rang out again. Jex could hear four men as he approached. He stood at the mouth of the alleyway peering down towards the four men enjoying a deer sitting on crates and baskets meant for storage. Grease and juice from the meat was smeared on their faces, the makeup of unmannered men.

Jex entered the alleyway with Ray close behind. He slid off his saddle planting his feet on the cobble stone street. He held the reins in his hand and cleared his throat.

”Excuse me… ” he asked as he approached.

One man lowered his meat, staring at Jex with his mouth agape. His brow covered his eyes, giving him the appearance he was squinting at him. ”Eh? What do ye want, boy? ”

Jex didn seem to mind the oddities. ”Im looking for someone. Maybe you can help me. ”

”Well, spit it out boy, I don got all night ye know. ”

Jex scratched his head, ruffling his thick hair. ”Im looking for a man named Nimer. Hes said to be in this town. Im sure youve seen him around? ”

”Nimer? ” A hardy laugh erupted from the mans broad chest as he addressed his comrades. ”Ye hear boys? This lads lookin for Nimer! ” They all hollered in a chorus.

Jex frowned, ”Whats so funny? ”

The man wiped the last of his tears, ”Oh nothing lad, but I tell ye, a scrawny, greedy bastard like that will rob ye dry, boy. ”

”I tried to tell him, ” Ray commented.

The man chuckled, ”Ay, what do ya need em for, any who? ”

”We need him to guide us to Zanaih, ” Jex blurted with anger.

The group fell silent, looks of disbelief plastered on their faces till the hyenas roared again. ”Zanaih? Ah, ye might as well be chasing unicorns! ” the group roared again.

Jex made a fist with his right hand as he pointed with his left. ”Its not funny! And unicorns exist! Ill prove it to you! ”

Though, the thundering laughter did not cease. Ray placed a nimble hand on Jexs shoulder to calm him. His tense muscles relaxed from her soft hold. Ray stepped forward in Jexs defense.

”All right, all right, thats enough now. Would you be so kind as to point us to where Nimer is staying. Wed appreciate it, ” she urged tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

The roaring decreased to a low rumble as the man rubbed his unclean shaven beard, ”Alrigh lass, you win. Down the street a way, a pub and inn is there. Ya can miss it. But I be warnin ya, hes as crazy as your boy, he is. Best not talk to him long. ”

”I appreciate the concern, but well be on our way, thank you. ” Ray then led Jex out and away from the group of men. Once out of the ally, Rays face dulled. ”As you were saying about the infamous Nimer… ” she scorned.

”Im sure hes not that bad, ” Jex growled. ”I can believe they don think Zanaih is real. I will prove it so. ”

”Not everyone believes in everything like you do. Its what makes you special, ” she encouraged.

He glanced away with a heavy sigh. She was always right in his mind, especially when led astray.

The light of torches beckoned them ahead towards the pub. Horses tethered out front stood in the frigid air, their flanks twitching as they waited for their traveling companions to return. The wide windows displayed what seemed like late night excitement. Men appeared at each table, for the tavern was full of sheep herders, shop owners, and travelers stopping by for the evenings brandy, whiskey, and beer.

Ray and Jex tethered their horses, Ray helping secure her partners sloppy knot. Together they entered the bar. The moment the door swung open, a pleasant sensation thawed their chilly bodies, courtesy of the large fireplace burning on the far side of the tavern. Twelve tables accompanied by five or more chairs occupied the wooden floor of the pub. Several wooden beer steins lined the shelves that hung on the back wall. Old paintings hung on the walls displaying landscapes and one distinct oil of a man with a ginger beard, bushy and down to his collar. His green eyes were envious yet kind, a rather peculiar nature. Sadly, his head was bald.

”He must get cold in the winter…, ” Jex commented towards the painting, pulling off his hood and tugging on his fingerless, wool gloves.

Ray shook her head with a smile, ”Come on, lets locate our guide so we can get out of here. ” She laced her fingers with his and ushered him to the back bar while waving down the tender. ”Um excuse me. Have you seen a man? He goes by the name Nimer. ”

The built, dark haired man behind the counter eyed her wiping a stein with a holey rag. He seemed stern as the two approached and grumbled, ”What do ye want with im? ”

”We… need to appoint him our guide. We
e headed towards the mountains tomorrow. ”

His dark eyes examined the farm country like state looming around Jex and Ray. He nodded towards a table full of gambling men in the far corner, ”Hell be over there. The sooner hes out the better, ” he answered, ”Hes been milkin my customers all day. None of em got loot to pay for their drinks. ”

Jex couldn help but laugh. ”Oh well steal your milk maid sir, don you worry. ”

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