The Drowned Sailor was a small and dingy place. Dust was thick on every surface, and the patrons didn't seem much better. In the end, she had managed to persuade Jackson to wait outside with the horses. Inside, she gazed around, eyes landing on a figure sitting in one corner, cloak drawn up, covering every inch of them. She thought there might have been dust on them, too.
She resisted the sneeze that desperately wanted to make an escape.
Very few people glanced at her as she approached the bar. The man behind sniffed, spat, and turned to her. This time, it wasn't a leer. He just stared at her like he was waiting for something.
"Drink?" he said.
"No. I'm looking for someone. Gajner."
A slow smile crept over his face. "And what would you want with Gajner?"
"I have things to trade."
The smile faded. "Be careful, girl. Some things you may want to trade are priceless." She saw the way his eyes darted down then, before snapping back up. "And I've seen stronger girls than you get destroyed that way."
"What makes you think I'm not strong?"
"Didn't say you weren't strong. Just said stronger than you."
"I'm looking to trade horses." She rushed the words out, fed up of the conversation that would get her nowhere. "I was told Gajner could help, and that he could be found here."
"I don't know how much interest he has in horses," he said, "but he's over there." He gestured to the fireplace, where a man sat reading a book. He flicked the pages with mild interest, as Rayne studied him. His brown hair, strands of white running through it, was tied back away from his face, and his skin was tanned. Not as dark as hers or any of the tribe, but darker than most of those she had seen since leaving the desert. His clothes didn't look expensive, but they weren't cheap, either. At his feet was a pack, made of leather.
She nodded to the barman before crossing towards him.
He didn't glance up from his book as she lowered herself into the chair opposite, gazing at the pendent hanging around his neck. It showed a dragon head, mouth open and eyes staring off to the right.
"I'm not trading today." He didn't even look up, just remained focused on the book. Her eyes dropped to read the title.
Dragons: Homes & Habitats.
"Dragons don't exist," she said, wondering why he was reading it.
"You just haven't seen one," he replied. "Tell me, girl, have you seen any of the gods?" His eyes darted up quickly, studied her, then dropped back to the page. "Ares or Zeus or…no, you're not from Apollo, are you? Nor Poseidon or Aphrodite. I would bet all the silver pieces in my bag that you were from the Ares or Zeus tribe."
"I haven't seen any of the gods."
"But do you think they exist?"
"I've seen their power," she replied, folding her hands in her lap. "I've seen them at work."
"And what if I was to tell you I have seen the power of dragons?" He looked up now, shutting the book slowly and fixing her with a soft gaze. His eyes were hazel, flecked with green. "If I was to tell you that if you travelled East and didn't stop until you couldn't even drag yourself further, you too would see the power of dragons, and meet those that worship them as much as you worship your Ares or Zeus? If I was to tell you that, unlike your people, those in the East have seen their gods?"
Her breath caught in her throat. "I just wanted to trade two horses."
"I'm not trading today. I said that, didn't I? I'm not trading things, anyway. But I'll sit here and trade stories, if you like."
Rayne sighed. "I can't afford to sit here and trade stories. We need money. We have two horses out there and nowhere to stay." She leant forward. "That's not true. We could camp, again. Set up outside of town. We could kill one of the horses I suppose and eat the meat, but after that, then what? We need to buy passage on a boat and right now, the only things we have are two horses. We kill one, we eat it, what are we left with then?"
He grinned. "Stories. You always have stories. Never forget the value of that." He leant back, shutting the book with a thump that made her jump. "In the East, there are villages that live under the shadows of mountains. Every year, two boys not yet men take sheep up the mountains. It's usually winter, and it's usually cold. Cold like you have never known it in that desert of yours. They build a fire together, huddle around it and make sure to keep the sheep warm. They sit there, and they have no idea how long they will have to sit in the snow for. These boys, they have known nothing but comfort and full bellies their whole lives. These villages do not struggle. They have good harvests, and they have good cattle. They know exactly what to do to make their lives easier."
"Listen, girl. It is only by listening that you learn."
She snapped her mouth shut.
"So these boys, by the time they headed into the mountains, had led easy lives. Just like the rest of the villagers. They wanted for nothing. But, each year, two of the boys are selected to take the sheep into the snow. They go with no food, just a few canteens of water. They build their fire. They huddle together and try so hard to resist eating the flock."
He waved a hand, dismissing her question. "They sit there as day turns to night, which slowly turns to day. The night comes quickly again and perhaps they sleep, perhaps they don't. Eventually, they feel the snow under them rumble with the ground. The time has come. They see a burst of fire appear over the mountains, but do not see the source. They leave the few sheep they have brought, and descend down the mountain. They have known fear and hunger, they have known what it is like to be close to death. And when they reach the village, they are celebrated. But the party must wait; they are taken to the hut that belongs to their chief, they are fed a simple meal and told that they are now men. They can hunt with the others, they can marry if they wish. And the celebrations in the nights to come rival even those thrown by the kings and queens."
He fell silent, studying her.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Dragons exist, but there are far more dangerous things out there."
She shrugged. "The tribes all have their own maturity ritual."
"But you never had the chance to go through one, have you?" He folded his arms, still watching her. "You never had the chance to follow the traditions of the tribe but whether you realise it or not, you are currently up in the snowy mountains with your flock of sheep, wishing desperately you could eat one but knowing the whole sorry journey would be pointless if you did. Ares, aren't you?"
She felt her skin grow red. "Are you going to take the horses or not?"
He picked up the book, opened it and with barely a glance at her, said, "Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow."
Rayne glared at him, before standing and stomping out of The Drowned Sailor. Jackson waited outside, the reigns of the horses in the his hands, looking at her with eyes wide and full of hope as she appeared.
"We'll have to camp tonight," she replied, grabbing one of the reigns. "Outside the town. Come on, let's go."
X X X
Not far out of the town, Rayne managed to kill a deer. Her stomach was grumbling as they cooked it over the fire, Jackson taking care of most of it as she sat staring into the fire.
"So, what next?"
She shrugged. "We go back to Gajner tomorrow. He's a bit odd, but…" She paused. She hadn't been able to stop thinking of the man all day. His talk of dragons and the East…
There had to be more to it than he said!
"East," she muttered, staring into the flames as she uncurled her fingers. "We have to go East."
"East?" He frowned. "What, like Sharn?"
"No. Further than that." Her head snapped up. "East. We need to go to the dragons."
"Dragons?" Jackson scoffed. "They're not real."
"He…Gajner talked about them. He was reading about them. I really think that's the way we have to go."
"You're basing our next steps on some guy that even you admit is odd, rambling about dragons?"
"He wasn't rambling." She folded her arms as Jackson took the meat off the fire. "He seemed actually pretty smart. But it was…"
She glanced up at the sky. A shooting star whizzed across it, bright yellow. A grin lit up her face.
"Even the star is going east, Jackson."
He sighed. "We still need a boat."
She nodded. "I know. But I reckon Gajner will help us."
"How the hell can you be so sure?"
She shrugged, as he passed her a large hunk of the meat. After flashing him a wide, thankful smile, she sank her teeth into it. "I have no idea. I can just feel it."
"Fine then. Tomorrow, we head east. And further away from home."
She reached across, taking his hand and squeezing it. "It'll work out, Jackson. You'll see her soon enough."
"I hope you're right."
She winked at him, before they continued to eat and drifted into an easy, comfortable silence.
X X X
Rayne scrambled out of the tent the next morning, knowing instantly that they weren't along. Her dagger in one hand, she whirled around, ready to face the intruder. With a sigh of relief, her hand dropped, as she took in the sight of Gajner, standing near the horses and studying them, running his hand along the neck of the one she had ridden.
Jackson was still sleeping.
She moved towards the merchant, stopping only when he glanced up and looked towards her with a smile. "They're good horses."
"Do you think we can get much for them?"
He shrugged, before glancing back at the animals. "You need passage, on a ship, correct?" She nodded. "I would suggest you always try to get yourself a decent weapon, girl. That makeshift bow won't last you much longer. And that dagger is no good if someone really wants to do you harm."
She slid the dagger back, feeling a blush on her cheeks.
"You will need better weapons, if you head to the East."
Not east. The East. A different emphasis, a different meaning. "How did you know?"
He grinned. "Do you pay attention to your dreams, girl?"
"Not this again," she muttered, frowning at him. To her surprise, Gajner laughed. He wrapped his fingers around the reign of one horse.
"If you let me take them, I can return, not with gold, but with what you need."
"Nuh-uh." She shook her head fiercely. "You could be tricking us. What if you don't come back?"
"A good point. You're a clever girl, lass." Gajner reached up to his neck, unhooked the chain hanging there, and held it out to her. "It's worth enough to buy you passage, at least. If I am not back by the time the sun sets, you are welcome to head to the ships and exchange it for places. You won't find anyone here who can trade it outright for gold, but a ship captain would be willing to take it." He smiled at her as she darted forward and took the medallion, holding it, testing its weight before putting it in her pocket. "I promise you this, though. When I return, I will bring money. It will spread much better."
She nodded, gesturing for him to take the horses.
"I will meet you here, when I am done."
"If you come back," she muttered. "And if you don't, and I find out this pendent is worthless, we will be after you."
He chuckled. "I have no doubt you will."
With that, he clasped the reigns of both horses and made his way back down to Dyls.
X X X
"You just let him walk off with the horses?"
She held the medallion up to Jackson, the pendent turning in the light gust of wind, her fingers pinched over the chain. "We have this," she said. "If he doesn't come back, it should be enough to pay for passage."
"And what if it's not?" he growled, stepping forward. "You gave away the only thing we had, Rayne! To some stranger!"
"We were just going to sell them to him anyway," she replied, shrugging as she turned to the fire. "It just saves us going back down to the town until we need to."
Jackson fell down, glaring at the fire as she began to get it going. He remained silent and moody for the rest of the day, as she cooked the rest of the deer from the night before. Gajner had been right; she had been lucky to make it this far with only her dagger and the bow, but there were worse things out there.
She flexed her fingers.
At least there was that.
Still silent, Jackson took the meat she offered. She carried hers away, sitting further down where she could look at the town and keep an eye out for the merchant.
No one had wanted to buy the horses from them, so what made it any different for him? She frowned, as the sun began to beat down on them. Thoughtfully, Rayne chewed her food. What if he couldn't find anyone? What if he came back with both horses, took his medallion and then was gone?
If that happened, she had no idea what they would do next. They needed to go east, that much she was certain of. But before and after, she was clueless. Jackson wasn't much help either, and she wondered why she had had to wait for him.
He was just a farm boy, who couldn't do anything. He probably couldn't even use the sword at his side. She scoffed, shook her head and continued to eat.
He was going to come back. He had to. Once she was done with the meat, she threw the bone out over the hill, watching as it sailed in an arc and landed down below, in among some shrubbery.
Rayne was fed up with green. She was growing sick at the sight of trees and bushes and rivers. Her heart ached for the long dry stretches of yellow, her feet wanted to feel sand beneath them and her skin was losing its darkened, sun-kissed look. She pulled her fingers into her palms, forming two fists, and stared out past the town and past the ships, watching the water.
Closer to the port it was still, almost like a lake. Further out, waves rose up like giants and crashed down like they were smashing boulders. They grew smaller and smaller as they came towards the land, until they were nothing.
Her mind leaped from the sea back to the desert, and snapped towards her uncle. Was he looking for her? Was he okay? Was he safe?
She bowed her head, finding her sight now fixing on green instead of blue. Not that it mattered. Her heart beat slowly, as the tears leaked from her eyes.
What am I doing?
She should have been a good Ares girl; if her parents had been alive, she would have been learning to fight alongside her brothers, would have had men stronger than any she had met on her journey begging for her hand.
She would have been home.
But her parents weren't alive and there were no warriors left. Not like those bred in her tribe. There would never be others like them.
The Ares tribe was dead.
Her fist connected with the ground, and suddenly the grass beneath her was on fire, the flames flickering rapidly and devouring the green, covering it in red like the desert sunset and yellow like sand. Jackson came running over, and before she could speak or move, he had stamped out the fire.
"Rayne!" he snapped. "What was that?"
She stood, her hands brushing against the trousers she wore. Lifting her head, she stared hard at the almost-a-man before her.
"My family were killed," she said, slowly. "And everyone stares at me like I'm a myth. They say it like it's ancient history, Jackson. Oh, they were wiped out, weren't they? Ten years, it's nothing, is it?" She scoffed, turning away from him and staring back down at the town. "And instead of finding out who did it, my uncle dragged me across the desert from tribe to tribe to tribe, never stopping, never settling down and never going after them!" Her voice was rising now, and Jackson took a step back, flinching away from her. "And what do I do, the moment I get away from him? I go running off on a fool's errand with a farm boy when I could be finding out who killed them!"
"We can't change the past, girl."
She whirled around at the voice, staggered back and almost fell into Jackson. She thought she had been watching the only road coming from the town. Evidently, she had been wrong.
Gajner reached into the pack he carried at his side, the straps crossing over one shoulder. He yanked out a bag, and held it out to her. Slowly, she took it, feeling the weight and hearing the clink.
"There's not as much as there was," he admitted, keeping his hand held out. She took the medallion, wrapping the chain around her fingers as she stared at him.
"What do you mean?"
A grin stretched across his face. "There's enough to get you both some decent weapons. Some new clothes, too. You look like you've seen Hades in them." He chuckled, but fell silent at the look on her face. "I managed to pull some strings and book you both a passage on the good ship Signeria. Be nice to the captain, now. He's a good friend of mine."
Rayne frowned, before she glanced at Jackson. "What do you think?"
"Where's the ship going?"
"East. It'll drop you off in Tyrarth. A beautiful port, and you'll see ships the like of which you'll never see here."
Rayne gave a firm nod, before dropping the medallion into Gajner's hand. "Why are you being so helpful?"
He shrugged. "Well, I thought it about time I headed there, too. And while I was at it…" He shrugged again, winked at her and half-turned away. "I'll see you at the docks tonight. You better pack your camp up, and get those weapons. Like I said earlier, you'll need them." He disappeared soon down the hill, leaving Jackson glaring after him as Rayne watched in wonder.
Rayne didn't think Jackson had seen it. She wasn't sure she really had, but she could have sworn that just before he disappeared, she saw wings flickering at his heels.
A/N: Because what fantasy novel would be complete without dragons? Blame it on a mix of too much Game of Thrones and playing too much Skyrim. Anyway, hope you're enjoying the story and, as always, would love to hear your feedback. Love it? Hate it? Favourite characters/plots? More importantly, to add to all those questions, why? The only way I can make it better is with feedback. And if you have a moment, please check out the poll on my profile page. It'll go a long way in helping me decide what to write next. Thanks very much.