She was relieved when they finally made port in the city of Bakhen. When the ship came to a complete stop, Ren stepped off the ramp with her new companions, all of them with a horse. Lyssa walked with them, ignoring the people staring at her.
Ren couldn’t help but feel frustrated. All of her hatchlings were too big to hide in her shirt now. She was both elated and disheartened at the fact. It meant they were capable of defending themselves if need be. However, like a mother watching her children grow, Ren was terrified. What if something happened to them?
Stop it, she told herself. Nyra would watch over them.
I can’t wait until you don’t have to hide anymore, Ren said to her dragon. She felt Nyra’s hum of agreement. She had longed to have the hatchlings rest on the deck of the ship with her, but she didn’t want to risk a potential enemy seeing them. Though Marjhen was on the run, he was still a powerful enemy. She decided it would be best to wait until the hatchlings grew some more before proclaiming their return to the rest of the world.
Fallon fell into step beside Ren, her hand resting lightly on the neck of the buckskin stallion beside her. As her copper eyes scanned the crowd before them she said to Ren, “We’ll find a horse for you and rest in the city tonight. Come morning, we’ll start tracking Shey.”
Ren nodded. “Do you have any idea where she’s being taken?” she asked.
“Aye,” Fallon replied. “I do, but I’d rather discuss our plans in private.”
“Makes sense,” Ren replied. She cast her gaze up at the sky, watching the five traveling specks high above. What will you do for the night? She asked Nyra.
We’ll go into the desert, the dragon replied. We’ll try to hunt, and we’ll rest.
Very well, Ren said. Don’t stray too far. Neither of us know these lands.
Amusement blazed through their bond as Nyra chuckled. Fear not, little goddess, she said. We will be careful.
Good. Ren allowed Nyra’s reassuring presence to comfort her a moment longer, then she focused on the task before her once again.
Bakhen was a dirty, smelly city. Children were streaked in mud and filth, shrieking as they raced back and forth across the road. Dark haired and skinned men and women lined the roads, desperately trying to sell their wares. Their clothes were thin, hanging off their skinny frames. Hunger and despair was evident on their faces. Ren’s heart shattered at the sight of so much poverty.
She glanced around at her companions. Both Lyssa and Fallon were tensed, their shoulders tight as they strolled through the streets. Their heads jerked towards any sharp, sudden noise, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. Fallon’s eyes were narrow and slit-pupiled, and she looked more like a wild animal as each moment passed. Lyssa’s fur stuck out in every direction, and she moved as if she were expecting an attack.
Ronin was gazing around at the sights before him much like Ren was. He had wide, shocked eyes, his nose wrinkled at the stench of the city. There was a look of despair on his face as well, despair at how much agony seemed to be happening all around them.
Gavin looked like he’d be sick any second. He was pale, his skin taking a grayish green pallor. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sights, pressing himself against Ronin’s side. Without seeming to care who saw, Ronin wrapped an arm around Gavin’s waist while keeping a light grip on his horse’s reins. He led Gavin through the streets like that, completely ignoring the somewhat shocked expressions of the locals.
When they reached the bazaar, Fallon pointed across the way to a run-down building and said, “There’s the inn. I’ll go get a room for the night and put the horses away.” She turned to Ren and the Rangers and said, “Why don’t you three get some supplies for our journey?”
They nodded. After handing the horses’ reins over to Fallon, Ren and the Rangers turned away, heading deeper into the bazaar. Lyssa followed the Ferren, her shoulders still tensed and prepared for a fight.
The bazaar was bustling with activity. Merchants were still set up along the streets here, but they seemed better off than the people by the docks. They still seemed thin and hungry, but they didn’t have the same desperate looks on their faces. Ren quickly noticed that several of the shoppers weren’t locals. Rather, they looked like hardened warriors. They were all armed to the teeth, with fierce, harsh expressions on their faces.
“Bounty hunters,” Gavin muttered when he caught Ren’s curious expression. “And mercenaries. Yidda is a land without honor or dignity. The people’s favorite activities are fighting, killing, and whoring their way through life.”
“Don’t they have gods?” Ren asked, thinking back to her studies at St. Michael’s.
Gavin released a harsh bark of laughter. He was still pale, but he didn’t seem as green as before. “They have their gods,” he said. “But they never pray, except for hard times. The people, even the poor, prefer to go to the pits rather than to a temple to pray and worship.”
His face darkened as he was obviously swept away in a flood of painful memories. When they reached a stable, Gavin left Ren and Ronin to argue in harsh Yiddish with the horse merchant. Ronin leaned against the fence holding the horses, his arms crossed over his chest. He was drenched in sweat, and he looked miserable. He watched Gavin closely, his expression thoughtful and attentive.
“Ronin?” Ren asked. When the Ranger grunted, she continued, saying, “Is Gavin all right? He looks like he’ll be sick any second.”
After a moment Ronin glanced at Ren, his expression tormented. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out anyway,” he said, “but I won’t go too much into detail. Gavin was a pit fighter several years ago. His mentor found him when he was sixteen. He had spent three years fighting for his life, and he was rescued from that hell. Now he’s being asked to go back, to save our friend from sharing that same fate.”
A tortured expression crossed his face as he added, “I’d give anything to not have him here, but he wouldn’t let me come without him.” He forced a laugh and said, “Besides, he’s the only one who can speak Yiddish. We need a translator if there’s any hope of us traversing this strange, barbaric land…”
Before long, Gavin finished his fierce negotiations with the merchant. He came over to Ren and Ronin, leading a dapple gray mare. Ren stared in wonder at the beautiful animal—her muzzle, mane, and tail were pitch black, as were her stockings. Her coat shimmered brilliantly in the sun, and she arched her neck proudly. She was smaller than the Ranger’s horses, and her head had a delicate shape to it. She looked like the Arabian horses from Earth, full of beauty, grace, and speed.
The mare snorted and pawed at the earth with her hoof, staring at Ren with a huge, brown eye. She had a simple brown leather saddle on her back, a plain bridle placed over her head. Gavin held the reins out to Ren, a somewhat blank expression across his face as he said, “Her name’s Alya.”
Ren reached a hand out to the mare’s neck, gently stroking her hand along the hairs. After a moment, Alya butted her head against Ren’s chest, clearly pleased with the attention. Ren laughed and looked up at Gavin, smiling widely. “Thank you, Gavin,” she said.
Gavin nodded. “Come on,” he said. “We need to stock up on supplies.”
She nodded, then waited for Gavin to move off down the bazaar. Ronin quickly caught up, keeping pace with the other Ranger. Ren stayed several paces behind, letting them have their privacy. After a few moments, Ronin reached down to lace his fingers through Gavin’s. The taller Ranger gripped onto Ronin’s hand tightly, almost as if he was an anchor.
They were heading back to the inn, laden down with food and supplies, when Ren felt eyes on her. Without stopping she glanced over her shoulder, searching the crowd. At first glance, nothing was different. Then she noticed a small group made up of two men and a woman. They were all dressed in black, flowy pants, boots, and light umber, sleeveless shirts. They wore black head wrappings, and they were all armed to the teeth. And they were staring at Ren and her companions.
“Uh… guys?” Ren squeaked, hurrying to catch up to them. Ronin and Gavin gave her a curious look, which turned quickly to alarm as she said, “There are some people watching us.”
Gavin frowned and looked over his shoulder. When he caught sight of the strangers, he cursed and faced forward, ducking his head. “Dammit,” he hissed, quickening his pace.
“What is it?” Ronin asked. He and Ren rushed to keep up with him as he hurried through the crowd. Gavin didn’t seem to hear him—his eyes were frantically moving back and forth, his shoulders were tense, and a look of fear had taken place upon his features.
“Gavin!” Ronin reached out and grabbed the other Ranger’s arm. Gavin spun around, fixing Ronin with an earnest expression.
“Not here,” he pleaded, glancing back the way they had come. “I’ll tell you when we get back. Come on.” And with that, he spun around and hurried away again. Ren and Ronin stared at each other then, left with no other choice, followed Gavin through the crowd.
When they reached the inn, Ren handed the reins of her horse to a stable boy. Then she followed the Rangers into the inn.
Fallon was down in the bustling tavern, sipping at a mug of ale. When Ren and the others stepped inside, the elf smiled and raised a hand. Then she saw the fearful look on Gavin’s face. Without a word, she stood, left a gold piece on the table beside the half-empty mug, then led them up the stairs to their room.
Once the door shut behind them, Fallon spun around on her heels and fixed Gavin with a worried look. “What is it?” she asked.
Gavin, seemingly relieved at having made it this far, sunk down heavily on one of the beds, dumping his share of supplies on the floor. Ronin dropped his load and sat beside Gavin, taking his beloved’s hand in his own. Gavin was trembling, and the greenish-gray pallor had returned to his skin.
He groaned, burying his face in one hand. The other was held captive by Ronin. After several attempts at forming words, Gavin finally managed to choke out, “It’s the Sand Cobras. I saw three of them in the bazaar.”
Ren frowned, but looks of alarm spread across Ronin’s and Fallon’s expressions. When he caught Ren’s confused look he said, “The Sand Cobras are an elite group of bounty hunters and assassins in Yidda. They take on many different jobs, ranging from capturing escaped convicts to killing nobles. What they’re best at, however, is retrieving escaped pit fighters.” He glanced at Gavin, his face pinched with worry.
Gavin finally looked up. He stared at Ren with a blank expression as he said, “When I was saved from the pits, my master—” he snarled at the word “—sent the Sand Cobras to retrieve me. I think that, if anyone but an Azkadian Ranger had saved me, they would have succeeded.”
Fallon nodded. “Generally, a hand or an eye is removed from the fighter as punishment. Sometimes, they’re executed, depending on the master.” She stepped forward and rested a hand on Gavin’s shoulder and said, “We’ll deal with the Cobras should we ever cross paths with them again. For now, I think you’ll be interested in hearing what I have to say.”
Ren leaned against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest as she watched the Ferren. Ronin and Gavin turned their gazes to her, waiting patiently. Fallon gave Gavin a sad look as she said, “I’m sorry, my friend. But I’ve Seen where Shey has been sold to. The masters of Yin Ha Dan have taken an interest, and they bought her. She’s going to the capital.”
Pure terror stole across Gavin’s face for a brief instant. Then grim determination set in. He straightened his back, pulling his shoulders back and jutting his chin out. “She’s not going to suffer there like I did,” he snarled. “If it kills me, I won’t let it happen.”
“It’s not going to kill you,” Ronin snapped. He grinned as he said, “Not while I’m there to watch your back.”
Gavin turned to him, smiling. Then he leaned forward, gripped Ronin’s shirt in a fist, and kissed him. Ronin smiled as he kissed him back, oblivious to their audience. Ren looked away, not wanting to intrude on this special moment. She was also reminded of her kiss with Kieran, so bittersweet at the time.
“Great!” Fallon said, clapping her hands together once. “Well, then. Let’s pack up for tomorrow. I’ll take first watch.”