SIXTY

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WHEN THE SUN started to slip toward the horizon, the horses slowed their pace and the blurs that filled Ravenna's eyes clarified. The world around them had changed. Each blade of grass had been drained of its green, now colored a soulless umber. The trees had lost their leaves, thin branches speckled with scorch marks and signs of decay.

"What happened here?" Ravenna heard herself wonder aloud, her gaze glued to their surroundings. Even the sun had taken on a duller, cooler sheen.

"A dragon, it looks like," Vyses said. "Though those scorch marks look old. I doubt it's been through here recently. We have nothing to worry about."

Ravenna's heart panged at the thought of a dragon. Her jaw clenched and her hands curled into tight fists. She forced herself to push the thoughts of Caelan away.

It wasn't long before the scorched forest ebbed away, morphing into burnt farmland and ashy fields. In the distance, a large stone wall erupted from the ground --a massive barrier that surrounded the town ahead. From where she sat atop her horse, Ravenna could see at least two watchtowers near the main entrance to the town. Both were built into the wall and, as they drew even closer, filled with guards. Her stomach twisted into knots. "Vyses, are you sure that this is a good idea?"

Vyses glanced back at her. "If it weren't for those hunting dogs, those guards wouldn't have recognized us. I doubt that we will have any issues here."

"Not to mention, this town is known for its thievery and criminals," Lyth added.

Ravenna frowned. "Perfect. I can put my old pickpocketing skills to good use then."

"If it's needed," Vyses said, "This is definitely the place to do it. Though I doubt you'll score much from the pockets of these folks."

She heaved a sigh. "I was being sarcastic."

Vyses shot her a smile and didn't respond. Instead, their horses slowed to a halt. She watched, somewhat confused, as he hopped down from his horse, Lyth following suit. "What's going on? We aren't there yet, " she asked, hesitant to climb off her own horse.

Vyses walked toward her. He held out his hands and helped her down from her horse. "Our horses won't be permitted within the city walls," he explained. "While there is a stable outside the main entrance, it will cost coin to keep our horses there. I'm not sure how long we will stay in this town, nor how expensive the housing will be inside. It will be best to release them now and continue on foot."

Ravenna frowned at him and then glanced back over her shoulder at her horse. "But what if we need them later?"

"We can always steal new horses," he told her. He patted the horse's side gently. "Or, if we have more coin by then, actually buy some."

She nodded. It did make sense to save their coin for housing, especially considering there was no telling how long they'd stay in this town. She reached out and stroked her horse's mane. "What if we sold the horses to the stable? Do you think that they'd take them?"

Vyses paused. "Possibly," he said. He frowned at his own horse. "But there is no guarantee that they will accept them. The horses are pretty worn out and seem older."

Ravenna frowned. "I think it's worth a shot."

"Alright," Vyses conceded. "We do need the coin. Hopefully, they will take the horses."

The trio continued on foot, both horses following behind them like a pair of faithful dogs. As they approached the wall, it grew, rising high into the sky, old stones almost kissing the sky. It blocked out the mountains that sat behind the town. A few small buildings were clustered around entrance, including an old, wooden stable. Two horses waited within the fenced area around the stables. One was colored a dark gray, the other speckled with black spots. Both were cute.

"Look," Ravenna pointed to them, stroking her horse's mane. "Our horses will have friends."

A man sat outside the stables, on a chair that leaned against the building. His head was tilted back, his tanned face hidden from the world beneath a book. Vyses cleared his throat. The man jerked awake and peered at them through squinted eyes. "Can I help you?"

"We would like to sell our horses," Vyses said. He gestured toward said horses with a hand. "If you'll take them. We plan to stay a while and won't have much use for them."

The man peered at Vyses for a moment, somewhat hesitant. Then he stood and walked toward the horses. He gave each a thorough inspection and then heaved a small sigh. "I'll give you a hundred coin a piece. Both seem in pretty good shape, just older and well ridden."

"That just means they've got experience and are well trained," Ravenna assured the man. "How about a hundred twenty?"

Vyses shot her a worried look. She ignored it and focused on the man in front of her. He stared at her for a moment, his gaze drifting downward, along the curves of her dress. "A hundred fifteen," he countered with a small frown.

"You drive a hard bargain," Ravenna said. She smiled at him sweetly, batting her eyelashes. This man was making it way too easy. "A hundred thirty?"

"Deal," the man grunted. He fished around in the small knapsack that was tied around his waist, producing a small pouch of coin. He counted out two hundred and sixty coins, giving them all to Ravenna.

She beamed at him. The coins jingled within her coin purse, the sound bringing forth all those nostalgic memories of drunken tavern men and pickpocketing. "Thank you for your business," she told him. "You wouldn't happen to know if there are any taverns inside the city walls, would you? Or perhaps an inn? We need a fairly inexpensive place to stay."

The man blinked at her. "Aster Inn is a good place to stay. It's pretty close to the market and the rates are pretty decent."

"Thank you for all your help," Ravenna chirped.

The man shook his head and guided the horses toward the fenced area. Once both horses had been lead inside, and the gate was closed, Vyses snapped his fingers. The crimson drained from their eyes. Somewhat startled, the horses looked around, seemingly concerned. The man patted one gently, calming it down. The other followed suit.

As they walked away from the stables, Vyses glanced at Ravenna. "Where did you learn to swindle people like that?"

She shot him a smirk and twirled a strand of her hair around one finger. "How do you think I survived before I met Caelan? I wasn't lying when I said that I used to be a pickpocket. I wasn't always good at it too. I had to learn real quick how to sweet-talk and bargain whenever I found myself in a sticky situation."

Vyses squinted at her. "You might really just fit in within this town then," he told her. 

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