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V. With a face like that

Ryel and Arkmar went from the House of the Iron Kindred straight to the zebra market. It was one of those stubborn bits of local practice that one did not hire a horse on the Isle of Oriab; one hired a zebra.

“But I don’t want to ride either one,” said Arkmar.

“But I do, and you’re coming with me,” said Ryel. “It would be hard to carry on a conversation if I was miles ahead of you.”

“Obviously I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute,” said Arkmar. “You get in trouble.”

“Obviously the reverse is true,” said Ryel. “You were out of my sight for a minute and you got trapped by a bunch of ghasts on the floor of the Great Abyss. I was out of your sight for a minute twice and not only did I save your ass the first time, but the second time I managed to snag—well, more on that in a bit.” She walked away, and stopped by a nice looking zebra. “Now let me conduct an interview, all right? Just stand there and don’t go anywhere.”

So Arkmar stood there and watched while Ryel interrogated the zebra. After her third question, she rolled her eyes, thanked the animal and moved on. Four more zebras did not pass visual inspection. Then she saw a mare a couple of years old giving her bedroom eyes and she decided to try another interrogation.

This interview seemed to go much better all around. In a minute, Ryel was laughing at things the zebra was, somehow, telling her. She laughed long at one grunted remark, then shook her head, laughed some more, and noticed Arkmar giving her the eye.

“Oh, this is the one,” she said. “Aren’t you, baby doll?” She tickled the neck of the zebra, then scritched, then patted. “Let’s go drive a hard bargain.”

A few minutes later, Ryel and Arkmar were seated bareback on the zebra. They passed the west, landward gate of Baharna, where the road along the north shore of the great lake of Yath ran out. To the right rose a ridge cut into long hills by perpendicular stream beds. Many of the hills were given over to pasture and meadow and hay field, and there were farm houses, two or three to a hillside.

“Very picturesque,” said Ryel with a slight sneer.

“I couldn’t live like that,” said Arkmar. “The sky would oppress me. As would the poverty, now I think of it.”

“Ah,” said Ryel, “the piles of gems and gold. The tall chambers draped with ancient tapestries. The thrones of dragon scales. You from Erebor?”

“What? No.”

“Moria? Um, Khazad-dum? Ered Luin? Harlindon? Forlindon? No?”

“No, none of those. Please do keep guessing, it passes the time.”

“No thanks,” said Ryel. “Something to talk about in the inn tonight.”

“We stopping for lunch anywhere?”

“Yes,” said Ryel. “Next village. You’re buying.”

The elf and the dwarf stopped for lunch, something like pulled pork sandwiches with something like fried potatoes and something that was definitely beer.

“You want to show me now?” asked Arkmar.

“No,” said Ryel. “Not here. Tonight. We’re camping out. You like camping, don’t you?”

“Brought anything to eat?”

“Dude. I’m a huntress.”

“Well, if it’s all like this area,” said Arkmar, picking a nice bit off his sandwich, “you’ll be hunting cow. If you bag it, I’ll drag it. And cook it. But: cow.”

“Never fear, dwarf. It gets wilder on the far side of the lake.”

“Isn’t there a ruined city or something?” asked Arkmar.

“Yes, very ruined. Pre-human. In Dream World, I don’t know what that means exactly, but I gather prior dominant species also dreamed.”

“Ryel, maybe now is the time for me to ask, isn’t it supposed to be haunted over there? From what the priests said at the House—!”

“I have my own sources,” said Ryel quietly, leaning close across the table. “So we don’t camp in the city. I doubt the hunting’s very good there anyway. I’m told the nightgaunts come out in those ruins and rather sweep the place clean.”

“But you’re not afraid of nightgaunts, you know how to talk to them.”

“That was closer than you think.” She looked around, then added, “Let’s just say I’m not as afraid of them as Thaeron would be.”

“You wicked girl. You stole from the thief. And now you figure you’re safer from having your throat slit in the middle of the night if you sleep in the haunted ruins.”

“You’re very perceptive. You disapprove?”

“No. No, I don’t. He’s an asshole.” Arkmar downed his ale. “Another, or need we be off?”