“It isn’t even that cold.”
As if in answer, the horse snorted again.
For a while, they had been riding and yet he didn’t think of stopping just yet. The east was vast, far bigger than the other territories and well beyond what he’d remembered. Years had gone by since he’d been there and the trees seemed to only get bigger, the branches reaching higher, the longer he stared off into them. It odd, something mystical he couldn’t exactly voice. The whole place, the land that stretched out endlessly, felt like he’d traveled well beyond the confines of the land, over the seas or perhaps even further.
“A week,” he muttered aloud. “A few days to get west again…” He trailed off, tapping his fingers on his saddle. “Does that sound right?”
Zayne looked down at his horse, breathing out a whistle. “That doesn’t seem nearly long enough, does it?”
Spurring his horse onward, he continued to count the days in his head.
He’d heard tales of the east, just what lay beyond the relative safety of the roads and even further northeast where the chasm lay. Of course, he’d never been there himself and much of the east was a mystery to him. It was the one place he didn’t often travel, usually sticking south and returning runaways to the borders of the east before turning back again.
There was honor in it, serving his land by returning those who had chosen to dishonor themselves and their home. He never understood the general assumptions the bounty hunters were nothing more than skilled crooks, twisted opportunists that preyed on others of lesser luck. He scoffed at the very idea.
Luck didn’t influence much at all.
“Easy now,” he called, pulling back on the reins.
His horse’s head tossed, mane whipping behind it and elongated head bobbing impatiently as they plodded along again. They were nearing something, a building, a lantern post and a group of figures gathered outside. However, based on what he could see, they weren’t meeting for a friendly chat.
There was one set away, dressed in a cloak to keep the snow from their head, and shrinking away from the rest. He couldn’t hear them, not yet, and rode closer with eyes narrowed with interest. Pulling back, he leaned his arms against the pommel of his saddle, within earshot and watching as the leanest figure spat something onto the ground.
Blood, he realized quickly.
“You think this is a joke, eh?”
“Maybe you should watch your vexing mouth, brute,” the smaller man hissed back.
The second stalked closer. “You think you’re better than me, scarf? That bit of blue doesn’t make you shit-“
The thin man wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I never said it did.”
“Insulting me and then not defending yourself,” the first scolded. “Has the cold frozen your manhood off, boy?”
“Easy now, John. He didn’t mean anything by it, I’m sure.”
The man circled, grinning as the thin figure spat again at the other’s feet. John, as Zayne gathered was the bigger man’s name, swung to slam a first into the side of the other’s face. The bounty hunter cringed. “This doesn’t seem too fair, does it?”
For a moment, he watched, waiting for the smaller man to make a move, but he only sat crouched where he’d fallen. Zayne reached for his gun, raising his arm and firing a shot into the air, watching as all three scrambled to face him. “Excuse me, gentlemen?”
John laughed, reaching down to snatch the other from the ground by the front of his shirt. “One of yours there, blue? A friend?”
“Not one of mine, asshole.”
“Watch your mouth!”
Zayne dismounted, slipping his pistol back into the holster at his side as he walked towards the group slowly. “Excuse me, gentlemen-“
“Gentleman,” John mocked, “where’re you from? This doesn’t concern you and I’m not about to take orders from some other Dravara prick.”
Zayne’s hands went to fold behind his back. “Well, you’ll be happy to know I’m not Dravara then.” He smiled something forced before his attention went to the hooded man. “Are you alright?”
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve again. “He’s right. This doesn’t concern you.”
Zayne frowned, recoiling. “I understand that, but I-“
“Move along,” one of the others called from the wall of the building. “Place like this doesn’t want people getting in their business. You’re east and we don’t like that here.”
Frowning, Zayne only stood in the very same spot, whistling softly to call his horse forward. John turned to face him, blurry eyes narrowed. “Something wrong with your hearing? We all said we don’t need you here ordering people around. Piss off and find somebody else to bother.”
“Hey, you done with me now? I’d got things to do if you’re done with teaching me a lesson or whatever you said,” the hooded man hissed.
Cocking an arm backwards, John spun on his heel, but not before his knee was kicked out and a fist connected with the soft skin of his throat. He went to his knees, coughing and choking out a wail.
A kick to his back and out came a strangled sob.
“Let him go,” one of the two by the wall called. “He’s drunk, didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“I’d advise you to apologize,” Zayne cut in, tilting his head. “He seems a little upset.”
The hooded figure looked up. “You want some too?”
He shook his head apologetically. “By all means, continue. I won’t interrupt.”
“Dravara prick here’s right. Say it,” the hooded man snapped.
Zayne frowned, sighing softly and glancing back at his horse. For a moment there was only the choked out sobs of the man on the ground before he finally managed to gather breath again. “S-sorry…sorry, please.”
“Go on,” the hooded man snapped. “You’re wasting everyone’s time.”
The other two surged forward, helping their still sputtering man to his feet before the three scrambled back inside without a word.
“Are you alright?”
The man snorted. “If you want money or something, I don’t have it.”
Something in his tone was strange, foreign, but lacking any discernable accent. He didn’t have a problem with pronouncing the words and instead it was simply his voice that seemed odd, almost ill-fitting.
“I don’t want money-“
“You sure?” he scoffed “Most people don’t stop to help like that unless they want something.”
“I really don’t want anything from you,” Zayne answered firmly. “I only wanted to see what was going on between you and your friends. You seem like quite the fighting man, something of a brawler.”
The man frowned beneath his hood. “You aren’t Dravara then, what are you?”
Zayne straightened himself confidently, hands still folded behind his back. “I’m a bounty hunter. I-“
“Should’ve guessed,” the man huffed. “Are you southern?”
He shook his head. “Excuse me?”
“Southern? The islands, are you from there?”
“Oh,” he replied, “no, I’m not. My father was but, I was born here.”
“Your eyes are too light for southern and your hair, not quite right. I should’ve guessed that too,” the man sighed.
“Guessed what exactly?”
“That you were half. What’s your name, bounty hunter?”
“Oh, well, I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself. My name is Zayne Crossvale,” he replied, smiling politely and holding out a hand for them to shake.
The hooded man nodded, reaching out to take his hand. There he paused, turning their clasped hands and staring downward. “I like the color.”
His brows knitted. “Excuse me?”
“I’ve never seen a bounty hunter with nails like that. The paint, I mean.”
Zayne pulled his hand back, curling his fingers and staring down at the smooth lacquered surface of his nails. They were dark, dyed with something that made the color somewhere between a dark purple and black. “Are you mocking me?”
“Not at all,” the man replied, hesitating then. “Collins, by the way…Alekzander if we’re going on friendly terms, bounty hunter.”
“Thank you,” Zayne answered softly, blinking. “I think. Alekzander, can I ask what you’re doing out here besides causing trouble?”
“Scouting,” he huffed, seeming unsure. “The Dravara didn’t need me up there so I was sent down for grunt work. Rowena doesn’t like me too much,”
Alekzander waved his hand dismissively. “Hardly, just bored. You get bored of a place like this, the whole damn land.”
Zayne cleared his throat. “Can I ask why you’re wearing that hood?”
“Maybe I don’t want people seeing my face, Crossvale. Might get scared,” he answered, reaching into one of his pockets for a flask. “Can I ask why you’re so curious?”
The man drank, wiping his mouth before he held it out towards Zayne.
He shook his head. “Oh, no. thank you. Are you hurt?”
“No, not badly. Bastard got me a couple times, but I’m fine. I’ve gotten worse from better people than that son of a bitch.”
“Did you know him?” Zayne asked, intrigued.
Alekzander only shrugged. “No, just met him.”
“Do you always introduce yourself that way?”
Another snort was all he got in answer before Alekzander’s arms crossed in front of his chest and he scuffed his boots in the snow. “What’re you doing out here?”
“I was just given something to do,” he answered simply. “A job.”
“What sort of a job? Hunting down men too scared to come east?”
“Men?” he chuckled. “They’re hardly men. Boys is more accurate.”
“I would’ve said boys, but that doesn’t sound too good, does it?” Alekzander answered, limping towards the building and the hitching post in front of it.
He stifled a laugh, clearing his throat. Zayne waited, watching as Alekzander collected a horse, more accurately a behemoth, from the long wooden post and led it back towards him again. The beast had hooves that looked large enough to crush stone and a back that came higher than his head and yet, it followed quietly and almost delicately behind him.
“That’s quite the horse you have there.”
“Better than that skinny nag you’ve got. Do you ever feed that thing or he supposed to look like that?”
Zayne glanced back at his horse, a slender thing with legs that looked more like twigs rather than the hulking trunks Alekzander’s steed stood upon. He looked back then, somewhat appalled. “She’s actually quite healthy.”
“Apologies, didn’t realize it was a mare,” Alekzander mumbled dryly. “I just assumed. How stupid of me.”
“It’s,” he paused, shaking his head, “it’s alright.”
“I appreciate the chat, Crossvale, but I need to keep moving. No offense but, I’ve got important things to do too-“
“And here I was just about to offer you the chance to join me. I could use the extra hands and eyes.”
Alekzander laughed shortly. “You say that like joining you is the most important thing in the world.”
Zayne’s shoulders rose in a shrug. “It could be. You did say Rowena doesn’t seem to like you very much, but I assure you that will change if you are the one to help me bring back two of the most wanted men alive.”
Alekzander didn’t respond right away, only moving to the side of his horse and with a series of commands, the beast lowered gently to the ground. From there he climbed on and the behemoth rose back to its hooves with a snort and a shake of its mane. “You’ve got my attention, Crossvale.”
“I can help you win her favor.”
The man looked down from the back of his horse, smiling from beneath the hood. “And who are these men? The two most wanted ones.”
“Do you know who anyone by the name of Aurora or Daniel Norton?”
He frowned them, shaking his head. “The one sounds familiar, Aurora. They both sound harmless to me though. She’s looking for them?”
Zayne nodded. “She is. Would you care to join me? Traveling is a little more entertaining with a companion.”
“Tired of just talking to your horse?”
Recoiling, Zayne glanced backwards. “How did you know-“
“If I go, I get some bit of what that woman is paying you. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”
The bounty hunter smiled. “I’m sure we can work something out.”