The unmerciful sun made the valley floor shimmer and dance. She wiped the sweat from her brow, and winced at the pain in her sunburnt shoulders. The burn made the slightest wrinkling of the skin beyond mere discomfort. Her knees hurt even worse, burned almost purple. Exposed by her short skirt, which hiked up even higher as she sat in the saddle astride, her bare legs ought to shame her. She set her jaw and gritted her teeth. No help for it. No time to go back, no time to find some means of covering herself properly. She'd lost too much time in captivity. She wore only a sleeveless linen tunic and a kidskin bodice, both intended for the boudoir, not the road, and could get no more until she completed her mission, or died trying.
Her tired horse snorted and blew, but didn’t stamp his hoof. That required too much energy. It required some brutality to get the gelding moving again. They were headed away from the water they had so luckily found this morning. He didn’t want to go down into the valley. Neither did she. The gold down there glittered, but not with the soft buttery luster of precious metal. It glared, like the yellow eye of a hungry tiger.
Flat as a griddle, the valley lay at least a five hundred feet below her current vantage. She looked for some sign of green anywhere in the wide expanse, but saw nothing; no river cut through the rusty yellow valley floor. She rode through desert already; the heights were dry and forbidding, but at least she could see hardscrabble brush and thorny trees. The spring she'd left behind watered a grassy cut in the parched highlands, though the water never found its way to the edge. She had followed it as far as she could, and marked where it vanished into the rocks and sand.
She had little more than a gallon of water in two skins, and her balky horse knew it. He didn't want to go any farther from water than he had to; he might be stupid but he knew he needed water and lots of it. He balked and snorted as they reached the trail down into the shimmering valley, but with some slaps and digs and cutting words she got him moving down the switchbacks. She wondered, as a sheen of perspiration covered her sunburns, whether the moisture magnified the sunshine, burning her still more. Her blond hair, pulled up in a rough bun, made things worse. Long hair hampered any warrior, but pride in her lustrous locks prevented her from cutting it to a practical length even now. As she felt rivulets of sweat creep down her head, she could only curse her pride helplessly. Why wear the equivalent of a fur cap in this Three-forsaken place? Yet she never drew her sword and chopped it short, as she knew she should.
Halfway down she stopped and dismounted to water her horse, taking only a mouthful herself in hopes that it might keep the beast going. They might see no more water till they returned to that little stream on the heights. The stony trail scorched her feet even through her sandals, and the plain hilt of her sword burned every time her arm touched it. She shifted it back a bit, mounted again painfully, and down they continued. Another hour passed, and the valley floor ceased glaring and became clear. Yellow sand covered red dirt, which showed here and there in windswept patches, and she saw two little ridges of pink sandstone, yellow grass rustling in the depressions around the stones. Though depressingly barren, she felt a little relieved to see a few yellowish gray sages in the distance. At least something grew in the awful valley.
Relief arrived at last as they passed into the shadows of the cliffs above. Though it made little difference as to heat, her sunburnt skin felt better at once, and instead of sweltering she felt merely feverish. A breath of wind came along for a moment and she felt a little chill as her perspiration-soaked clothes seemed cool for a few blessed seconds as they rested. The shadow didn’t extend very far into the valley, and again her gelding balked at going back out into the sunlight. Five hundred vertical feet had required a couple of miles of switch-backed trails, all in terrible heat. She didn't blame him; he'd started out tired. She couldn't pity him for a moment; she had a mission.
She stood in the stirrups and peered out into the valley. Her destination didn't look far, perhaps not so much as a mile. Though hard to judge through the wavering air, she decided it might be close enough. She dismounted gingerly and loosened the girth of the saddle. Looking to her right and left she saw no water, but her gelding seemed content, feasting on a patch of straw-colored grass. She gave him another drink, and took another mouthful herself. She sat on a rock for a few minutes, glad it was only warm. She loosened her bodice and touched her sword-hilt every few moments to see if it had cooled. When it was cool enough she stood up and swung her arms a few times, wincing as her shoulders felt like they were cracking open like baked potatoes. A quick inspection proved that feeling didn't match reality; they remained intact. Her short, soft skirt felt like sandpaper brushing across her thighs just above the knees, where the skin had begun to blister, so she shortened it still further by tucking it under her broad sword-belt. When she finished it only reached to about mid-thigh, and she smiled ruefully. How embarrassingly immodest! She retrieved her buckler from its place behind the saddle and shortened the guige, tying the long end around her elbow. The guige made it possible to sling the shield over her shoulders, but she didn't want to think of how much that would hurt. Last of all she tightened the laces of her bodice just enough to make sure she could breath. Usually she bound her breasts before a fight, but the bodice would just have to do. She turned and faced the wasteland squarely. She could just make out the solitary structure that lay like a grayish splotch in the golden sand and pink rocks. She patted her tired horse and strode out into the sunlight, her small wooden shield covering the hilt of her sword. She saw her shadow ahead of her, stretching out like a finger, and wondered how she looked. She stood a touch shy of six feet, and had the strong arms and legs of a trained warrior; too muscular, other women claimed. Her wheat-colored hair had to be practically gray with dust, and she could see streaks of dirt on her arms and legs. She straightened as she walked, and allowed a marching rhythm into her stride. Her goal in sight, she let her shoulders swing a little. She felt no more fear, and felt the tension of the long chase dribble out of her like the drops of sweat that scattered along her course.
She found her estimate mistaken, and walked nearly half an hour before she reached the gray structure. Two miles at least! She studied the building as she approached, and could not understand how or why it had ever been built.
It looked like a vast barn, and other than a few pinkish sandstone slabs by the wide opening ahead of her, entirely made of wood. Sawn planks, too, as good as anything one might find from the sawmills at home, but sun-warped and old. She saw no door, but a wide, low opening into the shade beneath the roof stretched at least fifty feet on the side she faced. It rose at least three stories, but such old wood could hardly support much weight. She expected her quarry would be inside or underneath the big structure.
She saw several ruins all around it, some of wood, some of stacked sandstone, but all fallen. One appeared burnt, just a pile of charred boards with a bit of a corner still standing. Among these ruins she saw a headsman's block shaped of pretty pink sandstone, but stained gray-black in the middle. It had obviously been used once upon a time. She shuddered. She was very fond of pink, and it seemed almost a desecration to use the pretty color for such an ugly purpose.
Four big slabs of sandstone formed pillars in the broad opening ahead so that they made three actual entries, only about six feet wide on each side, but forty feet in the middle. She could not guess at the reasons for this arrangement, and could see nothing in the shadows inside. She stopped a few yards from this dark portal, and stood a few minutes, longing for and dreading the shadow. Her squinting eyes probed all three openings, but the glare of the sun and depth of the shade defeated her. Fear gripped her. How could she fight blinded?
She closed one eye and took a few steps forward, shifting her hilt just forward of her hip and getting a good grip on her buckler. She reached the threshold and stopped, listening, heart pounding, but still she could see nothing more than a few inches of sandy floor ahead. She drew her short sword and stepped into the darkness.