The sell-sword and her guide slowly descended the mountain passage on horseback, into the valley below. Wind and intermittent gusts of rain slapped against the woman’s face and cloak hood. Storm season normally waited until late autumn to ravish the Northlands, but this year the elemental rage had arrived more than a month early. Once the riders reached the base of the valley, the guide, an old and grizzled drover, stopped and turned his horse to face her. She swept wet strands of her long, dark hair out of her eyes with fingers long and lithe, but calloused from years of sword work. Her gray eyes turned to her guide.
“This is where I leave you,” the drover told her. He squinted and grimaced in the face of the biting wind.
She nodded, shifting her cloak aside to untie one of the pouches attached to the belt around her waist. The sell-sword nudged her horse closer to his and extended the pouch to him. “As agreed, the rest of your payment. Thank you, Phineas.”
The drover took the coins and said, “Don’t thank me.”
She frowned. “Why not?”
Phineas looked sidelong at the rest of the valley. “I don’t expect ye to make it out o’ here alive. Nobody ye talked to about takin’ ye to this gods-damned place did. Maybe yer skilled, but it won’t matter.”
He shook his head and looked her in the eye. “Once ye set foot in those caverns, an’ I know that’s where yer headed even if ye didn’t say as much to anyone, ye’ll be dead like all the rest ‘fore you.”
He hefted the pouch of coins and frowned, “Likely, I’ll not even get to spend this gold ‘fore somethin’ awful happens to me jus’ fer bringin’ ye here to this cursed place.”
She put no stock in what he said. “Believe what you wish, I’ll succeed where others have failed.”
“That’s what they all say.” Phineas looked down at her horse. “Ye leavin’ ‘im? I can take ‘im back with me to Valis if ye’d like.”
She shook her head. “No, I plan to need him later.” She looked around the valley, nervousness prickling in her stomach. Where to leave her red-brown stallion was the only thing she had been unable to plan. “I’ll leave him out here.”
The old drover looked skeptical and she added, “He’ll stay.”
“I don’t doubt it. Horses can be dumbly loyal like that,” Phineas said. “What about the wind and rain? Out here’s no place for ‘im if he don’t have to be.”
“He’ll find better cover if he needs to,” she said, ending the discussion. She nodded to the drover, sensing his anxiety to be gone as soon as possible. “Fare well, Phineas.”
“Tell me yer name. I’ll have a drink for yer memory tonight, if I live so long.”
Although she found the idea of him mourning her already offensive, she told Phineas just to be done with him. “Aeryn Ravane.”
He repeated it and nodded before he turned away and kicked his horse into a gallop, back up the mountainside. Phineas did not bother to wish her luck. No matter, she intended to prove him and all other naysayers wrong. It occurred to her that the dozen or so who came before her and died must have had the very same thought. Aeryn shoved the disheartening thought aside and looked around at the Valley of Death. Since the massacre in the valley and the subsequent deaths thereafter, the locals had stopped calling it Night Valley and renamed it the Valley of Death.
Aeryn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was now or never, she told herself.
- Into the Darkness, chapter 1, page 1
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