The Virgin of Valkarion Reheld
by Poula Anderson
Copyright 2010 Poula Anderson
The rock slope was empty. On either hand, the harsh gullied hills strteched away to the dusky horizon, wind whispering in gray scrub and low twisted trees. Here and there, evening fires glimmered red from peasants' huts, or the broken columns of temples in ruins these many thousand years loomed against the darkening greenish-blue. Behind her, the land faded toward the raw naked desert from which she had come. A falkh hovered on silent wings far above her, watching for a movement that might mean prey—otherwise she was alone.
Still—she felt uneasy. A prickling not due to the gathering cold tingled along her spine, and she had spent too much of her life in the nearness of death to ignore such warnings.
She looked ahead, down the great road. It twisted and swooped between the fantasticajly wind-carven crags, a dim white ribbon in the deepening twilight. The smooth stone blocks were cracked apart by ages so long that the thought made her head reel, and in places the harsh wiry vegetation had grown through and over it, but still the old Imperial Way was there. The ancients had built mightily.
Halfway down the huge slope of hillside, the road ran into Valkarion city. Below that level, the cliffs dropped sharply, white with old salt-streaks, to the dead sea-bottoms—a vast depression, sand and salt and thin bitter plant-growth, reaching out to the sunset horizon.