Beryl Truesword rode on to the Hidden City, knowing it could reveal her death.
She scanned the rocky outcroppings surrounding her. Ever since her arrival, she had expected an ambush. The Hidden Kingdom, so far away from home, was too arid and warm for her tastes. But that was fine. She didn't want to be reminded of home. Of what happened there. She wanted to escape.
She tried not to think of his face, because she remembered him not as he was in life, but in death, cold blank eyes staring out at nothing. She had brushed his eye lids to close them. She had never touched his face before. And now she never would again. She tried not to think of his name.
She had traveled halfway across the world to escape that memory, but still it pursued her. Even here, in a far away land, she could not escape that sight.
She forced herself to tear her thoughts away from it. She had to focus. She was surrounded by potential enemies, possibly hunted by every person she saw. She had traveled to a land of shadow, where every face she looked upon was a veiled shadow. The Hidden People appeared to her only as black outlines without definition. It was as if she had appeared in some netherworld of the undead, and she was the only person still alive.
But perhaps that would change soon. If it did, she hoped it would happen for a cause-for justice-that she could spend her life in a way that had meaning.
She looked comically large atop the horse more suited for a Hidden Person's size as she galloped along the long dusty road running through a desert. A rustle from behind caused her to pull the horse to a stop.
That was when the rock bounced off her helmet.
She spun her mount around. A shadow darted between boulders. Spurring the horse on, she galloped toward it, dipped her hand in, and pulled out the small figure.
"Aah!" the shadow cried out in a high-pitched voice as the horse slowed and stopped. "Let me go, you great beast!"
Beryl squinted at the creature. It was one of the Hidden Folk, appearing as a living shadow, without definition or a face, even in the brightest light of day. They were small, the tallest only reaching four feet high, and reminded Beryl of the hoblings that mostly lived to the south of Ashbury.
Beryl snorted. "And why should I let you go, when you're trying to dent my nice helmet? These things aren't cheap, you know."
"I was trying to warn you!" the shadow answered. "You're walking into certain death!"
"Every step we take is one closer to the grave. Why should today be any different?"
Beryl dropped the shadow to the ground. It landed on its feet, dusted itself off, and looked up at her.
"You're heading into a trap, you stupid bint!" the shadow said. "They know you're coming. Your description's been passed around the kingdom more than a venereal disease."
"Thanks for the warning, ma'am, but-"
"Ma'am?" The shadow stamped its foot. "I'm a man!"
She held out her hands. "Apologies. You're just a wobbly black blob to me..."
He put his hands on his hips. "Here I am, risking my own neck to try and save your life, and you're insulting me?"
Beryl smiled, attempting to show her good intentions. She had traveled all this way to help the Hidden Folk after all-to remove their terrible leader who called himself the Doomsayer.
"I have no quarrel with the Hidden Folk," she said. "If I held your leader's crimes against you, you wouldn't be alive to have this conversation."
"Are you threatening me?"
"No, I'm threatening the Doomsayer."
"Shush!" The shadow took a defensive stance as his head turned from side to side. "Don't even say that name. He is all seeing, all knowing. He has but to look at you to see your death. All live in fear of him! In fear of their death..."
Beryl nodded. She had heard this many times before. The Doomsayer used this power to control his people with fear, holding the entire Hidden Kingdom in a grip of terror. He had even renamed it The Land of the Dead.
"Have you ever met him?" she asked.
The shadow shifted his feet nervously. "Only at the greatest possible distance."
Beryl trotted her horse in a slow circle around him. "And has he foretold your doom?"
He nervously turned to keep facing her. "No."
"But you believe he has the ability."
The shadow put his hands on his hips. "It's not a question of belief. He's done it countless times."
She raised one eyebrow. "And he's never wrong?"
"And you know this how?"
Pause. "Everyone knows."
"Because that's what they tell you?"
"You're as annoying as you are thick. Are you planning on talking him to death?"
Beryl smiled to hide her frustration. "You're being very rude, you know. I have no reason to trust you. If you're trying to get me to believe you, you may wish to try another tack." She shot a glance from side to side to make sure there were no others hiding. She was tall even for a human, towering over the Hidden People she had met, and made an easy target for any wishing to find her.
Through scraggly bushes and tall misshapen boulders, the city's outline peeked through clouds high on the mountaintop before her. The massive walls preventing people like her from entering sat at the base of the mountain, just on the horizon. If there were shadowy guards before it, they were too far away or too hidden to see.
The shadow waved his hands around. "I'm sorry. I'm just nervous, all right? I'm risking my own life trying to do a good thing here ... which is a very bad idea in the Land of the Dead." He looked up at her and cocked his head. "Who are you, anyway?"
"My name is Beryl Truesword."
The shadow laughed. "What kind of name is that?"
"It's a perfectly fine name."
"Really? Your parents named you that? What if you had grown up to be a farmer? Would they have named you Beryl Trueplowshare?"
"You might ask this so-called 'Doomsayer' the same question."
The shadow jumped back. "Stop saying his name! You need to go back to wherever you came from."
"I came from Ashbury, but I will not be leaving until my work here is done."
"Ashbury? Never heard of it."
"I belong to a noble and chivalrous order, a land two seas and one month distant. Word of your Doomsayer and his conquests has long reached us. I volunteered to take on the quest to defeat him."
The shadow pawed at her foot hanging in the stirrup. The horse neighed at him. "You need to turn around, Beryl Truesword. Trust me, this isn't going to end well for you."
"And what is your name, my good Samaritan?"
The shadow gave an obviously sarcastic bow. "Elmeki, at your service. Now please, get away from here as soon as possible ... A patrol could pass by any moment."
As if on cue, a pair of Hidden Folk on horseback appeared in the distance, approaching rapidly. Elmeki gave out a little yelp and ran to hide.
Beryl dismounted and led her horse to his side, behind some large boulders. "Elmeki, are these soldiers from the castle?"
Beryl stepped out and stood in the center of the road. She knew she was an imposing figure, as tall as the two soldiers on horseback, standing there in her thick leather armor, swords held at her side.
"I wish to meet the Doomsayer-" Beryl said, but cut her words short as the two soldiers spurred their mounts toward her. She held her twin swords before her as she had been trained. "Very well," she said under her breath.
They came at her together, one on each side, in an attempt to divert her attention. She was ready for them. The paladins in Ashbury had trained her well. She bounded past them as they came toward her, slicing the one on the right while deflecting the left one's blow. The soldier on the right cried in pain and fell from his horse, which kept galloping without him.
Spinning around, she plunged her sword into the soldier on the ground, pulling it free and rising just as the second one galloped toward her, sword outstretched, as if he were a knight in a joust. Beryl could tell the soldier was unskilled in combat by this clumsy move, and felt a nudge of guilt as she easily blocked his small sword with her own longer weapon while slicing into his chest with the other. The soldier joined his partner on the ground, coughing out his last breath. Beryl stood over him as he died.
Elmeki clapped his hands to the top his head. "You killed them! They're dead!"
"I was willing to talk, but they attacked me first," Beryl replied as she cleaned off her blade. "Had I not fought back, you'd be standing over my body now saying similar words."
Elmeki stared mutely at the bodies. To Beryl, they continued to appear as black outlines and nothing more. "That's just the beginning," he finally said. "The closer you get to Karratha, the Hidden City, the more you'll find."
"If they're willing to talk, there'll be no more deaths," she said. "I want them to take me to the Doomsayer."
Elmeki shook his head. "Bad idea."
"I am not changing my course, Elmeki. And don't you come from the city? Why would you be running away from your home?"
"I may live in the city, but I have no home there. I go where fortune takes me."
She nodded. "Very poetic. And sad. Perhaps your circumstances will improve when the Doomsayer is gone."
He looked up at her. "You say that with such confidence. You have no idea what he's capable of."
"Neither do you. I daresay much of what you've heard is exaggerated, or outright fictional."
Beryl brought her thumb and forefinger to her mouth and whistled.
Elmeki clapped his hands over his ears and cringed. "What are you doing? You'll bring them right down on us!"
"Relax, little one. I'm calling back Justice."