They couldn’t escape. Utgar knew that now. To escape was to sentence Runa to torture far worse than what Orm could invent. But to stay a prisoner was to sentence her to a longer torture, one which would last her entire life, and slowly drain any hope of happiness from her. Utgar could do neither. There was, therefore, only one thing left to do:
Utgar had to take Orm’s wellspring.
It was the only way. All of Orm’s power came from the wellspring. If Utgar had that same power, then he stood a chance. They all would.
Utgar had never considered taking the wellspring for good reason. Orm was no god, but he might as well have been one compared to Utgar. Trying to take the wellspring was suicide, plain and simple. But there was the smallest of chances that Utgar and Runa could come out of it free, truly free, and liberate their people. The smallest of chances were the best odds Utgar had ever had.
The next morning, when the guards came to take away the prisoner who had been healed, Utgar was ready. He had taken the long chain around his ankle (the other prisoner had refused to help), and coiled it around his arm.
When the door opened, Utgar hid behind it. Both guards walked inside. There was half a second where they looked blankly at the floor, realizing that Utgar was not there. And then Utgar threw the chain around their necks, and pulled.
The two guards hit the floor hard. One hit his head, and went limp for a moment. Utgar quickly wrapped his arms around the throat of the other guard and squeezed with all of his might. The guard struggled, grappling at Utgar’s arms, but it only took a few seconds for him to stop struggling.
Utgar had no time to make sure he was actually unconscious. The first guard, who had hit his head, was grasping for his sword. Utgar punched his arm away, and grabbed the hilt of the blade. He yanked it from the guard’s scabbard, hesitated for only a moment, and then plunged it straight into the guard’s chest. The soldier hadn’t thought to wear any armor inside Orm’s citadel.
Utgar yanked the blade out, and drove it into the chest of the second, similarly unarmored, guard. Then he stood, bloodied blade in hand, watching. Both guards gasped for air for a moment, and then, one after the other, disappeared. Everything went with them, including, unfortunately, the sword that Utgar held. Not even the blood was left, which had soaked the stones of the cell. The floor was left dry.
“Why,” choked the prisoner from behind Utgar, “why did you do that? They weren’t going to execute you.”
Utgar shot him a disgusted glance. “I’m not letting them decide anything about my fate any longer,” he said. “If I die, I’ll do it on my terms, not theirs. Are you with me, or will you sit there and wait for them?”
The prisoner hesitated. He glanced at the cell door, which was still ajar, unlocked. “I have nothing to lose,” he muttered, and got to his feet.
Quietly, Utgar opened the door and glanced down the hall. He could see the guard room, but no guards. Had those two been the only ones?
Silently, Utgar and the prisoner crept down the hall. A quick glance confirmed it: the room was empty. Utgar permitted himself a smile. Orm’s confidence would be his downfall.
“Keys,” the prisoner noted, pointing to a ring of keys hanging from a peg on the wall. Utgar grabbed them quickly, carefully closed the door to the guard room, and then sprinted for the hall, and the other cells, keys in hand.
The first cell was empty. The second cell held a single woman.
“Who are you?” she cried when she saw Utgar. “What do you want?”
Utgar came forward and knelt beside her. “It’s all right,” he said. “My name is Utgar. I’m here to free you.”
“Free?” The woman blinked at the word. “Is… Is Orm…?”
Utgar shook his head. “I’m going to take the wellspring,” he said, “but I can’t do it alone. I need you.”
But the woman shrank away. “You can’t beat Orm,” she whispered. “You can never beat Orm.”
“Go. I want no part of this. I won’t bring more suffering upon myself.”
Utgar didn’t have time to try and convince her. So, leaving her door open, he moved onto the next cell. This one held another woman, along with a young boy, who didn’t look much older than Runa.
“I’m here to free you,” Utgar said, coming forwards as they looked up at him fearfully. “I mean to take Orm’s wellspring, but we have to move quickly.”
The woman and her son were silent for a moment. They glanced at each other, and then at Utgar.
“It was you we heard just now?” the boy asked. “Taking down the guards?”
A slow grin slid onto the boy’s face. “Lead the way,” he said, standing up.
His mother tried to pull him back down. “Taelord, no.”
But the boy turned on her. “I’m not going to sit here, mother. Not any more. Father died believing we can be free, and I won’t let him die in vain. I won’t.”
His mother dropped her hand.
“I need you too,” Utgar said. “Please. I can’t do this alone.”
The woman looked between Utgar and her son. Finally she stood. “As you wish,” she said, resignedly. “I’m sure Orm would have executed us eventually anyway. Perhaps this way will be faster.”
With his new recruits, Utgar went to the next door. And so it went. Some prisoners were too afraid and refused to join Utgar, rather wishing instead to stay put and plead for Orm’s mercy. But most joined him. It made sense. The only people who would be in these cells would be those who were too dangerous to simply be dealt with at the prison camps they had come from. In a way, Orm’s soldiers had handpicked the best warriors Utgar could have asked for.
The final cell contained Runa. Utgar flew to her the moment he saw her, and they embraced, for a long time unaware of the cold stone beneath them or Utgar’s recruits watching from the door. But finally Runa broke free.
Utgar held up a hand before she could speak.
“I know you’re afraid,” he said, “and you are right to be so. I am afraid too. We all are. But we can’t let our fear enslave us any longer. That’s just what Orm wants. He wants us to choose between death at his hands or death at the hands of his soldiers. He doesn’t want us to realize that there’s another choice. If we’re brave, we can be free.”
Runa gave Utgar a doubting look. “Orm is a Valkyrie,” she said pointedly. “I had thought… I don’t know what I thought. But I saw what he can do that one night. We can’t defeat that. No one can. He can give us life,” she said, looking into Utgar’s eyes. “Please,” she whispered. “I don’t want to die.”
“You will,” someone said. Utgar looked behind him. The boy, Taelord, had moved into the cell. He crossed to Runa and knelt in front of her. “You will die,” he said. “If you remain here.”
Runa looked at him in confusion.
“You were always going to die,” Taelord continued (Utgar wanted to stop him, but didn’t know how to). “If you escaped, either Orm or his soldiers would track you down, or the Wasteland would claim you. If you stayed where you were, Orm’s soldiers would eventually wear you down until you simply couldn’t take any more.
“But this way,” the boy said, a gleam in his eye, “there’s a chance you won’t die. There’s a chance you’ll live forever, and never die.”
“There’s a chance I’ll be incinerated the moment I step outside of this cell,” Runa added.
Taelord promptly got up and walked through the cell door. He stopped in the hall and looked back at Runa. “No lightning bolt yet,” he said. He came back to the door. “You’re right,” he admitted. “Orm could blast us into nothingness if he gets the chance. But it’s not guaranteed he’ll get that chance. What is guaranteed is that if you beg him for mercy, and go back to your old life, you will die, and when you do, you will be weak, sick, in pain, and broken. If I’m going to die, I’m going to do it fighting for freedom.”
Runa was watching the boy with uncertainty.
“Remember the old tales?” Utgar asked, turning to her. “Remember Migol and his warriors?”
Runa nodded slowly, still looking at Taelord.
“We’re no different from them,” Utgar said. “They knew that the odds were against them. But that didn’t matter. The Empire had kept the power of the wellsprings for themselves instead of sharing it with all, and that was wrong. Migol was the only one brave enough to do something about it.”
“He also failed,” Runa pointed out quietly. “And his descendants got sentenced to live here for all eternity.”
“Yes,” Utgar said, “he failed. But he knew something, something the others didn’t.”
Runa glanced at him.
“He knew,” Utgar said, “that if you want to change something, you have to fight for it. If you want a better life, you’ve got to reach for it.” He stood, and offered his hand to Runa.
She looked at his hand for a long while. But then, slowly but decidedly, she reached up, and took it. Utgar pulled her to her feet, and turned to the prisoners assembled behind him.
“And now,” he said, “we take the wellspring.”