It had been twelve years since Runa had been born, and eight since her mother had escaped (the guards said she had been found and killed, but Utgar didn’t believe them: there had never been a body). During those eight years, Utgar had turned from someone who feared the guards and Orm, their Valkyrie, into someone who resisted them, if only in his mind. He was careful never to let his thoughts manifest themselves to the guards. He had Runa to think about. He couldn’t bring any additional suffering on her.
For eight years, Utgar had thought about how they could escape. But he had never done it. For a time, he had reasoned that Runa was too young. Then when she began working in the mines, he had convinced himself that she still wasn’t ready. Neither of them knew what awaited them in the vast Volcarren. Then the questions had come: where would they find food? What about water? They would need shelter for when the dust storms hit. Being out in one of those was asking to be flayed alive by the driving sand.
And so Utgar had waited, growing increasingly frustrated with his own doubts and fears, but still waiting. And he likely would have kept on waiting for a long time if things hadn’t changed.
After the midday meal, the prisoners all filed back into the mine, splitting up into the various shafts and tunnels, picking up their shovels and pickaxes from where they had dropped them. A few guards patrolled through the mine; most stayed outside at the entrance.
The mine wasn’t particularly deep. Most of the tunnels were just beneath the surface. But a few shafts angled downwards steeply, trying to find richer deposits, and it was to one of these that Utgar and Runa were assigned.
Flight was forbidden to the prisoners. Even so much as opening one’s wings earned a bolt to the heart, fired from one of the small crossbows all the guards carried, hooked onto their belts. That was why Utgar and Runa were forced to use their arms and legs to pick their way down the steep shaft.
The footing was treacherous. Loose rocks gave way as they stepped on them, and rivulets of gravel made handholds slippery. But they had descended the same shaft many times before. Just the same, Utgar went first, staying below Runa in case she fell.
The whole part of the shaft she was clinging to suddenly moved beneath her, the rocks rolling on a hidden bed of loose gravel. She flailed her arms briefly, and then, unable to hold onto anything, fell backwards.
Unfortunately, since flight was not permitted, neither Utgar nor Runa had ever flown. Therefore, Runa did not have the instinct to open her wings to slow her fall. At the same time, gravel and loose rock pelted Utgar in the face, knocked loose from Runa above him. He reached for her, felt her fingers for a moment, and then he too fell, as he leaned too far backwards to catch her.
Utgar kept his wings clamped firmly close to his body as he fell. The bottom of the shaft was only a few feet away; the most injury they would sustain would be a few cuts and bruises. Unfortunately, Runa panicked a moment before she hit the floor. Remembering her wings, she opened them, trying to slow herself down.
And then they landed on their backs, Runa on her outstretched wings.
The wings snapped instantly, the reports of the breaking bone clapping hard against Utgar’s ears. A moment before his head slammed against the rocky bottom of the shaft, he heard Runa scream in pain.
Most of the guards were not cruel. They mended Runa’s wings as best they could, tying them to flat pieces of precious wood to keep the bones straight. But there was nothing they could do for her pain. Utgar knew that, somewhere deep in the heartland of the Valhallian Empire, there might be a kyrie healer who could heal Runa with magic. But he also knew that no such healer was anywhere near here, and if they were, such spells would not be wasted on prisoners. Runa’s wings would have to mend on their own.
The evening meal was just as silent as the midday meal had been. Exhausted from working in the mines, the prisoners ate with a defeated lethargy which Utgar found sickening. But the sight of Runa went beyond that, resolving itself into a tight pain in Utgar’s stomach.
She had finished eating, and was now sitting painfully straight, staring out at the blank nothingness of the Wasteland. Her wings, wrapped with bits of rough cloth, were still, her eyes empty of anything but despair. Utgar knew she loved her wings. She had dreamed of flying with them someday. Flying away from the guards.
Utgar wished he could say something, but nothing presented itself. The silence, the still clouds overhead, the unceasing wind…. It was all too much.
Every head turned towards the guard who had spoken. A smile flitted across his face at the attention.
“This morning there was a, ah, complication. One of your number had decided that he wanted to resist us. He decided to rebel. We dealt with him accordingly.”
An uncomfortable shuffle rippled through the crowd of prisoners. Utgar glanced at Runa, but no tremor shook her, no fire of anger flickered in her eye. She watched the guard with a dead sort of apathy which made Utgar’s breath catch in his chest.
“Unfortunately,” the guard went on, drawing out the word, “Orm has decided that our punishments today were not enough. Such resistance cannot be tolerated, on any level. The rebel showed no sign of repentance, so he has been sentenced to be executed.” The guard looked over the silent group of prisoners. “He will be executed,” he said, “by Orm himself.”
A barely audible gasp went through the prisoners.
“Orm feels,” the guard went on, “that some of you may have grown… accustomed to our presence. You might think you can beat us. Overcome us. Perhaps even escape from us. Remember, therefore, who commands us, and who will judge you. Look prisoners, and behold your master:” And the guard turned, and pointed into the rapidly darkening Wasteland.
Just visible against the reddish rock, Utgar could make out a small shape. It was a kyrie, doubtless the rebel, running, dodging between boulders, as if attempting to evade pursuers. But Utgar could see that no one chased him. He was free, with nothing but open ground before him.
A few of the prisoners screamed. Some pointed upwards, and following their gaze, Utgar saw a shadow in the clouds. It was speeding after the rebel faster than Utgar had ever seen anything go before. Streaks of orange light streamed off of it, leaving a luminous wake as it flew.
“Witness, prisoners, the power of Orm the Mighty,” the guard cried.
The shadow came to a halt directly above the rebel. The rebel still ran, but the shadow kept up with him. And then, in an instant, there was a flash of light so bright that Utgar was temporarily blinded. The whole Wasteland, from horizon to horizon, was lit up by a brilliant white-yellow light. Burned onto his eyes, Utgar could see a jagged fork of lightning, thicker and more brilliant than any lightning should be, strike the ground amidst a shattering of rock. The rebel, black against the brilliance of the bolt, was clearly visible for a moment. And then he was gone, vaporized completely, and the night returned to complete darkness. Thunder shook the ground.
Overhead, the shadow sped away to the south, fire trailing it.
Utgar blinked, trying to rid his eyes of the image. Slowly, dim light returned to the night, and he was able to make out Runa, sitting near him, still staring at the place where the rebel had been. She was completely silent, but tears were slowly falling down her face.
Utgar knew these were different tears. Tears he had hoped Runa would never shed.
“There is hope,” he whispered to her.
Runa was silent. She hugged herself against the slight chill of the night air, her wings hanging limply from her back.
Utgar brought his arm around her and held her close, being careful not to brush her wings. “The world is not all ashes and dust,” he said quietly. Runa made no reply. “Somewhere,” Utgar continued, “there is water. Cold, clear water. And beyond that, trees, and still air, and a deep, blue sky.”
Runa let out a choked humorless laugh. “You don’t even know what that means,” she said.
Utgar could think of no reply, so he simply held her tighter.
The guards approached the silent prisoners. “Who here thinks they can escape?” they asked. “Who here thinks they stand a chance?” They weren’t speaking to any one prisoner, but many murmured ‘not I’ anyway, as if hoping to avert the wrath of Orm.
Utgar glanced down, and saw Runa mouth the words silently: “Not I.”
Utgar felt as though a weight had sunk through his stomach at the sight. No…
“No one?” The guards asked, some jeering. “No one here thinks they can escape?”
Utgar took a long look at Runa, and the tears staining her raw face. And then he stood.
“I do,” he said, looking the nearest guard straight in the eye.