Chapter Nine

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Utgar turned. The mother of Taelord stood behind him, regarding him with a furrowed face.

Utgar turned to her. “I know what I must do,” he said. “I know there is only one thing I can do. Orm will kill us all either way,” he added, coming closer. “Either we die here now, or there later. But this way we have a chance at freedom. Real freedom.”

She still looked doubtful.

“What’s your name?” Utgar asked.

“Angva,” she said.

“Well, Angva,” Utgar said, “I can’t promise you that we’ll succeed. You know that. It’s much more likely that we’ll fail. But I can promise you something you’ve never had before: a chance. For both you and your son, I can promise you hope.”

Angva glanced at her son, who stood next to Runa. “You can’t promise me the one thing I need above all else,” she said. “You can’t promise my son’s safety.”

Utgar was silent. She was right.

“But,” she said, looking back at Taelord, “I know I’ll never convince him to stay behind.” She looked Utgar in the eye. “His life is in your hands. Safeguard it as you would your daughter’s.”

Utgar bowed his head. “Of course.”

Angva turned, and melted into the other assembled warriors.

Now came the hard part. They had to, somehow, get to the wellspring chamber and barricade themselves inside long enough to drink of its waters. Then, when Orm came, as he surely would, they would be ready.

Fortunately, there was a map of the citadel in the guard room. From it, Utgar was able to tell that the wellspring was close by. Their best chance at reaching it would be to go through a straight narrow hall. The wellspring would be dead ahead.

At first the hall was empty. Utgar and his warriors, which consisted of at least ten men, five women, and Taelord and Runa, stealthily crept down the narrow hall. Up ahead, quite close, they could see a thick door set in a stone wall. Beyond that door was the wellspring. But between them and the door was a circular hall, surrounding the wellspring chamber on the outside. Patrols regularly walked down this hall.

The last fifty paces of the hallway to the heavy doors were well lit. Utgar knew they would have no hope of hiding in the shadows. They would need to time it just right. If they could get to the doors just as the guards passed, then they should be able to all get in and barricade the doors before they could be stopped. From there, the wellspring would be theirs. Utgar doubted very much Orm would permit any guards inside the wellspring chamber.

Utgar counted the time it took for each patrol to pass. He double checked the time. Then he waited.

“Now!” he hissed when the last patrol passed by. As one, they ran down the hall, crouched and stepping softly. They got all the way through the hall and had almost reached the door before they ran into a patrol. Utgar had miscounted.

The guards drew their swords, but were instantly tackled to the ground by five prisoners. The guards were soon relieved of their weapons, and their bodies were dragged into the hall out of sight. Then, knowing that he had little time, Utgar pushed on the heavy doors.

They opened far too easily. Utgar had a glimpse of a dark circular room, with a faint white light in the middle which did nothing to illuminate its surroundings. And then two guards rushed at him from the darkness.

Utgar ducked the first blow. The second sliced cleanly into his left arm, and Utgar dropped to one knee, his whole side searing with fiery pain. But then the prisoners behind him flooded into the room, and more guards appeared from the darkness, brandishing weapons and in full armor.

The guards were heavily outnumbered, but they fought as though they were the gods of old. Encased in plated armor from head to foot, there was little the prisoners could do against them. The soldiers swung their swords and axes, wounding many, several laughing maniacally the whole time. But then the tide turned.

With a feral yell, Utgar saw Taelord jump, wings partially unfurled, over a pair of fighting kyrie, and land on a soldier’s head. The soldier waved his sword wildly, but Taelord ducked, yanked the soldier’s helmet off, and dug both of his thumbs towards the soldier’s eyes. The soldier, distracted, went down quickly as two other prisoners leapt at him.

From there, the guards began to fall. The prisoners, realizing that numbers were on their side, fought with a ferocity which Utgar had only heard of in the old stories. For a moment he saw the warriors of Migol, fighting the great Valhallian Empire for the right to taste of the wellsprings. He smiled to himself. The old stories were not dead.

Soon, the battle was over. Every time a guard was slain, their body, complete with clothes, armor, and weapons, would vanish. Utgar knew it took the wellspring at least a few days to spit them back out, sometimes much longer. If they didn’t have the wellspring by then, they never would.

Utgar’s warriors, though victorious, had not fared well. Nearly all had been injured in some way, and a good portion were now limping or holding various cuts on their arms or sides. But they didn’t care. Utgar could see a fire in their eyes, a fire which could only be put there by the hope of freedom. Utgar looked for Runa, and found her, hanging back near the wall. Although she had not participated in the battle, due to her wings, the same determination was in her face. They were close now.

The weapons stolen from the soldiers had disappeared when they had, but it didn’t matter. Utgar approached the faint white light in the middle of the circular room, and looked down into the depths of the wellspring.

It was perfectly clear, allowing Utgar to easily see the rocky bottom. Stretched over the wellspring was a dais of stone, a simple circle carved into it directly above the middle of the wellspring. Utgar didn’t know what that was for, but he was concerned with only one thing right now: drinking the water.

He stooped down, feeling his heart beating an excited rhythm against his chest. The other warriors seemed to have gone silent behind him. Utgar looked up, and saw Runa nearby, watching him, her face lit with the dim glow from the wellspring.

So this is how freedom starts, Utgar thought. And he reached out a cupped hand towards the water’s edge.

His hand ran into something solid. Utgar blinked. There was nothing there. Just air. He pushed, but he could very clearly feel a barrier of some sorts, as if there was a solid wall between him and the wellspring. It felt slippery and smooth, but very, very solid. Utgar’s heart sank.

Other kyrie tried to reach the wellspring. None could. It was surrounded on all sides by an invisible barrier. They couldn’t reach it.

Magic, Utgar thought.

And then the door opened. A kyrie with a gray beard, wearing full plate armor and a dark gray cloak, strode inside, quickly followed by a stream of equally well-armored soldiers.

The old kyrie looked about the assembled prisoners with piercing stormy eyes.

“Get away from my wellspring,” said Orm.

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