The following night, Utgar was to be found in a dark cell, his feet bound by a long chain to a ring in the middle of the floor.
True to his word, the commander had taken both Utgar and Runa to Orm’s citadel. The black fortress – what of it Utgar had been able to make out against the dying sun as it came into view – was massive, chiseled into and out of an old volcano.
Utgar had not been allowed to see much of the interior. The guards had quickly moved both him and Runa through a door, and down a maze of narrow passages, until they came to a circular room, which seemed to be a guard room. A single dark hallway connected to the guard room, and branching off of the hallway at regular intervals were small cells. It was in one of these that Utgar now sat, the commander’s promise still ringing in his ears that he would see Orm the following day.
Runa had been placed in a different cell; which one, Utgar could not be sure. His own cell was already occupied by a young kyrie; Utgar guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. He was scarred and burned like every other prisoner Utgar had seen, but his injuries were so extensive that Utgar had winced in pain the first time he saw him.
The kyrie’s skin was tough, leathery, and scarred from the wind. What there was of it. In places it was raw and bright red, sometimes just scabbed over, sometimes still fresh and bloody. Sand and dust coated the kyrie’s body, stuck to his skin in patches of dried blood. The kyrie’s eyes were swollen shut, the lids red and caked with sand. And ever since Utgar had been chained to the floor, the kyrie hadn’t stopped shaking and shivering, the chain connected to his ankle rattling against the floor incessantly.
Once the guard was gone, Utgar crawled over to the kyrie. “What happened?” he asked. It seemed pointless to ask if the kyrie was all right.
The kyrie coughed out a mouthful of bloodied sand. “Escaped,” he whispered. His voice rasped over his throat. He sounded as if he hadn’t had a drink for days.
“You escaped?” Utgar echoed.
The prisoner nodded weakly. “Got away,” he said. “Escaped in a dust storm. Worst idea ever.” He waved a scarred hand at his battered body.
“How did they find you?” Utgar asked.
The kyrie laughed weakly. The laugh turned to a horrible cough. “They didn’t,” he said, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth. “I found them.”
“I was out for five days,” the kyrie said. “It rained the first two, but then it was bone dry. I had no food, and no water. I kept walking north – people said the coast was that way. Never saw anything. Just more rock and more rock. Nothing, nothing but flat, unending…” he shivered once more. “Couldn’t take it,” he said with a cough which shook his whole body. “There’s no cover out there. Nothing. First it was too hot, then it was too cold, and I could do nothing about it. Fifth day a dust storm came up. Nothing I could do. The sand… it went everywhere. I was blinded within a minute. Such pain in my eyes… couldn’t breathe… couldn’t stand in the wind… sand and bits of rock flying at me like crossbow bolts… I thought I would die. I wanted to die.”
“But,” Utgar said, “what about escaping?”
The kyrie really did laugh this time. “Escaping?” he echoed. “Escaping?” His voice was louder, rasping horribly through his ragged throat. “I did escape. Look what happened to me. What’s the point, of dragging yourself out there, if by the time you, by some miracle, make it out, you look like me? Let me tell you something—” he turned around to face Utgar “—they said they won’t even get a chance to execute me. I’ll die within the day. They say my eyes are both infected, as well as where the wind tore up my skin. I assume you’re here because you tried to escape too,” he added, turning back. “I’ll give you some advice: never try it again. You ever wonder why the guards don’t put walls around the camp? Because they don’t need to. They know that anyone who gets out there will come back to them in a day, or die.”
He was silent then, and Utgar retreated to the far corner, still unable to take his eyes from the kyrie’s mutilated skin.
Had he spoken the truth? Is that what really awaited Utgar? Or had he simply been unlucky? No, Utgar decided, dust storms came every few days, as did rain. In fact, the prisoner had been quite lucky to not encounter a storm until his fifth day. If anything, the odds had been in his favor.
Utgar finally tore his eyes away from the bloody mass of the prisoner. If that was the result of luck, he hated to see what happened when someone was unlucky. He remembered the words of the commander. He had tried to warn him.
Utgar looked again at the prisoner, and he finally had to admit it: escape was impossible. Vara had done it, somehow, but Utgar didn’t know how. He couldn’t put Runa through what that prisoner had suffered. He could never do that. Maybe his best chance was to beg Orm for mercy, and simply try to make Runa’s life as comfortable as it could be when they were both prisoners and slaves.
The door swung open. Utgar backed up against the wall as two guards came in and walked straight to the wounded prisoner. One held a small vial, and knelt at the prisoner’s side. The other guard kept his eyes on Utgar.
The guard with the vial dipped her finger into it, and gingerly touched the prisoner’s burned skin. She barely brushed it with the tip of her finger, but the skin instantly turned darker, scabbing over. Sand fell from it in sheets and began to form a pile beneath the prisoner. The guard dipped her finger into the vial once more, and lightly brushed the prisoner’s eyes. Instantly, their swelling subsided, and they returned to their normal color.
“What – Why have you done this?” the prisoner asked, blinking his eyes experimentally.
The guard watching Utgar turned to the prisoner. “Because,” he said, “no one escapes Orm’s wrath. He has decreed that you will be executed. You don’t get to die here quietly, where no one can see you.”
“But,” the prisoner spluttered, “but… that’s wellspring water! It must be!”
Utgar glanced quickly at the vial.
The guard laughed. “Yes,” he said, “it is. But you need more than that to live forever. That amount wouldn’t do anything but heal, even if you drank it outright.”
“What – I – Wait!” The prisoner cried.
The guard with the vial stood. “You’ll be executed in the morning,” she said coldly, wiping her fingers on her armor. They turned to leave.
Utgar watched the guard slip the vial into a pocket. A spark of hope suddenly ignited within Utgar. They couldn’t escape. But there was another way.