Chapter Eleven

While she much preferred staying in Nearv to participating in battle, Runa was restless. She didn’t like Nearv, with the constant flow of new soldiers flooding through it, the noise and the commotion. She wanted to get out of the village, but she had promised Vraen she would stay near his hall. So she spent most of her time in the small room he had given her, trying to shut out the chaotic sounds beyond the walls.

What she most wanted was to see her father again, and to talk to him. But it was another two days until Utgar returned from the south. She did not know he had arrived, and was surprised when he appeared in her doorway.

She ran to him and flung her arms around him.

He hugged her tightly. “Runa, Runa,” he whispered. He held her at arm’s length. “How are you?”

“Fine,” Runa said.

She had spoken too quickly. Utgar looked at her.

“Fine,” Runa repeated, slower this time.

But he knew her too well to be fooled. “What’s wrong?” he said.

Runa turned and sat down on the foot of her bed. Outside, someone shouted.

“I don’t like it here.” The words came out of her in a tumble.

Utgar looked at her. “Why not?” he said.

Runa looked up at him. His voice was gentle, not accusing.

“I just,” — she paused, looking at the wall — “I want to live back at our old home. Just you and me, like we used to.” She looked up at him. “I know we can’t, but…”

“Our home is burned,” Utgar said slowly. “I saw it. This is our home now, Runa.”

Runa looked down. She felt hot tears stinging her eyes, and tried to blink them away.

“I hate being a Valkyrie,” she finally whispered. She stared at her hands. The tears would not leave. “I hate the Wellspring,” she said. “I hate this war. I want it all to end. I want it over. I want to leave.” She stopped. She hadn’t meant to say so much.

Utgar knelt and took her hands in his own. “We promised Vraen, Runa,” he said quietly. “We promised we’d help him do just that. We can’t back out now.”

Runa nodded, wiping away her tears before they could fall. “I know,” she said. “It’s just… I don’t like Nearv. I don’t like the people here. I don’t like Vraen.”

“Why not?” Utgar said, looking at her with surprise. “Vraen is our friend.”

“He doesn’t feel like a friend.” The words came before Runa could stop them. She looked at Utgar. “He feels… He feels like he doesn’t care. No one here cares.”

Utgar hugged her. “He cares,” he said, “believe me.”

Runa leaned against her father as he held her. “I don’t trust him,” she whispered.

“I do.”

Runa looked up.

“I do,” Utgar repeated, looking down at her. “I’ve known Vraen a long time,” he said. “He’s a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. But he’s also a friend. And he doesn’t turn his back on his friends.” He paused. “Even when they turn theirs on him.” He hugged her again. “We can trust him, Runa.”

“Are you sure?” Runa asked.

Utgar looked at her. “Runa,” he said, “even if Vraen found the Wellspring himself tomorrow, he wouldn’t abandon us. You can trust him.”

Runa sighed. “If you trust him,” she said, “then I can too. But I still don’t like him,” she added.

Utgar smiled. “I’ll be back,” he said, getting up. “Vraen wants to talk over strategies with me. I’ll see you tonight.”

“See you tonight,” Runa said. She got up as well. She was tired of sitting in her room and doing nothing. She followed Utgar through the doorway, and stepped outside. Utgar stayed within the hall, waiting for Vraen.

Runa turned, and began walking slowly around the hall. She would have walked down one of the many narrow alleys between the tents, but she had promised Vraen she would stay close to the hall.

Vraen. Maybe she could trust him, but could she trust anyone else here? Vraen clearly thought she couldn’t, and her father probably agreed. But she wanted to trust them. People weren’t all traitors and thieves. There were good people here. There had to be.

But as Runa paused and looked out over the teeming village, she had to admit that she hadn’t found any yet. Aside from Vraen and Utgar, everyone here only respected her because she was a Valkyrie. Without the Wellspring, she was nothing to them.

She glanced down a side street, and saw Taelord, a long way down it. She paused. He, at least, had acted different. Everyone here treated her like a Valkyrie, looking at her with fear or praising every little thing she did. But he had treated her like a normal kyrie. He might have been cold and distant, but it was a welcome change nonetheless. She had to admit she was curious why he was different.

She was pulled from her thoughts by the sight of the same bully she had seen a few days ago. He and his two friends were in the same alley as Taelord, and they were moving towards him. Taelord hadn’t seen them.

Runa only hesitated a fraction of a second, and then plunged into the alley, running towards Taelord. The people in the street seemed to melt away from her as they saw her, giving her a clear path. But she was much further away from Taelord than the bullies were, and they easily reached him first.

They attacked him from behind. Caught off guard, Runa saw Taelord fall to the ground and out of sight beneath their blows. She hastened to reach him, but when she finally arrived, she stopped, surprised by a scene much different than what she had expected.

Taelord was on his feet and fighting. One of the bullies was already on the ground, curled up and whimpering in pain. And though it was two on one, it was clear to Runa that Taelord was winning.

“STOP!” she cried, moving forwards.

The bullies saw her, pulled up their fallen companion between them, and ran from her. Taelord, his knuckles bleeding and his face bruised, turned to her.

“What did you do that for!” he shouted at her. 

Runa took a step backwards in surprise. “What – I was helping you,” she said.

“I don’t need your help,” Taelord said. “I had them.”

Runa looked at him for a moment, not understanding. He glared back at her.

“Fine,” she said. “You’re welcome.” And she turned, unfolded her wings, and jumped skyward. There was a stone building nearby, and she alighted on its roof.

Well, he certainly doesn’t treat me like everyone else does, Runa thought bitterly. She had expected some gratitude. Or at least a nod of recognition. She glanced back into the alley, and saw the bullies watching Taelord from a safe distance, clearly checking to see if he was alone again.

Fine, she thought, as they began to creep towards him. He wants me to stay out of it? I will. That’s all anyone around here wants to do anyway: fight.

Unseen from the roof, she watched as the three bullies drew closer. She turned, intending to fly back to Vraen’s hall, but after standing still for a few moments, folded her wings and turned back. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave him outnumbered.

She crept back to the edge of the roof and looked down. Again, she was surprised by what she saw.

Three on one, Taelord was winning again. Armed with nothing but his two fists, he slammed them again and again into his opponents, delivering blows to their heads when he could, and ribs when he couldn’t. They seemed unused to fighting someone who fought back; they cowered beneath his blows, trying to shelter their heads.

One fell as Runa watched, Taelord having punched him in the stomach, winding him. Another quickly followed, stunned by a blow to the head. Taelord grabbed the final bully, who Runa recognized as the leader, and flung him to the ground as well. The leader tried to get up, but Taelord kicked him down, and then knelt on him, his knee in the leader’s gut. He drew back his fist, and slammed it into the leader’s head.

The bully fell back to the ground. Taelord pulled back the other fist, but the leader blocked the blow, and drove his own fist upwards into Taelord’s diaphragm. Taelord seemed not to notice or care. He grappled with the leader, and the pair rolled in the sand.

The leader came up on top, and Runa was able to see Taelord’s face, bruised and bloodied. His mouth was twisted into a snarl, and his eyes were full of anger. Even with the bully on top of him, he still swung his fists, catching the leader off guard. They rolled again, and Taelord was back on top. Sparks flew from his fists as he punched the leader.

Lyr, Runa realized. His inma was the same as Utgar’s.

Finally, the leader stopped fighting. Maybe he was stunned, maybe he just gave up, but Taelord was the only one left punching. He drew back once more, and the leader just lay there, waiting for the blow to fall.

It never did. Taelord was still for a moment, and then stood, looking down at the bully.

“Finish it,” the bully spat.

“No,” Taelord said. His voice was calm, devoid of rage or any other emotion. “I can beat you. You know it now.” He and the leader looked at each other silently.

“Go,” Taelord said.

The leader didn’t need to be told twice. He pulled himself to his feet, and limped away down the alley, his two friends close behind. Taelord watched them go, wiping the blood from his eyes.

Runa dropped to the ground. Taelord turned at the sound, but Runa didn’t approach him. She was waiting to see if he would shout at her again.

He didn’t. They looked at each other in silence for a moment, Taelord’s expression blank.

“What?” Runa finally said. He was just staring at her.

“I had to beat them,” Taelord said. “I had to show them I could. Otherwise I would have been fighting them forever.”

“So that’s why you yelled at me?” Runa said, unable to keep an edge from her voice. “I stopped you from making them respect you?”

“I don’t want their respect,” Taelord said. “I just… wanted them to stop.”

He glanced at her, almost as if hoping for some sort of confirmation that he had done the right thing. But then he looked away.  

“Let me heal you,” Runa said. His knuckles were bleeding freely, and several bruises were turning a dubious shade of yellow on his face.

He said nothing, but nodded shortly.

Runa crossed to him, and began healing him.

“Why did you let him go, though?” she said. “The leader?”

“He knew I could beat him,” Taelord said shortly. “There was no reason to continue.”

“Anyone else would have kept going,” Runa said.

“I’m not anyone else,” Taelord said, his voice suddenly harsh.

Runa looked up, startled at the anger in his voice.

“Sorry,” Taelord said, mumbling the word as if he was unaccustomed to it. “It’s just… I’m not one of them.”

Of that, Runa had no doubt. She stepped forward, and finished healing him. When she was done, Taelord thanked her, and left, leaving her to wonder.

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