“Quiet!” the angular-featured kyrie hissed, but Utgar ignored him.
“Runa!” She didn’t move.
“She can’t hear you,” a voice said from Utgar’s left. Utgar turned and saw that the boy on the far left had spoken.
“What do you mean?” he asked, fearing the answer.
“She’s drugged,” the boy said. “Don’t worry, she’s fine, but she won’t wake for a while.”
Utgar forced his breathing to slow. She was fine. Runa was fine. “Why?” he asked between breaths. “Why would they drug her?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know, but I do know the guards will come in soon if you don’t keep your voice down.”
Utgar nodded. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Who is she to you?” the bearded kyrie asked, his whisper more of a growl.
“My daughter,” Utgar said, turning to look back at the motionless lump which was Runa. “She’s my daughter.”
The night passed slowly. Utgar could barely tear his eyes away from Runa, but after several hours of staring at her unmoving form, he began to hear strange sounds coming from outside the tent.
At first all was silent. Occasionally there would be the clink of armor, which Utgar assumed was a guard shifting position. But once he heard a dull thud close to the tent, and several times he was sure he heard a soft tearing noise, as if fabric were being pulled apart very slowly and carefully. Utgar couldn’t guess what these sounds meant, but his muscles tensed, and his eyes strained to see in the near-darkness.
And then, just as the feel of the air had shifted, and Utgar guessed that dawn was approaching, a shadowy figure lifted the tent flap, and walked inside. The figure carried a sword, and against the light color of the tent wall, Utgar could see that something dark dripped from it. The figure slowly approached the five prisoners. Utgar tensed, ready for a fight. And then the figure spoke.
“By Migol,” he breathed, “I knew it was you, Utgar!”
Utgar recognized that voice. It was one he hadn’t heard in over twelve years, except for in his dreams.
“Vraen?” he whispered, hardly daring to believe it.
“It’s me, Utgar,” Vraen said, “and you don’t need to whisper. The soldiers are dead; the camp is mine.” He knelt and began untying Utgar.
“But – You—” Utgar spluttered.
“My scouts have been following you for two days,” Vraen explained as he worked. “You were being tracked the moment you entered my territory. I had my suspicions it was you, because you came from the desert, and because you killed eight soldiers with only a scratch to show for it.”
Utgar remembered the black kyrie which had seemed to watch him, but other questions were more pressing. “Your territory?” Utgar repeated.
“That’s right,” Vraen said, finishing untying Utgar and moving on to the angular-faced kyrie. “My days of roaming the Barbarian Lands ended soon after yours did. I was tired of the constant fighting and moving from place to place. I wanted to settle somewhere and build something. Apparently, my idea was shared by quite a few of our band, because a year later we had a small village to our name and raiders were joining us by droves. By now I control most of the central Strip.” He moved on to Runa. “But what about you? How did you get captured?”
“I—” Utgar was still struggling with the sudden appearance of a friend he hadn’t seen in over a decade. “But… how did you find me? What are you doing here?”
Vraen finished untying Runa (she remained unconscious), and moved on to the other prisoners. “I’m the biggest clan,” he said simply. “No one dares threaten me except for the Empire. We try to stay out of each other’s way, but I keep an eye on them anyway. They could destroy me if they decided I was a threat.”
Utgar glanced at the blood dripping from Vraen’s sword. “What changed?” he asked.
Vraen glanced at his sword. “Nothing,” he said. “Like I said, I thought it might be you my scouts were following, and when the Empire captured you, I decided to pay this camp a little visit. They were far too close to my territory anyway. They should know better.”
“Don’t worry,” Vraen said. He held up a black cloth hood. “They don’t know it was us who attacked them. There’s a group of extremists to the south – Vel they’re called – they’re always attacking the Empire. They wear hoods like this – it makes impersonating them dead easy.” He finally finished untying all of the prisoners and returned to Utgar.
“But I want to hear what drove you from the desert. My scouts say you were moving as if your life depended on it.”
Utgar stood and moved to where Runa lay. He knelt by her side and put his hand under her head; it was limp and lifeless, but he could feel her breathing slowly.
“This is my daughter,” he told Vraen. “She was taken by the Empire.” He quickly related how he had found his home burning and Runa gone. When he finished, Vraen was silent for a long time.
Finally he said, “what you’ve told me makes no sense. Why would the Empire abduct your daughter? She wasn’t exactly easy to reach.”
Utgar shook his head. “I don’t know. But I couldn’t let them take her.”
“They’ll be looking for her,” Vraen said. “The Empire. It only makes sense,” he added when Utgar looked at him. “She was halfway into the desert; there are far easier targets. That means she’s not just anyone to them.”
The shock of seeing Vraen was starting to wear off, and the reality that the Empire was after Runa was now sinking in. “We’ll hide,” Utgar said. “I did it once; I can do it again.”
“They found you once,” Vraen said. “They can probably do that again, too.” Utgar looked at him. “There’s only one place you can go right now, Utgar: Nearv, my village. You’ll be safe from the Empire there.”
Utgar was silent for a moment. “What about you, though?” he said. “If they find out that you’re sheltering me—”
“But they won’t,” Vraen said. “Not if we stay hidden on our way back, and use our Vel disguises if we meet any soldiers. Trust me, Utgar. I can hide you there until they lose their interest in your daughter.”
Now that he had Runa back, part of Utgar – a very large part – wanted only to flee back to the desert, and rebuild his life. But Vraen was right. The Empire had found him there once, and there was no reason they wouldn’t find him there again.
“Alright,” Utgar said. “I’ll go to Nearv. Thank you, Vraen. I’ll repay you someday.”
Vraen waved his hand dismissively. “You owe me nothing, Utgar. You’ve saved my life plenty of times. Kirav!” he suddenly called over his shoulder. A kyrie robed in black entered the tent. “These were the Empire’s prisoners, Kirav,” Vraen said. “Make sure they have food and water. We’re taking them all back to Nearv.”
Kirav nodded and left the tent.
Vraen put a hand on Utgar’s shoulder. “It will be like old times,” he said. “You and me together again.”
Utgar finally permitted himself to smile. “Do you still plot the Empire’s end around the fire every night?” he asked.
“Less so,” Vraen admitted. “I have to live with them if I’m to survive. But if you got me a Wellspring, I’d gladly flatten Srung and the rest of the Empire.”
Utgar smiled. “I know you would,” he said. “Wouldn’t we all.”