Category Archives: Valkyrie

Chapter Sixteen

Even with carrying Kirav and Taelord, Utgar’s wings made short work of the distance. Spurred to speed by his desire to see Runa safe, they had barely been aloft for more than an hour before Taelord pointed below through the gathering dusk.

“There!” he called. “Light! Ahnvad is below us.”

Utgar turned, and they dove low. He recognized the dunes they were passing over now. This was where his home had been. And there, that was the canyon he had entered, looking for the soldiers. If only he had known then that they had been behind him, approaching his home, and Runa within…

Light flickered from within the canyon. Someone was inside one of the caves lining the canyon walls, with a lantern. Noiselessly, Utgar landed in the canyon. Taelord slid off and crept forwards, peering into the cave.

“He’s in there,” he said, coming back. “Ahnvad and five soldiers. They’re searching the caves. Now’s our chance.”

“Where’s Runa?” Utgar asked.

“She’s with him,” Taelord said. “She’s still unconscious, but he’s keeping her close.”

Utgar leaned against the canyon wall, thinking. “Kirav,” he said, “we’ll follow your plan. You go in, and distract Ahnvad as long as you can. These caves are full of boulders and shadows which should serve to hide me and Taelord. We’ll try to sneak around Ahnvad, and grab Runa before he sees us.

“You,” he turned to Taelord, “will need to keep her safe. Once Ahnvad sees us, he’ll be focusing on me. Keep Runa behind me. Get her out if you can. And Taelord,” Utgar added – Taelord looked up – “I’m trusting you because I have no choice. Not because I want to. Do not let me down.”

“I won’t,” Taelord said. “I want Runa safe as much as you do.”

Utgar seriously doubted that, but he said nothing.

“You’d better be fast, Utgar,” Kirav said. “You might think I’m a – how did you put it? A warrior to be reckoned with? But that’s Ahnvad in there. We tried to take him together once, and didn’t fair too well. I don’t fancy my chances against him alone.”

“Don’t worry,” Utgar said. “I’ll distract him if I have to. You won’t face him alone.”

Together, the three of them crept towards the cave entrance. They could hear movement within. And then Ahnvad’s voice range out: “Hurry! It must be here somewhere!”

Utgar looked at Kirav. “You first,” he whispered.

Kirav grimaced, and stepped into the cave, Utgar and Taelord following at a crouch. The cave was, as Utgar had suspected, lined with boulders and jagged rocks. They made the perfect cover. He and Taelord edged in among them, slowly making their way into the cave, keeping to the shadows. Kirav walked slowly forwards, letting them pull ahead.

Then he walked into the lantern-light.

“Ahnvad!” Kirav cried, in what Utgar thought was a reasonable impersonation of someone in complete control, given the circumstances.

Everyone spun around. Ahnvad was in the middle of the cave, with Runa slumped on the floor beside him. Two soldiers were behind him, three in front. They all stopped, staring at Kirav. Utgar and Taelord crept around the edge of the cave, getting steadily closer to where Runa lay.

“I know you,” Ahnvad said slowly, looking Kirav up and down. “You’re one of Vraen’s men.” He paused. “Kill him,” he said, turning away.

“You don’t want to do that, Ahnvad,” Kirav said.

Slowly, Ahnvad turned back. “I really rather think I do,” he said placidly. Behind him, Utgar and Taelord crept closer to where Runa lay.

“I know the true location of the Wellspring,” Kirav said.

“Indeed?” Ahnvad sounded quite calm.

He doesn’t believe him, Utgar realized. He knows Kirav is playing for time.

“How do you think I got here?” Kirav said. “This place is a day’s travel on foot from Vraen. I flew. No Volcarren can fly, unless they’ve drunk of a Wellspring.”

Ahnvad smiled.

He knows something, Utgar thought frantically. But there was no way to warn Kirav.

“Really?” Ahnvad said. “But perhaps you were already here, or nearby.”

“Perhaps,” Kirav said, “but what does it matter?”

Ahnvad’s smile widened. “It matters because then you needn’t have flown, and thus your ‘proof’ that you are Valkyrie is gone.”

Kirav flung his arms wide. “By all means,” he cried, “send your men to kill me. Find out for yourself if I am Valkyrie.”

Ahnvad looked at Kirav with only the mildest of interest. “You are not Valkyrie,” he said. “You are a diversion. Who else is here with you?”

“I assure you that I am a Valkyrie,” Kirav said.

Ahnvad’s smile faded. “You cannot be Valkyrie,” he said sharply, “because you cannot have drunk from the Wellspring. The Wellspring is sealed. I sealed it the moment I had Runa in my possession. I used her connection to the Wellspring, and some of the ancient archkyrie magic, and sealed the Wellspring so that, wherever it might be, none but I could unseal it. Its waters cannot be touched as long as I draw breath. Therefore you are lying. You are not a real Valkyrie, and unless you kill me, you never will be. Now,” he turned to his soldiers. “Kill him.”

The three soldiers between Kirav and Ahnvad began moving towards him, drawing their swords. Kirav stood his ground, but he glanced towards where Utgar and Taelord were hidden.

Utgar knew their time was up. “Go,” he said to Taelord. “Get my daughter, and get her out.”

Taelord nodded, and slithered away between the rocks.

Utgar crept forwards. One of Ahnvad’s soldiers was near him. If he could kill him without being seen…

Meanwhile, all three soldiers had engaged Kirav. He might have been able to handle two at once, but three was too much. It was immediately obvious that he was no Valkyrie, as he began backing away under their assault.

Utgar unsheathed his sword, got to one knee carefully, and without warning plunged it straight through the soldier’s back. The soldier let out a strangled cry, and fell forwards, Utgar pulling out his sword as he did.


Meanwhile, Taelord had reached Runa. Creeping out from behind the rocks, he was just able to reach her, and drag her back into the shadows. She didn’t stir. Propping her up against one of the rocks, he gave her a swift shake, placing a hand over her mouth.

She woke with a start, but stilled when she saw him. He removed his hand carefully.

“Taelord?” she whispered. “What’s happened? Vraen… Nearv… is my father all right?”

“He’s fine,” Taelord whispered back. “He’s here with me. But I’ve got to get you out. He said to get you to safety.”

But at that moment, Utgar stabbed the soldier in the back, he let out a cry, and Ahnvad turned. First he saw Utgar. Then he saw Taelord.

He stared at Taelord and Runa for a full second. Taelord stared back, knowing what was coming.

“You!” Ahnvad cried. “You would betray me?”

Taelord stood. “Yes,” he said, returning Ahnvad’s glare. “I would.”


Utgar saw Ahnvad start towards Taelord and Runa. At the other end of the cave, Kirav was still dueling the three soldiers. Their time was up. Utgar stood.

“Ahnvad!” he cried.

Ahnvad turned towards him.

“You’re right,” Utgar said. “Kirav isn’t a Valkyrie. But I am.” And he raised his palm to point at Ahnvad.

Ahnvad’s eyes widened. “STOP!” he bellowed.

Utgar paused, purely because he had never seen panic in Ahnvad before, and was surprised by it.

“If you destroy me now,” Ahnvad said, “you’ll destroy yourself. Wellspring magic can’t be controlled in an enclosed space, not if you summon more than a small flame. You’ll kill us all if you unleash it here. Me, you, and your daughter.”

Utgar glanced at Runa, who he saw was awake. She nodded. What Ahnvad had said was true.

“Yes,” Ahnvad breathed, watching Utgar, “you are Valkyrie. You were prepared to use your power.”

He and Utgar stood still, watching each other. The old calmness washed over Utgar, clearing his mind. Dared he attack? Could he possibly defeat Ahnvad without the Wellspring?

“Get the girl,” Ahnvad said to the nearest soldier.

The soldier glanced warily at Utgar.

“Go!” Ahnvad cried. “He is powerless in this cave!”

After a moment of hesitation, the soldier moved towards Runa.

Kirav was still engaged with three soldiers. Runa was awake, but Ahnvad was between her and Utgar. Utgar didn’t have a choice. He would have to engage Ahnvad.

“Runa!” he cried. “Run!”

“Stop her!” Ahnvad cried. “Catch her!” It was clear he knew he could control Utgar if he had her.

One of the soldiers dueling Kirav looked around at Ahnvad’s cry. Kirav promptly slew him for his lapse in concentration, but he received a wound in the side as he lunged forwards. He staggered back, bleeding freely.

Utgar launched himself at Ahnvad, the familiar cold calm hardening within him. Ahnvad was ready. He planted his feet, and gripped his battleaxe. He swung as Utgar came close. Utgar, his mind empty of everything but the battle, ducked under the blow, and tried to strike Ahnvad with his sword, but he wasn’t fast enough. Ahnvad blocked his blow with the haft of his axe, and then swung the axe down, slamming the upper haft onto Utgar’s shoulder and back. Utgar was flung into the ground.

Meanwhile, Taelord dove at the soldier advancing on Runa. He grabbed the soldier’s legs, tripping him. “Runa!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Go!”

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave Taelord, unarmed, or her father, dueling Ahnvad. She had to do something. Unfortunately, without the Wellspring, there was very little she could do.

Kirav dropped to the floor, a gash in his head. His weapon fell from his hand. He was still alive, but the two soldiers who had been dueling him, recognizing that he was no longer a threat, rushed to aid Ahnvad.

Utgar saw them coming, and disengaged from Ahnvad. He had fought five soldiers at once; two should be easy. But not with Ahnvad in the fray. He focused on keeping the soldiers between himself and Ahnvad, which unfortunately meant he had to circle away from Runa. As this occurred to him, he glanced in her direction, and felt the calm of battle begin to slip from his mind. He turned back to the soldiers. He had to stay focused.

Meanwhile, unarmed, Taelord was trying to wrestle his soldier. He was failing. The soldier picked him up and bodily threw him against the cave wall. Taelord hit it hard, and fell to the floor, where he did not move. The soldier advanced on Runa.

Utgar, focusing on the two soldiers in front of him, feinted right. The soldiers moved their swords to the right. He feinted left. They moved their swords to the left. Feeling a grim sense of satisfaction, he feinted right again, changed direction, came at them from the left, and… narrowly avoided being sliced by their swords. He backpedaled quickly. These were well-trained soldiers.

Utgar didn’t feel calm anymore. Runa was in danger, and he was distracted as a result. But he couldn’t afford to be distracted, not now. In the past, before Runa, he had always relied on his focus in combat. It had kept him steady, kept him aware of everything around him. But now it was slipping, being replaced with fear and panic.

The soldiers, following up on his mistake, advanced. Utgar didn’t have a choice. He could no longer rely on the focus which had carried him through battle before. He could rely on the only thing he had left: his fear of losing Runa. He couldn’t afford to be cautious. He had to win.  

As the soldiers advanced, Utgar lunged straight forwards without warning, striking at the first soldier’s head. The soldier’s blade went up to block the blow, but Utgar pulled the blade back at the last moment, and instead slammed his fist into the soldier’s diaphragm. It didn’t matter that the soldier was wearing armor. He doubled up, completely winded, and Utgar easily brought his sword down on his exposed neck.

The second soldier rushed Utgar as his companion fell. Utgar didn’t care. He could feel his anger and panic mingling, giving him the reckless confidence he needed to get to Runa. As the soldier rushed him, Utgar brought his foot up and kicked the soldier squarely in the chest.

The soldier staggered backwards, conveniently colliding with Ahnvad, who had been drawing closer. Ahnvad pushed him away, towards Utgar, and Utgar leapt forwards, forcing his blade under the soldier’s breastplate, and into his heart. The soldier toppled, sliding off of Utgar’s sword.

That left only Ahnvad. Utgar was ready. He was ready to take on Ahnvad, and to use all of his panic and anger to destroy him. Unfortunately, the last remaining soldier got to Runa first.

She cried out as he grabbed her, and Utgar, distracted, looked in her direction.

Instantly, the haft of Ahnvad’s axe slammed into the side of his head, sending him staggering backwards. By the time Utgar regained his senses, he saw that the soldier had his sword to Runa’s neck. Utgar got up slowly, only the faintest thread of logic keeping him still.

“It is over, Utgar!” Ahnvad cried. He stood in the middle of the cave, his axe in both hands, Kirav at his feet, unmoving. “I have your daughter. Move against me, and she suffers.”

Blood was pounding in Utgar’s ears, but Ahnvad was right. It was over. He couldn’t put Runa at risk.

“Lower your weapon,” Ahnvad commanded.

Utgar had no choice but to lower it.

Ahnvad took a breath. “Good,” he said. “Now, you may be a Valkyrie, Utgar, but I carry with me a toxin which will remedy that. Once drugged, your powers will be gone. Then you will lead me to the Wellspring. If you do, I may let you and your daughter live. If not, well…” He let the sentence hang.

Runa whimpered as the soldier holding her tightened his grip.

“Make your decision now, Utgar,” Ahnvad said. “Come with me willingly or let your daughter taste the blade.”

Utgar looked hopelessly to the floor where Taelord had fallen. He was not stirring. Neither was Kirav.

Ahnvad advanced on Utgar slowly. “With or without you,” he said, “the Wellspring will be mine.”

Utgar glared at him defiantly, but there was nothing else he could do. “It will never be yours,” he growled.

“And why is that?” Ahnvad said. They were face to face now, only half an arm’s length apart.

“Because you don’t know what it is,” Utgar said. “You don’t know what it means.”

“It is power,” Ahnvad said calmly. “And it means that whoever controls it, controls Valhalla.”

But Utgar suddenly saw something behind Ahnvad. He smiled. He saw a shadow of doubt cross Ahnvad’s face. “No,” he said. “It is hope.”

And then Kirav, pale, bleeding, but still somehow conscious, stood up behind Ahnvad, took his sword, and stabbed him cleanly through the back.

Ahnvad let out a scream of pain and fell to his knees, pulling the sword and Kirav with him. Kirav fell back to the floor where he sprawled, breathing heavily. Ahnvad fell forwards, trying to reach the blade embedded in his back. And Utgar, opening his wings, flew straight at the stunned soldier holding Runa.

Runa slipped out of the soldier’s slackened grip a moment before Utgar collided with him, sending him into the rock wall. Utgar wrested the soldier’s sword from his grasp as the wall neared, planted the tip against the soldier’s chest, and then felt it driven into him by the force of the impact. The soldier dropped to the floor, dead, and Utgar turned once more to Ahnvad, as Runa hurried towards Taelord.

Ahnvad had succeeded somehow in pulling the sword out. He had rolled onto his back, and was coughing and breathing heavily, his own blood rapidly pooling beneath him. Utgar knew he didn’t have long to live. He advanced on Ahnvad, and stopped at his side, standing over him.

For a moment, the two looked at each other. Then Ahnvad spoke, gasping for breath.

“You… You are Volcarrens,” he said, as if the very laws of the universe prevented Volcarrens from winning.

“Yes,” Utgar said. “We are. But we’re leaving the Volcarren.” He stooped, and picked up Ahnvad’s battleaxe. “You can’t stop us.”

Then, without any more hesitation, he swung the axe up above his head, and brought it down on Ahnvad’s chest. The black armor buckled. Ahnvad screamed. Flames burst into existence all along his body as the axe bit deep, and the black armor turned white hot where it had cut through. In another second, Ahnvad’s entire body turned to flame, the orange-red tongues quickly consuming him. He cried out in agony, writhing and twisting beneath the axe of fire, and then, quite suddenly, he was still. The fire smoldered and went out, leaving only charred remains, a smoking armored husk over a burnt skeleton.

Ahnvad, commander of the Imperial army in the Volcarren, was dead.

Leaving the axe embedded in Ahnvad’s corpse, Utgar turned to find Kirav sitting up, weak and white, but smiling. Beyond him, Runa was helping Taelord to his feet.

All three looked at Utgar expectantly, and he looked back at them.

“The Wellspring is ours,” he said.

No one moved. Everything was still.

“Shall we use it?”

Kirav and Taelord nodded. But Utgar looked to Runa. She looked back at him, her face conflicted.

“For freedom?” he said.

He saw, in Runa’s face, her doubts still.

“For freedom,” she said.

Chapter Fifteen

Meren’s information had been true. Utgar and Kirav had arrived to find a force of Imperial soldiers camped within a canyon. There were only about two hundred of them, but they would have been more than sufficient to take Nearv once Vraen’s army left to attack Srung. Utgar, Kirav, and the five hundred raiders Vraen had sent made short work of them. A few escaped, but they were of no concern. They would pose no more threat to Nearv.

As the bodies were piled and burned, the commander told Utgar and Kirav to return to Vraen. The sooner he knew they were safe, the sooner he could begin the attack on Srung. Everyone was eager to leave the Volcarren. Utgar and Kirav set out at once.

They made good time across the barren and now lifeless rock. They moved at an easy jog, a pace they could keep up for hours. The sun was hot on their backs, and Utgar pulled his waterskin from his belt, intending to take a drink, but it was empty.

“Why didn’t you fill it before we left?” Kirav asked as they ran.

“I haven’t filled it since Runa was taken,” Utgar said. “It still had water in it from our home. It felt like…”

“Like a piece of your home?” Kirav suggested.

“Something like that,” Utgar said. “Like it wasn’t all burned.”

“You’ll be able to go back,” Kirav said. “Once we take Srung and reach that Wellspring in Kinsland, you’ll be able to have any life you want.”

“I hope so,” Utgar said. He replaced the waterskin on his belt. “You’ve changed, Kirav,” Utgar added, looking at him sideways as they ran. “When I met you, you were—”

“A coward?” Kirav supplied.

Utgar smiled. “Not a coward, no. But you feared battle.”

“And my enemies,” Kirav said. “And my own sword, for my matter. Say it Utgar, I was a coward.”

“Well,” Utgar said, “you’ve changed. That’s my point. You attacked today with no hesitation.”

“If you don’t cut down your enemy, eventually he will kill you,” Kirav said, quoting Utgar’s own words back to him.

“True,” Utgar said, “but don’t get too confident.”

“After being afraid of any battle?” Kirav said. “Utgar, any confidence is too much confidence where I’m concerned.”

Utgar smiled. “You know what I mean. You’ve become a warrior to be reckoned with, but know your limits.”

“Relax, Utgar,” Kirav said. “I’m not about to charge Ahnvad on the field of battle or anything. I’m – Utgar!”

Utgar looked around, expecting an ambush, but Kirav was pointing to the sky. Following his gaze, Utgar saw a vast plume of black smoke, slowly curling upwards.

They climbed the nearest ridge quickly, and were able to see the source of the smoke.

“Nearv!” Kirav gasped.

“No…” Utgar whispered. The entire village was burning. “Runa…”


Nearv was only a short distance away, although they had to cross several ravines and jagged cliffs to get to it. As they moved towards it, Utgar could hardly take his eyes from the burning village. Runa was there. And Vraen. What had happened? How could the Empire have attacked so quickly, with Runa there? They couldn’t have. And that meant…

Utgar and Kirav arrived a few painfully long minutes later. Utgar saw that there was someone waiting for them at what was left of the gates. He recognized him. Runa had mentioned him once before in passing. It was Taelord.

“Taelord?” Utgar said, approaching him. Taelord was blackened with soot, and ash was in his hair. He was leaning against part of the stone wall, his arms crossed, clearly waiting for them. But he didn’t look at ease. He moved towards Utgar when he saw him, his steps hurried.

“Ahnvad,” Taelord said, stopping in front of Utgar.

“What?”

“He’s learned the location of the Wellspring,” Taelord said. “He had spies within Nearv. We didn’t know. And Utgar… Vraen is dead.”

Utgar staggered backwards. “Vraen… How…”

“It was over before we knew what had happened,” Taelord said. “Vraen was assassinated in his own hall. His commanders were also killed. Then Ahnvad attacked. It was total chaos. Everyone’s gone now; most are dead, some routed. And the spies… they burned Nearv.”

“But… Runa. What about Runa? Is she safe?”

Taelord shook his head. “She’s gone too. Ahnvad took her. I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t get there fast enough. I think he must have drugged her with the same toxin he used in Srung, because she was unconscious. He flew east with her. He’s taken her to the Wellspring.”

Utgar could not seem to find his voice. His mind was alive, trying to process everything Taelord had just told him, but the rest of his body seemed frozen.

“He’ll kill her,” Kirav said from beside Utgar. “He’s probably taken her just in case the location is wrong. But if it isn’t, if he finds the Wellspring…”

“Then he won’t need her anymore,” Utgar finished. He turned, preparing to do he knew not what – walk to the Wellspring if necessary – but Taelord spoke.

“Wait!” he said. “You don’t know the half of it! Ahnvad won’t find the Wellspring. It was I who told him where it was, but I gave him a false location.”

Utgar stared blankly at Taelord. “You?” he repeated, not comprehending.

Taelord nodded. “Runa is safe for now,” he said. “Ahnvad thinks the Wellspring is in a canyon in the desert. It will take him time to get there and search it.”

“Not more than a few hours,” Kirav said.

“And after that,” Utgar said, “Runa—”

“You must listen, Utgar,” Taelord said. “I would never have put Runa in danger if I didn’t think I could get her out of it.”

“How?” Kirav said sharply.

“I know where the real Wellspring is,” Taelord said. “Runa told me.”

“Runa… told you?!?” Utgar said.

But Taelord ignored him. “The only chance for Runa,” he said, “is if someone gets to the Wellspring before Ahnvad. Runa knows where it is now. It will take Ahnvad a long time to search the entire canyon, but once he realizes it isn’t there, he’s going to question her again. We have to reach the Wellspring before that happens.”

“Then what?” Kirav interjected. “Drink its waters and blast Ahnvad with magic?”

“Well, yes,” Taelord said. “Something like that.”

The gist of what Taelord had done finally penetrated Utgar’s mind. There were pieces missing, but the important part was that he had put Runa within Ahnvad’s grasp once more. She was in danger. And it was Taelord’s doing.

Utgar pinned him against the rock wall in one swift movement.

“Tell me where the Wellspring is,” he snarled, holding Taelord to the wall by his throat. “Tell me, or I’ll break your neck here and now.”

“I’ll tell you,” Taelord gasped. “I plan to, Utgar. But there’s more you don’t know. Let me down.”

Utgar removed his hand, letting Taelord drop to the ground.

Taelord massaged his throat. “I know you don’t trust me,” he said, “so please let me explain.”

“Talk,” Utgar growled. “Quickly.”

Taelord stood and took a breath. “After you left,” he said, “the dagger used to kill Meren was found in my tent.”

Utgar opened his mouth, but Taelord held up a hand and continued.

“Vraen – and nearly everyone else – assumed I was the spy who had silenced him. They were right. Or at least partially. I am a spy for Ahnvad. But I didn’t kill Meren.”

Utgar couldn’t see how this would make him trust Taelord, but the ability of speech seemed to have deserted him.

“My mother,” Taelord continued, his words becoming rushed now, “was taken against her will by Ahnvad to Srung. I went with her. While I was there, I heard enough to know that a Wellspring was in the Volcarren. I knew Ahnvad was looking for it. I tried to escape with the information, but Ahnvad caught me.

“Normally, he would have killed me, but he knew how much I cared for my mother. He knew he could control me by threatening her, and he also knew what a valuable spy that would make me. Others might change their allegiance. I never could. So, he told me that if I did not serve him, he would torture and kill her.

“Everything I have done since then, I have done to keep her safe. Meren wasn’t the only spy Vraen rescued from that camp, Utgar. Aside from Runa, we were all spies. The third spy’s name was Rok. He’s the one who killed Meren.

“Ahnvad planted all three of us along with your daughter. He knew you were coming for her, and he knew Vraen was following you with raiders. He had already questioned Runa enough to know that she didn’t know where the Wellspring was, so his plan was to ‘free’ her, and let her lead him there herself once she remembered. The three of us were to follow her, and alert him if we found out the location of the Wellspring.

“But Meren was discovered. At first, he said only what he had to, assuming Ahnvad would rescue him. But when Ahnvad didn’t come for him during the attack on Nearv, and when Vraen threatened to execute him, he decided to switch sides. Rok killed him before he could tell Vraen who we all were.

“But Ahnvad hadn’t counted on one thing: Runa. She trusted me. I don’t know why. I tried to ignore her, send her away, but it didn’t work. Rok saw. He began to get worried that I would do what Meren had done, and tell Runa everything. He didn’t know about my mother, you see. He thought I was just another spy.

“So Rok decided to take both me and Meren out at once. He killed Meren, and then planted the dagger on me. I was stuck. I could expose Rok, but no one would believe me. Everyone thought I was the spy. Everyone except Runa. She still trusted me. I couldn’t tell her how right she was though, because I knew Rok was watching. If I were to have any chance of staying alive, I had to keep her and everyone else doubting.

“Runa figured out where the Wellspring was. She told me, thinking I could tell Vraen, and so prove I wasn’t the spy. But she didn’t know that there were spies everywhere in Nearv. I knew Ahnvad had put them there, even if I didn’t know who they were. I couldn’t tell Vraen where the Wellspring was, because the spies would find out, and alert Ahnvad. He has small pockets of soldiers hiding all across the Volcarren for that exact reason. He would get there first.

“There was only one way I could keep Vraen from executing me as a spy, and still keep Runa safe from Ahnvad. I gave Rok a fake Wellspring location.

“It worked. He immediately went to Ahnvad. I knew that once Ahnvad had the location, he would drug Runa, and attack Nearv. Every second he delayed, Vraen could attack Srung. I thought he was going to make a quick strike, go for Runa, and get out, taking all of his spies with him. I would be able to tell Vraen the true location of the Wellspring once the spies were out of the way, he would find it, drink from it, and be able to save Runa.

“Ahnvad… didn’t do that. He attacked in full force, his spies taking out Vraen’s commanders and Vraen himself. Vraen’s army had no leader, and Ahnvad made sure Runa wasn’t there to save them. They were crushed, and Nearv burned. And now Ahnvad has Runa, is searching for the Wellspring where I know it isn’t, and… and you’re our last hope, Utgar.”

Silence finally fell.

Ash from Nearv fell on and around them. Wind whipped the smoke above them into coils and threads. And within Utgar’s mind, Ahnvad’s plan finally unraveled itself, and all the riddles were slowly answered. Finally, he looked at Taelord.

“I don’t trust you,” he said. “You have dealt in lies, and what you have said could be naught but more of them. There is only one way you can gain my trust. Where is the Wellspring?”

Taelord answered quickly. “It’s where your home was, Utgar. It’s always been there. Runa realized she couldn’t remember ever finding the Wellspring because she never did find it. The both of you have been living over it for years, drinking its waters. Ahnvad doesn’t know; he thought Runa had found it too. He never considered that it was right inside her home.”

Finally, everything clicked into place. This explained why Ahnvad had thought Runa was a Valkyrie: She was. She had been almost since she was born. It explained how, after having the Wellspring’s power drained from her by Ahnvad’s toxin, she had somehow regained it. Utgar lifted his empty waterskin from his belt. He had given her a drink from that waterskin. A drink of water from the spring beneath their home. Her injuries had healed. Utgar looked at the waterskin, suddenly realizing something else. He had drunk from that waterskin a lot more recently than Runa had. And that meant…

Kirav seemed to have reached the same conclusion. “Utgar,” he said, looking at Utgar’s waterskin. “If that’s true, then…”

“Then I’m a Valkyrie,” Utgar said. “I have been this whole time.”

“How couldn’t you know?” Kirav said.

“Runa didn’t know,” Utgar said, remembering. “She had no idea she was a Valkyrie.”

“But you must have drunk from your waterskin when you were injured. At some point, surely?”

Utgar thought back. Every time he had been injured, Runa had been there to heal him. He had always been healed too quickly. The times when Runa hadn’t been there – at the battle just a few hours ago, and when she had been taken – he had never been injured.

Utgar looked at his free hand, the one not holding his waterskin. There was one way to be sure. He thrust his palm skyward, and a blast like a sudden windstorm went off. The smoke above them was rent as a pillar of air, orange-red and shimmering with heat, flew from Utgar’s palm.

“I am Valkyrie,” Utgar said, lowering his hand and looking at it. “I am,” he repeated, mostly to convince himself of that fact.

“And you can fly,” Taelord said. “Utgar, you can fly to where I’ve sent Ahnvad. You can save Runa.”

Utgar looked at him. “What about your mother?” he said, frowning. “Does Ahnvad know you’re helping us?”

Taelord shook his head. “He knows the Wellspring location came from me. He thinks I’m on his side, so my mother is safe. At least until he realizes the Wellspring isn’t where I sent him. But she’s in Srung. Runa’s the one with Ahnvad right now. She’s the one we need to help first.”

There were still a few missing pieces. Utgar knew time was precious, but he had to understand. “And why didn’t you go to the Wellspring yourself?” he asked Taelord. “Once you knew where it was?”

“I don’t know where it is,” Taelord said. “Not exactly. I never saw your home. Plus, I couldn’t get there fast enough, and once Ahnvad knows I’m not on his side, he could control me. I have no desire to see Runa harmed, and I think he knows that by now.”

“Then he’ll control me too,” Utgar said. “He’ll kill her if I make a move against him.”

“I know,” Taelord said. “But we don’t have any other choice. We have to confront him. If we can separate him from Runa, she’ll be safe.”

“But,” Kirav said, “she’s a Valkyrie. Surely she could—”

“Taelord said Ahnvad drugged her,” Utgar said. “Her powers are gone.”

“I’m the one who put her in danger,” Taelord said. “I’ll get her out of it if I can. But we have to go. We’ll have to try to separate Runa before we engage Ahnvad. We have no other choice.”

“Yes, we do.” It was Kirav who had spoken.

Utgar turned to him.

“Utgar,” Kirav said, “you can fly us there, but then I’ll pretend that I am the Valkyrie. Ahnvad isn’t expecting another Valkyrie, right? But the fact that we flew there means at least one of us is. Well, he might be able to control you and Taelord with Runa, but he doesn’t know a thing about me. If I pretend that I’m as cold-hearted as he is, that I don’t care if Runa lives or dies, the two of you might have a chance to get her away from him. Then, once she’s safe… Ahnvad is yours.”

Utgar didn’t have to think long to realize it was their best chance.

“Can you pick us both up?” Taelord asked.

Utgar glanced at him.

“I’m coming, Utgar,” Taelord said. “I’m not asking you to trust me, but I’m the one who created this mess. I just want a chance to clean it up if I can.”

Utgar considered him for a moment. “You’ve caused the deaths of Vraen and hundreds of those loyal to him,” he said. “You’ve also put my daughter in danger. But you’ve given me the Wellspring, and I believe you’ve done your best to mislead Ahnvad.” He paused a fraction of a second. “I’ll give you a chance, Taelord. But nothing more.”

“Fair enough,” Taelord said. “Now let’s be on our way.”

Utgar picked up Kirav with both arms (the Wellspring seemed to have given him extra strength), and Taelord climbed onto his back. Then Utgar unfolded his wings, and for the first time in his life, took flight.

Chapter Fourteen

The crowd slowly dispersed. Some gave Runa dubious looks. Most looked at Taelord with anger. But none dared touch him. Runa stood nearby, purposefully standing close to Taelord, hoping that others might see that she trusted him.

Vraen was the last to exit the hall, leaving Runa alone with Taelord and his guards.

“I’d like to speak to Taelord alone,” Runa said the moment everyone had left, turning to one of the guards.

He looked down at her and frowned. Unlike Vraen, he was not prepared to go against her will. “He stays in the hall, within sight,” he said.

She nodded, turned, grabbed Taelord by the arm, and practically shoved him to the far end of the hall, where they would not be overheard.

“What are you doing?” he asked once she stopped.

“Trying to save your life,” she said shortly. “Why didn’t you say anything to Vraen? I know you’re not the spy.”

Taelord frowned at her. “How?” he said. “How do you know that?”

“I – What?” Runa hadn’t expected this reaction. “Because… Because of what you told me.” Taelord continued to frown at her. “I heard the way you spoke of Ter,” Runa said. “You hated it there! You would never serve the Empire!”

“I grew up there, Runa,” Taelord said. “Maybe everything I said was an act.”

She looked at him. He had blue eyes, an uncommon color in the Volcarren. She searched them, trying to understand why he was saying these things.

“No,” she said. “It wasn’t an act. I know that much. You’re innocent, Taelord.”

“Am I?” Taelord said.

“Yes,” Runa replied, feeling a surge of frustration towards him, “you are. And you need to say it. Go to Vraen. Tell him you aren’t the spy.”

For a moment, Runa saw something in Taelord’s eyes. For a moment, something behind them dropped, and she could tell that he was considering her words. But only for a moment.

“I can’t,” he said.

But Runa knew what she had seen. “But you do want to?” she ventured.

“Of course I want to!” Taelord said, finally breaking.

“Then why can’t you?”

“I just… can’t” Taelord said.

“Can I help?”

Taelord frowned at her. “You could tell me where the Wellspring is. That would get us all out of this mess.”

“I don’t know where it is,” Runa said.

“I know,” Taelord said. “I wasn’t serious.”

But he had been, Runa thought. At least somewhat.

“If you knew where it was…” she said.

Taelord glanced at her. “If I knew,” he said, “then I’d be—” He stopped.

“Be what?” Runa prompted. “Safe? Free?”

“You shouldn’t be seen with me,” Taelord said. “Go now. Forget I said anything.”

But Runa didn’t forget. As she returned to her room, she wondered. Taelord’s reaction made little sense to her. Was he as guilty as everyone else believed? Was he a spy, serving Ahnvad and the Empire, after the Wellspring like everyone else?

“No,” Runa told herself. She remembered what he had said, and knew it wasn’t an act. He was not the spy. He was different.


Utgar was due to be back sometime the next day. Runa wished he were here now. She knew he would believe her. He would know Taelord wasn’t the spy, he would know the real spy was still out there somewhere, now no longer hunted.

But he wasn’t here, and chances were he wouldn’t return until well after Vraen had made up his mind. And Runa had no doubts about what Vraen would decide. Short of taking Taelord and flying away, there would be nothing she could do to save him.

She considered that option for a moment. She was a Valkyrie, after all. No one would dare oppose her. What if she just took Taelord and… left?

No, she couldn’t do that. Without her, Vraen and his men would be destroyed by the Empire. And then, when her powers finally faded, she and Taelord would be hunted down. There had to be another way.

Runa spent another restless night in Vraen’s hall, her conviction that Taelord was not the spy being chased by doubts that he was. There was evidence. There was his own refusal to deny his guilt. But she knew… she just knew that he was being set up. He wasn’t the spy. He wasn’t. He wasn’t.

Runa woke the next morning, and kept her eyes tight shut, wishing she could just go back to sleep. If she had just never become a Valkyrie, none of this would have happened. The Empire would never have come for her, Vraen and his army would never have entered her life, and Taelord wouldn’t be facing execution in a few short hours.

She rolled over and buried her face in the stuffed hide which served as a pillow. All she wanted was to return to her old life. In the stillness of the dawn, with her eyes closed, she could almost see her home. It had always been dark, but she remembered the small fires her father used to light. It had been small and cramped, but it had been comfortable and welcoming at the same time. Everything they needed had been there.

Runa let her memories of her old home fill her up. She could remember every sight, every sound, every smell. For a moment, she felt peace wash over her.

And then she sat bolt upright, her heart drumming in her chest.


“Vraen!” Runa burst into Vraen’s room.

“Runa! What on Valhalla are you doing?”

On the verge of speaking, Runa stopped. Vraen was fully dressed, and he was not alone. A Volcarren was with him, tall and heavily muscled. He held in his hands a bare sword with a wide blade. It glimmered in the light from Vraen’s fire.

“Is that… You’re not…”

“I’m sorry, Runa,” Vraen said. “I’ve made my decision. The spy dies.”

“But… But he didn’t do it,” Runa said. “Please, Vraen, believe me. I know him. He didn’t do it.”

Vraen stepped towards her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I do believe you, Runa,” he said. “I believe that you believe he didn’t do it. But listen to me: he is a spy. Whatever you think you know about him, whatever he’s told you, it’s a lie. That’s what spies do, Runa: They lie. And they are exceptionally good at it.” He looked at her, and for the first time, Runa saw real concern in his eyes.

“Put it from your mind,” he said.

She looked at him hopelessly.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “There’s too much evidence. I will not tolerate a spy to live, Runa. He must die.” He looked into her face. “My decision has been made. Worry no more on this matter.”

He glanced behind him to the Volcarren with the sword, and together, the two of them left the room.

Runa sank to the floor. Taelord was going to be executed. She couldn’t save him.

But she was wrong. The sight of the sword had completely driven it from her mind, but now she remembered. She could save him.


She found Taelord just outside the hall, flanked by his two guards. His hands were bound. Mustering all the command she possessed, Runa marched up to the two guards. “I want to speak with Taelord alone,” she said. “I won’t free him, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she added, when they hesitated.

The guards backed away, reluctantly keeping an eye on her from a distance.

“Runa,” Taelord said, “what—”

Runa took a breath. “The Wellspring,” she said. “It’s under my home. There’s a natural spring there; that’s how we could live that far into the desert. I always assumed I must have found the Wellspring somewhere else… but I’ve been living over it the whole time.”

Taelord stared at her, his mouth slightly open. He glanced around, as if making sure they had not been overheard, then bent low. “How,” he whispered, “how can you know that?”

“It’s the only explanation,” Runa said. “I couldn’t remember finding the Wellspring anywhere because I didn’t find it anywhere. I’ve been drinking it’s waters my whole life. I was thinking about my home this morning, and it just… came to me. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Why,” Taelord whispered after a moment of shocked silence, “why are you telling me this?”

“You can tell Vraen,” Runa said. “He’ll have to release you if you give him the location of the Wellspring. That will prove you aren’t the spy. I know you aren’t the spy,” she added. “Even if you won’t defend yourself.”

Taelord looked at Runa blankly. She waited in silence.

“You realize,” he said after a moment, “what you’re risking? You might have convinced yourself I’m innocent, but you can’t be sure.”

“No,” Runa agreed, “I can’t.”

“Then why—”

“I was going to tell Vraen,” Runa said. “But then I saw that he’s ready to execute you, and—” the words sounded flimsy as she said them. “I could do something to save you,” she said. “So I did.”

“Even though I might be a spy?”

“Yes,” Runa breathed. “But I know you’re not. You can’t be.”

They looked at each other for a moment. Runa had acted on instinct, without thinking, and now she began to realize what it would mean if she was wrong about Taelord. But she wasn’t wrong. She knew she wasn’t.

But what if she was?

“Do you trust me?” Taelord finally asked.

Runa looked at him uncertainly. That wasn’t the reaction she had expected…

“Yes,” she said slowly.

“Then say nothing,” Taelord said, speaking quickly now. “Whatever happens, don’t worry. Go now. Go.”

“Taelord?”

“Go. Everything will be fine.”

She backed away, confused. “Taelord?”

“Trust me, Runa,” he said. He turned, and returned to his guards.

Runa stood there, doubt crashing over her.

Chapter Thirteen

In a few short days, Vraen had managed to secure virtually all of the Strip. Runa had been used only once, at Holn, but the single demonstration had been enough. No one – Volcarren or soldier alike – wanted to be against her. They had come flooding into Nearv, and those who remained loyal to the Empire had retreated to Srung. Vraen was now ready to assault the fortress.

But the day after Ahnvad’s attack, Runa heard that the plan had changed. Vraen had sentenced Meren, the spy, to be executed. He had only waited this long in case the Empire wanted to bargain for Meren’s life, but with the Empire virtually gone from the Volcarren, it was clear now that was never going to happen.

However, once he knew Vraen meant to kill him, Meren had offered to give him critical information in exchange for leniency. He said he knew details of Ahnvad’s plans, and after the attack of the previous night (which was still unexplained), Vraen agreed to hear him.

Vraen questioned Meren alone. When he emerged, he said that Meren had told him about a secret Imperial force, hiding to the east, in the desert. It was too small to pose any threat right now, but its job was to wait until Vraen attacked Srung, and then attack Nearv when it was vulnerable. Ahnvad’s plan was to hold the village, and the defenseless families it held, as ransom, thus forcing Vraen and Runa to surrender. If they made any move to free Nearv once it was captured, or if Runa were so much as seen in the sky, the force would kill the inhabitants.

“The spy,” Vraen had said, “says he knows more of Ahnvad’s plans. I do not tolerate spies. They disgust me. But if what he’s told us turns out to be true, I will spare him. If I do, he’s promised to tell me everything he knows.”

Therefore, the attack on Srung was delayed. Vraen dispatched Utgar and Kirav, with a group of his best raiders, to the desert to deal with the soldiers. Utgar assured Runa before he left that they would only be gone three days at most. Then they would attack Srung, and finally leave the Volcarren.

However, mere hours after Utgar and Kirav had left, the guards stationed around Meren were found dead. They had been poisoned and their throats slit. Meren himself was dead as well, lying in his tent in a pool of his own blood. Vraen could only assume that Meren had been silenced, and that could mean only one thing: there was a spy within Nearv. Someone was loyal to Ahnvad.

It was impossible to tell who the spy might be. Imperial soldiers had joined Vraen every day since the attack on Holn. It might even be a Volcarren, sent by Ahnvad to hide in plain sight. No one could be trusted. Vraen told Runa to stay within his hall, and Runa, realizing now that Vraen’s earlier concerns for her safety had been justified, obliged. She stayed in her room, listening to the panicked shouts beyond the walls, and wishing Utgar were back.

Runa fell into a troubled sleep that night, her dreams full of knives in the dark and hooded figures. She woke up several times in the darkness, convinced some sound had woken her. But every time, the hall was silent and dark, and nothing stirred.

When Runa finally woke the next morning, she heard a great number of people outside her room. They were all murmuring and whispering, and one voice was speaking loudly, although his words were distorted by the muttering of the crowd. Runa crossed her room and looked out of the doorway.

Vraen’s hall was filled with people. They all seemed to be facing the middle of the floor, all looking at something Runa could not see. Ex-soldiers and Volcarrens alike stood, whispering to each other, looking stunned, some looking grim.

“What’s happened?” Runa asked the nearest Volcarren.

He turned. “Valkyrie,” he murmured, inclining his head. “The spy… The spy has been found. The murderer of Meren and his guards.”

“Found?” Runa repeated. “How?”

“Vraen,” the Volcarren said. “He saw a drop of blood on the stone outside Meren’s tent. And another a short distance away. The spy had forgotten to wipe the blade he used to kill Meren, and Vraen and his men were able to follow the trail straight to his tent. They found the dagger.”

“Who was it?” Runa asked.

In answer, the Volcarren turned, and Runa was able to see what everyone was looking at.

It was Taelord.

Runa was shocked into silence.

He was kneeling on the floor. Someone had placed the dagger, still bloody, before him, and he was staring at it with an expression equivalent to how Runa felt.

“Taelord?” Runa whispered.

He heard her, and looked up. His face still registered blank shock, as if a complete impossibility had occurred before his eyes.

Runa searched that face.

He hadn’t done it. She knew he hadn’t. He was just as stunned as she was.

Vraen arrived in the middle of the crowd. “You!” he barked at Taelord. “Spy! This dagger was found in your tent. I tracked it there myself, from where you used it to silence Meren. His blood is on the blade. It was also on the clothes you had discarded from the previous day. Do you deny that you killed Meren? That you are the spy we have been looking for?”

Taelord said nothing. He was still staring blankly at the dagger.

Vraen seemed to take his silence for guilt. “You are a spy of Ahnvad,” he said. “I do not tolerate spies. I will deal with you as I dealt with Meren. I said I would execute him for what he had done. I delayed only because of the information he gave me. But unless you are willing to tell me more of Ahnvad’s plans, I will have you executed within a few short hours.”

Taelord looked up at Vraen, still with that same stunned expression. He said nothing.

“Very well,” Vraen said when Taelord was silent. He turned to the men assembled about him. “Who here is willing to behead this spy?”

“It wasn’t him!” Runa stepped forward. “It wasn’t him,” she repeated. She felt everyone’s eyes upon her. No one stirred. No one spoke.

“He didn’t do it,” she said into the silence. She remembered what he had said two nights ago. “He wouldn’t.”

“You know him?” Vraen asked her.

“I know him well enough,” Runa said. “I know he would never do what you’re accusing him of.” She knew perfectly well this wasn’t entirely true, but one look at Taelord’s face was enough to convince her that he had never in his life seen the dagger before him. He was not the spy.

“Runa,” Vraen said, “I found the dagger in his tent. By his side. Meren’s blood was on his clothing. Can you explain that?”

“No,” Runa said. “But it must have been planted there by the real spy.”

“And why would the spy do that?”

“To throw you off of his trail?” Runa suggested. “He must know you’re looking for him. Planting the dagger on the first person he came across makes sense.”

There was a muttering of agreement, but Vraen scowled. “Runa, I tracked that trail of blood across half of Nearv before I found the dagger. It passed countless tents. But did it go into any of them? No. It went straight as an arrow to this boy’s tent. He is the spy, Runa.”

But Runa was sure. Vraen might be in charge, but she wasn’t about to let Taelord be executed if she could help it.

“No,” she said. “He is not the spy. I can’t explain the dagger, or the blood, except to say it was planted there.” She looked Vraen full in the face. “He is not the spy.”

Complete silence reigned. Vraen and Runa looked at each other, neither moving. Just how much control did Runa have? She was a Valkyrie. Vraen would need her when they assaulted Srung. Would he execute Taelord anyway, when she was so critical to his success?

“Vas,” Vraen finally said, “Koret.” Two Volcarrens came up to him. “You will keep an eye on Taelord. If he tries to escape you, kill him. But until then… follow him. Do not let him leave Nearv.” He raised his voice so that everyone in the hall could hear. “Our Valkyrie seems convinced of the spy’s innocence, so I will consider her words. But by morning tomorrow, I make my decision. And no one,” — he looked directly at Runa — “will stop it from being carried out.”

Chapter Twelve

“Utgar! Utgar! Wake up!” It was Kirav.

Utgar sat up. Sound assaulted him: screams, explosions, the clash of arms.

“It’s Ahnvad,” Kirav said. “He’s attacking Nearv!”

“Runa,” Utgar muttered. He rose, grabbing his sword. There was no time for armor. He and Kirav ducked out of the tent.

Smoke was in the air. A patch of tents at the very edge of Nearv was on fire, sending black clouds over everything. It was still night, but the stars and moon were drowned by the thick smoke. Kyrie were rushing in every direction. Women and children were fleeing away from the fires; Vraen’s soldiers were running towards them.

“Come on!” Utgar called to Kirav. He pushed his way towards Vraen’s hall, where he knew Runa would be.

Unfortunately, the hall was cut off by a line of Imperial soldiers. They were keeping Vraen’s men at bay, and Utgar saw more soldiers darting into the hall.

“No!” he cried. “Runa!”

He flung himself against the line of soldiers, knocking aside their spears. For the first time since Runa had been taken, cold calm did not fill Utgar. Now he felt panic rising within him, and it blurred his vision, making his attacks chaotic. Twice he nearly hit Kirav by accident. A spear grazed his side; he too distracted to have blocked it.

At first the wall of soldiers seemed impenetrable. But as Utgar attacked again and again, caring little for his own injuries, they began to back up. The line wavered. Soldiers fell. Finally, the line broke entirely, as blood sprayed and bodies collapsed.

Past the soldiers, Utgar finally looked up, and saw a dark figure emerging from Vraen’s hall, clutching in its arms a small struggling figure, which could only be:

“RUNA!”

Utgar knocked down the last soldier standing between him and the hall, and raced towards the figure holding Runa. Behind him, Kirav also won free of the soldiers, and followed.

The figure was Ahnvad. Utgar could make out his face in the flickering light of the fires, which had spread to more tents. He turned, and recognized Utgar.

“Your daughter is mine!” he said. “I will—”

Kirav slammed into his side, tackling him to the ground.

“Runa!” Utgar shouted. “Fly!”

Runa was already in the air, soaring out of harm’s way. Utgar leapt to assist Kirav.

Ahnvad was not easily dealt with, but Utgar was filled with panic for Runa’s safety and fury at Ahnvad for taking her. The last time they had met, Ahnvad had been in control; now he was forced to back up beneath the storm of attacks Utgar made against him.

Ahnvad was skilled. Every time Utgar swung his sword, it was deflected. Every time he moved forwards, Ahnvad moved out of the way. But Ahnvad could neither advance nor attack. He was kept on the defensive.

Meanwhile, far above them, Runa had sent a dark cloud of red smoke into the main body of Imperial soldiers. They crumpled as the poison hit them, clawing at their chests or faces, gasping for breath or twitching as the toxic cloud washed over them. Below her, Vraen’s men pressed forwards. They outnumbered the soldiers.

Utgar knew they were winning. As soon as he reached this conclusion, Ahnvad finally succeeded in attacking. His axe came flying towards Utgar from nowhere, the flat of the blade catching him full in the face. Searing heat blasted him, and Utgar was again lifted off of his feet briefly. He crashed to the ground a moment later, stunned, sight and sound all blurred together. Looking up, he saw a vague shape which might have been Kirav being flung from Ahnvad.

“Retreat!” Ahnvad bellowed, his voice clear in Utgar’s ears.

He saw Ahnvad unfurl his wings, and leap upwards. As one, the soldiers who remained alive also rose into the air, many being cut down by the kyrie they had been engaged with.

“Fall back to Srung!” Ahnvad shouted over the rushing of the flames. And with him at the head, what was left of his force turned west, and flew into the dark night.


The night was still deep with darkness when Runa landed, and found Vraen’s hall full of the injured. She set to healing them at once, starting with her father.

Despite the injuries they had sustained, the mood in the hall was good. They had thwarted a night attack by trained Imperial soldiers. Several of the men thanked Runa as she healed them, their faces full, not of the fear Runa had once seen there, but gratitude, even hope. They might be outnumbered by the vast army of the Empire, but they had her. They had the Valkyrie.

As Runa healed them, many began to speculate on why Ahnvad had attacked. Some said he must have been desperate to attack Nearv.

“He’s not desperate,” said one, a soldier who had deserted the Empire to join Vraen. “Ahnvad is many things, but desperate is not one of them. He had a reason.”

“What was it?” Several voices asked. “Why did he attack? To take our Valkyrie? To slay her?”

“Ahnvad wouldn’t slay her,” the soldier said. “He needs her.” Nearly everyone turned to listen. Finished healing, Runa stood still, not wanting to hear, but held to the spot by the soldier’s words.

“Ahnvad needs the Wellspring,” the soldier said into the silence. “Our Valkyrie is the only key to its location. If he kills her, he kills his only chance of finding it.”

“He meant to capture her, then,” someone said.

“Perhaps,” the soldier admitted. “But an attack is not what Ahnvad would do. He is cunning. He works with spies and assassins. If he really wanted our Valkyrie, he could have taken her in the dead of night without waking a soul.”

Questions erupted.

“You mean he could take her at any time?”

“Why would he let her destroy his soldiers, then?”

“You mean there are spies here, right now?”

“If he hasn’t taken her, then what’s his plan? What’s he trying to do?”

“I don’t know,” the soldier said, holding up his hands. “I’m not Ahnvad; I can’t think like him. All I know is that you should not underestimate him. He always has a plan, he’s always one step ahead. You’ll think you know what he’s doing, but always it’s the same: the real battle is happening behind your back.”

“Why are you here, then?” someone asked. “If Ahnvad is so powerful, why did you join us?”

“We have the Valkyrie,” the soldier said simply. “If there’s only one thing which can defeat Ahnvad, it’s her.”

Runa didn’t want to hear anymore. She had healed everyone; she didn’t need to be there any longer. She had been standing close to the doorway, half hidden in the shadows, and she slipped out easily, as new questions erupted.

She stretched her wings once outside the hall, and jumped up, taking to the air easily. Since she had discovered she could do it, she had come to enjoy flying. Something about the air slipping past her cleared her mind, and made her feel like any worries or doubts were below, down on the ground where they couldn’t reach her.

She flew once around the hall, and then she rose higher, making a wide circle around all of Nearv. The fires were out by now, the smoke cleared by a soft rain which had begun to fall. As she flew, she tried to forget what she had heard. The way the soldier had spoken had left her with a cold feeling in her stomach. More than ever, she wanted her old life back.

Flying over the edge of the city, she saw someone sitting alone on the stone wall. It seemed odd that someone would be out here, when everyone was gathered at Vraen’s hall. She let herself drop a little ways, and recognized the kyrie: it was Taelord. She considered for a moment. Her own thoughts were poor company; if she were to talk to anyone, it would be someone who didn’t seem to care if she was Valkyrie or not.

She landed lightly next to him. He looked up.

“Can I join you?” she asked.

He watched her for a moment, and then nodded. He turned back to looking out across the dark Volcarren, and she sat on the wall.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I got tired of the soldiers counting their kills,” he said. He didn’t look at her. “Why are you here?”

“I wanted to get away,” she said.

He didn’t answer, but Runa could almost feel his curiosity growing.

“Away from what?” he finally asked. He still didn’t look at her.

“From all of it,” Runa said. “The Wellspring, the fighting, being a part of everyone’s games.”

He finally looked at her, surprise registering on his shadowed face. “You… You don’t want to be Valkyrie?” he said.

“I never wanted it,” Runa said shortly. “All I want is to go back to my old life.”

“You were happy there?” Taelord said. “I heard you lived in the desert. There’s no food, no water…”

“It was my home,” Runa said. “I was happy… At least happier than I am here. There were no battles, no plots, no one ordering me to kill—” She broke off, not wanting to go on.

Taelord watched her silently.

It was Runa’s turn to look away. She looked across the blank expanse of rock stretching away from Nearv, and saw again the soldiers she had poisoned, dying, shaking, grasping for breath.

“My father,” she whispered, “would say I had to kill those people. That it was me or them.”

No answer. Runa looked at Taelord. He looked back at her, as if silently agreeing.

“Do you believe that?” she asked. She had thought that he might have understood, after he let the bully go.

“Do I believe they had to die?” Taelord said. “Yes. I do.”

Runa stared at him. “You do?”

“Yes,” Taelord said. “The world is too full of people who can’t make hard choices.” He broke off, but Runa had heard the slight hint of anger in his voice. He looked away. “Sometimes you have to,” he said. “Sometimes you have to kill.”

Runa watched him for a moment. “You let that bully go,” she said. “The other day.”

“I let him go only after I did what I had to,” Taelord said. “Killing him would have accomplished nothing more.”

Runa had thought talking to Taelord might make her feel better, but she had been wrong. She stood up. Taelord looked up as she did so.

“I thought you were different,” she said quietly. She looked at him, willing him to contradict her. He said nothing. “But you’re not.” She unfolded her wings.

“I am different!” he said. “Believe me, Runa, I am.”

She paused. That was the first time he had used her name. “You’re like my father,” she said. “You hurt when you need to, and never do you have a thought about whether it was right. Only if it was needed. You don’t care, neither of you. No one in this whole land cares.”

She turned away. She hated talking about her father like that. She loved him. He was all she had. But what she had said was true. At times it seemed he didn’t care. Just like everyone else.

“I’m not like your father, Runa.”

She turned at Taelord’s voice. He was looking at her.

“I hate killing,” he said. “I hate violence.”

“Then how can you talk about it like—”

“Because it’s all I know!”

Taelord turned away. Slowly, Runa sat back down, listening. Taelord’s fists were clenched.

“Killing, torture, thirst for power, thinking you’re better than someone just because you can beat them – I hate it all. I hate it!” His voice broke.

Runa realized she was leaning slightly away from him. He turned back to face her, but his face was calm.

“I despise it,” he said, his voice level once more. “It’s just… that’s my life. That’s who I am.”

“What – What do you mean?” Runa asked, not entirely sure if she wanted to hear the answer.

Taelord looked at her. It was a strange, searching look. Was he weighing the odds, considering whether he should tell her or not? Apparently she was worth the risk.

“My father,” he said, speaking slowly, “is an Imperial commander. He has no heart. He kills and tortures because he likes it. Or because it makes him feel powerful. Or something. I don’t know.” He looked down.

“I hate him,” he whispered. “I hate everything he does; I hate every reason he does it.” He looked at her again. “I tried to run away,” he said, “but I couldn’t. He caught me. He put me in his dungeons.”

“He imprisoned you?” Runa said. “His own son?”

“He doesn’t care who I am!” Taelord said, a humorless laugh in his voice. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t even be related to him! Just thinking that he’s my father is… sickening,” he finished.

“So that’s why you were with us when Vraen…”

“Yes,” Taelord said. “My father had caught me and was going to send me back to Ter. If Vraen hadn’t arrived…”

“Why?” Runa asked. “Why would your father imprison you just for trying to run away?”

“I knew too much,” Taelord said. He shrugged when Runa looked confused. “I had heard things,” he said. “I knew there was a Wellspring in the Volcarren. He didn’t want that getting out.”

“Would you have told people if you had escaped? About the Wellspring?”

Taelord raised his eyebrows. “Ruin my father’s plans? Absolutely.”

They lapsed into silence.

“I’m sorry,” Runa finally said.

“Sorry for what?”

“Sorry about your father,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without mine.”

He looked at her in surprise. “But… You said—”

“I know what I said, but there’s more to him.” Runa paused. “Before all this, he was… different.”

“How?”

Runa looked down. “He was… He would… He made me happy,” she finally said. She couldn’t really explain it any more than that. “I just… want my life back.”

Taelord was silent. He looked at her, then he looked out over the Volcarren. The sky was beginning to turn darkest of blues. “You’ll get it back, Runa,” he said. She looked at him. “One day, you’ll get it back. I promise.”

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.

Chapter Ten

Runa’s demonstration of her powers at the fortress of Holn had been enough. Once they knew they were facing a Valkyrie, no one – soldier or Volcarren alike – wanted to be her enemy. People came flooding into Nearv to swear fealty to Vraen. In turn, Runa was kept at Nearv, both so that she would be out of harm’s way, and so that Nearv was protected from attack.

Nearv soon expanded far past its walls. It was now a sea of tents, crude stone huts, crowded narrow streets, rushing soldiers, and families seeking shelter. Vraen told Runa to stay near his hall. Many Imperial soldiers had deserted and joined Vraen, and he was taking no chances. She might be a Valkyrie, but she could still be injured or killed by a blade.

That was why she was not entirely surprised when he called her to his hall, and presented her with a sword.

It was a small sword, but even Runa, who knew nothing of such weapons, could tell that it was skillfully crafted. It was light in her arms, and runes and swirling designs were etched into the blade.

“It’s the best we could find,” Vraen said as she held it. “At least out of the ones your size. It came from a soldier.”

Runa studied the blade. “Is he dead?” she asked. “The soldier. Is he dead? Or did he join us?”

Vraen frowned. “He is dead.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I have troops to lead,” he said. “I’ll return in a few days. Stay here, stay close to my hall.”

Runa nodded. “What about my father?” she asked. “When will he return?” Vraen had sent Utgar south, to convince the Vel clans to join them.

“He’ll be back soon,” he assured her. “We may both arrive on the same day.”

“And then?”

“Then – if the Empire is gone from all but Srung – we attack,” Vraen said. “Be sure you are ready.”

Runa nodded. Vraen turned, and left her.

Runa turned back to the blade in her hands. No common soldier had possessed this. The metal was polished until it reflected the dark ceiling above; the etched designs caught the dim light. It was too small to be of much use to an adult commander. Perhaps it had belonged to someone younger. Someone about Runa’s age. Maybe the son of a general. Or a governor.

She ran a finger down the flat of the blade. The edge was sharp; small though it was, it was still a deadly weapon. She lifted the sword in one hand, and held it at arm’s length. The metal glimmered dully in the half-light.

Had that sword struck flesh? Surely it had seen combat. How much pain had it caused? Runa lowered the blade and held it in both hands. Had it killed?

She saw her face reflected in the blade. The metal seemed to distort her features, making her face harder, older somehow. Or had she changed that much?

A cry from outside interrupted Runa’s thoughts. Sheathing the sword, she crossed the hall and stepped outside.

Nearby, just inside one of the narrow alleys between tents, Runa saw a small boy lying on the ground. He was young, almost a child, and he was crying. Runa didn’t have to look far to see why.

Three kyrie, all a few years older than Runa from what she guessed, were standing around him. Two were laughing. One was kneeling close to the boy, saying something to him. All three wore the armor of Volcarren raiders. Runa recognized the kneeling kyrie: he had joined Vraen just a few days before.

The kneeling kyrie bent lower, whispering something to the boy. The boy cried harder.

Runa knew who these kyrie were. They were bullies. Emboldened by Vraen’s success, many of the younger soldiers had taken to strutting about Nearv, bullying those younger or weaker than themselves.

Glaring at the three, Runa moved towards them. She didn’t know what she planned to do, but she knew no one would dare stand up to her.

But someone else got there before her.

Practically flying from between two tents, a fourth kyrie tackled the kneeling bully. The pair rolled away from the crying boy, kicking up dust and loose sand. The two standing bullies, unsure what had happened, simply stood there.

Runa ran forwards quickly, but she was still a good distance away. Meanwhile, the new arrival had disentangled himself and gotten his feet beneath him. The bully he had tackled tried to do the same, but the kyrie launched at him again.

Runa saw the bully bring his arm back to strike the kyrie, but the kyrie blocked the blow, and landed one of his own, slamming his elbow into the bully’s face, causing him to fall back in pain. The other two bullies, who had been closing in, paused.

The kyrie stood, glaring at all three, daring them to come closer. The bullies looked at each other uncertainly.

And then Runa arrived. She was shorter than all four of the other kyrie, but the bullies saw the look on her face, and backed away quickly, running down a side alley. The small boy, who had remained on the ground the entire time, scrambled to his feet and also ran away before Runa could say a word. The only one left was the kyrie who had attacked the bullies.

Now that she could see him properly, Runa recognized him. He was one of the prisoners who had been with her when Vraen rescued them. She had seen him bound and placed in the same tent before she was drugged. Up close, she realized he was nearly her own age, maybe a year or two older at most.

The kyrie gave her a quick glance. Runa could see that he recognized her, but he said nothing. He turned, and began walking away.

Runa followed him. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

The kyrie stopped and half-turned towards her. His eyebrows knitted. “I don’t like bullies,” he said shortly. He turned away.

As he did so, Runa saw a deep gash in his shoulder. It looked less than a day old.

“You’re hurt,” she said.

The kyrie shrugged and began to move away.

“Stop,” Runa said. She hadn’t meant it as a command, but the kyrie halted, his back stiff. He slowly turned towards her.

“Your shoulder,” Runa said. “I can heal it.” One of the many effects of the Wellspring was the ability to heal almost any injury.

She took a tentative step towards the kyrie. He let her approach him, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, and felt the flesh beneath her palm begin to reknit. He stood still, not looking at her.

“Why did you do that?” she repeated. “There were three of them.”

“The other two were cowards,” the kyrie said shortly. He still wouldn’t look at her. “I attacked the leader. If I beat him, the other two would run.”

Runa couldn’t help but be curious. “But what if you hadn’t beat him?” she asked. She lowered her hand. The shoulder was good as new.

The kyrie shrugged.

Runa watched as he felt his shoulder. “How could you know they would run?” she asked. “What if you were wrong?”

“I wasn’t,” the kyrie said. “I’ve seen plenty like them before—” He stopped, as if afraid he had said too much.

“Where?” Runa asked, more curious now.

The kyrie finally glanced at her, briefly. Then he looked away again. “Ter,” he said, growling out the name.

Ter was a Volcarren village right next to Srung. It was almost as hated as the fortress itself. It was full of Imperial sympathizers, and those who spied for the Empire, in return for easy lives and good food.

“You live there?” Runa said, taking an involuntary step back.

“Not if I can help it,” the kyrie muttered. Again, he stopped, seeming to fear he had said something he shouldn’t. He glanced at Runa. “I used to live there,” he said, his tone guarded.

“Used to?” Runa repeated.

The kyrie said nothing.

“Where do you live now?” Runa asked.

“Nowhere.” The kyrie shrugged. “Here, I guess.”

“Don’t you have family there?” Runa asked. “At Ter?” She saw the kyrie’s jaw clench.

“I did,” he said shortly.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“They’re not dead,” the kyrie said. But his words confused Runa, for she could hear the anger in his voice.

“Thank you for healing me,” the kyrie said. He turned to leave.

Runa watched him go for a moment.

“What’s your name?” she called, just before he turned a corner.

He glanced back at her. She saw his eyes narrow for a brief moment, but then the look was gone.  

“Taelord,” he said.

And then he turned and was gone.

Runa looked around. There were people everywhere, families, soldiers. They had all seen the bullies. But none of them had done anything. None of them, except for Taelord. They didn’t care. None of them did.

Runa walked back to Vraen’s hall, her eyes downcast.

Chapter Nine

Utgar had expected Vraen to send Runa against Srung almost the moment she agreed to fight. However, Vraen had other plans. He knew that while he was invincible with Runa, he was vulnerable without her. She could only be in one place at once, so it was imperative that he remove the Imperial soldiers from around his territory before attacking Srung. Otherwise, by the time Runa got back, Nearv would be little more than ashes.

This was why, two days later, Runa, Utgar, and a large number of Vraen’s warriors were to be found hiding out of sight in a canyon, under cover of the pre-dawn darkness, waiting for the signal to attack Holn, the Empire’s strongest (and only) fortification within the Volcarren. Once they attacked, and once Runa was revealed, the Empire would know what they were trying to do.

The atmosphere within the canyon was somewhat less than relaxed. Until now, anyone who dared attack the Empire ended up dead. While Vraen’s kyrie knew they had Runa on their side, a feeling of trepidation was inevitable. At least, it was for everyone except Utgar.

Utgar watched the kyrie nearest him shifting his weight restlessly. He changed his sword to his left, and then back to his right hand.

“Worried?” Utgar asked him.

The kyrie turned. “Some,” he said. “But we have a Valkyrie. There might not even be a fight. Right?” he added, sounding a little too hopeful.

Utgar smiled to himself in the darkness. “There might not be a fight,” he agreed.

The kyrie came closer. “You’re her father,” he said. “You’re the one we rescued from the Empire’s camp.”

“I am,” Utgar said.

The kyrie watched him for a moment. “The scouts,” he said, “they say that you killed five soldiers. By yourself.” He was silent for a moment. “Is it true?” he asked, sounding as if he was afraid of the answer.

Utgar nodded slowly, but he was no longer smiling.

“How?” the kyrie whispered. Utgar didn’t miss the hint of awe in the voice.

Utgar frowned. “What’s your name?” he said.

“Kirav,” said the kyrie.

Utgar glanced at the sky. It was beginning to lighten. They would attack soon.

“I’m not proud of what I did,” he said, turning back to Kirav.

“Oh,” Kirav said. “No, it’s not that. It’s just,” — he paused — “I can’t fight. Not well, anyway,” he added.

Utgar frowned at him. “Why not?” he asked.

“I – I don’t know,” Kirav said. “I hesitate in battle. I hang back. The other warriors – They say I’m scared of my blade. But I’m not,” he added quickly.

“Perhaps of the enemy’s blade?” Utgar suggested quietly.

“… Perhaps,” Kirav agreed. “But I want to fight. I want to fight for freedom. I want to take on the Empire and defeat them. I want… I want to be able to do what you did.” He paused. “We all do.”

Utgar looked away, over the assembled warriors. The dawn was coming.

“There’s no secret to what I did,” he finally said, turning back to Kirav. “I grew up fighting. I simply had more experience than my enemies.”

“Oh,” Kirav said. “Yes… Of course.” He looked down.

Utgar watched him for a moment.

“I won’t tell you how to fight,” he finally said. Kirav looked up. “I won’t,” Utgar repeated. “I don’t want to fight. All I want is safety for my daughter. But I will say this: uncertainty is a worse enemy than any Imperial soldier.”

“What about caution, though?” Kirav said. “You can’t just go charging into battle.”

“No,” Utgar agreed, “you can’t.” He stood. The dawn was upon them. “But fighting for what you believe in is not a safe business. If you are too cautious, you’ll gain nothing.” Kirav stood as well. “Do what you can to survive,” Utgar said, “but if you don’t cut down your enemy, eventually he will kill you. Make sure you kill him first.”


“Runa!”

Runa turned. One of Vraen’s kyrie ran up to her.

“It’s time,” he said. “You are the signal for the others to attack.”

Runa felt her heart beat faster. “I am?” she said.

The kyrie nodded. “The fortification has two ways out. When you attack the back, we’ll attack the front.”

A sick feeling flooded Runa’s stomach. “You want me to block their escape?” she said. “To pen them in?”

“Yes,” the kyrie said matter-of-factly. He looked at her for a moment. “We mean to convince them that they must join us,” he added at her look. “If they can escape, then they have another option. You’re just… removing that option. All you need to do is block their escape. You don’t need to actually harm anyone directly.”

“And what if they don’t want to join you?” Runa asked.

The kyrie paused. “Well,” he said, “… that’s why we carry weapons. Don’t worry,” he added. “Many will join us. But some never will. Those are our enemies. They’re the ones who would stop us. If we’re to succeed, they must die.”

Runa didn’t move. The sick feeling intensified.

“It’s the only way,” the kyrie said. “We wait for your signal,” he added, when Runa didn’t reply. Then he turned, and ran back to where Vraen’s force waited, hidden in the canyon.

Runa looked down at her hands. She knew what she could do now. She could kill with a touch. She could cause fear with a thought.

She lowered her hands. This wasn’t her. She sat on a nearby stone and buried her face in her hands.

The Wellspring, she thought. It all came back to the Wellspring. If she just didn’t have its power…

But I do. I am a Valkyrie now. Maybe before, I could hide in the desert, I could stay home where it was safe. But father was right. Maybe everyone has good in them, but here, in this place….

“Me or them,” she whispered to herself.

She stood. The rim of the sun was just breaking across the horizon. She took a shaky breath, but faced it defiantly.

“So that we can leave,” she said to herself. “So that we can leave the Volcarren, and never return.”

Slowly, she unfurled her wings. The Wellspring had given her the gift of flight, the ability to rise above the desolate surface of the Volcarren, into the clear air above it.

She could hide no longer.


The deadly calm Utgar felt before a battle was growing within him again. He, Kirav, and the rest of Vraen’s kyrie were lying on their bellies on the very lip of the canyon. Any moment now, Runa would appear in the air, and they would attack.

Beside Utgar, Kirav was still. His eyes were fixed upwards, waiting for Runa. Glancing down, Utgar saw that his hand was clenched on his sword. The knuckles were white.

“Relax your muscles,” Utgar whispered to him.

Kirav looked down, startled.

“Relax,” Utgar repeated. “Don’t go into a battle tense. You’ll be injured by your own movements, if not by another’s blade.”

Kirav nodded, and let his breath out.

“How many battles have you been in?” he asked.

“Too many,” Utgar replied. He looked forward. “Far too many.”

From somewhere ahead of them, there was a sudden rushing sound, as if a great sandstorm had been unleashed from the silence of the dawn. A scream rent the air. A second scream followed it. Then shouts and cries of panic shattered the new day.

Vraen’s commander leapt to his feet and raised his sword above his head. “Warriors!” he bellowed. “Attack!”

“For freedom?” Kirav said, turning to Utgar.

Utgar pushed himself off of the ground and stood. “For freedom,” he agreed. Then he charged forward with Kirav and the rest of the kyrie.

Above them, Utgar could see a solitary figure, her wings spread wide, seeming to stay aloft by magic (which could very well be the case). From her palms poured a cloud of thick red smoke, striking the ground faster than a Volcarren Viper, and spreading outwards quicker than a kyrie could run. The smoke was centered just outside the rear gate; Utgar knew Runa had no desire to move it within the walls.

The main gate was only a short sprint away. The first soldiers to reach it demolished it quickly enough, using stone axes to break apart the weathered wood. By the time Utgar and Kirav arrived, the remains of the gate were but splinters, and they were able to rush into Holn without slowing.

A few soldiers met them, but only a few had weapons, and almost none wore armor. Holn had never been attacked, and it was clear that many of them still didn’t realize what was happening.

The first few soldiers were slain quickly. Some, an inkling of the truth dawning in their terrified faces, threw down their weapons and flung themselves to the ground. Utgar saw that not one was slain. Vraen had trained his warriors well.

Inspired by the ease of their first victories, the attackers ran deeper into Holn, passing over any soldier who surrendered, and killing any who did not.


Runa lifted her hands, stopping the flow of poison. The cloud below her spread slowly, blocking the rear exit. Some of the sick feeling had left her stomach. She had managed to keep the poison from entering the fortress. As long as they didn’t try to run through it, no one would be harmed by her powers.

She looked beyond the wall, inside the fortress. She could see soldiers running through the narrow dusty streets, disorganized and confused. An occasional woman was to be seen, but Holn was a military fortress. There were few civilians.

Every few seconds, a soldier would turn towards the rear exit, see the cloud of poison before it, see Runa above, and run the other way. But not all of them ran.

Below her, close to the wall, Runa saw a door open and a large kyrie exit. He wore no armor and carried no weapons, but he dragged a woman after him, pulling her by her hair. She stumbled and beat at him with her fists, but he shrugged off her attacks.

“Cowards!” he shouted after the fleeing soldiers. “Stand and fight! You’re soldiers of the Empire!”

They ignored him.

The woman tried to pull free of his grip, but he turned to her, and struck her squarely across the face. She cried out, staggering back. She tried to pull away, but he kicked her to the ground. Finally relinquishing his hold on her hair, he planted a booted foot on her back, keeping her down. She cried out, trying to shove him off of her.

He raised his foot, and stamped on her.

Both the woman and Runa cried out.

Somehow, over the cries of men and the clash of arms, the large kyrie must have heard Runa, for he turned sharply, looked up, and saw her. And in that moment, Runa saw his face, and recognized him.

For a second, all sound ceased, and Runa saw again darkness, lit only by the dying embers of a fire beyond the tent wall. A voice came to her from the shadows, a voice which caused her blood to run cold.

“You know where the Wellspring is,” the voice said. “Tell me, or the pain begins again.”

But Runa didn’t know. She said so over and over, choking on her own tears, shaking with fright.

“You leave me with no choice,” said the voice of Ahnvad. It held no sympathy.

A sudden light illuminated a face. It thrust itself close to Runa, lit by the glow of an iron.

Runa snapped back to the present. That was a face she would never forget as long as she lived. She looked again at the soldier below her. It was him. He had been the one who had pressed the irons against her when Ahnvad commanded it. She remembered.

So did the soldier. His eyes widened as he recognized Runa. He kicked the woman away from him, and pulled from a shadowy doorway a crossbow.

He aimed it at Runa, but she, feeling her blood pounding in her ears, glared at him, and pointed a single, shaking, finger at him.

He was instantly consumed by a cloud of red smoke. It burst into existence, seeming to explode outwards from the kyrie himself. The woman, still on the ground, scrambled out of the way quickly.

Raising her hand, Runa saw the smoke dissipate to reveal the soldier, writhing on his back on the ground. Blood was pouring from everywhere, from his eyes, nose, and ears. He clutched at his throat as it seemed to constrict tighter, and tighter, and tighter…

The pounding in Runa’s ears faded away as the man shuddered to a halt, pale and lifeless. She looked at the soldier, feeling only strangely empty. Below her, the woman, uninjured, cast a swift fearful glance upwards at Runa, before running away towards Vraen’s men.

Runa watched her go. “So that we can leave,” she said to herself. “So that we can leave.”


But the battle was not yet over. Within the fortress, Vraen’s men were locked in combat with those soldiers who would not surrender. Many were captains or commanders, and only a few of Vraen’s warriors were able to stand up to them in battle. Utgar was one of them. And to Utgar’s surprise, so was Kirav.

If Kirav had once hesitated in battle, he did not do so now. Utgar saw him swing his blade at soldier after soldier, felling them one by one. He was not uninjured – both his left leg and arm were bleeding freely – but he seemed unaware of the wounds. He had killed nearly as many soldiers as Utgar had, and showed no sign of stopping.

Utgar had just managed to finally dispatch his opponent when he saw a soldier, wearing black armor and carrying a battleaxe, leap atop a nearby building.

“Fools!” the soldier shouted. “Fly! Your advantage is in the air!”

A few spread their wings, but most of the soldiers were too focused on the battle, and did not hear him. Seeing that his words had little effect, the soldier leapt from the roof, and landed in front of a knot of Vraen’s men. He swung his axe, and Utgar saw that it trailed sparks and smoke.

Magic, he thought. The axe was enchanted. Enchanted weapons were rare indeed, and their power was legendary.

A moment later, the men the soldier had attacked fell back, grasping at injuries which seemed burned through their armor. The soldier turned on the spot, saw another group of warriors, and leveled his axe at them. A jet of flame shot out of the tip of the haft, lancing through the warriors like a spear. They fell to the ground, crying out in pain.

“Ahnvad!” one of Vraen’s men shouted. The name was repeated on all sides. “Ahnvad! It’s Ahnvad!”

The tide immediately turned. Vraen’s warriors ran, Ahnvad cutting down those who weren’t fast enough.

Utgar did not run. He stared at Ahnvad. This was the one who had taken Runa. The one who had tortured her. Utgar had done his best to stay in control during the battle, but he couldn’t stay detached any longer. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from Ahnvad. Everything else seemed to blur, and he found himself running towards the kyrie in black armor, raising his stone axe as he went.

Ahnvad saw him coming. He turned, and swung his axe at Utgar.

Utgar got out of the way only just in time. The head of the axe flew past him, missing him by inches. Utgar thought he was safe, but he was wrong: Ahnvad took one step forwards, and swung the bottom of the haft up towards Utgar.

The end of the haft slammed into Utgar’s side, catching him below the shoulder. The force of the blow was so great that Utgar was lifted off of his feet momentarily. The haft continued upwards, and Utgar slipped off of it, landing on the hard ground. He landed on his own axe, which had slipped from his grasp, and felt it bite painfully into his right shoulder.

Fortunately for Utgar, one of Vraen’s men picked that moment to launch himself at Ahnvad, forcing him to turn around to face his new attacker. Utgar was able to scramble to his feet, and pick up his axe. His right arm was tingling, and the fingers didn’t seem to want to grip anything. Utgar shifted his axe to his left hand.

Meanwhile, Ahnvad had dealt his attacker a blow to the head. The warrior staggered backwards, stumbling over the rough stone ground. Ahnvad advanced after him, walking slowly. His steps were measured, controlled. His stance was set and balanced. Utgar knew, just from watching him, that this was an opponent which could not be distracted, intimidated, or lured into making a mistake.

Gripping his axe tightly in his left hand, Utgar ran towards Ahnvad. His back was turned as he dueled the kyrie who had attacked him; now was his chance. But he was too late. Ahnvad whipped his axe up, and then back down, sending the blade slicing towards the kyrie’s head.

The axe hit. The kyrie crumpled. Ahnvad calmly moved forwards, wrapped both hands around the haft of his axe, and yanked it free. Then, finally, Utgar arrived, his weapon finding a chink in Ahnvad’s armor, and biting deep into his shoulder.

Ahnvad spun around so fast that Utgar’s axe was wrenched from his hands. It remained embedded in Ahnvad, and Utgar staggered backwards, picking up a spear which was lying nearby.

For a moment, Ahnvad and Utgar stared at each other. Ahnvad did not smile. He did not laugh. Neither did he grimace in pain. He showed no emotion whatsoever. Only his eyes showed life. They were dark, deep-set, calculating. He looked at Utgar, and Utgar looked at him. Blood dripped from both of their arms.

Beyond them, a cheer went up from Vraen’s men. The last of the Imperial soldiers had surrendered. The fortress was theirs.

Ahnvad straightened, but his eyes never left Utgar’s. Slowly, he pulled the axe from his shoulder, and flung it from him.

“I will remember you,” he said to Utgar. His voice was low, measured, uncolored by emotion or pain.

And then he unfurled his great wings, and swept them downward, vaulting himself into the sky.

As Utgar watched him go, the tension of the battle drained from him. He fell to his knees, cradling his arm, his body cold and shaking. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Runa land nearby and run towards him, ready to heal him, but he kept his eyes fixed on the fading shadow which was Ahnvad.

Utgar felt a cold knot of unease settle in his stomach.

They would meet again.

Chapter Eight

Vraen sat still. He and Utgar were in a small room, dark save for the thin line of daylight which came through the unblocked doorway. Neither moved. Neither spoke.

Finally, Utgar stirred. “I never thought I would say this,” he said, “but my daughter… is a Valkyrie. Only a Wellspring could heal her so quickly. Your own elder has agreed that she must have its power.”

“Meren,” Vraen said. “The spy. He said she didn’t have it. I’m sure Ahnvad would never have let her go if she did.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, either,” Utgar said. “Maybe Ahnvad was mistaken. She has it now though; even I can’t deny that.”

Vraen was silent. The unspoken question between the two grew palpable.

Finally, Utgar leaned forward. “You said yourself that if I found you a Wellspring, you would gladly destroy the Empire.”

“It was an old joke. You know that.”

“But you meant it, didn’t you?”

Silence.

“We don’t have the Wellspring,” Vraen finally said. “Your daughter admits she doesn’t know where it is. Without it, her power will fade. The elder has said as much.”

“The elder said it could be weeks before that happens. Until then, we might as well have the Wellspring itself.”

More silence.

Finally, Vraen looked up at Utgar. “No,” he said.

Utgar ignored the word. “Think what you could do in a few short weeks,” he said.

“And when Runa’s power wanes?” Vraen shot back. “What then? I lose it all, and more besides.”

Utgar took a moment to choose the right words. “I won’t deny there’s risk,” he said. “But there’s also a chance for victory. For freedom. For gaining more than you can possibly imagine.”

Vraen was silent.

“The old tales,” Utgar pressed on, “say that there is a Wellspring in Kinsland, just to the west of us. The Empire sealed it years ago, with a spell that only a Valkyrie can break. We have a Valkyrie, Vraen. We could unseal it. We wouldn’t need to find the Wellspring here; we could take that one. With Runa, all Volcarrens could be free.”

“And if we can’t reach it before Runa’s powers vanish?” Vraen asked.

“Then there’s always the Wellspring here, in the Volcarren,” Utgar said. “But do you really think it will take us that long to reach the Wellspring in Kinsland? We would have a Valkyrie on our side. No one could stand against her. No one would want to. The Imperial army would probably join us, for that matter. All we’d need to do is just walk through the gates.”

There was a long pause.

“You seem awfully eager to send Runa into battle, Utgar,” Vraen said.

“Not battle, no,” Utgar said. “As a Valkyrie, she wouldn’t need to fight. The mere sight of her would be enough.”

Vraen was silent.

“What you said is true,” Utgar pressed. “She will always be hunted, Valkyrie or not. Right now, she is a Valkyrie. She has power the Empire cannot match. Now that she has that power, I choose to fight, not run. With her, we – Volcarrens everywhere – have a real chance. But we can’t do it alone. Runa has the power. But you have the army. We need both to succeed.”

Vraen continued to frown at the floor. “You’re asking me,” he said slowly, “to risk everything I’ve built, on a hope, Utgar.” He looked up. “If Runa’s power wanes before we can secure another Wellspring, the Empire will destroy us.”

“I’m asking you to weigh the odds,” Utgar said. “You’ve built all you can by playing it safe and not challenging the Empire. If you are ever to have more than a garrison of soldiers surrounded by a wall of crude stones, then you’ll have to take a risk. That’s how it works. Yes, you could lose what you have here, but you could also gain more than you can imagine. Think of it, Vraen,” he said. “If we succeed, you could end up ruling all of the lands beyond the Volcarren. The Empire would bow to you. You could rule the Empire, for all we know,” he added, realizing it himself.

“Enough,” Vraen said, standing. “This is my decision to make. Let me make it.”

Utgar stood as well.

“Go to your daughter, Utgar. See if she is willing to use her powers for us. If she is, then…” He paused. “Just see if she is willing.”

Utgar found Runa outside, sitting on the steps leading up to Vraen’s home. He noticed that many of the kyrie who passed were stealing glances at her, most curious, some frightened. It seemed word spread quickly in Nearv.

Runa herself was looking at no one. She was sitting on the lowest step, frowning at the sand between her feet. A slight movement, and Utgar saw that the elder – the one who remembered the old tales about the Wellsprings – was nearby, standing half in shadow, against the wall of Vraen’s home. He was watching Runa with a small smile, his silver hair and beard white against the shadows.

Utgar sat beside Runa. “How do you feel?” he asked.

She didn’t reply right away. Utgar waited.

“Everyone says I’m a Valkyrie,” she said at length. She held up her hands and looked at them. “But I feel no different.” She looked at her arms, as though almost hoping to see burn marks there again.

“It is normal,” said the elder. He stepped from the shadows and approached them. “If you doubt that you are Valkyrie, there is a simple way to be sure.” His voice was kind, and Utgar saw Runa relax some as she looked into his face.

“How?” she asked.

The elder sat on her other side. “Among other effects,” he said, “the waters of a Wellspring amplify a kyrie’s inma: your innate magic. Tell me, what is your link?”

While every kyrie possessed an inma, there were different varieties. All kyrie were said to be linked to different magical abilities from birth, and these links were given names. As one who could create heat and sparks, Utgar was linked to Lyr. Runa, however, was linked to:

“Tyr,” Runa said, her distaste at the word evident.

“Ahh,” said the elder slowly. “Well, where before you could cause sickness, or perhaps poison small animals with a touch, as Valkyrie, you can do much more.”

Runa looked very much as though causing sickness was quite enough, but the elder pressed on.

“As Valkyrie,” he said, “you could summon a cloud which none could breathe, a poison which could kill an army in an instant.”

Runa looked at him. “I don’t want to poison anyone,” she said.

“You are Valkyrie,” the elder said gently. “You can choose how to use your power, but you must first recognize that you have it.”

Runa looked again at her hands. “How?” she said.

“You remember what you would do to cause sickness?” the elder said. “Simply try to do more.”

Runa frowned. “How?”

“The old tales say it is surprisingly easy,” the elder said. “Kyrie who did not know they had drunk of a Wellspring never found out, simply because the concept of trying to do more with their inma was so foreign. But you have that ability. Try, and it will come naturally. Focus on the ground at your feet now, and try to summon a cloud of poison. Nothing more.”

Runa glanced at Utgar. He nodded. He knew she had always hated being Tyr. Causing pain or injury was always the last thing she wanted to do. But this was something they must know.

Runa frowned for a moment at the ground between her feet, and then stooped, and lightly touched it with a single finger. A cloud of dark red smoke instantly billowed outwards from the point, quickly enveloping her arm. She yanked her arm back, startled, but as quickly as it had appeared, the smoke vanished.

“You are Valkyrie,” the elder said simply. Runa looked at him, a trace of fear on her face. “That is but a small taste of your power,” the elder continued. “If you tried to, you could easily create a cloud large enough to encompass this entire village.” He gave her a small smile. “I trust you will refrain from trying for now.” He inclined his head to her, and then left them, walking between the huts and tents of Nearv.

Runa looked at Utgar. Without speaking, Utgar put his arm around her, and drew her close. But his eyes were drawn to the place where the cloud of smoke had appeared.

“We need you, Runa,” he said.

She looked up at him.

“I would never put you in harm’s way,” he said, looking at her. “You know that. But we need you. You are a Valkyrie. I don’t know how or why, but you have the ability to be free. You can have a better life. And you can bring better lives to all Volcarrens.”

Runa looked back at the ground. “I don’t want to hurt people,” she said quietly.

Utgar was silent. She looked up at him.

“I’ll have to, won’t I? Hurt people? If we’re to be free?”

“Yes,” Utgar said slowly. “You will. But… sometimes you have to do things you dislike if you are to do what is needed. Sometimes… Sometimes you have to scale a cliff if you are to climb out of a canyon. And sometimes you have to kill a creature if you are to avoid starvation.”

Runa looked down again. She was silent.

“I understand you don’t want to hurt people,” Utgar said, “but sometimes it’s,” — he paused a fraction of a second — “sometimes it’s you or them. Sometimes… you have to make a hard choice for the right cause.”

Runa looked at him. “That’s not what mother used to say,” she said.

It was Utgar’s turn to be silent. He looked away, out over the village.

“She said,” Runa pressed, “that everyone has some good inside them. No matter what they’re like on the outside, they always have some good. Even if they don’t know it. She didn’t believe in ‘you or them’. She said there was always another way.”

Utgar cleared his throat to rid it of the thickness which had settled there. “Your mother,” he said, without looking at Runa, “had hope.” He turned. Runa was looking at him, leaning close as if she were afraid of missing anything, and for a moment he saw her mother in her thin face. Utgar swallowed. He had to go on.

“Your mother had hope,” he repeated. “Hope is something we must all maintain, but in a place such as this, there is rarely room for it. You cannot let hope blind you. Your mother, — his voice caught — “your mother did.” He took a breath. “And she died as a result. She was too trusting, too willing to see past the cold and the evil about her. Eventually… she trusted the wrong person.”

Utgar looked at Runa, willing her to understand. “I don’t want that to happen to you, Runa. Hope as your mother did, but realize that there are those here beyond your aid. You have a chance to help thousands. Don’t abandon it for the sake of Ahnvad and those like him.”

Runa looked away, tears glistening in her eyes. For a long time she was silent, staring at the ground. Then she spoke. Without lifting her head, she said: “I’ve always been able to see the good in anyone I met. It’s what mother would have wanted. And I could always do it. Until… Until Ahnvad.”

She lifted her head and looked at Utgar, tears slowly falling down her cheeks. “When I was there… with him… there was nothing. Nothing.” She took a shaky breath.

Utgar wordlessly pulled her closer, and she rested her head against him. They stayed that way for a long time, not speaking, just sitting.

A long while later, Vraen appeared in the doorway. “Utgar,” he said, “I’ve made my decision.” He turned to Runa. “If you will lend me your power, I will do my best to free us from the Empire. Will you help me?”

Runa looked at Utgar, uncertainty on her face.

“A few demonstrations would be enough,” Utgar said quickly. “Once the soldiers know that you’re a Valkyrie, they won’t want to fight you. They’ll surrender. There’s every chance you’ll never so much as lift a blade.”

“Your father’s right,” Vraen told Runa. “I will keep you away from combat as much as I can. And you will be safe here.”

They both looked at Runa. She looked down, at her hands.

“I’ll help,” she said. She looked up at Vraen. “So that we can leave the Volcarren, I’ll help.”

Chapter Seven

Utgar stared blankly at the spy. Silence reigned in the hovel for a full ten seconds.

“What?” Utgar finally asked.

“The Wellspring!” the spy repeated. “She knows where it is!”

Utgar grappled with this statement for a few moments.

“There’s… There’s a Wellspring here?” he finally managed. “Here, in the Volcarren?”

The spy nodded.

“And Runa knows where it is?”

Again, the spy nodded.

“But… how? How could she know that?”

“She must have found it,” the spy said. “She had it’s power. Ahnvad knew it the moment he saw her. She has drunk of a Wellspring. She must know where it is.”

Utgar sat back. Runa. A Wellspring. Here, in the Volcarren. But that didn’t make sense. It was said that those who drank from a Wellspring gained incredible powers. Runa didn’t have those powers. He, Utgar, would have known.

“You lie,” he said to the spy. “If Runa had drunk of the Wellspring, she would never have been captured.”

The spy shook his head. “She didn’t know it herself. But Ahnvad could tell.”

“What do you mean?”

“Wellspring powers are easy to detect with the right tools,” the spy said. “Ahnvad has those tools. He had sensed the presence of a Valkyrie months ago, and once he was in the same room as her, he knew. We drugged her with a toxin which removes magical powers. After that, she had no more chance of breaking out than any other prisoner. Her powers are gone now.”

Utgar was silent for a moment. “Then why are you here?” he asked.

The spy said nothing.

“Answer,” one of the guards said, a warning in the word.

But Utgar thought he knew. “Ahnvad,” he said. “He thinks Runa knows where the Wellspring is. And you’re here to watch Runa, hoping she’ll return to it. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Something like that,” the spy muttered.

“Then that means,” Utgar turned to Vraen, “that we were allowed to escape. If he,” — he gestured to the spy — “was planted here, Ahnvad expected us to rescue him along with the others.”

Vraen nodded thoughtfully. “That explains the lack of guards,” he said. “I thought the camp seemed under-guarded. There must have only been fifteen soldiers there.” He shook his head. “Ahnvad sacrificed them. For a gamble.”

Utgar turned back to the spy. “Well,” he said, “Ahnvad’s wrong. He thought that if he set her free, Runa would lead him straight to the Wellspring. But he’s sacrificed his men for nothing. My daughter doesn’t know where any Wellspring is.”

The spy laughed. “You really believe that?” he said. “She had the power of the Wellsprings! She has drunk Wellspring water! In this desert, you Volcarrens must remember every spring you come across. She knows where the Wellspring is, and until it is found, Ahnvad will follow her, watch her, hunt her.”

Utgar glanced at Vraen. Vraen was staring at the spy with a hard look.

“You think,” the spy continued, “that you can dissuade Ahnvad just by saying that she doesn’t know? This is a Wellspring! The one who drinks from it has power beyond imagining! Ahnvad will not be stopped by a little lapse in memory.”

Utgar had heard enough. He stood, surveyed the spy for one brief moment, and then turned on his heel and exited the hovel.  

Vraen caught up with him outside. “Do you think it’s true?” he asked.

Utgar didn’t answer immediately. It was all too… much. “I don’t know what to think,” he finally said. He stared at the star-flecked sky above them. “A Wellspring, here in the Volcarren. And Runa…”

“It does explain why they took her,” Vraen said slowly.

“Yes… but a Valkyrie?” Utgar said, turning to look at him. “I would have known if my own daughter was a Valkyrie.”

“Not… necessarily,” Vraen said. “We have an elder here, one who remembers the old stories from before the war. He’s always said that those who drank from a Wellspring often felt no change. He’s told one story, about a kyrie who drank from a Wellspring, and only found out years later. Wellsprings were only really discovered when someone injured drank from them. The waters healed them, and then they knew… but if Runa was never injured…”

Utgar shook his head. “I made sure she never was,” he said. “I kept her well away from any danger.”

There was silence for a moment.

“If it’s true,” Vraen said slowly, “if there is a Wellspring somewhere in the Volcarren… we have to find it. Before the Empire does.”

Utgar looked again at the sky. He knew what Vraen was going to ask.

“Utgar,” Vraen said, “I know Runa has suffered terribly, and I don’t want to make her relive it… but if she has found a Wellspring somewhere—”

“She doesn’t know, Vraen,” Utgar said. “She would have told me if she knew.”

“But she might have stumbled across it. She wouldn’t know what it was.”

“A source of fresh water, Vraen?” Utgar said. “The spy – what’s his name?”

“Meren,” Vraen said.

“Well, he was right,” Utgar said. “We would remember any spring of water like that. Runa would have told me.” He looked down at Vraen. “But you’re right,” he said. “A Wellspring isn’t something we can dismiss, fictional or not. I’ll ask her if she remembers anything. But tomorrow. For now, she must sleep.”

“Of course,” Vraen said after a moment. “Let her sleep.”

It was midday before Utgar felt comfortable asking Runa anything. Normally, the prospect of a Wellspring somewhere in the Volcarren would have excited him. If the Volcarrens found it, it would mean freedom from the Empire. But right now, all that concerned him was Runa.

When she woke, she still clung to him. Food was brought, and she ate nervously, as if afraid that it might all suddenly turn into a dream, and Utgar become Ahnvad, back to torture her again. But as the day wore on, her confidence grew. Finally, Utgar felt they could delay no longer.

However, when asked if she remembered coming across any pool of water or faint trickle, she shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t remember anything like that. I would have said something, wouldn’t I? A source of water like that?”

“Yes,” Utgar agreed. “It’s not something we would forget…”

Vraen was in the room, his arms folded. “Runa,” he said, “I hate to ask you this, but can you tell us exactly what Ahnvad asked you? Did he know a rough location? Did he ask you about a specific area?”

Utgar glanced at Runa. She had turned slightly paler at Ahnvad’s name, but her voice didn’t shake as she answered Vraen. “No,” she said. “He asked where I had been. Anywhere I had been. Every cave, every canyon, anywhere I had ever gone. But I couldn’t remember ever finding a pool or anything. I think… I think in the end he must have believed me.”

Vraen frowned.

“Father,” Runa said, turning to Utgar, “I heard about… about Meren. About how he was a spy. About what he said. He said the Empire will be watching, and… and following.”

“Be at peace, Runa,” Utgar said. “None shall touch you while I am here.”

Runa gave him a weak smile, but Vraen pulled him aside.

“She has a point,” he whispered, so that Runa couldn’t hear. “She’s marked. Doubtless it was Ahnvad’s plan to have Meren follow her, and report to him if she found the Wellspring. But now that he’s been discovered, they’ll have to watch her themselves. I don’t think they’ll try to capture her again; they let us rescue her by choice. But they’ll be following her. There could be Imperial scouts above us right now, flying where we can’t see them.”

Utgar was silent. Vraen was right. He looked at Runa. “I thought once I had her back, I could return to my old life,” he said to Vraen. “I thought I could just disappear back into the desert like I did before. But you’re right.” He paused. “I can never go back as long as the Empire is looking for Runa. And…” he took a breath, “we endanger you by staying here.”

He raised his voice so that Runa could hear, and spoke to Vraen. “You’ve done more than I could ever ask for me and my daughter, Vraen. We might have been safe here, but if the Empire thinks my daughter knows the location of a Wellspring, we’ll be safe nowhere. Our only option is to run. We’ll hide somewhere the Empire can never find us.”

Vraen raised an eyebrow. “Where?” he said. “How? The Volcarren is a flat slab of rock. There’s no cave or canyon you could hide in that the Empire wouldn’t scour. They can fly, Utgar. How will you hide?”

“I’ll think of something,” Utgar said. “I’ll have to.” He turned to Runa. “We must leave, Runa.”

Runa looked scared, but she nodded and stood. “Thank you,” she said, inclining her head to Vraen, “for what you have done for us. I will not forget how you saved both me and my father, nor the shelter you have given us.”

Vraen opened his mouth to reply, but Utgar interrupted him. “Runa?” he said. “The… The burns. They’re… gone.” He had just noticed it now, when she stood.

Runa blinked and looked down at her arms, which were bare. The skin was unblemished. Utgar had seen those same arms covered with burns only a few hours ago, but now… now it was as if they had never been touched.

Vraen looked in wonder at Runa. “This is beyond my healers to do,” he said. He looked suddenly at Utgar.

“It’s beyond any healer, Vraen,” Utgar said, still staring at Runa.

Runa looked from one to the other. “What does this mean?” she asked.

Utgar could not speak. Vraen opened and closed his mouth several times. Then he finally said: “It can only mean one thing. Only Wellspring water can work such a miracle.”