The wind roared above, howling and hissing. Below it, in a pit of darkness, separated from the raging wind only by a few feet of rock, Utgar sat, holding his daughter close, surrounded by at least two hundred other kyrie. They knew they were safe in the pit, crowded as it was, but hearing the storm so close above them was enough to inspire fear, even though it was a common enough occurrence.
“Tell me about the sky again,” Runa whispered to her father, looking up at him as he held her. “From the old stories.”
Utgar looked down. Runa’s eyes were wide, the pupils dilated in the eternal night of the pit. But there was a hint of fear in them as well. Utgar had raised Runa practically since she was born, twelve years ago, and he could tell.
“In the old stories,” Utgar said, his voice rasping through his dry throat, “there is blue sky. It is called endless, vast, and deep.”
“How could the sky be deep?” Runa interrupted. She had asked this before, but Utgar had no good answer.
He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Deep is something below, but the sky is above.” He was as confused by the description as Runa.
“Go on,” Runa whispered.
Utgar held her closer as the wind tore at the rock above. “In the old tales, the air is still. The stories speak of ‘moments of quiet’, times where nothing moves, and everything seems as if frozen.”
Neither of them really understood that either. In the Volcarren, there was always wind. Every day, at every time, there was wind.
“The old stories speak of grass,” Utgar continued. “Something green underfoot. Some call it rolling, others springy, others soft. It seems to be everywhere. Only on mountains is there bare rock.
“Water is said to be cool somehow, not warm. And sometimes the air is cold too, and then something falls from the sky, something white, described as ‘flakes’. But that was only mentioned in one tale.”
“The one about the rise of the empire,” Runa said.
Utgar nodded. “And the claiming of the wellsprings,” he added, half to himself.
Runa sat back against her father, silent as the wind raced overhead, the sand and dust it carried clawing at the rock like a thousand fingers.
“What do you think happened to the wellsprings?” she asked.
“I suppose they’re still there,” Utgar said, “watched over by the empire. One in the north, one at the capital, and one in the south.”
“And one here,” Runa added quietly. “In the Volcarren.”
“And one here,” Utgar agreed, “miles away.”
“I wonder what they look like,” Runa said. “Did Migol ever seen one?”
“No,” Utgar said. When the empire had refused to share the power of the wellsprings with all, Migol had taken his great army and tried to claim them for all kyrie. Utgar sighed. “He never got close.” Defeated, Migol’s people were sentenced to a life of slavery in the Volcarren. That had been many generations ago, but the descendants of that once-great army still suffered the same punishment.
They were silent as they thought. Utgar let his eyes wander across the other kyrie crammed into the pit. It was almost completely black, but they had already been in the pit for several hours, and Utgar’s eyes were accustomed to the darkness. He wasn’t met with a pleasant sight.
Kyrie of all ages were present, their skin burned raw red by the constant wind and biting sand, their wings wilted of feathers and blackened by the heat of the Volcarren. Utgar’s own skin was sensitive and cracked in places where the sand had chiseled away at it, borne along by the unending wind.
There were children present in the pit, but they were not the happy and innocent children of the old stories Utgar had recounted to Runa. These children were afraid, listening to the wind with wide eyes, or curled into a ball with their hands over their ears. Most, though, were in pain.
Either from the blowing sand, the ash-choked air, or the whip of the guards, many of the children were whimpering or moaning in pain, gingerly trying to tend to the newest collection of marks on their already scarred bodies. Those whose wounds had already healed were sitting still and silent, their eyes staring into the darkness without seeing.
There were older kyrie, of course, grown, adult kyrie. But they were little better. They were quiet, but Utgar saw some of them crying as they tried to comfort their children. He knew why. There was nothing they could say, and little they could do. They couldn’t say everything would be all right.
The old kyrie were perhaps the worst. Their bodies a maze of scars, their skin thick and dark red from the years spent in the wind, they were gaunt and drawn. They didn’t move or make a sound, and seemed unaware of anyone about them. They simply stared into a distance which didn’t exist. Utgar could see the struggle in their eyes. The struggle to forget, to unsee what they had seen during their lives.
Utgar lowered himself down until he was lying on the hard stone ground. Runa, who had been sitting against him, slid down as well. Utgar had heard of such a thing as a ‘bed’ in the old stories, but he had never seen one. He tried to make himself comfortable on the rough stone.
Runa lay next to him, and Utgar spread his wings, blackened and leathery like everyone else’s, over her, as if he could shield her from the misery permeating the pit. She snuggled closer to him, and he held her, as outside the wind continued to pound on the rock, screaming its rage at being unable to reach them.
“Dream, Runa,” Utgar whispered. “Dream.”