With all the soldiers packed into Llynar, it was hard for Dan and the other recruits to find a place to relax when they were allowed out. That was why they found themselves just inside the walls of Llynar one morning, standing around a metal brazier to keep warm (the weather in Llynar had been cold, despite it being spring). A few soldiers of Einar’s had joined them, and they were eagerly swapping stories and news of the war.
One of the new recruits, a kyrie from Anund barely old enough to sign up, was telling anyone who would listen about the many mysteries and theories surrounding Vydar. Having found something the others did not know – since none of them were native to Valhalla – he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“I don’t get it,” one of Einar’s soldiers, wearing the armor of a samurai, said. “Why all this mystery? Vydar’s a Valkyrie isn’t he? The origins of the Valkyrie are well known.”
“Not all of them,” said the young kyrie, an excited gleam in his eye. “No one really knows where Utgar came from, for instance, aside from the Volcarren Prison. Even the origins of our own Vydar, no one really knows.”
The samurai laughed. “I’ll bet his origins were gone over the instant he found that wellspring of his,” he said.
The kyrie nodded. “They were. And there was precious little to find. His parents, his village, even his full name – no one knows.”
The others were silent. The kyrie looked about him, apparently pleased at the effect he was having.
“No one knows where Vydar came from,” he said. “He hails from Anund, certainly, but his father and mother seem a mystery. No one has ever seen them, let alone any brothers or sisters. A few records have him popping up in Verlin a few years before he discovered the wellspring, but before that – nothing. And when he does first appear, there’s no mention of any family, or where he came from. He just appeared one day, found a wellspring, and proclaimed himself leader of Anund.
“Oh, come on,” the samurai said. “You mean to tell me you don’t know the origins of your Valkyrie? I’m sure there’s some clue somewhere.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of clues,” the kyrie said. Dan sensed a story coming on.
“The most mysterious clue,” the kyrie said, relishing each word, “is the one they call Aer Ilisyna. No one knows who she really is, which is why they call her Ilisyna: one of mystery. There’s a lot of rumor surrounding her. All we know is that she’s been seen with Vydar multiple times, sometimes talking with him, sometimes silent by his side, sometimes just watching from the shadows. She keeps to herself, never says a word to anyone save Vydar, and slips away before anyone can get closer. Vydar refuses to speak about her, but everyone knows there’s something going on.
“Everyone agrees she must know Vydar somehow, and must be tied to a past of his we’ve never heard of. We know she’s kyrie, because we’ve seen wings. Some say she’s his lover. Some think she might be his sister, or possibly mother, since no one’s seen her face. We just don’t know, and Vydar has never spoken a word about her, or even acknowledged her existence to his guards.” The kyrie leaned back against the wall. “How’s that for a rumor?”
The samurai shook his head. “I don’t know if I could serve someone like that,” he said, “without knowing who they really are. Take Einar, for example. Every soldier of his knows his past, how he thinks, and how he operates. Nothing is hidden behind secrecy.”
“Including the rumors about Kiova?” the kyrie asked slyly.
The samurai waved his hand. “He’s entitled to some personal secrets. At least he acknowledges that the rumors exist, which is more than can be said for your Vydar by the sound of it. Say what you will, but Einar is a kyrie we can trust. He’s the one who orchestrated Utgar’s downfall, and crushed his armies at Soulrazor Canyon.”
“Maybe,” the kyrie admitted, “but that didn’t last. He didn’t foresee Valkrill bursting from the ground and taking the canyon back. He didn’t foresee Utgar marshalling all his remaining forces on the borders of Bleakwood.”
“No one could have foreseen what Valkrill would do,” the samurai said. “And as for Utgar, he’s finished. This last ploy of his is a bid for a victory which escaped him long ago. Einar has him cornered. And with the forces Jandar and Ullar are pouring into Bleakwood, he’ll be crushed the moment he sounds the charge.”
“What about his secret operation, though?” one of Vydar’s recruits, a human woman from Icaria, asked.
The samurai looked at her. “What secret operation?”
“You don’t know?” the woman said. “It’s rumored that Utgar is massing his forces in preparation of some sort of offensive. It’s a secret operation. Our spies tell us it’s called Operation Fallback.”
Dan, who had been watching the fire absently, looked up. Operation Fallback. The same one the orcs had spoken of. The same one Vydar had said he had come up with.
“Our spies can’t tell what it is exactly,” the woman continued, “only that it’s a final strike against the alliance.”
“A last ditch attempt at boosting morale,” the samurai said dismissively.
“It doesn’t sound like that,” the woman said. “From what we know, Utgar is actually intending to win the war with this operation. Not just the battle; the whole war.”
There was silence.
“It won’t be long now, either,” the woman continued. “He’s been massing on the border of Bleakwood for some time; nearly all his forces are concentrated there. If he’s going to do something, it’s going to be soon.”
“We know of his forces though,” another samurai said. “Even if they were all to cross the border at once, we have more than enough men to deal with them. With the soldiers Ullar and Jandar have sent, we could march right into the Volcarren and take Utgar’s castle if we wanted to. We will soon enough, once his army is dealt with.”
“I think it’s risky,” said a recruit from Earth. “I don’t think Jandar and Ullar should have sent so many soldiers. Aren’t they vulnerable to attack behind the lines? What if something gets through?”
“That’s fair,” the first samurai conceded. “And I think Utgar knows that, because he’s sent a ridiculous number of orc raiding parties behind our lines, probably to halt communications and raid food stores.”
“How did he get them past the front lines?”
“Ships. Not too keen on ships, orcs, but apparently the idea of ransacking villages made them board. We don’t need to worry though. Vydar’s been pulling his soulborgs from the front, and they’ve been fortifying the interior villages and cities all across Jandar’s and Ullar’s territories. No orc is going to cause any damage. Vydar’s even sent large strike forces deep into the interior to hunt the orcs down and eradicate them. Sending the orcs in was actually very stupid on Utgar’s part. He should have known we’d have the forces to stop them.”
“Maybe morale among his soldiers is lower than we thought. Maybe the orcs actually deserted.”
“Maybe,” the samurai agreed. “Either that or Utgar’s so desperate to win he’s making mistakes. Either way, it’s good for us.”
Dan listened carefully, thinking. He had known something was up with Operation Fallback when the orcs mentioned it. Vydar had said he was the one who had come up with it. But if the rumors were that Utgar had come up with it instead… then they must be in it together. And that meant Vydar was behind the forces massing on the border of Bleakwood, and thus behind the imminent attack. And that could only mean… Dan caught his breath.
Was Vydar about to betray the alliance?
The longer he thought about it, the more sense it made. He had betrayed Utgar early on, hadn’t he? What’s to say he couldn’t betray his allies a second time? Besides, everyone knew that Vydar and Ullar were at odds, since Ullar wanted Anund for himself.
Dan thought hard. If Vydar was about to betray the alliance, the troop movements actually made more sense. All of Jandar’s and Ullar’s armies were on the border of Bleakwood, well away from their wellsprings. And the samurai had just said that Vydar had sent large strike forces into the interior to eradicate the orcs. But what if they weren’t sent to eradicate the orcs? What if it was all a show? What if, when the time was right, they joined with the orcs, and took Jandar’s and Ullar’s wellsprings before anyone knew what had happened?
And the samurai had said Vydar’s soulborgs had fortified the interior villages and cities… they could easily turn and take those cities. For that matter, what if the orcs had been Vydar’s idea in the first place? What if he had sent them behind the lines, so that he would have the perfect excuse to send his men away from the fighting, and right towards the alliance’s wellpsrings when they were the most vulnerable? It was as if all of Vydar’s plan was laid bare before Dan. Everything was too perfect to be a coincidence.
A moment later, Dan realized something else. What he had found out was valuable. Any Valkyrie, alliance or otherwise, would be glad to know it. Perhaps glad enough to summon Heleer in return. But the Valkyrie to whom the information was the most important would be Vydar himself. Dan knew that if Vydar’s plan got out before the time was right, everything would be ruined. Vydar could not afford to let that happen.
An evil grin slowly spread across Dan’s face. He had leverage. With the information he had, he could force Vydar to summon Heleer. He could almost taste his freedom.