“My lord Jandar! Utgar requests a meeting upon the field of battle.”
“For what purpose?”
“He said… He said he wishes to avoid this battle. He said he wishes to end the war with no further bloodshed.”
Jandar stood. His armor flashed in the brilliant sunlight, the air clean after the recent winter rain. “Utgar once told me he wished to avoid bloodshed. Do you know what he really wanted?”
The sentinel looked down. “No, sire… I can’t say that I do.”
“He wanted to distract me, for at that very moment, some of his kyrie were positioning themselves above me. If it weren’t for Drake, I would have been dead long ago.” Jandar’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Go back to Utgar. Tell him that we both know perfectly well how he avoids bloodshed. Tell him that if he wants to end this now, he can march over here himself and hand in his surrender.”
The sentinel turned to leave.
“Wait,” said Raelin. She had been standing beside Jandar, and had heard everything. She now turned to face her general.
“What, Raelin?” Jandar asked. “You think I should delay to hear Utgar’s false claims?”
“I… don’t think they are false anymore, Jandar,” Raelin said slowly. “He knows what Valkrill did. He knows how… how the castle fell.”
“Don’t remind me,” Jandar muttered to himself.
“Utgar knows how many men we lost when that happened. And it’s obvious that his army outnumbers us at least five to one, if not more.”
“You’re point, Raelin?”
“My point,” said Raelin, “is that there is no logic in this. Utgar always loved war and bloodshed. Everyone in Valhalla knows that. There is virtually no chance that he will be defeated. So why would he call for a meeting?”
“As a diversion?” Jandar suggested with dry sarcasm. “Maybe he wants to kill me again.”
“But why would he want to do that, instead of a full battle?”
“I don’t know, Raelin,” Jandar said, finally losing patience. “Maybe… Maybe he doesn’t want to lose as many men. Maybe he thinks if he kills me first, my men will break and run.”
“You know Utgar thinks nothing of the lives he wastes.”
“Yes, I know, but—”
“I think Raelin is right,” Drake interrupted, who had been standing on Jandar’s other side. “I think Utgar may actually want to talk. Think about it, Jandar. You’d be meeting in the middle of an open field, where both armies can see you clearly. There’s no way he could try anything underhanded with that many people watching.
Jandar looked from Drake to Raelin. “Very well,” he finally relented. “But I want you two with me. Raelin, keep your spear ready and keep behind me at all times. Drake, stay alert for threats from any angle. You,” he shot at the sentinel, who snapped to attention, “I expect Utgar will bring aids?”
“Yes, sire,” the sentinel promptly replied. “He said each side could bring two aids. In addition he said that he would leave his weapon behind, as a sign of good faith, and requested that you do the same.”
Jandar frowned, fingering the handle of his massive war-hammer. “I expected as much,” he muttered. “Very well. Return to Utgar and tell him that I will hear what he has to say. But tell him also,” he added, “that this is to be a peaceful conference. If he attempts to use it as a cover for anything, I will not hesitate to kill him then and there, weapon or no.”
The sentinel nodded once and took to the air, winging his way towards where Utgar’s army lay.
A large portion of Jandar’s army had been lost when his castle was destroyed by Valkrill’s magic. It had been a terrible blow. Victory had been unlikely before, but now it was next to impossible.
Utgar had promptly invaded Nastralund, joining his forces with Valkrill, and proceeded to march north. He had left a large contingent behind to guard the rest of Valhalla, and still his army was far larger than the remnants of the alliance.
Having no castle to retreat to, Jandar had made a final decision. An encounter was inevitable. They were hemmed in and surrounded, with the sea at their backs. Since they had nowhere to go, they would turn around, and attack Utgar. Now, at long last, the two forces faced each other across a wide plain, white with winter snow. This would be the final battle. After today, either the alliance would die, or Utgar would. There was little doubt about what the outcome would be.
A pavilion was erected in the middle of the field, between the two armies. Presently, two figures separated themselves from Utgar’s horde and approached with unhurried steps. Drake, Raelin, and Jandar advanced from the other army. They met at the pavilion, and for the second time in her life, Raelin saw the mighty Utgar, the kyrie who had caused all this misery.
The last time she had seen him, Utgar had worn a fur cloak and a confident air. He had laughed at threats and had matched his cunning wits with those of Jandar. If anything, he was now larger than he had been. He was shorter than Jandar, but not by much, and he was a good head and a half taller than Raelin. There was something about him, though, that was different. His eyes were downcast, and a frown was upon his face. Jandar approached him with a grim smile set in place. “Utgar,” he said, holding out his hand stiffly. “How terrible to see you.”
A smile flickered across Utgar’s face as he grasped Jandar’s hand, but it faded quickly. “I know you think this to be a ploy, Jandar,” he said, “so let me put your heart at ease.”
“I doubt there is anything you can do to put my heart at ease, Utgar,” Jandar said bitterly.
Utgar sighed. “I fear you may be right.”
A pause followed.
“Why have you brought only one aid?” Jandar asked, nodding to the red kyrie that stood behind Utgar.
“Taelord was the only one I required. He’s the only one that would understand.”
“Understand?” repeated Jandar. “You speak in riddles, Utgar. And where is your mockery of our last meeting? Has all of your arrogance left you?” Jandar looked the Valkyrie up and down. “Why the change, Utgar?” he asked snidely.
Utgar looked up. “Why the change, Jandar?” he repeated. “I’ll tell you why I’ve changed. I pray only that you’ll understand when I’ve finished.
“I had a secret. A secret I kept from nearly all, and especially from the alliance. I had a wife, once; a wife I loved more than anything else. In a time before the war, we were happy together. She blessed me with a daughter. I was content with my lot in life.
“And then you came, Jandar. Doubtless you do not remember – you were but a young captain at the time. Our home in the Volcarren was raided, attacked by kyrie from the North. You were the one that entered our home, searching for I know not what. You found our daughter, still in the cradle. I don’t know what you would have done. You might have done nothing. You might have let her live. But my wife snatched her from where she slept, and tried to defend her as only a mother could. I arrived too late. It may have been self-defense; I would not know, for I was blinded with shock and rage at the time; but in an instant, my beloved wife lay dead upon the floor, her blood dripping from your hammer.
“Every morning I have woken since that day, I have sworn to myself that you would pay. I rose in rank until I commanded the whole army, even as you did. Driven by my hatred, I invaded Bleakwood, where my sources told me your family lived. I need not tell you what transpired once I found them.” Utgar looked into Jandar’s burning eyes. “For that,” he whispered, “I am eternally sorry.”
Jandar appeared incapable of speech, so Utgar continued.
“The pain of my loss lessened, but did not go away. I sought your life as well. However, my attention was soon diverted to my daughter. She had grown in beauty and will far surpassing any other. I had her trained as a soldier, and she bested any that fought her. I had turned my daughter into a weapon, something to carry out my insatiable thirst for revenge. My pride in her had no equal.
I sent her into battle. She was successful. I sent her to carry out a mission. She was—” Utgar glanced at Drake, “— foiled. But she did not let that defeat stand in her way. She continued to make a name for herself, until she was known all throughout Valhalla.”
“I never heard of a daughter of yours,” Jandar interrupted roughly.
Utgar glanced at him. “No. You didn’t, because I didn’t want her harmed. You knew her by name only, for she was Runa.”
Jandar stared at Utgar blankly. Raelin saw something else in his look. Could it be fear?
Utgar stared right back. “Not that long ago,” he said quietly, with deliberate slowness, “you summoned your entire army back to your castle. You received word that your presence was required at the back of your retreating army. You came, bringing Drake with you, and you saw the problem. Runa was attacking the rear guard. Her Helm of Mitonsoul was felling warrior after warrior, while my kyrie minions protected her from attack.”
Utgar did not take his eyes from Jandar’s face as he continued. “You broke their ranks easily. Runa engaged you. The reports said she fought eagerly, never backing down. But she was no match for your skill, and you struck her down. Then, as she struggled to get up, you landed before her, and… killed her. You killed my only daughter, Jandar. You killed my family, even as I slew yours.”
Dead silence. In the shocked stillness, Raelin saw a single tear fall from Utgar’s eye and strike the grass.
“And I suppose,” Jandar said, his voice suspiciously hoarse, “that you now mean to swear your vengeance on me to all the gods of Valhalla and beyond?”
Utgar shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “I have lost the last remnant of family I had left, the last part of my heart not tainted by grief and revenge. All that is left now is a terrible wound, something I will never be able to heal, because I know I caused it. You may have struck the blow, Jandar, but it was I that truly killed my beloved Runa. I have caused this war, and all the death and pain it brings with it. And now I am reaping what I have sown. I have finally seen the war for what it is, Jandar. I have finally realized what it has wrought on this land, and on its people. And I ask you again: end it now. End this war, before we seal our fate forever in blood.”
Utgar suddenly knelt before Jandar. “I do not ask this of you. I beg this of you: surrender, please. Let this conflict end.”
Raelin held her breath. After all this time, here, finally, was the chance she had been searching for the entire war… She watched Jandar in the sudden silence, her heart pounding loudly enough for both of them.
Jandar looked down on Utgar. At first he seemed surprised, but then his face hardened. An insane smile crept onto it, a smile that struck fear to Raelin’s heart.
“Surrender?” he repeated, in a deadly whisper. “Surrender, Utgar? I think not. You killed my family. I killed yours. Consider us even if you will, but you still have to answer for the crimes you have committed through this war.” Jandar’s voice was steadily rising. “Consider the villages burned. Consider the commoners slain. Consider the damage done to the hearts of men. You think this can be wiped clean with an apology, Utgar? Think again! This war is no longer about Valhalla. It stopped being about Valhalla when the wellsprings opened up. It stopped being about any of us when we summoned soldiers from other worlds to fight our wars. Consider what you have done, Utgar, and know that no remorse can undo this. You want me to end this war before we seal our fate? You sealed it for us long ago! You began something you knew perfectly well would end only one way. Do not try to escape the fate that you have been charging towards all your life! There is no easy way out! There is no surrender! No, you have woven this end for all of us, and now, like it or not, you will face what you have created.
“You want me to surrender, Utgar? You want me to bow my knee to you and crave your pardon? You think that will end the war? You are WRONG! Wrong, Utgar! I will never surrender to one with so much blood on his hands, and you know it!”
A very tense silence followed. Utgar slowly stood, watching Jandar.
“Prepare your army,” Jandar spat, turning on his heel. “If you think, at the end, that I have been too harsh, remember that this was an apocalypse of your own making.”
Raelin couldn’t believe it. After everything she had said, everything Jandar had agreed with, he had just flung the offer they had been looking for in Utgar’s face. Why? Because of pride. Jandar would never admit it, but Raelin knew his weakness. He wouldn’t have surrendered had Odin himself asked him to.
“Stop!” Raelin cried, stepping between Jandar and Utgar as they turned away from each other.
“Raelin!” Jandar ordered. “Get away from that dog!”
Utgar looked for a moment like he was about to punch Jandar, but did not move.
“Please,” Raelin said, looking at Utgar. “This cannot end the war. It never will!”
Utgar glanced between her and Jandar. “Raelin?” he repeated. “You are Raelin?”
Raelin nodded, confused by the question.
Utgar took a step closer to her. “I owe you an apology then,” he said, his voice heavy.
“For the way you were treated. I only learned recently that you had been a prisoner of mine. Sullivan believed that if I knew you were in one of my dungeons, I would have tortured you for information, so he did not inform me of his plan. Had I known… I would have used you to guarantee Jandar’s surrender.”
“Utgar,” Raelin said quietly, “please, just leave. Return to the Volcarren, and leave us in peace.” She felt tears stinging her eyes. “Please,” she whispered.
Utgar looked at her silently. “Against such an opponent as your Jandar,” he said slowly, “there can be no peace. He will pursue me until one of us lies dead upon the face of the earth. I do not intend for it to be me.”
“Then we shall fight for all eternity,” interjected Jandar, “for neither shall I go down to you!” With this, he grabbed Raelin by the arm, and pulled her away. Raelin struggled, but Jandar would not let go. He was far stronger than she was, and she eventually was forced to give up and watch as Utgar retreated back to his army.
Drake pried Raelin free of Jandar’s grasp. The Valkyrie stormed ahead, leaving them to bring up the rear. As they walked, Raelin stooped and picked a flower. Winter was barely over; it was the first she had seen in full bloom. She looked at it mournfully as they trudged back to their army.
“My dying hope,” she sighed, “was that I might see Valhalla green and alive one last time. Now I know that will never happen.”
She dropped her hand, and slowly let the flower fall to the earth.