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?”
“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.”
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.”