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.
“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.