Utgar hoped he wouldn’t encounter any more soldiers until he reached Srung, but as he traveled, they became more and more common. Kyrie flew through the air in squadrons of three or four, or picked their way through canyons. While most wore the armor of the Empire, every now and then Utgar thought he saw a kyrie in black, sometimes with a companion, standing still far off, watching him. Every time Utgar turned back to look, the figures would have vanished.
Utgar couldn’t think what they all were doing here, but he didn’t have much time to wonder, as he had to double back countless times to avoid running into them. The soldiers he had encountered had been inexperienced, but if Utgar met a skilled fighter, he might not win quite so easily. So he avoided them, constantly moving as straight westwards as he could.
He spent an uneasy night in a shallow cave, and rose the next morning to find the rocky wastes about him crawling with soldiers. He hoped he could find a way through them.
Once again, he was unlucky.
This time, when he ran into a group of soldiers, they spotted him instantly. And this time, there were five of them. They leapt from where they had been sitting, and drew their swords even as Utgar drew his knife, stumbling backwards. He was out in the open, with no cover. The soldiers had been in a small gully, and he hadn’t seen them. There was no escape.
Two of them rushed him immediately. Utgar quickly moved to the right, trying to face only one at once, but they were coming at him too fast. Both of their swords sliced downwards at him.
Utgar was able to deflect one sword, and then twisted his body away from the second one. It missed him, but only just. Out of position and outnumbered, Utgar tried to fall back, but the soldiers struck again.
Again, Utgar was able to deflect one of the swords, and move out of the way of the second one. But this time the swords were traveling upwards, and the second sword came so close to his face that Utgar was sure for a moment it had scratched him.
It hadn’t touched him, but he staggered backwards all the same, the calm which had seized him when he first saw the soldiers slipping, giving way to a rush of cold fear.
Utgar’s brief moment of fear brought a new kind of clarity. Retreat was not an option, so, ignoring the swords before him, he lunged forwards.
The soldiers were caught by surprise. They hadn’t expected Utgar to attack so quickly, and as a result, were slow in bringing their swords up to meet his.
One successfully warded away Utgar’s blow, but the other wasn’t as lucky. Utgar beat his sword to the side, punched him in the stomach to distract him, and then plunged his knife downwards, striking the soldier’s collar. The knife plunged deep. Utgar didn’t know if it struck the heart or not, but the soldier collapsed just the same.
All of this had happened in an instant, and now the other three soldiers joined in the fray. As swords descended towards him, Utgar’s fear became absolute, but he didn’t retreat. He couldn’t. There was nowhere to go but forwards, and no way forwards except through the soldiers.
The first soldier which leapt at Utgar got stabbed in the stomach before he even knew what had happened. He staggered backwards, tripping up two of his companions. Utgar knew he would bleed out quickly. The remaining soldier, suddenly finding himself facing Utgar alone, brought his sword up, guarding his chest. So Utgar dove and tackled his legs.
They crashed to the ground, Utgar pinning the soldier’s legs. Unable to reach any higher, Utgar stabbed his knife through the unprotected side of one leg. He must have hit an artery, because blood spurted outwards instantly.
The other two soldiers had by this time regained their footing, and now came at Utgar, who was on the ground. Utgar punched the knee of the first soldier, causing him to fall backwards. He then shot up, met the blade of the second soldier, and slammed his shoulder into him. The soldier stumbled back, and Utgar, seeing he was quickly regaining his balance, set his feet, and swung his elbow cleanly into his face. The soldier was not wearing a helmet.
The soldier reeled, but somehow kept his footing. However, Utgar could see that he was completely dazed, and took advantage of his distraction. He grabbed the soldier’s breastplate, yanked it forwards roughly so that it slipped slightly, exposing the side, and drove his knife between the soldier’s now-exposed ribs.
The soldier crumpled. Utgar pulled his knife free as the soldier fell, and then turned to the only remaining opponent: the soldier whose knee he had punched. Limping, the soldier eyed him warily. Utgar saw his eyes flick upwards, to the sky. He couldn’t let that happen.
He feinted right, saw the soldier’s blade swing wide, and tackled him from the left, knocking his sword out of his hand as he did so. They landed on the ground, Utgar on top. He grabbed his knife with both hands, saw the soldier’s eyes widen with fear, and then brought his knife down. It pierced the armor as if it was made out of hide, and sank into the soldier’s chest, lodging deep.
Utgar watched as the soldier’s eyes faded, their position becoming locked, their stare blank. He stood and looked about him. All of the other soldiers were dead, either by the knife, or from having bled out quickly. Utgar was covered in blood, but as far as he could tell, none of it was his own. He had escaped completely uninjured.
He turned, grabbed his knife, and pulled. It was stuck. He pulled harder. It didn’t move. He gripped it with both hands and pulled with all of his strength, his muscles straining, sweat washing the blood from his face. Finally, as the soldier’s bones cracked and his lifeless body shuddered, the blade came free.
Utgar staggered backward, away from the body. He glanced at his knife, now covered in gore. Blood pounded in his ears. His arms seemed to shake as he held his knife. Cold and heat washed over him in equal measures.
He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the blood, the death, the things he had done. But they stayed with him, playing before his closed eyes.
Runa. He needed Runa. There was nothing else.
Utgar opened his eyes, grabbed a fistful of sand, and wiped most of the blood from his face, arms, armor, and knife. Then he stowed his knife behind his breastplate, picked up his waterskin, which he had dropped, and continued west, leaving the dead soldiers behind him.
He had to get to Runa.
Utgar had been walking less than five minutes however, when several kyrie dropped from the sky. Soldiers. Ten of them this time. They already had their weapon out, and were in a circle surrounding Utgar.
“That’s the one,” one soldier told another, likely the commander. “I saw him: he killed five.”
The commander surveyed Utgar with caution. “One kyrie killed five?”
“I saw it,” repeated the soldier. “I couldn’t believe it, but I saw it.”
The commander was silent for a moment. Then he spoke to Utgar. “Drop your weapons,” he said. “I don’t care how skilled you are; you can’t beat all of us.”
Utgar knew he was right. He felt the cold clarity of battle slowly emptying his mind, but he fought it. “Let me pass,” he said calmly. “You’re right; you would win. But do you really want to find out how many of you I can kill before that happens?” He drew his knife from behind his breastplate as he spoke, letting it draw the commander’s eyes.
“I don’t need to find out,” the commander said evenly.
His voice was calm. Too calm. Utgar knew he had missed something. And then something heavy slammed into the back of his head, the knife fell from his grasp, and Utgar fell to the ground, stunned, as the soldiers converged on him.
A few moments later, clarity returned to Utgar. His armor was gone. His knife was gone. His hands were bound with leather thongs, and he was being forced to stumble across the barren rock. He could feel his hair matted at the back of head. The commander had distracted him while a soldier crept up behind him. He had been fooled by a simple trick.
He was surrounded, with two soldiers on either side, and one behind and in front of him. None were looking at him.
“Where are you taking me?” Utgar asked of no one in particular.
“Camp,” came the commander’s voice from behind him. “Anyone who can fight like you will be of interest to Ahnvad.”
“Who is Ahnvad?” Utgar asked. He wasn’t getting out of this any time soon, and Ahnvad seemed to be in charge of all the soldiers here. He might as well get as much information as he could, until an opportunity for escape presented itself.
None of the soldiers replied.
“He is the general of the Volcarren forces,” the commander said. “We all answer to him.”
“And why would he be interested in me?” Utgar asked.
“Why wouldn’t Ahnvad be interested in you?” the commander said. “Violence? Murder? They’re what Ahnvad lives off of. And from what I’ve seen, you’re full of both.”
“What does he want with me though?” Utgar asked after a moment.
“He probably wants to compare notes,” one of the soldiers said in a carrying whisper. A few others laughed, but the sound was forced, and died off quickly.
“That is not for me to say,” the commander said. “He may wish to use you. Or he might just kill you.”
Utgar was silent. He might be a captive, but at least he was going in the right direction. The soldiers were moving almost straight west, and if this Ahnvad was at the camp they were going to, there was a chance Runa might be there too. Once there, all Utgar had to do was escape.
As these thoughts circled in Utgar’s mind, the sky darkened. The sun fell behind clouds, streaking the burnt sky with orange and yellow, quickly followed by rapidly-darkening blue. Finally, they crested a last ridge, and Utgar saw their destination.
Tents with thick walls – to keep out the sand – were pitched in a low ravine. A few campfires flickered amongst them, and Utgar could see the shadows of guards patrolling the borders. A larger tent sat in the middle of the others, and it was towards this that Utgar’s captors took him, stumbling and tripping over the loose stones and sand.
Utgar tried to look in every tent he passed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Runa. This Ahnvad seemed to be in charge of everything which was happening in the Volcarren, so it made sense that Runa would be taken to wherever he was. But nearly all the tents were empty. This struck Utgar as odd. Only a few held soldiers, and then only two or three. The vast majority were empty.
They reached the large tent, and Utgar was shoved inside. A soldier grabbed Utgar by the shoulders and pushed him towards the back of the tent, where Utgar could make out several shadowy shapes lying on the ground. Once against the back wall, he was shoved roughly to the ground, and his hands were briefly untied, and then retied around a heavy stake. The soldier left, and the commander approached him.
“Ahnvad will decide what to do with you in the morning,” he said. “Until then, get some rest.” He turned to leave. “You’ll need it.”
Once he left, Utgar immediately turned (as best he could) to look at the others about him, doubtless prisoners. On his left was a kyrie with a week’s growth of stubble darkening his face. Beyond him was a younger kyrie, not much more than a boy from what Utgar could tell through the dim light. Neither looked at him. Both were lying still, apparently exhausted.
He turned to his right. Another grown kyrie lay there, the dim light from outside the tent playing across angular features. He grimaced as Utgar looked at him, but said nothing. Beyond him was a fourth prisoner, an unmoving lump of shadow. Utgar tried to raise himself up some to see the kyrie’s face, and saw a flicker of light play across it.
It was Runa.