The crowd slowly dispersed. Some gave Runa dubious looks. Most looked at Taelord with anger. But none dared touch him. Runa stood nearby, purposefully standing close to Taelord, hoping that others might see that she trusted him.
Vraen was the last to exit the hall, leaving Runa alone with Taelord and his guards.
“I’d like to speak to Taelord alone,” Runa said the moment everyone had left, turning to one of the guards.
He looked down at her and frowned. Unlike Vraen, he was not prepared to go against her will. “He stays in the hall, within sight,” he said.
She nodded, turned, grabbed Taelord by the arm, and practically shoved him to the far end of the hall, where they would not be overheard.
“What are you doing?” he asked once she stopped.
“Trying to save your life,” she said shortly. “Why didn’t you say anything to Vraen? I know you’re not the spy.”
Taelord frowned at her. “How?” he said. “How do you know that?”
“I – What?” Runa hadn’t expected this reaction. “Because… Because of what you told me.” Taelord continued to frown at her. “I heard the way you spoke of Ter,” Runa said. “You hated it there! You would never serve the Empire!”
“I grew up there, Runa,” Taelord said. “Maybe everything I said was an act.”
She looked at him. He had blue eyes, an uncommon color in the Volcarren. She searched them, trying to understand why he was saying these things.
“No,” she said. “It wasn’t an act. I know that much. You’re innocent, Taelord.”
“Am I?” Taelord said.
“Yes,” Runa replied, feeling a surge of frustration towards him, “you are. And you need to say it. Go to Vraen. Tell him you aren’t the spy.”
For a moment, Runa saw something in Taelord’s eyes. For a moment, something behind them dropped, and she could tell that he was considering her words. But only for a moment.
“I can’t,” he said.
But Runa knew what she had seen. “But you do want to?” she ventured.
“Of course I want to!” Taelord said, finally breaking.
“Then why can’t you?”
“I just… can’t” Taelord said.
“Can I help?”
Taelord frowned at her. “You could tell me where the Wellspring is. That would get us all out of this mess.”
“I don’t know where it is,” Runa said.
“I know,” Taelord said. “I wasn’t serious.”
But he had been, Runa thought. At least somewhat.
“If you knew where it was…” she said.
Taelord glanced at her. “If I knew,” he said, “then I’d be—” He stopped.
“Be what?” Runa prompted. “Safe? Free?”
“You shouldn’t be seen with me,” Taelord said. “Go now. Forget I said anything.”
But Runa didn’t forget. As she returned to her room, she wondered. Taelord’s reaction made little sense to her. Was he as guilty as everyone else believed? Was he a spy, serving Ahnvad and the Empire, after the Wellspring like everyone else?
“No,” Runa told herself. She remembered what he had said, and knew it wasn’t an act. He was not the spy. He was different.
Utgar was due to be back sometime the next day. Runa wished he were here now. She knew he would believe her. He would know Taelord wasn’t the spy, he would know the real spy was still out there somewhere, now no longer hunted.
But he wasn’t here, and chances were he wouldn’t return until well after Vraen had made up his mind. And Runa had no doubts about what Vraen would decide. Short of taking Taelord and flying away, there would be nothing she could do to save him.
She considered that option for a moment. She was a Valkyrie, after all. No one would dare oppose her. What if she just took Taelord and… left?
No, she couldn’t do that. Without her, Vraen and his men would be destroyed by the Empire. And then, when her powers finally faded, she and Taelord would be hunted down. There had to be another way.
Runa spent another restless night in Vraen’s hall, her conviction that Taelord was not the spy being chased by doubts that he was. There was evidence. There was his own refusal to deny his guilt. But she knew… she just knew that he was being set up. He wasn’t the spy. He wasn’t. He wasn’t.
Runa woke the next morning, and kept her eyes tight shut, wishing she could just go back to sleep. If she had just never become a Valkyrie, none of this would have happened. The Empire would never have come for her, Vraen and his army would never have entered her life, and Taelord wouldn’t be facing execution in a few short hours.
She rolled over and buried her face in the stuffed hide which served as a pillow. All she wanted was to return to her old life. In the stillness of the dawn, with her eyes closed, she could almost see her home. It had always been dark, but she remembered the small fires her father used to light. It had been small and cramped, but it had been comfortable and welcoming at the same time. Everything they needed had been there.
Runa let her memories of her old home fill her up. She could remember every sight, every sound, every smell. For a moment, she felt peace wash over her.
And then she sat bolt upright, her heart drumming in her chest.
“Vraen!” Runa burst into Vraen’s room.
“Runa! What on Valhalla are you doing?”
On the verge of speaking, Runa stopped. Vraen was fully dressed, and he was not alone. A Volcarren was with him, tall and heavily muscled. He held in his hands a bare sword with a wide blade. It glimmered in the light from Vraen’s fire.
“Is that… You’re not…”
“I’m sorry, Runa,” Vraen said. “I’ve made my decision. The spy dies.”
“But… But he didn’t do it,” Runa said. “Please, Vraen, believe me. I know him. He didn’t do it.”
Vraen stepped towards her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I do believe you, Runa,” he said. “I believe that you believe he didn’t do it. But listen to me: he is a spy. Whatever you think you know about him, whatever he’s told you, it’s a lie. That’s what spies do, Runa: They lie. And they are exceptionally good at it.” He looked at her, and for the first time, Runa saw real concern in his eyes.
“Put it from your mind,” he said.
She looked at him hopelessly.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “There’s too much evidence. I will not tolerate a spy to live, Runa. He must die.” He looked into her face. “My decision has been made. Worry no more on this matter.”
He glanced behind him to the Volcarren with the sword, and together, the two of them left the room.
Runa sank to the floor. Taelord was going to be executed. She couldn’t save him.
But she was wrong. The sight of the sword had completely driven it from her mind, but now she remembered. She could save him.
She found Taelord just outside the hall, flanked by his two guards. His hands were bound. Mustering all the command she possessed, Runa marched up to the two guards. “I want to speak with Taelord alone,” she said. “I won’t free him, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she added, when they hesitated.
The guards backed away, reluctantly keeping an eye on her from a distance.
“Runa,” Taelord said, “what—”
Runa took a breath. “The Wellspring,” she said. “It’s under my home. There’s a natural spring there; that’s how we could live that far into the desert. I always assumed I must have found the Wellspring somewhere else… but I’ve been living over it the whole time.”
Taelord stared at her, his mouth slightly open. He glanced around, as if making sure they had not been overheard, then bent low. “How,” he whispered, “how can you know that?”
“It’s the only explanation,” Runa said. “I couldn’t remember finding the Wellspring anywhere because I didn’t find it anywhere. I’ve been drinking it’s waters my whole life. I was thinking about my home this morning, and it just… came to me. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Why,” Taelord whispered after a moment of shocked silence, “why are you telling me this?”
“You can tell Vraen,” Runa said. “He’ll have to release you if you give him the location of the Wellspring. That will prove you aren’t the spy. I know you aren’t the spy,” she added. “Even if you won’t defend yourself.”
Taelord looked at Runa blankly. She waited in silence.
“You realize,” he said after a moment, “what you’re risking? You might have convinced yourself I’m innocent, but you can’t be sure.”
“No,” Runa agreed, “I can’t.”
“I was going to tell Vraen,” Runa said. “But then I saw that he’s ready to execute you, and—” the words sounded flimsy as she said them. “I could do something to save you,” she said. “So I did.”
“Even though I might be a spy?”
“Yes,” Runa breathed. “But I know you’re not. You can’t be.”
They looked at each other for a moment. Runa had acted on instinct, without thinking, and now she began to realize what it would mean if she was wrong about Taelord. But she wasn’t wrong. She knew she wasn’t.
But what if she was?
“Do you trust me?” Taelord finally asked.
Runa looked at him uncertainly. That wasn’t the reaction she had expected…
“Yes,” she said slowly.
“Then say nothing,” Taelord said, speaking quickly now. “Whatever happens, don’t worry. Go now. Go.”
“Go. Everything will be fine.”
She backed away, confused. “Taelord?”
“Trust me, Runa,” he said. He turned, and returned to his guards.
Runa stood there, doubt crashing over her.