Utgar had expected Vraen to send Runa against Srung almost the moment she agreed to fight. However, Vraen had other plans. He knew that while he was invincible with Runa, he was vulnerable without her. She could only be in one place at once, so it was imperative that he remove the Imperial soldiers from around his territory before attacking Srung. Otherwise, by the time Runa got back, Nearv would be little more than ashes.
This was why, two days later, Runa, Utgar, and a large number of Vraen’s warriors were to be found hiding out of sight in a canyon, under cover of the pre-dawn darkness, waiting for the signal to attack Holn, the Empire’s strongest (and only) fortification within the Volcarren. Once they attacked, and once Runa was revealed, the Empire would know what they were trying to do.
The atmosphere within the canyon was somewhat less than relaxed. Until now, anyone who dared attack the Empire ended up dead. While Vraen’s kyrie knew they had Runa on their side, a feeling of trepidation was inevitable. At least, it was for everyone except Utgar.
Utgar watched the kyrie nearest him shifting his weight restlessly. He changed his sword to his left, and then back to his right hand.
“Worried?” Utgar asked him.
The kyrie turned. “Some,” he said. “But we have a Valkyrie. There might not even be a fight. Right?” he added, sounding a little too hopeful.
Utgar smiled to himself in the darkness. “There might not be a fight,” he agreed.
The kyrie came closer. “You’re her father,” he said. “You’re the one we rescued from the Empire’s camp.”
“I am,” Utgar said.
The kyrie watched him for a moment. “The scouts,” he said, “they say that you killed five soldiers. By yourself.” He was silent for a moment. “Is it true?” he asked, sounding as if he was afraid of the answer.
Utgar nodded slowly, but he was no longer smiling.
“How?” the kyrie whispered. Utgar didn’t miss the hint of awe in the voice.
Utgar frowned. “What’s your name?” he said.
“Kirav,” said the kyrie.
Utgar glanced at the sky. It was beginning to lighten. They would attack soon.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” he said, turning back to Kirav.
“Oh,” Kirav said. “No, it’s not that. It’s just,” — he paused — “I can’t fight. Not well, anyway,” he added.
Utgar frowned at him. “Why not?” he asked.
“I – I don’t know,” Kirav said. “I hesitate in battle. I hang back. The other warriors – They say I’m scared of my blade. But I’m not,” he added quickly.
“Perhaps of the enemy’s blade?” Utgar suggested quietly.
“… Perhaps,” Kirav agreed. “But I want to fight. I want to fight for freedom. I want to take on the Empire and defeat them. I want… I want to be able to do what you did.” He paused. “We all do.”
Utgar looked away, over the assembled warriors. The dawn was coming.
“There’s no secret to what I did,” he finally said, turning back to Kirav. “I grew up fighting. I simply had more experience than my enemies.”
“Oh,” Kirav said. “Yes… Of course.” He looked down.
Utgar watched him for a moment.
“I won’t tell you how to fight,” he finally said. Kirav looked up. “I won’t,” Utgar repeated. “I don’t want to fight. All I want is safety for my daughter. But I will say this: uncertainty is a worse enemy than any Imperial soldier.”
“What about caution, though?” Kirav said. “You can’t just go charging into battle.”
“No,” Utgar agreed, “you can’t.” He stood. The dawn was upon them. “But fighting for what you believe in is not a safe business. If you are too cautious, you’ll gain nothing.” Kirav stood as well. “Do what you can to survive,” Utgar said, “but if you don’t cut down your enemy, eventually he will kill you. Make sure you kill him first.”
Runa turned. One of Vraen’s kyrie ran up to her.
“It’s time,” he said. “You are the signal for the others to attack.”
Runa felt her heart beat faster. “I am?” she said.
The kyrie nodded. “The fortification has two ways out. When you attack the back, we’ll attack the front.”
A sick feeling flooded Runa’s stomach. “You want me to block their escape?” she said. “To pen them in?”
“Yes,” the kyrie said matter-of-factly. He looked at her for a moment. “We mean to convince them that they must join us,” he added at her look. “If they can escape, then they have another option. You’re just… removing that option. All you need to do is block their escape. You don’t need to actually harm anyone directly.”
“And what if they don’t want to join you?” Runa asked.
The kyrie paused. “Well,” he said, “… that’s why we carry weapons. Don’t worry,” he added. “Many will join us. But some never will. Those are our enemies. They’re the ones who would stop us. If we’re to succeed, they must die.”
Runa didn’t move. The sick feeling intensified.
“It’s the only way,” the kyrie said. “We wait for your signal,” he added, when Runa didn’t reply. Then he turned, and ran back to where Vraen’s force waited, hidden in the canyon.
Runa looked down at her hands. She knew what she could do now. She could kill with a touch. She could cause fear with a thought.
She lowered her hands. This wasn’t her. She sat on a nearby stone and buried her face in her hands.
The Wellspring, she thought. It all came back to the Wellspring. If she just didn’t have its power…
But I do. I am a Valkyrie now. Maybe before, I could hide in the desert, I could stay home where it was safe. But father was right. Maybe everyone has good in them, but here, in this place….
“Me or them,” she whispered to herself.
She stood. The rim of the sun was just breaking across the horizon. She took a shaky breath, but faced it defiantly.
“So that we can leave,” she said to herself. “So that we can leave the Volcarren, and never return.”
Slowly, she unfurled her wings. The Wellspring had given her the gift of flight, the ability to rise above the desolate surface of the Volcarren, into the clear air above it.
She could hide no longer.
The deadly calm Utgar felt before a battle was growing within him again. He, Kirav, and the rest of Vraen’s kyrie were lying on their bellies on the very lip of the canyon. Any moment now, Runa would appear in the air, and they would attack.
Beside Utgar, Kirav was still. His eyes were fixed upwards, waiting for Runa. Glancing down, Utgar saw that his hand was clenched on his sword. The knuckles were white.
“Relax your muscles,” Utgar whispered to him.
Kirav looked down, startled.
“Relax,” Utgar repeated. “Don’t go into a battle tense. You’ll be injured by your own movements, if not by another’s blade.”
Kirav nodded, and let his breath out.
“How many battles have you been in?” he asked.
“Too many,” Utgar replied. He looked forward. “Far too many.”
From somewhere ahead of them, there was a sudden rushing sound, as if a great sandstorm had been unleashed from the silence of the dawn. A scream rent the air. A second scream followed it. Then shouts and cries of panic shattered the new day.
Vraen’s commander leapt to his feet and raised his sword above his head. “Warriors!” he bellowed. “Attack!”
“For freedom?” Kirav said, turning to Utgar.
Utgar pushed himself off of the ground and stood. “For freedom,” he agreed. Then he charged forward with Kirav and the rest of the kyrie.
Above them, Utgar could see a solitary figure, her wings spread wide, seeming to stay aloft by magic (which could very well be the case). From her palms poured a cloud of thick red smoke, striking the ground faster than a Volcarren Viper, and spreading outwards quicker than a kyrie could run. The smoke was centered just outside the rear gate; Utgar knew Runa had no desire to move it within the walls.
The main gate was only a short sprint away. The first soldiers to reach it demolished it quickly enough, using stone axes to break apart the weathered wood. By the time Utgar and Kirav arrived, the remains of the gate were but splinters, and they were able to rush into Holn without slowing.
A few soldiers met them, but only a few had weapons, and almost none wore armor. Holn had never been attacked, and it was clear that many of them still didn’t realize what was happening.
The first few soldiers were slain quickly. Some, an inkling of the truth dawning in their terrified faces, threw down their weapons and flung themselves to the ground. Utgar saw that not one was slain. Vraen had trained his warriors well.
Inspired by the ease of their first victories, the attackers ran deeper into Holn, passing over any soldier who surrendered, and killing any who did not.
Runa lifted her hands, stopping the flow of poison. The cloud below her spread slowly, blocking the rear exit. Some of the sick feeling had left her stomach. She had managed to keep the poison from entering the fortress. As long as they didn’t try to run through it, no one would be harmed by her powers.
She looked beyond the wall, inside the fortress. She could see soldiers running through the narrow dusty streets, disorganized and confused. An occasional woman was to be seen, but Holn was a military fortress. There were few civilians.
Every few seconds, a soldier would turn towards the rear exit, see the cloud of poison before it, see Runa above, and run the other way. But not all of them ran.
Below her, close to the wall, Runa saw a door open and a large kyrie exit. He wore no armor and carried no weapons, but he dragged a woman after him, pulling her by her hair. She stumbled and beat at him with her fists, but he shrugged off her attacks.
“Cowards!” he shouted after the fleeing soldiers. “Stand and fight! You’re soldiers of the Empire!”
They ignored him.
The woman tried to pull free of his grip, but he turned to her, and struck her squarely across the face. She cried out, staggering back. She tried to pull away, but he kicked her to the ground. Finally relinquishing his hold on her hair, he planted a booted foot on her back, keeping her down. She cried out, trying to shove him off of her.
He raised his foot, and stamped on her.
Both the woman and Runa cried out.
Somehow, over the cries of men and the clash of arms, the large kyrie must have heard Runa, for he turned sharply, looked up, and saw her. And in that moment, Runa saw his face, and recognized him.
For a second, all sound ceased, and Runa saw again darkness, lit only by the dying embers of a fire beyond the tent wall. A voice came to her from the shadows, a voice which caused her blood to run cold.
“You know where the Wellspring is,” the voice said. “Tell me, or the pain begins again.”
But Runa didn’t know. She said so over and over, choking on her own tears, shaking with fright.
“You leave me with no choice,” said the voice of Ahnvad. It held no sympathy.
A sudden light illuminated a face. It thrust itself close to Runa, lit by the glow of an iron.
Runa snapped back to the present. That was a face she would never forget as long as she lived. She looked again at the soldier below her. It was him. He had been the one who had pressed the irons against her when Ahnvad commanded it. She remembered.
So did the soldier. His eyes widened as he recognized Runa. He kicked the woman away from him, and pulled from a shadowy doorway a crossbow.
He aimed it at Runa, but she, feeling her blood pounding in her ears, glared at him, and pointed a single, shaking, finger at him.
He was instantly consumed by a cloud of red smoke. It burst into existence, seeming to explode outwards from the kyrie himself. The woman, still on the ground, scrambled out of the way quickly.
Raising her hand, Runa saw the smoke dissipate to reveal the soldier, writhing on his back on the ground. Blood was pouring from everywhere, from his eyes, nose, and ears. He clutched at his throat as it seemed to constrict tighter, and tighter, and tighter…
The pounding in Runa’s ears faded away as the man shuddered to a halt, pale and lifeless. She looked at the soldier, feeling only strangely empty. Below her, the woman, uninjured, cast a swift fearful glance upwards at Runa, before running away towards Vraen’s men.
Runa watched her go. “So that we can leave,” she said to herself. “So that we can leave.”
But the battle was not yet over. Within the fortress, Vraen’s men were locked in combat with those soldiers who would not surrender. Many were captains or commanders, and only a few of Vraen’s warriors were able to stand up to them in battle. Utgar was one of them. And to Utgar’s surprise, so was Kirav.
If Kirav had once hesitated in battle, he did not do so now. Utgar saw him swing his blade at soldier after soldier, felling them one by one. He was not uninjured – both his left leg and arm were bleeding freely – but he seemed unaware of the wounds. He had killed nearly as many soldiers as Utgar had, and showed no sign of stopping.
Utgar had just managed to finally dispatch his opponent when he saw a soldier, wearing black armor and carrying a battleaxe, leap atop a nearby building.
“Fools!” the soldier shouted. “Fly! Your advantage is in the air!”
A few spread their wings, but most of the soldiers were too focused on the battle, and did not hear him. Seeing that his words had little effect, the soldier leapt from the roof, and landed in front of a knot of Vraen’s men. He swung his axe, and Utgar saw that it trailed sparks and smoke.
Magic, he thought. The axe was enchanted. Enchanted weapons were rare indeed, and their power was legendary.
A moment later, the men the soldier had attacked fell back, grasping at injuries which seemed burned through their armor. The soldier turned on the spot, saw another group of warriors, and leveled his axe at them. A jet of flame shot out of the tip of the haft, lancing through the warriors like a spear. They fell to the ground, crying out in pain.
“Ahnvad!” one of Vraen’s men shouted. The name was repeated on all sides. “Ahnvad! It’s Ahnvad!”
The tide immediately turned. Vraen’s warriors ran, Ahnvad cutting down those who weren’t fast enough.
Utgar did not run. He stared at Ahnvad. This was the one who had taken Runa. The one who had tortured her. Utgar had done his best to stay in control during the battle, but he couldn’t stay detached any longer. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from Ahnvad. Everything else seemed to blur, and he found himself running towards the kyrie in black armor, raising his stone axe as he went.
Ahnvad saw him coming. He turned, and swung his axe at Utgar.
Utgar got out of the way only just in time. The head of the axe flew past him, missing him by inches. Utgar thought he was safe, but he was wrong: Ahnvad took one step forwards, and swung the bottom of the haft up towards Utgar.
The end of the haft slammed into Utgar’s side, catching him below the shoulder. The force of the blow was so great that Utgar was lifted off of his feet momentarily. The haft continued upwards, and Utgar slipped off of it, landing on the hard ground. He landed on his own axe, which had slipped from his grasp, and felt it bite painfully into his right shoulder.
Fortunately for Utgar, one of Vraen’s men picked that moment to launch himself at Ahnvad, forcing him to turn around to face his new attacker. Utgar was able to scramble to his feet, and pick up his axe. His right arm was tingling, and the fingers didn’t seem to want to grip anything. Utgar shifted his axe to his left hand.
Meanwhile, Ahnvad had dealt his attacker a blow to the head. The warrior staggered backwards, stumbling over the rough stone ground. Ahnvad advanced after him, walking slowly. His steps were measured, controlled. His stance was set and balanced. Utgar knew, just from watching him, that this was an opponent which could not be distracted, intimidated, or lured into making a mistake.
Gripping his axe tightly in his left hand, Utgar ran towards Ahnvad. His back was turned as he dueled the kyrie who had attacked him; now was his chance. But he was too late. Ahnvad whipped his axe up, and then back down, sending the blade slicing towards the kyrie’s head.
The axe hit. The kyrie crumpled. Ahnvad calmly moved forwards, wrapped both hands around the haft of his axe, and yanked it free. Then, finally, Utgar arrived, his weapon finding a chink in Ahnvad’s armor, and biting deep into his shoulder.
Ahnvad spun around so fast that Utgar’s axe was wrenched from his hands. It remained embedded in Ahnvad, and Utgar staggered backwards, picking up a spear which was lying nearby.
For a moment, Ahnvad and Utgar stared at each other. Ahnvad did not smile. He did not laugh. Neither did he grimace in pain. He showed no emotion whatsoever. Only his eyes showed life. They were dark, deep-set, calculating. He looked at Utgar, and Utgar looked at him. Blood dripped from both of their arms.
Beyond them, a cheer went up from Vraen’s men. The last of the Imperial soldiers had surrendered. The fortress was theirs.
Ahnvad straightened, but his eyes never left Utgar’s. Slowly, he pulled the axe from his shoulder, and flung it from him.
“I will remember you,” he said to Utgar. His voice was low, measured, uncolored by emotion or pain.
And then he unfurled his great wings, and swept them downward, vaulting himself into the sky.
As Utgar watched him go, the tension of the battle drained from him. He fell to his knees, cradling his arm, his body cold and shaking. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Runa land nearby and run towards him, ready to heal him, but he kept his eyes fixed on the fading shadow which was Ahnvad.
Utgar felt a cold knot of unease settle in his stomach.
They would meet again.