Utgar stared blankly at the spy. Silence reigned in the hovel for a full ten seconds.
“What?” Utgar finally asked.
“The Wellspring!” the spy repeated. “She knows where it is!”
Utgar grappled with this statement for a few moments.
“There’s… There’s a Wellspring here?” he finally managed. “Here, in the Volcarren?”
The spy nodded.
“And Runa knows where it is?”
Again, the spy nodded.
“But… how? How could she know that?”
“She must have found it,” the spy said. “She had it’s power. Ahnvad knew it the moment he saw her. She has drunk of a Wellspring. She must know where it is.”
Utgar sat back. Runa. A Wellspring. Here, in the Volcarren. But that didn’t make sense. It was said that those who drank from a Wellspring gained incredible powers. Runa didn’t have those powers. He, Utgar, would have known.
“You lie,” he said to the spy. “If Runa had drunk of the Wellspring, she would never have been captured.”
The spy shook his head. “She didn’t know it herself. But Ahnvad could tell.”
“What do you mean?”
“Wellspring powers are easy to detect with the right tools,” the spy said. “Ahnvad has those tools. He had sensed the presence of a Valkyrie months ago, and once he was in the same room as her, he knew. We drugged her with a toxin which removes magical powers. After that, she had no more chance of breaking out than any other prisoner. Her powers are gone now.”
Utgar was silent for a moment. “Then why are you here?” he asked.
The spy said nothing.
“Answer,” one of the guards said, a warning in the word.
But Utgar thought he knew. “Ahnvad,” he said. “He thinks Runa knows where the Wellspring is. And you’re here to watch Runa, hoping she’ll return to it. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Something like that,” the spy muttered.
“Then that means,” Utgar turned to Vraen, “that we were allowed to escape. If he,” — he gestured to the spy — “was planted here, Ahnvad expected us to rescue him along with the others.”
Vraen nodded thoughtfully. “That explains the lack of guards,” he said. “I thought the camp seemed under-guarded. There must have only been fifteen soldiers there.” He shook his head. “Ahnvad sacrificed them. For a gamble.”
Utgar turned back to the spy. “Well,” he said, “Ahnvad’s wrong. He thought that if he set her free, Runa would lead him straight to the Wellspring. But he’s sacrificed his men for nothing. My daughter doesn’t know where any Wellspring is.”
The spy laughed. “You really believe that?” he said. “She had the power of the Wellsprings! She has drunk Wellspring water! In this desert, you Volcarrens must remember every spring you come across. She knows where the Wellspring is, and until it is found, Ahnvad will follow her, watch her, hunt her.”
Utgar glanced at Vraen. Vraen was staring at the spy with a hard look.
“You think,” the spy continued, “that you can dissuade Ahnvad just by saying that she doesn’t know? This is a Wellspring! The one who drinks from it has power beyond imagining! Ahnvad will not be stopped by a little lapse in memory.”
Utgar had heard enough. He stood, surveyed the spy for one brief moment, and then turned on his heel and exited the hovel.
Vraen caught up with him outside. “Do you think it’s true?” he asked.
Utgar didn’t answer immediately. It was all too… much. “I don’t know what to think,” he finally said. He stared at the star-flecked sky above them. “A Wellspring, here in the Volcarren. And Runa…”
“It does explain why they took her,” Vraen said slowly.
“Yes… but a Valkyrie?” Utgar said, turning to look at him. “I would have known if my own daughter was a Valkyrie.”
“Not… necessarily,” Vraen said. “We have an elder here, one who remembers the old stories from before the war. He’s always said that those who drank from a Wellspring often felt no change. He’s told one story, about a kyrie who drank from a Wellspring, and only found out years later. Wellsprings were only really discovered when someone injured drank from them. The waters healed them, and then they knew… but if Runa was never injured…”
Utgar shook his head. “I made sure she never was,” he said. “I kept her well away from any danger.”
There was silence for a moment.
“If it’s true,” Vraen said slowly, “if there is a Wellspring somewhere in the Volcarren… we have to find it. Before the Empire does.”
Utgar looked again at the sky. He knew what Vraen was going to ask.
“Utgar,” Vraen said, “I know Runa has suffered terribly, and I don’t want to make her relive it… but if she has found a Wellspring somewhere—”
“She doesn’t know, Vraen,” Utgar said. “She would have told me if she knew.”
“But she might have stumbled across it. She wouldn’t know what it was.”
“A source of fresh water, Vraen?” Utgar said. “The spy – what’s his name?”
“Meren,” Vraen said.
“Well, he was right,” Utgar said. “We would remember any spring of water like that. Runa would have told me.” He looked down at Vraen. “But you’re right,” he said. “A Wellspring isn’t something we can dismiss, fictional or not. I’ll ask her if she remembers anything. But tomorrow. For now, she must sleep.”
“Of course,” Vraen said after a moment. “Let her sleep.”
It was midday before Utgar felt comfortable asking Runa anything. Normally, the prospect of a Wellspring somewhere in the Volcarren would have excited him. If the Volcarrens found it, it would mean freedom from the Empire. But right now, all that concerned him was Runa.
When she woke, she still clung to him. Food was brought, and she ate nervously, as if afraid that it might all suddenly turn into a dream, and Utgar become Ahnvad, back to torture her again. But as the day wore on, her confidence grew. Finally, Utgar felt they could delay no longer.
However, when asked if she remembered coming across any pool of water or faint trickle, she shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t remember anything like that. I would have said something, wouldn’t I? A source of water like that?”
“Yes,” Utgar agreed. “It’s not something we would forget…”
Vraen was in the room, his arms folded. “Runa,” he said, “I hate to ask you this, but can you tell us exactly what Ahnvad asked you? Did he know a rough location? Did he ask you about a specific area?”
Utgar glanced at Runa. She had turned slightly paler at Ahnvad’s name, but her voice didn’t shake as she answered Vraen. “No,” she said. “He asked where I had been. Anywhere I had been. Every cave, every canyon, anywhere I had ever gone. But I couldn’t remember ever finding a pool or anything. I think… I think in the end he must have believed me.”
“Father,” Runa said, turning to Utgar, “I heard about… about Meren. About how he was a spy. About what he said. He said the Empire will be watching, and… and following.”
“Be at peace, Runa,” Utgar said. “None shall touch you while I am here.”
Runa gave him a weak smile, but Vraen pulled him aside.
“She has a point,” he whispered, so that Runa couldn’t hear. “She’s marked. Doubtless it was Ahnvad’s plan to have Meren follow her, and report to him if she found the Wellspring. But now that he’s been discovered, they’ll have to watch her themselves. I don’t think they’ll try to capture her again; they let us rescue her by choice. But they’ll be following her. There could be Imperial scouts above us right now, flying where we can’t see them.”
Utgar was silent. Vraen was right. He looked at Runa. “I thought once I had her back, I could return to my old life,” he said to Vraen. “I thought I could just disappear back into the desert like I did before. But you’re right.” He paused. “I can never go back as long as the Empire is looking for Runa. And…” he took a breath, “we endanger you by staying here.”
He raised his voice so that Runa could hear, and spoke to Vraen. “You’ve done more than I could ever ask for me and my daughter, Vraen. We might have been safe here, but if the Empire thinks my daughter knows the location of a Wellspring, we’ll be safe nowhere. Our only option is to run. We’ll hide somewhere the Empire can never find us.”
Vraen raised an eyebrow. “Where?” he said. “How? The Volcarren is a flat slab of rock. There’s no cave or canyon you could hide in that the Empire wouldn’t scour. They can fly, Utgar. How will you hide?”
“I’ll think of something,” Utgar said. “I’ll have to.” He turned to Runa. “We must leave, Runa.”
Runa looked scared, but she nodded and stood. “Thank you,” she said, inclining her head to Vraen, “for what you have done for us. I will not forget how you saved both me and my father, nor the shelter you have given us.”
Vraen opened his mouth to reply, but Utgar interrupted him. “Runa?” he said. “The… The burns. They’re… gone.” He had just noticed it now, when she stood.
Runa blinked and looked down at her arms, which were bare. The skin was unblemished. Utgar had seen those same arms covered with burns only a few hours ago, but now… now it was as if they had never been touched.
Vraen looked in wonder at Runa. “This is beyond my healers to do,” he said. He looked suddenly at Utgar.
“It’s beyond any healer, Vraen,” Utgar said, still staring at Runa.
Runa looked from one to the other. “What does this mean?” she asked.
Utgar could not speak. Vraen opened and closed his mouth several times. Then he finally said: “It can only mean one thing. Only Wellspring water can work such a miracle.”