They began the journey to Nearv that night. Utgar could hardly believe what had happened. It seemed almost too good to be true that he had Runa back, was reunited with Vraen – the only true friend he had ever had in the Volcarren – and was on his way to the only place the Empire wouldn’t look for him. But it was real. Vraen’s men – around thirty of them – moved off down a nearby canyon, Utgar, Runa, and the other prisoners in their midst, Vraen leading the way.
Utgar held one end of a stretcher, on which Runa lay. The angular-faced prisoner held the other end. She had not stirred since they left the tent.
As they moved along the canyon, the sky slowly lightened, from black, to deepest blue, slowly growing lighter and lighter. The canyon gradually took form around them as the light began to reveal its crags and crevices.
Utgar shifted his grip, and Runa rolled slightly upon the stretcher. A tiny ray of the new sun fell upon her, and it lit her arm, which had fallen from the black robe Vraen had placed over her against the cold of the night. The skin was badly burned.
Utgar nearly dropped the stretcher. “Runa!” he cried, lowering his end to the ground and kneeling beside her on the hard rock. He took her arm gently and looked at it. In the darkness of the tent, she had been hidden, but now, in the daylight, he saw that her whole arm had been burned. And not evenly, as though by fire. The burn marks were spaced evenly, and all the same size and shape. She had been burned by irons.
“Runa!” Utgar cried. “What have they done to you?” He quickly threw aside the robe covering her and held up her other arm: it too had been burned. There were burns all over her body. Each black mark made Utgar’s muscles clench. His body shook as he saw what had been done to his daughter.
The young prisoner, the boy, came up beside Utgar. He stared at Runa, his eyes wide with horror.
“You,” — Utgar turned to him — “Do you know why they have done this?”
The boy shook his head, mutely staring at Runa.
“Gods above,” breathed Vraen, who had come to see why they had stopped. “She’s been tortured! Quickly,” he said to the soldiers about him, “bring water for her burns.”
Utgar was already unstopping his own waterskin. He tipped some of the precious liquid down Runa’s throat. She swallowed in her sleep, but did not wake.
“Why?” he whispered, “why would they do this?”
Vraen put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said. “But the sooner we get her to Nearv, the better. She probably knows more than we do; she’ll be able to tell us when she wakes.”
Utgar nodded, staring at his daughter. The flash of anger he had felt slowly cooled as he looked at her. “Yes,” he agreed. “We must get to Nearv.”
Nearv was less than a day’s journey away. Utgar walked slowly, his eyes fixed on the still form of his daughter. Every few steps, anger would flare within him at the sight of one of her burns, but it never lasted long. Runa was the priority. Vengeance could wait.
By the time the sun was again touching the horizon, Nearv was in sight. It was, as Utgar had suspected, the same large village he had seen when he left the desert. Vraen’s party moved straight for the gate, which was thrown open as they arrived.
The village consisted of only a few large lean-tos, and several small huts. But it was full of people. Hide tents were everywhere, and the ground had been worn down to sand. Raiders, wearing a collection of Volcarren and Imperial armor, lined the way to the largest building, and Utgar glimpsed women and children behind them. Vraen was powerful indeed if he could protect all these people.
They went straight to the middle of the village, where there was a large building constructed from rock, mud bricks, bones of various animals, and many hides. This was, Utgar guessed, where Vraen lived.
“Take her inside my hall,” Vraen said, motioning Utgar into the building. “There’s a small room on the right. You can put her there.”
Utgar and the angular-faced prisoner carried the stretcher with Runa on it into the hall, turned into the small room Vraen had indicated, and set her down gently on the hard stone floor. Her head lolled, but otherwise she remained still.
“I’ll leave you alone with her, Utgar,” Vraen said, who had followed them. “Don’t worry; the Empire won’t look for her here.”
“Thank you, Vraen,” Utgar said, looking up. “Thank you.”
“It’s time you owed me for a change,” Vraen said, with a flicker of a smile. Then he turned and left, leaving Utgar alone with Runa.
It was several hours before Runa finally stirred. She took a long, slow breath without opening her eyes. Utgar, who had been sitting against the wall, moved forward, but at the slight sound, Runa squeezed her eyes tight shut, rolled onto her side, and curled up, holding her head in her hands, as if to ward off blows. The position sickened Utgar.
“Runa,” he said softly, kneeling beside her, “Runa, I’m here. It’s over. You’re safe.”
For a moment Runa didn’t react. Then slowly, she opened her eyes and turned her head towards him. They widened when she saw him. “Father…?”
“It’s me, Runa,” Utgar said.
And then she moved. Runa grasped at him like someone floundering in loose sand, and Utgar caught her, and held her close. She curled against him, crying, shaking, clutching him as though at any moment he would turn to smoke.
For a long time Utgar held her, holding her just as tightly as she did him. Finally, she began to calm. Her tears stopped, her shaking stilled, and she loosened her grip on his arm. But she was still curled against him, like an animal seeking shelter, and the occasional tremor still shook her.
Utgar looked down at her, intending to ask her what happened, but the question died in his throat as he saw her. Her eyes were closed, and she was resting against him. He held her closer. Soon. Soon, she would have to relive it. But not yet.
Well after Runa had gone to sleep in Utgar’s arms, the hide door to the room was pulled aside softly. It was Vraen.
“Utgar,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, but something has happened. You should come with me.”
“My place is with my daughter, Vraen,” Utgar said.
“This… concerns her,” Vraen said. He glanced at Runa with a strange expression, one not unlike the look he had once given Utgar, years ago: a flicker of fear. “You need to come,” he said, turning back to Utgar.
Utgar hated to leave Runa, but Vraen’s tone unsettled him. Something was wrong. Gently, he laid Runa down on the stretcher, and then rose. “I’ll be back soon,” he whispered to her. Then he followed Vraen out of the room.
“What is it?” Utgar asked immediately.
Vraen walked out of the hall, and into the village. Utgar followed.
“You’re not the only person who’s come here to escape the Empire,” Vraen said. “Every now and then, someone escapes Srung and comes here.”
Utgar waited in silence.
“One such fugitive,” Vraen said slowly, “was held in Srung for nearly a month, for killing soldiers who attacked his family. He was tortured. When they tired of torturing him, the guards threw him out, and he came here, seeking sanctuary. That was two months ago.
“This fugitive came to me a few minutes ago with a most curious story. He said that he remembers the faces of every kyrie who tortured him while he was in Srung. He said they were burned into his memory. And he said… that one of those kyrie is among the prisoners we just rescued last night.”
It took Utgar a moment to realize what Vraen was saying. “What… you mean he’s… he’s a spy?”
“Decide for yourself,” Vraen said. He stopped outside a low hovel, and motioned Utgar inside. Utgar hesitated for a moment, and then pulled aside the hide and went in.
One of the prisoners – the one with stubble – was on the ground. He had clearly been beaten; his face was bloodied, and one eye was swollen shut. Two guards stood over him, stone axes at the ready.
Vraen ducked into the hovel. “This is Utgar, spy,” he said. “You should recognize him.”
The kyrie didn’t move.
Vraen kicked him. “Sit up,” he spat.
The kyrie coughed up some blood and struggled into a sitting position.
“I want you to tell Utgar here everything you just told me,” Vraen said. “Start with who you are.”
The kyrie looked sullenly at Vraen, but when one of the guards twitched his axe menacingly, he began to speak.
“I’m a soldier,” he said, coughing some more. “A soldier… of Ahnvad. I guard… the prisons.”
“And torture the prisoners,” Vraen growled. “Go on. Tell us why Runa was taken.”
Utgar knelt down, listening carefully.
“The girl,” the spy said. “Ahnvad has been looking for her… been trying to find her…”
“Why?” Utgar asked.
The spy looked at him through his one good eye. “You don’t know?”
“Ahnvad knew it the moment he saw her… She was the one… She knows…”
“Knows what!” Utgar repeated.
The spy coughed. He glared at Utgar.
“She knows where the Wellspring is,” he said.