Even with carrying Kirav and Taelord, Utgar’s wings made short work of the distance. Spurred to speed by his desire to see Runa safe, they had barely been aloft for more than an hour before Taelord pointed below through the gathering dusk.
“There!” he called. “Light! Ahnvad is below us.”
Utgar turned, and they dove low. He recognized the dunes they were passing over now. This was where his home had been. And there, that was the canyon he had entered, looking for the soldiers. If only he had known then that they had been behind him, approaching his home, and Runa within…
Light flickered from within the canyon. Someone was inside one of the caves lining the canyon walls, with a lantern. Noiselessly, Utgar landed in the canyon. Taelord slid off and crept forwards, peering into the cave.
“He’s in there,” he said, coming back. “Ahnvad and five soldiers. They’re searching the caves. Now’s our chance.”
“Where’s Runa?” Utgar asked.
“She’s with him,” Taelord said. “She’s still unconscious, but he’s keeping her close.”
Utgar leaned against the canyon wall, thinking. “Kirav,” he said, “we’ll follow your plan. You go in, and distract Ahnvad as long as you can. These caves are full of boulders and shadows which should serve to hide me and Taelord. We’ll try to sneak around Ahnvad, and grab Runa before he sees us.
“You,” he turned to Taelord, “will need to keep her safe. Once Ahnvad sees us, he’ll be focusing on me. Keep Runa behind me. Get her out if you can. And Taelord,” Utgar added – Taelord looked up – “I’m trusting you because I have no choice. Not because I want to. Do not let me down.”
“I won’t,” Taelord said. “I want Runa safe as much as you do.”
Utgar seriously doubted that, but he said nothing.
“You’d better be fast, Utgar,” Kirav said. “You might think I’m a – how did you put it? A warrior to be reckoned with? But that’s Ahnvad in there. We tried to take him together once, and didn’t fair too well. I don’t fancy my chances against him alone.”
“Don’t worry,” Utgar said. “I’ll distract him if I have to. You won’t face him alone.”
Together, the three of them crept towards the cave entrance. They could hear movement within. And then Ahnvad’s voice range out: “Hurry! It must be here somewhere!”
Utgar looked at Kirav. “You first,” he whispered.
Kirav grimaced, and stepped into the cave, Utgar and Taelord following at a crouch. The cave was, as Utgar had suspected, lined with boulders and jagged rocks. They made the perfect cover. He and Taelord edged in among them, slowly making their way into the cave, keeping to the shadows. Kirav walked slowly forwards, letting them pull ahead.
Then he walked into the lantern-light.
“Ahnvad!” Kirav cried, in what Utgar thought was a reasonable impersonation of someone in complete control, given the circumstances.
Everyone spun around. Ahnvad was in the middle of the cave, with Runa slumped on the floor beside him. Two soldiers were behind him, three in front. They all stopped, staring at Kirav. Utgar and Taelord crept around the edge of the cave, getting steadily closer to where Runa lay.
“I know you,” Ahnvad said slowly, looking Kirav up and down. “You’re one of Vraen’s men.” He paused. “Kill him,” he said, turning away.
“You don’t want to do that, Ahnvad,” Kirav said.
Slowly, Ahnvad turned back. “I really rather think I do,” he said placidly. Behind him, Utgar and Taelord crept closer to where Runa lay.
“I know the true location of the Wellspring,” Kirav said.
“Indeed?” Ahnvad sounded quite calm.
He doesn’t believe him, Utgar realized. He knows Kirav is playing for time.
“How do you think I got here?” Kirav said. “This place is a day’s travel on foot from Vraen. I flew. No Volcarren can fly, unless they’ve drunk of a Wellspring.”
He knows something, Utgar thought frantically. But there was no way to warn Kirav.
“Really?” Ahnvad said. “But perhaps you were already here, or nearby.”
“Perhaps,” Kirav said, “but what does it matter?”
Ahnvad’s smile widened. “It matters because then you needn’t have flown, and thus your ‘proof’ that you are Valkyrie is gone.”
Kirav flung his arms wide. “By all means,” he cried, “send your men to kill me. Find out for yourself if I am Valkyrie.”
Ahnvad looked at Kirav with only the mildest of interest. “You are not Valkyrie,” he said. “You are a diversion. Who else is here with you?”
“I assure you that I am a Valkyrie,” Kirav said.
Ahnvad’s smile faded. “You cannot be Valkyrie,” he said sharply, “because you cannot have drunk from the Wellspring. The Wellspring is sealed. I sealed it the moment I had Runa in my possession. I used her connection to the Wellspring, and some of the ancient archkyrie magic, and sealed the Wellspring so that, wherever it might be, none but I could unseal it. Its waters cannot be touched as long as I draw breath. Therefore you are lying. You are not a real Valkyrie, and unless you kill me, you never will be. Now,” he turned to his soldiers. “Kill him.”
The three soldiers between Kirav and Ahnvad began moving towards him, drawing their swords. Kirav stood his ground, but he glanced towards where Utgar and Taelord were hidden.
Utgar knew their time was up. “Go,” he said to Taelord. “Get my daughter, and get her out.”
Taelord nodded, and slithered away between the rocks.
Utgar crept forwards. One of Ahnvad’s soldiers was near him. If he could kill him without being seen…
Meanwhile, all three soldiers had engaged Kirav. He might have been able to handle two at once, but three was too much. It was immediately obvious that he was no Valkyrie, as he began backing away under their assault.
Utgar unsheathed his sword, got to one knee carefully, and without warning plunged it straight through the soldier’s back. The soldier let out a strangled cry, and fell forwards, Utgar pulling out his sword as he did.
Meanwhile, Taelord had reached Runa. Creeping out from behind the rocks, he was just able to reach her, and drag her back into the shadows. She didn’t stir. Propping her up against one of the rocks, he gave her a swift shake, placing a hand over her mouth.
She woke with a start, but stilled when she saw him. He removed his hand carefully.
“Taelord?” she whispered. “What’s happened? Vraen… Nearv… is my father all right?”
“He’s fine,” Taelord whispered back. “He’s here with me. But I’ve got to get you out. He said to get you to safety.”
But at that moment, Utgar stabbed the soldier in the back, he let out a cry, and Ahnvad turned. First he saw Utgar. Then he saw Taelord.
He stared at Taelord and Runa for a full second. Taelord stared back, knowing what was coming.
“You!” Ahnvad cried. “You would betray me?”
Taelord stood. “Yes,” he said, returning Ahnvad’s glare. “I would.”
Utgar saw Ahnvad start towards Taelord and Runa. At the other end of the cave, Kirav was still dueling the three soldiers. Their time was up. Utgar stood.
“Ahnvad!” he cried.
Ahnvad turned towards him.
“You’re right,” Utgar said. “Kirav isn’t a Valkyrie. But I am.” And he raised his palm to point at Ahnvad.
Ahnvad’s eyes widened. “STOP!” he bellowed.
Utgar paused, purely because he had never seen panic in Ahnvad before, and was surprised by it.
“If you destroy me now,” Ahnvad said, “you’ll destroy yourself. Wellspring magic can’t be controlled in an enclosed space, not if you summon more than a small flame. You’ll kill us all if you unleash it here. Me, you, and your daughter.”
Utgar glanced at Runa, who he saw was awake. She nodded. What Ahnvad had said was true.
“Yes,” Ahnvad breathed, watching Utgar, “you are Valkyrie. You were prepared to use your power.”
He and Utgar stood still, watching each other. The old calmness washed over Utgar, clearing his mind. Dared he attack? Could he possibly defeat Ahnvad without the Wellspring?
“Get the girl,” Ahnvad said to the nearest soldier.
The soldier glanced warily at Utgar.
“Go!” Ahnvad cried. “He is powerless in this cave!”
After a moment of hesitation, the soldier moved towards Runa.
Kirav was still engaged with three soldiers. Runa was awake, but Ahnvad was between her and Utgar. Utgar didn’t have a choice. He would have to engage Ahnvad.
“Runa!” he cried. “Run!”
“Stop her!” Ahnvad cried. “Catch her!” It was clear he knew he could control Utgar if he had her.
One of the soldiers dueling Kirav looked around at Ahnvad’s cry. Kirav promptly slew him for his lapse in concentration, but he received a wound in the side as he lunged forwards. He staggered back, bleeding freely.
Utgar launched himself at Ahnvad, the familiar cold calm hardening within him. Ahnvad was ready. He planted his feet, and gripped his battleaxe. He swung as Utgar came close. Utgar, his mind empty of everything but the battle, ducked under the blow, and tried to strike Ahnvad with his sword, but he wasn’t fast enough. Ahnvad blocked his blow with the haft of his axe, and then swung the axe down, slamming the upper haft onto Utgar’s shoulder and back. Utgar was flung into the ground.
Meanwhile, Taelord dove at the soldier advancing on Runa. He grabbed the soldier’s legs, tripping him. “Runa!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Go!”
But she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave Taelord, unarmed, or her father, dueling Ahnvad. She had to do something. Unfortunately, without the Wellspring, there was very little she could do.
Kirav dropped to the floor, a gash in his head. His weapon fell from his hand. He was still alive, but the two soldiers who had been dueling him, recognizing that he was no longer a threat, rushed to aid Ahnvad.
Utgar saw them coming, and disengaged from Ahnvad. He had fought five soldiers at once; two should be easy. But not with Ahnvad in the fray. He focused on keeping the soldiers between himself and Ahnvad, which unfortunately meant he had to circle away from Runa. As this occurred to him, he glanced in her direction, and felt the calm of battle begin to slip from his mind. He turned back to the soldiers. He had to stay focused.
Meanwhile, unarmed, Taelord was trying to wrestle his soldier. He was failing. The soldier picked him up and bodily threw him against the cave wall. Taelord hit it hard, and fell to the floor, where he did not move. The soldier advanced on Runa.
Utgar, focusing on the two soldiers in front of him, feinted right. The soldiers moved their swords to the right. He feinted left. They moved their swords to the left. Feeling a grim sense of satisfaction, he feinted right again, changed direction, came at them from the left, and… narrowly avoided being sliced by their swords. He backpedaled quickly. These were well-trained soldiers.
Utgar didn’t feel calm anymore. Runa was in danger, and he was distracted as a result. But he couldn’t afford to be distracted, not now. In the past, before Runa, he had always relied on his focus in combat. It had kept him steady, kept him aware of everything around him. But now it was slipping, being replaced with fear and panic.
The soldiers, following up on his mistake, advanced. Utgar didn’t have a choice. He could no longer rely on the focus which had carried him through battle before. He could rely on the only thing he had left: his fear of losing Runa. He couldn’t afford to be cautious. He had to win.
As the soldiers advanced, Utgar lunged straight forwards without warning, striking at the first soldier’s head. The soldier’s blade went up to block the blow, but Utgar pulled the blade back at the last moment, and instead slammed his fist into the soldier’s diaphragm. It didn’t matter that the soldier was wearing armor. He doubled up, completely winded, and Utgar easily brought his sword down on his exposed neck.
The second soldier rushed Utgar as his companion fell. Utgar didn’t care. He could feel his anger and panic mingling, giving him the reckless confidence he needed to get to Runa. As the soldier rushed him, Utgar brought his foot up and kicked the soldier squarely in the chest.
The soldier staggered backwards, conveniently colliding with Ahnvad, who had been drawing closer. Ahnvad pushed him away, towards Utgar, and Utgar leapt forwards, forcing his blade under the soldier’s breastplate, and into his heart. The soldier toppled, sliding off of Utgar’s sword.
That left only Ahnvad. Utgar was ready. He was ready to take on Ahnvad, and to use all of his panic and anger to destroy him. Unfortunately, the last remaining soldier got to Runa first.
She cried out as he grabbed her, and Utgar, distracted, looked in her direction.
Instantly, the haft of Ahnvad’s axe slammed into the side of his head, sending him staggering backwards. By the time Utgar regained his senses, he saw that the soldier had his sword to Runa’s neck. Utgar got up slowly, only the faintest thread of logic keeping him still.
“It is over, Utgar!” Ahnvad cried. He stood in the middle of the cave, his axe in both hands, Kirav at his feet, unmoving. “I have your daughter. Move against me, and she suffers.”
Blood was pounding in Utgar’s ears, but Ahnvad was right. It was over. He couldn’t put Runa at risk.
“Lower your weapon,” Ahnvad commanded.
Utgar had no choice but to lower it.
Ahnvad took a breath. “Good,” he said. “Now, you may be a Valkyrie, Utgar, but I carry with me a toxin which will remedy that. Once drugged, your powers will be gone. Then you will lead me to the Wellspring. If you do, I may let you and your daughter live. If not, well…” He let the sentence hang.
Runa whimpered as the soldier holding her tightened his grip.
“Make your decision now, Utgar,” Ahnvad said. “Come with me willingly or let your daughter taste the blade.”
Utgar looked hopelessly to the floor where Taelord had fallen. He was not stirring. Neither was Kirav.
Ahnvad advanced on Utgar slowly. “With or without you,” he said, “the Wellspring will be mine.”
Utgar glared at him defiantly, but there was nothing else he could do. “It will never be yours,” he growled.
“And why is that?” Ahnvad said. They were face to face now, only half an arm’s length apart.
“Because you don’t know what it is,” Utgar said. “You don’t know what it means.”
“It is power,” Ahnvad said calmly. “And it means that whoever controls it, controls Valhalla.”
But Utgar suddenly saw something behind Ahnvad. He smiled. He saw a shadow of doubt cross Ahnvad’s face. “No,” he said. “It is hope.”
And then Kirav, pale, bleeding, but still somehow conscious, stood up behind Ahnvad, took his sword, and stabbed him cleanly through the back.
Ahnvad let out a scream of pain and fell to his knees, pulling the sword and Kirav with him. Kirav fell back to the floor where he sprawled, breathing heavily. Ahnvad fell forwards, trying to reach the blade embedded in his back. And Utgar, opening his wings, flew straight at the stunned soldier holding Runa.
Runa slipped out of the soldier’s slackened grip a moment before Utgar collided with him, sending him into the rock wall. Utgar wrested the soldier’s sword from his grasp as the wall neared, planted the tip against the soldier’s chest, and then felt it driven into him by the force of the impact. The soldier dropped to the floor, dead, and Utgar turned once more to Ahnvad, as Runa hurried towards Taelord.
Ahnvad had succeeded somehow in pulling the sword out. He had rolled onto his back, and was coughing and breathing heavily, his own blood rapidly pooling beneath him. Utgar knew he didn’t have long to live. He advanced on Ahnvad, and stopped at his side, standing over him.
For a moment, the two looked at each other. Then Ahnvad spoke, gasping for breath.
“You… You are Volcarrens,” he said, as if the very laws of the universe prevented Volcarrens from winning.
“Yes,” Utgar said. “We are. But we’re leaving the Volcarren.” He stooped, and picked up Ahnvad’s battleaxe. “You can’t stop us.”
Then, without any more hesitation, he swung the axe up above his head, and brought it down on Ahnvad’s chest. The black armor buckled. Ahnvad screamed. Flames burst into existence all along his body as the axe bit deep, and the black armor turned white hot where it had cut through. In another second, Ahnvad’s entire body turned to flame, the orange-red tongues quickly consuming him. He cried out in agony, writhing and twisting beneath the axe of fire, and then, quite suddenly, he was still. The fire smoldered and went out, leaving only charred remains, a smoking armored husk over a burnt skeleton.
Ahnvad, commander of the Imperial army in the Volcarren, was dead.
Leaving the axe embedded in Ahnvad’s corpse, Utgar turned to find Kirav sitting up, weak and white, but smiling. Beyond him, Runa was helping Taelord to his feet.
All three looked at Utgar expectantly, and he looked back at them.
“The Wellspring is ours,” he said.
No one moved. Everything was still.
“Shall we use it?”
Kirav and Taelord nodded. But Utgar looked to Runa. She looked back at him, her face conflicted.
“For freedom?” he said.
He saw, in Runa’s face, her doubts still.
“For freedom,” she said.