Runa’s demonstration of her powers at the fortress of Holn had been enough. Once they knew they were facing a Valkyrie, no one – soldier or Volcarren alike – wanted to be her enemy. People came flooding into Nearv to swear fealty to Vraen. In turn, Runa was kept at Nearv, both so that she would be out of harm’s way, and so that Nearv was protected from attack.
Nearv soon expanded far past its walls. It was now a sea of tents, crude stone huts, crowded narrow streets, rushing soldiers, and families seeking shelter. Vraen told Runa to stay near his hall. Many Imperial soldiers had deserted and joined Vraen, and he was taking no chances. She might be a Valkyrie, but she could still be injured or killed by a blade.
That was why she was not entirely surprised when he called her to his hall, and presented her with a sword.
It was a small sword, but even Runa, who knew nothing of such weapons, could tell that it was skillfully crafted. It was light in her arms, and runes and swirling designs were etched into the blade.
“It’s the best we could find,” Vraen said as she held it. “At least out of the ones your size. It came from a soldier.”
Runa studied the blade. “Is he dead?” she asked. “The soldier. Is he dead? Or did he join us?”
Vraen frowned. “He is dead.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I have troops to lead,” he said. “I’ll return in a few days. Stay here, stay close to my hall.”
Runa nodded. “What about my father?” she asked. “When will he return?” Vraen had sent Utgar south, to convince the Vel clans to join them.
“He’ll be back soon,” he assured her. “We may both arrive on the same day.”
“Then – if the Empire is gone from all but Srung – we attack,” Vraen said. “Be sure you are ready.”
Runa nodded. Vraen turned, and left her.
Runa turned back to the blade in her hands. No common soldier had possessed this. The metal was polished until it reflected the dark ceiling above; the etched designs caught the dim light. It was too small to be of much use to an adult commander. Perhaps it had belonged to someone younger. Someone about Runa’s age. Maybe the son of a general. Or a governor.
She ran a finger down the flat of the blade. The edge was sharp; small though it was, it was still a deadly weapon. She lifted the sword in one hand, and held it at arm’s length. The metal glimmered dully in the half-light.
Had that sword struck flesh? Surely it had seen combat. How much pain had it caused? Runa lowered the blade and held it in both hands. Had it killed?
She saw her face reflected in the blade. The metal seemed to distort her features, making her face harder, older somehow. Or had she changed that much?
A cry from outside interrupted Runa’s thoughts. Sheathing the sword, she crossed the hall and stepped outside.
Nearby, just inside one of the narrow alleys between tents, Runa saw a small boy lying on the ground. He was young, almost a child, and he was crying. Runa didn’t have to look far to see why.
Three kyrie, all a few years older than Runa from what she guessed, were standing around him. Two were laughing. One was kneeling close to the boy, saying something to him. All three wore the armor of Volcarren raiders. Runa recognized the kneeling kyrie: he had joined Vraen just a few days before.
The kneeling kyrie bent lower, whispering something to the boy. The boy cried harder.
Runa knew who these kyrie were. They were bullies. Emboldened by Vraen’s success, many of the younger soldiers had taken to strutting about Nearv, bullying those younger or weaker than themselves.
Glaring at the three, Runa moved towards them. She didn’t know what she planned to do, but she knew no one would dare stand up to her.
But someone else got there before her.
Practically flying from between two tents, a fourth kyrie tackled the kneeling bully. The pair rolled away from the crying boy, kicking up dust and loose sand. The two standing bullies, unsure what had happened, simply stood there.
Runa ran forwards quickly, but she was still a good distance away. Meanwhile, the new arrival had disentangled himself and gotten his feet beneath him. The bully he had tackled tried to do the same, but the kyrie launched at him again.
Runa saw the bully bring his arm back to strike the kyrie, but the kyrie blocked the blow, and landed one of his own, slamming his elbow into the bully’s face, causing him to fall back in pain. The other two bullies, who had been closing in, paused.
The kyrie stood, glaring at all three, daring them to come closer. The bullies looked at each other uncertainly.
And then Runa arrived. She was shorter than all four of the other kyrie, but the bullies saw the look on her face, and backed away quickly, running down a side alley. The small boy, who had remained on the ground the entire time, scrambled to his feet and also ran away before Runa could say a word. The only one left was the kyrie who had attacked the bullies.
Now that she could see him properly, Runa recognized him. He was one of the prisoners who had been with her when Vraen rescued them. She had seen him bound and placed in the same tent before she was drugged. Up close, she realized he was nearly her own age, maybe a year or two older at most.
The kyrie gave her a quick glance. Runa could see that he recognized her, but he said nothing. He turned, and began walking away.
Runa followed him. “Why did you do that?” she asked.
The kyrie stopped and half-turned towards her. His eyebrows knitted. “I don’t like bullies,” he said shortly. He turned away.
As he did so, Runa saw a deep gash in his shoulder. It looked less than a day old.
“You’re hurt,” she said.
The kyrie shrugged and began to move away.
“Stop,” Runa said. She hadn’t meant it as a command, but the kyrie halted, his back stiff. He slowly turned towards her.
“Your shoulder,” Runa said. “I can heal it.” One of the many effects of the Wellspring was the ability to heal almost any injury.
She took a tentative step towards the kyrie. He let her approach him, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, and felt the flesh beneath her palm begin to reknit. He stood still, not looking at her.
“Why did you do that?” she repeated. “There were three of them.”
“The other two were cowards,” the kyrie said shortly. He still wouldn’t look at her. “I attacked the leader. If I beat him, the other two would run.”
Runa couldn’t help but be curious. “But what if you hadn’t beat him?” she asked. She lowered her hand. The shoulder was good as new.
The kyrie shrugged.
Runa watched as he felt his shoulder. “How could you know they would run?” she asked. “What if you were wrong?”
“I wasn’t,” the kyrie said. “I’ve seen plenty like them before—” He stopped, as if afraid he had said too much.
“Where?” Runa asked, more curious now.
The kyrie finally glanced at her, briefly. Then he looked away again. “Ter,” he said, growling out the name.
Ter was a Volcarren village right next to Srung. It was almost as hated as the fortress itself. It was full of Imperial sympathizers, and those who spied for the Empire, in return for easy lives and good food.
“You live there?” Runa said, taking an involuntary step back.
“Not if I can help it,” the kyrie muttered. Again, he stopped, seeming to fear he had said something he shouldn’t. He glanced at Runa. “I used to live there,” he said, his tone guarded.
“Used to?” Runa repeated.
The kyrie said nothing.
“Where do you live now?” Runa asked.
“Nowhere.” The kyrie shrugged. “Here, I guess.”
“Don’t you have family there?” Runa asked. “At Ter?” She saw the kyrie’s jaw clench.
“I did,” he said shortly.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“They’re not dead,” the kyrie said. But his words confused Runa, for she could hear the anger in his voice.
“Thank you for healing me,” the kyrie said. He turned to leave.
Runa watched him go for a moment.
“What’s your name?” she called, just before he turned a corner.
He glanced back at her. She saw his eyes narrow for a brief moment, but then the look was gone.
“Taelord,” he said.
And then he turned and was gone.
Runa looked around. There were people everywhere, families, soldiers. They had all seen the bullies. But none of them had done anything. None of them, except for Taelord. They didn’t care. None of them did.
Runa walked back to Vraen’s hall, her eyes downcast.