In a few short days, Vraen had managed to secure virtually all of the Strip. Runa had been used only once, at Holn, but the single demonstration had been enough. No one – Volcarren or soldier alike – wanted to be against her. They had come flooding into Nearv, and those who remained loyal to the Empire had retreated to Srung. Vraen was now ready to assault the fortress.
But the day after Ahnvad’s attack, Runa heard that the plan had changed. Vraen had sentenced Meren, the spy, to be executed. He had only waited this long in case the Empire wanted to bargain for Meren’s life, but with the Empire virtually gone from the Volcarren, it was clear now that was never going to happen.
However, once he knew Vraen meant to kill him, Meren had offered to give him critical information in exchange for leniency. He said he knew details of Ahnvad’s plans, and after the attack of the previous night (which was still unexplained), Vraen agreed to hear him.
Vraen questioned Meren alone. When he emerged, he said that Meren had told him about a secret Imperial force, hiding to the east, in the desert. It was too small to pose any threat right now, but its job was to wait until Vraen attacked Srung, and then attack Nearv when it was vulnerable. Ahnvad’s plan was to hold the village, and the defenseless families it held, as ransom, thus forcing Vraen and Runa to surrender. If they made any move to free Nearv once it was captured, or if Runa were so much as seen in the sky, the force would kill the inhabitants.
“The spy,” Vraen had said, “says he knows more of Ahnvad’s plans. I do not tolerate spies. They disgust me. But if what he’s told us turns out to be true, I will spare him. If I do, he’s promised to tell me everything he knows.”
Therefore, the attack on Srung was delayed. Vraen dispatched Utgar and Kirav, with a group of his best raiders, to the desert to deal with the soldiers. Utgar assured Runa before he left that they would only be gone three days at most. Then they would attack Srung, and finally leave the Volcarren.
However, mere hours after Utgar and Kirav had left, the guards stationed around Meren were found dead. They had been poisoned and their throats slit. Meren himself was dead as well, lying in his tent in a pool of his own blood. Vraen could only assume that Meren had been silenced, and that could mean only one thing: there was a spy within Nearv. Someone was loyal to Ahnvad.
It was impossible to tell who the spy might be. Imperial soldiers had joined Vraen every day since the attack on Holn. It might even be a Volcarren, sent by Ahnvad to hide in plain sight. No one could be trusted. Vraen told Runa to stay within his hall, and Runa, realizing now that Vraen’s earlier concerns for her safety had been justified, obliged. She stayed in her room, listening to the panicked shouts beyond the walls, and wishing Utgar were back.
Runa fell into a troubled sleep that night, her dreams full of knives in the dark and hooded figures. She woke up several times in the darkness, convinced some sound had woken her. But every time, the hall was silent and dark, and nothing stirred.
When Runa finally woke the next morning, she heard a great number of people outside her room. They were all murmuring and whispering, and one voice was speaking loudly, although his words were distorted by the muttering of the crowd. Runa crossed her room and looked out of the doorway.
Vraen’s hall was filled with people. They all seemed to be facing the middle of the floor, all looking at something Runa could not see. Ex-soldiers and Volcarrens alike stood, whispering to each other, looking stunned, some looking grim.
“What’s happened?” Runa asked the nearest Volcarren.
He turned. “Valkyrie,” he murmured, inclining his head. “The spy… The spy has been found. The murderer of Meren and his guards.”
“Found?” Runa repeated. “How?”
“Vraen,” the Volcarren said. “He saw a drop of blood on the stone outside Meren’s tent. And another a short distance away. The spy had forgotten to wipe the blade he used to kill Meren, and Vraen and his men were able to follow the trail straight to his tent. They found the dagger.”
“Who was it?” Runa asked.
In answer, the Volcarren turned, and Runa was able to see what everyone was looking at.
It was Taelord.
Runa was shocked into silence.
He was kneeling on the floor. Someone had placed the dagger, still bloody, before him, and he was staring at it with an expression equivalent to how Runa felt.
“Taelord?” Runa whispered.
He heard her, and looked up. His face still registered blank shock, as if a complete impossibility had occurred before his eyes.
Runa searched that face.
He hadn’t done it. She knew he hadn’t. He was just as stunned as she was.
Vraen arrived in the middle of the crowd. “You!” he barked at Taelord. “Spy! This dagger was found in your tent. I tracked it there myself, from where you used it to silence Meren. His blood is on the blade. It was also on the clothes you had discarded from the previous day. Do you deny that you killed Meren? That you are the spy we have been looking for?”
Taelord said nothing. He was still staring blankly at the dagger.
Vraen seemed to take his silence for guilt. “You are a spy of Ahnvad,” he said. “I do not tolerate spies. I will deal with you as I dealt with Meren. I said I would execute him for what he had done. I delayed only because of the information he gave me. But unless you are willing to tell me more of Ahnvad’s plans, I will have you executed within a few short hours.”
Taelord looked up at Vraen, still with that same stunned expression. He said nothing.
“Very well,” Vraen said when Taelord was silent. He turned to the men assembled about him. “Who here is willing to behead this spy?”
“It wasn’t him!” Runa stepped forward. “It wasn’t him,” she repeated. She felt everyone’s eyes upon her. No one stirred. No one spoke.
“He didn’t do it,” she said into the silence. She remembered what he had said two nights ago. “He wouldn’t.”
“You know him?” Vraen asked her.
“I know him well enough,” Runa said. “I know he would never do what you’re accusing him of.” She knew perfectly well this wasn’t entirely true, but one look at Taelord’s face was enough to convince her that he had never in his life seen the dagger before him. He was not the spy.
“Runa,” Vraen said, “I found the dagger in his tent. By his side. Meren’s blood was on his clothing. Can you explain that?”
“No,” Runa said. “But it must have been planted there by the real spy.”
“And why would the spy do that?”
“To throw you off of his trail?” Runa suggested. “He must know you’re looking for him. Planting the dagger on the first person he came across makes sense.”
There was a muttering of agreement, but Vraen scowled. “Runa, I tracked that trail of blood across half of Nearv before I found the dagger. It passed countless tents. But did it go into any of them? No. It went straight as an arrow to this boy’s tent. He is the spy, Runa.”
But Runa was sure. Vraen might be in charge, but she wasn’t about to let Taelord be executed if she could help it.
“No,” she said. “He is not the spy. I can’t explain the dagger, or the blood, except to say it was planted there.” She looked Vraen full in the face. “He is not the spy.”
Complete silence reigned. Vraen and Runa looked at each other, neither moving. Just how much control did Runa have? She was a Valkyrie. Vraen would need her when they assaulted Srung. Would he execute Taelord anyway, when she was so critical to his success?
“Vas,” Vraen finally said, “Koret.” Two Volcarrens came up to him. “You will keep an eye on Taelord. If he tries to escape you, kill him. But until then… follow him. Do not let him leave Nearv.” He raised his voice so that everyone in the hall could hear. “Our Valkyrie seems convinced of the spy’s innocence, so I will consider her words. But by morning tomorrow, I make my decision. And no one,” — he looked directly at Runa — “will stop it from being carried out.”