The dream flickered, and Utgar saw himself, younger, before Runa had entered his life. It was a memory, one he had long suppressed. Utgar didn’t want to watch, but he was still too deep in sleep to wake.
“It’s them or us, Utgar.” The voice echoed to him from the past.
In the dream, Utgar turned, and saw Vraen, a friend in a world of hatred.
“Them or us,” Vraen repeated, coming closer and putting a hand on young-Utgar’s shoulder.
Utgar looked down at the blood splattered across the sand. His arms were dyed red; his chest splashed with gore. Blood pounded in his ears, and his breathing still came quickly. He looked up at Vraen, and thought he saw a flicker of something close to fear pass over his face.
“Them or us,” Utgar repeated.
Utgar finally wrenched his mind from sleep. His breathing was quick, even as it had been in the dream, but thankfully no blood coated his arms. He closed his eyes, trying to rid them of the memory he had seen. He could still see Vraen’s face, watching him, that hint of fear still upon it. That look had haunted Utgar ever since.
Runa. Think of Runa.
Utgar’s breathing slowed. His muscles relaxed; his fists unclenched. He opened his eyes, and took a deep breath.
He had made good time through the night, but a few hours before dawn his exhaustion had caught up with him, and he had been forced to sleep in the shadow of a large boulder. The Strip was littered with such boulders, and along with the canyons which gouged their way across the surface, navigating the harsh landscape was no simple task. But it would take a lot more than uneven terrain to keep Utgar from his daughter.
He stood, taking a deep breath as he did so. The air was clearer here than in the desert. Less filled with sand, and not quite as sulfur-tasting. But it still reeked of heat and dust, and Utgar coughed as the foul air filled his lungs. He took his waterskin, which he had filled before he left, and took a measured drink. He couldn’t afford to waste his water. It was all he had.
“I’m coming, Runa,” he whispered. He replaced the waterskin behind the breastplate of the soldier, which he still wore, and stumbled down a slope into the nearest canyon. It ran due west. Towards Srung.
Utgar had stayed well away from the Strip ever since Runa was born. He had seen enough of it for a lifetime, and he had no desire to see it again. When he had roamed it, it had been an unforgiving land, ruled by marauding groups of bandits and raiders. A few kyrie had tried to erect villages and form clans, but they never lasted longer than a few years.
It didn’t take Utgar long to realize that the Strip had changed. As he crested the lip of a canyon, he saw far off in the distance a village. It was large, with a palisade of bones and rock surrounding it. Whoever lived there must be powerful indeed, to be able to thwart the raider attacks which would have surely come. No sooner had Utgar thought this though, than he realized that he hadn’t seen a single raiding party, nor a hint of bandits. The Strip seemed virtually deserted.
Realizing this, Utgar turned on the spot, scanning the horizon. Nothing moved. No – a speck of motion caught Utgar’s eye as he turned. He tried to find it again, but the barren rock was lifeless. But he had been sure he had seen something: a kyrie, far off, seeming to watch him. Utgar scanned the desolate landscape again, but there was no one there.
Utgar shook himself. He couldn’t waste time wondering what had happened to the Strip, or where all the raiding parties had gone. He had to somehow get to Runa before the soldiers made it to Srung. Somewhere deep within his mind, logic told him it was impossible. The soldiers could fly twice as fast as he could run. There was no way he would catch them before they reached Srung.
But Utgar ignored his logic, got a firmer grip on his axe, and plunged into the next canyon heading west.
Utgar didn’t see anyone until after midday. It was then, upon rounding a bend in a canyon, that he almost walked straight into a group of soldiers.
They didn’t see him, and Utgar was able to scramble backwards and hide behind a rock just in time. He found a space near the base of the rock where the sand had blown away, and looked through it, his heart pounding.
There were only three soldiers. They were clearly resting. Two were drinking from waterskins; the third was tugging at his wings, trying to rid them of sand.
One put down his waterskin, having drunk his fill. “Back and forth, back and forth; when will Ahnvad make up his mind?” He glanced at the other two. “I’m tired of flying around this forsaken land.”
“So am I,” said the wing-cleaning kyrie calmly. “But orders are orders.”
“Blast the orders,” the first kyrie muttered. “I have a family I haven’t seen in two months.”
“Ahnvad has a family too,” the wing-cleaning kyrie said.
The first kyrie gave a bark of laughter. “Like that could be called a family. Hah! Does it count if your family would run away given half a chance? Does it count if they’re kept under lock and key?”
“Those are just stories,” the other kyrie said delicately.
“Well I have no trouble believing them,” the first kyrie said. “Ahnvad. Bah! I’d rather have guard duty in the moldering ruins of Montfre than take another order from him.”
“That could be arranged,” said the third kyrie, who had until now been silent. He had an oily voice. The first kyrie looked down at him.
“What? Are you going to report me?”
“Of course not,” the oily kyrie replied. “But Ahnvad has spies everywhere. If you aren’t careful, you may very well find yourself assigned elsewhere. Even to Montfre. Then you’d be even further from your family.”
“Ahnvad doesn’t scare me,” the first kyrie said.
“That makes one of you,” the wing-cleaning kyrie observed. “Look, I’ve been stuck in this wasteland a lot longer than you have. You don’t want to defy Ahnvad. You’ll regret it.”
“What’s he going to do?” laughed the first kyrie. “Kill me? He answers to the emperor. He can’t just do anything he wants.”
“Yes, he can,” said the oily kyrie. “And he does. The emperor doesn’t care one whit what happens in the Volcarren. Ahnvad might answer to him in theory, but down here, he’s in charge. If you mess up, if you do one thing he doesn’t like, you’ll regret it. Trust me.”
Utgar had heard enough. He backed away slowly. Soldiers and Volcarrens generally stayed away from each other, but each would easily kill the other if they could get away with it. Utgar had no desire to be found by the soldiers, alone and walled in by a canyon.
Unfortunately, luck was not with Utgar that day. As he backed away, hidden by the rock behind which he had crouched, one of the soldiers rounded the corner.
For a moment they stared at each other, soldier and Volcarren. Utgar felt a wave of cold flood through his body. He had hoped to avoid this.
The soldier reached for his sword, but Utgar was on top of him before he had even gripped the hilt. Utgar clamped his hand over the soldier’s mouth, hoping to avoid having to fight the other two, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. The soldier let out a strangled cry before Utgar silenced him. Pulling his long knife from behind his breastplate, Utgar slit the soldier’s throat without a second thought, and quickly moved backwards as the other two soldiers ran around the corner.
They let out cries of fury as they saw their dead companion, his blood on Utgar’s blade.
“You’ll pay for that!” the wing-cleaning kyrie said. He pulled his sword and ran at Utgar, brandishing it wildly. He was completely exposed, but then perhaps he thought he could intimidate Utgar.
He was wrong. Utgar waited until he was close enough, then darted forwards and stabbed him cleanly through the gut, where his armor was weak. Then he leapt back, pulling his blade free as he did so. The kyrie fell backwards onto the ground, crying out in pain and trying to staunch the flow of red from his stomach.
The third kyrie, the oily one, wisely stayed back. He began to circle to the left, trying to come at Utgar from the side. Utgar knew the smart thing to do was to circle to the right, and keep the soldier in front of him. It was far better to be attacked than to do the attacking; the attacker was always the first to make a mistake.
But Utgar also knew he didn’t have time to wait. The soldier could fly, and could easily escape and return with help. Utgar had to kill him before he could consider that option.
He lunged forwards suddenly, watching the soldier’s blade, ready to pull back in an instant.
The soldier moved forwards and to the side, so that Utgar overshot him. Utgar tried to turn to face him, but the soldier moved forwards, slamming his shoulder into Utgar’s chest. Utgar was knocked to the ground, and his dagger flew from his grasp.
The soldier was on him in an instant, his blade slicing down towards Utgar’s unprotected chest. But Utgar had been in far worse situations than this, and knew what to do. He kicked his legs out, striking the knees of the soldier. The soldier lost his balance, and fell forwards, causing his sword to change trajectory. Utgar slid to the side, just as the sword embedded itself in the sand where his head had been moments before.
It struck stone, and for a moment, the ringing filled Utgar’s ears, and the quivering blade held his gaze. A flicker of fear woke within him, a hint of anger, a small cloud on the blank expanse of the calm in his mind.
The soldier rolled, trying to get a hold of Utgar. Utgar saw him coming just in time, and grabbed him about the shoulders. They grappled, the soldier trying to get at Utgar and simultaneously pull his sword from the ground, Utgar clinging on, trying to get to the soldier’s throat.
Utgar won. His hands finally found the soldier’s neck, and clamped around it, squeezing mercilessly. The soldier scrabbled at Utgar’s hands, but he couldn’t get a grip. He tried to buck Utgar off of him, and when that didn’t work, rolled, trying to scrape him off. Utgar clung on. Sand flew in his face and filled his mouth as the soldier rolled, but Utgar only held on tighter, and tighter, and tighter…
After a few moments he realized that the soldier had stopped moving. Utgar released his grip, shoved the soldier off of him, and sat up, his breathing heavy and quick. He wasn’t calm anymore. He felt hot, flush with blood and heat. A cold sweat prickled his skin at the familiar sensation. He glanced at the three dead corpses around him, and closed his eyes.
Them or me, he thought, the words slow and measured. It’s them or me.
Slowly, his breathing returned to normal. Utgar opened his eyes, saw a pile of clean sand nearby, and wiped the blood from his knife on it, before returning it to behind his breastplate.
He stood. He already had armor and enough provisions, taking more would only slow him down. So he left the three kyrie where they had fallen, climbed out of the canyon, and continued his journey west.
“I’m coming, Runa,” he whispered.