“Utgar! Utgar! Wake up!” It was Kirav.
Utgar sat up. Sound assaulted him: screams, explosions, the clash of arms.
“It’s Ahnvad,” Kirav said. “He’s attacking Nearv!”
“Runa,” Utgar muttered. He rose, grabbing his sword. There was no time for armor. He and Kirav ducked out of the tent.
Smoke was in the air. A patch of tents at the very edge of Nearv was on fire, sending black clouds over everything. It was still night, but the stars and moon were drowned by the thick smoke. Kyrie were rushing in every direction. Women and children were fleeing away from the fires; Vraen’s soldiers were running towards them.
“Come on!” Utgar called to Kirav. He pushed his way towards Vraen’s hall, where he knew Runa would be.
Unfortunately, the hall was cut off by a line of Imperial soldiers. They were keeping Vraen’s men at bay, and Utgar saw more soldiers darting into the hall.
“No!” he cried. “Runa!”
He flung himself against the line of soldiers, knocking aside their spears. For the first time since Runa had been taken, cold calm did not fill Utgar. Now he felt panic rising within him, and it blurred his vision, making his attacks chaotic. Twice he nearly hit Kirav by accident. A spear grazed his side; he too distracted to have blocked it.
At first the wall of soldiers seemed impenetrable. But as Utgar attacked again and again, caring little for his own injuries, they began to back up. The line wavered. Soldiers fell. Finally, the line broke entirely, as blood sprayed and bodies collapsed.
Past the soldiers, Utgar finally looked up, and saw a dark figure emerging from Vraen’s hall, clutching in its arms a small struggling figure, which could only be:
Utgar knocked down the last soldier standing between him and the hall, and raced towards the figure holding Runa. Behind him, Kirav also won free of the soldiers, and followed.
The figure was Ahnvad. Utgar could make out his face in the flickering light of the fires, which had spread to more tents. He turned, and recognized Utgar.
“Your daughter is mine!” he said. “I will—”
Kirav slammed into his side, tackling him to the ground.
“Runa!” Utgar shouted. “Fly!”
Runa was already in the air, soaring out of harm’s way. Utgar leapt to assist Kirav.
Ahnvad was not easily dealt with, but Utgar was filled with panic for Runa’s safety and fury at Ahnvad for taking her. The last time they had met, Ahnvad had been in control; now he was forced to back up beneath the storm of attacks Utgar made against him.
Ahnvad was skilled. Every time Utgar swung his sword, it was deflected. Every time he moved forwards, Ahnvad moved out of the way. But Ahnvad could neither advance nor attack. He was kept on the defensive.
Meanwhile, far above them, Runa had sent a dark cloud of red smoke into the main body of Imperial soldiers. They crumpled as the poison hit them, clawing at their chests or faces, gasping for breath or twitching as the toxic cloud washed over them. Below her, Vraen’s men pressed forwards. They outnumbered the soldiers.
Utgar knew they were winning. As soon as he reached this conclusion, Ahnvad finally succeeded in attacking. His axe came flying towards Utgar from nowhere, the flat of the blade catching him full in the face. Searing heat blasted him, and Utgar was again lifted off of his feet briefly. He crashed to the ground a moment later, stunned, sight and sound all blurred together. Looking up, he saw a vague shape which might have been Kirav being flung from Ahnvad.
“Retreat!” Ahnvad bellowed, his voice clear in Utgar’s ears.
He saw Ahnvad unfurl his wings, and leap upwards. As one, the soldiers who remained alive also rose into the air, many being cut down by the kyrie they had been engaged with.
“Fall back to Srung!” Ahnvad shouted over the rushing of the flames. And with him at the head, what was left of his force turned west, and flew into the dark night.
The night was still deep with darkness when Runa landed, and found Vraen’s hall full of the injured. She set to healing them at once, starting with her father.
Despite the injuries they had sustained, the mood in the hall was good. They had thwarted a night attack by trained Imperial soldiers. Several of the men thanked Runa as she healed them, their faces full, not of the fear Runa had once seen there, but gratitude, even hope. They might be outnumbered by the vast army of the Empire, but they had her. They had the Valkyrie.
As Runa healed them, many began to speculate on why Ahnvad had attacked. Some said he must have been desperate to attack Nearv.
“He’s not desperate,” said one, a soldier who had deserted the Empire to join Vraen. “Ahnvad is many things, but desperate is not one of them. He had a reason.”
“What was it?” Several voices asked. “Why did he attack? To take our Valkyrie? To slay her?”
“Ahnvad wouldn’t slay her,” the soldier said. “He needs her.” Nearly everyone turned to listen. Finished healing, Runa stood still, not wanting to hear, but held to the spot by the soldier’s words.
“Ahnvad needs the Wellspring,” the soldier said into the silence. “Our Valkyrie is the only key to its location. If he kills her, he kills his only chance of finding it.”
“He meant to capture her, then,” someone said.
“Perhaps,” the soldier admitted. “But an attack is not what Ahnvad would do. He is cunning. He works with spies and assassins. If he really wanted our Valkyrie, he could have taken her in the dead of night without waking a soul.”
“You mean he could take her at any time?”
“Why would he let her destroy his soldiers, then?”
“You mean there are spies here, right now?”
“If he hasn’t taken her, then what’s his plan? What’s he trying to do?”
“I don’t know,” the soldier said, holding up his hands. “I’m not Ahnvad; I can’t think like him. All I know is that you should not underestimate him. He always has a plan, he’s always one step ahead. You’ll think you know what he’s doing, but always it’s the same: the real battle is happening behind your back.”
“Why are you here, then?” someone asked. “If Ahnvad is so powerful, why did you join us?”
“We have the Valkyrie,” the soldier said simply. “If there’s only one thing which can defeat Ahnvad, it’s her.”
Runa didn’t want to hear anymore. She had healed everyone; she didn’t need to be there any longer. She had been standing close to the doorway, half hidden in the shadows, and she slipped out easily, as new questions erupted.
She stretched her wings once outside the hall, and jumped up, taking to the air easily. Since she had discovered she could do it, she had come to enjoy flying. Something about the air slipping past her cleared her mind, and made her feel like any worries or doubts were below, down on the ground where they couldn’t reach her.
She flew once around the hall, and then she rose higher, making a wide circle around all of Nearv. The fires were out by now, the smoke cleared by a soft rain which had begun to fall. As she flew, she tried to forget what she had heard. The way the soldier had spoken had left her with a cold feeling in her stomach. More than ever, she wanted her old life back.
Flying over the edge of the city, she saw someone sitting alone on the stone wall. It seemed odd that someone would be out here, when everyone was gathered at Vraen’s hall. She let herself drop a little ways, and recognized the kyrie: it was Taelord. She considered for a moment. Her own thoughts were poor company; if she were to talk to anyone, it would be someone who didn’t seem to care if she was Valkyrie or not.
She landed lightly next to him. He looked up.
“Can I join you?” she asked.
He watched her for a moment, and then nodded. He turned back to looking out across the dark Volcarren, and she sat on the wall.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I got tired of the soldiers counting their kills,” he said. He didn’t look at her. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to get away,” she said.
He didn’t answer, but Runa could almost feel his curiosity growing.
“Away from what?” he finally asked. He still didn’t look at her.
“From all of it,” Runa said. “The Wellspring, the fighting, being a part of everyone’s games.”
He finally looked at her, surprise registering on his shadowed face. “You… You don’t want to be Valkyrie?” he said.
“I never wanted it,” Runa said shortly. “All I want is to go back to my old life.”
“You were happy there?” Taelord said. “I heard you lived in the desert. There’s no food, no water…”
“It was my home,” Runa said. “I was happy… At least happier than I am here. There were no battles, no plots, no one ordering me to kill—” She broke off, not wanting to go on.
Taelord watched her silently.
It was Runa’s turn to look away. She looked across the blank expanse of rock stretching away from Nearv, and saw again the soldiers she had poisoned, dying, shaking, grasping for breath.
“My father,” she whispered, “would say I had to kill those people. That it was me or them.”
No answer. Runa looked at Taelord. He looked back at her, as if silently agreeing.
“Do you believe that?” she asked. She had thought that he might have understood, after he let the bully go.
“Do I believe they had to die?” Taelord said. “Yes. I do.”
Runa stared at him. “You do?”
“Yes,” Taelord said. “The world is too full of people who can’t make hard choices.” He broke off, but Runa had heard the slight hint of anger in his voice. He looked away. “Sometimes you have to,” he said. “Sometimes you have to kill.”
Runa watched him for a moment. “You let that bully go,” she said. “The other day.”
“I let him go only after I did what I had to,” Taelord said. “Killing him would have accomplished nothing more.”
Runa had thought talking to Taelord might make her feel better, but she had been wrong. She stood up. Taelord looked up as she did so.
“I thought you were different,” she said quietly. She looked at him, willing him to contradict her. He said nothing. “But you’re not.” She unfolded her wings.
“I am different!” he said. “Believe me, Runa, I am.”
She paused. That was the first time he had used her name. “You’re like my father,” she said. “You hurt when you need to, and never do you have a thought about whether it was right. Only if it was needed. You don’t care, neither of you. No one in this whole land cares.”
She turned away. She hated talking about her father like that. She loved him. He was all she had. But what she had said was true. At times it seemed he didn’t care. Just like everyone else.
“I’m not like your father, Runa.”
She turned at Taelord’s voice. He was looking at her.
“I hate killing,” he said. “I hate violence.”
“Then how can you talk about it like—”
“Because it’s all I know!”
Taelord turned away. Slowly, Runa sat back down, listening. Taelord’s fists were clenched.
“Killing, torture, thirst for power, thinking you’re better than someone just because you can beat them – I hate it all. I hate it!” His voice broke.
Runa realized she was leaning slightly away from him. He turned back to face her, but his face was calm.
“I despise it,” he said, his voice level once more. “It’s just… that’s my life. That’s who I am.”
“What – What do you mean?” Runa asked, not entirely sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
Taelord looked at her. It was a strange, searching look. Was he weighing the odds, considering whether he should tell her or not? Apparently she was worth the risk.
“My father,” he said, speaking slowly, “is an Imperial commander. He has no heart. He kills and tortures because he likes it. Or because it makes him feel powerful. Or something. I don’t know.” He looked down.
“I hate him,” he whispered. “I hate everything he does; I hate every reason he does it.” He looked at her again. “I tried to run away,” he said, “but I couldn’t. He caught me. He put me in his dungeons.”
“He imprisoned you?” Runa said. “His own son?”
“He doesn’t care who I am!” Taelord said, a humorless laugh in his voice. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t even be related to him! Just thinking that he’s my father is… sickening,” he finished.
“So that’s why you were with us when Vraen…”
“Yes,” Taelord said. “My father had caught me and was going to send me back to Ter. If Vraen hadn’t arrived…”
“Why?” Runa asked. “Why would your father imprison you just for trying to run away?”
“I knew too much,” Taelord said. He shrugged when Runa looked confused. “I had heard things,” he said. “I knew there was a Wellspring in the Volcarren. He didn’t want that getting out.”
“Would you have told people if you had escaped? About the Wellspring?”
Taelord raised his eyebrows. “Ruin my father’s plans? Absolutely.”
They lapsed into silence.
“I’m sorry,” Runa finally said.
“Sorry for what?”
“Sorry about your father,” she said. “I can’t imagine life without mine.”
He looked at her in surprise. “But… You said—”
“I know what I said, but there’s more to him.” Runa paused. “Before all this, he was… different.”
Runa looked down. “He was… He would… He made me happy,” she finally said. She couldn’t really explain it any more than that. “I just… want my life back.”
Taelord was silent. He looked at her, then he looked out over the Volcarren. The sky was beginning to turn darkest of blues. “You’ll get it back, Runa,” he said. She looked at him. “One day, you’ll get it back. I promise.”