Utgar wiped some stray blood from his face and knelt beside the dead soldier. His dagger was still embedded in his chest. Utgar grabbed it and pulled it out, wiping the blood on the sand. Then he began untying the soldier’s armor. It was far too valuable to waste.
Runa rose slowly from the wall she had been crouching against.
“Go inside, Runa,” Utgar said. His voice was automatic. She didn’t move.
Utgar got the chest-plate off and began checking for rations or water.
Runa slowly approached the dead soldier. Utgar didn’t look at her. He didn’t look at the soldier. He looked only at how to get the rest of the soldier’s armor off.
“He was young,” Runa said quietly.
Utgar finally looked at her. She was looking at the soldier’s face, his eyes now staring blankly into the sky above him. She didn’t seem shocked or frightened; merely a little curious.
Utgar glanced at the soldier as well, but only for a moment. He returned to the armor. “He would have killed you,” he said. The words fell flat upon his ears, devoid of any emotion. “He would have killed us both.” He stooped, trying to undo the fastening of a bracer. It was a moment before he realized that Runa had not replied.
He looked at her. She was still looking at the soldier’s face. “Runa?” he said.
She nodded, almost absently. Then she stooped, and gently put her fingers on the soldier’s eyes, closing them. Then she stood, turned, and entered the shell. The hide fell back across the entrance behind her, hiding her from view.
Feeling was starting to return to Utgar. His entire body felt cold, his muscles tight as cords. But his mind remained clear, completely empty of anything except what he was doing. He pulled off both bracers, stacked them on top of the chest-plate, and then stood, picking up the soldier as he did so. With the body over his shoulder, he clambered back up the drift the soldier had so recently come down.
At the top, Utgar set the body down. He glanced at the face. Runa was right: he was young. Very young. Utgar looked at the face for a moment, his mind still perfectly clear, the chill now leaving him.
“I wish you had turned around,” he said.
The words reverberated in his empty mind, dull, flat. But there was nothing else to say. Utgar stooped, and rolled the soldier down the dune. He came to rest at the bottom, halfway covered with sand. By the morning, the dune would almost completely cover him.
“Where did you put him?” Runa’s voice was quiet.
“In the loose sand,” Utgar said. “On the other side of the dune.”
Runa was silent. Utgar turned around, feeling the inside of the shell for where he knew a single lamp lay. It was the jawbone of a Taklay, hollowed out and filled with what little fat Utgar could scrape from their kills. Utgar found it, and concentrated on it.
A small flame burst into existence, clinging to a wick of hair set in the fat. Utgar set the lamp down on a ledge of rock as its light slowly filled the underside of the shell.
Utgar possessed no more magic than any other kyrie. He had used his inma, the magical connection all kyrie possessed. Some, like him, could create heat and start small fires. Others could cause sickness with only a touch. Still others could cool burned skin. It varied from kyrie to kyrie.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have hurt us.”
Utgar turned at the sound of Runa’s voice. Runa was watching him with an almost-pleading look in her eyes.
“His sword was drawn,” he said quietly.
“But maybe he was just as afraid as I was,” Runa said. “Maybe all he wanted was shelter. We could have—”
“No,” Utgar interrupted. “Don’t do that, Runa. Don’t doubt.”
“We can’t doubt,” Utgar repeated. He put his hands on her shoulders. “If I had questioned his motives, if I had hesitated, I would be dead now, and so would you.”
A wave of cold washed over Utgar as he said the words, suddenly realizing how true they had almost become, but he focused on Runa, emptying himself of everything else.
She was silent. He held her for a moment longer, and then turned away. Small tuber-like plants were growing in an alcove against one wall, and Utgar pulled a few of them out. Strips of dried salted meat were lying next to them, and Utgar picked up two of these as well. He turned back to Runa and placed the meager meal on the flat stone which served as a table.
Runa looked silently at her food. Utgar watched her for a moment, and then put his arm around her. It was cramped under the shell, and his arm knocked something which fell to the ground, but Utgar didn’t look to see what it was.
“Put it from your mind,” he said gently, pulling Runa close to him.
She rested her head against him. “He was so young,” she said quietly, a slight thickness to her voice. “He must have had a mother somewhere… now she’ll never see him again.”
Utgar was silent for a moment. “It’s them or us, Runa,” he finally said.
She looked up at him.
“I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.” He smoothed her hair back from her forehead, and she lay her head against him once more.
“Somewhere,” he said, “somewhere beyond the Volcarren, it isn’t so. Life can be different. But not here.”
Runa was silent.
After a moment, Utgar glanced to see what he had knocked down. It was a piece of metal, glimmering dully on the ground as the lamp shone on it. Metal, like wood, was nonexistent in the Volcarren, but this was no weapon or tool. It was an heirloom. It was an ancient relic, passed down from Utgar’s father, and from his father. It had seen Migol’s fight for freedom against the corrupt Imperial Valhalla. It had seen his defeat, and it had seen the imprisonment of those loyal to him, here in the Volcarren. And one day, Utgar knew it would again see the lands beyond the Volcarren. He put it gently back in its small alcove on the wall.
One day, it would see a better life. They all would.
The next morning, Utgar told Runa to stay home. “I’m going to find the soldiers again today,” he told her. “They are much too close; I’ll try to find out what they want. Perhaps I can lead them away from here. Stay here, where it’s safe.”
Utgar refilled his waterskin – which was really the stomach of a Taklay – from the spring he and Runa had found and dug out beneath the shell. It was only a tiny trickle of water, bubbling up from the ground into another hollowed out stomach, but it was what allowed Utgar and Runa to live this far into the desert. Drinkable water was virtually nonexistent here; without the spring they would have needed to live much further west, among the clans.
Utgar took his axe from where it lay, and pulled on the armor of the soldier. While the armor was well-crafted (if weathered from the Volcarren), the axe was merely a long bone with jagged rocks tied to the top by hide strips. It was crude, but still quite effective.
“Don’t go outside,” Utgar told Runa. “And don’t worry,” he added at her look. “I’ll be back soon.”
Then he shoved aside the hide covering the entrance and let it fall behind him.
He could just make out the lump in the sand which was the dead soldier as he crested the first dune. He paused for a moment and looked at it.
Runa didn’t understand. Utgar turned away. He hoped she never did. There were some things he hoped she never felt, and the sensations he had felt last night were one of them.
Utgar searched all day for the soldiers, but he couldn’t find them. He found plenty of tracks. They had gone all through the canyon he and Runa had been in yesterday, in caves and up cliffs, but it seemed they had moved on.
As dusk arrived, the wind began to blow, forcing Utgar to turn towards his home. Quite apart from blowing away any trace of the soldiers, wind this far into the desert also meant a sandstorm, something Utgar definitely didn’t want to be out in.
He struggled out of the canyon as the sun fell below the horizon, and stumbled across the sand dunes as the wind blew harder and harder. Loose sand was flung into his hair and against his new armor, and Utgar had to keep an arm in front of his face to keep it out of his eyes.
At last, he crested the last dune, and looked down upon his home.
It was on fire.
Runa. Utgar half-ran half-tumbled down the dune. Tongues of flame were streaming from the underside of the shell, nearly horizontal in the wind. The hide across the entrance was gone, and smoke was coming from the dark hole it had covered.
Runa! Utgar’s insides were clenched painfully, and his legs seemed locked in position, but he forced himself to run forward, through the dark entrance, into his smoke-filled home.
“Runa!” Flames licked across the walls. Utgar’s collection of axes, carved from bone and rock, were scattered across the floor. A glint of light caught Utgar’s eye, and he saw the relic lying in the sand, as if it had been knocked aside. Smoke and flame curled up from the ashes of the tiny tuber plants Utgar had so carefully grown. The home was empty.
“RUNA!” Fear licked at Utgar’s sanity like the flames licking the wall, threatening to overcome it. He turned on the spot, looking for something, anything.
Footprints. There were footprints in the sand of the floor, many footprints. They all wore boots. Soldiers. There was blood also. Utgar’s stomach clenched painfully at the sight of it, but it was only a small amount. Soldiers had come here. They had taken Runa. They had burned his home. Utgar opened his mouth to call Runa’s name once more, and inhaled hot smoke.
Coughing, eyes streaming, Utgar lurched out of his home. The wind hit him like a charging animal, and he fell to the sand, doubled over. The wind howled over him, sand plowed across his back, and fear and despair clamored to take Utgar’s mind.
She’s alive. But she was gone, taken from him by soldiers. She’s alive. They would have left her if she were dead. Therefore, she must be alive. Why they had taken her, Utgar couldn’t guess, but it didn’t matter. Shoving aside his panic, Utgar surged to his feet. He had food and water. He had weapons and armor. And soldiers had Runa.
Srung. They would go to Srung. They wouldn’t stay in the desert with a captive. Srung was almost directly west. It didn’t matter that it was four days away, or a fortress manned by an entire army. That was where Runa would be.
And that was where Utgar must go.