It was cold outside the tent and the air was crisp and clear. Last night’s thunderstorm had finally washed away the thick, heavy atmosphere that had plagued the area around Lake Krewa for weeks now. The air was so clean it almost hurt to inhale it. Each ice-cold breath Ulf exhaled billowed from his mouth like a stream of dragon smoke.
With his arms folded tightly across his chest and his cold blue eyes pressed together in a tight line, Ulf gazed out over the camp and past the trees that stood in their thousands like a wall of green giants. The sun had only just risen over the Riddari Hǫfuð and he squinted slightly to shield his eyes from the light. The magnificent mountains were so far away he could hold his spear up to the level of his eyes and block them out. They were nothing but a distant row of dark blue peaks on the horizon. It was strange how the plains, which stretched from the Dreyrugr Wastelands and curled around Lake Krewa for hundreds of miles, were stopped so abruptly by the mountains.
Ulf didn’t think he would ever get used to seeing them. He was used to the plains. He had been born on and had grown up on the plains, where miles upon miles of harsh winds swept over barren grassland and where rodents, rabid valdyr wolves, wild horses, and bison were the only plentiful things upon them. Even the wyvern plains with their jagged pinnacle of rock, which clawed its way up into the sky for hundreds of feet, did not induce such a feeling of awe. Terror, yes. The Wyvern plains were more that capable of that. But awe… awe was such a different emotion.
Mountains, real mountains, have a way of impressing anyone, Ulf thought. Human, elf, goblin, it makes no difference. What a shame the mountains are infested with dwarfs. His upper lip curled a little with disgust at the idea. It was so like the dwarfs to inhabit mountains to try and project a grand view of themselves. In a way, though, it made sense. They were strong, but they were short. The average dwarf’s head stood no taller than Ulf’s lowest rib bone. Short and slow, that’s what they were. In the mountains the dwarfs could hide and dig themselves in, but now they were here, so could the goblins. He was determined to live and die among mountain peaks, away from the hardship and humiliation the plains carried with them.
Another early morning breeze brushed past and the large yurt tent behind him shook in the wind. The layers of thickly-stitched hides, which stretched over the lattice frame of the yurt, shuddered and billowed, slapping against the wood and bones.
“Ulf! Ulf!” a female called from inside the yurt, her voice strong enough to be heard through the thick tent walls.
Turning around, Ulf nodded at the goblin who pushed out through the layers of bison skin hanging over the tent entrance. Her large belly was the first thing to appear, before her face, with firm, intelligent green eyes, followed immediately after. She shivered slightly. Her long, pointed goblin ears flitted like a fox’s and she pulled her wrap closer around her shoulders.
“Dreaming again?” Her two, sharp, front teeth glistened like newly polished steel as she smiled through the split in the middle of her upper lip. “Dreaming of our new home?”
Ulf said nothing for a moment but there was a small twitch at the corner of his lips as he knelt down in front of her and leant his head against her belly. A small foot, barely half the size of his little finger, kicked his ear.
“She’s getting stronger!” Ulf said, gazing up at her.
“She? You will have a son, Ulf!”
Ulf got to his feet. “No. She’s a girl, large and strong. And she is impatient, just like my wife.” The she-goblin slapped her husband’s head fondly and growled at him from the back of her throat. “I say it will be a boy! I’m carrying him; he has no choice.” The wind was a little too cold for her, so she pulled her shawl tighter around her, and tried to walk past him and out into the camp. Ulf blocked her way instantly, his arm around her shoulder.
“You should stay inside, Melrakki. Just for the morning.”
“Why?” Meeting his gaze, the pupils of her eyes stretched upwards into sharp slits and her ears pricked up. He never called her by her full name, except when he was angry or worried. It was always Rakki to him, never Melrakki, unless they were in the presence of the tribe or his generals. Something was wrong.
“Áki. It’s Áki, isn’t it?”
Ulf nodded. She had always had a gift for knowing exactly what was on his mind, and on more than one occasion this gift had proven to be extremely useful.
Melrakki groaned. “He’ll be kicking all day now! I need to walk!”
Her walk was more of a waddle. Each step forward was performed by a slow rock from side to side. Her baby kicked even more as she turned back into the tent as if it wanted to voice its protest. She groaned again, and pressed her hand against her stomach, trying to stroke the child to sleep through the skin of her belly. “Shhh! Stop moving!”
For her first child the pregnancy was going remarkably well. Or rather, that was what every woman in the camp who had ever carried a child had told Ulf repeatedly, to the point of annoyance. She had not suffered from sickness in the mornings and had only recently started to feel uncomfortable. The baby was so large that each time it moved she could feel it press on all her lower organs.
Her craving for bison stew had become voracious. Ulf had lost count over the past few months how many times he had turned onto his side and reached out across the bed for his wife, only to find cold furs and an empty space beside him, with the crackle of the fire and the smell of boiled stew wafting through the yurt. She would never wake him though. It was not in Melrakki’s nature to ask for help if she could do something herself. Ulf doubted she would even want the doula in the tent when the time to deliver the baby came. In all likelihood, his mother would be the only woman present. Gríð was just as stubborn as Melrakki. There was not a single goblin in the entire camp who would dare to stop her entering Ulf’s yurt when Melrakki’s time came.
“Shhh!” she murmered again, her voice so deep it was more of a rumble, which vibrated through her body. The child’s movements grew more and more sluggish, each kick and push less forceful until, finally, the movements stopped and it was lulled back to sleep.
Boy or girl, it will be strong either way, Melrakki thought, as she sank down onto one of the many cushions strewn around the middle of the yurt. They were all a dark, muddy brown or green colour. Patterns of bison, horses and fire were the most prominent themes among them. Flashes of fiery red, yellow and orange embroidery shimmered against their dull counterparts.
In front of her, on a low table in the middle of the tent so as to take advantage of the light that came through the tono, was spread a large map made of grass paper and drawn with a mixture of fine ash and bison blood. Picking up the bone quill, Melrakki dipped the nib into the small pot of liquid – niyk, as they called it – and with her right hand steady and her left hand pressed reassuringly over her belly she scratched the pen nib against the rough, ridged paper. The paper was so corrugated it made the pen shudder slightly, despite Melrakki holding it as firmly as she could, and tiny flecks of niyk flew through the air with each of her meticulous strokes.
For a moment Ulf watched her, his eyes soft with the look he reserved for his wife only. She looked so beautiful in the new robe Ulf had had made for her. The robe made of a plae cream and blue, so different to the usual shades of brown and black most of the goblins wore. Ulf couldn’t help but think that by dwarf standards the gown would appear plain, simple and crude, a laughable attempt by a brutish race to cultivate some form of culture. Even the few dwarf soldiers and merchants they had killed in the last few months had worn finer clothes. But any dwarf who understood the goblin culture would have realised the significance it held. Clothes, especially clothes that took so long to make, were only made by powerful tribes. It was not just a robe to the goblins of his tribe, it was a symbol that they had reached a certain level of power and, with that, a certain amount of peace could be expected.
Barely two years ago, the many goblins who now formed his army would have been at each other’s throats, as petty quarrels and infighting was the standard. It was commonplace for entire families and tribes to be wiped from the face of Ammasteinn overnight by a warring tribe, if not by the dwarfs. Death was a way of life. Now, the same goblins who would have happily murdered one another, slept with their yurts barely a few feet apart.
Ulf felt an immense measure of pride each time he thought of what he had managed to accomplish. He had given his people a unity that had never been achieved before and now anyone, be they elf, dwarf or goblin, who stood between him and his vision would be destroyed. He would unite the goblins. He had to. Unless they were united he knew they would never be able to stand against the dwarfs. They could potentially defeat Bjargtre now, but the retaliation from Lǫgberg would be swift and brutal. Vígdís would not be so easily defeated. He would need more than numbers; he would need cunning. And there was nobody more cunning than his wife.
A small gust of wind blew past Ulf and rattled the lattice walls. The domed roof, weighed down by the multiple packed bags that hung from the ceiling around the circular tono, sank further into the yurt. The bags, although balanced out so that no single roof pole was overburdened, creaked a little as they swung back and forth. A little of the early morning light hit Melrakki’s face through the tono above her, making the distinct, green undertone of her skin slightly golden in appearance. The small decorative blades tied into the ends of her long, braided hair glinted in the sunlight. Taking a deep breath, Ulf turned away.
Melrakki looked up for a moment and smiled. Áki was a coward; Ulf was not. There was no need to worry.
As he stepped away from the yurt, Ulf ran his hand along the back of his head. Each of his fingers touched the multiple cuffs that were wound together with the braids of his long black hair, which held soft tints of red only visible in direct sunlight. Each bracelet looped over an adjoining one to form a tiered chain from the front of his head all the way down to the middle of his back. The older cuffs at the top of his head had faded to a dull coppery colour, while the newer ones glistened in the sunlight: some silver, some iron and some bronze. Each had a distinct design forged into it that was unique to the tribe to which it had once belonged. Some had simple rounded ends with a plain, twisted band around the base. Others were meticulously decorated and adorned with a variety of eagles, bison, snakes, and a clenched goblin fist. The cuff across his forehead displayed the snarling valdyr wolf’s head of Ulf’s own tribe. The metalwork of each cuff was also different. Some of it was faultless, and the rest of crude, impure metal. One cuff, the third that had been added to his braided collection, had started to bend and crack and several hairline fractures curled around it. Within a few more months it would probably break in two, but even if it did, Ulf would not remove it permanently. It would be re-wrought and woven back into his hair again, even if the whole process had to be repeated a few short months later. Apart from each cuff being a symbol of a conquest, it would be a grave insult to the tribe to which it belonged if he were to remove it. An Agrokū, especially one as young as he was, could not afford to make enemies. He already had natural enemies. Warring among the goblins was just a way of life. It was a way of life he was trying to eradicate, but with strong opposition. It would be unwise to discard any cuffs permanently, no matter how damaged and pathetic they looked. The cuffs were a reminder of his power and of the loyalties owed to him. He would never remove them.
The camp was still and quiet, apart from the wind and the occasional mutter of a guard. Almost every living soul was asleep. Soon, Ulf would hear the first wails of waking goblin babes before their mothers would try to lull them back to slumber in order to steal a few more moments of precious rest.
Unlike other goblin camps where tents were often pitched sporadically, Ulf did not allow the yurts to be speckled about. It left them too vulnerable. His camp was set up in an almost perfect circle with his own yurt at the centre and the yurts of his generals forming an inner circle around it. The remainder of the tribe formed an outer circle, with the bison penned around the perimeter. The goblins stationed in the outer circle had no need to worry; the alarm was always raised long before the camp could be attacked. Guards and their valdyr wolves patrolled the camp all night, some of them at fixed points while others circled the boundaries. Although they had been attacked many times over the past few months by other tribes, they had never been caught by surprise.
Ulf reached the pens outside the camp and strode towards a large yurt that had been erected inside one of them. It was covered in plain cloth instead of animal skins, but built so that it was much taller than any other yurt in the camp. Numerous hoof prints were ground into the earth. The tough grass had been trampled to a pulp. Ulf thrust his spear into the ground and slipped inside.
A huge black horse made his way from the far side of the yurt towards Ulf. His thick scales glistened like steel as he passed through the pillar of light plunging from the open tono in the ceiling. It was almost as if he knew the light made his hide appear all the more magnificent. His hooves were fixed at the back of his feet, and each was the width of a man’s head and had three, sharp, lizard-like claws curled over it. They ploughed at the ground as Ulf approached.
Ulf reached for the animal’s face as he stood proudly before him. His eyes, bright red and green and slit like a lizard’s, were still for a moment before a silver translucent membrane slid vertically across them and opened again.
“Bál!” Ulf smiled. The horse shook his head at the sound of Ulf’s voice. The creature did not whinny, but made a deep rumble that started in his mouth and ended in his stomach, like he had swallowed a thunderstorm.
Along the lattice walls, several grass fibre brushes hung from small wooden pegs. Ulf took the largest one and began to brush firmly at Bál’s hard scales. He had been in the mud again and dust flew into the air as Ulf brushed the coat, the flecks quite beautiful as they floated in the beam of light in the centre of the yurt. Some of the mud was so firmly embedded between the scales that Ulf had to pick it away with his nails.
“A vain animal that likes dirt, eh?” he chuckled. Bál turned to look at him. His dragon horse’s eyes glowed in the dim light, and he snorted. The hot breath carried the distinct smell of meat. “Hungry?” Bál shook his wiry mane and snorted again, then turned his head towards the doorway and pawed at the ground, the claws of his feet extending slowly.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ulf glimpsed a figure at the yurt’s entrance, but he did not turn to look. A second figure appeared beside the first.
Still Ulf ignored them. The grass brush in his hand swept over Bál’s scales with fierce repetition and small waves of dust swirled in the air with each brush stroke. He didn’t have to look to know that the doorway was now completely blocked by several figures and that their hands were already at their hilts; he could hear the sound of the thick tribal cuffs they each wore around their wrists clinking against them.
Lifting his great weight onto the front of his feet, Bál’s claws flexed and his thick wiry mane flicked up and down like a cat’s tail. Ulf fixed his eyes on it; it would tell him all he needed to know about what was happening in the doorway.
He had cleaned enough of Bál’s scales to move further down the animal. A horizontal stripe was now polished perfectly. As the coarse grass fibres scraped down over his skin, a horrible high pitched shuuushk sound repeated again and again.
Unlike a horse’s, Bál’s tail was not made of multiple soft hairs. It was serpentine and tipped with black, razor sharp spike-like hairs that made it look more like a mace. Ulf watched as it swayed to and fro, alert and wary. The minute a goblin moved towards him, he knew Bál would rattle the end of it. Until then he would keep his back towards them.
Shuuushk! Shuuushk! The noise came again and again as Ulf swept the coarse grass hairs over stony black scales.
“Ulf! Come out!” Áki couldn’t stop the stammer in his voice as he spoke. Everything about Ulf’s manner made him nervous. The dragon horse was enough to frighten any goblin, but Ulf’s silent indifference was terrifying. It was as if he didn’t even fear them, as if they did not even deserve to be acknowledged. They were insignificant to him.
Beside Áki, a larger goblin grunted, angry that Áki would not enter the yurt. “Coward!” he hissed, and Áki whimpered and tried to shuffle away. The goblin opposite him blocked his path.
“Ulf! Come out!” the large goblin bellowed. Ulf still ignored them.
The large goblin stepped into the yurt.
Bál’s tail-tip rattled.
From the doorway, Áki wasn’t able to see what Ulf had struck the large goblin with, but they all saw his arm swinging down onto the goblin’s head. A sound like fresh meat being struck with a large cleaver resonated through the air. The goblin stood still, swayed for a moment, and then crashed onto his back like a felled oak. The force of the blow had been so violent that his cheek had caved in, and his eyeball was now protruding from its socket.
All of the goblins yelped and jumped back from the entrance.
Ulf tossed the bloodied brush onto the ground next to the dead goblin strode towards them. Bál followed behind him.
The commotion had drawn a small crowd around the pen. Ulf faced them. His features were calm and emotionless, but his wild eyes were ablaze. Áki, terrified, tried to run. The other goblins barred his way, with their swords drawn.
Ulf stood silently and Bál rested his massive head on his shoulder. Ulf reached up to stroke the side of his face, eyes still fixed on the goblins.
“Our tribes leave! Today!” one of the goblins behind Áki barked, before he quickly hid behind the group. He was too frightened to let Ulf see his face.
Ulf shook his head. “You swore fealty to me.”
The goblins snarled and held onto their weapons with a little more determination, but were still not confident enough to approach him. None of them dared come near Ulf, especially with the dragon horse, whose head burrowed into Ulf’s shoulder like a cat that wanted nothing more than to be petted.
“I swore to you I would protect any goblin who followed me,” Ulf said. “Leave now and I will forget this ever happened.” Bál clawed at the ground, his scales and tail starting to bristle and shake.
Two of the goblins at the back of the group turned and scampered away before the others could stop them. A third tried to follow but was roughly pulled back.
“Traitors!” Ulf hissed, narrowing his eyes. His lips curled in disgust, exposing both of his sharp, front teeth.
“Goblins have no king,” Áki whimpered. Ulf wondered how many times Áki had repeated the sentence to himself before he had finally had the courage to blurt it out. The goblins nodded in agreement, but still cowered when Ulf stepped towards them.
“We are goblins! Goblins have no king!”
Ulf clenched his fists. His mouth twisted so tightly into a feral snarl that his nose twisted with it. “You need a king! You need an Agrokū who can lead our people—”
“These are not my tribe! Not my people! I’m a Beziickt!” one of the other goblins interrupted.
“And I’m a Mizack!”
Several goblins called out their old tribal allegiances.
Ulf pointed to the mountains and bellowed so loudly that his voice could be heard a hundred feet away. “You are all goblins to the dwarfs! Our enemy knows we are goblins! The humans know we are goblins, but we do not? Gurght, Mizack, Beziickt, they are just names! Languages we use to divide ourselves!”
Abruptly, one of the goblins rushed at him, sword raised. The rest of the group trailed behind. Ulf made a small flicking motion with his wrists and thin blades slid down into his hands from behind both of the leather vambraces that covered his forearms. The blades were barely longer than his little finger, their edges serrated with a hundred sharp, teeth-like notches.
As he dodged the first swing, Ulf plunged the knife in his left hand into the goblin’s side, just under his lowest rib and straight into his lung. The goblin made a strange sound as he inhaled with shock, a small gasp that was cut short, as if he had suddenly run out of air. His mouth opened and closed as he tried to breathe but no sound came apart from a weak wheeze. His sword tumbled from his hand as he dropped to his knees and pressed both hands over the gash Ulf had cut with the accuracy of a butcher. Moments later, a second goblin clawed at the wide slit across his throat as he fell to the ground.
Ulf pulled the blades from his victims, leapt forward, then dropped almost onto his knees between the next two goblins, whose swords were inches away from his face. With one quick jab, like a snake’s swift bite, he severed the muscles at the back of their knees. Both goblins dropped to the ground, unable to understand why their legs had given way. The pain that followed a few seconds later forced them to drop their weapons and clutch their legs in agony.
As suddenly as he had attacked, Ulf threw himself back towards Bál. The great dragon horse reared forward and stood over Ulf protectively, like a dog with its teeth bared. Its powerful front legs lashed out at every goblin that came near.
The goblins felt the ground shake. They heard the sound of many slow and heavy creatures behind them, but dared not turn around, too afraid to take their eyes from Ulf.
They should have turned around.
It was easy for Ulf’s generals to cut them down. The youngest goblin tried to run but did not even reach the edge of the pen before a dagger, thrown by one of Ulf’s two female generals, impaled the back of his neck.
Ulf got to his feet and observed the carnage for a moment before he pulled himself onto Bál’s back. Áki scrambled away as the bison approached him.
“Stop!” Ulf commanded loudly. Instantly, the bison and their riders were motionless as though they had been turned to stone. He turned to Áki. “Why?”
“The dwarfs! The dwarfs paid us!” Áki stammered, his eyes so wide the whites of them were visible. “They paid us to kill you!”
“How much? I want to know how much an Agrokū is worth to the dwarfs!” Ulf shouted. He rode Bál closer to Áki, so close that Áki could feel its hot breath on his face and see just how sharp and long the dragon horse’s claws were as they ripped at the grass in front of him.
Áki fumbled with the pouch tied to his belt before one of Ulf’s generals snatched it from him and passed it to Ulf, who ripped it open with one of his knives. Six fé fell into the mud. The crowd that had gathered were disappointed when they saw how few coins there were. Many of them shook their heads, yelling at Áki. “Those aren’t even gold!”
Ulf’s face turned as black as thunder. “Is that what a goblin’s life is worth to you? A few copper coins?”
Áki spluttered in a panic and tried to explain that the coins were worth more than they appeared. The comment only enraged Ulf even more and he turned to face the crowd.
“This? This is what I am worth dead to the dwarfs?” he bellowed, the veins in his face protruding. “If I am worth so little, then what is your life worth to them? Nothing! We are nothing more than a spring hunt to them! Game! Rats to cull every spring!”
The goblins murmured and many of them nodded their heads. An angry roar started to build up from the back of the crowd.
“I am your Agrokū! I will see the goblins living in the mountains and the dwarfs on the plains! They will struggle, like we have! They will be hunted like we have been! And we will reign over them!”
As the cheers of the crowd got louder and turned into a deafening roar, Áki made a desperate bid for survival and ran. He crawled under the pen’s fence and scrambled to his feet, facing the miles of uninterrupted plains before him.
The dragon horse did not jump over the fence as Ulf rode after Áki. He slammed through it, and the wood splintered like glass against the powerful animal’s frame.
Áki screamed in terror as he heard Bál’s heavy footsteps behind him. The loud, distinct snorts of the beast grew closer and he turned, hands raised, and then lowered himself to his knees as he begged for mercy with his head bowed against the earth.
From the camp, the other goblins watched in silence. Bál reared and a hollow thud followed. A weak, smothered shriek from Áki’s crumpled body sounded with each kick. Bál raised his foot and another thud followed. Ulf barely looked down at Áki. Able to feel each blow shudder through the dragon horse, he looked out over the plains, his eyes on the horizon.
Finally, the goblin beneath him was silent. Bál kicked a few more times. The sound of hoof against soft meat and broken bone echoed through the air.
Ulf looked down at the broken body in silence. Bál lowered his head and nibbled at the fresh meat before turning to look up at Ulf who shook his head. Bál snorted, hungry, but did not disobey him.
The crowd stood apart to let them through as Ulf rode back to the camp. Bál’s front hooves were covered in blood and small chunks of fresh meat were stuck between his front claws. Ulf stopped and looked down at the goblins who remained. Most were dead, and some were injured but still very much alive. His generals alongside them awaited his verdict.
“Ride the bison over them,” Ulf commanded.
A scream rose from the injured goblins. The pleas and curses of some lost amid the clamour.
None of Ulf’s generals flinched as they re-mounted and rode slowly forwards. The enormous bison were so heavy that the grass beneath them was pressed deep into the mud with each step. Roots creaked and cracked under their terrible weight.
Turning his dragon horse, Ulf rode Bál out of the way as he heard the dull crack of bone and a few gargled shrieks behind him. More and more goblins mounted their bison, some with their saddles and others bare-backed, all with faces set in angry scowls. They pushed forward and against each other, as they maneuvered to trample over the goblins. The mass of bison and riders inched ahead like a slow-moving thunder cloud.
Eventually nobody could hear the screams. The sounds were muffled by the heavy plod of the animals. Even the dull crack of snapping bones was muted as the ground became a slush of blood and ground meat.
Bál sniffed at the air and clawed the earth, agitated. Ulf had not fed him yet and his stomach growled. He had never forgotten to feed Bál before. Even when he had been a small foal in the Wyvern Plains Ulf would feed him with whatever small creatures he had managed to hunt, at times even going hungry himself to give him food.
“Shhh! I didn’t forget,” Ulf whispered, as he leant his head close to Bál’s ears. “These are all for you. Eat them all.”