“I still think this is foolish!” Ótama warned Ulf as he mounted Bál. “If I was planning to kill you I would do it now, in the hunt. Why are you giving them another chance?”
Ulf shook his head. “They won’t try anything. Bál will see to that.” The dragon horse snorted loudly as if it understood and clawed at the ground excitedly.
The air was full of anticipation. Around them, many other goblins were already mounted on their huge bison, their saddles strapped just behind the curved humps of their shoulders. The bison were at least five times the size of their riders, who looked like little dolls strapped to their backs.
The stirrups on the saddles were so short that the goblins had to sit crouched like toads, ready to leap off the backs of the massive creatures at a moment’s notice. In the rush of the hunt it was not always possible for the bison and their riders to avoid an animal that had been killed further up in the herd. On every hunt at least one goblin would die after being crushed under their steed as it tripped over a dead carcass. The goblins needed to be able to move quickly. To jump off the back of their bison was extremely dangerous, but not as dangerous as being crushed under them.
The ground shook under the heavy plod of the animals, and the entire group slowly circled Ulf, as they waited for him to give the order to ride out. After mounting her own bison, Ótama glanced back at the camp and ran her fingers across the wolf hair cuff on her forehead, an old, superstitious gesture she made at the start of every hunt. Her general’s arm cuff on the upper part of her right arm pressed against her skin as she leaned against her bison’s high hunched shoulders. Only the thickness of her muscles held the solid copper arm bracelet in place.
She watched Ulf nervously and her eyes flitted every few moments to the other goblins in the hunting party. They had been unable to find any of the other conspirators from the attempted assassination on Ulf. Everyone involved had either been killed during the confrontation or had enough common sense to deny any association with the failed attempt.
The unbridled dragon horse reared with excitement and the bison around shifted nervously away. Ulf’s hands hung by his sides, holding onto the animal with only his legs. His was the only steed without a saddle or a bride. Years of riding Bál bareback had left him with thighs that were almost as strong as the dragon horse’s and there was no risk that he would fall from its back. The first time he had tried to ride the horse, his inner thighs had been cut to pieces on the rough edges of Bál’s scales. It had been weeks before he had been able to ride again, but now, years later, the skin of his inner thighs was as thick as leather.
Ulf, head held high, looked around. He gripped a long thin spear loosely between his fingertips. Everyone watched him, excited, nervous, and hungry. It had been more than three months since their last hunt and rations were low. There were only so many roots they could eat before the need to eat fresh meat became insatiable.
Systa and Garðarr pushed through the mass of bison riders and drew their bison to a halt beside him. Their brightly polished generals’ arm cuffs distinguished them from the rest of the goblins.
“There is a herd not far over the ridge!” Garðarr said excitedly, his face flushed by the wind.
Garðarr was the youngest of the generals with very few scars on his body, though not through lack of battle experience. Despite being just fifteen, he had seen more battles than most. Like many of the goblins, he had had no choice in the matter. To be a great fighter was a matter of survival, not a choice, for any member of one of the smaller tribes on the plains. His lack of scars was testament to his ability. There was even a rumour that the few scars he did carry were self-inflicted so as to appear battle hardened. His likeness to Ulf was uncanny. They had the same sharp nose and jaw, the same rare, cold blue eyes. Garðarr’s face was slightly rounder and more youthful, but if they had not been from different tribes it would have been easy to assume they were brothers.
Ótama was the oldest general, at least by goblin standards. To live past childhood was an achievement even of itself, but even though she was only twenty-seven, her black hair had started to show flecks of grey, especially one streak of hair at the front of her head which was already pure white. She sat up in her saddle and rolled her shoulders back, every muscle in her back knotted like an ox’s.
Her sister, Systa, was far less impressively built. Her lithe, almost skinny frame was much less intimidating and the only physical similarity they shared was their green and yellow eyes. Her black hair was so short and her features so androgynous that she was often confused for being a young boy, a mistake she loved to use for her own amusement. Any new recruits in Ulf’s army were unaware that their general was a girl until Systa would expose the fact in the most outrageous way possible. She revelled in the bewildered and shocked expressions on their faces.
Ulf raised his spear and the entire hunting party ground to a halt. Bál lurched ahead, his curved claw-like hooves digging into the ground as he sprinted past the bison who parted to let him through. His long black mane was braided in a thick plait and Ulf’s fingers were knotted into it. Ulf leaned forward as Bál’s speed increased. An excited smile spread across his face and goose bumps formed on his skin as the wind ripped past them.
Behind them, the hunting party took off. At first the bison were slow to match the athletic speed of the dragon horse. Even so far ahead of them, Ulf could hear the ground tremble under the hooves of the massive animals. He glanced back and grinned as the party began to catch up with him. Systa, Ótama and Garðarr were spaced out in a line at the front. The riders behind them separated into three different regiments behind each of his generals. Several of the riders tried to make their way ahead to follow Ulf but Systa and Ótama blocked their way.
“The Agrokū rides alone!” Ótama shouted over the wind. Disappointed, the riders retreated and rejoined their ranks.
Ulf looked ahead as the end of the ridge rose up before him. The miles and miles of grass-covered hills rippled like undulating waves in an ocean. He raced over the first hill. Bál snorted and ground his teeth as the colossal herd of elk, deer and wild bison came into sight. There were hundreds of animals packed together, with a trail behind them that stretched for miles.
It took less than a second for the animals to see him, and then their slow plod turned into a desperate stampede. The animals bellowed and yelped, terrified by the sight of the dragon horse. Within seconds the rest of the hunting partly were behind Ulf. Ótama rode her regiment to the right of the herd, Systa at the rear, and Garðarr to the left.
Ulf raced down the ridge towards the animals. The three regiments guided the direction of the panicked herd. The closest goblins had their spears raised, ready to deal a death strike to the nearest one.
Ulf raised his spear, which was fastened to his wrist by a twisted strap at the end. With a quick jab he cast it towards a nearby elk that straggled behind the rest, either too young or weak to keep up. Like a scorpion’s tail, the tip of his spear pierced the nape of the elk’s neck and its spine severed instantly before the strap around Ulf’s arm pulled the spear back. Soon, a trail of dead elk, deer and wild bison littered the ground behind them.
Ótama’s attention was entirely focused on Ulf as he rode into the stampede. Bál ran shoulder to shoulder with two large bison and Ulf had his feet pulled up and was crouched on Bál’s back. Ótama rode as close as she dared to the flanks of the stampede, her spear lowered, uninterested in the animals that were within easy reach of her. Her eyes were fixed on Ulf as he jabbed at the animals around him. Each blow struck expertly at the base of their spines. One, two, three, four wild bison fell. The animals that ran behind them tripped and stumbled over them. There was a loud bellow as several deer fell in a tangled mess of hooves and antlers.
Ulf pulled back, slowing down until he was out of the stampede, then turned onto the group of fallen prey. Bál snorted excitedly and pounced on the nearest bison. His long razor-sharp teeth sliced through the animal’s neck. The bison shuddered and fell to the ground in a long stream of dark, red blood. Dismounting, Ulf stroked Bál’s neck fondly as his teeth crunched down onto the corpse.
“Happy now?” Ulf asked. He stroked the hard scales of the dragon horse and watched as the rest of the hunting party rode past him, Systa, Ótama and Garðarr content to ride ahead. They would not hunt for much longer. The animals that had already been killed would last them several weeks. The meat would be smoked and dried, the hides picked clean and tanned, the bones stewed and turned into yurt frames, weapons and needles. Every single carcass would be used. Not even the intestines would be wasted.
They could not afford to waste anything. The earth of the plains was not suitable for farming. Meat, roots and ground nuts were the primary diet. The plains were not the mountains; there were no trees to burn, no rabbits with soft tender meat to hunt, no fruits to eat, and nowhere to hide from the bitterly cold winters.
Ulf looked up at the mountains in the distance, where several of the pale blue peaks pierced the clouds that hung above them. Ulf’s lip curled with disgust and he turned back to Bál, his eyes narrowed. He did not know how much longer he could wait. While he had done his best to appear carefree about his attempted murder, in a small way he understood Aki’s reasoning. None of the tribes were comfortable being so close to the mountains. Mountains meant dwarfs, and dwarfs meant the Hætta. Even though Bjargtre had not engaged in a Hætta for several years, it did not mean it would remain that way. Autumn, the traditional season of the Hætta, was fast approaching. His goblins were nervous and agitated, their eyes on the horizon at all times. The winter was safe. The dwarfs never ventured out of the mountains if there was snow on the ground. But spring and autumn still made everyone nervous.
Under Ulf’s command none of them had encountered a Hætta in many months, but they could all remember at least one. They had all lost, or knew someone who had lost a loved one, if not their entire family, to the cull. It was not something they would ever forget.
“Ulf!” Systa rode up beside him and pointed at a large shadow in the distance which seemed to grow wider the faster it approached.
“Back to the camp, now,” Ulf ordered.
Systa nodded, reached for the horn which hung from her belt and blew three short bursts on it. Immediately every single hunter in the party pulled their steeds to a halt and turned to look in the direction of the call. Ulf raised his spear and pointed back to the camp. The shadow on the horizon was already distinguishable as a large convoy of goblins. Nobody spoke. They had no need to. As quickly as they could, every single goblin tied the fallen kill to their bison saddles. Two, sometimes three riders were needed to drag just one of the enormous carcasses back to the camp. Systa raced back to the camp to alert the rest of the riders, while Ótama and Ulf remained where they were.
“Moldof?” Ótama asked, but Ulf shook his head.
“No, he wouldn’t travel this far west.”
“What if Lǫgberg drove them out of the Haltija pass?”
Ulf shook his head again and looked back at the camp behind him. The last of the hunting party was gone and only a few carcasess were still dotted around the hunting ground. Ulf and Ótama began to retreat slowly, both of them confused by the slow pace of the approaching tribe. It was not like any of the goblins to be so brazen in their approach. They had undoubtedly seen Ulf’s hunting party, yet they did not try to hide, or send scouts ahead as was normally done.
“How many do you think there are?”
“A few hundred,” Ulf replied, “if not more. When Systa returns, you take your riders to their flanks.”
Ulf looked at her and smiled. “Still trying to protect her?”
Ótama looked back at him coldly, her mouth pressed into a tight line. “Wouldn’t you, if she was your sister?”
Ulf’s smiled faded. “Yes” he nodded. “I would.”
As Systa returned with their riders Ótama and Ulf rode alongside them, each of them at the head of their own detachment. Just as Ulf had ordered, Systa and Ótama broke away with two thirds of the riders and circled around the group till they surrounded their flanks. Ulf slowed Bál down to a slow canter and observed the tribe in front of him. There were many of them, three or even four hundred in number. All of them were goblins, all were on foot, and none of them looked strong enough to raise a spear. Their faces were so gaunt Ulf felt as though he was looking at corpses. An old goblin at their head, whose cuff was made of twisted roots instead of stone or metal, slowly approached. His legs were no thicker than Ulf’s wrists.
“I’m cold just looking at him,” one of the riders behind Ulf muttered loudly.
The old goblin gulped as he approached, his eyes flitting back and forth between Bál and Ulf. He had seen dragon horses before, but always in the distance and never as large as the beast before him. He could not even imagine having the courage to ride one.
“Are you Ulf? The son of Agnar and the seer?”
Ulf did not reply at once, taken aback by the mention of his father. It had been many years since he had heard that name.
The old goblins dropped down to the ground and bowed down so low that his head touched the earth. Behind him the rest of the tribe did the same, even the children. Though Ulf wasn’t sure how many of them had finally just collapsed from exhaustion.
“We heard of a goblin from the northlands who had stood against Moldof. We wish to swear allegiance to your tribe,” the old goblin begged.
Behind him Ulf heard several of his men snicker and he turned to scowl at them. He looked back at the tribe of goblins and noticed for the first time how few children there were.
“Where are your children? There are so few of them.”
“They did not survive the journey, Lord,” the goblin replied, his face still pressed down on the earth.
Ulf’s grip on Bál’s mane tightened.
“Where have you traveled from?”
“The Haltija pass, Lord.”
“Why did you leave?”
The goblin sat up and looked up at Ulf with tears in his eyes. “Moldof, he forced us out! He would not let us swear to him. He said only the strong deserved to be in his army. We had to flee. He killed most of us before we could leave.”
“The children?” Ulf repeated again.
The old goblin glared up at Ulf. “He took the strong ones! He took them!” The rage and hatred that tinged his words made his wrinkled skin looked like it was about to shiver off his face.
“Systa!” Ulf stood up strait in his saddle and barked loudly across the group at her. “Take them back to camp! Feed them and find room for them.”
The old goblin gasped and sat back on his feet, his mouth wide open in shock. “You will take us?”
“Yes. Feed the children first. Tomorrow I will expect you in my yurt with the cuff of your tribe.”
The old goblin spluttered loudly and stumbled forward to try and kiss Ulf’s feet, tears running down his face. But Bál snorted loudly and stepped back, baring his sharp teeth.
“Thank you! Thank you!”
Ulf nodded and watched as they walked past him towards the camp, Systa and Ótama’s men on either side of them. Ulf followed behind, his brows pressed together.
“Ulf?” Garðarr asked as he rode up next to him. “They’re all weak, they won’t be much use.”
“They will be once we have fed them and given them a home.”
“That could take months and with winter coming we will have enough goblins to feed.”
“I won’t turn goblins away.”
Garðarr took a deep breath. “Moldof could have sent spies with them. What if he tries to kill you again?”
Ulf turned Bál to face Garðarr. “I was weak like them once. If a goblin had taken us into his tribe, I would have followed that goblin to the ends of Ammasteinn! That is the kind of loyalty I need to be king.”