Ulf peered down at the map Melrakki had drawn on the coarse paper spread out across the low table. Garðarr, Ótama and Systa were seated around it with several of their respective captains behind them. Melrakki had both hands pressed against her stomach and a scowl on her face as the baby kicked and squirmed inside her belly. Ulf cradled her fingers in his and caressed Melrakki’s hand gently, but kept his eyes fixed on the map.
The new details on the map had been painstakingly slow to create. Melrakki had meticulously detailed each new seemingly insignificant shred of information from the weeks of stealthy observation. There was the layout of the gate, the battlement above it, even the sewer outlets.
An old woman sat behind Ulf and Melrakki and swayed from side to side with her eyes half closed and her pupils mildly dilated. Her hair was mostly grey, except for two strands at the front of her head which were bone white and hanging free. The ends of each strand were coated with a thick, red paste that stained the hair a bright blood red. Unlike every other goblin in the camp, this goblin woman had no cuff across her forehead. Instead, small metal clasps and bone beads were fixed randomly in her hair.
“Is this all you could find?” Ulf asked, clearly frustrated.
“Yes. We could find out more if we could be a little less…careful,” Garðarr replied from the doorway. He never liked walking all the way into Ulf’s yurt, especially when the old woman was present.
Ulf ignored Garðarr’s comment and continued to examine the map. Their previous open presence in the mountains had been a mistake, one he did not want to repeat.
“I can lead a few more scouts,” Ótama suggested. “But the Mad Gate is the only way into the mountain and it is far too strong for us to break from the outside, even with fire.”
“There are no other tunnels?” Melrakki asked. She let go of Ulf’s hand and shuffled forward to look at the map, even though she had no need to. She had spent more hours studying and working on it than all of them and knew every single detail by memory.
“No. The only other ways are through the sewers, and the water runs out too quickly for anyone to climb through them. I tried,” Systa said quietly.
“She did,” Ótama confirmed, a small smirk at the corner of her mouth. “She stank of dwarf shit for days.”
“Where are the sewers?” Melrakki asked, interested.
“Here,” Systa leant forward and pointed to the east side of the mountain.
Melrakki snarled and sat back down. She groaned as the baby kicked her, glared at her stomach and in a low voice threatened, “I swear, if you don’t stop moving!”
Then she reached for Ulf’s shoulder for support and pushed herself back onto her feet to pace the yurt.
“What about farms?” Ulf asked, one eye on his wife. “They can’t feed the entire city from hunting.”
“We’ve seen a few farms, but they’re all in front of the Mad Gate. Nothing too isolated from the city.”
“Then how—?” Ulf shook his head and stopped mid-sentence, frustrated.
“Maybe they eat mushrooms from the tunnels?” one of Systa’s warriors joked behind them. Systa turned and flashed the goblin a furious look.
“With all their gold they could barter for enough food to keep the whole city supplied,” Melrakki said quietly to herself, her eyes closed as the baby squirmed and kicked from inside her stomach. “They must have reserves.”
Nobody said a word. Even Melrakki was silent for a few seconds. She squinted as she thought and drummed her fingers against her belly. Ulf’s eyes smiled as he saw the familiar look.
“We have the numbers, but they have shelter.”
“And food,” Ulf added.
“Yes, and food. They’re not used to hunger. If they lose their food the people will riot. They will become unstable.”
“But if they have granaries, they could last for months,” Ótama said.
“Maybe even years,” Garðarr added.
Melrakki shook her head, tired. She had been unable to sleep properly for the past two nights, worried for Ulf after the attempt on his life, and the baby seemed determined to wriggle like a snake every time the sun went down.
“They have an army, food and defenses. We need to get rid of at least one,” she muttered.
“Why don’t we just attack the Mad Gate?” one of the goblins behind Ótama asked. He, too, was met with withering glares.
“Have you seen the Mad Gate? Do you even know why it’s called that?” Ulf asked. The goblin shook his head, worried at the vehemence in Ulf’s voice. “Five hundred and eleven steps before you reach the gate, which is made of iron, with a second gate behind it.” The goblin’s face dropped but Ulf was not finished. He stood up, his fierce blue eyes fixed on the goblin. “Over the gate there is a parapet with a large chute. I imagine there are several things they could pour down on us while we attack the gate. How many goblins do you think would have to die before we could even scratch the gate?”
“My wolf,” Melrakki walked over to Ulf and took his hand in hers. Ulf turned towards her, the residue of a snarl still on his face.
“Mother?” Ulf turned to the goblin woman who sat silently behind them. “What do you think?”
Gríð looked up at Ulf and instantly snapped out of her stupor. Her eyes were pure black. Whatever her original eye colour had been, they had long been stained several shades darker by honey root smoke. Even the whites of her eyes were more of an irritated yellow red colour. She snorted loudly and shrugged her shoulders. One of her hands fumbled in her pocket for another piece of freshly dried root. She was desperate to brew it but determined to wait until the other goblins had left the tent.
“I was never a soldier, Ulf. Fight your own battles.”
Ulf looked back at the map, even more frustrated than before. “If we attack them they will seal themselves in and call for aid. We cannot fight both Lǫgberg and Bjargtre.”
“Especially not now that we have so many new mouths to feed,” added Ótama.
“Have they been settled in?” Melrakki asked, “the outsiders.”
“And they’re in the same yurt?” Ulf asked.
Garðarr looked around, confused. “Why are we keeping them in the same yurt? The other tribes were broken up when they swore themselves to you. Why not them?”
“Ulf was worried that Moldof could have a spy—” Melrakki paused and her face suddenly lit up. There was a familiar excited gleam in her eyes, that meant all her plans and scheming had snapped into place. Everyone sat up straight and watched her. Melrakki bounced excitedly on her toes and paced for a few seconds. Her lips moved but she did not speak. The thoughts flashed through her mind too fast for her lips to speak coherently.
“We need a spy,” she finally said. “The dwarfs paid to have you killed. We can play the same game!”
“We don’t have anything a dwarf would value.” Gríð cackled. Melrakki ignored her.
“There are still a few traders who cross to Einn, if we can…persuade one of them to tell us more about the city, then—”
“No dwarf would help us!” Gríð interrupted.
“We don’t need them to talk. We just need them to go to the mountain.”
Everyone looked at her with deeply confused expressions on their faces. “In the last Hætta, half of the city died from the red fever. Systa, you said they have not had a Hætta since then.” Systa nodded in agreement and Melrakki clapped her hands together excitedly. “If a dwarf is taken by us and… escapes,” Melrakki paused at the word, a long thin grin at the corner of her mouth, “he would return to the city as fast as his short little fat legs could carry him. It would be hours before he would feel the effects, hours for him to infect the city!”
Ulf smiled, a smile that stretched from ear to ear and exposed every single one of his sharp side teeth.
“If we waited long enough we could take the gate with just a handful of goblins. They would be unprepared and too weak to fight!”
The goblins turned to mutter between themselves. Ótama, Garðarr and Systa were silent but clearly impressed by Melrakki’s suggestion.
Ulf reached for his wife’s hand and squeezed it firmly. “I married a fox!” He smiled proudly.
Melrakki smiled and leant her head against Ulf’s shoulder. “What do you think, my wolf? Will it work?”
“Of course it will work!” Gríð said loudly. She reached into her pocket and pulled out one of the many dried roots she kept inside. “You married a fox, Ulf. A clever, clever little fox.” Gríð snarled and the root in her hand cracked open with a horrible crunch. A sickly sweet smell filled the room and her eyes glazed a little more as she inhaled the aroma as deeply as she could.
“Clever, clever little fox.”