Ulf watched Melrakki as she slept. He noticed the shadows under her eyes and the blankets tightly pulled around her. Dawn had long since passed, but for the first time in years, she had not woken up before him. Ulf did not wake her. Instead he carefully moved his half of the blanket over her and slowly crept out of the bed to get dressed, one hand on his long hair to stop the cuffs braided into it clinking together. Melrakki shivered for a moment under the blankets. The rattle of his cuffs was loud enough to disturb her, but she did not wake up. Ulf breathed a quiet sigh of relief and pulled his boots on. He would be amazed if he managed to get dressed without waking her. Melrakki had always been a light sleeper. Sometimes even a faint gust of wind against the walls of the yurt was enough to rouse her. It had not always been that way, Ulf remembered their early days together when the dead had slept less soundly, but that was before he had decided to unify the tribes, and long before she had decided to sleep with a knife under her pillow. He looked up as Gríð walked through the door, yet another piece of honey root between her teeth. Melrakki groaned in her sleep and Gríð froze where she stood.
“She’s still asleep?”
“If she’s asleep then she needs to sleep,” Ulf whispered back.
“We have work to do!” Gríð complained. “We’re going to need every hand we have.”
“She didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Neither did half the tribe, it won’t stop them from working.”
Ulf glared at her until Gríð shrugged her shoulders and sat down in the corner of the yurt she usually occupied. “I guess you’ll want me to keep an eye on her?”
“Perfect, so now there will be two less workers to help with the hunt.”
“I don’t know why you’re complaining. More time for you to chew on that root.”
Gríð closed her eyes and took a long, irritated sigh. “Ulf, you can survive life the way you want, this is how I survive it.”
“In a honey root haze? That’s not surviving, that’s hiding.”
“Ulf,” Gríð growled, her stained teeth bared at him. “Don’t!”
Ulf knew better than to push her further. She would never give the root up and he would never be able to talk to her again without her eyes completely glazed over.
“What should I do when she wakes up?” Gríð asked as she pulled the blankets in her corner of the yurt over her knees, like a nest around her.
“Make her some soup, and don’t put any of that root in the soup.”
“You know, it would help her sleep.”
“You know Rakki would be able to taste it.”
“Augh, fine! She can just be uncomfortable then,” Gríð grumbled.
Ulf looked back at Melrakki one last time before he left the yurt. The blankets were tucked under her feet and her hair lay loose around her head. He could not decide who would be more relieved when their child was born.
The guards outside bowed to him as he left the yurt. Four guards, he thought. Not enough.
The entire camp buzzed with activity. Every single family was awake. Most of them were in the clearing at the center of the camp where every single bison from the hunt had been placed in a line. The earthen smoking huts had already been dug. A few wisps of smoke still managed to squeeze their way through the cracks in the thatch.
The flies had already found their way to the carcasses. All the smaller children were fully occupied trying to swat the flies away with grass switches. The meats would be smoked to keep for winter. Most of the organs, heart, liver would be cooked and eaten that day. The tanned hides would be used for their yurts and clothes. The bones would make new weapons.
In a small tribe this process would take days, even if they only managed to hunt one or two bison. But with a tribe of their size, and with so many bison to prepare, the process could take weeks, and Ulf was glad for it. Anything which kept their minds away from the mountain was good for him. Even trained warriors could lose their nerves in the wait for a battle, and the battle they were about to take to the dwarfs could only result in one winner. They had all grown up with the fear of dwarfs and the Hætta. It was a lot to ask for them to put this fear aside. On the day of the battle, anger would do the work for him, but while they waited, they needed to be distracted.
He walked past one of the bison carcasses. The hide and meat on one side had already been removed to reveal the ribs. He stepped towards it, took out his knife and cut away a large slice of its hump. The red meat oozed blood and fat.
“Give this to my mother, for Melrakki.”
The goblin he had passed the bleeding chunk of meat too took it from him, bowed and left quickly, completely undaunted by the blood dripping from it.
“Ulf?” Systa shouted over the noise. “I took some of the first cuts to our guests. They’re too weak to do much at the moment. Some of them wanted to help, but I told them to rest.”
“Good,” Ulf nodded, “We need them to get strong as fast as possible. Do you still have guards watching them?”
“Yes. So far, they’ve seen nothing.”
Systa stood silently in front of him. The look on her face begged him to ask what she was thinking. When Ulf did not ask Systa took a deep breath. “Ulf, I don’t think Moldof would just let them go like that. He should have killed them.”
“I know,” Ulf replied slowly. “Where are they?”
“In the outer yurt, by the valdyr pen, Garðarr thought it was best for them to be kept as far away from you as possible.”
“Good, and the pass to Einn?”
“There are still traders taking it, from Einn and from Bjargtre.” Systa’s face lit up, hopeful that he was about to give her the order to close the pass.
“No,” Ulf smirked. “Not yet.”
“When the snows arrive. None of them can make it to Einn if the snow is blocking the pass.”
“What does it matter if they make it to Einn? We can take Einn easily!”
“I have no quarrel with the humans, no need to fight them. What if the humans decide to fight us too? We can’t win a fight on both sides.”
“Then why do we have to wait for the snow?”
“If they can’t reach Einn they can’t send for help if they’re infected. I know it’s hard to wait, especially now we’re so close. But some of us will die in this fight, the more goblins I can save by letting the red plague and the snows fight for me, the better.”
“Agrokū!” Garðarr bowed as he approached. He looked angry and agitated.
“What is it?”
“I think they have spies with them.”
Ulf’s eyes flitted over toward his yurt for a moment at the guards still outside the doorway before he looked back at Garðarr. “Why?”
“Their arms. Three of them have only darkened skin.”
Ulf’s ears twitched as he slowly thought about what Garðarr had just told him. He looked down at his own arms as he did. The skin on them was tanned a brownish shade of green, except for the side of his forearms. Even after riding Bàl for so many years he still had a visible lighter patch of skin under and around the side of his forearm from the guards he wore to protect his skin while riding the bison. There was only one tribe Ulf knew of which did not wear arm guards. They did not need them when they rode horses instead of bison.
“Systa, stay with Melrakki.”
Systa looked dissapointed, but did as he asked anyway as Garðarr walked with him to the group of yurts the goblins were in.
Garðarr’s warriors followed behind them them, but Ulf raised his hand for them to stay back. “Which tent are they in?”
Garðarr led him to the exact tent and stood back as Ulf walked in. The inside of the tent was dark. The crown cover pulled over the Yurt peak allowed only a small beam of sunlight through. All the goblins were huddled on the floor under the skins Systa and Garðarr had given them. They looked pitiful, barely more than bones, curled up like children. It took them a while to notice they had a visitor. Most of them were still half asleep. It did not take him long to spot the goblins Garðarr suspected. Their lack of tan lines on the underside of the forearms were glaringly obvious once he knew what to look for. Horse riders, he mused.
With the door curtain held aside, the wind rattled through the hut like an icy shiver. The goblins rolled under their furs, glanced over at the doorway and scrambled to their feet as they saw him. Every head bowed low enough till their foreheads touched the ground.
Ulf was deliberately silent for a painfully long time. He looked from goblin to goblin. None of them were able to hold his gaze for longer than a heartbeat. Finally, Ulf walked to their chief and held out his hand.
“Normally, this would be done in front to whole tribe. But we have the hunt to prepare and no time for ceremonies. Will you swear your allegiance to me?”
The goblins stared at him, too shocked to reply, so Ulf continued. “I ask one thing from my tribe, complete loyalty. If you give me that I offer you protection, safety, and the promise for a better life for our children. If you cannot accept my offer then you must leave.” Again, Ulf held their gaze for an uncomfortably long time. “If any…any goblin betrays me, he dies! Along with the rest of his tribe.”
Ulf held his hand out for the chief’s cuff and the old goblin hurriedly undid it from his hair. The root cuff was so weak it nearly cracked apart in Ulf’s hands. Still, he reached up to his hair and wound it among the dozens of other cuffs tied there. Deliberately tying it so that it sat on his shoulders. To tie the cuff too low would be seen as disrespect. Tie it too high and he would appear too eager to please.
In unison, every single goblin bowed till their foreheads touched the ground again. Ulf watched the goblins he suspected. Without a word he left the yurt. Garðarr, and Ótama were waiting for him outside.
“Keep watching them,” Ulf ordered quietly once he was sure that they were out of earshot. He walked back to his yurt with Garðarr, and Ótama behind him.
“Garðarr, I want more patrols around the camp tonight, and more valdyr out. Don’t let the young valdyr loose, just the older ones. I don’t want another bison stampede.”
Garðarr nodded and grimaced as he remembered the stampede. It had been during the first few months of Ulf’s newly formed tribe. Normally the valdyr of each tribe were familiar with the tribe’s bison, and the riders who would hunt them down if they molested or tried to prey on the bison. With the new and much larger tribe however, many of the animals, especially the younger, wilders ones, had gone after the strange bison which had been tethered freely around the camp. They had been lucky to only loose a handfull of goblins in the ensuing panic.
They bowed as Ulf walked into the yurt and returned to the rest of their captains and goblins who had trailed behind them.
Inside the yurt, Systa turned to look at Ulf from where she was sat crouched next to the bed. Melrakki was still fast asleep and Grið was curled up in her usual corner, stupefied by the honey-root.
Ulf motioned at Systa to leave and sat down on the side of the bed next to Melrakki. Just before she walked through the doorway he called Systa.
“Systa, while we’re waiting I think it’s time to take some dwarfs.”
Systa’s face lit up, excited. “How many do you want?”
“Three or four, no more.”
Systa bowed and walked away, a large grin on her face. As soon as she was out of sight from Ulf she ran towards her bison and leapt into the saddle. The large creature lumbered to its feet, still groggy from a recent feed.
Once she was firmly seated in her saddle, Systa blew on the small whistle she wore around her neck and pattered her fingers over the finger holes to make a high-pitched trill. She could never understand why the dwarfs chose to shout their orders. The voice was such a weak instrument, so easily drowned out by the wind.
From every corner of the camp, her warriors dropped what they were doing and ran towards their bison. A few of the beasts were unsaddled, but that did not matter to the goblins. All that concerned them was to respond to their general’s call. Besides, they would not have been numbered among her elite warriors unless they were skilled enough to ride bareback.
“Systa, be careful.” Ótama urged with her usual worried expression.
Systa smiled. Her short black hair hung down over half her face as usual. Ótama wished she would just cut it off it off so that she could see both her sister’s eyes at the same time, or at least grow it longer.
“Don’t worry. Today, I hunt them!” Systa laughed happily.