Chapter 22 – Old Fears

CHapter 22

Systa skidded her bison to a stop before Ulf’s yurt. A cloud of dust rose behind her and she smiled broadly. One dwarf was tied to the back of her bison and three more were tied behind the riders that followed her. All of them were gagged and blindfolded.

She leapt down from the saddle and bowed before Ulf as he stepped out from his yurt. “Agrokū,” she smiled and stood up. “Four dwarfs, all of them from Bjargtre.”

Ulf nodded. She had expected him to be more pleased.

“Uninjured?”

“Mostly.”

‘Good. Bring that one in.”

Systa nodded and went to untie the dwarf from the back of her bison. As she dragged the struggling dwarf across the ground she noticed a trail of blood around Ulf’s yurt. Blood had stained the grass brown several places. Flecks of it had spattered across the door curtain.

“Systa!” Ótama ran up to her sister and pulled her into tight hug, relieved to see her. It had been over three days since she had left, and as much as Ótama trusted her sister, she had begun to worry. “You’re back.”

“Of course I’m back.”

Systa laughed and kicked the dwarf as he tried to struggle away from her again. “Were you worried for me?”

“No,” Ótama smiled, “not at all.”

As her warriors passed her, Systa shouted “Take the other vermin to the pit. I want three of you to watch them! Rotation every hour and keep them tied to the posts.”

Then Systa noticed the burned yurt at the edge of the camp, a few of the beams were still upright. All of them were charred.

“What happened?”

“The tribe Ulf took in. Moldof sent them.”

Systa’s hands clenched together so tightly her knuckles turned white. “Are they dead?”

“Yes.”

“All of them?”

“Yes.”

“Good!”

“Systa!” Ulf’s voice shouted from behind them.

Systa instantly turned around and walked towards his yurt. She dragged the dwarf behind her. Ulf waited inside for her. Six new guards were stationed around his yurt.

As soon as they were inside, Ulf tore the blindfold off the dwarf and wrapped his hand around the dwarf’s neck. The dwarf stared in horror as he saw how many cuff’s Ulf had tied into his hair and tried frantically to breathe. Ulf finally let go and walked back to the middle of the yurt. A screen had been pulled across half the yurt to hide his living quarters, where Melrakki lay exhausted, fast asleep in their bed.

“Four dwarfs you said?” He asked Systa.

“Yes. There were five, but,” she smiled, “there were problems.”

The dwarf hissed and spat a mouthful of words through the blood in his mouth.

Behind him Systa pulled his head back violently by his hair and replied to him in Mál. The dwarf stared at her, horrified.

“What did he say?” Ulf asked.

“He said you’ll die for this.”

“You first,” Ulf replied. “You dwarfs aren’t so good at killing us anymore.”

He motioned at Systa to bring the dwarf over to the map Melrakki had drawn and pointed at the Mad gate on the map.

“Is there any other way into the city?”

Systa translated Ulf’s question once, twice and then a third time. When the dwarf still didn’t reply, Ulf pulled a knife out from inside his veil, gripped the dwarf’s ear and dragged his dagger through it. Systa clamped her hand over the dwarf’s mouth so that he could not scream. His eyes opened wide as he howled into Systa’s hand in agony.

“Shussh. My wife is sleeping,” Ulf whispered and tossed the dwarf’s ear into the fire. “You won’t need that, you clearly weren’t listening.”

Ulf pointed to the map again. Now there were specks of dwarf blood on it. He repeated his question.

“There must be another way into the city, where is it?”

The dwarf’s chin trembled, tears in his eyes and nodded at the map. Systa unfastened the dwarf’s hands, then retied one hand behind his back and held her dagger to his neck in case he was inclined to try anything stupid.

The dwarf whimpered and pointed to the mountains above Bjargtre.

“He says there’s an oak grove there. The entrance to the tunnel is in the middle of it.”

“And? A city the size of Bjargtre wouldn’t just have one tunnel. Where are the others?”

The dwarf didn’t try to fight. Blood trickled down his neck from his missing ear as he pointed to all the tunnels that he knew of, and even some that had never existed in the first place.

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” Ulf laughed. “Systa, you can have that one. Don’t put him back with the others.”

Systa grinned and bowed. This would be fun.

The dwarf screamed and struggled as Systa dragged him through the camp and into her yurt by his hair. With his free right arm he tried to strike her, but each time she would dodge the blow and return with a kick to his ribs.

“Don’t be stupid. I know how you dwarfs fight.”

She laughed and stood between him and the doorway. The dwarf lowered his head like a bull and charged at her, only for Systa to step aside and trip him. Before he could crawl though the doorway, Systa grabbed his feet and pulled him back to the middle of the yurt. She reached for the dagger wedged down the side of her boot and shoved it as hard as she could through his hand, pinning him to the ground. This time she did not cover his mouth as he screamed. The pits were not far from her yurt. She was sure the other dwarfs would be able to hear his cries.

“A bit louder,” she whispered in his ear and pushed his face down into the dirt. “Your friends will want to know you’re alive.”

When he struggled, trying to unpin his hand from the ground, Systa shoved another dagger through his wrist.

“Do you know how I can speak Mál?” Systa asked as she knelt down on his back, another dagger in her hands.

“Damn you, you grœnn naðr!” The dwarf screamed and tried to turn again, only for a third dagger to impale his arm at his elbow.

“I was taken from my tribe when I was fourteen years old. You see, in Waidu, the dwarfs there liked to keep ‘exotic’ creatures for their baiting rings. None of it was allowed of course, that would be barbaric. So they did it under the city in the catacombs.” Systa stared blankly out through the doorway as she spoke and slowly dragged her dagger down the dwarf’s neck. “At first they kept me in a cage for people to throw scraps at. I was small you see, they thought I was a lot younger than I was, otherwise they would have killed me. But I got older. Then one of them had the idea that I should fight for my food. This is something you dwarfs don’t understand. Hunger. The kind of hunger that feels like an animal trapped in your stomach, trying to claw its way out.”

She lifted the dagger and this time began to turn it like a screw into the dwarf shoulder. The screams did not bother her. She barely seemed to notice them.

“Once you’ve been that hungry you will do anything to never feel that way again. At first, they put me against dogs. Nothing challenging like a valdyr, just dwarf dogs. They were easy. Then they tried wolves, then valdyr. Then they tried dwarfs. Tt was hard at first, but the dwarf who bought me, he knew I was more valuable alive than dead. So even if I lost a fight he never let them kill me.”

“Please! Please! Just let me go!” The dwarf begged, his face wet with blood and tears. “Please!”

Systa reached over to his hand and ran her fingers through the blood which had pooled around it.

“One day they paired me against three dwarfs, of course they were all bigger than me. I killed the first one, then the second but I let the third one beat me. Do you know why?”

Systa leaned her head down against the dwarf’s severed ear. Her hand squeezed the fingers on the dwarf’s pinned hand. “Do you know why?” she repeated.

“No, no I don’t. Please, please—”

With a vicious tug Systa pulled the dwarf’s middle finger back and twisted it free from his hand.

“You see,” she explained through the agonised screaming, “I needed something to try to make a key. They knew I couldn’t get through the bars and they thought I was too stupid to figure out how a lock worked. I figured finger bones would be the easiest thing to take without them noticing.”

“You’ll die! You’re all going to die!” the dwarf screamed. His voice was so hoarse that he sounded more like an animal.

“We’ll all die one day, but you’ll die first,” Systa laughed back.

“You’ll die tomorrow when they come for you!” The dwarf suddenly laughed manically. “You’re all going to die like dogs!” Systa’s confident smile wavered for a second. “The king is dead, and his son reinstated the Hætta. You’re going to die you grœnn naðr bitch! Maybe they’ll throw you in a cage again and you can watch while we hang the rest of you in the squ—”

There was a horrible crunch as Systa shoved her last dagger through the back of his skull. The tip of her dagger emerged from his left eyeball.

A few minutes later Ótama walked into the yurt and groaned as she saw the dead dwarf on the floor with Systa crouched on top of him.

“Couldn’t you have done that outside?”

Systa looked up at her. Her face had turned so pale that Ótama could see the dark green freckles on her nose.

“Hætta,” she breathed. “They’ve reinstated the Hætta!”

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As you may have noticed, this week there isn’t an illustration. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to catch up on them, but for the moment I’m taking a break from them as I’m a little burnt out and need a metal break from them. As usual, the next few chapters are already available on Patreon. If you want to be notified the moment each chapter goes live, you can subscribe to the mailing list on the right.

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