Melrakki groaned and turned over for what felt like the hundredth time that night. Her lower back ached and her stomach was heavy and swollen. She was miserable and so tired that her brain felt as if it had been removed from her skull. Ulf was snoring beside her, his arm across her protectively. Normally she could not sleep without him near her, but tonight his touch felt like a brand on her already warm skin. Her whole body was far too warm, except for her hands which were cold as ice.
“Well, I’m glad you can sleep,” Melrakki muttered, and pushed his arm away. She lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling. The frame of the yurt rattled a little as the wind outside beat against the thick hides that covered it. A few of the carefully packed bags that hung from the domed ceiling rocked back and forth.
Gríð was asleep by the fire, a large fur beneath and over her, and a long thin knife clutched against her chest. The warm glow of embers from the fire bathed her face as she lay curled up like a dog with her knees against her chin.
Melrakki pushed her fox fur blanket aside and stood up. She paused for a moment before padding over to the fire. Her feet were bare and swollen and the woven mats on the ground rustled under her weight.
“Rakki? What’s wrong?” Ulf called out, propping himself up in the bed.
“I’m just hungry. Sleep.”
All too happy to oblige, Ulf slumped back down, but not before he had shifted over to her side of the bed to keep it warm. Melrakki hated a cold bed.
Gríð did not wake up, even as Melrakki sat down beside her and tossed a large log onto the fire. A burst of sparks rose from the embers and soon several small flames began to lick their way up either side of the log. Melrakki held her hands out, rubbing them together, and closed her eyes.
“There you go,” she murmured. “You like fire, don’t you little one?” She sat back on her heels and closed her eyes, relieved as the baby finally stopped twisting around and curled up, one of its feet pressed lightly against her lower belly. She moved her hand down and smiled, her fingertips pressed against the imprint of her child’s foot. “Enjoy it in there. It will be cold when you leave.”
Suddenly Melrakki felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She looked up towards the bed. Ulf was wrapped under the blankets on her side of the bed, his eyes closed, fast asleep. Maybe the wind blew against the walls of the yurt a little harder than usual, or maybe the baby had decided to push against her stomach a little more than usual, but she felt a sudden intense rush of fear.
Melrakki ran towards the bed and dragged Ulf off it with all her strength. Ulf woke with a start on the floor. Melrakki crouched over him with one hand on her stomach and the other around his neck. Behind them there was a sharp whistle as several arrows lodged in Ulf’s side of the bed.
Before they could both stand up, Gríð raced towards the lining of the wall and sliced it open in one swipe with her dagger. No longer dilated, her pupils were like pinpoints. She darted through the tear in the wall after the attackers.
“Ulf!” Melrakki screamed, pointing at the doorway.
A tall goblin girl with bright red hair and a long thin blade in her hand, ran towards them. She screamed and swung the weapon down, determined to kill Ulf. She never stood a chance.
In one fluid motion he gripped her wrist and twisted her arm around so violently that her whole body was forced sideways and her arm was pulled from the socket. Ulf noticed that her arms were both evenly tanned. There were no lighter patches from the arm guards that all the bison riders wore. Horse rider!
Defiant, the girl reached for a second smaller dagger that was tucked down the side of her boot. Ulf snarled and struck the girl as hard as she could. The force of his knuckles smashed her nose flat. Unconscious, she fell face down in the dirt.
“I’m fine…I’m fine, Ulf,” Melrakki whispered. She sat huddled on the floor. The knife she normally kept under her pillow was clutched tightly in her hand. Ulf could hear high-pitched shrieks like a banshee’s, as Gríð fought with the attackers outside the yurt. With one last look at his wife he ran through the open hides and saw three goblins dead on the floor. The wounds on their bodies had been inflicted with a hideous accuracy. One had been stabbed directly through the kidneys, one through the heart and a final one through one ear and out the other. There was barely any blood, just the way his mother liked it.
Gríð stood a few feet away from him. Two more goblins were in front of her. Each of them had swords in their hands and veils covered their faces so that only their eyes were exposed. Ulf looked down at their arms. Both had evenly tanned forearms. Moldof! He pushed past Gríð towards the nearest goblin and thrashed his clenched fist across the goblin’s windpipe. There was a horrible crunch as the windpipe shattered and the goblin stumbled back, his hands pressed against his throat. Ulf watched as Gríð faced the last goblin. As much as he hated her addiction to honey root he was grateful for the complete focus it gave her during a fight. There was a sharp shriek and then a thud. Gríð crouched down on the ground next to the last goblin. She licked at the line of blood splattered across her face.
“Well? Is he one of ours?” she asked as Ulf looked down at the goblin’s pale forearms and pulled the dead goblin’s veil away from his gaunt face.
Ulf’s shoulders dropped. “Yes.”
“Well, that was a mistake,” Gríð giggled and reached into the pouch in her veil for another piece of honey root. “Shall I take these over to Bál?”
“No. Burn them!” Ulf spat.
He stood up and ran back into the tent. Melrakki still huddled in the corner. Ulf walked up to her and ran his hands down her arms and face, afraid that somehow in the rush of it all she had been hurt.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” Melrakki whispered, her forehead against his. Ulf still did not let her go. He wrapped both his arms around her as tightly as he could. “I’m alright.”
“If they had killed you—”
“I’m alright, Ulf,” Melrakki replied, as she cupped his face in her hands. “Who was it?”
“Moldof. He sent them.”
“Agrokū?” Ótama ran into the tent panting. Blood covered the blades of each of the long daggers and stained her hands.
“Where were you!?” Ulf bellowed at her. “Where are the guards?”
“They’re dead,” Ótama replied calmly.
“All of them?”
“Yes, all of them.”
From her tone Ulf could only assume that she had personally known a few of them, but in that moment he did not care. They had allowed strangers to come in the middle of the night and try to shoot him next to his pregnant wife.
“Their yurt. Seal it.”
Ótama nodded, left the yurt and gathered the large crowd of her warriors who stood outside.
“The baby?” Ulf asked, his attention back on Melrakki.
“Alright. I promise.”
Ulf took her hand in his and marched outside after Ótama. In his rush to get to the newcomers’ yurt, he almost dragged Melrakki behind him. As soon as he was in the open he whistled loudly three times. A few seconds later Bál cantered up to him. His nostrils were flared in his excitement at the smell of blood. Ulf lifted Melrakki up onto Bál’s back before he led them both towards the yurt. The dragon horse was loyal enough to follow him without reigns. Around them half-wake goblins, roused by the screams, stumbled out of their yurts, all of them woken by the screams. Ulf’s expression snapped them out of their daze. They knew that somebody was going to die.
Melrakki’s mouth pressed into a tight line as they reached the yurt. Loud pleas came from inside as the goblins pounded against the blocked doorway. Ótama stood outside it with a torch in her hand.
“Where is Garðarr?” Ulf asked.
“Some of them ran before we got here, he’s hunting them down now,” Ótama replied.
Ulf nodded and waited till Garðarr returned with three of the goblins who had fled. The old goblin chief was among them. Ulf glared down at them as they were forced to kneel in front of him. He reached up into his hair and pulled their cuff free, the root cuff splintering as he did so.
“I took you in, fed you, swore to protect you, and you do this?” Ulf’s low, controlled voice was far more chilling than a scream. Behind him, Bál fidgeted and pawed at the ground, sure that he was about to be fed.
“Moldof, he took our children,” the old goblin chief begged. “We didn’t have any choice!”
Ulf sneered at him. “And you believed that if you killed me he would give them back? Your children are either dead or branded already you fool.”
The old goblin crumpled into a heap on the ground, sobbing like a child. “What would you have done? If they had taken your children?”
“We would have fought him to the death!” Melrakki shouted without hesitation before Ulf could reply. “Fought until they were forced to kill us if we couldn’t win!”
“But I wanted to live!” The old man spat, almost foaming at the mouth. “We all wanted to live!”
Ulf crouched down in front of him to bring his piercing blue eyes inches from the goblin’s old brown ones. “Then you should not have betrayed me!”
Garðarr and his warriors stepped forward and forced the goblins into the yurt before they tied down the door again. Dozens of handprints appeared on the bison skin, as the goblins inside tried desperately to tear open the yurt wall with their fingernails.
“Are they all in there?” Ulf asked.
Garðarr nodded and passed Ulf a torch. Before Ulf could step forward Melrakki reached down and gently took the torch from Ulf.
On the back of the dragon horse she was at the perfect height to easily hold the torch under the slight awning which ran around the yurt. Within seconds the fire from her torch began to trickle along the walls and roof and the yowls from inside became more and more frenzied until they were barely distinguishable from the howls of the wind.
Melrakki watched Ulf silently as he watched the yurt burn. Try as she might, she felt no sympathy for the goblins she had helped burn. Ulf had taken them in and offered to protect them when every other tribe in the plains would have turned them away if not killed them outright. In return, they had tried to kill him. While he might feel a tinge of guilt, she did not.
“You deserved this!” she whispered.