“How did you sleep last night, Rakki?” Ulf asked as he sat down next to Melrakki on the bed. She smiled up at him from the nest of bundled blankets and shook her head with a yawn.
“I didn’t sleep at all. I don’t think anyone did.” Melrakki laughed and reached for his hand to hold it tightly. “Did it work?”
“Yes,” Ulf replied. There was a defeated tone in his voice.
Melrakki’s eyes snapped open and she sat up next to him. “What happened?”
“Systa is missing, and Skógi.”
“She’s been looking for them since dawn.”
Melrakki nodded and leant her head against Ulf. “She’ll be back.”
“I hope so,” Ulf replied grimly and kissed her. “But for the moment we are safe.”
Melrakki nodded and leaned her head against this chest, eager to have him hold her in his arms again. As much as she excelled in portraying a constant air of calmness, the last few hours had frightened her. The return of the Hætta was a potent reminder of the power the dwarfs had over them and how quickly their life could return to the way it had always been.
“You’re shaking,” Ulf remarked and held her even more tightly.
“No I’m not.” Melrakki smiled contentedly and pressed her head closer to his chest. “You’re here now.”
Ulf smiled and pulled the blankets back around her. “I’m here now.”
Without a word of warning Gríð walked into the yurt. “Ulf? Ulf!”
“What is it mother?” Ulf growled. He stood up to face her as she walked around the lattice screen which divided the yurt in half.
“I think Systa’s gone to the mountain.”
“Why do you think that?”
“She came to my yurt before we left yesterday. She asked how she was going to die, and when I asked Kuzma what happened to the last of the Keilic worms, she said that Systa had taken them all.”
Ulf’s face dropped like a stone. If Systa had gone to the mountain, then the odds were that she was already dead. Ótama!
“Stay here!” Ulf ordered and reached for his weapons which lay by the bed. “If Ótama comes in here without me, don’t let her near Melrakki.”
“Bah, if Systa’s dead, Ótama would want to kill you, not your wife.” Gríð remarked nonchalantly.
Melrakki glared at her. “How can you say that!”
“It’s true.” Gríð shrugged her shoulders. “Ótama would never go after you. She’s not like Moldof.”
Ulf shook his head at her and leaned down to kiss Melrakki. “I’ll be alright. I leave when you leave with me.” He promised her. Melrakki knotted her hands into his hair, afraid to let go. She nodded and kissed him again, before she released her grip.
“Please, mother, try to be subtle,” Ulf whispered to Gríð before he left. “It doesn’t help.”
“If Melrakki wants me to lie to her then she should get me to read her future. Otherwise I’ll tell the truth!” Gríð snapped back before she went to sit in her usual spot in the corner of the yurt.
* * *
“What?” Ótama looked back at Ulf as though he had disemboweled her. She stumbled backwards and held her hands to her neck, as her breath stuck in her throat. “Are you sure?”
Systa’s warriors watched nervously as Ulf spoke to Ótama. Most of them had spent the entire night searching the plains for Systa after they had followed her bison’s tracks to a goblin camp near the mountains.
“The kelic worms are all gone, and Kuzma said she saw her leave with Skógi towards the mountain.”
Ótama did not reply for a while. Ulf watched her. He kept his eyes on her hands, and his own hands as close to his sword as he dared. While he had no desire to provoke a confrontation, he was aware that at any moment she could reach for her sword. He had done nothing to purposely endanger Systa, but he doubted Ótama would see it that way. Systa’s devotion to him and his cause was completely unwavering, as was Ótama’s devotion to her sister, but with Systa gone, he had no way of knowing how Ótama’s rage would manifest.
Without a word Ótama ran towards her bison.
“The sewers! I remember her speaking about the sewers, if she got into the city then that is the way she would try to get out!”
* * *
Ótama skidded to a stop next to the vent outlet and looked down at the fast running sludge which poured out of it. It was the last sewage outlet that they knew about. All the others had been checked and it was the last possible shred of hope she had. She stared down into the small pool which collected under the outlet before it poured into the small mountain river and prayed for the smallest hint of a goblin figure.
When Systa had first scouted the mountain slopes below Bjargtre for the sewer outlets, Ótama had considered the information less than important. She swore at herself again for the hundredth time that day for not paying more attention. They had wasted too much time trying to remember where they all were, and night was nearly upon them. As soon as the light was gone, any chance to find Systa was all but gone. Ótama did not know if her sanity could bear another restless night.
“Is she there?” Ulf asked. All of the goblins were covered in dwarf filth. Every single one of the outlets had been thoroughly searched before they had moved onto the next one. They had waded, swum, and for a few of the outlets, dug their way through the filth on the surface of the water, just in case there might be a body under it all.
Ótama jumped down into the pool and waded through the waste, her hands outsreatched under the water.
“Systa!? Systa!” Ótama shouted at the top of her lungs. “Don’t do this to me little sister! Syst—”
At the far end of the pool next to the pipe she noticed a hand just above the surface and the glint of Ulf’s cuff under the thick blanket of sewage tied to a thick knot of jet black hair.
The rest of the goblins jumped down into the pool and waded over to them as Ótama lifted Systa up into her arms and wiped the muck from her face.
“Skógi?” Systa mumbled, her mouth half full of the filthy water from the pool. “Where…w-w-where is Skógi?”
“Find Skógi!” Ótama bellowed at the other goblins who quickly worked their way down the pool in a line towards the river.
Ótama cried and then screamed in frustration down at her sister, her face an ashen shade of green and her short hair matted thick with the excrement from the tunnels.
“What were you thinking? How could you do this!?”
Systa coughed loudly and wrapped her arm across Ótama’s shoulders so that she could stand. As soon as she was upright she looked over at Ulf who stood a few feet away from them on the bank and raised her chin proudly.
“Agrokū, the city is infected,” she said, too tired to raise her voice above a whisper. “And the sewers…they lead directly to their homes. If we block the sewers the sickness will be a hundred times worse within a few days.”
Ulf nodded proudly, until he saw the arrow shaft protruding from Systa’s side. He jumped down into the pool and took Systa’s hand as she lost consciousness for a moment.
“What did you do!” Ótama howled. “You idiot! What were you thinking!”
“I was thinking, long live the king!” Systa laughed before she howled in pain and her knees buckled for a second time.
“I’m going to kill you!” Ótama hissed.
“I think the dwarfs beat you to it,” Systa whimpered.
Ótama glared at her sister, a murderous look in her eyes. Had it not been for the arrow embedded in Systa’s side, Ulf had no doubt Ótama would had tried to drown her then and there.
“Skógi, where is Skógi? I couldn’t hold on to him…where—” with a groan Systa dropped backwards. Ulf caught her just before she hit the surface and lifted her up into his arms.
Ótama turned toward the other goblins and her face dropped as she saw Skógi carried on their shoulders. His skin was more blue than green. The goblin’s shook their heads at her and slowly carried him towards the bison, their eyes on the ground. Those who had known him were unable to make eye contact with Ótama.
Ulf gently laid Systa on the ground and Ótama ran to her bison for the water skin she had tied to the saddle bag.
“Has it gone through?” she asked as she knelt down next to them.
“Will she—” Ótama’s words caught in her throat, unable to say what she was afraid of.
“We should take the arrow out,” Ulf replied, reluctant to answer the question. “She can’t ride like this.”
Ótama nodded and poured the little water that remained in her water skin over the arrow head to clean it.
“Wait, that’s not enough. Take mine!”
One by one the other goblins passed her their water skins for her to clean the arrow until all of the dirt and filth around the arrow exit and entry had been cleaned away.
“If you live, I’m going to kill you,” Ótama whispered. With a quick turn of her wrist she broke the head free and Ulf pulled the arrow shaft back through Systa’s side. Systa shuddered but did not regain consciousness. Her breathing was so quiet that Ótama could barely hear it. Ulf quickly undid his veil and wrapped it around Systa’s waist to stop the blood.
“Gríð can help her,” Ótama said out loud to herself. “She survived the city, she can survive this.”
Ulf nodded, but Ótama noticed how his eyes were unable to express the same certainty.
“She’ll be fine!” Ótama repeated, a tinge of panic in her voice.
Ulf nodded again and took Systa from her while Ótama mounted her bison. As he passed her back to Ótama she glared down at him, a murderous look in her eyes.
“She’ll be fine! She has to be.”