Ótama had made a makeshift bed for Systa in the middle of the room, next to the fire. Systa lay on the bed under several thick fur blankets. Her face was still a pale green, her lips were blue and there were dark circles around her eyes. Systa was so still that she looked dead, and for a brief moment Ulf felt his blood run cold, until he saw the furs rise and fall. Each breath was so far apart it was hard to tell that she was breathing.
Ótama turned to look at him. Her eyes were red and swollen and fresh tears stained her face.
“How is she?”
“Alive,” Ótama replied and looked back down at Systa. Ulf remained near the door, his hand near the hilt of hilt of his dagger. He was afraid to approach her.
“Has my mother seen her?”
“What do you think?” Ótama replied and pointed to a large pile of honey roots nearby. “She cleaned the wound, but she said she wasn’t sure if—” Ótama’s voice faltered and she took a deep breath. “If she will survive the night. She just has to survive the night.”
Ulf nodded lifted away the curtain across the doorway to leave. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes, pray my sister survives.”
Ulf’s eyes narrowed at the thinly veiled threat, but he said nothing and left the yurt. Ótama and Systa’s warriors surrounded their yurt. All of them were nervous and several of them pressed their hands to their shoulders in prayer. Some of them were afraid for Systa, but most of them worried what Ótama would do if her sister died.
Ulf walked across the camp to Gríð’s yurt. The inside of her yurt was not much better than Systa’s. The honeyroot smoke was just as overwhelming. Gríð looked up at him as he entered and spat a large glob of chewed root into the spitting bowl between her crossed legs.
“How is she?”
“You know how she is!” Ulf snapped. “She’s dying.”
Her indifferent reply infuriated him. Angry, he kicked at one of the small bowls of burning honey. “She is dying!” Ulf hissed. “If she dies Ótama will turn on me.”
Gríð reached for a pipe near the fireplace and poured a thick syrup of honeyroot sap into the end. In no hurry to reply to Ulf’s outburst she took several puffs and leaned back, both eyes closed, a calm contented look on her face.
“Well then,” Gríð replied and took another puff, “you have two choices. Kill her now, or make sure that nobody would follow her. Not even her own warriors.”
“And how do you suggest I do that?” Ulf snapped. “If I kill Ótama everyone will think they’re next. That is not the kind of leader I want to be! I am not Moldof.”
“What do you mean?”
Gríð smiled and blew a long puff of smoke up into the cloud that had already formed over her head. “Wait and see.”
* * *
Ótama watched from the doorway of her yurt as a large fire was built a few feet away. The flames had already taken hold of the wood and had started to burn with enough intensity for her to feel it from where she stood. The burning wood and sparks crackled loudly. The camp had all gathered around it and watched anxiously for Gríð. Every so often their eyes flitted over to Ótama before they looked back at the fire. None of them were able to hold her glare for very long as the dagger-sharp tension mounted.
In her hand Ótama held Systa’s cuff. The metal had been polished clean of all the filth that had covered it. Ótama walked forward as Gríð approached and passed her Systa’s cuff. Gríð took it from her and stumbled over to the fire. Her eyes had a complete glaze from the sheer volume of honey root she had smoked.
Ulf watched as his mother threw several bundles of honey root into the fire and a thick sickly-sweet fog spread from it, engulfing the crowd. Ulf reached down and pulled his veil across his mouth to avoid inhaling the smoke. The rest of the crowd had no such inclinations. They watched as Gríð threw more and more roots onto the fire. The smoke was soon so thick that nobody could help but breathe it in.
Gríð began to wail and chant. The thick beaded bone headdress she wore clinked together loudly with each sway. With a scream Gríð tossed Systa’s cuff into the fire and screamed louder and louder till her voice could no longer sustain the sound and it faded into a rasp.
“I see Systa, at the side of a great wolf! She has given the wolf his path to victory!”
The crowed all cooed and gasped. They were hooked on every word that came out of her mouth. Meanwhile, Ulf felt his face redden, embarrassed by his mother’s display.
“The wolf, the wolf will lead us to victory! The wolf…it will set us free from the mountain! The great mountain!”
Around the fire the goblins began to chant her words back until they were whittled down to just two words. The wolf. Ulf looked over at Ótama. The frown on her face was gone, replaced by a resigned stare. Ulf did not have to ask what it meant. He saw that she had been convinced. It had only taken a little honey root and a dramatic performance to convince one of the strongest warriors he had ever known, not to kill the goblin she blamed for her sister’s possible death. It was both impressive and pathetic.
“The wolf will set us free!” Gríð shouted. Her eyes opened so wide that she looked more than a little mad. She tossed another pile of roots into the fire, then another, and another. The sweet fog smothered the whole camp. Soon, it was all but impossible to see further than an arms length ahead. Hidden in the fog, Ulf his way back to his yurt. The glow of the fire was erie through the smoke, but the chants were even more unsettling.
“The wolf! The wolf will set us free!”
“If only it were that easy,” Ulf muttered under his breath.
As he walked back to his hut, he nodded at Garðarr and then stopped beside him. Before he spoke to him he motioned at the other guards stationed around his tent to leave and waited till they were out of earshot.
“Systa, how is she?” Garðarr asked.
“We won’t know till morning.”
Garðarr nodded and coughed loudly. “Damn honey root, they’re going to choke on it.”
“They are choking on it,” Ulf replied and placed his hand on Garðarr’s shoulder. He fixed his blue eyes intently on Garðarr. “If Systa dies, we both know what Ótama might do.”
Garðarr looked up at the red glow of the fire through the honey root fog and nodded. He looked sad but determined. “When?”
“Only if Systa dies. I won’t take any chances, but you and only you. Nobody else must know. Understood?”