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Righteous fury, p.11
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       Righteous Fury, p.11

           Markus Heitz
 

  Caphalor ran his fingers over the place where the arrow poisoned with the lethal serum had hit him, aware now that his own immortality had been set limits. But he was not prepared to dwell on that. Indicating Raleeha, he asked, “Will she know what a gålran zhadar is?”

  “She doesn’t have to—she won’t be able to see him, will she?” Sinthoras put the armor over his head and tugged the straps to ensure it fitted snugly. Then he checked his own bags. The fflecx seemed to have given them both everything they would need for the trip.

  To his surprise, Caphalor began to explain the gålran zhadar to Raleeha. “They look like groundlings,” Caphalor told Raleeha, “but they are very different. The groundlings grub about under the earth, whereas a gålran zhadar will build his stronghold at giddy heights. They are good at magic and are excellent fighters with a tendency to take things that don’t belong to them: they call it ‘collecting.’ Not much other than that is really known about them. There’s only said to be a handful of them in Ishím Voróo and I’ve never encountered one.”

  “Thank you, noble lord,” she said, her head bowed.

  “They keep slaves like we do,” Sinthoras added, getting to his feet, “and they collect just about everything that takes their fancy. Perhaps this one will take a liking to you, Raleeha.”

  “Or to you,” snapped Caphalor from the saddle. He pointed down the road. “Here comes your mount.”

  Sinthoras turned and saw what they were bringing him: a beast that was an eccentric mix of donkey and bull. Four pitiful horns stood out at odd angles and its light-brown coat sported isolated clumps of hair. The back was long enough to take both him and Raleeha. “I will never ride that thing,” he whispered, shaking with anger, seeing himself made fun of again.

  Caphalor sat upright in his saddle, one hand on his hip, and intoned smugly, “But for the sake of our mission . . .”

  CHAPTER V

  Ocizùr was home to the craftsmen; they shared their knowledge with each other harmoniously. They founded schools and universities to enable them to perfect their skills.

  Riphâlgis was the area where the artists lived, they too merged their various forms of creativity and invented a new one. Death was their main fascination and so they chose, where possible, to work with materials provided by the end of life.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Footnote

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), the kingdom of the fflecx,

  4370th division of unendingness (5198th solar cycle),

  summer.

  They sat in a cave protected by a grove of thick-trunked targo trees, forced to rest during a period of inclement weather. Caphalor watched Raleeha trying, despite her blindness, to make notes for herself. She was doing this quite cleverly—scraping marks onto paper with a pointed stone and checking with her fingertips to see if she could read the words she had formed.

  Sinthoras was on guard at the mouth of the cave, eating some of his provisions; he had left his mount out in the rain, while Sardaî munched on a rabbit toward the back of the shelter. It was obvious from the splintering and cracking that the night-mare was enjoying devouring the creature. The cold air of the cave carried the smell of blood.

  “You have found a way to manage, then?” Caphalor observed.

  “I lost my eyesight. I didn’t lose my mind, noble sir,” she said crisply. She blushed, realizing how arrogant that had sounded, and stammered an apology.

  The more Caphalor learned about Raleeha, the more she fascinated him. She did not sit lamenting her fate or complaining to her master, who had said she was surplus to requirements. She had an open and intelligent mind and a pleasing nature for a barbarian—and she was wasted on an älf like Sinthoras. A slave like that was very valuable, particularly coming from the Lotor family. It was true, blinding her had reduced her value to some extent, but she was still worth more than any other human slave. Then there were her feelings for her master: she loved him to the point of self-sacrifice. It was unconditional love.

  Caphalor decided to try to win her trust: loyalty was more important than obedience and this situation demanded strategic thinking. It was quite possible that Raleeha might suddenly find herself in line for the barbarian throne and at the head of a 100,000-strong army: a force of that size would come in extremely useful. He wanted her to remember him later, and in a good way.

  “Perhaps you should try drawing like that.”

  Raleeha kept on practicing her letters. “It won’t be aesthetically pleasing: any drawings I made would be ugly distortions, and I don’t want that. I’ll stick to words, noble lord.”

  Caphalor was deep in thought. He was still assuming that they would complete their missions successfully: the errand set by Munumon and the main assignment for the Inextinguishables, but what if they were to die from the poison before they completed their tasks? “Tell me, Raleeha. What would you do for your master?”

  “Anything, noble lord,” was the swift response.

  “Would you be prepared, for example, to take on an obligation to help save the lives of thousands of älfar?”

  Raleeha raised her head as if she could see him. He could read the surprise on her features. “I am waiting, noble lord.”

  He was not sure how far he should go. “The moment has not yet come,” he said, after a little more thought. “But if it looked as if Sinthoras and I were not going to be able to return to Dsôn Faïmon alive, it may be up to you to complete our mission.”

  She stood up and made a deep bow. “That would be the greatest honor I could think of, noble lord. I am glad that you place your trust—”

  “In a blind woman?” Sinthoras, called out in disbelief from the cave entrance. “Caphalor, get yourself a slave of your own if you want to hatch plans. Leave mine alone, understand? It’s stopped raining. We should get underway.”

  Raleeha jerked back in shock, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong.

  “Unlike you, I am trying to think about how we could save our mission if we fail,” Caphalor retorted, unmoved by the other’s harsh criticism.

  “We are not going to fail,” said Sinthoras in a superior tone. “Or rather, I shan’t fail. Giving any guarantee for you would be like putting a hand into an óarco’s mouth and hoping it wouldn’t bite.” He chewed slowly on a strip of dried meat. “She is only a slave, and she’s blind. She could never take on our mission. If it weren’t for us she’d be dead in a ditch or chopped up and fed to the óarcos as stew. Don’t go putting some idea into her head that she could ever prove useful.”

  For once, Caphalor was pleased that Sinthoras was behaving so arrogantly: it would make him appear nicer in comparison. Even if his rival were not wrong in principle, they could not discount anything on this mission; the fflecx poison could have killed them instantly if that had been Munumon’s intention. “I see it differently,” he replied roughly.

  “The only reason she is still alive,” countered Sinthoras, “is that she is a Lotor and her brother is gathering the barbarians into a large army. Otherwise I’d have had her head off her shoulders in a flash after what she’s done. Think about it—her running away from Dsôn, any other slave would be put to death for even mentioning the idea.”

  Caphalor saw Raleeha pale in dismay.

  “What’s with your great plan for destroying the fflecx kingdom?” he asked sarcastically. He felt like provoking his arrogant rival. “What part do I play?”

  “None at all,” came the contemptuous reply. “I don’t need your help. My plan will remain a secret, or you might try to take the credit.”

  Caphalor gave a pitying laugh.

  Sinthoras suddenly whirled round and grabbed his spear; then he stepped further back into the cave and laid a finger on his lips. “Keep quiet,” he whispered.

  Caphalor tightened his bowstring and hurried over to Sinthoras, quiver in hand.

  He could hear and smell what was approaching: trolls, a whole band of them marching through t
he woods. There must’ve been a good dozen of them; the forest floor was shaking under their weight and the targo tree branches were swaying wildly. What these hirsute beasts lacked in intelligence they made up for in size and brute strength.

  Caphalor grasped what they were saying because they spoke in short phrases. They were incapable of complex sentence structures.

  “Gold,” roared one of them. “Want gold.”

  “Meat better,” called another. “But not tough. Want tender meat again. Naked girl meat.”

  “Right. Girl flesh. Hope he has naked girl,” shouted the first one excitedly.

  Naked girls were barbarians. That was what the trolls called them because, compared with themselves, barbarians had so little hair. Caphalor could not place their dialect. They certainly were not eastern Ishím Voróo trolls, and they were too far away to see.

  “It be fine,” yelled another of the trolls. “We get in strong castle. She say we do.”

  “Yes,” shouted someone rowdily. “Yes, we go. Nobody do this. Only us. We break him open. We pull arms and legs off. Like beetle. We eat him.”

  General merriment ensued. “Break fortress,” they screamed. “All silly turrets. All fall down.” This caught the attention of the two älfar.

  Sinthoras was the first to set off after them.

  “Wait here in the cave for us,” Caphalor told Raleeha. “Never fear, they are too big to get through the entrance.” With that, he left in pursuit of Sinthoras.

  He was already out of sight, employing his gift of silent movement as he made his way through the undergrowth to creep up on the trolls. Only the slight swaying of the foliage as he passed would have given him away.

  Caphalor chose to move through the forest at treetop level.

  He swiftly fastened the strap of his bow round him and climbed the nearest tree to leap to the next one, alighting for a second before launching himself into the air once more. In this way he was able to cover a great distance surprisingly swiftly. The trick was to make sure his bow did not snag on a branch; a fall would be dangerous and would make him look ridiculous, even if no one were watching.

  Caphalor soon caught sight of a troll’s white-furred back. This one was wearing a loin guard studded with protective iron plates and his legs were wound round with rope, presumably to guard against knife slashes. His weapon was a coarsely fashioned long-handled club, stuck with seven lengthy spikes at the business end.

  Caphalor was surprised by the troll’s size; not more than four paces tall, but much more muscular than trolls he had seen, fought and defeated in the past. These must have originated elsewhere in Lar Too. Perhaps they were on a scouting expedition? Or a ritual journey?

  “Hey! Slow down!” one troll shouted angrily. “Can’t do so fast.”

  He received a stone thrown at his head in answer.

  “Shut up.” The command sounded suddenly from between the trees. “Gålran zhadar not deaf.”

  “Good. Got it,” the white-furred troll called back.

  Caphalor could only shake his head. Stupidity and ugliness everywhere you looked—that was Ishím Voróo all over.

  He darted above the troll’s head without being noticed and overtook a heavily laden gang of younger trolls trotting through the woods, giving no thought to military discipline, relying solely on their strength.

  Caphalor settled himself on a branch ahead of them to watch their approach.

  They were huge, ragged-coated creatures that Caphalor supposed would scare any normal opponent away. They had weird yellow eyes and repulsive gaping muzzles set into vulgar faces. Their broad cheekbones, thick lips and long, prominent teeth were obscured with thick beards, filthy with bits of food and twigs.

  The smell of them turned Caphalor’s stomach.

  The troll at the front of the gang was their leader and, unlike the others, he was wearing full armor; it was rusty and looked as if it had been cobbled together from various different suits—perhaps those of defeated enemies. Of course, there was no hint of any armor that might have belonged to an älf.

  Caphalor heard a whistle coming from the right. Sinthoras had hidden amongst the ferns and was alerting him to his presence. He did not have to be afraid of being noticed, as the lesser beings like óarcos and similar were not able to register such high tones.

  “Fujock,” the leader called out, and up trotted a troll, panting. Caphalor noticed a harness on the other troll’s back, attached to something square covered by dirty blanket. It looked heavy.

  “Put heavy on floor. Run to end of forest. Say me where tower.”

  The troll groaned as he slid the straps of the harness off his shoulders. There was a crash as the object landed on the ground. The cover slipped off and Caphalor saw the metal bars of a cage.

  “Stinking idiot face!” the leader swore at him. “Not bang. You break! Need Thing to get in tower. Tell you before.”

  “Stinking idiot face,” echoed another of the gang, picking up a branch and chucking it at the clumsy troll.

  The unpopular one complained under his breath while the others put down their baggage and gathered round their leader. Quietly—at least it was quiet for a bunch of trolls—they chatted about how best to approach the tower.

  “Idiots, all of you!” The leader took over. “Easy get in to tower. Thing tell us where door is. Big secret door. Nobody know we come.”

  Caphalor could not imagine a secret entrance large enough for a gang of grown trolls, nor could he imagine why this “Thing” should want to tell them how to get round the gålran zhadar defenses—unless it was a trap for the trolls.

  One way or the other, he did not like the sound of what they were up to. The tower forces would certainly notice a rampaging horde of trolls and would be on high alert, making their own mission much more difficult to execute. The trolls had to be stopped, he and Sinthoras could find out what the Thing was after that. He climbed up to the top of the tree, peered toward the northeast—and saw the sky fortress.

  It was a cloud-eater of a construction. There were six towers each with a diameter of at least fifty paces. They rose steeply skywards, tapering toward the top. An arrow shot vertically would never reach as high. The tops of the two towers on the left were veiled in cloud, so it was unclear exactly how tall they were, perhaps even higher than the visible ones.

  Connecting staircases and intricate tubes ran between the towers in the topmost third of the fortress’s height. At first sight it looked chaotic, but a moment’s reflection showed Caphalor it was merely an aesthetic that he was not used to. He could see the attraction: it was almost as if the gods had planted these towers in the earth. He had never seen anything like it, no matter how wonderful the buildings created by Dsôn’s best architects. He was eager to view it from closer up.

  How do they manage to construct something like that? He thought, and how long would it take to build?

  A high whistle interrupted his examination of the fortress: Sinthoras was calling him.

  He climbed back down onto his branch, arriving back on his observation perch just as the scouting troll returned to make his report. Caphalor whistled a signal to his hidden colleague that he should prepare for an attack. He notched an arrow to his bow.

  Aiming for the leader’s right eye he let fly, already grabbing and shooting the next arrow even as the first was underway. No more than three heartbeats lay between the two shots; he knew that no other älf would be able to outshoot him in speed and in accuracy, and certainly not a human.

  The first arrow pierced the leader’s eye; the second hit its fellow through the pupil. At such a short distance the missiles lost none of their momentum and they passed through the entire skull. The leader collapsed, falling against two other trolls, his right leg jerking uncontrollably.

  The gang of trolls roared in unison and jumped to arm themselves, ducking down and looking around frantically for the assassin.

  You are too stupid to notice that you are already dead. Before his hiding place could be l
ocated, Caphalor shot the next troll twice through the throat; then another fell to a shot in the back of the neck, while a fourth staggered and collapsed with two arrows through the heart. He put number five out of action with an arrow straight into its gaping mouth.

  The brutes still had no idea what was happening.

  Caphalor was looking forward to finishing off the whole gang at his ease from his elevated position. It was a shame he would not be able to use their blood or collect the skeletons to take home: he could have made a wonderful instrument from all these bones, perhaps he could take a shinbone back as a souvenir for Tarlesa’s collection.

  But he had not reckoned with Sinthoras’ reaction. Caphalor didn’t know whether it was his attention-seeking nature, envy or his need to fight—at any rate, Sinthoras darted from his hiding place to attack the remaining five trolls with his spear.

  Sinthoras slit a troll’s throat while still in midleap; the brute was too late to ward off his attack. It fell coughing and choking, spraying light gray blood from the gaping wound.

  Two of the last four trolls were facing away from him and therefore still harmless, so he dealt with the two charging toward him, their teeth bared.

  Sliding between the open legs of the nearest troll, Sinthoras jammed his spear into the ground to trip his victim up and then pivoted round, using his own weapon as a fulcrum, avoiding the angry blows of the next assailant. The impact of the trolls’ clubs left a deep indentation in the ground, throwing up soil and dirt all over him.

  This was how he liked it! Why should Caphalor have all the fun? Anyway, he was keen to find out what was in the cage before Caphalor did.

  “You want pain? Try this!” he called. He pulled out a long, thin blade and pushed it under one of the trolls’ leather aprons, slicing from right to left. The troll let out a shrill, high scream, dropped its weapon and grabbed its genitals in both hands; blood came pouring down its thighs as it collapsed to the ground.

 
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