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Righteous fury, p.17
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       Righteous Fury, p.17

           Markus Heitz
 

  Interminable rain fell from gray skies. It washed the burned skin from Karjuna’s shoulders and cooled the wounds she had incurred. Caphalor could not kill her yet, however much he wanted to. First he had to get her to complete the inscription on the parchment.

  He was worrying about what to say to the gnome when they met: they had not carried out their task in full, but the king was getting his stolen property back. That should be worth the antidote.

  He felt pangs in his side again and there was pressure in his chest that made him fear he was suffocating. He coughed and was able to breathe once more: the poison was making itself felt more and more frequently. Ignoring the protests of the two women, he urged Sardaî on.

  He wondered what he could do if Munumon were not in a conciliatory mood. Surely he could tempt the king with some other offer? The obboona might serve as a hostage he could exchange? Or he could fashion a musical instrument for him: a bone and skull flute made from the obboona’s skeleton? One would not normally use fresh bones for an instrument, but it would be good enough for the gnome king.

  He was sure the fflecx, being gnomoids, could easily be charmed by any small thing that aroused their curiosity. Caphalor thought he could invent some silly story to go with the flute and perhaps Munumon would be so intrigued he would hand over the remedy.

  It annoyed him to know that he could not simply kill the fflecx, though he was loath to dismiss the possibility entirely—it would be a magnificent feeling to have Munumon and his entire court dead at his feet, as long as he had secured the antidote first, of course.

  Caphalor wiped the rain out of his eyes. His thoughts strayed to Sinthoras and how he had once more shown his true nature by charging off on his own: inconsiderate and selfish. He did not believe for a single moment that the älf had set out alone from any sense of altruism: it was his own skin he had been concerned with when he made off from the cave—and with any luck he would wander directly into the arms of his own mortality.

  Looking back, he saw the two women would not be able to keep up the pace for much longer. They were nearly exhausted from struggling through the mud, but they were not going fast enough.

  When they came across a fflecx driving two ponies and a cart, Caphalor forced him to cooperate with a good dose of terror and let the women ride on the cart while he rode next to them on Sardaî.

  They had to stop when evening fell, as even Caphalor was feeling tired. They pulled off the road and used a tarpaulin from the cart as a tent for shelter. They built a fire while the gnome saw to the ponies.

  Karjuna used this rest period to examine and rework the parchment.

  Caphalor noticed she was leaving several gaps in the text and asked her why.

  She attempted a smile on her ruined face. “My demigod, I admire you and will do anything you ask, but forgive me if I build in some security for myself.” Her cracked lips split as she spoke and blood ran down her skin. “As soon as we reach the palace I’ll fill in the gaps and, as my reward, you will let me go free.”

  He stared at her and then burst out laughing. “Of course, obboona,” he said, amused. “Today, you decide what I do.” His manner became deadly serious and menacing. He picked up the loose end of a rope that was securing the tarpaulin and he whipped it across her torn face. The skin ripped open and more blood coursed down.

  “If you dare to speak to me like that ever again,” he threatened, “I shall kill you. Finish the parchment, now! And if I see even one drop of your filthy blood on it, I’ll open your veins and let you bleed to death.”

  She nodded hastily and wiped the blood away with her arm.

  Caphalor noticed that Raleeha’s expression had grown somber. She was trying to keep her distance from the flesh-stealer, but it was not easy under the tarpaulin shelter. “What’s the matter?”

  “Pardon me, master,” she answered, facing him. Her black hair hung in wet strands across her face. She was soaked through. “I don’t want to touch the obboona. She is the most hateful creature imaginable.”

  Karjuna snorted with derisive laughter.

  “I’m almost glad to be blind,” Raleeha exclaimed, “so as not to have to behold your face. Your deeds against the älfar are truly horrendous and you all deserve death a hundred times over. If I could see I would take a weapon and kill you myself!”

  This passionate tirade made the obboona laugh even louder, causing the skin on her face to split open further. Raleeha clenched her fists in anger.

  Caphalor found it strange that a human would defend his kind so fervently: she must really want to be with Sinthoras, but she was obeying the demands he had made of her when he had given her away. It was älfar law.

  “Silence!” he commanded, leaving it open to debate as to which of the women he was addressing.

  The sight of Raleeha gave Caphalor an idea. He walked up to the obboona, who flinched and cowered over her parchment task, hoping she had not dripped any blood on it.

  “My demigod, it isn’t easy to complete the runes,” she stammered in her own defense.

  Without a word he took the parchment from her and handed it to Raleeha. Then he crouched down at her side. “Touch the parchment and try to feel what has been written. Can you detect the scratches made by the pen?”

  “No, demigod,” screeched the obboona. “Of course she can’t! She’s only a stupid little slave girl. It’s only me that can read it and save your life. I . . .”

  Caphalor ignored her and watched Raleeha pass her fingers carefully over the writing with a smile that might have graced the countenance of an älfar girl.

  “Yes, I can feel the marks,” she announced. “It’s not easy, but I can feel the indentations with my fingertips.”

  An object flew past Caphalor’s face; he had already stretched out a hand to catch it before it could hit Raleeha. It was a hammer from the toolbox on the cart. He cast an icy look over his shoulder.

  The obboona had stood up. “No! Don’t let her! She must die!” she hissed. “I want to save you; she can’t! You are my demigod. You have to be in my debt and then you will belong to me!” Wide-eyed, she stared at him. “I want you to be mine!”

  In answer Caphalor hurled the hammer back at her, catching her full on the breast. She fell backward with a groan.

  “Master?” called Raleeha in concern.

  “The flesh-stealer and I both realized at the same time that she is no longer needed.” He got up and approached Karjuna, but she crawled quickly off into the undergrowth. “I wish it had occurred to me earlier.” Caphalor sprang onto Sardaî s back and pursued the fleeing obboona through the pouring rain.

  The night-mare only had to go a few paces before dancing round, snorting heavily. Sardaî had caught his rider’s anger. Sharp lightning flashes shot out of the hooves as it jumped over the obboona, kicking her.

  Moaning, she rolled into a ball, covering herself with mud.

  “Please, my demigod,” she whimpered. “I only did it because . . .”

  Caphalor looked down at her, overcome with fury and disgust. He got Sardaî to place his left front hoof on her back. This time the lightning flashes lasted longer; she shrieked like a wild animal as the shape of the iron shoe buried its way into the charred skin of her back. “You shall die, obboona, but it won’t be me or my stallion killing you, that would be too much of a privilege—the fflecx scum will execute you in whatever fashion they want.” Sardaî withdrew his hoof and neighed loudly, his ears pricking up in alarm. Something was making the night-mare uneasy.

  Caphalor took his bow out of its carrying sheath and opened the saddle quiver to select an arrow. He had let himself become distracted by the thought of killing the obboona.

  Caphalor saw their camp not three paces away, with the gnome carter standing by the vehicle looking at him questioningly. Raleeha stood in silence, waiting. The obboona lay still, the burn mark on her back smoldering slowly.

  Then they heard branches and twigs breaking underfoot and there was a thump of something heavy in
motion. A thick branch came hurtling out of the thicket, heading straight for Caphalor.

  The älf needed only to apply the lightest pressure of his thighs to make the night-mare swerve out of the way; the wary stallion had already sensed the danger. The missile struck the gnome instead, crushing his chest and his head, then continuing to destroy the side of the cart.

  Caphalor loosed a shot into the thicket. One heartbeat later a pale gray troll lumbered out of the undergrowth, clothed only in filthy, soaking bearskins and brandishing uprooted saplings as makeshift clubs. The arrow had caught him in the shoulder, but this was only increasing his rage. He bared his yellow teeth and opened his throat to emit a terrible roar. He looked hungry.

  Remaining calm, the älf called up the fear and concentrated on the next shot. He would not get another chance—the troll was too close. Struck through the right eye by the second arrow, the creature slowed, staggered and fell into the mud with a groan.

  Loud roars issued from the thicket. The troll had not been alone.

  The ponies bolted with their cart, whinnying in terror. One of the ropes had caught round Raleeha’s ankle and she was jerked off her feet and dragged behind the fleeing vehicle. The ropes snapped and the tarpaulin ripped through.

  Hunger-crazed trolls charged out of the undergrowth on all sides, and in the confusion Caphalor could not work out how many there were. The hunger made them more aggressive and unpredictable than ever. He had a dangerous fight on his hands. Warm magic spread up his spine—but then stopped. He saw black stars circling before his eyes, taking over his field of vision. His bow arm failed him: the poison was at work again.

  Three trolls ran to Caphalor as if they could sense his sudden weakness.

  He turned the night-mare against the first of the three and urged the animal to bite. The knife-sharp teeth ripped out a chunk from the troll’s belly, causing gray blood to pour from the severed arteries. The monster fell screaming to the ground, hands clutching the open wound.

  Caphalor concentrated hard and made the stars recede; his arm regained its strength. He shot the next troll through the mouth, killing it on the spot. The third foe executed an unexpected leap forward, thrashing about him with a long, heavy chain.

  The älf ducked under the flying black links, but the chain hit the stallion, so that it lost its footing on the soft mud.

  Caphalor tossed his bow away and launched himself out of the saddle to avoid being crushed under his own animal. He somersaulted back on to his feet and vaulted to the side.

  Drawing his serrated short swords, the älf took a run at the monster that was wielding its chain like a whip. The troll’s attempts to catch him with the flying links failed and Caphalor prepared to leap at his attacker and slit the unprotected throat.

  The undergrowth disgorged yet another foe: not a troll, but something bigger than a wild bear; it was more muscled, too, and with a longer snout and smoother coat. It was up on its hind legs, its front paws ready to strike. The muzzle was wide open showing teeth as transparent as glass.

  Caphalor knew what this new enemy was: a srink. He was surprised to find one here; the territory of the fflecx was thought to be free of these marauding beasts. The alchemancers had used their poisons to exterminate everything they did not like, except for the gålran zhadar.

  In battle its fangs and claws would lose their steely strength and break off in a wound, splintering like glass and making it almost impossible to remove the splinters from the flesh. Often their attempted removal would cause more damage than the original injury. The srink would simply grow new claws and teeth.

  The srink sank its teeth into the troll’s flank and Caphalor heard snapping noises, then the srink sprang back with a bark. The troll screamed pitifully and scrabbled around in the gash in its side, trying to remove the teeth, but the fragments sliced through the troll’s fingertips and were pressed further into its flesh. Its cries grew louder and it collapsed to the ground, forgetting both älf and srink.

  Caphalor whirled round when he heard Raleeha call for help.

  The cart had been stopped by five trolls: two of them had already torn the ponies to pieces and were devouring the hot flesh greedily, another was chomping on the remains of the gnome carter and another had grabbed Raleeha and was stripping her muddy clothing off, preparing to eat her. The fifth troll was waiting for his friend to finish.

  The srink had also heard Raleeha’s cry. It put its head back and uttered a loud roar.

  Samusin, where are you? I need your help! Caphalor implored.

  Caphalor sped past the srink, took out his long-distance bow and raced over to Raleeha, firing as he went.

  The rain had softened the bowstring, reducing the effectiveness of his shots, and he was only able to kill three of the trolls, the other two were only injured. One of these whirled round and charged the älf, who abandoned the bow and took up his short swords again.

  “Samusin!” he shouted into the skies. “Give me the strength I need to overcome the scum!” He launched himself at the foe.

  It was easy for Caphalor to avoid the reckless assault and turn on the troll, slashing its thigh with repeated rapid strokes. The beast thudded to the ground with a yelp of pain and Caphalor dealt with the last enemy, who was still holding Raleeha in its grasp, not letting her feet touch the ground.

  “Watch out, demigod,” Karjuna shouted suddenly, throwing herself at the troll’s broad back. In her hand she held the gnome-carter’s sword, aiming for the neck.

  Hearing her, the troll cast Raleeha to the floor and whirled round to catch the obboona in full flight. He hurled her down into the mud at his feet.

  That exploit won’t save your life, flesh-stealer. Caphalor had used the diversion to get behind the troll. The beast first, then you. He slashed through the leg tendons at the back of the knee and then stabbed it in the kidneys as it fell. The troll arched its back and roared but then collapsed. Caphalor stepped nimbly aside and jumped onto the corpse to get a better view.

  “Master?” Raleeha called out, helplessly trying to get her bearings. Her dress hung in rags, but she did not look like she cared about being half-naked. She was covered in dirt.

  “Shhh,” he said, turning round to see if there were other threats. “Keep quiet, Raleeha. There might be . . .”

  Five more srinks stormed out of the forest, furry ears upright and alert. They circled round Caphalor, Raleeha, and Karjuna, who stood up groaning, a short sword in her hand. She spat out a mouthful of mud and swept the glade with her eyes.

  “I can hear wolves,” Raleeha whispered fearfully.

  There were more sounds from the forest: other srinks were approaching at speed, while these stood watching them closely.

  “Not wolves—srinks,” he told her. In Dsôn srinks were said to be reasonably intelligent—he knew of two Dsôn älfar, at least, who kept srinks to guard their slaves because they were cleverer and quicker than dogs. They gathered in packs of about thirty or forty at a time, roaming in forest areas where the cover was good. “I can’t understand why they’re here: since the gnomes tried to wipe them out, they avoid the region altogether . . . supposedly.”

  One of the srink, a solidly built specimen, had a red scarf with runes on tied round its belly: the leader! It might be enough if he put this one out of action.

  For a terrifying moment Caphalor’s knees went weak again. These were not the best conditions for facing another crowd of opponents in battle.

  Raleeha slid over to the troll cadaver where Caphalor was perched. “Master, give me a weapon so I may defend myself.”

  “Be quiet,” he said. He could see the obboona backing slowly toward his vantage point. Caphalor would be forced to accept the flesh-stealer as an ally in the coming fight. “I shall forgive you. You have one more chance to win my trust,” he lied convincingly. “Come up here, obboona,” he commanded. “Stand here next to me.”

  “Gladly, demigod,” she exclaimed in delight, clambering up onto the troll corpse. With her badly
burned skin she was a horrific sight; a thick liquid mixed with blood was oozing out of the cracks in her flesh.

  “What’s with these srinks? They are different.” Caphalor pointed at the red embroidered scarf and surveyed the area swiftly, calculating: there must have been about seventy of the creatures surrounding them. They all had breast plates, protective headgear and a range of weaponry. The original six had only their own fur. “It looks as if they are attempting to imitate the runes my own people use.”

  The obboona was about to reply when the srink with the red scarf gave a barked command. His troops all sank down on one knee, bowing their heads to the älf. “At last we have found you, demigod,” the srink croaked, head held high.

  Caphalor mastered his growing relief and his initial surprise that they were versed in the Dark Language. Älfar were apparently worshipped by these srinks.

  He caught a swift movement out of the corner of his eye, but was too late to avoid the clenched fist crashing into his chin.

  Wheels of fire swirled in front of his eyes and a black curtain descended. His limbs were heavy as lead. Still staggering from the blow, he was kicked in the stomach, all breath driven from his body. He dodged the next kick, but the one after that found its target. He collapsed in front of the obboona’s boots and was on the point of losing consciousness.

  Caphalor saw Karjuna approach, smiling and apologetic. He could not catch her words. Miles away Raleeha was calling him and he wondered how, after all his warnings, she still dared to use his name. He was her master! The obboona merged into the darkness swamping him. His last act was to stab her when she tried to get closer. He heard her scream and then passed out.

  Caphalor shot up, startled, and reached for his sword—his fingers closing on empty air.

  He saw by the dim light of the smoking lamp that he was naked. Raleeha cowered under a blanket at his side. He saw that lines had been marked on his toned and muscular body. Cutting lines—it looked as if the obboona was preparing to use his skin.

 
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