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Righteous fury, p.18
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       Righteous Fury, p.18

           Markus Heitz
 

  He did not understand what had happened.

  “Master!” Raleeha exclaimed in relief. “You are awake at last.”

  “What—” He broke off. She would not be able to tell him what had happened.

  “They dragged us off through the forest,” she began. “I don’t need to see to be able to see to know what’s happening. You were carried. The obboona and the srink were talking in a language I don’t understand, but I can assure you, master, that they already knew each other. It sounded as if she were issuing the orders.”

  Caphalor studied the stone walls. They must have been let down from the opening above their heads. It was the only way in to this prison. “Where are we?”

  “It was a long march before we reached shelter,” she told him, taking care not to omit anything. “Unless my ears deceived me, I would say the srink captured a farmhouse to use as their camp. They put us in what I think was a barn, and then lowered us down here on ropes through a hole.”

  Caphalor studied the walls. He tapped the stone, not really thinking he would find a hollow place behind. The masonry was cold and solid. “Did the flesh-stealer say what she intended?”

  “She said I should tell you that she regrets having attacked you but that it was the only way to save your life.” Raleeha’s voice revealed her disgust. “She will come to visit you soon and you should think about ways to thank her.”

  “To thank her?”

  “For letting you live, master.”

  Caphalor laughed outright. “I am so grateful to her that in return I plan to release her from her scummy existence.” In his mind’s eye he saw the obboona before him; in his present state, he would even have undergone the indignity of strangling her with his bare hands. “Do you know what happened to my night-mare?”

  “Either he was killed in the fight or else he took flight,” she replied with a sigh. “I despair, master. What can we do?”

  This was the very question Caphalor had put to himself not five heartbeats earlier, having to admit that the answer was: nothing. “We’ll have to wait. I can’t see any way out of here.” He checked the floor of their prison to see if there was anything that would serve as a weapon. All he found was a sharp flint, but that would be enough to slash skin and rip open an artery. That meant he would not be forced to throttle the Obboona but could catch her unawares and kill her as soon as there was an opportunity.

  He toyed with the fragment of stone. “She must be their leader. Perhaps she was planning to storm the sky fortress with the srinks and that was why she had entered the zhadar’s service in the first place,” he mused. “When she escaped, maybe she was on her way back to her troops and fell into the hands of the trolls. We freed her and she kept up the pretense, knowing that, sooner or later, her people would find her.”

  “May I speak, master?”

  He remembered his plan to put up a show of courtesy in order to win her trust. Purely as a stratagem. He still believed he could make it back home. With her. “Yes. Tell me your views on this.”

  “It makes sense, what you say.” Raleeha shuddered. “I would guess there were at least a hundred of these creatures. I mostly know about srinks from hearsay, but I did once see one, in Dsôn. He was quite different. More like a dog. Did I hear correctly: are they wearing armor and carrying weapons, master?”

  “They are.” Caphalor studied the girl. She was in despair, without question, but she had not lost her capacity to use her intelligence and her logical mind.

  Despite himself, his eyes wandered down from her face. Her flesh, though dirt-streaked, was in itself flawless and her limbs were straight and true. Perhaps he could make something exceptional from her after her death, if she were not needed for anything else. The skin would make a fine canvas, her hair could be used as yarn for tatting. His wife was good with her hands like that. The long bones would have a special place; he imagined an artwork with a series of figures. Or perhaps an abstract piece, a sculpture to stand in his garden.

  He realized he had been staring at her for some time. Longer than he would usually need when getting inspiration for his art. He stopped to ask himself whether his interest in her was more than the purely artistic.

  Caphalor had to laugh. Utterly ludicrous, the very thought. She was a human, pretty perhaps, and graceful, and her features were similar to those of an älf, it was true, but a long, long way from their own standard of beauty. She could not hold a candle to his own wife, for example. Not at all.

  “Master, why do you laugh?”

  “Just a ridiculous thought.” What else could it be? How else could she ever be of interest to him other than as material for a work of art? There was absolutely no question of him stooping to that level. Caphalor decided it must be the alchemancers’ poison warping his mind. Yet another cause for worry.

  “There must be different types of srink, then, master: those that have attained a higher level of thought, and those that have not. Why are they following the obboona?” Raleeha seemed to be enjoying puzzling this out. “You know, they can forge metal,” she said suddenly, as if it had just occurred to her.

  “What do you mean, forge?” He let her speak. There was no reason she should not put her mind to work, though he doubted it would help them. On the other hand, she was not like other barbarian slaves.

  “I mean, they’ve made their own weapons, master. Their swords have a different sound from the ones I know—from back when I lived in the castle with my brother. A sword makes a special sound when it’s being worked.”

  Caphalor was certain she was imagining this, but did not say so. He could see the sense of it. After all, they were hiding out in the territory of the deadly fflecx. Are they courageous? Or stupid? They had to avoid discovery at all costs because there was no defense against the poisons the fflecx used in battle and their armor would not protect them: they wore nothing that would stop the passage of a blowpipe dart. However odd the idea sounded, they would need to kill any creature they came across, and for that they needed weapons.

  That train of thought was an unpleasant reminder of the poison in his own veins, rendering him mortal. It was his own fault for listening to the slave girl.

  “Get some rest,” he told her, putting a stop to her talk as civilly as he could.

  There was a noise from above and light fell on them as the cover was shifted. A large basket came down on a rope and there was no mistaking the sense of the grunted command to get into it.

  Caphalor decided to comply. “Come up after me,” he said to Raleeha. He was pulled up.

  He found himself in a barn just as the slave girl had assumed, surrounded by perhaps twenty well-armed srinks. It did not bother him that he was naked, after all, his body was perfect. These ugly beasts should look their fill and be envious of his splendid proportions. Raleeha was hauled up and both of them were taken across to the main building. They passed a heap of gnome-sized broken bones. There was no doubt as to how the srinks had been feeding themselves.

  Karjuna was seated in the main room on a leather chair. She had washed and her face was bandaged. She wore a flowing black robe and on her right breast she had the same rune the srink leader had displayed. Ten tall, dangerous-looking creatures protected her right and left. A warming fire crackled in the grate and there was an enticing smell of fresh bread and meat stew.

  When Caphalor—still completely naked—stepped into the room, she stood up and bowed. “My demigod,” she said humbly, her voice heavy with regret. The madness in her eyes had not receded, on the contrary—perhaps she did not have to keep up any pretense now that she was surrounded by her own soldiers. “I am—”

  Caphalor demonstrated why älfar were so feared. His native powers did not let him down; waves of dread streamed out of him, dousing the fire in the grate and spreading terror in the air like an acrid, stifling smell. The light dimmed, making the shadows menacing and alive. His black eyes spewed fiery anger. The tugging at the skin of his face told him the black lines of fury were at work. “
You are nothing, obboona!” His voice was deep and resounding.

  The srinks murmured among themselves and stepped aside, but they looked strangely—could it be?—delighted.

  Karjuna got to her feet in spite of the darkness and the terror waves. “You enchant us with your powers,” she enthused. “My subjects and I have never had a chance to experience this before! Thank you, my demigod.”

  Caphalor was at a loss. Why had the srink had not reacted with pandemonium? He clenched his fists, feeling the flint in his left hand. He would wait. He withdrew his magic.

  “Let me tell you what you have found here, demigod.” She sat down. “It was always my plan to attack the gålran zhadar in his own fortress. He has killed too many of my subjects and must be made to pay. I entered his service in order to spy out the lie of the castle and on my escape I was captured by the trolls.” It was exactly as he had assumed. “I had to play a role until my people found me.” She beamed in her mindless but obsessive way. “Forgive me for having hit your sacred person, demigod. I could not permit you to kill any of my subjects; they would have reacted with such anger that they would have murdered you.” She gestured to her soldiers. “A select unit from my army. The arrogant gålran zhadar would have stood no chance against my loyal troops.”

  “Give me the parchment and let me and the slave girl leave,” he demanded. “You and I have no business to discuss.”

  “Then what will you do, demigod?” she asked. “What will happen when you have taken Munumon the things he asked for? I heard something about a mission—it is more than just your life at stake. Perhaps I can help?”

  “The parchment,” he repeated. “At once, flesh-stealer!” He cast a disdainful look at her soldiers. “They won’t be able to stop me.” He put on a confident and menacing air.

  Karjuna’s eyes glowed greedily as she studied the älf’s naked groin. “Did you notice the lines I’ve drawn on your sacred skin? They show what I could do, demigod,” she said, with obvious enjoyment. She hugged herself. I could step into your skin and would be eternally connected with you,” she breathed. “But I expect you would be dead without your skin. I want you at my side. All day—and especially all through the night,” she burst out, her voice full of desire.

  Caphalor laughed in her face.

  “I mean it!” she shouted, getting quickly to her feet. “My demigod, you have the choice: stay at my side to conquer the fflecx and any other foe you care to name. If you wish it, I will subjugate the Inextinguishables and seize their Tower,” she enthused, as if there were any chance at all of her army of srinks ever reaching the Star Realm’s defense-moat. “Or you refuse and you will have lost your chance of getting the parchment, the antidote and your liberty: then I’ll flay your corpse and turn myself into a perfect älf in your skin.” She sat down and glared at him.

  Of course! Caphalor realized the only reason the srinks obeyed her was because they took her for an älf. The burns she had received meant she was bandaged up and the srinks could not see her true appearance. If she had a genuine älf as her consort the srinks would be more abject in their worship of her. He was convinced now that Karjuna would carry out her threat. The pressure in his chest was a constant reminder of the poison in his veins. His right arm was feeling numb. He had to lie to get himself out of this trap.

  Caphalor pretended his anger had dissipated. “You would put me in power in place of the Inextinguishables?” he asked, as if intrigued and eager. It was quite an effort to make the anger lines fade away.

  “Yes, I would,” she responded at once.

  “You would be making me into a god,” he told her, sounding awed by the prospect. “But the river-moat and the defenses and the army—how would you overcome these hurdles?”

  “My love for you will guide me and send me inspiration, demigod,” she answered ecstatically. “There is nothing I would not do for you.”

  “Then I shall make you this promise,” he said majestically, to remove any doubt from her mind, “that after completing my mission I shall return to you as your partner. I swear this by all that is holy to me. Many of my friends will support us. Our realm shall be mighty indeed.”

  “Yes,” breathed Karjuna. “Yes, it will.” Her compulsive infatuation led her to believe every word he said.

  “And we shall stand at the top of the Tower and show our children what will one day belong to them.”

  “Children,” she repeated, smiling.

  “Think of it: how wonderful they will be. Flawlessly beautiful. And they will live forever.” His voice grew soft and tender, like that of a lover.

  The obboona gazed at him, hanging on his words, longing to hear more. “I can see them,” she sighed. “And will you love me?”

  “I swear it.” He had planted the idea of a glorious shared future and had won her over. Now he had to take further precautions to ensure he would be able to come and go freely. “But you must see that I can’t take you and the srinks with me on my secret mission. Munumon would see us coming and I would die of his poison. We shall have to employ cunning, not an army, in this instance.”

  There was a sharp intake of breath from Raleeha, but she said nothing.

  The obboona made a face, sat down again and leaned back in her chair to ponder. She was obviously of two minds. She would not be able to achieve unambiguous victory—namely his immediate unconditional agreement, but on the other hand, he had not turned down her fervently desired proposal, merely postponed it. In her mind there would still be the nights of passion she so longed for. “I understand. But your word, my demigod—what is your word worth?”

  “It is the word of a demigod!” Raleeha hurled the indignant retort at her. “You should honor him, not treat him like a creature lower than yourself!”

  Caphalor ordered her to be silent.

  Karjuna nodded at her. “Brave little slave girl, protecting her master. How sweet.” She laughed contemptuously and then turned deadly serious. “But you are right, slave. It was blasphemy of me to doubt him.” She got to her feet. “You have given your word and your oath, my demigod, and so I will let you go. Come back to me quickly and I shall lay the heads of the Inextinguishable Ones at your feet. But understand that I shall find you wherever you are, should you fail to find your way back to me—for whatever reason.” She gestured toward him with her right hand. “And if you deceive me, my revenge will be cruel. Even a demigod will not be spared.”

  “Let it be so,” he agreed, relieved. “I shall return when my mission is completed.”

  She clapped her hands and a srink stepped forward, holding the dry clothes, armor and weapons Caphalor needed. A second srink brought simple attire for Raleeha.

  Karjuna went over to the fireplace and buried the tip of the poker deep in the coals. “There’s one more thing I want to give you for your journey, my demigod. We shall rule over our lands as equal partners: equal in our beauty and equal in our wounds.” She pulled the red-hot metal out of the fire and came up to Caphalor. The älf’s arms were grabbed by the srink soldiers. “You got your night-mare to brand me and I am returning the gesture. Let this be a reminder of your vow.” She burned her signature rune into his skin.

  He bit his teeth together to withstand the pain. The smell of charred flesh rose in his nostrils.

  She regarded her work with satisfaction. “Now, my demigod, you may dress and depart. May Samusin, Inàste, and Tion protect you and guide your arrows to your target.”

  Caphalor felt the flint shard in the palm of his hand. Part of him—his pride—demanded that he launch himself at the obboona and cut her throat. She had marked him as one brands one’s cattle, as one marks a slave, as one marks a criminal! That nonsense she spouted about his being a demigod was meaningless. It was all about her and her ludicrous ideas. He would certainly return to her when it was time to let her die slowly and painfully. At long last.

  Your death bears the name Caphalor. He swore this on his own soul!

  He began to get dressed. In full vie
w of Karjuna and the srinks, he girded himself and put on his armor. In the meantime she had the parchment brought to her and completed her work on it. “What happened to my night-mare?” he asked.

  Karjuna was staring at his sex, now covered by leather and steel, and was dreaming of passionate nights, knowing now what awaited her. “The night-mare will be roaming around in the forest somewhere looking for you, my demigod. I shall arrange for horses to be provided. The srinks are not good riders, they are better on their own feet.” She bowed to him and a srink handed him the parchment. “I bless the day you return to me.”

  Caphalor turned away, placed the slave collar that had been provided round Raleeha’s neck and strode out of the room.

  His hatred of the obboona was so great that the anger lines spread over his face again. A number of miles later, they were still there.

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

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

  summer.

  Caphalor looked at Raleeha: she was examining the dress with her fingers. It was clearly too tight and too short for her: a gnome garment. She looked like a child that had outgrown its clothes. She feared the colors would be vivid and brash, making her look like a fool, but when she asked him, Caphalor gave her a quick “No” as answer.

  Sardaî had quickly located his master, greeted the älf with a prolonged whinny of joy and then devoured the inferior horse Caphalor had been supplied with.

  Caphalor and Raleeha had ridden in silence since leaving the farmstead: fury had rendered him speechless. He felt deeply humiliated, had lost any support that Sinthoras might have provided and was now at the mercy of the gnome ruler. He was not in the mood for working out a cunning stratagem, but would have to keep doing just that if he were to remain alive.

  He could only guess why Raleeha was silent. One guess might have been that she was trying to come to terms with his promise to the obboona. He could see it in her expression. Raleeha was no warrior—she was an artist. The barbarians were not able to combine the two callings in the way the älfar could.

 
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