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Righteous fury, p.2
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       Righteous Fury, p.2

           Markus Heitz
 

  He took in every detail of her appearance, reproof in his cold black eyes. No other älf possessed such an attractive slave-human, it would be such a waste to kill her. But she had to receive a fitting punishment: She had to suffer, physically and mentally, for what she had done.

  “You well know that this yellow is acquired only with the greatest difficulty, and in the most dangerous of circumstances. I had wanted to finish the piece today, that’s why the soul-toucher came to heighten my genius for a unique work of art.” His fingers still held her chin, the manicured nails pressing into her flesh. “But now I shall not be able to continue and the fault is yours.”

  “My failure is unforgivable, master,” she said.

  Her response was not feigned. He knew she was deeply dismayed at having failed her master. He stood aside to permit her a glance at the painting.

  She trembled. “What sublime artistry—and now I have sabotaged this creation with my negligence!” She swallowed hard and a further tear escaped her eye. These were tears of shame, not of fear.

  “Raleeha, until now I have been pleased with you,” he told her, disappointment in his voice. “You are the first slave to know how to satisfy my needs. This is why”—the slim fingers released their hold—“you shall live.”

  “Master,” she exclaimed in joyous bewilderment, bending to kiss the hem of his robe. “I shall never neglect my duties again!”

  He touched her shoulder and she looked up him, gratitude in her eyes. Then with shock she saw a thin dagger in his right hand. He relished her terror.

  “You said your eyes had tricked you?”

  “Yes, master—”

  “Then it shall only be your eyes that I punish, because the rest of your body, Raleeha, is innocent of fault and will continue to serve my purposes.” Grasping her hair in his left hand, he stabbed twice with his right, piercing her eyeballs swift as lightning before she could blink.

  The girl shrieked, but she did not flinch, accepting the punishment. Her eyes now destroyed, blood and clear fluid streamed down her cheeks in the tracks of her tears.

  Sinthoras inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction. Releasing his grip, he wiped his dagger on her black hair before replacing it in the scabbard. “I shall expect you to adapt quickly, to find your way around my house as if you could still see,” he said, loosening the middle buckle on her collar. “Go to Kaila for treatment. For today you are excused further duties. I hope you are aware of my leniency?”

  “I am, master,” she said, crying, her hands pressed to her eye sockets.

  “Show me you deserve it. Out!”

  The young woman rose to her feet, trying not to moan, her hands stretched out to get her bearings. It took her some time to find the door.

  “If she’d been mine,” came Helòhfor’s voice behind him, “I’d have fed her to my night-mare.”

  Sinthoras turned round. The soul-toucher had taken his instrument apart and had packed it away. The case stood ready by the side of the chair.

  “A normal slave would have forfeited her life and would not even have been worthy of being eaten by my night-mare,” Sinthoras responded. “But she is of the Lotor family and in voluntary bondage. Her suffering pleases me more than her death would.”

  “You think she will forgive your action?”

  “She thinks she brought it on herself,” Sinthoras corrected with a smile. “I have forgiven her.” Then he gave an angry laugh. “It is not my duty to understand her, Helòhfor. It is her duty to serve me.”

  The soul-toucher did not reply but called his own slaves. “And it is not my duty to understand you, Sinthoras. Your duty, however, is to pay me. Send the money to my house.”

  “Of course, my thanks for your performance—and let me say it was outstanding, an exceptional experience that I should like to repeat for the next painting.” He turned away and crossed the room, heading for a different door. “Now you must excuse me. I must get more pirogand yellow.”

  Raleeha stumbled along the corridor to the slaves’ quarters where her injuries would be attended. The pain was going straight through her brain. Her legs were unsteady.

  “Kaila?” she called out in a strangled voice as she entered. “Kaila?”

  “Yes, Raleeha?” She heard the overseer’s sharply indrawn breath. Kaila was a human, like herself, but older. “No! By all that’s unholy!”

  “The master has been merciful to me, I deserved death,” she replied swiftly, defending him. “He sent me to you to get treatment.” She felt Kaila take her arms and lead over to a bench, where her legs gave way beneath her.

  “The älfar know no mercy, Raleeha, least of all Sinthoras. Whatever they do is done from malice.” There came a rustling sound, the sound of glass clinking, then liquid being poured. “The culin juice on these pads should prevent infection. Mind, though, it’ll sting.”

  Raleeha cried out in agony when the sharp fluid touched her wounds, emotions raging within her. In spite of the pain, she was glad still to be alive. She would be allowed to continue serving her master. She had followed him of her own free will after seeing him painting near her home village. The piece he had been working on had produced a lasting effect on her and the gracefulness of his figure had attracted her in the same way.

  Raleeha felt Kaila tie a bandage across her eyes to keep the healing pads in place. “What was it you did?” asked Kaila.

  “I ruined his picture. He didn’t have enough paint.” She thought of the easel, of the wonderful creation she had been allowed to see. Her master had a unique talent, a very lively technique. Sometimes his temperament would get the better of him and he would laugh out loud or curse while painting; sometimes, if displeased with his own efforts, he might fling his palette into the corner. More than once he had destroyed a picture he had spent ages on.

  Raleeha was entranced by all of his work, whether on wood, parchment or canvas. She always picked up his rejects and kept them with her own things in her chamber.

  “So, because of some missing paint he cuts out your eyes?” Kaila spat the words out. “And you don’t hate him for it?”

  “No. How could I? It was my own fault.” Suddenly she realized how cruel his punishment had been: she would never see his wonderful countenance again, would never again experience that joy.

  Raleeha sobbed out loud in her despair.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), twenty-seven miles east of the älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon,

  level with the tip of the Radial Arm Shiimal,

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

  summer.

  “Caphalor!”

  The dark-haired älf turned his head to the left and looked up at the top of the black beech tree. The dark gray foliage swayed gently in the evening breeze. His friend, Aïsolon, sat hidden somewhere up there. Caphalor held a bow in his left hand; the other rested lightly on the quiver of long hunting arrows he wore at his belt.

  “Shhh! I can see them.”

  He meant the deep prints left in the forest floor by the young baro. They had been tracking the creature since daystar-rise, and it wasn’t making things easy for the two älfar. The baro kept going to ground in the grove and its coat made it difficult to see. But even the stupidest of humans couldn’t have failed to notice these obvious tracks. Was the animal losing concentration after all this time, or was it trying to trick the huntsmen, luring them into a trap?

  Leaves rustled and Aïsolon jumped down next to Caphalor. He also had a bow in his hands. “It’s my first baro,” he said excitedly. “I wonder how long it’ll take to capture it?”

  “It’s a young one. Should get it with one shot.” Caphalor drew out an arrow that had a coin-sized metal disk on the end. If he hit the right spot on the skull with that, the baro would be out like a light.

  Aïsolon selected a similar arrow. “They’re as big as óarcos and just as heavy. Baro teeth are said to be sharp enough to go through tionium armor.”

  “Scared, Aïsolon?” scoffed Caphal
or jokingly as he placed the arrow against the bowstring.

  “No. I’d call it being acutely aware of the danger,” said his friend. “I’ve no wish to lose my immortality on a baro’s fangs.”

  “Ah, you’re still young, of course. An older älf would want to catch the baro with his bare hands.” Caphalor gave a quiet laugh and moved forward.

  Side by side, they made their way through the trees. Bow and arrow should work well, as long as their quarry deigned to show itself.

  Caphalor and Aïsolon had been following the tracks of a kimarbock at first, but the baro had turned up and devoured their prey. The last time Caphalor had seen a baro had been at least thirty-seven divisions of unendingness previously, when he’d been hunting with a large group. Today it was just the two of them, so there was a good chance his would be the winning shot.

  “Remember: we need to take it alive,” Caphalor wanted to present his daughter with this rare beast. She had a way with the lower animals and could get them to do anything she wanted. She’d be pleased with the gift—even if her mother would not. But it was no use thinking about how angry Enoïla was going to be, they had to catch the damned thing first.

  “Over on the left,” he said, gesturing with the tip of his arrow toward a thicket. “Lob something in there to send it out.”

  Aïsolon found a suitably large branch and tossed it into the island of undergrowth.

  There was an angry roar and the baro came raging out of its hiding place to within fifty paces of the two älfar. It really did look like an óarco, standing nearly three paces tall on its hind legs with scaly grayish brown skin, but it had a much more powerful lower jaw set with small, crooked and very sharp teeth. Its tiny deep-set eyes flashed as it glared at the huntsmen. This was not fear. The seven-taloned claws opened up, ready to take them on. A blow from that paw would feel like being slashed with seven knives at once.

  “Whoa!” muttered Aïsolon, readying his weapon. “That’s impressive.”

  Caphalor lifted his bow, drew back the string and shot before his friend could aim. The blunt projectile whizzed straight to the target, but the baro punched it out of the way; the same thing happened to Aïsolon’s arrow, and then the creature rushed them. It looked like it was fed up with being hunted: time to turn the tables.

  “And you want to take that home for your daughter?” Aïsolon asked in bewilderment. He swiftly nocked a new arrow, but once again Caphalor was quicker and this time the metal disk hit the creature exactly above the bridge of the nose.

  Staggering, the baro shook its head and regained its balance, and then charged once more, kicking up leaves and mud as its powerful claws thudded against the soft ground. Aïsolon’s arrow hit the scaled arm the beast was holding up to protect its skull and a furious roar filled with bloodlust echoed through the grove.

  Caphalor discarded his bow and grabbed a cudgel. The scent of the baro was borne on the wind: a powerful, acrid smell of strength and youth. It obviously wanted to prove itself to these two attackers.

  “Are you crazy?” Aïsolon drew back and shot arrow after arrow. The animal grew angrier with each hit. “We’re going to have to kill it—”

  “No!” Caphalor positioned himself in front of a tree, put down his belt quiver, threw off his mantle and waited for the creature to attack. He was relying on his speed and agility to get him out of trouble. Usually he would employ long, thin daggers, but an animal like this needed sheer unadulterated strength if he were going to have any chance of bringing it back alive for his daughter.

  Eleven paces.

  Aïsolon drew out a sharpened arrow. “Just in case,” he said.

  Caphalor did not bother to reply. The baro was hurling itself at him, arms outstretched, muzzle wide open in a roar and ready to snap. The stinking breath was hot, with more than a trace of the kimarbock it had devoured earlier.

  The älf sprang vertically into the air, tucking his legs up under him and reaching with his free hand for a branch to pull himself up. He felt the shuddering impact as the creature slammed into the tree. Leaves cascaded past him. He looked down.

  Blue blood was streaming from the creature’s broken nose and there was a glazed look in its eyes. It appeared to have lost its sense of direction. Its smell had changed, too. Powerful anger had given way to fear.

  And in a situation where you needed to keep a level head, fear was only of use to an älf.

  Caphalor let go and jumped down onto the animal, which although reeling and stunned from the massive impact, was still upright. As his feet touched the creature’s shoulders he delivered a two-handed blow with the wooden club.

  The club broke in two and the baro screamed and sank down on its knees, arms hanging useless by its sides.

  Caphalor sprang past the creature and gave it a kick with his heels. It uttered a sobbing noise and keeled over, landing on the soft leaf-covered ground, then swiveled round and tried to kick him.

  At that moment a huge black shape arrived, hitting Caphalor in the chest and hurling him several paces backward. He somersaulted to absorb the impetus and jumped back onto his feet, drawing his daggers, ready to fight.

  It was a third älf sitting atop a night-mare—which explained how he had been able to throw Caphalor aside—and he was stabbing at the baro with a long spear. The slim blade entered the animal’s neck. The älf stood in the stirrups and pushed down on the spear shaft with all his strength, pinning the baro to the ground. The new arrival dismounted, landing gracefully at the dying creature’s side.

  “Oi!” shouted Caphalor angrily. “That was my prize!” He ran over to the blond älf who took out a knife patterned with delicate filigree and slit the creature’s side. Taking a slender glass vial out of his robes, the blond älf held it up to the creature’s wound, capturing the golden-yellow liquid seeping out.

  “Your prize? It looked to me as if you were fighting for your life,” the other responded over his shoulder.

  “I needed it alive.” Caphalor was furious. “I was about to catch it.” He came to a stop, confronting his rival. “Then you turned up.” He understood: the spleen of a baro was known to contain an ingredient of the rare and precious substance pirogand yellow. That had been the reason for his previous baro hunt, thirty-seven divisions of unendingness earlier.

  “I just saved your life,” the älf retorted, continuing to fill the glass vial. “It was about to kick you. If it hadn’t been for my night-mare those claws would have got you. You should be grateful, my friend, and go your ways.”

  Caphalor took in the black, hardened-leather armor of the blond älf. The delicate embellishments that flowed over its tionium plates marked him as an unmarried warrior with several decorations for bravery and battles won in the name of the Inextinguishable Ones. The fact that the älf was wearing war armor away from the battlefield told Caphalor that he set great store by titles and status. For himself, it would never have occurred to him to dress that way.

  “Your friend is one thing I definitely am not,” he said. “Because of you, I can’t deliver the gift I promised to someone I love and they will be disappointed.”

  The final drops of the yellow substance collected in the vial and there was a smacking sound as the cut was allowed to close. The blond älf wiped the dying baro’s greenish mix of yellow substance and blue blood from his hands with a bunch of leaves, stoppered the flask and stood up.

  “I know you. You are Caphalor.”

  “Have we met?”

  “You paid no heed. It was at a reception for the Most Brave. You were one of those that Nagsor Inàste chose to honor in the Tower of Bones.” He nodded. “What a pleasure to be able to save such a noted warrior from the clutches of a dangerous baro.” His expression showed that he did not mean what he was saying. There was contempt in his tone, and haughtiness, perhaps even envy.

  Caphalor’s anger grew: he was dealing with an arrogant, ambitious warrior—one who would do anything to gain the Inextinguishables’ good opinion. “The baro would not have
killed me. My friend Aïsolon had me covered, the fact he didn’t shoot shows I wasn’t in danger at all. Except from your questionable riding skills.”

  “As you wish. I’m sorry I killed your ‘gift.’ Get the cadaver hollowed out and stick a couple of gnome slaves inside to bring it to life. Nobody will notice.” He didn’t show a trace of remorse as he picked up the vial with its shimmering contents. “Fare you well. I must go and finish my picture.”

  Caphalor’s right hand shot up and he twirled the dagger round to smash the handle against the thin glass.

  The älf’s reflexes were quick and he dodged—only to walk into a second blow. The delicate container shattered and the yellow substance sprayed out over the forest floor.

  “What a shame.” Caphalor gave a false smile and stowed away his daggers. “I’m sure it would have been an exceptional, sublimely beautiful painting.”

  The other älf stood in front of him, dirtied, still clutching the neck of the broken flask. Yellow droplets ran down his dark armor and fine black lines began to cover his face. It looked like he was about to explode with anger. “I shall not forget this,” he swore bleakly, tossing the remains of the vial at Caphalor’s feet.

  “And I will not forget what you did,” retorted Caphalor. He was sure he was going to be attacked now, the blackness in his opponent’s eyes radiated unpredictable danger. Aïsolon appeared at his side, hand on his short sword.

  The third älf turned and moved over to his night-mare, which was ripping great gobbets of flesh out of the dead baro with its fangs, then daintily separating meat from the scales. Its master swung himself up into the saddle and rode off through the grove away from the two friends. Sparks flew from its speeding hooves.

  “Do you have any idea who that was?” Aïsolon released his grip on the pommel of his sword and started collecting the bows and the two quivers.

  “No, should I?”

  “His name is Sinthoras: he’s one of the Inextinguishables’ most ambitious warriors. He’s an excellent fighter—excellent and arrogant in equal measure.” Aïsolon handed Caphalor his things. “He’s one of the Comets. They’re determined Dsôn Faïmon should seize more land and win more vassals so they can go off and make war on the elves: Sinthoras has been touting his expansionist plans to them.” His gaze traveled to where the night-mare and its rider had disappeared into the forest. “Personally, I think he must have left part of his mind on the battlefields. Despite all of the victories he’s won, he’s never been granted the Honor-Blessing.”

 
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