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Righteous fury, p.20
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       Righteous Fury, p.20

           Markus Heitz
 

  The wind turned and brought the smell of burning to his nostrils.

  “Inàste, you shall be proud of me,” he said, grabbing up his weapons and following the scent of fire. His boots left no marks in the snow and made no noise as he crept out of his makeshift shelter and slipped away through the night.

  The moon still rode high in the sky and the snow-covered slopes reflected the silvery light, illuminating the landscape.

  Sinthoras permitted himself to enjoy the sight for a while, to listen to the silence and to watch his own breath curling white in the air in front of his eyes. I shall succeed. He was mortified at having doubted himself in that moment of weakness. He would complete his mission.

  The path he followed now took a sharp bend to the right and revealed a new vista. A thousand paces below him a wide valley floor hosted innumerable black tents and huts of all sizes. There were several campfires burning.

  On the opposite side of the valley, at the edge of a ravine, there was an impressive stronghold, and the road to the northwest that Sinthoras would have to follow to reach the mist-demon led straight through the camp and up to the vast door of the castle.

  Sinthoras cursed: it looked as if an army were settled in for a prolonged siege. He had no way of knowing how long they had been encamped.

  What amateurs. Where are their battering rams and siege towers? He surveyed the slopes—the rocks at each side of the road would be nigh on impossible to scale, and the fresh snow was soft: there could easily be an avalanche. Apart from all that it would cost him too much energy to find an alternative route.

  Straight through the middle of the camp, then. Should he make his way through unobserved by the soldiers or should he create a diversion? Fire would be good, particularly with all those tents. He could kill off the officers, or frighten their animals into a stampede. Anything that caused confusion would serve, and it would be fun.

  Smiling, he made his way down easily to the valley floor. Necessity would be the mother of invention and he would make himself some fine entertainment on the way.

  He crept through the camp, keeping to the shadows. He quickly realized the besieging army were barbarians: humans with coarse faces and thick beards, wearing simple jackets of fleece over rudimentary armor. Sinthoras shook his head. Strutting around on their bandy little legs, so full of themselves, convinced they could slay a pack of giants.

  There was another thing about barbarians: they always took their women and children with them.

  It would never have occurred to a warrior like Sinthoras to do that. The wars the älfar waged were quick and hard; they never undertook sieges. Where humans needed battering rams, the älfar used magic and trickery, their families had no place at the front.

  Sinthoras was pleased. It made the humans more vulnerable. As soon as you attacked one of their women, barbarians would abandon any caution and charge straight in, regardless.

  Some of the huts showed weather damage. This made him think the camp—probably 5000 strong—had been in place for some time. His lip curled in contempt: they didn’t have eternal life and yet they wasted time deciding whether or not to have a battle.

  Using his inner powers, Sinthoras increased the length of the concealing shadows, enabling him to flit through the open spaces. Stopping behind a tent to listen, he picked up snatches of conversation through the tent walls: they were talking about a retreat and negotiations, but he was moving too quickly to catch everything. He made his way through the encampment, past incompetent guards without being spotted and set off for the gate on the opposite side. I did not even need to create a diversion. A part of him was disappointed at that.

  The fortress defenses would have presented a challenge for any conventional siege.

  He calculated the walls were at least double the length of an arrow flight. They showed signs of bombardment: where the catapults had hit home, the defenders had breached the gaps with new stonework, scaling ladders and spent arrows lay abandoned at the foot of the walls among the debris—evidence of bitter and prolonged assault. The gate was the breadth of the road.

  Sinthoras noted fire baskets up on the ramparts where sentries were patrolling and two roofed towers, which had catapults built out on platforms.

  Excellent. The älf smiled. With all the damage it had undergone the wall offered plenty of footholds, and he was not discouraged by the handful of guards. He would not even have to kill them to get past. That would save time.

  He strapped his spear to his back and began the ascent. The odd fragment of stone came away as he climbed, but the noise was minimal and did not alert the sentries.

  He pulled himself up over the ramparts and looked both ways.

  Complete martial simpletons, he thought. Incredible. The guards were patrolling in opposite directions, facing away from each other. That was something that älfar guards would never do: it was an open invitation to slip through.

  Sinthoras studied the break in the cliff behind the fortress. The road to the northwest went through this ravine, which was crossed by rope bridges at different levels. As there were no buildings behind the gate, he presumed the defenders had taken refuge higher up. Four broad, suspended wooden bridges connected ramparts and mountain.

  Sinthoras was wary because he could not see round the curve of the gorge. The ravine could be twenty paces long or it could be a hundred or even a thousand. It could easily turn into a trap, however skillfully he moved.

  He was considering how best to get through when he noticed a dark shape cross the ground on the far side of the wall.

  Dogs? Sinthoras drew in his breath quickly, staring at the vague outline. Child’s play. They won’t be able to withstand my power.

  When he looked more closely it turned out to be a three-legged creature the size of a foal, with a scaly body and arms like tongs. The neck was short, sticking out in front, with tiny lidless eyes over the nostril slits. The mouth was made up of two simple chewing jaws: a crude mixture of other monsters.

  These creatures were new to Sinthoras. He looked up and noticed makeshift shelters further up. Are these creatures the reason the fortress defenders have retreated to the mountain? But perhaps they had been deployed as supplementary guards. Those skinny legs, which ended in spikes rather than proper feet, would make climbing difficult.

  After espying one of these creatures, he kept catching sight of more of them lying on the ground with their legs tucked up beneath them, immobile and rock-like. He screwed up his eyes. Can I get past them and reach the bridge? Will they be easy to fool?

  He watched the sentries marching back toward each other. He crouched down and concentrated on using his power to stretch the shadows, making them darker and denser—impenetrable. They swallowed every speck of light. These two sad sacks will never notice me.

  The guards registered subconsciously that the shadows had changed, and turned to patrol where they wouldn’t have to walk through the dark sections. Now Sinthoras could see their faces.

  They were bony and crab-like, similar to the creatures on the valley floor, but their bodies resembled very slim humans. Under long, woolen mantles they wore armor of a significantly better quality than that of the barbarians. Sinthoras guessed why only two of them were needed: their multiple black button eyes could scan more of the surroundings.

  Let’s see what the little fellows down there do if they get thrown a surprise. When the patrolling guards had passed each other, Sinthoras took his spear and made the shadow grow so they would both have to walk through it.

  One guard now came within touching distance of Sinthoras, concealed in the shadow. Sinthoras gave a deft shove with the blunt end of the spear, knocking the guard off balance and down into the yard far below. This was going to be interesting.

  While the guard was still in midflight, the pack of creatures rushed over as one, leaping up and snapping their tongs. The body had scarcely hit the ground before they descended, ripping it apart with their powerful forelimbs.

  The remaining gua
rd pulled a whistle from his belt and placed it between his lips to blow an urgent, squeaky alarm tone.

  Down below, the butchery was in full swing. Pieces of armor clattered to the ground or were hurled through the air. The insect-like outer skin burst to reveal blue-white flesh; ribs snapped and bright blue blood spurted in all directions. In their feeding frenzy the creatures developed incredible strength and speed; pulling off a limb, they would fight off all comers until the prize was safely stuffed into their maw.

  Ugly, but effective. Quick and deadly. The älf was disappointed to realize that his only option to get away would be via the ropes or bridges. Two of the creatures fixed their black eyes on the ramparts as they flexed and snapped their tongs.

  On the mountain, lights were starting to appear in the shelters.

  His experiment with the sentries had had an effect greater than he had bargained for. He would have to abandon his plan to get through their defenses unnoticed.

  I’ll have to take things up a notch. He jumped over the battlements onto the walkway, landing at the feet of the startled guard who dropped his whistle and grabbed his weapons, but before his fingers closed round the grip he had been speared through the middle. Bright blue blood came gushing out of the wound.

  “You don’t mind if I take you with me, bug-eyes?” Sinthoras asked with malicious courtesy, tossing his victim over the other side toward the encampment before climbing swiftly down.

  At the foot of the wall he picked up and shouldered the dead body. Even though it was not particularly heavy, it weighed Sinthoras down, making his feet sink into the snow. This time there would be footprints to follow.

  Exactly as he intended.

  “Tell him I haven’t the faintest what he’s on about,” Hasban Strength-of-Seven, Prince of the Sons of the Wind, stared at the interpreter. Naked to the waist, the prince was sitting at table, with the smelly remains of his evening meal still strewn before him. An earthenware mug had been knocked over and there was beer swilling around amongst the plates.

  He scratched his head, making his short black hair stand up in spikes at all angles. He had not even had time to do up his breeches properly—and he did not care.

  Four armored beetle-heads stood facing him—that was what he liked to call the jeembina—and they were all glaring at him indignantly, each with the ten button eyes on stalks, as they chattered insistently at the interpreter. It sounded like high-pitched squeaks and clicks to him. Given the choice, he would have squashed them flat.

  “Tell them I’m not in the mood.” Hasban peered into the jug and took a gulp of the beer. That would revive him. “They’ve dragged me away from my women in the middle of the night, to accuse me of sending them a spy and a murderer.” He suppressed a belch and studied the late-night intruders. The beetle-heads were very upset, it was obvious from the way their eye stalks were jerking.

  Hasban really did have no earthly idea what the jeembina meant. He could not imagine that any of his soldiers would have chanced a solo mission. What for? The negotiations with the gate guards had been going well and a treaty with Uoilik, the jeembina prince, was near being agreed. His own army was eager for a successful outcome of the talks. Gaining the right to pass through jeembina territory would mean the end of a war that had lasted for years. Before this war, it had long been their tradition to use the road when hunting and was a vital trade route for rali salt—an essential dietary requirement.

  He gestured to the jeembina, jug in hand. “Tell them I find the nocturnal escapade they speak of inexplicable and senseless.” He wanted to be back in bed with his two women, continuing where he had left off after they were so rudely interrupted by the jeembinas’ arrival.

  “Uoilik says he would like to believe you, because he is also at a loss to see any reason for an attack. But it has occurred,” the jeembina interpreter relayed. His voice sounded like a child’s and his eyes on their stalks waved like pondweed in a stream. “And the assailant’s footprints lead back here to your camp.”

  Hasban realized that words alone would not placate the jeembina. “I’ll come out and take a look at these tracks,” he said, emptying the jug and getting to his feet.

  Half naked, Hasban’s blond bedmate came in to put a fur over his shoulders, and his red-haired girl brought out his weapons belt. Blond and redhead together then carried his mighty sword over to him. It was heavy, as befitted a true Son of the Wind, and would be able to crack open the armor and carapaces of all these beetle-heads at a single swipe.

  Belching slightly, the prince pulled on his fur boots and followed the delegation out.

  Thirty armed soldiers had gathered outside the hut that had served as his palace now for long years. Some were holding burning torches or lamps, others had weapons in their hands. His subjects had noticed the unexpected visitors’ arrival and feared the worst.

  “Calm down, everyone,” he called. “Put your blades away. There’s been a misunderstanding, that’s all.” He explained to them briefly why the beetle-heads were there. “If I find out one of you is involved in any way, he’ll be executed on the spot,” he added. “I’ve been living here by the ravine for eleven years, growing from child to manhood, I have fathered children who know their own country only from stories told to them.” His piercing eyes fixed each in turn. “Do I have to remind you of the bloody battles and the sieges we have endured? I started talks with the jeembina and have finally found a sensible negotiating partner.” He clenched his fist and shook it in the air. “Four years of talks—is it all to have been in vain? Because some idiot wanted a bit of glory or was after drunken revenge? I’m not having our return to our homeland jeopardized like this. Our people are longing for us to come home.” With these words he stomped off to follow the jeembina through the camp to where the tracks were, taking twenty of his men as bodyguard. He recalled the occasion of his accepting the crown from his father, four years previously. Hasban remembered how the Sons of the Wind had been returning from a hunt eleven years ago with a large supply of salt, to find themselves standing before a barred gateway: the jeembina had not let them pass.

  Originally the fortress had belonged to people of the Gramal Dunai, but there had been a battle that the humans had lost and the jeembina did not understand why the Sons of the Wind should be allowed to return. He begged the elements every dawn that their people on the other side of the ravine might still be alive.

  Hasban promised a terrible death to anyone who had put the fledgling peace at risk: he would grow icicles through him, killing him slowly, first pulling out his fingernails and all of his teeth to increase the suffering, and smash his fingers with a hammer and . . . The sight of the footprint track pulled him up short. The track did indeed lead from the other side of the valley right into their camp—you could not miss it, and the sprinkle of bright blue jeembina blood left no room for doubt.

  Hasban felt sick with anger. The idiot was stupid enough to bring home a trophy from his exploit!

  “Let’s follow it,” he said, drawing his sword. “Tell Uoilik, whoever it proves to be, man or woman, I shall kill them on the spot with my own hands.” He strode off through the snow, following the tracks, all the way through the camp to one of the huts. He saw drops of blood, blue blood, on the wooden veranda. His men began to murmur.

  Hasban’s lips tightened in a grimace. This was where Fandati lived. She had once been his lover—an excellent warrior, too. They had parted in anger. Could this be her way of taking her revenge? Destroying his achievements?

  The prince stormed in. “Where are you, Fandati?” he bellowed through the darkened room. The jeembina followed him into the hut and three men with lamps took up the rear.

  They found Fandati slumped at the table, head on her arms; on the floor was the torso of a jeembina with her sword thrust through it. Bright blue blood from the gash was soaking the floorboards.

  “Fandati!” yelled the outraged Hasban. “What have you done?” He took a step forward and kicked at the table, pushing her ba
ck.

  The woman hurtled backward from the impact, hitting her head against the wall. Her eyes were open and glassy, crimson life-juice seeped from her breast.

  Hasban stopped short and looked at the jeembina. Had it killed her? Or had she killed herself?

  “Uoilik says it is obvious what has happened. You, Prince Hasban, must now regard all peace agreements as null and void,” the interpreter said mournfully. “Because one of the prerequisites was that the killing should cease. As we both see, this has not been honored.”

  It was almost the worst thing for Hasban that he would never be able to take Fandati to task over this atrocity, but then his reason told him to question the evidence of his own eyes.

  He turned to the jeembina, sword in hand. “Ask Uoilik where the weapon is that killed Fandati. Where is the jeembina soldier’s head? Why are there tracks leading to the hut but no footsteps leading away?” He studied the beetle-heads while these questions were being put to them. It was hard to see any reaction on faces such as theirs; only their stalk-eyes betrayed their feelings, jerking from side to side, almost knotting themselves into a tangle.

  The jeembina conferred amongst themselves for a long time.

  Hasban took the opportunity to give instructions to his men. “Send out guards to search the entire camp! They are to bring me anyone with blue bloodstains on them: beetle-head, man, or woman.”

  The soldiers nodded and left, replaced by other guards. The prince should not be left alone with the jeembina.

  “We don’t know,” said the interpreter at last. “Now you point it out, it is just as strange to us. It’s also odd that the kimiin did not let us know a human was approaching the ravine. Though not particularly trained, they are our watchdogs, so to speak.”

  “So it was neither a jeembina, nor a Son of the Wind that committed the murder,” Hasban concluded.

 
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