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Righteous fury, p.21
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       Righteous Fury, p.21

           Markus Heitz
 

  “That must indeed be so.”

  “But”—said Hasban, lowering his sword to indicate he had no intention of hurting any of the delegation—“who could possibly have anything to gain by this?”

  “Obviously someone is trying to get us at each other’s throats again,” the jeembina interpreted.

  “We’ll find him,” replied the prince, scratching his broad chest. “I’ve told my men—”

  The lamps went out.

  The door crashed shut and a heavy plank was placed across it. At that moment the first death scream was heard. A Son of the Wind had been killed.

  “To arms!” shouted Hasban as he raised his sword and backed up against the wall. He held the weapon out in front of him and swept it from side to side to catch any enemy lurking in the dark. “We’re being attacked!”

  Blades clashed and more screams were heard. Weapons clattered and bodies slumped to the ground amid confused and despairing cries from the jeembina. The interpreter’s high-pitched tones sounded like a child being brutally slaughtered. The air smelled of blood, blood, and more blood, while the screams dropped away.

  Hasban had the terrible feeling that the blackness was finding its way into his very veins and was traveling up to his heart, making it race and grow hot. He had never felt such fear as was overwhelming him now. No foe, no wild animal had ever had this effect on him. He broke out in a sweat and slashed out blindly with his sword. Everyone except for him had been visited by the mysterious assailants. His friends were dying right and left, but there was nothing he could do.

  With the wall protecting him at his back, Hasban hoped desperately that the men stationed outside would force their way in and come to his aid. Blows crashed against the door and rained on locked shutters. Help would come soon.

  Hairs on the back of his neck stood up in terror and he sensed something approaching him. Something lethal. Silently he prayed to the elements.

  “Your death bears the name Sinthoras,” whispered a male voice in his ear. It sounded velvety smooth and deadly dangerous. “I shall take your life, but take comfort Hasban, prince of the Sons of the Wind, in knowing you forfeit it to serve a higher purpose. Just as your people have forfeited theirs.”

  Hasban yelled out and laid about him wildly, meeting metal. The pressure was returned and he scraped along the wall, tripping over something. He fell onto a corpse. The smell of blood was all-pervading. A warm substance was wet on his face. “What are you?” he shouted, hitting out.

  “As far as your people are concerned, I will have been a jeembina, Prince,” the soft voice answered. “I shall cut off your head and run through the camp holding it high, churning up the hatred that had almost died. Your barbarians will avenge your death and launch an attack on the fortress, bringing the jeembina to their knees. You can be proud of them, Hasban.”

  Something hard hit Hasban between the eyes. He sank down in a daze, dropping his sword. “No,” he stammered, gasping for air with the pain in his chest. His heart was racing fit to burst.

  “And then I can continue on my journey,” said the invisible antagonist with a quiet laugh. “Who would have thought it? You barbarians have your uses, after all.”

  Hasban frantically gathered the last of his strength, drew his dagger and leaped toward where the voice had last been. He sailed right past his attacker. His heart was glowing red hot with fear. His energy ebbed completely away.

  “Your sword will serve to decapitate its own master,” said the unknown figure, and then there came a soft swish.

  Hasban knew the sound well. Countless beetle-heads had heard it before they died. A few rebellious soldiers had heard it before they received the final punishment.

  But it was the first time Hasban had heard it when the stroke was aimed at him. The blade’s sound in motion was unique: unmistakable, deadly, and powerful.

  Strangely enough, the thought that flashed through his mind was that he would not be able to deliver the salt. A searing pain touched his throat, as the mighty sword sliced through neck and spinal column. The weapon exited and crashed into the wooden bench behind, lodging fast.

  For the prince of the Sons of the Wind the waiting was over. The return to his homeland would never take place.

  Barbarians! Sinthoras withdrew his magic, allowing the lamps to flare again.

  The door shuddered under a hail of ax blows, it would not be long before the wood split and gave way.

  Taking up the severed head of the prince, he checked with the other hand that his mask sat properly—he had cut the face from his jeembina victim to get it. The eye-stalks he had propped up with bits of wood. This, together with the cloak over one shoulder, would serve well enough to convince these simpletons that it was a jeembina at work here. What else could he possibly be?

  He stuck the head onto the tip of his lance, stringing a lantern high, so the prince’s face would be clearly visible, and surveyed the room, satisfied with the scene.

  The corpses of jeembina and humans lay scattered; their weapons were placed carefully to give the undeniable impression that the strangers had attacked the prince. If I play my cards right, the humans will all rush off to storm the fortress, then I can continue northwest on my mission.

  Sinthoras cut off Uoilik’s head and concealed it in a cloak taken from one of the corpses. He took up position and waited for the door to burst open. He stabbed the first two barbarians to surge through the door, slipping out past them, then dodged the other soldiers’ swirling blades. Fingers grabbed for him in vain.

  Waving the lance with the prince’s head, he imitated jeembina sounds and raced from one tent to the next. To move adeptly and nimbly enough to avoid all his pursuers took energy and concentration. He did not want to kill them; he needed them to want to kill him. He was surrounded by sleeping foes and with each shout from a barbarian throat more of the humans were up on their feet to confront him. The danger was growing by the second. Wherever he had the opportunity, he torched the tents with burning logs dragged from the campfires.

  Sinthoras was pleased to see the flames shining on the bearded faces of the horror-struck humans. Come and get me! I’ve killed your ridiculous prince!

  In the middle of this high bravado, his right knee suddenly gave way.

  At first he thought it must be an arrow but there was no injury to be seen: the poison! The realization shot through him. He immediately lost the cocksure attitude that had protected him and fell against the side of a tent.

  “We’ll have him!” roared one of the barbarians.

  Sinthoras saw the first of the archers release their arrows. Idiots! How can you miss me at this range?

  He sliced his way through the canvas he had tumbled against and dived through the tent, relieved to find his leg functioning normally again. Going through the tent lines like this was offering good protection from the arrows. As he plunged through he stabbed at sleeping occupants and set fire to whatever he could.

  The night was full of alarm drums, bugles, and angry shouting. The humans were out to destroy any jeembina they could lay their hands on. After the initial shock, Sinthoras found there was a smile back on his lips. He was certain they would follow him.

  Time to bring this mayhem to a head. Sinthoras hurried to where the horses were, stole one and rode to the fortress on the snorting, nervous beast.

  Halfway there, he reined the horse in and turned to see what the barbarians were doing.

  In the light of the burning camp he saw around 200 men pursuing him. Behind them came a random rag-tag army, leaderless and driven by lust for vengeance. It would result only in heavy losses on their side.

  “Come on,” Sinthoras murmured impatiently. “You’re much too slow to look like a surprise attack.” Over at the fortress fires were being lit on the battlements: the jeembina had sounded the alarm.

  Now came the critical bit.

  He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks, urging it to a gallop, and let the reins go slack; he needed both hands for this.
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  Ripping off the mask, he took out the severed jeembina head and brought his arm back in preparation for a mighty throw. As soon as he had reached the walls he hurled Uoilik’s head into the air, aiming for the high walkway where a crowd of helmets and lance tips could be seen. “We shall destroy you!” he yelled, imitating a barbarian voice.

  The response was a hail of spears.

  Sinthoras sprang down from his mount and used his power to intensify the shadows at the gate. He took the lantern and Hasban’s head off his spear and chucked them aside, plunging them into the pool of darkness he had created, then following them in. The darkness protected him better than any shield. He was completely invisible to the castle’s defenders and he could keep close to the wall, staying still until they had passed. His light steps had left no tracks—the illusion was perfect.

  The impromptu army of the Sons of the Wind thundered nearer, blind with fury. They had trundled storm ladders with them on carts, and were approaching on a broad front, thinking themselves invulnerable.

  Sinthoras raised his head to watch the defense forces. I wonder what they’ve got to offer.

  With a loud crash, ten steep ramps were let down from the walls, stopping three paces above the ground. Simultaneously, a shrill whistle piped up, then huge iron-riveted spinning tops shot down the ramps—metal blades flew out as they rotated at tremendous speed. These spinning tops had an upper diameter of about four paces and they had been skillfully crafted to a high standard.

  These unusual killing machines bounced over, heading for the barbarian troops, whirling the snow up as they went. A second wave followed, then a third and fourth, filling the air with noise. The ramps swiveled round, shooting the spinning tops off in various directions.

  Sinthoras had to admit the jeembina were ingenious. He had always thought of spinning tops as toys. Children can teach us a lot. The first of the machines plowed into the human ranks, sweeping through like a metal tornado, blades slicing through the soldiers. As the cutting edges were not rigid, they snapped shut after an impact to emerge again without affecting the speed of the spinning top. The trajectories were unpredictable: sometimes zigzag, sometimes curved, sometimes straight.

  They did not run out of momentum for a considerable distance and, even as they fell, they were capable of crushing the enemy to death beneath their weight.

  The Sons of the Wind did not falter in their march, but their anger was more vociferous than ever.

  Sinthoras smiled, pleased with the outcome. I’ll soon be able to clamber over a mountain of dead bodies and get through the ravine without hindrance. Maybe I won’t even have to wait. Instinctively, he set off for one of the overhanging ramps under cover of the snow cloud the spinning tops had caused. With a vertical bound he caught hold of the sides of the ramp and pulled himself up, working his way up, unseen, past the battlements and along to the left-hand tower, where the spinning tops were issuing from.

  I want to know more about this. Sinthoras slipped through the opening and into the tower. Thirty-six jeembina were working the controls of a chain-driven bank of machines. Platforms brought the equipment up from the depths. The spinning tops had long ropes coiled around them; the reserves were anchored upright by a chain.

  One end of the rope was made fast, a throw of a lever wound the rope up at enormous speed, starting the rotation. As the chain was released, the platform was tilted, allowing the spinning top to skip onto the ramp to speed on its way.

  An excellent idea. Sinthoras made a mental note of the techniques employed, intending to present them to the Inextinguishable Ones on his return. It was a brilliant form of defense. You could fill them with petroleum, too, and add perforations, lighting them just before they reached the end of the ramps. A fire-spitting weapon that could cut through anything it met! In his mind’s eye he saw the idea adapted for use from cell towers propelled by a slave force. This could be applied on the foreign campaigns he wanted to take on: the effect of fiery war machines on primitive enemies would be tremendous.

  A new plan shot into his head. Why not weaken the fortress defense? Otherwise the barbarians will fail in their attack instead of keeping those cursed kimiins off my back. He crept along the tower wall until he came to a rope and hook suspended from a winch pulley.

  When a new spinning top was about to be released from the preparation platform, Sinthoras swung the pulley arm, knocking the war machine off balance. Still upright, but wobbling badly, it careered through the jeembina workforce. The blades struck sparks from the stone walls and the top jumped, out of control, mowing through the troops.

  Sinthoras was watching from above, having climbed the pulley rope. He was fascinated by his victims’ bright blue blood spattering intriguing patterns on the wall: the blood formed splashes and rivulets on the stone; the wall was growing blue veins.

  “True art,” murmured the älf in awe. Just a few more of the war machines and another batch of jeembina would be enough to decorate all the tower walls . . . but no, he would have to wait until he was back in Dsôn and could try it out with some slaves. Different races would furnish a variety of colored blood. What would be better, canvas or stone? His forthcoming campaigns in Girdlegard would ensure a steady stream of captive slaves.

  The spinning top overturned, but the next was on its way up from below.

  Sinthoras fastened the end of its rope as he had seen done, but now he altered the slope of the ramp so that it would shoot out on to the courtyard immediately inside the gate, grunting as he pushed downward to tilt it up and over the wall, a feat of strength very few creatures could hope to achieve.

  Shouts of alarm alerted soldiers to the presumed mistake.

  Let’s see the color of kimiin blood, then. He grinned as he operated the mechanism to wind up the war machine. He released the lever and hurried to the window.

  The spinning top cut through a number of the guard creatures before it crashed into the gate, sending limbs, guts, and blood spraying into the air.

  So kimiin blood is silver-blue! What a shame he had no suitable container with him.

  The wooden gate had suffered under the onslaught, but withstood and repelled the spinning agent of destruction, which was traveling on a random high-speed course around the yard, bouncing off the walls. Then it collided with the gate a second time.

  Sinthoras was pleased. If the gate is already damaged the barbarians will get through it in no time, making things easier for me. I wonder how well they will do against the kimiin?

  He could hear voices down below. No new war machines were being sent up. The jeembina were getting suspicious.

  Taking a coiled rope, the älf climbed out of the window and up onto the roof where he perched cross-legged to observe the battle raging outside the walls.

  The barbarians had erected storm ladders at various places and were trying to scale the battlements. They had already been successful here and there and another unit was breaking through the main gate.

  “My brave little warriors!” called Sinthoras, amused. “Don’t give up!” A second later he was remonstrating with them: “Where did you leave your brains, you idiots?”

  Before the barbarians could celebrate a victory, the kimiins stormed out of the fortress to attack on open ground. The jeembina were aiming down at the barbarians from the four bridges. The ramps were being adjusted to target the invaders now streaming into the courtyard.

  Within a short time the barbarians had taken the high walkways. The bridges, crowded with jeembina, tumbled into the void: the invaders had cut through the cables that had anchored them—any that survived fell victim to their own deadly spinning tops. General slaughter and wholesale butchery commenced.

  Now for a nice glass of red wine, thought Sinthoras from his vantage point, and paper and pen to sketch all this. He was inspired by the scene, reveling in the violence and the wild, uncontrolled displays of brutality. It was the fascination of the primitive that disgusted and attracted him at one and the same time. Not that he wante
d to be like the barbarians, but their way of life intrigued him occasionally. Sinthoras regretted the waste of bone and carapace shells he would not be able to work with. He had to get on.

  When he noticed the first flames issuing from the windows of the tower he was perched on, he got to his feet, tied his rope to a beam and used it to swing out over the heads of the fighting troops. He landed lightly on the ground exactly at the edge of the ravine.

  There was only one way to go. He strode quickly into the ravine, sure that no one would see him.

  He looked back to see the wholesale destruction. This brought a smile to his lips. His ruse had worked: jeembina and barbarian were exterminating each other quite satisfactorily.

  They should be grateful. I’ve helped them to get a clear decision in the matter instead of all these feeble compromises. In a compromise both sides lost out. In a decent battle only one side would win.

  The narrow ravine ended after a hundred paces, opening up into a valley. He laughed: all that fuss over a hundred paces! The humans have been besieging the fortress for an age. They never learn. They don’t have eternal life so they can’t waste time repeating their mistakes.

  A forest of evergreens had taken root. Their leaves were long and pointed, and their wide branches stretched to fill the valley. They were a strange dark sight against the stark white background: the snow having hardly settled on them at all.

  Hundreds of silvery threads hung from the branches like seeds or peculiar leaves, but Sinthoras knew they were the rare phaiu su.

  Before he could give the matter more thought, he heard the clash of blades and the wind sent a waft of disgusting sweat his way: old, acrid sweat soaked into leather and cloth. That was how barbarian soldiers smelled.

  “Here’s another of them,” yelled a human warrior behind him.

  Sinthoras wheeled round and saw a gang of about fifty unwashed humans approaching, their rough weapons held high and their eyes burning with bloodlust.

  Then his knee gave way and a sickening pang shot into his upper thigh and down to his calf. It was the alchemancers’ message to him—from one heartbeat to the next he was confronted with a whole new set of difficulties. This was not proving the easiest of journeys.

 
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