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Righteous fury, p.22
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       Righteous Fury, p.22

           Markus Heitz
 

  CHAPTER X

  Slave labor was used to clear a stretch of land two miles wide on the far side of the broad moat, making any surprise enemy attack impossible. The trees that were felled supplied the timber for the huge catapults.

  But the rightless slaves complained about their work, though they had no justification for doing so.

  When the circle was completed, our ancestors altered the course of the mightiest river in Dsôn Faïmon and flooded the trench, drowning the slaves who were no longer of any use.

  This put an end to their rebelliousness.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Chapter 2, 6–11

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands),

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

  late summer.

  Caphalor and Raleeha made swift progress in spite of the cold winds and constant rain.

  The horse the slave girl was riding was nowhere near as fast as the night-mare, but they still ate up the miles on the journey back to the älfar realm.

  Caphalor studied any tracks they came across, keen to avoid confrontation with monsters or outlaw bands.

  It was an unsettling experience for him to have to fear time. Where he had previously had the certain knowledge of never dying a natural death, the poison in his bloodstream changed everything. He was like a human, now. Mortal.

  Time was being stolen from him and condensed: a finite point was now set to his own immortality while those around him would live forever.

  His previous mode of existence had permitted him to plant saplings and see them mature to large trees. He could make wine and leave it in his cellars to reach its optimum age, and then taste it with his wife at his leisure. If it proved disappointing, he could wait patiently for the next vintage. Caphalor had seen the landscape change, affected by the slow erosion of wind and water, heat and cold.

  Of course, there were diseases that could infect an älf, but there was magic in their blood to fight off illness, and the research and insights of their healers had put an end to death caused by this. No other race had these abilities. He had never had to fear mortality, either on or off the battlefield. Not until encountering the fflecx.

  Caphalor was under no delusion that he could survive the poison. The fflecx knew what they were doing and would have calculated the fatal dose exactly. Even Raleeha will live longer than I shall! He quickly suppressed his fury at the injustice. He did not want to take it out on her in some unguarded moment.

  Caphalor did not doubt the viability of his plan to kill Munumon and the obboona. He seldom spared a thought for Sinthoras. His concern was for his life-companion and his children. A full life, but now one that will be far too short.

  The time limit the gnome king had placed on his life was coming nearer: he had six moments of unendingness to deliver Raleeha to Dsôn, perhaps a little more if Samusin and Inàste were on his side.

  Sardaî snorted, eying the edges of the wood ahead of them.

  Caphalor studied the road surface. It was late afternoon and the daystar was dropping down behind dark rain clouds on the horizon. They would be entering the wood just as the light failed completely.

  Normally he would have welcomed this circumstance, but he was worried by the night-mare’s reaction and by the tracks that he noted on the ground. He stopped, pulling Raleeha’s horse up, too. “We’ll have to take a detour,” he told her.

  “What has happened, master?” Raleeha sat upright in the saddle, trying to pick up sounds. She had lost weight in the course of the journey and was now as slender as an älf-woman. Except for the ears and the missing refinement of her features, of course, she was becoming more and more älf-like. Once more, his inexplicable fascination with her came to the fore . . .

  “The forest is full of outlaws,” said Caphalor to distract himself. “I can’t risk attracting their attention. They would try to get you and without a night-mare you’d be too slow.” He turned Sardaî’s head. “About two miles back we passed a crossroad. We can skirt the woods to the north and reach Dsôn Faïmon that way,” he explained, adding with a sharper voice. “You are to stay at my side, Raleeha.”

  “Of course, master.”

  Caphalor did not sense anything suspicious in her tone. He had not issued the warning without reason: by taking the diversion they would come near Lotor’s territory. The prospect of flight might seem attractive to her, especially given that she was not in the company of her original master. He would do everything to ensure he did not lose the hostage he wanted to preserve for the Inextinguishables.

  They returned to the crossroads and kept riding until the daystar had gone down.

  The dim light was enough for the night-mare to pick its way, but Raleeha’s horse was exhausted and kept stumbling on the uneven ground. Caphalor halted at an old abandoned house and made camp in the ruins. At least they had protection from the rain. He chose not to light a fire, unwilling to give possible scouts or robbers any clue as to their presence.

  He doled out their rations, pushing Raleeha’s share over to her while he chewed his own. Bow and arrows were close at hand. He could see she had something on her mind. “Speak.”

  “This house stood until very recently, master,” she said, pulling the horse blanket tighter round her shoulders. “The smell of burning is quite fresh.”

  “It’ll be the work of the bandits hiding out in the woods,” he remarked. “I saw the tracks of large horses such as the eastern barbarians ride. I expect it will be one of their scouting parties heading west to spy out the land.” He collected rainwater in the palm of his hand and took a few sips. “This is how things have been in Ishím Voróo for thousands of subdivisions of unendingness. Races and tribes come and go, conquering and being conquered in their turn.”

  “Except for the älfar,” Raleeha contradicted with pride. “Your folk, master, are constancy itself. I don’t understand why the älfar have not taken over the whole of Ishím Voróo. If any one race is capable of it, then it is your own.”

  Caphalor watched her with sympathy. She sounded as if she thought of herself as an älf, whereas she was nothing but a barbarian with a pretty face and an eccentric passion for the wrong race.

  “It’s not something we have ever needed,” he answered, despite not wishing to discuss it. Certainly not with her. “Why should we need an extensive empire?”

  This was not the truth. The population of Dsôn Faïmon was shrinking all the time because the birth rate among the älfar was so low. Not enough girls were being born, but there was also an unfortunate lack of male progeny: in the future they would not have sufficient soldiers. The Star Realm found itself in a perilous balancing act that the surrounding nations must get no hint of. There was no acute danger at present, but unless there was a change in circumstances and Samusin helped them . . .

  “You would have more vassals and more power,” Raleeha went on. “You could bring order where there is chaos and you could drive the monsters off the most valuable fertile land. Ishím Voróo would no longer be a lawless desert, but become strong under älfar leadership. Any creatures with understanding would side with you and worship you out of sheer gratitude, master.”

  “Creatures with understanding?” Caphalor laughed. “Not many of those in Ishím Voróo. Not even amongst the barbarians. You’ve been thinking about this for some time, haven’t you, Raleeha?” he said, amused. “And I can tell you that Sinthoras is one of those älfar who think the same way and can’t wait to set out on campaign.”

  “But not you, master?”

  “No.” He hesitated. “My view is that our borders are secure and we should remain within them.” He was amazed at himself, talking to a slave girl about politics as if she were an equal. The poison in his blood must have affected his character, making him more patient—and making him more liable to become attracted to a slave girl. He must put a stop to it. “There is no more to say on the subject.” With that, the conversation was over. His ri
ght hand was hurting. He rubbed his fingers as if he could massage the toxins out of his system.

  “Master,” she said after a while, without asking for permission to speak. “Are you ever prey to fear?”

  “What’s the meaning of asking me such a question?” he hissed, feeling himself caught out. He had indeed been contemplating his own mortality.

  “I think this must be one of the key advantages of the älfar: being afraid of nothing.”

  Caphalor thought carefully before replying. He listened to the regular beats of the rain falling on the roof. How many more times will I hear that? “No, I don’t think I have ever been afraid of anything. Not in the sense of being frightened to death.” He swallowed hard. “But now there is something inside me that I was not prepared for,” he added in a soft voice. “I carry death within me. My life always ran with the certitude that I might die through violence or accident, but that I would never become old and feeble or that my body would let me down.” To his surprise it was a kind of relief to be able to talk about the burden he carried. He caught some more rain in his hands to splash over his face. He had been feeling hot. “The alchemancers have placed death in my veins. The poison inside me is seeping into every crevice of my body. It is killing me.” He sighed. “I think I am afraid of that—afraid of dying. I don’t even know when I shall die, or in what manner: will my heart suddenly stand still? Will my blood coagulate? Will my brain start to melt?” He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.

  “It is the uncertainty that frightens you, master,” she consoled him. “This uncertainty about the time of one’s own death tracks a human all through his lifespan. We know that we must die. This much is certain. One of your privileges has been taken away from you, master.”

  “The most important one,” he added thoughtfully. He looked at her. “I thought it was as natural as a heartbeat or taking a breath.” Caphalor put the next piece of food back in its wrapping. He had lost his appetite.

  “Your affairs are in order, master?” she prompted tactfully.

  “Yes, they are.” Without wanting to, he found himself telling her about Enoïla, about his children, about their life, until he noticed that she had fallen asleep in her exhaustion. Lucky Raleeha. Fear has taken away my sleep.

  He had been reminded of what he would lose through death. Anger at Munumon boiled up within him and he felt the heat and pressure in his face as the fury lines spread.

  He could not return to his homeland because he had not successfully fulfilled the Inextinguishables’ mission. “Return triumphant or do not return at all,” Nagsor Inàste had told them. The shame would be unbearable. “I’ll make you suffer for this, you misbegotten gnome,” he swore in a whisper. “You shall suffer as you have never in your contemptible life suffered before.”

  Their punishing ride began at daystar-rise.

  First they headed up a gentle hill with the forest on the right. The hilltop formed a ridge fifty paces wide, starkly delineating the surrounding landscape; they took it at full gallop.

  The elements were showing a certain consideration and the rain now held off. The wind had lessened, making gray and black cloud pictures above their heads and forming a violent thunderstorm to their left, with lightning flashes and almost constant claps of thunder.

  “I would so love to be able to see that storm, master,” sighed Raleeha on hearing the first rumble.

  “You’ve Sinthoras to thank for that,” he retorted. Sardaî’s behavior alarmed him. The night-mare’s eyes kept going back to the forest where swirling columns of mist were rising. What is hiding there?

  Their path revealed a magnificent view, but the bare slopes left them extremely exposed. There was no cover of any sort and they would have to keep to the ridge for some time.

  Then Caphalor saw what had spooked the night-mare: riders rushed along on a narrow path below the ridge trying to catch them up. They were barbarians riding the large horses whose hoofprints Caphalor had noticed at the edge of the forest.

  After a moment, he realized the soldiers were not chasing him and Raleeha, but a smaller group of riders ahead of them. So, the barbarians are hunting each other down.

  His relief was short-lived.

  The smaller of the two units veered to the left, heading up to their ridge. They would be appearing ahead of them any moment now—and at this speed their pursuers would collide with himself and Raleeha.

  I have to prevent this. Caphalor reined Sardaî in and brought Raleeha’s mount to a standstill. The paths crossed around three hundred paces ahead: a safe range for a skilled bowman such as himself. He prepared his weapon and selected an arrow from the quiver at his saddle. He flexed his fingers.

  Raleeha heard what he was doing. “Is it an attack, master?”

  “Not necessarily. I hope for their own sake that the barbarians are going to leave us in peace.” He told her briefly what he had seen. Then the wind brought the low thunder of hooves and the first group appeared, with the second close behind. The drumming sound grew louder and they could make out the clattering of metal armor and weaponry. The pursuing party had closed the gap to less than four horse-lengths. So far Caphalor and Raleeha had not been noticed.

  “There’ll be fighting now,” he told her. A tinny hunting horn sounded. “They’re heading straight for each other.”

  “O, great Radnar!” Raleeha exclaimed. “One of the groups must belong to my brother’s forces. Is there a split wolf’s head on their armor? Forgive my insistence, but please tell me what you can see.”

  Caphalor thought for a moment before taking out his spyglass to observe the fray. The emblem she had described could be clearly seen. “The smaller group has that symbol. I’m afraid they stand no chance against the others. The other unit has three times their number, their horses are bigger and their weapons have a longer range. It won’t be pretty but it will be quick.”

  “Master,” she begged, her voice unsteady. “I swear I shall do anything that you or your wife demand of me if you can help my people now.”

  “You would have to obey us anyway,” he reprimanded her.

  “But I shall serve your family when you die. I shall carry out any task you give me!” she implored him. “I’ll look after your children . . . or . . .” She sought desperately for services she might offer.

  Caphalor noted in her face the distress and the fear she felt for her people’s warrior band. Once again, he was surprised at himself for sympathizing with this pathetic young slave girl. I must stop this. She is nothing but a barbarian. But he heard himself saying, “I will tell you what you owe me when we reach Dsôn Faïmon.” I am only doing this to bind her to me in gratitude, he told himself in justification. No other reason at all.

  Stowing the spyglass, he pulled out the first of his long-range war arrows and guided the night-mare to one side, so that he could use the larger bow unhindered.

  The black-feathered projectile found its target and the first barbarian fell dead from the saddle. The älf followed through at lightning speed. The next arrows hissed through the air like black rain to reap destruction. Before the soldiers had recovered from the surprise ambush, Caphalor had slain seven of them. The odds were now twenty-two against five Lotor men. I shall have to go easy with the arrows in case I have to kill all of them.

  The barbarians on the larger mounts roared at him and ten of the bravest charged up, short bows at the ready as they slid down from their saddles to use the horses as cover.

  A neat trick. It won’t help. Caphalor knew why they had closed up: they had to compensate for the lack of range their weapons had. “Dismount and stand away from your horse to the right,” he instructed Raleeha. “If it starts to run, throw yourself flat on the ground.” He placed the next arrow on the string.

  These barbarians obviously had no experience of fighting älfar, or they would never attempt to outshoot him. They would have fled immediately.

  Fear me, barbarians. Caphalor drew the bowstring back and off flew the first of
the arrows, thudding diagonally through a beast’s neck and skewering the man behind, who screamed and fell, to be trampled by the hooves of his companions’ horses. Älfar war arrows packed too much power to be stopped by mere flesh.

  You are just target practice for me. Caphalor killed more of the barbarians and their mounts. They fell at full gallop, bringing down those behind, while arrow after arrow rained down. He had dealt with eight of them without the slightest hesitation; the remaining two soldiers turned to flee.

  Caphalor’s smile was icy. You pathetic cowards, it’s too late for flight. They presented the perfect target. He got one with an arrow to the back of the head, the other he pierced through the heart, anchored to their horses by the long shafts. In their distress, the horses raced along the ridge, plunging through the melee of fighting men.

  “You can get back on now,” he told Raleeha, his eyes on the combat. Bow in hand, he urged Sardaî on as soon as the girl was back in the saddle.

  The barbarians on the larger horses headed off, while the four remaining Lotor soldiers hung around uncertainly, aware now that only their attackers had been targeted, but still keeping their axes and round shields at the ready.

  Those would not help you if I chose to kill you. “These are your people,” he told Raleeha. These soldiers looked to him like any other barbarian: dirty, hairy, holding rotten weaponry, and wearing ineffectual armor and untidy clothing. Nonetheless, they seemed so proud—with not the slightest justification. “Tell them they have nothing to fear. If they get uppity and start attacking me it will be the last thing they ever do.”

  “Yes, my master.” Raleeha called over to the soldiers in a strange dialect that he could not follow. It sounded horribly primitive.

  Another sign of their inferiority: barbarians did not even possess a unified language. They had a variety of tongues and completely different areas of interest. They would never be able to retain power in Ishím Voróo, even if it were handed them on a plate.

 
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