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Righteous fury, p.27
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       Righteous Fury, p.27

           Markus Heitz
 

  Sinthoras involuntarily cast his mind to Caphalor. He is sure to be dead by now. His body will have been torn to pieces by carrion-feeders and his bones will have been gnawed by wild animals. He did not regret Caphalor’s passing. With Caphalor’s failure, the Comet policy of älfar expansion would be shown to be correct: only the representative of the Comets would return triumphant from the depths of Ishím Voróo.

  This begged the question of how he should report Caphalor’s death.

  He could drag his rival’s reputation through the mire by telling the truth and branding him a coward, or he could embroider the story.

  Or he could let Caphalor rise to fame and glory by saying that he fell fighting vastly superior numbers of the alchemancers who defeated him with poison and other devious, underhand methods.

  But why would I do that? Sinthoras could not decide. It would be almost culpably negligent not to destroy his reputation.

  In contrast to himself, Caphalor had a family to consider, with children who would develop into first-rate älfar with a variety of important skill sets. If he rendered their father a cowardly incompetent, the disgrace would stick to them forever.

  Family. Sinthoras had never wished for one, he wanted to remain on his own. He would take älf-women for pleasure, but that was as far as it went. His motto had always been no commitment, and certainly no connection if it was not going to advance him socially.

  But occasionally, at certain splinters of unendingness, he would envy älfar like Caphalor: they had a base, a solid foundation that did not fluctuate with the whims of society’s opinion. In good times, in bad times, at all times.

  Sinthoras avoided asking himself what would happen if his efforts did not bring him the recognition he craved.

  He had no genuine friends, only political allies and intellectual partners. There was no one he knew in his own family and his parents had fallen in battle. They had brought him up to have the same priorities that had guided their lives: fame and power.

  Caphalor and his companion had remained together for much longer than was normal. Is that love? He had never experienced it. I can manage very well without it.

  His quarrel was solely with Caphalor, not with his life-companion or their children. He would not discredit his rival. I shall have him die in an honorable struggle against the odds, weakened by the fflecx poison and pierced by four arrows.

  In his report he would stress how he had tried everything to save Caphalor from the howling mob of trolls—this would reflect well on himself—but the situation had been hopeless. He would say Caphalor had insisted on Sinthoras leaving to pursue their mission. That should work. He does not deserve more . . .

  Without warning he was down, tumbling head over heels to the ground. His horse rolled on top of him, pinning him to the ground.

  Sinthoras felt the beast’s sweat; he pushed the dead weight aside and squeezed out from under the animal’s body. His ribs hurt and he felt giddy, but was otherwise uninjured.

  For just one second he had failed to pay attention and the stupid horse had stumbled and fallen. That never would have happened with a night-mare.

  There was nothing to be done. The horse had broken its neck. “Got anything else in store, gods?” He shouted up into the morning skies, shaking his spear. Dirt fell from his clothing. “Why shouldn’t I get back to Dsôn?”

  A snort and the sound of hoofbeats made him whirl round. A pair of bloodred eyes confronted him—a magnificent night-mare—on whose back was someone he really had not wanted to see: “Caphalor?”

  The älf sat nonchalantly in the saddle and greeted him with a nod.

  “Samusin must hate me,” Sinthoras said quietly.

  “I think he cares deeply for you. I have found you in extreme distress.”

  “Extreme distress is quite different. My horse died, that’s all.” He stared at Caphalor. “How is it that you’re still alive?”

  “I could ask you the same thing. I think I must be immune to the alchemancers’ arts, or at least immune to whatever poison they cooked up for us.” Caphalor smiled sympathetically. “What’s your explanation?”

  “It was our new ally who cured me out of pure friendship.” Sinthoras was furious. Why did I have to come across him now? “I found the mist-demon and I’ve won him over—on my own.”

  “Was it difficult? What did you have to promise him?” Caphalor leaned forward. “Can you prove it?”

  This was the weakness and Caphalor had put his finger on it straightaway. “I have his word,” he retorted.

  “He’s not with you?”

  “No.”

  “So you have a treaty?”

  “No.”

  “Oh. So, no treaty.” Caphalor shook with laughter. “The Inextinguishables will be impressed when the hero returns with only fine words to show for himself.”

  “But it’s true!” Sinthoras shouted. “While you ran away whining, I led armies against each other and had hundreds of adventures, to—”

  “Of course you did. Save it to entertain our rulers when you’re next in the throne room.” Caphalor was dismissive. “Tell me, how will you summon your new ally?”

  If Sinthoras told him that the demon would turn up in response to a song, there would be more mockery. “None of your business.” He placed his foot on the dead horse. “Take me with you.”

  Caphalor smiled. “No.”

  “No?” Sinthoras sensed the other älf was about to name his conditions for taking him on Sardaî, but he was not going to let himself be humiliated in that way.

  “You will return to the Star Realm alive if we can agree about our having found the mist-demon together. You can be the glorious hero who led the talks, if you like, but in my story we both went to the demon’s land.” Caphalor was as cool as ice.

  Sinthoras was itching to ram a spear through him. “You want to share the glory without having done a thing?” He thought of all he had gone through at the jeembinas’ camp, and how he had fought off the gålran zhadar’s henchmen. “That’s not going to happen!”

  “Oh, I will have done something: I will have brought you home safely.”

  Now it was Sinthoras who laughed, saying disparagingly, “Ride away on your night-mare, I’ll find another horse. I don’t need your help to get—” He broke off, seeing the other älf place an arrow to his bow. “You would not dare!”

  “There’s more at stake here than your personal ambition, Sinthoras,” Caphalor declared calmly. “Politics. Constellations and Comets, it is vital that they cooperate before this war begins. Unless we are united our military skills are as naught. That is why, Sinthoras, we will be going back together or not at all. That much I promise you.”

  Sinthoras took a tighter grip on his spear. “I’ll show you I’m not so easy to kill as a fflecx or an óarco. When I’ve buried you I’ll take your night-mare and ride to Dsôn Faïmon!” He made ready.

  “And if I can prevent you from ever being the hero you want to be, without killing you?” Caphalor asked smugly.

  “What do you mean?”

  “If I drag your name in the mire, and have you made the lowest of the low? You will be little more than a servant.”

  “Impossible. How do you propose to do that? My reputation is spotless.” His desire to see his rival dead was overwhelming now.

  “It may be at the moment, but Raleeha’s cleverness could break your neck just as that fall from your horse might have done. She’s fine, by the way. Apart from the eyes, of course.” Caphalor half-raised the bow, the arrow tip still pointing at the ground but in the general direction of the other älf. “I have seen the drawings she did before you put her eyes out. Drawings of our homeland.”

  “So?”

  “Let’s assume her humble devotion to you was all an act and she chose you because of your pride: she dazzled you with compliments and you showed her round all the key points in the land.” He grinned broadly. “As I said, I’ve seen the sketches she made: details of the capital, plans of all the defen
ses, it’s all there. A priceless resource for an invader, Sinthoras.”

  “Ridiculous! No one will believe it.” I underestimated him. He is as devious as I am.

  “What if I had exposed her activities and tortured a confession out of her? My daughter is an expert surgeon and knows better than anyone how best to inflict pain. The confession is already signed. Then, of course, the drawings are missing, nobody knows where they are.” Caphalor waited a while for a response. “Sinthoras, you could be responsible for the downfall of Dsôn Faïmon. I don’t think the Inextinguishable Ones would forgive something like that—if they ever got to hear about it.”

  Sinthoras’ face was crisscrossed with fury lines. He wanted to thrust his spear right through the middle of Caphalor’s self-satisfied expression and out through the back of his skull. “Tion take you—”

  “Indeed. But let’s get ourselves back home first. Agreed?”

  Sinthoras clenched his jaws and hissed out a “Yes.” For now he would go along with it, but as soon as he had found and destroyed the confession, Caphalor would taste his revenge.

  Abruptly, Caphalor raised the bow, drew back his arm and shot.

  Sinthoras attempted a defensive movement, but missed the arrow, which landed between his feet.

  There was a rattle and a shrill piping sound.

  When he looked down he could see a rat-like animal with a long spike on its tail neatly shot through.

  “Your hearing must be letting you down. You ought to have noticed,” said Caphalor, loosening the bowstring. Then he leaned down, hand outstretched to help his rival up.

  Sinthoras sprang up onto the night-mare’s back without touching the proffered hand.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands),

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

  late summer.

  Sardaî was tireless for most of the day in spite of the armor and the two älfar on his back. The beast was unique. Caphalor was grateful for the gift. The night-mare was certainly worth Morcass dying.

  Hardly stopping, they galloped over the plain until the daystar disappeared, crossing fflecx territory. They wanted to get back to Dsôn as quickly as possible, but toward evening they were forced to seek shelter for the night. By now the stallion was starting to stumble, its energy failing after all those miles of punishing speed.

  “We don’t want to end up with broken necks,” Sinthoras had complained. “Not when we are so close to our goal.”

  Caphalor turned his mount’s head toward a small group of trees where they would find cover. “This looks fine.” He felt Sinthoras dismount and followed suit. As he got down his eyes fell on the saddle. “The bags have gone!”

  “Is that so?” Sinthoras stretched and gave a knowing smile. “I never noticed. You’d have thought we’d have heard them fall. But then, you did point out my hearing was letting me down. Who knows? Normally I’d have heard and could have told you.” With an innocent air he added, “I hope there wasn’t anything important in them?”

  Caphalor uttered a resounding curse. “My provisions, and all my spare arrow tips.” This meant he would have to collect all spent ones from now on.

  “We can’t really go back to look, though, can we? What a shame.” Sinthoras’ tone was heavy with sarcasm. “I’m sure we’ll find something to keep body and soul together.” He gave a spiteful grin and settled down under the fragrant late-flowering branches of an indini beech. “Anyway, with your archery skills you never waste your arrows, do you?” He placed his spear on his knees and crossed his arms behind his head, leaning back.

  Caphalor realized what else was missing. Raleeha’s drawings of Dsôn Faïmon! He’d taken them along to study them and decide whether or not to keep them. No need now.

  He ran his fingers over the luggage straps. They had torn and there was no sign a knife had helped the saddlebags on their way. It could be coincidence. Coincidence? With Sinthoras? Was it not just as likely that he’d had a good look through and had discovered the incriminating sketches? Caphalor could not prove anything and the drawings were lying somewhere on the plain. It’s a good thing the fflecx aren’t the type to plan invasions. Even if those freaks find the papers, they won’t know what to do with them.

  But he still felt bad about the loss, for both their aesthetic value and their political significance.

  Sinthoras had been watching him investigate the straps. Caphalor noted his smug expression. “The leather’s torn,” he said. “Annoying.”

  “A nuisance,” Sinthoras agreed. “I’ll take first watch.”

  When Caphalor climbed the tree to rest in the branches he saw a blow-pipe dart sticking in the back of his knee. I didn’t feel it! He took a closer look. The effects of the previous poison attack were fresh in his mind, but there was only a slight reddening of the flesh. No swelling. No pain. Caphalor found no indication of a toxic reaction.

  “What is it?” asked Sinthoras.

  In response he held up the dart. “A present from the fflecx. No more than a flea bite.” Caphalor swung his way up through the branches, put his bow and arrow to one side and closed his eyes.

  One of my lies has come true: I have lost the drawings, he told Inàste in prayer. Grant that the other lie about becoming immune to the poison also be true.

  The night brought him dreams.

  He saw Raleeha. She danced for him, lithe and seductive, truly älf-like. Suddenly the Inextinguishable Ones pushed their way in front, enormous in size, with visors lowered over their faces, shouting that he should do his duty. Then Sinthoras appeared with an evil sneer, applauding and taking Raleeha’s hand to draw her toward himself, planting a long kiss on her lips. The slave girl repulsed his advances and turned to Caphalor, arms outstretched, begging for help and calling his name . . .

  Caphalor shot awake, gasping. It took him several breaths to work out where he was. Sinthoras had let him sleep. The horizon was growing light. It was nearly morning. He rubbed his eyes. I must put a stop to this. Raleeha has to leave.

  He jumped down from the tree, hoping he would leave those disturbing pictures in the branches, and landed close to Sardaî, who greeted him with a joyful snicker. He stroked the animal’s neck fondly. “Are you rested? Shall we go on?”

  Sinthoras came out of the shadows. “Good. I was just going to wake you.”

  CHAPTER XIII

  No one could stop them. Except for one race that alone proved to be strong.

  Almost too strong, even for the best of the älfar warriors.

  The numbers were small, not more than four hundred, but they were sufficient to defeat an army of four thousand in open battle.

  And after the fighting they devoured their dead enemies.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Chapter 2, 24–26

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, Dsôn (Star-Eye),

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

  late summer.

  It is magnificent! It is fabulous! Caphalor’s and Sinthoras’ return had indicated their success—the rulers had let the people know of their mission as a result, and it was better than anything Sinthoras could ever have imagined.

  The streets of Dsôn were lined with crowds of jubilant älfar and black, red, and white flowers rained down from the rooftops. Incense filled the air and there was an escort of riders on fifty fire-bulls and fifty night-mares to bring them to the very center of the realm: to the Tower of Bones, into the presence of the Inextinguishable Ones.

  . . . and I am going to have to share all this with Caphalor, the imposter grinning at my side, enjoying the attention as if he really did help seal the pact. His ambitious pride was not being allowed full rein.

  Sinthoras rode next to Caphalor; he had been given a night-mare on crossing the border to Dsôn Faïmon. At least I don’t have to share a saddle with him anymore. His smile was forced as he concentrated on not letting his anger show in his face. There were
artists up on the balconies ready to capture this historical moment on canvas and paper. How would it look if his features were marred with lines of fury?

  “Anyone would think we had conquered Tark Draan,” Caphalor said, visibly moved. “See how they rejoice.”

  “You certainly don’t have anything to be proud of,” Sinthoras hissed. He hated the fact that his anger was ruining the mood. The gods were playing a cruel game with him: throwing him these highs and lows, so quickly, one after another. He was definitely due a high point very soon.

  Enjoy it, he told himself. Save the bad thoughts for when you are alone. For now: enjoy it.

  The cavalcade moved smartly on to where the Tower of the Inextinguishables rose on its hill. They climbed the winding path until the point where they had to dismount and continue on foot. The guard of honor remained behind at the foot of the steps.

  At the entrance they were met by the blind servants.

  It made Sinthoras think of Raleeha. He missed her in the way one might miss a loyal pet one quite liked to have around, but for the trouble she had caused him with those wretched drawings of hers he would never forgive her. She made me vulnerable. He glanced at Caphalor. It was that älf’s fault, of course, not hers. He had seen the harmless drawings in the saddlebags and it was Caphalor who was going to use them against him, torturing a trumped-up confession out of the girl. He looked again at Caphalor, I solemnly swear that you are not long for this life.

  Arriving in the same way as on their first audience, they entered the great hall, mounted the steps, and walked along the corridor. This time Sinthoras was not inclined to stop and admire the architecture of the Tower of Bones: he wanted the praise that was owing to him and he wanted it at once.

  He dashed into the throne room to fling himself, with Caphalor, at the rulers’ feet—eyes fixed on their boots and the hems of their royal robes. Through the open windows came music and the sound of their names being hailed in celebration.

 
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