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Righteous fury, p.28
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       Righteous Fury, p.28

           Markus Heitz
 

  “Dsôn rejoices at your return,” said Nagsar Inàste. Her words ran into their ears like sweet honey, sticky with flattery, to swirl around in their heads.

  “You deserve the adulation,” said Nagsor Inàste, admiration and respect in his voice. “Kneel up now and relate to us what happened on your journey.”

  “O Most High and Inextinguishable rulers,” Caphalor began, much to the horror of his rival. “The renown and success are owed wholly to my companion and fellow warrior, even if he is too modest to say so himself. It was he who made the pact with the mist-demon. His should be the privilege of narrating his triumph.” He bowed deeply.

  Sinthoras breathed a sigh of relief. It had looked as if Caphalor had been trying to steal the limelight, but he had cleverly not only ascribed to Sinthoras the merit, but also the full responsibility. He bowed and then a torrent of words left his lips. He admitted that Caphalor had played a minor role—thus including him in any liability—but stressed that he alone had conducted the decisive negotiations. He stayed silent on the episode of the vial. “And so we bade farewell to the mist-demon,” he concluded. “If it is an urgent matter to break open the bolts of the Stone Gate, I should like to warn you, Inextinguishable ones, that the creature appeared extremely greedy. That is why I—why we did not bring him back here with us. I think he might take a fancy to our Star State. We have witnessed with our own eyes what he does with any land he settles in. It is fascinating, but only when it is not happening to one’s own homeland.” He bowed to the red hem of the royal robes.

  “These are many adventures, indeed, that you have lived through. You will be remembered in the legends of the älfar,” said Nagsar Inàste slowly. “Our loyal Caphalor, do you share your companion’s opinions?”

  “Completely,” he replied without hesitation. “My sentiments entirely.”

  “I notice,” said Nagsor Inàste, “that you are relatively reticent—as if this all had little to do with you.”

  Sinthoras went bright red. I might have known he would cause trouble.

  “You misunderstand my silence, worshipful ruler,” replied Caphalor. “The merit belongs solely to Sinthoras—”

  “As you said.” The ruler’s interruption was sharp. “However, I cannot get over the impression that you are being over-modest. My sister and I know that you are not one to push yourself forward: you execute your tasks soberly and efficiently, but a little more assertiveness would be appropriate here, given the heroic nature of these deeds.”

  “Thank you, Inextinguishable One.” Caphalor bowed deeply again.

  “And I should prefer to see some evidence of this pact with the mist-demon,” the ruler continued. “I trust you both, Caphalor and Sinthoras, but this is to be the crucial element in our campaign. Without the power of the demon we shall stand outside the groundlings’ gate, unable to get inside. The dwarves will fire on us and our vassal armies at their leisure, destroying us while we stand defenseless.”

  “The demon will arrive when the preparations are complete,” Sinthoras protested. “I’ve only to raise my voice and he will appear.”

  Nagsar Inàste made a movement and the fabric of her robe rustled. “But if something were to happen to you before we have assembled all the troops—how would we summon the demon?” She was not satisfied and her tone of voice had changed from honey to acid. “We have to have precautions in place, Sinthoras. So, tell us the words to use.”

  Sinthoras hoped fervently that Caphalor would control himself sufficiently and not burst out laughing when he explained the secret. “It’s not a special word—it is my voice that he will answer to. My voice and an älf song.”

  “What?” the sibling rulers chorused in astonishment. Nagsar Inàste had even jumped down off her throne—her boots landing before Sinthoras.

  “Forgive me. It was not my intention to arrange things like this.” His declaration sounded insubstantial even in his own ears and it was giving his rival the perfect opportunity to attack him. Caphalor could stress that he had not been involved in any of these strange procedures and could put the blame squarely on him.

  And here was Caphalor’s voice already. “What Sinthoras says is true.”

  Sinthoras was astonished. His jaw nearly dropped open. He is supporting me?

  “The demon was impressed with his performance, in contrast to his reaction to my own offering. He is a creature of considerable cultural refinement, or at least, one with sophisticated hearing,” Caphalor continued. “We tried everything. We suggested sending word with a messenger, or a carrier pigeon, but he insisted he would only turn up if Sinthoras sings.”

  The siblings were silent.

  Time passed slowly, far too slowly for Sinthoras’ taste. What are they going to say? He saw his longed for Honor-Blessing going up in smoke—smoke mixed with the tattered mists of what had once been his shining reputation. His merits, his influence, his friends—everything dissolved into nothingness in his mind.

  “It was a mistake,” Nagsar Inàste said in open rebuke.

  “A very big mistake,” said her companion and brother.

  “A mistake you both made,” she said, speaking now with neither honey nor acid. “From now on, Caphalor, you are to protect Sinthoras’ life as if it were your own,” the Inextinguishable one said soberly. “I shall give you ten of my best warriors to help you. They will be answerable exclusively to you and will do whatever you command. Should you fail in this, your family, your descendants, your estate, your servants and slaves will all be exterminated. Your blood will cease to be part of eternity.”

  “I am your obedient servant,” said Caphalor immediately.

  “However, your magnificent achievements are not to be overlooked,” said Nagsar Inàste. “You are hereby both chosen to share the supreme command of the operation against Tark Draan. Muster your armies and march your troops to the Stone Gate. Bring us the greatest of all triumphs: the end of the elves!” A black velvet glove slipped down into Sinthoras’ field of vision, handing him a rolled parchment and a tionium medal with silver inlay: the insignia of a nostàroi, the highest office in the älfar military.

  Nagsar Inàste herself has handed me this decoration. Sinthoras shook with emotion, already seeing the coming victory in his mind’s eye. Speechless, he made a deep bow.

  His delight was spoiled when a second velvet-gloved hand hovered toward Caphalor, likewise bearing the parchment and the ribbon-hung medal of a nostàroi. The älf was receiving the same award.

  Sinthoras noted the blind servants silently approaching to escort them from the audience hall. There was no Honor-Blessing. What in Tion’s name do I have to do? Another disappointment . . . So both of them shared supreme command but Caphalor would still enjoy higher esteem because he had been Honor-Blessed. It was a matter of pride: the troops would always prefer to follow an Honor-Blessed general into battle rather than a simple hero. Lost in thought and despair, Sinthoras took no notice of his surroundings as he left, guided by the servants.

  Soon they were standing outside in the evening breeze, which wafted stray petals toward them.

  Dsôn’s crowds had dispersed and no one was there to receive them—except for the ten armored warriors waiting on the platform midway down the flight of steps that led from the Tower of Bones. These represented the new bodyguard.

  Sinthoras was relieved to be left in peace. The tension fell from his shoulders and he was overcome with tiredness and disappointment. His eyelids were heavy as lead and he longed for his own bed.

  “Ah, excellent, my men are here already.” Caphalor fixed the insignia to his collar. “Congratulations, nostàroi,” he said. “It seems your wishes are coming true: you are already a hero. When we march against Tark Draan you will be the greatest of all.”

  “And I have to share it with you.” Sinthoras shrugged, staring at the crater. Anything rather than look at his rival.

  “I’ll hold back and leave you the limelight.” Caphalor was in a splendid mood. “We ride to your home now,
I presume?” He strode off down the stairway with a spring in his step.

  Sinthoras watched him go. There was no way he could disobey the Inextinguishables’ command and refuse protection: the bodyguard was a sensible precaution, but the idea of having Caphalor constantly hovering over him was driving him crazy. Then it occurred to him: the noble siblings threatened to destroy Caphalor if anything happens to me. Could be arranged, he told himself. A malicious smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. I could play dead for long enough to have him killed. He fastened his new decoration to his tunic and pulled his gloves firmly on. He felt much better. “No. We’ll spend the night in Dsôn. We’ll stay with some friends I have here, unlike you, O Honor-Blessed one. Isn’t that a neat contradiction: Honor-Blessed but friendless?”

  “The way I heard it, no one has any friends in Dsôn,” retorted Caphalor with a grin. “Only enemies who pretend to be friends.”

  Sinthoras laughed. “So witty all of a sudden. Today we ought to celebrate. Tomorrow we will send orders to the vassals and start assembling the troops.”

  “That’s right.” Caphalor was inspecting the bodyguards before they all continued down the steps to where the animals were tethered.

  Sinthoras swung himself up onto his night-mare’s saddle and Caphalor rode at his side on Sardaî, while the bodyguard flanked them. He felt immensely powerful. His rival was correct in one regard: his dreams were coming true. But Caphalor would not share in them.

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

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

  late summer.

  Raleeha could not see her two owners, former and current, but she could hear the enthusiastic rejoicing in the voices around her. What a reception! She could certainly feel the air quivering with excitement and energy.

  Robbed of her eyesight, she had found that her remaining senses had become more acute. The älfar chorused the names of the returning heroes as if they were words in a sacred prayer and a variety of strange instruments played—their tonal ranges creating the mysterious harmony produced by a huge orchestra. This communal euphoria was different from anything Raleeha had experienced at human celebrations: there was no rowdiness, no loss of control, and the character of the occasion reminded her more of a religious ceremony to honor the deities. The singing affected her deeply: she found the voices at once attractive and frightening. These hymns reflect the magic power of the älfar.

  She stood behind Caphalor’s family, who had brought her with them to Dsôn. This was a unique event and it was understood that everyone would attend. This much she had gathered from listening to Tarlesa and her mother discussing arrangements. It meant enormous prestige for the entire family: no älf would willingly forgo the honor of being there to watch a family member so heralded.

  Raleeha was delighted for Sinthoras. How she would have loved to behold his face, to see the pride in his eyes, and then to draw his picture. This was denied her still, but the tincture Tarlesa had used was gradually having an effect and she was starting to allow herself to hope. She would soon be serving her real master once more, Caphalor had promised her this.

  The increasing sound of the crowd’s reaction told her that the heroes’ cavalcade was nearly level with them.

  “Look, Mother, look! Father has never appeared more of a hero than today,” enthused Tarlesa. “Sardaî could not have a better rider.”

  “Your father has become a legend in his own right. His deeds in Ishím Voróo have been remarkable,” Enoïla replied.

  But he won’t have carried out a single one of them, Raleeha thought. The play-acting by the two älfar women would work perfectly to give the impression that Caphalor had been constantly at Sinthoras’ side.

  The hoofbeats passed. The music and the shouting did not die down for quite some time, but the crowd ebbed away gradually. Raleeha was pulled away by a tug on her collar.

  She followed obediently, listening to Tarlesa and Enoïla talking about what they had seen while other älfar kept interrupting to offer congratulations and to leave messages for Caphalor.

  This almost made Raleeha angry. Don’t be stupid, she told herself. He saved your life! Why begrudge him the attention, even if it is going to the wrong älf? She was well aware that she owed him a great deal.

  Finally the strangers’ voices died away and the group could move more quickly.

  A door opened. Warm, fragrant air met Raleeha’s face and she heard the bright tones of wind chimes. Then mother and daughter greeted another älf; the three women conversed too quietly for Raleeha to hear what they were saying.

  “Sit down,” Tarlesa instructed her and a stool was pushed against her knees from behind. “This is the home of a good friend of my mother’s, so be silent and behave well. Don’t do anything. Except breathe.”

  Raleeha nodded.

  “And before you ask—no, you won’t be sent to Sinthoras.”

  “Mistress!” she protested.

  “I told you to keep quiet!” Tarlesa jerked the slave collar tighter. “My father has told us to take you home with us again. He has decided against giving you back.” Raleeha made a noise objecting and received a blow to the head from Tarlesa for her pains.

  “Will you behave?” hissed the young älf-girl angrily. “You ungrateful hussy! First I do my best to get you back your sight and then you make a fuss because things don’t go as you wish! I’ll put you back in the dark if you carry on like this.”

  Raleeha was shoved against the wall, hitting her right temple. She wanted to cry out, to say she did not care about regaining her sight if it meant she was not going to be able to see Sinthoras and his wonderful creations.

  Enoïla called her daughter over.

  Raleeha managed not to sob, but a few tears of anger and disappointment escaped down her cheeks. The small voice at the back of her head spoke up. One älf had blinded her and the other was breaking his word. For them you’re nothing more than a barbarian, a slave. Your talent and your noble origins are of no interest. Bad treatment was the price she had to pay for spending her life with her idols. But it is not fair.

  “My husband will release you as soon as the campaign against Tark Draan has begun,” said Enoïla, who had come nearer without her noticing. “My youngest is very excited after seeing her father so celebrated. It makes her a little over-impulsive.”

  Raleeha was astounded. Did the älfar mistress just apologize to me?

  “You are an important element in a strategy whose significance you won’t understand,” said Enoïla, speaking kindly, almost maternally. “You barbarians can’t see the bigger picture.”

  She nodded and the älf-woman laughed.

  “You see? You think you understand what I’m saying. You are a Lotor and your family is about to become extremely influential. My husband will be negotiating with the barbarians very soon and you will be useful. To him, not to Sinthoras.”

  “Yes, mistress.”

  “Good. When these talks have taken place you will be freed.”

  She did not realize that Enoïla had left her standing there alone until she heard her mistress talking to friends on the other side of the room. From simple slave girl to political pawn. If she were any help to Caphalor then Sinthoras would certainly not want her back. She was further than ever from being with him and his paintings.

  Raleeha sighed as deeply as the tight collar allowed.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, to the north of the Radial Arm Wèlèron,

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

  autumn.

  Caphalor rode slowly along the line of soldiers. He felt like shouting at them. Useless, inferior creatures, every single one of them.

  Sinthoras approached on the other side, riding his night-mare and accompanied by his bodyguard. His darkened visage made it clear that he too was unimpressed by the quality of the troops that he had assembled in the harvested field.
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  The vassal nations who lived in the regions between the six radial arms had sworn they would lay down their lives in battle if the älfar demanded their service. This was the tribute they had to provide in return for the protection they received; every barbarian above a certain age had to be ready to serve.

  And they had come: an army of 40,000 creatures including barbarians, half-óarcos, gnomes.

  Sinthoras and Caphalor halted.

  “Do you judge them as useless as I do?” growled Sinthoras, his right hand gripping the shaft of his spear.

  Caphalor guessed Sinthoras wanted to behead the lot of them. On the spot. “Well, they would be fine with the óarcos as a buffer against enemy cavalry attack, or to clear the battlefield of injured opponents after the fighting.” He studied the barbarians, whose hard features betrayed their fear and concern: they were aware that their masters were dissatisfied with them. “They would be no use at all for fighting.”

  Sinthoras swore and clenched his left fist. “40,000 warriors, but my ten bodyguards would knock out half of them before breakfast!” he shouted furiously. “How could this happen? How?”

  Caphalor was not surprised that his volatile rival had lost his temper. Everything was at stake for the ambitious Sinthoras, under tremendous political pressure from friends. He needed to assemble the best army ever raised in Dsôn Faïmon, or his own high hopes would be dashed. Let Sinthoras rave if he will. Let him rave—and make mistakes. “The vassal leaders are waiting, I summoned them to meet with us.” He pointed to a tent pitched half a mile away. “We can discuss the state of their troops.”

  “I’ve seen enough. I don’t want to listen to their lies and lame excuses,” Sinthoras growled. “These sorry specimens couldn’t hold a sword or hit a target at fifty paces.” He gestured to one of his bodyguards. “You there! Go for that barbarian.”

  The soldier did not move, but the designated barbarian writhed, terror in his eyes.

  Caphalor grinned. Another mistake: the guard was under orders from himself, not Sinthoras. “I think we can do without shedding our young barbarian’s blood. We both know he would stand no chance against an älf.” He directed the night-mare toward the big tent. “Let them do some training until we get back.”

 
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