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Righteous fury, p.29
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       Righteous Fury, p.29

           Markus Heitz
 

  Sinthoras snorted and cantered off on his night-mare, bodyguard close behind.

  Caphalor beckoned to Aïsolon, to whom he had given command of the älfar cavalry. He wanted to have a true friend at his side. “Sort them according to race and make a note of their strengths and weaknesses.”

  Aïsolon laughed. “You’d be hard pushed to find much in the way of strengths.” He glanced after Sinthoras. “You humiliated him twice, there.”

  “I did?”

  “You did not allow the guard to carry out his order and then you dressed him down within sight and hearing of the troops.” Aïsolon looked his friend in the eyes. “I warned you about him before—don’t provoke him.”

  Caphalor realized he had been in the wrong and accepted Aïsolon’s criticism. “Yes, you are right. I needled him on purpose. It won’t happen again. Or rather, it won’t happen so often,” he added with a smile.

  Aïsolon laughed and slipped off his mantle to reveal his black plate armor. “I always feared the vassal forces would not be as good as Sinthoras thought.”

  “What made you think that?”

  “Simple: they’ve gone soft. They’ve had it far too easy.” He pointed at the rotund belly of one of the barbarians. “They’ve never had to fight. The last couple of hundred divisions of unendingness all they’ve had to do is plant a few fields, breed the odd cow or horse, mend a road or two.” He started to call out his orders to his lieutenants, getting them to divide the army into sections. “They have forgotten how to use weapons. Look, even the óarcos are overweight.”

  “Then make them sweat! They must get back in form.” He spurred Sardaî on. “You would make a better nostàroi, Aïsolon.”

  “No I wouldn’t,” his friend called after him.

  Caphalor raced up to the tent where he could hear Sinthoras holding forth angrily. This will be worth watching.

  As he entered, he saw barbarians, óarcos and other creatures shuffling together in one corner of the tent, confronted by Sinthoras with a dagger in his raised hand. Black fury lines covered his face and Caphalor knew he was employing his power to instill naked terror in the leaders’ hearts.

  He has done that efficiently enough. Caphalor took up his position and a slave hurried up with a goblet of water and blossom essences. He sipped at the drink in a leisurely way, leaned back in his seat and waited for Sinthoras to calm down. He kept his nose over the goblet, sniffing the pleasant aroma. The air in the tent was otherwise a little too heavy with the various earthy smells of the vassal leaders. Fear was bringing them out in a sweat and it was not making the atmosphere any healthier. Washing is a word they don’t understand.

  Sinthoras came over, breathing heavily, took his seat and gulped down his drink. “Excuses! They make me sick!”

  “What did they say?” Caphalor concealed his amusement.

  “Ask them yourself.” He got his cup refilled and emptied it in one draft. The dark lines paled. He placed his long knife slowly on the tray, blade pointing in their direction.

  Caphalor got to his feet and invited the leaders back to the table. They returned in dribs and drabs. “As Sinthoras has made clear,” he began, speaking in more measured tones than his co-commander, “we are not satisfied with the troops you have provided. Their equipment is not good enough and they are obviously unwilling to face combat. Even the óarcos have turned into shepherds and berry-pickers.” He sharpened his voice without getting louder. He looked round at the assembled leaders and each in turn averted his gaze. “It has always been part of your obligation as vassals not to neglect military training.”

  “We are born warriors, sire,” objected Tarrlagg, the óarco leader. He had been the first to throw off the after-effects of the terror Sinthoras had put on them. He showed his fangs and flexed his muscles to appear broader. “I’ve trained my troops myself. They can strangle any enemy with their bare hands. We don’t need weapons.”

  “Is that so?” Caphalor asked dubiously.

  “Indeed it is, sire,” replied Tarrlagg with the bravado natural to his race.

  I’ll cut you down to size for your bragging. Caphalor put down his short swords and leaped onto the table. “Come strangle me, then.”

  Tarrlagg gave a nervous laugh. “Sire, I—”

  “A quick wrestling bout will demonstrate the truth of what you say.” Caphalor dropped his arms. “What are you waiting for? Do you want me to fight with my eyes closed to make it easier for you?” He decided not to touch the óarco’s body.

  The óarco climbed onto the table and took up a fighting stance, eyes burning with the determination to win.

  Caphalor immediately saw his opening: his adversary was the same height but much heavier and he had his front leg too far forward. His own left foot shot out, heel grinding into the other’s instep. A sensitive area even for a coarse creature like an óarco.

  Tarrlagg winced and faltered—and already Caphalor had grabbed him by the belt, turned and gone down on one knee, bringing the óarco crashing face down onto the table. Its fangs ripped open its own muzzle as it rolled to the floor.

  Caphalor followed through, swift as an arrow, springing up and landing with both feet on the armor-plated chest of his challenger, who was groaning loudly. “I have won, and all without laying a finger on your skin, Tarrlagg,” he said quietly. “What do you think would have happened if I’d used a weapon?” He stepped down. “Your soldiers are no good,” he told the leaders. “The Inextinguishable Ones plan to invade Tark Draan. As a strong fighting force you would have had a unique opportunity to go down in history. The weaklings of Tark Draan would have whispered your names with dread. You would have been feared even as we are feared.” He sat down gracefully on his chair. “But you have missed that chance and it is your own fault.” That should shake them. He saw that Sinthoras was watching him and waiting.

  The leaders lowered their eyes. Tarrlagg had picked himself up and limped over to his seat. He was grumbling to himself, rubbing his shoulder and wiping blood off with his sleeve.

  The leader of the barbarians, Vittran, stood up and asked to speak. Caphalor invited him to do so. “Masters, we are the victims of the good life. We have much to thank the älfar for and now that they ask something of us in return, we have failed them. We have disgraced ourselves.” He hung his head. “Give us 200 moments of unendingness and I swear that my soldiers at least will meet your standards.”

  Sinthoras laughed condescendingly. “You and your barbarians would need to train for 2000 moments of unendingness before you satisfied my requirements. If our realm were attacked tomorrow by a wild enemy horde, do you think they would wait patiently on the other side of the defense-moat because you’ve sent them a message saying your men aren’t quite ready yet?”

  Vittran clenched his jaws.

  “Samusin is on your side,” Caphalor said after a short pause. “We will grant you sixty moments to train your warriors and turn them into a proper fighting force.” He nodded to them all. “That goes for all of you. After that, Sinthoras and I will check what you have managed to do.”

  “If we’re not happy, heads will roll,” added Sinthoras. “And then we’ll set the worst armies against each other. The victors will be allowed to take part in our campaign.” He smiled and sent his waves of fear into their minds. “But the losers . . . well, we’ll find something we can do with their remains.” He stood up and left the tent. Caphalor nodded to the leaders. It has worked. He had nothing to add to these last promises of cruelty. He followed Sinthoras out, got up into the saddle and the two of them rode swiftly back; they did not waste a glance on the vassal army doing weapons training under the watchful eye of other älfar warriors.

  “That’s 40,000 complete incompetents,” said Sinthoras, shaking his head. “We might as well let our archers practice on them as moving targets.” He sighed. “We are fooling ourselves if we think that, in sixty moments of unendingness, they’ll be up to storming the Stone Gateway and taking on the armies of Tark Draan.” He looke
d at Caphalor with an irritated expression. “Why don’t you say anything?”

  Caphalor smiled. “Because I guessed this would happen.”

  “So you’re smiling because you guessed right?”

  “No.” Caphalor relished the wait before making his next move. “Because back there in the tent, I was thinking things through while you were yelling at the leaders.”

  Sinthoras twisted his upper body round and slowed his night-mare down. “I’m listening.”

  “Barbarians.”

  “They’re not the slightest bit better than—”

  “Not our vassals. I’m talking about the barbarians north of Dsôn Faïmon. The Ishmantis—Lotor. Their warriors have been fighting battle after battle, they have plenty of experience, know how to follow orders and know how to defeat their enemies. Just the sort of veterans we could do with.”

  “You want to win them over as allies?” Sinthoras frowned. He thought about it. “Not a bad idea. We’ll set them against the groundlings and won’t have to worry that they’ll come knocking at our borders in the future. Not that I’m afraid of any barbarians, but they can get to be a nuisance if they’ve got a bee in their bonnets.”

  Caphalor nodded his agreement. “And, thanks to your generosity, I have a slave in my possession who is sister to their leader,” he added, laughing on the inside when he saw how annoyed Sinthoras was. “We could offer Farron his sister back.”

  “Raleeha won’t like that idea.”

  “She is a slave, it’s not up to her.” Caphalor was not seriously considering giving the barbarian girl back again, but he wanted it to sound as if he meant it. Appearances had to be kept up.

  When he had returned to Dsôn as a hero, it was seeing her again that gave him most pleasure. His reaction had taken him unawares and it was not proper, but in that black lace dress and matching eye mask she had looked like a true älf. No, he must not desire her! And certainly not now that I am a nostàroi. I would lose everything.

  He was surprised to see Sinthoras indicating approval. “An excellent thought. I think it could work.”

  “We’ll let her brother speak to her. He’ll be glad to and it will be up to him to persuade her to leave our people. Nobody here will shed a tear over her departure.” Caphalor wondered if he had overdone it a little with these last words but Sinthoras was looking at him with an enthusiastic expression.

  “Why should it only be the barbarians we use?” he blurted out.

  “What do you mean?” asked Caphalor.

  “Ishím Voróo is full of scum that know how to fight. If we collect them all up under our banner and herd them off to Tark Draan, we’ll be left in peace and they’ll exterminate the elves for us in the blink of an eye. We should start sending out messengers in the morning.” Sinthoras laughed out loud. “By Tion! I think you have got a brilliant idea there.”

  Caphalor gave him a wary look. More praise? What’s he got up his sleeve?

  Sinthoras read his expression. “Aha! My words render you speechless?” he asked, amused.

  “Indeed they do,” admitted Caphalor.

  “It was the same for me when you spoke up in support of me in the audience with Nagsor and Nagsar Inàste. It would have been so easy for you to drop me in it.” Sinthoras looked him straight in the eye for the first time without a trace of malice or mistrust. “Maybe it is time for us to bury our differences, now that we share a common purpose? If either of us fails, everything is lost: the campaign, our existence, and perhaps the whole future of our homeland.”

  Caphalor found it hard to believe that this was the same Sinthoras who had driven him white-hot with fury on their mission. The external appearance was identical but his personality had changed. Or is this a passing whim? Or perhaps a trick to lull me into a false sense of security before delivering a fatal blow?

  “I agree,” he said, deciding to put Sinthoras to the test. “I can remove a burden from your soul: there is no confession signed by Raleeha incriminating you. I never tortured her.”

  “I knew that,” came the ready response from the blond-haired älf.

  “How so?”

  Sinthoras gave a twisted grin. “You are far too soft, Caphalor. I never believed you in the first place.”

  He had to laugh in spite of himself. “You’re wrong about my being soft, but I see I must be far too transparent.”

  “Then I’ll tell you something, too.” Sinthoras pulled his spear upright and placed the blunt end on his stirrup. “I’m going to ditch my idea to play dead for a while, so your life won’t be forfeit.” He winked. “It was all planned.”

  Caphalor’s blood ran hot and cold. “You were going to fake your own death, so that the Inextinguishables would—”

  “Exactly so, nostàroi,” Sinthoras interrupted him, laughing. “I can see you weren’t expecting that. Stupid of me: from now on you’ll trust me less than ever.” He still sounded as if he were joking around—as if they had suddenly become good friends.

  “There can’t be two älfar more different than us,” Caphalor summed up. The other älf’s confession about the plot had shaken him to the core and he was reminded of Aïsolon’s warning. I really have been underestimating Sinthoras.

  “That is why we will be the ones to conquer Tark Draan.” Sinthoras slowed his night-mare to a trot. “If an opportunity presents itself, I should like to get to know your wife.”

  “I’m sure it can be arranged.” Caphalor rode up next to him. “When can I meet your companion?”

  Sinthoras shrugged. “I don’t have a mistress.”

  “Perhaps a male partner, then?”

  “No. I prefer älf-women.”

  Caphalor sensed he had touched a raw nerve. All the better. “It is unusual for an ambitious älf such as yourself to have no family. The älf-women must be round you in droves.”

  “I don’t have time to go looking for a bride, or to think about children. Especially not now when we are preparing for the biggest war to be waged for hundreds of divisions of unendingness.” Sinthoras pretended to be indifferent.

  But Caphalor picked up the strain in his voice. “What stopped you before?”

  “I have things I want to do in life.”

  “And you think I haven’t?” countered Caphalor, seeing another chance to defeat Sinthoras on the field of personal vanity. No one else is listening. It would only be a victory for me. “We are about the same age.”

  Sinthoras had lost his good humor. “You have more children than I do, yes. Do you have more friends than I do? More influence? More possessions?” he countered disdainfully. “No, you don’t,” he said, answering his own question. “We live forever, Caphalor. There is always time to have children, but the foundations of my power must first be made secure. I can’t see myself living in the isolation of one of the radial arms like you, running a farm with slaves. My place is in the eye of the Star State. Not just for now, but for the rest of my life.”

  “I understand.” Caphalor was surprised by this honesty.

  Sinthoras cleared his throat. “But there are still times when I envy you,” he said softly, as if speaking to himself. Then he came to, and galloped off as if taking flight.

  Caphalor rode up to join him, but said nothing. He was deep in thought as the breeze played on his face. Sinthoras had changed and was employing a completely new strategy: he was trying to forge a friendship out of their initial mutual dislike. He has shown himself to have a vulnerable side.

  I shan’t follow him yet along this dangerous path. Sinthoras was unscrupulous and obsessed with power, it could only be icy calculation behind this change. At least that is what Aïsolon would say.

  Aïsolon would also tell him to get Raleeha out of his home for good and not hang on to her as a hostage.

  Her brother will persuade her to go home. I can’t send her away.

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

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

/>   autumn.

  Sinthoras—flanked by his ten-man guard—swept into Demenion’s house where the Comets and their followers were meeting. He could already hear snatches of their discussion. He drew himself upright, his attitude one of confident superiority.

  The servants opened the doors and gasps of respectful admiration met him.

  Just how it should be. Sinthoras was aware he looked magnificent in his ceremonial armor and sheer silver cloak. The nostàroi insignia shone on his right breast, reflecting the light. He had combed his hair back and dressed it in multiple braids, applying a modest amount of tinted cosmetics to enhance his dark eyes. Combined with the dark color on his cheeks, it made his face appear narrower, resembling a skull. His gloved hands were adorned with costly rings set with blood-rubies and diamonds. The fact that he was accompanied by a heavily armed bodyguard served to emphasize his importance.

  Sinthoras waited on the threshold until the last of the room’s occupants had turned in his direction, then he raised both arms in a triumphant gesture.

  The applause was loud yet refined and restrained.

  Admire me! Behold, I make our group’s aspirations come true. The evening’s reception was being held in his honor and Demenion now came through the rows of guests to welcome him. They clasped hands and the host even bowed his head. This publicly showed who held the higher rank.

  Sinthoras knew there were always two wars to wage: one at the front and the other at home. An excellent grasp of tactics was needed for both. On the home front it was about politics, the prize being social advancement and influence among the great and the good. This was the battle he was fighting now.

  Luckily, his rival preferred to eschew such events and had retired to his estate with his companion. Sinthoras estimated that Caphalor did not have more than a dozen supporters in the top ranks of älfar society, but this was counterbalanced by his enormous success with the simple folk: his modest demeanor made him a favorite. Once more, the contrast between them was obvious.

 
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