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Righteous fury, p.3
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       Righteous Fury, p.3

           Markus Heitz
 

  So that’s the reason for the envy. Caphalor glanced down at the half-eaten cadaver and the greenish mix of yellow pigment and blue blood on the black leaves. “I don’t suppose we’ll find another one. My daughter will be disappointed,” he said quietly.

  Aïsolon nodded agreement. “But we’ve got a great story to tell her.”

  Caphalor took a long look at the sharp claws of the dead creature. “Would it have got me, Aïsolon?” He bent down and cut off two of its toes as a trophy, then broke off the biggest of the teeth to take home as a consolation prize for his daughter.

  The älf reflected for a moment. “Did I shoot or not?”

  “You didn’t even have the bow in your hands,” Caphalor replied with a knowing smile. “Even if you had wanted to, it would have been impossible.”

  Aïsolon’s face fell. “You noticed?” He sighed. “I thought I’d be more effective with my short sword. And no, the baro would have missed you, you don’t owe Sinthoras anything at all.”

  “That’s what I was hoping. I’d hate to have to feel any obligation.”

  Caphalor unstrung his bow and shouldered the weapon. “Let’s get back and tell them what happened.”

  Aïsolon laughed. “I bet Enoïla will be glad we haven’t taken the baro alive. Your daughter would never have been able to tame it.”

  “Oh yes she would,” said Caphalor with conviction. “She’s one of a kind, my daughter.” They set off. “Has he been to see you about it?” he asked after a while.

  Aïsolon let his eyes wander and took a deep breath. “Who do you mean?”

  “You know exactly who I mean.”

  Aïsolon wiped away some of the baro blood from his glove. “I enjoy our outings to Ishím Voróo. It’s dangerous, but I always know it’ll be an adventure. Today was quite an adventure.”

  “So that means Sinthoras has been to ask for your support. He wants you to join the Comets?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why didn’t you say?”

  “I don’t like talking about politics, I avoid it wherever I can.” Aïsolon looked his friend squarely in the eyes. “But since you’ve started: I belong to the Constellations, just like you do. And I share your opinion that we should look to our defenses and take stronger measures against potential threats from outside, but that doesn’t mean we should embark upon an aggressive expansion of our empire. That would only give us more borders to defend: we won’t be able to rely on our vassals and slaves for that.”

  Caphalor placed a hand on his shoulder. “Wise thoughts for someone who doesn’t like talking politics.”

  “But there are so few now that think that way. The mood of the time plays into the hands of warriors like Sinthoras. The more rumors we hear about newly formed kingdoms, the more we question our strategy of defense.”

  Caphalor was sunk in thought. “Perhaps Sinthoras is partly right, perhaps it’s our own fault that the mere sight of an älf is no longer enough to put an enemy to flight. Have we lost our ability to terrify our enemies?”

  Aïsolon did not answer.

  It was already dusk when they passed Dsôn Faïmon’s frontier. They left the beech forest and crossed the two-mile cleared strip of land that took them to the defense moat, and closer to Radial Arm Shiimal, where they both lived.

  The moat was, in reality, a broad, fast-flowing river nearly fifty paces wide. Artificial islands had been placed at regular intervals along it and well-armed fortresses stood on each of them. Weapons had been specially designed for the forts so that only small teams were needed to operate the catapults in case of attack, though the most powerful catapults were driven by waterpower and could reach targets well into the middle of the cleared strip of land—that was if any beasts, barbarians or other enemies even dared to draw near their borders. Access to the forts could only be gained by long drawbridges which, when closed, pointed up toward the sky.

  The two älfar approached the bridgehead.

  Aïsolon gave the bugle signal and the drawbridge began to rattle downward in response.

  “Be on your guard with Sinthoras,” he said suddenly.

  Caphalor looked at his friend. “Why do you say that?”

  “The Inextinguishables have awarded you the Honor-Blessing he craves, and that’ll be reason enough for him to hate you. But you also represent everything he despises, and he knows that many of the other warriors will follow you blindly, whatever you ask of them. If you are not on his side, you must, in his eyes, be his enemy”

  “A bleak prospect, Aïsolon.”

  “I told you he tried to win me over. When I sent him off he warned me that in battle I could not count on his coming to my aid. He hinted at arrows going astray.”

  Caphalor was about to respond, but the drawbridge was settling into its place on the riverbank and the hefty chains were making a great deal of noise as they reached full tension, making conversation impossible.

  When the earsplitting screech of the metal chains had died away, Aïsolon stepped onto the drawbridge and turned to Caphalor. “Be on your guard,” he repeated as he set off. “I can’t say more than that.”

  Despite realizing his friend did not want to talk about the subject any longer, Caphalor joked, “It’s him who should be on his guard—he’s the one who ruined my surprise for my daughter!” But he was suddenly aware of a greater danger for Dsôn Faïmon than any posed by a neighboring state, however aggressive: a schism within their own land—the turmoil of warring factions. Comets opposing Constellations—active expansion versus defense.

  The Inextinguishable Ones would soon have to put a stop to the smoldering conflict, one way or the other.

  CHAPTER II

  The Inextinguishable Ones prayed to the Creating Spirit to give them a sign.

  And the Creating Spirit wept when she saw what had befallen her children. Where, like flaming stars, her black tears fell, blessed craters were formed.

  The rulers of the älfar recognized the signs and in the first of the craters they founded Dsôn Faïmon. That is how it came to be hallowed and kept safe, this cradle of our kind.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Chapter 1, 8–11

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

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

  summer.

  Sinthoras raised the heavy granite door-knocker and let it fall against the stonewood. A single heavy blow sounded.

  He took five slow paces backward in order to get a better look at Demenion’s luxurious house, a blackwood construction. The improvements on the façade were now complete: interlocking carved shapes, small decorative pillars, and polished silver disks attracted the gaze of the passer-by.

  Envy gnawed at his soul.

  At the start of each division of unendingness, Demenion would treat himself to a new façade for his six-sided residence on the south side of the popular Tåm Square. No other älf could put such a breathtaking a collection of silver and bronzed tionium figures together—especially as Demenion worked with the most important artists in Dsôn, creating some of the most unique art in existence.

  A magnificent battle scene four paces high portrayed Demenion himself at its center. At his feet lay slaughtered óarcos, trolls, and barbarians—their bodies fashioned from metal, the original faces of the dead preserved under varnish. Preserving these faces involved an extremely complicated and time-consuming procedure that demanded utmost skill and precision from the artist. The flesh was so unstable and perishable that few would attempt this delicate task: to create the best art, the skin could not lose its color or become wrinkled and could not dry out in sunlight or, worse still, start to putrefy—something that might have conveyed a fascinating insight into unstoppable decay, but was not the desired effect on the façade of a house.

  Sinthoras took a closer look at the dead: their faces displayed pain, torture, and fear, and where they had been injured you could see open wo
unds and fractures. In the metal rendering of the bodies you could see detail right down to tumbled intestines and broken bones jutting from flesh. Spectacular, without a doubt—and extravagant in the extreme, even boastful.

  However, if you lived in the Star-Eye—especially so if your house was on Tåm Square—you showed what you had. You only got to live there if you were a hero, an influential älf or a celebrated artist and each site cost a fortune. There was no shortage of älfar ready to expend all their savings and assets in an effort to keep up, but many were forced to admit defeat: expensive multi-storied buildings sometimes changed hands so quickly that people had not even met their neighbor before he moved out to make way for a more prosperous älf.

  Sinthoras’ lips had become a thin line. He belonged here, and soon he would possess one of these Star-Eye houses. He had chosen a triangular tower on this very same square. It was a wonderful building, playful in its architecture and made of sigurdacia wood; the walls were inlaid with metal that shone brighter at night than any of the runes and signs on the surrounding houses. He deserved it. His promotion would be coming soon—a promise given by the highest source he carried in his pocket—then Demenion would learn what envy was.

  The door was being opened for him now. A human slave, about ten divisions of unendingness in age, stood there in a light blue robe, bowing and moving aside to usher him in.

  He strode past the slave with neither greeting nor glance: the ugly human was not worthy of being acknowledged.

  Sinthoras was affronted to note that Demenion let his slaves work unveiled. At least Raleeha was pretty and her appearance could be appreciated if you understood simple pleasures. But this one? With those broad cheekbones and those fat lips? It looked more like a donkey.

  He soon reached the assembly gardens and the courtyard with its protective sunshade. Here there was a lawn of rare bone-white grass and Demenion had planted night narcissi, black roses and soft baby’s breath, while pale red ivy grew over gray stones at the edges. It was as if most of nature’s color had been omitted: Demenion had a sense for plants pleasing to the eye.

  Sinthoras could see his host and four other älfar sitting at a dark brown table. They had goblets in front of them and were talking quietly amongst themselves: Comets, one and all. He was the only one in armor—the others had all chosen light clothing in subdued tones. In Sinthoras’ view this showed the difference between them and himself: the others were occasional warriors whereas he lived and breathed the fighting life. The only time he put aside his armor was at his easel; when he painted he became a different person.

  A slave alerted the gathering.

  Demenion rose and approached with outstretched arms. The gesture of welcome was careful, full of grace and a degree of softness. It was too soft for a real warrior, though it suited a politician.

  “Sinthoras! We have been longing for you to arrive,” said the master of the house with a wink. “We were beginning to worry that your newest painting might have taken precedence over our cause.”

  “I had to go and get some more paint,” he answered quickly, and held out his hand to Demenion to avoid being embraced, he had a horror of most physical contact—especially the unwanted type. Sitting down at the table he surveyed the faces: the leaders of a new military strategy for the Star State—Dsôn Faïmon.

  Khlotòn raised his eyebrows. “Something special, I assume?”

  “Yes, pirogand yellow.” He was annoyed with himself for even mentioning it. Now he would have to admit that Caphalor had pulled one over on him. He gave an abridged version of events. “And so I could not finish the picture,” he said. “I threw it on the fire.”

  “Caphalor, eh?” Khlotòn looked over at Demenion. “Isn’t it strange that it was you two who ended up eyeball to eyeball?”

  “Samusin seems to enjoy watching powerful opposites clash,” agreed Sinthoras. “But enough about that coward—what news from our spies in Ishím Voróo? Anything we can present to the Inextinguishables to convince them of our cause?”

  Demenion nodded and pointed at Rashànras, who, as usual, stood up to speak. Sinthoras considered him a boaster, but he was unfortunately a boaster with an excellent network of spies. And most of them were currently watching the east of Ishím Voróo.

  “There are signs that Farron Lotor is winning out against the other barbarian tribes. I am quite surprised, I must admit. They have already eliminated their first opponents and assimilated their armies—so the Lotor family is now in command of around 30,000 barbarians, and at least half of these are óarco-riders.” Rashànras made a sour face. “Of course, their mounts are nothing like our night-mares, but this does mean they are in a position to conduct a 15,000-strong lightning strike on an enemy. Give the miserable band half a division of unendingness and I see Farron subjugating the entire barbarian region.”

  “That would make how many in total?” interjected Sinthoras.

  “If Farron were to conquer all the kingdoms and control their armies, it’d give him a fighting force of 100,000-strong,” was the growled response.

  Khlotòn took a sip from his wine cup. “Send an assassin to deal with him, then the possible successors will destroy each other. That’s what always happens,” he said condescendingly.

  Sinthoras raised his hand to register his objection. “We shouldn’t do anything yet. Let Farron try to make himself ruler—that would give us a reason to go to war against such a ‘threat,’ and what could be a better excuse for expansion than that?”

  “Do you think so? I beg to differ,” countered Rashànras. “If we wait too long, they’ll have time to prepare for an attack and we might end up with greater losses. We should not risk spilling our precious blood unnecessarily. Besides that, I’m not sure we can rely on our vassals’ loyalty: they were barbarians originally and are still óarco-riders in their hearts, who knows which way they’d go on the battlefield? Blood is thicker than water.”

  “And is better for painting,” added Demenion, a comment met with laughter.

  Sinthoras inhaled sharply and glared at Rashànras, then he reached into his pocket and took out a parchment, spreading it out in front of them. He relished the surprise and envy on the faces of the Comets when they saw the seal of the Inextinguishables. “I am to meet with the Sibling Rulers tomorrow. They wish to speak to me.”

  “Inàste is with you!” Demenion could not tear his eyes from the invitation. “They will Honor you, Sinthoras!” There was respect and awe in his voice. “You will get their Blessing, what a privilege!”

  “An important development for our cause,” Khlotòn chipped in enthusiastically, his voice betraying none of the usual animosity he spoke to Sinthoras with.

  Sinthoras was aware of Khlotòn’s pretense: the älf wanted the notice of the Inextinguishables as much as he did, and as such, would grovel to anyone whom they showed favor. All the same, Sinthoras was enjoying the attention the parchment generated, and he wondered how long it would take to put together an enticing argument for war. Could he weave all the information from this meeting into a convincing enough web of words to persuade his rulers to expand?

  If necessary, he would go without sleep until after his audience.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, tip of the Radial Arm Shiimal,

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

  summer.

  “Is she still furious?” Caphalor ran his fingers through his companion Enoïla’s long black hair, carefully smoothing the four yellow strands that ran its full length: permanent marks of honor she had attained for having given life to four children.

  Every älf-woman was accorded such decoration if she gave birth to a child that survived its transition to the world. If all of her sons and daughters had survived, Enoïla would now sport seventeen of these strands, but infant mortality among the älfar was distressingly high. Some women of her acquaintance had never even had the chance to rejoice in a pregnancy, let alone a birth: not every älf-wo
man was as fertile as Enoïla, she was an exception in many respects. She bent her head and kissed the palm of his hand, smiling. “She will forgive you once she is over her disappointment.”

  He sighed. “You were right. It would have been better if I hadn’t said anything at all about the baro.” He returned her smile and stroked her cheek, then turned to the balcony door, walking out into the morning air.

  Caphalor loved the view that met him there; he could see all the way past the defense moat and over to the black foliage of the groves in Ishím Voróo. A large flock of birds circled the tops of those far trees, flying toward the island fort in the middle of the river. He took a deep breath of the cool, pure air: he could detect no scent of incense or perfume and nothing artificial, just pure morning.

  He felt Enoïla’s slender hand on his shoulder, and her warmth. “You will find another baro to bring home for our daughter,” she consoled him.

  “I was not thinking of that.” He took her hand and walked further along the balcony that ringed their house, gently pulling her with him.

  They lived at the end of a small road, the last nonmilitary building of the radial arm. Caphalor and Enoïla had planned it themselves: a five-sided building with four stories, painted in a light black color, with many little bay windows and turrets and a roof of silver thatch.

  The bottom floor contained the stables and servants’ quarters, then the living area and the family rooms; above came the bedchambers, other large rooms and the ceremonial hall. At the very top he had designed a large-windowed studio—providing plenty of light for himself and his wife: here they could paint, sculpt or compose melodies on their lutes.

 
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