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Righteous fury, p.33
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       Righteous Fury, p.33

           Markus Heitz
 

  4371st division of unendingness (5199th solar cycle),

  winter.

  Surrounded by dark red tent walls decorated with symbols, Caphalor sat on a fur-lined chair reading the letter the Inextinguishables had sent. There was no time left for long negotiations. The army had to be made ready.

  He had been told more or less the same thing by a very excited Sinthoras the previous evening. The reception with those political friends of his must not have gone quite according to plan. On top of that there had been news of the mist-demon developing unpleasant qualities. More than unpleasant, frightening, and that is saying something.

  “Right,” he told himself, throwing the letter into the brazier that was heating the tent. “Then let’s finish off negotiating with the scum of Ishím Voróo and put an end to the demon.”

  He left his accommodation, got on Sardaî and rode to the next negotiation center with his escort. Even though there were some vacant tents nearer at hand, the newcomers had pitched up on the westernmost edge of the temporary settlement: new arrivals tended to isolate themselves on the perimeter of the canvas city, as far as possible from the Tower of Bones.

  No banners, no pennants. “Who is it?” he asked one of his companions as he spied a single tent. “Isn’t it the Fatarcans?”

  “I thought it was,” said the other älf, no less surprised than his general. He ordered the fire-bull riders to keep their weapons at the ready in case anyone should be misguided enough to attack the nostàroi. A bugle call to the island towers alerted the garrison to prepare their catapults: any enemy found in the camp would disappear under a hail of arrows, spears, and stones.

  Caphalor dismounted and looked around, discovering only a lone black horse tied at the entrance to the tent. The nostàroi entered the tent with four of his guards.

  He was confronted by a tall female form with the dark hood of her mantle concealing her face. He could not discern her features in the shadows. “Is this some kind of a joke . . . ?” he asked, his voice friendly but firm.

  The figure lifted her head. She pushed back her hood with one hand to reveal burned flesh and a familiar face. “I was waiting for you, my demigod.”

  The guards drew their swords and raised them threateningly in the direction of the deformed flesh-stealer, who attempted a smile, only rendering her appearance more abhorrent still.

  I had completely forgotten about her! Caphalor gave a discreet sign to his soldiers to prevent them from attacking the obboona. At the sight of her, the brand she had put on his own body flared up. “Get out,” he said in the Dark Language. “Think yourself lucky I don’t have you killed. Killed on the spot.”

  The white of her eyes were all the more noticeable because of the surrounding damaged skin. “Are you going to break your word, my demigod? You swore on oath that you would return to my side as my spouse.”

  He laughed outright. “You really expected me to do that, flesh-stealer? I would have sworn anything to escape your clutches.”

  She sobbed. “You are breaking my heart, my demigod!”

  Caphalor realized she was quite insane. “It will go well with your broken mind.”

  Karjuna giggled suddenly and then laughed like a maniac, until she cowered and collapsed. The guards were still standing by, ready to cut her to pieces. “What, my demigod, if I could promise you an army?” she wheedled in falsetto tones, blowing him kisses in the air. “Leave your wife and come to my side. I shall forgive your reluctance.” She lifted her head. “Is it because I am disfigured?” she whimpered, covering her visage with her hands. “My demigod, I can wear a mask if I offend your eyes, but please”—She fell to her knees at his feet, clutching at his mantle. The guards pushed her back—“please, be mine! Warm me on these cold nights with the heat of your body—”

  “Enough!” he shouted, feeling the urge—because of her voice, because of her demands, because of what she had done to him, because of her very existence—to behead her on the spot. He pulled out one of his short swords and drew his arm back for the blow.

  “It is forbidden!” she shrieked, holding out her arms. “Forbidden! Killing me is forbidden! I am an intermediary!” She reached under her cloak and brought out a letter that the nostàrois’ messengers had distributed all over Ishím Voróo.

  “You do not have a sane thought in your head.” Caphalor gestured to the guards to pin her to the floor. Having mastered his anger, he now found he wanted the flesh-stealer to suffer at length—not be killed with a single merciful stroke. “You have killed your last älf,” he vowed.

  Like lightning she pulled out a small whistle from under her stole and blew hard into it, but one of the guards kicked it aside before it could issue a sound. The mouthpiece had her blood on it.

  “What is that?” he asked her.

  The alarm gong sounded on one of the island towers, to be joined by a second, and a third. Within the space of a few heartbeats Caphalor counted five of the bastions reporting enemy action. Who would be crazy enough . . . He looked at the flesh-stealer.

  The obboona laughed. “My demigod, my demigod! Did I promise too much?” she giggled.

  “What is that whistle?” he shouted at her while a guard sliced through the canvas tent wall to let them see what was happening outside.

  A dark mob emerged from the edge of the forest: figures were running wildly with no apparent discipline but at amazing speed. Caphalor heard their furious tones: barks and howls—and knew they were srinks. There must be hundreds of them! They were racing over the cleared strip toward the tent where he stood.

  “Call them off!” he commanded Karjuna.

  “Then marry me!”

  “Die!”

  “Then let us be united in death.” She looked at him longingly. “It is forbidden to kill me. I am their leader. Their queen! Their queen!”

  That would seem to be the case. Caphalor ordered the guards to let her go.

  The srinks rolled onwards, some on all fours, some up on two legs, waving weapons and wearing armor. The howling and barking grew louder and now they were close enough for Caphalor to hear their growls and snarls.

  The älf guards formed a line of first defense, even though it was clear that resistance would be useless. A further signal sounded from the islands. The catapults were ready and they were waiting for Caphalor’s order before opening fire. Any of his soldiers might give the order on his own responsibility and initiative if it meant saving the life of the nostàroi.

  “Call them off!” he yelled at Karjuna.

  “Will you take me for your wife?”

  “Yes,” he said, glad the guards had their backs turned so that he would not have to witness their horrified expressions. “I will go to my companion and I will renounce her. I will be back here in a few moments of unendingness and we will celebrate.” You’ll be a long time waiting.

  She looked at him suspiciously. “You have deceived me once before, my demigod.”

  The guards brought down the first of the srinks that had come too close to the tent. Swords swished through the air and the snarls changed to screams. Blood spurted up high to spatter over the rest of the creatures as they pressed forward. His guards were keeping the attackers at bay so as not to get within range of their vicious claws and teeth, but they were being forced back slowly. They were simply outnumbered.

  “Not this time,” he said in the ingratiating tone he had used to good effect in the past.

  “Swear by all that is precious to you!”

  Caphalor swore it on the lives of his companion and his family, without meaning what he said. He owed nothing to a flesh-stealer apart from the promise: Your death is named Caphalor. He handed the music pipe back to her.

  She raised it to her lips and blew into it while her fingers covered the holes in quick succession.

  The srink attack ebbed away at once, heading back to the forest as quickly as they had come. They even took their own dead away with them. Had they not left tracks and a large amount of blood on the ground,
Caphalor would not have believed the attack had really happened. He glanced across at the other tents. All the other delegations had been prepared to defend themselves. Giants, barbarians, trolls and kraggash were all in full armor in their camps.

  Without exchanging further words with her, Caphalor went outside and got on his stallion. I cannot endure the obboona’s presence any longer. “I can offer the Inextinguishables no less than 5,000 srinks,” she called after him. “They are as good as four times the number of barbarians, my demigod. We obboonas will promise not to touch another demigod, we’ll only take elves now to help us look like you. Do you hear? We can live in friendship with one another. Tell the gods this.”

  Caphalor rode off. He did not wish to know how the obboona had got the flute and how she had learned to play it. If it were up to him and Sinthoras, she and her srinks would not be participating in the invasion force against Tark Draan. But someone was bound to report to the rulers that she had 5,000 monsters at her disposal. She had given an ample demonstration of how excellent her command of them was.

  He looked at the tents belonging to the other delegations. I must get one of them to kill the obboona without suspicion falling on me. Farron is still in my debt.

  Caphalor turned Sardaî toward the barbarian encampment.

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

  4371st division of unendingness (5199th solar cycle),

  winter.

  Timanris strolled in a leisurely fashion round the easel to admire the canvas Sinthoras was working on: various shades of white on a black background, a golden line running from right to left. She touched the damp paint and sniffed it with closed eyes. A tight-fitting white dress with black flames burning upward from the hem emphasized her perfect proportions. Well, my beauty? Sinthoras was standing three paces away, unnoticed. He could not believe what she was doing. He had only left the room for a short while to change—exchanging his armor for the clothes he liked to wear in his studio. He and Caphalor had spent the whole day discussing military strategy and he felt he deserved some distraction.

  Because he had been so busy he had sent Timanris a message suggesting they postpone their meeting.

  Either she did not receive the message or she has chosen to ignore it. Sinthoras grinned. In his opinion, she had not paid his note the slightest attention. She was curious and feisty and she was an artist like her father.

  Then she took a brush out of the container and dipped it into the blue, marking a small dot in the bottom left-hand corner. He held his breath. Perfect! He had been wondering what the picture needed. Timanris had had the cheek to smuggle herself into his private studio and alter his painting, and she had made it perfect!

  With swift and silent steps he went to stand behind her. He took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him, kissing her passionately. Holding her tight against his body he felt how, after an initial shock, she relaxed, placing her hand on the nape of his neck.

  They remained like this for some time, exchanging tender caresses until he released her and pointed to the picture. “You have transformed it!” he said enthusiastically.

  “Is that why you were so pleased to see me?” Timanris was still breathless from his kiss.

  “Not only because of the painting,” he replied, taking the brush out of her hand. He wiped the excess pigment carefully off on the side of the container and dunked it in the cleaning fluid. “It dries very quickly. The blue you used is refined from the liver of a white óarco. One ounce is worth ten chests of gold.”

  She is amazing! Sinthoras smiled at her, suppressing the urge to take her face in his hands and press his lips to hers again. He wanted to talk to her about art, about her views on the subject of war, about the immortality of their race, about every imaginable topic—trivial or weighty. What he was experiencing was more than the simple physical desire that he had known with other älf-women. It is more than the purely physical.

  “It’s painted on óarco skin, isn’t it?” Timanris returned his admiring glances, her chest heaving. He thought he could hear her heart beating. Beating for him. “A good choice; it can absorb a large amount of paint.”

  “Well observed! Later I shall work on it with iron nails to scratch texture into the surface and . . .” His voice failed and he was unable to think. He stared at her, his head reeling.

  She gave him a smile and touched his right cheek. “It is the same for me, Nostàroi. I have been trying not to let it show, but I wanted you from that very first evening.”

  “So why did you leave?”

  “Robonor. I intended to stay with him for longer than a half division of unendingness because I had promised my father I would. He and Robonor’s father are good friends and the two of us have known each other since we were young. Two children became two lovers.” Timanris drew her hand back. “Until I saw you, Sinthoras.”

  “I understand.” Sinthoras was lying, he had only used the phrase to avoid a silence. He was not sure what to make of her confession. Does she mean she will leave Robonor for me?

  She sighed and flung herself into his arms, holding him tight. “What’s to be done?”

  Sinthoras did not want her to be sad, but there was no way he would share her with another. He gently freed himself from her embrace and pointed to an empty gnome-skin canvas. “What do you think? Shall we start a painting together?”

  “It would be an honor,” she said at once, wiping the tears from her eyes. Then she looked down at herself.

  “Wait, I’ll get you something to put over your dress.” He kissed her once more, his heart pounding in his chest. The taste of her, the smell of her! They belonged together. Her eyes told him that she shared this view.

  Sinthoras knew that they would make love this very night, there in his studio. It would be the beginning of a long relationship that stood as firm and fast as the Inextinguishables’ Tower of Bones.

  He hurried out, calling for a slave.

  A moonlit night enhanced the beauty of the city of Dsôn.

  Robonor was enjoying the view as he walked the streets with his patrol. The Bone Tower in the center shone out in purest white, as if the bones of the defeated races were glowing from the inside. It symbolized the superiority of the älfar, their pride and their artistic skill.

  The moonlight emphasized the lines of the mosaics and sculpture, frescoes and reliefs on the façades of the grand townhouses, too. Many an artwork had its own lightshow, with lamps embedded in the surface of the piece. The subjects were death, transience, decay and destruction, but transformed into an aesthetic whole—the älfar took pleasure in the things the barbarians would find repulsive, horrific and terrifying.

  Robonor had been living in Kashagòn for so long that he had forgotten how spectacularly the city shimmered at night. Even though the towns there were not to be sneered at, they could not begin to compare with Dsôn. Every step he took showed him a new delightful vista.

  He could not get enough of what he was seeing. He ordered the patrol to stop several times so that he could drink in the beauty at his leisure. He had stopped to admire a group of statues on the Kòlsant Square. Since childhood he had always loved the figures that made up the sculpture.

  It showed an älf-woman fighting five óarcos. The metal figures were lifesize and every detail was shown.

  These statues were particularly intriguing: the muscles on the arms and legs had been formed of a special material that, unlike other substances, actually contracted in the warmth and expanded in the cold; the joints were so constructed as to permit complex movements.

  Robonor could follow the figures turning as the night grew cooler: the älf-warrior lowered her sword arm and the óarcos sank down at her feet; when the daystar shone she lifted her weapon and the monsters launched their attack. The warmer the weather, the more dramatic the struggle.

  Robonor nodded to the älf-woman. You will defeat them once again. He was grateful to the two nostàroi generals for ordering t
hese patrols while the negotiations continued. The creatures encamped to the north of Dsôn were not allowed to enter their land, and certainly not their capital city, the center of the realm. If they did it would be a gross affront, punishable by death.

  “Move on,” he ordered, and the ten älfar followed him. They wore light armor and carried spears and sharp-edged, triangular shields; on their backs they had their short swords. They ran through the streets and alleyways without making a sound.

  A light wind blew up, causing their surcoats to billow and sway.

  Robonor could smell rain on the wind and grimaced. The relief unit would be here soon. He hoped they would arrive before the next downpour. “I don’t like this weather,” he told his soldiers and they all laughed quietly.

  “Who does?” asked one of them.

  “I don’t mind it,” said a second älf.

  “Well, in that case,” replied Robonor, “you’re down for the relief. One of the other poor sods will be glad to swap a wet patrol for a cozy room.” He shivered. Suddenly he felt ill at ease. He looked round. Are we being followed?

  He raised his head and looked up past the sharp-cornered walls, ornamental stone blocks and twisting façades of the nearby buildings. He waited in vain to catch sight of any shadowy figure crossing the pale moon.

  “Is something wrong?”

  “No, I don’t think so,” he replied and looked ahead. “Let’s go back to the guardroom. By the time we get there we’ll be due a shift-change.”

  They marched back slowly to their barracks, so as not to arrive too early.

  A loud, shrill cry rang out.

  “Over on the right!” Robonor ran back to the narrow alley they had just emerged from, where he had had the uneasy feeling. His instincts were reliable, then. The sentries ran to his side, shields raised.

  At the other end of the alley they saw two figures beating up a third. Robonor knew from their clothing that they were slaves. Slaves were always brawling, especially if they had been allowed out to one of their taverns—that was when tensions would spark arguments: some slaves might be envious of others in better households, others just enjoyed a punch-up. Barbarians. “A bit of excitement for us.” Robonor slowed down and relaxed. As long as no älf was in danger he would let the slaves finish their quarrel. “Let them beat each other up. When they’ve finished we’ll arrest them, give them a whipping and return them to their owners where they’ll get a second dose of the same.” That was the correct punishment for brawling or any other unacceptable conduct.

 
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