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Righteous fury, p.34
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       Righteous Fury, p.34

           Markus Heitz
 

  Robonor and his soldiers waited a few paces off.

  Robonor noted their lack of badge denoting their owner with disapproval—yet another regulation they were flouting. The badges had to be visible at all times.

  One man ended up on the ground. The fight was over.

  “Right—” Robonor called out, about to give the order to have them all arrested.

  There was a crunching sound above his head. A pebble hit his armor and with great presence of mind he sprang back.

  If one of his guards had not been standing directly behind him, blocking his way, he would have neatly avoided the falling masonry.

  As it was, the guard’s shield stopped him and its sharp edge cut his leg badly, causing him to stagger.

  Then some of the carved stones he had so recently been admiring rained down on him.

  CHAPTER XVI

  The Inextinguishables made many enemies through their campaigns to collect bone supplies.

  The barbarians, lower creatures and other freaks spawned by the alien gods could not understand that art demanded sacrifice and that their own lives were worth nothing.

  Nothing, to us, the älfar. Although they knew what feats our warriors were capable of, our enemies united and marched against us.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  2nd Book,

  Chapter 1, 1–5

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), älfar realm Dsôn Faïmon, Radial Arm Wèlèron,

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

  winter.

  “We have the half-trolls, ogres, barbarian tribes, and, most importantly, Lotor on our side.” Sinthoras was bent over the checking list and looked up and across. “You’re not listening, are you?”

  “Yes, I am,” was the distracted response. Caphalor was staring through the window of the island tower across to the west, where the obboona’s tent was pitched. To show that he had heard the words, he repeated the names of all the participating peoples. “Someone’s missing.”

  “The giants.” Sinthoras could see the other älf was thinking about one creature in particular. “And the srinks,” he added. He waited in vain for a reaction. He is really troubled. “Caphalor, we don’t need the srinks. Neither of us need go over to her tent to negotiate.”

  “There are too many of them to ignore,” Caphalor answered slowly. “The flesh-stealer is right: her army can’t simply be dismissed out of hand. The mere sight of the srinks would have an immensely powerful effect on an enemy. The Inextinguishables would never understand why we were placing personal considerations above the fate of the Star Realm.”

  Sinthoras’ mood was anything but dismal. He had only one thing in his mind: Timanris.

  She was incredible, quite different from any other älf-woman he had ever met. Timanris was unpredictable and not obsessed with power, fame, or reputation, and she could turn any perfectly adequate picture into a stunning work of art with the simplest of brushstrokes. How did I ever live without her? Her gifts as a lover blew his mind. Her reactions at the heights of ecstasy told him she was similarly enthusiastic about his own talents.

  “May the obboona meet her end!” he cried brightly. “Send her back home with her confounded srinks. We’ve got enough warriors.” He worked out the rough numbers. “100,000 barbarians from various tribes, 20,000 Kraggash, 40,000 óarcos, 4,000 gnomes, 5,000 ogres, and 7,000 half-trolls. Then about 70,000 creatures and mercenary adventurers taking a punt on riches and good fortune in Tark Draan.” He underlined the final figure twice and laid the quill down, crossing his arms behind his head and rocking back and forth in his chair. “Congratulations to the both of us. That, my fellow nostàroi, is an army worthy of the name. We can overrun Tark Draan in a single moment of unendingness.” He stretched out his right arm. “I can already see our victories! And the total extermination of all the elves!”

  Caphalor took a seat opposite Sinthoras, swiveled the paper round and checked the calculations. “You have forgotten the demon,” he said, adding the name to the list. “He is our one magic weapon. If he fails us, the whole of the rest of the army is a waste of space.”

  “To be honest, I’m sure we can manage without him if we have to.” Sinthoras could not wipe the grin off his face. She has promised to come to me. Soon. That was why this discussion had to finish promptly.

  “What about the giants? Do I send them home as well?”

  “What’s the matter with you?”

  “The flesh-stealer is waiting over there. She burned a brand into my skin, humiliated me and deceived us,” Caphalor said sullenly. “We swore to kill her, Sinthoras. Have you forgotten? On top of everything else, she expects me to go back and marry her, she’s not going to simply vanish.”

  “Yes, I should prefer a long, painful death for her. However,” said Sinthoras, “we must not lay a finger on her while she is on neutral ground. She is a queen, a commander-in-chief.” He sat up straight. “I don’t like it, either. But what can we do?” He pulled the page of numbers over toward him again. “The best thing would be to include her in the campaign and make sure she dies on the battlefield. Our archers are skilled enough.”

  “You don’t get it! She won’t put her army at our disposal unless I become her spouse!”

  “Of course I get it.” Sinthoras shrugged his shoulders. “What’s stopping you? It’s only a pretense! Who’s going to find out?”

  Caphalor gave him a horrified look. “I can’t put myself in the clutches of—”

  I’ve had just about enough of this righteous indignation. We are wasting precious time. Sinthoras raised his hands in the air. “Right. That’s decided, then. We’ll go to the Inextinguishables and we’ll tell them we don’t want the srinks.” He shoved the list over the table impatiently. “One suggestion: I’ll go to our rulers, you go and deal with the giants.”

  Caphalor blinked. “Now I’m confused. What’s got into you?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You are behaving quite differently now from a few moments of unendingness ago. You laugh. You speak of us, you are good-humored. Where’s all that bitterness I was used to?” Caphalor took a deep breath and studied him more closely. “Anyone would think you had been swapped for a benevolent secret twin.”

  “Oh, nice to hear what you’ve been thinking about me all this time,” exclaimed Sinthoras, pretending to be insulted. In reality he was well aware what had caused the transformation.

  “It’s not just me, it’s more or less everyone who’s had dealings with you.” Caphalor looked him straight in the eye—and then his expression changed. “By Samusin! You’re in love!”

  Damn. Is it that obvious? “Nonsense! I haven’t got time for that sort of thing. It’s bad enough that you’re always swanning off to be with your companion.” Hardly had he said the words than he realized the lie must be written all over his face.

  Now it was Caphalor’s turn to grin. “No further questions. But we have confirmed what the whole of Dsôn is saying about you.”

  “Oh?” Sinthoras was curious now. “So what do the gossip-mongers say?”

  “That you’re having a fling with the daughter of an artist and that you don’t always draw the curtains in your studio at night,” he related with gusto.

  The moonshine was too beautiful to shut out. “Timanris and I paint together. It’s a passion we share.” Sinthoras was trying his best to get out of a tricky situation.

  “You paint naked, do you, Nostàroi?”

  “That’s evil tongues wagging, eager to ruin my reputation. Others are jealous of my success, obviously.” It’s quite true. Sinthoras pointed the quill pen in his direction. “I might have suspected you of that at one time.”

  “Not me. Not my kind of politics.” Caphalor lowered his voice. “The same envious voices are saying that Robonor’s sudden death was not quite the accident it seemed.”

  Damn, damn, and damn! “What are they saying?” His good mood had disappeared. “Who’s been saying that? And wh
ere did you hear it?” He had to think of his good name for after this war. If my enemies are already spreading malicious gossip about me, what’s the word going to be in Dsôn while I’m off at the front?’

  Caphalor got up. “I was at the market getting something for Enoïla. I overheard a snatch of conversation in a soap merchant’s. I don’t know the älf, but he was well dressed. I noticed his signet ring. The symbol was a lance on a broken shield. He was saying that it was your slaves fighting in the street that night as a decoy for the watch and that another two had loosened those stones on the roof that fell and killed Robonor.”

  Sinthoras made a mental note of the signet ring mark. It would be easy enough to find the wearer. Didn’t Jiphulor recently have something similar on an amulet? Fury started to boil up inside him. “So that’s what he thinks, does he?”

  “And he mentioned that one of the guards was in cahoots with you—the one that prevented Robonor from jumping out of the way.” Caphalor picked up the quill and put a tick by the giants. “They found a bad cut on Robonor’s leg that looked as if it had been made by the edge of a sharpened shield.” He walked over to the door. “Take care; you have rivals who do not wish you well. You are right to a degree; for a long time I would have been of their number, but there is hope now that I might actually get to like you. As long as we lead the army together you can count on my total support.” He nodded. “Right, I’m off to talk the giants round.”

  He opened the door and noticed a female älf in a dark blue mantle. She was carrying a large sketchbook under her arm and a container with charcoal sticks was hanging from her belt.

  He stood aside and ushered her in, shooting a knowing glance at Sinthoras as he left the room, closing the door behind him.

  Caphalor ordered two guards over to the spy holes and told them not to let the nostàroi out of their sight. Whatever Sinthoras did, he was under observation. The bodyguards knew how to work unobtrusively. It was thanks to them that he knew what had really happened on the night Robonor had been killed.

  But that was not important. The giants must be persuaded to join the cause and afterward, as soon as the daystar went down, he would seek out the flesh-stealer and see what he could achieve with carefully selected words. Ideally, he would manage to postpone her immediate demands and yet still organize an alliance with the srinks. If not, she had better disappear.

  Caphalor crossed the bridge on Sardaî, picking up his waiting escort in the cleared zone and hurrying to the enormous tents which housed the giants. The canvas structures were fifteen paces high and sported simple banners displaying their broken tree trunk insignia.

  He found four giants in front of their tent, gambling with dice at least the size of óarco skulls. The rough animal-skin garments and their own hairy skin made him think of bears. The giants’ only armor was in the leg area: shin-protectors with finger-length spikes. Even their boots were ironclad.

  There’s no going into battle without these guys. Caphalor imagined how they would simply carve themselves a path through enemy lines, cutting the opposition to rags.

  Even when seated they were taller than an älf on a night-mare. Their size gave them all the confidence they needed. They hardly glanced at the newcomers. One of them called out.

  A female giant appeared from the tent while Caphalor was dismounting; she was as hairy and as strong as the males, but the animal-skins she wore were white. Her short blond hair had been interwoven with ivy strands to form an imposing headdress.

  “Why,” she asked, and it sounded like a shout, “do you refuse to satisfy our demands?”

  The fire-bulls of Caphalor’s escort instinctively stepped back at these bass tones, but Sardaî was indifferent.

  “Because we can’t give you our slaves to eat,” he answered. “What is your name?”

  She pulled herself up to her full height and glared down at him. “I am Gattalind, sister to the king. I am his strategic planner,” she announced with pride.

  “Where is the agent we have been negotiating with so far?”

  “We sent him home,” she replied. “He wanted us to accept your offer but I think we should be paid more.”

  Caphalor looked up at her ugly features. “No slaves to eat. In Tark Draan you can pick up as many as you want. But not here.”

  “But if you can’t get the gateway open there’ll be nothing for us at all,” she argued. “We want to fill our pantries. You’ve got so many vassals. Give us some of them! Barbarians multiply quickly, so you’ll soon make up the numbers.”

  Caphalor did his best to come up with a solution. “Would fire-bulls do? They probably taste really good and they are a unique dish, I’m sure.”

  “No,” said Gattalind decisively.

  I’ll have to try a little trick. “Then let’s forget the whole thing. The Inextinguishables are not dependent on the support of the giants. We’ve got enough soldiers now and if the srinks are in with us you aren’t really necessary, are you?” He turned around and started to stroll back to his mount. “I knew we didn’t need you. People exaggerate about the strength thing. Being big doesn’t necessarily imply being strong, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee fighting skills.”

  “What did you say?” The giantess’ shadow shortened abruptly as she bent down to grasp him by the waist and lift him up.

  Caphalor signed to his escort not to interfere. Looks like my trick is working.

  Gattalind lifted him up through the air until he was level with her face; the other giants had stopped gambling and were standing watching. “You insult my people, black-eyes! We are the strongest of anyone here. Even the ogres are afraid of us.”

  “You’d win any bout of single combat?” he prodded, struggling somewhat for air.

  “Any and every bout.”

  “Then how about a contest? Me against three of your lot. If I win, the giants march with the Inextinguishables.” Further details of his suggestion were drowned in thundering laughter. The air around him was filled with the foul smell of giant breath and he thought he might go deaf from the roars his ears were subjected to. He had never heard such a sound emitted from a living being’s throat. Caphalor thanked Samusin the other giants had calmed down. “If I lose,” he said, “all your demands will be met or you can go home.”

  “Done,” said Gattalind. “Against these three, but you mustn’t kill them.”

  I seem to have been a little premature with my celebrations. Caphalor cursed his own courage. How on earth was he going to be able to defeat these three hunks without using his main weapons—and without any time to prepare? “I have to be allowed to injure them.” He attempted to strike a bargain.

  “Agreed. When I open my fingers, let the combat begin.” She exchanged a few words in their own language with the other giants, who nodded agreement and stepped back. At that, she dropped him.

  When Caphalor neared ground level, a spiked boot tip came racing toward him. As he fell, he drew his two short swords out of their sheaths, crossed the blades and tucked his feet up under him.

  Sinthoras kissed Timanris on the nape of her neck and planted further kisses all the way along her naked spine. “Wonderful,” he whispered and lay down at her side.

  They were resting in each other’s arms on the floor, with only a thin mantle under them as protection from the dust.

  “What was it specifically that was so wonderful?” she asked playfully, turning over. She was displaying herself to him in all her unadorned beauty in the broad light of day. There was no shyness. Timanris was proud of her body.

  “You. Making love to you. Everything,” he exclaimed.

  She smiled again and planted a gentle kiss on the tip of his nose. Then her face grew serious. “There’s a question I have to put to you, my love,” she said softly. “Rumors are abroad in Dsôn—”

  A bucketful of cold water in the groin could not have worked faster. Has the poisonous gossip reached her ears? Uttering a curse, he sat up, arms circling his knees, as he glared at the wall. “
I know. Caphalor told me what they’re saying.”

  “Is there even the slightest grain of truth . . . ?”

  “No.” That was too quick, he told himself.

  Timanris placed a hand on his shoulder. “Look me in the eyes and say that.”

  He got up, putting on his clothes slowly. “Does it make a difference?”

  The älf-woman looked up at him from where she lay, leaning up on one arm. “Of course. I can tell if someone’s lying.”

  “Even in daylight?” he teased, his black eyes full toward her.

  “You are evading my questions, Sinthoras. That’s not a sign of innocence.” Timanris stood up slowly and got dressed. “I did not love Robonor. He was kind; he was usually good to me even when I was difficult. He did not deserve to die crushed under a stone like an insect just because you desired his mistress.”

  Sinthoras fastened his weapons belt. “What do you believe really happened, my beauty?”

  “It’s not a question of belief. That’s always been my way: I might pray to the gods but I make sure that things work even without their help.” She sat down at the table and began a rapid sketch. With only a few lines she conjured up his visage on the paper, shading half of it in black. “I only know one side of you, Sinthoras. When I get to know the other half I shall be able to trust you properly and shall be happy to accept you as my partner.” Timanris smiled sadly, got to her feet and came over to him.

  While she was kissing him goodbye the door swung open.

  Yantarai stood on the threshold.

  Not now! Sinthoras had not been expecting her at all. Although they were not doing anything forbidden, he and Timanris jumped apart. The young älf-woman bowed her head in respect to the older one, who had given seven daughters the light of immortality. Yantarai had chosen her outfit with care: a slim-fitting ankle-length black dress was complemented by a dark red embroidered stole draped over one shoulder. Her feet were shod in low-heeled black sandals decorated with red thread. She presented a striking appearance, particularly considering how many moments of unendingness she had already seen.

 
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