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Righteous fury, p.35
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       Righteous Fury, p.35

           Markus Heitz
 

  The first gray lines were starting to cross Yantarai’s pale face. So far she had been able to suppress the true degree of her anger. “I behold a talented artist,” she said, speaking deliberately. “And an artist should stay where she belongs. She has no place in the world of politics.” Entering the room, she espied the mantle spread out on the floor. “And no place at all at the side of a nostàroi.”

  Sinthoras felt exposed. Helplessly he shifted his gaze from one female to the other. Reason on the one hand struggled with love on the other, mind versus feeling. A decision had to be made. Now. Neither of these älf-women would countenance delay. He had also shared his bed with Yantarai. She had the right to lay a claim on him.

  He opened his mouth but nothing passed his lips. Not even a groan or a breath and certainly not a single word.

  The crossed blades clashed against the tip of the boot.

  Caphalor could not, of course, halt the giant leg on its trajectory. He had bunched up his legs and so escaped the steel spikes on the giant’s metal shin armor. His arms and swords withstood the impact of the kick and the momentum catapulted him vertically into the air.

  He flew up past the giant, heading for the tent top. I must think of something. Caphalor plunged a sword into one of the wooden poles and clung to it. He still did not know how he could overcome these brutes. Killing them would have been easier.

  They ran over and ripped away the ropes to make the tent collapse, hoping to bring him down to their level.

  It’ll be me who decides when I face you. Caphalor leaped up onto the central pole and sliced through the canvas to release it. As the heavy linen fell away, his wooden support stayed upright and he kept his balance on one leg on top of the pointed tip. He was up ridiculously high.

  The giants pointed up at him and laughed.

  Barbarians, half-trolls, and many other creatures came streaming out of their tents to see what the älf was up to. As no alarms had sounded and the island catapults were not active, it was presumed this was not an attack, but a spectacle for their benefit.

  “That won’t count as victory,” Gattalind shouted at Caphalor.

  I’m afraid she’s right. I must come up with a resounding victory. Like this. With the three giants heading for the wooden tent pole, Caphalor took off and landed with his boot heels smack in the middle of one giant’s head before it had a chance to defend itself. He was no weight at all, but the impact from his leap had been enough to deal the powerful creature a substantial blow, knocking him to the ground.

  Let’s try that move again. Caphalor launched himself up and made a leap on top of the second giant.

  His opponent ducked and lunged at the älf with his bare fist.

  Caphalor stabbed. The sword drove between the enormous finger bones and the giant screamed with pain and indignation.

  The älf landed on the ground and executed several somersaults to absorb the impact of the fall. Heavy iron-tipped boots were crashing into the earth round about him. The giants were kicking and stamping in an effort to get him. Now I know what a mouse must feel like in the middle of a herd of raging fire-bulls.

  He rolled and rolled and then watched his enemies closely. I’ll have to get up high again, or I’ll be crushed! A boot stamped too close to home and Caphalor took his chance, jumping onto the foot as it was being lifted into the air. Avoiding the shin-spikes, he was swept upward.

  The second giant noticed what was happening and aimed a kick at the älf.

  That’s what I was hoping for! Caphalor did a vertical jump and the huge boot missed him, but knocked the other giant off balance, toppling him to the ground.

  Still in the air, Caphalor took off again from his opponent’s belt buckle and took a new direction for his flight: onto the face of the fallen giant. Before the giant could avoid him, Caphalor had landed with a thump, both feet on the nose. “Take that!” The giant’s eyes rolled up in his head and his body went limp.

  The giants had stopped laughing. The spectators were admiring the nostàroi’s skill and dexterity. He was certainly proving that, in combat at least, the älfar had no rivals anywhere.

  Unusual type of fight, but I’m rather enjoying myself. Caphalor stood up again, giving the ghost of a smile, and pointed his short sword at the one remaining contender. He had relied on his instincts, rather than a preplanned strategy.

  The giant growled deep and loud, then grabbed the tent pole and thrashed it around in the direction of the älf.

  Caphalor ran toward him, leaping aside at the last moment and somersaulting out of danger. Then, taking up a smaller stick, he grabbed hold of the giant’s pole and let himself be carried up into the air on it. At the very last moment he let go and flew into the giant’s face.

  And hit home. He jabbed the stick he was carrying into the corner of the giant’s eye. Tarlesa, you gave me that idea!

  Caphalor let go and crashed into the giant’s shoulder, sliding down on his bearskin clothing and jumping down in a cloud of dust that had shot up out of the hair. Revolting. I must get someone to clean my armor. He looked at his stunned opponent.

  The giant stood thunderstruck, long arms dangling by his sides. He was staring straight ahead with an empty expression on his face, unable to move or speak. He could not even utter a shriek.

  “That would seem to be it,” Caphalor said to the giantess. “I have overpowered them all without killing them.”

  The barbarians applauded and drummed their shields in approval. The other spectators all gradually joined in and general rejoicing broke out. They had never seen the like.

  “What have you done to him, älf?” asked Gattalind, pulling the stick out of the giant’s head. His behavior did not alter. He was still standing like a statue.

  Seize the opportunity and impress them all. “I have used the special knowledge that only the älfar have,” he answered, ensuring that all the spectators could hear what he was saying. “We can rob any creature of its brain functions without needing to apply physical force. This giant challenged me and can consider himself lucky to be alive.” Caphalor gestured to a companion carrying the contracts. “I expect your signature here and then I expect your warriors, Gattalind.”

  He did not wait to see her reaction, but strode calmly off to his night-mare.

  Only he knew that his right ankle was causing him pain and that he could hardly move his right shoulder. I’ll get a healer to take a look. He wanted the barbarians and other creatures to think of him as invincible in combat. The älfar were a myth unto themselves and should continue to be so.

  It was by exploiting exactly this älfar myth that he hoped to persuade the flesh-stealer to join their army. His victory over the giants gave him added confidence. But if the obboona sticks to her original demands it’ll be a very short discussion indeed.

  “I must be off. A . . . meeting.” Sinthoras pushed his way past the two älf-women, aghast at his own words. What am I? Some nervous little boy?

  Timanris and Yantarai watched him go as if he had lost his mind. Both of them wanted to follow him and demand answers.

  For the first time Sinthoras was glad of his bodyguard. They stood in the älf-women’s path and held them back so that he could get away, although he had no idea where he was going.

  Get away. Must just get away. I can’t decide. He was too confused. Feelings and logic were at loggerheads. He had fought every imaginable creature in Ishím Voróo, and had won the day on countless occasions. Was he to be put to flight by a couple of älf-women?

  He halted when he reached the platform at the top of the tower and commanded the guards to leave him. Here he could sink down to the floor unobserved, his eyes turned up to the blue of the sky.

  Splendid weather all around and inside me a raging storm. Sinthoras hated being ruled by his emotions. Reason dictated he should take Yantarai as his partner; his political associates would applaud his choice. But everything else, his artistic side, his vital älf nature, longed for union with Timanris. She enriched his li
fe rather than furthering his career.

  I’ve never known a quandary like this. Samusin must really hate him.

  Sinthoras watched as small clouds gathered; it grew darker; night approached and the stars came out; the bright moon moved slowly across the firmament—and he was just sitting there, on the floor. He was thinking about his situation and coming up with one decision after another, only to reject each one immediately . . .

  At last he got to his feet. The decision must fall in favor of Timanris. It must! Contrary to all his sensible, logical thought.

  But first he had to keep his promise; he needed to tell the Inextinguishables the srinks would not be participating in the invasion.

  It was pure chance that Raleeha was in the same fortress on the same island at the same time as her previous owner. She had been hoping, with Caphalor’s permission, to have a final meeting with her brother, Farron, but the request had been turned down. She sat there, her gifts for him piled on the table, and was waiting in vain when she suddenly heard Sinthoras’ voice; he was in the next room . . .

  Stay where you are. Make sure you are not noticed. It was hard not to spring to her feet, knock at his door and call him out under some excuse or other; to breathe in the smell of him, to recognize the outline of his shape and to imagine his countenance. It was almost intolerable how much she had missed him. He meant so much to her.

  After a while she heard a woman’s voice and a murmured conversation quickly ended.

  When the talk in the next room stopped, Raleeha was overcome with intense hatred for this mysterious älf-woman. The sounds coming through the wall were unambiguous; what the älf-woman was doing with Raleeha’s previous owner was exactly what she herself had always dreamed of. It would never be possible, of course, for her.

  Go! Don’t torture yourself, said her inner voice. But Raleeha could not tear herself away from the wall. She forced herself to listen.

  The lovemaking ended after an almost interminable amount of time and then a second älf-woman arrived: Yantarai. Her voice was familiar. Then she heard Sinthoras leave the room hurriedly.

  He would never choose me. I should return to my own people and stop telling myself I could be anything other than a slave here in Dsôn. She turned to leave, deciding to ask Caphalor to release her. The treaties were signed now and there was no reason to keep her here as a hostage.

  On the way out she bumped into someone—it felt like an älf-woman—and the sketches she had intended for her brother scattered onto the ground. They were designs etched with a quill knife on thick parchment. She had learned to check her lines by running her fingertips over the marks. The sketches were drawn from memory: the sights of Dsôn.

  “Forgive me,” she said, falling to her knees both to show humility and to try to gather up all the sketches.

  “I should have been more careful,” said the älf-woman.

  It was too much! Raleeha had recognized the älf-woman’s voice and did not answer, continuing her search for the dropped pieces of parchment. Where have they got to?

  “Remarkable!” exclaimed the älf-woman. Raleeha could hear that she was leafing through the sketches. “These are extraordinary pieces of work.”

  She stood up and bowed. “It is nothing, mistress.” Give them back! I don’t want you touching them!

  “What is your name?”

  “Raleeha, mistress.”

  “Oh, so you are that Raleeha—the slave with the strange story? My name is Timanris.” The papers rustled again. “No one said you were this talented. For a human these drawings are amazing.”

  All this attention was too much for Raleeha, and why doesn’t she call me a barbarian? “They are just scribbles and scratches.”

  “You call them scribbles?” Timanris cut in. “Child, how can you say that?” She sounded completely taken with what she was looking at. Enthusiastically she said, “I’ll talk to your master. You are Caphalor’s, aren’t you? I must introduce you to my father. I’d like him to look at your work.”

  Don’t do that. “Mistress, I am only a slave, I have no rights—”

  “Stop, Raleeha. You are a human woman who entered service with the älfar voluntarily.” She could hear a smile in Timanris’ voice. “In my view you are not a slave but an artist. An undiscovered artist. I wonder how your owner failed to notice your talent.”

  Raleeha wanted to leave. The last thing she needed was to have her rival speak up for her—and yet she was flattered by the praise. She decided to remain silent.

  “Great. That’s agreed, then,” Timanris exclaimed. “I’ll speak to Caphalor. I’ll take one of these pictures with me. I can hardly wait to show my father.” Raleeha felt a touch on her shoulder and the other drawings were pressed back into her hands. “You will hear from me.”

  An unworthy thought crept into Raleeha’s head. If she were given the opportunity to be alone with this rival, what might she do? An accident? A shove at the top of a flight of stairs? Or over a parapet? And she could be at hand immediately to comfort Sinthoras in his grief . . .

  No! Even if she dies he would never take me. Raleeha hurried on, hoping to escape these whispers in her mind.

  But an idea had taken root. She was now thinking like an älf.

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

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

  winter.

  Caphalor entered the tent where the obboona had said she would expect him.

  All but one of the lamps had been doused and so far he was alone. She is late. Perhaps it is a game to show how much power she has. She could afford to make him wait.

  He took a seat, his swords placed in his lap. The freshening breeze tugged at the canvas shrouds.

  The scouts had reported that upward of 2,000 srinks were lurking in the nearby forests: troops dancing to the obboona’s tune or, rather, fighting at the sound of her whistle.

  Caphalor had met with the barbarian prince. He’d asked whether Lotor would assist if he needed to get rid of the flesh-stealer without suspicion falling on him. When she dies, I must be somewhere else, otherwise we will never get the srinks to comply. Lotor had given no answer as yet.

  His thoughts wandered back to Raleeha and to his resolution to send her away. To banish her, more like. He would take her along to his next meeting with Lotor and remove her slave collar and warn her never to return to Dsôn Faïmon. It is better. My place is with my life-partner, I must not carry these dreams in my head. They can come to nothing. His conscience was clear now he had made the decision and that calmed him.

  Hoofbeats approached the tent and Caphalor stood up. An älf-woman entered.

  “Enoïla? What are you doing here?” he asked in surprise. He saw only the vague outline of her face, but the yellow strands in her dark hair glowed in the dim light. “You must leave at once! The flesh-stealer will be back any time now and she must not see you!”

  “Why not?” she whispered.

  “Why do you ask? I have to persuade her not to insist on marrying me. It’ll never work if she sees you.” He listened, but detected no footsteps. “Has something happened? Is that why you’ve come?” He went over to her and took her in his arms. “Forgive me for not asking straightaway. I am too . . .” Caphalor could not go on.

  Enoïla’s face was like a mask, stiff and lifeless. The color of her eyes was not right! He turned the wick up higher. The light flickered in the breeze.

  There was blood round her eyes and more had been wiped away under the nose. The skin was torn in places and at her throat there were further traces of blood.

  Caphalor looked at her black hair. The blond strands were placed correctly. The fragrance is Enoïla’s. “What . . . has happened . . . ?” He tried to fend off the horrific realization that was dawning on him. He pulled slowly at one of the yellow strands in her hair and it came away in his hands. Her whole face started to slide, losing its shape, becoming a caricature of her beauty. The sk
in hung loose, wrinkled and ugly.

  Underneath was the burned and blood-stained head of the obboona. “You swore on your partner’s life,” she giggled. Enoïla’s blood sprayed from her lips and wet his face. “Since you were betraying me a second time, my demigod, I have taken what I am due; the things that you value above all else.” She smiled and drew the skin of his daughter’s face from a small bag hanging at her belt. She threw it down at his feet and stretched out her arms. “You are free of her now, my demigod. Free for me!”

  Caphalor had lost the power of speech. He had lost the power of thought. He had lost the power of reason.

  He dropped the flayed skin of his life-partner’s face, fell to his knees, picked it up once more, held it gently, tried to smooth the hair, bent over it. Only then did he allow himself to utter a horrendous scream.

  The guards stormed in to the tent.

  “Don’t touch me! I have not hurt him!” Karjuna shouted, laughing. “I am the queen of the srinks! I am protected by the word of the Inextinguishables!”

  “Nostàroi!” One of the guard approached him. “Nostàroi, what has happened?”

  “He is mourning for his companion,” the obboona responded for him. “She has found her death. It was his own fault. He should not have broken his word.”

  More slowly than a leaf falling to earth on a windless day, Caphalor lifted his head.

  Fury lines covered his countenance. He put down his life-companion’s flayed skin and got to his feet. He seemed to be gathering his energies, preparing for a mighty eruption. A growl escaped from his throat, growing louder and louder, becoming a roar, full of pain and hatred. His fingers sought the hilts of his swords.

 
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