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Righteous fury, p.37
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       Righteous Fury, p.37

           Markus Heitz
 

  Sinthoras went ice cold. What shall I do? It could be the same gålran zhadar they had stolen from—it was bad enough that he had survived. But why would he leave his sky fortress to chase a pair of petty thieves? “Is he alone?”

  “Yes, Nostàroi.”

  “What does he want?” He glanced at Toboribar. “Carry on, please. The scribes will record every word you say,” he said.

  “He wanted to speak to you, Nostàroi. And to Nostàroi Caphalor.”

  He’ll be here to demand the return of his vial, or to insist on compensation. This is not a good time. Sinthoras rose. “Excuse me,” he said as he left the tent. “There’s a new guest to be welcomed.” He saw the curiosity written on their faces, but gave no further hints. In their eyes a gålran zhadar outside of his sky fortress meant trouble—a whole world of it.

  The gålran zhadar was waiting outside the tent in full armor, his war hammers jammed right and left into his wide belt. He looked calm, rather than belligerent. Sinthoras breathed more easily. Behind the dwarf-like being stood three pack animals loaded with baggage.

  The gålran zhadar made a point of looking around slowly as if he were on a spying mission and needed to remember every detail of the camp. “The Inextinguishables are putting their threat into action,” he said, instead of a formal greeting; the dark voice made for an uncomfortable feeling in Sinthoras’ stomach. “More or less every race is at your council of war.” Now he turned his gaze on Sinthoras himself. “And you’ve been made a nostàroi, as I hear. That’s a fine reward for a thief.”

  Sinthoras put down the spear that had once belonged to the gålran zhadar. “There is nothing wrong with stealing from a robber,” he replied, as nonchalantly as he could. “I don’t think I need to accept criticism from one such as yourself.”

  “I assume I shall have my property returned?”

  “No. Your soldiers already tried that. To no avail.”

  The gålran zhadar calmly laid his hands on the hammer heads. “I did not really expect you to say otherwise.”

  “So there’s something you want from myself and Caphalor?”

  “I want to know who was insane enough to give the vial to the demon creature.”

  “That is none of your business.” Sinthoras was not going to confess to his own part in this. It had been an accident, after all. I am innocent. “What about it?”

  Now the gålran zhadar was at a loss. “You must be trying to make fun of me, älf.” He threw back his head and laughed loud enough to flap the canvas walls of every tent in the camp. “How could you not have known what it was you were stealing?”

  As Sinthoras did not want to admit any complicity he evaded the issue: “It’s nothing to do with you.” Go on, tell me the secret of the vial’s contents. He could not think of a way to entice the tantalizing truth out of the gålran zhadar without letting on that he was completely ignorant. I’ll wager he’s already seen through me.

  “Well,” said the other, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “That’s very funny. Disastrous for every single race and every single tribe on the face of the land, but a good joke. Yes, send him off to Tark Draan. Otherwise it means the end for the whole of Ishím Voróo. Including, of course, your Star Realm.” He grinned while he was saying this. “Let’s forget the vial. How are your war preparations getting along?”

  Sinthoras could make neither head nor tail of what he had been told, but he had a very uneasy feeling about it. He was convinced the gålran zhadar was not lying. “What is it that you want, given that you don’t believe you will get your things back?”

  “I want to put a proposition to you and Caphalor,” came the prompt answer. “I know a weak point in the defenses for the Stone Gateway.”

  “You do?”

  “The älfar are not the only ones who have a very long lifespan. Who knows, maybe I am even older than the Inextinguishables themselves?” He was obviously enjoying provoking Sinthoras. “I have had the opportunity to learn and do a great deal.”

  This is probably going to be of more use than the trash they’re coming out with back in the negotiation tent. “What is this weak point you mention?” Sinthoras was being cautious. He knew his adversary to be extremely dangerous.

  The gålran zhadar rubbed his beard with his right hand. “You can see I look very like a dwarf. I sent one of my spies over to the groundlings. I thought it would be a good idea in case one day—I mean, one moment of unendingness, as you like to call it—I wanted to go to Tark Draan without being stopped. I could help you.”

  Don’t believe everything he says. Sinthoras studied the gålran zhadar carefully. “How do I know that what you are telling me is true?”

  “The Stone Gateway is secured with five magic bolts that can only be opened with a specific incantation. I won’t stop you if you want to go to the Northern Pass and check it out.” He grinned at the älf. “Oh, and there aren’t many who know the password, but guess who does, älf?”

  “And you want what in return? A kingdom of your own in Tark Draan? Or here in Ishím Voróo?” Sinthoras saw the chance to gain an advantage. What with Caphalor’s heroic ride and those rumors about Robonor, his own prestige had not exactly risen.

  The gålran zhadar burst out laughing again. “Do you know what, älf? If I want a kingdom or a piece of land, I take it. I don’t need anyone’s permission. To be honest with you: I’m getting a bit fed up with my castle and I want to do something new with my life, but I know Ishím Voróo inside out already.” He leaned forward. “What I want is access to Phondrasôn.”

  Sinthoras realized he was standing there with his mouth open like a troll. Phondrasôn? The underground realm was something else entirely: lawless violence ruled. If you went there, you were desperate to die in combat, or you were fleeing some terrible fate. It was a kind of dungeon, a place of banishment used by all the races. There were at least seven entrances.

  The gålran zhadar was delighted at the effect. “I know you älfar send your young there to test them, so they may return either as hardened warriors—or not at all. The other races send their worst criminals there.”

  “And that’s where you want to go?” Sinthoras thought about the evil nest of hideous creatures. Nobody had ever investigated it because it was too dark and too deadly. The Inextinguishables would never entertain the idea of sacrificing an army to explore and chart useless underground caverns.

  “The entrances to Phondrasôn are hidden and well-guarded, and probably beset with countless traps. I admit I shan’t be able to get there without your agreement.”

  Sinthoras saw again the maze of caves and tunnels and ravines made by the work of water and by the tools of banished hands. He had not gone far in and had had to confront a hundred hungry óarcos and two lizard-like monsters before escaping by the skin of his teeth to return, a seasoned warrior, to his parents. “To Phondrasôn,” he repeated incredulously. “You want to exchange your life for certain death?”

  “Let that be my concern. I want to exchange the boredom of security for the chance of constant challenge.” The gålran zhadar rubbed his nose. “What do you say? Are you going to give me access? I can arrange for you to meet my spy beforehand: he can be at the Gateway the day you arrive.”

  “It seems all a bit dubious to my ears.” Sinthoras pretended not to be interested. In reality, it is an offer that would not cost me anything at all. It certainly meant a further option for conquering the realm of the groundlings if the combined strengths of the giants and the ogres were to prove insufficient.

  “Then I shall extend my offer,” said the gålran zhadar. “The defenders have some unexploited gas sources in their territory that they have not yet discovered. My spy would be in a position to adjust the gas source so that it enters the tunnels where the groundlings live. This would cause them to fall ill.”

  Sinthoras pricked up his ears at this. “Is that all?”

  “I’m practically handing you the Gateway on a plate, älf! You won’t need to fight for it
at all!”

  “That’s if what you say is true, and I’m sure the groundlings are tougher than you think; they may survive the gas attacks.” I’m sure you’ve got something else up your sleeve.

  The gålran zhadar pursed his lips. “A thief and impertinent into the bargain!”

  “You’re the one that wants access to Phondrasôn, not me.” Sinthoras studied the end of his spear casually.

  “My spy has a potion the fflecx brewed up. He can poison their water supply. By the time they’ve found out what’s happening, the invasion should be over and done with.”

  Sinthoras smiled at him. “So there we have it.”

  All in all he did not get the impression the gålran zhadar was making the whole thing up. The reward he was demanding, on the other hand, was insignificant. “I will speak with my rulers. Wait in one of the tents until I tell you what they decide.”

  “Don’t take too long. The demon is on his way here.” He winked at Sinthoras. “They say that you are the one that controls him, but you’ve got the wrong end of the stick there. You broke the vial and you’ve let a vicious power loose, älf!” He laughed. “And you had no idea what you were doing. One of your gods must have been having a really bad day when he guided your steps.” The gålran zhadar went over to the pack horses and slit open the sacks.

  Out tumbled several fflecx corpses in various stages of decay and putrefaction; black stinking blood dripped out of their bodies. This was not normal.

  “See what the demon has done with Black Gnomes.”

  “So he’s killed them. What’s new?” replied Sinthoras.

  “He brings them back to life. His evil pervades the earth, poisoning ground, water, plants, and animals.” The gålran zhadar glanced at the cadavers. “The fact they’re not moving yet means his power hasn’t reached this far. That’s good news for you, but he can make very quick progress. He has taken over all the fflecx except for Munumon and a handful of his closest followers. If these guys here open their eyes and rise up, you’ll know how far the demon has traveled. Tell that to your rulers and get a move on. Neither they nor I can halt the demon. Not any longer.”

  Sinthoras knew why the words had been stressed. That accursed vial. “The demon will obey me,” he said stubbornly.

  “No. He’ll respond to your summons, that’s all.” The gålran zhadar turned round and headed for the tent the älf had indicated. “Best get a move on,” he repeated and sounded quite amused. Schadenfreude was the word—delight in others’ distress.

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

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

  spring.

  Why is it taking so long? Caphalor had still not moved.

  He was now only a shadow of the celebrated älfar hero. He had spent daystar-tides and moon-tides in his chamber in the island tower while Sinthoras had supervised all the campaign preparations.

  Sinthoras sat with him again, as he did so often, reporting on progress. He told Caphalor about the gålran zhadar, told him about their plans and told him how the Inextinguishables had responded to the latest offer. Caphalor continued to stare at the wall without showing any reaction. Why was it taking so long? He was waiting for death.

  But death was not interested; it was as if it were avoiding him and wanted to prove that he did not have control. Caphalor lifted his arm. No weakness even.

  Fury rose: anger at death itself. Death had decided to make a fool of him and was refusing him the chance to be reunited with his loved ones.

  Then he heard something that made him stop gazing at the wall and turn his eyes to Sinthoras.

  “We found out how the obboona got to Dsôn without being seen,” said Sinthoras, flinching back when Caphalor’s head suddenly jerked round. “The patrols had not checked a floating island properly. One of those reed mats had the obboona and a number of srinks concealed below it. That’s how they managed to reach the other bank.”

  Caphalor clamped his jaws together. The patrol could have prevented Enoïla’s and Tarlesa’s horrendous deaths! Samusin! See that they pay with their lives!

  “So it was sheer negligence that condemned my wife and daughter?” he croaked. His voice was husky with lack of use. “It’s one of the duties of the island guards to burn off and sink anything found floating in the defense moat.”

  “I know. They did it, but they did it too late. We have punished the guards responsible.”

  “Are they dead yet?”

  Sinthoras said nothing for a while, and then answered: “You have to understand—”

  “How did you punish them?” Caphalor yelled. “Have you deprived them of whatever is dearest? Have you cut out their hearts and forced them to go on living?” If they were here now I would strangle them with my bare hands.

  “They have been banished, Caphalor. There could be no harsher penalty for them.”

  “Yes, there could,” he answered with sullen fury. “Tell me where their families live and I—” He stopped in obvious distress. “Do you see what the obboona has done to me? I am thirsting for the blood of my own people!”

  “No one would reproach you. I can imagine how you are feeling.”

  For a long while they both sat in silence. Caphalor fought down his anger and looked at Sinthoras. “Why have the Inextinguishables not yet sent news of my release from office?”

  “Why do you think they would do that?”

  “Because I am doing nothing. Because I couldn’t care less about this war and I’m leaving everything to you. Hero or not, I’m good for nothing at all.” He noticed the flicker in Sinthoras’ eyes and understood suddenly. “You’re covering for me?”

  “Let’s just say I’m not necessarily keeping them totally in the picture . . .”

  Caphalor gave a bitter laugh. “So that’s where we are. Once upon a time we were bitter rivals and now you are protecting my status as nostàroi. Are you doing that to place yourself in a better light, or are you enjoying humiliating and outshining me for a splinter of unendingness?”

  “If that was what I wanted,” said Sinthoras, getting up, “I could have done it a long time ago. You should be up on your night-mare, setting off to war in Tark Draan, Caphalor.” He opened the door. “And I think death is of the same opinion. Otherwise I would have found you lying here lifeless.” He went out and closed the door behind him.

  Caphalor stared into the gloom and waited for inspiration. Or else the courage to commit the ultimate unspeakable act. His left hand closed on the handle of his dagger and the blade glimmered, reflecting the half-light.

  To take one’s own life, abusing the immortality conferred by the gods, was a grave sin. His name would be inscribed in the hall of shame and remain there for all eternity, laden with curses and hated forever by every älf.

  Even a hero such as myself is not safe from that fate. Caphalor balanced the familiar weapon in his hands. It had taken the life of many a foe and now it was about to cause his own blood to flow. I wonder what you will do, Death, he thought with a smile on his lips. You can’t avoid me forever. He pressed the blade tip against his heart.

  There came a knock at the door.

  “Go away, Sinthoras!” he shouted. “I don’t want to hear any more of your eternal reports!”

  “It’s not Sinthoras,” said a female älf voice. “My name is Timanris. I must speak to you urgently, Nostàroi.” Maybe I should see her before mortality overtakes me. Caphalor was curious to see what she looked like properly, this älf-woman who had bewitched Sinthoras and introduced him to the power of love—his earlier fleeting glance of her had not been enough. He lowered the dagger. “Come in, but keep it short.”

  The door swung open and she came in. “I won’t keep you long.” Her steps slowed when she saw the state he was in. She noted the long knife in his hand and her pupils widened for one or two heartbeats. “You don’t look—”

  “I know perfectly well what I look like,” he interrupted
roughly. “What do you want?”

  Timanris bowed. “I am here to ask you to sell me your slave Raleeha.”

  He frowned sharply. “Why Raleeha?”

  “I came across her by chance and caught sight of some of her drawings. For a human she possesses extraordinary artistic talent and despite her blindness she has created work that is unique in quality.” She stepped forward and placed a thick piece of parchment on the table. It showed an engraved sketch of an älfar cityscape. The details were amazingly clear. “How many blind älfar do you know who could produce anything like this?”

  In my pain I had completely forgotten her. He was ashamed. He was now in a position to help the girl. Caphalor did not betray the fact that Raleeha might one day regain the sight of one eye. “Not one,” he agreed. “You want Raleeha?”

  “Yes. Her talent should be fostered.”

  “She is a slave!” He laughed. “Why would you want to do that?”

  “She is a human who, of her own free will, took up service with a certain älf. He passed her to you and I want to buy her now.”

  “If I follow your line of argument, I am being asked to sell a barbarian that I should not think of as my property in the first place,” he said. She nodded. He understood why Sinthoras was attracted to her, but she could not compete with Enoïla. “Then ask Raleeha, I release her.”

  Timanris was surprised. “Nostàroi, are you serious?”

  “Of course, she is free.” He pulled the parchment over, took a quill pen and some ink and wrote that he laid no claim to Raleeha. “You are completely in the right. If Raleeha wants to go with you, you should take her in.” He passed the parchment back to her.

  She bowed. “My thanks, Nostàroi.” Timanris indicated the dagger. “Do not do it. It would be more than one life you would be destroying.”

  Caphalor essayed a tired smile. “You think those few words will change my mind when I have spent so long making my decision?”

  “Apart from your own people’s disappointment at the loss of a hero, you would be punishing the wrong person by your death.”

  “Is that so?” He sat up straight. “I killed the one who murdered my family, but it gave me no satisfaction. Who should I slaughter now, in order to feel better? How many guilty can there be? When I die, my pain dies.”

 
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