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Righteous fury, p.39
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       Righteous Fury, p.39

           Markus Heitz
 

  “Glad to help,” said Toboribar with a wide grin that showed his decorated tusks. “Srinks are scum; they’ve no brains.”

  Sinthoras reflected on a similar phrase that had been used in Dsôn when óarcos were discussed.

  “Toboribar and Lotor, would you do me a further favor?” Caphalor asked. “For this, I will reward you and your soldiers with my share of Tark Draan.”

  “What do you want us to do?” grunted the óarco, curiosity in his tone.

  “I have a feud with Munumon, the former king of the fflecx. Only he and a handful of his people are still alive. I want to make sure he pays for what he has done to Sinthoras and myself and I need a small troop to take me to where he is.”

  Lotor shook his head. “That’s pure suicide. The alchemancers will still have enough poison to kill my men.”

  “I’m game,” said Toboribar. “We won’t give the stumpy button-heads any opportunity to get their blowpipes out.”

  Caphalor stood up, his expression both threatening and radiant. “Then let us make a start. The sooner we get back here the better.”

  Sinthoras thought of the dead fflecx that the gålran zhadar had brought with him, and what he had been told about the demon’s power. In his mind’s eye he saw the entire land swarming with undead gnomes. It was a mistake to tell Caphalor about that. “Munumon will die anyway,” he said, in an attempt to change Caphalor’s mind. “It’s not a good idea to split up and waste our energy on squabbles that have nothing to do with the main thrust of the campaign.” He looked at him earnestly. “That’s our own private quarrel, Caphalor.”

  The älf was silent for a while. “You are right,” he said, after a pause for thought. He turned to the óarco prince. “I’ve decided against that plan. I don’t need your services. But I will still give you my share of land because you were willing to follow me.” He fixed his gray-green eyes on Sinthoras once more. “It won’t take me long to locate them. You can look forward to my bringing you Munumon’s head.”

  “It is too dangerous, we need you here to plan the campaign,” said Sinthoras.

  Caphalor dismissed this with a gesture of his hand. “I’ll ride alone, I will not be noticed and Sardaî will get me there.” He left the tent, his tone making it clear that his decision was final.

  “Even I can see how deeply the death of his wife has affected him,” said Lotor after a pause.

  Sinthoras only nodded. He was worried. He was worried about so many things.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), thirty-two miles behind the border of the fflecx kingdom,

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

  spring.

  Caphalor urged the night-mare through the vast expanses of the fflecx lands, away from the deserted royal palace; he was following recent vehicle tracks that could only have been left by Munumon—if the rumors about the destruction of the rest of the fflecx were to be believed.

  Discarded objects at the roadside looked familiar and he realized the carts had been losing some of their freight in the fflecxs’ hurried escape from the demon.

  The last few miles had shown a strange alteration in the landscape. This must be the mist-demon’s work, the effect the gålran zhadar spoke of. I had better take a closer look.

  He halted Sardaî at a small clump of trees and dismounted to examine them.

  They were blackened, leafless, and looked dead, but on making a cut in the scorched trunk he discovered they were still alive, the resin transformed into stinking viscous oil, its normal golden color gone.

  Caphalor took a piece of fungus and squashed it. Then he divided a small bush and pulled out a few grass stalks. Every living thing with roots in the soil had been affected by the demon’s power: plants had withered away on shriveled stalks while others had mutated, the coloring of their flowers and leaves now dark. Even the grass under Sardaî’s hooves had taken on a grayish hue. The entire landscape was odd. It was if they were in a different world.

  I find these changes to my taste. He breathed death in and relished becoming one with the dead land. He liked the sound of it. The Dead Land. And this is what will happen all over Tark Draan! Neither elves nor magicians nor warriors would be able to withstand the allies’ combined forces.

  Caphalor swung himself back up into the saddle and continued along the tracks. He came across several headless corpses on the sides of the road. Mostly those of the fflecx, but there were also some barbarians. Perhaps the demon’s power could only be stopped if the corpses were beheaded, or the skull crushed? Only then might the returning dead fall truly lifeless.

  Toward evening he saw four carts on the road in front of him. They were being pulled along as fast as the bellowing oxen could go. The carts were piled high with boxes, sacks and crates.

  Caphalor picked up his bow and selected an arrow. He could announce his arrival and it would put Munumon and his entourage into a state of terror. I want them to realize they have no weapons to confront me with.

  He spanned the bow and aimed for one of the fflecx on the last wagon.

  The soaring arrow took some time to hit home, but when it did, it pierced the fflecx through the breast, nailing him to one of the boxes. His companions did not, at first, realize what had happened, but then they started to yelp with fear.

  Pitiful creatures! Caphalor laughed with satisfaction and spurred the night-mare onwards while he took out a second arrow from his quiver. You don’t even know what direction your death is approaching from. A second fflecx soon fell dead, transfixed by his arrow. There was nowhere for them to seek shelter.

  This was what the fflecx quickly realized after they had lost a third member of their troop to Caphalor’s bow. They jumped down and took off for the bushes on either side of the road. The oxen rushed steadily onward with the carts.

  Caphalor commanded Sardaî to gallop up to the first ox cart. I can see you! As he passed them, Caphalor shot two more of the unprepared fflecx foolish enough to pop their heads out of the undergrowth.

  “Take me up ahead,” he told Sardaî. That was where he thought he would find the former monarch. When he drew parallel to the cart-driver’s seat, he could see Munumon hiding under the passenger bench with the reins in his hand, urging the oxen to increase their speed. Sardaî had no difficulty keeping up.

  “Fflecx king,” Caphalor called, hanging his bow on his saddle.

  Munumon started and then tried to crawl back under the benches. “I’m not coming out,” he shouted over the noise of the clattering wheels. He looked like a toad trying to hide under a stone.

  “Don’t you recognize me?”

  The dark, warty face turned toward him.

  “You are the black-eyes that I sent out to get my property back for me.” But now he was surprised. “How did you survive my poison?” He swore. “Oh, I know! It was the demon. The demon has brought you back to life.”

  “No, I am properly alive and yet in my heart of hearts I am dead,” Caphalor replied coldly. “You bear a great deal of the responsibility for that and you shall pay the price.”

  “Come a bit closer, so I can bash your head in!” Munumon wielded a giant ax and tried to look impressive.

  Caphalor gave a short, evil laugh. “Your followers have abandoned you, King,” he said spitefully. “They aren’t going to come back and help you.” He overtook the cart and used his native magic to make black streams of terror waft out toward the oxen, penetrating their simple brains so that they halted in fear, refusing to move on.

  Munumon screamed and cursed wildly.

  “Come back here, you cowards!” he yelled to his followers. “Come back here and help your king—you accepted my gold all right!”

  Caphalor dismounted and laid down his bow. “Yes, do come back,” he said under his breath. “Come back here so you can all die together.”

  The fflecx were feeling safer now that Caphalor’s bow was not in his hand, and he suddenly found himself surrounded by nearly a dozen of them, armored and armed, their b
low pipes already trained on him.

  “Kill the black-eyes!” screeched Munumon, squeezing out from under the driver’s box on the cart and whirling his ax. In his excitement he hopped up and down, the wooden planking squeaking and groaning under his ridiculous pointed shoes.

  A shower of tiny darts was underway, hitting Caphalor in the face and penetrating his body between the plates of his armor. Burning pain was instantaneous.

  With one hand he wiped the darts from his face and throat. Slowly, he pulled out his daggers from his belt; he held one blade pointing forward, the other pointing back. “Your deaths bear the name of Caphalor,” he vowed, speaking in the älfar tongue. “I am taking your worthless lives. The Dead Land may keep your spirits.”

  At the sound of his voice the fflecx stepped back, unsure. The älf lunged forward.

  I am a dancing shadow. He moved among them effortlessly, laughing. His daggers sliced through their scrawny necks and their blood spurted out in fountains, the tips of the blades piercing the fflecx armor and entering their hearts. Each blow was the end of a fflecx. You can’t even see me coming, can you?

  A few heartbeats later they all lay at his feet in a spreading pool of their own blood.

  Munumon was trying to crawl back under the driver’s bench, but Caphalor grabbed him by the leg and hurled him through the air to land in a puddle of blood. He stamped hard on the hand carrying the ax. The one-time ruler of the fflecx kingdom whimpered pitifully. “I can give you treasures, black-eyes,” he sobbed. “And the antidote! Or otherwise you’ll die! Do you want to die?”

  “Your toxins no longer work on me,” he replied, cleaning his knives and stowing them. “That was the one good thing about what you did to Sinthoras and myself.” He bent down, took the gnome-like being in a stranglehold and rammed him up against the side of the wagon. With his left foot, Caphalor sent one of the fflecx’s abandoned short swords flying into the air to catch. He jammed it under Munumon’s collar bone, fixing the former king to the side of the cart. Then he stepped away, leaving his victim suspended in midair and roaring with pain. Blood poured down over the little creature’s chest and back.

  Caphalor sat down on a fallen tree trunk and observed the pathetic fflecx. “You scream too soon,” he murmured. “When daybreak comes, I shall let you die.” He plucked a blowpipe dart out of his armor and hurled it at Munumon, hitting him on the right cheek and eliciting a further screech of pain. “There’s to be no release for you until then.”

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

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

  spring.

  Raleeha held her hand in front of her eyes.

  She could make out her fingers now, even the details of the fine wrinkles and folds on the knuckles. My sight is improving with every sunrise! Near, she could see with the one eye almost as well as she had done before. It was only distance vision that was still a problem. However, she kept her remarkable recovery to herself and continued to wear her black lace eye band when not alone.

  Her artwork was becoming more exquisitely refined and the etched pictures roused Timansor’s ecstatic admiration. He assumed—as did the rest of the household—that these were the work of a blind woman. As he was prepared to cheat her of both prestige and profit, Raleeha had no compunction in deceiving him in this way. Tarlesa cannot betray me now.

  Picking up the quill-trimming knife, she completed the last few touches on the tiny engraved portrait of Timanris. She had ostensibly studied for it by touching the älf-woman’s face with her fingers and feeling its contours.

  It would have been so easy to push your thumbs into the rival’s hated eyes and kill her! said the reproachful little voice inside her head.

  A shudder went up and down her spine.

  But it would not have helped at all, answered the voice of reason. She, Raleeha, would be accused of murder, Sinthoras would despise her and her brother would perhaps have been made to pay with his life. No, it was important no suspicion fell on her.

  “Be still!” She took a deep breath and her mind grew calmer. She laid the small knife down and brushed away the tiny fragments of parchment she had removed. It had worked very well. It was only the size of a coin, but exactly the älf-woman’s likeness, even though it was virtually impossible to render the true effect of an älfar visage. Timanris would be thrilled with it and would give it to Sinthoras, of course. He will wear it round his neck, next to his heart.

  Raleeha traced tiny grooves with the tip of her finger—the grooves that showed her own face. Nobody would notice—only she would know. She sighed, lifted the parchment and pressed it passionately to her lips.

  There was a knock at the door. “Are you there, Raleeha?” Timanris must want something.

  She put her work aside, then stood up and turned to the entrance. “Yes, mistress. Please come in. You do not need to knock or ask, I am your slave.”

  The älf-woman entered and smiled, although she thought Raleeha could not see her. “You know that you are no slave, even if my father thinks otherwise. You say this on purpose every time to make me angry and to show your resentment,” she scolded, without really meaning it. She walked past Raleeha and studied the work on the tilted desk easel. “By Samusin!” she exclaimed. “It’s perfect! You have captured my image more skillfully than anyone else who has ever attempted to draw me.” She shook her head and laughed, picking up the parchment. “A blind human girl has trumped all älfar artists. If it ever comes out who has created these works we will have to invent some älfar blood for you, or whole swathes of our artists will be plunging to their deaths in despair. What disgrace! Defeated by a human girl!” the älf-woman laughed out loud again.

  “No, I still have a long way to go before I can compare my work to älfar art,” countered Raleeha—to her it was the truth. “I can draw simple things very well, but when I think about what I see—” She stopped. “I mean, what I used to be able to see, then my pictures are those of a child.”

  “Don’t be silly,” joked Timanris. “Come along.” She hurried to the door and Raleeha followed her, hesitating slightly, to look genuinely blind.

  They traversed the whole building, where works of art were on display in every available niche, on every wall, floor and ceiling alike: paintings, sculptures, collages—sometimes Raleeha did not really understand what they portrayed: abstract pieces adorned with the essence of transience and the spirit of beauty.

  They reached the garden. Here, Timansor had spent a fortune and much effort imposing his aesthetic view of the world on the natural order. Bushes, shrubs, and trees had been trimmed into exotic shapes, dyed different colors and bordered by stones. Soft animal fur represented grass on decorative small islands on the ground.

  Humans could never come up with anything like this. Raleeha was delighted to be able to see this splendor, but when she let her gaze sweep round to a delicate summerhouse structure with curtains at the semi-circular windows, her heart stopped. Sinthoras!

  “Come on,” Timanris called happily. “I want Sinthoras to see who made my gift.”

  Raleeha felt as if she were pulled in two. She wanted to see him from close up, wanted to drink in the sight of him, but at the same time she feared she might lose control and betray herself. My gods, do not desert me now. Unable to hold back, she carried on walking straight up to her former owner and master who stood at the entrance to the arbor.

  He stood up and greeted Timanris with a warm kiss, giving only a fleeting glance in Raleeha’s direction. “Of course, you are her mistress now,” he remarked conversationally. “Caphalor told me.”

  “She is her own mistress,” said the älf-woman gently, returning his caress and holding the tiny portrait in her right hand.

  I wish I was blind again! But she had to endure the sight of her former master sunk in another’s embrace. It was almost impossible to stay impassive and not thrust herself between the two of them.

  You could never t
ake up the place she has, said her reason. How do you know that if you have not tried absolutely everything? argued the small voice in her head.

  “Look,” said Timanris, with love shining in her eyes. “See what she has engraved here. I want you to carry it with you at all times, Sinthoras.” She handed him the piece of parchment. It is to protect you when you go to war and it is to bring you back home safe to me—safe and victorious!’

  Raleeha saw her artwork changing hands, knowing her own face was going with it. It will bring him back to me, not to you. That thought served to appease the anger and confusion raging in her heart.

  Sinthoras accepted the gift. “It is an excellent likeness, Raleeha. It seems you hid your talent from me. The pictures I saw in your chamber—you did not know I was looking at them—were nowhere near as good as this.” Then he looked at Timanris and cradled her face in his hands. “My beloved, I need to tell you this: you make me complete! For you I ride to the ends of Tark Draan and home again. I shall crush the heads of all my enemies and bring them to your feet.” He was singing the words more than speaking them.

  Raleeha closed her eyes and luxuriated in the sound of his voice.

  “As soon as I return from the campaign I want to take you as my life-companion.”

  Both girls, älf and human, took deep breaths: one in ecstasy, one in shock.

  “What about Yantarai?” prompted Timanris softly. “I love you, Sinthoras, and don’t want to stand in the way of your ambition. With her—”

  “Life is monotonous, political, and without inspiration,” he said, grasping her hands in his own. “I beg you, do not reject my proposal.”

  Timanris scanned his face, lost in thought.

  Raleeha opened her eyes and stared at the älf-woman in horror. She must not say yes! She begged Tion to intervene, to prevent Timanris from uttering the dreaded syllable. But what female with any sense would turn down such an offer?

  And then she heard Timanris say, “I accept from the bottom of my heart.”

 
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