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Righteous fury, p.42
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       Righteous Fury, p.42

           Markus Heitz
 

  Crossing his daggers, he fended off the ax, but was forced backward by the strength of the impact. The blade of the ax rang out as it glanced off of his armor.

  Curses! The defenders of the Stone Gateway could not be underestimated. Their size was immaterial. It would be easier to thrash an óarco than to overpower one of these.

  He separated his two knives and went for the dwarf’s short neck, stabbing to the right and to the left of the groundling’s raised arms. The dwarf fell, but the one with the spiked morningstar stepped forward, bellowing curses.

  Caphalor dived over his assailant’s head, swiveling round as he did so and slicing through the neck vertebrae from behind. The dwarf gave one stumbling pace forward and then slumped down.

  Sinthoras jammed the heel of his boot down on a groundling’s helmet, then reversed the spear and stabbed his adversary in the throat. He fended off a further attack with the flattened edge of his spear, skipping round his assailant to jab at him from behind. Then he thrust himself forward against a third dwarf and pierced it through the heart.

  Sinthoras surveyed the scene. The dwarf he had just killed had been the last of them.

  “Some have got away!” shouted Caphalor, pointing to the end of the corridor.

  “After them!” Sinthoras ordered the remaining ten älfar; they had lost five warriors in the struggle.

  The warriors set off in pursuit. When Caphalor started after them, Sinthoras held him back. “No, we need to go back and send reinforcements to check out the tunnels. Perhaps we can smuggle more of our soldiers in to Tark Draan this way.”

  Caphalor halted. “I don’t know: the groundlings already know about the tunnel and the handful of dwarves that we have just killed can’t have been more than the vanguard.”

  “Then we’ll have to take it as it comes.” Sinthoras ran back toward the cave.

  Caphalor went with him reluctantly. He would have preferred to accompany the warriors and finish off a few more groundlings.

  Soon they reached the night-mares and the waiting soldiers. Sinthoras briefed his troops: they were to confront and destroy the remaining dwarves and then push their way further into groundling territory. The älfar bowed to their commander and clambered up to the cave. The nostàroi were left alone.

  “We’ll lose our advantage if we are not careful,” said Caphalor. “I don’t doubt our own people, but the dwarves may be closer than we think.” He looked at Sinthoras and pointed to the winding road leading down to the foot of the mountain. “The camp is visible from here. We should bring our attack forward.”

  Sinthoras studied the bright points of light down in the valley. “You think I should summon the demon? We still haven’t heard from the gålran zhadar. We don’t yet know how to contact his spy in order to get the gateway open.”

  Caphalor could understand the other’s hesitation. But it has to happen now. “Did the demon not say that he, too, possessed the secret of unlocking the Stone Gateway?” He raised his eyes to the far distance. “I wonder how quickly he can get here. It is all so uncertain.”

  They remained silent, listening to the sound of the wind as it broke on the edge of the mountain range and delivered them a many-voiced and inharmonious song.

  “You are right. We should begin the conventional attack without pinning all our hopes on the demon and the gålran zhadar,” Sinthoras said suddenly. “Let’s keep to our original plan.” Excellent! Caphalor had been starting to doubt that his co-commander shared his view. The relief was considerable.

  “The ogres have not arrived yet, but we’ve got enough beasts at our disposal to set against the gateway on storm ladders. It’s no great loss if we sacrifice the óarcos. We won’t deploy our own troops until the gateway is open.” He watched Sinthoras from the corner of his eye. “What about the demon?”

  The älf took deep breaths of the cool mountain air and began to sing Lay of Inàste’s Tears to summon the mist-demon to the Northern Pass.

  Caphalor listened to the sad refrain and closed his eyes, moved to tears.

  CHAPTER XX

  But when the Inextinguishables thought everything was going according to their plans, Samusin, the god of Justice, showed them the power he extended to all.

  Justice can take many forms.

  Sometimes it might be an enemy’s arrow, bringing endingness.

  Sometimes it might be the kiss of a lover, after long periods of privation.

  Sometimes it might be the forgotten ones, returning.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  Book of the Coming Death,

  1–10

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), seventeen miles from the Northern Pass and the Stone Gateway,

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

  summer.

  The demon did not appear.

  Several moments of unendingness had passed since Sinthoras had sung, but there was no sign of the mist-demon.

  The älfar warriors Caphalor had sent to keep watch in the bandits’ tunnel had not returned and, accordingly, the nostàroi had given orders to bring down the tunnel roof before any further groundling force could surprise them.

  Sinthoras had arranged to have the first catapults brought up to the platform on the pass and he was discussing strategy with the leaders of the various allied armies, while Caphalor supervised final training exercises on scaling ladders at the cliff face.

  Toboribar studied the model of the Stone Gateway and its environs. “I think it’s too bold to go ahead and storm the gate before we’ve got any of the big ones with us,” he said. “I agree we’ve got enough people, but if the groundlings start chucking molten pitch and burning coals down on us our losses might be greater than we can afford. We won’t be able to bring up reinforcements fast enough.”

  “We’ve got that covered with the catapults. They’ll swamp the parapet with liquid fire,” said Sinthoras in an attempt to reassure the óarco leader. “You climb up, deal with the sentries and safeguard the gateway bolts.”

  “When is the demon coming?” Lotor asked. “Shouldn’t we have him there from the start?”

  “He is on his way.” Sinthoras was getting fed up with all these negative voices. Just do what you are told. “He is gathering his strength so that he can be of optimum use to us when he arrives.”

  “Sounds good—if that is the case,” responded the barbarian prince. “I’m not saying you’re not telling the truth, but I’m never keen on trusting magic creatures. I’m afraid your demon might have had second thoughts in the meantime.”

  “Yes,” came the voice of the giantess from above their heads. “But the nostàroi has promised that the demon is coming.”

  “He can promise till he’s blue in the face if the mist thing is just going to do whatever it feels like,” objected Toboribar. “We need him to break the spell on the portal and open the bolts, don’t we?”

  Sinthoras noticed that the mood amongst the leaders was turning nasty. They had been camped out at the foot of the Gray Range for far too long for their liking. They were eager to start fighting and to reap the promised rewards of victory. Stupidity, greed and patience were unhappy bedfellows. That was why he told them: “We have located the groundling traitor and have sent him a message. He can open the gate for us just as well.” Everyone stared at him.

  Lotor was the first to find his voice. “I’d be interested to hear more. How has the zhadar managed to smuggle one of his men in? I thought the groundlings were such a tight-knit community that a stranger would be noticed right away?”

  Sinthoras was at a loss for an explanation at this juncture, but saw no reason to take refuge in a lie. “I don’t know and I don’t care. Just as long as their spy does what he’s supposed to do.” He hoped that the conviction in his tone would serve to quash all further objections.

  Silence fell on the assembly once more.

  Sinthoras sighed with relief. “To get back to—”

  “So we have a demon who hasn’t turned
up and a planted traitor we have to trust but we don’t need both of them in order to force entry at the gate,” grumbled Toboribar. “If you ask me, Nostàroi, it’s all starting to sound a bit different from our first talks about the campaign. We were sure, then, that the plan would succeed. Today,” he said, indicating the model, “there isn’t anything to be sure about.”

  “I swear we will succeed,” Sinthoras countered firmly, staring the monster in the eyes until it dropped its gaze. “What is wrong with you? Since when did you turn coward? You’ve seen the army Caphalor and I have gathered here. Has there ever been a greater force assembled? Things may be tougher, but we will take the groundlings’ defenses. Tell your troops they’ll soon be plundering the treasure rooms and the corn stores!”

  The majority of the leaders thumped their beakers on the table to signify their approval. Only Toboribar and Lotor exchanged skeptical glances.

  “Now be off.” Sinthoras remained seated and waited for all of them to leave. Then he uttered a curse as he surveyed the model of the gate they planned to storm. Demon, what’s keeping you?

  The familiar voice coming from inside his own head startled him. That answer had been so clear, so loud and so sudden.

 

 

  The älf shut his eyes and concentrated on this strange internal conversation.

  The voice grew fainter.

  “You?” asked Sinthoras out loud, startled.

  “Who else were you expecting?” came the reply from the tent flap—but it was not the voice of the mist-demon. When he opened his eyes he saw Caphalor standing on the other side of the table in full armor, a long white mantle protecting him from the cold. “Have I disturbed you at prayer?”

  Sinthoras realized the demon had withdrawn from his thoughts. He told his colleague what had occurred. “What do you think?”

  “The good thing is that he’s coming,” said Caphalor. “But how did he get to find out about the spy?” He took a seat next to Sinthoras. “No matter. We can attack very soon! The lower orders are getting restless. They want what we promised them.”

  “We can let them have it now.” Sinthoras studied the model. “What’s the situation with the beasts?”

  “The óarcos have got the ladder scaling off pat now and they’re not scared of heights. I’m worried about the catapult teams; they’re still taking forever to get their eye in when they start shooting. But then, it won’t be our own soldiers in the front line, so who cares? The óarcos have refused to let our people help them with the aiming.”

  Sinthoras listened and felt the tension ease. From one heartbeat to the next, all the difficulties have resolved themselves. “So all we need now are the ogres and everything’s perfect.”

  One of the bodyguards entered the tent. “High Nostàroi, there’s a slave here wishing to speak to Nostàroi Sinthoras. Her name is Raleeha.”

  Caphalor raised his eyebrows. “She’s not run away again to find you?” he said, half in jest.

  Sinthoras was not sure how amusing he found the situation. Memories of a certain night came back—the night when, in anger, he had given her away to Caphalor. “What does she want?”

  “She has news from Dsôn, she says, Nostàroi. About Timanris.”

  Now his thoughts were somersaulting through his head, in turmoil between delight and terror. Why is she sending Raleeha out to me at the front? “Bring her in.”

  As Raleeha entered, Sinthoras noticed that her black summer mantle showed dirt and dust from the long journey. The familiar black lace blindfold covered the empty eye sockets, but her face was slimmer than ever, more like an älfar countenance. Her height completed the whole illusion. If she had the pointed ears as well . . .

  “My greetings to you both, noble Nostàroi,” she said quietly, bowing to them. She was shaking with cold. “I bring you news from Dsôn.” She stepped forward, finding her way carefully with the tips of her feet to avoid any obstacles. “Master, it is not good news.”

  “I am no longer your master, Raleeha,” said Sinthoras, afraid of what she might be going to tell him. What was she preparing him for? I don’t want to hear it.

  “From this moment of unendingness you are indeed my master once more,” she contradicted, taking out a slim roll of script and handing it to him. “It was Timanris’ last wish before she died.” Raleeha held the parchment out.

  Died . . . The word echoed and echoed round his head. Sinthoras stared at the rolled letter, staring so intensely that it might have burst into flame. Nothing could make him move to take the letter.

  Died . . .

  It was Caphalor who finally took hold of the parchment; as he did so his hand touched the slave girl’s slim fingers, as it might be accidentally. “Sinthoras?”

  “I don’t want to read it,” he said hoarsely.

  Caphalor’s face darkened with sadness. The memory of the loss he had suffered all too recently came flooding back and overwhelmed him. “You cannot make it un-happen,” he said in a soft and sympathetic voice. “She is dead, Sinthoras.”

  “You read it,” he groaned, picking up a goblet, pouring water for himself and swallowing it down. The liquid trickled down his constricted throat.

  “It is addressed to you, master.” Raleeha spoke up cautiously.

  “Silence!” he roared at her. “I trust Caphalor.” He swayed, grasping the edge of the table for support. The loss of his beloved was coming home to him, made manifest and gaining clarity through the words that Caphalor was speaking. What shall I do now? Sinthoras was in turmoil and could only understand small snatches of the writing.

  Timanris had written to say that she loved him, but that the injuries she had suffered were too grave to permit recovery. Endingness was approaching for her. She wanted to exact an oath from him that he would never return to Dsôn where everything would remind him of her death. She wanted him to spare himself this grief. His future lay in Tark Draan where he should found his own realm. She was entrusting Raleeha to him. Raleeha had been a good friend to her. A sister.

  “‘Our souls were once as one,’” Caphalor read the message from the dead älf-woman, “‘but now they must separate and I must let you go, beloved. Remember me, but do not chain yourself to my memory. Shelter Raleeha, whom I have freed, and she will be your faithful companion.’” He let the letter sink to the table and watched Sinthoras with sympathy, then turned his gaze on Raleeha, noticing the tears streaming down her face from under the black lace blindfold.

  After a while he stepped over to Sinthoras and pressed his arm. “She is right. Listen to her words and do what is asked of you. I shall not be returning to the homeland either.” He sought Sinthoras’ eyes. “We are bound together by pain and grief. We shall let Tark Draan feel the extent of our suffering.”

  What else is there for me now? She is gone. Swallowed up by endingness. “We shall indeed,” he croaked in agreement, fists clenched. With a loud cry he moved to the table where the parchment lay. “We shall attack. This very day!” He stormed past the others, roaring out commands until his voice was hoarse. Fanfares and drums sounded in response to his sudden pronouncement.

  Caphalor took a deep breath and watched the former slave, who was standing at the entrance to the tent, uncertain what to do. “Were you expecting a different reaction?”

  She bowed her head. “I am waiting to be told what to do. Even if I am free now, I still have to play the role of a slave when amongst others.”

  “Your task is clear from Timanris’ words—to stay with him.”

  “I heard him make no oath,” she said firmly. “He has not yet undertaken to carry out her final wishes.”

  Capha
lor paid more attention. Her tone of voice indicated disappointment and yet there was the trace of a satisfied smile on her lips. Because she is allowed to be back at his side again? Or is there . . .

  All of a sudden, the wording of that letter looked a little suspect. Concepts such as sister and companion were highly unlikely for an älf to employ in connection with a barbarian, artist or no. “How did this accident occur?” He did not take his eyes from her face and suppressed all previous feelings for her. I shall remain true to Enoïla past death.

  Raleeha turned her face toward him as if she were able to see him. Really and truly see him. “What do you mean, sir?”

  “I should like to know what happened when you and Timanris fell down the steps together.” She looked surprised. Surprised and something more than surprised.

  “I was walking behind her up the stairs when she slipped and fell. She put out her arms to find something to hang onto for support, grabbed a spear and pulled me with her.” She shrugged. “That’s all I can say. I hit my head and don’t remember anything else.”

  “Very handy,” responded Caphalor.

  He picked up the parchment and pressed it into the slave girl’s hand. Her fingers were shaking, so he closed them round the letter, holding fast to her. She was keeping something secret. He knew how obsessed she had always been by Sinthoras and his creative works. How far would she go?

  “You know that Sinthoras will send a message to her father? He will want to express his sympathy? Perhaps they will meet, away from Dsôn, to share their grief?” The longer he spoke, the more she shook. “Or might it be that Sinthoras receives word from Timanris expressing her astonishment about his letter to her father?”

  “Sir,” she moaned. “No, that could not happen. Timanris is dead.”

  “I am sure that she is not.” Caphalor smiled. “You know what you must do, Raleeha. If the truth emerges before you have unpicked your tissue of lies, you will have to endure pain such as you have never known and you will beg to be killed. Sinthoras can be cruel. Blinding you as he did was a kindness compared to the punishment he would inflict.” He released her hand. “Tell him yourself: if it has to be me that tells him, there will be no mercy for you. Not even running away again will save you,” he murmured softly before leaving the tent.

 
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