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Righteous fury, p.43
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       Righteous Fury, p.43

           Markus Heitz
 

  Stepping out into bright sunshine, he shaded his eyes with one hand to observe the hectic activity that had broken out on all sides in Sinthoras’ wake.

  Caphalor was looking forward to the battle and watched as thousands of their troops marched toward the gateway. Banners and pennants streamed out and snapped in the wind. The breeze carried the stink of the grease the óarcos used to coat their armor. By doing this, they hoped that enemy blades would slip and get no purchase.

  Maybe it’s no bad thing for the moment if Sinthoras believes Timanris is dead. His anger and grief at his loss would make him a single-mindedly fierce warrior, useful when storming the defenses. And for the invasion of Tark Draan.

  Caphalor’s own lust for destruction welcomed these developments and so he kept silent about Raleeha’s lies. It will come out one way or another. Raleeha will tell him, or there will be a letter from Dsôn, or it will be revealed quite by chance. Sinthoras’ joy then at having his beloved restored to him would be greater than ever.

  He had to laugh. It is amazing. I am starting to think in the same devious ways as Sinthoras used to.

  His gaze fell on the grass being trampled by bare feet, hooves, boots and wheels.

  He looked more closely: the grass had turned gray. Every single blade of grass had lost its color.

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), Gray Range, Stone Gateway,

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

  summer.

  The attack began in the afternoon.

  From the saddles of their night-mares, Sinthoras and Caphalor dispatched the óarcos to the front line. The beasts lumbered along the thirty-pace broad pass, dragging heavy ladders and catapult parts to erect when nearer to the Gateway. Drums thumped out a repetitive beat and horns fired up the troops. The älfar warriors and other allies were under orders to hold back: the nostàroi wanted to establish how the groundlings would respond to the initial attack.

  Grunting and roaring, the vanguard surged slowly forward, heading directly for the portal. The mountain walls reverberated with the clamor, magnifying the threatening noises.

  With any luck these distorted sounds will penetrate the consciousness of the Gateway’s defenders, thought Sinthoras. Their noisy mass of animal soldiery was sending out almost palpable waves of confident conviction, a groundswell of enthusiastic belief in their imminent victory.

  “It’s looking good,” said Caphalor at his side. “And our attack comes at exactly the right time.” He pointed out a mountain pine whose branches, within the space of a few blinks of an eye, had started to droop, the needles drifting to the stony ground. “See there! The demon’s power travels ahead of him. He can’t be far away now.”

  Sinthoras felt the same buoyant conviction as his attacking troops, but a corner of his heart remained stoney, unable to summon enthusiasm for the coming triumph. Timanris’ name flitted constantly in and out of his thoughts like a ghost, even now, as he watched the óarcos erect their siege ladders at the portal and begin to clamber boldly up the none-too-sturdy contraptions; the archers provided cover with a steady shower of arrows.

  The second unit of troops was assembling the catapults in order to support the attack with burning missiles. Loaded leather bags were set alight and hurled hissing through the air to burst on impact, spreading flaming petroleum wherever they landed.

  For Sinthoras, the screams of the dying, the swish of the missiles and the sound of the bugles and horns sounded like an orchestral arrangement of Timanris, the name of his beloved. If I had stayed behind she might still be alive. I was not even able to visit her as she lay on her sickbed.

  “Those idiots!” growled Caphalor. “I’ve trained them and trained them and they still can’t do it right!” The initial salvos were too low, hitting their own óarco troops, but neither the hail of stones nor the hot bitumen raining down could dim the fervor of the óarcos rushing to replace those who fell. “Look how the beasts are fighting,” he enthused. “Toboribar’s creatures were made for this task.” He raced off on his night-mare. “I ride to the eastern flank. The catapult teams need my help with aiming, otherwise they’ll be sending our own forces up in flames.”

  Sinthoras was surprised by the amount of old bones the óarcos had to clamber over to get to the Stone Gateway. So many have tried to get in and been destroyed by the groundlings: the living want to avenge the dead. He observed the óarcos’ efforts, watching them swing themselves up on to the battlements above the gateway to fight the groundlings.

  But the stumpy defenders were presenting staunch resistance. They stood on fortifications designed specifically so that only a small number of guards would be needed to defend them.

  Sinthoras kept glancing behind, looking for the mist-demon—but he did not appear. That gate won’t open without him. Hurry, demon!

  The nostàroi let the óarcos rampage until sundown in the hope of wearing out the defenders, and when darkness spread over the Northern Pass they had the retreat sounded. Bugles and trombones signaled a call to cease the onslaught. The creatures reacted obediently to the command.

  Caphalor came back to join him and so did Toboribar. The latter was not in the best of moods. “What’s happening, Nostàroi?” he complained. “My forces are already up on the parapet! The defenders’ cauldrons of hot slack are empty and their supply of stones is running out. We’re so close!” As he spoke, he revealed a missing tooth in his broad jaw.

  “Close to what? What use to us are conquered parapets?” Caphalor interrupted.

  Toboribar was not about to let himself be intimidated. “There are only a few dwarves, and we—”

  “I want them to think they are winning again, as usual,” responded Sinthoras. There was no way he was going to allow the óarco to take over the planning. “We’ll wait a little and then make a renewed attack.”

  A rhythmic thumping sound was heard. Something very heavy was approaching. Caphalor looked over his shoulder. In the silver light of the moon he saw the impressive outlines of monsters four times as big and strong as the óarcos. Their ugly bodies were protected by badly made armor and the clubs they were waving in their great paws were young tree trunks. “The ogres and the giants have arrived—forty of them. They’ve got the grappling irons and chains I told them to bring. Perhaps they can force a gap in the gate.”

  “Tell the troops to hold themselves in readiness and explain it’s a ruse; we are not really withdrawing.”

  Toboribar nodded and raced off as fast as his heavy armor allowed.

  “We should not wait too long.” Caphalor let his gaze sweep over the corpses and the shattered ladders in front of the gateway. “Otherwise we give the defenders too much opportunity to regain their strength.”

  “You heard what Toboribar’s scum saw up there: they have no more warriors and they are running out of ammunition.” He inhaled the disgusting aroma of the battlefield: shed blood, ruptured intestines, dust, petroleum, all mixed with the smell of fear, hatred and conviction. “Before the daystar reappears in the sky, we will be on the other side.” He took out the medallion he wore under his armor and he passed his gauntlet over it. For you, Timanris. Then he turned toward his night-mare. “I’ll go and tell the ogres and giants what we want them to do.”

  Caphalor commanded the second attack: a concerted mass of óarcos rushed forward, forming an alley. The ogres and giants were greeted with cries of delight as they approached. The two races were almost indistinguishable behind their armor; in stature they were equal.

  Stop all that yowling and start fighting, he thought impatiently. Your voices are unbearable, but not lethal enough to be weapons. “Get yourselves to the front,” he called out.

  The huge monsters stomped off to the head of the army and prepared the grappling irons, each with four barbs the length of a grown barbarian. They pulled chains through the hole at the top end of each anchor and then whirled the irons round their heads and hurled them up in the air; with a rushing noise and a metallic clatter they
shot through the night. In the meantime the óarcos took hold of the ends of the long chains

  Caphalor was satisfied. The grappling irons sat securely in place on the massive outer battlements.

  “Now!”

  At his bellowed command, the waiting óarcos, together with the combined forces of the ogres and giants, pulled at the chains.

  The metal links came taut, but that was all.

  “Drive them harder!” shouted Caphalor, as he rode Sardaî between the troops, letting the night-mare snap his sharp teeth. He ordered the officers to use whips. This has got to work! I don’t want to wait any longer. The chains were tightened and the creatures groaned with the exertion demanded of them.

  Caphalor heard a slight crunching sound: the fortified gateway shook with the elemental energy of the monsters. “Keep going!” he shouted. “Pull down the parapet!”

  Part of the battlements gave way and the grappling iron and pieces of stone hurtled down, killing ten óarcos and two of the ogres; fellow combatants were crushed and buried under their huge bodies.

  “Send the grapple up again. Throw it up!” ordered Caphalor. The beasts did as they were bid. A few moments later the grappling iron was anchored to a different part of the wall. “They are retreating,” he called out grimly. Up on the battlements he could see the groundlings’ helmets as they scurried to and fro, positioning themselves behind the metal protection at the top of the stone doors. “Our first victory is at hand! Pull! Pull!”

  The balustrade broke off and plunged down, clouds of dust rose as it hit the ground. The mountains shuddered under the impact: the monsters howled exultantly.

  Sinthoras rode over to join his fellow commander. “Getting the gateway open would have been too much to hope for,” he said.

  “It might have worked.” Caphalor studied the rubble that had fallen. “We’ll have to get this cleared. It will be in our way.” They rode forward together and gave the appropriate orders to the troops.

  This time the complaining voices were louder. The óarcos wanted to get back to attacking and were not in the mood for heavy quarry work; rock-shifting was not what a proper warrior did. Even the blows from the captains’ whips could not quash their inarticulate unrest. Stone after stone was passed back along their lines reluctantly and far too slowly to make way for the next attack.

  On the wall, the groundlings had slowed, waiting for something, assembling new missiles. Caphalor and Sinthoras withdrew from the front line.

  “Get a move on.” Sinthoras told the óarcos. “I’ll show them what happens when they go against the orders of a nostàroi,” he muttered. Caphalor took his bow from behind his shoulder and notched a long reinforced arrow, his fingers resting lightly on the feathered shaft.

  Some of the óarcos had turned away, refusing to take on a task so far beneath their dignity. Caphalor raised his bow. Three arrows left the bowstring in quick succession, sending three targets crashing to the ground.

  The other green-skinned monsters understood the lethal warning and stumbled back to work with no further attempts at mutiny. Even the leaders and Toboribar kept their counsel and said nothing in protest. They were scared.

  It took until dawn to clear away all the debris from in front of the gateway.

  I have to keep my promise. Sinthoras was reminded of the deadline he had set for himself. “I cannot fail here.” Where have you got to, demon? Is this the way you show your loyalty?

  He heard the demon’s voice in his head.

  he thought with relief. He did not want Caphalor to overhear him.

  The mist-demon sounded much more insistent than at their first meeting.

  He attempted to contradict the demon but was interrupted by the other’s loud laughter.

 

  Sinthoras decided to postpone this dispute. He did not want an argument now about who was going to obey whom. That could all wait until after the gateway had been breached. There were more important things.

 

  Sinthoras felt cold fingers sneaking through his mind and he gave himself a shake: it was worse than unpleasant.

 

  Sinthoras twisted round in the saddle. “He is coming!”

  Caphalor knew who his friend was speaking of. He also directed his glance along the pass.

  And while the eastern sky gradually grew lighter to announce the arrival of day, a broad bank of cloud rose behind them. In its interior there were shimmers of black, silver and red, the colors mixing and melding, the intensity flowing in waves.

  “Tion!” exclaimed Caphalor. “Is that him?”

  Sinthoras said nothing. That was not how the mist-demon had appeared at their first meeting. And it is sending out a darkness, a malicious power that plants fear in my soul.

  “Is that him?” Caphalor repeated hoarsely, experiencing the same effects.

  “Yes, I think so,” Sinthoras stuttered, feeling small, worthless, and insignificant in the presence of the demon.

  The demon moved over the heads of the monsters and floated—against the prevailing wind—directly toward the gateway.

  The óarcos, normally so loud, fell silent at its approach, huddling together and trying to avoid any contact with the vibrant swirling cloud. Even the ogres and the giants retreated in fear.

  It is . . . Sinthoras could not withstand the power that was stronger even than that of the Inextinguishable Ones. He and Caphalor both lowered their heads and offered a salute to this wraith, as befitted a sovereign lord.

  The glittering bank of mist sank down to the ground in front of the älfar and remained there.

  There was a lurch at the portal and the stone shook.

  Sinthoras raised his head and heard the first of the five bolts sliding back. The spy has spoken the password. There was a rumbling louder even than the eager shouts of the beasts. Then the noises on the other side ceased.

  The gigantic double gates moved slowly, jolting and resisting as they started to swing apart.

  “Make ready!” ordered Caphalor at his side. “Assume your formations!”

  Granite scraped on rock as the fissure became a yawning gap that increased to a wide opening. There was a final thump and a shudder, then the way lay open to the land of Tark Draan. For the very first time in thousands of divisions of unendingness, the gateway is open.

  “Enjoy the sight, Caphalor,” whispered Sinthoras. “No one before us has had such success.”

  “One of many great victories, my friend: our names will enter the legends of our people and the folk of Tark Draan will speak them with terror.” Caphalor’s eyes sparkled. “We are harbingers of a new age.” He filled his lungs with air and bellowed the command: “Attack!”

  Bugles and horns blared, the signal tunes clashing and drowning each other out—alerting the army’s flanks and center. Óarcos, ogres and giants roared in response, waving their weapons in the air. Then they advanced—shields and swords, clubs and spears gripped fast. The tension could be felt in the air.

  At the first insistent drum beats the army started to run, heavy boots thundering on the ground.

  The squat and solid forms of the groundlings appeared, standing shoulder to shoulder to stem this tide, indifferent to their own fate. Forty of them against thousands. Sinthoras could not help but admire their steadfast courage, even if he could not understand it. “There is absolutely no sense in sacrificing themselves like that,” he rem
arked to Caphalor. “They’d be better off going back to their tunnels—”

  The two wings of the gate began to close.

  “Hurry!” shouted Caphalor.

  He aimed several arrows at their backs to speed them on. The óarcos grunted and moved more quickly to escape the nostàroi’s fire. Those at the back pushed the ranks at the front.

  “Get the ogres to hold open the gates! Take the grapping irons and the chains! Shove your worthless bodies in there to jam the gates, do you hear?”

  The óarcos had reached the first of the dwarves—and died at their hands under hard and meticulously aimed blows. Greed had been making the monsters unwary; they were deceived by the defenders’ size and had not reckoned with the enormous strength in those short limbs. Their axes shattered shields and the arms that held them; they broke open helmets, armor and the flesh and bones behind.

  Sinthoras found it almost impossible to believe, but the first wave of attack was repulsed at the dwarf barrier. “Send a message back to the army: the gateway is open and the demon came to our aid. All units to make their way here,” he called to a herald. “Tell our älfar warriors as well.” Then, with Caphalor, he forced his way through the óarco lines and past the feet of the ogres and the giants, toward the opening.

  The stubborn groundling defenders were starting to fall, one by one, wildly outnumbered by the invading force. Their tremendous stamina had its limits, but their tough stand had paid off. Several of the beasts had got through, but the main attack had been thwarted and the gate was almost completely shut again. Eight ogres were desperately trying to prevent the gates from slamming shut: the soles of their feet were slipping and scraping on the rocky path, taking off whole layers of horny skin.

 
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