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Righteous fury, p.5
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       Righteous Fury, p.5

           Markus Heitz
 

  Toward evening, the stallion fought its way back onto its feet. The first whinny was deeper and fuller than it had been previously. To any creature other than an älf, it would be a horrendous sound. Its eyes shimmered a glowing red as it turned its gaze on Caphalor; its snorting breath sent the message: set me free.

  And he would.

  Caphalor stood up and raised the cage door, then took several steps backward and waited to see what the night-mare he had created would do. His heart beat wildly; he felt no fear, but had not experienced such excitement since breaking his sword in battle against far superior numbers—and still going on to win.

  The stallion left its prison carefully; white sparks played around its hooves and it hissed loudly. Its nostrils flared and it sniffed the air surrounding the half-giants, then stretched out its neck and turned its head to Caphalor. Walking over to the älf, it snorted and bared its fangs.

  The broad, bloodied head came nearer and nearer until the night-mare bowed to its new master.

  Caphalor stroked the stallion’s cheeks, patted the neck and ran his fingers through the mane. “What a magnificent gift, Mórcass,” he said, voicing his gratitude to the dead merchant. “I will treat it with honor. Let the name be Sardaî.”

  He went to the stables behind the building to find Mórcass’ companion and express his sympathy. It had been a senseless death for the sake of an unnecessary gift.

  The stallion followed Caphalor as if it were the most natural thing to do, head high and red eyes watchful. None of the half-giants dared to stand in its way or to attempt to put on a halter.

  “Mind my night-mares, especially the new one,” he ordered as he passed two human slaves. “If anything happens to them the same thing shall be done to you.”

  Sardaî waited beside Caphalor’s mount while the älf entered the building to express his sympathy and assure Mórcass’ partner that he would continue to do business with their house.

  Longin was so terrified by the älf’s command that he started to sweat under his hood.

  How on earth was he to look after this red-eyed beast? If he approached and tried to put a halter on it he’d lose an arm, for sure. He had watched the death of his master from the doorway and did not wish for the same fate.

  Mórcass had not been a considerate owner: he’d had a foul temper, treated the slaves badly and would often fly off the handle. Longin did not regret his passing, but he hoped the mistress would keep him on—he would rather carry sacks of grain and push carts of corn round the place than be gathering in the harvest, cutting his hands to shreds on the dried, thorny stalks.

  “Kuschnar,” he called to one of the half-giants in the barn. “Come here.”

  The creature ambled over, avoiding the night-mare, and looked down at the man. As a human, Longin had the authority to give the half-giant simple orders and he was about to make use of that.

  “Watch the night-mares,” he said, pointing to the beasts.

  Kuschnar, still in his armor and gauntlets, lifted his visor and tapped the side of his head.

  “You can’t refuse you great lump, or I’ll tell the mistress! And Caphalor will cut you into little strips before he kills you.”

  The half-giant made a face and put his visor down. The newly created beast gave a low warning snort and snapped at the other night-mare, which just managed to avoid the teeth aiming for its neck.

  “Get on with it!” Longin shouted, kicking Kuschnar. “Separate them!” He was sweating even more now. This was going to be a disaster.

  Kuschnar moved carefully over to the night-mares. The old night-mare was tied up and could only protect itself with its hooves—its younger rival, on the other hand, was running free, dancing around then surging forward, snapping its teeth at the other.

  Kuschnar stopped dead; he did not dare to get any closer to the fighting animals.

  “No!” Longin clapped his hands to his mouth in despair as the younger night-mare lunged again, grabbing the back of the older night-mare’s neck and biting down hard, shaking and tearing like a wild cat. He shouted for the other half-giants, but they too kept well back: no one was following his orders. With a scream the older night-mare collapsed, its flailing hooves knocking over one of the half-giants. Desperately, Longin grabbed a bucket of water and hurled the contents over the beasts, but it didn’t have the slightest effect.

  More slaves hovered in the doorways, watching. The younger night-mare had bitten through the other’s neck and blood was bubbling out of a severed artery and onto the courtyard floor.

  The winning night-mare had not suffered the slightest injury. It stood over the corpse of its rival, sniffed the blood and put its tongue to the growing puddle. The stallion gave a snort and then drank the defeated creature’s life-juice.

  The door of the main building flew open and Caphalor stormed out. Longin nearly fainted with fear, he knew it would be useless to run, the älf would just take it out on his family. Caphalor slowed his steps and came to a halt in front of Longin.

  “Master, forgive me. I—” Longin stammered, throwing himself at Caphalor’s feet. “We couldn’t get them apart. We didn’t dare get near . . .”

  “Because you were afraid for your own worthless life,” the älf finished the sentence, his voice cold as the north wind.

  “Please, master! They were going berserk!”

  The älf did not look at him as he took out a long dagger. “I gave you the order to look after both. One of them is dead, do you remember what I said would happen?”

  “That I would suffer the same fate,” he whispered.

  “Exactly, but I’ve changed my mind.” The älf turned the dagger round. “A hundred of your kind are worth one night-mare. I hope you have a large family.”

  “Master!” Longin cried out in despair. “Take my life but let the others live!”

  “How would it be if I took their lives first and you had to watch?” the älf said angrily. “I’ll line them up, you tell me their names and then I’ll kill them—you can watch, just as I have had to watch my old night-mare die.” Longin did not see the movement, but he felt hot pain in his shoulder and blood poured out of the cut. He moaned. “Humans can take three hundred wounds like that before they die. Did you know that?” The älf laughed darkly. “You will see for yourself. I’ll start with your youngest child.”

  “No!” Longin’s helplessness turned into aggression and he tried to attack Caphalor, but before he’d even reached the älf, the dagger blade had flashed down and cut through his heart. He sank to the ground, dying.

  “You shall soon meet your family again, slave,” Longin heard the älf say in the far distance. Despair sent tears into his eyes at the thought of all his loved ones sharing his fate.

  Caphalor wiped the dagger on the man’s clothing. The punishment had been too mild, but he had not been in the mood to do more. At least the wretch had died with needless despair in his heart—Caphalor could not slaughter his family, these slaves were not his property. He owed Mórcass’ companion a replacement for this one death as it was. It was good that his slave-breeding scheme was flourishing: he would give her a better-quality worker than the one he had just struck down.

  He gazed at the butchered remains of the old night-mare with regret. The blood of the defeated animal still dripped from Sardaî’s mouth.

  Caphalor had believed the slaves’ terror, because he had witnessed the stallion’s display of strength himself, but it was still the case that the dead slave had not carried out the task he had been given, and he therefore deserved such punishment.

  “Take the saddle off, clean the bridle and reins and bring them to me,” he ordered one of the half-giants. “Send the cadaver to my estate.” He would be able to make something from the night-mare’s bones, he was sure, even if it were only a bone flute.

  The new night-mare bent his head again and continued to drink the blood of the dead beast. The älf observed the animal, fascinated. Sardaî’s recent transformation was obviously not causin
g the creature any problems.

  “I’m told you are Caphalor,” the voice came from behind him.

  Caphalor turned round. He had been lost in thought and had not heard the rider approach. He nodded in surprise.

  The mantle of the fully armored älf he now looked up at displayed the arms of the Inextinguishables. Bending down from the saddle, he handed Caphalor a sealed parchment.

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

  4370th division of unendingness (5198th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Sinthoras checked that his armor was sitting correctly, arranged his cloak, and brought his face closer to the reflective surface of the mirror to look for any flaws in his complexion. He was immaculate and sufficiently pale, and had rubbed a touch of soot on his eyelids to enhance the appearance of the eyes—yes, he was fit for his audience with the Sibling Rulers.

  He mentally ran through the points he wanted to put to the Inextinguishables. He would win their approval for his scheme as soon as they had given him the Honor-Blessing. They were sure to agree to his plans.

  He was not expecting them to promote him to supreme commander for the entire campaign, but they would certainly give him responsibility for one of the fronts. He wanted the east, where the enemy had little chance of digging themselves in: he could drive them back to the mountains and slaughter them on the slopes.

  Sinthoras stretched and smiled at his reflection, confident in the coming victory and his appearance: this was how he would confront his brothers in arms once he had been awarded the Honor—then they would learn what it was like to be snubbed. He would go down in älfar legends as one of the greatest military leaders. A sweet sense of conviction pervaded his mind.

  Eventually, after victory in battle, he would search for one of the craters that Inàste’s tears had hollowed out of the earth. There he would found his own city, and in honor of the Inextinguishables, he would call it Dsôn Inàste.

  Sinthoras was not one to leave his future to the vagaries of fate: eternal life was no use if you wasted it in indecision.

  He turned as he was approached by a blinded älf whose empty eye sockets absorbed the light; white symbols had been tattooed into the surrounding skin, emphasizing the darkness. He was wearing a wraparound garment of green and black material and had a dagger hanging at his side. The embroidery at the neckline announced he was one of the Inextinguishables’ privy counselors—one of the privileged älfar allowed into their immediate presence on a frequent basis. He had sacrificed his eyesight in order to protect his sanity—for to look too long on the countenances of Nagsor and Nagsar Inàste meant madness. Their appearance was too refined even for their own people to bear. Enhanced perfection. Essence of the divine.

  Even blinded, Sinthoras knew this älf would be a fearsome warrior. He could not say how old he was, or how many divisions of unendingness it had been since he had been blinded, but he had heard of älfar who were trained to wield their weapons in complete darkness, perhaps this älf was skilled in the same way.

  As if to prove the point, he approached Sinthoras as confidently and without hesitation.

  “Follow me,” said the älf, eschewing the need for greeting or politeness.

  With every step that Sinthoras took through the Tower of Bones his joy and anticipation increased: he was in the very center of their realm, about to meet the most important personages in the land!

  They crossed an empty hall with basalt walls and entered a tower that was at least forty paces in diameter. Five sets of interwoven stairs spiraled upward and various shades of green, gray, blue, and yellow light fell through stained glass windows, giving the place an unreal atmosphere. Birds fluttered above their heads; lost feathers floated down to the polished bone floor, changing color as they passed through the rays of colored light.

  The blind älf started upward and Sinthoras followed him, climbing steps made from the shields and bones of conquered enemies. The five flights of stairs interconnected on their relentless, twisting ascent until they merged into one broad staircase.

  Sinthoras looked down—the bright white of the polished floor shimmered in the distance far below them.

  “The Steps of Subjugation. One thousand paces from here to the ground,” said the älf, taking the final step.

  Sinthoras found he was breathing faster than usual, not from the physical exertion, but due to his growing sense of excitement.

  “Where are we going?” he finally dared to ask, after the älf guide had actually spoken to him. “Where will the Inextinguishables be receiving me?”

  Turning right along the gallery, the älf stopped at a set of tionium doors showing the star-shaped outline of the älfar realm in relief. Runes warned visitors to lower their eyes or risk being overwhelmed by the sight of the Sibling Rulers and made insane or blind.

  The älf guide waited by the door, gripping the handle firmly. “Ready?”

  “Yes.” Sinthoras lowered his gaze. It occurred to him that this was how Raleeha must have felt when she approached him. But not anymore—since he had punished her there was nothing for her to see, she only had her memories. He congratulated himself for making her suffer twice over.

  The entrance door swung open quietly. Deep red light issued forth, falling on the leather of his boots, the hue of which turned the light black. Sinthoras kept his eyes focused on the hem of the servant’s robe and followed him, occasionally glancing to either side.

  Artworks hung on the walls of the large hall, pictures that could never be reproduced; they had been created using woven hair from creatures now extinct. Sinthoras was so fascinated that he unconsciously slowed down to admire them, studying attractive abstract patterns full of a dramatic radiance, yet strangely somber in appearance. Had they been produced by the Inextinguishables themselves?

  He nearly collided with his guide, who had halted at the foot of a dais. “I bring you Sinthoras, whom you have summoned to your presence,” he announced, stepping four paces to the side.

  Sinthoras caught sight of slim-fitting pointed boots patterned in silver. At thigh level, he could see purple material decorated with gold leaf, strips of vraccasium, and diagonal inlays of tionium: clothes worth an emperor’s ransom indeed.

  The air was filled with incense and precious perfumes distilled from ingredients supplied by the bodies of vanquished enemies. When the älfar defeated a foe they always made a work of art out of the remains—whether that be a sculpture, relief or perfume. His people even possessed the secret of refining rotting intestines to produce a fragrant substance humans found irresistible.

  “So, here we have Sinthoras.” The high, clear voice belonged to an älf-woman. It held such purity, he immediately knew he would leap from the top of the Steps of Subjugation were she to demand it.

  He prostrated himself at the foot of the dais that bore the double throne. “I pledge my life to you, Nagsar Inàste and Nagsor Inàste,” he cried from the heart, feeling a surge of pride. He was alone in their presence, and so close to them.

  “May your life be eternal, for we are need of an älf such as you,” the male voice said. This sound, too, intoxicated him. He could hardly believe they were really speaking to him. What further grace could he be shown? What words to express how humble he felt before them?

  He heard two pairs of footsteps behind him. One was an älf guide—and who else? Jealousy flared up inside him.

  The footsteps came closer to the throne and a voice said, “I bring you Caphalor, whom you have summoned to attend.”

  A horrified No! was on his lips, ready to fly out in the form of a shriek, but at the last moment Sinthoras quelled the impulse.

  CHAPTER III

  Round the outside of the crater six deep cracks had formed, similar to the crown of the falling Star of Tears.

  There, too, our ancestors settled and they named the rays of the star Avaris, Wèlèron, Ocizùr, Riphâlgis, Shiimal, Kashagòn, and the heart they called Dsôn.

/>   The ancestors smoothed and straightened the sides of the cracks.

  United in the Star State, Dsôn Faïmon, our people grew stronger and from its very foundation the Star State has never been conquered.

  The defeated peoples became our vassals, servants or rightless serfs.

  Epocrypha of the Creating Spirit,

  1st Book,

  Chapter 1, 12–17

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

  Radial Arm Avaris,

  4370th division of unendingness (5198th solar cycle),

  summer.

  Raleeha felt for the beaker containing Kaila’s pain-killing potion. The wounds had healed over without infection, but the sockets still throbbed, burned, and itched horribly. Even so, it was a miracle how quickly she had recovered from the devastating injuries. If she had relied on the medicines known to her own kind she might have died.

  But if you had stayed with your own kind you would never have had your eyes put out, said a small rebellious voice in Raleeha’s head. With your own kind you would not have been a slave, but a princess.

  Now and then this voice spoke up and there was nothing Raleeha could do about it. Today she did not resent it at all.

  She found the beaker and lifted it to her lips, emptying it in one draft. She was in the servants’ hall next to the kitchens and could smell the food. Apart from Kaila and her, there were ten human slaves in the house, and they were currently teaching four young älfar how to serve: it was a valuable training opportunity for the youths. There were always new ones arriving, and as such Raleeha had never bothered to learn their names, choosing to address them all as “young sir.”

 
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