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Righteous fury, p.9
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       Righteous Fury, p.9

           Markus Heitz
 

  “Well then,” he said to his nervous night-mare. The animal fixed its bloodred eyes on the palisade, its ears twitched. “Let’s see if we can do business with them.” He pressed his heels lightly against the stallion’s flanks and moved swiftly off.

  Sinthoras was supremely confident. Everything so far had gone according to plan, and he had left the rather naïve Caphalor waiting in Dsôn, so he had a head start. This way he could reach the mist-demon well before his arrogant rival and he could conduct negotiations on his own account. Then the campaign against the elves could be launched.

  He had been prepared for almost anything to be asked of him, but not for the Inextinguishable Ones to express a desire to attack Tark Draan, not at this point: the opportunity had to be seized.

  There had been plenty of attempts in the past to get round the dwarves’ mountain barrier, but his people had always fallen foul of the rocks, with the mountain ridges claiming many deaths. The gods wanted to protect the mine maggots. Wherever the älfar tried constructing tunnels they collapsed, were filled up with molten rock or got flooded, or else their slaves and machines would be swept away in storms. The only option they were left with was tackling the Stone Gateway.

  The land on the other side was another matter. Sinthoras had often captured and questioned merchants from Tark Draan. They were an effeminate people—the sort that would appeal to the elves who sat around all day playing on their harps, besotted with trees. Sinthoras had never been able to understand how these qualities led them to be admired all the more. They should be an easy people to conquer.

  In his mind’s eye he saw the new territories in Tark Draan his people would win; he saw the elf kingdoms vanquished and harps made out of the bones of their dead, their hair used for the strings.

  “Cowards,” he exclaimed in disgust. The elves had crawled under the skirts of those dwarf mine maggots—simple folk and arrogant wizards—because they were so terrified of his people. Soon, though, they would be eliminated.

  At his ease, Sinthoras rode up to the colorful obstruction.

  He had observed that some of the small trap doors were slightly ajar. He could hear shrill giggles: the fflecx were probably looking forward to seeing him ride through the main gate.

  The entrance creaked open invitingly. Behind it was a straight road leading deeper into their kingdom. None of the gnomoids were visible, but he could hear them whispering together behind the fence. He found their squeaky voices contemptible.

  Sinthoras brought his night-mare to a halt.

  “Hear this,” he called out in the language of the fflecx, “namely, that I say neither friend nor foe. And I’m not walking in, I’m riding.” That should have got round their trick. He urged the stallion on.

  The beast’s hooves hit the earth with loud thuds, lightning flashes issuing where it trod. The night-mare snorted aggressively at the invisible danger. Step by step, they approached the opening until Sinthoras was level with the gate hinges and the stallion crossed the threshold.

  There were still no fflecx to be seen; the gate was open wide and hid them from view.

  “Halt!” came the command from the invisible guard.

  Sinthoras reined in his night-mare. “Yes?”

  “You did say friend and foe, after all.” This sharp retort came from behind the gate on the right.

  “And you may be riding, but your night-mare is walking in by the gate,” this from an unseen know-it-all on the left.

  “What do you want, black-eyes? It’s been moonflights since we’ve seen one of your kind here,” someone higher up the fence wanted to know.

  “I want to ride through your kingdom and see what jokes I can collect from you,” he responded. “The fflecx are famous for their jokes.”

  “Are you a writer?” one of them screeched.

  “A liar, more like,” yelled another over the laughter of his comrades. “You are a warrior, black-eyes, you won’t be carrying that spear round with you just to toast your supper over the fire. You won’t be boiling yourself up a fine little soup in that poncey armor of yours, and then slurping your broth out of your fancy helmet.”

  Sinthoras heard a few metallic clicks and the gates started to swing closed, narrowly missing his night-mare’s tail as they slammed shut.

  Midget fflecx were grinning at him all round the parapet walk. If he were standing, they wouldn’t reach higher than his kneecap. They wore bright-colored leather armor, and their helmets had holes for their long, pointed ears to stick out. Their skin was black and covered in warts, making a contrast to the smooth armor. Their cunning eyes were set far forward on their ugly faces, which were slightly more refined than an óarco’s; they were whistling and grinning at him, showing stumpy teeth.

  “We respect your clever attempt to get round our motto,” one of them called out, crossing his thin arms proudly over his chest. He carried a metal blowpipe at his belt, as did most of the others. A leather strap over his chest secured the darts that went with the blowpipe; the arrow tips were treated with poison and protected with glass caps to stop them drying out. “So we’re not going to kill you.” The yelling became unbearably loud. He raised his arm for silence. “But perhaps our wuzack will do it for us.” An animal roar could be heard in the distance. The fflecx scuttled up to the top parapet walk. “Wuzack! Wuzack!” he began to chant, and his companions all joined in.

  Sinthoras cursed inwardly—here was proof enough of how little these gnomoids were to be trusted. Unfortunately, the only road to his destination ran through their territory. He held tight to his spear and watched the woods on either side of the path.

  Something massive was approaching. The trees shook as it came, sending their leaves fluttering to the ground.

  A creature two paces tall and twice as broad as Sinthoras burst through the trees. In its right hand it held a thick branch, which it thrashed around. It looked like a huge naked fflecx and its claws and teeth dripped with a bright yellow substance.

  “A wuzack,” one of the fflecx called out, “is our king’s invention. You are honored to be able to measure your strength against it. Its claws and teeth are poisoned; that should work on a black-eye like you.” This announcement was greeted with more raucous laughter from the throng.

  Sinthoras did not doubt that he would emerge the victor. He swore silently that he would kill each and every one of these fflecx afterward. He would have to do it quickly, however, if he were not to waste too much time. Caphalor would be pushing his night-mare to make up ground and get to the mist-demon ahead of him.

  The wuzack ran at Sinthoras, swinging the improvised club wildly at his night-mare’s neck.

  Sinthoras pulled the stallion out of harm’s way, stabbing at the monster as he did so.

  The wuzack avoided the blow and its fist connected with Sinthoras’ spear, jarring his arm and nearly dislodging it from his grip. Using the impetus from the clash he rolled backward off his night-mare and sprang to the ground, commanding the stallion to kick out at the wuzack.

  The wuzack again swerved out of the way of the bucking night-mare and aimed a mighty swipe at its front legs with the branch.

  Screaming with pain, the stallion reared up and snapped at the wuzack, sinking its teeth into the bony shoulder, crushing the joint.

  The distraction won Sinthoras time to attack again and he lunged upward, both hands on the spear shaft: it pierced the creature’s throat. The wuzack gurgled horribly and hit out once more.

  Sinthoras launched himself into the air, activating the mechanism that split his weapon in two. The front end stayed in the creature’s neck while the second section revealed a sharp, elongated blade. As Sinthoras came back down, he rammed it into the creature’s eye so powerfully that the tip went straight through the skull and came out the other side.

  The wuzack stood for a moment, then swayed and collapsed to one side on top of the injured night-mare.

  When Sinthoras saw his wounded mount, hatred began to course through him. His trick had work
ed, but he would never have wished for the loyal and valuable animal to have such an end. Having pulled the two spear halves out of the wuzack, he turned slowly round to face the fflecx, his weapons dripping with the wuzack’s life-juice. “I have passed the test,” he whispered darkly. “Who will compensate me for my night-mare?”

  The fflecx who had been speaking to him from the high walkway gave a contemptuous retort. “You should compensate us for the loss of the wuzack: the king trained it himself.” Taking his blowpipe from his belt, he casually selected one of the long feathered darts. “The king will decide the compensation you owe.” With that he inserted the dart into the pipe.

  Sinthoras hurled a spear at the smug gnomoid; his blade pierced its ribcage, and the fflecx tipped forward with a screech, plunging from the walkway, forcing the spear completely through his torso as his body landed.

  “Now take me to your ki—”

  He was not able to finish the sentence. Tiny darts whizzed through the air from all sides. Most broke on his armor, but others sought out its narrow gaps and hit where he wore no protection.

  Suddenly, he was very hot and his fingers and toes burned. His legs went numb and he staggered, losing his sense of balance. The world around him grew bright, the colors on the fflecx helmets and fences so strident now that it burned his eyes, and the single daystar had become ten dozen burning spheres falling, laughing, from the sky to dance around him.

  Sinthoras tried to catch one of them. He picked up a blue one but it exploded in his hand, throwing him into the air.

  Sinthoras flew and flew and flew . . .

  Ishím Voróo (The Outer Lands), Lar Too (No man’s land) near the frontier to the kingdom of the fflecx,

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

  summer.

  Caphalor and Raleeha made camp for the night in a ravine, under an overhanging rock.

  Caphalor studied the map and looked up at the path lying before them. In the distance, he could see the brightly colored fence that marked the fflecx frontier. He had also found hoofprints from Sinthoras’ night-mare on the path. They had been fresh; he could only be half a day away, if that.

  Raleeha was sitting by the fire that he’d made earlier. He’d hidden it in a niche in the rock so that the firelight would not betray them; in Lar Too, beasts were attracted by fire and Caphalor was largely relying on his instincts, his night-mare and his skill with weapons.

  The girl was having trouble drinking the water he’d provided. He’d poured it in a hollow in a stone—her slave lips would not touch his drinking pouch—but he had not loosened the throttling slave collar at her throat. He considered for a moment, he knew that it was important she kept up her strength if he wanted her to be useful.

  He stood up, went over and undid all three buckles, then threw down some rations. “Eat that,” he ordered.

  He sat down opposite Raleeha and waited until she had stilled her hunger. She did not resemble any of the unsophisticated barbarian women who worked his fields. Her hands were elegant and soft and her complexion as white as marble. He concluded she must be from a high social position in the Lotor family. Even now, with her robe torn and her hair untidy, she kept her upright posture.

  “What can you tell me about your master?” he asked her. It was the first full sentence he had spoken to her since they had left the river.

  The girl inclined her head. “I do not understand your question, noble lord.”

  “What does he like and what doesn’t he like? I want to learn more about him.”

  She hesitated. “Are you pursuing him for some crime, noble lord?”

  Caphalor shook his head, realizing too late that she would not be able to see that. “No,” he said. It occurred to him to scold her for her uncalled-for question, but he thought better of it, it might be wiser to appear friendly; that way he would learn more. Anyway, she was not his property. “We were to travel together but he left without waiting for me. I’m trying to find out why he might have done such a thing.” He knew only too well why Sinthoras had gone ahead, but he did not want to tell her everything.

  “I cannot tell you that, noble lord, for he does not take me into his confidence. Only when it is a question of painting, only then do I—” She broke off. “That is, I used to be allowed . . . until recently. Until the matter of the yellow.”

  “Yellow? You mean pirogand yellow?”

  “Yes,” she said, surprised.

  “Then it is down to you that I was not able to bring my daughter a living baro—your master killed it for the yellow!”

  Raleeha started to tremble. “Forgive me, noble lord,” she whispered. “My negligence has caused distress on many counts.” She shifted away from him.

  Caphalor had stretched out his hand for a leather strap to chastise her with. He restrained himself again. “Samusin has a strange way of ensuring justice: I save a slave’s life, and then learn she deserves death at my hands. You now carry a double debt of obligation to me,” he said, barely restraining the anger in his voice. “Tell me about yourself: what is your importance to the Lotor family?”

  “I am Farron Lotor’s sister,” she said reluctantly.

  Caphalor drank some water. “So the beauty of an älf robbed you of your senses and made you give up your fine life as a princess.”

  “It was not such a fine life, noble lord,” she answered. “I cannot tell you the reason I came under his spell: his appearance, the painting I saw him do, the realization that I was in the wrong place, the urge to be an artist myself, these all might have had something to do with it.” She spoke with sudden fervor. “Whatever the reason was—I do not mind. I am happy with what I do, noble lord.”

  The älf raised his eyebrows. She could never be an artist, not measured against älfar standards, and only a human girl could be stupid enough to leave everything she had known to try. But he was not going to let her feel his surprise and the contempt it implied—he must find out more about his rival. “Who did Sinthoras meet with?”

  “I don’t understand—”

  “His friends in Dsôn,” he interrupted roughly. This was all taking far too long, he had never had to talk to any barbarian in this way to get the information he needed. “Did he ever mention names? Did you ever overhear conversations?”

  “No.”

  “I can tell when I am being lied to, and I punish it with death as a rule. Do you want to die before we find your master?” he whispered coldly. Caphalor concentrated on his innate power. One of the älfar talents was their ability to heighten fear and now he could feel this power pulling inside him. He felt a sudden heat as it shot up his spine, sending out black streams of dread that spread like ink in a glass of water. They rolled forward languidly and soon reached Raleeha, entering her mouth and her ears, creeping in under her blindfold and seeping in through the pores of her skin, causing gooseflesh and making her shiver.

  “Fear can kill, slave,” he whispered ominously. “Fear obeys my will.” He increased the power feeding the fear and she moaned, pressing her hand to her heart in pain. “Who are his friends?”

  Names Caphalor knew well came tumbling out of Raleeha’s mouth. It was good to know who was not on his side. “Describe your master to me,” he demanded. “Tell me his strengths, his weaknesses.” He withdrew the fear a little to encourage her.

  She curled up, shivering with fright. “He is a good warrior and fights better with the spear than . . .” This was followed by praise of Sinthoras’ fighting prowess. Caphalor did not interrupt the flow, but let his own thoughts range.

  He wasn’t fooled; Raleeha might well be able to hold information back, even though she was frightened to death. She would die for her master, right now if need be—anything other than betray him.

  In spite of himself he registered respect for her steadfast nature. This had nothing to do with the obedience of a slave, it was to do with that deeper feeling that he and Enoïla shared: love—as simple as it was indestructible.

  It
surprised him to learn that humans were capable of it, particularly when it was an impossible love that would never be reciprocated. Caphalor could not think of a single älf who had ever had a dalliance with a human, and Sinthoras would be the very last one to contemplate touching a barbarian woman—except to punish her. Now he was curious. He interrupted her. “What do you think of Dsôn Faïmon? What do the barbarians say about us?” Caphalor removed the fear from her mind.

  She stopped to think, breathed deeply and took her hand away from her chest. “My opinion of Dsôn Faïmon will be worth little. For me there could be no more beautiful or more fascinating place, noble lord. There are so many things that are unique to the älfar that would be impossible to achieve elsewhere if we applied human standards to it.” She felt around for her rucksack, and finding it, took out a folder and notebook. “Here, I made lots of drawings before I lost my sight. Perhaps you would like to look at them, noble lord?” She passed him the folder.

  Caphalor took the notebook from her. The slave girl had recorded her observations in charcoal and ink within its pages. The pictures were impressive: not as perfect as älfar sketches would have been, but perhaps noteworthy and far from primitive. “If you are a spy, these pictures would be invaluable for our enemies,” he said quietly. “I would have to burn them.”

  Raleeha shot her hand out protectively, but then stopped. “If you must, noble lord. They are of no further use to me. I would never forgive myself if I were doing your enemies a favor.”

  Caphalor was about to cast the first of the pages into the flames—but found himself unable to complete the action. Instead he stowed the sketchbook in his saddlebags. “I’ll keep them. I may need them.”

  She nodded in his direction, her expression reflecting her gratitude. “Noble lord, how old are you?”

  Caphalor laughed out loud. “Remember your station, slave. It is not your place to ask questions.”

  “Forgive me, I . . . I find it fascinating how old some creatures can be without it being apparent,” she explained. “Your voice, if I may say so, is melodious. I would have liked to see the features of the one who saved my life.” He noted her sincere regret in the tone of her voice.

 
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