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Devastating Hate, Page 2

Markus Heitz

  The nostàroi, like two gods come down in grace to their worshippers, received the adoration and acclaim of the crowds.

  Finally Sinthoras raised his arm and the assembled throng fell silent. “The first victory is with us. In the coming moments of unendingness we shall flush out the groundling tunnels to ensure nothing and nobody can attack us from behind. Find their treasure hoards, take what you can from their storehouses and send it all as tribute to Dsôn Faïmon. Caphalor and I will now decide our strategy for delivering the final blow—the exterminating blow—to Tark Draan.”

  Caphalor now spoke. “But this evening you shall celebrate what we have achieved so far. Take your ease, drink with your comrades and companions, and then”—he drew his sword and pointed toward the south where the dark clouds glowered—“let us stamp out this elf brood!”

  The nostàroi withdrew, mounted up and disappeared over the edge of the plateau, while the älfar and their allies tirelessly called out their leaders’ names to ear-splitting applause.

  Carmondai had never in all his long life experienced such deep admiration for anyone. It struck him that with commanders such as these the army would be victorious in any campaign, however taxing the fight.

  In response to whistles, fanfares and shouted orders, the assembled troops dispersed: älfar in a disciplined fashion, barbarians in a less orderly manner, orcs and miscellaneous creatures in shambling disarray.

  Carmondai stayed where he was, taking in the scene. Tark Draan has nothing to compete with our army. In less than a third of a division of unendingness we shall have achieved our goal.

  He sauntered off, watching the river of soldiery streaming into the groundlings’ former stronghold. Having left his luggage with one of the gate guards so that he could arrive in good time, he was dressed in light traveling attire and as a result, felt vulnerable and out of place: he looked far too peaceable.

  Carmondai reached the top of the plateau and looked out over the camp. Tents were set up across the mountainside, strictly segregating the various warring races from one another. Many unresolved enmities left the allied factions prone to disagreements, and the nostàroi were keen to keep this to a minimum. Each individual commander was responsible for internal discipline within his camp. Much of this enmity was down to the intensely motivating effect of greed, which Carmondai was fascinated by. That’s where the differences lie: the lower orders will die for the sake of gems and riches, while the higher beings kill for their ideals.

  He stood watching the óarco horde as they shoved and pushed and punched each other. No surprise that these green-and-black-skinned beasts with their decorated tusks and their stinking fat-coated armor tended to try to bump each other off at the slightest annoyance.

  “Ye gods of infamy, would you look at that scum,” he murmured. “They are a disgrace.”

  “But we’ll be leaving them here, of course,” said an älf-woman at his side. She had come up close on her night-mare, unheard over the whistling wind. “That way we will be permanently free of them in Ishím Voróo.” She smiled at him. “You must be Carmondai?”

  He took half a step back to see her better. Her armor told him she belonged to the nostàrois’ personal guard. The symbols on the tionium-reinforced leather cuirass showed her to have killed over one thousand enemies, and proclaimed her as the unpartnered daughter of two great warriors.

  She looks so young. Carmondai was usually quite good at guessing the age of other älfar, but her face was hidden by a half visor. Fifty? Sixty? But how could she have killed so many in that short time? “Yes, that’s me.” He looked at her inquisitively and received a slight nod in return.

  “Then I have an invitation for you. The nostàroi have heard that you are with the troops here and they want you to be present at supper. You are to record the event in word and picture so that the Inextinguishables may receive a report drawn up by an inestimable talent.”

  Carmondai felt hot and cold shivers run up his spine. At first he was flattered, but then his old resentment reared up: he hated taking orders. It was not only that he considered himself an artist of high repute. If it had been his own idea to take notes and to sketch the occasion he would have considered it an honor to be allowed to do so. But like this . . .

  “What’s wrong?” The älf-woman was astonished at his hesitation. “Tell me what you have planned that’s more important and I’ll kill whoever it is you are meeting, then you’ll have no difficulty deciding.”

  Her remarks amused him. “Why don’t they find an ordinary scribe?”

  She leaned forward, crossing her wrists on the pommel of her saddle. “Let me put it this way, O Master of Word and Image: an invitation from the nostàroi is not something you can decline.” Her words were spoken carefully, but were as cold as the breath of night. “If you fail to accompany me willingly I shall find other ways to take you to the nostàroi, and believe me”—she said, sitting upright again but keeping her voice low—“I am perfectly capable of that.”

  “Oh, you are?” replied Carmondai with a dangerous smile that did not quite match his harmless appearance. There was an icy silence, but after a short while his curiosity got the better of him and he sighed, relenting. After all, the woman was attractive. Warrior-women were not normally his type but this one had a certain something. “Do I get to know your name?”

  “Morana, my mother called me.” She held out her hand. “Will you ride with me or do you want to walk? My night-mare is good natured. He doesn’t usually bite.”

  His arm stretched out toward her as if of its own accord, then his hand clasped hers and he swung himself up behind her. She wore an unfamiliar perfume that came through over the metallic leather smell of her battledress and he could see strands of black hair escaping from under her helmet. “Take me to the nostàroi. I shall thank them in my own words for their invitation.”

  With a laugh, Morana urged her mount in a ruthless line through the horde of óarcos, who protested vociferously, dodging the night-mare’s snapping teeth. Lightning flashes played around the stallion’s fetlocks, sparks scorching the ground and an occasional óarco leg.

  Morana headed for a smaller gateway guarded by two impressively armed warriors that was free of gathering crowds. It must only be available for älfar use.

  These gatekeepers saluted briefly and let them pass.

  Morana slowed her night-mare as they moved through the passage; the walls threw the sound of its hooves back to them.

  Carmondai looked around and smiled at the groundlings’ crude art. Their wall sculptures demonstrated an intention to create something beautiful, but their clumsy dwarf hands were never suited to delicate work.

  “When did you arrive?” Morana asked.

  “Today: I couldn’t get away from Riphâlgis any earlier. I admit that I’m furious to have missed the storming of the stronghold, but I did get to hear the speeches. And now I’m to be the guest of the nostàroi.”

  “You would have loved it. It was the best battle even I have ever seen!” Morana guided her night-mare through the right-hand opening. Their heads nearly touched the vaulted ceiling.

  Carmondai noted the chiseled runes but could not read them. As primitive as all the rest of it. “I know,” he sighed. “I had no end of trouble with my night-mare and then of course it decided to depart into endingness just as I was on my way here.”

  Her stallion snorted and they came to a cross-tunnel where they had to wait; a group of älfar in leather aprons were carting dwarf cadavers away. When they saw the riders they moved back to let them pass.

  I want to see what they’re doing. “Wait for me.” He slid down and moved over to the workers.

  With a mixture of disgust and fascination, he looked at the gross, pale bodies of their enemies closely. He saw that each had been stabbed neatly through the heart. They had not fallen in battle. They’ve not got the slightest bit of refinement about them. It’s as if their god was just experimenting: getting his hand in before creating something to be
proud of. A second cart carried barrels of sloshing liquid; a smell of stone and metal indicated it was dwarf blood.

  He greeted the älfar and took out his notebook. “What are you doing with this?”

  “We are preparing them according to instructions.” One of the älfar answered, looking puzzled. “Have you been sent by the nostàroi to supervise?”

  “This is Carmondai, master of word and image,” Morana said. “He is sending a report to Dsôn Faïmon about what’s happening here in the Gray Mountains.”

  “Carmondai?” A gray-haired älf bowed his head. “I am an admirer of your art. I never thought I would have the honor of meeting you. My name is Durùston.”

  Durùston! Carmondai knew the name. He was a sculptor from Dsôn and well known for his stela carved from metal-clad bone and preserved intestines. Anyone who was anyone would have one of these commemorative slabs displayed in his home. “Greetings. You are indeed known to me.” He indicated the piles of corpses. “Will you be using these in your next works?”

  Durùston smiled. “Parts of them. I asked the nostàroi for permission to use any groundling remains that weren’t needed for another purpose.” He pointed down the corridor. “I’ve set up a workshop in an old forge. My slaves and my apprentices are processing the cadavers: bones and tendons for sculptures, blood and skin for inks and pigments, hair and beards for paintbrushes. But really their beard hair is too coarse for delicate work—we have to boil it in vinegar to soften it—and then there’s the transport through Ishím Voróo. I’m not sure it’s really worth it . . . it might even be better to sell it for scrubbing-brushes.”

  “A tradesman now?” Carmondai asked, with a laugh.

  Durùston looked embarrassed. “I sometimes do think of the times to come when my name might no longer be so well known.” He turned to go. “You are most welcome to come to my workshop if you’d like to do some sketches. The dwarf anatomy is quite instructive; it might be useful knowledge for future battles.”

  “Future battles?” Carmondai exchanged glances with Morana. “I thought we’d defeated them all.”

  “No. Not yet,” Durùston answered. “A few stubborn bastions remain, deep in the Gray Mountains. The main victory is ours, of course, but groundlings are tough. We’ll have dwarves to deal with for quite some time, mark my words.” He gave the signal to move on. “You are welcome any time,” he said again, as he followed behind the cart.

  “Thank you,” Carmondai called after him, then he stowed his notebook once more and went back to the night-mare, allowing Morana to help him up. “What did he mean, do you think?” he asked.

  They moved off. “Just what he said: there are still some isolated pockets of groundling families—they are quite stubborn, but they won’t hold out for long.” Her words sounded confident, arrogant, almost—as if the matter were of no consequence. Of course, it wasn’t for their armies.

  They rode in silence through the underground realm that had so recently fallen into älfar hands. Spattered bloodstains lined the walls: dark-red reminders of the original occupants of these mountain tunnels. Durùston must have removed all the bodies.

  After some time they arrived in an area where the dwarf runes carved on the walls had been smashed with hammers, and älfar banners and flags, prominently displaying the insignia of the nostàroi, hung from the high vaulted ceilings: to be forgotten was the fate of those defeated in war.

  Carmondai looked at the ceiling. Even if he was not necessarily anxious at the thought of a mountain’s worth of solid stone above his head, he was not exactly at ease. Back in Riphâlgis, his own house gave unrestricted views over a wide valley and he loved the open vistas. Here he felt constrained, as if buried alive. The sooner I get out of here, the better.

  “That’s where we are heading,” said Morana, pointing to a massive gate made of gold—its carved decorations had also been destroyed: hammered flat or levered off, and now four älfar guards flanked the gateway. “It used to be one of their throne rooms, I think, but the nostàroi live there now.” A young älf hurried up and led their stallion off. The guards at the entrance stood aside to let them through.

  Carmondai’s heart started to race. He was not properly dressed to meet the nostàroi and there was no time to go and change. But on the other hand, he did not want to give them the impression that he cared about his apparel—an artist did not have to feel in any way inferior to a warrior. And I want them to know I have come because I wish to be here, and not because they have summoned me.

  When he walked into the vast hall, he could see tall five-sided columns rising up into the darkness and five älfar in the middle of the room, sitting at a stone table laid for a banquet.

  It was clear that Sinthoras and Caphalor, side by side at the head of the table, held equal status as joint commanders. Carmondai did not recognize the other three, but that was no surprise: he had long given up a warrior’s life for the sake of art, so he had no idea who was currently in favor. They look impressive, nearly as fine as the nostàroi themselves.

  As an artist he had learned to focus on tiny distinctive details when observing people or objects closely. He grasped immediately that this was an unusual gathering.

  The armor worn by the brown-haired älf on his right, for example, was of incomparable quality. It was thicker than was usual, but did not look like it would restrict the wearer’s movements, though the decorative sharpened rivets on the breastplate and over the shoulder and back area would probably mean he wouldn’t be able to lean back very comfortably. Two long swords rested on his thighs.

  Opposite him sat a pale-faced warrior who had eschewed armor altogether. His wide silk robes were multi-layered and flattering in shades of red, green and black and he wore delicate gloves that had false silver nails at the fingertips. His dark hair was held in check by a broad black band embroidered with white symbols. Another älf stood behind him bearing a thin, steel bow three paces in length, and carrying a quiver of arrows at his belt.

  “Noble lords Nostàroi!” Morana bowed toward them and Carmondai felt he should follow suit. He dropped his gaze, although this meant losing sight of the assembled company. “I bring you Carmondai, the master of word and image,” Morana announced.

  “My dear Carmondai, we have been so looking forward to having you here,” said Sinthoras, his welcome delivered in a slightly patronizing tone. “You are just in time.”

  Carmondai raised his head and regarded the blond nostàroi who, like Caphalor, was dressed in ceremonial armor. “Forgive me if my delight is not entirely boundless. I was given the impression that I was to serve as some sort of scribbling secretary, not as a master of the written word,” he countered. “You could have got any schoolboy to do the task.” He pulled himself up to his full height, heart thumping wildly at his own audacity.

  Caphalor looked mildly amused. He folded his arms. “There you are. I warned you he would take umbrage.” The other älfar at the table laughed, but not in a condescending manner. “I should have put money on his reaction.”

  Sinthoras did not seem to take offense at Caphalor’s critical words. He gestured toward one of the free set places. “Please take a seat and forgive me if our request for your presence has upset you in any way. We are, of course, well acquainted with your artistic reputation. We felt you were the only älf up to the task.”

  Carmondai moved over to a high-backed dining chair. As soon as he was seated, he was served dark red wine in a crystal cup. He was still not able to quell his nervous apprehension. What task will they ask me to perform?

  “May I introduce the others?” Sinthoras asked.

  Carmondai inclined his head slightly as platters and cutlery were brought in and set before the guests. To his surprise, Caphalor gestured to Morana to join them at table. She had already removed her helmet and cloak and handed them to a slave. If he was interpreting her expression correctly, she had not been expecting this either.

  “I will tell you now: you are in the very best company.” Ind
icating the älf in the flowing robes, Sinthoras continued, “May I present Arviû, our army’s finest bowman? He commands the long-range archers. Opposite him is Virssagòn, warrior and master at inventing weaponry and devising new ways for the army to use them.”

  The name Virssagòn was familiar, but he had never come across the name of Arviû before. He bowed to both. “An honor to meet you.”

  “At your side we have Horgàta, the deadliest female warrior ever to confront the enemy here in Tark Draan,” said Sinthoras.

  Carmondai turned to look at her more closely. Her features were perfect, symmetrical and stunningly attractive. Her armor was similar to that worn by Morana but with more in the way of decoration. Surprisingly she bore no weapons and her long blond hair was intricately braided with jewels and carved bone ornaments.

  “And Morana here is the second-in-command of our personal guard detachment,” Caphalor rounded off the introductions. “Like yourself, she does not know why she has been asked to join us tonight.” Everyone, apart from Morana and Carmondai, laughed in response.

  Carmondai laid his folder on the table, his posture clearly indicating that he would not be writing or drawing anything until he had heard an adequate explanation as to why he had been summoned. “Most noble Nostàroi, I had been intending to express my displeasure at the manner of my invitation here in no uncertain terms, but I admit you have roused my curiosity. And if the food is any good I may find myself forgiving you both.” Ha! That surprised them. His heart rate, however, had doubled, and his mouth had gone dry.

  Sinthoras’s countenance darkened and a single jagged anger line shot from the bridge of his nose down to his chin, as if to slice his face in two.

  The room fell deathly silent and even the servants froze. For three, four, five blinks of an eye nobody moved, nobody spoke.