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WolfSinger Publications

Don't Write What You Know;

Write What You Care About -- Passionately!

High Rage
- James K Burk

​Scarface,  on his way back to a clan stronghold after assassinating a legate,  meets and falls in love with a woman even more ruthless than he. To win  her, he must reunite an empire and create a kingdom.  His only allies  are his wits, his sword, and the power in his scars -- black marks like  the taloned finger prints of a demon.

To achieve his goals, he must deal with old enemies, gods of dubious  worth, and his own family -- who may be the most dangerous of all.


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Chapter 1

Staying  in the deepest shadows, Scarface crept to the wall and along its outer  base until he stood midway between two of the guard towers he’d observed  earlier. The stone wall, with its ill-fitting blocks, gave purchase to  gloved hands and booted feet. He considered using a spell of concealment  but not being able to see his own hands and feet would make the climb  more difficult. And if he fell from that imposing wall, being seen would  be the least of his difficulties. Pausing, he made sure the scabbard  across his back was well secured so the sword wouldn’t snarl his legs or  clatter against the rock.

He  gripped the stone wall nearly as high as he could reach, and his toes  found crevices. The wall was more treacherous than he’d expected. The  stone was soft, its edges rounded by weathering. Alert to any sounds, he  began to climb.

Looking  neither up nor down, he could only guess at how high he’d climbed by  the ache in his shoulders, arms, and calves. Time became measured by  breaths. The sound of his climbing seemed loud in his ears but he heard  nothing to warn him he’d been detected. As he reached for the next  handhold, rock crumbled under his foot. An icy hand clutched at his  heart and guts and he clung to the wall in a panic.

Trembling with exertion and fear, he forced himself to breathe slowly.

When  he could trust his body, he reached upward and resumed his climb. To  Scarface, the sound of his clothing rubbing against the stone was as  loud as a crowded tavern and he stopped once more to listen. He could,  at the edge of hearing, distinguish a guard muttering but the voice came  no nearer or louder.

He  reached the top, his right hand finding a solid grip, then drew up his  right leg. Staying low on the top of the wall to avoid being silhouetted  against the night sky, he slithered across it like a lizard and lowered  himself to the wooden walkway between the guards’ posts.

Once  on the walkway, he crawled across it to keep the wood from creaking,  found a support, and lowered himself down the sloping timber. The worst  moment came when he hung over the edge of the walkway, his feet dangling  at least ten long strides above the courtyard. Finally he managed to  wrap his legs around a support and let himself down until he reached the  stone wall.

The  inner wall was even more difficult than the outer because his feet had  to grope for footholds and his arms and legs again trembled with  fatigue, and because there was always the risk that a servant might look  outside the residence and see him on the wall.

At  last he sank gratefully into the grass and scanned the courtyard. With  all the blazing torches, there were still pools of shadow. When he was  ready to move he slunk between the deeper patches of darkness till he  was only a few paces from the gravel trail that described a circle in  front of the large doors of the residence.

He  moved into position and daubed more clay onto his cheeks and forehead  to hide his scars then unslung the scabbard from across his back and  thrust it into his belt, where it was readier to hand but would still be  clear of his legs when he had to run.

Carefully,  he examined the courtyard and the walls, trying to anticipate sources  of danger. His only escape route was also the greatest trap, the open  gate beyond which a single halberdier paced, his weapon over his  shoulder.

After  removing his gloves and making sure they were tightly secured in his  belt he wiped his hands on his sleeves and glanced up at the moon,  trying to guess the hour from its position. Every delay now was an added  danger. The Ghiblin princeling he’d left in the alley might waken or be  found. Even worse, the Abransans might let their dogs into the  courtyard, forcing him to flee, his task unfinished, his carefully laid  plan a disaster. Again he wiped the sweat from his palms and licked his  lips with a tongue as dry as a stick.

He  thought he heard the clatter of hooves and the rattle of wheels on  paving stones and he waited, almost holding his breath, until he was  certain of the sound. It came nearer and he coiled into a crouch, drew  his knife, and gathered his muscles for the rush. The carriage slowed as  it entered the gate and turned onto the circular track of gravel.  Ignoring the guard on the rear platform, Scarface sprang at the door,  tore it open, and lunged inside, then cursed in Sinn.

He’d  expected only the Abransan noble but another man sat beside him. The  man shouted in Abarsa and his right hand reached for his dagger while he  flung up his left hand to block Scarface’s thrust.

As  the man raised his hand into the light Scarface caught a glimpse of a  heavy green ring on his hand but didn’t hesitate to strike the hand  aside and plunge his poniard into the man’s chest, feeling resistance as  the narrow blade spread the links of a mail shirt. He twisted the blade  and wrenched it free then drove deeper into the coach toward the  Abaransan noble, who cowered in the dark corner, almost paralyzed with  fear.

“Die,  you damned Abransan land-bandit!” Scarface roared in Ghiblin, and drove  the point of the poniard under the man’s chin and back into the base of  the brain.

The  brake shoe squealed against the wheel and Scarface seized the doorframe  to keep from falling. Hearing the guard drop to the gravel, Scarface  sprang outside, tossed the dagger to his left hand, whipped out his  sword, and parried a slash at his head. Steel rang then rasped as  Scarface slid his blade up to slash the guard over the eyes.

The  man screamed and fell back and Scarface leapt at him like a tiger, his  sword tearing through the man’s collet and sinking deeply into his neck.

A  crossbow quarrel slammed into the side of the carriage and Scarface  raced for the gate, hearing another bolt hiss past. His dark blue cloak  made him all but invisible in the shadows. Just inside the gate he  confronted the halberdier, who thrust at him. Scarface dodged and was  almost pulled off his feet as the halberd snagged his cloak, stumbled,  then lashed out desperately. His blade caught the guard across the  forearm, biting through the light mail and driving the shorn links into  the wound.

The guard howled and dropped his weapon.

Scarface  recovered his balance, snarled a curse in Ghiblin, and slashed at the  man’s knee. He felt the steel bite, heard the man howl again.

Another  bolt whined past Scarface, who whipped his cloak free and dashed  through the gate into the street. While the crossbowmen reloaded their  weapons he darted into an alley. The guards raised the hue and cry and,  within moments, Scarface heard shutters flung open above him and the  alarm taken up all around him. He raced down the alley, shot across  another street, and followed another alley to the place he’d left the  Ghiblin prince.

As  he neared the place he fumbled into the pouch at his belt and scattered  a handful of herbs which, when crushed by footsteps, released a sharp,  pungent odor that deadened the ability of hounds to follow a trail.

The  man he’d left hidden in rubbish and shadows still lay unconscious.  Scarface tossed the sword he carried beside the man’s outflung left  hand, reclaimed the plain sword he’d left in the prince’s scabbard and  the dagger in its sheath, then wrapped the Ghiblin’s right hand around  the grip of the poniard and drove the point into the man’s throat. Then,  before slipping back into deeper shadows, Scarface used his sword to  tear the man’s cloak; if the halberdier lived he might remember his  weapon had caught the assassin’s cloak. It was better to leave no  annoying loose ends on which to hang a supposition.

The  spell of concealment required moisture applied to the forehead and  Scarface felt a stab of panic when he found his mouth dry from fear and  the run. He picked up a pebble from the dirt, slipped it into his mouth  and sucked at it until he could wet his fingertip enough to trace the  sigil on his forehead, and muttered the incantation.

He lurched as power drained from him, running from his scars. Then he pressed his back against the wall.

Running  men approached the alley, the sound of their footsteps growing louder,  and he pressed still further back, as though trying to force himself  through the wall. Carrying torches, three men in Abransan livery pounded  into the end of the alley, swords in their hands. They saw the body and  warily advanced on it.

Scarface  sidestepped slowly toward them, carefully putting his feet down only  where he was sure of his footing. A Ghiblin, wearing only his nightshirt  and grasping a club, appeared at the other end of the alley and shouted  a challenge in his guttural language.

One  of the Abransans shouted back in his own rolling tongue and gestured  with his sword. More Ghiblins, some armed with knives or short swords,  joined the crowd, which grew rapidly, and curses were shouted in two  languages.

Scarface  permitted himself a grim smile. If no one stumbled over him in the  press of the crowd, the confusion would ensure the success of his  mission.

The  Ghiblins and Abransans were at the point of trading blows when a  Ghiblin night patrol arrived and, laying about them with clubs and  staves, forced their way into the alley.

The  crush of the crowd grew dangerous as Scarface crept past the mob. He  heard one of the Ghiblins shout, “This smells of the power. We need a  magus for this.”

Feeling  new urgency, Scarface made his way carefully past the throng. He’d  planned his route with care and, within an hour, reached the old tree  behind the inn. Springing, he caught a lower limb and drew himself up  then crawled along the branch that ran over the kitchen at the back of  the building to the slanting roof. He cautiously lowered himself from  the branch, crouched on hands and feet, and climbed the steep pitch of  the roof to where his open window gaped.

In  the relative safety of his room he stripped, then wiped the disguise  from his face and the blood from his hands with a dampened cloth. The  clothing he bundled into the torn cloak and stuffed into a saddle pouch.  He snapped the blade of the knife he’d worn then dropped the pieces and  the sheath into the bag. He’d wait until morning with its usual street  noises to break up the plain sword and add its pieces to the contents of  the pouch. He’d again be wearing his own, more distinctive weapons, and  he preferred not to be asked why he carried another sword.

There  were still a few risks to be run and the return to High Rage to survive  but his mission had been all but accomplished. The Abransan envoy was  dead and a Ghiblin lord would be blamed for the killing. He wondered  about the man with the green ring, a double to the one in his pouch. How  deeply was the Union involved in the fragile peace between Ghiblein and  Abaransa? And why hadn’t the clan been notified of that involvement?  The questions might bear deeper thought but that was something to be  dealt with later.

He  sank to the pallet with a grateful sigh and in little more time than it  had taken him to kill the two men in the carriage, he was asleep.

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