WolfSinger Publications

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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.