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Taking Hope

- James K Burk

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Taking Hope

The power he once held depleted, Scarface has found contentment as Morgan. No longer seeking power or building kingdoms, he is happy with his current life.

However, when what he most loves is threatened, Morgan must again become Scarface to correct past mistakes. He must defeat a king and a god. Knowing one god can only be beaten by another, he seeks an alliance, but what price will be demanded?

With only a few allies, one of them mad with rage, and the power in his scars returned, he must confront old enemies, including one who knows his deepest secret and greatest weakness. Will he be able to lay to rest his past, defeat his enemies and return to the life he has made for himself. Or will he lose everything and everyone he has come to truly care about?

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Chapter 1

Morgan had ridden only a few paces from the cave before he stopped, staring at the bodies sprawled among the rocks. Mendarian stood in the cave’s mouth, arms crossed. She’d have work enough fighting her own demons without having to confront the wolves that would come prowling after the corpses.

Hesitating only a moment, he slid out of the saddle. The horses were easy to gather. He decided to leave at least three of them for Mendarian, along with whatever the men had carried to this place. The bodies he stripped of valuables, tossing his finds onto a pile, and throwing the corpses over the backs of the nervous animals. He loaded most of the bodies two to a horse, although Forgren, even lighter by half a head, required a beast to himself.

When he glanced up during the work he observed Mendarian had disappeared, probably into the cave that had been his own home for nearly two months. They’d said everything they’d had to say, at least for the nonce. With a last glance around to be certain he’d forgotten nothing, he mounted again and led his procession of dead away from the cave.

The sun was nearing the horizon when he crested a low, rounded hill and saw, at its base, a stream fed by mountain runoff. Swinging stiffly out of the saddle, he cut the bodies loose, letting them fall in a heap, then led the horses down to water. At the stream he looked back once to see the pile of bodies, arms and legs at odd angles and beginning to stiffen, monuments to their own cupidity. He moved on, leading the horses, to a place where an outcropping offered protection from the wind.

He hobbled the horses, fed them a ration of oats from the supplies they carried, then looked to his own dinner. From the provisions of the dead men he dined on sausage, cheese, hardtack, and sour wine. These satisfied only his body’s hunger, leaving him feeling a curious emptiness and lightness.

For perhaps the first time in his life, he had nowhere to go, nothing that needed be done. Mendarian was behind him, in more ways than the distance of half a day’s ride. Seeing her again hadn’t left him wanting only to be near her. He still felt some affection, some caring, but whatever fires had burned in him—love, anger, perhaps even hatred—had been banked. He hoped she’d use the opportunity to discover the gold in herself but, when next they met, they’d be two strangers who only looked familiar to each other.

He’d abdicated the thrones of Donradé and Glangurra and nothing drew him back to either place. At High Rage, in Valé Shanna, the walls had fallen and his brothers and sisters of the Winged Dagger Clan were all dead. If Forgren’s men still ruled in Valé Shanna, they did so with a sword, not a scepter, and if they’d gone he was sure the people of the valley would provide respectful care for the bodies of his kin.

He had, without any thought of destination, ridden northeast, and he had to think for a moment before he recalled this was the way to Stag Mountain, a Dieri settlement. Mendarian, until her own abdication, had been the empress of Cerco, the mountain realm which included the Dieri, and he’d been her consort, later her husband.

Perhaps his choice of direction had been only a whim, but being guided by a whim was better than having no guide at all, and he wondered what his reception from the Dieri might be.

~ * ~

Two days later he rode through the Wolf’s Gate at Stag Mountain, where he handed his weapons to a guard and was led through the tunnels and caverns to see the headman. Apparently, Stag Mountain hadn’t been inhabited for as many generations as Crown; some of the caverns and almost all of the tunnels looked unfinished, and he saw little of the ornate carving that decorated Crown Mountain.

The headman was a typical Dieri; short and stocky with broad, clean-shaven features, blue eyes and blond hair, although the hair was paling to silver-gray. The familiar face required a search in a dim trunk in Morgan’s memory to find the name. Morgan bowed slightly, then said, “Well met, Ergun. You fought well in the eastern wars.”

There might have been some flicker of light in the Dieri’s dourness, then he nodded in reply. “What have we to offer each other, Scarface?”

Morgan hid his amusement. The austere mountain home of the Dieri stamped its character on most of them. They were hard, laconic, and thrifty to the point of self-parody. He was known among these people by his use-name and the black scars that looked like the finger-marks of a demon at his forehead, temples, and cheekbones. “I’m seeking stable-places for the horses I brought, meals, and a soldier’s cot. In return, I’ll do a soldier’s duties and train your younger men.”

He was skilled enough with arms he could teach even Ergun, but thought it better to show respect for the man’s well-earned pride.

“That seems an equitable enough trade. Perhaps you even ask too little.”

“It’s all I require for now, and if my needs change we can bargain again later.”

“Well said.” In the Dieri manner they struck the palms of their right hands together and Morgan was led to a barracks, a great hall containing a collection of wicker cots with straw-stuffed pallets, a wicker chest for each cot, and a low fire under a pot of stew.

~ * ~

He had his hair trimmed by another soldier and used a fine blade to clear the beard from his face, leaving only the moustache, and settled comfortably into a routine.

He thought he’d recovered from his madness for Mendarian but found himself, on guard duty, watching the trails to the southwest and, at other times, listening for any word among the other troops of anyone seen on the paths to Stag Mountain but, after nearly a month, he decided that whatever course she’d chosen had nothing to do with him or the Dieri.

At the beginning of his second month at Stag he joined a hunt to provide the settlement with fresh meat. When they returned with deer and mountain sheep they carried the meat to the common cavern, a large, almost circular cave which contained a spring-fed well.

Morgan laid down the deer carcass he’d carried and had just turned to go back to the barracks when a woman stepped in front of him. “Have you been avoiding me?”

Instantly he recognized Topaz. Despite her blond hair and emerald eyes, she reminded him strongly of Martina, his dead clan sister. Part of the resemblance was physical. They shared similar features; their faces were enough alike they could’ve been sisters, and both were slender with large breasts but trim waists and hips and long legs. And they seemed to resemble each other in temperament as well.

He considered the question carefully before he answered. “Perhaps. I think I’m a bit afraid of you.”

Her smile drew his attention to her full, soft lips. “Knowing both your reputation and your nature. I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended.”

Again he paused to weigh his words carefully. “The truth should neither flatter nor offend. I’d wanted to see you but was afraid to, for several reasons.” Her smile was contagious and elicited an answering one from him.

“Perhaps I could learn those reasons if I were to provide a meal and ply you with Shannan pomegranate wine.”

“Only for the taste. Your company would be a headier potion than any wine.”

She laughed and it was a sweet sound, like the ringing of a silver bell. “I see you still have the knack of turning a phrase prettily.”

“Unfortunately, I have duties which demand my attention.” He had no desire to close the door on possibilities. “I’ll be training some men until sunset.”

“If you’re hungry then, my rooms are down that tunnel.” She pointed to her left. “It’s the fifth door from this cavern, and the door hanging is tan and green, with a red rose pattern.”

“I’d be pleased,” Morgan murmured, then strode to the armory to select his practice weapons. It was only a surprise he’d met Topaz then. He’d been told she was at Stag Mountain, and he wondered if that hadn’t been the source of the whim that had drawn him here. He remembered having worked with her, long ago, casting a spell; remembered coming out of a trance kissing her.

He still wasn’t sure his loyalty to Mendarian would’ve been enough to cause him to stop had Topaz shown any interest in continuing. And she very much reminded him of Martina who, had she not been kin, would have been his first choice as lover.

Remembering Martina was still painful. She was one of the Clan who’d died at High Rage, and her loss had been almost unendurable. And there was Poker, whose name, in Sinn, meant “proud.” He’d lived with pride and, Morgan was sure, he’d died with pride. It was fitting that both of them had died well, but that brought him little comfort.

It seemed there’d been two Pokers to mourn. The first was the comrade in arms on the Das wars, who’d displayed a ruthlessness to match Scarface’s own. In those days, he hadn’t been Morgan, he’d been Scarface, and Poker had impressed even Scarface with his skill in interrogation and his boldness.

Then there was the Poker who’d converted to the church of Ianno. His blue-black hair and beard, tightly curled, and his canines, half again the length of the rest of his teeth, seemed incongruous in light of his gentleness and his devotion to the god he’d chosen.

Poker had been wounded in the Das war and had been rescued and treated by a follower of Ianno, but he hadn’t simply converted out of gratitude. Morgan remembered his cousin’s bouts of doubt, his careful study of religions, the deep thought he’d applied to his quest. And, apparently, the religious life Poker had chosen had brought him peace and joy. That was a comfort to Morgan.

Two glorious lives, both ended, leaving holes in his own life. His reflections had been dark enough that by the time he’d armed and armored himself he was as grim as the Dieri he trained.

The practice helped relieve some of his dark mood and, as he approached the tunnel Topaz had pointed out, anxiety had replaced the melancholy. He was afraid of rejection and afraid of hope. A small oil lamp in hand, he found the door hanging with the rose pattern and scratched at it.

“Come in.”

The room was dim and fragrant with cooking smells. Besides a small fire for cooking, the only light was provided by the faintly glowing lichen that clung to the walls and which the Dieri spread throughout the caverns and tunnels they used.

Topaz wore a dark green robe that contrasted with her fair skin and blond hair. She gestured at piles of cushions flanking a low table, then carried a tray to the table. Morgan picked up the bottle on the tray, worked the cork loose, and sniffed. He recognized the rich scent of Shannan pomegranate wine and poured the deep purple liquid into two cups.

If Topaz had intended to impress him with her cooking, she’d succeeded. The venison was smothered in a thick sauce with mushrooms and a hint of dry red wine, while the bread had been mixed with vegetables and nuts before it had been baked. The venison and its sauce were hot, the bread still warm.

“Excellent,” he pronounced.

She smiled. “I expect the conversation to at least equal the meal.”

“I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you. I’m coming more as a beggar than as a trader.” He sipped at the wine, appreciating the rich, fruity flavor.

“I’d saved that wine for a special occasion,” she said. She savored a sip of wine, then sampled the food. “All we know here in Stag Mountain is that a man who must’ve hated you very much, a man named Forgren, arrived at Crown Mountain with an escort of soldiers and Mendarian left with them, taking Orhan and a handful of Dieri warriors. Several days later, Orhan returned to Crown with the staff and crown of Father Wolf,” she bowed at the name, “and the men with him said there’d been a battle. They said when they’d left, only you and Mendarian were still alive. Now you appear alone. You must admit the circumstances could inspire some lively assumptions.”

“True. I hadn’t thought about that.” He ate slowly, appreciating the flavors of both the meat and the bread. “Forgren was the man who gave the orders that led to the deaths of Martina and several other of my cousins. I’m really not sure whether he wanted to take me alive as a hostage to trap Hadrian or whether he simply wanted me dead.

“He’d prepared a spell and used Mendarian to hunt me down. When they found me, Mendarian abdicated, giving the staff and crown to Orhan. I don’t know what her motives were. In fact, I’m not sure she knows, herself. When Forgren raised his spell and it didn’t kill me, he ordered his men to attack, either to kill me or to distract me enough that the spell could kill. My cousin, Hadrian, appeared, killed the men with Forgren, and left Forgren and Mendarian for me to deal with. Forgren asked my true name of Mendarian to use in a spell of binding. For whatever reason, she gave him a wrong name and Forgren died. I left Mendarian to find herself. I assume she’s done so. It seems the way she’s chosen doesn’t lead into these mountains.”

“Are you disappointed?”

He’d just taken another bite of meat and used the time he spent chewing to regard the question. “Not really. I believe her decision would’ve been mine, too, had I a choice.”

Topaz had finished eating and sipped at her wine. “One always has choices.”

He shook his head. “In the past, I’ve used some very presumptuous words; ‘never’ and ‘forever,’ but I still feel bound by them.” He finished his meal while it was still warm.

Topaz stared at him. “But she’s chosen to cut those bonds, and she has a right to make such choices, just as you do. So what do you choose to do now?”

“I’m not familiar enough with Dieri custom to know what I can do.”

“You may ask the emperor to announce the death of the marriage, if that’s what you want.”

“Do you think I should do that?”

“I think you must make that decision yourself. It has nothing to do with me.” She refilled both their cups.

His thin smile was a weak attempt to hide the bleakness he felt.

She watched him drink. “Was your being afraid of me a part of that?”

His nod was curt. “I found you…very attractive.” He gazed at her in the room’s half-light and found it still to be true. All the lines of her face seemed in perfect harmony; the oval shape; the slightly arched brows; the lustrous eyes; the nose, short and straight, broad enough not to seem pinched; the soft, generous lips. He looked away because it was almost painful to see such beauty and not touch it. She surprised him by chuckling. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m sorry. But that has nothing to do with your other decision.”

Again he tried to hide his feelings behind a grin. “I like you very much. I was afraid I might do something that’d offend you.”

Her lips took on an impish curl. “If we were friends, the friendship would survive my being offended or you being offended by my response, and if we weren’t friends, you wouldn’t have cared—nor would it matter.”

This brought a laugh from him, one that was genuine, then he looked at his hands. “Are you friends with both of me? Sometimes I feel as though I were two people.” He thought, momentarily, of the two Pokers. “I wonder,” he said, “whether we aren’t all two people; the person we want to be and the person we must be.”

“At least all the interesting ones are,” she replied. “The rest are either self-indulgent or unimaginative.”

He laughed again. “You’ve given me a meal and much to think about. I thank you for both.” He stood and, very carefully, kissed her forehead. “I’ll hope to see you again.”

“I’ll hope for that, too.”

~ * ~

Rising at dawn, he dressed, paced to Ergun’s rooms, scratched on the outer door hanging, and waited anxiously until he heard “Enter.”

Ergun had apparently just risen; his hair was mussed and his eyelids still drooped.

“I’d like your permission to visit Crown Mountain.”

Ergun eyed him grimly. “If it’s important enough for you to ask me at this hour, it’s important enough for permission. Tell the emperor that all’s well here.” He dismissed Morgan with a wave and a yawn. Morgan paused only long enough to bolt down a meal, gather supplies for the three day ride, and see to his mount, then he was riding north, toward Crown.

~ * ~

Orhan was an old friend but a new emperor. Morgan could see he still bore lightly the air of command, still revealed those qualities of endurance and determination that made him a leader, but the lines around his eyes and the corners of his mouth seemed to have deepened slightly. He dismissed the guard who’d escorted Morgan to his suite of rooms. They were the same rooms Scarface and Mendarian had once occupied but the new furnishings had banished old ghosts.

“Morgan, it’s good to see you again. Is this solely a friendly visit?”

Orhan had always seemed a little less taciturn than most Dieri warriors.

“Not entirely. I’m living at Stag Mountain and heard that I might ask you to pronounce dead the marriage between Mendarian and myself.”

Orhan poured them each a cup of mead, then leaned back in his chair. “Crowns were joined as well as the two of you, in that marriage, but now neither of you wears a crown, and neither the new king of Donradé and Glangurra nor I seem to have anything to offer each other. If kingdoms can part…” He seemed to be looking into the past. “Sometimes I wonder whether Father Wolf,” he bowed, “intended the crown for Mendarian, or whether he knew she’d find you.”

Morgan sipped at the cup of mead he held. He disliked the sticky-sweet drink, but drinking it helped hide his embarrassment.” If I’m accepted as a Dieri subject, my advice is ever at my emperor’s command.”

“Thank you. Nothing of importance has risen but it’s always better to look to the future. And what of your future? Is there a reason for this request?”

Morgan met Orhan’s gaze. “Freedom is a great gift. And there’s a woman…her name is Topaz.”

“I’ve met her. It seems a good match. I’ll announce the death of your marriage tomorrow morning. Until then, you’ll be our guest.”

~ * ~

Near sundown, three days later, Morgan rode through the Ram’s Gate at Stag. Reporting to Ergun, he learned that for the next cycle he’d guard the flocks from noon until midnight and train the younger men for the two hours before noon.

Taking a bowl of stew from the pot in the barracks, he ate quickly, then followed the tunnel to Topaz’s room. Battling an attack of anxiety, he scratched on the wool hanging, then she swung the curtain open. “Come in.”

Stepping into her rooms, he experienced an awkward moment when he noticed a young man and a woman lounging on the cushions in the outer room. “I can come back another time.”

“Why bother? You’re here now.” She introduced Morgan to the couple, although she gave his use-name, Scarface. He hardly heard the names of the couple, and didn’t remember them.

Topaz lit a candle and examined the bottles in the corner of the room, carried one to the woman. “A sip of this before you go to bed, every night, for the full month.”

The couple left with the bottle and Topaz sank onto the cushions. “Please, sit down. Have you eaten yet?”

“I ate in the barracks.”

“Then you can watch me eat.” She returned to the corner, came back with a platter of bread and cheese and a cup of water. “You smell of horse sweat.”

“I’ve been riding. I was hoping to see you again but I just learned that for the next cycle I’ll be on duty until midnight.”

“I keep late hours. You may come by, if you wish.”

He nodded, then cast about for something more to say. “We were speaking, before, of people being more than one person. Are you more than one?”

“Anyone who’s studied magic has to be more than one person. Discipline is required. You should know the prices one pays.”

He grinned and stroked the scars burned into his face. “I have some small idea.”

“Have you been to the baths? The odor of horse sweat is really very distracting.”

“I usually wash myself in the barracks. I’m not used to undressing before others.”

“I’d forgotten that you’re more solitary than we Dieri. Still, there isn’t likely to be anyone at the baths at this hour. I have a robe I can let you wear.”

He followed her to the baths—whatever they might be—with a mixture of excitement and reluctance. The baths turned out to be depressions in the rock, constantly filled and flushed by hot springs. Self-consciously, he turned his back to her to undress, stripping off his belts, boots, jerkin, shirt, and hose. When he turned around, Topaz was already in the water, only her head and shoulders above the surface.

He sat on the side of the pool and dropped his feet and legs into the water, which seemed scalding, but he slid into the pool. Adjusting quickly to the heat, he found himself relaxing.

“If one is two persons,” he asked, “how do you reconcile them?”

“They must have some affection for each other. Or, at least, respect.”

So that was how Poker had succeeded. The Poker who had come to be had accepted the Poker who had been. He laughed with the discovery. “That may not be easy. I’m still learning about Morgan—the man I want to be—and Scarface—the man I thought I had to be—could be a difficult man to like.”

“Are you sure about that? I met Scarface, didn’t I?” At his nod she continued. “I found much to admire about him. He had integrity. And loyalty. I believe he was somewhat self-deluded, though. He wasn’t, for instance, the devil he pretended to be.”

His knees suddenly felt weak as he suffered something like a blow to the soul. Martina had once said almost those very words to him and hearing them again had opened a wound that had never healed, never really scabbed over. He turned his face from her so she wouldn’t see the sudden tears, or how grief twisted his features, making them ugly.

She put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right to mourn her. I only met her twice, but she was someone worth mourning.”

He thought he’d dealt with the loss but had never squarely faced its permanence. Feelings buried for too long shot to the surface and for several moments he sobbed uncontrollably; harsh racking sounds that came from feelings so deep inside him that he had hardly suspected their existence.

Finally he regained control of his breathing and, almost, his voice. Ducking beneath the water, he scrubbed his face before surfacing again. When he could trust his voice, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t be. If you hadn’t felt close to me, your feelings wouldn’t have trusted me enough to appear.” She climbed out of the pool. “Now we use soap and get back into the water to rinse off.”

Climbing out of the water after her, he followed her example as she scrubbed herself with a coarse but pleasantly scented soap.

He was grateful that she seemed unaware of his arousal as she washed his back and, observing the apparent flawless beauty of her body, he had to force himself to simply scrub her back when his hands wanted to linger on her velvet skin, then it was done and they slipped back into the water.

By the time they’d finished washing, the hot water had so relaxed him he was barely able to drag himself from the pool. They returned to her rooms, he wearing the borrowed robe and carrying his clothing.

In her rooms, he stopped by the cushions, then drew the robe tighter. It was going to be difficult to sit in the too-small robe without some embarrassing gaps appearing. Topaz saw his dilemma and giggled. “I want to see how you solve this problem.”

“I’ll stand.”

She assumed an expression of mock-severity. “So, you’d insult me by refusing my hospitality?”

He rolled his eyes, then drew the robe tight, carefully knelt, slumped to his right, and rolled onto his belly. Topaz clapped, twice.

“Well done. I’ll be waiting to see how you get back up.” She stepped beside him, knelt, leaned forward, and began to knead the muscles of his neck and shoulders. He sighed as the remaining tension in his upper back was drawn out of him. For several moments he lay in a state somewhere between light slumber and almost awake. Her hands moved down to the muscles just below and between his shoulder blades, and he moaned with relief.

Self-consciousness fled with the tightness in his muscles. Somehow, it no longer seemed so important that the robe stay closed. He rolled over and stared into her face. The harmony, the composition of her features seemed perfect. “I remember another tim

e, very like this,” he said. Slipping his arms around her, he drew her nearer, lightly brushed her lips with his, reveling in the sensation of the softness of her lips, then their mouths were pressed together.

Fearing at each moment she’d resist, his tongue probed between her lips, and she opened her mouth. He tried, with that kiss, to express all the tenderness he felt. When her ardor seemed to match his own, he surrendered to temptation, his hands finding the openings of her robe.

Topaz drew away from him, and he was afraid he’d assumed too much, then she smiled and drew off her robe. “Now, are you less afraid of me?”

For a moment he could only stare at her taut body with the proud, firm breasts, then he chuckled. “Less afraid than in awe.”

Then he realized he was being offered something he desired as desperately as he’d ever wanted anything. He seemed unable to draw a deep breath, his heart hammered at his chest, and no words would come, He held her closely, momentarily unable to do anything more, as relief and gratitude and a great caring all came together.

Again he kissed her, then caressed her, first with fingertips, then his hands, then his tongue and lips. He could smell and taste the pleasant scent of the soap with which they’d washed themselves, and her body seemed to transmute the smell into something even sweeter and richer. Her breasts were soft, and warm to the touch, and he admired the fine ridge of her hipbone before stroking it with his lips.

What had begun as a gentle exploration became something approaching devotion, then grew into overpowering hunger, until he entered her. For a time he was unaware of anything but Topaz, almost forgetting himself as separate from her. Both breathed only in ragged gasps, as their bodies moved together until they shuddered together. After he withdrew from her, they lay together, their breathing slowing and deepening.

Her body was warm against his, and seemed to fit against him as though they’d been melded into one. Looking into her perfect face, he found himself silenced by his own tenderness. He couldn’t even disturb the calm to tell her he loved her. As though feeling his gaze on her, she opened her eyes, and the almost child-like appearance became that of an urchin as she grinned at him, then she rose, drawing him up after her, and led him to the smaller room containing her bed. “Now that the edge is off the hunger, let’s try it again.”

For long moments he simply stared at her. Her pale body seemed to glow in the dimness and the contours of her body seemed endlessly fascinating.

He lay beside her and explored her with fingers and lips, becoming familiar with her sweet geography, learning all the routes and byways to pleasing her, trying to offer every trace of pleasure he could give. Controlling his urgency, he drew out the passion, lightly stroking, kissing gently, becoming a tender tormenter, denying release for as long as possible, and Topaz responded in kind, until, when relief came at last, it was beyond control.

Desire sated, he held her close, feeling as though they and the hours had become golden, until Topaz stretched like a cat, and they drifted together into slumber.