Jonmarc Vahanian had been running—staggering—for two days. The village healer’s hurried work barely knit the skin on his back where the whip had sliced, or the worst of the bruises from the beating, or the fresh brand on his flesh. The fragile, newly-healed flesh tore in places, bleeding through his ragged, soot-streaked shirt. He dared not stop, or sleep, or eat. Not yet.
If the general’s guards caught up to him this time, he would suffer even more. Death would be a mercy withheld.
Once before, he had run through the Eastmark forest for his life. Then, the dogs and guards had caught him, dragged him back to watch the soldiers under his command hanged, the villagers he had tried to save burned alive.
This time, if they caught him, he would not go with the guards. This time, Jonmarc would fight to the death.
“There he is!” a voice shouted behind him.
He was two days out from Chauvrenne, the village General Alcion had burned for spite. Jonmarc was supposed to have died with the villagers. Some of the townspeople had survived. They could blend in, find refuge in other hamlets, and with the ebony skin and features of Eastmark natives, they would be difficult to easily spot. Jonmarc, an outlander mercenary, looked nothing like the Markians. He was lost, hungry, exhausted, and in pain, a long, long way from home.
A home he doubted he would ever see again.
“I see him!” another voice yelled.
The will to survive gave him a burst of speed. It was not enough. Jonmarc found himself ringed in by three Eastmark soldiers.
“There’s the traitor.” The speaker weighted the word with contempt. “Take him.”
Jonmarc wheeled into a high Eastmark kick, something the soldiers did not expect from an outlander. His boot caught the nearest soldier in the chest with enough force to send him back a few feet to fall on his ass. In one graceful movement, Jonmarc righted himself and came up with swords in each hand, surprising the second soldier.
Sword skills and fighting footwork came easily to Jonmarc. These soldiers must never have seen Jonmarc practicing in the salle or sparring in one of General Alcion’s competitions. Outlander that he was, he rarely lost. Some men were good at ciphering. Others could play music or paint portraits. Jonmarc was good at fighting.
“Aiyee! He fights like a dimonn!” the third soldier cried as the tip of Jonmarc’s blade caught his opponent in the gut, slitting him open like a fish. The fighting style was from Eastmark, but it was advanced training, rarely mastered. Jonmarc had a natural aptitude, backed up with obsessive practice. These soldiers were Markian, but it was clear their training had not extended as far.
“You’ll pay for that kick!” the downed soldier growled, climbing to his feet. The second man had drawn his sword, but Jonmarc fought with a sword in each hand, a distinct advantage since his opponent lacked a shield to deflect the second blade.
Jonmarc swung with the blade in his right hand, and the second soldier parried. But the sword in Jonmarc’s left hand laid the man open from shoulder to hip. He flinched with the pain, and Jonmarc’s right-hand blade slashed back across the soldier’s throat. Jonmarc pivoted as the soldier fell bleeding to the mossy ground, knowing that the third soldier was nearly on him.
“What kind of dimonn are you?” the soldier snarled. Being bested in traditional Eastmark fighting skills by an outlander, a sathirinim, was beyond the man’s comprehension.
“Angry.” Jonmarc used the man’s confusion to his advantage. His opponent executed a clumsy version of the high kick Jonmarc had mastered. It took nothing for Jonmarc to dance out of the way of the man’s boot, bringing one sword down in a crippling gash to his supporting leg. The soldier cried out in pain, blood gushing down his leg from a cut to the bone, and missed his footing, coming down hard onto the forest floor. Jonmarc drove his sword blade through the man’s chest. Blood burbled from the soldier’s mouth.
“That doesn’t even begin to even the score,” Jonmarc grated. He did not wait to see them die. He ran, and kept on running.
I don’t dare run into people looking like this, he thought. I’m covered in blood and soot. I’ve got to clean the worst of it off and find some decent clothing, if I’m ever to get through Dhasson and back to Margolan.
The wide Nu River was too swift and wild to cross easily, and bridges that spanned the river were few. He dared not go north through Easkmark to the bridge that crossed to Margolan, because General Alcion’s troops—his former comrades—would be waiting for him. And they would carry out the death sentence he had so far, barely, evaded. Ferries cost money and ferrymen asked questions. Jonmarc could afford neither.
That meant his best chance was to get to neighboring Dhasson and cross over into his homeland from there. Even with a compass, that was a daunting task. He had no map, dared not stay on the main roads, and could hardly ask for directions. Reckoning by the stars was imprecise, but it was all that was left to him.
Perhaps on the main road there were signs to inform travelers when they crossed from Eastmark to Dhasson. Surely there might be guards, even tolls to pay to journey from one kingdom to the next. Here in the forest, boundaries were invisible. Jonmarc had to admit to himself that he had no idea where he was. All that mattered to him was where he wasn’t—that he wasn’t dangling from a noose in Eastmark.
He found a stream deep enough to reach above his knees and waded in fully clothed, hoping that he could wash himself and his badly stained garments at the same time. Without proper soap it was hopeless to imagine that he would clean up entirely, but anything would be an improvement, and might spare him being noticed, which would be dangerous.
“You there. Stay right where you are. We don’t want no trouble—just your coin purse.” The voice came from the stream bank, and Jonmarc saw two men emerge from the bushes near where he had left the bag of provisions Sahila had given him when he left Chauvrenne.
“Leave it alone, or you’ll have plenty of trouble,” Jonmarc warned.
The cutpurses looked to be in their early twenties, just a few years older than he was. Their clothing was mismatched and ill-fitting, as if it had been stolen off wash lines. “All we want are your coppers, mate,” the shorter of the two men said. “Ain’t worth getting cut for, now is it? You look like a healthy sort. Won’t hurt you none to skip a meal or two.” The cutpurse patted his ribs in contrast.
“We just want your coins. Don’t need the rest of it,” the second man said. He fished through the cloth bag and cursed when he found nothing of value except the dried meat and cheese Sahila had scrounged to provision Jonmarc for his journey.
“I’m not in a generous mood.” Jonmarc came out of the water at a run, both swords drawn. The cutpurses’s eyes widened at the sight of the swords, far more resistance than they had bargained for. One of the men drew a wicked knife, while the other pulled a short sword from his belt.