Jonmarc Vahanian swung his sword, and steel ground against steel as his blade slid past his opponent’s weapon to find its target. Blood sprayed as his sword pierced flesh, slipped between rib bones, and sank deep into the brigand’s heart.
The highwayman’s body jerked and bucked, and the defeated fighter dropped his sword as his whole form spasmed, going rigid with pain and shock, before slumping heavily against Jonmarc’s blade.
“Leave one of them alive!” Jonmarc shouted to his unit as they fought their way through the robbers’ forest hiding place. “The general wants one left to interrogate!”
The thick forest made visibility difficult even in broad daylight. That was why it was a favored hiding place for thieves, vagrants, and squatters. Located near a major route into town, the forest had been a perfect hideout for the band of brigands accused of waylaying travelers, murdering them, and stealing their goods.
Now, as Jonmarc and his soldiers fought against the rag-tag robber band, he wondered if some of those reports had been exaggerated. At nineteen, he suspected he was older than many of the ‘brigands’. Even the eldest of the bunch, who looked like he might be in his mid-twenties, hardly fought like an experienced swordsman. If they were the terror of the highway, the travelers they accosted must have been pitifully unprepared to defend themselves. Had it been left to Jonmarc’s discretion, as the unit leader, he would have frightened them off, given them a few scars to learn from, and chased them to the border of the next kingdom.
But General Alcion, his commander, had not given him that discretion. Their orders had been clear: to wipe out the brigands, kill all but one, destroy their camp and bring back any of their ill-gotten gains. And as a Principality mercenary on loan to the Eastmark army, it was Jonmarc’s sworn duty to do as he had been commanded.
Grimly, he set about his task. The thieves tried to flee, after seeing their fellow brigands handily defeated, but the soldiers had made a second cordon around the camp, easily running them down. Some of the brigands begged for their lives or offered to pay all they had in exchange for their escape. But Jonmarc’s orders were clear, and he followed them. Even if he hated himself for doing so.
When the fighting was done, one wretched highwayman was left, a man only a few years older than Jonmarc. He was wounded and terrified, and he had soiled himself. He lay, bound hand and foot, in the middle of a battleground. The robbers’ meager camp of lean-tos and shabby tents had been destroyed in the fighting. If they were thieves, then by the look of it, they were not good at their trade, since they seemed to have little of value aside from their horses, a few bottles of whiskey, and some battered cookware.
“We’ve searched the camp, sir.” One of Jonmarc’s soldiers walked toward him with a small wooden chest in his hands. “Other than clothing and liquor, and the weapons they have on them, this was the only thing of value we found.” He held out the box for Jonmarc to take.
A sharp blow to the lock easily opened the chest. Inside were a few handfuls of copper coins, not enough to buy the whole bunch of brigands a meal at a cheap tavern. The soldier was watching Jonmarc, waiting for his response. “Bring it,” Jonmarc snapped, thrusting the box back at the solider.
He raised his voice. “Throw the bodies over their horses, including the prisoner. We’ve got what we came for. Let’s go.” Jonmarc forced down his revulsion and turned away, wiping his blade clean on one of the dead men’s cloaks.
Unlike with other campaigns, there was no rowdy rejoicing among the soldiers on the way back to their camp outside the city. Jonmarc kept his face impassive, hoping he was unreadable. A few of his men talked quietly among themselves, but most were silent, a bellwether of their mood.
It had been six months since Jonmarc had left the War Dogs mercenaries in Principality at the personal request of General Alcion and traveled to Eastmark. As his friend Tov Harrtuck had predicted, Jonmarc had been placed with a troop of other soldiers who were also not native to Eastmark. Jonmarc’s natural skill as a fighter and his aptitude for the complex footwork of the Eastmark style of fighting earned him several promotions, most recently, command of his own small team of men.
Like the other non-native soldiers, Jonmarc’s team assignments were usually routine. They collected King Radomar’s taxes from local villages, escorted local dignitaries in need of extra protection, patrolled the roads, broke up bar fights, and ran down the occasional miscreant or two. Not much different from what he would have been doing much of the time when the War Dogs were not under contract to fight on behalf of a patron. At least, until today.
The other soldiers moved out of their way as Jonmarc’s unit rode back into camp. The Eastmark-born men barely spared them a glance, but the other foreign-born soldiers watched them with an expression Jonmarc could not clearly read. Veiled derision, perhaps, or shared pity. We’re the general’s clean-up crew, Jonmarc thought, holding his back straight and his chin up. I get it now. We do the jobs that his Eastmark soldiers consider to be beneath them.
Someone must have alerted General Alcion to their arrival, because when Jonmarc’s soldiers reached the parade ground in the center of the camp, the General was waiting for them on horseback, next to the hanging tree. Jonmarc felt his gut clench, and their prisoner saw enough to begin pleading for his life.
General Alcion was the brother of Eastmark’s King Radomar. A series of complex black tattoos made his royal status clear, standing out even on his ebony skin. Tall and strong, Alcion was an excellent fighter and the tavern bards sang stories celebrating his many victories. Jonmarc had been instrumental in saving the general’s life when the War Dogs had been assigned to escort him in Principality, and in return, Alcion had requested Jonmarc on loan from the mercenaries for a year.
“I see you were successful.” Alcion spoke Common to his outlander forces, though after six months, Jonmarc had picked up enough Markian to understand most of the conversations around him.
“Yes, sir,” Jonmarc replied. “Brought the bodies back as you requested, routed the camp. Not much to show for it,” he said, offering up the small wooden chest. “And a captive, as you requested.”
“Bring him to me,” Alcion ordered.
Two of Jonmarc’s soldiers pulled the surviving brigand from across his horse, where he had been tossed like a sack of flour. Alcion looked the man up and down. The highwaymen was Eastmark-born, and when the ruffian saw the tattoos on Alcion’s face, he threw himself to the ground.
“Your Highness! Mercy! I beg of you—we were just trying to keep from starving. Mercy, please!” the man sobbed.
Alcion was impassive. “Cut the bonds on his ankles,” he ordered. “Sit him on his horse, and bring him to the tree.”
A fresh sob tore from the thief’s throat as Jonmarc’s soldiers did as they were bid. The tree was old, with a broad trunk and many strong branches. A noose hung from a sturdy limb, ready for a victim.
“Slip the noose over his head,” Alcion ordered. The prisoner looked as if he might pass out as the rough rope settled around his neck.
“What is law of Eastmark, regarding thievery?” Alcion demanded. “Speak!”
It took the prisoner two tries to find his voice, which came out like a terrified squeak. “Thievery is forbidden, m’lord.”
“And the penalty for thieving?” Alcion questioned.
“A brand or a hand, or your neck for a peck,” the man stuttered, repeating the cautionary rhyme Jonmarc had heard oft repeated.
“You were caught among thieves. Do you deny it?” Alcion asked.
“No, Your Highness,” the prisoner replied, barely able to form the words he was so frightened.
“You preyed on travelers on the royal road. That’s more than a ‘peck’ of goods stolen, wouldn’t you say?”
Once more, the prisoner looked as if he might swoon. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Alcion hesitated, drawing out the suspense. “I would be entirely right to hang you,” he observed after a moment. “You’ve more than earned it.” Still, he did not make the gesture that would have signaled to the soldier standing behind the prisoner’s horse to slap the animal on its hindquarters and send the man dangling.
“Remove the noose,” he said after another long pause. “Untie his hands.” The soldiers did as they were told, while the prisoner stared at Alcion in stupefaction.
“Go back to your village,” Alcion ordered. “Tell them what you did and what was done to you. Tell them General Alcion is stern and merciful.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the thief babbled, clutching his reins white-knuckled as if he might fall from his horse.
“Go!” Alcion ordered, and gave the signal. A slap sent the horse bolting from its place, running from the camp as the thief spurred it on with his heels, no doubt desperate to escape before the General changed his mind.
For a moment, Jonmarc wondered if the pardon was some kind of awful sport, and whether soldiers would be dispatched to ride down the robber just as the man believed himself to be free. But to his relief, no one blocked the man’s way, though the Eastmark soldiers jeered and shouted as the horse and its panicked rider ran for their lives. Few if any of the outlander troops joined in the catcalls.
“Well done, Lieutenant,” General Alcion said, looking at Jonmarc. “Commendable work. Give your men my thanks.” With that, the general abruptly turned his horse and rode away.