The trek back to the well was cold, as the wind grew harsh and the evening sky darkened with clouds. Not many travelers were on the road, and as Jonmarc filled the buckets, he watched a man ride by, no doubt heading toward the warmth and welcome of the inn. The traveler wore a dark cloak that had seen hard use, his battered hat was pulled low to shield his face from the wind and his horse was mud-spattered. Jonmarc wondered idly what brought the lone rider out on such a miserable evening. He was just about to look away, back to the well, when something caught his eye. The stranger’s boots were the finest Jonmarc had ever seen.
Now there’s an interesting question, Jonmarc thought. There’s nothing special about his cloak or his horse. Did he steal the boots or win them in a card game? He did not debate the matter for long, since it was none of his business and the buckets were full. Shouldering the yoke once more that enabled him to carry back four buckets of ice cold water, Jonmarc put the rider out of his mind as he watched the hedgerow warily, unwilling to be jumped by a brigand on his way back.
When he returned, the simple camp was well-along. Peters and the musicians had unhitched their horses and drawn their small, boxy wagons into a circle around a roaring campfire. Jonmarc delivered the buckets and then helped two of the other War Dogs make sure that the horses were fed and brushed down, before heading over to the more modest base the mercenaries had pitched for themselves. Five canvas tents, each big enough for two men and their bedrolls, dotted the trampled ground. Harrtuck and several of the other mercs stood near the fire, warming themselves as the burning logs sent embers into the night sky.
“Glad you’re back,” Harrtuck said, moving to the side so that Jonmarc could step closer to the fire. “Grab some food while you can. I’ve got another job for you.”
Jonmarc walked away from the fire and immediately felt the bite of the wind. He took a slab of hard bread, a hunk of dried meat, a chunk of cheese, and an apple from Geb, the merc in charge of rations. It was hardly a feast, but Jonmarc was too tired and hungry to care. He had been among the War Dogs long enough to know that they made sure their men ate well and that their rations were worth eating. The same could not be said, he had heard, about many of the other mercenary groups that made Principality their winter camp.
When he returned, Geb’s helper, Anselm, had put a kettle onto the coals to boil to make kerif, the bitter black drink that kept soldiers on their feet. Jonmarc accepted a cup of kerif gratefully when it had brewed, and hung back, sipping his drink and watching his new-found comrades in arms. Geb the cook was as stout as Harrtuck, but he was surprisingly fast on his feet and particularly good with a quarterstaff. Anselm was tall and bony, and despite his job as assistant trail cook, looked as if he missed more meals than he ate. His long reach made him wicked with a broadsword. Gif and Hanry were brothers, pale and blond-haired, and they had the best aim with a knife or a rock of anyone in the War Dogs. Lygart preferred a war ax in combat, and Jonmarc had seen him throw an ax with frightening accuracy. Milo was a bear of a man who often preferred to wade into battle with a mace and his steel-clad fists, clearing a path for the others to follow. Odger was a short, quiet fellow who could shoot a bow with deadly accuracy while standing in his saddle and riding at a full gallop. Higg was the last of the War Dogs contingent, a dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes who was a competent fighter when sober and an unstoppable force when drunk. Except for Milo and Gif, who were on patrol, the other War Dogs stood close to the fire, laughing and talking.
“You’re quiet,” Harrtuck said, jostling Jonmarc from his thoughts.
Jonmarc shrugged. “I can’t shake the feeling that this job isn’t going to be as easy as it looks. It’s probably nothing.”
Harrtuck frowned. “I’ve learned over the years to pay attention when my gut is telling me something—at least, until I’ve checked it out and know what’s going on.