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Excerpt from Bounty Hunter

Excerpt from Bounty Hunter by Gail Z. Martin

Jonmarc was in no particular hurry to move on. He had considered looking into signing on with a merc group in Principality when they reached the neighboring kingdom, but that still seemed distant and unreal. For now, the caravan was home, and it boded well for all of them if the crowds were heavy and inclined to part with their coin. “That’s good to hear,” he said. “We’ve still got some wagons to patch.”

Jonmarc lingered a while, finishing his food and listening to the day’s gossip. As usual, it was talk of trysts revealed and confidences betrayed, petty fights, and overheard arguments. Dugan’s comment roused him from his woolgathering.

“Who’s the bloke wandering around asking questions?” Dugan asked. “Squat, ugly little man, oily blond hair—did you see him?”

Sayer frowned. “Toady little runt? Yeah, I saw him. At first, I thought he was with some friends and got separated, since he seemed to be looking for someone. Now, I’m not so sure.”

“Do you think he was with the king’s guards?” Kegan asked, and for once, the young healer looked nervous. Whatever Kegan’s reason for not wanting to come under the guards’ scrutiny, Jonmarc was sure his friend was not alone in his concerns. Everyone here seemed to be trying to forget who they had been before they signed on.

Dugan barked a laugh. “Not unless the king’s let down his standards! I can’t imagine him passing muster in any army.”

“Maybe he’s a tax collector,” Sayer leaned forward, and dropped his voice. “I’ve heard that sometimes, they’ve been known to wander around poking their noses into things.”

“And I’ll bet Linton makes short work of them if they do,” Kegan replied.

“If you’re talking about the shifty little troll I saw, he didn’t look smart enough to be a danger to anyone,” Dugan said.

The group bantered for a little while longer, then went their separate ways. Jonmarc meandered back toward Conall’s wagon. The night was cool but not cold, pleasant enough if there was a fire. Perfect for a card game with friends. His mind was on what he would do with any winnings when he caught a glimpse of a shadow moving furtively from wagon to wagon. That was unusual, because the area where the caravaners made their camp was regularly patrolled to keep out intruders.

Jonmarc frowned and drew his knife from its scabbard. He moved quietly to close the gap between himself and where he had last seen the shadow. The figure moved again, and now he realized it was a short man in a hooded cloak. The man seemed to be observing the caravaners around their campfires, but made no move to come closer.

Is he a thief? Jonmarc wondered. If so, he’s a stupid one. Linton and the merchants are the ones with the money. The rest of us don’t have enough coin to buy a round of ale for our mates at the nearest pub.

The figure darted to another wagon, and as Jonmarc followed, he began to wonder whether the man intended to circle the entire camp area. Maybe he’s not looking to steal something, Jonmarc thought. Maybe he’s looking for someone. But why?

Had the man been tall and thin, Jonmarc would have been certain it was the vayash moru mage with whom he had broken a bargain. But the man’s build would be right for the stranger Dugan and Sayer had seen, and Jonmarc began to suspect that the newcomer’s appearance here, after questioning workers that day, could only mean trouble.

The more he thought about it, the angrier he got, and he picked up his pace, closing the gap between him and the short man. The stranger must have sensed he was being watched, because he turned suddenly and spotted Jonmarc.

“Stop right there!” Jonmarc ordered, beginning to run.

The squat man took off running, and he was fast for his size. Jonmarc caught up and grabbed the man by the shoulder, but the newcomer swung at him with the small club he had in his other hand. He caught Jonmarc on the temple, and Jonmarc staggered back, fighting to remain conscious.

“Thief!” Jonmarc managed to shout. The squat man was at the outskirts of the camp, heading into the forest by the time two of the caravan guards arrived in answer to Jonmarc’s shout.

“A thief was prowling the camp. He went toward the woods.” The guards took off after the stranger, but Jonmarc guessed the man was long gone by now. He raised hand to his temple and his fingers came away bloody.

“What happened?” Conall, Trent, and Corbin appeared, followed by several other men from around the camp who had heard his shout.

Jonmarc told them about the stranger, and his suspicions that it was the same man Dugan and Sayer had seen. Trent and Corbin looked angry, but for an instant, before he regained control, Jonmarc thought he saw a flash of fear in Conall’s eyes.