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An excerpt from Caves of the Dead

Caves of the Dead Excerpt

By Gail Z. Martin

Jonmarc grimaced. At seventeen, he was not a boy anymore, and Linton, who looked to be in his early thirties, was hardly of an age to set himself up as an elder. “And after this?”

Linton chuckled. “Wherever the road takes us,” he said. “We had a good run in the palace city for the harvest festivals, but I’d like to be in Principality by Winterstide, if not before.” He gave a conspiratorial wink. “Principality is where all the mercenaries make camp when they’re not on campaign. And there’s no one who’s more like to spend gold on drink, women, and amusement than a bunch of holed-up mercs!”

Linton paused and gave Jonmarc a sidelong glance. “You know, if you’re ever of a mind to see the world, I’ve got plenty of work for a good blacksmith. Takes one man just to keep the horses shod! My people get a tent to sleep in and food to eat, and enough coin to keep them in ale, that’s for certain.”

Jonmarc shook his head. “I don’t think Tucker would be too pleased at that,” he said. “And besides, my wife’s due any day now with our first born. Her mother’s a hedge witch and a healer—she’d like as not put boils on me if I tried a stunt like running off with a caravan.”

Linton clapped him on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t be the first to join under those circumstances,” he said. “But I applaud your loyalty, though I’m not a family man myself. Get on then,” he said, making a gesture with both hands meant to shoo Jonmarc back to his wagon. “I’ll see you around, if the Dark Lady brings us back these roads again.”

Just then, shouts and loud cries rose from the center of the caravan, where cages held wild animals from all over the Winter Kingdoms. The center of the caravan’s camp had bustled with people just moments before, but now the crowd parted to clear a path as the panicked shouts continued.

“By the Crone’s tits!” Linton blustered, planting himself in the center of the opened space. “What’s going on?”

Jonmarc spotted a dark form bounding toward them. Rippling with muscles under a sleek, dark coat of fur, the predator cat covered the ground as swiftly as a horse. The big cat growled, baring its sharp fangs, and ran straight for Linton.

The dark cat was on Linton almost before the caravan master could draw his sword. Linton let out a hoarse cry as he slashed at the cat. The crowd was backing away, and it was clear to Jonmarc that despite all the shouting, no help was on its way. Jonmarc looked around desperately, berating himself for leaving his swords in the wagon. He grabbed two of the heavy bridles he had delivered to Linton, and swung them with all his might at the cat that pinned Linton on the ground.

The steel in the first bridle slammed into the cat’s head, knocking the big animal to the side. A cheer went up from the crowd, but they got no closer to the fight. The cat growled at Jonmarc, momentarily forgetting the prey beneath it. The second bridle hit, opening a bloody gash by the wild cat’s ear. Jonmarc backed up, his heart racing, wondering if his damn fool plan would actually work.

The cat began to stalk him, and Jonmarc drew him off, giving Linton time to scramble to his feet. Jonmarc never took his eyes from the cat. The predator stepped up its pace, no longer walking but not yet a full run. Jonmarc swung the bridle again, and the cat slowed warily.

The cat tensed to lunge just as a silver streak gleamed in the air, and the animal fell to the side, with the hilt of a dagger protruding from its fur. Jonmarc looked up to see Linton, his clothes torn and bloodied, ready with a second throwing knife.

When the cat lay still, Linton waved to several nearby caravan handlers who grudgingly responded. “Tie it up and get it to a healer. It’s too damn hard to find cats like that to lose him now. And make sure he stays in his cage this time!” Linton growled.

Find the full short story from the Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures series on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. For more about Gail Z. Martin’s books and short stories, follower her @GailZMartin on Twitter or visit www.AscendantKingdoms.com

Excerpted with permission, © 2013. May not be copied or published in any form without written permission by the author.