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The Shadowed Path:  A Jonmarc Vanhanian Collection

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The Shadowed Path: A Jonmarc Vanhanian Collection

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Author: Gail Z. Martin
Publisher: Solaris, 2016

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Book Type: Collection
Genre: Fantasy
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Soldier. Fight slave. Smuggler. Warrior. Brigand Lord. You may have encountered Jonmarc Vahanian in the Chronicles of the Necromancer but you don't really know him until you walk in his footsteps. This is the start of his epic journey.

A blacksmith's son in a small fishing village before raiders killed his amily, Jonmarc was wounded and left for dead in the attack. He tried to rebuild his life, but when a dangerous bargain with a shadowy stranger went wrong, he found himself on the run.

Gail Z. Martin returns to the world of her internationally best-selling books with these thrilling ales of adventure and high fantasy, collected together here for the very first time.



"I'm going to take you down." Jonmarc Vahanian muttered between gritted teeth as he swung his sword. Steel clanged against steel as their blades hit, with a jolt that shuddered down Jonmarc's arm. His attacker disengaged and lunged, forcing Jonmarc into a series of desperate parries. One of the blows got inside his guard, slicing down his forearm.

He gave an angry roar and took the offensive, delivering blow after blow that rang out as their swords clashed. He scored a hit on his attacker's shoulder, only to be driven back with strikes that nearly took him off his feet.

His attacker wheeled into a high kick, and his boot connected hard with Jonmarc's sword arm, sending his blade flying and numbing his hand beyond use. In the next instant, a sword's point nicked the underside of Jonmarc's chin.

"I win."

Jonmarc's attacker lowered his sword and let it swing away, laughing. "That was a good run, Jonmarc. You're getting better."

Jonmarc swore and shook his numb hand. "Thanks, but I'd be dead by now if you'd meant any of that."

Karl Steen pushed a lock of dark red hair out of his eyes. "Maybe, maybe not. After all, you weren't going for the kill, either. It makes a difference, when you know it really matters." He met Jonmarc's gaze. "I think you know that."

Jonmarc looked away. At nearly eighteen years old, he was as tall as Karl, who was ten years his senior. Years of working with blacksmith's tools had made Jonmarc strong, and the tragedies of the last few years had given him reason to sharpen his sword skills. So far, he had been lucky enough to survive the fights that had come looking for him. But the closer the caravan got to the border with Principality, the less Jonmarc was willing to rely on luck.

"Can you show me how to do that kick?" Jonmarc asked.

Karl chuckled. "It's called an Eastmark kick for a reason. Eastmark's got one of the best armies in the Winter Kingdoms. They fight like dimonns, and I think they start training from the time they can walk."

"I heard they hire a lot of Principality mercs," Jonmarc said, following Karl over to a stump where a bucket of water and a tin cup awaited them. All around them, the regular bustle of the caravan continued, as the small group of onlookers to their sparring match drifted away.

Karl's expression darkened. "Oh, they hire plenty of Principality mercs. But never forget—if you're not of Eastmark, you're good enough to die for them, but never good enough to promote."

"Were you a merc?"

Karl looked away. "Yeah. For a while. Not anymore." His eyes narrowed as he looked back at Jonmarc. "That's what you're planning? Joining up once the caravan gets to the Principality border?"

Jonmarc shrugged. "If they'll take me. I heard it pays better than signing up for King Bricen's army."

Karl finished his water and handed the cup to Jonmarc. "Maybe. 'Course you've gotta live long enough to spend it. And your odds of that are much better serving the king."

"There's nothing to fight in Margolan except some highwaymen and the raiders near the coast."

"Exactly," Karl said, stabbing a finger into Jonmarc's chest to make his point. "So you get paid to march from here to there and there to here without being attacked. You draw your pay and spend it on ale and wenches in taverns where you're not likely to be killed before morning."

"Is that what you're planning to do?" Jonmarc asked, watching his sparring partner closely. Karl had joined up with the caravan a few weeks before, since the traveling show always needed guards. Jonmarc had been with the show for nearly a year as an apprentice blacksmith, ever since the night everything he loved went up in flames.

Maynard Linton's caravan journeyed from one side of Margolan to the other and back again, entertaining audiences with performers, musicians, acrobats, artisans, and soothsayers, exotic wild animals and unusual trinkets. People like Karl came and went. Most of the caravan crew were running away from something or someone, glad to be anywhere except where they'd been.

"Sounds like the good life to me," Karl said. "Adventure isn't what it's made out to be. What's the use of gold if you're dead?"

Jonmarc didn't answer. He retrieved his sword and cleaned it carefully before sheathing it. I'm not chasing adventure. I just want to get lost.

"If you do go—and I'm telling you it's a bad idea—stay well away from Nargi." Karl shook his head. "They're trouble."

"Isn't Nargi on the other side of Dhasson?" Jonmarc said, brushing the dirt from his trousers. "That's nowhere near Principality."

Karl nodded. "No, but the Nu River runs along the borders, and on past Trevath. Many a man's gotten off course and made landfall where he ought not be. If you're unlucky enough to blunder into Nargi, you don't leave."

"They don't take prisoners?"

Karl gave him a sidelong glance. "That's the problem. They do." He laced up the opening of his shirt. "The strongest ones, the best fighters, they take for their games. Make them fight each other to the death, wager on which one dies." He shook his head. "Horrible thing, being entertained by someone's suffering."

"How do you know about the games?" Jonmarc asked.

Karl looked away. "They took a friend of mine. He got lost on the river, and the Nargi got him. I heard from traders that they took him for the games. The better you are, the longer you suffer. He was good."

It was late spring, and the day was warm even in northern Margolan. Jonmarc grabbed his shirt from where it lay across a log and slipped into it. "I'll stay out of Nargi," he replied. "But right now, if I don't get over to the forge, Trent will have my head and I'll never make it to Principality." He gave Karl a mock salute. "Thanks for the lesson. Do it again tomorrow?"

Karl pulled his shirt over his head. "Sure. You know where to find me."

Jonmarc whistled as he walked the distance to the forge. Tomorrow, his body would be sore from the exertion of the sparring match, and he would have cuts and bruises to show for his effort. Still, he found it exhilarating when his sword and body moved together perfectly. He had fought for his life enough times that battle held no romance. But there was something about the way a fight narrowed his concentration, sharpened his senses and made time stand still that called to him. It didn't hurt that he was good at it.

"There you are!" Trent hailed him as he worked the bellows. "I'm glad Karl left you in one piece," he said, chuckling.

Jonmarc tied his chestnut brown hair back in a queue to keep it back from the fire. The jagged scar that ran from one ear down below his collar, a reminder of the night his family died, would not bother Trent. "Did you see us?"

"Just in passing. You seemed to be holding your own." Trent gave the furnace one more blast, and then rolled an iron bar into the heat.

Jonmarc used a scrap of fabric to daub at the fresh cut on his arm. It was a testimony to Karl's skill that the wound was shallow, enough to mark but barely deep enough to bleed. "Not as well as I'd like," he replied.

"You do all right for yourself in a real fight, which is all that matters," Trent said, turning the bar to heat it evenly.

Trent raised his hammer and began pounding the hot iron. Jonmarc bustled around the forge, bringing water for the cooling bucket, pumping the bellows and lining up more iron rods for Trent to work. When he had finished that, he tied on his own leather apron, pulled on his heavy gloves and started work on a fresh rod of iron. The pounding of hammer on anvil was like a heartbeat to Jonmarc, a comforting sound he had heard all his life.

Blacksmithing in the caravan was different from the work Jonmarc's father had done in their Borderlands village. There, the blacksmith took on jobs for everyone in town, and commission work if the smith's skill was good enough. Most of the work was functional: hoes and ploughs for the farmers, barrel hoops for the cooper, nails and tools for the joiner. Jonmarc's father forged swords commissioned by the constable and the captain of guards. Most of his items were made to sell.

In the caravan, almost none of their items were for sale. The caravan blacksmith kept the show on the road, forging horseshoes and wagon parts, pulleys for the tent riggers and pots for the cook. The entertainers and merchants brought in the crowds and earned the caravan's living. But behind the tents, it was the blacksmith, the farrier, and the cooks who kept the troupe in business.

"Do you have those horseshoes I ordered?" Corbin's voice thundered above the clatter.

Trent paused and pushed the sweat from his forehead with his arm. "Got a box of them in the corner," he said. "I'll have more for you soon."

"Don't forget," Corbin warned. "Or there'll be the Crone to pay." Corbin was as broad shouldered and strong as Trent, a good thing for a farrier who had to strong-arm stubborn horses. Jonmarc was officially apprenticed to Trent, but often found himself loaned out to give Corbin a hand. He did not mind the change of scenery.

A young man waited outside the forge for Corbin. He looked to be a year or so younger than Jonmarc, tall and gangly, with a badly pock-marked face. "This is my nephew, Pol," Corbin said as he hefted the heavy box of horseshoes. "He'll be with us for a while. I went into one of the towns we stopped at last week to see my sister, and found out that everyone in the family but Pol died of the pox. So he's with us for a bit, until he figures something out."

Pol did not look up as Corbin told his story. He kicked at the dirt and looked as if he wished to disappear from view. It wasn't pox that took my family, but I wager I know a bit about how he feels, Jonmarc thought. At least he's got Corbin to look after him.

Corbin had no sooner left than Maynard Linton bustled into the forge. "Trent! Jonmarc! I need to know when you'll have new stawar cages? Damn big cats. Their trainer is after me for bigger cages. Says the cats need more room to prowl, makes more people come to watch them."

Maynard Linton was a short, stocky man in his early thirties, the mastermind and impresario behind the caravan. He worried like a dyspeptic bookkeeper, and fought like a bee-stung bear. And while Linton's ethics were flexible on most matters, when it came to the caravan, he would face down the Formless One.

"Working on it now, Maynard," Trent replied, giving the iron another strike. "Be another day or two, like I told you the last time you asked."

Linton muttered a curse and glowered. "Hurry it up. I'm tired of hearing from the cat trainer. I've got other things to worry about."

"Anything that should worry us?" Trent asked. His hammer fell in a deafening clatter.

"Actually, yes. That's the other reason I walked over here." Linton stepped in closer to the furnace. Though it was late spring, they were far enough north that the days still held a nip in the air, especially when the wind blew. "I want Jonmarc to do a job for me."

Trent looked up. Linton was technically the master of everyone in the caravan, but Trent took his responsibility as Jonmarc's patron quite seriously. When Jonmarc sought refuge with the caravan with nowhere else to go, Trent took him in without question. And while everyone in the traveling show looked to Linton to watch out for their best interests, Trent and Corbin knew that Linton's schemes sometimes borrowed trouble.

"What kind of job?" Trent asked, setting down his heavy hammer.

"A bit of spying. Seems we have some competition."

Trent frowned. "What kind of competition?"

Linton leaned against one of the upright poles that held the lean-to roof over the forge. The whole set-up could be struck and packed onto a wagon, then rebuilt at the next stop. "I've heard tell there's a monstrosities show over on the other side of Dunleigh, near the cairns. Word has it their collection of oddities is quite impressive—enough so I'm afraid they're costing us business."

"If you already know that, why send Jonmarc?" Trent asked suspiciously.

Linton waved his hand as if to dispel the question. "Oh, I wasn't going to send him alone. I've already gotten Kegan and Dugan for the job, but I thought safety in numbers and all."

Kegan was a healer-in-training, and Dugan was a junior rigger. Both were close to Jonmarc's age, and the three were good friends. "There's also Pol," Jonmarc said. "Corbin's nephew."

Linton nodded. "Excellent. Four young men, out to see what they can see, wandering through the traveling show. I'll even give you the coppers for the fare, and all I want is a full story when you return."

Trent's eyes narrowed. "Spill it, Maynard. I've never known you to pay good money for someone's entertainment. What's really going on?"

Linton huffed in rebuttal, and then shrugged. "There are rumors, and it's hurting our attendance."

"What kind of rumors?" Trent had been with the caravan for years, and he was Linton's right-hand man. He had a sixth sense for when Linton was prevaricating, and the patience to wait him out. "Are they thieves? Smugglers?"

Linton shook his head. "No more than the rest of us," he replied. The caravan had been known to smuggle contraband from time to time when crowds were thin or times were hard. "But there are whispers about people going missing from the villages where the monstrosities show has been. It's said that the show just seems to appear out of nowhere one night, and that no one has ever seen it travel, save near a crossroads at midnight."

Trent snorted. "You're just jealous. Whoever's running that show might just be more of an impresario than you are."

Linton glowered and hiked his thumbs in the waistband of his trousers. "Huh. So you say. But if people believe what they're hearing, and they're frightened, they stay home. Which means no money to buy food at our next stop."

"So you want us to go in and look around, and then come back and tell you what we've seen?' Jonmarc asked.

Linton grinned. "That's all. Four young men out for the evening won't attract attention. Just have a good time and see what you see."

Trent folded his arms across his chest. "On one condition," he said. "Zane and Corbin and I follow them, as reinforcements." He held up a hand. "We won't go in unless there's a problem. But if any part of what you've heard is true, then I'm not going to send four boys in there by themselves."

"Fine, fine. Do what you want. But go tonight. Word has it the show arrives and leaves without warning. I want to know what we're up against." With that, Linton bustled out of the forge.

Jonmarc and Trent looked at each other for a moment. "Linton never ceases to amaze me," Trent said, shaking his head. "Pump the bellows," he ordered, and Jonmarc went to fan the flames. "Of all the nonsense—"

"What's a monstrosities show?" Jonmarc asked.

Trent shoved the iron rods back into the fire. "Just what it sounds like. A traveling show of monsters."


Trent shrugged. "Depends on your definition. Oddities. People and animals that aren't what you'd expect. Calves with two heads. A cat with a paw where its tail should be, or a dog with no ears, or a monkey with a third arm. Someone who can put a nail through his flesh without bleeding, or swallow fire. I heard tell of a man with an axe blade in his skull. Didn't kill him, and he couldn't take it out, so he charged people a skrivven apiece to look at him."

"Better than begging, I guess," Jonmarc said.

"Maybe," Trent replied. "Not many other places folks that different could get work, or much use for animals like that. But there are dark stories that maybe some of them weren't born like that." He struck the iron, ending the conversation, but his comments made Jonmarc all the more curious.

Copyright © 2016 by Gail Z. Martin


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