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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 53


Okay, everybody get that?  The long-promised bachelor party is arriving shortly - and this is a true OJRN! chapter (or OAGN or ODEN [I like the last for the pun but this is not all or even nearly all Dick's work, I have to admit]) - and OJRN! means Oh John Ringo No! for the reaction several (many?) readers had to Ghost when it came out several years ago.  Well, it had to happen.  And when better?

So.  Bachelor Party.  That means there's not too much left.  Two chapters.  And I have one of them just waiting for me to edit into shape.  Then - as they say in Hollywood - that's a wrap!



    “What now, Chief?”  Mike rubbed his arms and chest with a towel.  The workout he’d just finished was long overdue and a welcome break from the post-mission stresses.  He would have preferred another hour on the Nautilus, but the joints were letting him know it was time to stop.  The abuse from previous missions was making itself felt; he was sure he’d have to seek out Kurosawa and his needles.  Thus, his answer to Adams was perhaps a little gruffer than he’d intended.
    “The first stones are back from the cutter,” he answered, dropping a bag on the desk.  Mike sighed down into the expensive executive chair, appreciating the extra support it provided.  Definitely getting old.
    “Stones?  Oh, yeah, right.  Good.  Thanks.”
    “That’s it?  ‘Good.  Thanks’?  You know how hard it was to find a reputable gem cutter in this country?  And to keep him from stealing them?  I had to install cameras in his shop beforehand and prove that they were being watched!  Then I had to convince him that the chips and dust weren‘t a bonus for him to keep - you know how much even that stuff‘’s worth??  On top of which, I‘ve had to babysit his sorry ass the entire time, and you know how much I hate babysitting!”
    “I’m sure you got some of the Keldara to watch him, while you sat back and had a beer or two.”
    “That’s not the point!  The point is, I did you a favor and now it’s no big deal?”
    “Ah.  You want gratitude.  Why didn’t you say so?”  Looking up from his terminal, Mike put on a cheesy fake smile.  “Thank you ever so much for putting yourself out on my behalf!  I won’t ever forget this!”
    “Ah, fuck it.  You just better watch out.  Your bachelor party’s coming up really soon.”
    That was a threat.
    “You and Daria, eh?”  He raised a single eyebrow.  He’d seen Stasia do it to her charges, and it seemed to imply so much more than was actually said.  It made the target think whatever they feared most and gave the impression you knew more than you really did.
    JP didn’t blink.  He‘d been before enough boards of review to have the routine down pat.  Admit to nothing until necessary, and only the minimum then.  “Yep.  Me and Daria.”
    “And here you were complaining about Sivula getting married.”
    “That’s different.  I’m on short time, no wife or family back home, and I figure if I get out here and manage to get a position with you, the odds are pretty good that Uncle Sam won’t be able to call me back into service.”
    “How many years have you put in, JP?”
    “If you don’t mind me asking - why are you still a captain?”  Mike steepled his fingers and leaned back as if considering the entire man, past, present, and future.  Which, in a sense, he was.
    “I was a mustang.  Enlisted for four years, thinking it would be a good way to save up some money for college.  Made sergeant, but didn’t really love it, y’know?  I was planning to get out, and my CO knew it, so he made me an offer.  Hard to refuse the old man.  He had a way with words, and I swear, he could predict the future.  Kinda miss the old bastard, now.””
    “Yeah.  Came out a shiny new second john, didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but I’d signed for another six years.  Got all gung ho after 9/11 and went to Ranger school, qualified, and then got assigned to the 75th.  Worked my way up to commanding my company in between deployments and getting my hitch ’extended’ three times - ‘needs of the service‘, you know that bullshit.  So here I am.”
    “So why get out?  Why not go for field grade?  I can make a few calls, pull a couple strings…?”  He let the offer hang in the air.
    “Mike, after so many years in the Big and Little Sandbox, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  I love my country and want to serve, but I’m over thirty now - I still want some kind of life.  Kids, too, ones that know their daddy and have a single place to live.”
    “You think that you’ll get more of one here?”
    “I know that you do weird shit out here that’s so black nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk about it.  I also know that you don’t take orders from anyone, just requests that you think will help out the country.  That’s where I want to be.  Then you have the beer - all I have to say is, Oh My God.  And, of course, Daria.  She doesn’t want to leave here, she made that abundantly clear, so if I want her in my life, I have to share her place.  Besides, I hear the pay ain‘t bad, either, given the bonuses you gave my men - and thank you for that.  Bunch of ‘em really needed that, even if they didn‘t say anything about it.”
    “Even if it means you’re stuck in a training slot for the nonce?”
    “What do you think Rangers do all day we’re not deployed?  Carve ’snake-eater’ tattoos into our arms?  And does that mean you have a job for me?”
    “Possibly.”  Mike explained about the Mountain Rams.
    “They’re a ton of raw material, and, honestly, I don’t think they’re quite up to the standards of the Tigers of the Mountains.  Plus, they’re locals, not Keldara, and those two have never mixed well.  But, by God, they‘re willing, and doing their best.”
    “What are you looking at, then?”
    “There’s a lot more of them, and we‘ve only got the first batch up to snuff,” Mike said.  “Word’s gotten out, though, and they’re tired of being sheep.  I figure, if we can get them up to the standards of the Corps, there’s enough there to take the biggest burden off the Tigers.  Plus, having a potent military force which is politically neutral but strongly in support of the legitimate government will go a long way towards stabilizing the country and dragging it up towards the first world.”
    “You want the Rams to be the Army to the Tigers’ Rangers?”
    “Something like that, or at least National Guard.”
    “I can do that.  Tough to turn sheep into soldiers, but I hear you have a good cadre going?”
    “You won’t be alone.  I have a Scottish sergeant and a few Gurkhas working with them, but I want you to provide a general direction, an officer they can look up to and call their own.  Nielson‘s done his best, but he‘s got a bunch on his plate already.  And you could bring Daria in.  She‘d make a hell of an S-2 or -4.”
    “Can do.  Where will I slot into your command structure?”
    “You’ll report to Colonel Nielson, then to myself.  You’re essentially an independent command; you’re going to have enough men.”
    “Maybe I should have asked earlier, but just how many men am I looking at?”
    “Right now, we’re projecting a force of 750.”
    “Holy crap!  That’s more like a battalion!”
    “Yep.  Which is why, for my purposes, you’re going to get your silver oak leaf.  There’s a chicken in your future, too, but only after Neilson takes his medicine and accepts a star.  Totally unofficial outside the Valley, but it’ll give you some pull with the troops.  Think that‘ll suffice?”
    “Captain to Light Colonel in one jump?  That’ll do nicely.”
    “Once your Rams shake down, we’ll have to nominate some officer candidates and train ‘em up, but that’s a problem for later.”
    “You have an OCS?”
    “No, that’s why it’s a problem for later.”
    The planning meeting went on long into the night.
    “So what do you think?”
    “I think you’re insane, but that’s nothing new,” said Kacey.
    “Definitely.  We’re helicopter pilots, not fixed-wing, and sure as hell not something like a Backfire!” added Tammy.  “No matter how sexy it is!”
    Mike had suggested that his two pilots get some time in the Backfire before John and Chris - he couldn’t call them Hardesty and Watson, it sounded too much like a bad law firm that advertised late nights for personal injury claims - returned to their regular jobs.  Hardesty wasn’t an issue; as long as Chatham didn’t need him back, he was perfectly willing, okay, overjoyed, to earn twice his usual pay playing with a supersonic bomber.  That briefly brought his mind to the stack of claims for broken windows from a nearby village.  Again.  Hardesty was having way too much fun.
    Watson was a different story.
    He’d been “shanghaied” - his words - by OSOL, and he was dammed if he was going to spend, quote, any more time in a godforsaken third-world shithole of a country, unquote, than he had to.  He was willing to finish familiarizing Hardesty - but with John’s extensive background, that wouldn’t take long.  And he flat-out refused to consider staying on longer, despite promises of bonuses comforts available in the Valley.
    Mike had considered the benefits of having Pierson ‘advise’ Watson that his time in Georgia was going to be extended.  In the end, though, he figured that the misery the arrogant pilot would produce far outweighed any possible gains, and so had let Watson know that he’d be able to depart as soon as Hardesty reported himself ready to pilot the Backfire solo.
    That wasn’t going to be more than another couple days.  Unless they buzzed another town at full burners.  He should never have let them borrow his copy of Top Gun.  Dammit, it was a bomber-turned-transport, not a fucking fighter!
    However, that was going to leave Mike with a big, expensive aircraft and zero trained pilots.  Umarov had volunteered his pilots’ services, but, while they were competent enough in their SU-25 Frogfoots (despite their nearly thirty-year-old design, still being produced in a factory outside Tbilisi), he didn’t quite trust them with his supersonic bomber on a regular basis.  Hence his suggestion to Kacey and Tammy, that they learn how to fly the beast.  He thought they’d be excited.
    Boy, was he wrong.
    “It’s a totally different kind of flying.”
    “Almost contradictory, in fact.”
    “There’s different procedures and protocols to follow.”
    “Different reactions to train.”
    “And if we become proficient at flying Grez -”
    “- We might lose our tough with the Hinds.”
    “Dragon would get lonely if I didn’t let him feed occasionally!”
    “And, if you’re going to take me out of Valkyrie, then, sir, with respect, Fuck No!”
    So it had gone, a verbal tennis match, with Mike the only spectator.  Now the Marine was coming out of his pilots, and he knew it was time to put a stop to it.  Mike’s neck was weary from the constant back-and-forth nature of their argument, so he rested his head on his hand for a moment.
    “So what you’re saying is neither of you could fly it without giving up the choppers.”
    They shared a glance, then Kacey’s pilot’s ego took over.
    “We could fly her.  Probably not well, certainly not up to her abilities.  But we each have some hours in fixed-wing aircraft.  Much smaller, but the principles the same.  We can get by, for short periods.”
    “We just don’t want to transition out of our Hinds,” admitted Tammy.
    “Why us?” asked Kacey.
    “You’re the only pilots I have,” answered Mike, somewhat amused by the question.
    “You mean, we’re the only rotary-wing pilots you have,” agreed Tammy.  “Fixed-wing aircraft are much easier to learn how to fly than helicopters, though.”
    “I’ll bet you could find a half-dozen volunteers among the Keldara without even trying!” offered the other Bobbsey twin, and the tennis match was back on.
    “Let’s see, there’s Serena Mahona, she always wants to deadhead on training flights -”
    “And Akilina Kulcyanov -”
    “Who’s that little blonde?”
    “The one that D’Allaird was sniffing around?”
    “Yeah, until she gave him a black eye.”  Tammy smirked.  “He’s not going to equate ‘small and blonde’ with ‘stupid’ any more, no matter how perky her tits are!”
    “Lizaveta Shaynav.  She’s got the reactions, for sure.  And then there’s also -”
    “Whoa!  We’re talking a multiple-million-dollar, supersonic converted and upgraded bomber here, not a farm tractor!” interrupted Mike.
    “Your point?”
    “My point?  Do you really think these girls are able to handle piloting a fucking Tu-22M?”
    “Did you think that any of these ‘girls’ would be able to run an Intel shop like Grez?”
    “Or shoot like Katrina?”
    “Or lay mortars like Jessia?”
    “Or rewrite code like Creata?”
    “Okay, okay, I give!  What about men?  Gonna have some bruised egos if you only select the girls for training.”
    “What about them?” asked Tammy.  “It’s been proven, over and over, that women have better reaction times and can make better pilots than men.  Besides, all the young men are in the Tigers.  Don’t think many will give that up.”
    “Ask, anyways.  Just say you’re looking for volunteers.  Then make a list and I’ll give it to John, on one condition.”
    They looked at him warily before replying.  “What’s the condition?” asked Kacey.
    “You two take some ‘refresher’ training.  Once John returns to Chatham, unless they get a shitload of hours behind the stick, I want a more experienced, veteran hand available to fly with them.”
    “That makes sense,” said Tammy.  “But you ought to include Chief D’Allaird as well.  He’s got plenty of bootlegged hours.”
    “And while we’re on the subject -”
    “Yes?”  Now Mike was wary.
    “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to start training some of our crew chiefs how to fly the birds.”
    “You’re not planning on leaving, are you?”  Mike frowned.
    “Hell no!” snapped Kacey.  “The hours are good, the pay outstanding, and we get to blow shit up!  How could life get any better than that?”
    “Getting laid more often?” said Tammy.  Kacey glared at her.
    “So why?”
    “Redundancy, for one,” said Tammy.  “You don’t want to be down a chopper if either of us should come down with the flu, or break a leg, or -”
    “I get the idea.  Okay, good point, but not enough.”
    “That brings us to the second point,” continued Tammy.  “If we train up more pilots, especially from among our crew chiefs who at least have some familiarity with the birds, we’ll effectively double our usefulness.  Right now, at some point - and God knows we’ve pushed right to it! - we simply have to stop and get some crew rest.  If we have a relief pilot, even one that we have to co- for, we’ll be able to increase our endurance considerably.  You can‘t afford to have us end up like the girls in the Cave did this last op.”
    “Now, that makes sense.  I want you to start small at first, though.  No more than one relief pilot from each of you.  You know your chiefs; I’ll go with your recommendations.  Now, is there anything else?”
    “No, Kildar,” answered Kacey, and the two pilots beat a hasty retreat.
    “Do you think he knows we’ve already started training?” asked Tammy when the heavy door had closed behind them.
    “I sure as hell hope not!  How many hours does Naida have now?”
    “Fifty-three.  Anechka?”
    “Forty-two, but she really wants to play with the guns.”
    “I know; Naida is still griping about not being able to take out the Administrator’s Humvee.”
    “Still?  After all these months?”
    “Yep.  She says that target practice just isn’t the same.”
    They’d made their way to their quarters.  “What’s on the agenda tonight?” asked Kacey.
    “Nothing much,” said Tammy.  “Did you hear about Daria?”
    “Yeah,” grinned Kacey.  “She snagged him right out from under you!”
    “Not quite under me, but close enough,” agreed Tammy.  “What about you?”
    “The Chief asked me to drop by, help him plan the Kildar’s bachelor party.  Said to bring the Marine playbook on nasty tricks.”
    Tammy brightened at that.  “Sounds interesting.  Care if I come along?”
    “Naah, I’m sure he won’t mind.  But I give you the signal, you get scarce.”
    “Why?  You planning a bombing run on him?  And who said I wouldn’t want in?”
    Kacey shrugged.  “Not planning on it, and no, I won’t share - that never works out!”
    “And he’s a SEAL - he likes ’em young, you think of that?”
      Hell, I’m a Marine - adapt and overcome!”  
    “Do you know how difficult this was?”
    Actually, what the Chief said came out more like, “D’yuh know ho’ diff’cult thish wa’?”  The bachelor party had begun, officially, only an hour ago, but it seemed that Adams had started his celebration quite a bit earlier.  Truth be told, so had Mike, though he wasn’t nearly as badly off.
    “How difficult?”  His joints were warmed by a recent session with Kurosawa, while his belly had been warmed by two fingers’ of single malt that Bridgewater had claimed was over a hundred years old.
    “Very fuckin’ diff’cult.  But yer worth it, Ash-Boy!”
    Mike was actually impressed.  Instead of holding the party in the caravanserai - a nightmare Mike had had more than once in the past week - the Chief had appropriated one of the emergency shelters in the valley.  And, with the possible exception of Stella and the Ready Team, it seemed like the entire Valley had made an appearance.
    A huge bonfire had been lit out front, casting flames thirty feet into the evening sky.  A separate fire pit was laid, and at least two steer had been butchered and were grilling over the coals, casting their fragrant aroma far and wide.  Turnips and parsnips, harvested after resting underground all winter, had been transformed into a savory hash,  Fresh-baked bread had appeared as well.
    Then the beer was brought out.
    Not the slop they made for export.
    Not the slightly better product they sold in the village.
    Not even Mother Griffina’s brew, regarded as consistently the second-best among the Families.
    No, this was all - all - Mother Lenka’s winter brew.  Ten full barrels of dark ale, which made Mike wonder just how long Katrina had been planning her little ambush, and also if the old witch really could see the future.  Her brew was liquid gold, carefully hoarded and always in scarce supply.  And the dark ale was only made in times of great good fortune and prosperity.  Then, it was held for drinking on rare occasions.  The last, he’d heard, was the funeral of ten Keldara who’d died trying to rescue some of their own from slavers, and that had been over twenty years ago.
    That had been the last time Keldara had gone to the Halls, the last time the tun had received warriors.  That had been early in the winter, and the bodies had awaited internment until the ground thawed enough for the burial.  More than enough time for her to prepare her ale.  But, for her to provide ten barrels was simply unheard-of, impossible!  Unless…
    Overanalyzing again, he told himself firmly.  No Gods talked to her, let her know the date…
    Bowing to American traditions, Katrina was nowhere to be seen.  In fact, there were very few women here at all, Mike realized with a start.  Jessia, with Andrew.  Daria, with JP, and those two were closer than a pair of horny teenagers.  Cold water wouldn‘t do anything there except steam, and he doubted a crowbar would do any good either.  Stasia, with Jack - he noted that pairing with a wrench.  Well, he had always insisted that she was a free agent, and it seemed that she had reconciled herself to his impeding wedding in her own manner.
    Then he saw Elena and Catrina?  That meant that their freelance job was finally over.  Maybe he’d be able to trade for some info - he’d need a couple new playmates in the Dungeon if Stasia was really moving on to Jack.  They’d be happier than a rabbit in a lettuce patch over that tidbit.  The marriage to Katrina, well, they could handle that too.  They knew about his dark side and would take turns when it got too heavy for him to keep inside any longer.  They might even try to recruit Katrina, though she’d more likely hold the lash than take it.
    “Hey!  When did you get back?  And where’s the rest of the team?”
    Bright smiles lit their faces as they bounced through the crowd towards him.  They very little they weren’t wearing wouldn’t keep them warm, he could tell that.
     “Mouse and God-boy are up at the serai.  She said something about checking in on her feeds?”
      “Shota and the Mules are showering; boy, do they need it!  You know how rank it can get in a cargo plane for six hours?”
    “They still played in the tournament, but didn’t take time to shower up.  Smelled worse than they do after a summer op, you know?”
    “Yeah, I do, actually.  What tournament?  And Lasko?  McKenzie?”
    “I think they’ve both turned in,” answered Catrina, avoiding the first question and settling in on his right.  Even through his pants Mike could feel that she didn’t have anything under her skirt.  He immediately stiffened, to his surprised, but then he remembered Kurosawa’s promise.  “Enough vigor for three young men!”  Guess he wasn’t kidding.
    “Mac said he wanted to get back to training tomorrow, see what the Gurkhas got into in his absence,” said Elena, on his left.  She managed to wiggle into that side of his lap and, like her co-conspirator, was wearing nothing under her too-short skirt.  His hand stroked her thigh absently.  “And Lasko’s just old.”
    “Not that old,” giggled Catrina.  “Not much older than the Kildar, and younger than the Colonel.  Wasn’t he surprised that time?”
    “Oh yes!” giggled Elena.  “That was fun, though he was pretty pissed about being late for his morning meeting.”
    “Is there a story there?” asked Mike.
    “Kildar!  What happens on mission -” began Elena.
    “- stays on mission,” finished Catrina.  “But if you’re very nice to us, we might just show you what we mean,” she continued, tickling his ear with her finger.  Elena, bolder than her sidekick with Mike’s hand on her leg, licked his other earlobe.
    “This is your bachelor party,” purred Elena into the same ear.  “Your last ‘fling’, yes?  We saw enough of them in Lunari to know all about them, how it’s a drunken debauch.”  She looked up at Catrina and winked.  “It was a loooong, boring flight home, and we thought of  plenty to things to keep us…amused.”  She wriggled her butt on his lap, putting pressure on him and getting even more of a rise.  And she knew it, too.
    Catrina took the glass from Mike’s free hand and took a long draught of the beer.  “Ahhh..” she practically moaned.  “Do you know how hard it is for a woman to find a drink in Dubai?  Let alone anything like this?”
    “You have no idea,” she answered, draining the rest of the beer.  “Get me another?” she asked winsomely.  Elena pouted when he stood, but they shielded him for the moment it took to adjust himself, swatting away their too-helpful hands.  Some things, a man has to do himself.
    Somehow, Mike found himself fetching drinks and first steaks off the oxen back to the two women, who attacked the beef as if they hadn’t eaten in days - which, he reflected, they might not have - yet retained a girlishness about them that was totally at odds with how quickly the two ribeyes disappeared.  Elena impishly licked a trickle of juice from Catrina’s lips and chin to tease their Kildar.
    Elena only smiled impishly.  He felt his pants tighten again.  What the hell had Kurosawa laced his tea with?
    “So,” she said, sliding a hand under his shirt, “When does the fun begin?”
    “Any time you want,” he answered.  “But there’s a little matter of the other guests standing around.”
    A bottle of Elijah Craig - eighteen-year-old single-barrel - appeared at Elena‘s shrill whistle, with three water glasses, and they started doing shots, then doubles, then - well, they started to measure it by fingers.  That bottle didn’t last long, with both women matching him drink-for-drink.  The body shots, between their naturally firm breasts, elicited cheers from the Keldara in attendance.
    Neither did the second bottle.  That bottle was different.  Green, triangular glass.  Glen something-or-other.  Gold label, wax-sealed cork, and dusty as hell.  How these two managed to get into Bridgewater’s whiskey vault, he didn’t know, and wasn’t sure he wanted to.
    At one point, Mike was sure he saw the Chief, in full camo, low-crawling across the ground.  What the fuck was that SEAL doing?  It wasn’t a party for him unless he did something spectacularly stupid.  When a certain almost-as-drunk Hind pilot reached down and grabbed his ear, Mike smiled.  And when the same pilot dragged him off, begging for forgiveness, he had to laugh, remembering other, happier, simpler days.
    Sometime the party moved gradually outside.  Mike no longer had his chair-cum-throne by the double doors, where he could observe both inside and out.  Rather, he was seated by the remains of the huge fire, near the roasting oxen, where the flames would neither singe his skin nor set the building alight.
    The night was clear and surprisingly warm for the season, with only the slightest chill to encourage the girls to cuddle closer to him.  They dispensed with the glasses and drank straight from the bottle, something that would have mortified Bridgewater.  Fine.  He wouldn’t tell him.
    He traded whiskey-filled kisses with his two lap vixens until a sudden drum roll burst from the darkness, causing him to stop his playful teasing of the girls, but the whiskey bottle stayed close.
    As the rolling drums thrummed a steady rhythm, the spectators turned towards the darkness on the north side of the party, parting as if they’d been aware of the interruption and had practiced.
     From either side, two teams - Yosif’s and Vil’s - emerged, dressed, not as the modern warriors they had become, nor the peasants they had been, but in far older, more traditionally Georgian dress: red chokhas, flowing, loosely-cut robe-like blouses bearing bandoliers across their chests and elaborate decorations at the sleeves.  Around their waists, all carried a mix of long knives and the favorite weapon of the Keldara, the axe.
    Hoods down over their faces, they formed two lines facing each other.
    “What is this?” asked Mike.
    “It is the Khanjluri dance,” whispered Elena.  “They will compete, in pairs with their knives and their axes, trying to copy exactly the other’s moves.  The first one to fail, withdraws, and is replaced by another from his side who attempts the same steps.  It goes on until one side has used all of it’s dancers.  Ooh, they’re starting!”  She bounced on his lap, and somehow her hand had pushed Mike to that side of his pants.  She nestled it between her ass cheeks under her skirt.
    Catrina pouted.  She’d been playing with the outline of his cock for a few minutes and seemed to have other plans for it, which had suddenly been derailed.  Setting the bottle between his knees, he pulled them closer, sliding his hands up their ribs, eliciting giggles and wiggles and the familiar Goosebumps that told Mike that he was doing it right.  Then he cupped a breast and began to idly tease their nipples as he focused on the dancers.
    Yes, it looked like they were ready to begin.
    The ’zzzzip’ and ’snap’ of his button went unnoticed, as the crowd had turned to watch dancers with growing excitement.  Two hands met under his boxers and found what they sought, stroking him with at the same pace as he did their nipples.
    One way or another, this promised to be a good show.  And the bottle was perfectly sized to hid what the girls were actually grasping, he noticed, wondering if that was planned.
    Edvin Kulcyanov came out for Yosif’s team, while Karoly Makanee matched him from Vil.  By unspoken agreement Edvin went first, with simple actions - tossing the knife from hand to hand, combined with a bit of dancing.  Karoly mimicked it perfectly, then began his routine.  Two blades spun in a blur in his hands, then launched into the air and down to be caught precisely as the pommels came even with his palms.  Edvin nearly managed it, but mistimed his throw on with his left hand.  Rather than catch it blade-first, he wisely let it drop.
    The gudastviri and chonguri - the Georgian equivalents of bagpipes and guitar or mandolin - stopped playing when Edvin’s knife landed.  Only the doli, the drum, continued to hold the beat while Edvin retreated back to his side to some mild ribbing after he‘d bent down to retrieve the blade.  It seemed that his pants were a size too small, and he‘d split them when he‘d swooped down.  A tiny cousin of his came up, violating protocol, and kicked him in the shins for ruining her seamstress work.
    The hands working him tightened and twisted, focusing him on the immediate and forgetting his other train of thought.
    “You’re gonna pay for that, girls.”
    “Hush, Kildar.  There’s still more…dancing, to come.  So don’t you, yet.”
    Vugar was next.  The music resumed, and Karoly repeated his routine, which Vugar nailed.  Then it was his turn.
    Back and forth the two teams went, neither gaining a decisive advantage over the other despite the increasing complexity and danger of the knife- and axe-handling.  Finally, it was down to Yosif and Vil, Mike sure that they’d earned these spots, rather than their teams ‘throwing’ their matches to force the finale.  The dances had been complex as hell with the blades flashing in the firelight.
    As had the dual handiwork of the two vixens in his lap.  Soon it got to be too much, and Elena swooped down to take the tip of Mike into her mouth as Catrina maintained the rhythm.  Mike’s last rational thought was that he was glad they had moved into the semi-darkness, where nobody could see against their fire-blindness.  Then there was no more thinking.
    He’d had to actually bite his tongue to keep from shouting in pleasure, but with the music shrieking and the doli pounding as Vil led off with a spectacular display of axe-handling that left the gathered Keldara breathless nobody but the girls and himself noticed the byplay and aftereffects.  The girls shared the Kildar‘s gift, blocking his view for a second, then chased it with ale from the barrel set near his chair.
    Meanwhile, Yosif calmly matched him, move for move, blades blurring and flying around his head and arms, between his legs and around his waist.  The girls didn’t let Mike relax either, one nibbling his ear and the other stroking him hard again.  He was almost hypnotized by the combination of sensations, music, and flashes from the blades before him.
    Then it was Yosif’s turn in the challenge.  Gathering his concentration, he raised his arms, axes in hand, until they were fully extended from him.  Then, he raised the axes so they balanced in his palms on their hafts - and held them there, motionless.  One minute.  Two.  Three.
    Finally, after four minutes, sweat streaming from his forehead, he grasped the handles and lowered them.  Vil stepped forward and prepared for the simple-appearing challenge.  The girls changed positions again, and now there were different hands on him.
    Fine, he thought.
    He let his hands drift down, under their skirts.  Just as he thought, no underwear.  Just a moist and freshly-shaved nexus, something none of the girls in his harem did.  These two, though, from their lives in Lunari, had quickly learned that it made cleaning easier, and made them appear younger in the eyes of their clients.  So they’d continued the practice after their rescue.
    Up the axes went, onto the palms.  Vertically they stood, living symbols of the Keldara and their centuries-old warrior tradition.
    Mike slid fingers down, searching, probing.  He knew these girls well, and knew just what they liked.  There.  His fingers moved in a quick, complex motion.
    One minute.
    Both girls were trembling, shaking like jello, clenching his shirt and moaning quietly against his neck.  He didn’t relent.
    Two minutes.
    Elena came first, biting his neck to muffle her scream.  Then Catrina on the other side.
    Thr - one wobbled.
    Yosif was mobbed by his team members and carried off, out of the firelight.  
    “That was amazing,” said Mike, awed and exhausted.
    “Amazing almost covers it,” murmured Catrina.  “Oh, you meant the dance?”  She giggled.  “I think it’s time for round two.  Yes, Elena?”
    “Just you wait,” purred Elena, nodding and unzipping his fly fully.  “You haven’t seen amazing yet.”
    “Elena, someone might see -”
    “Not a word, Kildar.  Now we give to you for all you have given to us,” she said, then there was no more chance for talk as she took him into her mouth, leaning precariously from her perch on his leg.  Mike found his hand steered behind and under her skirt by Catrina for support, who slipped off his lap.  She took the bottle with her and adjusted her outfit.
    Catrina then carefully masked any view of Elena from the crowd, performing a sensuous dance of her own before him with the green bottle.  The light glinting off the glass caught the eyes of any who looked their way and distracted them from anything else.  And she made sure that he saw everything of hers, too, while concealing it from the crowd.  It may have shielded him from viewing the dance, not that he really gave a damn at the moment, but it certainly didn’t distract him.
    If anything, the sight of Catrina undulating and writhing before him added to the sensations of Elena’s expert tongue and mouth teasing him.  It wasn’t long before he released into her mouth; expertly, she caught every drop.
    Taking a solid gulp of beer, Elena said, “That was just to take the edge off.”  She giggled.  “Well, the second edge.”  She refilled the mug.  “The first was just blowing off the foam,” and set action to words.  “The girls have something special planned for you, by the way.  We‘re just the warm-up act.”
    “And we missed you, too,” said Catrina, kissing him as though she might not get the chance to do so again.
    “Oh?” asked Mike, intrigued.  It hadn’t been that long, had it?  He thought.  Maybe a month before his engagement.  That would be when Katrina was making her plans, and making clear her plans for Mike, his bed, and sharing either.  No wonder these two were taking this chance!
    “Yes,” agreed Catrina.  “But it will have to wait until later.  There‘s more entertainment planned for you.  So you‘d best watch and clap a bit.  We‘ll let you keep you hands free.  For now.” Elena pouted again as Mike slid his hand from under her ass and the attached fingers out.  “Watch, now.  Your girls have been practicing in secret for weeks, even before you left for your trip.”
    Another team, Padrek’s, had taken the impromptu stage.  Arminis stepped forward, and as the instruments began to play again, Tinata joined him, dressed in a gauzy green and yellow creation that barely concealed her ample breasts.  A veil covered her flowing red hair.  The two began a flirtatious dance with alluring looks and brief touches, growing more and more bold as the music played.  As the dance seemed to reach a climax, Padrek broke in roughly, separating the pair.
    Though it had none of the rawness of Catrina’s dance, Tinata’s dance had something sensual about it which drew everyone’s attention.  Especially since it was one of the Kildar’s women dancing, in so daring a costume before everyone, and not simply for her master’s pleasure.
    Now, Tinata stood to the side, chest heaving and blushing as she noticed all the eyes upon her for the first time.  Reluctantly those eyes turned and watched as the two men, Arminis and Padrek, ‘fought’ over her, the stylized dance moves so emphatic that Mike could almost see the knives flashing out.
    Again, the music built to a climax, then Tinata stepped back in, tossing her veil between the two.  Chastened, they withdrew to either side while Tinata performed a solo dance, ending with her picking up her veil and stalking off, with the haughtiness only a redhead could manage.
    Tinata and Katrina in his bed at the same time.  The thought held a special allure yet also caused a deep fear.  Would it be worth the risk?  Kat had said she’d share his bed with the harem, though she hadn’t exactly said she’d share Mike with them, or at the same time.  With her mind, he was sure that she had parsed that promise in a most exacting way.  And heaven help if he managed to cross her.  Maybe letting her study with Kurosawa wasn’t quite a sane idea after all.
    As soon as she faded into the darkness, Arminis and Padrek resumed their ‘fight’, with members of the team falling in to either side.  Now that they were separated, Mike noticed subtle differences in dress between the two.  This ‘battle’ went on for nearly ten minutes before Tinata returned, again tossing her veil between the combatants.  She began to dance again around the fringes of the group, sometimes singly, sometimes with a member of one faction or the other, working her way to the center where Arminis and Padrek awaited.  They were so into the dance they were trading looks which promised death and mayhem.  The ancient blood was certainly up, and he was glad that no one had showed signs of being a berserker.
    Finally she reached the center and began her final dances.  She chose Padrek first, earning a fulminating glare from Arminis which went totally unnoticed.  The pair were practically a single body, yet as they spun around Mike could see clearly between them; not even their palms touched.  Finally Tinata spun away from Padrek and into Arminis’ arms.  They spun away as the tempo increased, leaving Padrek behind.  Again they moved as one, closer together than she had been with Padrek but still untouched, until the music reached a crescendo and then fell into a sudden silence.  Both partners stepped away, the men anxiously awaiting her decision.
    She swayed between the two for a moment, then fell back solidly against Arminis.  His arms went around her waist and she half-turned her face to meet his for a kiss.  Unnoticed by the pair, Padrek and his supporters stalked off into the night, followed closely by the rest of the team.  Finally, as the music resumed quietly, Arminis and Tinata strolled away into the dark.  Now where would they be going?  He hoped that she was going to deliver him to his wife, who’d administer what Hardesty would call ‘a good rogering’ as soon as they could find a dark corner..
    As for Tinata…  Well, she had her toys.  And he’d have to find time for her later tonight.  Unlike most of the harem, she never showed the slightest interest in any of the other girls, so he’d always made sure to give her a little extra attention.
    “That was the Khevsuruli,” said Elena.  “It is a courtship dance.”
    “Really?” he couldn’t resist saying.  “I never would have guessed.  So, what’s next?”  He used the bottle to conceal his rigidity - again! - from any passers-by.
    “Now we drink more!” shouted Catrina to general applause.  “Drink!  Drink!  The Kildar commands it!  It’s a party!”
    After that, Mike’s memory got a little hazy.  He vaguely remembered Tinata joining them, and at one point he had a very sharp image of Catrina licking Tinata’s neck, but very little else.  So she wasn’t against being tended by another woman.  Interesting.  Though he did note she didn’t reach for the other girls, preferring to devote her attentions to him.
    Adams made a long, rambling, mostly incoherent toast, ending with, “An’ I promise I won’ tell her why you’re really called Ass-Boy,” before collapsing.  Kacey looked down at the Chief, shrugged, and, with the assistance of a Keldara, dragged him into a clearing where some were already dancing.  Later, Mike noticed him propped by the door of the shelter - surely the work of some merciful soul, as Adams was beyond Vegas drunk.
    A third bottle of whiskey appeared but was quickly whisked away into the crowd, so he turned to the ale.  He could taste a definite difference.  No tiger berry, but some different spices.  He thought it would make a good variety for export, if he could persuade Mother Lenka.
    A boombox appeared and popular western songs started playing.  It was quite the mix, from rock and pop to slow tunes to goth.  Mike even caught a few techno songs, which the younger crowd seemed to love.  The guys with the instruments tried to play along whenever something local popped up, but soon gave up.  The mix - excepting the goth - wasn’t anything Mike would have chosen, but it was intended to bring people together, give them something to slow dance to as well as being able to let loose if so inclined.
    Many of the younger women took the opportunity to be as daring as they thought they could get away with, catching the eyes of the single men in the crowd.  The three girls wiggling in his lap, meanwhile, kept rhythm to the music too.  Each took a quick break to ‘find the bushes’, giggling upon their return and teasing him further.  He was sure he’d been taken by each at least once, but couldn’t be sure when, or what order.  His alcohol-soaked attention was being yanked in all directions by the girls, and the music, and other distractions.  Not all of them pleasant.
    He remembered Vanner coming over with a stack of paperwork.
    “Why now?”
    “Needs to be done today,” he replied, shrugging.  So Mike signed, even as someone was nibbling his neck.  Somehow Vanner kept a straight face through the entire pile before smirking, “Have a good night, Kildar.”  As soon as he walked off, Mike felt someone else fully engulf him and squeeze him with well-trained muscles.  That had to be Tinata.  The mystery of the two dozen hollow rubber balls from Romania was finally solved!
    He came hard again.  After he did, Tinata kissed him and dismounted, saying something about checking in at the clinic for something-or-other.  Catrina took her chance and slammed down onto him before he could even begin to shrink, finally releasing fully and crying out into his chest.  Then she managed to turn and guide him to another home while Elena pleasured her.
    How the girls kept a straight face while people wandered by to wish him well he didn’t know, and how the Keldara managed to remain selectively blind was another puzzle, but he didn’t waste much thought on it.  Instead, he concentrated on hiding his, ‘I’m getting laid right now!’ grin, a task that become more and more difficult as the night went on and the girls showed no sign of slowing, and neither did he.  Whatever Kurosawa put into the tea, he ought to market it, he’d make a fuckin’ fortune!
    “It’s good to be king!” he said abruptly, drawing confused looks from some of the closer crowd.
    Even Mother Lenka paid her complements, speaking to the girls in rapid Keldaran.  The only word Mike caught was the borrowed ‘clinic’.  Maybe they needed uppers to try to keep up with him?  His ego was pleased with that thought.
    Eventually, the Keldara returned to their homes, and the smaller group made their weaving way up to the serai, Mike supported by the girls.  They left the Chief, snoring, on the ground by the fire, his face treated with a permanent marker to look like tribal tattoos.  He’d deal with that in the morning.
    “Tol’ ya that messing with Marines was a dumb idea, Ass-boy!”
    “Why do you call him that, Kildar?  He doesn’t seem to do that more than the other.”
    “How would you know, Catrina?”
    She giggled.  “We hear everything.  Don’t we, Elena?”
    “He does do some things you don’t, Kildar.”
    “Don’t wanna know.  I have some morals,” he said with as much righteous indignation he could manage.  “There are some things even I won’t do.  Ask him when he wakes up about the Philippines and the ‘Apple-Banana’ story.”
    At the serai there was a brief debate as to where to reconvene.  Elena and Catrina voted for Stasia’s dungeon, but were overruled by the rest of the harem, who had gradually drifted in, along with some of the Valkyries.  Eventually the party staggered out into the harem garden.  Torches were lit around the perimeter, and some of the hardier fruit trees were beginning to blossom.  Surrounded by the perfume of a dozen beautiful women, Mike was dizzier than he’d been on the long walk back up to the serai.  Though, to be honest, the walk had done him good, and had allowed him to pass back to being just pleasantly buzzed instead of totally fucking drunk.
    To Mike’s surprise, a buffet-style spread had been laid out by Mother Savina and Mother Griffina, while Kacey and Tammy took care of the booze.  Finger foods, hot and cold, suitable for nibbling were arranged on two large tables: Soko (seasoned mushrooms), Satsivi (chicken in a walnut sauce), Boche Bread (coarse potato cakes with bacon fat), and then Mike saw the ‘American’ end: gigantic shrimp cocktails, mozzarella sticks, potato skins, sliders, and - were those buffalo wings?  That was something he’d missed on his recent travels, and he loaded a plate with them.
    Big, meaty, juicy wings, lightly breaded and fried, tossed in a rich, buttery, hot sauce - perfect!  The gardens had just started producing peppers the previous year, after he and the Chief had explained their essential nature as a vital cooking ingredient and a virtual necessity for happiness.
    Mother Griffina had, after much experimenting, been able to produce her own version of a hot sauce that used equal parts vinegar and vodka for a base.  With aging, it got even better.  The militia had created their own version of chili, though the best that could be said for it was it was a test of manhood rather than good eats.  The Chief had sampled it, pronounced it, ’mildly entertaining,’ and polished off his bowl.  And a second.  And a third.  That raised him to just below the level of godhood to the Keldara. 
    The other expatriates were digging into the state-side food with relish too, while the Keldara were more divided.  Catrina, Daria, Elena, and others who had traveled outside the Valley were ranging the entire length of the tables, choosing the local and, to them, more ‘exotic’ foods.  Others, like Jessia and Kseniya, stuck mostly to the foods they were familiar with.
    Then there was Mouse.  Somewhere along the line she had joined the gathering, and was now stoking her ravenous fires with just about anything she could get close to her mouth.  Mike guessed that the trip to Dubai hadn’t included much she considered ‘good’ food.  She was definitely making up for it now.  Kurosawa, who held a soft spot for her, was acting as her personal servant for now.  While Mike watched, he brought another piled high plate of delicacies to add to the pile of six already stacked before her.
    “Hey, Mouse, glad you came out of your hole!” said Mike.
    “Hellofph,” she swallowed.  “Kildar,” she said around a mouthful of potato skins and Soko.  “Thank you for the plane, especially on such short notice.  Otryad appreciates it, too.  Says he‘ll put it to good use, soon.  You have friends who need to be moved from Russia, yes?”  In went more food.  Did she breathe?
    “You’re welcome,” he answered, not entirely sure what she meant.  The flight back?  The Backfire?  Who knew, with Mouse.  Best just to go with it.  “Where’s Evan?”
    “God-boy?  He’s tied up at the moment,” she said with just a hint of a smile.
    “Well, tell him he’s missing a helluva party!”  Mike leaned against a pear tree.
    “I’m sure he knows, Kildar,” she answered vaguely.  Picking up a heavily-laden plate, she said, “I have to get back and watch over him.  See you later.  Hiro, bring me a platter of the cheesy things, some sauce, and egg rolls, please?  Thanks.  All of them, if you can manage it.”  Still chewing, she walked off.
    “Yeah, see you.”  He shook his head.  “Weird little critter.”
    Now that they were more private, the girls became less and less inhibited.  Someone - Mike thought it Klavdiya, but wasn’t sure - brought out a MP3 player and hooked it to the speakers in the garden.  Wait - speakers?  When did that happen?  Soon enough completely non-traditional music was blasting the air - Lady Something, Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Pink, Nickleback - in short, nothing Mike would’ve chosen.  But the girls seemed to enjoy it, and it gave them a slight veneer of an excuse to get up and start dancing, sometimes with their chosen partner, often with each other.  Mike simply sat and stared, and thought.
    A soft body on his lap disturbed his thinking, and probably just as well.  The alcohol was making him more introspective than usual, and this really wasn’t the right time for it.  This, he wanted to enjoy.
    A head nestled into the crook of his neck and a voice whispered to him alone.  “Dance with me, Kildar,” suggested Elena, tugging at his hand.  “You can’t sit there all night.”
    “I haven’t been sitting here all night,” he retorted with perfect logic.  “I was down the hill earlier.”
    “Silly man.  Get up.”
    Mike raised an eyebrow.  “Again?  I thought I’d done enough of that earlier.”
    “No, I mean dance with me.  Please.”  The usual kittenish persona was put away; this was a serious Elena, one who rarely appeared and even less frequently in public.
    “When you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?”  He stood and allowed himself to be pulled away from his chair.  He did the basic white boy dance - tap a foot, sway back and forth, maybe a little hip spin for the more advanced - while she writhed around him, hands busy on his body, breasts and groin pressing against him.  She didn’t seem to care that she revealed to everyone that she wore nothing under that too-short skirt.
    Soon he was aware of another body mirroring her movements; he half-turned and saw, as expected, Catrina.  The pair had perfected their act during their months of slavery, and saw no reason to break up a good partnership now.  They managed to caress and kiss each other in passing, in time to the music, while never letting their bodies leave his for longer than it took to change places.
    The other ‘partnered’ girls dragged their men out as well, and began imitating the moves as best they could.  First the Valkyries then Mike’s harem girls joined the cluster around him.  Random hands and fingers slipped along his neck, his chest, his groin.
    Memory got seriously blurred after that.
    “I’m sleeping until noon!” he remembered saying.  Of course, it was four in the morning, so noon wasn’t unreasonable.
    His next clear memory was of being undressed and brought to bed.  The room was dark, and the woman with him wasn’t talking, just leading him.  Parts of him were clearly pointing the way.  He could tell she was naked, though not her identity.  The hairdo seemed different, something the harem was experimenting with, but he still couldn’t pin down a name.  Right now, he didn’t much care.  Between the drinking and the groping, if Mouse climbed in bed with him right now she’d get the fucking of her life.
    Despite his evil intentions, though, he found himself on his back on the sheets, the woman kissing her way down his chest, rubbing her nipples against him.  He could feel her excitement, which stiffened him, and when she took him into her mouth he groaned in pleasure.
    It was short-lived, as she released him after only a few strokes of her head and tongue.  Before he could voice a complaint, or force her head back down, she was straddling him and taking him into her.  Fuck, she was tight!  Ready for him, he noted as he slid into her without the slightest hesitation.  The magic Romanian balls again?  If so, he was going to order them all to train with them.  His toes curled so hard his joints cracked with pops.
    Through this she was silent even as her body shook and trembled with building pressure and pleasure.  Every time he reached for her breasts that the shadows barely revealed, her small hands would push his away and he found that he couldn’t stop her.
    He wasn’t fucking her here, she was fucking him!
    She rode up and down on him, hair whipping around, pulling his hands up to grasp her firm breasts and hard nipples.  She moaned passionately and deeply with a voice he wasn‘t sure he was familiar with in his bed.  But any further thoughts and guesses as to her identity - and it could have been Tammy, for all he knew - were driven from his head as he focused entirely on his groin and the nova-like fire that was building there.
    He was so sensitive from earlier sex and constant teasing that he could feel every  nuance of the insides of this woman - every fold, every quivering muscle, and the growing slickness of her internal lubrication -  as she levered herself up, using his arms as a counterbalance and began to slam and grind down on him in earnest.  A groan escaped his own throat that slowly became a primal growl as she expertly shifted her hips and applied extra pressure when he threatened to explode before she did.
    After another eternity passed he could feel her thighs tighten and start to spasm.  Her nipples seemed to grow harder and longer than before, and he used his palms to stroke them as he grasped at her breasts and slammed up into her with all he had.
    She whipped her head again and again as she approached a final climax.  He could feel his building as well, and thrust upward into her in counter to her movements, prolonging their contact and delaying the inevitable if possible.  He lost the battle, and they came almost simultaneously, his grunts totally drowned out by her ferocious scream.
    It was primal and only one woman had reacted this way with him.
    “Oh, oh, oh,” she said almost too softly to hear, settling down onto his chest.  “I had no idea…”  Her soft words were reinforced by the muscles still milking him inside her.  But that was enough to splash frigid water on a moment that should have been one of cuddling and shared glow.
    That snapped him back to reality.  Though he was still trapped in the sweaty redhead glued to his chest, he snapped on a bedside lamp.
    “Katrina!  Katrina?  What the fuck?”
    She smiled lazily at him, a hand brushing against his face.  “Will it be like that every time?” she purred.  “I hope so.  So many years I’ve waited for this.  I’m not sure I forgive you for making me wait so long.”
    “Goddammit, Katrina!  You’re not supposed to be here!”  He pushed her hand away and tried to sit up.  He was still trapped inside her and the movement seemed to set off a smaller explosion down deep in his fiancée.  Who shouldn‘t be here.
    “Ohh.  Oh?  Again?”
    “It happens, Katrina, you’re still riding the crest, but that’s not important!  You’re not supposed to be here!  What are the elders going to do to me when they find out?  Or you?”
    “We’ve discussed this!  By Keldara custom, you’re already my husband, ceremony or not!”  Katrina’s voice was firm.  She shifted her hips to maintain contact.  “And a wife’s place is in her husband’s bed!  I have told you this before.  You are mine now, Michael. You can‘t take that away from me.  Not now, not ever.  Till death do us part, vows or no vows.  We‘ve sealed the deal, as the Chief would say.”  She squeezed him still inside her to make her point and bit his chest as another small shock shook her body.
    “And I told you -”  He felt the building fire again.  “Fuck, stop that a second and listen to me, Katrina.”
    She actually laughed, a merry laugh.  “And when have I listened, ever?”
    “Point,” he admitted grudgingly.  A thought occurred to him.  He reached down, and he hand came back from the point where they were still joined, bloodless though shiny with their commingled sweat and fluids.  No blood.  “I thought you were a virgin?”
    Her temper flared.  “You dare ask me that?”  She squeezed as hard as he could to emphasize the prison Mike was still trapped in.
    “Of course I dare!” he snapped back.  “I didn’t feel anything break when I penetrated you!  Where’s your maidenhead?”  He hoped to put her on the defensive while he tried to get his mind wrapped around the situation and how he could conceal it.  Who in the harem could he sneak in and trade clothes with her?
    She relaxed and gave him a small shrug he felt all the way down in his groin.  Damn, that herbal mix was kicking in again.  Down, dammit!  Mind over matter!  Wait - he‘d never deflated.  Kurosawa!
    “Oh, that!  When you finally gave in,” she said, dimpling, “And it was clear I was to be Kildaran, a ceremony was held to the Goddess.”  As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.  Michael’s curiosity about the Keldara’s traditions and their Gods and Goddesses was well-known.  Perhaps he’d simply let it go.
    “A ceremony?” he said interestedly.  “Do I want to hear this?  Can I hear this?”
    No.  Not going to let it go.  What to tell him?  She couldn’t lie to him, but she had to be careful with her words.  Very careful.  Hmm.  As few details as possible.  No chants, no names - he’d guess Mother Lenka, but she’s the Priestess.  She rolled her hips slowly as she thought.  Best to hurry up, then fuck him silly so he wouldn’t focus on the facts.  As many times as possible, in fact.  Tonight was the critical night.  In a few weeks, she would know.   In a few months, the Valley.
    “This, you can.  Others?  Not even the Kildar can know all the secrets of the Priestess and her acolytes.”
    “So you are going to be Priestess?”  He’d recovered enough to cuddle her into his shoulder, arm wrapped around her, still gently tickling a nipple.
    “As soon as Mother Lenka decides her time is done.  It will be soon, I think.  She is tired.  Tired of life, too.”  She shuddered slightly.  “I do not look forward to it, Michael.”
    “Why not?  It‘s just a change in command, isn‘t it?”
    She shook her head.  “That, I cannot say.  It is a secret of the Goddess.”  But I don’t want to kill Mother Lenka!  She’s the only one who ever treated me as normal before you, Michael!  “But you’re changing the subject.  I thought you wanted to know this, not delve where no man should dare.”
    “Right.  Ceremony.”
    “In - our place,” she said, almost slipping and naming the concealed, holy ground of their worship.  “We gathered.  I was stripped of my white dress and laid upon a - table.”  She almost said ‘sacrificial stone’, but caught herself in time.  “It was so cold!”
    “End of the winter?  Outside?  You probably like to froze your pretty ass off.”  He caressed one cheek.  “Good thing you didn’t, though.  Okay, white dress because you were pure?”
    “Yes, a virgin.  Once I lay down, the Priestess recited a plea to Eostra-”
    “Eostra is your Goddess?”  Mike asked excitedly.  The Keldara’s Goddess was always unnamed; he hoped that -
    “No, but she is the goddess of fertility, and the spring.  The Goddess is also goddess of love, and sex, and war and death, and - let me explain, please?”  She hoped she could confuse the issue somewhat.
    “Sorry.  Go ahead.”
    “The Goddess has companions who act for her upon the world.  Eostra, through the Goddess, grants fertility and brings back the spring.  She does this by using the Goddess’ feathered cloak as her own, taking some of Her power upon herself for that time.”
    “I follow that.”
    “My sacrifice to Eostra is - was - my maidenhead.  The Priestess opened me ritually with a sacred knife, and my blood was caught on a cloak of raven feathers, as was the blood of the Kildarans before me.  Then I was clothed in this cloak, and said my plea to the Goddess.  In the past, the Kildaran would be given a pigeon‘s heart to stain the marriage bed as proof of her purity to the Kildar.  I suppose we can dispense with that,” she joked.
    A fertility goddess.  Her hymen was taken at the height of her period, ensuring the most blood possible for her part in the ceremony.  And to ensure the blessings of Eostra and the Goddess, it was imperative that she consummate her earthly relationship at the peak of her own fertility.
    Mist had helped her determine that she would be ovulating tonight.  A word to Kacey, who was only too happy to help, had secured this date for the party, the one night Mike might not notice who was escorting him to bed.  A quick visit to the clinic earlier in the day had confirmed her fertility, and the plan was fully prepared.   Kurosawa’s tea was icing on the cake and would ensure that Michael would be at his peak all night and into the next day, though he’d pay for it later, she was told.  But the deed was done, done gladly and done well.  And would be done again - and again!  She finally had him where she had wanted him for so long.
    The first time had been for the Goddess, the second would be for herself.  Though she felt sure she had shared her pleasure with the Goddess.  She would repeat it for herself, and then for Mike.
    Mike nodded.  “That makes sense.  A ritual sacrifice, and you, as Kildaran, take the same role as the Goddess does.  Wait a minute,” he said, a thought striking him.  “Does that make me a god?  I know I‘m close to being a king - I think I said something about that earlier, and nobody argued - but a god?”
    “No - though that might not be too far off,” she answered archly, finally slipping off him and taking him into her hands.  “I might be willing to worship at your staff again.”  She gave him an experimental lick and decided she could deal with their mingled juices this way.
    “You know,” said Mike.  “People will talk.”
    “More than they already do?” said Katrina.  “Impossible.  And so what if they do?”  She kissed him.  Another long lick.  He was trembling in her dainty hands as her tongue traced several veins.  “Now.  How shall we worship this time?”
    Mike almost answered before she swallowed him whole, driving speech from his mind.
    He remembered the rest of the night vividly.
    Especially the ‘tongue-twisty thing’.


  1. AG,
    good read, especially details on the party. I think you missed a reference in the last time Keldara had gone to the halls...

    "Then, it was held for drinking on rare occasions. The last, he’d heard, was the funeral of ten Keldara who’d died trying to rescue some of their own from slavers, and that had been over twenty years ago. "

    Wasn't there a ceremony in one of the previous two books after the Chechen battle? Several Keldara died (including Mike's own besotted) in battle and were laid in the tun, IIRC. Same episode where the women attacked the trench with axes, and we got a real good taste of the Valkyrie...


  2. To head off the firestorm - YES, there were a number of Keldara buried in the tun after Unto The Breach - but the point is that this ale takes TIME to produce, and we're talking about the ALE, not Keldara who have died. In UTB, they died and were buried within days; here, they died and were buried months later. In other words, a very unusual set of circumstances allowed the ale to be brewed.
    So - while your point is correct IN THAT others have died, the ale wasn't brewed. In this universe.


  3. I decided for my benefit to take the 53 Chapters available so far and set them in an EPUB format. It's not the cleanest job by far, but just thought, if you're interested I'd be glad to send it to you. Just send me an email to let me know where to send it.