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Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Kildaran - The FINAL Chapter

[Before we begin, a few words...
Several people deserve thank-you's for this book, so let's do that now.
First, my wife and kids, whose endless patience ("Daddy's writing - shh!"), patience ("It's really late, shouldn't you be in bed?" "I'm in the middle of a chapter, I need to finish this." "Okay."), and, did I mention patience gave me the time and space I needed to get this done - even after saying it was done, then done again, then finally done, then..  Thank you!  I love you!
Next, Dick Evans - at first just a name on, then a helpful name, then - well, suffice it to say that without his input and talents, this book would be nowhere as good as it is.  He's elevated my writing and made a huge difference, despite all sorts of medical issues that would have stopped a lesser man!
John Ringo - His characters, his inspiration, and his blessing on this aspect of the project - now, if only I can get him to read it and like it for PUBLICATION, then we'll be on the way!
All of my friends/acquaintances who make appearances - you know who you are.  Hope you enjoy your roles in the book - and I didn't kill any of you off!  Not even you, Joe!

And, finally, before the chapter begins, a request.  Now that it's ALL up for your enjoyment (and I really, really hope you've enjoyed it), I would LOVE to get your feedback.  PLEASE, post a comment - it'll get forwarded to my email (where I've saved them ALL) and then Dick and I can use these in our effort to get John to give us the thumb's up - I mean, 45,000+ views from 52 countries can't be wrong, can they?  Well, yes, but if YOU'RE saying good things - that's what makes writers sit up and take notice!

So.  Time for a wedding, yes?  Hope you brought your hankie - in case you cry at weddings!



    Katrina left before dinner.  “Join me?” he asked, but she demurred.  “I must fast tonight.”
    “Ah.  Hope that just means food.”
    She laughed.  “And I!  Until tomorrow…”  With a kiss, she was gone, properly dressed again.  She carried a bouquet of flowers he‘d gathered earlier on his run.  If anyone dared ask, she‘d simply say it was homework, an assignment from Kurosawa in the art of flower arranging.
    It was quiet, now.  At least until he heard Kurosawa’s familiar knock, a particular pattern that announced, ‘Friend coming, not stopping’.
    “Hey, Ass-Boy.  Got something for you.”  The Chief was carrying a pair of small packages.  He was also carrying heavier than usual, especially for inside the serai.
    “Oh?  I think -- I hope -- I can guess what’s in one of them, but what’s the other?”
    “Depends on what you think is in the first package,” he said, settling into a chair and dropping the packages on the desk.  “Open this first,” he continued, pushing one towards Mike.
    He glanced at the writing -- Georgian.  “So where did you have to go to get these done?  Tbilisi?”
    “No.  Tilaneti.  Short hop in Valkyrie.”
    “Valkyrie?  Not Dragon?”
    “No.  Kacey’s not talking to me right now, not sure why, not sure that I care, actually.”  Mike didn’t volunteer any information.  Figuring out how he screwed up would be a good lesson for the Chief, and apologizing to the former Marine would do wonders for his social skills.  If he survived, that is.
    “Still a haul.  Thanks.”
    “Not going to open it?”
    “Not now,” Mike answered, putting it in a lock box in his desk.
    “So what’s this other one?”
    “Just a little something I picked up for you.  A little early wedding gift.”
    “You really shouldn’t have,” said Mike, ripping at the paper, then bursting out laughing.
    “No,” replied Adams, “I guess I shouldn’t have, but I did anyway.”
    The two boxes of Viagra fell onto the desktop.
    “I told you before, Chief,” Mike gasped between laughs.  “Teenage virgins.  Viagra not needed.”
    “Yeah, well, I figured that since Katrina wasn’t a virgin any longer, you might just --”
    “How the fuck do you know that?” asked Mike, all humor gone from his voice.
    “The videos,” answered Adams.
    “What videos?”  Mike’s voice could have frozen helium.
    The Chief began to realize just how badly someone -- he hoped to god it wasn’t him! -- screwed the pooch.
    “The videos of you and Katrina?  I got them in an email, thought you’d sent them, bragging.“  He backed his chair away subtly to give himself more room to move.  “You mean you didn’t know about them?”
    “What.  Videos?”  There was barely suppressed rage in that voice now, rage that promised mayhem and bloodletting of epic proportions.
    “Maybe I ought to leave?” suggested Adams, rising.  “You know, places to do, things to see…”
    Mike‘s hand flashed out and caught his wrist.  He wasn‘t going anywhere.  “Not until you tell me about these videos.”
    “Well, ah, there’s nothing much to tell.”  How the fuck do I minimize this?  “Just you and Katrina doing some, ah, calisthenics.  Horizontally.  And superimposed.  A little captioning, some graphics added…”
    “Motherfucking MICE!”  Mike’s bellow shook the heavy door and rattled glasses.  He’d had his suspicions, but the added details gave him the proof he needed.
    “You want me to go get them?  I’ll go get them.  Right now.  Won’t be a minute.”  And Senior Chief Charles Adams, SEAL Team veteran of countless battles, skirmishes, and actions, scurried from the room.
    While hunting Mice, Mike ran across Pierson.
    “"Is the place in Greece ready?" he asked.
    "Yes,” answered Pierson.  “Although why I’m buying real estate for you…”
    “Because you owe me.”
    “Whatever.  In any case, with their economy in the toilet, the people were looking to sell quick.  We got the whole cove for the original price of one of the houses."
    Mike paused before answering.  "That'll do for now.  I hope she remembers her lessons and what Mother Lenka says later."
    Looking askance at him, Pierson asked, “So you know what you’re gonna use it for yet?”
    “Not yet.  Got to track down some Mice, first.  You seen them?”
    “Mice?  No.  Should I tell them --”
    “Don’t say a fucking word.  I want this to be a surprise.”  Mike’s grin was evil.
    “…every bit and byte, or I will turn you over to Katrina and let her decide your fate.”    The Mice had been there for fifteen full minutes.  Fifteen very uncomfortable minutes.  Fifteen minutes of total silence from all four.  Fifteen minutes of the most thorough and painful dressing-down they had ever endured.
    God--Boy looked like someone shot his puppy.  Catrina and Elena didn’t look anywhere but the floor, though unconsciously they’d moved closer together for comfort.  Even Mouse was subdued.  Not one really looked contrite, though.  Sorry for having been caught so soon, perhaps.  He locked eyes with each one in turn, letting them see the fire that glinted within.
    Now that the Kildar had finished speaking, Mouse spoke up.
    “What about our last mission?  Doesn’t that count for anything?  Pierson told you about it, didn‘t he?”
    “Your last mission?  In Dubai?  Yes, actually.  It counts for quite a lot.”
    They relaxed slightly.
    “It meant that you’re here, instead of on the practice range.”
    “Practice range?” asked Evan.  He swallowed.
    “Live-fire range,” clarified Mike.  “It helps if the targets are moving in an unpredictable manner.  Improves real-world skills.”
    “You’re joking!” said Evan.  “You wouldn’t waste your best operatives this way!”  He noticed the panicked looks in the women’s’ eyes and rethought.  “Would you?”
    “Bet me,” replied Mike, frostily.  “You invaded my privacy.  Worse, you invaded that of my fiancée, who just happens to be the next Priestess.”  The women blanched at that.  “And worst of all, you made these videos available to others!”
    “It was only a joke!” said Evan, desperately.  “We were just playing around with some new software!  We didn’t mean any harm!”
    “And the videos are only in-house!  They’re not on a web-connected server!” added Elena.  “Only the Chief and two of the Valkyries saw them that we know of!”
    “They’d better not be on the web,” growled Mike. 
    “Oh, we could design a worm that would seek and destroy any of the files that got out -- not that any did that is -- but that’s easy enough, any basic hacker could do it.  If it happened.  Not that it did --”  Evan shut up abruptly as Catrina and Elena kicked his shins from each side, staggering him but, more importantly, shutting his fucking mouth.
    “There aren’t,” reassured Mouse.  “Right, God--boy?”  Her right fist curled in a special way that Evan was very, VERY familiar with.  Mike noticed that he seemed to be more afraid of her than him.  Well, given the arsenal she carried and the tools at her disposal, he probably would be too.
    “Right, none at all, nope, not on the web, never happened, I never put a hack up on my distributed network in town -- OW!”
    Glare.  Four of them.  Evan reacted very much like a mouse when facing three angry cats and a very large tiger.  He peed himself.
    “Are we clear about this?”  His voice was still arctic.  “You might think you’re the best, but there are others here who’ll give you a run for your money who’d just love to dig up some dirt on you.  The Vanners, for example.  And if they find anything -- anything! -- then, not only does Katrina get your sorry asses, but you’ll be detailing the Cave and any other grunt work Grez needs done.  So I’ll ask again: are we clear on this?”
    A chorus of meek “Yesses” met his ears.
    “Good.  Mouse, God-boy, you two take care of the files.  Catrina, Elena, stay here.  I want every bug out of my quarters, and I’m not leaving you two alone.  You will remove them, and I will see you do it.  Not just move them to new locations, like you‘ve apparently done before.”
    “Furthermore.  These rooms -- my office, my apartments -- are off-limits for-fucking-ever without my, or Kat’s, specific permission.  You violate that rule and you will learn pain, much worse than anything you’ve ever known before.  Trust me on this.”
    “Yes, Kildar.”  The younger two turned to go, but before they could get to the door, Mike stopped them.  “And Mouse?”
    “Yes, Kildar?” she said warily.
    “Thank you.  That was good work in Dubai.  I‘ll want to see the film when it‘s ready, with all the outtakes.  We can enjoy the Mules‘ Traveling Comedy Show.  But you have to remember about keeping on mission, and what your first fuck-up cost you.”
    She lit up.  “You’re welcome, Kildar!”  Good mood restored, she practically skipped out the door, though her hands protectively covered her six.
    Catrina and Elena were already moving purposely about the office.  “How many of those fucking things are there?” he asked.
    “Total?  Or in here?”
    “Both.”  He glared and was gruff, but not as severe as earlier.  Let them think they were off the hook for now. 
    “Total audio, ten, video, thirteen.  In here, one audio, one video.”  Catrina reached behind his chair, pulled out a device, tossed it to Elena.  “Of the video, three are HD and aimable, either guided or autonomous.  Evan cobbled them together for the mobile sentry units, so they react to body heat.”
    “Only one of each here?”
    “Not much happened in here we were interested in,” said Elena, smiling and grabbing a second device.  “Most of the action was in your bedroom.”
    Sigh.  “Lenochka, you and Catyenka will be the death of me, you know that?”
    Hearing their pet names, Elena nearly purred, “Does that mean you forgive us?”
    “Maybe.  Later.  IF you get all the bugs and PROVE it to me, then I might possibly.”
    Catrina pressed up against him.  “I know we’ve been very, very bad, Kildar.  We deserve to be punished.”
    Elena pressed against the other side, said, “Severely.”
    “Not right now,” he said, resisting their temptations.  “Cameras and mikes first.”
    “Yes, Kildar,” they chorused, and resumed working.  They moved to the bedroom and busily began removing bugs.  Then, “If we get them all, can we use the Dungeon?  On God-boy?  It really was all his idea, not ours.  He said he’s getting bored with what he can find on the net.”
    A giggle.  “He even wrote a script.  We want to film it, but Mouse won’t let us find two volunteers for readings.”
    “And practice.”  Another giggle.
    Mike buried his face in his palms.  “I have to think about it,” he muttered.  And have a chat with the Chief, and a couple Valkyries.  Wonder how many copies they made?  He shook his head, silently.
    “I’ll be back shortly.”  He visibly locked and alarmed his desk -- no point tempting them further -- and went off to visit the Harem’s quarters.  He’d need a few of their toys.
    “Stasia, Jack.”  The new couple was sitting, somewhat uneasily, on the sofa.  They were carefully ignoring the now-naked Catrina and Elena who stood, stock--still, on either side of the wid--open office door, in plain view of anyone who passed through the corridor.
    If they’d been totally naked, it might have been easier.  Somewhere Mike had found a pair of rabbit ears and a fluffy tail for Elena, while Catrina was sporting neko-mimi’s, cat ears and tail.  It was obvious that the tails were anchored inside their wearers, though exactly how wasn’t so clear.  A humming was faintly audible.
    The house was busier than usual as frantic preparations continued for tomorrow’s wedding and reception.  There were unfamiliar faces around as well, some of whom had been imported by Stasia for the wedding feast.  Mike winced when he’d seen the catering bills.  The cake alone…
    He shook off those thoughts as Stasia spoke.
    “Michael, you summoned us?”  She nudged Jack in the ribs.
    “Kildar, sir,” he responded formally.
    “Whoa.  Okay, why the formality?”
    A quick glance at each other, then Elena and Catrina who were still holding up the door frame and twitching slightly.  .
    “Frankly, Kildar, we don’t know why we’re here now.  We heard yelling earlier, when we were down in the conference room with Colonel Pierson.  We were trying to give him the best AAR we could when I saw Chief Adams walk by, carrying grenades, muttering about Mice.  A minute later, we see the Mice barrelassing past the door, including these two,” he gestured with his thumb.  “I just hope this isn’t something we missed, or could have prevented.”
    “Nothing bad, Jack.  Relax.  I just need a signature and a witness.”
    “On what?”
    “You ever been married, Jack?”
    “Stasia, I know you have, but I don’t think the situation is parallel or even germane.”
    “Probably not.”  She shivered a bit -- Mike had the windows open for some reason, and she could see the girls were suffering in the cold -- and tucked into Jack for more warmth.  So.  These were the two bottoms he was training.  She carefully looked them over with just a touch of jealousy that she wouldn’t be feeling his ‘firm, skilled, and authoritative’ hand on her any longer.  But she’d had that last night, with the harem.  It had taken all of them to, just once, reverse roles on him, and had broken the bed in the bargain, but… No.  She was happy with Jack, and it was time to move on.  She silently wished them luck.
    “Are you talking about a pre-nup?” asked Jack.
    “Oh, shit no!” he scoffed.  “No, but I’ve been married, and in the Navy at the same time.  They recommended that I have a will prepared -- just in case.  They were even more insistent once I was in the SEALs.  I figure I should have one done now.”  He pulled a document from the desk, set it down.
    “Are you -- is this because of what just happened?” asked Stasia.  Even when he tried to be unreadable, she knew Mike’s moods better than most.
    “Huh?  Not at all.  It’s just a good idea.  Right, Jack?”  He turned and winked at Jack with the eye she couldn’t see.
    Hughes was looking at him askance, but cleared his face quickly.  “Right.  The Corps practically wrote one for me when I made Captain.  It’s simply a smart thing to have, the business we’re in.  Like a gun, better to have and not need than need and not have.  Saves a shitload of trouble later on.”
    “So what does it say?” said Stasia, pulling it towards her.
    “For one thing, it names you one of the Executors of my estate, after Katrina and the Chief.”
    “Executor?”  Her tone mixed horror and shock.
    “Yeah.  That’s the person in charge of making sure my wishes are carried out.  What’d you think it meant?”
    “Oh!  It -- I thought -- it sounds like ‘executioner’!” she stammered.
    Mike chuckled; Jack wisely held his tongue.  Her arms was well-positioned under his, and he’d learned she gave as good as she got.  It would be just like her to cheat and tickle him in front of the Kildar.  Undignified and embarrassing.
    “Not at all.”
    “What are your wishes, Kildar?”
    “It’s all in there; you can read it later, you’ll get a copy.  Basically, Katrina gets most of it since she is the Kildaran and will be my wife.  There are some individual bequests -- gifts, you could say.”  He saw the puzzlement on her face.  “Okay, an example.  Katrina gets the serai, but you get to keep your dungeon and a suite here forever.  She can’t touch it.  Even if you leave, you have a place to come back to.”
    “Dungeon?” said Jack, quizzically.  He’d heard rumors but never expected them to be confirmed so casually.
    “She hasn’t told you yet?  Or brought you down to visit?”
    “No, she hasn’t.  Guess she still has some secrets.”  The color began to rise in Stasia’s cheeks.  “I thought the only thing below the level of the Cave were the Mice’s quarters?”
    “She’s been a naughty girl, Jack.  I think she needs to take you to the dungeon and show you exactly what she deserves.  After you witness, of course.  Business before pleasure.  She‘ll teach you well, show you exactly what she needs.  Of course, she might need to have some volunteers to practice on.”  He looked darkly at the two quivering Mice.  “Just do your best to keep her happy.”
    Totally lost now, Hughes just agreed.
    Mike took a pen and, without any flourish, signed the end of the document.  He handed it to Jack, saying, “Sign below my name, where it says ‘Witness’.”  Hughes did. 
    Mike passed the pen to Stasia.  “Now you, dear.  Under Jack’s name.  Oh, and date it, too.”  She did as well.
    Mike pressed a button.  Daria slinked into the room, eyes twinkling at Elena and Catrina and notarized the document, stapled the pages together and then flounced back out of the room.  She had a right to; JP was coming up the hill later for a late dinner and, by the look on her face, quite a bit more.
    “That’s that,” Mike said, placing the will in the safe he’d had built into the wall.  “Now, Stasia, I believe you have some penance to serve?  Jack, have fun.  Don’t let her off too easily, or she’ll never forgive you.”
    She led the dazed Hughes from Mike’s quarters, the Trouble Twins‘ eyes shining. 
    “You did very well, girls,” said Mike.  “That couldn’t have been easy.  Those tails twitching and pulsing just enough to keep you on edge.”  He picked up a small remote from where it lay, thumbed an ‘up’ arrow.  “Is that more to your liking?“
    The girls were beginning to quiver, now, nipples hard, sweat beading on their foreheads despite the chill.  “Or should I increase the power a bit more?“
    “Anything you want, Master,“ whispered Catrina.
    “That’s right, anything I want.  And right now, I want to know what you two feel like doing?”  He grinned.  It was good to be the Kildar.
    “Sir?”  Bridgewater’s cultured voice floated through the door.  “Ah, sir, I was hoping I wasn’t interrupting anything critical.  The tailor is ready for you for your final fitting.  A very pleasant gentleman, did you know he is from England as well?  Though I must say his treatment of whiskey leaves much to be desired.”  He tut-tutted.  “Still, I suppose you endure what you must.  This way, sir.  We cannot have you wandering around, or someone else will grab you away again.  We really must get this last fitting done, there simply will not be time  on the morrow.”  He led Mike past the girls who still held their positions, waiting.
    And sometimes, it was trying times and suffering, being the Kildar.
    The Maypole was up, the Burakan taking their few hours of rest.  Andrew and Jessia were in the courtyard of the serai, awaiting the beginning of their wedding ceremony.  An arch of vines and flowers had been raised at the entrance.
    Father Kulcyanov was presiding, with Mother Lenka assisting him.  Younger acolytes of the Goddess had drawn a circle on the ground, and now four of them -- Aiyana, Sephera, Illiana, and Alena -- stood at the four cardinal directions.  Father Kulcyanov stood at the center of the circle, clutching a rainbow of cords, and Mother Lenka stood at the south end with the couple, waiting. 
    Around the circle were the guests, including Mike, JP, Stasia, Jack, and even Bob Pierson.  Most of the house staff had made it out, as well as men from Andrew’s platoon.  Doctor Arensky managed to squeeze himself between the Valkyries, who were all dressed alike and would at his own wedding form an arch with sword and spear for the Bride to walk under as she approached Mike.  More than that he'd not been able to get from them. 
    “Sorry, it's a surprise.” 
    “We're not allowed to say.”
    All in all, it would have been easier to move the ceremony down by the Tun and just reuse the same space for his own wedding.  Mother Griffina had reached for her rolling pin when he'd brought it up at breakfast.  So that was right out.
    He’d taken his seat in a familiar throne to one side, surrounded by his harem and man servants.  It was a crowded space.  Every Family had sent at least one representative up, and it appeared that Jessia’s entire Family was present.
    Mike internalized his sigh.  He wouldn’t do anything to spoil this bride’s day.  If only he could remember his lines.
    At the appropriate time -- and only Father Kulcyanov knew exactly when that was, for he didn’t seem to check any man-made timepiece -- he raised his arms.  Everyone fell silent.
    “Father of All, we ask your blessing on this day and this couple as we join them in the ancient ritual.”
    Mother Lenka turned to the couple.
    “Before you go further, know that your lives, having crossed, have formed ties between each other.  As you seek to enter this rite, these ties will be strengthened.  With full awareness, therefore, know that within this circle you declare your intent to be handfasted, not only before your gathered families but before the All-Father and the Goddess as well.  The promises you make today and the ties you make will greatly strengthen your union, cross the years and bind your lives together.  Do you still seek to enter this rite?”
    Together, they answered, “Yes.  We seek to enter.”  Mother Lenka embraced them, and led them to Father Kulcyanov, where they knelt.
    “Mother,” he said, his ancient voice strong today.  “Do they know the full significance of what they seek?”
    “They do, Father, for I have questioned them and can discover no deceit in them.”
    “And do you still seek this handfasting?”
    “Yes,” they answered.
    “Then take them to the guardians to seek their consent.”
    Lenka led them first to the East, Aiyana, who asked, “What seek you of the guardian of the East?”
    “We seek your blessing on our union,” said Andrew.
    “Blessed be this union with the gifts of Delling: communication of the heart, and body; fresh beginnings with the rising of each sun.  The knowledge of growth found in the sharing of silence,” said Aiyana, wafting air over them with the waving of an ancient round shield.  Lenka led them clockwise, to the South, where Sephera awaited.
    “What seek you of the guardian of the South?”
    “We seek your blessing on our union,” said Jessia, this time.
    “Blessed be this union with the gifts of Niord: warmth of the hearth and home, the heat of the heart’s passion and the light created by both to illuminate the darkest of times.”  She sprinkled barley grains over them.
    Next they were led to Illiana, standing as Guardian of the West.
    “What seek you of the guardian of the West?” she said.
    “We seek your blessing on our union,” they responded together.
    “Blessed be this union with the gifts of Nerthus: the deep commitments of the lake, the swift excitement of the river, the refreshing cleansing of the rain, and the all-encompassing passion of the sea.”  She sprinkled a few drops of water over them.
    Finally, they approached Alena.
    “What seek you of the guardian of the North?”
    “We seek your blessing on our union,” they answered again together.
    “Blessed be this union with the gifts of Skadi: a firm foundation on which to build, fertility of the fields to enrich your lives, a stable home to which you return.”  Kneeling, she removed the shoes of both, getting an inadvertent giggle from Jessia as her foot was tickled.
    Carrying their footwear, Lenka led them back to the center, and Kulcyanov.  They knelt again.
    “You have received tools from the guardians which will help you build a happy and successful union.  Yet that is all they are -- tools.  Tools which you must wield in order to reap what you seek in this union.  I bid you now, look into each other’s eyes.”
    Right hands clasped between them, they faced each other.
    “Andrew.  Will you cause her pain?”
    “I may,” he answered reluctantly.
    “Is that your intent?” Kulcyanov asked harshly.
    “No!” came the firm reply.
    “Jessia.  Will you cause him pain?”
    “I may,” she said.
    “Is that your intent?”
    Addressing them both, he said, “Will you share each other’s pain and seek to ease it?”
    “Yes,” they replied.
    “And so the binding is made.”  He draped an orange cord across their joined hands.
    “Andrew.  Will you share her laughter?”
    “Jessia.  Will you share his laughter?”
    “Will both of you look for the brightness in life and each other?”
    “And so the binding is made.”  A yellow cord joined the orange one.
    “Andrew.  Will you burden her”
    “I may.”
    “Is that your intent?”
    “Jessia.  Will you burden him?”
    “I may.”
    “Is that your intent?”
    “Will you share the burdens of each so that your souls may grow in this union?”
    “We shall.”
    “And so the binding is made.”  A greed cord was added to the others.
    “Andrew.  Will you share her dreams?”
    “Jessia.  Will you share his dreams?”
    “Will you dream together to create new realities and hopes?”
    “We shall.”
    “And so the binding is made.”  And a blue cord was layered in.
    “Andrew.  Will you cause her anger?”
    “I may.”
    “Is that your intent?”
    “Jessia.  Will you cause him anger?”
    “Almost certainly.”  A laugh came from the crowd at her totally honest answer, mostly from her family.  It was quickly suppressed, but even Mother Lenka couldn’t help but quirk her lips at the comment.
    “Ahem.  Is that your intent?”  Father Kulcyanov continued as if nothing had happened.
    “Will you take the heat of your anger and use it to temper the strength of this union, as a blacksmith tempers the axe?”
    “We shall.”
    “And so the binding is made.”  The red cord, now, was added.
    “Andrew.  Will you honor her?”
    “I will.”
    “Jessia.  Will you honor him?”
    “I will.”
    “Will you never seek to tarnish that honor?”
    “We shall never do so,” led by Jessia, Andrew stumbling a little over the Keldaran words.
    “And so the binding is made.”  Here Mike strode forward and presented a royal purple cord to Father Kulcyanov.  It nearly completed the collection.  Only one was left in his hand.
    “Will you endeavor to maintain the purity and sacredness of this union?”
    “We will.”
    “And so the binding is made.”  The final cord, a brilliant white, was placed over all the others.
    “Above you are the stars; below you, the stone.  As time passes, remember.  Like a star, your love should burn brightly.  Like a stone, your love should be firm.  The All-Father and the Goddess are with you now, and shall be with your always!”
    Turning stern again, he continued, as Mike stood behind the pair.  “The knots of binding are not made only in this place.  They spread from you backward and forward, joining you forevermore.  Only you can loose the cords of binding, for as always, you hold in your hands the strength -- or the breaking -- of this union.  Now, stand.”
    Mother Lenka held Jessia’s hand high in the air, as Father Kulcyanov did with Andrew’s.  They handed the pair off to Mike who led them to the arch and stood before it.
    “Henceforth, you are married.  You belong to each other and,“ he faced the young Ranger, “You belong to the Keldara.  Take the final steps together through the arch of Spring and into your new lives together.“
    They did so and the assembled Keldara hooted, the Rangers applauded and whistled.
    “What gifts were brought as tokens of their love?” asked Mother Lenka as they turned and reentered the arch to stand again before Father Kulcyanov.
    Mike stepped forward.  “I bring these rings.”  He opened a small box and removed two rings, golden bands, each with a blue garnet set into the center.
    Mother Lenka took the rings and dipped them once, twice, three times  in a simple chalice that was filled with -- was that beer?  It was!  “My own brew, of course,” she cackled to Mike, who smiled back.
    She presented Jessia’s ring to Andrew.
    In English, he said, “I give thee this ring, and call you my wife and companion.  It symbolizes the endless cycle and neverending nature of my love for you.”  And, with some difficulty, he placed it on her ring finger.  Mike almost spoke again, but sensed Father Kulcyanov’s disapproval at Mother Lenka’s impromptu line.  He may be Kildar, but certain things were done a certain way.  Ad-libbing was not to be tolerated.
    Jessia, with Andrew’s ring, spoke next in Keldaran.  “I give thee this ring, and call you my husband and companion.  It symbolizes the endless cycle and neverending nature of my love for you.”  Much more deftly, she slid the ring on his left ring finger.  She then leaned in and kissed him, as Kulcyanov said, “With the blessing of the All-Father, I declare this union sealed.”
    Everyone applauded.  Someone popped the cork from a bottle of champagne and began to fill the tower of glasses by the pavilion.
    Aiyana brought an oatcake to Andrew, who lifted it to Jessia’s lips.  “May you never hunger,” he said, and she took a bite.
    Illiana now approached, picking up the chalice and handing it to Jessia.  Touching it to Andrew’s lips, she said, “May you never thirst,” and he sipped.
    Sephera now stepped forward with an obviously hand-made broom.  She placed it on the ground before them, intoning, “This is the symbol of your hearth, and your home.  May it never fray or rend.”
    Alena, the last guardian, walked in, carrying an axe.  While it was decorated much as the Family blades were, it was obviously new.  The sigil of Two-brow was upon it, a twisted bull‘s head.  “This axe symbolizes your commitment to protect your home.  May none ever separate you.”  She laid it crosswise over the broom.
    Mother Lenka now said, “It is our custom that the new family walk the circle three times, jumping the axe and broom on each circuit.”  Hands still joined, they did so.
    Father Kulcyanov, after the final jump, said, “Andrew and Jessia, please pick up the axe.”  Hands together, they did.  “Jessia Mahona, you have left your Family to join with Andrew.  But as Andrew is not of the Keldara, he has not an axe of his Family.  Therefore, I charge you both, take this axe and create it as the symbol of your new Family.  Let the ranks of the Keldara grow, with this honorable man and woman, for it has been far too long.  Time may have diminished the Families, yet we shall grow strong again with the inclusion of one such warrior.”
    With that final pronouncement, Father Kulcyanov left the circle, followed closely by Mother Lenka and her attendants.  The crowd closed in around the new couple.  Mike took the chance to slip aside and let them have their moment, but it didn’t take long for his staff to find him.
    “A new Family, eh?  Wonder why they didn’t do that for Grez and me,” said Vanner.
    “Maybe because you had been here for a while?  Or maybe because Grez hadn’t been married before?” speculated Mike.
    “That makes sense.  Jessia married once, and he was killed.  But she’d left her family, and since he’s dead she’s not really a part of his family either.  Where’d you get those rings, anyway?”
    “I had them made for them out.  Used some of the garnet we found in the Emir’s safe.  Kind of a combat bonus.”
    “A ring?” scoffed Vanner.  “Not much of a bonus.”
    “You didn’t tell him?” Mike said to Adams, who had snagged a mug of beer for himself and another each for Mike and Pat.  His ability to find, and acquire, beer was near-legendary.  Mike swore that Adams could find beer in a desert.  Blindfolded.
    “About the garnet?  No.  Figured you should -- or not.  Your call.”
    “True enough.  Well, Pat, it’s like this…”  He passed Vanner a mug and watched as he drank deeply.
    A moment later: “Holy FUCK!”
    He did the Corps proud.  He didn’t lose a single drop of beer.  Though it took some time, and Grez’s help, before he closed his mouth.
    “Why do we have to be the Ready squad?”
    “Yeah!”  The sentiment echoed through the bay.
    “Look, I didn’t make the roster, it’s not my choice either!  At least we’re up in the serai; did you hear about that new recruit?”
    “Who, the Chechen?”
    “Yeah.  Qays.  He’s got roaming patrol duty, full kit.  And they added stones to his pack, see if he can cut it.”
    “A rock pack ruck march?  Fuck if I want to be him.”
    “Yeah, sucks to be the nugget.”
    “Okay, this isn’t so bad.  We‘ll be able to catch some of the games, and the feast too!  It‘s gonna be some wedding!  You hear that the Kildar actually imported cooks?”
    “No, that was Mistress Stasia.  Heard her talking, bragging, about the menu to the new Major.  Can’t believe the Kildar’s giving her up.”
    “Yeah.  Don’t tell my wife, but that night before the wedding, when she was with the Kildar?  Words cannot describe -- I‘m still trying to teach my wife those tricks!”
    “Kinda hard when you can’t give out details or explain where you learned it, eh?”
    They all shared a laugh.
    “Who’s up for MOH?”  Hands scrambled for controllers and headsets.
    “Time to own someone!  Oh, yeah, if anyone sees God-boy, we’ve got orders from Mouse to hang him from the flagpole by his underwear again.”
    The festival was nearly over.  It looked like Oleg was going to lose to Vil this year, but only by the smallest margin.  Of course, Vil was losing to Savo by twenty points.  It had been close until the Test of Man, where Savo’d pancaked Vil three times in a row with moves that showed a serious diet of American professional wrestling backed by dirty SEAL tricks.  Which only made sense, as Chief Adams had been their primary instructor in CQ combat.  He scoffed at the techniques the Gurkhas were teaching.  Sure, they worked for small, quick men, but what if you were the size of a comic-book superhero?  That took a devious mind, and the Chief readily supplied it.
    Team Mule, then, surprised everyone by taking the team banner this year.  No excuses about not finishing.  No dead bulls.  And no smashed axes this year, either.
    Everyone took that as a good sign.
    Katrina was in her Family’s home, waiting.  She hated missing the Festival, but it was simply easier to remain in the house than trying to avoid Mike.
    Noemi had arrived that morning with the dress.  Mike was going to be so pleased!  Backless, it plunged down to the base of her spine and a fraction beyond.  It fitted itself snugly to her hips, and descended sheer to her feet.  The front was held, barely, by a tiny halter around her neck and a satin ribbon tied below her breasts.  Full, lacy sleeves reached to her hands and over her fingers, almost glove-like.  The lace was formed to represent springtime, with floral designs subtly woven throughout.  There was no way she could wear any panties or a bra; fortunately, she didn’t need the support.  She did wear a single garter.
    She couldn’t wait for Mike to take it off her.
    For the third time in as many minutes she grumbled about not being able to wear her holdout pistol.  There just wasn’t any room, no matter how high up she wore it, not in this dress.  And it kept getting caught in her hair.  Well, that at least she could fix.
    Stasia had carefully instructed her, during her weeks of lessons.  Even in the harem, only two shaved, but Stasia swore that it made sex better, and less messy.  So, ever so cautiously, she did it.  Wouldn’t do to cut herself the day of her wedding.
    With last Test had finished and the ready teams freshly rotated, the Keldara were finally gathering for the crowning of the Ondah.  The horn of the Hunt was presented to the Mules by Mike and Father Kulcyanov together.
    “Get me a fat boar, tomorrow, boys.  I need something to hang over my fireplace,” Mike joked, but the Mules had probably taken it as an order.  Whatever.  Not his problem.  They had a medic and a fairly good doctor too.  
    The crowd then started to move down the hill towards the cooking pits, filled with more meat than ever before.  He noted that there were even more tables being filled with delicacies for that evening's wedding feast too.  He counted at least twelve men and women in Chef's outfits down below.  Someone had even brought out a mobile kitchen from somewhere.  Had he signed for that?  Likely.  At least Mike knew Meller would make good use of it or it'd be moved into one of the emergency shelters.
    Seeing all was well, for now, Mike sought out Adams.  By the kegs.  Of course.
    “Ass-boy.  I gotta calm down.  You mind holding this?”  He pressed a box into Adams’ hand.  “The rings we had made up for the Fathers and Team Leaders are in there.  Chips and dust for the men, gems in the family totem eyes for the leaders and Fathers.  I’ll give out the ones for the staff up at the serai in a day or two, privately, so the others can feel special before they see yours.“
    He looked at the setting sun.  It was time.
    “There’s a special medallion for Mother Lenka, too.  Look, I’m gonna take a walk.  Shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes, maybe thirty, tops.  I‘ll be back before the torches are lit and they start the drums going to call the warriors to attend me.”  He rolled his eyes at his best friend and was met with a smile, albeit one mostly hidden by a giant mug of beer.
    “Don’t be late for your wedding,” joked Adams.  “Tell you what, take a real walk, and I’ll get with Father Kulcyanov.  See if he’ll delay things a little bit so you have the time you need.  Tell him you wet yourself from nerves.  Anyone marrying Katrina has a right to be nervous.  He’s married; he’ll understand.”
    “Thanks, Chief.  You’re a good friend.”  Quietly, Mike made his way out of the crowd.  He made full use of his ability to blend with a crowd and soon was making his way away from the chaos around the Tun.
    “Where’s Mike going?” asked Nielson, who had noticed Mike‘s departure.
    “He needs a walk,” explained Adams.  “Nerves.”
    “Don’t blame him,” agreed Nielson.  “I’d be scared shitless, myself.  Did he say where he’s going?”
    “No, but it won’t be far.  I told him I’d buy him an hour.  Hope he doesn‘t fall down.  Katrina and Stasia‘d kill him if he messes up that outfit.”
    “And what an outfit it is.”
    The two grizzled warriors shared a laugh and returned their attention to the beer.
    “Evening, Qays.”
    “Evening Major Hughes!” 
    The newest raw recruit tried to conceal his surprise.  He hadn’t heard the major approach.  He’d been deep in contemplation of the change in his situation in just under… was it really two weeks?  It felt longer.  A lot longer.  The training they put him through was beyond anything he‘d imagined. 
    He’d been the lowest of the low in a very undisciplined, disorganized group, and now he was the lowest again.  But there was discipline, and organization, and good food!  The others picked on him, yes, but it wasn’t mean.  Or not more than anyone else.  They called him a ‘nugget’, the lowest of the low.  He had to earn his place and their respect, but they’d made him swear not to shame them by quitting.
    He’d even gotten one of the trainers to almost smile, the other day.  And they didn’t stop his prayers, though it wasn’t always easy to tell his superiors that he needed to stop.  They’d said Allah would understand, that sometimes the mission, the training, had to take precedence.  It was confusing, but they worked with him on that, too, with other soldiers.  Ones from a special team.
    If they could be soldiers, so could he.
    “Quiet night?”  Hughes’ voice interrupted his musings.  That was his problem; always too introspective.  He needed to pay more attention to his surroundings.
    “Yes, sir!”
    “Did they give you live rounds tonight?”
    “Yes, they did, sir.  They said that there should be nobody around, that all the Keldara will be at their festival.  Sir?  Did they really pull all the patrols off the road?  I heard the town police were supposed to take that duty tonight.”  He couldn’t keep his distaste at the pagan celebration out of his voice. 
    Major Hughes didn’t seem to notice, though.  Maybe because they were speaking in Russian, the only common language they had?  “They didn’t say, but I think I’m the only one out here.  This PDA thing is confusing; the maps keep changing on me.”
    “Let me see your weapon, nugget.”  Oh, Allah protect me, he’s going to inspect it!  He safed it first and checked that there wasn’t a round in the receiver before passing it over.  He wouldn’t make that mistake again!
      In the descending darkness, he couldn’t clearly see what Hughes was doing, but he heard the magazine being removed and replaced, the action worked, the safety checked.  All very quick and professional.
    “Looks pretty good, Qays,” Hughes said, handing it over.  “Mind if I walk with you a bit?”
    “No, sir, not at all.  It is lonely, but I can think between way points.  But why aren’t you with the others?”  He pointed to the next stop after checking the almost-magical device they’d given him.  The route had changed again, towards the road and ridge-line.
    He could hear Hughes grimace.  “Stasia’s a bit torn up about this.  She said that it was something she had to have the strength to face on her own, though, and would I please be there for her tonight.”  He shrugged.  “So I thought I’d come check things out on the frontier, as it were.  Give her her space.”
    Qays had no answer.  He shrugged the rock-filled pack on his sore shoulders, looking for a slightly more comfortable position.  This truly sucked, but at least there was someone willing to share the patrol with him for a while.  He missed evening prayers again.  He wanted to finish his route, get back to the barracks, shower, clean up, and pray.  Allah forgive him, they even made him shave!
    They walked in silence for a few minutes around the far side of the serai, where the terrain grew rough and rocky.  They weren’t far from where the road split.
    Suddenly, Hughes froze.
    “Did you see that?”
    “See what, sir?”
    Hughes pointed.  “Down there.  In the rocks.  It looked like a man.”
    “I can’t see anything.”
    “Do you have your NODs?”
    “Yes, but I haven’t been taught how to use them yet.”
    “Give them here.”  Hughes put the ugly device over his head and peered through it.  “Got it.  Two hundred yards, at your one o’clock position.  Do you see him now?”
    Qays peered into the gloom.  He didn’t see anything, but it wouldn’t do to admit that.  “Yes, I think so.  Should I mount my scope?  It has night sight --”
    “Weapon!  He’s got a weapon!  Take him down!”
    “Dammit, wasn’t it clear?  ALL of the Keldara, ALL of the Rangers are at the Festival.  NOBODY is supposed to be stooging around back there.  Take him down before he sees us and ruins our nights!  Unless you want to explain to the Kildar how a sniper got inside the perimeter and ruined his wedding night?“  That was enough.  Face the Kildar?
    “Sir!”  Flipping the safety off, Qays sighted as best he could in the general direction Hughes had told him, and pulled the trigger.  Short bursts, the trainer told him.  Lone enough to say “Allah be merciful”, then release.  Then do it again.  Three, maybe five shots, pulsed out each time.  In a matter of seconds, he emptied the entire clip and was scrabbling for a reload.
    “You got him,” said Hughes.  “Damn, boy!  You got him!  Took you a few shots to get the range, but he‘s down!”
    Qays was pleased.  He’d finally did something right!
    He took that thought to his Paradise, never feeling Hughes’ issue pistol at the back of his neck, or the round that blew his brains out his forehead.
    “Tough luck, kid.”  Then Hughes sprinted down the hillside.
    Mike was waiting for him, covered in blood.  The trees and rocks were similarly covered in blood and unidentifiable bits of flesh.
    “Kid couldn’t shoot for shit,” he observed.  “Ready for this?”
    “Yeah.  I still don’t like it.”
    “Not your call, Major.  Just take care of Stasia for me.”  Mike produced a syringe, injected it into his armpit where nobody would look.  “Jesus.  Hope this works fas--”  He pitched to the ground a boneless mass.  Jack retrieved the auto-injector and stuffed it into a pocket.  He‘d toss it into the fire later that evening, after which he would get very very drunk.
    “Fuck me.”  Jack took out an odd-looking pistol, not his issue which was secured on his hip again.  This was loaded with low-powered, DNA-coded rounds, same caliber as the ones he’d swapped into Qays’ rifle, and aimed and the prone figure. 
    “At least you won’t feel this until you wake up, you prick.“  The gun barked four times.  He adjusted his aim and fired twice more next to the body, causing the rounds to shatter and scatter their contents on the exposed rock in a tighter pattern.  He then seeded the area with the contents of another package and erased his footprints.  He took out a self-securing bandage and applied it to Mike's neck on the side with the most damage.  He squeezed it, starting it leaking.  In about five minutes it'd start to pulse even more blood as the contents thawed.
    All of it Mike's too.  The man was as clever as he was a bastard, that was for sure.
    Then he was on Qays‘ PDA, thumbed to the emergency channel.  He spoke clearly and rapidly. 
    “This is Major Hughes!  The Kildar is down!  The Kildar is down!”
    When the first Keldara from the Ready Squad arrived, they found Major Hughes on the ground, furiously trying to stanch the bleeding from the Kildar’s motionless body.
    “Get on the radio and get that fucking chopper here now!  We need immediate -- IMMEDIATE! -- evac!”  Edvin didn’t argue the point.  He’d seen his share of blood in combat, and the amount of blood leaking from the Kildar was not good at all.
    More and more people were gathering.  “Keep them back!” he shouted.  “Way back!  I don’t know where that chopper will be able to set down!  If‘ you‘re gonna stand there with your thumb up your ass, throw me your medpak and then start clearing an LZ!  We‘re gonna need it!” 
    The squad formed a perimeter, fifty meters away from the body and every able body started clearing the ground.
      Pierson and Adams pushed their way through, disbelief and shock coloring their faces.
    “What the fuck happened, Hughes?” demanded Neilson.
    Without stopping his attempts at aid, Hughes said, “It was Qays, the new guy.  I guess he didn’t quite come over like we thought.  I came out to check on him, we saw someone walking, I put on his NODs.  I saw it was Mike, and told him to put away the rifle.  He said something about the enemies of the Emir deserved death and opened up.  I saw Mike fall.”  His voice broke up.  Imagine kittens, he thought.  You love your cat.  Someone shot your cat.   To his disgust, the tears came easily.
    “Where’s Qays?” said Adams, menace in his voice.  “I’m gonna rip that fucker’s arms off and shove them --”
    “He’s dead.  I shot him once I saw what he’d done, before he could turn the rifle on me.  Only thing that saved me is he’d pumped his magazine empty and was trying to change it.”
    “Shit,” was all the Colonel could say.  He added his flashlight and scanned the splatter.  “Fuck.  How’d he get so good so quick?”
    “You got really good trainers.  He was raw, almost untrained when you got hold of him.  But someone screwed up, he should have had a psych eval before you let him come over!  In the sandbox, we never let them get close without weeks of stress testing by pros!”  He kept up the prattle, as if he was scared shitless.  Which, of course, he was, but not for the reason they thought.  He couldn’t let them get a close look at Mike’s wounds, or they’d see the powder burns.  That was the only flaw in Mike’s plan, but it was a risk he’d been willing to take.
    Hughes slapped on another bandage over the one he was pressing onto Mike’s neck then nodded for someone to help maintain the pressure.  Once he had a free hand he pressed another one onto Mike’s chest, near the left shoulder where he’d shot him instead of Qays.
    “Where’s the fucking chopper?  We need to get him to a proper hospital, fast.”
    The whop-whop-whop of the rotor blades could now be heard, getting quickly louder.  The people, who had pressed in again, moved away.  Valkyrie settled down only a dozen meters away.
    Between the three, they got Mike into the chopper.  “I’ll ride with him,” shouted Pierson over the engine from inside.  He‘d caught a ride from the serai.  “I should be able to shake loose some medical assets in town.  And if that’s not enough, I have the pull to get him moving stateside!  I can‘t say where, but some of you might be able to guess.  Don‘t, please!”
    “I’m coming too!” announced Adams.
    Pierson shook his head.  “I need you here, Chief.  Mike needs you here.  Hold things together until he gets back!”
    “He’s right, Chief!” agreed Hughes.  “If you go, how long before everyone wants to head out?  Between us, we can steady things down! I‘ll cover Stasia, and through her the harem.  You‘re gonna be needed to handle Katrina.  You‘re a father, you should be able to deal with her.”
    “Fuck me.  You’re right, dammit.  Okay, but I want to know as soon as anything changes!  Like fucking immediately!”  He pulled out his PDA, made sure the Cave patched all the auto-doc’s data to him immediately, and put the serai in lockdown mode.
    “I will!  Now get off the fucking chopper!”  The Chief nodded and backed toward the dead mujahideen.
    The auto-doc reported a faint pulse and respiration.  Naida rigged an IV of saline, piggybacked with a pint of O negative.  The flight to Tbilisi was silent.
    The rooftop helipad was clear, for once.  A medical team rushed out with a stretcher and took Mike away.  Pierson held back long enough to say, “I’ll stay with him, as long as it takes.”  Blinking back tears, Tammy nodded.
    “You’d better!” she choked out.
    “Get back to the valley.  Don’t let word of this leak out, not to Alersso and sure as hell not outside the valley.  You hear me, Marine?  And you tell Kacey that, as far as I’m concerned, the Dragon is free.  If it looks funny, shoot first, ask the survivors later.  I’ll back her all the way.”
    Once Valkyrie had lifted off, Pierson took charge, explaining exactly what needed to happen next to the physicians on duty, then to the international staff that reported in as soon as they heard who the victim was.
    Someone was knocking at her door.  She looked at the clock over the fireplace.  It wasn’t time, nor had the drums started.  Maybe it was another cousin come to give her wedding night advice.  Like she needed that.
    Katrina opened the door to -- Stasia?  It took her a long moment to notice that her friend was crying too.
    “What’s wrong?” she demanded.  A cold chill, more than could be explained by the breeze in the early spring night, crept up her bare back.
    Brokenly, bit by bit, Stasia told her.  Qays’ betrayal.  Hughes’ actions.  Pierson, flying off with Mike to the hospital.  The chaos, and uncertainty, with nobody really knowing what was going on.
    “Nobody came to get me?!”  She was furious!  “Nobody thought to come tell me until now?”
    “I just found out and came right here as fast as I could.  What could you do that I haven‘t wished I could do also?” wailed Stasia.  “He’s gone, Kat!  He’s gone!  They didn‘t let me get near and by the time I forced my way through the Valkyrie was gone!  I don‘t know how bad it is, but there was blood everywhere -- everywhere!  His blood!” 
    She broke down again.  Kat found herself awkwardly comforting the older woman.  Part of her wanted to weep, as well.  Another part raged at Mike’s assailant having already been killed; that quick death was better than he’d deserved. 
    Mostly, though, she needed to be with Mike.
    The serai was on edge, awaiting word.  Finally, a call from Pierson.
    “Get me Katrina,” was his only answer to the tsunami of questions over the connected phones.  “Everyone else, off the line, now!
    “He wants Katrina!”
    “Just her?”
    “Yes, that’s what Pierson said.  Everyone off the lines now!”
    “That doesn‘t sound good.”
    “Get Katrina!” Pierson repeated.  “As soon as you find her, get her to the hospital.  Like fucking NOW!”  And he disconnected.
    “Where is that girl?  Find her!  Take Dragon, she‘s not riding in her fiancée’s blood!”  Nielson’s orders were crisp and not to be disobeyed.
    It took almost fifteen minutes to find her.  She was found, still with Stasia, huddled by the fire in her home, and hustled off to the helicopter.  Back to Tbilisi, the Dragon’s engines red-lined and piloted by a white--knuckled Kacey, and to an emergency landing on the hospital rooftop.
     Pierson met her at the stairwell as she ran towards him, barefoot and still in her wedding dress and escorted by Kacey.
    “We need to hurry,” he said, his eyes dark.  “Captain, stay with Dragon.  Keep her hot.  If we need you, we’ll need you.  Probably ought to unship the door gun, make more room.”
    “Understood.”  Kacey began shouting orders to Naida.
    Down two flights, into a room festooned with beeping machinery.  There, in the bed, attached by wires and pipes and tubes, lay Mike, bloody clothes cut away, roughly bandaged.  Blood was everywhere and a pile of used bandages was on a nearby tray.
    “They’ve stopped the worst of the bleeding, but there’s a problem,” said Pierson.  “A round has lodged next to his heart.  He was hit in the shoulder, but it must have ricocheted off the bone.  Every time it beats, it rubs against it, weakening the walls.  If it’s not removed soon, it will tear a hole in it and he’ll bleed to death.”
    “So why aren’t they removing it?” she demanded.
    “He’s too weak to go under anaesthetic.  There’s only one--”  He was interrupted by a whisper from the bed.
    “Kat.  Come here.”
    She rushed over, careful not to dislodge anything, and grabbed his hand.  It was so cold.  “Oh, Michael!”  Now the tears she had held back poured out, blurring her vision and dripping onto his chest.
    “Hey, hey, it’s not so bad.  I’ve been dinged worse, haven’t I Bob?”
    From near the door, Pierson said, “Yeah, but you were a bunch closer to a real hospital.”
    “Not on that first mission.  Flat-lined a bunch of times then…”  His voice trailed off.  He was silent for so long, she though he’d fallen asleep.  Only the beeping of the machines showed that he was still alive.  She sat down by the bed, lay her head down, and wept.
    “Katrina.”  His voice was surprisingly strong.
    “Yes, Michael?”
    “You have to be strong, now.  Bob’s told me my choices, and they both suck.  But I’ve beaten the odds before.  I will come back to you, I promise you.”
    “Come back to me?”
    “Do you remember what I said about promises?”
    “You said you promised nothing.”
    “And I delivered.  Now, I am promising.  You’re right, you are the Kildaran.  I need you…”  His voice trailed off again, and this time he didn’t resume.
    “Michael?” she finally said, quietly.
    “I think he’s out again,” said Pierson, drawing her away.  “Come with me, and I’ll explain.”  They stepped into the hallway.  She almost fought him, but doctors were rushing into the room, crowding her out.
    “What we’re going to try, is to put him in a medically-induced coma.  That will reduce his heart rate, slow the damage from the round.  We should be able to keep him in that state long enough to get him to Germany.  On ‘Grez‘.”
    “The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, at Ramstein Air Force Base.  It’s the biggest, most advanced military hospital in Europe.”
    “Oh,” she said, understanding.  “And you think they’ll be able to heal him?”
    “If we can get him there, absolutely.  At least stable enough for a longer flight, to a very special hospital back in the States.  He’s been there twice before and pulled through both times.  But we have to leave now.”
    “I’m ready.”
    He looked at her in shock.  “No, not you.  He needs you here; didn’t you hear him?”
    “Yes, but --”
    “Look, it’s going to be tough enough getting him there as is.  Go back, settle things down in the Valley, and follow along in a day or so.  Trust me, Katrina, this is for the best.  Mike needs you there.  Your people need you there.  They will look to you for strength, and knowing that you‘re in control will comfort him.”
    “It’s hard,” she said, sniffling.  “I can do this, but it fucking sucks.”
    “That it does,” he agreed.  “That it does.”
    “That’s bullshit!” barked Adams.
    The command staff had assembled, Katrina still in her wedding dress, and she had just told them what Pierson had said.
    “Fine.  Prove it.”
    “I can’t, but that doesn’t make it any less bullshit!”
    Nielson, always the voice of reason, said, “It makes sense.  Katrina needs to be here, as Kildaran, while Michael is in the hospital.”
    “I meant Ramstein.  Why not Tel Aviv?  They’ve got a good shop there.  Or Riyadh?  Kuwait City’s closer, too!  Been in the shop in all three, you want to see the scars?”
    “I don’t know, he didn’t tell me about the others!” she snapped back.  “If Landstuhl gives him the best chance to survive, then he should go to Landstuhl!”
    Daria knocked on the door. 
    “Yes, Daria?”
    “Colonel Pierson on line two,” she said.
    Katrina pushed the button and put him on the speakerphone.  “Yes, Colonel?”
    “Miss Devlich, I regret to inform you that at seventeen forty three hours, Zulu time, Michael Harmon passed away from his wounds during transport to Germany.  There was nothing more we could do.”  His voice was toneless, flat.
    Her wail of anguish was heard throughout the valley.  Every person knew, at that moment, the agony she felt.  It echoed through the air, and through their very souls.  In that moment, their world became a colder, darker place.  A place of mourning.  A place of pain.
    “Fuck you.  You’re a miserable son-of-a-bitch, you know that?”
    “Don’t remind me,” said the late Michael Harmon.  “Just get me away from here and don’t say another word.”



  1. This ending is cowardice and betrayal on Mike's part. This is not what he would do, it's a violation of the warrior's creed. He is leaving behind comrades, and responsibilities. Wouldnt happen.

  2. I have to agree with Anonymous. I do not think Mike would have went out that way. Sorry. Other than that part, the story was a great read.

  3. Good story , not quite as good as the real thing, but very readable and good, very good. Hated the ending and understand it though.

  4. There is a reason for the ending - something I talked to John about many months ago. I CANNOT reveal what that plot point was/is, as it's in the final scene of the final book (that John envisions) - suffice it to say, I had to do a course correction and change MY ending to fit with what HE wants to do.
    I agree that, in a perfect world, Mike would not abandon the Keldara - but this is not a perfect world. And I think that when Dick and I get PIB done (a story parallel to this one), Mike's rationale will be clearer.
    Or maybe it won't.
    Anyhow, thanks for the comments!

  5. Really? No other comment needed.

  6. This was generally a really good read, but the, that needs some revising. Perhaps in a "final version" this needs to be combined with PIB as one very long novel, but as it stands Mike's actions are cowardly and despicable - not to mention (IMO) completely out of character. For this to work as a standalone, there HAS to be more explanation of his reasons for betraying and abandoning his friends, his troops, and the woman he's supposed to be marrying.

  7. Well, if this story is going to tie into another of John's, then hopefully, there is a reason for this ending. I am wondering about that, because, if both Mother Lenka and Katrina have the Sight, then, I think Mother Lenka would have seen this coming. Just my thoughts on that.

  8. Re: the Sight - Katrina explained that she doesn't see EVERYTHING, and she doesn't know WHEN she's seeing (it's all from The Future, but that could be tomorrow or ten years from now) - so that's why she didn't see this. And ML - well, maybe she did, but also saw the rest of it (what rest of it? you say, the stuff I know is coming eventually but CANNOT reveal).
    And again, I agree that it's not in character for Mike to abandon them - but keep a couple things in mind. First, in Ghost, HE'S the one who suggested that maybe he should die of his wounds, so he's done this before. And second, there is more planned for him.

  9. now,that's a cliffhanger. I hope there's a good explanation for this, i was starting to like quays has the first recruit for "foreign legion" of the clan.

  10. I have to agree with the first couple of posters. Mike has done some evil stuff in his time, but this is...despicable. A year ago, when I got my own book back from my pre-readers, they universally wanted to crucify me for killing off one of my main characters in the closing pages. I still have the hate-mail. I spent three months rewriting my book before I took a chance and introduced it over at the Slush Pile. It was much better recieved after the changes.
    If John says Mike has to leave the valley, fine, he has to leave the valley. But faking his death, and leaving behind a people that rely on him, much less a most likely pregnant woman who has devoted her life to him turns my stomach. Please, try and find a marginally better resolution for this.

  11. Didn't like the ending but it is understandable if there is a good reason for it. Like that one woman who was trying to destroy Mike and all he had. If that was the case and this was the only way to let things cool down while he takes care of that business. If that is the case or something similar I can is that but there is going be hell to pay if or when Kat finds out. Other then that I can't wait to see where this is going.

  12. Good work, I hope John Ringo does more with this series with or without this novel.

    For John Ringo and his publishers: I'd pay for more books in the series; as JR has noted the series is not realistic but no techno-thrillers are, however this series manages plot and characterization and leaves the "tech" as support. More, please.

    For Adam and Dick: I hope you proceed with "Paint it Black", but feel free to change details of this book when they don't work with PIB.

    Now for the (I hope constructive) criticism:

    I agree with previous comments about the ending: it's doesn't work. Sour taste in mouth, disappointment, total failure of suspension of disbelief. Ugh. Can't work without in-book explanation but would still be wrong for THIS book no matter how explained.

    The following inconsistencies jump out:

    o there are strong hints in the book that one of Mike's and Katrina's children will become the next Kildar

    o Katrina's visions

    o what's the future of the Keldar? Who is the next Kildar? (Big question to leave open)

    o Mike's future? (Can be vague and left for speculation, but has to include Katrina, and she's tied to the valley until there's a new new Priestess)

    o What's the event NOW that drives Mike out of the valley?

    o The harem? OK, it's allowable (and even good) that we're left speculating about some things ... odd bit of timing.

    It's JR's universe. He gets to decide how each novel and the series ends.

    Perhaps the current ending can be explained at the end of the series ... but not on Katrina's wedding day and not at this point in the timeline: it's wrong, and not merely "fans don't like it wrong", it's SERIOUSLY out of character for Mike (indeed every major character) and utterly jarring when encountered.

    Possible ways for it to be right:

    o Retirement for Mike and Katrina after one of their children is old enough to be Kildar? I'd go for that, but in that scenario there needs to be a wedding and some kids, right?

    Enough on the ending.

    As another commenter essentially said, a good yarn, not quite up to Ringo's own writing standard but it could get there assuming the ending is addressed.

    I see the following additional issues (which any professional editor and JR will presumably see too, if I'm on the right track):

    1. The interludes don't work for me

    2. The back story about Shota should probably stay in, but why not in a regular chapter?

    3. Prissy doesn't belong. She's half a plot thread. Entirely in or entirely out, please.

    4. What mission were the mice off on? Clearly it's meant to be covered somewhere else, but if Pierson knows about it and explained it to Mike, we want to learn at least what it achieved, and maybe why Otyrad(sp?) called in a favor.

    5. The details on the RAMS and Shota are more hints than details: either more explanation is needed, or they want less prominence.

    6. I either missed it or it was left out: how did the Chief mess up with one of the marine pilots during Mike's bachelor party? (OK, he got stupid drunk. But which pilot and where were we shown the start or the, ah, seduction? The xbox games? Er ... not enough detail there.)

    Don't get me wrong: I liked the book from when I found it, and the chapters got stronger as the book progressed. (Until the ending. :-()

    Does this book have to be the final one in the series? Frankly, as written, it doesn't feel like it is.

    How about a new ending for this novel, and JR's planned ending can be in another novel assuming he doesn't change his mind in the meantime? (David Weber didn't kill off Honor Harrington -- there's precedent!)


    The current ending can be kept (if JR insists) with more explanation in another novel.

  13. Oh, an additional comment: if this ending is intended as a cliffhanger lead-in to following events, it needs to be clearer that it IS a cliffhanger.

    Not that I'm a big fan of cliff hanger endings, but if JR gets back to this series at his usual pace, well, I can handle a cliff hanger.

  14. Okay, just responding to the FINAL comment here (from gfl), in order here:
    1-5 are all HINTS about ANOTHER novel, PAINT IT BLACK, which will run parallel to this one. IF this book ever sees paper, the interludes will be out because they're part of another novel; here, their purpose is to get you asking questions and wondering what the HELL is going on? (See, they worked!)
    6: It was left out. And the pilot was Kacey (though you have to go back a chapter to get that there is ANYTHING between them).
    No, this is NOT the final book in the series. Last I heard, there were at least FOUR others contracted and being worked on, and JR has a pretty solid ending in mind (a part of which PREVENTS Katrina from marrying Mike; as he said to me, "with a strong protagonist you have to end the series with either death or a wedding, which kinda says something about marriage in our culture."

    See? I read my mail!


  15. OK, after reading Adam's subsequent post:

    1. Mike's thinking has to be explained, otherwise as noted the jarring break in "suspension of disbelief" is just too strong

    2. Mike's thinking should be based on events we see in the novel: his intelligence group should be turning up worrying stuff, for example

    3. Relying on readers to be familiar with events in "Paint it Black" doesn't fit the series; each novel stands alone reasonably well: Adam, as you yourself noted you didn't start the series with "Ghost". So there needs to be enough in this novel to explain Mike's choices; some clue of what he's doing next, and (for my strong preference at least) there needs to be some indication of what's in Mike's will and what the Keldara will do next: find a new Kildar? (Is Katrina pregnant?)

    4. I think Katrina should have a vision -- delays, problems, whatever -- that would fit this novel (although not JR's previous work) better than the out-of-the-blue events that are described.

    The ending as it stands qualifies (and I'm sorry to be harsh here: you've done a far better writing job than I could hope to, so it's ... awkward if not rude for me to criticize) as a "jump the shark" moment. Sorry.

    I'll see about thinking up a smoother ending, but off the cuff if the general concept of the current ending must be preserved in THIS book(per JR) it needs to be set up through the entire novel, and I don't think re-writing only the final chapter will be enough.

    In the current novel, the Chechens are substantially out of it (other than Kurt's group, and they are defeated in detail) and no other terrorist groups get a mention that I recall. So things seem relatively under control, which means the POTENTIAL threat is high but the DEMONSTRATED threat is pretty low.

    If Mike's profile is now such that he needs to change his ID again, then:

    1. does he do so and stay away from the vally? (Implied in the current text)

    2. does he do so and return to the valley, in which case Katrina should be involved and I don't know if JR's prohibition on Katrina and Mike marrying "now" precludes her leaving simultaneously with him or within a few months (say, after a baby was born)

    3. While Mike might be target #1, aren't the Keldra now a pretty high profile target themselves? And aren't they more attractive as a target without their Kildar present leading them? (Yeah, this is more an argument for JR than for you.)

    Nothing insoluble here, but not knowing what JR's restrictions are makes it hard to make suggestions. Still, those of us who've enjoyed your and Dick's work probably owe you a few brain cycles to see what we can come up with.

    Thanks for posting the followup that at least told us you were under instructions, if not what all those instructions and non-negotiable (less-negotiable?) plot points are. (And no, I don't want to know the details: I want to read them in novels. But as noted, it makes it hard to try to improve the current work.)

  16. Thanks Adam for addressing my points in my main post. The interludes and such make much more sense now, but I'd still be wary of non-standalone books. (Personal opinion.)

    Mmm ... Mike without the Keldara again? Frankly, the Keldara are becoming more interesting than Mike, but the overall story arc is JR's, without a doubt.

    I'll shut up for a bit now. And thanks, again, for your work. I've enjoyed it, and hope you and JR manage to use it in some way that gets you at least some credit.

    Best regards.

  17. Thanks for the suggestions and opinions guys.
    I'm reading too. After a bit of brain relaxin' I'm sure Adam and I will talk all points over. Adam might have to have a talk with John Ringo again and talk details.
    Keldara being more interesting lately? I think I pushed that end of things as there's a third novel Idea I want to do, that's sans valley, sans Mike, Sans Major Characters- basically Keldara plus big boat plus yearning to explore and deliver targeted mayhem...yes it is time to "Go A Viking"
    Paint it Black as designated/outlined could be a stand alone novel, but I tried to tie it in to "The Kildaran" - Thing is if we did both together we'd be looking at well over 1000 pages of text. Which would require the books to be split at some point and continue in another.
    That was a bit hard to do with the current plot and designated outcomes there-in.
    Did my best to make what we wrote the best we could. As for last chapter, that was one way for us to meet John's requirements.
    I have other ideas involving Mother Lenka- a price paid for a vision, her stopping the wedding and giving Mike three tasks he must complete before he can marry the next priestess.
    Ending it that way before Mike kills himself off, with that as a cliff-hanger and all parties confused and surprised by Mother Lenka would make the endings writ in and implied being set aside to be resolved elsewhere.

    What these tasks might be? Trials of Job? A Viking Test or Adventure? If a test/trial for Mike, who and what will be his Grendel? What will be the magical spear and helmet of the ring saga that he has to find? What must he sacrifice to ensure his future?

    That's what I have in mind...leave it hanging with the potential for other stories, other adventures to come.

    Then perhaps Adam and I can write PIB, then "Gone a Viking" - the latter which I want to write as a series of short stories ala "Ghost"

    One thing I want to do with this story at the end is have Mike know his upcoming tasks/tests will be ones that will be remembered for all time with the Keldara and tough as hell. He's set a standard already that's almost above human capabilities. Thus Mike will need time in the shop; at least to get his joints fixed and maybe "greased" (look it up if you've ever played cyberpunk) maybe some spinal work and enhanced support there. Also thinking a Boost similar but better than Katya/Cottontail's. - BUT that would need not only John Ringo's Okay, but Adam to get on board.


  18. OK, well, a couple of days have passed. Not too many comments about alternate endings, although I don't know what Adam's been sent privately.

    Thanks Dick for your comment too: I'd like to see more, whether you continue to play in JR's playground or branch out.

    Now, back to that troublesome ending. I see three options, and only one is frankly reasonable:

    1. Get JR's diktat changed

    I can see that that ain't gonna happen, or at least ain't gonna happen soon. It may not even be possible if concurrent work is underway on his contracted books. Scratch this one.

    2. Re-write the novel to show the threats to the valley that Mike is so fretful about

    I can hear the "ugh" to this one! Seriously though, changes mid-course (as referred to by Adam) tend to require tweaking at minimum of work already done. Life's a bitch and all that.

    As I suspect you (Adam and Dick) would rather take a break and then think about "Paint it Black" _and_ that we readers would like to see "Paint it Black" too, I'd put this suggestion aside as "ain't gonna happen" unless JR adopts this novel, and in that case we probably wouldn't see anything posted until (perhaps) an e-ARC from Baen.

    3. Tweak the final chapter to show why Mike's leaving, and (if allowable) hint at further adventures.

    Yeah, without more preparation in earlier chapters it's going to be a moderate-to-severe case of "Deus ex Machina", but Mike's leaving needs some explanation or it is plain incomprehensible. See earlier complaints by several people including me. :-)

    The way I'd suggest tweaking this chapter is to write dialog between Mike and those arranging his disappearance, with Mike explaining why he believes that he must, and perhaps discussing and dismissing (Mike dismissing) alternatives.

    So far as I can tell (not being privy to JR's constraints) that should be "safe" w.r.t. the aforesaid constraints, avoid a re-write of the earlier chapters, and be tolerable to more (I'd hope most, but you're not going to get all) readers.

    If it doesn't bump into JR's restrictions, I'd include Katrina and Mother Lenka in the planning: then we readers can assume that they'll "guide" the post-Mike Keldara appropriately. If you aren't allowed or can't work Katrina in, too bad.

    So -- that's my suggestion. I recognize it's easy to recommend that other people do work. Sorry 'bout that!

    Finally, thanks again for this work, and I'm impressed that you (a) showed it at all, exposing yourselves to potential reasonable and unreasonable criticism, and (b) have been so responsive to complaints about the current ending.

    At least you may take comfort that everyone who complained about the ending both read that far and cared enough to comment! Small comfort perhaps; I don't know.

    Take away: you done good, overall.

  19. Ok, so the final chapter seems incomplete and that last bit maybe a bit rushed..... Just based on a few things in the previous chapter, it's clear that Mike is leaving to protect the valley. He cares for everyone there, they are his family, you can see it in the way he talks about them. As for JR, if he's going to include this in his official timeline, which would awesome, he REALLY needs to get his ass moving and FINISH THE NEXT BOOK. All I'm sayin.

  20. Early in this book there was two comments made which vagely might cover some of the last chapter. 1st mother Lenka told mike that Kat would be with him intil time for him to leave the valley. 2nd was Mikes vision about a hard choice, one would give everything he hopes for and the other would be hell on earth for him. Not exact words but close enough.

  21. Adam & Dick,

    Now that I've had a few weeks to digest the book (and it's ending), one other idea bubbled to the surface.

    If, by chance, fate, or demons from Hell really having it out for y'all, you two cannot get the book published ("Oh, Fell!" you say), I would request that you take one scene and attempt to publish as a short story (say in a Ghost anthology like a Grantville Gazette or an Honorverse collection, if there be one a comin').

    Specifically, the scene of the baseball game: Bosox on Opening Day. As a baseball fan, that scene is one of the best descriptions regarding the inherent American optimism as told through the lens/prism of our Great American Pasttime. Mike's explanations to Katrina regarding the overall feelings of a person at the beginning of a baseball season STILL have me thinking "that Dude [you two] really nailed it". Don't let that most excellent presentation sit around on a shelf (or on a CD/DVD/hard drive).

    Perhaps it would be necessary to change the characters' names to protect the guilty, add a little bit of background to them, and expand the story a little bit (or not) to go for Sports Illustrated or something (GQ, Mens Health, Playboy...?) as an alternative.

    Anyways, best of luck with writing and publishing to you both.


  22. Further thought - no, it's NOT in character for Mike to just up and abandon the Keldara. The valley, though? Might be time to leave the nest. But very very much, the ending as-is jars. It's so far out that the WSOD is not just ruptured, it's nuked. Can't buy it. And I don't think that as-written is quite what JR had in mind. I remember back when Mike was scurrying around Eastern Europe that he'd actually died either in the bunker or somewhere during that first story - and the rest is a modern rendering of Valhalla, fight all day, feast all night, next morning, rinse, repeat. But now, it's clearly gone too far - and with four more books, even not counting Keldaran, it would seem we may have been a bit off. Still possible, I suppose... Actually, Dick's suggestion makes the most sense in context - something Mother Lenka sees that requires Mike to perform an Odyssey; Not only closer to being in character for Mike, but also opens the possibility for even more stories, as in the entire Iliad. After all, why should David Drake be the only author to stea; er, retell ancient history?

  23. Kinda feel compelled to write something..

    want you to know that you did a good job on this, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Now for the negatives. Please believe me when I say that this is without malice or ill intent. But all the same, the points I'm about to bring up after this point get to me and since you guys seem to really want to hear other opinions about this story.

    Okay where to begin.. I think I'll start with where I was in Ringo's books. I was actually reading the fourth book in the series, Unto the breach I think it's called when I ran into the part where Mike falls head over heals with that keldara, whatever her name was. This brought the whole reading experience to a screaming halt for me and totally killed my buzz.

    I'd been non-stop reading the books from Ghost to this point and nothing before this had been enough to make me not want to read anymore. This did it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to reading romance or there being love interests in sub plots in books. But here it was just unfitting. From reading the first three books I'd gotten the strong impression that Mike just wasn't the kind of guy to fall for, well, I'd call it infatuation. Love at first fuck? Really?

    And on the heals of these thoughts came more. What the fuck! What about Katrina? What about the B-e-a-utiful goddess among women keldara who kicked off the entire story? Because if you think about it, the entire first books really just serves to set up the universe, the character and for us readers to get to know him and how he was BEFORE he got to the valley. The main story of the series doesn't really start until he gets there and meets her and the blizzard from hell, and they manage to save each other from almost certain death. Not heroic death by any stretch of the imagination but death all the same. Without Mike coming along, she'd probably have died of hypothermia. Without finding Katrina, he'd probably have died of hypothermia. There were tons of hints and clues in the books that they were going to end up together, and not just sex, there would be a serious relationship going on there. It was also pretty obvious that it wasn't going to happen for a while. But I was cool with that because with these things, the long term, rock solid power couple of the story, the build up and teasing is half the fun.

    So when I ran into this it really didn't sit well with me. It was pretty obvious that either, John is a sadist and wanted to fuck us over, not especially likely that one, or she was meant to be some form of trial or hardship or life lesson for our hero. This was the more likely case from my point of view and it didn't make me feel better, in fact it made me want to read on even less. In a story were the hero has, up until this point been very (something my brother likes to call “Marry Sue”) badass and awesomesauce. It just didn't track with me. Oh it was obvious from the prologue of the book that in this one, they'd be facing opposition that were as good or almost as good as themselves and I was all set for that but this just wasn't in the cards and it seemed out of place to me.

    So now that I've writen half a page on how Ringo pissed me off, lets get to how you guys pissed me off.

    So there I was, annoyed at having my buzz killed and looking for some wish fulfillment. Well to be honest, first I looked up how it went for the aforementioned newly introduced to the story, blonde keldara whom Mike had so hopelessly fallen for. I'll admit to no small amount of glee at finding out that she gets whacked before the book is over and that Katrina was still in the cards so to speak.

  24. So there I was, annoyed at having my buzz killed and looking for some wish fulfillment. Well to be honest, first I looked up how it went for the aforementioned newly introduced to the story, blonde keldara whom Mike had so hopelessly fallen for. I'll admit to no small amount of glee at finding out that she gets whacked before the book is over and that Katrina was still in the cards so to speak.

    But the entire ordeal still felt unnecessary and kind of pointless, like I said, it didn't track well with me and how I'd perceived the story so far. Alas, disillusioned with Ringo I went searching for some wish fulfillment and found this book here. And like I said, I love this story, the more I read the better it got. It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for so apparently I wasn't alone in my feelings on Katrina and Mike.

    So now for the negatives I mentioned before. Small things that annoyed me throughout the story but that weren't enough to kill my buzz.

    Lets start with the religion. In this story the keldara faith gets laid on pretty thick. It's much more prominent than in any of the books I've read (all though I haven't finished the fourth or read the fifth so maybe I just have to do that and I'll make more sense). The problem with that, aside from sorta changing the Feel, Tenor, Spirit, the je ne sais quoi of the story and drifting away slightly from the original authors Feel, is the research. Now obviously, you've got artistic license when it comes to this, how you wanna tackle their religion and as I mentioned it's more prominent here than it was in Ringo's books. And Ringo is vague enough about the religion that it doesn't ruffle my feathers as much but the way you write it in this story really doesn't track with what I know of the Aesir and the Vanir.(Oh and calling the mythology/religion “Norse” really REALLY rubs me the wrong way. It probably rubs every Scandinavian the wrong way because what that implies is that all vikings and everyone who worshiped the Aesir and the Vanir were from Norway. As a Swed, I take offense to that.) In the books, the religion of the Keldara seem to be something more of a mash up of celtic and Aesir/Vanir) and that in itself I found interesting. You guys seem to be focusing a lot more on this and it doesn't come out well in my opinion.

    Touching upon this but vastly more out of place and out of tune with the Feel for the books are the scene with Holer and the Norns. This really got to me, up until the point were I stopped reading, John's books have been devoid of the supernatural. It's just not in there. So the fact that this scene is in here, whether it be real or just a figment of Mike scary mind, it's still just wrong. To make it bug me personally, you've got this “Holer God of Death and Pain”. Again, this just resonates wrongness with me. First of all, as mentioned I'm Swedish and I have a passing interest in out old, pre christian mythology. And I had never up to this point heard of “Holer God of Death and Pain”. He doesn't anything at all like a god from (Sigh been trying to avoid using this word here..) Norse mythology.
    Norse mythology wouldn't have a god devoted to pain and death because that was pretty much a given, a constant. Everyone died, the glorious dead got to go to Valhalla and and the other unlucky sods got to go to Hel. Both the place and the god. And pain? It just doesn't track. In fact, he's more in line with Celtic gods and their pantheon. So I'm thinking, “oh it's going to have more celtic influence after all” and then the Norns pop in. Now I don't get why you'd need to invent someone like Holer for that scene when you could have just used Hel, she's plenty scary enough. Adding to the confusion going on for me, the Norns turn out to be semi good guys who actually saves Mike's bacon. Again, doesn't really track.

  25. Normally I'd be all for someone to have their way with a religion, do it your own way, make your own stuff up, but this is in an already established universe were they've been very accurate up to this point

    So to circle back, while I'm personally a okay with the religion being expanded upon and more prominent in this book, this actual meddling of real deities is very hard to swallow. Wrong genre.
    The whole Katrina and Mother Lenka “Sight” business is also out of place, again the supernatural need not apply. Wrong genre.

    So that's the religion stuff out of the way, if you're still with my then it's finally time for the ending.
    The ending of this story really didn't sit well with me for a plethora of reasons. The first one is really, come on, this is FANFIC! This is wish fulfillment, this is the thing we've been waiting for the entire book! This is the reason we came here, and then you just kick us in the balls and flip us the bird? Not cool. The ending made me mad, but it also made me disappointed. Whatever the story became in time, it started out as a fanfic and I'm pretty sure that if it weren't for restrictions placed upon you guys by Mr. Ringo then the ending probably would have been vastly different. And since you want to get this published as canon then I guess I understand why it ends like that but it doesn't change the fact that it's rotten.

    A more story oriented reason for the ending NEEDING to be changed is Katrina. Oh don't get me wrong, plenty of people in that valley is going to be hit hard by this, the Kildar dying. But none more so than her. In this story, Mike professed his love for her, more than once, and in doing this, on their damn wedding day even, he pretty much crushed her. All her life since he came to the valley has pretty much revolved around Mike, she's been doing nothing else but working on getting him for that time and when she finally, finally does get him and everything else she wanted, with only the formalities left, she loses him. And it isn't that he changed his mind and called off the wedding, deciding that now that he'd gotten some of that sweet ass he didn't feel like getting married anymore. Something like that, heartbreak, she could handle. Her response would most likely be anger, rage, wrath. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that. Now feeling like that is by no means good for you but it's much better than what she gets: Grief. Grief is much worse than anything else I can think of in this situation. Grief can actually cause miscarriage. People have died themselves of grief.

    So of all the things Mike could have done to “protect” the valley and those he loves, this is by far the most hurtful, the most cruel. But to no one more so than her. Katrina literally just lost her whole world, her whole future. Very few people bounce back from that, very few recover even a little. And then one day when Mike returns to the valley, because I can only assume that he'd return if he cares so much about them and her, how do you think they're react? How do you think the shell of the woman he knew would react? How do you think he's loyal friends would react? How would all of them react when he told them that he caused them all the pain and suffering and grief knowingly, to PROTECT them from harm?

    I think Mike would find himself dead for real in short order.

    So.. That's it. Those are my thoughts, my two cents. I could probably go on and on and on but believe me, I've actually tried to keep it short. To reiterate, overall this is a fantastic story, especially for a rough draft. If you'd find a friendly editor to look over it and bounce it back and forth a few times then I think I'd really like the result. Except for the ending of course, nothing can make that right.

    TL;DR Great story, worth reading! Also sorry about the posting 3 times just to get it in there.

    Caveman from the arctic north.

  26. Wow... Where to start...

    First, I have to agree with Victor re: Gretchen. I never did care for that particular thread myself but that didn't stop me from reading more. Victor, if you are still out there and haven't yet done so, I suggest you read #5 (A Deeper Blue). It vies with the first three as my favorite. And of course, book 6 has also finally seen the light of day though it isn't as good as the others. Not bad, just not as good IMO.

    Now, on to Kildaran. As the others have all said, there is much to like here. You did an excellent job on the overall story and keeping with the feel of the series. However, there are definitely areas that I didn't feel fit well. The four blind mice bothered me quite a bit as did the shenanigans of some of the other intel girls really bothered me. Remember that Katya was yanked from intel when she was caught taunting Chechens on the radio. I don't think Mike (nor Vanner or Nielson) would have tolerated that kind of behavior at all.

    I also agree with the others about the Interludes. I understand you are/were trying to incorporate small teasers from another potential book but you both say too much and yet not enough. Doesn't work.

    I don't really buy Kurt going after them in the way he did. He's a professional as he pointed out in Unto The Breach. As a pro he wouldn't have allowed personal feelings to dictate his actions. It would have made far sense too me if he had been approached by the Chechens to help them plan an operation that included taking out the Keldera. That I think he would have jumped into with both feet.

    Another thing that really bothered me was Qays. There was absolutely no way he would have been taken back to the valley and made a part of the militia. Never would have happened.

    Now we get to Katrina herself. I don't buy Mike being 'forced' into accepting her as Kildaran. Romanced into it, that I could see. He has wavered in the past with her. Catch him at the right moment and I think she could have brought him around. But forced? Not a chance.

    Another problem is the rift with Putin. Yes, Mike was pissed at him for withholding intelligence that caused more Keldera deaths. But he himself did that as well. This really bothered me in Unto the Breach btw. When they secured the WMD they should have left immediately. The weapon could have been neutralized later when it was safe. Instead they sat on site for an hour? Two hours? and allowed forces that they did know about come after them. I mentally bitched about that when I read it. Not to mention when he hires J he acknowledges the value of not burning sources. Then he gets mad when the Russians do exactly that? Always sat wrong with me. So I never really liked his rift with the Russians, Putin or Chechnik. So that kind of makes that whole thread a problem for me. Yes, Putin is a dick and hopefully he will eventually lose an election and drop out of site but him taking personal vengeance against Mike I don't buy.

    Then the final and most bothersome point. As pointed out by all the others, I simply don't believe that Mike would walk away like he did. The point about bringing threats to the valley doesn't work for me and was already covered in Choosers of the Slain. As for worries about his own personal safely, first of all, I don't see him running from it. Second (and this has bothered me a bit in all of the books following Kildar), his cover has already been essentially blown by by his activities in books 3, 4 & 5. Yes, Al Queda may not know he is the one who stopped their operation in Syria but he would still be a major target for the other operations he's interfered with.