So. Go ahead. Read through it one more time. Then, as always, I'll look forward to your comments.
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 Master 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.”
“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”
“Is that your intent?”
“Jessia. Will you burden him?”
“Is that your intent?”
“Will you share the burdens of each so that your souls may grow in this union?”
“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?”
“And so the binding is made.” And a blue cord was layered in.
“Andrew. Will you cause her anger?”
“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?”
“And so the binding is made.” The red cord, now, was added.
“Andrew. Will you honor her?”
“Jessia. Will you honor him?”
“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?”
“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.
The former major was in place. Security had been a bitch, but that only made the challenge more alluring. Now, he waited. He could wait here for days, if needed.
But his employer had studied the target well. It was likely he’d get his shot this evening, at the latest.
“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. Still, he hesitated.
“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 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.
“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 the round that splattered his brains all over Hughes.
Shocked, Hughes turned and gaped at the ruin of a recruit before sprinting down the hillside, yelling.
“Indians! We have Indians!” He just hoped that Mike could hear him.
Mike was waiting for him, covered in blood. The trees and rocks were similarly covered in blood and unidentifiable bits of flesh. He’d heard Hughes and was under cover.
“What the fuck - “ he began, but before he could finish Hughes pitched forward, landing face-first in the bushes next to him. Mike pulled out his PDA and thumbed the emergency channel. “Ready squad, action stations! Sniper in the hills behind the Caravanserai! Major Hughes is down, injuries unknown! Immediate assistance is required! Shag ass, boys!” Setting the locator to the ‘Alarm’ setting, Mike scanned the hills, looking for the tell-tale outline of a man.
He didn’t hear the round that punched through his shirt and into his chest.
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 - and covering Hughes - 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, “I don‘t know. I was walking the perimeter with Qays, covering Mike‘s walk, then the kid was down.” He carefully left out the details of Mike‘s plan; it was irrelevant now. “I ran downhill, then it felt like someone punched me in the shoulder.” Without pausing, he nodded toward his damaged right arm. “Vest saved my life. When I came to, Mike was down and his PDA was screaming its alert, so I started first aid.”
“Shit,” was all the Colonel could say. He added his flashlight and scanned the splatter. “Fuck. Where’d the shooter come from?”
“On it. Ready Squad, even numbers with me! Odd numbers, secure the perimeter! Nobody in or out without confirming ID, I don’t care if it’s your motherfucking cousin, nobody gets close to Mike!”
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.
“Where’s the fucking chopper? We need to get him to a proper hospital, fast.”
“And you as well, boy. You did good, but you need that arm taken care of.”
“I’ve had worse,” suggested Hughes, thinking that he needed to stay.
“Not a chance,” countered Nielson, shaking his head.
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, then Hughes followed. “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 Nielson.
Pierson shook his head. “I need you here, Colonel. Mike needs you here. Hold things together until he gets back!”
“He’s right, Colonel!” agreed Hughes. “If you go, how long before everyone wants to head out? Between you and the Chief, you can steady things down! I‘ll handle 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!” Nielson 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 virtually silent.
“I didn’t think he’d go this far,” said Pierson.
“He didn’t,” replied Hughes.
“This leaves us with a hell of a mess, you know. Promises were made. Certain actions are expected.”
“Don’t ask me to help you,” answered Hughes, not looking at his superior’s face. “I won’t do it.”
“Then I’d better not say any more.”
The rooftop helipad was clear, for once. A medical team rushed out with stretchers and took Mike and Jack 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‘ death. Hughes’ actions. Pierson and Hughes 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! They’re both 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 the assassin. He’d better hope she never found him.
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!”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
Hughes was still in the hospital, but he insisted on Katrina, Stasia, Nielson, Adams, and the Vanners being brought to see him.
Katrina was still obviously shattered.
“None of you are going to like what I have to tell you,” he began. “I just can’t not speak up about this. Whatever Mike planned, this wasn’t it.” He spoke briefly but concisely.
At the end, the grief in Katrina’s face had transformed to rage.
“Where would Pierson have taken him?” Her voice was merciless.
Mike awoke to a vaguely familiar hospital room. Pierson was at the bedside.
“Fuck you. You are one miserable son-of-a-bitch, you know that?”
“Don’t remind me,” said Pierson. “I was just executing your plan, taking advantage of an unexpected situation.”
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, you prick. And you know that this will only piss off the Keldara, don’t you? Worse still, Katrina?”
“I think we can handle them,” said Pierson with confidence.
“I don’t. God have mercy on your soul, because Katrina sure as hell won‘t. Now. Get out of my sight.”