Back | Next

Chapter One

"Fuck me."

Mike Harmon, AKA Michael James, AKA Michael Duncan and currently Mike Jenkins or "Kildar", was thirty-seven years old, brown of hair and eye, medium height with a muscular build and a face that, while slightly handsome, was also so "normal" that he could pass as a local in just about any Indo-European culture from the US to Northern India. That trait, and an almost prescient talent for silent-kill, had earned him the nickname "Ghost" while on the SEAL teams. After sixteen years as a SEAL, most of it spent as an instructor, he had found himself unable to readjust to team life, gotten out and gone to college. Since then his life had taken so many weird turns that he had ended up as a feudal lord in the country of Georgia. With a harem, no less. Oh, and with every terrorist on earth searching for his head. Which was why he never used the name "Ghost" or "Harmon" except around a very few, very close, friends.

Mike was sitting on the summit of Mount Sumri, drinking in the cold, heady air of the high mountains and just taking a look around. He'd taken to climbing the mountain every few days as a way to get exercise and some time away from his various duties.

The Keldara called it "Mount Raven" for the flocks that gathered on its slopes. It was the highest peak of the many surrounding the valley and the birds apparently liked the viewpoint. So did Mike: one of the reasons to climb it was to take a look around.

As he'd been examining the mountains to the north, a source of constant low-grade anxiety, a flash of movement caught his eye. The hills had small herds of deer, wild pigs, mountain goats and even a few wolves. But this shape was different. Low-slung, slow-moving and...predatory.

He steadied the binoculars by resting his elbows on his knees and engaged the digital zoom. The picture tended to pixellate but he could zoom to a hundred times normal view magnification at the maximum. He zoomed it out to about seventy times and then controlled his breathing instinctively, trying to catch the shape again.

It was a tiger. A young male Siberian if he wasn't mistaken. Which was just flat impossible. The last tiger in the Caucasus Mountains had been killed off nearly a century ago. The Keldara still had a few preserved skins, but that was the only remnant. And the nearest breeding group of Siberians, which were themselves threatened with extinction, was, well, in Siberia. Eastern Siberia, which was about as close to the Caucasus as Southern California was to Nova Scotia. There was no way a tiger could have just walked all the way from Siberia.

But the evidence was there before his eyes. He wasn't about to dismiss it. Even if it was impossible.

The tiger only remained in sight for a moment then disappeared over the crest of the ridge. It was as if it had come into sight just to show say: Hey! Yo! Here I am!

"Cool." Mike whispered. But he made the decision, immediately, to keep quiet about it. There was no way he was going to mention the sighting unless other evidence turned up. Nobody would believe it. Oh, they'd be polite enough about it. He did, after all, employ or, basically, "own" just about everyone he met on a day to day basis.

While he couldn't be said to "own" all he could survey from his lofty aerie, he did control it. The valley below, the valley of the Keldara, he did own. He had bought the valley, and the caravanserai that came with it, more or less on a whim. He had gotten lost and found himself in a remote mountain town with the strong possibility of being stuck there all winter. Since the only available living quarters, an unheated and bug infested room over the town's sole bar, were less than pleasant, he had needed some place to stay. And, frankly, he was tired of traveling. So, thinking that he could always sell the place if he had to, he had "bought the farm", mostly for the caravanserai, a castle like former caravan hostel. The "farm" was in the valley below, a fertile high-mountain pocket valley about five miles long and two in width stretching more or less north to south.

The farm came with tenants, the Six Families of the Keldara. The Keldara were, at first, a pretty mysterious group. They were said to be fighters but on the surface they were much like any similar group of peasant farmers Mike had encountered in over forty other countries.

The valley also came with problems. The farm had been terribly neglected for years and the Keldara still used, essentially, dark ages equipment: horse and ox drawn plows, hand scythes and threshed the grain by running oxen over it. The farm manager was a blow-hard who had all the farming and management skills of a rabid badger. And the Keldara had little or no motivation to improve things.

Mike had solved that problem early on by finding a new farm manager, a former Keldara who had been university trained as an agronomist and then "exiled" from the families for challenging the farm manager's authority. The other fix was just throwing money at the situation: he had bought new equipment, tractors, combines, chainsaws and everything else a modern farm needs. Together with modern seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and farming techniques, the direct farming aspects were coming together. The fields below were yellow stubble from the largest bumper crop any of the Keldara had seen in their lives. The harvest festival scheduled for tomorrow was going to be a happy event.

The other problem, though, looked to be more intractable. Right over the mountains to the north was Chechnya, where the Russians were fighting an ongoing insurgency that had continued without relief for over fifteen years. The Chechen resistance used the Pansiki Gorge, less than sixty miles from where Mike sat, as their primary basing area. Technically part of the country of Georgia, Georgian forces, limited in number, under-trained and funded and with other serious problems to handle, didn't even consider trying to contest it with the battle experienced and well-armed Chechens.

The battles spilled over to the region of the Keldara. The Chechens used the area as a transshipment point, sending drugs and kidnapped women out to be sold or traded for weapons and ammunition and bring the ammo and weapons back. The constant trade was a source of anger on the part of the Russians who regularly threatened the area with outright invasion.

The Chechens didn't just wander through the area. They often extorted food and girls from local farms or, in some cases, raided and burned them. Whole towns had been raided within the last few years.

It wasn't the best security situation in the world.

Mike's response was simple: Turn the Keldara retainers into a militia. He had, in his time, seriously pissed off every terrorist on earth. If he was going to be right next to Chechen Central, he wanted some shooters at his back. He hired a large number of trainers from the US and Britain, shipped in top quality gear and set out to turn the "simple farmers" into a group capable of, at the very least, securing their own homes and his.

The Keldara had 120 males available between the ages of seventeen and thirty. Mike's goal was to turn them in to a decent company of militia, period. He wanted them to be able to maneuver against an enemy force while the younger women, who were trained in positional defense, held the homes. That was it.

What he found out, as the training progressed, was that the Keldara were far from "simple farmers." They took to military training as if they had been born with a rifle in their hands. Enthusiastic didn't begin to cover it; he realized, quickly, that he had unleashed a monster.

The reason for their response trickled out, slowly. He still wasn't sure he knew the whole story. But one part he found out even before the training began: the Keldara were not "true" Georgians; they were a living remnant of an ancient elite force called the Varangian Guard. The Varangians were Norse, mostly from Russia, hired by the Byzantine Emperors as their personal bodyguards.

In the Keldara, the fierce warrior spirit of the Viking was a present day reality. They had to survive as farmers, but at heart they were reavers and warriors that sought death in battle so that they could ascend to their heaven: "the Halls of Feasting", Valhalla. They masked as Christians but practiced their ancient worship of "the Father of All", Odin, in secret. Their preferred weapon was the axe and they trained with them as seriously as they learned to plow.

They were, in fact, born with a weapon in their hand. When a Keldara male was born, one of the ancient battleaxes the Fathers kept—axes handed down over literally millennia—was placed in his hands and the hands closed over the great hilt. The first thing they learned to grasp was a weapon.

The Keldara had always had a lord and that person had always been a "foreigner", a mercenary who was not of the government that controlled them. Often they had been northern European adventurers, knights, cavalrymen, wandering bravos, over the ages the position and weapons had changed but not the pattern.

There was even a name for the person: Kildar.

Mike was but the latest in a long string of foreign mercenaries who had arrived, trained the Keldara in the latest innovations in bringing harm to an enemy and then used them to bring that harm.

That was fine with the Keldara. They just went on. As long as they had their beer, and incredible beer it was, and someone to kill in the name of their Kildar and for the glory of the Father of All, they were happy.

They were called by the locals, and even the Chechens, The Tigers of the Mountains. Simply saying those words to rural Georgians caused them to make the sign of the evil eye and shy away.

Mike swung the binoculars around the valley, idly wondering what the world would bring to the Keldara next. Chechens had come and been defeated, the Keldara being then right off their first day on the range. Another mission in Albania had started as a lie and been made truth by their burning spirit. The toxic result resided in the vaults of the caravanserai, a troubling burden he tried his very best to forget.

He looked down at the homes of the Keldara, low stone buildings with slate roofs and caught sight of a group of Keldara militia sitting outside their barracks, working on weapons and taking in the remaining light of the mild late-fall day. They seemed... happy. Why shouldn't they be? It was a nice day, they had weapons in their hands and, for the moment, nobody was trying to kill them. Of course, they looked even more happy when people were trying to kill them and they were responding in kind.

Where, he wondered, would the Keldara descend next, following their Kildar aViking to bring fire and axe and ruin?

* * *

"I saw it, I tell you."

Sion Kulcyanov was eighteen, just. Tall and more slender than the "standard" Kulcyanov look he had the Kulcyanov bright blond, nearly white, hair and blue eyes. He was considered probably the most handsome of the Kulcyanov's with a squared chin that had a slight cleft, high Scandinavian cheekbones and eyes with a very slight epicanthic fold. His blue eyes were the most notable feature, though. "Striking" was the term that men usually used. "Piercing" was another. Women outside the Keldara girls normally just sighed.

Sion did not consider himself particularly handsome. And among the Keldara he really wasn't. Oh, he was better than the average, perhaps the best looking among them. But the Keldara, male and female, were invariably so good looking people had a hard time believing it. He might be the "best" but in his general age group there were at least twenty guys that most women, internationally, would count as a "ten" for looks. And the low end was probably Shota, the great dumb ox, who would count as an "eight" in any normal society. A dumb eight. But an eight nonetheless.

Sion's eyes might have looked nice but they had other assets. He was possessed of vision that was normally reserved for birds of prey. Far-sight was the term. Where other men had to use binoculars he simply...peered.

In America with his phenomenal reactions, high intelligence and incredible eyesight he'd have been a shoe-in for fighter pilot training.

In the Keldara he was spotter for the top team sniper, Lasko Ferani.

With his relative youth, few of the militiamen were much older but few younger, and his anomalous position, his status wasn't the highest in the militia. Which was why he found the present argument slow going.

"The tigers have been gone for years," Efim Devlich said, shaking his head. The machine-gunner was somewhat old in the teams at twenty-seven and well regarded. So his argument held more weight. "And there aren't any anywhere around here. So, tell me, Pee-Boy, where did it come from and why hasn't anyone else seen it?"

Sion had four kidneys, a not unusual, if unrecognized, mutation among the Keldara. It, perhaps, explained why they could drink so much beer without notable effect. That and the fact that they were given weak beer while still nursing. But one result of four kidneys was a tendency to have to urinate more often than normal. Sion had never quite lived down an accident he'd had when he was six.

"Well," Sion answered, dryly, "it might be because I can see better, yes?"

The group chuckled and nodded. Just as everyone knew that Sion had peed his pants during Sunday Church when he was six, they also knew his eyesight was phenomenal.

"Well," Efim said, shrugging, "I'll believe it when I see it. Or hear it. They roar, you know, just like lions. We will know the tigers have returned when we hear their roar. Now, it's time for dinner. I would suggest, though, that you keep this to yourself, Sion. Perhaps, if there was a tiger, he did not want to be seen. Not yet."

"I will," Sion said, shrugging. "But one day, Efim, you will hear the roar. Then you will know: the tigers have returned."

* * *

Mike opened up the side gate of the harem garden and made his way through the dark yard, limping slightly. The path up the mountain was enough of a ballbuster but finding his way down, in the dark, was always tricky. The late summer blooms filled the air with a heady fragrance but he was concentrated on just making it to the back door. There was one spot on the trail that, no matter what he did, he slid. It was tough enough getting up, a slick portion of worn granite at about a sixty degree angle. There were a few finger and toeholds on the way up, but coming down in the dark the best bet was to just slide it. This time he'd done just that, taking his ruck off and letting it follow him down in a barely controlled slide. Fortunately there was a wide wedge of overlaying sandstone at the end of the section of granite and he and the ruck had arrived in one piece. If he'd slipped very far to the right, though, it was a fifty meter fall to the next more or less flat spot.

Very few of the windows were lit, which made making his way through the garden more a matter of memory than sight. Although the Keldara had ended up pulling more than two dozen girls out of the Balkans slave trade, Mike wasn't about to bring them all back as part of his "harem." They had been brought to the caravanserai, but only temporarily. He'd set the harem manager and Vanner on finding a spot for them and the two of them had tracked down a parochial girl's school in Paraguay of all places that was willing to take them. Mike had also offered the girls currently in the harem the option of going and two of them had left.

He knew that most of the girls would be getting ready for bed as he walked in the door so he didn't expect to see anyone in the circular "common room" but Anastasia was sitting on the settee, reading a book.

Anastasia Rakovich, his harem manager, was twenty-six, long-legged, blonde and beautiful with the most perfectly "blue" blue eyes Mike had ever seen. She was, however, "too old" to be in the harem of an Uzbek sheik that had "given" her to him. Mike, suddenly faced with having a harem of girls from the local area, had gone to Uzbekistan looking for someone like her. Well, he'd sought a manager. A young lady that spoke seven languages, trained as an accountant and manager and an extreme sexual masochist had been a bit of a surprise. As had her approach to the harem.

She had pointed out that the harem was for far more than sex. The girls of the harem were supposed to act as counselors, people on whom Mike could dump the problems and stresses of being, effectively, a feudal lord.

She admitted that it was going to take her a while to train the girls, but in the meantime she fit the bill perfectly. When Mike had a problem, he had learned to not hesitate talking to her about it. When she had a suggestion, they were generally very good, especially when it was about handling people. And when she didn't even understand what he was talking about, she would still listen carefully and help him to fully "verbalize" the problem. All in all he decided that Anastasia had been one hell of a catch.

"Good place to read?" Mike asked as he negotiated the door. The rucksack was a standard Keldara combat ruck, Swiss-made with integral bracing, multiple sections and all the rest of the modern bells and whistles. But it wasn't the easiest thing to get through a door.

"The light is good," Anastasia said, flowing gracefully to her feet and clapping her hands. Petro, the son of the groundsman, came through the far door immediately. "But I was, in fact, waiting for you, Kildar. Petro will take your rucksack. I will have Tinata come up to your room with a light supper after your shower."

"How long have you been waiting?" Mike asked, helping Petro, who was barely fifteen and overwhelmed by the heavy-ass ruck, to get the mother on his back. The boy's knees barely sank; he was strong for his age. But he would have had a hell of a time getting the hundred and fifty pound ruck off the floor.

"About five minutes," Anastasia said, smiling. "Not long."

"I hate to think I'm that predictable," Mike replied, rolling his shoulders. "I'm not a person who should be predictable. People can use that, you know."

"I think that you are only predictable to those who love you and know you well," the harem manager said, smiling. "And I know you well. Now, go take your shower and by the time you are done Tinata will be ready with supper."

"Just as a question," Mike said, "why Tinata?" He had to admit that the comfortable and placid Tinata was a good choice. He wasn't really up for complex conversation at the moment. All he wanted was to get something to eat and maybe a quick screw then get some rest.

"Because she is right for you, now," Anastasia said, shrugging. "I don't question your military decisions or understand them."

"And I shouldn't question yours, huh?" Mike said, grinning. "Okay, Tinata it is."

* * *

Back | Next