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Chapter Two

Mike swung up onto the gelding and settled into the saddle.

He'd ridden when he was a kid and sort of enjoyed it but until he'd moved to the Valley he'd given it up for over twenty years.

However, due to the pressure of circumstances, the Rite of Cardane being the circumstances, Mike had decided that learning to ride again was a good idea. Reality was that horses were flighty, smelly, cantankerous creatures. But chicks dug them and the Rite was really about the lady, not the Kildar, in Mike's opinion.

Since relearning, though, he'd started to ride a good bit. It was a reasonable alternative to driving around in an SUV when he was checking out the farm. He also preferred to use a horse for the Keldara's various ceremonies and festivals. It better, somehow.

The Keldara were embracing aspects of the 21st Century with enthusiasm. On the shoulder of the hills to the south was a new brewery that, while archaic looking on the outside, was as advanced as anything to be found in Europe or the United States. Computerized temperature controllers and hydrometers, automated bottling systems, the works. In the bowels of the caravanserai, young ladies who a year before had been hand-weaving cloth for clothing and hand sewing same were using computers to analyze voice intercepts, running satellite communications gear and managing one of the most advanced battlefield networks to be found in the world. And those ladies weren't just punching buttons; they were learning the basic theory behind the systems, how to fix them, how to trouble-shoot, how to repair. Programming and debugging. Cracking and counter-hacking.

Most of the real "smart-work", Mike had to admit, was done by the women. The men...

The Keldara men had also embraced aspects of the 21st Century. The team members at least. But the aspects they'd embraced made him want to shake his head. Oh, they were just fine with thermal imagery scopes, vibration trackers and such. But show them a circuit diagram and they tended to scratch their heads.

On the other hand, put an Xbox controller in their hands...

But the reality was that in their souls, the Keldara were still very medieval, even barbaric. Give them a generation or two and they might go soft. Might. They'd survived Mongols and Ottomans, Russian Tsars and Communism and still kept their soul. They'd just have to see what the internet was going to do to them.

For now the seasonal ceremonies remained so true to an ancient core that, somehow, turning up in a Ford Expedition just didn't seem...right.

On the other hand, there was the matter of dress. Mike had one really...uhm...fancy riding outfit. Fancy was the only way to describe it. But he reserved that for the Rite of Cardane. Otherwise he preferred to dress, an ride, Western.

Thus he was wearing a pair of jeans, nice ones admittedly, and cowboy boots, okay those were about six hundred bucks, to the festival. Everyone else would be in their "Sunday Go To Meetin'" clothes so he'd be slightly underdressed. But anything was better than that damned riding costume for the Rite.

He tucked the reins into one hand and gave the gelding his head. He knew he didn't have to kick or otherwise suggest the Braz Curly get going. The gelding liked going down the hill to the small hamlet of the Keldara. The younger girls of the Keldara tended to pamper him to the point where getting him to leave was the hard part. Irana Tsar, or as Mike preferred to call him "Dumbass", was really popular with the younger girls of the Keldara. They all wanted to mount Illyria—the "gray" palfrey that was currently eating hay in the stables—one day and follow Irana up to the caravanserai.

That damned Rite. Mike wished he'd never heard of it. He really wished he hadn't worked so hard to make it "special." Dumbass was getting fat from being plied with special cakes, apples, sweets and anything else the girls could filch to feed the pig.

Mike reined in on the road down. The road from the caravanserai was steeper than any similar road would be allowed to be in the US, very nearly a 9% grade. It was easy enough to ascend on a horse, you just leaned forward. Going down, through, was tricky. There was a technique for taking a grade like that fast, one that Mike hoped he never had to try. He could ride, he wasn't a horseman. There's a difference.

Dumbass, though, had gotten used to the grade and handled it easily. He wanted to trot—cakes and brushing was waiting—but Mike kept him to a walk.

There were two switchbacks on the drive—each positioned to be swept by fire from the caravanserai—before it reached the main road. The main road was fairly flat through the Valley, winding along the west side past the caravanserai. Going north it passed over the mountains and eventually swept west over some nasty passes to Tbilisi. The drive was kidney-pounding once you left the Valley. Mike had actually driven improvements, all paid out of his own pocket, up to the pass to the north. But that was as far as he was paying for. After that he had to put up with the road. It was horrible but one of these days he was going to get a damned helicopter.

To the south the road ascended first to the town of Allerso, a pretty small town of about five hundred souls, then further up to a pass that led to the southern plains of Georgia. Tbilisi was accessible in that direction, as well, but a bit further. And the roads were no better.

Not far south from where the drive met the road was the downslope to the homes of the Keldara.

The latter were on a slight terrace on the south side of the valley, not far from Allerso in direct line and at about the same level as the main road. However, Mike had to first descend to the Valley floor then back up to get there.

The drive from the road to the houses was graveled, but well maintained. It was far better than any of the roads in the mountains outside of Mike's control. The Keldara had their own gravel pits and ensured that all of the gravel roads in the Valley were maintained in top order.

Mike had considered paving some of them but it didn't seem worth the bother. Since he'd brought in heavy equipment, the Keldara's work-load had dropped so much that maintaining the roads was good "busy work" for the older men and the team members when they weren't on deployment cycle. Pretty much every day one of the Keldara men would be out grading them or a group would be laying down new gravel. It was ritual at this point.

The Valley had one "major" river, about fifty feet across at its broadest, and five or six, depending on how you counted, streams that joined the "river."

One of those streams had been damned, by a former SF engineer Mike brought in, and now provided hydroelectric power to the Keldara and the caravanserai.

During spring they could flood rather badly which was why the road, and the houses, were somewhat elevated. The river was glacier fed and the streams in spring would bulge with melt-water. That was good and bad. Flooding bogged the Valley for a few weeks every year, requiring replacement of bridges that got swept away and general fixing of the fields. But the floods also brought silt, rich with nutrients, the reason that the Valley was so fertile.

Hell, the way the weather looked they might flood tonight. The sky was overcast and strong winds, at times low gale force, were ripping through the region. The forecast, though, said that rain would hold off until about midnight, by which time most of the Keldara would be under cover.

When he hit the road, Dumbass started to shake his head. He wanted to go.

Mike gave him his head and the gelding broke into a canter almost directly out of the run. Mike was fine with cantering, it was a pretty smooth gait, but he drew the line when the horse tried to gallop. Galloping was for horsemen.

Many of the Keldara were already gathering in the broad, flat, area in front of the houses. Mike was pretty sure that the original reason for the higher ground there was a palisaded camp. There were even traces of a defensive ditch in front of the terrace. The open area would have been a marshalling area.

The Keldara used it for much the same reason, now. That was where the tribe gathered for the minor portions of festivals. That was where the kids ran screaming through the crowds and, in this case, people gathered to sample food.

The women of the Keldara prided themselves on two things: their beer and their cooking. Already trestle tables piled with special foods had been set up in the area and everyone was sampling the wares. Which meant there were plenty of young teen girls in the area, carefully ignoring their male counterparts. And Mike had been spotted as soon as he left the gates of the caravanserai.

So when Dumbass came cantering up the road into the area, Mike sawing on the reins to slow him down before he trampled some kid, he was immediately swarmed.

"God, girls!" Mike said, grinning against his better nature. "Give me a chance to at least get off the damn thing!"

The girls were a swarming mob, dressed in bright blouses and black skirts. The Keldara kept some very strict customs about dress which told an informed observer a lot. Girls who had had their first period wore "dhimmie" scarves, a legacy of Islamic occupation under first Magyar tribes then the Ottomans. Girls who were "available" wore their hair in braids. Girls who were married wore their hair unbraided.

Younger girls, those who hadn't hit puberty, didn't wear scarves. Younger ones their hair was generally pulled back but unbraided. The older ones, though, mostly wore braids.

Mike tossed his reins to one of the girls with a dhimmie scarf and braids and slid off the horse.

"Don't overfeed him!" Mike said, sternly. "He nearly got colic the last time! You don't want to kill him, you know."

"Yes, Kildar," the girl holding the reins said, bobbing in a curtsey. She had blonde hair and bright blue eyes. And, as always with the Keldara, was just fucking beautiful. Okay, so maybe the Rite wasn't all bad.

Mike made his way through the mob as politely as he could, trying to avoid brushing against breasts or being groped. The Keldara were very strict about sex but there were some very odd aspects. If they could get away with it, if they thought nobody would notice, if, for example, they were surrounded by other girls who shielded the act from the Elders and who wouldn't tell, the girls in the dhimmie scarves would grope him in an instant. And they had very strong hands.

They also weren't above giving the Kildar a little tease with a quick brush of a breast against his arm. Or back or any other part of his body they could reach.

Mike finally broke through that throng and then hit the kids. He'd taken to carrying hard candies with him whenever he went down to the Valley and he gave it out to the children. Sometimes he was pressed for time and all but the youngest understood. But when he had time he handed it out.

"Gregor, that's Stasi's," he said, pulling back a sweet and giving it to the younger girl by the boy's side. He handed Gregor one, next.

Generally, he could just hold the sweets out in cupped hands. The Keldara kids had learned not to grab more than one, to let the younger ones go first. It had taken a while, but Mike had been firm and patient. By now the older kids tended to teach the younger the rules, sometimes with a slap on the hand or the back of the head.

The kids also didn't drop their wrappers. Mike had instituted the almost purely US and Western European concept that "littering is bad." The older Keldara still had trouble with the idea but the kids were learning. A child that just dropped his wrapper on the ground was, like as not, not going to get a sweet the next time around. Mike sometimes had trouble with names, there were nearly six hundred Keldara all told, but he rarely forgot a face.

Once the kids had their candy, Mike dropped the last few pieces into his pockets and looked up into a pair of blue eyes so deep they were very nearly purple.

There was one girl of the Keldara who, dhimmie scarf or no, didn't braid her hair despite being all of fourteen. It fell long and fiery red past her shoulders in a titian waterfall. Heart shaped face and slightly Tartar eyes and that incredible blue.

"Hello, Katrina," Mike said, smiling faintly. "How have you been?"

"Actually, not that bad," Katrina said, walking up to stand far too close to him and looking up at him out of those huge, beautiful, eyes. "I'm working up at the brewery these days."

The reason Katrina wore her hair unbound was simple. She, against every order, prohibition or curse, considered herself Mike's primary partner. The Kildaran was the term. The fact that Mike had never laid a hand on her, that Anastasia effectively held that position, that Mike had stated he wasn't going to have anyone with the moniker "Mrs. Jenkins" or children with that last name as potential hostages, didn't particularly matter from her perspective. She'd set her sights high and she wasn't taking them off the goal.

"Glad to hear it," Mike said, trying not to gulp.

Katrina was the first Keldara he'd ever met. He'd gotten lost in a snowstorm headed for a ski resort in northern Georgia. Lost, in the middle of a blizzard, damned near out of gas, he'd almost hit a figure struggling down the road. The female, at the time he'd thought her an old woman, was carrying a bundle of sticks and wrapped up against the cold. He'd offered her a lift home and not really seen her face or figure until he entered the House Devlich.

Despite the difference in age, despite all the differences, Mike had to admit there was something that really got him about Katrina. Oh, there was plenty of lust there and a good bit of infatuation on both sides. But Mike hadn't felt this way about a girl in a long time, if ever. Call it chemistry. In a few more years he'd have to make up his mind what to do about it. In the meantime, he tried very hard to keep his distance. But he wasn't going to back up just because the girl had closed to a few inches.

"I've started working directly with Mother Lenka," Katrina said, smiling secretly. "She is teaching me much of her magic."

"Well, you're the one to do that with," Mike said, frankly grinning. "You and Lenka are two of a kind."

Mother Lenka was the Keldara brewmistress. All of the Houses had their own brew but, hands down, Mother Lenka, who like Katrina was of the Devlich Family, was the best of an amazingly good lot.

Lenka was a Russian war-bride, originally from St. Petersburg. A force of nature, she was never willing to describe what role she had been in, exactly, prior to marrying Fredrik Devlich and returning to the Valley to live out the rest of her days. Given her foul mouth, generally lewd approach to life and absolute bloody-mindedness, though, Mike was willing to bet she wasn't displaced aristocracy. The term "whore" came to mind.

But she had carved a niche for herself in the Keldara, a position of respect equivalent to or even higher than the House Mothers.

All of which were reasons Mike had chosen her to run the new brewery. That beer was designed for sale and export. The first batch had just hit the American market and it was receiving rave reviews. Mike wondered what the drinkers would think if they knew the Keldara considered it less than third rate.

"You think so?" Katrina asked, tilting her head to the side. "And is that a compliment or an insult?"

"I think it's a compliment," Mike said. "A sort of sideways one. I don't think that Lenka has had the happiest life."

"Should life always be happy?" Katrina asked, her eyes still pointed at his face but now looking past him at some other place. "The world is a wheel, cycles upon cycles. Winter and summer, night and dark, good and evil, all spiraling together. Without pain there is no pleasure and without sadness no joy. All of life is a circle of balance on the wheel." She shook her head and looked at him again. "Sorry. I... I guess..." She looked down, clearly ashamed. The Keldara were, by and large, a pretty rock-headed lot when it came to philosophy. Katrina was not, by any stretch, considered a "good" Keldara.

Mike liked the Keldara for about a billion reasons. But that particular rock-headedness was not one of them.

"Don't apologize," Mike said. "There are some pretty good technical thinkers among the Keldara but I think you're just about the only true genius. Genius is never easy to live with. Especially in a place like this. I know you want to be Kildaran but if I have my druthers you'll get shipped off when you're eighteen to someplace like the Sorbonne or Princeton to get turned into a nice little liberal."

"Very funny," Katrina said, shaking her head. "Look at what happened to the last Keldara to go to college."

"He came back to be the farm manager," Mike replied.

"I don't want to get an agronomy degree," Katrina snapped back, just as fast.

"No, I think you're more the liberal arts type," Mike said. "Semiotics, maybe?"

"I've read some Foucault," Katrina said, shrugging. "Not interested. I think one rock dropped on his head would have adjusted the whole concept of relativism."

"Where in the hell did you get a copy of Foucault?" Mike asked, surprised.

"Out of your library," Katrina said. "I think it's Colonel Nielson's though. It was filled with notes, most of them consisting of foul-mouthed diatribes."

"Yeah, that'd be Nielson's," Mike said, chuckling. The former War College instructor had very little patience with anything that smacked of "baffling with bullshit." And people had learned not to say words or phrases like "Politically Correct", "Marxist" or "Trans-National Progressives" around him unless they'd brought a chair, a lunch and some sort of poncho to keep the spittle off.

"Well, then, you can go to Texas A&M and hang out with the Aggies," Mike said. "You should get a kick out of that."

"I don't want to go to college," Katrina said. "I want to be Kildaran. It does not require a college degree. The only training I need is from that blonde witch you brought in from Uzbekistan."

"Oh, yeah, you two would get on like a house afire. Every been in a house that's on fire, Katrina?"

"I actually get along just fine with Anastasia," Katrina said, batting her eyes at him. "Who do you think gave me the book?"

"Katrina!" Father Devlich shouted, striding over. "Quit pestering the Kildar!"

Father Devlich was tall and broad with gray-shot red hair clipped above the ears and off the collar. Practically the definition of "rock-headedness" he had been landed a "daughter" that was his functional opposite. Perhaps it was the reason that he seemed to be perpetually angry.

"It's quite alright, Father Devlich," Mike said, smiling at the man. Of all the Fathers, Devlich was, hands down, his least favorite. And the feeling was mutual.

"Kildar," Father Devlich said, nodding. "It's just that the Elders are waiting."

"I will be there momentarily," Mike said. He was, after all, the fucking Kildar. If he wanted to talk to a pretty girl, the Elders could damned well wait. On the other hand, Father Kulcyanov was in the group and the old soldier didn't deserve to be ignored. "Katrina, we'll talk later. But you're not in the running for Kildaran. That's final. Not any time soon. So do good work for Mother Lenka. Get your education down, too. Okay?"

"Oh, I will," Katrina said, licking her lips. "A very broad education, yes?"

"Oh, my God!" Mike said, shaking his head and walking over to the cluster of Elders.

* * *

"Katrina, I swear by the Father of All..." Father Devlich ground out.

"You swear what, Father?" Katrina asked. "That you will beat me? That you will deny me food? That you will have me shunned? That you will cast me out and send me to town? You've done all of those but send me to town and the Kildar has forbidden that for any girl of the Keldara. I do my job at the brewery, do it well. And I will be Kildaran, bringing honor to the Family. Be it in a year or ten years, I shall be Kildaran. And as to the Father of All, blessings be upon his eye, you know that I now follow the other way. So cursing me by the Father is a weak threat, Father."

"Very well," Father Devlich said. "You feel that you are a woman grown? Then I give you into the hands of Mother Lenka. Let her handle you."

"I have been for three years, Father, and you know that," Katrina said. "I have been in the hands of Mother Lenka since I came of age. At this point, I am very close to being her designated Heir, Father. More status to the House, yes?"

"Much peace be it to you," Father Devlich said, contemptuously. "Great honor, yes. The Goddess is so honored, no one will speak Her name. Her Priestess does not speak of Her except in the dark of the moon and the stillness of the cave."

"She holds Her hand upon the Wheel," Katrina said, smiling and looking into the distance. "It is She who brings the Spring."

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