Back | Next

Chapter Three

"Father Kulcyanov," Mike said, bowing to the Elder.

Although not the oldest Keldara Father, that would be Father Ferani, Father Kulcyanov was the Elder held in the highest honor. A highly decorated war veteran of WWII, what the locals called the Great War, the man was tall and broad but much of what was clearly formerly great strength was wasted by age. He must once have been as huge as Oleg, Mike's primary team leader, but age had shrunken him.

He still, when he summoned it, had a commanding majesty. He was currently wearing a black broad-cloth jacket and fine wool trousers but Mike suspected that later in the day, as ceremonies approached, he would don the tiger-skin mantle of the High Priest of the Keldara.

"Kildar," Father Kulcyanov replied, raspily. "You honor us with your presence."

"I am honored by the Keldara," Mike said. "But I'll admit I wasn't briefed on this day. I hope I'm not chopping wood again."

The first season ceremony Mike had participated in had been the Rites of Spring, a twenty-four hour long festival that was the most authentic Spring Rite that might be left in the world.

Part of that festival involved cutting several types of trees for a great bonfire. They had to be cut over one night, starting near dusk. Only a special axe could be used and it wasn't well suited for the task, being one of the ancient battleaxes of the Keldara.

Mike had ended up, through a desire to bond as much as anything, one of the designated wood cutters. What was worse, after the wood cutting and moving the logs up to the ceremonial area he'd been expected to participate in feats of strength and agility.

It was an annual ceremony to determine who was the best of the Keldara. Mike had realized that too late but, unfortunately, his competitive streak, which any SEAL has in full measure, kicked in. He ended up, effectively, winning the contest, even the bull wrestling. He'd refused the honor of being the winner, though. The position, the Ondah, was one of high honor in the Keldara and Mike wasn't about to take that from the, in all honesty, second place, Oleg.

His argument was that the Kildar should be the best of the best but that Ondah was a position reserved for the Keldara.

The entire ordeal, though, had been as exhausting as a day in Hell Week. He wasn't interested in repeating his previous triumph. If he could. The Keldara were in high training at this point. Mike wasn't sure he could win if he had to do it again.

The summer festival had been another day straight out of a storybook. Held on the longest day of the year it was straightforward Lammas festival with the exception that the Keldara held the "bringing of light" portion in spring.

"Not today, Kildar," Father Ferani replied, grinning.

At "somewhere around seventy-five" Father Ferani was the eldest of the Fathers of the Keldara, short for his race and shrunken from age. But he was one of those men that, as they aged, seem to harden like old teak. Like Father Kulcyanov, he was a veteran of the Great War, one of the handful of Keldara to return alive. But unlike Kulcyanov, he had spent most of the war in a supply depot well behind the lines.

He was one of the Fathers that Mike got along with very well. Mahona was in that category as was Makanee. Father Shaynav still treated the new Kildar with caution, being a bit hide-bound when it came to change. Father Kulcyanov simply went along with the changes of the Kildar but was always cautious, always watching, always considering exactly where the line might be that impropriety set in. Strangely enough, from Mike's perspective of "impropriety", it was Father Kulcyanov who originally suggested the Rite of Cardane.

Father Devlich simply hated Mike's guts. He was the first Father Mike had met the night Mike returned Katrina to her House in the middle of a blizzard. Whether from the impropriety of a man being alone with one of his "daughters" or just because he was a bloody-minded bastard, it was Father Devlich that always presented obstacles, that carped and worried about all the changes.

"During this morning we will simply gather and enjoy the fruits of the harvest," Father Mahona said. Mahona was medium height and heft with short-cropped blonde hair shot with gray and a graying beard. "In the afternoon, the brewmistress will choose which crop of barley is suitable for the beers of the House. The young men will then cut the field. For this ceremony we prefer to do that by hand."

"Of course," Mike said, nodding. Mike fully recognized that this was as much a religious ceremony as a get-together. It was a hell of a windy day to harvest, though. He hoped that wouldn't fuck things up. He was pretty sure that if the ceremonial harvest was screwed up, all the grain and fat livestock in the world wouldn't make the Keldara happy.

"And there is the bonding of Gretchen and Kiril," Father Mahona added, grinning.

"Of course," Mike repeated, trying to smile politely. That damned Rite. "What's that consist of, exactly?"

"The Mothers bring them to Father Kulcyanov," Father Mahona said, shrugging. "In front of the Six Families. They are promised to each other formally in front of the Families. That is, really, it."

"I don't have to do anything, do I?" Mike asked.

"Not today," Father Mahona said, grinning more broadly. Everyone knew of Mike's ambivalent position on the Rite. "I believe that would be tomorrow, yes?"

"Wood has already been cut for the fires," Father Makanee said, politely changing the subject and pointing to the dun. Father Makanee—just about the youngest of the Elders being in his low fifties—was medium height with brown hair and eyes and broad shoulders. "We will hold the Harvest Feast on the dun. Given the night, though, I suspect we will break up shortly after. Rain, maybe snow, is on the way."

The dun of the Keldara, Mike was pretty sure, was a moraine, a remnant of the glacier that had carved the pass. When glaciers carve their way through mountains they dig up masses of rock. Much of it is then pulverized into soil called loess, a super fine soil that can form clays or, when plants get in it, becomes some of the richest soil in the world.

As the glaciers retreated, through, they dumped their loads of soil and rock. Rivers running through the melting glaciers tended to form it into humps that could be hundreds of feet high in places.

The dun was about a hundred feet high and three times that at the base. Not the largest moraine in the world by any stretch of the imagination but pretty darned big.

"I can smell it," Mike said, nodding. "And the forecasts say the same. Hopefully, it will hold off until midnight. Are the winds going to interfere with the harvest?"

"It will be as the Father of All chooses," Father Kulcyanov said. "But for now, Kildar, the Mothers request that you sample the fruits of the harvest. Be at ease."

"I am, Father Kulcyanov," Mike said. "I am among my people. And I see one that I should greet," he added, looking past Kulcyanov at a bald head by the buffet table.

* * *

"Figure you'd be anywhere there was free food and beer," Mike said, picking up a plate.

"Hey, Ass-Boy," Adams said, taking a bite out of a lightly spiced chicken leg.

Former Master Chief Charles Adams was Mike's tactical second, a right arm for Mike when the bullets were flying. They'd known each other since both were SEAL candidates in BUD/S and both had survived the utter horror of Class 201, now an infamous SEAL legend. But when Mike had gone off to be a SEAL trainer Adams had stayed on the teams.

Tall, bald and blocky, Adams had divorced his sixth wife shortly before Mike contacted him, looking for trainers. Although it had, at the time, been a temporary contract, Adams had stayed on. At this point, Mike couldn't imagine doing a mission without him.

Adams was also just about the only person in the world, outside of a very select group in Washington, who could connect the "Kildar" to a mysterious figure who had broken up a major terrorist plot and, worse, killed Osama Bin Laden by practically shoving mustard gas down his throat. Adams had been the team chief of the SEALs who dropped into that madhouse to extract the kidnapped co-eds and a vaguely defined "independent" who had found and rescued them. He'd found a very old friend, one he'd pretty much lost touch with, just about shot to ribbons.

Upon arriving in the teams, the two had immediately been dubbed "Ass-Boy One and Ass-Boy Two" a result of the horrors they had endured in BUD/S.

"Ass-Boy yourself," Mike said, ladling some beets onto his plate. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Except for the weather," Adams said. "I hope everyone recognizes that there's a fucking storm on the way."

"Everybody's fully aware of that," Mike said, getting a sudden chill. "I hope it holds off for a few days, anyway."

"It's going to hit tonight," Adams said, looking at him quizzically.

Mike blinked and shook his head.

"Yeah," he replied, confused. "I knew that. I don't know why I said a few days..."

* * *

"Sniper right," Kiril Devlich said, ducking for cover. Kiril Devlich was just eighteen, medium height and heavy of body with jet black hair, blue eyes and broad cheekbones. One of the SAW gunners in Sawn's team he had been born and raised in the Valley of the Keldara. He had had the axe placed in his hand in the birthing bed, he bore the scars of judgment from the year he came to manhood and had participated in his first Ondah contest only the year before. Today he battled for honor and glory and, of course, the flag.

"Got it," Hadar Makanee said, calmly. The Team Sawn spotter was acting as sniper today. "Tango down. Go."

Kiril darted forward, hunkering down behind a rock then tossing a grenade over the rock towards where the enemy had been previously emplaced. There was a screeching sound over the radio his armor clad opponents burst from cover, ducking as the frag grenade went off.

"Tango down," Darin Shaynav said. He had taken a rear position and was covering Kiril's flank with a heavy battle rifle. "Two tangos moving right."

"Tango down," Hadar said. "One more..."

Kiril rolled around the left side of the rock and then came around in circle. The green clad enemy was just ducking around the rock, looking for him.

"Tango down," Kiril said, putting a three round burst into the enemy's back.

"I've got the flag," Darin said, coming out of the green base. "Not much sense even bringing it back to ours."

"Engagement...terminated..." a deep voice announced and the green players suddenly started getting to their feet.

"That fucking sucked," one of the green players said in a high voice. "We had you pawned, what the fuck did you do?"

"They cheated!" another of the green players said. "Cheaters!"

"We sucked you into a simple deception scheme," Hadar said. He'd taken the teleport down to the ground level and now walked out of the fort carrying his sniper rifle. "We made it look as if the center was open. And you fell for it."

"You sound funny," the first green player said. "You're not from around here, are you?"

"If you mean the United States, no," Kiril said, chuckling. "And we do this for a living. You're not bad, for noobs..."

"Noobs!" the green player screeched as the scene faded out.

"Making fun of babies, Kiril," Hadar said, setting down his controller and taking off his headset. "It's beneath you."

"My name is Kiril Devlich," Kiril said in a deep voice. "And...I...Hate...Babies!" He set the headset on the Xbox, still half giggling.

"You'll have babies of your own, soon enough," Roan Makanee said. He normally carried one of the M240s but had taken a submachine gun in today's operation. He'd also agreed to act as bait, sacrificed as, supposedly, the only "defender" in the center of the attack route. The others had been arrayed and concealed to the side and had easily ambushed the less experienced green players. "Well, the Kildar's baby."

"Oooo, cheap shot," Darin said. "Two points."

"Well, you might," Hadar said, looking at his watch. "If you make it to your handfasting."

"Oh, holy shit," Kiril said, scrambling to his feet. "I completely forgot!"

"Kiril, Kiril, you're going to be late to your own funeral," Darin said as the boy pounded out of the door to the barracks. "I suppose, though, that we should go along and lend moral support."

"Why?" Hadar asked, picking up his headset. "We are training, after all..."

* * *

"Who brings this girl before me?" Father Kulcyanov boomed.

"I, Mother of the House Mahona," Mother Mahona said. She was holding Gretchen's left hand. Standing behind her was Mother Silva, Gretchen's "Body Mother", the woman who had born her seventeen years before.

Gretchen Mahona was 5' 10" tall with gorgeous blonde hair and a figure that made men want to follow her around like little puppy dogs. With high cheekbones, blue eyes and a beautifully heart shaped face, she was one of the most traditionally "Nordic" looking Keldara. Mike suspected that she had hellacious legs as well, but since she always wore a skirt it was hard to tell. There was no question about her upper body, though. Even the slightly baggy Keldara blouses couldn't conceal that.

It was slightly after noon and the whole clan was gathered in front of the houses, watching the ceremony. A circle of pine branches had been laid on the ground and the two groups stood within them, presenting the two young people for Father Kulcyanov's blessing.

"Is she pure?" Father Kulcyanov asked.

The Keldara set big store by virginity. At least to a point.

"She is. On my oath as a Mother."

"Is she free of defect?" Father Kulcyanov asked.

"She is. On my oath as a Mother."

Mike realized that he'd never been to one of the bonding ceremonies. That question begged a dozen others. But if Gretchen had any defects, he'd never noticed them. Okay, so maybe the Rite wasn't all bad.

"Is she fit to bear child, to bring forth warriors and wives, to be a Mother of Tigers, to honor the Keldara?"

"She is," Mother Mahona said, fiercely. "On my Oath as Mother Mahona."

"Bring to me the boy," Father Kulcyanov said, looking at the Devlich contingent.

Mother Devlich stepped forward, holding her son's hand.

Kiril looked nervous. Any teenage male would being forced to hold his mother's hand in public. Being called a boy wasn't the greatest, either. And he'd nearly missed the thing, arriving at the last minute at a dead run. And from the direction of the barracks, by the looks of it. Playing Halo again. The boy needed to get out more.

"Who brings this boy before me?" Father Kulcyanov asked.

"I, Mother of the House Devlich," Mother Devlich said. Short and dark she was as calm and pleasant as her husband was an asshole. Given that they'd been bound in a similar ceremony, possibly without any input from either side, Mike thought that it had to be an interesting marriage.

"Is he a warrior?" Father Kulcyanov asked.

Mike had to snort. The most important thing about the girls is that they be virgins. The most important thing about the guys is that they be warriors. He looked across the crowd at where Stella Mahona, recently married to Vil Mahona one of the team leaders, stood holding her husband's hand. Tall, slender and as beautiful as her husband was handsome, the girl had unshed tears in her eyes. Oh, they were tears of happiness. But Mike remembered the girl dropping down a fast-rope in the middle of a firefight and had a hard time not wondering why the first question for both groups wasn't the same.

Next to her was Jessia Mahona, the mortar team leader. Tall with long brown hair and... well one fricking huge chest, she wasn't nearly as smart as Stella but Mike would take her at his back any time. He'd wondered recently, given her status, if he should bring her into his household. Now probably wasn't the best time to ask but he could understand her less than thrilled reaction to the events.

"He is. On my oath as a Mother."

"Is he free of defect?"

"He is. On my oath as a Mother."

Same question. Mike felt there was an itch there he needed to scratch.

Various societies in history had had "tests" at birth to determine if a baby was pure. Inbreeding, especially in a group like the Keldara, was always a problem. Oh, with the Keldara the problem of fathers covering their daughters didn't seem to be an issue. But it was a very small gene pool with minimal outside input. Mother Lenka was the only outsider Mike knew who had entered the society in generations.

Inbreeding meant that the normal "spread" of breeding, the famous "bell curve" tended to turn into a sort of "U" on a graph. At one end were exceptional specimens. And the Keldara were exceptional specimens.

What Mike had never wondered, until now, were where the normal and anticipated "defectives" you'd get in a normal population were. Much less one with a restricted gene-pool. There weren't any Down's Syndrome Keldara, no hydrocephalics, none of the usual birth-defects you'd expect. Okay, Shota was pretty moronic. But he wasn't Ausbergers, autistic or the rest of the alphabet of potential birth defects.

He suddenly got the feeling there was a lot buried in that one little question.

"Is he fit to start a child, to start warriors and wives, to be a Father of Tigers, to honor the Keldara?"

"He is. On my oath as Mother Devlich."

Father Kulcyanov took the two young people's unrestricted hands and placed them together.

"Kiril Mahona, do you give your Promise to Gretchen Devlich, save only that agreements can be reached between your two Families?"

"I do," Kiril said, grinning hard. He suddenly looked sideways directly at Mike and grinned harder. Then his head snapped back. "I do!"

"Gretchen Devlich, do you give your Promise to Kiril Mahona, save only that agreements can be reached between your two Families?"

"I do," Gretchen said then swallowed, nervously. "I do." She was nervous but she was also glowing. Then she looked over at the Kildar and smiled.

Yeah, the Rite with Gretchen wasn't exactly gonna be awful.

* * *

It wasn't time for the next major ceremony, the Choosing, yet, so Mike grabbed a mug of beer and wandered.

There were several contests going on but Mike avoided them. He'd be called in as judge and he had no clue how to judge most of them. The Keldara had a number of games based around pebbles and throwing sticks that he just couldn't follow. Some of them were like marbles but so complicated they made his head ache. Others were easier, most of the young men were throwing axes and that he could figure out easy enough. He still avoided it. He'd participated in an axe throwing competition, once, and done well enough. But he also knew most of it was luck and he wasn't going to try his hand again.

But, by golly, a deputation was catching up to him. He paused when he noticed Father Kulcyanov and the rest of the Fathers approaching. What this time?

"Kildar," Father Kulcyanov said, nodding and gasping for breath. The old guy was looking particularly worn today. Mike hoped he'd make it through the ceremonies okay.

"Father Kulcyanov," Mike replied, nodding back.

"I will let Father Mahona speak to this," Father Kulcyanov said. "It is complicated and..."

"I understand," Mike said, nodding back. "And takes air."

"Which I will much need later," Father Kulcyanov said, nodding at Father Mahona.

"Kildar, we have a request," Father Mahona said, nervously. "We wish to... to do a ceremony that we have not done for some time, the Beatai Leanah."

"The ceremonies of the Keldara are their own," Mike said, blinking. "Why did you stop doing it?"

"None of us were alive the last time the Beatai Leanah was performed," Father Mahona replied. "But it was stopped in the late Tsarist period."

"Does it involve human sacrifice?" Mike asked. "That's about the only thing I'm not going to go for."

"No, Kildar," Mahona said.

Mike had asked the question in dead seriousness and it was returned the same way. Which meant there probably was a ceremony they had somewhere in memory that did involve human sacrifice.

"But it is the ritual slaughtering," the Father continued, clearing his throat. "AS you know, at this time of year we need to start slaughtering the animals that we don't wish to keep through the winter. This is a ritual that...starts that process."

"You do it up on the dun?" Mike asked. "You're going to just haul it all down again."

"Some," Father Kulcyanov said. "Some is burned there, some is left for the ravens."

"Most is kept," Father Mahona said. "It is considered special, used in specific dishes."

"Kildar," Father Makanee said, taking a deep breath. "It is a very...bloody ceremony."

"Slaughtering generally is," Mike said, frowning.

"Somewhat bloodier than that," Father Makanee replied. "You...might want to change."

"I've got other clothes," Mike said, blinking. "But this sounds familiar, too. Every year the Ghurkas have a ceremonial slaughter of animals. One member of the individual tribe or unit, carefully chosen, does the slaughtering. Nobody but the Ghurkas, and their British officers, are allowed to witness it."

"Then we will perform the Rite," Father Kulcyanov said, nodding. "There are none in this Valley who I find it ill to be present at the Rite, but I...recommend that some not attend."

"I can't imagine who," Mike said, dryly. "But why don't I suggest to Anastasia and the girls that they retire early."

"That would be best, Kildar," Father Mahona said, thankfully.

"It is time for the Choosing," Father Kulcyanov said, looking over at a similar deputation of women who were headed towards the barley fields. "We should go."

"After you," Mike said, gesturing the Fathers forward. "I will be along shortly."

The rest of the Keldara were headed towards the Choosing but Mike grabbed one of the young boys who was running in that direction.

"Ivar," Mike said, dredging up his name. "Go find Colonel Nielson, the Master Chief and Vanner and make sure they meet me at the Choosing."

"Yes, Kildar," the boy said with a gap toothed grin. "I shall."

"Good lad," Mike said, releasing him. He'd already spotted Anastasia. Some of the harem were mingling with the Keldara girls but a few were clustered around her. Good.

Mike made his way through the throng to the harem manager who was heading for the Choosing.

"Stasia," he said, smiling as he touched her arm.

"Kildar," Anastasia said, smiling back. "You have been keeping to yourself."

"I've been avoiding deputations," Mike said. "But a couple caught up with me. One concerns the ceremony this evening. I...strongly recommend that you and the girls not attend."

"We are not welcome," Anastasia said, nodding. "I had been surprised that we were permitted at the other festivals. We should leave."

"That's not it," Mike said, shaking his head. "It's a purely... It's a blood sacrifice. Animals I'll add. But it's probably going to turn your stomach, and the girls'. The Father's made it a recommendation. It's based purely on that. Don't go before the Choosing."

"Very well, Kildar," Anastasia said.

"In fact," Mike said, taking her arm, "I think we should both go to the Choosing. Together."

"That would probably be appropriate," Anastasia said, smiling. "By the way," she added as they made their way through the crowd, "I got a glimpse of your next Cardane girl. And you are bothered by this Rite why?"

"I'm still wondering that myself," Mike admitted, sheepishly. "But I can't think that it's a good thing. I have to have these guys at my back. I can't imagine that one day one of them isn't going to get pissed about the Rite."

"They seem to take it very well," Anastasia said. "I mean, that is unusual but not unknown. There are other societies that practice similar rituals."

"Yeah, but it still bugs me," Mike said as they got to the stone wall of the first barley field.

Mother Lenka led the deputation of Mothers. She wasn't one of the Family heads but she was the acknowledged mistress of brewing among the Keldara so it wasn't exactly surprising.

The Mothers were wandering in apparently random order through the field, fingering the heads of barley and occasionally picking some of it and tasting.

"I have no idea how long this takes," Mike said. "But it's probably a long time."

"We have time," Anastasia said as the Mothers gathered on the far side of the field. They had their heads together, fingering handfuls of barley and apparently discussing it. Mike suspected they were just making a big show.

Mike sensed someone walking up behind him but didn't turn around.

"You were looking for me, Kildar?" Vanner said.

Patrick Vanner a stocky, blonde, crew-cutted former Marine intel geek, handled commo and intelligence. He'd started off as a linguist, ended up in intercept then analysis and finally communications security and eventually spent time working with the NSA. A whiz with any sort of electronics, communications or information technology he filled the role of both commo officer and intelligence officer. Since he spoke more languages than Mike could count and was "into" cultures, he thought Vanner would really enjoy this evening's ceremony, bloody or not.

"I need to talk to you, Adams and Nielson," Mike said, turning around. "We'll wait until they're all here." But he could see both of the other staff making their way through the crowd.

Colonel Thomas Nielson, USA, retired, slim, medium height with black hair gone gray and piercing green eyes was a former infantry and civil affairs colonel, the only "professional" officer in the group. He fitted in as sort of chief of staff. Nielson juggled the operations and training schedules when things weren't "hot", relieving Mike of the tedium of paperwork that was anathema to him. When things were hot, and they often did, Nielson managed the battlefield conditions - made sure there was supporting fire, argued with any higher, got the ammo forward - while Mike went forward to lead. He was a maniac for training but admitted that he wasn't quite as happy doing the tactics.

Chief of Staff, XO, whatever, he handled the details, Mike led.

The Mothers had headed for another field so Mike waved for the group to follow.

"There's a ceremony this evening," Mike said.

"The Samman Latract," Vanner said. "This is their version of the Night of the Dead. But I've been picking up on another one. The Beatai Leanah I think is what I'm catching. I've been brushing up on my Gaelic since McKenzie was here and I think the first is something like 'Calling the Dead' or 'Waking the Dead.' The second one... I think it's some type of sacrifice."

"Give the man a cigar," Mike said as they reached the second of six fields. The fields were not designated for any particular Family but the Keldara tended to do things in sixes. "It's a blood sacrifice, the beginning of the winter slaughtering. They haven't done it in a long time. And it's supposed to be pretty bloody."

"Like the... What's that Ghurka rite?" Nielson said.

"The Deshera Festival," Vanner said. "Biggest guy in the regiment cuts off the head of a bull with a big kukri. If he succeeds it's good luck for the year. If not, bad mojo."

"I think so," Mike said. "We'll see. I've asked the girls to head back to the caravanserai, since I don't think they want to get too splattered."

"The top of the dun isn't all that big," Adams said, nodding. "Carotid blood does have a tendency to spray everywhere."

"Thank you so much for that image, Master Chief," Anastasia said, politely.

"And that, my dear, is why it's suggested you not attend," Mike said, grinning.

"And so I shan't," Anastasia replied. "I think some of the girls would take it just fine, but we'll all retire when the group heads up the hill."

Then it's agreed," Mike said as the Mother's finished checking out another field. "And off to another field we go."

Back | Next