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Chapter Four

Mike hadn't realized that they'd check all six fields but they did. Then, still standing in the last one, they held a meeting that involved a bunch of arm waving. Mike was surprised that Mother Lenka, who usually had an, often foul-mouthed, opinion on anything was standing listening to it with her arms folded.

The whole tribe had gathered around the last field, waiting to find out which would be chosen. Some had been gathering handfuls of the grain that nodded over the stone fences, arguing amongst themselves and Mike as pretty sure he saw some surreptitious betting on which field would win.

Mike was surprised, though, when he saw the harvester headed towards their position. He was under the impression the field for the Keldara's beer was to be harvested by hand. But it was headed their way, driven by the farm manager, Genadi.

As the harvester neared, Mother Lenka waved to him and imperiously pointed at two fields. There were some mild groans in the crowd and Mike saw Sawn, one of the team leaders, collecting money.

As the harvester, which could rip through the five hectare fields in a few minutes, began to harvest the definite losers, the Mothers went back through the other fields.

"This is taking forever," Adams finally muttered. "I'm gonna go get a beer."

By the time Adams got back, Genadi had started on two more fields that didn't make the cut. The mothers wandered back and forth between the final two and finally met near Mike's position. This time there didn't seem to be any argument, just a lot of nodding.

"The barley is chosen," Mother Lenka shouted, very formally, holding up her arms. "Let it be harvested."

Six young men, followed by four of the younger unmarried women, entered the field. The men were carrying scythes and working their shoulders, clearly preparing for the harvest. The girls were just giggling. Gretchen was among them and she broke off with Nikolai Mahona, one of the machine-gunners from Oleg's team. Mike didn't know the girls as well as he did the guys but he was able to pick out enough names to figure out that the teams were broken down by Families. Six families, six teams.

"It's a race," Vil said, coming over to lean on the fence by the Kildar.

"Hey, Vil," Mike said. "We needed some cultural explanation."

Vil was tall, slim and dark of hair. Very handsome as all the Keldara were, he looked just a tad like Omar Sharif.

When he first formed the militia, Mike had, with some "help", chosen six of the younger Keldara to be the team leaders. He hadn't realized just how carefully he had been steered until later. The six team leaders were the acknowledged heirs of the Families, the men who, when it was their time, would almost certainly be the Fathers of each family.

They, in turn, had chosen their team members in a process that reminded Mike of teams being chosen in school. He'd insisted that the teams have members from every house, spread as much as possible, so that if one team was badly damaged in a battle no one Family would bear the brunt. But, naturally, the team leaders had chosen people that they were most comfortable with. What had resulted were six distinctly different teams. Oh, each could do any basic job, but they each had specific vocation, a set of skills that leaned to one use or another.

Oleg was a big, "bull forward" guy and he'd chosen big, "bull forward" people for his team. If you needed something flattened, Team Oleg would do it best. Sawn Makanee was one of the more thoughtful Keldara and he'd chosen people who, like him, were a tad more intellectual. They talked about international politics and philosophy rather than beer. Oh, they could flatten stuff, too, but they would rather figure out if it really needed to be flattened. And so on.

Vil was a rapier to Oleg's battleaxe. His team specialized in raid and ambush, hit and run, maneuver and feint. He had the faintly aristocratic air usually associated in old movies with British fops. But Mike would rather have him on a raid mission than any two of the other team leaders. And the guy was strong as hell, Mike had seen him lift twice his own weight in unwieldy rock before.

"When we used to do all this stuff by hand," he continued, waving around the valley languidly, "the Chosen field would be left for last. The field is then harvested by six teams, chosen from unmarried men and women. When the last stalk is cut we make a sort of puppet which we call the sanbahn."

"Old woman, probably," Vanner said.

"That's what we call it, yes," Vil said, smiling faintly. "More books, yes?"

"Yep," Vanner said. "Gotta love 'em."

"The sanbahn is carried up the dun," Vil continued, pointing to the hill, "and at the end of the ceremony it's thrown in the bonfire. Then we get down to the real purpose of the whole thing which is drinking all of last year's beer we possibly can. Can't have old beer hanging around, can we?"

"Who carries the sanbahn?" Mike asked.

"Oh, the oldest girl of the losing team," Vil said. "Why?"

"Just wondering," Mike said, glancing over at Vanner and shaking his head as the intel guy started to say something.

Mother Lenka had reached the point where the six teams waited, the other Mothers leaving the field and now raised her hands. She looked at each of the men then dropped her arms.

The harvesters already had their scythes back and swung downward as one, cutting a swathe then stepping forward. As soon as they were clear the girls moved forward, gathering up armfuls of the grain and binding them in their own stalks.

To shouts of encouragement, and in some cases derision, from the Keldara the six teams raced down the field.

"Nikolai is going too fast," Vil said, gesturing to the machine gunner. "Mahona is likely to lose."

"He's ahead of two of the other teams," Adams argued.

"I know Nikolai and while he has plenty of strength and lots of strength in his legs, he doesn't have much stamina for this sort of thing. He'll start tiring about the last third. Bet you a hundred rubles he comes in second to or dead last."

"You're on," Adams said.

But, sure enough, as they got into the last part of the cutting, Mike could tell he was flagging. His cuts were getting ragged and he, twice, had to overcut to get all the grain. That put him second to last and Georgi Makanee, who was last right up until the end, managed to cut his stand just as Nikolai was raising his blade.

"Halt!" Mother Lenka called. She'd gotten behind the team towards the end and now walked over. "Mahona is last," she cried.

"Nikolai's in for it now," Vil said. "Oh, not as bad as the caillean, but he'll be teased a good bit. And now Gretchen will be the ogbahn, the carrier of the sanbahn." He frowned at that.

"And that means?" Mike asked.

"Oh, nothing," Vil replied. "Nothing at all."

"Come on, Vil, give," Vanner said.

"Well," Vil said, frowning. "It's said that the ogbahn can never be the sanbahn."

"The sanbahn is a puppet made out of straw," Mike said. The last sheaf had been cut and Mother Lenka was already binding it into the figure. Mike shivered suddenly in the chill wind. You could smell the storm approaching.

"It also, as Mr. Vanner so astutely pointed out, means old woman," Vil replied. "It's the term for... someone. An old woman." He turned and looked at the Kildar, frowning still. "It means Gretchen will never be old. If you believe in that sort of thing."

* * *

"Of course, she'll never be old," Vanner said after Vil had wandered off. "She used to be sacrificed."

"Yep," Mike said. "A sacrifice to the old gods. The daughter of spring given to the god of the dead, the god of the underworld."

"That's terrible," Anastasia said. "I can't believe anyone would perform human sacrifice!"

"Oh, not these days," Mike said. "Probably. But it used to be really common, even up to the time of the Romans. They got rid of most of it, after they gave it up. And that was by a vote of the Roman Senate not long before Caesar was born. They were the ones that stopped the sacrifices in Gaul, France now, and Britain. The Germans took longer. And even the Romans kept it up in some remote areas, right up until they started to become Christians. And the Russians only stopped around the time of the Mongols when Christianity finally had a firm hold. Outside Europe it was common right up until the colonial period. Given how...traditional the Keldara are, I figure they probably stopped around the same time as the Russians. Say... the 1300s."

"They wouldn't...start again?" Tinata asked. She'd been listening avidly.

"No, they won't," Mike said. "First of all... times have changed. I don't think they could stomach it. Second, I'd put a stop to it if I even suspected it. But the choosing of the caillean at Beltane or whatever they call it, and this thing with the 'old woman' an the 'young woman' those are all vestiges of human sacrifice. Be glad they only sacrifice animals now."

"They're headed to the dun," Vanner pointed out.

"Well, then, we are headed for the caravanserai," Anastasia said. One look at the gathered harem girls stifled the beginnings of protest. "I leave it up to you to ensure that your Cardane is actually alive tomorrow, Kildar."

"Guaranteed," Mike said, giving her a peck on the cheek. "And... you might make sure there are some clothes ready in the foyer. I suspect that we'll have a bit of blood on us when we get back."

* * *

"Kildar," Father Kulcyanov said, as the Keldara began to gather at the base of the dun, "I would ask a favor of you."

"Anything I can do," Mike said. The old soldier had smoothed things over a lot and Mike knew it.

"We must Feed the Dead," Father Kulcyanov said, sighing. "But I am aged. I have all I can do it make it up the hill and chant the words. I would ask you to take my place as Eater for the Dead. One of the other Fathers could do as well but... You are the Kildar."

Mike smiled and nodded, his face blank. He wondered if that meant he was really supposed to be high priest. Pass, thank you.

"I hope you won't mind if I ask a few questions," Mike said. "I've learned, through painful experience, to ask about the hidden details of Keldara rituals."

"Kildar," Genadi said, coming up at his elbow, "there is no hidden trap. You must your way to the top of the hill. Father, indeed all of us, will chant the dead. A girl will be by your side carrying a big platter filled with all good foods. Another will be by your side, carrying beer. At a certain point in the chant, you will take a sip of beer or eat some of the food. You take a bite of the food and then throw the rest to the side. You take a sip of beer and then pour some upon the ground. I will warn you, however, that we circle the mound three times. I hope you stopped eating a while ago."

"I think I can do that," Mike said. "As long as I don't take big bites."

"Thank you, Kildar," Father Kulcyanov said. He lifted his eyes to the mountains and then nodded. "Soon, we will begin."

The Keldara had gathered near the trail up the dun, a winding beaten down path that was reinforced with slabs of rock. It might have been a bad day for a festival but Mike was pretty sure it was a great night for a ceremony like this one.

The Keldara called the night Samman, very much like the Celtic Samhaine. For them it was the time of ending, when the spirits of winter rose, the night when the unquiet dead could walk free. Many of the Keldara had made masks for the evening, most out of woven barley straw. Samhaine was the origin of the holiday called Halloween in the US and England but it wasn't always about children gathering candy. It was a time when the summer was dieing and winter's power rose, a time to battle the power of death and the old gods of evil and darkness. The masks were designed to frighten away spirits as was the chanting, dance and songs.

Father Ferani walked through the throng, carrying a large wooden case. Father Kulcyanov took a massive battleaxe from the case, turning to the trail and holding it in front of himself, upright in a two handed grip, the head at the level of his nose, as if in salute. Then he looked to the sky again, clearly checking the light level, and gave a great shout:

"Ay, Samman seaol Latrach! Uraim Na Mair Imakt!"

With that the drummers began tapping on their drums, a slow, asyncopated rhythm as Father Kulcyanov began ascending the hill.

Behind him walked Gretchen, carrying the barley effigy of the "Old Woman." Stella and Lydia appeared at his elbows, quite suddenly, and Lydia nudged him to fall in next.

"Each third time that Father Kulcyanov says 'Imakt,'" Lydia whispered, handing him a shallow bowl of beer. "Drink or eat then pour the rest on the ground. Try to get it off the path for the Father's sake."

The bowl was fired clay, with a handle on either side. Mike had read of one similar somewhere, probably the Golden Bough. He took a sip and tossed the rest to the side, narrowly missing Stella.

"Careful, there," the tall brunette said, grinning and handing him an oat cake.

Mike took a bite out of the cake and tossed the rest down the hill.

"This seems awfully wasteful," he whispered.

"The dead are hungry," Lydia shrugged, handing him the refilled bowl. "Would we fail to feed hour honored dead?"

Mike took a sip at the appropriate point in the chant, poured it out a bit more carefully, then looked over his shoulder. All the Keldara had formed up in something like a conga line. At the front were six drummers, keeping the pace. The rest were repeating the refrain of the chant and on the "Latrach" they'd stamp down, hard. The whole massive hill rumbled with it.

"Wake the dead, indeed," Mike said. Bite, toss. "Father Kulcyanov normally eats, too?"

"Someone feeds him," Stella whispered. "But it's so hard for him to keep in time, now. And when the cake is dry..."

It was all Mike could do to keep up with the eating and drinking; he couldn't imagine leading the chant as well. But the two girls kept him supplied in time and he kept up with the group, eat a bite, toss, drink a bit, pour.

But even eating a "bite"—and they got smaller and smaller—and drinking a bit —and the sips got to where he was barely touching his lips—he had a hard time managing the entire climb. By the time they got to the top it was full dark, the wind howling, and he was more than a bit drunk. And, oh yeah, stuffed to the point of throwing up.

The turf on the top of the dun had been carved into seats and the two girls led him to one on the north side, directly behind where Father Kulcyanov was standing and still leading the chant. Gretchen, with the barley figure, was on the east, Mother Lenka with a flagon of beer was on the west and as the group gathered, still chanting, Oleg appeared out of the darkness on the south. He was bare-chested in the cold and probably appreciating the roaring bonfire in the center.

Mike's senior team leader was a bull of a man, standing over two meters and broad of body with flax blonde hair cut into stubble. He looked, at that moment, very much like a Viking of old.

"...Imakt!" Father Kulcyanov roared, stopping the chant by raising his axe over head, still vertical. "The time has come. Let the Rite begin!"

He turned to the right and, marching in the goosestep he had undoubtedly learned as a young man in the Red Army, walked to Oleg's position.

"Do you accept the responsibility of dummart?" Father Kulcyanov roared. "Do you stand ready to face the Gods?"

"I do," Oleg answered.

"Then face the Gods in the name of the Keldara!" Father Kulcyanov said, handing over the axe.

He goose-stepped back, completing the circle then raised his hands.

"Father of All, look down upon us!" he bellowed, holding his hands to the sky. "We bring food for your Son that he might bring back the spring!"

There'd been a lowing of cattle as he was marching back and out of the darkness they were led. Most were being led by the team leaders but they had a lot of help. The cattle were oxen, steers that were used for carting until Mike had brought in tractors. These had been fed-up, stalled was the old expression, and were fat and ready for the slaughter.

Vil was leading the first one, holding a pole that was attached to the ring through its nose and two more Keldara males followed with nooses in their hands.

"Ay, Samman seaol Latrach! Uraim Na Mair Imakt!" Father Kulcyanov started to chant, still holding his hands up.

The whole group joined in as the two Keldara fixed the loops around the oxen's back legs and held it in place.

On the second repetition of the chant, at the "...Imakt", Oleg struck downwards, severing the ox' broad neck in one massive cut.

Blood from the stricken animal sprayed across the nearest spectators, who were on their feet chanting and stamping. The entire group let out a cry as one of the Keldara girls slid a basin under the slaughtered beast's neck, catching as much of the blood as she could.

Another of the oxen was brought out of the darkness, taking up the western position by Mother Lenka. Again it was held in place by three men as Oleg slashed downward. Another group of Keldara, this time including Adams, was splashed by the blood.

On the south, Vil had been handed the basin filled with blood and with a cry splashed it in a circle, starting towards the fire and raising a fragrant smoke like cooking beef then out over the Keldara.

Mike was standing, now, but he was fighting what was going on around him because the Keldara, normally incredibly reserved, were descending into hysteric frenzy. The drums, the chanting, the stamping feet, was turning into a giant dance of ecstasy, fueled by the blood rite they had been denied for so long.

Pavel had collected the blood on the west and he sprayed it into the fire and through the group, liberally dousing Mother Lenka who raised her hand to taste of it, letting out a scream that sounded very like orgasm.

Now it was Mike's turn and Sawn was leading this ox, who was fighting as hard as he could to get away. Oleg had come around the fire, his body covered in blood, eyes wide and staring and Mike winced as the axe came down.

It was like getting hit by a water from a spray-nozzle on a hose. As the ox twisted in death it sprayed the whole group which went absolutely frantic. The bucket of blood from Sawn wasn't really necessary.

On the east it was Pavel and he made sure to liberally douse Gretchen, who was pretty wide eyed since all she could do was stand there holding up the effigy. She hadn't gotten into the frenzy because she couldn't but she had a very strange look on her face. It made Mike wonder exactly how long ago the Keldara had stopped committing human sacrifice. She looked...fixed on the fire. As if psyching herself to be thrown into it.

A fifth bull was slaughtered on the south and a sixth on the north, splattering Mike again and then Father Kulcyanov shouted something Mike for the life of him couldn't catch and people picked up both Mother Lenka and Gretchen and carried them towards the fire. The group was so frenzied Mike started forward and he could see Adams moving as well. He wasn't sure either one of them could stop the hysterical Keldara before they tossed the two women in the bonfire but he was damned well going to try.

But at another cry from Father Kulcyanov, the effigy was thrown into the fire by Gretchen to another scream from the crowd. It was covered in blood so there was another smell of steak being overcooked.

Both Mother Lenka and Gretchen were dropped, rather unceremoniously, and the drums broke into a different rhythm. Father Kulcyanov stepped back, looking as worn as Mike had ever seen him, and settled onto one of the turf benches, holding his chest.

There was still a big pot of beer by Mike's seat, courtesy of Stella who was now dancing around like a mad thing, covered from head to toe in blood, so he picked it up and poured some, holding it out to the old man.

"Thank you, Kildar," Father Kulcyanov wheezed. "I think this may be the last year I can do the Rites."

"Which will be too bad," Mike said. "Because you do them very well."

"It must be a warrior," the old man said, taking a sip of beer and catching his breath. "One who had taken lives and seen the face of Fir. There are, were, so few left. I held on..."

"And you've got a whole new crop," Mike pointed out. "I'd hate to skip a generation, though. Talk about that another time. Do you have anything else you need to do?"

"No," Father Kulcyanov admitted. "Except figure out a way to pry Culcanar out of Oleg's hands before he kills someone with it."

The ceremonial axes of the Keldara were named and Mike now recognized the axe he had wielded in the spring festival. The damned thing was a monster, a real man-killer.

Mike looked over at the team leader, who was apparently doing some sort of an axe dance and was pretty much out of it, and winced.

"Let somebody else handle that," Mike said. "Me, maybe. I can stand in, right?"

"Yes, Kildar. I'd appreciate it."

"Well, this looks like a party for the youngsters," Mike said, standing up and gesturing to Adams and Nielson. He couldn't find Vanner for a minute then spotted the intel NCO. He was covered in blood and dancing with one of the female intel specialists. He pretty much looked like the Keldara, covered in blood and completely out of it.

"Get Father Kulcyanov down the hill," he said to Nielson. "Ass-Boy, you and me got a job."

"What?" Adams asked, trying to wipe some of the blood off his face. "When you said it would be bloody..."

"Yeah," Mike said, licking the back of his hand. Tasted like raw steak. "See Oleg?"

"Yeah," Adams said, uncomfortably.

"We gotta get the axe out of his hands."

"Oh fuck."

* * *

"I'm not going to track this shit through the caravanserai," Mike said, looking at the doors. He had a rather nasty cut on his arm he was ignoring. Pain is weakness leaving the body. Nobody was dead and that was the important thing. The next time, though, he was going to sit on the south and pry the damned thing out of Oleg's hands right after the last sacrifice.

"Fuck it," Oleg said. "It's late. We just strip right here and head for the showers." The Master Chief was unscathed. Well, except for a few hairs that had been cut slightly shorter when he ducked the axe. Given that he was damned near bald...

"Works for me," Mike said, pulling off his shirt. "And we'll just burn the clothes."

"I think some of the Keldara were starting to strip when we left," Adams said. "They probably had the same idea. Damn, these pants are stuck on!"

* * *

Mike walked into the great room of the caravanserai, holding his blood-soaked clothes under one arm and paused, froze really, at the sight of Daria and Anastasia playing chess.

Daria Koroleva was Ukrainian, blonde and nearly as beautiful as Anastasia with, if anything, a better figure. She had been kidnapped into the sex-slave trade in the Balkans where Mike had rescued her from a snuff house. Since she was a trained secretary, and he'd needed somebody to keep up with the administrative side of the mission, he'd dragged her along. And when he offered her a job she'd jumped at it. They'd been lovers from time to time as well. There really wasn't much there but lust and some friendship but she was a great administrative assistant.

The two were both frozen, wide-eyed. Since they'd both seen him naked he could only presume that it was the blood.

"It got a little messy."

"I can see that," Anastasia replied.

"So we thought we'd just go take a shower," Adams said, walking past.

"Good idea," Daria said, tittering.

"So, I guess I'll see you two tomorrow," Mike continued, heading to the stairs.

"Okay," Anastasia said. "Try to keep from tracking things up too badly."

"I will," Mike said. "Oh, and Anastasia?"

"Yes, Kildar," the harem manager said, her hand over her mouth but the smile in her eyes.

"Could you make sure that before the Rite Gretchen has had a bath?"

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