Now we come to the proverbial fork in the road. There are two stories going on in this novel, which is one reason it’s a quarter-million words. You have the Keldara versus Bad Guys, and then you have the Mike and Katrina show. I’ve been bouncing from one to the other, but they’ve been more or less contiguous; everything has, more or less, happened In The Valley (with a few trips afield). Now, though, we’re splitting up the characters.
Of course, I’m still doing editing as I go, though it’s mostly cleaning up the prose a little bit more. Tweaks, not major surgery.
Don’t forget that I write other things! Only a couple weeks until the next Cassidy book drops, and you can win your own copy of all four by entering below! As of the time I’m writing this there are only 47 entries, so your odds are pretty good.
Finally, I am going to get all these chapters up on Spotify so you can listen to them. Please let me know what you think of the readings.
Now, enough blather. Enjoy!
“It’s time.” It was late for the Keldara, nearing nine.
Mike finished fidgeting with his collar. “Tell me again why I’m doing this?”
Anastasia smiled. “Because it is right.”
“I meant this outfit.”
Mike’s outfit was, well, spectacular. That was the only word he could come up with. It was based on traditional Keldara dress, but Anastasia had declared it her duty to procure all the pieces.
The shirt was a dark indigo Russian kosovorotka. made of silk instead of linen. Embroidered ribbons decorated the shirt on the chest, sleeves, and around the hem, with Keldaran icons skillfully woven in. Over it he wore a red vest which was overlaid with more patterned icons. His boots were handmade of soft leather and came halfway up his calves. He had finally rebelled at the pants, though, as she had brought in a loose, silken pair that, to his mind, looked more like something out of Arabian Nights. Thus, he was wearing jeans. At least it was a good pair without any holes. Noticeable ones, at least.
“You look magnificent,” she insisted. Taking his arm, she led him to the door. “Katrina is most fortunate you finally agreed.”
“Not like I had much choice,” he muttered. “All of you were in on her little scheme.”
“Naturally! Mike,” she said, suddenly serious. “We all love you. We want you to be happy. Katrina – she will make you happy.”
“I’m still not -”
“Shush.” She placed a finger across his lips.
“She will make you happy.”
She opened the door. “Shall we?”
The ceremony, called a handfasting, was taking place in the large foyer of the caravanserai rather than in front of the houses as was common. When Mike had objected, Anastasia had explained the significance.
“When one Family is joined to another, they meet before the houses of all the Families. This shows that they are all gathered to accept the bonding, that no one Family is taking advantage of another, that it is suitable to all. In this case, the Kildar is taking a bride of the Keldara. All the Keldara will be elevated by this marriage, not just a single Family. Besides,” she added with a not entirely feigned shiver, “It snowed again last night. It is too cold today to do this outdoors.”
Mike and Anastasia stood at the top of the stairs. Below they could see the gathered Elders of the Keldara, Father Kulcyanov in the lead, wearing the old tiger skin that was his mantle as High Priest. On his right hand, to Mike’s surprise, was Mother Lenka. To the right stood Adams, Nielson, the Vanners… Hell, it looked like the whole damned household was there! On the left was Father Devlich, his Family behind him. Mother Devlich and Katrina stood in front of, and slightly to the left of Father Kulcyanov.
They made their way down the stairs and stopped before Father Kulcyanov. Mike hoped everyone remembered their lines.
“Who brings this woman before me?” rang Father Kulcyanov’s voice.
“I, Mother of the House Devlich,” Mother Devlich said.
“Is she pure?” Father Kulcyanov asked.
“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”
“Is she free of defect?” This question had worried Mike the most. Katrina was one of the most intelligent of the Keldara. She also complained, occasionally, of feeling split, feeling torn, of feeling that there were too many thoughts in her head. Mike thought giving her outlets for her curiosity had helped, but it was still a worry.
“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”
“Is she fit to bear child, to bring forth warriors and wives, to be a Mother of Tigers, to bring honor to the Keldara?”
“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”
“Is she suited to be the woman of the Kildar, to stand by him as he leads the Keldara into battle, to give him strength unto the day of the final battle?”
This was different. Then again, there hadn’t been a handfasting of a Kildaran in how long?
“She is. On my oath as a Mother.”
Father Kulcyanov seemed satisfied. He called, “Bring me the Kildar.”
Anastasia and Mike stepped forward, Mike on the inside, toward Katrina.
“Who brings this man before me?”
“I, the woman of the Kildar,” Anastasia answered.
This part had required some debate. While the Kildaran was, technically, the woman of the Kildar, Stasia had neither sought nor wanted the title. She was content as Mike’s harem manager and bedmate, never desiring more. The ceremony required Mike be presented to the High Priest by an intimate member of his household, however. A compromise had finally been reached.
“Do you freely acknowledge the supremacy of the Kildaran in the household, and accept her as such?”
“I do. On my honor.”
Father Kulcyanov turned to Mike.
“Kildar. You have been proved worthy of your title. Do you now choose to bring this girl into your House as your equal?”
Mike was a little surprised, both at the gist of the question, and the dispensation of the other questions. At other handfastings, the boy’s family had been asked a series of questions similar to the girls: is he pure, does he bear defect, is he fit to father children. Mike realized with a jolt they already knew the answers in his case.
The fucking Rite. No, he certainly was not pure. No, he doesn’t bear defect. Yes, he was fit to father children. All of these, proven many times over as result of the Rite. Then he considered the question itself. In all of Keldaran society, women had been treated as definite second-class citizens. They went from being controlled by their Father to being controlled by their husband. Until he had come to the valley, the highest a woman could aspire to was becoming the Mother of a Family, or, once a generation, initiated into the women’s Mysteries as High Priestess. Most spent their lives in toil, bearing and raising children, keeping the household, helping farm. To be asked if he was prepared to treat Katrina as his equal was unexpected. With Katrina, he wouldn’t have had a choice anyway, so the answer was easy.
“I do so choose.”
“Kildar. Do you agree to teach your children the way of the warrior and the value of honor?”
Given what Mike knew of the Keldaran background, this question wasn’t a surprise. “I agree.”
Mother Lenka turned to Katrina and spoke. This was a change, too, as only Father Kulcyanov ever addressed the couple.
“Katrina, as you are my heir, do you swear to honor the Goddess in all things, to teach the women of the Keldara the Mysteries, and in your time choose an heir worthy of the knowledge that has been given to you?”
Mother Lenka was the Priestess of the Goddess – what goddess, Mike hadn’t yet completely determined – and had publicly named Katrina as heir about a year ago, confirming what her Family already knew. It made sense, Mike supposed, the Kildaran would also be Priestess, and while Mike knew there had to be more oaths and promises between them, this was a public affirmation of the bond between the two women.
Katrina’s voice, when she answered, was clear and firm. “I swear.”
Father Kulcyanov took over again, taking Mike and Katrina’s unrestricted hand and joining them together. Her fine-boned hand was warm in his.
“Michael, do you give your Promise to Katrina Devlich, save only that agreement can be reached with her Family?”
He looked down into her blue eyes. “I do.”
“Katrina Devlich, do you give your Promise to Michael -”
“Harmon,” interrupted Mike, quietly. Silence. The ceremony was set. Immutable. It wasn’t supposed to be stopped for anything, especially the future husband.
“Kildar?” asked Father Kulcyanov, equally quietly.
“Michael Harmon. That’s my name. This is a bonding between the Kildar and the Keldara, right? For this one time, there will be no secrets between us. My name is Michael Harmon.”
It was also a name buried in paperwork and a dark history, known to very few people anywhere, and only one here. It was the name at the top of every Islamist jihadist’s Most Wanted. In speaking his true name aloud, Mike was demonstrating, as clearly as he possibly could, the depth of his trust in the Keldara, and his own commitment to their mutual future.
Father Kulcyanov acknowledged the statement with a grave nod, the gravity entirely erased by the joyous twinkle in his old eyes.
“ – Give your Promise to Michael Harmon, save only that agreement can be reached with your Family?”
Her voice was even stronger. “I do.”
Father Kulcyanov turned to the assembled people.
“By the traditions of the Six Families, these people are bonded to each other for this life. In the sight of the All Father, I ask for his blessing upon them.”
Suddenly Mike was swarmed under by cheering men, crying women, back slappers, somewhere a bottle of champagne was produced, then others, corks popped, and suddenly the Nannies were there, with Kurosawa and Bridgewater overseeing the affair. Glasses were produced until everyone had enough for a toast.
“To Mike and Katrina!” came the cry from Adams, but then it was overridden by a booming voice: “The Kildar and the Kildaran!” called Father Kulcyanov.
“The Kildar and Kildaran!” came the responding echo from dozens of throats.
Some time later, Mike managed to drag Nielson, Vanner, Anastasia, Father Kulcyanov, and Katrina aside to a sort of alcove, with a few chairs and a small sofa. Mike sat on the sofa, Katrina next to him, while the others settled around. Bridgewater followed closely.
“Where’s Adams?” he asked.
“Last I saw, he was leaving with Mopsy,” answered Vanner. Mopsy was the name Mike gave to one of the three hookers who had taken up permanent residence in the caravanserai.
“Shall I fetch him, sir?” asked Bridgewater.
“No, Colin, not now. I’ll call if I need you.”
“Very good, sir.” His British batman made a discreet withdrawal.
“I’d hoped to talk to all of you at once, but, folks, I’m going to take Katrina away for a while.” A chorus of protests leapt up; Mike chose to answer Katrina first.
“When did you plan to tell me of this?” she had snapped.
“I just told you, didn’t I?” he grinned.
“Seriously. Even though I’ve known you longer than anyone else in the valley, we still don’t know each other well. I know where you came from, the culture you grew up in; can you say the same for me?”
“Our cultures are different. You know this, but you might not really feel it. In America, we would not have been ‘arranged’ like this. We would have met, and dated -”
“See?” he said, smiling. “Different. Think of this as a chance to ask all the questions you want of me. I’ll do my best to answer.”
Father Kulcyanov objected next. “Kildar, it is not proper -”
“Nope, sorry, not going to buy it. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, since you and the Elders talked to me about this whole process. I understand there is a waiting period before the wedding, but there’s nothing in there which forbids me from spending time with her. Am I right?”
“No, Kildar, you are right, but -”
“As long as I do not violate her honor, I bring no shame upon her.”
“No, Kildar, but -”
“I am going to take Katrina away, Father. I will bring her back, intact, on my honor as Kildar. I will honor your traditions, but you have to bend on this one, Father.”
He relented enough to say, “I will take a chaperone. Will that satisfy?”
Father Kulcyanov considered this gravely, then nodded. “It will. It is still not common, but you have a habit of taking our traditions and reading them anew. This is acceptable.”
“Where are you thinking on going?” asked Nielson. “It’s not like we’re in the middle of planning for a major op or anything.”
“We’re beating our dicks right now,” replied Mike. “Adams is running the training as best he can, given we don’t know the layout we’ll be assaulting. Vanner, is there anything you need?”
“Besides better sources? The US feed is good for technical intercepts, but garbage for anything on the ground. Russians are the other way around, but the problem with their sources is, well, sources lie. We have to combine the two takes and hope for corroboration.”
“You think we actually have the information we need?“
“I’m sure of it. It’s just a question of sifting through the piles, and that just takes time.”
“Nielson. There’s training and planning. What’s left? The Rangers have arrived; you’re in charge of integrating them with our comm system, getting them familiar with their patrol duties, right?”
“Well, yes, Kildar, but -”
“Then execute! Dammit, Dave, I need a vacation. I need to get out of here, I need some time to get to know Katrina.”
“I know better than to argue with you. How long will you be gone?”
“Two weeks?” Mike looked at Father Kulcyanov.
“Is there anything you need Katrina for that won’t wait that long?”
“No, Kildar.” He, too, was resigned, but there was the twinkle again.
“Anastasia, you’re coming with.“
“Why, Kildar? Shouldn’t I stay here and help prepare?”
“Besides the promise I made about travel? I need a woman chaperone; you’re the sensible choice. I need you to take care of Katrina’s dress. Plus,” he added with a knowing look, “I’ll have other uses for you.”
“What dress?” snapped Katrina. “My family has a dress!”
“Which I’m sure your mother wore, and her mother, and her mother, right?”
“Yes, Kildar. It is the dress of the Family.”
“You’re leaving the Family. You get a new dress. If you want to, Stasia, take photos. See if we can match the general look.” She nodded. “Speaking of leaving the family. Father, what about bride price?“
“Kildar, obviously you do not need to collect a bride price.“
“I mean, towards the Family. Since Katrina is being taken from the Family, isn’t it right they be compensated for their loss?“
“Ahh,“ said Father Kulcyanov. “Yes, Kildar. It is customary for the Kildar to pay for his Kildaran.”
“What is it set at?”
“Double the usual bride price – a thousand rubles.” About thirty dollars, but several months’ income for a family, at least pre-Kildar.
Mike snorted. “It will be arranged. Stasia?”
“How soon are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow, if I can arrange it.”
“Mmm. I’ll need to get some measurements and make a phone call.”
“Amelia Weston. If I am to manage this dress, I’ll need her contacts. Katrina, come with me.” Her tone brooked no disagreement. The two women left.
Nielson spoke up again. “Why are you really doing this, Mike?”
“I told you -”
Mike looked at him.
“Cards on the table, then. Sometimes a personal visit will shake loose details that get lost in transition. If there’s an agency holding back, a visit by the Kildar might just get them to open up. Remember our issues with the Albanians?” He leaned back. “Consider it a working vacation.”
He turned to Father Kulcyanov.
“Father, I hope you understand. I’m not trying to be stubborn -”
“Oh, yes you are, Kildar,” he disagreed, smiling. “You have been stubborn since the day you came to this valley. That is why you are the perfect Kildar for us at this time.”
He sat, carefully, and continued.
“Kildar, we are an old culture. In cultures, as well as in individuals, age brings rigidity, an unwillingness to accept change. We knew the world had changed around us, but were unwilling, or perhaps unable, to acknowledge that change as long as we were isolated here. Father Ferani and I, and a few others, were the only ones who had ever left the valley and seen anything of the world. Then Stalin came to power, and virtually imprisoned us here. The commissars he appointed kept us stagnant, unchanging. When the Soviets fell, and later the bank took over the caravanserai, we despaired. Then you came, and it was as if the Father of All had smiled upon us again. We knew that you would save us, Kildar, save us from becoming irrelevant, save us from our comfortable little corner of the world.”
“You’re okay with this?”
Father Kulcyanov laughed, a deep, hearty laugh that resonated through the room. “I only wish you had come sooner! Soon, the Valkyr will come for me. I am too old to leave this valley again. But when I die, I will be content, for I know that the Keldara will grow again into the world.”
Nielson spoke up. “Where are you going to go?”
“Well, if Stasia is meeting Mrs. Weston, DC for sure. Have to try to keep Katrina away from the House, though, after that dinner. Maybe a stop in Texas; there‘s someone there I want Katrina to meet. Beyond that, I don‘t know, exactly.” He leaned forward. “I think it’s important that Katrina experience a little of the land that produced me, enough so she has the true flavor of it.”
“Think I’ll skip Disney, though.”
Mike’s Office; The Cave
“Chatham Aviation, Gloria speaking, how may I help you?”
“Hello Gloria, Mike Jenkins here.”
“Oh, hello Mike! It’s been far too long!”
Chatham Aviation was Mike’s usual charter company. They could, and had, provided him with planes from small executive-style jets, to one large enough to carry two Keldara teams and all their gear, plus the pilots to go with them. Pilots who weren’t scared off when told to disperse their plane, just in case of nuclear detonation. Pilots who took Mike arriving covered in someone else’s blood and reeking of cordite in stride.
This charter should be a piece of cake.
“It’s been pretty quiet, Gloria.”
“Do we need to make any changes to the order Daria has arranged?”
“What? Oh, no, nothing like that. I was wondering if Captain Hardesty was available for the next couple weeks?”
“I believe he is, Mike. How soon do you need him?”
“Can he be in Tbilisi tomorrow?”
“Yes, he can. Will these be short flights, or longer?”
“At least one longer. Over to the States and back. A bunch of shorter hops, too. Why?”
“Trying to match you with the right plane. We just acquired a G550; it seats fourteen, berthing for six, and has the range without refueling to make Washington; will that be sufficient?”
“Perfect, Gloria. I’ll have a party of three at the airport tomorrow.”
“Are the quarters for your men adequate?”
“Perfectly, thank you. And thank you again for the offer of space in the caravanserai, but my officers and I will remain with the company.”
“No problem. Colonel Nielson will be starting your training tomorrow on our patrol routes, security procedures, and comm protocols. If you give him a roster, and recommendations, he’ll make up a duty rotation. In addition, we