RICK JOHNSON

LYSSANDRA


by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717
RikJohnson@juno.com

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PROLOGUE

Lyssandra was stumbling and the christian struck her again to force her to move on. At least they who had remained behind to be captured had delayed the christians until The God and the rest of the Coven could escape. Now, she faced days of torture then burning at the hands of a people who declared that their own god was love. Hopefully, those who had escaped would manage to get her drugs to die quickly or to dull the pain and those who escaped would have to leave Arabel before they were betrayed under torture. But where would they go? Catholic Serbs ruled Kosovo, Catholic Slavs ruled Hungary to the north, Greek-Orthodox Macedonians were to the south, Catholic Albanians to the west and the Mohammadan Ottomans to the East. Greek Catholic would burn Witches as easily as Roman Catholic but the Mohammadan? They accepted both christian and jew so long as neither fought another and both paid taxes. Would they accept Witches too?

The prayers and songs ended, slowly but end they did. The christian chants about killing Witches were the hardest to endure for the christian god was jealous of the followers of his Parents. He had slept with his mother and demanded that She leave Her Consort for him. When She refused, he had run into the deserts of Palestine and formed the Jewish people and set them to destroy the Temples of the Goddess. Then, centuries later, he raped a virgin maid to bear a son to the world to destroy everything that was left. But the Romans had arrested the white christ and then released him for some reason. The white christ then fled to France with his prostitute lover and left his war of rebellion in the hands of Paul, the Pervert, who had built a church of such power that, 1500 years later, the new Roman Empire of Christ was continuing the will of Jehovah, killing the followers of his Mother and Father.

She looked up, fearing to hope and saw the patrol. All on horse and all armored, their Captain demanding of the priest. No one made demands of the catholic priests unless they had a wish for the stake so this one must be powerful indeed. She heard hatred in his voice, a hatred that was barely controlled. Please Goddess, give him the inspiration he needs to save us, she prayed.


I
FIRST MEETING

I was patrolling the road with a dozen men. We had arrived in Arabel only the week before, a Mercenary Company on contract to the Prince, no, the Boyer, to keep the peace and to help defend the land from its enemies, of which Kosovo had many. Nominally Catholic, Kosovo was surrounded by Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Muslim, no, Mohammadan as they were called here-now, all of which sought this prize. Plus there was constant strife between Serb, Slav, Greek, Albanian and Turk which was why we were here. Foreigners, mostly from other religions, we would have no loyalty to anyone other than the Boyer who paid our wages and so would be more trustworthy than the local militia who would be torn between church and state.

After settling in, I had taken a room inside the walls as was my right as a Captain then taken patrols out on all the roads to see the countryside and become familiar with my charges. Five hundred men in the Company, divided into smaller companies of a hundred each under five Captains to control and protect a land that stretched from Albania to Romania, from Greece to Hungary. Five hundred thousand may do the job but… well it was better here than Indonesia, the thought of Lujon still hurting. For three years we had lived and loved and slowly she had dulled the pain of Kore’s death until she left me for DuQuesne, a sailor, a simple employee. That still made me mad even here, halfway around the world and it was this anger than made me stop the procession.

Christians were always having some procession to some invented saint. Who was it? Pope Gregory in 601, almost 900 years ago who said that his priests were to steal Pagan Temples, destroy our Statues and Art, set up a cross and invent a saint and holiday to match the old Pagan God. Thus they destroyed the Great Temple to Cernunnos in Paris and used the stones to build Notre Dame Cathedral. Invented saint Brigit to cover for the Goddess Bride that they had defiled. Who knows what this was to but I was angry enough with my memories to cause trouble. The curse of the Irish is to wallow in guilt and anger and seek a fight with others to avoid the fight with yourself.

“Priest, what goes?” I demanded, my sword and Title being all the authority I needed to enforce my will.

“Begone,” the priest demanded. “You interfere with the business of the Church!”

“I am LORD Jason Obrien, BARON Innis,” I spoke, emphasizing my titles to this peasant, “CAPTAIN of the Fourth Company of the Free Company of Olaf Redbeard. And my authority extends to any who I suspect of injury to this country so answer before I drag you and yours back in chains!”

The priest started to speak then Erik was there, a dagger at his throat, whispering, “Priest, I am not a papist so speak politely or loose your tongue.”

The Sergeant moved back a bit as urine ran down the priest’s leg to stain the road. Still, fear was a weapon greater than steel and Erik knew how to use it. He had learned that lesson well as a Protestant heretic in the Chamber of the Inquisition in Wurzburg.

“These people are Witches and we take them to Arabel to burn for their crimes.” He managed to stammer. The dozen with me were riding along the procession, intimidating the people for abusing a few naked and unarmed witches was one thing, facing an army armed, armored and horsed quite another. And the christians, a moment before proud in their abuse of power, were now seeking to pretend that they had no idea of where they were.

I thought about this for a moment. Technically, this was a catholic nation and in matters of religion the church had sole authority. But still, justice belonged to the Boyer, not a priest and I needed to find a way to save these people without taking their place. I rode to the first prisoner, bleeding from multiple beatings and asked, “Man, this priest says that you are a Witch. Is that true?”

He started to answer when his captor struck him, only to receive the butt of my lance across his head. Struck to the ground, I drove the lance butt into his belly again and again, demanding, “I asked a question and by preventing him from speaking, you defy me AND the Prince. Do that again and I’ll pull your limbs off between four horses. Now,” turning back to the prisoner, “please answer my question.” Sometimes, senseless violence helps to ease my mood.

The prisoner looked down to the man gasping for breath as he vomited blood and bile then, hope began to spark within. A moment ago he was dead, now, if he spoke properly, he may just live. “My Lord, that is what the priests call us. We are but simple people, praying to our own Gods and wishing ill of no one.”

Damn! I thought. A confession. Better that he had lied. At least help me to save you, you fool. Now what? Then inspiration, “And man, do you pay your fair share of taxes?”

“My Lord, we give what the tax collectors take.”

I laughed, having been in the middle, trying to collect the taxes of my own people and avoid paying my own taxes to my king. “So be it. Listen up! I am sworn to keep the peace and defend the people of Arabel and this country. So long as you are citizens who pay your taxes, then you are entitled to my protection. Release them!”

Under the spears of the riders, the people rushed to cut their prisoners free, prisoners who immediately ran naked into the nearby woods as I sought to buy them time. “Listen up. I care not if you worship God, Allah, Isis or Satan. I care not if you are Serb, Slav, Turk or Greek. I only care that you live in peace. And if ANY OF YOU do this again, I will personally drag you back to answer to the Prince with a rope tied to my saddle and the other end a hook up your arse! And priest, listen well, worry about the souls of your own and leave their bodies to me or I shall nail you to your own altar and burn your church to the ground around you!” I looked around and seeing the witches gone and safe, commanded, “Release them!” and then continued on down the road.

***

That evening, over dinner I reported to my Commander, “Olaf, it was a good day. We had some prisoners released from the christians and captured some bandits who were attacking a caravan. Erik is taking the bandits to the goal and the merchants are setting up at Mladen’s warehouse. Silk from Venice if you can imagine that. That alone will pay our day’s wages.”

Redbeard finished his tankard, belched and wiped his beard that gave him his name then said, “Jason, I made you a Captain because of your Rank and Title and experiences in Ireland against the English. I care not how many of these christian priests you abuse, Freyr knows they’ve burned enough of my own Temples in Iceland. But this one has the ear of the Prince and can cause us trouble. I am to drag you to him to answer for your assault. Let’s go and better be for you to work on your apology now.”

Accompanying my Commander, I explained, “You knew I was what I am when you took me on.”

“Yes, but I was hoping that we’d be here a while before you caused me trouble. At least saving that merchant will help you.”

Along the way we were joined by Felix, another of the five Captains who worked for Olaf. “Commander, Lord Obrien, I heard about your incident and wish to support my friend. Besides, we have not yet finished our game though I shall win in six moves.”

“Six!” I said, “Felix, you think highly of your skills.”

“No, My Lord, I am just realistic. In the woods as a guerilla fighter against overwhelming numbers, I bow to your skill. But Chess is a game of armies upon open field and there I am the better. Still, only our Commander and you give me a decent game and I’d hate to loose either of you.”

We were passed into the palace, actually another fortress within this walled city which had known rule by Turk, Albanian, Serb and Solvene a dozen times this century alone, to meet with the Prince. He really wasn’t a Prince, more a lower rank Boyer but this was his land and so he could call himself anything he wanted. I myself was Tierna which could be anything from Baron to Prince depending on how many swore me fealty so I understood this well, unlike Olaf who being Dane, swore to none but his own king and that only when convenient. Olaf and I didn’t like each other for racial and religious distrust had been bred into each of us over the centuries, but we did respect another and sometimes, that was enough.

We entered, bowed, doffing our hats and Olaf called out, “Hail Prince Viktor, I am here at your request.” Olaf never allowed people to think they commanded him. It was his Icelandic independence that encouraged him to believe in Democracy, a strange concept here.

Viktor looked up and motioned us forward. “Lord Innis, I have a complaint against you from Father Goran. It seems that you not only interfered with the Church ridding us of some of the local Witches, you also threatened his very life. I should like to hear you side if I may.” The priest started to sputter then ceased immediately as Viktor raised his hand. The Prince looked an effeminate fop and was rumored to be gay or at best, bi-sexual with an unhealthy attraction for sheep but he had a reputation for those who angered him to die in embarrassing and painful manners in dark alleys. The fact that the man was fair to most of his people only made him tolerable. Arabel was a trading city on the crossroads and in war, a prize. In peace, a place where a man could grow wealthy if he respected differences and was mostly honest.

Bowing again, my hat over my heart and my hand noticeably away from broadsword hilt, I began. “My Lord, I am sworn to your defense and the protection of your people. So when I saw one group abusing another, I investigated. Please forgive my ignorance of your customs but what I did was to your benefit for the more taxpayers that die, the less money to your noble coffers and this potential poverty risks your self and your city.”

It was known that Viktor was a faithful Catholic but his position forced him to tolerate the Moslems and Jews within his realm. Plus he resented the tithing that the church demanded for Viktor was also a greedy bastard who spent more on one pair of shoes than most earned in a year. “I must commend your desire to protect me but please, in the future, try to avoid threatening the representatives of God. I must insist that you apologize to Father Goran and make amends.” Viktor knew that both Olaf and I were pagans and this was simply a means of showing his power over us and appeasing the Church which wished us both burned.

“Of course, My Lord. You are correct as always.” Then turning, trying to bite back the bile I felt, then I smiled as inspiration again appeared. “Father Goran, I do most humbly apologize to you for any discomfort I may have caused you.” I deliberately rested my hand on sword-hilt. Centuries old, that sword had tasted the blood of Dane and Brit and more recently, the bandits that I had captured this very morning. And I knew that Viktor knew about that too. Viktor had a spy network that was the envy of every king west of Romania. Viktor counted and weighed information as most men counted and weighed gold and could probably tell the names of every man I had killed in my life.

“Unfortunately, Father Goran, as you know I too am Boyer and so must keep my promises so as much as it pains me to say, for all know how much I respect yourself and your position, I must, sadly, keep the promise that I made this morn. I regret that there are hard feelings between us for my respect for the church is well known and it would crush me were anything to happen to you or it and I would, of course, ask our noble Prince Viktor to place me in charge of any investigation concerning any accident that befalls either. Please accept my apologies for my earlier words and actions.” Even Prince Viktor smiled at that for every man has a superior whose arse needed kissing, no matter how unpleasant.

All were dismissed and the priest left giving we mercenaries a look that would kill had he truly the ear of his god. Felix laughed, “My Lord, that was the most half-assed apology I have ever heard and I am catholic myself. Well, the man has a reputation for being an ass himself but he does have power so watch your back, now and in the future for often the church will wait years for their revenge.”

“Then, my friend, I shall be certain to sit with my back to a wall and allow you to taste my wine first.” The three separated then, I to my company staying outside the east wall for mere mercenary soldiers wouldn’t be allowed inside in any numbers until they proved themselves. Half my men still stared at me with distrust for even these were almost exclusively catholic but there was that thing where they were soldiers and the bonds of military service were difficult to sever, even by the church, and especially when I fought next to my men, not hid behind them. Sometimes, respect was worth more than gold. Erik came up and asked, “How did it go Captain?”

“Better than expected. Catching those bandits helped. I had to apologize, of course, but other than that, nothing.” We stopped by a leatherworker’s shop where I picked up a ball. A dozen leather pentagons sewn into a sphere and stuffed with old rags but it would do. Then I ordered, “Sergeant, call the men together if you please.” I found that politeness worked better than the whip. But only if you earned the men’s respect and I never asked my men to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

“Listen up! The Captain has something to say.”

“Peter, take two spears and run to that end of the field. Drive them in about two spans apart. Alan, take two more and do the same to the other side. The rest of you listen up. I know it’s dull out here but that’s a soldier’s life. Unending days of mind-numbing boredom followed by a few hours of abject terror.” Some laughed at this, the rest watched me move the ball around with my feet. I then kicked it and it struck one man who bent to pick it up. “No! Not with your hands, kick it to me. Kenneth, you are a team captain for today. Robert, you are the other. Move apart and choose ten men apiece for your team.”

When they were done they followed me to the center of the field. “This is called… kick-ball! Kenneth’s men are to kick the ball between those spears. Robert’s men are to defend their goal, take the ball and kick it between the other goals. However, you may only kick the ball and not carry or throw it. If the ball leaves the ground, you can block it any way you want. There is to be no hitting, kicking, punching or any other injury to anyone. The team with the most goals before it gets too dark to see wins. Captains, choose one man to guard your goal and another to kick off. The rest you line up between the center and the goals as your captain wishes.”

Walking to the side I handed the ball to Erik and said, “Toss it to the middle and when it strikes the ground, yell ‘begin’. Remember, the idea is to build team spirit, have fun and keep busy. Oh yes, one thing more!”

I turned around. “No weapons! Leave all weapons off the field.” I motioned and a few other men ran up to collect the various cutlery and such that men in this profession tended to carry.

The first set was a disaster with me conferring with Erik and the team captains to make rules and decisions often, but as the men fell into the idea, they began to have fun and the rest of the company on the sides cheered them on. Games weren’t unknown here, just uncommon as most were combat oriented with regular injuries.

“Well, this is working out well. Sergeant, take over and every day choose different team captains. Watch each for signs of leadership and try to keep the men happy and uninjured. As for me, I have paperwork to do so we can get paid.” Then I left the men to their sport. Boredom was always a problem with the military and a bunch of armed men with nothing to do always was trouble. Thus a big part of my time was used thinking of ways to keep my men occupied and trained. In Ireland, all the Tierna and Ri required our retainers to be literate and multi-linguistic. When the Danes and English invaded, the Irish could understand their plans but the invaders couldn’t understand the local Gaelic and that was an advantage. Also in a time when only clerics could do more than sign by mark, the Irish were able to read and write in any language they could speak. I enforced that here to my men’s dismay and the other Companies laughter. But once the men accepted that they’d be paid more for literacy and linguistics, they worked at that too.

Also, unlike the other Captains who paid every fortnight and didn’t see their men for three days afterwards when the money was gone and they sobered up, I paid my men smaller amounts every five days. Also, I deducted a small amount from each pay and used it to hire cooks and buy food. It was a navy idea that worked and though the men grumbled on pay-days, they also knew that they’d not be begging food the days before the next pay-day like the other soldiers. Felix and Olaf immediately saw the value of this and began to do the same but the other captains were too conservative and refused. Thus those men with intelligence transferred over to my or Felix’s company and those who were too stupid to follow, left for the others. So Olaf had three companies of fodder fit for naught but hacking and attracting attention, my Company of guerilla fighters and Felix’s Company of front line soldiers. It worked well, thus our present employment.

I was all to soon interrupted by a knock on the door. “Enter,” then Erik walked in and stood, relaxed. “All went well Captain. I think this is a good idea but it’s getting late so you should be getting home.”

Folding the books, I locked them away and stood, strapped on my sword and cloak and said, “You’re right. Sergeant, never be an officer, even the ones who can’t read or write still have paperwork to do.”

“Yes sir.” Though Erik would have agreed if I had said the streets were made of purple moss. You never knew what the German was thinking other than he was intensely loyal and a capable sergeant.

I handed him a slate and said, “Tomorrow’s duty roster. And please remind those on merchant duty to keep their purses inside their armor. I don’t want them abandoning their duty to chase down some cut-purse kid who couldn’t resist the temptation.”

“Yes sir.” Erik wasn’t literate yet but he could now recognize names and assignments if they were written clear and simple.

“Also, those Witches we ran into, keep your ears open please for any information on them. If there are Witches here, I’d like to meet with them.”

“Yes sir.” Erik never argued, never questioned and saw himself as my bodyguard ever since I had rescued him from that cell in Wurzburg. The man was big but not as big as he looked for he wore a byrnie of mail under his jacket to deflect the occasional knife thrust by a drunk or a mugger.

Once we reached my inn, Erik left and returned to his own lodgings near the wall. I would prefer to room near my men but my rank and position required other matters. Besides, some day I may just get lucky and the privacy of my rooms would be an advantage. In the meantime, I had a light supper and a glass of wine as my bathing water was being heated. Unlike the christians who saw bathing as evil, I wished I could have a real bathtub filled nightly but that was far too expensive so I contented myself with a weekly bath and a nightly sponge-bath in my room.

As always, I checked the room, windows and door then my private lock-box, then satisfied, set my sword by the bed, my dagger under my pillow, undressed and fell asleep instantly.

II
AMAZONS AND WHORES

As usual, I woke early. Too many years in the military had destroyed my ability to sleep in so I groaned, washed in the basin, dressed and found my breakfast waiting for me in the common room. The Keep didn’t like staying up late and getting up early so we had come to a deal, the Inn would make my breakfast, cover it to keep away vermin and leave it out for me the night before. It was, of course, cold and any soldier will complain about the food but none will refuse to eat anything placed before him.

I washed again, then headed for the company, meeting Erik on the way, as usual. “Thank you Captain,” the man said as I handed him a trencher and some meat and cheese. Erik never ate breakfast and suffered long before lunch so I made a point of making certain he ate something.

“Anything new happen?” I asked.

“No sir. No one invaded, the city managed to avoid burning down, the peasants are revolting but didn’t revolt.” It was an old joke that made sense only in English which Erik didn’t speak but once I had explained it to the man, he had adopted it for his own.

People were already awake and working, the shops still closed but the farmers and merchants already preparing for the day. Arabel was a city of winding streets, narrow roads, poverty and wealth and I loved it. I made a habit of smiling and saying ‘good morning’ often and those we met bowed or curtseyed to me, partially because you are always polite to a man with a yard of steel hanging from his hip and partially because I found that being polite caused people to reply in kind. Erik was a peasant farmer turned soldier during one of the many Wars between the German States and respected me because I was a noble and because I was a good fighter but mainly because I was one of the few officers who really cared about his men.

The men were sleeping in, as usual. Goddess! If the Turks attacked, they should do it at sunrise when everyone was still asleep and hung-over. So I left Erik to get the Company up and working while I checked out my office and made certain that everything was ready for the day. Days and weeks were long and duty was hard but for those with no life and lots to forget, the mercenary military was perfect.

After an hour or so, I rose, stretched and went out to check on the men. Erik was running them through basic sword-play for the thousandth time. Well, it never hurt to redo the basics. People got sloppy over time. So I watched, then wandered among my men, those who were there, for about a dozen were on their day-off, another dozen watching the Merchants and another couple dozen on patrol. The half that remained were doing what Mercs did best, pretending to train. An occasional stern glance usually fixed that and what that didn’t, Erik did.

As usual there were people along the fence watching. Most were peasant kids thinking that being a soldier would get them off the farm. Yes it would but most would die early and I wanted to get back to the farm and never raise a sword again. A small commotion attracted my attention. The usual whores who were trolling for customers among the lonely soldiers were pushed aside by two women in arms and armor. The whores weren’t happy but unwilling to face a dagger so backed apart, complaining all the while.

I watched them watch us then ignored them as I focused on the training and during break, Erik approached, “Captain, more hopefuls.” He laughed this time. Erik had little hope for anyone that wasn’t German and let that attitude show.

“Well then, bring them in and we’ll try them out.”

“This is different Captain. These aren’t peasants but women. They call themselves Amazons from Russia.”

I laughed back, “Every woman who tires of married farm-life and steals a sword, calls herself an Amazon. But try them anyway. At the least, it will give us a laugh.”

I sat under the shade and watched as the two women entered and faced off against a couple of my men. Watching, I saw their swordplay was adequate and they worked well as a team, surrounding and one defending until the other could get a strike in. But their smaller size was a disadvantage. Finally Erik came over and said, “Decent with a sword but too small. One good blow will take them out and I’m not certain the men will like fighting with them. I say pay them a few coppers and send them away.”

“I’m smaller than you, Erik, and who always wins? Besides, Caesar respected Celtic women as fighters and in Indonesia, I learned to respect a Tahitian girl smaller then these. Let me talk to them please.”

They approached, arrogant and demanding. That would easily be beaten from them. And after a moment of staring, their armor had seen better days but had been made for them and not the usual patch-work from cast offs, I asked, “Why?”

They looked at each other then one said, “I am Hippolesia and this is my lover Penthelasilea.” The men laughed at that for most men thought a lesbian could be converted to heterosexual love if they were held down and raped often enough. To admit that here before a company of mercs and in a catholic city showed their confidence. Or their stupidity. “We are Amazons from Russia and wanted to see the world. We heard that you are more intelligent than the usual captain and thought we’d check to see if you are worth serving.”

The men were laughing aloud now and I casually ignored their fun. “And how do you plan to determine this, assuming that I choose to hire you? So far I’ve seen nothing impressive about you.”

One ran to fetch their horses while the other said, “Watch!” Then from a stand, they screamed, mounted and raced down the field firing arrows at posts at a range of easily a half-hundred yards and hitting them all the time. When they returned, I commented, “Impressive. This makes up for your lack of mass.”

“Captain, they’re women and the men…” Erik began.

“The men will do as you and I tell them. Besides, they seem able to outshoot and outride anyone we have. I like the idea of mobile cavalry that can pick off charging riders and break their ranks before they engage. Crecy, Sergeant. Near a hundred fifty years ago, the English with 7,000 archers faced 36,000 heavily armored French knights. By the time the French had crossed the 2,000 yards separating them from the English, The English had sent a half-million arrows into the French and killed 10,000 of them, breaking 16 French charges. Imagine doing that with a dozen people who can put an arrow through a visor at a hundred yards at full charge and repeat it every ten heartbeats.”

Then at the women, “You are hired! Sergeant Erik will show you to your room and give you the rules. Sergeant, they get a private room away from the rest of the men. If anyone causes trouble, bring them to me to settle. Don’t waste these on the line, use their abilities to our advantage.”

“Yes sir,” Erik admitted. He wasn’t convinced but would be as soon as they proved their value. I had a number of people who could ride and a number who could shoot, perhaps these girls could help me combine the two into one. I had seen a troop of Mongols on horseback circle a larger force of better armed and armored Turks and cut them to ribbons. The Mongols circled, charged, shot and retreated time and time again. They took losses but by the time the battle was over, maybe a dozen Mongols had died compared to hundreds of Turks. In war mobility often won battles.

Were these real Amazons? Probably not. Amazons were myth but the Scythians and Sarmatians did train their women to be mounted soldiers. Lovers though? Did that mean they were lesbians who hated men or that they preferred women to the harshness of men? Well, the big problem would be keeping them from gang-rape. I had an idea.

“Sergeant, call the men together please.” They formed up, fifty or so in three lines, the women to the side. I motioned to them, “Ladies, join the ranks of you would.” The men closest sneered as they moved closer until I had my example. One had leaned over to whisper something, probably obscene, to Hippolesia who smacked him. The fight was stopped only by Erik wading in and using his mass to instill fear into the men.

“Sergeant, both offenders here please.”

Looking a the man, I asked, “Since you seem to like to talk while in formation when you should be listening to me, perhaps the rest of the men would like to see what is more important then my words.”

The man murmured and I cried, “Louder man. We cannot hear you. Yell exactly what you said to Erik, but we all want to hear it.”

The man was embarrassed but said, loud enough for all to hear, something obscene and anatomically impossible between two men. Erik stared at him, waiting. Erik had no fears of being called a gay-boy so took it well.

“Men, these are your new comrades. You will be eating with them, sleeping with them (I ignored the laughter) and fighting with them. NO ONE,” I yelled this part, “Will cause any trouble or they face me!” I then asked, “Your helmet if you would.” The man slowly handed it over, touching his neck for he had seen me behead a man once and feared having his own neck a bare target. “Scared?” The man nodded. “Good!”

Then I tossed the helmet into the air and as all eyes followed the steel, I kicked the man in his privates as hard as I could. Then I drew broadsword and hit the helmet before it struck the ground. I didn’t cut it in half as I wanted but the impact did render it useless for anything other than a paperweight. “Sergeant, when he stops vomiting, have him clean the entire field and take the cost of a new helmet from his wages. As for you, Amazon, these are your war-buddies. You need to learn to get along. You don’t have to take any abuse but I can’t have my men put out of commission so easily. A day’s pay fined for fighting. Any more incidents, report to the sergeant who will take care of it. If he doesn’t, I will!

“Now, men, you see that I am serious. There will be NO further incidents. Anyone who treats these two as anything other than a fellow soldier gets a dozen lashes. Rape is flogging to death after castration with all who knew and failed to interfere or report receiving a dozen lashes each.

“Now, you all saw them on the field. Any who want to join the new elite horse archer squad, let me know. Double pay for those who pass the test and are allowed to join. Dismissed.”

As they walked away, “Sergeant, I want the two women and the man I kicked with me on the afternoon patrol.”

***

What I wanted was trouble. Anyone can fight with a sword or axe from the ground and sometimes, bigger is better since in any army, be it English knights or Japanese Samurai, only about 5% of the army is really trained to be good. The remaining 95% are simply grunts who can barely hack-n-slash. In that style of fighting, women are at a disadvantage for despite the stories about women warriors, once armed and armoured, there is little difference between a woman and a child and both are simply run over by a larger, stronger man. But once you remove the armor and lighten the swords, speed and agility come into play and the differences between men and women fade away. Fencing with a light Rapier or Small Sword is a great equalizer. In this case, I had no intention of putting the women on the front lines, preferring them to ride around the enemy shooting them in the back until they whittled away at the numbers until we could finish the job. The Huns almost destroyed Rome this way, the Mongols conquered China this way and the Turks were building an empire this way.

So I felt that if we ran into trouble, I could send the women around to flank and prove their value to the men in my Company. Once accepted as fellow soldiers, there’d be no more trouble. What I wanted was a Company of highly mobile light Cavalry.

It was late when we found some bandits. Kosovo was infested with bandits! The land had been flooded with the blood of Turk, Macedonian, Serb and Slav and with the almost constant warfare, it was natural for the homeless and the discharged soldier to turn to banditry. That’s why we were here, to repress the bandits and provide a show to keep the foreigners away.

In this case, it was a small caravan of Mohammadan’s seeking a new home that attracted the bandits who appeared to be Hungarian Slavs. None had horses and their weapons were whatever they had collected from whomever they had killed. So I sent my men at them at a slow trot, “Lance to the fore! Advance at a trot! Don’t tire the horses. If they run, we’ll chase, if they stand, we’ll run them down! Hippolesia & Penthelasilea to the right flank and cut their retreat!” The women rode off at a run, their smaller Mongol horses easily possessing the stamina for this work. I’d have to find shorter names for them for in the heat of battle, crying out these long Greek names would eat time.

The bandits ran, then before they reached the trees, the two women were there, bows drawn. “Alive!” I yelled so they sent a couple arrows to the ground before the bandits who paused, then formed a square with spears and shields outward. I had no intention of losing horses and men breaking that square so I led my men around them until we had the bandits boxed in. With our numbers about even, it was a stalemate. They knew that they were trapped but also knew we didn’t dare charge that wall of spears.

“I am Lord Obrien, Guardian of Arabel! Surrender and lay down arms.”

They wavered then one yelled something, “Captain, they called for us to take them,” one of my Hungarians translated. I’d eventually learn the languages but we’d only been there a week. I called to the Amazons and spoke to them, then they charged the square at a gallop then broke to the right and left, releasing arrows as they did. Their shafts passed over the men in the front of the square to kill two men facing away on the far side. They circled the bandits, just within our line and fired again, killing two more facing away. Shooting the men facing us would do little good for their large shields protected them, but in any square, the men on the far side exposed their backs which generally had little armour.

By the time the third volley had killed the fifth and sixth men, the rest dropped spears and cried out their surrender. “Sergeant! Search them for weapons and let’s take them back to Arabel.” As this was done, the women cut their arrows from the bodies and I approached the Moslems. “Marhaba,” I called in Arabic. “We will escort you as far as you wish until we must turn aside for Arabel.” Then I called my men, “We are here to protect and escort civilians. So I expect you all to be polite to these people or face me!”

Then with two upfront, two on each flank and the rest of my men guarding the surviving bandits, we returned to the city. By the time we arrived, the men and women had accepted each other as equals and were joking around, such is the bond of battle.

After turning the prisoners over to the goal, I ordered a keg of beer to celebrate and watched the men and women bond as they drank, making certain that one keg wouldn’t get anyone drunk enough to do something stupid. I had one mug and watched carefully but couldn’t tell if the women were lovers or not so bade all a good-night and returned to my room. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to relax so strapping on my sword and dagger, went for a walk to further explore my new home.

***

I was beginning to be able to tell the Serbs from the Slavs and so was able to greet each in their own tongue with few mistakes. That’s what I liked about this city. The streets were narrow and winding, the second floor often overlooked the streets and if you were observant, you could avoid the contents of the chamber-pots being tossed out the windows. But mostly the people were friendly and I stopped often to watch someone go about their business, asking an occasional question for all men love to talk about their work and enjoyed a stranger taking an interest in them. It made the peasants feel important. And for a Noble such as myself to speak to a peasant made them feel especially important.

It was while passing one of the cheaper rooms when I heard the scream. I ran into the alley to find a man beating a woman, an action I quickly stopped. The woman huddled on the ground, trying to protect herself as the man took a swing at me. I blocked, struck his bare throat and as he tried to breathe, demanded, “I am Captain Lord Obrien. Who are you and what is going on?”

The man finally recognized me as one of the mercs and when he could talk, managed to croak, “My Lord, this whore robbed me. She deserves whatever I do to her.” He tried to continue but I stopped him. Then, bending down, saw she was bleeding and in no condition to speak so I asked the man, “How much did she take and be honest for I hate thieves no matter who steals from whom.”

He started to say something, then saw me tapping the hilt of my sword and changed his mind, “Two silver dinar, my Lord.”

I felt around, she crying in pain as I touched her, until I found the money. I looked it over then tossed him one dinar, “The beating you gave forfeits a dinar.” Then as he glared, “Be happy with what you have lest I remove that which caused this problem.” He grumbled more but walked away.

Now what to do? If I leave her here, she’ll simply get robbed and raped and maybe sold if she is worth anything. Finally I picked her up and carried her to the local hospital, or what passes for a hospital in this place. It was essentially a convent where people went to die for the Church taught that bleeding and prayer was the solution to all ailments.

I kicked the door open and called out, “A woman needs care!”

One of the nuns, an older woman, bitter for giving her youth to Christ, a man who never visited, looked at the woman as I lay her on a table then spat through rotten teeth, “She is a whore and a Slav. She profanes God’s house. Take her back to the alley where she belongs.”

“She is injured and needs care!” I insisted.

“If you care for her so much, then you take her. We’ll have none of her kind here.”

Christians! They talk a good talk but gladly kill any who refuse their masses. Having little choice, I had to take her to my room where I ordered the Keep to bring clean water and clean bandages. As I waited those, I stripped her and saw the ravages of her profession in the bruises and scars of her customers. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t overly old either, her hair showing some gray. Somehow in the ballads you hear, the woman is a misguided girl who only needs a good man to save her. In reality, that rarely happens.

A careful examination showed no broken bones and surprise, her teeth were decent even. So I washed her down as best I could and sent her dress to be washed and mended. Then, making certain she wasn’t bleeding internally, I covered her and fell asleep in my chair.

The next morning she was still asleep and looked like she would be so for some time so I had the Keep put a meal in my room for her with her dress and leaving instructions for his wife to check on her often and to not let her leave with any of my belongings, left for my Company.


III
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

I was singing as I returned home that night. The sun was shining, the birds singing and the merchant we had saved a couple days before had sent us a gift in gratitude. Even the men were accepting the women into their midst and I had a half dozen volunteers for my cavalry. All was well with the world.

Until I entered my room.

The woman was there and turned quickly around. Too quickly. She held both hands behind her and was obviously stealing from me and as I advanced, she pulled my spare eating knife from the table and threatened me. The fool. I easily took it from her then said, “If you are planning to knife a man, do it right.” And I placed the knife in her hand, curling her fingers around the handle properly.

She lunged for me and I stepped aside, blocked and disarmed her, “No! You are off-balance. Don’t thrust with your body or you’ll fall over.” I showed her a few moves then said, “You seem to be healing nicely so you can go home now. AFTER you return my belongings.” As I said, I was in a good mood.

She placed a small box on the dresser and ran from my room, never facing away from me. So I did a quick search to ensure that nothing else had been taken and locked up and went to dinner. Yes, this was a good day. Of course, in my profession any day you live is a good day.

***

The next couple days were normal, I accompanied my men on Merchant patrol to get to know our charges for Arabel was a trading city and the merchants were the life of the city. In Arabel, there were a number of levels of merchants. The poorest lay their wares on an old blanket in an alley or street hoping for pennies. The richest owned their own warehouses and stores. Most either lived in the floor above their store or rented a space in the markets and set up a table and sun-shade. Some who were visiting lived in a tent behind and a part of their awning. It was here you could buy anything. It mattered not if you rented a whore to drop to her knees behind a curtain or hash from Syria or a chicken waiting the axe, or an amber and gold necklace from Poland, or a girl slave from Cathay, if you wanted it, someone would sell it to you. I loved the place.

I also searched for herbalists and sorcerers, seeking information on those Witches I had rescued. I was surrounded by christians and it would be nice to share talk with my own kind.

***

I was settling in for the night, a book and a glass of wine next to the lamp by the open window when I heard a tap at my door. Well, I had read Caesar before though the conjugations gave me trouble at times so standing, I answered the door to find myself facing the thief-whore. She started then curtseyed, poorly and said, “Excuse me My Lord, for interrupting you like this. But,” she paused, embarrassed, then, “May I enter?”

I stepped aside and she entered, glanced around then stood there staring at her feet. I waited for a minute then asked, “And you wish what of me?”

She stammered then when I bade her sit, she opened up, “My Lord, you were kind to me, and I betrayed your kindness. I’m sorry and wish I had never tried to rob you but I am poor and often a penny stolen here or there makes the difference between hunger and starvation.” She was speaking Serbian to me even though she was obviously a Slav.

“My Lord, I am tired of being beaten and wish you to teach me how to defend myself. I can’t pay much but I can reward you in other ways.” She was playing with the drawstrings to her vest at that.

“I’m not interested in that, preferring my women to be willing and actually interested in me over my purse.” I commented, becoming bored already.

“I’m sorry, My Lord. It’s just that…. Well, the only thing men have ever wanted from me was when I lay on my back. But I’m serious. Please, someday some man will kill me and I’m afraid. I can clean for you! I hear you wash often and insist on being clean. I can do that for you. I can clean your bedding and clothing, clean your room for you, be your maid if you wish. Or, I hear that you walk the city, asking questions and seeking answers. I know Arabel and can be your guide. Please, My Lord, teach me to defend myself and I will do anything I can to pay you.”

I lifted her face, the bruises fading and covered with too much cosmetics but still swollen. She had wrinkles at her eyes and gray in her hair so she wasn’t some child. “How old are you?”

“Thirty, My Lord,” she answered.

Thirty! Most people here are dead by then. “How long have you been in this business?”

“Since I was fifteen, My Lord. Serbian soldiers raped me and when I went to the Watch, they laughed and kicked me into the street. Kosovo is ruled by Turk or Macedonain or Serb or sometimes Slav and only the Slavs consider me worthy of kindness. To the Serb, I am nothing but a plaything and can find no other employment or I starve.”

“And family?”

“None, My Lord. I never knew my father. My mother was … like me though she tried to make my life better. But she was killed when the Turks took the city and I was taken to suffer in the Caliph’s harem until the Slavs drove them out. My life is survival, little else.”

Hmmm, you never knew if a whore was telling the truth or not. They think that if they give a sad story, they’ll get a tip. However, I was in a good mood, everything was going well lately so I figured, why not?

“Ok, the first thing you need to learn is balance. Everything flows from balance. A man who thrusts with his body has power but is so unbalanced that simply stepping aside causes him to fall over and become helpless.” And I had her learn to stand and move while balanced, keeping her center of gravity low. Then after she could move decently, I had her breathe from her belly. “Our lungs are like a teardrop. When we expand out chest, we fill only the top third. But when we breathe from our belly as a baby does, we fill the lower 2/3s and so have twice the air we need to move. Best is a combination of both, belly then chest. Like this.”

After an hour of this, she asked, “But when do I learn to defend myself?”

“When you can remain on your feet.” And I slid her feet from under her. “Were you balanced, you wouldn’t have fallen, “ I commented as I helped her to her feet. “Meet me at my Company grounds tomorrow and we’ll cover more.”

She left then and honestly I didn’t think she’d return.

***

The next afternoon, she was there waiting for me. The men were commenting on her as they did to all the whores but she ignored them and waited for me to call her over. “I’m surprised you are here.”

She curtseyed and replied, “My Lord, I am serious about this. That man wouldn’t have beaten me if I knew how to fight. Tell me what to do next.”

“Join the others in line.”

Erik and I spent the morning running the men through various drills from standing in a crouch, moving without falling over and how to hold the knife. “No! Thrust with your thumb. Brace along the guard. If you hold a kitchen knife like that and strike bone, your hand will slide along the blade and you’ll loose fingers.”

We then broke for lunch and I noticed that the woman was sitting alone. Even the Amazons ignored her, giving her looks as if to say, “You betrayed your sex.” I called her over, “You never did tell me your name.”

“Lyssandra Kosovonova, my Lord.”

“And why are you not eating? You need your strength.”

“I … I have no money. I’m too bruised to work.”

I laughed, “Come with me.”

The men gave a few calls as we walked away and when we entered my office, she looked to the floor and waited, doubtless waiting for me to take my pleasure with her. “Here,” I handed her cheese, bread and some jerky with a beer. She immediately fell to with a passion that implied that she hadn’t been eating well recently. Well, in her profession, men prefer youth. I ate my own share and noticed that she snuck portions into her skirt so I lay out all that I had and watched her eat until she was full.

“Now for your payment. This is my office, keep it clean and organized but throw nothing away save garbage. You can do the same for my room tonight.” And I ignored her as I did that paperwork that is the bane of all officers. She didn’t have much to do as I keep things neat but I rarely dust. I snuck glances to her and saw that she was detailed and careful and when done, she looked for more to do so I suggested, “Time to return to the training field.”

Another hour proved that the Amazons may be superb horsewomen and archers but their knife-fight skills lacked finesse. Approaching them, I directed, “Kill me!” Of course that was impossible but she laughed and tried. Her confidence a few days past making her clumsy and a second later she was on the ground with me on her back, her own knife at her throat. “Skill, people! If you cannot be bigger, be faster and if you cannot be faster, cheat!” I helped her to rise and called out, “Again!”

Then, “Lyssandra! Are you having trouble?”

“My dress is in the way. Maybe if I wore pants?”

“Will you be wearing pants when attacked? We will but what of you? If you will be defending yourself in a dress, train in a dress!” Then, “Halt! No! You hold that knife like it was a meat cleaver. Do you stroke a man that way? Like this! Forefinger and thumb holds the handle, the rest control. It takes less than a pound of pressure to cut skin and three inches to kill a man. Slash gently. A knife fight is vicious but done properly, can be poetry. Balance! Breathe! Relax! And slash! Better!”

***

For the next week it went that way. She would arrive, practice with whomever was knife-training, clean my office, eat lunch, walk with me home, clean my room and clothes and leave. I also found that I enjoyed talking to her. Maybe it was because a whore who listens makes more money from a lonely john but she did listen and I found myself enjoying our meals for aside from Felix, there was no one with whom I could talk readily.

We would walk the streets and she would say: “That house was built by a rich merchant who lost all in a fire and now sells second-hand silk to recover his wealth.”
“That woman pretends to be a lady but I remember when she sold herself to soldiers for pennies.”
“This whole neighborhood was poor and burned in the last war so was rebuilt by the Boyer. They found a cellar filled with Greek wine in the construction and drank half before the Boyer found out and took the rest.”
“See that man, the friar? He likes young boys but only if they squeal like a pig.”
“There was once a Mosque here but they tore it down and used the stone to build the north wall.” The woman did know the city and I loved hearing her trivia and gossip as we walked.

***

One night Felix had again, beaten me at chess and left when Lyssandra commented, “So many books. I’ve never seen so many. I cannot read myself and don’t know anyone who can. And that game, chess? You stare at the pieces for so long before you move. It is as if the entire world relied on that game.”

“Chess is war, strategy. It forces me to think a dozen moves ahead and plan my attack with minimal loss of life. And reading is a joy. It’s getting late and you should leave.”

She hesitated, taking her time then finally, “My Lord, it’s late and dark and I’m afraid. Can I sleep on your floor tonight? I promise I’ll be quiet and be not underfoot.”

With no good reason to deny her, I handed her some extra blankets and she made herself a bed in a corner. “Good night. Thank you for this. No one has ever been so kind to me.”

The next night the same thing happened, she killed time until it was too late to leave so finally I asked, “What’s wrong?”

She broke down crying, “My Lord, I have no place to live. I wanted your respect so I quit whoring and sought other work. But men want young girls as maids and cooks and women fear my profession will steal their men from their beds. So some days ago I was evicted for failure to pay rent. My landlord kept everything and I slept in an alley until… I was afraid. Please don’t make me sleep outside.”

“Wait here.” And I left to the Common Room where I called the Inn-Keep over. “Send a man to find my Sergeant at my company outside the city’s East Gate. Tell him to be here in the morning with a couple of the lads, armed and armored. Oh, and until further notice, double my meals.”

He didn’t argue for I always paid for my meals and room and he liked having a Captain as a tenant for I could always be counted on to stop a fight. So taking a bottle of wine and two clean glasses, some cheese and bread, I returned to my room and poured my guest a glass. She sipped the wine for women of her class made do with cheap beer but ate the bread and cheese with gusto and when she was done, I looked at her, sipped my own glass and asked, “Why me?”

Embarrassed, she took a breath and started, “We talk, women like me. It’s obvious that you like women yet you never hired any of us and you refused my own offer. You are so strange. You saved my life on the road and then again when I was beaten and never asked for naught in return. I… I wanted you to like me.”

“On the road?”

She started then, fearing, “My Lord, when you saved those Witches from the christians, I was one of them. You didn’t recognize me but we were all grateful for you. And when you began to search for us we decided to find out why. I offered to see what I could learn for I … I liked and respected you and over these days and days, I find myself…. I didn’t plan this. It just happened. I’ve never lied to you.”

“So you are one of the Witches of Arabel. And you are to spy on me for your coven?”

“Yes My Lord. We have to be careful.”

“And your eviction, that beating and your asking me to teach you?”

“All true, My Lord. I was evicted because I quit whoring. I did want to learn to defend myself though my coven thinks I asked for them, not me. Are you going to throw me out?”

“Not tonight. I need to think about this.” I took her blanket from the floor and lay them on my bed. “It’s cold tonight, you may as well be comfortable and warm. BUT, no sex.”

“Yes, My Lord,” she smiled at that.

***

I awoke with her in my arm and she looked rested. She was still aged, looking older than her thirty but that was to be expected though she was attractive when cleaned up and fed. So I woke her and we dressed, not looking at each other then went downstairs to have breakfast. I waved Erik inside for it was cold out and told him, “Pour the lads a beer each. ONE! SMALL! And some bread and cheese as well. I’m going up to clean up a bit.”

“Captain, is there any trouble? You’ve never asked for an escort before.”

“No trouble. I feel the desire for a walk through the city and would like some company.”

***

I watched Lyssandra brush her teeth. She always did that. When I asked her why when so few others cared, she replied, “I like to eat. My friends with bad teeth cannot eat well so when I have to choose between teeth and stomach, I can eat the next day but not with rotten teeth.”

“A good decision. I wish others felt that way. Arab women chew betel which rots their teeth away and forces them to wear veils. Japanese wives paint their teeth black to look rotten so no one will seek to entice them into adultery. And I’ve seen women who drank nightly and fell asleep with their heads and hair in the chamber-pot as their stomach juices ate their teeth away. Ready? Time to go.”

Instead of heading east, I asked, “Where is your apartment?” and when she pointed north, continued, “Lead on.”

Arabel isn’t large. There are 7,000 people packed into a walled city that can comfortably hold a tenth that number. But somehow they manage. True, crime is rampant, murders from overcrowding common but still, I liked the city.

The further north we walked, the poorer the houses and dirtier the streets. Erik nodded to the men who slung their shields over their backs to resist a dagger in the kidney while he himself moved to my left to give me room to draw and cut if need be. Only a fool would attack four armed men, three armoured, but hunger and desperation make many a man a fool.

Soon enough we reached the street where Lyssandra lived and upon asking, she pointed out the landlord’s door. “Sergeant, you and the lads remain here but in sight and act like you want a fight. Lys, with me if you would.”

It didn’t take long for the door to open a crack for a knife pommel makes a lot of noise when pounded against a door. The eyes within saw me, then past to my men, then to Lys and hardened. “Open man for it’s cold here and I would be away,” I demanded. He hesitated and then, “Peasant! Either you open your door or I have my men tear it from the frame and use it to build a fire to warm my hands!”

It near slammed off its leather hinges so afraid was he. He shook in his bare feet as I mentioned, casually, looking over my fingernails, “I understand you were the former landlord of this woman. Further I understand that you evicted her and kept her belongings. Might I ask why?”

Lys started to speak but I raised my hand and she quieted. I knew her side and wanted his for in every situation there are three sides, hers, his and the truth and rarely do they match. “My lord, this… woman owes me three months back rent.” Lys started to snap something but I stopped her again. “I am a poor businessman and must pay my own bills so I kept her things until she could pay me what she owes. If not, I must sell them for what I can get to cover my loss.

When I turned to her she snapped, “Three, you thief. I paid for two of those with my…” I stopped her for I didn’t want to hear what she was about to say. Then turning to the landlord, I removed my purse and opened it saying, “Unlock her door if you would. Lyssandra, take what you want or need or is valuable.” Then I followed them both to the top floor where even rats feared being eaten. The landlord opened her door and stared at my purse as I glanced within. “You lived here? The place isn’t fit for the rats who prefer the hall. Hurry for I now need a bath.”

She managed to pack everything of value into a single bundle, the furniture wasn’t worth taking or even burning and then I asked, “How much to settle?”

“My lord, I have expenses and…..” he saw Erik and the lads in the hall and finished quickly, “Three silver drachma will do nicely.”

“How easily you lie when facing your head on a pike. Since you said three, that means one and a half. Since she takes little, you may keep the furnishing to cover your loss. One! And I suggest you be happy.” I was tapping my hilt with the drachma which caused him to gulp and then, “One will be enough, My Lord.” I dropped it into his hand then said, “Time to go. We must train hard today to wash the cold from our bones.”

On the way to the field I asked, “You can keep your belongings in my office until you find a job and a place to live. Until then, same deal as always. You train, clean and can stay with me.”

“Yes my Lord,” was all she said but in a way that didn’t show unhappiness.


IV
ROMANIAN PLANS

Some months later, Lys was still in my room and the bed we shared often creaked to our passion. I found myself enjoying her company and conversation and never asked her to leave. Then I was called to see Viktor again.

“What did you do this time?” Felix asked.

“Naught that I know. Things here are too quiet. Maybe he is reducing our numbers and we must find another employer or turn bandit.”

“Then, my friend, I shall leave you for he seeks you, not me and I find my life to be easier when the nobles and I avoid each other.”

“I find the same my friend,” I called to his back, “but things rarely seem to work that way.”

Olaf was there and was observing a map on a table with the priest who still hated me, though we had not seen each other since I threatened his life. As always, and as expected, I bowed, doffed my hat though being Noble myself I didn’t have to bow as deep as the others and called, “My Lord Prince Viktor! You call and I am here! How may I serve you?”

“Come Lord Obrien, observe this map if you will. I understand you can read and write many languages?”

“That I can, My Lord. My own Gaelic, English, German, Italian, Latin, Arabic, Japanese and Chinese, Indonesian, Tahitian and a few others. Plus under the instruction of my lover, I also am also gaining fluency in Serbian, Slovak and Turkish.”

“A wonder are you Irish to so easily learn foreign tongues. I, myself, speak Latin and Greek in addition to Serbian and Slovak but my Turkish is lacking. And to find a man who can not only sign his own name but read and write is additional wonder.” Viktor was being too friendly. Never trust a noble who is too friendly. I generally am the most polite to the man I am about to behead so his attention disturbed me.

“As I was discussing with your Commander here, see this map? To the east is Romania and these are the castles that Vlad Dracula built to stem the Turkish tide. Most are destroyed but some are still standing or can be repaired. This one here is, we believe, home to a group of bandits that have been plaguing the countryside.”

“Prince Viktor, that looks to be some 200 miles away. That’s a ten-day journey and few bandits would make that trip so why are you concerned?”

“Prince Vlad’s successor, whose name escapes me at this time, is busy fighting the Turks along the Bulgarian border and cannot spare the men to stop the bandits. He has asked my king to assist and so I have been tasked with their eradication. Succeed in this and it will open channels between Romania and ourselves that well benefit both. Here is the information you will need and a map to the castle. Take as many men as you need and also take Father Goran with you. He may be useful.”

“Useful? How can a priest be useful when chasing bandits?” I inquired.

Goran spoke up, speaking as if I were some common wretch. “Because, my lord,” he had to force himself to say that, “the Romanians are Greek Catholic and will benefit from the true Catholic faith.”

“It seems to me that when Rome fell, the Pope left Rome to Constantinople and a pretender entered the Vatican to set up a second church so you should benefit from they who were the original catholics.”

“BLASPHEMY! God will….”

“Silence Father Goran. We all know that Lord Obrien, being a pagan, doesn’t understand the intricacies of church politics and is easily deceived by historical facts. But you WILL go together so I expect you to be polite to each other. If that is not possible, then not kill each other. Dismissed.”

Olaf called to us as we bowed and left, “You leave tomorrow morn and Captain, take your best men and plenty of weapons. Take no chances and suspect everything you see.”

***

I was not in a good mood when I reached my office. “Sergeant!” I yelled in passing and slammed my door near off its hinges. Opening my package, I unfolded the map and read the reports as Erik and Lyssandra entered, he to my desk, she to my chair and began to massage my shoulders. “Whose idea is this?” I asked her. Since joining the Company, she had ceased to wear her dress and while on duty, wore a shirt and pants and a vest to contain her small breasts.

“Erik’s,” she mentioned, never ceasing to rub. “He thinks that relaxed, you will talk easier.”

I sighed, relaxed or tried to then motioned her to the bar. “We are to take some men to Dracula’s castle in Wallachia to destroy some bandits that have taken up residence. And if that isn’t strange enough, we are to take the priest, Goran, with us.”

Erik looked over the map. He never questioned me but my superiors weren’t that lucky. “Why, Captain? Those bandits show us no threat. And a priest on a combat mission? Why that too? Romanians are Greek, not Roman and would burn him as easily as they burn you.” He laughed then, “Perhaps you two will share a stake and finally make friends as your skin burns off. Or maybe the ghost of Vlad Dracula will hang you both from a pike and sup on your blood as you slowly expire. Or…” Erik was Protestant, or one of the many churches springing up during the Reformation to take advantage of the Catholic lapse. He never questioned my religion out of loyalty and rarely mentioned his own.

“Enough! It’s bad enough I must spend the next ten-day on the road with him. Must I endure your pleasantries too? Though to be honest, after a week with that priest, the stake will be a welcome relief.”

Lyssandra interrupted, setting beers before us. “Must you two joke about that? Burning a Witch is no joke. How many of us have the christians burned? Are you to add to the pyre?”

“Lys, we joke to relieve the stress. We Irish burned few witches and then only when the Tierna were too late to stop the church. When the Bishop ordered Dame Kytler burned, she arrested him to teach him a lesson. Those who would burn an Irishman will oft find themselves feeding the pyre first. I think you should go with us.”

“Why, My Lord?” she was concerned and not a little scared.

“Because the Amazons will need female company, because you need combat experience if you are to be a part of this Company and because it will really piss off the priest to see you there.”

“That!” Erik laughed as he drained his tankard, “I like! How many men?

“According to this, there are no more than a dozen bandits, all poorly armed. Twenty should do it. All horseman as I wish to travel fast.”

“All will be ready, Captain.” He saluted as he left then Lys plopped into my lap and looked over the map.

“It looks so near on paper. I’ve never been more than a couple leagues from Arabel. I hear that Dracula is a vampire and eats the flesh of babies.”

“Vlad Dracula was a Prince of Wallachia and Transylvania. He fought and held the Turks when none would give him aid and turned back the Islamic hoards time and time again. When he sought aid from Hungary, he was refused because catholics aid only catholics and Dracula was greek. Eventually, he convinced them to help and for that the greek church excommunicated him, damning his ghost to wander the land without rest. Christians are so,…..” words failed me.

“And we must aid them?”

“It is what we get paid to do. Now kiss me and return to your training. You are becoming an adequate horseman and archer but your sword skills need much work.”

“Then, my love, you will have near two weeks to train me on the road.”

She stood then at the door, stopped and whispered, “My Lord, when you spoke to Prince Viktor, did you see his son Dusan?”

“No, but then I rarely do. They say Viktor prefers men and the occasional sheep so I wonder how he had a son? Why? You ask that every time I go to the palace.”

“I have a history before, my Lord. One I fear to speak.”

“I know about your past profession so this can’t be as bad.”

“My Love, I don’t wish to hurt you because you of all men have been kind to me. But once, years ago, Viktor took me as a lover. He would visit me at an inn and… His tastes are for men and he would use me as if I were a boy but sometimes…. I had a son by him, Dusan. Viktor took my son, saying that he had an heir and needed no more women and drove me into the streets. I’ve had only glimpses of my son since.”

“Does Prince Dusan know?”

“I fear not. I am not the kind of woman a Serbian Prince would brag about as a mother. Slav and whore and peasant isn’t something you wish the world to know in your breeding. I would see him again if I can.” Then she left.

I understood as my own wife and children had been burned to death by the English in their effort to purify the Island of the Irish race and I missed them always. But how? I needed to speak to Viktor so buckled my sword and taking my cloak and hat called as I passed the field, “I go to make arrangements, be ready for the morrow. I left a list of men on my desk, add to it as you will.”

One thing about being Tierna was that being a Noble myself, I rarely had to wait for an audience though I found that they were often short and now knew why. He knew that Lys and I were together and that probably made him insecure. Few men could stomach facing the current lover of their former lover. Then, entering I bowed, doffed my hat and called, “My Lord, I am making preparations for the morrow but would beg that Goran remain behind.”

“And why do you wish to counter my orders, Lord Obrien?”

“Not counter, Prince, amend if I may. It is no secret that Goran and I are at odds and being together for a month or more is ripe for trouble. He will seek to turn my catholic men against me and my non-catholic men and in the heat of battle, I need to know my men will work together and obey me without question. Also you know well I love a good argument and arguing with a priest will get me naught but trouble. I would finish this mission with ease and as little trouble as is possible.”

“I understand your concerns but the decision is made and Father Goran will accompany you. I believe that he will be useful. However I will talk to him and ask him to remember that his life depends on your graces. There is more?”

“There is, My Lord. If the priest must go, might I ask that you accompany us to the city gate as a show of solidarity. With you in procession with he and I, it would emphasize the importance of this mission and the need for peace between us.”

“A procession! I like that. Music and flowers strewn before my horse. Done! Have your men report before my Palace by noon.”

“As you will My Lord, and may I request that your advisors and the Prince accompany us too. Sometimes men will fight and die for the honor of a noble smile when they would hesitate to die for gold.”

“A good point, it is time Prince Dusan learned to rule after I am gone. BUT, the Prince is my only heir and so if any harm comes to him, heads will roll! Do I make myself clear!”

“As always, My Lord. I will have my most trusted men between you and the Prince and the rest of the crowd with myself and my most trusted of the trusted next to you both as a shield. My life will be in your hands. I suggest that you choose well your body-guard for the return trip to the palace though, for we will be gone by then.”

Then bowing again, I left. This went better than I expected but still, the priest could be controlled for even he feared Viktor’s wrath and as much as he wished otherwise, he’d follow orders. Though the further we got from Kosovo in time and distance, the less weight to Viktor’s orders would be felt.

Returning to my field, I gave orders, “All armor and weapons to be polished, streamers from the lances and bows and ribbons in the manes of the horses. Let Hippo, Penth and Lys show you how for we must look especially proud for the morrow.”

“Why Captain?”

“Everyone loves a Parade and Prince Viktor, who pays our wages, wishes one. Keep the bows unstrung and the blades peace-knotted until we are well outside the walls. I want no cause for the Royal Guard to suspect us of ill will.”

***

That afternoon I inspected the chosen men, thirty in all. Then I thinned and dismissed ten for with Erik, Lys, the amazons and myself, we needed only fifteen men and the extra five would give me a comfortable margin but not so many to tax our foraging. Besides, Viktor expected me to meet a dozen bandits and even were they armed, two-to-one odds struck me as adequate. I had chosen the best horsemen and the best archers from among the company to give me an edge then leaving the corporal with orders for the next month, released them all with the words, “Rest up tonight. I want no hangovers to cause you to upchuck over the Prince. Be certain your arms and armor are bright and shiny and pretty to behold for our Prince dearly loves an attractive man and the prettiest may find extra work in the Palace.”

The men laughed at this as they were dismissed and I returned to finish some paperwork to pay for the supplies we would need for the trip. Paperwork! I had my fill of it running Innis and here was I still buried under the stuff. But Viktor believed in justifying every drachm he spent and sometimes I think I spent more silver on paper than on arrows.


V
PARADE

Lys was of mixed emotions that night so I held her and did little else. She had gone on the occasional patrol but had never been in a fight at all so was scared about this mission. “My love, I am grateful that you took me on as both lover and soldier but I’m scared. I’ve never killed a man before and don’t know if I can.”

“My first time I was a teen and I wet my pants before and lost my meal afterwards. After awhile it gets easier, then harder then easier again. If you cannot, then we find something else for you to do.”

“I cannot imagine you being scared.”

”I am before every fight. I just don’t show it. Then I calm down and accept the inevitable. The secret is to decide that you are already dead and won’t make it past the day. So once I decide I am dead, I can fight and not worry.” I then held her until I fell asleep, not knowing if she did or not.

***

The next morning we arose early, ate our breakfast and with packs ready, arrived at the palace well before the appointed hour. I wanted to be certain that my men were sober and looked shiny then stationed everyone in armor and pennants and we waited. And waited. And waited until finally Prince Viktor left the palace with his son and personal guards to join us. I rode to him, bowed from the saddle and asked, “And the rest of our procession is where?”

“Father Goran and his aids are not here? That displeases me. I trust he is in good health!” He looked at me as if I were responsible.

“My Lord, I know nothing of this. I expected him to exit with you.”

“Still, you and he are known to be at odds.”

“And were I to cause him harm, I would be certain to brag about the act. But here, I am innocent.”

“Of course you are for here comes the Revered Father now,” I could tell that he was not pleased for the guest of honor must be the last to arrive that all see him, and to wait on another stole Viktor’s thunder. Good! I was seen waiting for the Boyer and the Boyer had to wait for a priest which placed me on better terms with the State.

The priest began to apologize but one look from the prince and he shut up, rushing with his retinue to his place as we rode off. I actually enjoyed that ride. Me with helmet in hand riding next to Prince Viktor who waved at the crowd. Lyssandra with helmet on her head next to the Prince Dusan, my men in two rows behind and the priest and his assistants following on foot, some still dressing.

At the gate, Viktor stood aside and waved as we rode past, saluting with our lances then we were away and I imagine there was another parade back to the palace. Once in the tree-line and hidden from the city, I called for a halt. “Ok, let us pack away this finery and get ready for the ride. We have ten days or so and I’d rather not have to wear all this armor and ribbons again until I must.”

We all dismounted, the priests caught up and began to pack their belongings in the wagons, neither they nor I making contact and Lys came to me, placed her hands around my neck and kissed me with the words, “I will never forget this wonderful gift you gave me today.”

The rest of the day she would suddenly break my reverie with, “He looks so handsome,” or “I almost forgot that he is near ten years old,” or ‘Do you think that someday when he is Prince, I can announce myself to him?” The rest of the time she just cried in happiness.

That first night, she lay in my arms in our tent and she talked forever. “I had three children. One died of plague as a baby because I could not afford medicine. One died when the Turks took Arabel. He was four and I couldn’t even mourn for him as they took me for their harem. Dusan is my only surviving child. Do you know what it is like to have your baby taken from you… I’m sorry. You had to bury your own babies in Ireland.”

“That was more than four years ago. I spent the first in Ireland hunting Brits, then the next three in Indonesia trying to forget. I never could. Even now I miss them so had to give you this. It isn’t much but it is the best I could do for you.”

“Tis enough. No other person has tried to make me happy. Jason, I’ve said this a hundred times but for you, I mean it. I love you and will forever.”

***

A couple days later she asked, “How can you stand to be with me?”

“I don’t understand?”

“I’m so much older than you. I’m thirty-five (she had earlier said thirty but women always lie about their age and weight) and worn out but you are barely twenty-five and a Noble. Surely there are younger and more beautiful women for you.” I had spent much of my pay to purchase the regenerative potions that fought to repair her body and age. They worked, but only to a fashion.

“What brought this on?”

“Men talk and I hear their words, see their looks. You can do better than me.”

“Perhaps, my dear, I am not so superficial as you would believe. And perhaps, my dear, there is more to you than you believe.” I forgot to tell her that I was far older than twenty-five.

***

Ten days across Yugoslavia and into Romania. We met three patrols and each time showed our passes and were sent on so had no trouble. We stayed in towns when we could, often renting barns and rooms in farmhouses for pennies, Once I flogged one of my men for attempted rape and as he was cut down, bleeding, I turned to my men and called out, “This is your only warning! The next time I hang the accused.” For the rest of the day I was in a bad mood, mumbling “Those farm-girls would gladly lay with them for pennies, there is no need for force!” Then I had the entire troop do shield lifts until it was too dark to see.

The next morning as I dragged my men from their beds, I saw the would-be rapist beaten half to death which cheered me a bit. His fellows seemed to have shown him that they didn’t mind his pleasure, until it affected them. The injured spent the remainder of the trip in the wagon, moaning and bleeding over his own blanket.

There were no further incidents.

***

The fog lifted at lunch time and we saw the Transylvanian Alps in the distance. “Sergeant, call the men to formation if you would.”

Then I looked them over. Twenty four men and women plus, standing aside, the priest and his monks who I managed to ignore. I allowed him to lead mass nightly for those who would attend but insisted that they meet away from the rest of us that we could rest without their cat-wailing.

“Listen up. Yonder are the mountains and to the south a series of castles built by Prince Dracula to stop the Turks. Most are destroyed but some still stand. I am told that the one a single day’s march away is the home of bandits to the number of a dozen. But we all know how those who pay our wages always seem to underestimate the numbers we face.” There was a smattering of laughter at this. “So arm up, keep your helmet straps tight and your bows, swords and lances loose and ready. From here on, we are at war! And I want none to die for stupidity or overly lax demeanor. Goran,”

“Father Goran,” he insisted.

I waved that away and continued, “Please keep yourself and your men close to the wagons. I will have four behind as a rear guard but if fighting starts, I will need all to fight and so you will be unprotected.” Then before he could complain, I went to arm myself.


VI
DRACULA’S CASTLE

We reached the castle in the afternoon and sent scouts ahead. They reported back an hour later “Captain, no sign of horses but lots of foot-prints entering and leaving as if they had no fear of detection. And the place stinks like a slaughter-house. We couldn’t find anyone, no guards at all. It’s too easy.”

The priest, Goran, suggested, “Doubtless they believe that all soldiers are away fighting the Turks and feel safe enough to ignore security. Had the Prince not petitioned us, they would be correct.”

“It sounds good but still, I didn’t live so long by being careless. Sergeant, five men to patrol outside on horse, five to guard the gates, the remaining inside with me. Shields and spears to the ready.”

With the Amazons and three other of my best horse riding around to warn us and with Erik and Lys and four others to watch the gate, ready to drop the grill or keep it open, we remaining ten entered with the Priests hiding in the gatehouse. A quick search of the gatehouses and wall revealed nothing. Then we entered the keep proper and searched room by room finding nothing again. The Keep was three floors and all were deserted. Curious.

“Sergeant, call the men inside, stable the horses and post a guard. Either the bandits fled or are raiding. So let’s settle in before the sun sets and tomorrow we’ll search the countryside. We still have the dungeons to search so half will go below, the remainder sits here after we sup. And keep our watch hidden but alert. I don’t want the returning bandits to catch us asleep.”

Nervous, I walked the line, examining each sentry as Lys and Erik followed, “Why so worried, Captain? The bandits are afoot and we see no evidence of hard armor. Our men are scared enough to ‘void sleep. I’ve seen bars that were less secure.”

“I don’t like it. Lys, What do you hear?” Lyssandra had no education so confused her senses easily and would refer to any psychic impression as ‘hearing’. Neither Eric nor the men liked having another witch in the company but I found her abilities valuable. Especially her knowledge of healing with herbs. In a world where sword wounds were treated with boiling oil or molten lead, her making poultices of moldy bread, and knowing which mold to use, saved many a life.

“It stinks of the dead. When plague struck Arabel during the siege, I smelled the same stink. This castle makes me terrified. We should burn it to the ground and leave.”

“For one I agree,” Erik admitted. “Pity stone doesn’t burn.”

“Very well, we settle in and ready for their return. Bank the fires carefully so none can see from the outside. One-of-three on watch within. One-of-three rest here and the rest with me.” The men thought being an officer and sergeant to be exciting and fill of glamour. But frankly, neither Erik nor I had ever had a break or a day off. Once you reach a position of authority, your free time vanishes and I started early and ended late. Peasants have it easy sometimes.

It was still hours to sunset and not even bandits like to be in the woods after dark so I ensured that the watch was ready and Erik alert, then, sighing, called, “Let’s do it!” and led the way underground.

Torches made of rush and soaked in oil lit the way and we’d place one in the scones as we passed to mark our way and give more light. Then I stopped. “What?” Lys asked as the men bunched behind.

Kneeling, I showed with torchlight. “Here, the dirt and dust has been pressed aside. Here a footprint! The tracks go in and out. The bandits reside below in the dark. But I cannot tell if the exit or entry prints are the fresher. Do any hear any sound?”

Receiving the negative, I added, “Then they must still be out and we should meet no trouble.” As the stairs leveled off and a tunnel led into the mountain, doors appeared. Testing one, it seemed to be locked or rusted shut. Or perhaps the wood had swollen it tight to the frame. Regardless, I could not budge the door and stepping back, motioned. Still with three men struggling, and with spear shaft as a lever, the door would not move. “If we cannot open it, then neither can the bandits. We search on.” But every door, ten in all, was sealed to us.

At the end of the corridor was a large room where the door was forced open with a creak and groan. The wood hinges protested by gave way to reveal a storeroom filled with empty barrels and crates, many smashed against the walls.

“At least we know from where the stink comes,” I commented.

“Not so,” My Lord,” Lys replied. “This stink is different. Before it was the stink of plague or a charnel house. Now it is the stink of… a cow-field.”

Some barrels were empty, some contained the remains of their contents but none remained sealed. I approached the wreckage that lay at the base of a wall, staring at the event. It appeared as if something had flung the barrel against the wall with such force that the barrel had broken open, then fallen to the ground. Moldy.. whatever, remained on the wall then on the floor within and leaking from the barrel. Pulling my dagger, I sifted through the mess until I could identify it. “Turnips! The barrel was filled with turnips, now rotten and moldy with age.”

One of my men laughed, “I never could abide turnips myself.”

Another was sifting through more wreckage, “Leeks!” another cried, “Cabbages!” All rotting and moldy with age.

”Any meat?” I asked. Afraid of the answer.

“None, Captain,” one called. “Mayhaps these empty barrels once contained meat but long gone.”

Lys was backing to the door, her mouth covered to hold back the stink. She had never spent much time in the field where the dead lay unburied by the latrines until a lull in the fighting could bury them.

“Rats! Where are the rats?” she cried. Two of the men were nodding in agreement.

“What?” I asked.

“Have you never suffered a siege?” Lys asked.

Shaking my head, I waited. I had stood siege but never been within a encircled city or castle.

“Rats are the only thing that survive a siege. We ate them when starving. Sold rats for gold. But rats eat anything. They should have eaten this garbage. Why did they not?”

I leaned over to find a bone, long and thick, doubtless from a cow to examine the splintered remains. The bone, like all bones within the room, had been splintered and the marrow sucked from within. Not a fragment of meat or ligament or skin remained. Not a drop of dried blood. I motioned for two men to approach, “Take you this empty barrel and fling it against yonder wall as mightily as you can! A Silver Drachma each if you can splinter it against the stones.”

The two largest rushed and took the barrel, easily picking the oak from the floor, but as they cast it, it struck the floor feet from the wall. “How could someone move a catapult into this room and toss a barrel filled with vegetables against a wall with such force? And why?” Then I led them out, instructing them to seal the room again.

We near ran from that place and when again, safe in the Hall where all could breathe, I told Erik, “A long corridor with ten doors, all so strongly sealed we’d need a Ram to open them. The food chamber at the end is destroyed. All meat gone and the bones broken but the barrels containing vegetables are smashed and left to rot. And here is the strange thing... no rats at all.”

“No rats? Even in those cells in Wurzburg where the unfortunates ate each other to survive another day of torture, there were rats.”

“I understand. I’ve eaten the maggots I pulled from my own wounds to stay alive. So here are my orders. The bandits are out there. One-of-three on guard, one-of-three rest and one-of-three asleep. And NO ONE removes armor or allows weapons to be unready! What have you done?”

Pointing outside, “I left the gate as we found it, swept the tracks and placed an amazon and another archer on each tower. I didn’t want them together fearing play over watch. I have men at the windows above to watch and men in every room around this hall awaiting a call.”

“Good work. You take the first watch, Corporal Allen the second and I the third.”

Then I settled down to sleep after checking to ensure that all were ready and awake.


VII
THE FIRST NIGHT

I was woken by Lys shaking me, against the rules for no one touches a Merc in the field unless they wish a dagger in the side before the sleeper is full awoken. “Wake up! Listen!”

There was a groaning in the distance. Not loud but penetrating. Looking at her in the darkness, she shrugged in the moonlight so I rose, checked my weapons and armor cinches then moved around, listening. It didn’t seem to come from without, and the gate was still open so no siege engines were being dragged to the ruins. Rather, the sound was inside, muffled as if by stone. It was almost a moan.

We looked around, the men nervous so I sent Allen to the towers and Peter above to check on the men on guard. I could see Hippo and Penth calming their horses with a few others. Horses had sensitive noses and ears and the good sense to run from danger so if they were spooked, there was probably a good reason and we’d need the horses to get away faster.

A moment later Carlo, an Italian and known for his homosexual desires, ran into the common room, terrified. He would have run from the room had Erik not grabbed the smaller man and stopped him cold. Then a slap to stop his ravings as someone pushed a bota into his hands. Carlo drank mightily until Erik pulled the skin from him and snapped, “What happened?”

Everyone was watching the room from where Carlo had run. I noted that it was the one with the entry into the dungeon. This boded ill. Were the rats finally coming out?

Gasping Carlo stammered in Italian which I could understand until Erik slapped him, “German! Speak German. I cannot understand your foppish chattering.” German was the language of note with Olaf’s Company mainly because that is where we started and most of our men were German.

Carlo tried to calm then spoke. “We heard that moaning and groaning coming from … below! Hedvig went first, armed as ordered, to look within. Then something white came up the stairs. Mother of God and all the Saints! It was a woman, beautiful in her winding sheet. She approached with arms outstretched and Hedvig lowered his sword. She.. she embraced him and kissed him and then… “ he reached for the skin but was refused, so taking a deep breath, continued. “Holy Mother,” he was staring at the priest, Goran now, “Never was I so glad to be a lover of men for the bitch tore his neck with her teeth and drank from the blood that spurted forth. I was terrified but lowered my spear and charged. I struck her full in the side and tore her from Hedvig. I pushed her to the wall, pining her there then, Holy Mother save us, she reached down, pushed my spear shaft back until she was free and them ran back down the stairs! She ran! Her mouth and clothes red with poor Hedvig’s blood and more pouring from the wound I gave her but she ran!

He nearly collapsed then forced himself to continue, “I pulled Hedvig back and tried to staunch the would but it was too late. Captain, Sergeant, you know how it is, you hold someone and know that they are walking dead and nothing you can do will save them? So you hold them until their death reaches their brain. Hedvig was like that. I held him, I screaming for help that never came.

“Then the moaning continued as if long sealed wooden doors were being forced open and so I broke and ran. Hedvig was dead! I couldn’t save him so blame me not for leaving him there.”

Ignoring him, he’d soon have his lover to comfort him, I snapped, “Pikes and halberds to the fore! We search the room!” But no one moved so I drew my sword and strode first. The thing I hated most about being a leader was the paperwork, second was sending men to die, third was leading men to die.

I entered, Lys at my side with Eric at the other and pikes overhead but we never made it far into that room. There were a dozen men and women crossing the floor, some in winding sheets, others in clothes that had seen better days. All, obviously, dead! Of Hedvig, there remained only a trail of blood leading below as if someone had dragged his body down the stairs.

The first I dropped with a blow to his head, cleaving the man to his liver. Lys thrust her estoic into another who kept walking forward, screaming until Eric lay him down with his war hammer. Then the pikes thrust and slashed. That was our way, a shield wall to protect while the pikes thrust and hacked from behind and overhead. And glad I was that we had drilled and drilled until the body acted in sleep for any sane man would have broken and run.

But, fortunately, the vampires broke first, dragging themselves back down the stairs to leave us alone with their dead. “Pikes to that opening!” I snapped orders. “NOTHING comes up those stairs!” Then, “Torches and oil! And pull those sentries off the walls, we need them here!” Then I turned to the Priest, Goran.

“Know you anything of this?” I demanded with such force that he and his acolytes backed away.

“Nay, Captain. Nothing!”

“Then why in the Christian hell did Viktor send YOU with US to fight BANDITS! NO ONE sends priests on a mission to stop BANDITS! SOMEONE KNEW that these were more! And YOU!” I nearly skewered him with my bloodied blade, “are not such a fool as to remain ignorant. WHAT… DID… YOU… LEARN!”

“As God is my witness, I know only what you do. The Prince Nicolae sent a messenger to the King of Serbia asking for aid to stop bandits. He also asked for Priests to accompany the soldiers. Jesu and Mary, we believed that after Vlad Dracula was excommunicated by the Greek Church, the Romanians were rethinking their apostasy and willing to convert to the true faith! By God and Jesus Christ in whom all are saved, this I swear!”

The man was too scared to lie to me. “Know this priest! By my Name and Title, if you are telling me a lie and knew of THOSE, I will, with my own hands, throw you and your followers down those stairs to preach to the damned!”

Vampires! Vampyre! What names these were called mattered not. Only how to kill them. The Bulgarian Krvoijac must be chained to his grave with wild roses. The Greek Brukalaco required their heads to be removed and burned. You nailed a stake through the heart and a nail through the temple of the Hungarian Vampir. In Macedonia you burned the Vryolakas with oil as you drove a stake through their navel. And the Romanian Strigoil required that you remove and bisect their hearts, shove garlic in their mouth then remove the head. Of course, any of these methods would stop a living man as well so they were useless. What I needed was a way that would stop them without risking men facing a dozen of the monsters. Salt and Holy Water? I didn’t believe in christianity and their obsession with the dead christ but these vampires were probably christian, and hopefully didn’t care if the Water were blessed by Roman or Greek Catholic.

“Goran! I have a task for you! Prove to me your faith and do whatever magics and spells you Christians do to stop these monsters.” The man shook but turned away to confer with his followers. Then to Lyssandra, “What spells do you Kosovo Witches do to stop Vampires?”

“Garlic, wolfbane, catnip! Many are the herbs…”

I interrupted her, “Unless you are planning to make them a formal dinner, I’d like something a bit more useful to our current situation.”

“Burning and decapitation can’t hurt,” she laughed.

Remembering how that one walked up her estoic made me say, “But three feet of steel through their guts only slows them down. OK, Men, Listen up! Gather all the oil we have and ready torches. Spears! Tie some cross-guards to them as if you were hunting boars! Spearman to thrust and hold them at bay, sword or axe to smash or remove the head. Another to cast bottles of oil and a fourth to torch. Be careful to NOT pour oil on your fellows! This is going to be a long night!”


VIII
NIGHT THE FIRST, CONTINUED

The next attack came from the stairs, this time the priests insisted on being present. As the hoard came up the stairs, the priest held his bible before, praying that the fiends be gone in the names of his gods. And for a moment they hesitated. Encouraged, Goran and his Brothers advanced, holding before them their crosses and vials of water that they had blessed, reading from their holy book. The monsters hesitated and then took a step back. Goran stepped forward, splashing the things with water which they avoided. Encouraged by this, even my men pressed forward with relaxed weapons until Erik saw the trap as did I. “Back you fool, they…”

It was too late. The monsters surged forward, ignoring bible and cross. They clutched Goran and the other brothers and tore his throat before us. Goran’s followers screamed as they were dragged below before my men could react. None had the courage to follow to rescue and I knew that any order I gave to do so would be ignored. The priests screamed for a very long time.

Striding forward, I yelled out, “Next time you see one of those, you STAB! You SMASH! And you BURN!” I didn’t want any more losses and I didn’t want to have to explain to Prince Viktor that I had allowed his priest-confessor, who was in my charge, how I let him get killed. The man would be likely to have me crucified in a moment’s anger.

There were three more attacks from below that night. Then nothing. We stood there, leaning against the wall, exhausted when someone came into the Keep croaking, “The sun is up. We are saved!”

As the men had not the energy left to cheer, I managed to order the three who looked the least exhausted, “You on guard. Let none be enticed by a pretty face that hides fangs. In two hours, waken…. Hippo, Allen and Robert. The rest sleep. I don’t think we need to worry about bandits anymore.”

As the men who could, staggered back to rest, and the three to guard grumbled, Erik asked, “Captain?” he was covered with blood and brains. Goddess, I hoped that he’d not become infected from that mess. “Why not leave while we can and sleep leagues from here?”

“Because we were charged with cleaning out this ruin. And be it infested with bandits or Turk or Vampire, I mean to accomplish my orders. Besides, if we return without the priests and the monsters still here, we ALL will be crucified by Viktor. Better we kill the monsters and hope that mitigates his anger.”

Erik nodded but I could see that he didn’t like my decision. “Wake me at noon!” and I left with Lys to sleep.

As she lay in my arms, our armor interfering with any comfort, she asked, “My Lord, if you fear Viktor’s wrath so much , why return? Surely we can go to your Ireland and be safe.”

I stroked her hair and replied, “Because I am Tierna and my word is my law. I cannot desert my duty even if it leads to my death.”

“Sometimes, my love, you are a fool.” Then she began to snore.

***

I was woken up as ordered and choosing the four who were already awake and eating, I took some meat and cheese and ordered, “I hope your stomach is full for we have an unpleasant task ahead and vomiting on an empty belly is painful.” Then I handed torches to each. “Follow me!”

They did only because I went first. Had I ordered them ahead as did many officers, they would have turned upon me. Order a man into Hell and he may desert. Lead them and make them believe that you will lead them out again and they will follow you into anywhere. And I refused to order a man to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.

I led them into the crypt, as we now called it, and checked the far room. Still undisturbed. Still covered with rotting food and gnawed bones. Well, this explains the lack of rats, the vampires ate them all. But where were the priests and my men?

Each of the other doors remained sealed so I chose the one closest to escape and motioned to my men, “Pry this open! The rest of you ready your torches.” Terrified, but unwilling to face my anger, they drove a pike into the jam and grunted and pulled and finally gave up.

“No good, Captain. It won’t budge.”

I looked over the door, solid oak, inches thick and held with a sliding bolt that we had forced back. The barrier was held on the other side by two great iron hinges. Well, if you cannot enter one way, there is always another path. “Break these hinges!”

Between hammer and pike, the hinges were soon wreckage upon the floor and then we tried to pry the door from that side. Again nothing. “Captain, think you this door is barred from the other side?”

“Probably,” I replied. “Were I to hide within, I’d not trust the swollen wood to bar my enemies. But, look! All ten doors are heavily bolted From the Outside! How did they exit when the doors cannot be opened from either side?”

“Perhaps as a mist?” one suggested. He noted a number of small holes, barely the diameter of the smallest finger scattered about each door.

Nodding, I ordered, “Pour oil at the foot of the door and see if any flows within.” They did so but I was unable to determine if any entered so shrugged again, “Soak the door well.” When I determined that the wood was covered, I motioned them back and taking a torch, backed to the stairs and tossed it to the barrier. The oil instantly caught fire and we were driven up by the smoke but minutes later, the flames died, and upon returning, saw that the door was charred but still remained a formidable barrier. “A ram would help if we could get one down here but the corridor is too narrow. Ok, soak the floor and walls and doors with oil. When they exit tonight, we’ll toss a couple torches down the stairs and burn them where they stand.”

With this pleasant thought, my orders were carried and we rested the day, some hunting for tonight’s dinner, “No luck Captain, the vampires have cleaned out the forest.” And others resting as I explored with Lys.

“Prince Dracula sought to stop the Turks with this?” she asked. “Arabel boasts walls higher and stronger than these and still, the Turks took the city twice.”

“Dracula was a genius of a psychopath. Once he impaled twenty-thousand people on stakes along the path of the Turks. That army looked at the forest of the dead and dying and turned around. Wallachia and Romania will look long and hard to find a man who could create that much fear in the Ottoman Empire.”

“I fear the vampires and even Prince Vlad who is said to be one, but if he killed Turks, I shall bless his name.”

“Why do you hate them so?” I asked out of curiosity. I knew a little of her past but didn’t pry. I had my own nightmares that I chose to bury.

She looked into the distance and began, “I had three children. The first died in infancy from sickness. I couldn’t afford the cost of care or medicine. The second lived until four. The Turks had surrounded Arabel and the siege lasted so long, we were buying rats for their weight in gold as food. I, … I saw one and threw a rock to injure it. I lay my starving son against a wall and told him that I was going to fetch dinner. I took that rat and… “ she began to cry so I held her as she sobbed, “A stone from a Turkish ballista struck the wall. It collapsed and buried my son. If I had taken him with me or remained with him…. “ I let her cry then the continued. “The city surrendered that day and the Turks found me holding his crushed body. I couldn’t even grieve for him before they sold me to the new caliph. They made me learn to dance and smile and treat him well even though he had killed my baby. I spent three years in his harem, making certain that I never got pregnant until the Serbs drove the Turks out. Then.. .the Serbs, the army… what they did to us when they entered the harem because we had lay with the Turks, even though forced, …. Yes, Jason, I hate the Serbs and I hate the Turks. And sometimes I hate myself for what I did to survive under both rulers.” Then she drew away, “Do you hate me for what I did.. was…”

“I would have to judge you to hate you and I’ve done worse..” I pulled her to me. “When I was in Ireland. She came to me as I was planting roses in my yard. Her dress was torn and her feet bloody and she was in shock. I never learned why. I cleaned her and fed her and gave her a place by the hearth and the next day took her into town to see if anyone knew her. No one did so I took her home and… A week later Kore stopped sleeping by the fire and a year after, our son Sean was born. She was due with our daughter when I was called to service. The British were collecting our National Treasures to break our spirit. I was ordered to take one of them, the Cauldron, what the Christians call the Holy Grail, to safety.

“I wasn’t chosen because I was the most holy or even the bravest. I was chosen because they knew I would refuse to fail.

“I didn’t want to go but Kore forced me to my duty and … I knew there was an ambush but I had to trip it. We were being pushed and outnumbered I had to go on. So I sent men into that pass to die. I needed them to trip the ambush and we almost fought our way through but there were too many.

“I was shot twice and woke up with the ravens pecking at my fingers. The British were hanging my men, alive and dead and I left them. I crawled into the British tent and retrieved the Cauldron, crawled with it through the bogs, leaving my men to die to buy me time.

“When I got home, the British had been there first. They had barred my door with Kore and my children within and set fire to my home. I fund their burned bodies in the hearth.

“I hunted Brits for months, a year? I don’t remember. I only remember killing every British I could find. Until one day I found a patrol and killed all but one. He was a kid, barely old enough to shave and I slammed him against a tree and began to gut him.

“Funny. He didn’t spit in my face, he didn’t call for help, he didn’t say ‘god save the queen’. He only cried for his mother.

“I realized then that I could kill every Brit in Ireland and they’d keep coming. I could kill every Brit in England and it wouldn’t bring Kore or my children back. It wouldn’t even make them rest any easier. So I dropped that kid, to live or die, and left Ireland forever. I went to Indonesia to hunt Pirates, then after three years, came here. The pain has faded but never vanishes and now, I can live with it”

I held her, we both crying then added, “We both have our demons. All we can do is live with the decision we made back then and try to do better next time. But try to not judge me or even yourself for we both did the best we could at the time and hindsight is cruel. Come!”

We returned and I gave more orders. “I need poles, very flexible! We will tie them to the opening from whence the vampires exit and attach stakes to them. Then we bend them back and as the vampires exit, we release the poles and the stakes impale the monsters as the poles swing into position. Allen, send men to find and cut. Peter, figure out how to bind the poles to bar this opening but hold when we bend them back. Robert, make fragile flasks for oil. We will toss them at the vampires like grenades and when they break, burn them. Hippo and Penta, ready fire arrows. When they exit tonight, I want to be ready.”

Such was my confidence that they fell to with cheer and Lys went off with the Amazons for they had been teaching her to shoot, having forgiven her former occupation. As I patrolled, I found the three together, then they broke apart, embarrassed as Lys stammered, “My Lord, I…”

Waving that away, I asked “Are the arrows ready?”

All three glanced at each other, then back to me, “Yes, Captain. A few more ideas come to me so if we may continue?”

I nodded and left them. Well, women did need other women and among the courseness of a mercenary army, the gentle conversation of another women would be welcome to the three. Though it was clear that the Amazons were lesbians so why did they so easily accept Lys who was known to share my bed? Considering the current situation, THAT would remain a mystery until I had time to ask.


IX
THE SECOND NIGHT

I had the men sleep during the day, no real effort after last night’s work, and so when the sun approached the western horizon, Erik woke all and we were in place and ready.

As the sun set, the moaning began and soon after, the first of the monsters appeared. I sought Goran and the other priests but saw none. I suppose that they were consumed and not converted by the monsters. As the first vampire attempted to exit the opening, Peter pulled a line and the sapling snapped forward, driving a stake through the chest of the monster. It screamed and was instantly beheaded by a poleaxe. Another and another tried to pass to meet the same fate, my men cheering with each death until the rest of the monsters stood, fearing to approach. Then they called to us, calling our names which terrified my men until I yelled, “Be calm! They learned of us from the priests who they ate last night. Grenades!” and a number of vials of oil struck the foremost monsters. “Fire!” and the Amazons and Lys sent flaming arrows into their ranks, the ones covered with oil screaming and flailing about. They didn’t ignite their friends but when one in flames grasped another, the imprisoned vampire suffered. “Torches!” and flaming torches were tossed into the stairwell to ignite the oil that covered the walls and floors. It wasn’t enough to raise flames to the ceiling but even flames that rose a couple inches burned feet and terrified the monsters who fled into the darkness.

We heard more groaning and moaning then silence. “They retreat! We won!” Allen shouted.

“No, we won the battle,” I admonished, ‘we still have the war to win!”

We waited and watched but no other attack arrived until we heard screaming from behind. One of my men ran in to yell, “They come from without!”

We turned then I screamed, “Not everyone you fools! Some to watch the dungeon!” then I turned to face the new force. We had been outflanked. Seeing no other exit I had forgotten the first rule of combat, secure your retreat!

Fortunately, the room to the dungeon was so small, we could not all fit within so most of my army was in the main audience chamber and though some died, the rest turned to hold the monsters at bay until I could take command. “Erik, to the dungeon, I need you to command there if this is a feint!” He forced his way back as I fought the vampyres. With a lot of shouting and some pushing, I got the shield line in place and then we marched forward, killing as we did, ignoring the headless corpses at our feet. One fell and as we passed, I cut his head when he rose to attack one of my men. After that, no others remained intact.

We managed to get them past the doorway and I ordered men to watch each room and stairs as we passed. “They may hide within waiting for us to pass!”

So as we pushed past a door, I ordered a stop and sent men to look within for vampyres. There were none and we advanced another dozen feet. Jut as we were about to force them from the keep, Peter ran to me, “Captain! They exit the dungeon! This is a distraction!”

“Can Erik hold them?” I demanded.

“He does so!”

”Then take what men you need for Erik and hold that crypt!”

We fought for hours it seemed but must have been mere minutes for as soon as we pushed to the main doorway, a number dropped from the floor above upon my men, killing three before we could react. The Line almost broke and I had to fight my own men to keep that line strong for had they panicked as they were wont to do, we would have been overwhelmed on three sides. But hold we did, barely. “Rear lines, reverse! Form a double line, back-to back! Rear to hold the door! Any who lets a vampyre enter Erik’s room faces me!” And I found myself alone.

One line was at the main door, some facing out to hold the monsters without, others facing within to protect that valuable line. Another group at the door to keep the monsters from attacking Erik from the throne room. And now me, alone, in the center!

“CAC!” I swore as one monster attacked, to strike my shield as I broke his legs with a downward cut. Arrows struck him to no avail but I was able to split its skull then turn to face another. And another until I was alone.

Lys ran to support me and the monsters held back, threatening and screaming. Then we heard the horses.

“They kill our steeds!” one called. Damn! If my Gods could do that. Christians had such profanity, profanity that was denied we pagans. Shit grows crops. Fuck is an invitation and with reincarnation, there is no damnation. I envied the christians and their ability to swear. “We are trapped! Kill as many as you can!” Then, “call Erik to me, NOW!” I pushed Lyssandra to the back room.

Erik arrived and I snapped to him, “When the sun rises and these return to their crypt, follow and bar the doors before they can close. I will follow my group to find their way to the crypts!”

Erik nodded and ran back to his room, stopping only long enough to scream at the ones at the door, “Watch the ceiling you sons of dogs!”

We fought a long battle that night until they pulled back. “With me!” I yelled as I saw the sun’s glow in the east.

As the vampyres retreated, I followed and found them enter a stable and sop followed to find a stone door close. “Block that!” I ordered and three pikes prevented that stone from closing. We pried it free and saw a black tunnel. “Torches!” I screamed and we waited, none of us willing to enter that stygian darkness.

I looked over to the remains of our horses. Some dead, some missing, the remainder terrified and ready to kill anything that approached. “Send men to find the lost horses.” Then as torches arrived, I took one and stated, “Follow me!” then I entered the darkness.


X
THE THIRD DAY

The path started out easy then narrowed until I was forced to crawl. That was when I called back, “Take my feet and pull me back!” when we were out and into the warmth of the sun, I explained, “The passage narrows so tight that I could be naked and still not pass. These monsters seem to have the ability to change their size or become mist. How many do you think came from the outside?”

My men murmured but could come up with no answer. Damn. I counted heads and mostly those missing. Not including the priests, I had lost maybe 8 men. That left 15 plus me to clean the nest.

I approached the pyre that I had ordered made on the second day just outside the walls. Every vampire had been dragged here, decapitated and the body and head burned on different pyres. Then, the bones removed from the ashes and broken with maces while the heads were stacked in a neat line. I counted 25 skulls, each burned and blackened but no wood fire could render bones, it could only split and char them. Lys and Erik watched as I lifted skull after skull, examining each.

“Captain?” Erik asked, “What are you seeking?” He was exhausted and starving and refused to rest until the men were safe and he knew how to keep them alive.

”Their teeth!” I handed him a skull with my dagger through an eye socket. Not even I wished to touch the thing with my bare skin. “See anything unusual?”

He looked it over and returned it to me where I placed it back on the row. “Nothing.”

“Exactly!” I snapped. “Aren’t vampires supposed to have fangs? And aren’t they supposed to burst into flame when the Sunlight touches them? These have normal teeth and though they retreated from the sun, their bodies remained intact until we burned them.”

I looked to the forest and murmured. “Prince Dracula was no fool. He would have had an escape tunnel out there someplace. Probably two. Yet, the vampires attacked only from two places. And the footprints we saw as we arrived showed that they left and returned to the Keep by way of the main door, never anyplace else. Why? Sergeant, rest the men but have them search for the escape exit.”

Then as I led them back inside, “We list eight of ours killed to at least twenty-five vampires and three of them to each one of ours are not odds I prefer. If there are fifty left, then we are done. Erik! I want no more losses.” Then I walked off to eat and rest.

It was near dark when I awoke, angry but frantic for my lack of planning. “Sergeant!” I called, to be met with the German giant seconds later. “Report if you would.”

“We have oil in the tunnel at the stable and the horses penned outside. If any seek that entry, we’ll burn them easily. Hippo and Penta and Lys found one escape tunnel into the hills. They entered only because the men refused and wanted to show us up. There were cave-ins as the timbers rotted and that exit is impassable. If there are other exits, I suspect that they too, are caved in. This is probably why the monsters exit only here. And the traps are reset with three more burned vampire bodies in the crypt.”

“Then, unless they are keeping the priests alive, they should be getting really hungry. This night will end the fighting. But beware, they will be desperate.”

We examined the traps and Erik pulled back me from stepping into a shallow foot-pit and showed me the staked pointing down to trap the leg that falls into that trap. The wall had Penta and Hippo with bows ready and arrows ready to flame. Our last oil was in bladders to be tossed and ignited. And within, Lys and Franz, the best of our archers, were waiting inside to do the same. Franz had lived in England and learned the art of the English long-bow so well, I paid him double after seeing him kill four men at a hundred yards by sending a shaft through their visors. He couldn’t shoot that weapon from a horse but once with good earth beneath his feet, no one could approach him.

The groaning began and I left to check the stable. More groaning. “Sergeant, can you handle the courtyard? Good, then take over. I’ll greet our unwelcome guests within.”

This time they charged, three being impaled on the trap but the rest pushing through. Four became stuck on pikes and their heads were smashed but the kept coming.. then it was over! I was covered with blood, but none was mine nor was it from my men. None had made it past the shield wall and as we removed heads, I counted six with arrows in their heads. Three of those had not made the shields before Franz and Lys dropped them. Eighteen dead! All being vampires.

“Allen, watch here, I go to see Erik!” Then ran to the stables to find four dead monsters, each with a burning broadhead through its head. None had reached Erik’s line.

“Think they are done?” Erik asked.

Shrugging, “Did any escape?”

“None, Captain. Four entered the stables from that hole, none returned. It was too easy.”

“Well ,we made our mistakes the last couple nights and learned. I hope. Keep watch. Remember every other time we thought we had won.”

He nodded as I left for within and saw my men happy, but wary. We waited an hour and nothing, then I remembered, “Did anyone hear the groans as they approached?” Upon receiving the affirmative, I asked, “Did any hear groans as they retreated?”

Allen laughed, “None retreated, captain. What we see is what came from below.”

“I think,” I said to myself, “that they are all gone.” Well, nothing to it but… “Three men to follow me!” and I again entered that damned stairwell.

The doors were open, all of them save the one that held the stores. And I was about to enter the first when I noticed that someone actually DID follow. That surprised me. “Don’t be so complacent,” I insisted. “This is exactly how the monsters fell from up from above and behind. We haven’t won until they are all dead and burned so watch the corners, rafters and shadows.” Then to be mean, “And also the earth beneath your feet.”

The room was a single cell that could hold a prisoner or stores but contained but a cot and the stink of a charnel house. I tapped on each wall with my pommel seeking a hollow sound and then examined the roof with my torch and found nothing but long dried blood and the filth of years. “Curious how there is no bolt on this side of the door. I suspect enchantment on the work of the vampire.”

Seven other rooms were the same. The only difference was that some had more cots than others. I would have thought coffins but these vampires preferred a filthy cot covered with dirt.

The ninth room held the bodies of the priests, each with torn throat and bled dry. At least, from their rags and the crosses still around their bones, I believed them to be the priests. There wasn’t enough left to identify. “Take their crosses and jewelry and pack them away. We will return them to Prince Viktor and if anything is missing, you can explain to the Boyer about your light fingers.”

The tenth room had no cot and an examination revealed a hollow sound so we attacked that wall and found a false door that led to a tunnel.

Entering, the tunnel branched twice and I ordered one man back to fetch back-up. These I stationed at the branches, after ensuring that the door was blocked to prevent closure, and we entered the one on the right. This was straight for some distance then ended at a cave-in. “I think this is the escape tunnel the girls found.” Then falling dust and sand caused me to push back and cry, “out!” We barely made it to the main tunnel before another rotted beam collapsed. “Beware the rot and mold on the wood lest we remain here.” I cautioned. A century of lack of care was taking its toll. In another couple centuries, these castles would be naught but rubble.

We rested in the main cell for some minutes to allow the dust to settle then returned, taking another branch until we reached another cave-in. Thus one afforded a passage above the rubble so we climbed and continued until another cave-in showed only a small opening. I thought I heard something so called out, “Erik! Is that you?”

“Ja, Captain. Are you well?” came the faint reply.

“We are. This tunnel is blocked so we are exploring to be certain that all are gone. Watch and wait.”

We returned and followed the last branch that ended abruptly at a natural fissure. “Doubtless, this prevented any further digging and so they did another tunnel.”

“This stinks worse than before,” one said.

I saw the torches flicker green from noxious fumes so cast one down and as it bounced about, we saw bones. Lots of bones. “I suppose we now know where they store the remains of their meals. I see no flesh on those bones, so perhaps these vampires also eat human flesh as well?”

One man added the unsettling thought, “Unless they have ghouls to serve them.”

“I hope not. It looks as if Vlad Dracula was digging an escape tunnel and struck this fissure, then gave up. Knowing him, he probably used this to dispose of unwanted Turkish prisoners.” Then I stood and added, “I think we are done here. Let’s return to the surface.”

Upon exiting the pits, I ordered, “Corporal, have Erik call the men to formation.”

A few moments later I looked over the formation. I had lost almost a third of my men. Most would find such losses acceptable but I did not and would emphasize in my report that the Romanians knew what we would face and kept that from us, costing needless lives. “I think that we have killed all the monsters in this castle. BUT!” I insisted, “That does not mean that we are safe. We will remain one more night and if nothing happens, we will return home. Franz, Hippo and Penta, go hunting. I’d like a decent meal today. But bring back a couple rabbits or such alive. I want bait for tonight. Those who wish to do so may retrieve the priests from below and give them a decent burial. We will return their belongings to Prince Viktor. The rest of us will be on a rotating sleep, alert and watch schedule as before. Tonight, one third sleep, one third on watch and one third at the call. Dismissed!”

I sought a private room to nap and Lys came to me to ask, “My Lord, may I accompany the amazons on their hunt? I’ll return to you after.”

I yawned then agreed, “Fine. Were you here, I’d feel the need for actions other then sleep. And I need some sleep. Enjoy yourself.” Then I kissed her and was asleep before she left.


XI
THE THIRD NIGHT

I awoke near dark, I had slept that long. Lys was next to me and as I got up, noticed leaves in her hair. Well, I suppose she had napped in the forest. Not that I could blame her. Erik was getting all the men to their stations and I approached the amazons and Franz. Franz had some luck and was cooking a few birds he had shot. The amazons avoided my gaze and turned red as I asked, “Did you enjoy your hunt?”

“Yes, Captain,” one managed to say. Curious continence. Did they tarry together in the fields when they should have been hunting? But I had too much work to pursue that line of thought and ordered, “I want one rabbit tied to the stable entrance, another to the stairs inside. After the sun sets, kill and gut them but ensure that the blood flows into the openings. I want the scent to attract anything below.”

“Yes, Captain.”

There were no sounds or attacks that night and Erik and I spent too much time keeping the men awake and alert. “You! Doze like that again and you will wish the vampyres had found you instead of me!”

Then, hours later, the sun rose and I called the men together. “Smash the skulls! I want no ghosts to haunt our journey. Pack our gear and we move out after breakfast!”

Erik mentioned as I left to gather my own gear, “Ten days to forget this before we get home.”

“More like fifteen. Let’s not push the men and take our time. We are exhausted in mind and body so we’ll relax in whatever villages we find on the way to recover. Besides, the extra days will allow us to practice our speech to the Boyer about how we managed to get his priests killed.”

Nodding, Erik went about his own business while Lys came to me, “My Lord, I … I’m sorry for my actions.”

“What actions? Did you do something of which I am unaware? I seem to recall you were always where I ordered and though a scared as the rest of us, you never ran from your post and fought well.” I took her and looking at her, continued, “You did well and are becoming a valuable asset to our Company. I’m glad I allowed you to join and am proud of you!” Then, as she blushed and tried to turn away, I kissed her. Yes, an extra few days on the road, hopefully a clean bed in an inn would be a pleasant way to relax on the road.

END



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by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
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