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New Book

Lady of Eyre“, the last book in the current Minivandians story arc, went live on Amazon this morning.

Here’s the blurb:

From the young prince’s competition in the derby of wooden chargers to the tales of his family’s past come close calls, challenges, and triumph!

When the Lady of Eyre and Daddybear make it to her native land, all is not well. One lord is raiding and enslaving, and others are silenced by gold or lies. When he sets his eyes on Daddybear’s lady and her lands, though, he awakens the full cunning and fury of her barbarian!

Like I said, this completes the story of how the Minivandian and his lady make their way from the Northern Wastes to their own home.  Snippets can be found here, here, and here.

Thanks to everyone who helped out with the story and cover.  It definitely wouldn’t have been as much fun and the product wouldn’t have been quite as interesting without them.

Anyway, hope y’all enjoy.  Remember, reviews are always welcome!

The War – Episode 30

April 13, 7:03 PM Eastern
Louisville, Kentucky

The woman at the front of the hall wore a light blue jacket over a white button-down shirt and gray slacks. She stepped up to the podium and raised her hands to quell the noise from the group of twenty-five or thirty people sitting in front of her.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming out,” she said, her smooth voice showing a slight twang as she greeted her audience, “I’m Susan Graham from the Governor’s office, and I’m here to talk to y’all about the new Home Guard.”

“Before I begin, let me tell you a little about myself. I’m originally from Hopkinsville, and I retired as a deputy sheriff down there in Christian County a few months ago. If any of y’all were ever stationed at Fort Campbell and got into trouble in Hoptown, there’s a good chance we’ve already met.” Several of the men and women in the crowd returned her smile, and a few of them ruefully shook their heads over some youthful memory or other.

“I also retired from the National Guard as a first sergeant last fall, and I’ve been a few interesting and exciting places doing that. Any fellow Military Police out there?” One of the women in the back of the room raised her hand, and Graham nodded and smiled at her.

“I’ve been in the governor’s office as an advisor on veterans and law enforcement since he took office last December,” she said, stepping out from behind the podium, “You can imagine how fun that’s been.”

“The Governor asked me to come speak with y’all tonight about a new program. He just came back from a meeting in Arizona, and they’re standing up something they’re calling ‘The Home Guard,’ and he thinks it’s a good idea.”

“The Home Guard won’t be the National Guard. They won’t be given helmets and uniforms and sent off to war. They won’t be the State Police, either. Guardsmen won’t be making arrests and gathering evidence.”

“What they will be are eyes, ears, and hands in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our streets. When seconds count, they’ll be there in the crucial minutes it takes for first responders to arrive,” Graham said, stepping behind the podium again.

“We’re asking for good people to step up, get vetted, and volunteer their time in the Home Guard.”

She paused a moment to let that sink in. “Are there any questions?” she asked.

After a moment, a man in the front row raised his hand. Graham smiled again as she nodded to him and he stood up.

“I’m Jim Rucker. What exactly do you mean, “eyes, ears, and hands?” he asked, then sat down.

“When we put a Guardsman in a school or at a shopping center, they’ll watch for anyone who’s a danger to it. We’ll have radios and phones to report back anything suspicious. If, God forbid, someone tries anything like what happened in December, the Guardsman will be there to try to prevent it or to react immediately.”

“Prevent it?”

“The people who attacked our schools on December 19th aren’t going to be deterred by somebody in a blue jacket, and they’re not going to stop because you put your hand up. If you volunteer and something happens, you’ll be asked to do everything you can to stop it.”

“Will we be armed?” someone in the middle rows called out.

“The Governor doesn’t want to take on training someone and being responsible for their guns,” Graham said, looking across the room, “But if you’re got a concealed carry license, then nobody is going to say anything if you decide to carry a weapon to defend yourself and others.”

“No training?”

“We’ll provide first aid training and briefings on what you can and can’t do as a member of the Guard. You’ll go through a drug screening and background check, of course. The Attorney General is considering whether or not you’ll be deputized so that you’re covered by the State if there’s a problem.”

Jim raised his hand again, and stood when Graham acknowledged him. “So,” he said, “we’re going to be there to try to stop December 19th from happening again, and to help out when it does?”

“Yes. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did something similar during the World Wars. They guarded things like rail yards and factories. That stuff’s already covered, over-covered if you ask me. You’ll be providing the manpower to watch over the rest of the places someone might attack.”

“I’m not going to lie and say that there’s no risk, because being there when somebody tries to blow themselves up in a grocery store or shoot up a schoolyard is going to be dangerous. But our choice is to either do something like this, hire a whole bunch of new police, or just hope that December 19th was a lightning bolt that won’t strike twice.”

She paused again and looked out at the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Governor doesn’t have the cash to hire more police, and we’re not dumb enough to leave our children and families open to another attack,” she said in a firm voice, “We need your help.”

The men and women looked at each other, and a murmur went through the crowd. Several looked at their spouses and shook their heads. Jim pursed his lips and stared up at the picture of a racehorse on the wall for a moment, then stood up again.

“Ma’am,” he said, looking Graham in the eye, “Where do I sign?”


 

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

An Idea

Sorry if this is just a fragment, but it’s been rumbling around in my head for a couple of days, and if I don’t get it out soon, it’s going to claw out through my cerebellum.  Not sure if anything will come out of this, but I’ll leave the idea here to pick up later.

 


 

The planet wasn’t anything special, not in the grand scheme of things anyway.  It was the fourth satellite of its pale yellow star, the second smallest planet in an unremarkable system.  According to the ships’s database, it hadn’t had any official visits since being surveyed by National Astrographic twenty five years before the war, which meant it might not have been seen by human eyes for over half a century.

Not that much would have changed.  Perhaps in a few hundred thousand years, the narrow band of water and rocky islands around its equator would expand and liberate the rest of it from the thick ice that otherwise blotted out its surface.

“Oh, boy, another iceball,” Dot said into her her headset as she touched the control panel.

“Remind you of home?” the tinny voice of the ship’s engineer, who everyone called “George” because getting their tongues to pronounce his given name in Welsh was out of the question.

Dot ignored the jibe and read the data scrolling across her screen.  This was only her third turn controlling the two sensor probes the Beagle carried in pods slung beneath her hull, and she wanted to make sure she didn’t miss anything “Rover” and “Rovette” sent back.

“Skipper, the pups are picking up a debris cloud around the rock,” she said, pointing to the main screen.  The computer was using imagery from the probes to enhance the long-range image it displayed to the bridge. A thin, flat disk of small swirling shapes was slowly appearing around its view of the planet.

“Debris?” the captain asked.  “What sort?”

Dot furrowed her brow and read the data off, “Aluminum, some titanium, hydrocarbons, trace amounts of iron, calcium, sodium.”

A new line of data streamed across her readout, bright red and flashing.

“Captain, it’s hot.  Rover’s reporting a few big chunks of plutonium mixed in with all that.”

“The probes’re safe, right?” Skipper asked.  “Damned things are expensive.”

“They’re holding at 10 kilometers from the outward edge, so they should be fine,” Dot replied.

The engineer piped up, “Sounds like a ship broke up.  Maybe somebody’s reactor went critical.”

“Yeah, but it’s been out there for a long time if it spread out like that,” the captain said.  “Any hunks big enough to identify?”

“Largest piece so far is about a meter wide,” Dot answered.  “Maybe we can find something with a name or a serial number.”

“Don’t bet on it,” George said.  “It’s likely most of the big pieces have deorbited and burned up.”

“Not a lot of traffic comes this way,” the captain said thoughtfully.

“Could be from the war,” Dot suggested.

“Maybe,” Skipper grunted.

“Hey, if we can find anything identifiable, I bet two nights of kitchen cleanup that Skipper knows who it was.”

“You know, I didn’t know everyone in the Navy,” Skipper retorted.

Dot looked over her shoulder with a mischievous smile.  “You mean like that time we got in a fight with those marines and it turned out you used to be drinking buddies with two of their fathers?”

“Six degrees of separation,” the engineer’s voice teased.

“Shaddap, the both of you,” Skipper said, looking over the top of his bifocals at Dot.  His stern glower was ruined when he winked at her.

“If some of the debris deorbited, it might have survived to hit the surface,” she suggested as she turned back to her station.  “Ought to be easy to find against all that ice.”

Skipper sighed and pursed his lips for a second.  “Maybe.”

He thought for a moment, then said, “Tell Rover to keep looking through that junk for anything worth salvaging and send Rovette to survey the surface.  Look for any metal larger than a shipping container.”

“Aye, sir,” Dot said.  She caressed the controls, sending the signal that said “Good dog!” to her semi-intelligent probes, then relayed Skipper’s orders.

“Put us in a high orbit over the iceball,” Skipper said.  “We’ll hang out for a few days and see if anything interesting turns up.”

“Aye, sir,” the engineer replied.  “It’s also my duty to remind the captain that it’s his turn to cook tonight.”

“I feel like celebrating,” Skipper said.  “Not every day you stumble on salvage you probably won’t have to spend money on a lawyer to get the rights to.  Steaks sound good?”

Both Dot and the engineer hooted their pleasure as Skipper headed down the ladder to the galley.  Their ship braked into its orbit while Rovette dropped down close enough to the surface that she could scan the frozen surface.  The Beagle’s crew, human and mechanical, settled into the mundane tasks they had done dozens of times before when looking for something worth salvaging.

 

On one of the small, rocky islands that dotted the planet’s thawed equator, a set of dark eyes looked up and noticed that a new star had appeared in the sky, and it was moving very quickly toward the horizon.  Their owner watched as the small dot of light passed overhead, then hurried down from its perch and scuttled across the barren rock toward the long metal tube he had called home for decades.

Snippet

Since it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d let you all have a short peek into “Lady of Eyre,” the third, and final, part of the second Minivandians book.  It’s with alpha readers now, so I expect to have it out by the end of April.

Enjoy!


 

Ruarin awoke to the sound of men’s voices in the corridor outside the room she shared with her father. She had fallen asleep before sunset the night before, and the soft mattress beneath her felt wonderful. A day of rest and food had done much to restore her strength, but she had decided against spending the evening beside one the fire to listen to tales and song.

She lay her head back down and closed her eyes. Sleep did not return, though, because a cacophony of barks and baying erupted in the quiet night air.

The Lady of Eyre sat up at the sound, then rushed to the window. In the torchlight, she saw a large pack of hounds, with shaggy ears flopping and long tails wagging, approaching the tavern. The night watch shouted as the vanguard of the noisy band made its way into the courtyard and halted in a cloud of dust in front of the stable.

Ruarin grabbed her robes and bolted for the door. It was then she noticed that her father, Mael, was no longer in the room. Everyone in the house seemed to be trying to get down the stairway at once, but when the men noticed a noblewoman trying to make her way downstairs, they stepped aside and let Ruarin pass.

Waiting for her outside the door was a troop of armored men and women, none of them taller than the ladies hips. At their head, Tomultach stood with his knobbed walking stick in one hand and the reins to his mount in the other. His beast was a large brown and white hound, several hands high at the shoulder, with one ear that stood up and one that flopped down over its eye. The dog’s tongue hung out of his snout as he panted from his run, but his tail was held high and wagged back and forth furiously at the ladies’ approach. Tomultach bowed low to Ruarin when she walked out of the tavern.

“Ah, but it’s good to see you, my lady,” he said in his deep voice.  He wore leather and bronze armor which shone in the light of the rising moon, and he carried a sword in a jeweled scabbard at his belt. A leather helmet set with an iron band covered his head, and a small shield rested on his saddle.

Ruarin returned the small man’s bow. “Greetings, old friend,” she replied. “Father tells me that you’ve been most helpful.”

Tomultach made a dismissive gesture with his walking stick. “T’was nothing,” he said. “I hadn’t spoken to Echrad in too long, anyway.” He shared a smile with Ruarin over that.

Behind them, they heard someone shouting and turned to see what the commotion was. King Seanagh and his lieutenants, including Ruarin’s father, came out of the building, some already dressed for battle.

“What in hell is going on?” he demanded. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, and Ruarin noticed that several of his nobles looked as if they had been drinking.

Tomultach bowed low to the king, although not as low as he had to Ruarin. “King Seanagh, I am Tomultach mac Eoghan. I’ve come here, with my family, to pledge our support in your fight tomorrow.”

King Seaghan did not return the salute. Instead, he looked about in amazement. The tavern’s yard was filled with hounds, each with a warrior upon its back. The air was no longer filled with the sound of their baying, but the occasional yip and growl did filter through the murmurs of the gathering crowd of Eyrischmen.

“How do you know there’s to be a battle?” he finally asked.

Tomultach looked up at him with one eye squinting. “Well, majesty, I doubt you got dressed up like that for a ladies’ tea,” he replied.

“How did you know the king would be here?” one of the noblemen accompanying the king demanded.

Tomultach looked up. “Lord Murchadha, is it?” he said gravely. The man nodded.

“Well, my lord, there’s not much that happens in this land that we don’t hear about,” Tomultach replied with a wry smile. “For example, last night, you had yourself a nice meat pie, half a jug of the tavern’s best beer, and a slap on the face from Master Donagh’s eldest daughter for dinner.”

This brought a rumble of laughter from the other lords, while Murchadha looked furious at having been made the butt of a joke. He sputtered for a moment before a raised hand from the king quieted him.

“Master Tomultach, I accept your service, but I must ask, what will your clan provide?” Seanagh asked once his men had stilled themselves.

“Why, only one hundred fifty of the best riders in your lands, majesty,” Old Tom replied. He gestured to the mob of hounds behind them.

“The legends say that your folk went to battle on the backs of fire drakes,” the king said.

“Well, now, that’s a sad tale, your majesty. A sad tale,” Tomultach said with a shake of his head. “You see, one of your ancestors, he was a great holy man who banished all of the serpents from the kingdom.”

“I’ve heard the story,” Seanagh said. “And now?”

“Well, your majesty, when the snakes fled, so did the drakes!” Tomultach cried out indignantly. “So, we had to find ourselves something else to ride.” He patted his hound on the flank. The dog, delighted at the attention, reciprocated with a lick that pushed his master to the side.

“Well, then you’re doubly welcome,” King Seaghan said. He suppressed a yawn, then called out. “Let’s all get some rest. Tomorrow promises to be a long day.”

 

The War – Episode 29

March 1, 10:07 AM Mountain
Phoenix, Arizona

The following is an excerpt of a phone conversation recorded at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office.

//Sound of phone being answered.//

Deputy Melvin Brooks – Deputy Brooks.  How may I help you?

Voice #1 – Is this the Sheriff? (Analyst Note – Voice #1 is male, speaking fluent English with a slight accent suggestive of a native Spanish speaker)

Brooks – I’m one of her deputies, sir. What can I do for you?

Voice #1 – I want to talk to someone about my nephew.

Brooks – You can talk to me, sir. May I ask who’s calling?

Voice #1 – I don’t want to say.

Brooks – That’s all right, sir. What do you want to tell me?

Voice #1 – He just came over the border a few weeks ago. His mother sent him up here to keep him out of trouble, and he’s staying with my sister.

Brooks – Yes?

Voice #1 – He’s not a bad guy, just gets into trouble.

Brooks – We all have a few of those, sir. What’s your nephew’s name?

Voice #1 – Jorge, Jorge Diaz.

Brooks – What is it about Jorge that you want to tell me?

Voice #1 – I heard him on the computer last night. He was talking to someone about December.

Brooks – What about December?

Voice #1 – He was talking about Tucson, the attacks.

Brooks – I see.

Voice #1 – Jorge just got out of prison back home, and he’s been acting weird since he got here.

Brooks – Weird?

Voice #1 – He won’t eat my sister’s cooking, talks with people on the phone and the computer all the time, and gets angry at the TV when we watch the news.

Brooks – All right. Who was he talking to last night?

Voice #1 – I don’t know. They were speaking Spanish, but the other guy wasn’t from Mexico.

Brooks – How so?

Voice #1 – He talked weird, and kept saying some gibberish. Jorge would say it back to him, though.

Brooks – What did you hear them say about Tucson?

Voice #1 – They were saying that it was a good start, but that the next one would be bigger.

Brooks – Next one?

Voice #1 – That’s why I called you guys. I don’t know what’s going on, but Jorge’s into something bad, and I’ve seen the billboards. Is there a reward for this kind of thing?

Brooks – Maybe. Depends on what we find out when we talk to Jorge. Where is he right now?

Voice #1 – He’s at my sister’s house. Been there all weekend. Never goes out. Just sits there all day watching movies and playing on the computer.

Brooks – What’s her address? We can have someone stop by to talk to him.

Voice #1 – Hold on.

//Pause of several seconds. Sound of muffled voices speaking//

Voice #1 – She’s at 12751 Avenida Escuela in Scottsdale. Apartment 3c.

Brooks – What’s your sister’s name?

Voice #1 – Anna Maria. She’s not there now.

Brooks – Diaz?

Voice #1 – Uh, yeah, Anna Maria Diaz.

Brooks – Sir, I’m going to take a few people over to talk to your nephew and see what we can find out.

Voice #1 – He won’t find out it was me who called, right? We don’t want any trouble.

Brooks – Sir, we won’t tell him how we know about him. Do you know if he has any weapons? Maybe your sister keeps a gun for protection?

Voice #1 – She does, but she has it with her right now. I don’t know if he has a gun or anything.

Brooks – What was he in prison for in Mexico?

Voice #1 – Drugs, what else? Listen, he’s there alone right now. You take care of this. I have to go.

//Sound of call terminating//


 

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

The War – Episode 28

February 6, 10:15 AM Eastern
Washington, D.C.

 

Director Joseph squirmed a bit in his chair, trying to hide his discomfort. He had made a short opening statement, a masterpiece of wordsmithing, which basically boiled down to “We did the best we could” and “Look at all the things we stopped.” The statements from the man and woman in charge of intelligence agencies, who sat to either side of him, had been eerily similar.

At the table across the room from him sat the newly sworn-in Joint Select Committee on the December 19th Attacks, six senators and six representatives, few of whom the Director would have counted as political allies. Today was only their second day of hearings, and it was their first closed-door session.

Could be worse, he thought sourly, I could be head of the Border Patrol. Pat’s going to get crucified tomorrow. At least there aren’t news cameras to see this.

“The chair recognizes the gentleman from Kentucky,” the chairwoman intoned into her microphone.

“Thank you, Madam Chairwoman. Director Joseph, I’m going to dispense with the customary long-winded build-up to a question, which you’re undoubtedly used to hearing,” Congressman Ferguson said, his smile sharp and tight, “and cut right to the point.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joseph said with a smile.

“Director, from reading your agencies initial report on the Christmastime attacks, I gather that the FBI didn’t have any actionable intelligence, prior to December 18, about the groups that attacked us. Is that a correct summation?”

“That’s correct, Congressman,”

“I didn’t see it covered in your report, so I’ll ask: Has any new information, gathered prior to December 19, come to light that would have tipped your agency to the attacks?”

“Not to my knowledge, although our people are working around the clock to double check our sources and data. Interrogation of the terrorist the Army captured when they cleared the cathedral in Tucson continues, and we expect to learn a lot from him in the coming months.” The directors of the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency both nodded their heads in agreement.

“So, sir, you had nothing which could have been used to prevent or at least lessen the attacks?”

“Correct, Congressman. As I said in my statement, we did the best we could with what we had.”

“Uh-huh,” the Congressman said. He picked up a piece of paper from the table and asked, “Director, do you see this in my hand?”

“Yes, Congressman,” Joseph said, suppressing a sigh.

Here we go, he thought, I wonder how bad this is going to get?

“It’s a news article I cut out of the Louisville Gazette. It’s from their December 18th edition. Do you know what this article is about, Director?”

“I’m sorry, Congressman, I don’t.”

“It’s about an FBI operation that brought about the arrest of a man who was attempting to purchase weapons from an FBI informant.”

“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with that case.”

“I gather that the young man in question was approached on-line by FBI agents posing as terrorists and led down the primrose path to a federal conspiracy indictment.”

“I wouldn’t characterize it that way, Congressman.”

“Director, how many terrorist plots has your agency broken up in the past five years which did not involve FBI agents inducing someone, who may or may not have had a notion to commit terrorism, into something that got them arrested?”

“Director, those tactics are perfectly legal.”

The chairwoman leaned into her microphone and said, “Please answer the question, Mr. Joseph.”

“Yes, Senator,” Joseph said, “Congressman, I don’t have that kind of information in front of me.”

“I’ll help you a bit, Director,” Ferguson said, holding up an inch-thick manila folder, “Madam Chairwoman, I’ve had my staff scouring news stories and FBI reports from the past five years.  They found seven instances where someone was arrested by the FBI and indicted for conspiracy to commit terrorism or conspiracy to support terrorist organizations, but was not induced into their behavior by FBI agents posing as terrorists,” he said, turning toward the Senator from California.

“Congressman…” the Director tried to say.

“I’m not finished, Director,” Ferguson said, cutting him off, “In five of those cases, the information presented to the grand jury was gathered by state or local law enforcement and handed over to your agency. In the remaining two, you arrested a total of six individuals, and the Attorney General indicted two.”

Ferguson set the folder down on the table in front of him, then steepled his fingers over them. Leaning forward, he locked eyes with Joseph.

“Sir, for almost two decades, we’ve watched our security services pat down grandmothers in airports, had our emails and telephone records scoured, and been told this was all being done to protect us from terrorism,” he said.

“We have done everything…”

“Yet with all that, you had no idea that a massive attack against the most vulnerable members of our nation was in the making?” Ferguson said, leaning back into his chair. Joseph said nothing, but looked and felt as if he wanted to throw up.

“Now, Director Joseph,” Ferguson said blandly after a few seconds’ pause, “exactly what have y’all been doing with all of the billions of dollars Congress has given you to combat terrorism, other than convincing the weak-minded to try to buy weapons from your agents and violating the rights of my constituents?”

Joseph looked down at his hands for a moment and sighed. Next to him, the director of the National Security Agency squirmed in her chair again. It would be her turn next.


 

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

Announcement and Snippet

Lost Children, the next installment of The Minivandians, is up for pre-order on Amazon.

lost-children-ebook-cover-1

Here’s the blurb:

Elsked’s adventure continues! In the second of three stories, the Minivandian’s son trades tales of his pets and  their misadventures for another story from his parents past.

After escaping the frozen north, Daddybear and Ruarin find refuge with the magical kin of an old friend. Before they can make their way home, treachery will strike the city, leaving death and disappearances in its wake. In an idyllic lakeside city harboring the ancient evil that drove its people from their ancient homeland, can the Minivandian save his Lady of Eire?

Lost Children picks up where Quest to the North left off.  Ruarin and DaddyBear are still trying to make their home, but they find themselves on a little bit of a detour.

The book will go live on January 26, but you can pre-order it now.  I hope you enjoy it, and remember, the best way to compliment a writer is to leave an honest review and spread the word.

I put up a snippet for one of the short vignettes here, and here’s the first chapter of the longer portion of the book.  Enjoy!


The moon hung over the trees, full and blood red. It shone down on a young man in robes as gray as a dove’s wing as he walked up a long flight of rough-cut stone stairs. To one side of him, moonlight danced on carved scenes of ships and people, while on the other, dark trees growing from the steep hillside blocked his view of the water below. The cheeping of tree frogs, taking advantage of the last warm weather of early autumn, competed with the voice coming from the temple above him to drown out his slow steps.

He cradled a cloth-wrapped bundle in the crook of his arm. It would occasionally wriggle, and once he had to bring his free hand up to steady it as he continued his march upward. Any sound it made was drowned out by the noise of the forest and marshes surrounding him. The young priest paused when he reached an open space at the top of the stairs and looked around.

The temple was ancient, and only its main chamber had been reclaimed from the forest. The young man’s ancestors had hewn it from the living rock of the low hill upon which it sat, and he could almost sense the power of the earth running up through it. The side opposite him was open to the night air, and he could see the full moon framed above the forest. Above him, the sound of singing echoed from the high, domed ceiling, making it sound as if a chorus were serenading him as he made his way into the chamber.

An alabaster altar, polished until it shone in the torchlight, lay at its center. Fine, white linen cloths covered it. Upon them, a silver basin and pitcher reflected a red and orange glow back at him. The same light reflected from the wall behind the altar, making the ship carved in its white stone appear to be ablaze.

His mentor and teacher stood with his hands on the altar. Where the young man wore robes the color of a mourning dove, his flawlessly white garments were a stark contrast against the dark stone. A long sword hung from his belt, its golden hilt shining in the light. It contrasted with the iron chain that swung from his neck. The older man’s eyes were closed as he crooned a prayer in a high, powerful voice. His song rang from the high ceiling, and its rhythm followed the young priest’s heartbeat.

The young priest stepped forward and bowed to his master.

“Do you bring this child to our god willingly?” the white-clad priest asked in a gentle voice.

“Yes, I do.”

“Is he a member of our people?”

“Yes, he is.

“Then prepare him.”

The young priest lifted the baby up and gently placed him on the altar. He untied the bundle of cloth enclosing the child, then poured warm water from the pitcher into the basin. As he did this, the older priest held his hands over the water and prayed.

The younger man wet one of the cloths, then washed the baby from head to toe. The child laughed as the soft cotton ran over his skin, and his toothless grin caused both priests to smile indulgently. After the little boy was cleansed thoroughly, the young priest picked him up again.

The older priest took some oil from a flask and rubbed a mark on the child’s chest with his thumb. He carefully placed his hand across the crown of the infant’s head, and bowing down, whispered a blessing into the child’s ear. The baby giggled and squirmed, then reached up and toyed with the old man’s beard.

“Present him to the god!” the elder priest ordered as he gently untangled his whiskers from chubby fingers.

The young priest bowed to him, then swaddled the baby in a thick, soft cloth. He turned and faced the idol, which dominated the wall opposite the altar.

It was wrought from iron, with two golden horns curling from the sides of its head. The throne upon which it sat was carved from the same rock as the temple, but had been polished smooth to reflect the glow coming from the huge mound of embers burning beneath it. Its eyes, crafted from flawless red jewels, glowed against the dark stone of its bearded face.

Two outstretched arms beckoned to the priest. The waves of heat rising from below the god seemed to make its fingers move before his eyes.

As he took his first step, the young priest placed his hand on the child’s head and whispered, “Etezh.” The child’s dark eyes immediately closed in slumber.

Behind him, the white-clad priest began to chant in an ancient language.
Bal Haamon!
God of our fathers!
Bal Haamon!
Father of the people!
Bal Haamon!
Protector of the city!
We bring you our offering!
Accept our sacrifice and bless your people!
Crush our enemies, end our struggles!

The younger man sang along with his master. He moved with the rhythm of his prayer as he slowly walked toward the idol. His eyes watered from the heat rising from the throne’s base, and tears ran down his smooth cheeks. The god’s red eyes glimmered in the shadow of its beard as he placed the child in its arms. Stepping back, he bowed low to the idol.

As he straightened, the idol’s arms fell to its lap, and the young priest glimpsed the cloth bundle, pale against the god’s dark throne, drop into the fire as a stone drops into water. A brief flash of light and pungent smoke overcame him for a moment, then his vision cleared to show the smiling face of his god.

Both men bowed until their foreheads touched the stone floor. After a long moment, the older priest rose and spoke to his assistant.

“Bring up the other one,” he ordered.

~~~~~~

The young priest sat on a ledge overlooking a moonlit beach. Below him, small blue flames winked from the surface of the marshlands at the water’s edge. Behind him, he could hear his master packing away their vestments and sacramental vessels. He breathed in the cool air, feeling its soft caress on his red face.

A gentle hand on his shoulder brought him out of his reverie. He looked up into the smiling face of the older priest, now wearing a simple, drab cloak over his clothing.

“Bal Haamon smiles on us,” he said, taking a seat next to his assistant. His tone, as well as the look on his face, was exultant.

“He demands a high price for his happiness,” the younger man said quietly.

“He provides for us, and he will bring our people back to glory.”

“Is this what the god wants?” the young priest asked morosely. “How many more children must we give to him?”

“This is how our forefathers worshipped,” the older man replied, “and we have fallen far since we neglected our god.”

“So, there’ll be more?”

“Oh, yes, there will be more,” his master said with a grave nod. “Three hundred were given to save the old city. We will sacrifice as many as it takes to elevate its replacement.”

He looked out upon the water for a moment, then clapped the younger man on the shoulder.

“Come,” he said, “let’s get back to the city. It’ll be dawn soon.”

The War – Episode 27

December 31, 11:55 PM Eastern
Louisville, Kentucky

 

Jeanine stirred the coals with a poker, then put a large log into the fireplace. Behind her, she could hear Jim switching the television back and forth between New Year’s Eve programs. One showed one of the latest pop tarts squeaking her way through an up-tempo version of a forty-year-old folk song, while the other had a band, which was old enough to have played that song at their first rehearsal, grinding their way through a big band tune. Neither seemed to be keeping her husband’s interest.

As she turned back toward the family room, he settled on one of the news stations. It showed a long pan of Times Square, which would normally have been wall to wall with revelers braving the cold to ring in the New Year. Tonight, however, only the stage had a crowd around it, and even that was sparse. When the camera panned around the brightly-lit square, Jeanine saw two lines of police in armor and helmets, as well as several dark-painted armored cars, arrayed around the crowd.

“Think something will happen?” she asked as she sat down in her chair and picked up her drink. On the TV screen, a police helicopter flew noisily over the top of the stage. The singer did not miss a beat, however, and continued to hop around and mouth the words to her song.

Jim shrugged. He had been quiet all evening, yet seemed restless as he played cards with Jordan before putting him to bed.

“Don’t know,” he said, ice ringing against the side of the glass as he lifted his bourbon from the table, “Wouldn’t surprise me.”

His wife reached over and caressed his shoulder. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Went by the recruiter’s office yesterday,” he replied.

What?” Jeanine sputtered.

“We’ve talked about this,” Jim said, “I’ve been thinking of joining the Guard for a while, and you said it sounded like a good idea.”

“So you’re joining the National Guard?” she answered, a look of shock on her face.

“No, I was talking to the active duty recruiter,” he replied, finally taking his eyes off the TV and facing his wife.

You what!” she exclaimed.

Jim shrugged. “I wasn’t going to sign back up without talking to you,” he said, “I just wanted to see what I could do.”

“And?” she demanded.

“There’s not much need for a middle-aged fobbit,” he replied, “Even when I showed them my DD-214 and degree, they didn’t have anything for me.”

Jeanine relaxed a bit. She had tried to read Jim’s discharge papers, and the laundry list of assignments and training had made her eyes cross. If the recruiter had turned him down with all that, then he would not be going anywhere.

“Honey, I know you want to do something…” she said.

“Other than sitting here on my ass and pushing electrons around at work?” he said darkly as the image on the TV changed to the crystal ball at the top of a tower in Times Square.

“Baby, we need you here,” she said, “I need you.”

“Line was out the door,” Jim said, looking down at his tumbler, “Everything from high school kids to a couple of Vietnam pilots trying to sign up. Recruiter said it had been like that for days, and even the ones they can take are on a waiting list.”

Jeanine sat silently for a moment as the brightly-lit ball on the TV screen started its descent.

“What are you going to do?” she asked quietly.

“I’ll figure something out,” Jim replied as the crowd on the TV counted backward to zero.

Jeanine got up from her chair and sat down on her husband’s lap. Putting her arms around his neck, she held his head close to her and kissed him tenderly.

“Happy New Year, sweetheart,” she said, “and thank you for being here for us.”

 


 

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

Christmas Minivandians Story

I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas.  Since it’s that time of year and The War isn’t exactly uplifting, I thought I’d share a short Minivandian’s story.  This may or may not be in one of the new books coming out in the next few months.


The Samaritan

Nicholas of the North leaned back in his seat.  It had been a long night, but he was finally approaching the end of his journey.  His tired eyes gazed yet again at the team of reindeer that pulled his sleigh.  He dimly remembered how fresh and anxious to get underway they had been the night before, but now, their heads drooped and their steps were more plodding than prancing.  Still, they kept moving, with the silver bells on their harness marking the rhythm of their gait.

A light snow fell from the leaden sky, and the flakes hissed along the polished wood of the sleigh’s body.  The tromping of his team’s hooves in the snow was quiet, and the whooshing of the sleigh’s runners as they ran along their path was hypnotic to his tired mind.

One good thing about using reindeer, he mused as his eyes drooped, is that they don’t need much direction from me when they know they’re close to the barn.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered grumpily as he rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to force them to focus properly. Immediately, though, he felt a pang of guilt.  The effort of delivering his packages and sacks was nothing compared to the joy of those who received them.

“I just need something to eat and a nap,” he said with a tired smile, “Of course, tomorrow starts the months of eating well and exercise to make up for all of the cookies tonight, don’t they, boys?”

The pair of reindeer closest to him lifted their heads and looked back at him.  He wasn’t quite sure, but he thought he saw smiles on their muzzles.  His reindeer reminded him so much of the hounds he had kept as a young man, intelligent and hard working.  He smiled as he looked into their gentle, brown eyes.

Truth be told, he wasn’t hungry.  Sweets from the four corners of the world filled his belly, and he’d sampled drinks, hot and cold, intoxicating and not, of all manner.  But a little of his wife’s home cooking would do him wonders.

“A little Eyrisch coffee would hit the spot,” he thought to himself, and the thought made his smile even broader.  Yes, having an Eyrisch wife did have its benefits.

Nicholas went back to listening to the cheerful ringing of bells and the hiss of the sleigh as it made its way across the ice field.  Just as the sun started to turn the horizon pink, he dozed off.  Dreams of comfortable beds, warm baths, and sunny beaches drifted through his mind.  He was about to bring a fruity rum drink, served by a buxom wench in a grass skirt, to his lips, when the sound of the surf stopped.  It was replaced by a sound not unlike a great beast defending its den.  He looked up, and the curvy lass had been replaced with the visage of his lead reindeer.  She was looking down at him, then turning to look off to the side, then back again.

Nicholas sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  His sleigh was stationary in a vast snowfield, it’s icy surface scoured almost smooth by the wind.  The pre-dawn gloom made it look like the surface of the moon.  Regretfully, the tropical sun, fruity drink, and pretty girl were gone, replaced with eight reindeer, a snowbank, and a cold wind whipping down from the north. He heard a low, rhythmic growl coming from a nearby hump in the snow.  His reindeer looked at him expectantly, and the leader tossed her head as if to say “What is making that noise?”

Nicholas looked at the mound of snow before him.  If he concentrated, he could feel the life that lived under it, and his sight let him know that there was no danger.  Even so, he took his mace, Kringol, from its resting place in the sleigh before he stepped down.

The snowbank was the only feature more than a few inches tall for as far as the eye could see, and no tracks, save those of his reindeer and sleigh, marred the frozen landscape.  Whatever or whoever was under the snow had been there for a long while.

Nicholas stepped forward cautiously, feeling his felt boots crunch through the thin crust of ice which lay atop the snow with each step.  As he reached the edge of the drift, he reached out again with his senses.  He could feel rough fur and steel in the mound, but no ill will.  Again, he could not see anything in the near future which signaled danger, but a twinkle came to his eyes as he saw the small form asleep under the snow.

Nicholas drew himself up, put Kringol up on his shoulder, and chuckled to himself. Taking a deep breath, he shouted loudly enough to be heard for miles around.

“Hello!” he boomed out in his deep voice, “Anyone alive in there?”

At the sound of his call, the growling snore cut off. The silence was perfect in the snowfield, as none of the reindeer moved, none of the bells jingled, and the being in the snowbank held its breath.

Suddenly, with a roar, the snow exploded up and out.  In a flash, a fur cape was thrown back and a small figure burst from the drift.

“Stand easy, lad,” said Nicholas of the North, who only smiled at the violence of the boy’s reaction to his call, “You’ve nothing to fear.”

The young man stood up to his full height, which brought him to about chest level with Nicholas.   He was filthy, with stringy hair, which might have been brown or red if its owner were to wash it, reaching to his shoulders.  His feet were bare, but he gave no mind to them as he stood in the snow.

The ruined snow cave, in which he had been asleep,  contained a small pack and the pelt of some animal, which he had apparently been using as a blanket during his long winter’s nap.  He was stocky, but had the look of someone who ate only when food could be found, and had not been able to find anything of substance for quite some time.

His clothing, cut in the manner of the barbarian tribes that roamed the vast northern prairies, were made of wool, but were too small for him and had been worn threadbare. The boy seemed to have no other clothing to guard against the cold.  In his hands he held a small knife, its blade and hilt showing signs of hard use, but its edge sharp and keen in the light of dawn.

The boy’s green eyes glared at Nicholas, who had begun to laugh at the fierce expression on the child’s face.  For a moment, he held the jolly old elf’s gaze, then he looked away to the sleigh and reindeer.

“What do you want?” he demanded through teeth clenched either to look warlike or, more likely, to keep them from chattering.  Nicholas couldn’t be sure, but he thought that he saw a shiver run up the boy’s back.  Apparently coming out of his cozy little den so quickly had put a chill on him.

“I am Nicholas of the North, son of Epiphanius, young man.  Who are you?” replied Nicholas.

“I am Dodjevir, son of Sooka, son of Bestefar, of the tribe of Eikhjelm.  Are you going to try to rob me?” answered the boy, trying to puff himself up and look fierce.  To Nicholas’s eye, he looked like a boy who sorely wanted to square off like a man, but did not quite know how to properly do it.

“Rob you?  Far from it.  I’m known as a…. giver of gifts, I suppose you could say,” said Nicholas, the twinkle returning to his eye.

“I require no gifts from an outlander like you, old man!” retorted the boy.  His voice, which he had been forcing down into a baritone, broke into a squeak as he spit the words past his teeth.  The wind caught his stringy, dirty hair as he tossed his head, which gave the impression of a young lion who was just starting to come into his mane.

“Oh, I think you will like what I have.  Come, come, let me take you somewhere that is warm.  My wife will feed you, and I will give you a better place to sleep than a snowdrift.” said Nicholas.  He gestured to the sleigh with his free hand, yet still kept a firm grip grip on his mace.

“I require none of your charity!  I was born here, and this is how I wish to spend my winter,” the boy replied forcefully.  Now Nicholas was sure he could see him shivering from the cold.

“Well, at least put on your shoes and coat while we talk,” said Nicholas, “I would never forgive myself if you froze to death while you were being stubborn.”

“I l-l-ike the c-cold!” the boy hissed, his body shaking violently.

“Now, be reasonable, Dodha… Didja… I’m sorry, but how do you pronounce your name again?”

“Dodjevir!” the boy said, his voice quaking to the rhythm of his shaking.

“Do..sha..fear?”

The boy’s shoulders slumped.

“Fine, just c-call me ‘DaddyBear.’  Everyone else does,” he huffed, his voice falling away from its earlier bravado.   Now, he truly looked miserable to Nicholas’ eyes.

“Well, I’ll work on it.  But, please, wrap up in something.  You may be a barbarian, but even the most stern of warriors knows to dress for the cold,” Nicholas replied.

The boy’s eyes narrowed and he seemed to consider the older man’s advice for a moment.  Without another word, he backed toward his belongings.  Never taking his eyes from Nicholas, he reached down and picked up the white and gray pelt from the snow, then drew it across his shoulders.

A breeze brought the smell of the fur to Nicholas’ nose, and its stench made his reindeer stamp and shy.

“What is that you’re trying to wear?” he said, wrinkling his nose.

“It’s a warg skin,” the boy said proudly, “I killed it myself just before the snow flew!”

“Next year, remind me to bring this boy skills in curing hides,” Nicholas murmured to his reindeer.

DaddyBear seemed more comfortable once the thick fur insulated him from the cold.  He looked down at his belongings, then up at the sleigh.

“You’re still welcome to come home with me,” Nicholas said, “Or I could take you somewhere else.  There isn’t enough snow here to dig yourself another den, and I doubt you’ll find any game within a day’s walk to feed yourself until spring.”

The boy considered his words for a moment, then with a shrug, nodded his assent.

“All right, old man, I’ll accept your hospitality, but I will not take it as a gift.  I do not take charity,” he said defiantly.

“Good enough,” Nicholas said as he turned back to the comparative warmth of his sleigh, “Gather your things and get in.”

As DaddyBear picked up his meager belongings, Nicholas picked up several empty bags on the front seat of the sleigh to make room for his new passenger.  But when he picked up the last of them, rather than being light and slack like the others, it was heavy in his hands, and he felt something solid and heavy within it.

Nicholas looked up to the lightening sky.  A wry smile came to his lips as he whispered, “I guess this means I was meant to find the boy.”

DaddyBear, the stinking warg pelt wrapped tightly around his shoulders, dumped a half-filled leather haversack on the seat.  He sat next to it, making sure to keep the pack between himself and Nicholas.

“I do believe that I have something for you, young man,” Nicholas said with a chuckle, “It appears that I have but one gift left, and it has your name upon it.”  He thrust the sack into the boy’s empty hands.

DaddyBear looked from the sack, to the old man, then back to the sack.  He undid the string holding it shut, reached inside, and withdrew its contents.  It was an axe, its iron head still showing tool marks from its making.  The polished handle, made from fine-grained hickory, shone in the early morning light.  He ran his fingers along its blade, nodding at its sharpness.

“Thank you.  It’s a fine gift, but I have nothing to give in return,” he said finally.

“There is no need, my son,” Nicholas replied, “Just remember that to give without expectation of repayment is a fine thing.”  He picked up the reins and whistled to the lead reindeer, who bawled out a command.  Soon, they were racing across the snowfield, leaving the rude den far behind them.

“Now, will you come with me, or would you like me to return you to your own home?” Nicholas asked once he was sure they were back on the path to his home.

DaddyBear looked up from his new axe, chewing on his lower lip for a moment.

“I could come with you for a few days, I suppose, but I will not stay beyond that,” he said.

“And what will you do then?”

“What I’ve done since I left my father’s house: find my own way.”

Now it was Nicholas’ turn to think.  Then, a thought came to his mind and a smile split his face.

“How about this?” he finally said, “You come home with me until my wife says you’re not skin and bones anymore.  After that, I’ll take you to the home of someone I know.”

“Who?”

“Have you ever heard of Blacktooth the Kossak?  He has a son your age, and he’s always looking for new warriors.”

The boy thought about that for a moment, then nodded.

“I’ve never heard of him, but if he will take me on as a warrior, and not as a servant, maybe I will be able to stand it.”

“Good, good,” Nicholas said, “Now, let’s get home.  I hope you’re hungry.  Sorcha always puts on quite the feast for everyone when I get home.”

His laughter and booming voice trailed behind the sleigh as they made their way through the snow.  Behind them, the wind filled in the sleigh’s tracks, as well as the hole left when DaddyBear had leapt out to face Nicholas.  By the time the sun burst over the horizon, there was no evidence of their passing.

The War – Episode 26

December 24, 11:47 PM Eastern
Washington D.C.

The bishop stood up from his seat beside the altar and looked out at the congregation. The dark suits of security guards, who were standing along the walls and in front of the doors at the back of the chapel, contrasted with the red and green of the Christmas decorations in the chapel’s windows. He had relented on the security guards only after the worshippers told him that, without them, he would be giving Midnight Mass to an empty church.

In the first row of pews, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice rose to their feet and looked up to him. The bishop glanced at the missal a young girl was holding up for him, then reached down and closed it. Stepping around the altar, he raised his arms to the congregation.

“My brothers and sisters, I want to close our time together by asking all of you to pray for peace,” he said, “Peace for our world, for our country, and for the people who are suffering pain and grief tonight. The evil of the world is great, but the love of our Father and His Son is greater. Just for a moment, let us turn away from the ugliness of the past few days, and embrace the light descending to our world tonight.”

The bishop raised his hands higher.

“The Lord be with you!” he intoned.

“And with your spirit,” the congregation responded.

“Let us pray,” the bishop sang as the congregation bowed their heads, “Heavenly Father, we gather together to celebrate the birth of Your Son, and we ask for a rebirth of our spirit in this dark time. You once sent a spark to kindle the flame of our faith, and tonight we attempt to rekindle His message of forgiveness and love.”

“Father, watch over those who watch over us,” he continued, “cherish those who have returned to You, and hold those who suffer and mourn them in the cup of Your hand.”

He paused for a moment and looked out on the people, his people.

The bishop raised his right hand in benediction over his flock, and sang, “May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The congregation, made up of the powerful men and women of Washington, crossed themselves and replied “Amen,” then looked up at him.

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the bishop called out.

“Praise be to God,” the congregation recited as they reached down for their coats and purses.

“Yes, praise be to God,” the bishop said quietly as the organist started in with the first few bars of “Joy to the World”.

 


 

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

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