Tarnished jewel of Ireland and corrupt mistress of two worlds, glorious Tara paused in her stumble toward crisis for a few days in the cold late Fall of 1997. For all too brief a time she reached deep within herself to find a semblance of heart. It wasn't much.
The boy who'd fled injustice in Afghanistan and spent nearly a year travelling to the capital, mostly on foot, diverted Tara's self-absorbed dissipation long enough to enable the Council of Lords to pass an impotent motion in their languid session's dying days. Neglecting to allocate sufficient funds for the proposed expeditionary response force was as much lethargic neglect as duplicity. Who cared what happened in the remote quarters of Tara's dominions, so long as the people were mollified? It was party time.
--from A History of the 1997 Afghan campaign, by Jana Whelan
Ireland, Tara's palace, January 1997 (Hibernia)
Abdul told his story three times. The first, when he found the court mercilessly barred to a ragged boy's entry, was to a beggar seated across the street from Tara's fabled green palace. The ancient veteran seized him as he fled the unsympathetic guardsmen in disillusioned tears.
"Hold, there, young Abdul." The beggar's crutch pinned the slender boy against a lamppost, giving him little choice.
Abdul took several seconds to recover. "How do you know me?"
"Turkistan O'Flaherty fought beside your grandfather sixty years ago. He knows much of your business. Aye, and of Tara's, too, if it be known." He glared across the street at the palace, then lurched upright, dragging his bad leg, and releasing Abdul to lean heavily on his crutch. "Bring my begging bowl. I shall feed you with the others."
"The others" were a dozen ravenous street children whom Turkistan kept alive on discarded bread crusts and thin soup made from dumpster refuse, teaching them their letters and weapons till he could pass them on to service with selected landspeople and commercepeople.
Hearing Abdul's story, Turkistan sent word to one who owed him favours.
The second telling was to an MT reporter, fresh from journalism school, carrying a camera as new as his sword. He would have given his life for Turk, King of Low Tara, the man who rescued him from the street, fed and clothed him for years, got him an education, and had now placed him in an honourable profession where he was already making his mark.
The third telling, once the Tara News program roused the citizens to their MT keyboards and microphones to demand government action, was to Jack Graham, General of the Army, and Chief of Tara's Security.
At that time, Graham stood sixth in Tara's front row and sat third at her executive table. He was one of only three nobles trusted by the twelfth of the donals, those de facto rulers of two earths for the sixty years following King James IV's 1941 deposition. Technically, the Donal was First Lord of the army, but in practice the title was Graham's.
Abdul was no fool. Older than he looked, from East Afghanistan's highest family, and well educated, he knew at once the nondescript man in grey at the general's side was no secretary. He also realized that if his plight hadn't dovetailed with these cynical high nobles' interests, he might have whistled for justice. He could hazard a guess what their plans might be. They were all-too-interested in the biotechnology lab behind his father's manse. He would say nothing of such things. Let them think him an ignorant Mufti boy. Soon, if they cooperated, he would have revenge.
* * * * *
"What do you think, Jack?" the grey man asked once Abdul was ushered out to be properly attired and fattened up in the palace dining room.
For answer, Graham handed him a package. "This was delivered to security today."
The other opened the outer wrapping, then nearly dropped it when he saw the severed hand sealed in tough plastic.
"We handled it in isolation. It's safe," Jack assured the grey man.
"Whose?" His companion's tones were brittle.
"DNA analysis says it belonged to our last agent in Kabul, one of the Bindi brothers." Jack leaned back, his face a dispassionate mask. It hurt deeply to have a trusted man go to his death. Then he dropped his bombshell. "Bindi's DNA had been slightly altered. It was subtle, and our head technician missed it, but one of the kids trained in Mara's London school caught the change."
The grey man let out a long slow breath. "Covenant violaters," he breathed.
It was as they feared when certain chemical shipments to East Afghanistan were fingered by Security's network monitoring routines. Mustafsa Khan had broken the Covenant of the Living.
Agreed to by all nations in 1800, the covenant banned human biogenetic manipulation, nuclear and chemical warfare, and projectile weapons. Breaching this thinnest of barriers between civilization and anarchy meant once again someone had gathered the means to annihilate Hibernia.
"What was the genetic change?"
"Not sure yet. It was in a supposedly dormant section of the Y-chromosome. We're trying to analyse the enzyme the new gene expresses, but it appears to be something new. No way to tell if it's what killed our agent unless we find the rest of the body. Likely they burned it as an offering to the Seer."
The grey man was silent for several minutes before observing, "Khan's made no secret he has the usual designs on Northern India. The boy's story gives us good cover for an expedition and it's a perfect training opportunity for the kids. We must close that lab, permanently."
"With the number of troops the policing budget can afford," Graham pointed out, "It's an excellent way to get good soldiers killed."
"There is that," the other admitted, rubbing his hand over his beard. "But I'm trying to put Hibernia together again, and you can't make eggs without breaking a few omelettes. Every military expedition is risky, but far more will die if we do nothing." He gestured contemptuously in the direction of the council chambers. "This is a burden of rule those fools know nothing of. It's why we had kings, as a check of last resort. The MacCarthys deposed James IV to have free reign for their brand of terror and anarchy. It's one of the game we Irish play, Jack. But the stakes are civilization itself."
Jack Graham nodded soberly, then shared the latest intelligence from Africa. "Our Lagos agent says 'Meghan McIlhargey' has things in hand over Frank Haggerty, and plans to leave for Tara December fifteenth. She's openly calling herself 'Mara Devereaux' now."
The grey man rubbed his hands meditatively. Deposing Nigeria's ruthless and corrupt subdomain holder had been a long-time priority. Getting Mara to do it without anyone knowing he was involved or had manipulated her into doing his bidding made it doubly satisfying.
"Today's the first," he announced, glancing at the corner of the data screen he'd had grown in his eye when he was twenty. "We need two weeks to assemble a strike force. On the fifteenth, have your agents discourage her from taking the Tara plane and arrange there be only one she can take."
"Collect her and the other on the way?"
"We need Maeve Derry as backup in case Mara gets herself killed prematurely," his companion observed matter-of-factly, as though the two women were carved wooden privates in a game of 'catch the king'. "I'm sure the army can excuse a worthless stopover in East Africa. Besides, we've tested Derry's integrity sufficiently. We need to start using her." He drummed his fingers against his scabbard. "While we're at it, bump both Kildares to major and have them fly up from Australia with their school's first graduates. We'll test them all well away from palace scrutiny."
The grey man paused, tugging at his beard again. The clandestine military schools he and Graham had manoeuvred Mara and her father into establishing were paying off. Where else could he get reliable officers these days? Certainly not from old Kilkarney, not since the class of 1990 and Perry Docherty's retirement as commander--the MacCarthys controlled there, and were gradually rendering Tara's armed forces impotent through incompetence.
"What about young Dennison?" Graham asked.
"Can't risk making him prominent yet. That comes later."
Graham changed the subject. "Mike Malone was in my office this morning."
"He knows? Not surprising. The MacCarthys are surely involved in this with Khan their front."
"Malone made it clear he wanted a significant role with any force we send. He's reactivated his commission, and been rated a Major-General, so we can scarce deny him."
For answer, the grey man displayed a detailed topographical map on the wall MT. "We need to split our forces, between the main valley where Khan is," he indicated the locations with a pointer, "and this western outlet, where we'll place a smaller force to bar the back door."
"Malone to the west, then? But how do we keep him from sabotaging things?"
"He is holder of Lagos, Jack. He's well chafed already and his temper may serve us. Besides, Malone's rank is courtesy. He was a major before."
Graham was silent, considering this, then grinned as he saw the implications. "Who would be the exec lucky enough to discover this?"
"I've promoted Maguire again."
Jack Graham whistled, then pondered the assignments. "Why the young ones? Why all the women?"
"We season the young officers and promote a few in obscurity, then fetch the best to Tara before the lid blows off here in three years. The women are sentimental enough to care about old Tara and skilled enough to thwart the MacCarthys before they take notice."
Jack Graham didn't reply. He, too, could see the alarming trends in crime, the social breakdowns, and the increasing rebellion, of which this sorry Afghan affair was one of many instances. He was all too aware of Tara's deeply rooted corruption and of the many MacCarthy conspiracies. Yet it was hard to take seriously his friend's notion Hibernia was due to come crashing down in a great apocalyptic cataclysm in the fall of 2000 after having stood since 1014. It was even harder to support his solution--create a clandestine army-in-waiting, ready to seize control from the ambitious and racist MacCarthys when the time came. What would happen to the two of them? After all, they were part of Tara's power structure.
Meanwhile, Mara's New Schools churned out well-trained, idealistic officers loyal to the symbol of an unoccupied throne, unaware they were being manipulated by the world's greatest cynic. But Graham, too, was loyal. He shuddered to think what Tara would become under the MacCarthys. They must act or perish. They might well die anyway, but if so, he at least had the assurance of eternal salvation because of his trust in Christ. Not so the man opposite.
Graham shrugged and returned to the present. It was not the time to broach such matters. And, he knew his friend's subtle duplicity well after working with him for the two decades following the battle of Glenmorgan. With Graham in charge, accompanied by Colin and Daisy Kildare as battalion commanders, three of the planet's four wealthiest families would have a direct stake in the outcome, and would surely supplement Tara's meagre police budget by personal funds. It was in their own self-interest. Graham assumed equally-monied Clan MacCarthy backed Mustafsa Khan. The operation smelled of them, for whoever won the necessary conflict, the realm would surely suffer. Mere news of covenant violations would anger the populace, and Tara would be blamed.
He also knew his friend's moods. "You're coming." It wasn't a question.
"I need to be in the field again, Jack. The sword is cleaner than diplomacy. None of Tara's leeches will sober up long enough to notice. I don't attend their parties anyway. We'll dress up my Cousin Charlie and have him make a few speeches on the MT news channels as me." When Graham looked worried, he added, "Don't fret over him. He likes what he's got. Charlie isn't ambitious enough to surrender wealth for power. He'll enjoy it for a few weeks, then threaten to spill the beans if I don't return immediately so he can return to running the family business and doting on his grandkids."
* * * * *
Mara, Africa and Afghanistan, January 1997 (Hibernia)
When someone's just completed a successful guerilla war against vastly superior government-backed troops, humiliated two of Tara's high lords, then had to release the one she captured despite his being guilty of heinous crimes, not to mention torturing her own self earlier on, she can be paranoid about coincidences and jumpy over strangers.
Mara Devereaux-Rourke, formerly called Meghan McIlhargey, planned to fly to Tara well ahead of Glenmorgan Day, for its dawn would end the twenty-year ban the court had put on her families after that infamous day. She was an accomplished sword and used her true names openly, but only at court could her people be vindicated, so there she must go. Once at Tara, she would network with Friends while awaiting her father's arrival, hope he'd be sober enough to face his responsibilities, and tackle creating a presence at court after June twelfth. Eventually...
However, Cam O'Grady's unexpected presence at the airport was enough of a coincidence to arouse a sense of wrongness. The priest had served her rebel camp well, and she'd warmed to him personally, but his posting to Tara in time to travel with her seemed too coincidental. Mara quickly decided there were far too many armed strangers lounging about the place. Time to change plans.
The airport was the first city location to have the altered transponders with the Friends' private channel. Taking Father Cam's arm with her right hand, she reached for her sword PIEA with the left. Pressing her fingers lightly on the interface studs, she silently picted a stream of requests to certain duty guards and airplane crew.
"Tell me more of Tara, Father Cam," she noisily invited, covering her arrangements while glancing about as they boarded.
The head attendant met them. "Please leave your travel sack by the boarding door, my lady. It's too large for the overhead rack."
Mara complied and was seated with the priest, then loudly asked if she could join the flight crew for takeoff. When approval came, she made a big show of going forward, leaving Cam holding her seat. Was it her imagination, or did three men in the second row watch her progress with too much interest?
"Maybe I'll fly all the way to Tara up front," she announced brightly. "See you there, Father Cam." Mara turned and strolled casually through the front curtain, but once out of sight, she hurriedly scanned her clothing with a borrowed security wand for tracers. Finding none, she retrieved her sack and stepped onto the luggage elevator as it separated from the craft. Moments later, she walked from it aboard a second plane bound for Addis Ababa, and there remained out of sight with the crew the entire flight. She breathed a prayer of thanks to the Lord of Heaven. It was the only other craft departing Lagos that day, and she was thankful it had been available exactly when she needed it.
Now what? she asked herself, two hours later, having arrived in East Africa's capital. She was at loose ends, with no immediate plan. She glanced in a mirrored wall as she walked toward the public area. Anybody'll know with one look at my weapons that I'm an officer even if I pack away my jacket with its shiny new captain's stripes. These, combined with her great height and bright red hair meant she couldn't fail to be conspicuous anywhere she went.
Where could she go? There were no Friends in Addis Ababa she could take refuge with, nor any of their secure network nodes within range, and she didn't want to make calls on the public system, for they would surely be traced.
Entering the small airport lounge, she drifted to one side of the room where she could simultaneously scan overhead monitors, watch the scattered travellers and consider her options. She couldn't stay here. Where should she fly? After several minutes without inspiration, she closed her eyes to pray.
"Lord of Heaven, I'm not a very faithful servant of yours, but you are the saviour of my soul and my commanding officer. Oh my Jesus, won't you reveal purpose in this diversion? Won't you give me direction? What do I do? Where do I go?"
She followed up with earnest prayers for her father, the Kents, Nellie, and many other friends, so that by the time she re-opened her eyes to a small commotion nearby, some ten minutes had passed. Mara glanced to her right. An entertainer had commandeered a section of the floor and gathered a crowd. He was juggling several balls and other small objects. A begging bowl sat beside him in case anyone wished to remunerate his not inconsiderable talent.
Immediately sensing a discordance in the situation, Mara evaluated the juggler with a soldier's eye. "He's enormous, and too fit to be a bard." Neither was he dressed like one, wearing a flowing white robe with a decorative red fringe instead of a tabard. Brown-skinned, the fellow's loose hair flowed over his shoulders, and instead of spieling the typical entertainer's patter, he was eerily silent.
What she found interesting were his eyes. Rather than watching the flashing balls, his gaze restlessly roamed the room, cataloguing the passers-by like store merchandise.
A small boy shrieked with pleasure, "It's Rujub, Rujub the juggler. I wanna go watch." This was followed by mumbled acquiescence, the patter of small feet, and the clink of two pennies in the mendicant's bowl, they no doubt supplied by the child's parents.
The coincidence with Tirdian author G. A. Henty's character wasn't lost on Mara. "He's a spy," she concluded, "but for whom?" Then she realized Rujub's piercing eyes had taken in her own realization. The beggar grinned thinly, nodding almost imperceptibly before switching his attention elsewhere. At once she imagined his hair tied up in a military knot like her own. For the army, concluded Mara, fingering her new stripes. But why?
The harsh voice startled her awareness back to the rest of the room. She looked up to find herself surrounded by five military police centred by a big bluff officer, whose stripes proclaimed him a full general. For a brief instant, Mara thought herself captured by Frank Haggerty's men, but the general's attitude was briskly military, not hostile.
Fully alert, she sprang to attention and saluted.
"Your name and company, Captain." The General was slightly disconcerted to discover she towered nearly five cents above him. It was a common reaction and Mara scarcely noticed.
"Mara Devereaux, Sir, currently unattached."
She watched his eyes carefully and, seeing no reaction to her name, felt herself relax. Evidently she meant nothing to him. Then his searching inventory caught the medical insignia pinned above her breast pocket. He appeared surprised, and slight disappointment tinged his next words.
"I already have two medics. What I need is fighting officers. State your sword rating and military experience, Captain."
"Ninety-five, Sir." She gave the figure as her father had last assessed her, adding, "I did police work at Moody and later took operational command of the crown's loyal forces in and around Lagos." She didn't say the crown had other forces at Moody and Lagos whom she had defeated. After all, winners write history, not losers.
Graham, who kept an active commission despite involvement in Tara politics, tried unsuccessfully to hide his astonishment by a slow nod. Does she realize, he thought, how rare ratings over ninety are? She'd rate first sword of the army, two points above me, and equal to the Donal. A succession of emotions ran across his face--momentary disbelief, calculated acceptance no one could lie about a sword rating, then sly triumph.
"You ride a horse, Captain Devereaux?" He manufactured vague hopefulness.
"Certainly, Sir." Mara brightened, thinking of the many wondrous times she had flown recklessly across the Edwardston prairies, "sister" Rainbow Buffalo at her side. What carefree days those had been. What wouldn't she give for their return?
"Very well, as commander of Tara's expeditionary force to East Afghanistan, I attach you as my exec, effective immediately. You'll stow the caduceus and I'll brevet you up a rank for the duration, subject to performance. See the supply sergeant in the field this evening after six to collect your new kit. Follow me to our rocket plane, Major Devereaux." He saluted and started to turn on his heel, then remembered he hadn't introduced himself. "If anyone asks, you're now on Jack Graham's staff."
Mara was taken aback as she recognized the name of Hibernia's highest-ranking active general, but drafting her was Graham's prerogative when she wore Tara's stripes and was unattached.
"Yes, Sir," she announced, and began to review her geography.
The Afghan domain extended from the Black Sea's eastern shore south to the Persian Gulf and north to Russia's border, thence east to China and India. Its scattered peoples were mostly nomadic. The only towns were Tehran, Tashkent, Karachi, and Kabul, from each of which a minor domain lord ruled considerable sparsely populated territory, often for the sole purposes of plotting dominance over the other three and raiding adjacent territories. In the eastern portion, administration was held by a semi-nomadic band headquartered between Kabul and the strategic Khyber Pass to India, an area hit particularly hard in the eighteenth century biological wars, and still almost barren.
Mara knew nothing of the right and wrong of the dispute nor of Tara's involvement. How ironic, she thought, I've just fought against the legal government and now will fight for it. She recalled her earlier prayer and decided this was her answer. She must trust the Lord of Heaven. She hoisted her travel sack to follow the general's entourage.
Meanwhile, Jack Graham was so pleased everything had gone according to plan, he forgot to mention Mara's unexpected caduceus to his grey friend. After all, Lieutenant Derry would be second medic, so it mattered naught. He did pass along her claimed rating, at which the other got a competitive gleam to his eye that spoke far more than words.
Mara's briefing aboard the plane revealed Graham had stopped at Addis Ababa to collect additional troops, including several badly-needed senior officers, only to find the local lord had diverted most of them a week earlier to settle a tribal brush war. All he got for his trouble were two ten-man squads, one missing its sergeant, a lieutenant who had been sick when his platoon departed for the jungle, an officer-medic the locals wanted quit of, and Mara. The others would leave for the field next morning on another plane.
She departed with the general immediately, and found herself, mere hours later, organizing a corner of the field tent that would double as living and working quarters for the general, herself, and the two majors who would arrive next day to take operational command of the two battalions at this location.
At that, the giant transport had circled the area for an hour while she and General Graham went below on a scout plane with a single platoon of MPs to investigate the domain manse. They found it deserted.
Mara watched the op-info scroll on the field-style flat MT screen--the kind with the embossed microcircuits that can be rolled into a staff-long tube for transport. Three-dimensional cameras and projectors were too bulky for operational work. The only furnishings besides the MT stand were a fold-up aluminum desk and a too-short standard-issue cot where she would seek what meagre sleep time and circumstances might afford. As she worked, she reflected on chief medical officer Mahoney's words when he administered her shots on arrival.
"You're a senior officer, entitled to be called 'my lady', at least for the duration of action here. But with promotion to major comes knowledge and so the threat of capture and torture. These nanomachines I'm injecting protect against common truth serums, various poisons, half a dozen gases, and certain classes of hostile nannies. Their efforts will be slow until they build up in your bloodstream and will wear off in six months, but if your rank is confirmed at the end of the campaign, you'll receive a more comprehensive treatment good for a decade or more. However, these serum nanomachines are a military secret, and their existence is to be kept from junior officers and civilians. Sign here to acknowledge." He shoved a signature pad and stylus across the table.
I suppose, thought Mara, the medical academy has to develop and administer the military's biotechnological secrets. Still, it seemed odd that a civilian physician seconded to the army would know so much. She rubbed her arm at the point of injection and shuddered. She had too much firsthand knowledge of torture. Someday, if the Lord of Heaven permitted, Frank Haggerty would fall into her hands again, when no technicality could release him. Then he would pay for his crimes in Moody and Lagos. She arrested her thoughts sharply, for they spoke too much of frustrated revenge. She reminded herself, as she found herself doing daily, that justice was in the hands of the Lord of Heaven, not in hers.
Mara unclenched her teeth and continued editing advance copies of briefing files for tomorrow's op-staff meeting. In a re-run of a perennial local problem, warlord Mustafsa Khan had assembled a force in this mountainous border area with India that now threatened Hibernia's Peace. Only the arrival of the royal army had caused him to abandon the domain headquarters--an action he probably regretted now he could see how few the royals were. She grimaced again. The total court force was roughly 1500, a third stationed some distance to the west. Khan had at least half again as many, and might have 3000 before long.
All three groups were camped in Shah Valley, part of the ancient route from Kabul to Pekawar through the Khyber. How many invading armies have shed their blood on this soil over the centuries? she wondered.
About fifteen miles long and seven wide, the valley was divided lengthwise by high jagged peaks that tapered to nothing at the west and broke into two parallel ridges at the east. She looked again at the satellite view. Graham's two battalions occupied the larger, southern side of the valley surrounding the Khan manse and village, past which the main road ran, near the east end of the dividing ridge. The court's third battalion secured the valley's west end against Khan's escape.
She flipped to another page on the electronic reader. Mustafsa Khan was a militant follower of Iftan Mufti, the twelfth-century agnostic mystic whose religio-philosophy was widespread in the region, but whose devotees constantly clashed with each other and with the polytheistic Shivites across the Indian border--the latter so named after the Irish term "Shivi", a slight mispronunciation of one of their gods' names.
"The Seer's Children" or "Mufti", as they called themselves, held sacred the town of Iftanabad, on the east bank of the distant Indus. Supposedly, the Seer received his enlightenment there before being forcibly expelled by hostile Shivites to Afghanistan. The militant wing believed themselves destined to rule Iftanabad.
Over the last two centuries alone no fewer than thirty wars had raged through the Khyber for control of the northern districts of the two domains. Twice the Mufti had invaded India in force, once they had been briefly subjugated. During the lost years of the eighteenth century, both sides fired missiles armed with chemicals and biologicals until thousands of square miles were sterile and countless millions dead. Two former towns in each domain were radioactive still from smuggled atomics.
Mustafsa had seized Eastern Afghanistan from its previous lord a year before, then laid low for a time, gathering supporters. But this fall, several Shivite villages on the Afghan side of the Khyber had been looted and their meagre crops burned. Two forays into larger centres left several hundred dead, and signs pointed to imminent invasion through the pass and a major war.
The last file in her queue seemed fantastic. It summarized improbable stories of attacks on police troops by a wild creature known as the red devil, said by the superstitious to be a werewolf, though supposedly none had seen it and lived to tell the tale. This she dismissed as local legend.
She next checked the operational finances. Tara had been slow to respond, then voted a minimal policing budget, so Graham was running the operation on a shoestring. Out of his own pocket, she thought.
All in all, Mara reflected, it was a setup poised to lead beyond failure to catastrophe, and she wondered if someone at the capital had it in for Graham. If Khan and his forces broke the hastily-invested minimal royal positions to carry his religious warfare into India proper, there was little to prevent him from seizing vast territories from which it would take an enormous army, years of fighting, and millions of shamrocks to dislodge him.
"Screen off," Mara commanded. She had the maps memorized, and some idea what Graham might try. Khan's troops were well dug in not four miles north of the government position, as the buzzard might fly, she thought. No point waiting for them to break out into the Khyber to the east. We must attack within days.
There were three routes by which the rebels might be engaged. One lay to the northeast--a medium altitude valley with a passable route leading directly back down to Khan's camp. It was the obvious and easy route to battle, but also Khan's own natural path to India.
The second was at the far confluence of the paired valley nearly ten Irish miles west. That route was blocked by a battalion under the command of Brigadier-General Michael Malone. Mara didn't trust him. After all, he had employed Haggerty to run Nigeria.
But directly north there was what seemed to her an intriguing possibility for a third attack route--a high, narrow, pass roughly in the shape of a "t" whose top threaded a tortuous route directly between the two opposing camps, and whose broad cross portion ran down toward the eastern end of the main valley between two sheer mountain walls. The highest part of the pass would be difficult to negotiate in either direction if it were guarded by a handful of soldiers, but there were lookout positions up there worth seizing in any case.
They couldn't just fly troops into Khan's camp as would have been done on Tirdia and had been done here on Hibernia when India and Afghanistan fought almost to each others' annihilation in 1791, at the depth of Greater Hibernia's pre-Federation chaos. Modern rules of engagement forbade motorized transport within five miles of opposing positions. In this case, riding was permitted because the enemy employed mounted troops, but there weren't enough horses for everyone, so even the easiest route would require three hours' march.
Mara sighed as she left the tent to do a walkabout. It was her second experience facing superior forces, but this time the enemy had the advantage of being able to pursue guerilla warfare on familiar terrain, while she was in the fixed position.
At once, she spotted Rujub entertaining a group of soldiers near the camp gate. He must've flown with them from Africa, she concluded. Ordinarily, it was her task as second to stop such things, but she'd decided the spy was military, so would merely keep her eye on him for now. Interesting, she thought, that we need spies in our own camp.
Beyond the camp gate and across the now unused road were a large building and several homes abandoned by the rebels just before the government troops arrived. The manse records were reported destroyed, but Mara resolved to organize a careful search. You never knew.
She glanced up and around. Above and all about were the oppressively harsh, near-lifeless mountains. Beneath her feet was a devastated land, one saturated with the blood of generations of warriors, poisoned to lifelessness in the biogenetic wars, and stunted even today. Mara shivered as she looked around for signs of greenery and found few. How much more blood would water the place before this task was done?
On a whim, she donned a split kilt, the kind with two blowsy leggings that make it appear an ordinary skirt while walking, while actually being a riding pant. Like her father, Brian, Mara used the plain court tartan of family Meathe, often noting as she dressed the irony of it also being the king's pattern and so worn by any of his troops not liege to a house. The fiction was the King had no house, so was of the commons. Of course, there was no monarch any more, at least not for four more years when his ban would run out.
Like many young teenagers, Mara had fantasized about marrying the king's son or grandson and helping him claim back the throne. She was too old for such silliness now, but briefly wondered what had become of James IV. Was he long dead, or still hanging about somewhere, looking for an opportunity to do to Tara's current rulers what the first Donal had done to him? "Not likely," she concluded. "He'd be over eighty today." Did he have children? Grandchildren? Were they fighters? Would they be here if they could? The hills delivered no answers. She sighed and went her way.
It was ninety minutes before "evening beans", as a field army would term dinner, when Mara turned in at the officers' stable behind the manse. A dozen high-spirited animals were visible, with more in the stalls behind, all in the care of a native boy who appeared to be about fifteen years of age. He glared challengingly out of habitually angry eyes.
"You're General Graham's new lady exec."
"And you speak Gaelic with no accent," she shot back, equally abrupt, but smiling.
"I am Abdul Khan. I attend school at Kabul." He was nearly twenty cents shorter than she, but grew in stature as he spoke.
"You're high family." She trailed off.
"So why am I the stablehand? Horses are more honourable than men. Tending them is a privilege. My father was the Shah, Lord of this region. This is my stable. These are my horses. I loan them to the army." He was defiant, ready to fight if she naysayed him. Mara just smiled, inviting him to elaborate.
"Mustafsa murdered my parents," he continued, punctuating his words by spitting on the ground with each reference to the man. "Had he offered fair challenge, my father would have chopped the filthy white swine into dogmeat and fed his heart to the buzzards. The police were compromised by greed and frightened by the red devil, so I went to Tara, corrupt though she is. Fortunately for my country, a few there listened, even if only for their own venal purposes. Had they not, I would have returned alone for my vengeance."
Mara, whose family's exile kept her far from the capital, hadn't previously heard the boy's story.
"You have the same surname as this Mustafsa whom we seek."
"He was my father's cousin, but has dishonoured the family, and I disown him. Eventually I will kill him, burn his foul heart as an offering to the Seer, and cleanse our name. For now, I reclaim the family land the coward abandoned rather than face the Irish." He waved at the valley in proprietary fashion and spat once more. Clearly he regarded Tara's army as his personal tool.
Mara, taken aback by the boy's vehemence, hardly knew how to respond. Her heart went out to his pain. She wanted to hug him and speak of the love of Christ, tell him of the salvation and spiritual healing trusting in the Lord of Heaven would bring, but it was too soon. He needed friends and allies first, to experience love. Afterwards he might be open to the gospel.
"You have a horse for me?" She changed the subject.
Some of her compassion may have reached him, for his hard face softened to an evil grin. He gestured at the enclosed ring, where several magnificent animals raced about, burning off excess energy. They were part Arabian, but built more for endurance than speed. "The ones in the stable are spoken for. Take one of these." It was a challenge.
Mara eyed them eagerly, her blood rising. It had been so long.
"The roan stallion?"
Abdul laughed humourlessly. "Try him if you dare. He is Malik, king of horses, and can be ridden only by a king. He was my father's and has been wild since his murder. Someday I will tame him again for myself. The army must choose another. Malik will kill you."
In answer, Mara hoisted herself onto the rail, fished a sugar cube from her pouch and whistled a shrill command. The stallion halted abruptly before her, ears flickering, sweat running in glistening drops from his haunches. He tossed his head, snorting angrily at the interloper.
"Come talk with me, Malik, and make a bargain for the sugar." She held out her hand.
The stallion reared up furiously and trotted off. Mara, who had been through this routine many times, attempted to project mentally her admiration for the glorious beast, verbally repeated the invitation, and kept her hand extended. Her empathy worked wonders with animals and occasionally produced spectacular results in patients. The "shape sense" John Dominic had once spoken of, perhaps.
Malik circled the ring twice more at top speed, then raced directly at her, skidding to a stop inches away, and sending an avalanche of sand in her direction. Mara didn't flinch, but when he tried to bite her hand to make her drop the sugar, she pulled it abruptly away. Before Malik could react, her other hand was clamped on his nose.
Abdul started forward, sure the stallion would break the madwoman's arm, but Malik quivered as if struck by electricity, and when Mara again offered the cube, he gently licked it from her fingers, neighing a contented horsey sigh over the wordless communication passing between the two.
"Abdul. When I mount him, open the gate."
"I'll bring tack."
"Don't need it."
Neither did he, but Abdul, who like most boys in his culture lived on horseback, had never witnessed a European ride without a saddle. Neither had he seen a woman mounted. This tall skinny one is crazy, he reasoned. But if the horse killed her and escaped, it wouldn't be his fault. He could capture Malik again later, when he was ready to lead his own war band and needed a fighting animal.
"Ready... now." Mara stood on the rail and, in one graceful move, leaped to the stallion's back. She preferred to make a running mount over a horse's rump as her Blackfoot warrior friends had taught her, but didn't want to lose contact with Malik's face until she was firmly in control. Malik shuddered and turned as if to shake her off, but her hands were against his body running a stream of mental reassurance directly into him, and her legs were firmly clamped to his flanks. Then the stallion saw the open gate. "Ride, Malik," shouted Mara, slapping him, and nudging him sharply with her knees.
The great stallion reared once, then shot to freedom, coming to full gallop in mere steps. Abdul stared after the two in wonder, almost forgetting to close the coral gate. "Crazy European woman," he muttered. But his heart was full of admiration. This one could ride. He watched the pair shrink into the distance, then shook his head. "I'll not become soft over any Irish," he promised, "when there's killing to be done." He fingered the knife at the back of his belt, and imagined excising Mustafsa's heart with it.
An hour later, exhilarated, she laughing, and both covered with sweat, Mara and Malik returned at a sober trot. The stallion meekly followed her to an empty stall, allowing himself to be watered, fed, and groomed. Malik accepted two more sugar cubes and settled down to his oats, a veritable picture of domestication.
"The Lord of Heaven go with you and kindly accept my thanks," said Mara to Abdul a few minutes later. "You'll have no more trouble from friend Malik." She paused, thoughtful, examining the boy's weapons belt. There was more to him than seemed. "You wear a stick and a small knife. Would you like further instruction and preparation for the sword?" Her tone was guarded.
Abdul's eyes narrowed. He'd seen her glance at the scuffed right side of his belt, where his sword hung when he practised with his friends. She knew. "I have begun with the Irish blade," he admitted, honestly cutting to the heart of her observation, "and will wear it openly when I am seventeen."
Mara scrutinized his face. Most would take him for fifteen, but...
"If you would care to join me and a few others on the practice field before breakfast mess, at five hundred hours, we would be honoured, Master Khan." Mara bowed as to an equal, turned, and left him standing, dumbfounded.
Abdul stared after her a long time, thoughtful. She was the first Euro to call him "Master" thereby implicitly acknowledging him as rightful heir of his clan. Even the general and his phoney secretary at Tara hadn't extended the courtesy. If she meant it...Perhaps the Irish were more honourable than he thought. He straightened and grinned. Tonight he would sleep in the family manse, instead of among the tents. It was fitting.
He considered again and decided to message his friends in Kabul and the adjacent valleys. He would gather his war band now. What would the tall woman say when he brought them all to the practice field? Most were seventeen already. His grin became feral. Perhaps he could kill Mustafsa sooner than he had imagined. Perhaps he could make a difference in the imminent battle and gain honour in the eyes of the Irish, glory in those of the Seer's. He briefly considered, then dismissed the Irish god. You needed the Seer to tell you how to live in this life, not some god who lured you with promises of the next.
Mara felt even better two hours later when she left the officers' mess. There she had met Graham's newly-arrived battalion commanders, her old friends Colin and Daisy Kildare, seconded from duty outside the Penal Colony, and like her, newly-promoted to the rank of major. They'd been in touch many times via the MT until she'd left Lagos, but it was their first face-to-face meeting since she and her father Brian departed London following the Friends' first New School class graduation.
The Kildares had brought their drill sergeant and the entire just-graduated class from the Friends' Australian New School to fill junior officer positions. With them, they could organize the three understrength companies of each battalion, some 500 troopers apiece, into three-squad platoons, each with a third lieutenant, and still have a couple of young officers to help in Supply, Services, and Training (SST). Their handful of first and second lieutenants could assist or act in lieu of company captains, of which she had only two. It wasn't by the book, but would have to suffice.
While the three spoke aloud of organizational details, surreptitious connections on the Friends' PIEA channel during dinner allowed them to make plans for late night fireside storytelling and for installing the satellite uplinks the Kildares had brought. They in turn meant she could soon access the alternate network. Open table banter revealed the Kildares were both old friends of General Graham, so, in all, Mara was pleased with the command structure. Now, if Graham had enough competent soldiers...