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Chapter One

"Colonel Kortotich," Mike "Jenkins" called out as the unwounded Chechen prisoners were being unloaded at a Georgian military prison.

Mike Harmon had been a college student at the University of Georgia when he'd witnessed the kidnapping of a coed. Most college students would have picked up their cell phones, or run to someone who had one, and called 911. But before he was a college student he'd been a SEAL and a SEAL instructor. So he just jumped on the kidnapper's van and rode it to its destination.

That move, and a series of similar decisions, had led him to an underground bunker near Aleppo where terrorists backed by Syria had brought American girls to be used as hostages. And their plans didn't just include holding them, but torturing them for the cameras to force American units to leave the Middle East.

Mike had lost one of the hostages before he realized what the plan was, but he'd fought his way through to the rest and held the position until relieved, along the way wiping out a chemical weapons factory, the Syrian president and Osama Bin Laden.

This had earned him the grateful thanks of a nation, quite a bit of money and a price on his head from every Islamic terrorism group on earth. "Mike Harmon," Team Name "Ghost," had quietly disappeared, maybe alive, maybe dead, and "Mike Jenkins" had reappeared in his place.

After being the wrong place at the wrong time too many times, Mike had settled down in the Republic of Georgia, using part of his reward money to buy a pleasant little farm with a group of tenant farmers already in place. However, the security situation in the area being what it was, he'd taken the opportunity to train the retainers as a local "militia."

The retainers, called the Keldara, had taken to it like so many ducks to water. A little digging turned up the fact that the Keldara were anything but simple farmers. According to his interpretations, they were, in fact, the last remnant of the Varangian Guard, the Viking guards of the emperors of Byzantium. The group had apparently descended from a small force of mixed Norse and Scots-Irish that had drifted down through the Mediterranean until encountering the Byzantine Empire.

They farmed quite well but at heart, like the Kurds and the Gurkhas, they were warriors first and foremost. A couple of million dollars in equipment and a similar amount in payroll for trainers and training had turned them into a formidable, if small, fighting force. They had taken on a Chechen "battalion" at nearly three-to-one odds and the prisoners and dead now being loaded into the Georgian military trucks were the result.

Mike suspected it wouldn't be the last such battle for the group called "The Tigers of the Mountain."

"Mr. Jenkins," the Russian attaché replied, nodding. "Quite a battle for a little militia."

"Untrained militia," Mike pointed out. "They were only in their third week of training. The teams fought them straight off of their first days of range training."

"How many did you kill?" Kortotich asked.

"One hundred and three KIA," Mike replied. "Including some who got froggy when we were in the capture phase. Forty-two WIA, including some the doctors don't think will survive. And twenty-one prisoners, unwounded."

"And Breslav?" the Russian asked.

"He, unfortunately, did not survive the encounter," Mike said, slipping a picture out of his jacket pocket and handing it over. Breslav had, apparently, been directly in the area of effect of a claymore, since his torso and right arm were missing. However, his head was still attached and the expression of surprise was clear on his face. As was the expression of satisfaction on the face of the Keldara who was holding his head up by its hair. "I would have liked to capture him for intel purposes, but you can't always get what you want."

"We are glad enough that he's dead," Kortotich replied, smiling at the pic. "Can I keep this?"

"Certainly," Mike said. "It's a photo quality printout, anyway. We only use digital cameras."

"Three weeks of training, you said?" Kortotich asked. "I think that my bosses will be impressed. Very impressed."

"And, of course, the intel we forwarded you," Mike pointed out. "That stopped his team from entering Chechnya. Can I take it we might be able to avoid a border war?"

"There is still the matter of the Paniski Gorge," Kortotich pointed out. "That is where their main bases are."

"I don't think the Keldara will be up to taking that on any time soon," Mike replied. "But we'll start interdicting their movements as soon as our training is complete. The Gorge will be a matter between you and the government of Georgia."

"I'll pass all of this on," Kortotich said, pocketing the picture. "And I give you the thanks of Russia, for what it's worth."

"Oh, I'm sure it will have some use in the future," Mike said, smiling faintly. "You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Take care, Colonel."

* * *

"Back into training again," Nielson said in a satisfied tone. "Nothing like a little live-fire exercise to get the blood pumping and the troops motivated, but now they're going to think they know it all."

Colonel David Nielson was the senior officer of the group Mike had hired to train the Keldara. The colonel's field credentials were impeccable but he was, at heart, a trainer. He loved taking soft clay and molding it into soldiers. As such he'd been a very good choice to lead the training, although some of the trainers, notably the SEAL and Marine Recon members, had questioned having a regular Army guy in charge. That was until they started to see the results.

Mike had been flown back to the serai, courtesy of the Georgian government, which was being remarkably friendly at the moment. He'd consistently tried to downplay the Keldara, but having a fraction of their force wipe out a Chechen "battalion" was, he was told, being discussed at the highest levels. It had also made the international news, although the story for press consumption was a special Georgian commando group. Which, in a way, they were.

"Get that out of their system with a good, solid after action review," Mike said. "I'll be on the grill, too."

"Everyone was involved," Nielson pointed out. "Who conducts it?"

Mike started to answer when his sat phone rang.

"Jenkins," he said.

"Pierson, go scramble."

"Scrambled, how's it going, Colonel?" Mike replied when the system was in place.

"I thought it was going to be a year before you were fully in the groove?" Pierson said. "What's with making network news?"

Colonel Robert Pierson had been Mike's "control" ever since his first mission in Syria. The colonel just happened to be the guy picked to talk on the phone with some madman who had traced the kidnapped coeds halfway across the world. Since then he'd received similar calls from Mike and made a few in the other direction. He never ordered Mike, who was after all a free agent, he just suggested or in a few cases pleaded. He was less a "control" than an information conduit. And in a way a friend.

"We did?" Mike asked, frowning.

"Slow news day," Pierson pointed out. "And the Chechens are still a bugaboo after Breslan. Apparently the guy you wacked had a small piece of setting that up. At least, according to CNN."

"Nice of them to tell us," Mike said, rolling his eyes at Nielson.

"Seriously, what did you do, use all the trainers?" Pierson asked.

"No, it was mostly Keldara," Mike replied. "Their first FTX. Right off of their first two days on the range. The mortar girls had had more range time, but not much."

"Jesus Christ," Pierson said, wonderingly. "How far are you into training?"

"Three, four weeks," Mike said. "Depending upon whether you consider that training. Colonel Nielson doesn't."

"I didn't say that," Nielson said with a sniff. "Just that it's interfered a bit."

"Well, the boss man said 'Good job' followed by 'next time, try to avoid the papers.' "

"Tell him I said thanks," Mike replied. "Anything else?"

"Just that," Pierson said. "I'll add my own 'good job.' Take care."

"Will do," Mike replied. "See ya."

"We were talking about an after action review," he continued, looking at Nielson.

"I was thinking it might make sense to ask D.C.," Nielson replied, gesturing at the phone with his chin.

"Thought about it," Mike said. "Too many fingers in the pie. You'll work up the AAR. Include me in the review as well as yourself. Get Adams and a couple of the instructors to do a forensic of the shoot site. I want a count of every round expended and a probable of who shot who. Work them all down and show them exactly what they did wrong. And I did wrong. Start with my forgetting to bring the mortars; I'm not used to having to think about integral heavies. And we had a major problem at one point with commo control. I want that hit heavy, along with the fact that it slowed down the pursuit, and I want Vanner to get started on what we can do about team freqs and sub-freqs. When Oleg told them to move by odd and evens, the security guys wanted to get out and pursue. That has to be covered, too."

"Will do," Nielson said, sighing. "Can I have Kat to assist?"

"Go for it," Mike replied. "Hot-wash tomorrow, full AAR with all teams by the end of the week."

"Got it," Nielson said. "I'll get started."

* * *

"Vanner," Mike said, sticking his head in the radio room. Vanner was pointing to something on one of the computer screens with his head nearly touching that of the Keldara female working the computer. Mike wasn't sure who she was, but he was pretty sure she was from the Makanee clan.

"Kildar?" the intel NCO said, spinning around.

The term "Kildar" was what Mike was called by the Keldara but it had caught on with others. It was a unique name for the local warlord, translating as something like "baron." What it meant, simply, was leader of the Keldara and that was enough for those who had come to know them.

Patrick Vanner was a former Marine, but Mike tried not to hold it against him. The guy was plentiful hardcore, but he was, nonetheless, the designated team geek. He'd been an intercept specialist in the Marines, then worked for the NSA for a while. After getting out he picked up a degree in computer science that was almost superfluous to his actual knowledge, which when it came to electronics and electronic intel was enormous. Short, stocky and crew-cut, he was proof positive that you could take the boy out of the Marines but not the Marines out of the boy.

"Got a couple of questions," Mike said, gesturing for Vanner to follow him out of the room. Mike led the way to the war room and grabbed a seat.

"You look like you're getting pretty friendly with some of the Keldara girls," Mike said, raising an eyebrow.

"Is that why you wanted to see me?" Vanner asked, frowning.

"No, but I figure I should ask about it," Mike replied.

"Gildana and I are just friends," Vanner said, shaking his head. "She's really good at picking out freqs. I'm being very proper in all my dealings with her. Speaking of which, I know these girls are being paid for this, but is there some way we can get them rank? They're doing the job of commo and intel techs, which in the military would make them privates or specialists."

"I'll think about it," Mike said. "But watch yourself. I don't want some Keldara Father on my case over a pregnant daughter. Or even one that could be pregnant, if you get my drift."

"Got it," Vanner said.

"On the real reason I wanted to talk to you," Mike continued. "We had a real breakdown in commo on the op. Not a breakdown, exactly, but ..."

"The team net got filled with chatter," Vanner said, nodding. "That's partially a matter of training so they don't just jump on the radio."

"I'd like more," Mike said. "Sub freqs for the sub-teams, a general freq for the whole team, then on up. Something where the commander doesn't have to think about it to pass stuff down, though, and can listen in on the chatter. Also, I want to start working on a battle net. Something where call-for-fire, at least by those with the right equipment, is point and click. Probably with a voice backup and confirm, but I want to be able to point to a spot on a map and say: 'Send fire there.' I'd also like to be able to sketch out movements for the teams."

"I can get all that," Vanner said. "Some of it's off-the-shelf and unclass but some of it's classified U.S. and European systems, mostly U.S."

"I think we can swing that," Mike said. "You find the system and I'll get permission for us to get it. Keep an eye on whether it can be integrated into U.S. battlefield systems. If we end up in a situation where we can call for fire from God, I'd like to be able to do it. Look around at some of the firms that do C2 and offer free field trials," he added, grinning. "Try to get a deal; it's not going to be cheap gear."

"Will do," Vanner said. "Anything else?"

"If you and Gildana get to be more than friends, tell me first," Mike said, seriously. "I'll see what I can do with the Keldara. Unless it's a lot more than friendship, in which case you'll be going home with a mother-in-law."

"Wasn't planning on it," Vanner said, frowning. "But it's a thought. She sure as hell is gorgeous."

"And she can cook," Mike said, nodding. "But she'd have to adapt to an entire new culture. A very, very different one. Think about it carefully."

"I will," Vanner said.

"Now we're done," Mike replied, grinning. "Take care."

* * *

"What we're going to do here, is go over the action you just engaged in just like any other test," Nielson said to the gathered Keldara. The hot-wash on the action was being conducted team by team, taking the whole day to go over known faults. They'd started with Team Oleg as the one that had been involved in the most combat. They were using one of the basement rooms in the serai for the review and it was packed with the Keldara sitting on folding chairs and looking nervous. "We will do one of these after every action, so get used to them.

"The first thing to say, and I'll say it again and again, is that you did very well," Nielson continued, looking around at the group. "Especially since you are in the middle of training. But there's no such thing as perfect. This is a method to get closer and closer, though, if you pay attention. Right now, Chief Adams and Sergeants Fletcher, Graff and McKenzie are walking over the skirmish area and working up the full review. What we're doing today is called the hot-wash. We'll be going over individual and unit actions as they are known and determining what we can do better the next time. I'll start with ammunition expenditure."

He pulled up a list with a graph on the computer screen on the wall and pointed to a couple of high points.

"There were over sixty rounds of 7.62 expended per casualty that was found to have been shot," Nielson said, pointing at the two graphs. "Not a total of sixty rounds, but sixty rounds per casualty. The low round count was Oleg, which, given that he shouldn't have been firing at all, was pretty good at only fifteen rounds. Oleg, why did you fire?"

"I ... wasn't doing anything else, Colonel," the team leader said, uncomfortably.

"You were supposed to be paying attention to everyone else's actions," Nielson said, shaking his head. "Chief Adams is, trust me, much more accurate than you are in a fight like that. But he expended no rounds because he knew he wasn't there to fight. He was there to observe and control. You are given a weapon for one purpose only; self-defense or something that you have to shoot at because you can't get one of the shooters to do it in time. That is it. Period. I can't imagine a reason for you to have expended even one round in this engagement. Did any of the enemy get close to your bunker?"

"No, sir," Oleg admitted, dropping his head.

"Keep your head next time," Nielson said. "You're there to control the flow of the battle. If you have to, lead from the front if you're directly attacked; if you have to engage due to time constraints, you can engage. Otherwise, keep your finger off the trigger! Beso!"

"Sir!" the Keldara said, sitting bolt upright. He'd been bent over talking to the Keldara next to him.

"Three hundred and eighty-six rounds?" Nielson said, clearly amazed. "How in the hell did you expend three hundred and eight-six rounds?"

* * *

The day after the hot-wash they took all six teams out and walked the ground, looking over what they could have done better. Mike determined that Nielson was just better at picking out details on stuff like this than he was. Everything from the timing on when he'd pulled in Vil to when he'd sent Killjoy and Vanim down the hill was reviewed and critiqued.

The third day was a final review held in the main dining room of the serai. Mike had had more tables and chairs brought in and there was just barely room for all the militia and the trainers. They'd even brought in the females from the mortar section who were sitting at a separate table with their trainers. The girls were looking smug as cats at being included in "guy talk."

"Kildar," Nielson said. "Could you stand up?"

"Here it comes," Mike noted to Adams, standing up at the head of the table.

"The recon movement to the observation point was good," Nielson said. "No major flaws there except a lack of putting your point out far enough during the movement. No trash found at your bivouac of the first night although there was debris at the main OP on the hilltop. I won't get into your choice of targets for the sniper operations; that is idiosyncratic and depends upon human factors I won't argue. However, your timing on withdrawal was quite bad. You very nearly got flanked by the pursuit party; you're aware of that?"

"Yes, I am," Mike said, nodding. "I took a few more shots than I should have."

"Arguably, you should not have been shooting," Nielson pointed out. "You should have been spotting and controlling and let Lasko shoot."

"I wasn't sure that would work," Mike said. "The ranges were longer than he'd trained on. I wanted to make sure the sniper fire was good enough to really sting them. But I did pull out too late."

"Your movement, given the closeness of the pursuit, was about par," Nielson said, pointing to the map. "Why did you choose to be the bait and send Praz and Lasko directly up the mountain?"

"I was in better shape to run," Mike said, shrugging. "Praz and Lasko weren't up to my level of condition. As it turned out, they probably could have made it just as well, but it was a tough hump. In the situation, I took the danger point."

"On reaching the ambush point you took one of the security bunkers for your position," Nielson said. "Why? You couldn't maintain view of the battle from there."

"I was following Chief Adams' direction," Mike said. "I assume that the pursuit party was close enough that Adams just wanted me to get to ground and that was the nearest bunker."

"In the planning stage you failed to consider the mortars for support," Nielson said, checking off an item on the list.

"Agreed," Mike said. "I'd thought of them solely in terms of fixed position use. I'm glad you remembered them," he added to chuckles through the room.

"Which brings us to the most critical danger point in this action: command and control," Nielson said. "The true commander of the mission was the Kildar. But he was forward deployed and in action for the majority of the mission. I was managing the battle, but I wasn't in command. The Kildar should have either relinquished command of the battle or moved to a position that he could manage all the pieces. It worked, because the Kildar and I could work together very well. But one or the other of us should have been designated for command and that person should have been in a position to control the flow of the battle."

"I'll comment on that," Mike said, stepping to the front. "I intend to always command from near the front if at all possible. My intention is to make that possible through better technology. But, yes, in this instance I was without effective maps and didn't really know where the pieces were. Colonel Nielson ran this battle and did so quite well."

"Damned straight," Chief Adams said, loudly, starting the applause.

Mike waited for the applause of the grinning Keldara to die and then waved at the group.

"You've completed your first action and your first after action review," Mike said, grinning. "And I'm sure you'd rather be back in combat than having it nitpicked." He waited again for the chuckles to die down, then nodded. "Again, you did well. And if we keep this up, each time you'll do better. But, for tonight, you have met the enemy and survived. There is a custom among the military that from time to time they have a dinner for only their unit, called a dining-in. There are various customs, which we'll work on as time passes. But for tonight, you are the guests of the Kildar. Tomorrow, of course, you're back in training. So ... watch the beer."

"Kildar," one of the men said, glancing over at the two tables of women. "What about the women? Are they to be serving?"

"Not if you want fire support next time, Viktor Shaynav!" one of the women yelled back. Which elicited a room full of belly laughs at Viktor's expense.

"No," Mike said, as the doors opened and his various "girls" came in bearing trays. "Tonight you will be served by the women of the Kildar in thanks for being loyal retainers and some of the finest soldiers it has been my pleasure to serve with."

* * *

"Christ, I can't believe you got it finished so fast," Mike said, standing on the top of the dam. The outer slope and top had even been seeded and covered in straw to prevent erosion while the inner slope was covered in clay. The weir hadn't been closed, yet, so the stream at the base still flowed freely. But all that took was turning the wheel. It was barely four weeks after the battle and the whole thing was in place.

"I've even got most of the houses wired with some fumble-fingered help from the Keldara," Meller said, proudly. "The big difference was getting the additional equipment."

"What about the channel to bring the other stream over?" Mike said. It was clear the streams hadn't been joined up, yet.

"I used the spare Keldara to put a temporary dam in up there," Meller said. "Then I blasted the channel. It created an embayment so the hydrostatic force wouldn't be so bad. We'll partially fill this with the current stream, then open that up, slowly, to add that stream in. That dam will probably wash away in the spring, but by then you won't need it. You want to do the honors?" the engineer concluded, waving at the wheel that controlled the weir. The controls were propped out over the water on a pier and had an automatic lifting device for when the water rose too high.

"No," Mike said, shaking his head. "You built it. You close it."

"Okay," Meller said happily. He stepped out onto the pier and calmly spun the wheel, dropping the metal plate into its slot and stopping the water from the stream, which immediately started to back up. "We'll open up the other one in a few days when this gets about six feet deep."

"How long to fill it?" Mike asked.

"About two weeks," Meller said. "At which point you and the Keldara will have your power. And we can start running water lines to the houses as soon as we get material."

"Start on that next," Mike said, nodding. "We'll have to figure out something for treatment; this stuff isn't drinkable as is."

"Chlorine's cheap," Meller said, shrugging. "I'll look into it."

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