Chapter 1

I should go back and say a few words about myself, not the entire tale mind you, but the moment in time, that now seems so long ago.

This part of the story goes like this:

It was hot, very hot today and my horse and I were dressed in a full suit of plate armour consisting of a helmet, gorget (or bevor), pauldrons, besagews, rondels, couters, vambraces, gauntlets, cuirass (back and breastplate) with fauld, tassets, culet, mail skirt, cuisses, poleyns, greaves, and sabatons for me. This was highly unusual. One of my girls, Mya had a vision and had advised me to make ready for battle. I was no fool so listened to the wench.

We (The steeds and I) had the very fullest and strongest sets of plate made, they included pieces of exchange so that the suit could be configured for a range of different uses, for example fighting on foot or on horse. Unlike some, my armour was to protect me and my horse, no tourney or show games with these Jack.

A complete suit of plate armour made from well-tempered steel would weigh around 15–25 kg(33-55 pounds) depending on size and gauge. I told myself it was worth the extra weight though for more protection. While traveling, I could not wear my plate and ride any of my three like armoured horse very far, it was just too hot and heavy for them to maintain any distance thusly adorned. It also gave reason to my success.

I rode a tall and strong stallion, one of three I had, white in colour and birthed in Spain; all from the same breed as an Andalusia war mount plus the spirit of a Saracen sire. Each was unique and its cost as great as a King’s ransom. I was not a King but received many ‘gifts’ like one.

When I normally rode on a journey, a Saracen blade made by ‘The Great One’ in Damascus and a small rounded shield were all I carried as weapons. Two more single handed blades made in Spain, 2 large, sturdy shields, a lance or two and two very large and heavy two-handed Great Swords, taken in battle, were aboard the wagon. Each of my ‘men’, (girls and ladies too), was armed with a dirk and good crossbow with extra bolts as protection.

My retinue consisted of a large supply cart, another one that was less burdened, both hauled by 4 mules, 4 girls, almost pages by the way they watched over me, were mounted on Sorrel mares, and rode on two either side of both. We were led by a tall and well-built mounted lad, Erik, of the Norse, taken in battle 3 years earlier, who carried my banner and colours. He too rode a white, but a smaller mare. Ahh, yes our companions. Man’s best friend. We had 6 of the biggest, meanest dogs which could be had. They would be protection for all of us. Did I mention that they were big and mean, they also were kept hungry? On stringers behind each cart were spare horses and mules, just in case. All in all we were as prepared as any for what I did.

What I did was fight for whoever paid me enough gold. Sounds a bit crass, I know, but, any port in a storm I had been told. I told you about Erik, he was Norse, 16 now or thereabouts, Mya and Vanessa, 14 or 15, both black haired and were from Circassia, then Yasmine and Salaam, 14 or so, taken in battles near where the Turks hailed from; there also was Katya and Katia, twin sisters of 17 years, and they were driving the wagons, both were girls from the Steppes or Caucasus and taken in battle there.

You might wonder how any, taken in battle, might loyally serve a Master. Let me tell you a little secret, if it were not for me, each of them would now be dead or worse, praying for death, and they knew it. Secondly, they were not ‘slaves’, they rode with me because they wished to. The most important reason perhaps, I feed, clothed and tried to educate them in ways not many who were not a noble ever were. In short, they lived a life with me that they never could have on their own, shortened perhaps though, by the way I must have need to endure.

One day our path saw us bordering Germany. It was unseasonal weather for Spring here. Water stops were frequent so our journey then saw us travel near the river. Such was both good and bad. Good because water was plentiful, bad because brigands tended to have frequented the same route as us.

Caution, at all times, was the unspoken watchword. The mules were as keen, if not more so than the dogs when danger was afoot. Their ears would lay back, then move visibly from side to side. The stance of the dogs would change too. All had long since learned to keep silent or had been ‘silenced’ at birth. In such circumstance, one did not need a braying mule or the sound of a barking dog. The horses, by contrast, had been breed for exactly this type of thing, silence in face of an enemy was what they had been trained for.

I, of course had Mya for times like this too, my own little predictor of trouble. This garb was hot but was preferred over the alternative. I had learned the hard way to listen to the ‘little one’.

It was not a populous country, but as I said, this route was favoured by many brigands. Those areas which were near or bordered a town or village were sure to provided an attack or two along the way. This route would take us to a village I wanted to stop at.

Between the dogs, 7 crossbows and my sword though, we had yet to find any who might successfully attack us. They were soon dispatched and added to our food, supplies and we gained some coin. Rarely were they mounted though. A pity, since a trip to sell the horse would be welcomed. Those girls, by the by, were as deadly with those bolts as any man would be.

It had become my custom to remain horsed and let the dogs and my ‘men’ clear the way. They retained what they wished of the spoils and sold or traded the remainder of the things when possible. By now, each would be deemed wealthy. I had told you they were not slaves.

I should also tell you also Vanessa and Yasmine knew how to cook up a feast, and food supplies were always plentiful, one reason we had a second wagon; another was those dogs were bottomless pits.

My main income was gleaned from a castle, town or merchant group needing escort and protection; so those were oft frequented by us. Yes, us; with the dogs we made a formidably well armed escort.

The merchants we guarded were generally overburdened and slower than us. All my girls could ride as well as any man, I wore little plate though on the few times we would require speed, such as escort for a bride, Princess, or messenger, then we returned for the wagons and gear after.

It may seem odd to think a girl would serve other than for some sport or comfort but all those who followed me would have to do whatever was required, be they male or female. Whatever needed to be done was freely done. Kill or be killed was always in the forefront of our thoughts.

Over the years they had been with me, all had proven this was so. In no small way, they all, the dogs too, were my family and I loved them as such.

We came to a small clearing near a brook. A perfect place to camp and for an ambush.

Between Eric’s sign, ears down on the mules, myself surrounded now by the dogs and my lovely pages to protect me from harm, it was not difficult to deduce something was afoot. Mya next to me holding my lance was another gentle reminder of why I wore that hot and sweaty armour.

We could retreat, charge forward or... ? I motioned Erik ahead.

“Hail the camp. My Master wishes to rest, and water, will you share this field or fight us?”

One obnoxious fool responded.

“Go away boy but send those doxies here for some sport, we... ?

That was about as far as he got as a bolt suddenly grew from his forehead. Katya or Katia probably took exception to what he had been saying.

To them, the wagons, horses and girls had seemed like their gods were smiling on them with a gift. The shadows on the ground cast by the dogs and the glint of my armour and that on my steed gave them some pause for thought though. The new addition in their friends face had given them another thought. Fight or flee replaced lust and greed. Erik unfurling my colours hastened their flee decision.

We added some nice pots, pans and stores our almost hosts hurriedly left behind. We also did not need to cook that night, they had thoughtfully already provided dinner and a fire for us.

We had no other visitors that night. The dogs may have something to do with that. Did I mention how those dogs were always hungry?

At false dawn, the smell of food and hot drink filled the air. I reached out and found at least not everyone had deserted me this morning. I assumed Vanessa and Mya were readying another feast.

Water, food and honesty was prized by all of us. Katya was near to me while her sister was quite taken with Erik as he was with her. No matter, the girls were twins and shared everything; they earned every minute they might have each other also. Our life was not one many would choose to have.

Two of the dogs standing up brought me crawling out of our tent. Two more were with Vanessa and Mya. I assumed Erik and Katia were circling in the woods with the other two dogs. “Hello the camp. May a weary traveler share your fire?”

The old man looked harmless enough. I guess my quick reply was fostered perhaps by the dream I was enjoying. I gently slapped someone’s bare butt to get up. I said. “Enter, but be aware there are no extra girls for you old man.”

Mya and Vanessa, even the one called Katya gave me a very provocative grin.

“Drink, Mi’lord? We shall have porridge and the remainder of last night’s meal this morning.

Erik held up both hands then again. I knew I had seen this man before.

“Sire, I fear we were not expecting so many to share this meager repast but, with time and a kind word to our chefs, a small feast will be prepared for you and your men.”

He not only looked surprised, but he started to laugh.

“We followed a band of highwaymen to this spot. If I had thought you were them, my men would have dealt with you already.”

“Perhaps Sire, but you and most of your men would have paid a high price.”

“How so, kind sir, you are alone save for these wenches and a squire.”

“Perhaps Sire you see only what I would have you see. Some of this repast was a gift left by those you seek.”

“Then kind Sir, we will be off.”

“One is in the woods, at least what of him that has survived the night. I think with the dogs though, no animal would have approached near to us. We would accompany you for your good graces and a heart felt thank you, although there were only 9 of them left.”

“Nine and they withdrew? You are only one man.”

“Sire, if they had insisted to stay, there would be 10 bodies in those woods. We were tired and the scent of their meal took precedence. Your 20 should have little trouble. None were mounted and spent a cold night.”

“How did you... ?”

“Sire, I am certain you rule quite well, your guards do as you command. I too do what I do well but my ‘men’ however need not be told what to do, they do whatever is needed, whenever it is needed.”

I made a signal and a bolt now protruded from near the King.

“Rest and share our camp Sire. Send your men off to deal with the varlets then have them return. You will be quite safe here with us.”

“Indeed, perhaps that is wise council. At my age long rides are not favoured.”

He laughed and signaled his men. He gave one his words and they rode off.

“Food and drink you say ‘Wench’?”

“Mya handed him a plate. Her hand strumming the end of the bolt near the fire. No words were necessary. The term ‘Wench’ was not one of the terms the source that used that bolt cared to hear.

That Vanessa started to hum, then gave voice to a song startled me. I had never heard her sing before. It was beautiful, a joyous tune.

No signal being given by me, the dogs and the girls in the tent and theones in the woods remained hidden. In many ways it was fortunate, in another it almost cost me my band of merry men.

A half dozen brigands appeared to the North. They were armed and led their horses, hoofs wrapped and muffled. They made little sound. Their leader stepped forward demanding things. He seemed most intrigued by Mya and Vanessa. Perhaps her song attracted him. His gesture for his men to kill me was ill received by them.

About the same time I was offering my apologies to his majesty, 5 of the new brigands lay dead or dying. One dog bared the leaders way to the girls, the other stood before the King. No command was needed. On a motion from Erik a third dog began ripping out the leaders throat. He might have been eating it even.

“How much did you say that heart-felt ‘thank you’ should be?” said the King.

It was not just the money he provided us, but this was a man I might honestly like and admire. I think my merry men were feeling much the same way.

Our travels ceased for a while. For some time I had been looking for a man like this. I felt it was time my merry men had some kind of life better than I would offer them. Arriving at the man’s castle it was quite readily seen in the eyes of my troop that they liked what they saw. At a glance too, one could see the King was smitten with one or two of my girls. He had ridden quite close to Salaam and Yasmine and received no rebuke from them. I think I was about to lose some of my merry men.

It was so, or nearly so and with my leave. I look back and wished that had not been laced with travail though. One day the King and I went ridding. It was to be our last ride together. He had agreed that my merry men would find anything and everything at the Castle they desired and would be free to leave at any time. He also admitted he felt more than just a fondness for Salaam and Yasmine. That good feeling dissipated as we approached the Castle and heard the clanging of swords and many screams.

Two of my merry men and two of the dogs had fallen, the rest and some of the Castle’s guard were holding several men at bay. As I leaped from my steed I recognized the fallen. It was Mya and Vanessa. I saw nothing now except blind rage, I had sense enough to motion that the King should be protected. I began to attend to my fallen angels. It was easy to see the dogs were beyond human help. Mya and Vanessa were not beyond mine though. I sliced open a vein on my breast and held each close.

Within a few drops of blood flowing to their lips I could feel their sucking my life into themselves. They were mine forever now as if they would not willingly been mine anyway, but this was my choice to do not theirs.

They say that parting is such sweet sorrow. In this instance, it had exposed my team to a part of me I had not wished for them to experience. Two of my girls would be with me now, no more intrigues or false excuses to the rest of my ‘men’. Some were not concerned. They had fought in my service and no matter what I might say to the King or the others I left behind; retribution, like revenge was a dish best served cold. In my case, I know, we had all the time in the world for revenge on the men and their families for what they had done.

If those like me, might wed, then this would be our joining, a blood bond and revenge our common purpose, one that would endure centuries on the families and friends of those that had caused this, all paying the price until the end of time. In some small way, I think the King knew that for he had a look of sadness on his face when we left.

To say that Mya and Vanessa were my perfect companions would be like saying two peas from the same pod might be different; it was an understatement. Our thoughts of what had occurred would last many years, centuries actually, wondering if anything as pure and lovely as my team would once again enter my life. Revenge the sweeter as the more the gain, the more the loss.

We meet someone.

In Germany, trains were like the old Swiss clocks: dependable. Not every German drove a Mercedes, BMW or even a VW. I decided to do some travel around Europe. Still shown as Army, I got a ninety day travel pass at half list price, with free access to a sleeping berth if space was available. Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Odessa seemed ready to get me to see parts of Europe I had never seen before. I could take the train South to Athens, West to Rome or North back towards Berlin. That pass now seemed my ‘ticket to ride, ‘ to quote the old song. The further I got away from the bigger cities, the more I liked things. I began to think I was anti-social.

The travel during off hours seemed to be the times when a lot of sleep berths were available. During commuter, periods there seemed to be a ton of Arab types who thought they were back in Iraq, or that everyone owed them a living. I don’t know why, because in the desert people of any race or colour were just that: people. Some were good, some bad and many ugly. My thoughts back to home might not have been any different if Lancaster had been invaded by a bunch of say, Canadians, Go figure. I guess people were the same all over.

I decided to stop off at some of my named places on my travel. Prague was the first. I figured I could do the same things going back. Like I said before, I was in no real hurry to go home. Not much waited for me there, anymore. I guess I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. It was quite easy just to think that feeling sorry-assed, seemed to be a good excuse to do nothing.

‘Damn, why not?’ I thought!

Prague was an old city. I used to think Philly was old, but here I saw buildings that were four to five hundred years old. Some of the women there seemed that old, too! However, there were some that looked pretty good too. I digress, sorry. I just have to think back to Trudy to remember what might have been. Yep, the next thought was also what it might have been like being married to a bitch like her. Maybe I was lucky, after all. She would be someone else’s problem, now.

One thing I noticed was that the food in Prague was a lot different than either in Germany or in the States. Meat in particular was much fatter, and was served in much smaller portions when at all, so were eggs. Most meat was pork. Not sure what was normal, but I knew Poland used a lot of pork, too.

Unless you were a big fan of dirt roads and whitewashed walls, the museums around Prague were a bit of a non-event. I was starting to re-consider why I was even there.

Bratislava is right on the border between Austria and Slovakia and would allow me several options. There were two trams and a ton of buses. Walking or by bicycle were the best way to see the site. I passed on these, just for today. I’m sure there was another reason, too. Yep, one sight event in the morning and one more at night; sunrise and sunset. This was sure turning out to be a fun trip.

Budapest station had a taxi service. The road nearby was just like any major freeway. Yep, each roadway was one-way, and of course each place I wanted to visit always required the driver to go the other way first ... although not to run the bill up, mind you, I’m sure.

I always wondered why they had a Museum for Telephones there. Cultural things I understood but Telephones? ‘C’mon, Man!’

In downtown Bucharest, ... guess what? ‘What?’ you ask. There is ‘The Count Dracula Club!’ This I had to see. Not what I expected it to be though.

‘Maybe, ‘ I thought, ‘Castle Dracula’ might be better.

It was getting late and I needed to get back or find a room for the night. I found out that there was no such place as Castle Dracula. It had been a myth, a legend. There was a place on the outskirts of the city where that legend took root. It was by a large forest. It was a spooky large forest with hills, fog and mist often appearing or so the locals told me. It was called Bran Castle, the former Royal Palace. I wondered if it was where Bram Stoker got the name from (Nope, it was not ‘Bram.’ ‘Bran’ was pretty common for castles, there). No matter, there was a Bed and Breakfast nearby. Probably over-priced, but what the Hell.

I should have called ahead. The ‘closed for repairs’ sign must have seen better days. This was a long trip and no taxi now, Nada! I understand after no one would buy it for $50 million, the State is trying to sell more visits there. No restrooms yet, only portables maybe

‘Legs, don’t fail me now, ‘ I thought at my trip there, if I went.back.

That huge forest turned out to be a park: ‘Parcul Regal’. It was part of the old Royal’s Castle grounds. It was the 25th of October and the B & B was open. I had even seen a sign saying so. What I was not expecting in that park, was a little girl. She was all alone, and from her gaunt and pale look, she did not seem all that healthy. As the distance to her closed, I got a better look at her. I think us guys maybe need no reminder about girls, no matter what their age.

‘Keep your damned eyes ahead, ‘ I thought, as I fell almost on my face.

Ego to a guy is a big thing, so was the bulge in my pants. The first words out of my mouth, even before I got up, were, “I must have tripped.:

She replied in German, “I could not have caused that, Vanessa could but not me!”

She might have been young and small on top but she was female so, while I was struggling to get up I heard her say.

“Maybe I did do that?” as she put two hands to her mouth to stop the giggles.

Damn, lucky I had a quick response, “Nope, must have been a huge stone there or something!”

Several things happened. I saw her coming closer and now had a closer look at her face. She looked like one of those statues in the museums and I could only imagine a goddess. I could only stare at her with my mouth wide open.

She continued towards me. Her one hand, her left one I think, reached up and closed my mouth. She shook her head from side to side, and I heard her say, “Men!”

She reached her right arm around me now and said, “Lean on me!”

There was no doubt in my mind that is exactly what I would do. She felt so good with being so close to me, I wanted to cry for joy.

Instead of heading to the ‘Millennium’ B & B, which was where I thought we were going, we turned back to the west, and headed towards the Castle. I was about to say something to her when I saw three men step from the trees onto the path we were on. They said something I did not understand. It was not German nor Romanian, more like Russian, Ukrainian or Gypsy perhaps. My little helper seemed to understand, though.

A thin fog, then a smoky mist began to form. We just stood there. They started to approach. Instinct took over. I tried to push the girl back, telling her, in my best half German, half Romanian to run to the Millennium. I wasn’t sure how it happened, but her hand stopped me dead. The look in her eyes was not of fear but more like anger at what was taking place. Her next words really, really confused me.

“Everything will be fine, James. Thank you for trying to protect me, but I am not without friends, here!”

I had never told her my name! ‘How did she know it?’ I wondered.

Six of the largest dog things I had ever seen seemed to appear before us. One was now going to my right, one to my left, between the girl and myself and one to her left. They stood more like ancient temple guardians, than animals. They were huge. The three other ‘dog things’ were looking at the little girl, as if waiting for her command.

She waved her left hand, the one not griping mine, and simply said to them, “Go!”

Off they went. The three men now stopped. I would have stopped, too, if three giant dogs started coming at me. Things changed now, as the dogs neared the men, they got bigger, darker, more like shimmering shapes. Those men now seemed frozen in place. I could not see what they saw but I could see their faces, at least for a while. On them were written fear, even certain death. I had seen similar looks in Iraq, usually on dead people. In less than a minute, those three men had no face, no heads, either. Those shapes had removed them from their bodies. I looked at the girl. She nodded to the dogs attending us. I looked again to where the men had been, they were gone, as were those ‘dog’ shapes. The dogs next to us were now gone, too. We started walking again towards Bran Castle. The girl now held my hand in hers as we walked.

“My name is Bianca, James!”

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