For God and Country

John Thompson

Chapter One

    General George Armstrong Custer slid his bloody broadsword back in its sheath and stepped over the body of a Second Chancer he had just dispatched. The small Oriental man had not put up any resistance and had taken his death well aside from all his preaching of love and how God had given them all another chance at redemption after all why else for the Resurrection? Custer had not thought about killing the man at first and even had a certain respect for men of the religious cloth anywhere along the river but this nonsense of hassling and interfering with Custer's personal entourage and message runners about God's infinite plan had angered him. Hell, there was a battle going on and he did not need any religious fervor or sudden 'converts' to leave his army or his entourage. It mattered little now since the man would be reborn somewhere else along the river to continue on with his preaching.
    A small escort of ten soldiers followed close behind him, spears and swords at the ready, very much aware of the immediate danger of their surroundings, but ready to do his commands when needed. Custer gave no further thought about the Second Chancer or to the entourage, and paused to thrust his blood encrusted hand into his tanned fish leather jacket to produce a large cigar. It still never failed to amaze him that the grails could produce such things and the marijuana sticks were not bad either along with the dream gum but only if taken in moderation.
    The towns of Carabain lie in flames around them and people were still in the throes of battle. Men and women defenders fought their dance with death against the attackers. The ground was littered with bodies, weapons and remnants of the former occupants belongings while dozens of huts and buildings were burning to fill the early daytime sky with thick, dark smoke heavy enough to block the sun's tentacles of light. This did nothing to distract Custer as he bit the end off the cigar and spit it on the ground and pondered. The campaign to capture most of the river territory and the occupant's possessions and technology was actually going well even if Custer had not thought of it first. Custer and Onu Mojava, leader and king of the Zulu nation, were three to four days ahead of Vlad Dracolya's main force of 75,000 men. Vlad had decided some weeks back, that instead of bogging down an entire army over smaller territories, it would be best to send ahead two smaller armies. This idea came after a long and drawn out siege of Constantinople about a month ago where the large walled in city, consisting mostly of Hebrew, middle age English and Chinese had managed to stave off Vlad's repeated attacks. After more than a week of intense fighting and the loss of more than several thousand men, the city fell but not without lessons. Vlad decided then to send ahead Custer and Mojava in a large two-pronged probe force consisting of 5,000 men. The idea being that they were to clear the way for Vlad's main force and to gather information about the lands that lie ahead. This suited the Zulu leader just fine as it reminded him of their 'horns of the buffalo' maneuver. Custer was sent along to more or less keep Mojava in check and was having a time doing it.
    "Corporal McNally, front and center!" Custer lit the cigar puffing away and chose his next words carefully. Corporal McNally came forward from the small entourage, hunched over still vividly aware of the intense fighting and carnage that rampaged around them. Anytime Custer wanted you forward and center it usually meant bad news.
    McNally did not attempt to stand at attention. The occasional arrow still whistled overhead and only a fool would hold his head up high for a clean shot. "Sir, reporting as ordered sir." McNally did a half salute. Custer turned and faced McNally, off put by his being hunched over, but some men were more aware of danger than others. "I need you to go round up that Mojava fellow and bring him to me, that damn bastard just about got us all wiped out when we got off the boats and I feel the urge to plant my foot up his backside!"
    McNally had thought the attack had gone pretty well, Carabain had only put up a medium of fighting compared to the province of Lantan some weeks back. The Aztecs there had put up quite a battle and for some weeks after small bands of surviving tribesmen had followed in pursuit to harass the regiments occasionally killing one or two men. The preferred method of ambush was to lie in wait until a man had to go and relieve himself in the early morning hours and would move away from the safety of the camp into the surrounding trees or bushes to conduct his business in private. Minutes later the early morning sky would cry out with screams from dying men, as the Aztecs would slowly skin the man alive or worse. On one occasion he had seen one man that had bleed to death as a result of having the soft but tough spindly backbone from a young horn fish forced through the urethra opening of his penis. How they had managed to accomplish this still sent shivers through his spine. Yes it certainly had gone better here. "Sir?" he queried.
    Custer turned away, watching the fighting, then waving his arms violently he wheeled around and grabbed and shook McNally, this time eyes wide and more agitated, face turning red. "That damn Mojava, he was supposed to assist in attacking the main force of defenders in the hills," he paused and waved at the sweeping rolling mountains behind him letting McNally loose. "That was his objective, instead that damn bastard was off the ships and running into town, cutting me off, having me fend off them bastards in the hills when they came sweeping on down into the rear of our troops. " Custer paused again for affect, and then hunched to face McNally at his level grabbing him by the lapels of his shirt again. "Do you understand? We could have gotten killed! Now go get Mojava!"
    McNally turned to run, tripped on the disemboweled body of the Second Chancer, regained himself quickly and ran off into the surrounding chaos.
    Custer turned back around and was watching the close quarters battle more intently, noting that the blacks were making quick work of the dwindling resistance. The fact that Vlad Dracolya held all the supplies and siege equipment made Custer even more angry and if he had had a mustache to chew on he would have chewed it off by now. The floating catapult platforms would have come into good use here and it was a good thing that there were plenty of grail stones along this part of the river as they had captured plenty of 'free' grail buckets along the way. Gods, he thought, if we had to depend on supplies and weapons from Vlad we would've been slaughtered like pigs already. Vlad himself was too busy dilly-dallying around nailing people to the cross, or trees, or whatever he thought would hold a human body. What was his obsession with that? It made no sense to him at all. As this campaign had progressed, he had noted that Vlad was becoming more violent towards those that opposed him and his own personal army of tribesmen from South America and the far South Seas of old earth were just as vicious. They were simple people with simple beliefs and were faithful to every command he gave no matter how ridiculous and held him in view as being some sort of god. He had seen Vlad order several men from his war cabinet to be tied to a captured river dragon when they had attempted to undermine Vlads command in tactics. He watched with quiet amusement as the large fish glided across the river occasionally dipping beneath the waters surface to slowly drown them while he dined on tender steak by the rivers edge. Damn him, even if the desertion rate was low.
    A deep voice interrupted Custer's thought. "Sir, I don't think it wise to stick around here." Custer turned and faced the man whose voice it belonged. Sergeant Roberts stood there rigid and at attention. "Sir it's unsafe at the moment." he repeated.
    Why were these men so afraid still? Did they not realize that the power of Death's chains had been lifted with the Resurrection? Even though God had not shown Himself on the Riverbanks that Day of Awakening it never failed to anger him that men, especially soldiers, were still afraid of this thing called Death after all you would just be resurrected again somewhere else.
    Custer drew in the bitter gray smoke from his cigar then exhaled slowly and examined the rolled brown paper containing the tobacco. "It's a good thing you presented yourself Sergeant I am in need of a two man group to relay a message to Vlad's force with the message that the state of Carabain is in our control and we are going to wait here for two days to gather supplies and information before pressing on. I need this done now for immediate dispatch." Roberts saluted, turned and melted away into the large throng of fighting bodies that even now was fading off into a low din. Custer watched Roberts fading away and pondered their next movement. Sure boarding the boats and attacking the next territory was next, but he had heard of the larger one that lay a week or so ahead that of New England Proper. This one was ruled by a Monarchy of five kings and queens and from the spy reports he had been receiving, the surrounding territories would prove to be a hard fight since New England Proper held onto both sides of the river. Vlad had been persistent in his point to attack this territory but had given no reason as to why and Custer did not question the order except to himself. He knew there were spies here on Vlads behalf to report on Custer and Mojava's ambitions and the type of provinces that were being warred on. It was easy to assume that there were spies even in Custer's personal entourage. Roberts had been suspect of this from the beginning and it was easier to send the spy back to the master than to deal with the problem of leaking information.
    And then there was Mojava.
    Mojava was head of the Zulu, born sometime around the early eighteenth century or at the time of the Dark Moon, as he had said. Mojava ruled over his 3500 Zulu army with an iron fist and did not let Custer, a white man, have much say into his ruling or commanding his Zulu army. It hurt his pride to let Custer dictate to him how to maneuver his army, even if it was beneficial for the survivability of this military operation. Custer's intent was to take Carabain with the minimal amount of loss; of course Mojava would have none of it. He had just smiled that large toothy grin and nodded in agreement when told that he was to assist in the attack of the main force hiding in the hills in a pincer movement, instead he and his force had sailed past their drop point and off loaded the boats at the docks and headed straight for the town. Custer's force, already landed some miles back, had the pleasure of dealing with the resistance of Celts, Visigoths, and whatever Germanic tribe was hiding there alone. This force would have annihilated Custer's command and if it hadn't been for the arrival of the second wing of the attack force, the Roman troops in Vlad's employ, Custer's force would have surely perished. As it stood right now, Custer's force was down a third. Reports had said so far, that Mojava's force had only suffered minor lose's.
    A loud, high-pitched shrieking brought Custer's attention back to the present. A black Zulu and a white soldier were carrying off a woman. Her long dirty blonde hair dragged on the ground, and even though her top blouse had been torn away, exposing large ample breasts, she fought hard kicking, clawing and screaming. This did nothing to thwart the two men carrying her. They laughed and joked, their intentions clear. Already the fighting was just about over, the air was heavy with smoke and the thick sweet smell of blood assailed his nostrils. Men and women defenders were being rounded up and herded off into makeshift pens to be held over either for questioning or for Vlad's twisted intentions whenever he should arrive, or for raping. He pitied for the captured defenders since rumors abounded from Vlad's camp of him drinking and bathing in the blood of his captured victims and his private army skinning people alive and wearing their skins.
    The theory of rape though disappointed him but was not new to him and had noted that the principle of rape did not apply here along this vast river since women could not reproduce but old terrestrial life habits could not change. He had seen this happen many times during the Indian campaigns and his time as an officer for the Union Army in the War Between the States. The idea then was to breed out the Indian or to demoralize the Confederates but here it happened more frequently than he liked to admit and at times sickened him. He had entertained the thought of just escaping all of this madness, just take a canoe under the cover of darkness and paddle away, but he was a soldier and not a deserter; besides where else could he go? For right now this was the only war in town and it was good to be leading men into combat.
    Custer finished his cigar and threw it to the ground with disgust and motioning to his entourage, he moved off to set up camp away from the clutter of death and obscene sex.
    And then there was Mojava to deal with.

***    ***    ***

    Gonville Broomhead stood shirtless in the waist deep waters of the river, unmoving he waited and concentrated for his moment to arise. The object of his attention, a large silver fish, flicked its reddish tail and slowly maneuvered towards him unaware of the danger. Slowly, ever so slowly, Broomhead raised the thin bamboo lance to shoulder level and waited for the moment. The fish was now within twenty-five yards or so and judging by the size it must weigh in at or around fifteen pounds, give or take, and unusual as far as this part of the river goes. The fish was now within ten yards and Broomhead, in one quick thrust of the lance, speared the water surface, sure of his victory. The thin fish gut line that was attached to the lance end assured him he was correct and slowly he pulled in his prize. In his terrestrial life he had been an avid hunter and he remembered awakening on the riverbanks many years ago to discover that here on this endless river there was nothing as far as land animals to hunt. Disappointed he resorted to fishing, not just with a pole and string, but also with spear. It was a far cry from the Martini-Henry action rifles he was accustomed to carrying in his terrestrial life but it would have to do.
    He had just pulled the lance end up to look at his fish, noting that it was a clean spearing, when a voice called him from the shore behind him. He turned and noted that the voice belonged to lance corporal Vance Stevens. Stevens stood there on the riverbanks waiting for Broomhead to finish what he was doing before he had called him.
    Broomhead pulled the fish off the end of the spear end and tucked it away in his small pack that hung around his neck before turning and making his walk back to the riverbanks.
    "And what is it this time Stevens? Have the Mongols again attacked one of our observatory posts or wait." he paused in the river for a moment looking around into the open blue sky. "Or perhaps God has come to pass judgment finally?"
    Corporal Stevens did not answer but continued to stand on the shores, holding a blue towel and as Broomhead walked back towards the banks he thought for the moment that this was unusual even for Stevens not to respond. He knew Stevens still held onto his Christian beliefs of the old earth and he believed that God would arrive soon holding onto the scripture verse stating a faithful servant waits for the Lord of the house to arrive home. This was perhaps for once serious. Stevens finally spoke as Broomhead left the waters of the river and reached up for the towel. "Chard has called a major council meeting in the war room."
    This was serious. Chard had never called a meeting like this before noonday unless it was a determent. "Do you have any information as to what for?"
    Stevens turned his back towards Broomhead while he removed his dragonfish trousers and dried himself. "Sir the only thing I know is that he called Counsel no more than an hour ago and had requested you being there but you could not be found immediately. Of course I knew where to look if you were not training the newcomers. I believe that it has something to do with a man that came into the territory some hours ago but I know nothing more." Broomhead answered quickly, "perhaps some news from New England Proper?"
    Stevens nodded his head in the negative. "This man came from the other direction.from down river."
    Broomhead quickly dried and redressed himself with a yellow and black-checkered kilt and handed Stevens the large sack containing the four fish he had killed. He kept the lance and used it as a staff as they began their trek back to the outpost. Along the way through the forest and shrubbery they made their way along a winding path towards their home and Outpost Victoria.
    Outpost Victoria held a garrison of over a thousand men and held onto the furthest reaches of territory of New England Proper. New England Proper was the seat of power along this stretch of the river and the inner city was inhabited by more than 100,000 valley dwellers. The vast expanse of land and territories surrounding them was eventually conquered or absorbed into the New English fabric. Originally seven monarchs and queens ruled the city. All had been part of the Monarchy of England at sometime in their terrestrial life and were surprised upon awakening on the Riverbanks many, many years ago to find themselves all ready at odds with each other. Armies and alliances were formed and broken and each waged war as they had done in their mortal lives, each trying to gain advantage over the others in some form of deception or another. Each desperately wanting to gain control over the land and proclaim themselves to be rightful heir over this part of the river valley. Eventually, as time past, they all began to realize that this could not go on forever. Surely there must be a solution. They eventually settled upon building, together, a large city. The seven Monarchs and Queens all came together with agreements being made. They understood that the ways of earth and old England were long dead and this was a new time, one in which they could benefit. All ready people by the hundreds were pouring into the small city upon hearing the rumor of this city and with some of these people came vast sources and wealth of information on construction of waterways, sewage disposal, roadway construction, and mining techniques. On the later, so far as was known, only miniscule amounts of metal were found and nothing could really be constructed from it. So it was along this mineral and metal poor River. There was an agreement made and all seven signed on the proverbial dotted line. Together they would rule over parts of the land and city.
     It all could not last.
    Several years had past since the War of the Monarchy and construction of New England Proper was well under way, but one King John and one Queen Antoinette just could not leave well enough alone and together they began to conspire against the other five. At first, as with all conspiracy's, the idea was to kill off the five monarchy and split the land and the city between them, but as time past a hatred grew between the two and the conspiracy leaked out. The other five monarchs responded swiftly.
    King John and the hated queen and their cohorts were quickly rounded up and their lands forfeited. They all knew what fate awaited them and some took their own lives rather than face the dreaded ax. Still the remaining parties knew their fate and accepted it realizing that they would be reborn somewhere else and stoically they faced the dreaded ax man. Queen Antoinette would have no one help her up the steps leading to the chopping block. She was just to proud and did not speak a single word even as the ax whipped through the air to neatly part her head from her shoulders.
    The remaining Monarchs had divided up the former ruler's lands amongst themselves and passed a proclamation that if either King John or the Queen Antoinette were ever found within the territories, albeit highly improbable, then they would be thrown into the dungeons to rot there for the rest of time. The remaining kings and queen could do as they pleased with their lands with no interference from the each other as long as it did not interfere with New England Proper as a whole. The city swelled and more lands were required. This created a large expansion to develop along both sides of the river and rapidly withier it was from conquest or treaties.
    Outpost Victoria was the result of this expansion and was the furthest outpost from the city. If one would leave the outpost by boat, it would take a little more than a week to get to New England Proper itself. They did not have control of the other side of the river across from the out post; North American Indians largely controlled this. Broomhead had never talked to any of these people, mostly because they stayed to themselves and rejected any offer of a meeting. It was pointed out that they not only did not trust the white man but simply did not want to give what they felt was given to them to be taken away or trodden upon by the white man. Broomhead knew nothing of the Indians past history but it had been further explained to him that Indians in North America had been forced from their lands by white people and placed on Reservations. The Indians still held onto the belief that their god had given them a second chance to retain their lands. Nothing more was known about them and the only time that Broomhead had seen them was when they were out in the water's fishing or strolling across the plains. They stayed further up in the wooded parts of the valley off the plains and protected the grail stones along their part of the river. Some people traveling through had attempted to stop there to refill their grails but were quickly turned away or were killed for non-compliance to leave. They were quiet enough people and sought nothing but to be left alone.
    Broomhead and Stevens cleared the tree line and stepped out onto a large open plain. In the middle of the plain lay Outpost Victoria.
    The post was a heavy walled encampment that housed several hundred men and women. Men and women moved about the open plains and within the encampment conducting their everyday chores, duties or training. Broomhead and Stevens entered through the large double gates under the watchful eyes of the guard's overhead on the ramparts. There had been some trouble with the neighboring Mongols downriver and the outpost was always on guard. There was always the remote possibility that they would attack the outpost itself, but so far they had only managed to attack a few of the smaller observatory stations posted on the borders, often burning these down. All in all though, they were busy fighting the encampment of Greeks, Romans and the other mix of people located on the other side of them. Old hatred's die-hard even here on the river.
    Broomhead walked up to a large pine log barracks building and past the two heavily armed guards posted there. Stevens stayed behind at that point and indicated to Broomhead that he would go and cook the fish and have them ready in Broomhead's hut after the meeting. Broomhead nodded then entered the large single room barracks building and closed the double doors behind him. Inside the great hall Broomhead stood allowing time for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Five men waited by the large oak table by the fireplace and none said a word to Broomhead but stared in his direction. Broomhead knew four of the men but the one seated at the end of the table he did not and assumed that this was the man that Stevens had spoken of. He was a large, burly enough fellow and wore only the common colored kilt with the magnetic tabs and no shirt. He eyed Broomhead with only casual interest and raised his arm to down a wooden cup of what Broomhead assumed to be either water or liquor.
    Broomhead walked towards them. "A war council meeting at midday? What is this Chard and why did you not come for me sooner?"
    John Rouse Merriott Chard held up his hand and shook his head. "Broomhead it was unfortunate that you be disturbed but you'll be back spearing your fish soon enough." The later statement rubbed Broomhead wrong and Chard knew this fact but he did not wait for a reply. "This man has just come from down river with some rather distressing news."
    Broomhead waited for the other man to speak and when he did it was a sure indication that this man had crude manners and was of lowborn class. "Damn it sure is good to drink water, liquors good but you can't beat the fucking water to quench the thirst. Jack Olsen speaking and at your service and it's about time you showed up I was getting tired waiting on your ass."
    Broomhead looked to Chard and the others. Chard only shook his head. "This man came from down river this morning and his story is of importance. Mr. Olson please continue."
    Olsen downed another mug of water then continued focusing his words at Broomhead. "Well I hate to repeat myself but you guys have trouble coming. I came from the province of Carabain about a week down river from here. A large army of about five thousand or so men attacked us in the early morning hours. I would say half of these were black African warriors from various tribes all being led in here by a General Custer." Olsen paused again and indicated to Chard he wanted another cup of water. Broomhead spoke up. "Black African warriors?"
    Chard held up his hand. "Let him finish there's more."
    After downing another cup Olsen continued. "Shit if there's more. That ain't the worst of it. Near the end of the battle I led a small group of men in a final assault, you know a last act of defiance figuring well fuck I'll be reborn tomorrow, but everyone got killed but me. I was pretending to be dead, lying amongst the group of men with blood and shit dripping down on top of me. Do you know how fucking difficult it is to do that? Well anyway I saw this Custer there stomping around all pissed off talking about a Vlad Dracolya's main force lagging behind."
    He could contain himself no longer and Broomhead spoke again. "Vlad Dracolya? The Impaler? How large of a force are we looking at?"
    "Who is this Vlad?" interrupted Cecil Johnson. He stood by the fireplace holding his mug and quietly listened with interest but a worried expression was etched across his face and for the moment Broomhead had to wonder if that was how he looked at the moment of his death.
    "A Hungarian ruler from about the fifteenth century." Answered Roy Stanton who was seated by the newcomer. "And a rather effective one. Crime was almost non-existent and he had this perverted idea about impaling or putting people to the stake."
    Chard also chimed in. "He also believed in honesty and truth." He stepped away from the table and walked near the fireplace and looked into the flames. "There was an emissary from one of the surrounding kingdoms, not sure which one but this emissary had a coin pouch that was stolen and he reported it to Vlad with the exact amount and types of coin in the pouch. Vlad in turn declared that this coin pouch be returned and the next morning the emissary awoke to find that his coin pouch had been returned but it had an extra coin added. He then reported to Vlad that his pouch had been returned but it had the extra coin. Vlad had placed that extra coin there to test this emissary's honesty and if he had not reported it Vlad had told him he would have had his hands cut off."
    John Merrick, an oil baron in his terrestrial life and a war general in this life exclaimed loudly, "Enough with the history lesson! How many on this Vlads force are we looking at?"
    : "About eighty or so thousand. Maybe more or less and they were just a few days behind Custer." Answered Olsen. His face was pale and he was visibly shaken on hearing himself say the number of the army and again he picked up a clay jug and poured himself another cup of water.
    "Well the history lesson is important." Rumbled Stanton.
    Broomhead was puzzled and asked. "What for?"
    Stanton swirled his cup looking at the amber fluid as if looking for an answer to the troubles that were coming. "Vlad was one of the founding members of New England Proper I think, and if memory serves me well he was assigned with the prestigious title of Defender of the State." He paused and took a drag off his cigarette. "I went ahead and dispatched a message runner to New England Proper to establish this fact."
    "Founding member? What or why is he waging a war? It would destabilize this region." Merrick asked.
    Stanton answered slowly. "I don't know, perhaps for revenge or some other personal gain. We'll have to wait for the information to come back to us."
    Chard let out a deep sigh and reached across the table and poured himself a drink of bourbon and said, "Well that would most certainly explain the increase in traffic heading upriver." He paused and then added. "The African warriors are mostly Zulu." He said nothing further, letting the words hang in the air knowing that Broomhead had them.
    "Zulu?" Broomhead answered. He had fought them before and when he had been resurrected along these riverbanks years ago he had not seen one Zulu. He had seen several blacks, mostly American slaves from the early eighteen hundreds but never a Zulu.
    "Damn right Zulu," added Olsen. "Them bastards were the worst to fight. I've never fought anything harder here.well except maybe a few broads but never like them or to the death."
    "Are you sure of this?" Broomhead asked. His eyes locked onto those of Olsen who stood up and lit up a cigarette. "Yeah I'm sure."
    "How do you know they were Zulu?"
    Olsen exhaled blowing smoke towards Broomhead. "Custer said they were. He was also complaining about some Mojave fellow not being where he was supposed to be when the attacks started."
    "I find it surprising that you managed to slip away. You seem to be in pretty good shape considering." Merrick eyed Olsen with narrowed eyes that oozed with suspicion.
    Olsen took another drag from his cigarette and calmly replied. "Fuck you, you puss ass. You should be grateful I'm even here volunteering this info to you. Make no mistake they're coming here and if you think that I'm a spy or some shit go ahead and kill my ass now. I'll just be reborn tomorrow somewhere else and you'll still have to deal with them."
    Merrick widened his eyes. "Perhaps that's not a bad idea."
    "Settle down folks. This is about an approaching army and the survival of New England Proper. Pissing contests aside Mr. Olsen did you see any weapons like cannons or heavy catapults or boats even?" Asked Stanton.
    Broomhead nodded his head slowly up and down acknowledging the facts and ignoring what the others were discussing for that moment. They seemed distant from his thoughts and he was having trouble focusing on anything except the word ZULU. They were again to fight the Zulus? What twist of irony! Even along this vast river of afterlife the fact and numerical impossibility of running into one black let alone an entire tribe was to vast to comprehend. How was it that an entire tribe had been resurrected in the same place and time and allowed to flourish while others had been separated and scattered to the winds. The Indians across the river also had been resurrected together but he was sure that not every Indian through out all time had been placed there and was sure there were others out there. Again he was thinking of how the resurrection machine or God was planning out the resurrection of billions of people and how it worked. There was no pattern in how a person or persons were resurrected along the river. One minute you're alive and an accident happens and the next morning you are 'reborn' in an entirely different place from where you were. For years it ate at him as to how it all worked and what was the reason for them being resurrected at all? But now the Zulu's were coming and they were together to threaten and destroy anything in their path. Would they fight the Zulus? Again the math dictated that it was impossible and it hurt to think about it. Instead he turned without saying anything further and walked back out of the war room leaving the others to work out the details.
    Chard called out after him but Broomhead refused to answer.

Chapter Two

    The fields were open and vast. Occasionally a tree or a group of trees broke up the skyline and the surrounding rolling hills. Broomhead stood there rigid and at attention dressed in the heavy red wool uniform and the white campaign hat that proudly displayed belonging to the British Army. The sun had reached its zenith in the sky and the dry heat was unbearable even in January. He could feel the itchy sweat running down his face and his back was damp and heated. In his hand he held onto the large frame Webley revolver pistol with a sweaty grip. He yelled something out an order perhaps for the men around him swarmed to the heavy melee bags of ground corn that surrounded the small compound. Everything moved in slow motion. Men moved slowly to their positions carrying the long Martini-Henry rifles. He yelled out something again and the men began to load their weapons and held them at the ready with fixed bayonets. Off in the distance he saw them like a black cloud moving across the land they came running. Zulu's by the thousand's came brandishing the dreaded assegais spear and animal hide covered shields. Broomhead leaned forward and ran slowly to the wall and yelled out another order. The men around him raised their rifles to their shoulders and it was then Broomhead noted their was no sound coming from his men, just the rumbling of the Zulu warrior's as they made their dreaded run to kill them all. The ground shook and rumbled as the black death made it's way to them sure of their victory and Broomhead could begin to see the faces twisted with exertion from running but also the face's contorted with hatred for the white man. Adrenaline coursed its way through his veins, most notably the heavy tingling in his fingertips. They were closer now and he roared out another order and those around him fired away in a heavy volley of leaded death. The mass of Zulu's before them quickly faded away to black smoke just as they reached the wall of meal bags stacked there. He was disoriented and confused and began searching around him for the black warrior's and where they had disappeared to. The men around him continued to fire into the plains and surrounding hills. Shooting at nothing. The Zulu's had vanished. He felt the wind kick up, forcing him to squint his eyes and the scene shifted.
    It was nighttime now and the hospital was aflame. The soldiers now fought hand to hand with the Zulu warriors who appeared as deadly shadows dancing away with their orchestra of death swinging and stabbing with their assegais spears. Broomhead moved away from the wall dazed and felt something warm and wet running down the side of his face, he reached up and wiped it away and looked at his hand. It was coated with a thin film of blood. How could this be? He still held onto his pistol and a Zulu warrior dressed in cheetah hides moved in and swung the spear blade at him. Broomhead moved back sluggishly but with urgency and raised the Webley revolver and pulled the trigger. The Zulu's head exploded like an over ripe melon; he could see this as the muzzle blast ripped through the night. Instantly he felt a pair of hands grab him from behind and he turned violently shaking the hands that grabbed him. Another Zulu stepped away from him and reared back with the spear to pierce Broomhead in the chest. A loud gunshot and the Zulu stiffened and his head flipped back to howl at the angry moon and he pitched forward dead. Chard, his beloved friend stepped forward out of the shadows in front of him holding a Martini-Henry carbine, looking like he had seen better battles. Chard then dropped his rifle and reached out to grab him by the shoulders and repeatedly called his name.
    "Bromhead wake up!"
    Broomhead swam through the thick inky darkness to break the surface of the world of consciences. Chard loomed above him shaking him, calling him. He was wet and the dripping water helped bring him out of the dream.
    He sat up and Chard moved back watching him near the fish oil lantern that glowed its soft orange light. Outside it was raining hard and thunder rolled across the river valley just as it did every night at this same time. He reached up with his hand and wiped away the cool sweat that had collected on his forehead. It had been a dream and it was always the same dream that had plagued him ever since that day under the hot African sun. There were different twists in the dream but usually it followed the same path.
    Rorke's Drift.
    That name alone had plagued him from that fateful day when Chard and Broomhead had discussed making a stand after two thousand British soldiers had lost there lives on the open plains of Isandhiwana. There the Royal armies of Britain had been out in the open slaughtered nearly to the last man save about 400 men from the AmuZulu nations army but here at the station it was decided they could at least make a stand. Out in the open plains they would've been slaughtered just like their counterparts before them who's corpse's now lay bloated and swollen under the hot African sun. They spent most of the day preparing defense's around the station mostly stacking meal bags of corn for the outer defense and large biscuit boxes for the inner defense. When the Zulu's did finally attack, it was with a ferocity that only few men understood. Facing incredible odds and constant repeated attacks they held onto their ground throughout the night and the next day, and just as it had begun it ended. The Zulu's had seen the approaching armies of Lord Chelmsford's relief force and decided to fade back across the Buffalo River to lick their wounds and recover. There would be another time and place one in which the Zulu's would sweep the land clear of the evil white man's plan of domination. Chard and Broomhead had watched the Zulu's disappear and Chard had found an unbroken bottle of liquor. Together they had drunk deep of the burning amber fluid congratulating each other on a job well done but more happy to be alive than laying amongst the dead around them.
    "It's just a dream.a bad one but I'm all right."
    Chard held out a small towel and also had a clay jug containing what Broomhead assumed to be liquor. Broomhead took the towel and wiped away the sweat from his upper body. He took the clay jug and pulled the wooden cork and drunk of the harsh fluid. "I know that the idea of fighting the Zulu's is a rather unpleasant one but we are the only one's that stand between them and New England Proper and besides we have the unfortunate experience of having dealt with them before." Chard paused and sat down cross-legged and changed the subject. "I happened to be walking by just before the rains started and heard you cry out."
    "The rain.yes." Broomhead exhaled deeply and reached out and handed Chard the clay jug. "Sorry about walking out earlier today. Did we by chance come up with a strategy to counter the Zulu's?"
    Chard nodded. "Well somewhat but we still have to work out the details. We decided to stay and fight a retreating withdrawal if needed but it was thought best to abandon the post. If we can perhaps keep this Custer's army at bay and dwindle his force we might stand a chance. It's this Vlad Dracolya that is the worry at the moment."
    "I think we might be able to fight right here."
    Chard looked at Broomhead. "Here? No way."
    "Chard, I was giving some thought on the matter after I left and we might be able to talk with the Mongols and the Indians across the river. If we can pull in their men we might have the chance after all you said yourself we are the only ones between them and New England Proper."
    "The Mongols despise us and the Indians across the river wish nothing to do with us." "Yes but this.this giant army that threatens us also involves them and their way of life. If we can explain this line of thought to them they might assist us."
    Chard pulled the cloth curtain that served as a door to the hut aside and looked away out in the rains as if an answer could be found within. It was still raining outside and lightning flashed across the valley. "Perhaps but we would have to run this by the council tomorrow first thing. The plan right now is to evacuate and burn anything that could prove to be useful to them." He sighed aloud and continued. "There are more and more people on the river these days, all running from this army, including some deserters. We've managed to piece together that Custer might be becoming disenchanted with this conquest and might turn, but I hold onto the belief that it is a rumor for now."
    "We can't rely on rumors, we have to assume for now that they are coming to destroy our way of life. Have we sent any more messenger's out to New England Proper?" Asked Broomhead.
    "No not yet but another messenger is to leave out in the morning."
    "What of our friend Mr. Jack Olsen?"
    Chard shifted his weight to a more comfortable sitting. "I had him placed in the stockade for the moment at the council's advice. I don't think he is a spy but he is more interested in his own personal survival, but still we have to be very careful about spies coming into our fold here at the outpost until this danger pass'."
    Broomhead stood up to stretch his legs. "I say this Chard, we must try to make our stand here.again as we did at Rorke's Drift. We have no other alternative other than to be slaughtered like cows on the run." Chard stood up also eyeing Broomhead closely. "I'll agree with you but the council might not. I say we let this rest till morning and then propose the idea with valid explanation's and a working strategy then they might."
    Chard clasped his hand on Broomhead's shoulder. "Well I must move on. Annie must be worried as to where I am and do not worry we will deal with the council in the morning. Good night Broomhead." Chard moved the flap to the hut entrance aside and quickly disappeared amongst the huts and the misty rain.
    It must be nice to have a woman to go home to also, Broomhead pondered. In their terrestrial lives neither of them had gotten married but here on this vast river both had been married several times. The last woman he had been with was several weeks ago but after living together for two years she wanted to move on and see the river. Broomhead had no desire to see the rest of the river and it was mutually agreed upon that she leave when the next boat arrived to refill their grails. She left with a boat containing twelve people who claimed to be heading to the end of the river. There was always someone coming through who claimed to be going to the end of the river and it was nonsense in his eyes. Why not just leave well enough alone? Even now as he thought more of the past nights of passionate love making and long casual discussions with his own woman he began to feel a sense of loss, but he also knew there could be no going back and getting her. She could be several thousand miles away and he hoped the best for her where ever she was. A brief glimpse of her in the lusty throes of orgasmic sex with another man entered his mind and he quickly brushed it aside. He dared not think of her anymore for it was bad enough she had left. He would be lying to himself if he had not thought of going to the end of the river himself but here at the outpost he had a duties to perform and at least here he had a sense of belonging. Broomhead lied back on the straw mattress and laid his head on the pillow fearing for the moment that the dreams would return but they did not and he slept.

***    ***    ***

    "No, absolutely not." Said John Merrick. His face was twisted in a heated argument with Broomhead.
    Broomhead said nothing for the moment and carefully walked around the large round table. "Look this idea does have its flaws but nothing that can't be worked out. I have a few plans that could be utilized towards our advantage."
    "But not with our lives and this idea of incorporating the Indians and the Mongols," Merrick snorted in disgust, "into our fabric of life they will have nothing to do with us and even if they did they would utilize that knowledge against us later."
    "Now is not the time to quarrel about them," Chard interrupted, "this is a meeting about our own survival and the benefit of New England Proper."
    Merrick paused and retorted, "Or is it for you two's benefit? Didn't you two receive the Victoria Cross for fighting off the Zulu's?"
    Chard stepped forward and Broomhead interrupted. "I think personal issues need to take a back seat. We need to concentrate on the present problem. Besides there are no Victoria's Cross' to be issued here." The meeting had not gone well so far Chard, Broomhead, and two others at the meeting were in agreement with their predicament. Three were dead set against the idea and the one Richard Stanton stood by the fireplace saying nothing and quietly smoked his cigar. There was no expression on his face and Broomhead was unsure of where he stood. Stanton was always the clear headed in any situation and made it a personal conviction to hear both sides of the issue before making a decision.
    "I believe once the Indians and Mongols hear of the advancing army they will have no choice in the matter and then they'll be more inclined to join."
    Several moments of silence and finally Stanton spoke. "I believe you to be right." he nodded towards Broomhead. "But there is the issue of defense. How do you plan to pull this off?"
    "We have several catapults and then there are the canons, low yielding of course since they're made of oak, and then." Broomhead walked towards the table and pointed at the map of the fortress and the surrounding land. "We could build trenches and walls surrounding our fort and there could be several other weapons to use but these are still experimental."
    Stanton added, "There are a few Vietnam vets here that could add a few things to those trenches and could assist in coming up with a few other tricks." Broomhead had heard Stanton talk of his time in a Southeast Asian place called Vietnam and the utter futileness of it. He had said it was a bureaucrat's war in which politician's seeked to gain power over the United States military and he spoke of it bitterly. He had also spoken of how they had fought against an invisible army of Vietnamese who's tactics were to hit and run or leave booby traps behind for American soldiers to trip across with drastic consequences. Now Stanton could utilize that knowledge for a benefit towards New England Proper.
    "Madness it just utters of madness!" Merrick sounded off angry.
    The room was silent and Cecil Johnson came forward. He was also one of the one's that was against staying to fight. "Well I'll tell you if you guys decide to stay then I'm in and I don't like the idea but I think that's the price for securing a civilized territory. Also I have an idea about preventing boat landings near our shores and also we need to have a plan in case we have to pull back." He lifted his cup and avoided making eye contact with Merrick. Chard and Broomhead looked at Merrick and the other man who was against the idea. Both said nothing and then in a flurry of anger Merrick threw his cup against the wall and stormed out of the room followed close behind by the other. Several moments passed and Chard finally spoke. "Well Bromhead you finally got what you wanted and pray this plan works."
    Broomhead nodded and together they huddled around the giant oak table and began to formulate a plan of action.
    The noonday sun beat down on Broomhead's head. Slowly he rowed towards the shores, which were within a hundred yards or so. Chard was with him also rowing and already the both of them were having doubts about the Indians. The shores were empty and not a person was to be seen which did not mean anything. Broomhead could not see the Indians but knew that eyes were watching them. They had decided that only the two of them should encounter the Indians with their proposal. At the camp Stanton and another man were moving forward with their planned proposal to the Mongols. Any more and the Indians might have the thought that they were spies. They rowed the boat up to the shores and jumped out and pulled the small boat up to the land. Broomhead reached into the boat and pulled out a stick with a white towel attached to the end of it. Hopefully if any one were watching they would also see the white flag and understand it as a sign as a truce.
    "So far so good Broomhead." Chard spoke out softly but was keenly aware that eyes were watching them. Together they stepped forward and began their trek across the open plains. So far no one came to either greet or expel them and this began to worry them. Normally the Indians would have by now showed themselves. Perhaps the flag of truce was confusing to them or maybe they were simply dumbfounded that two whites would have the audacity to enter this far into their lands.
    They were half way across the grassy plains when a single cry from the forest edge signaled a hundred others and from the wooded forest materialized about fifty or so half nude Indians all armed to the teeth and running towards Broomhead and Chard. By now they had halted in their tracks and Broomhead hoped and prayed that the white flag of surrender/truce would save them.
    The Indians quickly surrounded them and they were searched for weapons. A large burly man stepped forward and yelled out over the voices, "Ni hah chi! Ni hah chi nan poan!" He lunged forward with a spear, aiming his agitation at Chard, who stood his ground and watched the wavering end of the spear point near his throat. Broomhead quickly announced, "We need to speak to someone about approaching danger from downriver."
    Two Indians standing behind the burley man looked at each other then the one on the right spoke, "Go away. You have trespassed." He stepped forward and waved his own spear out in front of him to show his intentions. The Indian on the left then stepped forward and whispered a form of a question in a different tongue unintelligible to Chard and Broomhead then he grunted in acknowledgement. "Walking Two Bears has asked about the danger from downriver."
    Broomhead realized he had to answer fast. "Approaching army of five thousand move this way with another eighty or so behind them." Chard braved a step forward past the heavy man who held the spear at his throat and in low tones added. "If we do not join forces to protect our way of lives then separated we fall." The Indian recited the answer to Walking Two Bears who grunted and did not speak for several moments then he turned and spoke more of their language to the man and then turned to walk through the large throng of Indians behind him. Broomhead braved a question. "Who is it that I talk to?"
    The Indian looked at Broomhead suspiciously but answered. "I am Joseph Yellow Feather or as was known in the late twentieth century in the white mans world as Joseph Alcove."
    The burly Indian still held his spear at the ready and quickly he turned and was telling Joseph Yellow Feathers something but was agitated and Broomhead had the feeling that he desired to kill both Broomhead and Chard. Yellow feathers answered back quickly and sharply in a tone that was admonishing the burley Indian for even asking.
    "It would be best for you two to leave." Yellow feathers stated in a flat tone while looking at the burley Indian.
    Chard lowered the white towel, puzzled he asked. "What about our offer?" Yellow feathers turned to walk away but paused in his steps. "We will have our answer for you soon but now you must leave."
    "But." Chard answered.
    Yellow feather turned and interrupted any further words or question. "You will leave for death will come to you if you do not. We have heard of this army that comes from others traveling through to escape their madness and we know of the dilemma you and us face with Khon-me-too-hoi or the skin wearer. Tomorrow perhaps you will have your answer, but now the elders of the tribes will gather and pass judgment on your offer." With that said he turned and walked away.

Chapter Three

    Custer stood over the makeshift table of empty wooden boxes and examined the maps that were layed out before him. His eyes did not miss anything and the contemplation of the future battles was etched across his face. The map before him had detailed the last 1500 miles of the river and noted the types of people, defenses, and other related materials to the campaign. He lifted his hand, which clenched tightly of the charcoal pencil and circled the town of Carbain.
    Where to next and how to attack the next proveince? The next proveince contained a mix of Romans, Greeks, and Japanese from about the middle ages and other races and cultures. After that it was a proveince containing predominate Mongols. The Mongols could prove to be a problem for Custer didn't have any information on who was in control of them. Gengis Khan or perhaps Tiber the Lame or perhaps none of them and it was just tribes that had banded together because that region was predominantly Mongol? Would they join Custer's forces'? It was too many questions and the spy reports were few right now because for every five that was sent out to investigate about what lay ahead only one or two returned with any information of relevance. That was the life of a spy and most knew the risks. Custer sighed and tossed the pencil on the map and stepped away from the table and walked over to a small open fire and poured himself a cup of coffee from a small kettle. He tasted the black brew and nodded in contentment then lit up a cigar and walked back to the map. He wished at that moment that Robert Damien, the French soldier who had attempted to assasinate King Loiuse the XV in the year 1757, were still in his employ. He had always managed to acquire information about anything and anywhere and was about as tough a soldier as they came. In his failed attempt on King Loise's life he had been captured and the most renowned inquisitors throughout all France came and attempted to torture him for information as to who had sent him on his mission. Refusing to divulge the names he had indured several methods of torture including having a horse tied to each of his limbs and pulled apart from their sockets. He eventually died from his sufferings, refusing to give up the names or people who sent him to kill the king. Vlad had placed Damien in his employ as a spy during the seige of Constantinople and it was there that Custer had befriended him. It was also Damien who noted that the large walled city was near a large outcropping of rocks that were hanging over a part of the wall and bought this to the attention of Vlad. Secretly Vlad sent Damien and four others up through the outcropping under cover of night to drop down to the wall and make their way to the city gates and open them for Vlad's force to enter. Vlad then sent Custer to the opposite side of the city wall to attack that area to draw away any attention from where Damien and the others would be. Like clock work it all fell into place and by early morning light the gates opened and by the thousands, Vlad's forces poured forth into the city and spared none. Did it matter? No it did not for the city occupants would be resurrected on the morrow. Damiens stayed with Custer each finding mutual intrest in the ways of war. Peacetime was not for the likes of them and war was everything and they were proud for being caught up in a war.
    Several weeks after Constaninople, Custer was having a delima about a territory that was under black rule. The blacks there were predominatly from the twentieth century and Custer was ready to move in and destroy but Mojave was against the idea feeling instead that they should incorporate them instead. Custer did not feel that way but he needed more information about whom they were dealing with so he sent ahead Damien to investigate and report on their defenses'. It was then that he had disappeared. Custer had since then held suspicions that Onu was involved. Damien had repeatly told Custer he did not like Onu Mojave and was very loud in his opinion. Onu would only smile a cruel smile and invite Damien over for personal combat for he had insulted him in front of his men.
    Damien would only laugh and reply. "You black bastard you smell just as bad as you insult. Perhaps bathe then come back."
     Onu would slowly smell himself and had thought that bathing with river mud not only purified the soul but also cleaned the skin. Damien would only laugh at his ignorance. Custer had repeatedly told Damien to leave Onu alone. He did not need a mutiny and show Vlad that he was incompitent at his command. Damien would agree and for the time he left Onu alone only passing him by with a smile and a wink, which agitated Onu to no end. There was word that quickly spread that Onu would kill Damien before it was over and Custer believed it to be true for now Damien was gone.
    Enough! It was unfortunate that he was gone but there was a war to wage and no amount of thought was going to bring him back here. Custer walked back to the map and was just looking over the territories that lie ahead when the curtain of sewn leaves that served as a door rustled and was pushed aside announcing someone was entering the tent.
    "Ahh." Onu Mojave entered the tent and set his heavy spear by the wall near the entrance. His large six foot five frame was packed with heavy muscle that commanded attention. Sweat gleamed off his dark skin and being only dressed in a light loincloth tied to his mid-waist, he moved over to where Custer stood. "Custer. It is good to see you have lived." The statement was said if he was sincere, but Custer realized it veiled a disappointment. Custer dismissed the threat and went to the point. "You idiot you were supposed to assist in the attacking of the defenders not trouncing off to town."
    Onu smiled showing his sharpend incisors. "My plan worked, besides." He paused and walked over to the open fire and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Next time I will have a more active part in the planning stages of any more future battles."
    "I give you everything needed and I do give you a say in all things but you constantly ignore the plan and proceed on with your own. You've got to stop this disobedience or you could get us all killed." Onu shrugged. "So be it. We will be alive again the next day."
    Custer raised an eyebrow. "Do you honestly think you can even stand being away from your tribe for one day knowing that you could be millions of miles from them, leaving me in charge of them?" He paused and shook his head and snorted. "I don't think so. If you want to live to continue on ruling your Zulus you best listen to me carefully."
    "I will not have you dictate to me white man!" Onu lowered his cup and stepped over to Custer. Onu was large in size but Custer had never, in this life or his previous one, backed down from anyone, and he quickly stepped forward to meet Onu halfway. Onu raised his fist as if to strike but paused, his fist held at shoulder height while his face was contorted in hatred. Slowly though Onu relaxed and lowered his balled fist while Custer waited for him to strike. His face slowly melted from hate to that of a quizzical expression.
    "Is this about that French man? What was his name?" He paused in a mock expression of searching his brain for the answer. "Damein! Ahh yes, you think I am responsible for him disappearing." He lowered his fist and raised his coffee cup and took another sip while stepping away from Custer.
    You damn right I think you did it you songabitch! Custer thought but held his toungue and instead lied. "No I don't, Damien's had confided in me that he wanted to leave and move on. Something about seeing more of the river." Custer stepped back to the map and quickly began a review to Onu about how to attack the territories that lied ahead.
    Onu interrupted Custer with a question one in which froze him dead in his tracks. "What of this gold that lies." Onu craned his neck and looked carefully at the map and hummed while using his finger as a pointer and then quickly stabbed it at the state of New England Proper. "Here." He said quietly.
    Custer paused and looked to Onu. How much did he know? He knew that Onu had his own spy network within the ranks but did that network reach all the way back to Vlad? If Onu knew of the gold did Vlad? He realized he had to be careful in his answer.
    "Ahh. Do not be ashamed of your answer General Custer. I have known for some time." Onu stepped away from him and went to pour himself another cup of coffee. "Vlad does not know anything also and personally I would like to keep it that way."
    Was this a ploy? "This gold is a rumor and I have known about it for awhile but I have treated it as just that.a rumor, besides gold here along this river would have no value."
    Onu stepped away from the open fire. "Yes.but what if it was a reality, what then? I have been informed that this gold is a reality and I believe it could be valuable. This Vlad is becoming unstable in mind." He paused and tapped his head with thick fingers. "I also believe it is up to us to take what we can get from this experience and set ourselves up as kings for the time is short."
    Custer had to stop and think. All this talk Onu talked of was of course treason, punishable by death if anyone had heard the later statement. He also agreed that Vlad was somehow losing his mind in all this conquest but his army was still powerful and obeyed Vlad's every command no matter the risk or how ridiculous it was. Custer had noticed this change sometime after Constantinople when he had given orders to a detachment of Vlad's men to accompany him in rounding up any survivors there. They stood there not answering and had sent out a runner for permission from Vlad himself before following Custer's command. It was insane and had cost them time in cleaning out the small pockets of resistance within the city. The gold question he already knew the answer to but here his answer would be carefully weighed and thought upon by Onu. "Vlad would have the take."
    "Yes it would belong to him if it existed but I doubt if it does so it matters little now." Custer turned away from the present conversation and pointed at the map. "We'll attack the Mongols next and then on towards the beginning of what could be a hard fight that's why from here on we have to work together. Do you understand?"
    Onu was watching the flames of the open pit as if reading into the future. "There is this place named Outpost Victoria." He paused for some time and before Custer could say anything he continued. "There within this encampment are men that have fought within the British Army that have shamed my people."
    Custer did not like where this conversation was going. "And?"
    Onu turned and faced him. "I will make this pact with you Custer. My people will be yours to direct on the condition that once we attack this outpost that we slaughter all occupants to the last man."
    "What.?" Custer was beginning to think about how far Onu's spy network reached.
    Onu continued. "I think it's best to place vendetta's aside and focus on the battle ahead and I."
    The curtain entrance way rustled and announced someone else entering the tent and Custer paused in mid sentence to look. Onu paused also and the both of them looked in awkward silence and were stunned on seeing their new companion.
    Custer whispered one word. "Vlad."

***    ***    ***

    Chard sat on a small outcropping of boulders within the river and watched Broomhead walk out into the river armed with his thin lance spear. He took little intrest in what he was doing but it was better than preparing for the upcoming battle. Preparing ditchs and lining them with sharpend bamboo stakes had been a chore and it was a pleasure now to just watch Broomhead and do nothing.
    "Broomhead if I may ask what is this obsession of yours with fishing?"
    Broomhead did not look up and was concentrating on a large gray fish that was within twenty or so feet from him. "Stress release Chard."
    Chard grunted and did not talk for several minutes in which Broomhead had managed to spear the fish. When he did speak out it was with another question. "Have you ever thought about leaving here? You know, move on and see more of the river?"
    Lifting the spear from the waters, Broomhead watched the fish flop around on the end for several moments. "Perhaps at one time I had entertained the idea of it, but time has passed and New England Proper is the only place I really know."
    "I have. I figure there has got to be so much to see here, aside from all the wars and power hungry rulers, and backstabbing politics, there has got to be some real things to see and people to meet."
    "Have you told Annie this fantasy?"
    Chard looked at Broomhead. "Yes.once but she is secure in being here in a civilization of some type. Apparently she has seen quite a bit of the river and has not been impressed. I figure it has to do with living in Sacramento, California all her life."
    "Security and assurance of civilization then." Broomhead walked a little closer to where Chard sat and removed the still flopping fish from the spear end and placed it within his pack that hung around his shoulder. "I am beginning to think you have civilization burnout."
    "Perhaps after all I have been here at this outpost for thirteen years and you have been here for several years longer. I remember some of the things I saw before coming here and it was intresting." Chard paused to light a cigarette. "I remember the absolute freedom of just hopping on a makeshift raft and just drifting along the river. I was my own master."
    Broomhead still remembered the day when Chard had arrived at the outpost those many years back and the absolute joy at recognizing each other. It was incredible odds that they had found each other since neither had encountered anyone else from their own timeframe of old earth. Just as they had done at the end of the battle at Rorke's Drift, they drank that night telling each other their tales of what they had seen here along the river and the people they had encountered many famous and not. "We have duties to perform here still, New England Proper needs our assistance."
    "What about after? Why don't we just push off from here and see what is at the end of the river?"
    He paused before answering but Chard also added on. "You know.we have been given a second chance here in this life and it would be a shame to just waste it all staying in one place. I still do not understand those people who seek to control others or their blind obsession of controlling lands and peoples wills. Why can't they just leave well enough alone?"
    Broomhead laughed. "With the people comes one who has a vision of absolute power. A grand vision of supposed security for the masses of weaker people. Without that vision chaos would ensue. In all the territories here along this river there has to be the one to rule the majority. That's the way it has always been in this life and the last one."
    "Then we're puppets."
    "Perhaps but puppets secure in the feeling that we have a part in a civilization." He moved off after seeing another fish swimming away near the river shore.
    "I still think it's a waste. Power corrupts the mind somehow and this Vlad is a perfect example. Do you think that Yellow Feathers fellow was referring to him as the skin wearer?"
    Broomhead arched back and thrust the spear into the water. The fish had flicked away at the last moment narrowly being missed by the lance tip. "Vlad is insane this is true, but I think somehow there is more to this and I don't think Yellow Feathers was referring to Custer but we have to hold that thought open." He pulled in the lance and stood waiting and eyeing the water, waiting for another fish to enter his line of vision.
    Chard flicked his cigarette butt into the water. "I assume that you have an explanation.?" "I don't know. I really can't say for certain as to what Vlad's motives are and by his brutal tactics of slaughter and leaving no one alive in the territories he conquers, there has to be a motive or reason for his behavior."
    A shout from the shore roused both of their attentions away from the present conversation and Roy Stanton was walking towards to where Chard sat. "Well, I figured to find the both of you here. Well a message runner has arrived from New England Proper."
    Chard looked at Stanton, his brows narrowed into a question. "What that quick? You just sent out a runner two days ago."
    Stanton held up his hand to silence any further questions. "Well apparently the news has nothing and yet something to do with our deliema. This is a separate message all together from New England Proper and they want two men to meet with several emissaries a couple days upriver from here and I nominated you two."
    "What for?" Chard asked.
    Stanton paused and lit a cigarette and after inhaling deep of the acrid smoke he continued. "Don't know. They just want to meet two men with a high degree of military experience to meet with them in the Cambridge provience as soon as possible and as for the reason why? Well that should be enough to say that you two have had the experience of dealing with the Zulu's in your past lives and I think you can convey to them what our strategy is."
    "Our duty is here though, we still have to prepare." Broomhead said.
    "I've already shifted your commands to other people and you're going wither you want to or not."
    "We still have to meet with the Indians across the river and then negotiate with the Mongols."
    Stanton stood up and stretched. "Piss on all that. It's already being taken care of, it's just the Mongols that are skirting the issue at the moment. The council has already dispatched several people across the river to talk with the Indians and them damn Mongols want more than we can give."
    "Lands. They want our lands."
    "Of course, but they can't have it and they have threatened to join Custer if he should arrive and that alone could spell out disaster. That's thrown the council into an upheaval and I just hope nothing else rears its ugly head. Anyway you two need to pack your gear and head out right now."

***    ***    ***

    The first thing he felt that told him he was alive was the feeling of something poking him in his ribs. He opened his eyes and noted it was just turning daylight. This he knew from the dark blue shades of light as the on-coming sun was chasing away the remanents of the night.
    "Hey staranger." He glanced off to his right and through groggy vision, saw a shadow standing over him, darker than the background of dark blue and euphoric orange. Was he in a slave state or a free? In the next several minutes he would know the answer. He also knew he was away from the Toltecs. God let me be away from them he thought. Remembering them he sat up quickly and looked around. No. He was sure now that he was not within the Toltec state where just minutes before under the hot afternoon sun he had climbed the stone steps of a small pyramid and had his chest ripped open and his physical beating heart pulled from within. The Toltec elders had told him it was for the benefit of the Gods here along the river and he had thought of running, escaping from them and had made several attempts before they drugged him with a concotion that made him drowsy and unresponsive at times. There within the country of the Toltecs, he stayed knowing the unevitable end but powerless to do anything about it.
    Again he felt a sharp jab at his ribs. "Hey stranger glad to see you're awake." He did not answer and looked up at the shadow that had been poking him with the butt of a spear. He stood up, ignoring the guard, and walked over to the river's edge and knelt down to drink deep of the waters. He had never had anything so good. Under the drugged state of the Toltecs everything he had placed in his mouth had no taste but the numbed tingling feeling from the drugs had always been there. After drinking his fill he stood up again and looked at the shadow. "Free or Slave state?" He queired.
    The shadow laughed. "To the point are you? Well this is a free state or territories I should say. But we are under control of New England Proper. It's a long story to explain and I'm not the best one to tell you." The shadow shifted and pulled a long purple cloak tighter about him to help keep out the worst of the morning chill. "Say you sound French. What do you call yourself?"
    He had thought about lying just in case but decided against it. "Robert Damiens."

Chapter Four

    The large two-mast shipping vessel, The Egyptian Wind, lulled lazily from side to side under the soft blowing winds of the clear night. The moon was half full and the pale rays of light sparkled off the surface of the river like small diamonds. John Chard slept soundly occasionally snoring softly to indicate being in a deep slumber. Broomhead laid quietly in thought across the opposite side of the small cabin and could not sleep. He was tired but there were too many things on his mind. They were to dock into the Cambridge province on the morrow and meet with the emissaries from New England Proper there. Nothing more was known about why or who were to meet them and it was assumed all the way around that it had to deal with the Zulu army. He held different thoughts in the matter. Something about the equation did not add up and it bothered him. Why else would they want to meet away from Outpost Victoria instead of coming to the post itself? Safety was one reason surely, but they could have sent a message runner to reassure them that reinforcements were coming. Was Vlad one of the actual founding members of New England Proper just as Stanton had stated or was this rumor? What about the claim that he was insane? Here on this river world, even those people that had been mentally unbalanced or had spent most of their terrestrial life in some house for the insane, had been reborn here in this new after life chemically balanced and free from mental affliction or so he had thought. Perhaps it had to do with the fact Vlad had always had a thirst or hunger for people's suffering and had bought this rare brand of deep insanity with him here to the river that even the gods of the river could not cure.
    There were several things that were certain. The Zulu army was coming and behind them was Vlad, The Impaler, or Tempes and it most certainly did threaten the region and could destroy New England Proper as a whole or destabilize everything that had been built over the years. The alliances that had been made and construction of the city itself that had been ongoing for years, gone like leaves in the wind and what would take its place? Chaos most certainly would reign supreme or at least until a stronger form of government took the reigns of power and reestablished control over the mass'.
    The thought entered his mind and it played there like a dark shadow, tall and overpowering, preventing any further thought. Did all this matter? New England Proper to fade away as most civilizations had done on old earth so newer and more powerful ones could rise and exist in place and. Footfalls from above on the wooden planks of the ship halted his thoughts, bringing him out of his revelry. Something was different about the loud fall he had heard and he sat up and focused in with his hearing to listen in more. He knew there were night watch sentries and the helmsman topside and occasionally one or the other would pass overhead with soft, lazy footfalls but the sounds coming from above were different this time.
    It was all quiet with the exception of the creaking and occasional rubbing of wooden planks from the ship. Then there it was again, a sound not natural to the rhythm of the ship itself. Something was being dragged across the heavy pine deck above, slowly as if trying to conceal something. He rolled off the bunk and stood up within the cabin careful not to make any noise. Something was going on topside. Carefully he walked softly over the planks, careful not to settle his whole weight in one area in case it popped or creaked aloud and he slowly moved the thick curtain to the cabin room aside just enough to peer out.
    The corridor was long and lined with hammocks and in them laid some of the crew men of the ship, softly they slumbered deep in whatever dreams they dreamt. Several fish oil lanterns were lit there and swayed gently with the motion of the ship. He stepped out onto the cool planks of the corridor and made his way towards the steps at the far end which led up to the top deck and here again slowly he tip-toed forward and up the rough floor deck and there at the entrance way he parted the curtain there He could make out the dark deck and the moon cast enough light to see the full view of the stern but he noted that no-one was there. Where was the look out and the men stationed at the helm?
    His answer came in the form of a loud thump and harshly whispered curses. "Damn it watch what the hell you're doing!" It came from somewhere off to his right and he focused in that area and again he heard the soft drag of something heavy being dragged across the wooden planks and it was then he caught sight of a half nude man clad in only a loincloth, dragging either a dead or unconscious body. Quickly, without further thought, he turned and started back down the stairwell and through the corridor. Upon entering the room he knelt down beside Chard and quickly awoke him from his slumber.
    "What the." Chard sat upright with a start and Broomhead quickly placed his hand over Chards mouth while placing a finger over his own to indicate silence.
    "Above on deck it appears that there are some problems." He quickly explained the situation. Pirates had invaded the ship and very quietly they had taken out the night watchmen's positioned about the ship. It was several hours until sunrise and it was all happening when men slept their deepest. Together they formed a plan and both rose from their cabin room and they stepped out into the corridor and quietly began waking the crewmembers there. Chard then made his way up the steps and remained at the entrance to topside incase anyone came through while Broomhead gave the plan. There were two ways to topside and Broomhead led a small group to one entrance while Chard was to lead the other, and together they would exit from below and quickly overpower whoever was there. It was possible that the pirate ship was floating nearby, with men massed and ready on its own decks to board The Egyptian Wind and there was the possibility that their lookouts were armed with crossbow guns, waiting for them to exit. It was better than waiting for death to come to them and all knew this. The fish oil lanterns were extinguished while everyone quickly armed themselves with horn-fish knives or heavy wooden clubs and slowly made their way towards the entranceways and waited for the signal.
    "Now!" Chard whispered harshly through gritted teeth. They all rushed through the exits and prepared for the fight that each man felt was sure was to come. As they exited to the topside in masse, each expected to see a dark shadow of a ship floating close by or to be stung by barbed arrows but none came except the sight of several men who spotted the crewmen and bolted for the sides of the ship.
    Broomhead had expected to see more than the three men and he quickly looked out over the dark waters to look for the pirate ship that he knew must be close by. There was no ship floating nearby and he quickly dashed forward after the rest of the crew who had successfully and easily overpowered the three men who had made an attempt to jump overboard.
    Broomhead watched as each crew member took their turn at kicking and punching the captured men until Chard came up behind him. "They have killed all three lookouts and the helmsman and I don't see any other ship."
    Broomhead answered quickly. "It's not a pirate attack apparently. Look over the sides of the ship and see if there is any kind of small boat." Chard had moved forward just as Captain Manuel Sanchez came from his own private quarters near the stern area, armed with a large sword of metal, bellowing for his men to fall in line. Being the shipmaster, he had just been rudely awakened from sleeping off a large hangover and damn if there wasn't going to be hell to pay. He had sailed the vast open seas of old earth on board a vessel named the Bloody Anne as a pirate sometime in the early sixteen hundreds. They had plundered and sunk a fair share of ships and at one time had terrorized a small seaport town in the new country before Her Royal Majesty's navel forces had blown the ship to pieces out in the middle of the ocean. The Royal ship's commander's had decided that instead of picking up survivor's it would be best to let the surviving crew members die with their ship. There they had all perished, dying from exposure to the elements and drowning. Sanchez awoke here on the riverbanks and vowed to sail again and had made claims of having sailed to one of the ends of the river where he claimed there was a vast sea.
    Sanchez walked over to where his men stood and at their feet lay the three men, all had been beaten and laid withering and moaning from contusions and broken bones. "By the Gods what on Judas' ass is going on here?" He roared.
    "Cap, thes' men killed four of our crew on duty." Answered one crewman with missing front teeth that gave him a soft hissing to his already poor vocabulary.
    Chard came trotting up then to where they all stood, carrying a small bow and a wooden quiver of barbed arrows. "Yes it's true. There is a small raft tied to the side of the ship with a rope tied to the railings to act as a ladder. I also found these items onboard also." He held up the bow and arrows.
    Sanchez walked over slowly to one of the three men and reached down and jerked him to his feet. He spoke his words through gritted teeth. "What is the meaning of all this and speak fast."
    The man said nothing, nodding his head in a negative and moaned aloud in pain.
    Sanchez's nostril's flared and even under the full moon Broomhead saw his face color change to a deeper color as storm clouds began to roll in. "Well so be it." He threw the man to the deck and turned to one of the crewmen and said loud enough for all to hear. "Keelhaul." The crewman's face lit up and quickly he left the group and reappeared several minutes later with a heavy rope and went to the bow of the ship. Sanchez turned to Chard his face beamed wide with a large smile. "Laws of the river governed by New England Proper dictate that pirates or saboteurs are to be apprehended and held for the authorities but in this case it is for information, which we will get."
    Chard and Broomhead both knew what awaited the man. For sure a slow and agonizing death by drowning, but there was nothing they could do after all it was not their ship that had been invaded. Sanchez ordered the other two men to be tied to the stern and watched over and made to watch as their comrade was tied with the towline and then securely attached to the rope that was tied from bow to stern. He was then to be thrown into the waters and pulled by the crewmen under the ship from the bow to the stern.
    Three members of the crew on the bow shouted that they were ready then a nod from Sanchez was given and the man was thrown over the railings into the water where his screams vanished into the dark river. The men on the stern began pulling on the towrope and slowly they dragged the man under the ship and several minutes passed by and they retrieved him on the stern and pulled the wet mess to the deck where again Sanchez awaited and yelled out to him. "What was your intentions here laddy? Speak now or you'll go again!" The man nodded in the negative spitting out water from his mouth. Sanchez stood erect. "Again!" Two crewmembers dragged the man back to the bow and tied him again to the rope and again they heaved him into the waters. The crewmen on the bow pulled, this time more slowly hand over hand and it was several minutes that went by when the rope twitched and then jerked violently. The rope ripped through the hands of the four crewmen there but they quickly recovered to find it now limp and loose in their grasp. They pulled the rope onto the deck and looked puzzled by the torn end. At fist they thought the rope had snapped and their captive was free but a shout from the stern said otherwise.
    "River dragon!" They all clambered to the ship's stern and watched as the form of a dark serpent like fish dipped and rose from the river surface. Sanchez looked out stunned at first then his face faded to a large smile. A small laugh chirped between his smiling lips and then erupted into a roaring laugh. He slapped the back of a nearby crewman. "Well it seems the gods of the river smile," He looked down at the other two men. "Who is next?"
    They had seen what had transpired and they had no desire to be bait for any dragon fish. The red haired one spoke up first, hoping that his confession would buy him his life. "We were paid to burn the ship."
    Sanchez continued smiling and knelt down beside him. "Go on young lad."
    He spoke out, rapidly, occasionally pausing in his story to lick his broken lip and catch his breath. He explained that a man named John Merrick had paid them with a large amount of barter goods and the promise of being enlisted at Outpost Victoria and hired on as soldiers. They first had to complete their first mission though to prove their worth and they were to kill Chard and Broomhead. The ship they had taken was to be burned and sunk; if anyone had survived it would be deemed the acts of river pirates.
    Sanchez stood erect. "I take it you know of this John Merrick and his ilk."
    "Yes, unfortunately, it would appear he has it in for us in a bad way. " Chard turned to Broomhead. "We'll need to send back a message runner to the outpost to inform Stanton of this mess."
     The crewman who had retrieved the rope for the keelhauling process interrupted. "Captain sir, what to do with these two?"
    Sanchez grunted and paused in thought. Broomhead already knew that there was no way the two would live to see another day, at least on this part of the river. Sanchez turned and walked back slowly to the men there and circled them. "Well these bastards have already cost me enough expense. That rope was expensive and cost me a good vintage wine barrel, as much as I liked trolling for River dragon." The crew laughed and awaited the orders just as the first thunderclouds began to unleash its first drops of late night rain. "Let them dance the devil's jig." He smiled and turned to walk away while the crewmen seized the two men who tried to resist whatever fate awaited them.

***    ***    ***

    The small fishing community of Cambridge was home to several hundred-valley dwellers. From here it was the seat of major fishing companies that dealt exclusively with New England Proper and the surrounding territories, but there were other employment opportunities available also. It was also home to several mercenary businesses' and outfitters, which catered to the purpose of hiring and organizing mercenary armies to be ferried up and down the river. Mostly these deals were done under the table and authorities of New England Proper knew they existed and had from time to time hired their services for squelching up rises' within her most outer territories. Broomhead had known these existed for he had hired an occasional small group of these mercenaries to spy on the Mongols from time to time. It was an unapproved but necessary profession and outwardly New England Proper disapproved of the practice but since the business was there for anybody, they looked the other way as long as it did not interfere with her agenda and the monthly dues of free services' and barter goods were paid in full.
    The Egyptian Wind slowly slid into place beside the large wooden dock and the gangplanks lowered while people shouted and moved about there, selling their catch of the day or were busy packing their catches in their ships holds to be shipped further up river to other territories within New England Proper. Occasionally a man or woman would pause in mid-step while passing the ship and look skyward to the ship's mast and look curiously at the two dead men hanging there; some just shook their head and continued on their way, while others gawked and wondered what had happened. Broomhead and Chard walked down the gangplank and planted their feet on solid ground, glad to be away from the rolling upheavals of the river. There they were met by two of New England Proper's royal guards, being dressed in the familiar painted bone armor, clothed over by a long purple cloak and wearing bone helmets with the long purple plumes.
    A tough looking sergeant with heavy scars on his forearms stepped forward. "You two be." He paused and unrolled a scroll of pressed willow leaf paper and eyed the words carefully before speaking again. "John Chard and Gonville Broomhead?"
    They both nodded and the sergeant continued while rolling up the scroll. "Well you two need to follow us. The emissaries are waiting and they don't like to wait any longer than they have to." He nodded off in the direction he wanted them to take and together they moved off through the throngs of people.
    The emissaries had set up camp on the outer edges of Cambridge. There the royal guards along with a mixture of mercenaries roamed about the small encampment, noting anyone that was not supposed to be there within a certain distance. The four had passed through several checkpoints and upon clearing them they eventually reached the camp where the emissaries waited. They were then escorted to a large heavy canvas tent of river dragon hide and walked in where they were met by a slender bodied servant girl with long blonde hair, who smiled and offered to take their grail buckets to the grail stones for the afternoon lunch. There within the tent also were the three emissaries, who stood and introduced themselves quickly. The first being a large black man from someplace called Los Angeles, California in the mid-twentieth century. He was dressed in a multi-colored robe that was loose and transparent and Broomhead could feel the raw power ooze through his handshake to indicate that hidden under those robes was a man with considerable strength.
    "My name is Jackson and this man here." He paused and allowed the man to offer his outstretched hand. "Is Hannibal Barca. The same man that fought in the Second Punic wars in 218b.c. and fought the Roman Empire within her own country for damn near twenty years." After shaking hands Jackson then introduced the third man as Nathan O'Brien who at his early life in the mid nineteen twenties had been involved with the Irish Mafia in a place called Chicago and had been gunned down in the streets as he exited a barbershop. After all had done their introductions they then seated themselves and began the debate, and Broomhead began to realize that something was amiss here.
    "Well it is good to see you have made it alive and well." Jackson stated and exposing large white teeth. Chard answered. "Yes with some problems but we are alive."
    "Yes, them assassins deserved what they got, no?" O'Brien added.
    Broomhead shifted his weight. "You knew?"
    Jackson broadened his smile. "Well yes from one of the crew men who was on board, say one of our ears. That Captain Sanchez." He paused and shook his head. "He just ain't got no sense of humor when it comes to assassins on his ship."
    "Yes, how true." Chard smiled thinly.
    The servant girl had returned with several others and they bought with them several plates of raw fish and a wooden pitcher of red wine. She indicated that lunch would be served as soon as the grail stones energized the food buckets and left light footed and quiet. Jackson reached forward and began pouring the red wine into the wooden goblets on the table before them and took a sip from his own cup. He poured a little water into his own cup to cut the taste down and sipped again. Satisfied he leaned back while the others reached forward to get their own cups.
    "Outpost Victoria. My my, you two have been there quiet a while." He stated.
    Broomhead decided to try flattery. "Yes, but well worthwhile for serving New England Proper."
    Hannibal nodded and then took into the conversation. "This Custer and his Zulu army, they were poised to strike the post in a matter of days, yes?"
    "Yes, and we were attempting to negotiate with the North American Indians and the Mongols but the later wanted our lands. The Indians though looked promising and we were in the stages of negotiating with them."
    Jackson nodded. "The negotiations have failed."
    Chard sat quiet and was silently stunned. "Excuse me sir?"
    Jackson leaned forward and poured himself another cup of wine. "They failed. The Indians didn't want to be bothered by this white man's war and I can't blame them, but Vlad has drawn them into the conflict anyway and as far as we know at this time, they cease to exist as a nation but it is very possible they managed to hide themselves in the mountain ranges of their territory. As far as the Mongols well, they have been slaughtered to the last man and woman."
    At that moment a loud explosion of electrical static ripped through the air outside the tent, and the valley rumbled in fading echoes from the grail stones. Noontime lunch was served.
    "How do you know this?" Broomhead asked. He was sure that only they had held any information.
    Jackson smiled and waved his hand in the air. "We just do and how we know is immaterial." He was right in that aspect. There were many people running from Vlad's army everyday, and river traffic was heavy. Any information could have been obtained easily through one individual who had stopped in Cambridge to refill he or she's grail. It was even possible survivors from the Indian Nations could have stopped here or somewhere and unknowingly passed on information to one of the royal guards. There were people stopping and going everyday at the outpost and it was possible that one or more spies had stopped in and watched what was going on then moved on to relay information on the daily doings of the post.
    Hannibal reached forward and poured himself another cup of wine. "Have you ever heard of a Robert Damien's? French fellow about six foot tall, burly, with short brown hair?"
    "Describes many French men." Answered Chard.
    "We sent this Robert Dameins out on a mission about a year ago, to enlist in Vlad's army and to send back runners with information on Vlad and his armies movements but it seems he shifted sides after finding some common ground or interest with him." Hannibal said. "The messages stopped coming back along with any kind of information there for awhile but as time past we learned that he had been taken into Vlad's employ."
    "Which would explain how Vlad has had a great number of successful battles. Dameins was very good in what he did." Jackson added. "Somehow Vlad must have managed to convince him he was fighting for the wrong ideas. He has that ability, but it doesn't matter. Dameins lost sight of his original goal and if you find him it would be best to kill him also."
    Broomhead leaned forward taking in what was said. "Kill him? What was his mission if I may ask?"
    Hannibal nodded and ignored his question. "We sent him out on an assassination mission or to kill Vlad, also Damien's has a great amount of ability in tactics and spy games. Vlad had placed him with Custer and Mojave to keep an eye on them and relay information to him on their motives." Chard added. "Yes but the post needs help. We need more equipment, men and."
    "By the time you go back to the post it will have been destroyed and Vlad is presently situated there." Jackson spoke the words in a matter of fact tone and continued on without waiting for an answer. "What needs to be done is you two will go back and complete the job where Damien's failed that is to terminate Lad. Damien's had disappeared about a month ago and somehow reappeared on the outposts' riverbanks a few days back and we think that he managed to obtain information and slipped away to Custer's camp just before the attack."
    Broomhead put aside the needs of the outpost for the moment and again his mind drifted on how the resurrection machine or Gods controlled how and where a person would be reresurected. The possibilities of Damien's being resurrected this close to Custer's camp were just to far fetched but it had happened. "Terminate you mean kill him?" It was beginning to make sense, killing this Damiens and now Lad.
    "I thought he was one of your most valued commander's and had been awarded the title Defender of the State. I'm confused about all this." Chard answered.
    Jackson leaned forward and picked through the plate of carefully prepared food and picked out a thin sliver of raw fish. "Yes kill him if you prefer those words. He is a renegade and is operating without any kind of restraint and has operated in this manner for some time. He absolutely refuses to cooperate or kneel before New England Proper's authority, and yes he was awarded that prestigious title of Defender of the State. It is obvious that something has made him mentally unstable and is operating his force's to destroy all that oppose him. He is still one of us but he has no restraint of any kind." He gulped down the food.
    Broomhead was getting more confused and by Chards expression he knew he was confused. "Perhaps talking to him would help or even capturing him and brining him back."
    Jackson sucked on his fingers and smacked his lips. "Damn, now that is some mighty tasty fish."
    Broomhead and Chard looked at each other briefly, surprised at Jackson's response. Jackson looked at the both of them then continued. "Judging by your expression's I'll say you two are thinking." He paused and leaned back into his chair and sipped at his cup of wine. "Does this black mother fucker even care about anything we say? No I don't give a rat's ass about anything you two say except I am here to tell you go back and kill Vlad he's become too much of a liability to this region. Look at it this way, would you want to destabilize this part of the river and deny thousands of people here the security and assurance of civilization? To answer your question we tried to reason with him you know, bring him back into the fold so to speak, but he decided to split the scene. It's that simple go back in and terminate the mother." He sipped calmly again at his cup and watched for his audience's response.
    Hannibal said nothing. Occasionally he would take a drag off his cigar and calmly waited for a reply. O'Brien nodded and then lit up his own cigarette and inhaled deep of the yellow smoke. He had said nothing in the exchange of words, preferring to sit back and listen.
    "So we are to head back to the outpost and terminate Vlad and then? What about his army? You expect us to waltz in there and do this thing you ask yet what of his army?" Chard leaned forward.
    "A small thing to worry about. As we speak military forces from New England Proper are positioning themselves on the borders near the post and up into the high mountains along with the necessary equipment to eliminate that force." Hannibal spoke with authority. "What we need is for the two of you to go to Vlad with a proposal, a guise really, to initiate a peace treaty of sorts and when the time is right.eliminate him." He paused again.
    Jackson added on. "It's a pretty simple plan really and Vlad will buy into it He has a vanity and ego to stroke. He already knows that two men from New England Proper are coming to propose this peace treaty and has agreed to you two coming."
    "And you know of the post being destroyed. What of Custer and this Mojave? Where are they in all this?"
    Hannibal looked at Jackson before answering. "We don't know. It appears at this time that there was a power struggle or a double cross in the making and it failed. When we sent Damein's out on his mission we told him about gold being discovered here within the city and apparently this might have had a part in that struggle."
    Broomhead had to ask. "Gold? Was there any found?"
    Jackson smiled. "Nope, but we knew Vlad was roaming around and it didn't hurt to have this rumor in play somehow. We had thought we discovered a vein of the stuff but it turned out to be a cortz material in very small amounts."
    "Fools gold."
    Jackson nodded. "Yep and it looked like Custer and maybe Mojave bought into it and had plans to get the gold for themselves, why I don't know, the stuff wouldn't be of any value here on the river except to those interested in making art or some ceremonial crap. As far as the post being destroyed well we knew it would be. A small sacrifice had to be made to hold Vlads force in place and."
    Chard held up his hand, a look of anger had washed over it. "Whoa, stop there. You knew the post was going to fall?"
    Jackson nodded and Hannibal sat with an unreadable expression. "And you did nothing to help?"
    "In a land of stability and civilization that has established a vast political influence over this part of the river, small and certain sacrifices have to be made from time to time to maintain order or peace, give and take. Here we had to give so we could take the final strike. It is a small price to pay for maintaining our way of life here."
    All those loyal to New England Proper." Chards voice drifted off to the distance.
    Jackson went on. "And they'll be remembered for making a stand in the face of incredible odds and be resurrected in the morning or have been already, but now you two have a duty to perform in all this."
    "Duty." Chard whispered with hidden contempt that Broomhead had picked up on and he hoped that the emissaries had not. "Yes, consider it for God and country, duty and honor and that stuff. I'm going by the fact that you two are from the Victorian age and have somewhat of a belief system in loyalty; you do understand that do you not? And it will be a small price for you two to pay, and the rewards will be greater than anything offered here on the river. We are prepared after this business is done to offer you two command over your own post or even a position within New England Proper." Hannibal added.
    Broomhead hoped to change the mood. "Well so be it. It does take care of Merrick and any other traitors that had been festering there."
    Chard relaxed realizing what he was saying and spoke no further; preferring to sit back and eye everyone with casual interest but Broomhead knew that inside he was angry. Inside Broomhead himself wanted to explode but he knew it would solve nothing and there was the threat of being permanently imprisoned.
    "Then so be it. The plan is under way as soon as the two of you leave. We have already arranged your traveling papers and you will meet with a captain Morso. He has a small fishing boat with a crew of three others. He will take you back down river on your mission, but he does not know the reasons and we prefer to keep it that way."
    Several servant women entered the tent then, all carrying various large wooden plates of hot food and their food grails. Jackson's face lit up on seeing the food and his eyes fell upon one of the servant girls rolling hips and large blue eyes. "Ahhh. The privileges of civilization."

***    ***    ***

    The small fishing boat, The Catch of the Day, drifted slowly downriver. The current was soft and gentle enough that there was no need for the sails to be put up. Chard and Broomhead stood on the forward part of the deck looking out over the river as the sun was near the mountaintops off in the distance. River traffic from people coming from downriver had increased and it was mostly due to Vlad's force's storming into the region. All had heard about the terrible army that had broken in the door to New England Proper and was going to sweep the land and make the mountains and river valleys run red with blood. Chard stood by and watched a boatload of refugees from some territory float by them. The boat itself looked barely able to keep itself afloat and the mass of humanity clung on as if life itself were that important. When he spoke it was different in tone. "Have we forgot about death? Do we understand that we'll be resurrected again?"
    Broomhead watched the same boat. "It's the fear factor of old earth. We lived life there with the knowledge to the end to our lives, with Death's eyes upon us and that fear has followed us here. It is nothing new Chard."
    "Yes but have we forgotten how to live?"
    The question struck him with a sense of loss somehow. Old life on earth had been simple and laid out. A person chose his path in life knowing that the outcome was death and learned to accept it. Here a person could live again and again choosing any path he or she wanted with no consequence. "This is about the outpost is it not?"
    Chard looked at Broomhead and did not answer for a moment. "Yes, it is. We came here with the intent of getting help and instead we are faced with the outpost's destruction. Those people were depending on us to get all the help we needed to save their lives and instead they are dead."
    "Yes, but they live again."
    "But some where else," He interjected. "Was that fair to them that they should be sacrificed and be made to live somewhere else away from the New England Proper with no choice or say in the matter? I do not think so and it was wrong no matter how those fools back there try to explain the whys. Annie. I have failed her in this."
    Broomhead nodded in agreement. What else could be said? It was a hard reality that both of them faced, and the only answer he could give was, "Yes this is true, and I can not agree more with you."
    A shout brought both of them to turn to look behind them. Captain Morso was a tall, thin black that had been raised around the oceans of Louisiana in the U.S. and had fished for most of his terrestrial life. He was a friendly enough man but according to his crew he took the responsibility of crew-master very seriously. With a long thin finger he pointed out in front of them. Both turned to look where he was pointing and they watched as another boat with full wind in her sails was heading straight for them. "Red, grab the wheel!"
    Red, who was an oversized and muscular Scotsman with flaming red hair from the time 1400's, he jumped up from where he sat and dashed over to the wheel and grabbed it. Captain Morso had picked up a large bow gun and pulled back on the string and prepared to load an arrow while he walked over to the boats side. He barked another quick order. "Andre and Buck go below and grab one of the heavy crossbows and light up a flame."
    Buck and Andre dashed below and after several minutes reappeared with a large heavy crossbow each. They then cranked back on the tight string and loaded an arrow and took a fire starter and lit the arrow point. The boat was quickly approaching and men and women clung about it all armed and whooping and hollering. Even in the secure waters of New England Proper, river pirates still thrived. The river bottom was littered with boats of the unfortunate souls that had fallen prey to them. Chard and Broomhead quickly dashed to the center of the ship and armed themselves with their own weapons and waited.
    "Shit! She's gonna ram us!" Morso yelled. "Red hard port!" The oncoming ship came straight for them and then quickly shifted direction. Instead of ramming them straight on it would pass by but very close. When the ship did pass by, a heavy splash from the wake from both ships exploded between the two boats and The Catch of the Day rolled hard to the left. Broomhead and Chard ducked away from most of the water and then quickly regained themselves and watched as the boat left them behind. There on the bow stood a familiar figure holding on to a rope and a wide smile played across his face while he thrust out his hand and a large thick middle finger was held out in front of him to the crew of the Catch of the Day.
    "Say isn't that Mr. Olsen?" Chard queried.
    Broomhead nodded. "Well it seems he managed to escape from the outpost unharmed and what is this fascination with the middle finger that twentieth centurions have? A salute or greetings perhaps?" He had seen people extending the finger to others and had no understanding as to what it meant. He had noted that people from the twentieth century held onto this fascination the most and was sure it had some vulgar meaning.
    "Salute?" Buck roared. "You guys have been here on the river how long? And you don't know what that finger means?" He roared out in laughter and shook his head and went down below deck to put away the heavy crossbow gun while the rest of the crew laughed.
    Morso was not amused. He had just witnessed near destruction of his fishing vessel at the hands of what could have been pirates. "Stop and that's an order." Red and Andre paused in their laughter but wide smiles were still were on their faces'. "Put away the weapons and get back to your post's and're on watch tonight."
    "Ach, Captain it was harmless fun." His heavy accented Scottish tone rolled out while snorting back a laugh.
    Morso turned and faced him. "And that's what I'm afraid of. This trip is not an amusement ride folks. It's a mission! Do you see the traffic on the river? It's all headed in the opposite direction from where we're headed and we know that we're heading towards whatever those people are running from." He turned to where Chard and Broomhead stood and spoke the next words out loud enough so only they could hear. "I pray tell that this has to do with Vlad the Impaler? He has invaded our territories and you two are being sent down here for whatever reason."
    Chard answered. "Yes, a peace treaty offering." and Broomhead offered nothing.
    Morso grunted. "We'll be docking in Outpost Victoria sometime around noon tomorrow and after that our deal is done. This ship and crew belong to me and the bargain I made was to get you two there, the deal did not include brining you back."
    Broomhead said nothing for the moment then added. "That is correct and I'm sure you have been compensated well for your time." Morso ignored the later statement and turned back to Red, who had the wheel, and took his position, and indicated for everyone to be on look out for any suspicious boats and to have their weapons near them. The sun had just settled beneath the mountaintops and the nighttime was coming on fast. Broomhead sat down and rested his head against the sail mast and watched the remains of the day fade. He looked over to where Chard stood by the railing and thought he was sure he was thinking of one person, his Annie.
Chapter Five

    Morso stood on the forward part of the deck clad in only a short thin loincloth. The night had past uneventfully and river traffic had slowed to next to nothing; only an occasion raft would drift by with one or several people on board and they were sure to stay away from acknowledging the hails from the crewmen of The Catch of the Day. They were within an hour or so of reaching Outpost Victoria and had stopped only once at a grail stone to retrieve a morning breakfast in one province that did not have anybody around. Broomhead and Chard had investigated and found all the huts and buildings abandoned and the fire pits where the inhabitants had cooked their food long cold. Broomhead had poked at the overcooked fish meat that was hanging over one pit and spoke not a word; he looked towards the crew of The Catch of the Day, who were armed with long spears and swords and nodded. There was no need for words.
    "What are you two actually going up here for anyway?" Morso asked while still looking out over the river and shoreline. "Everyone else in this region is hauling ass out of here and you two are wanting to head back here. Why not get the hell away from here?"
    Broomhead paused and looked at Morso and then turned to look out over the river. "It's a matter of truth then."
    Morso nodded. "It would be nice if there was some explanation. I heard back at Cambridge there was a large force of troops and mercenaries that had passed through there some days before you two showed up and were headed to Outpost Victoria. Word is those troops are going to attack the outpost."
    Broomhead continued to look out over the river. "Yes truth then. We are both headed to the outpost to do a simple job and it is to kill Vlad Tempes."
    "Damn I knew it." Morso swore and shook his head. "I should've known why there were no other takers in getting you two up here." "I'm sorry for the deception but it is a matter of urgency we do this for if we do not Vlad will continue on with his conquest."
    He stood there and looked at Broomhead. "The port authorities gathered up all the boat owners and called a committee to ask anyone to take two men back up river. I found it suspicious but no one else volunteered and the rewards of permanent fishing rights to a section of the river and weapons, and to actually own my own boat were to good to pass up. One thing though, why even go and kill this Vlad? Why not just let the troops of New England Proper go in and destroy him and the outpost?"
    It was a valid question one in which Broomhead really had no answer but he tried anyway. "It's simple. There is an army of tribes people, simple of mind, that consider Vlad a God and the emissaries we met with in Cambridge figured it best to eliminate him before attacking the post."
    "Cut the head off the snake and the body is vulnerable."
    He nodded. "Yes and after we kill Vlad the tribes people will be vulnerable to the attack New England Proper will initiate." "What about us and my crew? Will we be free after you do this thing?"
    He paused and looked out over the river and before he could answer a shout from behind them bought their attention towards the river water in front of the ship where Buck was pointing with a thick finger.
    A bloated body drifted slowly towards the boat and they watched as the body was caught within the ships wake and turned over to expose a face frozen in terror before slipping away from view within the dark waters.
    "We're close."
    Morso ignored the statement and shouted to the rest of the crew. "Arm yourselves and be on watch! No playing around."
    Chard came up to where they stood on the deck. "Do you think it wise to arm ourselves? It could be perceived as a threat and we'll all get killed."
    "I believe he is right." Broomhead told Morso. "It could very well get us killed before this mission begins. Let us worry about weapons and you men worry about your ship."
    "I remember I made a deal with the port authorities at Cambridge and not with you." Morso began while shaking a fist at Broomhead. "We'll get your ass' up there but after that we're done." He then yelled to the crew to put away their weapons and walked to the side of the ship and looked out over the shoreline and swore as the river curved and weaved in a winding pattern. The air grew stale and the slight smell of death began to assail the crew's nostrils and as they entered around the bend to the river they witnessed the source.
    The shorefront was heavily littered with corpses in varying degrees of decomposition. The smell of blood and decaying corpses hung in the air heavy enough to mask the smell of the river water. Dead bodies hung on the trees by the river like obscene fruit by varying methods. Some had been hung up with horn fish or river dragon bone hooks through the torso and pulled up to the high branches. No one said anything on the boat, but looked on at the shores and trees.
    "What the fuck.?" Buck looked about him in disbelief and flipped his cigarette out into the river waters and saw Captain Morso standing with Broomhead and Chard. "Hey Cap we gotta go in there? There ain't any way in fuckin' hell I'm going in."
    Morso turned and trotted over to where Buck stood. "Hold steady Buck, we've got to do this thing and then we're out." "Son of a bitch cap, this place is evil. I mean true fuckin evil and I didn't agree to this."
    "At least now we know what happened to the Zulus." Broomhead pointed out the bodies of black warriors as they hung from the branches of trees over the river water, swollen from exposure and body gas build up, their dark skins glistened a dark tan color under the hot sun as the dead bodies natural oil's oozed from their deadened pores. He felt saddened yet relieved in the same ball of emotion. He pondered for the moment on how this all came to be. The Zulu's had been massacred along with the outpost's inhabitants and he tried to figure out how this came to be but the final answer to the equation was Vlad. "Steady Buck." Morso reached out and grabbed his elbow in which Buck jerked away. "I have a superstition and that is where there is a war or battle, it's best to stay away, but this." He swept his massive arm out in front of him. "I believe if you die here in a place like this you'll drag along the evil with you in your next resurrection."
    "Ach," Red spat in disgust. "You just scared and run downriver whi'le ye pee yerself."
    Buck turned and shouted his face flush with anger. "Look around you, you shit brain Scott!"
    "Ye ah listen to much to tem Second Chancers." He continued on with sharpening a small metal dagger while quietly observation the turning human fruit in the trees. "I'va seen much more worse than tis."
    "Steady Buck. Don't freak out man. Just concentrate on the job then everything else will work out."
    Buck went to the stern of the boat and sat down. Sweat had beaded up heavily on his forehead and started to run down his face. There he started to slowly rock back and forth holding himself across his massive chest. "Shit man."
    Chard nudged Broomhead with his elbow and nodded off for him to look ahead. "A welcoming committee." There ahead were several hundred boats, mostly small and had one man in them armed with either a spear or heavy crossbow gun. Nothing was shouted from them as the Catch of the Day drifted quietly towards them. Broomhead had thought that they were placed there to keep any trespassers from coming in but just as the boat was within twenty or so yards the men and women in the boats began to part, slowly with long poles they rowed out of the way like opening a door. The docks and compound area to the outpost was under a light blanket of fog and the silence was deafening for the only sound was that of the vast river. The crew said nothing and there was no attempt to halt the boat, but it was not them that harnessed their minds. Beyond the boat people were the docks and there on the shorefront hidden under the light veil of mist were poles, driven into the soil and men and women impaled upon these, creating an image of thousands of men and women standing there waiting for any newcomers. A forest of human death all impaled or mounted carefully on long sharpened poles in the upright position.
    Chard whispered. "So he must be insane."
    "So it seems." Broomhead answered
    The boat drifted quietly up to the docks and when they were close enough, Morso signaled for Andre and Red to jump off the boat on the dock and tie the boat down. "Well that's it folks, you are on your own!"
    Chard walked back over to Morso. "I say you'll wait. We have to do this proposal and then we're done."
    He shook his head negatively. "No, that was not our agreement. I was supposed to get you here and that's it."
    Broomhead interrupted with a soft shout and the crew all looked to where he looked behind them. The natives in the small canoes had closed the gap and all floated silently towards them. After several minutes had passed, the fishing boat was engulfed and surrounded by them. Their intentions were clear in that they were to go nowhere.
    Morso swore. "Damn it." He realized then he could do nothing. Fighting his way out was out of the question since there were more of them than they and the small tribesmen could have easily over run the ship.
    "It appears we are to stay." Chard said softly. Broomhead walked over to him and said. "We have to go ashore and find Vlad." "Yes." Chard turned and looked out over the forest of the dead. "I estimate he is off in the outpost, possibly our very own war lodge."
    Broomhead turned to Morso. "You have no choice now. You'll have to wait until we return, if we return, to push off out of here. It would seem Vlad has expected us."
    "What do we do if we're attacked?" Morso asked with concern in his voice.
    Chard answered with amusement in his tone. "Remember you'll be reborn on the morrow."
    "Now that shit ain't funny." Morso replied and slowly he walked over to the wheel and sat. "Well, get going, we ain't got all damn day."
    "Do you have a knife or something?" Chard asked Broomhead in a low tone so no one else could overhear. They had both debated about this very moment and it was decided that Broomhead would complete the job while Chard held off any guards, as best he could anyway, and they both realized it was very possible they would die here. There were to many of the tribesmen but the counseling factor was the armies of New England Proper would roll into here and wipe them out in a day or so. He nodded and from his waistband of his checkered kilt produced enough of a small metal dagger hilt guard to convince Chard that he had a knife.
    Broomhead leaped off the boat and stood on the wooden dock, looking out over the impaled forest of people. He tried hard to focus his attention away from the fact that most of the people that were impaled he knew. There was a path through the forest of the impaled death, like a machete blade had cut through dense forests that lead to the inner compound. "We'll have to walk through there." He pointed towards the path and Chard met him on the dock. "There." Chard pointed towards the forest. "Vlads army of tribesmen. Why don't they attack or meet with us?" Slowly like ghostly apparitions men and women of short stature faded into view from behind the thicket of the dead and the gentle mist to watch intently at the new comers. Most of the native men were of short stature coming to Broomheads shoulder height at the most. Their skin color was of deep golden tan indicating being in the elements for extended periods of time; they were clad only in a half loin cloth sash that exposed most of their buttocks area and varied in color and only a limited few wore kilts. The interesting items he noted though were the large flat wooden disks that hang through the ear lobes and lower lips. These disks had emblems or symbols carved into them and he again noted that the predominate character carving was that of a deaths head.
    "I don't know but let us go and find Vlad." Broomhead moved slowly off and away from the docks with Chard following behind. There was no attempt to stop them and Broomhead noted that there were hundreds of tribesmen intermingled with the impaled dead.
    Broomhead halted just before entering the forest and attempted to call attention to the tribesmen with no result. The nearest man squatted on his haunches and continued to watch intently while chewing on some dark form of tobacco.
    "Perhaps they do not understand, try Esperanto." Chard whispered. Broomhead nodded realizing that even though he knew eight languages, these tribes' people were simple of mind and might only know maybe two languages at the most. Esperanto was the rivers universal language and was vastly important in trade and treaty negotiations; it had helped prevent many wars and unnecessary deaths along this vast river; as much as he did not care for the Church of the Second Chance, he thanked them for creating and spreading this universal language. He repeated it again in Esperanto and waited for a reply but none came. "It seems we'll move into the compound and then find Vlad on our own."
    Chard only nodded and together they moved off and away from the docks and entered the thicket of impaled death. Broomhead tried hard not to look at the bodies but noted that even though he might have known exactly who they where at one time, the bodies where bloated and swollen and bruised to the point of being unrecognizable. For this he was glad for he believed that if Annie, Chard's wife, were here amongst the dead, Chard might possibly go berserk himself and lose focus on their mission. They made their way slowly towards the war lodge where both calculated Vlad to be while the tribesmen did nothing but watch their slow walk towards the outpost walls.
    It was with a quickness neither expected that aroused their senses to immediate danger. The tribesmen reacted just as they reached the open doors to the outpost and Broomhead swung around and quickly fear and adrenaline shot through his veins. The multitudes of tribesmen had followed them and were watching more closely. Several of them exchanged words and nodded off towards them but they did nothing to halt the two strangers. Chard moved away with Broomhead behind him and it was just as they passed under the ramparts where several natives sat, that Broomhead felt the sharp sting on the back of his neck. He yelped out in surprise more than pain and reached up and touched the back of his neck and it was then he felt it. Plucking it away from the back of his neck was a small, barbed dart and he bought it around and examined the tip. "Chard."
    John Chard had walked several feet ahead and on hearing him call, turned and Broomhead saw an identical dart imbedded in his chest. He pointed out towards his chest and Chard paused with a questioning look and then looked down on his chest. "Poison.!" He hissed out as he felt a rush of heavy sleep invade his system. A native was near by within arms length. It was better than dying without a fight and with no further thought he balled his fist and shot it out at the native. The small brown man took the full force of the punch and Broomhead felt nose cartilage snap with a thick wet sound and quickly he turned to run but was quickly overpowered by a small army of natives. He had seen Chard under the thin flailing bodies run off towards the rampart ladders and begin to scale them being chased by other natives with long spears. Several had thrown theirs and had narrowly missed him by a matter of inches as he scrambled to the rampart landing. Broomhead was feeling the effects of the poisoned dart more fully and was having trouble coordinating his body in his own battle for life. Chard was cornered and surrounded by natives and they lunged forward with spear thrusts in an attempt to skewer him but Chard managed to avoid them this far.
    Broomhead yelled out and watched as Chard was nudged off the ramparts of the wall with long spears of the native guards posted there and then a wall of the native men fell on him. A sharp blow to his temple and an explosion of stars followed by the familiar darkness ensued.
    He awoke again and found himself laying face down on the floor of cold wet earth. His vision blurred and he tried to focus on the form that sat before him laughing and shaking his head. When his vision cleared he noted that the man before him had shoulder length blonde hair. "Chard." He pulled himself up to his hands and knees and looked around and found himself surrounded by earthen walls and he saw Chard lying against the furthest one away. He crawled away from the yellow haired man and towards him and saw that he was still breathing but he noted also that he had a large bruised area on his chest and his breathing was short and raspy. When he touched this area Chard moaned and waved away the hands that had touched him.
    "I checked him over already. He'll be fine with the exception of a few broken ribs and some lacerations and that knock up side his head." The yellow haired man spoke; his words reverberated within the pit.
    Broomhead sat next to Chard and breathed deep and looked skyward. It was a pit and it must have been dug out after the battle here at the outpost for he couldn't remember a pit this deep being dug out. "How long?"
    "What? How long have you two been here?" The yellow haired man asked. "About half a day. Those blowgun darts are tranquilizer treated and react pretty quickly and knock a man asunder for a day or better. I'm surprised you woke up as quick as you did."
    "My name is Gonville Broomhead and my companion is."
    "John Chard. I know he spoke not too long before you awoke."
    "Custer." The man answered before Broomhead could ask. He paused and licked his dried lips.
    Chard groaned again and rolled over to his side to face away from Broomhead. "Custer? General George Custer? We had heard you had died."
    Custer moved away and sat against the wall across from Broomhead. "I wish I had of but here I am no thanks to that damn Mojave." "Where is he?"
    "He was the main course on the first night." Custer paused and relived a memory that gave him pleasure. "Vlad had come unexpectedly into our camp and had helped in the planning stages of taking the outpost but just minutes before he arrived Mojave had been talking of deception and he had overheard."
    Broomhead shifted his weight on the slick mud to where he felt better situated due to the affects of the tranquilizer dart. "The outpost.what happened?"
    "Simple plan with a very decisive twist. Mojave led his Zulu warriors in a pronged motion attack while I led my men into the center. We had softened up the outpost's defenses with a catapult bombardment that lasted several hours. Vlad then ordered us on a frontal assault to break in the doors so to speak and then Vlad's private army would come in and assist by hitting the rear of the compound."
    Custer paused and Broomhead thought he had passed out again. "Well they hit the compound and hard. Not only did they fight the outpost's people they were fighting us. We were already depleted manpower wise and so were the defenders so naturally we were all defeated. I saw men and women surrendering by the droves but this didn't stop Vlad's little tribe from massacring them and us."
    "Vlad's army slaughtered everyone?"
    Custer sat up wincing and looked pathetically small for as large a man he had been. "There were survivors and we were rounded up and some were inspected like buyers poking and prodding cattle and at the time I didn't know their intentions. I demanded to see Vlad but they ignored my demands and placed me here in this pit."
    "And their intentions were?"
    Custer looked around him and he grunted in displeasure. "Look around and you see the same thing I do. The first night was the worst, all the screams and." His voice trailed off. "I saw men and women being butchered alive, literally. I saw them take one fellow and instead of killing him outright, they tied him upside down and began to skin him alive. It took about half an hour for that man to die when they finally gutted him. I'm sure he would've vomited at seeing his intestines on the ground but he had no stomach in him."
    Broomhead shifted his weight again feeling nauseated. "Cannibals."
    "And they had quite a feast." Custer looked around at the mud before him. "The saving grace was I got to see Mojave butchered for the feast." He leaned back against the cage and looked upwards into the late afternoon sky. "You see he survived the battle and was wounded but he still fought hard, I have to give him that, he was knocked unconscious by a bolo shot to the temple. When he awoke he found himself on a makeshift alter to sacrifice to Vlad or Tecciztecath as the tribes people call him. They drained him of his blood and Vlad drank this along with the elders of the tribe."
    "Dameins.where is he?"
    Custer smiled. "Blown apart when we first hit the outpost from one of them oak cannons. He had been killed by Mojave and was resurrected here at the outpost, of course that was after visiting the Toltecs and being sacrificed, but he managed to get all the outpost defense plans and then escaping to join us." Custer gaze waned and he stared at the earthen floor. "You know I felt a little sad when they gathered up what was left and ate him."
    Broomhead held up his hand. "No more. I believe I have the picture."
    Chard groaned again and Broomhead leaned forward and crawled to him. "Chard, are you feeling better?" He knew this was a pointless question but it was better than hearing Custer relive the butchering that had taken place after the battle.
    Chard's face was ashen but he still managed to smile. "I'm hurt pretty good but I believe I'll survive." Broomhead paused and looked up at the pits edge and watched several half naked tribesmen looking down on them and pointing. They were talking in quick dialect that he had decided would have taken him many years to wrap and roll his tongue on; he knew several languages but none compared to the rapid transition that was taking place above. The one tribesman in the middle, dressed only in a red sash that was barely able to cover his private area, was somehow arguing with the one on the left and was adamant with his hand motions until the middle man lifted his checkered kilt did he realize what the argument was about. A thin stream of warm yellow urine began to rain on the three captives in the pit and Broomhead yelled out and in an instinctive reflex he shouted for them to stop. The tribesman paused in his activity and smiled and said something to the other man than continued on urinating into the pit. The man dressed in nothing but a loin sash stooped to the ground and placed his weapons on the ground and undid his own sash and proceeded to urinate into the pit, producing a good laugh from all except those in the pit.
    Broomhead shouted and Chard moved away as best he could from the yellow rain while Custer sat up and did nothing to avoid the urine rain. The rain stopped and the three tribesmen laughed and continued speaking in their dialect then with a wave of the hand from the middleman they moved off and away from the pit and view. "Bastards!" Broomhead shouted insults after them and seeing that his words did not bring them back he looked around and felt the revolting feeling that there was no place safe to sit from the urine stained pit.
    Custer's laugh bought him around. "That's the forth time they've done that since I've been here and I've noticed usually about noon the smell really starts in."
    "Yes it does smell now." He was referring to Custer's presence here.
    Custer smiled and narrowed his eyes. "Insulting will do you no good. You and I are in the same boat and I'm sure we're slated for being a main course sometime in the future. Me though." He shifted his weight. "I do not plan on being a meal to be tortured."
    Above the pits edge a group natives appeared again, holding several large wooden crates. Custer looked up as did Broomhead and watched what the issue was this time. One of the natives smiled at the pit occupants and bought a long slender bamboo tube up to his lips and exhaled sharply. Custer yelped out in surprise and slapped away at the thin barbed dart that had hit him in the facial cheek.
    "Damn it!" Custer was surprised and his facial color drained.
    Broomhead ignored him and watched with intense interest as the natives lined up three small crates near the pits edge and then each crate was tipped on its side and out poured a barrage of human heads and entangled limbs. Custer did nothing to avoid this barrage since there was no cover and he was transfixed on the barbed dart but Broomhead quickly fell over Chard and covered him. A dark head bounced near him and he quickly stole a glance.
    Morso. The head belonged to Morso and he quickly looked out over the other body parts that now littered the pit floor and began to recognize that the limbs and heads belonged to those of the crew of the Catch of the Day. He looked up at the pits edge and just as they had arrived the natives were gone. He felt a rage deep within his being and guilt washed over him. The crew members whose body parts now lay strewn about the pit had wanted nothing more than to live and fish a good section of the river. That was not too much to ask for even in this life. Even though they would be reborn elsewhere it was a matter of survival here along the river. Life was cheap and everyone expendable. He stood up and raising his fists to the late noon sky roared out in frustration and rage at the very top of his lungs.

***    ***    ***

    The rains had come and gone leaving the bottom of the pit a cold wet quagmire of cold human stew. Broomhead shivered and pulled his legs up closer to his chest and felt the dismembered limbs floating in the several inches of standing water. He was becoming increasingly worried about Chard who was still unconscious at this time. Custer also sat up but appeared to be sleeping with his head between his legs. For several hours now he had not moved and he thought perhaps Custer was dead. He carefully placed his hands in the cold waters palm down and slowly erected himself and leaned forward at a crouch towards where Custer sat. He reached out slowly so as to not disturb the stale air and carefully touched him on the leg and noted it was cold. Placing his hand on the back he again noted and felt sure now that Custer had finally died from the poison dart. When the sun had finally settled is when the convulsions had happened and he had vomited out blood-speckled body fluids until he had passed out and only came to in various degrees of delirium.
    He settled back into his place amongst the wet pool and again pulled his legs up to his chest again in an attempt to retain some of his body heat. Above he heard footfall on the soggy earth and he looked slowly skyward and saw a flicker of orange light from a burning torch. The steps came closer as did the flame until the person who held it came into full view. Through blurry vision he gazed upwards and saw the short stocky man as not being a native but a white man with long thin black hair that flowed about his face. The man's eyes were dark and hidden within the sockets of his face as the torchlight flickered. For several minutes the man peered into the pit and watched the occupants below then he turned and waved to others that were behind him.
    "Toc my may!" The words rumbled out in a deep baritone. Several natives appeared carrying a long ladder and they carefully slid it down into the pit and indicated to Broomhead that he was to climb out. The man who held the torch had disappeared but he knew within his being it could be none other than Vlad the Impaler.
    The room was dark and the fireplace at the far end of the hall burned bright. He had been allowed to leave the pit and was escorted to the former war room that now was home to Vlad. Upon entering the war room he stood there and allowed time to adjust his eyes to the surrounding darkness. Several natives were standing and or squatting about the large room but it was not them that drew his attention as much as the man at the end sitting near the fireplace. A figure sat there within one of the great chairs of heavy pine with a leg draped over one of the arms facing the fire. The two native men prodded him forward with their spears and nodded off to him to move forward. With heavy steps he moved placing one foot ahead of the other as far as the ankle restraints would allow. He paused briefly in mid-step by the large oak table and inhaled sharply but silently.
    There on the table lay an assortment of severed human heads. The flesh gray and ashen and the blood had congealed to dark thick syrup and had pooled near the table edges. He eyed one head in particular and noted that it had belonged to Roy Stanton. The eyes had dimmed of life long ago and were rolled up exposing the yellow milky orbs and the lower jaw was agape exposing the thick and dried swollen tongue. Again a sharp jab in the lower back moved him forward and when he was within five feet or so from the figure in the chair, one of the native men jerked hard on his leash and indicated for him to kneel. He did this and waited and occasionally glanced off at the table of skulls.
    Several moments had past and the man in the chair moved. The voice was deep and the words spoken with careful choice. "You know of me." It was not a question but a statement.
    Broomhead attempted to focus his eyes past the severed heads on the table. Being without food had drained him of any kind of strength except to talk. He hoped his voice was stronger than he felt. "Yes."
    Vlad inhaled deeply on a marijuana stick. "You know when I first awoke on this strange afterlife I expected God to be there waiting to judge, but instead I was greeted by a corpse. I was a late sleeper or one that slept past when everyone else was awake. I opened my eyes and sat up near the river shores I observed a corpse floating by. It was then I knew this was not the heaven I had been told about. Why else for the corpse?"
    Several moments passed by without any more speech and Broomhead began to think perhaps Vlad had fell asleep but he saw his shadow shift and the voice continued. "A question. What is your purpose for coming back here?"
    A pause and several breathes later. "I was sent here."
    "By the fools I am guessing to what? Peace? Hah!"
    "To kill you." He answered slowly yet softly, near a whisper. He had felt the truth was better than the lie.
    Vlad sipped slowly of his cup of warmed blood. "Did they say as to why?"
    Broomhead felt weak. There was no point in denying the truth. "They claimed you had gone insane.and that you and your army are a threat to New England Proper." Vlad lowered his cup with shaking hands but his voice was steady and did not waver. "Insane? They said this did they?"
    "Yes." He could see a breif glimpse of emotion. Inside he was torn apart, a man without not only his humanity and mind but a man without a home or country. Vlad leaned forward and the soft glow of the fire briefly lit up his face. It was the first time he had the sight of him. "And you? Do you think I am insane? Do you not see my method of strategy?"
    "I personally do not see any method. Look what I think when you have killed off even those generals or servants loyal to you." "They were not loyal. They were expendable." Vlad leaned further forward and added in low contempt. "Just as you are."
    Broomhead watched Vlad and for several moments they held each other in their gaze. "You can not kill what has been decreed." He was puzzled. "Decreed?"
    The shadow sat back and watched the fire intently. "I am Tecciztecath, God of Death and it has been seen in the stars that New England Proper has been found lacking and must pay the penalty." He failed to understand and before asking Vlad interrupted his thoughts. "Are you a convert?" "For the Church of the Second Chance?" Vlad neither nodded nor acknowledge the answer and instead answered. "No I am not."
    "That is better for you." He quickly motioned the two guards and waved them all away. The two natives grabbed him and jerked him up to his feet and stabbed at him with the butt of their spears. Broomhead yelped out in pain and made his way towards the doors where he was being herded but he knew then that it was now inevitable that Vlad would have to die.

***    ***    ***

    The noonday bark of electricity roared through the valley and the grail stones exploded in electrical power. Men and women of Vlads army moved away from the stones just as the air ripped with electricity and when the fireworks show was complete, each individual moved to the stones to retrieve their grail buckets.
    Broomhead and Chard sat within their new quarters of wooden bars, eating whatever was within their food buckets and watched the people meander about eating whatever the grail stones had given them in their own food buckets. The natives had allowed them food from the buckets but the servants had only given them the contents but not the bucket itself. They had been moved from the earthen pit, which was fine due to the rotting heads of the crew from the Catch of the Day being there and Custer being butchered alive and his own body parts littered the bottom of the pit. Broomhead had cried out several times through the next several nights after that and was surprised to find both himself and Chard lifted from the pit and placed within the wooden cage. They had been denied food from the time they had arrived in this "Godforsaken place" as Chard has yelled out multiple times, and in their weakened state it took a small army of tribesmen to help them out of the narrow pit. It was truly a blessing when they were allowed to eat from their own food buckets again.
    It had been several days since Broomhead had met with Vlad and it was after that meeting that they were both taken from the pit of human refuse and placed here in their new home. There were a couple of guards posted nearby but they watched over their inmates with only mild interest and concentrated instead on a game of dice. He and Chard had spoken in detail of his encounter with Vlad and both agreed that he was mentally unstable. He had advanced the theory that something had happened in Vlads past that had made him the way he was and somehow some political figures were involved from New England Proper. Vlad was here to punish New England Proper and destroy her or change her. When Broomhead and Vlad had spoken of the Church of the Second Chance he realized that perhaps the answer was hidden there after all why ask if he was a convert? Either way it was still decided that it would be best for Vlad to die.
    "Broomhead." Chard spoke through dried and cracked lips. "Look perhaps our time has come." Broomhead stopped chewing on a piece of tender steak and looked down the path. Up the small path overlooking the compound, came an entourage of tribesmen. All were armed with large spears or clubs and walked slowly towards the wooden cages. All were jabbering and all were animated with their arm and hand movements. They had anticipated the day when it would be their turn to be butchered alive and had decided that no matter how weak they were they would fight and be defiant. Broomhead quickly looked about the earthen floor to the cage for anything, something that could be used as a weapon and finding none he stood and balled his fists and waited for the first tribesmen to stab through the wooden bars with their long spears.
    The tribesmen all gathered round the cages and watched in amusement as Broomhead made his stand as a burley, heavyset man with a wooden disk inserted into his lip, spoke a guttural tone language the others quickly laughed. He stepped forward and quickly cut the rope latch lock to the cage and opened the door. Broomhead's heart pounded and he waited for the first strike but all the tribesmen did was watch in amusement and then quickly they all turned to leave, leaving Broomhead and Chard standing within the cage with the door open.
    "A trick to get us in the open, a cruel trick to hunt us like animals." Broomhead said in a low tone.
    Chard shifted his weight and made the effort to stand but could only get to his knees. "No, I think not. If it were the case they would have killed us by now. There would be no sport in hunting us as weak as we are."
    He had to agree and he dared a step forward and out of the cage and waited for retribution of some kind but it never came. "Do you remember where there are weapons hidden away in the woods?"
    Chard stepped forward behind him. "Yes." It was the emergency stash of weapons and food supplies all hidden within the dense wooded areas behind the outpost. Stanton had ordered small amounts of supplies to be buried in case something drastic happened to the outpost. Only top ranking men from the post were given knowledge to the hidden whereabouts of these caches and these were marked with colored rocks. Broomhead knew his rock code color was red and knew where it was located. "I believe it is time."
    "And he has set us free then."
    Broomhead paused. "Yes but he still has intentions of his own death, or ours and he believes he will die and not be reborn anywhere else. I even believe he thinks he will be reborn but as a God over the entire river."
    "Proposterous. He should know that he will only be reborn somewhere else as the same Vlad."
    "Yes but these tribesmen believe Vlad is a God and has control of the entire river. According to their beliefs they believe he will be reborn to a higher intelligence or above all Gods, but he has to die, a supposed sacrifice, to achieve this status."
    "Vlad knows of this I can assume." Chard paused and clutched again at his broken ribs while attempting to hold himself steady. "Well then what are you to do now Broomhead?"
    Broomhead looked across the open ground to the war chambers where he knew Vlad was resting away the afternoon, awaiting the evening festivities that even now the tribesmen were preparing for, but he believed Vlad was waiting for something more. "We'll have to do what everyone all wants. Give him death."
    "I am to weak and bruised to follow you. You'll have to attempt this on your own."
    Broomhead nodded. "I would not want you to do so John, you would only slow me down."
    A native woman appeared and directed them towards their new quarters near the river shore where a hut had been quickly erected. It was better than nothing and would shelter them from the early morning rains. Chard, being as weak as he was layed down and rolled over on his side to sleep. Broomhead though leaned his back against the doorway frame and smoked a cigarette for the first time in many years and waited for the darkness to fall.

Chapter Six

    He paused in motion and stooped down into the brush. He was correct in finding the red painted stone hidden well within the brush despite the efforts of the heavy rains that hammered the ground as they always did around this time every night. He looked around and saw a large thick branch that would have to serve as a shovel. It took some time but after an hour of scrapping and stabbing the earth he came across a wooden panel hidden in about ten inches of soft, wet soil and he quickly used his hands to uncover the edges. Lifting up on one of the wooden planks he uncovered the small cache of weapons and thanked Stanton for being well minded to hide these weapons and food in case of emergency.
    The breeze blew a little harder through the heavy knotted entanglement of oak and pine trees and the rains quickly stopped to a low patter and then ceased. Leaves rustled and the branches parted to allow the moon to beam down into the pit where it reflected off a metallic object. He paused and reached down; careful not to let his shadow block out the moon rays of light and he felt the cold presence of smooth metal. He would not have believed it possible since any metal was rare enough and he felt along the edge of the object until he found a better handle and lifted the heavy object out of the earthen crate.
    He was sure now as to what it was and he looked at it admirably. It was a heavy war saber of good quality and even though there were some speckles of impurities and even light surface rust, it was still a good, well made blade designed for hacking through the thickest of defenses'. He paused and his smile turned to a frown as to what the emissary Jackson had spoken. For God and country he had stated and duty and honor but where was the honor in all of this madness? Even that statement alone held fallacies for there could be no God here on this river and the thought of New England Proper being a home and country to him as it was all these years was and could be no more. He felt a sense of loss at his own thoughts at not having a home or country but he did not feel connected to New England Proper anymore for their deception and political backstabbing. Tonight he was a man without a country and perhaps forever more that would be the case but now he had to act not only to save his life but that of Chard who was still lying in the pit of muck and water. He looked up and around to see if any tribesmen were around close by and he quietly began filling in the hole and when he was done he stood erect and picked up the saber and began moving through the woods.
    A cloudy mist was beginning to form and rise from the ground as a result of the rains and this assisted in his efforts of cover. He quickly and quietly made his way through the wooded forest, avoiding several tribesmen on patrol or sentry duty, and to the river. Once there he stepped out into the dark cold water and careful not to lose his grip on the short sword, he swam away from the riverbanks and towards the post. There was a drainage canal for sewage disposal that led from the post latrines to the river. He knew of it only because he himself had had the privilege of having to clean the ditch from time to time at least until he had achieved some rank did he avoid this unpleasant duty and then he would order others out to do the job.
    He would enter from there and make his way up the fecal infested earthen canal and into the rear of the compound. Vlad was still housed within the old war room and he waited for some form of death to take him from here. He did not believe or perhaps he did, that he would die and be reborn somewhere else. The tribesmen under Vlads control had stated that they believed him to be a God and that even if he was killed that he would be reborn stronger at the place of his death. They had a legend that they had seen Vlad torn apart by a river dragon and that he had been reborn of the river and had found favor with Quetzal the legendary river god, and he had been pieced back together and allowed to live to unite the lowly tribesmen of the river.
    The sewage ditch lay ahead and he moved as quietly as he could towards it. Drums rang out through the night and the compound was lit up with huge bonfires and torches that glared bright. He could make out many groups of tribesmen dancing and celebrating but he also knew that they were eating the dead. He found this repulsive and remembered many of the outpost occupants but he also knew that they were alive again on another part of the river. He had heard that the eating of the dead was symbolized as eating the strength of the vanquished warrior so that the eater would retain that warrior's strength. This night they were all taking part in the celebration of this ritual and since he had seen Vlad drinking cups of human blood, he believed that he also had taken part in these rituals but he knew that this night Vlad would not see another day here along this part of the river. The emissaries had wanted this and Broomhead was no killer but he also sensed that Vlad wanted and dreamt of a permanent death and was seeking this. It was to be short lived for he would be reborn else where and without his army of tribesmen.
    He swam forward towards the ditch until his feet found the silt floor of the river bottom and he then crawled towards the ditch opening and the thick smell of old sewage. He could not stop and dwell on his actions and he quickly lay down on his chest and began crawling upwards through the slime-covered canal. He had seen several tribesmen watching the festivities instead of keeping an eye on any threats. Since there were no armies or any threat of attack, then why not watch? Broomhead crawled forward, choking back the need to gag and occasionally he would find himself sliding back through the slime and would find a tree root and grabbing it, he would pull himself further up the slope. He saw his destination in sight, as he knew it would be there. A barricade of slated wood panels lay situated at the top of the ditch; just beyond the walls of the outpost and upon reaching it he paused in his pursuit to rest for a moment. He sat back near the top and watched as the tribesmen were butchering the corpses and skinning them to expose the tough human meat. Once the corpse was gutted and skinned, the slab of meat was then placed in a pit where hot coals burned away the impurities of the once human flesh. There was much celebration in the works. Men and women danced away to the sounds of drums and reed flutes shrilled loud enough that Broomhead felt sure it would hide his movements.
    He held out his saber in front of him and watched the celebration but he knew that he had work to do also even if it cost him his life. He no longer felt a connection or a sense of belonging to New England Proper any more than Vlad felt a part of the river or this life. If only the emissaries at Cambridge could see this would they grant Vlad a reprieve or a pardon for his sins? Perhaps not. More than likely they would want him as dead as ever since they would consider him a threat and the constant knowing of his actions here and the cannibalistic tribes under his command would never interconnect with life of New England Proper.
    He paused once to look over the edge of the ditch and seeing no one there, he climbed out of the ditch and faded away within the shadows where the bon fires and torchlight's did not reach. A sentry was posted near the war room of the outpost and he silently placed his back to the rough wooden walls and crept sideways towards the small tribesman. The small native was watching with delight over the celebration, slowly allowing his body to shift from side to side with the drumming beat and he was anticipating on the fresh cooked meat of the warriors that had been stationed here at the post. He would never taste the meat and the only blood he tasted was his own as Broomhead crept towards him and grabbed the small man from behind and placed the saber blade across his throat and slid the curved blade across the esophagus slitting open the thick-corded muscles of the neck near to the spinal cord. He held onto him as his feet drummed against the ground in a death spasm and the warm thick blood flowed over his forearms and onto the wet ground. Sensing the small man was dead Broomhead slipped back into the shadows, dragging his victim away from sight and placed him in a sitting position against the walls of the war room. If any one saw the corpse from a distance they would think that the small man had passed out from too much drink.
    Quietly he moved towards the huge doors to the war lodge and reaching out he opened it and slipped inside the darkness and stood there waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark. His eyes flickered in an attempt to locate Vlad and he found him by the fireplace writing away with a thin pencil of charcoal. Vlad paused in his writing and looked up to where Broomhead stood. "This is late. I have chosen not to attend the festival and I wish to not be disturbed." Broomhead said nothing, allowing the thick silence to answer for him.
    "Who stands at the door and bothers me?" Vlad placed his pencil on the papers he was writing on and stood up. "I ask again who is there?"
    Broomhead moved slowly and silently forward, holding the saber out in front of him at the low and ready stance. The flickering light from the fireplace illuminated him and Vlad stepped back. Broomhead was sure that the muck from the ditch and the drying blood from the tribesmen was a sure sight and if he had seen himself he also would have stepped back.
    "It is time then?" Vlad stepped forward to stand beside the table of heads, using the edge to steady himself. Vlad's face was drained of color and Broomhead was sure he felt a fear or a joy at the prospect of his own death. He answered only with a nod and moved forward again this time with a steady pace.
    Vlad began to breath hard, sucking in the thick air of impending death that loomed in front of him. He did not resist as Broomhead stabbed forward with the blade and watched it as it slide across his shoulder area allowing the blood to flow there.
    "That is all? That is my death? Thrust forward with the blade and extinguish this life!" Vlad yelled and stepped forward and stood stiff and erect. Broomhead realized that if he did not kill him now he would soon perish himself and he raised the curved sword above his head and swung a downwards blow. Vlad moved his head to the side and the blade sunk deep within the collarbone area and Broomhead pulled the blade from there with a heavy sucking sound. He swung the blade behind him and swung again this time slashing open the thick stomach muscles and he could see the instant bulge of intestine poking through. He did not stop as Vlad staggered back, knocking several severed heads from the table, he rolled back and spun around in time to see the saber catch him full on the chest. Vlad fell to the floor and instantly he jumped up clutching his stomach and a bloody smile erupted across his face. Broomhead swung again and again until finally Vlad fell to the floor and forward on his face where he slowly rolled over onto his back and through bloody breathes, he whispered words in which Broomhead could not understand.
    Broomhead paused and gripped the heavy saber and watched as Vlad died whispering the foreign words over and over. His heart pounded heavy and the sound blended with the drumbeats outside the former war room and after some time the drums stopped beating and a silence fell over the compound outside. Broomhead readied himself for any tribesmen to explode through the door but none did. The door did open after sometime and a woman poked her head through the door and saw Vlad lying on the floor, his lifeblood spilled to darken the wooden planks. She gasped once and her head disappeared leaving the door ajar where Broomhead felt the cool breeze from the river blow into the room. There was nothing more here. He walked over to the small table where Vlad was writing and read some of the writings for a time.
    He had been correct in his thinking. Vlad was not insane, just caught up in the questions of why they existed here on the river. Why be reborn? Where was God? And was he a God? As he read on he realized that Vlad, as bad as he had been in his terrestrial life, had evolved and strived to achieve a form of humanity and compassion. He had vowed that he would be a better person here when he had been reborn and had strived to achieve this through his actions in helping to establish the city of New England Proper. He had sought to redeem himself from his fearful nature of his terrestrial life and had thought that assisting in stabilizing a piece of civilization here on this vast river would buy him peace. It did not as the political structure of New England Proper shifted and changed and the constant warring on territories and the need for violence drove him away from his original purpose and intent. There were several assassination attempts on his life and felt that somehow he had been perceived as a threat by some of New England Propers inner political figures since he had fought hard for the common man or woman and their causes. He felt truly alive when fulfilling his need to do good and not harm but after being awarded Defender of the State he was told to take his army and put the small territory of Kirkben to the sword for not complying with New England Propers authority. The people of Kirkben were not war like and sought nothing but peace and had not committed any atrocity other than taking in enemies of the state and giving them food and shelter until they had healed enough to move on. The people there believed in helping and giving aid to anyone that needed it, both to enemies and country men, and despite warnings from authorities from New England Proper to stop this practice they continued on. Vlad had found it admirable to help the sick and needy and had visited Kirkben on several occasions and found it inhabited by "beautiful people" as he called them and had a good deal of respect for their nurturing souls. He had no respect for the Church of the Second Chance apparently but somehow some of their doctrine had infested the Monarchy at this time frame and the people of Kirkben had been singled out for retribution for failure to follow the Churches supposed righteous and Godly doctrine.
    Vlad was ordered to destroy Kirkben and reluctantly he did so, putting everyone to the sword but he found displeasure in it and in this action he found himself lacking and became what everyone expected him to be. The Church held strong influence within the royal ranks of New England Proper and they were quick to send out disciples to spread the word of gospel. Vlad also felt that there were spies from other territories not loyal to New England Proper hidden within the churches ranks and had managed to discover several spies acting as disciples to the new faith.
    He acted swiftly and had the three killed by impalement and was highly reprimanded for this action, but on the other hand, spy activity dropped off to nothing within his part of the territory, but nothing could save Vlad and his mind for his tactics and methods of impaling people placed those in higher ranks in question. So he had become an embarrassment and he was ordered to the outer most territory where he founded his own private army of tribesmen with simple minds where he was held in view as the God Tecciztecatl or sea snail, Moon God and this explained the death's head emblem written and carved all over the place and was even painted on Vlad's battle flags. He had wanted to destroy The Church of the Second Chance and if New England Proper was going to protect that church than it was better to destroy her as well.
    The door opened behind him and he paused in reading to turn behind him and look. Another woman sat in a kneeling position and bowed down. Beyond her were the tribes all stood watching the war room silently and waiting for their God to appear as the early morning sun crested the mountains to spill its life-giving rays to the valley. Broomhead stood up from the chair and gathered up the papers and tossed them into the fire to burn. There was no more reason to read any more, the reasons were now obvious. There was no way he would leave the reasons why Vlad had done the things he had done. There was no need for any one else to know why, let it be that Vlad was insane and that for once New England Proper would again find her self correct in eliminating him from this part of the river as for the reasons, well they knew and that was enough. All of this had left a bad taste within his mouth and he desired to get away from not only here but also New England Proper as a whole. She held nothing more for him and the acts of deception would hold strong within his mind for many years.
    He picked up the saber and walked slowly to the door, carefully watching for any signs of retribution. He found himself standing on the steps looking out over the simple men and women who had stopped in their festivities and watched him with interest as he took a step forward towards the multitude.
    The multitude opened wide like Moses parting the Red Sea. Not a word was spoken as Broomhead tossed the heavy saber to the ground. Outpost Victoria was no more. Perhaps in the future it would be rebuilt but today it was not a part of New England Proper; it was just some barbaric territory just outside her authority. He took one step forward then another noting that no one opposed him. It was as if they knew that Vlad, their River God, was dead within the former war chambers of outpost Victoria. He also knew that without their leader they would quickly fall prey to the forces of New England Proper who were now hidden well within the mountain ranges and the borders, poised to strike before the day was out and slaughter these tribesmen to the last man. The native men did not say a word and had stopped in their ritual cannibalism rites. The bodies of the dead laid strewn about all in various states of butcher work. He moved forward slowly, expecting them to leap upon him but inside his mind he also realized that somehow he was safe in this thought. The further he walked away from the war room the more secure he felt in knowing that he would live to see the morning sun again.
    The ground was wet from the early morning rains. The water had run across the ground and there was a tinge of red to it. Blood. Blood was everywhere along with the thick sweet smell of it as a soft breeze from the river drifted in to float across the compound. It permeated everything he saw and the air was saturated with it. Slowly as he walked towards the prison pens, he watched for the first hand to rise against him and strike, but none did. The tribesmen all watched with mild interest as to what he had done and to what he was going to do next.
    He had reached the wooden make shift shanty where Chard lay in the wet mud, quietly coughing and holding his broken ribs. He quickly stepped inside and knelt beside him. "Chard we must be quick."
    "Is it done?" He asked knowing the answer but wanted to hear it for himself.
    Broomhead helped him up and draped a limp arm over his shoulders, bearing most of his friend's weight he answered through labored breath. "Yes, it is done."
    Chards eyes rolled and he nodded his head and together they stepped out of the holding pens. The tribesmen still did nothing to stop them as they made their way towards the docks. Occasionally they would halt and step over a corpse or parts of one and move on.
    "They will strike us before we get to the docks." Chard said. Sweat ran in rivers down his face and his eyes were wide, taking in the sight of the thousands of tribesmen who stood or squatted on their haunches.
    Broomhead replied. "I think not now that their God is dead." They moved on and when they had reached the docks Broomhead only had one choice of boat. The Catch of the Day sat half sunk in the river silt; water lapped over the railings and onto the deck but beside it floated a small two-man canoe. Careful not to hurt Chard any more than he was, he eased him onto the canoe and situated him so he would be most comfortable. He leaped back onto the docks and walked over to the nearest grail stone to where he knew his and Chards grail buckets sat. He leapt up on the large mushroom shaped stone and retrieved the two buckets and as he stood up and made his way to the edge, he paused in mid-step and looked out over the multitude of tribesmen.
    There the tribesmen reacted but it was with a reaction totally unexpected. The thousands all threw their weapons before them and knelt slowly down to the red earth before him looking to him and silently a vocal hum started in one place and gradually it filled the entire encampment. They hummed aloud and continued to do so even as he leapt down onto the ground and walked back to the canoe.
    Chard smiled thinly as Broomhead stepped down into the canoe and picked up a paddle. "You're now their God."
    Broomhead freed the canoe from the docks and pushed off and seated himself. "I dare say not Chard and it would be best to get away before all this worship swells my head."
    The hum of praise was loud at first but as they floated down river away from what had been the outpost and home it began to fade into a low disturbance and then nothing. Neither spoke for sometime, each lost in their separate thoughts about what had transpired.
    Chard interrupted the silence first, his voice loud. "He'll just live again somewhere else along this vast river. I don't understand why even bother with killing him." He paused and coughed again. His face balled up in pain and he continued to clutch his broken ribs.
    Broomhead continued on with paddling the canoe. "I don't claim to know much as to his reason why or even to his motives but perhaps it had to do with the primary question of why."
    "Why what?"
    He paused and straddled the paddle across the sides of the canoe and looked around. "All this. This river and why we're even here and why build a civilization or cities if we're just going to war on one another? And another important question is who and or what created all this? God? Perhaps." Chard smiled thinly. "What to do now."
    Broomhead did not answer for sometime, concentrating mainly on steering the canoe down the river. When he finally did answer it was with a flat, firm acknowledgment. "To the end of the river. We'll sail to the end of the river, we've both wanted to do that for some time."
    Chard looked at him with a confused look on his face. "What? Away from New England Proper and civilization? What the hell for?" Broomhead smiled wide, feeling truly free for longer than he could remember and he compared it with his own rebirth on the river for the first time those many years ago. "Call it a fishing trip. I heard the fish there were big."