House of Swords (Part 1!)

The bush plane shuddered violently as it touched down on the scraped dirt runway, kicking up a storm in its wake. The propellers wound down with some heavy rattling, but nothing that concerned her. She knew her pilot as someone who could keep something as big and complicated as an aircraft both working and secret. Years spent flying substances for groups like the Taliban taught him well, and now that most of his customer base was gone, she was happy to have his services almost exclusively.

”And… safe landing, as always,” her pilot said, using his native Georgian tongue instead of the Russian she normally heard him use when talking to customers in country, and Arab out of. ”Just a moment more Miss Sabanova, have to clear our landing with the team.”

The team being his old timer smuggling crew, of course. A ragtag bunch, but the kind of people who put their families above themselves, and themselves above authority. Their mentality was the selling point when she decided to hire him, since unlike the crooks in the west who saw only gold, the men out here see their sons and daughters, with roofs overhead and food on their plates. Men like that don’t sell out someone they come to call family.

”Perfect, thank you Korneli, you never seem to fail do you?”

He laughed, ”Don’t tell the boys that! They’ll try to fix that I’m sure!”

He taxied the little plane off the runway, meeting with an old jeep and two technicals, pickup trucks sporting Russian made heavy machine guns from over a decade ago. The smuggling team was technically apart of a larger outfit, which itself was connected by ideology and mutual objectives to a host of not-so-radical groups that for the last hundred years have been fighting foreign influence. Tsarist, Ottoman, British, Soviet, American, and now Luthor.

Some things never really changed.

The vehicles escorted the plane off the roads, into a little grove with just enough canopy to hide the single engine, as well as a small workshop that kept everything in working order. When she exited the plane, both she and her pilot were greeted by welcoming faces ranging from Arab to Russian, and one she was especially familiar with.

”Tsatse! Welcome home!” a woman in her late forties embraced her, pulling Tsatse in for a lasting family style hold. This time, it was her natural language, the tongue Tsatse was raised on so many centuries ago. She was still careful not to touch any part of her exposed. It was a peculiarity those from here grew familiar with.

”Mother Voykova,” she greeted her with a warm smile, ”You came all this way just to welcome me?”

Voykova laughed, ”Says the girl who travels the world over just to say hello!”

They shared in the joy filled homecoming that rippled throughout the camp. Several others had been away for a while too, and stories were the order of the hour as families came together. Some told of daring thefts, whether it was money, weapons, tools, or even food, breaking treasures of the foreign elite out of their vaults and back into the hands of those who needed it. Tsatse was met with more sisters, all native born Circassian and representing the tiny minority of East Orthodox among them, the latest in a long lineage of people dating back to the first missionaries out of Byzantium.

Her people.

They and the rest quickly settled down as the visiting came to a close and their window for movement began to open. Her little family was herded into the back of a pickup, all her bags unpacked and shifted over as well, this one fitted with benches rather than a pintle mount, and she found herself between one of the younger sisters and one of the escorts, riding with both legs out the back of the truck and an aging AKM assault rifle resting across his lap. Across from him, another sat with a PKM machine gun. Over a decade ago, the Russian Army would have come down on these activities like the wrath of an angry god, smiting the entire region out of existence and then burying it under mountains of bureaucracy to avoid international outcry.

But now, with so much attention in the far west and east, and the oil fields far to the south, no one has the time, resources, nor concern to make her little home in the Caucasus mountains a priority. The only trouble they ever got were lightly equipped infantry flown in to follow up on jammed drones, turning over a few stones before packing up and leaving the very next morning. From what she overheard, many of those soldiers considered drone runs a vacation from the more aggressively active cells to the south, where the dissolution of national armies and borders led to mass chaos with warlords rising from the sand to claim the newly unhinged territory.

She could sympathize with that feeling. Coming home every so often was an increasingly rare luxury. She only got to spend a few days here last time, and that was almost two years ago.

Even as the nearly ancient truck buckled and bounced over potholes and poorly maintained tracks of road, gravel, and dirt, she didn’t let even a second of the countryside slip from her. Green, lush alpine meadows met with leafy trees, the city of Sochi visible from their elevation some twenty miles west on the coast of the Black Sea.

Other vehicles that followed in their convoy trailed off here and there, vanishing into the folds of the mountain range, until finally it was them who brok off, accompanied by a technical with an old Soviet fifty caliber, its barrel aimed lazily to the sky.

Voykova got up from her seat and shuffled down the center of the truck bed, scooting the younger sisters up as she raised her phone. ”Tsatse, it’s Zhembore, say hi!” On the phone screen stood her father, an aging man with a thick beard that teetered on the edge of being pure white. His face was rough with pockmarks and creases, but lit up like the stars when he saw her through the screen.

She grinned and waved ”Hey pappy!” He wasn’t her grandfather of course, he was long dead and gone, along with the Byzantines. He was, instead, one of the many descendants of her past cousins, though that was a secret she kept to herself. The village only knew of her as a visitor of the family, and only the oldest among them could say with certainty there was something more than human about her.

He smiled, joy written between the missing teeth, ”Ah, Tsatse! Come home to check on the herd then?” Code they shared for bringing supplies into the village, things the new world order would never approve going to highland villages, though he did of course mean it in the joking manner as well.

”If anyone needs checking in on, its you pappy,” she replied with a grin. ”Everything going smooth this season?”

”Oh… had a few of the sheep get a little lost, but we found ‘em soon enough. One of those… darned farmhands got too frisky with them too. Gave Liyne a decent marking.” Liyne she recalled was one of the sisters, part of a handful that weren’t present for the greeting party.

”Anything permanent? What happened with the hand?”

”Oh, we let him go,” code for "let him live," which is the norm in these parts. They were no Russian Army, who were kittens compared to the Soviets, but they were still Luthor's men, and worse, from out of country. That typically never ended well anywhere in the world. ”Liyne’s doing fine, truthfully. She’ll be happy to see you I’m sure.”

”And I’ll be happy to see all of you, too,” she replied. It was rare when someone didn’t get roughed up when soldiers came knocking, so she wasn’t surprised to hear about it. The real concern was that it was one of the sisters and not the usual crowd. A village of maybe three hundred doesn’t draw a lot of heat, even with trouble makers. So why’d they bruise up Liyne?

She’d find out soon enough. As the village drew near, she was greeted with old houses from as far back as the 1920s, walls bleached from the sun, roofs all different shades of gray or brown from replaced shingles, some a mismatch of the two or with multiple shades from filled holes. Three were actually new, which was to say only thirty or so years old, rebuilt after a chimney fire ate two and the third was struck by lightning. Small trees dotted the yards and between homes, with a vast amount of women walking through the street, dressed similarly to their Arab counterparts to the south. Most people here, Circassian or not, were Sunni, and they wore it proudly, something they were only allowed to do now for the last decade.

They passed a bustling little farmer's market, a public meeting house that'd been rebuilt thrice since the end of the Cold War, the mosque, and finally at the far end of the village, a small church building where the truck and its escort pulled to a stop. The rest of the welcome home entourage was waiting on the front steps, and rushed her in an excited mob, crowding around her while the two vehicles slipped away to rejoin the independent militia. Her original entourage brought her bags on the grass of course, before joining the rounds of welcoming until Voykova finally chased them off, batting a few with the tips of her fingers.

”Bah! she exclaimed, ”you’d think them children they way they go about you!” She shook her head, crossing her arms while the eldest of sisters began to hurriedly unzip the heavy bags and check their contents. Some had batteries and electronic devices, along with scrap, tools, and so on for keeping the lights on. Some held guns, magazines, boxes of ammunition, and even some ballistic plates she lifted on her return trip, which the sisters immediately zipped back up and split into two piles. One for the church, and one for the mosque, an agreement they’d had when the Russian government fell apart and anarchy broke out to the south as Iran and Saudi Arabia dissolved.

”So…” she trailed, ”How were the Nomad Games?”

”They were fine," she shrugged, arms folded against the cool mountain air, "much better than the Olympics of course. Got to compete privately with some of the Turks in an archery contest, which was fun.”

”No riding this time?”

Tsatse shrugged again, ”Didn’t bring a horse to compete with. I’m just glad its hasn’t changed over the years, everyone still competes from their home countries rather than the regional bounds.” Then she flashed a grin, ”I’m guessing you introduced Pappy to it?”

Voykova laughed, ”I tried! Apparently he’s been watching for the last twenty years on his old TV without showing us!”

”Hah! I should have guessed after he started taking up falconry again!”

They both shared in a deep, heartfelt laugh, the conversation trailing on through the current status of the town, mixing subtle code every now and then that over the years had just become the norm of speech. Not that there was anyone outside their little mountain range that could honestly translate, and those that were had all gradually moved back after the borders were lifted. For some, she considered lightly, Luthor's world wasn’t so bad.

Soon enough the bags were all moved out, all but one with a long, black, canvas sleeve strapped to it. Her travel bag, the one that went with her everywhere.

”I suppose you’ll be wanting to visit the hilltop before joining us?” Voykova said, looking out to the lonely bag.

”As always, at least business is coming second this time,” she remarked. Last time she had slipped in under the night, and a week earlier than she had planned. It was a nice surprise for everyone when they woke up and found all the things Luthor's world order didn’t permit neatly divvied up between the two groups, like an early Christmas present. ”Do try to keep the boys out of trouble for me?”

”As if you need to ask.”

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