As they headed toward the forest, moving slowly because of Eddie and Lannie, Denise decided things weren’t so bad. Perhaps oddly, the fact that Drugeth’s cohorts seemed just as familiar and relaxed in their use of up-time shotguns as Drugeth himself did with a sword, was somehow re-assuring.

            Whatever else they were, enemies of the USE or not, they obviously weren’t wild-eyed desperadoes. Everything about them was experienced, controlled, disciplined—or self-disciplined, in the case of Drugeth.

            True, that same control might lead to a quick, relaxed, practiced and easy execution squad too. But if they’d wanted to do that, they would have done it already. And would a man planning to kill her in a few minutes have bothered to give Noelle a courteous helping hand getting onto her horse? Denise didn’t think so.

            Besides, her assessment of Drugeth had shifted yet again. From rock star to nomad barbarian, it had tentatively come to rest on a label she was generally skeptical about but seemed accurate enough in this instance. Every now and then—not often—you did run across a down-time nobleman who actually lived up to the name instead of being a puffed-up thug with delusions of grandeur.

            Drugeth had told them he would release them once his expedition got far enough away from any chance of pursuit. Okay, he hadn’t officially “given his word.” But Denise was pretty sure that the genuine articles when it came to noblemen didn’t bother with silly flippery like solemn vows, except on formal occasions. He’d said what he would do, and so he would. To do otherwise would be a transgression of a code he took seriously.

            Good enough, she decided, for a day that included bombing your own guys. Jesus, it’d take her years to live that down. Even Minnie would make fun of her, when she found out.


            But when they reached the small clearing where the defectors had been waiting, things immediately got tense.

            Unfortunately, even sober, Jay Barlow was nobody’s idea of a nobleman—and he’d apparently spent the time since Drugeth left him with the others getting half-plastered. Him and Mickey Simmons. There was another prize for you.

            “That’s the fucking bitch!” he shouted, when he spotted Noelle. He thrust a half-empty bottle into Mickey’s hand and took several steps forward. To make things perfect, he had his hand dramatically positioned to yank out the silly cowboy gun on his hip. He looked like something out of Grade D western.

            Drugeth moved up in front of him. “Enough, Barlow. Get back on the wagon. Now. We have to be moving.”

            “Fuck that!” Barlow pointed the forefinger of his right hand accusingly at Noelle. Unfortunately, he was left-handed and his left hand was now gripping the gun butt. “She’s the one went after Horace! I say we shoot her now and good riddance.”

            Matching deed to word, he yanked the gun out of the holster.

            Keenan squawked. Denise probably did too. She wasn’t sure, because whatever she’d been about to say was stifled in her throat by Drugeth’s sword.

            Blurring like an arc. Barlow’s gun and the hand holding it went sailing off somewhere. Barlow stared at the stump, gushing blood. His expression seemed one of amazement, not pain.

            But it was Drugeth’s expression that mostly registered on Denise. The Hungarian seemed to be in some sort of weird brown study. Just standing there, the sword in his hand, point down, dripping a little blood from the tip, while he contemplated Jay Barlow.

            He shifted deftly to the side, the sword blurred again, and a fountain of blood gushed out of Barlow’s neck. His whole throat looked to have been cut, from one ear to the other.

            Paralyzed by shock, Denise realized that Drugeth had just been calculating whether to keep Barlow alive or not. The decision having come up negative, he’d shifted to the side so he wouldn’t get blood all over himself.

            And he didn’t, not a drop. Barlow collapsed to his knees and then to the ground. He was effectively already dead.

            Mickey Simmons was shouting, and clawing for something in the wagon. A gun, Denise assumed.

            “Kill him,” said Drugeth. Quietly, almost conversationally.

            Gage and Gardiner’s shotguns seemed to go off simultaneously. The heavy slugs hammered Simmons into the side of the wagon. He collapsed to the ground.

            A lot of the American defectors were making noise now. Billie Jean Mase came running up to Drugeth, screaming at him. For a moment, Denise expected to see her throat sliced in half, too. But Drugeth simply planted a boot in her belly and that was that. She went down, gasping for air.

            “Silence,” said Drugeth. Not hollering, exactly, but the word carried like nobody’s business. “You will all be silent.”

            That shut them up. Including Denise. Which was a good thing, or she might have giggled hysterically.

            I mean, there was something insanely amusing about the scene, if you ignored the gore. It was like watching a bunch of rabbits suddenly realize they’d pissed off a bobcat. Or a cougar.

            Drugeth drew out a handkerchief and cleaned off the blade. Then, slid the sword back into the scabbard. Throughout, not taking his eyes once off the defectors clustered around the two wagons in the clearing.

            “I told Ms. Stull and her companions that they would be released unharmed once we were far enough from pursuit. So I spoke, and so it will be. And I am no longer inclined to tolerate any obstruction or dispute. I am in command, not you. You will obey me in all things, until we reach Vienna.”

            He waited a few seconds, to see if any protest would be made.

            None was. What a shocker.

            “And now, we must dig two graves. Mr. O’Connor, perhaps there is some tool in the wagon that might serve.”

            “We didn’t bring any shovels,” said Allen O’Connor uncertainly. His voice was a little shaky, maybe, but not much. He certainly didn’t seem stricken by grief. Leaving aside the shock of the sudden blood-letting, Denise didn’t think many of the defectors—leaving aside the cretin Billie Jean and Caryn Barlow—had any serious personal attachment to the two dead men. Simmons’ wife was a down-timer, a widow he’d married the year before. But she wasn’t in the group. Mickey must have decided to abandon her when he defected.

            And the baby they’d had a few months ago. And his two step-children by his wife’s first marriage.

            The shithead.

            Qualifying that, the now-dead shithead. And good riddance.