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Barbarossa's Bitch

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After the Apocalypse, Dylan Taggert find himself at loose ends. A gay computer tech, there is no room for him in the new world. He falls in with a WildPack, a roving band who offers protection, communication and trade to the settlements that work with them. But even in the pack, Dylan is small and soft, fit only to be the leader's toy, until he proves he is more.

Scifi / Erotica
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Barbarossa’s Bitch

Nick Rowan

A note from Dylan Taggert:

These are scenes from a life, my life, both as myself and as Kane. They can be read in any order. Cut this apart and shuffle them like cards. It will make as much or as little sense as the reader likes. Much like my world where there are only two real times, Before and After.

When the settlement delegation entered the encampment, Kane was being fucked. Lord Barbarossa hammered away at his ass, growling obscenities. Kane himself had as much to do with the sex as the motorcycle supporting him. He gave them a quick smile and watched as his glasses slid off his nose to land in the dirt. He couldn’t catch them with Barbarossa pinning his wrists together against the back of his waist. The glasses didn’t break, which was lucky; he wouldn’t have to get the eye-man to make him a new set next month. The elders looked at them in disgust, which turned to horrified mutters as they passed.

Once they couldn’t see his face, he set his teeth. Barbarossa hadn’t taken off the spiked codpiece and Kane was bleeding from the thighs and the soft skin on the back of his balls. But he couldn’t make any noise. This was a dominance display. He would play his part perfectly. He heard the whispers as they saw the scar across the top of his ass, the one that read “Barbarossa’s bitch” in spiky, hand-carved letters.

He felt Lord Barbarossa’s fingers tighten on his hips at the sight of an old woman among the visitors. Lord Barbarossa slammed him three times and shouted a triumphant orgasm. The rest of the wildpack roared their approval.

White got the Elders seated and brought beer to all the men. Kane nodded his approval. After Lord Barbarossa withdrew, Kane took a breath and composed his face. Then he grabbed his glasses, turned and waited. His own cock lay trapped in wicked-looking cage, all black iron and spikes. He was never allowed to climax in public.

Lord Barbarossa closed up his spiked codpiece and wiped away sweat from under his leather mask. He yanked the leash on Kane’s collar and they joined the visitors at the fire. White settled a joint of beef to finish roasting over the flames and bowed out, leaving the chief of the wildpack to talk. Kane knelt at his feet, ignoring the droplets of blood sinking into the sand under him.

“We come, Lord Barbarossa, to ask--”

Kane cut off the woman with a slash of his hand. He snarled at the oldest of the men, ”Make the gash shut its suckhole.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open at his rudeness. The men stared. Kane looked at them with a sneer. “Lord Barbarossa is offended that you have brought a gash into the camp. That you let it make noise revolts him. We have razed villages larger than yours for less.”

Barbarossa clouted him on the back of the head, and Kane’s ears rang. The woman rose and left without another word.

Barbarossa addressed himself to the eldest of the men. Kane watched the rest. They stared at the leader of the wildpack, taking in his spiked codpiece and the sculpted leather mask of black and gold spirals that he never removed. They shifted uneasily when he spoke. Kane suppressed his usual shiver. His master’s voice always raised goosebumps with its sexy baritone.

“You come to us for protection. What does your settlement offer?”

“We are a small settlement, without much in the way of resources,” one began.

Kane spat at his feet. “Lord Barbarossa asked for figures, not excuses. You are twenty miles beyond our current borders. If we take you in, we require at least two gallons of fuel per vehicle each month, as well as other trade goods.”

Three of the men wailed as if pained. The leader moaned, “You will bankrupt us, with your great fleet.” Barbarossa yawned, a dangerous sign.

Kane looked at the six motorcycles, four trucks and one semi rig that made up the Pack’s fleet. “You waste my lord’s time. Tell us what you want and whether you will meet our price.”

“We need seeds. Seeds and glass and metal. We have no fuel, only milk and goats and cheese. We need young people. Ours are gone.”

“The cost of the fuel will be added to our side of the trade.” Kane was allowed to make that concession. Few of the settlements had fuel. Only the one by the old refinery really kept them supplied. A few of the others traded alcohol in place of gasoline and grease fuel for diesel.

“Where did your young people go?” Barbarossa asked.

“The women, they were taken. The young men have hired out to other settlements, or ride with wildpacks, my lord.”

“They are on the border of Ar, Master,” Kane reminded him. “Slave raids will be common there. The Normanites have made a lifestyle of it.” He turned to the council. “So where are they dumping the pregnant gash? You should be getting that back.”

The old man shook his head. “We have heard rumors they have a doctor who makes sure the girls can have no children, ever. He is killing us.”

Kane did some calculations and named a steep monthly price. The council flinched again. “We will protect and fight for you. We will bring you metal and glass and young people willing to learn. Take it or leave it. We will not raid you, and we protect what is ours.”

The council hemmed and hawed, clearly unhappy to be making the decision without the old woman. “We will take it,” the old man finally said.

Lord Barbarossa stood up and called for more beer.

My name is Kane. I was born Dylan Taggert, but I am no longer the man who bore that name. No longer the programmer whose boyfriend dumped him, who never managed a relationship that lasted more than two years.

I am Kane. I belong to Lord Barbarossa.

It looks so bald in black and white like that, as if writing the words makes them real. They can’t get more real than the collar around my neck or the stripes on my back.

I displeased my lord tonight. I forgot I wasn’t supposed to have a brain in front of... company.

In front of the settlers, I am his toy, a demonstration of his absolute power. I dress as he tells me, if he tells me. I attend his every whim with alacrity in front of our guests. If he shat in a bowl and ordered me to eat it, I would be pretending it was the best Swiss chocolate. I could always vomit later, after they were gone.

I miss chocolate. I miss a lot of things from Before. That’s why I’m writing this, sort of. Partly so I can remember. Maybe so the future will remember and recreate.

Ahh, who do I think I’m fooling? There are still libraries and archives that survived. Nobody’s going to read the journal of a wildpack fucktoy for clues about the past.

My lord approaches. More later.

The men hauled the captives out of the trailer. Dylan supported Missy, helping her walk on unsteady legs. They blinked against the light after days in the dark of the semi-trailer. He held her up when the men lined them up. Missy hung onto him, her taut skin of her pregnant belly shiny in the hot sun.

A tall, thin man in black leather pants and boots, wearing a mask of black and gold spirals and a spiked codpiece, strode along the line. Dylan looked around and bit down on a laugh. He had fallen into an old disaster movie, what with the ragtag array of vehicles and men, and the masked leader. He silenced his memory, which was yelling the quote from Road Warrior about “The Lord Humungous, the ruler of the wasteland, the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah!” and kept his face straight and his eyes down. They’d know what he was soon enough.

Barbarossa was a familiar figure in the settlements. He and his pack roared into town about every three months and demanded tribute. He was spoken of in whispers by the townsfolk and farmers. And now Dylan was in his hands. He could work this to his advantage or detriment, and Dylan always kept one eye on his best advantage.

The naked captives quailed before the masked leader’s attention. He gestured for each woman to be removed from the group. Each man was asked his specialties and destination. When he came to Missy and Dylan, he looked them over, blue eyes hard behind the mask.

“Is that yours?” he demanded of Dylan.

“No, no, she was pregnant when she was brought on.” Dylan swallowed hard. The voice, low and resonant, didn’t fit the image the leader projected. It should have had a tough accent, or be ruined from cigarettes or something. The sound made him want to know what lay under the mask and under the codpiece as well. “I’m just helping her along. It’s hard to be without friends in a strange place.”

The leader gestured. “Settlement Five had dibs on the next pregnant gash.”

“Dylan!” Missy wailed, reaching back for him as two men pulled her over to a huddled knot of women. They formed around her protectively, a low murmur of soothing rising from them. Dylan dropped the arm that still reached out to hold her close.

“Who are you?” Barbarossa demanded of him, looking down with a sharp glare.

“Dylan Taggert, itinerant teacher, programmer, electrician and sometime farmer.” Somehow, he managed to meet Barbarossa’s eyes. The deep bright blue tried to swallow him, but he stood under the scrutiny. He held his breath as the leader looked him up and down.

One gloved hand traced along his jaw. “It is hard to be without friends. Would you like to be my friend, Dylan Taggert? I’m a good friend to have.”

Dylan gulped and managed a smile. “I think I’d like that very much, sir.” He turned his head and brushed his lips over the gloved fingers that were still running along the side of his face. Something in this man’s eyes made him hot, and his cock was waking up. The full lips, almost too lush for a man’s, tempted him. He knew what such a friendship would entail. He’d heard the tales of the wildpacks who kept beautiful youths as sex-slaves. He wasn’t beautiful or a youth anymore.

The leader smiled and grasped his chin an in unyielding grip. “On your knees before Lord Barbarossa, Taggert,” he ordered.

Dylan hesitated only a moment. He never knew where the wicked half-smile on his face came from, or the boldness that let him stare at the spiked codpiece as he went down to his knees. Sure, he wanted the man, but he’d never been so forward, and never in front of people. He’d been private about his gayness Before, never one for the club scene or public venues, and deeply closeted since the Accident. Something in Barbarossa’s eyes gave him courage, made him ache for the big man. He took care to avoid getting a spike in the eye as he breathed over the codpiece.

Barbarossa’s hand, long fingers and narrow palm still in its leather motorcycle glove, slid down to move the codpiece aside. “Open up.”

Dylan tensed, frightened at his own sudden boldness. He’d been thrown out of three settlements for being gay. They only wanted someone who would marry and breed. He had vaguely hoped the wildpack would sell him and Missy off together as indentured servants. He could say they were married, raise the kid as his and never be under suspicion again. But Lord Barbarossa seemed to see right through him. Dylan opened up.

Barbarossa’s cock, pale, thick and uncut, landed on his tongue. Dylan tasted leather and sweat and warm male skin. He ran his tongue through the reverse Prince Albert piercing and tugged a little. Barbarossa buried one hand in his hair and jerked him farther down, gagging him on the long cock and laughing as he gasped. His heavy hand stayed there, holding Dylan steady while he pumped his hips.

Dylan breathed through his nose, braced against the face-fucking. The spikes gouged hot fire along his cheek, just below his eye. He held still, blood trickling down his cheek, letting Barbarossa slam his face, working his tongue as much as he could and generally trying to give the best head he knew how. It had been months since his last taste of cock. Maybe, if he did well, Barbarossa would keep him instead of killing him out of hand or selling him to some settlement.

Barbarossa came, filling his mouth with bitter salt. He jerked Dylan off his cock and fastened up one-handed. “My bitch,” he announced. “You ride with us.” He shoved Dylan away and moved on down the line.

The slim dark boy who had brought him in, still looking barely old enough to be riding with the pack, helped Dylan to his feet. “Come on. I’ll get you outfitted.” He led Dylan to a little tent and dug around. “These should fit,” he said, tossing over a pair of leather chaps. Boots followed and an armored jacket and helmet.

“What about clothes?” Dylan asked. He didn’t like the jealous look on the youth’s face.

“You’re Barbarossa’s bitch now. You don’t get clothes, just protection. You’ll get clothes in the winter for warmth. Now, his is the Harley chopper. Go sit on the bitchseat and watch the sissy bar, it’s barbed wire.” The boy gave a wicked grin. “It’ll dig right into your ass if you aren’t careful.”

“Thank you, I think.” Dylan pulled on the chaps and boots, feeling more naked with his junk hanging out than he had just being naked. He carried the jacket and helmet and went to sit on the big black Harley chopper. He really didn’t like the way the boy looked at him.

One of the men, a sharp-nosed middle-aged man with tired eyes, came over with a pouch. He washed Dylan’s face and studied the scratches. He opened a jar of green ointment and smeared some across the scratches on Dylan’s cheek.

“You’re going to have a real nice scar there. Use this and it’ll keep the scarring to a minimum. And next time, tell him to take off the spikes first. Beg if you need to. He usually will.”

“Thank you.” Dylan zipped the ointment into a pocket of his jacket.

“I’m Truman. You need patching up, from anything, come see me or White.” Truman nodded at a gray-haired man next to a pickup truck, and then gave Dylan a smile that made him hope Truman was a decent guy. The next words didn’t confirm that hope. “Welcome to Barbarossa’s wildpack, bitch.”

On the day after the Accident, I was one of ones who woke up. We never really found out what happened or how many died. Most people went to bed and never woke up. I used to wonder, if in Europe and Asia, people just dropped dead in their tracks. Then, we were too busy surviving to care.

At first, it was easy. There was plenty of everything, and most of it still worked. Then the utilities shut down because no one was there to run them or repair them. A lot of the remaining people started getting together. They sorted out by religion and race and even ideas. Some people got it together based on philosophy. They emptied the stores, set up in old farmhouses or small towns that they could clear of corpses, and generally got down to the business of feeding themselves.

They set up the rules, and one of the primary ones in most places was no queers allowed. “I’m so sorry. You’re brilliant and competent, but we can’t spare resources for a non-breeding member,” was the kindest regulation I heard. The few places that allowed us in used us for the worst kinds of work because we had no families to mourn us.

That’s how the wildpacks started. Colonies that practiced polygamy always had too many men. All the colonies threw out the gays. And so, those who were able to get together and get mobile started raiding the colonies out of revenge.

It was a joke at first. “Oh, your farm got raided by the faggots. What’d they take, a curling iron and all your sequins?” When the packs got bigger, nobody was laughing. Not after Barbarossa’s pack butchered every male over the age of fifteen when Settlement Twelve refused to pay the protection tribute. They parceled the women and children out to the rest of settlements. They burned every building, flayed and impaled every man they killed, and helped themselves to everything they wanted. After that, nobody made jokes.

I raided a sporting goods store for survival gear around ten in the morning the day after the Accident, and then again as soon as I figured out how the world was shaping up. There wasn’t going to be much room in a diminished subsistence population for a gay computer programmer. I needed to buy my way into some settlement and make sure I wouldn’t be required to marry. I had some primitive skills left from summers at camp, so I should be useful enough.

It didn’t work that way. More later, we’re about to break camp.

Dylan looked around the cottage. He hoped he would like living here in McPherson. The young man who’d shown him to the place had made the rules clear. No lights after nine o’clock. No lying abed after eight. There were men who patrolled and enforced those. The crier had already made his rounds announcing it was eight and bedtime preparations should be underway.

Dylan wasn’t sure about the mandatory church attendance rule. He wasn’t a big fan of religion. The place was a little fanatical and being gay wasn’t going to be the easiest thing. He just had to keep his eyes to himself and his mouth shut for a while. He needed to re-supply before he took to the roads again.

The little house had four rooms, which was all right. It was musty, but that would air out fast enough. A slight smell of decay said the owners had been removed, but nobody had bothered to clean the place. The furniture, mostly old and inexpensive, slumbered under a heavy layer of dust. The welcome committee had thoughtfully issued him a rug beater and a solar panel with a single plug.

He’d fixed the bedroom and bath, scrubbing out the toilet, sink and tub, enjoying the running water here after a week on the road, and using the solar panel to power a vacuum cleaner from the hall closet. He’d stripped and vacuumed the bed, dusted the dresser and vacuumed the carpet. He’d washed and hung out the pillows as soon as he’d gotten in. They smelled delicious under the clean cotton cases. It would be nice to have a real bed again.

“I want your –ooooh hooo—dirty touch!”

Grant Starr’s voice, backed by electric guitar, woke him at six, as it had since Before. Aaron had hated the ring tone and alarm. But Aaron was probably gone now, dead for years. The thought didn’t hurt as much as it once had.

Dylan realized that he’d had a solid nine hours for the first time in months. The bed was very good. He hooked the phone’s charger to the solar panel, glad he hadn’t thrown the phone away as had been his first instinct after the apocalypse. It served him as alarm clock and entertainment. No one on his contact list had answered, so he didn’t use it for communication. He wasn’t sure any of the towers were still up and running now, beyond the basics that kept the clock and calendar going.

Dylan got up and dressed. He had a leisurely breakfast and planned his day. He’d go through the kitchen and see what the previous owner had left. Then he would go out and see how the back yard drained, so he could plan a garden. He would meet his neighbors and inquire about chickens and maybe a goat. It was all the routine of settling into a new place.

After breakfast, he went through his wagon and made a list of things he was getting low on. Restocking his wagon, making sure it was ready to leave, was always the first priority. The inventory was interrupted by the sound of engines. Some cars and some motorcycles went by.

Dylan looked out his front window in time to see rag-tag collection of men turning toward the center of town. The wildpack was in town.

He finished his inventory list and checked his wallet. He still had some scrip from the last settlement. The pack issued their own money. He had fixed some small electronics and had bought himself a nice space blanket to supplement his sleeping bag. There might be enough for a new phone. His touch screen was starting to go, despite infrequent use, the protective box and everything he could do to shelter it. They weren’t meant to last six years. He could use a new shirt, too.

He folded his list into a pocket and hurried out to his bicycle. The town council insisted no motor vehicles in the city limits, except farm trucks for the market. They ran the refinery and parceled out the gas and diesel. There had been a bike in the start-up kit as well as some food, tools and seeds.

Everyone else had pedaled up to the square as well. He saw a crowd of mostly men, with some teen boys, milling around the bikes. No women mingled in the crowd and he wondered about that.

The town council walked down the courthouse stairs to meet the leader of the wildpack, Barbarossa, he remembered from other settlements. It was Barbarossa’s territory here, everything in the Salina-Wichita-Topeka triangle. He’d seen the pack a few times, and never failed to be intrigued. Dylan knew the wildpacks were mostly gay and bisexual men, thrown out of settlements or unable to adjust to honest work. He looked at the sidewalk, well aware he was not keeping his eyes to himself and being very good. He wanted to be among men who wouldn’t hate him for being himself. But he couldn’t live like that. He couldn’t even ride a motorcycle. Still, he looked back at Barbarossa, storing up fantasy fodder for the night when it would be just him in the dark.

Barbarossa was ridiculously tall, at least six-four or five, towering over everyone. The thick-soled boots added another couple inches, making him about the size of Darth Vader. If he’d been muscular, he would have loomed and intimidated. Instead, he was thin and lethal looking. A mask of black and gold leather spirals hugged his face, covering it. The mask made Dylan want to touch it, to see what lay under it. Even if the guy looked like the Phantom of the Opera, he’d still be hot, just from his sheer presence.

He walked like he owned the square, like the whole town was his. He seemed to give the leaders their proper respect, but when he turned to his men, he was in charge once more.

“Mail is here!” he shouted to the townsfolk. A boy, barely out of his teens on a purple street bike stood up and held up two letters. “Trade is open, see Bokassa.” A man almost as tall as Barbarossa got out of a Prius and waved one dark hand at the crowd. “Court is in session.” he announced as pair of young men in leather set up a chair under a tree in the courthouse square. He went over, sat down and waited.

Dylan quit staring at Barbarossa when two older men, each scowling at the other, went over to talk to him. He hurried over and got in line by the Prius. Bokassa and a little man in glasses were tallying up jars of preserves and jelly.

“Two dozen jars, peach preserves,” the man in glasses said. He tore several coupons out of a stapled book and signed them. The seller took them and looked at Bokassa, who held the trunk of the Prius open. He walked away with a whet stone, a blanket and a fire starter.

Dylan approached Bokassa. “I have some scrip from an earlier visit,” he said when it was his turn.

Bokassa looked it over. “Thought I’d seen you up in Settlement Seven. Whatcha got?”

Dylan showed his scrip and Bokassa shook his head. “Looks like a couple ounces of jerky, or maybe a new pocket knife.” He pointed at a small section of the trunk were a few items were arrayed.

Dylan nodded. “Thanks. I can’t afford anything I need.”

“Make something and trade it,” Bokassa said. “Hey,” he added with a wicked grin, “Lord Barbarossa likes good beer, if you can make it.”

Dylan gave him a smile. “I worked on getting the lights back on, not making the beer.” He walked back to his bike and pedaled home. Time to finish inventorying what he had, make a list of what he needed, and plan his time here in McPherson. He hoped he had a full growing season before they ran him out. He started planning what he could make in the next three months, before the wildpack came back. He had to report to work on Monday, or so the council had informed him when they’d set him up with the welcome committee. They had the lights back on in parts of town, but they always needed technicians and repair guys to finish the job. It would be nice to live in a place with electricity and water. Salina had been awful. Five thousand people crammed into the university facilities, sleeping in dorms, in classrooms, in cafeterias, and everyone focused on getting rid of the other forty-five thousand corpses in town before they wound up dead of disease.

It might be easier just to proposition one of the riders and get taken along. He shook his head. He was dreaming if he thought a soft, overcivilized town boy like him could make it riding with a biker gang.

Bokassa doesn’t look like he would fit in a Prius, tall as he is. And he is too tall to drive it comfortably, so Vlad does all the driving. Vlad does a lot of everything in this pair. He’s thin and older, used to be a physics professor. You can tell he never did a lot of physical work Before. Now, he does the driving, he pitches the tent and he takes care of Bokassa in any way Bokassa wants. Bokassa fights and marks the brothers. He was a boxer, a long time Before, and I remember seeing billboards for some of his bouts. He had another name then. We all did. He had his own tattoo and piercing parlor after his fighting career was over.

He still practices tebori, the hand-done tattoos. Vlad is his favorite canvas. They are slow and intricate and beautiful, he says. I like the delicately shaded version of Mount Palomar Observatory on Vlad’s forearm. Bokassa said it took two months of nightly work.

Babarossa says when I ride with a pack brother, I am on full loan. Bokassa liked that idea way too much. He joined me in the back seat. There wasn’t room for his legs, so he laid the front seat forward and stretched out over it.

I spent most of the ride with my head in his lap or on his thigh while he played with my body. He pinched one nipple and offered to pierce it for me. He’s got all his equipment.

I kind of like the idea, but I worry about a ring getting ripped out. I’m naked a lot, and our group leads a rough-and-tumble life. Vlad doesn’t have the problem because he wears a shirt. I saw his rings, all of them, and they are pretty sexy. I like the nipples. I’m a little squeamish about the ones in his dick. I don’t think Barbarossa needs a leash-ring inside the cock-cage as well as on the outside of it.

Bokassa is hung in proportion to his height. I don’t know where Vlad puts it all, skinny as he is. He must look like an alien is trying to get out of his belly when they fuck. He didn’t fuck me, but I got a long taste of him. He kept stopping me before he came.

Vlad kept teasing me to finish him before he stopped me each time. He seemed pretty easy with me servicing his man while he drove. I saw Barbarossa drop back in the formation to check on me. He smiled when he saw I was lying in Bokassa’s lap.

Rules are weird here, diary. And I’m slowly figuring them out. I love my Master. And I’m fond of his pack-brothers. I expected Vlad would lecture like Niccolo does, given half a chance. He likes classical, too. He has an old phone that he charges faithfully on the solar panels and plugs into the sound system of the car.

Bokassa was quite gentle with me. He strikes me as the protective type. If he thinks someone is his responsibility, he will walk through hell and back for them. I can see it in his face when he looks at Vlad.

Vlad is weak, and the rest of us know it. But we know Bokassa is strong enough for them both. I saw a little more of that riding with them. Bokassa’s strength comes because he has Vlad to care for and to take care of him. Otherwise, he’d just be a washed-up boxer, deaf in one ear, with an eye that doesn’t focus quite right. This is why Barbarossa encourages his men to form long-term pairs instead of just nightly hook-ups.

It’s almost romantic in a way. Most of the men have partners. Those that don’t kind of swap around in a loose affectionate puppy pile with no hard feelings. I like knowing my Master has me for good and all. Even if he is having me do a get-acquainted tour.

Kane stared at the metal cage and Lord Barbarossa’s long fingers locking it around his genitals. The iron lay cold against his sensitive skin. He was almost used to having it bare, but this was a new level of embarrassment. He stood quietly in the middle of the tent, waiting to see what else might happen. The carving on his ass ached horribly and he hoped it wasn’t getting infected.

“Do I wear this always, master?” He hated to ask, fearing the answer would be yes.

“In public, you do.” Barbarossa tickled the head of his cock with one finger. Kane squirmed under his touch, but didn’t pull away.

“In private?”

“It comes off when I say. I like the way you respond to me. Your cock flatters me almost as much as your tongue.”

Kane smiled and kissed Barbarossa’s hand. “As you wish it, my lord.”

“I’m protecting you, you know.” Barbarossa dragged his thumb over Kane’s mouth and Kane flicked his tongue over it.

“How so? The others don’t need that bit for their pleasures. They’d just bend me over a rock or something and have at my ass and mouth.” He swallowed hard and voiced the fear that had plagued him since the wildpack had caught him. “You wouldn’t throw me to them, would you?”

“No, they’d eat you alive.”

Kane tried not to shake at the flat, matter-of-fact words. Cannibalism was rare, but not unknown. Wildpacks in general had a reputation for it, mostly as a way of deterring the curious. “Thank you. But please, how does this protect me?” He still didn’t understand that.

“It marks you as mine. No one touches my property without my permission.” Barbarossa made himself comfortable in his chair and opened a bottle of beer. Settlement Seven had the brewery running again, and the wildpack was thrilled, taking part of their tribute in suds and making a special point of protecting that settlement.

“Tell it to that little boy. He looks as if he’d like to kill me.” Kane covered his mouth after the words escaped him.

Barbarossa shrugged and tugged him down. “Ryder’s just jealous. I didn’t protect him.” He pulled Kane’s hands away and poured a drink of beer into his mouth. Kane swallowed against its sour taste.

“He’s capable of protecting himself. I’m not.” The realization came hard, but Kane knew it for the truth. On his own he would be fine, but here in the wildpack, he was hopeless.

“Now he is.” Barbarossa finished the beer in a long deep pull. He set the glass bottle in a wooden crate to be returned to the settlement. “You, you’re like I am under all of this.” He gestured at the mask and leather.

Kane shook his head, not believing the assessment. “You’re smart and tough. You’re a natural leader and a good thinker. I’m just a liability: smart, but soft and over-civilized.”

Barbarossa pulled him down and kissed him. “Survival can be learned, and it may take many forms. This is mine.”

Kane went to his knees beside Barbarossa’s chair. He traced his tongue over the brand that stood out red on Barbarossa’s bicep, an odd symbol, one he vaguely remembered seeing Before.

“I do survive. I’m flexible and smart. I’m just not...” He swallowed hard, not wanting to be offensive, then deciding that Barbarossa could hear anything he had to say. “I’m not a killer, and I’ve seen you. Necessary killings, I know.”

Kane held his breath as Barbarossa’s fingers stopped moving in his hair. He watched, scared and intrigued as Barbarossa reached for his mask. It was said no one saw the man’s face and lived. Barbarossa had promised he would see one day, and Kane had squelched his curiosity. Now, it bubbled up to choke him. His heart raced at the prospect of seeing his master’s face, knowing the face of the man he had slept with for six months. The black and gold spirals came away.

“Have you seen me? Really seen me?”

Kane gasped at the sight of the familiar face, the last one he’d seen every night, after Aaron had left, the one he woke up to. Now he knew why the voice had aroused him so. He’d never heard the man talk, only sing.

“I know you! You were famous. Before.”

Barbarossa nodded. “Before.” The word carried the weight of a career cut short, the loss of money and art both.

“I went to your show, that last one. The night Before. I... oh, God.” Kane buried his face against the arm of the chair. Of all the people left in all the world, he was the physical property of the one person he’d held a thousand imaginary conversations with, the one person he’d never expected to even meet. He’d assumed rocker Grant Star was as dead as the rest of the world. He flushed at the memory of hanging around the stage door with a bunch of hopeful twinks for three hours, only to be told the artist had left by another way.

“I was a poet. A singing, dancing poet. And the whole world loved me for it, at least for a while.” He stroked Kane’s hair. “Now, there’s only you to love me, the last devotee of a fallen god.”

“You were a constant subject of my fantasies,” Kane mumbled against the chair arm. If he was confessing, he decided to confess it all. “I waited by the stage door that night. I dreamed of meeting you. Imagined making love to you.” He looked up, barely daring to meet Barbarossa’s face. The smile he saw there encouraged him. “I never expected to...” He lost his words and kissed Barbarossa’s hands instead. “How’d you end up leading a wildpack?”

Barbarossa stroked his hair with his free hand. “I could be loud and could command attention. All a leader needs, really. I found good people early, like White and Ivan. They helped me organize the pack. They’re the only other two who know.”

Dylan kissed his hands again. It made sense that he would keep things secret. He decided to offer up more secrets of his own. “I jacked off a lot to that one poster of you. The one where you looked like the bastard love-child of Elvis and Liberace by way of David Bowie, and you were stretching a hand out to the camera, like you were going to grab the viewer. I had it framed on my bedroom wall. I used to imagine you could pull me right into the poster, and run that spiked glove down the side of my face, gentle so it didn’t cut me, and then kiss me while I drowned in those big blue kohl-painted eyes.” Dylan buried his face in Barbarossa’s leg. He had never told anyone that fantasy. “My ex... he hated that I had it,” Kane whispered. “Said it made me look like a teen fanboy.”

Barbarossa chuckled and stroked his hair. “I’m glad you had it and glad you kept it.”

Kane sucked at the fingers that were still pressed to his lips, drawing a soft sigh from Barbarossa. “I’m yours as long as you want to keep me,” he promised.

Barbarossa smiled more at him and Kane felt warm inside. The smiles were just for him, from the man who was fucking him every night, from the dream-man whose waist he clung to every day as they rode.

“You’ll help me?” Barbarossa asked softly.

“In any way I can,” Kane promised. He would do anything for this man, for what he had been and what he was now.

Barbarossa nodded. “You are smart, and I can use a smart man who is loyal to me. More depends on us than you can imagine.” He pulled Kane up for a kiss. Kane, knowing now, opened for that kiss, savoring every second of contact. A soft sound outside broke them apart, like guilty kids making out. The mask was back in place before Kane could catch a second breath. As they prepared for the visitor, Kane sank to his knees, spreading them to show the cage his master made him wear now.

Hello, diary. You’re tenth in the line since the disaster. Your nine brothers are packed away in a nice waterproof pouch, and left at the University library in the special collection. So, another year of riding bitch for a wildpack leader and you get to listen to me whine.

I’ve kept a diary since I was a kid, but documenting the End of the World and What Came After makes me feel more important than I probably am.

I’m Dylan Michael Taggert. They call me Kane. I’ll be thirty-nine this year, on October 24. I belong to Barbarossa. That’s pretty much all there is to it and to me.

The war party rode out on a fine October morning. A nearby pack had designs on Settlement Seven and its brewery. Kane stayed behind, as usual, but noticed White seemed more on edge as he cooked.

Dylan had done his chores and was keeping the cook company, listening to the gunfire that wasn’t far enough away to suit him. He’d picked up a machete from the tent this morning and felt better with it tucked in his belt.

There wasn’t much gunfire. Ammo was getting scarce in this eighth year After. Settlement Nine was making its own black powder, with mixed results. Their bullets sometimes shot as straight and true as one could wish, and other times they jammed and exploded the gun. These days most fighting was done with melee weapons. Nobody had to reload a knife or machete.

White got the last of the bread into the oven and started sharpening his knives. This was part of the usual routine. All the knives got at least one pass with the whetstone. Any that had been hard-used got sharpened nicely. Kane watched, listening to the distant fight, soothed by the familiar sound of knife on stone.

But the sound persisted. White should have been done with the knives by now. Kane looked over and saw him sharpening a set of throwing and fighting knives. White looked up, cocked an eyebrow at him and went back to work without a word.

“Do I need to sharpen the machete?” Kane asked, already casting around for a good rock.

“Might be wise.” White finished with his knives and handed Kane the oiled whetstone.

Kane listened as he sharpened the machete. It was dull from cutting branches for firewood. White used a fair bit of green wood to keep the fire at an even temperature for baking. The sounds of fighting drew closer. He could almost pick out individual voices and words from the general racket.

“Master prefers to keep us out of the fighting. What do we do if it comes to us?”

White nodded at the trailer of Big Red. “Guard the goods. Stay alive. Everything else can be replaced.”

Kane nodded and took up a post near the corner of the semi, nearest the fighting. White went about getting more food ready. Kane knew the men always ate a lot after a battle. The waiting rattled his nerves.

A hoarse shout from behind him drew him to look over Red’s catwalk. He saw White struggling with two men who were not pack. Kane dashed around the front of the truck to help, but what he saw froze him. He backed up to guard the driver’s door. The easiest way to steal the goods would be steal the truck itself.

From inside the trailer, worried female voices demanded answers. They weren’t his problem, so he didn’t say anything. He kept one eye on the fighting and the other on White.

The priest had made short work of one man who lay on his back, staring sightlessly at the sky. But he had taken the other to the ground and was having trouble finding an opening. They rolled about, the stranger on top and then White.

Kane dared not leave the truck. If someone stole it, they were in more trouble than he cared to contemplate. He wanted to rush over and help White, to lop the head off the invader and save his friend.

But he stayed put, guarding as he’d been told. When he glanced over again, he saw White give the other man a solid knee in the groin, fighting dirty. He rolled the bandit beneath him, taking advantage of the other man’s being momentarily stunned.

Kane winced as White drew both knives across the man’s throat cutting it without hesitation. Scarlet geysers flowed briefly and faded. Kane remembered exactly how hard it had been to cut one man’s throat with his knife, the nasty, gristly sound, the smell of the hot blood.

When he looked up, a raider was almost atop him, and he swung with the machete. There was no time to relive his first kill. It looked like a gory day’s work ahead.

The machete went through flesh and rang on bone. The man fell to the ground clutching his spurting forearm. His right hand still clutched his fallen axe where it lay on the ground. Kane stared at the injured raider and knew what he had to do.

“Any last prayers, say ’em,” he ordered. White would be proud of him for that, and Barbarossa would be pleased by his no-nonsense growl.

The raider spat in his direction. Kane set his teeth and swung again, chopping at the man’s neck. It was tougher going than green wood, and he counted, trying to take his mind from the fact that he was decapitating a man.

On the sixth blow, the head rolled free. Kane managed to not throw up on the body. The screams and crying from inside the trailer made his head hurt. He pounded on the side. The small violence made him feel better.

“Shut it!” he shouted. “We have this under control out here, so just sit tight and don’t distract the bad man who is trying to keep you alive.”

The screams became muffled, like one of the women had covered the screamer’s mouth. “We’re fine. We’re safe, sir,” one of them called.

“Damn right you are. Now be quiet so I can keep you that way.” Kane wiped his machete on the grass and braced himself. He could do this. They needed him to do this. The women inside the truck and the men outside, both needed his help.

The sound of a shot, not nearly far enough away, drew his attention to the tree-line. Bokassa and Tiberius came out, covered in blood, but not moving like they hurt. Bokassa’s axe looked like a toy in his big hands and his teeth flashed very white in his dark face as he clapped Tiberius on the back.

“Kane covering your truck for you. Toldja the Boss wouldn’t let anything happen.”

Tiberius frowned at the blood splashed over his fender. “Nothing happened to Big Red, did it?” he asked Kane. He looked over the vehicle for dents or weapon marks.

“Had a would-be hijacker, but I got him.” Kane saw no reason to make more of a thing than he had to. These men would respect his unflappability more than the deed itself. White could have the whole story poured out later.

“That’s the one we lost track of, then.” Malverde came out of the woods, his kukri knife’s bent blade dripping red. “We’ve done for them all.” He gave Kane a smile. “Even you doing some fighting?”

Kane shrugged.

Tiberius waved Kane away. “I’ve got Big Red. You go clean up. You look like you showered in the guy’s blood.”

Kane hurried away to check on White. Barbarossa would be back soon, and there would be wounded. Truman couldn’t handle them all.

White sat on the tailgate of the cooktruck with Truman bandaging a cut on his arm. “It’s not deep, Doug, but you’ll want to keep it clean. And that’s the end of the bandages.”

“I saw a hospital sign at the last exit,” Kane put in. “They might still have bandages or at least sheets we can cut up. It’s only three or four miles back.”

Truman nodded, his graying hair catching the light and returning to youthful gold. “Good man. This is why the Boss keeps you. That, and I hear you give great head.”

“Only my master knows for sure. Everyone else who tries gets bit.” Kane’s smile was a bit less friendly and he put too many teeth into it.

“Where is our prince?” White asked, hopping off the tailgate and reaching for his tools with impatience. “I need to know how many of you rotters made it back for dinner.”

Kane had a momentary flash of guilt. In worrying about White, he’d forgotten to worry about Barbarossa. He stepped out into the middle of camp in time to see Vlad and Niccolo helping Barbarossa in.

The wildpack leader was bleeding, his shirt and leather jacket soaked in blood from a hole in the upper left shoulder. His face was pale under the leather mask.

“He’s been shot,” Vlad shouted. “The bullet’s still in him.” He looked almost as pale at the sight of blood as the man losing it.

“White, boil some cloth!” Kane shouted over his shoulder. “Taza, you and Truman come with me!” The men looked startled that Kane was ordering them around. ”Get in the SUV. We’re going shopping. Niccolo, Vlad, get him to White and keep him alive. We’ll be back in about half an hour.”

Kane paused just long enough to kiss Barbarossa’s pale cheek. “We’ll fix you right up, Master,” he said. Then he sprinted for the red SUV, where Taza sat behind the wheel.

The big Apache man pushed the long hair that had escaped his bandanna of out his face. “Thought you weren’t coming along, kid. Where are we going?”

“Hospital, the last exit back. We need bandages, alcohol and anything we can carry. Truman, you know what a gunshot takes?”

The former paramedic nodded. “Yeah. Saw enough of them working the bars. I’ll help you shop.” He looked excited to be getting out of camp for a while.

Kane settled into the back seat and realized he was about to go tromping around a strange hospital totally naked. Maybe he could grab a gown or something when they got in. It would help.

The parking lot was full, but Taza just stuck the SUV in the emergency room entrance drive. There wouldn’t be any ambulances coming in soon. The men hopped out. Truman led the way.

“Our best bet is the ER. They’ll have trauma kits. Most of the drugs will be gone by now, but alcohol and carbolic acid should still be available. And White’s salve is as good as any antibiotic ointment. Worst comes to worst, Niccolo and I can make penicillin if we have to.”

The shattered glass doors testified to looters who’d arrived before them. The sharp hospital odor inside had taken on a new edge in the intervening years. Dust and decay and filth, the passing seasons had drifted into the open doors and shattered windows, turning the sterile halls into virtual warrens for small animals. Kane didn’t want to think about what they were eating.

A skeleton in a nurse’s uniform lay slumped at the desk. That answered one question. Those who had been awake had merely dropped where they were. Kane righted a gurney that had been tipped onto its side, ignoring the rattle of much-too-small bones that clattered in the wake.

Just a fox or rabbit, he reassured himself, not believing it at all. He saw the child’s skull grinning at him from under the tumble of the hospital gown.

“We can use it to carry stuff out,” he said and let Truman lead the way. The hall grew darker and creepier. Emergency wings never had windows outside of the waiting room. Kane told himself that nothing was moving in the shadows of the empty rooms. Too many horror movies and scary video games from Before were making him jumpy.

Taza reached into a pouch at his waist and took out a pair of little flashlights. He shook them to move the magnets through the coil and give them power. He handed one to Kane and kept the other. They cut tiny sickly beams through the twilight. Somehow that only made the hallway darker.

Truman took them past the triage area and into the curtained alcoves. Past those, where Kane did not shove curtains aside to see more skeletons on the beds, perhaps with other skeletons beside them, they found the storage rooms.

Taza’s flashlight picked out the names on the doors, and Truman stopped him at one bashed-in door. “That’s the one.”

The surgical supply room had already been looted. All the drugs, all the sharps were gone.

Truman scrounged for instruments, forceps and probes, a few scalpels, anything he could find. Kane shone his light around and saw the door that said “clean utility.” He opened it. No one had bothered with sheets or blankets. The pack could use both. The blankets could be traded to settlements or kept in their storage against the day theirs wore out. The sheets would make good bandages, being heavy cotton.

He loaded a dozen of each onto the gurney. Truman gave a sharp whistle calling him back.

“Where have you-?” Truman started. “Oh, good thinking. You have a real head on your shoulders, kid.” He piled plastic boxes on the gurney, stacking it high with stuff. “Thought I’d stock up. Never know when we’ll find a hospital again.”

Taza set four industrial sized jugs of alcohol, three of bleach and one of carbolic acid onto the gurney. Kane worked to push it, guessing it weighed a hundred pounds or so now. Taza led the way out. Kane tried to step carefully, but the floor was dark and unpleasant under his feet. He’d definitely want a wash. Before he did this again, he would have sandals or put on his boots. He hoped he didn’t step on anything awful like a used syringe or a broken bone.

The shadows closed in on every side, as if the dead doctors resented the wildpack stealing their stuff. They would never use it again, but it should be left to decay with the hospital. Kane shook his head against the idea of ghosts. It would be wasteful to simply leave the supplies when the living needed them. He pushed harder, walking faster, toward the gray light at the end of the hall. Please let Barbarossa be alive, he whispered in his head, not sure there was any god left to be listening.

The supplies would save lives with the wildpack. Here they would just be destroyed by vermin or weathered away by elements. Truman halted them again. “You know, if we added an ambulance to our fleet, we could offer some medical services to the settlements.”

“You explain that one to the Boss,” Taza said.

“You two take this stuff.” Truman pulled a cardboard box on top. “This is the equipment White will need. Even he should be able to get a shallow bullet like that out. I’m going to trick out a rolling docbox. Our people need that. So many are suffering from things I could fix if I had equipment and supplies.”

Taza nodded and handed him a flashlight. “Here. Give it back when you get into camp. But you better have a full fuel tank when you roll in.”

Truman nodded. Kane gave him a smile. “I think White can handle the bullet extraction. But hurry back, please? You’re the closest thing we have to a doctor.” He thought a minute. “Taza, you stay with him. I’ll drive it back. No telling when trouble might show up here. It’s only five miles to camp. I’ll send a couple of guys to help.”

Truman and Taza looked at him like they’d never seen him before. Kane stood as tall as his five and a half feet would let him, under their scrutiny, very aware he was still naked, wearing only the cock-cage. With Barbarossa hurt, he had stepped up to lead without thinking.

Kane smiled at their confusion. “Go on. The quicker you get back, the quicker White can return to his bread and knives. You know he hates carving on people.” Kane turned and pushed the gurney out the shattered doors careful of the glass that glittered on the tiles in the hall.

No undead nurses lurched out of rooms. No rotting children gave chase. No mad doctor, kept alive by eating the dead and the animals, ran shrieking “thief, thief” after him. Kane breathed a lot easier after he was out in the sunlight.

He loaded everything into the back seat and got behind the wheel of the SUV. He’d never driven one of these monsters, and Taza wouldn’t thank him if he wrecked it. It was only five miles. He realized there was blood all over his glasses and his hands and arms. He hadn’t slowed enough since the attack to clean up. It was turning a rusty brown.

He’d wash once he got back to camp. Barbarossa needed him to drive this quickly and well. He pulled out onto the cleared lane of the highway and stepped on the gas. Five miles. Six minutes at fifty miles an hour. Barbarossa could last six more minutes.

“Hold on six more minutes for me, love. I’m coming.” Kane breathed slowly and steadily, and the drive was uneventful. He liked the feeling of speed that he controlled. It was so different from his walking after the Accident, or riding bitch on the bike. He was in charge. He pulled the SUV into camp and honked.

Malverde and Yosef dashed up. “Did you get what we needed?”

Kane handed Yosef the box. “Take that to White. Be careful.” He handed a jug of alcohol and a folded sheet to Malverde. “He’ll need that too. Boil the sheet, it’s been collecting dust for eight years.”

Kane stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Spike and Nails looked up at the sudden shrill sound and he beckoned them over. “Truman has a wild hair about kitting out an ambulance. I want you two to go back to the hospital at the last exit and help him.”

Ryder overheard and inserted himself into the discussion. “And why should they do what you want, bitch? Barbarossa didn’t make you leader in his place.”

“No,” Redmond’s clear voice interrupted. “I’m third in command, since White is busy. What’s going on, Cain?”

“Truman and Taza stayed behind to fit out an ambulance for the fleet. Truman has an idea of a rolling clinic for the settlements without a doctor. I want Spike and Nails to go help them and be back up. Just in case. Damn, there’s nothing creepier than a dead hospital.”

Redmond nodded. “That sounds like a good idea. Ryder, why don’t you ride along? Five is a good number for strength.”

Ryder shot Redmond a venomous look that said this discussion wasn’t over. But he said no more and climbed on his bike, following the other motorcycle back out of camp.

“You took charge,” Redmond said with surprised admiration. “You handed out supplies and ordered people around like you had every right and knew what you were doing.”

“Redmond, I’m not stupid. Just because I go naked with an iron cage on my junk and never talk doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain.” He got out and started carrying out the sheets. “I may be Barbarossa’s bitch now, but I was a computer programmer once. I was in charge of a fifteen-person team for one of the biggest telecom companies in the world.” He wasn’t sure where the words had come from. Very few of the men talked about Before anymore. He looked at Redmond, “How is he?”

“Alive, swearing a lot because it hurts. Drinking some of that raw popskull we got from the hippies at Four. You guys didn’t find anything to ease the pain, did you?”

“Gonna be willow bark or meadowsweet tea for a while,” Kane said, heading for the cook-truck. “Roland says those are full of salicylic acid, same as aspirin, and should help. Isn’t Four working on opium poppies too?”

“Opium, pot, everything. Once they started keeping people fed, they started growing other stuff.”

“Do we have any?” Kane asked.

“Any what?” White asked, not looking up from where he was probing Barbarossa’s wound with forceps.

“Opium from settlement Four,” Kane said, shaking out the sheets, well down wind, and dropping them in the boiling kettle. He looked over the situation. Barbarossa sat in his chair, holding a bottle of clear liquid in one hand, with White probing the other arm, which Gilles and Bokassa held immobile.

Barbarossa’s face was white and he unclenched his teeth only to take a swallow from the bottle. He swore through his set jaw, his normally sweet voice a ferocious growl. White probed and a tiny tink sound came from the wound. Barbarossa threw back his head and howled in pain, a sound more animal than human.

“I’d have used it already,” White said. “We’ll lay in some for next time.”

Barbarossa took another drink. “There won’t be a fucking next time,” he ground out. “I’ll cut my whole damn arm off first.”

Kane went to his knees beside the free arm. He kissed the knuckles that had turned white gripping the bottle. “Master, I’m here. You’ll be fine in a minute.”

“I’ve got it,” White said and pulled the forceps out of Barbarossa’s arm. He held up the blood-smeared metal and looked it over. “It’s intact, and your arm’s not broken. You were lucky today, dear prince.”

Barbrossa breathed out and in very slowly. His grip on the bottle relaxed a little. Kane kissed his fingers for that. “Thank you,” he said to White.

“Hold still and let me pack it. It’d be better done if Truman had come back, but you trusted me with the first, and I won’t bungle the second.”

Ivan, who had been drafted into bandage making, finished cutting a strip of one of the boiled sheets. White smeared a pad of the cotton with the green salve and bound it all around Barbarossa’s arm.

“You don’t ride for two weeks, Prince. Be chauffeured in regal style. Let one of the boys take your bike. If you make this bleed too much, you will die. You’re going to rest as much as possible, drink water, eat meat and sleep.”

Barbarossa grinned. “Just like a rock star.”

Kane knew he’d have to do something quick. If Barbarossa gave out his real identity now, there would be trouble. “Do you feel well enough to walk, sir? Sell-out crowd tonight, and if you’re this far gone into the bottle by lunch, you’ll never make it.” He stood up and offered his aid to Barbarossa for getting out of the chair.

Barbarossa just stared at him. Then he reached up and took Kane’s hand with his good one. Kane pulled him to his feet and held him upright. The bottle of moonshine was nearly empty.

Barbarossa tried to walk and managed a stagger. Just as Kane expected, the pain and blood loss combined with too much alcoholic painkiller gad robbed him of balance. He held his master up, and they made a slow walk back to the tent.

It was no more than forty yards, but it felt like a mile. Barbarossa was a tall man, although thin, and living wild had toughened the soft computer programmer, but Kane struggled under the weight and Barbarossa’s unpredictable movements.

He got them into the tent and eased Barbarossa to lie back on the bed. Kane set out the red flag saying they were not to be bothered. It had been a gruesome day’s work.

A Prius seems like a silly thing for a Wildpack to have, not nearly macho enough, but Barbarossa encourages them, and other hybrids. Makes the gasoline go farther. Big Red, the semi, and the full-size pick-up truck that the cook drives with that pile of bricks on the back, they eat a lot of fuel.

So motorcycles and compacts are encouraged. A couple of guys have hybrid SUVs that they cart a lot of the gear in, and the rest gets put in the trailer of the semi. I rode with Niccolo today, him and Roland. They’re really quiet. Just played a lot of classical music and stayed in the formation.

I had the whole back seat to myself so I stretched out. I asked a few questions, but neither of them talked much at first. You’d think they would. Niccolo had been a history professor, and Roland had worked in an herb shop. He has books and gear that they carry in the back. He’s our druggist.

I’m not sure how well his stuff works, but he says most of the modern medicines started as plant derivatives. The trick is finding the right dosage, because a lot of times the effective dose, what works right, is the same as the lethal dose.

I hope I don’t need any of his stuff. I asked Niccolo whether there had ever been a society quite like ours. He laughed, and I got a three hour lecture on the Fall of Rome and the Rise of Feudalism. I’d seen a couple of movies, but I didn’t remember much from history class.

Seems that when Rome fell apart, the local landholders gathered workers and armies to protect them. We were essentially an early form of knight errant, traveling between manors and aiding those in need.

I giggled at that, diary. “Sir Barbarossa and his knights of the round fire pit, riding their iron steeds from town to town, righting wrongs, wronging rights and kissing all the prettiest boys.”

Niccolo and Roland laughed so hard that Niccolo almost put us in the ditch. It’s an herbalist/historian/hot-ass sandwich tonight, diary, and I’m looking forward to it. Academics tend to be sexually deviant and that’s always fun.

The first day’s riding took its toll on Dylan’s bare ass. The chaps and boots protected him, and Barbarossa’s body in front of him protected his genitals. But he was aware that his very pale butt was on display to the whole wildpack. Then again, he’d just blown their leader in front of them all, without any hesitation or even a blush. After an incautious shift of his weight brought him in contact with the barbed wire of the sissy-bar, he froze in position.

By the time they halted for the night, every muscle screamed at him, stiff from holding still and being jostled. He felt sunburned, scratched and pummeled. He took off his helmet and, at Barbarossa’s command, shed his jacket too.

He had no time to try easing himself off the bike, coddling his aching body, before Barbarossa yanked him off, dragged him to the center of the ring of men and dropped him near the firepit. It took him a few minutes to get back on his feet.

Two of the pack started the fire, another unfolded a curule chair for Barbarossa and some went to see to the other captives who had been designated as trade goods, while the rest pitched camp. Dylan stood straight and still, meeting Barbarossa’s eyes and trying to look brave. A couple of the men patted his ass in passing. The tall black man who had helped bring him in ran one hand down his chest. Dylan didn’t flinch. It was when the red-headed guy with the goatee reached for his genitals that Barbarossa spoke up.

“This one’s mine.” The slightly familiar, very sexy voice cut through the chatter. The two other men who had been closing in on Dylan backed away, and the redhead pulled his hand away as if he’d been burned. “My bitch rides with us, eats with us and serves me, only me.”

The men nodded and began getting food around. Barbarossa beckoned, and Dylan went to where he sat. At a gesture, Dylan went to his knees beside the chair.

“Thank you, my lord.” He had decided to call Barbarossa nothing but that until he was told otherwise. It was respectful and safe. A broad hand came down in his hair and stroked him as they waited. Dylan felt like a spoiled cat, petted and pampered.

The pretty boy brought over a large plate of food, easily twice the size of anyone else’s dinner. No one offered Dylan food. He stayed still and silent, aware the men were sizing him up and judging his behavior. The boy looked at Dylan and then leaned in to kiss Barbarossa’s cheek. “I think you’re making a big mistake. What are you going to call this pet?” It was clear he didn’t expect Dylan to last long with the pack.

Barbarossa took the plate and smiled. “Thank you, Ryder.” He ate a few bites, looking deep in thought. When he spoke, his voice silenced the rest of the men. “The story goes that the world’s first murderer was Cain.”

Dylan flinched, the memory of his one kill coming back to him full force. He still had nightmares about the man’s mad eyes. “Do you expect me to do much killing?” he asked. He really hoped Barbarossa wouldn’t make him into an attack dog as well as a sex toy.

Barbarossa ignored him. “Funny thing about the first murderer. He only knocked off one man. But he was cursed forever.” The men mumbled a little, sounding contemptuous and amused. “Damn good thing God isn’t handing out direct sentences anymore, isn’t it?”

A general agreement swept the circle of eating men. Dylan nodded.

“Cain wouldn’t have even earned his marks here.” Barbarossa flexed his bicep to set the brand off in better relief. Each of the men presented his arm as well.

“Cain is a name suited only to a coward,” the pretty one put in. A nasty laugh swept the group and Barbarossa encouraged it.

“Yeah, even a gash can kill one man,” said one of the men dishing out the food. More nasty laughter.

Dylan felt his stomach sink. He had a good idea where this was going, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. Barbarossa kept goading the men to belittle the name, to laugh and sneer at what a weakling it belonged to. Dylan knew they would remember this discussion every time Cain was mentioned.

Barbarossa gave him a bite of the meat. “My own Cain,” he announced. “Give me a kiss, pretty little gash.”

Hating the new name, Dylan obeyed. He kissed Barbarossa deep and sweet. In the kiss, enlightenment came to him. There were advantages to being a geek sometimes. He settled back on his knees when the leader let him go. “Thank you for my new name, my lord. Killer Kane was a character in Buck Rogers. He was a gangster who ended up supreme dictator of Earth.” He gave Barbarossa a small smile.

Barbarossa shrugged. “Before my time.”

“So was Adam’s boy.” Dylan, now Kane, sputtered as Barbarossa stuffed more food in his mouth.

“Everybody knows the Bible. Some of them even still believe it.” Barbarossa finished eating and set the plate on the ground. “Eat it like a dog, Cain.”

Dylan gave him the half-smile again. “I wear it. But on my terms and as a hopeful ruler, not some wandering, nameless criminal.” He went down on his hands and knees and ate from the plate like a dog. He was still going to obey perfectly, no matter how brave he acted. Eating like a dog, wearing a shamed name, it was all part of staying alive now.

Barbarossa stroked him. When he finished, he knelt back up. Barbarossa patted his face.

“You’re a very good boy, Cain. Now, go wash my dishes, and take my chair back to the tent. Wait for me there.” He gestured to a large white tent that had taken four men to set up. The others slept on bedrolls under the stars or in their truck beds or in smaller tents, both dome and pup style, probably liberated from camping goods stores.

When Dylan stood up, Barbarossa caught him by the jacket and pulled him back down for a kiss. Dylan opened right up for his lord’s tongue and caught himself moaning a little around it, despite everything. The man could kiss.

Then, Barbarossa swatted him on the bare ass and sent him on his way. When Dylan returned to the chair, Barbarossa was nowhere in sight. He picked up the chair and went to the leader’s tent.

Dylan waited in the tent. He caught himself pacing, but stopped. He looked over the table with the map painted on it, and a marble chess king set between two towns. That must be the wildpack, he decided. Each town had notes, written in indelible marker, detailing what goods they had for sale, what they needed, their leader and their government.

The Pack had someone with half a brain it seemed, maybe several someones. That complicated his plan. He wanted out of this. He needed to get to the University. Gay people were still tolerated there, especially if they had skills.

Dylan paced a little more, feeling exposed as his bare crotch caught the evening breezes that cooled the tent. His protective leathers only protected, they didn’t cover. And now, he’d been named, and what a name. He’d been given a name fit only for a coward and weakling. He understood that Barbarossa was ensuring the others didn’t see him as a threat.

They really expected to call him Cain and he would have to answer to it. He preferred the Buck Rogers spelling of Kane, remembering the old serials on TV and the 1980s movie. Killer Kane, planetary dictator of Earth. He smiled and tried walking a bit straighter. It didn’t help. He wasn’t a dictator, just a gay computer programmer who’d been kicked out of half a dozen settlements.

He waited for Barbarossa, not sure what the leader would expect of him. Sex for sure, and Dylan could handle that. He liked sex, and there hadn’t been nearly enough in his life in these last few years. Not that there had been enough in his life Before, either, but there had been boyfriends and clubs and hook-ups off and on. He wasn’t sure if he was a slave, a pet, or a toy here.

Some of the settlements had slavery again. All of them required work-debt to the community in lieu of monetary taxes. But some had started taking captives from other settlements and using them as forced labor. The day a community could capture a technician was a red-letter holiday for the community.He’d never been enslaved, but he’d come close to being a slave owner back in the settlement before last. He’d almost bought a sturdy farm worker to take care of his house and garden while he did technical work for the community. It was hard trying both to feed himself and work. Produce went off quickly without refrigerators, and he didn’t know how to cook most of it. He’d eaten a lot of raw squash that summer, as people paid him in vegetables for his electrician work. There would be refrigeration this summer.

Barbarossa still wasn’t coming. Dylan inventoried the tent. He’d helped set up the rope bed and it looked comfortable. There was the table and one chair and a couple of large chests. He supposed he’d learn what was in those later.

Voices from outside drew his attention. Barbarossa, and some of the others pushed the flap aside and came into the tent. Dylan stood quietly and waited. Barbarossa smiled when he saw Dylan.

““Good, you’re here, and you didn’t mess things up.”

Dylan raised an eyebrow. “Was I supposed to, my lord?”

Barbarossa smiled more and ruffled his hair affectionately. “Ryder there overturned the table, smashed my bed and chair to so much firewood and had to be chained up for a week in punishment. And I made him carve me a new bed and build a new chair.” The pretty boy who’d brought him in scowled at Dylan.

“At least I had a backbone. All Cain the Cunt has done is pace.” Ryder pointed at the bent grass, the trails Dylan had worn with his walking.

“Ryder, enough. I don’t want to hear you call him that again.”

Dylan knew the injunction would only stop Ryder calling him that in Barbarossa’s hearing. It wouldn’t stop the words. Barbarossa put his hand behind Dylan’s head and pulled him close for a kiss.

“I’ll be a moment, pet.” He kissed Dylan, making it hot and somehow dirty, like he would enjoy having Dylan there in front of the others just as he’d made Dylan blow him that afternoon. Dylan liked the sensation of being owned and secure, of being desired enough to draw that filthy kiss from so powerful a man.

He waited quietly while Barbarossa pointed out their current location and showed the men where they would end up tomorrow.

“We ride early, so we can make camp early,” he announced. “That will put us into the settlement in the early afternoon. The trade goods can have breakfast, but we’ll save the expense of feeding them lunch, hey?”

The others laughed as if it was a grand joke.

Barbarossa held up his hand. They quieted at once. He settled himself in his chair and stared at the table.

“That will be all, gentlemen. Get a good night’s rest, we ride early. And don’t let Redmond sing all night like an idiot,” he added.

Ryder nodded. “I won’t. Or maybe he can sing just to me.”

“Go on,” Barbarossa made shooing motions.

Dylan just waited, not sure what would be wanted now.

“Cain, my pet, I have had a long day. When I come in after supper, I want my boots off, my face and feet washed, and your full attention. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord. Where do I get the water?”

Barbarossa gestured to the larger of the trunks. “There should be a basin in there. White always has hot water for washing up, and he knows I always want some of it.”

Dylan bowed and opened the trunk. He found the basin, a blue plastic dishpan, on top and took it.

He grabbed Truman as soon as he left the tent. The medic led him to a big black pickup truck with a square of bricks on the back. A terrifying looking man, his gray hair wild, guns on his hips and a brace of knives in his belt, stood finishing the prep work for breakfast, cutting things up using the tailgate of the truck for a counter. His scarred face was drawn into a scowl, which lightened only a little at their approach.”This is White. He’s our cook. He’ll have the boss’ water,” Truman said.

“I’m Kane,” Dylan said, using the new name for the first time.

“Aye, I heard.” White didn’t seem to approve of the name. His growling accent only added to his fearsomeness. “You’ll be wanting Himself’s water, now.” He reached over to a solar bag hanging on the side of the truck and used its hose to fill the basin. “Wash his face first, then take off his boots and wash his feet and legs. Put the basin on the ground so he can soak his feet. I promise he’ll be in better temper once he does. Off now, lad.”

Dylan could feel the warmth of the water in the basin. He carried it back to the tent, careful to spill as little as possible, and set it on the ground before Barbarossa’s chair.

He found the washcloth in the same trunk where the basin had been, and a towel as well. Nobody liked going around wet. He washed around the edges of Barbarossa’s mask.

“On your knees, face to the ground,” Barbarossa said, taking the cloth from him. Dylan went down at once, and pressed his face to the grass. He didn’t want to see Barbarossa’s real face. Not yet, anyway.

After a minute or so, punctuated by noises of relief and pleasure from above him, Dylan saw Barbarossa sit again. He waited for the command and when Barbarossa nudged him, he knelt up.

“My boots,” Barbarosssa said.

Dylan looked over the boots. They stretched from thick lug soles clear up to Barbarossa’s knee, covered in buckles and straps and spikes. They terrified him. A man could kick someone to death with boots like that, and Dylan wouldn’t be surprised if Barbarossa had. Part of his mind told him that he would like to polish them, make them shine. Another, deeper part whispered that he really wanted to lick them, sucking each spike as if it was a miniature cock, running his tongue over every strap. He studied them for a long time before he found the zipper.

Finally, he got the boots off of Barbarossa and was almost disappointed. Instead of the invincible leather god sitting in grandeur before him, a tired man in a mask sat there, one who just wanted to soak his feet after a long hard day.

Dylan wasn’t sure he was worthy of the leather god who had dominated him so thoroughly on the line and staked his claim so baldly at supper. But he could love this man, the one who just wanted some nice hot water at the end of the day. He removed the thick socks and washed Barbarossa’s legs and feet, being gentle with the washcloth.

He moved the basin to the right place and settled Barbarossa’s feet in it as he washed the socks and rinsed the washcloth beside them. He’d have to get deeper water next time.

Barbarossa settled in his chair with a sigh and a smile that Dylan was sure not many of the wildpack saw.

“I’ll hang these to dry, my lord.” Dylan finished wringing out the cloth and the socks.

“Good boy.”

He hurried back in and knelt beside the chair, since Barbarossa seemed to like that.

“You can sit when we’re alone, pet,” Barbarossa told him. “Save your knees for the public displays of my power.” He reached down and tipped Dylan’s face up, studying him in the lantern light. “You are a delicate little thing, not the type to last long out here. I’ll protect you as best I can. But in return, you’re mine.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now, tomorrow, you’ll learn to pitch my tent and set up the furniture. Tonight, you learn all about me.”

Dylan swallowed hard. “I know I’m serving you in bed. What do you like best, my lord?”

Barbarossa smiled. “So eager for another taste? You’ll have all you can stand and more. You sucked me so well today. I want to see what you feel and taste like. I want to hear how you sound as I pound that adorable ass. Turn over and let me see it.”

Dylan turned his back on Barbarossa and leaned forward as he knelt. Barbarossa’s hand ran all over the exposed curve of his ass, from the band of the chaps, down to his thighs and back.

“Very nice, even with scratches on it. Talk to White or Truman before breakfast so those don’t go bad on you. Yes, I really want to be inside you tonight.” He swatted Dylan again. “Get up and take off your armor. I’d rather you went naked in camp until it gets cold enough to issue you clothing. The men are used to nudity; hell, half of them go naked when they can. You’ll be more comfortable in the summer, too. Leather gets warm.”

Dylan nodded and stripped off the boots, chaps and jacket. It seemed silly to be wearing them when he wasn’t on the bike. He’d get used to being naked soon enough, he supposed.

Barbarossa looked him over, smiling and nodding. “Lovely pet. You were gorgeous as you stepped out of the trailer today. I wanted you then, and I crave you now.” He reached up and Dylan took the extended hand. Barbarossa pulled him down for another kiss.

“Bed, now, my own sweet Cain. Cain the murderer, my own sugar cane, Killer Kane.” Barbarossa got to his feet and pulled Dylan into a tight embrace. The smell of the man, leather and sweat, surrounded him.

He wanted to wrap up in that scent, cling to it and rub it all over his body. Then he remembered, it was about to get rubbed all over his body. He smiled up at Barbarossa.

“Take off my clothes,” Barbarossa said. “There will be times when I make you ride me with the spikes still on. Tonight is not one of them.”

Dylan reached for the mask, but Barbarossa caught his hand before it got there. He brought Dylan’s fingers to his mouth and kissed them, and then set them on the collar of his jacket.

“Not yet, my Cain. Not yet. You’ll see my face in time, but not tonight.”

Dylan took Barbarossa’s jacket off and hung it on the back of the chair, cautious of the spiked epaulets. He slipped off the spiked bandoliers and belt with codpiece. The spikes of the codpiece looked rusty, and Dylan realized it was his blood, from his torn face. He would clean those and make sure they shone before Barbarossa put it back on. Barbarossa stood before him, wearing only a thin white sleeveless tee-shirt, leather pants and the mask. Dylan’s mouth went dry as he looked at Barbarossa like this, the bare feet pale against the black leather, the bare arms tanned against the white shirt and the smile—he knew that smile but could not place it.

He swallowed hard and moved in close. Feeling bold, he stole a kiss when he tugged the tee-shirt out of Barbarossa’s waistband. Barbarossa just smiled and ran a finger near the fresh cuts on Dylan’s face.

“You’re so brave. I knew you were the right one. No other man has dared act like you did today on the line. Most subby bitches like you would just go right down without teasing me. Most of them wouldn’t have kissed me. They’d be groveling, begging to lick my feet and suck my dick, but you, you seem to think you’re my butler and lover, not my slave.” Barbarossa grabbed Dylan’s hair, and Dylan wondered for a moment if he was about to be disabused of that notion the hard way.

But Barbarossa just pulled him in for a kiss, a long one. The wildpack leader’s lips moved on his, tasting him as if trying to find the source of his courage. At the first touch of his tongue, Dylan opened up, letting Barbarossa in. This was too much, a handsome, very sexy leader kissing him like a lover. It tingled all through Dylan’s head, and down his neck. It stole all the oxygen from the tent and made his head spin for want of air. His skin tingled, and his nipples got hard. That familiar tight ball in his lower belly, the one that heralded arousal and a need for orgasm, formed as it had not for years. The kiss went straight to his cock, and Barbarossa snorted with laughter when Dylan pressed it against his thigh.

“Oh my Cain. You want me, don’t you? Such a brave, sweet boy I have this time.” Barbarossa kissed him again, and Dylan thought he felt real affection in it.

This time, the kiss was less overwhelming and Dylan retained enough sense to start unfastening Barbarossa’s pants. When Barbarossa let go of his lips, he kissed his way over to Barbarossa’s ear and nibbled the lobe. Then he started down Barbarossa’s neck, nipping and kissing in the ways that had always worked on his boyfriends, the ways that he liked best.

He shoved Barbarossa’s pants down around his knees, hoping the man would step out of them on his own. Dylan ran his fingers over Barbarossa’s nipples, large and dark against his chest, and felt them tighten.

Barbarossa’s breathing had quickened, and Dylan smiled against the muscular shoulder he was kissing. He was doing that. He was making this sexy man hot. This man had doubtless had all the men he’d ever wanted, and probably more than a few women, but he, Dylan the Wanderer, was turning him on. He felt Barbarossa’s cock against his belly, hard and heavy and hot.

He needed to taste it. He wrapped one hand around it, feeling the velvety skin, the pulse on the underside that said this man was aroused. He needed it in his mouth. It had tasted amazing this afternoon, and he wanted to know if he could enjoy it as much tonight.

“Going to suck you, my lord,” he said and went to his knees. He’d barely flicked his tongue over the head before Barbarossa stepped away.

“This afternoon, it was all I could do to stay standing. Tonight, I don’t have to.” Barbarossa sat down on the edge of the bed.

Dylan considered getting to his feet, but decided it would be faster just to crawl the few feet between them. He put everything he had left into the crawl, trying to make it look like a mighty lion stalking his prey. It made him feel vaguely ridiculous.

When he reached the bed, Dylan hesitated only a moment. He licked Barbarossa’s feet, just like the other subby bitches. He did it not because Barbarossa commanded him to, but because they were there, oddly vulnerable in their narrow bareness. He spared a kiss for each toe and a kiss for the instep before curling his tongue around Barbarossa’s ankle.

He heard a chuckle above him that told him his lord was pleased by this. He kissed his way up the well-muscled calf, noting the place where the boots had marked Barbarossa’s legs and running his tongue over the red marks. They would be tender, more sensitive than the rest of the skin.

Barbarossa’s knees came next, a pair so nicely shaped that Dylan had a sudden desire to see him in a kilt. The man could probably even manage a dress without looking ridiculous. He kissed the kneecap and slipped his tongue behind the knee, tasting sweat and leather, and salt skin. He’d be lucky if he didn’t come all over the grass at this rate.

Barbarossa’s thighs made him want to stay there and have lunch, just tasting the long, strong legs, feeling the hard muscle and crinkled hair under his mouth. He rubbed the undamaged side of his face against the smooth spot where trousers had worn away most of the hair.

But the cock! Barbarossa’s cock stood upright in his lap, beckoning Dylan. He stared for a brief moment, taking in the luscious sight and then dared a single sweet kiss on the head of it.

Barbarossa’s hand came down on his head and Dylan braced to be shoved down on it. But the long fingers only stroked him, playing in his hair.

“Only a taste,” Barbarossa warned. “I want your ass more. I know what your mouth can do.”

Dylan looked up and smiled, and then ran his tongue down and around, a slow spiral motion, from tip to base and then back up again. Barbarossa’s hand tightened in his hair.

“You’re too good at that. You had some demanding lovers, huh?”

“A few,” Dylan said, not wanting to think about others while he was here, with this amazing man. He gave the cock another swirl and then kissed the head. He knelt up between Barbarossa’s legs. “How do you want me, my lord?”

Barbarossa stroked his hair and then the side of his jaw. “I want your mouth now, you sly silver-tongued devil, but that will keep. You’re going on your belly. Stay on your knees and bend over the side of the bed.” Barbarossa got up and went to the smaller trunk.

Dylan stretched his upper body on the bed. He waited on his knees. It had been years since he’d done it in this position, since the earliest days, when he and his first boyfriend were still trying things they’d seen in movies and books. He’d never been partial to it. But Barbarossa wanted him like this so he spread out and waited.

Two fingers, slick with lube, stroked the crack of his ass and one teased his hole, making him want to slam back. It had been so long. A few furtive blow-jobs, one encounter that had been a lot closer to rape than sex, and otherwise, he’d been celibate since the Accident.

But these fingers felt good, an experienced man who knew what to do with his body rubbed and teased him. He almost whined when the fingers left, but they came back with more lubricant. This time, they didn’t stay outside.

Dylan gasped as the first one breached his ass, feeling full from a single finger. The slickness made it all easier and he relaxed as Barbarossa spread more into him. The second finger joined the first. He had gone without for a long time, and just jamming the thick monster between Barbarossa’s legs right into his unprepared body would only hurt them both.

He rode the fingers, craving more. Barbarossa hooked them forward a little, reaching. Dylan saw sparks and let out a yelp. From outside the tent he heard scattered applause.

“Do him right, Lord,” someone called.

He was entertainment. The thought wilted him for a minute and made the fingers in his ass feel like invaders. He pushed against them, trying to force them out, before he caught himself.

“Away with you!” Barbarossa shouted back. “A man needs privacy to break in his new boy.”

There was laughter, but Dylan heard the departing footsteps.

“Bastards. I’ll deal with them tomorrow.” Barbarossa bent forward and kissed Dylan’s neck. “I’m sorry about that, sweetness. I wanted it to be just us tonight.”

“It’s fine,” Dylan said and was surprised to find out that he meant it. He wanted Barbarossa like he hadn’t wanted any real man, not since Before, and he didn’t care if the whole damn wildpack stood around applauded while their chief fucked him. He just wanted the cock that those fingers promised him.

Barbarossa caught the sweet spot again, and this time Dylan came. His whole body lit up and he did indeed shoot into the grass. He lay limp for a moment and heard Barbarossa chuckle behind him. Another kiss landed on the knob of his spine, followed by a tongue across his shoulders.

“Sexy boy. And you taste good too. I think you’re ready for me.”

“Yes, please,” Dylan managed, his head still spinning a bit from the orgasm.


The fingers left him, and Dylan let out a sob. He was empty and achy. But that didn’t last long.

Barbarossa leaned into him, his thigh pressing against the back of Dylan’s thigh. Dylan caught his breath as the thick cock pressed against the opening to his body. He remembered to breathe slowly. The fingers had sent him right off, filling him perfectly. But Barbarossa’s cock was bigger than his fingers.

The pressure grew as Barbarossa pressed, so very slowly. Dylan had a brief moment of panic. What if his lord didn’t fit? What if he clenched too tightly, even despite the fingers and lubricant and Barbarossa couldn’t get into him? He calmed himself with slow breathing.

There had been bigger cocks. One boyfriend had even fisted him. That had been a long night, and taken most of a bottle of lube. But once Jason was buried to the wrist, Dylan had flown higher than he’d ever dreamed possible. This was just a cock. He could take this.

Barbarossa popped through the tight ring of muscle and paused.

“You’re hot, and so tight, even after my fingers. Beautiful.”

Dylan wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to say something. He pressed back once the initial sting of entry had passed. It was good too, a little stingy stretch, and not a ferocious burning rip as someof guys had been, despite precautions. He could get used to this very quickly.

Barbarossa swatted him. “Eager brat. I’m doing the fucking.”

Dylan worked up the nerve to smile over his shoulder. “But it’s better if I like it and participate, too, isn’t it?” He pushed back a little more, taking Barbarossa to the root. Then it struck him, no condom. In all his adult life, he had never had sex without one. He froze for a second. Then again, it had been five years. Most folks with any kind of terminal disease had already died from not getting their medicine.

It was just him and Barbarossa. The bare skin, covering him from knee to buttock, sliding inside of him... He gasped at the heady thought.

Barbarossa kissed his neck. “You just realized I’m bare, didn’t you?”

Dylan nodded. “Yes, my lord. It’s...” Words failed him.

“The last condom expired two years ago. You feel amazing. I can feel every ridge, every clench, all your heat. I can feel where the lube is starting to soak in and isn’t as slick.” Barbarossa kissed his neck again and moved a little.

Dylan savored each thrust as it took his lover almost all the way out and then completely back in. Then one angled just right and he gasped, getting hard again.

Barbarossa chuckled. “Is there a second in there for me, Cain?” He bent forward. “I marked your face. God didn’t love your offering, but I do. I’m a wicked old demon you found in the wasteland who has marked and claimed you for his own. I want you to come again and again, offering it to me.”

Dylan gasped at the blasphemy, the hot, sexy take on the old, old story. And didn’t some accounts say Cain’s wife had been a demoness of Lilith’s getting? He couldn’t remember, and it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the cock moving in his ass, the smooth thighs against the back of his own, and the curve of his master’s groin against his ass.

Master? Where had that come from? He wasn’t sure, but it seemed to fit. Barbarossa owned him. He had claimed him, marked him, named him, and was even now cementing his claim on Dylan’s body. And it felt perfect and right.

Barbarossa’s cock moved slowly, steadily, hitting his prostate about every third time. It was good, but not quite enough for another orgasm this soon. Dylan scooted a little trying to get a better angle so it would hit every time. Barbarossa swatted him again, a little harder.

“That’s my ass, pet, and my pleasure. You’ll get yours after I take mine. That’s how it’s always going to be, while you’re my bitch. You come for my pleasure, on my orders, and only if I say.” This time the kiss on his neck had teeth in it, and Dylan bucked against Barbarossa’s body, hotter than ever.

Barbarossa swatted him again. “Subby little bitch.” He softened the words with a kiss of the nape of Dylan’s neck and earlobe.

“Damn right, Master.” Dylan turned bright red. He hadn’t ever intended to say that, well at least not yet. There would be time, over the long years of nights to call Barbarossa master. Instead he had blurted it right out the first night.

Barbarossa just chuckled again. “You are going to be a handful, my Cain. I can tell that much already. You love this, all of it. The humiliation, the display, the sex, in public and private.” He grasped the nape of Dylan’s neck in his teeth and bit, and then shook him, like a terrier shakes a rat. Dylan felt blood on his back from Barbarossa’s teeth. He’d been well and thoroughly marked.

“Yours, Master,” he said, loudly enough to be heard outside the tent. “Harder!”

Barbarossa laughed this time, deep and full-throated. “Mine!” He slammed into Dylan’s ass. If he’d been wearing the spikes, Dylan knew his butt would have been hamburger. “Mine!”

He pushed back, accepting the cock, encouraging more vigorous pounding. “Yours. Yours!” He wanted the whole camp to hear. If tonight was all about Barbarossa staking a claim, he wanted to make sure everyone heard and knew that he was Barbarossa’s bitch, and no one else’s.

Barbarossa stabbed into him, deep and hard, with a shuddering shout of “Mine!” He gripped Dylan’s hips had enough that Dylan expected he would find bruises the next morning. Now it just felt good, another way of possessing him, of marking him.

Dylan did not reach for his own cock. Instead, he had found the perfect angle and shifted twice before coming with his own shout of “Master!”

Faint applause far from the tent carried in the stillness that followed.

Barbarossa had slumped across his back and was breathing hard as his cock softened. Dylan felt wrung out. His ass ached in the well-used sort of way and his hips just hurt. His knees were talking to him and he couldn’t feel his feet. He wasn’t sure he could get up even if Barbarossa let him up.

“Sexy, beautiful boy,” Barbarossa whispered and kissed his ear. “And all mine. Did you mean it?”

Dylan swallowed hard. He wasn’t in the throes of orgasm or the clutches of arousal now. He didn’t look back. He couldn’t bear to see the hope in those blue eyes. With cold clarity, he ran his options through his mind. If he said yes, he would call Barbarossa master and serve him and love him, be his fuck toy and slave and demonstration of power. If he said no, it made him look like a lying slut who said things in the heat of passion that he didn’t mean. He knew which one he wanted.

“I meant it, master,” he said, very deliberately. “I’m yours. Your bitch, your slave. But only yours.” This time he looked back.

Barbarossa smiled, but his eyes were unreadable. He pulled out and stood up. “Clean us up. I won’t foul the sheets.”

Dylan got to his feet, grabbed the cloth and swished it through the wash basin, which had gone tepid. He washed the sweat from Barbarossa’s body and the lubricant from his cock. For good measure he ran the cloth along his own crack, catching any leakage. He knew who would be washing the sheets, and without a washing machine, that was a tedious job.

He rinsed the cloth, and then came to kneel beside the bed. Barbarossa had already stretched out on it, looking very comfortable on the clean sheets and soft pillows. He reached over and stroked Dylan’s hair.

“Come to bed. You sleep with me unless I say otherwise. There will be nights when I take others to my bed and you will sleep on the ground. There will be nights I want to sleep alone. But otherwise, you sleep in my arms.”

Dylan slid in between the sheet and curled into Barbarossa’s waiting arms. The feel of the strong arms around him told him he had said exactly the right thing. It wasn’t time to say he loved his master. He couldn’t after only a day. That would come later. But admitting that he was mastered, he had done things perfectly after all.

Barbarossa drew him close for a kiss. “Sleep my Cain, my pretty Killer Kane. I want you fresh to ride tomorrow. It will be a long day.”

Dylan lay quietly for a moment and then snuggled down into Barbarossa’s arms, burying his nose in the base of his master’s throat. “Yes, Master.” The scent of Barbarossa surrounded him. Barbarossa’s arms encircled him. He was Cain, and he belonged to Barbarossa.

Rode bitch for Redmond and his guitar, Bobby, today. Bobby had to ride on my back because I clutched Redmond just a little tightly. He’s got a big overpowered Victory Triumph. It has more horses than Barbarossa’s, but he keeps it reined in. Nice bike, but a little scary. He also has fancy helmets with headsets, so we talked. They plug right into the bike, so power isn’t a problem.

I guess we talked. The guy sings ALL the time, diary, out loud, under his breath and everything in between. I got a full education in Irish history, with special emphasis on Brian Boru, Vikings and the Troubles, as Redmond calls them.

He used to be part of an Irish singing group that went around to renaissance festivals, fairs, pubs and other places. This kind of life is nothing new to him. He misses the rest of his group, the Borumas, every day. He doesn’t have a man of his own. He sees Ryder a lot since Barbarossa cut him loose. He thinks the kid needs a firm hand and a steady lover.

I’m too selfish to give him that, Cain. I need my silence, my privacy. I can’t live with people, not for a long time. Used to be, the Borumas would get a motel room and I’d just use it to shower, and sleep in the car instead. I must have been a tinker in a past life, because I never could live stationary.”

A tinker?” I asked. I wasn’t sure how someone who mended pots and pans figured into the conversation.

The traveling people of Ireland. Some say there’s gypsy blood in ’em, others that they come from the Wandering Jew who was cursed to walk the earth from the Crucifixion until Judgment Day.” He chuckled. “White’ll tell you that last is a myth, but there are stories of him right into the nineteenth century. My feet get to burning any time I stay too long in one place. This circuit suits me fine.” He chuckled again. “I’ve even started composing again. And remembered why I gave it up. I’m fair dreadful at it.”

I’d like to hear what you write,” I said. Nothing tells more about a person than what they create. I never created anything except computer code. I had friends that painted or drew or sang, but I wasn’t much of a maker.

So he favored me with a few verses of the Ballad of Barbarossa and the Wildpack. And he was right. It was pretty bad. Accurate, just not very good. Redmond has an amazing voice but no gift for rhyme. I suggested he try talking to Ivan, who is a natural storyteller. Not sure if Ivan is much of a poet either, but it can’t hurt.

So there is a brain behind those pretty blue eyes, huh?” He snorted and then pulled off, giving the signal for a pit-stop. Taza, bringing up the rear in the armory, acknowledged him and pointed straight, signaling the pack wouldn’t be turning off.

I knew that.” He laughed but sounded exasperated. “Taza thinks he’s the only one born with a sense of direction. Damned Apache ego. I’ve been riding this circuit for five years now. I know where Eight is.”

He pulled us off and got the bike into the trees, still in sight of the road, but not visible from it, if that makes sense. We pulled off the helmets and peed against a big oak tree.

Barbarossa said I could have you,” he told me, not bothering to zip up. “I need someone besides Ryder. Kid bites, and he’s kind of rough in bed. Something’s not right with that boy, and I don’t trust him while I’m sleeping.”

I settled against a fallen tree, opened my arms and smiled. Redmond had trusted me enough to sing me some verses of his terrible song, hoping I wouldn’t laugh. He was a good man. Most of them are, I’m finding.

Not much to tell about it, diary. I kissed him a lot, because he likes that. I think he needs more of it than he thinks he does. We frotted off, like naughty boys stealing a jack down in the locker room. He has interesting callouses from the guitar, and they felt weird on my cock after he took the cage off of me. I knew he had permission, or he’d never do that.

But we stood there, with the sun all golden and green and yellow through the leaves, and kissed and rubbed our cocks together. When we came, the whole little space seemed almost magical. And I knew then why he sang. It was to capture moments like that and share them, to make others feel what he did for just a few seconds or minutes.

We caught up with the pack, and I’m spending the night in his tent. Being third in command has its privileges. I’ll miss my Master, but Redmond will make sure I’m not lonesome. I just worry Barbarossa will be.

Maybe we can manage another magical moment.

Dylan dropped the basin sending hot water everywhere when Ryder slammed him against the truck.

“Cain the Cunt, out and about,” Ryder sneered, his voice low. “Master’s little lapdog.”

Ryder’s forearm was hard on his throat. Dylan gave some thought to bringing his knee up hard and knocking Ryder back to being a soprano. He held still. Maybe he would avoid getting hurt. Barbarossa was waiting for his water and his evening loving back in the tent. Ryder had just made a very big mistake.

“Or are you just pissy because you’re not the one in his lap anymore?” Dylan taunted. Damn his mouth. It was going to get him killed one of these days. There was no profit in baiting a man who was armed when he was naked.

Ryder pulled a long, thin knife from his belt. “Wonder how he’d take to having you neutered. All responsible pet owners do it, isn’t that what the PSAs always said?”

Dylan held his breath as the silver knife gleamed red in the fire and torch light, passing inches from his nose. Ryder ran the flat of it along his belly and he could feel the edge shaving off his sparse body hair.

“Ryder, please,” Dylan breathed.

“Please what, bitch?” Ryder ran the knife along his thigh, the cold metal raising goosebumps in the warm night. “ “Gonna make you a sweet piece of gash, just for him.”

“\Please don’t. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll suck you. I’ll let you fuck me.” Dylan was disgusted to hear himself begging. He was unarmed, naked and pinned. He couldn’t even bash the boy with the basin and get away.

The tip of the knife tickled the head of his cock. Dylan held his breath until it moved back to his belly.

“You’re probably thinking of kicking me in the balls and running to hide behind him, aren’t you?” Ryder whispered, his words mirroring Dylan’s thoughts exactly. “I can feel your legs getting all tense against mine. You gotta relax, or this is going to really hurt.” His grin was quite mad. “Of course, I like it when it hurts a lot. I like screams and tears and blood.”

“Kane!” Barbarossa yelled from the tent. “Kane, if you’re letting my water get cold, I will spank you until you can’t ride.”

Dylan held his breath. Maybe he wouldn’t have to save himself, maybe Barbarossa would rescue him instead. It was a weakling’s thought, and he hated himself for having it. But Dylan was still over-civilized. When someone had a weapon, you did exactly as they said and hoped to stay alive. It had worked when he was mugged. Losing three hundred dollars had hurt, but he had lived. It had worked when he was gay-bashed. He’d done everything the bashers had said, and then curled into a ball on the ground and waited for them to finish. Stitches and a cast had hurt, but he had lived through it. He wasn’t sure the survival tactic still worked.

“Kane!” This time the bellow sounded furious, and Barbarossa threw open the tent flap. The lamplight exposed them, and Ryder grinned over his shoulder at the pack leader.

“He’s just offering to suck my cock, lover,” Ryder said. “He said he’d let me fuck him, too.”

“That is my bitch you are talking about.” Barbarossa strode to the truck and paused when he saw the knife hovering at Kane’s throat. “Ryder, put the knife down.”

“Say you love me. Say you want me back. And take me back, or I slit this cowardly gash from ear to ear.” Ryder laughed madly. “Hey, maybe you can fuck his second mouth too!”

Barbarossa moved fast, and before Dylan could breathe, he slammed Ryder against the truck. He pounded Ryder’s wrist against the metal and the knife fell from the boy’s grasp.

“I will never fuck you again, you deceitful fucking whore. I do not love you and will never have you back.” Barbarossa brought his knee up, and Ryder screamed in a high sickening voice. Dylan simply thought it would have been more effective if Barbarossa had been wearing his boots with the spike at the top.

Barbarossa picked up the knife and let Ryder slump to the ground to clutch his aching balls. He beckoned one of the men who had gathered to watch the discipline.

“Ivan, get White to boil some water and bring back a sponge. Everyone bring light, lots of light!” He looked down at Ryder. “You want to see my bitch bleed. You’ll get your chance.”

Dylan held his breath at the words. Barbarossa turned to him and seized him by the hair.

“And you, you are slow and disobedient. And apparently too much of a temptation for the men of the pack. So, let’s make sure nobody else is tempted.” Barbarossa tangled his fingers deeper in Dylan’s hair and forced him to bend at the waist. Then he half-led, half-dragged him to where the big black Harley was parked in front of his tent.

Barbarossa slung Dylan over the bike, his belly pressed to the seat. “All right, boys, who wants this little bitch’s ass? Voice vote is fine.”

Dylan couldn’t see the men, but it sounded like everyone roared out with approval. He trembled a little, but made himself hold still. Barbarossa wouldn’t let them all have him; he had promised. A little voice in the back of Dylan’s head asked if that was a real promise or just the casual words of a bandit leader. He held still and listened.

“Well, you can’t have it. His ass is mine and only mine. Same for his mouth and hands and all the rest of him. I will share if I choose, but it is not free for the taking. And since you are a bunch of greedy assholes, it looks like I need to make sure none of you ever, ever forget who this man belongs to.”

The light around him grew brighter and Dylan smelled lamp oil and torches. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder and saw Barbarossa holding a wicked-looking black-bladed knife, about five inches long. He plunged it into the steaming bowl of water White held for him and then held it up so the pack could look.

He turned to Dylan and held the knife so Dylan could see. Dylan quit watching. Barbarossa wasn’t going to kill him, not if what he said was accurate. Dylan tried to relax as much as possible, breathing slowly as he lay draped over the bike.

The knife bit into the skin just above his hip, a hot line of pain. Four shorter, faster lines followed. He didn’t scream. It hurt but he could bear it. Two more long lines and a short one. This hurt more and he felt a tear start to escape. Barbarossa let the night air flow cool over his cuts and Dylan heard the splashing of water. The knife was back and hot again, Barbarossa must have washed it. He held still through four cuts and then five and three and four more. Barbarossa was writing on him with the knife. Dylan knew what his ass would say when his master had finished it.

Four more letters. Thirteen cuts. He could do it. A hot, wet sponge swabbed over his back, taking away the blood he could feel running down his legs. Barbarossa wouldn’t let him bleed to death. Four small cuts, then two sets of three. But they still felt all crowded on his left side. Tears ran down his face. He hoped Barbarossa would stop with his name.

Dylan’s ass was one big ball of pain on the left side, from his waist to his legs.

In the middle of his ass, the cuts started again. Another b. Oh God. The next was just a line. He was going to wear the word “bitch” carved in his ass the rest of his life. No matter what else he wore, that was going to be there. Even if he left the pack someday, anyone else he was with would see the scarred words.

He did not scream once, but he thought he was going to grind his teeth to sand. The hot sponge wiped away the blood again.

“Barbarossa’s bitch,” Barbarossa shouted, and Dylan felt flame close to his skin, probably from a lantern.

The other men shouted in approval. The sponge again, and then two fingers wet and slick sliding into him. Barbarossa was going to fuck him here, over the bike, while he was bleeding. Of course he was. This was a dominance display, and he had to reinforce the lesson that Dylan was his and only his.

The cock hurt as it punched in, and Dylan did scream then. The rest of the wildpack just laughed and encouraged Barbarossa to fuck him harder, make him yell again. Dylan clenched his fists around shock absorber and hung on. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of another cry.

Barbarossa didn’t last long, but he made the bike rock under them while he was doing it. He pulled out and shot all over the cuts, the salt in his semen stinging. The pack roared its approval again.

“Enough, all of you. This one is mine, and only mine. I’ve marked him and claimed him. Anyone caught trespassing will be treated as a common thief. Now go away.”

Barbarossa yanked him back upright by his hair and stared into Dylan’s eyes. The deep affection he’d been feeling for the bandit lord had melted into something approaching hatred and Dylan let it show. The deep blue eyes looked hurt for an instant and then resigned.

Barbarossa dragged him to the tent, hand in his hair, bent over at the waist. Dylan was really getting tired of that position. Once inside, he bent Dylan over the map-table and ran a gentle hand down his back.

“Cain, my own, my boy, we’ll get you patched right up.”

Dylan didn’t care. He just lay on the table, hurting. Cloth landed on his open wounds, sticky with salve. That would help. The salve had closed his face right over. It seemed Barbarossa was determined to make him bleed to death during his stay. He didn’t care now. Carved on and fucked in public. He felt humiliated beyond belief at the thought.

“Lift your hips, love.” Barbarossa passed a strip of cloth under his belly. “You’ll be fine in a few days. We won’t ride until you can be comfortable.”

A small kiss at the nape of his neck made Dylan wonder about that. The whole pack was being stopped in its movement until he was well enough to travel. Maybe Barbarossa did care.

Another kiss and a sweet whisper that made his insides knot up and his cock go hard confirmed that notion.

“All of them would have taken you tonight, every last one of them. But now, no one will lay a hand on you without asking me first. And I won’t say yes without asking you. Ryder won’t try to hurt you again. He was stupid to do it tonight. You are mine, and I treasure you.” Even more softly, bare puff of air against his ear, Barbarossa implored, “Forgive me, Dylan.”

The SUV is one of the bigger vehicles; because of that, it hauls the arsenal and some of the supplies. Taza drives it and doesn’t let anyone else have the wheel, not even his Yosef. They’re both pretty scary looking, diary. Taza is almost six and a half feet tall, and he says he’s full-blood Apache. He looks like he might be. He’s really hot in a terrifying way. Between you and me, diary, I want to kiss him and run my hands into that waist-length black hair of his. I’m crazy about men with black hair, and it drove Aaron crazy because he was blond. Barbarossa, name to the contrary, has black hair, too.

Yosef is older and has a lot of tattoos, mostly ugly and homemade. I do like the professional one of a dragon. It’s all multicolored green and yellow and twines up his arm. He’s been to prison more than once, was in it when the Accident happened, and when the power failed, he walked right out of the gates, he says. I don’t know if I should believe him. He said he was just a counterfeiter, but I can’t see it. His gray hair is long, and he wears it in a skinny ponytail. He’s missing a few teeth, and one of his ears is all cauliflower. He’s not a little guy, not like me. He’s about average height and strong-looking. He looks like the type who should be on one of the motorcycles, the kind who would pick bar fights just to kill people. He’s got scars on his knuckles and knife-marks on his arms, both older and newer than the tattoos. His accent, a city sounding one from back east somewhere, just sounds like a movie hood.

He’s funny, diary. He doesn’t look like he would be, but he can tell old jokes in ways that make you see why they came to be old jokes. He told me a story about falling down the porch stairs with a bag of trash, and I laughed until my ribs hurt, just from the way he told it.

He’s also the quartermaster for the group. Apparently, Barbarossa trusts him with all our supplies. He keeps the records about who gets what share of the trade goods, and how much scrip each member has been issued. Smart and funny, and I’ve seen the way he looks at Taza. He loves his man, and it’s plain to anyone who looks at them.

Taza is the sergeant-at-arms and war-leader. He keeps the order around the fire and issues weapons when the Pack rides to war. Barbarossa always includes him in the planning sessions and listens to him more than most.

I rode with them. They kind of alternated the music. Apparently, a few of the satellite radio stations, the ones that play music, are still broadcasting without human assistance. Taza likes eighties rock, so we had several hours of that on the satellite radio. Then, Yosef put in some hard-core southern stuff, Steve Earle and Lynard Skynard and Tom Petty, heavy rhythm and slow guitar and all dirty south, sweet tea and dusty red roads, and I am rambling tonight.

Taza talks some, but Yosef turned around and leaned over the back seat and told me lots of stories. He likes to talk a lot. He told me about getting busted on a counterfeiting charge and how his assistant peed her pants when the cops broke down the door. He told about a trip to an amusement park, and the big roller-coaster catching fire. The guy should write books, diary.

Yosef talked, and Taza drove, petting his hair from time to time. I finally got the courage to ask Taza what he’d done Before.

I was a courier,” he said. “Actually, I started as a courier and owned my own company by the time the Accident happened. Licensed and bonded, we had six trucks and covered a fair chunk of the state.”

I asked how they had gotten together. Yosef ran his hand over the long braid Taza was wearing today and smiled. “I had been with the pack about a week, and spent most of it watching him, kid. I wanted him so bad it hurt. Who wouldn’t? Finally, I walked up to him and said something really dumb. He laughed and took me to bed. Been together ever since.”

You said,” Taza added, grinning, “’hey, treetop loveh, anyone ever made like Paul Bunyan widcha?” He copied Yosef’s accent exactly. I laughed at that.

You meet interesting people in a wildpack, diary. A counterfeiter and a courier, now in charge of supplies and weapons for a roaming band of knights erroneous. And I’m so not calling us that anywhere but here.

The wildpack rolled past the guards with their uzis and machetes and into the little town. Bright red flowers grew in every yard, and herbs and plants had replaced ordinary grass in most places. Curtains fluttered in the windows, tie-dyed like Kane remembered from retro shops, and beaded curtains hung in open front doors. The smell of incense pervaded the town.

A woman waved where she was tending her garden. Three mostly naked children ran after the pack, shouting excitedly, their tie-dyed sarongs bright in the sun. Four was peaceful and prosperous without a lot of rules or a leader.

The town council awaited them at the square. Five men, five women, ranging in age from late teens to old enough to have lived through the sixties. They all smiled at the pack’s arrival.

The leader this trip was an old woman, her long white hair streaked with iron gray, wearing a bright purple headband and shawl. She leaned on an intricately carved cane as she stepped forward to greet the pack.

During initial contacts, the pack refused to speak or deal with women. Later, after a settlement had been under protection for a while, Barbarossa greeted the female leaders exactly as he did the male ones. The pack still did not talk of women, not even the pregnant ones they carried as trade goods.

“Welcome. What news do you bring us, our wandering brothers?”

“Much news, mail and trade goods. We have three pregnants if you want one.”

The old woman nodded. “We would welcome as many as you would like to leave with us.”

“We have a request. We know you have learned to make opiate drugs again. We require some. Not much, just three doses. Now and then, we find ourselves in situations where the willow tea is inadequate for the pain. And while your liquor is wonderful, it takes a great deal to ease the pain. Three doses is enough for surgery, not enough for addiction.”

The old woman nodded. “You shall have it.”

Barbarossa waved the pack off to conduct their usual business. Kane sat quietly on the bike as his master got off. In a minute, Barbarossa would have settled himself in the curule chair to conduct the usual judgment and Kane would settle in for people watching.

Instead, Barbarossa unlocked the handcuffs that Kane always wore into a settlement and patted his shoulder. “Go explore. If you find something you need or just want to buy, tell White or Redmond. They’ll get it for you, and I’ll pay them.”

Kane blinked a few times and then kissed Barbarossa’s hand. “Thank you, Master.” He got off the bike and stretched. Four wasn’t one of the settlements he’d been kicked out of. Excitement at the chance to explore tingled all through him. He wrapped himself around Barbarossa and kissed him very sweetly in gratitude.

“Go on. I have to work,” Barbarossa said, swatting his butt. He turned and went to the chair, and called the court into session.

Kane looked around him, not sure where to start. Most of the stores on the square had goods in them, so he decided he’d look there first.

Spin, Weave and Dye was the first shop, and it showed a wide variety of items. Looms, spindles, hanks of yarn, baskets of raw fiber, jars of dyes, and even a few bolts of cloth filled the shop. A stocky woman in a purple caftan greeted him.

“Good morning, wandering brother. See anything you like?” She ignored his semi-nude state and the iron cage jutting out from his crotch.

“I, er... It’s all fascinating.”

She laughed and showed him around. Kane winced at the prices. There were baskets of powdered dyes, but all in bright colors. Barbarossa wore nothing but black, and he wore only the armor out of camp.

Kane thought a minute. “Do you have black dye?”

She nodded. “Oh yes, but it’s expensive. I get it in from Mexico. There’s a trader who comes through every spring and brings me fifty pounds of logwood and iron. I have about three pounds left right now. He’s due in a month or so.”

“Let me consult Lord Barbarossa. He favors black, and his stuff is fading. I wonder if he might like it darkened.”

She smiled. “Of course.”

Kane stared at a soft sarong in many shades of blue. He wanted it badly. Naked in the tent he didn’t mind, but he hated naked in the camp.

“That’s hemp cloth. Sheep are so bad for the land. We grow a lot of hemp and use it for everything, cloth, paper, ropes, even plastic.”

The bell over the door jangled. “Cain, there you are!” Redmond hurried in, his guitar on his back. “The Boss said he thought you’d come this way. He sent me to shop with you.”

The shop lady greeted Redmond, and he gave her a smile.

“Do you think Master would let me buy something expensive? It’s for him.” Kane looked at Redmond expectantly.

“How expensive and what is it?”

“Black dye. His clothes are going all gray. And I want this,” Kane touched the sarong. “I hate being naked in camp and the leather is too hot to wear in the summer.” He looked at the rope sandals below the sarong but decided that would be too much to ask.

The lady named an exorbitant price for the items. Kane winced again. She wanted enough to buy a whole pregnant from the pack, and those didn’t come cheaply.

“Make it two ounces instead of a quarter pound,” Redmond said. “The boys in my group, we used to re-dye our stuff back Before. Two ounces was enough for six sweaters and six pairs of jeans.”

The shopkeeper nodded and weighed out the dye. She handed the sarong to Kane, who tied it around his hips, covering the cage. Redmond paid her in the wildpack’s scrip, coupons that could be redeemed for any trade goods the pack was carrying, or used to make an order from one of the other settlements. Some of the settlements used the scrip as money within the settlement, but most transactions still took place on the barter system. “See Leonidas. He’s our trade coordinator. You’ll find him at the semi.”

She nodded. “Thank you. Please see me again.”

Redmond and Kane cruised the square taking in the other shops. There was a shop that sold nothing but toys, hand-made blocks and dolls, teddy bears and wooden puzzles. A few boardgames from Before had been laminated onto tables, and their flimsy mass-produced paper and cardboard pieces replaced with wood. Another shop sold cookware, clearly scrounged from houses and stores Before. There weren’t enough people yet to have used up all the leftover gear.

The grocery store had bins of vegetables, and Kane heard the sound of a generator. He went in, Redmond in his wake. They had the meat cabinet up and running. Fresh milk and home-made cheese stood in a dairy cabinet, with a faded resealable container labeled “cottage cheese” beside them. There was even a chest freezer running. He stared at the containers of ice cream, clearly home made. There were a lot of buckets of strawberry and peach, and even one of blueberry. He hadn’t seen any since Before.

“Redmond,” he called the other man over from where he was examining a selection of guitar strings. Redmond was careful of his strings, but every now and then one of them broke.

“Ice cream.” The other man grinned at him. “Cain, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“A surprise for the pack?”

Redmond nodded. He counted the containers and went to talk to the shop keeper. Kane smiled. It was nice that people were getting back to having a few luxuries.

“It’s all arranged,” Redmond said. “They’ll deliver it after supper tonight. They’re going to love you for this, boy.”

Kane nodded. “I just hope Barbarossa loves it.”

Redmond smiled. “I wouldn’t have let you buy it otherwise.”

They headed back to camp to wait. White was chopping and frying potatoes and onions, with some fresh beef when they got there, and it smelled wonderful. Kane knew he’d made the right decision. The rest of the pack drifted back in pairs and groups, comparing what they’d bought.

When Barbarossa arrived back, his brow furrowed and his face tired, Kane dashed to get his chair and a cup of willow tea. It seemed that the more peaceful a settlement was, the more problems they needed help with.

Dinner came, and Kane brought the plate over to his lord, trying not to drool. He hoped Barbarossa left him a decent share.. He spared a nervous glance for Redmond. What if the grocer kept the scrip and never sent the ice cream? What if Barbarossa was angry at the extravagance? What if the pack was all lactose-intolerant?

A shout from Malverde who was on sentinel duty alerted the camp to visitors. Two young men, each carrying a pair of gallon pails full of ice cream, arrived.

“Lord Barbarossa, your man purchased this while he was in town this afternoon and told us to deliver it an hour before sunset. We are here, as promised.”

Barbarossa smiled, and then glanced at Kane. He gestured to the cook-truck. “Take it to White. He’ll handle it. Thank you gentlemen for your trouble.” He tipped them enough scrip to send a letter for free.

Barbarossa pulled Kane up for a kiss. “You are too clever sometimes.” Then he shouted, “Kane and Redmond have a treat for us. If you line up with your bowls, White will dish you some ice cream.”

The men wasted no time at all. Kane took Barbarossa’s bowl and went to the head of the line. He returned to kneel by his master’s side, wondering if he would get any of the treat.

He looked around the field in the twilight. Twenty men sat with bowls of ice cream, smiles on their faces showing the boys they must once have been. A pink spoonful hovered in front of his face. He opened and the sweet, tart flavor of strawberries melted all over his tongue. It was a perfect evening.

So Ripper and Gilles have finally broken up, diary. I can’t say I’m sorry. Ripper’s not bad, and Gilles is a nice enough guy, but they are poison for each other. I rode with them in the hybrid SUV once, and was back behind my master after the midday meal-stop.

They fought all the time. About everything. I was in the back seat, and I listened to them argue about everything from whose turn it was to drive (Ripper won the rock-paper-scissors throw, so he got the wheel) to the music (Gilles won that, so it was an hour of Gregorian chants), to the climate control (I insisted there be enough heat that I didn’t freeze) to who had snored all night and who had stolen all the blankets (jury’s still out there).

I think the only thing they didn’t argue about was who was going to fuck me first. Seems neither of them like littler guys, and I was too smart for Gilles’ taste and too sweet for Ripper’s. Gilles set off another fight by saying he only liked his men big and dumb. Ripper’s crack about too nice caused twenty minutes of hurt feelings.

I had never been so glad to get out of a car in my life, diary, not even the time Matt rolled his sports-car on the embankment, drunk and high, and I thought we were both going to die. I was no help that time, because I was as high off my ass as he was. He just thought he could drive better. We both walked away from that, but I was shaking myself for days making sure nothing was broken.

This was worse. This was being trapped in the back seat with my parents fighting all the way to Grandpa’s farm. But I’m not eight any more, so I got out as soon as I could. Barbarossa wasn’t happy with me, but I think it was more because he really isn’t happy with Gilles and Ripper right now.

White was lonely. Kane had realized that early in his days with the pack. He spent what time he could helping the cook once his own work was done. Mostly he just kept White company, since White didn’t like help. He said it threw off his timing and rhythm. Kane peeled potatoes, chopped onions and did other small chores.

The pack was in town, as usual, and White and Kane were left to the camp. Kane finished straightening Barbarossa’s tent and went to find White. There was no cheerful rattle of utensils from the cook-truck. Kane walked faster, worried. White could just be taking breakfast to the trade-goods. They had three pregnants with them, and those three could eat. The cookfire had burned out. Kane broke into a run. White never let the fire go out.

He found the priest sitting on a rock, a bloody knife in one hand, and a gash in his wrist.

“No. Oh no, no no. You don’t do this.” He ripped off White’s apron and wrapped the wrist in it. “Where’s the salve? Where are the bandages?”

“It doesn’t matter, son. Let me go.”

“You’re not hurt badly enough to die. And nobody dies in this camp without Barbarossa’s express order. You know that.” Kane found the salve and a strip of clean cloth.

He washed the wound, ignoring White’s complaints, and bandaged it.

“Talk to me. What is so bad you decided to go to Hell forever rather than face it?”

“Our prince is faltering, lad. We’ve put our trust in a false idol, and he’s teetering.”

Kane shook his head. “We’re fine, Father.”

“Not for long.”

Kane knew that for the truth. Barbarossa had said nearly the same thing not three nights before. He could read the signs. “No, not for long. But for long enough. It’s almost over here.” White nodded and Kane leaned in close. “Barbarossa knows it, and you see it, too, don’t you?”

“Oh aye, and it’ll end bloody.” He lifted his arm. “I have seen enough blood of others.”

“No, not if I can help it.” Kane kissed the bandages and held White’s hands.

The man cried silently, tears running down his scarred cheeks. Kane moved closer and folded him in close. He realized White was older even than the scars made him look, that he probably would prefer death over yet another life-change.

He held the man and whispered, “I love you. Your prince loves you.”

White shook his head. “We have to get out while we can.”

Kane took a deep breath and looked White in the eyes. “Douglas. Douglas, Father, my brother, listen. We know. Lord Barbarossa knows. And the change is coming. Soon. We must see it to the end, because that is what leaders do. Not the beginning of the end. Only the end of the beginning.” He kissed White’s forehead, as White had so often done to him. He saw now the deep loneliness of this man who had no mate among the Pack. Barbarossa might punish him for what he was about to do, but it would be worth it.

He stared deeper into White’s eyes until the man tried to drop them. Kane caught his chin. “Now, the man whose life I’ve saved is my responsibility, yes? I will keep you, if you need to be kept. I will love you, because you are worthy of love. Now,” he did his best to sound like Barbarossa as he issued the command, “tell me what you fear most. What has driven you to this?”

“The worst boys coming to power. Malverde, or Ivan, or Attila the coward.”

Kane shook his head. “That will not happen. I promise you. Not if my master and I must kill them all. Do you need me to keep you, after the change over? You will have a place to live, and food. There will be work, but we all work.” He kissed White’s lips, softly. “Attila will not hold the wildpack. Not Ivan nor Malverde either,” he promised.

Kane went back to work for the day. The pack came in late, jazzed on adrenaline and blood. White delegated Kane to serve supper to the uninjured while he and Truman patched up the casualties.

After dinner and triage, after the utensils were cleaned and put away, Kane found White packing his cooking gear for the night. He beckoned Vlad and Redmond over to help and pulled White away from the cook-truck.

“Our lord needs to see you, brother,” he said softly, and took White’s uninjured hand.

White only held back a little as Kane led him to Barbarossa’s tent. “I can’t. He doesn’t like me in his bed.”

“Trust me.” Kane set out the red sign, indicating they were not to be disturbed and led White into the tent. The cook stood awkwardly as Kane went to his knees at Barbarossa’s feet.

Kane knew this might take some begging. He kissed Barbarossa’s boots, noting the metallic taste of blood on them. He’d have to polish them in the morning. He licked up the top of the boot and kissed Barbarossa’s knee.

“What do you need, pet?” Barbarossa asked, stroking his hair. He tugged at it. “Getting long. Do you want a haircut or a ponytail?”

“Master, it’s not what I want or need. Our brother needs us.” He nodded to White, who had backed nearly out the door of the tent. Kane put his hands on Barbarossa’s thigh and kissed his mouth softly. “Please, will you love him?”

For a long moment, Barbarossa looked at White. Kane kept his eyes down, but saw White was the first to drop his eyes under the scrutiny. Barbarossa nodded.

“Thank you, love.” Kane rose and went to White, taking him by the hand again and leading him to where Barbarossa sat. “Douglas, you need this. Let me take care of you. You’ve taken care of me so well.”

White mumbled, “I take care of all my boys.”

Barbarossa stood and reached out to pull White into an embrace. “Beloved Father. My own brother. We love you.”

Kane smiled as his master led the cook to the bed. He followed, naked in camp as he always was when the weather was above sixty. He watched as Barbarossa kissed White, taking his face in gentle hands and making it slow. Kane smiled. He loved those kinds of kisses.

White took off his clothes and lay back, looking more like he was about to be buried than loved. Barbarossa removed everything, including the mask to Kane’s great surprise, and lay beside him. He stroked White’s face with the backs of his fingers.

“It’s no life for a priest, is it? And we try to keep the worst of it from you.”

Kane knelt on the foot of the bed, watching them kiss. Tears rolled down White’s face.

“I see the men after the fighting. I watch them degenerate every year. Cutting the word ‘woman’ out of the pack vocabulary hurt us all; it coarsened us, my prince.” He kissed Barbarossa with a hungry desperation.

“I can’t protect them, so they can’t ride with us. It’s better not to dwell on what we cannot have.”

White nodded. “Aye, even knowing we carry them as trade-goods in the truck sets some of the men on edge.”

Kane waited at the foot of the bed. “Love, do I need to wait a bit?” At Barbarossa’s nod, he kissed his lord’s thigh and stroked White’s calf. “Let me know when.” Barbarossa patted him before returning his full attention to White.

“They’re planning your overthrow. I hear them talking. They know I’m no threat, that you do not call me for counsel anymore.”

Barbarossa kissed him and stroked his face. Kane listened.

“They’ll kill our Kane. They think it will destroy you, and I agree. I don’t want to bury your boy. Or you.”

Kane shuddered. He knew some of the pack hated him. He didn’t think it would go that far, where he was a political pawn in a coup. He wasn’t Pack, not yet. It struck him that he wanted to be, wanted to call the others his brothers instead of Sir all the time.

Barbarossa kissed White again. “That won’t happen. I’ll see to it.” He stroked White’s face and lifted White’s hand to his own lips. “I promise you, Father.”

Kane gave up on the job and joined them in the cuddle, spooning up against White’s back. He kissed White’s neck.

Barbarossa pulled White closer and looked over the man’s shoulder at Kane. Kane just smiled and gave him a raised eyebrow.

“Love you both,” he said. “And he needs love more than he needs me to suck him off.” He kissed White’s ear. “And I do love you, brother.”

White tipped his face back and stole a kiss from Kane. The first smile Kane had seen for a long time rested on his face. “Wouldn’t complain if you sucked me off, too.”

Barbarossa smiled, too. “Let me.”

Kane looked at him in wonder and nodded. “Do it right, or I’ll have to take over,” he teased.

Barbarossa patted his face. “I think I remember how.” He kissed White and worked his way down the cook’s throat. He took one kiss from Kane on the way down.

Kane lay behind White, kissing his neck and ear, stroking his chest. Barbarossa nipped his fingers as he licked White’s nipples and kissed down his belly.

Kane stroked his face and let him go down. “I love you,” he said, meaning it for both men.

Barbarossa nipped his fingers again. Kane watched him take White’s cock, which was rapidly getting harder, into his mouth. That perfect, sensual mouth wrapped around the man, and moved on it. Kane’s own cock pressed against its metal cage until he ached.

A soft moan from Barbarossa told Kane how much his lover was enjoying himself. He always made that noise when sucking cock, no matter how rarely he did it. He smiled.

“Your prince loves you, Father. I love you. We’ll take care of you and keep ourselves safe, too.” He kissed White’s neck and ear and held him more tightly. He meant every word of it, his chest aching with the love he felt for the two men in the bed with him.

White didn’t respond, except to reach up and pull Kane’s head into his neck. He gave a soft little sigh and went rigid for a second. Barbarossa moaned again, more loudly, and Kane glanced down to see his throat work. He watched Barbarossa let White’s cock out of his mouth and slide that formerly famous tongue, the one that had entranced audiences around the world, all over the cock, cleaning it.

“So very sexy. Thank you for letting me share it,” he whispered to White.

White kissed him in return. “Thank you for making it happen.” He ran his hand over Barbarossa’s hair. “Thank you, my prince.” He tried to sit up, but Kane kept his arm around White’s chest and Barbarossa held him as well.

“Stay,” Barbarossa said softly. “Spend the night. You sleep alone too much.”

White relaxed back down between them, sighing in contentment. Kane kissed his neck again.

“Better let me roll away,” Kane suggested. “The spikes.”

White nodded and Kane rolled to face the edge of the bed, careful of the cage and his genitals, which ached like they hadn’t in a long time. He wanted out. He would love a good blow job. He hadn’t had one in months. He’d love to be out just to jack off. But Barbarossa hadn’t let him out or said he could have anything. He tried calming himself by thinking it was enough they had loved White, given him the affection and release he needed. But a small, petulant part said it was not enough, not nearly enough. He wanted some loving, too.

White’s arm went under his neck and the other wrapped around his waist. He felt the man spoon up behind him, knees to knees, thighs to thighs and the curve of White’s groin cupping his ass. White was soft now, and his cock brushed against Kane’s ass like a promise.

He kissed the arm under his neck. “You can fuck me if you need to. My master won’t mind.”

A pat that was almost a slap landed on his ribs from Barbarossa. “Don’t be offering my property so cavalierly, pet.” He knew his owner had curled around White in the same way.

He stroked Barbarossa’s hand with his own. “Only tonight, while our beloved sleeps between us. There’ll be no bending me over the rock while the bread bakes, or forcing me to my knees while he chops onions.”

The warmth of White around him, the strong arms enfolding him left Kane drowsy. He was nearly asleep when he heard Barbarossa say, “My turn, boy.”

The words woke him instantly. He sat up and then knelt up, knees apart. Barbarossa had never demanded that particular display of subservience, but Kane offered it often. It felt right and proper, a show that he was ready for his master and lover.

To his great surprise, Barbarossa unfastened his cage. Kane thought for a minute, trying to remember the last time he’d been out of the device. It had been at least two months. “Thank you, Master,” he said and leaned in to kiss Barbarossa’s hands. “What would you like of me?”

Barbarossa looked at White. “What would you like, Father?”

“That’s a lovely piece. No wonder you keep it caged away from the rest of us. I find I’m hungry for a taste.” He caught Barbarossa by the back of the head and kissed him hard. “For both of you boys.”

Barbarossa smiled. “We’re all yours.”

“Then sit here and kiss each other. Give me something pretty to watch while I enjoy myself.”

Barbarossa folded Kane in his arms and kissed him. Odd as the erection felt after months of being caged, White’s mouth tasting him and then swallowing him all the way in made Kane clutch his lover more tightly and kiss him back.

Barbarossa shoved his tongue in deeply, fucking Kane’s mouth with it, while White sucked him. He let Barbarossa tip him onto his back and felt White adjust to lie between his legs.

“My own sweet pet,” Barbarossa said, stroking his hair out of his eyes. “I do love you, you know that, right?”

Kane startled at the words. Barbarossa had never said them to him. “I had not dared hope, my lord.”

Barbarossa laughed. “Such a bottom, and always so formal.” He kissed Kane again. “Play, lover, enjoy yourself. Tell me what you want, what you feel and take it.”

But Kane couldn’t manage words. The tongue moving on him, after so much deprivation, had sent him over the edge, and he could only gasp as he came.

Barbarossa just laughed and kissed him again. Kane saw him reach down and stroke White’s graying hair. “He may have another. You are either in excellent practice, or I have neglected my boy too long. Please let me see which it is.”

Kane tried not to make noise when White left him to suck Barbarossa. It was not his place to protest. He was Barbarossa’s lover only under conditions of total secrecy. Tonight, he was just the leader’s toy.

Kane lay quietly, listening to White’s slurping and Barbarossa’s soft words of encouragement and praise. He watched the cook sucking their leader, the lines on his face smoothing out, as if all the worries had melted into one overriding concern, that of Barbarossa’s pleasure.

Barbarossa pulled him in close for a long kiss, and Kane felt him go tense and relax. White joined them, lying behind him, his arm draped over Kane’s body. White was ready for more, and his cock lay hard and waiting along Kane’s ass.

“Master,” Kane said, very softly. “He’s ready again. Please, would you let him fuck me? I’d really like that. His cock feels so good; I would love it inside. Please?”

Barbarossa smiled and kissed him. “Father, are you wanting to?”

White just nodded and kissed Kane’s shoulder.

Kane tipped back to look at him. “How would you like to have me?”

“On your side, just so. Getting too old for acrobatics. Silliness, hooking your knees over my shoulders and that rot.”

“Do you want our prince cuddling me, inside of you, or jacking off over both of us?”

The tension in White’s voice surprised him. “Let him hold you. No one goes inside me.”


“It’s fine.” Barbarossa handed the oil over Kane’s body to White’s waiting hand. He kissed Kane. “I love watching your face when you come.”

Kane relaxed as White smeared him with oil, and then pressed in. The priest was nicely built, but Kane was in good practice. He could have taken the man dry.

“Let me know if I hurt,” White said, kissing his neck. “Don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m fine. You feel good.” Kane reached back and stroked his face. Barbarossa leaned over him to kiss White.

“Love my boy well,” he said, and kissed White again.

White moved inside him, a slow, steady thrust that was different from Barbarossa’s usual pounding. He buried his face in Kane’s shoulder, his breath rasping hot and fast across Kane’s back.

Barbarossa kissed Kane, deep and hard, pushing him back onto White. He pressed his body close as if trying to feel them both. “My boy,” he said, holding Kane’s face between his hands.

White moved a little longer and clutched Kane tight with a gasp. Kane felt the man’s cock pulse twice and his body slump.

“The pair of you would wear the old man out,” White mumbled.

“Stay,” Barbarossa said. He got up and went to the other side of the bed. “Stay the night and know you are loved.” He curled around White’s back and snuffed the lantern.

It’s getting cold, diary. This is the first winter I haven’t had a house. I hope we don’t have to sleep out in the tents. They aren’t as dry as they could be, and snow will break the poles. I’ll ask my lord what the plan is.

(later) He says we have winter quarters in some settlements. We stay there and make day trips to handle our rounds on the nicer days. He says the quarters aren’t much, but they serve if the weather gets truly bad. Mostly, we just break the extra blankets out of the storage units, haul out the winter gear and ride. People need mail more in the winter, he says. It gives them hope.

He gave me a pair of jeans and another of long underwear, a t-shirt and a flannel shirt to wear under my jacket. My butt got really chilled today riding bare. He said it was nearly blue. He rubbed it until it was warm again, and then spanked it pink just for extra warmth. He says I still have to ride with the cage and my junk hanging out, but he gave me a sheep-skin sack for that. He really doesn’t want me uncomfortable, but I am still his toy. He needs the power display.

So, I go bare when he needs me to, and try to stay as comfortable as I can otherwise.

They found the war-party early on a June morning. Seventy men, all in body armor, some carrying primitive weaponry, others carrying high-caliber ordinance or machine guns, rolled past in open Humvees and canvas-sided trucks, obviously looted from the nearby base.

Barbarossa gunned the Harley and swung out in front of the column. The rest of the wildpack followed suit, flanking the soldiers. They were outnumbered three to one, and seriously outgunned, but Barbarossa could usually talk sense to his people.

“Wildpack, why do you stop us?” Kane recognized the man who styled himself as the “ubar” of the Normanite settlement. They called it Ar. The Pack avoided as much contact as they could, making their rounds and not staying within the borders overnight. The settlement had coalesced around a male-supremacist doctrine that made the Pack, which had eradicated the word “woman” from its collective vocabulary, look egalitarian.

No woman over forty was allowed in the borders of their lands, and those over thirty were used as beasts of burden. The rest were kept as sex-slaves and raped and tortured for the amusement of the men. As Dylan, Kane had read a few of the old books the group patterned itself on, and found the most readable ones to be cheap knock-offs of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the rest actively repulsive.

“Where do you go, all armed, on this fine morning?” Barbarossa asked.

Kane held his tongue. He knew where they were going. There was only one direction the road led. And it seemed his master was in fine form, almost poetic.

“We are on a slave raid,” the ubar announced. “The bitches have gotten too confident, and we go to remind them of what they truly are.”

Kane set his jaw. They were going to go fuck with the Amazons. It had been coming for a while. The Amazons had warned the Pack that they were considering burning out Ar and liberating their sisters. Ar had coveted the women in the Amazon fortress. The bad blood had been building and the sabers rattling for as long as Kane could remember. Now, it looked like someone had decided to put up or shut up.

“I think, your eminence, that you had best reconsider that idea. The Freehold is under our protection as are you, and I cannot allow you to assail them.”

The men laughed, and Kane did not like the sound of it. The harshness told him they would be just as happy to kill the Pack as to kill the militaristic Amazons. He kissed the back of Barbarossa’s neck, but Niccolo pulled his quiet Prius up and parked it beside Barbarossa’s bike.

“May I remind you, your eminence, that besieging forces almost never take cities? Especially deeply reinforced cities, situated on high ground with their own water and food supply?” Niccolo ran a hand through his unruly red curls, looking very uneasy to be speaking to a foreign leader. He’d been a history buff Before, and chosen the name in honor of Machiavelli. With his encyclopedic knowledge of battles and tactics, Barbarossa found him very useful, but his bookish shyness still made him nervous about speaking around others.

“We have a solution to that.” Behind the leader, several men laughed again. “The base was well equipped.”

Barbarossa tensed under Kane’s hands. Kane had advised him some time back to secure the Army base on their border. The remaining soldiers there had cleared out as many corpses as possible, and had it operational to a small extent. But there weren’t many of them, and it looked like they were either trafficking in excess weapons or they had been wiped out.

“My lord,” whispered Kane, “maybe we should go along.”

Barbarossa nodded. “Could you use another twenty in your war band? We can keep up, and most of us can fight.”

The Normanites discussed it, some vehemently against it to judge by the shaking of their heads, others neutral, some for. At last the Ubar held up his hand for silence. “We can use another twenty. Those who do not please us, are with child or are too young or old will be given to your band to sell to the farmers. The rest are ours, since you have no use for them.” Dylan didn’t like the wicked grin that went with that statement.

Barbarossa nodded again. “Done!” He motioned for the pack to fall into the column.

Ryder brought his bike in close, until Kane feared for his leg. He held still, knowing it was a test of his fearlessness.

“What are you doing?” he demanded from Barbarossa.

“Something we should have done a while back. Tell the men to take a defensive perimeter around the army. Make sure they stay fifty yards out from the Amazon barrier. Pass the word, subtly.” Barbarossa never took his eyes off the road.

Ryder nodded. He swerved off, working his way along the whole column from Big Red to where Spike and Nails rode double on an underpowered Yamaha. Kane held onto Barbarossa, and hoped his lover knew what he was doing.

They reached the Freehold at mid-afternoon. Shrill whistles along the last three miles had told them the Amazons knew they were coming. The men broke into a loud marching song when they saw the fortress atop the low hill.

Kane hid his face against Barbarossa’s back to cover his laughter when he realized what they were singing. Let them take his shaking shoulders for fear or upset. They were singing a song from an old cartoon version of the Lord of the Rings. He felt tears on his cheeks from stifling the laughter.

Barbarossa pressed his fingers reassuringly, mistaking his amusement for upset. Kane decided to explain later. They circled the gates of the Freehold, gunning their engines. Barbarossa held the wildpack back, forming a perimeter.

“We come. You will open the gates. We command it. You are ours!” the Ubar bellowed.

“Oh, that’s going to work,” Kane said and heard Barbarossa snort.

Loud female laughter rolled through the whole valley, high and piercing. General Prince, a tall woman Kane remembered seeing on several occasions, stepped to the speaking horn at the gate and said, “Oh we are? Come and take it, if you can. Even if you should, not one woman will remain alive in the fortress for you to plunder.”

The Normanites cat-called and swore in their own argot from the books. They began unpacking one of the trucks and took out a long box that made Kane suck in his breath. The Freehold wasn’t designed to stand up to a rocket launcher.

General Prince called down, “In fact, if you are not out of our valley by the count of five, it will go hard with you.”

The men kept laughing and working. The General counted over the speaker. And Barbarossa had his men back up another ten yards. Kane wondered what he knew that the invaders didn’t.

The heat started in his groin. The cage around his cock grew warm, uncomfortably warm. Kane sucked in his breath through his teeth as his skin started tingling.

Barbarossa turned around. “Boy?”

“It’s getting hot, my lord.” He hissed as the cage burned. “Really hot.” He whimpered and tried to not throw himself off the bike. Barbarossa backed them up a few more feet and the sensation ceased.

Around them, the Normanites screamed and tried to make their escape, only to find the wildpack had them hemmed in. They tried to fight their way out, one daring man even scrambling up and across Big Red’s catwalk. Two rushed Barbarossa, and Kane drew back at the sight of the blisters on their faces.

“Let us go, Rider, let us out,” they shouted, trying to steer around the motorcycle. When they could not pass, they tried shoving it over. Barbarossa gunned the engine and ran them down. Kane wanted to cover his ears at the sounds of breaking bones. They lay in the range of the heat weapon and screamed as more blisters raised on them. One man’s skin charred on top of a blister, and it exploded in a shower of liquid.

Kane looked away. He saw other Normanites engaged with members of the wildpack. The Pack was not letting them out of the containment area, if they could help it. A number of wounded men lay on the grassy area before the gates, screaming and writhing as blisters raised, charred and erupted. One lay still, no longer even screaming.

“Come back, when you can take the heat!” the General called after the fleeing men. “Keep it on the ones left behind. We’ll use their corpses for fertilizer.”

More of the shrill whistles from the trees told Kane the Amazons were in pursuit of the ones who had run from the heat. One of the men Barbarossa had run over reached up an arm to him.

“Get us out, man.” He screamed and blood-flecked foam sprayed from his lips. “Don’t let the bitches cook me alive. I’ll—!” He shrieked as more pain wracked him. “Please!”

Barbarossa sat unmoved. “No mercy. This is justice for a rapist like you who calls himself a man.”

It all came clear for Kane then. There must be a treaty between the wildpack and the Freehold, in case of just such an occurrence. He watched, wanting to look away, but feeling someone should bear witness, as thirty men, in various stages of injury, cooked alive.

“Microwave generator, commonly called a pain ray,” Barbarossa said over his shoulder. “They were getting popular with police forces Before. I knew the General had one. I doubt she can keep it going much longer, though. Not sure what kind of power source she has.”

As if on cue, the few men still moving slumped bonelessly to the grass in relief. Kane guessed the ray was off. A dozen women in body armor with machined metal spears came out of the gate. He wondered why they weren’t carrying guns.

As the wildpack watched, their hands very carefully in full view, the women dispatched the Normanite invaders. One, a woman with skin the color of antique leather and her natural hair controlled by a row of braids with shells worked into them, looked at Kane and smiled. Her eyes were a startling blue.

Once the women had gone back inside, the wildpack made their way to the gate.

“General,” Barbarossa called, “I have help for you.”

“And I need help from you as well, Lord Barbarossa. My war parties are out to eradicate Ar. They will kill all males past the age of twelve and return the women here. You may have the little boys to pass along to other settlements. We have done a gruesome day’s work, but a needed one.”

“That we have, General. I have a pair that requested we bring them here.” He beckoned, and Tiberius swung down from the cab of Big Red and went to get the women out of the trailer. “The usual transportation fee will be helpful to us.”

“You shall have it. And it is spring again. We have learned that our pagan neighbors have a good idea about synchronizing births. So we would request donations, for which we will pay. My people have chosen which men they would prefer.” After a pause she said, “Send your boy to the gate. We need to borrow him.”

Barbarossa nodded. Kane tapped his shoulder. He leaned back and whispered, “We’ve donated several times before. A lot of the men have Amazon daughters.” He nudged Kane off the bike. “Go get the box; you’re obviously safe to them.”

Kane strode to the gate, suddenly aware of how bare the chaps left him. He tried to focus on the fact he was caged and on a mission for his lord. The pretty black girl he’d seen earlier handed him a box with capped specimen cups, each labeled with a wildpack member’s name. He blinked to see his own on a purple capped cup.

“Can you be taken out of the cage? Your eyes are gorgeous.” She gave him a shy smile.

Kane nodded. “But I’m short,” he protested. She stood a few inches taller than he did, or maybe it was just the halo of dark hair. She was beautiful, and for an instant, he wished he liked women.

“That’s fine,” she said. “Now shoo, get them out and bring me back one.”

Kane distributed the cups, with rueful shrugs at the men who were not selected, and walked back to Barbarossa, staring at the cup in his hand.

“She’s a lesbian, you know,” Barbarossa said. “They are all bi and lesbian. So don’t kiss her or I’ll be jealous.” He took the cup. “Shall we find a private place to do this?”

Kane looked around at the other men, some masturbating, some being handled by partners, all in full view of the women. “Yes, please, privacy would be good.”

Barbarossa led him into the forest, just far enough into the underbrush to be away from prying eyes. He seemed to be looking for something. Finally, he led Kane right to the foot of a tree and swung up onto a broad, low hanging limb. “Come on up.”

Kane climbed up and settled on the branch beside him, the bark scratchy under his ass. Barbarossa pulled him in close to his side.

“It’s beautiful out here. I could just sit up here all day, listening to the different birds and holding you.”

Kane smiled up at his lover. Out here, he didn’t have to be Barbarossa, terror of the roads. He could be a man stealing a few minutes with his beloved.

“Put your jacket under your butt and your back to the tree,” Barbarossa said after he squirmed a couple more times. When Kane had settled astride the branch, Barbarossa took off the cage. Kane blinked at the sudden lightening at his crotch. He felt really naked now. Barbarossa set the cup and cage in easy reach.

“I’m sorry, my lord. I didn’t know they would skip you.”

Barbarossa leaned in to kiss him, and then tapped his mask. “They always do. For all they know, I’m an ogre.”

Kane gave a playful growl which turned into a sigh when Barbarossa’s hand closed over his cock. “Do you--” he sucked in his breath as Barbarossa stroked him. “Do you want me to suck you?”

“Tonight. Right now, you have a job to do. Think sexy thoughts.”

Kane gave a soft laugh at that. “The sexiest man in the whole world has his hand on my cock. What’s hotter than that?” He leaned in for a kiss. “Have I told you how much I love you recently?”

Barbarossa caught his head with the other hand and held him in tight for a long hard kiss, his hand never stopping on Kane’s cock. “Not recently enough.” He jerked Kane back by his hair for another kiss, one with a lot of teeth in it, his hand rough because Kane loved it best that way.

“I’m sorry.” The apology came up strained as Barbarossa settled into his favorite rhythm. “I do, you know.” He panted, feeling his belly start to knot. “My love.” Now his thighs flexed around the tree limb as Barbarossa’s hand became unendurable. He was going to explode. “My life.” His balls drew up and Barbarossa let go of his head and grabbed the cup. “Amazon baby. Coming uh-uh-up!” Kane bumped his head on the tree trunk in staccato bursts when he came and saw stars. He came down, and saw Barbarossa had caught everything neatly and was capping off the cup.

“Perfect.” Barbarossa smiled at him, set the cup out of the way and kissed him. “We can’t let that get cold.” He handed it to Kane and picked up the cage. “Back in you go.”

“Of course, love.” Kane felt normal once the iron was fastened around his genitals. He looked at the cup and its contents. “What happens to the boys?”

“They use a centrifuge and only conceive girls. Unsustainable, of course, but we’re still trying to settle in. The settlements that have a good balance will survive. Places like this will change or die.”

“As Ar did.”

Barbarossa nodded and climbed down. Kane handed down the cup and followed. Back on the ground, Barbarossa swept him into a long hug and kissed his whole face.

“My sweet pet. Let’s get that to the lady who needs it.”

Spike let me ride behind him while Nails rode behind my master. They’re kinda weird. They’d been white-power punks Before, and act like they’re superior to most of the pack. They also act like they’re the toughest guys in the group. Ivan and Yosef may be twice their age, but I’d bet on Ivan’s side in a fight.

He flinched a little when I tucked up close, and I checked to be sure I hadn’t gotten him with the cage.

He told me I was all right, but to not press into his back. Nails likes to play very rough, was how he said it. Then he grinned and mentioned that he played just as rough.

I had a really bad feeling all morning as we traveled. The boys played rough, and they were going to play rough with me. Barbarossa would get me back in one piece, but I’d be a little sore, I was guessing.

We did the usual “pulling off for a break” routine. Pretty sure that’s not fooling anyone, diary.

Spike is rough, but not bad. He spanked me a little while he fucked me. Nails didn’t even go for fucking me at the afternoon break. He went right to fisting.

I can’t handle that, diary. Not without a lot of lube. He had some lube, but not enough. He hung up on his knuckles, which is where I am almost always too small, and tried to force it.

I screamed, embarrassingly enough. I screamed like I was being ripped in two. I wasn’t. It just felt like it. If this is what Spike likes, I see why he stays with Nails. Nails has big hands.

But I ended up getting rescued by Vlad and Bokassa. They took me into the Prius, made me lay on my stomach in the back and Vlad checked me over. He said I’d live, that the bleeding was just superficial.

I can handle superficial. But I can’t sit, right now. Not for a day or so until Truman clears me. So I’m on my stomach in my master’s bed, and he can’t even do anything. Spike and Nails are on latrine duty for the next month, Barbarossa says. Payback for hurting me, with a side of extra payback for his having me in his bed, looking all fuckable and not able to do anything.

Well, we have them in a fight. I guess that’s the important thing.

Barbarossa told him the circuit of the settlements took just about three months to ride. There were fourteen, even if Settlement Thirteen was no more than a burned out ghost-town where the Pack always stopped for a relief break. Barbarossa was hoping to add a settlement soon, because thirteen real stops was starting to make the men nervous. Dylan understood why the route took so long as they arrived in the first.

They camped outside the town, setting up in a meadow. The next morning, they rode in early, just as everything was opening up. It was market day, and all the stalls were clustered around the courthouse square. Some of the old Before stores still had goods left, and others held new, hand-made goods. They made a slow circuit of the square, helmetless and on display.

Dylan clutched the sharp barbed wire of the sissy bar, since his hands were cuffed behind him, and held on to the bike with his knees. He tried not to stab the soft skin of his inner thighs on the sharp spikes that covered the cock-cage.

Barbarossa parked in front of the courthouse and swung off his Harley. He opened Dylan’s jacket, so all could see the words “Barbarossa’s Bitch” written across his chest in bold letters from a marker. Two of the pack settled his chair at the head of the stairs, and he left Dylan to go sit in it.

Dylan watched the settlement folks. Some of them left, but most approached various members of the wildpack. A young man and woman came to White and showed him a set of rings. Dylan heard them say they needed a fast wedding that was from neither’s church. White smiled and grabbed Leonidas and Attila as witnesses.

Ryder began going through a satchel and calling out names. As each person approached, Ryder handed him something. Dylan realized it was a mail delivery.

He watched two men go up the steps to where Barbarossa sat. They scowled all the way up. He couldn’t hear the argument, or what they said to Barbarossa. Nor did he hear what Barbarossa said in return.

But both men nodded slowly and shook hands. They each set a large jug and a bushel basket at Barbarossa’s feet and went down the stairs together. Dylan saw fresh corn in the baskets and smiled. Dinner would be good tonight. He wondered if there would be butter.

Mostly, he watched the people. The children and young women were kept away from the bike where he sat. A couple of brave boys came up for a closer look and then ran away before their elders could shoo them off. Husbands turned their wives away from the sight of him in particular, wearing only the chaps, jacket and boots. He saw longing on the face of one young man and suspected he would see the youth in the wildpack someday.

Dylan wondered if it would always be like this. He glanced down at his caged cock, on display for the town, and blushed a little. He didn’t like being shown off. He supposed he would get used to it, since he expected Barbarossa would be making a show of him at every settlement. That was going to be pleasant, going back as a fuck-toy to places he’d been barred from for being gay. He was going back as Kane, Barbarossa’s Bitch, though, not as Dylan the Wanderer.

His mind made up, he settled in to watch and wait. He waited through the next two days in the settlement, and then another day of riding. Barbarossa didn’t let the pack travel any faster than thirty-five, both to save fuel and to keep from hitting something. The deer were thick and had lost their fear of the roads and cars.

The next settlements were much the same: mail deliveries, weddings, judgments, collection of the tribute, and taking of orders. Some places had trouble with raiders—not other packs, but a few men unable to make a living other than by preying on the settlements. Barbarossa and his men hunted these with the enthusiasm of terriers hunting rats in a barn.

Dylan hated those stops. He was always afraid one of the pack would get hurt. The wounds they did receiver were superficial, easily reduced with hot water, salve and bandages. But Dylan remembered what happened one time when he hadn’t paid attention to a cut and had almost lost his finger. If it hadn’t been for an abandoned, mostly intact pharmacy and him finding the Physicians’ Desk Reference, he probably would have. White and Truman made sure even the smallest injury was treated at once.

Dylan watched everywhere, learning what he could, although no one would talk to him. He saw the crosses all over everything, and Bible verses painted on every empty house and billboard at Settlement Eight. He watched the women there, with their almost Amish dresses, long-sleeved even in high summer, and kerchiefs covering their long hair. The women of Six were freer, wearing anything they chose, some choosing to wear almost nothing. More than one woman at Six went topless, wearing only a flowing skirt. Pentacles with crosses in the center marked the buildings there, and paintings of Jesus and Mary Magdalene shared space with paintings of an antlered man and a woman with flowers in her hair.

Settlement Five had the usual complement of errands and Dylan sat through them, chained to the bike and on display. Five was nothing special, just farmers and some craftsmen. No religious fanatics, which was good. A pretty woman in a new-looking dress, carrying a baby noticed him, stared a moment and then came to him.

“Dylan?” she asked, unsure of her identification. He looked up and smiled. Motherhood suited her well. She relaxed at the sight of his face.

“Hello, Missy. Let me see the baby, please?”

“Her name is Hannah.” She unwrapped the light blanket, to show a tiny, squinched up baby, with bare peach fuzz hair, asleep. Dylan smiled.

“She’s brand new, isn’t she?” He shrugged his shoulders, showing his bound hands. “I’d hold her if I could.”

“A month old. She’s real healthy, hungry all the time. Bob, that’s my husband, adores her. He can’t wait until we have our own, though. You’d like him, I think... oh not like that, but he’s nice. Treats me real well.”

“I’m glad. She’s going to be pretty. And I’m glad they gave you a good man. You take care of yourself, okay?”

“Dylan?” she stepped closer, and gestured at the cage. “Does it hurt?”

He smiled again. “It was uncomfortable at first. Now I feel naked without it.”

“Are you happy?” She traced one finger along the healed scars on his cheek. “Is he good to you, or is it all awfulness?”

After a second of thought, realizing what she was seeing and how horrid it must look, Dylan nodded. He hadn’t considered his happiness with the current situation, only his survival. But riding with the wildpack left him free. He could be exactly who he was, do what he wanted. And as long as he took care of Barbarossa, all was well.

“I am. I love him, Missy. Even when he does this.” He rattled the handcuffs against the sissy-bar. “Maybe because he does this to me. You be good to your man and take care of the baby.”

“I wish it was us living here together.” Her mouth turned down and she looked ready to cry. Dylan wished he could comfort her. Sometimes he missed being looked up to instead of being the bitch.

“No, you really don’t. Bob can love you. I can’t.”

A tall, weatherbeaten man in overalls ambled over, a sharp look on his face. He might have been any age between thirty and fifty, Dylan couldn’t tell.

“Don’t you know these men are dangerous, girl?” he asked Missy as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, moving her a step away from the bike. Dylan liked his protectiveness. He caught the way the man glanced to be sure the baby was all right, too. Her Bob really was as good as Missy said he was.

“I knew him, before he was in the pack. He can’t hurt me, see? He’s bound. I wanted to show him the baby.” Missy gave her husband a smile, cuddled little Hannah closer and let Bob move her another step away before he turned his attention to Dylan.

Bob looked him over, taking in everything from the healed marks on his face, to the words on his chest and the cock cage. “You’re Dylan, aincha? Gonna name our boy after you for taking good care of my sweetie back then.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Glad you did, but you won’t be seeing her again. Say your good-bye and come on here, sweetheart. I need to know if you can cook this.”

Missy bent in for a quick peck of Dylan’s marked cheek. Her eyes glistened. “It’ll be all right. I love him, Dylan. Love your man, too.” She hurried away after her husband to a farmer’s stall.

Dylan settled on the bike, enjoying the late summer sun and feeling all was right with the world. Missy was fine and had a good man. The baby was strong and healthy. He was fine and had a good man. Maybe there would be some sort of melon with dinner tonight.

Dear Diary, this is the story of what happened after the world ended. It felt like someone should keep a record, and I’m as good a person as any.

Yesterday, August 12, the world ended. I know that sounds melodramatic. But the best guess estimates, on what media was still up and running, are that about ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of the population is dead. I’m kind of amazed at how many people still went to work yesterday and today. I didn’t bother. I’m too busy trying to get the hell out of Dodge. But God or whoever bless the folks that showed up at the radio station this morning. Television is out, of course, except for the pre-programmed movie channels. Most of the internet is still up, so I helped myself to a long session at the local community college, using their printer and most of the paper I could find. There’s a lot of primitive skills we’re going to need just to survive, diary. I printed them while I could. There’s still power and water, but I don’t know for how long. Pretty soon the grid will overload and break down somewhere, and no one will be there to fix it, So when it tries to switch over to the other breakers, those will blow too.

I can’t stay here. Topeka gets too damn cold in the winter, when the winds howl in from Colorado. And a hundred and twenty-five thousand rotting unburied corpses in a Kansas summer is going to get pestilent faster than I’d like. It’s already starting to smell.

So, in short, we don’t know what happened, but it happened fast. I expect it was some government bug that got out of hand. I don’t know why I’m alive and nobody else I know is. But it’s definitely time to head for farming country. It’s going to be a long hungry winter. And someone is going to remember that humans are animals too, animals who much slower and have fewer natural defenses than most things we hunt.

Welcome to After the Apocalypse.

Kane stared at the map laid out on the table. “This is our problem settlement,” he said, pointing to one on an outlying spit of land that thrust into the neighboring territory. “Three raids in two months, my lord. It has cost us a hundred gallons of fuel and three men in its defense.”

“Can we negotiate with them to buy it off of us?” Barbarossa asked

“Negotiate?” Ryder sounded horrified. “My lord, surely we can sweep in, destroy them and take their territory for our own!” Kane had learned that Ryder would always advocate the most violent solution to any problem.

“Hold your tongue. It’s better suited for a cock than for council, boy.” Barbarossa returned his attention to the map. “Settlement Fifteen, stuck right into their territory as if we’re fucking them. No wonder they want us out. Remind me why we defend them?”

“Glass, my lord. Glassworks and a smelting plant. Not to mention the best diesel repair shop in our territory.”

Barbarossa settled in his chair, his mask showing nothing. He closed his eyes and Kane knew he was thinking of the fact their fleet included a semi and several other diesel vehicles. Glass and metal were important for the repairs, but a mechanic was more valuable still.

Ryder paced, the nervous energy of youth still burning hot in him. Kane stared at the map some more. Lincoln’s territory wasn’t a big one. Lincoln controlled it with a wildpack of ten. Barbarossa’s wildpack numbered twenty-three. They could easily claim the territory if they wanted it.

“My lord, Ryder may be right. It’s only six more settlements, another hundred and fifty miles of riding on the rounds,” Kane offered. “If we take Lincoln, most of his pack will fall into line.”

Barbarossa’s eyes snapped open, cold blue hardness against the black and gold leather. “So easily? If I fell, would the lot of you follow my killer so easily?” He looked around at the scowling faces and smiled, slowly. Dylan could see a plan already forming. “Ryder, Redmond and Attila, I want you to seek out Lincoln. Tell him to meet us at Fifteen in two weeks. We will negotiate. If luck holds, we will have new brothers or a battle. Either way, we will expand.”

Redmond stared a moment and nodded. “Aye.” Ryder and Attila looked a bit startled at being send on the mission.

“Ryder, you will lead this errand. You have chafed with desire to prove yourself a leader. This is your chance. Redmond is along to aid you, not to lead.” He smiled. “Good evening gentlemen. I suggest you leave at first light. Now, everyone out except Kane.”

Kane distinctly heard Ryder mutter “Cain the cunt” under his breath as he left with the two other senior leaders.

“The boy grows more troublesome by the day,” Barbarossa sighed. “I should have you wrestle him to the ground and fuck him in front of the pack. It might calm his heat. I hope letting him take this will settle his place more firmly.”

Kane came back and knelt beside Barbarossa’s chair. “If you think I could win, my lord.”

“I’m not sure of it. I went to some small trouble making sure you would not be considered a threat by the rest of the pack.” His fingers traced over the scarred letters on Kane’s ass. “Ryder is a full-fledged member. He has earned his marks and his own bike. If you beat him, he would hate you forever, and the rest of the pack would see you no longer as my fuck-toy but as a new and dangerous rival.”

“Would they not see me as a member? Is that not how one joins?” Kane looked up at his owner, knowing he was about to step on dangerous ground. “I want my marks. I don’t have to have my own bike or car, but I want my marks and I want to stand among the Pack as a member and not as a toy.”

Barbarossa jerked his face up. “You are a toy, have you forgotten? You’re my toy until I tire of you and break you.”

Kane kissed the inside of his arm. “I want more. And you won’t break me, not ever.”

Barbarossa yanked him back by his hair until Kane’s neck screamed at the position. “What makes you think that, bitch?”

“Because I love you.” He hadn’t meant to say it like this, or at all, really. He’d known since the day Barbarossa had taken off his mask, but in a group like this, love was too heavy a piece of baggage to haul around.

“Seal the tent.” Barbarossa shoved him away. “Hang out the sign and seal us in. Those bastards don’t need to watch.”

Kane set the stake in front of the entry, the one with the bright red circle, telling anyone who was considering a visit not to disturb them. He zipped both layers of the tent and put out the lanterns. He didn’t mind when Barbarossa fucked him in public, but he had a suspicion this time was supposed to be different. He hoped it was just a fuck. Maybe he’d stepped over the line and he was going to get killed. Somehow, he didn’t think so.

Barbarossa lay naked on the large rope bed, everything off. His boots and pants and the spiked codpiece all sat in a chair, waiting for morning. The chest harness hung from one bedpost and the mask from the other.

Kane shed his chaps and boots and lay down beside him, the iron cage around his genitals still in place. A few deft twists of Barbarossa’s fingers and that joined the mask on the bedpost.

“I’ll put it back on in the morning,” Barbarossa promised. “Do you mean it?”

Kane nodded in the darkness. “Yes. I have for a long time. It just never seemed the right time to say it.” Something made him add, “White knows.”

“Ah, our father confessor knows all.” Barbarossa stroked his hair. “You love a man who keeps you on display, has carved his name into your ass, and treats you like his dog?”

Kane tipped up and kissed him on the jaw, feeling the stubble of a day’s hard riding. “Yes.”


“Perverted and proud, lover.” Kane stole a kiss of Barbarossa’s mouth this time.

“Brave little thing. Standing up to Ryder, demanding your marks from me.” He swatted Kane then dragged his fingers over the scars on his ass. “What if I say these are all the marks you get? Never a member of the pack, only my bitch?”

“Then that’s what I am. I want to be more. You let me advise you in council meetings, and surely that’s not the norm for a fuck-toy?”

“I’m Lord Barbarossa. If I want to take advice from a pig, I will, and they will do as I say.” He rolled Kane onto his back and loomed over him. “As will you.”

“As will I,” Kane agreed easily.

Barbarossa came down for a kiss, hard and punishing, reminding Kane who was on top, always and forever. Kane opened for it, welcoming the violence and the sensuality of it.

It was a most uncomfortable day today, diary. We rode into Settlement Fourteen. The locals call it Ar. They’ve taken a series of fantasy books as their world-guide. And it’s not a pretty fluffy unicorn series either. I read a couple back in the day.

Let’s tell it as it happened. We rode in, past small houses, and very nicely tilled fields. We saw a lot of workers in the fields, all women, all naked except for large straw hats. The Pack was on edge before we even got to town.

They’d cleared away all the Before stuff, made houses that were more like round huts, and had a well in the center of the village. My first thought was religious nuts, and then I remembered the naked women in the fields.

There were more naked women everywhere, all wearing metal collars. They carried water, worked over cooking fires and in gardens and mended things, clothes and leather. The men patrolled, like jailors or overseers, and sharpened weapons or made arrows.

We saw one man stop a pretty girl, of maybe twenty, who was carrying a water jug, knock the jug from her hands and rape her right against the wall of the house, in full view of us and the other men and women. Barbarossa went all tense at that. I could almost hear his teeth grind.

The girl was left crying with her spilled water jug as the man went on about his way, as casually as if he’d stopped for a leak. She picked up the jug and hurried back to the well. I squeezed my lord and leaned forward. “Let me off to help her, please, Master.” He told me I’d need to call him that for this settlement. I like it. It seems to fit, and reassures the Pack that I am just a toy.

He nodded and parked near the well. Before I could get off, he shoved me off and said, loudly, “Help the slave, bitch.”

I picked myself up and kept my eyes down. He’d warned me he would have to be cruel to me today, and that I should take nothing personally. It was all a show of strength for the locals.

They practiced a doctrine of male supremacy and strength. Gay was weak in their eyes. The instant one of the wildpack showed any weakness, they would kill us all. So I had to be treated as a woman, as a slave, for this stop. I was strong enough to bear it.

I got the girl’s water jug, and filled it. The thing must have weighed forty pounds. I asked, “Where shall I take this?”

She just stared at me, at the cage on my cock and words written on my chest. Then seeming to understand I was her equal and not a master planning a dirty trick on her, she led the way.

If I’d been straight or even bi, I would have been fighting the cage. She led me to the smallest of the round houses, on the edge of town. I set the jug safely by the hearth and she smiled.

Thank you.”

Are you all right?” I asked. Her wrists were red where the man had gripped them.

She shrugged. “Happens all the time. I’m just glad he didn’t break my jug. I’d get beaten for that.”

I kept my eyes down so I wouldn’t show the anger in them. “Take care.” I went back to where Barbarossa and the chief had settled into identical chairs, and knelt at my lord’s feet, across from a pretty brunette doing exactly the same thing.

I listened carefully. This place supplies us with way too much of our food to be eliminated. I wanted to burn it to the ground and kill every man in it. But as always, I knelt and took mental notes and listened.

They offered us food and home-made wine, but we rolled out after tribute was counted and judgments were rendered. There were no marriages here. No one received any mail. We didn’t even offer to trade any of the women into this life. My master has some scruples, and I am learning them as I spend more time with the pack.

It was a prosperous place, but I had to wonder. How safe was it for the men to let the women they enslaved and abused have charge of their food? I hoped one day, every woman in that settlement would poison her man’s food and they would take charge for a better society.

Dylan settled his pack on his shoulders and made sure the tarp was strapped down on his wagon. He patted the doorknob as he left the little house. The Settlement had been pretty good to him. He’d taught school, worked in the fields and helped get the power back on. But one unguarded look had told a vulnerable man what he needed to know, and Dylan had found himself hearing a closet confession from the head electrician.

“I’m not...” he began then looked at Dylan. “You’re gay, aren’t you? Help me. I don’t know—”

Dylan, alone for too many years, came to him, half dreaming of the possibility of a life with a partner, here in the settlement. Keith was a nice guy, his age.

He’d kissed Keith, a slow, sweet one that had left them both red and hot with desire. But Keith had fled, covering his mouth. Then he’d opened his mouth to anyone who would listen.

A single kiss. He mulled it over. One single kiss had ruined him in this settlement. He couldn’t be around children or other people or anything. So it was time to move on.

He towed the rugged wagon, with its stake sides and all-terrain wheels along the path under the moonlight. He’d walk tonight, pitch camp, and think about what to do in the morning.

Morning brought sunshine, birdsong, a cold water wash of his face, and the need for a fire. Matches were getting scarce, but he’d found a fire-starter back in the earliest days. Unlike many of the people, he’d raided the sporting goods store and could live fairly comfortably. He never unpacked his travel gear when he moved into a settlement, not anymore.

He rubbed the rod over the rough case and struck it off the blade to get a spark. Once it landed on the tinder, he blew until it burst into flame. A nice little fire for breakfast soon had his coffee pot perking away and some sausage and eggs sizzling in the frying pan.

He sat and stared into the fire, hoping it would give him some vision or guidance. There was no place in the settlements for a gay man. Even the Amazon settlement wouldn’t let him serve as gate guard and mouthpiece to the wildpacks or more male dominated settlements.

Ten percent of the world was still alive. There had to be other gay men somewhere. He expected they had all gone into the closet now that everyone was trying to get humanity back to being a going concern,

Maybe it was time to just set up shop in the woods as a mountain man. Dylan rubbed one hand over his jaw, feeling the narrowness of his face and the thinness of his stubble, and laughed at the notion. He was no mountain man. He might have enough woodcraft from his years as a Boy Scout to avoid starving or dying, but setting himself up as a hermit was ridiculous. He needed people.

For the next week, Dylan wandered. He had a rough map of the settlements he’d stayed in, none for more than two years. The only direction he hadn’t traveled was west, toward the . “Westward ho!” he announced, and picked up the handle of the wagon.

They roared out of the sunset, coming up from the river. Three motorcycles with four men on them boxed him in before he could get off the road.

“Traveler, with Before shit!” The pretty little boy gunned the engine of his bright purple and almost-too-big Kawasaki Ninja, as if to run Dylan down.

Dylan tried backing up, but a big black man on a Gold Wing touring bike, a lean one-eyed man riding pillion, cut him off. He held up his hands.

“I’m not armed. If you need my gear, take it. But leave me my wagon and life.”

“Coward.” The boy snarled at him.”We’re taking you and your shit.” He gestured and the men dismounted. Dylan held his breath as they grabbed him. The other man, a round-faced redhead with a goatee, stripped off his jacket and shirt. He looked at Dylan’s hands.

“What kinda work you do? You’re not a farmer.” The man had a bit of an accent, sounded sort of English. Dylan filed it for later. He traced Dylan’s palms that didn’t show all the marks of farming and hard labor.

“Teacher, electrician, jack of all trades. I farm when I can’t do anything else.”

“Smart. We like smart men.”

The leader tied the wagon behind his bike and the black guy locked Dylan’s hands behind him with handcuffs. They helped him onto the goatee guy’s bike and secured him with cords.

“Don’t get cute, traveler,” goatee guy warned.

“Don’t lay us over,” Dylan returned.

They rode back toward the river, at a very slow pace, the wagon rolling nicely along over the smooth road. Dylan braced himself when they stopped next to a semi with a cattle trailer.

The one-eyed man got him down and stripped away his hiking boots and jeans. “You don’t need those where you’re going.” His eye widened as he looked Dylan over. “Maybe I’ll get a taste of you.”

Dylan, still cuffed, balked when the black guy tried shoving him into the back of cattle trailer, only to have his arm jerked up behind him. “Be nice and have a good ride. I’ll even take the handcuffs off. Give me shit, and I will break both of your arms, and you can be a crippled beggar for the rest of your fucking life.”

Dylan went limp and cooperative. “I’ll be very good.”

“Damn right.” The big man got him aboard the trailer and shut the door. Dylan turned and protested.

“But the cuffs!”

“Back up to the door, and I’ll unlock them. Now, no funny ideas about rushing us. We don’t want to kill you, but we will.” He undid the cuffs when Dylan obeyed. “Good boy.”

Dylan went to the nose of the trailer, hoping the ride would be smoother there. A pretty naked girl, mountainously pregnant, sat there alone. Her blonde hair hung limp and greasy. Dylan settled beside her.


“I’m Missy,” she supplied.

“Should you be traveling so late?” he asked, gesturing at her belly.

She gave a hollow laugh. “I don’t have much choice. And pregnant women from outside a settlement bring a better price than other women, at least they always did back home. The leaders say it keeps us from getting too inbred.”

He knew that. His own settlement had bought several pregnant girls last spring and paid dearly for them in cheese and wool. “I’m Dylan. Jack of all trades.”

“Midwifing?” she asked hopefully. He hated to disappoint her.

“Only a few cows. But if you need me, I will.”

The semi started, and Missy held onto him for lack of other stable things. Dylan wrapped an arm around her. The truck rattled through the night, and Missy fell asleep leaning against him.

Visited the Amazons today, diary. A bunch of them had new babies and brought them out for the pack to see. The pretty black girl I saw last time came over to Barbarossa’s bike, carrying her own bundle.

Hello, Kane. Say hello to Antiope.”

Auntie Opie?” I looked down into big blue eyes and a wide pink toothless smile in her tan face. “Really?”

Mama scowled at me. “Antiope was a daughter of Ares, the war-god. When her husband Theseus, the one who slew the Minotaur, was ready to leave her, she swore she would kill the entire wedding party and all the guests at the second wedding. And all the Amazons attacked Athens, causing the Attic War.”

Wow. Remind me that this one doesn’t need to be marrying a man.” Barbarossa nodded, so I reached up, and her mama put her in my arms. I looked up at mama, and realized this woman had carried my baby and birthed her, and I didn’t know her name. She knew mine, seemed to know everything about me. She must have seen it on my face when I looked back up.

I’m Xanthe. Antiope is healthy. Thank you for giving her to me.”

I nodded and made a face to see Antiope smile again. She gurgled and grinned. “Thank you for letting me see her.”

We believe men have a place, just that it’s not living with women. You can see her any time your pack comes in peace.”

I tickled Antiope under the chin, and she gurgled at me again. I was a daddy. The thought was very weird. But the little girl was happy and healthy. I handed her back to her mother.

Be a good baby,” I told her. She blatted.

Xanthe cuddled her up and smiled at me.

Xanthe, if you need anything, let me know. The pack will bring it to you on our next trip.”

She smiled more. “I will. Thank you, Dylan.”

I blinked. My name sounded strange from someone else’s mouth after two years of being Kane. “You’re welcome. Any time.”

Barbarossa just watched it all and laughed when Xanthe walked away. “They have their hooks in you properly. Look at this band of sentimental daddies.” Around us, the other men held babies or played with small girl-children, some almost school age. Taza showed one girl how to braid her long black hair just like his. Her cheekbones were his, too. Malverde had a little girl of four sitting on the grass in front of him, and he was telling her a story. Redmond had three or four girls, all of them with red hair, no matter what their skin shade was, sitting and listening to him play guitar and sing them a song.

But no Barbarossa daughters,” I said, looking at him sadly.

One, and only one. But they call her Diana, and her mother tells her she made her out of clay and the goddess Hera breathed life into the statue. She’s being raised to be the next leader.” He glanced up to the walls where General Prince inclined her head at him. “So one baby girl makes Killer Kane into a ball of mush.”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

He pulled me close and kissed my scarred cheek. “Good boy. I never want my men to lose their softer feelings. We protect these people. We need to love them, not treat them like stupid sheep we have to wallop back into line.”

I thought about the two years I’d been riding. I thought of Missy and her man, and Xanthe, of the others I had met and visited with. They were my people. I helped care for them and they took care of me. It was the same relationship my master and I had.

Yes. They are my people, my responsibility, and some of them are my friends.”

Barbarossa kissed me in full view of the Amazon general. I thought I saw her smile.

Attila returned from Settlement Fifteen alone, riding slowly and bleeding a little. “Lincoln has Redmond and Ryder,” he told Barbarossa as White bandaged his arm. “They’re his hostages until the meet up. Full moon, at Fifteen.”

Barbarossa nodded and set his lips. “We ride for Fifteen!”

Niccolo nodded. “We’ll be there three days before the full. That will give you time to get the lay of the town and plan.” He smiled, a look that said he had indeed backed the right horse in this brave new world. Kane stayed close. Barbarossa would be in a foul mood tonight and attending his needs immediately would soothe it.

The wildpack mounted and headed south.

Two days later, Fifteen came into sight, a single chimney of the glassworks sending up smoke in testament to the crew working. Kane saw women hustling children off the street, and locking their own doors. Men working in yards moved onto porches to be nearer axes and guns.

Something had scared these people recently, and put the fear of wildpacks into them. They pulled up in front of the glassworks and the leader, a big man of about sixty, came out to meet the pack. He mopped sweat from the line of his white crew-cut despite the balmy day.

“It is not time, Lord Barbarossa. We’re not prepared to pay you. We thought we had another two weeks.”

Barbarossa held up a hand and got off his bike to shake hands. “Rest easy, Mr. Brown; we’re here to meet with the bandits who give you grief. And we’ll still carry out our end of the bargain, even if you’re not quite ready.”

The man relaxed and shook Barbarossa’s hand. “We’re pleased you’re here to take care of this.” His unspoken “and not to wipe us out” did not go unnoticed.

“We’ll need a place to stay here in town. Is the old armory in use?”

“No, but it doesn’t have water or electric yet. There’s a pump and an outhouse.”

“We have lanterns. It’s fine. We’ll be staying until the full moon. Then we’re meeting with Lincoln and his pack.”

Brown looked nervous again. Barbarossa nodded gravely. “I won’t lie. It could be messy. You’ll want to keep your people inside during the meeting. If we have to kill them all, we don’t want to deplete your workforce. But their harassment of your settlement will end.” He gave Brown a smile that Kane suspected was supposed to be reassuring, but instead just looked wicked. “We won’t be any trouble.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon getting settled at the armory. The pack staked out bedroll spaces along one side, and Kane set up Barbarossa’s bed in the farthest corner from the door. Some of the older men unrolled foam mats under their sleeping bags and blankets. Nobody gave them grief about going soft. The armory’s concrete was a lot harder than the ground they were used to.

White checked the kitchen and found the gas lines had been hooked to the stove. They either still had some natural gas or they were generating methane, like a lot of settlements did. The household waste, garbage and sewage alike, went into a composting tank, and the resulting methane had to be bled off lest it explode. It was used for gas stoves and some houses had gaslight, like they did in Victorian times. White immediately set to work, whistling for the first time since Kane had known him.

Kane lugged in Barbarossa’s table and chairs and set them up more toward the middle of the room. He hoped this would go off peacefully. The pack really had all it could manage riding the settlements they had now.

Just before dinner time, a timid knock came at the door of the armory. Kane watched Vlad answer it. Vlad and Redmond were their usual greeters, since both were small and inoffensive looking. Vlad talked to the middle-aged man for a moment and then beckoned Kane over. Barbarossa was deep in thought pondering the maps, so Kane went.

“Go ask White if he’s taking confession and when he’ll be celebrating Mass for this settlement.”

Kane headed into the kitchen and watched White set the industrial sized pan of casserole on the work table. “Father?”

White looked up. And gave him a smile. Kane loved the way he dimpled when he did that. “You only call me that when you’re asking about the schedule. I’ll be hearing confession after dinner each evening we’re in town and celebrating Mass on Saturday and Sunday. Warn the altar ladies no grape juice this time, it has to be wine. Oh, and honey cakes are not acceptable as a Host!”

“Right.” Kane looked at him. “Did they really try making honey cakes?”

“Aye and I told ’em we’re not pagan yet. Hurry and tell ’em for me.”

Kane did, and the visitor left just as White yelled for dinner. He took Barbarossa his plate and waited at his master’s feet for his share.

The evening was long and dull. Barbarossa didn’t like music when he was trying to think and snapped at Malverde for tuning his guitar. Malverde sneered, and put in his earbuds to listen to his music privately, since his cherished player had spent the day charging on its solar pack. Some of the men brought out cards or small travel games. Vlad and Niccolo settled into their usual game of chess, while Bokassa watched and distracted Vlad between moves with kisses and pinches. Niccolo’s Roland sorted through his pouches of herbs and double checked them against his book. The pack’s resident pharmacist knew what he was doing, but still lived in terror of poisoning someone.

Kane watched for a while, and then leaned against Barbarossa’ knee. He knew his master was getting angry by the tension in his fingers. They pulled his hair as often as they stroked it. Kane didn’t complain. He was Barbarossa’s safety valve. He’d probably get taken into the kitchen or the men’s room and fucked tonight, hard and brutal, just to ease his master. If Barbarossa was really pissy, he might get fucked in front of the whole pack. It wasn’t going to be lovemaking tonight. That was fine. Kane knew his place and this was one more duty his station carried.

He was almost dozing when White came back. The sound of the door jolted him awake to see a scared looking kid, surely not even twenty, trailing along in White’s wake. White still wore his black shirt and collar with the stole. Kane hadn’t seen him in street clothes, only the robes for Mass. He liked the look.

“Prince, I need a favor,” he said with no preliminaries. He pushed the kid forward.

Barbarossa looked up from the map, and Kane caught the look of annoyance on his face before it smoothed out. His lord nodded for the priest to continue.

Kane looked the boy over. Late teens, maybe early twenties. Thin, wiry, with bright red hair and too many freckles to be gorgeous, but he would always be cute. Big brown eyes looked around like he was going to faint from being in the same room with all these wild men. He walked with a limp and Kane saw a bad burn bandaged on his right arm.

“This is—” White looked at the boy and Kane remembered people didn’t give their names at confession.

“Owen, sir, your majesty, er…” He shifted his weight to his right leg and winced. “They’re trying to kill me.”

“Aye, giving him work that’s too hard and heavy and dangerous, without the protective gear to do it.” White gestured at the burn. “They plan to send his charred gay corpse home to Mama after some shift at the glassworks.”

Barbarossa looked the kid over again, and glanced at the men around the room who’d taken an interest in the visitor. “He’ll be eaten alive with us.” He looked at the kid. “Go home to Mama and get a job farming. It’s safer than the glass factory.”

“You think that’s any safer?” Kane was shocked to hear a contradiction coming out of his mouth. Barbarossa seized his hair and tipped his head back. “Master, I know the settlements, and I know I only got out with my life a couple of times because I was faster than the lynch mob. If they can’t do it quickly with the glass, they’ll do it slowly by ostracizing him.”

“He can ride with me. I’ll make sure he pulls his weight,” White said.

A slow smile crossed Barbarossa’s face and Kane saw his eyes dart to the priest’s wrist and the scar the man carried from a suicide attempt born of despair. “Yes, I think that just might work.” He looked around at the men and made sure he had everyone’s attention before projecting loudly enough that it echoed in the mostly empty armory. “This boy is White’s. Anyone who touches him might get something unpleasant in his next meal. Never fuck with the cook.” He laughed softly, and looked up at Owen. “Boy, don’t make me regret you.”

“No, your highness, not at all.” He looked at Barbarossa with deep curiosity and then down at Kane. His eyes went big when he realized that Kane was wearing only the blue sarong, the shape of the metal cage showing clearly through it.

White draped an arm around the boy’s shoulders and led him back to the billet he’d staked out near the kitchen door, a subtle show of ownership. “Come help me get out of this gear. I’m done with God’s work for the night, and need to get down to my earthly lord’s business. There’s bread dough to be made.”

Kane smiled up at Barbarossa. “Thank you.”

“He needs it.” He tightened his grip in Kane’s hair. “And I need you. The marks on the map aren’t going to move for all my staring at them.”

Kane smiled more broadly. “Anything you require, Master.” He glanced at where the new kid was folding the purple stole into a carved wooden box. White was already training him.

Barbarossa tugged him in by his hair and spread his legs. “You know what will do me best.”

Kane nodded, drew out Barbarossa’s cock and licked along the length of it. He was exactly where he wanted to be. He didn’t mind doing this with everyone else milling around, he just wasn’t keen on being bent over in front of people. Nobody would bother to watch, ignoring them as if it were some sort of private act. From the corner of his eye, he saw Owen turn as red as his hair and drop the little box. It thudded on White’s bedroll.

“Gently, lad. Try again.” White’s patient voice came clearly across the room. Barbarossa shifted so Kane could watch the small drama unfolding. Owen went to his knees, picked up the stole, collar and rosary. He left the box on the ground and folded the items in with shaking hands. He kissed the rosary before letting it slide through his fingers into the box. He closed the lid but didn’t get up.

“Do you...?” Owen looked up and trailed off, letting the question hang unfinished.

“Refusing love of any sort is the greatest sin. The old men in Rome who said otherwise know better now.” White stroked the boy’s hair and along the side of his face.

Kane swallowed wrong and gagged a little, but stayed down. When he recovered enough to glance back, White had sat down on the bedroll, and the boy was lying with his head in the cook’s lap. Owen was going to do just fine if the way White was stroking his hair and whispering to him was any indication. Kane returned his attention to Barbarossa’s cock and easing his master’s tension.

The next couple of days were quiet ones, and Kane found himself getting bored. Life on the road had a rhythm to it: arrival, making camp, working for the settlement, breaking camp and departure. There was always work to do. This waiting had no pattern, no work. The rest of the pack felt it, too. They rose late and surly and quarreled among themselves over trivial things. Barbarossa forbade any of the men to ride or drive, citing fuel concerns, and they were not allowed out in the settlement on their own.

Twenty-three restless men made the armory feel very small very quickly. Some, like Vlad and Niccolo, had mental resources to fall back on. Everyone brought in whatever games they had, mostly cards and little magnetic travel games from Before, but those wore thin. Spike and Nails wrestled incessantly, backing off only when someone snapped at them for being underfoot. Malverde had his music, and Taza had his panpipes, which were quieter than the guitar. White had left his drum in the truck out of deference to Barbarossa’s need for thought. There was always someone singing or playing an instrument, although they kept it quiet, or out on the front lawn if Barbarossa was being very surly..

Tiberius brought his portable DVD player out of the truck. It took hours to charge on the solar panel, but the movies were worth the wait and calmed the men. The driver’s collection was small, though, and they were soon nearly through it. Malcolm brought in branches from the trees between the armory and the privy, and taught anyone who wanted to learn the art of carving. Vlad found some paper, did a bunch of calculations, and gave Malcolm the dimensions to make a wooden flute. White dragooned Yosef and Ripper into the kitchen. Ripper acted almost as excited as White had at the prospect of a real oven instead of the brick job on the back of the pickup.

On the second day, Barbarossa allowed them a trip into town to shop for entertainment. He told them no more than two to a shop at any time. He took Kane along himself.

The stores were the usual mix of home-made goods and Before stuff. Barbarossa looked over the offerings and laid out scrip for sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and some very rare chocolate, up from Mexico. He loaded it all into the basket on Kane’s back.

“What are your hobbies, Kane? Do you have anything to pass the time?”

Kane smiled up at him. “Nothing that survived, Master. You are my job and my hobby and my whole world.”

Barbarossa cuffed him lightly. “Flatterer.” He looked over the racks of used books. There were some unused ones, but they were all as faded as the used. Someone had robbed the dead of their books, and put them out neatly, divided between fiction and nonfiction, alphabetized and all. Someone had put some care into them.

“Best book selection in five settlements,” said the lady behind the counter. She watched them warily, but without fear. Kane suspected she had a weapon behind the counter. “We’re also one of the few that still requires schooling for the kids, and the only public library outside University City. We gotta have people who can work the factory and understand it, and not just tend it by rote long after they forget the technology, like priests in some temple instead of actual workers.”

Kane smiled at her and looked over the racks. He’d never been a big reader back Before, preferring video games in his off hours. He picked up one thick novel with an elf on the cover. It looked like the previous owner had read it a few times.

“May I?” he asked. Barbarossa had a couple of slimmer volumes of his own.

“Absolutely. It’s two more days until the meeting, and we need something to do.”

They shopped most of the afternoon, and watched the rest of the pack to make sure they weren’t intimidating the locals. The boys were pretty good about behaving as they spread their scrip through the town. Barbarossa tried to be careful not to flood any one settlement with scrip, and never to issue more than the pack could back with actual physical trade goods.

Before each stop, every man’s share of goods was gone over. Each one was issued scrip against his share, and the goods were tagged. Leonidas issued new scrip only when new goods came in. The townsfolk could redeem the scrip on this visit, or order goods from other settlements, payable in advance, or hold it. Leonidas kept the books, and so far, there had been no trouble.

Some of the settlements used the scrip as a form of money, accepting it even from other locals in the stores. The shopkeepers liked the arrangement. In the first years, everything had been done by barter and work pledge, since anyone could easily have all the physical money they wanted. Because of the surplus, the physical money from Before lost all value, and their scrip became a limited issue form of currency that gave things value again and allowed shopkeepers to set prices instead of haggling over eggs and milk for made goods+.

Kane wondered sometimes if he had a share of the goods. He suspected he got part of Barbarossa’s share when his master issued him scrip to do the shopping with. He enjoyed that part of his duties. He hadn’t been cuffed to the bike for years now, but instead they trusted him to go out and help reprovision the pack.

One day he was going to ask to become part of the pack, officially, instead of just Barbarossa’s tagalong.

But that was not today, and he slogged back to the armory, well aware of every pound of weight he was carrying. He delivered the ingredients to White and Ripper, amid many hugs and much joy. There would definitely be something nice for dinner tonight. Owen stayed in the back corner of the kitchen, in what he clearly considered safe space, looking a bit overwhelmed by the intruders.

Kane passed the rest of the day reading and tending to his master. After dinner, which had included chocolate cake, something most of them hadn’t had in years, the whole pack lounged around, enjoyed a movie, and then let Taza play his pipes. The cake had been excellent, and Ryder not being there to get any had made Kane’s piece taste extra good.

There had been tea with dinner, too, and the caffeine had gone right through Kane. He kissed Barbarossa’s knee and left for the privy just as Taza finished a song.

He whistled all the way out, picking up the chorus of the folk tune about watching the Space Shuttle land, an infectious little ear-worm, completed his mission, and headed back. He hoped Redmond would stay with the bouncy stuff, he was kind of jazzed from the tea and chocolate.

Kane laughed at himself. A slice of cake and a glass of tea had him wired. He had drunk energy drinks like they were water Before, and his usual heart rate had hovered somewhere in nineties. If he wasn’t jittering, he wasn’t awake. A very changed world, but not one he’d trade. Not now that he had a man he loved and was free of most of his previous addictions.

The bag over his head and the clout behind his ear sent him into blackness before he stepped into the parking lot of the armory.

Kane woke up, his head still in the bag, and held very still. He was glad he wasn’t one of those who jerked awake. Voices, faint at first and then louder, came to him through the stuffy cloth.

“You stupid bugfuck idiots! You stole Barbarossa’s bitch?” The soft gullah slur on the words, turning the harsh insults softer, could only be Lincoln. He’d come up from the Carolinas, looking for better pickings and less race trouble. They’d all slid back in time, but some of the settlements were determined to regress as much as possible, at least when it came to people they didn’t like.

“Thought you could use a real hostage. He don’t seem too interested in negotiating for the two you got.”

The sound of a blow, a closed fist, Kane thought, and then footsteps, back and forth. He made himself not follow them. He was still asleep. His hands were tied behind him, his ankles were tied together, and his sarong was missing.

That left him bound, blindfolded, and naked in the hands of enemies. Enemies who didn’t dare kill him but didn’t want to keep him. He lay quietly and listened. He could hear more men moving around in the same room. The bag smelled overpoweringly of potatoes and dirt, and he couldn’t get anything from his nose.

He was lying on wood, he could tell that much. Concrete would have been harder. The floor was cleanish, not piled with leaves and litter, but not swept in the last couple of days either, by the feel of the grit. Ryder and Redmond were here somewhere.

“Well, let’s have a look at this little bitch, see what Barbarossa is on to.” Hard fingers flicked his cage and Kane decided it was time to be awake for his captors. He jerked and snorted, then pulled at his bonds and shook his head.

“Let me out of this!” he yelled. “I belong to Barbarossa, and he will not be happy!”

The men around him laughed, and one of them yanked the bag off his head. Kane blinked against the light, held his eyes shut for a moment and then eased them open. He was in a house, a big old one, probably the dining room. The light from the lantern on the table mellowed into something he could tolerate, and he looked at his captors.

“What’s your name, bitch?” Lincoln grabbed his hair and jerked him into a sitting position. Kane leaned against the wall, the headache of the western world forming behind his eyes.

“I’m Kane. I belong to Barbarossa.” Kane stole a glance at his feet. Just ropes. They hadn’t cut up his clothes. He saw one of Lincoln’s pack with the bright blue cloth over his shoulder like a sash.

“So your ass says.” Lincoln leaned in, his smile terrifying. “Tell me everything, pretty one, and we won’t send you back used.”

Kane took a deep breath, trying to decide what to say. He could tell Lincoln everything, and the leader might hand him over to the pack. He could lie his butt off, or he could say nothing. “In the beginning, the world was created. This made a lot of people very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move.” Or he could be a smart-ass and quote Douglas Adams. Damn his memory bank for paying out that half-forgotten bit, and damn his mouth for running away with it. If his hands had been free, he would have face-palmed.

Lincoln scowled, but three of the other men snorted laughter. Kane put on his most innocent expression and batted his big blue eyes, feeling like an idiot.

“Well, you did say everything, my lord Lincoln.”

Lincoln’s scowl exploded into a laugh. “I did, didn’t I? Very well, tell me what you know of the plan for the meeting tomorrow.”

“I know our baker has been making cookies for it. I know Barbarossa stares at the map a lot and talks to our history buff and our ex-military guy. He lets me sit at his feet and read, so I haven’t been paying attention.” He gave Lincoln a shrug. “If it comes to fighting, I’m the guy with the hot water and the bandages. If it’s negotiation, I’m just sitting there being naked and on display. I don’t do the talking.”

“You aren’t too swift, are you, boy?” Lincoln said.

“I don’t have to be. I give amazing head.” Kane smiled.

That did get him hit, a stinging slap that bounced his head off the plaster of the wall. Lincoln slugged the blonde guy, who was already sporting a bloody nose and rapidly purpling eyes, in the stomach, making him sit down hard.

“You brought this bitch into my camp. You take care of it until we give it back to its owner or kill it.” Lincoln raised his voice. “You all heard what Barbarossa’s bitch said. Any man who wants to prove that boast has my blessing. I don’t trust the little bastard to put his teeth anywhere near my cock.”

Apparently nobody else trusted him either. Lincoln’s pack staked out their billets and turned down the lanterns. It had been late when he went to the privy, and his own pack had been getting ready to sleep. Kane didn’t know how long he’d been gone.

He managed to tip over and lie on the floor, banging his aching head hard enough to see stars as he did. Ryder and Redmond were nowhere to be seen. They apparently didn’t merit red-carpet treatment as common hostages.

It was near dawn, the cold smell of morning in the air and the deep, thick dark that always presaged the first orange glow in the east, hung over the whole room. Kane startled awake when a hand covered his mouth.

He sniffed. It smelled like chocolate, like garlic and cooking. It smelled like White, but it was too rough, with callouses in the wrong places. Ripper or Owen. He kissed his awakener’s palm. A faint shaft of moonlight from the bay windows landed on the boy’s face and he smiled as he cut Kane free and massaged his hands and feet.

He laid one finger on Kane’s lips and held up a little dish with the other hand. Kane watched as he brushed some of the contents of the dish over the forehead of blond with the broken nose, leaving a dark mark. Kane nodded.

They weren’t going to kill Lincoln and his men. They were going to humiliate them. He suspected it was Taza’s idea, vaguely remembering stories of counting coup on enemies and the way that killing the enemy was the lowest form of warfare.

He dipped his thumb in the dish and brushed two of the sleepers. The ten men of Lincoln’s pack slept hard. Kane hesitated and managed to roll one man off his sarong. He crept to where Lincoln slept alone. He waited until Lincoln finished turning over and then traced a B on his chest.

Owen led him out of the house, closing the door silently behind them. He gripped Kane’s hand, and they ran for it. The house was on the outskirts of the settlement, on the opposite side from the armory.

They pounded through the night, the rutted asphalt harsh on Kane’s bare feet. The jostling made his head hurt even more, and he finally let go of Owen’s hand and veered to the side of the road and out into the trees.

Everything he’d eaten came back on him, and he covered the mess with leaves and dirt. He wiped his mouth, took a breath and a moment to wrap his sarong on, and then grabbed Owen’s hand again. They made it back to the armory without incident, just as the sky turned pink.

Bokassa on guard duty looked them over and smiled. “Go on in. Our lord is worrying.”

Owen pushed open the door of the armory, and Kane found himself on the wrong end of ten machetes and a pistol. He raised his hands as the weapons lowered.

“My boy!” He heard White’s overjoyed yell. “My fucking boy!” The cook burst out of the group and grabbed Owen. “Mine and you did it, lad. I’m so proud!” He took Owen in a bear-hug and spun them in a circle. The rest of the pack laughed, and Owen just looked overwhelmed but pleased with himself.

Kane hung his head as he walked to where Barbarossa sat, well away from the door. Pleased to be rescued, but burning with shame that he had needed rescuing, each step he took felt as long as the run he and Owen had made. He went to his knees before his master.

“I’m sorry I took so long getting back from the privy, Master.”

Barbarossa just looked down at him, the mask unreadable. One hand came down and traced the sore side of his face where Lincoln had slapped him. “Be more prompt next time. We need rest before the meeting at noon.”

Kane nodded. He let Barbarossa pull him to his feet and curled up on the floor at the foot of the bed.

“Get up here, you,” Barbarossa said, tugging his collar.

Kane came up and snuggled into the bed and Barbarossa clutched him in tight.

In a fierce whisper pitched for him alone, Barbarossa ordered, “Don’t you ever, ever do that again. Scared me to death, boy. Always take someone with you.”

Hot kisses scattered over Kane’s face, and he clung to his master, hearing the various sounds of kisses, touches and one of muffled yelps of pleasure from near the kitchen door. White must be rewarding his boy for a job well-done. He kissed Barbarossa’s neck and chest.

“Not tonight.” Barbarossa turned him to roll away and spooned up behind him. “Maybe later.”

Kane suspected that meant in front of Lincoln, but he didn’t care. He was home and safe and his master cared about him. That was all that mattered.

At noon, they met on the square in the center of town, each pack taking a side of the old courthouse lawn. Lincoln and his men dismounted and walked to the center. Two men each forced Ryder and Redmond to their knees, hands on their heads.

Barbarossa and his men had opted to play it cool. He got off the bike and kissed Kane, long and hard, a show for Lincoln. The rest of the pack sauntered over, smirking. Tiberius set out the curule chair and they waited. White took up position beside Barbarossa’s chair, and Owen knelt at his feet, dressed in only a scanty black sarong.

Brown thumbprints stood out very clearly on the foreheads of Lincoln’s pack. While Lincoln himself bore no obvious mark, Kane smiled, knowing it would be revealed when the time was right. He was pleased the thumbprints had even shown up on the darker skin of a couple of the men.

Barbarossa ambled toward the chair, with Kane on a leash behind him. He yawned loudly, his jaws stretching. “Pardon us. We had a very late night last night.” He looked at the thumbprint on each man’s forehead. “Is this a new fashion?” Kane knelt beside Owen, making it clear they were nothing more than the pack’s pets or toys.

“It doesn’t wash off,” Lincoln growled. “We don’t know what it is, but we all awoke with them.”

“You didn’t,” Thor said. “Were your sneaks too afraid to mark our leader?”

“Open his shirt,” Taza said, stepping up between Kane and Owen, and crossing his arms on his chest.

Above Lincoln’s heart, the dark brown B stood out on his light brown skin.“It’s called counting coup. Lord Barbarossa has allowed me to teach the pack some of my ways.” He pulled Kane’s and Owen’s hands out, to show matching marks on the thumbs. “It was not the warriors of our pack who did this. Our sex toys marked you up. They could have killed you, since one laid his hand on your heart as you slept,” Kane wiggled his fingers, “but that would have been... inelegant.” Taza smiled. “You are careless cowards, and anyone who sees the walnut juice marks on your faces knows it. The dye will wear off, but for now, you bear the marks of shame.”

Lincoln’s pack frowned and scowled. Barbarossa’s pack just snickered as the full import sank in. Barbarossa himself finally let out with a laugh that was the signal for the rest they could cut loose. Even Kane laughed. Then, he wrapped one arm around Owen’s neck and pulled him close for a kiss.

“I didn’t say a proper thank you.”

Owen just smiled back. Lincoln’s pack scowled more.

“You’re laughingstocks. Not to mention the fact I should just kill you right here and now for the stunt you pulled with my boy.” Barbarossa glared at Lincoln and all his men.

Lincoln appeared to have been expecting that. He snapped his fingers and a blond man with a broken nose and two black eyes stepped out of the line and walked to the middle of the open space between the packs before dropping to his knees.

“I did that, Lord Barbarossa. I thought my leader needed more leverage for the bargaining. My life is yours if you want it.”

Barbarossa ignored the man and looked at Lincoln. “Well trained dogs you have. But all dogs have a master, and the buck stops with him.”

“My man has offered himself in payment for daring to lay hands on your bitch, which he did without my orders. What more do you require? Your men back? They were simply your pledge that you would come.” He snapped his fingers and his men released Ryder and Redmond. The two men took their place with Barbarossa’s group.

Barbarossa considered the men before him. “We’ll let you live and patch you over, as the old motorcycle groups called it Before. Your men are accountable to you. You’ll be punished for any transgression any of them make. I’m sure you’ll keep the leash a bit shorter?” Kane watched him sweep the men, his eyes resting on each marked face. “Probationary period, one year. After that, you earn your marks or you die. Your territory is mine now. We’ll mingle packs and re-draw our routes to accommodate everyone.”

Lincoln’s men looked uneasy. Lincoln himself stared down Barbarossa and neither dropped his eyes. “And why’m I gonna let you boss me, white boy?”

“Because your other option is dying right here.”

One of the older men of Lincoln’s pack stepped forward, his tightly curled black hair going gray, one dark arm around a man young enough to be his son. The boy’s black eyes looked sullenly through his straight black hair but let himself be dragged along. “I hear you run a fair pack and that there might be more options for those of us who are getting too old to be nomads. Carlos and I need to settle down somewhere soon.”

“And I don’t feel like dying,” the boy added.

Barbarossa nodded and they made the walk across the empty green space. The effort of it made every step look like a mile. But they stood with Barbarossa’s pack soon enough.

The blond man still kneeling in the middle looked up. “I’d come if you’ll have me. I was wrong to lay hands on what is yours. It won’t happen again.”

Barbarossa beckoned him over. “No, it won’t.”

The man, clearly a less dominant sort and not wanting to show any more initiative, since that had gotten him into trouble, tucked himself away within the pack. Kane was half-surprised he didn’t drop to his knees alongside Owen, as submissive as he seemed.

Barbarossa looked back at Lincoln. Three more of Lincoln’s men came to the same conclusion as their brothers had. Now only three remained with Lincoln. The leader looked like he was still pondering. The other two looked restless, like they were considering a break. Lincoln held the third firmly on his knees by a grip in his brown and slightly wavy hair. The young man winced as Lincoln tightened his grip.

Barbarossa waited. The two remaining men on their feet argued long and quietly. Finally one broke and marched over to stand with Barbarossa. Kane watched Lincoln’s boy with great interest. The young man was fighting, squirming in Lincoln’s grip and trying to get free.

The other man made a break for the woods. Several of the men made to go after him, but Barbarossa held up a hand. “Let him go. He won’t make it long without supplies.” He looked at Lincoln. “And let him go, too.”

Lincoln shook his head. “If I die, I’m not going alone.”

“I am not your slave to be buried with you like you’re some old Pharaoh!” The boy twisted loose of Lincoln’s hold, leaving a chunk of hair in the leader’s hand. He dropped to his knees before Barbarossa. “My lord, I’m yours if you will have me.”

Barbarossa leaned forward and stroked his hair. Kane saw blood on his master’s hand. The boy had torn out his hair by the roots in order to be free.

“I will,” Barbarossa said. “Stand up. You’re a man here.” He beckoned Truman from the back of the group. “See to him.”

Only Lincoln stood, facing down thirty men and more. Kane watched a variety of emotions play over his face. Pride, fear, and resentment all warred with the dawning knowledge he was entirely alone.

“Tick tock,” Barbarossa said menacingly. Kane felt the pack stir. They would kill Lincoln without a second thought if he didn’t make up his mind in a hurry. He considered getting up and leading Lincoln over to the pack, but he doubted the leader would appreciate being treated like a shy child on the first day of nursery school.

Lincoln came to his decision and strode across. He stopped before Barbarossa and sketched a short bow. “My men have decided. As their leader, it is my duty to take responsibility for them. I would be honored to ride with you.”

Kane let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Barbarossa sat back, looking proud. Lincoln’s words had gone a long way toward reassuring him the man was not joining him for a shot at revenge later.

“Welcome, all of you. For now, you are part of Barbarossa’s wildpack. We will parcel out the new routing and then we’ll eat. For all of you probationary brothers, you are all free of the men who had any claim on you. You may stay with lovers, but none of you own anyone. As of right now, we have two pieces of property in this pack, my Kane, and White’s boy who has not been named. They’re the ones who marked you new guys. They did this on my orders, so there is to be no retaliation. None. Nobody touches them without permission.”

The others nodded. Barbarossa rose and led them back to the armory. White had left several roasts on slow heat and he grabbed Owen and Ripper for some hard kitchen labor. Barbarossa sent Kane along to help.

Things were changing. Kane had felt it in the air for a while now. But this would change everything. New brothers, new settlements and a new route to ride.

He kept quiet all through the work and meal. After dinner had been cleared away, Barbarossa and Lincoln beckoned the whole group to sit on the floor. Thirty men sat before them and stared at the table they had turned on its side to use as a map.

“We split into three groups. White and Owen, Ryder, Vlad, Bokassa, Driver and Thor ride with me. Lincoln, you will lead team two and your boy rides with you. Redmond is your second and you keep Junkman. Spike and Nails, Taza and Yosef, Leonidas, and Mike ride with you. Ivan leads the third pack. Truman is his second. Attilla. Tiberius, Old Man and your Carlos, Niccolo and Roland, D’Shawn, Malcolm and Malverde go with Ivan.”

Kane saw deep thunder on Ryder’s face. The boy craved power, but Barbarossa had kept him close. Ivan was ex-military, with an airborne tattoo on his back, and he was dead loyal to Barbarossa. The groups were a good mix. Barbarossa kept the cook and medic, the war-leader, and a semi driver. It looked like he’d parceled the same to the others. He’d tried to keep couples together, but everyone knew Attila and Leonidas weren’t working out, and this would just ease their split. Kane wasn’t sure he liked having his kidnapper, Thor, ride along with them, but he really wasn’t taking it personally.

After Barbarossa explained the new routes, they agreed to meet back every three months at the pack’s house in University City and take a measure of how things were working. Kane noticed that Barbarossa kept the Amazons, the university, and the beer on his own run.

It was going to be interesting.

Rode with Tiberius today. Big Red is really nice, diary. It has good air conditioning and a decent stereo. There’s nothing on the radio, except for twenty miles outside of University City, and all they do is the weather and news and some old music. He said some of the satellite radio stations still work, but he hadn’t bothered to get a set-up. Tiberius has a pretty good CD collection. Lots of country, which isn’t my favorite.

It was nice just to hear the old stuff, though. And he let me have a nap in his bunk, which was better than trying not to fall asleep hanging on to my master. Much as I love him, he does keep me up late.

Tiberius drove everywhere Before, all over the US and Canada, down into Mexico and even a couple of tours in the Middle East. I never met anyone who liked to talk so much. He’ll talk for hours, telling stories of where he’s been, what he ate, the girls, the boys (he really liked the pretty Mexican boy-whores) and the shooting. I like him, but I’m not sure how much to trust him. My master says when he sends me out to spend time with a pack brother like this, I should obey him like I obey my master. He reinforced that order a couple of times.

Tiberius felt me up and took a kiss. He’s sweet on Malverde, that hot Hispanic thing again, so I got off easy. I don’t trust Malverde at all. I mean, we’re all named for killers and other nightmares, but he’s the only one who took the patron saint of thieves and outlaws.

I get to ride in the Prius with Vlad tomorrow.

The new round was much shorter than the old, and they made each settlement about every eight weeks. Tribute was adjusted accordingly. Not everyone was pleased to see the new additions to the pack or the adjusted amounts.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” Kane heard one man shout as Barbarossa and his crew rode into Settlement Seventeen. The houses here looked pretty well-kept and freshly painted.

The council, three men maybe fifty years old, came to meet them. They looked at Thor and Driver. The trucker was a tough old bird, and answered to nothing else. He claimed he’d been born in the sleeper of a Peterbilt, cut his teeth on a thirteen-speed gearshift and been driving since he could reach the pedals. Kane wasn’t sure he even remembered his name most of the time.

The leader of the council bowed to Barbarossa. “We received word of the changes and the altered tribute schedule. We cannot meet the new schedule. We are a small settlement, and our wealth is very seasonal.” He looked terrified.

Seventeen had no major weaponry and had run out of ammo for their hand-weapons three years before. Most of the men carried farm implements, but they looked at the guns the wildpack carried with trepidation and fear. Their leader was telling a dangerous man something he wouldn’t want to hear, as they saw it. But the pack was much reduced, and Kane saw sly looks pass among the men that said they thought maybe they could take nine men in three motorcycles, a pick-up, a semi, and a Prius.

Barbarossa nodded. This had been discussed in the meetings before they sent out the messengers. Most of the settlements could handle seasonal tribute. Cutting a month off their prep time hurt.

“We knew when we changed the schedule that there would be difficulties.” Barbarossa turned off the bike, and the rest of the pack parked and shut down. He stood up and lifted a megaphone. “Ryder has the mail.” Ryder waved, three letters in his hand. Barbarossa continued. “Thor will handle disputes and judgments.”

For all that he had shown very bad judgment in kidnapping Kane, Thor had been steady as a rock and had a working knowledge of the law. He’d been a law clerk Before. Now, he looked like a post-apocalyptic Viking with his blond braids and braided red beard, half of his protective gear made out of license plates and tire treads. The folk of Seventeen knew him, and four were already lining up. He yanked a couple of boards carved with knotted animals from the back of Clarice, the semi, put them together in an x-shaped chair, and seated himself, ready to hear his people.

“Bokassa is our quartermaster. See him for goods. We honor Lincoln’s scrip for the next two visits, either for goods or for our scrip. After that, it is worthless.” Bokassa raised his hand, so that others would see him.

Barbarossa looked at White, who shrugged. “Not my parish, Prince. I don’t know ’em.”

“Any Catholics here?” Barbarossa asked. “Anyone needing a wedding?”

A couple of people shuffled and looked uncomfortable. But most just looked puzzled.

White took a breath and announced, “Mass will be sung at sunset tonight. Couples wanting marriages speak to me afterward.” He nodded to Barbarossa. “I’ll set Owen to cooking dinner for the men, so I’m all yours today.” He gave his boy a kiss and cupped his face. “Do me proud, lad.” Owen nodded.

The men went about their routine, slightly altered. Kane set up Barbarossa’s chair on the courthouse square lawn, and the old men brought out lawn-chairs from Before. White stood behind the chair, the obvious second, and Kane knelt at his feet, the silent recorder and adviser.

Barbarossa gave the men a smile, the shallowly charming one Kane had seen a dozen times. “We knew the new schedule would be a strain on many communities. Six collections instead of four, even with the altered amounts to compensate, will be painful until it’s sorted out.”

The old men nodded. “The alteration isn’t enough. Especially on the March visit. That’s when food is running lowest, after the winter, before the new crop.”

Barbarossa nodded. “That’s why the January and March goods are mostly hand-work, plenty of time to make them in the winter. But my men still have to eat. We still need fuel. We want to make sure you prosper, because that makes us prosper.” He leaned forward. “Because this is May, and you just donated to Lincoln last month, we are only requesting a little, enough to keep us going for two weeks. Surely you can spare that. A carrot, a tomato, early peas, some bread, whatever each household can spare. We don’t want anyone going hungry, but we do have to eat, too.”

One of the younger men on the council spoke up. “Why? Why do we need you? Why should we feed your band of marauders who take and give nothing? We’ve tolerated you for a decade now, and you are obsolete.”

“Nothing?” Barbarossa’s tone was deadly and Kane glanced up to see a grim look on his face. “Ask that woman who got a letter today if we provide nothing. Or go to Mass tonight. Or watch the people who have scrip trade it in. We are your lifeline. And do you think you can hold off a raiding party with pitchforks? Ask the women of the Amazon Freehold how they would have done alone when Fourteen decided to wipe them out.”

The leader shushed his underling. “Can you get us gunpowder, or bullets? You’re right. We’re virtually unarmed.”

“Indeed. We have a couple of settlements making bullets. They won’t be cheap. Make a list of the caliber and amount you want. We’ll let you know the cost. I trust we can depend on you for the supplies?”

Things went tense as the leaders conferred. Kane waited, mentally counting. They had upped the tribute, the combined packs needing more than Lincoln’s group of ten. Barbarossa had controlled thirteen settlements, since the Amazons had eradicated Ar. Lincoln had six settlements. Nineteen was almost enough to support the combined pack. Maybe it was time to get people working in Ar again, growing more food. Having the breadbasket out of commission put a real burden on the other settlements. He’d suggest it to Barbarossa. Old Man had said something about wanting to settle down, getting too old to be a nomad. He might make a good leader.

The council argued but at last the leader got them to nod. The youngest looked sullen while he did. He was going to be trouble, Kane knew, but not today.

“We’ll have the list before you leave. How long will you be staying? Lincoln usually stayed a week in each settlement and spent a week on the road in-between.”

“Three days. We don’t believe in wearing out our welcome. We’re pleased that you’re on board. We want to do as well for you as we always have for our other people.” Barbarossa stood and extended a hand to each of the men. They stood and shook in turn.

Kane decided the new settlements would fall into line just fine.

We found the man on the outskirts of Settlement Six, naked and shivering in the cold April rain. He flagged the Pack down, an unusual behavior in itself. “Don’t go in,” he said, gesturing toward the Settlement.

We come to collect our due,” Barbarossa announced

He shook his head. “You try it, and you’ll end up getting fucked by a dozen women and then crucified.”

I leaned forward and reminded my lord. “It’s almost May Day.”

In Six, a weird hybrid religion has taken root. The Lady’s Consort is chosen on May Day and spends most of the year in luxury, with all the best the settlement could offer, including a turn at every woman not currently pregnant. He pays for it by being crucified at the spring equinox to benefit the harvest. If he does manage to rise from the dead, he’ll be hailed as a living god.

Barbarossa ground his teeth and I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen.

Would you ride with us? It takes a sturdy man to brave the rain.” The man nodded. “Then climb into the semi and tell Tiberius I said to see about some clothes.” Barbarossa raised his voice to take in the rest of the wildpack. “We ride to Settlement Seven. We will double back, and Six will pay us for our time and trouble.”

At each of the settlements, Barbarossa left word they would not make the next visit, but rather they would be back in four months instead of two. At the pack meeting, he made the announcement.

“I’ve received word from a number of other pack leaders that a gathering is being held next week. I want my pack to put on a good show of strength. We are the largest in the region, so we need to be alert.”

“Is it a trap, Boss?” Lincoln asked.

“Possibly. So we ride in, with our eyes open. No rigs. Double up in cars and bikes. We need to conserve fuel as much as possible. I got extra ammo from Nine, and extra beer from Seven. We aren’t going too far out of our territory, but be alert and be on your very best behavior. We head out tomorrow. You’ve told all your settlements?”

Lincoln and Ivan nodded. “They aren’t happy, but they’ll live.” Ivan smirked, and Kane knew someone had given him trouble and been made an example of.

Kane didn’t like the cold shiver that went through him. The feeling of change still hung heavy in the air, although it was high summer, well into July. He suspected there would be many more examples made before things played out to their conclusion.

The next morning, he clung a bit more tightly to Barbarossa as they roared east, with the rest of the pack at their backs. Clarice and Big Red were parked, over Driver’s objections, in University City. Tiberius was riding behind Malverde on his bike and Driver had squeezed into the cook-truck with White and Owen, saying the company was better and the truck more comfortable than trying to ride bitch at his age.

Thirty of them to face down the rest of the packs. This felt more like an ambush all the time. Kane tightened his grip and held his breath as they crossed out of Barbarossa’s territory. He hadn’t been this far east since Before.

Something’s different, diary. It’s not just the route changes. It’s not just adding new people. It’s not just Spring coming in, which makes everyone edgy and restless. Things are changing.

We haven’t had a pregnant trade-good for six months. Slave raids are a lot less common now. Not as many gay folk on the roads either. The folks have finally gotten to places they want to live. Migrations are done and the settlements look like towns.

The folks at Eight thought way too hard about giving us trouble this time. They have their own defenses now. With the refinery there, they have plenty of fuel. And didn’t they just make sure we saw the flame throwers? Oh they certainly did, diary. Not just the throwers but the burn marks and a narrow band of a dead-zone as we rode into their territory. This is new, and not pleasant.

But we had the mail and Mass and trade-goods, so they decided we were okay. This trip. I’m a little nervous about the next one. It’s not just Eight. A lot of places are starting to let us know they can protect themselves, with or without us, and especially against us.

Barbarossa came to the tent deeply troubled that night. Kane served him dinner in private. He washed Barbarossa’s face, hands and feet with warm water before massaging his feet.

“I have a problem,” Barbarossa said without prelude. “There is a criminal among us, one who is preying on the people we protect.”

Kane kept rubbing. “What has he done, my lord?” He kept it formal for now. Barbarossa was deep in thought and didn’t need flirts and loving. He needed a sounding board and wise counsel, and Kane was always willing to share those.

“He claimed he’d been thrown out of the settlements because he was gay.” Kane nodded, and Barbarossa continued. “But he isn’t. He’s a predator. Two settlement leaders have come to me claiming he has taken advantage of children.”

Kane set his jaw. He wouldn’t let Barbarossa hear how much he wanted to rage and scream. The pedophile lie was one of the oldest, from Before, and it had been why most settlements ran out the gay kids. Now they had one in their midst, hiding under the cloak of the pack’s gayness as he preyed on children.

Barbarossa stroked his hair. “I trust the leaders. But I trusted him, too. Who is to say which is lying?”

“Have the leaders talked to each other?” Kane asked.

Barbarossa gave a hollow laugh. “When would Professor Williams and Lady Raven Starclaw ever talk?”

Kane chuckled. The enmity between the University and the Christopagans was already legendary. “No, of course not. And it must have been dire indeed for them to send a woman to tell you. Since you have reports from two independent sources, do you consider it true?”

Barbarossa nodded. “After Williams spoke to me, I kept my eyes opened. Gilles has eyes too, and they betray him at every chance.”

Kane breathed quietly. Hannah was growing up, having a happy life in her home with her mother and father and new baby brother, Dylan. The thought that someone like Gilles was looking at her and thinking cruelly lewd thoughts upset him. Hannah might not be his, but he still felt protective of her and Missy. He thought of his Amazon daughter Antiope, barely toddling now, and the idea of the big man’s hands on her tiny body made his blood boil. He kept his temper and was proud his voice didn’t shake.

“Kill him. Make a sport of it and an example of him.” Kane hated the words as he said them. Gilles was a hard worker, a fine fighter, and the gutsiest driver they had. When a vehicle broke down, he was usually the one to jury-rig it enough that it would make it to the next mechanic.

Barbarossa stroked his hair. “What do you suggest?”

Kane didn’t want to be asked that question. He was not a man to decide other men’s fate, just an out-of-work programmer who served a warlord. “He took his name from Gilles de Rais, am I right?”

Barbarossa shrugged. “I think so, why?”

“Should have been our first clue. He’s not even hiding it. Gilles de Rais was one of Joan of Arc’s lieutenants. After the wars, he was convicted of murdering hundreds of little boys. They hanged him and burned him at the same time.”

“Should we do the same with his namesake?”

Kane sucked in his breath. “Crucify him on the grill of Big Red. Barbed wire to hold him on, water every day, no food. Show the settlements we take harming our people seriously, even by a pack member.”

Barbarossa nodded. “An excellent idea. I shall take it under consideration. Come to bed, my Killer Kane. Perhaps I’ll let you do the honors tomorrow.”

Kane stripped his master and helped Barbarossa to bed. Barbarossa didn’t take off his cage, so he went down on his master fast and hard, sucking him deep, trying to make the leather, skin, musk and pre-come take away the bitter taste of sentencing a man to die.

Kane lay in his master’s arms, feeling distinctly odd. The knowledge that he hadn’t been told about the gathering weighed on his mind, making sleep slow to come. Barbarossa was late coming to bed, and had sent him on ahead while he talked to Ivan and Lincoln.

He heard Barbarossa come in. He wanted to lie quietly and pretend to be asleep. He wanted to sulk. But neither of those was really an option.

He rolled over and smiled instead. “I hope I didn’t overheat the bed, Master.”

Barbarossa smiled back. “You’re fine.” He sat on the edge, not having taken anything off and Kane slipped out of bed to get his boots. “My good boy. Do you love me?”

Kane gave him a look that asked if Barbarossa was serious. Then he realized his master wasn’t kidding. “I love you, Master.”

“Then trust me just a little longer. I will tell you everything in time.” The statement sounded odd, weak, as if Barbarossa had other things on his mind and other plans.

Kane knelt up and kissed his Master. “It’s fine.” He tried to mean it.

Barbarossa cupped Kane’s face in his hands. “No, it isn’t. I’ve kept you out of the conferences for a reason. You need to know, but not just yet.” Barbarossa pulled him close. “I don’t trust the men. I don’t trust this meeting. You, love, you and White alone. And we will talk, the three of us, tomorrow.” He kissed Kane. “I love you. I want you to help me, but most of all, I want you safe.”

Kane smiled and kissed him back. “Beloved Master. For a decade, I have been at your side and offered what knowledge I had. You’ll bring me in when it is time.” This time, he did mean it.

The next night, Barbarossa had the men pitch his tent well away from the others. Sound carried well in the stillness. White spared a kiss for his boy and left him to finish cleaning and packing the kitchen.

Barbarossa took White and Kane back to the tent, and gestured to the bed. They stripped down and stretched out. Barbarossa joined them in the middle.

“Loves, this is for you and only you. Not even your boy, Doug. No matter how the confab goes, if we walk out alive, we split in the spring. The pack is nearly over. We’ll stay together one more winter, but come spring, we are done.”

“Is there a chance we won’t leave the meeting alive?” White asked.

“Always a chance. That many rough men in one place, under only their word? I think we’ll be lucky if it stays peaceful.” He kissed Kane. “Father, if trouble happens, get my boy and yours and leave.” White looked about to protest, but Barbarossa laid a finger on his lips. “Promise me. I want to know you and those two are safe. None of you are fighters.”

“Aye, I’ll keep ’em safe,” White whispered. “Prince, if there is trouble, we will go to University City. They’ve offered me the rectory more than once.”

Barbarossa kissed him. “Good. I worry about you two. Promise me you’ll do that if someday a settlement decides to do without us as well.”

Kane kissed his shoulder. “Eight bothered you, Master?”

“More than you know, my boy. I want your promise that if trouble ensues, you will got with White and obey him and let him get you to safety. No stupid last stands over my body or other melodrama shit. Promise me.”

Kane looked into the intense blue eyes. Any protest died on his lips. “I promise, Master.” He laid his fingers on Barbarossa’s mask and then his own chest. “I swear by your mask, by my own heart.” He lowered his hands to cup the cage that held his genitals. “And by the cage I wear for you, that I will obey you.”

“Good boy.” Barbarossa kissed him again. “Better get back to your own boy, Doug. Keep your eyes open and let me know which way the attack is coming from.”

White kissed Barbarossa, a bare brush of lips with no passion behind it. “I love you, O Prince. And I will obey, until death takes me or the world ends.” The kiss he spared for Kane was sweeter. “See to him lad.”

Kane patted White’s scarred face and returned his attention to Barbarossa. It was going to be a long night, and his lord needed all the love he could get.

It’s almost over, diary. The three-way split up has been working really well. Lincoln is a good leader and Ivan is a better one, almost as good as my lord.

But we’re almost done and I know Barbarossa plans to end it in the next month, when we’re all together for the quarterly meet-up.

In the interests of completion and for posterity, here is how the settlements stand.

Barbarossa’s Run:

Five is a nice agrarian settlement. They have good land and rotate their crops. Self-sufficient and supplying others with food. I saw Missy last time we rode through. Hannah’s a big girl and Dylan’s coming up just fine. They have three younger siblings too. Since I had my jeans on, Missy brought the kids to talk to me. They had questions. I answered a lot. And I told them the pack was going away soon., so they would have to be brave on their own. Dylan’s a cocky little guy and gave me a lop-sided grin. Rambling again. I’m not old enough to do that.

Seventeen finally got its act together. They’re growing a lot of wheat and corn, in addition to the subsistence. They’ve got a watermill going, and are providing a lot of flour.

The brewery at Seven and the ammo dump at Nine are keeping their settlements fed, and trading. They finally worked out the bugs in the black powder and their bullets shoot very nicely. The brewery maintains a thriving trade throughout the region.

The patriarchs at Eight are still making a go of it, unfortunately. There’s no call to wipe them out as we helped the Amazons wipe out Fourteen, but sometimes I wish we could. They don’t have open slavery, but the kids are growing up with the same ideas. And there’s no mass media to counter them. The problem is, they run our refinery. As usual, the oil is in the hands of religious fanatics. Barbarossa is keeping a close eye on them.

The Freehold and University City are going to make it, as long as the centrifuge holds up. I think the entire next generation of Amazons is daughters of the wildpack. My girls are beautiful and smart and strong. University City was always going to be all right.

This is getting long, diary. Sorry.

Ivan’s Run:

Settlement One, formerly Fort Riley. Up and self-sufficient. We had to put a stop to the surplus arms dealing and I’m not sure we managed, but they don’t have the rocket launcher with the “For Sale Best Offer” sign out at the gate anymore.

Three died out from the flu a couple winters ago. The survivors migrated to settlement four. They were just subsistence farmers.

Settlement Four is our hippies. Self-sufficient, also doing a thriving trade in opium, weed, handcrafts and dyes. Really nice folks. They’re teaching anyone who wants to learn, and sending out seeds and cuttings. We’re getting visitors from the other packs in Kansas and Missouri, some even down from Nebraska, who want to take the seeds and knowledge home. They’re going to be fine.

Twelve and Fourteen are coming back. We planted settlers in the old, destroyed sites. Old Man and his Carlos are leading the new folks at Fourteen. A bunch of wilder young people from University City started Twelve up again. It’s going to be a while for those two places. We put Ivan on those, since they would know our people.

Eighteen got a lumber mill working out in the woods and Ivan says that’s helping get more buildings put up.

Lincoln’s Run:

Settlement Two. Sheep and hemp based textile town. Mostly self-sufficient. Still need some food imports as the sheep are labor intensive and a lot of their crop land is given over to hemp. Produces paper, cloth, oil, biodiesel and plastic.

The Christopagans at Six have finally gotten the idea of symbolic sacrifice. Funny how fast religious doctrine changes when it bumps against a powerful person’s love life. They don’t crucify the Lady’s Consort anymore. They’re doing all right. They have a blacksmith, one of the few places that does.

The glass works is still going strong, Lincoln says. Our branch doesn’t run that way, deferring to White and his boy. Driver takes the rig over when he needs repairs. And we have a second forge and mining operation from Lincoln’s pack. Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty-One are all in good shape, mostly farming and herding, with some weaving and a tannery.

It’s starting to look like people again, diary. Like towns and not just a bunch of scared folks huddling against the dark.

Kansas City wasn’t that far off their turf. I-70 was a choked mess of brambles, weeds and derelict cars as they went west, and Barbarossa’s group had struggled through it on their new rounds. His pack kept their roads clean, but Lincoln had preferred back roads. The eastern route was clear and easily passable. The population had migrated out of no-man’s land of western Kansas into more settled areas where the wildpacks kept order. Barbarossa had been encouraging splinter groups to expand farther east, telling them once they had solid settlements, he would encompass them in his rounds.

Kansas City gleamed in the morning sun as they approached it. There were no lines of cars escaping the growing zombie apocalypse of the city. A few lay smashed in the ditch, where Barbarossa’s pack had moved them. But this apocalypse had been silent and fast.

“Real fast,” Driver had told Kane once. “I was driving out around Goodland, and my co-driver was getting ready to take over at the next exit. He was sitting in the passenger seat drinking coffee and jaw-jacking at me, and I wasn’t paying any attention until he stopped. I looked over and he was just slumped there, dead in his seatbelt.”

If the old atlas was right, there should still be about five or six thousand people living in the city. But the place was huge, and there was plenty of room for a wildpack summit. The meet-up at the old American Royal Center had been arranged by one of the Kansas City packs ,.

The men parked in the nearly empty lot. Several clumps of cars and motorcycles were scattered here and there, but there was plenty of space between them.

The pack kept their eyes open as they made their way into the building. Lights and air-conditioning surprised them, the cool air welcome relief after the heat on the asphalt.

Two men wearing bulletproof vests stopped them at the inner doors. “Name.”

“Lord Barbarossa, out of Manhattan, Fort Riley and Salina.” Barbarossa faced them down, and Kane waited quietly.

One smiled. “We’ve been expecting you. Thirty of you, yes?”

Barbarossa nodded. “Thirty.”

“You’re billeting in the northwest corner of the exhibit floor. Head up, take your gear. The toilets work, so don’t be afraid to flush. Main meal this evening in the center, you’re expected to contribute food to the general stock.”

Barbarossa nodded. Kane wondered just how much he hadn’t been told about this. His master had played this one very close to the vest. He’d seen the messenger, of course, but not been included in the council, which was very unusual. It had been Barbarossa, Lincoln and Ivan, and their seconds-in-command, no toys allowed.

They dropped their stuff in the corner and set up their banner in an indoor flag stand. It was nothing elaborate, just a blue field with a large black B and a stylized mask. Seeing it made Kane feel better. This was their territory now, even if it was just a corner of a convention hall. He set up the chair and went down for the bed and table with the other men.

They worked steadily, getting everything they needed upstairs. Most men just brought a pack and a bedroll. Kane and Owen set up the rope bed for Barbarossa, and Owen went to get White’s bedroll and gear in order.

Kane stepped to the bathroom and changed out of his leathers and into the sarong. He’d traded for a bit of make-up at the last settlement and lined his eyes with a paintbrush and some newly created black liner. It was smeary and awkward, and he had to wash his face three times before he got it right. He was Barbarossa’s bitch and needed to look it.

He took a long second look. The scarred man in the mirror was no longer a pretty boy-toy. He counted the years and the number he came to said he was too old to be putting on eyeliner and flirting around in nothing but a sarong. Forty-two. He would be forty-two just before Halloween. Thirteen years since that dreadful day when he’d awakened and most everyone else hadn’t. Eight since Barbarossa had marked his face with the spikes on his codpiece. Eight years with the words “Barbarossa’s Bitch” carved into his ass in spiky letters.

“It’s almost over,” he told his reflection. “We look like The Council of Elrond, but we’re the Last Riding of the Keepers of the Rings. Change is coming. I can feel it.”

Motion in the mirror caught his eye.

“Feel it? Feel what?” Barbarossa looked him over. “I have something you can feel, boy.” He pressed Kane into the sink and rubbed his crotch against Kane’s ass. “You’re gorgeous.” He wrapped his arms around Kane’s waist and kissed his neck. “The eyeliner is hot.”

“Mmm.” Kane wrapped his arms over top of Barbarossa and ground back against the cock he could feel hardening against him. “Pleased you like it, Master.”

“Is there any extra?”

“Yes, but I strongly suggest that you not. It’ll blow your cover. You wore plenty Before, almost a trademark.”

“You’re right.” Barbarossa turned him around and kissed him gently. “When did you get so wise?”

“I had a good teacher.” Kane wrapped his arms around his master and kissed him very sweetly. This was not the time or place for more. He suspected most of the men would be making very quiet love in the evening, so as not to disturb the others.

“More packs are coming in. Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, a couple from Illinois and even Arkansas. This is the most of us assembled in one place ever.”

“I don’t like it, Master. It feels...weird. It’s like the scene in all the movies where they get all the people into one spot, then bar the doors and fire the building.”

Barbarossa nodded. “I know. My gut’s been saying it’s bad, too. Let’s watch and wait. We’re right by an exit, and I’ll post a guard on the vehicles.”

Kane smiled and kissed Barbarossa. It was very nice to know he wasn’t alone. If Barbarossa had the feeling, too, he’d probably said something to Lincoln and Ivan and all their seconds.

“You ever have sex in a bathroom, Kane? My taste never ran to what the old queens called the tearoom trade.”

“A few times, never much liked it. I was usually half drunk, and he was a hot dancer.”

Barbarossa chuckled and steered him into a stall. He locked the door behind them. Kane suspected the stalls would see more of this action than the kind they were designed for. He went to his knees with no prompting.

“No, no, come on up here. You’re so good at that, but I want something different.”

Two quick twists and Barbarossa set the iron cage aside. Kane resisted the urge to scratch and stretch. Then Barbarossa had him in hand, and his first erection in days was pressed against Barbarossa’s long cock.

He wrapped one hand around them both and the other around Barbarossa’s neck, pulling him down for a kiss. “I love you,” he whispered against his master’s lips. “No matter what, I love you.”

Barbarossa kissed him clear through, jacking them both slowly until Kane shot over his hand. He let go of their cocks, and Kane stroked him until he came.

“My beautiful Killer Kane. You are exactly who I want by my side, forever.” He looked down into Kane’s face. “We’re older and hopefully wiser than the young men who woke up to a different life.”

Kane nodded. “I love you. I’ll do my best for you.”

Barbarossa kissed him again. “I know you will.”

The University has been ahead of the game since the start, diary. They were lucky enough to be a tech place, with a good ag department. They had a good library, draft animals, manual plows, tractors, and the know-how to make biodiesel and alcohol fuel for their machines. They were one of the first to get the farming going on a big scale, and to rediscover how to make good flour. A lot of places are still at the stone-ground cornmeal phase. They were where I had planned to go before the Pack found me

I liked our visit there today. The President and Board came out to see us. The people gathered around for the mail as usual. Ryder loves delivering the mail, since it makes him important to the people. He’s talked about a pen-pal registry between the settlements, to help the exchange of knowledge about the simpler life.

After the initial meeting, my Lord let me slip away. I followed White who had sent three or four boys among the people, telling them that there would be church. I was curious. I’d never seen a Mass, and I was still having trouble imagining our cook as a priest.

The old Cathedral was near the campus and had been cleaned out. Two women in modest clothing, with lace shawls over their hair, were setting up. White vanished into one of the doors up front and I sat down in the back, wishing I had clothes and not just protective leathers. I put my jacket over my naked lap and hoped God didn’t mind.

Mass was as boring as I had expected it would be. Church usually is. Only about ten people came. I didn’t get up for communion. But White looked truly happy for the first time I’d ever seen. He’s a good man, diary, and our life is a bad fit for him.

I waited until everyone had left and went back to my lord. They’d given us rooms in one of the old dormitories, so we didn’t need to pitch camp. It was nice to sleep indoors for a change. The floor was hard, but I didn’t mind.

“Daddy!” Antiope dashed out of the gates of the Freehold, elbowing her way through the mob of little girls all hurrying out to see the wildpack. Xanthe and some of the other amazons followed their daughters, laughing.

Kane smiled and swung his daughter into his arms. “Hello, sweetheart.” He smiled at Xanthe as Antiope flung her arms around him and kissed his cheeks. Melanippe, toddling along and holding her mother’s hand, stretched up her chubby arms to be picked up. “Xanthe, you’re looking well. Is everything going easily?” He set Antiope down and picked up Melanippe who imitated her big sister. “How’s the roofing and repair business going? Tell me you’re not climbing ladders.”

Xanthe laughed and rested a hand on her just-swelling belly. “We’re all just fine. She’ll be the last, though. And I have eager young teenagers to climb on the roofs these days. I do planning and drafting.”

“Good good.” She glared at him and Dylan nodded apologetically. “Sorry, I know. My approval isn’t needed.” He hesitated. “Xanthe, thank you. I don’t think I’ve said it before. The girls are beautiful and you’re doing a great job.” Kane offered her a hand, and she shook. Melanippe babbled about “mama, sissy, baby” and clung to his jacket.

“Her name’s Orithyia,” said Antiope, leaning her head against Xanthe’s tummy, full of big sister pride. “She should come in the winter, mama says.”

“Another Aquarius baby?” Kane asked with a smile. Amazon babies were born between January and March, in the time between the worst of winter and the beginning of spring planting.

Xanthe smiled. “Always.” She nodded at where the other men of the pack were finding a space on the grass in front of the main gate. “Enjoy the visit.”

“Is there anything you need, Xanthe? Anything at all?”

“Can you bring some of the multi-colored blue cloth? Antiope’s been asking for a skirt like daddy’s.”

Kane chuckled. “I’ll get some for the next trip.”

Xanthe patted his shoulder. “You’re a good man.” She headed back to a chair in the shade with the other mothers.

Kane looked at the two little girls and walked to a place under a large tree. July was always too warm. Antiope chattered about starting school in the fall. Melanippe just chattered, mostly in baby babble.

“She says you’re holding her too tight,” Antiope translated. “You won’t drop her.”

Kane sat down, careful of the sarong he wore. He didn’t need to flash the Freehold. Barbarossa was generous during the visits to the Freehold, and removed the cage.

“So you like my outfit?” he asked Antiope.

“Uh huh. The different blues are pretty.”

“I’d give you mine, but it’s pretty worn. I’ll bring you one of your own next time.” He looked her over. She’d been easier as a baby when he could just cuddle her and sing a silly song. Then an inspiration struck him. “Does Melanippe like singing?”

Antiope grinned, and he saw she’d lost one of her bottom teeth already.

“You lost a tooth too?”

Antiope nodded. “Uh huh and the tooth fairy left me this!” She patted the tiny eating knife strapped to her upper arm. A five year old with a blade, Kane shook his head at the thought. “Melanippe loves to sing.”

“You know the alphabet song, right?” He knew she did. He’d taught her when she was about Melanippe’s age. “Can you help me teach her?”

By the third time through, Melanippe was trying to keep up with them. Kane slowed the song down and caught himself finger-spelling along with it. On the fourth pass, he noticed Antiope was imitating his hand movements.

“Daddy, what is this?” she spelled out ABC in manual alphabet.

“In the old days, when people couldn’t hear, they learned sign language. This is called manual alphabet. It’s an alphabet for your fingers.” He spelled out Antiope, slowly. “That was your name. Some parents used to teach it to babies, so they could sign before they could talk.”

Antiope bounced. “Yeah! And I’ll teach Orithyia so she doesn’t have to cry all the time like Melanippe did.”

Kane dug deep, trying to remember signs. He taught the girls eat and drink and sleep, mother and daughter and cat.

“We have a cat,” Antiope told him. “She’s a calico and her name is Tabby.”

Kane taught her to spell Tabby and Xanthe and Antiope and Melanippe. “Melanippe’s a little too young for spelling.” It didn’t stop the toddler from imitating them. “Keep teaching her while I’m gone.”

“Okay. Now, spell your name, daddy.”

Kane moved his fingers to spell K-A-N-E without thinking.

“Kane?” Antiope looked puzzled. “Why does Mama call you Dylan?”

“Dylan is my old name, from the old world. These days, I’m Kane.”

“Are you married to Barbarossa?” she asked.

He shook his head. “We’re together. Our pack doesn’t get married.”

“Mama’s married. We like Mama Maeve.”

“Then we’d better learn to spell Maeve too,” Kane said. He could tell she was getting restless. “One more word and let’s sing with Melanippe. Then we’ll go see if there’s a tree you can climb.” Antiope had climbed trees since she could walk and Kane had always given her an extra boost so she could climb the tree she never could quite manage alone.

Melanippe sang with the alphabet song, getting about half the letters right with her mouth, and about half of those right on her fingers. Antiope got them all.

Antiope showed Kane the tree she was still trying to climb. It had been her goal to do it alone for his last two visits. He watched her try to swing herself up into the branches for a few minutes.

“Boost please?” she said.

“Hands here, and here,” he showed her. “Now, walk your feet up the trunk.” She made it nearly to the branch when one foot slipped. Kane caught her and helped her onto the branch. “You’ll have it before I come back.” He picked up Melanippe and sat her on the branch, holding her steady.

Antiope sat on the branch, her eyes level with his. “Are you a girl, daddy? Is that why you don’t wear pants like the other men? If you are, can you come live with us? I miss you.”

Kane laughed. “No, sweetheart, I’m a man. The others wear pants...” He thought about how to explain it. “I wear this because I’m a slave.” It was the easiest answer for a five year old. “The other men are free.”

“Oh yeah. I’ve heard about that. Having slaves is very bad.”

Kane shook his head. “It’s bad when someone doesn’t want to be a slave. Most people don’t want to be. I’m strange. I am very happy to be owned by Lord Barbarossa. He takes good care of me. And I take care of him, too.”

The answer apparently satisfied her. They sat out there for a moment, Melanippe talking animatedly about the birds and trees and flowers. The great horn at the gates sounded.

“Looks like it’s time for me to go,” Kane said, picking up his younger daughter. Antiope flung her arms around his neck.

“Carry me too, please?”

She was heavy, but he headed back across the lawn with one girl on each arm.

“Love you,” Melanippe mumbled as he handed her to Xanthe. Xanthe smiled.

“I love you, Daddy,” Antiope said. She kissed Kane and signed “I love you” as he had taught her.

“I love you too, Antiope.” He kissed her cheek and set her down. “I’ll see you in a few weeks, when the leaves start changing colors.” He leaned over and kissed Melanippe. She caught his face and gave him a wet smack.

“Bye bye!” she said, waving. “Bye-bye.”

Kane walked over to the Harley and climbed up behind Barbarossa. He kissed his master’s neck. “I love you, Master,” he whispered. He waved to the girls as the pack roared away.

The first evening of the conclave, there was no business. There was, however, a lot of cooking and getting acquainted. Some of the packs had heard of Barbarossa’s group and they wanted to meet the man who was making himself a legend in Kansas.

One of the leaders from the Kansas City area came over and after introductions, he shoved his boy to his knees at Barbarossa’s feet and commanded, “Tell it.”

The boy, who was in his thirties, took a very submissive pose, but chanted loudly enough to be heard for a number of yards. The story of the attack on the Amazons had grown in the telling until Kane barely recognized it. The blank verse was nicely done, but Kane smiled at the memory and the way it didn’t match the great slaughter the boy told of the pack perpetrating.

“Weapons had they, mighty machines of old

Full of fire and fury, they fell upon the Freehold

Barbarossa backed them, backed them only to betray them

For the Freehold, full of females, he betrayed the brutal barbarians.”

It went on like that for minutes, telling of the pack running down the men with great Before weapons, and saving the women. Not one mention of General Prince’s pain ray came through the story. Kane wondered how the tale had escaped their little territory.

Barbarossa smiled and stroked the poet’s head. The man smiled under his touch. Kane didn’t like the look of desirous calculation on his face.

“Thank you. That was enthralling.”

“He is a gift for you, my lord. We thought you could use a singer to tell of your exploits.”

Barbarossa looked at the leader of the Independence wildpack, who also called himself Truman. He paused a moment, formulating the right answer. Kane held his breath. “He is a generous gift, but my own pet would be too jealous, were I to keep him.” Barbarossa drew Kane closer to his knee. Kane had a suspicion the Independence leader wanted him in exchange. It wouldn’t be anything so gauche as a demand to trade, but when a gift was given, a return gift was expected.

Truman of Independence looked crestfallen for a moment. Then, he smiled. “Well said, Lord Barbarossa. I’ll see you get a written copy of the song.”

“And I thank you, Lord Truman, for the work and the gift.”

They shook hands and parted. Barbarossa stroked Kane’s hair. “He was a pretty one, and clever, too. But you know my ways, and I am attached to you.”

Kane kissed his hand as it passed. “And I love you, my master.”

“There is that.” Barbarossa stroked his hair for the rest of the visits. The host pack had informed them that the packs west of Kansas City would be receiving guests before dinner and doing their own visits afterward.

The men of the city were a different sort than the rural ones. The ones who rode the rural areas had brought food and hand-made goods. The ones from the city had Before goods, including electronics and the precious solar panels to run them.

Each pack gave what they could to the common store, from whence meals would be created. Barbarossa had sent White and Ripper to help with the cooking. The other packs had likewise sent their cooks. Each leader had a small token for every other leader, whether a regional food, or goods, or beautiful youths. Kane realized a great deal of planning had gone into this and he had not been consulted or allowed to aid in it. Lincoln and Ivan had, and that rankled him. He kept his face clear of his annoyance. It was not his place to be annoyed.

Barbarossa accepted what he could and returned the gifts with beer and cloth, the green salve and opium. The other leaders accepted the latter, in its five-dose vial, with great gratitude. Medicine was still a difficult item to acquire, and most packs soldiered along without it, using their local moonshine as a painkiller.

The opium had cost them dearly, and run the supplies at Four a little short. The hippies had decided to plant an extra acre the next year. The salve was almost as well received. The host pack had created sign-up sheets, where men with specialized skills could teach others. Rolannd signed up to teach a simple herbal medicine seminar.

One of the hosts had shown him to an office, with a computer and a printer. Roland typed up his recipe for the salve, and the one for willow bark. The internet was still out there and some of the servers were still functioning, even thirteen years later. A lot of universities had their own power sources. He showed Barbarossa the finished hand-out, which included pictures of the plants, so the other men wouldn’t make a hash of the two items.

Kane looked over the sign-up sheets. Most of the skills were very specialized. They were a lucky pack, having gotten the talents they needed to prosper. He suspected there were plenty that weren’t so lucky.

Some of the other men signed up for classes, but Barbarossa kept him close. A number of the leaders had complimented his master on having such a pretty and well-behaved boy. He looked at the other leaders and their pets. Some looked almost civilized, in rare blue jeans and factory-made shirts from Before. Others had gone wilder, wearing homespun or buckskin. One pack had gotten back to someone’s imagined roots and gone for kilts and plaids over their chaps.

The pets had a common look to them. Most of them were between thirty and forty, meaning they had been in their late teens to mid-twenties when the world ended. Some were younger, but they, like Owen, were goggling around at the amount of wild men in one place. Probably Settlement kids, Kane decided. The pets were all smaller men, less physical than most of the pack members. They kept their eyes down, their posture submissive. Kane felt distinctly butch and a little presumptuous next to them. Barbarossa demanded the occasional show of submission, but seldom quite so constantly. He kept his own positioning perfect. The others would judge Barbarossa on how well his boy behaved. Kane was glad he didn’t wear the bruises and marks he saw on some of the pets. He might have scars on his face from spikes and words on his ass, but he wasn’t beaten as regularly as some of these were.

Life with Barbarossa’s pack might not be easy, but Kane decided he never wanted to trade it for any other pack’s life. Some of the men looked not only lean, but distinctly underfed. Others looked meaner than they should, scarred because they had to fight all the time. Some were filthy, as if they had forgotten basic hygiene. Barbarossa’s men looked sleek, well-fed and genuinely happy by comparison.

Diary, if there is anything more boring than three alpha males in a verbal pissing contest, I don’t want to see it. Splitting the pack has changed everything. The smaller groups are tighter, closer knit and I think the men of the secondary groups are starting to transfer all their loyalty to their current leader.

The settlements treat us differently, like we’re not as strong as we were. They aren’t as scared, which is good, but they aren’t as respectful either. We need to get out of the mercenary business very soon or we’re going to find ourselves spiked out on poles as a warning.

So we had the first quarterly get-together and that went fine. So did the second and third. Lincoln’s men are settling in nicely. I like Thor and Driver who ride with us. Lincoln’s a good strong leader and Ivan’s really proved himself.

I wasn’t certain about them. White’s usually a better judge of character than most, and he was not one of Ivan’s fans. Yeah, Ivan’s got a temper, and yeah, there’s a lot of violence in him, but he knows when to rein it in, unlike some of the others. Military discipline and all. I respect him. I’m a little afraid of him, but I do like him too.

But this meeting started off so well and went sour fairly quickly. It’s been a year and everyone has gotten their feet under them and made the shake-down ride, so to speak.

Barbarossa is tired, and it shows. And although he sent the malcontents out with the others, they’re still snapping at his heels. Ivan contradicted him at every turn, backed by Truman and Atilla. Atilla’s just an asshole to start, but I didn’t expect this out of Truman. Lincoln supported my lord when it was in his interest to do so. Barbarossa finally stood up and commanded, but he waited until too late in the meeting. By then, they had already scented the weakness.

Diary, I’m afraid. For the first time, I’m afraid for him.

It was only a gauntlet, Kane reminded himself. He’d get hit, spat on, maybe pissed on. It could have been so much worse. Lord Barbarossa had decided to let him earn his mark, but the rest of the wildpack got to determine how he was initiated.

There had been two nights of arguing at the fires, as if he wasn’t sitting there listening. Ryder had suggested he be fucked in, since he was just a bitch. Barbarossa, thankfully, had balked at the idea of Kane servicing every man in the pack. The fact that he had worked very hard for them since his arrival argued in his favor and the men decided on a gauntlet, more symbolic than an actual beating. He had to stay on his feet for the length of it. He could do that.

Barbarossa had forbidden them weapons, so he wouldn’t get hit with motorcycle chains or tire irons. It would be fists and boots. He could survive that. And afterward, he would take the brand without a bit of noise.

He’d been with the pack for five years, so they would tattoo him, too, a stylized motorcycle on his calf. All the men wore one. He wanted his badly.

The drumming started low and slow. He could see White at his drum, banging it and setting the mood. Barbarossa got up next to the fire.

“We are welcoming a new brother into the pack tonight. He has ridden with us. He has served us well. He has earned our thanks and respect time and again, for all that he wears a coward’s name. Tonight, he walks the gauntlet of you, his brothers and pack members. Do not kill him. If he stays on his feet to the end, Kane becomes one of us. Form the gauntlet!”

The drumming increased in tempo. Kane heard the men moving around. He swallowed. Tonight, the last bit of Dylan Taggert would die, and he would be Kane forever and ever. Killer Kane, he reminded himself, emissary and warlord.

Twenty men. Eighteen, rather because White would not leave the drum, and Barbarossa was the goal. Eighteen men, eighteen blows. He could take it. He swallowed hard and stood at the entrance of the tent, stark naked. Barbarossa had even taken the cock cage off. He was totally vulnerable to the gauntlet.

“Kane!” Barbarossa shouted. “It is time!”

Kane swallowed hard and stepped out of the tent. The men of his pack, looking savage and strange tonight, formed a double line. The alley in the middle led straight to Barbarossa who sat much too far away. There was a great deal of empty space after the last man.

He started down the gauntlet. Spike and Nails started the beating with open hands landing on his chest and ass and thighs. He could take it. As he passed from their hands to Attila and Truman, he saw Spike and Nails lope around to the end of the gauntlet for a second turn.

Truman caught him in the cheekbone with a fist. The blow wasn’t nearly as hard as it could be. The former EMT didn’t like hurting people. Kane blocked the next, almost half-hearted punch and kept walking. He could not attack the men in the gauntlet, but he could defend himself.

Kane set his eyes on Barbarossa, kept his peripheral vision open to block attacks and walked. A warm stream on his leg coupled with mocking laughter told him he had reached Ryder. He kept going.

The blows in the second half landed harder, closed fists instead of open hands. He stopped two from landing on his face and twisted the arm of Ivan when he went for the gut punch. Harry Houdini had died from one of those, and Kane didn’t intend to do the same.

Kane saw the flash of silver in the firelight and barely ducked out of the way as Ryder went for his chest with a knife. He blocked it with an arm, but Ryder twisted fast and sliced him, and then licked the blade.

Kane took advantage of his gloating and made the last three steps to where Barbarossa sat. Instead of going to both knees as a slave, he dropped to one knee, a man seeking acknowledgment from his chieftain. He hid the blood as best he could, turning the cut close to his body. There were not supposed to be weapons on the gauntlet, but complaining would be seen as the act of a weakling.

“Kane has proved his bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. He has been a trusted councilor time and again. His skills at wildcraft, scavenging, planning, and even cooking have proved useful to the pack. He has earned his marks.”

The wildpack roared its approval. Barbarossa stood and offered a hand down to Kane. Kane took it with his good hand and got to his feet. They walked to where White waited by his now-silent drum. Bokassa had left the gauntlet and was laying out his tattooing tools. The brand glowed red as the coals in the heart of the fire. A Before lantern hung ready to be lit for his tattooing. The rest of the pack gathered at a respectful distance.

White pulled the brand from the fire. Kane took a deep breath and held his arm out for the brand. A drop of blood spattered on the ground and Barbarossa grabbed his arm.

“What is this?” He turned Kane’s arm so the cut showed. “Who did this? Who disobeyed me and brought a weapon into the Gauntlet?”

Kane said nothing. White thrust the brand back into the fire so it wouldn’t cool.

Barbarossa glared at Kane. “Who?” he demanded.

Kane held his tongue. From the corner of his eye, he saw the pack edging closer, wanting to watch him take his marks.

Barbarossa turned on them. “You are a pack of jackals that walk upright and call yourselves men. Kane took the gauntlet with bravery and honor, and one of you defied me and dishonored the whole pack. Now, out of loyalty to you, you fucking gutless worms, he’s not telling. Think about this. He has earned his marks more than any of you.” He seized Kane by the hair and pulled his head back. In full view of the pack, he kissed Kane, deep and hard. Kane didn’t smile into the kiss as much as he wanted to. Barbarossa had never kissed him outside the tent before. He had just moved up from fuck-toy to bedwarmer in the eyes of the pack.

Barbarossa grabbed the brand from the fire himself. “I mark you a member of the pack, for life.” He pressed the cherry-red sigil against Kane’s wounded arm for a count of three.

The skin crackled back, and a smell like cooking bacon filled the air. Kane set his teeth against the pain and made no noise. This was the final test. A clean brand meant the pack member was brave and had held still. A blurred or double image, such as Attilla wore, signified one who had flinched. Kane managed a smile as his lover pulled the iron away. Barbarossa looked the brand over and nodded. White took a look.

“Very clean, my lord,” he said. He slathered ointment over Kane’s arm and bandaged it.

“Get his cut as well,” Barbarossa ordered.

Kane sat quietly as White bandaged him. The cut on his arm apparently didn’t need stitches. Then, he extended his left leg for the tattoo. Bokassa just looked and shook his head.

“You can quit impressing me, brother. I got a bit you can chew if you want.”

Kane shook his head, not really trusting himself to open the set line of his lips. A scream, sobs, a string of curses, they all waited behind his teeth. But he had to do it, all of it, on his own.

Barbarossa came and sat beside him, pulling Kane to lean into his chest. He tipped Kane’s face up and kissed him the whole time Bokassa applied the needle. Kane rested there, his arm afire with pain, more pain screaming up from his calf where it felt as if Bokassa was tapping him lightly with a lit cigarette over and over. He let Barbarossa’s heartbeat lull him, let the kiss carry him away from his tired and burning body. It took a long time, the slow, firm taps driving the ink under his skin.

“Done,” White announced. “It’s beautiful, lad.”

Bokassa gave a soft laugh. “Nothing but the best for a new brother. I could draw on him forever, all that pretty pale skin takes the ink like a desert drinking water.”

Barbarossa let go of his mouth and looked down. “Beautiful,” he agreed.

The wildpack laughed, and Kane opened his eyes. He realized that he couldn’t tell whether Barbarossa was staring at the new tattoo or at his hard cock. He didn’t care who knew how he felt about Barbarossa.

“Our brother Kane has had quite the night. I propose we feast! Food and drink to help get back the strength he has expended tonight.”

The men cheered at that. The pig that had been roasting all day in a pit was dug up and hacked into platter-sized chunks. Bowls of raw carrots and fresh roasted corn made the rounds, accompanied by fresh bread and apples, even a big plate of cakes that someone had made, probably Ripper, who’d been a baker Before. Kane looked over the men as they feasted, feasted in his honor, he realized. Owen came up with two bottles of beer. Barbarossa took his and nodded for Kane to take the other. He’d never been allowed beer in public before.

Somehow, it all felt grand and barbaric and right. White had taken up his drum again, stuffing food in his face and never losing the beat. The men ate, and as they finished, they danced, stomping and leaping in great feats of machismo before the fire.

Kane leaned his head against Barbarossa’s knees in a fit of daring and the leader stroked his hair. He was part of the pack and not just property now.

The confab began when all the wildpacks were there. Barbarossa had scored a pair of two-way radios as gifts and given one to Ivan, Bokassa, and Attilla. The men were on guard duty, to make sure nothing happened to the vehicles. After the summit, others would go out to relieve them. Kane was pleased to be staying indoors and not out on the August asphalt.

The leaders gathered in the middle of the room, and each pack was confined to its area for the duration. There was much talk, many trading of greetings, threats, and status updates within the circle of leaders. Finally, the leader of the host pack, who called himself Pendergast, stood up.

“I’d like to welcome all of you to the first, but hopefully not last, Meeting of the Packs. The world is growing more complex. Humanity is back to being a going concern. Our settlements are getting larger, turning into real towns and some cities. They’re sending out settlements of their own and making more work for us.”

All the wildpack leaders nodded along. They knew how the land lay.

“We will grow and adapt, or we will perish,” he announced. “As our larger settlements acquire police forces and militias, we have withdrawn our protection from them. We pay trading visits, but no longer collect tribute. At this point, we’re little more than merchants.” He smiled. “It’s an easier life than we expected, as long as we keep the orders filled. Our pack hasn’t had to fight for two years now. We’ve only had one settlement raided in that time, and they beat the attackers back before we got there.”

Pendergast practically glowed with pride as he spoke of the settlements growing and thriving and learning to defend themselves.

“How many of you have at least one settlement with electricity?” Most of the hands went up. “How many have more than five settlements with electricity?”

Most of the Kansas City packs kept their hands up. Barbarossa was one of the few outlying packs that gave the affirmative. Most of the others had either a power plant or a university in their territory. Kane loved knowing that the lights were coming back on. Nights had been very dark for the last thirteen years.

“Our people are growing up. We will soon be unneeded in our current form. This is good and bad. We must adapt.”

“Become fat merchants, like your boys? Turn into pious psalm-singers like Barbarossa’s group?” one of the meaner-looking leaders asked. Kane flinched at the description. “I fought for every square inch of my territory. It’s mine, and I hold it. My word is law, and if anyone, settler or pack, crosses it without damn good reason, they die.”

Pendergast looked at him. “How old are you, Napoleon? Fifty now? Or more? That’s old in this time. Our grandfathers may have lived into their seventies, and maybe our fathers did, too. But we likely won’t. You can’t run the pack forever.” He looked around, “None of you can! If you are holding your pack and your territory together by might alone, reconsider your power base.”

Kane knew that exhortation had gone over a lot of heads.

“You will not always be the strongest, the biggest, the meanest son of a bitch in the area. If your good right arm is what holds your people together, what happens when it fails? Choose your successors, gentlemen, and choose wisely. Plot your futures. Know there will come a time when might is not needed, but brains and wisdom are. And that time is coming soon.”

Pendergast looked around at the fifty leaders, some more civilized looking than others, representing most of five states. “We have set ourselves up as little kings in our own little kingdoms. It is time to move on. We need to get our people thinking of themselves as Americans again. Someday, we will manage to get our country back on its feet. Now, I know each of you has your own problem settlements: separatists, supremacists, fanatics, whatever. But delusional societies rarely last past the third generation. The second generation mostly buys into it, but the third seldom does. That second generation is starting to produce the third. They were children Before, and have grown up in this changed world. They will raise their kids in a different one altogether. Those born after the change are almost teenagers now. Think about that.”

Kane did. Missy’s Hannah was ten, almost eleven, and his namesake, Dylan, was eight and into everything. Antiope was nine now, and he saw her and her sisters as often as they rode that way. She’d be considered old enough to have children of her own in seven years. The thought startled him.

“How?” Barbarossa asked, his voice cutting through the murmurs going around the table. “I want the best for my people. I want them to be able to stand on their own.”

Several of the other men nodded. Others looked sullen and resentful. A couple of them got up as if to leave. Kane heard someone grumble “religious freak” under his breath. He didn’t move.

Barbarossa stood up, his full height impressive. Kane stayed at his feet, emphasizing the difference. “That’s the second time my people have been condemned for their spirituality. I have a priest riding with me, yes. I find him valuable, and quite useful. He gives the people of the settlements comfort and ritual. He performs weddings and counsels people, including me. He defends our camp when we ride to war on renegades. He’s our secondary medic. And he cooks. If you have a problem with White, you should stop stuffing your face with his cookies!”

Kane hid a snicker as the leader looked at the cookie in his hand, looked at Barbarossa, and silenced himself by eating the end of the cookie.

“I understand that most of you have no use for religion, even those who believed Before. I’m kind of right there, too. But those who take comfort in their beliefs should not be denied that comfort. And it helps keep order as well. That’s what religion was invented for: keeping order and making a living for the priests. So, I don’t want to hear one more word about this, or you can answer to Father Douglas White and his knives.”

A couple of them glanced at where White and Owen and Ripper were working in the kitchen with cooks from the other packs. White’s scarred face and his emphatic and joyful use of the nice sharp cleaver were enough to silence any other protests.

The talk continued, plans for how to make settlements more self-sufficient. Photocopies of old books were passed out, showing how to set up solar generators and water powered electricity, composting toilets and garbage chutes that provided fertilizer and household gas for lighting and cooking.

Kane recognized a lot of the stuff from Four and the University. Books were brought out, scavenged from libraries and publishing houses, and the packs were offered whatever they could use. Kane saw Barbarossa only took a couple of books, leaving the majority for other packs. He knew why. They had good libraries, and an ag college. They didn’t need as much help.

He hoped the other packs could make a go of it. Things might be changing, they always were, but knowledge was still power. He thought of the settlements, only some of which required schooling, and made a note to suggest Barbarossa change that. Reading and writing were vital and would help keep the settlements going, long after the wildpacks were a footnote in history.

I killed a man today. I still have his blood under my fingernails. I better go wash. If I keep looking at my hands and thinking about it, I’ll be sick. Again.

His name was Dan Kingston of Lawrence, Kansas. He was forty-seven, with blond hair and brown eyes, and he was an organ donor. I checked his body afterward. He shouldn’t be forgotten, but I’m not sure I’m the right one to remember him.

Dan had left the land of sanity some time back. But I didn’t know that when I found him sitting on an abandoned car in the road, just sitting on the hood like he hadn’t a care in the world, his legs crossed, his hands held like he was meditating.

I offered to share my lunch, since he was looking a little thin in his skin. He opened his eyes, and I saw I was in big trouble.

Eat, eat, eat!” he shouted. That was when I saw how overgrown his fingernails were, and that they were coming right for my throat. I put everything I had into the punch I threw at his throat.

It sent him back, gasping for air. I knocked him to the ground, and planted my heel in the center of his face, like they always taught in personal defense courses. It worked too well. Blood went everywhere when I broke his nose, and I ground it harder, trying to drive pieces into his brain. I couldn’t get that lucky of course.

All I had was my survival knife. I had to cut his throat while he was stunned. It was a messy, nasty job. In movies they make it look like just a fast swipe. The reality is slow and heavy, and makes awful noise.

I tried to remember my Star Trek. In “Space Seed,” Dr. McCoy tells Khan to cut the carotid artery. I tried to find it where he said it was, just behind the ear. I missed it, and had to slash open every pulse point I could find. Dan bled out a lot slower than I had hoped.

I watched and cried and laughed. At one point, I think I may have said, “He’s dead, Jim.” That set me off again. I finally got myself back together enough to check his body, bury him and say a few words. I don’t know what Dan Kingston believed. I’m not sure what I believe anymore. But it seemed wrong to just chuck him in a hole and not at least say the Twenty-third Psalm. I tacked his driver’s license to the wooden cross I put on top of it. They say plastic isn’t biodegradable, so Dan’s marker will be here a while.

I keep my solar bag on top of the wagon’s tarp, so the water can get hot as I walk. I washed up. And I washed again. Then I got sick, all hot and cold and shaky, and had to brush my teeth and wash again.

I’m sitting here, looking at Dan’s grave. I need to move on before I lose the light. I don’t want to spend the night. My stomach is reminding me it’s almost supper time. I’m not sure I can eat.

My name is Dylan Taggert. I killed Dan Kingston in self-defense. This is my confession for anyone who cares to read it.

Dylan crept through the aisles of the big sporting goods store, pulling the all-terrain wagon he’d found. So much good stuff here, and he wanted his share before the others had the same thought. He picked out a good tent, big enough for him and easy to set up alone, and then a smaller one and a sunshade. A water jug, purification tablets, a sleeping bag and air mattress with pump, an entrenching tool, and all the biodegradable toilet paper he could lay his hands on went in the wagon next. Lots and lots of freeze-dried food, a fire starter, a good knife, fishing gear; he took it all. Then he found the holy grail, a solar shower. He took two of the black three-gallon bags. Hot water came in useful for a variety of reasons, and if he didn’t have to burn fuel to get it, all the better.

The high-end luxury section struck him as nearly worthless. Who was he going to call once he had charged his cell-phone with the solar panel? On the other hand, he added the little panel with a single three-pronged socket and battery storage, and the solar powered lamp. Those could be useful.

He paused to repack the cart, shocked by how much he’d taken. His Boy Scout days were long behind him, but apparently he hadn’t lost all his survival skills. He added some thermal underwear, good socks, and a parka to the pile, even though it was May. He had no idea where he would be come fall.

The countryside called him, especially now that the corpses were starting to get ripe. The cities would be unlivable within a week. Maybe next winter, things—no, people—would have decayed enough to be inoffensive.

“How long does a man lie in the earth ere he rot? Three years and more.” The misquoted Hamlet made him feel even smaller. Tonight, seven hundred million people were trying to find a new way to live. Nobody was teaching a Shakespeare seminar. Nobody was performing the Bard anywhere. Even I Love Lucy reruns were off the air as the power systems and cities died.

Dylan strapped a tarp over his gear to protect it, picked up the handle of the wagon and headed for the grocery store next door.

Winter is miserable, diary. We rode all day today in the cold. Even through the leather, I was cold and slow when it was time to pitch camp. The ground was too hard for the tent poles to be really stable, and driving the stakes was harder than it should be.

I fumbled the rope bed. I couldn’t get it strung with my gloves on and my fingers chilled too quickly with them off. Barbarossa didn’t say anything. He sent Vlad to help me.

Vlad’s okay, but he’s kind of weak. We keep him because he’s smart and good at long-term planning. He belongs to Bokassa, not quite like I belong to my master, but pretty much. He sucks up to me because I’m my master’s pet. He realized what he was doing and laughed. “I’m sorry, dear boy. Too many years of playing campus politics makes one hyper-aware of the power-structure in any group, and exactly whose ass needs kissing at any given time.”

Not mine,” I said. “I’m just a bitch.”

Vlad smiled. “Oh no, my boy. Maybe the rest believe that. Maybe you even believe that. But observing is what I do best, and you, for all that you go naked and wear a collar on your throat, have as much power in the wildpack as Redmond and White. More, possibly because our leader doesn’t love them as much as he loves you. He listens to your advice. He consults you when he consults no other. Cain, sweetness, you are the de facto second in command.”

I shook my head. That couldn’t be right. I was just a fucktoy. I rode behind my master, I tended his camp, and I kept him satisfied. That was why he kept me. But something Vlad said was ringing true. I’d have to think a little more.

I blew on my fingers to thaw them and threaded more rope. He held up his hands. “You need a pair of these.” He wore fingerless gloves that covered his palms and wrists.

Yeah, but it’s my fingers that are cold.”

Keep the body warm and the arms and legs stay warm. Keep the arms and legs warm and the hands and feet stay warm. Keep the hands warm and the fingers get better circulation and stay warmer. Simple fluid mechanics.” Remember that, diary, fluid mechanics applies to people as well as to cars.

Where can I get a pair?” I asked, willing to try anything that didn’t leave me slow and aching with cold.

A lady in Settlement Two raises sheep, spins, and knits. She charges dearly for her work, but it is worth it.”

He stroked the scars on my face with the glove. It was softer than I expected wool to be.

We’re headed there next. I’ll be happy to introduce you to her.”

Vlad, you’re doing it again. If you want a taste of me, just ask my master. He shares if he’s asked and if he’s sure I won’t be hurt.” He does too. Sometimes. Spike and Nails keep asking, but he never says yes to them. They run kind of kinky. Yeah, I know, I wear a spiked metal cage on my cock, but Nails usually has belt marks across his shoulders. Barbarossa sends me to White some nights, without being asked, saying our brother needs the company more than he does. Truman has asked once and got me. I like Truman, and the sex was all right, but he’s not my master. Redmond is pretty good, but he and Ripper are tangled up right now, and Ripper’s the jealous kind.

Vlad showed more guts than I expected him to, and stole a kiss from me. If I’d been prepared, I probably would have kissed back, but I wasn’t and didn’t. “I’ll ask tonight. And if you’re good, I’ll even pay for the gloves.”

I’ll be asking my master to say yes.

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