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Dane Ledsham

The ruthless and uncomprimising Lord Commander of Sacramento

0 · 387 views · located in Alternate History/Fiction

a character in “Rise from the Ashes: A Story of the Change”, as played by Ragnarök


Dane Ledsham


N a m e s a k e:
Dane Ledsham

A l i a s:
Lord Commander

N u m e r i c a l:
Age: 39 Birth: October 31st


S o c i o l o g i c a l :
Profession: Lord Commander of Sacramento
Martial Status: Married
Pre-Change Home: Ottawa, Canada
Post-Change Allegiance: City-State of Sacramento
Status: Lord Commander

B i o l o g i c a l :
Height: 6'9
Weight: 290 lbs
Ethnicity: Canadian


P s y c h o l o g i c a l:
Dane is arguably one of the most terrifying men still alive in the Changed world. He is a military veteran of numerous campaigns around the globe and, until the change, he commanded Canada's elite warfare unit JTF2. The man is a born killer; one of those who you would say was born with the "warrior spirit". He has served his country since he was old enough to join cadets and done so with a dedication to Canada and her people that was second to none. Since the collapse of society as we know it he has thrown those energies into preserving Sacramento. He is a no-nonsense, brutally blunt and honest human being who would rather kill someone than waste time talking to them.

P r o f i l e :
Dane often used to joke that he would be more comfortable with a battle axe than a machine gun and the Change has proved him right. Towering to an awe inspiring 6'9 and weighing almost as much as a small bull he is a sight to see even from a distance. Up close he is even more impressive, whip cord muscles strain against the clothes he owns and his shaved head only adds to the intimidation afforded by his size.

K i n d r e d:
Dane married in the second year of the Change. The woman, a redhead as ruthless as he is, has born him six children since the Change happened. Only three of those children are still alive, the others died of disease or starvation in the first four years.

F e a t s:
Built for brute strength, Dane is a man whom wades into battle with a two handed mace. The mass of muscle and extreme violence is a foil however, cleverly masking a man who has attended university for military strategic studies. That pairing of his knowledge with that of Rafael has made him a very dangerous man indeed, both as a soldier and as a battlefield commander.

P r e - C h a n g e:
Text here

Post - C h a n g e:
Text here


So begins...

Dane Ledsham's Story

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

Bakersfield, California Catholics Union
Change Year 10

“God is with us!” The cry swept through the darkened streets of Bakersfield as Priests hurried through the semi-darkness, blazing torches in hand. The clutched bibles to their chests and continued the cry that seemed to echo from every corner.

“Why do they have to kept shouting it?” The question came from a young man with a scarred face and keen eyes. He was watching a priest hurry past below, the phrase ringing from his lips again like clockwork. “Surely if god is with us we don’t have to keep reminding him.”

“Fucked if I know.” Responded a second man who was seated on a barrel of pitch, slowly honing the edge of his sword with a sharpening stone. “Priests have to be useful somehow, better they use their voices here than moaning over the head of some choir boy.”

A chuckle ran through the seated soldiers, ten of them in all. The main wall that fronted into the desert, and provided the frontal defence for the Catholic Stronghold of Bakersfield, was studded with a dozen towers. Each was thirty feet by thirty feet and manned by ten men. These men, a mix of white, Latino and Philippino descent, were the bulwark against the chaos that threatened to overwhelm the town below. They were hard men, toughened by ten years of fighting since the world they knew had come to a crashing halt, and all had killed in the name of their God and to protect those they loved.

“Where are the bastards…” Muttered one as he glanced over the wall into the darkness that was quickly descending over the desert and newly ploughed fields that bordered the banks of the river in both directions.

“To the south I think.” This was from the man who was sharpening his blade, it was clear by the respect that the others showed him that he was in charge of this group. “There are still bridges down there and we know that our picket line was thrown back yesterday.”

“Why’re they even down here? I thought we’d be fighting Mormons. I almost enjoy killing those soft skinned heathens.”

“I don’t know.” That simple answer brought silence to the group as they looked up at him.

“A few months ago we had word that they were busy fighting cannibal and bandit bands that were being driven south by the survivors in Oregon but they must have settled that problem and decided to make a move south. We happen to be the only stronghold in the south that straddles the main highways. If they take us, they control the southern trade routes.”

Their thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a heavy gong ringing from a nearby tower and they leapt to the battlements, staring eagerly into the darkness, all movement in the streets below stopped, even the priests fell silent as all faces towards the gatehouse.

“They’re here…” Muttered the leader. The others strained, peering into the gloom, trying to make out what he could see that they could not.

“How do you know?” Asked one of the younger men. He was new to the garrison, having joined them the month before from San Diego.

As if in answer to his question a long, low, mournful howl rolled through the night from somewhere out in the desert. It was followed by another, and then another, until all the night seemed to be filled with the howls, yips, and cries of a legion of hells hounds.

“Sweet Jesus.” Whispered one man as he crossed himself, others followed suit. “What are they?”

“The Hounds of Sacramento.” The voce startled them and they turned to find one of the elder priests standing behind them clutching a cross to his chest as he stared over their heads. “They have come to do the devils work.”

“Father?” The word was a question.

“The Lord-Commander of Sacramento is a clever man for a heathen and early in the change he began this tactic of physiological warfare using hounds of many types. Now however they have begun to work solely with an equally cunning and cruel breed, I think they are Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Fast, strong, agile, and easy to train for combat.”

The howling suddenly ended, so abruptly that it was if someone had flipped a switch and complete silence fell over the desert again.

“And so it begins.” Said the Priest as pin pricks of light suddenly appeared all across the desert in front of them. Then a sort heavy thuds followed by a swishing sound as the points of fire began to grow in size.

“Artillery!” Screamed a voice down the line and everyone ducked as the first of the flaming objects rose high in the air and then began to fall towards them.

“Oh my god…” The group drew a collective breath as the object fell towards them. There was no mistaking its shape. The flaming object was a man.

* * * * * * *

Dawn rose clear and cloudless the next morning, the pure blue sky smeared with the smoke that rose slowly from Bakersfield. It was a vastly town than the one which had bid goodnight to the sun the day before. The front gates sat open, a slew of bodies crumpled in the dirt just inside the archway showed where a vicious close quarters fight had taken place.

The big Church on the edge of the bluff was almost completely consumed by fire now and a few flames licked out of the ruins where the roof had finally collapsed inwards. Here, at the base of the steps, the bodies were thickest and the square that had once boasted white marble tiles and a beautiful fountain, was stained with blood.

The Lord-Commander of Sacramento strode through the streets as the first rays of sun touched the blood stained streets his men had taken in the wee hours of the morning.

Soldiers nodded at him, grinning as he passed and he returned the greetings with a hearty “Well done” and more than a few bone-crushing hugs when he recognized a soldier he knew well.

He path led him down the main street of the town and his experienced eye took in the dead defenders where they had each tried to protect their own individual homes. His attack had driven them from the walls not by sheer force but by cunning. It was going to go down into the books as one of the best ways to take a city defended by a river.

As his forces had been deploying to the forefront of the city and marching from the south, an elite unit, the Pathfinders, had come from the north by way of the river. While the hounds sent up their great racket and the catapults had returned the towns dead pickets the waterborne soldiers had slipped ashore. They had taken the lower landing and wharf in a mater of minutes. They had “borrowed” their dead enemies uniforms and returned to their posts.

With more flaming bodies on the way, soldiers from the main army had circled the town and, using farmers paths to the water, they had come to the lower landing. Once again stealth proved crucial as the Pathfinders had gone ahead of them, slaughtering the guards they encountered until they reached the main town. The Rivergate, as it was called, had fallen in a few short minutes of fighting. It could not be helped that the rest of the garrison had noticed but then the Pathfinders had used their last ploy. A number of women in their ranks donned typical peasant robes common in Bakersfield and ran screaming through the streets, crying out that the enemy was behind them and the town was lost.

It created enough confusion and brought fear to the men who were to guard the wall and as the main army advanced they abandoned their posts to defend their loved ones. The rest, as they say, is history.

“My Lord-Commander.” A Captain saluted with his sword as he approached the main square. “We have rounded up the survivors and gathered them in the central plaza.”

“Thank you Captain. See to the defences. We don’t want to be caught napping.”

“Yes my lord.” The horseman turned his horse and spurred away towards the gatehouse that now flew the red and gold banner of Sacramento.

The Lord-Commander turned his attention to the plaza that now stretched before him. It was large, even by post-Change standards and he had to admit to being impressed. There were maybe a dozen plazas larger in all of Sacramento.

On one side, smoke curling from its ruin was the Church. The other three sides were ringed with shops and stalls for the Bakersfield market that was so well known in the south. It was the trading hub and held a weekly market that had made it a very wealthy town.

Now however the plaza was filled with sobbing women and children and surely looking men, all of them, save the children, on their knees with their hands bound behind their backs. Around them, strangely out of place in their desert camouflage, stood the victors of the nights action. They began to cheer as he appeared in the plaza, the captives wept openly. It was going to be a very good day.

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“Anything worth having is worth fighting for.” - Unknown

Bakersfield, Sacramento
Change Year 10

The plaza had fallen silent as the Lord-Commander climbed onto the back of his horse so he could better address the assembled captives and his own victorious soldiers. His armour, like that of his men, seemed to gleam a dull bronze colour, the red cloak about his shoulders swirling with his movements. Soldiers stood about the edge of the plaza, his regular troops dressed like himself, the elite pathfinders clad in desert camouflage.

"Men and women of Sacramento! We have ourselves a victory!" He punched his fist into the air and a roar went up from the surrounding soldiers. Shields fronted in bronze and emblazoned with a red sun pierced by a spear flashed in the sunlight as they were punched into the sky and orange banners with the same sun flew in the wind that tugged at all those standing in the plaza.

"It's been a long hard march and a short but bitter fight. We are at the extreme edge of the Cities borders and have brought this town, the most important town in all of southern California under our control, for that I salute you!" More cheers and now weapons were slammed against shields. The hounds present howled their approval and the captives shrank away from the reddish beasts.

"Now we make a choice, what do we do with this lot?" He waved a hand over the captives who had stayed silent. Some cried, most sat in quiet disbelief that their city could have fallen so easily. Not a priest was to be seen amongst them, all had either been in the church when it burned, or been thrown into the blaze by the victors. Everyone knew that priests spread disease, both morally and physically.

Numerous shouts came from every quarter on what was to be done, many of them less than pleasant and those who had already suffered some of the fates suggested clutched their tattered clothes about them and shrank away from the laughing soldiers.

The Lord-Commander held up his hand and an immediate silence fell over the plaza again save for the whimpering of the captives and the screams of terrified babies, their mothers trying to shush them as quickly as possible. For a long moment he looked over the assembled captives, most of them women and children, perhaps five hundred had died in the fighting. He caught a few gazes here and there that were quickly turned away but most avoided his gaze.

"Listen up citizens of Bakersfield!" His voice boomed over the plaza, rising even above the sound of the crackling timbers in the ruined church.

"Sacramento is not a discriminator of sex, religion, or any personal beliefs. As you may have noticed," He waved his hand at the town around them. "The majority of the town is still in one piece and homes have not been looted. You have two choices." He held up two fingers, ticking off their options slowly and clearly for all to hear.

"One. Swear fealty to the Lord-Marshal and return to your lives. You will be allowed to retain your personal property. Your faith we will not challenge but neither will we tolerate sedition. Many of you will be resettled north of here so that you cannot cause trouble for us so close to the CCU. The land will be granted to you by the Lord-Marshall, of equal value to what you leave behind here." That caused a small stir in the crowd and more than a few exclamations of surprise.

The second finger fell. "Two. You can be stubborn and insist on remaining loyal to the CCU. If you do, your property and everything you own is forfeit, including your bodies. You will be sold into slavery, if you cannot work, you will be killed. Those who wish to follow this path will stay where they are, those who wish to live as free men, stand up. You have minutes to make your decision."

He turned his back on the square that suddenly sounded like a thousand bees as everyone began to whisper and talk at once. He knew that most would take his offer, he had given this speech many time at other towns like this. Many of those who moved from here would be replaced with captives from his northern campaigns. It wasn't fool proof but it removed them from the comfort of the familiar. The Change had altered peoples thinking and most of them would becoming hard working and productive citizens within a year or two once they realized that Sacramento kept its word.

"My Lord-Commander." One of his signallers caught his attention. "Message from the Gatehouse, a rider approaching. One of the Los Vegas group our scouts saw last evening."

"Ballsy..." Muttered the Lord-Commander. "I like it. Order the picket line to let the rider pass. I will speak with whoever it is when I am finished here."

The signaller nodded to turned away, using a small hand held mirror to flash a quick series of signals back to the men on the top of the gatehouse. The Lord-Commander turned back to the plaza and then leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle. He could see families arguing amongst themselves. Already some had begun to stand. Mostly young couples or single individuals. In some places those who stood were youths, shrugging off their parents attempts to pull them back down. Making them chose their own fate had a decidedly advantageous edge in making them argue amongst themselves rather than simply being forced.

It occurred to him that he hadn't bothered to check the time when he told them they had five minutes and so he drew a precious and virtually irreplaceable pocket watch that needed to be wound from inside his chest plate. He felt a sudden hush fall on the crowd and glanced up to see them all staring at him in expectant horror.

"Three minutes." He growled. The buzzing began again.

He took the time to glance about the square at the soldiers who ringed it. Most were busy watching the crowd for any trouble makers, a few were working to staunch bloody wounds as medics worked through them. It hadn't been a totally flawless fight for his side. Maybe two dozen men had been killed, three times as many wounded, but it had been a remarkably low price to pay for taking a town of three thousand.

One thing he and the Lord-Marshal had not skipped was uniformity. They both knew the power of a uniform and how even a small group of men who looked and acted the same could rout a much larger disorganized group. Uniformity bred confidence in his own men and sowed fear amongst others who faced them. The emblem they had chosen from a book series, Game of Thrones. Both men had agreed that Dornes speared sun was appropriate for the region.

He flipped open the watch again, realizing once again that he had forgotten to actually *look* at the time. It must be five minutes, or close enough anyway. He sat up straight in his saddle and snapped his fingers at a bugler. The man sounded two quick blasts on the instrument and the plaza quieted again as the surrounding soldiers stepped seemed to stiffen, hands tightening on the grips of their weapons. At this point only fear of the unknown really kept the crowd in check since the victorious army only numbered a hundred or so over a thousand. The Rhodesians, most of them sitting quietly at the moment, were certainly key to the suppression of any attempts to attack the soldiers.

"Time to decide!" His voice boomed over them all. "Those who wish to live free, stand and be recognized."

It took a moment then people began to stand as he knew they would. It did not take long until the majority of them were on their feet. They did not speak, most just stood with their heads held high, ignoring the entreaties of their family members who still sat upon the cold marble.

"Captain." The Lord-Commander turned to one of his waiting officers. "Process them accordingly."

Soldiers began to move forward, leading those who had stood from the crowd in small groups. One hundred at a time would be allowed to collect what they could carry before being escorted out of the city. From there they would be escorted north. The new settlers for Bakersfield were already en-route, they had been waiting south of the city for the siege to end. Other soldiers began to drag away those who had remained sitting and forcing them to their knees on the steps of the Church. There was the expected crying and screaming of families being torn apart but ten years of bitter fighting following the end of the world had hardened the gentlest soul amongst them.

There were few enough, maybe a couple of hundred, that were forced to the steps of the smouldering church. It was to them that the Lord-Commander rode next, his subordinates could handle the relocation project, it was not the first one they had done. Those on the steps were a mix of young and old, men and women, tearful and defiant.

Once on the steps they were sorted again. This time they were sorted by age and health. Those who looked healthy were looked over by medics who pronounced them fit and able or not. There were many who refused to stand on their own two feet, instead crying out prayers to a God who did not appear to save them.

The group consisting of the elderly and those to sick or injured to be of use were herded into a nearby building and the doors were barred. Those who were still able of body were shackled and roped about the neck. They would be sold as slaves when the market re-opened. It was not a part of the job that the Lord-Commander relished, he still had the long ago instilled values of protecting those who could not help themselves but this was war, in a different time, and for all intents and purposes, a different world.

"Lock em up. Break them if you must." He said to the a small wiry looking man who offered him a thin smile. "They're worthless dead or injured. Your pay relies on it." The man nodded and saluted before ordering the shackled line into a shuffling march. They would be held in a corral until the time came to sell them. Those with attitude would be broken of it, somehow, the Lord-Commander didn't question the tactics of his men.

"Hurry Ladies and Gentlemen!" He called out to the soldiers moving about the plaza. "The enemy is sure to respond!"

Sure enough, to the south, someone had heard of the siege and troops were mobilizing to respond. Bakersfield's war was far from over.

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"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." - Thomas Jefferson

Bakersfield, Sacramento

"Las Vegas, huh?" the young lieutenant drawled loftily as he studied the black-and-red face mask on the small, tranquil woman perched on top of the sand-colored horse. He folded his arms across his chest and cast a sidelong glance at one of the sergeants standing by. "Care to elaborate how she got here?"

The man turned slightly to glance at the woman, then back to the lieutenant. "This civilian came to the picket on her own cognition, sir," he answered calmly. "Approached us on horseback and asked to see the Lord-Commander."

The officer grinned amusedly and fixed his hands on his hips. "And why should we allow you to do that?"

Aves' smile was obscured by her mask, her large brown eyes watching him calmly. "I'd say that's a question for you to ask the Lord-Commander after he and I finish our discussion," she responded serenely in her slight Southern accent, in a tone that almost made her sound reasonable.

The man blinked at her and narrowed his eyes, trying to analyze what it was that he might have been missing. "Are you crazy?" She smiled and shook her head, feeling the irony as she did so. "Are you a visiting dignitary?" The words popped out of his mouth almost as quickly as they'd entered his mind. She tilted her head and pointed to the mask, then pulled a small pouch from a pack on the side of her saddle, unzipping it and riddling through it just briefly before retrieving a thin metal rectangle. She offered it to the lieutenant and drew her spine up to full height, watching him as he studied the small piece. Once he caught the correct detail, he quickly flashed his surprised eyes up to hers, then to her mask, then to the card again. "Is this what I think it is?" She nodded slowly. His face was apparently skeptical. He studied the card again, then handed it back to her. "If you're lying, we'll execute you. Do you understand that?"

Aves nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything to the contrary," she answered coolly.

A long silence followed as the lieutenant continued to examine her suspiciously from where he stood. Finally, he cleared his throat and nodded to one of the scouts nearby. "Ride ahead and let the Lord-Commander know someone from the Las Vegas caravan is here," he instructed, then turned to the two who had brought Aves to him. "Take her there. But ride slow." He looked back up to Aves and nodded disattachedly, turning on his heels to go back to the small outpost along the defense line.

"This way, ma'am," one of them said politely, off to her left, as they began to ride out.

# # #

"There they are." Aves turned her head to look at what the voice to her right indicated, spotting the small group gathered at one of the outposts a short distance away.

"Thank you," she responded, keeping her tone calm and devoid of any kind of inflection to indicate her state of mind. They less they knew, the better. "Does your Lord-Commander typically inspect defensive structures?"

Silence. Aves rolled her eyes and smirked, and kept pace with the pair as they picked up their speed to reach the small group as quickly as possible. Before she knew it, they were there.

"My Lord-Commander, the trade envoy we spotted earlier has arrived." The trooper who had ridden forward was speaking to the largest of the group, a man who towered over the others by a good head in height. He turned to look at the small figure on the horse between his two troopers.

"Good afternoon. Nice to have someone from Sin City here today."

Aves nodded politely, and reached a hand up to her ear to pull off her face mask. She smiled courteously and extended a hand toward the man who could only be the Lord-Commander, even legendary in certain parts of the Paradise Republic. "Welcome to the San Joaquin Valley, Lord-Commander," she greeted brightly, allowing a genuine smile to work its way across her face. "It seems as though you've been busy."

The big man took the offered hand and shook it, smiling approval at her grip, noting all at once that she was pretty, well-built, and, for some reason, carried a guitar on her back.

"Well met, I am afraid you have the advantage on me, I do not know your name, Miss ...?" He left the last part hanging in the air.

She made a quick face and laughed to herself. "I apologize. I'm Aves Beckett. I'm part of the Las Vegas Proper Council, western capital of the Paradise Republic." She held her face mask up briefly to gesture at the simple emblem. "I'm a leader of the Las Vegas Proper Artisans, as well. Forgive me."

"Ah, of course, the name is familiar to me. A pleasure, Miss Beckett. And, yes, we have been busy. A hard night's work, you might say." He said with a thin smile as a waved his hand back toward Bakersfield. "I assume you are here on a trade mission. If so, please be assured that we do not make war on merchants unless they provide intelligence to our enemies." For a moment his face was deadly serious but then he smiled again. "I have of course heard of your skill with a guitar, I hope you and your fellows will join for a victory feast this evening."

She held her expression and nodded for a moment, keeping her eyes looking ahead confidently for a moment. "That's kind of you. But first, I should inform you why I'm here," she stated squarely, then turned to look back over her shoulder as she pulled her left leg forward and over her saddle, sliding off and onto the dirt, avoiding allowing the guitar to disrupt her descent. She didn't break her eye contact, despite the sudden drastic drop. The horse had certainly given her an advantage of height. "I'm not here to trade, Lord-Commander. I'd like to discuss something different." She gave him another nod. "It's quite confidential."

The Lord-Commander raised his eyebrow for a moment and then, after a moment's pause, nodded back. If there had been anything he was expecting from this diminutive woman, this was most certainly not it. Whatever had come into this woman's mind couldn't have been more than a day old, since it was doubtful she had known he would be there. He was intrigued.

He turned to the men that stood with him and gave them a curt nod. "Gentlemen, a moment if you please."

The officers nodded and moved a dozen paces away, just out of earshot but close enough they could still be called upon if needed. Around them small groups of disconsolate civilians were making their way out of the city under the watchful eye of red-and-bronze-clad soldiers.

Aves waited patiently until the Lord-Commander shifted his attention back to her. She nodded and took a deep breath.

For all the years she'd thought about doing this, for all the moments she'd told herself that one day this might happen and how it would be so gratifying to do, for all the time she'd spent envisioning this moment... she found herself feeling slightly more anxious about it than she'd imagined she'd be. However, it had to be done. It made sense.

"I'm here to help you take Las Vegas Proper, and the western portion of the Paradise Republic."

Of all the things that the Lord-Commander had been expecting, this was most certainly not amongst even his wildest expectations. He didn't try to hide the genuine look of surprise that flitted briefly across his face as the possibilities of what she was saying raced through his head.

Taking Las Vegas would be useful, of that there was no doubt. It straddled the only decent road through the desert and south into Arizona. Despite its rather remote location, it had come through The Change quite well due to the efforts of a collective of determined and skilled individuals, and the young woman standing before him had been one of its architects. 

"And why would you do that, Miss Beckett?" He said the words slowly. He would make no promises himself; the Lord-Marshal had an ultimate plan, but this offer could change it.

Aves dug her boot heel into the ground. So many ways to answer the question, but not enough time to go into specific details, nor the desire to; she had no evidence to assume that any of Sacramento's leadership would perceive hearing the entire story as being valuable intelligence or the ramblings of an overly-emotional and bitter woman. The entire story would come out in the near-future, anyhow.

The entire story was too much to get into at that moment, anyway, even if there was time and interest.

"I'd like to do that," she started, continuing to grip onto the reins to keep any anxiety distracted from creeping into her facial expression or body language, "because I think Sacramento can do a better job of protecting Las Vegas than Las Vegas can."

A smile tugged at the corner of the Lord-Commanders lips at the words. Whether it was amusement or a snarl it was hard to tell.

“I suspect that Las Vegas considers itself in need of protection from us rather than anyone else. I am however intrigued by your offer and I am sure the Lord-Marshal would equally be so.”

He jerked his head toward the lines of refugees slowly winding their way north. Already other groups were moving south from the waiting group brought by the army and being assigned houses.

“You can move north with them, if you like. I can provide you an identity disc that will you to arrive unmolested at the capital. Or do you prefer to stay here with us for now?"

Aves smiled appreciatively while eyeing the line preparing to go northward along the highway. "Thank you, Lord-Commander. I'm grateful. If you feel I should travel north to give the Lord-Marshal the details, then that's what I should do. Besides—"she watched the traveling group as the man had just indicated—"it looks like you have a lot of work to do."

"It would be best I think." He said and then drew a golden disc from the belt at his waist and handed it to her. It was small, no more than a few inches across, with the impaled sun in the middle. One the back side it had a strange looking rune on it. The Lord-Commander offered no explanation of the marking.

He turned and snapped his fingers towards the two troopers who had brought Aves into the city to begin with. They slid off their horses and hurried forward, saluting as they reached them.

"Gentlemen, Miss Beckett is to be taken to the Capital. She is to be delivered to the Lord-Marshal with all haste." He turned back to her. "Miss Beckett. These men will see you to the capital. This," he held up the disc, "will provide you all food, drink, shelter and fresh horses at any location you stop. Give it to no one but the Lord-Marshal himself."

He looked as if he was about to dismiss them when he paused, glancing toward the distant ridge line, then back at her.

"What would you like us to do with your comrades-in-arms?"

She palmed the disc and carefully placed it in an inner pocket of her long brown coat. She turned to steady her hands on either side of her saddle, then lifted a foot into the stirrup and hopped up effortlessly to prepare to ride again. She looked back toward the Lord-Commander and offered a gracious smile. "Thank you for your help," she replied warmly. She turned to look in the direction that he did, just southeast, back where she new the others were still waiting. Nervously, at that, was as much as she knew. "If it pleased you, I ask that you leave them be. They're my friends. They're not well-armed. They don't have any intentions toward you," she spoke just audibly, "and none of them are part of the problem." She swiveled her head back to look at him again. "The problems are back in Las Vegas itself." She paused briefly as she worked the mask back over her face, then held a gloved hand out toward him. "Thank you for your assistance, Lord-Commander. Perhaps we will be seeing each other again soon."

His massive hand closed over hers and for a moment he held the grip, his brown, almost black eyes, seeming to search her soul. After a few seconds he released her hand and stepped back from the horse.

"Then we shall let them be. If they ask for you, we will deny everything." He chuckled. "If your words are true, believe me, we will see each other again soon. Ride swiftly and safely."

He turned away from her and back toward the officers who were still waiting for him. The two troopers closed in behind her as she began to ride. They were there for her protection as much as to ensure that she did not stray, of that there could be no doubt.

Aves knew the path to Sacramento. Highway 99. Almost 300 miles to Sacramento. She'd studied the highway routes so often. It wouldn't be impossible to do reach the city within five days. It was about the same distance from Bakersfield to Las Vegas. It would be best if she managed to carry out her plan and still have the ability to be back in the city within a few weeks—before anyone would come looking for her.

Time was of the essence.