Tavel Pitesti seated Janice at one corner of the huge square dining table and Mel on the adjacent side before sitting between them. Janice thought about insisting that Mel sit beside her but then decided to let it go.
Before any conversation started, Alasandre arrived with three bowls of soup. Expecting tomato soup, Janice took a big spoonful and almost choked as the strange, chilled taste touched her tongue. Mel tasted the soup and seemed to like it, as she continued to eat.
"What one would call in English beet soup," Tavel explained. "It is a favorite among our peasantry, quite nutritious and still plentiful, as your countrymen have no fondness for beets." His words and tone were bland. He himself took a sip or two before putting his spoon down.
Janice took a drink from her glass, finding it to contain water, not wine.
"I understand that you and your companion found some excitement in our local mines." He addressed himself to Janice, not to Mel, who was finishing her soup.
"A Magyar boy sent one of the ore wagons our way," Janice answered, being careful to maintain her Teutonic accent. She was sure the Count had already heard a full account of the incident--from his servants or from some other informant, but, interested in hearing his reaction, she continued her account. "By doing this, he put the villagers working with him in a great deal of danger--the women of being crushed by the wagon and the men of being suspected of being his accomplices."
"He was a Magyar, yes," Pitesti informed her, "but, more than that, he was a Szekely. I don't imagine the fate of a few Vlachs meant much to him."
Alasandre removed the soup bowls. Remembering Mel's comment, Janice kept an eye on him as he did so. He did seem to watch Mel intently as he went about his duties. Janice caught Mel's eye across their host and nodded. Mel's look told her the message was received.
"I don't understand, Tavel. What is a. . . .a Skelly? And a Vlak?" Mel asked. Janice marvelled again at hearing her voice without the South Carolina inflection. While not Greek by any meand, her accent was somehow curiously neutral.
The Count had noticed also. "Your English is excellent, Maria," he praised her before answering her questions. "Szekelys are ethnic Magyars who came to Transylvania from what is now Hungary in about 1000 A.D. All of the men were warriors and thus considered to be nobles. Their descendents still consider themselves to be superior to the Vlachs--or Slavs--of the area, who were farmers, not fighters. The Vlachs, as well as the Wallachians, don't care for the Szekelys at all."
"The villagers didn't hesitate to say that they had no part in the boy's sabotage," Janice commented.
"I understand you gave them reason to be cooperative," the Count answered, still mildly. "Your reputation seems to have preceded you from your. . . .work in Greece, if not France."
Before Janice could answer, Mel interrupted. "The boy was already dead when the villager told Mel what he had done."
"If you had not saved the woman's life," Pitesti told her, "her father-in-law would have been willing to kill the Szekely himself. The villagers are quite fond of Troika."
"Even if she is from another village, and her sister works in your castle?" Janice asked.
Before the Count could answer, Alasandre returned, carrying a silver tray. On it was a large dish of vegetables, steamed and tempting, and a platter containing a large roast, browned to perfection. Balancing the tray, he served each diner a generous portion of vegetables and allowed each to use a serving fork to make their own selection from the meat. Janice took a portion of meat as generous as that of vegetables. Mel started to wave away the meat, as did their host. "Maria," Janice directed, "take a slice of the meat. You're becoming too thin." Mel opened her mouth to protest, then quietly followed this command. Both Pitesti and Alasandre watched the exchange between the two women.
Alasandre left and quickly returned with red wine, which he poured for both of the women. "Please bring a light desert and more water now," his employer requested. "Then leave us."
Alasandre quickly did as he was told, bringing each of the diners a small bowl of fruit and filling their water glasses from a cut-glass pitcher bearing what was probably the Pitesti family crest. Then he backed out of the dining chamber and did not reappear.
Janice savored the crisp vegetables and the delicious meat. With Janice's glance at her plate, Mel tasted the meat and began eating the vegetables. "Venison?" Janice asked her host. "Do you eat a lot of game?"
"Yes to both questions," Pitesti answered. "The meat is roebuck, which are plentiful in these mountains. We have a history in this country of making use of what we have in abundance and not worrying about what we lack. The villagers in the valley have their gardens and keep domestic animals, such as cattle and pigs. On this mountain, we lack pasture, keeping only a few hardy horses, which forage for themselves, needing only a little hay in the winter. Betta raises some poultry, and she and Mikel care for a garden and a few fruit trees. Alasandre and I hunt as needed."
"You don't trade with the villagers, Tavel?"
"Very little, Maria, although we buy the hay from local farmers. Before the war, we filled our needs during trips to the cities. Now we're almost completely self-sufficient and rarely leave the mountain."
"You don't have good relations with the villagers," Janice stated, not bothering to make it a question.
"I wouldn't say that," Pitesti said.
Janice noticed he didn't deny it either. "Is it because you're ethnically German?"
"Where did you get that idea? From the Reichskommander?" Not waiting for confirmation, he chuckled before continuing. "Grube is convinced because of my title and appearance that I'm a member of your Master Race. Actually, Hungary has ruled Transylvania for much of its history, and most of the nobility have been Magyars."
"Most?" Mel asked. "And you?"
"My ancestors were mostly Vlachs," he explained. "And they were farmers, peasants. But some Saxons--Germans--were brought in to settle part of Transylvania after the Mongol invasion in the 1200's." Janice noticed that he talked of centuries ago as if speaking of recent history. "Although the Saxons and Vlachs didn't generally mix, a couple of my ancestors somehow managed a romance--and, even more difficult, got their families to allow them to marry."
"How did your family go from being peasants to being members of the nobility?" Mel asked.
"The Saxon part of the family had a tradition of military service," he explained. "Even after intermarrying with the local farmers, they kept this tradition. One of my ancestors was elevated to the nobility by Prince Gyorgy Rakcozi for an act of bravery during the Thirty Years' War. That was in 1644. Transylvania's involvement in that war ended a year later, and that first Count and his son managed to acquire a great fortune and a great deal of land, including the site of this castle." He laughed ruefully. "It would be best not to dwell on how they did this, or I might understand too well the animosity of the villagers, which probably dates back to when their ancestors served mine."
The meal concluded, the Count asked, "Would you both join me on a walk around the garden? There is a full moon that will light our way, and I think you will find the setting most pleasant."
Janice looked at Mel and then answered. "Maria is almost falling asleep on her plate," she noted. "However, I am feeling the lack of exercise of the last few days. I will join you, but I need to have a word with my secretary first." Without waiting for acquiescence from either her host or her friend, Janice rose and walked from the dining room. In the hall outside, she turned to face Mel, who had followed her. Janice thought that she had never seen Mel look so weary. "Go on up to bed," she said. "You look like you'll fall down if you don't. Just one thing, if you get the chance ask Betta to help you."
"Bella? Why? Help me how?"
"Ask her to help you prepare for bed," Janice explained. "Give her a chance to continue the conversation I interrupted earlier. See if she'll give you more information about these friends of hers and Troika's. Is she talking about a resistance cell in the village? Or just villagers who appreciate what you did today?"
Mel nodded and walked down the hall toward the central chamber and the stairs. Janice turned back to the dining room to join the Count for brandy served by his manservant, and then for their walk.
Janice was already up and nearly dressed when Mel opened her eyes. As Mel watched, Janice buttoned the high collar of her black uniform. "Why are you wearing the same clothing you wore yesterday? The other fits, and Betta washed and ironed it yesterday."
"I like this one better," Janice said, even though she despised both uniforms and what they represented. "Speaking of Betta, did you talk with her last night?"
Mel nodded. "I saw her in the hallway and asked her to help me get ready for bed. I felt silly, but she didn't seem surprised."
"Did she talk about how her friends would save you from the Monster?"
"She didn't say much of anything. I think she's nervous because she doesn't know what you overheard."
Janice thought for a minute. "Let's see if we can stage some drama to encourage faster action from your new supporters." With that, she walked to Margethe's case of horrors. She glanced through the instruments in the tray, then setting that aside, she chose a short leather strap and hit it against the foot of the bed. "Yell," she told her friend, who was now sitting up, her back against the high head of the bed.
Janice screamed, "You lazy bitch! I told you to get out of that bed. Now!" She hit the mattress near Mel's foot, and Mel flinched and cried out.
"Louder," Janice whispered as she rained a series of blows on the mattress.
Getting into the spirit of things, Mel jumped from the bed and yelped. "Ow! Oh. I'm up. Please stop."
"You do what I say if you don't want more," Janice shouted.
"I'm sorry, Margethe. It won't happen again." Mel put on such a sad expression that Janice almost laughed. "I'll be dressed in a few minutes and ready to go with you."
Janice sobered. "You're not going with me today. That's why I let you sleep. You're staying to help Tavel with that translation."
Mel's eyebrows rose. "Tavel? And you changed your mind about letting me work on the translation? Exactly what happened on that LONG walk last night?"
"I just decided it wouldn't hurt to play along with him." Janice sat on the edge of the bed while Mel washed in the basin and started to get dressed. "Some of the things he said last night made me wonder where his true sympathies lie. Besides, I'm sure you'll enjoy looking at those Greek writings more than hanging around the SS."
"If I stay here, what are you going to be up to?" Mel asked. It was clear she didn't trust Janice to stay out of trouble.
"Grube is supposed to send a car for me. We're meeting at the mines, probably so he can show off his new security precautions inside the tunnels. What he doesn't know is that I'm going to use the car to stop at the village before going on to the mines."
"Will that be safe for you?"
"Most of the adults spend the day working on the farms or in the mines--or on whatever projects the Germans assign them," Janice explained. "Probably nothing but kids and a few grannies in the village. I just want to get a feel for the place, give the old folks a look at me."
"Maybe it will stir things up. We can't wait around forever to bring out the resistance cell."
"Just so you don't bring them out by being too inviting a target."
"Don't worry. I'll be careful."
Janice and Mel saw no one as they descended the stairs to the high-ceilinged chamber below. Janice started for the outside door, instead of toward the breakfast room. At her friend's look of surprise, she explained, "The Reichskommander's car should be here by now. Besides, I'm not hungry."
Mel made a show of feeling the shorter woman's forehead, but her concern was real. "Are you ill?"
"No, but I think the rich food here has taken my appetite." She laughed. "I'll make up for it tonight. Goodbye. . . .Maria."
As the small woman disappeared out the door, Mel turned away, feeling forlorn already at their separation. She found Alasandre uncomfortably close behind her. "Oh."
"I'm sorry that I startled you, Miss," he said. "The Fraulein won't be coming to breakfast?"
"No, Alasandre. She has an appointment this morning."
"Pity. I made a special breakfast, and she seems to like her food." He smiled, a sight that Mel didn't find appealing. "You will have to eat her share." Bowing, he urged her toward the breakfast room. "The Count is waiting."
The Count was already seated and had just started to eat a porridge of what looked like a thick barley paste. He rose and seated Mel to his right. "Margethe is not joining us?"
"Tavel, please, Maria."
"No, Tavel. She has an appointment with the Reichskommander." She added, "She told me to help you translate the Greek writings."
"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "She said last night that she would think about it, but I wasn't sure she would agree."
"You must be very persuasive, Tavel. It's rare for Margethe to change her mind about anything." She paused as Alasandre brought her a bowl of the porridge and served some crusty bread and butter.
"Bacon or sausages would go better," the manservant commented.
"Alasandre, that will be all."
The pale man bent his tall form into a quick bow and withdrew from the room. For a few minutes, neither host nor guest spoke as they ate their breakfast. Although the consistency was somewhat pastelike, Mel found the porridge to her liking and even ate a piece of the bread with a little of the butter. The butter was light and pleasant but had a taste a little different from what she was used to.
"From goats' milk," the Count explained. "We don't keep cows."
Mel sat back, indicating that she was finished. "Would you like me to look at those papers now? Or would you rather wait until later?"
"Now," he replied. He smiled, and Mel thought how much younger he looked when he did so. He stood and pulled out her chair. "I'm sorry to appear so eager, but I've been frustrated by one phrase. If it would come clear, the whole passage would fall into place." As he talked, he led the way out of the dining chamber and into a passage Mel had not seen before. "This is the library built by my ancestor Count Clendosz Pitesti. He was the first of the nobility to bother to learn how to read. Before that, reading was left to the clergy and prelates."
Mel's eye was caught by a large tome lying open on its own pedestal. Bound in thick leather, it was beautifully illustrated with what she recognized as Biblical scenes. She suspected it was a Gutenberg Bible and was surprised to find it written, not in Latin, but in a language she could not read.
"That's a Noul Testament, the first edition to be printed in a Rumanian translation. It was printed in Gyulafehervar in 1648 and presented to a member of my family by Gyorgy Rakocsi himself--just before his death."
"Gyorgy Rokocsi?" Mel remembered that he had been mentioned at dinner the night before.
"Prince of Transylvania. It was he who elevated us to the nobility. He believed in rewarding his vassals, no matter what their ethnic origins--or their religion." The Count walked back to stand beside Mel. "Go ahead and touch the book, Maria. I believe that books, no matter what their age, are meant to be touched and used. Otherwise, like indolent people, they have no purpose."
Careful of the spine of the book, Mel turned the pages and studied the illustrations. "I wish I could read Rumanian," she commented. "Wasn't 1648 early for a translation into the vernacular? Wasn't Rumania a Catholic country?"
"Under the Hapsburgs, it was. But Transylvania became independent after the Ottoman Turks defeated the Hapsburgs. The Transylvanian princes, including Gyorgy I, encouraged religious toleration, allowing the nobles to decide the religion of their dependents."
"Any Christian religion. My family became followers of Luther very early on. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists. . . .all were free to worship in Transylvania."
"But the common people had to follow the religion of their lords?" She continued to turn pages.
"Yes, but that was changed just three years before that New Testament was printed." He reached past her hands and turned to a picture of Jesus and the apostles in the Garden. As their hands brushed, she thought how soft and warm his were. How could she ever have feared that he was one of the undead? "When I was a boy, this was my favorite illustration. See how intently the apostles watch their master? Even his betrayer?" While she studied the picture, he continued, "The treaty that ended Transylvania's involvement in the Thirty Years' War included an agreement that the serfs would also receive religious toleration."
Mel turned to a page that was familiar to her, one for which she needed no knowledge of the language of this Bible. She was not disappointed in this illustration. The Count leaned in close to look over her shoulder. "Ruth and Naomi," he commented. "Interesting."
Mel turned back to the page that was open when they had entered the library. "Could we look at your Greek manuscript now?"
The Count stepped back. "Of course. It's on my desk, where it has been ever since I obtained it." He led her to a dark, heavy piece of furniture at the rear of the library and lit a couple of oil lamps that hung above it. With the added light, Mel could see that the library wasn't very large, but the bookshelves, lining the walls from floor to ceiling, were packed with books, many of them first editions of famous authors, some nearly as old as the Gyulafehervar Bible.
The Count pulled a high-backed chair up beside his own and, sitting down, motioned for Mel to join him. Having worked for several years beside her father, one of the foremost anthropologists in the world, Mel was well-acquainted with the sight of a scholar falling under the spell of his work. This was what she saw as the nobleman opened a manuscript folder and, after reverently smoothing the pages it contained, read silently for several minutes, seemingly forgetting her presence. His fair hair fell over his brow, and she resisted an impulse to smooth it back and out of his eyes.
Perhaps feeling her gaze, the Count suddenly looked up. "I'm sorry," he said, clearly embarrassed. "I love this passage, and I'm so used to being here alone. . . . Please forgive my rudeness."
"You don't need to apologize, Tavel. I understand what it's like to get lost in your work. For a long time, that's all I did."
She understood her mistake even before surprise registered on his face. "Your work? I thought. . . .I just assumed that Margethe found you in some Greek village, that you were. . . ." His cheeks reddened, and Mel wondered how many men she had ever seen blush.
"You assumed I was a farm girl or that I worked in a tavern, something like that," she finished for him. "No, I was. . . .I was a teacher. Of history." She hoped this story would do. Janice would not be happy at this slip.
"I should have known," the Count responded. "You clearly are more educated than my first guesses would have allowed." He moved the folder so she could get a clear look at its contents.
"Why, this is parchment, not paper," Mel commented. She ran her fingers lightly over the smooth texture of the document. "It's beautiful. I can't believe the ink is still so clear."
"It isn't an original, which I guess was written sometime late in the last millenium," the Count said. "I would guess that this is a copy of a copy of a copy. . . ." His voice trailed off. "There may be some mistakes that occurred in the copying process, and I'm afraid those may be affecting my translation."
Mel fell to reading the page that was open. "It's in ancient Greek, originally written sometime during the Mycenaean period. There are some anachronisms, probably changes unconsciously made by the scribes who copied it. That usually happens in any transcription. You're going to substitute some of your own manner of expression whenever you copy something."
"Can you read it?" he asked. "I've struggled my way through most of it. I'm afraid my Greek isn't as good as it should be."
She nodded, her natural modesty outweighed by her professional confidence. "This all seems pretty straightforward. It's a retelling of the legend of the titan Prometheus. This part tells about how he brought fire to humankind and so earned the eternal wrath of the Olympian gods."
"You can read it that easily?" he asked. "It took me weeks to figure out that much. Would you look at the part that's giving me the most trouble?" Without waiting for an answer, he carefully turned several pages. "Here."
Mel obligingly studied the passage he indicated. Then, her eyes widening, she turned to the previous page and read that, too, before returning to the section in question.
"What?" She seemed startled, as if she had forgotten his presence. "You were right. There's an error here that could easily fool someone who. . . ." She stopped.
"Someone who wasn't as expert as you?" he guessed.
She ignored the compliment and pointed to a couple of phrases. "Someone transposed a couple of words here. And here they confused a Myceanean word with a later Greek word with almost the opposite meaning."
She turned back to the previous page and started to read, the ancient Greek flowing off her tongue in modern-day English. "Hercules and his companion rose from the passage of the dark cavern into the light at the peak of the mountain. The companion passed first through a circle of boulders that had the appearance of great, strange eggs. There was the sound of shells cracking and breaking apart, and it became clear that this was not mere appearance. Inside each egg was a fully-grown and well-armed soldier, part-man and part-eagle. These bird-soldiers surrounded Hercules's companion and, although that warrior fought ably and bravely, it seemed but a matter of time before they were victorious."
"Is there any indication of who that warrior-companion was?"
"No," Mel said, which was true. However, she knew from another source the identity of Hercules's ally on this adventure.
"I assume it was Iolaus, Hercules's servant, but it would be nice to know for sure. Please continue."
"Hercules entered the battle, and the tide was swiftly turned. However, as he was occupied with the bird-soldiers, a flying serpent, a terrible beast doing the bidding of his stepmother Hera, descended from the heavens and snatched up the tall warrior."
"Tall? You're sure it says 'tall'?" he asked. "I translated that as stalwart or loyal."
"No, it's definitely tall."
". . . .the tall warrior. In this warrior's care was the sword needed to free the titan Prometheus and so return to humankind the gifts he had so generously proferred. Bravely, this fighter made of the dread flyer a mount, and, dodging high peaks and rock walls, rode the serpent back to the peak where Hercules waited. And in the warrior's hand was the sword needed to free the titan, friend of man."
Mel looked up for a moment before continuing. "This next part explains about the sword: Now, both Hercules and this warrior had contended to be the one to strike the blow that would release Prometheus from his chains. This was done not for desire for glory, but for the wish of each to spare the life of the other. The sword and the chains were both of the metal and design of the great god Hephaestus and, whoever struck the blow would bear the result of this meeting. Whether mortal or half-mortal, the one striking sword to chain would become as the cinders at the bottom of a great furnace. Neither Hercules nor the warrior would cede this fate to the other and each had contended to be the one to strike the self-fatal blow."
"This is mentioned earlier in the text," the Count confirmed. "The warrior retrieved the sword from a stone in a scene much like the Arthurian legend. Then Hercules took the sword until the warrior tricked him out of it just before they climbed out of the cavern."
"When above the peak, the warrior cut a huge rent in the neck of the flying serpent, seemingly assuring the death of both. The warrior dropped Hephaestus's sword, ceding it at last to Hercules. That son of Zeus, having strength of mind as well as body, lifted up a great rock and, holding it above his head, deflected the sword so that it soundly struck the chains binding the titan, freeing his hand and spirit. With a tremendous roar heard as far away as the northern mountains and the southern Pelopponese, Prometheus ripped away the rest of the chains and stood upon the mountain peak. He yelled defiance of Hera and, as he did so, all his gifts to mankind were restored. Fires lit in campfire rings and in castle fireplaces and beneath the humble cookfires of village hovels. Those who were ill became healthy, and those who were wounded began to heal."
She stopped reading as she came to the passage that continued the story beyond her previous knowledge.
"Please go on," the Count urged. "You're coming to the key sections."
"Having freed the titan and saved humankind, Hercules looked above at the warrior, who was tumbling to earth. Holding out his arms in. . . .friendship, the half-god caught his falling companion, and so both survived their adventure." She knew that the next part was what had puzzled the Count and she read it slowly, correcting the errors she had found. "The titan looked upon his rescuers and offered to them any gift they desired and that was within their power. Hercules asked nothing, but the warrior asked one thing, that the sword be placed where it could do no harm. Prometheus picked up the sword, which to him was no larger or heavier than a splinter, and flung it far from the peak where he had been imprisoned. The sword came to rest far to the north and passed through the earth to become buried beneath a great mountain. Prometheus spoke, 'There shall the sword of Hephaestus remain hidden throughout eternity, incapable of doing either good or evil for humankind.' Then a great wind arose across the face of the peak, nearly lifting Hercules and the warrior from their feet, so that they held onto each other to keep from being blown to the valley floor far below. And the wind turned into eyes, two huge eyes containing all the colors man can see, and a voice answered the titan: 'There the sword will remain, not for eternity, but until it is removed centuries hence and whet with the blood of your rescuer. Then it will bend Fate to the will of its possessor.' Instantly the eyes and the voice were gone, and it was peaceful again on the peak." Mel stopped reading and looked up. "There isn't much more, just about Hercules and . . . . the warrior descending back into the cavern."
"Wet with the blood of your rescuer," the Count repeated. "Why didn't I understand that? It makes perfect sense. But how can that be? Hercules later was elevated to Olympus. How could his blood be spilled so that it could wet the sword?" He thought for a few moments in silence. "Could 'rescuer' refer to the warrior, to Hercules's mortal companion? But that person would have been dust centuries before Hera's prediction--or curse--could come true. What good would that be?"
"You talk as if you're taking all this literally," Mel observed. She herself believed in the reality behind the words but was surprised to find someone, besides Janice, who felt the same.
"What? Oh, I suppose I do get caught up in all this. Of course, it's all just ancient legend."
"Right." When he glanced at her sharply, Mel added, "I understand. It's easy to forget that these are just myths. They can seem so real."
"Exactly. I was just wondering what the passage could mean if you believed these events really happened. How could Hera's words come to pass?"
His question was rhetorical, but Mel surprised him with an answer. "Perhaps 'blood of your rescuer' means the 'blood' passed from generation to generation."
"You mean the blood of a descendent of the warrior could unleash the power of Hephaestus's sword?"
Mel shrugged delicately. "I don't know what else it could mean." Knowing the identity of the warrior, she was not sure she wanted to be right. "Of course, there's one detail you have to remember."
"In order to try all this out, you would have to have the descendent--and the sword."
The driver and the guard that Grube had sent along had made little objection to "Fraulein Berndt's" command to go to the village before returning to the mines. Both seemed in awe of this woman who was said to have Hitler's confidence and didn't want to end up on the wrong side of her infamous temper.
"Stop here," Janice ordered, as they approached the center of the village of Tlaj. "Wait in the automobile."
"Shouldn't I accompany you, Fraulein?" asked the guard.
"No. I need no protection," she answered. "Stay here. I won't be long." With that, she walked by herself to a building with a sign indicating it was the village inn. Stepping inside, she was immediately glad she and Mel had accepted the Count's hospitality. What passed for a lobby was dirty and smelled like some sort of rotting vegetation. The remains of cabbage soup? The remains of cabbage soup cooked months or years ago? She was sure she didn't want to know.
She shouted, but no one seemed to be around, so she stepped back outside. And was hit from below by a small, hurtling body. Instinctively, she reached down to cushion the little person who was now looking up at her with the biggest, brownest eyes she had ever seen. And a cherub's mouth that was open in a big "Oh" of surprise--or fright. Still holding the little girl's thin shoulders, Janice whispered, "Don't be afraid, baby. I won't hurt you."
"Let go of that child!" The screech came from an old woman, a crone who was moving rapidly across the narrow street. She was all black skirts and shawl and seemed to swoop down like a vulture, claws extended. Janice let go of the child and stepped back, her hands rising to protect her face. Instead of pursuing, the old woman gathered the girl into the folds of her skirt and checked her over to see that she was whole, undamaged by her encounter with evil. Reassured, she stepped toward the small woman in black and screamed at her in Rumanian. Realizing that this woman didn't know that language, she switched to fluent and scathing German. "Don't touch our children. Do you hear? Your hands are dirty and bloody, and you are not to put them on these innocents. Hitler's whore. German monster. Get out of Tlaz while you can!"
"I didn't hurt the child," Janice answered. "She ran into me."
"And for that she should die!" The woman screeched. "For touching your hem. You would kill all the innocents for such crimes."
"I don't want to kill anyone. I just wanted to see your village."
"Not kill anyone? That Magyar boy. He was killed, wasn't he? For that damned mine. For the metal." The woman seemed calmer now, but her every word was still an accusation. "And you threatened to kill Crezny if he didn't tell you what happened. Crezny, a good man of this village, who never harmed anyone, who let his son marry that woman from the castle. His poor son, taken away to some German factory, never to be seen again." The old woman grasped the child, pulling her even closer, nearly smothering her in her black skirts. The child struggled, and the woman loosened her hold and began petting the fine, dark hair.
Janice opened her mouth to speak again, but she looked into the woman's dark eyes and saw such hate there that no sound came out. She closed her mouth and started to turn away. The woman's voice stopped her. "You and that strutting commander think you have found the prize. You think you will send to Germany the last of our treasure, that you will take the power from this place and use it to destroy good forever." Janice turned so she could fully face the woman. "But it will be you who will be destroyed. Blood will flow, and it will be your blood, not ours. Fire will fill the cavern and burn the flesh off your bones. To hell you will go, a worse hell than even you and your leader have created on earth." With that final curse, the old woman swept the little girl into her arms and walked back across the street. Janice watched as the child's eyes, deep, dark pools, watched her over the crone's shoulder. Then she turned back to the car, no longer wanting to stay in this place.
Mel and Tavel had just completed a horse race down a steep mountain trail, and they were resting their mounts for the climb back to the castle.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into that," Mel said. "That was insane."
Tavel leaned his back against a tree trunk and slid down to recline lazily on the short, coarse grass. He patted the ground beside him. "Sit. The horses will graze on their own. No need to hold them." To demonstrate his words, he let go of his horse's reins, and the gray gelding drifted only a few feet to find tender green shoots pushing through the rich ground. Mel also let her reins fall, and her black mare nudged the other horse to see what he was munching and found it also to her liking.
Mel smoothed the long, full skirt of the riding dress Betta had brought her following Tavel's invitation to ride with him. It was a royal blue, and she knew it was one of her best colors. As she sat beside Tavel, his eyes showed his appreciation. Mel examined her feelings. How did she feel having a man look at her in that way?
"What are you thinking, Maria?"
"I was thinking how much I enjoyed the ride," she said. "Thank you for asking me."
"You're welcome. And the ride isn't over."
"Mikel seemed to be very good with the horses," she commented. She had almost forgotten that Mikel worked at the castle and had been surprised that it was he who had saddled the horses and seen them out on their ride. "Does he live in the castle like Alasandre and Betta? I haven't seen him around."
"He has a room over the stable," Tavel explained. "He's shy, and he prefers it that way. He usually takes his meals in the kitchen, but I'm not sure he has lately."
"Lately? Since Margethe and I arrived?"
"Probably." Tavel hesitated and then seemed to come to a decision. "Mikel hasn't had an easy time. He stays hidden whenever there are Germans around. He wouldn't be comfortable around your. . . .employer."
"My employer got Mikel released from German headquarters," she reminded him.
"The Reichskommander released Mikel when he realized he belonged at the castle," he corrected. "Margethe Berndt got that information by threatening Troika, who also used to work for me."
Leaning against the tree and enjoying the friendly sounds made by the grazing horses, Mel decided not to argue. "You said last night that your family has a history of military service. But you're not in the Rumanian army. What happened?"
"My brother was the soldier in the family," he answered. "That fulfilled our father's ambition and freed me to become a scholar. My brother studied military history and strategy. I studied languages and art."
"Your brother was the soldier?" She had picked up on the past tense.
"My brother. . . ."
He was interrupted by the sound of a shot. Another shot followed closely. Mel looked up, startled, but Tavel reassured her. "Alasandre. I saw him preparing to go hunting before we left. Probably found a plump pheasant or a tasty deer."
"I know we have to eat, and it's really no different than how we get other meat. I just hate to think about wild things being hunted and hurt."
Tavel raised his hand and seemed about to cup Mel's face. Then he let his hand fall and said, "You are a gentle soul, aren't you? Listen, I have an idea. When Margethe leaves here, she'll probably return to Germany, won't she? To report to Hitler?"
"Yes," Mel answered cautiously. "I suppose."
"Well, she surely won't take you with her. You're technically the enemy, right?" He hurried on. "And you can't return to Greece, at least not yet. There you are probably considered to be a collaborator. The Greeks wouldn't understand that you were. . . .forced, would they?"
Remembering the fate of the real Maria, Mel admitted, "No. My own people wouldn't look upon me with kindness."
"Then why don't you plan on staying here?"
"Yes. By that time, I'll have some problems worked out, and you will be safe here." His eyes lit up as he imagined a better life to come. "The war can't last forever. The Germans will leave. And even if the Soviets come, we'll deal with that. We can stay on our mountain or we can go to another country, maybe the United States. We'll take Mikel with us, Betta and Alasandre, too, if they want to go. Do you think you would like to live in America?"
"I think I would like that very much," Mel answered sincerely.
"Then that's what we'll do," he declared. "Everything will be settled in a few days, and then I'll be free to go. Maybe we won't even wait until the war is over. What do you say?"
There was another shot, this one much closer. Then there was a shout. "Alasandre," Tavel confirmed. "He got his deer."
The automobile was about five minutes out of the village when the first bullet shattered the glass of the passenger window. Janice felt the impact as it tore into the upholstery beside her head. Ducking down, she swore. The driver crushed the accelerator to the floor, and the powerful engine responded with a burst of speed. The second bullet broke the back window and exited through the front. The Reichskommander better have a warehouse full of spare auto glass, Janice thought , as the driver struggled to control the heavy car.
"Take it easy," she instructed him. "I'm sure we're out of range now." Then she saw the true cause of his panic. The soldier assigned to guard her, the young man who had seemed frightened to question her orders, was slumped over the dashboard. And much of his head was missing. Shit, she thought. That was supposed to be me. "Slow down," she ordered, and the driver finally obeyed. "Go on to the mines." She thought again. "No, wait, stop at headquarters first. We'll leave the. . . .the body there. Then we'll go on to the mines."
By this time, they were nearing the gates to the German headquarters, and the driver slowed down even more and let the car roll to a ragged stop. The soldiers guarding the gate quickly sized up the situation and, after glancing into the back seat to see that the Fraulein was unharmed, dragged the body of the young soldier out of the front. Looking at the mess that was left, Janice managed to say coldly, "Clean that up," and they did, as best they could.
It was nearly noon when Janice arrived at the mines to find the Reichskommander waiting impatiently just outside the explosives shed. He seemed at first not to notice the damage to his staff car and approached to open the door for Margethe Berndt. As he reached for the door handle, he noticed the missing glass in the passenger window, and his eyes swept the car, taking in the damage to the rear and to the front. His eyes rested briefly on the darkening stains on the dashboard.
Janice opened the door herself and stepped out. "Someone shot at us between the castle road and your headquarters. The guard you sent was killed."
"The villagers," he stated. "They'll pay for this." She wasn't sure if he meant pay for killing the soldier or for damaging the car, but she suspected which angered him more.
"I was in the village earlier," she told him, deciding that he would find out from the driver anyway. "There isn't anyone there older than eight or younger than eighty. And you have everyone else working. I don't see how any of them could be involved, do you?"
"The ones assigned to the farms are always sneaking away," he responded. "I'll find out who's behind this. Or everyone will be punished. But there are other things I need to attend to first." He reached into an inside pocket and removed two envelopes. One was opened, and he kept that one. The other he handed to Janice. "These came by special messenger from Berlin. Both Fuhrerbefehal." This last was breathed with awe.
Janice glanced at the outside of her envelope, which was addressed merely "Margethe Berndt." She slipped the envelope into her jacket pocket and waited for the Reichskommander to continue. His eyes followed the envelope before returning to her face.
"My orders are to share with you the facts of the special work we are doing here." His expression showing that this order was a bitter pill to swallow, he turned sharply on his heel and led the way to the shed. As they entered the one door, the only way in or out, Janice noticed something and stopped him. "Only two guards now?"
"I put two guards into every mine tunnel," he answered, "one at the end of the tunnel, one with the ore wagon. And extra guards and dogs around the perimeter. With most of my men ordered to the Russian front, I'm too short-handed to leave four guards on this duty. It doesn't matter, no one trying to infiltrate is going to get this far." With that, he led the way into the interior of the small shed. Janice followed and looked around at a surprisingly small store marked as explosives. Just a couple of boxes of what looked like dynamite. Another box that probably contained fuses. Short-handed and short on supplies? she wondered.
Not pausing in the shed, Grube walked through it and into a tunnel beyond. This tunnel required no miner's lamps, as it was brightly lit with torches every few feet. The sound of picks striking rock could be heard clearly, and that sound became louder as Janice and the Nazi officer made a rapid descent into the depths of the mine. Janice looked inquiringly at Grube, who replied, "You'll see. It's just around this next bend."
And suddenly there it was. At first, Janice had a hard time understanding what she was seeing. They had entered a chamber that seemed to have been carved out of the hard rock of the mountain, the walls and ceilings showing that the digging had been recent. There were no timbers needed to hold up the rock that surrounded them, so solid was it, showing no separate stones or seams. And just ahead was the site of the digging they had heard.
Four muscular German soldiers, each stripped to undershirt and trousers, were standing on each side of a cube of rock, a cube no more than three feet on a side. In rhythm, they each struck the rock, with each blow breaking off no more than a square inch of that hard mineral. Sweat poured down their faces, bodies, and arms as they bent every effort against the stoney resistance met by their tools.
"Stop!" Grube ordered, and they lowered their picks, trying not to show relief. "Leave us," he added, and, laying their tools against the four sides of the cube of rock, all four went out the way Grube and Janice had entered. It was then that Janice got her first view of an object protruding from the rocky prominence. She looked at Grube, who nodded and said, "Go ahead. Approach it."
Janice walked to the cube of rock and then around it, not quite sure what she was seeing. There was the cube. There was the object partially buried in the cube. And the object was. . . .a sword?
Grube came closer and reached up as far as he could to touch the hilt of the sword. He stroked it familiarly as if he had done this many times. "You can touch the blade, if you wish," he offered, "but be careful. It's very sharp."
Janice touched the flat of the blade and found it cool and smooth. She withdrew her hand and addressed Grube. "I don't understand. This is that special project you talked about?"
Reluctantly, the Reichskommander also stopped touching the sword. "Yes, this is the project." He paused, as if deciding where to start his explanation. "Almost a year ago, Walatz decided to extend the old tunnel that led from the back of the explosives shed. He thought there was a good chance of finding some high-grade ore beyond the iron mine. From the beginning, it was difficult digging, with the miners having to blast almost every day and then remove all the debris through the shed. However, Walatz kept saying that there were signs of good ore ahead."
"And you listened?"
"Walatz is the engineer, the expert." Grube shrugged. "If he was wrong, he would be the one to pay." Janice saw that he had hoped that would be the outcome. "One day, several months after he started all this, Walatz came to me and said the tunnel should be abandoned. There wasn't any ore worth taking, and the digging was becoming even more difficult."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him fine, but I would have to file a report in Berlin about his failure." He smiled tightly at the memory. "But, before I filed that report, I decided to come down here myself and take a look."
"And this is what you saw? A sword stuck in a stone?"
"No, I saw a piece of shining metal encased in solid rock. It was clearly metal that shouldn't be there. So I took out my knife, the best German honed steel, and I tried to scratch it."
"It wouldn't scratch." He touched his sidearm. "I shot my pistol at the metal, and the bullet richocheted off, flattened as if by a hammer."
"And the metal?"
He shook his head. "Not a mark." He unconsciously reached out to stroke the sword's hilt again, then caught himself and dropped his arm. "I got Berlin to send out a metallurgist to analyze the metal, and he came, sure that the whole thing was a joke. He left unable to explain what he had seen, a metal nothing could scratch or heat or cool, a metal impervious to acid or anything else he could apply. That expert was followed by several more, and all left, unable to explain what I had found."
"And you've spent the rest of the year digging the metal out? And what you found was only this sword?"
"Only this sword?" He glared at the small woman, then seemed to remember who she was and what his orders were. "Can you imagine what it will mean when this sword has been removed to a laboratory in Berlin and analyzed? When German scientists, the best in the world, figure out how to duplicate this metal?"
Janice guessed, "Airplanes no one can shoot down. Bullets that can pass through any amount of armor." She shuddered at the thought.
"And there's more." Grube's eyes shone with a light that seemed reflected from the object he was again touching. Without prompting, he leaned toward Janice and confided, "There is a power in this weapon itself, a power that can change the world. That power is the true prize."
"It's a sword."
"What?" Mel wondered if Janice was a mind-reader.
"The special project Grube is working on is a sword." She started to unbutton her high collar, then seemed to think better of it. "We'll be going down to dinner in a few minutes. I'll just leave this on."
Mel was sitting on the bed, unbraiding and brushing her hair. She thought she would wear it down tonight. "This sword wouldn't happen to be made of some odd type of metal? And buried inside a mountain?"
Janice sat beside her and took the brush from her hand. "What are you talking about?"
"The story that Tavel wanted helped with is about how Hercules and a warrior rescued Prometheus after he was chained by Hera." She looked at the brush in Janice's hand. "If you're going to hold that, use it."
Janice moved back on the bed and started to brush Mel's long, dark hair. She loved the way it felt in her hand and wondered why she didn't do this more often. "That was one of the stories on the scrolls, wasn't it?"
"Yes. It's about how Hercules and Xena climbed through a mountain and used the sword of Hephaestus to strike off the chains. They had to do it without touching either the sword or the chains as they came into contact." She felt herself relaxing into the rhythm of the brush.
"I remember that, but what does this have to do with Grube's sword?"
"The version of the story that Tavel has goes farther than the one in the scroll." She hesitated, not sure how to tell the next part. "That was the part he was having trouble translating. It told what happened to the sword after it was used."
"Xena asked Prometheus to get rid of the sword, and he did. He threw it to the north and it passed through a mountain and was completely buried."
"In solid rock?" Janice asked. She forgot to brush, and Mel turned to look at her. She started the gentle rhythm again.
"Yes. It was to stay there, where it could do neither good nor harm until something happened, a ritual, I guess." This was where she felt she had to be careful. Any hint that she herself might be the key that would unlock the sword's power--and there was no limit to what Janice might risk to protect her.
Janice felt her hesitation and slid off the bed to stand in front of her. With Mel sitting on the high bed and Janice standing, their eyes were level. "What is this 'ritual,' to free the sword and its power? Something like what happened in the legend of King Arthur? Or more like Alexander? Mel?"
"There weren't any details," Mel lied. "I think if the ritual isn't followed, the sword won't be able to either hurt or help anyone."
"Grube is having the sword chipped out of the rock, removing the stone from the sword, not the sword from the stone. His plan is to send the sword to Berlin where it can be analyzed and the formula used to make unstoppable weapons. Sounds like a potential for harm to me."
There was a gentle knock on the door, and Janice said, "Come." Betta entered with a couple of towels. She nodded to Mel and tried to avoid the smaller woman's gaze. Her own eyes were drawn, however, to an object on the bed. It was the short whip that Janice had wielded in her early morning "drama." Betta's eyes widened and went involuntarily to the brush now in Janice's hand and from there to Mel's face. The young maid quickly placed the towels beside the pitcher and wash basin and retreated into the hall. "I think we have her attention," Janice commented mildly while Mel blushed.
To change the subject, Mel asked, "Did you visit the village?"
"Anything interesting happen?"
"An old woman informed me that I wasn't very popular."
Janice, better at lying, met her friend's eyes without flinching. "No. After that, I went to the mines, and Grube showed me his special project." She suddenly remembered the letter and took it out. "One other thing. I have a letter from the Fuhrer." Walking to Margethe's case, she opened the lid and, taking out a small scalpel, slit open the envelope and slid out a one-page handwritten note. It was in German, not too grammatical, and strangely informal.
"What does it say?" Mel asked anxiously.
"It says that Hitler expects me in Berlin within four days--with a full report about the status of the resistance movements in Greece and Rumania."
"Four days?" Mel asked. "That means you would have to leave. . . ."
"No later than day after tomorrow. It's a full two days from here to Berlin by rail." Janice wanted to crumple up the letter, but she made herself fold it neatly and place it back in her jacket pocket.
"Does Grube know about this order?"
"He may. He received a letter, too. All he told me was that he was ordered to tell me about the sword." She thought a moment. "My money would be on his knowing that I've been ordered back to Berlin. That's why he was so eager to let me know how important his project could be to Germany's war effort. So I could share that information with Hitler himself. Just in case his other plan doesn't work out."
"What other plan?"
"Grube got so excited fondling that sword that he told me more than he meant to. He thinks that the sword carries a power greater than the secret of the metal it's made of. I think if he finds the secret of that power, he plans on becoming the next Fuhrer himself."
Continued - Chapters 19 - 24
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