The staff car's headlamps, hooded so as to be undetectable from the sky, illuminated only a few feet of rocky roadway. As the heavy automobile twisted and climbed, Mel, seated in the rear between Janice and Grube, thought they must soon reach the mountain's peak and tip over the other side. The driver turned sharply left, and the front of the car tilted up even more radically.
"It's not far now," Grube commented.
"Good," Janice replied sourly. "I would like to get settled in our quarters before midnight. That is, if no more social obligations intrude."
"I had your case returned to the boot," Grube placated, "so that we could take you to your accommodations on the way back to headquarters."
"I don't see why we're staying at some village hostelry."
"Except for the room assigned to myself and my officers, we have only rough barracks in the compound. Nothing suitable for you and your companion," he explained. "You will be comfortable in the village. I'll leave guards and a car at your disposal, Fraulein. Everything will be as the Fuhrer would want it."
The car leveled and halted. Mel pictured them teetering on the mountain's peak, just before the driver opened the door beside the commander. Grube slid out and offered a hand to Mel, who accepted it, and then to Janice, who slid out unaided and stepped between Grube and her friend.
"Follow me," he said and abruptly set off through the dark.
Mel looked at Janice, who shrugged and, taking the taller woman's arm, hurried after the commander. After a few steps, they could see a large mass ahead, turrets and towers darker than the surrounding night sky.
"Castle Klaj-meinke," Grube confirmed, "home of Count Tavel Pitesti."
The driver, who had been walking behind them, stepped to the door and used the iron knocker to announce their arrival. Immediately the door opened to reveal a great hall alight with torches. Banners and insignia of chivalry and military campaigns decorated the stone walls and the distant arch of the ceiling. A double stone stairway led from the center of the far wall to a second level gallery that completely surrounded the great hall. Above the second level could be seen arches and staircases that indicated the great size of the castle.
Their eyes drawn to the height of this indoor space, Janice and Mel didn't see the person who had admitted them until he spoke. "I am Alasandre, the Count's manservant. Frauleins, please accompany the Reichskommander to the dining room. The Count awaits you there."
The man who spoke these words was the most extraordinary looking human being the women had ever seen. Dressed in a formal coat with black tie, shoes polished to gleaming, he could have been the most correct of serving men. However, he was nearly seven feet tall and weighed not much more than a hundred pounds. His hair was white; his skin was white; his eyes, having no color themselves, reflected back the torchlight, seeming to glow pink to red and back again. His veins showed blue under his poor, pale allotment of skin and, as he talked, moved as if they were crawling for cover. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to come from inside some more corpulent man.
"Frauleins?" he asked patiently, as Grube walked in the indicated direction, and the women did not.
Janice nodded, and she and Mel followed Grube, with Alasandre walking behind. Grube stepped through a high archway, and they were in another grand room, this one dominated by a dining table large enough to accommodate over forty people, ten on each side. Large, high-back chairs, carved with scenes of medieval revelry formed a line along each side of the massive square of wood. Janice realized that the table appeared to be one piece and wondered from what tree so large a log could have been hewn.
"The table and chairs were carved in 1680." The speaker had risen from the nearest chair. "The table from an oak that was over 200 years old at the time. Each chair was also carved from a log, all in one piece." Janice's expression one of surprise, he hastened to explain, "The first thing any visitor asks about is this table. Let me introduce myself. I am Tavel Pitesti. I hope you do not mind my speaking English. My German is execrable, and I assume you do not speak Rumanian?"
"English is fine," Janice agreed, careful to inject a slight German accent. "My companion does not understand German, but she has some English."
The speaker was taller than Janice, but had to look up slightly to meet Mel's eyes, which he did, his own blue eyes engaging hers before drifting back to her companion. "You are Fraulein Berndt? And this is?"
"Maria." She appraised him coolly before adding, "My secretary."
"I see." He looked back and forth between the two women before turning to Grube. "Reichskommander. Welcome. Thank you for bringing two such beautiful women to share my dinner."
"My pleasure, Count Pitesti." Janice thought Grube was going to bow, but he simply nodded his head. She noticed that his English was nearly unaccented. "Your young servant told me you wished my visitors and myself to join you."
"It's so rare that our little village gets visitors that I didn't want to miss the opportunity," the Count said smoothly. "Frauleins, if you'll be seated, please; here, one on either side." He directed the women to their seats and pulled out Mel's chair as his manservant seated Janice. Grube seated himself to Janice's left, just around the corner of the table. "Alasandre, please bring the wine and the first course."
The first course was a thick, brown soup served with red wine. "A game soup," the nobleman explained, "a specialty of our region. The wine, of course, is French, as you probably recognize, Fraulein Berndt."
Janice was surprised that he knew his guest's history, but said only, "In France, I had little time for wine tasting."
"Of course." Pitesti turned to his right. "Maria, were you in France, also? And too busy to taste the wine?"
Mel spoke slowly, as if unused to English. Janice was surprised that she was able to suppress her Southern drawl. "I am Greek. This is my first time away from my country."
"Ah," the Count said, "practically a neighbor. I traveled in Greece before the war. I've always had a great interest in ruins. Are you from Athens or from one of the provinces?"
"Amphipolis," Mel answered, choosing to name her ancestral home.
"A Thracian?" Pitesti smiled. "That IS interesting. I have some fascinating books about that region, especially about its legends and traditions. Perhaps you could help me by translating a couple of passages that have puzzled me."
"I'm sorry, but Maria will be far too busy with my correspondence to do anything else," Janice cut in, her tone making it clear she was not sorry at all.
Alasandre cleared the soup and brought a fish and vegetable course. The fish was lightly browned and fragrant with fresh herbs. The second wine glass at each place was filled, this time with a white wine, which Pitesti described as "fruit of the Fatherland." Janice noticed that their host had eaten and drunk little during the first course, and that he only cut and moved the fish around his plate.
The Reichskommander drew in the aroma of the fish and ate and drank with appreciation. Alasandre stood at the Count's elbow, always ready to refill a wine glass that had been emptied. Janice soon found herself on her third glass of the dry wine. Mel, as usual, ate and drank sparingly and lifted an eyebrow when Alasandre opened a second bottle and tilted it above her friend's glass.
The third course was pheasant, served on a silver platter with a cover that perfectly mimicked the shape of that bird. With the bird, Alasandre provided a dish that seemed to be either thick noodles or some sort of stuffed dumplings. "This is a traditional dish of the people," said Pitesti. "Some consider it a dish fit only for the village, not for the castle, but most Transylvanians enjoy it, I find. It brings back to me memories of the nursery when this was the usual dinner for my brother and myself."
Janice tasted it and found it more to her liking than the rich gamebird. "It reminds me of a pierogie," she commented, "but the filling is not as bland."
Alasandre offered more wine, a blushing variety to complement the pheasant, but only Grube accepted. Mel smiled at Janice, who briefly smiled back. This exchange was lost on the soldier, but not on their host.
At his employer's gesture, the manservant brought out the last course, a solid, dark cake soaked with brandy. The Count did not partake of this dessert, but the other three found that they were able to do it justice. Having completed his meal, the Reichskommander leaned back and finally spoke, using the English preferred by his host. "Sir, this was a meal to be remembered by someone more used to the soldier's mess. Now it's late, and I have duties in the morning. Would you excuse us for leaving so soon after eating?"
"Are you sure you want to go down the mountain at this hour?" the Count asked.
"I need to drop Fraulein Berndt and her secretary in the village before returning to my own headquarters, Count Pitesti." The Reichskommander rose. "So, if you will excuse us. . . ."
The Count rose as well. "The frauleins are staying in the village? At that disgrace of an inn?" He shook his head apologetically. "Excuse my bluntness, Reichskommander, but that is a place for peasants going from farm to market or home again. Fumigation would be in order before ladies stayed there."
The soldier seemed to take no offense. "I have no better option to offer. There are no suitable rooms in the barracks."
The Count seemed struck by inspiration. He turned to Janice. "Why don't you and your delightful companion stay here at the castle?" As she opened her mouth to protest, he continued, "It isn't much further from the SS headquarters than is the village. And, during the daylight hours, the journey is no more difficult for an automobile. Or I can put my carriage at your disposal."
The Reichskommander spoke eagerly. "This is a wonderful idea. Here security will be no problem, as it would be in the village. You can stay here without guards, freeing my men for other duties. You will be safe and comfortable, as the Fuhrer would desire."
Janice calculated rapidly. Staying in the castle would have the advantage of freeing her from close scrutiny by men reporting every move to Grube. She might have a better chance of contacting the local resistance cell if not constantly surrounded by SS Waffen. "Thank you, Count Pitesti," she said. "We'll stay here."
Alasandre having carried their luggage, including Fraulein Berndt's large case, up the winding staircase to the third level, Janice and Mel found themselves settled in a high-ceilinged bed chamber. Janice looked doubtfully at the ornate bed, its dark headboard towering above the mattress, itself two feet off the floor. Like the dining room chairs, the headboard was intricately carved, in this case with what looked like scenes of medieval debauchery.
"If I fall out of that in the middle of the night, I'll kill myself."
"Then don't fall," Mel said shortly. She turned her back to slip off her blouse and replace it with a modest cotton gown.
Janice sighed. "What did I do now?"
"You might have considered whether I would want to stay here. You might even have consulted me."
"I couldn't." Melinda had slipped under the covers and turned her back. Janice walked around to the other side of the bed and, still dressed in the black uniform of the enemy, climbed onto the high bed. "Mel, you know I've been trying to change my ways where it comes to you. I try to show you the respect you're due. I try not to be so selfish and headstrong." When her friend didn't respond, she moved closer and placed a hand on a soft cheek. "Mel? Please don't shut me out."
Blue eyes opened, and Janice realized they were brilliant with tears. Mel whispered, "I know you're trying. That's why this hurt tonight."
"Please don't cry." Janice found a white handkerchief in a uniform pocket and awkwardly offered it. "Here. Blow." She laughed as Mel obeyed, then became serious again. "Janice can ask Melinda what she thinks and include her in decisions, but that's not who we are. Right now I'm Margethe, and you're Maria. And what I say goes. Do you understand?"
Mel had stopped crying, but she didn't answer.
"Mel, what's wrong? Why don't you want to stay here?" Janice gestured to the luxurious room. "This has to be better than some flea-infested room in a village inn. And how about that dinner? Do you suppose the Count feasts like that every night? You'll have to let this uniform out." Her friend was still silent. "Mel?"
"I don't want to stay here."
"It isn't safe." When Janice stared at her, she continued. "There's something wrong with this place and with the Count. Did you notice how Grube changed when he entered the castle? It was as if he were under some sort of spell."
Janice sat up on the bed and considered. "Grube is under the spell of the Count's title and wealth. I've seen this kind of thing before. Grube lives for power over other people, and he's fascinated by someone who was born to that kind of power."
"Well, did you notice that Pitesti hardly ate or drank anything? Not the soup, not the fish, not the. . . ."
"Partridge in a pear tree," Janice finished. "Probably had the same thing for lunch." She quickly saw that her flippant attitude wasn't appreciated.
"And that Alasandre. Gives me the creeps." Mel shuddered.
"He's an albino. It isn't like you to be against someone because of how they look."
"He. . . ."
"He kept watching me," Mel finished. "Whenever I looked up during dinner, his eyes, those strange glowing eyes, were on me. It was as if. . . .as if he were trying to figure something out. Like he knew me from somewhere and was trying to remember."
"Do you know any albinos?" Janice asked.
"There. You see? You don't know him; he can't know you." Janice sprang off the bed, landing with a thud on the distant floor. She pulled a man's shirt from her--or, rather Margethe's knapsack--and began to undress. Ready for bed after these simple preparations, she sprang back up to land beside Mel. Mel, who was silent. Janice lay for some minutes thinking, then she grinned. Then she chuckled. And finally laughed. Mel punched her in the arm, which set her off even more. "You think. . . ." She had to catch her breath. "You've read too many books or seen too many movies."
"Have not." But some embarrassment had crept into Mel's voice.
"Have, too," Janice corrected. "One too many Bela Lugosi movie, if I don't miss my bet. Yeah, that's it. We're in the castle of a Transylvanian count, and you think he's a vampire."
"Okay, it might have crossed my mind." Now Mel chuckled, too. "Dracula."
"Dracula Meets the Werewolf."
"Missed that one," Janice said.
"I made it up," Mel admitted. Only half-kidding, she added, "Well, I don't suppose one night in the castle will hurt us, and tomorrow we can tell whether Pitesti is one of the undead or not."
"We are NOT going to drive a stake through his heart," Janice objected.
"No, but tomorrow is another day, and, if the Count is a real live human, he'll be up and about."
"And if he isn't?"
"If we don't see Pitesti during daylight hours, we move to the village and take our chance on the fleas." Mel held out her hand. "Agreed?"
Resting on one elbow, Janice took the offered hand and, after holding it for a few seconds, delivered a firm shake.
When Mel awakened, it was to see Janice sitting at a window seat that overlooked the castle garden. Turning from the view of the garden and what looked like a stone monument below, the small woman smiled. "We have our answer."
"What?" The dark-haired beauty stretched and sleepily rubbed her eyes. She reached for the table beside the bed and found her glasses.
Mel slid out of the bed and padded barefoot to the window. She blinked at the brightness of the morning sun. Then she saw. Coming across the garden, walking toward the castle, was none other than Count Tavel Pitesti. "It seems silly in the daylight anyway. You know, what I thought."
Janice nodded. "You had me half-convinced. More than half, I guess."
"Too many vampire movies," Mel reminded her.
"Want to go get some breakfast? I'm starving."
"You always are!"
Janice reached for the black uniform she had shed the night before. "This thing is going to stand on its own pretty soon."
"Isn't there another uniform or something in that big case?" Mel asked.
Janice shrugged. "I haven't looked." She walked to the case and jiggled the latch. "Locked."
Without being asked, Mel pulled a hairpin from the single braid in which she wore her hair. Biting her lip in concentration, Janice worked the small piece of metal in the lock. There was a click, and Janice grunted in satisfaction. "Got it." She swung open the lid. Mel leaned over her shoulder and gasped.
On top of the case was a large tray that was separated into compartments. And inside each compartment was one or more sharp instruments, including wicked-looking knives and scalpels, a straight razor, and other objects not so easily identified. Janice and Mel's eyes met, and Janice gingerly lifted the tray out and placed it on the bed. Immediately beneath the tray was another black uniform, this one with red piping and two small golden swastikas on a high jacket collar. Janice removed the jacket and then the blouse and trousers and saw what was beneath. She tried to block her friend's view, but Mel had already seen what lay below. There was a set of manacles, not ordinary handcuffs, but heavy metal bands linked with strong chains and with longer chains attached to heavy padlocks. And beneath the manacles were a variety of whips, from a simple long braid of leather, to a cat-o-nine-tails, to whips tipped with sharp glass or metal barbs.
There was a light tap on the door, and Janice closed the case.
"Frauleins?" The voice was that of a girl or young woman.
After pulling on the uniform trousers under the man's shirt, Janice opened the door. The young woman outside was dressed in a dark blue maid's uniform over which was a snowy white apron. She was looking down as if looking at the "Fraulein" might turn her to stone--or, at least, to salt. In German mixed with a Slavic dialect, she explained, "You are invited to join Count Pitesti for breakfast. I was sent to make up your room and to see if you have any laundry."
"Come back in half an hour," Janice told her in German.
The girl nodded, still not looking up, and headed for the stairs. When Janice turned around, Mel was pouring water from a large stone pitcher into a matching bowl. She quickly washed her face and then took what had been called a "spit bath" when she was growing up. She longed to be clean and wondered when she would be able to take a real bath again. As she finished, Janice handed her a light blue dress from Mel's--or Maria's--pack. "Thanks."
"We'll leave the dirty clothes on the floor. I'm sure the maid will get the idea that it's laundry." Then Janice turned to finish putting on the uniform. "I hate this," she commented, and Mel didn't have to ask what.
By the time Janice was dressed, Mel had put on the blue dress, which was a little shorter than she usually wore, and was winding her braid around her head. She helped Janice pull her hair up and back in a severe fashion, and then they were ready to go downstairs. Before they left the room, Janice laid her hand on her friend's arm. "Mel, just a reminder." The tall woman looked at her seriously. "Whatever I say to you or what I do is as Margethe to Maria."
Janice smiled encouragingly, and they left the room and descended the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, they found Alasandre, who seemed to be waiting for them. "Count Pitesti is in the breakfast room," he explained in English. "Please to follow me."
The breakfast room was a small room, by castle standards, near the dining room. With an eastern exposure, it had long, uncovered windows that went almost from floor to ceiling, giving it a sunny aspect in the morning. The Count was seated alone at a table for eight, and two other places were set. He rose as his guests entered and quickly seated first Janice and then Mel.
Alasandre exited the room and soon re-entered bearing a silver tray holding three steaming glasses of dark liquid. The smell and the taste soon revealed this to be strong Turkish coffee. Mel sipped it gingerly, but Janice lost herself in the pleasure of this rare treat.
"Did you sleep well, Fraulein Berndt?" Pitesti asked, addressing himself to Janice. "And your companion?"
"Yes, Count," Janice answered. "My secretary and I slept well. Thank you for your hospitality."
Alasandre left and quickly returned with plates laden with sausages and what seemed to be a kind of thick, heavy pancake. Janice dug in, as did the Count.
"I am wondering. . . ." The Count seemed to hesitate. "I am wondering, since you and your secretary have agreed to be my guests, I wonder if a less formal mode of address would be appropriate?"
Janice looked up from her plate. "What do you mean, Count?"
"Perhaps here at the castle, you would do me the honor of addressing me as Tavel. And of allowing me to call you by your given name."
"I don't think that would be appropriate at all," Janice answered. "I am a representative of the Third Reich, and you are a member of . . . ."
"A subject people?" Pitesti suggested.
"To be blunt."
Janice finished her sausages and looked at Mel's. Before Mel could hand them over, Alasandre was there refilling the small woman's plate. After several more bites, Janice swallowed in order to speak. "Perhaps only in the castle, as you say, you could call me Margethe, and I'll call you Tavel. You would naturally call my secretary Maria, in any case."
Tavel Pitesti smiled, and Mel realized that, wealth and privilege aside, he was a lonely young man. To want to make friends with Margethe Berndt, he would have to be. She wondered what he would think if he knew the contents of the case now lying in one of his guest rooms. Or if it would make no difference to him, so long as peasants were the only recipients of its horrors.
"Do you have a question, Maria?" the Count asked.
"You'll call me Tavel, too, won't you?"
Mel started to answer, then, remembering, looked to Janice. "You may do so, Maria, but only here, and in front of no one from outside the castle. Do you understand?"
Pretending to be cowed by Janice's harsh tone, Mel nodded. At least she hoped she was pretending. "I understand."
Janice deliberately put out a hand and ran her index finger along the line of Mel's jaw. "I'm sure you do."
Tavel watched this exchange, only a flicker in his expression betraying any emotion.
As Alasandre slowed the horses at the gate to the SS compound, Janice relaxed her grip on the inside of the carriage door. Mel suppressed a smile at her friend's obvious relief that the wild ride had ended. A guard looked into the carriage before waving them through. He was either used to the Count's conveyance approaching headquarters or had been told to pass the women through.
The carriage stopped again in front of Grube's office. Alasandre, who had already climbed from the high driver's seat, reached up to help the women. Janice leaped to the step and then the ground and herself steadied Mel as she stepped down. Grube exited his headquarters just as this was accomplished. He was smoothing his short brown hair as he donned his visored cap. Remembering the quantity of alcohol he had consumed the night before, Janice judged him to be moderately worse for the wear.
"Fraulein Berndt," the Reichskommander greeted Janice. "I was about to check security at the mines. Would you care to accompany me?"
"Yes. I would like to see what precautions against sabotage you have instituted."
As this exchange was in German, Mel once again found herself guessing its meaning. In her hand she held a notebook and pen earlier given to her by her "employer." She held it up and looked questioningly at Janice, who shook her head. This secretary need not try to take notes of a conversation she could not understand.
The carriage having departed, presumably on its return trip to the castle, Grube's staff car pulled up, and soon they were on their way. Janice noted that they were going in the opposite direction from the village.
"Did you speak to Count Pitesti this morning?" Grube asked.
"Yes," Janice replied. "We ate breakfast together, and then he insisted we use his carriage to get around the district. It seems so. . . .archaic to travel with a coach and four."
"This is a backward country," the officer agreed. "We have brought the cities into the twentieth century, but the countryside is still in the seventeenth."
"Didn't the boy Mikel say that the Count owns an automobile?"
"Yes, but there's no fuel to spare for civilians." He added hastily, "The Count is quite cosmopolitan, of course. I didn't mean to say he was backward. The peasants are the ones who continue to live in the past, using the same methods and tools they've used for centuries, holding to the same beliefs."
"Beliefs?" Janice asked.
"Superstitions," Grube explained. "These people's minds are still in the Dark Ages. Without us to control them, they would still be running around the countryside with pitchforks and torches, threatening to burn their neighbors as witches."
"Or vampires?" Janice asked.
"No doubt." Grube changed the subject. "The mines we are going to visit produce ores needed to harden aeronautical steel. We've had difficulty shipping the ore due to Allied attacks on the rails between here and the Fatherland, but we're hoping to get a shipment out tomorrow. You understand that the day and time the train will leave is a secret."
Grube looked at Mel.
"She speaks very little German," Janice explained. "And, even if she understands what we're talking about, she wouldn't dare speak of it to anyone else. I've taught her the value of discretion. It wasn't a lesson easily learned." She switched to Greek, and spoke to Mel. "You can keep a secret, can't you, Maria?"
Mel looked puzzled, but answered in the same language, "Yes."
"You see?" Janice asked Grube. "She does what I tell her."
The car passed through a checkpoint, the guards recognizing the car and their commander and quickly waving them through. "The mines are directly ahead," Grube explained. "Guards ring the area, and not even a hare could get through without being stopped--or shot."
When the car halted, Grube slid out one door and the women through the other. "Are you getting any of this?" Janice hastily whispered in English.
"A little. Not much."
Grube walked around the automobile. He pointed toward several cavelike openings in the side of the mountain. Each was shored with timbers, some apparently ancient, others looking freshly cut. Heavily armed guards stood near the entrance of each mine. Stone and concrete bunkers above the mines gave evidence of gun emplacements, and a large structure at the peak appeared to house an antiaircraft gun. Janice noticed a wooden shed that seemed to be built right into the mountain. She counted four SS Waffen standing guard over this small building.
Grube noticed the direction of her gaze. "That's where we keep the explosives needed to open new sections of tunnel and old ones that have collapsed. Since the boy got so close to it, I've doubled the guard."
"Do you have a lot of cave-ins?"
He shrugged. "A couple of these mines have been in use for generations, when the main ore was iron. The timbers rot, the ceiling becomes weakened. . . .There's nothing to do but dig out and continue mining."
"What about the people working in the mine?"
"Villagers. People from the countryside. They volunteer to work for the good of the Fatherland."
"I mean, aren't there injuries when old tunnels collapse?"
His look said this hardly mattered, and his words confirmed this impression. "Some injuries, a few deaths. There are plenty of peasants."
As if on cue, several men and women emerged from the nearest shaft. Instead of their native costumes, all wore rough coveralls, either originally grey or grey from the dust of the mine. Their faces were covered with kerchiefs, but, as they removed these, all coughed, trying to clear their lungs of the same dust. Under the watchful gaze of the SS, one of the men drew a bucket of water from a well several yards from the mine entrance and distributed dippers of the liquid to the other workers. Janice thought she recognized one of the women. She thought it odd that the woman known as Troika should show up here, as well as at the compound. Perhaps she was especially unskilled at avoiding forced labor details.
"Is something wrong?" Grube asked her.
"No, Reichskommander," Janice answered. "I am still wondering about that shed. It is built into the side of the mountain, almost as if it were in the entrance to one of the mines."
"It is the entrance to a tunnel," the officer said. "There's a special project going on there, something I can't reveal."
"I am the Fuhrer's representative," Janice tried.
"Without specific orders from the Fuhrer himself, you cannot know what is in that tunnel," he stated. "I won't discuss it further. Do you want to look around while I finish checking security? You may go anywhere except near that shed." At Janice's nod, he strode away.
"What's going on with that little building?" Mel asked. "You both kept looking at it, and I can tell you're still curious."
"It contains explosives."
"I got that much," Mel admitted. "But there's something else."
"It's the entrance to some 'special project' even Hitler's favorite monster can't know about--unless der Fuhrer himself gives the word." Although pretending to focus her attention on the resting workers, she kept throwing sidelong glances at the shed.
"Janice, don't even think about going over there."
"Don't worry. I won't." She paused for a few seconds, and Mel could see the wheels turning. "Not in the daylight anyway."
"Janice . . . ."
Mel was talking to empty air as her friend walked purposefully toward the woman she knew as Troika. "You," she said, again using German. The woman, who had just risen and turned back toward the mine entrance, froze. Having seen what she wanted, Janice passed the woman and spoke to a young man. "What are your duties?"
He answered in halting German. "The women carry the buckets of ore from the lower levels--and dump them into the carts. Then the other men and I push the carts to the surface."
"Aren't there machines to do that work? Or animals?"
"Machines break and need parts," he responded. "Animals die and cannot be replaced."
Janice remembered Grube's comment about there being plenty of peasants. She felt a chill as she came to fully understand his words.
One of the guards growled at the workers to return to the mine. "You have rested and drunk. Get back to work. Now." Wearily, the villagers rose and headed back to the mine. Janice followed but was intercepted by Grube at the mine entrance.
"It is dangerous in the mines, Fraulein," he warned her. "And there is nothing to see but tunnels and dust and piles of rocks."
"Are you telling me that here is another place I cannot go?" Janice's voice was controlled, but angry. Mel had joined Grube and Janice and looked anxiously from one to the other.
"I didn't say you couldn't go into the mine. I said it was dangerous."
Janice walked around the SS officer and into the mine. Mel followed. After a brief hesitation, Grube grabbed some equipment and followed. Inside the entrance of the mine, he handed each of the women a miner's hat and a filter mask. After they had donned this equipment, he used a chrome lighter to ignite the oil-fed flame on each hat. "Isn't an open flame dangerous in a mine?" Janice asked through the mask.
"No," he answered. "It isn't like a coal mine. There aren't any flammable gases in these tunnels. Just rock dust."
Grube led the way, Janice and Mel walking side-by-side close behind him. The tunnel was fairly wide and high at this point, almost cubic in shape, about seven feet by seven feet. The floor was nearly level, indicating that the tunnel extended straight into the mountain. Torches every fifteen feet or so provided light, but the women were glad of the extra illumination provided by the miners' lamps. The timbers that supported the ceiling and walls appeared to be quite seasoned, and Janice guessed that this part of the mine was probably part of the old iron mine Grube had mentioned. She whispered this information to Mel, who, as they passed into a section with a lower ceiling, was busy ducking timbers that occasionally came closer to the rock floor than her nearly six feet of height. The wood here was obviously freshly cut, and this, along with the piles of dust and rock that littered the floor near the walls indicated that they were entering the working part of the mine. Before either Janice or Grube was aware of it, Mel's acute hearing picked up the sound of picks and shovels striking rock.
The tunnel took a sharp right turn and began to descend rapidly, the floor tilting at nearly a thirty degree angle. It also became narrower, although the height of the ceiling remained at 6 to 7 feet. The ceiling and walls were rough, pocked by digging and, Janice thought reluctantly, small cave-ins. Ahead, beyond the illumination of the last torch, the visitors could see the glow of miner's lamps and clearly hear digging and the shouted instructions of a guard or foreman. As they neared the work group, which was digging at the tunnel's end, they had to move aside to let a cart, or really a four-wheeled wagon, past. The wagon, made of wood reinforced by metal staves, had a long tongue apparently designed to be hitched to two horses or ponies. Four of the village men were holding the wagon tongue and pulling it up the steep slope. As they pressed against the tunnel wall to let the wagon pass, Janice and Mel could see that it was piled high with ore and that two more men were straining to push it from behind. The two women exchanged a glance, and Janice sadly shook her head. Even as Fraulein Berndt, there was nothing she could do.
While the wagon continued on its hard journey to the surface, Grube and the women walked on to the end of the tunnel. There five or six women worked, apparently to both remove ore and to widen the tunnel at this point. They were supervised by one armed SS guard and by a sturdy sandy-haired man in civilian clothing.
"Herr Walatz," Grube greeted the civilian.
The man flicked him a glance. "Reichskommander." Then he saw the two women and showed more interest.
"Fraulein Margethe Berndt and her secretary," Grube introduced the women. "This is Herr Walatz, the engineer in charge of the mining operations. Fraulein Berndt is on a mission from the Fuhrer and asked to visit the mines."
"Frauleins," Walatz acknowledged. He studied Mel with interest. "I did not catch your name."
"My companion's German is very poor," Janice told him. "Her name is Maria. Tell me, Walatz, do you find that the locals provide an adequate labor force? And have you had any problems with sabotage?"
"Ah, that is your mission from your Fuhrer? To find out what the Rumanians are up to?" Walatz looked around at the women, who continued to work. Janice was positive they were listening to every word and that their understanding of German was as good as hers. "Things went faster before the SD saw fit to remove most of the men to work in factories in Germany and on other projects. But the women are strong, and they work hard for a little food for themselves and their children. Food they grew in their own gardens and farms and that the SS confiscated."
"Walatz, you will watch your words more carefully," Grube warned, and the engineer fell silent.
Janice was about to ask another question when Mel whispered, "What's that sound?" Before Janice could say she heard nothing, she did hear something and turned to look up the tunnel. Barreling toward them, apparently out of control, was the heavy ore wagon the men had been pulling and pushing toward the surface. Still bearing its load of rock, it approached with frightening speed and gained still more momentum as it reached the steepest part of the tunnel. The small group standing within arm's length of a solid stone wall turned toward speeding disaster and, of one mind, leaped to one side or the other. Walatz grabbed Janice and, pushing the small woman before him, hugged the cave wall. Grube, in his haste to save his own life, collided with Mel, knocking her to the mine floor. At the end of the tunnel, one of the women stood, apparently frozen, unable to choose a direction to jump.
Janice, struggling against the hands that held her, watched in horror as the wagon bore down upon her friend and the village woman. Desperate, she bit Walatz's right hand, but he only yelped and held on. Mel pushed herself up, but, instead of jumping to the side, she thrust forward with her long legs and, wrapping her arms around the waist of the panicked woman, rolled with her over a small pile of slag. The wagon hit the rock wall with a tremendous crash and came to rest amid flying stones and dust. Then there was silence.
Walatz released Janice, who ran to the wagon. Grube, the guard, and the women were already surveying the scene, one or two of the women with tears streaking their dirty cheeks. The wagon was tipped to one side, one back wheel resting on the slag pile, the other touching only air. Mel was nowhere to be seen, and Janice steeled herself for what she would see when she bent to gaze under the wagon. She adjusted her miner's lamp and prepared to look.
Then she heard a muffled sound. And another. There being no room to walk around the wagon, she clambered over it and looked down. There, wedged between the pile of broken rocks and small stones and the tunnel wall, just inches from being crushed under tons of ore, lay Melinda, face down and still. And beneath her, struggling to get out, was the woman whose life she had saved. A couple of large rocks, apparently spilled from the wagon, lay on Mel's back, and Janice quickly lifted those and threw them to one side.
"Mel?" Janice whispered, forgetting for the moment that this was supposed to be Maria. She reached down and touched her friend's shoulder, then gently shook it. "Are you okay? Please don't be dead."
She heard something being mumbled.
"What? What did you say?"
"Not. . . .dead."
Janice felt movement beside her and realized that Walatz had joined her on top of the ore. "Are they alive?"
"Yes," she answered. "Help me lift. . . .Maria." Together, they were able to reach over the edge of the wagon and gently turn and lift Mel from where she was wedged between the slag pile and the tunnel wall. When they had maneuvered her into a kneeling position, Mel was able to stand and then help the other woman up, also. Each could move her arms and legs and, except for a few scrapes and cuts, seemed to be unhurt. Janice and Walatz helped both the women climb onto the rear of the wagon and then off the front. Grube reached up to help Janice down, but she ignored his proffered hand and jumped. She would deal with him for endangering her friend; it was just a matter of deciding when and how.
Grube said something to the guard, who saluted and ran toward the tunnel entrance. He turned to Janice, who was still assuring herself that Mel was not injured in some way that might not be immediately apparent. The other women had gathered their rescued countrywoman into their group and were trying, within the limits of that small space, to distance themselves from Grube. Grube confirmed their fears by pulling his sidearm and motioning for them to begin the ascent to the surface. Mel opened her mouth, but closed it when Janice shook her head.
The small procession started upward, the Rumanian women, then Grube, then Janice and Mel, trailed by Walatz. Mel stumbled, and, when Janice put an arm around her, allowed herself to lean against the shorter woman. Since becoming Fraulein Berndt, her friend had become so distant, and she found this contact and support especially comforting.
The sunlight was almost blinding as they left the mine's dark interior. Janice blinked as she studied the situation in the open space beyond the tunnel entrance. The men who had been pulling and pushing the ore wagon were sitting in a tight circle, bound and guarded. All around the flat area were small clusters of Rumanian workers, both men and women, all sitting or kneeling on the ground, all with German guns pointed in their direction. Two SS Waffen came forward and, at Grube's barked command, relieved him of the women he had shepherded from the mine. These women were taken a dozen feet from the men who were their coworkers and forced to form their own kneeling circle. Mel looked to Janice, whose face was impassive.
The guard whom Grube had sent ahead approached and saluted. At the Reichskommander's nod, he reported, "The youngest man is missing; Vorshko, they call him. Moeller took his unit after him. The dogs will find him."
Janice spoke up. "He should be taken alive. I'll question him myself."
"Why you?" Grube asked. "I have some skill at interrogation."
"Do you know how to keep a prisoner alive and able to talk?" Janice asked.
Grube looked away, and she knew she had guessed correctly about his "skill." If she could take charge of the boy's questioning, she might be able to save his life, maybe even figure out a way to help him escape unharmed.
Grube ordered the guard, "Tell Moeller. Alive. And in condition to talk." The guard hurried off, heading up the mountainside toward the sound of barking dogs. Before he had gone more than a few yards, there was the sound of a shot and then another. He paused, then ran on.
Janice swallowed, and turned to those she could still help. "Grube, having these peasants kneel in the dirt instead of working in the mines is a waste. Don't you have a shipment to complete?"
Walatz added his voice to hers. "We're short several hundred tons of ore. I need every worker I've been allowed to keep."
Grube hesitated, torn between a desire to exercise his absolute power over these people and his need to meet a quota set in Berlin. As he debated with himself, a squad of SS appeared, sliding down the steep slope of the mountain. Two of the men dragged something behind them. As they got nearer, it became clear that they were pulling the body of a young man. Reaching level ground, they dragged the boy near the circle of men who had been his coworkers and roughly pushed him among them. Grube and the others who had been in the mine walked nearer.
Janice recognized the young man as the one with whom she had spoken earlier. What a waste, she thought. The boy groaned. Mel knelt beside him and, using her hand to apply pressure, tried to staunch the flow of bright blood from his chest. For an instant, he opened his eyes, clear and blue as any mountain stream, and seemed to gaze into hers. Then he stiffened for one instant--and relaxed into death. Mel gave a cry and pushed harder on his chest. "No," she cried, "Wait. . . ." Before she could utter another English word, Janice stepped closer. Quickly, she drew back her hand and brought it forward against Mel's cheek, sharp and hard. The dark-haired woman gasped and looked up, puzzlement and hurt warring across her beautiful face. "Why?" she started.
"Shut up," Janice answered in German. With her left hand, she grabbed Mel's upper arm and jerked it upward. "Stand. Now." Mel's limited knowledge of the language was no excuse for not understanding. Not releasing her tight grip between shoulder and elbow, Janice pulled back her right hand again. Before another blow could be delivered, Mel stood. The boy was dead anyway. She knew there was no help to be given to him. Except. . . .as she rose to her feet, Mel silently prayed for his soul to find the peace not available here on earth.
Every eye was on the small blonde woman and her tall dark-haired companion. Janice gave Mel a shove that propelled her outside the circle, then turned to Grube, keeping her voice low so neither his men nor the workers would hear her suggestions. "The saboteur is dead. That will be a lesson to the others. Why don't you get them back to work?"
"I need to question them, at least the men," Grube objected, but quietly.
"If they knew anything, they would have run, too," she pointed out. "You can't spare any workers. Remember the needs of the Fatherland." Raising her voice, she addressed one of the Rumanians, an older man. She realized she recognized him from the compound. "What happened? How did you lose control of the wagon?" When he didn't answer, she pointed to the young man's body. "Speak or suffer the same fate."
Without looking at her, the man answered, "We needed to rest before dragging the wagon around the turn in the tunnel. That is the hardest section. Vorshko was to chock the wheels before we let go." He paused, his eyes drawn to the body.
"And?" Janice prompted.
"He was the youngest in his family. Three years ago, when he was only thirteen, the SD transported his father and brothers to work in factories in Germany. He and his mother have not heard from them since."
"Did the rest of you know what he was going to do?"
The man finally looked her in the eye. "No. We would not have risked our women. Vorshko was a Magyar and not of our village."
Grube nodded, finally convinced. He ordered his soldiers, "Get this bunch back to work. And all the others. No breaks. They'll work until today's quota is filled."
Walatz gave Janice a long look and shook his head. He walked over to Mel, who stood unmoving, her face turned away, and patted her awkwardly on the arm before following the guards and workers back to the mines. Another pair of eyes flicked from Mel to Janice, narrowing as they rested on the woman in black. A guard barked, "Eyes front," and that watcher also turned away.
It was still light when the staff car stopped at the lane that led to Castle Klaj-meinke. Grube had stayed at the mines to reorganize the guard details so that each ore wagon crew was strictly supervised. Janice, looking at a battered and quiet Mel, had asked for the use of his automobile, and, glad to be rid of the women, he had agreed.
With Mel sitting stiffly against the far passenger door and directing her gaze out the window, the women had not talked during the ride up the mountain. After the car had stopped and the driver had opened the door on Janice's side, Mel didn't move.
"Maria," Janice said quietly. "We're at the castle. Get out of the car."
Mel pushed open the door on her side instead of sliding across.
Janice turned to the driver. "Return to the Reichskommander. Tell him I'll expect a car and driver early tomorrow." As the car started its descent, she hurried to catch up with Mel, who had started up the approach to the castle.
"Mel, wait." The taller woman stopped but didn't turn around. There was a large rock near the pathway, and Janice took her friend's arm and led her there. "Sit," she said, and Mel obeyed. The smaller woman knelt beside her and let her own words tumble out. "Talk to me. Please. Tell me what you're thinking. Are you angry because I slapped you? I'm sorry. I had to do that before you. . . ."
The tears falling from Mel's eyes stopped her. Mel leaned forward, and Janice took her in her arms, cushioning the sobs that were starting. Why did I let you come? she thought. When the crying had subsided, Janice gently pushed her friend away, hands still on her shoulders, so she could study her face. She spoke her thought. "I shouldn't have let you come."
"Let me come?" Mel asked. "I don't remember that it was your decision."
"You said you didn't want to come, that you had a bad feeling about this."
"I didn't want you to come here, to risk your life again," Mel corrected. "But when you insisted on it, there wasn't any question about what I had to do." When Janice looked puzzled, she added, "Wherever you go, I'll go. Whether it's into the lion's lair or the fiery furnace."
Mel moved over a little and patted the rock beside her. Janice sat, and Mel wrapped an arm around her waist. "There's a story in the Bible about two women called Ruth and Naomi. Do you know it?"
Janice shook her head. "Musta missed that one."
"Naomi was Ruth's mother-in-law, and they all lived in Ruth's country. After Ruth's husband died, Naomi was leaving to go back to her own country, and she told Ruth not to go with her. Ruth told her, 'Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.' "
"That's a beautiful story," Janice commented, "but I'm not sure it applies to going unarmed into Nazi territory."
Mel looked at her steadily. "Then how about this next part? 'Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.' "
". . . . if ought but death part thee and me," Janice whispered.
Mel stood and, taking Janice's hand, pulled her to her feet. "About the slap. I'm not so stupid I don't know why you did it." She rubbed the spot on her cheek, which was still faintly red. "But don't ever do it again."
Janice nodded, and the two women continued up the pathway, hand-in-hand.
The young maid was placing freshly laundered and pressed clothing on the bed when the two women entered the chamber. She didn't seem surprised to see them. She surprised Janice by speaking in heavily accented English. "Your clothing has been washed. I have also brought up robes. If you wish, I will prepare a bath." She made eye contact with Mel and explained, "The Count has told us that you do not speak German, and that we are to speak English or Greek. I do not know Greek."
"Does everyone in this country speak three or four languages?" Mel asked.
"We have a history that encourages this." The girl shrugged and continued modestly, "My family is from a border village. I was born Transylvanian, have been Rumanian, Hungarian, and now I suppose I'm Rumanian again, although the Germans control the country. It is best for survival to know many languages."
"But English?" Mel persisted.
"I have served in the castle since I was a little girl. Count Pitesti likes his servants to speak English--and French. Before the war, we had many English and French visitors. And Americans. I always liked the Americans." Suddenly realizing that not only the non-threatening Maria was listening, she blushed scarlet and closed her mouth.
"You mentioned a bath?" Janice asked her.
"Yes, Fraulein," she answered. "There is a bathing room on this floor. I have water heating already."
"Maria?" Janice asked. "You don't want a bath, do you?"
"Oh, yes," Mel said fervently. "A hot bath?"
The girl nodded.
Janice asked her, "Is the tub big enough for two?"
After a slight hesitation, she nodded again
Grabbing up the white robes the maid had provided, Janice inspected them and handed the larger one to Mel. "Let's go. A hot bath for two."
They stepped into the hall as Alasandre lifted his hand to knock on their door. He dropped his hand and said, "Fraulein Berndt, Count Pitesti requests your presence, if it is convenient." He looked at the robe in her hand and added, "It will take only a few minutes, and you will still have over an hour before dinner."
"I can wait," Mel assured her.
Janice tossed her the other robe. "Go ahead, Maria. Have a good soak. I'll join you in a little while."
Mel nodded and followed the maid down the hallway while Janice trailed down the stairs behind the manservant.
Mel asked the maid, "What is your name? I don't remember your telling us."
"They call me Betta," the younger woman answered. She stopped and opened a door. "Here is the bath," she said and motioned Mel to precede her. The room was small, most of the floor space taken up by an oval wooden tub. The tub was at least four feet long and almost three feet across, with a depth of some two feet. The tub was about half filled with clear water. Mel put a hand in the water and, finding it cool, looked questioningly at Betta.
"I will soon warm it up, Miss Maria," Betta answered. In one corner of the room was a stove and a large box of wood. On the stove were several buckets of water, each letting off a cloud of steam. Betta lifted two of the buckets and poured the boiling water from them into the tub. She did the same with two more buckets and then turned to a spigot on a pipe that ran from ceiling to floor. She filled all four buckets at the spigot and returned them to the stove to heat.
"Running water?" Mel questioned. "Is it pumped all the way up here from the ground?"
"No," Betta answered with a proud smile. "There is a large water reservoir on the roof of the castle. It fills from rain and snow. Of course, it freezes during the winter, but the rest of the year, we have running water on this level and in the kitchen."
"Very clever," Mel commented. She started to unbutton her dress but was shy in front of the young woman.
Betta misunderstood Mel's slowness and stepped forward to assist her. "The Count's father was an inventor. He was always doing things to improve life in the castle. Our kitchen has many things to save labor. That's one reason Alasandre, Mikel, and I are able to run the castle by ourselves." She finished unbuttoning the taller woman's dress and helped her slip it over her head. She then did the same with Mel's slip. Mel stepped away to finish undressing and then quickly slipped into the tub. The water was very warm and felt wonderful on her bruised skin and stiffening muscles.
Betta took a sponge and a jar of soft, fragrant soap from a shelf near the stove. Soaping the sponge, she knelt by the tub and began washing Mel's back. "You don't need to do that," Mel said, even though the sensation of the soapy sponge felt wonderful.
The other woman ignored her protest and kept rubbing. "I want to tell you something."
"Don't despair. There is help for you if you want it."
Mel, who had been starting to relax, sat up. When the sponge continued its lazy circles, she grabbed Betta's wrist and held it. "Don't despair? What are you talking about?"
In answer, Betta touched Mel's reddened cheek. Mel winced and drew back. "How could you know about that? It just happened."
"News travels quickly, from mines to village to castle." Betta seemed to come to a decision. "I will tell you something. That woman you saved from being crushed. Her name is Troika. She is my sister."
"I just happened to be closest to her."
"You could have stepped out of the way of the ore wagon," Betta said positively. "But you risked your life to push Troika to safety. And then you tried to help the Magyar boy, and that woman beat you for it."
"She only slapped me," Mel corrected.
"I have friends. They are Troika's friends, too." Betta leaned closer, the sponge in her hand resting on Mel's shoulder. "My friends thought because you travel with that German that you were a collaborator. Now they know this is not true, and they will try to help you. But you must be both patient and ready. Do you understand?"
Before Mel could answer, another hand closed over the sponge and removed it from Betta's hand. "I'll do that." She dipped the sponge into the water and squeezed it, sending rivulets of water over Mel's breasts. "The water is a little cool, I think."
The maid rose quickly and brought two buckets of steaming water and added them to the tub. Mel gasped. "I think that's hot enough," she said.
Janice, no modesty inhibiting her, threw off her clothing and, dropping it to the damp floor, slipped into the tub, settling opposite her friend. As the hot water warmed her body, she gave a contented sigh. "We'll be fine by ourselves, uh...what's your name?"
"Leave us for now, Betta. If we need more hot water, I'll get it."
Wondering how long that woman had been standing behind her, Betta slipped out the door, closing it behind her.
"How much did you hear?" Mel asked.
"Enough," Janice answered. "I gather that you're the innocent Greek heroine, and I'm the nasty Nazi pervert."
"That was the gist of it."
"Play along. It could be that Betta's and Troika's friends are the resistance fighters we're looking for." Janice reached across Mel and snagged the jar of soap resting on the edge of the tub. She soaped the sponge and looked at her companion, who raised an eyebrow.
"What did the Count want?"
"Nothing," Janice told her.
"Nothing? Why did he send for you?"
"Alasandre led me to the Count's study, but the Count wasn't there. He wanted to lead me on a tour of the castle to find his boss, but I said no thanks." Janice was using the sponge on her own chest and stomach. She turned around and handed the sponge to the other woman, who began back-scrubbing duties.
"You think Alasandre misunderstood what Count Pitesti--Tavel--told him?"
"I think Betta wanted you to herself for a while and that Alasandre was part of the plan."
Finishing Janice's back, Mel handed her the sponge and the soap.
Continued - Chapters 13 - 18
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