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Over lamb stew, not venison, Tavel, who was in a talkative mood, asked Janice if she had heard any word of the war in the east.
"I couldn't talk about that even if I had heard anything," she informed him.
"Of course," he apologized. "I doubt that the situation has changed that much anyway. I was just wondering. You see, I have a theory that this will be the winter that the Soviets will try to break out of their encirclement. If it is a harsh winter, they will give your panzers some hard times."
Janice certainly hoped this was true, but she couldn't say this. Instead she asked, "How so?"
"Are you familiar with Napoleon's campaign in Russia?"
"A little. Why don't your refresh my memory?"
Alasandre entered with white wine, which Janice and Mel each accepted, and that their host declined. "That will be all," the Count said firmly, and his manservant bowed his way through the door that led to the kitchen.
"Napoleon and Russia?" Mel prompted.
Tavel cleared his throat and looked over the women's heads as he told the story. "In 1812, Napoleon attacked Russia with half a million soldiers. He met the Tsar's army at Borodino Field, only 70 miles from Moscow. Over 100,000 men died on that battlefield in one day. The Russians gave up the field, and Napoleon took the capital."
"So Napoleon won?" Mel asked.
"No," Tavel answered, and he looked pointedly at Janice. "He thought he had won, but he found that Moscow contained no supplies, and the Tsar would not negotiate with him. In October, the French army started home, following the trail of the devastation they had wrought. There was an early and exceptionally cold winter, and the French became isolated into small units desperately hunting for food and shelter. The weather and the cossacks decimated them." He paused. "Ten thousand French soldiers made it home. Ten thousand from a half-million. It meant the end of Napoleon's rule."
"Are you making a prediction?" Janice asked, her tone neutral.
"No, just an observation. I could also discuss with you the merits of a two-front war."
Mel remembered something that Tavel had told her earlier. "Did your brother share with you his knowledge of military history and strategy?"
"Napoleon's Russian campaign is well-known," he answered. "As is its outcome." He noticed that the women had finished their meal. He indicated fresh fruit in a bowl on the table and remarked, "Alasandre was busy today, and there is no other desert. No? Then I wonder, Margethe, if you would accompany me on another after-dinner walk? And, of course, Maria, you are welcome to come, also."
Mel shook her head. "I'm tired from this afternoon's exercise." Janice looked at her sharply, but she didn't explain. Tavel rose as Mel excused herself and left the dining chamber. Janice rose, too, and walked with the nobleman through the kitchen and into the moonlit garden. Small clouds scudded across the sky, temporarily throwing shadows along the stone walkway. The two walked silently down the sloping walk toward the stone edifice that stood at the bottom of the garden. When they reached the door of that small building, Tavel reached out to unlock and open it. Janice put a hand out to stop him.
"I don't think I want to go inside," she said quietly.
"You went in last night." His eyes bore into hers. He was not a tall man, but he was taller than she was and seemed to loom over her, not threatening, but powerful.
"Did I?" She tried to pull her gaze away from his.
He put a hand on her shoulder and gently guided her toward the open door.
"You want to be with me. Here. Now."
"No." But she did not resist.
Later, Janice stepped through another door into the room she was sharing with her best friend. Mel looked up from a book she was reading. "Where did you get that?" Janice asked.
"The book? Tavel let me borrow it this morning. It's about medieval paintings, religious art." Mel put the book on a night table and stood up.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Just tired. We took a long walk." Janice sat on the edge of the bed and started to undress. "Are you done reading?" At Mel's nod, she blew out the light, leaving only the small band of moonlight that came in through the one long window. She finished undressing. "Would you do me a favor?"
"There's something I need to do, but I want to get some sleep first. Do you think you could wake me in a couple of hours?" Her voice was so weary that Mel didn't have the heart to ask her what she planned to do.
"I'll sit up until it's time to wake you."
"Thank you, Mel." Janice crawled under the covers on what was usually Mel's side of the bed and was almost instantly asleep. Listening to her steady breathing, Mel felt a tenderness she knew a waking Janice would reject and, unable to help it, walked to the side of the bed, and leaning over, gave her cheek a light kiss. "Sleep well," she whispered; then, wrapping one of the white robes around herself against the chill of the stone castle, she pulled a chair close to the window and curled up with the borrowed book.
The pictures of saints and gargoyles took on a magical appearance in the light from the moon. As did the apparition that stared up at her window from below.
After exactly two hours, Mel stood looking down at a tangle of reddish-blonde hair, all that showed above the covers. She tugged and revealed a face as angelic as that of a sleeping child. She pulled on the covers again, but by then the green eyes were open, and small, strong hands held a blanket to the level of a stubborn chin.
"Can't you sleep now and do whatever it is in the morning?" Mel asked.
Janice shook her head, seemingly trying to clear it, and sat up. She moved to the edge of the bed, then stood, taking the blanket with her.
"Are you cold?"
Janice found Margethe's knapsack and rummaged through it, finally pulling out the black jacket, turtleneck sweater, and trousers she had worn in the raft when she and Mel had landed in Greece. Dropping the blanket, she pulled on the dark clothing. Back to the knapsack. This time she found a jar of black boot polish and spread a thin layer of that on her forehead, cheeks, and chin.
"The mine?" Mel asked. "The one with the sword?"
"Yeah." The moonlight was dim now, the clouds winning the contest between light and shadow. But Janice held up a small mirror and checked her "make-up." Apparently satisfied, she strode to the window. "I'll have to hurry if I'm going to run all the way to the mine, look around, and get back here by dawn."
Mel followed her and looked down the side of the castle. "We're over three stories up," she commented, "and I don't see any handholds."
"Uh, I planned on using the back stairs." Janice crossed to the door and looked back at Mel, who still stood by the window. She was surprised there was no argument about her plan. She wanted to say something, but settled for "See you in the morning."
Janice crept through the gallery to the narrow stairs used by the servants, then down those to the kitchen and out the back door. After creeping around the corner of the castle, she took off running at her best pace.
She felt out of shape for some reason and realized this midnight ramble was going to be a challenge. Halfway down the lane to the road there was a stitch in her side and her breath came in ragged gasps. Run through it, she told herself. It will get better. She heard a noise behind her and tumbled into brush that lined the path.
"Janice?" a familiar voice asked softly. A soft, whiskery nose reached down and inquisitively tickled her face. "Good boy. You found her."
Janice stood up and saw her friend. Mel, also dressed in the black clothing given them by the Navy, her face covered with boot polish, held the reins of two small, dark horses and was stroking the soft brown nose of one of them. "I thought this would be faster than running."
"Yeah, good thinking." Janice put her foot in a stirrup and quickly hauled herself into the saddle. Mel followed suit, conscious that her feet hung far down the mountain pony's sides. Then Janice cracked her reins, and the two women galloped their mounts down the steep trail. Reaching the road, Janice turned off it, indicating that they would blaze a parallel trail.
Mel rode easily and confidently, adjusting to the short stride of her little mount and wondering how Janice proposed to get past the guards at the mine.
In less than an hour, she got a chance to find out. "We'll tie the horses here," Janice told her, indicating an overhead branch.
"By the reins?" Mel asked doubtfully.
"You bring ropes and halters?"
"Then by the reins. Tie 'em high, and it should be all right."
Mel reached above the shorter woman's head and secured the reins. She patted each horse on its soft nose and whispered something that Janice couldn't catch. Then Janice was scooting through a narrow gulley and to the top of a hill that overlooked the flat area in front of the mines. Mel followed and, as her head came over the rise, Janice grabbed her shoulder and jerked her downward. "There." Whispered. Pointed.
The moon was now completely behind clouds, and the darkness was almost complete. However, in the middle of the open area below, someone had built a fire in an old fuel drum. Five soldiers in the uniform of the SS were gathered there, warming their hands, and quietly talking. One of the soldiers laughed, and the sound found its way up the hill to the women.
Janice pointed beyond the small group of guards to the explosives shed.
One guard stood directly in front of the door, rifle on his shoulder, stiffly at attention. "Oh, great," she whispered, "one guy's not a gold-brick, and he's the one guarding our shed."
"If we wait a while, maybe he'll join the others."
"No time," Janice replied. "Grube shared his patrol plan with me. We have less than a half-hour before dogmen check this hill and find the horses--and us." She stood in a crouch and motioned for Mel to follow her.
They silently worked their way down the hill in a wide circle and ended up beside the shed, just where it joined the mountain. As they reached this point, one of the men by the fire called out, "Karl, come and join us. Get warm by the fire."
There was no answer, and Janice crept slowly around to the front of the shed. In her hand she held a sharp instrument. Mel stifled a gasp as she recognized the largest of the knives from Margethe's collection. Janice wouldn't really. . . . would she? When she had reached the front corner, Janice whispered to her companion, "Call him. Just say 'Karl' and stay in the shadows. Quietly." Mel looked at the knife and then at the small woman. "Do it."
"Karl." Too quietly. She tried again, pitching her voice low, trying to make the closest man hear her, but not those by the fire. "Karl."
"Who is it?" came back in German.
"Karl?" She made it a question and waited.
Cautiously a bayonet-tipped rifle came around the corner followed by a helmeted head. Using all her strength, Janice rammed the knife into an unprotected windpipe, and struggled to catch the heavy body as it fell.
"Help me." Breaking through her shock, Mel stepped forward and supported the body as they pulled it the rest of the way around the shed and lowered it to the ground. Janice was pulling rags from a pocket and jamming them into the guard's mouth. From another pocket, she pulled two short lengths of rope and securely bound his hands and feet.
In almost complete darkness, Mel struggled to see the man's throat.
Reluctantly she touched a hand to the area just below his chin. Her hand came away dry. "I drove the knife hilt into his Adam's apple," Janice whispered, "puts 'em out like a light." She looked down at the SS uniform and thought, Don't know why I didn't use the sharp end. But then she looked at Mel and she knew. She knew. "Press against the shed. Think like a shadow and move like one, too."
Not knowing how to think like a shadow, Mel just tried to become part of the shed as they crept around it. In less than a minute, they were inside the door, with no alarmed shouts indicating discovery. The torches were out, and the shed and the mine beyond were perfectly dark. Janice rifled around in the blackness before taking her friend's hand and leading her to the first bend in the tunnel. Then, sure no light would reach outside the passage, she took out a lighter and began setting afire each torch as they came to it. "Where did you get that?" Mel asked, knowing that Janice had had to leave her own silver lighter--and cigars--behind when she had become Margethe.
"Borrowed it from Grube."
Precious minutes ticked away before they stood in the final chamber. Then there it was: the room hewn from solid rock in the middle of a mountain, in its center the stone cube, and, protruding from that remnant of all that had been removed to make this space, the ancient metal blade, its unnatural surface seeming to reflect more light than it received.
Mel stopped, awe piercing her soul, but Janice stalked directly to the stone platform and leaped lightly upon it. She grasped the hilt of the sword and pulled with all her strength. And nothing happened. She pulled again with no greater result. She surprised Mel by grinning down at her.
"Well, I didn't really think I could pull it out. But it was a thought."
"What are you going to do?" Mel asked.
In answer, Janice reached inside her jacket and pulled out four sticks of dynamite, followed by blasting caps and a length of cord. If anything, her grin grew wider. Quickly, she set to placing the dynamite at strategic intervals around the chamber. "If I can get enough of the ceiling to fall, they won't get this baby dug out for months--if at all." Intent on her work, she did not see Mel step up on the stone pedestal and place her own hands on the hilt of the sword. She finished placing the last explosive and turned just in time to see Mel pull upward. And to see the blade slide free from the encasing rock as if from the scabbard that had housed it a millenium before.
"How did you do that?"
Mel stood looking into the reflective surface, as if into a mirror into her own soul.
"Mel? How did you do that?" Janice stepped forward, but a glance from the other woman stopped her. For an instant, Janice wondered if the being who was raising the sword as if in triumph--or in a silent challenge--was really Melinda Pappas. Then blue eyes met hers and seemed to clear. And the sword was lowered.
"I don't know." The dark-haired woman looked at the sword as if it had just leaped into her hand. She moved her hand down on the hilt and, letting the tip almost touch the stone block on which she stood, offered the prize to Janice. "Please take it. I don't want it."
Janice grabbed the hilt just as Mel let go of it and was surprised by the heft of the weapon. She had guessed, from the way Mel had held it aloft, that its weight was much less. Holding the sword in her right hand, she reached up with her left to take her friend's hand and encourage her to jump down. "We've got to get out of here," she urged. "Time's running out."
"Aren't you going to blow up the tunnel?
"Why? We have the sword." Still holding Mel's hand, Janice started toward the passage to the surface.
The taller woman pulled back. "Leave it here and blow the tunnel."
"If the Nazis want this metal, can learn from it, so can our side," Janice argued. "Besides, we can't take the chance that they'll dig it out."
Mel looked at the sword, but only for a moment, as if the sight of it pained her. Then she nodded and allowed Janice to lead her from the chamber. Reaching the point at which the light of the torches ended, Janice halted and listened. There were no sounds that indicated that the guard Karl--or his absence--had been discovered. Knowing of the superiority of her friend's hearing, she questioned, "Mel?"
"I think it's okay."
Together, the two women crept cautiously into the shed, Janice pausing once more at the boxes of explosives. Mel supposed that she was, for once, returning something she had "borrowed." As she opened the door, Janice whispered, "Remember. . . ."
"I know. Think like a shadow."
Leading the horses to the closed doors of the stable, the two women paused to listen. Hearing nothing but the soft snorts and occasional stampings of horses at rest, Mel took both sets of reins and pulled open one of the double doors. And found herself looking down at Mikel. "Oh."
The boy took the reins out of her hand and asked, "Did you have a nice ride?"
"Yes," Mel managed.
"Good." He turned and started to lead the horses through the stable aisle.
"Mikel?'' Janice said, and he looked back over his shoulder. "Who knows that we were gone?"
Standing between the horses' shoulders, he turned to face her. His grey eyes were serious, his expression hard to read. "Probably no one but me."
"Who will you tell?"
He thought before answering. "I won't lie if Count Pitesti asks me."
"Fair enough," Janice responded, and Mikel led the horses toward their stalls. Janice brought the sword out from behind her back. She wasn't sure whether the boy had seen it. Or if he would know what it was. He HAD been caught snooping around that shed.
Janice led the way to the back of the stable, where they almost walked into the side of a small building, tightly constructed of rocks and mortar.
"What do you suppose this is used for?" Janice asked. She balanced the sword in her hand and looked at this possible hiding place.
"It's a cooling house," Mel answered, "what we call a spring house back home. You know, a place to keep milk and meat."
"How do you know that?"
"Tavel told me when we passed it on the way to the stables. Its where Alasandre hangs the game he shoots." She remembered that she had not told Janice everything about her day. "Tavel and I rode this afternoon. After I translated the Prometheus parchment."
"That's how you knew about the horses. What else did you do today?"
Janice held up a hand, which Mel could barely see in the dark. "Never mind. This building is probably used too much to do us any good."
As they walked up a steep pathway and emerged from a copse of trees that screened the stable from the house, the moon emerged from the clouds.
Mel was able to study Janice's face as she asked, "Do you trust him?"
"I think it was Mikel's idea to bring us here" was Janice's reply. Then "Ssh. Someone is in the garden." Mel froze, and some moments passed before there was a faint creak and then the click of a door closing.
Janice's hand found hers, and they stood together until the moon was once again covered and darkness became nearly complete. "I think he's gone."
"Unless Betta was visiting the mausoleum before dawn."
Keeping that white stone structure between them and the house, they continued up the narrow path. Janice peaked around the small building and, seeing no one beyond, she tugged on Mel's hand and pointed to the kitchen door. Mel nodded. As they passed the front of the building, Janice reached out her free hand and tested the door. "Locked," she said.
Mel shivered. "I hope so. I didn't even know this was a mausoleum."
"For the Count's family," Janice explained. "They've used it for generations."
Mel considered that statement and the apparent size of the tomb, but she didn't ask. They moved on, and then, suddenly disengaging her hand from her friend's, Janice slipped back around the corner of the mausoleum. Mel thought how empty her own hand felt, how cold, until her friend again clasped it. Then she realized that Janice's other hand now carried no burden. "There's a small box for gardening tools by the back wall. I left the sword there." Mel didn't question her, glad that the sword was at least temporarily out of their possession.
They found the kitchen door unlocked and the house dark. Without incident, they made their way back to the room they shared. Mel sat on the bed, weak with relief. "That was easy," she commented, meaning their undetected entrance to the house.
"Yeah, almost too easy," Janice said.
"Never mind. Get out of those clothes. It's almost dawn, and we need to be up for breakfast. I have a feeling we could have visitors." Matching actions to words, Janice tore off her jacket and turtleneck. "And rub that polish off your face." She
used the turtleneck to wipe her own face and then threw it to the woman on the bed. Mel caught it automatically, but she was staring at Janice.
"You're bleeding. How did you get hurt?"
Janice's hand went to her own throat. "This? A tree branch caught me when we were galloping through the woods. On the way out. It must have opened up again when I pulled my shirt away."
Mel wiped her face on the sweater and rose to hand it back.
Janice finished undressing and reached for one of the white robes, but Mel's firm handed stopped her. "You'll get blood on it, and there might be questions." From her own knapsack, she pulled a white scarf, something, she supposed, that had belonged to the real Maria. Had Margethe given it to her?
She tore the long piece of material in two and, after soaking half in water from the washbasin pitcher, she used it to bathe the wound on Janice's neck. "The branch must have been pronged," she commented. "There's more than one puncture. I wish we had some disinfectant."
"It's just a scratch."
"Sure." Satisfied that the wound was as clean as she could get it, Mel wrapped the remainder of the scarf around the pale neck to make a light bandage. Then she held the robe for Janice to put on. "With you, everything is just a scratch."
"Get out of those clothes," Janice said. "We need to get rid of them."
Mel followed her order and was soon wearing the matching robe. Janice bundled together both sets of dark clothing and slipped out the bedroom door. She was back, empty-handed, in fewer than five minutes.
"Where did you put them?" Mel asked.
"In a fireplace flue in one of the empty bedrooms. I doubt that the Count will have any other overnight guests for a while." Before Mel could ask any more questions, Janice climbed onto her side of the high bed. She patted the space beside her. "Come here."
"But. . . ."
"Let's talk. . . .tomorrow."
The knock on the bedroom didn't come until after dawn, but it was insistent. Janice jumped out of bed and redonned the robe. It hung to the floor, and she realized she had put on Mel's by mistake. Mel was sitting up, sleepily rubbing her eyes. Janice threw her the other robe, and waited while she put it on and sat on the edge of the bed. The knock came again, even stronger, and Janice opened the door. In the hall stood Reichskommander Grube, his gloved fist raised. Behind him were three SS soldiers, fully armed and looking grim.
"What is the meaning of this?" Janice demanded. "It can't be much past midnight, and you come calling?"
Grube stepped past her into the room. His eyes swept over Janice to the tall woman now standing and trying to pull the robe down to cover more of her legs. He spoke with authority. "There has been an attack on the mine.
I am here to arrest the guilty parties."
"An attack on the mines? How did this occur?"
"Two persons injured one of my best men, gained access to the explosives shed, and took the sword." He motioned for the soldiers to enter the room.
"Search for anything that looks suspicious."
Janice stepped in front of the first soldier to enter and addressed Grube.
"How dare you search the belongings of an emissary of the Fuhrer himself?
Am I under suspicion?"
"Of course not, Fraulein Berndt," the officer responded. "We search only to assure your safety. Someone may have hidden something in your room, something that would cause harm to you. I would be negligent in my duty to the Fuhrer if I did not protect you in this way." He motioned for the soldiers to walk around Janice and proceed with the search.
Mel was trying to follow the rapid-fire German but found herself unable to figure out what was going on. Grube's manner, while not showing as much deference as usual, seemed polite, and Janice seemed more on the offensive than defensive, even as she stepped aside to allow the soldiers past. The soldiers began to search the room, moving furniture and what little clothing lay about. When one approached the bed, Mel stood up and moved to stand behind Janice. The soldier searched the bed covers and began to remove the mattress.
"You think that the sword would be dangerous to me if someone hid it in this room?" Janice asked. "Are you afraid I would cut myself?"
"Who knows what that sword could do?" was Grube's return question.
"Besides, that is not all that was taken." One of the soldiers had picked up the women's knapsacks, and he looked to his commander for permission.
Grube held out a hand for one of the sacks and searched that one himself.
Apparently finding nothing of interest, he put that one down and searched the other. Then he strode to the large case he knew to be Margethe's and, finding it unlocked, lifted the lid. His eyebrows raised as he saw the contents of the tray on top, and he fingered one of the sharp scalpels before removing the tray and handing it to one of the soldiers. He rifled through the whips and restraints at the bottom of the box before ordering the tray returned and the lid closed.
Pounding feet were heard on the stairs, and a soldier ran into the room, instantly snapping to attention in front of his commander and waiting for permission to speak. "Report," Grube told him.
"We caught the saboteur, Reichskommander," the man said. "He was trying to burn evidence of his crime."
"Who was it?" the officer asked.
"The pale man."
Alasandre? Janice asked instead, "What evidence?"
Grube nodded permission, and the soldier answered, "He was burning dark clothing like that worn by the criminals. He said that they were only rags that had been used to polish boots and shoes." He thought for a minute, then added, "They did smell of boot polish."
"Where is he now?" Grube questioned.
"We have him in the kitchen. The Count is there, also, and he has asked to speak with you. He says his servant could not be involved in any resistance to the authority of the Reich."
"Tell the Count I will be right down," Grube ordered. The man left, running back down the stares, and Grube turned to Janice. "Fraulein Berndt, I apologize for any inconvenience. You understand that I had to assure your safety. Finding the saboteur to be connected to the castle shows that my fears were not unfounded."
Janice nodded. "I wonder if you would allow me to accompany you while you question the prisoner. I do have some experience in these matters."
The officer hesitated. "I am sure I can handle the interrogation. We will soon know who else is involved."
"Who else?" Janice asked.
"The guard attacked saw two people, one short and one tall.
The manservant will soon tell me the identity of his little accomplice."
"That would be interesting to know." Janice waited.
Grube finally agreed, "You may come with me, but I'll ask the questions."
"Of course." Janice remembered what she was wearing. "I'll dress and come right down."
Grube gave a short bow and departed with his soldiers. When their footsteps had faded, Mel began firing off her questions. "What was that all about? Were they searching for the sword? Why did they leave? Did they . . . .?"
Janice was throwing off the robe and pulling on her clean uniform. She hesitated at the makeshift bandage, then decided to leave it on. With the uniform jacket and blouse, it looked merely like an accessory, not proof of an injury. "Get dressed," she said before answering any of her friend's questions. Mel grabbed a dress the soldiers had left on the floor and hastily followed this order. "Grube was looking for the sword and anything else that might have been stolen last night. He looked here because he 'feared for our safety.' Hah! They caught Alasandre, I think, burning some clothes, and they think he was one of those responsible. Grube is going to the kitchen to question him, and you know what that means."
Janice and Mel ran to the back stairs and toward the kitchen. They could hear voices as they neared the bottom, and Janice put out a hand to stop the taller woman.
"Tell who was in this with you! And where you hid the sword!" There was a loud crack, the sound of an open palm impacting a face.
"Reichskommander! I protest!"
"Count Pitesti, you will be quiet, or you will leave the room."
"This man has done nothing against the Reich," the Count continued. "He is a good and loyal servant and knows nothing of politics."
"This clothing was worn last night by two men who attacked a soldier of the Third Reich. It is stained by polish that concealed their faces. I will have the information I need--no matter what it takes to get it."
Janice stepped out of the stairwell, and Mel followed. "Can I be of assistance, Reichskommander?"
Grube was holding the clothing she had herself concealed in a chimney only a few hours before. Before him was the albino manservant Alasandre, held in his chair by two of Grube's soldiers while another two stood close by.
And trying to interpose himself between the questioner and the questioned was Count Pitesti himself.
Grube addressed himself to Janice. "This stubborn man will beg to speak before I am done with him." Janice walked to stand directly in front of the captive, lightly shouldering the nobleman out of the way. She studied Alasandre with what she hoped was a professional eye.
"He won't break easily, Reichskommander," she stated. "His kind, the outcasts, they know pain, and some even welcome it. Only that which is so excruciating to the body, so shocking to the mind and soul that they cannot have anticipated it--only that can cause them to whisper their secrets into an interrogator's ear." She stepped back. "I wish you luck." She motioned to Mel to follow her. "My secretary and I will go for a walk and see what progress you have made when we return."
"Wait." She turned back to Grube, one eyebrow raised. "We don't have much time. The accomplice may be removing the sword from the country right now." The officer struggled with his own pride, then continued, "Can you get this man to speak? Without a delay?"
"Fraulein Berndt, you are a guest in my house."
Janice swept a cold glance over her host before answering Grube's question.
"Get me my tools and I'll have the sword's location and the name of his partner within a half-hour--even if it was his mother." She stepped closer to Alasandre and lowered her voice. "Did you have a mother, freak? Did she scream when they brought you to nurse?"
Alasandre's calm demeanor cracked, and he struggled against his captors, almost breaking loose. Janice stood her ground and laughed. Grube seemed convinced. "Go get her case," he said to the soldier who had earlier alerted him to the manservant's capture.
"Just the tray inside," Janice corrected before the man left.
"Stop this, Grube," the Count yelled. His light blue eyes bored into the German officer as if he would control him with his mind.
"Do not presume on your status," Grube answered. "I am an officer of the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsfuhrers, and I, not you, am in charge here."
As the two men glared at each other, the soldier returned with the tray from Margethe's case.
"Give that to me," Janice ordered, and he surrendered it. She fingered its shining contents, each touch a caress. "We could tie him to the table here, but. . . ." She glanced again at the Count. "No, I wouldn't want to affront my host by bloodying his kitchen." She seemed to have an inspiration. "There's a small building behind the stables, a store room of some kind. We can take him there for my work." With a cry of rage, Pistesti leaped at her, only to be grabbed by Grube and the two soldiers not restraining Alasandre. Grube drew his sidearm and pointed it at the nobleman's head. All fell silent until Grube stepped back and holstered the pistol.
"Take the Count into his library." One of the soldiers pushed Pitesti roughly, and Grube added, "Easy. Just take him there and watch him. He and I will have a talk while Fraulein Grube interrogates the prisoner."
Propelled by the soldiers, the Count yelled over his shoulder at Janice, "You will burn in hell for this. Forever."
"Probably," Janice agreed.
"Take the prisoner where she shows you," Grube ordered Alasandre's guards.
"Follow her instructions." Janice strode toward the door, and the others followed. She turned to Mel and spoke in Greek. "Maria, return to the room and clean up the mess there. Get the maid to help you."
"But. . . ."
"I said to get the maid to help you." Her tone was low and threatening.
Mel nodded and ran back up the stairs.
Alasandre again calm and not struggling, the little procession proceeded across the garden and to the small building behind the stable.
As the sudden silence stretched into minutes, the two soldiers exchanged a glance. When they had brought the prisoner into the stone building, the small woman had directed them to tie him to a pipe that ran high along the back wall. The taller of them had to stand on a wooden bucket to accomplish this task. The woman had ordered them outside and closed the door. Then there had followed several minutes of silence, followed by what seemed to be a long period of screaming. Now this strange silence again.
Should they check to see what was happening? Grube had said only to follow the woman's orders.
The door opened, and Fraulein Berndt emerged. She was wiping her hands on a rag, and they realized at the same time that this was the albino's shirt.
And that it was covered with blood, only the part where she was wiping her hands still showing that it was originally white, not red. One of the soldiers looked beyond her into the dim room and saw the prisoner. He was still tied to the pipe, but now he was slumped, not standing, and his face and naked chest were covered with. . . .with more than blood. . . .with gore. This soldier had seen much in his years with the SS, but he thought he must be imagining some of what he thought he could see now. He started to enter the room.
"Leave him," the woman ordered. She threw the shirt onto the ground and started to roll down the sleeves of her uniform jacket. "He's past needing a guard." She stalked toward the castle, and the two soldiers followed in her wake. "Tell Grube I need to see him," she ordered as they entered the kitchen. One of the soldiers went to do this task, and she told the other, "I forgot to bring my tools from the storehouse. Get them and bring them here."
The man hesitated, but he was too used to following orders to question this one. He went out the kitchen door before Mel stepped out of the stairway.
"What happened?" she whispered. "How did Alasandre get those clothes?
And why was he burning them?"
"To protect you," Janice replied, answering the second question first. "He has been hanging around spying on us since the first night. He decided that you needed protection from me, especially after he learned that I beat you. He tried to eliminate me entirely, but. . . ."
"That didn't work. He missed me and killed the wrong German."
Mel started to ask more, then realized what must have happened. "When Alasandre went hunting and returned without a deer, he had really been hunting you."
"Oh," said Janice, "he got a deer, too. Later."
"He saw you hide the clothing?" Mel asked, catching on fast.
"Yes, and he saw a lot more than that. He knew that you and I had gone somewhere in those clothes that could cause you a lot of trouble, maybe even get you killed by the Nazis. So, after I had hidden the clothes, he dug them out and tried to burn them."
"And got caught."
"Why did he do it?"
"Love? Infatuation?" Janice looked into blue eyes that had never been able to comprehend their owner's beauty.
There was a noise in the dining room, and Mel ducked back into the stairway. "Wait. Did you talk to Betta?"
The question went unanswered as Grube entered the kitchen. Only one soldier accompanied him. "Well? I hope you got the information, since you saw fit to kill my prisoner."
Janice smiled. "I had the information long before he died, Reichskommander. Do you think I am careless?"
"Long before. . . ." Grube shook his head. No wonder this woman was called a monster. He looked into her eyes and realized that the look there was one he had seen in a woman's eyes before. But rarely. He tried to return his thoughts to the important business at hand. "What did he tell you?"
"Many things, starting with his sad childhood." At Grube's glare, Janice added, "And that his accomplice was a man named Gyorgy Rakoczi. And that Rakoczi is on the way to Gyulafehervar with the sword."
"Rakoczi," Grube repeated. "From the village here?"
"No," Janice said positively. "None of the villagers was involved."
"Why Gyulafehervar? Isn't that the Transylvanian name for Alba Iulia?"
"I don't know," Janice answered. "The freak said Gyulafehervar. He said that there's a resistance cell there, but they are going to move on when they get the sword. He also said that he couldn't understand why you came here so quickly. He was sure he had left a trail that led away from here and the village."
"That's right," Grube agreed. "He and his accomplice came on horses and rode a good distance into the mountains to the north. It was just luck that one of my patrols was going out at dawn with a work crew to cut new timbers--and one soldier noticed where their trail turned back south. When the patrol got back to the mines and found out there had been an attack, that man remembered what he had seen, and we were able to follow the trail back here."
Janice nodded, cursing herself for thinking her backtracking trick was so clever.
"Enough of wasting time," Grube stated. "How is this man traveling? Still by horse?"
"Uh, no," Janice said. "He has a motorcycle, and he is following the railroad tracks that run north along the Siret River."
Grube started toward the dining room, then stopped. "You're sure he has the sword on him?"
"That's what the prisoner said." She forced a wolfish smile. "I doubt that he was lying at that point."
"The Count and I have had our talk, and I think he understands the reality of his situation. But I'll leave a couple of men here."
"I sent a soldier back to the storehouse to get something for me," she told him. "Leave him and take the others with you. I'm sure the Count will be reasonable."
Grube nodded and then was gone.
"Mel?" Janice said to the unseen woman.
"Yes?" Mel poked her head out of the stairwell but did not step into the kitchen.
Janice repeated her question from earlier. "Did you talk to Betta?"
Then Mel did step out of the stairwell, Betta right behind her. And in Betta's hand was an automatic pistol, dark and menacing. "Sit at the table," she instructed Mel.
She pointed the pistol at Janice. "You, too."
Mel hesitated, and Janice quickly said, "Do as she says." She moved to match her own words to action, sitting where she could face the Transylvanian woman. Mel sat at Janice's right, back to the outside door.
Betta approached the table but remained standing, gun pointed at Janice's chest.
"Betta," Mel began, "I told you that we are Americans. This is my friend Janice, not Margethe Berndt." Janice noticed that Mel's soft southern drawl had returned now that concealment of their nationality was no longer necessary.
The look Betta gave the dark-haired woman was one of pity. "You will say anything she tells you to. I don't blame you, and, if the others agree, I will spare your life."
"The others?" Janice asked.
"I sent Mikel for my friends. After the Germans took Alasandre prisoner."
Her knuckles turned white from her grip on the pistol. Janice prayed the trigger had a hard pull. "They should be here soon. Too late to save him."
"Betta, I told you. . . ." Mel started again.
"I heard what this Nazi bitch told you and what she told Grube." Betta leaned over the table, the barrel of the pistol no more than six inches from Janice's chest. Mel held her breath as Betta addressed Janice directly.
"You told the Greek that Alasandre was burning the clothing to protect her. Because you and she were the ones who really went into the mine last night. Then, when you talked to Grube, you said that Alasandre admitted the theft from the mine. And that you killed him after he confessed. And you sent Grube running off after a man who doesn't exist.
Grube probably figured you killed Alasandre because you enjoyed it. He would understand that. But you really killed Alasandre so no one else could question him--and find out that you stole the sword."
"You know about the sword?" Janice asked.
"Everyone knows the legend of the Greek sword. And that the Nazis thought they had found it."
"Betta, listen," Mel tried. "Grube was digging the sword out to send it to Germany. If Janice were really Margethe, if she were a Nazi, why would she steal it?"
"Power," Betta answered. "That's all the Nazis understand. She took it so she could be the one to hand it to Hitler. Or maybe she took it thinking she herself could wield its power." The woman sighed and straightened her arm, bringing the barrel of the pistol almost into contact with Janice's left breast. "I was going to let my friends deal with you. You would have known what Alasandre--and all of your other victims--went through. But it is taking them too long to get here. And I have other things to do."
Mel lunged forward, and, as Betta shifted the direction of the gun, Janice lifted her side of the table. One shot penetrated the ceiling, and a second rang off the iron stove as Mel struggled to hold onto the struggling woman's wrist. Janice landed a hasty punch on Betta's cheek and another, harder one on her jaw that caused the woman's knees to loosen. As she fell, Mel wrenched the gun from her hand and then, as if it were hot to the touch, shoved it toward Janice. Sitting on the kitchen floor, Betta shook her head, finally clearing it enough to see the dark barrel pointed at her own temple. She waited for the pain and darkness.
"Get up." A small hand reached out, and Betta looked into clear green eyes. The gun had been lowered and shifted to Janice's left hand. "I'll help you."
There was noise at the outside door, and a tall form loomed between the kitchen and the sunlight. Three pairs of eyes shifted in that direction and widened at the apparition. It was Alasandre, dressed in blood-stained trousers, chest bare and gleaming with moisture, in his hands a German military rifle. His pink eyes rolled wildly around the kitchen as he took in the three women, Mel and Janice standing over Betta, the gun in Janice's hand. He looked for another threat.
"Alasandre," Betta whispered. Unthinking, she took Janice's hand and rose.
She walked toward the man in the doorway. "Are you alive? Or. . . ."
"I'm alive," the man answered. He indicated Janice. "Thanks to her." The tall man stepped into the kitchen.
Janice glanced at the rifle. "Where's the German?" she asked.
"You don't want to know."
She nodded, sure this was true.
"But how?" Betta asked. "She tortured you to death."
Alasandre smiled. "She had me taken to the cooling house and had the guards stay outside. Then we talked, she and I." He met and held Janice's eyes. "We learned that we have a lot in common." Janice inclined her head. "So we decided to join forces."
Betta looked from Alasandre to Janice in wonder. "But how did you convince the Germans that you killed him? Didn't they look?"
"When I had Alasandre taken to the cooling house, I was trying to get him away from Grube--and hoping there would be something there I could use in a little deception. I was lucky."
Alasandre continued the explanation. "I killed a deer yesterday, and had hung it over a pail in the rear of the shed. It's dark back there, and the Germans didn't see it. Margethe. . . .Janice. . . .used the organs of the deer and some of the blood in the pail to create an illusion. An illusion of bloody murder."
"Your screams helped," Janice added. "My ears are still ringing from listening to those sounds in that small building."
"You said to make it convincing."
Betta turned to Janice. "So you are an American, and you're trying to help us. Just as she said. And I almost killed you. Maybe I'm no better than the people I'm fighting. A murderer."
Janice held out the gun, grip forward, and Betta took it. "You were doing what you thought you had to do. And you're no murderer. If you were, you wouldn't have talked so much. You would have just pulled the trigger."
Mel shivered and changed the subject. "What do we do next?"
Alasandre answered. "We have to tell Count Pitesti what is going on. And that I am all right. Where is he?"
"The Germans held him in the library. I suppose he's still there." Janice started for the kitchen door, and Alasandre stopped her.
"No," he warned. "I'll go. If he sees you, he may not be as talkative as Betta." Still holding the German rifle, he hurried into the dining room.
There was a faint scuffling sound at the doorway, and the women saw a dark head poke around the frame. "Mikel?" Betta questioned. The boy stepped into the kitchen and looked around. He sniffed, and Janice knew he was smelling gunpowder. "It's all right. They're. . . .friends."
He nodded as if never in doubt about that. "Your other friends are in the woods beyond the stable. They weren't easy to find--and not sure they wanted to come on my word. It was almost impossible to get here without being seen. The SS have been all over the countryside and poking into everything."
"Where are the Germans now?" Janice asked. "Is anybody watching them?"
"Troika was at the mines when Grube came roaring in. Everybody was called out of the tunnels and sent to work in the fields and cutting timber. That takes fewer guards than when they're working in the mines, and Grube was taking most of the men with him, wherever he was going." Mikel continued, his tone admiring, "Troika went with the woodcutters and slipped away to the village. She said the Germans were there threatening the old people and the children, but they left after getting a call over the radio.
Troika sent the villagers into the mountains to hide and came here."
"Troika sent them?" Janice asked.
"Troika is a leader," Betta explained. "People listen to her."
Alasandre hurried back into the kitchen. He was now wearing a dark shirt and clean pants. He acknowledge Mikel with a nod. "The Count wasn't in the library. I looked around the rest of this floor and didn't find him."
"Could he be upstairs?" Mel asked.
"I went through the second level and up to the servants' quarters and didn't see him. I shouted, but there was no answer. It would take too long to search the whole castle. Besides, I don't think he's here. The castle feels. . . .empty. You understand?"
Figuring the Count would show up when he was ready, Janice picked up on what Mikel had said. "The mines are closed? Unguarded?"
He smiled, guessing what she was thinking. "Not unguarded exactly, but, from what Troika said, there can't be many Germans there. Walatz, of course, but he's not a German. And, for once, none of the villagers are in the mines."
Janice found herself lying on the ground close to where she and Mel had observed the mines the night before. This time the woman called Troika was beside her, and Alasandre lay just beyond. Troika handed the American a beat-up pair of binoculars. "Do you see anything helpful?"
Janice scanned the few soldiers in evidence around the tunnels There was no gold-bricking today, with each man walking or standing guard, alert and armed with rifles and machine guns. "Six men I can see," she said. She looked toward a machine gun emplacement on the slope above the tunnels.
"Two, no, three more up there."
Then at the ridges still farther up. "A couple more patrolling the ridges to control the high ground."
Troika replied, "That's what I saw. Anything else? Anything to show this isn't a trap?"
"A trap?" Alasandre asked.
"It seems too easy," Troika answered. "Maybe Grube wants us to think there are only ten or eleven men. Then we attack, and he comes out of the mines with a hundred more."
"I don't think Grube has a hundred men," Janice said. "I saw the duty rosters, and I . . . .Wait." She tried to get a better focus on the binoculars. "That man walking patrol along that ridge. It's too far away to be sure, but he looks familiar." She reached across Troika to hand the glasses to Alasandre. "Take a look. What do you think? Was he one of the men at the castle? One who tied you to the pipe?"
Alasandre squinted through the binoculars, then shook his head. "I'm sorry. My eyes aren't that good in this bright sunlight. It could be."
He handed the glasses to Troika. "Want me to find out?"
Troika considered. "How long will it take?"
"I can have him back here in half an hour."
"Let me go with you," Janice offered. "We won't have to bring him back.
Make it fifteen minutes."
"What do you want from him?" Troika asked.
The resistance fighter considered. "All right. Fifteen minutes. Take a couple more men with you. If you find out it isn't a trap, take out the one on the other ridge. Then we have to eliminate that machine gun before we can take the mines."
Janice, still wearing the uniform of the enemy, dragged her knapsack until it was between her and Troika. . She opened the flap and showed its contents to the other women. Dynamite, caps, and fuses.
"Where did you get that?" Troika asked.
"I took it last night and hid it near the stables. I retrieved it while Mikel got the horses ready." She smiled. "I figured it would come in handy."
Troika stayed where she was, and Alasandre and Troika crawled and then crouched and then ran into the small valley on the other side of the hill.
There among the trees waited Mel and fifteen men and women from the village and countryside. All were dressed in the rough clothing of Rumanian peasants, but they were armed with old pistols or rifles or shotguns, not a torch or pitchfork in the lot. Mikel stood a few paces away with horses from the castle stable and the horses and mules, still wearing wagon harness, that the farmers had ridden from their fields when summoned for this mission. Betta stood with him, but, when Alasandre and Janice appeared, she joined the group waiting to hear what would happen next.
"Troika is sending us to capture a soldier on the opposite ridge.
Depending on what he tells us, we'll take out the others guarding that side," Janice said. "We need a couple more to go with us."
"We'll be the ones taking out the machine gun, too?" a young farmer asked.
Janice nodded. "Then count me in."
"Me, too," a villager said. "I'm real good with this." He held up a battered shotgun.
Several others stepped forward, but Janice held up a hand. "We only need two. First come, first served."
Janice looked up into her friend's face. "No, you're not. And don't start with 'whither thou goest.' You don't have the skills to do this, and you'll be a danger to all of us who do." Mel opened her mouth to argue, but she knew she was hearing the truth. "Listen, if things go wrong, or if we find out this is a trap, get on the horses and get out of here. You. . . ." She pointed to the third person to volunteer, a young woman with wheat-gold hair. "Go up the gulley to where Troika is. She may need a messenger. Be sure to crawl when your head comes even with the crest of the hill."
The girl smiled. "I've been doing this sort of thing since I was twelve."
She headed up the gulley.
"Betta," Janice said, "I don't have long, but I want to talk to you. You know that, no matter what happens, anyone from the castle is going to be in trouble with Grube. Alasandre is going to head for the hills, and he's got the skills to live there. What will you and Mikel do?"
"I too will join the resistance fighters who don't return to the villages at night," she told her. "Troika will do the same now, as will most of these others."
"And Mikel?" Janice asked.
"That's a problem," Betta admitted. "He can't go with the resistance."
Mel spoke up. "Why not? He's young, but no younger than that girl when she joined."
"Even now he stands, not with the Rumanians, but with the horses," Betta pointed out. "They have come to accept Troika and me. Although we are not from Tlaj, we are Christians."
"I don't understand," Mel said.
It was Janice who answered. "Mikel is a Jew. And the people around here don't like Jews much more than they do Nazis."
"That's right," Betta said. "They only suspect him, and no one has turned him in. But they know he's the fourth 'Mikel' the Count has sheltered since the beginning of the war. The others stayed only a few weeks, but this Mikel has been here six months. There hasn't been any way to get him out."
Alasandre called softly, "We have to go. Our fifteen minutes are now ten."
Before turning to go, Janice said to Betta, "We'll work something out."
She put her hand on Mel's arm. "Please stay up here and stick close to Betta. Things will go better if I'm not worried about you." Mel nodded.
There was nothing to say that she had not already told this woman.
The small group trudged toward the far end of this hill, Alasandre in the lead. They crossed into another narrow valley and from that through the edge of the forest, where it had not yet been cleared for timbers or to provide an open line of fire from the mines. This put them on the lower slope of the mountain, and they carefully worked their way above the ridge they sought. All this was accomplished silently, with Alasandre making hand signals, as needed, to Janice and the other two men. Janice was surprised that the others accepted the pale man's leadership and figured this must be a testament to his abilities.
Finally, after most of the ten minutes had passed, Alasandre signaled for a halt and pointed down. Janice looked over the edge of the small rock outcropping where they crouched. Directly below, so close she could almost touch it, was the metal helmet of the soldier walking the ridge. Janice pulled back and looked questioningly at Alasandre. He held up one finger--wait--and disappeared the way they had come. Within seconds, there was a hollow thunk, and the helmet rose toward Janice's astonished face.
The two resistance fighters leaned around her and pulled the unconscious soldier onto the rock and then back toward the wall of the mountain.
Alasandre reappeared, and Janice motioned for him to stay out of the line of sight of the captive.
One of the men was pouring water from a canteen on the man's face and slapping him none too gently. The soldier sputtered, and a hand was hastily placed over his mouth. Janice moved so she was directly in front of their prisoner. "Remember me?" she asked. Unable to speak, the man nodded. His eyes were unnaturally wide. "I think you saw the results of some of my . . . . work." If possible, his eyes got even wider. "Anybody have a knife?" Without leaving his position beyond the man's head, Alasandre handed her a straight razor. It was the one that had been in Margethe's case. Janice grabbed both sides of the man's uniform jacket and pulled sharply, popping off the buttons and exposing his chest. "I have a couple of questions, and I think I can trust you to tell me the truth."
She pulled a hair from the man's chest and split it with the razor.
"Nice." She leaned toward him.
"The questions," the young farmer said.
"You didn't ask him any questions."
"Oh." Janice looked disappointed, but she leaned back on her heals.
"Where is Grube? And how many men did he leave here?" She gave the farmer a look that asked if he was satisfied, and leaned forward again, the razor making light contact with the prisoner's chest.
"He didn't have a chance to answer."
Janice sat back again and sighed deeply. "Take your hand off his mouth.
Briefly." The villager removed his hand, and she immediately said, "No, I guess he doesn't want to answer. . . ."
"Yes, I do," the soldier gasped. "It's no secret. Grube took almost the whole command to the Siret River. In trucks and on foot. He left eleven of us to guard the mines."
"Damn, he did want to talk," Janice said. She looked toward Alasandre, who brought the butt of his rifle down on the German's head. Hard. Janice glared, but the tall man shrugged. "Now for the man on the other ridge."
"I'll take him," Alasandre said, and he slipped off again. Janice wondered how such a big man could just disappear. Must have more to do with width than height, she decided. Opening her pack, she began preparing the dynamite, working swiftly and surely. "Grenades would be better," she said, "but I don't suppose we have any."
The farmer shook his head and put out a hand for a stick of the explosive.
"Don't we need to get a signal to Troika and the others?"
"I'm sure she's watching the ridges. She'll know those guards are gone."
Janice finished the last fuse. All were very short. "And I think the sight of the machine gun emplacement flying through the air will tell her it's time to attack." The three worked their way a short way back up the mountain, being careful not to expose themselves to anyone looking up from below. Then, as Alasandre rejoined them, they crept back down, ending up only a few yards above the machine gun. And found themselves looking down on solid rock.
Janice swore softly. From the hill on the other side and from the valley floor, it looked as if the emplacement was screened only by some tree branches. Those branches must have concealed this rock ledge. It was clearly impossible to drop the dynamite into the bunker from above. The farmer pointed to himself and to one side of the ledge. The villager did the same. Janice shook her head and started to crawl around the ledge herself. Alasandre reached out a hand and stopped her. "Our fight," he whispered. "Mine--and theirs."
Less than a minute passed before there was the sound of a shotgun being discharged, then the answering staccato of the machine gun. And a blast.
The machine gun stuttered, then continued, and there was a second blast and then a third. All was quiet. Then there was a shout and gunfire from far below. The small group of soldiers tried to form a skirmish line in front of the explosives shed but, even with their superior weapons, they were fighting attackers shooting from above. One of the men turned to run into the shed, and Alasandre raised his rifle and fired off one shot. The man fell, his body half through the doorway.
"But your eyesight?" Janice started to ask.
"I can shoot," the man answered, raising his weapon and firing again.
Another soldier fell, whether from his shot or another's, Janice couldn't tell. "Always could."
The fight lasted only a few minutes, and ended with three resistance fighters slightly wounded and one, the young farmer who helped blow up the machine gun, dead. There were no German prisoners.
When Janice's group, now numbering only three, reached the area outside the mine, Walatz was just emerging from a tunnel. A Rumanian raised his rifle, but Troika barked, "No!" and he lowered it. "Franz," Troika greeted the engineer, "I'm afraid we're going to have to blow up your mines. The Germans aren't going to use our ore in their bombs and airplanes. Not anymore."
Walatz looked sad, but he nodded. "I can tell you where to set the charges so that it would take months to open the tunnels. The way the war is going, the Germans probably won't even try."
Janice found Mel kneeling beside one of the wounded fighters, a young woman. "You all right?" she asked.
"You're asking me that?" Mel rigged a sling from a piece of her own slip and slipped it around the woman's neck. "You're the one who went on the mission. How are you?"
"I'm fine. I have some explosives to set."
"Well, it's always something, isn't it?" Mel helped the woman up, and one of the men appeared to walk her to where the rest of their group waited.
Mel turned back to Janice. "Can we go home after that?"
"One more stop. Then we go home."