The Prize Part 4
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
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
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
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." Raisingher 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
"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.
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