The Prize Part 8
It was getting dark by the time Janice, Mel, and Betta entered the door into
the castle's kitchen. Alasandre had gone on with the other resistance fighters
to their secret camp in the Carpathian Mountains, and Mikel was feeding and
watering the horses. Betta entered first, since they figured
the Count would be most likely to listen to her. She soon returned to the door. "You might as well come in. I don't think he's here."
Mel entered, then Janice. The smaller woman said, "Betta, you go ahead and get your things. Troika wants you to meet her before the moon rises. And before Grube gets back with his SS Waffen." Eager to be gone, Betta ran up the back stairs.
"Mel, I'm going to go get the sword while Betta is occupied. I'll take it to the stables and come back to get you as soon as the horses are ready to travel."
"Why are you worried about Betta seeing it?" Mel asked. "Don't you trust her after all we've been through together?"
"I think the fewer people who know about the sword the better. Mikel is
going with us, so he might as well know." Janice looked around the kitchen.
"While I'm gone, why don't you gather up some supplies? Bread, cheese,
some things that will keep. You can put them in those empty flour
sacks over there."
"It probably is a good idea for you not to be here if Tavel comes back," Mel observed. "He'll listen to me. I can convince him that you didn't really kill Alasandre and that we're both Americans."
"Well, at least I know he won't hurt you. He's one of those who sees me
as the monster and you as one of my victims." Before Mel could respond,
Janice was out the door. She hurried to the bottom of the garden and was about
to go around to the side of the mausoleum when she realized the door
to that stone building was open. She would have ignored it, but what if that allowed an enemy at her back? Cautiously, she slid along the front wall of the building and, after pausing to listen, through the door. At first, the darkness inside seemed total. Gradually, her eyes became accustomed to the blackness, and she realized that she could make out shapes. Beyond the front chamber, empty except for one high stone tomb, she saw a passageway, and there seemed to be flickering light, possibly torchlight, coming from it. She also thought she heard voices and considered turning around. Then she heard a phrase that stopped her. ". . . .kill the Greek woman, too."
Hugging the wall, she moved silently down a passageway lined top, bottom, and sides with cut stone blocks. It reminded her of hallways found within an Egyptian necropolis. Every few feet were square sections of carved stone recessed an inch or so into the wall. These obviously marked the resting places of various relatives and ancestors of the Count. As she neared the end of this passageway, she realized why the light was so dim. There were stairs leading down, and the light was coming from a level below.
A trick of acoustics brought sounds up the stairs far clearer than the light. Janice paused at the head of the stairs to listen. Two men were talking or one man was asking questions and answering himself.
"Are you sure that Alasandre was killed and not just taken back to the German headquarters?"
"I didn't see his body, but I saw the room where he was tortured. It looked like an abattoir, blood and bits of organs scattered around. She gutted him like she was butchering an animal."
"Damn her! Are you sure she is coming back?"
"She left her clothing and her case of knives and other instruments of her trade. I'm sure she'll be back for them."
"And the Greek woman? Are you sure she is not part of this business?"
"Maria is a good woman, as gentle as she is beautiful. She wants to escape, but the German bitch has her cowed."
"Come get me as soon as that she-beast returns. We'll see what she can do up against a real monster."
Footsteps immediately sounded on the stair steps, and Janice moved as silently and quickly as she could toward the chamber at the other end of the passage. Reaching the first tomb, she skirted it in the darkness and pushed against the door, which had apparently closed behind her. It wouldn't open. Not panicking, she returned to the tomb, a wide and high sarcophagus, carved richly with symbols of heraldry, and hid in its shadow. The footsteps approached and passed on the other side of the chamber, their owner pushing against the door and also finding it locked. Retreating only a couple of steps into the chamber, he reached above his head and pushed a knob carved into one of the stone blocks. There was a click, and the door opened of its own accord. The moon had risen, and moonlight illuminated the man as he left the chamber. Tavel Pitesti, Janice saw. The one answering the other's questions, no doubt. The other, who considered himself a monster.
Janice rose and walked quietly to the door. Locked. Knowing its secret, she approached the wall where Pitesti had pressed the knob. She could not reach it. Not for the first time in her life, Janice cursed her small stature. Mel, she thought, could have reached that knob without fully extending her arm. Now Janice turned to find something to stand on or something with which to push the small protrusion that was the key to her freedom. She thought she saw a shadow move out of the passageway into the outer chamber. She blinked and looked around. Nothing.
She tried to remember every inch of this chamber and the passageway. Was there
anything that would suit her purpose? All she had seen other than stone walls
and ceilings and floors were the recessed portions that indicated tombs. Tombs.
Coffins within. And within the coffins. . . .
She had to get out of this mausoleum, and perhaps one of its inhabitants could give her a hand.
Janice passed cautiously through the dark room toward the passageway. As she passed the sarcophagus, some shadow, some shift from dark to total blackness again disturbed her eye. And then there was a sudden flare, and a torch lit so close to her face that she flinched back from its heat and light. Blinking, she struggled to regain her vision and to push the torch away. It yielded and, her sight returning, she saw who held it. It was Tavel. Count Tavel Pitesti.
"How did you get back in here?" she asked.
"I never left."
"I saw you go out the door."
"Your eyes deceived you. . . . Margethe. I've been here all along."
Janice glanced toward the door. Still closed. He followed her gaze. "You aren't thinking about leaving, are you? I thought we could talk."
"Talk," she echoed. "Yeah, talk would be nice. Let's go up to castle, and I can explain some things." Slowly, she backed toward the door. "If you'll just push that knob that unlocks the door . . . ."
"We can talk here."
Janice took a run and leaped as high as she could, reaching for the small projection.
She would have reached it except that a vice suddenly tightened on her throat
and brought her back to earth. As her feet touched the floor, she planted one
and kicked upward with the other, putting all her strength behind that blow.
And found herself being lifted, lifted by that hand squeezing her throat, index
finger and thumb pushing into the soft spots just below the hinges of her jaw.
Resisting the futile impulse
to tear at the flesh of that relentless grip, she slammed the heel of her right hand into her attacker's nose. Once, twice. Black spots were converging toward the center of her vision, and she still fought, kicking at knees, slamming small, hard fists into throat and against ears, poking fingers toward eyes. The pain in her throat grew unbearable, and her struggle became centered on getting one breath, a little air. And then she couldn't remember why she was fighting, and so she stopped, darkness
replacing all thought, all hope, all life.
Mel placed four flour bags and a bundle of clothing on the kitchen table and
sat down to wait. She had changed from her dress, tattered beyond repair, into
riding breeches and a warm, wool sweater. Betta had provided these, with an
explanation that they belonged to the Count, before leaving
to join her sister and their friends. Betta and Mel had embraced and promised that they would meet again "after the war."
At the sound at the door, Mel rose, sure it was Janice and that they could be on their way. It was Tavel Pitesti. "Maria, you're safe!" he greeted her. "Thank God. Where is that monster; is she in the house?" He started toward the stairs.
Mel stopped him, taking both his hands in hers. "Janice is outside, Tavel."
"Did you talk to either Mikel or Betta?" she asked. "Mikel is in the stable, and Betta just left. I thought maybe you had seen them, that they told you the truth."
"No, I was somewhere else, not the stable." He ignored her mention
of the truth and, pulling away, began pacing around the kitchen. "I have
to figure out what to do with you. Grube is bound to come back here when he
figures out that he has been fooled." He returned to stand facing Mel and
placed a hand on each of her shoulders. "She stole the sword, didn't she? That woman? Then she convinced Grube that Alasandre had it. Poor Alasandre."
"Tavel, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Alasandre is alive."
"Alive? He couldn't be. I saw where she . . . . slaughtered him."
"No, Tavel, that was a trick." Her eyes and voice pleaded to be believed. "Margethe Berndt was captured by Greek partisans and taken to England. The woman pretending to be Margethe is my friend Janice Covington. She's an archaeologist, an American. I'm an American, too. My name is Melinda Pappas. I work with her, translating the ancient writings she finds." At his skeptical look, she continued, "Listen to me. Can't you tell from my accent that I'm an American? I'm from South Carolina, Tavel."
"You do sound different from the way you usually do," he admitted. "But you could be putting on the accent. Maybe you watched some American movies or listened to their radio." He found himself drawn into those clear blue eyes and wondered if it was her words or her beauty that might sway him.
"Janice and I were sent here by British intelligence to link up with the resistance fighters. We've done that." She hesitated, then decided to go on. "We were also to follow up on rumors about a secret weapon, something the Germans might use to turn back the tide of the war."
"Yes, the sword." Tavel pulled back, dropping his hands to his sides. Feeling that she was losing him, Mel said, "We found the sword and took it to keep the Nazis from using it."
"How could they use it?" he asked. "Only a descendent of Prometheus' rescuer can use it, and then only if it is wet with his blood. You translated that yourself."
"Grube said that they were going to figure out how to make the metal it's made of. Janice thinks he also thought he could find a way to tap into its other power and take that for himself."
Tavel turned away and resumed his pacing. After a few moments, he turned to face Mel, who waited. "What was the trick regarding Alasandre?"
"Janice used deer blood and organs to make it look like she had. . . ."
"Like she had gutted Alasandre." Mel shuddered. "She made it look so bad that even the guards didn't go into the building to check if he was dead. Alasandre is fine, Tavel. He helped Janice and the resistance fighters capture and blow up the mines."
"The mines? They blew up the mines?"
"Yes!" Mel tried to think what might convince him, but she had no
proof to offer, just her story. "Grube left only a few guards, and the
resistance fighters killed them. Walatz and Janice set the charges that collapsed
the entrance to each tunnel. Then the fighters went to the mountains. Betta
and Troika are on their way to the village. By morning, I doubt that anyone will be left there. No one wants to be around when Grube gets back."
"You have that right!" The voice was Mikel's. He removed his hat, out of deference to either Mel or the nobleman.
"Mikel," the Count said, "come in. Is there any truth to what this woman is saying? Did you see any of it?"
Mikel stepped into the kitchen and twisted his cap in his hands. "I was
there, sir. At the mines. Alasandre is alive and healthy. And he and the woman
she calls Janice fought side-by-side against the Nazis. The American women have
offered to take me out of here with them." Mikel shifted his
gaze to Mel. "Are you ready? Where is your friend?"
"My friend?" Mel crossed quickly to Mikel and leaned down to confront the young man. "What do you mean? She left the castle right after we got back. Isn't she at the stables?"
Mikel shook his head. "I haven't seen her. The horses are fed and rested, and I came to say we should get going. There are only a few hours of dark left."
Mel turned to Tavel. "Where could she be? She went to get something she left near your family crypt. You didn't see her when you crossed the garden?"
The Count didn't answer.
"Tavel? Tavel?" Her voice rose, and she wanted to shake him. "What's wrong?"
His voice was low and carefully controlled. "You say she was going near the mausoleum?"
Without another word, he turned and ran out the door and into the garden. Without
a glance at Mikel, Mel ran after the nobleman, her long strides soon closing
the distance between them. In the darkness, she collided with him as he stopped
outside the door of the crypt. He pushed against the
door, and, finding it still locked, fumbled in his pockets for the key.
"What is it?" Mel pleaded. "What's wrong? Is Janice in danger? From whom?"
As he found the key and fitted it into the lock, Tavel said two words: "My brother."
As she awoke to darkness, Janice's first thought was that she had been buried alive. Then the darkness lightened to a gray fog and finally to dim, flickering light, and she realized that she was lying on a hard surface and looking up at a stone ceiling, able to feel, but not to move. She tried to swallow and, realizing she could not, started to panic. What good will that do? she thought. Forcing herself to relax, she swallowed and then concentrated on bringing air into her swelling throat.
A face moved into her field of vision.
"I wanted to wait until you were awake, Margethe," he said. "I wouldn't want you to miss a moment of this experience."
"Tavel?" It was only a whisper, and even then it felt torn from her throat.
"No, not Tavel." Strong arms slipped under her back and legs, and
she felt herself being lifted and then deposited in a high-backed chair. Although
she was unable to turn her head, she now had a view of most of the room. Lit
by several oil lamps, it was a comfortable room, masculine, similar to
Tavel's library in the castle, with bookcases, a reading table, comfortable chairs. Directly across the room from her was the surface where she had lain. It was neither a desk nor a table. It was a closed coffin.
The man who said he was not Tavel moved a brocaded chair so that he could sit
facing her. "Let me introduce myself, Margethe. I am Count Tavel Pitesti's
brother. I am Gregor Pitesti. This is my bedroom, my sitting room, my library,
in short, my home. You have been here before, but I
don't suppose you remember." He laughed. "Of course you don't remember. One of the advantages of my unique condition." He leaned forward and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her jacket and opened the collar. "Are you having trouble breathing? Don't worry. That will soon cease to be a
problem." The silk scarf Mel had wrapped around Janice's neck as a bandage was still in place. Slowly, he removed this, then touched the small punctures on the side of her neck. "You don't remember how you got these either, do you? All you know is that you had them when you returned from each of our walks."
"That was you?" The whisper was followed by a cough, as Janice struggled to breathe. She thought her throat was continuing to swell and wondered if something had been broken. Was that why she couldn't move?
He nodded. "Daytime belongs to my brother, the evenings to me. Breakfast with Tavel. Dinner with Gregor. No one ever guesses."
"Yes, twins, although Tavel is, by minutes, the elder and thus the Count."
For a moment longer, he caressed her neck. Then he leaned back into his chair.
"You know, you are really quite lovely. Not classically beautiful like
the Greek woman. But pretty in the strong, healthy way of the German
peasant. I wonder what made you such a monster."
"Not a monster," she managed.
"No, we never think we are, do we?" He laughed. "Look at me. I can sometimes think I am perfectly normal. Of course, I'm dead, and I drink blood, animal blood regularly and human blood when I can get it, but a monster? Not me."
"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that." Gregor rose and turned up
the wick on the nearest lamp before seating himself again. "There. That's
better. Less shadow on your face. Are you wondering about the torch in great-great-grandfather's
chamber above. And the oil lamps here? There are legends of the fear of fire
held by my kind. Nonsense. If we had all the fears and rules attributed to us,
we would never feed. Of course, burning is one way we can be destroyed, but
isn't that true of you humans,
as well? As for the others, how we have to be invited into a house, being frightened of the Bible and crosses. . . .superstitions, all of them."
He laughed. "Getting into the spirit of it, Margethe? Good for you. Never
cared for garlic myself, even when I was alive, so it's hard to tell."
He brushed a hand over her cheek, his touch sensuous and lingering. "Do
you feel that? Your eyes say you do and that you want me to stop. But there's
little fear there. Hate, yes, there's some hate starting. I'm a connoisseur
of emotions, no longer having any of my own. Fear and hate. Those are my favorites.
That's fortunate since those are the feelings I
Janice was finding that she could relax her throat and gather a little extra breath. Enough to speak. She tried to whisper softly, and Gregor leaned closer, his eyes on her lips. "Americans. Mel and I. Not a Nazi."
He raised an eyebrow. "Spies?"
"Didn't kill Alasandre. Tricked Grube."
"Good story." He patted her on the shoulder. "It might even be true, but it doesn't matter, you know. You're going to die tonight. Your friend Maria. . . .Mel? She'll die soon, as soon as Tavel realizes she isn't going to love him. . . . " He stopped, studying her face. "Interesting. There's fear there now."
"Why kill Mel?"
"Why indeed? Because it is what I do." He gestured to a painting
on the wall. It was of a cavalry charge. "Even when I was alive, killing
was my occupation. I was a warrior, as were the generations before me. See that
banner at the head of the charge? That's the Transylvanian eagle and below
that a crossed mace and sword. The Pitesti family crest. I was a soldier, born for the charge and the fight. Born for victory or for death on the field of battle."
Janice realized that her breathing was easier. If she could play for time, maybe she would become able to move. "How did you. . . .become what you are?"
"Trying to delay the end, are you?" He smiled. "No, the tale that my kind can read minds is also not true. But everyone does this. They lie, they bargain, they delay . . . .finally, they beg." At her glare, he added, "Well, maybe you won't beg. Oh, and if you are thinking your ability to move will come back, that hope is futile. I control your body with the force of my will, and my will is inexhaustible."
"Oh, I'll tell it. I so seldom get the chance to talk to anyone but Tavel.
And Alasandre. So, let's see, where was I? I was a soldier who had never known
a battle, filled with the romance of 'arms and the man.' When the Germans threatened
Poland, I volunteered to lead a cavalry regiment. Cavalry!" He gave a bitter
laugh. "Cavaliers against panzers. Horses charging tanks. I was among the
last to fall, and I lay there for many hours pinned beneath my own horse. As
darkness fell, I felt a presence
beside me. A figure dressed in the uniform of a stretcher bearer knelt there on blood-soaked ground. Certain I was mortally wounded, I said, 'Leave me. I can't be helped.' The figure bent over me, and I saw an open mouth bearing the fangs of a beast. That was the last I knew until I awoke at dawn, my flesh feeling as if it were about to burn from my bones. Where before I could not move, now I easily pulled my limbs from beneath the horse's body, and ran to a tank, the only one the Polish army had managed to burn. I leaped into the burned out hulk and felt instant relief from the burning of the sun's early morning rays. I stayed there until the next evening, when I found the being who had created me, and he began my education."
"He made you a. . . ." She hesitated, not sure of his reaction to the word.
"A vampire. Yes."
"Is that what you're going to do to me?" She counted their walks. Two. She remembered a book about vampires, a story that said three bites. . . .
"If I were to feed upon you until your heart stopped beating, you would become as I am. But I will not do that. I will stop before your heart does. Then you will die. I have been very careful not to create more like me, especially since I began to feed upon Nazis." He stood and returned his chair to its original position. "I have had my fill of talk, but I hunger for something else."
With ease, he lifted Janice again and carried her to the coffin at the other side of the room. Carefully, almost gently, he placed her on the coffin's carved stone top. Janice tried to speak, but, as Gregor held her eyes with his, the languor in her limbs began to spread into her mind. Like a lover, he leaned over her and placed his mouth upon the softest, sweetest spot of her throat. At the first pain of the puncture, Janice gasped. He fed slowly, savoring the life he drained, the energy transferred to fuel the movement of his once-dead limbs. Janice felt her own life-force flicker, and her last conscious thought, as darkness replaced light, was of Mel. . .Mel. . .I'm sorry, Mel. . . .
Abruptly, Gregor broke away. He straightened and stared at the pale, still
form before him. The chest rose slightly, and a touch to her throat reassured
him that she still lived. He shook his head. It had been a long time since he
had come this close to feeding too long. A long time since
he had come this close to creating a being such as himself.
"Your brother?" Mel repeated. "I remember you mentioning him, but what does your brother have to do with Janice?"
"My brother Gregor thinks that Janice killed Alasandre. He plans revenge."
Tavel pushed open the door of the mausoleum. "If Janice went into this
tomb, and Gregor discovered her. . . ." His voice trailed off as he saw
the look in Mel's eyes. "I'll stop him, Melinda. I promise. But how? If
he's determined. . . ."
"I'll explain, just as I did to you." She had a thought. "If Janice met your brother, she probably already told him what happened, that the murder of Alasandre was a trick to save his life."
"Janice has met my brother," Tavel said and added, "so have you."
"There isn't time to explain. Listen, you know of my interest in the Prometheus sword. Well, my interest is because of my brother. He is. . . .he has an illness, something I thought the power of that sword might cure. Maybe if we take the sword to him, I can persuade him to release your friend."
Mel thought about what Janice would want her to do and then decided to do the opposite. "I'll get it," she said and ran around to the side of the stone building. She opened the wooden box and removed tools until she came to the sword. She reached for it, then pulled her hand back, reluctant to make contact again with that strange power.
"Mel?" She jumped. Tavel stood right behind her. "What's wrong? Is it gone?"
"It's here all right." She grasped the hilt and lifted the heavy weapon from its hiding place. Energy seemed to radiate from its metal through her hand and arm and then throughout her body. The phrase "singing sword" came to her, and she knew that phrase was wrong. It was her body and her blood that sang. She lifted the sword and held it upright before her.
"By God, it's beautiful!" The moon seemed to concentrate its pale light on the perfect blade, which gleamed as if lit from within.
"It's beautiful if it can save Janice," Mel stated. She lowered the blade. "Let's go."
Tavel tore his gaze from the sword and led the way back to the tomb entrance. Mel hesitated an instant, then followed into the darkness beyond. She stumbled.
"There's something on the floor," Tavel said. "It's a torch. Gregor has been up here."
"You'll see." Although he had no way to light it, he picked up the
torch. One end was blunt and covered with a pitch-covered rag, the other end
sharply tapered and meant to be placed in a holder on a wall. "This torch
belongs in the passageway. Gregor must have brought it into this chamber.
Come on. I know the way in the dark." He took Mel's free hand in his. "You're cold." She shivered, knowing her chill had nothing to do with the dampness of this stone building.
They reached the passageway and could see the dim light at the end. Mel pulled back, and Tavel explained, "There's a stairway. The lamplight is coming from Gregor's chamber below."
"Your brother lives in a tomb?"
"Not exactly. You'll see." He squeezed her hand gently. "Gregor won't hurt you. He knows you're good." He started toward the light, and Mel let him pull her along. Her grip on the sword hilt tightened, and she found she didn't mind its power.
The stairway was too narrow for them to pass through it together. Tavel released
her hand and went first. Mel took a deep breath and followed. If Janice was
there, she had to find her. And at least there was light below. She reached
the bottom of the stairs, where Tavel had stopped. She
followed his gaze to the scene across the room.
A man was bending over the still form of a woman. She lay on a table or platform
of some sort, golden hair contrasting with her pale skin and his dark clothing.
Abruptly, the man broke away. He straightened and seemed to study the woman
before him. He touched her throat and then shook his head.
"Janice?" Mel whispered. "Janice?" The man's gesture told
her they were too late. Love for Janice transformed into something else. The
singing in her blood became an anthem of hate and rage, all of it focused on
the man, who was turning around. She looked into a face that was Tavel's and
not Tavel's. And she raised the sword above her head and charged.
Before the sword could complete its downward arc, Gregor hit her in the chest, and she flew backward, not stopping until she hit the opposite wall. She lay there, conscious, stunned but unhurt. She looked at the sword in her hand and wondered what had happened. Then she remembered and, looking at Janice, tears ran unchecked down her cheeks.
Gregor stepped toward her, and Tavel put himself between them. "What have you done?"
Gregor gestured toward the sword. "She attacked me."
"I mean to her." Tavel pointed at Janice.
"I fed." His lips pulled back in a snarl or a smile, and Mel thought she saw fangs in place of eyeteeth. She blinked, and he was just a duplicate of Tavel again.
"Is she dead?" Tavel asked.
"Not yet." Gregor glanced at Janice before continuing. "I tried to be careful, but I almost fed too long. I almost made her one of my kind."
"Your kind?" Mel whispered. He fixed her with a gaze that pinned her where she lay. This time his smile assured her that her vision had not deceived her. "You're a vampire."
"Yes, Maria," he said. "I am a vampire, one of the undead, a being the villagers call evil. Yet, am I so different from my brother? You and Margethe. . . .Janice, as you call her . . . . joined me each evening for dinner. Janice walked with me in the garden. Did you ever suspect that I wasn't Tavel? That I wasn't a living man?"
"Only on that first night," Mel admitted, "but then we saw Tavel walking in the morning sunlight and we knew he couldn't be a vampire." She looked past Gregor at Janice. "May I go to her? I don't want her to be alone."
Gregor exchanged a glance with his brother. "Go."
As if that one word released her from chains, Mel could move, and, leaving
the sword where she had fallen, she rose and walked to her friend. Beautiful
as a statue, perfect except for bruises beneath the line of her jaw, the small
woman lay as if in state. Touching a pale cheek and finding
it cold, Mel felt a fear greater than any she had ever known. "Janice," she said, "I'm here. Hold on. Don't leave me." Her fingers trembled as they sought a pulse. They found none in a wrist, too still, hands quiet as Janice's never were, even in sleep. Mel touched the spot in Janice's throat that should beat strongly and found a faint cadence. Hope ignited. "Stay with me, Janice. I don't want to be alone." For whither thou goest, I will go. . . .
Tavel knelt and, dropping the torch, picked up the sword.
Gregor walked toward the two women, but Tavel stopped him from behind, a firm
hand on his shoulder. Gregor glared at him, but Tavel did not release his hold.
"They are both innocent of harm," he told his brother. "They
are Americans, working for our side. I know you didn't know before, but
now you do. Is there no way you can help this woman? Does she have to die?"
At these words, Mel looked toward the man who was really a monster. He answered his brother, "There is only one way I can 'save' her, and what I have to give her is not life, but an imitation of it." He met Mel's blue gaze. "I'll do it, if you want, but she'll not be thankful."
Mel felt again for Janice's pulse, its faint rhythm faltering and then resuming. She brushed the light hair from her friend's forehead, her hand caressing the familiar softness, hair more gold than red to suit her masquerade, but still feeling like silken threads. . . . You're dying, she thought. After all we've been through together, all the adventures, all the years I thought we would still share will never happen. It all ends here. For me, as well as you, even if I should live.
"She can go on forever." Gregor interrupted Mel's thoughts, and she looked from Janice to him, as if surprised he was still there. "In some ways, she'll be as she always was. And you can be with her. Forever, if both of you choose that. But now, only you can make the choice. . . .for her."
"I thought you didn't want to do it, make her as you are," Mel answered.
"I don't. But it's all I can do for her. All anyone can do." He took one step closer, and Tavel no longer stopped him. "But you have to decide--while she still lives."
Mel touched Janice's shoulder and then her hand, holding it and marveling,
as she always did, at its smallness in her own. Janice's face blurred, and Mel
brushed away the tears that obscured her vision of her friend. . . .her love.
Not realizing she spoke aloud, she vowed, "Where thou diest, I will
die, and there will I be buried." At a touch on her arm, she jumped, thinking it was Gregor. Then she recognized the clothing and knew that it was Tavel. And saw what he held in his other hand.
"The sword," she said. "Can't we use the sword to save her? You said that you wanted it so you could cure your brother. Couldn't it help Janice as well?"
"Cure me?" Gregor asked.
Tavel answered him instead of Mel. "I thought that it's power could cure the darkness in your soul, could return you to what you were."
"Use it to help Janice--and Gregor as well," Mel urged him.
"It won't work," Tavel said. "You read the Greek text."
Mel quoting from memory, spoke the text, "There the sword will remain, not for eternity, but until it is removed centuries hence. . . ."
". . . . and wet with the blood of your rescuer. Then it will bend Fate to the will of its possessor," Tavel finished impatiently. "That's why the sword is useless, except as a relic. The rescuer could be the mortal warrior or the half-god Hercules. The warrior has long-since turned to dust, and Hercules, if he ever existed, ascended to Olympus."
"The BLOOD of the rescuer," Mel repeated. "That's what I mean. I have the blood of the rescuer."
"You have it?" Tavel asked. "That doesn't make sense. Where could you have it?"
"In my veins," Mel answered. "The mortal who helped rescue Prometheus was a great woman warrior named Xena. And she was my ancestor. I'm sure that's what Hera's words mean. The 'blood of the rescuer' means Xena's descendent. It means me. I can feel the sword's power, and I can release it. But we have to hurry. Janice doesn't have much time left. Give me the sword."
Tavel presented the sword's hilt to the tall woman, but, before she could take
it, a voice rang out in the chamber. "Halt!" Both Tavel and Mel looked
toward Gregor, but he had not spoken. Beyond him, standing at the foot of the
stairs was Grube. And in one hand was a grenade and, in the
other, a very large automatic pistol.
"Grube," Gregor said, "what do you want here? Did you come for some more of my family's gold? Or perhaps a piece of artwork or a rare book?"
"All of those would be welcome, although they are not what I came for," Grube said. He put the gun away and calmly withdrew the pin from the grenade. "Don't try any of your mind tricks. Perhaps you could paralyze me so that this grenade stays in my hand. Perhaps not. Would you like to see?" He waited. When nothing happened, he laughed. "You may be immortal, but your brother is not. And even you would not survive the blast. . . .intact."
The vampire appraised the soldier. "What did you come for?"
"Them." He gestured toward the women with the hand that held the grenade. "They took the sword, and then Margethe or whatever her name is sent me to chase a ghost. When I finally figured out what was happening and turned my troops around, we were harassed by snipers hiding in the heights above the valley. By the time we reached the mines, figuring to take cover in the tunnels, a third of my men were wounded or dead." He took a step toward Mel, and Tavel raised the sword as if to defend her. Grube held out the grenade, but he stopped. "At the mines, we found that the tunnels had been collapsed and that the men I left to guard them were dead."
"So you came here?" Gregor asked. "Instead of looking after your men?"
"My military career is over. Failure like this isn't tolerated in the Third Reich, especially with the Russians practically on our doorstep."
Gregor's response was that of the soldier he had been. "Only cowards desert. And deserters should die."
"But someone who controls Fate doesn't ever have to die." Still holding the grenade before him, Grube approached the coffin. Tavel reluctantly stepped aside. Looking at Janice, the Reichskommander asked, "Is she dead?"
"She's dying," Mel answered.
"Good." Grube turned to Tavel. "Give me the sword."
"Thanks to the Greek--and you, Count Pitesti--I know the sword's secret. Give it to me, and I'll leave all of you to work out your own Fates in this little backwater. I'll wield power where it counts."
"Give it to him," Mel said. Tavel glanced at her, surprised by her determined tone. He turned the sword to offer the hilt to Grube, who grabbed it eagerly. Tavel stepped back to stand near his brother.
"Hold out your arm," Grube ordered, and Mel offered the inside of her bare arm, letting it rest on the top of the stone coffin near Janice's head.
"No!" Tavel protested, but Gregor held him back, an iron grip on his shoulder.
Slowly and deliberately, Grube drew the sharp blade across the pale, perfect skin just above Mel's wrist. A deep cut opened, then quickly filled and overflowed with bright red blood. Mel flinched and looked away from the blood as Grube pulled the flat of the blade across the cut, then did the same with the opposite surface.
Grube clutched the hilt of the sword tightly and lifted it over his head. "I can feel the power. I have dominion over life and death." Without warning, he yelled "Die!" and brought the flat of the blade down on Tavel's head. As Tavel fell, Gregor gave a cry of pain and rage and leaped at Grube. So swift was Gregor that Grube barely had time to hold out the sword to meet his charge. The blade passed through Gregor's chest and back until it was buried to the hilt, but this did not slow the vampire's forward progress. He grabbed Grube by the neck and shook him like a dog shakes a toy. Grube may have already been dead when Gregor threw him against the wall of the chamber, and he certainly was as his head struck the stones with a sickening thud. As if in slow motion, he slid down the wall, leaving a dark smear on its whiteness.
Mel saw the grenade fly from Grube's hand and, knowing she couldn't reach it in time, covered Janice's still body with her own.
Then she waited.
When nothing happened, she looked up to see Gregor, sword still penetrating his chest. He was holding the grenade. "It didn't explode," she said.
"A dud or some kind of dummy," he answered. "I should have known.
That coward wasn't going to risk his own life." Still, he carefully lay
the grenade down instead of dropping it. Gregor knelt beside his brother, even
his vampire heart obviously capable of breaking. Tavel groaned, and sat
The Count gingerly touched the top of his head, where Grube had struck him. "Help me up." With Gregor's help, he stood. He looked questioningly at Mel, who was again checking Janice's pulse.
"Alive. No weaker," she said. "She's very strong." The last seemed more a statement of hope than of fact.
Tavel seemed to notice for the first time the sword hilt protruding from his brother's chest. Grasping it with both hands, he pulled the blade free. "For so long I've hunted for this sword and hoped to use it to free you, Gregor. Now I see how foolish that hope was. The sword has no power." He let the sword drop to the floor. When it struck the stone, it rang with a perfect resonance.
"I wouldn't have let you use it anyway. Having been immortal, how could I accept mortality as a gift? What I have forever is not life, but it is existence."
"But what of the lives you must destroy to maintain your own existence?" Tavel remembered that his brother had said the blood of animals would not satisfy him for long.
Gregor shrugged. "Mortals die. What difference if they die while young and strong or live on to die of old age? I know no better use for their frail lives than to contribute to my immortality."
"So even if the sword had the power to release you, either to life or to a natural rest, you wouldn't accept that gift?"
"No." Gregor's gaze shifted to Mel, who was stroking Janice's face and urging her to live. He spoke more softly. "Because I thought that he had murdered you, I was hasty in killing Grube, wasting blood I could have used. But there is still one here who can serve my purpose. She will be glad to join her friend." He started toward the dark-haired woman. Mel looked up as he reached for her and saw his hands drop to his sides. A look of surprise came over his features, and he turned his head as if trying to look behind him. Then he fell, and his brother was there to support his weight so that his descent was gentle. Mel saw sticking from his back a piece of wood and rag, the blunt end of the torch, and guessed where the sharp end lay.
"His heart," Tavel confirmed. "I've let this go on too long, let the guilty and the innocent alike suffer because of his hunger. He was my brother, and I loved him, but I finally had to stop him." Tavel lifted his brother's body as if it were that of a baby or some small child. Mel saw why it was so light. Although only moments before, Gregor had seemed alive, his body was now that of a man dead for several years, the skin dried and shriveled, looking more skeleton than flesh. "I'm taking him above, to the crypt he should have occupied long ago." At the foot of the stairs, he paused. "I'm sorry about Janice. When you're. . . .ready, go to the stable. Please take Mikel with you. Godspeed."
Mel turned back to Janice, whose breathing had become labored. "He doesn't
know I'll never leave you." Knowing what she must do, Mel bent and grasped
the hilt of the sword. Straightening, she looked at the wound Gruber had inflicted
on the inside of her left arm. Blood still flowed, but she
nevertheless struck the wound against the side of the coffin so that the red life fluid flowed more freely. Then she let it coat the edge of the coffin lid. Raising the sword and trying to ignore the dark music it stirred in her soul, she honed the blade across the stone lid, using the blood as one might use water on a whetstone. "There the sword will remain, not for eternity, but until it is removed centuries hence," she quoted, "and whet with the blood of your rescuer. Then it will bend fate to the will of its possessor."
This ceremony complete, Mel held the blade aloft and knew, in that instant, what Xena must have felt when she held that same sword over a millenium before. Power. Pure, raw power. For evil or for good?
Gently, she lowered the blade until it rested above Janice's heart. "Live," she said. "Live, my love."
Janice's eyes opened, and Mel lifted the sword and flung it behind her. The green eyes, at first unfocused, found the one face they needed to see. A small smile formed on Janice's face, and she tried to sit up. Mel put a supporting arm behind her. The small woman looked around the chamber and shuddered. "It wasn't a dream?" she whispered.
"No dream," Mel answered. "How do you feel?"
Mel smiled in spite of herself, but said, "This is no time to joke."
"Not joking." Janice put both arms around Mel, and Mel responded with a fierce hug. As Mel pulled away, Janice saw the gash in her forearm. Janice pulled out the tail of her uniform blouse and ripped it off.
"It's nothing," Mel protested.
"Right." Janice winced as she saw how deep the cut was, then hid her feelings and wrapped it tightly. "Help me down." Wishing Janice could rest, but knowing they must hurry, Mel supported her as she slid off her grim resting place. "Now let's get out of here. Let's go home."
The door to the mausoleum was open, and Tavel was nowhere in sight. Janice paused before exiting. "The sword. What did you do with it?"
"I left it below," Mel replied. As Janice turned as if to retrieve it, she added, "Please leave it. I know now why Xena wanted the sword buried forever. It may not be evil, but the power and the lust for power it generates are."
"You don't want anyone else to use it, do you?"
"I don't think anyone can use it but someone of Xena's blood. Right now, that's only me. I don't want the power, and I don't like how having it makes me feel."
Janice doubted that anyone could be less likely to abuse power than her gentle friend, but she didn't argue further. "If you say the sword should be left here, we'll leave it. Who could be a better guard than a vampire?"
Mel nodded, figuring later was the time to explain about Grube and Gregor. . . .and Tavel.
They stepped cautiously from the building into the pathway that led to the garden. Janice noticed that the key to the mausoleum was in the lock. She removed it and threw it as far from the path as she could.
Within moments, they were close enough to the castle to see that the kitchen door was open and a light burned within. A shadow passed by a window and resolved at the door into the silhouette of a German soldier. "I guess we'll try the stable," Janice said. As they turned to go down the path to the stable, she swayed, and Mel caught her. "I did that on purpose," she claimed, allowing herself to lean against the taller woman's body.
"I know," Mel said. "You're pretending to be weak for the attention." But Janice's condition worried her. That she was alive was a miracle, but would the miracle be enough for what lay ahead?
Together, Mel supporting Janice's slight weight, they made their way through darkness to the stable. There, one small lantern, the wick turned down as far as it would go and still burn, hung by the door, helping them to find their way. They looked inside, and Janice whispered, "Mikel? Mikel?"
A low whistle came from the nearby forest. Mel turned toward the sound and
saw shadows move. "Janice, I think he's over there." Mikel emerged
from hiding and motioned them to him before fading into the trees again. They
found him just inside the edge of the forest, tightening the cinches on the
saddle of one of three small, dark horses. "Mountain ponies," he explained. "They'll take us farther than those big warmbloods the nobility usually ride." On each horse there were bundles tied together and placed across their withers. Seeing the direction of Mel's gaze, Mikel explained, "I was still in the kitchen when that crazy Nazi and some of his men arrived at the castle. Before they saw me, I grabbed the bags of food and ran out the back. I added a few things we might need for our journey."
Janice noticed a small rifle strapped to one of the saddles and nodded her approval.
"Have you seen Tavel?" Mel asked.
Mikel looked worried. "He came by the stable a little while ago and got
one of the hunting guns. He told me to wait in the forest for you and to go
with you when you left. He walked through the trees in that direction."
He pointed. "He forbade me to follow." The boy abruptly stopped talking.
He went to another horse and tightened that cinch.
Mel finally asked, although she was afraid of the answer. "He hasn't returned?"
"No," Mikel said. "A few minutes after he left, I heard one shot. I wanted to go see, but my duty was to wait for you." He finished tightening the third cinch and handed each woman a pair of reins. "By the way, my name's not Mikel. It's Mischa."
Janice tried to mount her horse, getting her foot into the stirrup, but she was unable to pull herself up. Mel started forward to help her, but the boy got there first. Janice started to protest, then said simply, "Thanks, Mischa."
Mel quickly mounted, her legs hanging far down the small animal's sides. Then Mischa leaped astride, and pointed to a trail that led up and over the mountain. "Greece is a long way away," he said. "And we'll have to stick to the mountains the whole way."
"We just go south," Janice told him, "one mile at a time. And Mischa. . . ."
"You're going to love America."
"America?" The boys grey eyes searched her face to see if she was joking.
Mel told him, "If she says it, it will happen. She's stubborn that way."
"Me stubborn? You should talk." Janice chuckled. "Mischa, you lead the way. Mel and I will follow." When he had ridden a short distance away, she turned to her friend. "If I don't make it. . . ."
"Don't talk like that."
"Listen. If I don't make it, you make sure he gets to the States, okay?" Mel didn't answer. "Please."
Mel looked at the green eyes, bright from the moonlight filtering through the branches, bright against the pallor of the small woman's skin. "Okay. But you're going to make it."
"Stubborn. Just like I said."
Lost in a dream of mountains and trees, of riding for weeks and camping under stars. . . .
She opened her eyes and looked into a face close to her own. Red-gold hair framed rounded cheeks, freckled by the desert sun. "You made it!"
"I told you I would fly in if I could."
"You were angry with me for agreeing to the ceremony." Mel sat up
and studied her friend, who sat on the bed. She wore khaki slacks and a khaki
blouse; a battered leather jacket and broad brimmed hat rested nearby on the
bed. She hadn't changed much in the twenty years they had been
together. "I thought you might miss it on purpose."
"The thought crossed my mind." To change the subject, she asked, "What were you dreaming about? A handsome president? Or his beautiful wife?"
Janice looked surprised, but pleased. "After all these years, you still dream about me?"
Mel's expression was serious. "About our journey from Transylvania to Greece. About how I almost lost you. About how I should have kept the sword."
Janice shook her head. "It was blood loss and shock. I needed to get over it on my own. I did."
"Yes, you did."
Mel leaned forward and lightly kissed each corner of Janice's lips.
"What was that for?" Janice asked.
"I love you."
"Oh." Janice pulled Mel out of her chair to sit beside her on the bed. Her kiss was deep and long. "I love you, too."
"Even after all these years?"
"Especially after all these years."
At the knock on the door, Mel started to rise, but Janice pulled her back down. "Come in."
Mischa poked his head through the door, then entered, his smile broadening as he saw the two women together. "Aunt Mel, I see that Aunt Janice woke you." Mel blushed, and both Mischa and Janice laughed. "Rachel told me to bring you down for dinner, but I could tell her you're both asleep."
"We'll come down," Mel said. "Janice has to be hungry after her long trip."
Janice raised her eyebrows but didn't say the first thing that came to mind. Instead, she said, "Mel was dreaming about our trip to meet the Greek partisans."
"Really?" Mischa still stood in the doorway. "Neither of you
talk much about the past, but I think about that trip a lot. It was both scary
and wonderful. You were so weak, Aunt Janice, but you wouldn't admit it, even
when you could barely sit on your horse. And, when we ran out of food, it
was you who shot the game that kept us going."
"When it turned out you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."
"I was a city boy." He looked at Mel. "And when we finally met up with the Greek partisans, it was you who talked them into taking me along."
"But it was Janice who threatened the Naval officer with court martial
if he didn't bring you aboard." Janice squeezed Mel's arm, and Mel momentarily
rested her head on a khaki shoulder. "Although once we had you with us
in the U.S., I had to convince her that we could raise a good boy
to be a good man."
"I'm glad you were able to do that, Aunt Mel. I'm also glad you both decided to accept the prize." He noticed the stiffening of Janice's shoulders. "Aunt Janice?"
"I don't see what we've done to deserve any sort of prize."
"You saved me."
"Tavel saved you."
There was silence for a full minute. Then Mischa spoke again. "My people
have a saying: 'To save one life is to save humanity.' You brought me to this
country. You raised me. You made sure I learned about my culture and my religion.
After the war, you searched until you found my brother and cousin, the only
ones remaining of my blood. And, Aunt Janice, I know that I was not the only
one you helped." Mel and Janice exchanged a glance, and Mel shook her head.
She hadn't told. "If you don't accept this award from my people, if you
don't let them recognize you both as 'righteous
gentiles,' you are saying that what you did didn't matter. Is that whatyou want to do?"
Mel rose and walked to Mischa. Cupping his face in her hands, she kissed him on the cheek. Janice's face was down and, when she looked up, tears streaked it. "The last president I met was Franklin Roosevelt. It's about time I met another."
As Mel crossed the room to her, Janice added quietly, for her ears alone, "Whither thou goest, I will go."
homepage - fan fic index