SUMMARY: Buried deep in the Xena Scrolls, Mel & Jan discover a secret that can help defeat the Nazis, taking Jan to Xena's birthplace and Mel to a frightening other world.
Disclaimers: The characters of Melinda, Jan, Xena and Gabrielle belong to someone else. I'm just writing about them for fun, not money, because I love them and I know you do too. No attempt has been made to profit from this story (as if I could!).
Subtext: Really...the story is labeled ALT. Does more need be said? The ladies are in love. Enjoy. Nothing steamier than a woosy R rating, though.
Violence: There is a lot of violence in this story, some of it brutal. It was a brutal time, and the Nazis and the SS were a brutal people. Anyone who's familiar with their methods will know that I prettied it up.
Feedback : Tell me what you think! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Places to Go
The ewe lamb wandered slowly over the ridge, aimlessly grazing on the tender shoots brought up by the early spring rains. She didn't notice the absence of the flock, now safely penned for the night two miles away. When she had eaten her fill, she would sense the absence of her mother, and fill the air with pathetic bleating. But now the grass was green and sweet, the sky still light, and danger was not part of her animal awareness.
The lamb reached the opposite slope of the ridge, and raised her head to the now-unfamiliar landscape around her. Animal fear rose in her, and she called out, the tone she knew would bring the mother ewe, the source of all safety and warmth.
Paki ran a little ahead of his brother Calos, hoping that the fading evening light would be enough to spot the errant lamb. He stopped on the low ridge below the hill to let his brother catch up, pulling his sleeveless coat around him to ward off the evening chill. Calos came up, dressed like his brother in baggy pants, shirt, light coat and small round hat; he carried a long staff with a bent end and a water skin. Calos was two years younger; he didn't understand what Paki, at his full eleven years of wisdom, knew: the loss of one lamb -- only one -- could make the difference between a year of plenty and a year of want for their family. They had to find her before it grew dark, or in the night the wild wolves surely would.
Curse Calos anyway for not paying attention! How could he miss counting all the sheep as they herded them into the paddock? Luckily Papa was out in the fields still, and didn't know about the lamb yet. They'd both catch it if he found out.
There she was! just up the slope, bleating and wandering up to the ruins on the hill. Oh, God, don't let her go up there. The ruins were haunted. Paki considered himself brave -- he had stolen canned meat from the trucks of the lightning-soldiers, the invaders -- but even he would not go up there. None of the other boys would, either.
But the lamb, knowing only hunger and isolation from her mother, persisted in her wobbling course up the slope. Paki followed, of course, and Calos followed Paki -- better all the unseen demons than Papa's wrath.
As Paki mounted the hill he noticed that things had been built there. New things -- metal buildings, fences. A metal building, with a rounded top, was off to one edge of the ruins, and a tall fence, made of wavy metal plates, stood near the crest of the hill. Of course the lamb made straight for it, with the perverse nature of all of her kind -- how Paki hated sheep! As Paki chased behind, the lamb disappeared.
Alarmed, Paki ran to where he had last seen the animal, and found himself at the edge of a ditch dug all around the outside of the fence. The lamb was at the bottom of the ditch, bleating furiously, trying unsuccessfully to climb the side of the ditch. Paki sighed, scrambled down into the ditch, and grabbed the lamb, pulling her up to the top. Sheep had to be the stupidest animals on earth.
He was surprised and dismayed to find that he had climbed out of the ditch on the wrong side. He was between the fence and the ditch, and now had to climb down and up again, with the idiotic lamb. Calos saw him, and, before Paki could call out to him to stay where he was, the younger boy had clambered down into the ditch and up the other side to join his brother.
“Why didn't you stay over there?” Paki rasped to his brother, and punched him on the arm.
“Ow!...let's see what's behind the fence,” Calos whispered, rubbing the bruised spot. “Maybe they store food there.”
Paki, holding the squirming lamb, said “Why would I want to do that?”
“Papa will be angry when he finds out you lost a lamb, and took so long to come home,” Calos whispered.
“Me?! I didn't lose the lamb, numbskull! You were supposed to do the counting!”
“But you were supposed to get them in the pen!”
“It wasn't my fault!”
“Papa won't care who did it, and since you're the oldest he'll beat you.”
“So how does climbing that fence help?”
“If you bring food back, like you did from those trucks, maybe Papa won't be so mad.”
Paki thought about this. Calos wasn't usually very bright, Paki thought, but maybe this was a good idea...
“All right. I'll go first.”
Paki looked up at the fence. The top was a head higher than he could reach. “Because, stupid, I can jump that high and you can't.”
Calos didn't say anything, but as Paki jumped and caught the top edge of the fence, he said hoarsely. “You pull me up!”
“No! You stay there and catch stuff I throw over!”
Calos thought this was clever of his brother. “All right.”
Paki pulled himself up, trying to get a purchase with his sandals on the metal sheeting without making too much of a racket. He couldn't see much down inside the fence -- his eyes were dazzled by the sunset brightness of the sky against the darkness of the ground.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light inside the fence, he noticed that the trip over had been useless -- there was nothing that looked like stored food, or anything else that he could take to reward himself for his trouble. In the center of the open space was what looked like a cloth, spread over the ground and pegged down with metal stakes. It was smooth and stretchy, and smelled like the tires on the village truck that they used to take goods to the market in Thessaloniki .
Maybe the kept their stores in a hole in the ground, covered over by this cloth? Maybe -- he could pull it back a little--
He reached his hand under the edge he had pulled up, and searched around underneath. He felt a kind of wetness, an ooze that felt like hot mud.
Then the tingling began.
His hand began to itch, then burn, the way he remembered bee stings burning. A groan was wrenched from him, and in a panic he ran for the fence, reaching the top with a flying leap. His hand and arm burned with buzzing agony. he could barely hold on with his injured hand, but fear propelled him over the fence and into the ditch, where Calos was waiting.
The pain was taking him. He screamed.
Rough voices echoed from the buildings farther away. Demons were coming for him, coming to kill him and Calos, they had to run...
With his good hand he grabbed his brother's wrist and rolled into the ditch, scratching and clawing up the other side, then running faster than either could remember down the hill. He only looked back once, and saw figures, shadows against the sunset sky, chasing them. He ran and ran and ran, and by the time they were halfway home they had lost their pursuers in the darkness, and Paki was in a whirlpool of pure pain, his body burning, burning, a pain so great he had forgotten all about the lost lamb.
London , England
30 March 1942
Dear Mama (and Aunt Abigail),
Please -- read this letter before you tear it up. I know you're angry but maybe, if you let me explain, things don't have to be this way. Please -- I love you and I don't want you to be mad.
Your letter truly struck me in a tender place, Mama. I have to be honest -- it hurt. I am your daughter, and always will be, even though you said you want nothing to do with me. I'm not sick, Mama, nor am I deluded, misled or insane. I'm in love, that's all. It's just that the person I love doesn't meet with your expectations. Jan is wonderful for me. She takes care of me. And she loves me, of that I have no doubt. Let me tell you about our life right now, and maybe you'll see that we're none of the things you accused us of. We're actually pretty normal.
First, let me explain where we are and why. After the Germans invaded Greece , Janice and I didn't think it was safe to stay in Athens , which is where I wrote you from the last time. Getting out of Greece was tricky, especially since we had a small trunk with the valuables in it. (This letter's probably going to be read by half a dozen censors, so I kind of have to be careful of what I write). Anyway, we ended up on Cyprus , (that's an island in the Mediterranean , aunt Abigail) which is controlled by the British. They were quite nice about our being there, although they asked us a lot of questions about why we were floating about the ocean in an open boat and why we'd been in enemy territory, and where did Janice get that bump on her head, and on and on. I guess they wanted to make sure we weren't spies or something -- can you imagine! They were very polite through the whole thing, I must say. We finally convinced them that we'd been in Greece before the Germans arrived, and that we were working on a dig. I guess they checked with people in the States. So we were safe there for the moment.
The only problem -- well, not the only problem, but a big one -- was that we were stuck there. There weren't any normal ways to get off of Cyprus , only by British Navy ships or planes. Remember, Britain 's been in this war since ‘39, and places like Cyprus are armed camps. So since we were civilians, and Americans, we weren't high-priority passengers. We lived in a concrete-block hut on Cyprus for months -- and was it hot! We weren't exactly prisoners, but we weren't really free to go anywhere, either.
Finally, in January of this year, we got a visit from an American army officer-- I can't say his name -- who worked for -- well, I can't say that either, but it was hush-hush. Somehow the British figured out what I do, -- it wasn't hard, I guess, because I'd been working on translating while we waited, and I supposed the British soldiers noticed that I was working in Greek. He wanted to know if I knew modern Greek, and a bunch of other Balkan languages, and I did know most of them. He said now that America was in the war I had a duty to serve my country. He asked if I was willing to help the war effort, and I said I guess so, so he told me I had to go to London and do some work there. I said I would go if Janice could come along -- he kind of hemmed and hawed about that, but I stood firm and made it an ironclad condition -- and Janice came along.
So they put Janice and I and our trunk on an airplane and we flew to Malta (that's another island, a lot smaller than the other one). We had to wait in Malta for a few weeks, and then we were on a plane to Gibraltar, and then another plane to London . The people I work for met our plane, and they already had an apartment for us right near the -- well, the place I work.
I like what I do, and they pay me reasonably well. I can't tell you what I do, but I can say that all those language skills I learned from Daddy are coming in handy now. The only disadvantage is that the hours are long, and I don't have a lot of free time. And London is blacked out at night, mostly -- both to save electricity and to fool German airplanes. Janice is teaching part-time at King's College, a class in ancient Mediterranean cultures. She finishes about four in the afternoon, so she goes home, rustles up some food -- she isn't much of a cook, but she's learning -- and has dinner ready by the time I get home about nine. We get up at five and she feeds me breakfast, packs me a lunch, and scoots me off to work before she goes to her classes about ten. It's pretty routine. Of course, Janice is restless. She's kind of an action-type person, and being stuck in a flat in London has her pacing like a caged tiger. I have to keep finding ways to distract her (like going to the zoo, which we did yesterday). My work and my relationship with Janice keep me very busy. Nevertheless, I'm happy. I'm doing valuable, interesting work; I'm making a living, not even drawing on my trust; and I'm surrounded by love.
I am happy, Mama, and it's because of Janice that I am. I know you don't want to hear this, but she makes me happy -- I feel better about myself, and about life, than I can ever remember. Perhaps I shouldn't have told you about Janice in a letter. Maybe it would have been better to wait until I got home and you could have met her. She is the most wonderful person -- a little rough around the edges, I suppose, but that makes her interesting. She's brave, kind, gentle, smart, beautiful-- everything I could ever ask for in a life partner. I love her, Mama. She warms my soul.
I know that being with Janice is not what you expected for me. I know that you love me, and that you and Daddy wanted only the best for me. Can you believe me when I say that Janice is what's best for me? I'm a grown woman, Mama, and I have to decide what's best for my life. I can respect and understand your values, but I can also say that mine are different from yours. I live a good life with her, and I want that to continue until we die. We've been together almost two years now, and I ‘m sure this isn't just a fling or an infatuation.
Please, Mama, please know that I never intended to hurt you. I didn't choose to fall in love with Janice. When we met I wasn't even looking to be in love with anyone. We just -- found each other. It was an adventure, and some strange things happened when we met, but since then our love has grown every day. She treats me like a princess and I -- I just want to make her as happy as she makes me, for the rest of our lives. It isn't wrong, Mama. When someone loves you the way I know she loves me -- how can that be wrong?
Please, try and understand. At least reserve judgment until you can meet her. I know you'll like her.
I don't know when I'll be home. Not until the war's over, I suspect. Who knows when that will be? It looks like a long road until we beat the Nazis, and Japan might be even harder. But I know we'll win. We're the good guys.
The watery sunlight of the London spring filtered through the dusty blinds, casting bars of pale silver across the papers on Melinda's desk. She sat absolutely still, staring at the page in front of her with intense concentration. She sat stiffly in the desk chair, her posture the product of years of Southern lessons in deportment. Brilliant blue eyes lay behind dark-rimmed glasses; her rich black hair was tied up in a bun. A severe blue suit concealed the shape of her body, which was her preferred way of appearing in public. Only one person in the world knew how finely shaped that body truly was; and that was the way Melinda wanted that to be, too.
Suddenly transformed to vital animation, she inscribed a few lines on the pad of yellow paper under her right hand, forming Greek characters quickly and carefully. She lapsed into stillness again. As she was about to resume writing, a knock sounded.
“Come in.” Melinda lifted the teacup on her desk to her lips, sipped, and grimaced -- cold. Dr. John Ambley, her boss, opened the door.
She smiled at him. “Good day, John.”
Dr. Ambley smiled back. Short, round, bald, and ruddy, John Ambley looked like an overweight elf, with a springy step unexpected in a man of his girth. He was British by birth, a psychiatrist by training, a gourmet by avocation, and a world traveler who had become one of the foremost experts in psychological warfare serving the Allied war effort. Melinda liked him; he was friendly, efficient, and he trusted her abilities and her dedication.
Ambley glanced at the work on Mel's desk. “Melinda, can you spare a moment for a visitor?”
“What kind of visitor? Is it someone who can make 'blood toil, tears, and sweat' sound good in Macedonian?”
“I doubt it. He said he was from intelligence.”
“It's your shop, John. As long as it's all right with you.”
“Then I'll show him in.” Ambley stepped out into the corridor and returned immediately with a man in a dark suit, white shirt and a subdued, striped tie. He was of medium height, and of a muscular build that spoke of strength and agility, despite his nondescript clothing. His bearing was straight and crisp, with a hint of military background in it. Melinda rose from her chair as he extended a hand.
“Miss Pappas? Miss Melinda Pappas?” He spoke with a clipped American accent. New York or New Jersey, but an Ivy League education. Mel liked to play guessing games with people's accents.
“Yes, Ah'm Melinda Pappas.”
“I'm Richard Smith. I'd like a moment of your time.”
“Certainly, Mr. Smith. Please, do sit down.” She gestured to the two chairs that took up the remaining floor space in the tiny office. She waited for her visitor to speak while she looked him over. His eyes were blue, a darker, murkier shade than Melinda's bright, crystalline azure. She felt that she would never pick him out of a crowd; he had the kind of face that you'd forget moments after he'd gone out of sight. If he's an intelligence officer, he's got the perfect look, Mel thought. Invisible .
“Miss Pappas, I'll first have to tell you that everything discussed here is classified. If you reveal anything said here without authorization you can be prosecuted under the Wartime Security Act.”
“Ah understand, Mr. Smith. Ah received a security briefin' when Ah started this job.”
“This is considerably higher priority than your current clearance, Miss Pappas.”
“Then why tell me at all?” Melinda straightened her posture even more and primly folded her hands on the desk, looking Smith right in the eye. She didn't like people who tried to intimidate her.
“Because you have special knowledge, Miss Pappas, that we believe will be of assistance in certain operations against the enemy.”
“Mr. Smith, Ah don't know what special knowledge you're talking about.”
Smith pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket, flipped it open. “Miss Pappas, your deceased father was professor of ancient history, chairman of the history department, dean for field research, provost, and finally dean at the University of South Carolina . You speak modern Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Italian and French. You also read ancient Attic and Macedonian Greek, Latin, and Persian. You have a Bachelor's degree in ancient languages from Vassar, and two Master's degrees, one in linguistics from the University of South Carolina , and another in ancient history from the Sorbonne. After completing your studies in Paris you traveled to northern Greece , where you participated in an archeological investigation under the supervision of Dr. Janice Covington, with whom you have maintained a close relationship. The two of you recently published a paper in the British Journal of Antiquity describing your preliminary translations of portions of what you refer to as...”
“...The Xena Scrolls. You seem to know a great deal about me, Mr. Smith. Do you know the name of my grandmother's maid, as well?”
Smith flipped a page. “Amanda. It's our job to know, Miss Pappas. We're intelligence, among other...”
“And who, if Ah may ask, is ‘we'?”
Smith pursed his lips. “We're an agency of the US government, Miss Pappas. COI.”
“See-oh-eye? Ah've never heard of that.”
“Good. Most people haven't and that's the way we want it. Our mandate is to gather, analyze, and coordinate information about the people we're fighting. We also conduct...operations against the enemy from time to time. Now that you've heard it I urge you most strongly to forget it.”
“Ah see. What exactly can Ah help you with, then, Mr. Smith?”
“You can tell us everything you know about Amphipolis.”
A pair of dark eyebrows raised over bright blue eyes. “Amphipolis? It's a small town in Thrace -- It was part of Bulgaria before the last war. Then it was part of Greece . Now, I think, Bulgaria is occupying it. With German support.”
“Miss Pappas. Any literate person with an atlas and a newspaper would know that. But we think you know more. Your paper, plus what we've learned from colleagues of yourself and Dr. Covington, tells us you're in a unique position to inform us about Amphipolis's history. Especially its ancient history. That could be important to us.”
“Really, Mr. Smith, Ah don't know much about the place. It was the birthplace of the hero Xena, who, up until we discovered the scrolls, was a figure of pure myth. She lived somewhere in the Roman period, and some of our unpublished work shows that she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. She was a warrior, who fought to defend Amphipolis against the anarchy of the times. Her family were tavern keepers there.” And if I told you about how well I know Xena, you'd think I was nuts, so that's it. She smiled sweetly.
Smith put his notebook away and looked at Melinda with impatience. “Miss Pappas, you're an American citizen. We could force your cooperation, if you don't offer it voluntarily.”
Melinda's voice grew cold. “Mr. Smith. Ah was recruited by the Army to work here, in cooperation with the Office of War Information, to produce public-relations materials for captive populations in their native languages -- propaganda, in short. Accordin' to Dr. Ambley, here, Ah'm doin' a good job, isn't that true, Dr Ambley?”
Ambley nodded vigorously. “Eminently. Miss Pappas' translation work shows a high level of skill and sensitivity to the target nations' cultures. And Mr. Smith, I have to protest your attempt to intimidate my employee. Miss Pappas is serving her country -- and mine, I might add -- in a most effective way.”
“So, Mr. Smith, when Ah say Ah've told you what Ah know, you can take my word for it. It's not...”
Smith slammed his fist on the desk. “Dammit, Miss Pappas! Do you have any idea what we're up against here? Nazi Germany is the worst thing to come along in a thousand years. Pick your favorite barbarians, the Nazis are worse. They're as ruthless as Vikings, as self-serving as Mongols, and bloodthirsty as Huns -- and with all of modern technology at their disposal. Hitler and his thugs are worse than the worst enemies your precious Xena ever fought. Yes, I've read your paper. The Nazis have an absolute disregard for human life, and are capable of anything that will give them the power to spread their sick ideology over the world. They are the baddest of the bad.” He sat back in his chair. “I apologize for my language, ma'am.”
Mel, taken aback, managed to say “It's all right. Ah've heard it before.” Considering Janice's vocabulary... “You have a good grasp of history.”
“I've...studied it. But...listen, Miss Pappas, we really need to know more about the background of this place, what's so special about it that the Germans would want to set up a military presence there.”
“Ah can't tell you that, but Ah will tell you two things. First, that Ah've only begun translatin' the scrolls, and that as we go along there could be more information embedded in them about the town. Ah promise that Ah'll pass on whatever Ah find. Second, there's a person who probably knows a lot more about the history of Amphipolis than Ah do. You should talk to her.”
“Dr. Janice Covin'ton.”
“We had planned to interview her in any case.”
“Then perhaps we should all meet together.”
Smith considered. “Mmm...I suppose there would be no harm. Dr. Ambley, could we meet here?”
“Yes. There's a conference room down the hall. We'd need a shoehorn to get another person in here, what?”
“Tomorrow, then? Say, four-thirty?”
Ambley nodded, but seemed put out. “Bloody well balls up teatime, I daresay. We'll just have to soldier on.” He looked at Mel. “Sorry.”
“For the timing, or the language?” Melinda's eyes twinkled.
Ambley looked surprised. “Eh...both, I suppose.”
Smith rose. “Tomorrow afternoon, then.” He shook hands and was escorted out by Ambley, who returned to Mel's office minutes later.
“What do you know about this COI agency, John?” Mel asked as she poured tea from the fresh pot Ambley had brought in.
“A little. The name crosses my desk from time to time, but only on a carbon copy list at the bottom of a memo.”
“Do you know what it stands for?”
“Committee on Information, or some such, I believe. They have a rather shadowy reputation -- lots of strange rumors, bizarre stories.”
“Oh, feats of derring-do, cloak-and-dagger rubbish. Nothing substantial.”
Over her teacup, Mel said, “Well, Mr. Smith surely seemed substantial enough.”
Ambley swallowed. “Hmm. I wonder if Smith is his real name.”
“Oh come now, John, you can't...”
“He's an intelligence officer, a -- what do you Americans say, a spook. I wouldn't be surprised. Are you really going to work with him?”
“Ah don't see why not. It's material Ah'd publish later anyway. What could be dangerous about stories from a two-thousand-year-old village?” Just as long as Ares isn't in the picture...
Ambley looked off into the distance, through the window into the late afternoon over London . “I don't know, Melinda, but you be damned careful. You and Janice both.”
“What makes you say that? Other than that we're at war.”
“Because I think his right name isn't the only thing Mr. Smith didn't tell us.”
Mel felt Janice's fingers stroking her hair from behind. She felt the familiar tingle run through her body, intensified by the scent of damp, smooth skin that was distinctly Janice. Janice fresh out of the tub, Janice being desirable. She let the sensual pleasure continue for a while, then she spoke, without turning in her desk chair.
“Darlin', you're standing there with just a towel wrapped around you, aren't ya?”
“Sure I am, sweetie. I just got out of a bath. What'd you expect?” The voice was low, velvety -- delicious. Mel straightened, tipped her head back slightly, closed her eyes. “You know Ah can't stand that for long.”
Janice put both hands on her lover's hair, loose and long now that she was home and relaxed. “I never get over how you get aroused when I touch your hair. I've never seen that before.”
Jan bit her lip. “And how many women have you tried this with?”
“Just you. I think it's very sexy.” Janice let her hands slide down to Mel's shoulders, bent over, and kissed her softly, quickly, with a teasing brush that made the dark woman burn beneath her skin. Knowing she shouldn't, she leaned into Janice's lips, sealing a lingering, voluptuous kiss that ignited her body and addled her brain. Hands, Janice's hands, ran down from Mel's shoulders to her chest, under the hem of her loosely tied terrycloth robe, exploring, probing...
She wrapped an arm around Janice's waist and overbalanced her, causing the smaller blonde to fall into her lap. The desk chair swiveled around, with Mel holding Jan tightly, while Jan let out a “whoaa!” as they spun. They came to rest facing the desk again, the few remaining drops of water sparkling on Jan's skin in the golden light from the desk lamp, the only light in the room.
They continued the kiss, touching, brushing against sensitive, secret places. Jan broke away and kissed Mel's throat, then gradually worked down to the silken expanse at the base of her neck. Through the kisses she said, “Come to bed...it's late...we'd be so much more comfortable...I could reach so much more of you.”
Mel's breaths came short and sharp. “Ah...shouldn't...Ah have this...work...Ah want to get done...please, Jan...”
“Please...oh, heavens, Jan, let's go to bed! You're drivin' me...”
“Okay.” As Jan sprang up, the towel in disarray, a lovely expanse of Jan spilled over into Melinda's view. No more resistance, Melinda Pappas, work be damned -- Mel heard the thought as if it were another voice, leading her into delectable temptation.
Mel stood up and enveloped Jan in her arms, kissing her head, then bending down to kiss her lips again, sweet and ripe, warm and rewarding. Jan cuddled in her arms, her head rested against Mel's warmth. “I love you, Mel.”
“Ah love you, Jan.”
“Come to bed.”
Silver moonlight woke Janice, pillowed on Melinda, safely held in her arms. She knew she'd been asleep, she didn't know how long; she was surprised she'd awakened in the middle of the night. She usually slept soundly, through the night and well into the morning when she could. She looked up at her partner, realized...
“Hey...hey, baby, you awake?”
“Yeah, Ah am.”
“You okay? Did you sleep at all?”
Mel blew air through her lips. “Nah. Ah didn't really feel like sleepin'. Not that you didn't wear me out.”
Jan didn't rise to the tease. “Are you worried about your mom?”
“No, not really -- Ah wrote to her, Ah explained, Ah told her Ah loved you, and that was never gonna change -- Ah've done all Ah can there, Jan. No, Ah was thinkin' about the work Ah was doin' before Ah got...distracted.”
“Distracted? is that what I am, a distraction?”
“Ah said , Ah loved you, and that was never gonna change. Life is my distraction from you , honey.”
“Awww. Sweet talker.”
A little while later, Jan asked, “What were you working on, anyway? You never bring work home. It was the Scrolls, wasn't it?”
“Yeah. Jan, can you keep a secret?”
“No, I'm gonna shout it from the top of Big Ben during high tea at Buckingham. Of course I can.”
Mel sighed. “Ah'm prob'ly committin' a felony. But this'll all come out at that meetin' Ah asked you to be at tomorrow.”
“Four-thirty at the Ministry. Are you gonna tell me what's it about ?”
“Yeah. Just act surprised when you hear it all again tomorrow.” She told Jan about Smith's visit.
“So...this guy thinks Amphipolis has something the German army wants? Something special?”
“That's what he said.”
Jan rolled over on her back, her head on Mel's stomach. “Did you tell him that Xena's Amphipolis is a ruin? That the original village was abandoned?”
“It never came up. But Ah was looking at the scrolls...thought maybe Ah'd find somethin'.”
“How?” God, I want a smoke, Jan reflected, but if she's adamant about anything its no smoking in the bed. And near the Scrolls.
“Gabrielle titled all her stories. Ah thought Ah'd do the obvious -- skim every story that had ‘Amphipolis' in the title. There's only three of ‘em.”
“Yeah -- they didn't really spend much time there, Ah gather. Most of the stories Ah've looked at so far have been about bein' on the road, goin' places -- they never really settled anywhere. So there's these three stories -- “Beauties of Amphipolis”, “Amphipolis Besieged”, and “Amphipolis Bewitched.” The first one's really goofy, it must be Gabrielle's attempt at comedy. The last one's -- well it starts with the village empty, in ruins maybe, and there's Eve -- Xena's daughter, Ah told you about her -- who sees Xena's mother's ghost -- Ah didn't read much farther than that. It seems that a story about a siege at Amphipolis might have some information that'd interest Mr. Smith. So Ah was just gettin' to the main story when you came in.”
“And distracted you.”
Jan sat up. “So let's go look at it.”
“What, now? Jan honey, it's one in the mornin'.”
“Yeah -- so? You've got me curious now.”
“Oh -- all right!” Mel threw off the quilt and gasped. “Holy of holies, it's freezing in here! Where's my robe? Don't the Brits believe in heat?”
“Landlady turns off the heat at midnight.”
“Tightwad. For pity's sake, Janice, it's spring! It's May -- it oughta be warm.”
“Maybe in South Carolina , but not quite yet in merrie olde England .”
Mel shivered as she wrapped herself. “Ah swear, Ah've never been warm since Ah set foot on this arctic ice floe of an island. Janice, will you put somethin' on? Just lookin' at you makes me into one giant goose bump!”
“You grew up in Michigan .”
“I was born in Michigan . I grew up all over the world -- Harry dragged me with him everywhere.”
“You never grew up at all, Janice Covin'ton.”
Janice stuck out her tongue. Mel laughed as Jan threw on a robe and they went back to the study.
Janice had blinked several times when the major at the conference table warned her that she was now bound by security regulations of the highest priority. She was still taken aback that she had gone in one day from Janice Covington, private citizen, to Janice Covington, national security consultant. Or something like that. Things happen fast in wartime, I guess. What am I getting into? thanks a bunch, Mel.
The hawk-faced major with the iron-gray mustache smiled coldly. “Dr. Covington, in the last twenty-four hours several people have been working solely on checking your background to justify this clearance. Believe me, it wasn't easy. Truth be told, your ah...family...background would normally have barred you.”
“You mean my father was a crook.”
“Well...he had...shall we say...unsavory associates? And it is known that he dealt in stolen property.”
“I was a child when that was going on. And he was trying to finance his research.”
“That was what our investigators found. There was one other thing, though, and I have to ask about this before we can proceed. There was a period from 1932 to 1936 that we can't account for anything in your life. You disappeared, so it seems, and all our resources can't determine where you were then, or what you were doing. Can you explain your whereabouts at that time?”
Jan chewed on her lower lip before speaking. “I was...I needed to leave the country for a while.”
“Really, Dr. Covington, we need to know why. Please be assured -- your value to us, right now, is such that we're prepared to grant immunity from any criminal prosecution that might be brought against you.”
“Criminal...? No.. Nothing like that. Just a...relationship...that....went bad, I guess. I needed to get away from familiar places. I'd just finished my Ph.D.....I went to Japan... China ... India . It had a lot to do with searching for the Scrolls.” A look of real pain crossed her face, and when she turned to look at Mel, the dark woman could feel the hurt. Melinda smiled a little and put her hand on Janice's thigh under the table. Jan breathed a sigh of relief, and continued, “I'd found some evidence that Gabrielle, the scribe who wrote the Scrolls, had been to those places. As it turns out, the Scrolls confirm that; in fact her companion Xena died in Japan . So I spent four years following leads and...forgetting. Okay?”
The major scribbled some notes in a file in front of him, and shook his head. “That will do, Dr. Covington. If we need more information, we'll let you know.”
“So -- am I good?”
“Eh? Oh, yes, yes. Let's get started, then, shall we?”
The meeting consisted of Melinda, Janice, Mr. Smith of the previous day, Dr. Ambley, the US Army major, Knox, who identified himself as an officer in G2, and a British navy captain named Whittle, who wore the snake-staff of the medical corps. A stenographer sat at one end of the table, recording the entire proceeding.
The major got to the point. “Dr. Covington -- you've been brought into this project as an expert on Macedonian history, specifically of a town called Amphipolis. What can you tell us?” The major leaned back in his chair, twiddling a pencil between his fingers.
“I could be a lot more specific if I knew what you were interested in.”
Smith interjected, “Let's just say we're generalists, for now, Dr. Covington. One of our jobs is to sift out the significant information, but we have to have something to sift. Just tell us what you know.”
“All right. Well... There've been people at that site for a long time, since maybe 800 BCE or so. The...”
“Excuse me, Dr. Covington...BCE?” This was Whittle, the Navy man.
“It stands for ‘Before Common Era' -- it's a universal dating system used by archaeologists and historians. Means the same thing in years as ‘BC'. ‘CE' -- ‘common era' -- is the same as ‘AD'.
“Why not just use the same system as everybody else?”
“Because everybody isn't Christian, Dr. Whittle, and a lot of archaeology is done in non-Christian countries. It's a method that doesn't offend anybody -- or fewer people, anyway. The numbers work out the same. This is 1942 CE.”
“I see...go on.”
Janice sat on the edge of her chair, animated and energized as if she were teaching a class. “I guess that I can say the thing that characterizes Amphipolis' history is conflict, warfare,” she resumed. “It's on top of a hill overlooking a river crossing -- the river almost wraps around the town. It's an important crossing point, there was a bridge there in ancient times, part of a road that connects Macedonia with Asia Minor . The town commanded the bridge. There also were gold and silver mines in the area -- all played out now, of course. The site's about three miles from the sea, so there was a period when it was a shipbuilding center, too. Lots of resources to fight over.”
The major asked, “Who did the fighting?”
“Greeks against Greeks, mostly. Athens sent a colonizing expedition there -- about 440 BCE -- then the Spartans attacked it during the Peloponnesian War, and took it away from Athens . You remember reading about Thucydides in school?”
The British captain spoke up. “Greek historian. Wasn't he exiled from Athens for something or other?”
“Yes, he was,” Jan pointed at him as if at a student who'd given a bright answer. “He was exiled for -- he was in command of the Athenian fleet, sent to defend Amphipolis, and he didn't attack the Spartans soon enough, and they took the town. The Athenians weren't happy about that.”
The major muttered, “Lucky they didn't hang him.”
Jan went on, oblivious to the major's comment, excitement in her voice. “There was a big battle there in 422 BCE, Athens against Spartans, and the Spartans held onto the town, but it was bloody -- both commanders were killed. The town went back and forth between Athens and Sparta , treaties got made and broken. Finally it ended up in Athens ' possession, but by that time Athens had weakened -- war and plague did the job -- and Amphipolis pretty much ran its own affairs until Philip captured it -- father of Alexander the Great. Alexander held on to it, but when he died his empire broke up, and the town went back to being independent again.”
Dr. Ambley put in an oar. “All this fighting must have been hard on the citizens.”
“Well...it seems that the place was always reasonably prosperous -- that's one reason it was so prized. And remember that war in those days wasn't as destructive as it is now. Destroying a town and killing the populace deprived a conqueror of the resources the town could supply. Generals tried hard not to destroy towns and cities. Usually an attacker would demand a surrender before any fighting started, displaying his army so the townspeople could see what they were up against -- if the attacking force was threatening enough, they'd open the gates, because they knew life's go on, just with new masters.”
Ambley said, “Not so civilized, these days, are we.”
The major replied, “Not really an option when you have enemies like Hitler and Mussolini.”
“Well, some folks in the ancient world could be pretty ruthless,” Jan continued. “ Rome sort of thrived on that reputation. The Roman army was known to burn cities just for the hell of it, or to make an example for an entire province. They tried to keep the basic economy of a region intact, but weren't averse to burning resisting towns, enslaving the populace, and building whole new cities, populated with army veterans. They completely wiped out Carthage that way.”
Whittle asked, “Did that happen to Amphipolis?”
“No, it got through the Roman period pretty well. It was declared a provincial capital in 148 BCE -- we know that date very well because we've got the imperial decree that ordered it. But the city was left pretty well alone after that -- there's no evidence of a Roman legion garrisoning anywhere near Amphipolis, and by all accounts Amphipolis managed to ignore Rome throughout the late republic and early empire -- about the time of Caesar and Augustus. Incidentally, that's the period I've really studied -- that's about the time Xena and Gabrielle were alive.”
Said the major, “I see. Dr Coving...”
“Somewhere in the Middle Ages the town moved”, she went on, now speaking at a breakneck pace. “The hill site was abandoned and they built a new town right at the river mouth. Up until that time, the major activity was building churches -- this was the Byzantine empire , all Christians, and Amphipolis was important because it's mentioned in the Bible, the apostle Paul was supposed to have...”
“Janice.” Melinda interrupted softly. She might as well have tried to stop an onrushing train with a fly swatter.
“...passed through it on his way to Rome --in Acts, I think it is -- and it became a bishop's seat in...”
“Janice...You need to stop now...Janice!” Melinda put a hand or Jan's shoulder and gave her a shake.
“Huh...what? Oh...sorry...” Jan looked sheepishly at Melinda, who pitched her voice very low.
“Ah think these gentlemen have the picture.”
“Oh..yeah, well, I hope that gives you something to work with.”
The major tried to hide a smile. “Very impressive, Dr. Covington. You've obviously done a lot of research on this topic.”
“It was my doctoral dissertation--part of it.”
“Indeed. It seems to be your passion, as well as your profession.”
Smith was impatient. “So far I haven't heard anything that could help us in the immediate matter.”
The major turned to Melinda and Jan. “Ladies, is there anything -- anything -- in the information you have that might help us to understand how to penetrate the site occupied by ancient Amphipolis clandestinely, with minimal exposure and casualties? For example, was the city ever taken by stealth, or betrayal?”
Melinda grinned. “Funny you should ask that, major.” From her handbag she drew a folded paper, unfolded it on the table so that the major and captain could read the inscriptions.
She pointed. “This is an excerpt from a story that Gabrielle the Bard calls “Amphipolis Besieged”, copied in the original script. This isn't classic Attic Greek; it's a form more closely related to an older script, called Linear B. On the right is a translation -- rather hasty, but Ah only did this last night.
The major peered at the lines written in Melinda's precise hand. “It says...'beneath the city lie passages...under their battle lines; Xena the Warrior and the Bard found their way in these deep places by torchlight...there were many passages, the longest...' Do I understand he...she...is describing tunnels beneath the town?”
“So it seems. Accordin' to this scroll, Amphipolis was attacked by an army that Gabrielle claims was led by the goddess Athena. They'd surrounded the town, and Xena used the tunnels to find a way under the enemy's lines. But the besiegers figured out Xena's plan, and they found their way into the tunnels, and set off barrels of Greek fire. Part of the tunnel network collapsed and Xena and her men barely escaped with their lives.”
“What about this...Bard? Was she killed?”
“No. She was leadin' a diversionary attack on the surface.”
“Leading an attack? I thought you said she was a scribe, a chronicler.”
“Well, yes she was, but under Xena's tutelage she became quite a capable warrior.”
The major, the captain, Dr. Ambley and Smith all gathered around the page. Smith pointed. “This drawing in the center. Is this a map of the tunnels?”
Melinda nodded. “It's copied directly from the scroll. It looks like Xena surveyed the tunnel network before the battle, and Gabrielle went with her and made this map. She included it in her story. Maybe she wanted to use it to explain how Xena's plan failed.”
Janice muttered, not without sarcasm, “Gabrielle seemed to be a real cheerleader for Xena and Xena's reputation.”
Smith mused, “Lots of tunnels. They must've been digging for years.”
Jan said, “It makes sense. With the town being attacked so often, they could have dug the tunnels as storage for food and water during a seige. Lots of ancient cities had cellars and subterranean passages just for that.”
“But Ah haven't told you the really interestin' part.” Melinda pointed. “See this one tunnel here? It doesn't end. In the text Gabrielle says, ‘the longest passes more than a league to the south and spills onto the sea'”.
“The sea?” Whittle was lost in thought for a moment. “A league is three miles, about -- nautical miles, certainly, but...”
Ambley slapped his palm on the table. “By Jove! There's a tunnel leading from the seacoast right under the town!”
“Now why would they do that?” Smith asked, to no one in particular.
“Maybe they planned it as an escape route,” Jan offered. “Or as a way to bring reinforcements into the town. Or maybe the tunnels weren't military at all, maybe they were a sewage system, and rather than spilling their waste into the river, which was their source of drinking water, they flushed it into the sea.”
“Whatever its original purpose, it's a way in,” Ambley said, grinning broadly at Mel.
Smith held up his hands. “Now, wait a minute. You said they set off some kind of explosion and the tunnels collapsed. Doesn't that make them useless?”
Melinda's face screwed up in thought. “Gabrielle doesn't say exactly what was damaged,” she said. “But the attack was from the north side of the town -- and Xena and her party did get out of the tunnels, so all of them can't have collapsed. The southernmost tunnels might still be intact.”
Whittle asked, “How reliable is all this? After all, an army led by a goddess? Women warriors? Really...it seems a work of fiction. How can we take these writings seriously?”
Jan looked him right in the eye. “A lot of folks take Herodotus and Homer seriously. They didn't mind chucking in a god or two to move a narrative along. As for women warriors -- did you ever hear of Hippolyta? Amazons?”
“But they're just myths...”
“Not any more.” Melinda's blue eyes twinkled mischievously.
The major pulled a silver case from his jacket and extracted a dark cigar. He offered the case around and Jan, with a wicked smile, said “don't mind if I do,” took a cigar, expertly bit off the end, and accepted a light from the stunned major's Zippo. After he'd lit up and contemplatively puffed for a while, he leaned over to look at the drawing. “It's a very long long shot...but it seems to be our best shot right now.” He looked at the two women. “Ladies, thank you. You may have been of inestimable service to your country.”
“Major -- thanks for the smoke, by the way, very nice -- major, are you going to tell us what this is about? Or do we just get sent packing?”
Smith said, “Need-to-know, major.”
Ambley disagreed. “I think these ladies should be kept in the loop, major. They might be able to tell us more if they knew what we were looking for.”
The major stayed silent through four good puffs. Then he said,“I'll tell you what. Let us look over this information. If we think you should be in this more deeply, I'll let you know in two days. Through Dr. Ambley here. If you don't hear anything by the end of the day on Thursday, you won't hear anything. Deal?”
Jan looked at him through clouds of blue smoke, as if deciding whether or not to argue. She took discretion as the better part and said “Deal.”
As they started to leave, the major said, “Oh, Dr. Pappas. Did I hear you say you translated these passages last night? Directly from the scroll?”
Melinda looked at him innocently. “Why, yes. But Ah'm not a doctor.”
“So you have the scrolls in your possession? The original artifacts?”
“Yes, Ah do. We do.”
“I'd think they were the property of the Greek government. Aren't they rather sensitive about removing antiquities from the country?”
Jan stepped in. “The current Greek government is a Nazi puppet, major. But we spent a few weeks in Athens before the Germans arrived, after leaving Macedonia . We visited a bunch of government ministries, and we finally convinced them that ancient treasures would be safer in our hands, professionals, than in Greece where the Nazis could get at them. We made a deal. We're officially appointed agents of the legitimate Greek government -- serving without pay, I might add -- as guardians of the Scrolls. We're responsible for their safety, and we can translate as we wish, and make up to one copy of each scroll for our own use or scholarly purposes. After the occupation's over, we have to return them to Athens . All very legal. There's a contract, with a fancy seal, in the trunk with the Scrolls. In three languages, too. Very impressive. Engraved.”
The major knew when he'd been out-maneuvered, and took his defeat graciously. “Good for you, then,” he said as he shook her hand, “and good for the Greeks.”
“Thanks, major. I look forward to hearing from you by Thursday.”
“We'll see. Goodbye, then.”
“Bye, major.” They bid goodbye to the others and left the Ministry by a side door. By now it was getting darker, and they walked briskly to their apartment building in the crisp spring evening air. Jan puffed on the stub of the cigar. “Ahh... Havanas . The major lives well. I'm glad he didn't press us about that contract.”
“Me, too, love. Can you imagine if he knew that was whipped up by you, me, and a third assistant minister of education and culture, and that we typed it up on a pre-engraved form that he had in his office? After everybody else had left Athens ahead of the Germans? Ah remember the cannon fire rattlin' the windows.”
“He was one brave bastard, Mel. Broke into his boss' office to get the seal.”
“Ah hope he's still alive and safe somewhere.”
Jan tossed the butt down a storm drain. “I'll bet you my paycheck he's probably holed up in the hills somewhere with a gun and some dynamite, waitin' for the next Nazi sonofabitch that crosses his path. It's people like that who save their countries when the chips are down, Mel. People who know what's right and don't give a damn about the risks, not fatcats and bureaucrats.”
“Ah still wonder if it was the right thing t'do.”
“Why not? For all we know that guy might actually have been the government. All the higher-ups had skedaddled. The Scrolls are safe, they're in the hands of people who appreciate their value, we're not gonna sell'em to a collector, and they'll get back home after the war. And they will get back home, Mel. I'm not gonna be another Lord Elgin.”
They climbed the stairs to their apartment and went inside. Jan put her arms around Mel's waist and gave her a long, lingering hug. “You did good, tall lady.”
Mel kissed Jan's hair. “You did good too, short stuff.”
Jan didn't let go. Instead she said, “Mel?”
“I apologize. I'm sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what, Jan?”
"For not telling you about... Alice . The...”
“The ‘relationship that went bad?' Baby, Ah'm not upset about that.”
“No, of course not. If Ah were to be jealous of every woman you ever loved and broke up with before Ah met you, Ah'd...”
“It wasn't like that, Mel.”
“How was it, then?”
Jan sighed deeply, on the edge of a sob. “We were together a couple of years. In grad school. Then, I thought she was the love of my life. Then she got sick. Polio.”
“Polio. The President had polio.”
“Yes. Yes...only, it didn't just cripple her.”
“Well, some people do recover. And that could really strain a rel...”
“She died, Mel.”
Silence. No words. just a deeper, more intense embrace, as Mel pulled her stricken lover into her very heart.
“It was really severe. She struggled for a year, trying to do normal things.” Jan spoke into the folds of Mel's blouse, a hoarse whisper. “She got worse and worse. We tried everything. I even took six months off from school and we went to Australia , to that clinic. We used money Harry left me. Didn't help. We came back, and she didn't have strength in her arms to use crutches...I had to feed her with a spoon. And all the time she kept pushing me to finish school, get my degree. She lived long enough to see me graduate, another year. Then she just...died. Died.”
Mel felt the tears on her cheeks, let them fall rather than let go of Janice. “Why didn't you tell me, instead of keeping it all inside? Did you think I'd be jealous?”
“Melinda, love, I didn't want you to think...that you were...second in my heart. That you were a substitute for a dead lover.”
“I could never think that. I don't think that now.”
“It hurt so much. I couldn't even go to the funeral -- her family wouldn't have me. I decided that loving was just too risky. I'd always been a tough bitch, kind of wild, you know. I got tougher, bitchier. Kept everybody at arm's length. I left, traveled around, ended up here -- did some postdoc work at the British Museum, then I heard about the dig in Macedonia, got a job with the director there and then took over when he left. They weren't looking for the Scrolls when they started, but I knew they had to be there. All the time I was growing harder, and harder. I drank a lot, and smoked a lot, and got into fights, and I never let anyone close. And then you came and fucked that all up.”
“Janice -- I'm sorry -- about that day. I did some dumb things. I'm sorry.”
“Why? It was the best bad day of my life. I got shot at, beat up, scared shitless by a dead god, tied to a post with an idiot and almost got my head bashed in. And I fell in love. And it was so easy. I knew it right away. It scared me so much I almost walked away from you.”
“I wouldn't have let you. I would have chased you around the world. You know that, don't you?”
“Yeah. Finally. It took me a while to believe that...that I could be loved. And it was harder to believe that I could love. Those eight months on Cyprus -- that tiny one-room concrete pillbox, the heat, the bugs, swimming in the river, sharing that narrow cot with you at night -- I was miserable and insanely happy, crazy with it. Wondering what the Brits would think and not giving a shit. I want you to know that no one -- no one has ever reached into me like you have, no one ever will. You pushed all my buttons, made me different, got past the bitch everybody sees. I'll never forget Alice . But I won't weep, I won't worry about it any more. You are the love of my life. I love you, and you have no idea what kind of a person you must be, to get me to say that. No idea.”
“Thank you.” Mel turned Janice's chin towards her, kissed her, a time-stopping, universe-twisting kiss that neither of them wanted to end. But they had to breathe, and Mel had something to say.
“Now you listen to me, Dr. Janice Covin'ton. Ah love you. You , not someone you think you should be to please me. Ah like you tough. Ah like you bitchy. An' you know why? It makes me feel safe. As much as Ah want the world to be fair and kind and decent, Ah'm a grownup and Ah know better. So don't you go tryin' to make yourself over for me. As long as you aren't bitchy with me, it's okay to be bitchy to the rest of the world. A lot o'folks deserve it. Those as don't -- well, if they're worth the powder to blow'em to hell, they'll take the time to get to know you, and when they do, they'll see what Ah see. Someone who cares. Really cares.”
Janice looked up into Mel's blue-blue eyes. “My God, you are so good for me.”
“And you for me. Now. How about some dinner?” Mel produced a handkerchief, wiped the tears from Janice's face.
Janice took the handkerchief and blew her nose. “Fish and chips and a pint of stout?”
“Fine. But Ah'll have tea, Ah think.”
“Yeesh. Can't take you anywhere.”
“Yes you can.”
“An early bedtime.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Ambley again stuck his head into Mel's tiny office. “Must go to a meeting, so I'll do this in a flash. Be here tonight, six sharp, with Janice. In the conference room.”
“Is this what Ah think it is, John?”
“National security forbids that I answer. See you there.”
“Don't call Janice on the phone. Go get her.”
“That's it, then. I'm off.”
Now, what are we gonna find out that we don't want to know?
The pepper of pistol fire stopped along the line. Five empty clips ejected, five full clips were snapped home. The sergeant acting as range master prepared to bawl the order to open fire, but was interrupted by the roar of a jeep engine and the rattle of gravel on underchassis. A cloud of dust washed over the sergeant and the five men on the firing line as the jeep jerked to a halt. The driver jumped out, saluted the sergeant, and handed him a manila envelope. The sergeant called to one of the men on the line.
“Captain! For you, sir!”
The wiry captain stood, holstered his pistol, ordered the other men to a break, and took the envelope from the sergeant. As he read the contents the passenger in the jeep approached him. There was no salute.
The Captain looked over the new arrival. Short, was the first thing he noticed. Baggy O.D. fatigues, dark wraparound glasses, fatigue cap. Duffel over one shoulder. Soft, boyish features. Moved with a certain confidence, though, unintimidated by the combative surroundings or the twin bars on the captain's collar. And the newcomer didn't say a word, just waited. Well.
“So -- you're the expert.”
“I'm the expert.”
The newcomer took off the sunglasses and cap, revealing sea-green eyes and auburn-gold hair tied up in a loose ponytail under the cap. The Captain's jaw dropped.
“Jayzus! You're a...a...”
“Woman? Like, half the human race? Guilty. Got a problem with that?” She pulled a short cigar and a lighter from a pocket, lit up, rolled the smoke from one side of her mouth to the other.
“Says here you're supposed to act as our guide on this mission. Do you have any idea what this mission is?”
“I was briefed.” No “sir”, “captain”. Sure. What do you expect from a civilian ? A female civilian ?
“You know this could get nasty. We're going into territory that's crawling with hostiles. Are we gonna have to baby-sit you through the whole thing? You have no idea what it's like to be shot at.”
“I can take care of myself. Colonel Haworth thinks so, anyway.”
From behind a desk, he does...well...
“Listen,” the captain said, “I don't give a damn what the colonel says. I'm not gonna take some b...female..who doesn't know one end of a weapon from the other on a black...”
“Gimme that.” She gestured at the captain's .45 automatic.
“Gimme your pistol. You'll get it back. Or do I tell Colonel Haworth, and General Trimble , that you refused to obey their orders?”
Reluctantly the captain held the pistol out to her, butt first. She checked the loads, stepped up to the firing line, looked at the sergeant. “With your permission?”
The range master looked dubiously at the captain, who nodded. “Sure, ahh...ma'am. Just be caref...”
Before he could finish the woman fired eight rounds into the circular target down the range. When the slide locked back, the sergeant bellowed, and the range monitor, a private hiding behind a concrete wall, ran out to check the target. His hand signals were translated by the range master. “Eight in the black, sir,” he said, addressing the captain.
The captain raised his eyebrows. “Okay, so you can shoot. doesn't make you a soldier.”
“Look...captain, I'm not a soldier. If you want, you and I can meet on the parade ground later and I can show you what I can do in a fight. But fighting is your job. Fighting and blowing shit up. My job is to get you there and get you back. That's what I know and that's what I can do.”
“You know about this place?”
“I'll brief you on all of that.”
The captain was still doubtful. “What're your qualifications? You in G2?”
“I was recruited by OSS . I'm an archaeologist, actually.”
“I see. I'll tell you up front, uh...” he consulted the papers in his hand. ...uh, Miss.. Covington , I'm not happy about a woman being on my team.”
“Hey, I want to get this over and done with. I'll shave my head and wear armor if that's what it takes to get me out of this mess. It's what the brass wants, so go with it, OK?”
“I don't like it and I probably never will. But...you're the specialist and orders are orders. Welcome to the team, Miss Covington.”
The captain snorted. “Doesn't cut much ice out here.”
The blonde field-stripped the cigar butt, scattering the unburned tobacco and wadding the wrapper up in her pocket. “It better. It's why I'm here.”
Janice curled up in the shade of an olive tree and opened the small blank book. Outside the circle of shade the sun slammed every moving thing flat into the hard-baked ground. The air was still and silent; distant objects were lost in an amber haze of fine dust wafted aloft by the heat-deviled air. She sipped from her canteen and began to write.
God I miss you. It was the best moment of my life when I saw you back on your feet. I swear if you hadn't been they would have had to knock me out and tie me up to get me on that plane. Whittle said you've mostly recovered from the pneumonia, and if I hadn't seen you when you had the worst of it I wouldn't have believed him. You were so weak. I can write this here because by the time you see it all this'll be way behind us -- I've never been so scared in my life. God, Mel, don't ever do that again -- take care of yourself. I told you you were working too hard. It was like you were doing three jobs -- your regular one, and translating the scroll, and working with Smith on this Amphipolis project (oops, I don't think I'm supposed to write that down -- oh screw it). I guess the miserable weather didn't help. I feel so stupid. I should have noticed you might be getting sick. I'm so sorry, but I was glad to see you get better. Glad -- ecstatic.
I can't write to you, of course, since I'm not even sure exactly where I am, and there's an absolute blackout of communications over this whole place. There's no mail pickup, and everything has to be passed through a radio operator with the disposition of a rabid schnauzer, who seems to live permanently in a radio shack guarded by two MP's the size of trucks.
So I'm doing like I promised and keeping a diary for you to read when I get back. I'm not very good at this -- writing, that is. I mean, I've written papers for journals and a couple of monographs, but that's really easy -- no one expects you to write clearly when it's scientific. And I've never had to write letters -- no one to write to. Until now. Funny. When we're separated for the first time, and I could write blazing, passionate love letters -- I can't write letters at all. So I'll write you a letter every day in this diary. I love you. I love you. Did I ever tell you how I feel when I look into those blue eyes of yours? Damn, they are so blue! Things happen to me. Like -- I get a buzzing in my ears. Everything else gets foggy. My guts turn over in the weirdest way -- I like it. So there. Being in love is so much fun.
I miss you. I said that already.
Actually, I know where I am sort of -- I'm back on Cyprus . How's that for irony? Other than that I have no idea. The plane landed in the dark and I was bundled into the back seat of a car and we drove off. It's hilly, and barren, and hot, hot, hot. Our little concrete house could be on the other side of the island, or right over the next hill -- I'd never know. I'm living in a tiny tent, on the edge of a dry parade ground, surrounded by about a hundred other people in tents, all soldiers of one kind or another. Very tough SOB's. All of them have some kind of special training, all very professional and gritty. There's a bigger tent for a mess hall (the food here is as piss-poor as it can get and still be called food), and a smaller tent for a shower -- they rigged up a canvas wall so I could shower in privacy -- not that I give a shit. I've seen it all before and I'm sure they have too. But -- they're guys, what do you expect? Wimps. Not that I get to shower much -- the colonel says once a week, tops. Not enough water. It rains here once every thousand years or so, I guess. Anyway, the whole place is surrounded by barbed wire and no one leaves the compound for any reason. They've even got a hospital tent.
From what I gather no one knows this place even exists. Shit, I hope they don't forget we're here when the war ends.
I met the team I'm supposed to work with a few days ago -- the morning after I arrived, actually. They don't like me very much, but that's ok -- I'm not here to be Miss Popularity. I had to prove to them that I knew what a pistol was for -- that wasn't hard. And I insisted on being in on combat training -- if I end up going I want to be in the best shape I can be. They don't like to rassle a woman. I finally got Sgt. Whizz to actually grab me in hand-to-hand. (His name is Wzejieswzki, or something like that -- from Detroit , thinks women are made of glass. I had to knock him on his ass a few times before he got mad enough to fight me.)
I should've kept my big mouth shut. If I hadn't told the major that I'd actually been to the Amphipolis ruins, I'd be safe and warm back in London with you. ‘Why didn't I mention it'-- yeah, sure. I did half my dissertation on the archaeology of the place. What'd he think, I'd write three hundred pages about a place I'd never actually seen?
So here I am. I've already briefed the team about the layout and the tunnels, so they know where they're going, but not why. There's another specialist due any day now and everybody'll have the full story, then we decide when to go.
They're still acting like they won't take me along. They're still hoping to find a Greek refugee -- male -- who knows the place well enough, and who speaks English well enough to communicate with four Yanks and two Brits without the hassle of an interpreter. Ya know, I wish they could. Crawling through two-thousand-year-old tunnels under a ruined city occupied by Nazis isn't my idea of a vacation. (Hell, Mel, the Bahamas without you isn't my idea of a vacation.) But I have to say I don't think they'll find anybody who can do all that and also be able to shoot straight if it comes down to it.
I wish I could see you, hold you. You wouldn't recognize me if you saw me. The day I got here I hacked off most of my hair -- it was too damn hot on my neck. And they took away my hat and jacket at Sheffield and put me in fatigues -- I'm supposed to blend in, I guess. They said they'd forward them to the flat -- you should have them any day now (there's a note in the package but make sure you're alone when you open it). I spend most of the time in fatigue pants, infantry boots and a t-shirt. I look like crap and I feel worse. I want to do this job and come home, baby. I miss you so much.
Gotta go. I love you more than you can ever imagine,
“Hemo -- what?” Captain Cromarty looked slightly irritated, which was his normal appearance when confronted by something he didn't understand.
“Hemorrhagic fever.” The British nurse repeated. She was of medium height and very slim build, very red short hair and black eyes. Her name was Margaret Hammermill, she was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Surgeon's Corps, she worked for Dr. Whittle, and was the second specialist assigned to this operation team. That makes us seven, Jan thought. Lucky number. And I'll just bet I know how much they love having another woman around here, don't they?
The captain spoke for everyone else. “What is it?”
“It's a rare tropical disease, or maybe a set of diseases. We don't really know. It's endemic to Africa, the West Indies, India , Indonesia -- tropical areas. It's been recognized since the mid-nineteenth century.”
“And you say that's what they're doing in Amphipolis?” Janice asked.
“We don't know. At least, we're not certain.”
“Why do you think that's it?”
“Here's the evidence. About a year ago a family showed up at a hospital in Thessalonika in the middle of the night. They'd driven from a small hamlet in eastern Macedonia , about three miles from Amphipolis. Their eldest son was very ill. He was bleeding from his nose, mouth , ears and eyes. There were ecchymoses -- bloody patches -- on his skin, and he was in terrible pain, with a very high fever. He was incoherent, so no one could find out what exactly had happened to him. His younger brother was with him -- they were apparently chasing stray sheep -- and they had been up in old Amphipolis, where the older boy climbed a fence. The brother didn't see what happened on the other side of the fence. He said that after a few minutes his brother started screaming and jumped over the fence again, and they ran to escape what he calls demons.”
“Demons.” Sgt. Whizz wasn't convinced.
Jan said, “The ruins have a reputation among the locals of being haunted. They were probably being chased by guards.”
The nurse nodded her agreement. “They were in the ruins at night, so that makes sense,” she said.
“And this looks like this...fever?”
Hammermill nodded again. “The boy's symptoms are consistent with what I saw in Africa , with two exceptions. First, the fever usually takes several days to show symptoms, and several more days -- up to two weeks, to become that severe,” she said. “Second, it's the wrong climate.”
Cromarty said,” You mean, it's not tropical.”
“That's right. It's a Mediterranean climate zone. This disease seems to be spread by a species of mosquito not found in cooler climates. So I wondered, when I first saw the report, whether the source who wrote it got it right.”
“Who was this source?”
“A Greek doctor working in the hospital there. He had served in the Greek army in the last war, and was at the Gallipoli landings. He'd made friends in the British army and offered his services, knowing the Germans were coming. MI5 set up a drop for him to pass information to them.”
Jan wanted to move on. “So what happened to the boy?”
Everyone was silently subdued.
“So all we have is this one report?”
“Directly, yes. The symptoms are textbook -- except for the time frame. And what came after is suggestive. The SS closed the hospital, arrested the staff -- sent to concentration camps -- and burned the hospital to the ground. They also burned the boy's village. We haven't heard from the doctor since.”
Henderleigh, the English private who handled the BAR, said “Wait a minute. What happened to the patients?””
“They were left in the building.”
“And Jerry just burned them up?”
“Jesus. Bastards. Bloody bastards.”
Sgt. Miley, the demolitions expert, spoke for the first time. “Couldn't this be some kind of chemical poisoning? There's a lot of chemical agents that could cause this kind of illness.”
Hammermill looked uncertain. “Yes...that's been considered. It could be chemical toxicity.”
“Then why do you think it's this fever stuff?”
“We don't know that it is. It could be, though. The symptoms match. Maybe a new, more virulent strain, one that's been bred by genetic selection. We want to be prepared for the worst case. Look, sergeant, if the Germans are working on chemical weapons there -- nothing new. They did it in the last war and nobody'd be surprised if they were doing it now. We have research underway to defend against that kind of attack. But germ warfare -- that's new, and very scary. If the Nazis are developing germ weapons, they have to be stopped.”
“How do we know what we're looking for?”
“Biological weapons is my job. If it's chemical, that's your job, Sgt. Miley.”
There was general laughter. Miley had been in the middle of his chemistry master's exams in Chicago on December 7, 1941. He had finished his exams, turned them in, and walked across campus to the nearest recruiting office.
“All right,” the captain said as Lt. Hammermill sat down. I think the mission's pretty clear. We go using the route Covington here gave us, find the facility, whatever it is, identify it, and destroy it. We know there's hostiles in occupation, and there may be more near by. Covington will navigate through the target area. Yeah, Covington , you're going.”
“Couldn't find another sucker, eh?”
“Nah, there were plenty of volunteers, we just figured it'd serve you right for being such a wiseass.”
“Now, Covington , tell us about this seaward entranceway again. The lieutenant here hasn't heard it.”
“Well, the southward tunnel from the town -- the ruins -- comes out in a cave about a hundred feet over the water in the face of a cliff. It so happens that, during the Roman Empire , a stone lighthouse was built on the cliff. According to our maps, it sits right over the cave. Pure coincidence. It was ruined, only a stump remains, but you can see it by the light of the full moon -- at least you can from inland; I never saw it from the seaward side. That's why we have to land there on a full moon, if we go in at night.”
“We're going in at night. First full moon is ten days from now. I want everything ready at D minus two. Oh, Covington -- you know anything about explosives?”
“Well, yeah...I know what a stick of dynamite looks like, anyway. We don't use explosives much in archaeology, though. Paintbrushes and toothpicks is more like it.”
“That's good enough. I want you to work with Miley. Mike, I want you to train the doc here in basic wiring, placement, classes of agent. I want somebody else who can wire it up just in case you blow your ass off playin' with firecrackers.”
“Yes, sir.” Miley turned to Jan. “Don't worry. You'll get to keep the most important finger.” He flipped her the universal symbol.
Jan casually flipped him off in return. “Gosh. How original.”
“Stop being assholes, kiddies. Now, I'm gonna want two fire teams...”
“Dr. Covington? Are you in there?”
A woman's voice -- could only be that Brit. Aw, c'mon, Janice, give her a break. She doesn't wanna be here any more than you do. Just wish she wasn't so prissy. Who wears a skirt out here?
“Yeah, I'm here. C'mon in.” Janice fished a cigar out of the pack on the camp table as Hammermill came in. The lieutenant had changed clothes, exchanged the dress-white uniform she had held the briefing in for khaki shorts and shirt. Janice gave her a second, appraising look. Not bad, not bad at all. Kinda cute, actually. Then she mentally slapped herself. Get off it, Covington , you're spoken for, all the way down to your socks.
She held the cigar packet out to the other woman. “Smoke?”
“Thanks, but I have my own. She fished a packet of Players from her front pocket, lit up as well.
Janice pointed to a stool next to the cot. “Take a load off.”
“Thank you, but I can't stay. I really came to deliver something.”
“Deliver? To me? What...”
“I was in London and I met your charming friend Melinda while I was being briefed for this mission. She gave me this...” She held out a small envelope. Janice took it gingerly, delicately, as if it were made of air, as if it weren't real. The envelope was blank except for her first name, written in the familiar, elegant handwriting.
“I don't know what to say...thank you, lieutenant.”
“Call me Madge. It wasn't anything, really. No one knew I had it except your friend. I'm happy to help out.”
“God...ah...Madge, this is...wonderful. Oh, I'm Jan. I'd offer you a drink if I had anything to offer.”
“Well, it just so happens...” The nurse reached into the pocket of her shorts and produced a silver flask. “May I offer you one, instead?”
“I don't have any glasses...wait a minute...” She rummaged in her bag, came up with a plastic cup she used for tooth brushing. “Sure.”
Madge poured three fingers of amber liquid into Jan's cup, and sipped from the flask. Jan sniffed, sipped, and found it a most pleasant change from the camp water supply. “This is excellent scotch.”
“Single-malt. From a friend of a friend in the Highlanders.”
“Very generous of you.”
“Jan. You and I are the only women for what must be miles. Surrounded by a hundred men. I think we best get to know each other, if only to get some intelligent conversation, would you say?”
Jan raised her glass. “I would.”
My Dearest Janice,
When I knew Lt. Madge was going to be with you (wherever you are) I just had to see if I could sneak a letter through to you. She was a dear and agreed to take it, so here it is.
I love you, I miss you, if you were here I'd devour you, I ache to hold you again. The bed is so empty. The flat is cold and too silent. Come back. Thinking of you is what keeps me warm at night, but it's nothing like having you here. I need you.
There. I've got all that out of my system, so from now on nothing but good things. I know you have a job to do that needs doing. I know that you may be going into trouble soon, and I don't want you distracted by thinking about my troubles. Of which I have none, so you can just stop worrying, all right?
Actually, things here are not bad. Some good news about the war (is that a contradiction in terms?). It seems the US has won a couple of big battles in the Pacific, against Japan -- one at a place called Midway Island , and the other near Australia . This happened in June, so it's old news to us, but you may not have had a chance to hear about it. We lost a couple of big ships (aircraft carriers? I think), but they say we sank half the Japanese Navy. I hope this means we beat Japan soon, then we can finish Hitler and Mussolini and this awful mess will be over.
I'm still on sick leave, so I have a lot of free time. The doctors said I should get some exercise, now that I'm over the pneumonia (and I am over it, I truly am). So I've been walking around London , seeing the sights. Much of it is still rubble, but there are sights to see. Not too much each day, just a little. I was at Westminster Abbey, yesterday, for example. Did you know that Charles Dickens is buried there? I always liked his books.
I've gotten to know our friend Mr. Smith quite well. We worked so closely on the planning stage of the business you're involved in now, and he turns out to be quite friendly, despite our rather abrasive first meeting. I know some things about him that most people don't. I wonder...oh, I'll tell you, but burn this letter after you read it!
His name isn't Smith -- well, almost, It's Schmidt. Enrico Schmidt. He was raised in New York City , the son of a Puerto Rican mother and an Austrian father, who was a POW during the last war, and decided to stay in the States instead of going back to a country that almost didn't exist anymore. He speaks almost as many languages as I do -- German, Czech, Magyar, English, Spanish, are the ones I know. He went to Princeton, and was recruited by the COI there when the war started to look like the US might get into it. (Oh, it stands for Coordinator of Information, by the way, and isn't called that any more -- it's the OSS now.) I call him Rick. He's been a good friend, mostly buying me dinner and letting me ramble on about a certain blonde archaeologist of my acquaintance!
And no, before you get that bullwhip out, he hasn't done anything improper. Not the slightest bit. Not even a flirting glance. Am I that “taken” that anybody can see I'm off the market? I surely hope so.
And here I am writing about someone else when I should be thinking about you, about us.
Believe me, dear one, I am, I am. There's not a minute when you're not in my mind. When we're together again I'm going to kiss you, every part of you, all the smooth sweetness of you. I'm going to do everything I can to give you pleasure, because that's what you do to me. You excite me in every way, Janice. My heart, my soul, my body vibrates when you're close to me. So I'll love you until we both can't breathe; then I'll hold you, lie in your arms, soak up all the warmth you give me. I love you -- it doesn't seem to say enough, does it? I want to invent a new word, a whole new language, that says what you are to me.
I guess I didn't get it all out of my system, did I?
I hate to end this letter. Somehow, I feel that as long as I keep writing, I'm holding on to you, I can feel your breath on me as we hold each other. But I have to end it sometime. This is just a moment, Janice, just a short interlude. You'll come home to me soon. I know you will.
Take all my love with you, wherever you go, wherever you are. I love you, my darling. I love you.
All yours forever,
Jan read the letter over and over, memorizing every word, then, as Mel had requested, she burned it. She went over to the quonset hut that served as the post's gym to see if she could find someone to spar with, rough stuff, no rules.
She had a lot of energy she had to work off.
This is the last entry I'm going to make in this diary before we go. We go tonight -- there's a truck waiting in the compound that'll take us to a submarine waiting in one of the small harbors around the island. Then it's through the tunnels, and then -- ??
You letter was --I don't have words. You know I have a hard time saying how I feel. I use action more than words. I want you to know I love you. I've said that a dozen times here, and I say it to you every day. But do you know what I mean? I mean that you are my reason for living. Before we met, I was just existing, dragging myself through each day with only a hopeless obsession to guide me. Now, I have you, and that means everything. It makes my life mean something. Everything. You are everything to me.
I'm putting this diary in a package, along with a few small personal things, and addressing it to you at the flat in London . If something happens to me, I've left instructions with people here to see that it gets to you. I don't expect anything to happen, but just in case -- you know, if I fall in a hole or something -- you'll have it.
Always, always remember that I love you.
Kisses, hugs, and everything else,
To Walk in Dark Places
The phone on Melinda's desk rang, and she absently reached for it while transcribing a translated passage. She answered while still keeping her eyes on the page.
“Hello?...Oh, Rick...yes, Ah'm fine...just a little cough this morning, but ah'm feelin' stronger all the time...no, Ah haven't been out today, too wet...Ah'm just sittin' at my desk, translatin'...dinner? Surely...where do you want me to meet you?...Oh, you don't have to do that...Rick, Ah'm perfectly capable of walkin' six blocks...no...no...oh, all right. Seven, then. You are far too attentive...what am Ah gonna do with you?...all right...all right...Ah'll see you then...'bye...yes...'bye.”
Melinda hung up the phone, sighed, and smiled faintly. Rick was good for her, in a way -- if it hadn't been for his persistent, solicitous attentions, she would have languished in the flat, never having any real reason to go out. Dr. Ambley had told her she wasn't to come back to work until her doctor was assured she was strong enough to resume her former duties, and so far the doctor hadn't given her a fully clean bill of health despite her vigorous protests. She had to admit she did get tired too easily, more that she had before she got ill. But she was getting impatient, and irritable. Irritable. She knew exactly where that came from -- no Janice. She understood why Janice had gone to Greece . The archaeologist's combination of knowledge, experience and skills was invaluable, almost unique, and without her the mission the major and his staff had outlined couldn't succeed. And she accepted that her own illness had prevented her from accompanying her loved one.
But understanding, accepting, and being happy with the situation were all different things.
Melinda was decidedly not happy with the situation.
To keep busy Melinda had been translating. There was enough material in the hoard of scrolls they had brought with them to keep her busy for years. She had started with what appeared to be the earliest-written documents, but it wasn't easy to determine the relative age of many of them. There was a remarkable consistency of narrative style, and the calligraphy, while showing some signs of practice and development, was clearly that of an established, adult hand. She had made a preliminary catalogue of all the titles -- the author had titled all the stories -- and was translating the most provocatively titled ones. They were all in remarkably good condition, attributable, now, to the cool, dry environment of the tomb. They'd been afraid, because of the pristine and flexible condition of the parchment, that they might have been the product of a hoax. But Janet had called in some favors from former colleagues at the British Museum , who applied some remarkable techniques in analysis of the substance of the scrolls. These newly-developed methods had revealed that the parchment was about the right age -- some two thousand years, give or take, right around the time of Roman Empire . Other tests on the ink and rollers confirmed that dating. They were the real thing.
Treasure. A window on a completely new aspect of life in the ancient world. Many ideas that challenged the conventional picture of ancient societies -- the nature of warfare, the role of women, the personalities of important figures. The line between myth and history was blurred in these documents -- but Melinda understood just how thin that line truly was. It would be hard to convince the scholarly community of the validity of these stories, but few scholars had had personal encounters with the God of War.
Then there was the mysterious author -- or authoress. Xena clearly had a companion, an intimate friend with whom she'd traveled the world. There were frequent references in the third person to “the Bard” as the teller of a particular tale, and Xena was frequently quoted as referring to “my bard” when clearly speaking about her companion, Gabrielle. Given this evidence, Melinda hadn't hesitated to refer to the author as Gabrielle, but that wasn't really certain...there might have been a third party, a voice who acted purely as chronicler, free of self-reference. The scholarly obligatory alternative hypothesis.
Melinda knew, of course; Xena had told her. But how can you cite the soul of a two-thousand years dead warrior woman as a scholarly source?
The late afternoon rain sent drops slithering down the windowpanes, and Melinda, deep in a brown study, saw the cascading lines of descent, from the heroic warrior, through her daughter Eve (now there was a mysterious conception!) through a hundred generations of unknown ancestors down to herself, the lineal descendant of the Warrior Princess. And, in parallel, the generations springing from Gabrielle, strangely and coincidentally coming to rest in this time in the person of Janice -- her friend, her lover, her companion -- her life.
Destiny. Fate. Ordained by the structure of the universe. She'd never convince Janice of that, of course. Janice was practical, hard-headed, even a bit cynical. Not that Janice didn't have ideals, of course; her lifelong pursuit of the scrolls proved that. But...even now, Janice had a hard time believing it was Ares, the Ares of myth, that they had fought -- or that the spirit of Xena had emerged in Melinda just when they needed her.
Perhaps Janice's doubts stemmed from the fact that Xena had only appeared the one time. And, more, that Gabrielle's spirit had never manifested itself to Janice. That bothered Melinda; she was sure of Janice's descent from Gabrielle, Xena had told her. Perhaps it was as Xena said, that Gabrielle's entire view of life was helping others, and Janice was superbly capable of helping herself and those around her.
Mel came out of her reverie with a shake of her head. You're daydreamin', girl, she thought, concentrate on what you're doin' . She had been translating a scroll called “Amphipolis Bewitched”, which seemed to follow some time after the story of the siege. She had finished translating that story before Jan had left; it had provided detailed information about the tunnels. Major Knox was willing to accept the story as mostly true, although he explained away the presence of Athena and Ares simply as storyteller's sensationalism. Melinda and Jan knew better, but weren't inclined to argue the point. Melinda's own experience made her willing to believe the reality of the supernatural beings and events in Gabrielle's tales.
This story was -- macabre. If they had celebrated Halloween in those days, this would have been the perfect tale. Witches, demons, curses...Eve casting out evil. And...
As Melinda read into the scroll she became increasingly alarmed. This was bad. Was it real? Was Gabrielle just inventing things, trying to scare her audience? Melinda knew that Gabrielle's accounts were based more on the reality of the preternatural than most people would credit, but this...this...
...was either rampant fiction, or...
Janice. Oh, God, Janice.
Melinda picked up the phone, dialed.
“Rick? This is Melinda. Can you come over here right away? Ah know, but Ah've found somethin'...important...Scary...About Janice...Yes. Oh...and come prepared to...well, you might have a hard time believing it. You'll have to trust me. Please...right away.”
The Thracian coast
She never had much fingernail to begin with, and after this she'd probably have lost all the flesh from her fingers, as well.
Janice had her fingers wrapped over a one-inch ledge just above her head, and when she'd put her legs down her boots met empty air. She kicked out and down, trying to get a purchase on the rock face below her. Her boot toe chunked against something solid; she put pressure on the boot, felt it hold, swung the other foot into place next to it. Pressing with her knees, her eyes rose above the level of the ledge. There was more room than she thought; the ledge was six inches wide. She scrambled onto the ledge, wedged her boots solidly, and reached for the next handhold. She knew that if she fell she'd be caught on the rope that Lt. Fisher had belayed to the rocks at the cave mouth above her; it didn't make her feel any safer. She could see the water, sixty feet below her, if she looked down. She could also see the rest of the team, strung out below her on the belay. She didn't look down too often.
Forty feet to go. It didn't look as bad as the last sixty, because the cliff face sloped away from the sea, rather than being sheerly vertical as it had in the lower portion. She waited until Madge Hammermill caught up; there was just enough room on the ledge for the two of them.
“How ya doin', Madge?”
“I'm right. It's not like the Cottswolds, I'll tell you. Have you done this before, Jan?”
“What, rock climbing? Only once -- a field trip out West when I was in college. We climbed up to some caves that'd been used by a tribe of Indians. Lots of pottery, but getting there was up a cliff like this one. We had a guide who taught us where to put our feet. Didn't you train for this?”
“Only what we did at the base. There was a balls-up about what we needed to qualify for, I gather. No one said anything about crawling up cliffs until I got here.”
“You all right?”
“Not very good with heights, I'm afraid.”
“Why didn't you say something before we started?”
“What, and have the boys give me grief? Too late to do anything about it anyway. Got to do what needs to be done.”
Jan felt a tug on the safety line. Fisher and the two Rangers, already at the top, were getting impatient.
“All right, you just go on ahead of me. I'll be right behind. You made it this far, and you've got the safety line to keep you from falling. It looks like once we're past this ledge above us, it slopes in --easier to climb.”
The lieutenant smiled. “Thanks, Jan.”
Another tug on the line. “All right, all right, don't get your shorts in a wad,” Jan muttered.
Madge stretched a hand to the next outcrop, While Jan set her hands against the curve of her behind, giving her a boost up. Once the lieutenant was set on the ledge, she lay prone to give Jan a hand up. Scrabbling and scratching, Jan pulled over the break of the ledge and squatted on the surface. Madge began to stand up when her left boot came down on a pebble that rolled under foot. She lost her balance. She twisted out over the edge, arms flailing for the safety line. If she fell, Jan saw, she'd catch on the safety line, but she'd swing under the ledge, and smash into the rock face, hard enough to do some painful bruising at least. Without thinking, Jan grabbed the safety line, straightened up, and pulled, at the same time seizing the lieutenant's upper arm. They both counterbalanced against the cliff wall, Jan thumping into the wall with her back to it, Madge on top of her. For a moment the wind was knocked out of both women, and, while she regained her breath, Jan saw Madge's eyes, intently focused on her own. Very dark, very deep in the moonlight. She was conscious of arms around her waist, that lingered for a moment longer that was necessary. Madge smiled and her lips parted.
“Thank you”, she said, and Jan replied “no problem.”
Madge disengaged herself from Jan, and they both turned to the final leg of the climb. In was more of a steep slope than a face now, and they were able to negotiate the rocky breccia with far less danger. The most difficult aspect was the loose nature of the surface, which had a tendency to slip out from under one's feet. They were both busy enough that the rest of the climb was made in silence.
A silence in which Jan reflected. The momentary contact on the ledge wasn't the first time in the last few days that she had felt something from Madge, something more than professionalism or the beginnings of friendship. They had shared quarters on the sub, a pair of narrow bunks one over the other, in the tiniest space afforded by the cramped vessel. Jan had found Madge looking at her, not exactly staring, but appraising. And she had felt her thigh pressed by the Englishwoman's under the mess table at meals. Damn, that woman is flirting with me, Jan surmised, and now that she'd actually said the word in her mind she knew it was true. Have I been sending her signals, without even knowing it ? Jan knew that she was capable of it -- in the days before she met Mel she had enjoyed quite a string of liaisons with a variety of casual lovers, and had never had any problem making her intentions clear.
This was different, though. She'd two-timed girlfriends before. It'd never bothered her much. But to do that to Mel...she could no more imagine cheating on Mel than she could imagine spontaneously bursting into flame. I need to set this woman down and have a serious chat, and that soon. But that would have to wait until this harebrained expedition was done.
Another thought crossed her mind: this what loyalty feels like. This is what being married feels like. The thought warmed her, and it made her wonder for the thousandth time what in the hell she was doing out here, climbing rocks to a place where people were going to shoot at her, when she could...should be home, with Melinda, sharing the unique and precious gift that was all she really had in all the world. And all she really wanted.
I almost wish I smoked , Mel thought, as she waited for Rick to show up. She finally understood what her lover got out of it, the ritual of the cigars; they gave her something to do when there was nothing to do but fidget. Mel paced the flat, to the bay window overlooking the street, hoping to see Rick's car, and back to the small study where she reread, again and again, the alarming passages. This is insane. This can't be real. But...Ares was real. Xena was real. How can I afford to dismiss this? Janice...Janice...
The bell rang. Melinda pushed the speaker button. “Yes?”
“Melinda, it's Rick.”
“Come on up.”
Rick's concern showed on his face. “Are you all right?”
Mel nodded. “Yes, Ah'm fine...scared.”
“What's wrong, Melinda?”
“Rick, Janice is in danger. The whole team's in...terrible danger.”
“How do you know?”
“Rick, Ah have to warn her...them. Ah called you because you might know how to contact them.”
Rick looked puzzled. Reluctantly he shook his head. “Melinda...if everything went according to plan -- they left yesterday. They're at sea, under radio silence. We can't reach them.”
“Rick, the mission has to be stopped. It's hopeless, and they'll all be killed...or worse.”
“Melinda, how do you know this? Did you have a bad dream?”
Melinda's voice edged into stridency as her face betrayed growing anger. “No! No, Ah didn't dream this!...Ah just know it. We have to stop them.”
“We can't. Or, at least, as far as I know. Explain this to me. What's going on?”
“Ah can't tell you. You wouldn't believe me.”
“You'd be surprised at what I'd believe.”
“Not this...this is hopeless...Ah have no idea how to explain...”
Rick took Melinda by the shoulders, shook her gently. “Melinda, I want to help, but I can't unless...”
The fear in Mel's eyes was painful to see. “The scrolls...it's in the scrolls.”
The cave was cramped, and wet, and separated from the tunnel by a wall of crude bricks. This wasn't too surprising -- Janice knew the Romans had a habit of sealing off posterns and passages to secure the places they occupied, and though there was no record of a legion being posted at Amphipolis, the presence of Roman masonry wasn't unexpected. They had come prepared; Sgt. Whizz had been a stone mason and bricklayer in civilian life. This skill had, in fact, been the reason he was included on this team.
They took turns, under Whizz's direction, chipping and loosening bricks one at a time, as quietly as possible, so as not to alert any enemies on the other side of the wall. It would take several hours to open a space large enough for a person to pass through, so it was “hurry up and wait” for most of the team.
Janice and Madge had volunteered for the first shift, and, when they were relieved, they found a corner of the cavern modestly sheltered from the stiff sea breeze, sat down in the lee of a rock, and had a smoke. During training and the voyage up here they'd forged a friendship. Janice was closer to Madge than to the men on the team. She got along with them -- she'd done that by proving she could fight, smoke, swear, and shoot as well as any of them -- but she felt comfortable with Madge.
Or had, until her recent revelation on the cliff. Now -- she was nervous.
Not so much about Madge and what she might do. But about how she herself might respond. There was that dark, lusty, everybody-be-damned side of her, a side that had mellowed in Melinda's company, but had never disappeared. Janice wasn't sure how far she could trust herself, and was always amazed that Melinda trusted her as much as she did.
She always amazed herself when she proved worthy of that trust.
They smoked in silence for a while, and then Madge asked, “Are you planning to return to London when this is over?”
“That's the plan. I'm not in the military. They can't make me stay.”
“I'll be back there too. I'm to work at the Naval Hospital .”
Out of curiosity, Jan asked “Is London your home?”
Madge lit a second cigarette from the first, nodded. “It is now. I was born in New Zealand . My da was an engineer; he came to manage a factory in Leeds when I was eleven. Then he got a promotion and we moved to London . I was sixteen. I went to nursing college there, then joined the Wrens when the war broke out.”
“So now I know all about you.”
“And I know that you're an archaeologist, and you've been around the world, and that your ma and da are dead. Y'know, Jan, we've been talking for weeks and that's about all I know of you.”
“I'm not much of a talker. I don't like...I'm just not comfortable talking about myself.”
“Maybe we could take the time under better circumstances.”
Jan gestured around her. “What could be better than this?”
Madge laughed. “Jan, honestly -- I'd like to see you again. After this is over. Back in London . maybe...dinner?”
Jan was silent, minutely studying the floor of the cave. When the silence stretched out, Madge became embarrassed. “I'm sorry, I'm usually not so forward.”
Janice looked up. “No, that's all right. I'm flattered. Madge...I can't.” This is easy, Jan thought. So much easier that I thought it would be.
Madge was crestfallen. “Oh...I see.”
“Madge, it's not you. If I could, I'd take you up on it in a minute. But...there's someone else.”
Madge's mouth made a small, silent “oh.” “May I ask? Married?”
"Involved, I guess you'd say. She's in London -- we have a flat, she works for one of the ministries. We've been together about two years -- a little more, now.” Married? Married....hmmmm.
“I do see. So I was a little late getting to the well.”
“I'm sorry, Madge. I didn't mean...”
“No, it's all right. I'm the one who should apologize. Well. One out of two...”
“One out of two?”
“Assumptions. I assumed that you were single...and that you'd be my type of woman. I guess I was right about one of them. Sorry to have embarrassed you. But your partner is a lucky woman, Jan. I hope she knows that.”
“I'm the lucky one.”
The captain's voice cut through the silence. “We're ready, everybody. We're going through. Whizz, you're first, then Henderleigh. When you give us the all clear, I want Covington next, then the rest, according to plan. Let's go.”
The tunnel was dark; flashlights revealed rough rock walls, marked with the striations of ancient tools. Holding a sketch map in her left hand, a flashlight in her right, Jan followed behind and between the two armed Rangers. The floor was dry, and coated with a fine layer of dust, which recorded their footprints as they passed. They stepped carefully, noiselessly. There were no curves or junctions in sight; just a straight, roughly arched passage with no markings, no inscriptions, no artifacts of any sort save the tunnel itself.
An army at a marching pace can cover three miles in about an hour. They had no intention of marching down that dusty hole; they crept, carefully placing each step with padding caution. Look forward, step; forward again, step; listen; check behind, see the rest of the team, Cpt. Cromarty, Miley, armed with sten guns; Madge, a pistol at her hip; and Lt Fisher, acting as a rearguard, trailing a reel of wire by which they could gauge their distance from the entrance. Jan couldn't see it. She'd know when to stop by a tap on the shoulder from Cromarty, just behind her.
Each step seemed to cover no distance. The unseen joining of the tunnel with others lay an infinite distance ahead. There was no conversation, no verbal orders. They moved as ghosts in a ghostly place.
Strangely, at this moment, Jan though of Gabrielle, her distant ancestor. Perhaps the bard had walked this tunnel, in her explorations with Xena; had she felt the same sense of eerie fatalism, of being trapped in an endless bubble of time? There was much to wonder about this strange woman: storyteller? Warrior? Lover? Her death had not been documented; and nowhere in the scrolls so far translated was there any inkling of her life after Xena. That she had had progeny was made obvious by Janice's existence; but she was a figure of mystery, seen only through the reflection of the tales she had left the world about her darker, more luminous companion.
If I die here, will anyone remember? Will I leave any kind of legacy? Mel will remember. That's enough.
You won't die here. Mel'd never let you hear the end of it. Stop daydreaming and do your job.
A hand touched her shoulder lightly. Time to stop and prepare to enter the ruins.
“Call the major, Rick. At least ask him.”
“Melinda, the major is out of touch. He's been reassigned. Oh, and he's Colonel Knox, now. I can't reach him; some secret op that I'm not in on.”
“What about the General who signed off on this -- what's his name, Trimble? Can't you reach him?” Her anxiety was drawing the skin of Melinda's face tight across her bones; she looked gaunt, almost deathlike.
“Trimble left this morning. Wants to debrief the team. Can't be reached.”
“There has to be a way...”
“Melinda...Mel, what's this all about? You said it's in the scrolls...”
“It's...crazy, Rick. Way outside...normal...thinking. I barely believe it myself except... God , Rick, this is gettin' us nowhere! She's goin' to die ! Or worse! Ah need to warn her now !” She tore herself from his grasp and made for the phone. Before she could dial he stood behind her and gently but firmly took the handset from her grasp, set it back in the cradle. “Melinda...who're you going to call?”
“Somebody...anybody.” She sagged, then straightened to her full height. “Ah'm sorry...Ah just lost it for a minute. She's...important to me, Rick.”
“She's your best friend, I understand. Now, you're gonna sit down, and I'm gonna get some tea, or coffee -- you got any coffee?”
“No. And you needn't condescend, Enrico. Ah'm not a child.” He could feel the bolts of anger from the blue eyes.
“Sorry. But you do need to calm down.”
“Ah'm calm now, yes Ah am. Do you want to hear the story? And why Ah think it's important?”
“Rick, what do you think about the supernatural?”
“Yes, you know, gods, demons, souls migrating between bodies -- the afterworld?”
“Is that what this is about?”
He sighed. “Let me tell you something. My mother was from Puerto Rico . I was raised in New York , but in the summer it got blistering hot, and there was always the threat of polio. So my parents sent me off to Puerto Rico to live with my grandma, mia abuelita. My folks stayed behind to run the butcher shop my dad started after the war. I was all by myself down there, from about the age of nine on, every summer, just me, grandma, and a lot of cousins.”
“What does this have to do with...”
“Abuelita estar una bruja.”
“She was an old hag? That's not a very nice...”
“ A witch?”
“Sorceress, more correctly.”
“How do you...what did she do?”
“Lots of things. I saw her talk to crows, and the crows answered her back. In Spanish. She killed rats just by looking them. She could predict things -- and they always came true. She claimed she could do a lot of things she never showed me, but the people in her village swore she could. They came to her for all kinds of cures, potions, readings...I remember one thing very vividly. There was a man in the village who had married a young girl, very young, and he'd started beating her. The girl came to my grandma and grandma went to the house where the girl and her husband lived -- he was in bed, passed out, drunk. Grandma stood in front of the house, said some words and walked away, and before she'd gone fifty paces the house was ablaze -- burned to the ground, with the husband in it.
“So I know a little about the occult, Melinda. Think I'm crazy? Your story can't be any crazier than mine.”
Melinda looked at him with a stone face. “An' you went to Princeton .”
“On a full scholarship. Cum laude , too. So there, smart-pants.”
She smiled at him, her fear momentarily forgotten. “ Summa . An' Ah'll raise you two Master's degrees.”
“Show-off. Just goes to show that you don't have to be weird to get into the Ivy League, but it helps. Now , will you trust me? I may or may not believe what you tell me but I won't necessarily think you're nuts.”
She took a deep breath, put her long fingers to her temples. “All right. First Ah need to tell you how we discovered the scrolls.”
And she told him. Everything. She didn't leave anything out.
The team huddled around Janice, shielding her flashlight with their bodies. They didn't expect their enemies to be in the tunnels, but there was no sense in being incautious.
“This entrance tunnel goes on for about another two hundred yards. Then it intersects two more tunnels, one on the west side -- that'll be our left, and then, about ten yards further north, another on the right, the east. After that it forks at about equal angles, northwest and northeast.”
“So how do we get to the surface?”
“The scroll says there's an entrance just east of the main gate, here. The gate is ruined, of course, but you can find its foundations fairly easily. The entire town was walled, but the wall was knocked down by the Ottomans. They didn't want fortified towns that could act as centers for revolt. The rubble of the wall forms a low ridge around the town, and the gatehouse is a mound of rubble and dirt at this site. I dug up some artifacts there -- iron hinge pins and nails.”
The captain said, “isn't that in the collapsed part?”
“It may be. But there's bound to be other entrances. We'll just have to look for them. There are the ruins of three big churches up there, here, here, and here -- and churches were built over cellars and catacombs. I'd be suprised if there wasn't access to the surface that way.”
“The churches are ruined?”
“Yes. But their foundations should be intact. The walls of the Greek church are mostly still standing; the interior was looted. It has extensive cellars -- I've been in them. I was counting on that as the way to the surface. We need to pass these two tunnels, left and right, and take the right fork when this tunnel splits. The church should be on the right side of that fork, just after it.”
“Good, then -- from here on no lights. Feel your way along the walls. Two columns, one against the left wall, the other against the right. Henderleigh, you're point for the right column. Madge, you follow him, and Cal, you trail. I'll point the left column. Covington , you stay behind me; Miley, you're behind Covington , Whizz, you sweep. When you get to a tunnel, whistle once. When you get to a second tunnel, whistle twice. Keep in contact with the man in front of you -- don't get separated in the dark. Okay, let's go, folks.”
If traveling through the first part of the tunnel was eerie, this was positively scary. Jan was no kid, she wasn't afraid of the dark, but she and the rest of the team did worry about what they might meet in the dark. It was an eternity before there was a single soft whistle on their left. Jan stopped for a moment and Miley, behind her, bumped into her. “Sorry,” he whispered, and backed off a little, his hand still on her shoulder. A few moments later there was another whistle, and another, ahead and on her right. They'd found the second tunnel. “Henderleigh. Wait up.” the captain didn't want the right column too far ahead.
The captain stopped; he hissed at Henderleigh and called a halt. Something was--different, and after a second Jan realized what it was. She could see. Ahead of her, light appeared to issue from a tunnel jogging off to her left, illuminating the wall to her right and the mouth of another tunnel ahead of them. This was the fork. But where was the light coming from? She knew it had to be dim -- her dark-adapted eyes would have been dazzled by anything bright. Could the tunnels to the left have collapsed all the way to the surface, and she was seeing by moonlight?
Captain Cromarty carefully peered around the corner of the tunnel junction. He pulled back fast, turned to Jan and Miley.
“What is it?”
Rick listened all the way through, then put his face in his hands and shook his head like a wet dog. He looked at Mel. “Let me get this straight...you're Xena?”
“No, Rick, don't be silly. Xena's dead. But her soul, her spirit, her essence...whatever you want to call it -- was in me, and she asked for control of my body, and Ah...gave it to her.”
“Didn't you think something was wrong?”
“With your brain?”
“No. Rick, Ah'd just seen a figure who claimed to be the god of war kill three men by what had to be magic. Ah was -- possessed -- by a force that drew me to the other half of the chakram. Ah could feel Xena's presence in me -- and she made me feel better. Safer, not as afraid. And we -- she -- fought Ares and beat him, and then she gave me back my body. She said it was almost as good for fighting in as her own. Then she left and Ah haven't sensed her since.
“Ah told you this so you'd see that Ah can believe what's in the scrolls, however fantastic it seems.”
Rick sat with his arms on his knees, shaking his head slowly. “Okay. I buy it. You've had encounters with -- a god, and a dead soul -- and that makes the other stuff true. Yeah. Sure.”
“You sound doubtful.”
“Just takes some getting used to, that's all. So. What's this danger that you found in the scrolls?”
“Don't swear at me, I just asked a ques...”
“That's what they're facing, Rick. They're walking into the mouth of Hell.”
Cromarty let Jan into his place. “Take a look -- just one eye.”
Around the corner Jan saw bright lights, so it took her eyes a moment to adjust. About forty yards down the left fork of the tunnel, several canister lights were set up on poles, supported by tripods on the tunnel floor. There were two soldiers in fatigue uniforms under the lights, facing an opening in the tunnel wall that Jan was sure wasn't on her map. They were armed -- some kind of submachine gun. They were smoking idly, their eyes on whatever it was in the alcove off of the tunnel.
“What do we do?”
The captain gestured. “Go back that way about twenty yards. Past the first tunnel. I'll bring the others.”
Jan and her companions made their way back along the wall in the darkness, and were joined momentarily by the other half of the team.
Captain Cromarty crouched down, and lit up a combat lantern. In the dim light he searched the others' faces. “Okay, I'll entertain options, “ he said.
“Can we get past ‘em?” Henderleigh asked.
Miley said, “Sounds really risky. If they saw any one of us, the jig's up and there's one helluva lotta shootin'”.
Jan said, “I wonder if we want to bypass them. Maybe what they're guarding is what we came for.”
“Down in the tunnels?”
Cromarty commented, “Good place to hide.”
Jan picked it up. “Yeah -- safe from air observation, relatively bombproof, easy to keep prying eyes out. Madge?”
“I think Jan's right. We need to see what's down there.”
“So what do we do about those goons?”
“We could kill'em,” Whizz said.
“Yeah, but it'll be noisy,” said Miley.
“Not necessarily.” Cal Fisher opened a flap on his fatigues, pulled a cylinder out of a pocket, wound it into the muzzle of his .45 automatic.
Jan was intrigued. “Silencer? I've never seen one of those.”
“Wouldn't do you any good.”
Fisher pointed at her hip holster. “You shoot a revolver. Noise escapes out the cylinder.”
Jan noticed that no one suggested aborting the mission. No surprise there.
“ Cal will take them both out. Then we advance up the corridor. No firing unless we're attacked or I give the order.” Cromarty doused the lantern, and they allowed their eyes to adjust to the darkness before moving on. As they worked their way back up the tunnel, the diffuse light from the German's installation made it easy to see. The team held back as Fisher crept silently to the junction.
Two faint coughs of the pistol firing, then the team was around the corner, Henderleigh and Whizz in the lead. A guttural voice broke out, shouting in German, as Henderleigh turned into the alcove. Jan saw a swirl of images -- the two guards, limp on the floor, blood pooling from lethal head wounds, a man, maybe, but swathed in a body-covering suit, goggles like a gas mask's, going down as Henderleigh struck him with the rifle butt; two others, trying to dash for safety as Whizz blocked their way, Fisher behind him. Fisher gestured with his pistol. “ Hande hoch. ”
The two creatures raised their hands over their heads. Cpt. Cromarty tried to pull the hood from one of them, but found it attached firmly to the suit.
While Fisher interrogated the two conscious workers in German, Madge and Cpl. Miley were examining the end of the alcove. It was raw earth, freshly excavated. There was a pile of fresh dirt on a handcart, shovels, and various digging tools. And two pipes, one of large diameter, curving upward and disappearing through the roof of the alcove; the other, narrow, closed with a gas-valve fitting.
“What in the hell is this?” Miley asked, as he examined the pipes.
“These guys aren't talking,” Fisher said. I can't even get name, rank and serial number out of them.”
Miley said, “They're extracting something from the soil. It's got to be a fluid...maybe there's a reservoir of some kind just beyond this point, and they've dug in from the tunnel far enough to tap it. It's probably dangerous. That's what the suits are for.”
“Is this what we came for? Either of you know?”
Madge turned toward him. “Hard to tell. I think this is part of whatever they're doing here, but not all of it.”
“Could be. Maybe they're processing something from the soil -- a toxin, an organism. But it could be chemical, too.”
“She's right, I think -- there's probably a lot more to this. This is maybe a raw materials source, and they pipe it somewhere else.”
“What's this pipe for that doesn't go anywhere?”
“Gas pressure relief? That's a guess, captain.”
“Then we hold off until we find out what the rest of the place looks like. What's behind there?”
Cromarty pointed to a steel door let into the wall of the tunnel opposite the mouth of the alcove.
Henderleigh had been watching the door. “It's locked, captain.”
“Break it open. There might be more stuff in there.”
“Need a crowbar or somethin', sir.”
Whizz, holding his gun on the three prisoners, said, “There's something like a pickaxe over here.”
Jan snorted. “Aw hell.” She picked up the tool and inserted it into the jamb of the door. Henderleigh put down his weapon and helped her, pulling with their joint strength. The door creaked, but didn't seem to give much...
Then, suddenly, it opened.
Jan and Henderleigh fell away from the door, Jan landing on top of Henderleigh as he crashed flat on his back on the floor. Jan found herself staring into the astonished face of a German officer, framed in the doorway. And he was holding a gun.
She drew her pistol and shot him.
Hours of discussion had brought them no nearer a solution. Jan was a thousand miles away, deep underground; even if they hadn't been under radio silence orders, she'd never receive a signal. She had to be warned, but there was no way to warn her.
And hell itself yawned before her.
Mel had checked her translation again and again. That's what it said. A portal to hell. Right in Xena's mom's backyard. Mel didn't want to believe it, but she couldn't afford not to believe it. Jan...she just couldn't sit by and let Jan...
Finally, she had succumbed to exhaustion, her reserves sapped by hours of anxiety. She and Rick had made sandwiches, drank some tea, and she'd fallen asleep on the sofa. Rick was snoring in the big wing chair.
She slept without dreaming, which was good, since her dreams would have been nightmares. But she awoke to a presence stranger than a dream.
Yes, Melinda. It's me.
Am I dreaming? I was sure I had woken up...
No, Melinda, you're awake. I'm in your mind. I felt that you needed me.
Xena, do you need my body? Like that other time?
No, not now. But you need advice. You need to be able to find your love.
You can help me find Jan?
Yes. I can show you a way. But you should know. We closed the portal. Gabrielle and Eve and I.
But...are the Nazis looking for it?
They may be. Perhaps they want to open it again.
And if they do...Xena, if they do...
...as I've heard Janice say, all hell will break loose.
There is a danger, then.
Yes. From what I have seen through your eyes, Melinda, your love is familiar with danger. But this is more than danger from evil men. This is hell itself, and hell has its own dangers. Overwhelming dangers. Seductive dangers.
How do I warn her?
You have to die.
All hell broke loose.
The officer fell into the tunnel, face down, dead as a doornail. From behind him, shots rang out as two other soldiers fired through the doorway. Bullets embedded themselves in the tunnel walls with splashes of earth and showers of splinters. The noise was intense, crushing.
The raiders fired back, pelting the steel door with bullets. One of the soldiers went down from Cromarty's sten, and the other turned and ran back up the tunnel. Fisher leapt over Jan and Henderleigh, still tangled together on the floor with the body of the dead German officer, and shot the other soldier as he reloaded. Smoke filled the tunnel and the excavation.
“That rips it,” said Cromarty, clutching his upper arm, where a liberal trail of blood was flowing from under his hand. “This thing is important enough for them to defend. Let's blow it and get out before anybody else gets down here. Miley, wire it up. Covington , you help him.” Jan rolled the body off of her and picked herself up off of Henderleigh, turning to offer him a hand up. It was then that she saw a pool of blood where his left eye should have been. Henderleigh was dead.
Whizz covered the doorway as Jan worked with Miley to wire the rectangular packets of explosive together, placing detonators in each claylike chunk and forcing them into crevasses and chinks in the supporting timbers, now iron-hard with age. Miley wired the reel in place, and handed Jan the electric igniter. They moved down the tunnel toward the fork, unreeling the wire behind them, while the rest of the team held their weapons ready. As Miley and Jan wired the igniter, Madge tended Cromarty's wound. Almost done, almost outta here, Mel...
Gunfire. More gouts of earth, dust, the smell of cordite filling the narrow space. Jan saw troops, in the dark gray of the SS, pouring out of the doorway and down the tunnel toward them. Fisher and Whizz's submachine guns dropped the first wave, but more kept coming. Fisher was hit, fell, motionless. Whizz's chest erupted as machine-pistol fire chewed its way through him. Jan emptied her pistol into the onrushing Germans, heard the wheat of bullets past her ears, then grabbed Madge's arm and pulled her around the corner. Cromarty and Miley were already there, the captain attempting to staunch the flow of blood from a gaping wound on the inside of his thigh. Madge took over, pulling a pressure bandage from her kit and trying to cover the wound.
“Blow it, blow it!” Jan rasped in Miley's ear, as Miley fastened the last wire to the igniter.
“I'm gonna, I'm gonna!.” Miley growled through clenched teeth, then, “ Fire in the hole!” Jan put her fingers in her ears, flattened herself against the tunnel wall. Miley twisted the handle.
He turned the handle again. Nothing. He checked the wire connections on the terminals, tried again.
A rifle butt smashed the igniter box out of his hands, batting it across the tunnel and into a timber support. An SS trooper hit Miley on the side of the head, knocking him cold. More troops followed, bursting around the corner, leveling their weapons at the raiders. “ Hande! Hoch! Gewehrin weg!”
Jan understood. “He wants us to drop our guns, put our hand up,” she said.
Madge said, “I got that. I think we're kind of outnumbered. Sounds like a good idea for now.”
Jan put her pistol on the ground, gently, then stood with her hands in the air. Madge followed suit.
An SS lieutenant emerged from the group of troopers in the tunnel, pistol drawn, and roughly shoved Madge away from the captain. Another trooper, apparently a non-com, bent over the injured man, now only vaguely conscious from loss of blood.
Jan shouted , “ Der ist verwundert!”
The lieutenant, a youngish man with a round, open, boyish face, turned to Jan and curled his lip in an amused half-smile. “ Ja, doch. Keiner Nutzen.” He put his pistol against Cromarty's temple and fired.
Jan wanted to throw up. What kind of people are these? She remembered a phrase Smith had used, it seemed a lifetime ago...
” the baddest of the bad.”
That hardly seemed to cover it.
“Crossing over. Going to the other side.”
“What do you mean, the other side? The other side of what?”
Melinda looked at Rick as if he wasn't there, as if he were transparent and she was watching something a million miles away. “Death...life...I'm not sure. There's a boundary between this world and the world of the dead...and we can cross that boundary, temporarily, with the right...Ah don't know, actions, rituals...Ah don"t know what to do, and Ah don't know what the outcome will be.”
“It sounds like vudan ... death magic. Abuelita used to tell me stories. But not too often...she said it was too much for a child to know about, dangerous.” Rick was thoughtful. “And I don't see how it will help you warn Jan and the team.”
“Xena explained it. What we call Hell is a part of a complex spirit world, a world parallel to our own. They're linked by...well, Ah guess by what we call a soul. All souls inhabit this world and the spirit world, all the time. We just...we aren't aware of the other world, we spend our energy in this one. It's like standin' in a door between two rooms. We spend most of our time facin' one room...this world. But Xena tells me we can turn ourselves around, face the other world. Once in that world, Ah can find the portal that opens in Amphipolis. But Ah have to turn my back on this world. Not to be in it. Not be conscious of it. Leave it.”
“You mean die.”
“Yeah...that's what it seems like...but for...Jan...”
“Melinda...Melinda!” Rick shook her shoulder and she snapped back, as if waking from sleep. “Where were you?”
Trying to imagine life without her. Wondering if dying was so high a price to pay.
“Just thinking how Ah can do this,” is what she said to Rick.
“What do you have to do?”
Her eyes glazed over again. “Ah don't know...maybe it's in the scrolls somewhere...maybe I can find it..."
Rick stood up. “Get your coat.”
“Why...where are we going?”
“This is more than either of us can handle. I know someone...who might be able to help a lot more than I can.”
They were tied up, the three of them lashed to plain wooden chairs in a plain room , a steel hut with a table, several more chairs, and some pin-ups of scantily clad women on the walls. A few cups and mugs lay scattered about. Jan and Madge were unhurt, but half of Miley's face was one big ugly bruise, and his nose was bleeding. He was slumped in the chair, apparently unconscious.
They had been escorted in here at gunpoint by taciturn SS troopers, hands on their heads, under the slightly amused supervision of the young officer who had killed Captain Cromarty. You've just taken the number-one spot on my better-dead list, she thought as she was bound hand and foot under the officer's playground-bully grin. You soulless bastard. He said nothing to her, nor she to him, and he'd closed the door behind him with a firm clang of a lock.
They had been left alone for what seemed like an hour when the lock clattered again. Footsteps entered, heavy footsteps like boots; Jan knew there was more than one person, but with her back to the door she couldn't tell how many.
A voice spoke from behind her, a voice that raised the hairs on her neck and turned her stomach with disgust.
“Some time since Budapest , eh, Dr. Covington?”
“Stosser. So you're still alive.”
The man strolled around the chair, slowly, unevenly, and leaned up against the table. He was tall, over six feet, and thin as a sword. Jan looked up into his sharp features to see that the left half of his face was distorted, as if by blows of a hammer, the cheekbone sunken and the forehead crushed; his left eye was covered by a patch. He was dressed in the uniform of a captain of the SS. He held his left arm awkwardly, tightly against his body, and moved it with difficulty. He held a cigarette in his right hand. He was unarmed, but Jan knew him to be dangerous despite that.
The voice was deep, but sibilant -- as if a strong man had been made hoarse by disease. “ Ja, Fraulein Doktor Covington...alive...I breathe, my heart beats, I walk and speak. That is life, vielleicht .”
“I told you those caves were dangerous. You wouldn't listen. You had to go after...”
“...the Ottoman treasure.” Stosser smiled. “ Ja . You sold me the manuscript.”
“And I warned you it might not be authentic. You insisted on buying it. Who was I to turn down your money, if you were determined to get yourself killed? I knew it wasn't the real thing.”
“You could have told me.”
“I did. You wouldn't believe me. But you escaped the cave-in.”
“Not quite escaped. I was rescued -- from under several hundred kilograms of rock. I was left with some souvenirs, as you see. It took me...two years, to recover enough to walk. I have waited to meet you again so I could...ah...thank you.”
“And now you have that opportunity. Did you come here just to get back at me? No one knew I was here.”
“Ah, but we predicted that you might arrive, my dear Dr. Covington”, another voice, round and masculine, boomed from behind her. “The fact of your actual appearance is, of course, a bonus for us.” The German accent was thick and full, in contrast to Stosser's mildly accented English.
“Eckhardt! You too? What is this -- return from the dead week? And don't tell me you two are working together again?”
”War creates strange... wie man sagt ...ah, bedmates? Yes, the Herr Doktor Stosser came to me with a most interesting proposition, and I persuaded my superiors to pursue his proposals. So, our presence here.”
“Stosser...the SS? You're not a soldier.”
“Ach, Dr. Covington, there are many of us who are not of the profession of arms. There are many -- lawyers, doctors, businessmen, who wear this uniform. Our revered leader, Herr Himmler, was once a farmer. Major Eckhardt, you know, was a...soldier of fortune, shall we say. We are a brotherhood, linked by a common cause, a common destiny. I am one of that brotherhood. And yet I am still, like you, a delver into the past...”
“Not like me, you murdering swine. You gunned that family down in cold blood.”
“Ach, so you saw that little incident, did you? I had expected you to be halfway to the border by then.”
“No such luck.”
“No matter. They were merely one of many obstacles that I have seen fit to remove. The cause is all that matters.”
“As I remember, your cause was lining your own pockets.”
“We all have our unsavory pasts, my dear. And we all have our destinies. My destiny led me to this moment, to the triumph of the will that you are to witness. It gives me no end of pleasure to find you here, to participate in this...”
“Rot in hell, you pig.”
“Not, me, my dear. No...you.”
They had driven for an hour to the countryside outside London , across a black landscape illuminated only by the dim headlights of the car. They pulled to a stop in front of a low house, too big for a cottage but too small for a manor.
“Where are we?” Melinda asked with some trepidation.
“In Kent . The house belongs to a friend of mine. I think she can help us.”
Rick helped Melinda out of the car. Mel was dubious. “A friend?”
“Better to say a colleague. We came to know each other through our mutual professional interest.”
Melinda stopped, refused to be led by the elbow up the steps. “Now just a minute, Enrico, Ah've had enough of your being so cryptic. Ah trusted you with something that Ah'm not even sure Ah understand -- but Ah won't go another step until you tell me who this person is and why Ah should see them.”
Rick stood with his eyes downcast and his lips tightly pursed. Then he raised his eyes to Melinda's and said, “I should be angry about that -- you've been pretty cryptic, yourself. Melinda, this woman can help you. She's used to keeping secrets -- she works for MI5, has for years. And she has special knowledge that might help you save Janice. But -- you decide. If you don't want to go any farther, we can go back to London . But I can't help you beyond this.”
“What special knowledge? How can she help?”
“She has...she knows about what you called the other side. She knows how to face the other way -- safely.”
“Who is this person?”
“She's a witch.”
Eckhardt broke in. “You realize that you will never leave here alive, Fraulein Covington. You know too much, and you and your friends caused considerable damage to our group her, despite your arrival having been anticipated.'
‘I'm not stupid. It was understood that if we were caught we'd be killed. But how the hell did you know I was going to come here?”
“Your interest in the Xena legend is well known, Fraulein Doktor,” Stosser grinned as he lit another cigarette. Once we knew about the realities of this place, we were sure you would be here.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
Eckhardt sneered. “Come, come, Dr. Covington. Of course you knew.”
“I have no idea. Knew what?”
Stosser looked at Eckhardt. “Perhaps we've stolen a march on her after all.”
Eckhardt was skeptical. “We'll see about that -- I doubt that her ignorance is genuine, but we have ways of...improving her memory?”
Stosser's gaze ran over Janice like a cold shower. He reached out and gently stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. His skin was dry, hard, like a lizard's. He cupped her cheek in his palm.“Yess...yes. We can be persuasive. But I would hate to think of damaging such...lovely...”
Janice spat on his hand, bit him on the fleshy base of his thumb, drawing blood. He backhanded her with his free hand; a spreading bruise blossomed across her cheek and nose. Stosser's face reddened with rage while Eckhardt, behind her, gave a grunting laugh. Stosser pushed his anger down, growing pale again. A reptilian grin oozed across his mouth as he eased his injured hand.
“Oh you will cooperate, Fraulein . You will indeed cooperate.”
Revelations Past and Present
The English countryside, South of London
Fiona was short, round, grey-haired and brown-eyed; she reminded Melinda of her aunt or someone's fairy godmother. She was clearly an older woman, but her face was smooth and pink, almost flushed; the were no lines except for small crow's feet around the eyes, which added to her appearance of vigorous jollity. After introductions and some tea and scones, Rick broached the subject of their visit. "Melinda needs some help that I think only you can give her", he said.
Fiona looked at Mel, and Mel felt as if she was utterly naked and exposed. "Life and death?"
"Yes...yes." Mel shivered as if a cold wind had blown across the room. "But...Ah think you know that. Why do Ah feel that you already know everything about me?"
Fiona pursed her lips. Her jovial face clouded and aged in an instant. "Not everything, my dear. Just that when people come to me, it usually is a matter of life and death. And you have...signs about you, symptoms. You're desperate."
"Ah am..." Then, stiffening her resolve with the realization of what she was risking, she took a challenging tone. "What can you do? Why should Ah trust you? What do you know about my problems, anyway? Ah admit there's something about you, Ah felt it as soon as Ah came in...but oh, how can you know how important this is, to me and...Ah just don't see anyway to save..."
"It's a very old problem, Melinda. Very old. Maybe I can explain some of where I...come from, perhaps..." Mel nodded.
“Women are givers of life, Melinda. And while they're succoring new life they're vulnerable. Some women let themselves be protected by men. It ‘s a good arrangement for many. But too often it ends in degradation of the woman, or outright slavery. Some women protected themselves, became warriors. But it's a lonely life. So some women have banded together in their own communities, either separate from men, like the ancient Amazons, or living in the common society, secretly, as did those who came to be called witches in this part of the world. They shared knowledge, of nature, of their bodies, of powers. They still exist, those powers still exist. I'm an heiress of that tradition.”
More than her words, the rhythm, the tone, the depth of her eyes, all convinced Mel of Fiona's bona fides. I've never met a witch before. Daddy would have snorted at superstitious nonsense, and Mamma would pray for deliverance. I have no choice. If Jan dies, I die.
"All right. Tell me what Ah need to do."
"No, Melinda. You tell me. All of it."
She was in a small cell, a cellar, with no windows, only a foot-wide hole in the roof with an iron grate in it. They had taken her and Miley there hours ago. Miley was still groggy, sprawled in a corner of the tiny cell. Madge had not come with them; where she was, what they were doing to her, Jan tried hard not to imagine.
Jan went over to Miley again, to examine the head wound. She'd ripped off half her T-shirt to make a bandage, and it seemed to be holding. Miley was more or less coherent by now, and they talked in low voices; he asked questions, and Jan filled him in on what had happened since he'd been knocked cold.
Keys rattled in the door; it swung open. Before either Jan or Miley could react, a creature dashed into the cell -- it could only be described that way. Drawn, sinewy, skin a mottled patchwork; it looked like a burn victim. Through the ragged festoons of what had been clothing could be seen red oozing sores; the blood ran down the thing's skin. So much they could see in the second before the thing landed on Janice, scratching, biting, its hot breath suffocating Jan with an acrid stench. Jan fought for her life, but the creature was too strong; a deep slash of claws across her stomach stung like fire, and she cried out in pain. Miley pulled at the scrofulous hair that tufted its head, but the thing wrenched free and sunk its teeth deep into Miley's forearm. Jan, flat on her back, tried to roll the thing off of her, but it wouldn't budge, and its fanglike teeth were coming close to her throat. She twisted an arm free, and shot her hand to get a grip on the creature's neck, and only then noticed that its neck was encircled by an iron collar. She punched, she scratched, she tried to gouge the eyes -- strange, eerie yellow, those eyes -- and in the last moment before Jan's jugular was bitten through, the creature was pulled off her, and she could breathe again.
The thing struggled, and rasped and hissed, straining against chains held by six burly SS guards. There was no subduing it, only restraining. As Jan pulled herself up, Eckhardt's doughy form appeared in the doorway.
" Also , Fraulein! I see our little demonstration made an impression, no?"
"Demonstration? What demonstration? What is that thing, Eckhardt? Your butt boy?"
"You are amused to jest. But I am surprised you do not recognize your friend.'"
"Friend...who...?" Jan began to feel a tickle of nausea in the back of her stomach, the seed of a fear that she wasn't ready to admit was there...
"No?" Eckhardt gestured with the cigar in his hand. "Little of the hair remains, but the color...surely you know that red color. And of course it is the body of a woman...you still do not know your young English leutnant ?"
A closer look, into the scarred face, the eyes, yellow like a cat's but still...now unseeing, no spark of recognition in them, but yes, it was Madge...what had been Madge.
" Raus damit." Eckhardt ordered the guards away, and they dragged out the awful shell of what had been Madge Hammermill.
A red haze clouded Jan's vision. Nothing remained in her but a killing rage, a desire to cut out his heart and devour it, still beating, before Eckhardt's still-living eyes...
She rushed at Eckhardt, punched him in the stomach; the air went whoosh! out of him as he doubled over. She slammed both fists against the back of the Nazi's head, forcing him to the floor, and she pummeled him with no control, no finesse, just blind fury...
Until a blow from a rifle butt felled her.
She lay in agony, nursing what felt like a broken shoulder, on the edge of tears but determined not to let these animals see them. Eckhardt got up off his knees, straightened his tunic, and bent over her. He lashed her across the face with his swagger stick, his face redly contorted with rage.
"Remember, remember that what we did to her, we can do to you! We can do to anyone! Herr Stosser thinks you may yet be useful to us, and for the moment I indulge him...but do not try my patience!" He lashed her again, though she warded off the blow with her good arm.
Eckhardt straightened, gestured to the guards. "Teach her a lesson. Just don't kill her." He turned on his heel and left.
She never remembered how many men were at her, how many boot-clad feet slammed into her body, how many fists were driven into her face, how many times a truncheon slugged her in the stomach. She never knew how long she was beaten. She only knew that Melinda would never forgive her for getting into such trouble, that Melinda's face floated before her, on the other side of the wall of pain.
After the guards had left, she lay still on the cold floor, curled up into a ball, exerting every ounce of energy to draw a breath, and then another and then the next. After a time she straightened out and looked up into Miley's bruised face. She felt something grind inside her chest. "I think I broke a rib", she croaked, and slid sickeningly down a long slope into blackness.
“Tell me what you need, Melinda. I sense that there's need for haste.”
Melinda's eyes were downcast. Forgive me, Mama. Forgive me, Janice. She raised her gaze into Fiona's pale gray eyes. “Ah need to know about...crossin' over.”
Fiona's lips tightened and her eyes hooded, like a lawyer being asked how to get someone off on a murder charge. “Hmmm. How do you know about that?”
“Ah'm a translator. Ah study ancient writin's. Ah read about it...from someone who wrote about doin' it...a long time ago.” Xena?
I'm here, Melinda.
“Why do you want this? It isn't a game.” Fiona's voice had changed, deepened, taken on greater significance; every word was a round bell-tone dropped into silence.
“Someone dear to me is in awful, terrible danger. Ah need...to warn her, to help her.”
“Tell me the whole truth, Melinda.”
“Ah am...” Fiona leapt forward and seized Mel's face in both hands, and stared deeply into the blue eyes. “Hold still, Melinda...this is necessary...I need to see the whole of you.”
The brown eyes expanded to fill Mel's vision, and she felt herself rising and falling, like a boat being tossed lightly in the waves. Her stomach clenched in fear, and then a sense of peace washed over her. There was only timeless ecstasy, sound, as of a flute played aimlessly...and the brown eyes became green...Janice's face was before her, calming her, soothing her fears...now...behind Janice's face was another, a dark-haired beauty, feral, fiery; a mirror of her own face, free of all restraint and civilizing influence.
There were four of them, four souls, brought together across time and space...and Melinda could sense a fifth, another, who emanated from Janice but remained hidden, as the dark one seemed to emanate from herself...and she sensed that it was kindly, as the dark one was fierce and protective.
Suddenly the world righted itself, and Fiona was before her in the chair, Rick next to her on the sofa. Fiona was smiling enigmatically.
Fiona nodded slowly. “Your friend is more than a friend.”
“Yes.” Melinda felt as if she had to answer, almost against her will.
“She's your lover.” Rick's face fell.
“She's more than that...she's my life.”
“You have a spirit to guide you. Another...an ancestress?”
“Yes. But I've only felt her presence once before.”
Fiona put her hands over Mel's, folded in her lap. “A time of great fear, great stress?”
“You could say that."
She was tied again to the chair, bound so firmly that she could move nothing except her head. Her shoulder ached abominably -- not broken, she and Miley had decided while they were trying to patch up each other's wounds, but everything else hurt, and one eye was swollen shut, from the vicious beating at the hands of the SS guards. She was hungry, too, and exhausted above and beyond her injuries. Nevertheless, as she stared at Stosser standing before her, she felt that if she were free she could summon up her last reserves just to make the man die. There was another SS officer in her line of vision, and she sensed a third man in the room, behind her.
"Eckhardt! Is that you, you pig?" Her voice came out as a harsh croak.
"The major is indisposed at the moment, Fraulein . He has a slight...headache."
"I'd be happy to remove his head for him. Just so he doesn't suffer."
"Ever the wit, Fraulein Doktor . No. You and I have business that does not require him. Frankly, while he and I have common objectives, I disagree with his methods. He is a blunt instrument, aber effective in his limited way. He thought you could be convinced to help us by terror. I choose a form of persuasion."
"Help you with...what?"
"Survival. The survival and the dominance of those of us destined to rule the rest of this subhuman rabble. While you and I have been on the opposite side of things, I find you of a superior type, Fraulein ...strong, clever, self-willed. You do not delude yourself, as so many do, that the world is a kind place. You know what is your right and you take it, as I have done. I think we would make an effective team."
"I am in possession of a source of power here, so dangerous, so menacing, and so awesome that those who control it would, in a very short time, dominate the world. You saw the effects on your friend -- in that I think Major Eckhardt was correct, to show you what we are capable of. We can transform anyone in the same way. With the right help, I could convince the Reich to apply it on a large scale -- there are many undesirables on this continent that we will eventually have to dispose of -- we could convert them into the invincible, suicidal shock troops of the kind you saw. I knew you would be coming. I knew that, as the guardian of the Scrolls, you could not stay away from Amphipolis, once you realized the power you could seize here. "
I have no idea what he's talking about, Jan thought. There's nothing in the scrolls about any of this. Nothing translated, anyway. I'll play along and see what he has to say. He's an egotist and a blowhard.
"So how do I fit in? And how did you know there was anything in this godforsaken village, anyway?"
Stosser leaned in to Jan, his axe-blade face filling her vision, his breath foul with tobacco, schnapps, and neglect. "Surely you don't think that your precious Gabrielle, that puling infant! -- that she was the only voice to tell
the tale of Xena! Surely you don't think that that unnatural whore was the last word! Xena was power, and she passed that power to her own flesh..."
" Eve ." Jan spoke before Stosser could fill his lungs to finish his rant.
Stosser became icy again. " Ja, Doktor Covington, Eve. Livia. While you were playing with the children's stories of Gabrielle, I was able to read the true tale, to find the heart of Xena, the only book of truth about Xena -- left by her only descendant, Livia. "
Despite her terror, Jan's curiosity was aroused. "How? Where? There's no evidence of any record left by Eve herself."
"Livia. Her later foolishness as a missionary of peace is of no consequence. Livia was a natural conqueror, a natural killer, true to her blood. Her whining weakness at the end of her life was, I am certain, due to the softening influence of Gabrielle -- as your own work makes abundantly clear. Just as she corrupted Xena herself."
Jan wanted to argue, as if she were in a scholarly debate, but realized that these massive distortions weren't based on evidence, at least the evidence she was familiar with -- Stosser was a fanatic, and argument would mean nothing to him. Instead she asked, "Where did you come by this information? Eve's version of the story?"
"Ah, to tell you will do no harm." Stosser stepped back, turned away from Janice, and lit a cigarette. He spoke abstractly, as if lecturing a class. "It seems Livia -- Eve as she called herself then -- made a final journey to the east in order to spread her spineless religion. She got as far as Tibet , where she died -- we don't know how -- but not before she wrote ten scrolls, long scrolls, detailing her mother's life, her own life as a soldier of Rome , and her "repentance". It is filled with breast-beating and begging, and whining homilies about the virtues of peace and love." Stosser was speaking now with sadistic enjoyment, as if he felt this professional coup would exact a greater revenge on Janice than any mere torture.
"A few years ago, before the war, Reichsfuhrer Himmler sent an expedition to Tibet . I was honored to accompany that expedition. I would like to claim that my discovery of Livia's writings was the result of careful, systematic research, but alas, it was quite by chance. I was able to translate it in the ensuing years. She tells many stories, some of which, I was gratified to learn as I read your paper, are corroborated in part by the Gabrielle scrolls. Among the stories is, of course, the legend of Xena's encounter with Lucifer and Mephistopheles, and the battle at the mouth of Hell."
"Hell? What's you home town got to do with it?" Immediately she cursed herself for revealing too much.
Stosser smile thinly. "So, you don't know about the Portal? You surprise me, Fraulein . You see, it seems that in Xena's time, this village harbored...
"....a doorway into the spirit world, a portal to what we call hell -- a region ruled by a demonic king. It seems Xena destroyed one of these kings, and then seduced another being -- we'd call it an angel -- to take his place. There was..."
Fiona interrupted. "...a fissure in the Universe."
Mel peered at her. "you know?"
Fiona smile/ "Of course. There are many worlds in the Universe, all in contact. No one really knows how many worlds there are -- we call them the spirit world, or the nether word. The existence of these alternate realities has been know since -- the beginning of time, I suppose. And sometimes the boundaries are fragile. Fissures open, and close, and open again."
"So Ah'm right to be afraid that Janice is..."
"...in danger; yes."
Melinda put her face in her hands. She could cry, if she wasn't so determined to do something. Pulling herself back, she took a breath. She looked at Fiona and mastered her despair; Fiona radiated a sense of calm. "So what do Ah have to do? "
"There is a ritual, and there's a state of mind you must be in. The state of mind is an altered one; we use an infusion of herbs to create it. The ritual involves confronting a death."
"A death?" Melinda's expression became stony.
"You have to kill a creature, feel its life ebb away, prepare your soul to follow it into the nether world. In ancient times this was usually done as a ritual hunt -- not very practical in Kent these days. But -- I can help with that. I also need to prepare the herbs. Wait here with Enrico while I get things ready. Oh, and -- are you religious?"
"Well, Ah was raised Baptist, but Ah don't go to church any more. My, um, relationship, Ah guess, isn't really to their liking."
Fiona smiled reassuringly. "I see. Your spiritual viewpoint may have much to do with the part of the spirit world you enter when you cross over. But -- I think you will have some control over your circumstances when you get there." Fiona stepped into the next room. She reemerged with a length of cloth. "In the meantime, step in there and change into this." She held up a long, robe-like garment with full sleeves; it was a dull brown. "It's more comfortable than those clothes, and besides, you don't want to get blood on them. You'll need them when you come back."
Melinda recoiled with a slight shock; she actually hadn't even thought about the return journey. "How do Ah do that?" she said, taking the robe.
"You simply will it. As long as your soul and body are intact, when you want to rejoin your body, you make a conscious effort to do so. You and your body will rejoin, and although it is unpleasantly disorienting for a while, it's not hard."
"What if my soul isn't...intact?"
"You can damage your soul in the nether world in many ways. This is why you must be careful. Conflict with a stronger being could do you harm. If that happens you'll...have a harder time returning."
"How hard, Fiona?"
Fiona pursed her lips, considered. "Some don't come back. Some remain in the spirit world forever."
"you mean they die."
"Essentially, yes. Do you still want to go through with it?"
Melinda exhaled a great breath. "Let's get it done."
"You have courage. That will serve you well, over there."
Melinda peered at Fiona searchingly. "You seem very familiar with this process."
Fiona smiled. "I am. I've done it. Now let's get busy, children, we have much to do."
Stosser turned to the other officer. "This is Doctor Echse, Fraulein . He administers to the health of our garrison, as well as the...aah...medical conditions of our...aah...guests. He will give you your medication now."
"Why don't you just do what you did to Madge? Afraid I'll rip your throat open? Or is this it?"
"Nein, Fraulein, that was permanent. I yet have need of you. But your unwillingness to discuss your mission in useful detail demands that we turn to chemical assistance. It is quite temporary, I assure you. And quite irresistible. Proceed, Doctor."
Echse advanced on Jan with a hypodermic syringe in his hand. Jan felt her stomach clench, and her fear almost blinded her -- the idea of being rendered helpless by a drug was one of her worst nightmares. She struggled and rocked the chair, but the SS guard behind her held her head in a vise-like grip. He seemed immensely strong, or perhaps she was just weakened by her ordeal; she couldn't break his grip, and she felt the pinprick as the point of the needle slid into her neck. She looked up at Stosser and spat at him with a dry mouth. She felt a swirling, whirlpool motion, a roaring in her ears, and she would have vomited from vertigo if all her muscles hadn't suddenly gone slack; she was floating....
It was a rabbit, a hare -- caught in a trap laid by Fiona from the endless population of them grazing over the moor. Fiona laid the rabbit on the flat stone in the center of the ring of ancient stones not a hundred feet from Fiona's house. Fiona handed Melinda a knife.
Fiona intoned rather than spoke, more a chant that a speech. "The ancients knew this spot as strange, unstable. Eldritch. Whenever they found such a place, they tried to confine the strangeness by encircling it with enchanted stones. There are hundreds of sites like this in Britain . Many more all over the world. Some of them, like this one, are weak places in the barriers between this world and the nether world. If you pass through here, your soul will be tied to this place, and when you return you will return here. A death here will open the barrier, just a little. When you drink the herbs, your consciousness will be able to focus on that fissure, and pass through it. Are you ready?"
Melinda gulped. "Ah am."
"Then drink. Then slit the animal's throat, then its belly. Streak the blood on your face and lie down."
" This is for you Janice, my darling..." Melinda took the clay cup from Fiona's hand, and, before she could smell the brew within, swallowed it down in one go. The aftertaste made her retch, but she turned to what she had to do. Grasp the animal, expose the throat; plunge in the knife. Blood gushed over her hands, black in the moonlight. She began to tremble, but she turned the hare on its back, thrust the knife into the wound, and cut the length of the body. She could feel the life leaving the animal's body, and with it a feeling as if she was being turned inside out. She experienced the rabbit's dying instant, and it was an instant of horror never before known, overwhelming revulsion and fear. It passed in a breath; her knees began to buckle under her, and before she collapsed she thrust both hands into the rent carcass and smeared the blood on her cheeks and forehead. Fiona and Rick caught her as she faded, and helped her softly to the ground.
The earth beneath her dissolved, turned liquid, as her body also seemed to do, the stars in the sky randomly coming loose from their moorings, swimming in the velvet-blue pond of the sky, the moon began to melt and drip and meld into the chaos of stars, now fluid streaks running into each other, forming a liquid lacework. She could feel the rainbow of sounds in the night, the sharp pinpricks of crickets, the skin-crawling of the sound of the breeze. Fiona and Rick simply disappeared into the chaotic universe that by now had no bright and no dark, no color that wasn't another color. She was unsupported, no earth below, no sky above, no moon or air or ocean. She was floating...
The night air was balmy, with a hint of the sea in it and the perfume of spring, fish and wood smoke. The log she sat on was rough and hard. The campfire burned merrily, shedding light on the woman across from her. She was dark, about Melinda's own deep shade of blue-black, and blue-eyed. She was tall, muscular, and clad in a brief leather garment that accentuated her curves and gave her an air of aggressive power.
Melinda knew exactly who she was looking at. And had not a moment of disbelief. This was Xena, the Warrior-Princess of the Scrolls, she whose soul she had harbored, whose innermost self Melinda had glimpsed for those brief, chaotic moments two years ago. What more proof did she need to know that Fiona's magic had worked, that she was...somewhere else, some part of the spirit world...
"Want some?" Xena offered pieces of grilled fish wrapped in flat bread. Melinda shook her head. "No thank you. I'm not hungry." She wasn't sure of her pronunciation -- while she read ancient Macedonian fluently, she had never heard it spoken, and had to kind of make it up as she went along. Xena smiled.
"I'm not either. I'm dead, after all. But we can enjoy these pleasures even though we don't need to eat or drink. Oh, and you can speak whatever language you're comfortable with. I'll understand you."
"How? My native language didn't even exist when you were alive!"
Xena shrugged, took a bite, chewed meditatively. "I have no idea. It's the afterlife, Melinda. Lots of unanswered questions. The rules aren't the same as in your world."
"How did I end up here? Accordin' to...my guide, I could have entered the spirit world anywhere."
"I don't know. Gabrielle could probably answer that better than I can. She thinks a lot about stuff like that."
"Oh." Melinda clasped her hands in her lap and looked at the ground, unsure what to say next. "Where is Gabrielle? Is she with you?"
"Always. She stepped down to the stream to bathe. She'll be back shortly. She wants to meet you..."
"...because she's been expecting you." Another voice, sweeter, more feminine, but clear and strong, finished the sentence. Melinda looked up.
Janice stood before her, wrapped in a coarse gray towel, dripping wet -- but Janice, the face, the hair wet and tangled as Melinda had seen it hundreds of times, the sea-green eyes, the short stature, the compact body; Janice. By all gods living and dead -- Janice.
She wept. She couldn't control it. She started to rise, rushed to hold Jan in her arms, overjoyed, relieved and terrified all at once. Xena put a hand on her arm, but the other woman said "No, Xena, let her come to me."
As Melinda reached for her, the other put both hands on her shoulders and looked into Melinda's eyes. "Melinda, I'm not Janice. I'm Gabrielle. I'm sorry, I should have had Xena warn you. I know I look like her."
Through the haze of tears and her own overwhelming emotion, Melinda heard the name, and began to calm down. "Gabrielle?...Gabrielle. Of course." She dried her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. "Ah should have known. You're Janice's ancestor. Of course. But good heavens Ah never expected you to be her twin."
Gabrielle encircled Melinda's waist with her arm, and led her back to her seat. She went to stand behind Xena, wrapped her arms around the warrior, kissed her hair. "She looks like you, a lot, doesn't she?"
Xena looked at Melinda appraisingly. "Yeah. Yeah. Moves like me, too. I remember. That was a good fight. You ever thought of being a fighter? You've got the stuff for it."
Gabrielle laughed. "Xena, come on. There's not much room for fighters in her world. Not that kind, anyway. Am I right, Melinda?"
"Well, yes. We're in the middle of a big war right now. But most of the fightin' is with guns and machines. Not your kind of fightin', Xena."
Xena's eyebrows rose. "Not sure I like that development."
Gabrielle stood up. "I'm getting dressed."
Xena chuckled. "Why? It's almost bedtime."
Gabrielle slapped Xena playfully on the shoulder. "We have a guest . "
Gabrielle reached behind the log for her clothes, looked at Melinda with a question in her eyes. "Do you mind?"
"Uh...no...of course not."
Gabrielle dropped the towel, and quickly dressed. Melinda couldn't help staring in a way that she knew was rude. Jan's body, every curve and line. All the Southern dignity in the world couldn't keep Melinda from following Gabrielle's every move. Xena's face clouded up.
Gabrielle sat next to Xena. "Now, I'm sure you have a bunch of questions. But first, I have one. Is that the body you want to have?"
"Body?" Melinda was confused.
"The body you have now. It isn't really a body, you know. It's an illusion that you make up to give yourself a center. I just wonder if you wanted to change it."
"Change it? Uh...no. Ah just...found myself here. The last thing I remember was killing a rabbit in the dead of night, and then...here."
"All right. Since you ended up in our world, I assume you have the same abilities we do. You can change your body in any way you want, in the afterworld. We wear these bodies, Xena and I, because we were happiest when we were in them. But we can change. So can you. Or you can have no body at all -- but that's kind of hard to manage."
"Gabrielle, that's fine, but Ah came here to contact Janice. She's in terrible danger. How can Ah find her?"
"What do you mean, Ah can't? I've got to! She could d.."
"She's alive, Melinda. She's not here. A soul in the afterworld can't contact a living one unless..."
Xena interrupted. "...there's a blood tie. Like me with you."
Melinda turned to Gabrielle. "Then you could contact her."
"And I will try." Her expression became serious. "But Janice presents a special problem. Melinda, I've been listening to Janice. She's in terrible trouble, lots of pain. But there may be a moment...." Gabrielle cocked her head with her eyes half-closed. "Xena, it's now . I have to go."
Xena leaned over and kissed Gabrielle. "Go ahead. But come back to me."
"Of course. I love you."
"Love you, too.."
Before the words faded away Gabrielle dissolved into millions of tiny points, still in the shape of her body but fainter and fainter, as each point winked out and disappeared. In a moment there was nothing left but a faint lingering scent of soap and clean young woman.
Xena drew in a deep breath. "Ahh, I'm glad we added smells. Now listen, Melinda. We have to fix whatever we can from this side. I think I know some of what your friend's gotten herself into, but I need to know what you do. I'm going to join with you, like I did before, only I won't take over your body like I did then. Neither of us actually has a body, anyway. I want to know everything you know."
To Melinda this seemed eminently sensible, as if Xena and she were perfectly in tune. "Ah guess so. We've done this already. Ah think you prob'ly know everything already -- most of what Ah know about it Ah got from the Scrolls. Gabrielle's scrolls."
"Maybe. But I may not remember all the details. Ready?"
"Here we go..."
When Janice Covington was eight years old, her father left her and her mother for some distant place, "just for a couple of months", and during the summer her mother packed her off to camp. It wasn't a pleasant experience; she didn't fit in, she read too much, she won at games too often, she was short, she was ugly, she didn't like movie stars -- a catalogue of pre-adolescent sins. She kept the bullies at their distance by winning some fights, but nobody would hang around with her. The best part of that five weeks was when she'd sneak out of the cabin at night, slink down to the lake, and swim out to the raft in the dark, guided only by starlight or moonlight. She'd lie on her back on the raft, let the cool night breeze dry her body, and, with her eyes closed, let the gentle rocking lull her into a state that wasn't sleep, wasn't wakefulness, but a perfect calm of the soul. It was a kind of bliss.
The whole camp thing was made even worse when she returned home, however. Her mother had left, never to return, leaving her in the charge of two dowager aunts until Harry saw fit to come back. It was a calamitous conclusion to a mortifying period in her life, which was why she'd tried hard to forget the whole thing, including those moments of enchantment on the raft.
But now it was back; there was no pain, no fear, no worries, only her own heartbeat and a soft sensation of rising and falling, no world, no war, and only occasionally a flash of a blue-eyed beauty that she couldn't quite remember.
There was a rumble at the edge of consciousness, someone was speaking, asking her a question, and it seemed terribly urgent that she answer. She didn't remember answering; but another question came out of the dark, and this one seemed terribly urgent, too. The comforting nothingness absorbed her once more, she was ready to be like this forever, she couldn't imagine or remember anything else...it was so nice. If only she could be left alone, not have to answer any more questions....
A burst of ecstasy , like sex only better, more sustained, more of the spirit than the body, welled up from beneath the velvet darkness and banished it, replaced it with a pearly light and a sense of vitality. She tried to move , found that she couldn't, but couldn't dismiss the feel of round, smooth wood in her right hand. It wasn't all pleasant; the feeling was so strange, so unknown, that it inspired a species of fear. A soothing voice overlaid her fear, and the pure pleasure of sharing dominated her awareness.
She found she could think clearly, frame sentences in her mind. "Who's there?"
It's Gabrielle, Janice."
"Huh...Gabrielle...Xena's Gabrielle? That Gabrielle?"
"Yes, if you wish. Your ancestor. We're together, in the same body, in the same mind. I'm here to protect you."
"Protect me? From what?" Then, as an afterthought, "You're dead."
"Only my body, Janice. Do you remember where you are? The Germans drugged you. They want you to tell them about why you're here."
"No, I don't remember. I was floating, it was beautiful..."
"That's the drug. They're asking you questions and you can't lie. You can't even not answer."
"What can I do?" Janice began to feel sad, sad that she'd so lost control of...everything, lost something incredibly important..
"I don't believe it..."
Gabrielle was strong, insistent. "Of course you do. You can't not believe it. Ever since Macedonia , ever since Ares and Xena and Melinda, you've tried not to believe in me. You've tried hard to shut me out. Do you remember arguing with Melinda about who wrote the scrolls?"
"I don't know..."
"You didn't want to believe that I was your ancestor. You were never proud of me. Even after Xena told you about me, you convinced yourself it wasn't true, you made me disappear. I've been listening to you, Janice."
"...can't...understand...why Xena...wanted you..."
A sense of laughter. "I don't understand that, either. I never did. But she does, and we go together, never apart, and I give as much as she does. I'm important, and it took me almost all my life to learn that, but I know it and will know it forever. Why does Melinda want you? But you know she does. You're important, too. I want to help you, Janice. Just listen and watch. You can't resist my being here, the drug keeps you from shutting me out. That's why I never came to you before. You resisted."
"Not...not enough evidence."
"But you didn't even admit it could be true, that I could be real and important. I'm sorry, Janice, to take advantage of you like this, but I had to take a chance to break through to you. Your life is in danger. The whole world's in danger. Will you let me help you?"
"Germans...will they know you're here?"
"No. This whole conversation has taken no time at all, in your world. Just let me speak for you. You haven't got control of your muscles yet, so don't try to move and I won't try to make you. Just let me speak."
A great tiredness took hold of Janice, as if talking to Gabrielle had sapped every ounce of energy. She had to acquiesce. "OK."
"Trust me, Janice. We'll get through this."
Stosser sneered at the doctor. "You gave her the wrong dose, you idiot! She's babbling."
"No, Captain, I swear it was the correct dose for her height and weight."
"Well, she isn't paying attention to our questions, just rambling on about ancient Greece, Rome, Caesar, the gods...damn, you said she would be unable to hide anything, and yet we learn nothing! Nonsense! Are you sure it is the right drug?"
"Yes, Captain. You've seen it work before. Perhaps...perhaps she is hallucinating."
"Perhaps she is caught in some deep fantasy of her own making, and she doesn't even realize we're here. If that's true, we're unlikely to get anything useful out of her."
"Then what do you suggest? "
"Let her sleep it off. Then try again later. Perhaps a lower dose, accompanied with more, ah, painful and humiliating treatment, to keep her attentive but not allow her to submerge into a fantasy world."
"What treatments do you suggest? This your area of expertise ." Stosser's emphasis on the last word dripped sarcasm.
Dr. Echse was thoughtful. "Oh, electric shock, rape, sleep deprivation, perhaps another beating. It depends on how quickly you wish to elicit information."
Stosser's frustration was evident in his tone. "As quickly as possible."
The doctor noted Stosser's impatience, but was unintimidated. After years of concentration-camp work, little could faze him. "Then there's nothing to be done now."
"Damn and blast. Send her back to her cell."
"Oh my, Xena. Oh my oh my."
Xena put a hand on Melinda's shoulder. It was a firm, friendly grasp, solid and real, and Melinda marveled again at her remarkable discovery that life in the spirit world was as much a physical reality as life on Earth. Xena's touch was strong and reassuring.
"Are you all right, Melinda?"
Melinda clamped her eyes shut, and shook her head sharply. "Yes, Ah'm fine, just...Xena, dear, that's very...disturbing. Yes. Very disturbing. Like the last time."
"Well, at least this time we didn't have to fight anyone. You do get used to it."
"Ah'm not sure Ah want to. When we join like that, it's hard to keep track of who Ah am."
"Yes. I remember the first time I did that."
"Was it like that for you? When we fought Ares?"
"No, Joining was pretty old stuff by then. No, the first time I did that was with Gabrielle."
"But I thought...a blood relative?"
"Yeah, I've joined with a number of my descendants. Gabrielle's the only one I've been able to join with who wasn't a blood relative. That's why we're sure we have something very special between us."
"Didn't you know that when you were alive?"
"Well...I knew how I felt . But I was never sure. Gabrielle and I, we were in love, but we had some very bad times, too...It took my dying to make us sure."
Melinda thought for a moment, decided her curiosity was overwhelming. "Why did you join with her?"
"She was going to kill herself. I couldn't allow that. It wasn't time."
"Ah see. Ah think. How did you know?"
"That she was going to commit suicide? or that she wasn't ready?"
"Both, Ah guess."
"Melinda, we can hear the living when we want to. We listen, we pay attention to those who're close to us. There's never been anyone more important that Gabrielle. As to how I knew it wasn't her time...gods, I just knew ."
"No one told you?"
"No. Melinda, there's no one to just hand you the answers when you die. it's a lot like life; you have to figure things out, understand how you feel, what those feelings mean."
"But...who's in charge? Who runs things?"
"We do. The souls. We order our worlds pretty much the way we want to."
"But...what if you want something someone else doesn't want? Do you fight about it?"
"Melinda, while time doesn't mean much here, it means a lot in your world, and if we're going to fix what's happening in Amphipolis, we have to get going."
"Hell. I haven't been there in a long memory, but if we're to rescue Janice, that's where we have to go."
"No surprise. Just stay with me, and don't wander off on your own. You could get in trouble."
"Trouble? In the afterlife?"
"You asked what happens if there's conflict between souls?"
Xena grinned wickedly. "That's what Hell is for."
Melinda was shocked. "You go to Hell? for disagreeing ?"
"No. For forcing your will on another. Trying to use your powers at someone else's expense."
"But what about sin?"
"That's it. Power. We all have power, but when we use it badly, thoughtlessly or selfishly...off to Hell."
It was quite a different version of the afterworld from the one Melinda had learned as a child.
Xena reached out to Melinda. "Now we must go. Take my hand."
Melinda grasped the strong, calloused fighter's hand in her own, and they rose above the campsite in fast, silent flight.
Jan's eyes flew open. She sat bolt upright. "Did I hit anyone? Wherethehell am I?" Sitting up was, she decided, not a good thing, because she felt like throwing up. She fought it because Mel would be mad as hell if she made a mess in the bed. Her head spun and buzzed. A pair of strong hands gently pushed her back down; the bed was gawdawful hard, but there was a pillow.
"You okay?" It was a familiar voice, not Mel's. Groggily, Jan muttered, "Yeah, I'm good...wait a min...who's that? Why the hell can't I see anything?"
"It's Mike, Dr. C. It's nighttime. There's some moonlight. Just let your eyes get used to it."
Slowly, like cold water in a warm bath, memory returned; interrogation, the drug, -- Gabrielle . God, there was a lot to think about. She felt a cold wetness against her face, recoiled. Miley said, "Relax, it's just water. No food, but they brought us some water. Here, have a drink. Her head was held up and a metal can touched her lips, cool water flowed into her mouth. It was the very stuff of life.
"How long have I been here? How long was I out?" She looked up, tried to focus on whatever there was to see.
Miley's face was outlined in pale light as her eyes adjusted. "I don't know for sure. It was light when they brought you back here. Maybe five, six hours."
"Have they interrogated you?" asked Jan, with a fuzzy slur.
Miley kept wiping her face with the cool water. "Yeah. No rough stuff, though. Just name-rank-serial-number, basically. Nothing like they're putting you through. What's with that? Did you bust Stosser's dolly, or somethin'?"
Jan took a sip of water, swished it around in her dry mouth. "Yeah, kind of. We've crossed paths a few times before. Just professional rivalry, at first. Stosser always seemed to be a day late and a dollar short, and he blames me for it. Ahh, He can go fuck himself."
"Doc....you can't keep this up. That sonovabitch is obsessed with you and what you know. He's gonna kill you, eventually."
"Shit. He's gonna kill us both, and we all know that. If we don't do something about it. I might have an idea about that. Lemme..."
She tried to stand up, and the world came loose from its pins. Her stomach turned and she vomited, a nasty acidic stream that was all she could produce on an empty stomach. She moved to the wall and sat with her knees pulled up. "Just lemme get my equilibrium back. Just let me sit here for a while, then we can work on something I have in my head."
Miley sat down next to her, and they were silent for a while. After a few minutes she looked over at Miley and saw that he'd fallen asleep. While he slept, she thought. Hard.
Obsessed with me and what I know. Well, what the hell do I know that he doesn't? We both know about the Portal, now. I know about his scrolls and he knows about mine. I have no idea what he's trying to do in Amphipolis, but why should he squeeze me for something he knows and I don't? Why the hell should it matter?
Wait a minute -- what does he know about my scrolls? We've only published a limited number of excerpts, mostly from the very early scrolls. He's probably got more of Xena's bio, from Eve's viewpoint, than we do from Gabrielle's. So he's got the edge on me there. I know who wrote his scrolls, or at least I know who he thinks wrote his scrolls, and he knows who wrote mine. I know where his scrolls came from, and he knows where mine came...
Oh... no he doesn't . We never published the details of where Gabrielle's scrolls were found. That's been a criticism we've hard a hard time answering -- lack of provenance. With good reason -- we'd be damned if we told the world where the God of War could be found.
Ares. He's trying to find Ares. Somehow he figured out that Ares was entombed with the scrolls. The Nazis want to bring him back.
Boy, are they in for a shock. If they think Ares'll fight on their side, they'd better think again. He'll keep switching sides just to keep the war going -- that's his whole purpose for being. And when he gets tired of the game, he'll just pull some god shit, blow Hitler and Mussolini to hell, and run the whole show himself.
Well, now I know what not to spill. Gabrielle protected me once, but how long can that last? And if she can't protect me, how long can I keep my mouth shut? These SS bastards are pros. I'm an archaeologist, for cryin' out loud. I've always thought I was pretty tough, but who can stand up to what these monsters can do?
We've gotta get out of here.
Melinda held tightly to Xena's hand, even though she felt that if he let go she wouldn't fall. The sensation was more of floating than flying, as if the very atmosphere itself buoyed her up. Below them was a wildly varied landscape, forests and streams and cities and fields, and it seemed as though Melinda just barely glimpsed a place below her when it was gone and there was another.
"Xena, you said 'worlds'".
"Worlds?" Xena's voice was clear and strong, and Melinda realized that they were flying in silence, without a rush of air or wind.
"Yes, you said 'the souls order their worlds the way they want to.' Does that mean that each soul..."
"Has its own world? Yeah, so it seems...people create the world they want to live in and who they want to share it with."
"Does that mean you and Gabrielle are alone? Just the two of you?"
"Oh no...there are people we let into our world, and we go to others...there's a lot of coming and going."
"So your world is that camp? Did you make that?"
"Yes. We tried a lot of lives, cottages, palaces -- just didn't feel right. We were always happiest on the road, sleeping under the stars, wrapped in furs by a fire. So that's what we decide to make."
Mel considered. "What are the other worlds like?"
"All kinds. Here, let me show you...there. See that house?"
Below them a large house appeared, in classical style with a terra-cotta tile roof, a peristyle in the middle and surrounded by lush gardens and fountains.
"Whose is that? Xena, it's beautiful."
"Sappho's. She made this world for her and her friends. It is nice. We've visited there a lot. Gabrielle and Sappho are very close, they have a thing."
"A..thing? You mean..."
"They get together...write poetry, or whatever."
Melinda looked at Xena with frank astonishment. Xena smiled mirthlessly and said, "Don't worry. She always comes back. She always will. Here we are."
"Where we are...uh, are we?"
They floated by a black sphere, rust-colored streaks flowing over its surface. It was about as big across as Xena was tall. Xena pointed.
"It's so small."
"You'll see when you get inside."
Xena took Melinda by the shoulders, turned her so they were face to face. "Are you sure you want to go inside?"
"Ah have to. It's the only way to rescue..."
"...Janice. Maybe. Gabrielle is looking after Janice. We may help her or we may not. But I have to do this because...gods, I hate to say this...I have to save the world. Yeah I know, Dead Warrior Succumbs to Ego. But listen. A long time ago -- your time -- Gabrielle and I closed a fissure, a weak point that opened a way between Earth and Hell."
"Yes, Ah read about that."
"Did you read about how we closed it?"
"No...that wasn't part of that scroll. Ah didn't get a chance to read the next one...Ah was too scared that Janice was walking right into it..."
"I killed Mephistopheles, Melinda. The King of Hell. Then I forced another into Hell to take over being King. And then the fissure just -- closed. I don't know how."
"So it might be opened again."
Yes. I suppose, from what I learned while I was in your mind, that maybe the King of Hell struck a deal with these Nazis of yours. He's devious enough."
"Ah assure you Xena, these Nazis are none of mine. And who is this new King, the one you forced down? I was always taught to call him Satan."
Xena gave a lopsided grin. "That's what he calls himself now. He used to be called Lucifer."
"And you think he's treatin' with Hitler?"
"It's possible. A..devil's bargain, you might say. That's the danger..."
"Modern weapons and the power of Hell...well, shouldn't we be going, then?"
"Now, listen, Melinda. This is your last chance. This is Hell . It's dangerous. You're a spirit here, but you're not immortal. You could be harmed. As far as I know, a mortal's spirit has never been inside Hell. I do know that being near the portal had a pretty bad effect on me, and Gabrielle, and lots of others. I almost succumbed to it. You have to maintain iron control. Think of Janice. You can be killed, or you can be changed. You die here, you die back on Earth. Are you sure you want to go through with this?" Last chance."
"Ah'm sure. ... Janice...
"Follow me and do what I do. Don't leave my side for anything."
The cell was flooded with moonlight now, and Jan was able to move and focus without her stomach flopping over. "Let's take a look at that door."
She crouched down by the flat plate at the edge of the door -- there was no inside handle -- and sure enough, there was a keyhole on the inside face of the plate. "The keyway must pass all the way through the door. Maybe..."
"Maybe what?" asked Miley.
Jan was still poking around the keyhole. "Maybe we could pick the lock."
"I don't...are you sure, doc? Do you know how to pick locks?"
"Well...I did do it once, a long time ago. Paper clips work, or pieces of wire. Depends on the lock."
"Where'd you learn to do that?"
Think fast, Jan. "Ahhh...you learn a little about locksmithing in architecture and engineering classes; I had to take some of those in school. It's a long shot, but it's a shot. Like you said, we can't stay here and wait for Stosser's next move. Somethin's better than nothin'."
"Okay, but what can we use? I don't have anything like that. They even took my toothpicks."
"Yeah, me too. Jackknife, everything. But they left me my underwear."
"My bra, Miley."
"Brassiere, Mike. What'd you think, I'd come on this picnic with bare boobs, have 'em bouncin' around loose? Haven't you even had your hands on a woman's bra?"
"Uuh...yeah, sure. But I was more interested in what was in it."
"Well, there's wire in mine. Two pieces, one under each cup. I can probably work 'em out. This is an old-fashioned lock, too. It shouldn't be hard to pick open once we've got the tools."
"OK, let's try it. Uh...is there a guard outside the door? He could hear us."
Jan banged on the door. "Hey schnauzer! You there?"
Silence. "I guess they figure there's no way out of here and they won't waste a guard on us. Let's get to work."
Miley said, "I'll just sit over here in the corner. I won't look, I promise."
"Makes no damn difference to me. I assume you've seen a woman before this."
Jan sat in the center of the cell under the ceiling grate where the moonlight was brightest, stripped to the waist. With a remaining fingernail she picked at the fabric that covered the end of the wire, as, slowly, maddeningly slowly, the fibers wore away one by one. finally the tip of the wire popped out of the fabric, and she pulled the wire out like a bone from a cooked fish. The other side went faster; she used the sharp end of the wire to rip the cloth that covered the end of the other one. She dressed again and held up two curved, flat wires. She applied pressure to one end; yes, if she was careful she could bend them, and they'd hold their shape. Now for the hard part.
She straightened out one of the wires and put a slight bend in the end, twisting the bent end so it was at right angles to the rest of the wire. Cripes, I hope I remember how to do this. Harry, why the hell did you ever teach me about this shit? Well, it's comin' in handy now. This is an old-fashioned warded lock. How many wards? Probably one, no more that two. Let's hope it's one. And let's hope the bolt slides easy. She moved the wire back and forth, felt it catch, and twisted it. She inserted the other wire until she felt it go through the hole that attached the pin to the bolt, and pulled sideways. It moved, and she could feel the bolt move with it. The door moved toward her slightly. Holy hot damn.
"How do we get in, Xena? I don't see any entrance. isn't there suppose to be a gate, or something...' all hope abandon, ye who enter here?' Like that?"
"Dante had a good imagination. I asked him why he did that, and he said it's what his readers would expect. But he was a storyteller. Gabrielle was really mad that she didn't think of it first. No, we just go . Getting in is easy. Getting out is hard -- although for us, I don't know."
"We're not damned. And I've never been in here. Just heard stories."
Melinda felt her heart rise in her throat (which she didn't have, she remembered), but kept to her resolve. She took Xena's hand again as they approached the sphere, and were surrounded by a reddish darkness. She felt as if she were buried in swarming insects.
The darkness lifted. They were on a flat plain, grey and featureless. All about them was a gray-green mist, like a fog at sea, swirling in wisps and streams.
As they moved -- she couldn't say it was walking, or flying, just moving -- they encountered what appeared to be human bodies, often regimented into long lines and files, like soldiers or the pictures she'd seen of the mass rallies the Nazis kept having. After a moment Melinda realized why she viewed them with such loathing.
"Xena! They have no faces!"
"These are the souls of the damned. Remember, they came here because they tried to exalt themselves. Can you imagine worse suffering for someone with a lust for power and ego than eternal anonymity? I can't. These were brutal, selfish people who were responsible for taking so much from innocents."
Without thinking Melinda blurted "Why aren't you.." then realized what she was about to ask.
Xena was looking about her warily. "How come I'm not among them? I think I was headed for this. I changed my path."
"Because of Gabrielle?"
"No, not at first. I made the choice before I met her. " Xena smiled wistfully at a memory. "Perhaps rescuing her was the first selfless thing I ever did, because even though I loved her as soon as I saw her, I was ready to give her up as long as I could save her life. But I made the decision. If I'd let Gabrielle guide me, I'd probably be here, because I'd have never seen the right path on my own. She did keep me on it, though. 'Your path is my path', she kept saying. But it was more the other way around -- her path became my path. Now, remember what I told you. Control. This fog is the Essence of Damnation. It keeps these souls in their demonic state. I know what effect it has on mortal bodies, I've been through it, a little. You may feel strange desires, urges. Fight them."
Melinda was willing to listen to anything Xena had to say -- she seemed to know so much, was very -- wise, that was the word. But Melinda had to ask another question. "How will we find the Portal? This place is vast."
"Follow the fog. It will flow toward the Portal. I just hope that's the only Portal open."
The wisps of fog did flow past them, and it seemed they followed a direction.
A strange sense of excitement rose in her. I'm exploring Hell, she thought, with this gorgeous woman as my guide. Why, no one's ever done this before. How did an awkward girl from Charleston ever get here?
But I'm not awkward any more. I feel strong. I am beautiful. Jan thinks so. I wonder if, maybe, I should expect more of Jan. After all, I let her love me...
She recoiled at the direction her thoughts were taking. It was true, she did feel strong, and beautiful, in a way she never thought of herself before. But to think she was better than Jan, that she was doing Jan a favor...
Is this what Xena meant? Control? Are these thoughts real? I never thought about Jan that way. I would never think of her that way.
Xena, slightly ahead of her, had a pantherlike grace that seemed all the more impressive in someone so tall and muscular. Melinda looked at her for a long time, and felt stirrings...as if she were in bed with Jan, Jan was touching her intimately, but it wasn't Jan, it was Xena...
She broke the thread of fantasy with a jolt. This is ridiculous. She's your ancestor, for heaven's sake, she belongs to Gabrielle, she's dead , you can't desire Xena. And I belong to Janice.
But it's true. I do desire Xena. This is terrible. How can I do this to Janice?
What about Janice? What do I owe her? Who is she to deny me the pleasure of desire for a woman? She had plenty of fun before we met.
And she abandoned me. Maybe she doesn't deserve my loyalty. Xena, now, this woman knows what loyalty is, she knows how to reward a lover. Jan took off and got herself in a lot of trouble, and now I have to pull her bacon out of the fire...
I'm afraid. I'm scaring myself.
"Xena? Xena, talk to me."
Xena turned from her stalking. "Melinda, are you all right?"
"Ah...Ah don't know. Ah'm scared, Ah'm confused..."
"Melinda, think about why you're here. Think of Janice. Think of all the awful things that can happen if we don't succeed. Stay focused. Can you do that? You can do that. You're having alien feelings? That's from the Essence. You're tasting the impulses that lead to damnation. Fight it!"
Xena shook her by the shoulders, and her touch was like fire, like hot electricity running through her blood.
I love Janice. I love her. I want to be with her. I need to keep telling myself that. But the touch of Xena's hand, the fire that filled her, made her feel that she'd give up Janice in a moment to feel Xena's body against hers. And with her growing lust she felt stronger, more powerful, more agile. She remembered, more vividly than ever, how it felt to have her body animated by Xena's skill. If there's to be a fight, I'm ready for it. And she amazed herself that she could feel that way.
I'm seeing a whole new me. Xena and I, we belong together. She must see it, too. We're alike. Why not just tell her?
No. Not yet. When we've finished, when we've conquered, then I'll have her. And I'll no longer be the shy gangly Southern-belle wannabe that Jan condescends to so much. I'll be...loved. I'll be...
To Drain the Ocean with a Spoon
Miley, who had been standing behind and over her while she worked the lock, grabbed the edge of the door with the tips of his fingers and pulled. The door swung open. "Damn, doc, you did it."
The corridor outside the cell was faintly illuminated by the full moon whose light filled their erstwhile prison. They couldn't see more than a few feet away; the opposite wall, and a wall directly to the left, told Jan that this was a dead-end corridor and their cell was at the end of it. Now where in blazes are we?, she fumed to herself. I don't remember anything like this when I was here, but it must have been here then because it's obviously older than ten years. We don't have to pick a direction, anyway. Only one way out. She tapped Miley's arm and silently they moved along the wall, alert to sounds or a sign of a light.
Jan froze, putting a restraining hand on Miley's shoulder. There was a sound, a shuffling and a rattle of metal, a scraping, and a brilliant flash of light that temporarily blinded her. Before she could react Miley rushed forward and collided with the SS guard who had just carelessly lit a cigarette, dazzling their eyes with the glare of the match. She could see Miley slam his shoulder into the guard's chest before the match went out, and they were all plunged into darkness. She ran around the struggling bodies, trying to sort out who was who... he was wearing a helmet...yeah, the guard had a helmet on... She reached into the writhing mass, felt the cold steel of the helmet, put both her hands under the edge and pulled...the strap resisted her pull, and she just kept pulling until she realized that their adversary had stopped moving. Miley let out a long breath. "Doc...doc, you there?" She heard Miley's hoarse whisper.
"Yeah. You okay?"
"Yeah. Kind of twisted my shoulder. I think this guy's a goner."
Jan felt for a pulse in the guard's neck, couldn't find any. No sound of breathing, either. "Yeah, He's dead, I think. what'd you do?"
"Dunno, but I kind of heard a crack when I hit him. Smashed his ribs, or something. What'd you do?"
"I might have strangled him. Let's get out of here before someone who heard this finds us. Wait, he's gotta have a..."
"...already got it. Some kind of rifle. And a flashlight, too."
"Don't use it unless you have to. Did he have anything else? Pistol..."
"Nope. We gotta go...ow, Jayzus, that hurts."
"Give me a minute...he had a pack of matches...we don't know if the flashlight works..." She rifled the guard's pockets, came up with what felt like a paper matchbook, and a bonus -- a knife, or maybe a bayonet.
"C'mon, doc! Let's move!"
"OK, now." Jan was feeling her own injuries, too -- her side hurt like she had a knife in it, and her head and face ached, but she didn't say anything.
They moved again in silence, past the body of the guard they'd dispatched, and came to a point where the tunnel formed a T with a crossing tunnel. Which way? We can't afford to get lost down here. We need to get to the surface and...what? Run like rabbits? Or kick some Nazi ass?
At that moment Miley asked the question out loud. "Doc, what do you have in mind?"
"I'm open to suggestions."
"We still have a mission."
"Yeah, but I have no idea how to go about it."
"What if we just find a way to blow this place? Set a fire, or something?"
"Yeah, we probably could do something, if we can find the right place."
Miley rasped, "you know if we do that we'll never get out of here alive."
Jan replied, flatly, "Did you really expect to?"
It was a while before Miley answered. "Nah. I guess not. Been nice knowin' you, doc."
"You too, Mike." I love you, Melinda .
They went up the corridor, and Jan recognized the short flight of steps she'd been led up on the way to Stosser's interrogation room. There was another tunnel off to the right, that faded into darkness. Miley said, "It still must be night up there. Can you get us up to the village?"
"Maybe. If I could see these walls, I might..."
Miley handed her the flashlight. "Here. You move down the corridor and if I hear anybody coming, I'll hiss."
"OK." Jan shielded the light with her body and carefully went over the walls, almost inch-by-inch. Masonry block, not raw stone...markings, anything...ahhh, what's this? Writing. Arabic script. Turkish? Carved into the stone, so it was probably put here by whoever built this wall. Ottomans. These corridors are more recent than Xena's tunnels. But we can't be far from the Greek underground works. Amphipolis wasn't that big.
They moved carefully down the tunnel, away from the stairs, until Jan noticed that the masonry changed to a style she could identify as common in Roman construction. They moved about fifty yards further on until their progress was arrested by what felt like random rubble and soil.
"Chance a light?" Miley asked.
"Yeah. Gotta see which way this goes, if anywhere."
Their light revealed that the tunnel was blocked; a mound of rubble sloped from floor to ceiling, a jumbled mix of soil, wooden beams, and masonry chunks. The corridor was a dead-end; the only way they could go was backwards.
Without warning Miley put out the light. Jan turned and was about to ask what the hell he was doing, when she felt his hand lightly stop her mouth -- and she heard what he had heard. Voices, down the tunnel the way they had come, German voices. Oh, shit on a plate, they found the guard. Motherfuckers know we're loose. Have to hide somewhere -- up there at the top of the rubble. maybe they won't look here, they know it's a dead end.
She nudged Miley, whispered "Up! quiet!" and didn't have to say it twice. They climbed the rubble, carefully but quickly, trying not to slip or dislodge anything that could rattle down the slope. At the top, right at the ceiling, the rubble formed a ridge, a kind of cave. They hunkered down behind the pile, noticing also that the debris seemed to fill up the space beyond, as if the roof of the tunnel was gone. This must be one of the collapsed parts, Jan thought, and wondered how many bones were at the bottom of this detritus.
Flashlight beams ranged up the corridor, and the low guttural registers of German reached her ears. Her German was rusty, but she gathered that the two troopers who came down the blocked tunnel were only doing a cursory search, knowing that anyone would be trapped here. Pistols drawn, the two troopers walked up to the rubble, swung their lights around, and turned back, saying that the escapees must have slipped through the crossing tunnel. In a moment the corridor was dark again.
They lay there for what seemed an interminable time, the only sound their own heartbeats and the occasional scrabble as one of them moved a stiff limb slightly. Finally, Miley broke the silence. "OK, where can we go from here? Seems like the only way out is back the way we came, and they're guarding that."
"I dunno. Maybe..."
Jan turned on her back, reached up, and felt the overhead masonry with her fingers. She found an edge she could wrap her hand around, and it wiggled a little. "Cover your head with your arms," she warned Miley. She tugged at the stone, felt it move with more and more freedom, until it pulled out of the ceiling with a cascade of dirt and small stones. She tried to spit out the dirt that ended up in her mouth; but she felt a breath of cooler, fresher air waft across her face. She put the rock down, thrush her hand into the space it left, and -- felt nothing. Just air. Cool air.
A few minutes work, very quietly, produced a hole large enough for them to both crawl up and through. They were in the open, with the silver moon almost touching the horizon, and the pinpoints of stars over their heads.
"Where are we, doc?"
"I'm not sure, but I think we're just outside the old wall. The scrolls said the tunnels ran under the wall. See how the ground rises in front of us? That must be the remains of the wall, that the Ottomans tried to destroy."
"Uh, doc, did you look in the other direction?"
Jan turned her head, and looked out away from the ruins. As soon as she got a look her heart crawled up into her throat, and she was cockroaching it up the slope into the ruins of the walls as fast -- and as quietly -- as she ever had in her life.
Not fifty yards away were the tents and fires of fifty SS troopers.
The plain of Hell sloped up in front of them, and became a broad flight of steps. The fog of the Essence of Hell flowed up toward a cave-like opening in a high wall, featureless and gray like the plain. The cave mouth seemed to be sucking the fog into it. Xena said, "This must be it. The Essence flows in only one direction, and this must be the portal to Amphipolis. The Germans must be extracting the Essence on the other side of the Portal."
Melinda was mystified. "Why would they want to do that?" she asked; she was vaguely alarmed that this was going on.
"I don't know. I can guess. The Essence of Hell makes free souls into slaves. I remember what happened when the Portal was open the first time; all of us went a little crazy, and that was only a whiff of it. I fought against it and we closed the portal in time."
"Xena?" Mel asked, with almost a hopeful tone. "Are you...changed by it now?"
"No, I don't feel differently. Odd. I expected to. I don't know why .. maybe because I'm not supposed to be here. I'll have to ask Gabrielle later. Are you all right?"
Somehow Melinda felt it important to conceal her new-found power from Xena. "Yes, Ah'm all right."
Suddenly Melinda felt an overwhelming presence; her heart seemed to swell in her chest, fear filled her, and she felt irresistibly drawn to a figure approaching from behind Xena. Dark, repellent, radiating evil, with huge eyes and skin like armor; surrounded by an aura of cold terror, but to Melinda deeply attractive, something forbidden that she knew she must surrender to, or destroy.
"Xena! Come back for another shot at me?" The voice was deep, and shook Melinda's spirit like the roar of an erupting volcano.
Xena was imperturbable. Addressing Melinda, she said, "This, in case you haven't guessed, is the big cheese here. Meet Lucifer, King of Hell. You might know him by another name."
So. My preacher was right after all. Bad girls do get to see Satan face to face. He's not so much. "So -- you're the Devil."
"Satan, please. Not just any old malevolent spirit. I am the real deal."
Melinda couldn't smell anything -- but that might be that she never took the brimstone thing seriously.
Xena said, "I don't give a damn about you, Luci. But your Essence is spilling over into our world again. My friend and I came here to shut it off from your end."
Satan answered in an echoing growl. "You think I don't know that? I put them up to it! They'll spread Hell everywhere in your world!"
"Is this just to get back at me?" Xena asked.
Satan grinned, if Melinda read his face right. "I should. You sent me here. But it turns out there are advantages to being King of Hell. It has its limits, though. Only damned souls to torment. It'd be so much more fun to consume real live people, Xena! So you see your being here is a waste. Leave! You can't do anything about it! The Nazis are pumping the Essence out to Earth and that's exactly what I want them to do! They'll make the Earth ready for my arrival. I may not ever get the rest of the spirit world but I'll turn Earth into something better than Hell!"
Xena's voice became a threatening rasp. "You think Hitler and his pals are your allies, Luci? You think they'll just keep sending you more souls? Luci, they want to dominate the Earth, and anywhere else they can reach! What makes you think they won't find a way to get here? Those bastards are just crazy enough to try! Hell, Luci, I kicked Mephistopheles' ass, and he's gone! I kicked your ass! And I'm just one fighter. You like this cushy job? You wanna stay King of Hell? These Nazi mothers aren't your allies -- THEY'RE YOUR COMPETITION!"
The more Mel listened to Lucifer, the more she grew confident of herself. This was Satan, the Father of Lies, the Ultimate Evil? He was a punk. He was a petty dictator with delusions of grandeur, as misshapen as a lizard, full of bluster and bluff. Anybody could take his place, Melinda thought. Xena could snap him like a twig. Even Janice could kick his ass. Even I could... But she could see what Xena was doing, and another part of her realized that if they could persuade, it would be better than fighting. She was contemptuous at how stupid Satan seemed, in awe at how intelligent Xena's point was. She was furious that this bumpkin didn't see the danger. Mel said with more anger than she thought possible, "We hear stories, horrible stories, whole towns bein' uprooted, people bein' marched off to be killed in droves -- before the war, Hitler promised to kill every Jew in Europe and Ah believe he means it! And why should he stop with Europe ? And why should he stop with Jews? And now -- if you let them continue to take the Essence -- the Earth itself will become the realm of the damned! Who claims it then? You? Or the Nazis?"
"You don't think I can take your puny dictators? I'm Satan, King of Hell! Who can stand against me?"
Xena drew her sword. "I can. I will."
Now anger, rage, rose inside Mel. She lusted for Xena more than ever, and compounded with that desire was a mounting hatred of Lucifer, of anyone who would thwart her needs, of a confused hysteria, visions of Jan who had forsaken her, Xena who was folding into her soul, horror at her surrender to an awful temptation. She wanted what she wanted, everything, and Lucifer, this foul creature, was standing in her way...she was a boiling cauldron of lust, greed, hatred, fear, lust, anger, circling around and around... power.
Xena was in fighting stance, pressing in on Lucifer, striking when she was in range. But the Devil was too fast; he dodged away, laughing a booming, hollow laugh more full of malice than any mortal had ever heard.
"Think you can take me on, Xena? Think that toadsticker'll get to me? Oh you're in for a surprise! My powers have grown since I've been here!"
Xena rasped through bared teeth, "Well, mine have too! If we can't convince you to close this thing, we'll have to do it ourselves, whether you like it or not!"
"Like it? I don't like it! And I've learned a few tricks since you sent me here!" At the tip of Lucifer's fingers a light grew, an unhealthy, rotten glow that swelled and pulsed. He giggled with malicious glee, and the fiery ball rushed directly at Xena, striking her full on the chest.
And Xena went down.
The Warrior Princess crumpled on the slimy steps, still gripping the sword, but now a limp mound of flesh. She wasn't extinguished; she rolled over, and she appeared to smoke like a damp log in the fire. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.
Melinda's rage overwhelmed her. Seeing Xena collapse, seeing her harmed, was more than her fragile control could bear. Lucifer turned to her, released another fireball, but Melinda didn't care, she wasn't possessed of words or images or thoughts now, only power, crackling, blazing power that coursed through her...
They must not have been watching. Although the moon was bright, the old wall cast a shadow on the spot where Jan and Miley had emerged, and they were able to crawl over the mound without drawing attention to themselves.
"We're back in the village, Mike." Jan wasn't sure if she was pleased with this development, then realized she had already resigned herself to not going home. At this point, she wanted to do as much destruction as possible, and take as many of these SS bastards with her as she could. They had to shut off the source of -- whatever it was, this stuff from Hell, whatever it was that had destroyed Madge. If the Nazis got their hands on that stuff in a big way -- well, to use a quaint expression -- all hell would break loose.
That, they had to stop. If she could get away, well and good. She'd try if she could. But the chances didn't look great.
It was still dark; the moon was almost below the horizon. In the East, just barely visible, was a hint of pink, the first sign of the late-summer dawn. If they were going to do anything, they'd better do it now. They knew the troopers were alert to their escape, and she could bet that Stosser and Eckhardt were turning the ruins inside-out looking for them. With luck, they'll think we're still in the tunnels, and focus their search there .
To her immediate right were tall remnants of walls and a tower; she recognized it as the remains of a Byzantine church she'd explored when she was last in Amphipolis. Beyond it was another ruin, a Roman temple that had been converted into a church. The church ruins were a chaotic jumble; they could hide in there.
They crept into the ruins, and noticed that between the two buildings was a steel shed, obviously put there by the Nazis. Maybe...
"Mike, let's look in there. I need a weapon."
"OK...but let's do it fast."
They peered into the small window that was just at Jan's eye level. "No lights. I'm gonna use the flashlight."
"Jeez, doc, be careful."
A workbench, backed with a shelf containing rows of bottles. What looked like a scale. Against the wall, tanks and drums. "Here, Mike, take a look at this. Looks like it's more up your alley."
"It's a lab, doc, they're doing some kind of chemistry here -- can't say what. Lots of gases, and usually organic chemicals are shipped in drums like that."
"Yeah, if we can find a way to set them off."
"Let's get in there. Maybe we can raise some hell."
"This window is too small for me."
"I can maybe squeeze through. If we can get it open."
Both of them examined the window. Miley pressed up against the frame and it moved, a little at first, then wide enough for Jan to squirm through. She set herself down carefully on the floor. She whispered to Miley, "there's a door on the left. Can you check it out?"
Miley moved silently away, and came back a minute later. "There's a guard at the door."
Whispering through the window, they worked out a plan. Jan took out the bayonet she'd concealed in her boot, and stood by the door. She thumbed the latch, not guarding against making any noise. The guard turned, surprised, but before he could say anything Miley was on his back, his hand clamped over the guard's mouth. The guard tried to shake Miley off and bring his weapon to bear, but Jan plunged the bayonet in under his ribs, thrusting up into his heart as she'd been taught during the training on Cyprus . The guard crumpled.
They dragged the guard into the hut, shut the door. It was only when Jan thumbed the flashlight that she noticed blood on her hands up to her forearms. I've never killed anybody up close like that. It's different from shooting a man. She started to feel a little sick, and put her lifelong discipline into play. I'll worry about that later. Not now. Later. As an afterthought, she resolved never to mention it to Mel. Fat chance. Forgive me, Mel.
Miley took the flashlight; he was casting about the room. "Look, doc. This says 'benzol'. It's German for benzene."
"Is that flammable?" Jan had mostly snoozed through the one elementary chemistry class she had to take.
"Hell, yes. Very. Volatile, too -- gives off fumes. Spill some, this room will fill up with the fumes. One spark and it'll go off like a bomb."
"Fumes, huh?" Jan was looking around in the dim light cast by the flash. "What's that?", she asked, pointing to a spot in the cement floor. "A drain?"
"Yeah. Look up. There's a safety shower up there. Spill something bad on you, you get under the shower to wash it off. Drain takes the runoff."
Jan chewed her lip. "To where, I wonder?"
"Usually a sewer line. This probably goes..."
"...into a tunnel and out to the sea! Jesus, Mike, we could dump some of that benzy stuff down this drain and it'd fill up at least one tunnel with the fumes! Light it off here, and we might collapse a whole chunk of the substructure. Hell of a mess."
"How do we light it off? I don't want to be here when we do. Need a delay fuse or somethin'...they've got a lot of stuff here..." Miley's eyes glazed over as he got lost in solving the problem. Jan went back to the dead guard, and relieved him of his weapon, a submachine gun not dissimilar to the Thompson she was familiar with. Miley saw her check the magazine and asked, "You know how to use that?"
Jan thought back to the day she met Mel. "Yeah. Oh yeah."
"Doc, you're full of surprises." Miley was fiddling with some gadget at the workbench. Jan came over to see what he was up to. "Will this set it off?", she asked.
"I think so. I've wired a chunk of sodium metal near the top of this glass cylinder. See? Sodium's got the same symbol in German and English. This big jug up here has water in it. Open this valve, it comes out this rubber hose. Open a little, it drips. Let it drip into the glass cylinder, and eventually it gets up to the level of the sodium. Sodium explodes when it touches water. It'll flare up, and if we spill enough benzene, the air in the room'll be saturated with vapor and it'll ignite. I've counted drops and tried to time it. I think I can give us about five minutes before it goes."
Jan peered at the Rube Goldberg setup. "Are you sure it'll work?"
"Pretty sure. As long as somebody doesn't come in and dismantle it. But even then, they'd have to be awfully careful. Fuck with this in the wrong way, the sodium chunk gets wet and...boom."
"Mike, you are a clever S.O.B."
"Clean living, I guess. We need to dump that solvent."
"Well, let's get a move on."
In minutes they had emptied three 10-gallon drums of benzene down the drain, and another one all over the floor. Miley started the water drip, and they slipped out the door into the predawn darkness. The Eastern sky was a dim mother-of-pearl, and while they could hear voices in the village they could see no one. Jan pointed to the left and said, "There's a street down that way that's relatively clear. It leads to the old gate. Maybe we can get out that way."
"Yeah, I'd like to get out of here if we can."
"Me too. I just want to go home, now."
The sky was brightening fast, and by the time they'd reached the end of the street the darkness had been replaced by the gray dawn.
As the approached the gate, Jan saw that it was a dead-end; there was a corrugated steel fence across the street. It continued on to the right around mounds of rubble, but it stopped about twenty feet to the left behind the remains of some medieval buildings. She climbed a pile of rubble with Miley right behind her, aiming for the end of the steel wall.
She had just reached the crest of the mound when gunfire sounded behind her, and the ruins in front of her spat stone fragments from bullets.
She rolled down the opposite slope of the low mound, Miley three yards to her right. The next mound was higher than the one she was on, and beyond that was the remains of the city wall. If they made for that they'd be outlined against the sky. A perfect target. And if they stayed here, they were trapped. The Germans would root them out easily enough.
So this is where it ends, I guess. Pretty pathetic end to a wasted life. The last two years were good, though -- so good. God, Mel, I wish I could have given you better. You deserve better. I hope you find someone who loves you at least as much as I do, and who treats you ten times better. Funny. Now, when I have every reason to be scared shitless, I'm not. I've forgotten how to be scared. I just want it to be over. Stupid.
"Nowhere to go, doc." Miley had sidled over and was checking the carbine he'd taken, Finding it loaded, he said, "Guess it's just a matter of how many we take with us."
Stalking their way down the street was a squad of SS troopers, led by an officer. As they got closer, Jan recognized him -- the lieutenant who had killed the wounded Cromarty in the tunnel. You shitpile, you'll be the first to go. She aimed the submachine gun right at his heart, waited until the distance had closed a little more, and pulled the trigger.
The gun had quite a kick and she wasn't able to hold her aim, but she saw the lieutenant collapse, along with a trooper next to him. Miley opened fire at the same time. The rest of the squad scattered, taking cover behind rubble and walls. For a few seconds there was a hot, sharp firefight, but no one was hit on either side. It looked like it would come down to who'd run out of ammo first -- and Jan was sure it would be her and Miley. I'm not gonna be shot down like a rat in a hole. One last goodbye to Mel, and she started to get to her feet...
There was a roar, orange flame rising, higher than anything in sight, black clouds filling the air back down the street where they had laid the bomb, debris flying, a blast of hot air that knocked her down. The ground shook, and then fountains of flame, two and three feet high, burst up from the street, the floors of buildings, and the street started to buckle, crumble, and then split apart with a deafening blast that sent stones flying. A trench full of flame yawned where the street had been, and walls, columns, doorways fell into it, along with SS troopers. Jan suddenly remembered to cover her head, just as pieces of rock started raining down on her. She was pummeled by sharp chunks, adding to the bruises and cuts inflicted by the SS. A large rock struck her in the back, knocking the wind out of her, and another shard cut her hand, to add her own blood to that already there.
Miley's bomb had worked. It was late, but it had worked.
Miley grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into a crouch. "There's baddies behind us! Run!" Ridiculously, Jan took a fraction of a second to look behind her, and sure enough there was a swarm of troopers pouring in over the rubble, probably from the bivouac outside.
She ran like a rabbit.
Down the rubble, next to the fence, dodge behind a low wall. It hurt to run, she thought her side and chest were being ripped apart, but she kept on running. Bullets were everywhere. Through a maze of ruins, places that were familiar, places she'd seen before and remembered, Miley right behind. Fires were breaking out everywhere. They emerged into an ancient plaza, dashed across it to the cover of more ruins, bullets whipping past them. She marveled they weren't hit, and remembered how hard it was to shoot and run at the same time. As they reached the edge of the plaza she felt the ground shift under her feet, like that earthquake in Japan , and she dived the last yard to end up behind another low wall. She stuck her head up, ready to shoot, and as she watched the plaza collapsed from its far edge, seemingly brick by brick, in a kind of slow motion. The troopers lost their footing as the pavement came apart beneath them, and they fell into the smoking hole that the flash fires had opened up from the tunnels below.
They got up and ran, hoping to avoid any new collapses, knowing that they couldn't, trusting to luck. They weren't even sure if they were being pursued, the just ran because to stop was to be caught and killed. There was black, oily smoke all over the place, roiling through the early morning air, rising from cracks in the ground.
There was open ground ahead. They slowed, stopped, peered through the forest of columns and walls that concealed them. There seemed to be no one. There was another steel fence, but it seemed lower -- maybe with a running start they could get over it. It was about 25 yards away, across a flat, weedy stretch and a tarp spread over the ground. They whispered together, Miley tapped Jan's shoulder and they both broke cover and ran for the wall.
Shots cracked from their left side, and Jan felt a streak of fire lace across her thigh. She tried to keep running, but her leg wouldn't cooperate -- she could stand on it, but not run. Then she saw Miley.
He lay on the scrubby soil, on his back, half his head shot away. No chance -- dammit, no chance, of living with that, he was dead. And I killed him, I led him right into it. She went down on one knee, tears leaking from her tired eyes.
"So. Meine schoene Janice." She raised her eyes to see Stosser standing before her, pistol drawn, face streaked with grime. Behind him was Eckhardt, equally filthy, but with a sadistically triumphant grimace that made Jan want to smash his face. Shit. The bastards I least wanted to be killed by.
Stosser was breathing heavily, but still had that air of icy control. "You see, I knew you were resourceful. I knew you would not merely run away. You would try to do us some harm. Well, you did indeed do us some harm. Some. But you did not damage the real treasure, the reason we are here. That is still very much intact. Would you like to see it?"
Jan looked him in the eye as if to dare him -- do your damnedest, you slime. " Just shut the fuck up and get it over with."
"But of course you want to see our great achievement. A pity your young friend is dead. He would have been a most appropriate subject, for you to see its power. As it is," and Stosser's breath came in angry gasps, "as it is, you will experience it first hand!" Stosser's voice rose to a raucous scream, his face distorted into a demonic mask. " You will pay for this, and when we are done you will be our slave, to kill at our whim, suffer at our whim, and live in endless pain!"
Stosser pulled back the tarp, to reveal a round, stone-lined basin filled with a gray-green mud. "The blood of Hell! We draw it up, it condenses into this material, and we stockpile it. The Portal is our pipeline into the underworld, and we bring the underworld to Earth. You saw what it did to your Englishwoman friend. Now, you. Into the pool, Janice. Or I shoot you where you stand."
"I'm not going to give you the pleasure, Stosser. Go ahead and shoot."
Stosser raised the pistol. "Eckhardt, get her in there."
Get away, Janice. Get away from this place, as far from that hole as you can.
Jan was astonished. Gabrielle?
Melinda saw Satan's fireball get larger, closer, in less than a space of a breath, and a tiny part of her sane mind told her her existence was over. This is your last moment...try to think of Jan. For a moment the chaos of her mind was calmed, and then the roaring, roiling waves of power and lust rose up and overwhelmed her. The fireball struck her...
...and passed on...and she was unharmed.
Her thin thread of humanity broke, and with it any restraint she may have had. Before the astonished Lucifer could launch another attack, she exploded in wrath, rage unbounded, every bit of mortal and spiritual energy erupting out of her...
Her hands shot out; they burned in fiery pain; lightning, fire, white-hot energy flew from her fingers into Satan's face. He glowed, white-hot, blue- hot, howled like a million angry wolves, writhed in exquisite, hellish agony.
And collapsed beside Xena, surrounded in an aura of lightning, caged and helpless.
" You think you rule here! I rule here!" Melinda roared, and her voice was the voice of a thousand wild beasts. "I can gather all this power into myself! And I won't give any of it away!" She turned and unleashed another blast of lightning, deep into the Portal. The Portal walls glowed, green, yellow, red, white, and began to collapse on each other, until they clapped together with a sound like the thunder of Armageddon.
"Yes, Janice. Gabrielle. Now you must get away."
"I can't run. I'm wounded. And he'll shoot me."
"He won't have the chance. NOW, Janice. I'll help."
Jan felt a surge of strength in her legs, and she rose just as the ground started to heave and buckle like an angry sea. Stosser was taken off guard, lost his balance, fell backward into Eckhardt, taking them both down to the ground where they lay, a tangle of limbs. Jan heard Gabrielle's voice in her head: "Run!" , and she ran for the ruins. The ground was heaving.
When she reached the shelter of the ruins, she turned to see what was happening. She expected Stosser to chase her, but instead the filth in the basin welled up, spilled over the edge, and flooded the ground around it with a thick layer of gray-green slime. Stosser and Eckhardt were covered. Before her eyes, both men were transformed. Their skin began to redden, and peeled away in flayed flaps; Eckhardt's eyes bulged from his head, while Stosser's fingers changed into gnarled claws; from both their mouths came a yellowish, viscous drool. Raw, red patches covered their bodies, and blood oozed and flowed. Hissing and howling, they set upon each other like starved beasts, scratching, clawing, biting, and the gray ooze spread over the ground, almost to Janice's hiding place. The odor was nauseating, the smell of a million rotting carcasses, laced with the sulfurous reek of burning rubber and the cooked stink of scorched flesh.
Even as Jan began to move back from the advancing muck, the mass stopped, quivered, and rapidly receded back towards the basin. Stosser and Eckhardt, or what remained of them, were dragged along with it, leaves down a storm drain, into the basin and down, screeching, clawing and scratching, and swirled over the edge and out of sight. A rumble issued from the hole as it collapsed in on itself, sucking in the surrounding earth, leaving a cone-shaped depression. The steel wall was undermined, and collapsed into the hole with a clang, covering it.
Perception returned slowly. The dominant sound was the morning breeze, punctuated by an occasional explosion. It was hard to understand what she had just witnessed, so she put it away in a compartment of her mind for later. She had no doubt that "later" would come as nightmares, but now she had other priorities. She had to move, had to get out of here. Her left leg hurt abominably, but with care she could manage a limping walk. Have to get wheels. With luck I might make the Turkish border. No walking any distance like this. She emerged from the ruins to see not a soul, although she thought she heard shouting voices in the distance. She crept back into the ruins, slithered off to the left, the direction Stosser had come from. After a hundred yards or so, the ruins gave way to an open dirt street, filled with rubble and the remains of vehicles, many burning. Not far away there was the body of an SS man, and next to the body was a field-gray motorcycle, on its side in the dirt. The German was half-buried under rubble. The bike was intact, though battered and dented; there was even gas in the tank. Well, a motorcycle's easier than a car with a clutch right now. Once I get it started I can drive it with the hand controls and give this damned leg a rest. About time something went my way, she thought, and then the sense of her ancestor filled her mind. No words, just a presence. Thank you, Gabrielle.
She walked the bike to the end of the street, where there was an opening in the steel fence. The scanty vegetation all around was burned. Two guards lay dead by the fence, scorched stumps of men. She mounted the bike, kicked the starter, and pointed it into the sunrise.
Xena was trying to rise, and Melinda bent down next to her, overwhelmed with grief and desire. She was Queen now, she could rule with Xena by her side, if only...if only she could bring Xena's spirit back to life.
"Xena...Xena, can you hear me? What can I do for you? How can I help you?"
Xena's reply was an almost inaudible whisper. "Can't...there's no healing here...must go outside..."
Melinda's fury rose in her again. "NO! This is where I belong!... I have power here! You stay with me and we'll be together forever, all this power is ours to use..."
Xena looked up into Melinda's eyes, saw what Gabrielle saw, and was pleased. "No...must...this is Lucifer's weapon...the Essence...weakens me...if we go outside...I'll heal...promise I'll come back with you...rule Hell with you...promise..."
Melinda's energy increased, her desire flared. "Yes! I'll go out, and you'll heal, and we'll...Yes! Xena, you're so...how do we leave Hell?"
"Same way we got in...through the wall..."
Melinda lifted Xena with a strength that surprised her, until she remembered that she was Queen and could do anything. She was strong, so strong...Xena would heal in the nether world, and they would come back...together...
This time there was no sensation at all. She passed through the border of Hell as easily as walking through a door. This must be the way Satan walks about the Earth , she thought. What freedom!
Behind them, Hell lay like a brooding black egg. Outside, the nether world was gray and indefinite. Melinda thought, a garden...somewhere cool and green that Xena can rest in...water...shade...only the best...
And it was so.
The garden formed around her as she wished it, each feature springing into being as she pictured it in her mind. She lay Xena on the on the soft grass, and thought "Heal". Then she knelt beside Xena to await the miracle.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Xena regained her strength. Her skin softened, her hair regained its luster, her flesh filled out. Soon she stood, and looked at Melinda.
Melinda was kneeling on the grass, looking at her hands, now and then looking about her in a bewildered way. She met Xena's eyes and Xena saw curiosity and confusion on her descendant's face. Perplexed, Melinda asked, "What is this place, Xena?"
"A stopping place. We're going home now."
"Where are we coming from? Where have we been?"
Xena felt a small smile creep over her lips. "Don't you remember?"
"No...Ah remember...you were hurt...there was...Ah was afraid...just that much. What was that?"
"We were in Hell, Melinda. We closed the Portal."
"Hell? Really? Ah don't remember. Why don't Ah remember?"
"The spirit world has its own wisdom, I guess, Melinda. Tell me -- who do you love?"
"Janice. Of course. Silly question."
"Do you want to go back to her?"
"Yes. Yes Ah do. Can we go now?"
Xena smiled, a full bright smile that made Melinda happy. "One more question: how do you feel?"
"Ah don't know...good...Ah actually feel good. Ah feel as if...Ah've accomplished something, something difficult."
"Good. Let's go home."
"Can Ah...say goodbye to Gabrielle before Ah go?"
"Surely. She'd be unhappy if you didn't."
Fiona's face floated above her, and it was only a dream. The last faces she remembered were Xena, and Gabrielle, each bidding her goodbye with hugs and kisses. She wanted to wake up, to see them again...but...Jan. Jan.
She opened her eyes again, and there was Fiona, and there was Rick, and she was cold, and the sky was dark, and she shivered. She heard her name called...
"Melinda? Melinda?" Soft, sweet brogue, comforting and sane.
Maybe I'd better answer. "Ah'm here."
"Are you all right?" Rick's voice.
"Yes. Ah...can Ah get up? Ah'm cold."
Fiona smiled. "We'll go back to the house. You've only been gone an hour. Here, Rick, help her stand. She's weak."
They got Melinda off the ground, and helped her stagger into the house. Fiona produced a hot bath, and some food, and a warm robe, and an hour later Melinda was sitting on Fiona's love seat, trying to piece together what she could of her strange journey.
Fiona didn't question her, and discouraged Rick from questioning her. Finally, Melinda asked Fiona, "Why can't Ah remember much of anything? Ah remember Xena, and Gabrielle, and Xena said we'd gone to...Hell, and we closed the Portal. But Ah don't remember any of that. Why?"
"I don't really know why, Melinda, but I know it's right. My own memories of my crossing over are almost gone. My teacher said that if we were to remember, either we would so desire it that life here would not seem worth living, or we would be paralyzed with remembered terror. You know you were there, and you remember the people you cared to be with. You'll probably never talk about this to anyone."
"Even Jan. I don't talk about it, I don't think about it, unless it's absolutely necessary -- like tonight. Just be glad the memories won't haunt you all your life."
"Ah guess you know best. Oh, Ah do remember one thing."
"Jan's alive. She's alive and on her way home."
"How do you know that?"
"Gabrielle told me."
"Just...someone Ah met. Someone Ah trust. Over there."
UNITED STATES CONSULATE
DATE: 7 OCTOBER 1942
FROM: J. COVINGTON
TO: M. PAPPAS
OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION
HEADING SDCG 63 F L 2 F5L 071830 C8Q TURK 0 B1
AM ALIVE REASONABLY WELL XX IN US CONSULATE EDIRNE TURKEY XX WILL BE SENT TO CYPRUS NEXT AVAILABLE TRANSPORT XX LETTER FOLLOWS XX SEE YOU SOON XX JAN
My dearest Mel,
As you can see from the return address I'm in the hospital in Kyrenia in Cyprus (again). Nothing major or life-threatening, and I'll be OK. Cuts and bruises but nothing that can't be fixed. One thing you may notice when you see me -- I broke my nose (in a motorcycle accident). They might reset it here, or I may have to wait until I'm back in London . Oh, and I'll probably walk with a limp for a while. I got a minor bullet wound across the front of my left thigh, but it wasn't deep, more of a graze, and the docs say it's healing up well. Just don't want you to be surprised.
Things at the place where I was didn't go well. I'm told that I can't tell you what happened in a letter, so I'll tell you the story when I see you (if they don't classify the whole mess, which they're talking about doing). I can tell you why it took so long to reach you.
The way things happened, we couldn't leave the way we came in, and we all got separated. I found a bike in running condition and headed east for Turkey -- closest country not controlled by the Germans. I had to travel at night, and I ran into a dustup with some Greek partisans, who mistook me for someone they didn't like. I had to run the bike off the road, hit something in the dark, and landed on my face. Some scrapes and bruises, and a broken nose. (Don't get all weepy, ok -- I'll heal up). The partisans were pretty touchy until I told them I was American, and proved it with some facts (Who's Joe DiMaggio, etc.) Speaking Greek helped. So they fed me and took care of me and escorted me to the Turkish border. That sounds simple, but it took most of a month of sneaking through the brush and avoiding Germans. The Turks kept me locked up in a police station (I didn't have any papers) until I was able to get them to call the American Consulate in Edirne . Somehow word I was there got back to Colonel Knox, and he had the doc at the Consulate patch me up and flew me here (Cyprus -- I know, Jan, Jan, where the hell's Jan -- by now I'm pretty confused myself).
So now I'm in a hospital where they can keep an eye on me and I can rest. Yeah, I don't mind being here right now -- I'm so tired I could sleep for a week. They let me send a radiogram from the Consulate in Turkey , so you should have that already -- I didn't want you to worry. Knox said I could send you one letter (how generous) as long as it doesn't contain anything 'sensitive'. I won't lie to you, it got pretty rough, but I'm away from there and safe and will be fine by the time I see you. So I'm going to close now and get about ten hours' sleep. I love you and miss you. (anybody else who reads this, mind your own goddamn business).
All my love,
Kyrenia , Cyprus
Colonel Knox and Janice walked slowly along the stone ramparts, mostly in silence, the colonel pointing out interesting features of the Crusader castle from time to time. Jan displayed no real interest, simply smoked and strolled listlessly. Days and days of debriefing had come to this, a very private talk with the colonel. She had told them as much of the truth as she dared. No, there was no evidence of biological weapons. Yes, she'd been tortured, but no, she hadn't told them anything useful that she could remember. All the SS big shots were killed in the fires and explosions. It was probably chemical weapons they were making, but since Miley was dead she could only pass on what he'd told her. Why Amphipolis? She had no idea. No, she didn't know the names of any of the partisans or where they were now.
It bore a working resemblance to the truth. They'd been at her ever since she'd been allowed out of her hospital bed. She still walked with a slight limp, and her sides and shoulder still hurt, and her left arm was still in a sling. It would take a while for the reset nose to heal up and the cuts and scrapes to scar over. But the docs had given her a clean bill of health, with caution, and said she could come and go, and now it looked like the colonel was about to do the same thing. The only thing Jan wanted to hear was that she was going home, back to London and their flat and Mel.
"We just got the latest interpretation of aerial reconnaissance over Amphipolis," the colonel mentioned, almost as a casual afterthought. "You'll probably want to know that the pictures confirm what you told us. That, and some on-the-ground intelligence."
"So I'm no longer persona non grata ?"
"Never said you were. But you must admit, it was a pretty hard story to swallow. You were in pretty bad shape, and we had to be sure. You being the only survivor and all. It's a war, Covington ."
Janice pitched the butt over the wall, took out another cigarette, lit it. She still couldn't get cigars, and it looked like the colonel had given up the habit. Looking Knox right in the eye, she said, "The truth, colonel. You never expected any of us to come back, did you?"
Knox gave her a sardonic look. "The truth. No, I didn't. We had to know, and we had to be sure their facility was destroyed. We were sure it was underground, in those tunnels, bombing wouldn't have done the job. We had to have boots on the ground."
Jan took a big drag. "You miserable motherfucker", she said, in a tone without malice.
Knox stifled a grunt. " Covington , I respect you for what you did. I never liked you, still don't -- you're too much of a loose cannon for me. But you took on a job you didn't have to do, and you did it, and I can't fault you because you didn't do it my way. And I'll see to it you get more than a handshake for this."
"That's okay, colonel. Y'know, I never really liked you either, but that may have more to do with the uniform than anything else. I don't want any awards, recognition, no speeches, citations, none of that crap. I'd just as soon forget it ever happened." But I feel pretty sure that'll take a fucking long time to do.
"Of course, Covington , we can't make this public. However, the government is prepared to reward you for your efforts -- in a quiet way."
Jan looked away, focusing into the far distance, thought about it. Money, he means. He's telling me they'll buy me off, and to name my price. "All right. There's only two things I want. Besides going back to London , that is."
"And what would that be, doctor?"
"Oh. You realize that ownership of gold by American citizens is illegal."
"I know. I only want an ounce."
"An ounce? That's all? That's only $35 worth of...
"Yeah. That's all."
"And the other thing?"
"A vacation. On you. A trip to somewhere warm. For two. And not ferchrissake Cyprus ."
"I don't..." Knox stopped when he saw the glare in Jan's eyes, and decided not to argue. "All right. We'll arrange it."
Jan extended her hand, and Knox shook it. "Then it's a deal, colonel. And if we never meet again it'll be just dandy by me."
Montegordo , Portugal
"This looks like a lovely spot for a vacation, Janice. How did you arrange it?"
Jan dumped her bags and looked out of the French doors toward the bright blue sea, the pure beach, the wild Portuguese landscape. "I called in a favor."
"Well, it's beautiful. And it's warm."
Mel watched Jan, as she had so many times in the last months when Jan wasn't aware of it. For Mel, the months since Jan's return had been a daily struggle to keep from crying. Whatever did they do to you out there, my love, she would lament over and over. I was the one who went to Hell, but you are the one who was hurt. Jan had lost a spark, a fire, her sassy defiance replaced by a cynical indifference. She was still Jan, but less than Jan. Not that Melinda didn't love her; her love for Janice was unconditional. But she hurt for her partner, hurt for the physical wounds that Mel knew she had suffered, helped her heal from, and hurt more deeply for the moral and emotional scars that she knew were there but that Jan would never discuss. She did everything she could, held her in the dark, loved her with all the passion in her soul -- and still, night after night, would wake to an empty bed, Jan sitting in the bay window, smoking and brooding.
Jan turned, looked at the woman she loved. Since she'd come back to London, she'd sensed a difference in Mel, something stronger, sadder -- less carefree, but maybe more grown up, too. Mel hadn't told her anything other than waiting in London had been "boring", but Jan suspected that there had been a lot more strain than Mel was letting on. Jan knew she was being a shit, that she was an emotional wreck and that she wasn't being fair to Mel. She knew she was in a deep hole, and she knew what decision to make that would pull her out of it. She had taken the first steps to that decision on the rampart with Colonel Knox. Maybe even earlier, on the cliff with Madge. Dear Madge, I hope you're dead. The alternative was too awful to contemplate.
She decided now was the time, why wait until dinner? She embraced Mel and kissed her deeply. They held each other for a long time, hardly moving, but using their bodies to speak in ways they could never do in words; the two of them had done this a lot since being reunited. It was one way Mel could tell that Janice was still hers, completely, despite any other changes. Janice would sometimes cling to her this way for hours, not making love, not demanding, just...wanting and giving assurance. But now Janice stepped back, sat Mel down on the bed, sat down next to her. "Mel, this isn't just a vacation. I've got ...ulterior motives."
Mel was pleased, and surprised, to see the light in Janice's eyes, a light she hadn't seen for months. "Why whatever do you me..."
Interrupting, Jan produced a small velvet box from her pocket. "Here. This is for you...us. I love you more than you can ever know."
"Why...what..." Melinda opened the box. Nestled in the satin lining were two rings, gold rings. She gasped, and tears welled up in her eyes. "Jan..."
"The smaller one's for you. Here, let me put it on you. Wait -- read the inscription."
Melinda peered at the inner surface of her ring. "It's Greek...'your path is my path'. Oh...what can Ah say...is this what Ah think it is?"
"It's a wedding ring, Mel. I want to be with you forever. After what we've been through, I want us both to be sure. I know I've been miserable for you, since...I got back. Mel, all my life I've taught myself not to be afraid. Some really bad sh...stuff happened while I was in Greece , and sometimes I was scared -- someday I'll tell you everything. But I was only really afraid of one thing -- not coming home to you, losing you. Ever since we've been together, I've always had that fear in the back of my mind. Most of it was me -- I wasn't sure I could be with one person for the rest of my life, that I could just say "no" to everybody else. But now I'm sure, and I promise -- everything. Wear it? Marry me? Please?" She was absolutely beautiful as she looked up at Mel with her sea-green eyes.
Mel smiled, and her face glowed through the tears. "Of course, silly. Ah wouldn't do anything else. Ah love you." Jan slipped the ring on her finger, and Mel said "Ah suppose the other ring is the same?"
"Yes. And now you see what this trip is for."
"Yep...a real honeymoon."
"Janice Covin'ton, you are so tough...and so full of mush. Ah love it and Ah love you." They kissed, and neither one knew or cared who started it. When they came up for air, Mel started to unbutton Jan's blouse. "Are you ready for this?"
"Yeah...oh yeah. Have been for a week."
"Well, Ah'm glad you're better. Now stand up."
Jan stood, and slowly, enticingly, Mel undressed her. Every button, every piece of clothing, was an invitation for Mel to stroke, and kiss, and caress the body of her beloved. When Mel took Jan's nipple between her teeth, Jan gasped. When Mel kissed her, with her tongue dancing inside her mouth, when Mel pulled her body into her own, Janice's heart thumped, and she marveled at her lover's aggressive lustiness. Whatever had happened to Mel? She had never been this forward before. Almost without noticing, Mel was out of her blouse and skirt, Jan on her back on the bed, Mel above her playing her body like an instrument. Melinda's body passed a power into Jan's, an electricity, a pulsing heat. Melinda was touching her everywhere, and, when she finally put her tongue on Jan, Jan was unable to resist any more, and as she reached the crest she seemed to be held there, Mel almost owning her body and her soul. She climaxed, and as she came down she knew that this was the best it had ever been, and Mel was the only lover she would ever, ever want.
London , England
Janice looked up from her plate, across the table at Mel. She sipped her beer, drank in her spouses' beauty, and then decided to risk it all.
"Mel...Mel, I called Knox today."
Mel was only paying partial attention. "Knox? Oh, Colonel Knox. What'd he want with you?"
" I called him . I asked him for a job."
Mel's attention was suddenly complete. "A job? Doing what?"
"Whatever he had. With G2, or OSS ."
Mel's expression became dark. "Now whyever would you want to do that?"
Jan got aggressive. "Mel, what am I supposed to do during the rest of this war? Sit here in this flat? Teach grade-school history to college kids? Mel, honey, I love you, you know that, and you make me happy. But I feel like I'm in a cage."
"So you want to go galivantin' all over the world while Ah..."
"Mel, that's not why. I got to see these Nazis face to face. Hell, I knew some of them, and if the Nazis've recruited any more like Stosser they really are dangerous. They're thugs, Mel. Criminals running a country. I want to do something."
Mel shot out of her seat and turned towards the window, arms folded, back to Jan. "You'd rather be off gettin' shot at than be with me?"
"I need to do something, Mel, Mel, I'm going nuts here. Listen." She went to Mel and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's waist, laid her cheek against Mel's back. "You have work that means something to winning this war. You're helping, doing what you can to beat these fuckers. Ever since I got back from Amphipolis, I've felt like a fifth wheel, and it's even worse because I know there's things I can do to help, too, and I'm not doing them. I feel useless. And that's one thing I hate more than anything, sitting around waiting for other people to do something. I want to do something."
"Ah thought you hated Knox."
"Hate's too strong a word. He's a devious son of a bitch, and I wouldn't trust him any farther than I could throw him. But he does know his business. We're on the same side. And he's on the inside, where I want to be. I'm not above using him to get what I want."
"An' he's not above usin' you, either."
"True. So he and I have a mutual interest. Look, if he gets me into...operations...it won't be all the time. I can stay right here until they need me. I'll still be with you."
"Until you get yourself killed."
"I'll try real hard not to let that happen."
"But it can."
"Mel, you almost got yourself killed the day we met. Several times. What makes you -- anybody -- think we can accomplish important things without danger? Shit, I've been in dangerous spots before. I got out of Amphipolis alive, didn't I?"
"Sure, at the cost of two cracked ribs, a broken shoulder, a busted nose, a bullet, and --how many of our guys got killed? Am Ah supposed to walk that widow's walk just waitin' for them to send you home in a box, too? Dammit, Janice. Dammit." Tears were running down Mel's cheeks. She pulled out her handkerchief and blew her nose.
"Ah'll have you know Ah risked a lot for you, you know! Ah practically died, an' while Ah can't remember a lot of it, Ah'm sure it was dangerous! So don't tell me about danger! Ah just think...Jan, you've done your bit. Why do you have to risk it all again?"
"I've already told you. God, Mel, I was hoping you'd back me up on this. That you'd understand. I can guess what you went through -- I've read the scrolls. Can't you understand? I need you -- you don't know how much I need you. But I need some purpose, too. Nobody's gonna come down from the sky and tell me what my purpose is. I'm gonna have to make my own."
Mel knew she was being selfish, but she wasn't ready to back down. "Am Ah part of that purpose?"
"Of course, baby, of course you are. I want you and I to live in a safe world. That's gonna take some work and some risk."
"Ah just don't understand why...can't you do something from here? Do you need to go off...oh, damn!"
"Mel, be rational. If I..."
"So now Ah'm irrational? An' what the blazes are you being? Sensible? Ah don't think so!"
"Dammit it Mel, you are just being so...."
"So what? Girly? Southern? The Magnolia Queen? Go on and say it!"
"I never said any...shit, this is useless. I'm going to work for Knox and that's that! You'll just have to get used to it!"
She went to the rack by the door, pulled on her leather jacket and hat, made sure there were plenty of cigars in her pocket. "I'm going out. I don't know when I'll be back."
Mel snapped, "Don't hurry!" And, as Janice shut the door -- she didn't exactly slam it -- Mel muttered under her breath "please hurry."
The flat was dark as Jan hung up her hat and coat. Four hours, eight cigars, a couple of pints of stout and the London fog hadn't brought her any nearer to a solution. She knew she was being pigheaded, but she knew what she wanted. Trouble was, Mel did, too, and she could be just as pigheaded. Christ, I hope she's still here.
She was. She was tightly curled up on her side of the bed, snoring softly. Jan undressed and slipped into the bed, and snuggled up against Mel's stiff back. Mel awoke at once, knowing Jan was trying to make peace. Well, let's see how this goes...
"Mel, honey, are you awake?"
"Yeah...what time is it?"
"About midnight. Sweetie, I'm sorry. I'll call Knox tomorrow. I'll see if I can work for them and stay here."
Mel sat up and turned on the light. As Janice watched in something approaching horror, Mel took off her wedding ring.
Janice's heart froze as Mel handed her the ring.
"What...Mel, does this mean..."
"Read the ring, Janice. Read what you had inscribed on it."
"I know what's there. It's a Greek phrase. 'Your path is my path'. And you know it's not original with me."
"Ah know that." Mel took the ring back, placed it on her finger again. "Ah've been readin' the scrolls. Do you know that Xena almost killed Gabrielle? That Gabrielle's daughter killed Xena's son? That Gabrielle left Xena to go back to her home village, but then joined Xena again? Their lives were full of trouble, Janice, but they stayed together until the end of Xena's life. 'Your path is my path'."
"That's why I'm gonna call Knox..."
"You call Knox. You tell him that you want to go into operations. You tell him that there's two people available for whatever work he has for us. There's never enough people for that kind of work."
"Hmm. Can you shoot?"
"Mah granddaddy took me turkey huntin' every season. Always came home with a bird in the bag. Darlin', Ah'm a damn sight more than Scarlett O'Hara. An' what Ah don't know, Ah can learn. Ah'm a pretty quick study."
"I don't want you in that kind of danger."
"Janice, Ah don't want to start another fight. But if it's OK for you, it's OK for me. Ah know, you're the rough, tough type, but Ah've got skills, too. We might make a good team. Let's try."
"Janice, Ah love you. You are crude, stubborn, dangerous, and a little crazy, but Ah love you in spite of all of it. Because of. Ah don' know. Ah will put up with an awful lot from you, because Ah love you. But one thing Ah will not do is wait for you to come home from a bad place. If Ah've learned anything in the last year, it's that. Ah will not wait at home for you to get killed. If you get killed, we'll get killed together."
"It'll do me no damn good to argue with you, will it?"
"No damn good at all."
"All right. I'll call Knox in the morning."
"Good. Now you roll over and go to sleep. Melinda curled herself around Janice, arms under Jan's breasts and legs intertwined. Jan had never felt so safe in her life. She slept.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Jan awoke, and sensed that Mel was awake as well. "Janice, what are we gettin' ourselves into?"
"I don't know, love. But it should be interesting."
"Yeah." There was silence for a while, and then Jan felt her ear caressed by a pair of soft lips. A soft voice whispered, "now make love to me, and then go to sleep."
The loving was superb, the sleep in each other's arms was restoring, and they awoke in the morning with a kiss and a renewed closeness.
Jan called Knox right after breakfast; they went to his office after lunch.
They came home with new futures.
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