Mistress of the Keys: Part One

It was the winter of his first year in the field. Tunis had been beautiful, but battle immediately overtook his awe of the scenery; and now, that battle was over. Benjamin Gunnarson was no longer a soldier, but one of a long line of prisoners taken in the field — he, Mark Jones, Tommy Deluci, Doctor Keenan and several others — and humiliated under the eyes of the Italian Fascists.

Keep quiet; keep your head down, he told himself. There’s no way you’re dying caged up like this.

He was willing to die trying to escape, but something told him today was not the day to make that attempt — particularly not with the multitude of guards surrounding the pen in which he was currently housed. One in particular was striking — tall, light of complexion, with eyes of dark blue — no. Sea blue. No — Perhaps the man’s eyes might be shifting between the hues — sea blue, green, sky blue, sapphire. Or am I hallucinating? The soldier was too far away for Benjamin to truly tell the color. Besides, the last thing he wanted was for these guards to give him too much attention; he thought it better not to stare too long.

How had he been so stupid as to fall into their hands? He had still been armed when they took him; he should have just — But no. There were far too many he loved to have checked out so soon. He would endure this, by God, or he wasn’t fit for his uniform, a uniform to which he fully intended to return, and soon.

The blonde soldier came inside the fence, and as he did so Benjamin could better discern the fiend’s words: Fascist rhetoric, but — His attention caught a strange lilt to the speech; it seemed split along two frequencies. Underneath the propagandistic poison, sounded the alluring, bewitching voice of a poet, making promises Benjamin couldn’t believe.

“Be calm, son; be still. Observe. It will not be long.” The soldier smiled, and Benjamin gulped in confused fear. “Your fear is logical,” the solider continued, “but don’t let it cloud your vision, or you’ll miss your chance, understand?”

Benjamin gasped, and the words barely squeaked past his lips, “No, sir.”

The soldier stepped back and Benjamin’s vision blurred, only to regain focus in an instant. He stood before the man, no fencing between them, the cloudless African skyline replaced by the vision of a finely crafted hall. The man, too, seemed different: he no longer sported the uniform of those faithful to the enemy, but the gold, fine clothing, and jewels of a king out of Medieval legend.

“I can put it no more plainly, son,” the king said in a gentle voice. “Keys break if stressed too much; they can even be deadly in the hands of an angry woman. Keep watch for her; you will see what I mean.”

Benjamin nodded — or thought he did. “An angry woman. What do you mean, keep watch? How –”

The king smiled, cut him off, “We despise what’s happening, and are seeing to the matter. Don’t give up. You will know soon. You will be home, soon.”

Benjamin closed his eyes; when he opened his eyes, the camp had returned, and the sea green eyed soldier had disengaged his attention, and walked on. Another took his place, snapping out the itinerary of meager fare, and quick removal to the airfields and planes that soon deposited Benjamin and his fellow prisoners in permanent quarters in Naples, Italy.

There, Benjamin found the nights passing nights unkind. He and his barrack mates settled into a routine of daily work that left them so exhausted they could barely do much at night but lay in their uncomfortable cots, doze or talk. They had, however, become fast friends, and Benjamin knew each man — his skills, his thoughts and dreams — as well as they knew his own. He was even soon a favorite among the men. The skilled chef among men generally diner food devotees.

But the night’s camaraderie only lasted so long; and on shutting his eyes, Benjamin found himself unwillingly remembering the day’s work, the day’s horrors. He had become a favorite of the camp commandant, Colonel Drakeo, as well; sometimes, he went with a group of guards as they skulked around local shops and streets in search of some new item or delicacy the camp administrator desired. Sometimes the administrator lent Benjamin out to colleagues around town for grounds keeping or, when they learned of Benjamin’s skill in the kitchen, for a dinner –whatever the administrator and his cronies desired Benjamin quickly learned to undertake.

More often than not, he exerted himself as simply one of a crew whose skills and stamina were of the least concern to their captors in favor of work to be done. Days spent in insane assignments cleaning up the camp, no matter how tidy the grounds. Other chores took him outside the gates to weed the area surrounding the camp, the road leading to its entrance. Sometimes they mended sidewalks, sometimes roofs, sometimes, they simply marched from one end of town to the other, especially when the elements unkind.

And in each of these settings he kept his eyes and ears open, and returned to camp each night with news to share with his fellow captives. But in all his forays, though he saw many women, he had the distinct feeling none were the one described to him by the strangely regal soldier in Tunis — if he were even real, and had indeed spoken such words of hope. As time passed, Benjamin began to doubt it.

* * * *

Just before sunrise, digging out the stinking latrines in freezing temperatures, was not his idea of a good morning; and his inadequate clothing did nothing to keep the cold away. Benjamin sniffled and shuddered back a hacking cough. If he had any say he would still be in bed; but then, he could not pretend he had any control over his life now. But this was worse than lost control; this was a wild ride through hell — or it would become so, if he weren’t careful; of that, he was sure. He didn’t trust the Fascist guards to think twice about killing him, so he certainly was not going to complain about the temperature, or its effects on his health. Doing so would surely present a worse alternative to this assignment. He shuddered at the thought of his friends who were burying the handful of men that had died overnight.

Somehow, he made it through the work upright; but as soon as he returned to his barracks, he nearly fell over into the breakfast he had promised his friends. Were it not for Mark, a consummate tunnel engineer, and Tommy, a young man from Idaho, now Benjamin’s closest friends, he would have had a face full of oatmeal. Tommy forced him to lie down in his uncomfortable cot, draped the thin, scratchy blanket over him, and as he folded an arm over his eyes to block out the shaft of sun burning them, Tommy ran off to find the nearest Allied medic. He had only crude instruments and Red Cross First Aid remedies, but Benjamin was confident in the man’s skills. But he didn’t like Doctor Keenan’s frown, or his pronouncement on his condition. The last thing he needed right now was flu, nor the bed rest he couldn’t have.

He soon slept, and found himself stumbling through a thick forest. He was vaguely aware that he shouldn’t be here. He was so cold, he thought he might vomit; the frigid wind and hard driving snow cut through his Army issue fatigues as if he were completely naked.

You must finally be insane, Ben! It was dark, freezing, and he stumbled around like a drunk, and leaned against a nearby tree. Peering through the thick forest, he was sure he saw lights.

And then, the ground began to shake. Benjamin gave a startled jerk, grabbed onto a low-hanging branch. The ground stopped shaking and he realized he was staring into Tommy’s brown eyes. Tommy, who had a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently.

“I’m sorry, pal. You have to get up. They’re coming.”

Benjamin groaned and rubbed his eyes. “Any chance they just want me to ‘em breakfast?”

Benjamin wasn’t amused when Tommy announced morning hadn’t broken yet. He hoped the guards wouldn’t take his pale, clammy countenance as a reason to pistol whip him or worse–both of which he’d seen here. He swallowed what medicine the medic could provide. Tommy offered his thin sweater to keep Benjamin’s illness from worsening; and though it was inadequate, and the guards noticing his distress, put him through extra outdoor work, somehow, his illness abated along with winter’s chill.

Easter 1943 came, and their little community inside the camp cemented, complete with kitchens cobbled together with odds and ends, a tin stove and cooking pots that they’d collectively built from the remnants of Red Cross ration tins. This was Benjamin’s domain in Barrack 5. They also procured a radio, thanks to Tommy and his knack for talking any pretty girl out of anything. And so their Easter became a celebratory affair, if less religious, than the folks at home might stage. Benjamin cooked a meager feast for his friends of stew and pot bread sweetened with sugar Tommy had swiped while working for one of the camp director’s numerous colleagues. Another barrack shared tea and a much-coveted bottle of wine they had procured by less than lawful methods, and their dinner was complete. That night, the entire camp toasted the holiday, prayed for a quick end to the war and return to their loved ones.

The following week, Benjamin’s spirits sank. Shifted back to street cleaning in the warm Naples avenues reminded him too much of home — or perhaps it was the sudden change in his workplace that had dampened his spirits. If he had to dig up one more broken cobblestone, he would surely lose his mind. The only thing keeping his fury in check was the local citizenry passing by, ignoring the prisoners as they worked. It wouldn’t do to have some innocent bystander caught in the crossfire if he acted on his discomfort. Better to keep his mind firmly on his shovels. But the women were too pretty to ignore. Not one man in the detail would disagree with that thought, Benjamin was sure.

Mark whistled softly, calling Benjamin’s attention, then to the girl he covertly pointed out. She had the look of a gypsy. He, Tommy and Mark shared a wary glance.

“Turn around, honey,” Mark’s whisper carried an urgent warning.

“The south’s safer,” Benjamin agreed, digging away at the cobbles, watching the Fascist guard turn his attention to the approaching woman. “Go home. Shoo!”

The guard gave up his post over the prisoners and crossed the street. Benjamin could guess what might ensue, and couldn’t bear to watch. Hearing the scuffle was bad enough without Mark’s running account of the confrontation between girl and guard:

“Damn it, he’s harassing her like she’s his girl! . . . Ooh, that will get him castrated! Jesus, he kicked her! That son of a –”

He heard the click of Mark’s boot heels a he moved forward, the shift of the shovel in his hands, then,

“No!” another of their crew warned. “Stay still, you fool! Ignore it, before you get us all killed!”

Benjamin couldn’t help but look to the drama across the street. The soldier reached for his sidearm, and Benjamin’s mind went blank. He dropped his shovel. The soldier drew his gun and put it to the gypsy girl’s temple; the girl cringed, squeezing her bags to her chest. Frozen in fear. Benjamin jolted as if to step away from his spot in the crew. Felt badly that the girl would be shot as an example of their might. A show of force.

Tommy’s hand clamped around his arm. “No, Ben!”

There was a loud, ringing pop, blood and hair flew through the air, and the girl dropped to the sidewalk. Benjamin spun and snatched up his tools, eyes shut, a silent prayer screaming across his brain for the poor little gypsy girl murdered before his eyes.

And then he remembered the words of the calm, green-eyed king: Be calm, son; be still. Observe . . . Keep watch for her. Could he have meant that girl? No. The dead could do nothing. Keep watch for her . . . Don’t give up. You will know soon. You will be home, soon.

He prayed the man’s words were trustworthy; he prayed she would come quickly.

* * * *

He was in no mood that night to listen to his barrackmates as they narrated their days. There were more gruesome stories of digging graves, others told mundane tales of trash detail along busy streets in the afternoon sun, or of how various cuts on hands, came from changing a transport truck’s tire, or fixing some malfunctioning fan belts — because God knew the Fascist slugs wouldn’t dirty their hands with such hard labor. The latter stories were much better than Benjamin’s own. He hoped Tommy wouldn’t take the floor, tonight; but his luck didn’t hold. The others stared at Benjamin when Tommy spoke of his near rescue of the gypsy girl, and agreed he must have gone momentarily insane. Maybe so. Nothing that had happened, the last six months, proved otherwise.

* * * *

The colonel lent Benjamin’s services out to a friend tonight. One Signore Cavallo. Some hotshot in their circle. An art dealer, maybe, but Benjamin didn’t care to delve into details. He just wanted to do his job, and get out safely.

As he set the bag of groceries on the counter, he watched the guard who stood nearby, flirting with the plain-faced, quite tall, young maid. He supposed she wasn’t unattractive, but she was definitely not his type. At any rate, your attention should be entirely on unloading the truck, fool! he reminded himself, retreating again into the warm May afternoon.

As he lifted down another stack of heavy wooden crates, another woman glided by. She was beautiful, blonde, a woman who would not be ignored. Benjamin did a good impression of doing just that, putting all his mind into emptying the truck, but couldn’t keep a glance or two from drifting away from his work as she lingered just at the edge of the crosswalk ahead. He set another crate thunking down to sidewalk, listening to footsteps, the click of dainty heels, coming closer. The footsteps stopped and he turned to see the same young woman standing before him, long, wavy blonde hair held away from her face by a sky-blue ribbon, matching the blue belt she wore that divided her cream-white dress at the waist. The belt held his attention spellbound. From it dangled a ring of keys, flashing golden in the sunlight.

Benjamin’s eyes snapped back to hers. She smiled and produced from her purse a picture of a young girl, holding a little white dog. “Have you seen this puppy?” she asked, her flawless Italian flavored with a slight Germanic accent.

Benjamin shook his head, studying the photo, sneaking glances at the woman’s lovely face, and midnight blue eyes, wreathed in long golden lashes and soft brows, her face framed by a few golden locks that had escaped from her braid. She was, he thought, the most gorgeous thing he’d ever seen. “No. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I haven’t seen any animals today, miss.”

The woman clucked her tongue regretfully, thanked him for his time, and walked away. Benjamin sighed, mentally kicked himself for a fool. How could he possibly believe in any vision promising intervention–let alone intervention by a woman? He wondered how much assistance he could offer the men plotting escape from the camp. He wondered, if he walked away right now, how far he could get before the lackadaisical guards realized he wasn’t still hard at work unloading the truck.

He bent to lift the two top crates, and upon standing, found himself eye to eye with a guard. The man barked an order, in Italian, “Get inside the house! The master of the house wants a word with you.”

Benjamin held his breath, hoping he wasn’t about to be shot.

Relief flooded him when the short, squat man looked him up and down, and announced he’d heard of Benjamin’s reputation with a saucepan, and, to his shock, in a snobbish, squeaky, clipped order, requested his talents for a dinner party that evening, for roughly fifty guests.

There was no conceivable way to refuse, but Benjamin had a demand of his own: he couldn’t possibly serve a feast of such size, on his own; he would need assistance, and he had two men firmly in mind.

Within an hour and a half, with Tommy as an assistant, he was whisked through the servant’s entrance, and shown the totality of the kitchen’s stores. Taking in the mansion’s pantry, Tommy whistled, impressed at the amount of food available to the family.

“Mighty fine stockpile for only four people, most days; don’t you think, Ben?”

Benjamin sent him a warning look, and set to his work, delving into the spacious kitchen full of wooden spoons, aluminum ladles, silver and copper pots hanging from hooks, stuffed neatly into to cabinets, the glass measuring cups set out in a neat row on the gleaming off-white counter. Acquainting himself with the accoutrements and the staff, he delved into the work at hand, the clang and noise of the work almost comforting.

The strong, pleasing scent of a sumptuous roast, the herbs and spices of the tomatoes stuffed with rice, agnolotto stuffed with sausage, and a dessert of Torta di Ricotta soon wafted its way through the kitchen. And as if in answer to a siren’s call, she appeared on the kitchen’s threshold. The woman who had spoken to him earlier concerning the lost puppy now stood before him, looking for all the world as if she belonged here. But this couldn’t be true. He must be dreaming; for how could she bring herself to be among these kinds of people? The thought turned his stomach, and he fought to keep his revulsion hidden, as she surveyed the work taking place in her kitchen, sampled the dishes Benjamin had prepared, and turned to him with a compliment and a question concerning the best wine to serve with their meal.

His suggestion led to a blank stare. The woman shook her head; she didn’t know the first thing about wines. And then, she smiled. “Would you show me which you mean?”

Benjamin couldn’t believe she was ignorant of wines, but followed her down into the mansion’s dark, close wine cellars, where she clicked on a light and shut the door behind. He could hear the noisy guests partying above. Worried someone would come seeking the heady refreshment, discontent with the mistress of the house’s delay.

“Are you feeling better?”

Benjamin blinked, watching as she took keys down from a hook to the door’s left, and placed one to the lock. “Ma’am?”

“You haven’t been well,” she said turning back to him, “have you, Ben?”

How did she know his name? Benjamin’s heart hammered in his chest as he hesitated, unsure how to answer. Was her curiosity sympathetic, or dangerous? Studying her, Benjamin couldn’t believe she could be anything but the former. “No, ma’am. Well, this winter I was ill, but I’m well enough now. Without Mom’s remedies –”

She laughed and Benjamin felt himself blush. “I understand,” she said, nodding in a sympathetic way. “You had hoped it wouldn’t show. No, there’s no need to protest; I understand: you’d rather die on your own than to have one of them notice any weakness that might do you in.”

A slight sense of relief set in and he leaned against a wine rack as he considered her question. “It’s much easier to say, than to accomplish, ma’am. Doctor Keenan’s good; but it hasn’t been as easy to hide as you might think. I really don’t know how I’ve survived this long. Weakness is suicide here; stupidity is suicide, and I’ve been both.”

She shook her head sadly. “I wouldn’t say that.”

Benjamin’s dark eyebrow arched. “Oh? Take this afternoon: I thought you’d be shot for talking to me, or I for talking to you. I’m still not sure we won’t be — or at least me.” He shook his head. “And that’s not like me. Before Tunis, I wasn’t so skittish — not like this. And now, it’s worse.” He paused, pondering her, eyes narrowed. “And now I know why you got away with speaking to me this afternoon, Signora.”

“Do you?” She gave him an inquisitive look. “Do you know me now, when you didn’t then? I’ve done nothing, that I can think of to give myself away.” She smiled, clasping her hands before her in a satisfied, almost congratulatory gesture. “I’m pleased, Benjamin, I thought it would take you much longer than this to recognize me.”

Benjamin frowned, confused. What was her game? “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Are you not?” She frowned; even her frown was lovely. Benjamin mentally scolded himself for the thought. He was not here, after all, for . . . that. Her question refocused his concentration. “You still don’t know me?” He shook his head, and she sighed, “Well, don’t worry; you will.” She came down the steps, crossed the cellar, and soft clinking sounds rang through the cellar as she selected a bottle from the racks. Benjamin peered over her shoulder, reading the label, and suggested a different vintage. She thanked him and, retrieving the correct bottle, removed the keys from her belt. His eyes were on them more than her. Keys again. What did it mean?

She hesitated, as she turned away, paused, and turned back. “You really aren’t well today, are you, dear boy?” She laid a soft hand to his forehead, and drew it down to his scruffy cheek. Benjamin wobbled and fought to stay upright under the wave of sudden nausea that crept up from his gut. The woman wrapped her warm hand around his arm. “Why don’t you stay here, for a while? Rest, eat something.” She nodded in the direction of the room behind. “You’ll find everything you need, right here.”

Benjamin turned back to the cellar’s expanse to see a table laden with a simple bowl and spoon, a plate of bread, and a mug where there had been open floor, and wine racks, a second earlier. His brown eyes shot back to the woman, startled. She smiled and waved a hand to the spread, and led him to the table, made him sit. “I promise you, Benjamin Gunnarson,” she soothed, “they will not mark your absence.”

Benjamin protested, “I couldn’t possibly. They will notice, and then –”

“Benjamin,” she sternly said, gently forcing him to remain seated, “this is my home, and it is my right to run it as I see fit, and to assist whom I wish. They will say nothing against what I offer you.” She smiled a maternal, loving smile, as she stepped away and settled herself on the bottom step, as if she were to be his guard. “As I said, the guards will not notice your absence.”

Following her order, Benjamin ate the meager dinner, and gulped away at the water — purer than any he had had of late — slowly realizing he was feeling much better. Before long, though he was loath to do so, he followed her gentle direction to return to the kitchens, and found that she was correct: crossing the kitchen threshold, he found Tommy helping the others in the post-party clean up, the scents of delightful dinner now replaced by harsh cleaners. As he joined in the work, not one word was spoken concerning his absence. Just as his lovely dinner companion had promised, it was as if he’d never exited the kitchen.

He spied the woman once more as they left that night. She called him to her, and promised not only would he see her again, but there would a surprise waiting for him when he returned to his barracks.

TWO HOURS LATER

He couldn’t help it, but somehow, her mention of a surprise worried him. She’d been so kind, but still, she was one of them . . . or at least, she’d seemed so, apparently in charge of a house under Fascist ownership. So Benjamin was sure he had cause to worry. Looking over his friends when he entered their barracks, he felt suddenly guilty. Here they were, starving, yet making the best of it, and he had spent most of the night enjoying fine food and drink, with a beautiful woman. How could he have done this, and not share it with them?

What else could he have done? After all, in reparation to his friends, he and Tommy had smuggled out some leftovers, though it wasn’t a mere fraction of what that household had discarded tonight.

As soon as he was through the door, Mark hissed an excited greeting, his gray eyes wide, “It’s about time you two got back! You’re never going to believe what we found!”

He wrapped his hand around Benjamin’s arm and nearly dragged him into the darkest corner of the building, a place where he and several others had worked for months, each night, digging an escape tunnel incessantly. It was almost finished, and yet, here he was dragging Benjamin to it, as if he thought he might have any suggestions on the work. “Look at this!” Mark kicked a floorboard up and a second young man shone a handmade flashlight down into the tunnel.

Benjamin knelt to take a closer look. Ten feet south down the tunnel, dark shapes hid in the shadows. As he angled the flashlight’s beam, he saw they were boxes — many boxes, a few ripped open. An upright flap showed the outline of a shape that he could have sworn was a key.

He looked up at his friends. “What happened? What are they?”

“Supplies,” Mark whispered conspiratorially. “There are so many rations, there, we’d never eat all of them, in a hundred years.”

“Plus batteries, medicines, and other things,” said Mark’s partner Lee. “A radio, books, work gloves, boots, underwear –” He glanced at Mark. “I think one box has weapons, too, but we were too scared to fully investigate that one.” He grinned wickedly. “Hell, I think we might be able to liberate this camp ourselves tonight, if I’m right.”

“He’s not,” Mark said, frowning. “There are no weapons down there. But with what is there, we might be stupid to try any such self-liberation. I’ve never seen so much food, in my life!”

“It’s not the Red Cross,” Benjamin mused, studying the box and its markings. “Someone’s forgotten stock of World War I rations?”

“I doubt it. The radio’s too modern.”

Benjamin scanned the rest of the barracks’ occupants; no one wanted to claim the horde. He considered the stacked boxes. “Then, Santa Claus showed up when we weren’t looking.”

Benjamin’s nose twitched, as Mark, taking what Tommy had brought, nudged him aside to add it to the stores inside the now-useless tunnel. “We could probably buy this camp with what’s down there.”

Benjamin frowned. “Shouldn’t we at least share some of this stuff?”

“Hopefully, we’ll never need all of it.” Mark’s eyes narrowed on the rest of their friends. “Remember, we don’t know anything about this tunnel.”

Benjamin and Tommy looked at each other. “Tunnel?” Benjamin kicked the floorboard back in place. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Flopping down to his bunk, he ran a hand up under his pillow, and was surprised to feel something other than coarse sheets, something smooth, hard, and brittle. Pulling it into the light, he found it was a book. He assessed it curiously, while Tommy peered over his shoulder and asked what he had found. “Norse Mythology,” Benjamin read aloud. He gave his barrack mates a questioning look. “The librarian came around while we were gone?”

Mark nodded. “In all the latter excitement, we forgot about him. Did you request that?”

“ Not that I recall.” But I’ve been so distracted lately, he thought, flipping the cover open randomly to an entry on the goddess Frigga, anything’s possible.

* * * *

BEFORE SUNRISE

Benjamin trudged through a snowy forest. Pushing back a snow-packed branch, he was surprised to find a bright castle before him, built from bricks of ivory and sapphire. The drawbridge was down, the portcullis open. There were hoof tracks leading up to the drawbridge, and as he followed, he noticed they were horses hoofs, and nine prints in all. How weird. Looking back to the façade, he thought the strange markings above the gate spelled out a word: Fensalir.

Mist whirled up around him obscuring his view and making him shiver hard. The mist quickly dissolved, the beautiful façade replaced by a blazing fire, set in the center of a vast hall, long and narrow, with bracing beams set horizontal across the peaked ceiling. Crude, yet elegant lanterns hung from the beams, candles lit within, adding to the glow from the massive brick fireplace to the far side of the hall.

Before the fireplace several women sat sewing, giggling with one another. From an open window, moonlight mixed with firelight to illuminate their faces and golden braids: they were young, old, beautiful one and all. A soft whooshing sound drew his attention to the woman sitting in their midst, watching silently as she worked away at a spinning wheel. Her golden locks brought to mind all the young women at the party he’d served before his sojourn in the cellar. But there was something more than that. This woman, he knew, was special above and beyond any earthly queen. He knew her face, but if pressed, could not have sworn where he had seen her before; conversely, Benjamin thought he had never known any other woman but her. She seemed as familiar as anyone he had ever truly called beloved. Her beautiful face and eyes, her long, shiny golden hair, her shapely little nose and ears, the curve of her sensuous throat, her dainty, strong hands, he knew them all intimately. Her name was just on the tip of his tongue when she spoke.

“My love, come forward.”

There was nothing in the world he wanted more, but . . . he couldn’t remain. Should their guard arrive, he couldn’t leave Tommy, Mark, and the others to explain his absence.

“Come,” she urged gently. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”

He wanted to believe her; he wished for nothing more than to remain here with her; but the nightmare of his reality was too sharp. He couldn’t leave his friends to that horror, now. They were counting on him.

The golden queen smiled. “My love, you have no idea how you please me.”

Benjamin blinked and couldn’t help the question, “How, my Lady? How do I please you? I’m nothing.”

She reached out a hand and a golden bracelet shone in the firelight. Key-shaped charms sparkled and danced in the glow. The woman nodded, a mischievous look on her face; Ben’s eyes went to hers. “Frigga?”

“You know me, Ben; you always have. You know how you please me. You have done so, by abiding ever by my word. You do so, now, by the faithful watch you keep on your friends.”

“Hence” — he sucked in a breath of understanding — “the supplies.”

“Gifts for your faith in me.” Her lovely face turned serious. “It won’t be long now. Wait but a bit longer. Be calm, my love; be still. Keep yourself, and your brothers, alive.” She held up her hand, displaying a ring from which dangled far too many keys to count, all split, bent, or mangled in some way. “The keys have broken, and I am incensed at those who’ve broken them. Know they will answer for this atrocity, and you will live to see them judged. It won’t be long before that day arrives.” She gave him her hand, and Benjamin, weeping, kissed it; she laid her other hand on his crown and gently caressed his head, murmuring soothing words as he did a poor job of keeping composure. “Don’t give up, my love,” she cooed. She placed a gentle finger beneath his chin, lifted his head, and kissed his lips lightly. Just a brush of warmth, a honey-sweet flavored kiss, and scent. He thought he might drown in the sensation, and happily so . . .

And then, the heaven she offered was snatched away as she returned to her seat by the spinning wheel.

“You will always have the key to my door at hand. Do what you must to bide your time. These keys open every door; they will be mended soon, you will see.”

It was as cryptic and strange a directive as she was beautiful and comforting. He wanted to request she speak plainly, yearned to pledge his life to her, but he couldn’t. Somewhere, something creaked, and a squeaked like old hinges being disturbed pervaded the room.

Voices, noises bounced around the room like a pack of angry hunters entering in a fury. He watched her stand and step away from the spinning wheel as she spoke, “They think to break my devotees, even the name of Frigga. They think they no longer need fear my wrath. But they’re wrong.” The gleam of the embroidered golden keys down the back of her satin dress as she walked away from him, caught his eye. The dissonant melody of her answer, and the rough clank and squeak of the opening of the barrack doors, jolted him back to his shared hell.

END PART ONE

[Julianne Draper can’t remember the first time she fell in love with the Arthurian tales, nor the exact moment she wrote her first story (she thinks it was when she was eight or nine, and consisted of something about a faery courtship in her front yard), but her parents say she’s always told stories.  She can only point to a somewhat late discovery in high school when she was introduced to Michael Moorcock’s beloved hero Elric, inducting her into the wonderful world of Romantic heroic writing. That early influence was bolstered by her pursuit of degrees in literature and art history, and by devouring the works of many authors from the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, such as Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov and the late Marion Zimmer Bradley (specifically for her love of all things Celtic). Her short fiction has been published in Twisted Dreams, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted Stories for Haiti Relief” Project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter, the newsletter of the Tampa Area Romance Authors. On occasion, she has even been known to pen the odd poem. She spends what little writing time she has away from her fictional worlds reviewing books for fun on Café Pearl, and on The Examiner site, where she reports on the local literature scene as the Tampa Books Examiner. She has also edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review. She is a Pro member of the Romance Writers of America, and a member of The Tampa Area Romance Authors, and her first novel is currently in the works.]

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