[Editor’s Note: Mistress of the Keys Part One debuted in our Spring Equinox 2011 issue.]
The late afternoon sun was blinding, but the barracks threw a nice shadow under which Benjamin lounged, having taken his turn in his friends’ game, and promptly been tagged out. Now, he watched them, a smile on his face — but it was one that emanated more from his recent dreams of the lovely goddess than from his enjoyment of his friends’ momentary mirth.
She had visited him almost nightly, for months. He could no longer tell whether or not she was the same woman from the Fascist official’s dinner, and he no longer cared. Her nightly visits were a great improvement over his daily life. She even seemed to know news of his family and friends, back home, and that of many of his companions’ families, as well. But Benjamin thought it best to keep the revelations to himself. It wouldn’t be conducive to his duties; she had charged him with the task of keeping his companions safe. Bad news could only hinder that duty, make them yearn for home all the more.
The radio gave them plenty to discuss, in any case. Each night after the guards locked down the camp, Mark or one of the others would dig into their hidden reserves, and the radio would serve as locus for their nightly communion. The war seemed to be going well for the Allies, poorly for the Axis — particularly for Mussolini’s Fascists — and it gave everyone here reason to hope that their captivity was nearing conclusion. Now, they need only wait; indeed, as Frigga Herself had promised, freedom must surely be at hand.
Benjamin craved escape terribly. When his friends had broken through the tunnel on the far side of the camp, he had almost followed them. But his resolve had failed. Wait, she had said. And he felt relief for having heeded her warning for the unhappy ending that accompanied the tunnel breakthrough: ten men had gotten out. Seven had been spotted outside the camp, whether directly that same evening, or in the following days, and had either been shot, or taken beatings so severe as to leave them seriously wounded. And to add to the injury, the tunnel had collapsed on two more of their brothers the following day. Only one had made it to freedom, or as far as they knew he was still at large.
Benjamin and those of his friends in the barracks above had done what they could to explain away the missing men’s absence — convinced the guards they’d killed them already — quickly arranged other housing for the supplies they could salvage, and nailed the floorboards back into place. But the camp guards were on alert now, and had taken the slightest splintering of wood as an excuse to vent their anger on everyone in the barracks. Benjamin might have come under the knife himself for his aid in the escape, except that Mark had done a good job of lying about the identity of his assistants. By the time the guards had gotten to him, he was only given a good backhand and his outside privileges, such as they were, were revoked; now, not only the barrack’s supplies, but the morale of his bunkmates, were dwindling.
But it didn’t keep the camp officials from suspecting, and watching Benjamin wherever he went. They had even shipped many of his once-barrack mates off to other camps, some harsher than others to tell by the gossip among the guards. As for himself and Tommy, and those left behind, the colonel and his soldiers had moved them into separate barracks in a untouched corner of the camp, tearing down their original home and building a new one, and only allowing them contact with each other under careful watch.
If something didn’t soon change drastically, he thought he might break his promise to Frigga and escape, come what may.
With the time the lockdown brought, he had more time to study that tiny book he had found with the supplies horde, and he was fairly sure, given its description, that he had not misheard when his benefactress named Herself after that beloved Norse Goddess. Whether or not she really was Frigga, or whether or not Frigga was just a pretty myth, he didn’t care. The thought of her, and the promise he had given her, was enough to keep him sane.
Unless he was insane to believe he had ever had any meeting with any woman at all. Maybe it was all in his head; the one thing that kept him from losing his mind in the increasing insanity in which he lived.
Throughout July there was fighting all around; many places, from Rome to southern Italy were being hit by the Allies. No one was exactly sure how the battles were going, or where, but they were hopeful of an imminent liberation. They saw hope everywhere: the prison camp leaders seemed to be in fear of their future, even though they kept up the pretense of life as usual.
Outside, the Fascist officials were continuing life as usual, as well, and Benjamin and his crew were given cautious orders to serve their various subdued dinners. Despite the constant watch, the hassle over each and every ingredient and mixture, and the close eye on their hosts’ collection of kitchen knives, the Fascist officials had been pleased with his work. He hoped it was the beginning of a better phase in this parade through Hell; he prayed they wouldn’t be here long enough to receive invitations to too many more such gatherings. The war was dragging on far too long, in his opinion, and one way or another he didn’t plan to remain through another season.
Tommy approached him, smiling and sweating, and dropped down next to him, groaning loudly. “I’m unfit for sports.” Benjamin laughed, setting his book aside. “That party, Thursday night, wasn’t awful, was it?”
Benjamin shook his head slowly. “Not at all. Of course, I’d rather have cooked for our men.”
Tommy agreed with a grunt, his dark eyes blank as he watched the game in the yard before them. “When we get home, you should relocate to Iowa.” Benjamin gave a surprised laugh. “Come live in my hometown; we’ll open our own restaurant, you and me. We’ll make a fortune!”
Benjamin scoffed at the idea. “I think –” He hummed, watching the others run and laugh. A guy named Johnson was single-handedly winning, for all that he was shorter than the others. “I think you need to come to Laredo. There’s a larger population, and I know what they like.” He raised an eyebrow mischievously. “Don’t I?”
“You don’t know nothing about American tastes!” Tommy eyed him wolfishly. “Hell, you haven’t even learned English yet, have you?”
Benjamin made a face and grumbled, in his father’s native Norwegian, something that he insisted was an age-old Germanic curse.
Tommy slapped Benjamin’s shoulder jovially. “It’s too hot in Laredo for me, I’m sure.”
Benjamin scoffed. “And you want me to brave your winters?” He was interrupted when, from across the yard, a guard called his name. All play on the field before them stopped as a tall, scowling soldier approached. Benjamin jumped to his feet. The soldier announced the colonel wished to see him.
Crossing the threshold into the headquarters office, he was quickly ushered into the colonel’s presence.
The good Fascist leader sat behind a large oak desk encrusted with olivewood panels, its surface strewn with papers and dappled in sunlight. The colonel studied Benjamin with intense boredom, while he gave his expected curt salute, still unsure what the official had in mind.
The colonel blinked his dark eyes and addressed the subject at hand. He was, he said, pleased with everything he had heard of Benjamin’s performance of his occasional domestic assignments. Therefore, he requested his culinary services, once again. The colonel refused to give more details than to say he required Benjamin tonight and to throw some suggestions at him for the menu. Benjamin pondered the question, and offered a litany of suggestions of his own.
As the colonel nodded approval, Benjamin slipped into his father’s tongue, “You won’t have very long left to gloat, you scum sucking toad. Do you know what’s coming for you, Il Colonello? Do you know what trouble you’ll soon be in? The Hounds of Hell have nothing on what’s coming.”
Benjamin was just making his threat up as he went along; he really didn’t know what was about to happen, but Frigga had promised his wait was nearly over. Still, he wasn’t willing to risk his life with this game too long, and slipped back into his weak Italian as he returned to his list of menu needs.
The colonel blinked as they finally exhausted their discussion. “One more thing: What did you say, a moment ago?”
“Ingredients,” Benjamin lied. “Colloquial names from back home. I thought you might recognize –” With a questioning look, he gestured to the colonel’s notepad. “I can write them down for you, if you wish.” Being allowed the items, Benjamin quickly scribbled the first foodstuffs that came to mind; he supposed he could figure out how to work them into a dessert dish, if anyone noticed their absence from the menu.
The colonel read the list, and waved a dismissive hand. Benjamin didn’t need a second invitation to leave, and soon, both the office and the mansion were behind him. He stood for a moment on the steps, watching his friends. To the south, the camp guards drew towards the gates as a black car, festooned with the green, white, and red, the Fascist cross and shield emblazoned on flags, approached the gates.
Benjamin frowned at the sight. What now? He joined his friends who had given up their game in curiosity at the new arrivals.
Tommy called him over. “What was that all about?”
Benjamin dragged a hand through his short, dark hair, watching the car come to a halt and the driver’s side door open. “We’ve got a catering job tonight — here.”
Tommy frowned. “Damn! No chance at the leftovers, then.”
“Nope,” he said as he watched the very tall driver fold himself out of the car, and began the trek that would end in the opening of the remaining car doors.
Tommy whistled. “Jesus Christ, that guy must be over seven feet tall!”
Benjamin studied the man as he went about his work; aside from his height, something in his blonde visage was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. The blonde giant smiled as a shorter, thin, dark-haired man, dressed in a uniform similar to that of the camp officials, emerged from the car, followed by a lovely blonde woman dressed in a flowing white dress, with blue piping along the skirt’s hem.
Benjamin heard a soft whistle from behind, then Mark followed the exclamatory noise with, “This is a first. Who’s that gorgeous vision?”
From his left, the doctor chuckled, “Rita Hayworth, I hope!”
“Too blonde,” Williams in his Maine drawl corrected. “She looks more like Veronica Lake.”
The visitors were met by the colonel, who had to scurry his ample bulk across the whole of the compound — a comedic performance in itself. The colonel’s second followed, only to break away from his superior to see the prisoners were called into formation. He stalked down the line of men like a caged leopard, just waiting for a moment to break his captivity. Meanwhile, the male visitor leaned against his car, glaring at the spectacle playing out before him.
The stalking captain spoke, “There was an incident at Signore Cavallo’s party, this week. We know which of you were sent there, of course. Will you confess?”
Benjamin shot a glance to Tommy, who was staring at the speaking guard. What was the guard talking about? Benjamin wondered. They had never before been caught for a leftover theft. Had the family gotten tired of such losses, and decided to retaliate? Benjamin gulped. He certainly didn’t like the thought of what might be the punishment for this.
He turned his attention to the man leaning against the car. The man’s blue eyes glared back, before turning his attention to the drama before them. Meanwhile, Benjamin watched the man’s companions. The driver and the lovely woman stood together, speaking in soft voices. They paused, when they noticed him watching, smiled. But Benjamin’s attention was soon pulled away to the furious captain. The man had stopped pacing before Tommy, but was staring at him. Benjamin gulped, unsure what to say. The captain repeated his question: What did they know about the slight to Signore Cavallo’s daughter?
Benjamin blinked in surprise. “Sir? Nothing, sir.”
The captain smirked. “Come now, Gunnarson, don’t play coy. You know what happened. Is this the thanks we get for giving you such privileges?”
Benjamin gaped. “I’m really not sure what you’re referring to, Cap’n.”
The guard’s eyes narrowed, and he turned from Benjamin and began to pace. Mark nudged Benjamin. “They think you fooled with the bastard’s daughter.”
Benjamin glanced over his shoulder, shocked at the accusation. “Me? I barely left the kitchen; unless . . . Tommy?”
A soft curse caught his attention, confirming Benjamin’s suspicions.
Tommy was cringing where he stood.
Benjamin snorted, watching the guard turn back their way. The girl’s father approached; the guard stepped away to meet him, and as they conversed, Benjamin’s palms went clammy. “You’re insane, Tom,” he hissed softly, “you know that?”
Now the woman approached her husband, the colonel, and the captain, arguing with them. She tugged her husband towards the car, but his glare remained on the standing prisoners. Five steps later, he dug in his heels, and turned back to the captain and colonel. The woman cursed, but her husband pulled the two men further from her to continue their conversation.
The colonel and captain exchanged a glance. The captain approached Tommy. The captain’s pistol whipped forth from his holster. There was an audible gasp from the line of prisoners as the captain aimed at Tommy. Then a click and the sharp crack of the hammer split the silent air. Mark, Williams, and several others yelped. The men standing behind Tommy dropped to the ground seconds before Tommy’s head cracked back with the concussion of the close range impact of the bullet. Blood and bone flew in its wake.
Benjamin couldn’t take it all in. Tommy crumpled, and he couldn’t think what to do. He was frozen, his body refusing to obey the commands his mind was giving it to do something. Common sense — or was it fear? — told him to stay put — he could do nothing — and common sense was winning.
The captain turned his attention back to Benjamin, blankly studying him, and as he did, Benjamin knew he too was a dead man. He glanced to the car; the woman was clearly confused, watching the scene unfold. Benjamin closed his eyes.
The woman screamed, “No!”
And Benjamin heard the captain’s gun click uselessly.
Shocked, he looked at his would-be executioner; the man was frowning. He checked his gun, again brought it in line with Benjamin’s face. But the hammer once again clicked impotently. The woman cursed him viciously and flew at him, berating him for the execution and attempted-execution. Benjamin gave the captain a smug smile. And the captain backhanded him with the butt of his pistol. Stars exploded across Benjamin’s sight, pain stabbed across his face, and the day went black.
* * * *
She leaned over him, shushing him, and promised everything would be fine. Disconnected as he felt, Benjamin tried to ask questions, but they didn’t seem to make sense, even to him. She insisted he remain silent, rest. She promised he was safe. He believed, and then, he didn’t. The room in which he lay was strange, fire-lit, and not at all like the barracks to which he had become so accustomed. He glanced back into her pretty blue eyes, and as she smiled, he blacked out once more.
* * * *
The days slipped by, and Benjamin was aware of little more than pain. The Fascist captain had done a fine job of breaking his jaw, and he now couldn’t eat much at all. But the doctor was taking care of him as best he could, with his stolen syringes and pills. None of it did much for his peace of mind. Tommy was dead and Benjamin considered himself solely responsible for that loss. There didn’t seem to be much for that pain, beyond the sleep he retreated to as much as possible. When awake, he half-listened to the rumors of liberation, even as the trucks began moving to and from the camp with more frequency. It meant something, but he didn’t want to believe. They had pinned their hopes on rumor before, only to have those hopes dashed.
But Benjamin had no other hope. Killing the colonel began to seem an excellent idea.
“I don’t like it, dear one.” He was pulled from the middle of yet another nightmare of Tommy’s shattered skull, to find himself by Frigga’s side in Her fine hall. “I forbid you to do it.”
Benjamin snorted sadly. “No offense, my Lady, but you see what good obeying your last command did.” He gulped back tears. “I’m not able to keep my friends safe at all, am I?”
She put her warm, soft arms around him. “Can you really question that?”
“But Tommy is — ”
“His fate wasn’t violated,” she answered vaguely.
“What about mine?” he snapped. “It’s been violated by this whole fu — ”
She raised a hand. The keys dangled from her bracelet. They were whole, unbroken. Benjamin blinked, and Frigga smiled lovingly. “My love, I understand your rage; but I only ask you again: you must trust me, and do what you can for the others, until I see you again. Time is short.” She removed a key from her bracelet and wrapped it in his right palm. Benjamin opened his hand and stared at the key: it sparkled in his palm, as if it were starlit, and he was instantly ashamed he had cursed her; was at a loss as to how to beg her forgiveness. Embarrassed, he blushed as he turned his gaze to hers. “I guess it would be useless to ask you to marry me?”
Frigga laughed and kissed his forehead. “Unnecessary. You’re already mine, Benjamin — didn’t you know?”
“What?” Benjamin was startled into wakefulness by the interrupting male voice. He blinked the stark barracks back into focus. “Know what?” He knew a lot. Among other things, recent news reported that Mussolini had been removed from power; the Allies had landed at the Straits of Messina; Sicily was in Allied control; and yet, one hundred thousand Axis troops had moved into Italy. He scanned the barracks, wondering what they were talking about. Mark, the doctor, and many others from other barracks were crammed into his, straining to hear the radio’s low volume. More bad news could certainly creep in any time; but his friends’ countenances didn’t reflect the worst. Indeed, they were laughing. “What’s happened?”
Mark’s gaze flew to his, and he was smiling. “Italy’s surrendered. It’s over!”
“That’s why there’s battle going on,” said a medic from another barrack. “That’s why they’ve been packing up so frantically, I’ll bet: they’re desperate to make their escape! Halle-fucking-lujah! First Sicily, then the army’s breaking up, and Mussolini’s out . . . now this!”
The man yelped in delight. Benjamin smiled, and wondered if it was too soon to use the barracks’ wooden planks for a celebratory cook out.
* * * *
They still weren’t out of danger, or free. The evacuation preparations continued, and Benjamin soon found himself and his friends lined up and, one by one, shoved into the back of two transport trucks. Several men took the opportunity, made a desperate attempt to flee, and died for their efforts. The memory of it replayed in Benjamin’s mind as his truck rumbled through the night. He’d promised to stay with his friends, but he hadn’t really remained, had he? The miles clicked away and as the vehicle’s driver slowed under surprise artillery fire, Benjamin cautiously peeked out the back flap. There was fighting now, all around them. Jeeps and trucks barreled down the road, Allied emblems marking their hoods and doors.
“What’s going on?” Mark asked.
Benjamin looked over his shoulder at his curious friend. “I think, one way or another, we’re dead. The Allies might kill us, if the guards don’t do it first. Unless — ”
Mark cocked an eyebrow. “Unless? What’s on your mind, Ben?”
Benjamin glanced at his palm, feeling an itch where Frigga had laid her key. “They opened the gates, themselves.” Clear Italian shouts cut through the din; truck doors slammed. Benjamin looked back out the flaps.
She stood in the road before him, her face and dress immaculate. She smiled and beckoned, a lock clicked and Benjamin felt the cuffs loosen around his ankles, and feeling so, called himself crazy. But when he checked, he found, indeed, the restraints were no longer clasped. He looked up at his friends to find they too were astonished at the sudden loosening of their chains. Benjamin pretended to turn a key. “She opened them, that is. And we’d be stupid not to use that to our advantage, don’t you think?”
“She who? That blonde?” Mark blinked. “Veronica?”
“Frigga.” Benjamin nodded to the flaps. “The question is, now that this is so” — he wiggled his freed foot at them to demonstrate his meaning — “am I alone?” Mark gave him a look as if to say he was crazy if he thought so. “Do you think you can take a jump like that, Mark?”
His friend got to his feet and offered his hand in a gesture of solidarity. Resolved, Benjamin threw the flap back again, and jumped from the truck, hoping he was right and those jeeps and half-tracks did belong to the Allies.
Several yards lay between them, but Benjamin and his companions made for the vehicles, announcing their POW status at the top of their lungs, dodging bullets as they ran. A jeep gunned its engine and zipped forward, breaks screeching as it slowed to meet them.
“POW!” Benjamin shouted. The jeep emptied of its occupants, as shots whizzed overhead. In the ensuing race to their side, Benjamin felt something jerk at his shoulder, and looked down to see his shirt torn, the material smoking. The Fascists had turned their guns on him and his companions, but Benjamin had no intention of allowing them to succeed in their murderous plan; nor, it seemed, did any of his companions. The doctor dumped Mark into the hands of the Allied soldiers. Benjamin didn’t have time to enjoy the relief of their almost-escape when fiery pain shot through his hand. Looking down he realized the second and ringfingers of his left hand were shot, one gone, one barely hanging on. He reflexively cradled the injured hand, winced when the doctor’s hand came down gently on his shoulder. He cursed in pain as the doctor pushed him into the jeep. The driver and a fellow G.I. shouted a greeting and an order to, “Hang on!” and turning the jeep south, they barreled out of the field of battle, toward the Allied camps.
* * * *
On arrival at the M.A.S.H. camp, the medical personnel split them up for various procedures. Benjamin waited his turn, trying to ignore the mixture of antiseptic scents and smells of surgery, sickness, and death all around, a hydrating I.V. stuck painfully into his arm. He was disheartened to hear that while most of their friends had survived the unexpected battle, some still had not been delivered to safety.
Outside, he could hear helicopters and jeeps arriving. The M.A.S.H. tent’s flaps flew back, and stretcher after occupied stretcher was carried in by a combination of doctors, nurses, and other M.A.S.H. personnel; occasionally, a soldier or medevac pilot helped carry the wounded in. Behind it all, the Italian sun was setting as if it had no idea about the havoc going on below it — or didn’t care in the slightest. Dozing amidst the noise, Benjamin soon found himself startled awake by a pretty, clearly Native American-descended nurse as she quietly checked his bandaged hand. When she saw he was watching, she smiled.
“Well, good morning, Corporal. Feeling better?”
“A little,” he admitted through a surprisingly stiff jaw. “Is it morning?”
“Don’t try to talk too much, Corporal.”
“Mark asked you to wire me shut, huh?”
She laughed merrily. “Something like that.” She checked his IV, and explained they had fixed his crooked jaw, and his mangled fingers, as best they could. “You slept right through the operation. For a second there, we thought you might not need this — ” She nodded to indicate the IV. “Must have been quite a night.”
“You have no idea,” he drawled through his teeth.
She unhooked the old IV, making general small talk, told him his companions were well, though Mark was currently still in surgery. When she asked gently, he thought a moment, and admitted he couldn’t say how he had come to be taken prisoner.
“But knowing what I know now, I think I may have taken a chance and avoided it at all costs.”
The nurse gave him a sad, yet hopeful look. “Oh? Despite it all, you’re alive. That’s a gift, isn’t it? You can start again.” Benjamin shrugged. “If you’d died,” she reasoned, “the possibilities would have ended there.”
He wondered if she would understand, or accept why he thought he had survived relatively untouched, through the hellish last year.
“You were in Tunis?” Her dark brow quirked questioningly. “So, is that where you got the scar?”
“Scar?” She gestured to his hand, and Benjamin looked. Emblazoned across his right palm, as she had said, was a scar shaped like a key.
* * * *
His beloved smiled at him. “Feeling better?”
Benjamin stared around the fire-lit hall; he was here again, safe, comfortable, warm. “We’re safe — not all of us, of course.” He wasn’t sure if he needed to tell her what had ensued since their last meeting. “But . . . well, no. I’ll survive, though, thanks to you. Frigga, but for you, I don’t know how I would have.”
She raised a hand. “No. Thank me in other ways.”
Benjamin laughed. “I’m not sure how to. I am no skald, after all.”
“You needn’t be one.” She waved an elegant hand. “There are many ways to honor me. Didn’t you offer one yourself, once?”
Benjamin pondered the question, unsure. And then, it hit him, and he blushed. “Well, surely you didn’t –” He gaped as her only answer came in a smile. “I’m sure He would have something to say about that, would He not?”
“The faithfulness of my Lord should be well-known to you, Benjamin,” she drawled. “Do you still offer, I won’t refuse.”
The war still raged on outside; he didn’t want to think a refusal might send him back into the thick of it, that it may very well cost his life. But, as he studied her, he knew that thought was furthest from her mind. He smiled and offered her his marked palm. “With all my heart, Mistress, my proposal still stands.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I’m very pleased to hear it.”
There was no need of another answer. More important things needed his attention.
* * * *
The little boy stood at the window, running a handful of toys back and forth across the sill, making raspberries as accompaniment to the battle going on in his imagination. Outside the window was a landscape that never hinted at its haunted, violent past. The boy might have heard the story of the prison camp and the people it held here; but he easily dismissed it from his mind in favor of the landscape he built in his play. He was completely unaware he was being watched.
But he was.
The onlooker glanced across the hall to a painting of a beautiful blonde woman, sitting before a table in a majestic room, a knowing smile on her face. Her hand rested across a small birdcage, a ring of keys dangling languidly from her elegant fingers. The door of the cage was open, and the bird itself — a gray dove — stood just to the right of the woman’s hand. The entire perimeter of the painting was decorated in delicately rendered runes: both an invocation and a promise to the queen and mistress of the keys depicted therein.
Benjamin smiled on the painting and shifted his stance in the office doorway, startling the child. He didn’t mind, really, the boy’s presence outside his office. Much to his family’s chagrin, Benjamin had never married, and so this orphanage and school served as his legacy. He had opened this place just for children like this lad who had no other place to call home. It seemed fitting to transform the prison camp the way he had: where the barracks and various other structures of the Fascist camp had once stood, where he and his friends had suffered and waited at the command of the enemy, and more importantly, at Frigga’s command for patience, now stood this orphanage and school. It had been a controversial idea, but Benjamin had finally realized it, despite the naysayers.
Mark thought him crazy, and that was before Benjamin confessed his close connection to the Norse Mother Goddess and Mistress of his heart. Even knowing it to be a form of thanks to Her, Mark thought something was very wrong with his friend. That plot of land was the worst place for such a thing, Mark had argued, and the last place he ever wanted to think of again. Why would Benjamin want to waste so much on it, no matter how noble his intentions? It was a hellish, haunted spot and no amount of anyone’s blessings would ever redeem it.
But Benjamin knew better. He was convinced the home he built here for countless children was exactly the kind of salve needed to heal the land, and, if no one else, himself. It was, he knew, regardless of what Mark thought, what She wanted.
He wondered if the child before him knew anything at all about the smiling woman looking down on him. He reached into his pocket absentmindedly to fondle the smooth cover of the little book that never left his reach. The action made his old fingers ache, and he hissed softly. But it was just enough to disrupt the little boy’s play, and bring his attention to the old man watching.
“Scuzi, Signore!” the little boy yelped. “I didn’t know you were there.”
Benjamin affected the schoolmasterliest stern look he could. “You’re not supposed to be up here, son, are you?”
The young boy blushed to his dark eyes. “Scuzi, Signore. I’m sorry.” He scooped up his toys and quickly palming them into his pocket. “I have to get to class.”
Benjamin smiled. He knew the boy had purposely skipped class.
“I like that picture,” the boy said, trying to lengthen his truancy. “Is she your daughter?”
Benjamin hummed thoughtfully as his gaze turned to the painting across from his door. Waving the young man over, he laid one old hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That, son, is not my daughter; but she is someone special — very special.”
The boy gave him a questioning look. “What’s she special for?”
“I was once in a very dangerous place” — pausing, he smiled wistfully as he continued — “and she kept me safe. She stared down a whole camp of Mussolini’s assassins for me.” Benjamin looked down to see the boy blinking up at him, an incredulous look on his face. “Don’t believe me? Well, sometimes history books leave out the most interesting things.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” the boy said. “I’d want to know those stories — particularly about a girl who had the guts to take on Mussolini!”
Benjamin laughed, reached into his pocket and pulled the tiny book of myths forth. “Well then, I have some stories here that are just as good as any you’ve ever read — better even.” He gave the printed cover a final caress and handed it to the child. “Keep this, but don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.” He winked. “After all, you aren’t supposed to be up here.”
The boy blinked and turned his attention to the book, alternately glancing sheepishly at his elder, and flipping through the pages. Finally he settled on a random page, gazing at the woodcut there: A young Frigga in her chariot. “She’s pretty.”
Benjamin looked over the top of the book to see the picture the boy was studying. He glanced to the painting above, then, and winked. “She certainly is.”
“Luzio!” At the sound of the schoolmistress’ roar, the young man jumped, and Benjamin looked to the stairs where the source of the yelp stood. “What are you doing up here?” the plump, middle-aged woman asked. “I’m sorry, Signore Gunnarson. He knows he’s not supposed to be up here.” She clapped her hands and the boy pocketed the book and skittered over to her.
Benjamin watched them go, glanced once more to the painting they had just been discussing, eventually returning to his desk to sit tiredly in his chair. Staring at the blank computer screen, thinking about the future, he could hear his beloved as clearly this moment, as he had in his dreams last night:
“Come, my love,” she had said. “Don’t be afraid to surrender your keys. Others will find them as useful as you have.”
He didn’t understand — or didn’t want to. Mark had passed away not long ago, the doctor, Williams — all his lifelong brothers were passing. He didn’t want to think she might mean the inevitable was upon him. “I have need of them,” he asked, “don’t I?”
In answer, the Mistress of the Keys only smiled.
[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 theTampa 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.]