"Hey, Doc. Doc Covington. Up for a little sparring?"
Jan did not hear the call echo from across the university's expansive gym. She was lost in concentration and thought, her gloved hands rhythmically rapping at the speed bag above her face. It ricocheted back and forth, its steady, staccato drumbeat punctuating her efforts as she drilled herself relentlessly. Gradually, she became aware of a presence standing near her elbow.
"Hey, Doc? Anybody home today?"
"Huh?" She stopped, lowered her gloves and looked to her right. One of the coaches on the university's staff was regarding her with a teasing twinkle in his eye. She apologized, "Oh, hello, Mark. Sorry. I was lost."
"I'll say. Hey, do us a favor?"
Jan pulled the thin practice gloves from her hands and lifted her towel from the nearby bench. "Yeah, sure. What's that?"
"Spar with Pee-Wee, will ya? He's the only featherweight here and he needs some practice. He's your size."
Jan wiped the sweat from her face with her towel, then looked across the gym at the elevated boxing ring. Several students were milling around near it, the smallest one seeming rather forlorn next to his larger companions. "Pee-Wee?" She grinned, then draped the towel over one shoulder. "Naw. I don't want to hurt him."
The coach snickered. "He's a tough little bugger. Come on, Doc. He needs a partner. You're just the right size." At her hesitation, he urged, "It's just sparring. I promise he won't hurt ya too bad." The coach smiled, then teased, "Although he says that he doesn't want to spar with a girl." Mark had purposely emphasized the last word.
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Oh, yeah? Shit, tell him that he's got a sparring partner."
Mark slapped her on the back of her sweat-stained tee-shirt. "That's the spirit, Doc." He turned and walked back to the boxing ring, Jan following a few paces behind him. "Hey, Pee-Wee. Got you a sparring partner."
The group of students turned and eyed Jan, taking in her compact, athletic frame. Their eyes slowly appraised her from her black high-top tennis shoes to her sweaty gray sweat pants, stained tee-shirt and blonde hair pulled back in a pony-tail. Several snickers echoed from the group. Pee-Wee, however, seemed uncertain about the turn of events. "Oh, hello, Doc. You sure that you wanna do this?"
Jan shrugged innocently. "Why not?"
"Well, I mean, because you're a girl. It wouldn't be fair."
"Hey, you want a sparring partner or don't ya?"
Pee-Wee eyed her cautiously for a moment, then asked, "You ever box before?"
Jan smiled. "Oh, a time or two."
The coach interjected, "Go easy on her, Pee-Wee. Let's get you two suited up. Hey Doc, are your hands wrapped?"
In answer, Jan held up her hands, wrapped tightly from knuckles to wrists in tape. In a moment, a couple of the students were tugging padded boxing gloves on her hands and tying them at the wrists. Another student fitted her padded headgear down over her head and fastened it under her chin. The coach eyed the work, then opened a small cardboard box and lifted a mouth-guard from it, placing it into her mouth. She shifted it with her tongue, then bit down until her teeth settled into the grooves. The coach nodded approval, then asked,"You ready?"
Jan spoke around the mouth guard, "Yeah."
"Go get 'em, Doc." He pointed to the stairs. She ascended, ducked between two of the perimeter ropes, and stepped into the ring. Pee-Wee was already there, suited for sparring, and waited for her. The coach appeared between them and issued his instructions to both of them, looking from one to another as he did so. "Look, this is sparring. We'll go for five minutes, then break. You two, watch your punches. Now come out at the signal."
They both nodded and backed away from each other several steps. As they waited for the coach's signal, several hoots and jeers arose from the students assembled at the edge of the ring.
"Come on, Pee-Wee. You can handle her."
"Yeah, don't let a girl beat ya."
Jan had expected the boys to tease and shout encouragement to their fellow student, but was surprised when a female voice shouted, "Doc Covington's gonna kick your ass, Pee-Wee." Whoops and cheers resounded, and both Jan and Pee-Wee looked toward the new voices adding their jibes to the chorus. Several members of the university's female gymnastics team had stopped their drills and were gathering at the opposite side of the ring from the boys. They began razzing the male students, and the chorus of voices became deafening.
The coach blew his whistle and shouted, "Knock it off." In the momentary silence, he turned back toward the two sparring partners. "You two ready?" They both nodded. He raised his hand, brought it down between them and shouted, "Go," then stepped back.
The chorus of voices began their jibes again as Jan raised her gloves, shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, and bent her knees slightly. She danced toward Pee-Wee, who approached her cautiously, his guard up, and jabbed toward her with a couple of motions from his right hand, followed by his left.
Jan dodged the two rights and deflected the left with her glove, then popped his right glove with a sharp jab. It snapped back and hit his face. She backed away a pace, then began watching his defense, awaiting an opening. He stepped in and caught her with a sharp blow to the ribs which she shook off as she mumbled around her mouth-guard, "Good one, Pee-Wee."
Encouraged, he stepped in a little closer, allowing Jan the opening she was seeking. She ducked and drove a glove into his stomach with a solid thump, hearing him grunt. At that, the girls' voices echoed in their ears with hoots and cheers. Pee-Wee swung with a roundhouse right, one which Jan saw coming and easily avoided. As she straightened up, she popped him on the side of his head with a left. He took a step back, shook his head, and approached again as his fellow students began to dog him with taunts.
"Come on, Pee-Wee. She's just a girl."
"Girl, hell. That's Doc Covington. I got a dollar that says she'll deck Pee-Wee."
Another male voice responded loudly, "I'll take you up on that."
Goaded by the comments, Pee-Wee attacked. He closed the distance between them, dodging and swinging alternately with his right, then his left hand. Jan backed away, deflecting a couple of the blows aimed at her head with her gloves and feeling one land home on her stomach. She saw it coming and tensed her abdomen. As the glove connected and forced a grunt from her, she lashed out with her left hand and caught the young student squarely on the side of his head. He staggered, then backed up, recovering from the blow. A chorus of hoots from the gymnastics team caused his face to redden under his headgear, and he attacked again. Jan danced away from him, then closed and peppered his torso with several sharp jabs. He found himself caught by surprise at her attack, emitting a loud wheeze when one of her punches caught him just under the ribs. He backed away, then grumbled, "Come on, Doc. You hit like a girl."
Jan felt a slow burn grow from within her. "Oh, yeah? Then come and get it, Pee-Wee."
"You're kissin' the mat in ten seconds, Doc." With that, he danced in close and swung hard. Jan saw the blow coming and raised her left glove. It deflected the blow, and his glove connected with her shoulder. As she felt herself turned by the force of the punch, she lashed out with her right hand and caught him squarely on the chin. He staggered, then backed up as the chorus of cheers and jibes became louder.
Jan was not listening, however; she was concentrating on her opponent's moves and smiled inwardly when she saw what she wanted to see. She backed away a few paces, gloves up, waiting for his next advance, and teased, "Come on, Pee-Wee. Ya got three seconds left. Gimme your best shot."
His eyes widened. "You asked for it, Doc." As he began his attack, she guessed that he was going to lead with his right hand. He did. Jan stepped in toward him, and as his right hand nailed her left glove and the side of her head, she swung hard with her own right. It caught him squarely and solidly on the left side of his face. He spun around, then staggered drunkenly, dropping his guard slightly. That was all the opening Jan needed. Her right hand flashed out once more and he hit the canvas like a dropped sack of potatoes, not moving.
A pandemonium of cheers and hoots broke out on the side of the ring populated by the gymnastics team as Jan shook her head and attempted to focus on the prostrate form of her sparring partner. The blow to the side of her head had left her slightly dizzy; she took a moment to shake it off, then stared down at the mat. The coach was leaning down over Pee-Wee, gently slapping him on the cheek. Voices echoed through the air.
"Told you. Doc Covington is a bad-ass. Where's my dollar?"
"Shit, she decked Pee-Wee."
"Hey, Doc. Where'd you learn to fight like that?"
Jan spit the mouth-guard out into her glove, then looked over at the group of students gathered at the ropes and staring up at her. She grinned, then replied, "Catholic school."
Laughter greeted her reply, and one of the male students shouted, "Sister Mary, huh? Yeah, I used to date her."
Jan's eyes twinkled at the joke and she replied, "So did I."
Another round of hoots and laughter resounded and a voice shouted, "Hell, we all used to date her."
Yet another student joined the chorus of jibes. "Hey, lay off Sister Mary. She's my momma."
The coach looked up, grinned widely, and shook his head. "You guys are all goin' to hell, you know that?" He returned his attention to Pee-Wee, pullied an ammonia capsule from his pocket and snapped it under the unfortunate student's nose. The head jerked, then the eyes opened uncertainly. Pee-Wee blinked, then slowly sat up. The coach pulled the headgear from the young man's head and looked into his eyes. They were glassy and unfocused.
Pee-Wee mumbled something, then spit the mouth-guard out. As it bounced on the canvas next to his leg, Jan knelt down next to him.
"Hey, Pee-Wee. You okay?"
The student looked up at Jan and blinked owlishly. "Wha' the hell happened?"
The coach answered, "You got KO'ed." He held up his hand. "How many fingers do you see?"
Pee-Wee attempted to focus, then replied, "Shit, I don't know. Three?"
"Yeah, you're okay. Go lay down for a while. If you're not better in a few minutes, I'll have a couple of the other fellas take you over to the infirmary."
Pee-Wee looked over at Jan, squinting. "Damn, Doc. You kicked my butt."
Jan apologized, "I'm really sorry, pal. I didn't mean to hit you that hard."
"Oh, s'okay. Fair fight." He blinked again, then added, "First time I've ever been knocked out, y'know."
"Really? You got some good moves and you're fast. You let your left down when you lead with your right, though. That's how I got you."
Pee-Wee thought about it for a moment, then looked toward the coach, who just affirmed, "I warned you about that. Next time, watch it."
"Next time, hell. I'm gonna take up wrestling."
Jan patted him on the shoulder with her gloved hand. "You're excused from my class tomorrow. Get some rest."
"Huh? Class? Oh, yeah. Thanks, Doc."
Jan stood, holding out her gloves as a student unlaced them and pulled them from her hands. Freed from the hot leather and padding, she flexed her fingers and then pulled the headgear from her head, handing it to the coach's assistant. The group of students was still gathered at the ropes, and one of them looked up at her. "Hey Doc, what do you teach?"
Jan smiled down at him. "Archaeology."
"No kiddin'? Isn't that dangerous? You know, the curse of the mummy and all that?"
Several hoots of laughter sounded at that, and Jan just shrugged as she leaned on the ropes. "Oh, it has its moments." She ducked between the ropes and dropped down onto the gym's hardwood floor. The crowd of male students parted respectfully for her, and she nodded to them as she walked to the bench and found her towel. As she wiped her face and arms, a wonderfully familiar voice addressed her.
"Jan, are you ready to go?"
Jan looked up. Mel was leaning against the wall, watching her, her tall form still muffled in her coat and scarf, her long, black hair pinned back, her metal-rimmed glasses down on her nose. Jan smiled broadly, then replied, "Yeah, Mel. Thanks for coming for me." She lifted her sweatshirt from the bench and slipped it over her head, then picked up her towel. As she did, two of the larger male students carried Pee-Wee between them, one arm over each shoulder, through the door. As he was carried by, Jan called after him, "Take it easy, will ya, Pee-Wee?" A groan answered her.
Mel watched as he was carried by, her face a mask of concern. "My goodness, Jan, what happened to him?"
"Oh, boxing. He caught one. Glass jaw."
"He isn't badly hurt, is he?"
"Naw. He'll be okay, I imagine."
"Whoever did that to him? They should be ashamed, beating on that poor boy. He's not much bigger than you are, Jan."
Just then, a gaggle of female gymnastics team members passed them by, and one of them reached out and patted Jan on the back. "Way to go, Doc. You really kicked his ass. Score one for the girls, huh?" They continued on toward the locker room, giggling and talking among themselves. Jan nodded sheepishly in reply, then looked back at Mel. She noted Mel's posture, the crossed arms, the expression of chagrin as she studied Jan. For a moment, there was a thick silence, and then Mel just sighed.
"Janice Covington, you should be ashamed of yourself."
"What? It was a fair fight."
"Just a little friendly sparring."
Mel clucked her tongue in disapproval, then waved a hand. "Come on, dear. Let's go home. Just for that, you can take me out to dinner tonight, you bellicose little cutie."
Jan chuckled as they exited the gym and walked toward their car. "You got a date, gorgeous."
"So, are you ready for Stockholm, Jan?" Mel delivered the question in a slightly teasing manner as she attacked her salad with a fork. Jan glanced around the restaurant, slightly self-consciously, and grinned as she placed her wine glass down.
"Still seems like a dream. I can't believe that they're gonna give us the Nobel Prize. Hell, me, the daughter of Harry "Grave-Robber" Covington, winner of the Nobel Prize? Nah. You, though, I can understand. Your dad earned one in nineteen twenty-four. Like father, like daughter. I know he's proud."
"As your daddy is of you. You earned it, Jan. Sappho's home and remains excavated. It's really a marvelous thing you accomplished."
"I didn't earn it, Mel. We all did. I couldn't have done it without you and the others." She smiled across the table. "Especially you. Your translations of her works were incredible. I think that's what made them choose us for this honor."
"You'll never convince me of that, Jan." Mel watched her as she absent-mindedly massaged her right hand with her left, then pressed, "Did you hurt your hand again?"
"What? No. Pee-Wee had a hard head, though."
"I still can't believe that you knocked that poor boy out. His male ego must be suffering tremendously."
"Probably, but the girl's gymnastics team loved it."
Mel snickered as she recalled the scene. "Janice Covington, whatever shall I do with you?"
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Love me?"
"Done." Mel raised her wine glass. "To Stockholm, Jan. I'm looking forward to a relaxing trip."
As Jan clinked her glass against Mel's, she teased, "So when have we ever had that?"
The trip to Stockholm was a long one. Jan chafed at the inactivity and was soothed only by Mel's marvelous company as she chattered pleasantly in her polished southern drawl, charmed the flight attendants and prodded Jan to give some thought to her acceptance speech. Finally, Jan relented and scribbled some notes on a stenographer's pad. After a while, she surrendered and closed the pad, handing it to Mel, and flipped open an issue of National Geographic, noting an expansive article on Viking culture and history. She perused it with interest, then thumbed back to the beginning of the article. After a moment, she prodded Mel with her elbow.
"Hey, Mel. Look at this."
Mel adjusted her glasses and peered over at the article where Jan's finger was pointing. "Why, Mack is listed as one of the authors."
"Yeah, good old Mack. He knows his history, doesn't he?"
"I'm so glad that he and Sallie will be there." After a pause, Mel asked, "Will your father come?"
Jan shrugged. "I told him about it. He said he would."
"I wonder how he and Alais are getting along?"
"Aah, newlyweds. Great, probably." Jan chuckled, then added, "I still can't imagine him and Alais together. Being married to an immortal has its perks, though. No plane tickets. Just snap your fingers and 'bang', you're there." After a moment, she whispered, "I still can't believe that my new stepmother used to be Aphrodite two thousand years ago."
Mel thought about that revelation for a moment, then asked, "Jan?"
"If a few of the Greek gods are still around, do you think that the Norse ones are, too?"
"Dunno, Mel. Interesting question, though. If they are, they're living like Aphrodite and Ares, in anonymity among the human race. Quite a falling off for them, isn't it?"
"Quite, but I suppose we'll never meet them."
"Don't be so sure, Mel. One thing I've learned is that anything is possible."
Mel gazed over at Jan. "Darlin', hanging around with you, anything is possible. Now why don't you relax and try to nap? We've got a long way to go yet."
"I'm not tired, Mel. You sleep, though. I'll just read for a while."
Mel hummed pleasantly, then removed her glasses and leaned against Jan's shoulder, snuggling in for a nap. Jan smiled at the feel of Mel's head against her, the pleasant fragrance of her hair, the way that Mel tenderly rested her hand on Jan's leg as she snuggled against her, then returned her attention to the magazine in her hand. After a few moments, a flight attendant passed by, smiling down at them. She returned in a moment holding a light blue blanket with "Pan Am" stenciled on it, opened it, and leaned down, spreading it over Mel.
Jan looked up into the pleasant face. "Thanks."
"Of course, Doctor Covington. May I bring you something?"
"I could do with some hot tea, if it's not too much trouble."
"Surely." She left, and in a couple of minutes, returned with a steaming ceramic mug. As Jan gratefully accepted it, the flight attendant hesitated, then asked, "May I ask something of you, Doctor Covington?"
Jan looked up. "Huh? Sure."
She produced a book and held it out to Jan. "Will you autograph my book for me?"
Jan took the book from her hand and gazed down at it. The title stared back at her: The Xena Legends. Underneath it, in smaller lettering, it read: J. Covington, PhD. Jan raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Well, I'll be darned. You're reading my book?"
"Oh, yes. History is a hobby of mine, you know. Xena, she was a remarkable person. There is even a mention of her traveling to the Norselands in your book, is there not?"
"Yeah. Gabrielle mentioned it, but only in passing. We know nothing of the details."
She shrugged. "Well, perhaps you will learn something of it in Stockholm, no?"
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps. I do intend to visit the museum there."
"Go and see a Professor Handellson at the museum. He is a wealth of information about Norse legend."
"You know of him? I've heard mention of him."
"Yes, I was born and educated in Stockholm."
"Thanks. I'll ask for him." Jan rummaged in her jacket pocket and produced a fountain pen. "What's your name?"
"Ah. Lotti will do."
Jan nodded. "Lotti it is, then." She uncapped the pen and scribbled a long note in the front cover of the book, then blew on it to dry the ink. As she handed the book back to the young lady, she added, "Thanks, Lotti."
"Thank you, Doctor Covington." She accepted the book, clutched it to her breast, and proceeded up the aisle between the seats, holding on to the overhead racks as she walked. Jan watched Lotti's extremely pleasant behind in motion as she negotiated the aisle and thought, Oh, yeah. You bet, honey.
Mel shifted slightly and purred, "What's that, Jan?" Her hand squeezed Jan's leg, causing a wave of silent guilt to assail the little blonde as her mind chided, Covington, you're a dog.
Lowering her eyes, she puzzled for a moment, shrugged, and then mused, "You meet the most interesting people on international flights, don't ya, Mel?" As she returned her attention to the magazine article in her hand, she cast a guilty glance over at Mel's sleepy form, the head of black hair tucked against her shoulder, and raised an eyebrow at Mel's dreamy response.
"She certainly is pretty, isn't she, Jan?"
"Yeah, sure is." After a second's pause she added, "But not half as pretty as you, Mel."
Jan smiled as Mel rewarded her with a purr of contentment and an affectionate squeeze from the hand resting on her leg.
Their arrival in Stockholm began a whirlwind of activity. They were met at the airport, spirited through the tidy, picturesque Swedish city to their hotel, and ushered to their room. Their guide briefed them as to where they were to be and when, handed them a manila folder with their entrance tickets and a program of events for the award ceremony, and gave them direction to the auditorium where the Nobel Prize ceremony was to be conducted. He recommended an early dinner, as there was a social function to which all the Nobel laureates and dignitaries were invited that evening.
Still suffering from the effects of their long trip, Jan and Mel summoned their resolve and shook off the inclination to just crawl into bed and die, instead bathing and dressing. They partook of a light dinner in the hotel's restaurant and then donned their best suits for the social occasion, bundling into their coats and scarves and taking a cab to the evening's festivities.
It proved a pleasant but rather stressful evening as the crowded room, replete with academics, dignitaries, and scientific types overwhelmed Jan, who felt rather like 'a gypsy in the palace'. Mel, however, rose to the social occasion and exuded her magnificent southern charm, attracting and holding a constant following of assorted professors and dignitaries who, much to Jan's chagrin, seemed to gravitate to the statuesque American beauty and listen to her every word. At first, Jan felt irritation, but found herself becoming ever more amused at the circle of accomplished men who, in front of Mel, seemed reduced to boyish shyness, their stiff European formality dissolving slightly as they found themselves put at ease by Mel's social grace. As she stood by Mel's side, she held her drink in one hand and surreptitiously scratched with the other, watching them and delighting herself with her thoughts. Jeez, these guys are falling all over Mel. Look at 'em. Bunch of eggheads. None of 'em probably got laid in college. Hell, half of 'em probably don't get laid now. I'm getting a Nobel Prize like some of you guys and I got laid a lot in college. Jan felt her face broaden into a wide grin as her thoughts finished with, Eat your hearts out, you suckers. I'm sleeping with her tonight.
Jan's fun was interrupted by a familiar voice near her shoulder. "Hey, ol' buddy. You look about as out of place here as I feel."
She jerked her head around, then looked up. Standing next to her, grinning widely, Mack MacKenzie reached out and wrapped an arm around her, hugging her to his side.
"Mack, you old son of a--" Jan caught herself, chuckled, and returned the hug. In a moment, a second set of arms hugged her, slender arms accompanied by a pair of mischievous brown eyes peering from beneath a mop of unruly, dark curls. "Sallie! Glad you two could make it."
"Wouldn't miss it for anything." Sallie released Jan and edged over to Mel, who turned at her touch, squealed with delight and embraced Sallie. As she did, she leaned over slightly, extended a graceful hand, and it was enveloped in Mack's grip. Then, remembering herself, she turned to her group of admirers and made introductions, presenting Mack and Sallie and praising their involvement in the Sappho dig to the delight of the assembled academics. They treated Mack cordially, fell in love with Sallie's unrestrained Brooklyn accent, and the presence of the two newcomers made Jan finally feel at home in the stuffy surroundings.
After some time, they excused themselves, exited the gathering as gracefully as could be expected and bundled themselves into their coats, hailing a cab. As both couples were staying in the same hotel, they rode together, stopping in the hotel's bar for conversation and a nightcap before cramming themselves into the elevator and finding their rooms.
As Jan closed and locked the hotel room's door, Mel draped her coat across a chair and fell onto the bed, kicking her shoes off and allowing them to thump onto the floor. "My God, I'm glad that's over with."
Jan raised an eyebrow at that comment. "I thought you were having the time of your life, Mel. You had those eggheads slobbering over you like you were a high school prom queen."
Mel sighed, "So many men, so little inclination."
Jan pulled off her shoes, then turned to hang her dark suit-coat in the closet. "Glad to hear it."
"I only have eyes for you, you jealous little cutie. After almost ten years together, you should know that."
Jan turned and smiled down at Mel. "I know." She said nothing else, just gazing down at Mel with an odd, pleasant and unreadable expression. Mel noted it and leaned up on her elbows.
"Why Jan, what's going on in that head of yours now?"
Jan shook herself from her thoughts and sat gently on the side of the bed. "Just thinking."
"Care to share it?"
"Almost ten years, and you're more beautiful now than I ever remember you."
Mel sat up on the bed, leaned forward and kissed Jan. When she drew back, she answered, "Ten years, and you're still an absolute doll to me. I'm a lucky girl."
"Naw, Mel. I'm the lucky one."
Mel raised a hand and allowed her fingers to play through Jan's loose, shoulder-length blonde hair. "I just love you with your hair loose like that, you know."
"I know. I wear it this way just for you."
Mel hummed pleasantly, then narrowed her eyelids as she regarded Jan. "Well, you lucky girl. Feel like gettin' lucky tonight?"
"What, you have to ask?"
"Then let's clean up and go to bed, darlin'. Tomorrow's a big day."
Together, they rose from the bed and undressed, sharing the bathroom. Mel emerged first, crawled under the thick down comforter, and pulled it up to her chin, awaiting Jan. A few minutes later, Jan emerged from the bathroom, clicking off the light and sliding under the covers. In a moment, her voice whispered in the darkness, "Mel?"
There was no answer. Jan scooted closer in the bed, allowing her skin to press against Mel's warm flesh and spooning against her back. "Mel?"
A slight snore answered her. Jan sighed, then chuckled in the darkness. "Oh, well. Ten years. Guess the honeymoon's finally over, huh?" She settled down in the darkness to sleep, an arm draped over Mel's side, and closed her eyes. After a moment, Mel's dreamy voice broke the silence.
"Huh? I thought you were asleep."
"No. May I ask you a question?"
"Were you really jealous tonight?"
Mel's voice betrayed a slight hurt. "You weren't? Not the least bit?"
Jan paused, then confessed, "Well, okay. Yeah, I was jealous. Sure I was."
"You were the hottest woman in that room. I mean, those guys were slobbering all over you. Damned right I was."
Mel turned in bed, facing Jan. In the dim light, their faces were very close. "Why, that's the sweetest thing I've heard all day. C'mere, you jealous little cutie."
"Hey, I'm here. You got me, gorgeous."
"And I'm keepin' you."
"Just what is it about me that you love so much?"
"Hmmm." Silence reigned for a moment, and then Mel answered, "I guess of all your wonderful qualities, it would have to be--"
Mel giggled. "That 'thing' you do with your tongue."
Jan snorted in laughter, then wheezed, "Jeez. Glad to know that I have one redeeming talent."
"Oh, you do. You should get a Nobel Prize for that. Now, are you goin' to use that wonderful mouth for talkin' or kissin'?"
"Are you nervous?"
Jan looked up at her lover. "Shaking in my boots, but I'll be darned if I'll show it."
Mel giggled. "That's my Janice."
They stepped from the taxi and joined the throng of people filing into the large auditorium, nodding to the occasional greeting. As they checked their coats in the spacious anteroom, an usher met them. She addressed them in English.
"Doctor Covington? Miss Pappas? Come, I will show you where to wait."
"Thanks." Jan squinted at her name tag. "Hilde. We must seem quite lost."
The usher laughed, then waved them forward with a hand. "This way. We will put you with the other laureates, behind the stage. You will be brought out when the ceremony begins."
They followed her through the picturesque, aging auditorium to a side door, passing into a hallway. Soon, they were deposited with a distinguished-looking group of men who nodded and expressed greetings to them. As they spoke quietly and shuffled in nervous anticipation behind the stage, Jan took the opportunity to peek out from behind a thick curtain toward the auditorium. Crowds of people were milling about, seeking out their seats and settling down for the awards ceremony. She attempted to study those people whom she could see and detect familiar faces when a voice from behind her caught her attention.
Jan turned and looked up at a gentleman who stood near her elbow. "Yeah, that's me." She pointed to the auditorium. "Just lookin' for a friendly face."
He smiled at the joke, then asked, "Is your associate Miss Pappas nearby?"
"Sure. Hey, Mel." In a moment, Melinda was by her side and the man spoke to both of them.
"I am Henri Jaldessen, this year the Chairman of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. I will be officiating the ceremony and introducing you when it is your turn to be recognized. The ceremony will be in English, so you will have no need of a translator, I presume."
Mel addressed him in her languorous, cultured southern accent. "Well, I'm not sure, sir. We are Americans, after all."
His eyes twinkled. "A delightful joke. Ah yes, I have no doubt that you will charm us all with your remarks." He pointed to the stage. "We are entering. Your names are on the chairs. Please, after you."
They joined the group and filed out onto the expansive stage, finding and taking their seats in a long, single row of chairs which faced the audience from behind the podium. A table sat next to the podium, cases containing the Nobel medals neatly stacked, diplomas in large, white envelopes underneath each one. They found their seats at one end of the row of chairs. As they sat, Jan could see the audience peering up in anticipation. She looked down at her own dark suit, then over at Mel, who sat straight-backed, looking immaculate in a long black dress and matching short jacket, and felt a bit slovenly next to her. She was shaken from her thoughts by Mel's whispered voice.
"What's the matter, Jan?"
"What do you mean?"
"I can feel your discomfort from here. Try to relax, will you?"
"You look fantastic, Mel. I feel like a slob next to you."
"You look wonderful, darlin'. Not a hair out of place."
"Ahh--" She did not get the chance to finish. Jaldessen strode out and took his place at the podium, nodding to the applause from the audience and beginning his remarks. As he droned on, Jan nervously cast her eyes around the auditorium, then returned her attention to the podium. One by one, that year's recipients of the Nobel Prize in the different categories were announced. One by one, they rose to applause and strode to the podium, receiving their medal and diploma and then assuming their place in front of the microphones at the podium to make their remarks to the sea of faces stretching out in front of them. Jan listened as each one spoke, attempting to gain a feel for what they said and how long their remarks lasted. She was not acquainted with their names or reputations, as they had dedicated their careers to the physical sciences. She had not. Chemistry, physics and such were subjects through which she had to struggle in college. The human story was her forte.
Her head turned, however, when the recipient of the prize in literature was announced and William Faulkner rose from the opposite end of the row of chairs to approach the podium. She poked Mel in the ribs with an elbow and whispered, "Look. It's really him. Man, he's famous."
Mel smiled indulgently and whispered in reply, "So are you, darlin', and don't you forget it."
Jan was taken aback at the remark, blinking in disbelief at the thought. She was famous. The years of poverty, the constant professional disdain which she endured because of the Covington name, the academic scoffing at her insistence of the truth of the Xena legends, all that was vindicated. This day would assure that. She felt her chest swell with pride at that thought.
Jaldessen resumed his place at the podium when Faulkner finished his remarks and returned to his seat. His next words caused Jan's heart to pound in her chest and her palms to sweat.
"The nineteen-forty nine Nobel Prize for Anthropology is awarded to two recipients this year for their remarkable work in excavating the home and remains of the poetess Sappho and their peerless, beautiful translations of the lost works. May I present Doctor Janice Covington and Miss Melinda Pappas?" He turned and smiled toward Jan and Mel, and they rose and approached the podium. As they did so, the auditorium resounded with applause. As they stood at Jaldessen's elbow, he waited for the applause to quiet, then added a final thought.
"Miss Pappas has the distinction of being the second in her family to receive this prize. Her father, the noted archaeologist Doctor Melvin Pappas, stood here to receive this same award in nineteen twenty-four." Again, applause sounded at the comment, and as it died away, Jaldessen picked up two thin blue boxes and two diplomas wrapped in their white envelopes. He presented the first to Jan, shook her hand, and then presented the second to Mel, who received the award with a gracious smile. That task completed, he motioned toward the microphones and retreated from the podium, seating himself to await the remarks which were expected of them.
Mel and Jan stood shoulder to shoulder at the podium, peering out over the sea of expectant faces, then looked at each other, their eyes locking. For a moment, neither said anything, but hazel eyes locked with bright blue ones, and the look spoke volumes. Then, Jan motioned for Mel to speak first, and Mel nodded. She turned to face the audience, cleared her throat, and spoke simply.
"Dear friends, I am a simple translator. I suspect that the magnificent honor which the Academy of Sciences has given me for my translations has more to do with the timeless beauty of a great poetess' genius than my own humble efforts. It is in her memory that I accept this honor, and I thank you all deeply for it. None of it would have been possible, however, without the incredible work of my dearest friend and colleague, Doctor Janice Covington, whose persistence and skill brought these works, lost to us for centuries, to the light of day again. In that light, allow me to surrender the podium to her."
An applause sounded. Mel smiled down at Jan, clutched her blue box and diploma, and returned to her seat, leaving Jan alone at the microphone. Jan watched her depart, then turned back to the audience, taking a deep breath and formulating her thoughts. Then, she began to speak.
"Members of the Academy, honored colleagues, and friends: In our celebration of the advances of science and of the achievement of human intellect, we're represented here today by a gathering of some of the finest scientists which the human race has to offer. Miss Pappas and I find ourselves grateful to be included. Our quest has not been to explore the mysteries of the atom or to further the attainment of medical science. Our quest has always been to bring to light the story of the human race.
"That story is unfolded to us through the remains of long-lost generations. We scratch it from the earth by backbreaking effort and slow digging, by contemplation of the artifacts which rise from the dirt at our hands, and by piecing together the personal histories of some of the most remarkable personalities ever to have tread the face of the earth. Sappho is one of those personalities.
"In an age in which epic poets celebrated war and conquest, in an age in which savage armies brutalized the earth in their search for power and riches, Sappho glorified a different human yearning. Sappho, in her timeless poetry, in her grand presence, glorified love.
"We celebrate the achievement of human intellect today, but I submit to you that it is the human heart which truly raises us above the animals. The capacity to love and be loved, deeply, unconditionally, mystically; this quality is the true glory of our human race, and Sappho personified it. Her timeless words ring out to us through the centuries and touch each of us deeply. Her magnificent lyric poetry explores the depths of a world more vast than the stars, more perplexing than the atom: the human heart, and our uniquely human ability to love one another. For what good is our science to us if we do not love?
"In the record of human history, what stories are they which affect us most? Is it the conquest of Europe, the brutality of the Crusades, or the resurrection of science in the Renaissance? No. It is not Caesar and Napoleon which bring us to tears; it is not Lionheart and Saladin which wring our emotions; it is the timeless stories of romantic love, sung in every age by the ancient bards, the medieval troubadours, and the modern poets. The ancient Greeks may have feared and respected Zeus, king of the gods and Athena, goddess of wisdom, but who did they worship with adoration and tears? It was Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
"While generals and kings are studied dispassionately, the great lovers in human history are revered with a devotion which kings would envy. Helen and Paris, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra; are they remembered for anything else but their devotion to each other? Marie and Pierre Curie stood on this very stage to receive the Nobel Prize, but they are remembered for their love for each other as much as their scientific prowess. And what of the warrior Xena and the bard Gabrielle? Their soul-bound love, timeless, selfless and pure, humbles us all and makes electric the ancient bard's stories, thrilling new generations two thousand years after their deaths.
"So, I must submit that human love, that desperate, magnetic attraction of one heart, one soul for another, moves our race and our history as no other motive can. The poetry and life of Sappho, beautiful, tragic, loving and mesmerizing, rendered into exquisite English by my dearest friend Melinda Pappas, will stand as a symbol to our children's children of that most glorious aspect of the human condition: our capacity to love each other with purity, with fire and with selflessness. It inspires us to dream, to accomplish the impossible and find real meaning in our lives. This is a timeless truth. This is the message of the great poets in every age. This is the message of Sappho."
Jan paused, only then noticing the rapt silence in the auditorium. Not a cough sounded; no shuffle of feet was detected. She breathed deeply, picked up her medal box and diploma, and finished with a simple, "Thank you."
After a second's silence, thunderous applause erupted in the auditorium. Jan stood quite still, overcome with the noise. It was not merely a polite applause; rather, it was overwhelming. She stood amazed at the response to her words, gazing down into the audience, and then turned and strode to her seat. When she settled into it and the applause quieted, she leaned over and whispered to Mel, "Did I do okay?"
In reply, Mel squeezed her forearm and whispered, "You did very okay, Jan."
After a few more remarks by Jaldessen, he asked all the laureates to stand. The audience received them with a standing ovation, and they filed off the stage. As they withdrew behind the curtains, Jan found herself caught in a bear-hug. Mel's arms were wrapped around her, and she was literally lifted off of her feet. In her ear, Mel's enthusiastic voice rang out.
"Oh, Jan. I'm so excited. I wonder if Daddy felt this way."
"Ummph. I'm sure he did, Mel." She felt herself dropped to the floor again as a male voice addressed her. She turned in its direction and her mouth dropped open in surprise. William Faulkner stood at her elbow, peering down at her. He smiled at her and extended his hand.
"Most impressive remarks, Doctor Covington. I was enthralled. Was that impromptu?"
Jan took his hand and pumped it. "Mister Faulkner! Gee, what an honor. Um, yeah, for the most part." She shrugged, then added, "I teach college."
He eyed her critically, then asked, "Tell me, have you ever considered writing for a living?"
Jan seemed surprised. "Ah, no."
Faulkner smiled, then replied, "Glad to hear it. If you write with the same passion with which you speak, then I'm in big trouble." He grinned widely at his own joke, then finished with, "Honored to meet you, Doctor Covington."
"Yeah, same here." In a moment, he had turned and disappeared into the crowd backstage, leaving Jan standing, still open-mouthed in amazement. Mel tapped her on the shoulder.
"Close your mouth, Jan."
"Huh? Oh, sorry. But that was--"
"Yes, darlin'. I know. Come on, let's press onward. We have the public to meet in the lobby, you know."
"Huh? Oh, right. Yeah, let's go, Mel." Jan grasped Mel's arm, and they wormed their way through the crowds toward the expansive lobby.
As they entered, Jan took one look at the crowd and muttered, "Oh, Jeez."
Mel, knowing her mate's dislike of crowds, placed an arm around her shoulder and prodded her forward. "Come on, dear. Only a little more."
They began working their way through the crowd, responding to salutations and offers of congratulations, clutching their diplomas and medals to their chests, until a strong hand placed itself on Jan's shoulder and a rough, amused voice spoke to her.
"Way to go, Tiger."
"Dad!" Jan looked up into her father's face. "You made it."
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world, Janice." Again, she felt herself engulfed in a bear hug. "I'm proud of you, kid."
"Thanks. I did good?"
Harry Covington smiled down at her. "You always did good, Tiger. Always."
"Thanks, Dad. You have no idea what that means to me." Jan looked around. "Is Alais here?"
In answer, she felt herself embraced. An elegant woman with sad, deep eyes and an endearing smile kissed her on both cheeks, then spoke to her in that musical, indefinable accent which was so uniquely Alais. "I am here, Janice. I, too, would not have missed it for all the world." She leaned forward again and whispered into Jan's ear, "Thank you for being so kind to Aphrodite."
As she straightened herself, Jan noted the pride in Alais' timeless, ancient eyes and nodded. "She is the goddess of love, after all. She always will be to me."
They were interrupted by a loud squeal as Sallie bounced through the crowd, mop of unruly curls flying, eyes sparkling. She hugged Jan, then Mel in turn, and was followed by Mack's jaunty smile and handshake.
Mel took charge with the suggestion, "Jan is about to faint from the press of people in here. Will you all join us for dinner? Perhaps we can sneak away."
Mack brightened at the suggestion. "Great idea. Let's get our coats and scram." He looked over at Harry and Alais. "You'll join us, of course?"
"You bet." Harry looked down at his daughter. "Hey, Tiger. I hear that a fat check comes with that medal."
Jan nodded. "Yeah."
"Great. You're buying."
Jan looked around at the expectant, amused faces. "Well, what are we waitin' for?"
With that comment, she led the group to reclaim their coats and exit the auditorium as quickly as they could, looking forward to a meal and the company of good friends for the evening.
The following day, Jan and Mel breakfasted with Mack and Sallie in the hotel's restaurant and then bundled into their coats and scarves, seeking out the museum. A short cab ride brought them to the expansive building. As they entered, Jan turned and spoke to the group. "Listen, guys, there's somebody I want to try to find. Hang on a minute?"
At their nods, she left the group and spoke to a woman behind the entrance desk, who dialed a number on her telephone. When she replaced the receiver, she said, "Professor Handellson will be here in a moment to meet you. He seemed most excited that you were here."
"Thanks. We'll wait over there." They retreated to some nearby benches, and as Mel and Sallie perched on the seats, Mack looked over at Jan. "Who's this Handellson, Jan?"
"Never met him. Just talked to him on the phone."
Mel interjected, "He is very anxious to meet with us. He has some interest in Xena, you know."
Mack raised his eyebrow at that, but never got the chance to speak. The swift tapping of shoes on the marble floors approached them, accompanied by a voice tinged with breathless excitement and a charming Scandinavian accent. "Ah, Doctor Covington. Miss Pappas. Delighted, so delighted that you could make it."
"Yes, yes." He stopped in front of the group and extended his hand to Mel. "Doctor Covington, honored."
Mel coughed, then pointed to Jan. "This is Jan Covington."
"Oh. Excuse, please." He greeted Jan, and she made introductions all around. Professor Handellson waved them forward with an animated gesture, then spoke as he began walking, the Americans falling into step with him. "As I say, I am so glad that you could visit me. I have some things to show you which I think you will find very interesting. Perhaps you could even tell me something about them."
"We'll do our best." They followed the animated little man at a fast clip through the museum, the sounds of their feet echoing through the cavernous building.
Professor Handellson was a small man, but full of enthusiasm and with a lively step. He sported a head of thick gray hair and some rimless glasses worn down on his nose, a delightful twinkle in his eyes, and a worn cardigan sweater with patches on the sleeves. He rather reminded Mel of the pictures she had seen of Albert Einstein, except that the ever-present pipe was missing. She couldn't help but smile at the image of the stereotypical scatterbrained professor which he projected. It was almost as if he had popped out of a comic movie somewhere.
He stopped, the crowd behind him almost bumping into him, and turned. His finger was indicating a huge glass-fronted case against the wall. "Do you see this tapestry? Most magnificent, yes?" Jan, Mel, Mack and Sallie all perused it and nodded their agreement. "We estimate it to be roughly two thousand years old."
Sallie stepped forward and examined it more closely. "It's incredible. Look at the artistry."
He smiled. "Beautiful, yes? It portrays Norse legend."
Depicted across the tapestry was a line of warriors mounted on horses. They were elevated above the tops of the trees, all females and clothed in silver armor, hair flying from beneath winged helmets.
Mack asked, "Valkyrie?"
"Even so. Now, look closely at the Valkyrie. Examine each one, and tell me what similarities you notice about them."
The group perused the tapestry, then Mel offered a thought. "They all seem so-- Nordic."
Professor Handellson almost giggled. "Yes, yes. All with the light skin and hair of the Nordic peoples." He pointed and corrected, "Except for that one, there. Note the darker skin, the black hair. I have often wondered about that one, why she is so different."
Jan conjectured, "To draw the eye to her? Is that the leader?"
"Brunhilda? No. This one, I believe, is Brunhilda." He indicated the foremost one. "This darker one, she is a mystery." He looked over at Jan. "Until I read your delightful work on Xena. Tell me, Doctor Covington, was Xena ever in the Norselands?"
"Yeah. Gabrielle indicates that she had traveled as far north as the Rhine River and Denmark."
"Ah. And what did she do when she was there?"
Jan shook her head. "Don't know. The trip is a mystery to me. Nothing else was written about it." She glanced again at the dark Valkyrie, then at the Professor, and felt a thrill wind up her spine. "What makes you think that this was Xena?"
"Well, look here. Note the armor, the weapons. All exquisitely rendered by the weaver, yes? Well, what do you see about her that the others lack?"
Mel placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. "Oh, my. Look at her hip."
Handellson nodded gleefully. "Yes, yes. Tell me, what is that circular device?"
Jan's voice was a whisper. "It's a chakram."
He almost bounced on his toes in delight. "Thank you, thank you. I had suspected it, but I wanted to hear it from you." He waved his hand again. "Now, come. I have something to show you that will astound you. Perhaps you can help me with it." Again, he began his energetic walk through the museum, the four friends following him at a rapid clip. He led them to a door, then opened it and ushered them inside. It was a large room replete with files and shelves of cardboard boxes, all labeled. Once inside, he turned to them. "Come, I will take your coats. Make yourselves comfortable." He collected their wraps, disappeared into an office, and returned with a pair of white cotton gloves in his hand, thrusting them into the pocket of his cardigan. "Moment, please. I must find something." Again, he disappeared, leaving the four to look about the room. It had the feel of an artifact storage room as one would find it anywhere in the world. >From the shelves about them, they could literally feel the presence of history. The collected remains of ancient cultures lent an aura of timelessness to the large room, humbling the four visitors.
In a moment, Handellson reappeared, a binder under his arm. He walked to a large table and placed it down, opened it, and waved them over. "Here, look. This, you will find fascinating."
They gathered around, peering down at the contents of the binder. The professor looked over at Jan above his rimless glasses. "What do you see, Doctor Covington?"
"A diagram of a dig. It looks like a grave site."
"Ah, very good. Yes, it was unearthed this autumn, here in Sweden."
Sallie leaned forward. "It's the grave of a warrior. Someone important. Look at the weapons, the armor, the artifacts buried with him."
"Exactly." The professor looked over at Sallie. "You are an archaeologist, as well?" Sallie nodded. "You know your business. This however, is not your typical warrior. This is what makes this find so exciting."
Jan cut right to the bottom line. "Any idea who he was?"
"Yes." The professor smiled. "Excuse me, please. Let me show you something else." He scurried off, returning in a moment with a large cardboard box which he sat on the floor next to the table and opened. From his pocket, he drew the pair of white cotton gloves, donned them, and reached into the box. >From it, he lifted a crusted, dull helmet and placed it on the table. "This is the helmet which we recovered from this grave. Look at it. See the craftsmanship, the ornamentation on it?"
It was rough with age, dull, but speckles of silver shone through. On the sides of the helmet, a pair of silver wings jutted back. Jan nodded, her voice reflecting her fascination with the artifact. "It's magnificent."
Sallie studied the helmet closely. "Where have I seen a helmet like this before?"
Mack chuckled. "On the tapestry we just viewed."
Handellson clapped his hands in glee. "Exactly, Doctor MacKenzie. I applaud you."
Jan whistled. "Damn, Mack. Good eyes. You're right." She looked over at Handellson. "Are you saying that this is a Valkyrie?"
He grinned, then held up a gloved finger. "Wait, look at what else we found." He bent down, reached into the box and produced a large object, resting it on the table next to the helmet. It was a breastplate, crusted and worn with age, decayed from the centuries in the soil, the leather straps long disintegrated. "This was on the warrior."
Jan's exclamation spoke for them all. "Holy crap. Look at that."
Sallie took in a sharp breath. "Incredible."
Mack's comment was more sardonic. "I love it."
Mel looked around at the group, then back at the breastplate. "Why, what is it, Jan?"
"Look closely, Mel. What do you see on this breastplate that you don't normally see on most chest armor?"
Mel blinked at the question, then returned her attention to the artifact. "Well--"
Sallie answered for her in her blunt New Yorker fashion. "Hooters."
Mack chuckled. "Knockers."
Jan grinned. "Yeah, boobs."
Mel's eyes widened. "Ahem, yes. I see what you mean, Jan." She looked over at the professor. "Were women warriors common in the Norselands?"
Handellson shrugged. "Unusual, but not entirely unheard of. In legend, there is some mention of the occasional female warrior. Mostly, though, it was a man's culture. Female warriors were rare."
Jan looked up from the breastplate. "Then this was a Valkyrie, wasn't it?"
Sallie was excited at the revelation. "That explains her exalted burial pit."
Handellson nodded. "Yes, yes. You have it, my dear." He looked at Jan. "But this is not the most impressive puzzle we found. Look here." He pointed at the diagram of the dig. "Here, we found something most unusual. It was a pottery jar with an incredible find inside. It is this find which I wish your help with. Come, this way." He waved a hand and led the group away from the table. They crossed the large room to a file cabinet consisting of long, flat drawers, each about three inches thick. He trailed his finger down the labels, then tugged one open. "This is what we found inside the jar."
A collective intake of breath sounded from all four of the observers. Sallie leaned forward, then exclaimed, "It doesn't look like parchment."
"No, it is not. It is papyrus."
Jan was shocked. "Papyrus, in the Norselands? That's fantastic."
"Even so. But more fantastic is the script written on it." He turned to Jan. "Tell me, Doctor Covington, do you recognize the letters and the language?"
"You bet. It's Greek."
"Yes!" The little professor was literally bouncing in his enthusiasm. "Yes, yes." He held up a finger. "But do any of you recognize the hand?"
"Mel, you're the translator. What can you tell the professor about it?"
Mel leaned over it, examining it as she pushed her wire-rimmed glassed up on her nose. "The characters are written with a large, bold hand. Um, the language is not expert. I would say that this person was not a prolific or practiced writer."
Mack asked, "Then it's not Gabrielle, is it?"
"Oh, no. I would recognize her hand instantly."
The professor looked up at Mel. "Can you give us a cursory translation of it?"
"Well, I'll try. It will be rough, you understand?" He nodded very enthusiastically. Mel tugged the drawer out a little further, then studied it for a moment. As the others in the room waited, they saw Mel straighten up and gasp. "Oh, my God, Jan. It can't be."
"What, Mel?" Jan could see that Mel had paled. Her hand was shaking as she touched her glasses. "What?"
"It's not Gabrielle's hand, but it's addressed to Gabrielle. Oh my, this is fantastic. If this is what I think it is--"
"C'mon, Mel. What? What?"
Mel took a deep breath to calm herself, then said, "Let me read it to you." She again studied the papyrus, then began to read slowly, her finger keeping place as it hovered above the delicate material, her translation halting as she studied phrases and grasped for just the proper word.
"Gabrielle, I have gone to attend some unfinished business. This mission is so dangerous, I have fear-- no, that's not right-- am afraid that I will not survive. I cannot ask you to die with me once more, once again. Whatever happens, know that my love for you is endless."
Mel stood. "It's signed, 'Xena'."
A shocked silence reined in the room for a moment, broken by Jan's voice. "Professor Handellson, do you realize what you have here?"
"Yes, yes. A document in Xena's own hand."
Jan became animated. "I mean that no other such document exists. In all my research, I never once found anything written by Xena. Hell, I thought that she was illiterate. Gabrielle wrote everything."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "That explains the unpracticed hand."
Handellson's eyes twinkled brightly. "A priceless find, indeed. Ah, but there was another, longer document in Greek found along with that one." He closed the file drawer and opened the one just beneath it. Lying in the drawer were several papyri. Mel gasped.
"This is Gabrielle's hand."
Handellson nodded. "Can you give us an idea of what it says?"
"I'll try." Mel leaned down, studying the neat rows of characters, then began translating.
"I know that Xena would not have done this if she did not feel, believe that this was something that she had to do by herself. I--" Mel squinted as she searched for just the right word. "Debated whether to respect her wishes. I cannot. Her path is my path. I have been-- chasing? No, following-- yes, that's it-- following her now for weeks. The trail has taken me north, directly north, farther north than I have ever been before." Mel pointed at the papyrus. "That's all on the first page."
The professor reached in with his gloved hands. "I will show you the second one." He gently lifted the first papyrus aside. Mel squinted down at the second page and resumed her slow translation.
"I do not know the details of Xena's mission, but I am beginning to understand her goal. She wants to correct, to right some great wrong she did in the past. My dear friend's curse is to spend the rest of her life-- seeking? Yes, seeking-- a redemption that she will never allow herself." Mel looked up. "That's all on the second page."
The professor replaced the first page. "You are becoming tired, Miss Pappas. Please, there is much more, but too much for today." He looked up at her as he gently replaced the first page. "Perhaps you would like to translate this for us at your leisure? I'm quite sure that the museum would pay you handsomely."
"Professor Handellson, I'd love to. It will take me some time, though, and I'll need my reference books and notes. They're all in America."
"No problem. We shall send you photographs of all these papyri, large ones. You can translate them at your leisure in America, yes?"
Mel glanced over at Jan, whose bright eyes urged her to accept. She smiled down at the professor and nodded. "I'd love to."
He nearly burst with enthusiasm. "Good, good. This is most exciting." He turned to Jan. "And you, dear Doctor Covington, of course you will have all access to this for your research." He smiled as he added, "You are, after all, the foremost Xena scholar in the world."
Mack chuckled. "She's the only one." Sallie laughed, then dug an elbow into his ribs to silence him.
"Yes, yes." The little professor waved them toward his office. "You will have some tea with me? I have a most astounding story to tell you."
Jan looked around at her companions, then nodded. "You bet. I'm always up for a good story." They followed Handellson across the spacious room toward his office, again passing the table with the artifacts resting in the light of day. Jan studied them again as they passed by.
"So, whose grave was that? Did you ever figure it out?"
"What?" The professor stopped, then thought. "Ah, I never said, did I? Excuse me. Yes, the rune-stone marking the grave has recently been translated. Difficult language, you know. It indicates that it was the grave of Brunhilda, leader of the Valkyrie."
Mack spoke for them all. "Fantastic. Then she really existed? It wasn't just legend?"
Handellson beamed at them. "The basis of legend is often truth, not so?"
Shortly, they were settled into his cluttered, comfortable office, tea-cups in their hands and listening as the energetic little man spoke. "Now, I have already had a cursory translation of the papyri done by someone at the university. It was not nearly as expert as yours will be, though, my dear." He indicated Mel, who nodded thanks. "It speaks of a legend which, if true, could be the richest archaeological find of the century. This, Doctor Covington, is where you come in."
Jan sat up in her chair. "Well, tell me about it."
He prefaced his story with an apology. "I am an old man now, and this will be an arduous undertaking. I regret that it must fall to those younger than me. Your reputation precedes you as an archaeologist and adventuress of courage and daring. You, I believe, would be the right one for this quest." He paused, then spoke again, more softly. "And your recent reputation is one of impeccable honesty and integrity. Most essential, as the nature of this find, if true, could destroy a lesser person. Now, let me ask you a question."
"This bard Gabrielle, she was accurate in her writings? I mean, did she tell stories, or have you found it to be truth, what she writes?"
Jan squinted as she sipped her tea, then lowered the cup and replied, "She has consistently been very accurate in her writings."
He nodded approvingly. "Yes, yes. I thought so. You have said as much." He leaned against his desk as he spoke, warming to his story. "Now, as I have said, a cursory translation of Gabrielle's writings has been attempted. She spoke of their adventure in the Norselands, and in it, she mentioned not only the existence, but the location, of a most magnificent hoard of wergild."
Jan looked up. "What?"
Mack looked over at Jan. "Viking culture, Jan. Wergild is money paid in compensation for the killing of someone's relative."
Handellson beamed. "Yes, yes. You see, in Norse, in Viking society, if I were to kill a relative of yours, then you would be honor-bound to kill me, and so on. A blood-feud would develop between our families. Now, to forestall that, it would be customary for you and I to come to agreement on some amount of money which my family would pay yours in compensation for the initial killing."
Jan puzzled over that. "A large amount?"
"It can be. Tell me, Doctor Covington, are you familiar with the Volsungasaga?"
"I remember reading it in college, but my expertise is Greece." She shrugged apologetically.
The animated little professor looked over at Mack. "Doctor MacKenzie, are you?"
Mack smiled over at his wife. "Sallie's the expert on Northern Europe. She knows more about it than I do."
The professor gestured. "Perhaps, then, we should hear from the other Doctor MacKenzie? My dear, you are familiar with the legend?"
Sallie nodded enthusiastically. "Well, yeah. In The Saga of the Volsungs, there is mention of such a thing. Ottergild, I think it was called."
"Yes. Please, tell us the story."
Sallie leaned forward on the couch, her mop of unruly brown curls bobbing as she spoke in her unrestrained Brooklyn accent. "Well, as I remember it, Otr, son of Hreidmar, loved to fish. During the day he would magically change himself into a large otter and fish in that disguise. One day, as he was sunning himself in his otter's form on the riverbank, he was found by Odin's son Loki and killed. He, his brother Hoenir and the god Odin skinned the otter and displayed the pelt very proudly to Hreidmar, not knowing that it was the guy's son. Hreidmar demanded a ransom, a wergild from the three gods in exchange for Otr's life. It was a huge amount of riches, enough to cover the pelt completely."
Handellson nodded. "Do you recall from where they obtained the riches?"
Sallie nodded. "It was from the dwarf king Andvari."
Handellson agreed, "Yes, just so. Now, other legend says that this gold was cursed, bringing a bad end to the remaining sons of Hreidmar. It eventually was sunk into the Rhine River, guarded in a subterranean chamber by the dwarf king, Alberich." He waved a finger in the air enthusiastically. "Now, we come to the best part. This Ottergild lay beneath the Rhine, as I say. Alberich deeded the guarding of this hoard to the Rhinemaidens, three young and exceedingly beautiful ladies whose purpose was to protect it from theft."
Jan interrupted him with a question. "Were they warriors?"
Handellson's eyes twinkled at the question. "No, no. They had a weapon far more devastating than a sharp blade. They had their beauty, you see. Alberich had deduced that any attempt at theft would be by a warrior, as that is what Viking warriors did quite often; that is, steal what was others'. In this, they gained wealth and reputation. Well, ah, where was I?" He puzzled until Sallie gave him a verbal nudge.
"Ah, yes. Thank you, my dear. Well, these Rhinemaidens protected the hoard with their beauty. They were so enchanting that any warrior would fall hopelessly under their spell when he confronted them, obsessed by their charms, and be dissuaded by them from stealing the treasure. Now, in order to assure that his maidens would not be similarly smitten by a handsome young warrior, he gave them eyes only for other women. They were not moved by a man's charms. Being exceedingly beautiful, they fell in love with each other. So, they remained in the Rhine, guarding the hoard of treasure, and their love for each other kept them bound to the spot and to their duty. A clever plan, yes?"
Mack wondered aloud, "What about the curse?"
"Ah. According to legend, Alberich placed a curse on a particular piece of gold known as the Rhinegold, a curse which would bring disaster to anyone who touched it." Handellson smiled. "A further protection for his hoard of treasure."
Sallie asked, "What kind of curse?"
"One diabolical in its intent. According to legend, it would steal from one's heart and mind that which they loved most; their sense of self, their memories of love." He paused to allow his words time to take effect, then added, "Only one who had forsaken love entirely, who had hardened his heart to affection, would be immune from it." He shrugged. "But who among us has done that? None, I daresay."
Jan placed her tea-cup down. "Fascinating, but what has this got to do with us?" He did not answer immediately. Her eyes widened. She leaned forward and asked, "Are you saying that you know where this stuff is?"
He nodded slowly, then spoke. "I believe that I have deduced it. Gabrielle's writings, I think, will confirm it. I suspect that she has described it in some detail. Your expert translation, Miss Pappas, will give us the accuracy that we need to find it." He looked over at Jan. "Would you have an interest in such an undertaking, the recovery of the Ottergild and its crown jewel, the Rhinegold?"
Jan grinned widely. "Hell, yes." She looked over at Mel and asked, "Do we have any plans for this summer?"
Mel's bright blue eyes connected with Jan's. "I believe, darlin', that we have just scheduled a trip to Europe for this summer."
Jan looked over at Mack and Sallie. "You two with us?" At their enthusiastic nods, Jan stood and offered a hand out to Professor Handellson. "You've got yourself an archaeological team. June or July okay?"
He grasped Jan's hand and pumped it. "Excellent. Oh, this is wonderful. Yes, the summer is the perfect time. The Rhine is much too cold to explore just now. Ah, you have some expertise with scuba? You will need it."
"No, but it gives us four months to learn."
"Oh, certainly. You can learn by then. In the meanwhile, I will clear our efforts with the German authorities." The professor eyed Jan critically. "The hoard, if found, will belong to the German government, you understand. I am afraid that we shall only receive, ah, how do you Americans call it? 'Bragging rights', and whatever they choose to allow us to display here at the museum?"
"That's good enough for me, Professor. I never expected to get rich as an archaeologist, anyway."
"Exactly. Of course, these new writings of Gabrielle will more than compensate you, if I judge you correctly."
"You read my mind. Thanks."
"Thank you, Doctor Covington, and thank you all, dear friends. We will keep in touch during the next months, and I wish you godspeed in this quest of ours."
After their return to the United States, Jan and Mel anxiously awaited the arrival of the photographic copies of Gabrielle's record of her Norselands trip and arranged for training in the use of scuba gear. Good to the professor's word, the photographs arrived about two weeks after their return. Mel immersed herself in their translation with a passion as Jan returned to her classes. Every afternoon, she would arrive home, shake the cold from her bones, and sit down to read what Mel had written that day.
The scrolls slowly revealed a shocking, occasionally horrific story of a Xena filled with a lust for possession and power, of her acquaintance with the Norse god Odin, and of her induction into the Valkyrie, the elite of Odin's warriors. It also chronicled Gabrielle's long, frantic trip north, following her soul-mate's path as Xena resolved to undo the damage she had inflicted on the Norselands some thirty-five years earlier.
As the story unfolded, it gave the two scholars much pause. The Ottergild and its crown jewel, the Rhinegold, began to represent to them not just a quest to rediscover ancient riches, but a symbol of a lust for power and of the renunciation of love which such lust for power demands in its disciples. Jan was the first to voice her concerns as she sat one evening, perusing Mel's handwritten translation. She placed the legal pad down and regarded her lover's profile as Mel sat, curled into her favorite chair and lost in the act of reading a book.
"Mel, are we doing the right thing?"
Mel looked up from her book. "Why, what do you mean, Jan?"
"The Rhinegold. Is this something that we should really bring back to the world?"
Mel placed the book down on her lap. "Getting cautious, darlin'? That's not like you. Are you worried about the curse?"
"I mean that if this Rhinegold actually has the power to destroy, it might be better to just let it go."
Mel considered the statement, then adjusted her glasses. "If it does, then who but us will recognize its power? What if someone else brings it to light? They won't heed Gabrielle's warning."
Jan nodded. "Ah, it's probably just her recounting of the legend, anyway."
"Perhaps you're right." Mel lifted the book from her lap and began reading again, leaving Jan alone with her thoughts. After a few moments, Jan rose from the couch.
"I'm goin' for a walk. Need some time to think."
Mel looked up from her book. "Need to talk with someone?"
Jan smiled. "Yeah."
Mel's eyes reflected understanding. "Bundle up, Jan. It's still quite cold outside."
"You bet. Be back in a bit." With that, she walked to the hall closet, shoved her feet into her boots, wrapped a scarf around her neck and slipped on her coat. She headed out the front door, softly closing it behind her, and tread out toward the street. The night air was frosty, her breath coming in clouds of vapor as her boots clumped over the remnants of patchy snow which still clung to the stone walkway. When she reached the sidewalk, she turned and began slowly strolling down the darkened street, occasionally casting glances at the houses which lined the pleasant residential block. At the corner, she stopped and looked up into the winter's sky. The stars twinkled brightly and the moon was half-full. She closed her eyes and whispered, "Gabrielle?"
She listened, not only with her ears, but with her heart. After a moment, she repeated the name. A voice, whispered on the wind about her, seemed to echo in her soul.
I'm here, Janice.
"Thanks for hearing."
I am always near, my distant daughter.
"We're going after the Rhinegold."
We know. Be careful. It can steal what you love most.
"Then the legends are true?"
Read my scrolls, Janice. Then, heed my warning. Greed seduces one; the lust for power is an intoxicating lover.
Janice hesitated, then whispered, "Can we find it?"
If anyone can find it, you can.
I would trust you with it more than any other person. Remember my warning, Janice. It is extremely dangerous. If you find it, do not touch it.
"I'll remember. Thank you."
I will be near you, as Xena is for Melinda. Our love for you is our duty. Godspeed, my distant daughter, and be wary.
With that, a gentle, icy breeze touched Jan's face and the presence was gone. Jan opened her eyes, peered up at the night sky, and smiled silent thanks. Then, she turned and headed back toward the house, suddenly feeling chilled to the bone.
In the kitchen, Mel awaited her with a cup of hot tea. Jan gratefully accepted the cup, sipped at it, and then sat at the kitchen table.
"Well, Jan?" Mel eyed her with an expectant gaze, her arms crossed across her chest as her tall frame leaned against the kitchen counter.
Jan looked up from her tea cup. "It's a go for the Rhinegold, Mel. The whole story's in the scrolls and the legends are true. It's dangerous as hell."
"Well, then. We'd best be very careful, darlin'."
Jan chuckled. "Aren't we always?"
Spring neared and then blossomed, chasing the cold from the air and bringing a renewal of life to the earth. Mel and Jan met Mack and Sallie three evenings a week at a local dive shop, learning the manipulation of the underwater dive gear, and strengthened their swimming aptitudes by daily exercise in the university's indoor swimming pool. In the meantime, Mel labored intently over Gabrielle's newly-discovered writings, further unfolding the story of Xena's early lust for power and of the tale of tragedy and redemption which befell them both some thirty-five years afterward. In it, the Rhinegold figured prominently.
In her scrolls, Gabrielle confirmed its ability to corrupt and destroy; how Xena had charmed and seduced the Rhinemaidens with her beauty, stolen the gold from them and forged it into a ring which promised incredible power to its wearer. It had transformed Brunhilda, chief of the Valkyrie, into a ravaging monster. It had affected Xena herself, stealing from her for a year that which she valued above all other things: the memory of her beloved Gabrielle. In the end, though, it seemed that the power of which Jan had spoken at the Nobel ceremony, the redemptive power of love, was the only physic which could undo the tragic turn of events. It was a moving story.
The most exciting part of the tale, however, concerned Gabrielle's recollection of the location of the hoard on the Rhine River and her description of the Rhinemaidens. In her florid style, she painted in intimate detail the geography of the region and the cliffs and waterfall near which the Rhinemaidens frolicked as they persevered in their duty to guard the Ottergild and its crown jewel, the Rhinegold. This information, they correlated with research which Professor Handellson provided, and painstakingly narrowed the possible location of the object of their search to a short span of the Rhine River directly west of the city of Frankfurt am Main. There, the Rhine cut a deep gorge into the countryside, becoming possessed of a rolling current, and was often flanked with cliffs and hills. It was near there, at the Cliff of the Lorelei, that legend recounted the story of the maiden who enchanted sailors with her song. There, too, it was rumored that Siegfried, epic hero of the medieval German saga Nibelungenlied, had stolen a hoard of gold, and there that it was secreted forever after Siegfried's untimely death at the hand of the warrior-queen Brunhild.
Mel had cause to laugh at that last legend, for she was currently finishing her translation of the real origin of the story. Her outburst of humor caused Jan to squint in puzzlement as she looked up from her dinner.
"What, Mel? Do I have a noodle hanging from my chin or something?"
"No, darlin'. I was just thinking about the Nibelungenlied, and how close it is to Xena and Gabrielle's adventure."
"Oh, yeah." Jan patted her mouth with her napkin. "That legend was written from The Volsungs."
"And that, in turn, probably came from accounts of Xena and Gabrielle's story, told and re-told through the generations of Norse bards."
Jan raised an eyebrow in exclamation. "The basis of legend..."
Mel reached across the table and playfully tapped Jan's forehead with her spoon. "I know, Jan. Now eat your soup. You're going to need your strength tonight. It's our final class in scuba."
"You know, Mel, I'm going to miss those classes."
"Oh, you enjoy them?"
"Nah. I just love to see you squeeze yourself into that wetsuit."
Mel's mouth dropped open even as her eyes brightened at the compliment. "Jan Covington, you're a bad girl."
Jan pointed her finger across the table. Her hazel eyes sparkled as she took her opportunity to tease Mel. "Me? Don't think I haven't noticed you checkin' out Sallie when you think nobody's looking." A bright red blush touched Mel's cheeks. She cleared her throat uncomfortably, then lowered her eyes to her soup bowl. Jan thumped her fist on the table triumphantly. "Ha, finally got you, didn't I? After ten years, too. It's about time."
Mel mumbled, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jan laughed. "Yeah, right. Then how come you're as red as a beet?"
Mel said nothing for a moment, instead turning and gazing out the kitchen window. Finally, she turned, looked at Jan, and her bright blue eyes assumed a mischievous twinkle as she spoke.
"Ahem. It should prove to be an interesting summer, shouldn't it?"
As final exam week approached, the preparations for their Rhine River trip neared completion. Professor Handellson, in Stockholm, had corresponded faithfully with Jan, piecing together the most probable location of the Ottergild hoard, and Mel's careful translation of Gabrielle's writings added much information. Finally, the four explorers carefully crated and shipped their diving gear to Germany, to the address of one Vak Valtham, a German national who was knowledgeable in Rhine legend and owned a salvage boat which they would use to search for the illusive site. Professor Handellson had provided his name and arranged for his services; Jan had never met the man, but trusted the odd little professor's judgement in the matter.
Finally, final exams over and the hundred and one arrangements made, the two couples caught the train to New York City and made their flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As usual, Jan chafed at the inactivity, Mel soothed her with her unwavering charm, and Sallie chattered pleasantly as Mack divided his time between a book and napping.
After endless hours and refueling stops in Greenland and England, the large Pan Am liner began slowly losing altitude for its approach to Frankfurt. As they descended through the clouds and finally broke out over the green, rolling topography of the German frontier, Mel pushed her glasses up on her nose and peered out the window.
"Oh Jan, look. The country is absolutely beautiful."
Jan leaned across Mel, attempting to peer through the port. "Yeah, magnificent. I wonder if they got as torn up from the war as France did?"
"We'll soon see. We ought to be on the ground in an hour or so."
"Good. I can't wait. My ass thinks I've forgotten how to walk."
Soon, the plane began banking, the wing near their port dipping and then returning to a horizontal plane as the engines drummed rhythmically. They felt it descend again, then again, and soon, the outskirts of Frankfurt came into view. As they flew over the city, its details became quite apparent to their eyes. Damage from bombing was still apparent, five years after the end of the war. Whole city blocks were devastated, jagged walls of buildings jutting toward the sky. Square miles of city stretched out below them, the horrid aftermath of concentrated bombing still scarring the city. Along the streets, though, traffic crawled, buildings were being reconstructed, and the city buzzed with life. Birth and death, Jan mused; destruction and rebuilding. Such was the human condition throughout history. Rome, Athens, Constantinople, they all had been ravaged and returned to blossom anew, like flowers after the winter's cold hand. Human civilization, it seemed, was a hard thing to destroy.
When the wheels touched runway, Jan breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Her celebrations were premature, though; the slow trek through the customs inspections, the examination of their passports, the endless questions taxed her patience anew. Only Mel's gentle voice and hand soothed her as she sighed at the lines of travelers ahead of them.
After what seemed hours, they found themselves piling into a black Mercedes taxicab, their luggage squeezed into the trunk. The driver spoke little English, but Sallie, who had a modest command of German from her graduate studies and a much better command of Yiddish from a childhood spent visiting with her grand-parents, was able to fall into a conversation with the pleasant, portly man as he deftly wound the large taxi through the bustling Frankfurt streets, finally delivering them to the door of their hotel near the huge central train station.
The next day found them on a train bound for the small town of Kaub on the banks of the Rhine River. It was just upriver from the Lorelei cliffs and was the location of the salvage boats which Vak Valtam owned. That would be their base, and boasted the docks from which they would undertake their systematic exploration of that section of the river.
The passenger cars were crowded with humanity, but they were able to claim seats together and find room for their four suitcases on the racks overhead. The languages spoken about them were mixed, hearing a smattering of German French, and Dutch spoken around them, interspersed with a Texas drawl or an east-coast accent from the dozen or so American soldiers on the car.
The train made frequent stops, and after a couple of hours, Jan fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. "Jeez. Kaub should be comin' up soon." Sallie giggled at her restlessness, then rose and wiggled her way out into the aisle.
"I'll find out how close we are." No sooner did she speak than a conductor, replete in his blue coat and peaked hat, appeared behind her. She turned and asked, "Wohin sind Wir?"
"Kaub," he replied.
"Danke." As the conductor squeezed by, Sallie noted, "We're there."
Jan was out of her seat in a moment, standing on tiptoes to reclaim her suitcase as the train slowed and then ground to a halt, and soon the four travelers were standing on the platform of the train station, the large orange sign over their heads reading, "Kaub".
They asked directions from the station officials, then caught a taxi to seek out their accommodations, an inn near the river's banks and docks. As usual, Sallie led the way, doing most of the speaking, and in a while, they found themselves settled into two of the several rooms on the upper floor of a picturesque little gasthaus, or inn and tavern. Mel was fascinated by the view from the quaint stone balcony attached to their room, the docks and the majestic Rhine River in the near distance, but Jan was all business. She led Mel to Mack and Sallie's room, banged on the door, and in a moment had marched everyone downstairs to seek out the docks and Herr Valtam's place of business.
It did not take them a long time; the town's waterfront was small, and everyone knew Valtam. When they entered his dockside office, a tall, blonde man with an eyepatch over one eye rose from behind his desk. He did not wait for them to speak; instead, he greeted them politely.
"You must be the archaeological team. So pleased to meet you. I am Vak Valtam."
"Yeah. Jan Covington. This is Mel Pappas, and Sallie and Mack MacKenzie."
"Of course. Professor Handellson mentioned your names and gave you all great praise. Ah, you would like to get started?"
"You bet. You received our dive gear?"
"Yes. It is in the back rooms, and I have tanks for all of you. Today, though, let us just explore the charts. It is too late to dive." He led them through a door, and in a large back room lined with dive equipment, spread some charts of the Rhine River out on a table. "Now, what can you tell me about the geography of the place which you seek?"
"Well, according to Gabrielle's scrolls, there is a waterfall which springs from cliffs surrounding an area of the river which is wide and secluded. It lay in a section of the river which seemed rather calm."
"I know the place. Here." He pointed to the chart. The four travelers squinted down at the place he had indicated. "Now, the geography may have changed somewhat over two thousand years, you understand."
Jan nodded. "Does this fit with Professor Handellson's guess as to where the site is?"
"Ja, perfectly." He straightened up, then eyed Jan with his good eye. "Tell me, what exactly are we seeking?"
"The Ottergild and the Rhinegold."
His expression showed surprise. "Really? It has been sought before."
"Oh? When? By whom?"
Valtam smiled. "During the war, by the Nazis. They were unsuccessful."
"They didn't have Gabrielle and Professor Handellson to guide them."
Valtam scratched his chin. "What makes you so sure that it even exists?"
Jan replied evenly, "Gut feeling. It feels right."
"Well then, Doctor Covington, we shall trust your 'gut feeling'. After all, it has obviously worked for you before. Your reputation is impressive."
"Thanks." Jan looked back at the chart. "When do you suggest that we get started on this?"
He looked at his wrist-watch. "Tomorrow." At Jan's crestfallen expression, he smiled. "Enjoy the sightseeing today. The Cliff of the Lorelei is nearby and it is a wonderful place to visit. Have a good dinner, get some rest, and we shall start at eight o'clock in the morning. I have an extra car which the four of you can use."
Mel placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. "We can wait until tomorrow. Let's take his advice, Jan. It's a lovely idea."
Jan looked up into Mel's bright blue eyes, then over at Valtam, and nodded. "Deal. Thanks for the loan of the car. We'll be here at eight."
"Until then, Doctor Covington." He walked over to a hook pegged into the wall near the back door and pulled a key from it, handing it to Jan. "Black convertible sedan, in the back. The petrol tank is full. Enjoy the sightseeing."
Jan smiled thanks and they left through the back door. As Valtam watched them start the car and drive off, he sighed and thrust his hands into his pockets, then lit a cigarette. As he stood in the yard, surrounded by dry boat hulls and salvage equipment, he noted a black raven alight on a railing nearby. He studied the raven for a moment, then spoke.
"Well, Huginn. What have my eyes and ears to tell me today?" The bird squawked and flapped its wings slightly, settling down on the railing and fixing its eyes unerringly on the man. "Of course. The game just begins. Follow and report to me." With that, the raven flapped its wings and left the salvage yard, ascending into the sky.
Valtam turned and walked back into the building, seating himself in the chair behind his desk. As he leaned back and crossed his feet on the worn desk, he smoked and pondered his four visitors, only looking up when he heard a flap of wings at his open window. Another raven, similar to the first, alighted on the window sill and began picking at the cracker left there. Valtam watched him, then chuckled. "Muninn, you are all appetite."
The raven looked up at him and uttered a shrill cry. Valtam grinned as he replied to the unspoken question. "You worry too much, Muninn. If she is true to her reputation, she will find it for me. I can almost feel the power of the Rhinegold now."
The next morning found the team aboard a roomy salvage boat, the diesel engines drumming as the boat slid along one side of the wide river. Valtam was at the wheel and squinted as he pointed toward a section of low cliffs. "I think that you are seeking this spot."
Jan noted the short waterfall, then nodded, her pulse racing. She studied the cliffs, then observed, "I anticipated the waterfall being higher."
"Two thousand years ago, it probably was. It has cut into the rocks over that time."
"Makes sense. What's the depth of the river here?"
He considered the question, the answered, "Oh, twenty-five or thirty feet in the center. More shallow at the banks, where we will dive." He looked behind him, then turned the wheel. The boat slid through the current toward the cliff-lined bank. "We will anchor just over there, near the waterfall. I will put out the diving marker, then we can begin, ja?"
"Now you're talkin' my language. We'll get into our wetsuits."
When Jan re-appeared on deck, Valtam and Mack had anchored the boat just upriver of the waterfall and were placing out the divers' marker buoy. Vak gathered the four explorers about him and offered a few final words of caution. "Now, the river's currents can be surprisingly strong in places. Be careful. We shall start here, as you have instructed, and work our way down the bank on this side. The water can be silty at times. You should not have to dive deeply; that means that you can stay down for some time. Stay close to each other. If one of you has difficulty, or when you are finished with your dive, come to the surface and light a flare. We will use the launch to get you out of the water." He indicated the wooden boat tied to the stern of the cruiser. "All is understood?"
Four nods replied affirmatively, and he smiled. "Then good hunting." With that, they donned their weight belts and tanks, tested their equipment and, one by one, dropped into the water. Jan was last. With a hand gesture, she waved her companions toward her, and they ducked beneath the water's surface and began their short swim to the bank of the river.
The water was cold and somewhat murky, but enough of the sun's light penetrated to allow them to see through the brownish dusk. The beams from their lights helped illumine the way, and they gradually descended to about fifteen feet, feeling the muck of the river's bottom just beneath them. Mack inflated and released the first buoy, marking the southernmost boundary of their search area, and they slowly began paralleling the underwater edges of the cliffs, their lights flickering back and forth in an attempt to examine every yard of the watery environ. After some time, Jan felt a tap on her shoulder. Mel was next to her, gesturing toward her wrist-watch. Jan nodded understanding at the message, pointed to Mack, and then toward the surface with a thumb. Mack set another buoy's weight on the silty river bottom, inflated it, and allowed it to bob to the surface. Then, all four slowly returned to the surface of the water.
They had made some distance from the boat. Jan lifted her face mask, pulled the mouthpiece from her mouth, and gasped, "Sallie, pop a flare." In a moment, Sallie was waving a flare above her head, and in answer, they saw the boat's launch depart and head toward them.
Back aboard the boat, they were enjoying a light lunch as Valtam recharged their tanks with compressed air. Above the noise of the compressor, Jan and the others huddled and spoke as they carefully marked the extent of their explorations on their chart. Finally, the noisy machine was silenced and Valtam sat with them. "So, any luck, Doctor Covington?"
"Call me Jan. No, not yet. Didn't really expect it, though. We're not close enough to the waterfall yet, I think."
He nodded in understanding. "You will get closer on your afternoon dive. Give your meal a chance to settle, and then we shall try again."
The afternoon's dive was equally unsuccessful. Slowly, the divers negotiated the murky, cold water in their efforts to examine the base of the cliffs, and were picked up by Valtam's launch at the end of the dive. In reply to his questions, Jan just shook her head, but Sallie giggled.
"We found a Mercedes."
Mack added, "Yeah, and parts of a Willis Jeep."
Valtam found the remarks amusing. "Ja, you can find almost anything in the river. They are from the war, no doubt."
At that, Mack became concerned. "Any chance of unexploded ordinance? Bombs, mines, that sort of thing?"
Valtam nodded. "Of course. If you find it, mark it and I will telephone the authorities." He shrugged. "We are still finding it all the time here in Germany."
Sallie huffed and blew some wet curls away from her face. "Nice."
"Do not worry. Here, there was not much fighting."
"Well, that's good. Guess it's time to call it a day. Same drill tomorrow?"
Valtam nodded. "Help me pull in the divers' marker and we shall go home."
The next two days went as the first one did, with morning and afternoon dives and careful scrutiny of the river's bank near the waterfall. At certain times, the silt degenerated the team's sight considerably; at others, they found the water fairly accommodating. On the afternoon of the third day, as the weary divers hauled themselves back aboard the salvage boat, Jan shed her tank and sat on a seat, a disgusted aura about her.
"This is bullshit. I know it's here somewhere. We're missing something."
Sallie attempted a joke. "Yeah. We're missing the cave."
Mack, busy securing the air tanks in a corner of the boat's wide cockpit, looked up. "Jan, what if it's covered in silt? We could pass over it and never see it."
Jan scratched her chin. "Hm. It has been two thousand years." She looked over at Mel. "Hey, you got your translation of Gabrielle's scroll handy?"
"It's in the cabin, Jan."
"Let's hear it again. Maybe there's something that will help us."
Mel disappeared into the cabin, emerging in a moment with her notes. As she flipped through the pages, she scanned the rows of neat handwriting. "No, no-- ah, here. She says that she did not enter the cave. Only Xena did, and that was thirty-five years before they returned the Rhinegold to the Rhinemaidens."
Mack hummed thoughtfully, then said, "That's no help. It had to be close enough to the surface, though, that Xena could make it in there with one breath."
"Let's look further. Here, Gabrielle describes the maidens' beauty, their appearance-- my, they were rather skimpily clad. She describes them in some detail, if I remember."
Mack leaned over. "Yeah? Lemme see."
Sallie popped him playfully on the head. "Mack, stop it." She plopped down on the seat next to Mel. "So, what were they wearing?" She giggled, then added, "Or not wearing?"
Mel gave her a conspiratorial grin, then cupped her hand over her mouth and leaned toward Sallie. "Well--"
Sallie's large brown eyes grew even larger. "Was Gabrielle attracted to them?"
Mel smiled. "Her composition gets quite detailed here. I think that she must have been."
Jan interrupted, "Okay, okay. We get the picture. Look, Mel, what did they do after Xena gave the Rhinegold back to them?"
"Well, they spoke with Xena briefly, looked up toward Gabrielle, then disappeared under the water."
Mack thought aloud. "Probably to return it to the cave."
Mel's face brightened. "Why, of course. It says here-- wait, she says that the maidens dove into the water and swam directly toward the waterfall."
Jan thumped her fist on her knee. "Bingo. It's under the waterfall. We just haven't looked hard enough."
Sallie looked up. "The silt is quite bad there. The motion of the water constantly stirs up the bottom."
Mack added, "Stirs up the bottom so that no layers of silt can accumulate?"
Jan stood, pointing a finger at Mack. "Exactly. It's not buried. The damned thing has got to be right behind the waterfall. We had trouble searching there because of the turbulence." She strode toward the companionway into the cabin. "Hey, Vak."
In a moment, his head appeared from the companionway. "Ja?"
"How close can you get us to the waterfall?"
He emerged onto the deck and studied the waterfall in the distance, then the river around it. "Let me look at my charts. I do not know the depth there." He climbed up into the pilot's seat, then lifted a folded chart and studied it. "The water appears deep enough to bring the boat in quite close." As he looked at Jan, she grinned.
"We got time for one more dive this afternoon?"
"The air tanks are empty." His good eye perused Jan's features. She was alive with a barely-restrained excitement, her fists clenching and unclenching as she faced him. His own features slowly relaxed into an expression of amazement. "You think that you have found it?"
"I think that we know exactly where it is."
He looked out over the river. "Under the waterfall? But you have already searched there."
"Not under the fall. It's behind it. Visibility was rotten there. Let's try it again."
He looked at his wrist-watch, then up at the sky. "We shall have to hurry. The sun is low, and I must recharge the tanks."
"Then let's get crackin'."
"Jawohl, fraulein doctor." Vak pulled himself from his seat and disappeared below. In a moment, the air compressor began its noisy wheeze and rattle, and Mack handed a tank down into the cabin. Jan paced the deck, thumping one fist into the palm of her other hand, and began taking charge. "Mack, Sallie, Mel, get your stuff back on. Check the lanterns and make sure they have batteries. We'll need flares, too. Hot damn, I can smell it. We're this close."
When Vak lifted the last of the four tanks up onto the deck, the dive party was waiting for him. As they strapped their tanks onto their backs and tested their regulators, he flipped a switch near the wheel and the anchor wench began humming. The boat's bow dipped slightly as the anchor pulled free of the bottom's muck and lifted from the water. The boat's diesel engines ground into life, and he steered the vessel toward the waterfall. Jan stood near him, bent forward slightly from the weight of her tank, her mask upon her forehead, watching their progress.
Vak smiled as he pointed. "We shall anchor slightly upriver of the waterfall, then allow the anchor to take hold. We'll release enough of the anchor line to place the stern of the boat as near the waterfall as we dare."
"Sounds like a plan. Let us know when we can dive."
Slowly, the vessel found its place, dropped its anchor, and began unwinding its rope. The current of the river backed the boat ever closer to the waterfall, close enough so that mist from the falling water wet the deck. At that point, Vak shut down the engines and turned toward his guests. "It is yours, my friends. Good luck. I shall await you here."
He watched them, one by one, step over the open transom and disappear into the water. After the fourth splash sounded, he turned and entered the cabin. Rummaging beneath the padding of his berth, he extracted a Luger pistol, carried it up into the pilot-house, and secreted it beneath the lid of a shallow locker next to the wheel. Then, he sat, lit a cigarette, and waited patiently for the explorers to return to him.
Beneath the water, Jan led her group toward the turbulence beneath the falls. Their vision became quite limited the closer they got, for a haze of silt hung around the river's bottom at that point. As the beams of light flickered back and forth through the haze, they pressed on, grouping closely together, and entered the gloom of silt and roiling water. They could feel the waterfall's downward pressure upon their backs as they swam toward the cliff's base, feeling ahead of them for a sign of the vertical rock.
It was not long before they felt it. Their lights showed the dull gray of the stone face, peering back at them from just a couple of feet in front of their masks. Each diver began casting their light over the stone, feeling it with their free hand, and in a few minutes, grouped close to Jan. As she shone her light from mask to mask, she saw heads shaking. She jerked a thumb up toward the surface, held out her hand, fingers and thumb extended, to indicate five more feet, and they rose in unison. Again, they began searching the rock face of the cliff.
Jan noted a bright light begin to flicker off to her right and looked past Mel. Mack had lit an underwater flare and was holding it in his free hand. He looked toward his companions, then raised the hand with the flare and seemed to reach directly into the rock face of the cliff. His hand and arm, and then the top part of his torso disappeared into the dark. In a moment, he was gone from sight.
Jan turned, tapped Mel on the shoulder, and began swimming toward the darkness. When they reached it, she could see the entrance to an underwater cave, the light from Mack's flare and his and Sallie's lights reflecting from within it. They had only entered about ten feet when Sallie shone her light directly upwards, then followed it. Mack watched her, then gestured excitedly and pointed up.
One by one, they surfaced inside the cave. Sallie was holding onto an outcropping from the rock wall, her mask up and her mouthpiece floating in front of her, her light illuminating the oppressive darkness. Slowly, they grouped around Sallie, the beams of their lights dancing across stone walls wet with moisture. Jan lifted her mask and pulled the mouthpiece from her lips. "Oh, yeah. This has got to be it. Boys and girls, we've done it."
Mel's voice lent an edge of caution to the palpable excitement radiating from them. "Jan, we're almost out of time. We've got to go."
"What? Go now?"
She placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. "Tomorrow, Jan. Tomorrow."
A loud sigh echoed within the cave. Jan's voice was heavy with resignation. "Yeah, you're right, Mel. Tomorrow." With a final look around, she asked, "Everybody ready?"
Three nods answered her. Face masks lowered, mouthpieces applied, they ducked beneath the surface of the water and began slowly swimming back through the underwater cave toward the waterfall and the boat which awaited them.
The next morning, Vak's salvage boat again headed out of the docks and found its course down the Rhine River. Jan paced the deck, stopping to inventory for the fifth time their equipment and assure herself that the camera was secure in its watertight box. One by one, Mel, Sallie and Mack appeared on deck, zipped into their wetsuits, laying their equipment out and readying themselves for their dive.
All three noticed Jan's nervous energy and stayed out of her way, allowing her the room to fuss and fidget around the wide, open deck, but it was Mack who finally teased her openly.
"Jan, relax. You've already checked that stuff five times."
Jan ignored the jibe and waved a hand as she rummaged in a watertight bag. "Just want to make sure we have everything. Flares, extra batteries, rope..."
Mel yawned. "How about a thermos of hot coffee?"
Sallie held an arm over her stomach as it growled. "And some of that good dark bread and jam?"
Jan looked up. "Damn, didn't you two eat breakfast?"
Sallie snickered. "One soft-boiled egg and a roll doesn't go very far."
Mel added, "And you know by now, darlin', that I'm just no good without my second cup of coffee."
Jan thrust her face and arm back into the waterproof bag. "Jeez, Mel. Why didn't you have one?" A moment of silence reigned over the deck, followed by snickers. Jan looked up. "What?"
Only Mel could have responded, "Because, Janice Covington, a little blonde who was wound as tight as a watch pulled us from the table and herded us down to the docks before we finished."
"Oh." Jan paused, looked up, and only then noticed three faces regarding her with amused expressions. "I'm gettin' that bad, huh?" Three heads nodded in unison. She felt a slow burn of embarrassment creep up over her features. As she turned her eyes down to focus on the deck at her feet, she mumbled, "Sorry. Guess I get carried away sometimes." Her eyes glanced up from beneath her bangs, hoping that someone would contradict her. Instead, three heads again nodded in unison. She scratched her head, then mumbled, "I'll try to restrain myself."
Mack grinned. "That'll be the day."
Mel snickered, then rose and walked over to Jan. She wrapped an arm around her shoulders and planted a kiss on Jan's forehead. "Don't start now, cutie. I've loved you like you are for ten years."
Sallie leaned against Mack, her brown eyes twinkling. "Us, too. What can we do to help, Jan?"
Jan snaked her arm around Mel's waist, then scanned the deck of the boat. "Tanks ready?" They nodded. "Everybody got their stuff?" Again, heads nodded. "Waterproof bags closed?" Once again, three heads nodded. Jan shrugged and looked up at Mel. "Well, then. You guys relax and enjoy the ride. I'll check the chart with Vak."
With that, she gave Mel one more affectionate squeeze, then released her and turned away, walking over to the pilot-house where Vak was at the helm. "Where are we?"
He pointed ahead. "Around the bend is your waterfall. Perhaps it is another ten, fifteen minutes before you dive." He peered through the glass windscreen. "The water is blue today, not brown. You should have a good visibility for your dive."
"Oh, yeah. Love it." She huffed, then wrapped her arms around her chest and paced in circles. "Man, I'm as nervous as a tick." After a moment, she stopped. "Damn. Sure could use a smoke. Hey Mack, you got any?"
Mack looked up. "Sorry. I quit."
Mel regarded Jan with an admonishing expression. "Jan, you were doing so well with that. Don't start again." After a moment, she relented and nodded. "Oh, anything to calm her down. Go ahead, Vak. Let her have one before she explodes."
A hand tapped Jan on the shoulder, and she turned to see Vak holding out a small, flat box of German cigarettes and a book of matches. Gratefully, she took one, lit it, and inhaled. As she blew the smoke out, an aura of visible relaxation seemed to sweep over her. "Yeah, that's more like it." After another couple of puffs, she studied the half-consumed cigarette. "This thing tastes like shit."
Vak chuckled. "American cigarettes are hard to come by. Like money in this country, you know." He turned the wheel and the boat glided across the river, heading toward the waterfall, now apparent in the distance. "Get into your gear, my friends. You'll be diving in a few minutes."
Shortly, the anchor released and hit the water with a splash. As the line unreeled from the wench, the boat turned bow into the current and began slowly drifting back toward the waterfall. Vak watched intently as they neared the mist surrounding the falling water, then stopped the wench and cut the engines. As the four friends wriggled into their diving gear, he threw out a buoy with a diver's flag attached, then smiled. "Good hunting. I shall wait for you here."
"It'll take us a while." With that, Jan pulled down her mask, placed the mouthpiece of the breathing apparatus between her lips, and stepped off the end of the open transom. She splashed down into the water and disappeared, the others following her at regular intervals.
Vak watched the trail of bubbles from their regulators as they swam toward the waterfall, then smiled. Soon, he reminded himself. Just a little more patience.
One by one, heads bobbed up inside the cave and four black rubber-clad figures lifted themselves from the dark water to sit on the rock ledge which faced them. They shed their tanks, weight belts, masks and fins and pulled the rubber hoods from their heads. With their lights' beams illuminating the cave, they shouldered their waterproof bags and slowly paced ahead, the soles of their rubber boots silent on the stone floor.
The cave's ceiling was not high, but did allow them room to stand. Slowly, they scanned the walls, then found the belly of the cave, a black chasm stretching back into nothingness. Mack opened his bag, lifted a spool of thin rope from it, and tied the loose end to a rock outcropping, allowing it to reel out as they walked. The lights lent a yellow, eerie illumination to the oppressive darkness within the cave, the dank coolness within seeping through their wetsuits and chilling their faces and hands. Jan found herself wondering if it was the temperature which sent a shiver down her spine, then felt the hair prickle and rise on the back of her neck. She held up a hand.
"Wait. Something ahead. I can feel it."
She felt Mel's form against her. "What is it, Jan?"
"Don't know yet. Be careful and stay behind me."
Sallie's voice echoed in the cave. "You don't have to tell me twice. This place is creepy."
Jan attempted a joke. "What? You've been in tombs, and this creeps you out?"
She replied, "Something about it. It's like a tomb, the same, but different."
"You said it." Again, Jan walked carefully forward, her light scanning the floor and walls as she advanced. In another moment, she stopped again. Her sixth sense was screaming, the hair on the back of her neck prickling, her skin in goose-bumps. She whispered, "Mack?"
"Toss a flare up ahead of us, will you?"
"Cover your eyes, guys." With that, he popped a flare and tossed it underhand into the darkness ahead of them. Its bright sizzle lit the cave, a wisp of smoke edging up from the stick.
"Huh. Nothing. I could swear--"
Mel's voice silenced her. "Oh, my God. Jan, look here."
Jan turned. Mel was standing about three feet away from her, shining her lamp into a recess in the cave's wall. Sallie was next to her in a moment, adding her light to Mel's. "Holy shit. It's a burial site, Jan."
Jan squeezed between them and shone her light down at their feet. In the grotto, the pale, white bones of three skeletons reflected the light of their lamps. They were grouped closely together, as if they were three silent, ghoulish mates sharing a common bed, the bones of their arms and legs intertwined. On them, tarnished, faded metal jewelry encircled the bones of their arms and necks. In addition, Jan could see a silver band about one ankle. Faded scraps of ragged cloth adorned their waists.
For a long moment, no one said anything. The only sound was the quiet breathing of four living people and the occasional drip of water near where the three skeletons lay entwined, undisturbed for centuries. Finally, Jan whispered, "It's not a burial site. They died this way. They weren't put to rest. Look, no artifacts about them."
Mack's voice echoed what everyone was thinking. "The Rhinemaidens?"
Jan nodded. "Looks that way." She carefully stepped closer, then bent down over the skeletons and shone her light over them, scanning them from skulls to feet. "Sallie, look at these remains. What is your opinion?"
Sallie knelt next to Jan, flicking her light's beam over the skeletons. "They look young, not old."
"Exactly. I don't see any fractures of the ribs, long bones or the skull. No violence. Look at the pelvic bones on all three."
Sallie looked over at Jan. "Women?"
"Yeah, think so. Damn, I wish Doc Pangalos could see this. He could tell us lots about them."
Mel offered her own observation. "They appear so slender, so small, Jan. Almost fragile."
Jan directed her light's beam onto the skulls again. "Their teeth are intact, not worn or missing. Almost perfect. They were young when they died."
Sallie placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. "What killed them, I wonder? Disease?"
Mack guessed, "Progress? The onward march of the ages? Civilization?"
Jan slowly stood. "Judging from the destruction I've seen in Frankfurt, we haven't gotten civilized yet." She looked over at Mack. "We'll photograph them on the way out. Let's keep searching the cave."
Jan stood, then led her companions away from the remains and continued their slow trek through the cave's black interior. They had progressed only about another ten feet when Jan ordered, "Turn your lights off."
"Turn 'em off and allow your eyes time to adjust. I think I see some light ahead."
One by one, the beams switched off and they were plunged into an inky blackness. Slowly, as their eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, they could perceive a faint glimmer of light painting the rock wall ahead of them. Jan's voice was tinged with excitement. "See it?"
Mack conjectured, "Sunlight? Down here?"
"Nah, Mack. Can't be, this far underground."
Mel placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. "What is it, Jan?"
"Let's find out." She clicked her lamp on again, and three more beams followed hers as they resumed their slow walk. As they neared the source of the light, it became apparent to them that it emanated from a grotto winding off to their left. As Jan led her companions forward, her heart pounded in her chest and her excitement rose.
During what seemed to them an eternity, they negotiated the relatively short distance to the end of the tunnel. Jan leaned around the rock wall and peered into the grotto. "Holy crap."
One by one, three figures joined Jan, facing the grotto. Silently, they stood and stared at the source of the light, a silvery glow which reflected into their faces and made their skin appear almost white. For a moment, no one said anything. Then, Mack whistled softly. "Damn. I think we've found it."
In the small grotto, a hoard of silver and gold shimmered, emitting an eerie light which seemed to originate from within its own space. Gold coin, silver necklaces and solid silver torques, rope-like, solid necklaces shaped much like a letter "C", stared back at them. The treasure lay in moldy, weathered boxes of various sizes from the size of a small jewelry box to the size of a trunk. Jan stepped into the grotto, her light's beam flickering back and forth, then turned to her companions.
"Let's document the location of every single artifact in here. Nobody moves anything until we've got it all photographed and described." She pointed at Mack. "Break out the camera. Sallie, begin sketching and describing."
Mel knelt down and studied the hoard closely. "Jan, there's quite a bit here. It must be worth a fortune."
"Right. That's why we need to be very accurate. I don't want any accusations later."
She looked up at Jan's face. "Surely no one would accuse us of stealing any of this?"
Jan snorted, "I'm a Covington, Mel. Reputations die hard."
Mel blinked at the statement, then slowly nodded. "I can understand your caution, Jan." She stood. "What can I do to help?"
"Help Mack with the photography. Mack, I want everything in here photographed. Everything. Got it?"
"Right. I'll save a roll for the Rhinemaidens, though."
"Let's get to it, folks."
With that, they opened their waterproof bags and began the arduous work of carefully documenting the find just as it was found. Mack systematically began his photographic chores, Mel handing him flashbulb after flashbulb and accepting the rolls of film as he finished them and extracted them from his camera. Sallie, sketch-pad in hand, drew out the site and labeled each box with a number as Jan, leaning over the piece, described its contents. The work went on in hushed, businesslike tones for what seemed an interminable amount of time, the explorers lost to all but their work, until Mel's glance at her watch caused her to sound an alarm.
"Jan, it's getting late. We've only got about an hour of daylight left."
"Huh? Oh, right. Guess we'd better get going. Still have one more chore to accomplish." She turned and considered the hoard again, then tapped Mack on the arm. "You got film?"
"Yeah. Just loaded the last roll."
"Photograph this, will ya?" Jan lifted the sketch pad from Sallie's hand and opened it to a clean page. With the pencil, she scribbled on it in large block letters, then leaned down and lifted a silver torque necklace from the top of an open box. She lay it on the pad, then held it out for Mack to photograph. As his flash bulb popped, Sallie and Mel studied it. The writing read, "Removed from the Rhine site 6-17-50. J. Covington." Jan handed the pad back to Sallie, then held the torque in her hand. "Proof that we found the site. Now let's get out of here."
They gathered their belongings and began their trek back through the caves, stopping at the grotto where the remains of the Rhinemaidens lay. Mack resumed his careful photography, this time of the three skeletons, and when he was finished, backed away. The team then retraced their steps to the edge of the water, donned their dive equipment, and closed their waterproof bags. Then, one by one, they stepped off the edge of the rocky floor and splashed into the water, working their way through the underwater tunnel toward the waterfall.
Vak paced the deck of the salvage boat, repeatedly checking his watch. He had not seen the dive team, and his frustration was becoming intense. He lit another cigarette, smoked fretfully, and regarded the water in front of the falls every few minutes for a telltale sign of bubbles. There were none.
A splashing attracted his attention, and he turned. Near the boat, a head broke the surface, its black rubber hood and face mask a welcome sight. One by one, three more heads appeared and the divers clustered at the rear of the boat. He rushed to the ladder and extended his hand. "Thank God. I was getting worried, Doctor Covington."
Jan grasped his hand and he helped her up the ladder. When she reached the deck, she pulled the breathing apparatus from her mouth, lifted her mask, and wheezed, "Help 'em up." He nodded wordlessly and turned to assist Mel, then Sallie aboard. Mack was last into the boat, and as he and Vak set the two waterproof bags on the deck, they wiggled out of their tanks.
Vak collected their tanks and lashed them into one corner of the deck, then turned and looked back at them, his face one of intense curiosity. They said little, however, just sitting and wearily pulling off fins, weight belts and hoods. He watched them carefully, then asked, "Doctor Covington, I take it that you found the cave?"
Jan pulled the rubber hood from her head and rubbed a hand through her hair. "Oh, yeah."
"Well? Did you find the Ottergild?"
The other three said nothing, just looked over at Jan in unison. In answer, Jan partially unzipped the front of her wet-suit, reached into it, produced a silver torque, and grinned. "Damn right." As she held it in front of her face, Vak slowly approached, then carefully reached out and lifted it from her fingers. His voice was hushed with awe.
"This is remarkable. It is a torque, the quality of which I have not seen in a long time."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Oh? You've seen this stuff before?"
"Ah, yes." He seemed taken aback at the question; his expression slackened, then resumed its fascinated demeanor. "Nordic history is a particular interest of mine. I have seen some examples of this in the museums." He handed it back to Jan, then continued his questioning. "There is more?"
"Lots more. We'll need the representatives of the German government here before we touch anything else or move it."
"Ja, ja. We shall telephone them tonight. They can be here tomorrow, from the museum in Frankfurt."
"Good. We've got everything photographed and documented."
Sallie added, "Yeah, including three sets of remains."
Vak sat down on the bench. "Remains?"
Sallie explained, "Right. Very old. They appear to be the remains of three young women."
His good eye widened. "Ah. The Rhinemaidens?"
"Yeah. You're familiar with the story?"
"Ja. It is an interest of mine."
Jan interjected, "So you said. Well, we'd better get out of here. We're beat and hungry. We've done all that we can for tonight."
"Do you wish to leave a marker buoy?"
Jan considered the question, then replied, "No. We know where it is."
Vak slowly nodded. "As you say. I will get us home, and we can call the museum from my office." He turned toward the pilothouse, then looked back at them. "You look exhausted. There are some bottles of apple-juice in the cabin. It will refresh you until you can eat."
Sallie stood and headed toward the cabin as Vak rose from his seat. He pulled in the divers' buoy, leaving it to rest on the wide deck of the salvage boat, then entered the pilot-house. A moment later, the diesel engines beneath the deck grumbled, then shuddered into life. As the anchor winch whirred and lifted the hook from the mucky bottom of the river, the boat lurched into life, gaining speed against the river's slow current. In a couple of minutes, they were heading back upriver toward the docks at Kaub, the explorers sprawled wearily across the seats along the boat's deck.
Sallie emerged from the cabin, four one-liter bottles of apple juice in her arms. Vak contemplated the energetic young woman, her mop of unruly curls hanging damply around her face, and asked, "Doctor MacKenzie?"
She stopped. "Yeah? Did you want some, too?"
"No, danke." He hesitated very briefly, then asked, "Did you find anything resembling the Rhinegold?"
She puzzled over the question for a second, then replied, "No. We didn't, as a matter of fact."
"Ah." He returned his gaze to the river ahead of them. "Well, perhaps it is just legend."
She nodded. "Yeah. Maybe." With that, she left his side and walked out onto the deck, passing the bottles out to her companions.
Mack stood in the office of Vak's salvage company, still in his wet-suit, a blanket around his shoulders, as he listened to Vak's rapid conversation in German. Finally, Vak placed the telephone receiver back on its cradle and chuckled. "The authorities from the museum are most anxious to see what you have found. They shall be here tomorrow in the late morning. It will take them perhaps only two hours at most to drive the distance."
"Do we need the police there?"
Vak nodded. "It is quite a valuable find, you know. The local chief of the police will feel neglected if he is not included."
Mack chuckled knowingly. "Bureaucrats."
"Exactly. But he has the authority to refuse permission for us to continue the exploration."
"Understood." With that, Mack turned and gazed out the window, awaiting his opportunity to use the back room to change out of his wet-suit.
Presently, Mel, Sallie and Jan emerged from the back room, dressed in their street clothing. Mack took his cue and disappeared into the room. As they waited for him to change, Jan studied the pair of ravens on the windowsill, picking at a cracker. "Pets of yours?"
"Eh?" Vak glanced over at the ravens, then nodded. "They seem to have adopted me. I feed them."
"Sure." Jan watched them, then returned her gaze to Vak. He was relaxing in his office chair, lighting a cigarette. "Say, Vak. Mind if I ask you a question?" He glanced up, then shrugged. "What gives you such an interest in the Ottergild? I mean, it's not like this will make you rich."
"Ah. Norse legend has always been a curiosity for me. I enjoy it. Also, my part, as small as it is, in this affair can enhance my reputation as a salvage operator." He smiled knowingly, studying Jan with his good eye. "And now, Doctor Covington, may I ask you the same question?"
"Sure. I'm an archaeologist. I'm interested because it's out there and it's been hidden for two thousand years."
"It will not make you rich, either."
"I'm not an archaeologist for money."
"Indeed. Is it the quest itself, then?"
Jan nodded. "Yeah. You got it."
"But your quest was not completely successful. You did not find the Rhinegold."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Not yet."
"Then you think that it does exist? That it's there?"
Jan nodded. "Yeah. It's there, somewhere. We didn't disturb the contents of the room. It may just be buried among the other stuff."
Vak's expression brightened noticeably at that. "Then perhaps it will come to light tomorrow."
Jan perused Vak's face, puzzling at something in his expression. There seemed a quality about him which was familiar to her, but she couldn't quite define it; an aura about him which she had seen before, on others, but only rarely. After a moment, she shook her head and turned to watch as Mack appeared from the back room, dressed.
"You guys ready?"
Three heads nodded in response to Mack's question. With a wave of Jan's hand, they gathered at the door to return to the gasthaus, a short walk up the street. As they trailed out, Jan was last to leave. She looked over at Vak, who sat quietly, finishing his smoke, and grinned. "See you in the morning, when the museum folks get here."
He nodded. "Until then." She closed the door, leaving Vak in the office alone. He watched them trudge away, then glanced over at the two ravens perched on the open window sill. "Huginn, follow." With a protesting squawk, a raven turned and flapped its wings, leaving the window.
About halfway back to their rooms, Mack motioned toward a shop. "I'll drop the film off to get developed. Meet you at the inn."
Sallie grabbed his arm and accompanied him as they headed toward the photography shop, leaving Mel and Jan to walk alone. As they stopped at a corner of the street, Jan cast a glance around at the quaint town, the narrow, cobbled streets beneath their feet and the Rhine River in the distance, then looked up. Above her, on a store-front sign, a raven sat perched, seeming to regard them with a quizzical, half-interested eye. Jan studied the bird, then turned to look at Mel.
"What is your opinion of Vak?"
Mel thought for a moment, then replied, "I don't mean to seem uncharitable, but I'm not sure that I like him at all."
"Why, Mel? You don't trust him?"
"There's something about him which raises a sense of great caution in me, Jan. I can't quite put my finger on it, but--" She shrugged, then finished, "Why do you ask?"
"I feel the same way. Cautious. I don't trust him completely."
"I don't know, exactly. Just something about him." She wound her hand around Mel's arm, then nodded toward the nearby gasthaus. "Let's get a table, Mel. I'm starving."
The four friends sat around the wooden table in the dining room of the gasthaus, their dinner plates cleared, a tall glass of beer in front of each of them. Sallie took a long drink from hers, placed it down on its cardboard coaster, and burped quietly. "Man," she said, "This shit is kickin' my ass."
Mack chuckled at the comment. "Watch that stuff, honey. German beer is potent."
"And warm." She grimaced, then leaned forward. "Hey, Jan. Hey, Mel."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, Sal?"
Sallie's eyes reflected a tired, slightly bleary tint. "The Rhinemaidens. I've been thinking about them. I mean, I can't get 'em out of my head. There they were, all snuggled together, dead in each other's arms. How incredibly sad."
Mel smiled. "Oh, I don't know. I think it's rather beautiful to die in the arms of one you love."
Jan chuckled and added, "Or the two you love."
Sallie giggled, then poked Mack with an elbow. "Don't go gettin' any ideas, Mack."
At the comment, Mack gazed wistfully into the distance for a moment as if lost in thought, then replied, "Heaven forbid."
Jan reached out and tapped Sallie on the hand. "Sallie, you're fadin' fast. Need to go to bed?"
She waved a hand. "Nah. Just really tired and a little drunk, I guess. I'm good for a little more, though." She pointed at Jan with a finger and changed the subject. "You know, that Vak, he's an odd one."
Mack looked over. "Yeah? How's that?"
Sallie became animated, talking with a weary slur which made her Brooklyn accent even more pronounced. "Well, this will probably sound dumb, but he reminds me of the Norse god Odin."
Jan felt the hair prickle up on her neck. "He what?"
She elaborated, waving a hand drunkenly as she spoke. "See, according to Norse legends, Odin loved to disguise himself and walk among mortals. When he did, one of the names he used was Valtam. Another was Vak." She pointed at her eye, then continued, "And Odin was missing an eye, like Vak. Traded an eye for a drink from the Fountain of Wisdom, or some such crap. And he had these two ravens, ah--" She squinted in thought. "Shit. Can't remember their names now. Anyway, they were his spies. Y'know, come and tell him everything they saw."
Mel felt Jan's hand grasp hers under the table and squeeze tightly, then heard Jan speak. "Sallie, you look beat. Why don't you hit the sack? Tomorrow's another day."
"Yeah, good idea. See you guys tomorrow." She rose unsteadily, then whistled. "Shit. I'm tanked. Mack, put me to bed?"
"Yeah, sure. You two will excuse us?"
Mel nodded. "Good-night, Sallie."
Jan added her sentiment. "Sleep tight, kiddo. See you in the morning." As Mack rose to escort Sallie up the stairs, Jan called out to him. "Hey, Mack."
He looked back. "Yeah?"
"If you can, come back down and talk to us for a minute? It won't take long."
He nodded, then looped an arm around Sallie's waist. She leaned against him as they walked to the stairs, then disappeared slowly up the narrow staircase.
Mel watched them go, then looked over at Jan. "You can't be thinking what I think you're thinking."
"Why not, Mel? Told you there was something about him that I didn't like. I know what it is now."
"Sallie's drunk, darlin'. She's just talking."
"She may be more right than she knows. Listen, Mel. I can see it now. It's in his face, in his eye."
Jan lowered her voice. "He's an immortal, Mel. I know it. He has that same look. You know, that deep, perceptive look, a ruthlessness. Like Ares. We've both seen it. It's the same look."
"Jan, that doesn't prove anything."
"Doesn't it? Then why do I get the creeps around him sometimes? And don't tell me that you don't, Mel. I know that you do."
Mel was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "Yes. I do, as well. There's something in the way that he looks at me. I thought that it was just, you know-- men look at me that way sometimes, but--" She considered Jan's words, then asked, "If he is Odin, then perhaps it's that I look physically so much like Xena."
Jan snickered darkly. "The resemblance is probably driving him nuts. After all, he and Xena did have a history."
Mel took a careful sip of her beer. "Sometimes I think that everybody and Xena had a history."
Jan chuckled. "Do tell."
Mack rejoined them at the table. "Sallie's out like a light. Went to sleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow." He studied Jan, then asked, "What's on your mind?"
"Mack, just wanted to bounce a thought off of you."
He spread his hands wide. "Shoot."
Jan opened her mouth as if to speak, then shook her head. "Naw. It's crazy."
Mack shrugged. "What, Jan?"
Jan took a deep breath, then prefaced her remarks with, "Look, we've both confronted immortals before. You believe that they exist, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Met 'em personally." Mack eyed Jan, then asked, "Vak, right?" Jan nodded. "You think he's Odin, don't you?" In answer, she just raised an eyebrow. Mack leaned forward. "Look, Jan. All of us at this table have seen some pretty weird shit over the years. We've all encountered immortals. You're talkin' to your ol' buddy Mack here. Now, what's on your mind?"
Jan huffed, then forged ahead with her thought. "Well, if you were Vak, but you were really Odin--"
"Why would you want the Rhinegold?"
Mack thought about it. "Interesting question. Assuming that he has forsaken love, it could give to him or restore in him godlike power."
"What, he doesn't have that power now? He's an immortal, king of the Norse gods."
Mel joined the conversation. "I wondered about that, Jan. Gabrielle never described Odin as appearing and disappearing into the ether like the Greek gods. He seemed to travel on his flying horse. And I don't remember her ever describing him as manipulating matter like the Olympians did."
Jan was struck by the revelation. "Damn. Now that I think about it, you're right. So, can we assume that he didn't have the powers that the Greek gods did?"
"Perhaps all he had were the magical runes he knew and chanted. You know, the ones he taught the Valkyrie."
"A minor god, when compared to the Olympians."
Mack sighed. "This is fun, but who cares?"
Jan leaned forward. "Okay, second question. If you were him, how would you obtain the Rhinegold?"
Mack shrugged. "Wait for us to find it, then take it from us?"
"Or go for it tonight, before the museum folks get here from Frankfurt."
Mel seemed shocked at the implications of the comment. "Jan, do you think that he's out there now?"
"There's one way to find out. Let's see if his boat's at the dock." Jan rose and found the waitress, then settled the tab for the evening's meal and beer. When she returned to the table, Mack and Mel rose and joined her. They left the gasthaus and began walking down the street toward the docks.
Shortly, they stood at the river's front, scanning the line of boats moored to the wooden pilings. About two-thirds of the way down the docks, Valtam's boat was evident where they had left it that afternoon. Jan blinked in thought, then surmised, "Well, that shoots that theory."
Mack wasn't so sure. "Jan, doesn't he own more than one boat?"
She looked over at him. "Yeah, guess so. So, how do we--?"
Mel interrupted her train of thought. "We can see the waterfall from the Lorelei Cliffs, Jan."
After a moment's silence, Jan raised an eyebrow. "You two up for a little drive tonight?"
Vak surfaced, pulled the breathing apparatus from his mouth, and slowly swam toward the stern of the small motorboat awaiting him. It lay ahead of him, a black silhouette looming over him, the anchor light burning white on the short mast over the wheel-house. His hands found the ladder and he lifted himself from the inky water, stepping onto the deck of the small boat. As he pulled the diving mask from his face and placed it on a seat, he ran a hand through his wet hair and sighed, a sigh laced with frustration.
Carefully, he worked his way to the boat's bow and pulled the anchor from the bottom's muck. When it broke the water and dangled, dripping and silt-covered, just beneath the bow, he carefully paced back to the wheel-house. His hand reached for the ignition switch, then hesitated as he looked up. Near his face, a raven sat, watching him intently. Vak considered the raven for a moment, then spoke to it.
"Well, Muninn. What have you to tell me?"
The raven squawked and ruffled its feathers, then settled back into repose on the windshield.
"I see." He turned, looked up toward the Lorelei Cliff, then nodded. "Really? Well, no matter." He pressed the ignition switch, holding it until the motor grumbled into life, then eased the throttle forward and guided the boat away from the waterfall. Another squawk resounded from the raven. Vak scratched his chin in thought, then replied, "No, I could not find it. We shall just have to let them find it for us."
Late the next morning, Jan, Mel, Sallie and Mack all entered Vak's office to find him engaged in conversation with a uniformed official wearing a holstered pistol at his side and a peaked cap shoved back on his head. At their entrance, the two men looked up, the official appraising them with a critical eye. Vak spoke, first in English, then in German for the benefit of the official, greeting them and making introductions to the chief of the local police. The official bowed slightly to them, shaking hands with each in turn, then spoke to Vak, who turned and explained, "He is pleased to meet you and says that your presence here has stirred much excitement in the town."
Jan smiled and nodded, then replied, "Thanks. We're excited to be here." Vak quickly translated, then looked at each of the faces in the room.
"Are you ready to begin?"
"We'll get changed."
Soon, clothed in their wetsuits, the four explorers were making the final checks on their diving equipment aboard Vak's boat when a van stopped near the docks. Two men left it, approached the boat, and held a short conversation with Vak and the chief of police, handshakes and nodded, slight bows exchanged between the men. Then, they turned and walked toward the boat.
Sallie, watching them approach, tapped Jan on the shoulder. "The museum officials?"
Jan nodded. "Reckon so."
Her suspicions proved correct. They greeted Jan and the others cordially, then climbed aboard. In short time, the boat was free of its dock-lines and headed out into the river on its familiar course toward the waterfall as the four Americans wiggled into their dive equipment. One of the museum officials kept up a running conversation with Jan and Sallie, the two archaeologists in the team, his myriad questions centering on the find which they would begin to retrieve that morning.
Mack kept them entertained with the pictures which the photography shop had developed for them. They expressed great excitement over the find and particularly over the remains found in the grotto. The chief of police, for his part, leaned against the railing, smoking and seeming mildly bored by the rattle of excited talk around him.
He did not remain bored for long, however. About an hour and a half after the anchor hit bottom and the four divers went into the water, Vak engaged the winch on the boom which trailed out over the transom of the boat. As the mucky cable drew in, a bulging net appeared from the water. He swung the boom inboard and lowered the net to the deck. When he opened it, a collective gasp arose from the museum officials. Still glittering, ancient boxes of silver and gold spilled out onto the wet deck, in the center of a growing puddle of water. A moment later, Mack's face appeared at the ladder. He pulled himself up, throwing his fins over the transom, then shed his tank and joined Vak and the museum officials as they poked through the priceless find.
One of the museum officials took him aside. "Is this all of it?"
"Yeah, this is all the hoard. The three remains are still inside. We haven't disturbed them."
"Good, good. We shall return and examine them at another time. Now, let us tag and catalogue all of this. We shall begin now, if you've no objection?"
"No objection. Doctor Covington wanted me to be present, if that's all right?"
"Ah, of course." The man nodded in understanding, then asked, "Is she returning soon?"
"They're still inside. One more check, you know, just to make sure we haven't missed anything." Mack gazed at the pile of treasure on the deck. "Let's get started."
After about thirty minutes, three heads bobbed in the water near the transom and three weary divers slowly pulled themselves up onto the deck. Jan was first aboard and was quick to shed her tank and fins. As she pulled the rubber hood from her head and shook out her wet hair, she padded over to the museum officials. "How's it going?"
One of them looked up excitedly. "This is magnificent." He shrugged apologetically, then added, "It will take some time to catalogue all of this, I fear."
Jan chuckled. "We have time. Can we help?"
"Thank you, but the museum was insistent. We must do this ourselves. I'm sure you understand."
Jan nodded. "You bet. If you don't mind, we'll watch, though."
The museum official considered the remark for a moment, then nodded. "I would expect no less."
The process of tagging and recording the riches took much of the day. Jan, Mel, Sallie and Mack lolled about the deck, watching the two officials carefully inventory the find. Torques, slabs of gold and silver, coins and rings were all carefully noted and deposited into metal trunks. As they worked, Jan kept a careful watch for anything resembling a block of gold which appeared different from the rest of the treasure. It did not come to light, however, and eventually, the inventory was complete. One of the officials walked across the deck and sat down next to Jan.
"You are certain that this is all of it?"
"Except for one piece." Jan leaned down and pulled her bag out from under the bench seat. She reached into it and produced a silver torque, the one she had removed the day before. "This completes it. I removed it yesterday."
"Ah, thank you. I shall add it to the list and tag it." He lifted it from her hand, then examined it and handed it to his colleague. "And now, you would be so kind as to sign the inventory?"
"Sure." She took the clipboard from his hand and scribbled her name on the line he indicated, handing it back to her. "Can I have a copy of that?"
"Of course. We have one for you." He flipped up several pages, removing the carbon copies, and handed them to her. Jan folded them, then thrust the papers into her bag. As she pushed the bag back under the seat with her foot, she looked over at the wheelhouse, where Vak was studying the situation from his seat at the helm. She rose and excused herself, then walked over to the owner of the salvage boat.
"Hey, Vak. Mind if we talk for a minute?"
He shrugged, then nodded. "Ja, ja. What is it?"
Jan eyed him. "Privately."
He studied her for a moment, then pointed toward the cabin door. "As you say. In there."
They descended into the cabin, and Jan turned toward the man. "In all that, did you see anything which you thought might be the Rhinegold?"
"Tell me, Vak. What does it look like?"
He shrugged. "I do not know. It must be of great clarity and purity, I think. Legend says that it emits a light of its own. I did not see anything here which I thought resembled it."
Jan leaned a little closer to him. "And why is that? Why is it not here?"
He eyed her cautiously, then held out his hands in question. "I would not know. Perhaps it is just legend. Perhaps it does not exist." He considered her intent expression for a moment, then added, "You are the archaeologist, Doctor Covington. You tell me."
"You dove here last night, without us. I saw you from the cliff. Come on, Vak. No bullshit. Did you find it last night?"
Vak remained silent, his good eye fixed intently on Jan's face. In that stare, Jan felt her skin crawl and the hair on the back of her neck rise. A voice screamed inside her head, This son of a bitch is an immortal. I can feel it. Again, she pressed the question. "Vak, did you find it?"
A cold smile slowly spread across Vak's face. "As you say. No bullshit. Yes, I dove the site last night. Yes, I looked for it. No, I did not find it."
"What is it about the Rhinegold that interests you so much? It can't be the value. You could have stolen enough of the hoard last night to keep you in beer and schnitzel for the rest of your life. Tell me, Vak, what power does it contain that you want so badly?" When he did not answer immediately, she added, "Or should I call you Odin?"
His good eye widened at the comment even as his mouth dropped open. He seemed genuinely taken aback at Jan's insistent interrogation. In that moment, Jan could see the truth of her insistent question registered in his face. He quickly resumed his set expression, however, and scoffed, "Have you lost your mind, Doctor Covington?"
"Cut the crap. I've met immortals before. I can almost smell one, and you're one. Now, tell me about the Rhinegold's power."
He leaned forward, looking down into her face, and slowly nodded. "You are more clever than I gave you credit for." He smiled bitterly. "Much like your ancestor. Did her writings not tell you of the Rhinegold's power?"
"She said that it was extremely dangerous. Come on, Odin. What good is it to you? It can destroy you. Trust me, it's probably better if it's never found."
"It is dangerous only to those who have not forsaken love. To the king of the Norse gods, it can be a rejuvenation. I miss my former glory. I long for it again. The Rhinegold can give me that."
"You're living in the past, man. The glory days of the Norse gods are over, just like the Greek gods. Nobody worships you anymore. Who the hell would you rule, anyway?"
He bristled. "Germany. The Scandinavian countries. Once, the Vikings ruled much of Europe. Their name alone was fearsome. They ravaged and traded all the way to the Middle East, when last they worshiped me."
Jan sneered, "Yeah, right. The thousand-year reich is over, in case you haven't heard."
"That was a misguided dream led by a twisted little mortal. Odin, in his full power, can make Germany a great country again."
Jan shook her head. "It's a great country now."
"It's a bombed-out shell. Her people are hungry, her great industry ruined. She languishes in defeat, occupied by the armies of the English, Americans and Russians. I can unite her, make her powerful."
"It's been tried. Forget about it. Look, Odin, where is the damned Rhinegold?"
Vak leaned in very closely to Jan's face, their noses almost touching. He growled, "I do not know, Doctor Covington. If I did, do you think that I would need you and your friends to find it for me?"
"The great Odin needs my help? Not such a god after all, are ya?" They remained staring down each other, their faces very close, Jan meeting his gaze evenly. In the thick silence, she uttered a warning. "You'll never get your hands on it. I'll see to it. I promise you that, Odin."
In reply, he whispered a warning of his own. "Be careful what you promise. I can be a formidable enemy."
"I've faced down the Greek god of war. I can do as much for you, too."
He considered the statement, then replied, "We shall see, shan't we?"
For a long moment they stood silently, each appraising the other's face. Jan grinned coldly. "Y'know, I'm glad that we had this little chat, Odin. I think that we understand each other perfectly now."
Vak's response was a grudging nod of affirmation. "So we do, Doctor Covington. So we do."
The door to the cabin opened. The chief of police stuck his head in and muttered something in rapid German, to which Vak nodded. As he stood erect and walked to the door, he turned and eyed her one final time. "It seems that our guests are anxious to return to Kaub. Shall we?"
Jan pointed toward the door. "After you."
Out on the deck, Mel watched as Vak emerged from the cabin and took his place at the boat's helm. Jan appeared just behind him, her face set in determination, her manner truculent. As the boat's anchor winched out of the muck and rose, dripping, to its place at the bow, Mel rose and took Jan's arm. Together, they walked to the transom and sat. Mel kept her hand on Jan's arm as she studied her mate's face.
"What's wrong, Jan? What went on in there?"
"We'll talk about it later, Mel. Now's not the time." With a reassuring squeeze on Mel's hand, Jan lapsed into troubled silence and occupied herself by watching the picturesque shores of the Rhine River slowly pass them by as they plied southward, against the slow current to Kaub.
Mel sighed deeply, but kept her fears to herself. Jan, she knew, would unburden herself when she felt the time to be right. Until then, she would just have to be patient. As she gazed on the profile of the little archaeologist, however, she felt a cold fear rise in her. She had seen that look on Jan before, and it always forecast trouble. She had no doubt that it would once again.
Her bright blue eyes left Jan to slowly scan the deck of the salvage boat, the diesel engines thrumming underneath the wet deck. The police chief sat, bored and smoking, the museum officials were huddled in conversation with Mack and Sallie, and Vak stood at the helm, watching the traffic on the river pass him by as he steered his boat toward the docks at Kaub. As she considered Vak's presence, she suddenly felt an icy chill run through her and shivered involuntarily, then shook her head in an attempt to clear her worried thoughts from her mind and concentrate on the beauty of the summer landscape around her.
Mel looked around at the crowded, noisy interior of the gasthaus dining room, then leaned across the table, keeping her voice low. "Jan, I have a bad feeling about this. Perhaps we should just let it go and get out of here. After all, our job's done here."
"Can't do it, Mel. Look, after we leave, that son of a bitch is going to keep diving that site until he finds it. We can't let him get his hands on the Rhinegold."
Mack joined the conversation. "What makes you think that it's even in there? We couldn't find it before."
Jan was insistent. "It's there, I can feel it. We just haven't looked in the right place."
Sallie, listening with rapt attention, now offered her thoughts. "Do we even know what we're looking for? How big is it? What's it look like? How can we even be sure that we've found it?" She shook her head, her dark mop of curls bobbing. "We need to know more about it."
Mack considered his wife's questions. "Nobody's seen it in two thousand years. Who would know?"
Jan looked over at Mel. "Xena would know. She's seen it."
Mel swallowed hard. "But, Jan--" She lapsed into a silent pout, then slowly nodded her head. "It makes sense. I'll see if I can talk to her about it."
Jan squeezed Mel's hand under the table. "It would help us, Mel. See if she'll appear to you."
Sallie's dark eyes widened. "Do you think she will?"
Mel nodded. "The moon's full. I can talk to her anytime, but she and Gabrielle only seem to be able to actually appear to us during that time. Xena will show if I call for her, I'm sure."
Jan thumped her fist on the table. "Then it's settled. Mel, talk to her tonight. Find out what you can about the Rhinegold. We'll ask Vak to take us out one more time, tomorrow. We'll tell him that we want to study the remains some more. Hell, the museum guys gave me their permission to do that, as long as we didn't disturb the site. Mack, do you still have any film? Bring the camera. When we're in there, we'll scour the place again."
"Oh Jan, do you think that he'll take us out after the words you had with him today?"
Jan snorted, "Oh, yeah. As long as he thinks that we have a shot at finding it, he'll do all he can to help us. He'll suspect rightly that we're actually going in for the Rhinegold, and not just to study the remains of the Rhinemaidens."
Mack was pragmatic. "And if we do find it? How do we get the stuff past him?"
"Stick it in the camera bag. Hell, it can't be that large. Xena forged a ring out of the entire piece. That means that it's probably no bigger than maybe a pocket watch or something of that size."
"We can't leave the country with it, Jan. It belongs to the German government."
Jan spoke earnestly now. "Look, Mel. We four here are the only ones in the world beside Vak who understand something of the power of the Rhinegold. It has great power to corrupt and destroy. Gabrielle said so. If it comes to light, it will bring sorrow not only to anyone who handles it, but possibly to millions of people if Vak gets his hands on it." After a second, she added, "And he'll damn sure try, whether it's in that cave or in a museum. Don't you see, Mel? We have to assume guardianship of it, make sure that never happens. It's the right thing to do." Jan looked around the table at the three faces near her. "Do you guys agree, or am I off base here? If I am, tell me now."
Mack shook his head. "I don't think you're crazy, Jan. It makes sense. If we accept the premise that it's dangerous, then we have to keep it out of the wrong hands. And I accept that premise. So, I'm with you."
Jan looked across the table. "Sallie? How do you feel about this?"
She scratched her head as she thought, then looked up at Jan. "Before I started digging sites with you, I never would have believed in curses or immortals. I'd have thought you crazy. But in the last few years, I've seen some pretty strange stuff by your side, enough to make a believer out of me." She huffed, blew a stray lock of curls away from her face, and continued, "I believe in you, Jan. Mack believes in you, too, and I believe in him. If you feel that this is what we need to do, then I'm with you all the way."
Jan looked over at Mel. "What's your gut tell you on this, Mel? Talk to me."
Mel answered slowly. "I have a deep sense of foreboding about this, Jan. I can't tell you why, but I'm afraid of this." She took Jan's hand in her own, her deep blue eyes fixed on Jan's face. "But I can't disagree with the logic of your position. Are you really sure that you want to do this?"
"I don't see any other choice, Mel. This is the right thing to do."
"Then I'm with you, Jan. You know that."
Jan squeezed Mel's hand, then leaned against her. "Thanks, Mel." She cast a final look around the table, then pulled a wad of colorful Mark notes from her pocket and waved at the waitress. "Let's pay up and get some sleep, huh? I've got a feeling that it's going to be a long day tomorrow."
Mel stood on the stone balcony outside their little room on the second floor of the gasthaus, peering up at the full moon. She sighed deeply, then pushed her glasses up on her nose with a finger, trying to organize her thoughts. After a long moment, she closed her eyes and whispered, "Xena?"
She remained silent, the gentle whisper of the night's breeze teasing her loose hair about her face, all her senses focused on the comforting, gentle reply which she sought from the air about her or from the depths of her own heart. In a moment, she repeated the name, the breeze seeming to lift the ancient name from her lips and carry it into the pleasant night. A voice whispered into her ear and she thrilled at its sultry, welcome tone.
"I'm here, my distant daughter."
Mel kept her eyes shut as she asked, "May we talk?"
In response, a warmth touched her cheek and, through her closed eyelids, she detected a brief glow of soft light. She slowly opened her eyes and turned her head. On the balcony's stone rail, not three feet from her, a shimmering, slightly silvery figure perched, hands on the railing, knees crossed, the face regarding her with an affectionate, warm expression. For a moment, neither figure spoke. Then, Xena replied to the question, the sultry voice laced with a musical, if indefinable, accent.
"We should talk more often."
Mel smiled sheepishly at that. "Thank you for hearing."
Xena shrugged. "I am always near, distant daughter. My love for you is my duty."
"I'm glad that the moon is full. I do love seeing you, you know. My, you look incredible."
To Mel's eyes, she did. Surrounded by a silvery hue, Xena cut a remarkable figure. To another's eyes, they perhaps could have been twins. Mel, however, saw the difference between her and her ancestor. The chiseled beauty of Xena's features, framed in long, thick braids of black hair, reflected a commanding presence, the visible, healed scars of combat seeming to harden the feminine beauty of the face and body, yet somehow deepen its allure at the same time. Her frame was lean and tensed with a hard muscle which Mel didn't claim. Her body, clothed in ancient leather and bronze armor, seemed both alert and easygoing at the same time, as if she were ever-ready to spring from her relaxed pose and assume the manner of a primal animal in an instant. And from it all, the intense blue eyes shone, regarding Mel with even a slight amusement. Xena nodded slightly at the compliment, then spoke.
"What's on your mind?"
Xena looked away. Her eyes regarded the night's surroundings for a moment before she replied, "A dangerous quest. Are you quite certain that you wish to find it?"
"We have to. Odin seeks it as well. We can't allow it to come into his possession."
Xena's head snapped around, her blue eyes flaming with intensity. "Odin?"
"Yes. Jan believes that he's here."
Mel shrugged. "Tall, blonde. One eye. Deep voice."
Xena's voice became low. "Two ravens?"
Mel nodded. "Yes."
"Odin." Xena said the word with deep disdain. "Watch yourself around him. He's crafty and dangerous."
"So I've deduced. Xena, what exactly are we seeking? What does it look like?"
Xena sighed. "First, you must comprehend its danger. I do not think that you understand it completely."
Mel moved closer to the apparition. "Tell me."
"It can impart incredible power to god or mortal alike. A feeling of invincibility, of strength. It can confer the power to combat and vanquish even a god. It offers an intoxication that will seduce one with its overwhelming strength."
Mel considered the statement. "But only if one has forsaken love, correct?"
Xena shook her head. "No. It will confer that power upon anyone, at first. But its evil will ensnare one, corrupt them. If one has forsaken love, it will rule them. Its power will corrupt any decency left in them."
"And if one has not forsaken love?"
Xena studied the stone floor at her feet. "It will rob them of that which they love most: their sense of self, of right. And it will steal that which makes them uniquely who they are, their memories, their past." She fell silent for a moment, then confessed, "From Brunhilda, it stole her beauty, her humanity. And from me, it took my memories of who I was, and of my love for Gabrielle. For a year we languished, Gabrielle and I, torn from each other. I remember the time; it was not a happy one. I was seldom so desolate, so hollow at any time in my life as I was then."
Mel placed her hand over the silvery one on the balcony's railing. She felt a coolness, but at the same moment, an incredible, comforting warmth. "How awful it must have been for both of you."
Xena nodded, a pain deep in the blue eyes. "I warn you: your only protection from its curse is the purity of your motives, the purity of your heart. If you truly desire to save humanity from an Odin possessed of the Rhinegold, then that purity may protect you. But if you touch it in an effort to call forth its power, it will destroy you. Warn Janice of this."
"Oh, but Jan wouldn't--"
"We are all a mix of the best and the worst of human intentions. The savage animal and godlike nobility dwell side by side in all of us. So it does with her, as well. Warn her, Melinda."
Mel studied Xena's face carefully. "What are you saying? Do you think that Jan could be seduced by this?"
"I hope not, but I fear so. Keep her safe."
Xena's eyes burned deeply as she lifted her head. Mel swallowed hard at the sight, then affirmed, "I will."
"Heed me now. The Rhinegold will fit into the palm of your hand. It burns with its own brightness, beautiful yet deadly. You have seen nothing like it before. If ever you do behold it, you will know it."
"Where is it, Xena?"
The apparition shrugged. "I know not. When I first beheld it, it resided with the rest of the treasure in the cave. When I returned it to the Rhinemaidens, I did not see where they secreted it. I can tell you no more."
Mel looked down at the silvery hand which she held in her own, cold and yet warm at the same time. She studied its strength, the healed scars, the long fingers so like her own, and then looked up. "Thank you."
"Do not thank me, distant daughter. None of us will rest easily until the Rhinegold is gone to future generations, for as long as it exists, a lust for power will lead evil people to it." Xena squeezed Mel's hand, then pierced her with an intent gaze. "Deny it to Odin. Dispose of it where no one will ever again seek it. Do this for me."
"We will, I promise."
Xena stood, still holding Mel's hand. She faced Mel, standing very close, and traced the fingers of her free hand across Mel's cheek. "Godspeed, my distant daughter. Know that I will be close for you, as Gabrielle is for Janice."
The apparition smiled. "I know." She released Mel's hand, then stepped back. As she began to dissipate, she whispered, "I love you, too." In an instant, the silvery light quenched itself and Mel again stood alone on the balcony. She sighed deeply at the sudden loneliness which assailed her, then turned and stepped back into the little room which she and Jan shared.
The diesel engines of the salvage boat throbbed as Vak navigated it down river, toward the now familiar waterfall. Jan rose from checking the regulator on her air tank, then took a place next to Vak, at the helm. He regarded her cautiously, then returned his attention to the river in front of the boat.
"Vak, we're probably only going to be in there for an hour or two. It won't take us any longer to examine the remains. This will be our final dive."
He nodded slowly, then turned his head and fixed Jan with a skeptical stare from his good eye. "I understand your purpose, Doctor Covington."
Yeah, I'll bet you do, Jan thought. "Good."
"I shall be waiting for you when you return."
"I'm counting on it." With that, Jan turned and left the wheel-house, rejoining the others. They lolled about the deck, dive equipment ready, waiting for the boat to take its place at the base of the waterfall as they had done so many times before.
Finally, the anchor dropped, the engines quieted, and Vak threw the buoy with the divers' flag over the stern transom. He watched as the four explorers wiggled into their heavy dive equipment, then entered the water, one after another, to start their short swim to the underwater cave. When the last head disappeared beneath the water and the bubble trails indicated that they had reached the waterfall, he smiled, lit a cigarette, and slowly strolled to the pilot-house. There, he lifted the cover of the map locker and extracted his pistol, checked the clip of ammunition in its handle, and then thrust it into the waist band of his trousers, underneath his shirt. Assuring himself that all was in order about the boat, he sat in the sun of the stern and smoked silently, waiting for the inevitable drama to play out.
Jan surfaced inside the cavern, lifted herself up onto its rocky floor, and pulled off her fins and mask. As Mack, then Sallie and Mel, surfaced and dragged themselves, dripping, out of the water, she shed her tank and weight belt and pulled the rubber hood from her head. Her hair tumbled out, damp, and she ran her fingers through it to comb it away from her face, then took charge. "Okay, guys. We've got a couple of hours. The Rhinegold is in here somewhere; let's find it."
Sallie stood. "So what exactly are we looking for?"
Jan placed a hand on Mel's arm. "Mel, tell 'em what you told me last night."
Mel began describing the gold, relaying the description and the warnings which Xena had imparted to her the evening before. She emphasized the warnings especially, insisting that no one actually touch the gold.
Mack produced a watertight box and a pair of pliers from his camera bag. "If we find it, we'll use these."
Jan nodded. "Bring it. Come on, guys. Let's spread out and look."
The four explorers lifted their lights and began systematically pacing through the interior of the grotto, the lights' beams dancing back and forth across the floor as they moved slowly through the chilly, dripping cave. Periodically, they would pop flares and throw them ahead of their steps, shielding their eyes from the bright glows and bending to examine every crevice and depression in the rock.
After more than an hour, they gathered at the back of the cave. No one said anything for a moment until Jan broke the silence, her irritation echoing through the cavern. "Shit. Nothing. Where in the blue hell is it? God damn it, I know it's in here somewhere."
Mel tried to be optimistic. "Perhaps the Rhinemaidens disposed of it, Jan. Perhaps it can never be found."
"Yeah, we should be so lucky. No, it's in here. I can almost smell it." She huffed and stamped her foot in frustration.
Mack, leaning against a cave wall, pondered the situation, then asked, "So, if you guys were the Rhinemaidens, where would you hide it?"
Sallie chuckled. "After Xena stole it from them, somewhere very safe."
"Right," Mack responded. "That was the crown jewel of the hoard, was it not?"
Jan shrugged. "Yeah. So what?"
Mack continued in his line of thought. "So, here we have three Rhinemaidens, dying together after who-knows-how-long of keeping their post here, guarding this thing. It was their prime duty, right?"
Jan could see that Mack was driving at a conclusion. "Yeah. So?"
"So, knowing the power of the Rhinegold, they would guard it until they drew their dying breaths, right?"
Sallie added, "Yeah. And then, they just might continue to guard it after their deaths. It was their duty, after all."
Jan's jaw dropped at the thought which struck her. "Holy crap. It's with the remains. Come on, guys." She led the team back through the tunnel, stopping short of the water and turning her light on the grotto where the bones of the three enchanted maidens lay, undisturbed and intertwined in their last, perpetual embrace. In a moment, three more light beams joined Jan's. They stared at the remains for a moment, then Jan ordered, "Pop some more flares. Light this place up."
Flares popped and flickered into life, adding their harsh light to the cave. Several were tossed into the corners of the little grotto, bathing the white bones in an eerie light. The skulls seemed to dispassionately regard the intruders, staring with an eyeless quality into the artificial light. Jan shivered slightly as she contemplated them, then stepped into the grotto, bending low to avoid the jagged ceiling as she crouched near the remains. She leaned over the bones and began shining her light methodically across the three skeletons, still clothed in rags of aged material.
One by one, Mel, Sallie and Mack joined her, crouching around the maidens and examining their resting place. Jan looked around at the three faces of her friends, lit by the flares' light. "See anything?" Heads shook. "Keep lookin'. It's got to be here somewhere." She returned her attention to the skeletons, and when her light lit a pelvis, she stopped. "Wait a minute."
Mel's voice was a whisper. "Have you found something, Jan?"
"Not yet." Jan placed her hand along the calf of her leg and withdrew her diver's knife from its sheath. With its point, she carefully moved aside some of the rotting cloth ribbons which still adorned the skeletons' waists.
Sallie, a touch of humor in her voice, observed, "Gabrielle was right. They didn't wear much, did they?"
Jan grinned in spite of her nervous energy. "Naked women. My kinda excavation." As she lifted the cloth away with the point of her knife, she shone her light between two of the pelvises. A dark, square object stared back at her, rusted hinges still offering a glimmer of reflection to her light. "What's this?" She tapped at it with her knife and it replied with a hollow thump. "Old wood. Shine your lights here, all of you."
Three beams traveled up the skeletons to join Jan's light. There, in the brightness of the collected beams, a wooden box reposed between two of the Rhinemaidens. Jan whistled, then took a deep breath. "Guys, I think we just found the Rhinegold." She prodded the box with her knife, then lifted one corner of it away from the bones. As the box emerged from the ancient cloth and bones, a latch became apparent. Jan scraped at it with the tip of her blade, then inserted the point under the old metal and twisted the knife. The latch opened and she carefully lifted the lid of the box.
When she did, the interior of the small grotto was bathed in a rich, golden light. The lid fell back and a collective gasp arose from all four of the explorers. For a moment, they were too stunned to speak. Then, Jan broke the silence with a single word.
Mel's voice was an urgent whisper. "Jan, don't touch it."
"Don't worry. Man, look at that. It's incredible."
And so it was. Roughly the size of a matchbox, it shimmered and sparkled with its own light and life, brightening the interior of the grotto almost to the brightness of daylight. For a long time, they just stared at it, mesmerized by its beauty, its allure. Jan felt a hand on her arm. When she looked up, Sallie was regarding her with pragmatic eyes.
"So, what do we do now, Jan?"
"Now? We get it out of here, keep it safe. We hide it from the rest of humanity forever. Isn't that what Xena wanted, Mel?"
Mel nodded, scarcely trusting herself to speak. Jan's expression turned serious as she regarded the face of each of her companions in turn. "Look, nobody tells Vak about this, right? If he asks about it, we never found it." One by one, the three other faces nodded agreement. "Okay. Mack, got the watertight box?"
"Right here, Jan."
"Hold it open." Mack opened the lid of the watertight container and held it out. Jan placed the tip of her knife against the top of the ancient wooden box and closed the lid, attempting to flip the latch closed. It would not latch. She returned the knife to its sheath against her leg, then reached out to lift the box from among the bones. Mel's hand stopped her.
"Jan, don't touch it. Please."
"It'll be okay, Mel. It's the box, not the gold itself."
"Jan, please. Don't take the chance."
Jan sighed. "Okay, Mel, but I'll need something to lift it with. The pliers won't do." She looked around, then noticed that Sallie had not removed her rubber diving hood, but just pushed it back from her head. It still sat around her neck. "Sallie, hand me your hood."
"Huh? Yeah, sure." She pulled it off and handed it to Jan, who used it to cover the ancient box. Then, ever so carefully, she lifted the box from its resting place and lowered it into the watertight tin which Mack had provided. He snapped the lid shut and fastened it tightly.
In the dimmer light of the lanterns and dying flares, Jan rearranged the scraps of cloth adorning the maidens' bones, leaving the site with no appearance of disturbance. Then, she took a last, long look at the remains as, one by one, her companions backed out of the little grotto and stood up. Jan was the last one out. As she stood upright and stretched, Sallie motioned toward the three intertwined skeletons. "You were right, Jan."
Sallie studied the three remains with an uncharacteristic aura of sadness about her. "Love does move history, doesn't it? I mean, look at them. It was their love for each other which kept them true to their duty. God, what a story. It's so sad and so beautiful at the same time."
Mack chuckled. "Jeez. That's my Sal. She cries at the movies, too."
Sallie thumped an elbow into Mack's side. "Hush, Mack. Don't tell all my secrets."
Jan grinned at Sallie's retort, then offered, "Yeah, Mel blubbers all the time at the movies. I have to bring a handkerchief just for her."
Mel snaked an arm around Sallie's shoulders. "Such cynics, aren't they? We'll go to the movies and have a good cry without them around. They can stay home, drink beer and have a belching contest."
Mack grinned over at Jan. "Didn't we used to do that in college?"
Jan snorted in laughter. "Are you kidding? That's how we studied for finals." She motioned toward the water. "Come on, guys. Let's get back to the boat. I think our job's done here."
Aboard the salvage boat, Vak sat up as he noticed four heads emerge from the water at the transom. One by one, the divers threw their fins over the side to thump on the deck and pulled themselves from the water. As they squirmed out of their dive tanks and weight belts, Vak studied them carefully, then asked, "Did you find what you were seeking, Doctor Covington?"
Jan regarded Vak solemnly, then replied, "We got everything we needed from the remains. We're done. Let's go home."
Vak studied Jan's face for a long moment, Jan meeting his gaze evenly. Slowly, Vak nodded in understanding, then whispered, "You found it, didn't you?"
Jan, never allowing her eyes to leave his, replied, "If I did, I damned sure wouldn't tell you."
"That, Doctor Covington, is all I need to hear." He stepped back, then reached inside his shirt and produced his Luger pistol, holding it out in front of him. The tone of his voice became commanding. "All of you, stop. Gather by the wheel-house." He motioned with the pistol, then added, "Now."
Mack was incredulous. "Vak, what in the hell are you doing?"
Jan answered for the salvage boat captain. "He's stealing the Rhinegold from us, that's what."
"Very good, Doctor. Now, all of you, gather there." He indicated a place on the deck. Slowly, in shocked silence, they began to gather at the spot Vak had indicated. Vak regarded them, each in turn, then asked, "Where is it?"
No one answered, instead meeting his question with a collective, defiant expression. Vak urged, "I ask you once more. Where is it?"
Again, no one answered. Finally, Jan offered, "Vak, you keep this up and you're a dead man."
He laughed bitterly at that. "You're threatening me? Odin? I'm an immortal. The four of you, on the other hand, are very mortal." He regarded them, then announced, "Perhaps I should just kill all of you now and search your bodies and equipment. It's bound to be on you somewhere."
Jan stepped forward. "You'll never get away with this, you asshole. We'll be missed. There'll be an investigation by the local police. You'll spend eternity in prison. Is the Rhinegold worth all that?"
"You underestimate me, Doctor Covington. I don't have to kill all of you. Perhaps, I only have to kill one of you." He stepped forward and with a lightening flash of his arm, grabbed Sallie by her hair, pulling her from the group. She screamed, then fought him, but he forced her down onto her knees on the wet deck, still grasping her hair with his free hand, keeping the others at bay with the threat of his pistol. She attempted to pull free from him, but he shook her roughly by the head, then pressed the muzzle of the gun against her temple.
"Give me the Rhinegold."
Mack growled, "You kill her, you'll have to kill all of us, because I swear to God that we'll be on you as soon as you pull that trigger."
"You forget, Doctor MacKenzie, I am an immortal, and I have the gun. Now, give it to me, or the Jude will die."
The disdain with which the word was uttered made Sallie's eyes widen in anger. With a growl, she twisted and rammed an elbow into Vak's groin. Jan chose that moment to close with him. He grunted, momentarily distracted, and then straightened, aiming the gun directly at Jan's face as she approached him. She stopped, halfway across the deck, and Mack and Mel froze in place with her. For a long, terrible moment, Jan stared into the pistol's muzzle, mere inches from her face. Sallie still struggled, kneeling on the deck, Vak's free hand grasping her hair. He backed away, pulling Sallie with him, and then looked down at her. With a quick motion, he brought the pistol down, striking her in the side of the head. She cried out, then fell to the deck. Vak stepped away from her, then pointed the pistol at Mack. "You, take her below." Next, he indicated Mel. "You, join them." Then, his attention returned to Jan. "You, stay out here. I will question you one at a time. You, Doctor Covington, are first."
Mack gathered Sallie up from the wet deck, supporting her as she staggered slightly, holding her hand to the side of her head. Under Vak's watchful eye, they disappeared below, Mel following at a slow pace. Jan looked toward her; Mel's expression was one of exasperation and defiance. Jan winked and nodded her head imperceptibly, then said, "Go on, Mel. I'll handle this."
When the three had entered the cabin, Vak edged over to the door and threw a bolt, locking them inside. Then, he returned his attention to Jan, who was standing on the mid-deck, her arms crossed across her chest, an aura of bravado about her small frame. "You want the Rhinegold, Vak? You'll never find it, and we'll never tell you where it is."
He approached her, his pistol leveled at her chest. "I think you will. If you don't, I'll interrogate and then kill each one of you in turn."
"You'll never get away with it."
"Of course I will. I shall weight your bodies and simply throw you into the river, then claim that I returned you to the docks. That idiot of a police chief will believe me implicitly."
Jan considered the statement, then felt her stomach rise sickeningly at the thought that he was probably right. He could kill them all and get away with it, and his search of their equipment would produce the Rhinegold. They would die at the hand of this immortal, and they would fail in their endeavor to keep the enchanted gold out of his possession. Jan thought frantically, then tried another tactic.
"Look, Vak. What say we make a deal? A trade for it?"
He scoffed, "You are in no position to offer a deal. I hold all the cards here."
All but one, Jan thought. Aloud, she said, "If I tell you where it is, you'll let the others go free?"
"To report this to that idiot policeman? I doubt it."
"Vak, we'll be on a plane and out of here in a day. You'll have the Rhinegold and you can play god all you like after that." At Vak's doubtful expression, she pressed, "We can't go to the police with this, man. Who'd believe a crazy story about enchanted gold and the king of the Norse gods, anyway? You get what you want, and we get our skins intact. Deal?"
He considered her words, then nodded. "As you say. Show me the Rhinegold."
"Give me your word first that we go free."
He leveled the pistol at her head. "You trust my word?"
"No, but it's all I've got for the moment."
Vak grinned. "You're smarter than you appear. Agreed. You have my word. Now show it to me."
Jan held up her hands in front of her. "Okay, okay. It's in the dive bag, just over there. In the camera box."
He motioned with the pistol. "Show me. Open it."
"Yeah, sure." She slowly paced across the deck, leaned down, and retrieved the bag, opening it on the bench. Carefully, she extracted the metal waterproof box, then opened it and stepped back a pace. "It's in there. Look for yourself."
He considered the box, then her expression, and threatened, "If you're lying to me, I'll kill you here and now."
"Just look, will ya?"
He kept his pistol leveled at Jan as he approached the box. His eye flickered down to study its contents, then he reached in and extracted an ancient wooden chest, holding it in his hand. "It is in here?"
"Yeah. Open it and see." She waited, her body tense, her mind painfully aware of his desire to open the box, waiting for his attention to be distracted from her for the moment it would take to open it and behold its contents. "Open it, Vak. It's in there."
"It had better be." With that, he set the wooden box down on the bench and lifted the lid. The brightness of the Rhinegold bathed his features in intense golden light, causing him to gasp and blink. For a moment, his attention was riveted on the contents of the box, his hand grasping the pistol dropping to his side, Jan's presence forgotten. At that moment, Jan lifted the diver's knife from the sheath on her leg and closed the distance between them.
He jerked his head upward, his attention distracted from the gold, but too late. Jan was on him, her free hand grasping his gun-wielding arm. She rammed the full weight of her petite frame into him, knocking him off balance, and they fell to the deck in a tangle. She heard him emit a loud growl, much like an angry animal, and felt his free hand grasp her neck. His strength was immense. Jan raised her hand and plunged the knife into his chest, burying it up to the hilt. When she tugged it free, it showed no sign of blood. The tear in his shirt remained, but there was no wound underneath. Oh, shit. He's an immortal. I can't kill him, she heard her mind scream as she felt a panic arise in her chest. She slashed her knife across his face, but no wound opened. The eyepatch fell away, however, leaving her staring into a grotesque, sunken eye socket just inches from her face.
His grip tightened on her throat and she felt the pain of his fingers pressing into her neck. Desperately, she raised the knife and brought the handle down repeatedly into his face, attempting to loosen his grip on her, then beat her forearm repeatedly against his, finally causing his grip to loosen and slip off her neck. A resounding bang sounded, and her ear rang from the near gunshot as the pistol in his hand discharged near her head. The deck six inches from her head was splintered. She brought the handle of the knife down on the hand containing the gun and knocked it from his grasp. With a quick motion, she reached out for it, picked it up and threw it over the railing.
Vak fell upon her, his hands viselike on her arms, and literally picked her up. Jan felt herself lifted from the deck, then thrown roughly down onto the bench seat, knocking the breath from her. Her knife fell from her hand. She slid off the bench, the camera bag and the box containing the Rhinegold clattering across the deck near her. Before she realized it, Vak was on her once again, his fingers around her throat and his knee in her gut. His free hand struck her across the face.
Stars exploded in Jan's vision, and she tasted the salt of blood in her mouth. Frantically, she closed her hands into fists and began pummeling his face and head, the blows turning his face from side to side but not seeming to have much effect on him. Again, a panic rose in her chest, mixed with a hot anger. I am not dying like this, her mind screamed as she beat at his face with her fists. I'm not. God damn it, you're going down, you asshole. Her vision fixed on his sunken eye as she repeatedly rammed her fists into his face, finally seeing traces of blood streaking his skin. As his hand tightened around her throat, she realized that the blood was not his. It was hers. Her knuckles were skinned and bleeding as they scraped repeatedly across his teeth and his immortal skin.
Her arms ached with effort; her vision was turning red and spotted from the tight grasp he had on her throat. He was winning, and he knew it. She could see it in the smirking face which hovered so closely above hers. She lashed out at him with both fists until she felt her arms burn, willed herself to keep attacking, but was becoming exhausted with the effort. Her heart pounded in her chest, her arms slowed in their attack, and her vision blurred. No, she thought. It can't end like this. I can't let him win. Gabrielle, I need you now. Help me. Give me a sign.
He struck her across the face again, this time with the flat of his hand, and it turned her head. In her blurry vision, she saw the ancient wooden box lying very near her, turned on its side. That's it, she heard a voice inside her shout. That's the ticket to kill a god. Painfully, she reached out and felt the deck near her head. Her hand grasped the box, and she picked it up and tapped it down on the deck. It opened, and the Rhinegold fell out onto the deck. Her hand slid across the wet wood and she reached for the glowing, shimmering blob of gold. With a final, supreme effort, she moved just enough to find it. Her fingers closed around it, and she palmed it. In that moment, she felt a wave of comforting heat, of immense energy pierce her entire body, and she closed her eyes and gasped at the almost orgasmic sensations which flowed through her in waves.
When she opened her eyes again, Vak was still bent over her, his knee pressing into her abdomen, his hand around her neck, but his expression was one of astonishment. No longer did he leer in impending victory; rather, his good eye was wide with incredulity, amazement at the transformation which he had just witnessed in Jan. In the moment, he froze. Jan lifted the hand which held the Rhinegold, tightly palmed in her fist, and struck him hard across the face.
She felt Vak's weight leave her and felt his knee slip from its painful place on her abdomen. She rose to a sitting position. Vak was kneeling on the deck near her, his hand across his face. Jan saw blood dripping from between his fingers.
In an instant, she found her strength renewed. She lifted herself to a standing position, then pulled Vak's head back by his hair. The fist containing the Rhinegold lashed out once again, and she felt bone and flesh buckle beneath her knuckles. He collapsed to the deck. Jan grasped the front of his shirt and lifted him, then struck him squarely in the ribs. She could feel, could hear bone snap beneath her blow. He staggered backward, attempting to free himself from her onslaught. She pressed her attack, white-hot with anger, and felt an intoxicating surge of power course through her as she repeatedly rammed her fists into his body and face. With each strike, she heard him scream, felt his fear, and a primal, dark satisfaction welled up inside her. Blood spattered as she flattened his nose, closed his good eye with her knuckles. His frantic attempts to ward off her blows with his arms lessened, then ceased as he collapsed to the deck, slowly dragging himself away from her.
Jan grasped his ankle and pulled him back toward her, then fell upon him, her fist landing once again on his face. The head snapped back and he went limp. She continued in her ruthless attack, lashing out at his body with her fists, feeling the bones of his chest and his face give under the blows until she felt her heart pound in her chest and her breath come in ragged, gasping efforts. As she raised her fist one last time, she paused, panting in exhaustion, and blinked the sweat away from her eyes. Her opponent was no longer moving, no longer exhibiting any sign of life. She stared dumbly at the broken, bloody body underneath her, then staggered to her feet. Dimly, she heard voices calling in the distance, muffled. The deck, wet and streaked with droplets of blood underneath her feet, began swirling around her. She staggered, uncertain, and then leaned over the railing and vomited. As she slid to the deck, she felt a hot pain shoot through her wrist, and she opened her hand. The Rhinegold was gone, her hand empty, her knuckles bloody and battered. The last thing she remembered was an incredible pain stab through her head and a sense of gripping, panicked fear rise in her chest.
The door to the cabin exploded outward against the combined weight of its three occupants. They clambered up onto the deck, pausing to stare at the scene which was spread out in front of them. Vak lay, bloody and broken, on the deck near the pilot-house. The deck showed streaks of blood intermingled with puddles of the river's water. Jan, clothed in her wetsuit, was pressed against one corner of the transom, her body curled tightly in a ball, her head covered with her hands.
Mel was at her side in an instant, gently lifting her and cradling her in her arms, her voice frantic. "Jan? Oh, my God. Jan, honey, talk to me. Are you all right?" She pressed the damp blonde head against her chest and pulled the arms away from Jan's face. "Talk to me, Jan. Are you all right?"
In answer, Jan's head slowly lifted. Her eyes blinked and her face, streaked with droplets of blood, was a mask of confusion and fear. Hoarsely, she whispered, "Huh? Wha' happened?"
Mel stared down at the face. As she did, she felt a horror rise in her. "Jan, you tell me."
Jan blinked, then closed her eyes. "Don't know. I--" With that, she went limp in Mel's arms.
"Jan? Jan?" Mel's voice rose in pitch, her pleadings finding no response from Jan's limp body. Slowly, Mel felt Jan's pulse, and found that she had one. She rested her hand on Jan's chest and felt the gentle rising and falling of her chest as she breathed. Mel's eyes clouded with tears, and she closed them as she felt herself sob involuntarily. She pressed Jan against her, holding her tightly, until she was dimly aware that someone was calling her name.
She looked up. Sallie was bending over her, her expression concerned, her dark eyes wide. "Mel, what's wrong with Jan?"
"I don't know. We have to get her to a doctor." Mel looked into Sallie's face, then gasped, "Where's Vak?"
"He's over there. Jan beat the livin' shit out of him. Mack thinks he's dead."
At that moment, they both heard Mack's exclamation, "Holy Mother of God!"
Mel and Sallie turned and looked across the deck. Mack was backing away from Vak, his expression aghast. Vak's body began smouldering, then burst into flame, disintegrating rapidly into nothing on the deck. In just a few moments, all that was left of him was a darkened spot on the wooden boards. Sallie watched the scene, then turned back to Mel. "So that's what happens when an immortal dies. Damn. Spooky."
Mack's toe stubbed the ancient box. It clattered across the deck. He bent down, picked it up, and studied it. Then, he looked at Sallie and Mel. "Where's the Rhinegold?"
Sallie shrugged. Mel, however, just looked down at Jan's face. "I think Jan's the only one who knows that."
He strode over to the transom where Mel was huddled, holding Jan's limp body. "What's wrong with her? Is she hurt?"
Mel looked up, her blue eyes wet. "I'm afraid that it's much worse than that. We have to get her to a doctor. Can you drive this thing, Mack?"
He nodded, his eyes fixed on Jan. "Yeah, sure. Hang on. We're on our way." With that, he hurried to the pilot-house, ground the engines into life, and engaged the anchor winch.
As they plied against the current southward toward Kaub, Sallie and Mel huddled against the transom, holding Jan. Sallie listened to her chest, then felt her pulse. "I think she's breathing okay. Her pulse seems strong."
Mel tapped Jan's cheek gently. "Jan, honey, wake up. Talk to us, please." After a moment, Jan's eyes flickered, then opened. Slowly, she turned her head and looked up into two pairs of eyes, one bright blue and one dark brown. Mel almost wept with relief. "Oh, Jan. Talk to me. What happened out here? Are you all right? You've got blood all over you."
Jan blinked, then considered the question, her eyes focusing first on one face, then on the other. After a moment, she smiled weakly. "Beautiful."
Mel laughed, then hugged Jan to her. "Oh, Jan. You're a beautiful sight, too."
Sallie looked down at Jan's face. "Where's the Rhinegold, Jan? What happened out here?"
Jan squinted in puzzlement, then blinked up at the two faces. "What?"
"What happened out here, Jan?"
Jan shook her head weakly. "Don't know."
Sallie's face fell. She looked over at Mel, who returned the expression of horror with one of her own, then looked down and asked, "Jan, where's the Rhinegold?" After a moment, Mel asked a second question, her voice a whisper. "Did you touch the Rhinegold?"
Jan's voice was tinged with a whimper, almost childlike. "I didn't do anything. I'm not bad, I'm not. You're scaring me. Stop it." She put her arms up around her head and buried her face in Mel's chest, beginning a muffled crying. Slowly, Mel looked up at Sallie, her face a mask of anguish.
"Oh, my God, Sallie. She did touch it."
"She had to, to have beaten Vak to death like that. He's an immortal. It's the only way she could have won, Mel." Sallie stood and looked around the deck. "We heard 'em tangle from inside the cabin. We even heard a gunshot. They must have tussled over the Rhinegold, and Jan got hold of it. That's how she won."
Sallie looked down at Jan once again, then quickly turned and paced across the deck to join Mack, who was at the helm. She grasped Mack's arm and leaned against him. He looked down at her, then smiled. "How's your head?"
"Oh, I'm fine."
"How's Jan doing?"
Sallie looked up. "Not good. I think we have a real problem, Mack."
Mel sat on a hard bench, still in her wetsuit, a blanket draped about her. She studied the tiled floor at her feet, then looked up as a nurse leaned over her and asked her a question. Mel simply shrugged, then shook her head. "English," she explained apologetically.
The nurse nodded and held up a finger. "Moment," she replied, and scurried away. Mel watched her go, then returned her gaze to the toes of the rubber diving boots on her feet, wiping half-heartedly at a tear which trailed down her face and paused at the tip of her chin. She only looked up when another voice spoke to her, in English this time.
"You are with the young woman?"
Mel nodded. "Yes." She perused the face leaning down over her. It was kindly, middle-aged. The face's owner nodded, then sat on the bench next to her.
"I am Doctor Remarque. May I ask your name?"
Mel sniffed, then wiped again at her face. Softly, she answered, "Melinda Pappas."
"Ah." He studied her, noted the gold band on her left hand, then asked, "Mrs. Pappas?"
"Of course. Excuse me. You are related to the young woman?" Mel nodded, not trusting herself to speak. "Sisters, perhaps?"
Slowly, Mel shook her head, then whispered, "We are-- " She paused, then finished, "The dearest of friends."
Again, he studied the ring on her left hand. He had noticed a similar one on Jan's hand. He nodded, then said, "I understand."
Mel's eyes slowly traveled up until they held his gaze. "Do you?"
"Thank you, Doctor Remarque. I think that you do."
"Since you are her closest, ah, relative, we must speak. Tell me, do you have any of her identification papers about you? Her passport, perhaps?"
"My friends are bringing it."
"Good, good. We shall need it." He shrugged apologetically, then explained, "Paperwork, you know."
"How is she?"
The doctor sighed, then attempted a reassuring manner. "Physically, she is not badly injured. Her hands were torn, here." He pointed to his own knuckles. "We dressed them. They will heal. Her wrist was also bruised, quite tender when we touched it. It is not broken, however. We have wrapped it."
"Thank you. May I see her?"
The doctor's expression grew cautious. "Ah, before you do that, we must speak."
Mel's eyes grew wide. "About what?"
"Tell me, Fraulein, has your friend ever in the past exhibited symptoms of mental illness, of any type of insanity?"
Mel's mouth dropped open. "No, never. She's never been ill like that." She studied the doctor's face. "Do you think that she's--" She whispered the final word, a whisper tinged with disbelief. "Insane?"
He nodded. "She is exhibiting signs of paranoia, delusions, episodes of intense, almost childlike fear, mixed with periods of deep melancholy. Tell me, did she sustain a head injury during this diving accident?"
Mel shook her head. "No."
"Ah. Well, I see no outward evidence of a head injury. Her reflexes are good, her eyes alert and similarly dilated, and so forth. However, she cannot tell us who she is. She has no memory of herself, it seems. That worries me."
"What can we do for her?"
"This is a small hospital, you understand? We can do nothing for her here. I have arranged to transfer her to an asylum near Frankfurt. There, she will be well treated. They are expert in such things."
Mel felt her entire body run cold. "An asylum? You mean, an insane asylum?"
He hastened to reassure her. "It is not like in the old days. They are very good there. I believe that it is for the best, and we both want what is best for her, no?" Mel nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on the tile floor. "The ambulance is coming for her soon to take her there."
"May I see her now, please?"
He smiled painfully. "Of course. I will take you to her. You must remember, however, that she is currently not of her right mind." With that, he stood and offered out a hand to Mel. She accepted it, then lifted herself to a standing position. With the blanket still around her shoulders, she followed the doctor into a small room partitioned with white coth curtains. He drew one aside.
Jan lay on a narrow, wheeled stretcher, her eyes closed, her damp hair disheveled, her torso clothed in a white gown. A sheet covered her legs and waist. As Mel slowly scanned her from feet to head, she saw the IV tubing leading to her forearm, a glass bottle hovering above her on a pole. Her arms were by her side, her wrists clamped firmly in leather cuffs attached to the stretcher. Her hands were wrapped in a thin layer of bandage. Mel gasped as she stared in disbelief. She looked up at the doctor. "You tied her down?"
"We had to, Fraulein. I am sorry, but she becomes out of control at times. We felt it best to sedate her."
"Can she hear us?"
"Perhaps. Try speaking to her. She may rouse herself just a little."
Mel placed a hand on Jan's forehead, gently brushing back the blonde hair. She leaned over her and spoke, her voice cracking a little. "Jan? Jan, honey? Can you hear me?" The eyelids flickered and opened, the hazel eyes slightly disoriented, unfocused. Then, they fixed themselves on the blue ones peering down at her. Mel smiled bravely, then whispered, "Jan, honey. Can you hear me?"
She watched the hazel eyes focus with some difficulty, then study her. After a moment, the head nodded ever so slightly. Mel smiled painfully. "Do you know who I am, Jan?"
The pale figure on the stretcher opened her mouth to speak, but no words emerged at first. Then, a soft, almost childlike voice touched Mel's ears. "You're beautiful."
Mel stroked Jan's cheek. "Who am I, darlin'?"
The hazel eyes narrowed in thought, then looked up. "Goddess." With that, the eyes closed again. Mel watched her drift back into a sleep, fighting the rising waves of anguish which threatened to overwhelm her and bring her to her knees. With effort, she remained standing and gripped the side of the stretcher.
The doctor placed a hand on her forearm. "Fraulein Pappas? The ambulance is here to transfer her. We must stand aside." He led Mel away from Jan's side, to a table near the sinks. On it, Jan's wetsuit lay, haphazardly cast aside, still damp. Mel picked it up, carefully folded it, and clutched it to her breast as she watched Jan being transferred to the ambulance stretcher for her trip.
As the ambulance crew was strapping her into the narrow litter, the nurse said something to them, then slipped the gold band off Jan's left hand, turning and holding it out to Mel with a statement in soft, rapid German. The doctor nodded, then said, "It is best if she is transferred with no jewelry, you know. Would you keep it for her?"
"Huh? Yes, of course." Mel held out the hand and the nurse placed the ring into her palm. She offered a few whispered words, then smiled and touched her shoulder in an effort to offer some comfort. Mel stared down at the ring, then closed her fingers tightly around it. She nodded thanks, then turned and quickly left the room.
In the hall, Mack and Sallie, dressed in their street clothes, were waiting for her, a bag at their feet. Sallie hugged Mel, then looked up at her. "We brought your clothes, Mel. Jan's, too." Mel nodded weakly, but said nothing. Sallie asked, "Where is Jan?" As if on cue, the litter rolled out into the hallway, heading toward the door. They watched it roll by, then turned to Mel. "Where are they taking her?"
Mel could not answer. She closed her eyes tightly and wiped at a tear, just shaking her head. A voice, in German, addressed them. Sallie turned, then held a rapid conversation with the white-uniformed man standing nearby. When she finished, she turned to Mel. "They need some identification for her, Mel. Where's Jan's passport?"
"Um, she keeps it in her pants pocket."
Sallie opened the bag and rummaged in it, pulling Jan's passport from it. She handed it to the man, who opened it and began copying the particulars onto his clipboard. After a few minutes, he handed it back, then questioned Sallie, who turned and said, "He wants to know if we're related to her."
The doctor appeared by their side and spoke with the man, who scribbled something on the form and nodded, evidently satisfied. He joined his companion and they wheeled Jan out the door. Then, the doctor turned to Mel. "I have told them that you are her, ah, cousin, her only family. That will allow you to see her and make decisions for her regarding her care."
"Thank you, Doctor Remarque. You've been most kind to me."
He smiled sadly. "Of course. Here is a paper with the address of the asylum. Go and see her there tomorrow. Today is not good. They must settle her in." Mel nodded slowly, staring down at the paper in her hand. "Take heart, Fraulein. These things, one can never tell. She may be quite herself again in a few days. Never give up hope, eh?" With that, he turned and left, entering another room. Sallie noticed the nurse standing nearby, watching them with a sympathetic air, and approached her. They held a short conversation, and Sallie returned to Mel.
"She says that you can change before you go, if you want to. That room, there."
Mel slowly looked down at her wetsuit, not seeming at first to comprehend. Then, she muttered, "Oh, yes. I suppose that I should change." She made no effort to move, however, and Sallie took charge.
She lifted Jan's wetsuit from Mel's arms and handed it to Mack, then picked up the bag. "I'll help her. Why don't you wait here for us?" Not waiting for his reply, she pulled Mel into the room and closed the door, leaving Mack in the hall.
Inside, she led Mel to a chair. "Look, sit here. We'll get you changed. Come on, now. Sit down." Numbly, Mel obeyed. Sallie leaned down and pulled the rubber shoes from Mel's feet, then unzipped the front of her wetsuit and began helping her out of it. "Help me, Mel. Come on. Get a grip on yourself, will you?"
In response, Mel opened her hand and looked down into her palm, then fingered Jan's ring. She looked up at Sallie and whispered, "Jan's. She's never taken it off, ever since I gave it to her."
"And she'll wear it again, I promise you, Mel." At Mel's teary expression, Sallie reached up and unclasped the thin gold necklace from her own neck, then lifted the ring from Mel's hand and slipped it onto the necklace. She fastened it around Mel's neck, allowing the ring to dangle beneath Mel's throat, then knelt in front of her. "You keep it safe until we can give it back to her, right?"
At that, Mel smiled. "Right." She sighed, a deep, ragged sigh, then blinked as if she was only then realizing where she was. "I'm being such a wreck, aren't I? Oh, Sallie, I'm sorry. I promise to be braver from now on."
"That's my Mel. Come on, now. Get changed. We've got to go to find Jan."
"Right. Jan. She needs me. Oh, we haven't a moment to lose." With that, Mel rose from the chair and began pulling the wetsuit from her body as Sallie rummaged in the bag and handed her items of clothing.
The drive to Frankfurt seemed to take forever, although in truth it was probably only a couple of hours. Mack had "liberated" Vak's convertible sedan, and with their hurriedly-packed bags in the trunk, drove through the hilly, green countryside and numerous villages, winding their way eventually to the outskirts of Frankfurt. They found the town on the address, Bad Soden, and stopped at a local, very picturesque hotel, renting two rooms and making inquiries as to the location of the asylum. The proprietor explained that it was in the country, not far from where they were at the moment. Sallie placed a telephone call to it, held a rather long conversation with someone, and then hung up.
"They have Jan there," she explained. "They do want to talk to us tomorrow, late morning is good. We can't see her today. Sorry, Mel."
Mel nodded slowly. "I expected as much."
Mack attempted to inject some optimism into the conversation. "Well, it's late, anyway. Let's get cleaned up and get some dinner. We'll go there in the morning, Mel."
They retrieved their bags, found the elevator to the second floor of the hotel, and wandered down the hallway until they found their rooms, across the hall from one another. Mechanically, Mel entered her room, placed her and Jan's bags on the bed, and began washing herself and changing clothes, preparing to meet her friends for dinner but not at all feeling any desire to eat.
That night, time seemed to stop. Mel slept only fitfully, rising again and again to stare out the windows at the moonlit countryside and town or to simply pace, barefoot, on the wooden floor. Without Janice by her side, sleep held no attraction for her. Even the act of living, so full of possibility and promise with the spunky little blonde by her side, seemed a chore and a heavy duty now. Eventually, she found some relief in crying, but it was only temporary. The hollow, lost feeling in her gut never left her. As the night wore on, she wondered if it ever would.
The next day, late morning seemed as if it would never arrive. She spent the slow time in the company of Mack and Sallie, who did their best to offer comfort and cheer, but she spoke little and took nothing for breakfast except some dark coffee. After what seemed an eternity, they finally rose and headed for the car, seeking out the asylum.
After two stops for directions, they entered the gate surrounding the institution. It rose from among trees and well-kept lawns, three stories tall, surrounded by a tall stone and wrought-iron fence. Mack parked near the front door and soon, all three of them were standing in front of a reception desk, being interrogated by a matronly official of the institution. Again, Sallie did most of the talking. Finally, they were ushered to a bench, where they were told to wait. The official turned and marched away and they sat, squirming in impatience and discomfort, until a forty-something looking woman approached them and greeted them in English.
"I am Doctor Krupp. You are here regarding Janice Covington?"
Mel responded with a hopeful expression. "Yes. You do have her here, then?"
The woman nodded. "Yes, yes. She is here. Arrived yesterday, in the afternoon. Ah, are any of you--" She consulted the chart which she held in her hand. "Melinda Pappas?"
"Ah. You are her family." She indicated Mack and Sallie. "And are you also family?"
Mack shook his head. "Friends."
"Of course. I must speak with family only, right now. Will you excuse us? Miss Pappas, come to my office. We have much to discuss."
Mel stood to join her, then asked, "Will I see her today?"
Krupp nodded. "Yes, if she is in a mood to receive a visitor. Come, we'll talk privately first."
In a few minutes, they were settled in Krupp's office. Mel settled on a small couch and the doctor took a seat in a stuffed armchair, a white ceramic coffeepot and some cups near her elbow. She placed the chart on her lap, smiled in an attempt to set Mel at ease, and motioned toward the pot. "Coffee?" At Mel's nod, two cups were poured, and they settled down to begin the interview. Krupp removed the glasses from her nose, wiped them with a laced handkerchief, and replaced them. She opened the chart, then looked up at Mel.
"Now, as Janice's psychiatrist, the more I know about her, the more perhaps I can do. I will ask you some questions. Please, understand that what you tell me is in total confidence, so you can answer honestly."
Mel nodded. "I understand."
"Good, good. Now, Miss Pappas, can you tell me when you first noticed her exhibiting signs of her current affliction?"
"Yesterday, in the afternoon."
"Oh? Nothing before?"
"No. She's always been solid as a rock. She's the most sane person I know."
"Interesting. And how long have you known her?"
"We've lived together for ten years."
"You are cousins?" She consulted the chart. "Here, you are listed as a cousin."
Mel cleared her throat, then looked away as she replied, "That's not entirely true."
"Ah, I see." She considered the statement, then asked in a matter-of-fact voice, "You are lovers, then?"
Mel glanced down at the coffee cup in her hands. She felt the beginnings of a hot blush creep up her face. "You are quite perceptive, Doctor."
Krupp smiled. "It comes with the job. Do not worry. We shall keep you listed as cousin, so that you may remain the one responsible for her care. I regret that German law does not recognize your true relationship with her."
"Certainly. Now, ten years, you say? In all that time, you noticed nothing out of the ordinary?"
"Nothing, Doctor Krupp."
Krupp placed the chart down on her lap and studied Mel. "I have the feeling that there is something which you are not explaining. Please, it will only do her good if you are entirely honest with me."
Mel sighed deeply, then looked up into the perceptive eyes behind the glasses. Could she tell her the truth? If she did, she might end up locked in a room next to Jan. Mel studied the face before her, the kindly, intelligent eyes, the beginnings of graying hair around the woman's temples, and decided that she had nothing to lose. She began with a question of her own.
"Doctor Krupp, do you know who Jan Covington is?"
She shook her head. "I am not familiar with her history."
"Let me show you something." Mel opened her small purse and withdrew a round, gold-colored disk, holding it out to Krupp. "Do you know what that is?"
The doctor took it, examining it very closely. She looked up at Mel, her eyes widening slightly. "It is a Nobel Prize medal, is it not?"
"It is. That belongs to Jan."
Krupp handed the medal back to Mel. "She seemed very well-educated. Do you know that she spoke to me in Greek last evening?"
"Things which I did not understand. She had periods in which she would talk almost incoherently, then of things which made no sense to me." She consulted her notes. "Tell me, who is Gabrielle?"
Mel's heart leapt into her throat. My God, she thought. If she remembers Gabrielle, then-- "A relative of hers, long since dead."
"Oh? How long ago did she die?"
Mel sipped her coffee, then replied, "Two thousand years ago."
Krupp's face slackened at the statement. "That is incredible."
"Let me tell you a story, Doctor Krupp. It's even more incredible than what you just heard and you very possibly may not believe me, but I assure you that every word will be the truth. At the end, you may just understand what's happened to Janice, because I know exactly what's caused her to lose her mind." Mel glanced down at her lap, then back up to the psychiatrist sitting across from her. "What I don't know is how to bring her back to us."
Krupp cocked her head slightly, skeptically, then nodded. "Perhaps we can do that together, Miss Pappas. Please, begin."
Mack and Sallie rose from the bench at the sight of Mel walking down the hall toward them, accompanied by Krupp. Expectantly, they watched as the two women approached them. Mel spoke first.
"I'm sorry it took so long. They're going to try to let me see Jan now. It'll just be a little more, I promise."
Mack squeezed her arm. "Take your time. We'll step outside and get some fresh air."
Mel nodded, then followed Krupp down the hall toward the elevator. When they reached the third floor, the psychiatrist ushered Mel into a room, then turned and spoke briefly with a white-uniformed attendant. He nodded in understanding, then left.
The room had some tables and chairs and a long bench along one wall. It was currently unoccupied. Doctor Krupp explained, "This is the visitation room. I'm sorry, but it must be a supervised visit. One of our people will be present, in case-- well, I'm sure you understand."
"I do. Thank you."
"Please, sit. Janice will be brought in shortly, if she is able to come." With that, the woman smiled and left. Mel watched the door swing shut, then paced slowly, alternating between looking out of the windows at the sunlit grounds and studying the blank, institutional appearance of the room. Her head turned when she heard the door open.
Jan shuffled in, clothed in a pair of white pajamas, soft slippers on her feet. Her expression was uncertain, almost childlike in its quality. A female attendant urged her in, speaking softly to her in German, and showed her a seat on the bench. When Jan sat, the attendant moved away from her but remained in the room, watching her carefully.
Mel slowly walked across the room, stopping about six feet in front of Jan. The hazel eyes did not look up at her immediately, however, but remained focused on her lap, her still-bandaged hands nervously picking at a thread on the hem of her pajama top. Mel opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, instead approaching the bench and sitting down about three feet from Jan. She watched the bandaged hands nervously pick at the thread, then at the bottom button on her pajama shirt, the face never looking up. Jan looked to her much like an errant child who had been disciplined for some imagined wrong. It broke Mel's heart. She felt a sob well up in her throat, then stifled it and forced a facade of bravery, speaking instead. Her voice cracked a little.
"Jan? It's Mel." She watched the blonde head, still bowed, then tried again. "Jan? Are you all right?"
Jan lifted her head, her hazel eyes slowly traveling up from her lap to study Mel's face. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Jan. You've done nothing wrong. Do you know me, Jan? Do you know who I am?"
She nodded. Mel beamed, her expression falling when Jan replied, "You're the goddess I saw yesterday."
Mel scooted closer to Jan. "Do you know my name?"
Jan shook her head, then slid back from her a bit, keeping the distance between her and Mel. "No. I'm not bad. I'm not."
"No, you're good and sweet. You're not bad, honey." Mel paused, fought down another urge to cry, and instead wiped at her face. She's so like a little child. Is this what she was like back then, always scared? She thought desperately, then spoke again to the face watching her. "Why do you think you're bad?"
The shoulders shrugged, even as the hands kept picking at the bottom button on her pajama top. "I must be. I'm always being punished. My momma went away because I'm bad." Jan looked up at Mel, her eyes questioning. "Are you my momma?"
Mel clasped her hand over her mouth. She felt her eyes water. Her voice became slightly squeaky as she replied, "No, darlin'. I'm not your momma." Jan's eyes reflected disappointment. Her head bowed and her eyes returned to focusing on the button she held in her hands.
As Melinda watched Jan sitting on the bench, a reflection of a tortured little girl from so many years ago, her heart broke again. She pulled her handkerchief from her pocket, dabbed at her eyes, and frantically searched her memory for some manner in which to relate to a small child. In a moment, she hit upon an idea.
"Jan, would you like to play a game?"
The hazel eyes brightened. "What game?"
"I'll say some words, and you tell me if they mean anything to you. Would you want to play?"
Cautiously, Jan nodded. "'Kay." Then, she scooted a little farther away from Mel and asked, "If I don't know them, you won't punish me, will you?"
"Oh, no, honey. Not at all. It's a game. It'll be fun."
"Now, tell me if you know this word." Mel leaned a little closer, then said, "Xena." Jan blinked a few times, then shook her head shyly. Mel's heart fell, but she maintained her composure and said, "That's okay. How about this one: Gabrielle."
Jan's expression brightened. "I know her. She's my friend."
"Really?" Mel gasped slightly, then asked, "She seems nice. Tell me about her."
"She comes and sits with me."
"Like I'm doing now, you mean?"
"No. Like when I'm in my room or my bed. She sat with me last night."
Mel felt the hair prickle up on the back of her neck and her arms. "Jan, is she here right now?"
Jan nodded brightly. "She's over there. See her?"
Slowly, Mel's eyes traveled across the room. She saw no other presence but the attendant. "No, honey. I can't see her."
Jan became alarmed. "She's there. I'm not lying. I'm not."
Mel hastened to set her at ease. "I know you're not, Jan. You're a good girl. I just can't see her because she's your friend. Maybe only you can see her."
Jan studied Mel's face, then looked across the room. In a moment, she looked back at Mel. "She said you're right. She told me that you're my friend."
Mel closed her eyes. Thank you, Gabrielle, a voice inside her head screamed. "Jan, let's try another name. Do you know who Melinda is?"
Jan squinted, then thought about it. Finally, she shrugged. "I think I used to know it."
Mel nodded, closed her eyes tightly, and a tear tracked its way down her cheek. She sniffed and wiped it away, then opened her eyes and saw Jan, leaning toward her and speaking with concern.
"Why are you crying? Are you sad?"
"Yes, honey. I'm sad."
"Please don't be sad." Jan's eyes trailed down to the ring dangling on its chain about Mel's neck. "Pretty."
"What? Do you recognize it?" Mel held up the ring with her left hand, allowing it to dangle in front of Jan's face.
"Why do you have two of them?" Jan pointed toward the ring on Mel's hand. Mel gazed into the inquisitive hazel eyes peering up at her, then answered with some difficulty.
"Do you know what a soul-mate is, Jan?" She shook her head. "Well, it's like a best friend, only so much more. This ring belongs to mine. She's--" Mel spoke with some difficulty. "Away. Far away. I'm keeping it for her until she comes back to me."
"Is she coming back soon?"
"I hope so, dear."
"Me, too. I don't like it when you're sad." Jan returned her gaze to the ring. "It's pretty. Can I touch it? I promise I won't hurt it."
"Yes, dear. You can touch it."
Cautiously, Jan lifted a hand toward Mel's throat. She lifted the ring from Mel's fingers and held it, then gasped and closed her eyes. In a moment, she dropped the ring and scooted away from Mel, curling up in the corner and pulling her legs up in front of her defensively. "It hurt me."
"What's wrong, Jan? How did it hurt you?"
"It scared me. It gave me dreams."
Mel leaned forward. "Dreams? Good ones or bad ones?"
"I don't know." She lowered her head into her arms, then looked up again slowly. "Good ones. I felt good." Jan squinted at Mel, then pointed at her. "You were in them."
Mel scarcely dared speak. In a weak voice, she asked, "I was?"
"Yeah. You were in them. I saw you."
Mel lifted the ring from her chest. "Do you want to touch it again?"
Jan retreated into her curled-up position on the edge of the bench again. "No."
"That's okay, Jan. You don't have to. Look, shall we continue our game?"
"I don't want to play anymore."
Mel nodded, then urged, "Just one more word and then we'll quit. Okay?"
Jan looked up shyly. "'Kay."
Mel spoke the word slowly. "Rhinegold."
The hazel eyes blinked a few times and the blonde head shook from side to side. "I don't know that word."
Mel closed her eyes. "That's all right, darlin'. We're finished playing now."
"Can I go back to my room?"
"Don't you want to talk to me anymore?"
"I'm tired." Jan sat up, easing her legs down onto the floor. "You're a nice friend, though. Will you come and visit me tomorrow? I like you."
Mel sniffed, wiping at a stray tear which clouded her eye. "Yes, Jan. I'll come and visit you every day, if you like."
Jan's expression brightened. She chimed, "I'd like that," stood, and shuffled across the room toward the door. The attendant rose from her seat to escort Jan out. As the door opened, Jan turned and spoke to the center of the room. "C'mon, Gabrielle." Then, she looked at Mel, waved shyly and left, the attendant right behind her.
Mel leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. She felt totally drained. She breathed deeply, then fought down the tears which seemed ever-present. She only opened her eyes again when she heard Doctor Krupp's voice address her.
"Miss Pappas, you did very well. I watched your visit from the window up there. Jan responded to you more than she has to me or to anyone else."
Mel looked up at Krupp. "She's just like a little child, isn't she?"
"Yes, yes. At that time, so. At other times, she becomes very withdrawn, even acutely melancholic. As of yet, she has not become violent."
Mel looked up. "Do you think that she might?"
Krupp shrugged. "I know not. Tell me, has she ever exhibited violence in the past?"
Mel rose and walked with Krupp toward the door. "We've been in some very dangerous situations over the years. She's dealt with bandits, tomb robbers and villains." Mel stopped, then fixed Krupp with a steady gaze. "She's killed several people over the years, but always in self-defense. Always."
"Yes. Your story indicated that she killed that man yesterday with her bare hands."
"She's trained in boxing, you know."
"I shall warn the staff. They need to know that. Thank you, Miss Pappas." Mel offered her a solemn nod, then walked out of the room, the doctor trailing her. "You will visit again tomorrow?"
"Every day. You know where I am staying. Call if anything happens with her, won't you?"
"Of course. Until then, Miss Pappas."
At that, the doctor bowed slightly, then turned and walked away, heading down the hall. Mel found her way out to the sunlit asylum grounds and noticed Mack and Sallie loitering near the car. They approached her as she neared the car.
"How's Jan, Mel?"
"She's--" Mel never finished the sentence. Overwhelmed, she burst into tears, feeling the weight of long-suppressed anguish overcome her. Her hands clasped over her face, she felt her knees give way and she began to sink to the ground, sobbing hysterically. She was caught in two sets of arms, ushered into the convertible's back seat, and wept in Sallie's lap as Mack started the car and guided it out onto the road back to Bad Soden.
Sallie sat with Mel for some time as she slept, an exhausted, fitful sleep punctuated with mumbling dreams. When she finally awoke, Sallie was sitting on the bed next to her.
Mel rubbed her eyes and sat up. "I don't know, Sallie." She looked at her wrist-watch, then asked, "Did you stay here the whole time?"
"Yeah. You didn't sleep too long." She pointed at a white ceramic coffee pot on a tray. "Mack brought us some coffee. Want some?"
"Surely." As Sallie poured her a cup, Mel stood and stretched, found her eyeglasses, then walked out onto the balcony of the room. She peered out at the town and countryside, then up at the late afternoon sun. Would that it were dark, she thought. I need the advice of one who's dealt with this before.
Sallie joined her, the cup extended in her hand. Mel sipped at the bitter coffee, then looked over at Sallie, who watched her inquisitively. Finally, Sallie voiced her thoughts.
"What can we do about Jan?"
Mel sighed. "I really don't know, Sal. Let me chat with an old friend tonight, though. Perhaps we'll have an answer by morning."
The moon remained in its late full phase, shining down through the cool night air to paint the town and countryside with a silver luster. Mel wrapped her sweater about her, then leaned against the balcony railing, looking down at the empty street below. After a moment, she closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and whispered a name.
It was not long before she felt herself bathed in a warmth which seemed to buoy her up and comfort her. She opened her eyes and saw the now-familiar silvery apparition lending its glow to the balcony. Xena was sitting on the stones of the balcony's floor, her legs drawn up before her, her arms wrapped around her knees. The face looked up at Mel and whispered, "I heard your call."
Mel smiled down at her. "Thank you."
Xena patted the stone floor next to her. "Come, sit with me." Mel sat down on the cool stones, folded her long legs underneath her, and pulled her sweater more tightly about her as she regarded Xena's profile.
The face was looking up toward the night sky, considering the stars which peppered the blackness. Finally, in her indefinable accent, Xena began the conversation with small talk.
"I am glad that the moon is full tonight. I still love to see the mortal realm, you know."
"It's a shame that it's always during a crisis. I seem to do that to you, don't I?"
"I am here to help and guide, my distant daughter. Now, you wish to know how to lift the curse of the Rhinegold, I imagine."
"Yes." Mel leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. "You were once cursed by it, weren't you? What was it like for you?"
"It was so long ago. I remember only that I was frightened, empty."
Mel nodded. "Much like Jan is now. She's like a little child, scared and alone, always afraid that she's done something wrong and will be punished for it. It breaks my heart to see her so." She looked over at her ancient ancestor. "Do you think that she was like that as a child?"
"I have no doubt of it. The Rhinegold steals what one values most. For Janice, it is her sense of self-assurance, her bravado, her adventurous spirit. And, of course, her immeasurable love for you."
"Are those things gone forever?"
Xena shook her head. "No. They remain buried deep within her, unknown to her."
"Then how can I bring her back to me?"
Xena rested a hand on Mel's arm. The touch was cool, but somehow very warm and comforting. "The key to unlocking the curse is the healing physic of love."
"Love? But how-- ?"
"Tell me, how do you express your love for Janice? A touch, a kiss? Whispered words?"
"Why, yes. All of those things."
"Then that may be the key."
Mel considered the statement as Xena sat patiently, watching her. As Mel thought, her hand absent-mindedly trailed up to her neck. Her fingers touched Jan's ring, hanging just beneath her throat. She gasped, then turned to her ancestor.
"When Jan touched her ring today, she recoiled from it. She said that it gave her dreams."
Xena brightened. "Of course. It makes sense. The ring is the visible symbol of your love. The two of you have endowed it with its own power."
"She seemed afraid of it."
"She was most certainly afraid of the overwhelming emotion which it wrought from her. To a child's mind, it is frightening, I am sure."
"You must win her trust. She is very childlike just now. Children are perceptive, innocent. She will respond to unconditional love."
Mel fingered the ring as she mulled over Xena's comments. Then, she turned to her ancestor and smiled her thanks. "I think that I understand."
"I knew that you would."
"I am always near. Godspeed, my distant daughter. I love you." With that, Xena's form began to shimmer, then dissipate. Mel reached out toward the silvery specter, then whispered, "I love you, too."
A voice echoed in her own heart as the silvery hue vanished. I know. Mel watched the last traces of the shimmering, silvery light vanish, and then suddenly felt cold and alone once again. Pulling her sweater more tightly about her, she stood, then entered her room to attempt some sleep before the sun arose. She would have to be at her best tomorrow for Jan.
The next day, Mel entered the lobby of the asylum and again spoke, through Sallie, to the matronly official. The woman recognized her, clucked when Jan's name was mentioned, and held up a finger. "Eine moment," she said, and then left the lobby, leaving the three visitors standing in question at the desk. In a few minutes, she returned, Doctor Krupp in tow. The doctor greeted them with handshakes and a slight, deferential bow, and then took them aside.
"I am sorry," she explained. "There was an incident with Jan last evening, late. We had to move her."
Mel felt her heart nearly stop. "What kind of incident?"
Doctor Krupp smiled painfully. "She was doing so well. We allowed her into the common room, where some of the other patients take their exercise. The attendants were supposed to keep careful watch. I fear that they did not do their job."
"What happened? Is Jan all right?"
"She was approached by another patient. He frightened her, I think, by making ah, inappropriate advances toward her." Krupp shrugged. "She is an attractive woman, after all. She responded by beating him severely."
Mel's hand clapped over her mouth. "Oh, my God. Is she all right?"
"She was not injured. We had to send him to the hospital. He will recover, I think."
Mel's hand shook as she adjusted her glasses. "Thank God for that. And Jan?"
"We had to remove her, isolate her. You understand, it was to protect the other patients from her. She was like a wild animal. It took five men to restrain her, carry her out. We attempted electro-therapy to calm her, but the machine shorted itself, blew up before we could shock her."
Mel's eyes widened. Aghast, she whispered, "Electro-shock?"
"I know that it seems barbaric, but it does calm them. She was maniacal, out of control. We had to try something. As I say, we could not, as the machine is destroyed."
Mel closed her eyes and thought, Thank you, Gabrielle. She looked at the psychiatrist and asked, "So where is Jan now? Can I see her?"
"I will take you there. Besides, I wish to watch her response to you. She is in the padded rooms now, in isolation. As of this morning, she was in a depression, an acute melancholy, but she was not violent. If she remains calm, we shall return her to her regular room this evening."
By God, I'll have her out of here by this evening, Mel decided bitterly. "Let's go, quickly."
Doctor Krupp nodded, then led Mel to the elevator. They exited on the second floor and paced down the dingy, off-white hallways to a locked door. Doctor Krupp opened it with a key, then brought Mel inside, stopping at a second locked door. She slid back a metal panel and peered inside, then nodded. "She seems calm. Please, leave your purse and shoes here, with me, before you enter."
Mel nodded, then slipped off her shoes and handed the doctor her purse. The door cracked open and Mel quietly entered, then looked about the room.
It was small, with padding on the walls and floor. Nothing else was in the room; no furniture, no bedding. Jan was curled up in a ball in the far corner, not looking up. Her head was bowed, her tangled hair covering her face, bare feet protruding from her white pajama pants. What struck Mel the hardest, however, was that her torso was covered in a white jacket, her arms crossed in front of her and buckled at her back. Mel turned to the little window in the door. "Is the strait-jacket really necessary, Doctor?"
"She is exhibiting signs of acute depression. She has already attempted to injure herself, early this morning. It is for her own protection, I assure you."
Mel blinked, then looked back at the forlorn figure in the corner, feeling the involuntary tears attempt to well up and flood her eyes. She blinked them back, took a deep breath and summoned her courage. Slowly, she padded across the soft floor, then knelt down near Jan. The head, blonde hair tangled and hanging down across her face, did not look up.
"Jan? It's Mel." Slowly, the face looked up at her. One hazel eye, peering from beneath hanks of unkempt hair, flickered up to study Mel's face. "Jan, are you all right?"
The voice which replied was a whisper. "I've been bad. They're punishing me."
"Oh no, honey."
"I am bad. I hurt someone." The eye looked at her pleadingly from beneath the tangle of hair. "Why am I so bad? I'm always being punished for something."
"Honey, you're not bad. You're sweet and good. That man just scared you, that's all. You did what I would have done."
The hazel eye studied her skeptically. "I did?"
"Of course." Mel settled down on the soft floor next to Jan. "It was understandable." She looked around the room. "Is your friend Gabrielle here?" The hazel eye flickered to gaze away from Mel, then back at her. The head nodded. "Will you tell her hello for me, and ask her if it's okay that I visit for a while?" Again, the head nodded and looked away. In a moment, the head bowed again and the eye peered forth from behind the hair. Jan's voice was shy, wavering.
"She said that you're my friend. She said that you wouldn't punish me."
Mel continued with her soothing tone of voice. "Then can I visit?" The head nodded. "I'm so happy to see you again."
"Nobody else is. They all hate me because I'm bad."
"Oh, I'm sure that's not true, honey."
"It is. Everybody hates me."
"I don't hate you. I love you, Jan."
The eye behind the hair flickered up and studied Mel's face. "You do?"
Mel attempted a reassuring smile. "Yes, dear. I love you dearly." On impulse, she opened her arms. Jan shrank back slightly, studied her, and then shifted her body closer to Mel, allowing the arms to close about her. Mel held her tenderly, stroking the head, smoothing the hair back and away from the face, cooing in a soothing manner as she began to rock Jan slightly in her arms. "I do love you so much."
The face looked up at her. "I love you, too."
Mel felt a thrill of exuberance course through her at the words. "Do you, then? Do you really love me, too?" The head nodded. Mel squeezed her eyes tightly shut and felt a tear trail down her face. "I'm so glad." When she opened her eyes again, Jan's face was close, the hazel eyes peering at her.
The shy, whispering voice asked, "You're crying. Are you sad again?"
"No, dear. I'm happy." Mel smiled at Jan, then said, "They tell me that you tried to hurt yourself this morning. Why?"
She felt Jan answer with a shrug. "I don't know. 'Cause I'm bad."
Mel tightened her grip. "You're not bad. You're wonderful. Ask your friend Gabrielle. I'm sure she thinks so, too." Jan's eyes flickered away to some point in the room, then returned to meet Mel's gaze. The blonde head nodded in affirmation. Mel pressed gently, "See? If both Gabrielle and I think you're a dear, then how can you think you're bad?" In answer, the shoulders beneath the strait-jacket shrugged again. The body pressed itself more tightly against Mel's and Jan spoke, her voice muffled against Mel's chest.
"Oh, Jan." Mel fought to keep the well of tears inside her from bursting forth, taking a deep breath and calming herself. Then, she looked down at Jan's face. The eyes were studying her, watching her intently, hopefully. Mel thought, Xena, it's now or never. Let's hope you're right about this. She summoned her courage, steeled herself, and gently brushed the hair away from Jan's eyes. "Do you trust me, Jan? Do you feel comfortable with me?" Slowly, the head nodded. "Then I want to ask you to do something for me. Will you?"
The hazel eyes widened. Softly, the voice whispered, "What?"
"Will you let me kiss you, Jan?"
Mel could feel the body stiffen in her arms. For a long moment, the hazel eyes studied Mel's face. She felt a fear thread through her and the screaming thought enter her mind that she had pressed Jan too hard, too suddenly. Her heart fell, and she felt her chest tighten in anguish. Then, the hazel eyes traveled over her face and Jan's head nodded, slowly, hesitantly. Mel whispered, "Please don't be afraid of me."
Softly, Jan replied, "I won't."
Mel pressed against her more tightly, then leaned down and brought her face very close to Jan's. Her lips brushed against Jan's cheek, and she felt the warmth, the smoothness of the skin which she had so loved and kissed so often. This time, however, there seemed an electric tingle about it. She moved her head ever so slightly and her lips met Jan's.
In that moment, it seemed to Mel that she almost passed out. A sensation, white-hot, of overwhelming peace, of incredible joy coursed through her, a sense that her very soul was filled to overflowing, thrilled with all that was so right and good in existence. Time ceased in that instant; for an unknown amount of time, perhaps a few seconds, perhaps an eternity, they remained so, lips pressed together. Mel's hand slowly traveled up to her own neck; the fingers grasped the ring dangling below her throat, and she pressed it against Jan's cheek as they kissed. She felt the sharp intake of breath in Jan's body, felt her stiffen and even quiver slightly, then felt Jan's lips press even more tightly against her own. After a moment more, the body relaxed, then went limp in her hands, the lips falling away.
Mel opened her eyes and looked down at Jan. She lay limply in Mel's lap, her eyes closed. Mel placed a shaky hand on Jan's chest, feeling it rise and fall with her breathing, then whispered, "Jan? Jan, honey?"
Slowly, tentatively, the hazel eyes opened, gazing up into her face. A touch of a smile crossed Jan's face as she lay in Mel's lap, her eyes never leaving the bright blue ones above her. Mel brushed her fingers across the face she so loved. Her voice cracking slightly, she asked, "Jan? Do you know who I am?"
The blonde head nodded slowly. "A goddess," she whispered.
Mel's heart sank. The kiss had not worked, the ring had lost its magic. Her soul's mate was gone, trapped forever in a form unreachable to her. Jan would remain childlike, a tortured little soul locked away in an unloving institution. Mel felt bitter emotion rise in her chest and a tear run down her cheek. Hoarsely, she whispered, "Is that all I'm ever to be to you anymore?"
Jan's reply was soft, teasing. "What kind of a question is that, Mel? Jeez, you're acting like I've lost my marbles or something."
Mel blinked at the response, staring down at the face in her lap. The hazel eyes were no longer frightened, hollow. They were twinkling, mischievous, full of life and spirit. She pulled Jan up into her arms and hugged her, squeezing her tightly to her own chest. "Oh, Jan. Welcome back."
"What, did I go somewhere?" She blinked, then looked around. "Where the hell am I, anyway? What happened?"
Mel blinked through the tears which filled her eyes and tracked down her cheeks. "Long story, love. Here, let's sit you up." She lifted Jan to a sitting position and watched as Jan's expression turned from question to one of irritated puzzlement as she looked down at the strait-jacket around her.
"What the hell is this, anyway? What am I here, Harry Houndini? Get me outta this thing, Mel. Damn, after ten years, you're finally getting kinky on me?"
Mel leapt to her feet, padding to the door. She shouted toward the view-slot, "Doctor Krupp! Come, quickly. Jan's come back to us."
The door creaked open and the psychiatrist entered, stopping in the middle of the room. "Jan, are you well? How do you feel?"
Jan sat cross-legged on the padded floor, struggling in her strait-jacket. "Like a trussed-up pig. Come on, you two. Help me out of this thing. Christ, you'd think I was in the funny farm or something."
Doctor Krupp nodded enthusiastically, then turned and called for an attendant, issuing an order in rapid German. The attendant entered and knelt at Jan's back, releasing buckles, and in a moment, Jan shed the jacket and dropped it on the floor near her feet. Mel helped her stand, and as Jan stretched her back, she looked around, a slow understanding growing upon her. She glanced at her surroundings, the white-uniformed attendant, the padded walls, and finally down at her own white pajamas and bare feet, the discarded strait-jacket lying near them. She looked over at Mel, an incredulous expression on her face, and said, "Holy crap. I really am in the funny farm, ain't I?"
Mel nodded, laughing, as she wiped the tears from her face. "Jan, do you know this person?"
Jan looked over at the psychiatrist, then walked up to her and offered out her hand. "Don't think we've had the pleasure. I'm Jan Covington."
The doctor grasped her hand warmly. "Doctor Lilia Krupp. Believe me, I am so pleased to finally meet you."
As Mel watched Jan greet the psychiatrist, she looked back at the room. "Thank you, Gabrielle," she whispered, and thought that she noticed a brief flicker of light from the edge of the room in reply.
Mel lay on her back in the darkness, attempting to slow her breathing and allow her heartbeat to return to some semblance of normal. The bed rustled and bounced slightly and she could see Jan nestle next to her, lying on her stomach and leaning on her elbows, watching her. "A penny for your thoughts, Mel."
"Um. Janice Covington, I'm so glad that you didn't forget how to do that."
Jan snickered. "Yeah, right. That'll be the day." After a moment of silence, she urged, "So, did you miss me while I was gone?"
"You have no idea." Mel turned, lay her head on her arm, and studied Jan's near presence. In the moonlight which crept in through the windows, Jan's skin shone almost white, her compact body a picture of beauty. Hair loose, rumpled sheets just barely covering her in one or two places, Mel thought that the scene was worthy of a master painter. A Rembrandt couldn't have painted such beauty, of that she was convinced. She looked into the light eyes which sparkled so near her own face, then asked, "Jan?"
"Do you remember anything of the last few days? Of your--" The word came hard to Mel. "Insanity?"
Jan thought about it, then replied, "No, not really. Did I miss anything?"
"I'm sorry, Mel. It must have been awfully tough on you."
She nodded. "A nightmare. To see you in that place, forlorn and looking so dejected, it broke my heart." She shifted to face Jan. "Tell me, what are your memories of your childhood?"
Jan snuggled in against Mel's side, her hand gently tracing the outline of Mel's rib cage, watching her fingers as they moved across skin. "I don't think about it much. I didn't have a pleasant childhood, if that's what you're asking. My mom ran out on me and Dad when I was little. My Dad was off a lot, working. I was raised by my Grandma and my aunt when I wasn't being sent off to some boarding school."
"And you were always in trouble, weren't you?"
Jan's fingers continued gently tracing a pattern over Mel's skin as she nodded. "Yeah, you're right, now that I think about it. Seems like I was always being punished for something or other. Jeez, I must have been a rotten kid." She looked at Mel. "Why?"
"Oh, Jan. I don't think you were rotten at all. Just unloved, lonely and miserable."
"Oh?" Jan's fingers trailed up Mel's chest to caress her cheek. "What makes you so insightful about my childhood all of a sudden?"
Mel kissed the hand which caressed her face, then replied, "Just call it a hunch, darlin'. One thing's for sure, I learned a lot about you these last few days."
"Uh, oh." Jan's eyes locked with the blue ones so near. "Like what?"
"Like how you sacrificed your sanity to save all our lives. You knew that touching the Rhinegold would hurt you and you did it anyway."
"It was the only thing left for us, Mel. Vak was winning the fight. He was an immortal. There was no way I could have beaten him without that edge."
"And yet you tangled with an immortal anyway, knowing that he probably would have killed you."
"He would have killed all of us for the Rhinegold. I had to do something."
Mel nodded. "You did more than you know. Now, come here, darlin'. Let's get some sleep. I just can't seem to get enough of your touch."
She held out her arms. Jan snuggled into them, pressing their bodies tightly together. Unencumbered by clothing, entwining arms and legs until it seemed that they were one form, they settled into that familiar, comfortable pattern of embrace in which they always began their night's repose. It was their favorite act of the day, the final one, the one in which they offered each other the reassurance that they would always be there for one another, protecting, offering comfort and affection. Lips sought out soft lips and a tender kiss was exchanged. With a collective sigh, they pulled the cover up over themselves and closed their eyes.
For a long time, neither spoke. Their soft breathing became synchronized, their chests rising and falling together, the warmth and comfort of their embrace wrapping around them like loving arms, a refuge from which neither of them ever wanted to be torn again. After some time, Jan whispered in the night, a soft, purring whisper. "Mel?"
"So, what happened to the Rhinegold?"
"Dunno, Jan. Never found it."
"It's not on Vak's boat?"
"Mack and Sallie searched it thoroughly. It wasn't there."
"Damn. I wonder where it went?"
"You don't remember what you did with it?"
"Well, no matter. It's gone, that's all that counts. Sleep now, dear."
With a deep sigh, Jan wriggled ever more tightly into Mel's embrace and closed her eyes.
In the middle of the night, the urging of her bladder woke Jan. She slipped from the bed and found her way into the bathroom, closing the door and clicking on the light. When she was about to leave, she noted the wrapping still upon her wrist and unwound it. As she studied the bruise on her skin, she discerned a pattern in the discoloration. It seemed very familiar, similar to an ancient symbol which she had seen before, but she couldn't quite place it. She closed her eyes and concentrated, attempting to bring to the surface the scraps of the memories she retained about the combat aboard Vak's boat. She saw, in her mind's eye, flashes of the combat, the sight of her enemy crumpled on the deck, the dizzy disorientation in which she staggered to the railing. The last memory which she could summon was of a pain shooting through her arm, causing her to open her hand and drop the Rhinegold. The recollections puzzled her; it made no sense. What had injured her? She gazed down at the pattern in the bruise again, then felt the hair on the back of her neck bristle.
She opened the bathroom door, leaving the light on, and sat down on the bed next to Mel. Smoothing the dark bangs from the sleeping face, she whispered, "Mel? Wake up. Look at this."
"Huh? What?" Mel's eyes opened, blinked, and focused uncertainly, sleepily on Jan. She stirred, then sat up slightly in bed. "What's the matter, Jan?"
"I think I know what happened to the Rhinegold. Look at this, Mel." Jan held out her arm and Mel squinted down at it.
"What? I can't see anything."
"I'll turn on the light. Hang on." Mel shielded her eyes as Jan clicked on the bedside lamp, then fumbled for her eyeglasses, slipping them onto her face. "Look, Mel. Do you see that?"
"Oh, Jan. It's an awful bruise."
"No, Mel. Look. See that pattern? I've seen it somewhere before, and I think I remember where. I just need you to confirm it for me."
"Pattern?" Mel took Jan's forearm in her hands and held it to the light. After a moment, she looked up. "That's very much like an Amazon symbol, I think."
Jan was exuberant. "Bingo. Just like the ones carved on Amazon fighting staffs, for instance."
Mel looked up at Jan's face. "Are you suggesting that you were struck with an Amazon fighting staff? But Jan, who--?" Her voice trailed off in disbelief. She mumbled, "Oh, my God."
Jan was animated. "I remember it now. Something hit my arm hard. I never saw what it was. I looked down at my hand, and the Rhinegold was gone." At her lover's blinking disbelief, Jan continued, "Mel, my hand was over the boat's transom at the time." When Mel did not react, she pressed, "The Rhinegold is at the bottom of the Rhine River, Mel. It's gone forever. Nobody will ever be able to find it in that muck."
A slow smile spread across Mel's face. She pulled off her glasses, then simply said, "And if you'd held on to it any longer, it may have destroyed your mind completely. That certainly was a serendipitous crack on the wrist, wasn't it?"
An expression of understanding spread across Jan's features. With a coy smile and a slight chuckle, she nodded and said, "It sure was. Guess I wasn't alone on that deck, after all."
Mel sighed, then stretched, lying back in bed. "Now, Janice, it's three o'clock in the morning. As much as I love looking at you naked, you'd better turn off those lights and come back to bed, or you'll have another bruise to ruminate over."
Jan's laughter tinkled throughout the room. "Yes, ma'am. Heard and understood." Jan clicked off the bedside lamp, then padded across the floor and turned off the bathroom light. In a moment, she was wriggling underneath the covers and snuggling against Mel's warmth. In the ensuing silence, Jan gave soft voice to the next thought which crossed her still-animated mind.
"Aren't you the least bit disappointed that we lost the Rhinegold?"
Mel sighed, "Not in the least. It brought disaster to everyone who touched it. Good riddance, I say."
Jan snickered in the darkness. "That's my Mel. Never been a material girl. We drop a fortune in enchanted gold overboard, and all she can say is, 'Good riddance."
Mel shifted slightly and pulled Jan tightly against her. "Jan, there's only one piece of enchanted gold that I'm interested in, and it's on your left hand."
Jan lifted her hand and considered her ring, reflecting the moon's light. "So, you think my ring is enchanted?"
"Oh, I know that it is. I've seen its magic work. Now, g'night, darlin'. I love you."
"G'night, gorgeous. Love you, too. See you in the morning."
"Umm." With that, Mel sighed deeply and closed her eyes. Jan settled in against her side, her head resting on Mel's shoulder, and placed her left hand on top of the covers. In the moonlight, she contemplated the ring, seated on the third finger of her left hand, and smiled. Enchanted? Who knows? She had seen a lot of strange things, unbelievable things in her life. One thing that she had learned over the years was that almost anything was possible. The ancient gods were real, curses still had the power to corrupt, and miracles did happen. And of all the miracles which she had seen, none was greater than the redemptive power of their love. As Jan drifted into sleep, she whispered, "Thanks, Mel. For everything."
In response, the arm holding her squeezed her gently. The barest hint of a smile traced Mel's lips even as she slept, silvery beams of waning moonlight touching her features and making her appear, indeed, very much like a goddess in repose.