Here for your reading pleasure, is a snippet from my Historical fantasy novel, Frigga’s Lost Army.
In the winter of 1943, Benjamin is just a grunt and Army cook—until he finds himself captured, along with his unit, taken prisoner by Mussolini’s troops after the Battle of Tunisia.
Transported to a POW camp in Italy, Benjamin is plagued with intense visions of the Norse Goddess Frigga and her retinue of Valkyries, berserkers, and other magical beings.
When he encounters a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to the goddess, he wonders if he hasn’t been entangled in a battle between the natural and the supernatural—a battle for the present and the future.
The door of the troop transport opened slowly. Benjamin tapped his foot, waiting. Heat flooded in from outside.
“Damn!” Gabriel said behind him. “It’s November.”
“Come to Lockhart sometime,” Benjamin said, “then this won’t seem so odd to you.”
“Spend Thanksgiving in Texas?” Gabriel said. “Hell, no. I’m already regretting spending it here.”
“You need to see a proper white Christmas, Ben,” Tommy said.
Benjamin whistled and shook his head. “No thanks, Sandoval. You’ll make me cook your dinner.”
“I’d be nuts not to, wouldn’t I?”
Their friends laughed.
“Hell, what do you think his odds are?” another asked. “Should we stay close to you, Gunnarson, or do you think Mussolini will have an eye out for you?”
“Sure why wouldn’t he want the best cook?”
He didn’t appreciate the joke. “I’d poison him before I’d feed him anything good.”
“You?” Gabriel said. He stepped up beside him, and winked, scrunching his angular, thin cheeks. “A year in basic together taught me you’re the best damned cook in this army. You’d never ruin a meal.”
And he was loyal to a fault, Benjamin thought. He remembered, several nights on leave, Gabriel steered his girlfriends to Ben’s kitchen on base for dinner.
“Amanda’s still talking about the steak you made for us.”
“Ya always do filch the attention of most gals we run across, Olhouser,” another said. “The least Sarge could do is bunk your cook with us.”
Gabriel flipped him off.
Benjamin cursed under his breath. “I thought I’d be in Japan, right now. Not Africa.”
“You and me both, brother,” Gabriel said. “Do you want to talk the Sarge into rerouting us?”
Right now, that didn’t sound like a bad idea.
The door finally descended. Benjamin squinted into the sunlight.
“Attention!” Sergeant Meyers bellowed strong and deep, and out they marched into the desert.
Machine gunfire echoed all around, barely giving them a chance to breathe. It was the winter of Benjamin’s first year in the field. The desert and mountains of Tunis were beautiful, far different from his Texas home. Sunrise the next morning exploded in shades of pink and orange he’d never seen only adding to his impressions.
But battle overtook his awe of the scenery; and only two weeks in, their battle was lost. His ears still rang with exploding mortar shells, the screams as some of his fellows took the brunt, their screams as they died. Sounds he thought he might never get out of his mind.
Now the gunfire silenced and a smug enemy patrol stood guard over them. “Your time in this war,” said their arrogant leader in broken English, “is over.”
Several of his men cursed. Sergeant Meyers weighed the options, and Benjamin too calculated the damage: five men were badly wounded. Doctor Keenan leaned close to each living man, listening to his complaints. Some grabbed at his curly hair with bloodied fingers. He worked hard, doing everything to help them. Several more dead men spread throughout the battlefield, their corpses rotting in the sun. The remaining troops—Benjamin, Gabriel, about forty others—were low on ammo and supplies, and surrounded by Mussolini’s soldiers. The sergeant set his rifle against a rock and raised his hands as he ordered, “Lower your weapons, men.”
To ensure no one attempted heroism, several armed Italian soldiers approached and yanked away their rifles. Rage filtered through Benjamin as one relieved him of his M-1 machine gun.
He’s younger than Tommy, he thought. And Tommy, he knew, was seventeen.
This one stepped back, set the gun on a pile of them. From inside his sweat soaked shirt, he produced a silver cross, which he proceeded to kiss.
“Colonnello Trovato?” Another dark-haired soldier squinted in the bright sun as he addressed the rotund Italian official. Benjamin thought the bullets missed the soldier, if for no other reason than because of how short he was.
The soldier saluted. “Sir, forty-five men surrendered, and several wounded,” he said.
As the soldier spoke his report in Italian, Benjamin understood wounded, and forty-five. The rest was all guesswork. Have to brush up on the language, I guess, he thought as he scanned the enemy.
Sergeant Myers shook his head. “Slow down, man.” He surveyed their troop. “Any of you lunkheads speak Italian?”
“I do, sir, a little.”
“Front and center, Private Sandoval. Let’s get this over with.”
Benjamin blinked as Tommy jogged past him. The Sergeant turned him over to the Italians, and soon Tommy was translating, as best as possible, a flurry of orders.
The Italian colonel whom he addressed reminded Benjamin of one of his uncles, short, and fat in the extreme, like a basketball with dark eyes and stubby limbs, but this man’s attitude was nothing like his jovial uncle.
And so it was Benjamin Gunnarson found himself no longer a soldier, but one of a long line of prisoners taken in the field—he and many more of his brothers-in-arms—and humiliated under the eyes of the Italian Fascists.
The soldiers rounded them all up and forced them to march from the battlefield. He fell back beside Tommy.
“How’d you understand their gibberish?”
“My Grandma has a neighbor.”
“An Italian neighbor out in the sticks?”
“By way of New York.”
“And he gave you lessons?”
“I gleaned enough. ‘Come here. Go. Get off my property’.”
Another of their company laughed. “Get off his daughter, he means.”
A half-mile passed, and another before they approached a compound surrounded by logs driven into the ground, and wrapped all around with barbed wire. A few of his comrades paused. “What is this?” one asked.
“Oh hell no,” said another.
“Shut it!” Sergeant Meyers said. “Remember what we told you on base and you’ll get out of this alive.”
Benjamin—herded through the gate—recalled hearing nothing about what to do if captured. The only advice he remembered was on how to win a battle. Not on how to lose one.
What do I do now? He gritted his teeth as the gate closed behind them. Even the beauty of the African landscape wouldn’t keep this nightmare at bay.
Keep quiet; keep your head down. There’s no way you’re dying caged up like this.
He was willing to die trying to escape, but something told him today was not the day to make any such attempt—particularly not with the multitude of guards surrounding the pen in which he was currently housed. One in particular was striking—tall, light of complexion, with eyes of dark blue—no. Sea blue. No. The man’s eyes shifted between the hues—sea blue, green, sky blue, sapphire. Or am I hallucinating? Benjamin wondered.
The soldier was too far away for Benjamin to make out the color. Besides, the last thing he wanted was for these guards to give him too much attention; he thought it better not to stare too long.
How had he been so stupid as to fall into their hands? He should have shot himself before the soldiers took their guns—but no. There were far too many he loved to have checked out so soon. He would endure this, by God, or he wasn’t fit for his uniform, a uniform to which he fully intended to return, and soon.
The blond soldier slipped inside the fence, and as he did so, Benjamin could better discern the fiend’s words: Fascist rhetoric, but—
His attention caught a strange lilt to the speech; it seemed split along two frequencies. Underneath the propagandistic poison sounded the alluring, bewitching voice of a poet, making promises Benjamin couldn’t believe.
“Be calm, son; be still. Observe. It will not be long.”
The soldier smiled, and Benjamin gulped in confused fear.
“Your fear is logical,” the soldier continued, “but don’t let it cloud your vision or you’ll miss your chance, understand?”
Benjamin gasped, and the words barely squeaked past his lips, “No, sir.”
The soldier stepped back and Benjamin’s vision blurred, only to regain focus in an instant. He saw himself for a moment, dark blond hair dirty and matted under his war helmet, his thin jaw clenched. Rage tinged his face and eyes. He wondered if his mother would call him baby-cheeked anymore. Though he was the platoon cook, he’d had far less to eat lately than in years past.
Now, the landscape changed and Benjamin stood before the towering soldier, no fence between them, the cloudless African skyline replaced by the vision of a finely crafted hall. The man, too, seemed different: he no longer sported the uniform of those faithful to the enemy, but the fine clothing, and jewels of a king out of Medieval legend.
Celtic legend, if he wasn’t mistaken.
A table spread long before him laden with gleaming gold goblets, and Benjamin for a moment saw his own face in them, as he suspected, dirtied from the grit and sweat of the fight, marked with smoke and dust, blue eyes tired with little lines of exhaustion easily seen in the reflection. He was nineteen but wondered what it felt like to be ancient. Ninety years, surely, had passed since he’d so proudly entered the recruitment office. Ages ago, instead of only one year.
Then the scent of the food turned his attention away from the gleaming mirror image. Plates filled the space laden with steaks so succulent he wished he could take some to his friends.
The king pulled his attention away from the feast, though he spoke in a gentle voice,
“I can put it no more plainly, son. Keys break if stressed too much. They can even be deadly in the hands of an angry woman. Keep watch for her; you will see what I mean.”
Keys. He could think of no woman in Celtic mythology who used them as a symbol, but then, he’d long ago forgotten his mythology. Of whom did the king speak?
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