by Frances Silversmith
Jul Naht, Year Seven after the Great Draught
Jul fires blazed, flickering in the mold-scented breeze, and hundreds of candles
illuminated the plainly clothed people huddling in the clearing on top of the burial hill. All the
granthers from the three closest villages had turned out for tonight's ritual, as had all the unwed
young men, and every person above childbearing age who didn't have a crucial role to fill in the
The parents, the healers, the craftspeople, everyone the villages couldn't spare . . . those
had stayed home, huddling in small groups in front of their hearths, with every available candle
in the house lit, praying to every god who'd listen that the darkness would be defeated one more
time and the sun would rise in the morning.
Out here in the clearing the jar rad--the straw-packed wooden wheel meant to be set afire
and brighten the year to come--waited in its traditional place, propped up against the burial
ground's entrance boulder in position to be easily pushed downhill when the time came.
From the shadows of the ancient grove in the back of the graveyard, thirteen pairs of eyes
watched, hidden under the hoods of thirteen black ritual robes.
On the far left wing of that half-circle of watchers, Bertlinde Gelsatohter shifted her
weight, carefully balancing her center above feet exactly one shoulder-width apart. One step
behind her and two to the left stood Adelheid Hildegardtohter, followed by eleven more Sisters,
positioned in a zigzag line designed to give them space for the coming battle.
But not quite yet. The closest village's Eldest was just gathering his fellow villagers,
shooing them in the direction of the wheel and the huge bonfire beside it, in order to start the
ritual dancing. The wheel wouldn't be lighted for some time yet--though if the villagers waited
too long and predawn arrived before the ritual was complete, Bertlinde and her sisters would
have to fight without the wheel's magic to back them up.
Not that this was likely to happen. The Eldest of this particular village was reputed to be a
levelheaded man and could be trusted to get his part of the night's battle right. Resting her hands
on the hilts of her enchanted sword and matched dagger, Bertlinde let her mind drift, settling into
the energizing pre-battle trance she'd drilled so many times over the past five years.