Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 54
Stories
A Heart in the Hand
by Jeremy M. Gottwig
Yuletide Warrior
by Frances Silversmith
The Emperor's Gift
by Jonathan Edelstein
A Special Extra Christmas
by Eric James Stone
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Thing of Beauty
by Charles E. Gannon
Bonus Material
Caine's Mutiny
by Charles E. Gannon

Yuletide Warrior
    by Frances Silversmith

Yuletide Warrior
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

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 community.

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.

Soon now.

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.

Värblot, Year Two after the Great Draught

Bertlinde sat on the bare dirt floor of the condemned's hut, breathing steadily in and out, in and out, trying to ignore the pain of her many bruises and several cracked bones. The first glow of predawn crept in through the barred window slit in the hut's door. Soon, her jailors would come for her.

She knew that sometimes, a condemned would be offered a last meal of bread and mutton before being taken to the block. Not likely that the brutes who served as her guards would comply with that tradition, but she could always hope--if only to take her mind of the dismal future she faced.

She hadn't tasted red meat in years, not since her father died of a lung fever, leaving his widow Gelsa to fend for herself and her ten-year-old daughter. There'd been no room for luxuries.

Still, things had been fine until Gelsa fell in love with Olaf. Handsome, useless Olaf, who'd demanded the best tidbits at mealtime and drunk away Gelsa's hard-won earnings in exchange for empty promises that he'd go looking for work tomorrow, I swear by the goddess. Always tomorrow.

Bertlinde had rebelled, raged at the parasite that leached the joy out of her gentle mother, day by heartbreaking day. But he'd always retaliated cruelly for any real or imagined slight--against Gelsa. So Bertlinde had stopped fighting him, in the vain hope he would spare her mother.

And then had come the day when Olaf had beaten Gelsa to death.

A sob heaved in Bertlinde's chest, but she suppressed it, wincing at the pain in her ribs. She would not cry over Olaf the Cruel, Olaf the Miserable Drunk.

She was glad she'd stabbed the bastard. Even though she was going to die for it come sunrise, even though his drinking companions had beaten her bloody when they found her standing over his corpse with Gelsa's best kitchen knife still clutched in both hands.

She wiped her eyes, and caught the whine that edged out of her chest. Every movement brought some little pain. Some reminder of Olaf and his friends. Bertlinde squeezed her eyes shut and thought about her mother instead.

And how she had avenged her.

The door opened. Three cloaked figures stepped in, hands reaching up to remove their hoods and reveal three female faces. The woman in the lead waved her two companions forward, and they stepped up to either side of Bertlinde to take hold of her arms. She flinched away from the one who had her left arm, and the woman let go and bent so she could wrap an arm around Bertlinde's waist instead. They helped her to her feet with surprising gentleness.

"Frîja the Mother has sent us to intervene for you. Your sentence has been converted to five years' service to the Goddess," the leader pronounced. "We're here to take you to the Mother's training camp in Hadergassen where you'll receive the schooling due one of the Goddess' disciples. Do you understand, Bertlinde Gelsatohter?"

She didn't really, but Bertlinde nodded anyway.

"Do you wish to enter the service of Frîja, voluntarily and of your own free will?"

Whatever that service might entail, it couldn't be worse than the fate that awaited her if she stayed here, could it? So Bertlinde nodded again.

"Speak up, girl," the woman barked.

Bertlinde forced out the words, "I wish to enter Frîja's service."

The woman nodded and turned to leave. Her two companions half-guided, half-carried Bertlinde out of the hut, maneuvering her into the straw-cushioned bed of a hand-drawn cart.

"Lie down and relax as well as you can," one of them advised. "We need to make this first part of the journey as fast as possible, but as soon as we're out of the village's reach we'll stop and I'll brew up some willow bark tea for you, to take the edge off the pain of your injuries."

The young woman--Adelheid--was true to her word. The willow bark tea was laced with something that sent Bertlinde into a stupefied--and blessedly pain-free--dream state for several hours.

She didn't know how many days she spent lying in that cart in drugged stupor, or how many nights she recovered from the day's rigors in equally drugged sleep. All she remembered of the trip were distant sensations: the scent of damp forest and decaying leaves; the sound of rain drumming on the oiled canvas draped over the cart; the weight and warmth of a woolen blanket Adelheid tucked around her.

When she finally regained her senses, she was told that the Sisters of Frîja required her services for the next five years, in exchange for saving her life. Bertlinde, well-fed and comfortably housed for the first time in years, had no objections--though she was more than a bit dubious when she learned that what the Sisters required of her was training as a warrior, of all things. She was a charwoman's daughter, for Frîja's sake!

But the Sister who was to be in charge of her training--a one-armed, scarred-faced mountain of a woman named Fehild--seemed not to care that Bertlinde and her fellow-novices didn't have the slightest training with any kind of weapon at all.

"All of you have touched evil and survived," Sister Fehild explained to them. "There are no victims here. Every one of you, every one of the Sisters around you, has taken her life into her own hands, and fought and bled and triumphed over an intolerable situation. Remember," she paused, looking at each of the ragtag women in turn, holding their eyes until they nodded back at her. "There are no victims here."

And so training began, a grueling fourteen hours a day, every day.

One Moon after Jul Naht, Year Six after the Great Draught

Almost four years of strenuous training, and Bertlinde still didn't feel ready for this, her first mission to face the enemy the Sisters were dedicated to fight. Especially not since she'd only just found out exactly what that enemy was--and that it wasn't of this world.

But ready or not--here she was, obediently trotting alongside three other novices, following Sister Fehild and eight full Sisters through the wintry forest. Except for Fehild and blunt weapons instructor Disrun, Bertlinde didn't know any of the full Sisters well. Her fellow novices, though, she'd come to know intimately, as if they had been born sisters indeed.

Adelheid was always gentle but strong and steadfast, ready to give a healing embrace, or goad you to greater strength, as needed. Reingard was always willing to listen to your troubles, and ease them with a joke. Edburga was prickly and easily offended, but a strong fighter and stronger ally in a fix. Like real sisters, they didn't always get along, but Bertlinde was secure in their love, and she loved them back with all of her soul.

The Warriors marched into Alterberc village, where a bedraggled-looking village Eldest welcomed them.

His smile was tight but obviously relieved. "I am so glad you could send a group, after all. The Warrior Monks of Dhuennthal are so shorthanded this year that they couldn't send anyone, not even a single Warrior."

Sister Fehild nodded. "They lost several teams and are sending groups to clean up after them. So did we, to be honest, and we didn't have a full team to send here, either, which is why we brought some of our best-trained novices along."

The Eldest frowned at Bertlinde and her fellow-novices, but Sister Fehild waved his concern away. "They'll hold their places in the Warrior Line. You did say the Türst didn't make it through, didn't you?"

"Two or three of the ghouls escaped us, but we managed to keep the worst of the wilt jagn behind the Veil, despite the fact that we were only armed with pitchforks and wood-cutter's axes."

Sister Fehild regarded him for a moment. "You did well, managing that much when you didn't have a Warrior Line to cover this spot."

The Eldest's face tightened even further. "We sent three improvised lines of thirteen, and only ten of those volunteers survived. The villages around Alterberc will not soon forget this Jul."

Sister Fehild nodded. "Tell us where you need our help."

The next morning found the Warriors moving out from Alterberc, well-rested and well-fed after a night of hospitality in the village's community hall. Before they'd settled down in their bedrolls, Sister Fehild had expanded on the Eldest's explanation, for the sake of the four novices in the group.

"We usually don't tell this to novices, but since you've heard about the wilt jagn anyway, I might as well let you know what exactly you'll be facing tomorrow."

She'd proceeded to explain that on Jul, the longest night of the seasons' wheel, the Veil between worlds thinned to the point that it tore in places, letting the creatures of the next world intrude into this one. The Sisters, and other orders with a similar purpose, trained Warriors to stop the wilt jagn coming through those spots where the Veil was known to be thinnest.

This year, there hadn't been enough Warrior Lines to defend all the known spots, leaving the people of Alterberc and several other villages to push the monsters back without the help of trained Warriors and their enchanted weapons. Luckily, the wild hunt's chief, the Türst, hadn't made it through anywhere, though hordes of ghouls had broken through in several places, poisoning the countryside with their presence before they faded away on the first sunny day after Jul.

Their poison hadn't faded with them, and the Sisters--and novices--were here to deal with the effects of that poison.

They were walking in a rough approximation of the Warrior Line: The six fighters forming a curved line with Sister Fehild leading in the position left of center. The healers, ready to lend their magical support to the fighters, followed in their own curved line, about two steps behind, shielded by the fighters from anything that might attack from the front or sides. The two lines didn't look half as perfect as they would on a clear training field, not with all the fallen trees and underbrush to move over and around--but they would do in a pitch.

The forest looked--wrong. Bertlinde wasn't sure why she thought so. In the dead of winter, it was only to be expected that the trees look dead and the underbrush wilted. But somehow she knew that there was more to the deadened look of this piece of countryside than just the cold season. An eerie stillness surrounded them--no mice scuttled away from the Warriors' footsteps, no birds flitted through the branches overhead. If there were deer or wild boar, they gave no sign of their presence. The only sounds Bertlinde could hear were the ones she and her companions were making.

Until a yell from Sister Disrun, out in the leftmost fighter position, broke the eerie silence. "Wolves!"

"Warrior Line, rotate left!" Sister Fehild snapped.

Bertlinde broke into a run to stay in her assigned position at the far right, but a fallen branch made her stumble. Scrambling on all fours for three heartbeats, she did her best to keep up even while she regained her feet. When she caught up with the line and stepped into position four steps to Reingard's right, she could feel the Warrior Line's magic of Thirteen snap up around her.

Startled, she almost stumbled again. She'd felt the magic before, in training, and she'd known it would be much stronger in actual combat, but the force of the power that flowed into her, strengthening muscles and smothering fear, surprised her nonetheless.

Then the wolves attacked, and there was no time to worry about anything but keeping vicious teeth from connecting with her flesh. She lashed out at an attacking wolf with her sword, but the animal twisted to the left, snapping at Reingard's sword arm while another one went for Reingard's left leg. Reingard stabbed down towards the second wolf with the dagger in her left hand and jerked her right arm up, out of harm's way. Bertlinde stabbed at the first wolf's side. It yelped, jumping back, but the wound at its side was a superficial one, Bertlinde's blade having glanced off the animal's ribs. A quick look confirmed that the second wolf was bleeding too, but Reingard's dagger seemed to have caused no serious damage, either.

The wolves retreated. Their eyes displayed an other-worldly intelligence that made Bertlinde's skin crawl. She fought against the temptation to rush them. Breaking ranks would mean breaking the magic of the Warrior Line.

Her resolve to hold the Line was rewarded. Bertlinde felt power flowing past her from Adelheid and the other healers in the back. Cleansing magic, tasting of spring and fresh leaves, washed over her and hit the wolves with visible force. All seven wolves staggered backwards.

"Spearhead formation," Sister Fehild called out, and Bertlinde took one step back and two to the left. The other fighters in the line stepped into position to form two sides of a triangle, the healers stepping forward to form the third side, with their flanks protected by Bertlinde on their right, and Sister Disrun on the left.

"Healers, join up," Sister Fehild commanded, and the healers moved closer together until their shoulders touched, their hands entwined to join their power together.

"Healers, attack!"

More cleansing magic poured out, this time with a force that made two of the wolves drop to the ground, their legs giving out beneath them. Sister Fehild and Sister Wibke stepped forward in unison, attacking the silver-coated wolf facing them. Sister Wibke's sword stabbed towards the wolf's throat, forcing it to evade to the left--directly into Sister Fehild's path, who lopped off the animal's head.

Another wave of cleansing magic hit the wolves and they froze, the unnatural cunning in their eyes replaced with terrified confusion. As one, they turned and fled back into the woods.

That was pretty easy.

In four years of training and regular exposure to the magic she'd just seen in action, Bertlinde had never realized how potent that magic would be against an otherworldly opponent. With this kind of power at her back, the battle against the wilt jagn might not be as impossible as she feared.

Sister Fehild's tense voice drew her out of her complacent thoughts. "Anybody bitten? Make sure your skin's whole. If you have even the slightest scratch, have one of the healers attend to you."

Bertlinde didn't find any scratches, but Reingard had a small puncture wound which she presented to Adelheid.

The young healer frowned. "This looks infected. There's a black aura over the wound, as if it's cursed."

"It is cursed," Sister Sisgard said, moving up next to Adelheid and placing a hand over the wound. "The ghouls' dark magic is highly infective. Let's clean this out quickly."

Two of the full Sisters were also being treated for minor wounds, but nobody seemed to have sustained any serious injuries. Sister Fehild did not look as relieved as Bertlinde thought she might.

"There's a small woodcutter's hut back in the direction the wolves came from. Let's move out and see if those people are all right."

When they came to the woodcutter's hut about a sun's handspan later, a miasma of rot tainted the air, despite the wintery temperatures. The hut's windows where shuttered and the door was barred from the inside. Sister Fehild had them break one of the wooden shutters, and two of the full Sisters climbed in through the window. When they opened the door for the rest of the Warriors, both Sisters looked physically ill.

"They're all dead," Sister Disrun said. "Two grandparents, the woodcutter and his wife, two other adults, and six children. One of the adults had a wound that could have been from a wolf bite. The others have been bitten by human teeth. They must have died of the ghouls' curse soon after."

The Warriors fell into a leaden silence. Bertlinde glanced past their shoulders into the dim hut. The light from the broken shutters fell across the body of a woman lying on the hearth. Bertlinde drew in a breath--for a moment she thought the woman was her mother. Her mother, staring at the ceiling with dead eyes as Olaf brushed past her and out the door in search of his friends and ale.

Bertlinde whimpered. Adelheid stepped up on her left and put an arm around her shoulders. Bertlinde pulled her closer while Reingard leaned into her right shoulder. Adelheid reached out and pulled an unresisting Edburga into the embrace, too.

Together, they stared into the horror of the hut, and at the bodies of the slain. Together, they wrote the memory of the dead upon their hearts and minds. Bertlinde found strength in her sisters' support and pushed the past aside, to open her eyes to the scene before her.

A whole family killed, because two ghouls had escaped into the world at Jul and faded out of existence at noon the next day. If the Türst had made it through, the chief of the wilt jagn would have anchored its followers in this world. How much more damage would the ghouls have done if that had happened?

Bertlinde took a deep breath, tasting the taint in the air. She was going to do her part in making sure that this didn't happen again--just as she'd prevented Olaf from hurting anyone else, ever again.

Jul Naht, Year Seven after the Great Draught

And now here they stood, with their own Jul battle imminent. The Türst must not make it into this world tonight.

Bertlinde was drawn from her half-trance when the villagers started yelling, banging wooden spoons against iron kettles, and making a great racket. The Eldest set the straw-packed wooden wheel afire to the hooting and shouts of the onlookers, and gave it a push towards the waiting straw mound downhill. The wheel took off, first teetering, then steadying as it took up speed and lighted the way for the still-screaming villagers to follow.

Energy flowed into the Jul Warriors. The Eldest had aimed the wheel well. It rolled into its target, setting the mound of straw ablaze when it smacked into it and tipped over.

The villagers formed a circle and danced around the bonfire, making enough noise to wake the dead--if they weren't awake already.

On the hill, a malevolent presence made itself felt. Bertlinde drew her sword and stepped forward, in lockstep with the six Sisters on her left. There was no enemy for them to fight--yet--but Bertlinde felt Adelheid's cleansing magic blast by her. She felt it strike something there in the darkness, something evil and vast.

The invisible battle raged on for several minutes, but then the first ghoul made it through the thinning Veil.

Its foul stench made Bertlinde gag even before she took in its horrifying appearance. It had clearly been human, once, but now its limbs looked desiccated, with lumps of decaying flesh hanging off its arms and legs. The arms looked too long for its height, and every limb ended in terrible, shredding claws.

But all of this faded into insignificance when the monster raised its head and looked Bertlinde in the eyes.

It wore Olaf's face. Olaf's hated, sneering face.

Bertlinde's heart hammered at a painful speed, and her face heated with rage. Her whole body tingled with the need to rush at the brute who'd killed her mother and destroyed her own life, to hack him to tiny pieces and stamp on them till there was nothing left.

Battle discipline just barely held her in place. Trembling with effort, she forced herself to breathe and pushed her emotions aside.

"Remember, Sisters," Adelheid's steady voice rang out behind her, "They're snatching memories from our minds. The familiar faces you're seeing aren't real, they're just a trick to distract you."

Bertlinde settled back into a semi-relaxed battle stance as other ghouls followed the first, pouring out of thin air. They milled in place for a few nerve-wracking heartbeats, then they threw themselves at the line of fighters.

Bertlinde struck out, lopping the head off of a ghoul that passed too close. Another ghoul took its place, leaping on her and gnashing at her face. She thrust her dagger into its belly, and it squealed, biting her on her shoulder before dropping to the ground to die.

Things got blurry after that. In the uncertain light of the villagers' bonfires, Bertlinde fought with every ounce of skill and speed she possessed, thankful for the last five years of exhaustive training Sister Fehild had inflicted on her. She killed ghoul after ghoul as they swarmed through the Veil, until her arms felt as stiff as sword blades, and her throat as raw as a knife's edge, and her legs ached from bearing the weight of the Warrior Line.

And still the ghouls kept coming.

To her left, Reingard stumbled, and a one-armed monster lurched through the gap that opened up for a single moment, stumbling towards Adelheid. The feeling of supportive power keeping Bertlinde on her feet faltered for a moment, and she too stumbled, barely managing to stab a second ghoul in the back before it could follow its mate and attack Adelheid.

The healer dispatched her attacker with an efficient stroke of her quarterstaff, and the wall of support at Bertlinde's back re-erected itself. Bertlinde felt herself steadying, and to her left, Reingard found her own rhythm again.

More ghouls fell. More came. The magic flowing from the healers flagged. Bertlinde glanced left to see Othilde at the center of the Line stumble as two ghouls reached for her with clawed hands. The Sisters flanking Othilde tried to beat them away, too late. One of the ghouls lifted its head away from Othilde's fallen form, its mouth gory, obscene.

Bertlinde cried out as the Warrior Line's magic collapsed. The Veil thinned further, and beyond the crush of ghouls flooding the hill, she could make out a pale figure on a skeletal horse, pushing them forward. Equally skeletal white dogs milled around the horse's legs, occasionally darting out to bite a ghoul that tried to hang back from the Veil.

"The Türst must not get through!" Adelheid called. It sounded as if she'd forced the words out through clenched teeth.

Bertlinde took a breath of rot-tainted air, and found a reserve of strength she hadn't known she had. "Frîja!" she screamed. "Frîja and Othilde!"

The answering battle cry from the surviving Warriors was ragged, but the line reformed. The surviving fighters stepped forward in unison, forcing the mass of ghouls to retreat a step.

The Türst was close--Bertlinde could see the tatters of its cloak. The ghouls were in a frenzy around it, so the rally that the Warrior Line managed was lost inch by inch. Bertlinde hammered at them, battering anything that came within reach of her sword, skewering anything else that dared to live with her dagger. But one of the ghouls dropped to the earth, beneath the reach of both blades, and surged upward to bite deep into her right thigh. Its teeth caught on bone, and howling, Bertlinde chopped down on its neck, severing it from its head. Despite the loss of its body, the ghoul's jaws stayed clamped around her leg.

The Türst touched the border of the Veil. To her left, two of the fighters-- Edburga and another Sister she couldn't see--stepped forward and simultaneously stabbed at it. Bertlinde dispatched two more ghouls, used a lull in the attacks to force the dead ghoul's jaw far enough apart to free her leg, and limped forward towards the Türst, Reingard at her side.

Adelheid's magic battered the Türst as Reingard and Bertlinde approached the Veil. Reingard feinted high, forcing the Türst and his horse into Bertlinde's reach. She'd intended to stab at the Türst's legs, but instinct made her drop low instead, battering her longsword against the horse's skeletal forelock. Bone shattered, and the horse tumbled.

Reingard saw the opening the downed horse gave her to stab the Türst through the belly--and the monster laughed. It reached out and grabbed Reingard's sword arm, dragging her across the Veil. Another wave of ghouls came through, and then the Veil closed. Reingard's desperate face lingered for a long moment, imprinting itself on Bertlinde's memory before it, too, faded out.

Distracted, Bertlinde failed to block the ghoul who swiped at her left leg. She felt a tendon pop, and dropped to the ground, barely managing to skewer the monster who'd taken her down.

Another one attacked. Bertlinde turned toward it and froze in mid-strike when she got a good look at its face--her mother's face. Bertlinde wrenched her eyes away from Gelsa's sad eyes--No, not Gelsa's, the monster's!--and hacked at the ghoul's legs. The blade glanced off bone, doing little damage.

The thing opened its mouth, Gelsa's face melting into a withered mask filled with dagger-sharp teeth and long fangs. Bertlinde brought her dagger up, cutting at the ghoul. The blade met its jawbone, and it jerked away, wrenching it from her hands. The ghoul stumbled back, then lept over her to get at Adelheid.

Edburga met it mid-leap, lopping off its head. Two more ghouls attacked Edburga's unprotected back, and she went down with a strangled scream. Someone--Berta--skewered them both with one lucky thrust, but a third one appeared out of nowhere and tore the young Sister's throat out. With a hoarse cry, Adelheid blasted that one with a wave of magic, and crumbled where she stood.

Bertlinde scrambled toward her. The world was silent, suddenly, morbidly. There was nothing but the sound of her breath, and the shush and strain of her wounded body being dragged over the ground. The ghouls were dead. And all of her sisters, every last one of them, silent and still. Bertlinde rolled Adelheid face up, searching for breath.

A hand grabbed her shoulder. Bertlinde screamed and whipped around--and recognized the Eldest just in time to stop herself from attacking him. The villagers had come up the hill again. The Eldest eased Bertlinde away from Adelheid, muttering soft, soothing words. Bertlinde resisted, batting away his hands, until she turned herself wrong and a seething agony burst in her leg, and robbed her of her last strength.

The sky rolled up her vision, a dawn as pale and endless as a dream. She saw it, and blinked. And faded.

She woke to the familiar agony of lying in a bone-rattling cart. But this time, she was not alone on the blankets covering the straw-filled bed of the cart. Next to her, Adelheid leaned against the cart's wooden panel.

"Good morning, Warrior."

It hurt to turn her head. It hurt to move at all, but Bertlinde managed a weak grin. "You're alive!"

Adelheid didn't return her smile. "The villagers picked up Edburga and the two of us and treated the worst of our wounds. They're taking us home."

Her voice was leached of all emotion. "The three of us are the only survivors. Edburga's still fighting for her life--the village healer couldn't tell whether or not she'll make it. Your right leg might have to be amputated. Two tendons in your left leg are torn, so it probably won't carry your weight on its own. I may have burned out my magic for good."

Her face crumbled. "Bertlinde, what will I do without my magic?"

And what will I do without my legs?

Bertlinde pushed the thought aside. "You used to make potions for Sister Hildegard in the infirmary before you started training, didn't you? You could always do that again. Sister Hildegard can certainly use a pair of trained hands to help her."

It wasn't magic. It wasn't what made Adelheid . . . Adelheid. But Bertlinde's friend set her jaw, and closed her eyes.

"I could do that," she said. "Brewing potions and making ointments. It's . . . soothing."

And what will I do?

With Warrior training taking up most of her attention and all of her energy, Bertlinde had never really thought about what she'd do once the Jul battle was over. Her mandatory five years were up, and she was free to leave the Sisters if she wanted to. Not that she had anywhere else to go--the Hadergassen training camp was home.

"I could become Sister Tilrun's assistant at the armory," she said. "I've always enjoyed our lessons in leather work, and I'm good with my hands."

"So we can both still contribute to this never-ending war." Adelheid pinned Bertlinde with bitter eyes. "Is it worth it? All of this?"

Ten Warriors dead, and Edburga still fighting for her life. Bertlinde might never walk again. Adelheid might never again touch the healing magic that had been so much part of her for most of her life. And Reingard had been captured alive, eternally damned to follow the wilt jagn and the Türst.

Next Jul, other Warriors would have to fight the same fight again, and pay the same price again. Forever and ever, on and on, bound to the Jul wheel as it bounced and burned down some eternal, steep hill.

Was it worth it, keeping up the endless, soul-breaking fight, year after year after year?

Adelheid's hand found hers, and Bertlinde held on for dear life. The memory of a scent rose from the depth of her soul--the scent of rotting bodies, decaying unnaturally fast after an attack by ghoul-infested wolves.

Children's bodies. And the sight of a woman dashed against a hearth. Families wrecked, murdered, desecrated . . .

And the wilt jagn wearing their faces.

Bertlinde squeezed Adelheid's hand. "Yes," she said. "It is worth it. We will not be victims, Adelheid."

Adelheid paused. Her expression eased. She squeezed Bertlinde's hand back and answered. "No. There are no victims here."


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