Daylight had grown to three solid hours at a time when the lady Grfaldn sent for me. Tili came with the message, leaning around the door into the small forge which had been given to Dval. He waved me away from the bellows, and I followed the tiny girl down the halls.
There was a lovely scar on her arm, a good four centimeters across and eight long; I was quite proud of it. There didn’t seem to be any redness around it, and she said it didn’t even itch any more either. Dval and I had ignored the fact that her arm, cloven clear to the white bone, would obviously have to come off and had carefully stitched each layer of muscle. She was already using it, if only carefully.
What we wanted, of course, was magic needles for all our souls, but Dval said he hadn’t learned that trick yet.
Grfaldn, when I came to her cavern, looked slightly better than she had the day she had laid her blade against Dval’s neck: more present, I guess. I knew something of how she felt, but kept myself to a bow – lower than the one I’d given Caldur.
“You are well-come to my hall,” she said, her voice low and still somewhat hoarse. She led the two of us through a curtained doorway into a warm, bright room with a leaping fire and, it seemed, every female dwarf who had been in that horrible cave when I’d arrived. They greeted me in quiet voices, and as I returned the words, I caught sight of a few of the warriors who had come with the prince, their armor laid aside for the soft felted gowns of the inner chambers. I took a deep breath along with my place in the circle; I’d evidently been the last to arrive, and I felt out of place in my grubby work-clothes.
Grfaldn turned back to the rest, apparently continuing a speech. “In two more weeks there will be enough sun. Is there reason to delay longer?” Heads shook around the circle, some forcefully.
“Call it, Grf’n,” said a warrior, her eyes edged. “I agree to her right; we all do. But it has to be called formally, now that we’re all here.” Grfaldn bowed her neck, closing her fingers formally together, then straightened deliberately and looked at me. “As has been done now too many times, I call the death of the wounded women.” I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. Wait for it, Kerry, wait for it; you don’t understand yet. I kept still. “The caskets are being prepared, the silver caskets of purification; the ice is being melted in the iron cauldrons. I claim the gift of Freya for myself. Who will follow me through ice into sunlight?”
Around the circle, each survivor answered in turn, “I claim the gift of Freya; I will come through the ice into sunlight.” The little girls, clinging to older women (some of them even related) piped the same thing, and the visiting warriors were noticeably silent. It got to be my turn, but as I inhaled, Grfaldn held up her hand to me. “Do not think,” she said gently, still in the grip of ritual but trying to explain, “that you might not see your home again.” Well, that was great. Erdan Paul had carefully explained reincarnation to us, but I still thought it was a chancy prospect. However, whatever was going on, they didn’t have the look of women giving up, and I did know what that looked like. I finished inhaling, and gave the same response as the rest.
The warriors rose, and began helping us out of our clothes. I tried to keep my eyes narrowed to their normal size; they wanted to go as round as the dwarves’ normally were. Someone was humming, a deep sound that filled the rug-lined room, and which I recognized as Dval’s rest-day song. Brushes came out of a cabinet on the wall, we got our hair – and our skin! – brushed, very gently, by the visitors. My black hair and yellow skin stood out, but at least I wasn’t any taller than the tallest women there. Still in our skin, we filed into yet another inner room, where there was a large pool filled with warm water.
Warm bath, hot bath, cold bath; more brushes; a hard white soap with no smell to it at all. We were given cool water to drink, but nothing to eat, and we slept in an utterly dark room, all together on deep rugs. The visitors kept up a continuous humming, sometimes singing as well, sometimes chanting. I was worried about the little ones as the time passed; they ate nothing as well, and I knew I was hungry. Not as hungry as I could have been, though; the water filled in the gap. I kept tasting it suspiciously, thinking it might have been treated with something. More baths and brushes; I was beginning to feel like I had absolutely no skin left, and my thoughts were coming slower and slower, until at last all I was doing was watching or not watching, moving or not moving, and not thinking at all. I didn’t even notice when I stopped having bowel movements.
Finally, after we had air-dried once more, the visitors dressed us in gowns that glowed in the firelight and rang slightly as they moved against each other. Felted slippers were put on our feet, and we were led, nearly perfectly empty, down equally empty public halls into a large chamber.
All of the men and the remaining little girls were waiting silently for us. Some were standing beside long boxes of crystal and silver, with steps beside them.