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It was a clear and chilly morning on the plains of central Neukarlsland: fine weather for flying, albeit arguably not ideal for open-cockpit aircraft like the Bücker Jungfrau biplane currently cruising north of town.
In the rear cockpit, the instructor leaned down to her speaking tube and remarked to her student, "Not too cold for you this morning, I hope, Liesel?"
"No, Frau Hartmann, I'm fine," replied the heavily-bundled-up young woman in front cheerfully. "Besides—one has to be prepared to fly in all conditions, isn't what what you always say?"
Frau Hartmann laughed. "And thus does my student use my own sage wisdom against me," she said. "Fine, we'll stay up for another half-hour, but then I simply must get some coffee." Glancing at her instruments, she went on in a cajoling tone, "Oh, oh, watch your turn and slip indicator, your turn's getting sloppy..."
Liesel's response was an inarticulate "Haa—haa!" sort of sound, startled and borderline panicky, though Frau Hartmann could detect nothing about the aircraft's current activities that could account for it.
"What's wrong, Liesel—" the instructor began, but then she looked up from her panel and saw for herself what had alarmed her student. Off to starboard, another aircraft had slipped stealthily into formation with them, and was now pacing them mere inches away, well within the span of the Jungfrau's wings—close enough for either member of the biplane's crew to have reached out and touched.
"Haa—Hexe!" Liesel finally managed to cry, sounding somewhere between frightened and delighted at the sight of a Striker-equipped witch flying so close by.
The blonde witch turned her head and smiled, the lenses of her goggles glinting in the morning sun, and called over the growl of her props and the Bücker's,
"Guten Morgen, meine Damen!" Producing a laminated identity card from her Luftwaffe flying jacket, she displayed it to them and went on, "Reichsluftfahrtministerium. May I trouble you to land as soon as possible, Frau Hartmann?"
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
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Avalon Broadcasting System
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Dr. Lucie Adelsberger's inner office was a businesslike space, rather less homey than her comfortably appointed outer consulting room, but it was still a very personable sort of room, Yoshika Miyafuji thought. It had those little touches of clutter and disarray that marked a place where a human being worked and thought.
She was grateful for the warmth and humanity of the place, and the doctor, as she sat in the armchair set aside for visitors and recounted a painful moment to her senior colleague. That moment, in which she'd discovered that her friend and comrade Francesca Lucchini had suffered more than physical harm in the terrible mauling she'd taken from the Neuroi at the start of the Battle of Freiburg, was probably the worst she had so far experienced in her short but eventful career in combat medicine. She had been dreading the necessity of retelling it since this trip began, and though the doctor she was consulting was quite a lot more kindly than she had been imagining of a Karlslander, it still wasn't easy.
Yoshika had been sitting at her desk in the castle's sickbay for about an hour after breakfast when she became aware of a new sound in the room. It was barely audible over the soft sounds of the fans moving air around to help combat the midsummer heat of Alsace (which was just beginning to feel unusually warm to someone used to coastal Fusō's milder summers), but clear to Yoshika's sharp ears: irregular, half-stifled sobs, punctuated by brief sniffling gasps for air.
Rising from her chair, she hurried towards the source—the single occupied bed, where Francesca Lucchini lay swathed in bandages and plaster. Shirley Yeager sat beside her, chin on chest, apparently having fallen asleep at some point in her overnight vigil.
Stepping to the opposite side of the bed, Yoshika could see the younger Romagnan's tears streaming down her face as they trickled from her still closed eyes. Summoning her magic, she made a quick examination, and was relieved but puzzled to find that physically, Lucchini's condition had not changed since her last infusion of healing magic. There was still damage that her body was working to heal, but nothing that Yoshika could determine would be causing her so much pain—particularly not with a Eucodal solution still hanging on the IV line.
Gently reaching out to place a hand on Lucchini's shoulder, she kept her voice soft as she attempted to comfort her. "Lucchini? It's all right now. You're home. You're safe. We're taking care of you. Things are going to be OK."
Out of the corner of her eye, Yoshika saw Shirley stir, then straighten in surprise as she realized her dearest friend's agony. "Hey... hey, what's happened? What's going on?"
Yoshika was about to answer when Lucchini's eyes opened slowly, her lashes heavy with tears, her words punctuated by sobs that she was no longer trying to muffle. "No... it's not all right. It's not! It's not! It's never going to be all right!"
"Lucchini... Francesca," Yoshika went to one knee beside the bed, carefully brushing her tears away with one gentle hand. "Can you tell us what's wrong? We'll do whatever we can to help you."
The little Romagnan swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and tried to meet her doctor's eyes and explain, but she was only partly coherent—barely restraining her tears as she spoke, slipping in and out of her native tongue.
"Ombra... la mia demona domestica ...she's gone. She's... left me. Era ancora una parte di me quando il Neuroi mi ha colpito... il mio Attacco. As I blacked out, I... Ho sentito il suo grido. Aveva tanta paura—tanto dolore! Se n'è andata—se n'è andata per sempre! I don't know how to find her! I can't! I don't know what to do!"
Her voice became hoarse from a blend of the pain of her memories and her increasingly raw throat; her words trailed off into a mournful, desperate whisper, her tears tracking down her face once more.
"Non ho mai saputo come essere una strega, ho appena ero uno! E 'stato sempre abbastanza buono! Ho preso tutto per scontato. Ho preso lei per scontato. È tutta colpa mia..."
As she broke off into another racking sob, Shirley reached out, doing her best to avoid the various medical accoutrements around her friend before drawing her into as tight an embrace as she dared.
"Shhh. Shh. We'll find a way to fix this, OK? You and me, and Miyafuji, and everyone else, we'll find a way. We'll fix this. We'll find her. We're not gonna let you down. Not ever."
Lucchini didn't respond in words, but after a few minutes in that warm, comforting presence, her sobs began to ebb and her breathing slowed until she eventually fell back into sleep.
Shirley gently laid her back down onto the bed, then ran her fingers across Lucchini's brow before she stood. Her face more serious than Yoshika could ever remember, she began to make for the sickbay door.
"We have to talk to Minna right now."
"I didn't understand most of what she was saying," Yoshika admitted as she followed Shirley down the hall, all but running to keep up with the taller Liberion's agitated strides. "Something about demons?"
"Demona domestica—that's what witches from Romagna and Venezia call their familiars," Shirley said. "She was saying her familiar's left her. They were synchronized when the Neuroi wrecked her Striker, and..." Shirley hesitated, looking pained, and then went on in a quieter voice, "... Lucchini felt her leave. Now she doesn't know what to do. She's blaming herself for not knowing enough about magic, but hell—I wouldn't know what to do if my familiar ran away either. Would you?"
Yoshika shook her head. "No," she admitted. "Although in my case, I can't even imagine what would make him do it. Kuji's... very persistent," she added with a faint blush.
Ordinarily Shirley would have followed up on that, but right now she was too preoccupied to notice the obvious hook. She said nothing more until they reached Minna's office.
When Yoshika finished retelling Lucchini's desperate explanation, followed by a very edited synopsis of how and why they'd come to Neukarlsland to seek help, she realized that Dr. Adelsberger was giving her a deeply sympathetic look, and felt her cheeks redden slightly.
"That must have been a horrible experience, Fräulein Doktor. It would have been an incredibly painful moment with any patient, but particularly a friend." The older woman smiled sadly, letting the rest go unsaid, then stood, collecting a clipboard and a copy of Lucchini's charts from her desk. "Now, then. I think it might be best if I spoke to Lieutenant Lucchini, and then we can start looking at our best course of treatment."
The small hangar at the end of the row on the south side of the airfield was typically drafty, even with the Jungfrau pushed inside and the door shut. The little office built into one corner was cozy and warm, though, with its iron potbelly stove stoked up and a pot of coffee perking away atop it.
Now that she had the aircraft properly put away and started the coffee brewing, Frau Elizabeth Hartmann was at last able to turn to her wide-eyed student and make proper introductions.
"Liesel, child, put your eyes back into your head, you'll need them later," she chided the teenager cheerfully. Then, as Liesel reddened in embarrassment and tore her eyes away from the uniformed witch, Frau Hartmann went on, "This is my daughter Ursula. Ursula, meet Liesel Nussbaum."
"I—it's an honor to meet you, Captain Hartmann," said Liesel hesitantly. "I read about what you and your sister and the others did in Freiburg. It's an amazing story."
Ursula gave the dark-haired young woman a friendly smile and replied, "It's my pleasure. Please, call me Ursula. I'm sorry for interrupting your lesson," she added apologetically, "but I don't have very much time. I have to fly back to Brandenburg this afternoon."
"Oh—it's no problem, really," Liesel insisted. "You must be very busy."
"Liesel here is one of my more promising students," Frau Hartmann put in, placing a proprietorial hand on the youngster's shoulder. "She's training for the airmail service."
Ursula raised an eyebrow. "Airmail?"
Liesel nodded, a mixture of continued embarrassment and pride on her face. "With all the post witches off doing war work, Karlsland Luftpost is hiring as many regular pilots as they can get. I've always been interested in flying, so it's an opportunity for me to do something useful for the country... even though I'm not a witch," she added hesitantly, uncertainty in her eyes.
Ursula's response lacked any of the cool dismissal the younger girl half-expected from a decorated combat witch of her obvious stature; instead, she gave a warm smile and said, "Good for you. I think that's wonderful." Then, with a self-deprecating wink, she added, "For myself, I'll stick to less daring pursuits, like weapons tests and fighting the Neuroi."
Liesel giggled. "It's not as dangerous as it used to be," she said. "If it were, I would never have been able to convince my parents to let me apply."
"Well, I hope you succeed," Ursula said.
"She'll be fine," said Frau Hartmann. "It won't be long before she's ready to solo, and then it's just a matter of piling up the flight time for her commercial ticket. They'd be fools to pass her up."
"Thank you, Frau Hartmann," said Liesel, going pink again. Then, with a glance at the wall clock, she said, "I should get going, anyway—I'm due back at school this afternoon."
Frau Hartmann offered her student a lift into town, which Liesel cheerfully declined, wryly noting that bicycling on a day like this was more good training for cold-weather flying; and then she was off.
"Ah, the resilience of youth," said Frau Hartmann wistfully, watching through the outside window as Liesel pedaled away on her army-surplus three-speed, trailing a wisp of breath steam behind her. Then, going to the wall telephone by the door, she smiled at her daughter and said, "Now, sit down and warm yourself, Ursula, and I'll see about getting your father out here."
Yoshika would have had to admit to a more than strictly clinical fascination with the procedure Dr. Adelsberger used to examine Lucchini's magical, as opposed to physical, injuries. Magical medicine wasn't a field in which the younger physician had a lot of experience; that was, after all, the reason they were here. She was an accomplished healer of regular hurts by magical means, but Yoshika knew relatively little of the considerably more rarefied field of treating injuries affecting witches' magical abilities directly.
As such, she sat quietly by, keenly attentive to everything her elder did, while Dr. Adelsberger positioned a chair next to Lucchini's settee, arranged herself facing her patient, and said,
"Now, just relax, Lieutenant. This shouldn't hurt—in fact, many patients don't feel a thing."
So saying, the doctor placed her hands gently against Lucchini's face, one on the Romagnan's cheek, the other to her forehead as if checking her for a fever; closed her eyes; and called on her own magic. Yoshika's came forth as well, as if sympathetically, and it was through magically attuned eyes that she saw Dr. Adelsberger's cat familiar's ears and tail manifest, her aura brighten and touch Lucchini's. The latter rippled at the doctor's touch, flickering, but the features of Lucchini's lost familiar didn't emerge.
They remained that way for several minutes, eyes closed, faces serene, while their linked auras glowed and pulsed through various colors. Yoshika was almost holding her breath toward the end, but she didn't realize it until Dr. Adelsberger sat up, withdrawing her hands, and the glow died away as she released the connection.
"Well," she said, as Lucchini opened her eyes and fixed them, almost imploringly, on her face. "It's as you surmised, Lieutenant: your familiar is no longer in contact with you."
Lucchini's face fell, tears springing to her eyes. "I knew it. Is she...?" Unable to bring herself to say it, she slumped back against the pillow behind her, sniffling.
"Well, now, that's the good news," said Dr. Adelsberger, placing her hand on Lucchini's with a gentle smile. "You still have a connection to the æthereal plane, albeit, at present, one too attenuated by distance and injury to be of use to you. What it means, though, is that your other surmise is also correct: Your familiar is alive."
Relief washed over Lucchini's face, and though it didn't stop her tears, it changed the reason for them markedly. She sat up as best she could, placing her other hand on the doctor's, and asked,
"Why does she stay away, then? Is she angry with me? I wouldn't blame her if she was," she admitted ruefully. "But I can't reach her at all, not even to apologize. What must I do? I'd do anything, if only Ombra would come back..."
"Every familiar is different, but I doubt she's angry," said Dr. Adelsberger. "Like any wounded animal, she was confused and frightened, and her natural reaction was to go and hide. As for what you must do, well, at this point there are two courses of treatment open to you. If you wish, you can attempt to dismiss Ombra from your service—release her fully back to the æther—and then try to find another to replace her. This is the customary course of action when a witch's familiar has perished, as occasionally happens."
Lucchini shook her head. "No way," she said firmly. "If Ombra's alive, then I won't abandon her."
The Romagnan's determination seemed to please the doctor; her smile returned, touched with satisfaction now, and she said, "In that case, since she's lost her way and can't find her way back to you, you will need to go and find her."
Lucchini gave her a look mingling hope and dismay. "But... how can I even know where to begin?" she asked.
"Well, as I said, her first instinct would have been to find a place to hide—somewhere dark and quiet, where her enemies would be unlikely to discover her," said Dr. Adelsberger. "There are places in the world where spirits like our familiars feel more comfortable. What manner of creature is Ombra?"
"She's... a panther," said Lucchini slowly, as if uncertain what that had to do with anything.
"Really?" Yoshika interjected, before she could stop herself. As both doctor and patient turned curious looks toward her, she reddened and said a little awkwardly, "I always thought your familiar was a regular cat, like Sanya-chan's." Hand behind her head, she grinned sheepishly and added, "I guess that explains why you like to sleep in trees."
To Yoshika's pleased relief, that actually got a half-smile and a wry chuckle out of Lucchini.
"A panther, my my," said Dr. Adelsberger. "And you were in Freiburg when it happened?" At Lucchini's nod, the doctor rose to her feet, went to the bookcase in the corner, and returned with a large, heavy volume, which she opened on Lucchini's lap.
While the Romagnan leaned down and Yoshika came up alongside to look, Dr. Adelsberger tapped the open page and said, "I should be very surprised indeed, Lt. Lucchini, if you did not find her here..."
A short time later, a Kaiser Wilhelm Institute car dropped Yoshika and her patient back at the front of the Adlon, Dr. Adelsberger having insisted on the professional courtesy. Once inside, they found three of their colleagues—Shirley, Perrine Clostermann, and Heidemarie Schnaufer—in the lobby with Captains Blazkowicz and Ridley from the XB-36's crew, having taken over one of the groups of soft furniture as a sort of impromptu conference room.
Lucchini, though still hobbling with the aid of a cane, seemed energized, her eyes brighter and aspect bouncier than they had at any time since Freiburg. Shirley spotted it at once as she saw her wingmate, and it was by a long way the bright spot of her day so far.
"How'd it go?" she asked as the Romagnan lowered herself into the sofa alongside her.
"I know what I have to do," Lucchini told her. "Probably. I won't know for sure until I try it." Turning to Perrine, her aqua eyes glinting, she asked eagerly, "Is Ursula back from her errand yet? When can we leave? I have to get back to Europe right away."
"Uh... well," said Shirley awkwardly.
"I'm afraid that's a little bit of a problem," Blazkowicz put in.
"Captain Blazkowicz," the familiar voice rasped through the static of the long-distance line, "I am not even going to ask you what in the hell you think you are doing, because frankly I don't give a shit. I'm only going to tell you this: The minute you and Ridley are within regulation and fit to fly, I expect you to be in the air. If my bomber is not in Cowtown by 2100 hours Central Time tomorrow, with no unauthorized personnel aboard, there will be hell to pay on a scale with which you have not been previously acquainted. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"
"Written orders to that effect came in by telex five minutes later," Blazkowicz added, "just in case we were in any doubt."
"Oh no," said Yoshika. "How much trouble are you in?"
"Oh, I expect somewhere between one and two whole heaps," said Ridley casually, taking a drink of his coffee. "Don't you worry none about us, though," he added before she could interject. "Sure, the general's pissed off, but hey—end of the day, we still got a pile of good extended flight data out of this trip. Long's we don't wreck the airplane gettin' it home, I reckon we'll be all right."
"Hembery and the Smiths are in the clear," Blazkowicz added. "They can always claim they were just following their superiors' instructions. It's me and Ridley who'll take the heat. The project needs Ridley too much for him to get busted, and as for me..." He shrugged. "Worst LeMay can do to me is send me back to my old outfit." With a slightly dark little smile, he added, "Which is where I want to go anyway."
"I hate like hell to leave you gals in the lurch this way," Ridley went on, "but the general's got us over a barrel this time. Ain't no wiggle room in those orders at all. We can't even take you back to the States with us, not that you wanna go there anyway."
"It's OK, Lucchini," said Yoshika, taking her wingmate's hand, as the Romagnan's look of hopeful determination crumbled first to dismay, then to the verge of tears. "We'll find another way back. We're not finished yet."
"Who's not finished yet?" asked another voice, and they all looked up to see Hannelore von Hammer joining them. As the senior witch registered their expressions, her own took on an air of puzzlement. "Why all the long faces?"
"General LeMay, it appears, has dropped his other shoe," said Perrine glumly, and she explained the situation.
Von Hammer took it in, her face slowly darkening.
"We'll see about that," she said.
Dr. Alfred Hartmann was known in Charlottenburg, as he had been in Weil im Schönbuch before the war, as a calm, sober, thoughtful sort of man, kind and upright, not given to boasting. Everyone knew that his elder daughter Erica was one of the great heroes of Karlsland's war effort, the highest-scoring fighting witch in the world, and while he was proud of her—indeed, of all three of his children's contributions—he left it to others to make a fuss about.
Now, as he ate lunch in the little café near the airport with his wife and younger daughter, Dr. Hartmann was unmistakably delighted at Ursula's unexpected visit, but he remained as quietly dignified as ever. After greeting her warmly, he asked after her health and Erica's; then, in the same calmly solicitous tone, he said, "And how is Major Barkhorn getting along?"
Ursula blinked in mild surprise. "She's... well," she said hesitantly, wondering why he had asked about that specific colleague. As far as Ursula knew, her parents were not as yet aware that Trude was, at least unofficially, their daughter-in-law.
The little moment of shared eye contact and tiny smile that passed between them now, on the other hand, rather implied that they were, but all her father said was, "Good, good. The dispatches in the Brandenburger Zeitung about the Freiburg operation implied that she'd had rather a difficult time of it."
Ursula nodded. "She did, but no permanent harm was done."
Dr. Hartmann dropped a lump of sugar into his tea and stirred it thoughtfully. "Good," he repeated.
"She's a fine soldier," Frau Hartmann put in, smiling a little bit mischievously. "We could ill afford to lose her."
"Have you heard anything from Alfie?" Ursula asked, hoping to steer the conversation onto safer ground.
"Still in North Africa with his bomber squadron," said the doctor. "He can't tell us much more than that, of course."
"Only that his unit has been doing some work with the witch squadron that operates there," Frau Hartmann agreed, then added with another mischievous look, "I gather he's having some difficulties with that Marseille girl who gave Erica such trouble in flight school."
"Somehow that fails to surprise me," said Ursula.
The conversation through the rest of the meal was light and fairly general, and not much to do with the war. Afterward, Dr. Hartmann took his leave with another warm hug for his daughter, and then she and Frau Hartmann walked back to the hangar.
While her mother rolled the door open, Ursula preflighted the Striker she'd flown in with, then climbed aboard and powered it up.
"Is this one of the new Focke-Wulfs?" Frau Hartmann asked, considering the Striker's lines.
Ursula nodded. "It's a Ta 152H, the high-altitude fighter version of Klara Tank's new design. They're just coming into full production. I borrowed this one from the Ministry."
Frau Hartmann smiled and unfastened the Striker from the sawhorses she and Ursula had lashed it to in lieu of a proper launch stage, then stood on tiptoes, as Ursula bent down, so that they could embrace.
"It was wonderful to see you, dear, even if it was for only a short while," said the elder Hartmann. "Your father and I are very proud of the work you're doing. Please give our love to your sister as well, when you see her."
"I will, Mother," Ursula promised. "Take care until I see you again."
The flight back to Brandenburg took only a couple of hours at the Ta 152's high-altitude cruising speed, and Ursula was able to check it back in to the RLM's flight pool shortly before the office closed down for the day. By then, the early winter evening had fallen; mildly chilled, she was looking forward to a mug of hot cocoa back at the Adlon, and hoping that her colleagues would have firmed up their plans for the flight back to Gallia on the morrow while she was gone.
As she was passing down one of the Ministry's corridors, a man in tweeds and a lab coat emerged from one of the offices and caught sight of her. "Aha! Captain Hartmann, there you are."
"Oh, Professor von Ohain, hello," said Ursula.
"I got the note that you were looking for me yesterday," said Hans von Ohain. "I'm glad I managed to catch you before you left to return to Europe. I've been following your reports from the front with great interest—we're already incorporating some of the field improvements you've made to the BMW engines into the production specifications back here. Come, I'll show you what we're up to."
As she followed him back to the workshop and testing area, Ursula considered von Ohain, a man with whom she had corresponded professionally for years now but rarely seen in person. A thin man in his mid-thirties, with a prominent nose and jawline and dark hair swept back from a high forehead, he had the perpetually harassed air of the wartime academician, but he also seemed quite pleased with the way things were going.
Now he showed her around the shop, pointing out the various experiments under way and explaining how many of them were derived, in whole or in part, from reports she had dispatched from first Mimoyecques and then Saint-Ulrich.
"Thanks to you," he said, indicating one set of test equipment, "we've finally cracked the blade composition problem on the 003. The new model will be ready for mass production very soon, and then we can finally consign the Jumo to the dustbin of history and set about building 262s and Ar 234s in numbers that will make a real difference to the war." He turned to her, his face alight with the glow of the true believer, and said, "It's been a long time coming, but the jet age is finally here—or very soon will be."
Ursula nodded. "A number of my colleagues in the 501st are reaching that conclusion as well," she said. "Major Barkhorn's performance in the Battle of Freiburg was... anomalous," she allowed, "but it impressed a good many people in the theater of operations; as did my sister's with the Ha 162 prototype and Sgt. Bishop's showing in the Meteor."
"Eh? The what?" asked von Ohain, looking intrigued.
"Did you not know?" Ursula inquired, surprised. "The Britannian Royal Air Force has a jet fighter Striker in flight test as well." She chuckled reminiscently. "Group Captain Whittle, their chief jet designer, was very annoyed until she learned that our own jets were a matter of parallel evolution and not, as she originally suspected, industrial espionage."
Von Ohain straightened, and not for the first time Ursula thought the man truly deserved to have spectacles to hang off his impressively aquiline nose, so that he might take them off and polish them at a moment like this.
"Really—the Britannians have their own turbojet design group?"
"'Group' might be exaggerating slightly," Ursula admitted, "I think it's fair to say that they have a quite passionate turbojet designer, and she in turn has a staff to support her."
Von Ohain chuckled at that, leaning against the test bench where his latest effort was well under way. "Yes, I can certainly appreciate that situation. Still—she sounds quite interesting. It's a shame I'm not in a position to look at her designs in person. I suppose she's working out of some RAF base?"
"At the moment, she's in Gallia, though she claims she needs to return to England soon," Ursula said. "Part of her group has set up shop semi-officially at Saint-Ulrich, and she's still with them, or at least she was when we left. 404 Squadron seems to be evolving into the de facto focus of jet development on the front line," she explained.
"Good," said von Ohain. "Such a thing has been needed for a long time now. I had hopes that General von Reichenberg was moving in that direction when he set up your special Gruppe under KG 200, but..." The engineer sighed, flipping a hand. "I shall never understand the whims of generals, particularly the ones who are less interested in winning the war than in feathering their own nests. As though that will profit them at all if the Neuroi exterminate humanity."
When Ursula returned to the Adlon, she was mildly surprised to be hailed by the desk clerk on her way to the elevator:
"Oh, Captain Hartmann, there you are. Your colleagues are dining in the café. Major Clostermann asked that you be notified when you arrived."
With slightly abstracted thanks for the clerk, Ursula went into the smaller, more intimate of the cavernous lobby's two restaurants to find Perrine and the others gathered at one of the corner tables, with two places saved. As she took the one Yoshika cheerfully indicated was for her, she wondered who the other one was for, but before she could ask, she got her answer: while she was folding her greatcoat over the back of the chair, Hannelore arrived.
"Good, you're back," said the senior witch as she took her own place. "I trust Herr Doktor and Frau Hartmann are well?"
"Very well, thank you," said Ursula, seating herself. "I must say I'm surprised to see you here this evening, Rittmeister," she added with a slight smile.
"Oh, don't worry," Hannelore replied. "I'm not staying long. Have you been briefed?"
"About what?" Ursula wondered. "I've only just arrived."
"There's been a... development," said Hannelore, and the witches filled their colleague in on the general outline of the situation that had arisen while she was away.
"Ah," said Ursula. "Well... I can't say I'm terribly surprised, actually."
"Mm," von Hammer agreed. "At any rate, I just stopped in to let you all know that I'm making alternate arrangements. I'll need another day to make it happen, but it's merely a question of logistics; there's no question of success. Be ready to leave at noon on Wednesday."
"Understood," said Perrine, nodding. "Thank you."
"It's part of my job," Hannelore replied. Then she rose, glancing around with a wry little smirk, and added, "Now, if you'll excuse me, ladies, I must get back to my honeymoon. I'll see you all on Wednesday."
She was as good as her word. Hannelore arrived at the Adlon exactly when she'd said she would, at the wheel of one of the Luftwaffe's ubiquitous Blitz trucks, to find all her colleagues gathered in the lobby with their gear.
"Ready to go, ladies?" she inquired from the driver's window as they emerged from the hotel. "All aboard!"
While the others got themselves and their things aboard the truck, Perrine offered the hotel's manager a little Gallic bow and said, "Thank you for taking such good care of us."
"It was our pleasure, Major Clostermann," the manager replied. "I hope you'll keep us in mind when next you find yourselves in Brandenburg. Keep as safe as you can on the front line."
As the truck pulled away from the hotel, the witches were surprised and a bit touched to see the staff gathering to bid them farewell.
"You seem to have made an impression," Hannelore remarked wryly as she guided the Blitz into traffic.
"They couldn't do enough for us," Perrine agreed.
"Well, the accommodations we'll be enjoying for the trip back to Europe will be slightly more austere, I'm afraid, though I suspect the hospitality will be as heartfelt," said Hannelore. "Recapturing the first piece of Karlsland to be taken back from the invaders will tend to have that effect."
Slightly to the other witches' surprise, it soon became apparent that Hannelore wasn't taking them back out to the airport. Instead, she drove down to Schönenwind, the port district: the oldest part of the city, still called by the name that had once been the whole settlement's. There, past substantial-looking gates and stiffly saluting guards in Reichsmarine shore police uniforms, she took them down to the waterfront itself, halting on the quayside near one of the larger piers.
"Here we are, then," she declared, walking around to the back of the truck while her comrades disembarked from the back. "Fritzchen, bless his slightly pompous heart, has decided that General LeMay's discourtesy to his favorite witches must be countered with an unmistakable gesture of Karlsland's support—so this will be our ride back to Europe," she added with a smile, indicating the vessel berthed before them.
Even as preoccupied as she had lately been, Lucchini couldn't stop herself from exclaiming, wide-eyed, at the sight of so grand and powerful-looking a vessel. "We're going home on a battleship!" she cried.
"I'm sorry to have to disappoint you slightly, Lieutenant Lucchini," said another uniformed young woman who was approaching from the direction of the ship. "Prinzessin Eugenie here is but a humble heavy cruiser. All our battleships are already in European waters, I'm afraid."
The witches remained silent for the moment, too caught up in considering the appearance of this intriguing figure to reply. She was a very young woman; she looked all of sixteen, no older than most of the people she was addressing, with that air of fresh-faced wholesomeness that was so stereotypical of Karlslanders of her age. This air was accented by her big green eyes and the way she wore her honey-blonde hair: pulled back and down into a pair of low pigtails tied with ribbons, not unlike Trude Barkhorn's usual style.
She was dressed in a grey and black Reichsmarine officer's jacket, studded with a double row of brass buttons down the front, and had the peaked cap to match it on her head; but though she did wear a skirt as well, it was so short that only a witch could have gotten away with wearing it in public, let alone as part of a military uniform.
Before anyone could finish parsing all that and comment, she halted a few paces from them, squared herself up, and saluted with a beaming smile that involved a lot of well-tended teeth. "Kapitän zur See Eugenie Prinzessin von Preußen. I have the privilege of commanding this fine ship. My crew and I are honored to have you ladies as our guests. The Strikers you brought with you from Europe are already aboard, so we can cast off whenever you're ready to depart."
Hannelore stood off to one side a little and let Perrine handle introducing herself and the witches under her command, which she did with her usual Gallic aplomb. No one remarked on the captain's obvious youth; instead, the remark, when it came (from Shirley), was:
"Hold on. Your name is Princess Eugenie and you're the captain of the Prinzessin Eugenie?"
Captain von Preußen nodded, her smile undimmed. "That is correct," she said.
Shirley grinned. "Well, that's convenient."
"Grand Admiral Canaris is often pleased to be witty," Hannelore added dryly. "Good to see you again, Eugenie. You're looking well."
"As are you, Rittmeister—or I suppose now I'm entitled to call you Tante Hannelore," said the captain with a dimpled grin. "Congratulations! I'm terribly sorry I missed your wedding, but we were at sea—just got in this morning. Onkel Fritz had one of his fits of rectitude and decided not to alter our patrol schedule so that I could attend."
"I might've known," said Hannelore, rolling her eyes.
"Wait a moment," said Heidemarie suddenly. Turning to von Hammer, she went on, "You said this will be our ride back to Europe. You're coming with us?"
"Of course I'm coming with you," Hannelore replied. "What else would I do? The war is not over, and as long as it lasts, I have a job to do."
"Well... I suppose so," Heidemarie agreed. "Still, it's been less than a week. I'm just... surprised."
Von Hammer shrugged eloquently. "War is hell," she said.
Before anyone could agree or dissent, the approach of a pair of warmly-dressed figures from along the quayside interrupted the conversation. One of them was Sophia Tessmer, who ran to hug Lucchini with a jubilant cry; the other, hanging back slightly at a more decorous pace, was a tall, slim young woman with long blonde hair, dressed expensively but not ostentatiously in the latest fashion. No one among the 501st's witches recognized her—no one but Hannelore, who looked mildly startled to see her.
"Karolina!" the senior witch exclaimed.
"Rittmeister von Hammer," said the blonde, executing a respectful curtsey. "Ladies. I apologize for bursting upon you all so suddenly and without a proper introduction, but I was only just informed that you were leaving the country, and I felt I had to see you before you go. My name is Karolina von Kleist und Falkenhagen. Until last Sunday, I was to be His Majesty the Kaiser's bride."
The witches of Saint-Ulrich all stared at her in varying combinations of surprise, astonishment, and worry—the latter mostly replaced by more of the former two as she turned to Lucchini and said,
"Lieutenant, I must beg your pardon for Werner's horrible behavior, as I have already begged Sophia's before we came here. I fear he was put up to it by our Uncle Max. In fact, upon reflection, I suspect Uncle Max provided the script. His remarks, as they have been reported to me, were not very clever... but they were cleverer than Werner," she added wryly.
Lucchini didn't reply for a few seconds, having completely lost her train of thought; then she made at least an attempt to pull herself together and said, "I, uh... sure?"
Sophia, a bit more in tune with the social niceties of the situation, returned the blonde's curtsey and replied politely, "Thank you again, Margravine von Falkenhagen. I cannot speak for the others, of course, but I hold you in no way responsible for your brother's conduct."
"Uh... right! That," Lucchini agreed, nodding.
"I'm very relieved," said Karolina. Then, turning to the others, she went on, "And I must apologize to all of you as well, for whatever part my family may have played in complicating your stay in Neukarlsland. I do hope you won't hold it against the country." With perfect, plain-faced candor, she added, "Relatively few of us choose to live lives of swinish ingratitude toward our war heroes."
Perrine looked genuinely surprised to hear the woman's apologetic remarks. "I must admit that you're not what I would have expected, Margravine."
The rather willowy Neukarlslander blushed slightly, but gave a smile all the same. "I admit that I would not have minded becoming an Empress, Major Clostermann, but you must understand that I barely know my reluctant groom. His Majesty was... very kind, when he met with me to explain the situation personally. I appreciated that—and I respect the reasons behind his choice," she added, with a smiling moment's eye contact for Hannelore. "My father and brothers may have decided to 'defend my honor' regardless of my feelings on the matter... but I wish our royal couple all the best."
Hannelore considered that for a moment, then inclined her head gravely. "Thank you, Karolina," she said quietly. "I have to confess, your... displacement... was the one and only thing about this entire business that has pricked my conscience somewhat."
"That's gracious of you, Rittmeister, but you needn't worry," Karolina said, then added with another serene smile, "Had I known then what I know now, having seen you dance with your husband at your wedding feast, I should have declined the arrangement when it was proposed."
The younger witches were all savoring the rare sight of the King's Valkyrie, Hanne Hellhammer, smilingly blushing like a schoolgirl when another vehicle pulled up alongside the Blitz, surprising several of those gathered with its appearance. This was no military truck, but an enormous, chrome-bedecked civilian automobile. As it came to a halt, they realized that the man at the wheel was none other than the Kaiser himself, dressed in tweedy civilian clothes that put his observers in mind of nothing so much as a gentleman farmer.
"Oh, Onkel Fritz, what have you done to your wondrous moustache?" Captain von Preußen cried with a mischievous smile.
"A new style for a new day," the Kaiser replied cheerfully. "Do you not like it?"
"It's very dashing," said the captain, "but now you'll have to change all the money. And the stamps!"
"In due course, in due course," said the Kaiser; then, for the first time, he noticed the well-dressed blonde standing near Hannelore and drew up short, his expression and body language becoming awkward. "Oh. Er... good afternoon... Karolina. I... hadn't expected to see you here."
"Good day, Your Majesty," Karolina replied with another elegant curtsey. "I was just paying my respects to the Rittmeister and her colleagues before their departure. Well, Sophia, I suppose we should be going. Lt. Lucchini and her friends no doubt have much work to do before they sail. It's been lovely meeting you all," she added. "I do hope you'll be able to visit Brandenburg again."
"Take care, Fränze," said Sophia, hugging Lucchini again. "Promise you'll write, oh do promise."
"'Course she'll write," said Shirley with a grin. "Now, whether you'll be able to read it, that's a whole 'nother matter."
"I still have one good leg for kicking," Lucchini warned her, albeit through a grin of her own. "I will write, Sophie, and once the war is over you'll have to come to Rome. I'll introduce you to my friend Maria, I think you two would get along very well."
The witches stood together in a group, waving and calling, until the two young Karlslanders were lost from sight among the buildings of the port; then the Kaiser turned to them and said,
"To answer the question none of you thinks you can ask while I'm here, your friend is already aboard." He took a moment to enjoy their looks of surprise, then went on with a slight twinkle, "She and I... I won't say we had much of a conversation when Hannelore introduced us the other day, but it may be that we reached a certain understanding."
Then, addressing Yoshika specifically, he continued, "For the moment, only Captain von Preußen and her crew have been made privy to the matter of her existence. In that matter, I shall have to ask your forbearance a while longer, Lt. Miyafuji; I have found I achieve my best results as a monarch if I limit the reverberating shocks experienced by my people to no more than one per week," he added with a dry little smile. "You may rest assured, however, that the general situation will change very soon."
Yoshika didn't know what to say for a moment; then, shaking herself slightly, she said, "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Not at all," the Kaiser replied. "I owe your mysterious friend a great debt... and Friedrich IV of Karlsland pays his debts." Turning to the captain, he went on, "Speaking of which, is the new matériel aboard?"
"Loaded and secured this morning," she replied with a smiling nod. "We're ready for sea."
A few of the witches glanced at each other—What new matériel?—but before anyone could ask aloud, they were all interrupted by still another unexpected arrival, this time of a large black Mercedes-Benz sedan marked with the seal of the Imperial Aviation Ministry. While all the witches and the Kaiser looked on with equal curiosity, the uniformed driver got out of the car, went around to the rear passenger door, and opened it—at which point the lean form of Hans von Ohain sprang out, a battered leather briefcase in hand.
"Ah! Excellent! Right on time. Good afternoon, Your Majesty," von Ohain added with a cordial nod. Then, presenting himself to Eugenie, he said with an offhanded salute, "Room for one more, Captain?"
The captain returned the salute automatically, looking deeply perplexed, and then replied, "Er... and you are...?"
"Ah, sorry," said the engineer. "Professor Doktor Hans von Ohain, RLM Bureau 21. Thank you, Karl," he added as the driver placed a large, equally battered suitcase, lately fetched from the trunk of the Mercedes, beside him. "You can head back."
"Very good, Professor," Karl replied; he clicked his heels and bowed to the Kaiser, then turned, got back in the car, and drove away.
"You're coming back with us?" asked Ursula, sounding faintly startled.
"Indeed I am," von Ohain said cheerfully. "I simply have to see this Group Captain Whittle and her inventions for myself. You know, if we had known of each other before this, I expect we both would have been saved a lot of time and effort. At any rate, it's obvious to me now that the center of gravity in jet development is, or soon will be, on the other side of the Atlantic."
"Well... you're probably not wrong about that," Ursula allowed.
"Don't worry, I shan't get underfoot," von Ohain assured her.
"I suppose we can find a place for you," said the Captain, then gave her dimpled smile again and added, "After all, she's a fairly big ship."
"Shall we get aboard, then?" said Hannelore. "Time is passing, after all, and we have much to do when we get back to Europe."
With a chorus of agreement, the witches hefted their bags and trooped up the gangway to the cruiser's entry port, with the captain leading the way. Hannelore was the last to leave the quayside. She turned to say her farewells to her husband.
"It's safe to say I'm not sure which of us is heading into greater danger," she murmured, embracing him. "Watch your back, Fritzchen, while I'm not here to watch it for you."
"I'll be all right, my love," the Kaiser replied with a smile. "The sky is your battlefield, the Reichsrat is mine. We each must attend to our own wars."
"As you say," she agreed, then kissed him fiercely, uncaring whether anyone was watching on ship or shore.
"Wait here a moment," he said quietly when they'd finished, and then—somewhat to her puzzlement—he went around to the back of the Horch and began rummaging in the trunk.
A moment later, the reason for this odd behavior became clear. He returned bearing upon his shoulder, in an almost ceremonial kind of way, a First War-vintage witch weapon: a colossal bolt-action rifle, reminiscent to the 501st's witches of the one favored by Lynette Bishop, albeit in an earlier, simpler style.
While the younger witches, von Ohain, and Captain von Preußen watched with a mixture of bemusement and fond pleasure, Friedrich did as he had always done of old when Hannelore was going off to war. With brisk, drill-field-like efficiency, he checked over the weapon, then handed it over to her; she, in turn, repeated his checks, then stood it next to her in the order-arms position (though it was very nearly as long as she was tall). With equal ceremony, the Kaiser took a broad canvas bandolier, studded with giant cartridges, from over his shoulder and placed it fastidiously upon her, arranging it so it hung from right shoulder to left hip.
Then, as he always had in the First War, he retired one pace, squared up to salute, and said, "Arming complete, Rittmeister. Hals und Beinbruch!"
Hannelore thanked him formally, returned the salute crisply, then picked up the rifle (showing no sign of its obviously enormous weight), turned, and strode up the gangway to join her smiling, in some cases slightly teary-eyed colleagues.
"Let's move out, ladies," she said, her eyes glinting. "There's a job waiting for us to finish it."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
Bacon Comics chief
Though she doesn't appear in this particular episode,
this Eyrie Production is dedicated to
Phyllis Annette (Schwartz) Hutchins
April 13, 1928—October 13, 2015
the only grandmother I ever knew,
and a damn good one.
E P U (colour) 2015