May 1, 1881
There was a grave cut into the permafrost. It was seven feet long and three feet wide. In it, under six feet of freshly turned earth, lay Stian Mogen, Magus and Duke of Hjelm.
There was an old man, sitting on a three-legged stool. He had a long, grizzled beard over a face that was a burnished copper, and he squinted in the midday sun. This far north the air still carried a bite, and he wore a sealskin jacket and tall fur-lined boots. He puffed on a long stemmed pipe, and watched patiently.
Next to him stood a man only slightly younger in years but radically different in both appearance and demeanor. He was best described as fussy: his salt and pepper beard neatly trimmed to a point under his chin, his hair perfectly cut, and even out here on the steppe his clothing was without so much as a wrinkle or speck of dust. He would have been pacing if it hadn’t felt ridiculous. Instead, he frequently drew his watch out of his waistcoat, checked it, and re-pocketed it while grimacing.
There were three women as well, veiled and dressed in black from head to toe. Some things must be done according to tradition, and for this they needed the Sisters. Behind them, five men sat on the turf and played cards as they waited.
The well-dressed man pulled out his watch again. And looked at it, again. He made a small clucking noise.
“Relax, Josef,” the other man said in Sámi.
“Easy for you to say, Baza,” Josef replied in English. When he looked up, a third man was approaching them. “You’re late, Yevgeny.”
“No, I’m not,” the young man said with a snort. “You’re just a nervous old woman.”
Baza laughed. “That’s what I said.”
Yevgeny laughed with him for a moment, then grew serious. “How long has it been?”
Baza shrugged, but Josef said, “Two days, twenty one hours, and 13 minutes.”
Yev frowned slightly and looked at Baza. “But you’re not worried.”
“Well,” said Baza as he puffed at the pipe again, “if he were dead, we would know already.”
“Very comforting,” said Yevgeny.
The old man laughed, a cackle that sent shivers down Yevgeny’s backbone. “He’s fine.”
“You think it will work?” Yevgeny asked.
“Of course not,” said Baza. “No one gets it the first time.”
“My father did,” said Yevgeny.
“Beorn had his name to help him. And his nature.” Baza drew deeply on the pipe, then pulled it out of his lips and gestured at the dirt with the stem. “That will be this one’s problem.”
“What about Dag?” Yevgeny asked. Dag, Stian’s father, was the brother Yevgeny had known best, and he still didn’t know much of him.
Baza was still. Then he said, “Dag got it eventually. The bear…” Baza’s voice wandered off into the frost, and Yevgeny didn’t think he would go on. As was the old man’s habit, he surprised Yevgeny again. “The bear respects strength. But not just any kind. Beorn was all strength. And Dag knew his. But this one…” This time Baza’s voice stumbled off into the thicket of a muttering grumble, one that stood on the border between madness and an old man’s corner ruminations.
“No one gets it the first time,” he finally repeated, bringing his thoughts back onto the trail of comprehensibility.
“That settles it,” Josef said, snapping his watch shut. He turned to the black-draped women and said, “Pull him up.”
The Sisters nodded in perfect unison, and one of them signaled to the seated workmen. Four of them began digging up the soft ground with their bare hands while a fifth stood by holding a lidded crate. When they reached the man buried under the soil, they hauled him up under the arms and then lifted him out of the grave. Then the Sisters took hold of him and laid him out on the turf.
One of them – she must have been the youngest, although there was no way to tell, lifted her veil. All the men present turned away as she knelt down, tilted up the man’s chin, covered his mouth with her own, and breathed deeply into his lungs.
Stian’s eyes opened even as they rolled back into his head, and his back arched off the ground. He began to cough, and the other two women sat him up. They pressed a horn of beer into his hands, and he drank. He tried to push it away then, curling his lip up at both the bitter taste and the pain on swallowing with a throat that hadn’t been used for three days, but one of the Sisters cupped wrinkled hands around his own.
“Drink,” she said, and he obeyed. When he had drained it, they handed him a round of black bread. As he tore into it, he looked at the figure in front of him. Her veil was still raised, and he froze. Memory began to flood back, and he knew her, although he was still dazed enough to not wonder how she could possibly be there. He reached out with one hand to touch the red ringlets that tumbled down from under her veil, but she grabbed it, shaking her head. He blinked, and shook his head, and the illusion was gone. The woman lowered her veil, and he chewed the bread while he came back to himself fully.
“How long?” he asked finally, his voice hoarse.
“Three days,” Josef answered. “Did you get it?” Stian just shook his head.
“I told you,”Baza said, “no one gets it the first time. We try again in six months.”
“So long?” Stian asked.
The old man stood up and walked over, crouching down next to him. “You’ve got to get your head right, boy. This one isn’t like the other two. You can’t think your way into it.” He stood back up and began walking away across the steppe. “Six months. It’s a better time to die, anyway.”
Josef sighed. “Let’s get him home.”
They helped Stian to his feet and wrapped a cloak around him. As he began to walk, it was clear he was unsteady, and Yevgeny quickly came to his side. Stian gratefully threw one arm over the shorter man’s shoulders.
“Disappointed, Yev?” he asked, grinning.
“God, no. I keep telling you, I don’t want your job, you crazy bastard.” Yevgeny gestured loosely over his face and added, “Besides, I’m not hiding all this prettiness under all that dirt.”