Half a year earlier.
The dead were watching her.
She did not know where she was. The only thing she could see was darkness. It felt like she had been here for a very long time. At first she had thought she was alone in the silence. Very slowly she started to make out the faint forms at the edge of her vision. All around her cold eyes stared from the shadows, still and without any trace of emotion. And yet they were moving. She floated transfixed, unable to turn her gaze away. The desiccated forms of the dead twisted and twirled in a hypnotically slow motion. At times their shriveled limbs stretched, elongating into unnaturally thin strings resembling rotting vines. And when they had become so thin she almost though they would break, they started to contract into themselves. Sluggishly they bulged again into heavy blobs of grey leathery skin.
The macabre visage chilled her blood. And still, there was something familiar about it. As she tried to move, she felt a frigid strain pushing against her limbs. Then the terrifying realization flared into her consciousness – she was underwater. And with the awareness came also the pressure in her chest. She hadn’t breathed in ages. Somewhere far, far above there was the weakest shimmer of light. She could now feel the full weight of the thick, inky water upon her. Her lungs ached with a hunger for air.
She turned upwards to swim, struggling in vain desperation. The unrelenting dark water held her back, its burden crushing her. Then, without warning, icy hands grasped her waist from behind. Panic erupted inside her. Bony claws, cold as death pressed into her soft skin. She flailed her arms frantically as a scream escaped her mouth. No sound could be heard. Then the muddy water rushed in filling her lungs. She writhed with burning pain in her chest as she understood her mistake.
A high pitched laughter cut her scream short and jerked her out of the dream. She tumbled down a grassy bank landing into damp shore sand with a splash.
“By the Bags of Perkunas, Tee! You jumped like half a meter into the air.” The young woman was smirking and flexing her fingers in front of Talvikki’s startled face.
“Nothing does the trick quite like some good old fashioned tickling.”
Throwing her head back Talvikki was not sure whether it was the water in her now wet hair or the dark images of her dream she was trying to shake off. The stars had already risen but it was still warm. It would only be a month more until the summer solstice celebration. A little to the north in the village some torches were still lit. Not everyone had gone to bed yet, probably attending to their chores and crafts in preparation of the festival. Now that her mind was clearing again she started to remember. After a full day of tending to the sick, she had been more than tired. Tuuli had wanted to watch the sunset and hear her tell the old legends. Talvikki must have had dozed off at some point lying on the warm lakeshore grass.
The mischievous looking young woman tilted her head to one side and asked in mock innocence, “Shamanistic visions, big sis?”
Then she burst into giggles again. Tuuli, Talvikki sighed. Her annoying, unbearable and helplessly lovable little sister. Some ten years younger than herself, the slender girl with her dark hair and hauntingly blue eyes was so full of life. Somehow Talvikki could not help feeling old by her side. She tended to claim that the burden of her healing gift demanded a more serious demeanor, but deep inside Talvikki knew this was only part of the truth. Compared to this darting girl, soul like quicksilver, she had to admit she was sometimes too serious, perhaps even slightly dull. Talvikki could not help but smile a little.
“Oh come on back up here.” Tuuli called somewhat impatiently. “I want to hear the rest of it. Let’s get back to the dead.”
Lying on her back below the cloudless night sky Talvikki looked up to the North Star far above them. The focus of all their beliefs and namesake of their tribe, the Great Polestar. It was the point where the Earth Pillar met the canvas of the skies and held it up above the world. Everything revolved around it. She had been taught that at the star there was a hole to the upper realms. Those with the gift could travel to the heavenly Ylinen, home of the unborn souls. And at the other end of the Earth Pillar where it met the ground, there would be the gate to the underworld.
She would really prefer not to think about it now. Such strange omens she had seen recently. And there was this… unnatural scent in the air. She wouldn’t have been able to put her finger on it, but even as she looked at the bright star in the middle of the sky she could not help feeling something was slightly off somehow – just not the way things were meant to be. But then again, she had never been able to deny the joyful enthusiasm of her little sister.
“So, O’ Great Mother of Mysteries, where do you think the dead go?” Behind the care free innuendo Talvikki could sense from her sister a more serious undercurrent, perhaps even concern. What had prompted her to talk about these things now? Talvikki wondered if she also could sense something was in change.
“There are many different beliefs about this, Tuuli, like you should know.” Talvikki started to explain in an accommodating tone. “The northern tribes such as the Icewind believe that spirits of the dead fly up into the sky realms. And our tribe of course believes in Pohja, the underworld, where the dead travel to continue their life in a world much like ours except everything is just the opposite. Day is night, up is down and…”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tuuli interrupted in frustration. “I know all this stuff. You have told me before. That is not what I asked. I want you to tell me what you believe yourself. I mean you do all this communing stuff with the nature spirits and all. And still you never tell me anything real about it. Talvis, I know you know more than you are letting on.”
Of course she could not have such answers. No shaman did for certain. And yet somehow Talvikki was getting this uncomfortable feeling not being so sure about that anymore. With some effort to fake nonchalance and quite uncertain whether she was succeeding, Talvikki continued: “Now, little sister. Not all things are meant to be known. I am not sure we should be discussing these things too far. Have you thought you might not like the answers?”
“Oh come on.” Tuuli snorted. “Just say what you think.”
Pondering for a moment Talvikki went on, unease now more audible in her voice: “There are legends that speak of the dead traveling the World River. Perhaps the afterlife has something to do with waters…” The moment she said that she already regretted having done so. Her own words had brought the dream back. Memories of freezing, oppressively heavy darkness. The winding, convoluting forms of the dead. She cringed in her mind as chills went down her spine.
“You know, I am not so sure about that, sis.” Tuuli said with some resignation.
“What do you mean?”
“I don´t think the dead go anywhere. I think they just stay here with us.” she continued with a strangely unfamiliar inflection in her voice.
“Well…” Talvikki paused, taken aback. “I guess the stories leave some room for interpretation, but I don´t think …”
“Seriously, I can even see one now, lying right there. Oh yes, old as the mountains with her long white hair and unaware, stupefied gaze.”
“Wait, what? Are you scre..?” That was as far as Talvikki got in her sentence. With dawning revelation she raised her head and turned to the direction of her sister’s voice. And as she did, she already knew it was too late to dodge. A huge splash of icy cold lake water hit her right in the face.
Tuuli was standing in the waterline, bent over and howling. She struggled to get the words out amidst her laughter: “You just make this too easy, Tee.”
The elder sister’s eyes flashed in the starlight. “All right.” A wild grin rose onto her face.
“That does it.” the shamaness exclaimed and leaped at the leering teen.
Soft night breeze carried their voices far out along the still waters of Lake Starpath. The young woman’s laughter echoed spirited and blissful. And entirely oblivious to how correct her sister had been about her liking the answers.