In the town of Svalgearyen, on the thirty-third day of the months-long winter night, Grandma Marit abruptly cast her knitting aside and marched toward the door.
"It's my time," she declared—a pronouncement that elicited a whimper from Gunther, the bushy little sheepdog who had been curled up at her feet.
Her granddaughter, Adda, set her own knitting down with far more delicacy but also a great deal of surprise. "Where are you going?"
"Well," Grandma Marit said as she heaved herself into her heavy winter coat, "I can't die here, now can I?"
Adda, having spent most of her thirteen years in the city with her parents, did not know all the ways of Svalgearyen. As such, she saw no reason why Grandma Marit should not die wherever she chose. More to the point, she saw no reason why Grandma Marit should die at all.
"It's much too cold and dark to go outside," Adda said. "Stay with me and Gunther by the fire."
Grandma Marit pulled on her knit cap with a harrumph, each woolen glove with a grunt. Her scarf went on with a solemn sigh.
"It's my time, child. You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind, but there's not a one alive who can argue with Death."
And with that, Grandma Marit opened the door. A draft tried to sneak in past her, but dying or not, Grandma Marit would have none of that inside her house. She shooed the draft back into the cold where it belonged and shut the door behind them both.
"Not a one alive who can argue with Death," Adda muttered. She stomped to her feet and snatched up her coat. Like Grandma Marit, she pulled on her hat with a harrumph, each glove with a grunt. Her scarf, though, went on with an indignant sniff. "We'll just see about that."
Adda hurried outside into the snow, Gunther trotting at her heels. The draft tried to sneak in past them as well, but Adda swatted it aside.
"Best let me use that fire if you're not going to," the draft said in a whining whistle.
"You don't fool me." Adda shut the door behind her. "You'll creep across the floor and blow out our fire."
Gunther growled at the draft, all courage and bristled fur. But when the draft responded with a nip at his tail, Gunther yelped and dove into the nearest snow bank.
"Oh, Gunther," Adda said, pulling him out by his hind legs. "There's no need to be afraid of a silly little draft."
Gunther shook the snow off his coat, then gave a short bark that said he quite disagreed.
Adda looked up and down the lane, but Grandma Marit had already disappeared into the darkness. The only movement came from flickers of firelight sneaking out of neighbors' windows. The darkness groaned in annoyance at the tittering flickers, who flitted up and down the sides of the box-like wooden homes, offering glimpses of vibrant reds, greens, blues, and yellows. The flickers skipped over the ground and tickled Adda's feet, even through her heavy boots.
Adda stifled a giggle. "Stop that," she said, and wagged a finger at them. "We need your help to find Grandma Marit."
The flickers bounded across the snow. Adda feared they would run away altogether, but a bark from Gunther put a stop to their fluttering. The flickers formed a halo around a footprint in the snow—a footprint so distinctively blocky that it had to be Grandma Marit's.
Adda clapped in triumph. "Thank you!"
The flickers scattered in a burst of laughter.
"No!" Adda cried, chasing after them. She tried to scoop them up in her hands, but the flickers slid through her gloved fingers, tickling and twittering all the while.
Gunther barked in alarm. The flickers squealed and haloed another footprint, but just as quickly scattered again. More worrisome than their teasing, though, was what had prompted Gunther's bark. Adda followed the sheepdog's gaze to where the wind and the snow were dancing together, twirling each other about in a spirited springleik that would soon sweep Grandma Marit's footprints away.
"Help us, please," Adda said to the flickers, "before her tracks are gone."
Gunther let out another bark. Once more the flickers squealed, haloed a footprint, and scattered.
"Gunther," Adda said, struck by an idea, "you're a sheepdog. You can herd them."
Gunther cocked his head, as if he had momentarily forgotten he was a dog at all. Then he barked. And barked again. He ran around the flock of flickers, corralling them and woofing commands. The flickers obediently haloed Grandma Marit's footprints, one by one.
Adda followed the flickers from halo to halo, footprint to footprint. With every step, the snow sucked in her boots with a fwump, then let them go with a fwap. Finally, Grandma Marit's sturdy square-ish form came into view.
"Grandma Marit! Wait!"
Grandma Marit plunged ahead, cheeks puffing, far too much determination in her steps for one who had it in her mind to die. By the time Adda and Gunther caught up to her, their cheeks were puffing as well. Adda's breath came out in playful white clouds, Gunther's in ones as bushy as his tail. Grandma Marit's breath, however, floated off in the wind before finding any form at all.
"You should take Gunther home and feed him," she told Adda. "He must be getting hungry."
Adda matched Grandma Marit's heavy-footed strides. "Gunther had the dinner leftovers, and all the bits I threw him before then."
"Ha!" Grandma Marit's sneeze-like exclamation blew a hole straight through the snow at her feet. "I knew you wouldn't eat your lutefisk."
"Please tell me where you're going, Grandma Marit. Why can't you die at home? Why must you die at all?"
Grandma Marit grumbled something under her breath. "Your parents have taught you nothing, I see. Nothing about Svalgearyen. I can't die here, so I'm going to meet Death on the town border. That's the law."
"Cheeky child, with all your questions. It's just the way things are. Your Grandpa Olaf met Death at the border. My parents met Death at the border. My parents' parents met Death at the border. And so I will too."
"You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind, but there's not a one alive who can argue with the way things are."
"Well," Adda said, "we'll just see about that."
They made their way uphill, out of the fjord that housed the heart of Svalgearyen. Adda tromped, shoulders squared and head held defiantly high; Grandma Marit trudged, shoulders crouched and head jutting forward. Gunther, with his bushy tail wagging, ran a few paces ahead to keep their flock of flickers lighting the way.
The further they climbed, the more the North Wind screamed across the hillside.
Adda yanked her cap down tighter. "Must the wind blow at us so?"
"I must!" the North Wind roared. In a single gust, he snatched up the flickers and flung them across the hillside. Then, with another roar and another gust, the North Wind snatched up Gunther and tossed him as well. The little sheepdog tumbled downhill, head over tail, yelping and howling until a rock halted his fall with a horrible smack.
Adda dashed down the hillside, with Grandma Marit huffing and puffing close behind. Gunther lay whimpering beside the rock, trembling flickers tangled in his hair. His neck was twisted at an angle so unnatural that he saw his tail in full view for the very first time.
Grandma Marit drew herself up as tall as her stocky frame would allow and thumbed her nose at the North Wind. "Can't let an old woman go meet Death in peace, can you? Had to go and kill my dog too, didn't you?"
"I'm terribly sorry," the North Wind said, and faded to an insincere whisper.
"He's not dead." Adda tried to turn Gunther's head round right, but he let out a bark so anguished that Adda cringed and drew her hands away. "Gunther's just hurt, that's all."
"He'll be dead as soon as we find Death," Grandma Marit said. She gave Gunther a sad, gentle scratch behind the ears. "Death's a cruel one, isn't he, Gunther? Not letting us die at home, warm in bed."
"I still don't understand why you have to die at all," Adda said. "Why not tell Death you're not in the mood to die just yet?"
"Because Death's not part of Svalgearyen. He's waiting across the border. Besides, child, it's my time. Gunther's now too."
"But if we just—"
"You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind . . ." Grandma Marit hoisted Gunther into her arms, but her knees had other ideas. They buckled beneath her, sending her and Gunther toppling forward into a mound of snow. "But there's not a one alive who would want to go on living like this."
Adda's "we'll just see about that" stopped short of her tongue and promptly retreated to the confines of her throat. When had Gunther become too heavy for Grandma Marit to lift?
Adda helped Grandma Marit to her feet, then gathered Gunther into her arms. They walked unsteadily on, silent and shivering, nothing more than the dim flickers in Gunther's hair to light the way.
The ground soon leveled off, trading its upward slope for a grove of spruce trees capped with snow. The trees leaned into each other like tall sturdy loggers huddling for warmth. Then Adda spied what they were huddling around—the slithering orange and red, the curling dance of smoke, the crackling with which it sang.
"Look," she said to the quivering ball of fur in her arms that was Gunther. "A fire!"
"And a troll," Grandma Marit grumbled. "You won't find one without the other in the woods."
As they drew closer, Adda saw that Grandma Marit was very right indeed. What had looked at a distance to be a thickset spruce was not a tree at all but a troll sitting on a log. The burly creature possessed a fat round belly and a bulbous-tipped nose near as long as Adda's forearm. His ears resembled giant saucers with an unappetizing dish of hair and earwax plopped in the middle. Adda tried not to cringe at his wet-fur scent.
"Oh ho ho, what is this?" the troll bellowed upon seeing them.
"We're just passing through," Grandma Marit said, pointing to a path that led into the woods. "You pay us no mind."
"Oh ho ho, not without gold, you don't." The troll heaved himself off his log and blocked the path. "Pay the toll or become my dinner."
"Ha!" Grandma Marit's exclamation cleared a trail through the snow between her and the troll. "We don't have any gold, and you don't have it in you to eat an old woman going to meet her death."
"The little one looks tasty," the troll said, "and the dog."
Adda winced; Gunther whimpered; the flickers wailed and whined. Grandma Marit, on the other hand, looked ready to try wrestling the troll to the ground. There had been a time when she could have, and she had the scars to prove it. But now, Adda couldn't help but notice how the wrinkles in Grandma Marit's face had all but swallowed those scars whole. If Grandma Marit couldn't even lift little Gunther anymore, how was she going to wrestle a troll?
"Please," Adda said, "let's go home and not argue with—"
"The only place I'm going is to meet Death." Grandma Marit spit at the troll's feet, where her saliva promptly solidified into an icy gob. "And no one's getting eaten along the way."
"Oh ho ho," the troll said in a bellow to rival the North Wind. "I'll warn you one more time: pay the toll or become my dinner."
The North Wind, not one to be outdone by a troll, responded with a gust that reduced the troll's fire to only a few scattered embers. Gunther's flickers, however, had learned from their first encounter with the North Wind and held fast to the sheepdog's hair.
With his point made, the North Wind quieted down and drifted on his way. The flickers let out weary squeaks of relief; the fire's dying embers answered with peeps of their own, giving an Adda an idea.
"You silly troll," she said, "so much bluster and all it's gotten you is a blown-out fire. You can't very well cook anyone for dinner without a fire, now can you?"
The troll's shaggy head drooped in defeat. "Oh ho ho, you're quite right, this won't do at all. I need that fire."
"These flickers here could probably help relight it," Adda said. "But only if you let us pass without eating us."
"An excellent idea," the troll said with a clap of his huge, hairy hands. "Put them in my fire and you can be on your way."
Gunther barked, prodding the flickers into action. They leapt into the smoldering remains of the troll's fire, where they exchanged excited chitters with the embers. Soon the flickers and the embers were flittering about each other and bursting into full flame.
"Oh ho ho, I owe you my thanks." The troll shooed a stray flicker into a lantern that had been sitting beside his log. "Take this, please. The woods are terribly dark."
He started to hand the lantern to Adda, but paused when he saw that she couldn't very well carry both Gunther and the lantern. He scratched a waxy ear, clearly confused as to what to do about such a predicament.
"For a troll," Grandma Marit said, taking the lantern from him, "you're not entirely dumb."
"Oh ho ho, why thank you," the troll said far too proudly.
Adda and Grandma Marit started down the path into the dark, quiet woods where the scent of spruce and snow hung heavy in the air. Grandma Marit regarded Adda with one bristly, questioning eyebrow raised.
"You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind," Adda said, "but there's not a one alive who can cook someone for dinner without a fire."
Grandma Marit patted Adda's wool-covered head with a wool-covered hand. "You're learning, child."
Adda smirked, quite pleased with herself. But the further they walked, the less pleased she grew. In fact, she grew most displeased with herself. She may have outsmarted a troll, but Grandma Marit was still on her way to meet Death.
And by outsmarting the troll, I helped her on her way, Adda thought in dismay. Perhaps I outsmarted myself as well as the troll!
"I'd ask you why you're so glum," Grandma Marit said, "but I know. You think I didn't try to talk your grandfather out of going to meet Death when his time came?"
Adda buried her nose in Gunther's hair to stifle a sniffle. Don't you dare cry, she told herself. Your tears will freeze to your cheeks and Grandma Marit will die disappointed in her foolish, foolish granddaughter.
"There's not a one alive who can argue with Death," Grandma Marit said, her voice unusually sad and gentle. "I know because I tried."
They continued on in silence, their resignation imprinting the snow as heavily and deeply as their boots. Despite the cold, Adda's cheeks flushed hot. Her chest grew so sore and tight that it became hard to breathe; she felt as if an entire clan of trolls was sitting upon her. And just when she thought she could go no further without bursting into tears, Grandma Marit stopped and placed a hand on Adda's shoulder. Just ahead, the tree branches formed an archway over the end of the forest path.
"This is it," Grandma Marit said. "This is where Svalgearyen ends, and where we say goodbye."
The woman standing beside Adda no longer looked like strong and sturdy Grandma Marit. This woman was sad and wrinkled and could no longer wrestle a troll to the ground. Her thin lips quivered in the cold, and her teeth disturbed the otherwise quiet night with a percussive chatter. This was a woman who shouldn't have been forced to trudge here in the snow and see her dog's neck broken along the way. She deserved to die at home, warm in her bed with Gunther curled up at her feet.
"Where we say goodbye." The weight pressing on Adda's chest scampered off behind a tree, where it hid from the icy resolve that had taken its place. "We'll just see about that."
Adda ran through the archway, Gunther whimpering in her arms. Grandma Marit hurried after them, scolding all the way, but Adda barely heard. If she had to lose Grandma Marit and Gunther, it wasn't going to be here, surrounded by darkness and snow.
Only a few steps out of the woods, Adda halted and let out an awestruck gasp. A white-sheeted landscape lit by moonlight stretched out before her. Beyond it lay a great black glacier, darker than the night—only it wasn't ice, Adda soon realized. A ripple passed through the dark mass, as if she had startled it by bursting out of the woods. The mass moved toward her, undulating across the snow, swallowing the moonlight in shadow. The closer it drew, the colder the air became, until Adda felt as if she were swallowing ice with every breath. Gunther howled; Grandma Marit sucked in a thin, frightened breath. They were standing before Death.
"I don't want to argue with you," Adda said, trembling. "But I do want to ask you a question."
The shadowy expanse contracted and expanded, as if blinking in surprise. "A question?" The voice boomed across the night, yet Adda found it comforting in a sad, cold kind of way. "It's been a long time since anyone from Svalgearyen only wanted to ask me a question. Some try to argue; others are just angry. But most simply accept it when it's their time."
"Well, it's not my time," Adda said, "and I'm not from Svalgearyen, so I would like to know: if Grandma Marit and Gunther have to die, why can't they do so at home, where it's warm and comfortable?"
Death let out a sigh that blew snowdrifts across Adda's feet. "Because I'm not welcome in Svalgearyen."
"That's goat droppings and troll swill," Grandma Marit said. "Everyone's welcome in Svalgearyen."
"Not me," Death said. He sounded more like an old dog kicked one too many times than something to be feared. "Your ancestors made it very clear when they settled in Svalgearyen: 'We'll not have Death darkening our new home. We've come here to leave all that behind.' Only you can't, you see. People always know when it's their time, and they get tired. And people in Svalgearyen would get so tired that they just lay down in the snow and slept until they became blocks of ice. They were quite upset when they thawed out in the spring."
"So they started meeting you here?" Adda said, surprised at the pity she felt for the great dark mass before her.
"That they did. They wouldn't welcome me in, but they couldn't argue when their time came either. No one can."
"Where age gets in, he will never get out again," Grandma Marit said. "I can see why people would get tired. I'm quite tired myself."
"Well, we could . . ." Adda looked to Grandma Marit, who offered her a somber smile and a nod. Adda swallowed hard, then addressed Death. "We'll welcome you to Svalgearyen."
Death's shadowy darkness rippled. "You will?"
"We will. But . . ." Adda hesitated. Death seemed so agreeable, but he was still Death. "You'll let Grandma Marit and Gunther go home first, won't you?"
"Of course I will," Death said, and the air around them no longer felt so icy. "I think we even have time for a warm cup of cocoa."
"Then welcome to Svalgearyen," Adda said.
She, Gunther and Grandma Marit started toward home, with Death billowing close behind.
When they reached the heart of Svalgearyen, gasps and curses sounded from within the homes they passed. One man threw open his door and staggered toward them, a hatchet buried in his head, held in place by a frozen clump of blood. Adda's stomach wriggled at his rotten scent; Grandma Marit muttered something about the ones too exhausted to make it to the border. As soon as Death's shadow fell over the man, he dropped to the snow, dead.
What have I done? Adda thought. Regret tried to sneak its way into her heart, but it retreated upon hearing a whimper of longing from poor little backwards-headed Gunther. He looked up at Adda with pained, watery eyes that told her she had done the man a favor.
Soon enough they were home; Grandma Marit propped up in bed with a mug of hot cocoa, Gunther curled at her feet, Adda nestled in a bedside chair. Death coiled a shadowy tendril around his own mug of cocoa. They all watched in fascination as he absorbed the chocolaty liquid into his dark nothingness.
"Inviting Death over for cocoa," Grandma Marit said with a weak laugh. "You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind, but there's not a one alive who can claim a granddaughter quite so crazy as mine."
She winked at Adda, who smiled tearfully in return. As much as Adda still wanted to argue, she knew the time for it was past.
Grandma Marit set down her cocoa, gave Gunther one final scratch behind the ears, then lay back and pulled the blanket to her chin. "It's my time."
Death cast his shadow over the bed. Grandma Marit breathed her last with a peaceful sigh, Gunther his with a contented murmur. Adda, though, offered no breath at all; it had gotten tangled up with the grief welling in her chest.
"If you'll excuse me," Death said, "there are a few others in Svalgearyen I should go and visit."
Adda nodded, too numb to speak.
"Thank you for the cocoa," Death said, and rippled his way out of the house.
Outside, more gasps and curses sounded, mingled with an impatient utterance of "it's about time." Upon hearing the latter, Adda's breath finally worked itself loose. She stood, patted Gunther's backwards head, then clasped Grandma Marit's cooling hand.
"You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind," Adda said, "but there's not a one alive who can argue with Death."
She collapsed into a chair beside the fireplace, feeling more like a heap of sniffles than a human girl. The rocker where Grandma Marit should have been sitting was empty and still; the patch of rug where Gunther should have been curled up was threadbare and worn. Their presence, though, was so strong that Adda half-expected Gunther to bark and Grandma Marit to rise from bed and chide her for sulking. And so with a fond, sorrowful sniff, Adda took up her grandmother's discarded knitting and began a new row of stitches where Grandma Marit's had ended.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.