In November, one month early, Sieglinde squatted, clutching rough stone until her palms bled. The second time she watched the sun come up, she was almost grateful that the dwarf was there to bring her water.
At the cave mouth rode women on white horses.
There was no respite from gods. Sieglinde hauled herself up, despite the spasm in her belly, to drive them away.
Her throat was still rough from keening, and her voice came low. "Do you hunt for heroes? Then begone! you ride out of season. No heroes wait for you here. My son is an infant, and my brother that was has gone to Hel, he who was the best of all men."
"Truly, we ride in search of heroes," the closer of the two women said. Yet she was not of the company Sieglinde knew, and she rode without arms or armor, her head uncovered, her kirtle soft over her breast.
"It is you we have come for, Sieglinde, Wälse's daughter," the other rider said; "to bear you hence to Freyja's Hall."
"I?" Sieglinde sagged against the cave mouth. Her cloak was back by the fire, swaddling her son, and the rock scraped her cold skin through her dress.
"Wolf's daughter, Wälsung, you have borne your child," the first woman said; "and you are bleeding."
"There is so much blood," Sieglinde said, and discovered she was weeping, again, and steadily; before today, she had thought all tears had been wrung out of her when Siegmund died.
"Ride with me," said the first woman, stretching her hands out to Sieglinde. "I will bear you to the Hall of Many Seats, where you may dwell in sunlight, and be honored."
Sieglinde touched her fingertips, dumbly, and the rider's hands clasping her own were warm and comforting, like the promise of sisterhood; like her mother's arms, a lifetime away.
"My son -- " Sieglinde started.
"You are bleeding too much," the other rider said, gently.
"The gnome must tend to your child now," said the first rider, squeezing Sieglinde's hands. "You can no longer. Mount before me, lady, and we will bear you home."
Sieglinde closed her eyes. She had left her son everything she had: a name, a friendless haven, a useless sword. It was how her own father had left her at her wedding. There was nothing else she had to bestow.
"I am coming," she said, and did not look behind her.
The dísir rode without saddles. The rider settled behind her, thigh against her thigh and breast at her back. Muscles bunched in the mare's neck, the rider's hand braced at Sieglinde's waist, the mare sprang forward. The grim November sky fell away beneath its hooves, and the stars swung around her.
The horses gleamed like the moon in summer. Already the strangeness of her body, torn and empty, was fading.
"Will I see my brother again?"
The rider did not answer. "Your mother dwells in our Hall," she said at last. Her breath was soft against Sieglinde's ear. "She has long yearned to walk with you once more."
Sieglinde knotted her fingers into the horse's mane, and said nothing.
They garbed her as a lady of the Hall, in a fine kirtle and slippers, with rings upon her arms and horn and spindle at her belt.
Her mother dwelt here. She spun fine wool, as she had in the dim backwards halls of Sieglinde's recollection, and embroidered the twining patterns suited to a lady of the Hall. She did not embroider flames.
"My child," her mother said when Sieglinde knelt before her. She touched Sieglinde's hair, and wept.
At her mother's feet Sieglinde squeezed her mother's hand, and curled around the strangeness that still marked her empty womb. "Do you remember my brother?"
"Of course I do," her mother said. She touched her own belly, below her belt, her elegant fingers graceful against the scoop of her kirtle. "My beautiful son. As splendid as you, my daughter, my beautiful daughter. Your father loved him."
"What do you remember of my father?" Sieglinde asked, around the lump in her throat.
Her mother's hands clutched in her lap. "I remember that he was brave; that he loved you. As he loved your brother."
"He never loved us enough." Sieglinde said, when she could speak.
"Did your brother die well?"
"Better than I," Sieglinde said bitterly, her own rape, her own oathbreaking still too soon to mind: "better than I or my father or Wotan deserves. My brother should be the foremost hero in Walhall, but I have heard none of him."
"But you are here," her mother said, and she clutched Sieglinde's hands.
Her mother would not speak more of her father. Sieglinde embroidered flames, and a sword, a tree, and vulnerability, and the powers who dwelt in the Hall came to say nothing to her. She held the secret of her child close, as she might have held the infant.
She laid her head on her mother's lap, weeping, and her mother's hand twined in her hair, and brought no comfort.
The apple trees bloomed by night, and shed their petals by day. There was no keeping season. Freyja came to her, later, when she could no longer say how many moons had come and gone.
"Sieglinde," Freyja said, and as she did not claim the facile rights of kinship Sieglinde knelt at her feet and kissed them.
"Nay, do not," Freyja said, and lifted Sieglinde's chin. "I would not have you dwell here as a handmaiden, but as a sister of my heart. Tell me, how do you find my Hall?"
"It is pleasant beyond any hope I ever cherished, my lady," Sieglinde said.
"And yet this is not high praise," said Freyja.
"Lady," said Sieglinde, "you blessed my womb and for that I must always love you, yet it is charity in its utmost to make me a handmaiden in your Hall. I have sinned against my marriage oath and I do not repent; I loved a man who was not my husband, a man who was my brother. I bore him a child, and I look for him still."
"This is My hall," Freyja said, her eyes glinting; "not my sister's. Doubt this not. I call all who dwell here, and when I summon them I pay no heed to what Fricka, or any other, may say."
"My lady," said Sieglinde, "you are kind beyond any kindness I dreamt in my husband's hall."
"And again I say," said Freyja upon her summer throne: "this is not high praise."
"Lady," Sieglinde said; "my brother is my hearth, and my brother is my home. Tell me my brother dwells as your hero or as Wotan's, and I will embroider banners for his battles, and be content."
Freyja inclined her head. "Wälse's daughter. Many people have lied to you. I would not be among them."
Sieglinde rose. "Where is my brother?"
"He would not dwell where you were not," Frejya said. "The Walküren could not move him. He has gone to Hel."
Sieglinde lifted her chin. "Then I honor your kindness, Lady, but I must leave your Hall."
"I will be sorry to lose you," Freyja said. "I count you as a hero among my heroes."
"You honor me beyond my dreams and beyond my deserts, my lady, but until my brother shares your honors I cannot accept them."
"I would honor him," Freyja said, "were it mine to do so. But my writ does not run first beneath the vaulted sky, and my hall is founded as deep as apples only, and never yet as ash. I would have had you in my Hall with steel and with spindle, but by the love I hold for my brothers I loose you to yours. If you wish to go, I will speed you on your way."
The dísir came to her, and washed her feet, and wound flowers into her hair. A great boat waited for her in the river, the kind that was burnt for kings when they died.
"I must always lose my children," her mother said, and wept, and kissed Sieglinde's hair, and for the first time Sieglinde was sorry to leave her.
"I will find my brother," she said to her mother. "I will take care of him." Her voice snagged there, because she had told her mother only husband, and death in battle, and let her mother imagine her daughter undegraded.
"My good daughter," her mother said, and Sieglinde laughed an incredulous sob. "Give him my love," her mother went on, and Sieglinde said nothing, nor met her eyes, but clasped her hands and nodded.
She stepped into the boat, and held the sides as it rocked beneath her.
"Farewell," said Freyja, dark-eyed, and shoved the prow into the current.
When the boat stops, Freyja had said, your journey is at an end.
The river ran down from the bright folded peaks of the sky to gloomy plains, and the boat ran with it. In the high mountains, the prow of the boat reared above the steep hurry of water, brightly painted and dragon-carved. In the plains, even as the river spread and thickened, the boat diminished, the timbers becoming weathered, and the prow no more than a joining of boards. The banks narrowed, and Sieglinde was glad of the shrinking boat as she wielded her single oar desperately to keep the ship upright, when the water ran white over rapids, and the wind threatened to drive her ashore.
When the boat had become a matted tangle of twigs and dead leaves spinning in the current, Sieglinde paddled to the side of the river, and waded to shore.
A track led away from the riverbank, barely a scratch of dirt in the leaves. The sky was heavy with clouds and full of a brooding evening. Sieglinde, in her wet slippers and summer kirtle, shivered, and walked inland.
The track left the wood, and came to a crossroads. There a giantess waited, a hammer at her waist. Both roads stretched away in the dusk, but beyond the giantess, the road ran steeply uphill, toward a tight stockade of pine, and beyond that, dimly against the dim sky, mountains.
"Traveller, I have not met your like," said the giantess. "You are dead, but not newly; you are mortal, but you stink of the gods."
"I had not thought," Sieglinde said, "that your mistress was choosy."
"It is true: death, fast or slow, is remorseless, and gods fall even as mortals do. Yet those whom the gods love seldom come up this road. State your name and business, or linger until you can."
"Call me Shame, daugher of Sorrow," said Sieglinde; "Woe is my brother, and my father is Absence. I have come for my brother."
"Welcome, sister, to Hel's realm," said the giantess, and bowed. "There is a charge for passage."
Sieglinde drew off one of her arm rings, Freyja's gold, and finely wrought, and pressed it into the giantess' hand. She went on, lighter, and cold.
It was evening when she reached the stockade, and night when she knocked at the door. The wind caught at the wall, blowing snowflakes up around her, and distantly from the mountains beyond the hall she could hear the howl of wolves. There was no answer. She knocked again, and the door swung open under her fist.
The great hall was lit by a roaring fire and torches along the walls, and crowded with men and animals. A poet was singing, and women moved among the tables bearing horns of mead and platters, but they were all as distant and faded as a story told long ago. Hunding held forth at one table, with all his men around him, and Sieglinde walked quickly by him; but he was diminished, as if seen far-off through frost, and did not turn as she passed. Siegmund was not here.
At the head of the hall, upon a great throne, sat Hel, by day as black as corpses, by night as white as bone. She alone was more real than shadow, and sharper than memory.
Sieglinde walked up the hall to stand before her, and did not bow.
"Sieglinde, Wälse's daughter," said Hel: "welcome to my Hall."
"Greetings to you, Lady of Evening," Sieglinde said. "I have come for my brother."
Hel laughed, a single snort.
"You are bold," she said, "and you have learned flattery."
"Lady," said Sieglinde, and bit her lip.
"You have not offended me." Hel's voice was like branches in the winter wind. "My Hall alone of Halls is open to all who come. You need not fear exile at the end of your road. But I do not think this is what troubles you."
Sieglinde said again: "I have come in search of my brother. Please, Lady, I have heard he is here."
"All come to me," said Hel, "sooner or later."
"I will serve you," Sieglinde said; "as you will and as you wish; only let me see him."
"I have no need of servants," said Hel. "Here the dead serve themselves, or their illusions."
Sieglinde said, madly, "Then I ask you as one woman to another: is my brother here?"
"And if he were not here, what would you do? Would you leave my Hall, as you left Freyja's? Hunger is my table and memory my mead, but beyond my walls is winter, and the wolves who hunt in the darkness."
"I do not ask for warmth or succour," Sieglinde said. "I will sleep in winter's lap and eat emptiness. I ask only: where is my brother?"
"You have asked three times," said Hel. "Your brother came to me, but he has gone. He was not made for walls." She lifted her hand, and Sieglinde turned to follow where she pointed. In the wall beside her was a door, low and crude, belonging to a poor man's hut.
"Thank you," said Sieglinde. The wind leaked in around the rough-hewn frame, and chilled her wet feet. She gripped her bare arms for courage, and stepped forward.
"Your arm ring," Hel said. Sieglinde turned back toward her in blank surprise. Hel had her hand out in demand. "It will not help you now."
Sieglinde slipped off the second of the rings from Freyja's Hall, and drew reluctantly to the throne.
Hel leaned down to receive it from her. Her hand was small, like a child's. She smiled, the broad cold grin of skeletons, and said: "Luck to you, Sieglinde."
Sieglinde recoiled. She stumbled out of the door, the snow pinching at her feet. The wind whipped her hair around her face, and bit into her scalp. The mountains rose up half-felt in the dark night before her, and in the heights she could hear the wolves.
"Siegmund!" she called, and the wind ripped her words away. She pressed forward, one step, another. A wolf howled again, nearer.
"Wälsung, Siegmund, husband, brother!"
Nothing but the wind answered her. She staggered on, her feet clumsy with the cold.
Then a shadow moved in the blowing snow and kept moving, gathering shape and weight and flowing toward her with the silent grace of hunters.
Her feet were too frozen to run, and the hall was too far behind her.
"Siegmund!" she cried again. Her breath was tight in her chest. If her brother were here, he would come for her, if her brother moved in this world and heard her, he would come.
The wolf paced closer, dark against the snow.
She fell to her knees; and then further, forward, the heels of her hands sinking into the snow.
The wolf was him, the wolf was her brother. He halted before her, his ears pricked and his tail wagging. His eyes were a different shape, but they were still the same color, still bore the same wild affinity, as in the hour she had first seen him, warming his battered hands at her fireplace. She reached out for him, her voice snagging on something high in the back of her throat. He nosed toward her, whining softly, and she buried her face in the fur of his neck.
After a long moment he broke away, and turned uphill, into the night. Looking over his shoulder, he yipped for her to follow him.
She loped after him, and could not stop her tail from wagging.
It was cold.
It was always cold, and the sun showed itself only haphazardly on the horizon, a dull glow some days, other days not at all. She slept curled into her brother, the snow holding their warmth like a secret, and did not care.
She ate what she could catch: mice, mostly, and hares when they could trap them between them, and from time to time small shadowy things that squeaked with terror when she caught them, and had an aftertaste like regret. There were squirrels, too, when they came down from their branches sleepy and slow, in search of their winter stores. Squirrels first, then acorns. There were no deer.
She had gone hungry before, but seldom in the flesh. There was a purity about purely physical hunger, close kin to the purity of winter, and the cold brilliance of stars in the moonless sky. Hunting was the same, the swift clean absolute of death, the heat of blood. She brought her catch back to the copse on the mountainside where they denned, and gave half of what she caught to her brother.
One raw morning the sun showed as an angry yellow bruise on the horizon, and she woke to the sound of a rooster, crowing. She had been a wolf long enough to think food, first, and only thought of chores and chickenfeed when she had come to her feet, and felt, for the first time, how strange it was to have four and not two.
Her brother whined softly beside her, and nosed at her shoulder. She shook herself, ears to tail, trying to drive off the sense of something, something unknown, creeping over her. The rooster crowed again.
The sun subsided behind the clouds.
Her brother stalked off after the rooster. He trotted proudly back much later with a grouse in his mouth, its wing splayed backward across his muzzle. They shared it, and killed a squirrel later. For once she was not hungry, but she slept restlessly nonetheless.
That night there was a great crack far off beyond the mountains, like thunder, but although the trees shook and trembled no rain came, and no wind. Later the skies cleared, and the stars wheeled above her, brilliant and implacable. She buried her face beneath her brother's flank and lay very still. In the morning the clouds had come down again.
She was not easy, after that. Winter had become finite again, and now that that was true it was harder to believe that hunger was transcendence, and to ignore the scrapes the ice left on the pads of her feet. Her brother did not seem to understand what she sensed, and was distressed by her unease.
Later, after rabbits and nothing and rabbits again, the morning rose red.
She crawled out of their nest in the snow to see the sullen glow to the south. Terror in her mouth, she pulled herself up on the barren branches of the tree beside her. The snow burned her bare feet, and she did not care.
Her brother came up beside her and pressed against her legs, nosing unhappily at the back of her knee.
"Be human," she said, sharply, and yanked on his fur. "Or we will not survive this. Be human!" She did not dare take her eyes off the storm on the horizon, the red glow boiling higher and higher.
The fur under her fingers became hair, and her brother stood beside her.
"What is it?" he said. His voice was hoarse with disuse.
"It is the spring," she said.
He was silent beside her; she pressed herself into him, and his arm went around her shoulders. He said, "When did spring become a thing to fear?"
"Since we died," she said; "since we spoke with gods."
The wind rose, and ashes rose upon it.
Fire washed over the world, angrier than sunlight and darker. They cowered in the roots of an ash tree, human and tattered, flesh clinging to flesh, as the inferno raged overhead, and breathed shallowly as the air burned around them.
After the fire the world had changed.
Sunlight spilled over the hillside, tentative at first, then in a great rush, filling the copse like liquid.
"Sieglinde, look -- " her brother said, full of delight, as he uncoiled from the roots where they had sheltered.
The ash tree had barely been scorched. The morning lit the buds of leaves, knobby and not yet green, a promise on bent branches. The snow had all melted, gone in the flame.
She had opened her arms to springtime once before, and it had given back to her guilt, and terror, and blood. She stood up, slowly, one hand on the roots.
He turned back to her, and his smile was written all over his body. "I had forgotten what it is, to see you in daylight. Sieglinde, Sieglinde -- " His cheek was streaked with ashes, and her name hung on his breath like an invocation.
"Siegmund," she answered, helpless and marvelling when he smiled, and when he reached for her hands she gave them. He pulled her up from the hollow and kissed her, her husband, her brother, the other half of her soul.
She pulled back, and opened and closed her hands on the bones of his shoulders when she did not know how to speak.
He brushed his thumb over her lips. "Sieglinde!"
"I had learned how to live in winter," she said, only.
He shook his hair back and laughed, and this was the fierce joy of him, that though their last springtime had been a single breathless night a lifetime ago, still he said: "And now let us learn to live in spring! Surely this is a gentler task."
"Now is the time of men," she said, another careful step, watching him, "and never yet have I been happy in the halls of men."
"What need have we for the halls of men? We are Wälsungs! Walk beside me, and I will call the sky my roof, the holt my home, and need no hearth beside."
He was with her. "Yes," she said, "yes," and she laughed then, full-throated and free, and kissed him.
Hel's stockade was gone, and the scorched hillsides swept straight down to the river, brown and unenchanted. This spring came with no moonlight and no divinity, only the sun rising over the singed earth, and their own footsteps, human and dead and still wandering, beyond the recasting of the world.
"Come on, then," she said, and ran, through meadows full of brown grass and burnt twigs and the bones of mountains, and the wind on her face was warm, and had ashes in it, and no limits.