Narvi wakes, and he is cold. It’s a bone deep cold, numbing, almost, which is good because he has the worst stomach ache he can ever remember.
He’s lying on the ground, and it’s cold, too, but it’s soft, not hard. Springy. He smells clean earth and rot. His fingers twitch, closing on rough lichen and something else, something feathery and unidentifiable.
It’s not dark, though for some reason he feels like it should be. But he can see everything with perfect clarity, so it’s a shame, really, that there’s nothing to see.
There’s mist, mostly. Rocks, too, and the lichen, but mostly mists and soft, spongy moulds and the feathery stuff he now sees is moss. Here and there, the bracken is dotted with dark, seething pools, swathed in thicker mist. The air smells damp and old, but not unpleasant.
He is alone here, except for the mist and the mould and the large grey wolf drinking from one of the pools, not too far distant. Narvi looks at the wolf, and he feels—intense longing (which makes no sense) and a deep, primal fear (which makes some, except that he’s never feared wild animals before). His gut aches terribly, and he wonders what he’d eaten last, to make him feel so poorly.
The wolf has finished drinking and is looking at him. There’s something familiar about its eyes.
They aren’t the eyes of a shape changer. Narvi knows this. His father is a shape changer (the shape changer, some have said), and all shapes are natural to him. He has a fly’s eyes as truly as a man’s, or a wolf’s. But this wolf does not have a wolf’s eyes. This wolf has eyes that ought to be a human’s.
Oh, thinks Narvi, and rubs at his stomach. When he pulls his hand back, there’s blood on his fingers and coated thick under his nails. I’ve had the strangest dream.
The wolf begins to howl mournfully.
It’s then Narvi notices the woman.
She’s beautiful, in that way that most men, especially among the Aesir, would call ugly. She’s standing a little ways off, mist wrapped about her shoulders, soft moss and gurgling water at her feet. They’re bare, and her toes, differently colored and as ugly-lovely as the rest of her, curl in the mould. Narvi thinks she might be a tree—the root and pillar and roof of this land of mist.
Without thinking too much about it, he moves toward solidity.
Now he’s come to her, he sees she’s as tall as a tree, too, and like sunlight in the high branches, he can’t quite look at her.
She’s holding a cup, steaming with something warm and spiced and startlingly out of place in the mist. She offers it to him with a smile that looks more like tears, and Narvi takes it and drinks.
It tastes like blood, and he remembers.
Beside him, at his feet, the wolf has come up, whining on its haunches. Narvi shudders, his gut clenching against the pain, but the wolf seems to see only the woman.
She smiles the same tear-smile and sets a steaming bowl before the wolf’s nose. It drinks, and coughs, and then it is gone and Narvi’s brother is sitting there instead, human eyes in a human face.
“We can speak, now,” says the woman. Her voice, too, is like a tree.
Vali says, “Why?” in a croaking gasp, all he can manage but more than enough.
The woman smiles a gentle sad smile and holds out a hand to each of them. Narvi takes it without thought, and Vali does not hesitate. She pulls them up and in, soft moss squelching beneath their feet. Her eyes are infinitely sad.
“You have drunk,” she says, “and you remember.” But other than that she gives no answer.
Narvi does remember. He remembers his father, held back, shifting and changing and trapped. He’s shouting, and Narvi hears his own name and his brother’s, repeated, desperate, hopeless.
Narvi remembers his mother, strong and steadfast as a pillar, with understanding and rage in her eyes.
He remembers pitiless words, the horror of transformation, and the ripping in his gut that ends everything.
“Yes, you remember,” says the woman, who must be—
“You have come here at Odin’s whim,” the woman says, a note of fierceness in her voice that reminds Narvi piercingly of his mother, “but this place is mine. You will have peace here.”
She smiles at them, that tear-bright smile, and squeezes their hands, drawing them further into the world of mist and soft-smelling loam. In the distance, faint but fast approaching in the fog, Narvi can make out the shape of a great hall, with many shining candles welcoming the weary inside. He smells roasting meat and fresh cheese, and hears the soft low of cattle away in the murk. The taste of the drink is warm on his tongue.
The woman nudges their shoulders. Her hand, bony and beautiful, reaches out and pushes the door of the hall open. Soft light spills out, lighting the bracken and bringing with it the warm scent of cooking salmon. She ushers them in, and Narvi feels peace settle like a cloak about his shoulders. He smiles at his brother, who offers a sleepy, peaceful smile of his own in return.
“I am your sister,” says Hel, her hands gentle on their shoulders. “I will care for you now.”