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Who Gathers All Things Mortal

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From the children of Angrboða and Loki, great misfortune shall befall the gods.


Hel falls from the sky. The ground shakes; they surely must sense it as far away as Jötunheimr, perhaps as far away as Ásgarðr.

After a time senseless on the ground, she rises. She fell on her left side, the rotted one, and so there is no mark. All is grey. The icy plain blurs into the twilight. It is bitter cold.

She does not weep. Her right eye wept enough and to spare, when the gods tore her from her mother to bring her to Ásgarðr, when Odin cast her down. She left behind all the tears she had during her descent from Ásgarðr to this world, as the bright harsh summer of the gods’ realm gave way to icy dimness. The flow of her tears formed pools and ponds in Miðgarðr as she fell, the rough knotted bark of the World-Tree slipping through her hands.

(Her left eye has never shed a tear, has never seen aught but shadow.)

She thinks of when last she saw her mother. Angrboða knelt by Hel and her brothers, the gods grim behind her, shadowed eyes finding Hel’s own in concern and worry Hel did not then understand. She took Hel’s left hand, the only one who ever did. Her mother’s eyes said to her: Remember what I tell you. Remember. Good sense is thought better than riches in a strange place. She remembers Angrboða indicating with a jerk of her chin the uneasiness and the threat in the gods’ bearing. A wary one listens and observes.

Around her is silence. No wind blows; no bird calls.

There is still something wrong with her eyes. She squints, trying to rid herself of the strange doubling of her vision. Before her is a bleak plain of stone and ice, withered stumps of trees and piles of bones. But she can also see dry grass, drooping but whole trees, huddled masses of skin and fur, overlaid on the ice and bones.

“Wit is needful to her who travels far; harm seldom befalls the wary,” Hel murmurs to break the silence. She puts a hand over her eye: the left eye, the one that saw dimly or not at all in the other realms. She sees only ice and bone. She puts a hand over her right eye: the grass, the trees, the piles of skin and fur return.

Hel frowns. The closest pile to her, in the shadow of the World-Tree, is a dog’s corpse, fur matted with blood and ice. As she steps to consider it more closely, she skids on the ice. She falls, catches herself with her right hand, while her left hand brushes against the fur.

The pile moves.

Hel gasps and backs away. Her hand moves to the hilt of her knife, grasps it tightly. No. Destruction is not the path to take. She has already been cast into the realm of the dead; what more has she to fear? Valour is better in a queen than might of sword , she remembers her mother whispering quickly to her, a hand clamped on her arm, preventing her from drawing her knife to threaten the strangers. And Hel begins to know what she will do.

Her mother has taught her the runes it is needful for a child of queens to know: help-runes and victory-runes and thought-runes, and of course the branch-runes, that heal wounds when graven on the bark of trees, or on the leaves of boughs bent eastward. She engraves the runes on a piece of bark from the trunk of the World-Tree and presses it to the slowly wriggling corpse with her left hand.

The dog stumbles to its feet and howls. The noise echoes, in that silent land. Her left eye sees the animal whole and strong, with no blemish. Her right eye sees the dog move, but still with the matted bloody fur.

She sits back on her heels and regards the dog. It is now running circles around her. “Well,” she says to it. “Well.”

The dog gambols up to her and licks her face, startling a quirk of the mouth from her. She stands and beckons to it. It follows after her as she makes her way to another of the piles in that empty windless plain.

She comes next to a ruined husk of a woman, wasted and shriveled. Hel closes her eyes, opens them again; kneels and touches the body with her left hand. This time she is prepared for the horrible movement under her hand. “Lady,” the corpse gasps, the word twisted and hoarse.

“Come,” Hel says to her, touching her again with the runes.

And the woman answers from a voice that is younger, stronger: “I come, Lady.” Hel’s left eye sees a matron in the prime of her years rising to her feet, while her right eye sees the old withered woman.

“What are you called?” asks Hel.

“Ganglot,” the woman replies obediently, and then, stammering: “And – and – Lady, my husband also is here --”

Hel had expected such a question, had known what she must answer. She nods. Generous should a queen’s children be. So was her mother, offering food and ale even to the gods, even knowing for what they must have come; and so shall Hel be in this dim land, to these people who need what she has to offer. “Take me to him.” She takes Ganglot’s hand, deliberately, with her wasted one, and is surprised when Ganglot does not flinch but eagerly steps to another pile, another body, pulling Hel with her.

This corpse is lying in a pool of bloody vomit. Hel grimaces, but touches him as she had his wife. She pulls to his feet a hale bluff man in her left eye, or a wasted shell in her right. Ganglot is there to clasp his hands; they gaze at each other soundlessly for a long minute. Hel averts her eyes.

“Lady,” the man says to Hel. She looks back at him. “Lady,” he repeats, raising his palm in supplication, “my brother –“

She goes with him to another body, and then to another, and another, as she loses track of time and the number of the dead that surround her. She works for hours and days, perhaps years; who can tell, in this land where time has ceased? As more of the dead are raised, she is dimly aware of Ganglot and her husband organizing the others to bring her piles of bones – a lover, a child, a friend – so that she may work with her touch and her runes more swiftly. And then she gets up yet again, to stumble to the next corpse, and finds there are no more. She turns to see the vast ranks of the dead, all the ones she has raised, looking to her, waiting on her word.

“And now, Lady?” Ganglot asks.

She has been thinking of this since she came to know the double nature of this place. Queens see to their realms, Angrboða had said, shielding Hel and her brothers, protecting them as she could from the gods’ wrath.

“Now,” says Hel fiercely, gesturing to include all the dead about her, “we will build. We will make of this place more than they ever thought we would, those who sent us here.” They will erect a great hall in which the ice and darkness of this land will mingle with fire and light. Famine will be her table, and care her bed; but those who see with the second sight will know that they thrive, that they shall create in splendor what the gods thought was taken from them all.

The dead do not cheer, but a sigh of agreement goes up from the crowd around her. They all know what it is to be cast out of the living realms. They all, like her, have a double nature. She will be their queen, and they will be her people.

And her mother has also taught her: Enmity and strife should never be thought put to sleep; wits and weapons are what a queen may need. When the gods came for Hel and her brothers, dared to break the laws of hospitality to take them to Ásgarðr to be judged, Angrboða fought them. She fought like a serpent, like a wolf, like a dead woman with nothing left to lose: but in the end it made no difference. A queen of the Jötunn cannot escape fate, any more than the gods can.

Hel thinks of the last thing her mother said to her before the gods tore them apart, her voice ringing clear and terrible over the gods who separated them. We shall meet again, dearest of daughters, though all Ragnarök come between us.

The dead murmur around her. They are her people, her realm; her army. She smiles for the first time since she fell to Helheim.

“I will remember, Mother,” Hel says softly.