…guilt comes to you not from the things you've done, but from the things that others have done to you.
― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
And he says, Let us begin at the beginning.
And I say, The beginning of what, Sir?
And he says, The beginning of your life.
I was born, Sir, like anyone else, I say.
― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
At the center of the world-city is a courtyard home to a tree older, some say, than the city itself. It sits in the shadow of the palace, touched by starlight and shadow, and inasmuch as Asgard has seasons – which is to say that it does not, but it likes to pretend toward such rhythms and its people love it too much to tell it the truth of its existential impossibility – the tree changes with them. In the spring it blooms with little flowers, star-shaped and colored like the rainbow; in the summer it is resplendent in gold and emerald; in the autumn it smolders with an incandescent flame that withers its leave from within; and during the cold times called winter it turns to a black signature folded in upon itself, its bark silvered and knotted, and the curves of its branches etching runes across the sky.
I never liked the tree, especially after Mother told me that I was born on the nest of roots that lies in its shadow. This was before there was a world-city to be called Asgard at all. Then, Mother said, there was only the tree, and its roots held everything together. You were born where all of this begins. It is a part of you, little one.
The tree was ugly to my eyes, and my skin itched when I walked too close to it. How could such a thing be a part of me? For many centuries I hated the tree and turned away from it, but after a time I grew more tolerant. When I looked out the window of the little house we had built beneath the shadow of the mountains, the tree was always there. Waiting for me.
It was not beautiful, but I have long since learned that neither am I.
In the candlelight, Mother’s face looked very young, and I hardly recognized her.
“This is the story of a proud man. There are many stories about him, but I will tell you the most important one. This man was a great warrior, skilled with both fists and blade. His hair was dark and his smile wide, and in the night the blue of his eyes shone as bright as lightning. He was quite handsome, and all those who met him loved him greatly.”
“Yes, my dear, like your Father. This man had many names, and he had many adventures as he travelled. Sometimes his adventures helped others, and sometimes they harmed. He did not worry about such things, for he was not a many given to worrying about the thing called legacy.” She paused. “One day, this man decided to go on an adventure that no one else had ever dared. He decided to steal the treasure of a giant.”
The palace at the center of Asgard was a confection of gold, grander than I recalled. Odin had finished construction during my exile. The palace rose toward the sky with impossible splendor, and the sight of it filled me with fire. My nails dug into my palms and I imagined the palace burning, gold melting away to reveal the black iron that held those spires up, stained dark with rust and blood.
The vision calmed me enough that I could look to the tree.
It had not changed. It was perhaps the only thing that had not.
I stepped into the courtyard and headed towards it, then paused and turned to face my follower. There was a weakness in Skurge’s eyes that I hoped to carve out at the roots and turn to my advantage. He did not love me, but I did not expect him to.
“Go to the people,” I told him. “Gather all of Asgard here within the hour. I would speak to my subjects.”
Skurge’s face was flat, and yet there was tightness around his eyes that I took careful notice of. He nodded into a half-bow and said,
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
As soon as he had turned away from me, I looked back to the tree and forgot him. Its bark curved and twisted around it, like an improperly folded cloth, or the weaving of a spell too complex to be broken.
My fingers curled inward, nails digging into the flesh of my palm.
They have a surfeit of time.
When you are locked away, time stops. Nothing changes within a prison, except perhaps the number of lines on your face. It is by chance of birth that my prison is stronger than most – Odin fashions it from the roots of the worldtree, with Frigga’s help for the weaving, and while I am within that spell I am trapped within time itself, frozen in a single instant that never ends or breaks.
Within my prison, I dream: of home, of death, of blood.
Dreams only hurt you if you believe them.
On the day of my tenth century, Father found me in the golden fields that bordered our home. The patch that covered his dead eye was worn and graying, but his hair was still half-dark and his face lightly lined.
Later, I would marvel at how young he had been.
“Come with me, Hela,” he said. “There is something I must show you.”
I took his hand, sighing all the while. “Mother said I was finished with my lessons for the day.” I had just begun to weave the grasses into the pattern of a spell, and I knew that if I put them down I would lose my count and have to start all over again.
“This is a special kind of lesson,” he told me as we walked. We headed back toward the house, to the clearing where the mountain’s shadow fell and the grass was short and green. At the center of this clear stood the tree. I saw the its outline from the path and looked away, toward the shining sky. We walked past the houses at the edge of our little town, and Father waved in greeting to those who called out. At last, when the tree’s shadow fell over us, Father stopped and knelt before me, his eyes more serious than I had even seen. “Hela, do you know what the word firstborn means?” he asked.
“I am yours and Mother’s first child. Your only child. If you ever have any more, I will be the oldest,” I told him.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “That is one meaning. It also means that when I die, you will inherit everything I have now and everything I will have in the future. Your job will be to care for it just like I would.”
I had found a creature in the fields, a few years ago. It was small and wore a coat of brown and black fur, and it crept along the ground on four legs. I had spent days following it on my own four legs, though the position was uncomfortable and hurt my back after a time. Then, apropos of nothing, it had turned and snarled at me with teeth as sharp as Mother’s needles, and run away. I found it nine days later, lying at the edge of the fields. It had been so still, and little creatures crawled in the sockets of its eye.
“Will you die soon?” I asked him, breathless.
“I have died once already,” he told me, and when I jumped in shock he added, “but I came back. I would never leave you and your mother, dearest.” He reached out to touch my cheek, and his fingers were very warm.
He took a deep breath and reached into his cloak. “When you inherit all that is mine, my daughter, there is something very important that you must do.” He pulled a pair of long blades out from his cloak, forged from black metal in sinuous curves. They were beautiful.
“You must defend it.”
“Now, when the man went to challenge Ymir he knew two things – that he had nothing to give Ymir in case he lost, and that Ymir had no weaknesses but honor. So the man went to Ymir that evening and challenged him to a fight. Ymir agreed, but asked to put the fight off till after dinner, for he would feast with his guest on bread and salt before they fought.”
“As is proper,” I interjected.
“Yes,” Mother agreed. “As is proper. So the man ate of Ymir’s salted bread and took meat from his table, and when Ymir had drunk his fill, the man went out and pulled a large rock from the fields, and he brought it in and smashed Ymir’s head in.”
I gaped at Mother. “That’s a terrible story! He killed him?”
“Yes. And even before Ymir was fully dead, the man had run to the pile of treasure behind Ymir’s seat and taken the thing he most wanted – a little box made of wood, that held inside a spark of fire that burn eternal, and yet harmed nothing at all.”
I stepped onto the roots and looked up into its branches. My hair hung loose around my neck. The tree would not hurt me and I had no need of my helm.
“Hello, Odin,” I said, reaching out to it, and for a few breaths I even forgot to hate him.
“Good!” Father cried as I parried a blow and slid beneath the keening edge of his second blade.
We fought with one blade in each hand, ever-moving. As we stepped together, the shadow of the tree passed over us again and again, cool on the back of my neck. Applause rose and we drew apart – I panting with exertion and Father grinning. I sheathed my blades carefully in the dimensional pockets Mother had taught me to weave several centuries ago and turned to face her.
She wore a simple dress of white that fell in folds around her, and her hair was braided upon the top of her head. Her smile was warm, and the little creases surrounding her eyes were in the patterns of cracked ice.
“Beautiful!” she called to us across the open ground. “Come!” Her gesture was beckoning.
I looked to Father and he nodded; we went to her stinking and sweating, but she kissed us both on our brows. I was nearly her height, now.
“You have been fighting all morning. Come inside and rest for a bit. Fulla went down to the river this morning and brought back some fish. I have set them to roast them over the fire.”
I could smell them already, and my stomach turned with hunger. I went to follow Mother into the house, but Father hesitated, then laid a hand on my arm and stopped me. I turned back to face him, one foot inside the house and one foot on the grass.
“My daughter,” he said. “Before we go in… Do you remember what it means to be firstborn?”
“Of course. When you die I will inherit your house, and I will defend it against any who wish to harm us.” The thought of Father’s death did not frighten me as it once had. I knew that, like the others living on Asgard, we would live for a very long time.
He nodded for a moment, hair falling into his face and shadowing it. He brushed it back and shifted. I had not often seen Father unsure.
“There is another burden that the firstborn must bear,” he said at last.
“What is it? I am not afraid, whatever it is.”
“I know you are not. Of all the children I might have had, I am glad it is you who will bear it.” He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. I had long since tired of these gestures, which made me feel like I was in my third century again, but this time I tolerated the warm press of his lips.
“What is wrong, Father?” A sense of sour unease had begun to build in me and my palms itched for the cool press of the hilts of my blades. I wanted something to fight against, to dispel the feeling shifting beneath my skin.
Father looked over his shoulder, toward the plains and mountains of Asgard. They shone with a beauteous light, and even my anxiety was calmed.
“In this place I have neglected many things,” Father said. “Come with me, Hela. I must tell you a story, for this is not an easy burden.”
With that he turned away from our home and walked across the clearing, and without a second thought I followed.
“But remember, my child, that giants do not rest, nor do they sleep. The giants of Ymir’s family pursued him relentlessly, swearing that they would not rest until he was dead. As far as I know, they hunt him still, and the man has not slept easy since.”
I do not mind so much, for I am quite used to the darkness of the places between the worlds. If Father had banished me to another place, full of light and beautiful things, I might have suffered more. Here even the whispers of time are quiet, and I can ignore the specters that haunt me: of what I have lost, and what might have been.
I have remade myself, and I am no longer a creature of the light.
The shadow of the palace hung over me; it had long since outstripped the tree in its grandeur.
“Even you have been overthrown,” I told the tree, and felt a smile touch my lips. “I wager they’ve forgotten you as well.” I pressed against the tree until the bark gave beneath my strength, fingers digging into its flesh with a crackle. “I think I will burn you,” I hissed. “Remake you until you are nothing but ash that the wind carries away. I will give your bones to the void.”
I leaned against the tree for some time, unable to pull myself away.
The brush of footsteps on stone echoed behind me. I took back my hand and turned to face the first of my people.
“You will not remember this, for you had not been born,” he told me, “but long ago there was a time when we did not live upon Asgard.” He nodded at my look of surprise. “We were refugees then, hiding from the giants who chased us across the stars. You see, I had stolen something from them, and they would not leave us be until I gave it back.”
“What did you steal?”
“A seed,” he told me. His fingers curled around the roots of the tree that slipped sinuous beneath us. “No, it was not just that, but also a tooth, a heart, a spark. It was a singularity of such power that it sang to me, and I could not leave it behind. I took but one small thing, which turned out to be everything.” He sucked in a deep breath. “I had killed a giant – the greatest of them all, who called himself Ymir. He was terrible and cruel, and I was glad to kill him. But our battle had been terrible, and his family was angry, as families so often are afterwards. They came so swiftly that I had only enough time to pluck up a piece of him and run, hiding myself and your mother between the light of the stars.”
He paused and looked out across the clearing around us, running his eyes over the shape of our little house and the others that made up our little town. By Anrid’s home, her son ran with a group of his friends, all of them less than four centuries old and shrieking with laughter. The sound of their joy was distant to me, and even then seemed very strange.
“After many years, I found this place. This refuge. I hid what I stole at the heart of it, and I did my best to forget the horrors of the past.” His lips were drawn and there was something dark in his eye. “I have been happy here.” He looked to me. “The last duty of the firstborn is to obey. You have been my greatest joy, Hela, and now I must ask you to follow me further.”
I was not sure I understood, but I reached out to take his hand anyway. “What do you need?”
“We are not safe here,” he told me. “I traded my eye for wisdom and a glimpse of what is to come, and I have seen great horrors visited upon this realm. The giants of Jotunheim and Muspelheim have sought me for many years, and they have found me. They will come to Asgard and destroy it because I love it.”
Horror struck the heart of me. “We cannot let them!” I exclaimed.
“Exactly.” He turned his hand over to grip me, palm to palm, and squeezed tight. “We must stop the giants no matter how dangerous the struggle, and keep them away from Asgard at all costs. I would not have them destroy this place – our home.”
“Yes! I will fight beside you, Father! We will beat them back together!”
“Oh, my beautiful daughter. I can fight no longer. I am an old man, and though I can wield a sword well enough to train you, my heart shivers with fear at the sight of a battlefield. No, it must be you. You will be the shield that defends us, and the sword that fights back the beasts. They will not stop until I am dead, and you shall give them the same honor. You must kill them all, from the greatest warrior to the smallest babe in arms. When the last of them is dead, we will be safe.”
My eyes lifted to the tree, blooming with flowers of rainbow hues above us. Despite the splendor it wore, a shiver crawled up my spine. My next words stuck in my throat.
“I will kill them for you, Father,” I promised. “Every last one. When I have laid their skulls at your feet we will return to Asgard, and we will be happy.”
“Yes, Hela.” He leaned forward and kissed the top of my head. I felt the keen edge of a blade press against my palm. “Swear you will kill them all.”
The pain of the cut was fierce, but not as terrible as the certainty that rose in my throat. I fear that although I would fight as best as I could, I could never win against the might of our enemies. Tears stung the corners of my eyes.
“Every one, Father. I swear.”
The oath was sour on the back of my tongue, and the magic of the swearing took hold.
“Wait!” I exclaimed. “That’s it? That was a terrible ending, Mother. Why did you even tell me that story, if no one was happy in the end?”
Her eyes were shadowed, and they glinted in the candle’s light. “Because not all stories end well, little one. You must beware those who think they know right from wrong, as all men do. Watch out for them; if you don’t, one day they will lead you to death.”
“Mother, I don’t—”
But she had leaned back toward the candle and blown it out, and both of us were plunged into a darkness which not even my keen eyes could pierce.
My armor was my own skin, or near enough, and my helm nothing but my thoughts made flesh. They were sharp and keening. People so often forget that the most dangerous knives are the ones we hold within ourselves; I have always been sure to keep my arsenal sharp.
The people of Asgard whispered among themselves as they waited for me. I stood upon the roots of the tree and looked out over them until they were silent.
“Will none of you greet me?” I asked of them.
“Who are you?” called a male voice from the back. “You come to Asgard and call yourself Queen? You are nothing! The King will have you executed for this!”
Skurge stood at the back, sullen and grim. I caught his eye and nodded slightly – he took my meaning well enough and headed into the crowd. I looked back to my people.
They were proud and foolish, fattened upon the privileges of peace and ignorance that Odin and I fought so hard to win for them. They have not known the pain of war.
“Your King,” I repeated slowly. “Where is this King? Do you speak of Odin? He is dead, you know.”
I waited, allowing the murmurs to spring up and then slow.
“He killed himself with the lies he told to everyone around him. Even you.” I stood before them, and I knew that though I was beautiful, they did not love me.
“I am Hela, the firstborn of Odin. I am the rightful ruler of Asgard, and your Queen. I will bring Asgard glory and power it has not known for centuries, for I am greater than the stars and the void, more powerful than Odin himself, and more terrible, too. All shall love me, and I will love them in return.”
The courtyard echoed with silence. Skurge found the one who had called out in defiance and seized him. I heard the scuffing of his feet across the stones as Skurge dragged him through the crowd. The man was slim, with hair nearly black and pale skin. His clothing was fine and well cared for. Skurge shoved him forward, and he staggered out into the space between the crowd and me.
He looked up, hands clenched in his tunic, and I saw the fear in his eyes. Nonetheless, he managed to straighten his spine as I stepped away from the tree and walked toward him.
“You are not my Queen.” He spat the words at my feet.
My hand lashed out and grasped his chin, pulling him close. I looked him over and saw nothing of value in his heart. I smiled, for his pulse pounded beneath my fingertips, and it had been a very long time since I’d last felt life so close.
I had become accustomed to death.
“I am your Queen,” I told him. “In this world and the next.”
The sound of his neck snapping echoed through the courtyard and the people flinched back.
They were nothing like the Asgardians who had once stood around Odin and me as we had prepared to leave Asgard and slay our enemies. This courtyard was nothing like the clearing that had been, before we returned triumphant and bloodied, and Odin had built a palace with his stolen treasures.
“Well?” I said, as they huddled close to each other and looked up at me. They were pathetic creatures, this new generation of Asgardians.
Sleeping or waking, the dreams come to me as
Father Odin told me his had, when he hung upon the tree seeking wisdom. I cannot not help but wonder what I have sacrificed, for I still have all my parts and do not remember asking for wisdom.
I learn my lessons another way.
I dream of Father, leaning close.
His breath warm upon my cheek.
Will you fight for me? he asks a thousand times.
A thousand times, I say, Yes.
His smile is wide, and the blue of his eye shines brighter than lightning at night. I love him more than I can say.
I dream of blood on my palm, and an oath on my lips, and the silver branches of magic wrapping round my soul, and I do not know that I could have made a different choice. I did not want to.
He loved me, as I loved him.